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Once upon a time, there was a boy. Some say this boy was the most beautiful in all the land. He had hair in golden waves and eyes that sparkled like topaz. Alas, the odds were not in his favor when he was born the third son of the King and Queen. The first son would be the heir to the throne and the second his advisor; but what of the third? Little did he know, he was to be a mere pawn in the game of power between warring kingdoms. His mother, the Queen, devised a plan to offer him in marriage to the powerful Kingdom of the North, who had only a single daughter.

 

As time went on, she was delighted to find the people were entranced by his beauty, and hoped this would be a strong asset to the Kingdom of the East, Panem.

 

For this reason, the Queen ordered the boy be trained. He would be taught all the niceties for him to be pleasing, of which he seemed to have a natural inclination. As he began to mature, he was told he would need to be pleasing to his Queen. The closer he came to reaching manhood, he began to understand what this would mean. They had been just words for many years, and so he thought his instruction would continue in this manner. He was wrong. His new Governor arrived to take over his education as a future monarch. Coriolanus Snow.

 

Governor Snow started his instruction with words. Private lessons instead of allowing the servants to attend to them. Leering looks. An eerie presence. He unsettled the boy. He was always on his best behavior in Snow’s presence. The King and Queen were pleased with the boy’s progress.

 

Then, terrible war broke out in the West with the Kingdom of the Capitol.

 

Word was received that the boy’s father and brothers had been killed. The Queen was advised to go to the front. To protect the only living heir to the throne, she took the boy and his Governor to their hidden Country Cottage deep in the forest.

 

She was killed. The Kingdom of Panem won along with their allies to the North, but at a great cost. The only living monarch, Queen Paylor, set into motion changes in government that would alter New Panem for the better.

 

No one knew the boy was still alive. Left with Governor Snow. Forgotten.

 

Life at the Cottage started out much the same as it had back at the Castle. Then, lessons with Snow started to change. He advised him on more and more topics. Topics he never thought he would have to learn. Topics that made his mouth fill with bile. If he didn’t have a lesson, the boy avoided Snow at all costs, but it was much more difficult in the cramped spaces of the Cottage. Snow could always find him.

 

At night, the nightmares came. A face that resembled Snow, but didn't. Sinister. Frightening. Searing itself into the back of his eyelids. Following him from the darkness into daylight. He began seeing shadows where there were none. He dreamed of long, thick, talon-like fingernails. Yellow and dirty. Pockmarked cheeks. Liver spots on forearms. Fluffy white hair, combed straight back. Buttons straining over a large rigid belly. Icy, cold eyes. Grey-blue. Soulless. The touch of death. A grip like stone. “That was what Snow looked like, real or not real?” the boy would play a game with himself. Minutes. Hours. Days. Hidden. Closets. Not Real? Real.

 

He started playing the game more and more. The few servants that worked in the cottage began to disappear. “Real or not real, I spoke with the kitchen-maid Rue, only she was a teacup?” He saw the warm brown of her skin in the tea he was drinking. Cinna, in charge of his wardrobe, a humble spinning wheel in a crowded storage room filled with luxurious fabrics. The deep chocolate wood with the slim golden needle. Spinning. Spinning. Endlessly spinning.

 

Finally, everything changed.

 

Snow decided to add a new lesson, although his body hadn’t recovered from the last one.

 

Real.

 

For the first time, he refused.

 

Snow snarled, snapping his teeth, transforming into the demon fae of the boy’s nightmares before his eyes.

 

Real or not real?

 

The Demon Snow answered for him, malice glittering in his icy, soulless eyes.

 

Real.

 

Demon Snow reached out his talon-like fingers toward the boy as he backed toward the fireplace. The boy mustered his courage, and finally asked the question that had been burning his tongue since the lessons started.

 

“Why?” he whispered.

 

The Demon Snow told the boy of his parents’ plan for him. Using him to gain an alliance. His only worth as a human existed in his beauty. Without his handsome looks, he was nothing. The boy’s punishment for his refusal was to take his worth from him.

 

Icy needles. Ripping flesh. Stretching. Slicing. Blinding agony. Cold. So cold.

 

Snow transformed the boy into a fearsome beast.

 

Then Snow waved his arm, causing a beautiful rose bush to spring forth in the middle of the garden.

 

Being a fae, and loving a well-played game, Snow told him he could escape his fate. The curse would end in one of three ways. First, he could live quietly in the Cottage until his twenty-first birthday, when he would die. Second, he could cut down the bush to end his life early.

 

“The third and final way for you to break the curse,” Snow said mockingly, “is to fall in love, and have them fall in love with you in return. Although once you see yourself, I don’t think you will be considering that an option.”

 

The roses were all white as snow, as a constant reminder of the boy’s death sentence looming ahead. When the roses began to wilt, and the bush began to die, the boy would know his time was growing short.

 

Snow then turned to leave, as his work here was done. He assured the boy of two things: the boy was not his first student, nor would he be his last. Snow gave the boy a wicked grin.

 

While Snow was speaking, the boy became more and more enraged. At the final mention of looking for more students, he lost his temper. Grabbing the nearest object, an iron poker, he stabbed wildly in rage. Mid-cackle, the demon Snow froze. His body crumbled to ash, falling to the ground like snowflakes. The boy, now a beast, stood dumbfounded.

 

“What have I done?” he thought. “He has turned me into a beast and now a murderer!” He crumpled to the cold stone floor and wept.

 

There he lived for many years, gazing out the window at the magical rose bush. Waiting, waiting, waiting…

 

For who could ever learn to love a beast?

____________________________________________________________________________

 

“Lycanthropy,” Peeta mumbles as he stares out the window. This seems to jolt Haymitch out of his stupor.

 

“Say what now?” Haymitch asks with a slight clunk as he moves.

 

“Lycanthropy,” Peeta repeats, this time more clearly. He glances over his shoulder, but he can’t make out Haymitch’s expression from his place at the window.

 

Haymitch clears his throat, causing a slight gurgling sound. “And what, pray tell, possessed you to look up that word for your vocabulary lesson today?”

 

Peeta sighs, not wanting to explain his morbid fascination with the “situation.” He hesitates; nothing his mind is conjuring quite seems to fit with his visceral need to find an explanation. A way out. Make sense of it all. “I must need Haymitch’s vocabulary lessons more than I thought,” he thinks grimly. He remains silent, until Haymitch loses patience.

 

“Well?” he says.

 

Peeta clenches his jaw and closes his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he focuses on a point in the garden. The very representation of all he hates. “I thought maybe I might find some answers, that’s why.” He feels his anger rising with his pain, simmering just beneath the surface these days. It boils and churns inside, warring for control, demanding escape.

 

Haymitch barks out an acerbic laugh, which only stokes the flames of Peeta’s anger. “Found anything about people changing into decanters yet?”

 

At this, Peeta deflates. His anger leaching out like a poisoned mist. Of course he isn’t the only one who is angry. He isn’t the only one cursed. At least he can move about normally. Can eat and drink and sleep. He can at least have some semblance of his former life. Haymitch? The other servants that have been his companions these ten years? They were cursed for trying to help him. They became objects. They are frozen in prisons much worse than his own.

 

Snow really had his fun with Haymitch, turning him into a liquor decanter. Perpetually full of his favorite substance, never able to taste it.

 

“I’m sorry, Haymitch. I just thought… I don’t know what I thought. I just wanted --”

 

“You just wanted to know the unknowable. I get it,” Haymitch finishes. With another clunk, Haymitch turns toward the window, his eyes hardening as he stares at the cursed rose bush. “We still have time.”

 

After giving Haymitch an apologetic glance, Peeta resumes his study of the ever-present reminder of his doom. “Time for what exactly?”

 

“We’ll see. Just stay alive until then,” Haymitch answers.

 

Peeta turns to go, deciding now would be an ideal time for tea with Rue after this strenuous conversation, but Haymitch’s startled gasp stops him. Peeta’s ears perk at the sound, his heart racing immediately. Peeta rushes back to the window to see what has crossed into his line of sight.

 

Just outside the garden gate, there are two cloaked figures, one in black, one in a deep crimson. Peeta crouches by the window so he can’t be seen, watching and waiting. He digs his sharp nails into the sill, with his nose pressed against the window. People, he thinks, though their faces are obscured, who look like they are arguing. The one in red seems to be waving their arms around and pointing to his sign on the gate about respecting the roses . The other seems to be pleading. The one in red seems to nod their head in resignation. Peeta’s heart speeds up, his blood pulsing in his ears, wondering what they are going to do next. He turns an ear towards Haymitch, who seems to be rattling. He moves slightly to get a better look past the fogged glass from his heated breath.

 

They approach the rose bush. Peeta’s stomach lurches.

 

He leaps to his feet when he sees the one in black pull out a knife.

 

Sprinting for the door, he is in a full panic. He hears Haymitch’s voice behind him, but cannot make out the words. He has only one purpose. Stop the one in black from using the knife.

 

A delicate pair of hands lowers the black hood, revealing two blonde braids on a young woman.

 

As Peeta slams through the side door, the figure in red’s head snaps up.

 

Oblivious, the blonde lifts the knife and begins to slice into the stem of one of the roses.

 

Peeta roars in blinding pain as the knife saws into the inky black stem of the rose.

 

His pain gets the blonde’s attention before she completely severs the bloom.

 

He pushes through a final few wobbly steps on the cobbled stones, then collapses.

 

Blood gushes from his thigh, the wound to the bone. Everything tilts as the blonde woman runs toward him. Peeta is frightened of the growls and howling he hears in the distance. The figure in red wrestles, trying to hold the blonde girl back. When her hood falls, all goes quiet. Olive skin, long raven hair, grey eyes like molten silver. Hot like fire, warmth and something else he can’t describe, all emphasized by the scarlet red flames of her cloak. Peeta is stunned by her beauty.

 

He is brought back to himself by a sharp stab of pain in his leg, followed by a wave of nausea. He retches on the ground beside him as his body starts to grow numb and weak. The blonde finally reaches him, tears streaming down her face. She is blubbering apologies, he thinks, and yelling to the woman in red. Peeta catches a few words between the two in his pain-induced haze.

 

“Please, Katniss, I am begging you! I did this. Let me fix it!” the blonde says.

 

The woman in red nods, then runs out the gate. Peeta isn’t sure if she will return. Maybe he will die right here. It will be for the best, he would rather die sooner than later. It won’t be much longer anyway.

 

“I don’t understand,” the blonde says.

 

“What?” Peeta asks weakly.

 

“What do you mean you won’t live much longer?” she asks. “Katniss will come back. She is my sister. She would never leave me.”

 

Was he speaking those thoughts out loud? Then he sees her. Katniss , such a beautiful name, coming back with a bag. His vision starts to fade. He thinks he hears the blonde mention “blood loss” right before everything goes black.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Peeta is warm and comfortable, floating on a cloud of dandelion fluff. He basks in the sun as it warms his face, when he feels pressure on his leg. He opens his eyes to find he isn’t on a cloud, but in a field of dandelions, and the seeds are floating on the breeze around him. He squints into the bright sunlight and sits up, startled to see not only his human legs, but the source of pressure on one of them. The woman, Katniss, is asleep with her head on his lap. She is smiling. He is abruptly awoken when the pressure of her head on his leg turns into a sharp pain.

 

Peeta awakes with a start. He tries to sit abruptly, regretting the decision when he feels a wave of nausea and black spots take over his vision. The woman in red— what was her name? Katniss , helps him lay back again.

 

“Don’t do that. You lost a lot of blood out there,” she says.

 

He rubs at his throat, feeling parched. “Any chance I could get a drink of water?”

 

Katniss flushes, looking uncomfortable. She nods and gets up to fill a glass from the pitcher in his washroom. Handing it to him, she asks, “Who are you?”

 

Peeta tries to get his bearings. The fireplace has a roaring blaze in his bedroom, and he is on his bed. How did they know where to take him? Did they meet some of the other “people” living here? Can they be trusted? He begins to panic as looks her over. “My name is -- Beast.”

 

Katniss wrinkles her nose. “Beast? That’s your name?”

 

Peeta stares at her icily. “Yes. Is your name Katniss? That’s highly unusual. Maybe you should choose another?”

 

Katniss clamps her jaw closed and nods. She replies mechanically, “Pleased to meet you, Beast. You have a beautiful home.” She then tilts her head, considering him. “How did you know my name?”

 

The woman in black enters the room without knocking, interrupting their uncomfortable conversation. She rushes to Peeta’s side, talking so quickly he can barely keep up.

