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To Hope For The End; To Survive The Beginning

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It all started with a locket and a handful of primroses. It wasn’t her birthday. It wasn’t even Prim’s. Instead, it was the anniversary of the worst day of her entire life. And there he was, as if he knew how hard it’d been for her to get up and face this day. As if he knew she’d need to see him and be reminded that the whole world hadn’t ended when that fire claimed her sister’s life.

“For her,” he said, so quietly, and he put the flowers in her hand without meeting her eyes.

She’d meant—probably—to say thank you, but the feel of something metal wrapped around the tiny stems stopped her.

“Peeta,” she said instead. She said his name a lot. Maybe because he was always surprising her, leaving her speechless and uncertain. Maybe because she liked saying it, knowing that he was there to hear it. Or maybe just because he was the one, the only, constant in her life.

“A reminder,” he said softly, in that gentle way of his. “That no matter how hard it is without her, there are still reasons to keep going.”

Carefully, afraid to wilt the primroses or bruise the carefully tended stalks, Katniss unwound the locket and pried it open. Inside, three faces stared back at her.

Her dad. Gone far too long, snatched away when she—when they all—were too young. Still so important to her life, but just a bit faded now, dulled by time and distance and other tragedies. By good things, too. Things like this locket and the primroses and the boy watching her take in the gifts with eyes that flickered away any time she tried to look back.

Her mom. Faded and dim, and Katniss used to hate her for it, still distrusted her, but she’d felt the allure of a bed and a blank wall and days that blended all together, hadn’t she? She still couldn’t always make it upright. Couldn’t reconnect with the world. Life had long since turned Katniss from her father’s shadow into her mother’s reflection.

And Prim. Too young. Too beautiful and good for this world but all the proof Katniss had ever needed that there were things worth fighting for in the world. And now she was gone, too, her life snuffed out in a gas explosion along with everything else that marked the first twenty years of Katniss’s life.

Almost everything.

“Everyone you love,” Peeta whispered. “They can hang over your heart. So you remember.”

“What about you?” she asked.

It’s quiet here, deep in the woods outside the city limits of Panem. He knew she’d want to be alone. He knew she’d need the forest and the trees and the feel of her dad’s jacket wrapped all around her.

Peeta always knew, somehow.

If only she’d known herself sooner.

“What?”

“Where are you?” Katniss asked a bit louder. A bit clearer. “Where’s your picture?”

“Katniss…”

There was something a lot like pain in his voice. Or maybe it was hope. Or hollowness. Or disbelief or doubt or joy or earnestness or some mixture of them all. She’d heard his voice weighted by all those things at one time or another, but unlike him, she wasn’t very good at reading what he needed. Or at giving it.

“It’s okay,” she said, and this time, when Peeta tried to look away, she didn’t let him. “I don’t need a reminder of you. Why would I need your picture when you’re right in front of me?”

Something dawned in his eyes like sunlight. Like a sunrise to join all the sunsets he painted on top of cakes.

“Katniss,” he breathed out.

It was hope. She knew this because the same thing had dawned in her eyes once upon a time—and all because of this boy in front of her.

---

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It all ends with a song. A song and a look because while she’s singing in a voice so pure it sounds like molten color, she looks right at him. He feels as if he’s just like the birds falling silent outside the open window, but better, because if she’s looking at him, it means he’s the one she means to charm and entice under her spell. And if so, it works so much better than she ever seems to realize.

He doesn’t hear her sing again for years, but that’s okay because he remembers it. It’s imprinted in his heart so he’ll never forget it. And anyway, she keeps looking his way, and that’s better. Her eyes are clear, refracting light like snowflakes or white fur, catching and crystallizing color so that each time their eyes lock, Peeta feels as if he’s catching sight of a whole new world.

At first, she looks only occasionally, accidentally, as if she really is oblivious to just how thoroughly she’s charmed him.

But then, eventually, after a somber funeral with a glassy-eyed mother and a crying younger sister, after a night veiled in rain and bones exposed beneath translucent skin, after a quick decision and a moment of cowardice, she begins to look his way a lot more often.

Peeta lives for those brief moments. Those glances. That proof that he’s still there to receive them.

To avoid bruises and awkward lies, he’s learned how to be invisible at home, useful and quiet and small. To escape pity and unknown consequences at school, he’s adapted the art of camouflage—asking others about themselves to avert suspicion from him, laughing to fake fine, surrounding himself in herds so as not to be immediately singled out as the weakest link. He’s become so good at fading into whatever scene he’s in that sometimes he imagines himself completely dissolving. A boy become a ghost become an echo, nothing but fading shadows colorless against the school hallways or the bakery counters.

Just a single glance from her, from Katniss, reminds him that he’s real. She’s clear, so solid and unequivocally, unapologetically herself that if she chooses to look at him, then surely it must mean that he’s still here too.

Sometimes, he only ever feels real when she chooses to see him.

All through school he watches her from afar, a bird trained to always return to trusted familiarity. Only, she’s so foreign, strange and unknowable, a mystery that consumes him, that she never really does feel familiar. He looks at her all the time, and she looks back only a handful of times, but that’s okay. It’s enough.

He’s been hers ever since that first song, after all.

It’s when school ends and a couple hundred graduates scatter out into the world that Peeta thinks maybe he should have done more than just look.

But it’s too late, and Katniss walks away without a single backwards look.

And as easily as that, it’s over.

---

///

So it hadn’t really started there. It’d started before then, really. It started with a pearl. It wasn’t even her pearl. Or at least, it didn’t start out as hers. Peeta was the one who’d found it, when they’d been thrown into each other’s company on a trip to Finnick and Annie’s home. All their friends had coupled off, including Haymitch who had dragged Katniss along and Effie who’d brought Peeta, leaving them the odd ones out and stuck together because of it. If their friends had arranged it that way, Katniss didn’t think of it until later and Peeta never said. Of course, back then, before she’d hurt him, before his heart had shattered right in front of her while she stood there with nothing to say, he’d probably been overjoyed to get to spend time with her.

She’d thought he was just kind, though. Friendly. Good like Prim. He’d gone wherever she wanted, filled in the silences she found uncomfortable, and never pushed when she needed a bit of space. He’d followed her down the beach one morning, her feet bare and his leaving deep footprints with the tread of his shoes clear in the sand. Katniss had been deep in thought, staring at the sunrise and wondering why Peeta liked the orange of the sunset better—wondering what the difference was or if there really was one or if it was something only Peeta would notice—when he’d smiled and laughed and hurried to catch up with her while the shells of an oyster fell in his wake.

“Look,” he’d said. Katniss had startled back, her mind going blank at the warmth of his hand on hers, the steadiness of his touch, as he placed a pearl in the center of her palm. “For you,” he’d said, and Katniss had felt herself smiling though she couldn’t explain why.

After that, the pearl lived in her pocket. She often found herself fingering it, examining its contours, tracing its whorls, studying the opalescent shine of it in the light.

Especially after Peeta’s heart had fractured into a million pieces. When the light that had made his eyes bluer than the ocean as she accepted the pearl had turned black and dark and hollow. When they’d stopped talking and the silence stretched cold and endless before her.

That’s when the pearl had stayed nearly always in the palm of her hand. Never far. Safe within the warmth of her own hand.

So maybe the pearl hadn’t been the beginning. It’d felt more like an ending, the remnants of an unhappy epilogue refusing to fade away.

Until she’d bumped into him. Accidentally, she would claim, but it was the street where his bakery lived on the corner and if ever she was to meet him again, of course it would be there.

“Katniss!” The corners of his mouth lifted, ever so slightly, as he said her name. And fell, much more noticeably, as he visibly reminded himself that she didn’t make him happy anymore.

“Peeta,” she said, because she wanted to. Because she’d been longing to say it for so long. Because she’d walked this street every evening since the day he’d walked away from her hoping to have a chance to say it again.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, stepping back until the distance yawned between them. “I didn’t mean to bump… Are you okay?”

“I miss you,” she said quickly, before he could stop her.

This time, it was her turn to flit quick looks up at him and then let her eyes skitter away before she could really read him. Not that she’d ever been good at it, but she’d started to realize that Peeta wasn’t actually that hard to understand. As long as she remembered that he wore his heart on his sleeve—as soon as she admitted to herself that everything he showed was absolutely genuine—it became a lot easier to puzzle out his mysteries.

“I miss you too,” he said then, and Katniss had to blink and look up to the falling snowflakes before she did something stupid like cry in front of him when he was the one who was hurt.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to the sky.

Peeta swallowed heavily and looked down to the ground. She hated it. He’d always been the one who looked at everything. Staring around him, noticing beauty so he could point it out to her and they could share it. Now, she stared up at ebony black dotted with pinpricks of white, like a galaxy whirling down toward her, caught in his orbit as surely as she seemed to be, and he missed it all.

She’d ruined it for him. He was in the bakery every day from before sunrise to after sunset. Peeta wasn’t made for the night. He was best suited to light and brightness and a multitude of colors. And it was her fault that he’d relegated himself back to the prison of his past.

But then, so suddenly it startled her, Peeta straightened and caught her eyes. “I’m sorry too,” he said. He’d always been such a good liar. “I mean…you did hurt me, but…I should have known. I should have paid more attention to you. I mean, I shouldn’t have weighted you down with all my own expectations.”

“No, Peeta, that’s not…” Katniss looked away, miserable. “Don’t apologize. How could you have known?”

“I did know,” he whispered. The secret caught against her cheek like a particularly cold snowflake. “I think I did, anyway. I just didn’t want to know. I guess I wanted it too much. I should have known that it was too good to be true.”

He was too good to be true. But the minute Katniss tried to say that, all she could see were his eyes turning hollow and bruised. His hand falling away from her. All she could feel was how alone she’d felt, there by those train tracks, watching his steps turn heavy as he plodded away from her.

