"Look, Katniss!" Prim presses her face to the glass of the hovercraft. "I see our house! And Haymitch, there's yours."
"Yay," he says dryly.
"Home," I whisper. I didn't think I'd see it again.
It's been a month since the war ended. Paylor established the interim government. She's well respected and many of the president's former allies are reluctantly agreeing to support her. Gale is helping her sort out a judicial system for the criminals I helped identify. He said he'll be coming back to Twelve soon, after his work is done. I'm not sure I believe it. There's a great deal of work to do and I've never seen him so passionate or engaged.
And, I can admit, things will never be the same between us. He can see my thoughts are always on Peeta.
He's still missing.
My nightmares are discovering his body. I call for him and hear his voice. I run through the conservatory, seeking him out. I hear his screams and imagine the torture he faces. Sometimes I get there to see Snow shoot him through the heart. Sometimes it's a group of faceless rebel soldiers tearing him apart. Sometimes he's being sucked under the earth by the purple and black tendrils of the plant; drowning as his lungs fill with dirt. Sometimes he's being drowned in the reflecting pool. When the splashing stops the mirror of the water shows it's me that's murdered him.
I wake up weeping. Prim doesn't need to ask. She hands me the tissues and strokes my hair until I fall back asleep. I didn't want to leave Thirteen. Not until I knew what happened to him. Until I had a confirmation he was dead or alive. But she wouldn't go with me. And Prim needs to get away from this place.
The hovercraft lowers onto the field in front of the Victor's Village circle. I thank Boggs for the ride; it was merciful not to take the train. Too many people would have recognized me. I don't want to speak to anyone.
Haymitch and my mother disembark. I pick up Prim's bag and see she's helping the fifth passenger of our small flight out of her seat.
"Thank you," says Sae as she shuffles to the door. I can't help but stare. I found she'd been taken prisoner the afternoon Peeta disappeared. I had her released immediately.
We stand on the grass and wave the hovercraft farewell. "Where do you live?" Prim asks Sae. "Can we help you get home?"
The grey-haired woman laughs quietly. "Don't rightly know, sweet child. I haven't been in Twelve since I was a young woman learning to cook. Mustn't have been thirty yet when they took me the mansion, I think. Don't even know if my family's line is still here."
Haymitch snorts. "Was anyone in that home there voluntarily?"
She smiles sadly. "Aye, a few. But most of us wanted our lives back." She sighs. "And my poor young master."
I swallow the knot in my throat.
She smiles at me. "Did you like your wedding cake?"
I jerk my head back and force a smile. "Yes. It was beautiful," I tell her.
"Good, good. We worked on that one for a long time." She smiles to herself. "Oh, I hope he's all right somewhere. That boy was as sweet as his mother. I couldn't replace her, but… I loved that boy." She nods to me. "Take care of yourself. Stop into town sometime, I'm going to set up a food shop as soon as I can."
"I'll come see you," I lie. I know I can't face any reminders of him. I wish she hadn't come back.
She nods and meanders out of our Village. We silently watch her shuffle away.
Haymitch coughs. He's never brought up Peeta since that day. I hope he keeps up our unspoken truce.
"I'm going home." He tries to think of something comforting, maybe distractingly rude, but gives up and walks away from us.
"Come on, girls," my mother sighs happily. "Let's get inside."
I sit on my bed and stare at my hunting boots. I lost the dandelion pin. It hurts to remember. It was on my wedding dress. The one Peeta unzipped and I let fall to the floor. We made love in his bed, I remember. He was my husband. He loved me. I couldn't protect him.
I lie back on the pillows and let the nightmares come.
I'm staring at the fire in the living room when the phone rings. For a moment I imagine it's him. Calling while Portia hovers around him, begging him to stop calling the girl who is causing him all the trouble. But I know it's not him. He's been missing for three months now.
My mother hurries in the living room, frowning as she sees me. I'm three feet from the phone but made no move to answer it. I don't know why she still acts surprised. It takes all the energy I have to get out of bed. I haven't gone hunting in weeks. I ran into Sae walking back through town the last time I went and refused to go back.
"Oh hi, Gale!" My mother pushes my shoulder. I shake my head. "She's right here." She forces the phone into my hands.
