"September first….I couldn't think of a more perfect date for a bakery to open," Prim sighed.
Katniss tried not to roll her eyes. "And why's that?"
Prim dunked her rag in the warm water, wringing it out. She'd already wiped down every surface in the bakery, but the reconstruction had turned out so perfectly that neither one of them was in any hurry to get home. Katniss could spend more than a few hours sitting it the newly built, bright, sweet-selling bakery. The scent of fresh paint and mortar hung beneath a strong layer of fresh bread and sugar. They'd spent all day doing the finishing work for Peeta as he worked in the kitchens with his father all afternoon to get enough baked to open the next morning. The new supplies had arrived from One and Eleven just days before, barely giving him enough time to start planning his menus. Not that it mattered – the Mellark bakery was one of the first businesses to reopen after the war and people were already clamoring to get freshly baked items from somewhere other than the Hob. Prim was determined to wipe away every bit of construction dust and flour from every surface before finally going home. The bakery was complete and they were preparing for the grand reopening.
"Fall. September is like…the start of the fall season. And people love to buy bakery items when it starts to turn cold. Apple pastries, spiced cookies, hearty breads…it's going to smell so wonderful in here."
Katniss just laughed and shook her head as she continued her work of sticking the already baked cookies in the glass case in the front window. People passed by on their way home for the evening, already eying the sign on the front door that announced the grand re-opening of Mellark Bakery the next day. Summer had been a whirlwind. It turned out Peeta had more than enough help rebuilding the bakery. Almost everyone had lost someone they knew during the bombing. The entire town had seemed so determined to rebuild. Peeta and his father had become so well-known and likeable from selling their food at next to nothing to the hungry people of the district that there was no shortage of hands that had helped complete the bakery.
Katniss smiled to herself as she remembered how overwhelmed and flattered Peeta and his father had been when they'd seen how many volunteers had shown up to help them with the new construction. It'd taken them nearly all summer, even with as many helping as they'd had. The bakery had been completed several days before, and the upstairs apartment where Peeta would live still needed a few finishing touches, but was basically done. The windows had been delivered on one of the first trains hauling materials that had arrived in District Twelve and the final piece – the glass display cases for cakes and baked sweets – had just been installed only minutes before. The workers were done for the day and had left Prim and Katniss to do the finishing work.
"You're forgetting about everything pumpkin flavored."
"Oh yes, that too. People will be lined up for Mr. Mellark's pumpkin bread."
Katniss peeled a piece of glue away from the glass display case, wiping it down with her rag. They were so close to having everything perfect for the next day. "I hope you're right, Prim."
The last three months had flown by – it had been a flurry of cleanup, construction, and finally making last minute orders to ensure they would be ready for their opening day. In fact, that was where Peeta was at the moment; the train station on the edge of town, picking up his final order of fancy food coloring and something he'd dreamily referred to as 'confectioners' sugar'. She didn't know what that meant, but if Peeta was excited to get it to use in baking, she was excited to sample whatever it was he planned to make with it.
It took them another hour, but they finally finished. Everything was clean, dusted, and ready to go.
They surveyed their work: the entire bakery was clean, sleek, and a perfect mixture of homey charm and glamorously white that Katniss had decided she loved early on. From the whitewashed brick walls so the sleek, white glass tile, the finished product was a gleaming picture of perfection.
She turned when she heard the back door open and Peeta's heavy footsteps as he made his way to the front of the shop. She smiled to herself – Peeta desperately wanted to learn how to hunt in the woods, but she had a feeling any game could hear him coming from a mile away. Not that it mattered – she and Gale were finally able to hunt almost every day now. For the first time she could remember, food was no longer scarce. The fact that they could rely on the woods for game for food and trades was much of the reason Gale wasn't thrown into a panic when Madge told him she was expecting another mouth to feed that January. Katniss shook her head at the memory, laughing to herself. Gale had come running to her house, dragging Madge behind him with a flustered look on her face. He'd been practically dumbstruck and unable to speak with he'd told Peeta and Katniss and had begged to see her mother. They'd had a toasting the next day.
Her stomach did a nervous flop at the memory of Peeta's reaction. "A baby? Oh Gale, you're going to be someone's daddy. A baby…wow," he'd gushed, his face flushing with emotion. He'd been so over the moon happy for their friends. Chewing her lip, she wondered if he'd be that happy if they ever decided to have a baby.
