“So I got you something…” my sister, Primrose, tells me while setting a bag down. “Remember when you told me you owed me a huge favor?”
I nod slowly, placing bottles on the high shelves. I hated running the bar, but with Prim in college and Mom being well… Mom, I’m the only one who can. “Yeah?” I ask, struggling to rotate bottles. I always put the new ones in the back so the idiot bartenders I seem to hire won’t open a fresh one when there’s a half empty bottle of fucking vodka two feet in front of his or her face. “Hand me the Goose?”
She passes a bottle of Grey Goose to me. “Well…you know how I got that job at Wells Fargo because of my teacher?”
I slide the new bottle all the way to the back. “Stitching up the stick jockeys? I like when you come home with blood on your sleeve and just wave it off, naming the exact player and what happened…”
I watch Prim roll her eyes through the mirror in the back area of the bar. It serves two purposes, letting me see how much of a hot mess I am; and making sure that no matter what, I can see what’s happening in my own bar. “Anyway, Doctor Aurelius got us tickets for tonight’s home opener… Rory is going to be there with Vick and Posy…” she says hesitantly, trying to tell me that I won’t be the third wheel. I have no idea how Prim meets these people. Somehow my sister met, while getting coffee, the younger brother of the Alternate Captain of the Philadelphia Flyers and ended up waking up next to him. I still don’t know how she does it, but probably by being considerably friendlier than I am.
“And you want me to go because…?”
“We have five benchwarmer tickets to watch the practice, almost center ice seats…” she pauses, knowing I’m getting more and more disinterested every second. “And I would be eternally grateful if you came, because maybe Rory would like to introduce you to his older brother…” she says in one breath.
I don’t have work tonight and neither does Prim, so the apartment would be excruciatingly lonely with just me and her little shit of a cat. “Fine…” I agree halfheartedly. “But only if you help me put away the load. You are co-owner of this place…”
My mother was given ownership of Dad’s bar after he died. Unfortunately, she took that exact opportunity to go catatonic and move to a mental health institution. Prim goes to see her regularly; I’ve tried, but she just sits in a wheelchair and stares vacantly. The only thing I could say that day was ‘This isn’t hereditary, is it?’ It makes me sick, so I avoid visiting her. Prim called me selfish, maybe she’s right.
I hop off the back of the bar onto the honeycomb mat that has saved my feet and ass from slipping so many nights. “I just have to make a trip to the bank. Now, what did you get me?” She sets a bag on the bar and pulls out an orange jersey. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, Prim… really?”
It’s a little bigger than I would have bought for myself, but apparently that’s how you wear hockey jerseys. “We’ll match!” she exclaims, turning the shirt around, which reads Mellark 28 on the back.
“Wow, you don’t even wear your boyfriend’s brother’s numbers?”
She throws the shirt at me. “Game starts at seven, we’re getting there at five.”
“The fuck we are! I have a lot of sitting at home and doing nothing to accomplish!” I grab the closest bottle, which unfortunately turns out to be Vladimir, and pour myself a shot. “For you, madame?”
She makes a face. “I’d rather eat my own liver than Vladdy, but whatever. Hit me, or whatever they say.”
“Salud,” I announce as we tap our shot glasses before downing the vile liquid. Why couldn’t I have reached a little higher?
Prim insists we leave our home on Rodman Street, the house we have lived in since we were kids and Dad inherited the bar, earlier than sanely necessary. We don’t need to worry about parking the car; the Phillies are done and since it’s Saturday, no Eagles either.
“Let me braid your hair,” she says on the train down to the Wells Fargo Center. She pulls out her pocket hairbrush/mirror compact from Sephora and takes out my single braid. “I like you better with two braids, it’s more barely legal, not…” I glare at her through my reflection in the window as she puts my hair in two long braids, tying one with a black ribbon, the other with an orange one. It’s almost as if she planned this.
My favorite thing about the Broad Street Line is the people; the later at night, the better. Today, we have someone yelling out every stop even when we’re halfway to the next. The more ways the better, I guess.
The closer we get to Wells Fargo, the more orange the train gets. At the stop before AT&T Station, someone boards the train wearing what looks like an orange book-sock for his body, along with the one Devils fan in all of Philadelphia. I don’t think the poor fella was at all ready for the orange clad man to give him a lap dance.
“Remember when I said that woman trying to give me her Starbucks cup at two am was the weirdest thing I’ve experienced on SEPTA?”
“Yeah?” Prim asks.
“This takes the cake…” We get off at AT&T in a sea of orange and black, two of thousands wearing only a few men’s numbers. I feel the need to take note of them, considering one of these stranger’s numbers happens to be on my back - Mellark, Hawthorne, Thom, Odair, Thresh.
