Mr. Mellark is younger than Katniss expected him to be, based on their phone and email conversations over the past couple of weeks. She knew that he had been married – and divorced – young. That his daughter is three and some change, and that the child she’ll be sitting for is three years old. She knew that he was a good father, or at the least a very protective one. He requested a background check and assured her that it wasn’t a reflection on her but that he and his ex-wife agreed that it was important.
She didn’t mind, exactly. Not with the promise of room and board and a higher-than-decent for childcare salary. He thanked her for her cooperation, and after e got the results, he set up an interview in his home on Victory Hill.
So, that’s where she is now. Dressed in her best blouse and corduroys with a folder of names and numbers of people willing to vouch for her, the results from her background test, trying not to look surprised at the man who opens the door. He’s handsome. More handsome than she expected, and with a smile that’s so warm and so friendly it’s almost devastating. She can’t help but to return it.
“You must be Katniss Everdeen!” he says, holding a hand out for her to shake. “I’m Peeta Mellark. I so appreciate you making the drive all the way out here today.”
She smiles, taking his hand. “Oh, it’s no trouble at all.”
“Come in! Come in!” he says, and steps out of the way to let her into the house. It’s as nice – as large and spacious and pristine – on the inside as it looked outside. As he leads her through, she notices a few pictures taped up that prove that a toddler lives here. Not just pictures of a curly headed little blonde toddler, but also scribbles on paper. Smiley faces in lopsided circles. Some of them are even framed.
She notices as he leads her into the kitchen that he’s well put together, as well. With a pressed white shirt and a pair of ironed black pants. “Would you like some coffee, Katniss?” he asks. “There’s water, too. Or tea, if that’s more your style.”
“Coffee sounds good,” she says. “Thank you, Mr. Mellark.”
“No trouble at all,” he says, echoing her words from earlier with a smile. “My daughter is asleep. She never naps for my – my ex-wife’s mother in law. Luckily for us, though, that gives us plenty of time to iron out the details.”
They talk quietly, not wanting to wake Cecelia. She learns about his job. That it keeps him busy and that he and his ex-wife came to the conclusion that it would be easier to hire someone who could come and live with them than to expect someone to drive out and back every evening, the way that the teenager who has been sitting for them over the summer did.
He asks about her credentials, as far as working with children go, and she tells him about the child development courses that she took in college, as well as the CPR certification her doctor sister insisted that Katniss should get.
“Do you have nieces? Nephews?” Mr. Mellark asks. “I mean no offense, of course. I’m impressed with the classes. I’m just wondering, as far as hands on experience goes . . .”
“My sister doesn’t have any children. But she is younger than me, and I’ve been in charge of her, mostly, since she was eight.”
“And will she be taken care of if you move in with us?”
“Yes. She’s twenty four. And training to be a doctor upstate,” she says.
He laughs. “Well. That’ll teach me to make assumptions.”
She’s offered the job before she leaves that day. He offers to give her a few days of driving back and forth to see how she and Cecelia mesh, and then, if she still wants the job, to come by and help her move her things over this coming weekend, and she sits in the car afterwards, head leaned back against the seat, shaking her head at her luck, which seems to finally be taking a turn for the good.
. . .
Her things in the apartment are already boxed up. The lease is almost up, and she was dreading next Tuesday, but now she’s more than a little bit relieved. The room that he showed her was big. Probably even larger than the one in her apartment.
Cecelia is a good kid. Mild tempered and polite. Easy enough to keep entertained. She doesn’t have steady hours, exactly. But it’s easy enough to predict how long her days will be. They start just before he leaves for work, with his daughter asleep upstairs and two-thirds of a pot of coffee waiting for her in the kitchen. Most days, she and Cecelia will go to town, or the park. There’s plenty to do around the house while the baby sleeps. Laundry and other chores. One day, Mr. Mellark even -- somewhat apologetically -- gives her a list of errands that need to be run.
True to his word, he comes by in a truck on Saturday afternoon, Cecelia strapped into a car seat in the back, and helps her to move her bed to the house. “We really appreciate you doing this, Katniss,” he informs her, as if this is a favor and not a job.
