Chapter 14

~Katniss~

I was one of those girls.

Those girls who lie awake reminiscing about their first time, how it was so much more or less perfect than they'd thought it would be... I was doing that. But I was having a hard time calling what we did 'perfect', when what we shared was so different than what could be qualified by as simple a word. No, it was perfect... for us. It was... beautiful, and terrifying, and empowering, and humbling, and... everything. Just as Peeta was to me. All those things, and everything other nameless word that could describe how... completely loved... I felt.

Now I could flip out. I, Katniss Ever- no, I'd never be her again. She was part of the past, a past I had just hours before promised myself I'd release my grip on. I wasn't going to allow a relapse into the sullen, unreachable persona. Ever. Distraction over, I continued my thought. I, Katniss Mellark, did not have the sense to take a particular precaution. Of course I know how the body works, but In loving my husband, I may have inadvertently accomplished what I promised myself, and him, could never be permitted to happen. I needed to get out of this bed before I woke him with my silent ranting; Peeta was remarkably sensitive to unspoken tension, even in his sleep. I slid out from under his arm and slipped the warm pillow from behind my head into his hold. The top drawer was already open, so I retrieved whatever clothing would make the least noise. I pulled on the sleep shorts and clingy gray shirt and pulled the bedroom door behind me. It closed with the softest click.

These houses were made to stand the test of time, and so the stairs never squeaked, no fittings had loosened, no maintenance had been required in three years, and considering the decades the house stood empty and settling on their respective foundations, this was craftsmanship to be celebrated. This aside, I had a terrifying problem, or might have one, and I certainly wasn't celebrating.

I spent a few minutes pacing the dim kitchen, the low light from the dying stove fire coupled with the waning moon barely illuminating the room, and deciding whether to try my mother's number... she didn't sleep much anymore and there was a possibility she'd be awake at this hour. But then I'd have to tell her about yesterday, and... no, I wanted Peeta holding my hand when I made that call. Better yet, the new, forgiving Katniss wanted her to learn our news in person. But then... the clinic. Of course, they had to have something that could test me. And then, help me figure out how... if...

I leaned back against the counter in frustration. My back knocked a precariously-placed container into the sink with a clatter. I froze, listening for stirring upstairs.

"I've never seen the Mockingjay this edgy," a low, amused voice projected from the living room. I knew that voice. A shadowy form rose from my father's chair and ghosted into view.

Layne Paylor was much thinner than I remember. Wisps of dark hair escaped the tight bun she always wore, and her eyes were shifty, hungry. She wore her rebel soldier attire, wrinkled and torn in places, and dirty, as though she'd walked through dust and bramble all the way from the Capitol. "I'm not here to hurt you, Katniss. I want to talk." Her voice was smooth, controlled, with a thin, sharp edge of sadness and pleading. Her left hand rested below her hip, her right outstretched, palm up, toward me.

Training with the soldiers in Thirteen, I knew it was standard protocol to carry a holstered blade at the small of the back, concealed, and tipped toward the dominant hand. You could usually see the outline through the uniform shirt. Most tipped to the right.

Paylor's, however, tipped to the left.

I reached behind me, retrieving something long and sharp from the sink, shuddering at the noise the fallen container made in my fumbling.

"I see you're still quicker than the rest," she relaxed her fa├žade. "Take your time, I'd actually prefer a fair fight from you." Paylor's mouth curled into a smile, her politician's smile. The dark, beady eyes held me where I stood. The handle I gripped was wet; it was one of Peeta's bread knives, but it would do.

"Why?" I breathed. It was the only word of an infinite number of thoughts that I was able to produce in sound. And appropriately, it summed up every question to which I needed an answer.

Paylor laughed lightly, so identical to the rebel leader I'd come to know. I had to give her credit; she'd fooled even me. "Is that, 'Why are you here?', or more of a 'Why aren't my guards here to protect me?', or maybe even..." her words dripped venom... "'Why didn't you just kill us while we slept?'"

I let the last one sink in. If she was here and able to subdue the ever-watchful Lem and Sedge, she could have, of course, done that. Why drag this out? My confused hesitation prodded her forward.