Her throat tightened and the gift of speech, as it always did, eluded her.

In lieu of the truth that would probably have only hurt him anyway, coming as it did far too late, Katniss stepped forward and took his hand. It shook slightly, but it was still just as warm as she remembered.

“Here,” she said. “For you.”

It almost didn’t even hurt, dropping the pearl back into his hand. Almost.

When she looked up, Peeta was blinking away tears. Katniss’s heart dropped. She’d wanted to give him something that mattered, something he could hold onto. But even when she copied him—mimicked the things that pinched her own heart and stayed with her long after he’d gone—she still only brought ruin.

“Thank you,” he rasped.

Katniss stepped away from his warmth. From his steadiness. She turned her back to his bright eyes and his golden eyelashes. She began to walk into the cold dark.

“Katniss, wait!” Peeta rushed forward, so loud that he couldn’t hear her heart hammering like drums in her ears. “Wait, please, I…” Blushing and nervous, Peeta offered her a smile, so shy and sweet that Katniss’s stomach twisted and she had to clench her empty hands into bruising fists to keep from reaching out and tracing the beauty in that smile. “Please, if I… If I stop acting all wounded and you stop looking at me like I’m a kicked puppy, maybe…maybe we could be friends?”

He was always so brave. Katniss felt a little bit—a lot—in awe of him, then. How could he make himself risk his heart in so many different ways?

“I think we can be good friends,” Katniss managed to say. “After all, I already know your favorite color.”

He laughed, then. It was a weak laugh, a little watery, a lot tentative, but it was better than a pearl in her pocket.

It was hope. Hope definitely undeserved and almost unlooked for and Katniss had finally figured out how to hold onto the things that mattered most.

Friends. She could do that if he could. She’d done it before, after all, hadn’t she?

---

///

His life devoid of Katniss comes to an end when he accepts his aunt’s invitation to the beach. Effie’s lonely and since he’s the only one who will let her ramble on for hours—and who remembers to be extra polite around her; manners are oddly important to Effie—she often calls him. Even so, he isn’t planning to cave and go with her until she makes a comment about Haymitch bringing his niece. Suddenly, Peeta cannot agree fast enough.

He really doesn’t think he’ll get anything more than a glance or two. A chance to make sure she’s alive and well. Not thin and starved and drooping in the rain, but strong and pure and electric.

Well. He hopes for more, of course. For all the times he’s cloaked himself in whatever’s expected of him and distracted everyone nearby with small talk, Peeta’s always found plenty of time to fill his own head with hopes and dreams and beautiful maybes. So he hopes, but he doesn’t expect. He has, after all, grown very used to disappointment.

Katniss, however, does not disappoint.

Finnick and Annie are wrapped up in each other, Haymitch and Effie fall into a strange sort of bickering that excludes anyone but them, and everyone else pairs off until Peeta finds himself alone with Katniss for breakfast.

“Come halfway across the country and still end up eating a breakfast roll with a Mellark baker,” he jokes. And then immediately regrets it because Katniss just stares at him from her place by the door. Maybe she didn’t realize he was there—or never realized he was at the bakery when she came in for her and Prim’s breakfasts. Most likely, she’s just never given a second thought to him one way or the other.

That possibility almost discourages him back into longing silence. But then, just before he can get up and leave her alone, he catches it—a quick sidelong look from silver eyes. A look to him.

“Do you want to walk down to the shore?” he blurts.

She hesitates. He holds his breath.

“Together?” she asks.

“Together,” he says.

She nods and then thankfully heads upstairs for her sandals, giving him enough time to regain his composure.

At first, their walk is silent. Peeta doesn’t mind. He’s still reeling just at the new reality of being someone invited to walk beside her—well, really, a bit behind her because she walks very fast and he keeps getting distracted by the sight of the sea refracting off her dark hair.

“Were Haymitch and Effie planning on swimming?”

Caught off-guard by her abrupt question, Peeta nonetheless seizes this excuse to look straight at her. “I don’t know. Why, you wanting to join them?”

“Hardly,” she scoffs. “But knowing how he likes his breakfast liquid, the last thing I need is Haymitch near water.”

“Better than near an open flame,” Peeta jokes. “He might singe the feathers in Effie’s hair.”

And that’s when it happens.

Katniss laughs. She looks straight at him, mouth opening in a real smile, and laughs. “A match made in poultry heaven,” she says, and despite his breathless state, Peeta can’t help but laugh too.

All these years of dreaming and noticing and imagining, but he’d never pictured this. He didn’t know she’s funny too. He didn’t realize how sarcastic she could be. He’s surprised by her surprise when he recognizes her dry asides as the teasing they are and laughs with her. He’d never dreamed, really, beyond only in the most abstract of ways, that Katniss Everdeen would choose to laugh and joke and play with him.

Peeta tags along behind her all day, ecstatic when she never once says anything to intimate that she wants to be alone. The next morning, she casually mentions another beach in a nearby cove, and when Peeta offers to pack up a basket for a picnic lunch, she nods as if they’d already made the plans. Once more, they spend all day together. She tells him about a narrow escape she had from a bear wanting the same honey she was harvesting back in the woods of Panem, and he relays the time he narrowly lost a wrestling match with his brother.

The morning after that, she smiles just to see him. Naturally. Casually. As if watching him walk into a room to join her for breakfast—even after seeing him for days on end—is enough to make her happy.

If there was ever a chance at all of him getting past this crush of his, that smile puts an end to it. And if he thought, at any point during that wonderful, dreamlike week together, of letting things go back to the way they were, he determinedly crushes it.

He’s done being a coward. He’s finished contenting himself with an imaginary life rather than fighting to make a real one.

Besides, if he can get Katniss Everdeen to smile at him, surely he can do anything.

---

///

Because obviously that pearl, gifted back and forth, hadn’t really been the start. A start, yes. A start-over. But whatever was between them had started before that, months before, on a walk along railroad tracks, with a bouquet of flowers he hadn’t known were the tops of wild onions and a heart she hadn’t realized was so wholly entrusted to her keeping.

He should have known better. Hadn’t he recognized her as the wild thing she was? Hadn’t he known—hadn’t anyone warned him—that she couldn’t keep track of her own heart let alone anyone else’s?

But even if he had known, she thought Peeta might have gone ahead and hoped and tried and trusted anyway. In some strange, unique way, Peeta was able to turn what should have been foolishness into a power, a weapon, individual strength that defied anyone to make him into something he wasn’t.

The flowers—beauty she’d never noticed before when she and Gale would harvest these for food to take back to the tenements so their families could eat another night—were an impulsive gift. Katniss noticed Peeta noticing them. Not the food. Just the beauty. Vibrant bursts of color against the green and yellow grass overgrowing the abandoned railroad tracks. Katniss had taken Peeta on many walks before so she was used to him being excited over the things she so often took for granted. But even so, it took her a minute to realize why he was pulling his hand from hers to kneel, awkward with his bad leg, and look up with a smile.

“What are you doing?” she blurted.

He was kneeling in front of her.

Kneeling.

“That boy loves you,” Haymitch had told her just the day before. And since he’d hardly been the first to say it, Katniss had only rolled her eyes. Until Haymitch grabbed her hand and said, more serious than she’d ever heard him before, “You better make sure you know what you’re doing. We both know you don’t deserve that boy. Don’t play with him when you know he wants the real thing.”

Katniss hadn’t slept a wink the whole night. Because she knew Haymitch was right. Peeta loved her. And Katniss didn’t deserve him. How long had they been dating? Kissing? Holding hands while out with their friends? And still, even now, Katniss’s heart was cold and numb inside her. She didn’t want Peeta to be hurt—she never wanted him to be hurt—but that wasn’t the same thing as love.

“For you,” Peeta said grandly.

Blinking back to awareness, Katniss let out a breath when she realized Peeta was standing upright again. Staring at her with his heart in his eyes and a bunch of flowers held out toward her. He’d picked the blossoms and left the bulbs behind. As if he didn’t know which part of the plant was the important part.

And why should he? Peeta had never gone hungry. Never lost his father and watched his mother disappear into depression and oblivion and prescription drugs. Never curled up next to his sister and known they would starve to death two apartments down from some neighbor with extra food in their fridge. Never wandered out into the night, into the cold rainy unknown, and known that death would find him alone and forgotten in an alleyway.

She didn’t want him to know those things. To experience them. To be molded and reshaped by them.

But that didn’t change the fact that they were too different. Night and day. Cold, hungry reality and the hope he blindly wove around himself because he didn’t know any better.

“I know they’re not dandelions,” Peeta said nervously, and Katniss looked up from the flowers still held between them, wavering as his hand began to drop back to his side, to see that she’d been silent too long.

“Why would you say that?” Katniss asked, the question jagged as breath scraped against her throat.

Peeta blinked. “You like dandelions.”

How did he know that?

For the first time, words came too easily for her and she blurted out the question.

She’d never told him that. He shouldn’t know.

A hint of pink stained his cheeks as he looked away, just like back in school when glances were exchanged and dropped and missed though they’d never spoken even once. “Whenever you see one,” he said quietly, “your eyes go soft and your mouth almost smiles.”

“You can eat dandelions,” she said abruptly. “They make a salad.”

“I didn’t know.”

“And these…” Katniss finally took the flowers from him, trying her best to keep her voice level. Normal. Completely unaffected. “These are onions. I mean, not the flowers, but the bulbs beneath.”

“Do you want the bulbs too?” Peeta glanced back, as if he meant to turn right then and dig out the onions for her.

“No. No, I…” Suddenly uncomfortable in a way she couldn’t explain, Katniss tried to force a smile for him. “They’re pretty like this.”