 

“I am so terribly sorry! We brought you in, and everyone has been so kind! They told us where to bring you, I hope you don’t mind? I need to check your wound and change the dressing. Can I ask you a few questions about how you are feeling?” she finishes.

 

Katniss says, “Beast, this is Primrose, my sister and an amazing healer. Primrose, this is Beast.” Peeta sees Katniss smile warmly at her sister with her introduction, and her smile is radiant like the sun in his dream.

 

“Introductions, of course! How rude of me, with everything-- I just, I forgot the most basic formalities. Forgive me?” Primrose rushes.

 

Peeta nods, still not sure what to make of these sisters.  

 

Primrose turns to Katniss, letting her know she will be inspecting the wound, and Katniss stands and asks to be excused. Primrose waves her off. She rushes out, and Peeta catches her glancing back at him just before closing the door.

 

Peeta, after so many years of quiet, is having trouble keeping up. He hasn’t had a new acquaintance in years, and the confusion must show on his face.

 

Primrose begins to speak, more slowly now that Katniss is gone. “You can call me Prim, by the way. I think only Katniss still calls me Primrose.”

 

Peeta furrows his brow. “Is she not going to help you?”

 

Prim laughs. “She helps me in other ways. She is a hunter, not a healer. She can’t stand the sight of blood, at least not people’s blood.”

 

Peeta lets his eyes flutter closed. His voice is small when he says, “I’m not human though.”

 

Prim’s hands still, and Peeta turns his head to look at her. Looking at her hands and the bandages, she resumes her work. “Beast, I don’t know what happened to you, but there have been... stories. Legends, if you will. I have seen things as a healer beyond the natural world. I learned from my grandmother, Mama Sae, to never just see things with your eyes. You must see things with all of your senses, feel them with your heart. You are as human as I am, even if we don’t look the same. If it helps, most of your leg’s bone and muscle structure looks just like a human’s. You just have a bit more-- hair.”

 

Peeta ponders this revelation while she finishes his exam. His thoughts take an abrupt turn back to the source of his injury.

 

“Prim, why were you cutting a rose?”

 

As soon as he finishes the question, she bursts into tears. Katniss comes rushing in so quickly, she must have been standing just outside the door listening. She gathers Prim into her arms and tucks her face into her chest. “What did he do to you?” she demands.

 

Peeta’s temper flares at the implication. “What did I do to her?”

 

Katniss gives him a scathing look. “I don’t know? You could have grabbed her, clawed her, anything!”

 

Prim stops crying and yells, “Please stop! Beast, I am sorry. I will answer your question about-- I promise. Katniss, he didn’t do anything except ask why I was picking a rose. I am fine. I have to face the consequences of my actions... I am an adult now. It’s okay— I’ll be okay. I just feel terrible about this, and I am so sorry.”

 

Peeta glares at Katniss, still angry about her accusations. She scowls back at him.

 

Prim continues, “I wanted a rose for my father’s grave. Everything in our Village is dirty and covered in coal dust. He loved pale flowers so much, white being his favorite. I thought a perfect white rose would be a nice tribute to him. We miss him… so much .” She sighs, looking at Katniss. “Katniss warned me not to pick one. She pointed out the sign and everything. I thought no one lived here, that the place was deserted. We didn’t even know there was a cottage in this part of the woods. There weren’t any footprints around, so I thought it wouldn’t hurt to take just one rose. I am so sorry. I should have known some magic must have been at work.” She looks down in shame.

 

Peeta sighs heavily, snuffling a bit. After her confession, he can’t find it in himself to be angry with her anymore. If she had meant him harm, she would have been able to kill him easily. She has been healing him, and he has yet to detect a lie. Her eyes. Her eyes are another reason. She has warm, trustworthy eyes. Like a summer sky. Like some of his favorite paintings.

 

Peeta rests on and off for the evening, feeling reasonably comfortable despite his condition. The fire is soothing, and the company dulls an ache he didn’t realize he had. He didn’t know how starved he was for a human touch until these women showed up, however uninvited.

 

Through the night, he gets progressively more feverish, and his wound throbs. His vision starts to blur, and even though he has been drinking all the herbal teas and water Prim orders him to take, he feels lightheaded. Just after midnight, he thinks he begins to dream.

 

Peeta is in a strange world, filled with a silver mist, the color of Katniss’ eyes.

 

It burns his body, from the inside out, leaving blisters in its wake.

 

He sees blurred shapes begin to form, then escape back into the void.

 

At times various scenes take place when the mist clears.

 

He begins playing “real or not real” once again.

 

An old woman examines him. Her eyes penetrate, they see him. He feels naked. Real or not real?

 

His leg is splinted by willow boughs, intricately woven together. Real or not real?

 

He finds himself in the meadow again, dandelions scattered among the other wildflowers. From his vantage point, he sees a stream in the distance and a copse of willow trees. Then he hears it. An angel singing. “I am dying. I must be dying,” he thinks. Real or not real?

 

Peeta wakes, groggy, his face turned toward an open window. The puffs of cool air feel refreshing on his face, ruffling his fur and stinging his eyes as he blinks. The window is dark, and he has no idea what time it is or how long he has been asleep. Hours? He tries to stretch his back a little, then decides he may have been out longer than just hours .

 

He turns his head slowly to the other side, wondering if he is alone. At the movement, he hears limping footsteps approach.

 

“Good to see your eyes again. You gave us quite a fright,” the old woman says. She places her hand on top of his head and strokes slightly. “My name is Sae, but the girls call me Mama Sae. Either name is fine with me. I’m their grandmother, don’t know if they told you,” she says smiling. “Have some water. You must be thirsty.”

 

Mama Sae, apparently much stronger than she appears, props him up with a couple pillows. Peeta takes small sips of water while trying to steal glances at her. He notices her eyes examining him and realizes that he hadn’t been dreaming. She was real. He wonders if he dreamed the rest? He sees the strange willow cast encasing his leg. Maybe all his dreams were real. Then who was the angel singing?

 

After she finishes her examination, Mama Sae asks, “May I sit?”

 

Peeta nods in acquiescence.

 

Mama Sae sits on the edge of the bed. “I guess you are wondering what happened?”

 

Peeta only manages a nod again, nervous about his time asleep.

 

“Well, your wound was of the magical sort, so it wasn’t so simple to heal, and my poor Little Duck couldn’t manage it herself,” she says.

 

At Peeta’s look of confusion, Mama Sae clarifies, “Ah, Prim will always be my Little Duck, though she is a young woman now. Katniss won’t admit it though,” she says with a wink.

 

Peeta chuckles at her revelations of their family dynamics, then feels a pang of sadness at his own lack of family and the lingering cloud of doom hanging over his head.

 

Mama Sae picks up on his abrupt change. “So much ill has befallen you. It will come to an end someday,” she says encouragingly.

 

Peeta manages a nod, but cannot speak. Her words ring true, but she cannot know he won’t outlive the curse. His time is so short. For him to fall in love with someone in such a short time, and finding someone to fall in love with him? The odds are not in his favor.

 

She continues, “Katniss had been keeping vigil by your side that night. You took a turn for the worse, so Little Duck came for me while Katniss stayed with you. When I saw you, I knew the curse. I have tended others like you. When I asked what happened, Little Duck told the whole story. She didn’t say anything on the trip here, so I knew something had to be wrong. She is usually such a talker!”

 

Peeta’s eyes are the size of saucers at this point. “Others?” Peeta rasps.

 

Mama Sae nods grimly. “Poor souls, afraid, exposed to the elements, and shunned by their villages. I treated any wounds I could from wild animal attacks, or any fights that broke out within the groups, but I haven’t seen any in awhile. I wondered what happened.”

 

Peeta swallows thickly, trying to absorb all of this new information.

 

“Once Prim mentioned the roses, I had to examine them. That was different than the others. I saw the one she had tried to cut for her father’s grave, and it was still-” she hesitates.

 

“Still what?” Peeta says hoarsely, unsure if he really wants to know the answer.

 

“Still bleeding,” she finishes.

 

Peeta sits stunned, waiting for further explanation. How could the roses bleed? Of course they were magical roses, and cutting them wounded him…

 

“It seems the roses are some sort of magical representation of you. Harming the roses harms you. I noticed one of the roses seems to be turning brown on the edges. I assume that is tied to the curse?” she asks. Peeta nods once. “Well, we will figure that out later. We took the willow branches to create a protective cage for your leg, as well as the damaged rose stem. We needed to heal the cut rose or else you would never get better. It seemed the rose was losing blood, so you were showing the signs, though the blood wasn’t leaving through your body.” Mama Sae finishes her explanation, and Peeta sits silently to try and work through all of the information.

 

The rose bush bleeds? There are others? A knock at the door interrupts Peeta’s train of thought. Mama Sae looks to him, and he answers, “Come in.”

 

Prim peeks her head around the door, then lets out a squeak of excitement. Katniss follows her, carrying Rue and Haymitch on a tray. Rue lets out a sigh of relief, while Haymitch merely grunts. Katniss scowls at Haymitch, which causes him to grunt again. Peeta wonders what might have happened between them while he was asleep.

 

Prim approaches his side, then flings herself at him, engulfing him in a hug. “I am so glad you are getting better! I was so worried!”

 

Peeta winces at her enthusiasm, then remembers how long it has been since anyone has given him this type of comfort. He has forgotten what a friendly hug felt like, if he ever knew in the first place. This thought brings tears to his eyes.

 

Rue starts, “Oh, Master --”

 

Peeta quickly shakes his head, and she stops. Katniss sees the exchange and puts Rue and Haymitch on the table next to Peeta’s bed. Once her sister draws back, Katniss takes Peeta’s paw. When she touches him, he feels his paw begin to warm, as if in the summer sun. The warmth travels from his paw throughout his body. He feels peaceful just from her touch. He doesn’t look away from her gaze, and can see her eyes widen in surprise. She must feel something as well. Does she feel the same, or is she feeling a different sensation?

 

Finally, Katniss speaks. “I am sorry for all of the trouble and pain we have caused you. I, too, am glad you are feeling better.” She glances back to Haymitch and Rue before continuing. “If there is anything I can do, please tell me. I may not be a healer, but I would like to help. My sister refuses to leave until you are well, and I will not leave my sister. Your household is well tended, so my help is not needed. I was told to ask you for any help you may require.”

 

When she finishes, Peeta notices a slight blush beneath her warm olive skin. He glances back toward Rue, who gives him a cheeky wink, and he understands. Haymitch must have given her a hard time so she would prefer his company to the household staff, and the rest of the servants must see how beautiful she is. Peeta sighs. “Thank you. Prim told me you are a Huntress?” At this, her eyes light up excitedly, and she nods once. “If you would like, you could provide for our meals. That would be most helpful. I am not up for the challenge at the moment, and my staff aren’t exactly built for hunting.” Peeta’s eyelashes flutter, and he ducks his head a bit, embarrassed at his attempt at joking and hoping she at least gives him a pitying laugh. To his delight, she snorts in the most unladylike manner, followed by a full-bodied laugh. Everyone else joins in, including Haymitch. Peeta feels a lightness he hasn’t felt in some time, maybe ever. In this room, if only for a moment, he feels like he is part of a real family.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

After the initial icy greetings, it seems Katniss has warmed up to him quite a bit. It seems when he is not fighting for his life, he is in a much better mood. He still doesn’t know how much to trust her, but he isn’t hostile. It just isn’t his nature. He doesn’t know what caused the change in Katniss, though he knows she has spent time with his companions at the Cottage.

 

Days pass, and Peeta slowly heals. Mama Sae was able to stay for a few days and instruct Prim on the magical elements of his care, but had to return to the Village to care for the many patients there. She would also be spreading word that Prim and Katniss were caring for a sick elderly client for the winter in a neighboring village, and would not return until springtime, therefore explaining their extended absence. Prim removes the strange willow cage from his leg, but the one around the rose stem remains. Peeta hasn’t brought himself to ask about it yet.

 

After the first week in bed, Prim orders Peeta to take small walks daily, strictly indoors to begin. Based on his progress, they could be lengthened over time. When she deems him ready, she orders him out of bed. He playfully salutes her when she calls out “Katniss!” and orders her sister to help him on these walks as well. When Katniss arrives, they look at each other in confusion, but both shrug as Katniss helps him off the bed and onto makeshift crutches. He is ready at the same time the next day, just as Katniss arrives, and they quickly develop a routine. It quickly becomes Peeta’s favorite part of the day.

 

This is how they end up in his favorite room, the library. It seems Katniss is also fond of books, but has never had access to such variety. Any money spent has always been for manuals and healers’ remedies, nothing for pleasure. She is ecstatic when Peeta tells her she may read anything she wishes.