One step at a time, Katniss. Just get through the bakery opening.
"Looks good!" Peeta called, setting the crate of supplies down on the back counter. He smiled brightly before walking up to join them in the front of the shop. "Hey Prim," he greeted her sister, "And hey you," he added, leaning down. She jumped slightly as he gently grasped her face in his calloused hands and gave her a deep, lingering kiss. Pulling away, he chuckled as she exhaled sharply and grabbed the counter to steady herself.
Prim just met her astonished gaze and snickered to herself. She'd told Peeta time and time again she wasn't one for public displays of affection, but he never seemed to listen. He seemed to kiss her enthusiastically anytime they spent more than fifteen minutes apart. It was one of those things she pretended to get angry about, but secretly just took in stride.
"This place looks like a million bucks," he sighed, resting a hand on his hip. He surveyed the room proudly, beaming at them. "Will my workers for the evening take payment in cookies?"
"You know it," Prim quipped. "Sugar, or chocolate chip?"
Peeta made a scoffing noise. "It's September first tomorrow, Prim. I think you know I'll be making pumpkin spice cookies with orange buttercream frosting. Let's be real now."
Prim made a noise much younger than her years and beamed.
Katniss rolled her eyes and bit back a laugh. "How was the train station? Get everything you need for tomorrow? What else do we need to do?"
"Yup, got supplies. I've just about done all I can do before tomorrow, but I need to bake something for tonight, then I'll be back. Meet you guys at home?"
"That'll be fine," she said, still slightly breathless. She wasn't sure if it was from all the work they'd been doing or from Peeta's lingering, fiery kiss. "We're done here anyhow." She paused in the doorway. "Wait, what are you baking right now?"
Peeta wouldn't meet her eyes. He grinned down into the crate of supplies as he unloaded them, shaking his head. "Something."
"See you outside," Prim muttered, brushing past her to the door. Katniss hung back. Peeta had something up his sleeve.
"Something special, that's all," he answered noncommittally.
"You're being evasive…which is strange for you. Normally you can't keep a secret to save your life. You won't tell me?"
He shrugged and gave her a mischievous wink. "You'll have to be at the house in an hour and you'll see."
Katniss narrowed her eyes at him. "Fine."
"Fine," Peeta deadpanned back. They shared a look across the empty bakery before she finally shook her head at him a final time and headed out the door. She took off the apron she wore for cleaning and tossed it into the laundry basket under the counter before shooting him a final playful look.
"You'd better be there, Everdeen!" he called after her.
Prim waited until they'd gone out the back door and were heading home to burst into a fit of giggles.
"I hate you," Katniss chuckled, shaking her head.
An hour later Katniss was freshly bathed and sitting in a chair in front of her mirror in his mother's dress. It was light blue – the exact shade of Peeta's eyes – and actually fit her. All of that extra bread Peeta had been baking lately was paying off. She actually had somewhat of a bust and a waistline to fill the silly dress up for once in her life.
"Ow," she complained, yanking her head to the side. Prim gave her an unyielding glare in the reflection as she continued her work. She was braiding her hair, weaving a few of the last summer flowers into it as she went. Normally Katniss just wore her hair in a plain side braid, but she supposed an occasion like this called for something a little fancier.
Prim finished, tucking the ends of the braid effortlessly into the back of her head and pinned it with a few old bobby pins. Katniss was a good braider, but Prim was the one that seemed to be able to do all of the fancy hairstyles. Katniss surveyed herself in the mirror and stood.
"How do you do it, little duck?"
Prim smirked, pushing in the chair she'd been sitting on. "Do what?"
Katniss did a turn in front of the mirror and gave herself an up and down glance. "Make me look….nice."
Her sister watched her in the mirror and shrugged. "Thank mom for the dress, I just braided your hair. Maybe thank Peeta for all that extra bread and cheese buns he's been making – you finally fill it out," she joked.
Katniss shot her a dirty look in the mirror. She knew her sister was just playing – more than once they'd both commented on how nice it was not to see their own bones through their skin when they undressed for their baths. Her collar bones no longer jutted out in a hungry-looking fashion, and her chest wasn't ridged and bony anymore. She had hips, breasts, and most importantly, she never went to bed with an aching, empty stomach.
"Come on, we don't want to keep them waiting," Prim sighed, opening the bedroom door. "Not every day we have a toasting in this house," she said, her eyes shining.
