Author's Note: I wrote this originally for the Prompts in Panem challenge on Tumblr, but my one shot decided to turn into a multi-chapter story, so I decided to continue it here. I based the story on how my grandparents actually met after WWII while living in Chicago. Some of the locations are real, but some I made up. While writing it, I realized that parts of it sounded like parts of "The Notebook," but I promise it's based on a real life story with my own fictionalized parts added. And a Hunger Games twist.
Disclaimer: I do not own The Hunger Games characters, plot, or dialogue. This is just for fun.
The clock struck 5:00 and a light bell rang through the corridors. I looked up from the wires and small metal pieces all around my work space and cracked my knuckles. Another day, another week gone by, another paycheck. I slipped on my shoes that I had kicked under my stool hours ago, and grabbed my bag and hat.
"Thank God today's over," I heard one the girls say. "I can't wait until I meet someone and can finally leave this job!"
Her brunette friend nodded. "I know. Did you hear about Glimmer? Bobby Marvel FINALLY popped the question, and they're getting married next month! And her dress is just divine…" She went on to describe some ridiculous combination of silk and lace, and I was happy to ignore her. Glimmer was just another example of a coworker biting the dust.
I didn't mind the work. I actually looked forward to it, felt pride from it. Or at least, I used to. Heck, I was originally hired to weld Army jeep parts, then moved up to the bombers, and I reveled in the importance of my work. For the past three years, I had been doing a man's job, earning a man's salary, and providing a decent lifestyle for my sister and mother. But now that the war was over, the excitement of making war equipment was long gone. We were now making generic old house phones, and I was demoted (or, as Capital Electric management called it, "relocated") to an all-woman's workroom, where my "little hands" were better suited for small equipment. As more men came home, my pay was cut, my hours shortened, ("Got to give the boys their jobs back, ladies") and I was told to "dress properly" – in a skirt or dress, not the comfortable overalls we had been used to ("Let's remind the boys what they were fighting for!"). I watched more and more women leave their jobs, either to go back to being housewives, or, as many put it, to "find a nice soldier and marry him." I laughed under my breath at that last thought. I would never get married, and that bastard Coriolanus Snow would have to come down from his top floor office and fire me himself before I quit.
As I walked out of the elevator, I saw my good friend Annie emerge from another. Annie slipped her arm through mine as we walked out under the giant Capital Electric sign that hung over the doorway, venting its thousands of workers into the city streets. "It's Friday night! What-cha doing tonight, Katty?" she sang to me in her sweet voice.
I glanced at her knowing smile and I knew exactly where this was going. "First of all, don't call me Katty, and second, I'm going home to read a good book and NOT go on your date as a wingman."
Annie laughed, her dark curls bouncing down her back. "Alright, Katniss. Is this because of Cato? I swear, Finnick told me he was a nice guy! He goes to confession every Saturday and everything."
I snorted. "Did Finnick mention that he liked to grope girls on the train? Did he tell his priest THAT one? I'm sorry, Annie, but I'm not falling for another blind date. You'll just have to find someone else to set up with Finnick's lousy bar friends."
I started walking a little faster towards the corner, thinking that if I don't catch the first bus, I'll have to wait half an hour along with the crowd of other workers. And during that time, Annie would definitely convince me to go on her date tonight.
"Wait, Katniss, wait, this one's different." I give her an I-don't-believe-it turn of my head. "No really, he grew up with Finnick. He just got back from Germany like a week ago."
"Great, so he's all battered and traumatized? I'm not playing nurse to a broken soldier." I could hear the words coming out as I said them, and I knew I sounded crass and rude. I knew too many boys from my neighborhood that came back broken men, unable to sleep, afraid of fireworks, yelling at their mothers at the dinner table. I knew it wasn't their fault, and I knew that whatever happened over there must have been awful. For a second, my thoughts went to one neighborhood boy that didn't come home, but I quickly shook the idea from my mind.
"Katniss, he's fine. Really, he's been over there helping out with POWs and people from the camps. He's a medic. They made him stay to help out with the recovery effort. He's a war hero, you know. Written up in the paper and everything."
Even better, a war hero. Someone who would brag about their good deeds on the battlefield and wear their medal around town. "Good for him, I'm glad he came home. Not my problem, though."
"Come on, sweetheart," Annie cooed as she rested her head on my shoulder. Uh-oh, Annie was pulling out all the stops. "Please, for me? You do owe me, you know?"
Crap, I did owe Annie. A few weeks ago, Prim got sick and needed to be picked up from school. The school had called my manager at work, and I had already gotten an evil glare from him just for that. I was terrified to leave work early, especially after being "relocated" and my paycheck cut. Girls were getting fired left and right for the littlest offenses, like talking too much or going to the bathroom more than once a day. Annie knew how important my job was, and how much I worried about Prim. So when I told her my problem, she walked right up to our manager Mr. Cray, and told him, loudly, that she had "women's problems" and that she needed to have sick time immediately. Cray, forever disgusted and fearful of women and their monthly "problem," sent her off straight away with a warning to "don't let it happen again." We all snickered at the thought of being able to control our menstrual cycles, and Annie winked at me as she walked off. When I got home, Annie was still with Prim, wiping her brow with a washcloth and making her smile with stories of how she met Finnick at the beach, and how handsome he looked in his Navy uniform.
I did owe her. Double crap.
"Fine," I sighed. Annie bounced up and down and clapped her hands. "Where and when?"
"Umm, the Aragon," Annie practically whispered as she turned her head away from me.
A bus pulled up but I didn't even bother fighting the crowd to get on. "What?! The Aragon? Are you kidding me? Annie, I'm not going dancing." The Aragon was a spectacular ballroom on the North Side, ridiculously extravagant, loud, overcrowded, and, worst of all, required dancing. Something I did not do.
"Come on, Katniss, please? I promise you, you don't have to dance. Just come with us and have a few drinks-"
"I don't drink."
"Fine, then have a soda, it doesn't matter!"