He let her pull him back into a side-by-side walk. Listening to his steps, Katniss ghosted along at his side. That felt like an apt picture of who they were in the world, too, she couldn’t help but think. He was solid, strong, steady; he made an impact and touched things around him. Katniss was lucky to get through each day, invisible and silent, flying under the radar so that Child Protective Services wouldn’t swoop in and steal Prim out from under her nose.

“What’s wrong?” Peeta asked. His voice was very soft, tender and tentative all at once, and for just an instant, Katniss hated it. She’d been dating him for almost a month now—shouldn’t he have stopped being so nervous around her? Was she really that scary? Hadn’t she let him kiss her and hug her and invite her over to his cozy apartment to bake cookies and laugh at each other’s stories? When would it ever be enough for him?

When would she stop owing him?

He stood so close to her. Her hand felt small in his. The flowers were staining her other hand, wet against her fingertips. She’d never meant to bring him out here, not really, but she couldn’t take him to the rock where she and Gale usually met up once a week and she’d sworn to herself she’d never take anyone out to her father’s lake, so here they were. Walking alongside rusted metal within walking distance of the terrible neighborhood she never felt quite comfortable seeing Peeta in and with nothing between them but wilting flowers and two loaves of bread long, long eaten.

“Katniss.” Peeta stopped, then, and turned to look at her. As much as she usually felt a bit uncomfortable with PDA, she almost wished he’d just kiss her. Anything to stop him from looking at her with those clear blue eyes that saw so much inside her—more than, she usually thought, was really there. “I know something’s wrong. I think…I think something’s been wrong for a while. Is it Prim?”

“No.”

“Well, is it your mom? I thought she was getting better. Has she…did she get hold of another prescription?”

“No.”

She could hear him swallow. Glanced up just enough to see his throat work as he got out his next question. “Gale? Are you two fighting? Or…”

Of course he couldn’t finish that. It was uncomfortable thinking about Gale and Peeta together—especially after that kiss Gale had pulled Katniss into when she’d told him she was dating Peeta Mellark now—so he didn’t know enough about their friendship to ask anything more specific.

“No,” she whispered.

Gale might think he was the reason she felt guilty anytime she let Peeta pull her close, but Katniss knew better. This went far past that. Back before she’d ever even met Gale.

Peeta dropped her hand.

The flowers trembled as her hand closed tighter over them.

“Then…” Peeta looked away, out over the far-distant meadow where she’d once picked enough dandelions to make salad enough for three. “Is it me? Did I do something?”

Her silence was apparently answer enough for him even if it didn’t clear anything up for her.

“What did I do? If you tell me, maybe I can fix it.”

He sounded too desperate. Too scared.

Not happy. Not smiling and beaming with joy. Not sweet and shy and good.

She was only doing this for him, but if it wasn’t helping him, then…then what good was it?

“What did I do?” he asked again.

“You…” Katniss took a deep breath. “You gave me bread.”

After a moment, Peeta laughed nervously. “Was…was I not supposed to? I know you like the cheese buns better, but sometimes variety can be a good thing. But if—”

“Burned bread.”

Except for the song of nearby mockingbirds, it was quiet. Katniss dared to look up at Peeta and found him white-faced. He wasn’t smiling. He didn’t look like he even remembered how to smile.

“From when we were kids? You remember that?”

“You saved my life,” Katniss muttered, shifting her weight and opening and closing her hands. She looked down at a sound to see the flowers she’d forgotten she was holding lying at her feet. “You saved Prim’s life. If it weren’t for the bread, we’d have…”

If possible, Peeta seemed to go even whiter. His lips looked almost blue in comparison. The sun didn’t seem to be able to reach him anymore.

“It wasn’t…” Peeta cleared his throat. “I should have done more. I shouldn’t have just thrown them—”

“It was everything,” Katniss said firmly, and finally she could look at him. Could meet his eyes and try to tell this boy with the bread just how much his kindness and his bravery had meant to her. “I’ve always wanted to say thank you. You saved me and Prim and my mom, and I…I’ll never stop owing you for that.”

The onions he hadn’t picked were trampled beneath heavy feet as Peeta stumbled backward. His eyes were wide and blanching, his mouth falling open. Katniss could easily have touched him if she could just make her hand reach out toward him, but somehow, he’d never seemed so far away.

“Peeta…”

“Is that…is that what all this was?” The little gesture he made with his hand, a sort of flap between them, was a pitifully small way to sum up all the days they’d spent together since last summer on that trip to the ocean. All the moments they’d laughed together. The nightmares he’d coaxed her free of on the train ride home. The cheese buns and the bread and the cookies and the laughter and the warmth of him. All of it relegated to just a single wave of his hand.

“Peeta…”

“You had that whole spiel about owing and debts and never being able to pay back the first one.” Peeta shook his head, and she thought he sounded like he was talking to himself more than to her. “I thought you were just nervous, trying to find things to talk about with me, but…but, really, you were trying to explain. And then I…” His horrified eyes met hers and Katniss flinched. “I said that I… And you…you kissed me. But…but you were just trying to make us even.”

“I wanted you to be happy,” she said miserably, and Peeta recoiled as if she’d hit him. Words were jammed up somewhere inside her. She could feel them jostling against each other, trying to get out, straining to get out and erase that wounded look from Peeta. Her arms ached to snatch him up and whisk him away to somewhere he’d never be hurt again.

But she was mute, and frozen, and the wounded look left on its own, shuttered up behind an impassive mask that reminded her all too uncomfortably of his mother.

“You don’t have to worry about making me happy,” Peeta said smoothly. “In fact, if you really want to even things up, just…” The breath he took was shaky for all that his voice didn’t waver. “Just don’t pretend, okay? You don’t ever have to pretend again with me.”

Another man would have left her there, just stormed off and refused to answer any of her calls or reply to another text. But Peeta walked at her side—a whole three feet between them. Katniss tried only once to reach for his hand, but after he sucked in a sharp breath and flinched away, she didn’t try again. She was too busy blinking back tears that stung and wishing she had just taken the flowers and invited him out to the lake.

They were silent the whole way back to the one-room apartment where Katniss lived with her sister and her mother.

“Once more, for Prim,” Peeta said with a smile painted on his lips and hollowness devouring all the light in his eyes. Then he stepped up close to her long enough to smile and tell Prim good night, pretended to brush a kiss over Katniss’s cheek—his lips went wide and landed nowhere near her skin—and then he turned and walked away.

Katniss tried to feel relieved, but all she could manage was dread—and it didn’t go away.

---

///

His optimism all comes to an abrupt end with the crash of two tons of metal, plastic, and rubber. He might be able to bake and paint and surprise a laugh from Katniss, but he can’t stop a drunk driver from careening past a stop sign and straight into a parked car. He can’t leap out of the way fast enough to save his own left leg from being pinned between two immovable objects. And he’s not even awake for long enough to dream of some way to turn this tragedy back into the happily-ever-after he thought he’d been heading toward.

When he wakes, his dad is there, hunched over and exhausted and pretending not to cry. His brothers visit with encouraging words and teasing jokes to downplay the horror and the shock at his wasted condition. His mom stops by long enough to let him know she’s writing him off. Peeta’s not sorry when they all leave him with his physical therapist.

He’ll never walk normally again, Portia tells him, and if he doesn’t want to be stuck with a cane, he needs to work harder than he ever has before. Peeta thinks wryly of how far he’d go to be someone important in Katniss’s life and almost makes a joke about this being nothing compared to that. But then he sees his leg, twisted and scarred and mangled, and the joke dies in his throat.

“Find something you want on the other side of this,” Portia says one particularly bad day. “Keep that in mind and reach for it. Reach with everything you are. One wish—as if you only ever get one and it will take everything you have.”

So Peeta looks away from the lump of scars attached to him and thinks of gray eyes. Inky hair in a braid lying like an arrow down her back. That smile she’d given him, once and again and again in that week he’d do anything to live in forever.

Eventually, he can walk in a straight line without pain, can walk a mile and stand for several hours in a row without wanting to die, and develops calluses to stop the brace he has to wear around his knee from chafing too badly.

Eventually, he doesn’t have anything to distract himself from thoughts of Katniss and how his chance slipped away from him.

Or did it?

He’s never put more effort into a batch of cheese buns. It’s never taken more strength to go down to the local ranger station. And there’s never been a more beautiful sight than Katniss greeting him by name as if she hasn’t completely forgotten him in the past six months.

If he were still the young boy who watched from afar and spun crystal fantasies in his head like decorations on a cake—beautiful but gone so quickly—he might have let it end there. But he knows, now, what it’s like to have nothing. To be nothing. And more to the point, he knows what it feels like to be someone important. Someone Katniss wants around. Someone who matters.

So he keeps coming. Always with a gift because he still isn’t sure she doesn’t need a bribe to like him close, but always with a quiet sort of determination. She seems skittish, maybe, but no more so than he feels anytime he thinks about her getting a look at his leg or overhearing some of the things his mom mutters, and anyway, Peeta doesn’t mind going slow. He wants to savor every moment, live in every walk, freeze the moment she comes, of her own free will, to see him.

Maybe he’s not as patient as he thinks. Maybe he’s still reaching and straining and trying as hard as if this were a part of his physical therapy. But when she lets him take her hands, when she tells him that she’s known who he is ever since the bread, Peeta is brave. He’s resolute. He’s himself without playing any sort of game at all—not of camouflage or misdirection or self-deprecation.

And she kisses him on the cheek. She says yes when he invites her to dinner. She weaves her fingers through his.

And at the end of the date, on a rooftop where he took her to watch the stars, she tilts her face up to his and kisses him back.

---

///

It had started with the book. At least, that was what she later thought. Uncomfortable at being part of a ‘couple’ in front of their friends and afraid to be too often in his apartment lest he think she want more than kissing, Katniss had invited Peeta to help her with her dad’s plant book. That was when it had really begun for her, the wanting. Wanting to know more about him. Wanting to watch him draw and create endlessly, his brows furrowed as he delved deep into some world locked away inside himself. Wanting to reach out and brush a finger over those ridiculously long eyelashes.