 

After today’s walk, Peeta stares at the closed book in his lap. The overbearing gray clouds, frigid temperature, barren ground, and heavy silence have him in a melancholy mood.

 

Katniss clears her throat, and he catches her gaze fixed on him. “A penny for your thoughts?”

 

Her legs hang over the arm of one of the wingback chairs in the most undignified manner, and he sighs. He wants so badly to sketch her. She is lovely like this, relaxed, a bit mussed, and drowsy from the roaring fire. He hasn’t sketched in so long. He misses it. He misses everything, but doesn’t. He misses Rue’s human laugh, Darius’ teasing, and even his father’s kind eyes, though he can barely remember those. He doesn’t miss everything else that went with it. Snow. He shudders and refuses to think further. He wants to be human so badly. In the here and now. He barely remembers what it feels like. He begins to wonder why he ever existed in the first place. His eyes burn with tears, and Katniss rushes over.

 

She kneels before him and takes his paw gently, asking, “Beast, what is it? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

 

He takes a few steadying breaths before answering. “No, no. It’s not that. It is just, um, so many -- things. I don’t know where to begin. I don’t really know what you want to know.” He glances up at her through damp eyelashes, willing the tears to stop.

 

She looks at him through furrowed eyebrows. “Well… would it help if I told you what I already know?”

 

Peeta’s heart picks up, and he inhales sharply. What could she know about me? He gives her a wary look, but nods.

 

“At first, I admit, I didn’t know what to think. Everything was so confusing for me. I don’t have the same... experience... Prim has. I remember the stories, too. They scared me as a child. ‘Don’t go into the woods alone,’ and all that. Finding out it’s real? I was terrified.”

 

Peeta nods at this.

 

“We hurt you. We didn’t mean it, but we did. And Prim was determined to save you,” she whispers, her eyes glistening. “I wasn’t scared of you, though. I can’t go near those roses-- not that I want to. It is like they… repel me . It’s the strangest thing,” she says, tilting her head slightly.

 

She meets his eyes and holds his gaze when she speaks next, “Anyway, since being here, I’ve talked a little to the --   others . They only say the best things about you. They say you are kind, thoughtful, and humble. Never speak a cross word. Whatever happened, you didn’t deserve it.”

 

Peeta gasps at her intensity, his tears spilling over onto his face. He has longed to hear these words for so long, and he didn’t even realize what he needed. He tries to choke back a sob, but when she reaches for him, he finds he can’t hold back. She cradles him in her arms, the peaceful feeling engulfing him once again while he releases his pain, sobs wracking his body.

 

He can’t help but feel hope springing to life in her arms. She reminds him of the good in the world, when he has only known darkness for so long. This light of hope came literally ripping into his life, and he is determined to find out if this is the happiness he has missed for so long. The way she holds him, unafraid and with such tenderness, he thinks maybe, just maybe, the curse could be broken after all.

 

Perhaps someone could learn to love a beast?

____________________________________________________________________________

 

On the first walk outside, Peeta clings to Katniss’ arm.  With the icy steps and snow-covered ground, the trip to the barn and back seems insurmountable.  Peeta is anxious to see those who live out there, to see how they are faring. In all the years since the curse, he has never gone so long without visiting them.

 

He is greeted by the sight of Darius, the leather horse whip. He hangs on a hook next to the door, guarding his companions from distant howls in the night. Red and light brown stripes, with long red strips of leather hanging where his mouth would be, like a gruesome shredded tongue. Peeta shudders at the thought of why Snow would choose this particular item for him.

 

Katniss startles suddenly at the sound of a hiss. Turning toward her, he sees Buttercup giving her a grouchy stare.

 

“I see you’ve met Buttercup,” Peeta teases. “Sorry, he can be grumpier than Haymitch.”

 

Katniss straightens, raising her chin. “Well, it is nice to meet you too, Buttercup.”

 

Peeta laughs at her introduction. “Don’t expect him to introduce himself though. He’s just a cat.”

 

Katniss’ eyes widen slightly. “Oh!”

 

After a glance at Katniss, Peeta takes that as his cue to introduce her to his other companions in the barn. He clears his throat, “Katniss, I want you to meet some special people. Next to the door is Darius, next to the stall is Delly, and over here is Seeder.” He gestures to Darius, a yellow feed sack, and a scythe, allowing them to respond in their own way. Katniss smiles and nods in greeting. Peeta begins asking after them as she begins to wander. They assure him they have been fine and any excessive worrying has been for naught. They are glad to hear he is healing well. Delly has a cheeky remark about how he must have an “amazing caregiver,” which prompts him to quickly glance at Katniss to assure him she doesn’t hear. Peeta doesn’t disagree.

 

With promises to visit again the next day, Katniss and Peeta head back to the house. She has been unusually quiet, which has him a bit concerned. “Is everything alright?”

 

The question seems to startle her, but she recovers quickly. “Oh, um, yes, actually.” They walk a few more minutes before she starts again. “Um, I had a question for you. If you don’t mind?”

 

“Anything. What is it?”

 

“Well-- I saw a bow and quiver in the barn… and, I was wondering, if, um, well--” she hesitates, then huffs in frustration. “I was wondering if you used it, you know, before?” she finishes.

 

“Oh,” he says, “I had a few lessons years ago, before, but--” He can’t finish. He can’t tell her he had a few lessons before Snow, without explaining the rest. So he leaves his thought unfinished.

 

She doesn’t press for more, but continues, “That is how I hunt. With a bow, that is.” She says it almost shyly.

 

In the abruptness of their meeting, it is no wonder he didn’t notice her weapon. He was concentrating on the knife in her sister’s hand. He smiles at the image of her, astride her horse, silent and proficient. Providing sustenance for everyone with her talent. “You are exceptional. The meat you provide is amazing, and I am not the only one who thinks so.”

 

Her eyes widen a little at his statement, and she shakes her head. “I am not exceptional, but--” she takes a deep breath, “but my father was. He was the best.” Her voice becomes rough with emotion.

 

She won’t take an outright compliment, so he will have to humor her a little. “Well, then-” he says in an authoritative, almost haughty voice. Her eyes snap up to look at his, since he never uses this tone. He can see her trying to hold back her smile as he tries not to laugh. “You are perfectly adequate as a Huntress.” She raises her eyebrows at his assessment. He clears his throat and continues, “I would put the emphasis on perfect, though you would put it on adequate. I believe that is an acceptable compromise?”

 

Her eyes soften, and she gives him a genuine smile. “I’ll allow it,” she says.

 

Before they know it, the back door of the Cottage almost materializes in front of them. He wants to spend more time with her, so he quickly thinks of a reason.  “Would you join me in the library?”

 

“Well, let me check with the kitchen first? See if they have adequate stock?” she says with a smirk.

 

“Fair enough. If you, um, want to join me, that is where I am headed,” Peeta says.

 

As he makes his way to the library, he considers asking her about her father. She mentioned him, but he has avoided conversation about family so he doesn’t have to discuss his past and his identity. How many Kings were there of this region, and how many Princes? He decides he won’t tell her his identity, but maybe he can tell her a little about himself and keep it vague. He doesn’t want to be alone anymore, even if his time is short. If the curse could be broken, he doesn’t want it to be for any reason except for him as he is, however impossible. He doubts true love could flourish between a Huntress and a Beast under any circumstances, even if that Beast is a Prince. He sighs in defeat as he opens the door.

 

As he walks by Katniss’ usual chair, he glances at the book she is currently reading. The Science of Fairy Tales: An Enquiry into Fairy Mythology . Peeta’s blood runs cold. Why was she reading this? What did she know? He cursed himself for not being strong enough to look up information on fairies. He had never felt ready to face it head on. It seems he has as good a reason as any now. Taking the book to his chair, he and opens to her bookmarked page. He can’t seem to find a good place to start, so he turns back to the beginning of the chapter and swallows thickly when he sees the title “Changelings.” Maybe this won’t be so bad, he thinks. He begins to read, and the information seems benign enough at first. Women making small mistakes, allowing the fairy to steal their children. The parents knowing something is wrong and not giving up until the child is rightfully returned.

 

“...the children to whom the character of changelings was ascribed were invariably deformed or diseased...”

 

His heart sinks at this. Of course. She is trying to figure out what he is. She thinks he is deformed, diseased, unnatural. The pain in his heart is acute. Just as the hope began to bloom, it wilts even faster. The tiny flower scorches in a desert, never really having a chance. The light that had appeared in his life is eclipsed by darkness and all that lurks within it. He forces himself to continue reading, perhaps to distract from the ache in his chest.

 

“Fire, however, was not the only element efficacious for turning to flight these troublesome aliens.”

 

The mention of fire was surprising. He associated cold with Snow, so it made sense fire would be his antithesis. Katniss had mentioned how the roses repelled her. Did she embody fire? He had to stop thinking about the roses, especially after the deformity part. It was bringing back too many memories...

 

“...the requirement that iron, and only iron, was to be used...”

 

Iron. The poker. That is why Snow died. How he won. His heart races at the thought, and he begins to pant. The room swirls and darkens around him, until he was there, standing in the cold hearth. Alone. Shivering. Shredded flesh that looked intact. Dread. Other helpless children. The surge of rage. He must protect them. He looked into the glacial blue with swirls of black and white mist. The fanged mouth with blackened gums. Backing away. Hand-- now a paw-- bumping the poker. Grabbing it and swinging wildly. Pain everywhere. Stabbing, hitting the mark. The ashes fell. Trying not to breathe. Suffocating on the filth. Lying down. Exhaustion. Sobbing. Hours upon hours of crying. Maybe days. Then, singing? No, that wasn’t right. An angel singing definitely didn’t happen, ever. He is howling, he realizes, in a low mournful wail. He whimpers and pants. He tries to calm himself and listens to the singing. It is just… there. He needs to calm down, so he can hear it. His breaths begin to steady, and he curls his paw reflexively. He feels something soft under him, so he squints a little, trying to focus on his surroundings. When did he end up on the floor? The voice becomes clearer as the icy hearthstone fades away.

 

He feels the soft rug under his paw, and he tugs at it a little with his claws, trying to hold onto something. The sound of the singing is relaxing him, and he feels tender strokes on his head, threading through his fur. When he opens his eyes fully, blinking away some of the burning sensation from such an intense episode, he is finally able to watch Katniss. When she sees him awake, she stops singing.

 

“Please, don’t stop!” he begs.

 

She must see his desperation, because she continues without comment.

 

“So I pondered my heart

And I roamed the world free

To the east with the lark

To the west with the sea

And I searched all the earth

And I scanned all the skies

But I found it at last, in my own true love’s eye”

 

On the last line her face colors with a pretty blush-- from his intense stare, or from the attention while singing, he doesn’t know. All he knows is he is a goner.

 

“Beast?” Katniss’ speaking snaps him out of his trance.

 

“Yes?” Peeta says, his breath still short from the episode and possibly from hearing the most beautiful sound in the world.

 

“Are you alright?”

 

“I-” Peeta starts, but holds back, seeing the frown on her face. He begins flexing his paws, a nervous habit he developed after the change. He realizes he must have sat up while she was singing, and is leaning closer to her than he ever dared.

 

She reaches a hand up and cards it through the fur on the side of his face and neck, causing him to shudder all the way down his spine. Having her near helps him, her touch even more. He never thought about how it would feel to have someone touch him, after. Once he was changed, he didn’t think anyone would want to come close enough. Katniss has defied all his previous assumptions. Now, after so long, he knows her touch heals him, body and soul. If he only gets that for a little while, so be it.

 

Looking in her eyes, he realizes what she has seen. Where he was and what was happening. She knows at least part of what happened. He retreated into an animal form, howling like he was. She didn’t shy away. She comforted him. He decides he wants her to know. He wants someone to know him before he dies. He doesn’t want to die while the rest of his companions turn inanimate, their memories gone forever. Someone has to know what happened here. What happened to him. He still won’t tell her all of it, not yet, but at least about that night. When everything changed.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

After his episode, a newfound closeness is forged. Peeta was amazed at how well she reacted; she didn’t flinch, but took his head in her lap and stroked his fur. She soothed him, not with empty platitudes like “I’m sorry,” but instead reminded him none of what happened to him was his fault.

 

Winter crept closer and closer to spring, Peeta’s leg healing better than any of them expected. He quite liked having the ladies around, especially Katniss. Not just because he was in love with her. She was a supportive presence in his library, fascinating to watch as she hunted, and kept Haymitch a bit more humble. Prim kept everyone in good spirits and distracted from the browning edges of the cursed rose bush in the garden. The winter had flown by like none had before.