"I have nothing to wear," I argued. The girls at work were always talking about going to the city's many ballrooms, and how they saved their paychecks to pay for the dresses, shoes, and hairstyles required to fit in. They didn't have to turn over their entire paycheck to the landlord or grocer. I had no dancing shoes, no fancy dress, and no knowledge of fixing my hair in anything but my simple braid. The Aragon was no place for me.
"You can wear that blue dress of your mom's. Just add some jewelry and you'll be fine. I promise, you'll like him. And if you don't, I'll buy you lunch all next week."
I looked at her from the corner of my eye. "You swear I don't have to dance?"
"And Finnick will bust his nose if he touches me?"
"Scout's honor," Annie promised, holding up three fingers.
I sighed dramatically. "Alright then. I'll go." I started towards the bus and pushed my way onto the steps.
"Eight o'clock, and don't be late. Oh, and Katniss? Curl your hair!" Annie shouted right before the doors closed. I gaped at her as the bus drove off and she waved, smiling at me. Curl my hair?
I'm in trouble.
When I got home, it was already past 6, and my sister Prim was filling steaming bowls with soup as I entered the kitchen. "Hey Little Duck, how was school today?" I greeted her with a warm smile and a kiss on the cheek. I assumed my mother was still at work, as a nurse's aid at the County Hospital. We usually ate without her, and Prim, unfortunately, was left to play housewife to the two working women of the house.
"Fine," Prim answered, ignored my eyes but smiling to herself as she set the bowls down on the kitchen table.
I was curious. "Just fine?" I pushed.
Prim smiled wider. "Well….there's going to a school dance next month. And I get to help plan it and it's going to be fantastic and beautiful and there'll be music-"
"Prim…" I cut her off. "You know we can't afford a dress for a dance. There's no wiggle room in our budget. "
"Oh, I know. That's why Madge is lending me one of hers."
I set my spoon down and took a deep breath. "Prim, you are not borrowing clothes from anyone, especially Madge."
"But why not? I thought Madge was your friend."
She's right; Madge was my friend, when we were both in school together. The daughter of our local alderman (who also happened to be a lawyer), Madge had more money than anyone else in our school. For her to be friends with someone like me from the Seam (the notorious name our impoverished street) was unthinkable. But Madge was quiet and sweet, and never gave off that air of snobbery that most of the merchant girls did. She would sit with me at lunch, silently handing over a slice of cheese or an apple when my lunch looked particularly lean, never saying a word or giving a judgmental look.
Madge was the only person I could call my friend, but I hadn't seen her since I had to drop out of school almost four years ago, at the beginning of our freshmen year. She worked at the school now, as the school librarian, probably going out on endless dates with lawyers and politicians that her father set her up with. I never tried to see Madge outside of school, for fear of the critical glances of her neighbors and mine. We were worlds apart, and that's just the way things were.
Now it seemed that Madge was looking out for my little sister at the school, and I hated it. I hated that I couldn't provide Prim with the extras she so craved, that my income was hanging on by a thread, and that I lived in a man's world that seemed to think that I was only good for one thing: procreation.
"Prim, we don't take charity. You know that. We didn't when Dad died, and we won't now."
Prim's face dropped. "But how can I work on the dance if I can't go? Rory said that he hoped I would be going…"
I couldn't stand watching her sad. And I knew that Rory Hawthorne next door had had his eye on her since they had played in their diapers together. I sighed and picked up my spoon again. "Alright, Little Duck, you can go. I'll think of something, okay?"
Prim beamed and ran around the table to throw her arms around my neck. "Oh thank you! Thank you! Thank you!"
"Okay," I laughed, "but no borrowing anything from anyone. We'll figure it out somehow."
"Okay, I promise. Hey, speaking of dances, don't you have plans tonight?"
I stared at Prim dumbfounded. "How did you know?"
She giggled. "Annie called before you got home. She said that I should help you with your hair. Oh, and to tell you to wear heels."
Heels too? This just got out of control.
"Eat your soup, Prim. We'll talk about my hair later."
It turned out that I had no say in my hair at all. Immediately after dinner, I found myself perched in our bathroom, my head surrounded by pin curls, my grandmother's pearl earrings dangled from my ears, and my lips stained with my mother's lone red lipstick. "There," she said satisfied. "We don't have any pancake, but you're pretty without makeup anyways." I blushed and Prim stared at my face like she was studying me. She rubbed the lipstick on the back of her hand and rubbed it into my cheeks. "You're cutest when you blush. There, now you have some rouge on, too."
She moved behind me and started attacking the pins, allowing the ringlets to fall down my back. "You should really sleep on these at night, you know. It'll last longer that way."
I snorted under my breath. "Are you kidding me? It's the most uncomfortable things in the world. I'd rather sleep on a bed of needles."
Prim rolled her eyes at me as she started to fluff the curls. She sighed. "If only I had your thick, dark waves, I could do it myself. But," she pulled a blond strand from her face, "I'm stuck with blond and drab."
I grabbed her hand tight. "Don't ever think that you're drab, Little Duck. You are absolutely gorgeous." She smiled slightly at me. "Fourteen is a tough age. Right now, you're all long limbs and awkward. But I can already see the beautiful woman you will be someday."
Prim smiled even bigger. "Dad certainly liked blondes. Maybe I'll find a guy like him someday."
I dropped her hand, and hoped she wouldn't keep talking about our father. It was just too painful. "Maybe."
I sat in the chair while Prim preened over my hair for another twenty minutes. I heard the doorbell ring, and Prim went to answer it. It was Annie, and a quick glance at the clock told me that it was already 7:45. I quickly slipped into my room and looked down at the double bed I shared with my sister, where she had lovingly placed my outfit for the evening on top of our threadbare bedspread.