Wanting him.

Just as a friend, maybe. Or an ally. A neighbor. Something. She just wanted him in her life, even though he was too bright and pure to be there. Not that he seemed to think so. He always seemed so happy to arrive and knock at their splintered door. He teased Prim and stood up taller when she laughed for him. He sat on their bed without a flicker of an eye to say that he was horrified by the sagging condition of the mattress or the faded colors of their quilt or the bedraggled state of Prim’s cat who came to yowl at him and beg for crumbs of the cheese buns Peeta always brought Katniss.

He didn’t belong in her life, really, but Katniss liked having him there.

“You sure it’s okay?” he’d asked, over and over again, always proffering her a look at his sketchbook where he practiced with endless patience until she proclaimed it perfect enough for him to begin all over again in the book itself. She’d always thought he was asking if his drawing was good enough, but eventually, after the trampled onion-tops and the fake kiss, Katniss realized he’d been asking something very different.

Maybe he really had known that they could never last. He’d guessed that one day she wouldn’t even be able to look at her father’s plant book without seeing Peeta on every page. She couldn’t breathe, sometimes, from staring at the strokes of his pencil, the smudges where she’d pulled it from his lap to look at it closer in order to disguise her staring at his eyelashes. The colors he’d so delicately blended and the details he’d so meticulously added.

This book used to remind her of her dad. Of Everdeens and family and the key to survival.

Now, it might as well have had Peeta’s name emblazoned on every page.

Prim was the one who’d realized what it all meant and who tore the book from Katniss’s hands. “Aren’t you friends again?” she’d asked. “Didn’t he take the pearl and say you could start over again?”

“He’s just nice,” Katniss said. A truth she didn’t like so it hurt to expel into the open.

Prim huffed and rolled her eyes and chivvied Katniss to her feet. “Sure, sure. But you can’t just sit here and stare at his drawings. If you want to be his friend, you have to actually do something with him.”

And that was when the second book had come into being. Prim gave her pages and thread to bind them together, and clutching the bag of arts and crafts close to her chest, Katniss made her way to the bakery. She didn’t go in, though. They were still tentative around each other. Still learning new boundaries. She wasn’t sure how much he really wanted to be around her—the reminder of his shattered heart—and she thought he wasn’t sure how much he could believe her—her presence and her smiles and her willingness to spend time with him. Sometimes, she still caught him looking at her, hesitating before making a reply, as if weighing up in his mind the likelihood of it mattering to her.

She hated it.

But when she knocked at the door of the apartment built over the bakery, he opened it and invited her in. If he hesitated before doing so, Katniss couldn’t blame him.

Before, she’d been so afraid of inviting intimacies she hadn’t thought she wanted that she’d refused most invitations to go to his place. Now, she couldn’t stop darting quick looks around, drinking in the atmosphere of the place. There were paintings on the wall—she’d know they were his just because of the vibrant colors, the way they sucked her in and made her feel like she was standing in that familiar-looking classroom, walking along that surf-touched shore, sitting in that meadow. The place smelled of cinnamon and dill and was warm and comforting, and Katniss regretted every minute she hadn’t spent here. Back when she’d been welcome.

“Uh…” Peeta rubbed the back of his neck and made a little gesture toward his couch. “You want to sit down? I can get you something—hot chocolate, maybe?”

“Sure. Thank you.”

She was so nervous she wasn’t sure she could stomach anything right now, but Katniss didn’t care. She lunged for any inkling of normality, clasping it close and hoping she didn’t end up hurting Peeta all over again.

Peeta bustled around with small talk and ingredients and nervousness he couldn’t entirely hide. It hurt, somewhere deep inside her, that he felt so uncomfortable around her—that she made him uncomfortable—but when she stood up as if to leave, he tensed and stared at her. So she sat back down and watched his shoulders relax as he scooped a bit of whipped cream to top their hot chocolate.

“Thank you,” she murmured with the heat of a cup between her hands.

Peeta smiled and nodded and fell silent.

Waiting. Wondering.

She didn’t want him to have to do that anymore, so she nudged her bag closer to him.

“What’s this?”

“I thought…I thought maybe we could make another book.”

Peeta stared down at the pages and pens and threads. One by one, he pulled out each article, each piece of Katniss’s heart, and held them in his hands.

“If you don’t want to…” she began.

“I’d love to,” he blurted, and then he looked away, just for a minute. Katniss didn’t even have time to conjure up any fear before he was looking back at her, eyes wide and shining and so incredibly earnest. “This is great, Katniss.”

“I…” She took a deep breath. “I loved working on the plant book with you.”

“Really?”

She hated that he had to ask. She loved that he looked like he was ready to believe her.

“Really,” she said, and Peeta’s smile was brighter than any sunset—or sunrise—more radiant than the sun itself.

So it was the book, again, that began it. Wanting more than he was willing to give. Wanting more than they’d agreed on. Wanting him. And yet, for all the torturous temptation his presence and his smiles and the beauty he created so adeptly evoked, Katniss wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

---

///

If the kiss ends all his doubts about being in this alone, then his fear that they won’t work out is obliterated when she freely invites him into her woods. It’s a huge step, and Peeta almost wonders if he’s just imagining it.

Of course, if this were a fantasy, he’d probably have done without her irritated glares every time he steps on a dry twig or the forced sweetness in her voice when she tries to speed him along past all the most beautiful views. But this is Katniss, real and unadulterated, so despite his own fleeting annoyance—why bring him out here to see everything if she doesn’t want him to actually look?—Peeta treasures the little imperfection. The tiny details that simultaneously prove this is all real and reveal new facets of this girl who only grows more endearing with every new reveal.

“How about these berries?” Peeta asks to distract Katniss from whatever new impatience is causing her left eye to twitch.

“No!”

Peeta can’t help his flinch when she violently knocks the berries out of his hands.

Something softens in her eyes, grayer than ever as they soak in the surrounding greens and browns. “Those are poison,” she says softly. “If you’re hungry, we’d be better off looking for dandelions.”

“Oh.”

She’s so close. Growing closer. Looking up at him as if she likes what she sees. As if no matter how loud or slow he might be—no matter how different they are from each other—she doesn’t regret inviting him into her life.

Daringly, Peeta reaches out. He wants to cup her cheek, but last-second doubt makes him take her hand instead. He gives it a light squeeze, and smiles wide with a skip in his heart as she steps even closer to him.

She agreed to dinner. She opened to his moon- and starlight kiss. She took his hand when she invited him out here. She’s the one erasing all the distance between them. This isn’t all just him.

She wants it too.

With his free hand, Peeta slowly moves to caress the slope of her cheek, brushing his thumb just alongside her eye where that twitch was.

“Thank you, Katniss,” he breathes.

“I’m glad you like them,” she says in a shaky voice, and it takes him a slow moment to realize she’s talking about the woods. Truthfully, he forgot entirely that they’re in the woods. Everything but her has faded. Her, all inky hair and clear eyes and slim form silhouetted against a backdrop of wild beauty—so breathtaking he’ll never be able to adequately capture it in a painting. Though he’s eager to try, over and over and over again.

“Katniss.” He lets her name fall from him in a quiet exhale as he’s so often done when he’s alone, lonely, dreaming. But she’s here now. Looking at him. Smiling. Lifting her hand in mirror-image of him to cup his cheek, as if he’s somehow as enthralling to her.

Before he can think it through, Peeta tilts his face enough to drop a kiss to her palm.

Katniss sucks in a breath. Peeta’s heart barely has time to stutter in fear that he’s overstepped when she rises on her tiptoes to throw her arms around his neck.

And then she kisses him.

It’s a quick, clumsy peck, but it brings Peeta to life. Of their own accord, his arms wrap around her slender waist because if she wants to be here, with him, then he’ll never let her go. Then, with intent rather than impulse, so slowly he can savor every instant, Peeta brings his mouth to hers.

A short kiss, but it makes her suck in her breath as her eyes flutter closed, and that’s enough for Peeta to stop holding back. Sealing their lips together, he tries to freeze this moment forever in his memory.

She doesn’t run away. She doesn’t hit him or stare in shock. Instead, she melts in his arms and envelops his heart and there is no going back.

There never was. The end was over before he ever even recognized the beginning.

---

///

Mostly, though, Katniss blamed the cheese buns. The moment Peeta began bringing them to her was the moment that she gave into the beginning of all this. Truthfully, as easy as she’d found Peeta’s company during their stay at Finnick’s, she’d just assumed that everything would go back to normal when they returned home. Peeta was kind enough to have been friendly while they were stuck together—and Katniss had always been drawn to kind people in ways she couldn’t help—but in the end, they’d spent all their school years passing each other by, so why would things suddenly be any different?

But then, several months after their trip to the beach, he’d showed up at the park where she worked, all smiles and shy sweetness and a box of cheese buns.

“You said you wanted to try them,” he said. When she only stared, he wavered. “When I mentioned them…at that café when you tried the chai…you said you were hungry just hearing—”

“Right.” Katniss looked down at the container, warmed from within so that a dim heat eased into her hands. “You have a good memory.”

“Well…about certain things anyway.” His cheeks flushed and as belatedly as usual, she realized that she was making him uncomfortable.

Was he still waiting for a thank you? Was that why he kept seeking her out? Or had he forgotten it altogether? Did he even remember that he’d saved her life?

“Thank you,” she blurted out, and Peeta’s polite smile turned soft, blurred about the edges. Fond.

“Of course. I mean, telling a baker you want to try a new food is kind of like opening a door you may never be able to close again.”

