Thanks so much to mitchesbcray and modernlifeofash on tumblr for prereading and encouraging me! Thanks also to my very helpful followers who helped me decide on a few key details, such as house placements, professors, etc. I tried not to rely too much on memory or imgaination and used the Harry Potter Wiki and the Harry Potter Lexicon for all the castle/class details. I hope you can catch the few nods to HP canon I managed to squeeze in :) The title was borrowed from line in a song on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, "O children."

. . .

first year

When his mother hears the screech of an owl at the platform she whirls around, scowling at a girl with two long black braids. Her robes are too big for her skinny frame, almost getting caught underfoot as she pushes a cart loaded with an ancient trunk, her mouth set in a determined frown as she shushes her pet. Beside her, a tiny blonde girl frets, tugging on her sleeve with tears in her eyes.

His mother sneers. "If this is the kind of trash you'll be attending school with—"

Peeta doesn't listen, though, too caught up in the girl's pretty silver eyes to heed her warning. She hugs the small girl goodbye, pressing her cheek against her hair and holding her close. Her parents stand a few steps away from her, smiling fondly. And then she straightens her shoulders, pushing her cart away. She rolls her cart past Peeta without even noticing him.

He doesn't see her on the train at all, but catches her eye when the bronze haired professor who led them in calls out "Everdeen, Katniss," and she steps forward. She sits under the raggedy old hat for ages, frowning all the while, until finally it sorts her into Slytherin. He, in turn, is placed in Hufflepuff. The girl beside him, a round face girl named Delly, catches him staring at the other end of the Great Hall.

"You'll want to watch out for that house," she warns cheerfully. "They can be a nasty lot."

He ignores her warning too, distracted by the way the girl smiles familiarly at a tall boy a couple of years older than them, punching him good naturedly on the arm. She looks around the Great Hall a moment later as Headmaster Plutarch welcomes them all with overly enthusiastic gusto, catching his eye for the second time that night. When he smiles at her, she scowls.

It doesn't matter, though. He's already a goner.

second year

They don't have any classes together and he never sees her at Quidditch games, but sometimes he can find her in the library, sitting with a blonde girl from their year in Ravenclaw. They don't seem to talk much, which doesn't surprise him. He has never seen her talk a lot, only when she is around the tall boy he noticed on the very first day of school.

He sits with Delly and the other friends he's made, a friendly mix of half-bloods and Muggleborns. Madame Cresta often scolds them for laughing too loudly, and they've been kicked out more than once. He's caught Katniss rolling her eyes in their direction countless times, scowling every time her gray eyes lock on his.

Once, though, he catches the corners of her lips turning up at a joke he's made and when she looks over he smiles cheekily at her for the first time. Her cheeks turn a dull red, her eyes darting away quickly.

And then, one day in the beginning of April, she misses breakfast. And then lunch. The whispers start to circulate — there was an accident in Department of Mysteries. Several workers died.

One by the name of Everdeen.

He leaves dinner early, discomfited by the laughter at his table while he knows that Katniss is somewhere in the school, alone and heartbroken. He wraps a couple of rolls to eat in his dormitory and waves goodbye to Delly, mumbling something about his Charms assignment. When he turns down the corridor he runs into her, almost literally. She is leaning against the wall with her trunk at her feet, staring at the doors of the Great Hall anxiously. She startles when he approaches, and they stare at each other for a long moment. Then, without a word, he thrusts the rolls he took with him into her hands and walks away.

She returns to school a week later. He catches her staring at him in the library, her gaze intense. He looks away quickly, embarrassed, but when he glances over again he sees her staring at the window towards the Forbidden Forest, something like a smile spreading slow on her face.

Still they don't speak. But it is enough.

third year

On the first day of Arithmancy Madge Undersee, the Ravenclaw that Katniss always studies with in the library, sits at a table with him and Delly. He heard once that her father is a high ranking official in the Ministry of Magic but he would never know from the brief conversations he has with her. She is quiet and to the point, smart and diligent and an avid note taker, able to keep up with Professor Beetee's enthusiastic lecture. She walks down with him to Care of Magical Creatures, making polite conversation about the elective classes they've chosen. When they meet Katniss on the way down his stomach turns over pleasantly and he tightens his grip on the straps of his pack.

"Hey, Katniss," Madge greets softly. "This is Peeta."

He smiles at her, wonders if he should say that they've already met, but she nods at him curtly and his grin falters.

When he makes the Quidditch team he writes home excitedly, expecting a glowing response. His older brothers have been wrestling for years and his parents had always been great supporters. Instead he receives a response from his mother that they can't afford a broomstick and a quick scrawl from his father, What's quidditch?, even though he'd spent the majority of the summer rambling nonstop about it in the back room of the bakery.

Care of Magical Creatures continues to be bittersweet agony. He works with Katniss and Madge on almost every assignment, but Katniss is nothing like he imagined her to be. She is taciturn, dutifully not laughing at any of his quips and frowning at Madge reproachfully when she lets a giggle slip while they are working. Sometimes, though, her face softens, mouth almost turning up to a smile, and he feels a secret kind of thrill. She's not like he imagined, no, but she is real and it is better.

He spends his first time in Hogsmeade with Madge and Delly, eyes wide in wonderment. He wishes his brothers could see this, wishes his family could understand for a brief moment just how magical it really all is. They end their day at the Three Broomsticks, sipping Butterbeer; when Peeta asks why she didn't bring Katniss, Madge scowls.

"Oh, she's off with Hawthorne," she says, wrinkling her nose in distaste and mumbling a swear under her breath. Gale Hawthorne, the tall attractive Slytherin he saw her smiling at their very first day.

He spends the rest of the walk home wondering how they know each other, barely restraining himself from asking Madge why she dislikes Gale so much.

Training for Quidditch is brutal; being a Beater is harder than he ever imagined and he loves it, loves the sound of the Bludger cracking when it meets his bat, rocketing off in other directions. The Hufflepuff Seeker isn't very skilled but they still manage to win their first two games. A third of the way through their third game he glimpses Madge in the stands, waving up at him and cheering happily. And beside her — he almost slips off his broom when he sees Katniss there, reluctantly wearing a bright yellow scarf. She nods at him, almost as an afterthought. They lose by twenty points and when Madge and Katniss find him after the game they must be able to sense his disappointment.

"It was a really close game," Madge assures him.

Peeta shrugs."We were awful," he says gloomily, embarrassed to have lost the only game he's ever seen Katniss at.

Katniss rolls her eyes. "No, your Keeper was awful," she corrects him matter-of-factly. "You weren't that bad."

He can't help the grin that spreads across his face. "High praise," he teases, pleased with the way her cheeks turn a little pink.

"Don't get used to it," she says lightly. She smiles at him, though, and in class she actually starts talking to him, laughing at his jokes about the bizarre creatures Professor Chaff sets before them and making deadpan quips of her own, and he feels as though he is floating for the rest of the year.

fourth year

He sees her at the train station on September 1st with the little blonde girl attached to her hip again. She is bigger now, though, pushing a cart of her own and beaming. Katniss has changed too, her robes fitting closer to her form, curving over her slim waist. He waves at her and almost chokes on his own spit when she walks over, the girl following close behind.