 

Late in March, a heavy snow falls on the Cottage. Prim is all excitement, wanting to collect snow for a special treat. She begs Peeta to have a formal dinner with everyone in attendance before they have to leave when the weather clears.

 

“Please, Beast?” Prim asks. “It will make everyone so happy! They seem to be so sad lately, and I think a nice dinner party would be just the thing to cheer them up. What do you think?”

 

“I think it would be lovely,” Rue chimes in.

 

He looks to Katniss for help, but she just smirks. “Don’t look to me. I can never tell her no.”

 

“I believe that is a yes, then,” Peeta answers.

 

Prim squeals with joy, quite like a child and not the young healer she is, and immediately runs off carrying Rue. Katniss just chuckles and shakes her head. He shrugs his shoulders. “I couldn’t help it. She gave me the look.”

 

Katniss laughs. “Would you like to go for a walk? The woods look beautiful right now.”

 

“Absolutely,” he says.

 

Peeta can feel the warmth of spring in the air despite the thick layer of snow covering everything. Since the ground has started to thaw, the snow forms a layer of ice at its base, allowing it to stick to even the smallest branches. The snow is thick and wet, its heaviness giving a sense of peace. Katniss was right. The woods are beautiful, though the word doesn’t seem to do it justice. Otherworldly? No, still not enough. He reflects on his vocabulary lessons with Haymitch and how much has changed in the past few months. How the words have become so much lighter, more positive. Then he sees the reason come trudging through the trees, her crimson toboggan a beacon among the blinding white. Even lifting each foot high in the air to get to him without snowshoes, she is graceful. She looks excited and holds something in her mittened hands.

 

“Look! I saw a patch of earth and found this,” Katniss says.

 

She opens her hands and holds a single dandelion, golden in the sunlight shining from the sky and reflecting off the surface of the snow. If the singing hadn’t done it, then this moment would have-- Katniss standing before him, crowned in fire, holding out a simple dandelion, her face alight with joy. With the flecks of snow glinting in the slight breeze surrounding them, this is the moment he knows. He knows whatever his future holds, he will die happy for having lived it.

 

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

 

Katniss nods, as if understanding. He knows she doesn’t, not really. He will take her nod for acceptance though. She points to the leaf. “This is my favorite color. The yellow, that’s my second favorite.”

 

“Why?” he asks. He will do anything to keep that look of elation on her face.

 

She takes his arm, and they begin to trudge through the snow. “The green is the first color of spring. You see it everywhere in the forest. And the yellow… well, when my father died, his grave was just the bare dirt at first. Then I went to visit him one day in the spring, and it was covered in dandelions. It was so beautiful. I remember him teaching me about the passing of life and how we always live on in one form or another, and I couldn’t help but see him in the dandelions from that day. It gave me hope.” Her face grows dark, and she looks at her feet.

 

“That day, when you were hurt-,” she takes a breath and looks up at him, “there were dandelions gone to seed everywhere. I noticed because it made the forest feel like magic. Then, inside the fence, there were none. It didn’t look like anyone lived in the Cottage, but there weren’t any dandelions. The roses were too perfect. Nothing felt right. I am sorry I didn’t stop her -”

 

“No, stop apologizing for something that you couldn’t know. Even I didn’t know what would happen, only that something bad would happen,” Peeta admits.

 

Katniss sighs. “I just... Primrose doesn’t understand. Well, she understands a lot, especially about healing,” she says at his look of confusion. But she continues, “She has a grander view of the world. She didn’t know my father as I did. She thinks his favorite flowers are pale flowers because of our names, for instance. That is why she tried to take the white rose.” Peeta furrows his brow. “Have you ever seen a Katniss flower?” she asks.

 

He shakes his head, unwilling to admit how his hunting has been restricted to the immediate area, and how little he has ventured out into the forest.

 

“It is a white arrow-shaped flower. My mother is Lily, and my father used to bring her white blooms whenever he found them. Primrose is named for the pale pink flower, and my father planted a hedge of them next to the house. The truth is, my mother’s favorite flowers are white,” she says with distaste. Peeta eyes her curiously, but doesn’t question her.

 

“My father, on the other hand, loved useful flowers. He liked Katniss flowers because the roots were also edible.” She gives him a half smile. “His favorite was dandelions though. The whole plant is edible, they have medicinal properties, and they are beautiful. I also love that they would be the first green of spring. The first color after long gray days.” As she finishes, she tilts her face to the warmth of the sun.

 

Peeta is confused. “Why didn’t you tell her? That he didn’t like the white flowers? This could have been avoided…” he trails off and thinks of the consequences. If Prim hadn’t tried to take the rose-- hadn’t saved him-- if Katniss hadn’t stayed with him… his train of thought is cut off by her reply.

 

“I never knew she didn’t know, or that it was important. Life-changing, even.” She blushes and drops her gaze and continues. “Besides, now that he is gone, why make her question her memories of him?”

 

Peeta nods in concession, realizing they have reached the garden.

 

“Oh! What’s this?” she asks. She bends down and digs at something in the snow. She is blocking his view, so he waits patiently. He glances at the setting sun, before receiving a face full of snow.

 

“What!” he sputters, pawing at his face to clear his sight. Katniss is bent over laughing.

 

“Sorry!” she says, as she continues laughing at his snorts and sneezes to get the snow out of his muzzle.

 

“Don’t look very sorry,” he mutters, getting down on all fours.

 

Katniss’ eyes widen in surprise. She coughs as she tries to explain, “I just wanted to lighten the mood. We were talking about sad things, and - OOF!” She flies backward as a giant snowball hits her in the chest. Peeta snorts and rolls in the snow in laughter at the scowl on her face.

 

When she stands, he sees her challenging stance. “So be it. I challenge you to a duel. Weapon is snowballs. Duel is lost when the opponent cannot stand up five seconds after being knocked down,” she says in an official voice.

 

“Is there a witness?”

 

“Do we need one? Will you cheat?” she asks cheekily.

 

“No, of course not,” he says.

 

“Then, no. Let’s begin!” she cries, hurling a snowball hidden from behind her back.

 

“That’s cheating!” Peeta yells from behind a tree.

 

“No, called prepared!” she yells back. “You were too busy daydreaming while I was strategizing!”

 

Peeta growls playfully at her and dashes toward a hedge. Katniss barely misses him.

 

“Ha!” he yells breathlessly. “Better work on your aim!”

 

She calls back, “You said I was perfect. I said I was adequate, if I remember correctly.” When she finishes speaking, she is much closer than when she started. Too close. He peeks around the hedge when a huge snowball falls directly on top of his head. He sits there, mound of snow on his head, his eyes closed, and begins to laugh. Then he gets on all fours and gives a vigorous wet dog shake, causing Katniss to squeal.

 

“I almost started counting you know!” she says as she backs slowly away from the hedge.

 

Peeta begins to prowl his way around toward her. “Beast, what are you doing?”

 

Peeta doesn’t answer, just continues to stalk her.

 

“Beast, it looks like you are cheating. I don’t see a snowball…” she says, worry creeping into her voice.

 

When Peeta gets close enough, he pounces, knocking her to the ground in a fluffy snowdrift. He grabs a paw full of snow and smashes it into her ear.

 

“Stop, stop! You win! You win!” she laughs.

 

He is panting, and very close to her face. He realizes the position they are in and freezes. His elbows are on the ground, paws on her shoulders. The rest of his body is laying on her. She doesn’t seem bothered. She is still smiling. Her hand comes up to his cheek in a gentle caress of his fur, causing his whole body to shudder violently. He wonders if she feels it.

 

“Ahem.” At the sound of a throat clearing, he clambers off of her, embarrassed. She is blushing as well, looking for the source of the sound.

 

“Primrose, I didn’t see you there!” Katniss says, her voice shaking. Prim is leaning against the door to the house, smirking.

 

“Well, if the children are done playing, Cinna and Portia requested a fitting for our formal attire. I was promised a fancy dinner and dancing, and we have nothing to wear. The adult of the house just finished. I was sent to round you up,” Prim says.

 

Katniss scrunches her face in confusion. “Primrose, did you say dancing?”

 

“I did!” Prim turns to go back into the house, calling over her shoulder, “I told Haymitch you requested first dance!”

 

Katniss groans. “Primrose!” She turns to Peeta and mutters conspiratorially, “At least he doesn’t have any toes I can step on!”

 

Prim turns and gives her a mock glare. “I heard that! You will behave yourself, and have an exquisite time! And you-” She turns to Peeta. “Glad to see your leg is all better!” At this, she flounces off toward the kitchens.

___________________________________________________________________________

 

Peeta huffs in annoyance, while Cinna chuckles.

 

“Master, you have grown. And it has been so long since my team and I have made anything pretty, it is wonderful that you are allowing this,” Cinna says. At this, Portia, the measure, pauses and gives a warm smile. The others continue in their work on a gown the color of a summer sky, matching Prim’s eyes, chattering in glee.

 

Peeta sighs. “Have I grown?”

 

Cinna chuckles. “Since the last time I made you formal attire? Most definitely.” He pauses. “Enough small talk. Are you going to tell her?”

 

“I don’t know what you mean,” he replies, feigning innocence.

 

Cinna continues, unfazed. “She is beautiful, you know. That dress will match her eyes perfectly.”

 

Peeta’s eyes bulge. “Prim? No. I mean, she is beautiful, and kind, but nothing like Katniss. I mean, I’ve never- It’s not like that. Katniss is-” he sputters. Then he stops and realizes Cinna has played him. He deflates and answers, “Fine. You win. Do you think I should?”

 

“I do.” Cinna says. “I have bet on her from the very beginning. I have a good feeling about her. She is worth any risk you feel is holding you back.”

 

“Look at me, Cinna. She is perfect. Why would she want me?”

 

“Not everyone is concerned with appearances. Some consider the inner workings more important. Just think. Would you love her if she were still as beautiful, but cruel?” Cinna muses.

 

“No, I suppose not,” Peeta concedes.

 

“If she was transformed to look differently, would you still love her?”

 

Peeta thinks about this. The immediate answer that springs to mind is “Yes,” but this goes against everything he once understood. When he thought about himself, his answer didn’t change, but he didn’t know if others would do the same. “I would.”

 

“Well, think about giving her a chance,” Cinna says. “While we are on the subject, I wonder, what do you think is her most striking feature?”

 

Peeta thinks for a moment. “The first thing I noticed about her was that crimson cloak. I noticed her warmth. Her eyes, like molten silver. She is like fire. When she touches me, I feel at peace, like I am in a sunlit meadow,” he hums at the feeling that overcomes him.

 

“I have the perfect gown in mind,” Cinna says.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Peeta can’t stop pacing. Finally, Haymitch tells him, on no uncertain terms, that he looks “attractive enough,” kicks him out of his room, and they both make their way down to dinner.

 

The dining room takes Peeta’s breath away. Every surface reflects the candlelight, and the dishes are polished and clean, each setting perfect. He wonders if the rest of them want him to tell Katniss how he feels just as much as Cinna. He suddenly gets an idea. “I’ll be right back!”

 

He hurries out the door into the waning light, searching the bare spots of earth, when he sees it. Perfect. He picks the bloom, rushes inside, and checks to see the sisters have still not arrived. Gathering himself, he walks over to the place setting right of his and places the dandelion there for her. It isn’t much, but a token he hopes she appreciates. It seems falling in love was so easy for him, much easier than he thought it would be. Having someone else fall in love with him? Well, he really has no idea where to start. He learned enough from his companions in the Cottage to know what qualities make a good person and a kind friend, so he resolves to start with that. He has nothing else to work with, except the good sense to ignore Haymitch’s advice. Haymitch, who sees his little flower on her plate, gurgles his usual chuckle. They take their places and wait for the ladies to arrive.

 

They do not have to wait long. Prim arrives first, her excitement nearly bubbling over. She looks breathtaking, as he expected. The blue of the gown complements her skin and the rosiness of her cheeks, bringing out the brightness and warmth of her eyes. She looks statuesque and ready to be presented at Court. She curtsies to him, and he gives her a bow and a smile.

 

When he looks up, he sees her . It is like seeing the sun for the first time. The crimson color of her gown with tiny jewels that make her appear to be on fire. She is not consumed by the flames though-- she is lit from within, radiating warmth and illuminating everything around her. She is beyond radiant. She is not meant for the lowly Court. She is fit to be a Queen. He realizes his mouth is open, so he closes it and swallows thickly.

 

She walks to her place beside him, never breaking eye contact, and gives him a shy smile. “Is it, um, is it too much?” she asks, her voice barely above a whisper.

 

“Uh, what? Whatever do you mean?” Peeta manages to recover his ability to speak.