"Not exactly sure why I'm here, eh?" Paylor tilted her head to the side, sizing me up, attempting me to distract from her "I thought it would be obvious. Maybe you're not so quick after all." She rocked her weight to one foot and counted on her right fingers, her left hand still planted lightly at her hip. "Let's see... first, you get your dear old buddy the Captain to go digging into my past, like it's anybody's business. Then you set most of the old crowd after me; I have to tell you, sending your precious fellow Victors to do your dirty work was a nice touch, all while trying to keep me from knowing you were pulling the strings. And after everything I've done for this country... do you think that was very nice of you?" Paylor had never struck me as condescending. I wasn't so sure I'd known her at all, and that would be a huge disadvantage. If she was able to hide the truth so well, and from so many who should have seen, then I hadn't ever truly seen the extent of her already superior tactical ability. I barely suppressed the urge to shudder, fighting to keep my face even, maybe a little confused. I was rapidly becoming less sure of my ability to win if this came to blows. I wanted my bow. My own knife, even. But I had nothing but a worn-out bread cutter.

Paylor's face shifted from superiority to malice. "You ruined me!" she spat. "You and your pathetic, damaged pet, he's the best protection you have, isn't he? All that pent up lust for you, and with all that venom they gave him, he's the perfect mutt bodyguard! And after all you did to him, he still wants you... and your cronies call me manipulative?" her eyes shifted, barely in focus, but razor sharp. Her lips trembled with rage. "You know what you deserve? I'll tell you. When I finish you, and I promise it will be slow, I'm going to leave your corpse for him to find, and your blood on his fingers. No punishment could be sweeter for the two of you... a situation you finally have no hope of surviving, and he has to live with your death on his hands. The Games are over. I win," she cackled softly, "and you lose."

I had to speak, or do... something. I had to draw this out, talk her down or subdue her, and I had serious doubts about my ability to do either. But I had to do something, anything. I couldn't let her hurt Peeta. If anyone was going to hurt him, it would have to be me. If I can't take her down, maybe... I can take her with me. My eyes reactively widened a bit at this realization. That was it. It could be the only way. He couldn't be allowed to think he'd hurt me. He had to know it was her. It was the only way for him to remember, always, that I loved him.

"The wheels are turning now, are they?" Paylor snickered. Evil didn't even apply to the words describing her face, her voice, the way she trembled with her hatred. She took another small step forward, passing the threshold into the kitchen.

I gulped. The window on my only opportunity for what I could barely call a victory was rapidly closing. "I... I have to know..." I stumbled, "Would you have brought back the Games?"

She barked a laugh at this, truly amused. That's when I saw Peeta.

The blond hair over his forehead, an eye, shrouded in darkness so I couldn't see the color, peering around the corner. He had to be standing on the bottom step, just two short feet from Paylor. He'd never moved so quietly. Not in his life, I would have wagered.

Paylor was too entertained at my question to notice my eyes flit away for the second it took to notice him. "Of course not, "I'm not stupid," she insisted. "Those Games had run their course decades ago. I had... more entertaining plans. But you took that from me. You took everything! I deserved this! Me! It was my turn! My turn!" Her anger was immeasurable, her rant escalating in volume and unmatched in intensity. She shifted her weight to the other foot, and peripherally, I could see Peeta taking advantage of every sound and movement to slowly creep out from behind the wall. Something in his hand glinted, reflecting the light from the stove fire.

My hunting knife.

"Wha-" Paylor squeaked, her left hand on her blade, spinning to face the source of the orange flash, her right arm already blocking his attack. I dashed forward, plunging the knife from my hand into her back, the sickening crunch of the serrated edge contacting against her ribs. Her body stiffened, bracing, and then fell back into me. I shifted aside and let her fall to the floor. Her own knife had left her hand.

"Katniss..." Peeta's eyes met mine, I could see them now. The irises were rapidly contracting. His hands grasped at his side, and his knees buckled. My body turned to ice.

No no no no nonono...

Blood. It trickled down his pale skin, catching at the hem of his pants, soaking in, turning the gray fibers to rust. I didn't remember moving, but I caught him as he fell, with strength I didn't know I had, lowering him to the ground. The blood began to pool on the floor at his back. "Katniss..." he choked. "What... did I just do..."

"Shh, you'll be fine. You had a tremor, everything's fine, you'll be fine..." my stomach clenched, breaking up the words.

"She... she..." he mumbled, eyes struggling to stay locked on mine, but fluttering.

This wasn't happening. He couldn't leave me, not now. Not after everything. A low keening bubbled up inside me and spilled over until the insides of my skull were sure to crack. It took mere seconds to realize the sound was real, and it was coming from me.

A bloody hand touched my cheek. "Kat-niss... love you... al-ways..."

