A/N: My two passions in life are this: baking and writing. I thought I'd combine the two just to see what happens. The characters are, quite obviously, not mine. I hope you enjoy reading it as much I did writing it.
You'd think the early morning traffic of the city below would be what woke me. No, I'd long since learned to drown the city noise out; that's how you adapt to life in New York, where police sirens and honking taxi cabs become the soundtrack to your days. What woke me was the sound my ears had been trained to pick up. The patter of little feet on my hardwood floor.
My eyes crept open just a tad. I was draped unceremoniously across my bed on my stomach, with a sizeable puddle of drool on my pillow. Sure enough, those feet were scampering around the apartment. I was debating on whether or not leaving the warmth of my bed was absolutely necessary when the clanking of dishes decided for me. Throwing the covers off of my legs, I made a mental note to shave and then picked up a wrinkled New York University sweatshirt off of the floor.
The noise from the kitchen became more insistent, so I padded quickly down the hallway, images of my apartment going up in flames already rooting in brain. Her back was to me when I came around the corner. She perched on a stool, upper half deep in the pantry, humming to herself. I couldn't suppress my smile. At least she wasn't sticking forks in toasters. "Whatcha doing, button?"
She started at my words, spinning around on the stool and nearly losing her balance. The look of surprise on her face instantly melted into a grin when she saw me, though. "It's a surprise!" she told me eagerly. I glanced at the table in the middle of the room and saw two bowls, two spoons, and the jug of orange juice sitting there.
"Are you making me breakfast?" I asked, coming forward to scoop her off of the stool and spin her around. She giggled and nodded excitedly. Mia was five (almost six) with big silver eyes like mine, olive skin, and wavy ash blonde hair down to the middle of her back - she refused to get it cut. She was mischievous, tireless, and determinedly stubborn, but she was also the light of my life. "So what are we having?" I asked her once I'd set her back down. She was short for her age, only coming up to my hip, but then again so was I.
"Cereal!" Mia said in a sing song voice, climbing back up on the stool and pulling out a box of apple cinnamon Chex. I let her pour it into the bowls, but decided it was best if I handled the milk after seeing her try to pour her own juice on a daily basis; more usually ends up on the counter than in the cup. The Chex were a bit stale and I'd accidentally bought orange juice with pulp instead of without, but it was still the nicest breakfast I'd had in a long time.
"Thank you for that, button. It was delicious." I pecked a kiss on top of her head as I collected our dishes and took them to the sink. While I washed up, Mia plopped contently in front of the television. The Phineas & Ferb theme song floated in to me every now and then. I was starting to believe this might actually turn out to be a good day when the telephone rang and the hope died a slow, painful death inside me. Grabbing the dishrag to hurriedly dry my hands, I lunged for the phone to stop the shrill noise. "Hello?"
"Miss Everdeen?" I recognized the oily voice on the other end immediately and felt my teeth grit in disgust.
"Mr. Crane. To what do I owe the honor?" I said drily. Seneca Crane was my douchebag landlord. He kept terrible apartments, and an even terribler beard.
"Oh, I just thought I'd call to chat. See how everything's going." I bristled, not liking his tone.
"That repair guy never came to check on the thermostat last week."
"Ah, yes...I forgot about that. Must have slipped my mind, I suppose."
"What do you want, Seneca?" I snapped, wishing he'd just get to the point. I heard him sigh heavily.
"Your rent check is overdue again, Katniss." My heart sank. Shit! In all the hustle and bustle of the last few days, I'd completely forgotten to send in my rent check.
"Oh shoot," I said into the receiver, running to the counter where I could usually find my checkbook buried under one stack of bills or the other. "Remind how much I owe you?"
"With the late fee, $2,395." I almost dropped the phone.
"How much?" He repeated the number, and I swore I could almost hear him smirking. "For this piece-of-shit apartment?" I hissed.
"For the piece-of-shit apartment I am ever so kindly allowing you and your little hellion to live in." I glanced toward the living room and saw that Mia was thankfully still glued to the television, oblivious to our conversation.
"Seneca, I don't have that kind of money right now," I said on the verge of pleading. "I-I got laid off last week, and I've got bills to pay, and then there's food to put on the table, and-"
"Not my problem. I can give you until the end of the week, but if I don't get that check by then...I'm afraid I'll have no choice other than to evict you. Good day." The line went dead.
