This is the start of a flashback arc, which may or may not include a chapter written from Peeta's POV… still debating whether or not I should write it. Thoughts? Let me know!
Chapter Three: It Was Out of Left Field
Haymitch looked at me with a sly smile as he carefully placed the tassles of my graduation cap from one side to the other. He wrapped an arm around my shoulder, shaking me in an affectionate squeeze.
"Thanks," I responded.
"Katniss!" Prim ran toward me, clothed in a white sundress to honour my white graduation grown. She threw her arms around me with a wide smile on her face as I shook my head in mock disbelief. The sun was beating down on our shoulders, and even in the midst of all the laughter, introductions and classmates high-fiving each other, I felt as if it was just us. Just our little family now.
Haymitch took out our old beat up camera and gestured for Prim and I to pose together. I grimaced. I hated photos. I wrote them off time-consuming and far too unnecessary, never being printed and destined to stay on the camera, never to be looked at again.
Haymitch sighed, looking at me as if asking please just this one time be cooperative and take a photo for this very important day. I sighed back, equally exasperated, but pulled Prim in close.
I plastered an uncomfortable smile on my face as Prim, unphased, showed off her pearly whites. Haymitch snapped away, checking each photo before taking another, this time in which I chose not to hide my displeasure.
"Your turn! Come here!" Prim called. I shifted uncomfortably in my gown. I wanted to rip off the itchy material so badly but Haymitch already turned to the first person he saw to take a photo of us.
It was a boy with blonde hair and blue eyes. Our student body president and valedictorian, Peeta Mellark.
I didn't know him formally. I was too busy working, studying or taking care of Prim to be bothered with extracurriculars. But everyone knew him. The all-around good guy, super nice, everybody's best friend. The son of the baker, who was the owner of Mellark Bakery, the most popular newly renovated patisserie in town that I had never tried because I couldn't justify specialty bread in our food budget.
Peeta was also known for being an incredibly good speaker. Winner of numerous speech arts awards, even. But he was silent as he looked down at the camera Haymitch was holding in front of him as he was told how to zoom in and out and where the shutter button was.
Haymitch joined Prim and I. We posed as Peeta held the camera up, pointing it at us.
But ten seconds later he still hadn't taken the photo.
My smile had gotten sloppier and sloppier before falling completely off my face. I was getting impatient. "What's taking so long?" I complained as I watched Peeta's concentrated expression. He didn't respond to me, instead finally calling out, "cheese!" before clicking the shutter button.
He laughed as Haymitch and I went up to him to take a look at the photo.
"I'm not even smiling," I grumbled, expecting Haymitch to be equally annoyed. To my surprise, Haymitch chuckled, clapping a hand on Peeta's shoulder.
"You captured her perfectly," he grinned. I glared at him and then at Peeta, who smiled crookedly at me.
"Want another photo?"
"Forget it," I muttered, folding my arms across my chest.
"I'm kidding." I looked up at him and my eyes locked with his. I couldn't help but notice how blue they were, how warm and inviting they looked. And as quickly as it started, I broke our gaze, choosing to turn my head and focus on a group of newly-graduated jocks throwing a football around.
What a weird feeling.
"Thanks for the photo," Haymitch said and clapped his hand on Peeta's shoulder again. "What's your name again?"
"Peeta. Peeta Mellark."
"Oh, the baker's son," Haymitch said, surprised.
"Yep," Peeta said, his face turning slightly pink.
Haymitch looked at Prim and I with wide eyes as if we didn't already know who he was. Prim cocked her head, giving our uncle a meaningful look as his eyes grew even wider in realization.
"Right! The valedictorian. Great speech about the future. Well done," Haymitch said quickly, coughing loudly. I rolled my eyes at his lacklustre bullshitting. He was acting as if he wasn't the one snoring loudly, third row from the front of the stage despite the fact that Prim was trying to wake him up the whole time.
But I couldn't blame him. He wasn't able to switch his shift off the night before at the Panem Historical Museum where he worked as a security guard. And even though I reassured him he didn't have to come to the ceremony, he did. Even though his eyes were red and he slept through most of it, he was there. That was what really mattered.