"Peeta," she says cordially. He grins at her formality, turning and introducing himself to the girl beside her.

"I'm Prim," she says brightly, and everything about her is the opposite of what he would expect. When Katniss slips up and calls her Little Duck, though, her scowl is just as fierce as her sister's has ever been and he can't help but laugh. He is surprised again ten minutes later when Prim and Katniss squeeze into the train compartment he's sharing with Delly and Madge and another boy from their year. She sits beside him, her arm brushing against his, and he hopes she doesn't notice the way his entire body goes rigid. Gale Hawthorne passes by their compartment and double takes, leaning in the door and ignoring everyone but Katniss.

"Catnip?" he asks curiously. Peeta tries not to frown at the familiarity.

Katniss visibly brightens. "Gale! Are you sitting with us?"

Gale's eyes roam the compartment and he smiles at Prim before scowling at Madge, who frowns at him deeply. Peeta wonders if he's imagining the glare leveled his way.

"It's a little crowded in here," he says, his tone cautious. "Do you want to—" He nods his head down the hall, gesturing for her to follow him. She hesitates, her arm touching his again as she shifts in her seat.

"I think I'll stay."

Peeta is sure he's grinning like a fool, more certain than ever when Prim grins at him slyly. He can't find it in him to care though.

When Prim is sorted into Hufflepuff later that night he is looking straight at Katniss, unable to miss the look of disappointment that crosses her face. He is distracted a second later when Prim plops down in the empty seat beside him; soon he is surrounded by tittering first years, nervously taking in everything. When Prim starts asking him questions they all eagerly listen in, laughing at all of his anecdotes about Hogwarts. He manages to sneak a look over at the Slytherin table as they are eating dessert and he is surprised to find Katniss already staring at him, a pleasantly surprised look on her face. When he looks back down at his plate he feels Prim nudge him in the side. She gives him a knowing kind of look, but the new Prefects call for the first years before she has a chance to say anything.

Although their OWLs are still a year away, their professors seem intent on burying them under an enormous amount of homework. This year he has History of Magic with Katniss and Madge and they trudge to the classroom every Tuesday and Thursday after Care of Magical Creatures, reluctant to hear Professor Trinket wax poetic about goblin rebellions and dead overlords and all of the other very important people they need to know for their OWL. Defense Against the Dark Arts grows increasingly difficult; Delly almost bursts into tears every time Professor Abernathy, their surly professor, reprimands her for her poor hex deflection, and he has an impossible time memorizing counter curses. It's increasingly difficult to fit in homework between his hectic class schedule and his grueling Quidditch practices.

He knows he's not the only one having trouble, either. One day he runs into Katniss in the Charms corridor, the scowl on her face more pronounced than usual. Her face sags in relief when she sees him.

"Alright, Katniss?" She lets out an incoherent string of swears, and she's so, well, adorable in her anger it is almost impossible not to smile. "What happened?"

"I had a meeting with Professor Odair after getting a poor grade on my practical," she sneers. "He told me I needed to work on my banishing charms and offered me a sugar cube." Peeta laughs and she glares. "Ugh, he's just so, so—"

"He's not so bad after a while," Peeta offers, grinning crookedly. Katniss gives him a disgusted look and he shrugs. "What? He's my House Head. And I kind of like the sugar cubes."

Katniss rolls her eyes dramatically, as if to say, Ugh, Hufflepuffs, and he sniggers. "Yes, well, I'm sure he can't compare to the illustrious Professor Abernathy, but I like him just fine. I suppose your Head offers you firewhiskey?"

"Better than sugar cubes," she shoots back, but he can tell that she's close to smiling.

"If it makes you feel better, I'm rubbish at Transfiguration lately," he offers. "My guinea pig has feathers every single time."

She perks up. "Oh, I'm great at Transfiguration! I transfigured my guinea pig ages ago, Professor Cinna already moved me on to—" She trails off sheepishly at the disheartened look on his face. When he suggests they help each other out, he's surprised at how eagerly she agrees. They decide to meet in the library after dinner that night for their first study session.

And then suddenly — Katniss is an actual part of his life, more than someone who smiles politely in the hallways and occasionally laughs at his puns in Care of Magical Creatures. He finally gets to sit with Madge and Katniss in the library (which results in a lot of ribbing from the boys in his dorm but he takes it all with a cheerful grin). Even Delly finds a place at their table, bemoaning Ancient Runes with Madge as he and Katniss take turns explaining different spells to each other.

Sometimes it's not even academic. More than once they've all gotten together for a Saturday afternoon near the Great Lake. He likes to go out there and sketch the tree line of the Forbidden Forest; he's caught her staring at him more than once. She looks away, flushed and annoyed every time.

He even finds her at the Hufflepuff table for breakfast one morning late in the spring. She looks up and smiles at him tiredly as Prim rants about a girl who hogs the loo in the mornings and leaves her clothes everywhere in the dorm. When he moves to walk past them she gives him a curious kind of look and he hastily drops into the chair across from her. When Katniss takes a bite of her toast Prim grins at him smugly.

"That's nothing," Katniss says through a bite of rye. "When I was a second year there was this seventh year who pranced around the common room stark naked all the time." At Peeta's curious look she wrinkles her nose and clarifies, "Johanna Mason."

Eventually they no longer need to study together; Katniss makes an 'O' on Odair's next exam and Peeta's guinea pig bears no traces of feathers. He worries for a brief moment that the easy friendship they've developed will end with that, but Katniss plops down beside him the next day in the library, eyeing Madame Cresta warily when her heavy books thunk down on the table. And then she sits beside him the next day, and then the next, even on the days when Madge and Delly don't show up. The year passes by almost too quickly for his liking.

When he waves goodbye at the train station his stomach sinks and he wonders if it would be strange to ask if he could write her. He can only imagine the smirks Prim would send his way.

And then, one day early in the summer before he's even had time to miss her properly she shows up at the bakery, looking strangely casual in Muggle clothes. "Prim looked you up," she says, rolling her eyes at her sister. "She wanted to see the cakes you apparently wouldn't shut up about." Prim smiles deviously at him the moment she turns her back.

He leaves them for a moment when he hears the timer, pulling a batch of rich, nutty bread from the ovens. Katniss breathes in deeply as he brings in a loaf. The smile she aims at him is softer than any he has ever seen at school. "Smells good," she says quietly, taking a large bite and letting out an appreciative sigh.

Peeta can't help but think about her every morning he bakes it after that, the way she smiled so much that afternoon and seemed almost reluctant to go.

fifth year

Peeta can't help but smile as he enters King's Cross, shiny Prefect badge on his robe and brand new broom on his cart. Even his parents knew what an honor it was to be selected as Prefect and his mother finally gave him money for his own broom along with his new books, begrudging the loss of money much less than usual.

He frets for a few minutes as he boards the train that he won't be able to spend the ride with Katniss like he did at the beginning of last year until she shows up at the Prefects' compartment right as the Head Boy is beginning his speech. She spots him and rolls her eyes good naturedly, slipping quietly into the seat beside him, ignoring Gloss's pointed glare. "Of course you would be a Prefect," she mutters.