As Annie had reminded me, the only decent dancing dress I owned used to belong to my mother. It was dark navy blue, with ivory buttons down the front and a Peter Pan collar. From afar, it looked like miniature polka dots, but the dots were actually tiny white flowers. The skirt flared slightly, and stopped right below my knees. The style had once been too old fashioned to wear, but Mrs. Hawthorne next door had taken the waist in and added pintucks to the skirt to make it flare a bit more, turning the style more modern. It was supposed to be my Sunday church dress, but more often than not I wore a simple housedress to church and kept my coat on. The dress reminded me too much of better days, of when my father was alive and would sweep my mother into his arms and press a deep kiss to her lips while Prim and I squealed and called them movie stars.
Someone knocked quietly at the bedroom door. Annie poked an arm through without stepping in. "Here, I know you don't own these, but you can borrow mine."
I grabbed the bundle out of her hand. "Annie-"
"Get dressed! We're late!"
After my lecture to Prim about not borrowing anything for her dance, here I was borrowing Annie's undergarments. She had handed me a white silk bra and a garter belt with nylons. I really didn't need the bra, but maybe Annie was hoping to encourage curves that weren't there. I fingered the silky stockings in my hands. I hadn't seen a pair of real nylons since before the war, and even then, they were unaffordable to us Everdeens. I sighed. Not that I particularly loved wearing them; I was frankly glad when they disappeared off the market so that nylon could be used instead to make parachutes. For at least the past few years, my way of dressing in hand-me-downs and no frills had been in style. I was sure that with the war over, such ladylike luxuries would be in vogue once again. I quietly gave thanks that she didn't hand me a girdle as I quickly threw on the belt and bra, and sat on the bed to fumble with the stockings.
"Where on earth did you get these, Annie?" Even Annie didn't have much money to spare on nylons. She mostly painted hers on still, to save money for her "hope chest."
"Finnick. He likes to keep his lady looking good. His words, not mine. You know, you really should start wearing them out, or at least get some darker pancake and-"
"Just because rationing ended doesn't mean we can afford everything, Annie. You know that." Annie was one of the few people I let know about our poverty. Not that I particularly cared what other people thought, but such knowledge made people feel either sorry for us or especially charitable, neither of which I welcomed.
I slipped the cool dress over my head and buttoned up the front. I knew Annie would expect heels as well, so I slid on a pair of my mothers, black with a decent heel and a strap across the ankles. I pinned my only hat to the top of my head, took a deep breath and swung open the door, where Prim and Annie sat waiting.
Prim sniffed a little. "You look like Rita Hayworth."
"Oh please, I hardly-"
"No, you do," Annie chimed in. "You look unbelievable. Your hair…you need to sleep in pin curls every night, Katniss."
"That's what I said!" chimed in Prim.
"Well, I hope my date doesn't expect me to dance like Ms. Hayworth," I chuckled. "I'm sure he's no Fred Astaire, anyways."
Prim handed me my coat and a small clutch purse. "I put the lipstick inside. And fifty cents. Just in case."
When did my little sister start taking care of me? "Thanks. Stay next door at the Hawthornes until Mom comes home, promise?"
"I promise. I hope he's handsome," she added dreamily.
I snorted. "I doubt it. I'll be home early, with any luck."
Annie shook her head at me. "Come on, you old killjoy. Let's go paint the town red."
The crowd in front of the Aragon was enormous, full of young women in fur wraps and shiny new hats, men in fedoras and buttoned suits. An entire evening with the merchant class. I immediately felt out of place in my faded dress and worn out brown coat. I crossed my arms so no one would notice the worn out elbows as I stood with Annie on the corner of the street. The cold November air was making my cheeks cold and probably even more pink with the added rouge. Annie kept bouncing up and down on her toes and craning her neck around the crowds, trying to use her tiny frame to find her boyfriend.
Just as I was about to elbow a particularly loud and giddy redhead for bumping into me, Annie let out a squeal, and went running into the street. There was Finnick, ignoring the traffic lights and walking aimlessly amongst the taxi cabs. Another man followed close behind, less sure of Finnick's method of crossing the street.
Annie kept running and leapt into Finnick's arms. He immediately picked her up and twirled their bodies, and kept her up in the air as he crushed her lips to his. I rolled my eyes at the scene they were creating, cabs honking at them and drivers waving their arms out the windows. Finnick let her down gently, and then banged his fist on the nearest hood. "Hey, come on! Can't you see we're in love?" He smiled down at Annie and I actually heard a couple of girls sigh behind me. My eyes rolled even further back into my head.
Finnick and Annie particularly skipped towards me, arm in arm and all smiles. They were quite the handsome couple: Annie, with her reddish-brown curls and freckles, her soft green eyes, and her sweet, trusting nature; Finnick, with almost the same color hair, his charming good looks and outgoing personality. They looked like they were made to fit together, and they couldn't get enough of each other. Annie had waited for Finnick all throughout the war, wrote him countless letters, and shed too many tears worrying over him. When he came back, he literally swept Annie back off her feet, and the two were inseparable ever since. It was obvious that Finnick and Annie would be married soon, but, as a drunken Finnick once whispered to me, he was waiting to afford a decent ring and a home. He told me that he had filled out the paper work for a G.I. down payment, and was still waiting to hear back. I had smiled at his hopeful grin and assured him that Annie would gladly live on the streets as long as it was with him. Finnick simply winked and made me promise to keep quiet about his "plans."
"Hey, Katniss!" Finnick leaned in for a quick peck on my cheek. "Glad you could come."
"I didn't have much say in it. Annie was quite persuasive," I smirked.
Finnick smiled once again down at Annie. "Don't you just love that about her? Anyways, allow me to introduce the man of the hour, my good friend and fellow war hero, Peeta Mellark." He motioned his hand, and the man who had been following behind stepped forward.
My eyes moved up to his tall, stocky frame, and I was greeted by the pair of bluest eyes I had ever seen. They were soft and shining, the color of the ocean on a calm day. He had light blond hair, cut short to his head, obviously growing out from his military cut. He was wearing a dark brown suit and a wide striped tie, and I immediately noticed how muscular his chest was, far too wide for the suit he was wearing. Probably because his suits from before the war were too small for him, I thought. He looked so young, no more than 21 or 22, meaning that he left home at 18. Left home a boy, and came back a man, a soldier. And a damn fine looking one at that.