"Yeah, I bet you'd love to evict us," I said under my breath. "Fucking asshole." I ran my hands through my tangled hair, wishing for a magic solution to my problems. Perhaps the doorbell would ring, and I'd answer it only to be told that a distant millionaire uncle had died and left all of his money to me. It didn't, though, and instead I found myself slumped over my laptop at the kitchen table, chewing on the end of a pen while I studied my bank statement. $2,702.64 was the number my eyes focused on. The current balance of my account.
Paying Seneca's rent fee would leave me with only about $300 to pay for what we needed to. That included food, gas money, the new shoes Mia had been needing for some time now, and whatever else happened to require money. Which, in this day and age, was just about everything. I groaned and sunk down farther in the chair, staring up at the ceiling. Not having a job at the moment certainly didn't help matters. The steady position I'd held as a receptionist at a dentist's office downtown for the last year had been vile, but paid fairly well. In the words of the unsympathetic human resources person who'd broken the news to me "they were experiencing some financial difficulties and found it unfortunately necessary to cut back on the number of people currently employed at the office".
"Are you okay, Mommy?" Mia waddled into the kitchen and came to sit on my lap, her program evidently over.
"Yeah, button, just tired," I said, stroking her soft hair. I shuddered when I thought about what my happen to us if we were evicted. Where would we go? Apartments were hard enough to find as it was, let alone one that I would actually be able to afford. Would we end up in some kind of home? Would they take Mia away from me? I tightened my grip on her small frame. I would never let that happen. I couldn't.
A determined flame burning in my core, I straightened up promptly and set Mia on her feet. She looked at me inquisitively. "Why don't you go get dressed and we'll go out for a walk." I told her.
"Where are we going?"
"I'm not sure..." I paused, realizing it was true. "I guess it'll be another surprise." Mia's face lit up.
"Yes! I love surprises! I'll be right back." She scampered off to her room to change out of her Winx Club pajamas. I found myself grinned despite the grim outlook. It was hard not to be happy around someone so carefree. I tried to find something semi-decent for myself and ended up in jeans, a white shirt, and a gray cardigan with flats. I decided it would do. It's not like I was applying at the White House or something. After fixing my hair into its perpetual side braid, I hastily brushed my teeth and applied a coat of chap stick.
Mia needed help buttoning her jacket and wrapping her scarf, and then we were walking down the ever-crowded sidewalk towards the heart of town. We didn't live in a bad neighborhood to be honest. It certainly wasn't top-of-the-line, but there weren't corner drug dealers or gang fights, which was a plus. Mia even stopped to pet a friendly dog on the way. It wasn't a bad life, but I knew I'd have to work hard if I wanted to keep it.
I stopped in almost with a Help Wanted sign in the window: a boutique, a Starbucks, a deli, even a barbershop. Each place gave me an application to fill out, but none of them seemed like they were jumping to hire me. My palms grew sweaty with anxiety even in the cold weather. Mia seemed to notice, because at one point she looked up at me and asked "Are you looking for another job?" I cringed. She probably remembered doing this a few years ago when I'd first moved back out of my mom's house and was looking for one.
"Yep," I told her in what I hoped was a lighthearted tone. "And we're gonna stop just a few more places before we head home, okay button?" She nodded, but I could tell she was getting tired. After I filled out applications at a drycleaners and a small bookstore, I finally had to pick her up and carry her.
"I'm hungry," she said, leaning her head on my shoulder. I couldn't deny that my stomach was rumbling as well. The apple cinnamon Chex seemed ages ago.
"Alright, let's find someplace to eat." It didn't take very long walking down the sidewalk to find something that peaked my interest (and cued my salivary glands to start working). It was the smell that drew me to it. Fresh baked bread and cookies, mingling with a variety of spices, and then a tinge of coffee. I had to stop myself from pausing to visibly inhale the delicious scent. The name on the store was printed on the door in neat, curly white letters: Mellark's. I smiled, thinking what a lovely ring it had to it before stepping inside.
A little bell above the door tinkled upon our entrance and Mia lifted her head off of my shoulder to look around. "I'll be with you in just a moment!" called a deep voice from the back. The bakery was cozy without being cramped and I could feel the warmth seeping out of every crack and crevice. Several scuffed wooden tables were scattered around the place with people sitting at them to enjoy their food, and the floor creaked when you walked. I liked it.
