Peeta shoves his new glasses up the bridge of his nose with his forearm, then goes back to kneading the dough on the counter in front of him. I smile and pop a crumb of bread into my mouth. I've spent a lot of time at the bakery this week, helping Peeta get ready for the Harvest Festival. We all have a million and one things to do before the big event, and the district is humming with energy.
"Phoned your mother yet?" Peeta asks, dusting flour from his hands onto the freshly formed loaf before him. I sigh and shake my head.
"I was going to, but I've been busy…" My tongue stalls. I have no good excuse, not really, and he knows it.
"Katniss, you might want to do that. Dr. Bryke said the baby could technically be here any day now." It's hard to miss the flash of excitement in his eyes as he says this. I sigh again.
"I know. I'll call her right now." I reach out my hand and he pulls me out of the chair, kissing my forehead and rubbing my protruding belly before nudging me toward the phone. I scowl at him, but he just chuckles and goes back to the counter.
"Call her," he says.
I stare at the phone in apprehension. Talking to my mother is still awkward, despite our surprisingly good reunion in District 4, but I manage to pick up the receiver and dial the number. She picks up on the third ring.
My throat is suddenly dry. I choke on my tongue for a few minutes before managing to sputter, "Hey, Mom?"
I hear her suck in her breath on the other end. "Katniss? Is everything alright?"
"Everything's fine." I take a deep breath. "I was just… Dr. Bryke said the baby will be coming soon. I was wondering - maybe you should – could head to District 12 soon."
There is silence, and then she clears her throat. "Of course. I'll have to sort things down here, set the nurses up for a month or two…"
I nod, even though I know she can't see it. "That's fine. Just call and let me – us - know what train you'll be in on, and we'll get you from the station."
I think she nods on the other end, and then she says quietly, "I'll see you in about a week then."
She says goodbye and the line goes dead. I sigh and put the receiver back on its cradle, then slump against the wall. Peeta glances over and smirks at me, and I just scowl right back.
I'm doing laundry when the first cramp comes. I frown, pausing from folding one of Peeta's shirts to feel my belly. It lasts only a second or two, and doesn't really hurt – it's just uncomfortable. I know it's nothing serious – Braxton something or other contractions, Dr. Bryke called them. Practice contractions. The baby squirms in response to it; I think it's starting to feel claustrophobic in there. I know I shouldn't worry about it and just go back to the laundry, but suddenly I can't do it. I'm frozen. Because this means it's gone from "soon" to "any day now."
I could have this baby any day now.
Fear seizes my body and my breath comes short. I think I might be having a panic attack. I grip Peeta's shirt, but fearful that I might rip it to shreds, I throw it into the basket and stand as quickly as I can and begin to pace back and forth in the living room, trying not to hyperventilate. Peeta. I need Peeta. But he's at the bakery, too far to walk right now. So I guess I'll have to settle for our neighbor.
I yank on my coat and hurry out the back door. I can see Haymitch sitting on his back porch, smoking a pipe and watching his geese peck through the dying grass and leaves. His eyes turn to me when he hears the back door slam, and he frowns like I've disturbed him. I just scowl and trudge across the yard, taking a seat on his porch when I reach it and crossing my arms. He watches me for a minute, then shakes his head.
"I can't do this," I spit out, the words sour on my tongue. "I can't."
He chuckles, a rough and scratchy bark of a laugh. "Little late for that."
"I know that!" I snap, then wrap my arms tighter around myself. "But I just can't. I'm not ready."
He sucks on his pipe and blows sweet-smelling smoke into the brisk air. "Don't know what to tell ya, sweetheart. Ain't my problem."
"The hell it isn't your problem!" I glare at him. "You're my mentor! Mentor me! What do I do?"
He sighs. "Sweetheart, I don't know jack shit about kids except how to dress 'em up to die. You don't want my advice."
I bite my lip. He's right, of course. I probably don't want his advice. But in the meantime, I need someone to talk me down, and I don't want Peeta's overly sweet and protective manner. I want flat out honesty. And Haymitch is guaranteed to give me that.
"Was I stupid to agree to this?" I ask in a small voice, not looking at him. I hear him shift, uncomfortable, and more smoke drifts through the air.
"Maybe," he croaks. "But I'm biased. Your spawn's guaranteed to be a bigger pain in my ass than you an' the boy combined."