But what I noticed most was that he was staring at me, literally staring at me like I was a ghost. I immediately discredited Annie's reassurance that he was "fine" after coming home, and assumed his staring meant that he was not ready for a night out on the town. Or maybe I was a complete disappointment. He was expecting a glamorous dancing partner, not a dull girl from the Seam. I pulled at the corners of my coat and tried to cover up more of my dress, yet I couldn't stop staring back at him. Finally, I decided to be the first to say something.
"Katniss," I offered my hand to him. He reached out and surrounded my hand with his large, warm one. I instantly felt a bolt of electricity go through my arm and down my lower body. I swear, for a moment I smelled cinnamon.
He kept shaking my hand, and in a soft voice, replied, "Peeta." He cleared his throat. "I'm Peeta Mellark."
"No, Peeta. It's Czech." He held onto my hand and bobbed it up and down, his eyes never leaving mine.
We must have been staring at each other for a while, because I heard both Annie start to giggle, and Finnick clapped Peeta on the back. "Like what you see, huh," he sneered at both of us. I shook my head a bit and lifted my head up higher. Peeta immediately dropped my hand and cleared his throat again. Whatever this guy's problem, I was not going to let some snobby merchant kid ruin my ego, or my night.
"Come on, Annie." I pulled her away from Finnick and started pushing my way through the crowds. I glanced back and saw Finnick start laughing hard as he clapped Peeta once more on the back. Peeta was still standing there, staring at us with a dumb expression on his face, as Finnick pushed him forward.
The four of us continued to push through the crowds and made it to the doors. As I reached for the handle, I felt a rush of wind behind me, and suddenly Peeta grabbed the handle before I could, swinging the door open for me. I scowled at him. Did he really think that such chivalry would make me weak in the knees? That I would swoon over a door being opened? But his face looked so earnest, so hopeful, that I quietly thanked him as I walked past him.
As I walked in, I let out a small gasp. I had never actually set foot inside the Aragon before. The lobby itself was as ornate as a millionaire's mansion. The carpeting was plush and jewel-colored, and all around were elaborate gold fixtures, from the chandeliers to the large golden statues flanking the staircase. The ceiling itself was a labyrinth of gold hexagons, and the staircase, with its gold railings and marble steps, was centered with a luxurious red carpet. You literally walked the red carpet here.
I had never seen anything quite like it, and my companions must have noticed my gasps and wandering eyes, for Peeta leaned over and quietly asked me if I had ever been here before.
"No," I answered, still looking up at the golden ceiling. "I've never seen anything quite so lovely before in all my life."
"Me neither." But I when I turned to him, he wasn't staring at the ceiling or the paintings or the statues. He was staring straight at me.
I felt my cheeks warm and knew I was blushing at his comment. We stared at each other for a split second, and then he dropped his gaze. Those blue eyes were so captivating, it unsettled me. I quickly started up the stairs, climbing a little more quickly to catch up to Annie and Finnick.
A gentleman dressed in a full tuxedo opened another door for us at the top of the stairs, and we entered the ballroom itself. It was possibly even lovelier than the lobby. The walls were garishly painted with columns and terra cotta roofed balconies, making it appear that we were in a courtyard from long ago. The ceiling was literally twinkling with a fake stars, and clouds from projector beams danced across the stars, mimicking the night sky. The entire room was flanked by table after table of guests, cigarettes and crossed legs bouncing in the air above dimly lit lantern centerpieces. In the middle of the room, couples were dancing shoulder to shoulder, so crowded that it made real dancing impossible and the couples merely shifted alongside one another. On the stage, a huge band played between two giant ruby curtains, blasting out the latest hits. Prim always stayed up late on the weekends to listen to the broadcast, dreamily leaning against her wrist and listening for the announcement: "And now, from our studios in the Aragon Ballroom, where the dancing is already in progress…" And here I was. I immediately felt guilty over being here instead of Prim; she would have enjoyed it so much more. I vowed to remember each detail so I could share it with her later tonight.
I was drawn out of my thoughts when Finnick whistled loudly for us to sit at an empty table that he found. Still playing the part of the gentleman, Peeta spun around me and pulled my chair out, while also helping me out of my coat. Finnick did the same for Annie, and all four of us huddled together around the tiny table, our knees practically knocking together. I spread my dress over my knees and noticed Peeta's legs twitching nervously. But his face stayed calm as he surveyed the dancing.
Finnick raised a finger and got the attention of the nearest waiter. "Two Manhattans, and a couple of Martinis for the ladies."
"None for me," I quickly shouted back at the waiter. "A Coca-Cola, please."
Finnick shot me a look. "Seriously? You're at the Aragon, and all you want is a Coke? I can give you that in my kitchen!"
I scrowled at Finnick. "I don't drink."
"Neither do I," Peeta jumped in. "Make that two Cokes." He slightly smiled and looked at me from the corner of his eye. I slumped back in my chair and didn't say a word. Again with the chivalry.
Finnick sighed loudly. "Well, aren't you two just the world's most exciting couple." He slid his arm around the back of Annie's chair. "So, Peeta here just got back and is standing to inherit the family business."
"And what business is that?" I asked, looking at Finnick and not Peeta.
Finnick responded, "Oh, you know, cupcakes and sugar cookies and whatnot."
Peeta chuckled. "Yeah, well, we'll see. My father owns a bakery on the West Side, and while I definitely have a job there, I'm not sure about owning a bakery."
"Wait, where on the West Side?" I asked, suddenly intrigued
"On the corner of South Lawndale and Crawford," he replied.
"I know that place!" I exclaimed. "Wait, you mean Mellark's Bakery?" Of course. I knew I had recognized that name when we were first introduced. The bakery supplied our neighborhood with bread and birthday cakes, along with numerous Eastern European delicacies that the overwhelming immigrant population craved. Our little niche within the neighborhood, nicknamed the Seam, didn't frequent the bakery too much – it was seen as a "merchant" luxury to buy store-bought bread. I had never actually set foot in the bakery, but I walked by that bakery almost every day on the way to the bus stop, and had practically grown up right by Peeta's bakery.