She nods, feeling slightly uncomfortable being in the front seat with him, but just because the baby is in the back, and she feels like she should be entertaining her. Proving her capability to care for Cecelia. “Well, she’s a great kid. Prim, my sister, she never would have been so good for a new sitter when she was her age.”
Mr. Mellark smiles. “Thank you. I’m glad Cece’s made a good first impression. And I’m biased, but I think she’s a great kid, too,” he jokes.
. . .
She doesn’t see her boss very often. She expected that he would be busy before he warned her of as much during the interview. Why would he hire a live in nanny if he wasn’t busy? It’s easy enough, her job. She watches Cecelia when Mr. Mellark is at work, and he takes over as soon as he gets home. But by the time he comes through the door and shrugs off his jacket and Cece calls out a gleeful “Daddy!” and launches herself at him, Katniss has given the toddler dinner and just managed to settle her down. Of course, Mr. Mellark has a knack for winding the kid back up.
Katniss doesn’t exactly mind, though. She gets to excuse herself to her room and bask in her few hours of alone time and Mr. Mellark gets to bask in the few hours of time he gets with his kid.
Her bedroom is nice. And that’s not even to mention how good of a landlord-slash-roommate Mr. Mellark is. He gave her permission to hang things on the wall. Anything she liked. Only, she hasn’t done much of anything yet in the month and a half she's spent here. He helped her to move her bed and dresser in, but all she’s done is make her bag and unpack her clothes into the dresser she pushed into the closet after she insisted she didn’t need more help besides to get it up the stairs. She hasn’t had much time to spend in her room – the three year old takes a lot of energy and Katniss doesn’t care enough to decorate her room. Not really. So she spends the majority of her fleeting alone time watching Netflix on her laptop.
That’s another good thing about working for Mr. Mellark. He told her within a day and a half of living with him and his daughter that Katniss could use his Netflix account, since she was living with them. So he took the liberty of setting up a little profile for her on his, with some strange orange chicken as the icon. He told her that he let his daughter pick it, and that she can change it if she wants. But she hasn’t changed it. She doesn’t mind it, really. On the rare weekends when her boss gets time off to spend with his kid, she can spend all weekend in that room, just basking in the alone time.
She has one of those weekends coming up. Mr. Mellark is working, and for the first time, Bonnie, his ex-wife, will be by to pick Cece up. Katniss has got a whole lot of TV she’s looking forward to catching up on. Only, a few days before the planned weekend, she sneaks downstairs to get a glass of water and hears her boss on the phone.
“You aren’t taking her this weekend?” he asks. “No, I understand. I do. I know. It’s not your fault. But I promised Katniss that -- well, I can’t just take time off without any notice.” He sighs. “I know. I know your schedule is unpredictable. Better than anyone, probably. But it’s fine. It’s fine. We can figure it out.” It’s quiet for a moment. He sighs.
Katniss pauses, torn between wanting to listen and not wanting to be caught eavesdropping. Only, from her spot on the bottom step, she can see the TV perfectly, and she thinks she recognizes the face that it’s paused on. Only, there’s no way that her boss is watching Once Upon a Time.
“Bonnie. Don’t get mad at me,” Mr. Mellark says, his voice gentle, “No. I’m not angry with you. But more notice would have been nice. I’ll let Katniss know you won’t be by to pick her up, and . . . I don’t know what. See if she has plans, maybe.” He’s talking to his ex-wife, then. Katniss hasn't met her yet, but he doesn't talk about her like she's the bane of his existence, and he doesn’t mind Cece watching her on Good Morning Panem. “Yeah. All right.”
She moves to get down, and the stair creaks. Shit. He turns to look at her and she freezes, caught. He returns her nervous smile with a tight lipped one of his own.
“No. It’s fine. I’ll figure something out.” He shoots Katniss an exasperated look, holds the phone away from his head, and mouths something.
“What?” she whispers. So he covers the bottom half of his phone – something she doesn’t think really works with an iphone.
“Ask for my help with something,” he whispers. Cutting his eyes towards the phone. Oh. Oh!
“Mr. Mellark?” she asks, but her voice must not be loud enough because his expression could only really be described as pleading. “Mr. Mellark?” she tries again. “Oh. You’re on the phone. Sorry.”
He gives her an encouraging smile. “That’s fine. What is it?”
“Do you --- Do you know where that bag of groceries went?”