Mia's eyes suddenly grew wide and she jumped down from my arms. My gaze followed her as she ran towards the counter, seeming to regain her energy. Upon closer inspection, I could feel my own eyes widen. In the glass case before us was the most beautiful array of desserts and pastries I think I'd ever seen. Rows of glistening fruit tarts, oozing Danishes, flaky croissants, and artfully frosted cookies. The wall directly behind it was simply and array of shelves filled with every type of bread imaginable. "Hi, welcome to Mellark's." The deep voice from before startled me from my pastry trance and I looked up to see and older man walking towards us, wiping flour from his hands.
He looked to be about fifty, with salt-and-pepper hair, piercing blue eyes that crinkled with his friendly smile, and a round belly. He looked the pair of us up and down for a moment and then said "I don't believe I've seen you two in here before. And I usually make a point to remember my customers." I wasn't quite sure what to say, not used to being so warmly addressed by a stranger, especially in New York. Mia beat me to it.
"I'm Mia Everdeen," she said, bravely stepping forward. "And this is my mom." She gestured to me. The man chuckled.
"Well, it's very nice to meet you, Mia Everdeen. I'm Phyll Mellark. Now, may I ask what your lovely mother's name is?" He directed this last part at me.
"Oh...Katniss," I said, stepping forward somewhat awkwardly to shake his hand. He did so heartily. Then he placed his hands on his hips.
"So what can I do for you today?"
"My mom's looking for a job," Mia blurted.
"Mia!" I said in embarrassment. I looked up at Mr. Mellark apologetically. "We just came in for something to eat." Mr. Mellark raised his eyebrows.
"Looking for a job, eh? Well you've come to the right place." He nodded toward the door. Distracted by the wonderful smells coming from inside, I'd somehow managed to miss the very obvious Help Wanted sign dangling right in front of me. I blushed crimson. He probably thought I was just pretending not to have seen it and was using my adorable daughter to help me get the job. "We could use an extra set of hands around here. My oldest just got married and moved out to Wisconsin of all places, so we're a little short staffed at the moment."
I could feel the hope returning to my body once again. "I-Are you serious?" I stuttered, forgetting all formalities. Mr. Mellark laughed again.
"Okay," I said breathlessly. "Umm...is there an application I should fill out?" I started to rummage around in my bag for a pen. Preferably one without teeth marks. But Mr. Mellark was shaking his head.
"Nah. We're not too formal here. It's technically a family business, but I figure we can make an exception in your case." He winked. "Besides, you're certainly the most promising applicant so far. The last kid who came in was wearing black eyeliner and a pentagram necklace." I snorted. "So, when can you start?"
"Uh, anytime really. Actually, the sooner the better. I'm...somewhat...desperate at the moment," I admitted sheepishly, my eyes traveling to Mia, who had gotten bored with out conversation and returned to pressing her nose up against the display case. Mr. Mellark's gaze followed my own. When he looked back at me, he had not pity in his eyes but compassion. I did not trust people easily, but he was one of those rare individuals that was actually hard not to trust.
"How does tomorrow sound? Can you be here around 9:00? I can have my son show you the ropes and whatnot." I could not believe my luck. That I had just happened to stroll into this bakery looking for a sandwich and instead ended up with a job. The word fate would have come to mind, if I had believed in fate, that is.
"Yeah! Sure. That's perfect." I was trying not to sound too enthused and failing miserably.
"Perfect. That's settled then. Now," he began a bit louder so as to get Mia's attention. "Can I get you girls something to eat? At least a hot chocolate to warm you up? It's dreadfully cold outside today." His unending kindness was truly touching. I felt tears prick the corner of my eyes and blinked rapidly to clear them.
"Hot chocolate!" Mia shouted.
"Coming right up," Mr. Mellark announced with equal fervor. Once the hot chocolate was brewing, he called to someone in the back over his shoulder. I was squatting down with Mia while she pointed to her favorites in the frosted cookie section. Incidentally, it seemed like every single one of them was her favorite.
"Need something, Dad?" My eyes flitted up briefly at the sound of the new voice and then almost went back to the cookies before I did a double take. The man standing behind the counter now was so striking it took you a moment to adjust to his presence. He had windswept sandy blonde hair and the same piercing blue eyes as his father. His jawline was hard and undeniably masculine. I had to shake my head slightly to clear it, but thankfully I regained my composure quickly. Or so I thought...