"Really," replied Peeta calmly, as though he didn't seem too surprised to hear that I lived close by to him.
"Yeah, I walk by there all the time. My sister Prim always makes us stop to stare at the cakes in the window. "
"I actually do those. The cakes, I mean. I decorate the cakes," Peeta blushed.
I wasn't sure what to say next. The cakes were certainly beautiful, but there was never a time or a place in my life for something for frivolous as decorative icing. "Well, small world," I replied.
"Yes, yes it is." He smiled shyly. "You should come by some time. I can show you how to frost a cake."
I frowned, wondering if this was his idea of a perverse suggestion. "What exactly is that supposed to mean?" I asked him, a little too harshly.
Peeta fumbled. "I, uh, I don't know. I just thought, you know, if you ever wanted to stop in, and I could show you…never, never mind." He stared at his shoes and I quickly looked to the side. He had been so kind to me thus far, and here I was being rude. Maybe he really did just want to show me what he did at the bakery. But I didn't want to lead him on. Agreeing to "stop by" the bakery could lead to another date, and then another, and the next thing I know I'm knee deep in babies and laundry.
Peeta and I sat there, staring at our feet, me scrowling and him nervously bouncing his left leg. I felt Annie place a hand over mine. "I think we need to go powder our noses. Excuse us." She pulled me up out of the chair and started leading me to the ladies room. I heard Finnick behind me tell Peeta, "Women, they always go in pairs, huh?"
Once inside the bathroom, crawling with girls who also went in pairs, Annie pulled me against the wall and shot me a look.
Annie took a deep breath. "Katniss, you know I love you, right? But are you serious?"
Again, I asked, "what?"
"Peeta Mellark is a sweet, kind, generous, and ridiculously handsome young man who has just returned from the war and you are being rude to him."
This time, I took a deep breath. She was right. There was no reason to be rude to Peeta. He was handsome all right, and had been kind thus far. At this point in our date, Cato had already groped my behind and asked me to join him in the alley.
"It's alright, Katniss. I know this is hard for you. Especially because of Gale. But why don't you just give him a chance? Try being friends with him."
Another big breath. She had mentioned Gale Hawthorne. The boy next door, whom I had grown up with, climbed trees with, and who treated me like his little brother. He was a few years older than me, and I thought the sun rose and set with him. He always looked out for my family and me, especially after my father died. Gale's own father had left his mother and five children so he could run around the country searching for women and booze, so he knew how hard life without a father around was. The Hawthornes and the Everdeens had pooled our resources and relied on one another, and in some way, Gale became the head of both families. I worshipped him, yet I doubt that he ever saw me as anything other than a scrappy kid sister.
I was 15 and he was 19 when the war started. He enlisted literally the day after Pearl Harbor, and was sent to the Pacific. I remember the day he left, looking ridiculous tall, dark, and handsome in his uniform. He kissed me on the cheek and told me to take care of things while he was gone, that I was now the man of the house. I rubbed my cheek and watched his walk down the street, duffel bag slung over his shoulder, never looking back.
I received letters from him from time to time, and heard more about his adventures from his letters to his mother. But eventually the letters stopped. And one day, a Marine in dress blues and our pastor appeared at the Hawthorne's front door. Gale was missing in action, and considered dead. Mrs. Hawthorne silently shed a few tears, and switched the star on her window from blue to gold. She proudly put a picture of Gale in his uniform on the mantle, and lit a candle there every night. Few words were spoken, and no memorial was held. I think Gale's mother was holding out hope that he was still out there somewhere, captured or injured, just waiting to come home. But I knew Gale. I knew he was a fighter, and severely patriotic, and I knew that he would have given up his life for his fellow Marines. He was gone, and with him the only man that I could have ever pictured myself with. Not necessarily because I had been in love with him; but I knew that I loved him, and we made sense together. We were from the same past, the same Seam address. I would never have had to explain the ways things were to Gale.
My thoughts wanted to linger on Gale, but I was brought back to reality and my new dilemma: Peeta. He didn't know that I still missed Gale. And he didn't know how we Seam kids felt about Merchant kids. The divide was so great, and the last thing I wanted to be called was a Seam Slut, looking for a way out of poverty through the bedroom. Yet there was something about him that made me feel calm and comfortable. Gale had always made me feel anxious and alive, but Peeta was different somehow. Softer, and more peaceful.
Annie had said friends. Friends I could do. I didn't have too many friends outside of Annie and Finnick, but I supposed that I could use another one. Heck, maybe he could give me a discount for a cookie or two on Prim's birthday.
"OK, I'll be nice. I promise. I'll make friends with him – but nothing more, do you understand, Ms. Cresta? No dreams of a double wedding or anything."
Annie smiled. "OK. No double weddings. But don't be surprised if you start liking him. Sometimes, these fellas sneak up on you. Finnick certainly did."
She paused in front of the mirror to reapply her lipstick. I snuck a quick peek at the mirror myself. I honestly didn't recognize the girl there. My hair shaped in its perfect waves set by Prim, the red lipstick, the pink cheeks. I couldn't help but wonder what Gale would have thought if he was here tonight. No longer the skinny teen with cuts on her knees, I looked like a woman. And then I surprised myself by wondering, as Finnick said, if Peeta liked what he saw.
As I approached the table, I saw Finnick and Peeta leaning close to one another, talking quietly. I was able to make out Finnick's words as I got closer.
"She's a tough one, all right. But don't give up. You've waited this long for her, just be patient. And don't scare her off. She has a history of pain in her life. "
Waited this long for her? I just met him 15 minutes ago. What was Finnick talking about? And how dare he talk about my past to a stranger like that? I deliberately went the long way around the table to announce my presence to them, and both men immediately straightened up and smiled in my direction as I sat down.
