I waddle out into the clearing, pausing to catch my breath. The pale sunlight pokes through the clouds that dot the chill October sky and dapples the little cabin with spots of light. I flash back to another time, when I was younger and far less world-weary, and my father was still alive. I think of the first time I helped him hunt deer: crouching in the pre-dawn forest with our arrows notched, waiting, our breath making clouds in front of us. My excitement when he shot one, straight through the eye like always. My disgust at cleaning the kill, and my relief when it was over. The jubilant victory of having obtained food for our family.
I sigh at the memory and wait as my husband comes crashing through the brush behind me. He carries the picnic basket – one last hurrah before the weather officially turns cold and bitter. And before we have a squalling baby with us, I think, then touch my belly. The walk put it to sleep, the steady movement lulling its squirms and twists, but I'm sure it will wake up as soon as we settle down onto the blanket.
Peeta steps up beside me and smiles. "Okay?" he asks, and I smile and take his free hand, and we walk out into the clearing. The grass has grown a little taller and crunches beneath our feet. The world has started to die around us – leaves turning and falling, grasses dying, the air turning colder – but I have never felt more full of life. We approach the cabin. Peeta naturally begins to pull me away from it – he instinctively avoids it as a place he's not privy to; but today, I pull him back towards it. He pauses and gives me a questioning look, and I just smile softly and pull him with me. I pull the key from my pocket and unlock the door, and I step inside. Peeta hesitates, then follows me in. Slowly, carefully, like he's treading on holy ground. And I suppose in a way it is. This cabin is a shrine to my father, a place of remembrance, a memorial much like the fountain in the Square. It's also a place he's never been in before, so I understand his trepidation.
"It's okay," I tell him. "I should've brought you in a long time ago."
He smiles at me, slightly sad, and I shrug. It's the truth. There's nothing in here that he can't share with me. He'll be a father soon; I want him to meet mine, and this is the place to do it. But first, lunch. I'm starving.
We sit down – Peeta has to help me to the floor, I'm so big now – and tuck in to our meal. We talk about nothing in particular, but underneath it all is a calm presence. I'm never anxious here, and I attribute that to my father. I think Peeta feels it, too. He smiles at me and kisses me, and I am happy. It strikes me that I haven't had a bad day in months. That makes me grin around my sandwich. Peeta raises an eyebrow, but I just shake my head and keep smiling.
After he finishes his lunch, my husband comes to sit beside me. I feel as though I should say something, but no words come to mind. They're all inadequate. But I know Peeta doesn't need the words. He knows that I am no good with them, that I never have been and never will be. Instead, he wraps his arms around me and places his hands on my roundness and says the words for me.
"We'll bring her here," he murmurs into my ear. "And we'll teach her to swim in the pond and how to know which wild berries are good to eat." He brushes my hair away from my face and kisses my temple. "And when she's old enough to understand, you'll tell her about her grandfather, and you'll teach her all of his songs."
I smile softly at the image he's painted in my mind: our child, singing my father's songs as he or she plays in this clearing. A little brother or sister toddling after them…
I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Have to make it through this one first, Katniss. I settle back against Peeta, sigh, and begin to sing.
I wake slowly, stretching out and hoping to find my husband still in bed next to me, but it's too late. He's already left for the bakery. I hear no noise from downstairs; my mother must have also left the house. She's been spending time by lending her knowledge to the clinic. Knowing that I'm home alone fills me with a lazy sort of pleasure. Peeta and my mother have been fawning and fretting over me nonstop since the festival, and I'm ready to strangle them both. Their absence means that I can do whatever I please, like lie in bed for a few more hours, or soak in the tub and use all of the hot water. I consider this last one with enthusiasm, thinking of a conversation I had with Delly about her severe lack of personal time.
I'm in the bathroom undressing before I can overthink the implications of climbing in and out of the tub. But as I strip off my underwear, I notice a dark red stain. My stomach drops.
It can't be blood. Not now.
My only thought is to find Peeta, but rationality creeps past the black cloud fogging my brain and shouts that the clinic is where I need to go. And quickly. I barely notice pulling on new clothes. A blanket of fear has smothered me and I am numb with it. I have only one thought: get to the clinic. Get to my mother and Dr. Bryke.
I stumble out of the house and down the street, moving as quickly as I can without running, which I'm incapable of. Scenarios flash through my head. Miscarriage. The baby's in trouble. My placenta has ruptured. But rationale again seeps through: I don't think I'm still bleeding. The blood in my underwear had been dark brown, thus old, like a menstrual flow. And it had seemed mucousy. I cringe from fear as I hurry along. Dr. Bryke will know. Mom will know. Everything will be okay, Katniss, it'll be okay…
It takes me far too long to get to the clinic. I rush in, shouting for my mother before I can stop myself. The receptionist stares at me as a nurse comes in, and when she sees the fear in my face she takes me by the arm and leads me to a chair. The only word I can sputter out when she asks what's wrong is "blood," and she squeezes my hand and immediately takes me to a room. My mother rushes in a few moments later, her face white with panic.
