Chapter 1

If a year ago you had told me what my life would be like now, I wouldn't believe you. I would've called you crazy, delusional, absolutely deranged, and anything else that would fall into the category.

Because in my mind, by twenty-four I would be a millionaire, living in god-knows-where California with bakeries of my own all around the country, a chain bigger than Starbucks, a fifteen thousand square foot home, and maybe even a dog being my mother never let me have one growing up.

I'd be living the life. The ones portrayed in magazines and in movies. Ones that could in no way be real.

Hell, in my mind I was still living that life. At least until I opened my eyes.

But no. Instead life had beckoned me back into reality, throwing me full force into the job of running a bakery. Not my own, but my parents. When I'd returned home to Panem with a business degree, I had full intention of just coming home for a year, get my feet wet in actually running a business of my own, then move far far away and forget all about this place.

That is what I had expected. What I hadn't expected was for a truck driver to take his eyes off the road for a seconds time, leaving me without a leg and my father without a life.

No, that had surely been a flaw to the plan I had so masterfully sketched for myself.

The leg didn't mean so much to me as losing my father. My kind, gentle father. That was a whole nother type of emotional pain that crippled me for as long as I let it. And I couldn't let it for long. My family needed me, the business needed me, in a way, this town needed me.

So I did the therapy, got the prosthetic and went along with my life as normal. Only now there would be no California, no other grand life to wish for.

Panem was my life now. Mellarks bakery was my life now. The art of making cheese buns was slowly but surely becoming my life now. I had grown to accept it.

Well, I am growing to accept it. We all are.

"Is this all you do? Sit on your ass all day?" The voice breaks me from my thoughts, Johanna Mason lounging in the door frame of what has become "my office" but is really just a little room in the very back I come in to think sometimes. Today has been a slow one and I've had more than enough time to just think.

I've known Johanna all my life though our friendship wasn't much of a friendship until after the accident. Her mother worked in the bakery with my father until she developed arthritis a few years back and had to retire so Johanna took her place, not really working for money but working because she wanted somewhere to be. I didn't mind. She was good company to keep.

"Slow day," I say. There hasn't been a single customer in for two hours, most staying indoors to beat the summer heat. "Why are you here? It's your day off."

Johannas eyes spark at this. "You'll never believe who I saw when I was driving home from my-"

Just then, the bells above the bakery doors announce someones arrival, a female voice coming from the front asking for assistance.

Johanna turns around frantically, exasperation clear as day on her face as she stalks from the office, grabbing ahold of the apron all employees were required to wear.

Who had Johanna seen today? Better question might be, who has Johanna not seen in the passing weeks? Almost everyone from our graduating class has moved back home, back to their safety net. Everyone except a few.

I shrug. Sooner or later whoever it is will be by the bakery. Make small talk about business school before getting to the point. Probably break down in tears and sob to me about what a mess my life is as if I didn't know. It was almost a given now, people feeling more sorry for me than I felt for myself.

"If you're done vegetating, I could really use some help out here!" Johanna yells from the front.

I sigh, moving slowly, my body still not quite used to the prosthetic though it had been almost a year. Had it been almost a year? Just about. It had been winter, November if I remember correctly. I've tried my hardest to forget about it.

I try my best to plaster on an award winning smile when I walk through the back doors, the pair of teenage girls that stand at the front counter looking quite solemn as they wait for Johanna to prepare the coffee drinks they ask for.

"How are you today," I say jubilantly, moving around to take the money from their palms. The blonde rolls her eyes, the red head shrugs. Oh, to be a teenager again. What I wouldn't give.

They accept their drinks with little gratitude, moving to the corner of the bakery to drink in silence, chew on the piece of coffee cake they'd ordered. "Ungrateful little pieces of-"

"Johanna," I warn, my eyebrows pinching together. "Their, I don't know, thirteen. We all acted that way then." I couldn't really remember a thirteen year old Johanna but from the way she is now, it couldn't differ to greatly.

