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In Another Life

Chapter Text

On Sunday, I'm on my way towards the forests of District 12. It's a little later than my usual meeting time to hunt with Gale. Hunting with him is a constant in my life. However, today, I had to tend to our stand of medicinal herbs in the Hob while my mother and Prim were called away on a medical emergency and was late to our appointment.

It's mid-November but it is unseasonably warm. The breeze that blows is soft and the ground is covered in golden and red leaves, creating a multi-colored carpet. It is one of my favorite times of year, exceeded only by my love of springtime, just before all of the game disappears into winter hibernation. However, it was worse in the past, when my mother was like the walking dead and Prim and I were half-starved, before the bread and the dandelion. Before we owned a table in the Hob and before we sold homemade herbal remedies that my mother and Prim prepared with the herbs I found in the forest or the ones we grew in the small garden behind our house. It was also where we kept Lady, Prim's goat. It was simple, at least as simple as it could be for someone living in Panem, in District 12, and in the Seam. In other words, we were the poorest and most miserable members of the country. But somehow, we managed to survive.

When I arrive at our rock, Gale is already waiting.

"You finally managed to escape," he says as he turns towards me, a sly smile on his face. "You're just in time in time for lunch."

"You know I can't turn down a good meal."

"Well, today we have your favorite," he smiles as he takes out a bag of rolls.

"Are those actually rolls? Where did you get them?" I exclaim, since rolls are my weakness I give into only once per year, a day that I will no longer have to endure. For Gale and I, the Reaping is over but not for Prim, Rory, Vick or Posy. We still can't rest easy, for they can still be Reaped and die in The Hunger Games. "Are we celebrating a special occasion?"

"Well, maybe not for us. But for the baker and his family, it is definitely a special occasion."

"Oh, really?" I ask, trying my very best to appear nonchalant, though, to tell the truth, anything that had to do with the Mellark family was of high interest to me. I had my reasons.

"This morning, I found rabbits and squirrels in my snares. I decided to stop by the bakery and trade them for something to give you when you came. Mr. Mellark was happier than usual when he opened the door, so much so that he threw in the extra rolls and cookies with our usual trade. I didn't want to accept the trade but he told me not to be foolish. They were celebrating because his son was engaged to be married," he finished, giving me a sidelong glance.

"It was a matter of time," I told him distractedly, because I couldn't imagine the middle Mellark boy getting married. "Rye has been dating Fanny for some time."

"But that's the surprise. Rye's not the one getting married. It's the youngest one who's engaged."

"Pee-Peeta?" I ask, looking away from Gale and staring out instead into the horizon.

"Yeah. Peeta. It's strange. I always thought he had a crush on you but I guess I was wrong."

"Of course you were wrong. That makes no sense." I say, my brow furrowed as I continue to stare out onto the horizon, eating the bread that no longer tasted delicious but dry and difficult to swallow.

"Now I know," Gale said, chuckling. "I mean, you couldn't be any more different from Delly Cartwright."

True, I couldn't be more different from Delly Cartwright: she is blond, with angelic blue eyes, pure affability and happiness in person and is one of the few people in this district with a somewhat rounded figure, which means she is also in full possession of round, pink cheeks. However, even though Gale is right, I am offended.

"Is there a problem with the fact that I look nothing like Delly?" I accuse without looking him in the eye.

"What's wrong with you, Catnip? I meant that as a compliment. What I was trying to say is if Peeta likes Delly, you're obviously not his type."

"Of course. I can't be anyone's type, is that it?" I asked him, each word enraging me further as I stand up to leave.

"He's a merchant," he says dismissively, because if there is anything Gale hates more than the Capitol, it's the merchant class and their easy lives in District 12. "And anyway, I didn't say you were nobody's type. I think you already know that you are definitely my type, but you never want to talk about these things, about us…"

"This is just what was missing," I cut him off. "I don't want to start this again. I'm going home. I'll see you next Sunday."

As I walk away as quickly as possible towards the Seam, I try not to think because in reality I don't understand anything; I don't understand why I'm confused, nervous and sad, as if my eyes are burning and I can no longer catch my breath.

When I am finally back within the "legal" confines of District 12,strangely I feel better, but still not calm enough. The bad thing of having a mother, who now cares about me, and a sister who are healers is, they are not going to overlook my agitation. So I head to the meadow, but once there I realize I'm not alone. I see a blond boy with messy hair bent down grabbing the few flowers that are among the wild weeds. I should turn around, taking advantage of the fact that he has not seen me, but I remain in the same spot until he finally gets up and sees me.

"Hi Katniss" he says smiling while he fixes the small bouquet in his hands "It's been a long time"

"Are those for your fiancé?" I ask serious, skipping the education protocols and wiping the smile away from his face, I feel satisfaction and sadness at the same time

"So you already know" he affirms slowly.

"Yes, your father told Gale. To be honest, Peeta, I would have expected you to..."

"What were you expecting, Katniss?" He says with an ironic tone that hurts me. "You were the one who broke up. I asked you to marry me and you told me in another life"

"I said: maybe, in another life" I mutter for myself so I'm not surprised when a Peeta can't hear me.

"What was that?" He asks while he moves closer just a few steps from me.

"I didn't say in another life, I told you maybe in another life" I repeat looking at him defiantly.

"Is there any difference?"

"Yes there is, Peeta. The difference is that if we lived in another place or time... I'd have said yes to you".

We remain in silence, one in front of the other, my eyes fixed on the grass under my feet. Suddenly, I see his hand fearfully moving close to mine, as if he thinks that I can move it away at any time, but to be honest, right now I don't want to fight back my feelings, because his absence hurts. Slowly he takes my hand and he sighs while pulls me to bring me closer to him.

"I miss you, Katniss, without you nothing makes sense".

"You are getting married, Peeta," I respond stubborn.

"You know I'm not in love with her, it could be Delly or someone else for all that matters. I only accepted so my mother would leave me alone, because I was desperate after you broke up with me and she threatened she wouldn't leave me the bakery if I didn't marry already, and I couldn't lose everything I care about but we can figure this out. Together" he says as he raises his other hand to caress my cheek "if you want. The only thing I need is you".

"Peeta, don't..."

But I don't finish the sentence because he starts kissing me, slowly and softly, the way he knows I love. Not that I don't like fast kisses full of passion, but these long and deep kisses, are what reaffirms his unconditional love for me. These kisses remind me about our first kiss, and last. In that moment, with that memory my body reacts and I push him away."Peeta, don't" but this time I don't have to add anything more because everything has been said.

Before I turn around I kiss him in the cheek, a long kiss to capture the moment. I start to walk away when he shouts.

"I'm not giving up like that, Katniss. We still have ten weeks before the wedding. Every week, I'm going to leave you a dandelion on your window, and if you want to see me, you just have to drop one on the bakery's door"

I face him again and laugh, despite being romantic, the gesture is not very realistic.

"It is Autumn and the winter is coming, you won't find dandelions in this season"

"Just wait and see" he says smiling.

"Don't waste your time Peeta. It is better this way"

This time when I turn around to leave I really do.

Chapter Text

It's sunday again and the last day of this week. I haven't heard anything from Peeta, which should please me but at the same time, fills me with disappointment.

I debate whether to look in the window or not, fearful of both things, not sure whether it is worse to find something or to not know at all.

Prim shifts next to me, which accelerates my decision- if she discovers me, it will be too difficult to explain. I climb up on the bed and look through the window to discover there is a bouquet of dandelions tied with a red ribbon. Where did he find them? I ask myself, perplexed. This is not the season for them - they won't grow anywhere. When I reach for them, I realize they are not real, but made of paper. However, they have been made with such detail that from far away, you can't really tell the difference.

In general, it was difficult not to notice Peeta Mellark. He was a naturally good looking boy, with a friendly, extrovert character. But in art class on Monday, he changed completely. And that was when he fascinated me the most.

We attended the same class for three years and practically from the moment he entered until the dismissal, he drew. Sometimes, he sketched, other times he painted in watercolor or drew with graphite pencils. Yet he always managed to coax realistic or magical images from the blank paper. But most of all, it was the expression on his face that captured my attention. Instead of his usual serene demeanor, I observed in his concentrated labors a hidden world within him that I was curious to discover. I had seen flashes of this before - during debate class when he was before an audience, during wrestling matches, when he received blows from his mother for burning the loaves he tossed me so that I wouldn't die of hunger.

