I don't see Katniss with her hair down very often and I'm trying not to stare. After a touch-and-go start, things are finally feeling comfortable and I don't want to ruin it. It's still surreal to be here - sharing another meal, talking, laughing – and I have to keep reassuring myself that it's actually happening.
"I brought you the last cookie," I say, working hard to keep my tone casual. "I've had way too many."
I'm not sure what to expect, but she graciously accepts it with a 'thank you' that sounds almost sweet, well, sweet for Katniss. I sigh with relief, internally.
When we're done with our food, we turn our focus to the assignment, which is good, safe ground for conversation. We decide who will do what parts of the research component and agree on a deadline for when we'll go through our findings. We also start to plan out the field component of the project when we'll have to actually go to our assigned neighbourhood, take some pictures and talk to the locals. It's a no-brainer that I'll do most of the talking and photographing and Katniss will pull it all together for the final report. She seems relieved when I suggest we break things down that way.
The project is due just after Thanksgiving and before our first semester final exams. We may even have to work on it while we're home in Oak Hill for the holiday weekend, and hanging out with Katniss in our hometown is something I never thought I'd get to do. I feel exceptionally lucky that the odds have worked out so beautifully in my favour.
Katniss is checking her phone for the time. I frown when I see how old and likely unreliable it is. I remind myself that I can't fix everything for her and work to make my face neutral again.
"I've got about fifteen more minutes before I have to go to work," she says and again I find myself wanting to make all of her obligations disappear. I then wonder if there are books or classes for neanderthal men like me who have these insane impulses to fix and do everything for the women they care about. She's more capable than I am at pretty much everything, so what the hell?
"Maybe we could meet again...in a few days...like, after our class?" Her question takes me aback because we don't really have to meet again, let alone three days from now. It's a big step and a sign that I haven't completely blown this thing.
"Yeah, I'd really like that, Katniss." She finally meets my eyes when I say her name out loud. I'm still getting used to it, but her looking at me takes my breath away every time.
When she leaves to go to work I stay for half an hour longer, just staring out the window, grinning like an idiot.
When I get home I begin obsessively focusing on various evasive manoeuvres. I clean out the fridge, check my emails, reorganize my art supplies and sort some laundry. I have to call home tonight to work out my Thanksgiving plans and the thought of having to endure a forced conversation with my mother causes a weighty, awful feeling in my chest and a nauseousness I can't shake.
I run out of things to do by eight o'clock and am now sitting with my phone, trying to steel myself for what's next.
I take a deep breath and dial the familiar number. My dad answers and I can breathe again.
"Hey Dad, how are things?"
"I'm doing alright. How 'bout you, son?"
"Good, really good actually. Thought I'd check in about Thanksgiving."
"Your brothers will be coming over Thursday morning, so I guess try to be here by then. Your mom's pretty busy, so, we'll have to do most of the work. And I don't know if there's anything planned for the rest of the weekend."
It's funny to me that he tells me this like it's just this one time. My mom's been too busy to care for us our entire lives, but he talks like if she could just free up her schedule, she'd be mother of the year. We've all being doing most of the work in this family since day one. Holidays and meals have been no exception.
"That's cool, I've got a project to work on with Katniss anyways."
I laugh at the question. "Yeah Dad, how many Katnisses do you know? We're in the same class and have an assignment together."
"Huh, I hadn't realized you guys really knew each other." This pisses me off a little, the assumption that Katniss and I wouldn't be friends.
"Well, I'm getting to know her now," I say and I know I sound defensive. I try to recover, "So I guess I'll see you soon."
"Yeah, see you soon. Do you want to talk to your mother?" He asks like he already knows the answer, but that it's something he feels he should do anyway.
"Nah, that's cool, I'll see her soon too."
"Okay, take care of yourself, Peeta."
"You too, Dad. Bye."
Over the last few weeks, Katniss and I have seen each other a surprising number of times. Sometimes we don't even really talk about our assignment. We talk about school, Oak Hill, what's going on in the world and sometimes we even venture into personal territory by talking about our families or childhoods. Every time that happens though, Katniss gives me the impression that she's sorry she shared so much and quickly shuts down. I try to say something reassuring during those times, something that says it's okay that she doesn't want to talk or divulge. In actuality, I can't get enough of her talking about herself, but I know it takes a lot for her to do and if she's ever going to trust me, it has to be in her own time.
