A/N – I do not own The Hunger Games or any of its characters.
I'm sitting in the coffee shop across from Katniss Everdeen's apartment, waiting for her to come home from work. I've been watching her for the better part of 10 years now. If you were to ask her who I am, she'd tell you I'm just some guy from her hometown. But that would be the understatement of the century because while it's true, I am a guy from her hometown, I'm also someone who's been in love with her since I was 12 years old. I'm someone who's been making sure she's okay in whatever way I can for as long as I can remember.
I saw her for the first time at her father's funeral back in Oak Hill, West Virginia, where we grew up. There weren't too many soldiers out of Oak Hill back then so one that had been killed in the line of duty was even more rare. Her father was blown to bits by an IED right at the beginning of the Iraq War, so practically everyone in town went to the funeral. He was the only person I'd ever known who died and the fact that he had children so close to my own age made the whole situation resonate that much more with me.
I can still remember seeing Katniss at the front of the funeral home, holding onto her sister protectively, her head held high and strong while her mother sat catatonically in a corner completely unreachable. Even at 12 years old she was fierce and beautiful. It was the first time I had ever really noticed a girl, the first time I wanted to be close to one, to know one, to touch one...and I've never really wanted another girl since. It's always been Katniss.
Of course, she wouldn't have noticed me then, not with what had just happened and with all the people surrounding her. It wasn't until we were in the eighth grade, both attending Collins Middle School, when she actually knew I existed. I'd been keeping tabs on her family as much as a boy of that age can - listening in on my parents' conversations and watching her and her sister from afar – so I knew how bad things had gotten after her father's death. There were a few of us in town who had money, but most, most never had enough and it was an obvious, ever-present divide. Her mother, who'd been an unofficial Naturopath while her husband was still alive, was no longer fit to practice her brand of health care, so even the meager money she'd brought in before wasn't there. They were able to collect some social assistance and insurance money, but they were still struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs.
I watched as she grew pale and thin. And then paler and thinner. My heart broke as the hollows under her eyes grew deeper and her shoulders rounded forward to support the concave dent in her abdomen. She became intensely withdrawn, speaking only to the one guy she was always with. The two of them would sneer at those of us who lived comfortable lives, practically baring their teeth if anyone with a brand name shirt tried to go near them. I saw it as self-protection though, a way to hold onto their pride in the face of their poverty. It seemed to make her feel better, to make us the enemy, so it was a role I was happy to play. Truthfully, at that age, I didn't know what else I could do anyways. When you're a 14-year-old boy and a girl doesn't like you, you just stay the hell away from her and hope to avoid embarrassing yourself.
My parents owned the only real bakery in town, which made us a decent living, but it was their expensive cakes that they sold for big events in nearby cities that ensured our solidly middle-class existence.
Without question or alternatives, it was assumed that all us boys would work for the family business, so as soon as I was old enough to lift a bag of flour, the bakery was where I spent most of my time outside of school.
I was working late one night, baking the loaves for the morning while my mom worked on a complicated cake. She was in an especially bitchy mood because of the deadline so I was trying to work extra fast to get the hell out of there. I ran outside to grab another bag of flour from our storage shed, my mom screaming after me for one thing or another, when I saw her. She was slumped against a building bordering the laneway across the street, elbows on her knees, hands in her hair. It was pouring rain, but I could still hear her sobbing. I didn't move, I just stood and watched as she stretched her legs out in front of her and clutched at her abdomen, pain twisting her usually composed face.
I knew I had to do something, but I also knew she would never take anything from me. Me of all people. I went back inside, took two of my best loaves and stuck them back in the oven, not long, but long enough to blacken the outside to the point of them not being worthy of sale. My mom lost her shit, naturally, her fists landing on me with a fury I hadn't experienced in years. When my mom finally stormed out in a fit of rage, yelling at me to throw the loaves in the compost, I opened the door and turned away from the green bin, tossing the loaves instead in Katniss' direction. Without looking at her, I turned and walked back into the shop without a word.
The change between us after that night was subtle, but definitely there. She no longer sneered or scowled in my direction and when she caught me looking at her, she just gave a slight nod and looked away. It was as much as I could hope for and I've clung to every glance, every chance encounter since.