At that time, I became obsessed with his eyelashes. Normally, they are hard to see because they are so light and blond, but from up close, the slanted light of the sunlight coming in through the classroom window caused them to take on a soft, golden tone. They appeared so long that I wondered how they didn't become tangled.

One day, he lifted his eyes while I was watching, or better yet, spying on him. His face took on a look of shock but then changed abruptly when he gave me a radiant smile, a smile that was meant only for me and that took my breath away, followed by a sudden shyness. He raised his hand and waved, uttering his first words to me, a simple hello, Katniss, to which I could only respond with a similar gesture and a hello Peeta in return.

It was nothing really memorable, but it changed our relationship from that moment on, we became more bold in our exchanges. For instance, if I recognized Peeta walking near me, we nodded with our head or we smiled if we made eye contact in the cafeteria or while talking about the colors of the woods during summer for one of the pictures he was working on for art class.

Too much time and too many things have happened since then, but one thing is clear, the smile he once gave me still takes my breath away.

However, that is not enough for me to return a dandelion to him.

Chapter Text

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Days go by unnoticed that week, more slowly than usual because I feel like I am waiting for something. Something like Sunday. It is a day that stays in my memory because I know that Sunday is one of the days he opens the bakery alone - neither his parents nor his brothers rise early that day.

I wake early Sunday morning and smell the damp, wet earth. It must have rained at some point in the night. I get up and come near the window to discover a covered cookie frosted with a dandelion design. I open the window, careful not to wake up Prim, and gently pick up the gift to study its intricate design.

I come to the realization that, if it rained, Peeta's footprints are probably still visible in the wet ground and that I might be able to discover where he came from. I don't know why but knowing this bit of information is important to me. I leave the cookie on the table and leave through the kitchen door at the back of the house. It's likely he comes in through the back to avoid discovery - a merchant in the Seam is rarer than finding a Seam resident in the city. The hatred between the two classes is one of the reasons why Peeta and I can never be together, even if it is a reality he does not wish to acknowledge.

I have only to look as far as the example of my parents. My mother was forced to move and was not allowed to return to her home, her family or her friends, making her completely dependent on my father. When my father died, in some way, she died also. I didn't want that for Peeta - he would become an outcast to his people, a pariah in society. He wouldn't be able to return to the bakery and see his brothers or his father, much less his mother. But that wasn't the only reason. In the end, he would resent me and for that reason, I made that decision. I preferred to live without him than to live knowing that he would hate me and discover that he would no longer be the same person because of me.

I spot the heavy, deep footprints in the mud. He is probably wet and dirtied his pants. I smile, entertained by this little game, because I can picture him swearing as he sinks deeply into the mud.

Peeta and I met every Friday after dinner in Victor's Village because it is a place far away from everything and everyone. In fact, it only has one inhabitant: Haymitch Abernathy, the only victor still alive from District 12. Alive and permanently drunk, I should add, that is why he wasn't a danger to our clandestine meetings. A shed located behind his house, isolated and hidden by some bushes was our meeting point during this year, it was acceptable but we transformed it into a cozy place: some lanterns, a couple of blankets and cushions, supplies...

One night rain caught us when we had to come back. We'd been so focused on our small world, after a hotter than usual making out session, that we didn't notice it had started raining cats and dogs outside.

"We should wait" said Peeta, grabbing me by the waist and turning me around to start kissing me again.

"Peeta, I have to go back or Prim will be worried, it's really late today" I said moving as far away as I could from his mouth.

"This is your fault," he said kissing my neck, in a spot near my earlobe. "You know I can't resist you, and besides your hair is down... And you are so beautiful tonight," in that moment he sighed and hid his head between my neck and shoulder biting my flesh carefully. "What do you want me to do? We only have this short time and it's not enough. When you leave this room I will have to pretend that I don't know you and that I'm interested in my life, when all I'll be thinking about is in next Friday when I can have you in my arms again".

"You'll see me on Sunday," I said "I'll be there to trade some squirrels".

"You will be with Gale," he said sounding jealous and I looked at him with disapproving eyes "No, don't say anything. I know he is just your friend, Katniss, but I'm jealous. Jealous of the time he is allowed to spend with you outdoors and in the woods for a whole day, while we only have a couple of hours and locked up here" he finished talking with a sad tone.

"I feel the same, I'd like to spend more time with you. But, at least, the time we spend together is not bad, isn't it?" I said playfully, kissing him again to lighten the mood, although I felt exactly like him. We were going to be apart for a whole week and I didn't want for us to feel like we did right now, it'd only would make things unbearable.

"You are right," he said, smiling as my Peeta "Let's go or I'll be in trouble if Prim is upset with you for being late"

When we went out the shed, hand in hand with our raincoat, we could barely see, and the ground was muddy and slippery.

"Damn it" Peeta exclaimed as soon as he started walking and almost fell "I can't"

"That is because you don't feel the soil or your environment and you walk against it" I explained to him seriously.

"Katniss, I don't even understand what you are saying" he said, turning with an abrupt movement toward me.

His movement was too fast, and he lost balance and fell in my direction, but although I tried to keep him on his feet, Peeta was taller than me and his athletic built, due to his years working in the bakery lifting heavy bags of flour and his years of wrestling at school, he became too heavy for my tiny frame and finally, he fell to the ground on his back.

"Oh, Peeta! I'm sorry, I couldn't hold you"

"I'm ok" he said with annoyance.

"Are you sure?" I asked laughing out loud.

"What is that funny, Everdeen?" And although he said it in angry tone I knew he really wasn't upset because he only called me by my last name when he wanted to tease me.

"I'm sorry, I really am, but you're all covered in mud and it's so funny ..."

"Great, at least someone is having a good time, although I'm not sure why, you are wet, too. Besides, I think my mother is not going to find it all that funny when she sees that my clothes are so dirty. Please, could you be so kind to help when you stop laughing at me?" He said holding out his hand expecting my help.

"Yeah, right, but my clothes are only soaked" I replied as I took his hand to lift him.

"Maybe... Or maybe not" he exclaimed at the same time he pushed me till I lost my balanced. I fell right on top of him and we started laughing out loud carefree, like we were the only two people in this , he spinned around and trapped me between his body and the mud. "Now I have you back where I want."

Before he could kiss me, I grabbed his neck and I kissed him, trying to convey what I was feeling, a hunger I had never felt before.

"Wow, that kiss was different" Peeta said, looking at me adoringly.

"It was... Well" I said blushing, out of words , as I helped him up.

"Shhhh" he whispered. "Don't worry I know what it is"

That night when we said our goodbyes on the crossroad between The Seam and the Merchant Quarter, it was a more difficult but prettier and different farewell. I didn't analyze my feelings at the time: how I had a smile on my face and a nice feeling in my stomach, but also an empty chest.

Looking back, I can say I was already in love with him and from that moment everything began to change between us, but I can also say it was one of the happiest moments of my life.

When I go into the kitchen, Prim is already awake, grabbing a glass of milk in one hand and a cookie in the other one.

"I didn't know you had already gone hunting and to the bakery, would you like some?" She asks pointing with her head to the cookie.

She takes my silence as a refusal, which is the usual thing because I always keep them for her, but when she is about to bite it, I react.

"Don't!" I yell . Prim looks at me puzzled. 'It's just... it is too beautiful to be eaten"

My sister smiles sweetly, leaves the cookie on the plate again and comes closer to hug me.

"You're right, Katniss. It's too pretty to eat, and we have to take care of beautiful things" she kisses me on the cheek, then returns to our room. "I'm going to get ready, mom wanted me to look after the Hummel's baby today. He is sick"

It has not gone unnoticed that those words are the ones we exchanged two years ago on my 18-year-old reaping, my last one. Peeta approached us, to congratulate us for not being chosen as tributes and gave us a cookie, each with a different flower: one primrose for her and a Katniss flower for me. His father had made them to celebrate, in case he made it, that his three sons were finally safe and not eligible for future reapings.

"I know Prim is still not out of danger yet, but at least she has one year less"

"Thanks" I said without elaborating further, trying to find out why the touch of his fingers made me feel awkward.

"They're beautiful. Thank you very much" said Prim and Peeta nodded in agreement and left.