"How's it going?" I can hear the worry. My mother told him to call, I realize.
He's silent for a second too long. "Glad to hear that." I say nothing. "Um. How's the hunting? I bet great now that the fence is down."
"I'm not hunting."
"I know she told you to call me."
"Katniss, we're just worried about you-"
"Worry about him, he's the one who's missing," I snap.
Gale sighs heavily into the phone. "Katniss, you've got to face it. It's been three months. He's gone. He's….he's probably dead."
I stare at the fire. It burns into my eyes.
His voice is gentle. "You've got to let him go. Your mother says you're not eating well, you wake up screaming. You can't keep hanging on to this. He wouldn't want you to live like this."
"Thank you for calling." I lean over and slam the phone down the receiver.
"Katniss!" my mother appears from the study. I should have guessed she'd be listening on the other phone.
The phone rings again. She quickly picks it up. "Gale, I'm so sorry about her-Oh. Oh, no I'm sorry, I thought…yes. Paylor? Yes, I'll hold on."
Prim appears at the back door, wiping her hands on her apron and holding a bucket of goat's milk. "Kat, I'm going to make some cheese," she calls to me.
She comes to the living room when I don't answer. She sees me slumped in the chair and looks over at our mother as she plays with the phone cord.
"Yes, President Paylor," my mother says, raising her eyebrows at me and Prim. "It's very good to hear from you. Primrose is doing very well, thank you," she smiles. "Yes. Me too! Katniss? She's…coping. Things are difficult…yes. I do understand. Yes, I'll tell her. I know you haven't given up," she says pointedly at the back of my head. I glower at the fire.
"No, I've never been there. The ocean, right? Yes."
She's silent for a long moment. Her eyes grow wide. She's quiet for so long even I turn around to look at her face. She is rapt and a smile is breaking across her face. "That would be incredible," she breathes. "Yes. Absolutely. Yes. Okay. Tomorrow, yes. I'll call around noon. What's the phone number?" She's giddy as she hangs up the phone. "They're building a hospital. In District Four." A smile breaks out over her features. "They want me to come train doctors."
Prim drops the bucket and cries out. She rushes forward to embrace our mother.
My mother looks up at me. "Well, I thought…we'd leave."
Prim releases her and looks over at me. "Katniss…you wouldn't…go too?"
I clench my jaw as I think about it. It's hard to admit why I don't want to go. "He knows I live here."
My mother looks away, pained. "Katniss."
"If I go, he wouldn't know where to look for me," I interrupt.
"No!" I jump off the chair and run up to my room.
The soft knock comes a few hours later. "Come in, Prim," I say to the ceiling.
She appears with a smile and a sandwich. "It's wild turkey," she tells me as she climbs on to the bed. "From Sae."
I sigh and take a bite.
"I'm going to Four. With Mom," Prim says slowly. "I want to learn to be a doctor."
I hide the pang of pain and smile at her. "My sister's going to be a doctor." She looks like she's ready to jump with excitement. I haven't seen her this happy in a long time.
"Are you…going to come too?"
"I…I don't know Prim," I sigh. "I don't know what to do." I stare out the window.
"I want you to come." I look at her. "Even for just a little while. To see if you like it."
"Prim," I choke. "I just…I'm not ready to…" I let my words trail away.
She's thoughtful. "We could leave a note. Or tell Haymitch where you are. So if…when he comes here, he'll know where to look for you."
I close my eyes. "Thank you, Prim. I know…I shouldn't…"
"It's okay, Katniss," she says softly.
I sigh. "Okay, Prim. I'll go with you. Even if it's just for a little while."
The beach is tranquil in the early morning. I scratch my peeling sunburn and sit down on the sand. The surf washes over my feet. I sigh and inhale the salty air.
District Four is beautiful. I'm sorry I can't stay here.
Mom and Prim have adjusted quickly to their odd hours and work in these past three weeks. Their shifts vary; sometimes they're both gone in the early hours of the morning, sometimes my mother works overnight and Prim trains all day. Regardless of when they work they are thrilled with their work.
Prim sits at the dinner table and talks non-stop about what she's learning. She's never been so talkative and cheery. My mother has to remind her to eat or she'll forget in her excitement. My mother looks tired, but has a glow of pride in her that's been missing for a long time.
