This is a story, in part, about a legend. But he isn't born a legend. He's born in a small town in upstate New York to baker's wife in her last desperate attempt to give her husband a daughter. He's a disappointment to her in every respect; not only another boy but born nearly a month premature. He's always small and sickly, his immune system never fully developed. It's a miracle that he lives at all.
But he does live. And when he's five years old, his father takes him to kindergarten and points out a little girl in a red plaid dress with her dark hair in two braids. He tells his son that he wanted to marry that girl's mother, but she ran off with a Seneca Indian. Later, when he hears the girl sing, the boy understands why.
He watches her, admiring her from afar in school, until one day her father is of many local men killed in an explosion at the lead mine. She isn't the same afterward; she grows gaunt and her voice falls silent. He wants more than anything to help her; thoughts of it consume his every waking moment.
Weeks later, she's at her lowest ebb. His mother finds her rooting through their trash and threatens to call the sheriff. From behind her skirts, he sees everything and his brain works quickly. He takes two loaves of their heartiest bread and blackens them just enough to make them look burnt. When his mother smells the smoke and sees the seemingly ruined bread, she gives him a nice hard cuff across the face and calls him a "worthless creature" before she sends him out to feed the two loaves to the pigs.
But she only watches him throw a few bits of a blackened end towards the sty before the bell on the door calls her to attend to a customer. Then, without so much as glancing the girl's way, he tosses her both loaves and runs back inside. He has no idea what it means to her.
Their eyes meet in school the next day and she sees the black bruise that's formed on his cheekbone. But they don't speak, each of them is too embarrassed; her by her poverty, him by his weakness, her by her mother's illness and him by his mother's cruelty. Perhaps they'll never speak to each other.
But two years later, his cheekbone takes another beating. He's in another fight with a bully; it's almost a hobby of his. Now that both of his brothers are in high school, there's no one to step in when he bites off more than he can chew. Which he does. Constantly. This time, it's Thom Morgan who scribbled insults onto Leevy Jones' chalk drawing and our hero isn't going to stop fighting until she gets an apology. Or he loses consciousness.
Perhaps he would have if the girl hadn't heard the noise from the crowd surrounding the two combatants, if she hadn't rocketed towards it, braid flying behind her. Though she's bigger than our hero, she's nowhere near as big as the bully is and maybe he was just big enough and bad enough to take both of them on, but he never sees her coming. Her blow to the back of his head sends him stumbling forward face-first onto the schoolyard asphalt, nose bloody and crying for his mother (who does eventually come and take him home).
Afterward, she helps they boy up. He can just barely bring himself to meet her gaze. "Thanks. I'm Peeta. Peeta Mellark."
She smiles and replies "I know." And she does, though that's not how she thinks of him. She doesn't tell him that. What would he think if he knew just how often her thoughts drifted to "the boy with the bread"?
"I'm Katniss Everdeen." Of course he knows that, he knows more about her than she realizes. But he doesn't open up about that either. Instead he offers to share the lunch he was eating before Leevy Jones' cry interrupted him. She can't bear to take any more from him but she couldn't bear to refuse him either, so they sit in silence and eat cornbeef on rye for what little time remains of lunch.
They each have one friend to share. He introduces her to bubbly Delly Cartwright, the bootmaker's daughter, and friend to everyone, especially Peeta. And she introduces him to friendly, but distant Madge Undersee, dreamer, pianist and daughter of the mayor.
They grow together. She watches him draw and he follows her into the woods. He listens to her sing and tries to teach her how to bake. They can't share everything, he doesn't have the stamina to make it as a hunter and she doesn't have the patience for chess, but they're never apart for long.
It's an unusual relationship, a blue-eyed, blonde boy from town and a dusky girl from the reservation. They're so close for a boy and a girl so young that it might worry the girl's mother, if she paid attention to such things and might worry the boy's if she thought her runt of a son had it in him to get any girl in trouble.
He's accepted in to her family. The girl's sister, Primrose, dotes on him and he teaches her to play games and hold a paintbrush. The busybodies in town whisper that Prim is as much his sister as hers. Her mother sees something in him that she treasured long ago and so she is always happy to have him stay for dinner and well into the evening. He does. Often. Sometimes he has an excuse, he's performing some minor repair around the house or sketching illustrations for their family's plant book. Other times he plays games with Prim or cooks something new with Katniss. He never wants to go home.