“Sorry, hold on Bonnie. What’s that, Katniss?” he asks, mouthing something like come closer. So she does.
“The bag of groceries,” she continues helplessly. It’s the first thing that popped into her mind that wouldn’t worry a mother. “When I went to the store this afternoon, I got three bags. And one of them is missing. It had my new sweater in it.”
“Okay. Bonnie, I’m gonna have to go. Katniss needs my help. But we’ll see you tomorrow evening, Bonnie. Yeah. Yeah, you too. Okay. Bye.”
He sighs when the call is over, resting his forehead against the back of the couch. “Thank you, Katniss. I owe you one.”
“Oh, no. It’s fine,” she says. “Don’t worry about it.”
“No, seriously,” he says. “You saved me. I try not to involve you in any of that stuff. But it was beg for your help or pretend there was an emergency. And that’s just cruel.”
Or you could have stayed on the phone, she thinks but doesn’t say. It’s probably best not to tease the man in charge of her housing and her paycheck. “Rough night?” she asks instead, watching as he stands up.
“You could say that.” He stuffs his phone into the pocket of his sweatpants, and she realizes that this is the least formal she’s ever seen him look. Ruffled blond hair, a grey sweatshirt with sleeves that are rolled up just past his elbows. “I was so relieved to see you down here. She had me on the phone for what felt like hours. You know when you get so far into a conversation that there’s no escape?”
She nods. “My sister is like that. Doesn’t understand what I mean when I say ‘okay, I’ll let you go now.’”
He laughs again. “Yes. Exactly.”
“Well, I was just coming down to get a glass of water. So . . .”
“You don't have to lock yourself away in your room just because I'm home,” he says, but then clears his throat. “I mean. Not that you have to hang out with me or anything. I just -- don’t want you to feel like you’re on parole, or whatever.”
“I don’t,” she says. “I was about to try and find something to watch, actually. So don’t worry about entertaining me, Mr. Mellark.”
“Oh, are we still at Mr. Mellark?” he asks, shaking his head. “You know -- if you’re comfortable with it, of course -- you can call me Peeta.”
She nods. “Okay, Peeta.”
This earns her a smile, but then he hesitates, frowning. “So, I don’t know how much of that you heard. But that was my ex-wife. And . . . well, she’s not going to pick Cece up tomorrow, after all. She’s got some lead she has to chase, and didn’t find out until tonight. Which means that there isn’t time for me to try to get the weekend off.”
“That’s fine,” she says.
“No, it isn’t,” he insists. “It’s unfair of me to step on your time off. I’m sure you had plans. I’ll call the old babysitter tomorrow, and see if I can get Sunday off.”
“Don’t bother,” she says. “I had no plans, really. Just to watch TV and wonder what to do with myself without the baby around.”
“Are you sure?” he asks.
“Well, I’m watching TV, too, actually. There’s, ah, there’s this show Cece wanted to watch. Once Upon A Time, it’s called. And I’m still on the fence. I mean, I think it’s too much for her, but this lady at work rolled her eyes at me, because it’s about Snow White and stuff, so she thinks I ought to let her watch it.”
“No, I agree,” she says, and then tucks a piece of hair behind her ear. “Not that you asked for my opinion, of course. But, I’m on, like season four now. And for me it’s fine -- even a little cheesy. But if you think it’s too much for your kid, it’s too much for your kid. And that lady at work can go . . . learn to mind her own business,” she catches herself.
He laughs, clearly not offended by her almost-slip. “I thought something similar. Less censored. But similar. I’m gonna get something to drink. Care to join me?”
She shrugs, following him towards the kitchen. He heads for the fridge. “I don’t know if you’re a rewatcher,” he begins. “But, yeah. I’m on like the fifth episode if you wanted to join me. Or get out of your room. So long as you’re comfortable with it. And I really hope I’m not coming across as super creepy right now. Because I’m not trying to speak as your boss, and I know I wouldn’t want to hang around my office after hours. But . . .” he trails off, bending over and grabbing something off of one of the shelves. She almost can’t help but to laugh when she realizes that he’s holding a can of beer in one hand and a juicebox in the other.
“You’re really used to hanging out with a three year old, aren’t you?” she asks, amused.