We sit together in our Thursday class now. There was no big deal made about this the first time it happened. She walked into the classroom, nodded a hello, sat in the seat beside me and didn't say another word. We had intended to meet that afternoon anyways, so when class was over, we walked silently to our spot in the student lounge and only started our conversation once we took our usual seats.
Katniss has also started accepting more of my food offerings without assuming the worst. Not every time we meet, but I do bring a little something, almost like an after thought, here and there. Sometimes it's supper, sometimes just a baked good, but it's always something I've made myself. Only I know that these things are made especially for her. Or at least I think she hasn't totally caught on yet.
Today we're meeting for the last time before heading home Wednesday night after classes. It's our usual Monday place and time. My heart beats uncontrollably as Katniss walks up to the table; I wonder if she'll always have this effect on me.
She looks...happy. "Hey, getting excited to go home?" I ask, grinning.
She actually beams at me and my breath catches in my throat. "Yeah, I can't wait to see Prim."
We chat idly for a couple minutes when we're interrupted by a deep, booming voice calling, "Catnip!" Both of our heads snap towards the direction of the sound and Katniss gets an unreadable look on her face.
I see Gale walking towards us. He's taller than me, broader than me and more built than me. He looks like the kind of guy who would've had virgins thrown at him had he lived in another time.
When he reaches our table, Katniss gestures to me and awkwardly says, "Uh, this is Peeta."
"Hey man," Gale replies, offering the standard guy handshake.
"Hey," I answer. There's tension in both of our greetings and another glance at Katniss tells me she feels it and is on edge too.
It's weird to be meeting the other guy currently in Katniss' life. The only other man she's spent time with since her father's death. I've come to think of our time together as this private, unique thing and yet here, right in front of me, is the living proof that there's someone else who has his own special place in Katniss' world.
"When are you leaving again?" He asks, turning his attention entirely to Katniss.
"Wednesday, after school," she answers, sort of quietly.
"I'm gonna miss your Mom's leftovers this year," he says and I hate that they're talking about a history I don't share. The only history I have with Katniss is watching her, invisible, from afar.
"I can bring you back a care package, I know she'd love to put one together for you. It is the one day of the year we actually splurge after all. It's too bad you can't come back with me for at least a day or two. Last year was fun."
Care package? Last year? I've never felt more competitive with anyone than I do with this guy, right now, at this very moment.
"Yeah, maybe Christmas, who knows." He finally turns to me and asks, "You going back, Pete?"
"It's Peeta. Yeah, I'm going with Katniss Wednesday." I'm surprised at my own voice. It sounds deeper and has an edge to it that's far from its usual tone. Katniss' eyes widen a bit and she seems to be scrutinizing my face.
"Cool, cool," Gale replies casually, then turns back to Katniss, "Well have a good trip, Catnip, say hi to the fam for me and I'll see you next week, I guess."
"Yeah, will do, see ya Gale. I'll call you when I'm back and get you that food." She offers him a dazzling smile and I'm instantly jealous that the rare facial expression isn't meant for me.
They wave to each other and Gale walks away, barely giving a nod in my direction.
"Catnip?" I ask, trying to sound curious and not sarcastic.
"Yeah, the first time we met I was pretty freaked out that he wanted to talk to me so when he asked me my name I answered so quietly that he thought I said catnip. It just kinda stuck."
I'm not sure what to answer, I'm too busy picturing a young Katniss shyly navigating her first encounter with a handsome older boy. Such a different beginning than being thrown a soggy loaf of bread in the rain by a kid with money who doesn't even try to talk to you. I handled it so, so badly.
"It's a pretty sweet nickname," I finally answer when I realize she's looking at me and I hadn't said anything yet.
"Gale's a good guy." She says and I'm not sure if there's a question behind her statement or not.
"Yeah, it sounds like he's been a really good friend to you." I say, because it's the best answer I've got.
"He's just always been there...through everything." I'm feeling defensive and guilty again. Of course he has. There's nothing I can say, so I stay silent and watch the world outside the window instead.
After a few minutes, Katniss speaks almost inaudibly, but I hear and will remember every word.
"He's not the only one who's been there for me when I needed someone. I've been lucky that way." She looks at me knowingly and smiles.
I want to respond, want to tell her that I'll be here for her, always, but I'm not ready. And she sure as hell isn't ready. So I smile at her with my biggest, warmest smile and hand her a slice of my homemade cinnamon raisin bread instead.