I do very little here. I fish; the old men who sit at the dock were happy to teach me. Only one mentioned he knew who I was. He told me quietly he'd been a fan of Amaranth and was glad to live to see my freedom. He showed me how to tie off the line and wait for a fish.
I wander the markets and examine the exotic fish in the tanks. I watch the stray dogs play on the beach. I sit in the surf and watch the early morning swimmers and runners move up and down the shore.
I'm useless here. I know I'll need to go home soon. I stare at the sunrise over the water.
"Finnick?" He looks genuinely surprised, maybe even concern when he sees me.
I stand up and hurry over to him. "I…I can't believe it's you. You look great," I note. He looks as incredible as ever.
He smiles. "Well, I have an image to upkeep." His smile frowns a little. "What are you doing here?"
"My mother and sister are training at the hospital. Well, what will be the hospital," I gesture to the half-built structure generating a clatter of construction sounds. He nods noncommittally, as though I've said something difficult to understand. I realize that's not a reason for me to be there.
"I…came along. I…didn't have anywhere else to be," I say, defeated.
"It's okay," he tells me quietly. "There's a lot of that now."
"I'm sorry I shouted at you. In the recovery room. I know that wasn't fair."
He shrugs. "I would have done the same."
"Finnick," I plead. "Do you know where he is? Is he all right? I haven't heard anything." I feel the tears starting and bottle them back.
He pulls me in for an embrace, shushing me. He drops his mouth to my ear. "He's okay. He's fine."
I jerk my head back up. "Where? Where is he?" I nearly shout.
"Quiet!" he whispers hastily, glancing at a runner who slips by. "It's not safe for him yet."
"Please," I beg. "I've got to see him. Where is he?"
"I can't tell you that, Katniss."
"I can't," he insists. "Please don't ask me."
I blink away tears. "I know, I know. Do you see him? Can you tell him I'm sorry?"
Finnick sighs. "If I see him, I'll tell him."
He looks me over again. "Take care of yourself, Katniss."
I wipe my nose on my sleeve. "Thank you, Finnick. You as well. And your wife."
He smiles. "Annie's pregnant."
I'm dumbstruck and finally manage "Congratulations!"
He grins. "This world…" he looks at the sun as it rises over the water. "It's going to be all right now."
I watch him walk away smiling.
I'm packing my suitcase while Prim and my mother are at the hospital. It'll be easier to leave after I tell them I can't stay here if I'm ready to go when they get home. He's alive. Finnick will talk to him. He'll come see me. And while I wait, I need more distractions. I need to hunt in the woods. I need to smell the coal dust. I need the trees. I can't stay here.
I hear the soft knocking at the door when dusk is settling. I frown at the clock that tells me my family won't be home for another two hours.
I open the door.
I must be dreaming. I must have died. This can't be real.
"Finnick said you wanted to see me," he mumbles.
He's real. I'm choking and I can't breathe and I think I'm going to faint. I stumble backwards and fall when I miss the chair by the door. Peeta darts forward. "Are you okay? Katniss?"
"You're here." My words are staggered.
He pulls me up and sits me in the chair. "Yeah. I'm here."
"Finnick. He knows everyone. And the nurses in the hospital adored him, so…he had them smuggle me out. Snuck me here."
I think my jaw is in my lap. "It was him?" He was a better actor than I realized. "You've been in Four?" I can't stop staring at him. I'm afraid if I blink he'll disappear. "You're okay."
"Yeah. I'm okay."
"I'm so sorry. About…" I freeze. Because I'm sorry about everything. But I don't know how to say that. "Your father."
I see the wince ghost over his face. The wound is still fresh. "It's okay," he says, but his voice betrays him. He shrugs and tries to laugh, but it sounds more like a sob. "He never really…he tried to kill me."
I'm trying not to cry, but faced with his pain it's nearly impossible. "Peeta-"
"Please. I don't want to talk about it."
"Okay," I whisper. I don't know what else to talk about. It's all I've thought of for weeks. "What are you doing here? I mean, what do you do?"
He leans against the sofa arm. "I, um, I bake."
"You remember how Sae used to let me help? I told the baker here I was an apprentice in the Capital and she gave me a job."