His feels his face flush as his heart picks up speed, and he grins at her. "Can't say I expected the same of you," he teases, and she scowls. "I can't wait to see you with the ickle first years."

She elbows him lightly, and when she puts her hand down on the seat next to his her pinkie grazes his. He expects her to move it after a second but she doesn't. It is almost impossible to pay attention to the clever red-headed Head Girl as she doles out instructions; he's too distracted by the warmth of Katniss's skin to even catch her name.

The year starts off with a brutal kind of panic thrumming through all of the fifth years; the OWLs, which before now had always seemed such a distant threat now loom only months away, and he's more grateful than ever for Katniss, Madge, and Delly. The four of them spend increasing amounts of time in the library; they spend half of October clustered in there together, researching a lengthy essay due for Professor Trinket on the Triwizard Tournament. His friends are shocked to realize that Peeta had never even heard of it before the lecture.

"It was awful," Madge says grimly. "Children competing against children in these terrible games…plenty of champions died in the competition so they finally had the sense to end it a few hundred years ago."

"Except that one time in the late nineteen hundreds," Delly points out. "They tried to bring it back and it was an absolute disaster. My great-grandfather was a student here then, it was right before the Second Wizarding War." She pouts at Madge's skeptical look. "If you don't believe me look it up. He taught Herbology here for a few years, it's in the records."

Peeta frowns. "It sounds terrible. People actually volunteered for this? What kind of person does that?"

Katniss shrugs. "Who knows? I'm sure they had all sorts of reasons." They each spend the rest of the session in troubled silence.

Nothing gets easier; he starts having to skip out on their library dates to push through Quidditch no matter what the weather. He stumbles into his Common room several nights a week to find Delly waiting for him sleepily in her pajamas, often shoving her notes at him before falling asleep in her favorite yellow armchair.

When he's not at practice, he's often at patrols. His partner always seems to be Glimmer, a beautiful but shallow girl from Gryffindor who seems more interested in tugging him inside an empty classroom than berating the students they find wandering the halls after curfew.

He starts his patrol down the corridors straight after an evening in the library that ran late one evening; Glimmer is sick with the flu, so he is blessedly alone. He ambles through the corridors, groaning in frustration when he hears a muffled moan coming from a bloom closet on the fifth floor. When he swings the door open a couple springs apart—

Madge's hands fly to her blouse, pulling down her hem and redoing the top buttons. She looks up at him, her large, startled eyes flitting in between him and a glowering Gale Hawthorne. Her mouth opens to explain but Peeta shakes his head quickly, walking away before she can explain. It's the only time he's ever shirked out and not finished his duties.

She finds him the next day, her hands fisting her robes nervously as her eyes stare at her lap. "Peeta—"

"I thought you hated him," he blurts. He thought it over for hours that night, suddenly confused about everything.

Madge smiles wryly. "I kind of do," she shrugs. "But, I dunno, in a good way."

Peeta frowns. "How could you do this to Katniss?"

Her eyes widen at the accusation in his voice. "What?"

"They're best friends," he hisses. "And they — they always go to Hogsmeade together, and they sit together, they're practically attached at the hip! And, and—"

Understanding dawns on her face and she smiles suddenly in a way that is eerily like Prim. "Oh, Peeta," she says, reaching out and patting his hand as her shoulders shake with laughter, "You don't know anything, do you?"

No matter how many times he asks she won't tell him what she means.

Katniss seems to notice the tension he keeps locked in after that; it's always apparent now, especially when Madge is present, which is more than half the time. One night she finally snaps after Madge leaves their study group quietly, giving Peeta wounded looks as she packs up her books and heads for the Ravenclaw tower.

"What is going on," she hisses, ignoring the frowns the librarian, who apparently became Madame Odair over the summer hols, sends her way. Peeta flushes, guilty; if even Katniss has noticed his cold treatment towards Madge it must be bad. He resolves to be a better friend.

Instead of voicing these thoughts, he shrugs. "Just stressed, I suppose." It's not entirely a lie; in between Prefect duties and grueling Quidditch practices led by the new captain, Darius, he is still juggling mounds of homework in preparation for the OWLs at the end of the year. Meanwhile, Christmas break is approaching and for the first time he won't be returning home — his parents and brothers are going on holiday to Spain, but his brothers' Christmas breaks begin before his and they're leaving a week before Hogwarts gets out. And since he can't exactly Floo to the Muggle hotel they have reservations at he has no choice but to hole up in the Hufflepuff dormitory and study for his OWLs. On the bright side, he heard there were pretty decent crackers at the Christmas feast.

Katniss gives him a somewhat sympathetic pat on the shoulder. "You should do something to take your mind off it." Her face takes on a faraway look as she continues. "Whenever things get too much for me I sneak into the Forest. My father used to take me hunting with him, and growing up he always told me the crazy things that went on in the Forbidden Forest." She hesitates before offering, "I could take you? To the Forest?"

He, too, has heard of the things that live in there; unlike Katniss, he finds it terrifying rather than relaxing. "Oh, er," he scratches the back of his neck sheepishly, "I'm more of a…painter, I guess. I don't do much hunting." He waits for her to tease him about painting like his brothers always have, but instead she shrugs.

"Then go paint," she says, waving her hand at him dismissively and turning back to the thick tome in front of her.

Peeta frowns. "I don't exactly have any of my supplies with me, Katniss." She looks up when she hears the unhappiness in his voice, scoffing.

"You know you're a wizard, right?" He scowls at the condescension in her voice.

"Excuse me if I don't know how to conjure up my own studio," he mutters, grabbing his quill so hard he feels it snap.

Katniss sighs wearily as if exhausted by him and he sets his jaw, trying not to show how much she is irritating him. He scribbles furiously on the parchment in front of him and he knows he will have to do extensive revisions later but anything is better than looking at her right now. He jumps in surprise a moment later when she touches his hand gently, too shocked to protest when she shoves his books in his bag and tugs him from their table.

He follows her willingly up four flights to the seventh floor. It is only when she stops in front of an outdated tapestry that he feels his annoyance return.

"Barnabas the Barmy?" He eyes the trolls in pointe shoes with thinly veiled contempt. "What are we doing here?"

"I thought you'd find it inspiring," she says dryly, turning away from him to pace back and forth, her face screwed up in concentration. He often is attracted to Katniss's mysterious kind of charm but tonight he thinks she may have just gone mad. And then a door appears on the opposite wall, startling him so that he falls back against the wall, his head knocking against the hard, ancient stone.

When he follows her in he doesn't know quite what to expect, but it's certainly not what he finds: a small, plain room with smooth stone walls and an easel facing a large square window looking out onto the grounds. A shelf on the back wall is filled with all sorts of paints and brushes and supplies he's never even seen in real life but always wanted to try out. "What is this place?" he asks in wonderment.

Katniss shrugs. "Not sure, really. My mum showed it to my dad when they were younger, someone in her family came across it a long time ago. It just, I dunno, becomes what you need, I suppose. You think of what you need and the room gives it to you." She seems almost embarrassed, especially when she notices the intense look in his eyes. "It's nothing, really. I just showed it to you so you would relax and stop being a prat, is all."

