"Peeta, you can't be serious." Katniss says, looking at me with an expression that tells me she's both shocked and a little horrified. And clearly has no idea what I would do to protect her. "It's an insane idea."
"Is it? Look, you said we wouldn't have to really be married, right? At least not at first if Haymitch can take care of the paperwork to get us in in the first place. So all we really have to do is live together. It'll be just like we're roommates." I don't know if I'm being selfish or selfless. Either way, I need her to see that we can do this, that she doesn't have to lose anything.
"Roommates who have to pretend to be getting married! It's kind of a big deal. I mean, we wouldn't be able to tell most people the truth...they'll really have to believe we're together." She's shaking her head as she's talking which I'm pretty sure she doesn't even realize she's doing.
"How hard could it be? It's not like couples have to be different from anyone else in public. We already hang out, now we'll just go back to the same place at night. We'll put off the proof of marriage for as long as we can and then we'll worry about it when we have to. It'll buy you some time to figure out your next move at least, and maybe you could even find another scholarship or something by then. We can make this work."
"Why?" she asks simply.
"Because you'll have to quit school otherwise. Isn't that an even crazier option?"
"No, I mean, why would you do this? You'd have to give up your apartment, pretend to be my husband...what's in it for you?"
Shit. Why am I doing this? I'm doing it because it's what I've always done. Except she doesn't really know the full extent of all that. Doesn't know how I actually feel about her. In my mind, she deserves this degree more than anyone and doing this is a perfectly justifiable thing. Of course, I'm biased and would stop at nothing to make her happy and safe.
She's looking at me with the most skeptical expression, like she's sure there's something I'm not saying, something that she needs to protect herself from.
So, even though I swore to myself I'd keep things honest, I decide to downplay the 'I've been in love with you most of my life' part and emphasize the other side of things that have been on my mind lately. "Being home for Thanksgiving...it was a nightmare. I don't want to owe my parents, you know? Don't want them to guilt me into working at the bakery when I graduate. The less I take from them, the better. If I can subsidize my housing and get a couple bursaries to take down my tuition costs, I'll have that much less contact with my mother. There'll be less for her to have over me."
"She's really that awful, huh?" Katniss asks contemplatively.
"Yeah, she really is."
We're both quiet for a moment, each of us lost in our own heads considering the gravity of all that we're talking about.
"Are you sure?" Her eyes are boring into me in a way they never have before.
"Definitely," I reply in the most convincing voice I can muster.
"I'll call Haymitch tomorrow so we can meet with him and get the paperwork started."
"It'll be okay. You'll be okay."
She lets out the breath she's been holding. "Okay."
"So this would be the poor sucker we talked about then?" Haymitch says as he ushers us into his office, checking the hallway for signs of life before closing the door behind us.
Katniss wasn't kidding about the smell. It's reminiscent of a rank frat house the day after an especially messy keg party.
"I'm surprised you remember any of our conversations at all," Katniss fires back.
"There's that sass I know and love." The smile he offers is more of a mildly amused sneer.
"I'm Peeta," I say, breaking the stand off.
"Haymitch," he replies, not offering a hand to shake or even anything further by way of an introduction. "And you'll be playing the role of husband in this little scenario of ours, I guess?"
I nod. "What do we need to know about the arrangement? Do we make-up our own details or will you take care of that? What are the expectations around timing for the marriage certificate-"
"Whoa, whoa. Slow down, kid, you're killing my buzz."
"We just want to make sure we do this in the best way possible," Katniss chimes in.
"Look, I've got some influence in the Registrar's office, enough to get you in as an engaged couple intending to marry before September. We'll see what we can do then about keeping you in there. If you're asking my advice though, don't get caught. President Snow doesn't mess around. This is his swan song initiative before retirement so if you make a mockery of it, he won't hesitate to expel you both. He'll be paying attention, so you'll really have to sell it. Don't screw this up."
"How would we get caught?" I ask, legitimately wondering how we could go wrong.
"Well, let's see...don't make-out with other people around campus, don't tell people you're not really engaged...it's not rocket science kiddos, just act like you're actually in love."
Katniss and I look at each other then, communicating silently that it may be harder than it sounds. Our friendship is new. We're still getting to know each other. She's only just starting to be genuinely comfortable around me. It really could all go terribly wrong.
I grab her hand, give it a squeeze and let go before she has a chance to react. "We're in."
She looks at me, that same skeptical expression creeping back over her face, but nods in agreement anyway. "For better or for worse," is all she says.
Haymitch goes on to explain that we can move in during the week between New Year's and the start of the new semester.