"You weren't," she counters. "You were Peeta Mellark."

I don't quite know what that means. I was a popular kid growing up, had plenty of friends, played plenty of sports, made good grades. But nothing too special in comparison to some of the kids Johanna and I grew up with. I was just one of the guys or so that's what I thought.

"Hey Peeta," Johanna says. I nod in question, doing my best to clean the dishes recently dirtied. My mother would have a conniption if she saw such a mess. "We're out of coffee. Do you think you could go get some from the store?"

I sigh. "Yeah, I guess I could."

"Be safe."

….

One of the main reasons I didn't leave Panem after I recovered from the accident was my fear of driving. Any type of motor transportation really.

My left leg was gone, my right leg still in tact making me legally eligible to drive. Mentally, the thought was daunting and unbearable so I didn't consider the option. My therapist tells me this is normal with the type of trauma I've been through. My mother tells me I'm a coward. My mind tells me I fall somewhere in between the two.

So versus my trip to the grocery store taking no more than twenty minutes, it takes me a good hour and a half.

I'm drenched in sweat by the time I finally make it to the store, my shirt clinging to body, my leg aching, begging for release. For a moment, I think about opting out of hobbling around the store and using one of those motorized carts.

That's what their there for, Peeta. No one would blame you for using one...

I overlook it and decide the ten minutes of pain will be worth all the sad glances I'm guaranteed if I spend a moment of my time in that chair. I'll just call Rye to come get me, drive me back to the bakery if things get that bad. But they won't. I try not to let them.

The store is familiar, the same one I've shopped in all my life except now I'm an adult, buying my own groceries without a pocket of my fathers money. I'm no longer the cute, little boy who hangs around the store with his friends buying bubble gum. I'm the twenty-four year old cripple with a dead father and an even-

"Peeta." The voice breaks me from my concentration and I realize now I wasn't even been heading in the direction of the coffee. Just of the alcohol. Shit. Maybe it was becoming second nature.

"Peeta Mellark," the voice calls again when I haven't responded. Right. I'm supposed to say something.

I turn slowly on my heel, taking a deep breath in preparation for whatever is about to be said to me, whatever help is about to be offered. Be nice. Just be nice.

My eyes don't find her immediately. It takes me a moment to get the notion to look down but when I do, I'm staring into the eyes of ones I never thought I'd see again.

Still grey, silver around the edges, biting as they stare at me with such intensity. Dark brown hair in a sleek braid, the ends touching her hip bones like they'd always done. Her skin olive, peachy, her cheeks blushed with red most likely from my stares.

Shit. Holy shit.

"Katniss," I whisper, her name falling from my lips in a whoosh as if I'd been holding my breath. Maybe I had. It feels like I'd stopped breathing.

She opens her mouth to speak, her lips quivering for a moment before she finally looks away, her hands coming to brush at her sides. I couldn't blame her for being at a loss for words. I was too.

What was this feeling inside of me, this warmth cresting over my body? It wasn't sadness. I'd felt enough of that for a life time. Nostalgia? Quite possibly, but it was something else. Something I couldn't place. Happiness? I hadn't felt that in so long, maybe I forgot what it feels like.

But maybe it was my medicines not really letting me feel anything.

I'd dreamed of this moment many nights in college, one where the two of us would meet again. When I'd come face to face with the girl who'd broken my heart thus beginning the endless string of loveless romances in my life in order to get over her, move on.

I thought I'd knew what I'd say, how I'd act. Surely, it would be better than this. But being in the moment now my heart feels as if it'll come through my chest, my ears ringing loudly like I was still standing in that train station. Not a single thought comes to my head. Not one but the overwhelming want just to hug her, feel her, hold her in my arms again. Just for a moment.

I always thought the reunion would be years in the future. When we were both in our thirties, our hearts healed from the pain we'd caused each other. When what we had was nothing but a naive sense of reality and the most idiotic notion of love.