Annie didn't get a chance to sit down before Finnick wrapped his arms around her waist. "Come on doll, we're going dancing." Annie shot me a sympathetic smile and a shrug of her shoulders as Finnick whirled her into the horde of dancers. He was such a good dancer, and made even sweet, shy Annie look like Ginger Rogers. They twirled around the other slower dancers, and then they disappeared into the crowd.
Peeta was still shaking his leg, and I didn't know where to look, so I kept staring at my hands folded on the table. He seemed to be working up the nerve to say something. I nervously sipped at my drink.
"So, um, ahem," he cleared his throat. "I'm sorry about before. I didn't mean to offend you or anything."
"It's ok," I said, taking another sip. "I may have overacted a bit."
Peeta smiled. "Would you like to start over?"
I smiled back. "OK."
"Hi, I'm Peeta Mellark," he said as he extended a hand to me.
"Pleased to meet you, Katniss." He held my gaze, and my stomach burst into butterflies. "So, what do you like to do, Katniss? I'd very much like to get to know more about you."
And just like that, we began a conversation that lasted hours. Periodically, Annie and Finnick would show up breathless, Finnick would tell a rowdy joke, then see someone he knew from the Navy across the room, and whisk Annie away to go find them. Peeta and I stayed at the table, talking about our families, the bakery, our siblings, working for Capital Electric. We avoided anything too personal or tragic, like the war or money. I wanted to ask him about being a war hero, but I was too shy and I didn't want to remind him of bad times. Although he did tell me that the British soldiers called them all Yanks at first, and not in a very endearing way, but they eventually won them over after several rounds of beer. I told him about Prim finding an alley cat and insisting that we keep him, mangy hair and everything, and how the cat hated me. When he went to light my cigarette, he told me that he didn't smoke, and that during the war he would trade all his rationed cigarettes to the other soldiers for their rationed Hersey bars.
"I have a bit of a sweet tooth," he admitted shyly.
"Must be nice to work in a bakery, then," I teased him.
"It does come in handy, yes," he laughed. I had to laugh with him. His smile was wide and gleaming, and made me smile wider too.
"I don't really have much of a sweet tooth myself. We don't really buy sweets." Uh oh, keep it light, Katniss. "But, I do like cheese buns. And cheese kolacki. Oh, and coffee cake. With that creamy cheese inside."
"I notice I cheese trend here," he smirked. "Well, I happen to make a fantastic cheese bun."
"Oh, you do, do you?" I leaned forward. "Well, I will be the judge of that." What was I doing? Was I flirting?
Peeta leaned forward slightly, putting his face closer to mine. "Is that a challenge? Because I guarantee that my cheese buns are better than any others you have had."
"We'll just have to see now, won't we?" Peeta smiled at me and I of course gave one back. We stayed like that for a moment, leaning forward and staring into each other's eyes, both with a slight smile on our faces. Holy cow, those eyes again. It all felt so good – the flirting, the smiles, the knees touching each other – and I swear I caught Peeta slip his eyes down to look at my mouth. My heart started to pound heavily in my chest. Right then, Finnick and Annie slid into the table, laughing and out of breath. Finnick threw back another drink and off they went again. The moment had passed, and I leaned back into my chair, frankly a bit relieved.
Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder. "Ma'am, ladies cannot smoke inside the ballroom," the waiter told me.
I looked around the smoke-filled room. Men at almost every table were smoking cigarette after cigarette, yet I was being told to put mine out? "And why is that?"
"I'm sorry Ma'am, owners' rules." He stood next to me, waiting for me to stub out my cigarette.
"Fine, it's gone, happy?" The waiter nodded and moved away from the table. I turned to Peeta and shrugged my shoulders. "Wouldn't want to upset the establishment now, would we?"
Peeta didn't seem to enjoy my joke. In fact, his face was white and he was fisting his hands. "They shouldn't have rules like that. Why shouldn't you be able to smoke? It's not like women can't vote anymore. You have rights. I fought so you can have rights!"
"Peeta, it's ok-"
"No, it's not ok. I'm going to say something." He started to stand up, and I quickly stood up with him.
"Peeta, no, stop. It's ok, really. I was almost done anyways."
"But it's not fair."
"Easy, soldier." I gently placed my hands on his shoulders to calm his nerves. He glanced at my hands and then at my face, and he started to compose himself. "You don't be to fight a battle here. I'm a big girl, I can wait for another cigarette."
Peeta smiled at me with his head slightly turned, as though he was afraid to completely meet my eyes. "Dance with me? Just once before we have to leave?"
"Wait, what time is it?" I started to panic about Prim. She must already be in bed now, having waited too late at the Hawthornes. I grabbed Peeta's wrist and turned it towards me so I could see the time. It was a quarter to eleven, and we had been here for almost three hours. Had I really been talking to Peeta for three hours? While I contemplated the time it would take me to get home from the North side via train and walk home from the station, I realized that I was still holding Peeta's wrist in my hands. "Sorry," I muttered and I let it drop.
"No problem. My wristwatch is your wristwatch." I raised my eyebrows at him. "It is getting late, though. Will you dance one dance with me, before we go?" He asked again.
The current song was a relatively upbeat jazz number, and the couples were bouncing together across the dance floor. It seemed like a safe song, not too much skill required, nor was it a slow love song. Geez, I thought, how much more am I going to give in to this guy? "OK, one dance." Peeta beamed and took my hand. It was just as warm as our first handshake, strong and steady. As we weaved through the mob of tables, I grabbed the inside of his wrist slightly for balance. Peeta looked down at our hands and flashed me a look of satisfaction.
We stopped at the edge of the dance floor, and Peeta lightly slipped his arm around my waist and put his left hand on my right. "Peeta, I, I should have warn you, I really don't know how to dance."
"Don't worry, I haven't properly danced with a girl in over three years. And the last time was my baby cousin Paige at my uncle's wedding. I'm sure you'll do a better job than she did." He smiled that warm smile once again, and started leading me backwards into the mix, keeping his distance but at the same time standing close enough that I could feel his warmth spread onto mine.
