In the end, I surprise everyone and make the decision myself without coercion. It's worth it when I see the pure light that enters Peeta's eyes when I tell him what I've known for only a few weeks. In all our years together and the unyielding, interminable, devoutly loyal love he's shown me, I have never seen this light before, and I know that I will not forget it to the end of my days. It is a joy that is inexpressible in words. I know, seeing it, that I've made the right choice, and it's infectious; my heart fills with light.
I announce it casually, over breakfast at our big round kitchen table in the nook that faces east and fills with the rising sun by which Peeta can be found painting some mornings before he heads out to run the bakery. We finished moving into the new house we built together over a year ago, but there are still boxes stacked haphazardly around the place because I'm too lazy to unpack them and too busy with school to care. For a few years now, after pouring myself idly from one job to the next like water passing from cup to cup, I've been teaching at the spotless soldiers' academy that stands close to where the Hob once stood, all those years ago. Upon turning eighteen, citizens all over Panem have the free will to enlist as Guards or Soldiers. Guards serve as a type of general benign protective force—they do everything from responding to national crises, to aiding citizens around the districts who suffer a tremendous loss of some kind, to patrolling districts, keeping an eye out for any minor trouble and resolving it, should it arise. They're trained in a variety of skills including first aid, mediation, physical fitness…and wilderness survival, of course. I never had to apply for the job. Commander Arya, a silver-haired Victor who won the Hunger Games about ten years before we did, approached me specially about it, since she's in charge of managing the military forces in 12. "No one else could possibly be better for the job," she told me, as we sat at Peeta's and my old kitchen table, drinking tea as the cat rubbed around our ankles. Buttercup died at the ripe old age of 15 and was buried in our garden of Prim's namesake flowers, but of course one day Peeta came home with a tiny calico kitten and I couldn't possibly make him give it up. Unlike Buttercup, she adores me.
I accepted the offer, and so four days a week I teach courses on hunting, tracking, trapping, moving efficiently and silently in a forest, edible plants, climbing, even animal physiology. I share whatever I know, all those things that saved me time and again. I still haven't gotten accustomed to the respect that follows me to this day; my students always sit up straight in their chairs or on the forest floor and listen attentively. Of course, as soldiers, they are uncommonly focused and purposeful. Their purpose gives me purpose, and the work suits me. I enjoy it immensely and I plan to stay for a long time. It keeps me busy and though, to this day, we receive a stipend from the government as both former Victors and war veterans, it pays well. Peeta and I have stashed away quite a bit of money. We used some of it to help my mother buy a new house across town from us. After many years, she returned to 12, now outfitted with a gleaming modern hospital. She's in her late fifties now, and works as head nurse. We have lunch every Sunday afternoon, just she and I. The old wounds have mended. I laugh more easily now and the ghosts of the past no longer thicken the air we breathe. Actually, I've probably never been closer to her than I am now. It's good to have her nearby once more.
Gale stayed in the Capitol, despite his talk of leaving once the kids were grown. He surprised us and never married, even after all his talk about wanting to, but devoted his life to his work. When Beetee retired several years back, he was made head of Weapons and Technology Development in the Capitol, where he works under President Lyme. We still catch up as often as we have the time, although I'll never like the phone. I rarely travel out there—I will never like the Capitol, either—and he seldom has time off to come here. When I turned 30, he traveled out as a surprise for my birthday. For kicks, we trekked into the woods and found our old nook in the rocks, timeless, unchanged. We don't fit in it anymore, but we sat beside it. Gale is still tall and handsome as ever. I hear he has no shortage of lovers in the Capitol. I feel a sort of distant, abstract love for him now. There's never a day when I don't miss Prim, but the gaping, charred, hateful hole in my heart has mostly healed. Resentment is heavy, far too heavy to lug around. But it took a long time. He picked a few strands of oniongrass and we stuck it into our mouths and chewed. He looked sideways at my hair.
"I'll never get used to that," he said. Impulsively, I'd cut it short for the big birthday. I smiled, because Peeta hated it too, although he's too polite to complain.