“If it means eating things that smell like this, I won’t mind,” she said. It was the truth so she wasn’t sure why saying it made her squirm inside.

“Good to know,” Peeta murmured. He wasn’t dropping his gaze anymore. His eyes were intent on her, focused, purposeful.

A loud snort from behind them made Katniss jump. She scowled over her shoulder at Johanna, but it was too late. Peeta seemed nervous again, backing away and telling her goodbye. He limped, just a bit, and it reminded Katniss of just why it might have taken him so long to find her again.

Just before he turned to open the door, he reached out, almost jerkily, and squeezed her hand. “I’ll see you, Katniss.”

“Bye, Peeta.”

An irrational surge of anger filled her when the door closed behind him, and she whirled to face Johanna, smirking and smug.

“You really have nothing better to do?” she snapped.

Johanna snorted. “You really have no idea what just happened there, do you?”

“He’s nice,” Katniss said. “He’s always giving things to people.”

She knew that better than anyone.

“He’s into you, genius. And you just told him you were into him too.”

“What? No, I didn’t. That’s not…” Katniss scowled. “You just don’t understand. He’s a good person.”

“I’m not saying he’s not.” Johanna leaned in far too close. “But I understand more than you do, and lover boy? He’s going to keep coming back.”

And he did. Twice more, once with cheese buns he claimed were overstock and too old to sell—though they were still warm when she bit into one—and again with some as a bribe to take him out on a few of her favorite hikes. And then one day, she went to the bakery. She told herself it was because he’d made her addicted to the cheese buns and now she needed them every day. But she couldn’t entirely deny the tingling warmth that swept through her when he smiled so wide and happy to see her.

Then, somehow, before she knew it, she and Peeta were meeting up four or five times a week. He asked her questions—favorite color, favorite season, favorite holiday, favorite animal—and in answering him, she found herself telling him far more. Worst moments, private fears, quiet insecurities. Later, when she was alone, she could never quite pin down how he’d gotten her to confide so much in him, but whenever she was with him, she felt safe in a way she hadn’t since long before a mine cave-in and the end of her childhood.

It was over cheese buns, spread out on the table that had become theirs in his parent’s bakery, that he told her he wanted to open up his own bakery.

“Smaller,” he said with his eyes on his hands, playing over the tabletop. “Cozier. You know, where it’s not so commercialized. Where I can build some loyal regulars that I know well and can talk to.” He shrugged and looked away. There was a strange tension buzzing under his skin, so electric that even Katniss could feel it. “It’s ridiculous, I know. I already work at a bakery and starting a new one would be a lot of work. Most new small businesses don’t succeed. It probably wouldn’t even be worth trying.”

Katniss was suddenly sure that he wasn’t saying what he truly believed, but quoting someone else. Reciting what others had told him, maybe over and over again. She didn’t need the memory of bruises on a young blond boy to know whose words.

“I think you should do it,” she said. “You’d be good at it. You’re an amazing baker and you’ve always been good with people, so of course it would work.”

“You really think so?” His eyes were shining, his mouth curving upward to reveal a dimple, and Katniss couldn’t imagine anyone not wanting to come into a bakery warmed by Peeta’s mere presence.

Shifting in her seat, she crumbled the last cheese bun in suddenly shaky hands. “Yeah. I do. You…you move people, Peeta. You help them, even when they can’t help themselves.”

A thank you. She’d owed him one so long. Maybe now she could finally give it to him. Surely he wouldn’t doubt himself if she told him just how much his first act of kindness had meant. To her. To her family. To everyone they’d met and helped since then—Gale and his family—or given free medical advice to—so many in the squalid apartments where they all knew to come knock at the Everdeen door.

“I don’t do that much,” he tried to say, but Katniss cut him off. She’d waited years to say this and sometimes thought she’d never say it at all, but now she couldn’t get it out fast enough, as if her time was running out.

“No, Peeta. You do a lot—but more, you do it in such a way that people don’t feel like they owe you. Even though…they do. They do owe you, and I—”

“I don’t want anyone owing me,” Peeta said. Confusion darkened his eyes even as he took her hand to calm her obvious agitation.

“But you give,” Katniss stuttered, derailed by the feel of his thumb softly stroking her pulse point. “You give so much that sometimes it seems impossible to pay it back. Especially the first one.”

Peeta’s lips quirked upward. His thumb didn’t stop its hypnotizing motion. “If you’re talking about the cheese buns, you have to know I’m getting way more out of this deal than you are.”

“Wh-what?”

His eyes widened. Pink flooded his cheeks. But his hands were so steady, both of them clasping hers now, heedless of the crumbled bun beneath them. “You… Surely you know. I haven’t exactly been subtle.”

“Know what?”

“That I’m a goner.” He took a deep breath, and conversely, Katniss held her own as he leaned closer. “Since the first day of school. Your hair was in two braids. You wore a red dress. And when you sang in front of the class, you put all the birds to shame. And that’s when I knew.”

Katniss didn’t like the way his words made her feel, all stuttering breath and straining heart—as if her body reached for something her mind hadn’t quite figured out yet—so instead she focused on what this meant. All the averted looks, the nervous tension, the smile he’d constantly worn as he followed her from beach to beach. The cheese buns. The bread.

The bread.

This was how she could finally pay him back.

He’d saved her—her and Prim—and in return, she could make him happy. She wasn’t sure exactly how. She couldn’t begin to puzzle out why he liked her. It wasn’t as if she’d even sung in years, and what he apparently cherished so closely was barely a dim memory for her.

But, really, it took surprisingly little.

She flipped her hands over so she could weave her fingers between Peeta’s. She smiled. And she kissed him on the cheek, exactly where that bruise he’d earned for saving her had once been.

And Peeta beamed at her, like all his dreams had come true.

From then on, there were always cheese buns. Wrapped and glistening the first time he took her out. The taste of them rich on her tongue the first time he bent close and she reached up and kissed him. A plate of them set on the bedside table while he sketched out endless plants and Katniss tried to figure out why her stomach swooped as she watched the carefully controlled movements of his hands.

And then they were gone, along with Peeta. Not that she thought she ever deserved to get to eat them again after what she’d inadvertently done to his smile. Maybe it was only justice that she be denied the savory taste of them now that she’d dropped Peeta’s heart so carelessly into the weeds.

So it was pretty shocking when a baker’s dozen of them were delivered to her in a plain white box the day after Peeta told her they could be friends again.

“They’re an apology,” Peeta said bashfully when she marched into the bakery with the box. “I shouldn’t have just shut you out like that. Not when I promised I’d never hurt you.”

After that, Katniss decided she could never live without them again.

---

///

It ends with a tear shivering on the end of her eyelashes. It ends with a truth and a shattered heart and a hand falling away from his. It ends, and Peeta wants to rage and destroy and strangle life itself.

Instead, he paints.

Reds and oranges and yellows as he paints a child’s ideal of love: innocent and perfect and unobtainable. A song and a splash of black wing as he remembers just how entranced he’d been, how mesmerized by the glimpses he’d caught of her life: singing father, smiling mother, cherished younger sibling.

Grays and blues and bruising purple as he paints that moment, that night amid starvation and rain and the cloying, choking feeling of being trapped. That moment, slivered through in candle-yellow, when he was given the chance to be needed, to be important, to matter. More grays fading into black because he’d done so little, achieved the bare minimum—and apparently sealed his fate forever, trapped as much in that moment by her as he’d immortalized her, encased in amber, as that girl with the pure voice and the twin braids.

Greens and golds and rich brown—the seashore, the cheese buns, the days in her woods, invited to finally pull back the curtain on all the parts of her he’d only ever imagined. Smiles and a warm hand in his, paired footprints in sand, concern and fondness and a friendship he’d thought was mutual.

And the kiss. The first. He doesn’t mean to paint it, but it pours itself onto the black canvas. So white. So blinding. Glaring in its truth. The starkness of how blind he’d made himself be. White canvas. Red lips. Red marks on her hands where she’d gripped them so tightly. Red-glowing dreams clouding his eyes and tripping him up, turning him selfish. Red marks, red flags all over: her hesitation, her pauses when he reached for her, her shrugs when he tried to convey how much she means to him. Her silence in return.

Black and white, charcoal drawings as he outlines the angles of tracks. Gray smudged through with his sore fingers as he sets down the image of her face—and for all she lived in every painting, every doodle, every thought, he’s never tried to capture her face in all its simplistic glory—and black, stark and so ambiguous, as he outlines the curve of that single teardrop on her cheek.

She doesn’t love him. She’s never cared for him. every hug, every kiss, every handhold, was just currency. Every yes, every smile, every Peeta, were just dollars and cents, adjusted for inflation, and given to pay for two burned loaves of bread. She caressed and cared only because just one time, one day, she’d actually noticed a bruise he wasn’t quick enough or skilled enough or foresighted enough to hide.

But she cried when his heart broke.

She didn’t let go of his hand until he pulled away.

She apologized.

After, standing amid a chaos spilled from him in every color of the rainbow, Peeta is left staring at the smallest sketch. A drop of pure, clear blue.

A single teardrop.

So many people have hurt him in his life. His father looks away, over and over again. His mother pounds every ounce of her disappointments into his flesh, more currency that can never move the debt out of the red. His friends swallow every lie and believe every careless word and don’t care to see the truths he broadcasts silently, ceaselessly.

So many hurts. So many betrayals. It’s why he should have known, he should have realized, that Katniss was with him only because of a debt she thought he could never understand. Pain is what Peeta has come to expect from everyone, so why not from her?

But…

But Katniss is the only one who’s ever cried over it. The only one to shed tears for his sake. The only one who offered him an apology.

And whatever debt she might feel stands between, Peeta can’t help but think, that one teardrop has paid in full.