He laughs and holds them both out towards her, as if asking her to make a decision. Is she allowed to take the beer? Or will that make her look bad? But then, Peeta doesn’t seem like the type to try and trap her into making a wrong choice. She reaches out, very hesitantly, for the beer, and he nods, turning and putting the juice back into the fridge before he grabs one for himself.
“I would have gone for the juice if that was what you picked,” he admits. “Not that I’m going easy on you. Just . . . I’m not sure what the rules are.”
“I think you make the rules,” she says, and he raises his eyebrows, popping his beer open.
“You’re the one providing the service,” he counters, and she winces at how it sounds. “I just mean . . . you’re the one who’s here to help me raise my child,” he says. “I’m pretty sure you’re the one who gets to make the rules. Since, you know. You’re the more valuable one in his relationship.”
“I do rewatch things,” she says. “And, um, I’d like to watch with you. Give my laptop a break.”
He smiles. “Great. But you really should take me up on the juicebox offer sometime. How long has it been since you’ve had one? There’s something about it. Even if it does make me feel like a giant.”
She laughs. “Um, a few days ago, maybe? Cece -- Cecelia,” she catches herself a moment too late, wondering if he’ll mind that she uses his special nickname for his daughter. “Cecelia was being a very good sharer at lunch. And, you know. I don’t want to squash that.”
“Absolutely,” he agrees. “But you won't get in trouble for sneaking the occasional juicebox. Benefit of the job.”
She smiles. “Thanks, Mr. -- Peeta,” she catches herself a moment too late.
“She’s crazy about you, you know.”
“I . . . really?” Katniss asks.
He nods solemnly. “I think you’re just about all I hear about when I get home. She tells me all about the park and the crafts that you two do. If I was a better man, I wouldn’t be jealous at all.”
She sort of laughs. “Well, for what it’s worth, all I hear about is you, so I think we’re even.”
He furrows his eyebrows at her and she opens her can, mostly to have something to do. “Really?” he asks, obviously pleased even if he’s trying not to look like it. They migrate to the living room while she tells him about the tree that she drew the other day and how it sparked a conversation about what an artist Peeta is. He laughs.
“Well. I can draw pigs and cats with sidewalk chalk, and that's all it takes to be an artist in her book,” he says modestly. She knows that he's been settled on the couch, but he moves to the armchair and she doesn't fight him on it. “Of course, I thought that was all for my benefit.”
Katniss smiles. “She is a sweetheart. But no. She just genuinely thinks the world of you.”
He restarts the episode for her benefit, but acts like it’s just as much for him. “I don’t even remember where I was. I tried multitasking, and that never works out.”
She smiles, fielding his questions during the show. He doesn’t talk too much, but he does admit to looking up parental guides on the internet. “I never thought I would be the kind of man to use the internet to shelter my child,” he admits, dropping his head into his hand. “But IMDB is sort of vague. And the other one -- common sense, or something like that -- they’re way too touchy. Like, there was a warning for consumerism. What does that even mean?”
She laughs. “I’m not sure.”
“I think someone was just pissy they don’t have a slugbug,” he says.
“I should probably get to bed,” she says after the second episode, standing up and stretching her legs out. “Cece gets up early. As I’m sure you know.”
“Oh, shit,” he says softly, as if noticing the time. “Yeah. Me, too. But, ah. Thanks for sitting with me.”
She nods. “Anytime, boss.”
He makes a face. “Oh god. That may be worse than Mr. Mellark. Are you sure you don’t mind working the weekend?” he asks.
“I’m sure,” she says.
Her pay is higher that week. She might argue if she didn’t have to try and cheer up the crumpled sad face Cecelia made when she realized that her mom wasn’t coming to get her.
She and Peeta slip into a different routine after that that’s somehow familiar enough to be comforting. They watch Once Upon A Time after Cece is in bed, and in the mornings, he usually has her coffee waiting for her in a mug. She’s even comfortable enough after a few evenings to come down and sit on the couch in her pajamas.
He’s surprisingly easy to watch with. Talking enough to be entertaining but not enough to be annoying. And he doesn’t mind admitting to liking the show in its own right, even if he doesn’t think it’s good for his daughter to watch, at her age.