"They're beautiful,aren't they?" my sister repeated. "Too pretty to eat"

"That's nonsense! Prim, they are just food" I said as I bit it and I finished the the conversation

Chapter Text

This whole issue with the dandelions, memories, and Peeta is starting to mess with my nerves. I haven't been able to go to the bakery since I’ve heard of his engagement. I’m afraid to run into him. Not only have I stopped going on Sundays, although Gale might notice something, in fact I think he has already. Today at the forest I needed three arrows to kill a squirrel, then I apologized telling him that I wasn’t feeling okay, and I went home. Before, during the week, when I needed some flour or bread, or when I had caught something special, I went by the bakery too. At first, the necessity forced me, then because I wanted to see him, although I always tried to keep my visits to the minim. But that’s three weeks now that I haven't stopped by.

 

Sunday comes again, and with the morning comes a new gift: Carved in wood, a dandelion flower. But not any wood.

 

It is fir, I know that because the orange color of the wood differs from the whitish tone of the pine. But most of all, is that the pine grows inside the fence that surrounds town and fir grows outside. I’m filled with rage. What was he thinking? Going outside is dangerous and he knows it. He promised me, he promised he would never do it without me.

I’m so angry I could yell at him if I saw him now. Everything I’m doing is to keep him safe, and if he does this nonsense, I won’t be able to protect him, all this will have been for nothing.

Since Peeta told me about the woods, that rainy night, I began to form a plan to take him and show him the forest. We would go one Sunday Gale had to work because once a month his crew rested Monday instead of Sunday. I surprised him in the shed the first Friday I could.

“Do you think Rye could open for you on Sunday? I have a plan in mind.”

“Rye doesn’t like to work on Sundays, I don’t think it’s going to be easy to convince him. Most likely it will cost me a lot of free Saturdays. What do you have in mind?”

“Do you remember a few weeks ago, when you told me that you’d like to spend more time with me out of the shed?” Peeta nods, with a smile as wide and bright that is contagious, “On Sunday we could spend all day in the forest, I have a place to show you, What do you say?”

“I don’t care if Rye asks for a full year of my Saturdays, count me in.”

“Then I’ll see you at seven, it will be a long road.”

Sunday dawned clear and radiant, a beautiful spring day. When I arrived at our meeting point on the meadow, Peeta was already there, sitting with his back to me, looking at the river.

“Hey stranger,” I said, startling him.

“Katniss! One of these days you will scare me to death, no one should be so quiet.”

“A hunter needs it. I’m glad Rye agreed to change his day off with you.”

“I’m glad too, it also took less than I expected.”

“How many Saturdays did it cost?”

“I will work on a Saturday, and I’ll rest the next one, and so on until Christmas.”

“Peeta! That’s outrageous!”

“You don’t know Rye, this is a gift coming from him. I told him that I had a date with someone very special and he softened.”

“You told him about me?” I asked, startled.

“Of course not, I believe he thought I was talking about Delly,” he laughed, “Shall we?”

Peeta got up, and we approached the fence, south of where we were, as it is one of the most remote and hidden spots, so it is usually also the safest.

“Peeta was about to walk through but I stop him.”

“Wait, first we need to check if it is electrified.”

“I thought you said it was never electrified.”

“I said: it is not usually electrified. Look, you have to bring your ear closer , and if you hear a buzzing, like a swarm of bees, then we’ll leave it for another time.It is off, we can move on now.

“What if they turn it on just when we are crossing?”

“So,” I stare at him with the pertinent solemnity, “ odds aren’t in our favor.”

Peeta looked at me doubtfully, and he crossed quietly until we were on the other side.

“You know? I usually tell myself that you are safe out here, and that I have nothing to worry about, but I’m not so sure anymore.”

I kissed his cheek instinctively, touched that he cared so much about me.

“I’ll be fine, this is safer than to be under the peacekeepers radar, or Cray’s. At least I feel free in the woods, I know what I can face and I accept it, inside the fence I feel I have less control over my destiny, “we keep talking while I led him to the hole where I keep my arrows and bow, “Let’s go, we have a long road ahead.”

The road took us longer than usual since Peeta wasn’t used to walking so many hours nor the rough terrain of the forest.

“Katniss, this is amazing, I had no idea there was this lake out here.”

“My father showed me this place,” I said slowly, carefully choosing my words, like every time I talk about my father, to contain the emotion that his memory brings me, “he taught me to swim in here, to fish and shoot with the bow...I wanted to show it to you, I knew you would like it, that’s why I told you to bring your sketchbook and pencils.”

“Although you didn’t said anything, I also brought a picnic,” Peeta said, winking at me.

We spread the blankets and the large amount of food he brought: meat pie, apple tart,bread, and cheese buns.

“Where did you get so much food?” I asked worried because the last time he gave me two loaves of bread he was beaten by his witch of a mother.

“It’s part of the deal with my brother. I thought of everything, I told you that the arrangement hadn’t been so bad.”

He reassured me with his words, and from that moment we began to really enjoy the day: we ate, we lay in the sun, play in the lakeside, I taught him how to make knots with vegetation and he tried to learn how to shoot with the bow.

Late in the afternoon, I had my head on Peeta’s lap. I was making a flower crown while he was busy playing with my hair when suddenly, he stood still.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I wish I could freeze this moment, right here, right now, and live in it forever.”

Usually this sort of comment, the kind that hinted of his undying love for me, made me feel scared, because I aware that in this world in which we live in, this, our relationship, had to end at some point. Although I always postponed the moment, thinking that if I was about to spend the rest of my life without him, at least I was entitled to enjoy a little more of his love and company. But I was so relaxed and beyond worrying about a future I’d never have, I just let the word slip out.

“Okay.”

“So, you’ll allow it?” he asked and I could tell, by his voice that he was smiling.

 

“I’ll allow it.”

His fingers automatically went back to caress my hair and I fell asleep, but he woke me up a little later.

“Maybe we should go back if you still want to catch something and not come back empty handed without an alibi,” he said seriously.

“You’re right, I have to catch something for the Hawthornes as well, since Gale couldn’t come.”

We arrived at the rock that was my usual meeting point with Gale and where we began our hunting routine.

“Wait here,” I said firmly, “and don’t move while I check the snare line and see if I can catch a squirrel or rabbit.”

“Don't worry, I’ll be here drawing,” he replied taking out his sketchbook.

As I was alone, I was soon able to hear the sounds and I got carried away by them, farther than I intended. Once I had caught two squirrels and a fat rabbit I went back to Peeta, but when I reached the stone I didn’t see him and I got scared.

There was his backpack and a widespread blanket full of strawberries and berries. No, not berries, but nightlock.

“Peeta!” I screamed in panic, “Peeta, where are you?”

I ran into the woods screaming his name when I heard a noise behind a bush and he appeared. I angrily walked to him.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I yelled at him.

“I thought about doing something practical and collect some strawberries and berries so you could share with the Hawthorne.”

“These are not edible berries, they are nightlock, they’re mortal. I thought you were dead. You haven’t eaten any, right?” I asked, although the answer is obvious as he is still breathing.

 

“No, no. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m no good for you,” he said, angry with himself, hitting his head with his hand as he said so.

“Don’t say that,” I reproached, feeling guilty for yelling at him... like his mother. In that moment, I jumped into his arms, and hugged him tightly, “Promise me that you’ll never do it again, promise me you’ll not come to the woods alone or you’ll never put yourself in danger, you’ll stay close enough to me so that I can protect you.”

“Always,” he said.

And until today, I thought he would keep his promise.

Chapter Text

Autumn has officially become winter this week, and as always flu and colds come along with the cold weather. December illness was a gold mine for our little business which was much appreciated because it was when the game was scarce.

Among our customers I can see Darius showing up, Darius is one of District 12 agents, the kind est in our district, and possibly all of Panem. His hair is bright red, a tone which contrasts with his pale skin.

 

"Good morning, Katniss" he tells me, avoiding the formalities that are necessary outside the Hob.

"Hello, Darius, what brings you here? Don't you have modern and fancy medicines from the Capitol?" I say teasing him.

 

"Yes, but you know that I'm addicted to the Everdeen's red fruit infusion and taking into account the cold that's coming, I think it is the perfect choice for warmth"

"That might be an exaggeration, fortunately snow has not appeared yet" Not that I dislike snow but it's harder to track game.

"Then our luck is about to change, and I wanted to warn you so you have enough meat in the fridge, because the coming storm will be an important one if the forecast is right and I don't want to wait for weeks for the frozen meat from the Capitol, because if they are right, we will be isolated for some days".

 

Although hunting isn't legal in District 12 our agents look the other way, especially Darius who is one of my best customers.