When Portia calls for the paintings she and Cinna asked him to prepare, Peeta sets aside every one of these revealing canvases, stacked in gradients of a relationship he decides to still treasure no matter how it ended. Instead, he hands over the only paintings he has that don’t give away the stupidity of his still-beating, still-hoping heart.

Maybe it is all over, but to Peeta, it still matters anyway.

---

///

But if the cheese buns were present for all their firsts, it was really the painting that began it all. A chain reaction set off by the sight of pain so delicately mixed and placed and set apart on a canvas that had Katniss’s eyes burning with salty tears and overwhelming memories.

Of course she’d known Peeta painted; she’d seen some of his paintings in the small apartment his parents rented to him. She’d even known that Cinna and Portia had invited him to display some of his work on the long walkway they’d organized for charity. In fact, much as she liked Cinna, Katniss knew just how little she understood about art—about anything besides harsh reality and stark pragmatism—and hadn’t planned on walking the pathway. Until Peeta asked her to come, something too nonchalant about the way he mentioned that she could swing by if she had time, it wasn’t a big deal, in fact, on second thought, it didn’t mean anything and he knew how much she preferred the nature trails over the public walkway so just forget it.

Katniss might still be a novice at any kind of interpersonal relationship, and still only blindly figuring her way through the minefield of friendship with a boy who still sometimes looked at her with his crushed-but-taped-back-together heart in his eyes, but even she knew that it meant something—something important—to him that she go.

So here she was, barely started out and just around the second bend and already frozen in place. Frozen and staring at Rue’s young face, forever immortalized at the age of twelve when she’d been attacked and killed just outside the tenement where Katniss and her family lived. Katniss was the one who’d found her, stiff and bloody, just three steps outside their door. Katniss was the one who’d called the cops and waited for them to arrive, staring at Rue and seeing Prim and wishing she’d come outside the night before.

But the Rue in Peeta’s painting wasn’t bloody or turning blue. She wasn’t the statistic or the victim the media had made her out to be in the thirty second sound-byte her death had earned her. Instead, she was beautiful. Peaceful. Laid to rest in a bed of white flowers while the hint of a smile lurked at the corners of her mouth. As if any minute now, this young girl, this devoted older sister, would wake and smile at the sun and whistle that little melody she’d loved so well.

All these years Katniss had endured countless nightmares about Rue’s final moments. Had she been trying to get to Katniss’s door? Had she cried for help? Did she die reaching for Katniss’s closed door and realizing that no one was coming to save her?

For years, Katniss had only ever been able to see Rue afraid and in pain and alone.

But now, with his gift for finding good in bleakness, his talent for creating beauty in devastation, Peeta put the little girl, at long last, to rest.

Eventually, Katniss was able to move on. She drifted past other painters’ works, abstract or dull or simply a blur that didn’t register at all. Until a few bends later where Katniss was drawn to the artist’s tiny signature that looked a bit like a dandelion going to seed beside a few blades of grass.

This painting seemed at first glance to be far more prosaic. Katniss recognized it at once as the bakery. Not the front where paying customers did business, but the kitchen where Peeta had pulled her close a few times when she’d come to see him and he was still finishing up a few things. The scene was lit gold and red and amber. Comforting and warm, Katniss thought at first. But the walls were too close. The counters seemed abnormally high and the door far away so that everything loomed inward.

And it wasn’t frosting that speckled the wide table.

It looked like it at first, flecks of red carelessly dropped over the flour-painted surface, summoning up thoughts of intricately decorated cakes and frosted cookies. But Katniss had watched Peeta bake and stared as he sculpted beautiful creations, and she knew, she knew, that he always frosted the cakes in the corner of the bakery, a corner not even painted into this tiny piece of Peeta’s world.

It wasn’t frosting.

Katniss’s hands flashed cold as she stepped closer to the picture. The red was too vivid. Sprayed across the flour as if from a violent blow. The perspective was from someone small, hunched and curled up—in pain. And the golden hue made the bakery look too warm when Katniss knew that Peeta could only sleep with cool air rolling in from open windows.

Stumbling on, Katniss found each of Peeta’s paintings, studying them almost frantically.

The apple tree in rain, dark as night. She wondered if she was the only one who knew to look closely enough to spot the suggestion of a little wasted hand peeking out from behind the trunk.

A vaguely familiar classroom, the edge of a red sleeve and a dark braid, impossibly far away, disappearing forever out of reach.

A stop sign and an empty street. The moon reflected off shattered glass in the corner, both from a liquor bottle and from the damaged headlight of a car.

Railroad tracks overrun by pretty foliage. Vibrant flowers left lying in tall grass. Everything empty and blurred behind, nothing ahead.

A painting that seemed to be all grays and silvers melting together, but Katniss could see her own eyes there, looking at something off in the distance, forever oblivious to the watching artist.

Each of the scenes was beautiful and peaceful at first glance, but always, there was something off-putting lurking within. Pain hidden behind charm. A broken heart bound up in tiny points of piercing clarity.

It was as if Peeta had pried apart the slats of his breastbone with a paintbrush and pinned his heart, raw and vulnerable and still-beating, to the canvas. And then hung it out for all the world to see.

But how many would see? For all Peeta’s smiles and small talk, all the friends he could find in a crowd, who actually knew Peeta well enough to understand what he showed them, laid bare there in paint and ink and canvas?

“Katniss. You…you came.”

With her own eyes staring past her from the final painting, Katniss turned. Peeta stood six feet away, looking torn between happiness and fear. As if he were one of his own paintings.

“What…” Clearing his throat, he shrugged deeper into his jacket and inched forward a single step. “What do you think?”

“I hate them,” she said. Her eyes were stinging, her chest far too tight, her hands tingling, and Peeta was too far away. “They’re amazing, really, but… They’re all so sad. So lonely. Except Rue.” Katniss sniffled and wiped her eyes, wishing Peeta wouldn’t notice. Knowing that he did. These paintings proved that he noticed everything. “You made Rue mean something. You made her life as important as her death.”

Peeta’s fair skin flushed, pink and glowing with life. Katniss was mesmerized by the sight of it because the paintings had made her only able to see him young and bruised; a bit older but heartbroken; warier and tired and defeated. It was indescribably lovely to see him still alive. Still able to find happiness not touched by tiny anguished details.

“I’m sorry,” he blurted. “I should have thought—I’m so sorry, Katniss. Of course it’d be hard for you to see her again! I should have warned you—”

“I loved it,” she said fiercely. “Thank you, Peeta. Thank you for keeping her alive.”

His brow furrowed and he didn’t look away this time as he stared at her, as if she were more confusing than anything else he’d ever encountered. “I didn’t… Sometimes I just need to paint things out, all the things that wake me up in the night.”

“Does it help?” She wondered if, as well as colors and miniscule details, he also noticed that she was taking small steps toward him, closer and closer, drawn to him in a deteriorating orbit.

“I think so. I hope so. It makes things clearer sometimes.”

“You painted the apple tree,” she whispered. “That night.”

The breath caught in his throat so abruptly she could actually hear it as she stepped so close that she nearly collided with him.

“That was one of the most terrifying moments of my entire life,” he said hoarsely. “I’ve painted it a thousand times.”

And with a sob—or was it a sigh of relief?—Katniss tangled her hands in his jacket and pulled him down to her.

His mouth was warm, and he smelled of cinnamon, and his hands blazed on her shoulders like coals—until he used them to push her away.

“What are you doing?” he asked. His eyes weren’t pure blue. His mouth wasn’t smiling.

He wasn’t happy.

“Peeta, I…” Katniss reached for him with achingly empty hands. “I need you. I don’t want to just be friends. I think I’ve always…this was always going to—”

“No. No!” Peeta’s eyes dilated until they looked nearly black, and he scrubbed his hands through his hair as he stumbled back. “I didn’t paint that day to make you think you owed me again. Don’t…don’t do this, Katniss, please. I don’t want anything from you just because you can’t forget some burned bread I was almost too scared to even give you. I’m sorry I did give it to you if all it will ever do is remind you of that day.”

Katniss’s whole body went suddenly numb. “Don’t say that.”

Hesitating only a brief moment, Peeta shook his head. “It isn’t real if you don’t mean it,” he said so quietly she thought he was trying not to cry.

Another moment that should have been beautiful turned nightmarish.

Before she could figure out the right words to say—before she could say anything—he walked away. Just like he’d done so many times before.

It almost made Katniss sorry he’d given her the bread too.

---

///

His attempts at giving her up are all foiled so easily, so quickly, ended with no more than the plink of a familiar pearl into the palm of his hand.

He’s done his best not to miss the feel of Katniss’s hand in his, telling himself over and over that it wasn’t real so it doesn’t count. He’s been trying even harder not to think about his future, knowing that Katniss won’t be in it. He’s thrown all his will into being okay with this new—not new; newly realized—reality.

But she came to find him. She’s kept his pearl safe. She looks tired. Sad. Lonely.

Maybe she doesn’t love him. Maybe he’ll never have everything he’s dared to hope for.

But maybe they really were friends. Maybe she does want him in her life, if in a different way than he thought.

The pearl burns like a coal in his hands as he catches up to Katniss and promises her he can be content with being her friend.

He will be content. If there is one thing Peeta should be good at, it is lowering his expectations. Mellark men are not destined to be the heroes of the story, the prince charmings who receive everything they want. Instead, they are the loyal friends left behind when Cinderella runs off to the ball and claims her shoe. The dwarfs who offer safety and shelter and then wish Snow White well in her happily-ever-after.

Or maybe he’s read too many fairy tales, dreamed too many fantasies. He’s done with that now. Really. It is reality that will comfort him from now on.

And Katniss-his-friend is his reality. When she smiles at him, it is because she really feels like it. When she invites him to coffee somewhere besides the bakery he lives and breathes now, it’s because she freely chooses his company. When she walks at his side close enough that their hands and shoulders bump often—her, always graceful and sure and precise—it is because she actually wants to be that close.