Katniss has a weekend off coming up. She knows that Peeta’s plan is to bring Cece to the carnival that’s coming to town, but during the second episode they stream on the Thursday before his weekend off, his phone chimes with a text, and he barely turns away before he sighs. Katniss sees it and pauses the show.
“It’s Bonnie,” he says. “I’ll be back. I need to call her.”
She busies herself on her cellphone, texting with Prim about Peeta and Cece and how things have been going, and hears Peeta saying things like “But I’ve had this weekend planned for -- I know,” and “I don’t want to take away your chance to see your kid. But I wish you’d give us more notice,” and “Bonnie, Bonnie.”
And she tries not to think about what it might be like for him to say her name twice like that. Not upset, of course. Not frustrated or tired. But he so rarely uses her name that she can’t help but like it when she does. Which she knows is completely unprofessional and on her last day off, Prim came and went to town with Katniss and said so, is he as cute as his daughter? And laughed loudly when Katniss hesitated before answering yes, claiming that her blush gave her away.
He comes in with two beers and two juiceboxes, setting them on the side table. They haven’t had drinks since that first night, but he’s clearly exhausted again. She frowns.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“Bonnie’s in town,” he explains. “She'll be by to pick Cece up in the afternoon.”
She frowns. Wants to tell him that it isn’t very fair, with how long he’s had his plans with Cece. But he told her during her interview that while he has primary custody of Cece, before the divorce, he and his ex wife decided that it would be best for him to make sure that Cece was available when Bonnie was, thanks to the former Mrs. Mellark’s work schedule.
“Sorry,” she says, reaching out to touch his hand before she can think better of it and realizing belatedly that he had been sitting in the chair, before he came back and planted himself on the couch. “It sucks,” Katniss says. This earns her a small smile.
“It does suck,” he agrees with a little smile. It doesn’t escape her notice that he doesn’t move his hand away.
“Hey there,” Peeta says when she comes downstairs in the morning. “I was just telling Cece that her mama’s gonna come pick her up this evening. But I’ll be home, so you won’t have to worry about identifying her.”
Katniss nods, she has no idea, really, what to expect from Peeta’s ex wife.
“But just in case I end up running late, she is going to need her overnight bag packed. Are you okay to do that?” he asks. “I know she’s been here straight through since you’ve been with us, but I’ll text you a list, when I get to the office, of what she needs.”
She nods again. This is the most they’ve ever spoken in the morning. “Yeah, that won’t be a problem,” she says. “We’ll do that before we go to the park.”
He smiles. “Thanks. You’re a lifesaver.”
“Anytime, boss,” she returns with a little smile. “Anything else you need done today?”
He glances around. “Nothing I can think of. I should get going. I’ll see you tonight, sweetie,” he informs his daughter, pressing a kiss to her cheek.
“Why can’t you come to with me and mama?” Cece asks, frowning. And Peeta looks pained, but then he smiles quickly and covers it up.
“Come on, Cece. You don’t want your daddy crashing your party. You and your mama will have so much fun this weekend, you won’t even realize I’m gone.”
“But I thought we were gonna have fun this weekend,” Cece protests.
“We’ll have fun next weekend,” Peeta promises her. “Be good for Miss Katniss,” he says, as if she isn’t always.
As promised, as soon as Peeta is finished driving, he sends Katniss a list of things to pack for Cece’s overnight bag, along with a thank you and about ten exclamation marks. Katniss lets Cece pick her own clothing, only steering her away from the cowgirl costume when she claims it’s what she wants for pajamas.
“Are you excited to see your mom?” Katniss asks when they’re finished and Cece is in the middle of pre-nap drawing.
Cece nods, her earlier disappointment about not being with her father obviously forgotten. Katniss smiles and listens to the chatter about her mother, and thinks that she’s sort of grateful that Peeta isn’t here to hear it. Of course, he doesn’t seem to hate his ex-wife, but with how surprised he was to hear that Cece spoke highly of him last night, it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing a parent would want to hear, exactly. Not if they were separated from the other parent.
When he gets home -- slightly early -- he and Cece perform their usual ritual. Him on his knees just inside the door, his arms stretched wide, and her running towards him. “Daddy!” she cries.
“Cece!” he returns, sounding just as thrilled. She giggles when Peeta stands up and takes her with him. “I missed you today,” he informs her, smacking a noisy kiss against her forehead.