 

“The red. The color was a bit, um, bold. Cinna said it was right though,” she says, blushing a rosy pink.

 

Peeta’s breath catches. “No, no it’s perfect. You’re perfect.”

 

This has the desired effect, because she rolls her eyes and says, “Again with this ‘perfect’ nonsense.” She blushes even pinker, so he hopes she knows he meant it.

 

Dinner is announced and everyone is seated. Katniss immediately notices her dandelion and gives Peeta a blinding smile. “From you, I presume?”

 

Peeta ducks his head and nods. Her eyes shine with happiness, and he can’t seem to look away. He feels a caress of her fingers against the back of his paw, causing his fur to stand on end and a delicious shudder to run down his spine. He decides to be bold and flips his paw as an invitation. To his delight, she accepts and laces her petite fingers in between his solid knuckles and claws. Somehow, it feels right. They beam at each other, and eat with one hand, even though it isn’t proper.

 

At the end of dinner, Prim is insistent about the dancing. Peeta has never danced with this body, and is so very unsure. He doesn’t want Katniss to see him fail at something; he already feels unworthy enough, but there are many assurances all around. Prim insists everyone must dance, even Haymitch.

 

Katniss, apparently familiar with her sister’s antics, has procured a tray from the kitchen and invited Haymitch for the first dance. At Haymitch’s stuttering and cursing, she places him delicately on the tray, and begins to twirl about the room. She moves with grace, and the layers of her dress dance like individual tongues of fire all around her. In no time, Haymitch is gurgling chuckles and is placed back on his usual sideboard. Next up is Prim and Darius, and he is held with such care that Peeta’s eyes fill with tears. His companions deserve this care and love. This night of fun, to forget the years of torment and imprisonment. For not the first or even hundredth time, he thinks how grateful he is Katniss and Prim are here. Even if he had to be hurt for them to meet. As his mind takes this journey, his face falls. He is caught up in his sadness when he feels a gentle touch on his shoulder. He startles, looking up.

 

Katniss looks concerned, and then she tilts her head, holding up a finger.  She turns and walks toward the dining table without a word. He swallows thickly as he watches the way the back of her gown frames her flawless spine and shoulders. When she returns to where he is seated, she steps between his legs, fitting the stem into the buttonhole of his shirt. He closes his eyes. So close. Very close. The bitter, earthy smell of the dandelion. The fresh, rosewater scent she must have used to bathe. He lifts his head up, gazing at her. Due to her petite stature and his larger one, his face is level with her breasts, so out of decency, he doesn’t look at them. But he is overwhelmed by her presence. Her hand is still on his shoulder, her fingers toying with the fur at his neck. His whole body is tingling and reacting to her presence. If he doesn’t do something soon, he feels like he will combust.

 

So he does the only thing he knows is acceptable and blurts, “Dance with me?”

 

She smiles. “I thought you’d never ask.”

 

He takes the hand from his shoulder into his own and walks her out to the makeshift dance floor in a daze. He doesn’t even think about the steps, just keeps his eyes on hers. She places her hand in his paw and on his shoulder, while he takes her waist. He feels her shiver and draws back a little, the spell broken. She gazes into his eyes with a look he doesn’t recognize, taking his paw in her hand and placing it on her waist, further around the back and slightly lower than he remembered being decent. When he sees the look in her eyes, and when she places her hand back on his shoulder, he knows not to question her. He steps out and she follows, their steps in perfect time.

 

As the music plays, their eyes do not stray, and their bodies are drawn closer and closer like magnets unable to stay separate. His paw is fully on her lower back, no fabric between, and he can’t help but think how soft, how exquisite her skin feels. He pants out a breath, understanding, finally, his body’s reaction to her is a natural extension of his love for her. When he makes to twirl her away to give his body relief, she gives him a fierce, dark look. She spins back, just as close, if not closer. Even as the music speeds, they keep up, breathless in their passionate embrace. He twirls, and she adds in an unexpected move when he makes to twirl her out and dance side by side with her. She turns and leaps into the air. Reading her body, he catches her, and starts to lower her to the ground. It seems he is no longer leading the dance when she places her hands on his shoulders, controlling the speed and closeness at which he lowers her. She slides intimately down against his body until she reaches the floor, and she pants for breath, never breaking eye contact. His body is feverish, and he is barely hanging onto his gentlemanly manners. He can’t help but wonder what she is thinking.

 

Prim’s squeal finally breaks them out of their fever dream, and Peeta realizes he had forgotten about everyone else for some time now. Katniss is blushing, but doesn’t move away from him. She wraps her hands around his waist, her head on his chest, and begins to sway. Peeta mimics her by putting his paws around her waist, only choosing to nuzzle her hair instead. Even though her hair isn’t in her usual braid, the large curls flowing over her shoulder resemble the style. He finally breaks their silence. “Did I tell you how amazing you look tonight?”

 

He feels her chuckle against his chest. “Maybe?”

 

“Even if I did, it bears mentioning again. You are as radiant as the sun.” At this her head snaps up, and she looks at him with that strange look again.

 

“You look pretty handsome yourself, Beast,” she smiles.

 

At this, Peeta chuckles, then sighs sadly.

 

Katniss looks up at him with a frown. “What? What’s wrong?”

 

“It’s nothing,” Peeta says.

 

Katniss studies him a moment. “When I said you are handsome, I meant it. I don’t lie, especially not to you. Was that it?”

 

Peeta freezes, his eyes widening. “But, how... what do you... I don’t--,” he starts.

 

Katniss places her hand on his chest, but he backs away slightly, frightened by her words, by what they could mean. She draws her hand back, looking rejected. At the look on her face, he rushes forward again, grasping her hand in both of his. “I’m sorry. I--,” he stops himself. He shrugs helplessly, looking down at the floor.

 

“Beast. Look at me,” Katniss says, reaching a finger under his muzzle and tilting his head up to look at her face. “Come. Let me show you something.”

 

He nods, following her upstairs to his room. There is a fire in the hearth, and his window is cracked open, but there is no other light. She leads him to the window.

 

“Now look into the sky and tell me what you see,” she says.

 

He looks at her with trepidation but does as she says. “I see the moon.”

 

“Good. What else?”

 

“The stars. A few clouds. Why?”

 

“Do you think any of those things are beautiful?” she asks.

 

He looks down at the window sill, swirling patterns with his claw. “Of course I do.”

 

“What about that dandelion you gave me. Is it beautiful?” she adds.

 

“Yes, of course. I don’t understand what you mean by all this though,” he says, frustrated.

 

“There is beauty all around us. We just have to open our eyes to see it. Not all beautiful things look the same. Like stars, the moon, and dandelions. They are all so different, but all beautiful. The same goes for you,” she declares.

 

When he starts to shake his head in disagreement, she adds, “You can say what you want, but I think you are beautiful. What you say isn’t going to change my mind. That dandelion can tell me it’s ugly all day long, but it doesn’t change how it looks to me.” At this, she turns and gives him a smug smile, knowing he couldn’t argue with her point.

 

“Where did you learn about beauty?” he asks, trying to divert her.

 

Her face grows pensive. “My father. So many in my village were obsessed with Primrose’s blonde hair, fair skin and blue eyes, saying she was so perfect… I felt so ugly being the opposite. No one paid attention to my dark hair and dark skin, and my gray eyes were so... different . One day in the forest, my father was able to get me to talk about it. The examples he used were butterflies and flowers and deer. All were beautiful and so very different. I understood then beauty is everywhere. Even though I didn’t look a certain way, I was beautiful. Besides, it’s the character of a person that counts,” she finishes with a wink.

 

His diversion didn’t work. He grips the window sill with both hands, leaning his head on the window. “I don’t understand,” he growls in frustration. “I am a beast, inside and out. I am literally covered in fur. I have fangs and claws. I have murdered someone. Did you forget about that?” He fights back tears as he finishes speaking.

 

“Oh, Beast,” Katniss soothes. “I remember what you told me. And the circumstances were clear. If I had killed someone in self-defense, it would have been justified as well. Taking a life is hard, I am sure, but when you have to save your own, it is understandable. It does not make you a murderer. That person was hurting you, and you had to defend yourself. You didn’t mean to kill them. Right?”

 

Peeta sighs. “I guess.”

 

Katniss takes his paw. “It wasn’t your fault. None of this was.” She sighs sadly, “I wish we weren’t leaving tomorrow.”

 

Peeta can only nod, continuing to stare out the window. He feels the sting of tears in his eyes, but he doesn’t want to cry. He knows he has to let her go, and this seems like the natural time. He will be dying soon; he has noticed more shriveled edges on the roses, so the sooner, the better. He doesn’t know if he will be weak and wither away, be in excruciating pain, or simply fall over dead. Either way, it would be best for her not to see it. If she can go back to her old life now and start to forget him, then he will die in relative peace. Or not. There will be no peace for him. Not now that he has known her. Known her touch. Her voice. Her fire.

 

The first tear spills.

 

Her hand comes to wipe it away. “Please don’t cry.”

 

“I know, I just-” he starts, not knowing what to say.

 

“Can I-” she clears her throat nervously. “Um, can I stay with you, um, tonight?”

 

He inhales sharply, the thoughts racing through his head. He settles on an image of holding her in his arms, just for one night, lying content with him. “Always,” he breathes.

 

She gives him a mischievous smile. “Shall we?”

 

“Just a moment!” he tells her. He rushes to the carved box on his mantle, retrieving the item of the most value. His mother’s pearl necklace. Ancient and beautiful. Possibly even magic. He doesn’t know. All he knows is Katniss is fit to be a Queen, and this belonged to a Queen, so it seems appropriate to give it to her now. He shuffles back over to her, then dangles the necklace out, catching the pearl in his other paw for her inspection. “For you.”

 

She gasps, “Really?”

 

Peeta simply nods, and she turns, holding her hair aside. She goes to look in her reflection, and Peeta gazes at her with adoration.

 

The smile she gives him is blinding.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Lying in his bed, at her insistence, he stares at the ceiling in wonderment. The crisp breeze from the window cools his feverish body. She has cuddled up to him, wearing one of his shirts and pants sets from his younger days, her head resting over his heart. Her hands combed through the fur around his neck until she drifted off, leaving her fingers tangled there. They occasionally twitch, causing his body to shudder in delicious ways. Her leg has tangled with his, and he doesn’t dare move. He remembered wanting to freeze time during the moment with the dandelion in the woods, but he realizes he would have missed so much more. He can’t stop time, only enjoy what he has been given.

 

He sighs, squeezing Katniss tighter with the arm wrapped around her. She unconsciously hugs him tighter as well, pressing herself against him, sliding slightly on top of him. He presses his paw into her back, inadvertently digging his claws into her skin a little. He draws them back immediately, but is confused by her strangled moan. He is breathing heavily now, trying not to move, though his body seems to jerk on its own from time to time, most often when Katniss moves.

 

When she moans again, sliding her leg up his body, combing her fingers in the fur of the back of his neck and tugging, he whimpers. His body shudders, and she blinks blearily at him. She realizes her position, but just smiles. His hands have come to rest on her hips, and he tries to catch his breath.

 

Her voice is throaty with sleep. “I was dreaming of you. Do you still not believe you are beautiful?”

 

He can’t answer her. He can only shake his head. She could convince him of anything in this moment. Even of his own beauty.

 

“I won’t tell you about my dream though. That’s my secret,” she says, eyes lidded.

 

She slides fully on top of him, nuzzling her face into his neck. She runs her hands under his shirt, under his arms, and onto his shoulders from underneath, threading her fingers through the fur there.  He is fully panting now, his whole body shaking, unsure what to do. He knows he wants to touch her, but doesn’t know how. Most especially not with his claws. He is so frustrated and confused and aroused he can barely contain himself. Her staying in here with him was a bad idea.

 

He is about to say something when she says, “Grab my hips. Don’t let go.” He does as she says, squeezing once in question. “Yes, like that,” she answers.

 

Then. Then. Then.

 

She starts to move. Slowly.

 

He can’t contain the guttural moan that escapes his throat. His body begins to move of its own accord. He gasps, pulling her tightly against him. She releases a whine when he digs in his claws, which surprises him-- he thought he would hurt her. He tries it again. She gasps and moans, moving faster and harder against him. He is moving blindly, being driven by his primal side. It seems Katniss has complete control over him. Her movements are linked to his. Her legs split to either side of him, holding him down, but not. She withdraws her hands from his shirt and cards them through the fur on his scalp and tugs. The heat he feels is intoxicating. She pants along with him, lifting a little to look in his eyes. Her eyes are wild and dark, and he imagines his must look the same. She doesn’t look afraid.

