AN: This is a story I published here and on AO3 back in 2013 and 2014. I took it down for personal reasons, but I recently decided to give it a facelift and re-publish it. It's mostly complete, so the updates will be fast. I haven't written a single creative word in almost a year until recently...also for personal reasons...life is hard...so be gentle in your critique, lol.
But anyway, I hope you enjoy this little AU. It's close to my heart.
He liked the feel of the dough beneath his hands. The velvety soft texture molding under his fingers as he kneaded it to the desired softness and pliability. Such a simple, mundane task, he thought, as he stood hunched over the marble counters in the back of his father's bakery, the soft whirl of the commercial grade mixers groaning in the background lulling him into calmness. A calmness he hadn't felt for any great length of time for the past six and a half years.
Peeta Mellark hadn't wanted to spend his life in the bakery. Didn't want to be stuck in the back-water town of Twelve-Acres, OH where he grew up. But as he watched the snow fall outside the window and listened to the soft baritone of his father humming along to the radio, he was glad to be home. He needed something to distract the demons that haunted him night and day. And since his demons usually played under the hot Afghanistan sun, he figured cold, dreary, snow covered Ohio was as good a place as any to quell the infestation of bombs and bullets residing in his brain.
"I need to run out for a minute, Peet. You going to be ok here alone?" his dad asked quietly.
He was ashamed that the gentle hand laying on his shoulder startled him and caused him to clutch his fists so tightly he was sure he drew blood. What shamed him more, though, was the fact that his father felt the need to ask him in the first place. But, he supposed he had to ask. He was a shell of what he used to be. He knew that. Most days he didn't even recognize the broken man staring back at him in the mirror.
"It's fine, Dad. I can handle it." He placed the dough he'd been working in a mold and covered it with a towel to rise and wiped his hands on the white apron covering his hips and thighs.
It was just under six months since an IED explosion ended Sergeant Peeta Mellark's military career and irrevocably changed his life forever. He'd been home for exactly 3 days and hadn't stepped outside his father's house except to come to the bakery to work.
"I know you can handle it, Peet. I'm just worried about you. You haven't been yourself in a while now. I was hoping being home would help ease your mind."
"I haven't been myself for so long I've forgotten who I was… or am, Dad." He shrugged, not knowing what to say. It was something else the war had stolen from him, his ability to communicate effectively. Something that was so innate to his personality ripped from him along with the lower half of his leg and five of his men…and that little girl…
A shiver ran through him as the unbidden image of the small body being ripped from his arms by the blast as he tried to carry her to safety tore through his mind.
Marcus Mellark watched his son's knuckles turn white as he fiercely clutched the countertop. He knew war changed people and what his youngest son went through in that blasted war would change even the most hardened man. But Peeta had gone in as a good-natured, outgoing, caring person. And really, he'd been just a boy when he enlisted. An idealist who just wanted to make the world a safer place. When he came back, injured and broken in spirit, Marcus had hoped he would return to that happy, personable person after some time in the military hospital while he recovered his body, but he was still struggling so much. He was still so bleak, sullen and moody.
No longer an easy-going boy but a broken man.
It scared Marcus to see the darkness in his once jovial eyes.
"You are my son, and you're home. Where you belong." He gathered his hat and coat, slipping them on slowly.
He wanted to say more - to give comfort, but he knew words were not what Peeta needed.
Peeta watched his father leave. He saw the look in his eyes. Recognized it. Hated it. He didn't want pity. He just wanted to be left alone.
He just hadn't figured out how.
The blast of cold air that entered as his dad left helped. It was so different from the dry, stifling heat of the desert. It was a constant reminder that he was indeed home, no matter how much the flashbacks insisted otherwise.
He told himself he would get through this. Just like he got through the hell of war. Just like he got through the intense rehab and therapy of learning to live without part of his leg.
He'd get through it to honor his fallen brothers. He would find a way. He'd live because they couldn't.
For now, though, he'd start by frosting a batch of cookies that had finished cooling on the racks along the wall. He always enjoyed this part of the baking process. The final touches. Perhaps it was the artist in him yearning to get out, to put his own unique mark on the process. As a teenager the job was officially passed to him when his father saw his talent. It made him feel important and needed. He was finally a vital part of the business. And he did it well and with pride.