“You miss me every day,” the three year old returns.
He gapes down at her, and she shrieks with delight when Peeta starts to tickle up and down her sides, squirming around. “You are too young to be so sassy,” he decides. “I miss you every day, but especially today. I told my boss I had to come home immediately and get my Celia time.”
That’s not why he’s home early. He’s home early because it was part of the shift he worked out for this weekend. But Cece accepts it easily. As always, Katniss feels like she’s intruding on something just by watching.
“How was she?” Peeta asks, holding her against his chest.
“Great,” Katniss answers. “We had peanut butter and jelly for lunch – she insisted – and her bag is waiting in the hall.
“Thank you,” Peeta says. “I don't know how I ever made it without you.”
“Daddy?” Cece asks. “Can we play trains?”
“Absolutely,” he says, already heading for the living room.
Peeta is engrossed in Cece’s story about the mommy train and the baby train when the knock at the door comes, and she thinks that might be why he sighs before he pushes himself up to go get it. Cece trails after him, and Peeta opens the door to reveal Bonnie. Even from the couch, Katniss can tell that she’s every bit as beautiful as she is on Good Morning Panem.
“Oh! You must be the nanny!” she says when Peeta lets her in. “I’m Bonnie. Cecelia’s mother. It’s so good to finally meet you! Peeta says you’ve been quite the help with our girl.”
“Well, it’s my pleasure,” Katniss says. “She’s a great kid.”
Peeta comes over and picks up the bag, hoisting it up onto his shoulder.
“Daddy was gonna take me to the carnival,” Cece informs her. “Can you take me to the carnival?”
“The carnival?” Bonnie echoes, and then looks up at Peeta. “Oh, Peeta. I am so sorry. I didn’t realize -- oh, I feel horrible. Please tell me, next time? I know we said . . .” she glances over at Katniss, as if she’s not sure Katniss needs to hear what’s next. Katniss ducks out of the room with a little wave goodbye at Cece, and heads for her room. A little while later, a knock at the door comes.
“Yes?” she asks, but Peeta waits for her to open the door, herself. He always does. Maybe she ought to switch to come in but she never thinks about it.
“Hey,” he says, looking a little shy. “Um, they’re gone. And I hope you don’t think Bonnie was trying to chase you off.”
“I was going to order a pizza. Do you want some?” he asks. She nods, and he tilts his head, as if to coax her out of the room.
“So, um, if you don’t mind my asking, did you have plans for this weekend?” he asks as they head down the stairs.
“Not really,” she admits. “Oh! Sleeping. That’ll be nice. I mean, not that I mind getting up for Cece. But sleeping in will be good.”
He smiles. “And . . . after tomorrow morning?”
“Not much. Why? Did you want to watch some more Once Upon A Time?”
He smiles. “Tonight, maybe. But -- this seems so silly, now that I’m actually about to say it. Wow.”
“What?” she asks.
“Do you want to go to the carnival with me?” he asks. She expects him to laugh or make some kind of joke, but he doesn’t. He just watches her.
“I . . . Really?” is all she can manage. He winces.
“See, I was afraid it would be weird to ask. But – worth a shot, maybe?”
“I'd love to go to the carnival with you,” she says. He beams at her and she can't help but to return the smile.
It's a challenge, ignoring the pounding of her heart or the incessant question of am I really about to go on a date with my boss? But they have their pizza on the couch and watch TV, and she steals glances at him when he's not paying attention.
. . .
She frets over what to wear for the first time since her job interview. She settles on a nice, safe burgundy blouse Prim talked her into buying that can only really be best described as a tunic, and her best pair of jeans, and all while she puts on her makeup, she chides herself for being so critical of her appearance for a not-date with her boss.
A not-date. With her handsome, charming, funny boss. She is so screwed.
He's dressed, too, when she comes downstairs. Wearing a red plaid shirt and with his hair combed back and styled the way it usually is when he works. That doesn't mean anything, she reminds herself. He holds the box of cereal up in offering and she gives him a smile, coming back for it once she's grabbed a clean bowl and the milk.
“I'm excited,” she admits, earning herself a grin. “I've never been to a carnival.”
His eyes widen. “Never? You should have said something earlier! We could've been planning on this all along.”