We’re insanely early, which makes it equally insane for this many people to be here already. “Rory!” Prim calls, letting go of my hand as she rushes to greet her boyfriend. I hadn’t even realized she was holding it. Ever since both of our parents checked out, Prim doesn’t particularly enjoy living in the city.
I just continue ignoring people trying to sell me tickets or buy mine. “Long time no see, Katniss,” Rory hugs me tightly, kissing both my cheeks. “This is Vick and Posy,” he says, introducing me to his siblings.
Everyone has their own pregame rituals; well, we all have our own rituals in general. Some of us wear the same underwear every game, or the same socks, and they don’t get washed during a hot streak.
I get quiet before games. I’m the first one in all my gear while we’re waiting to take the ice and have a bad habit of just staring while passing my stick from hand-to-hand, checking for cracks before taping it.
“Hey man, you ready?” The room is eerily quiet. As Captain, it’s my job to get the team pumped, but I’m kind of shitty at it some nights. Fortunately, I have a goalie like Finnick.
“Alright, this is what we’re going to do. Offense, plow them down and put them in the boards. Defense, you do the same because for God’s sake, I don’t want to have to come out there and do it myself.”
Gale snorts, “Yeah, because we haven’t had a good goalie fight yet this season…”
Finnick starts stretching out. He looks huge in his pads, but is actually not much taller than I am. I have a few concerns trusting him to do the job, but he’s enthusiastic about it. “I’m not going to waste two minutes in the box on Brodeur. Now Gloss, on the other hand… let me at that pretty boy’s fucking face for two minutes. Pads off, center ice…” he says and takes a few jabs at the air. I have no idea how goalies end up with such bad blood between one another. They’re mostly kept apart and usually ignore each other. Finnick has only been in one fight that I’ve seen and that was when Cato, the Captain of our cross-state rivals, checked him into the goal mostly for shits and giggles.
Finnick was ejected from the game after that, considering he chased Cato close to the other goal and split his eyebrow after ripping off his helmet. Since then, the rule has been that Finnick only fights with the other goalie.
We go out for practice, our opponents already having taken the ice. It’s basically slapshots and this thing Odair does where he drops to his legs and shuffles from side to side. Apparently, the ladies love it. We always practice to the same playlist; it’s as traditional as Kate Smith.
The stands are already filled with fans. There’s honestly nothing like this; a city full of people cheering for you and the game hasn’t even started yet. It’s touch and go with Philadelphians, though. They’ll boo their own team if and when they see fit.
I sit huddled on the bench sandwiched between Prim and Posy while Vick and Rory talk across from us. I’m tired from work and kind of just want a nap but it’s both too noisy and too cold. Instead I tuck my hands in my jersey and warm them on my stomach.
Prim starts telling Rory about the train here, mostly the lap dance we watched, and I lean in to listen not even paying attention as a water bottle is knocked off the railing, hitting me square in the breast. “Shit, what was that for?” I ask, unfolding my limbs and picking the bottle off the ground.
“I am so sorry, blame it on Finnick…” I look around him to the goalie, who is doing leg stretches.
“He doesn’t seem to be doing much that would send a bottle,” I retort and shake it for show, “Right into my chest!” The man turns around… Number 28, the same as my jersey.
He takes off his helmet and gloves, running his hand through his already sweaty blonde curls. “Sorry, guess we just have more padding in that area…” he says nervously, his bright blue eyes looking me up and down. “I am going to shut up now.” He looks down and holds out his hand. “Are you going to give me that back or take a drink?”
I hand him the green bottle. “Don’t let it happen again.”
Mellark leans across the railing. “You going to send me to the box, ref?”
“Peeta, shut up and go practice,” Rory cautions.
“Yes, Mom…” he groans and skates away, his helmet and gloves tucked under his arm. As he slaps his helmet on over his curls, he shoots me one of the warmest, cheekiest smiles I’ve ever seen. He’s a cocky fuck, that’s for sure, but has the nicest eyes…
Prim leans into me. “You’re blushing…”
I stop looking at Mellark and touch my cold fingers to my hot cheeks. “Shut up… it’s cold.”
Once practice is over, we have to take our seats which aren’t far from the bench with only a pane of glass keeping us from everything.
When the Devils take the ice, the fans yell ‘sucks’ after each name is announced. How can they say these people suck? They’re playing a sport at the professional level, they’d almost have to know what they’re doing.