"Well, Peeta, I wish you the best of luck in college," Haymitch told him genuinely, nodding his head and looking at me as if to say well he's really something. Just another reminder, another hit at me not continuing my education. It would've been nice to, but we just couldn't afford it right now. And Prim still needed me.
"Actually, I'm not going to college," his face was even redder now as he ran a hand through his messy blonde hair. He looked up. "Not yet, at least."
I wasn't able to hide my surprise. Even this was news to me. "But all those colleges you were accepted to. You're the student body president. The valedictorian! Most likely to be successful. Why not start now?" I added quickly. I felt my face grow hot as Peeta, Prim and Haymitch stared at me, reacting to my sudden outburst.
"So you do know I exist," Peeta grinned, almost smirking.
"You're the student body president," I repeated, lowering my eyes.
There was an awkward pause as they waited for me to continue, silence settling between us as I said nothing. I didn't want to risk further embarrassment. Peeta caught on and nodded at Haymitch. "I'm actually going to stay back a bit and help my father with the bakery," he said brightly, as if that was exactly what he wanted to do.
"Ah. Taking over the family business?"
"Yup. Someone's got to do it. My older brothers are already in college. I couldn't bear to leave my poor old man fending for himself," he joked, glancing at me before looking back at Haymitch.
"So it's just you and your dad now?" Haymitch asked.
Peeta lowered his eyes. "Yeah."
Haymitch eyes darted back and forth between me and Peeta. His lips slowly turned upward into a smile. "Well, if you ever need any help, you're welcome to hire Katniss."
Peeta looked up in surprise as I opened my mouth in protest. "Actually I-"
"Katniss used to teach archery at the rec centre," Haymitch explained to Peeta. "But they're cutting the program. Not enough people registered this time 'round."
I glared at Haymitch. "I'm working on it! Nothing's been decided yet!"
Prim shook her head. "Don't get your hopes up," she warned. "Rue told me that they're cutting costs everywhere this year. Even at-" she stopped abruptly. "Uh, never mind."
"You know, my dad's been thinking of hiring another employee," Peeta spoke, his eyes meeting mine. "I'm sure he'd be willing to hire you if I asked."
"I know nothing about bread," I told him, folding my arms across my chest.
"I'd teach you," he smiled.
"No need. I do a fine job of teaching others how to use a bow and arrow," I responded in the coolest tone of voice I could muster. I didn't know why I was getting defensive. I didn't want to swallow my pride.
"I know. I've seen you shoot," Peeta said simply, his eyes still locked with mine. "Anyway, the offer still stands. Let me know."
He turned to Haymitch and shook his hand. "Nice meeting you."
He moved to Prim, a smile on his face and a hand on her shoulder as he said, "Great to see you Prim."
Finally, he looked at me, the corners of his mouth turned upward. "Congratulations, Katniss." He moved toward me, a hand out, pulling me in, closer than I thought was necessary. Nevertheless, I took his hand and felt his electric touch. "Thanks. You too," I whispered.
He moved into the crowd and was gone. Haymitch turned to me, eyebrows raised. Prim examined my expression. I shot them both an exasperated look. "What?"
"You should've taken a photo together," Haymitch said.
"I don't even know him," I grumbled, brushing him off. My eyes followed Peeta, halfway across the field now, greeting a group of other seniors. One I vaguely recalled as Cato, if only for his reputation as Panem High's bad boy and all-around asshole. As if he could hear my thoughts, his eyes trailed from where Peeta was to me, his eyebrow raised in sudden interest.
I bit my lip and looked away, Prim noticing and shooting me a funny look. She grabbed a hold of my arm and started toward some tables on the opposite end of the field, where people were setting up post-ceremony refreshments. "Come on. Let's go get some cake."
The dough landed on the table with a soft thunk. Its weight threatened to carry it off the edge before Peeta took it in his hands and started to expertly knead it on the floured surface before he reached for a rolling pin.
"I'm horrible at this."