"I use my mother's name," he says quietly. "I go by Peeta Mellark. They don't really ask questions. They think Snow's son is dead. Everyone saw him get shot," his voice cracks again. He looks away from my face. "How's Prim?" he asks the window.
"She's doing great," I say, glad for the excuse to talk about happy things. "She's studying to be a doctor at the hospital they're building here."
"That's great," he murmurs, genuinely pleased. "And…there's no…"
"No," I say quietly. "She still has nightmares sometimes, but otherwise. No lingering side effects."
He closes his eyes in relief. "I'm so glad to hear that." We let a pause grow.
"Look," he inhales. "If this is about getting it annulled, I don't know how to do it either. I don't think it really matters, though. Any magistrate is going to let you remarry without questioning it." My jaw falls open. He looks at his shoes. "You and Gale are…engaged?"
"No! No," I say quickly. "This isn't about that at all. I mean, we're not together."
"Oh," he says as he furrows his brow. "I guess I just assumed since…he's not your cousin."
"No. We were never together."
"Oh." He furrows his brow.
I don't know what to say.
"Um. So what did you need? From me?"
"Nothing," I blurt out.
"Why did you want to see me?"
"Peeta," I breathe. "I needed to know you were all right. When you went missing, I thought you'd been kidnapped or killed-"
"I'm fine." He shifts uncomfortably. "I guess. I should go."
"No!" I leap to my feet. "Please. Stay."
"Katniss," he sighs.
"Please listen," I beg. "I never meant to hurt you. You are incredible and funny and kind. But you must know how much your…how difficult it was to say no to…the Capital. I had to say yes. I didn't know how wonderful it was going to be at first, I only knew I was frightened for my family. If I had known how happy I was going to be with you, I'd have told Gale and Haymitch and Johanna to find a way to stop the rebels right away. But I didn't know until…it was too late."
He's staring at the floor. I reach out gingerly to touch his arm. "I didn't know I loved you then."
He looks at my hand on his arm. I'm wearing the wedding ring. I see him swallow hard.
"I need to go to work," he says abruptly and moves to open the door. I push it shut. I move quickly and press my lips to his.
His shock melts after a few moments and his hands wrap around my back. I open my mouth to his and push into him. I slip my fingers through his hair. He tastes my mouth, breathing hard against my cheek. His grip around my waist tightens.
He jerks away suddenly and stares at me. He pulls open the door, looking back over his shoulder at me. "I'm sorry, I just…I have to go."
I follow him out the door. "Peeta!"
He breaks into a run and disappears around a corner. I kneel on the threshold and cry.
Prim squeezes my hand as the train rolls into the station. "Are you sure you're going to be all right?" she asks as we watch the incoming passengers to Four disembark.
"Yeah," I tell her. "He wants to forget about me," I say, ignoring the pain. "I should go."
"Will you call? I want to know you get home safely."
"Of course," I smile at her. "Tell Mom I love her, too."
The conductor calls for outbound passengers to board. I stand up and pick up my bags. "Oh, wait." I drop my bags and reach for my hand. I slip the ring over my knuckle. "Will you give this to Finnick? For Peeta. It was Amaranth's."
Prim looks up from the ring in her palm. "Are you sure? He didn't ask for it back."
"I lost the dandelion pin," I admit. "I want him to have some keepsake of her. He's her son. Will you tell Finnick that?"
Prim nods. She opens her arms and I hug her again.
I haul my bags over my shoulder and climb on board. I secure them above the bench seat and press my face against the window to see her. She's wiping her eyes and waving.
I press three fingers to my lips and set them against the glass. She covers her heart with her hand.
The train pulls out of the station.
I'm still spitting leaves from my mouth when I get back to the Victor's Village. I tripped over a root chasing after a duck I spotted flying above the branches overhead and landed face down in the soft earth. I yank a stick from my hair and sigh.
Getting back to hunting was difficult. I had to do something. I had to get out of the house. Even Haymitch started stopping by to make sure I was still alive. When he asked Sae to bring me some food I decided if I didn't go hunting I'd end up sitting at home every afternoon, forcing polite conversation with them.
I cough out a leaf and round the side of my front porch to leave my muddy boots outside.
He stares at me.
"You have a pinecone in your hair," Peeta says finally.