My lips quirk, but the fear won't shake. He sighs.
"Look, go talk to your husband or Delly or somebody. Leave me the hell alone, would ya? This ain't my problem."
"It isn't a problem," I snap, and he raises a sardonic eyebrow.
"You complaining says otherwise."
I turn away and grumble, "I'm just… scared."
He makes a sound in his throat like a laugh, but it's bitter. "The great Katniss Everdeen, scared of her own spawn—"
"Stop calling it that! It's a person."
"Yeah, well, that would explain it, then. You can't handle people, so you think you won't be able to handle your own kid."
That might be it, but I can't be sure. Haymitch sighs again.
"Sweetheart… ain't nobody in this world knows how to love somebody better than you and the boy. You'll do just fine."
I whip my head around and stare at him, unable to believe that something so well-meaning has come out of his mouth. But he just puffs on his pipe and watches his geese like it didn't happen. I sigh and nod, and watch the fat white birds waddle around the yard with him until Peeta gets home. That's how it is with us. He acts fatherly and then we never speak of it. So when Peeta comes looking for me, I just tell him I needed to get some fresh air. Haymitch grumbles some response to Peeta's greeting and waves him off, and we head back to the house. He questions me the second we're inside, and I sigh and tell him. He doesn't seem happy that I didn't call him.
"Over one little cramp? I didn't see the point." I leave out that it scared me witless. He doesn't need to know about that.
"It's a big thing, Katniss," he says. "I want to know when stuff like this happens."
I sigh. "I'm sorry. I'll call next time." This seems to be an appropriate response, and he smiles and embraces me from the side, since I'm too big to hold from the front. I kiss him, feeling the fear start to dissipate like it always does when I'm in his arms. It's too late to change anything anyway.
"Come all ye fair and tender ladies
Be careful how you court young men
They're like a bright star on summer's evening
They'll first appear and then they're gone…"
I hum the rest of the tune as I walk around the kitchen table, setting down plates for dinner. Peeta comes into the kitchen, bundled up in his winter coat, a scarf, and a hat, and I scowl at him. The weather has finally cooled down to that of fall, and despite this, I'm suffering from an Indian summer, hot flashes plaguing me all hours of the day. I'm barefoot in a loose skirt and a blouse that has most of its buttons undone so that my swollen breasts can get some air. Peeta doesn't complain too much, just bundled up when I told him I was sweating to death and opened up all of the windows and then kept his mouth shut. I try not to scowl too much when I see him shivering, but I'm too the point that I'm so irritable that I scowl at just about everything, including my husband. My wonderful husband, who puts up with all of my scowls. Which is why I've made him dinner tonight.
"Something smells good," he says, smiling at me. He even pulls off his scarf and hat. Blond curls stick up at random. "What's the occasion?"
I go up to him and kiss his cheek, awkwardly wrapping my arms around him from the side. He kisses my forehead and then kneels down before me and puts his hands on my belly, pushing open my blouse to lay a kiss on the baby, which squirms visibly. I can't help but let out a small groan at the movement. Every kick and twist that the baby makes these days is an effort. I can feel it struggle around in there, conscious of the growing lack of space. It's ready to be out, and I'd have to say that the feeling is mutual. I feel like I'm ready to explode.
"I'm sorry I've been so grumpy lately," I tell Peeta as he straightens. He just smiles and shakes his head.
"It's all right. I'd be grumpy too if I had a baby kicking me in the kidneys all day."
I want to sigh at how well he seems to understand, but what he's saying is an understatement. It's more like having a battering ram attacking my spine day in and day out, but he doesn't need to know the specifics.
"Well, I felt bad, so I wanted to make you a nice dinner." I steer him towards the table and he sits down in his chair, smiling at me expectantly. I go to the stove and retrieve the skillet of grilled fish that I have prepared with lemon and herbs and dish a fillet out onto his plate. He grins at me.
"You've outdone yourself," he teases, and I fix him with a look before filling my own plate. It takes me a moment to lower into my chair, what with all my awkward bulk, and I sigh heavily when I finally manage to be seated. Peeta tries to cover up his smirk, and I glare down the table at him. If only he knew how hard it is to move around now, how long it took me to retrieve the spatula off the floor when I dropped it earlier, how annoying it is to knock things over with my stomach.