Everything gets dark and loud as a song I’ve never heard starts booming through the speakers of the Wells Fargo Center. “Now, please welcome your Philadelphia Flyers!” the announcer says just before the song says ‘Let’s Get Ready to Rumble’ and one by one, orange and black clad Flyers enter to a sea of roaring orange.
The last one to take the ice is 28; the one who hit me, the one whose cheeky grin I can’t get out of my mind. A few minutes into the game, Rory hands me a beer. I guess he’s good for something besides turning my sister into a bubbling mess. I find myself not paying attention to the game right in front of me, but rather the huge TV hanging right above the center of the rink. It follows the puck everywhere, which is great for me because as usual, I forgot my glasses on my dresser. Every so often, the TV shows people around the arena. There are far more black and orange afro’s here than I was prepared for.
Suddenly, there’s an obnoxious buzzing followed by an equally obnoxious song. It’s a techno song I’ve heard on the internet that the crowd sings along with. The only way to describe it is thousands of people singing the word ‘doop’ in different pitches. Everyone stands, but I’m too cold and confused to bother.
During the second period, I’m pulled to my feet when another goal is scored, having no excuse to stay seated. My beer is gone, and I finally adjusted to the cold during the short break between the first and second periods.
I watch on the screen as Mellark gets checked into the glass two feet from my face, looking up just in time for a high stick to catch him in the lip. He turns around, chin bloody and swinging at the guy who hit him. The referees have already stopped play and are separating the two men from each other. This is when I choose to stand, watching little droplets of blood fall on the orange of Mellark’s jersey. “Is he out of the game?” I ask Prim. The trainer guides him off the ice, holding a towel to his chin. Before he gets too far away, he turns back to where I’m sitting and gives me the same grin, bloody teeth and all. It’s still kind of cute and innocent, though I know he wouldn’t be afraid to throw a few punches.
She shakes her head as someone fills in for Mellark and I take my seat. “They’ll stitch him up and send him out again…” I just nod.
I don’t know what starts it, but a few minutes from the end of the second period I watch Hawthorne and someone from the Devils throw their gloves off and toss down their sticks. They grab each other’s shirts and try to get a few good punches in despite the fact that they’re sliding across the ice.
“Here we go…” Vick grumbles. “Gale’s been waiting to give it to Volchenkov all day…”
“Salud,” I tell him at hearing the name. “And why?”
Vick shrugs and Posy leans into me for warmth. “You don’t ask questions, sometimes they just need to get physical to show each other who’s boss, though I’m sure this was more about him high sticking Peeta.”
Both parties are thrown into the penalty box for a few minutes, leaving each team a man down. “It just seems stupid. They’re winning.” No one tries to take the time to explain hockey fighting to me. I guess I’m just supposed to assume the testosterone in the room overflows and you just have to hit someone. Once their time is up, they fly out of the box in the same direction. They exchange words, but not blows.
Right as the third period begins, Mellark comes back out as if nothing happened. The crowd roars but it doesn’t seem to affect him.
The rest of the game favors the Flyers net. Two men with the names Thom and Thresh, along with a third who just shifts too much and always seems to have his back to me, are unable to get the puck to Mellark, Hawthorne, and Sestito. There isn’t a moment where they’re still; always moving from one spot to another either at a leisurely pace or quickly when they think they’ll have to pick the puck up.
It isn’t until Odair gets the save that the advantage is returned to the Flyers. Three periods and three goals later, I’m finally free.
“Hey, we’re going to go celebrate. Want to…”
I interrupt Prim. “Get some coffee from Wawa and regain feeling in my fingers?”
“Well, that… but celebratory drinks?”
I roll my eyes. I don’t know what there is to celebrate, since it’s the beginning of the season. “I’m going to head home and grab something before heading to the bar to make sure Darius didn’t fuck everything up.”
Prim pouts. “Katniss, don’t be anti-social. We can go back to the-“
“Prim, I’ve had enough celebration and enough to drink for one night. Don’t stay out too late,” I tease. “It was nice meeting you Vick, Posy, and Rory, don’t try anything stupid.” He just salutes in response.
The train home is just as rowdy as the one down to the game, if not more. When I walk into the house, I realize I have a headache. All of the noise and excitement added up to one massive migraine. I take two Aleve and flop down on the couch. “And people have season passes for this shit…” I grumble, closing my eyes. Buttercup, Prim’s twelve-year-old cat, paws at me. “No… I fed you already… Fuck off…”
I close my eyes and after what feels like an eternity later, my phone starts buzzing. “What…” I yawn.
“Katniss, where are you?” Prim asks, worried.
I rub the sleep from my eyes. “Sleeping off a migraine, where are you?”