The papers had been signed and taken back to the makeshift justice building earlier in the day, so they were already officially married. However, it wouldn't feel real for anyone until the bread was toasted and they'd washed it down with wine.
Their tiny house was nearly full – Madge was there, along with Gale and his entire family, standing in a row by the kitchen. Haymitch was slumped in her father's old armchair, and a few of Gale's miner friends were on the couch. Prim was standing next to the fireplace, idly picking at the garland of twigs she'd made and stuck fresh flowers and sweet smelling herbs into. Everyone held their small cups of wine, ready to drink when the toasting had been done and the bread had been eaten.
Peeta stood with her at a small table in front of the fireplace, carefully unwrapping a loaf of bread from the white towel. It was braided beautiful, the top golden brown and the insides white and fluffy as he cut it. Katniss cleared her throat nervously, her hand shaking slightly as she reached for the plate with the two newly cut pieces.
"Is this what you had to bake before you left?"
"This is beautiful," she whispered.
He just grinned at her, his face almost boyishly proud. "I did my best."
Turning, she tried not to look nervous as she offered the plate first to her mother, then to Mr. Mellark. Peeta took the plate from her slightly shaky hands and picked up two cups of wine, one of which he handed to her. She smiled and turned back to her mother and Peeta's father. Mr. Mellark took her hand in his, kissing the back of it lightly. Prim sighed behind him, poking her head around to watch as they leaned towards the happily crackling fire and held out their slices of bread.
Peeta's hand found hers, quietly weaving their fingers together as they stood and watched their parents toast their bread. She glanced at him and smiled.
"Long time coming," she mouthed to him with a grin.
Peeta laughed quietly. "I know what you mean."
Katniss was about to turn back to the ceremony when she frowned. "What?"
"These two. The toasting. Finally," he winked at her.
Her stomach did another flip at his implied meaning. Turning her attention back to the ceremony, she watched as they pulled their hands back from the fire and fed each other their toasted bread. The tiny room erupted into cheers and calls of congratulations as they chewed the bread and swallowed. Katniss clapped as Peeta's father took her mother into his arms and placed a long, lingering, happy kiss on her lips. Her mother pulled away with the biggest smile she'd seen her have in years.
Did she want this for herself?
She watched her mother playfully swat Mr. Mellark's shoulder, hiding her face in the collar of his shirt as their guests clapped and cheered. Prim tossed up a handful of grain in the air, laughing as it flew up every which way. Katniss watched the grains fall, but instead of picturing them in her mother's hair, she pictured them falling into hers. She imagined standing with Peeta in front of the mantle, not her mother and Mr. Mellark. It was Peeta kissing her, producing a smile so wide and sincere it almost made her cheeks ache.
Standing still, she watched the scene in front of her slow down in her mind's eye as she pictured what it would be like to have her own toasting. How it would feel to stand in front of a fireplace and eat toast from Peeta's fingers that he'd baked with his own two hands. It was the first time the thought didn't paralyze her with fear. No, it made her feel warm and hopeful, just as Prim said. She bit her lip and smiled to herself. What had happened to her?
Peeta handing her a cup of wine broke her from her thoughts. "We're celebrating," he said over the cheers. "Have some."
She nodded, accepting the cup. A sip or two of ripper's wild grape wine was enough to make her bones feel wiggly and her skin hot. She downed her cup and didn't protest when Peeta offered her another cup. They ate more bread and drank wine until the sun had long since gone under.
Guests were still milling around the living room and kitchen table as the party went on, more and more neighbors and people from the Hob stopping by to wish her mother and Mr. Mellark well. The end of summer heat was almost more than she could bear, even after only two cups of wine. Peeta took her hand and nodded to the outside. "Want to go for a walk with me?"
"Yes, let's," she eagerly agreed. Placing her cup on the table, she caught Prim's eye over the excitement. "Going for a walk, little duck."
Prim shot her a knowing smile as she used a wooden try to pick up the discarded cups of wine. "Try to be back by dawn, sister," she cheeked.
Katniss only smirked and led Peeta out onto the front porch. "Where should we go?"
He shrugged. "Thought about walking past the bakery. I just want to check on it, make sure it's still standing," he said, a trace of darkness to his tone.
He pulled her hand. "Just come on, Katniss. I want to show you something."