It’s better than empty kisses, liberties he didn’t know he’d already paid for, purchased closeness.

“Why are you working so hard?” she asks as her knuckles brush against his. The moon shines between clouds to light their way and lazy snowflakes procrastinate their falls by dancing in the glow of streetlights, like dandelion fluff he could blow out into the world weighted only by his impossible wishes.

“I have to,” he says quietly. “I need the experience. My dad’s been teaching me all the recipes we don’t use that often.”

“He planning on retiring?” As she speaks, Peeta tries not to stare at the visible mist pouring from her lips. Tries not to break the reality of just-friends with the fantasy of a hot mouth beneath cold lips.

“Actually...maybe.” Peeta shrugs and would have shoved his hands into his pockets if he weren’t so intent on the electric jolts each accidental brush of Katniss’s hand against his gave him. “He hasn’t told my mom yet, but…”

“He wants to?”

“I think so. He’s tired, Katniss, and he’s been running the bakery almost his entire life.”

“So you’ll take over then?”

He isn’t supposed to be talking about this. They don’t want his mom finding out, or even the rest of the town. Rumors can close a business faster than a wrecking ball, and Peeta wants to at least have a chance of succeeding before it crashes in on him.

But…Katniss hates his mom and never speaks to her, and she certainly doesn’t spread rumors. And she is his friend. She’s only ever been supportive of his dreams—the few that don’t include her, anyway—even when no one else cared.

“He’s thinking of closing the bakery,” Peeta says in a rush, hardly louder than a whisper. Which must be why Katniss tilts her head against his shoulder, her ear close to his mouth. “We’ve been needing some upgrades and modernizations done for a while now—it’s been harder and harder to pass the annual inspections. So Dad and I have been talking.”

“Closing the bakery?” Katniss looks pale in the winter air. She stops walking and stares at Peeta when he turns to face her. “Where would you go?”

“Well, that’s the thing. Dad’s talking to some buyers who are interested in the building. If the sale goes through, he wants to invest that money in my bakery. There’s a tiny little place over on Victor’s Avenue. You know it? I know it’s not much, but it’d be a start. I could find a few clients to begin with and—“

“You’ll be the baker.” Katniss’s smile is so small, so fond, that Peeta’s heart clenches tight in his chest.

“Yeah.”

She’s so close. So happy. Practically beaming, for Katniss. Real has never seemed so expansive, so open to possibilities.

“The boy with the bread,” she murmurs, and Peeta’s heart turns to stone and sinks down, down, down to plop heavily in his gut.

Of course.

Her smile is still beautiful. Radiant, even. But it’s the warmth of the sun, remote and distant, shining hotly on the other side of the world while he stands here in winter’s night.

That fondness isn’t for him, standing here, one straight leg and one scarred and mangled, twenty-one years old, broken and rejected and never ever the one anyone chooses except maybe his dad, hoping to vicariously right all the wrongs in his own life.

She is, instead, smiling at an eleven year old boy who had no clue that doing the right thing would permanently freeze him in that moment to the girl, the woman, he loves. That scared and lonely child who so briefly felt useful and who would later cry at the pain in his cheek, his side, his arm, his heart, and soothe himself to sleep with imagined fantasies of love freely given and kisses spontaneously offered and happiness willing shared.

Fantasies that will never be real.

“I’m so happy for you,” Katniss says, reaching for his hand.

Peeta shoves his fists into his pockets, pretends not to notice.

Real encases him in cold loneliness.

That night, alone and lonely, scared and broken, Peeta has no dreams left to carry him safely into sleep so he stays awake, eyes staring up at the ceiling as he chants, “Not real, not real, not real,” over and over again until maybe his stubborn, stupid heart will finally believe it.

---

///

Because of course it was the bread that was really and truly the beginning. It should have been the end for her. For Prim. For the last of the Everdeens. Katniss had collapsed under that apple true behind the bakery fully expecting to be dead by morning.

And then Peeta. Peeta with the loaves of bread, cast her way at the moment of her greatest need. Peeta who gave her so much that she knew no thank you would be enough. Peeta with a bruise under his bright eye and a dandelion at his feet. Peeta who always noticed her, who smiled and blushed and looked as if she were someone who mattered.

Peeta who loved her no matter that she was a real piece of work.

He’d saved her sister and reminded her that there was good in the world. And then, later, he showed her what it was to love despite fear and hope through defeat and care even when it would be easier not to.

He saved her again.

But he couldn’t save her sister.

The tenement exploded and Katniss woke so much later in a hospital screaming for a sister who’d already been dead for weeks and how could anything good ever come from this?

And then Peeta brought her a loaf of bread. And he cried over her as she stared at the ceiling and the hospital machines beeped. His tears felt like pinpricks of flame on her patchwork skin, transforming her into a girl on fire. There were burn marks on his hands and arms too, testament of how he’d pulled her back from the flames when she tried to get upstairs to Prim.

It was only later, eating bread rich with raisins and walnuts, that Katniss thought to wonder why he’d been coming to see her that day.

---

///

To think, after all the false starts and imagined beginnings, all the torturous and delightful middle, that he ends it himself with a knee-jerk reaction to try to save his heart.

Doesn’t he know? Hasn’t he realized that his heart is already hers, always? How could he have forgotten, even for a moment, that she is everything he wants, risks and damage and all?

He promised her he’d stay, and then, the moment she reaches for him, he walks away.

He’s tired of hiding. Of camouflaging. Pretending. Playing a part. Acting like he doesn’t still love her and can imagine a life without her in it.

He loves her. He’s loved her since he was five years old. He loved her when his life was a hell punctuated by longing wistfulness and he needed a dream to survive it. He loved her the first time they really spoke, to the accompaniment of the tide, and he learned reality was better than fantasy. He loved her when he thought he’d die alone on a street, pinned beneath a smoking car, and when every day was an agony and he could only keep afloat by fixing himself to a single wish. He loved her between cheese buns and colors, woods and books, forced kisses and real hugs, laughter and awkwardness. He loves her for real, messy and chaotic and nowhere near neat enough to be tied up in a tidy bow of happily-ever-after.

He’s always going to love her. There’s no possible future where he wakes up one morning and finds his heart scrubbed clean of every mark Katniss has ever, knowingly or not, put on it.

So what if she doesn’t love him back in the same way? So what if she has only a year, a few months, a few weeks, of marks that he’s managed to leave behind on her heart? So what if they are so different from each other that the ways they love, the ways they connect and try and dream are vastly dissimilar?

She reached for him there in that park. She kissed him even though he was her friend. She tangled her fingers, her life, her heart up with him, and who is he to tell her she has not done it in just the right storybook way?

“I need you,” she said, and more than any declarations of love, that is what Peeta needs. To be useful. To be chosen. To matter. To mean something to someone.

This cannot be the end. Not if they both don’t want it to be.

So Peeta goes. He leaves behind the brand-new building where his bakery will be, the shiny keys jangling in his pocket. He leaves behind his preconceived ideals and his childhood notions and his fairytale fantasies. He leaves behind that little boy who hoped so much and dreaded just as much, that boy who wanted but never believed, that man who looked for the end before he enjoyed the beginning.

He finds fire. Death. Screams and an explosion and Katniss writhing and twisting in his arms as she yells terrible things at him and watches her world burn. Sparks that fly and flames that spread and they both burn together because he cannot, he will not, let her go even if it means she hates him forever and this really is the beginning of a whole new barren reality.

Eventually, sirens and flashing lights arrive, jackets and badges and syringes, and Katniss goes limp in his arms. Deadweight.

He’s treated for a few burns, for ugly scratches carved up and down his arms, and then released to go sit at Katniss’s bedside. She should be awake by now. There’s no reason she isn’t. No reason and every reason.

“Find one wish,” Portia told him what seems forever ago, and there was no question what—who—he’d pick. He can’t give that same advice to Katniss, though, because there’s no question who she’d pick either, but Prim is gone out of reach of all wishes, even those carried on dandelion wings. So instead, he adopts the advice Haymitch whispers in his own drunken visits.

“Stay alive. Please, Katniss, please stay alive.”

And she does. Against her will, he’s sure, but she gets better, well enough to be discharged from the hospital and to move in with Haymitch and Effie. Peeta gives her space to learn her new world, time to adjust to new realities, countless lectures to himself about how nothing before matters because what Katniss needs is whatever she decides that is—even if it’s an end of everything that reminds her of Prim and a new beginning far from everything.

Far from him.

“One wish,” he whispers to himself.

One last memory.

With a bouquet that droops beneath the weight of all his disappointments and a locket burnished by his tearful farewells, Peeta goes to see Katniss one last time.

The beginning of the end.

---

///

After. After all the beginnings, after funerals and insurance checks and well-wishes from people who faded away. After a cat made Katniss break down all over again and Sae came to take over her absent mom’s place. After all of it, Katniss opened the door. There’d been no knock, but she’d been hearing noises outside for five, ten, fifteen minutes, and thinking it was yet another journalist come to get the ‘real story,’ she yanked the door open with a snarl ready on her lips.

Peeta stood there.

She invited him in by opening the door wider and standing back.

“I have something for you,” he said shyly, “but you have to come with me.”

Katniss hadn’t left her room in weeks, but with Peeta’s hand wrapped around hers, she emerged from her withered cocoon and let him drive her out into her woods. Then, only when she was deep in the trees that seemed as green and thick and comforting as they had been before the explosion, did Peeta finally give her his gift.

A small bouquet of primroses bound with a locket containing pictures of lost Everdeens.

“What about you?” she asked, and he was silent.

“Never mind,” she said, and he was confused.