“The bar. Vick took Posy home, so Rory and I came here with a few of the guys and Darius said you never made it.”
“Headache, sleeping it off,” I say again. I do have work to do tonight. The drawer needs to be counted so my work in the morning will be infinitely easier, along with tomorrow afternoon. “I’ll be there in ten minutes…”
I peel myself off the couch and grab my handbag and keys before heading into the October chill, but not before remembering my glasses. It’s already midnight, why am I leaving home to be social? I should be climbing in bed with the heated blanket.
“Why the fuck did you not bring a coat!” I hiss at myself, shoving my hands as far into my pockets as possible, only taking them out to wave at someone I run in front of on my way to the bar. To this day, we have no idea why Grandpa Everdeen wanted to open a bar. He moved to Philly after living on a farm out near Lancaster, and something possessed him to name it The Chicken Coop. When my Dad inherited it, he changed the name to the simple and sweet Everdeen’s. It’s a few blocks south of South Street, so it doesn’t see as many weirdos. And since we’re about a block away from a sex shop, the first thing that greets our customers is a sign that reads, ‘Please don’t handcuff the bartender.’ Darius thinks it’s hilarious, but I have been offered a ‘night of bliss’ in exchange for me ripping up someone’s tab. Sorry, but I’m not making any fucking money that way.
I push inside, the hockey crowd already dispersed by this hour. There are only a few regulars and my sister behind the bar with Darius, though the only part of him I can see is his brassy hair. Rory sits at the bar next to two larger men, one with black hair, the other blonde.
Darius stands up, but his shaggy reddish hair is on the wrong body. “Excuse me,” I call from the door. “If you’re not on my payroll or on the lease, you stay on the other side.”
I walk around the other side and pull down a bottle of Makers Mark. “Nice chin,” I say, eyeing up the blonde. The one with black hair has a bruise just under his right eye. “You two go at it?”
Everyone gets really quiet, like I’m missing something. “Darius! The customers are picking on me again!” I shout. ”Defend me!” I cry, pouring myself a drink.
“Darius went home when we got here,” Prim tells me. “I was going to close up tonight. Katniss?” I take a sip, an ice cube hitting my tooth. “This is Finnick Odair, Peeta Mellark, and Rory’s older brother, Gale Hawthorne…”
I keep the drink close to my lips, trying to use it to hide my embarrassment. “Prim, the people you know…”
I shake each of their hands, but linger with the blonde’s. “I’m Katniss. Do you need any ice for your lip?”
Peeta doesn’t say anything and I let go of his hand. “Fuck his lip, I need some for my ass,” Finnick says.
“Excuse me, forget your ass! Did you see what Volchenkov did to my face?” Gale points to his half a shiner.
“Both of you are whiny little bitches,” Peeta grumbles and takes a sip of his beer. “And you started that fight, Gale.”
He pats Peeta’s shoulder. “Had to defend your honor, man…”
Prim and I just exchange looks and shrug. “So if one of you falls on your ass during practice, is that person made fun of for the rest of the day?” she asks.
“More like the rest of your life…” Finnick says, checking his phone. “Well, Annie’s plane just landed. Sorry about the mess, Katniss… stiff hands from the gloves,” he notes while flexing his fingers.
I just nod as I move to clean glasses that should have been done ages ago, but Darius is a slob and likes to leave everything for the last minute. I turn the water on a little too high and get a stream of warm beer and tepid water right in the stomach. “Sorry, Peeta. I got beer on your jersey,” I tell him idly. He hasn’t looked away from me since I stepped behind the bar. I take off the shirt, trying to forget that all I have on is a white camisole and bright red bra.
“Sweater,” he corrects.
“No…” I set a clean glass down. “If I was wearing a sweater, I wouldn’t have been freezing on the way here.”
“It’s a sweater in hockey. I mean, if you want to call it a jersey that’s okay… but properly, it’s a sweater.”
I work on closing up the bar and one-by-one, the customers who aren’t part of my sister’s entourage settle their tabs and head out into the world. Two am hits and I lock the door behind Prim and Rory, who are heading back to his place for the night, leaving me alone with the cat.
“So where do you live?” Peeta asks idly as I count down the drawer. These are Prim’s ‘friends’ so why am I entertaining them?
“Like, seven blocks north of here.”
Gale pats Peeta on the back. “Dude, I gotta head home. See you tomorrow?” Peeta just nods and waves.
“Wait, aren’t you two here together?”
“We drove to work separately,” Gale tells me. Peeta just smiles sheepishly.