But this life hadn't been the one he wanted. He had dreamed big and wide. He had thought by being a Marine he would see the world and make a difference.
Instead he had seen the underbelly of the world as a pawn in someone's game of dominance and had sacrificed a good portion of his soul.
Peeta looked down and saw his hands shaking and strips of icing globbing on a cookie instead of in neat lines as he had started. He shut those thoughts down immediately and threw the bag of icing against the wall. It hit hard enough to break the tied bag, sending green icing splattering over the wall like a bad Jackson Pollock copy.
He was in the middle of wiping down the wall and eating the ruined cookie when the door chimed announcing a customer. He'd really hoped he wouldn't have to face anyone from town today. He just needed a few more days to acclimate to being home before he saw anyone he knew…and he knew everyone from town.
He wiped the last of the green frosting on a damp cloth and tossed it into the sink as he made his way to the front, his gait heavy and uneven from the prosthesis.
He didn't know exactly who he expected to see when he Peeta through the door, but he was sure it wasn't her.
She stood at the counter rubbing her hands together trying to bring some warmth to them.
It was clear that she didn't expect to see him either. She blinked a couple of times as if not believing what she was seeing.
"Peeta?" Her voice was barely above a whisper, raising slightly in question at the end. The use of his full name gave him pause. No one ever used his full name…except for Katniss. Even when they were in school, she'd been the only one to use it. But he'd always liked the way it rolled off her tongue like melted caramel. He liked it still.
Warmth spread through him and gathered in his chest.
He had thought of her over the years he'd been away. She'd been his school boy crush. Katniss Everdeen with the velvety voice and silver eyes that always saw right through him. He would conjure her on the nights he couldn't sleep. When gun-fire and bombs could be heard in the distance, he would try to bring the timber of her voice to his mind to ease him to sleep. As the years wore on, though, it was increasingly hard to remember what that voice sounded like, and the loss was just one more thing he added to the list of things the war had taken.
But, here she was, nervously fiddling with the silver buttons on her red jacket, three feet from him. Her long, dark brown, almost black hair tied tightly at the back of her neck. A few loose strands floating around her face that his finger itched to tuck behind her ears.
"I...I didn't know you were back. Your dad never said anything." Those grey eyes flicked around the room before landing squarely on his. God, her eyes had always been his undoing.
He wasn't sure where his voice went, because the one that fell from his lips was not his. No, the one that practically echoed through the bakery was way too high and far too crackly.
"I just got…" he had to clear his throat and try again, forcing his voice back to the baritone he usually spoke with while heat burned up his neck and into his ears. "I, ah, just got home a few days ago."
They watched each other silently. Neither knowing exactly what to say to the other.
Peeta roughly rubbed the back of his neck. This is ridiculous, he thought. He had known her almost his entire life. He was 27 years old, for God's sake. He had faced gunfire and mortars and snipers. How is it that she could still reduce him to a fumbling idiot?
He cleared his clogged throat, willing his voice to come out with some dignity.
"So, yeah, what can I do for you, Katniss?"
She seemed to shake herself from her thoughts and made her eyes focus on him.
"Oh, ha…um, I'm here to pick up the pies and cakes…for my, ah..…the restaurant?"
He had to think a minute. Mentally run through everything in the back and he vaguely remembered the red velvet cake and apple pie's set aside for 'Everdeen's'. But that had always been a bar. Her father's bar. A lot had changed since he'd been gone.
"I wondered what that was for. Everdeen's is a restaurant now?"
"Well, um, yes, but a bar too. We added the restaurant after my dad died." He saw sadness fill her eyes before they fell to the floor. His heart sank. He'd forgotten her father died. When had his dad told him? Four, five years ago? He wasn't sure.
"I'm sorry, Katniss. He was a good man." She lifted her eyes to him slowly and nodded once, the corner of her mouth lifting in a half smile. "I'll be right back."
He stepped into the kitchen, running his hands through his blond hair, pulling a bit to focus his mind. He leaned his head against the cool metal of the racks hanging on the wall. She looked just the way he'd remembered her. Still acted the way he remembered too – a little shy, maybe a little awkward, but sweet and kind. It was nice to know life hadn't taken that from her the way he felt it had taken so much of himself.