"Katniss, this is," he steps toward her and her eyes widen in alarm, "without a doubt the most incredible thing I've ever seen."

She scowls. "Just shut up and paint." She darts out of the room before he can even stop her.

And he does — despite his busy schedule he finds time, sneaking out of his dormitory for the first time in his career at Hogwarts and painting late into the night; every brush stroke eases some of the tension in his shoulders, helps him to cope with the overwhelming pressure to succeed.

It takes him through the holidays, through Quidditch practices that leave his bones aching, through apologizing to Madge and Glimmer's frequent but failed attempts at seduction, through homework and six feet essays, all the way up to the day after his OWLs. When Delly bemoans the section of questions on the History of Magic OWL over Coriolanus the Bloody, nearly in tears over the fact that she couldn't remember if he was a leader in the Goblin Rebellion of 1612 or 1734, he merely smiles, thinking of the exact shade he was finally able to mix up last week that matches precisely the color of moonlight on the leaves of the Forbidden forest and the shade of Katniss's eyes.

He finds out late in the summer that he passed them all, making no less than an 'A' in any subject, and then only in Astronomy and Care of Magical Creatures. When he tells his mother, she gives him a satisfied smile. "If you have to go to a freak school, at least you're doing well there," she says offhandedly.

And really, it's par for the course.

sixth year

If he's less excited to see his friends on September first this year, it is simply because he already saw them over the holidays. He spent a week with Delly and her family when they went to the shore, and he visited Madge several times after finding out she only lived a few towns away. Katniss even made another appearance at the bakery with Prim in early August, and he kept up a surprisingly constant correspondence with her; she often complained about the owl she shared with Prim, a tawny bird named Buttercup who snapped at his fingers with his sharp beak every time he went to untie Katniss's letters.

He waits for her in the Prefect compartment, staring out of the window and thinking of the letter he received from her just last week. He startles when he feels the seat dip beside him and whips his head around eagerly, expecting to find her serious gray irises locked on his. Instead he is met with a pair of fluttering green eyes and a wide, pearly smile. Glimmer leans so close to him the tips of her long, wavy hair brush against his arm.

"Did you have a nice holiday, Peeta?"

He swallows hard; although he's long been infatuated with Katniss, he can't help but to have noticed almost every girl in their year. He's only human, after all. And although she irritated him endlessly on patrols last year, he can't help but smile back. She is almost too beautiful to resist, somehow even prettier than the last time he saw her. They make easy conversation, her hand resting on his forearm; he barely even notices how many minutes have gone by until the train jolts, leaving the station and picking up speed.

He leans away from her slightly, looking around the compartment for Katniss, worried that the train will have left her. It hasn't though — she sits almost directly opposite him, glaring pointedly at Glimmer. When he tries to catch her eye she gives him a haughty kind of look, one that he hasn't seen since an ill-timed joke about hippogriffs third year, and turns abruptly to speak to one of the prefects, a nervous young Gryffindor named Twill as the new Head Girl, Lyme, starts the instructions to the new Prefects.

Peeta tries to catch her on the way out of the compartment when they are released to patrol the train but she darts out too quickly. He doesn't see her again until they load into the carriages outside of the train station. She's piled into one with Madge and Delly, and her face betrays no emotion when he sits down beside her.

"If I didn't know any better I'd think you'd been ignoring me," he says, attempting lightheartedness. Katniss raises an eyebrow, her face impassive; Delly and Madge chatter on, oblivious.

"Why would I do that?" she asks coolly.

"Er," he tugs nervously at his robes, needing to do something with his hands, "Well, you looked a little angry earlier when I was talking to Glimmer—"

She scowls. "Why would I care if you were talking to Glimmer?"

He can't help but feel affronted at her defensive tone. "I dunno, you just — I mean, you didn't sit beside me, you didn't even talk to me on the train, I—"

"I didn't know I had to sit beside you," she says scornfully, and he grits his teeth.

"You don't have to," he says, attempting patience. "But I saved you a seat, I didn't expect Glimmer to sit there and—"

"Oh yes, you looked highly inconvenienced," she snipes. He glares at her but she doesn't back down, and they spend the rest of the ride in silence. Prim takes one glance at the stormy look on his face and hastily backs away to sit with a gaggle of girls from her year.

It's relatively easy to avoid her for the first couple of days after that. He has to register for NEWT level classes and honestly, he tries to remember everything Professor Odair told him during career advisement last year but in between showing first years around and settling in to his dorm, beginning his patrols again while simultaneously trying to dodge Glimmer out of sheer confusion, it's too much.

So even though he knows it's important, panicking over the future career he still hasn't decided on (really, what he wants is to open up a bakery in Diagon Alley but when he suggested that to his father he'd said, "But Peeta, if you wanted to work at a bakery you could have just stayed at home with us,") falls to the wayside and all he manages to do is sign up for all the classes he's already been taking since third year except Astronomy and Care of Magical Creatures. He feels a twinge go through him when he doesn't check the small box beside Professor Chaff's class but honestly, at the rate thing have been going he figures Katniss won't mind. It's already inevitable they'll be sharing more classes together now that they're down to NEWTs, she probably won't miss him at all.

He's wrong, though — when Katniss stalks into Charms on the first day of classes, she drops her bag beside him and punches him hard on the arm.

"What the hell?" he sputters, rubbing the top of his arm and looking at her incredulously, wondering how someone so tiny can be so downright scary.

"You dropped Care of Magical Creatures?" Her voice is higher than normal but he can't quite read the look on her face.

"I, er, I didn't need it anymore," he explains slowly, as if talking to a wounded animal.

She scowls. "Who am I supposed to work with?"

Ah. There it is. He knew Madge was dropping the class also, she's been miserable with the class since they'd had to examine samples of threstral droppings for their midterms last year. So with the both of them gone Katniss must've been forced to branch out and talk to other people, something she generally detests.

"Sorry if you were inconvenienced," he says bitterly, turning back in his chair and pulling out his quill and parchment. When he chances a look at her again a moment later she looks shocked; he wonders if she recognizes her own cold words. He's almost surprised when she sinks into the chair beside him. Professor Odair has already begun his demonstration of the Augamenti spell before she speaks again.

"I'll just miss you, is all," she mutters. The tight look on her face lets him know how much the admission cost her. He can barely concentrate on the careful wrist movements he's supposed to be copying down.

He brushes his arm against hers intentionally. "I'm still here, Katniss. I'm not going anywhere." Their eyes lock and he tries to reassure her with his smile.

Something in her eyes tells him he doesn't quite succeed.

There is a noticeable difference in the dynamic of their friendship, now. Over the summer Delly began dating a Gryffindor named Thom, a boy that Peeta only knows through Quidditch matches, and she spends less and less time with their crew, although she still manages to spend a couple of nights a week with them at their usual table in the library. Madge is more present than Delly, although she's taken up tutoring second years and is often quite busy with that.

And Katniss — things have shifted since their argument, and unspoken tension that neither of them acknowledges but is ever present in the way she passively claims him as her work partner in every class they share, leaving Delly and Madge to fend for themselves. He doesn't quite know how to handle the sudden change, doesn't know if it means that she's feeling the way he always has, and he tries to remind himself to be cautious, although he's failing utterly.

