Courage is not the absence of fear, but simply moving on with dignity despite that fear.
Ella had shown an aptitude for moving through the forest quietly. Even for an almost four year old. She watched me with fascination as I slipped through the underbrush stalking prey; she knew to stay quiet, though it didn't always last too long. So, I made sure not to wait too long before I found the spot to aim and shoot my bow. I didn't actually kill any of the animals in front of her, though she knew that was the point. I wasn't ready for her to see me first-hand killing something even out of necessity.
I knew her going to school was getting closer and she would learn of what the Hunger Games were, and I worried about telling her of my and Peeta's involvement in it. It was one thing to know about it and know that your mother and father had something to do with the rebellion, but it was quite another to know the extent of their neuroses.
She had begun asking me why I would sometimes wake up screaming from nightmares. I didn't want my child to know the horrors of what I had seen and done. As I pondered that, Ella tugged on my sleeve. "Mommy, look," she whispered. A buck stood a few feet away from us, grazing.
It would have made for some great venison stew, but I couldn't kill something in front of her. She was too young. Instead we watched it silently for a couple minutes before a sound spooked it and it bounded away.
"Come on, Ella, let's go home," I said taking her hand. We had been out in the woods long enough and I knew she was getting tired.
She walked alongside me, poking at all kinds of things, as I pointed out specific berries that were edible. We munched a few on the way back and as soon as we cleared the woods, Peeta was walking up to the house with our two year old son Ian.
"Daddy!" Ella cried, letting go of my hand to run full-tilt toward him.
Peeta swung her up and she threw her arms around his neck. He gave her a big noisy kiss making her giggle and then gave my hand a light tug so he could kiss me. I smiled and then felt a little hand pulling on mine.
"Mama," Ian said.
I scooped Ian up, holding him close, and he laid his head on my shoulder. I smoothed a hand over his back, over his blonde hair, and whispered, "I love you."
"Wuv you," he replied.
"Come on, I think its nap time," Peeta announced. For once they didn't complain about it, so we got them settled into their beds.
After a couple stories, more hugs and kisses, they both drifted off to sleep. We stood there, always taking every chance we could to appreciate our children. Every night I went into their room to check on them, to sit by their bed, and felt the old fears rise up in me.
Every time I had a nightmare, I would sit in their room. Sometimes the fear drove Peeta to join me, though he would sometimes coax me back to bed, saying we couldn't sit in their room every night for the rest of their lives.
In the evenings, Peeta often wrestled with Ella and Ian on the floor. It always amused me watching him, remembering he was a wrestling champ in school when we were kids. Our children loved when he'd roll them around, lifting them high, and they would squeal with delight.
Peeta made me join in a couple times, and my competitive nature would take over, but it usually resulted in him kissing me because I was a sore loser. Ella would screech that we were gross. It was quite an ordeal.
Peeta's occasional flash backs to the high jacking weren't that frequent, but Ella was even more observant than I realized. She had seen me take hold of Peeta during one of those episodes, and if she was around when it happened, she would go over to him and wrap her arms around his leg and hug him. I knew it upset her because she could tell he wasn't feeling right, but there was nothing that could be done.
The one night I woke screaming from a nightmare of being chased by something unseen in the arena. Ella had crept into our bedroom as Peeta tried to calm me.
"Mommy," she had whispered and climbed up onto the bed and right into my lap.
It was her way of comforting, and I cried to Peeta afterward that she shouldn't have to feel she has to comfort her own mother.
"Katniss," he said kissing me lightly. "Think of it like this... was she upset? No. Did she start crying, too? No. Ella is stronger than you think, and while I agree it's difficult knowing they're experiencing this through us, at least we know she got her strength from you."
I sniffled into his shoulder and realized he had a point. I hated the thought of my daughter being fearful of everything, so while I was upset that this happened, I was grateful my daughter was strong. She also resembled Prim in some ways, and though it still ached inside me, I was glad to see a bit of my sister in my daughter. Ella had my dark hair, Peeta's blue eyes, but the set of her mouth reminded me of Prim as did her need to comfort. She was also very loving and patient for a four-year old.
She was flipping through the book of photos one morning that she found and saw the picture Peeta had drawn of Prim with Lady. She beamed and pointed. "Mama, look! She's pretty."
I nodded. "She is. Her name was Primrose."
"That's my middle name," she said looking confused.
"We gave you that name because Prim was very important to us."
She had asked me to tell her about Prim. Drudging up the memories of my sister was painful, but enjoyable. I told Ella how Prim used to never be able to tuck her shirt in right, making her look like a duck. I told her how brave Prim was, and how good she was at making people feel better.
"Just like you," I said quietly.
It took me awhile to adjust to talking about Prim. Ella liked to hear all kinds of stories about her now that she knew she was named after her. The first couple times I talked about her, my dreams were vivid and Prim was in them, disappearing from my view every time I got near her. I always woke, tears burning behind my eyelids, while Peeta tried to comfort me.