"Don't worry, Rooba's freezer is full and her house is one of the few ones that doesn't run out of electricity, along with yours and the Merchants' " I say winking. "When is it expected?"

"Today's dawn, and it may last two or three days"

Darius pays me for the infusion and leaves but I get worried, because today is Saturday, which means that Peeta will try to come tonight. "I must warn him' I think.

 

"Prim" I yell at my sister who is on the other end of the booth while I take off the apron. I have to deliver some squirrels to the bakery and pick up some bread and flour for these days, a storm is coming"

Prim nods and I run as fast as I can to our house to take one of the squirrels that I hunted this morning. If we're going to be isolated a few days we'd need them but bread soup will be enough.

 

In just over half an hour I'm in the bakery carrying a squirrel and hoping to find Peeta even though it's Saturday afternoon, because he still owes Rye some shifts from our faraway Sunday in the forest. I knock as usual at the back door and Mr. Mellark opens it, although I can see, with relief ,that Peeta is frosting a cake next to the window near where I stand. When he lifts his head and sees me, he looks puzzled but quickly, looks down again and resumes his work.

 

"Hello, Katniss, to what do we owe the pleasure of your visit today? It's been a long time" he says smiling and motions toward Peeta with his head to let me know that he is talking about both of them.

"A snow storm is coming" I answer without elaborating further.

"Oh! Well thanks for thinking of us, squirrel hasn't been in our diet lately," Mr. Mellark says with a warm smile that makes me feel a little guilty. "what would you like? Two loaves of white bread?"

"If possible, I prefer one of raisins and nuts".

 

Peeta raises his head startled because this is our code when I have to speak with him... Or when I needed to see him. Today is the first case, I say to myself. Peeta's father leaves the kitchen and heads to the main counter when the bell rings announcing a real customer has come into the bakery.

 

"Katniss are you in a rush? Do you mind if I take care of this before?

"No problem, Mr. Mellark"

As soon as he disappears behind the door, Peeta comes closer to me and takes my hand.

"Are you ok?"

"Yes" I say, releasing my hand from his though I miss his touch .

Peeta gets serious and steps back.

"What do you want?" He asks, no warmth in his voice, which hurts but I know it's the right thing to do or he won't listen to me.

"Darius told me that a strong snow storm is coming, it's forecasted at dawn and I wanted to warn you so you don't come. It isn't safe"

"No" Peeta says.

"I said it is not safe, it is dangerous, you could get caught and get lost or something worse"

"No"

"Damn it, Peeta, don't be stubborn"

"Will you meet me later, in the shed?we have to talk".

"No, besides you have to work.

"Then I'll go tonight"

"Ok, give me the gift now"

"Pardon?"

"I said, give me the gift now, so you don't have to come tonight" I say convinced that he will agree as it is a good arrangement and a very generous offer from my side in our current situation.

"I'll bring it over tonight... As always".

With that he turns around with his back towards me and resumes his work just when his father returns from the front shop.

"Here you go, Katniss and don't be a stranger"

"Good bye" I say rushing to go out from there and frustrated with Peeta's attitude.

When I'm halfway home I realize I've forgotten the flour due my quick exit... Today is not great so far.

I feel anxious during the whole night, I can barely take my eyes from the window and I'm praying that it doesn't snow. I can notice that both, my mother and my sister are aware of my discomfort but they know better than to ask me what's wrong, before going to sleep Prim asks, "Are you coming to sleep?"

"I'm not sleepy yet" I answer distractedly, but Prim doesn't push the conversation because she knows I need my space sometimes.

 

A little bit after midnight, it starts to snow heavily although the storm hasn't begun yet. I try to guess when Peeta might come, he usually wakes up around 4 in the morning, but since he walks over here to leave the dandelions I suppose he has to get up earlier, hopefully he will be sensible and come before it gets worse... Although if he had any common sense he wouldn't come at all.

 

At 2 am, there are still no news but the storm blows furiously now, the streetlights are still on. I get up from my rocking chair and start walking back and forth in our small living room, but it creates the opposite effect and I can't relax. Moved by an impulse, I step out onto the porch to breathe some cold and fresh air. It's freezing outside.

Suddenly I hear heavy footsteps coming closer, some footsteps I recognize and I see Peeta turning around the corner of my house. He doesn't realize I'm there till the last moment when he is in front of me

 

"Hi" he says, but his voice trembles due to the cold.

"C'mon, get inside" I say, trying to reflect a peace that I don't feel.

"I shouldn't, I have to go back to the bakery as soon as possible" he says without looking at me.

"Peeta, you're trembling and I can see from here that your pants are wet. Come in for a second, you can dry besides the fireplace and then you are free to go" I turn around and head to the threshold hoping that he follows me.

 

When I'm close to the entrance door I hear he is going up the stairs and I smile relieved.

"Thanks" he says when he is by my side.

I close the door quickly to keep the heat inside the house and see how he approaches the fire: he's standing up, with his back to me. His hands reach towards the fire as he tries to warm them up. stand up in front of him, back to me, and his hands extended to get more warm.

 

"I'll make some hot beverage"

Without waiting for an answer I get into the kitchen to boil some water. When I'm inside I can breath deeply and sigh. All the tension accumulated in the last hours vanishes as soon as I realize he is safe and here with me, and I'm not going to let him go till the Storm finishes. I'm not sure how I'll explain Peeta's presence to my mother and Prim, but I'll figure it out later, there's a lot of time before that happens.

I come back to the living room with 2 mugs full of speedwell and red poppy infusion, the mixture isn't casual, I hope he relaxes enough to get sleepy and stays here with me. I offered him the mug that he takes touching my fingers slighty. Every touch, every caress or every look from him has always had the same effect on me, it is an overwhelming feeling that makes me believe I'm at home. That's why it has always been so difficult not to feel attracted or inclined toward him; That's why it has been so hard to be apart from him and that is why I couldn't help it when this thing between us got out of hand... And of head. Finally this is why we are in this situation, both unhappy and apart, but I'm realistic, I know where I live and I know that now it's worse but I hope that he will be better in the future... About me, I'm not sure anymore.

We sit down on the couch, but on opposite ends, looking at the fire and drinking the hot tea.

"A penny for your thoughts" he says.

"I wasn't thinking" I say, beacuse I can't tell him what's on my mind.

"Do you know what I'm thinking?" He says looking at me as I deny with my head "I always wanted to know how your house was, it is nice and cozy. I like it.

"Maybe you like it because you can't see the holes on the walls or the patches on the curtains or the floorboard that moves when you step over them" I tell him because I don't want him to romantize a Seam house and I know him well enough to know how Peeta sees the world through his eyes, and the world isn't like that. The world is usually ugly and cruel.

"Maybe" he comments seriously "I have to go" he says standing up.

"No way, there's the worst storm in years out there"

"Katniss,I need to go back, I'm running late and I have to turn on the ovens in the bakery, or bread won't be baked by opening time"

"No one is going to go to the bakery today, Peeta, they won't be able to leave their houses"

"I have to return, you know my mother, if she goes down and doesn't find me I'm going to be in trouble, besides Rye and my father will worry a lot"

"You should have thought about it before coming, I warned you" I say yelling louder that I intend with a sharp edge in my voice.

But he isn't fooled by my words or tone. He comes over to where I am and hugs me while he whispers softly in my ear.

"I'll be alright"

"You can't be sure about that" I say leaning on him and resting my head on his shoulder.

"I'm here and you didn't think I could make it, right?" He says and without waiting for my response he begins to stroke my hair.

A long and comfortable silence falls over the room and we can only hear the whistling of the wind outside and the crackling of the wood being devoured by the fire. I'm not sure how long we stay in that exact position, me hugging him, and him stroking my hair, until I hear a voice that 's not Peeta's nor mine.

 

"Katniss?"

"Prim!" I exclaim jumping away from him. I see my sister in the threshold of the small aisle that leads to my mother's room and ours. "Go to the room now, I'll be be there in a moment"

My sister turns around and with no more words, she goes inside again.

"I'll be back soon, stay here" I tell Peeta and run to my bedroom .

 

When I step into our room, Prim is sitting on the bed, waiting for me.

"Prim..." I begin to say sitting down besides her and taking her hands while I think about what I'm going to tell her, because I don't know how to explain Peeta's presence at home that late, and not only that, I also have to explain to her why we were hugging.

"You don't need to say anything, Katniss. I already knew" she says serious.

"What do you know exactly?" I ask confused.