"No! Peeta, Peeta please, please stay with me, please!" I wailed. The world was slipping away, the air being sucked from my lungs, the blood from my heart, the soul from my body. And still I screamed. Hands pulled me away. Held me down, kept me from him. Took me somewhere else, wrapped me up. Light was brighter. Voices, none that mattered. I saw the stars, the blackness, it swallowed me whole. Tightness bound me, kept me from moving, from struggling. A sharp pain in my gut stabbed me, over and over. I wanted to dig a hole and bury myself alive. Somewhere no one would find me. So I could join him.

"Hey, Catnip."

"He's gone, Gale..." The words fell out of my mouth like vomit, I couldn't hold them back. He was hovering, perched on a bag of flour. I was back in the cellar, the old quilt pulled over me.

"And what if he is." His eyes were sympathetic, but firm as their steely color.

"Then I want to be gone, too." There was no hesitation.

Gale shifted. "And what if he isn't."

"He is. I saw."

"You assume rather quickly."

"I saw. He died protecting me. Like always." Like always. Like... Always.

"He's stronger than you gave him credit for. And more worthy than I did."

"He's gone." Gone. Gone, gone, gone gone gonegonegone...

"Katniss."

A small, pale, delicate hand touched my face. I would know this hand, anywhere.

"Prim?" my voice quivered.

Her dimpled grin, those sparkling blue eyes. She laughed. "Don't be sad, Katniss. And don't give up. Don't ever. For me, please? So many people love you."

My face crumpled. "But he's gone, Prim. He's gone. I need him and he's gone." The little puff-sleeved arms pulled me in, settling my head in her lap. Tender fingers stroked my hair.

"Shh. You were right, I do love my new brother," she whispered. "But... you get to keep him a while longer."

My heart stuttered, the abyss of despair ejecting me. I met her eyes again. So many things I wanted to say, to tell her, and I couldn't find the words. She leaned in to kiss my cheek, and then she was gone.

The tightness returned, or maybe, I was just aware of it again. I was bound and warm, too warm... the smell of blood and antiseptic hung in my nostrils. It hadn't been a dream. My eyes were sealed shut. I pressed out weakly, trembling, with my arms, my elbows, my legs were curled, knees below my chin.

"Settle down, Sweetheart." Haymitch. Great. "Seriously, I'll have them sedate you again," he barked softly when I didn't comply.

"Tell me," I mumbled.

"Huh?"

"Tell me... tell me tell me tellmetellmetellme!" my volume increased on each word until I was shrieking.

"Your boy's okay, Sweetheart."

My struggling slowed, like I'd been plunged in tar. My eyelids finally cracked. The gruff old man, hazy in my view, had me wrapped in a heavy blanket and curled in his lap, pulled against his chest. I was suddenly aware of my weakness. If he hadn't been holding me, I was sure I'd have fallen to the floor. "Peeta..." I muttered softly.

"C'mere," he shifted, and slowly stood, keeping me pinned to him. My legs unfolded, and he carried me a few steps, then placed me gingerly on my side. I was still wrapped, but the blanket fell away from my shoulders. "Be careful, they had to operate on him."

Peeta's pale form shifted, flickered before my unsteady eyes. He was still here. Tubed and taped, tethered to lifegiving technology, but he was here; machines, clicking and beeping softly, guarding over him. I felt Haymitch raise the bed railing behind me. My brain was so foggy... my free arm wobbled when I tried to lift it; I wanted to reach out, to hold my husband, but I wasn't getting anywhere. Haymitch must have sensed my difficulty, and reached over me to help settle my arm across Peeta's chest.

"Thank you..." I murmured.

Haymitch snorted. "Like I said, be careful with him."

His shadow moved away and chair legs creaked. A sigh, and then, silence.

Peeta's chest rose and fell under my arm. My vision twitched spastically. I'd been sedated before, this was nothing new or different, but the weakness never ceased to be frightening. I had only a small amout of control over my body, but just enough to brush my thumb back and forth over his thinly garbed shoulder. Suddenly, my breaths weren't enough to fill me, and my chest contracted. It took a moment to realize I was crying.

And I didn't know why.

Peeta was alive, in my arms, he would survive this. He hadn't left me; I got to keep him. Paylor would never, ever hurt anyone again. She could never take what I'd fought so hard to protect. I'd just seen my sister, or at least, my mind had briefly brought her back to me, and I was comforted by the miniscule contact. I had nothing to cry about. I had everything. For once, nothing was being taken from me.