Their coursework is, obviously, more challenging than he ever could've imagined. He encounters spells and hexes and all sorts of things he could have never anticipated, and they only grow more complex by the day.

In Potions, Professor Paylor tasks them with mixing up the most difficult potion he's ever attempted. Katniss does most of the cutting; her hands are precise as she thinly slices the rose thorn, eyeing him critically as he prepares the Ashwinder eggs she retrieved from the cupboard. Paylor stops by their station and gives them a satisfied smile as Peeta stirs it evenly in a counter-clockwise motion, Katniss glowing with pride as it turns a pearly white.

The steam from the potion wafts in his face, stealing his breath and replacing it with the scent of ovens full of cookies in the bakery and something that is embarrassingly close to the smell of Katniss's shampoo. He glances at her out of the corner of his eye, notes her breathing in deeply.

"What's it smell like to you?" he asks, his voice cautious. She wrinkles her forehead thoughtfully, then shrugs.

"Like the forest, really early in the morning," she says quietly. "And something else, like fresh baked bread." Once the words slip out of her mouth she looks startled, scowling at him before turning away completely, reducing the heat to a simmer. She stirs silently for the rest of the class, dutifully looking away from him. He's glad, because he cannot suppress the smile that stretches across his face for the rest of the hour.

He's never had a hard time keeping his feelings inside before, but now it seems constantly on the edge of his tongue. When she shows up at Quidditch practice one night, claiming to need fresh air. When he sees her for the first time in six years with her hair down one morning at the Hufflepuff table as she and Prim sign a card for their mum's birthday. When she leans her head against his shoulder one night in the library, a rare moment of weakness for her.

I like you. I like you. I like you.

By the time the first Hogsmeade trip after Christmas holidays rolls around, it feels like a breaking point. They're sitting in the monthly Prefects' meeting, so close together he can feel the heat of her against his side, and the question he's been wanting to ask since third year is bubbling up inside of him—

"Hey, Peeta!"

Glimmer stands in front of him, long, glossy hair tumbling over one shoulder, acting strangely demur. Her eyes keep darting over to Katniss nervously, who slides noticeably farther away from him.

"Ah, hello Glimmer." He smiles charmingly. This year he had been assigned to patrol with Clove, a fifth year Ravenclaw who is completely terrifying. He hasn't spoken to her much since the first week of class when she'd offered to work with him on their essay on dementors in Defense Against the Dark Arts and he'd apologetically explained he'd already agreed to work with Katniss. He still remembers the way her face fell at the news.

"I was wondering," she shifts on the balls of her feet nervously but her smile is bright and confident, "if you'd want to go to Hogsmeade with me this weekend?"

Oh. Oh.

He bites the inside of his cheek as he feels Katniss stiffen beside him. "Oh, er. Well I think I already have plans, Glimmer," he says softly. And there it is again, the corners of her mouth dropping down. She doesn't linger long after that and when she's gone Katniss turns to face him again.

"You have plans?" she asks sharply and he nods warily.

"Well, I mean. We always go together."

She frowns. "Oh. Well don't let that stop you. If you want to go with her, you should."

He feels his chest tighten, something like a balloon blowing up too fast in his lungs. "What makes you think I want to go with Glimmer?"

Katniss shrugs, looking down. "I can't think of any reason you wouldn't," she mutters.

"Really," he asks flatly. When her head snaps up, he's sure she's heard the heat behind his word. "You can't think of any reason?" She holds his gaze, her face flushing slightly, but she shakes her head defiantly and something in him collapses.

"Fine," he snaps. And as he crosses the room to talk to Glimmer, he doesn't look back.

Hogsmeade with Glimmer is — ugh, exactly what he expected. Long, awkward conversations and catching her staring at his lips when she should be responding to his witty stories. He still lets her back him up against the wall outside Madame Puddifoot's though, her long fingers winding through his curly hair and her breasts pushing against his chest. She kisses him sloppily, but he doesn't mind. He grips her hips hard, relieved to know that at least someone wants him, trying desperately not to think of Katniss.

It almost worries Peeta how easy it is to go back to pretending like everything is normal after that; Katniss admits that Hogsmeade wasn't the same without him and he gently tells Glimmer that he can't see her again. He and Katniss tiptoe around each other in ever shrinking circles that no one seems to question.

And then one day in the corridor as they walk from Transfiguration to the Great Hall, things take another turn. A large, hulking Slytherin in their year named Cato is hexing a small girl named Rue, a Ravenclaw Prim's age. He holds his wand aloft, watching in satisfaction as she tap dances helplessly, huge brown eyes filling quickly with tears.

Peeta pulls out his own wand and quickly disarms him; magic in the halls are strictly forbidden and Katniss takes ten points from Slytherin. Cato narrows his eyes at her.

"She had it coming," he hisses, muttering something foul under his breath. Bloodtraitor.

"What was that?" Peeta asks angrily, stepping closer.

Cato sneers. "Nothing you would understand, Mudblood."

Before he can even respond Katniss runs past him, forgoing her wand and punching Cato right across the jaw. As his arm swings back to retaliate Peeta tackles him and they tumble to the ground in a flurry of limbs. Before either can land a solid hit Peeta feels himself torn away by a force he can't see; Professor Trinket brandishes her wand at them all, voice shrill as she gives them each detention for fighting and just plain bad manners. He can't even look at Katniss as he walks away, skipping lunch and heading straight to his dormitory, not attending class for the rest of the day.

He gets an owl later that evening, informing that his detention begins promptly at seven o'clock, scrubbing the stairwell leading up to the Astronomy tower under Professor Cressida's supervision. When he arrives Cato is nowhere to be found, apparently assigned to another punishment, but Katniss waits for him meekly, not looking as Cressida provides them with buckets and brushes and tells them she will return for them in two hours.

They work steadily for the longest time, no words passing between them as they work on their hands and knees, making their way up the hard stone steps. When they reach the observation room, however, a cold breeze blows in and breaks the tension and finally they finish, with thirty minutes to spare. Their scouring brushes lay abandoned in front of them; they lean against the wall, staring up at the night sky. He can feel her looking at him but he can't meet her eyes. Instead his eyes trace the constellations, recalling his knowledge from the endless star charts he filled out in second year.

"I'm sorry I got you in trouble," she says finally, her voice soft. It's the first thing she's said to him all night. When he shrugs, her shoulders droop. "And…if I embarrassed you. I'm sorry."

Peeta sighs. "You didn't embarrass me. But Katniss, do you honestly think that was the first time anyone's said anything like that to me?" When he looks over at her, her gray eyes are unusually soft. "People like Cato have been bullying me about my blood status since practically the day I first stepped on to the train, it's—" He shrugs, "I guess I'm just used to it. It's not a big deal."

Her hands ball up into fists and her eyes burn with a kind of passion he's never seen directed towards him. "It is a big deal," she says heatedly. "I had no idea anyone said anything to you like that—"

"Why does it even matter?"