"No laughing," I snap. "You did this to me."
His eyes widen behind his glasses. "Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you wanted to be pregnant."
I frown and mutter to myself, "If I'd known it would've been this awful I wouldn't have agreed."
He stares at me a moment, and then lifts a forkful of food to his mouth. I meet his gaze, daring him to refute my statement. He has no idea. Let him carry around fifteen extra pounds all day, try to sleep comfortably, try to pick up things off the floor… I purse my lips and set down my fork.
"I was trying to be nice to you today," I mumble, and he bursts out laughing.
"Katniss, I get it. You're done being pregnant. The baby will be born soon," he says . "Then you won't have to worry about it anymore." He fixes me with a look. "That is unless you want another one." The corners of his lips twitch with amusement, and I want to throw my fork at him, but I start to laugh instead.
"Eat your fish," I tell him, and we both grin at each other and move on to other topics.
The Harvest Festival rolls around by the end of the week. I've spent every day at the school, teaching the students songs for our concert, but now that it's finally here, I'm nervous as hell. The schoolchildren are prepared, and I know that they will sound wonderful, but I'm still anxious. Peeta tells me I'm just nervous about my own performances, not theirs, but to be honest, I can't help but thinking every day as I send the students back to their classrooms, what would Dad think?
"He'd be proud of you," Peeta tells me one night as we lie in bed. "You're doing something that you love to do and you're sharing it with people. He'd be so proud, Katniss."
My mother says the same.
We'd picked her up a week ago at the station, and since then we've slowly been growing back together. I took her to the nursery the day after she'd arrived, and we sat in the room and cried about Prim for a while, and then cried about me having a baby and how wonderfully strange it all was. Peeta had walked in at some point and had taken one look at us and promptly left, which sent my mother and I into peals of laughter, something I hadn't heard from her in years. I had forgotten what a beautiful laugh she had. When I had told her about the Festival and the concert I was putting on with the students, she had teared up and smiled at me.
"Your father would be so proud of you, Katniss."
Now, as I gather the students up to speak to them before the festival starts, I hear their words. He'd be proud, Katniss. I think he would be, too.
I tell the children to meet at the main tent at seven thirty, then send them off to play and eat to their hearts content. Peeta puts his hand on the small of my back and grins.
"I can't wait to hear it," he says, and then we go off and visit the booths, sit on rickety wooden chairs and eat delicious food grown here in our own district. A small jumble of musicians pluck out some tunes as we feast, and there is even some dancing. When the sun sets and seven thirty rolls around, the children gather into their groups, and I step up to the front of the tent. Thankfully, Ms. Lee does the introductions, so I don't have to say anything, but I can feel everyone's eyes on me, and my pulse races. I turn my back on them and give what I hope is a smile to the youngest group of students who are to sing first. I blow a note on the pitch pipe I ordered from the Capitol, and the kids hum quietly. I take a deep breath and nod, and they all open their little mouths and start to sing.
"Twas in the merry month of May
When all gay flowers were a'blooming
Sweet William on his deathbed lay
For the love of Barb'ry Allen..."
When the song is over, there is applause, and I turn and see what must be the whole district gathered to watch and listen. My heart nearly stops. Parents and grandparents and neighbors and friends, all come together to watch their children sing. I smile at the crowd, and from there, the concert proceeds. Each group sings two or three songs, and I even have a trio of older girls sing a ballad in harmony. By the end, the clapping is thunderous. I give my best curtsey and nearly fall off the stage, I'm so overwhelmed. I feel like I'm back on stage with Caesar Flickerman, lights and applause enough to make me dizzy. Peeta catches me, and then I'm swarmed by children and their parents, all coming over to shake my hand and thank me for the wonderful job I've done teaching them. Those old enough to remember my father – and there aren't many – talk about how much I'm like him. My mother embraces me, touches my face, and I know she is thinking of my dad.
It grows late, and the musicians return to the stage to start up the dancing. If there is one thing the people of my district know how to do, it is dance, and it is my favorite part of the festival. Peeta carefully leads me around the plywood dance floor, an obnoxious amount of space between us, thanks to my belly, and our movements are awkward and choppy. But he grins and makes me laugh with his antics. He never was a very good dancer.