"Nice... to see you... too." Peeta's face was turned toward mine, his eyelids low, dark circles beneath, but a tiny smile on his lips.

"Peeta... so sorry... so sorry..." I sobbed, slurring every word.

He chuckled lightly, then winced. "They drugged you too, huh? S'okay. M'fine." His tubed hand came up to rest on my arm. "Don't cry. You'll make me cry, and it'll hurt."

What a sight we must have been when the nurse came in. She just smiled, took Peeta's vitals while I lay there like a slug, even took my pulse for good measure. I guessed Peeta had been awake earlier, this all seemed routine to him.

"Thank you," he said to her after she adjusted his IV drip. I knew the feeling well, a surge of pain relief that could make your eyes roll back. He must have been tolerating quite a bit of discomfort, but hid it from me, of course. I wanted to cry again but thought better of it, pushing the feeling down into my gut.

"You two should sleep," the nurse suggested, patting the hand that rested on Peeta's shoulder. He nodded, his willingness dragging me down with him. The last thing I felt before unconsciousness claimed us both was his soft breath in my hair.

Clarity. It was always overwhelming after drugged slumber, everything was brighter, more crisp. More headache-worthy, like a hangover. I had control of my limbs again. Peeta snored lightly, the tubes in his nose askew. I brushed a few shaggy blond locks from his forehead. He didn't stir. He looked so peaceful, moreso than I'd ever seen him. I pressed my lips to his cheek.

I no longer felt the railing at my back; they had pushed another bed up against Peeta's to catch me if I rolled over. I was touched by this act of thoughtfulness, and thankful, because I needed to get up. I slowly extricated myself from the heavy blanket, being careful not to disturb Peeta. The tiles were cool under my feet. Haymitch's chair was empty, but there was a stack of clothes in his place, some of our own clothes, in fact. I changed, keeping my eyes on the door so I could cover up quickly if someone came. Peeta slept on, they must have kept a sedative in his IV. I knew he might be put off about it later, but right now, he was resting, and that's what mattered. I kissed him again, silently promising not to be gone long. The clinic, or any hospital room for that matter, was too confining. I needed air.

I nearly missed the familiar form standing guard outside the door. His arm hung in a sling, his face drawn.

"Lem? Oh thank goodness. Are you all right? What happened?" I mentally berated myself for the rush of questions.

"I'm... so sorry, Ma'am. I should have seen her coming. I wasn't diligent enough. We were... overpowered. I'm so sorry we couldn't protect you." Failure was so hard for a man like Lem to admit. His mouth opened and closed like there was more.

I shook my head. "I'm sure if you could have done something, you would have," I reassured him. "Where's Sedge?"

His eyes fell, and he shook his head. A ball of ice dropped into my stomach. "I'm so sorry..." was all I could say. We stood there a minute, in honorable silence. I brought my hand to his good shoulder. "We can't tell Peeta. The guilt would be too much for him."

Lem nodded. "Yes, Ma'am, that's what Mr. Abernathy said as well." He sighed back whatever emotions threatened to surface. "Mr. Weaver has recalled me, I leave in a few hours. You should tell Mr. Mellark the three of us were recalled together. And please give him my best."

"I will." I rose on my tiptoes and pressed a kiss to his cheek. "Thank you, for everything."

He gave a small, respectful bow, and turned to leave. I never saw him again.

I dashed to the back door of the clinic and had to grab the handle for support. Taking off like that after coming off a sedation usually brought on a bout of dizziness and nausea, rather unwelcome considering I wasn't sure what time it was or how long it had been since the last time I ate, and then it dawned on me that the last time was at our toasting. It felt like ages ago. I took several long, slow breaths and pushed the heavy door open.

It was late, or early enough, that the stars were out. The moon was full now. So it's only been a day, I thought, leaning on the railing. The cool, mid-fall air was still and familiar, sweet with the scent of dying foliage, calming. I'd only stay a minute, I had to get back to Peeta, but I felt better having gotten outside. I won't dwell. I won't. What happened, happened. No one could have known it would happen this way. Peeta's going to be all right. She won't hurt anyone else. She can't hurt anyone else...

"Gonna make sense anytime, Sweetheart?"

My head whipped around. Haymitch leaned against a roof support in the shadows, dangling his legs over the side of the platform. And not surprisingly, he had a bottle in one hand. Something made me go sit next to him.