His family isn't quite so eager. It's true that his father is always kind to the girl and her sister, whether in trades at the back door or in offering sweets when his wife is gone and they can enter the front. His brothers are happy that their little sibling has a friend but their minds are filled with wrestling, dates with girls and dreams of future glory. All things he can't share in. His mother is a different story; she's more than once forbid him from seeing "that squaw girl". But she knows it's hopeless. Didn't her mother warn her about the boy's father? That she could never truly fill the hole in his heart left by Lily the apothecary's daughter? Love will always drown out such a chorus of doubts, no matter the consequences.
They grow up with the spectre of another Great War looming over them. When they were younger, people would tell stories about a terrible war across the ocean that killed millions and now everyone who can read the signs says a war is coming in Europe. In a world connected by telegraphs, telephones and airplanes, it is inevitable that the United States will be drawn in as well.
As they get older, he knows that things will change, that she'll start to want the things every other teenage girl wants, things no girl would ever want with him. He makes peace with it. He wants her to be happy more than anything in the world. So when she tells him that her full-blood Indian hunting partner, a boy a couple years older than them named Gale Hawthorne, has asked her to their prom, Peeta tells her to accept. But she rolls her eyes and chides him, telling him that he's not getting out of renting a suit that easily.
She knows that it's selfish. She knows that someday Peeta will want more than she can give. Children. Someday he'll settle down with a girl from town that'll realize how special he is. She can see it all unfold before her; the way Delly Cartwright looks at him, the two of them working side-by-side in his father's bakery, little blonde children running around, healthy and loved.
She tries not to resent it. What sort of life could they have together? He'd lose everything he had to look forward to, everything he deserved. Peeta was going to make the best father. Some days, she dreams about that; about the life his children will have. But some nights, she can't help it, she dreams about things with Peeta that she knows she should be ashamed of, of what his hands, so skilled with tools and paintbrushes, could do to her, of how much better it might feel than her own fingers.
When their Prom night is over, he walks her to her door and allows himself to stand on his tip-toes and kiss her once, briefly and chastely. She wants more, so much more than that, but as a small tear slides down her cheek, she bids him goodnight and shuts the door. Before she goes to the bed she shares with her sister, she lies down on the coach and lets the images come forth, a life with Peeta that beckons her and terrifies her at the same time.
In a way it doesn't matter, it's time to say goodbye regardless. They aren't children anymore; they've finished school and their country is now at war. Peeta's brothers, like most of the young able-bodied men, are already gone. She and Gale are both enlisting in the army. Unlike Gale, she has a choice but as much as she hates the thought of war, she wants to help and the money she'll be able to send back will provide for Prim and her mother.
It's ironic that Peeta, who most wants to go, who understands best what they would be fighting for, is the one man that no branch of the service wants anything to do with. He's wearied the army recruiter in town with his entreaties, even traveled to the city to try his luck with others, but the answer from the examining physicians is always the same. He's too small, asthmatic, too often sick and unsteady on his feet. The great war machine has no use for him.
Katniss tries to comfort him each time he's rejected. "Peeta, you can do other things to help. You're so smart, and old Mr. Undersee says that your German is perfect. Maybe you could make war films or something. Everyone knows you have a way with words."
But he'll hear none of it. "Words no one will listen to coming from a man who isn't sharing the same hardships! The last thing we need is one more man telling other people to go and do his fighting for him. Rye and Ban are over there, you and Gale will be soon. But I'm just some cripple who has to sit here and hear about it on the radio."
"Would that be so bad? Would it be so terrible if you were somewhere safe?" She shouts, her feelings rising to the surface along with the blood that's flushing her cheeks.
He looks up at her with soft blue eyes and asks "How would you feel if I was headed off to war and you couldn't go? If all you could do was sit here and wait to hear my name on a casualty list?"
Her tears are her only answer.
When it's finally time for her to board a train to the city, she hugs Prim and her mother first, saving her embrace of Peeta for last. And when she knows he won't expect it, won't be in any position to stop her, she leans down and kisses him the way she's wanted to for years. Because she might not make it back, because someday, when he's married and surrounded by his perfect family, she wants him to remember her, because she's about to jump on a train taking her far away and she won't have to deal with the consequences.
Notes: I started writing this when it just wouldn't let go of me on the fourth of July. I'd thought about the similarities between Peeta Mellark and Steve Rogers before but the fact that they're both blonde, blue-eyed and selfless doesn't really make for a story in and of itself. The idea for the story really started when I read Nonemoreblack's "No Surprises". Every love story is, in some sense, about the obstacles that prevent two people in love from being together. The idea of a Peeta that grow up with some sort of obvious physical defect and how that might have made him feel presents just such an obstacle.