"Hey you two, thought you'd never get out here!" Finnick shouted over Annie's shoulder as they flew by us, Annie's skirt spinning around her waist. Annie just giggled and wiggled a couple of fingertips in my direction, and just like that they disappeared yet again.
"Showoffs," Peeta teased into my ear. I had to giggle myself at how ridiculous those two were. But they were in love and they didn't care.
I was starting to get comfortable with the steps Peeta was taking, long strides with a quicker step thrown in there to turn us, when suddenly the song changed. I heard the trumpets play loudly, and I immediately recognized the song as Vera Lynn's We'll Meet Again. The song had played almost nonstop on the radio and in every soda stand in town for the past years. A beautiful woman in a red silk dress walked to the front of the stage and started belting out the lyrics: "Let's say goodbye with a smile dear, just for a while dear, we must part…" I stopped in my tracks, unsure of where to go, since we had made our way into the middle of the throng of dancers.
"Well, I guess that makes it two songs, then, huh?" I looked up at Peeta, and scowled. He leaned into my eye and told me, "Just go with it, follow my lead." I had no choice but to obey.
He took my hand in his again, and started swaying softly to the music. I felt his other hand press firmly to my lower back and bring me in closer to him. I started to feel that warm feeling again, and I let my chin light rest on top of his shoulder. I closed my eyes and smelled the familiar scent of cinnamon rise off his clothes. We moved slowly around the floor, and my hands started to squeeze his. He squeezed back, and pulled me in even closer. It felt good, so incredibly good, that I knew Peeta would have to be the one who ended this dance.
"We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when. But I'll know we'll meet again, some sunny day…"
I felt my head start to lean in towards his shoulder, and his breath on my neck made my skin break out into goosebumps. Who was this man, and what was he doing to me?
Peeta was the first to break the silence. "I used to hear this song all the time over in England. It reminded me so much of…" he paused, "…the old neighborhood. Sometimes it kept me going through the hard times."
I didn't say anything. Just listened.
"I know you might not believe me, but sometimes, when we weren't being shot at or eating breakfast next to a bunch of dead men, I would imagine coming home and taking a girl just like you dancing. Just holding her in my arms, and having her listen to my ramblings." He chuckled. "Never thought it would actually happen, though. Never thought that I would make it out of there alive." His voice caught at the end.
I leaned back to look him in the eye. I was never good with words, but I knew that something needed to be said. "I'm glad you did."
Peeta was silent for a moment, holding my gaze with damp blue eyes and a serious look about them. "You have no idea, Katniss."
His tone startled me, and I looked back over his shoulder and leaned back to my original position. We continued swaying and turning just like that until we reached the edge of the dance floor once again, and the lady in the red dress stopped singing her song.
I pulled back away from Peeta and gave him a smile. "Thanks for the dance."
"Two dances, actually. Anytime."
Annie and Finnick literally bumped into us, falling over laughing. "Annie, you're drunk," I scolded her.
"No I'm not! I'm just a little, uh, not drunk!" She bent over the table giggling, and Finnick stood behind her, nodding "Yes she is!" to Peeta and me.
"How much did she have?" I pestered Finnick.
"Not much, just a couple of drinks. Oh, and another one over there. And maybe another one over there." He sputtered out laughing at the end, and Annie leaned into his chest, laughing even harder.
"Annie, I think it's time to get you home."
"No, Katniss, not yet! No, we have to have our picture taken. There's a photographer right over there," she pointed in one direction, "no, wait, he was over there," she pointed in a different direction. "We have to take a picture! Finnick, please, make them take a picture with us!"
I sighed and looked up at Peeta. He shrugged his shoulders at me. "Alright, we'll take a picture. But then we're going home, ok?"
We gathered up all our coats and hats, and made our way to just outside the ballroom. A photographer had indeed set up a backdrop and was taking photos of fresh-faced couples sweaty from their dancing.
The photographer motioned for us to step up, and set down two stools for Annie and I to sit on. I looked over at Annie, and tried to mimic her crossed ankles and squared shoulders. I felt a hand on my shoulder, and turned my head to see Peeta behind me. He gave me a reassuring smile and I turned around just as the photographer shouted "Smile!" and a huge flash blinded us all.
Our group started walking off the backdrop and picking up their coats. "That's it?" I asked, still sitting. I had such few pictures of myself and had never had a professional take my portrait. It was considered such a luxury, especially when you spent the majority of your childhood not knowing when your next meal was.
"Yup," the photographer. He pulled a pencil from behind his ear and scribbled something on a notecard before handing it to me. "Take this down to my studio in the Loop in a few days, and you can pick up your print."
Peeta picked up the notecard before I could. "I can go. I go downtown all the time."
"You do? You just got back to the city," I teased as we walked downstairs into the lobby.
"I know my way around town, Ms. Everdeen. I think I'll manage."
"Well, I'd like to see the picture. Not for me, for my sister. For my sister, not me." Crap, I was rambling. "She's always wanted to go dancing. I know she'd want to see this."
He smiled. "You must love her a lot."
I nodded silently. You have no idea, I thought to myself. The sacrifices I have made for that little girl. The sacrifices I would always make for her.
"I'll have to bring the picture over, then. So she can see how beautiful her big sister looked tonight."
I blushed about 10 deep shades of red at his comment. I suddenly realized that taking care of Prim, sending her to college, making sure she married a decent fellow, all of that required staying far away from Peeta and his charming ways. What was I doing? The flirting, the dancing, the laughing – these were things shallow girls did in order to snatch a husband. And then what? I never wanted children, and I certainly did not want to become a housewife. No husband would want to pay to better my little sister's life. My life had so far been one giant lesson in how sad the world was. Losing my father, watching my family almost starve to death during the Depression, and then the horrors of the War? Why would I bring a child into that? And what about Gale? Would he have approved of Peeta and his merchant background? No, whatever Peeta Mellark's intentions were, I needed to stay far away. I would only disappoint him.
"Peeta, I don't want to ever get married."
