Peeta could hear his footfalls on the quiet streets in the town. A thin layer of frost covers the ground, and even the special District 6 wheels of the cart complain a little bit of the cold, but the bread stays warm under the thick blanket covering it. Peeta Everlark had left his wife sleeping quietly under their quilt with a few soft kisses on her cheeks and forehead. The frost had chased away her game, who would not re-emerge until starvation brought them venturing later in the winter.
She could certainly still trap if she wanted, but Peeta had made a point to buy meat in town in order to encourage her to sleep more. Her nightmares had come back stronger since the excitement of the wedding had left District 12 to return to its humble self. He also had a sneaking suspicion that it had to do with the upcoming Voting Tour, which was looming closer as the Victory Tour had, so many years ago. He took a slow breath of chilled air, pursed his lips, and continued towards the square.
He sees others stirring for the day; the storekeepers brushing the frost off of their doorsteps and opening their shops. His first customer is a teenager, picking up bread for his family before school begins. School isn't as structured as it used to be, but the kids still go. One of the teachers is his next customer, and they spare each other tired smiles as they go about their days. He hears hammering from the shoemaker's shop, then slowly, young children come into the square, flanked by one of District 12's rare grandmothers, they are already immersed in a game of tag.
Peeta sets up shop in a corner of the square. It's not completely out of sight from the old bakery, but far enough from it to make it clear that Mellark Bakery and his own little stand, Star Crossed Buns, are not affiliated. The day warms as the sun makes its way across the sky. He exchanges news with the townspeople and listens to their gossip. As someone inevitably will, a young mother drops a hint, a question, as she hands her 2-month-old over to Peeta to coddle while she decides on some rolls, about when the Everlarks will welcome their own bundle of joy.
Peeta, though he has strong feelings on the topic himself, knows better than to feed rumors. He only wipes some spit-up from the baby's face with the corner of his apron and assures her with a kind smile that this child will certainly be old enough to baby-sit his, if they ever exist to be babysat. The woman, Kindra, the wife of a coal-miner-turned-construction-worker reclaims her baby and gives him a knowing look and only says, "Yes, but they do sneak up on you."
Peeta wants to tell her the truth, as she turns away with her child, that it will be two years at the very least, and that Katniss will not even speak on the topic. He wants to tell her how much it breaks his heart. How much he misses having Maysilee around. How much he yearns more than anything to truly grow something, give something beautiful back to this world. But he simply checks his stock and sorts his coins until his next customer appears. Katniss is fiercely private, perhaps now more than ever, with the Voting Tour looming in the near future.
Several more hours pass, more conversation, more bread. A few other questions he doesn't mind answering, like about their choice of a last name. He explains, as he has before about their choice to become a new family and to honor both of their old families by keeping parts of them in their name. He does not mention the morphlings, or how long it took Katniss to agree to legalize their marriage. If people want to assume that they've been married since their secret marriage at age 16, which they announced to all of Panem in a desperate effort to- who can even remember what now, something. Stay alive probably. With a smile, Peeta thought himself that if they wanted to assume that, they wouldn't even be wholly wrong.
Then, a little past noon, as he hears the train whistling away, a young man appears, Taylor. Peeta knows him well because he's the delivery-boy. Things that come in on the train pass through his hands before coming to the people they belong to. He has a cart much like Peeta's, with boxes and bins. Peeta greets him warmly, expecting that one of the crates is his, full of flour and sugar and hopefully the food coloring he so desperately wants to try out. But Taylor hands him an envelope. He is unsurprised to see it addressed to Peeta and Katniss Everlark, written in unmistakable cursive, and a clean, black stamp in one corner that says simply "HAWTHORNE," with a District Two address. He can't help but smile. The stamp so embodies the family it represents, clean cut and straightforward, even little Maysilee with her serious face and deep thoughts. The thought of the little girl renews the ache that had dulled in his chest, but he just smiles at Taylor, tipping him with a sticky bun.