We sat in silence for a little while and then a question rose into my throat, unbidden. It's the same one he asked me, a long time ago, in the Capitol when we'd been called back. I remember the moment in perfect clarity, standing on the stairs in the boardinghouse more than ten years before. I remember how young and conflicted I'd felt. Now I'm only curious.
"Are you happy?"
Gale's features soften, though he doesn't smile. "Most days," he says. "Are you?"
"I always wished that for you," he says, abruptly. "Even if it wasn't with me."
I know this is true. I take his hand and our fingers twine together, firm and strong and warm. I lean my head on his shoulder and I feel him exhale.
"No one will ever take your place," I tell him. I'm not looking at his face, but I can feel him smile nonetheless.
"I love you, Catnip," he says, matter-of-factly.
"I love you, Gale," I respond, without hesitation.
His mother, Vic and Posy still live in the Capitol. Posy works for the ministry responsible for news and media, and loves it. She's willowy and stylish and outgoing and gorgeous. She still lives with Hazelle and helps around the house. Hazelle retired early at all the kids' insistence, after years of working her fingers to the bone to care for all of them, plus me and Prim, of course. She volunteers for a number of causes and keeps an enormous garden, several Mockingjays, and a shaggy bearlike dog who follows her everywhere. Her house is filled with warmth and light, and I never fail to drop by on the rare occasions I'm in town. With the children working, particularly Gale, she'll want for nothing, which she deserves. Vic has revolutionized architecture in the Capitol after an early start, like me, on the rebuilding crews after the war. He advanced up the ladder and now is in charge of designing new buildings for the Capitol. He gained many fans by subtly altering the underlying known structures, changing the flavor of the city post-war into something newer, softer and less menacing, with far more art and parks filled with wild, untamed trees and flowers. Rory enlisted in the Panem Guard as soon as he was old enough, and was stationed in 7. He's married now, with three young kids. Sometimes he spends time with Johanna, and they've grown to be good friends. All of the kids are responsible to a fault, of course.
Johanna and I speak often, and we visit one another frequently. For the rest of her life, she'll have to take pills to balance her state of mind, as we've discovered after several disastrous attempts to alter her regimen. Out of all of us, she's the one who held the war closest to her heart. The torture never really left her, and to this day she has trouble trusting anyone but the closest of friends, a mindset with which I empathize. She brushes off her removal with her usual acerbic wit and a level of energy that's enviable. I've been trying to convince her to move closer to us for ages. Eventually, once the education system was really up and running, Johanna returned to school at a higher level—what was once called "university"—and studied the human mind.
"I want to understand why I'm so messed up!" she'd told us cheerfully, but she'd excelled. She even earned an advanced degree, although she doesn't use it. She's helped manage a series of new mills erected in her district after the war, but she only works in them intermittently. Mutt passed away—she cried bitterly for weeks—the year I turned 28, so one day Peeta and I arrived as a surprise on her doorstep with a tiny black puppy our neighbor's dog had. Like that long-ago bow around Lady's neck, I tied a tiny red-spotted ribbon on the pup. When she opened the door, I held her out in both hands and Johanna clapped her hands to her mouth in delight and then gathered the dog in her arms. Timber's getting on in years now, but Johanna's dogs have always been an inexpressible comfort and a stabilizing force in her life. She spends a lot of time hiking in the woods with Timber, sometimes for days at a time, camping out along the trail. Once I went with her and we had a grand old time in the woods hunting, telling stories, and melting chocolate on bread around the fire, drinking wine out of chipped glasses.
"Remember that time I visited you in 12 and we got trashed on white liquor?" she asked me, sitting around our fire circle. The autumn chill is in the air and a single cloak is wrapped around the pair of us. I liked our matching haircuts. Johanna was the one who'd cut it for me.
"How could I forget?" I say, smiling. "I was mad at Peeta that time. But remember how sick I got afterwards?" She chortles.
"Yeah, you were a big old baby then!" she says. "I just wanted to corrupt you." She winks. "I hadn't had any fun in such a long time. When we started hanging out it was almost a foreign feeling for awhile. Imagine, Katniss Everdeen introducing fun, of all things, into people's lives."