Peeta struggled with the memories as well; talking about something that he connected with that time gave him nightmares as well. He woke one night, shaky and frantic that he thought he had killed me.
"I remember trying," he gasped softly, his arms holding me securely. "I tried to kill you; that time I killed Mitchell."
I comforted him that night.
His eyes were damp as his fingers traced my features, and I pulled him against me. "I need to feel you. I need to make love to you. I just need you."
I opened everything to him that night, feeling his lips and his hands caress my body, his hips pressed against mine. "Peeta, it was a long time ago," I soothed. "It was out of your control. You overcame it, though, and now we have each other. We love each other," I continued to whisper against his mouth.
We were connected - both physically and emotionally – as he moved against me. When I gripped him tightly, overcome with the feeling, he lowered his forehead to mine. "Thank you," he whispered.
I just held him against me, feeling our hearts beat together.
After awhile, it became a little easier. Ella didn't understand my hesitation, but I told her about everyone in that book; the little details. Ian liked to listen to me talk about them, too, but he was too young to question it.
When Gale had sent me his first letter, we talked here and there on the telephone. It was awkward, stilted conversation at first, but over time it eased and now he was planning a visit. Peeta was fine with it, and I knew Gale was married with a child. It made it easier knowing he was happy.
Once Gale arrived, and our eyes met, I realized time really had healed old wounds. I flew into his arms without a thought, and he caught me. He hadn't changed much; he just seemed more poised and calmer. He was still as handsome as ever.
"Catnip, it's good to see you," he said simply, his familiar smile in place.
"It's really good to see you, too," I said and truly meant it.
His wife – Rosanna – was charming and sociable. She was a good balance for him. Their little boy, Gale Jr., was a little spitfire. He and Ella became fast friends. We all sat in the grass, enjoying the late summer sun with just a touch of a cool breeze, and watched them play. Ian tried to keep up with them, and Gale Jr. was patient with him; he gave him a piggy-back ride when his chubby toddler legs just couldn't do it.
We filled each other in on what was new in our lives. It was as easy being with Gale again as before. I had come to terms with what had happened, and I knew I never blamed him. It had been hard to move on from, I had thought a lot about how it could have been one of his bombs, but I knew he had loved my family almost as much as his own.
We weren't meant to be together, but we weren't meant to be out of each other's lives completely. When they left, he shook Peeta's hand and hugged me tightly. "I'm so glad I got to see you," he said, touching my cheek.
A genuine smile curled my lips. "Me too," I said and slid my hand into Peeta's as we watched them leave.
Ella was starting school, and I knew that she would begin to learn about the games. It was taught in schools as part of our history, though I knew kids were sometimes told about it by their parents early on. I wasn't sure if I was ready for the questions she would inevitably have, but Peeta assured me we would just take it a day at a time. The day I had to tell her of mine and Peeta's role in the rebellion was something I dreaded and thought of often.
How do you tell your child that you have killed other people?
Haymitch was good with distracting Ella from her questions when he came over. He still drank his white liquor, but even without us telling him, he curbed his drinking when he came over to visit the kids. His hair was graying a little, the lines in his face had deepened, and he often looked worn, but he always had a smile and a spin for both Ella and Ian.
"Haymish!" Ella squealed, still unable to pronounce his name, when he came over one afternoon. Peeta and I were sitting on the porch - painting for him and skinning a turkey for me - as Ella and Ian chased each other around the yard.
They both ran toward Haymitch. He obliged them with a spin and then tucked one each under an arm as he walked up to the porch. The sound of our children's giggles never failed to make us smile even during a bad day. Once he set them down and they were off running again, he collapsed into the extra chair, breathing a little labored.
"Damn, I'm out of shape," he mumbled to himself. But he shrugged and leaned back.
I raised an eyebrow at him. "It would do you good to get in shape, you know."
He smirked. "Maybe I like getting old and fat, sweetheart."
"More like you don't want to give up the booze," I muttered.
He shrugged, and we sat in companionable silence as the memories came unbidden when Ella and Ian decided to run through the meadow together, Ella keeping hold of her little brother's hand. I glanced down at the turkey, plucking more feathers, trying not to think of it as a graveyard. I finished and cut up the meat to take it in and cook.
Haymitch stayed to eat with us - at Peeta's invitation - and it was a meal filled with chatter from Ella about her first day at school. Sure enough, she had heard about the hunger games.
Peeta was cutting up Ian's food when she finally said, "Daddy, Mommy, what's the hunger games?"
I froze with my forked poised in mid-air and my chest ached. Peeta's eyes met mine, and my other hand reached for his hand under the table. Haymitch glanced at both of us, eyebrows raised, but he stayed quiet.
"Jessie said that you and daddy were in it. Our teacher told her to be quiet after she said it."