"Come on, it's your first week. I bet you weren't expecting me to show you how to throw pizza dough in the air," I could hear the smile in Peeta's voice as I leaned against the counter behind him, his back turned to me. I had given up all resolve to touch the dough, brushing off excess flour from between my hands choosing to fold my arms against my chest instead.
"Your dad should just keep me on cash," I muttered.
"He wants us to all be well-rounded employees," Peeta joked as he smoothed the dough into a large circle now. No doubt that this piece of dough, once turned into pizza, would be gone in just an hour, when lunch would start and groups of construction workers from a site nearby would come piling in.
"Well-rounded," I snorted, even though I shouldn't complain. Mr. Mellark was generous enough to even give me the job without any prior experience.
Thanks to Peeta.
At first, I was suspicious. He didn't know me. He didn't owe me anything. Why was he sticking his neck out for his dad to hire me? Mr. Mellark was friendly, but I sensed reluctance during my interview. I was still pissed about my rec centre job falling through, but I quicky pulled myself together after I realized I needed to work more than ever. Haymitch was without a job again, the Panem Historical Museum deciding its artifacts and heirlooms weren't precious enough to warrant security.
So I strode into Mellark bakery on a mission, trying my best to sound like I knew what I was doing. As Mr. Mellark interviewed me at one of the tables, his back facing the counter as I sat in front of him, Peeta was serving customers. Once in awhile I caught him looking at us as from behind the cash register, a look on his face that I couldn't describe. All I knew was that a week later, after I had gone crazy and applied everywhere in town but hadn't heard back from any of them, Mr. Mellark was calling, offering me the job.
But it didn't sit well with me. I was almost certain Peeta had something to do with it, but I couldn't confront him now. I needed this job. And whether I liked it or not, I still owed him.
"Don't give up," Peeta encouraged me, spreading sauce on the pizza now. I couldn't help but notice how quick and easy it was for him, how effortless he made it look. He had the pizza in the oven not even a minute later. Years of experience was evident in the way he handled himself.
Rubbing his hands on his apron, he turned to look at me. "Did you catch all of that?"
"Uh… yeah," I lied.
"Ready to try again?"
"Nope," I said, moving to the island counter where the cutting board and knife lay, silver containers of vegetables and pizza toppings lined up neatly in front of them. I picked up the knife and started absentmindedly chopping some green peppers. At least I couldn't screw this up.
Peeta followed, standing next to me and surveying the trays. "Katniss… we don't need that many vegetables."
"You just finished a pizza. Of course you need more," I said, even though I knew fully well that I had cut enough vegetables this past week to last us into the next one.
"This is a bakery, not a pizzeria," Peeta said, moving closer, watching me. My dicing got slower. For a moment both of us said nothing, the only sound in the room being knife hitting wood.
"Howcome you don't cut the pineapples?" he asked suddenly.
"The pineapples. You never cut them," Peeta said, picking one off the counter and holding it in his hand, as if I didn't know what it was.
I flushed, keeping my eyes on my knife. "I don't like pineapples."
"The pineapples. I hate them," I said, turning to meet his shocked expression.
"How could you hate pineapples?" he asked in disbelief, as if I said I hated puppies or kittens.
"They're just… I don't know. Tropical. And sweet. Why would you put that on pizza?" I responded defiantly.
"That's exactly why they work. They're sweet. Unexpected. A pleasant surprise," Peeta said, as if desperately trying to make me understand.
I shook my head. "They're stringy."
"Stringy," Peeta repeated. "Are you kidding me?"
"And let me guess-you don't like surprises either?" Peeta asked as I finished chopping the peppers, sliding them off my cutting board and into their metal tray. I set down my knife.
"I'm not particularly fond of them, no," I said, starting to get irritated.
"You're killing me, Katniss," Peeta said, heading over to the mixer and pulling out a finished batch of dough.
"Why? Are you planning on surprising me with pineapples to take home or something?" I asked, narrowing my eyes in suspicion.
"I really should. We have so many of them that you hadn't chopped this week, they're probably going to go bad real soon."
I sighed. "Peeta. Let it go. I don't like pineapples, okay? They're just really foreign and…. it's not the end of the world." Once again, I was stumbling on my words.