What he wouldn't give to spend a little time with her, get to know her like he'd always wished he had back in school. But that couldn't happen now. Not the way he was now. He could barely hold himself together. Every day was a struggle to keep himself from drowning in nightmares and memories. He wouldn't burden anyone with that. Besides, a woman like Katniss surely had a husband by now. At the very least a boyfriend.
Peeta drew in a deep breath and exhaled as slowly as possible.
"So, restaurant, huh? I didn't know…Dad never said anything. Do you like the restaurant business?" He asked when he stepped back into the front, arms loaded with boxes, thankful for the composure he found.
He didn't know why he searched her hand for a wedding band as she reached to take the bag from his arms. But, as the relief washed through him when he saw her bare ring finger, he couldn't help the smile that took over his face.
"Yeah. It's a lot of work, but I enjoy it. I have a good staff… the desserts are good," she said her eyes glancing down at the boxes she now had in her arms, that sweet little smile tugging at the edge of her mouth again.
Peeta chuckled a little. "Well, I'll have to come over and check it out one day."
"I hope you do," she said with a small smile and he could have sworn she was flirting with him a little. "It's good to see you home, Peeta. I…" She stopped suddenly and he could see the apprehension in her eyes. He liked the way her fingers unconsciously worried one of the buttons of her coat.
"I, um, worried about you over there. Every…um…every day."
Her hand tentatively reached out to touch his arm and he was rendered speechless. He didn't even think he ever registered to her, much less that she worried about him…every day.
She was about to say something else when a loud crash echoed through the bakery, startling Peeta enough to have him jumping back from her touch, his prosthetic leg slipping out from underneath him.
He landed with a thud on his good knee.
"Fuck," he growled and then he remembered Katniss standing above him. Embarrassment and shame flood him in equal measure.
But shame seemed to be his go to emotion lately. He should be used to it by now.
"I'm sorry, Katniss…it's the leg…still getting used to it," he said pulling his pant leg up enough for her to get a look at the contraption at the end.
"Oh. Right. I heard about that."
Of course she did.
She held her hand out to help him up. He took her small hand in his and had half a mind to drag her down to him instead.
"I see your dad just about every day. I ask about you."
"You do?" That high-pitched, pre-pubescent voice was back.
She nodded her head but looked away. Pink colored her cheeks and he thought it was the sweetest thing he'd ever seen. He'd like to put that color in her cheeks every day.
"Sorry, Peet," Marcus said rushing into the room. "I knocked a mixing bowl off the counter...Oh, hello Katniss. Here for your goods?"
Their hands were still clasped when she nodded her head in response. Marcus glanced between them, a smile creeping into his features.
"Thanks," Peeta whispered, rubbing his thumb over the back of her hand. She looked down at their entwined hands and her face flushed again. Peeta smiled. Marcus relaxed.
"So, Katniss, what's Sae's special today? I might need something for lunch." Marcus rubbed his belly and turned to his son. "They stole Sae McGee from The Hob. Now Everdeen's has the best lunches…no – food – in town."
"Sausage and Lentil soup today," Katniss answered, a shy smile playing the corners of her mouth.
"Mmm, my favorite," he said, rubbing his round belly. "Peet, you'd love it. Doesn't that sound good?"
"Sure, Dad. Sounds great."
"Maybe we'll see you for lunch, Katniss," Marcus said hopefully.
"I hope so." She turned to Peeta again and placed her hand on his arm again. The place her hand was on warmed and his eyes traveled to the spot. She was much more demonstrative than he remembered. He tried to remember if she had ever voluntarily touched him when they were younger, but he can't recall a time she did so. But he wouldn't question it. He liked the feel of her hands on him. "It was nice seeing you, Peeta, I'm glad you're home," she said before gathering the boxes of goodies and heading for the door.
"Be careful on these streets, Katniss. They're still slick," Marcus called when she walked to the door.
"Pretty girl, that Katniss," he said when he turned back to Peeta. Peeta could feel his cheeks redden at being caught watching Katniss cross the street. But, really, what warm blooded man wouldn't be captivated by the sway of her hips. Katniss Everdeen had truly turned into a stunning woman.