"Katniss, what happened?" Her voice is clinical, but she can't hide the fear in her eyes as she pulls on exam gloves. I hurriedly tell her what I discovered as I pull off my pants and climb onto the table. Her mouth is set into a grim line.
"Just lay back," she tells me, and I obey, clutching at my stomach. Her hands poke and prod at my outside and in, her brows drawn together in concentration. Halfway through her examination, Dr. Bryke walks in, and my mother retracts her hands and turns to my physician with a sigh that sounds relieved to my hopeful ears.
"False alarm," she says. "Her cervix is thinning. I think she just lost her mucous plug."
Dr. Bryke nods and pulls on gloves and rolls over on a stool. She performs her own exam and smiles up at me.
"Your mother's right, Katniss," she says. "What you're experiencing is called bloody show. It means your body is preparing for labor."
I feel my body relax all at once. "The baby's okay?"
"The baby's fine," my mother says. "This means you could go into labor any day now." She beams at me, and I smile shakily back. Any day now?
"But I've still got two weeks left till I'm due," I squeak. "What if the baby is early?" Early babies had happened often enough before my Reaping for me to know that they often didn't make it. They were to little. But both women smiled in reassurance.
"You're far enough along that the baby would be fine if it were born right now." Dr. Bryke pulls off her gloves and throws them away. "From now on I want you to rest. No hard work or heavy lifting. Keep an eye on any contractions, all right?"
I nod and sit up, reaching for my pants to pull them back on. My mother helps me get back into them and hugs me afterward, and I cling to her in relief. The baby is okay. The baby would be here any day now, really this time. I felt tingly with the knowledge. The baby squirms around, as if to solidify it all. Dr. Bryke suggests that they get an ultrasound while I'm here, to get one more look at how things are going on the inside. I let them lead me to another room, all the while anxious to find Peeta and tell him the good news.
As they move the sensor across my bloated stomach, I stare at the screen in rapt attention. The baby is curled up tight on the monitor, its fists clenched near its face. Only a little bit longer, I think, and terror pinches me. There's no going back now. Days, maybe weeks, until it's here. This has become a terrifying reality. I clutch at my mother's hand, grateful that she is here.
"I want my mom to do the delivery," I blurt out. Dr. Bryke doesn't even blink as she clicks away on the machine, snapping pictures and taking measurements.
"Of course," she says. "I had assumed you would." She sits back and takes up her clipboard and makes notes. "Everything is exactly as it should be, Mrs. Mellark. Now, I want you to go home and prepare an overnight bag, just in case you have to be brought here to deliver. Otherwise, we'll do a home birth."
I nod and sit up, wiping the gel off of my skin with a paper towel before pulling my shirt down. My mother helps me off the exam table and looks at Dr. Bryke.
"I'll prepare the house when I get home," she says, and the doctor nods, scribbling away on her clip board. Mom turns back to me and smiles. "I'll be home later this afternoon. You go back and rest."
I nod and kiss her cheek and leave the clinic, heading down the street towards the Square. I want to go to the bakery and tell Peeta the news. But when I get there, it's closed up, with a note on the door that says he's out to lunch. Frowning, I turn around and waddle back down the street towards the Victor's Village. But when I get back to the house, I can't find him. He doesn't answer when I call his name, and after a cursory search – I hate the staircase more with each passing day – he's still nowhere to be found. Shrugging, I head into the kitchen for a glass of water. It's when I'm looking out the window over the sink that I see him. He's standing in the backyard, though I can't tell what he's doing. Planning a shed or a new garden, maybe. It doesn't matter, really, and I plod over to the door and step out into the late October chill. Anxiety makes me sweat. He doesn't turn when the door clicks closed, he's so lost in thought.
"Peeta, I have something to tell you—"
He comes to life, but stiffly, and even though he doesn't turn, I know instantly that something is wrong. Very wrong. He should be walking towards me, smiling –
"I hope it's to explain this," I hear him say, and he holds up a piece of white fabric. Doesn't turn, just lifts whatever it is in his hand so that I can see it. And then I realize that he's holding the pair of underwear I had been wearing this morning. The ones stained with blood and mucus. Yes, it's what I wanted to talk to him about, but I have discovered the real problem just as he turns his head to finally look at me.
"You tried to kill it, didn't you?"
This is not Peeta.
My stomach is in my throat at his accusation, but I know that this is a hijacking attack. This isn't my Peeta.