He stopped working the dough in front of him, resting his hands on the counter, his back facing me. I could see his broad shoulders, his plain white T stretching over the muscles in his back and emphasizing his biceps. I swallowed, feeling something stirring in my stomach.
He turned around, eyes locking with mine. I couldn't help but notice the way his hair hung across his forehead, his eyes so friendly, so optimistic. I was acutely aware of my heartbeat as he said confidently, "sometimes the best things come from the unknown."
I tilted my head back as I stood in front of the fan, closing my eyes and finding temporary relief. It was still hot air blowing in my face, but it was better than nothing.
Panem was facing one of its mid-summer heatwaves. The entire week had been nothing short of hot, humid, sticky, and just plain unbearable. It was slow at the bakery for obvious reasons-namely, the Mellark Bakery's lack of air conditioning. I stared in disbelief at the few regulars who still came in for their daily cup of coffee and hot, freshly baked bread.
I was starting to get hang of things. It had been two weeks since I started working, and I found that I was actually quite efficient. As long as I stayed out of the kitchen. Mr. Mellark seemed more relaxed around me, pleased that I turned out to be such a hard worker. He was friendly and nice to everyone, but I noticed that when he smiled, it rarely reached his eyes.
It was easy to work with him. Even easier to work with his son. Peeta really did live up to his reputation-patient, good conversationalist, ridiculously optimistic. But he was a hard worker, too, always coming in early and listing off the tasks he'd accomplished to his dad-as if he was determined to prove something to him. But I never asked questions. And Peeta always did. Small talk, mostly, but his questions were always easy to answer. I didn't want to admit it, but I was starting to feel more at ease around him.
It was lunch hour, and I wasn't surprised that we hadn't received the usual crowd of customers from last week. In one hand, I balanced a tray lined with checkered paper and loaded with fresh croissants. In the other, I held a bag of milk to replenish the mini fridge. The bell on the door jingled, signaling another customer as I struggled to set the croissant tray on a shelf behind the display window. But I almost dropped both when I saw who it was.
"Hi, Katniss," Cato Anderson said, his smooth confident voice addressed me directly. His hands were placed loosely in the pockets of his khaki shorts and his head was tilted slightly upward. He smirked as I tried my best to mask my surprise, Mr. Mellark being only a few feet away and evaluating my interaction with customers.
"How can I help you today?" I asked evenly, as if we had talked countless times before.
"I'm looking for Peeta. Is he around?"
"His shift doesn't start for another hour," I told him, meeting his eyes before moving to put the milk bag in the fridge.
"Huh. Okay," he said, keeping his eyes on me. I was suddenly aware of my outfit, which consisted of too-small cutoff jeans and a ratty white v-neck T. My cheeks burned as Cato continued to stare. I had to say something, whether Mr. Mellark liked it or not.
"Is there anything else I can do for you?" I asked him, my face hardening. But the smirk didn't leave Cato's face.
"No, I guess not today," he replied, glancing at Mr. Mellark, who was raising an eyebrow at him. "See you later." He slowly peeled his eyes off of me, hands still in his pockets as he turned and walked out the door, the little bell ringing louder than usual in my ears. I swallowed, my eyebrows furrowed and forehead tense. In my peripheral vision I could see Mr. Mellark staring at me. I met his eyes before he laughed, shaking his head. "The heat brings out the weird in everyone," he joked. I offered him a small smile. No doubt he would believe the best in everyone. His son obviously took after him.
Later, I sat on the back porch of the bakery, fanning myself with a Coin's Convenience flier and desperately trying to quench my thirst with an iced tea that Mr. Mellark made me. It was dark now, but the sun's absence did little to alleviate the thick heat that still hung in the air. I cursed myself and Haymitch for thinking it was good for me to work in a bakery during the summer.
As I swatted a mosquito away, I heard the door behind me creak open and slam shut, and someone muttering damn door. Before I could turn me head to see who it was, Peeta was sitting down beside me.
"It's so hot," he groaned, looking over at me as I sipped at my iced tea. He moved his head closer to me, mockingly catching the air I was fanning for myself. "Hey," I complained.