She spends a lot of her time working informally with homeless animals, collecting them at her house, raising orphaned kittens and finding them homes, splinting the broken wings of birds she finds, nursing other peoples' sick dogs back to health. Out of all her scattered pursuits, I believe this is when she's the happiest. Peeta says that Johanna will always be running from herself, trying to fill quiet hours with constant work instead of thoughts and memories. She never stops moving. She certainly has had some of the most beautiful men and women I've ever seen as lovers. Like Gale, she never wants for lovers, but also like him, she doesn't seem to seek them out. After all that's been, those of us who were in the thick of the war and seen what we have seen seem to be even more solitary creatures than we were originally. But I can't say that Johanna seems unhappy. Her nightmares are intermittent, but so are ours, even after all this time. I make sure to stay on her radar and check in. We write letters.
Haymitch is creeping out of middle-age now, although none of us talk about it, because I can't imagine a life without him after so many years. He gave me away when we got married, and he did it both sober and with joy, which showed me more than anything else how much he's cared about both of us over the years. Haymitch was always hoping that Peeta and I would succeed; it just took me some time and maturity to realize it. After we moved into the new house, he too left the Victor's Village to where the Capitol planted it, and moved into a smaller apartment in town. I think it does him good to be around people on a regular basis. His trauma from the Games and the wars never really healed. I would like to be able to say his alcoholism went away, but it never did. I understand, though. We all did what we needed to do, and it was as simple as that. We helped him move and we make it a point to visit him regularly. Greasy Sae, almost blind now but as spry as ever, lives a few doors down and also reassures us periodically that she's checking in on him, and we pay for a housecleaner so it doesn't get too foul. We still bicker, but the venom has drained out of it. It took me a long time to truly understand the weight of some of the decisions he had to make, the intention behind everything that happened so rapidly I struggled to process it for years and years. I needed some distance and some time. I expect everyone begins to have a new outlook on life after they've lived more of it. Haymitch had to make terrible choices that I never would have wanted to make. But one day in midwinter, he asked me for a favor—just me, not Peeta—and I obliged him. In his old backyard, out in the Village where no one would see, we built a bonfire. When the flames were leaping as high as our heads, we began to throw the tapes into it. Years and years of Hunger Games blazed into the sky, reduced to the ashes that once marked our district. These ashes were our triumph, the counter to all the cruelty that had been done to us. When it was done, we raised our faces to the moon and howled—Haymitch for himself, and me for him. After years of reliving his pain, being drawn back to watching again and again, helpless, he finally found it within himself to let at least this one small part go, and on that night, I felt hope that something like peace might still come, someday.
Peeta and I were infrequently asked to return to the Capitol to serve on committees, help make governmental decisions and contribute to the restabilization and morale reinforcement of the citizenry, and mostly, we did. It got easier over time, though to this day I will not step foot within sight distance of the President's former mansion. It's a museum now, and a memorial to those who died, I think, but I will never go there. I still can't bear to return to the place my little sister died. It doesn't ache like it used to, but I often dream wistfully of what it would have been like if she'd lived, what kind of life she would have and how it would be to have a sister. Johanna fills a little of that last hurt, but it will never be the same, of course. After a few years, the requests from the Capitol tapered off as leadership became more stable and a new generation of kids began to grow up. The Mockingjay was no longer needed, and I was glad to return to the quiet of 12. I hear they teach about us in the history classes in school now, which feels a bit odd. Peeta keeps more careful track of the political goings-on than I do, and occasionally reports back some interesting tidbit. We've been at peace since what they call the Second Panem War ended, and the country has prospered for the new form of government—though those in power do not always agree, the people's ability to be heard has mitigated the choices that are made at the highest levels. We now vote for those who represent us in government, and the government has to earn our votes and our trust, a system that suits me fine. I cast my ballot for President Lyme, of course, when she first ran.
Now and then, I'll call Annie to say hello. Though we're not close, we'll always share that bond of Finnick, who I never stopped missing. His son is a remarkable facsimile, sharing his sea-green eyes and golden skin, though Nerites has Annie's dark, wavy hair. He's a young man now, and if lovers swarm Gale and Johanna, they positively mob Nerites. I've only seen him a few times in the past ten years, but he has Annie's gentle spirit and Finnick's rollicking humor. Peeta and I tell him stories about his father when we're in town. District 4 erected a statue of Finnick in the town square not long after his son was born, to Annie's joy. Nerites has grounded Annie, made her more practical and attentive to the world. Made her more there, somehow. Once Nerites was in his teens, she remarried, to a fishing captain who brings her flowers and loves her son like his own. The three of them made a close family together, like Peeta and I.