"No, Peeta," I say, holding out my hands, coaxing him down. But an alarm goes off in my head, flashing "too late." Still, I try. "The baby's fine. Look," I press a hand to my protruding front, "It's right here, safe and sound. Come here, feel it move –"
But his eyes are wild as he clenches my underwear in his hand. "No, you killed it. The evidence is right here, look at it, look what you did –"
He's sweating, and I take a step back toward the house. "Peeta," I try again, a little louder. "Not real. The baby is fine, look -!"
But the scars of venom have made up his mind, and he begins to advance. I curl my arms around my belly without thinking. "Peeta!" I shout. "It's not real! It's not real, please, listen to me –!" Still he moves forward, rage distorting his face, and I choke.
"Not real!" I am screaming now, trying not to trip as I move back inside and lock the door – but what if he breaks the windows? Or the door, for that matter? He's got the strength of an ox when he's himself; in a hijacked rage he is unstoppable. I clutch at my stomach, and the baby squirms in response to my fear.
"Peeta, please –"
"You killed our baby!" he roars. "I know you did! You never wanted it in the first place! You tried to kill it before and I stopped you but now – " Something in him breaks, and I cower against the side of the house that I've blindly backed into. He is on me, murder in his dilated eyes. I cannot be louder than the voices in his head. I cannot bring him back. Fifteen years together, after finally starting a family, he is finally going to kill me. Presidents Snow and Coin are finally going to win –
I can feel his hands on my throat, cutting off a scream, and then they are gone with the sound of shattering glass. Peeta's eyes roll into the back of his head and he crumbles to the ground, unconscious. My scream is stuck on my tongue and my eyes meet the bloodshot ones of Haymitch, who is clutching the neck of a broken liquor bottle. He is shaking. So am I. I think my knees might give out.
"I – He –" My voice cracks, and the shaking is turning to full on tremors. I might be crying, but my whole body is numb, so I can't tell. Haymitch stops me from trying to explain.
"Inside. Go. Before you pass out."
He touches my shoulder. "Go. I'll take care of him."
I hesitate, too shocked to know what to do. Peeta is on the ground, out cold, with trickles of blood winding through his curls. He attacked me. He tried to kill me. Again. The shaking doubles.
My eyes snap to his, and I nod, but it takes a gentle nudge to get me going. But once I do, I do not stop. I stumble into the kitchen, ghosting past the furniture in the living room, till I reach the stairs. I wander down the hall until I reach the bathroom. I don't know why I chose this room. All I know is that it is dark. I climb into the deep claw-footed tub and gingerly lower myself down, pretending that I am sinking. I curl myself around my belly, my baby, and let the shaking and the darkness swallow me whole.
It is my mother that finds me.
She says nothing, simply pulls me from the tub and checks me for any injuries. When I am giving the all clear, she embraces me, and it is then that I break, sobbing into her shoulder. They are tears for the baby, for Peeta. For our family that is not even complete and yet already so broken.
"He's downstairs on the couch," my mother tells me. "Haymitch gave him some morphling to keep him calm. When he found out –" She looks down at the floor and then meets my eyes. "I think you should go to him."
Every nerve in my body wants to resist, but I nod and walk with her down the stairs to the living room. He is lying on the sofa, his eyes drooping. My mother has bandaged the cut on his head. Haymitch sits on a chair by the wall, his hands folded in front of him, his eyes focused on my husband's prone form. Sentry duty. Our eyes meet across the room and he nods once in my direction before standing and stepping into the kitchen. He doesn't want to watch what he knows will be a tearful reunion.
Carefully, wary of my own husband, I inch around the couch so that I come into his view. It takes a moment for him to register that I am there – Haymitch must have given him a bit more morphling that we usually give him after episodes. But when he does see me, and his eyes manage to focus, his face dissolves into anguish. My throat closes up.
"Katniss… Oh god, Katniss, I'm so sorry…" His words are slurred together from the morphling. In a few steps I am next to the couch and I gingerly sit at the end where his head is, and he clutches to me with a grip that could have broken me in two. His head rests on my stomach, and his hand presses against me, feeling for our child's movements.
"It's all right," I murmur, tears catching in my throat. "It wasn't you."
He mumbles something incoherent into my stomach; whether it's a plea for forgiveness or some sort of explanation, I cannot tell. He clings to me like a child, and I hold onto him tight.
"Peeta… shhh…" I begin to rock him as I have done so many times before after moments like this, after he has left me only to return and find that he has come near to destroying what he loves. "It wasn't you, Peeta. It's all right. I'm fine. The baby's fine. Look, feel. She's in there, she's moving." A silent sob wracks his body, and I close my eyes to fight back my own tears. "She'll love you, Peeta," I tell him. "She loves you already. And I love you. I forgive you."
He whimpers, and I rock him until he is asleep.