"Katniss," he said seriously, "I've been working in the kitchen with those hot ovens for the past three hours. I think I deserve some of that hot air you're fanning for yourself."
I tilted my head, questioning his tone of voice. His eyes held my own for a moment before his lips moved toward the cup I was holding, just narrowly missing my chin. "Uh-uh," I heard myself saying. "Go get some from your dad."
He groaned, moving to lean back on his hands. "Ooops," he said as he pressed down on the foil-covered bun I brought out with me. Before I could speak, he snatched it and unwrapped it, licking his lips. "What have we here…" he started, unwrapping it and pausing to look curiously at the contents. "You put cheese in this?"
I turned red. "I made myself a grilled cheese sandwich. All we had was buns left. I-"
"So you like cheese?" he said, looking pleased that he had discovered this tidbit about me.
"Who doesn't," I muttered, looking away and taking another swig at my cup of iced tea. "I know it looks delicious, but don't you take a bite of it."
He chucked, wrapping my bun and placing it back where it was. He leaned back on his hands and I could see him staring at me out of the corner of my eye.
The stars were out. Even if I did get tired of this tiny town, I never got tired of the beautiful sky it offered at night. I looked up at it in admiration, and I couldn't help but smile, enthusiasm on my face as I remembered what my dad used to say. Look, Katniss. You see the stars and the moon up there? They're yours. The sun, too. Everything else might change, but those are forever…
I snapped back to reality when I noticed silence was starting to settle between us. Out of the corner of my eye, Peeta seemed distracted. I remembered the strange encounter with Cato from earlier and decided to mention it, if only to say anything.
"Cato was looking for you," I said to Peeta. He turned his head to look at me fully now, his expression changing to one I couldn't describe. "Really?"
"Yeah. It was weird. He didn't order anything," I continued, finishing off my iced tea and setting it down next to me.
"Yeah," I said again, nodding. "You seem to know him pretty well… is he always like that?"
Peeta laughed. "What makes you think I know him pretty well?"
I shrugged. "Isn't he in your inner circle?"
Peeta shrugged back. "I hang out with everyone. But what do you mean, 'is he always like that'?"
"I don't know. Weirdly intense. Does he always stare and wear that smirk on his face?"
Peeta barked out a laugh. "That's not nice. How do you know that's not just his default face? What if he can't help it?"
I looked at him defiantly. "I see him enough. I mean, everytime I saw him in the caf I-" I stopped mid-sentence as I saw Peeta grinning at me. "I'm kidding," he said.
"You seem to say that a lot," I said irritably, rolling my eyes. Peeta chuckled again before responding, "Cato's a nice guy. He might seem kind of unapproachable at first, but he's really cool once you get to know him."
I nodded, reaching between us for my sandwich. I unwrapped the contents and took a bite, marveling at the taste, a groan passing between my lips. "So good."
"Can I have a bite?" Peeta asked, his expression sad, doing his best puppy dog face. I bit my lip, trying not to laugh as I held the sandwich as far away as I could from him.
He inched closer to me, face first as if trying to get his mouth closer to steal a bite. I leaned away from him, and I couldn't suppress the laugh that escaped from my lips. Hurrying to move further away from his open mouth, I accidentally flicked my hand and the sandwich rolled onto the grass, uncovered side first.
I let out a sigh as I turned back toward him, finding a pair of blue eyes staring back at me curiously. He was so close… breathing in, I could smell a mixture of sugar and cinnamon, and the heat was radiating off his skin and his body was practically on top of mine now…
I flushed as I was suddenly very aware of the compromising position we were in. Peeta hesitated before he moved back slowly, allowing me to sit upright again. "Sorry…" he muttered, not looking at me. He got up to pick the sandwich off the ground and gave me a sheepish grin, raising it in his hand. "I'll make you another one." I nodded quickly, still wracking my brain over what just happened.