I'll admit, in the months following the accident, I hadn't really thought all that much about her, not intentionally. I still dreamed of the quiet, silver-eyed huntress almost every night. But most of the day was filled with the bakery and when it wasn't, the medicine took care of the rest.

Maybe you could say I'd gotten over her. Maybe. But now, with her before me, I would just say I was distracted. But I wasn't distracted any longer.

"You're here," I finally manage. Was this what Johanna was trying to tell me? Why she had rushed to the bakery to give me the piece of news?

"I'm here," Katniss whispers, her voice shaking slightly, eyes still looking dazed. "My father thought it would be a good idea if I moved back."

Mr. Everdeen. I hadn't seen him in quite some time. After Katniss...left, he kind of stayed away. But they all did. Prim included. They gave me my space like I gave them theres. But I'd always been fond of the man. He was a good laugh and knew his baseball.

"So New York didn't-"

"My father thought it would be a good idea if I moved back," she repeats again, her arms going to her chest defensively. Katniss had never been fond of admitting defeat no matter how big or small. I knew that. The whole world knew that.

So I just nod, my eyes glancing down to the large tub of apple juice she carries in her arms. "I always thought you hated that-"

"Mommy! Auntie Prim says I can't have the chocolate bar you promised me."

My eyes fall to the little girl at Katnisses leg, her curly red hair pulled back in an elastic, a bow much too big for her falling into her eyes, her chubby legs not carrying her far as she bounces up and down excitedly.

Did she call Katniss "mommy"? Auntie Prim?

In another world, I might believe what is before me. In another world where Katniss wasn't so cynical, so set in stone about her opinion of children and how bad this world was and how cruel it would be. I would believe it if I hadn't spent a better part of three years hearing her say the words so bluntly.

But I was in this world and these were the facts presented in front of me.

Surely I would have heard, even before the accident. The girl couldn't be older than four, maybe five but even that was pushing it. Someone would have told me.

My father would have never kept something like this from me if it was true. My mother would also, not so much to spare me the hurt of finding out any other way, but mostly to embarrass me. But maybe they were oblivious too. The Everdeen's were always good about keeping their private life just that.

When I realize I've been staring for the better part of ten minutes, I lean down, eye-level with the girl before me, forcing a smile onto my face. I'd always been fond of children but for some reason, I want to run and hide now.

"And this is," I finally say, my words catching in my throat making it come out much more biting than I would have liked. Katniss would be able to forgive me surprise though, surely.

The little girl looks up at me with big eyes, grey. Just like her mothers.

"Emma," Katniss finally says, running a hand through her daughters curls. "Emma Grace Everdeen."

Emma Grace Everdeen. Well okay.

"Nice to meet you, Emma," I smile, reaching down to meet the girl at eye level. Apart from her hair, she is Katniss. The freckles around her nose, the eyes, the purse of her lips. The hair must be from her father. The thought makes my mouth taste vile.

"Emmy," she says, her toddler voice making it hard to understand her. I pinch my eyebrows together in confusion. "My name is Emmy!" She says a little louder.

"Emma," Katniss warns, giving me an apologetic look. "She likes to be called Emmy. That's what her grandpa calls her. Right, honey?"

Emmy nods her head excitedly, smiling. "What's your name?"

"Peeta," I say, resting my hand on my knee which is starting to give. The movement brings her eyes to foot, the ankle unable to really be hidden with my jeans in this position.

"What happened to your leg, Peeta?" Emmy asks, her hands reaching out to touch the metal. Katniss swipes at her so fast, I almost miss it. Emmy looks hurt.

"You don't just touch people, Emmy. And you don't ask about-"

"It's okay," I interject, giving Katniss a small smile. "I got in a tiny little accident and the doctors had to take my leg to make sure I could feel better." Short and simple. The story I would give my children one day when the time came. If the children even came.

"They made you like a robot?" She asks with more interest.

I nod. "Just like a robot except I'm not as cool."