She looks furious that he would even ask that. "Because I — because you're my friend, Peeta, and I just. I want to protect you from that." She bangs her head back against the wall and closes her eyes. "My mum came from this really well-to-do pureblood family. Big lot of Muggle-haters, they even sided with the Dark Lord in the Second Wizarding War, got really high up in the ranks and everything. My mum — well, she fell in love with my dad when she wasn't supposed to. He was a Muggleborn, like you. Her family…" Katniss shakes her head angrily. "Completely disowned her. I'm in a house full of cousins right now and not a single one of them will claim me except Gale, and that's only because his family is just as on the outs as mine."

Peeta swallows hard. "I'm sorry."

She scoffs. "I'm not. They're all idiots. My dad — he was the most amazing wizard I've ever known. He could, he could do anything. He was all we needed." She makes a tiny choking sound in the back of her throat. "But when he died…I don't need anyone else. I have my mum and I have Prim, and that's enough for me. But—"

She is silent for a long moment. Tentatively, he reaches over and rests his hand on top of her clenched fist; without hesitation she uncurls her finger and turns her palm to brush again his, lacing their fingers together and squeezing hard. "I don't ever want you to feel like that, like the way they made my mum and dad feel," she says, so earnestly it makes his heart skip a beat.

I love you, he thinks, and it is the first time the thought has floated through his head and felt real.

He thinks about while he paints, each time his bat cracks against the Bludger at Quidditch games, every moment he spends with her in classes, all the times their eyes meet across the Great Hall and she smiles at him. And it grows inside of him, hopefully, like a weed that sprung up late in the winter and survived its way into spring.

He almost makes it through the whole year without doing anything stupid, slipping past her birthday with only friendly hugs, but then one day at the beginning of June she invites him to come with her and Prim and her mum to a cabin they own by a little lake in the country. It was the place her father used to take them to every summer to go fishing and swimming and when he tells her he doesn't know how to do either she smiles widely and tells him she'll teach him. Her hand brushes against his as they walk down the empty corridor to the Great Hall and before he can even think it through he grabs hold of it, pulling her into an empty classroom nearby and pressing her against the door. He's so close he feels her heart beating against his chest, and she fits so much better against him than Glimmer ever could've hoped for.

She gazes up at him wordlessly, her eyes wide and surprised, but not unhappy. She stares at his mouth, licking her lips. And he when he says her name softly, like an enchantment, she only nods. He dips his head down she meets him halfway. Her lips are chapped but soft, and when his tongue darts out to trace her bottom lip her entire body jolts into him and then suddenly everything is happening at a furious speed, quick pants and hands pulling each other close. His fingers tangle in her braid the way he's dreamed of since fourth year. When they pull away for air he beams down at her, pleased at the pink flush in her cheeks and the way she can't keep her lips from tugging up into a smile.

Somehow it just — it just rushes out like a deep breath he's been holding too long. "I love you," he whispers, breath warm against her face.

He wishes later that he hadn't been looking at her so intently. Maybe he would've missed the way her eyes immediately closed off, not seen the imperceptible shake of her head, maybe he could have lived in that tiny bubble of hope for just a moment longer.

Her hands push against his chest and he stumbles away. Watches as her silver eyes fill with tears for the first time since he's met her.

Watches as she walks away.

They leave for home the next day. And still, she doesn't say a word.

seventh year

In the topmost drawer of his bureau at home sits a pile of letters: one from Headmaster Plutarch, informing him that he's been selected as this year's Head Boy. One from Madge, inviting him to a end of summer barbeque at Gale Hawthorne's house — apparently they've started dating officially now, and his mum is simply the best cook. Several from Delly, who had known at once the reason for the stricken look on his face at the end of the term and who has been concerned ever since. She'd manage to coerce him into a few visits, just long days spent wandering around Diagon Alley and talking about anything but what's really on his mind. A handful from the new Head Girl, attempting to coordinate their agenda for the first meeting of the year. Three from Prim; one asking him again to come with them on holiday to the lake, and then one to berate him for never responding. Apparently she'd finally had a talk with Katniss before she'd written the third because it simply says, I'm so sorry. She'll come around.

There aren't any from Katniss herself. Not that he wrote her, either.

She is staring at him now, though, her silver eyes burning into him as he looks around the Prefects' compartment at anyone but her. Beside him Lavinia, a clever Ravenclaw that he's never talked to much before their summer correspondence, coughs lightly to draw the attention of the rest of the compartment. And finally, he allows himself a look at her — her olive skin is dark and smooth from her time spent at the lake, thick black hair wound into a familiar braid. He tries not to remember how soft it was between the tips of his fingers.

When her eyes dart over to him in the middle of Lavinia's explanation of patrol duties, his gut clenches and he offers her a weak smile. She looks stricken, guilt and sadness flashing over her face so quickly he doesn't even know how she has time to feel it all. He thinks there might be something else written there too, something like the longing he feels coiled tight in his chest at her absence.

Peeta doesn't look at her again for the rest of the meeting; when it is his turn to speak his words come out mercifully smooth and self-assured. As soon as the meeting is dismissed she is gone, and it is so similar to last year it almost makes him laugh. But not quite.

It's not as if he plans to actively avoid her but somehow he manages to escape her once again until the first day of classes. When he rushes into Transfiguration two minutes before class starts she is already sitting at the same set of desks they occupied last year, the chair beside her conspicuously empty although the most of the class is already there. He feels her staring at him as he moves past her without looking, two rows behind to sit with Delly. She doesn't turn around, although her shoulders slump; Madge comes in right behind him and when she takes in the empty chair beside her friend she gives Peeta a critical frown.

He doesn't get off so easily in Professor Abernathy's class, though. The surly professor takes one look at Katniss sitting with Madge and Peeta sitting with one of the boys he dorms with, Homes, and sneers. "I expect you all to remain with your previous partners," he says gruffly.

Peeta doesn't even have to be looking at Katniss to know the scowl that is on her face. "But Professor—"

"But nothing, Everdeen," Abernathy snaps. "You and your partner spent an entire year getting comfortable enough to curse each other, we're not going to lose that progress because of a lover's quarrel." The rest of the class titters, giving Peeta and Katniss knowing looks. Peeta feels his face flush deeply. "Now move."

There are only a handful of people who have switched and it takes less than a minute to get back in place; Peeta drops reluctantly into place beside Katniss. His arm brushes against hers as he drops his bag to the floor and they both jolt as if stung by a wasp.

"For the first few classes we'll just be practicing nonverbal spells again," Abernathy says crisply once they are all back in their seats. "Once I'm sure you lot still have it all down we'll move on."

As the class splits up into their pairs, he faces Katniss finally. She holds her wand at the ready, her face set in determination, but then she falters. She lowers her wand. The professor notices her stance and glares exasperatedly, but she just shrugs.

"I'm sorry," she finally mutters.

And here it is. Not quite the words he's been hoping to hear. She looks so miserable that he can't help but soften towards her. "Nothing to be sorry for," he says softly. It's not quite true, and she looks at him incredulously. "I guess I just misinterpreted how things were between us."

Her mouth opens like she's going to protest and then clamps shut again. "I missed you this summer," she confesses. His heart is still like an open wound and her words are like a cold antiseptic potion, burning even as it heals. He still loves her; he doesn't think he could stop if he tried (and he did try, all summer long with the Muggle girls his older brother went to school with). But if this is all he can ever have from her, it will have to be enough.