"Fine, fine," she agreed, following him into the moonlit night. It was a pretty evening – the sun had set, but the stars and moon were bright enough to lead their way through the edge of the Seam and up the path towards the town. With the Peacekeepers gone and curfews a thing of the past, they were all free to roam about the district with little to no fear. The summer breeze was light and airy, brushing the ends of her mother's blue dress as they walked.
They walked in silence up through the edge of town, all the way up to the square. The Mellark Bakery looked like a beacon of light in the darkness. It was still one of the only finished and renovated buildings on the square, and one of the best looking ones at that. Two stories high, it was a striking structure of white brick and white shutters, with the words 'Mellark Family Bakery' etched in black onto the front window. A beautiful periwinkle blue door had various wildflowers painted onto it, winding their way up the oval shaped window. It looked so quaint and impeccable standing there – like a perfect start to a new beginning.
He paused in front of it, pulling her closer. He squeezed her hand in his and she felt him take a deep breath.
"You ready to start over tomorrow?"
Peeta blinked at the bakery for a moment, then looked down at her. "Who says I haven't already?"
"In a way, yes. But when you open those doors tomorrow it's going to be like a new beginning. A fresh start."
He looked back at the bakery. "It really does feel like a rebirth of sorts. This will sound kinda silly, but…this morning when I was putting away all my supplies…I put them out the way I'd always wanted them organized. I felt so calm in there with all the white brick and the smell of the paint…it felt like I was getting another chance to start over. It felt cleansing."
"That's not silly, Peeta."
"Come inside," he said, pulling his key from his pocket. "I want to show you something, it'll just take a second." A single light shone through the darkness, illuminating the white doilies in the window – they were ready and waiting for whatever Peeta would be filling them with the next morning.
Once inside, he led her back behind the counter, through the swinging door, and into the kitchen. She walked slower than he; pausing to run her fingers down the smooth butcher-block countertops. He'd found a few salvageable things in the rubble – his mother's old sugar canister, a few brown bottles of various extracts, and the rolling pin he'd learned to use when he was little. Each piece he'd manager to find during their cleanup now each had a place of honor somewhere in the bakery. He had one of the large, cast iron stoves from the Capitol to make bread in, but he'd still insisted on getting a regular fireplace put in for warmth in the winter. She frowned when he paused beside it, reaching over to grab something wrapped in cheesecloth beside the oven. Flipping back the cloth, he proudly showed her the second woven loaf of bread she'd seen that night.
"What's this?" she asked, running her finger along the ridged side. The bread was even more perfect than the loaf her mother and his father had toasted with. The crust was a little thicker, with bits of herbs flecked here and there. It had obviously been cooked a little longer so that the braided crust was browned just the way she liked. She had no doubt the inside would be fluffy and divine, just as he always made it. It was amazing what he could do now that he had the proper ingredients to actually bake with.
He looked at her, his eyes watching every move of her face. She looked down at the bread, then back up at him several times in question.
"The bread I gave for my father's toasting wasn't the only loaf I baked tonight, Katniss."
She licked her lips that were suddenly dry. "What's that for, then?"
Peeta sighed, placing it down on the raised heart. He ripped off two pieces, the crust ripping and flaking just like she knew it would. Taking her hand, he placed a piece in hers and kept one for himself.
"Planning my dad's toasting got me thinking….I…I know you wouldn't want people around, Katniss. That's not you. Or maybe I'm wrong and totally off base and you want a big toasting with people and friends and wine and all that…but I didn't think you would."
"You've thought about this?" she asked, mystified.
Peeta curled her fingers around the bread, securing it in her hand. "Ever since I tossed you that bread in the rain that day. Yes, I've thought about it," he grinned, looking at the bread in his palm. "Now that the bakery is finished, I'm going to move into the apartment upstairs. It's not much, but…I'll be comfortable up there. I'd like it if you came with me. If you lived with me, that is," he cleared his throat awkwardly. Katniss stared at him. She stared into his deep, blue eyes so filled with quiet love and so much trust that it almost made her heart ache.
"The war is over and we're safe and….and when I rebuilt this place I always built it with you in mind. With us in mind. I think it would be a great place for both of us to start over, not just me. Besides…our parents might want two fewer kids around, being newlyweds and all that so….I want you to come with me when I move into the upstairs tomorrow. And….I thought it might be nice if we started this new…chapter, I guess…with a toasting."
She clenched the bread at his words, staring at him in surprise. "A toasting?"