Emmy smiles, Katniss looks uneasy. I would expect the expression from anyone but her. The one person on this planet who hated pity even more than I did. At least, she used to. Things change. That was obvious now.

"Why don't you go find Auntie Prim, sweetheart? It looks like Peeta could use some help with his groceries," she suggests, toying with the little girls hair. From the corner of my eye, I can see Prim, blonde and wide eyed as she stands with a loaf of bread in her hands. I only stare for a moment.

Emmy bounces off without another word, singing softly to herself as she does so.

Then silence.

Silence, silence, and then even more silence but it's been four years, that's all I had gotten from her.

It had been me who'd told her not to call. Me who had sworn her off. Me who'd buried her deep within my mind in hopes she'd go away forever.

"You look good," she finally says. It's what everybody says. And Katniss has never fallen into the "everybody" category.

"Thanks," I mumble, looking down to my feet.

"I meant in general," Katniss whispers after a minute, a blush on her cheeks. She looks so beautiful, so young, so much like she is within my dreams. My heart aches.

I nod my head. "I know what you mean, Katniss. Thanks." More silence. "You look the same."

Katniss laughs uncomfortably, pushing a stray strand of hair behind her ear. "I don't know if that's a good or a bad thing," she states. "Does someone really want to look eighteen for the rest of their lives?"

When they look like you, yes.

I shrug. "It's the braid," I say. I fight the urge to reach over and grab it. I can't do that anymore. That's not my job.

"What are you shopping for?" She asks. "I saw you wandering around this entire store for a good twenty minutes."

"Had it been thirty minutes?" I mumble numbly. "My head was just out of it, you know. I actually just came for coffee. We ran out at the bakery and-"

"Well here," she says, holding out the bag in her own hand. "Just take this one. I can go get another one."

I shake my head. "No, really. It's fine. It's-"

"It's a far walk, Peeta. Really. I'm more than capable..." She trails off, her eyes widening under the realization of what she's just said, a hand coming up to cover her mouth in shock. "Oh my god, I'm so-"

"It's fine, Katniss." After all, I was more than used to people seeing me that way. That was my reality, no? I was handicapped. Even hearing the words coming from her does little to wound me now.

"I didn't mean it that way. I swear," Katniss babbled. "I was just talking and you know how I get when I'm-"

"Cute kid," I interject, truly not caring whatever lame excuse she was about to muster.

Besides, there were bigger elephants in the room. My missing leg was no secret. The red headed little girl on her hip, it seemed to me, was.

Katniss nods, her eyes looking sad but brightening as she finds Emma, far across in another aisle, Prim at her side, smiling from cheek to cheek about something she said. So carefree. So drastically different from her mother.

"She's quite the handful," she whispers. "About to turn five in December and starting school in two weeks."

Five. Five years old. Where was I in my life five years ago? Certainly not in the place to have a child.

"She looks just like you," I comment. It seemed to be the appropriate thing to say though I had much more interesting comments to make, questions to ask.

But it had been six years since I'd last spoken to Katniss, our last conversation ending in words I'd wished I hadn't said. We were in no place for anything other than a little polite conversation.

Katniss smiles at her feet. "Except the hair." Yes. Except the hair.

"How is she liking it here in Panem?"

"Liking it a lot better than a small apartment in New York," Katniss goes on. "I wish I could explain to you the look of pure joy on her face when she heard we were going to a park."

"They didn't have those in the Big Apple?" I joke, giving her a smile, the smallest but most genuine one I can muster.

"Not like the ones they have here," she says. "She's sad she had to leave her friends but she'll make new ones."

I had no doubt Emma would. The way she bounced from aisle to aisle, spoke to each person who passed. The smile that never seem to leave her face and the way she would laugh like whatever was said was the funniest thing on Earth. No, this child wouldn't be anything like her mother in her younger days.

"Did her father move down with you guys?" I ask once I've finally gathered the strength to do so.