"I fell," I answer.
We look at one another.
"I brought this back to you," he says, standing up. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handkerchief. He opens up the fabric.
It's my wedding ring.
"But…it's your mother's. Don't you want it?"
He shakes his head. "No. I, um. I know she didn't want it. I know…how she died."
I swallow hard. "I'm sorry," I whisper.
He shakes his head. "I don't want to talk about it. Do you want this? I'll give it away if you don't."
"I want it," I say quickly, and dart forward to take it.
He watches me slip it on to my ring finger. "You don't have to wear it."
"I want to."
We stand in silence for a moment.
He coughs. "You still have a pinecone in your hair." He hesitantly reaches out. "May I?"
He tries with one hand to remove the pinecone but has to use both when it becomes evident it's hopelessly tangled. He struggles with it for a few minutes, trying not to laugh. I start to laugh at his frustration.
He finally frees it and laughs as he throws it into my untended garden. "You really need to comb your hair," he grimaces with a smile as he looks at my hair.
I run my fingers through my locks and feel the knots. I blush.
"Um." I look back at him.
"I should get going," he sighs. "See how's Sae's doing. Finnick said she called-"
"Do you want to go to the meadow?"
He looks up, startled. "Right now?"
"The dandelions are in bloom."
We walk through town slowly. He looks at all the construction with wonder. "What's going on?"
"There's more money coming through now," I tell him. "We can make repairs and fix things that have been falling apart."
He looks pleased. "I'm glad to hear that. How's the mine? Is Gale still working there?"
"No, he's in Two, actually."
"Yeah, he's heading up the new criminal justice system. Trying to figure out fair punishments for lawbreakers. Once we have new laws, I guess."
He nods thoughtfully. "I can see he'd like that." He glances over at me. "I know it was him."
I try to find the words. "It's okay, Katniss," he sighs as we shuffle slowly past the West mine entrance. "I know…it had to happen."
I don't speak until we reach the meadow. When he sees the sea of yellow he finally loses his composure. He collapses into a bed of dandelions. I sit heavily next to him.
"I wanted to believe…for so long…that he was good leader," Peeta sighs when we've settled our breathing. "That he just understood things I didn't. That," he chokes, "That my mother loved him. I was stupid."
"You loved your father," I tell him. "You wanted him to be the man you thought he was."
He nods. "I'm sorry I dragged you in to all this. I should have listened to Portia. She told me so many times to leave you alone. And now…"
"I'm glad you didn't listen," I murmur.
He looks at me. I lean forward slowly. I wait. He hesitates. I look into his eyes. He leans forward. He kisses me back gently.
We watch the sun move over the meadow for hours.
"The trains are finished for the day." I tell him shyly as we walk back through town.
"I have extra rooms," I say quickly. "If you want."
"You're alone here?"
"I guess…that's okay," he says. He gives me a small smile.
We make rabbit and wild onion soup over the range and he tells me about life in Four. He's learned to swim and fish, but he's found a real talent in baking. I tell him about hunting and my sister's discoveries in medicine.
"You must miss her a lot."
"I do," I sigh. "She's growing up so fast." I look back to him. "Thanks to you."
He raises his eyebrows.
"You helped her get to me. In the City Center. You saved her life."
He looks sadly at the pot on the stove. "I only wanted the best for you and your family."
"I know. I love you too."
Our eyes meet. I shut off the stove and pull the pot off the burner.
We make it upstairs to my room before I tear open his shirt. He gasps as I attack his neck with my mouth. His fingers yank on my shirt and pull it free from my pants. It rips as I help him haul if over my head.
"Sorry," he gasps.
"I don't care," I say, pulling his mouth back to mine.
I grab his hand and drag him to the bed, tripping on the carpet. I jump on my mattress and pull off my pants and underwear as fast as I can. I sit up and hold out my hand to him.
He stands at the foot of the bed, looking at me.
"Are you…sure about this? I just…I don't want you to think you…feel bad for me."
I crawl down to the foot of the bed. I draw up to my knees and bring my mouth to his again. "I want to be with my husband," I whisper to his lips.
The word flips a switch and his hands are back on me. I pull him down on top of me and he struggles to get his pants off when I can't let go of him for even a moment. We cling to one another, wanting to erase the pain of the past with the joy of the present.