 

She begins to whisper. “You are beautiful. So beautiful, so kind. I hate spending time away from you.” He tries to concentrate on her face, but with her voice, and what she is doing, he can’t focus. He is overcome with pleasure, barking out a loud, drawn-out moan at the ceiling. She continues for a few more moments, telling him wonderful things, until she cannot speak and she whimpers into the night, her movements halting. They both lay panting, shuddering and peaceful in the chilly air. Peeta notices how low the fire has gotten, but doesn’t want to move until Katniss suggests it, if ever. After a couple of minutes, she pushes herself up and tells him she will be right back.

 

He uses this time to grab new pants and stoke the fire. When she returns, she jumps into the bed and under the covers. He excuses himself, in a complete daze.

 

He returns, refreshed, and blissfully happy to see Katniss waiting for him. Her cheeks are flushed, and she is smiling a small, bashful smile.

 

He climbs into bed, turning toward her. He reaches a paw and takes her hand, then nuzzles it with his nose. This makes her giggle, which is a sound he hasn’t heard before. He grows sad, realizing there are so many things he will miss.

 

“Don’t be sad,” she says, caressing his cheek with her other hand.

 

“I don’t want you to go,” he says. There. He said it. Surely she must know what that means?

 

“I know. There are things I must do. I have to go back,” she answers.

 

He nods. “I understand. I just- I will miss you. So much.”

 

“And I, you,” she says.

 

“Let’s rest for now. I want to hold you... just a little while longer,”

 

She curls up at his side as before, and they both fall fast asleep.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Morning comes after only a blink.

 

The light is shining in the window, illuminating Katniss’ face. There is a knock at the door, Prim calling for Katniss to get ready.

 

Peeta sighs, continuing to toy with Katniss’ hair. She doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to get up either, despite her sister’s orders.

 

Peeta is gazing at the dress hanging by the door when she finally speaks. “Cinna created the perfect dress.”

 

“He really has an eye for beauty,” Peeta responds.

 

“Mmhmm,” she murmurs.

 

“Katniss, do I need to drag you out of bed?” Prim calls.

 

“No ma’am!” she answers, flipping the bedcovers back. “She will do it too, if she doesn’t hear movement.” Katniss chuckles to herself.

 

As she gathers her things, Peeta fidgets with the quilt, then reluctantly gets up as well.

 

He goes to change for the day, and comes across his set of mirrors. He doesn’t even have to think about it before grabbing one of them.

 

When he reappears, Katniss has all of her things and is waiting for him.

 

He holds up the mirror. “I have something for you.”

 

She raises her eyebrows. “A mirror? You think me vain?”

 

He chuckles. “No. It’s a special mirror. It will show you anything you ask of it. If you, um, if you ever want to talk to me, you can just tell the mirror. It doesn’t work like that with everything. You can only talk to me, because, well, I have the other one.”

 

Katniss’ face lights up at this. “Really! That’s amazing!”

 

Peeta blushes. “Glad you like it. Treat it nice. It is a friend of mine.”

 

“I wouldn’t dream otherwise.”

 

Peeta gathers the bundle while Katniss carries her dress and mirror around to her room. Many of her belongings are already packed, having been done over the last couple of days, most likely by Prim. Katniss sighs sadly, then moves to organize the last of her things. She packs the crimson dress carefully on top of her trunk, then excuses herself to get dressed.

 

Peeta waits for her, and when she emerges, she has tears in her eyes as she hands back his clothes. He takes them, fighting the urge to smell them. He would show restraint. At least until she is gone…

 

Breakfast is a subdued affair, everyone chatting, but in somber tones. They all know what today meant. Not only are friends leaving, but they would be taking a possible cure with them.

 

They had failed.

 

He failed.

 

He had never hoped to succeed.

 

Perhaps that is the problem. Maybe he had hoped just a little . But it is too late now. The only possible hope to break the curse is leaving. His time was short. He had one chance in ten years to win someone’s heart. He would not have ten more years to get another chance.

 

Everyone gathers outside to see them off. Mama Sae brings a horse and wagon to carry their things, and to make it look more official. After giving Peeta a gift of a kiss on his furry cheek, Katniss sits in the back, waving to him as she fades from view. He stands in the door long after they are out of sight, tears streaming. Wondering why. Why couldn’t she stay? Why didn’t I fight harder for her? If I showed her how much she meant to me, then maybe she wouldn’t have left. Why did she leave? She acted like she cared for me, but she left anyway? She knew how I felt… Then he remembers. He never told her how he felt. He meant to, but it never felt right. She has to know though, right? He crumples to the steps, dissolving into sobs. He hopes she knows. His world is darkness without her.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

It takes only one week for Peeta’s resolve to fail. He decides to try to contact her with the mirror, since he can’t exactly visit her in her village.

 

“Pollux, please show me Katniss?” Peeta asks.

 

Pollux nods, and Peeta turns over the mirror in his paws. He sees Prim speaking with Katniss, and they are laughing about something, so Peeta doesn’t try to interrupt immediately. The next words Prim say causes Peeta’s blood to run cold.

 

“Will you go speak with Gale about the possibility of marriage?” Prim asks.

 

Katniss looks shyly at her hands. “Do you think he will agree? It will be unexpected and-”

 

“Of course he’ll do it, Katniss! He would do anything you asked! Are you ready now, though?”

 

“I think so, but I have no idea if he is ready. I would want to be prepared, at least for propriety's sake,” Katniss concedes.

 

“You are! You wouldn’t even think about this otherwise!” Prim shouts. Katniss blushes, then nods. Prim squeals. “Well, let’s go talk to him! What are we waiting for!”

 

At this, Peeta puts down the mirror. Pollux looks at him with sympathy in his eyes, but Peeta can’t find the words to thank him for showing him the truth. His every nerve is numb. He stands in a fog and walks to his favorite chair, sitting to stare idly at the blaze in his bedroom fireplace.

 

He allows himself to think of those first moments spent together in this very room. At odds with each other, but only to protect vulnerabilities. He to protect himself, she her sister and her own golden heart. Once they realized they meant no harm, they grew together likes vines of ivy, quickly tangled and inseparable. Or so he thought. He ended up here, shredded and broken, while she plans a marriage to a man in her village.

 

She isn’t at fault. He can’t blame her.

 

She never said “I love you.”

 

She doesn’t love him.

 

For who could ever learn to love a beast?

 

No one.

 

At this realization, Peeta begins pacing in front of the fire, suddenly full of a restless energy. His thoughts begin to spiral out of control. Shaking his head in frustration, he forces himself to concentrate. He needs answers. Where? Who? Prim. Prim mentioned legends-- others . He has heard their howls. Peeta heads to the door with purpose, fueled with the adrenaline of someone with nothing left to lose.

 

Out in the woods, Peeta stands in the shadows, still in sight of the Cottage. The forest is eerily silent around him, and his frustration grows. He lets out a primal howl, pouring out all of his pain and anger with the hopes it will draw the attention of someone, anyone.

 

He hears the sound of branches snapping behind him and turns to see who, or what, approaches. What he sees is astounding. Three massive wolves walk on their hind legs, just as he does. They wear a few shreds of human clothes and wear loin cloths to cover other areas of their bodies. They are hybrids like he is, more hair than a human, but less hair than full wolf. He realizes how well he has lived when looking at them. Fully clothed, living in a house with servants and food. Not in the forest living like an animal. Standing before them, he is ashamed.

 

The smallest wolf pulls a razor sharp ax out of a band of cloth tied around their leg and begin to approach. They stop a safe distance away from Peeta and simply stare at him in silence.

 

Peeta decides not to waste any time. “Did Snow do this to you?” At the mention of Snow’s name, they drop to all fours, growling and gnashing their teeth. They snap and snarl at Peeta while the smallest one says, “How DARE you speak his name! The Evil One. Do not bring him upon us! We should kill you for your ignorance. Stupidity is dangerous.” As the wolf speaking approaches, backing Peeta against a tree, the largest wolf speaks up, “Stop, Jo! Let him speak.” The voice is low and soothing, causing the smallest one, Jo, to halt a moment.

 

“Fine. Don’t say the name,” they say with a pointed glare in Peeta’s direction.

 

“Understood.” Peeta nods nervously.

 

The third wolf speaks up, “To answer your question, yes. He did this to us. When he tired of us, he changed us, and we were banished from our villages. We found each other and survived. Others haven’t been so lucky.”

 

A sudden realization hits; these three lived the same nightmare that Peeta did and survived. Only, with worse circumstances. Shunned and alone. Peeta gets the urge to know them, to care for them. After all, they are just like him. “What are your names?”

 

The third wolf replies as the other two remain stoic and silent. “My name’s Leevy, and this is Thresh and Johanna.”

 

Peeta nods in each of their directions in greeting.

 

“Why do you want to know? We were changed long ago,” Leevy says.

 

Peeta takes a deep breath and looks each of them in the eye before answering. “I want to end the curse. I wanted to see if there is anyone out there who knew how.”

 

The small one, Johanna, just laughs. “Pretty wolf wants to end the curse? You would never get those fancy little paws dirty.”

 

Peeta is taken aback by the vitriol in her voice. “What do you mean?”

 

Johanna fixes him with a hard stare. “You want to know how to end this? I’ll tell you. You have to murder. Not just one person, but two. You have to kill a child. You have to kill HIM as well, and he is hard to catch, being fae. Can you do that? Kill an innocent child?”

 

At the thought of murder, the murder of a child especially, Peeta turns and retches.

 

Johanna continues as if nothing happened when Peeta turns back around. “I wanted out of this so badly I did it. HE was sadistic. Goes after those people you care about and puts you into an impossible position. HE told me the way to end the curse was to kill his last student, then all the students before them would be free. It was a game to him. So I tried to win. But he was too sneaky. Had hidden victims. No one wins. Now… now, there’s no one left I love.”

 

Peeta’s stomach roils with nausea, his vision going black temporarily. He leans against the tree behind him to steady himself. Finally his mind catches up, and all the pieces of the puzzle come together at once.

 

You have to kill HIM.

 

And his last victim.

 

"ME."

 

Peeta was his last victim. When he broke the spell, he would free all of the others. True love was a false hope. Peeta had been right.

 

For who could ever learn to love a beast?

 

Snow knew. No one would love him. He gave him enough hope that he wouldn’t kill himself outright and free all the other victims before Snow could get to someone else. It was another of Snow’s games. That little bit of hope.

 

Snow had broken his body, but Peeta thought he had protected his heart. He had been wrong.

 

Snow tricked him into making his heart vulnerable, even beyond the grave. He had fallen hopelessly in love with Katniss, only to be rejected. His heart was shredded, torn from his chest, no piece of him left without damage. He was in this hybrid body, unable to fully process the heartbreak as an animal or as a human. Leaving him in a broken state of limbo.

 

The world comes crashing down around Peeta. Trees shatter, and the sky erupts into shiny orange bubbles. Everywhere ashes fall like snow. Bits sparkle like shards of ice and broken glass, twisting and blinding him in the setting sun. In a moment, the world rights itself once again. Three wolves staring curiously at him.

 

Peeta finds his voice. “I know what I need to do.” He looks directly into Johanna’s eyes. “I killed HIM.”

 

Jo’s nostrils flare, and the wolf practically spits the words at his feet, “Don’t lie to me!”

 

Peeta shakes his head, and for the second time since that day so long ago, he tells them the story. “I have read many books since then, and in the oldest fairy stories, they all agree iron kills fae folk. The poker I used was iron.”

 

He sees understanding light in their eyes, then they narrow, “So that makes you his last victim? Why shouldn’t I kill you right now, then?” She begins to advance on him.

 

“Please, stop! I have a plan. There is another piece of HIM I need to destroy. If I don’t destroy it, HE might be able to return,” Peeta pleads. At these words, the other wolves hold off their advance.  “Don’t worry, you will be free before you know it.” Peeta smiles sadly.

 

Johanna seems undecided, but Thresh speaks. “It is done, then. We wish you luck. If we are not changed by this time tomorrow, we will find you.”

 

Peeta nods. “There is a Cottage. Come there to find me. If you are changed, go there to live. There are others who will help you. A house, food, clothes. Please,” he pauses, holding back the emotion in his voice, “once I am gone, someone should make use of it.”

 

They nod to him, turning to go with only Thresh giving him another glance.

 

He takes a deep breath now that the tense encounter is over. All this time, he had been keeping everyone else under the curse. “No more,” he says resolutely to the heavy silence of the forest.