"About you and him, that you're together"

"We are not" and I'm not lying to her.

"I could sense that too" she says without changing her facial gesture. "Listen to me," she resumes her speech before I can interrupt her, "Last reaping, you told mom and me that you wanted to buy some cookies to celebrate that we weren't chosen and before I could say anything nothing you ran towards the bakery. Mom and I started to return home when I thought that I'd like to choose my own cookie and the icing, so I left mom and went after you to the bakery too. When I arrived at their backyard I saw Peeta sneaking out and heading to the alley that was on my left. I hid behind a tree so he couldn't see me. Carefully, I approached the rear window of the bakery but I didn’t see you, then an idea popped into my head. up to my mind, Maybe since you were there as a regular customer, and not to trade squirrels you could be out on the front of the store. I decided to follow Peeta’s path and then I saw both of you. Your back was against the wall and he was leaning into you and you were kissing. I turned around and left. From that moment I observed your behaviour, Katniss. Till a couple of months ago, you’ve smiled more than usual, your eyes shone and I could say you were truly happy but lately it’s just the opposite, you are sullen, distracted and worst of all you’re sad. As I said before, I don’t want you to explain anything to me, I know you’ll do it when you are ready”

She moves closer to me and hugs me before laying down on the bed again. I tug the blankets around her.

“Since when are you so mature, little duck?” I ask touching her forehead.

“You had to grow up younger, and you are the best sister I could have. I just want you to be happy and from what I saw, Peeta made you happy. I know you’ll make the right decision. I trust you, Katniss. Good night”.

"Good night, Prim"

 

I get out of the room and close the door to have some privacy, but before stepping into the livingroom I wipe away the tears my sister’s confession has brought to my eyes, because I want to believe on her words and to think that I’m doing the right thing. Because I’m doing the right thing or am I? When I enter the room I find it empty.

“Peeta?” I call out scared when I don’t see him, but Peeta’s gone.

I grab my jacket that is hanging behind the door and I put it over my pajama, buttoning it up before going outside into the storm. I begin to scream his name as I walk with some difficulties because of the snow, but as soon as I step outside my house, lights turn out and everything around me is black and in silence. The storm seems to be stronger now, and the wind knocks me down. I can't stand as the wind knocks me down everytime I try.

“Katniss, come back!” I hear Prim yelling scared at me from our porch.

“Go inside” I say to her.

But my sister goes down to the street and tries to run towards me, but the wind is too strong and she ends up in the ground.

“I could lose both of them tonight” I think to myself “I’m going to lose Prim and Peeta tonight”.

Anxious I try to decide what to do, but to be honest there is no real choice. Prim is my little sister, and my only objective in life has been to protect her and keep her safe and I can save her now, not Peeta, because I don’t know where Peeta is or which way he took. So I go to Prim and help her return to our house. We sit down in front of fire and then I see an envelope with my name on it. I recognize the handwriting. It’s Peeta’s.

 

The gift

 

I forgot all this mess had started with that gift. I grab the envelope like it is the present itself and inside I find an orangish handmade paper with a dandelion mixed inside it.

There's only one question written on it, the same question he asked me in the bakery this afternoon: “Will you meet with me?”

Chapter Text

It is not until three days later that I can reach the town center. Three days I’ve been in a frantic state of anxiety, trying different ways to get there without result, whether through snow that reached my hips or my waist, depending on the area and not knowing when I might come out of the Seam and find out about Peeta’s fate. It wasn't until yesterday, when I saw Gale, that I had some news. I was about fifty meters away from my house when I heard him call me.

“Where do you think you’re going Catnip?”

“I have some errands to run in town,” I'm not lying though that isn't the main reason for my hurry to get downtown.

“Those must be some important errands, I’ve been watching you fighting against the snow for several days now.”

“Yeah well, that and I can’t stand being stuck between four walls anymore. You? forced vacations at the mines?”

“Well yes,” he says smiling, “It’s a nice change to be able to enjoy the sun these days. I’d even say a luxury, if it wasn’t because they’ll deduct from my monthly pay. Anyway, we’ve been told that we’ll go tomorrow, it seems they’re starting to clear the streets. How about if instead of attempting the impossible, we play with the kids and make a snowman?”

I nodded reluctantly, aware that we wouldn’t be able to hunt anything, so I went with Gale to the backyard of his house, at least that’s where we thought we were, because with this amount of snow it was difficult to know where we stood. His brothers came out right away and Rory volunteered to fetch Prim. The afternoon were by more pleasantly than if I'd spend it at home wondering about Peeta's whereabouts. Having the Hawthornes for our neighbors has always been a blessing.

I see the bakery from across the square, it's open, there's people coming and going and I think that’s a good sign, otherwise it would be closed, right? Although with Peeta’s mother, you never know.

I go to the back, as I always do when I trade, and because that's where Peeta usually works. Before knocking at the door I release a sigh when I see a blond head bowed collecting sacks on the warehouse. Without a second thought I knock at the glass, but when the blond guy turns, I see that it's Rye, not Peeta.

I stand still and my heart begins beating. Rye gestures for me to come closer, I comply fearfully. As soon as he opens the door, I start talking.

“I need flour, I forgot it here, the other day, before the storm. Your father can tell you that I brought some squirrels.”

Rye looks at me disgruntled, frowning.

“If you want flour I can bring it for you, but I thought you were here to know about Peeta. I was wrong,” he says seriously, as he turns to get the flour, it doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes, “here you have it, good day Everdeen.”

Before he closes, I put a foot in the door frame so he can’t close the door.
“You’re right, I came to know about Peeta. The flour… the flour was just an excuse. Well, I actually left it the other day, but that’s not the reason I’m here".

Rye stares at me but finally decides that I deserve to have some news because he starts talking.

“He is pretty sick, the doctor was able to come by this morning, seems he has pneumonia, he has a high fever we haven’t been able to control, he can barely breathe and rest because of the coughing. My father is with him now. Doctor said there are no guarantees.

“It can be true,” I say trying to hold back the tears that are pooling in my eyes.

“I found him lying in the snow on our back yard, he was trying to crawl to the door. I got him home quickly, and turned on the oven to heat the room but I don’t know how long he was outside in the storm. He kept repeating your name,” Rye says as tears flood my face, I’m about to ask if I can see him when he cuts me and keeps talking, “Katniss, I don’t know what’s going on between you two or why he decided to get engaged to Delly, but now is a delicate time and mother is already angry enough with him, she almost threw him out of the house that morning when she saw that he had escaped and we had no bread. Him, saying your name hasn't exactly helped. I don’t think you being here is such a good idea.”

“I understand, but…I need to do something to help and to know if he is still okay. Please Rye.”

“Your mother and sister are healers, right? Maybe you could see if they have something that might help him with the fever, or the coughing,” I nod while I internally chastise myself for not thinking about it before, “listen, it will be less risky if you send your little sister early in the morning. She could drop the medicine by the door and knock. I'll be in the lookout for her”

I nod again and turn to leave, suddenly , I notice that I forgot something.

“Thanks Rye. If he wakes up, I mean, when he wakes up, don’t tell him I’ve been here, it'll only make things worse.”

Prim is more than willing to help me, of course. After preparing a chest poultice and an infusion to control fever, we go to the bakery. They might not want me there, and I don't planned on being seen but I can hide and watch my system from afar. Prim does what we agreed. She drops the medicine, along with the instructions, knocks on the door and runs to meet me at my hiding place. A few minutes later Rye comes out, he takes the medicine and goes back inside. We won't have any more news until tomorrow.

On Wednesday and Thursday Peeta had showed no improvement, but prim assures me that’s good because it means he's controlled. On friday, the news are that Peeta is a little better, it seems the fever has gone down a bit although he isn’t conscious and lucid yet. Finally, on Saturday, when I see Prim hugging a smiling rye, I know the worst is over. The day is cold but sunny, and I decide to go to the woods to hunt, because the rest of the days I haven’t, not because of the snow but because it would have been useless to try to concentrate.

The ride turns very profitable when I get to shoot a couple of wild turkeys. One will be for Sae and the other for us, we could even make soup and bring it to Peeta. Suddenly, with the clarity the forest gave me, I come to the realization that my plan to keep him safe is failing miserably, so far, he has come to the woods by himself, has nearly died of pneumonia and his mother almost kicked himout of his house. However I know that I'm to blame because my resolve isn't as strong as it should be. Peeta feels that the door is still open, that's why he's been so determined about giving me this gifts. This has to stop. I have to find a way to put an end to it.