He gave a half nod, half shrug. "Well…it can be practice. Or it can be real. Or we can just do it and sign the papers when we feel like it. But I wanted to do this with you…tonight…to start fresh. I don't want a new life if you're not in it, Katniss," he added softly, reaching up with his free hand to touch her face. His calloused fingers slid over her cheekbone, so soft.
"You want to have a toasting….w-with me?"
Peeta blinked slowly, his eyes raising up to meet hers. His face was only half visible in the dim light of the crackling fire, but what she could see was beautiful. His sculpted jaw was clean shaven and tan from the summer, and his unruly blonde curls he'd tamed back for the ceremony were slowly becoming untamed in the summer heat. She could see his left eye shining at her hopefully as she turned the piece of bread over in her fingertips. Did she want this? Hadn't she just imagined herself doing this with him? And he'd made it so perfect too – just them, that night, alone in the bakery. His new start, his fresh beginning. And he wanted her to make that step with him.
"Okay," she heard herself croak. "Okay," she repeated, her voice stronger. "Let's start over together."
His smooth, supple lips split into a grin as he bounced up and down on the balls of his feet. "Really?"
"Really," she nodded. She couldn't help but smile as he held up his piece to hers. "You ready?"
"I'm ready," she said, and she realized she'd never meant any words more than those. They held their bits of bread towards the fire, their arms extending out towards the orange flames. The fire was hotter than she'd expected, the flames making her fingertips quickly grow hot. Peeta stepped closer to her, wrapping his free arm around her waist. He leaned his forehead against hers as they each reached out with one arm to toast their bread. She heard his breath hitch slightly before he spoke.
"I…. love you, Katniss Everdeen. And I'd take another whipping for you any day if it mean I could toast bread with you. It hurt more than anything I'd ever felt but…it was the best choice I ever made."
The memory of the lash lines across his back instantly sprung to her mind. She could still remember the angry, bleeding red lashes like it was yesterday. Her chest actually panged with a dull ache as she remembered Peeta's suffering for weeks afterwards. There had been so much blood an exposed muscle and tendons she wasn't sure if he'd even survive it. To have him there, standing in front of her, toasting bread with her felt like nothing short of a miracle. A hot tear sprung to her eye, insistently sliding down her cheek.
"Peeta," she sighed, using her free hand to wipe away a stray tear. She leaned away from him and frowned up at him. "Don't say that."
He gave her an earnest smile and shook his head in dismissal. "It's true." His grip tightened around her waist. "I'm here now. No use letting it ruin this for us."
She smiled, shaking her head at him. "We'll have to get a kitchen table in that apartment of yours, just in case."
"That apartment of ours," he reminded her. "Table and all." They both paused for a moment, sharing a secret look as they remembered what had transpired under her mother's kitchen table that snowy night. Leaning forward, she brushed her mouth against his. The kiss was slow, heated, and promising of what was to come after the bread had been toasted. "I love you too. In case you were wondering," she whispered softly against his mouth. Her lips felt his turn upwards into a smile.
"It's nice to….I didn't think….I will never get tired of that," he admitted, his words a little breathless. Peeta swallowed, glancing at their outstretched hands. "I…I think it's toasted."
She pulled her piece of bread away from the fire, examining the toasted edges. Peeta held his piece in his fingertips and gave her a lopsided little smile.
"Are you nervous?"
Katniss licked her lips, evaluating. "To eat the bread? Never."
"You know what I meant."
"No…I'm actually not. Strange. I…guess I thought I would be?"
"Me too," he admitted softly. Raising his hand, he paused before placing it at her lips. His blue eyes, so filled with warmth, flicked up to meet hers. "I….I know we said this was just a practice toasting but….if this is just practice, then…. why does it feel like we already belong to one another?"
A small laugh fell from her lips. "Peeta….maybe we always have."
Okay…officially sitting here crying guys. It's been forever since I've finished a story, and I'd forgotten all of the emotions that go along with putting the finishing touches on something that takes up so much of your life for so long. This story started out as a one shot that just blossomed and grew into something I've really enjoyed writing for you. I love you all for reading, commenting, favoriting, sharing, discussing…just…amazing. I am so honored to get to write words that you all enjoy so much, and I only hope I can follow this work up with more stories you will enjoy in the future. Thank you for reading and please let me know what you thought. I would truly love to hear from you all.