He tucks the letter into his coat, and goes back to selling bread and chatting, but it seems to tug on him, as if the letter has weight greater than paper and an envelope could possibly hold. He tries to focus on his work, on the smiling faces and kind words of the people he knows, but this, the promise of news from his friends, seems to be all he can think about.
Finally, in a lull, he is able to open the envelope and dive in. Expecting more of Madge's cursive, he is surprised by a bright green and orange drawing of two people holding hands and a little purple, crookedly smiling figure off to the left, and hundreds upon hundreds of rainbow hearts. And three letters, a pretty solid M, a shaky P and an almost unrecognizable K.
There is another page, and he suppresses his desire to read it aloud.
Dear Peeta and Katniss,
Momma is writing for me since I am still learning my letters. How are you? I am good! Guess what! I am four now! I am sad that you had to miss my birthday, it was a wonderful party! Momma and daddy got me a beautiful purple cake, but it was not as pretty as the one you made for momma and daddy's wedding, Peeta. I also got a new dress and new colors and a new toy dog! It was a fun party, some of my friends from school came and Finn and his moms and River and his mom and dad too. Gramma made me the warmest blanket and Auntie Posy gave me one of her dolls! Everyone brought me candy and we played games all day! I had to go to bed early though, since momma said I get as cranky as daddy when I'm "over-cited" and "have sugar-highs."
Peeta laughs, trying to imagine Gale Hawthorne, whom he had spent so long at odds with that calling him a friend still felt strange, on a sugar high, or 'over-cited.'
I miss both of you and am happy we are going on vacation soon! Finn is always talking about the ocean, but I wonder, if it's so great, why isn't it here in the mountains? I don't think Finn likes mountains so much. I do, though. Don't you think they're pretty? I think they're kind of purply. Finn says the ocean is not purple, but he did say it changes all of the colors of the rainbow except purple. I don't think I believe him, but momma says I can decide for myself what color the ocean is. Momma says she's never seen the ocean either, but she wants to.
Peeta's find his smile faltering, as he can almost hear Madge's lilting, sad voice in the words that she has written. The innocence, the simplicity of her desire to see the ocean just reminds him that his experiences, which include the Victory Tour of all the Districts of Panem are not shared by all of the citizens of 12, not even the rich ones.
Peeta, are you baking bread like we did when I was there? Katniss, you still have to take me into the woods. I still want to go. Maybe we will have time on vacation, but momma and daddy keep telling me we are going to be very busy. I told them that's weird because vacation is not a busy time. They thought this was very funny but I don't know why.
I hope you are both doing good and I miss you.
Then there is that same, sturdy little M. Then, a little note that clearly comes from Madge,
Gale and I are looking forward to seeing you both again. Gale had a thought the other day that we should maybe clear up- neither of you have left the district since the war, and from what I understand, Katniss isn't actually allowed to. Have you two spoken to anyone about that issue? I'm hoping that something can be done about that, but the earlier we check into it the earlier we can make proper preparations. We are doing well here, Maysilee's birthday did indeed go off without a hitch and we are preparing ourselves with the education material. There is a lot of it. I'm sending it separately, probably tomorrow. Some of it is a little complicated, but the ideas are going to be easy enough to get across. It's a 3 step process, Educate, Decide, Vote. We'll be actively involved in the "Educate," part, but the deciding is up to the people. We can only hope that voting actually results of it!
Gale sends his love, as do I. We would love to hear from the Everlark Family!
Peeta smiles as he tucks the letter and Maysilee's picture safely in his pants pocket underneath his apron. He does spare a passing thought about the travel issue, but he's fairly certain that three years of recovery, a new last name and another promise to help save the world will ensure Katniss passage into the rest of Panem. It pays to have friends in high places. He also has a sneaking suspicion that Plutarch and Cressida will not stand by to have the famous Girl On Fire stuck in her district for this particular escapade - even if she's not 'on fire' anymore.