I come home in the evening, after having gone to the Hob, and I find a package on the pillow.

“Prim!” I call ,“what is this?”

“I don’t know, Rye gave it to me, it's for you.”

“Rye or Peeta?”

“Rye just said: ‘give this to your sister.”

I look at the the package reluctantly, it doesn't make sense for it to come from Rye to me. It doesn't make sense for the package to come from Peeta either, since he's only been awake for twelve hours.

“Katniss, open it already, it's possibly just something to compensatefor the medicines. they probably don't want to accept charity either,” she says to finish and goes back to the kitchen.

Fearfully, I approach the gift and take it. It doesn't seem like it is flour or biscuits. Gradually, I tear the paper and a silky fabric appears under it. It's a scarf embroidered with a beautiful yellow dandelion. I begin to get away from it, because it is one of Peeta’s gifts, I can feel the scent of cinnamon and bread that always accompanies him , is a comforting and familiar smell that makes me close my eyes and I bring it closer to my face to caress it.

However, the illusion lasts only a few seconds because I recover quickly, and leave the scarf in a box with the rest of the gifts, now I know how I’m going to stop this nonsense, next Sunday I’ll leave the box at his door.

Chapter Text

Prim goes every single day to the bakery to ask about the patient who seems to be recovering his health and strength as hours / days go by, although he's still too weak to leave his bed. I know that my decision is going to shock Prim, Rye and Peeta. I know they will think I'm a horrible person...but they can't understand the logic behind it. I know it's the right decision and I'm going to close this door now, before things get any worse.

Saturday while I'm in our Hob stand making some eucalyptus' balms, one of our top products, I can see a blond head in the distance mingled in the crowd. At first I don't pay too much attention because although it is not usual to find Merchants in the Hob, it isn't weird either. However when I look up again, I can tell that the blond haired man is the owner of a pair of blue eyes that I'd recognize anywhere.

There is no way to hide now, if I try to run it would be obvious for both, my mom and Prim that I'm running away from him, it's true that my sister knows the story at this point and I shouldn't be concerned about my mom, but I'm sure Peeta will follow me and then the whole Hob would be aware that something's going on. I look at him, challenging him, I hope he can understand that he is not welcome, but he returns my glance with determination and walks till he is in front of me but doesn't say a word. He's challenging me too.

"You shouldn't be here" I say harshly and without an ounce of what I'm really feeling about seeing him again because in just one week he is thinner and extremely pale. He has purple circles under his eyes, not so blue today, and hollow cheeks. His shoulders sag down as if he couldn't stand by himself.

I need to make an effort and gather all my self-control to not run into him and hug him because he seems like he could pass out at any moment.

"I'm sorry" he apologizes, thinking that I'm referring to his sickness and not to my refusal to be with him "I needed to give you something but I knew I couldn't get to your home, it's too far away, so I thought this would be easier for once" he says, his voice weak and tired.

"Peeta, you need to go now, and this" I say pointing to the gift he has brought "has to end now too. This, you and I, finished months ago but you don't want to acknowledge it"

He is bewildered by my comment and I notice how difficult it is for him to breathe, but he manages to say something more.

"I'm so tired, Katniss..."

My heart breaks when I see him so weak and sad, so I turn my back to him before I can do something stupid, like cry. I stay like that, pretending to organize some herbs, until I think enough time has gone by. When I turn around again I can see that he's no longer there. But the package is still on the counter. I debate whether to take it or not, finally I grab it and put it in my bag. It's not a big deal, I'll return it tomorrow.

I spend the rest of the day like an automaton, trying not to think of him but maybe just because of that, thinking about him all the time. While my mother and Prim are cooking dinner, I sneak into my room and little by little I rip the paper and I find out that it's a dandelion ointment, one of our dandelion ointments specifically. But this is not one of the new ones that we sell and I know that because the container is different, I also know what message he's sending me with this present.

Theoretically it was a Monday like any other, but soon it wasn't anymore when Peeta didn't show up in art class. At lunchtime, I was with Madge, the mayor's daughter, as always. I could say she was my only friend besides Gale although we belonged to two different worlds, but both were shy and quiet and unfortunately we both shared an absent mother. I couldn't help to look at the table where Peeta normally sits with his group of friends but he was nowhere. In one of the moments I was looking at that direction again I must have kept on looking for longer than I intended and Madge said, "Peeta is not at school today. Bran, his oldest brother, came to our house last Friday to look for some morphlin. It seems that his mom was tougher than usual this time"

I looked down because I noticed that I was red with anger and helplessness. It was a well-known secret that Mrs. Mellark hit her boys, particularly the youngest, however no one stood up for them, Peacekeepers thought that it was more important to keep us hungry than to help a vulnerable boy.

The next day, at lunch time again, I could see that Peeta was with his friends. He looked horrible, his cheek and cheekbone were swollen and tinted with a color between green and bluish, besides he limped when he walked. At one moment our gaze crossed and I waved at him to say hello, but he just avoided my glance instead of smiling or waving back as he usually did. But I wasn't offended because I understood his shame although It wasn't his fault. I felt bad though. Peeta had helped me when I needed it most and I couldn't pay him back...

Or maybe I could...

On Tuesday I arrived early to school, Prim was going to go with the Hawthorne's. That day we had a class together "Panem History". When I located his desk, in the second row near the window, I left the dandelion balsam along with an instruction note of what it was and how it needed to be applied on the bruise. I couldn't help but notice the coincidence. Not only could Dandelion seeds be used in salads, which had helped me, but they were good for bruises and they reduced swelling, which was going to help him.

When Peeta arrived to our classroom, he opened his desk to drop his school things and I saw how he carefully took the bottle and the note, but in that moment our teacher came and the lesson began. In a couple of times he turned around and looked in my direction, but I pretended as I didn't see him although I was watching all his movements out of the corner of my eye.

As soon as the lesson was over I ran out of there.

We were even now, We didn't need any more words between us, or that is what I thought not what he was thinking. And I think that by this point in our story we can agree that Peeta has his own opinion of what has to be done, at least when I'm involved.

Friday after my last lesson I headed out to wait Prim, in our usual spot at the exit of her primary school as the youngest finished half an hour later than us. There was a small forest besides the doors and I liked to sit there to wait for her when it was warm. Eyes closed, feeling the soft touch of the sun on my skin I was thinking in some chores that I had pending for that weekend when a shade blocked the sun, but before I could open my eyes I heard his voice.

"Thanks for the ointment. It was wonderful."

"Oh!" I said in surprise, " it was nothing, really."

"My face begs to differ, the coloring is much more natural" he said jokingly. His cheekbone still looked yellow. I smiled.

"I'm so clumsy, I bumped against the oven door..."

He sounded so sincere. If I hadn't heard the truth from Madge, I would have believed him.

"I don't think you're clumsy, Peeta," I said seriously. "Your paintings, your cakes, your frosted cookies... I think that you're the opposite of clumsy."

He looked at me with such intensity that I realized that he knew that I knew That I knew what his mother did to him, and I understood in that moment that I wanted to reaffirm him, that I wanted him to know how brave and incredible he was, someone who wasn't afraid of a beating to save a girl that didn't matter even to her own mother.

"I don't think it's that much..." He said apologizing politely and with a humble tone.

"I think you are talented and brilliant...and no one should make you feel otherwise. Oh there is Prim!" I said motioning to my sister "I have to go now. Have a nice weekend"

I turned around when he called my name again.

"Katniss!"

"Yeah?"

"Have a nice weekend"

I spent the weekend trying to forget the butterflies in my stomach that were caused by him saying my name, however next Friday when he walked with to pick up Prim, I didn't want to forget anymore.

But now, I should forget and so should he. Sunday morning very early I head to the bakery, knowing that Rye will be there. I leave a box with all the presents inside and a handwritten note that says: "For Peeta ".

I hope that this will stop him, but till next Sunday I won't have an answer.

Chapter Text

Sunday dawns cloudy. Through the window you can almost smell the snow, it hasn't fallen, but sense it suspended on the air

I hide under the blanket again, I don't want to get up, I'm tired, it's been a rough week. I also don't want to look out the window in case there is a gift, but I guess I have no choice.

I look carefully out the window, but there is nothing there. Peeta finally gave up. I should be happy, and I'm going to. That's the way it has to be.

I leave home visiting my favorites places on my way to the woods, is early for me to go, but this places make me happy, they calm me and stop my mind from wandering.