And then there's Peeta.
My air of casualty belies my own pounding heart; it's manufactured for the sole purpose of seeing the look on Peeta's face when the words escape my mouth. He hasn't known that I'd stopped taking my pregnancy-control pills. I didn't tell him. I didn't have to. Peeta has never pressured me, but I know what he's wanted all these years, since before we were even married. I never thought it was a possibility for me, and his love for me is so vast that it made it not matter for a long time. It was one more thing that Peeta would give up for me, if I made that choice. After years of peace and quiet in our rebuilt district, as the nightmares slowly began to fade (though they never fully left for either of us, and I suppose they never will) and my mother returned to us and our marriage remained strong and wonderful, after years of being witness and subject to Peeta's endless kindness, gentleness, affection and steadiness, I quietly made another decision.
The words drop like small stones into the companionable air. Peeta is reading the paper. He grows very still and I know he both heard and believed, immediately. It's not the kind of thing I would say as a joke. He doesn't ask how. He doesn't ask why. He looks up and I just see that enormous earth-shattering light pour into his eyes. I truly believe that if he'd been standing, I would have had to catch him as his knees gave way. His lips part but no words come out, and then I'm smiling, I'm smiling and coming around the table to him and kneeling beside his chair, and I take his big hand and put it on my belly, which still isn't big enough to show, although it will be.
"I'm pregnant," I say again. "I'm going to have our baby."
He puts his other hand down to me, cupping my belly in both, and then he slides off the chair and slumps to the floor in front of me and he's kissing me, kissing me and holding on to my belly and as he scoops me up, I feel his tears on my cheeks, and then I feel my tears on my cheeks, and we're laughing and crying and then he's hurrying me up the stairs as I tip my head back and laugh, and then we're making love, sweet and urgent, and it's like no other sex we've had in all these many years together. Peeta whispers, "Say it again," in my ear over and over as we rock together, and I think at the time that this is a story I'll have to tell my child one day, the kind of love that they were conceived in.
It's not all roses. Throughout the pregnancy I nurse a constant fear of the unknown—of losing the child, of having the child, of being a mother. Sometimes Peeta has to help me catch my breath. He remains the steadying force that he has been from the first day he entered my life, when we were still children ourselves. He's my coach and my champion and my best friend. With his help, and my mother's, I make it through. A new chapter begins for us when she is born on July 4th—an antiquated holiday once called "Independence Day." Sasha Primrose Everdeen Mellark. She has my hair and his eyes. Haymitch is her godfather, of course. Five years later almost to the day, Noah Malcolm is born, after Peeta's youngest brother and father who died in the bombing. Noah has Peeta's hair and my eyes, to our delight. And when Noah is born, with Peeta's blessing, it's Gale I ask to be godfather. For the first time in years, I see the twinge of tears in his eyes, the first time he holds my son. I hope—I think—they're tears of happiness, for us.
The light in Peeta's eyes when I first told him about the germination of our daughter as a tiny seed was worth all the fear, the uncertainty, the anxiety about what I'll tell them now that they're getting old enough, especially her, to understand the meaning of the phrase "The Hunger Games." Now that they're old enough to be concerned on those nights when one of us still wakes up moaning or calling out or crying, before the other can leap to attention and comfort. They're not babies anymore. But neither are we. We have lived through just about everything someone can live through, and come out the other side. Together. I greet every day with a silent thank-you for Peeta. No matter how difficult the memory or dark the day, for either of us, there is the other. We no longer need words to communicate, after all these years of marriage. We instinctively understand one another, and the love that exists under this roof makes everything else possible.
Deep in the meadow, under the willow.
I have a blessed life.
***Note from the author:
I want to say thanks to everyone who's followed TL&N all the way through to the end. It's been a great experience to write and I never expected my first fic to get half a million views! Taking some time off writing now, but hope to be back with another one someday. Hoping it will be all about Johanna. ;)