Waiting for her answer is the worst part, the pounding in my ears, the sweating in my palms. Like it would make the slightest difference if he was or not... Like she would ever want to see me after-

"Darius isn't in the picture," she answers softly, her eyes on her daughter.

My heart leaps selfishly, then sinks in sorrow for her. If there was one thing Katniss Everdeen could not do, it was catch a break.

"I'm sorry," I apologize, looking sheepishly at her.

But Katniss shakes her head with a small smirk. "It's for the better."

I say nothing because I trust her judgement. If she says it's for the better, who am I to disagree with her? I would have rather had one loving parent than two unhappy ones.

As if hearing my thoughts, Katniss puts a cold hand on my warm arm, her eyes catching mine only for a brief moment before looking away, back towards the tiles. "Peeta, I'm so sorry about your father," she mumbles. "He was such a great man. I would have come down if I could afford to and-"

"Thank you," I interject.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't bitter she didn't come. That I wasn't hurt the one person I needed the most that day was far away in some other world, living her life as if everything was normal. I'd tried to reason with myself. Of course her absence would never be intentional. But I was in a dark place and it's quite the challenge to control your mind.

She runs her fingertips up and down my arm, lighting a fire within me I hadn't even known was there. But she had always been the one to hold the match. How dumb was I to think other wise.

When she pulls away, her fingertips are slick with sweat. She doesn't flinch.

"Did you work out before you came here?" Katniss asks, wiping her hands on the sides of her jeans which couldn't possibly be any tighter.

"I don't drive anymore," I explain in a hushed whisper. "Good thing this town is small or I'd be in real trouble."

It's my attempt at a joke that isn't the least bit funny.

"So you walk everywhere?" She presses, pursing her lips together in disbelief. "That couldn't possibly be comfortable."

"It's not," I say before I can stop myself. "I just... I can't find it within myself to drive a car again yet. I can ride in them I just don't-"

"Do you want a ride back to the bakery?" Katniss asks suddenly. "It would be no problem. Prim met us here in her car. She could take Emma back to my parents if you wanted me to-"

"That would be nice," I say before I have a second to think about my answer. Because I would really enjoy that. The thing is, if I let myself think about it too long, I would talk myself out of it easily. There were hundreds of reasons to talk myself out of it...

"Go get your coffee then."

...

Once Katniss has Emma buckled into the back seat of Prims small car, she kisses her softly on the cheek before whispering strict instructions to her sister, her little sister who had been starting high school the last time I'd seen her.

How time flies.

Katniss, surprisingly, drive the same beat-up Altima she drove in high-school. Dings from the numerous finder benders, a nice amount of paint scratched out from the time she ran into the side of the wall at Wendy's under my best friend, Finnick Odiar's, parking instructions. I almost bring myself to laugh. Almost.

When I move to sit in the backseat, Katniss looks back at me with worried etched across her face, her eyebrows pinched in close together. "You don't want to sit up here?"

I wanted to sit up there. I just couldn't. "No. I like it back here," I respond softly, my fingers going immediately to the seat-belt. Then to the one next to me. Finally to Emmas car seat. Just for caution.

My mother thinks I'm compulsive and the therapist seem to agree. There's medicine for it. But I already take so much.

If Katniss thinks it's strange, she doesn't say anything. Just puts the car in drive and makes her smooth exit towards the main road. Driving in the car, it'll take us ten minutes tops to get to the bakery. Ten, easy, minutes.

"This place hasn't changed at all, huh?" I hear her ask.

Looking out of the window, no. Physically it hadn't. Everything was still identical to the way I left it and I don't know if it comforted me or drove me near insanity. Emotionally, everything was different.

"I guess not," I say. "Did you miss it?"

"I missed the people. Not it."

She doesn't have to explain. I know exactly what she means.

We don't talk for the rest of the ride back to the bakery, nothing but a few passing words on the weather or someone we know we see walking the street. Other than that, we leave each other to our own thoughts.