Peeta felt his mood sour as the morning wore on. Like a blind being drawn, his eyes darkened and his shoulders slumped under its weight. It would be comical if it wasn't so pathetic.
They worked in virtual silence for the rest of the morning, only speaking when needed. It was so different from the noisy cacophony that filled the bakery when all three Mellark boys worked the bakery with their father. Back when they still lived and worked under the same roof. Before college, marriage and war.
Part of Peeta wished for those days. Wished for a simpler life.
"So, Katniss comes in a lot?" The question bubbled out of Peeta from nowhere as Marcus slid a tray of artisan breads from the oven onto a cooling rack.
"Couple times a week, I'd say. We have a contract for their sandwich breads and desserts, so either she or Flo comes in almost every day." Peeta felt his father's eye on him, but he dutifully made himself busy trying not to look overly interested. He was just curious. He knew, after all, that nothing could ever happen there. Not when his life was completely upside down.
"She's done quite well for herself. Very tenacious, that one. Works hard to provide for her family." He looked at his watch and smiled. "Looks like we should head over for some lunch. It's early, but we can beat the lunch crowd."
Peeta nodded his head, not exactly thrilled about being out in public. And honestly, if it wasn't for another chance to see Katniss, he would have gladly stayed in and worked through lunch.
Peeta paused at the door to the office and held firmly onto the door frame. His leg ached. He reached down to rub the spot where the prosthesis attached to his leg. Winter was not treating his leg well. The cold seemed to send icy bolts of pain up his leg. He could only hope the longer he was there the more he'd get used to it.
That embarrassing fall in the kitchen didn't help either. Now his good leg ached as well.
God, he fell in front of Katniss. Of all people.
He imagined she wanted to laugh. He was sure of it. Most people would. But Katniss was too reserved and polite to ever make fun. She probably found him weak. He certainly felt weak.
Like half a man.
He eyed the street through the window. Snow was still falling, although it had slowed considerably. He pulled a sweatshirt off the hook just inside the office door and dragged it over his head. Reluctantly, grabbed the cane he had thrown haphazardly into the corner when he came in that morning.
He hated the idea of walking through town with a cane like an old man, but he hated the idea of face-planting in the middle of the street even more.
"It's pretty cold out…might want a jacket," his dad said lightly as he tugged on his own wool coat.
"Nah, I like the cold," Peeta said shortly.
It annoyed Peeta how much Marcus hovered as they crossed the street and walked to Everdeen's. Like he was waiting to catch him should he fall. Which, in all likelihood, was a very real possibility, but it still annoyed the fuck out of him.
He wasn't a child anymore. He didn't need help. Didn't need his daddy to rescue him anymore.
He knew he shouldn't let his father's kindness irritate him so much. He was just being…well, his dad. But he couldn't deny the aggravation that was pulsating through him when Marcus' hand flew out to steady him when his leg slipped a little on a patch of slush.
"Damn it, Dad, I'm fine. Leave me alone!" The words fell from his mouth much more gruffly than intended. Or maybe they came out just as intended. He really didn't know, but shame filled him nonetheless. His therapist at the naval hospital would say he was simply angry with himself and the situation and not actually at his father, but it didn't make him feel any better about his outburst.
"I'm sorry, Dad," he mumbled immediately, thankful there was no one else on the sidewalk to hear the disrespect he had just flung at his father. The one person who he could count on no matter what.
"No, no. You're right, son. How are you going to learn, right?" Peeta watched his father's smile falter before he forced it back on his face. It made the ball of guilt Peeta always carried in his gut swell.
Peeta stopped where he was and leaned heavily on his cane, his head hanging low. "Look, Dad," he began, but was stopped by a rhythmic pounding of feet coming down the sidewalk. A woman dressed in cold weather running gear and a large dog – a beautiful light blond golden retriever – were running towards them. The woman smiled as she saw Marcus and slowed to a stop, the dog slowing with her, stopping when she stopped to greet Marcus.