"I missed you too," he says plainly. "Can we just — go back? You'll stop ignoring me and I'll stop acting all wounded and we can just be friends again?"

The corners of her lips curl up in a smile so genuine he knows this commitment will be hard to keep. "Friends," she agrees. Somewhere behind them, Abernathy makes a disgusted sound and she rolls her eyes. Without another word, she steps closer to Peeta and sends a curse flying his way.

Things don't quite go back to normal after that, although the relief of talking to Katniss again is so sharp it easily helps him through the first few weeks of school. The future looms dreadfully close, hanging like a thick cloud over his last year at Hogwarts. He still has no idea what his future holds, no clue what he wants to do with the rest of his life. In the back of his mind if the dreadful fear of returning home to live with his parents, the scorn in his mother's voice as she tells him she knew that pursuing magic was a mistake.

It drives him to distraction. He begins to have nightmares about turning in his wand after graduation, of the entire school laughing at him as he hangs his head and returns to the Muggle world, waving goodbye to Katniss who is wrapped in the arms of a faceless pureblood that looks suspiciously like Gale Hawthorne.

If his friends notice the ever deepening hollows under his eyes they don't say anything, although he often catches Katniss darting worried glances his way out of the corner of his eye. He devotes himself furiously to studying for NEWTs; he can't help but wish, for the first time, that he had been smart enough to be sorted in to Ravenclaw, clever enough to be a Slytherin. He works earnestly, tirelessly, but it never seems to be enough.

His Head Boy duties take up a fair bit of time also, meeting weekly with the Head Girl to organize everything to be done. His patrols are down to once a week but they seem too much; he often stumbles through the corridors with Lavinia, bone tired after another ruthless Quidditch practice, only to stay up in the Common Room studying for another several hours.

By the time November comes around he is making it through his days by sheer muscle memory. A particularly rough storm rolls in at the middle of the month but Darius insists they slog through another practice anyhow. He is more determined than ever to win the House Cup, especially after two victories, one against Ravenclaw and the other against Slytherin.

The wind howls as they fly against it, whipping his robes fiercely. His grip on his bat grows slippery and when he knocks the furious black ball speeding towards Octavia, one of the new young Chasers, it almost falls right out of his hands.

"This is mad!" he shouts into the wind, but the Captain just shakes his head furiously, urging them on. Moments later the other Beater, a fourth year named Mitchell, hurtles towards him, bellowing his name in warning—

When he wakes up he is warm and dry and aching all over. A small hand is gripping his so tightly it almost hurts. His eyes blink open and there is Katniss, her eyes red rimmed and watery. At the sight of his blue eyes she lets out a choked noise and Madame Sae comes rushing out when she hears it.

"Alright, Mellark?" she asks, ignoring Katniss and stepping close to him. She carries a tray loaded with potions he doesn't recognize. "You took quite a spill out there, that Bludger did a number on you."

He remembers, then, the impact of the Bludger he didn't see coming as it smashed against his ribs, the sensation of falling off his broom and hurtling down.

Without waiting for an answer she gestures for him to take the potions she's concocted, explaining his maladies as he chokes them down: broken ribs and a concussion, nothing she can't handle. She shoots Katniss an exasperated look, explaining that he'll be just fine and it's nothing to worry about, but she'd like him to stay in the Hospital Wing over night so she can monitor him.

"It's almost eleven," Sae adds as an afterthought as turns to return to her office, taking the tray with her. "Your girlfriend will need to leave soon." He expects Katniss to protest hotly at this but she doesn't, just staring down at their intertwined hands.

Finally he breaks the silence. "Some weather we're having, huh?" Her head shoots up, watery eyes narrowed at him. She squeezes his fingers so tightly he thinks Madame Sae will probably need to give him a potion for that, too.

"It's not funny," she snaps. "I was really worried, Peeta. Delly came and got me and I — it was just like—" She lets out another choked sound, closer to a sob, and he frowns.

"C'mere," he says quietly, using the hand she holds tightly to pull her closer. She surprises him by climbing onto the bed with him, her body pressed along his, her arms wrapping around his shoulders tightly. She buries her face in the crook of her neck, her lips brushing against his skin as she speaks.

"Don't scare me like that again."

"You couldn't get rid of me even if you tried," he promises her seriously. He brings his arms around her and it feels surreal to be holding her like this.

He's not prepared for the way she pulls away from him quickly, her hands coming up to cup his cheeks. She presses her lips against his more urgently than she did in June. He grips her shoulders tightly, reassuring himself this isn't a result of the concussion. She parts her lips, deepening the kiss, and he tugs her even closer without thinking. He groans in pain when her weight rests against his ribs and she breaks away, jumping off the cot and breathing heavily, looking anywhere but at his eyes.

Madame Sae pops her head out to check on him. "Are you in pain, Mr. Mellark?" Her eyes glance over at Katniss again and she frowns. "You really do, need to leave, dear." Katniss nods quickly. Her knuckles brush against his once more but she doesn't meet his eyes again before walking away. When the Healer offers him a dreamless sleep potion he accepts it eagerly, not wanting to relive the way it felt to watch her leave all night long.

When Peeta returns to class the next day he's not sure what he expects, but it's certainly not the way Katniss smiles at him as if nothing has happened. He keeps waiting for her to end their friendship or pull him into a closet and snog him, something to let him know that the kiss happened. But the days float by without her mentioning anything. She sits beside him in class and in the library, teasing him the same way she does Madge and Delly, nothing out of the usual.

On the first day of December he and Lavinia bring all the Prefects together to decorate the castle for Christmas. This year Professor Flickerman, who rarely leaves the Divination tower, is the supervising teacher, and his contribution is a dreadful assortment of enchanted mistletoe that they are in charge of putting up. While helping Katniss hang wreathes the professor points out that they have unwittingly wandered under a bunch of the stuff.

"It will follow you around until you kiss," he warns gleefully, his brilliant white teeth flashing as he laughs.

Peeta frowns but Katniss shrugs, raising herself up on her toes and kissing him lightly. All the Prefects watching whoop (except Glimmer, who glowers in their direction and turns back to working on the trees); when her eyes meet his they sparkle with something unexpected. He licks his lips and she smiles.

Fifteen minutes later he finds himself in a broom closet with her, not really knowing how he got there but not caring much either. Her cold hands slip under his shirt and roam his chest. His hands grab her bottom and hoist her up, pressing her against the wall. She locks her ankles around his back and moans throatily, blazing hot kisses down the column of his neck as his hands squeeze her firmly.

An hour later they stumble out, still without really saying a word. It can't happen again, he decides firmly. His heart can't take it.

But it does happen again. Twice more before school lets out for the holidays, once at Madge's Christmas party, and again on the train back to school in January. They don't go much farther than urgently kissing and they still don't talk about it, but he's caught Madge and Delly eyeing them suspiciously several times since. One day Prim sees a hickey on his neck and shrieks, badgering him so much he avoids her for two whole weeks.