“Why would I need your picture when you’re right in front of me,” she said and he didn’t resist when she pulled him into the hug she’d been craving for so much longer than she’d even realized. She didn’t kiss him, though, because she wasn’t sure love survived in the ashes Prim had left in her wake—and because she didn’t want to hurt him and drive him away from her yet again.

She needed him, here, with her.

So she hugged him until, eventually, he hugged her back, and with his lips resting on her neck, Katniss knew she wouldn’t be the first to let go.

And that was the end of all the beginnings.

---

///

Before. Cold winter just barely relinquishing its hold on the earth for warmer, brighter spring. Her tiny frame, slumped and despairing, just like before before, all those years ago. A foot, a chasm, between them where he thought surely, surely Prim would walk—and never would again. A gift that made pain flare hot in her eyes like the implosion of a life-giving star.

Before comes to a screeching halt and then ends with her eyes locked on his. No longer bleak or colorless, they drink in the budding growth around them, the primroses in her hand. No longer silent, her voice bridges the gap between them as if it isn’t insurmountable after all. Her sister is still there, will always be there in the tilt of Katniss’s head and the curve of her smile and the nightmares that remind them both how far they’ve come—but she isn’t a barrier at all. In fact, maybe it is her memory that pushes Katniss that one step closer to Peeta.

Before ends, then, and there is no going back.

“Peeta,” Katniss says, and he knows.

No more debts owed. No bread, no songs, no bruises, no braids. Just Katniss, broken and grieving and yet surviving. Just Peeta, broken and adjusting and still hoping—but not impossibly. Not anymore.

They crash together with a whisper, careen into each other in slow motion, wrap themselves irrevocably together consciously, purposely, willingly.

Then she’s in his arms, hers hold him close, and all he knows is warmth and fire and love he doesn’t, for the very first time, in this brand new world, even try to tamp down.

And for once, Peeta doesn’t have to hope, because finally, he holds everything he wants in the circle of his arms.

---

///

It was a good day. There weren’t really any beginnings or endings anymore, only monotonous existence, empty of ducks and goats and all the innocent smiles Prim gave as freely to Katniss as to her stuffed animals. A shifting collection of bad days interspersed with the occasional good ones. Most of life, what was left of it, passed Katniss by in a haze, but today, waking up with the strength to stand and shower and dress herself, Katniss remembered that amidst the gray grief, Peeta had been there.

Frequently. Often. Sometimes he stayed for dinner. Sometimes he said hello and left a loaf of bread and then was gone. Sometimes she didn’t even remember seeing him, just heard his voice whispering a constant promise over her head.

And today…today was the tenth good day in a row, and before the last bad day, she’d had five good days, and who knew? Maybe next time, she’d have fifteen, and the next time, maybe she’d finally be able to put herself all the way back together. Because there was something inside her—something she thought Prim would have approved of—that told her that another hug from Peeta, the feel of his lips against her neck, might actually inspire the good days to outnumber the bad.

So. Here she was. Standing across the street from Peeta’s new bakery, reading his family name—brand new and gleaming with bright possibilities—emblazoned there in palest orange and deepest green.

How long had it been? Exactly how many bad days that kept her from being a part of Peeta’s new life, new freedom, new hope?

He’d moved on without her. Of course he had. She’d lied to him, manipulated him, disappointed him, and then for all intents and purposes vanished entirely. He was good and kind so he kept checking on her, still fed her, but she was a part of his old life, one that could remind him of all those dark truths hidden in his paintings.

She wondered what he painted now.

Though she thought about turning and fleeing—disappearing back beneath the covers of her stale bed—the smell of cheese buns emanating from within pulled her forward. Before she knew it, she was reaching for the door.

The bakery wasn’t open yet. The door caught against the lock with a clatter and then held.

Locked out.

Katniss stared for a long time at the reflection of the sun turning the windows into opaque sheets of molten light. Too many bad days. Too much time spent thinking of what she’d lost instead of what she could have.

It was too late.

She’d only just managed to take a few steps away from the barred door when there was another clatter and then Peeta’s voice calling her name.

“Katniss? Katniss! I’m sorry, I…I didn’t know you were coming.”

“I…”

It was as if she was seeing him for the first time. He’d been there, but he’d been dulled behind the sheets of loss hanging between them. Now, bright and sharp and clear, she drank in the sight of his blue eyes, his welcoming smile, the flush on his cheeks and the flour on his hands. No. Not flour. Paint. White and yellow and as warm as the rest of him.

“Please,” he said, opening the door. “Please. Come in. I’ve been wanting to show you the place.”

As if in a dream, her feet automatically moved to where he gestured, walking past him into his bakery. She didn’t take in any of her surroundings, though, too intent on him. He looked shy, sweet, happy.

“It’s nearly ready,” he was saying. “Just a few last touches. I think we’ll be on time for the grand opening next week. My dad says that he’ll be here. He really wants to be my first customer—he says it’d be fitting, since I was his last.”

“Next week?”

He was excited. It was bubbling over, spilling out in his voice, in the nervous jump of his muscles as he looked around at this place he’d built from the little that was ever given him. She thought that if she were him, if she’d painted memories as dark as that picture of the bakery, she would have left baking behind entirely, run and never looked back lest the specters of the past catch her. But Peeta…Peeta took the bad and smoothed it away, found the good and made it the most important thing, reclaimed everything the world tried to take away from him.

“I’m so glad you came,” he said in a rush. His hand jerked, as if he meant to reach out and take hers before he reminded himself that she didn’t want him to do that.

But she did. She wanted.

“I…I’m sorry it took me so long,” she choked out.

“No!” Peeta’s eyes widened. “No, I didn’t mean to make you feel guilty. It’s just…well, you’re the first.”

“The first?”

He shrugged, bashful and unsure as he snuck a heavy step forward. “The first one who believed I could do this. The first one who said I should.”

Something behind his shoulder caught her attention. She looked away from him—allowed him to sneak another step in—to finally take in the bakery’s interior.

It was small, only a couple tables and chairs, but cozy and warm and so bright and open that Katniss couldn’t imagine anyone being uncomfortable here. But it was the walls that had captured her attention from Peeta’s clumsy hunt, that stole her breath away until her heart fluttered in her throat like an unacknowledged hope rising into the open.

Dandelions.

He’d covered all the walls in green grass and yellow dandelions and creamy dandelion fluff aflight in the breeze.

“Dandelions,” she whispered.

Peeta’s voice was hardly louder as he finally reached for her hand, his touch as light as the hope setting her afloat. “You love them.”

“You can eat them,” she said, though she didn’t know why. Who would choose dandelions in a bakery?

“Maybe,” Peeta said, “but you can wish on them too. If you wish on a dandelion and blow it into the wind, your wish will come true.”

Katniss stared at all the dandelions going to seed, all the yellow weeds waiting for their own chance to transform from survival into hope.

“That’s a lot of wishes,” she said.

“It’s…it’s really only one.”

“Oh?” Katniss entwined her fingers through Peeta’s. Her own step to bring her toes up against his, his warmth close to her body, was so much lighter than his had been, soundless and careful and purposeful. He understood it anyway.

He’d always understood her. Saw the things in her she hadn’t even realized herself yet.

Until now.

“And,” she said as she looked up at him, “has your wish come true?”

“I think so.” His arm curved around her waist, brought her up onto her tiptoes until she could feel his stuttered breaths against her skin and smell cinnamon and dill. “I hope so.”

“I think my wish might come true too,” Katniss admitted to him.

His pupils dilated, wide and beautiful and more intense than she’d ever seen from him before. She thought she’d be happy if she could see it every day of the rest of her life. And that’s what she told him.

“If you only need one wish,” she whispered, “I’ll use the rest. A wish for every good day, for every hour with you, for every lifetime we spend together.”

Peeta’s smile made the rest of the world dull in comparison. “And here all I wished for was a happily ever after with you.”

She opened her mouth—to tell him, finally, so much later than him but no less true, that she loved him—when he dipped his head and kissed her.

---

///

The bakery opens. Katniss is the first in line. She eats the first cheese bun. But since Peeta won’t let her pay for it, his dad still insists he’s the first customer. He’s certainly not the last, though. The day flies by in triumph and exhaustion and adrenaline, all laced together in such a way to turn it all into a blur. But then, as the windows darken with twilight, Katniss is there in front of him, reminding him that it’s time to close.

Peeta blinks, and blinks, and blinks again. She doesn’t vanish. Doesn’t look away when he reaches for her hand. Doesn’t run away when he pulls her close and drops a tiny kiss on her brow.

She stays beside him as he runs through the closing routine and preps for the next morning. She sidles close to him and lets him wrap his arm around her as they walk to his new apartment. Peeta holds her close, memorizes the pattern of her heartbeat against his side, and tries to pretend like he’s perfectly used to her walking with him into his place.

They haven’t moved in together. Katniss still keeps her things at Haymitch’s and Peeta still asks her if she’ll be over to ‘visit.’ But she’s slept beside him for over a week now, her clothes are folded neatly atop his dresser, there’s a second toothbrush in the bathroom, and Peeta doesn’t think he’s fooling himself into thinking that maybe this is what his life looks like from now on.

“Are you happy?” Katniss asks him when he’s eaten the stew she made and they’re washing dishes side by side.

A tiny whisper of unease slithers through Peeta’s heart—this sounds just a bit too much like a girl checking to see how much more of her debt might be paid off by another ten or fifteen smiles.

But Peeta clutches the back of the chair and makes himself take a minute to look at her: her shining eyes and the smile hidden in the corners of her mouth and the repetitive movements of her fingers as she waits for his answer.

“Yes,” he tells her. “I’m happier than I ever thought I could be.”

Her smile bursts from hiding and lights up the room.

“Are you happy?” he can’t resist asking her.

Katniss has never been good with words. So instead, she steps right up against him, pulls him down against her, and shows him her answer.

It is, finally and forever, real.