Finally he's disrobed too and climbs over me. I bring my legs up to his sides and run my fingers along his face. "I love you."
He lowers himself into me. I arch up and press against him, relishing the feeling of fullness. Of completion. He groans into my neck. He waits, giving my body a moment to remember him.
He moves inside me and I cry out with happiness. I wrap my legs around his back as he thrusts deeply. He hoists himself onto his palms to watch my face as he grinds against me. I look him in the eye and bite down on my lip. "More."
He complies and the room starts to spin. I dig my nails into his sides, rolling my hips back to take him deeper and harder. I gasp and cry out over and over. His skin is slick with sweat as he moans and squeezes his eyes shut, trying to hold back for me.
His hands move to my hips and lift me higher, giving himself an angle that makes me scream his name. I feel my whole body contract around him. I shake and shudder and babble as he drives me to ecstasy. His fingers grip harder and he suddenly stills, his mouth falling open as his head falls back as he cries out.
He falls forward, lying halfway on me and half next to me on the bed so I can breathe. I feel his burning chest heaving against my stomach. It's like another heartbeat through my body.
We cool down and my leg muscles get stiff still splayed out around his hips. He gently withdraws from me and rubs my joints, kissing my knees as he bends my legs. He looks up from where he kneels over me.
"I love you," I tell him honestly. "I want you to stay here with me. I want to try again."
He smiles at me. "I was just going to tell you that you still have a leaf in your hair." He reaches to my mussed braid and pulls a small maple leaf from behind my ear. He unsuccessfully stifles a chuckle.
I push him off me with a shout. "Why didn't you say anything before we walked through town?" I yell, but I can't help but smile.
"I didn't see it!" he laughs as he stretches on the bed. "I wasn't as close to it." I pout and fold my arms over my bare chest. He grins and reaches over to catch my elbow. He pulls me down on to his chest. I sulk happily. "You don't have to be a lady anymore," he says quietly. "I always loved you as you were anyway."
"Thank you," I whisper as I feel the fatigue setting in. "I've forgotten most of what Enobaria taught me anyway."
"I can tell."
I laugh sleepily as I pinch his waist. "Ow," he smiles. He kisses my forehead. We drift off to sleep.
I don't have to work very hard to convince Peeta to stay. He wanted to anyway, even if it took him a long time to admit it.
When I call Gale, he insists he'll come back to Twelve to visit and I smile as I tell him I know he won't. We aren't the children we were together anymore. He has a life in Two. His family joined him there already. I wish him well as we say goodbye.
We received good news and terrible news every day. We find out who we lost, who went missing. We find out who survived, who is changing the world we live in.
Peeta finds work at Sae's food shop making the breads and I try not to visit too often. I can't help it. I love watching Sae mother him and worry that he's not eating enough even though we've both gained more weight than we needed to after the hard months following the uprising. I blush over my curves in the mirror, but he greedily explores them until I don't think about it anymore.
Paylor was relieved to hear he was alive and agrees that he's well hidden in the Twelve. Most of the country does believe he's gone and we agree to keep up the illusion and his name change. She does call him every now and then for intelligence on how things were done and whom the best allies to lean on are. He's glad to help build the country over again, just as he wanted.
She invites us to come to the Capital a few years after the war has ended as an advisor, but he refuses politely. He wants to raise our children in Twelve.
We sit in the dandelion field one night, my head resting on his lap as I stare at the stars. He runs his hand over my blossoming stomach. "Katniss?"
"Yes?" I murmur.
"I want to call her Amaryllis. For my mother."
I feel the child inside me stir. I smile. "That sounds beautiful." I roll my head to look at his eyes.
"Are you happy?"
"No, no, I mean. Your whole life you planned to rule this country. And now you're a baker in a District. Is this what you wanted?"
He sighs and frowns while he considers the question. "It isn't what I planned. But this, right here, it is what I wanted."
"Hmmm," I say doubtfully.
"Well, I could call Paylor if you want to move back to the Capital," he smiles. "I hear Effie Trinket opened her own clothing shop." He smiles down at me. "You could sell those antler dress designs to her."
"I'm fine, thanks."
He laughs as he helps me up. We walk home under the stars.