"Katniss," Mr. Mellark piped up, "This is Peeta, my son." Peeta's eyes turned to where I was squatting and I found myself standing up, feeling obligated to say something. I didn't have a chance to before my shoulder collided with the glass cake stand sitting on the counter I had been kneeling by. In what seemed like slow motion, it tumbled to the ground and shattered into a mess of glass shards and chocolate cake ruin. Mia screamed, but I stood speechless and felt every pair of eyes in the bakery turn to me.
"Oh-oh my god," I spluttered. "I am so sorry." I knelt down and began trying to pick up the broken pieces, only to yelp slightly when I nicked my finger on a sharp edge.
"Hey, don't worry about it," said the voice attached to the pair of knees crouching in front of me. I couldn't bring myself to look at him, my face red hot with embarrassment. I saw his hand reach out and take mine. "Is your finger alright?" He examined it with scrutiny. Realizing the pathetic nature of my situation-I was sitting on the floor of a public bakery, surrounded by the pieces of the no-doubt expensive cake stand I'd just destroyed, and seemingly incapacitated by a cut on my finger- I jerked my arm away a tad more roughly than I'd meant to.
"Yeah, it's fine. Just a nick," I mumbled, sucking on it as I climbed to my feet. "Is there, like, a broom or something around here? I can sweep this up."
"Katniss, it's okay." I finally allowed myself to look at him. He was smiling. "We've got about of thousand of those in the back. It's fine." I felt myself breathe a sigh of relief. I tried to offer to clean it up again, but Mr. Mellark had already returned with a broom and dustpan and waved away my words.
"I do it all the time," he told me good naturedly. "You'd be surprised how often things break around here. Peeta just dropped a whole case of eggs we had delivered last week." Peeta laughed.
"It's true," he said, "Broke every single one of 'em. I had to make about fifty quiches that day or they would've all gone to waste." I laughed, relaxing a little bit. When the mess had been entirely swept up, Peeta stuck his hand out to me. "Let's try this again. I'm Peeta."
"Katniss. Katniss Everdeen."
"Katniss Everdeen," he repeated softly. My pulse quickened unexplainably.
"And I'm Mia!" my daughter cried, bounding up. Peeta looked back and forth between us and then crouched down to her level.
"Hey, I saw you eyeing up the cookies earlier." He nodded at the case. "Would you like to pick one out?" Mia's smile stretched so big, it broke my heart to interrupt.
"I'm sure she'd love a cookie, but she's allergic to gluten." Mia frowned up at me, as though her allergy were my fault. "Well, if you want to eat it and get sick, go right ahead." Amazingly, she seemed to be weighing her options.
"No, your mom's right," Peeta said suddenly. "We wouldn't want you to get sick, squirt. But tell you what, I'll see what I can do about whipping up a batch that won't make you sick the next time you stop by okay?" I watched in surprise when Mia nodded, even if it was somewhat reluctantly. Mr. Mellark was perfectly timed when he called her over to ask if she wanted whipped cream on her hot chocolate. That left me and Mr. Jaw of Steel to stand awkwardly by ourselves.
"Thanks for preventing that tantrum," I said. He just smiled and shook his head, but I couldn't tell if I detected a faint pink creeping up in his cheeks or if he was just flushed from the heat of the ovens I presumed were in back. "And, uh...I'm really sorry about the cake stand thing. Again," I added.
"No seriously, don't worry about it." There was another short pause. He ran a calloused hand down the back of his head. "So, you start tomorrow?"
"Yeah. 9:00 a.m. I'll have to get someone to watch Mia, but my friend's crazy about her, so..."
"I imagine it's hard not to be," he said gently. We watched as she danced around his dad while he swirled large quantities of whipped cream on our cups.
"Impossible," I answered, not much louder than a whisper. I saw him glance at me briefly out of the corner of my eye. Then Mia was rushing up to me with a cup outstretched. "Thanks, button." I swept a piece of her hair behind her ear as I took it from her. "We should probably get going. I'll see you tomorrow at 9:00, Mr. Mellark. Thanks again."
"Don't mention it!" I nodded at Peeta.
"See you around," he said.
"Don't forget my cookies, mister." Mia added, eyeing him beadily with her gray eyes. Peeta just laughed and promised he wouldn't. Then Mia and I were out the door hand-in-hand, leaving the warmth of the bakery behind but with a new hope blossoming inside of us that kept us warm all the way home.