"Do you have a preference for what I write down as your expected wedding date?" He asks.
Katniss looks panicked by the question and I'm guessing she's at her limit for this overwhelming situation. "Surprise us," I say, wanting to relieve her of having to worry about it.
We both stay relatively silent until the meeting comes to an end, us having all the information we need for now.
We give our thanks to Haymitch and head towards the outside doors. Before Katniss can open it, I say under my breath, but loud enough for her to hear, "Show time." Then I take her hand in mine and we walk through the doors, making our first official debut as an engaged couple. At least on paper, anyway.
"So, how did I do it?" I ask. We're sitting at Black Bear Burrito, grabbing a bite before Katniss heads to work.
"How did you do what?" She asks back, stuffing a chip covered in a huge glop of guacamole into her mouth.
"Propose. People will ask, you know."
Katniss squirms in her seat, obviously not ready to discuss or joke about this.
It looks like she's not going to answer me, so I continue, "Maybe when we got back from Thanksgiving, in a quiet, private way."
"Private seems about right," she says, avoiding my eyes. I can see though that not all the guac has made it inside her mouth and there's an obvious trace of it at the edge of her lip. I can't help myself, I reach out and wipe it away with my thumb. She's surprised, but doesn't move away from the contact.
"I guess I have to get used to this, right?"
"There are worse things to get used to," I smirk.
"Peeta, this is really serious, you could get kicked out of school if anyone finds out. I would feel so-"
"We're not going to caught. And I know what I'm getting myself into, you don't have to feel bad or guilty about it." I can see that my words haven't helped, she's still wincing a bit. "And anyways, this is exactly the kind of thing I need to distance myself from my mom.
She arches an eyebrow and a hint of a smile crosses her face. "Exactly this kind of thing?"
"Okay, well, maybe not this exact scenario, but you know what I mean." The only purpose this exact situation serves is my own personal agenda of getting closer to Katniss.
She's back to looking thoughtful and less worried when she says, "Thank you, Peeta."
"You're welcome," I answer, without a moment's hesitation.
Through a series of emails and conversations over the next few days, Katniss and I agree on a general plan of hanging out together publicly and introducing a mild amount of PDA into our interactions for good measure. Having an awkward conversation about whether or not we'd kiss in front of other people was not the way I would have liked to approach our next level of intimacy. We decided against it for now, it being too weird for us to consider doing anytime soon, at least in this way. Besides, there are plenty of couples who don't kiss in public, so it shouldn't be too unusual.
When we finish our final presentation in Urban Geography, Professor Trinket claps her hands like a small child and trills, "Well done, well done. Brilliant fieldwork, Mr. Mellark and Miss Everdeen, the colours in your presentation material are darling! What a lovely team you two make!"
"That's why I'm marrying her," I say, seeing an opportunity to start spreading the news. Katniss forces the look of shock off her face enough to plaster it with one of the worst fake smiles I've ever seen. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
There's a moment of stunned silence. A few of the girls gasp, some eyebrows go up, some people are looking back and forth between us and a few pairs start murmuring amongst themselves.
Then Professor Trinket claps some more and proclaims, "And to think I had a hand in bringing you two together...wonderful!"
I'm feeling pretty good about my clever engagement slip until Katniss and I get outside. She grabs onto the sleeve of my jacket rather than my hand and pulls me around the corner of the building where there are fewer people.
"What the hell was that?" She demands.
"What the hell was what?"
"That's why I'm marrying her?"
"We said...we agreed...I don't get why you're so mad."
"You just blurted it out to our whole class!"
"Yeah, that's the idea, Katniss. People are supposed to believe we're getting married."
She still looks really pissed, but doesn't fire back. Instead she crosses her arms, sighs and avoids my eyes.
"It's just...it's really weird. I don't want to look like some stupid-"
I take both of her hands in mine. "You don't. I wouldn't do that. But it's what we've decided to do, so we've got to do this, no matter how weird it is sometimes. It's only going to get more complicated from here." And then for the first time, I pull her into my arms and envelop her in the warmest possible embrace. I feel her stiffen, then immediately relax into my chest. I tighten my arms around her in response and we stay that way for longer than a hug should be.
Before I let her go I ask, "You sure you want to do this?"
Katniss nods against my chest and adds, "It's all I can do."
I kiss the top of her head lightly before pulling away. She doesn't react, so I'm not sure she even noticed.
We look at each other and smile, but then something behind me catches her eye. She side-steps me to get a better view and before I can ask her what's wrong she's already moving away from me yelling, "Gale? Gale!"