If not, well, they've accomplished more difficult things.
When he returns home that evening, he is greeted with a warm hug and a kiss from his wife. After all of the reflecting he has done over the course of the day, he can't help but marvel at how blindingly normal they are now. She has dinner on and Haymitch is ambling up the way to join them.
He looks strangely sober, Peeta notes, before wrapping Katniss in another hug and passing her the letter, which she reads over eagerly. Peeta studies her as her eyes dart over the words over and over again. He wonders how many times she read through it, and how much of it she has absorbed as she wordlessly pins the picture up on their wall. Then curiously, she studies the envelope, and runs her fingers across the "Hawthorne" stamped at the top. He means to ask her about it, but is interrupted by Haymitch:
"Well, Peeta, I would have bet the first art on these walls would have been yours, but I can see Katniss's masterpiece here has beaten you to it." Haymitch growls good-naturedly, standing before the picture.
"Maysilee drew it for us," Katniss snaps and adds in the same voice, "Do you want water or milk with dinner?"
Haymitch only laughs and responds that he'd take scotch. Peeta doesn't know what that is, and from the look on her face, neither does Katniss.
The trio sits for dinner and Peeta regales them of the news from town. He talks about Kindra's baby and the shipment from the train. As he is halfway through some gossip about a construction worker's son and an older woman, a transfer from District 8, Katniss throws her hands in the air.
"Haymitch, why won't you just come with us? You know you could help!"
To his credit, the aging man only raises one eyebrow. He is aging, Peeta knows. He is trying to drink less, and an almost permanent tremble has set into his hands and his skin is somewhat yellowed. But his eyes are steady and steely.
"Come on, sweetheart. Let an old man die in peace." The words hit hard, hang in the air for moment before Peeta can find his voice.
"You're not dying," Peeta says quietly, but finds himself studying Haymitch's lined face, doing math in his head. Haymitch is only in his 40's, he can't be-
"Since when are you someone who wants to go out in peace?!" Katniss rails.
Peeta wants to shoot her a look to calm her, but he agrees with her. Haymitch belongs on the Voting Education Tour. Somehow, he knows an awful lot about elections and history and that ancient concept they are trying to resurrect, a republic.
"You could help," Peeta starts quietly, and even as he says it his voice loses confidence, "and if you really aren't doing well, maybe they can help you in one of the richer districts, or the Capitol."
Now Haymitch shoots him a glare and stabs a piece of meat with his fork. The glare doesn't last long, and the silence doesn't either.
Katniss holds up a carrot on the end of her fork, not ready to give up, "And what good will you do here, Haymitch?"
"Maybe I'll run that cart of yours while you're gone," he barbs back, "People around here need bread and I'm pretty sure you two are spending your last pennies on tickets outta here. No income while you're gone?"
"You know better than anyone, Haymitch, that people here know how to bake their own bread," Peeta says quietly. He can hear Katniss starting to say something, and continues anyway, "And Katniss and I have received several strangely generous wedding gifts in the past few weeks," he sneaks a peek at her, then adds, "And we will always be able to feed ourselves, with or without coins."
This vindicates Katniss and she leans back in her chair smugly. Peeta has poked every hole imaginable in Haymitch's argument, yet he doesn't seem willing to budge. He stays silent and Peeta thinks again how lately he does look older. He does shake more. The yellow tinge on his skin is unsettling. And Haymitch has never smelled good, except in the Capitol, but now his odor is different and it does smell, well, old.
"I'm tired," he says, holding his hands together to suppress their shaking - a perfect image of crumbling dignity.
"I know," Peeta says, understanding, that Haymitch says this to mean something else. Something much more serious than tired.
"We're all tired," Katniss starts in an exasperated voice, but Peeta turns to her, trying to calm her. She shakes him off, and, betraying that she, too, understands that Haymitch doesn't just mean 'tired,' shouts, "That doesn't mean we can just give up on each other." Her voice is rough, and it is clear to Peeta that she is near tears. Yes. She understands that Haymitch looks old.