He doesn't make the mistake of telling her he loves her again, although he does. He thinks it, each time her knees knock against his in class, as she quizzes him in the library, when her arm slips through his possessively after Lavinia asks him to go Hogsmeade with her for Valentine's Day. They end up skipping it altogether, sneaking hot chocolate and rolls from the kitchen and spending the day in the room where he paints, pressing against each other on a couch and kissing heatedly. Delly is with Thom and Madge somehow roped Gale into meeting her in town, so there is no one to wonder where they are.

"I wish I could freeze this moment," he says as the sun sinks in the sky. It is almost time for dinner, and they both know their absence would be noticed. He traces her collar bone, watching in amazement as she shivers.

"Okay," she agrees, kissing the corner of his mouth lightly. At his confused look she rolls her eyes, teasing. "I'll allow it." When he doesn't smile back at her, she frowns. "What's wrong?"

"What are we doing, Katniss?"

He's ready for it this time, the way her whole body freezes and her eyes shut down. She slides off his lap, sinking onto the couch beside him; after a long pause she sighs heavily.

"I don't know," she admits. It almost doesn't even hurt.

"I know we agreed to be friends," he says. "And I can do that, I think. But — but you know how I feel about you," her face flushes, "and having you like this but…not having you at the same time…"

She scowls. "What do you want me to do?"

Peeta laugh, but the sound is hollow. "I want you to do whatever makes you happy, Katniss." She gives him a hopeful kind of look. "But I can't keep going on like this."

This time, he is the one that walks away first.

If Delly notices how upset he is at the Feast, she doesn't say anything. Instead she alternates between shooting disgustingly lovesick looks at the Gryffindor table and regaling him with the details of their trip to town. He can't help but send his own little glances toward the Slytherin table, but Katniss is missing all evening. He knows he must have really upset her if she's missing a meal.

As he digs into his cobbler as Delly rhapsodizes about the chocolate Thom bought her. "And then at Honeydukes—" She trails off suddenly, blue eyes wide and fixed on something behind him. "Er, Peeta."

He turns to see what she is looking at and to his surprise Katniss is right behind him, her hands clasped nervously. Her braid is disheveled and he can't remember if he did that or if it happened after he left. The corners of her lips tip up in a nervous smile when their eyes meet.

"Hi." She eyes the empty seat beside him and lets out a long breath. "Do you mind if I—" When he shakes his head dumbly she drops beside him, shocking him again when she twines her fingers with his and brings their hands to rest on the table top. Delly lets out a choked sound of glee and somewhere down the table he hears Prim let out a large cheer, but he only has eyes for Katniss. He can feel her hand trembling in his grasp.

As he searches for something intelligible to say, she eyes his dessert. "Are you going to finish that?"

He can't help but laugh; he leans in to kiss her and more importantly, she lets him. He knows they've garnered some attention, can feel the curious eyes of their classmates staring at them, but he's never cared less.

"Is this even real?" he asks softy as she grabs his fork and takes a scoop of cobbler off his plate.

Her cheeks are flushed pink but she answers him steadily. "It's real," she assures him.

And somehow, after six and a half years of build up, it is easy to fall into togetherness. Prim teases him mercilessly and Professor Odair slaps him on the back in the next Charms class, but things between him and Katniss are blissfully simple.

When the four friends come together in the Library again, Madge gloats for at least half an hour as they slave over their research on the Protean charm.

"I remember when you and Delly sat over there at that table," she teases Peeta. "We used to hear you cracking jokes all the time." She casts a sly glance at Katniss who buries her nose in Achievements in Charming, resolutely ignoring her friend. "'Doesn't he know this is a library?'" Her imitation is spot on and they all laugh until Madame Odair casts a warning look in their direction. Madge grins. "She never shut up about how dreadfully annoying you were. I knew she had it bad even then."

Peeta pokes Katniss in the ribs and she glares at him. "Never shut up about me, eh?"

"Still dreadfully annoying, aren't you?" she retorts.

Delly snorts quietly. "That's nothing," she assures Madge, abandoning her parchment and leaning her elbows on the table eagerly. "I caught Peeta staring at the Slytherin table on the very first night, his eyes were goggling out of his head."

They all look at him, incredulous, and he shrugs. "It's true," he admits with pride. "I was a goner from the first moment I saw her."

Katniss scoffs and he reaches over and tugs her braid. It still seems strange that he's allowed to do these things.

"It was at the train station," he explains after a moment, still looking at the way her silky hair slides between his fingers. "Her owl screeched loudly and my mum and I looked over right away. She had two braids instead of one and she must've hugged Prim about thirty times before boarding. And when she scowled at me during the Sorting, that was it for me."

Madge and Delly let out soft sighs of appreciate but Katniss squirms in her seat, visibly unsure of how to handle the information. When he wanders farther back in the stacks a few minutes later to find another book she follows him. He jumps when she taps him on the shoulder, amazed at how silently she always moves. Before he's even quite aware what's happening she is kissing him fiercely.

"I didn't notice you right away," she says after they separate. Her hands find his and clasp them tightly. "But when I did…" She shrugs. "I guess I was a goner too."

"You guess?" he teases, trying to hide the way everything inside of him just melted. She sees right through him though, as usual. When they return to the table she glares at their friends, daring them to say anything. They do anyway, long over being intimidated by Katniss Everdeen.

They make their way through the rest of the year; when he was younger he wouldn't have ever imagined that anything could be more difficult than getting Katniss to date him but now that he is older he knows that life doesn't pause. The NEWTs loom closer and closer; homework and complicated in-class assignments take up the bulk of their time, and when he's not preoccupied with those he still has his Head Boy duties and endless Quidditch practices (which end up paying off, since they win the House Cup for the first time since his first year). At least half of the seventh years end up crying at some point in May, and on the night before the first NEWT examination Delly vomits up for hours.

Peeta scrapes through them, though; not even the administrator, a cold woman named Alma Coin who makes his blood run icy with nerves, can falter his confidence. After a brutal week of testing, it is suddenly over. No more tests, no more studying. Most of the Professors give up attempting to hold class and Peeta takes full advantage of the freedom, spending the last days roaming the castle with Katniss. He even lets her take him to the Forbidden Forest; he is dreadfully loud though and they don't make it far past the threshold.

And then, after seven magnificent years, it is over. The castle is no longer his home. As the rest of the school climbs into the carriages to take them back to the station the seventh years stand by the Great Lake in their formal robes, listening as Headmaster Plutarch spouts words of slightly clichéd wisdom. The faculty stands behind him, smiling proudly; Professor Trinket even cries. Peeta doesn't remember who he first sat in the boat with, crossing the lake under a starry sky seven years ago, but today he sits with Katniss, their hands tightly grasped. With a flick of his wand Plutarch sets them moving steadily to the other shore.

As the castle fades into the distance, disappearing around a gentle curve, it is almost hard to believe it wasn't all a wonderful dream. Katniss squeezes his hand again, anchoring him to the moment. Real.

"Where do we go from here?" she asks. Her smile is genuine, her gray eyes alight with affection. She hasn't said she loves him yet, but he already knows.

"I don't know," he says cheerfully.

He is not afraid.

. . .

. . .

This is the most heavily researched of any of my stories, and it's probably the hardest I've ever worked on one specific piece so I would love you hear what you thought. As always, feel free to come find me on tumblr: swishywillow.