The fiddle eventually dies, and we all swing to a stop and applaud. Everyone is smiles and cheerfulness, and the air hums with energy. This festival atmosphere makes me feel lighter than I am – I am free and easy for the first time in months. I laugh as Delly's husband Rolan leads their daughter in a simple dance, holding her in his arms, while Vance learns from Delly the steps to the next reel. I stand back and breath it in – the life, the love. It is my district come back, not just to life, but to its full potential. People are not just no longer starving, they are happy. They have love and laughter in their lives, something they never knew until recently. Something I had never known myself until now.
I watch my husband pass out cookies and pastry cakes to the children; his grin is infectious. He will be a wonderful father. I can imagine that my father would approve of him. He would understand my love for the dandelion in the spring, for the shining boy with the bread.
I try to imagine him here. My father always sang at the small festival the district held before the revolution. He would sing till the mockingjays listened, till everyone was silent. They would all listen to his songs of love and loss, and I would sit with him and sing, too. The songs he sang come back to me now.
They had asked me to sing earlier, but I had politely refused, saying it was too early in the evening. A school concert was one thing, but this was another. You had to wait, Dad had said, until it got quiet. When the whippoorwills started calling - that was when you pulled out the songs.
Thom finds me standing off to the side and I follow him to the stage, picking up my skirt so I don't trip on the cinderblock steps. The band – a fiddle and a banjo and a mandolin, precious instruments to us – readies themselves, and I clear my throat. Someone provides a chair, and I make myself as comfortable as I can, then take a deep breath. My father's songs come flooding back.
"I am a poor, wayfaring stranger
Travellin' through this land of woe
And there's no sickness, toil, or danger
In that bright land to which I go…
I'm going to see my Father
I'm going home, no more to roam
I am just going over Jordan
I am just going over home."
In the crowd I see Peeta smiling at me, the lines around his eyes crinkling as he listens. The crowd hushes as I go on with the ballad, the words and tune pouring out of me. The baby inside of me squirms, and I pass my hand over my stomach to calm her down. When the song draws to a close, an eerie silence hangs over the crowd, the kind of hush that would follow when my father sang; but the pause lingers for only a moment before everyone starts clapping. I catch Peeta's eye and he grins at me. I find my mother next, and the sight of her tears makes me catch my breath. The baby gives a fierce kick to my gut in response, and I rub my hand over my belly again.
Hush, little one, I think. I'll sing another. And I do. I sing about five more songs before my voice tires out. Peeta meets me at the edge of the stage and kisses me in front of everyone, making me blush. My mother embraces me, saying again that my dad would be proud. The band picks back up, and Peeta kisses me again before taking Mom to the floor to swing her around. In the meantime, I waddle off to the edge of the tent and find a seat, where Delly finds me. She is beaming at me, her whole face alight.
"That was beautiful," she says, rocking baby Cole as she speaks. "Vance and Mickey won't stop singing the songs you taught them." I smile, genuinely happy that I've managed to make a positive impact somewhere. "Are you ready?" she asks, smiling, and I feel my face drain of blood.
"No," I squeak, then clear my throat. "But it doesn't matter, does it? This baby's coming whether I'm ready or not."
She nods absently. "Like I've said, you're never really ready. But Katniss," she puts a hand on my arm, "You're going to be a wonderful mother. Let yourself be excited!"
I give her a shaky smile. Am I excited? Of course, says a voice inside of me. Of course I'm excited. I wanted this, and I still want it. I'm just also terrified of being a mother. I look out and see Peeta leading my mother around the dance floor, a grin splitting his face. He's so ready to be a father, I think. And if he's ready, I can be, too.
"Have you thought of names yet?" Delly asks. I laugh.
"No. We might have one by the time it's born, but I doubt it." She laughs with me, and we spend the rest of the night chatting. Eventually, though, the party dies down, and we say goodbye to everyone and head home. After saying goodnight to my mother, who's sleeping on the sofa, Peeta and I head upstairs. As we're getting ready for bed, he comes up behind me and wraps his arms around me and rests his chin on my shoulder. We watch our reflection in the dresser mirror, and I sigh, sinking back into his body.
"I love you," he murmurs into my skin, and I breathe a sigh of relief that I hadn't known I was holding. "I love you, too," I whisper, and turn in his arms and press my lips to his, absorbing all of his hope and excitement, all of his light.
We stay up all night talking about baby names.