I reach the fence, it's off, as usual, I'm about to pick my bow and arrows to go to my meeting place with Gale. When I get to the clearing, in the distance I se a figure and I'm surprised that he is already there waiting. But when I step closer, I can tell it's not him. It's Peeta.

I shouldn't be surprised at this point.

"Please don't say anything and listen to me," He says as soon as he sees me. "After you returned my gifts, I was afraid you wouldn't want to take the rest, so I preferred to give this to you in person. I know you and you know me, enough to know how stubborn we can be. I don't believe you will change your mind at this point, but I need to do this Katniss, to know that I've tried and I have, at least, finished saying goodbye to you. I'm only asking for three more weeks, and then I'll stop bothering you.

"It's okay but in that case I prefer that you leave them again by the window. Don't make this harder than it has to be."

"Fine I will leave it here," he ends the discussion, pointing at the rock.

He walks beside me when he leaves, not even trying to steal a caress or to get our hands to touch.

He was so sad, I think while I pick the gift, so broken and defeated.

I open it, convincing myself that at least I owe him that, but when I see what it is, I regret it immediately. It's his sketchbook, one of them, and it's full of drawings of me. I can see myself picking Prim from school, looking at the woods through the window in class; I even see our last reaping, there's Effie trinket with her yellow wig, reading names while I'm where the girls are, turning my back to Peeta, but looking in the direction Prim was. Reaping days can hardly be forgotten. The fear, the anguish and the anxiety followed by the relief of not being chosen, and the sadness of saying goodbye to children that will only return in a wooden coffin.

However, the last drawing is the one that leaves me shaking. I remember when that happened. It was our first kiss.

It was the Friday of the first week of the new school year, a year in which I no longer attended school, and I was considered an adult. I needed to choose a profession other that "furtive hunter," at least for the sake of appearances. To keep up with my routine, I went to pick up Prim every week day, although she'd already told me she was old enough to walk home alone, and it was true, but for me she will always be my little sister and I will protect her at all costs.

"Hey," I heard behind me when I was arriving to school.

"Oh, Hey," I said surprised. I turned and saw it was Peeta, "I didn't recognize you. What are you doing here?"

"It's Friday," he said as if that explained everything.

He kept walking with me up to the trees from which I could look out for my sister, both of us in a comfortable silence, until he decided to talk again.

"You see, the truth is…" he paused, finding it difficult to talk, "I better speak bluntly, right?"

I nodded because, honestly, I was a bit lost with his erratic behavior, normally, he was perfectly capable to express with great clarity.

"I think we've become friends during these months, and I miss talking to you and seeing you," he said fixing his honest blue eyes on me, waiting for my reaction. At that time, I couldn't stop the smile that was forming on my face and a strange warmth spread through my body. As soon as Peeta replied with a smile, I knew I was lost. "Would you like to spend some time with me?"

"Sounds good to me," I agreed. "I should be free Friday afternoon after leaving Prim home. If you have time today we can meet in the meadow by the river. It is a quiet and pleasant place."

"Of course I have time. I'll wait for you there," and he said goodbye with the promise to see me soon.

Our first dates, because looking back that's what they were even though neither one of us ever uttered that word, had been very innocent and relatively short. We got together to talk about the summer, his finished orders in the bakery, or how had I bought the goat for Prim, my idea of establishing a place at the Hob... But gradually, our conversations got deeper and we started talking about our dreams, hopes, anecdotes, fears and desires. I felt that I could talk to him about everything and when I shared something with him, everything was immediately better.

It happened one evening after another night full of nightmares about the Reaping.

'You don't look well" he said when he saw me. He sounded worried. "Are you having nightmares again?

I simply nodded, confirming his suspicion and sat beside him bending my knees and hugging them. Peeta promptly imitated the gesture to get closer to me.

"Prim again?" He asked, referring to the recurring dreams in which Prim was reaped and I couldn't volunteer to save her. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"No, I do not want to talk. Maybe I should go, I won't be good company today.

But I didn't move and just sat there beside him, rocking nervously. Suddenly he slid one of his arms around my shoulders and pulled me to him. I bowed my head; I leaned against his shoulder and began to feel more secure again, as when my father hugged me when I was a little girl.

"You know, orange is my favorite color," he said looking at the sky.

"Like the wig Effie Trinket wore in the last reaping?"

"No," he answered seriously, as if it was a very important issue and we were speaking not only of color. "As it will appear at the sky any time now"

Gradually the sky was stained with the warm sunset colors: roses, violets and a soft but intense orange.

"Like that?" I pointed.

"Just like that" And I could guess a smile under his voice.

"Mine is green as the forest."

"Of course, could be no other," he said, after a pause he continued. "They won't reap Prim, you'll see."

"I don't know, Peeta, the nightmare wasn't about Prim, or it was not only about her."

And then I started to talk and to tell him about what I had dreamed.

"The strains of Panem's Anthem chords played and I was, again, among those who could be chosen with Prim beside me. Effie Trinket moved around the stage and when the music ended, she said 'ladies first' and began to move her hands inside the bowl with all the ballots and read aloud 'Prim Everdeen' she said. I felt my sister drop my hand but before she could even move from my side, I reacted and volunteered, all the heads turned to look at me while Peacekeepers climbed to the rostrum. Effie immediately moved to the boy's urn pulled a name and when she read it, was…" I stopped when my voice broke, but he hugged me tighter to give me confidence. "It was your name. And suddenly everything seemed to happen in slow motion: you went up the stairs without looking at me and we shook hands, the way tributes do, that's when I realized that it had to be you or Prim ... And I woke up screaming."

"Hey, hey, that can't happen" he said raising my chin with his other hand and turning my face to him in an effort to make me face his gaze "and, even if that could happen, I'll never let anything or anyone hurt you, I'll die before that"

"I know"

Our faces were suddenly very close to one another, and without thinking I leaned in and briefly touched his lips. That gesture was all that Peeta needed to bring his hand to my neck and push my gently till my lips were touching his and he started kissing me slowly, exploring my lips and mouth. I don't know how long we were kissing for, but I didn't break the kiss till I needed to breathe.

I come back to my sense, when I hear steps afar, and with a quick motion I drop the book into my bag in order to keep it away from Gale's eyes. I'm already too nervous and the last thing I need is a third degree.

"Hi Gale" I say nonchalantly when he is by my side.

"I've just seen the baker's son crossing the fence back to the district" he says, angrily, as a hello "Have you seen him lurking around here?"

"No. Let's go hunting" I answer without providing any more detail and ending the conversation, however I wonder if Gale suspects something.

That afternoon when I return home, I hide the notebook under the mattress but when I climb to bed and lie my head in the pillow, pictures of an orange sky come to my mind.

Peeta was wrong about one thing, I think before I close my eyes, three weeks can change everything.

Chapter Text

Two weeks

Over that week I look for excuses to go into the city every time I can, and of course I try to walk near the bakery with the hope of running into Peeta, but the only time I see him, he is escorting Delly, although they don't see me, my heart stops with the possibility. I arrive to my home, with tears in my eyes and I lock myself in the bathroom till I pull myself together. Seeing him with another woman hurts more than I've anticipated.
Sunday comes again and with it a new gift from Peeta on my window. What he doesn't know is that this time I spent the whole night waiting for him by the window just to see him for a brief moment. As soon as he leaves I grab the little box with a dandelion carried by the wind drawn on it and I open it. I knew this present was coming but I thought it was going to be the last one, because of its meaning.
It's a necklace with a pearl, this was his engagement gift.

"Turn around and close your eyes" Peeta said one Friday in our shed.
Over the last weeks Peeta had been more withdrawn than usual and I was concerned. However, that afternoon, he was charming and talkative since he arrived.

"You know, I don't like surprises" I answered.

"I know, but I owe you one surprise because of the lake" he said knowing that my sense of duty was stronger than my dislike for surprises.

"Alright" I accepted finally "but it better be a good surprise"

I turned around, my back to him and I closed my eyes. I noticed how he pushed my braid to one side and suddenly I felt a cold chain and some weight on my chest.
"You can open your eyes now" he said whispering in my ear and kissing my cheek.
When I did so, I saw a beautiful pearl in a silvery necklace.
"Peeta, this is gorgeous" I answered turning to him again and taking the pearl with my fingers.
"Shh" he said kneeling in front of me and grabbing my hand with his "I know this is a surprise, and you weren't expecting this, or at least I hope you didn't"

I guess that my surprised or scared face was clear enough, because I couldn't believe what was happening.
"Listen to me, Katniss, it has always been you, you know that already,since we were 5 and you sang the Valley Song. I love you and I can't or I don't want to imagine a life where you are not going to be by my side every single day, in every hour or minute, I never thought I would be brave enough to ask you to marry me, but these last weeks have made me realize that maybe, just maybe, you would agree, so here we go. Katniss Everdeen, will you marry me?