"Haymitch," Peeta says quietly, "What's really going on? What do you mean, tired?"
Haymitch's eyes swim. Peeta sees the look of shock on Katniss's face as for the first time in either of their memories, a tear slides down their mentor's face.
"It's called cirrhosis, kids. It's what happens when you try to drink yourself to death for almost thirty years." What he doesn't have to add is: it works."I am tired," he repeats silence is deafening.
Katniss barrels on, choking down tears, "You have to come with us. We can help you. We'll find a doctor, someone who can cure sir-sis or whatever, and,"
"Sweetheart, there's no cure. In the dark days they used to transplant livers. Now, I don't know a damn soul who's had it done."
She is pleading, "But they can still do it! I bet they still do it in the Capitol! We'll bring you with! I don't care what you say, I'll drag you there myself" Katniss is standing now, and yelling. Peeta's own tears become harder to fight back at the sound of pain in her voice.
Peeta and Haymitch are silent together, Haymitch's eyes plead with Peeta. After all these years, Haymitch does not want to go out with a bang. He wants to go down in quiet embers. He wants to die with a bottle in his hand, in his home, with his geese outside and the knowledge that Peeta and Katniss now do not need a mentor.
While he would like to believe that this was true, that he and Katniss could live their lives now without Haymitch telling them what to do, he just isn't sure. They didn't have any parents left, at least not any who they could turn to in their time of need. There would always be questions, there would always be problems. They would always need Haymitch, not just as a mentor, but as their family.
From the moment Haymitch dragged them both from the first arena, beaten, bloodied, but victorious, it had been unspoken, but nevertheless true. The three of them were a family of incomplete, damaged people, who could only fight through the days when everything was unbearable because the other two were there.
The thought of a world without Haymitch was too much to bear. The thought of him, dying alone while they toured Panem trying to build a future he had given everything for, but would never see finally brought the tears spilling down Peeta's cheeks. There would be no protecting Haymitch from this. It was not an enemy that could be fought. He closes his eyes, defeated, and a memory surfaces.
Across the table sat Haymitch, with Maysilee on his lap, pretending to finish off her mug of hot chocolate, much to her dismay. Peeta pictured Haymitch's smile as he revealed to her her still-full cup and she burst into a fit of giggles. The words escape Peeta's lips involuntarily.
"You'd never meet our children," Peeta whispers.
Katniss makes an outraged noise and storms from the room, but not before glaring fiercely at both of them and making an ineffective obscene gesture. A door slams somewhere in the house and, inevitably, angry yells can be heard dissolving into sobs.
Haymitch continues the conversation as though Katniss had not just thrown a tantrum, "No. I would never get to meet the little Everlarks, but I hope there's a nest of them at least as terrible as she is."
Peeta laughs sadly at this, but he can only say, "I hope so too."
V: This is our epilogue of sorts to our wonderful story, Unity! You might be thinking, why on earth is there an epilogue to a story that was marked as complete?! This is mainly because we wanted to introduce an exciting cliff-hanger to be explored in our forthcoming sequel, "Uniting" - Haymitch's disease, and of course, Katniss and Peeta's dissonance over the idea of children.
We also wrote this loverly little chapter to plug our blog where we have posted "Unity" in its entirety, in addition to Nova/Easy A's and V's other Hunger Games fics, V's Hunger Games fan films, HOPEFULLY SOME ARTWORK and SONGS from the authoresses, and more!
FF dot net hates when you post ur'ls, so here it is. We know you're all smartie-pants and can figure it out: Easyasuperv dot tumblr dot com. Replace the dots with periods and you've got it!
Please please please check it out! We started it when someone mentioned in a review that our story had been tumbled about! We thought it would be a new and exciting way to reach readers, the new and the faithful alike!