When we arrive to the bakery, the sign on the door has been changed to closed though I see a few people lingering inside, on their computers or chatting with friends, busier than when I'd left it. Through the clear glass window I see Johanna, her hair pulled back into the highest of buns, looking rather frazzled and exhausted.

It was my fault. My twenty minute coffee run had turned into a three hour reunion.

Katniss parks the car outside the bakery, leaning back in the drivers seat to get a good look in the windows. A slow smile spreads across her face before she finally looks to me. I realize I haven't moved.

"Thank you for the ride, Katniss," I say, moving to undo my seat belt only to redo it. "You saved me a good walk."

She smiles. "Anytime Peeta," she says. "You should call me if you need me. My numbers never changed."

Her number hadn't changed and neither had mine yet it'd been years since I've heard a simple hello from her. But she hadn't heard one from me either. Our mistakes balanced each other, it seemed.

Just as my hand is on the door handle, Katniss calls out to me. "Peeta!"

I turn on my heel, towards the open window and lean in. "Yeah?"

"Do you want to go get dinner or something? You know, catch up," she pleads, her eyes squinting against the fading sunlight.

Nothing in the world sounds better than dinner Katniss Everdeen. Nothing in the whole wide world but yet I shake my head no, my eyes falling to the pavement.

I take a deep breath. "I'm kind of seeing somebody."

Katniss doesn't try to hide her surprise or her sadness. She lets it all show in a run of emotions across her face the moment I mumble the words. Her lips close tightly, her scowl deepens, her hands grip the wheel tighter. Now I'd seen this look plenty of times.

Was she mad? Mad at me when she was the one with a child?

"You are?" She breaths suddenly.

Now that was a loaded question. In a way I was. In many ways I was but in many ways, I wasn't. We'd never discussed it directly but we'd never had too.

So I nod.

"Who is it?"

"Delly Cartwright," I say without a moments hesitation, watching again as another set of emotions wash across her face. My throat feels tight.

When it seems she has no more questions, I continue. "She was there for me after the accident, with my dad and stuff. I don't know, we've always been good friends and it just kind of happened."

And that's exactly what happened. I'd never had a person there for me more in my adulthood than Delly was during the past year. No one to hold me as I cry and rock me as I scream. No one to just listen to what I had to say and not judge me. No one to look past the leg and see me as just me.

And Delly was. She was a great friend who slowly became my girlfriend in a way. The thing was, I wasn't ready for a girlfriend. I hadn't been ready for one since Katniss and Delly was no different.

But I owed Delly something and going to dinner with Katniss wasn't a way to repay her.

But you're not supposed to look at girlfriends that way. As a debt to be paid.

"I'm sorry, Peeta," Katniss apologizes, subtly restarting the engine of her car. "I had no idea."

How would she have any idea? She doesn't call.

I don't want her to leave, not really. I also don't want to leave the safety and warmth of her car. But what other choice do I have? So I make work with my leg, maneuvering it in and out of the car with ease, trying my hardest not to look at the sad expression on her face. I shouldn't take it personally.

"Thank you for the ride Katniss," I call over my shoulder. She doesn't reply. Just breaths deeply for a few moments before grabbing my arm once again, forcing me to look at her.

"My numbers never changed, you know that?" She whispers. Yes, she's told me so.

"Neither has mine," I say. There's more bite to it than I'd like. She retracts her arm quickly, dropping it slowly to her side, a small smile playing across her lips.

"Well, call me if you need anything."

I nod, not having much to say. I need a lot of things, just things she can't give me. I need a new leg, and a new father, and a new house, preferably, a new life. But what good would troubling her with my own, sick, twisted little life do?

She has a child at home who needs her more than I.


It seems I just can't get enough of these two! Sorry. I couldn't resist single mother Katniss and cynical Peeta.

Chapters will alternate between both Peeta and Katniss.

Tell me what you think about the story? I love reading your guys comments, criticism, praise! Whatever it may be. Thank you, thank you, thank you! You truly give me something interesting to do at night.