He looked at me quizzically, his brows furrowed. "Excuse me?"
"I mean, I'm sorry, I'm not so good at words. I meant, I think we should be friends. Just friends. I don't, I don't date. Ever." I nodded my head at the end for emphasis, but despite my confident words, my eyes couldn't seem to meet his and I instead stared at my shoes. If I looked at this eyes, I'd never be able to say no. And I had to say no. Otherwise he'll get the wrong idea, and I'll break his heart, and then I'll have to walk around the block just to get to the bus stop so I can avoid the bakery.
But to my surprise, Peeta chuckled. "Ok, we can be friends. I don't really know a lot folks in the neighborhood anymore, so I could always use a friend." He offered me his arm. "So, may I walk you home? Strictly as friends, mind you. No funny business, Ms. Everdeen."
I smiled up at him. It was going to be fine. I didn't break his heart, and I won't have to avoid the bakery for the rest of my life. I was stupid to even think that he was interested in me like that. I grabbed onto his elbow and he gave me a wink as we walked out the doors of the Aragon and started towards the train station, Annie and Finnick trailing behind in a giggling stupor.
True to his word, there was no funny business on the train, save for Annie and Finnick, who immediately began necking as soon as they sat down. I stared out the window, feeling awkward about my words at the end of the night. I hoped that it didn't ruin our potential friendship. Of course Peeta wasn't romantically interested in me. I was skinny and clumsy, and even my best outfit screamed poverty. Peeta said that he always wanted to take a girl like me dancing, but he meant any girl, and I was just practice until he met a merchant class girl with curves and grace. I was just a favor for his old buddy Finnick.
And how would we be friends anyway? Friendly acquaintances at best. The whole neighborhood would be gossiping about the friendship between the baker's son and the weird tomboy from the Seam, and automatically assume that I was trying to get free bread or something. Or worse, think that I was trying to dig my paws into the family business. No, Peeta could never be my friend. Not a real friend, anyway. My only real friend was Gale, and he was gone.
"Hey, you ok?" Peeta asked me. I realized that I had been staring out the window for some time now.
"Yeah, fine, just a little tired." I tried to cover up, but Peeta looked like he didn't believe me. He nodded and went back to staring out the opposite window with a sad look on his face. I realized that I had no idea how to be a good friend.
At Annie's stop, Finnick gently nudged her awake. I hugged her goodbye, and reminded her to wait until Finnick had at least given her a ring before she made any "mistakes."
"Psst, Katniss, that ship has already sailed." I raised my eyebrows at her, and leaned in for another hug. "Isn't Peeta the best? Be kind to him, he loves you so much."
Geez, she must be completely drunk. "Just try not to upchuck all over your kitchen."
Finnick stepped forward and saluted me. "She's in good hands, Ma'am." And with that, they linked hands and stepped off the train.
We arrived at our stop in silence. Peeta the Gentleman helped down from the train and we walked down the silent street, the only noise was our heels clapping on the sidewalk. After a few block in continued silence, I turned back to Peeta. "I can take it from here. The bakery's just a few blocks behind us, so you can just go home. I'll be fine." I couldn't imagine Peeta wanting to walk to the Seam.
"Now what kind of friend," he emphasized, "would I be if I let a girl walk home by herself late at night." He started walking and I scurried up behind him.
"No really, I can take care of myself."
"I'm sure you can," he said without looking at me.
"You know, I don't need a man to take care of me."
"So you told me."
"Is that what this is about? You needing to take care of me? "
"What do you mean, what is this about?" Peeta said defensively.
I was blowing it. "I mean, why are you being so nice to me? What's your angle?"
Peeta sighed. "Is it so hard to believe that I want to get you know you?"
"Maybe. I just don't understand why someone like you is interested in someone like me."
"Someone like me." Peeta said to the night sky. "Katniss, I just got back to the States two weeks ago, arrived home a few days ago. I don't even know what I'm supposed to do or who I'm supposed to be. My parents expect me to go back to my old room, my old job at the bakery, like nothing happened. But a lot did happen, and I'm supposed to just pretend? I don't even know how to act around people anymore. And maybe I met someone who seemed nice and I wanted to be nice to her. But who knows, maybe the war made me someone who can't be nice to a girl anymore." He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair.
I touched his elbow. "Hey, I didn't mean to upset you like that. I meant it when I said I'm glad you came home. Even if I really don't know you yet."
Peeta turned his head and smiled. "You have no idea, do you? The effect you have on people."
I was confused. "Huh?"
"Exactly," he chuckled. "I know I'm obviously a little messed in the head, but I would very much like to be friends with you Katniss, and get to know you better. If you'll allow it."
I was starting to like that chuckle, and it turned my scowl into a smile. "I'll allow it."
We kept walking in silence as we entered the unofficial boundary of the Seam, where the houses were rundown, built tightly next to one another, and the street sweepers seemed to forget to clean the roads. We approached my house, a small hunched over two flat, its brown bricks weathered and worn. Prim had planted primrose bushes under the front windows earlier in the year, and the colder weather had turned them into scrawny twig branches that jutted out into the yard. The Hawthorne's dog howled out at us from its post in the backyard.
"This is me." I hoped that Peeta wouldn't judge too harshly.
"It's nice," Peeta said, and I tried to look for sarcasm in his voice or face, but it wasn't there. Maybe Annie was right and Peeta was the real deal.
"Well, thank you for a very nice evening," I said with a nod of my head and I extended my hand to him. Despite his kind words, I assumed that I wouldn't be seeing anymore of Peeta Mellark. Not once he settled in at home. I silently hoped that he would find out who he is and not lose the man I met tonight. Any girl would be lucky to have him.
He shook my hand and smiled widely. "Anytime, Katniss. Have a good night." He dropped my hand and started walking in the direction we came from, shoving his hands in his pocket. I opened the gate, and walked up the steps to the front porch, when I heard him call my name from the sidewalk.
"We'll meet again." And with that, he turned on his heels and started whistling that song as he walked away. I smiled into my chest and turned the key.