Mister C. Snow, one of the richest men in the city, loved Mellark pastries with his morning coffee. Unfortunately for him, his office was on the Upper East Side, and Mellark's Bakery was all the way across Central Park.
But, being one of the wealthiest men in the city, he paid ten times more than anybody else to get what he wanted. So every morning at the crack of dawn, Peeta Mellark, old enough to be trusted with the job and also young enough to get stuck with it, crossed Central Park to make certain Snow had that signature Mellark flakiness just in time for his first meeting.
And that's how he saw her for the first time.
His mother had told him on no uncertain terms to stay away from Hooverville. That the sort of people who lived in shantytowns were no-good riff-raff. But Peeta was ten, curious, and the collection of shanties and makeshift homes was along the most direct route to the bakery. He wasn't about to go a good twenty minutes out of his way just to avoid seeing people.
They were just people, after all.
He was always making his way back to the bakery just when the small town-within-the-city was beginning to stir. Men were shaving outside their cardboard homes, preparing to pour into the boroughs to try to find work. Some women stood in the small alleys, attempting to do minor household tasks like laundry with what little material goods they had.
For the most part, the children were still asleep.
Not her, though.
The girl with the braids hunted the squirrels in Central Park with a slingshot.
He had seen her do it, hidden in trees, waiting for the rodents to pass near enough for her to get a good shot. They would fall to the ground with small thunks, and she would clamber down quickly, picking them up and fleeing the scene before any cops could arrive.
Peeta was impressed. If it were up to him to feed his family, unless they could eat drawings of airplanes and cowboys, they were all likely to starve. Not to mention the fact that being that accurate with a slingshot was a highly marketable skill for a ten-year-old boy. In general, slingshot ability was not a thing to be taken lightly.
So he decided to barter for lessons.
It started with a note.
A forged note.
Every day the secretary in Snow's office, a silly woman named Effie, signed for the delivery and gave him a paper copy of the order for the next morning. On the days when Snow had large meetings, she asked for multiple boxes of a variety of pastries. Peeta never minded, because he was strong and could handle carrying another measly box of bread. And, as it turned out, the extra box was just what he was going to need to convince the girl with the braids to teach him how to use a slingshot so well. All he needed was a chance to get his hands on one.
That chance arrived one morning when Effie could barely contain herself. She told Peeta that her boyfriend had surprised her with a trip to the Hamptons, and she would not be in the next day. Instead, someone from the mail room would sign for the deliveries. The woman was so beside herself with excitement that when Peeta asked about the order, she just waved him off and told him to bring "the regular."
He ran all the way through Central Park just so he could make it back to the bakery before his mother woke up. In his room, he took a piece of plain white paper and wrote an extra-large order for Mister Snow. Peeta liked to draw. He was good at it, even. And after seeing Effie write the same order about a hundred times, he knew how to copy her handwriting.
The next morning, his father chuckled as he piled THREE boxes of pastries into his son's arms.
"Snow's tailor ought to take us out to dinner, son," he joked.
Peeta nodded and smiled. He didn't feel guilty at all. Snow was rich. The girl with the braids and everyone else in Hooverville was poor.
It was only fair.
He stashed the extra two boxes in a pile of rotten leaves by a smelly old pond. No one ever hung out around there. As he walked to Snow's office, he practiced what he would say.
"Hiya! I'm uh… Peeta Mellark. I know you don't know me, but I've got all this bread, and I've seen you in the trees and…"
No. That sounded ridiculous.
"Oh… hey, so I uh, just found this stuff and I wondered if you wanted to make a trade. You know, you just show me how to shoot some squirrels and I'll… um… give you some food."
That was even worse.
Deliveries made, he decided that he would just take a deep breath and say whatever came to mind. What did it matter, really? She was just some girl, anyway. It wasn't like she was going to turn down two boxes of Mellark pastries.
Most of Hooverville was still asleep as he approached the spot where he normally saw her sneaking away. He hid behind a makeshift wall and waited.
He was about to give up when he saw her. Only instead of her slingshot, she was holding the hand of a tiny blonde little girl.
"I had nightmares again," the little girl said softly. "I'm too scared to go back to sleep. I miss daddy."
"I miss him too, Prim," the girl with the braids hugged her tightly.
"Sing the song, Katniss. Please sing," the blonde girl begged.
Heaving a sigh, the girl with the braids sat down and patted her lap. The blonde girl, who had to be her sister, settled herself there and looked up expectantly as her big sister began to sing.
"There's a saying old, says that love is blind,
Still we're often told, 'Seek and ye shall find…'"
Peeta dropped all the boxes in shock.
He couldn't ask. Not now. Not after that. She wasn't just some dumb girl anymore. She hadn't even really been just a dumb girl before. She had been, he didn't know, kind of neat, if he had to say anything on the matter. More interesting than other girls, but less interesting than baseball.
But now she was utter perfection with the voice of an angel.
Taking a pencil out of his pocket, he leaned against a wall and picked up one of the boxes. He needed to draw something, to send her a message, to try, in his small way, to show her the same little piece of beauty that she had shown him. But he was in Hooverville. There wasn't much pretty here. He looked left and right, up and down, almost despairing, until he moved his foot and saw, right by his toes, a ragged dandelion.
Somehow it reminded him of her.
When Katniss came back from the trees that day, squirrel in hand, Prim was nearly squealing with excitement. Around her were several other children, Gale Hawthorne had even shown up with his friend Thom. Usually they spent the afternoon whistling at the girls who walked through the park and being a general nuisance.
"You got a package!" Prim cried, vibrating with anticipation.
"Me? A package?" Katniss sat her squirrel on a barrel and walked to where they were gathered around two boxes tied with string.
The faint smell of fresh bread lingered in the air.
"Gale protected it for us," Prim grinned, "some kids tried to take it away, but he wouldn't let them."
Katniss smiled up at him. Perhaps he wasn't so bad after all.
"How did you know it was for me?" she asked.
Prim pointed at the top right corner of the box. Under the words "For Katniss," was a beautiful picture of a flower.
"A dandelion…" she sighed. "It's so… romantic."
With trembling hands, Katniss untied the string around the boxes.
And not even Aladdin in his mind-boggling cave of wonders could understand the children's utter rapture when the lid to the first box sprung open and the delicious smell of pastries filled the air.