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There was that lynx, right. Gale called it love-sick, how it followed Katniss around. A wild thing oughtn't be so tame, Katniss remembers thinking, before she got used to the old cat. And then she was almost fond of it, except it kept chasing game off with its predator scent and shambling gait. It trusted her for some reason which was probably why it was so easy to kill it and skin it and scatter its carcass – because lynx is tough meat even Greasy Sae won't take – and keep its pelt for trade.
That was Katniss, in the Reaping days, and Peeta was right not to approach her. Only distance was safe with her unless you were useful, unless she could use you. It wasn't cold but practical. That was Katniss: her Seam eyes could size a thing up, break it down to numerical nutritive value. Her belly was tight and her skin was stretched across her bones. Hunger was only ever two meals away, and starvation a sure guest to follow after. That was Katniss, who shut her heart up in a laughing little gold haired girl, so she could go on to kill and kill and kill and eat.
"Oh, goddammit," she says tripping over her feet. To be fair she can't see them. Her belly's eight months big.
"Woah, sweetheart," the old man says. He catches her for the baby's sake. If Katniss lands on that gut of hers, it's likely she'll pop the kid right out, a sudden application of pressure.
"Hands off me," Katniss growls, and Haymitch rolls his eyes.
"Weren't you supposed to start glowing at some point? Isn't that part of the deal?"
"Glowing's for fires and I'm not lit up anymore," she hisses. Her burn scars peek up around her neck: where the skin grafts took has healed over to an almost undetectable seam. Haymitch nevertheless detects. The girl grew up good and pregnancy's done wonders for her curves. It's too bad her personality never improved.
"Where's your husband?"
"Not my husband," she pauses, as if waiting for Haymitch to retort; he holds his silence, and she says, "He's painting." Grudgingly, pleased underneath the grit, she further clarifies: "The nursery."
Haymitch grimaces. "That's just so domestic I don't know what to do with it."
"Tell me about it," she says. As always, they are in perfect synch. "I told him I was going to hunt. He asked for squirrel." She rolls her eyes. "As if I could aim anything around my gut."
The day is spring bright and tingly new which is probably what prompts him to say, "Hell, girl, I'll get it for you," cocky like he hasn't been since he was sixteen.
"Well, well," her brow goes up, "Haymitch Abernathy, poacher of District Twelve. Stealing's punishable by death, you know."
"Sweetheart," he says, sincere, "I'm never going to die."
Not all of the fence came down, though enough in the firebombs and then, later, the reconstruction that they don't need to go under or over, just steer around. The woods lurk beyond the borders of the town that has a name but that they still call Twelve. Haymitch strides with his arms free-swinging, big rangy steps. Despite the baby she carries on her hips beneath her skin Katniss keeps pace.
The bow her father crafted her is wrapped up snug in its waterproof cloths and she uncovers it tenderly, squatting awkwardly on the ground. Haymitch stands back behind her right shoulder, watches how she touches it, her loving calloused hands. She bears it up with reverence and scowls when she passes it to him, bringing up the satchel of arrows too.
He recognizes an Everdeen bow when he holds it. The balance, the heft. He draws one of the arrows, practices his shot: it's been years, but memory's in muscle and he's old but his strength hasn't yet all gone to fat. His aim's a little off and she insults him until he adjusts it better. He gets his own back when he tells her she'll scare off all the game with her hulking whale walk, and she gives him her old familiar girl-on-fire glare.
He sets off alone through the woods, bow and arrows in hand, game bag slung over his shoulder. Sun through the trees makes him inexplicably cheerful, despite his sobriety. This time of day he should already be working on getting drunk – but sometimes he skips out on this diligence. Variety is the spice, after all.
An hour's work of careful walk and stalk, and he has three squirrels pinned with her arrows. Not as good a shot as she'd manage, not through the eye, but passable and neat. He represses the urge to whistle as he pulls the arrows clear, gathers the tiny bodies, heads back down the path his feet know from boyhood still.
He hears her a quarter mile out, voice crooning and dear. When he comes close enough to see, she has both hands pressed flat against her belly, head bent and dark braid hanging over her shoulder. Madonna of the woods.
He pauses, takes stock. Contemplates. Argues with himself, but comes to the inevitable conclusion; snorts with disgust. Despite his disdain there's no getting around it. Beautiful, he has to admit.
The old mangy housecat died three years back, blind and incontinent and mewling. She wept over it, its useless carcass. I should have drowned you, she thought, I should have killed you myself.