"We were," I said quietly. "Panem used to be very different, Ella. It was something that children participated in."
She cocked her head. "Will I be in it?"
My stomach rolled, and I held my hand to it at even the suggestion. Peeta rubbed a hand over my back. "No, honey, you won't. The games are gone for good. There wasn't anything good about the game, so it doesn't happen anymore."
She looked a little confused. "It was bad? But you won?"
"We did," I managed to say. But at what cost? "You'll learn about it in school eventually and when you're a little older, we'll tell you a little more about it. It was a long time ago; it's a very good thing that there aren't any more of those games. There are better games to play."
And with that it was over. I gave a small sigh. Haymitch gave us both an awkward pat on the back in support, thanked us for dinner, and went home after we had cleaned up. We got Ella and Ian into bed after their baths with only a little complaining.
We smoothed their hair back, kissed them, and bid them sweet dreams. I hoped their dreams were sweet. There were enough nightmares in this house.
Once they were asleep, I stood in the hall with Peeta. I rested my forehead against his chest as he rubbed my back. "That could have been worse," he said.
I nodded, relieved that it was over and more questions weren't asked.
"It's always going to be difficult, we're always going to remember, and one day we're going to have to relive it when we try to explain it to our children," he added.
"As long as I have you, I'll be okay," I said.
He smiled, tilting my chin up. His lips were warm and held the promise of a good night. "I like hearing you say that," he admitted, untangling my braid.
I had gotten much better at expressing to him how much he meant to me, and he deserved to hear it often. I remembered being so hesitant about marrying him during the games, but I had discovered even then that I could never do any better than Peeta. Grateful that he was my husband, and that he made two beautiful children with me, I wrapped my arms around his neck. His lips became more eager under mine as our tongues brushed.
"Come on, let's go to bed," he murmured against my lips, hooking his fingers in my belt loops and giving me a tug.
I laughed. "Go on, I'll be there in a minute."
He disappeared into the bedroom, and I hesitantly pushed open the door of Prim's room. I stood, breathing in the soft lavender scent of the sachet's I kept in there. The soft breeze rustled the curtains - now cool as summer was coming to a close - and stared at the dresser drawer. I sat down on the edge of Prim's bed, opened the drawer, and brushed my hand over the items in there.
Prim's ribbons, dried flowers she had pressed into one of her favorite books; one of the few luxuries that had been hers. There was one of her shirts, the one that always gave her a duck tail, and there was the present she had given me at Christmas one year. I picked up the fabric-woven bracelet she had braided with different colored shirts of hers. She had cut little strips off so she could make it for me. I used to wear it, but always kept it safe when I didn't. I hadn't been able to look at it for so long after she was gone.
Now I pulled it out and tied it to my wrist. "I love you," I murmured. A few tears escaped and slid down my cheeks.
Buttercup wandered into the room, sitting just inside the door, staring at me with his yellow eyes. I was surprised he had lasted this long. He must've been younger than I thought when Prim took him in. He was probably near twenty years old now; though I noticed he didn't move around so well anymore.
"You really are a tough, old pain in the ass, aren't you?" I told him, and he hissed for old time's sake. I smiled, and he came forward for a few strokes of his back. We had long-ago developed a sort-of fondness for each other. He curled up on Prim's bed.
I started to close the drawer, but a glint of gold caught my eye. I reached into the drawer, pulling out the Mockingjay pin that Madge had given me. The badge of the rebellion. I traced a finger along the contours of it, remembering the girl who had been a friend of mine.
All the evilness, the control of the Capitol, and the brutality was a part of my life, but I had more good days than bad days. Peeta and I could easily put food on the table for our children, I was friends with Gale again, my children were healthy, my mother and I spoke a little more, and I had the love of my kids and my husband. My life was richer - and though I would have gladly taken my old house back and having to always hunt to eat to have Prim back - I was happy.
"Katniss?" I heard Peeta's voice call to me. He had that certain tone in his voice that elicited a smile; he was waiting for me.
I glanced once more at the pin - a representation of an old life - and went to my husband's arms to continue my new one.
My name is Katniss Mellark. I am 33 years old. I was a victor in the Hunger Games. I am married to Peeta Mellark, also a victor, and I have two children by him. I was the Mockingjay - a symbol of hope for the citizens of Panem. I lost my sister in a fire bombing. I was beaten, starved, dehydrated, and forced to kill other children.
I have chosen life, to live for my sister and the friends' who sacrificed everything for the cause and for me. I am free.
AN: And that's it, folks. :o) I hope you've enjoyed this! I had fun writing it. I know I plan on writing more HG fic, so if you're so inclined, keep an eye out. I love Peeta and Katniss (and would like to do more with them), but I also love Gale and many other characters. I might do some others as well! Thank you for being supportive and leaving reviews (and that includes all the one's I can't respond to personally!)… it's much appreciated.