There was an awkward pause as he stood there in front of me, and I couldn't stand it. I quickly got up, brushed my jeans off and bolted inside the bakery. I made sure to hold the door as it closed so it wouldn't slam, and as soon as it clicked shut I lay my head back on it, concentrating on my breathing. I couldn't figure out the knots in my stomach, the flush in my face. I closed my eyes, softly knocking my head against the door. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
"I'm home," I called, dropping my keys onto the nearby table and headed into the living room, tired and sweaty and in need of a serious shower. The best part of working at the bakery was that I didn't go home hungry. I had managed to take some bread while Peeta was putting out the trash. I avoided him for the rest of the night, trying to appear too busy for him to talk to me. I was worried I might've been too dramatic, but I had never let anyone that physically close to me. Ever. Not even Gale, which was one of the reasons I considered our "six-month relationship" barely anything more than confessed feelings and frustration and fruitless attempts to get me to open up.
I stored a loaf of pumpernickel in the fridge and shuffled toward the living room ready to flop onto the couch, shower or no shower. But someone had already beat me to it. I moved closer and realized it was Haymitch snoring, an old episode of Mythbusters playing quietly on the TV. I reached forward for the remote when Haymitch stirred, his eyes fluttering open.
"Oh, Katniss," he said sleepily, rubbing his eyes and yawning loudly. "Hey. What time is it?"
"It's time for you to go to bed," I told him, crossing the room to straighten up the pillows of the armchair on the other side of the room.
Haymitch stretched, sitting up on the couch. "How was work?"
"Fine. Where's Prim?" I asked.
Haymitch shrugged. "Probably still out with Rue." I glanced at the clock, and right on cue the lock turned and the door swung open. Prim hurried inside, cheeks flushed and a smile on her face.
"Speak of the devil," Haymitch said, turning his head to look at Prim as he pushed himself up off the couch. "Where have you been?"
"Just at Rue's," Prim said, the same smile plastered on her face. Haymitch nodded. "Did her mom drop you off?"
"Um, yeah," Prim started toward her room. Haymitch gave her a look. "Why in such a hurry?"
"I'm just tired," Prim said quickly, opening the door to her room, adding, "goodnight!"
Haymitch looked at me. "You better go to bed, too," he said to me as I flopped on the couch, hand on my head and shoes still on my feet. He shuffled to his room, shutting the door behind him as I flipped on the television to watch some brain-numbing TV. I contemplated falling asleep right there on the couch, shoes and all. I reached over to grab the cotton that Haymitch left crumpled on the sofa, sighing as I sat up straight, preparing to fold it. As I tugged on it, it uncovered a large photo album. Frowning, I stretched further to snatch it in my hands, observing the dust that stuck to it and the title on the cover. Abernathy Family. Haymitch and Susan, Kids.
I opened the book to the first page and saw a photo of two blonde kids, wearing green and pink sunglasses. My uncle and my mother. Haymitch had his tongue stuck out at the camera while my mom was grinning, missing teeth and all. I bit my lip. Cute kids.
I turned to the next page, almost dropping a loose photo from the book. I turned it over and saw Haymitch and my mother, in their early twenties now, looking at the camera with silly expressions, my mother crossing her eyes and Haymitch scrunching his face. Her hair was loose and wavy, and she looked like she had more life in her than she had in the last few years I had seen her. I touched the photo, a lump rising in my throat and stinging pain in my eyes.
"We're doing just fine without you, Mom," I said before I closed the book, putting it on the coffee table. I never said her name out loud, never mentioned her. As far as I was concerned, I didn't have to. She was long gone. But she came alive in that photo, a constant reminder of what used to be. Another reason why I hated photos.
And even though it was one of the hottest days of the summer, I suddenly felt colder than ever. Goosebumps popped up on my arms and I shivered, my eyes feeling heavy. So I wrapped the sheet around me, waiting for sleep to come and found that that night, it simply wouldn't.
Sorry this chapter took a bit of time to put out, I was at the point where I had so many ideas for this story but just didn't know how to arrange them… it took some discussing with my beta but everything is looking good for now. I am constantly looking for ways to improve my writing, so I may post a chapter and then later feel the need to add more detail… I just get really excited about finishing it then I tend to jump the gun on posting. Sorry ^^;
And I made a writing Tumblr! heroinewithin. You can find statuses on chapters, as well as some little drabbles I'm planning on doing.