Peeta found her crouching over it. "Oh," he said. "Oh, Buttercup." He didn't pull her away or to him. He settled next to her and cried over the stupid thing too.
Later that night in their bed she tossed, turned. She was naked against him and he was bare to her. She clung to him then threw him from her, then pulled him back, then pushed him away.
"We should bury him," Peeta said. "Have a funeral."
She made a noise of disgust. "Don't be ridiculous," she said.
Mild, he said, "It's a good idea."
"Funerals are for people," she said. And never mind that there had been no funerals for all their people. Just memorials.
"Funerals are for those we mourn, who we've loved," he said.
Later the next day she resolved she should really get used to him being right, as it happened so often. Greasy Sae and her simple granddaughter attended. Haymitch wandered over too, still next door after all these years. The hole they dug was simple, behind the house. They wrapped the cat in old bandages, long past sterile and therefore useless, leftover from her mother and sister's healing days. She thought about how it stubbornly went wherever it thought her sister might be. They took turns filling the hole with dirt.
Finally she sat back, rocking on her heels. Bewildered she said, "I thought he was going to live forever." And burst into sobs.
Haymitch wanders up the stairs to see what Peeta's done while Katniss skins and cleans the squirrels at the kitchen table. Fry the meat up, she thinks, and there's the bread that's always fresh, and the greens for salad she has tucked away... Or she could make stew, but stew is food for winter and fall, the sleeping seasons. She's awake. Wide awake. And so is everyone she loves.
The meagre furs she stashes back in the game bag for Greasy Sae; she doesn't get around to cooking before Peeta and Haymitch come back down. Then Peeta rolls his eyes at her and takes over, and Haymitch sits at the table with her, and they take turns sniping at each other and mocking Peeta as he pretends to ignore them.
The baby kicks her. Is always kicking her. She doesn't mind the ache, the feel of bruises forming on the inside. Strong, she thinks, You're strong, and is proud.
They eat together passing dishes around the table. Haymitch is sober and Katniss is laughing: it's a good day for them both. Later as Peeta is clearing the table his hands shake so hard the plates slip and shatter on the ground. He shouts, "Get out, get out!" around clenched teeth, grips on to the table edge until it cuts into his hands. Tight, tight, he holds on. Falls to his knees and presses his forehead against the backs of his hands.
Each of them shakes.
At first she thinks the geese are a joke; but they stay. Haymitch guards them with a type of zealousness she's never seen or expected from him. They dig up the gardens and ring the air with cacophonous honks, are smelly and hostile, prone to biting.
She guesses she can see where Haymitch would feel the affinity.
Peeta bakes the bread. He suggested cheese buns, first, but those are her favourite, not theirs. She tells him she wants good, thick bread, the kind with nuts and raisins in it, the kind that can bring you back to life.
Katniss makes the fire. Out at the edge of the woods, a spot where she half remembers her father teaching her how to hold a bow. She builds it up so it'll burn bright, flash hot, and then die to embers. That's the kind of heat you need to sustain you, the kind of warmth that won't blister.
Peeta comes toward her with the loaf in hand, other supplies swinging from a satchel over his shoulder. No one could guess he has a prosthetic leg with the way he walks, so natural, a young handsome man. He comes closer and she can see the shine in his eyes.
They sit side by side, facing together. He slices the bread, she slides the slices onto the grate she's laid over the embers. He pulls the small jar of fresh-churned butter from the satchel, slathers it across the browning bread. The smell rises up. He puts his hand against her belly, feels the baby's foot jolt against his press. Sunset falls over them and the sky is awash with orange.
"So maybe he's my husband," Katniss admits the next day, and Haymitch makes a ridiculous face like, no, really? "Oh, shut up," she says, and he allows it, because she's smiling and alight, and he's part of it. Their strange little family. He's part of it all.
It's the bravest thing she's ever done, because it's the thing that scares her most: her primal fear, bringing forth life into a world that may take it from her. She works around the terror, tries not to let it show, but it's there.
The food is plenty. Her bow is ready. Her family is strong.
There has never been a better time.
But in her dreams Prim is burning and nothing Katniss can do saves her.
She's not ready, and she's not ready, and she's not ready, but it doesn't matter, because the baby comes anyway, the baby is here.
Oh, she stares at the wrinkled red face as the small fist spasms around her finger. There you are. She knows what it means now to feel: I'd follow you anywhere.
They grow together.