"Marcus, so good to see you," the woman said stretching out her hand. Marcus took her hand and they began the inane conversation of acquaintances. Peeta wondered briefly who the woman was. But it was the dog who captured his attention. He was not a small dog, but it was obvious that he was very well trained. He sat beside the woman in a way that Peeta could only describe as polite. The dog's tail swept the sidewalk when they made eye contact, but he made no move to greet Peeta.
They watched each other.
Peeta bent over to get closer to the dog, not trusting himself to completely kneel on the prosthetic, and held his hand out to the dog. The dog looked to the woman, who nodded, before sniffing Peeta's hand and then lifting his paw to set it in Peeta's waiting hand.
Peeta felt the something inside him lift and chuckled when the dog leaned into his hand when he went to pet his head. "Well, you're something, aren't you, boy?"
"He likes you," the woman said. "He's usually more particular with strangers."
"I like dogs…usually more than people," Peeta mumbled as he abruptly straightened himself. Jesus, what was wrong with him? Rude was not normally his default, but lately it seemed like that was where he was with people.
"Yes, well, dogs are man's best friend," the woman said happily although she was looking at him curiously. She began to move her feet ever so slightly and the dog stood. "Well, it was nice to see you, Marcus. We'll talk soon."
And they were gone just as quickly as they arrived.
Peeta glanced over to his father and shrunk under the disapproving look he leveled him with.
"I just never thought I'd hear you say something like that. And so rudely, at that." Marcus sighed. "That's just not the boy I raised."
"Yeah, well, I'm not that boy anymore."
A blast of warmth and the delicious mixture of garlic, fried meats and potatoes assaulted his senses as they entered the restaurant. Peeta's stomach grumbled. He hadn't realized how hungry he was. Searching his memory, he couldn't pinpoint his last meal. Yesterday? Maybe. But he remembered picking at a plate of food more than actually eating it before he turned in for the night.
The crowd was light. For that, he was thankful. A couple of people were at a table in the back, heads buried in their cell phones. A server leaned against a counter along the back wall while another bustled in and out of the kitchen carrying racks of glasses to slide into the cubbies built into a counter topped with soda fountains and tea machines.
And then he spotted her leaning over a computer screen off in the back corner under a small recessed light.
He shook the snow from his hair to keep from staring. Because that's all he wanted to do - stare - at the way her charcoal sweater hugged the curves of her body over the tight, black leggings underneath. Did she have such lush curves in school? He remembered her being rather thin and frail. The difference between a girl's body versus a woman's, he supposed.
Suddenly, his attention was diverted by a tiny wisp of a girl who attached herself to his father's leg.
"Mr. Marcus! Mr. Marcus! Did you bring me a cookie? Did you?" she said eagerly, springing up and down on her tip-toes in frantic anticipation, brown curls bouncing down her back with every movement.
His father's ruddy cheeks rose with a brilliant smile for the tiny girl.
"Well, I don't know, sugar…let me check my pockets," he said as he made a show of checking all the pockets of his wool coat. He pulled out a small bag and winked at Katniss who appeared just beyond the bouncing little girl. "Oh, what do we have here?"
He carefully unwrapped the confection and placed it in his palm to show the girl. Her grey eyes were wide as if beholding a secret treasure.
"It's so bootiful." Awe and wonder fill her little voice. It made Peeta smile even more. Her hands tentatively reached for the delicately decorated sugar cookie Peeta had decorated that morning. "Can I eat it?"
Marcus let out a booming laugh, clearly smitten with this beautiful child.
"Of course you can, sugar! My son, Peeta, made it just for you."
The girl's attention shot to Peeta for the first time and he carefully knelt down on his good knee to get closer to her level.
"Just for me?" she whispered. His heart swelled at the reverent way she looked at him and then the cookie in her hand. Her little fingers touched the scratchy stubble of his jaw. He nodded and smiled at her. "Thank you, Mr. Peeta."
Affection, love and light bloomed in her eyes, in only the way a child's could.
It was then that he saw it. He looked up to where Katniss had come to stand just beyond the little girl and then back at the girl who was smiling adoringly at him. His smile faltered only briefly.
"You're welcome…" he said, looking toward his father for a name for the girl.
"Hope," Katniss finished for him. "This is Hope. My daughter."