And, whether out of guilt or business sense, my mom started asking me to decorate more than bake. I took to it right away choosing colour palettes and themes, adding more and more artistic detail, creating scenes in coloured icing and hardened sugar, surpassing even my mother's ability. It was the start of my love of all things art.
For whatever reason, that night seemed to be a turning point for Katniss, too. I noticed her cheeks fill out again and fill with colour. She started to laugh a little more freely and seemed to be relieved of some of the tension she'd been carrying. All after just two loaves of burnt bread.
In the 8 years since, I've continued to do whatever I have to do to make sure Katniss is alright. There haven't been any incidents as extreme as the one with the bread, but I've taken myself out of the running for numerous scholarships we've both been finalists for, given up residence spots at university and called employers, unbeknownst to her, as an extremely supportive (fake) reference anytime she's looked for a part-time job. I've watched that she gets home safely late at night and kept an eye on her only friend, Gale, to make sure he's a stand up guy. I couldn't tell you exactly why I feel so protective of her or why I value her happiness over my own, only that I do. And instead of it being a feeling I've grown out of or gotten over, it just seems to get stronger. Year after year it gets stronger.
I mean, yes, she is beautiful in her own way and nobody pulls off curve-hugging clothing quite like Katniss, but it's more than that. She's principled, proud and strong without being selfish or frivolous. She's smart and driven, but still puts her family first and remains fiercely loyal to the one friend she's had for as long as I've known her. There's something...unnameable about her that just has this effect on you. It takes hold and before you know it, you've been secretly, ridiculously in love for a decade.
If she knew, I'm sure she'd be incredibly creeped out. It's weird enough of a thing that I've never told anyone, not a single person. I've often thought that her little sister might suspect, may have caught me staring more than once when Katniss wasn't paying attention, but she's never said anything. Some guys gather in dark basements to play D&D in secret, some girls read trashy novels they'd never tell their friends about. Me? I watch out for a beautiful girl who won't even look at me.
I see her now, walking quickly towards her building, pulling her scarf more tightly around her neck to brace herself against the cold. I want to run outside and give her every stitch of clothing off my back, but instead I sit and watch her fumble with her keys then let herself in. I down the last of my coffee while I watch for her apartment light to come on in the third basement window on the left. It does and I slowly pack up my books and laptop, say goodnight to the staff who I've come to know so well and make my own way home.
Thursday is my favourite day of the week because Katniss and I actually have a class together. She's taking a natural resources degree and I'm taking business, so there isn't a lot of overlap, but in the three years we've been going to West Virginia University we have ended up in the same elective classes a few times. This year it's an urban geography course and despite it's lame content, they're three of my most favourite hours each week.
We sit nowhere near each other, as usual. Gale's not in this class and since Katniss doesn't really talk to anyone else she sits in the far back corner, as far away from other people as she can get while still sharing a room.
I've gotten to know quite a few people in the class just through everyday small talk, so I usually just sit with whoever I'm talking to as I enter the room. It's always helpful to have a distraction that forces my attention somewhere other than the corner of the class where I know she is.
Professor Trinket comes into the room, looking purposeful. We must be starting something new, I think. She clears her throat to get our attention and launches into a speech about moving on to a more practical section of the course, one that will encourage us to engage with our urban environment and marry the principles of geography with the reality of an organized community. And then she utters the best combination of words I can imagine, "I'm pairing you up with a classmate who will work with you on this big, big, big project for the rest of the semester."
My heart beats rapidly as she explains that she'll be drawing names to be fair and asks one of the students sitting closest to her to record the names of the pairs as they're drawn.
She starts picking names before I can even wrap my head around what's happening. Do I dare to hope that my name is chosen? That Katniss and I will actually talk to each other and spend time together? Do I want that? Is her being forced to acknowledge me, to talk to me the way I really want this to happen? Who am I kidding, I'm obviously never going to initiate an exchange and I need all the help I can get.
And then it happens. "Peeta Mellark." My head snaps up, my palms are sweating, and I swear when I swallow it's heard by every single person in the room. "And, Katniss Everdeen."