He hands me some cash which I just shove in the blue bag. I’ll have to recount it in the morning, as I’m a few drinks in and not exactly sharp. Gale leaves Peeta and I alone in the bar. For a few minutes, the only noise is the TV which Darius had set on ESPN. I turn it off, not needing to see the recap of the game.
“You should let me drive you home,” Peeta tells me boldly.
“No,” I answer simply.
He looks shocked. “Why? It’s late, you’ve been drinking. You have a long walk.”
I narrow my eyes. I’ve seen how he’s been staring at me. “Because you’ll get ideas. The second you drive me home, the second you ask to get invited upstairs because my sister is out of the house and it’s empty besides me and the cat. No, Mr. Mellark, not interested.”
He doesn’t look phased. “So you think that I just want to get in your pants? Maybe I just want to come up for some coffee?”
I try to stifle my laugh. “And we all know that coffee and sex are basically the same word after midnight.” His grin widens enough that his stitches pull, causing some bleeding. He hasn’t noticed and when I press a folded-up paper towel to the area, he jumps a little.
“I’m sorry about earlier. For hitting you, that is. I got distracted,” he looks everywhere but me, “I’m sorry, I’m trying really hard to look everywhere but your breasts.”
I blush. “Thanks…”
“You know, I was just going to drive you home… maybe walk you to your door, then part ways…”
I bite my lip and check to see if his chin has stopped bleeding. “Thanks…” I mumble, not knowing what else to say.
“I mean, unless you wanted to see me again?” he asks hopefully.
“Aren’t you away every other week?”
He shrugs and I press the towel into his chin again. “I’m here until Wednesday, then I’ll be back after a few days. I’m actually here for most of this month…” he stumbles a little when he talks, like I make him nervous. “I could take you to dinner, or cook for you?”
He’s nervous, like when I was sixteen and a guy clumsily asked me to Homecoming. “Here, I have some Neosporin in the office,” I say, evading his question.
Peeta isn’t much taller than I am, but his broad shoulders overwhelm me when he follows me a little too closely. I don’t think he’s going to try anything, I just don’t really enjoy the proximity. “So tell me something…” I start.
“Mhm?” he says in response.
“Your warm-up music… were you guys channeling a women’s aerobics class?”
Peeta shrugs and I dig through our first aid kit. “Here,” I say, handing him the tube.
“It’s just easy to get lost in before a game,” he replies, rubbing the cream into his stitches. “You still haven’t answered my question.”
“Let me think about it.”
“It’s just dinner, Katniss,” he murmurs.
“Dinner and coffee can mean the same thing…” I whisper.
He repeats himself. “I’m not some horny teenage boy that’s all about…“ He elongates the o in about.
“Say that again!” I snicker as he narrows his eyes clearly onto me.
“No,” he shakes his head. “Or I’ll start making fun of how you talk!” I narrow my eyes right back. “Dropping letters, adding some, and whatever the fuck a jawn is.”
“What aboot it?”
Peeta rolls his eyes and hands me back the tube. “Oh, shut up,” I stick my tongue out.
“Here…” he starts taking off his jacket and offers it to me. I blush, realizing I’m only in a tank-top. “It’s cold out…”
He has on a long-sleeved grey shirt on with Philadelphia Flyers on the chest and his number right above his left collar bone. “You looked bigger earlier,” I blurt and his eyes widen. Wow…that sounded a lot better in my head than clumsily sashaying out of my mouth.
“Ok, I’m going to… grab my things and hang myself from a pipe…” I say, practically running out of my own office, “Or jump into I-95 traffic during rush hour or cross the Boulevard with my eyes closed or…“ Warm hands grab my waist from behind, stopping my list of ways to quickly end my embarrassment.
“Katniss, calm down,” he says as his thumbs rub me a little. It feels nice, better than I was expecting. Hockey seems so violent, not at all like what I’ve seen of Peeta. I lean back and my shoulders rest against his chest.
“Yes,” I finally say. “To dinner.”
He lets go and I pull on his coat. “I’m in town until the seventeenth, what day works for you?”
“Any? Just…” I walk behind the bar and write my phone number on a napkin. “Call me?”
He smiles. “I would still feel better if I drove you home.”
“No coffee?” He smiles like he did on the ice, cheeky though still nervous, like he’s out of his element.
“It’s almost three am, Sir! I’d rather have coffee in the morning.” I grab my keys and start turning off the lights.
As I head for the door, I feel Peeta’s hand on the small of my back. “I’ll take note of that…” he whispers in my ear, passing me to hold the door open. I can still feel the heat from his hand on my back, and I know we both weren’t talking about just coffee.