Oh, damn it! I thought, and I pulled my hand away from his and headed towards the window, I kept staring outside, leaves were falling from the trees like one year ago, the year we'd spend together had gone by too fast.
"Maybe you need to think about it, Katniss ,there's no problem" I heard Peeta saying at my back and his voice trembling.
The thing was that I didn't need to think anything, I knew what I had to do and why. I had to protect him, but I had to break his heart first, which was a cruel irony. It had been my fault, completely, I had allow for this relationship to get that far. I had managed to stay in control until that day with the mud, but from that day on my feelings had taken over. By the lake, with the berries, when I told him I needed him when we made love. I knew what had to say now.

"Maybe in another life, Peeta" I said without looking at him.
"Katniss, listen to me. I know that you are scared of commitment because you don't want to need anyone" he said holding my waist from the back "but We'll be fine, and we don't have to get married tomorrow, that's why I bought the necklace and the pearl so you could wear with no one noticing till you're ready"
I turned around and kissed him with all the passion and frustration I was feeling just trying to extend that moment although I knew that I'd have to stop at some point, and that it would be the last one.

“I can’t, Peeta,” I said when we finally broke away from our kiss. I was still holding onto his neck, and his hands were on my waist. “This has gone on long enough, it was a nice dream, but dreams must end, and we have to go back to our lives. You belong with the Merchants and I’m from the Seam. This is Panem and those who defy the system end up paying for it.”
“You defy it every day when you go into the woods, and your parents made it work. What makes you think we won’t be able to?”
“I have to take care of Prim; that’s my destiny. Yours is to work at the bakery and to marry a pretty girl who deserves you and makes you happy."

“That’s nonsense,” he said, leaning his forehead against mine and holding my waist tightly to pull me towards him and kiss me tenderly. “It’s nonsense because you’re still kissing me. I knew you’d put up a fight, but I don’t mind.”
“Well, you should. This is over Peeta,” I said clearly and emphatically, as I broke free from his embrace. “I won’t come here anymore. This has been a huge mistake, and we’ve kept it up for too long.”
“Katniss, don’t-...”

I said no more, I left the shed and tried not to think about him. Even if it hurt every day, I kept thinking that the emptiness in my chest would eventually go away because I had done the right thing. But the only thing I could feel was that my heart had been ripped from my chest leaving a deep, open wound.
I grab the pendant, instinctively, and carefully put it on. Paradoxically, as soon as the cold pearl touches my chest I feel better.

Chapter Text

Seven days until my fate and his are determined. If what's happened since the day I got the pendant one week ago is any indication, my life will be hell from now on, and insomnia will consume me. I will have returned to the nightmares and they always involve either losing him, or the day of their wedding, and I always had to be there watching how he kissed Delly, or how his mother gave him up because Peeta told her he was with me. What's most frightening about the nightmares is that no matter the situation, he always came out injured.

I look out of my window and see his last gift. There's a green envelope under a large rock so it won't fly away. I assume it's something delicate and I carefully open it to find a dried out flower, a dandelion to be more specific.

The memories and tears enter my mind and eyes because of what this dandelion means and the farewell it implies.

After my father died and my mother entered the deep depression that took her years to get out of, our situation was critical. We had nothing to eat and I watched as Prim slowly starved to death. One day I picked out some dresses to sell and trade for food, but I had no luck and ended up rummaging through the merchant's trash bins in hopes of bringing home something for Prim to eat. When I got to the bakery, Peeta's mother went outside and began to yell at me, telling me to leave and that I was a 'stinking rat'. But dizzy from the lack of food and under the rain, I could only walk a couple feet before collapsing under an apple tree.

I thought I'd stay there and die, but then heard footsteps and saw a boy who was in my grade at school exit through the back door of the bakery while his mother yelled at him, saying he was useless for burning two loaves of bread and saying that he should give it to the pigs because no one would buy them. After his mother went back inside and the boy reached the pig pen, he looked back to the bakery, making sure that his mother wasn't looking before throwing the bread to me. Then, without a word, he re entered the bakery.

It took me a moment to realize what he meant, are these really for me?, I thought. But it was clear that they were meant for me, so I took them and went home smiling for the first time in months. Excluding the part that was slightly burned, the bread was delicious. That night we went to bed with full stomachs and I had no nightmares.

The next day, after a breakfast of tea and bread, I went to school with the intent to thank Peeta. I saw him look at me and took sight of his black eye. I immediately looked away, ashamed because somehow I knew it was because of me. That was when I saw a beautiful dandelion in the grass, possibly one of the first that spring.

Dandelions, my father told me, were weeds that were used to dress salads and season meats. I plucked it, and hugged it tightly to my chest, because suddenly I knew what I had to do to survive. I turned back to Peeta and saw that he was looking at me again. I smiled, this time more confident with my fate and I walked away with a plan in mind.

That night, I walked to the bakery and climbed to what I knew was his window, (having spied all afternoon) and left the dandelion. It was possible that he wouldn't have known who it was from, but I hoped that it would give him the courage it gave me. I stayed under his house for hours until I saw him open his window, give a surprised look at the offering, and then smile as he looked away into the distance.

Until today, I hadn't known why he left these gifts at my window, what it meant for him. I hadn't even thought that he knew who had left the dandelion, or that he'd kept it. Though we've shared many things this past year, I'd never told him that it was me, out of shyness and embarrassment.

That's why, this is his last gift, or is he giving back to me what I've given him. Is he saying goodbye like I did a few weeks ago in the forest?

I get dressed before leaving my house in a hurry, because I don't have time to lose even though it might already be too late.

When I arrive at the bakery, I see that the ovens and lights are on and I leave the dandelion on the doorstep.

Running, I go to our shed, hoping that it's Peeta who opens the door and see's the dandelion, and hoping that he still wants to see me. I honestly don't know what I want to tell him, but I know I have to see him.

I open the door, almost breathless and, suddenly, I find him standing in front of me.

"What are you doing here?" I ask, so surprised that I'm practically frozen in place.

"I called it off with Delly yesterday." Peeta says in response. "What are you doing here?" He asks.

"I came because-" I pause. "Wait, what?" I ask.

"I've broken the engagement with Delly. Last night I realized that I couldn't continue this game anymore. I don't want to be like my father and marry someone I don't love. I won't become that person, not even for you." He says in a firm voice, looking at me with a serious expression. "And why are you here?" He adds.

And in that moment I know just what I want to say.

"I came to tell you not to marry her." I begin. Peeta takes a step towards me and opens his mouth as if to say something, but I silence him with a hand, because what I have to say is important.

"I haven't been the easiest person in the world, and I haven't been very patient ether. I've made you suffer, but I realized something very important these past weeks, even if it took me a long time to realize it. I've refused to see what's obvious to the whole world. Not only because I need you, it's so much more than that, Peeta, I love you. I only did what I did because I thought it was the best for you, I wanted you to be safe, and thought you'd be better off without me but-" I don't finish my sentence because Peeta closes the distance between us and starts to kiss me. I shut up because this is a much more pleasant way to use my lips and tongue.

"You're so stubborn, Katniss." He says, waiting for my answer , but I only groan and he laughs before kissing me once more.

"We'll need to talk eventually, it's important." Peeta says, breaking the kiss once more.

"I know." I say, because his expression is serious, and he has a reason to be.

"I don't think I can go back to the bakery, my mother kicked me out last night. When she found out that I broke it off with Delly, she was furious . But I'm not as weak and docile as I used to be. Rye tried to defend me, but my mother said she didn't want me anymore, and before my father joined in, I went to my room and collected my belongings. After I left, I spent half the night wandering around the District, I left you your gift and then came to hide here. But you being here makes up for it all." He says.

"You can stay at my house while we look for something. Together." I tell him, taking my pearl out from under my clothes.

"Together." He says, echoing my words, smiling the way I adore.

I don't know what the future holds, but I do know that week zero starts today. And I'm not scared because there are more things to come and I'm excited to share my life with him.