 

Peeta turns toward the Cottage barn, Johanna’s ax giving him an idea. He retrieves the ax he uses to cut firewood and begins the long walk out to the cursed rose bush for the last time.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Peeta uses this time to say goodbye to those he loves so dearly, if only in his head. He doesn’t want them to try to dissuade him, and finding all of them would take too long. Besides, he wants most to say goodbye to Katniss, but she isn’t even here.

 

Maybe she will hold the pearl close and remember him.

 

In the dark

And I’m right on the middle mark

I’m just in the tier of everything that rides below the surface

 

Finally, he understands it all. Snow’s plan. His purpose. What it all means.

 

It’s not what you painted in my head

There’s so much there instead of all the colors that I saw

 

He allows himself to feel the happiness of the time spent with Katniss. The warmth of the fire. The softness of her skin. The smell of her hair. The chill from the melting snow. The first time he shivered from hearing her laugh. Trying to keep his tail from wagging any time he saw her. How ridiculous he must have looked! He feels a jolt run down his spine with just the memory. Now, though, now he sees. He sees the world for what it is.

 

I know all your reasons

To keep me from seeing

Everything is actually a mess

 

He knows now she was protecting him from the real world. Painting pictures of beauty in his remote Cottage in the woods. He was fragile. Broken. Now he is strong, and he has people he can save. He has a purpose. He can protect them. He killed Snow, now he can end the curse. It is all so clear.

 

But I wanna dream

I wanna dream

Leave me to dream

 

Now he can do what he should have done all those years ago.

 

Die.

 

He studies the pristine trunk, shiny leaves, and crisp white blooms turning brown around the edges. His time is short, and this would have happened anyway , he thinks. As he raises the ax, he ponders the smooth, black surface of the trunk and stems. Would it bleed? Or would it just be him? He takes aim and swings, the ax making contact with the trunk with a resounding crack.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Stars.

Shiny gray stars.

 

Wet?

 

“I’m so tired, Katniss.” He manages to crack his eyes, barely focusing on what is in front of him. He thinks he sees Katniss. He must be dead, and he is finally dreaming. Maybe he can have this dream forever.  

 

“Stay with me!” she shouts.

 

“Always,” he breathes.

 

He feels his body lift, a warming sensation spreading from his heart to all of his limbs. It is not unpleasant, but he just wants to sleep. The warming sensation becomes more pronounced, and he shudders. He hasn’t felt this warm in so long. He wants to start dreaming again. He feels his body make contact with the grass, and then he starts to shudder uncontrollably. He hears more shouting around him, but he can’t make sense of it. His eyes are so heavy, he just keeps them closed. A blanket surrounds him, then the familiar sounds of his bedroom. He feels a warm body cuddle up to him, and he sighs contentedly, falling into a deep sleep.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Peeta is lying in the now familiar field of dandelions. Katniss’ head is on his lap, and she is singing. The sun warms his whole human body; he feels at peace. He hears the stream, and the breeze picks up some of the dandelion fluff, carrying it away. Some lands in Katniss’ hair, and she smiles up at him. He notices with a jolt her swollen stomach, and the sounds of children playing nearby. This dream, it’s too much. He wakes abruptly and realizes the singing wasn’t just in his dream. Sunlight is streaming through the window, and he hears Katniss’ voice. She is singing an unfamiliar song about a meadow and a willow. As he becomes increasingly aware of his surroundings, he realizes something-- he has a very human, very naked body.

 

Peeta tries to be discreet and pinch himself, but he is a little too overzealous and lets out a painful yelp. Katniss abruptly stops singing and walks around to Peeta’s side of the bed. She is cautious in her movements, and he wonders why, after all they had been through. Then he remembers his human body. She must find this strange. He looks totally different now. He peers up at her, worried at the look he will find on her face.

 

She is smiling, not her blinding smile, but her shy one. Peeta decides this is a win. “Hi. Would you like to know my real name now?” he asks hopefully.

 

“I’d grown quite fond of Beast, but yes, I would like to know your name,” she says.

 

“Peeta. My name is Peeta,” he says quietly, taking her hand.

 

Her eyes widen. “Peeta, as in…the lost Prince Peeta?”

 

He nods.

 

“I see. I am sorry for how I acted in the beginning, but I realized Beast wasn’t your true name. That is why I didn’t trust you in the beginning. I see why you kept your identity hidden,” she says.

 

“It doesn’t change anything, does it?” he asks, dejected at her realization.

 

She sits on the edge of the bed. “Be-- Peeta. No. It doesn’t matter to me who you are, what you are.”

 

Peeta’s head snaps up at this. “Really?”

 

Katniss looks at him confused. “Really. I loved you as a beast... why would any of this other stuff matter now?”

 

At her words Peeta realizes something. He gasps, “You love me?”

 

She blushes. “Well, as soon as I said it out loud, you transformed into...” She waves her hand in the direction of his body, “...This. So yes.”

 

Peeta’s heart is beating erratically. She loves him! The curse is broken! He flings his arms around her, and they fall back on the bed with a laugh.

 

Peeta asks, “Can I kiss you? Please? I have wanted to for so long…”

 

Katniss cuts him off by closing the distance between them. She brushes her lips against his, just the lightest touch, then brushes her nose up the bridge of his, then kissing the tip. He stutters out a gasp as she continues her delicate exploration of his new face. His skin is smooth, and she brushes her lips against every inch of his face, followed by her nose. The combination of her slightly chapped lips, her warm breath, and the slightly cool tip of her nose has him shivering. When she moves from his face to his jaw and over to his ear, he can’t suppress his moan. This prompts her to capture his soft lobe between her teeth and nibble, which causes a spasm in his hips and groin that almost throws her off of him. He holds onto her though, so she is safe, but it seems she takes note of the reaction and gives him a mischievous smile. Katniss is just about to reach the hollow of his throat when there is a loud series of knocks on the door, startling Katniss to roll off of him and stand and causing Peeta to pull the covers fully over himself to disguise her effect on him.

 

Peeta calls out, “Yes?”

 

Haymitch’s gruff voice travels through the door, to Peeta’s surprise and delight. “I need Sweetheart for a few things. Unfinished business. It would be nice to see you, too.”

 

Katniss scowls at the interruption but replies, “Be right there, Haymitch!”

 

Peeta asks, “Unfinished business?”

 

Katniss smiles sweetly, “Nothing you need to worry about.” Then she kisses him soundly and orders him to get dressed.

 

“For now,” he winks, making her blush as she walks out the door.

 

After he scavenges for some clothes that could fit him well enough, he hears commotion outside. He goes to the window and sees Katniss and Haymitch in the garden. Haymitch has a bottle of liquor. He can’t tell what they are doing. They are standing next to the ruined rose bush, but why?

 

Haymitch begins to pour liquor on the remains while doing some sort of dance as Katniss laughs. Then Katniss… oh, Katniss lights a match and throws it on the bush, consuming it in flames. Fire beats roses! That was from the book! He smiles as they dance like children around the flames. Then he sees them: Rue, Delly, Darius, Pollux, and everyone else dancing. He is filled with joy. They are all free.

 

He finishes dressing and heads downstairs. He watches from the doorway, basking in the happiness filling the Cottage. Katniss sees him and comes running. She pulls him out into the merriment and dances with him.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

At the end of the day, Delly asks Katniss politely if she would like her to prep a room for her. Katniss asks Peeta in turn if he would mind so much if she moved into his room instead. Delly doesn’t even wait for an answer, simply walking away with a small smile at the look of elation on Peeta’s face.

 

When the topic of marriage comes up, Peeta’s hope fades. He remembers the circumstances sending him to the forest and the roses. They still haven’t discussed the events leading to his transformation. When Katniss sees his face fall, she sighs.

 

“We should talk, right?” she says.

 

He coughs lightly, a knot of dread forming in his stomach. “I-- I-- um--”

 

“What happened, you know, that day? How-- um, how were you… injured?” she asks carefully.

 

Peeta swallows, his throat dry. He is ashamed at eavesdropping. His impulsivity in failing to speak with her before deciding to-- well, if he truly loves her, he must be honest. One of the important things his companions have taught him over the years is honesty.

 

He takes a deep breath. “I just--” he starts, then tries again. “I missed you so much.” He barely holds back the sob building in his chest. It nearly chokes his next words, but he forces them out. “I tried to contact you. With the mirror.” He can’t look at her now. He fidgets with his hands in his lap, and his eyes flit from them to the floor and back.

 

“You did?” she asks, her voice breathless. “Was I not there?”

 

“You were.” His voice is barely audible now. “You were speaking with Prim. About-- about Gale. And--” his voice breaks, and hot tears spill onto his cheeks. He presses on. “And marriage.” He loses the battle with his sobs, and he crumbles, his eyelashes becoming matted with sticky tears. The sensation of the burning tears on his bare skin, then the cold paths left in their wake, is so foreign he is almost distracted from the reason why. Almost.

 

Katniss rushes to him in a fierce embrace, combing her fingers through his hair, trying to soothe him. “Oh, Peeta. I think I know what happened. Please listen.”

 

He quiets his sobs to a stuttered whimpering; enough to listen to her. She cradles his face in her hands, caressing his cheeks with her thumbs and wiping away the tears. “Gale is ordained. I wanted to ask him a favor. It was unconventional, but I wanted him to come here and marry us, if you were willing. So I could stay with you. Always.”

 

Fresh tears form in Peeta’s eyes at the thought of this. That she wanted to marry him despite his beastly appearance. Not only loved him, but wanted to marry him. Had planned on coming back and discussing it with him. She really was too good for him. To think of what he had done.

 

“Thank you, for loving me. But, I haven’t finished my story yet,” he clasps one of the hands on his face in his and gives her a sad smile.

 

“After I heard and misunderstood the mirror, I went to the woods. I needed to escape. I found a few of the others. I wanted to know how to end the curse. They told me how...” He didn’t elaborate, and she just nodded for him to continue.

 

“I came back here, needing to destroy the roses.” She gasps at his statement, knowing what this would do to him. He sees her tears spilling over, and he reaches to embrace her, for her comfort as well as his own.

 

“I found the ax in the barn. I wanted to free everyone. I didn’t want to hurt anymore. I am so sorry for my selfishness. For what almost happened. I love you so much,” he finishes quietly.

 

They sit, tears streaming silently while the information sinks in. Then Katniss speaks again. “We were on our way to Gale, ahem, and his wife, Madge’s house,” she gives him a stern look, “when all of the sudden, the pearl glowed and turned ice cold.”

 

Peeta stills, surprised by this information. She continues, “I knew it was somehow warning me, so I pulled out the mirror. I had it in my bag. I brought it with me so I could show him some of our memories, your kindness… you said it would show anything I asked. I asked it to show you, and I saw you lying on the ground in a pool of blood. I grabbed the pearl in my hand, and begged the mirror to take me to you. It did. I don’t know how, but I was by your side. You were bleeding, the bush was bleeding; I was terrified. I knew from my family’s healing practice that a pool of blood can only get so big... so I started crying and pleading. I wasn’t a healer anyway. I should have asked the mirror to bring Prim, not me. Then, when I thought about my life without you, especially without telling you how I felt, I knew I couldn’t do it. I told you I loved you…”

 

Peeta sighs, stroking her hair. At some point during her confession she had migrated to sitting in his lap, and now they are wrapped intimately around each other. To hear her say those words, he doesn’t think he will ever tire of it.

 

She sighs contentedly and nuzzles his chest. “After, you sort of started glowing? The fur fell out and melted, like tiny icicles. It was so strange. The claws, all of it, seemed... cold? I can’t quite describe it, just like your body was... thawing.”

 

He thinks about her description, and he remembers the warming sensation, after being cold for so long. It makes sense what she says, though it must have been a bit fantastical to see.

 

“You transformed, and were human. Your clothes were bloody and torn, and way too big. I was not sure what to do, so I stayed by your side. That’s when,” she chuckles.

 

“What?” Peeta looks down at her.

 

“Haymitch came waltzing out the door. He said, ‘Sweetheart, you just gonna leave him lying there or what?’” she imitates Haymitch’s gruff tone.

 

Peeta barks out a laugh. “Sounds about right.”

 

“We managed to get you inside and cleaned up. When we put you to bed, Haymitch tried to send me away, but I climbed right in with you. He just rolled his eyes at me,” she says proudly.

 

“I slept better with you there. Thank you,” he murmurs.

 

“Pleasure was all mine,” she says. “You know the rest.”

 

“That is some story. You think anyone will ever believe it?”

 

“I don’t know. Would a beautiful woman ever fall in love with a beast?” Katniss teases.