He would have brought her if Cece was still going. She sort of can’t help but to smile, even if it confusing.
He apologizes when he turns on the radio and some kid’s song turns on, reaching over and pushing at the volume knob in his haste to turn it down. “Cece,” he says with a little smile. “I don’t even listen to the radio in the mornings, on my way to work or whatever. I couldn’t tell you how long it’s been since I’ve heard something that wasn’t about wheels on a bus.”
She smiles to herself, reaching over and taking the auxiliary cord. “Do you mind?”
“Not at all,” he assures her.
It’s crowded. She convinces herself that that’s why she sticks so close to Peeta. She doesn’t want to be separated. Of course, she has her phone, so she could have him come and pick her up if it was really so much of an issue.
He gives her a little smile. “Not big on crowds?”
“I’m fine,” she assures him with a little smile, and then turns her head when she catches sight of a funnel cake. He must notice, because he leans over and bumps his shoulder against hers.
“Wanna go get one?” he asks.
“I’ll probably regret it if I don’t,” she says, and they head off in the direction of the little cart. When it’s their turn, she orders a large one, fully intending on offering some to Peeta. But then when she reaches for her wallet, he puts his hand out to stop her.
“My treat,” he assures her with a smile. “Do you want powdered sugar on it?”
“Yes,” she says. “Please.”
She doesn’t regret the powdered sugar -- for the taste, for one, but mostly for the way it clings to his lips. To the corner of his mouth.
The rest of the day passes similarly. A sign for fried oreos gets them into a debate about whether or not that could be any good at all – Katniss says she might enjoy it if she were starving, where Peeta thinks that it could be good, potentially.
“You don’t think it’s enough to, like, give you diabetes?” she says incredulously. He laughs.
“Katniss, have I mentioned the bakery my parents own? I’m not the one who’s gonna pitch a fit about sugar.”
“A bakery?” she repeats. “Oh my god. I would get so dangerous if I grew up in a bakery.”
He laughs. “My mom was really strict. About a lot of things, but especially about what we could eat out of the bakery. If it got very stale, we could maybe sneak a cookie. Only, my dad’s cookies were too good to go stale very often.”
“How’d you go from baking to accounting?” she asks, and he raises his eyebrows. “I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with your job. It just . . . seems like an interesting jump.”
“No, it’s fine,” he assures her. “Cece’s mother’s job is – clearly – pretty nomadic. And she’s had it in her head that she’s wanted to do that for ages. Since before we met, really. So I guess I was looking for something pretty stable. You know. House. White picket fence. Fake grass. 2 and a half kids.”
“But Bonnie didn’t want that?” Katniss guesses. Peeta opens and closes his mouth.
“It’s – well, the thing about Bonnie is that she’s always been very career driven. So, when she got pregnant with Cece, she saw it more as an ending than a beginning.”
“But it wasn’t. She still has her job.”
He nods. “I don’t . . . I don’t have mine, though. I was gonna take over the bakery. Well, me and my brother, we were going to go in together. But that’s not how things worked out, exactly.”
“Oh,” she says quietly. “That’s terrible.”
“I wouldn’t say terrible,” he says. “Have you ever watched, like, Kitchen Nightmares? Or any of those? It’s so risky. I didn’t want Cece to have that life.”
“But if you did still have the bakery, would you serve fried oreos?” she asks, pleased with the bark of laughter it earns her. “I feel like that’s the real question.”
She can’t help but to watch him as they make their way through the carnival. To notice the way his hand feels on the small of her back when he steadies her as she climbs into the seat on the ferris wheel.
As they start to climb, she notices the way his muscles tense. She rests her hand, palm up, beside his. Her heart hammers in her chest, terrified that she’s pushing it. It’s a bad idea – no, a horrible idea to be involved with her boss. Her boss, who is in charge of her money and her housing. What if this date – if it is even a date – goes badly? Where will she be then?
But, very carefully, he sets his hand on top of hers. “Is this okay?” he asks quietly.
And with a lump in her throat and a smile on her face, she laces their fingers together. “Yes,” she says honestly. “This is okay.”
They can work out the details later. But for now, she’s holding Peeta’s hand, and it feels more than a little bit like this is exactly where she belongs.