 

“Once upon a time…” Peeta answers with a smile, before brushing his lips against hers.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

The Wedding was intimate and quick, only family and those living at the Cottage in attendance. Katniss insisted on wearing her crimson gown; she didn’t want to wait for Cinna to make another, not to mention the trouble she would put him through. Peeta fell in love with her even more as he watched her tell Cinna, in no uncertain terms, that she wanted to be married as soon as possible. He had to agree. There wasn’t a reason to wait, and it seemed they both were anxious to get started with their lives together. Peeta did promise Cinna he could fashion them both a whole wardrobe at his leisure if he desired, after they were married. Cinna readily agreed.

 

Much to his delight, out of all the blooms, there wasn’t a rose in sight.

 

After a hearty dinner, prepared by the Cottage Chef, Mags, who hadn’t lost her touch as a spoon in all those years, there was lively dancing. The Bride and Groom managed to behave themselves this time around on the dance floor, as Katniss’ gaze kept wandering to Prim. Gale’s family accompanied him to the wedding, having been friends of the Everdeen family. Prim seemed quite taken with one of the brothers, as they danced every song together through the night. If they weren’t dancing, they were speaking in hushed tones and gazing at one another, with looks Peeta had come to recognize. It seemed the feeling was mutual. Katniss spoke with Mama Sae, finding some comfort there. When Peeta asked her about it, she simply said, “She’s an adult now.”

 

When they retire for the evening to their room, Katniss’ smile turns mischievous. She whispers in Peeta’s ear, “I was only a lady on the dance floor because I knew I would have you all to myself later,” then gives him a wicked smile.

 

He stops and picks up his bride, carrying her over the threshold. She winds her arms around his neck and asks to go to the fireplace. When he releases her legs to place her down gently, she slides slowly down his body, reminding him of the night of the dance. He can’t resist dipping his head down to kiss her. In the firelight the dress-- she -- is glowing. She is the perfect bride. He should tell her; he knows how she hates when he uses the word ‘perfect’ to describe her. Perhaps later. When he is not distracted by her lips. And skin. So smooth under his human fingertips.

 

They meet in soft kisses, exploring one another. They never had the chance before with his fangs and muzzle, so he relishes his human form more than ever in this moment. He wants to learn everything he can with his fingers and mouth, now that he has them again. When she twists her fingers in his hair and deepens the kiss, he moans, but has to stop to breathe.

 

“Is that why you wanted my hair to stay long?” he pants.

 

She bites her bottom lip and nods, looking up at him through her eyelashes. He has to kiss her again, but instead of his hands cradling her face, he slides them to spread on her lower back. Very low on her back. When their lips meet again, he instinctively presses himself closer to her, causing her to tug at his hair again.

 

The next time they pause for breath, they continue to move sinuously against one another.

 

“Should we--,” Peeta starts, “should we change?”

 

Katniss blushes. “Can I ask you something?”

 

“Of course, yes.”

 

“Can we bring the blankets in front of the fire?”

 

Peeta gives her a confused look.

 

She shakes her head. “Please? Trust me?”

 

“Always,” he murmurs. He gathers the blankets from the bed, along with some pillows, and lays them out in front of the fire. Katniss takes the moment to change in the dressing area, to preserve her gown.

 

Peeta just finishes when he sees her and forgets how to breath. Her hair is down, the first time he has seen it this way. The soft waves gleam in the firelight as it falls over her shoulders. Her olive skin glows, but nothing compares to her eyes. He sees the heat there, the silver reflective as a mirror. In the contours of her face, he sees so much more. Affection. Loyalty. Playfulness. Ferocity. Love.

 

As his gaze travels down, he gulps in a rapid breath. Her night clothes are simple, but elegant. She looks like a goddess painted by one of the great Masters. The skirt billows slightly in the breeze from the cracked window, causing goosebumps to erupt all over her skin. He notices that the gown doesn’t exactly obscure her body underneath as it settles back down.

 

He stands abruptly. “You look magnificent.”

 

She blushes, then crosses her arms over her chest.

 

“Oh, you must have a chill! Please, come here by the fire. I will just be a minute,” he rushes out.

 

She smiles at him, whispering, “Thank you.”

 

He darts behind the screen, eager to get back to her, and realizes he forgot to get his night clothes. Then he sees a hanger there for him. Brand new, fitting his new measurements… “Cinna works fast,” he thinks. They match Katniss’ gown, the shirt billowy and comfortable, the pants more fitted-- at least in certain areas. This makes him chuckle.

 

When he peeks back around the screen, Katniss has her back to him, sitting comfortably by the fire. He is reminded of sketching once again, and this time there is no tell-tale pang. I can sketch this moment later! he realizes with triumph.

 

Katniss calls, “Don’t keep me waiting!” just as he begins his approach.

 

Settling behind her, he cradles her between his legs and wraps his arms around hers, cocooning her in warmth. She leans into his body, lolling her head back onto his shoulder, exposing the long line of her neck to him. She brushes her nose under his jaw and back to his ear. Back and forth, back and forth. Peeta suddenly tightens his grip, lifting her off the ground, and crosses his legs underneath, settling her on his lap. She gasps when he presses her body securely against his, and when he settles her back down she whimpers. Struggling to keep his eyes open, he looks down at her, trying to decipher the sounds.

 

She gazes up at him, eyes hooded and lips parted. She takes his hands, pulling them around her and pushing closer with her feet. They both release a moan from the delicious friction between their bodies. She pushes against him, and when she moves one of his hands to her chest, she settles her hand on top. Squeezing, brushing, pinching. Her moans have become words. The sweetest most beautiful words, mingled with others. “Peeta,” she says, “more, there.”

 

“Yes, Katniss,” he answers, as if he would tell her anything else.

 

She abruptly gets up, then settles back in his lap, facing him. She pulls at the laces, loosening the gown enough to release her breasts. She pulls it down, exposing her torso, the glorious expanse of olive skin on display for Peeta’s hungry eyes.

 

He has never known a feeling like this; it can only be described as hunger. He wants to devour her. He looks at her face for permission, and she threads her fingers in his hair and pulls him forward, erasing any doubts. He starts with the gentle caress of his lips on hers before traveling toward her neck. Katniss’ hand in his hair seems to be directing him, and he is glad to comply; until she seems to get impatient.

 

He stops and grins, lifting her off the ground and laying her on the bed of blankets and pillows. He takes the hand from his hair and threads his fingers through it, then begins his slow exploration from the other side. She groans in impatience, her body jerking upward in search of his as it hovers over her.

 

When he finally reaches her breasts, he gives a delicate lick in question. Katniss’ answering moan and exclamations of “More, please!” spurs him to explore this new part of her.

 

Once he is satisfied with the attention given, he releases her from his grip, and she becomes wild. She is fierce at the best of times, in her love and devotion, loyalty and protection. He realizes he has only had a taste of her full passion.

 

Her fire is something to behold.

 

She pushes him back, removing his night shirt and then her gown. When she grabs a pillow, he is too stunned to react when she pushes him to the ground. She wasn’t wearing anything under the gown, which he knew, but the full view is still overwhelming. She pulls on his pants, so he lifts a little in compliance at her look of frustration.

 

When they are finally free of clothing, time stops. He doesn’t hear anything, not a clock ticking, not the fire crackling, nor the breeze moving the curtains.

 

She crawls over to him, slowing her movements. “Do you still trust me?”

 

He swallows, shivering in pleasure from the look in her eyes. “Yes.”

 

“Then I want to make love to you. Only--” she blushes.

 

Peeta is confused. “Only what?”

 

She blushes deeper. “Let me explain everything. Hear me out before you say yes or no? It’s… It’s just an idea I had.”

 

“Okay,” he says, a bit warily now.

 

“I want you to know that I love you for who you are. That I didn’t fall in love with a face, but you as a person. That this would have happened anyway… um, well,” she hesitates, “beast or not,” she finishes quickly.

 

He raises his eyebrows in question. “I am not quite sure I follow.”

 

She sighs, looking at the floor. The blush colors her cheeks and reaches down her neck to the tops of her breasts now. “I-- I-- Iwouldhavemadelovetoyouasabeast,” she rushes out. She peeks up at him, but he still has no idea what she said.

 

“Peeta,” she stares at the ceiling this time, “I would have made love to you as a beast,” she enunciates each word, then closes her eyes.

 

He sits stunned, unbelieving. She told him she planned on marrying him, but this? He never imagined…

 

“Say something?” she still faces the ceiling with her eyes closed.

 

“That-- that’s amazing,” he breathes.

 

She lets out a breath, then continues, “So tonight, to show you that you are more than anything you may look like, beast or man, and if you are young like you are now or when you get old, I want to make love to the man inside. It may sound strange--” she says.

 

Peeta’s mind races. She can’t know what this means to him. His worth has always been placed on his looks. Not only did she fall in love with him as a beast, but she wants to show him that no matter his face, she loves HIM. He wants to cry with joy.

 

“--But I want to make love as the beasts of the field,” she finishes.

 

This jolts Peeta out of his thoughts. “Wh-- what?”

 

“I want to make love to you without seeing your face. Your face is not the important part of you. Beast or man, I love you. For our first time as man and wife, I want to show you that,” she explains.

 

“Oh!” his breath leaves in a rush. This idea… sounds kind of beautiful to him. To be appreciated, loved, without regard to his face? He doesn’t know what to say.

 

“Would you like that?” she asks, finally making eye contact with him. He can tell this topic is difficult for her by the splotchy skin of her blush.

 

He can only nod.

 

She doesn’t answer, only takes his hand, pulling him up to sitting. She settles on his lap again, and begins to kiss him fiercely. Their tentativeness is gone, replaced by a surety that can only be shared by two kindred souls.

 

When she coaxes him to his knees with fingertips, nibbles and whispers of shimmering hair, he is trembling with his newfound hunger.

 

She sits on her heels, spreading her legs apart as she turns her back to him, giving Peeta a glimpse of forbidden fruit. He wonders if she will let him taste her?

 

She lifts to her knees again, pulling him back in for a kiss over her shoulder, before dropping onto her hands. She reaches behind her, grabbing Peeta’s hand and guiding him to mimic her position. As he does, he feels their bodies and all of the stars align. So much heat. Pleasure. Love. The thoughtfulness of this act, for their first time. Nothing in this world matters but the two of them.

 

As he slips home, he whispers to Katniss about his dream. He breathlessly tells her, with each thrust of his hips, about the meadow, the sunshine, how he dreamt of her the day they met, dandelion seeds, how they evolved, and the last one, where she was round with child, and there were children playing by the creek nearby. The very thought of her pregnant with his child is too much, and he is overcome. He becomes forceful and erratic, clutching Katniss closely with one arm. He is surprised to find she is touching herself, and with a final thrust, he groans in pleasure. He whispers how much he loves her and how he can’t live without her, panting heavily. He feels her take her pleasure, and is amazed at the sensation.

 

They both slide down onto the blankets and roll onto their sides. Peeta cradles her to his chest, feeling lighter than air. When they start to chill, he pulls a blanket over them, content to sleep there with her.

 

Just as the tendrils of sleep are pulling him under, thus ending the first best day of his life, Katniss murmurs, “Would you ever consider growing a beard?”

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Epilogue

Katniss agreed with Peeta, that certain fantastical events cannot be left to memory alone. So they started a book. They called it a memory book, but it became a book of stories. Stories of those that no one would believe, that shouldn’t be forgotten, simply because they were hard to believe. Some of them were called fairy tales, since a good number involved fairies and their troublemaking, but others adopted the name as well, misnomer or not.

 

Once freed of the curse, those of his companions who wished to remain at the Cottage were given the option, and those who wanted adventure were given the means and freedom. In reality, they had not been servants for some time. Prince Peeta considered them family and treated them as such.

 

Never forgetting those less fortunate than himself, Peeta approached the other survivors of Snow about staying at the Cottage. They declined, disliking charity, though Peeta left the option open. He made it clear any provisions they may need could always be found in the barn, and their house was always open.

 

Over time, they accepted more and more of the Mellark’s gifts, Thresh being the one to stay. He added his own story, as well as others, to the memory book. It wasn’t to last long. Young Rue had grown restless and decided to go see the world. He would accompany her and protect her, and she was to carry news of Peeta’s survival to President Paylor. She would address any concerns Paylor may have of him wanting the throne and invite her to a private meeting if she wished to discuss his lifelong desire for anonymity.

 

As Katniss watched Peeta playing with their children in the garden, her hand on her rounded belly, she smiled. In her other hand, she twirled a sunny yellow bloom, one of many that grew amongst their wildflowers.

 

He chased them around the center of the garden, where a cursed rosebush used to grow, forever a mound covered in dandelions.