"See Lem?" he asked me. I nodded. "We in agreement?" I nodded again. He turned the bottle over in his hand. It had just occurred to me that it was still unopened.

"I won't lie to him. You'll have to. He wouldn't believe me anyway." My stomach soured at our plotting. This was exactly the kind of thing I swore I'd never again do to anyone, Peeta least of all. Haymitch tipped his head in assent. "I mean it, Haymitch. This is the one thing I'll keep from him and nothing else." I shook my head. "I wish I didn't know."

Haymitch considered the bottle, but anyone who knew him could tell his mind was on other things. "He tell you what happened?"

I shook my head. "Not sure I want to know that, either." I wiggled my toes. They felt stiff against the cold concrete. "What about Paylor? What are they saying?"

"Unofficially, a clean-up crew took her body and is sending it to be buried in some remote part of the desert. Can't tell from looking at your kitchen that anything ever happened there. And.. the official word is that she came after you, and you killed her in the struggle."

"But, that's pretty much what actually happened," I said, stating the obvious. "Isn't the official word usually something more... politically correct?"

Haymitch snickered. "I think the public is tired of all the political nonsense."

I couldn't agree with that assessment more. "What about the District? What do they know?"

"The same story. Everyone's pretty shaken up, going from a high to a low so quick like that. A bunch set up a vigil on the front steps... bet you're glad you came out the back." He adjusted, setting his bottle down. "Don't get any ideas... party's still on. Least, Sae says it is."

"She hasn't been around much... did we do something?"

"Nah, she's still embarrassed about the last time you were in here, she thinks she made things worse between you. That woman's got a great heart, but no tact. Kinda like yours truly." He groaned, getting to his feet. He held his hand out.

"C'mon. Wanna show you something."

The clinic was a newer building, completed just a few months after we returned home the first time, so the walls were still fresh, the fixtures new and shiny, and the equipment updated, if not the best of its kind. There were only two floors, but it was more than enough to accomodate the district, and was a welcome relief after having no real medical staff on hand and watching my mother and sister deal with some of the most gruesome cases on our kitchen table.

Haymitch stopped at the end of a corridor and took my shoulders to turn me to face the next one. An opaque plastic tarp hung from ceiling to floor, waving from the air vent pointed in the general direction. This distracted me only for a second, from the temporary sign taped off to one side.

FUTURE HOME OF THE PRIMROSE WARD, CENTER FOR EXCELLENCE IN CHILDREN'S HEALTH

DEDICATED BY THE HAWTHORNE FOUNDATION

A rush of emotion flooded me, displacing the strength to stand. I fell to my knees, the strong hands on my shoulders easing the way down. The air wouldn't come, my lungs wouldn't expand. 'All I can do now is to make sure her loss will be remembered, and that it won't have been in vain.' Those had been his words. And I had no words to describe... whatever I was feeling. Whatever it was, I hadn't quite felt anything like it.

I must have remembered how to breathe. Haymitch was patient, if he had any remarks, he kept them to himself. "How? When?" I blubbered, hoping he knew what I meant.

"Well, I suppose they were paying him enough, 'cause I got wind he was starting some kind of charity to get kids access to doctors even if they can't pay. And when... heck, I dunno. But they're building one of these in every hospital in every district, so I imagine it's been in the works for some time."

"He never told me."

"Would you have let him?" He must not have expected an answer, for he pulled me to my feet and led me stumbling back toward Peeta's room in a daze. Why didn't he just tell me? Why did he have to be so damn cryptic? The answer was obvious, of course. Gale wasn't the bragging type. Fiery, yes, generous with his family, but reserved with everyone else. But Prim... yes, he regarded us as family. So in essence, he was taking care of us, once again. Making sure she was remembered, and making sure I'd remember that he'd loved her, too. Something inadvertently occurred to me.

"Haymitch, you go check on Peeta... I have to... I have to do something."

He looked at me funny, then released my arm. "What should I tell him?"

I grinned. "That I love him."

His face went from concerned to grossed out in a second flat. "I will do no such thing," he scoffed. He crossed his arms and watched me walk away.

To say I was scared was an understatement. The relief at remembering that I'd needed to do this was fleeting as the anxiety of my predicament took hold. But there was a sudden conflict that plucked at my heartstrings. It was tiny, so small that I couldn't even call it deviation from my resolve, but it was there. A what if, of sorts. I couldn't ask just anyone for help. Heck, I didn't want to ask anyone. But this was better than many alternatives, I was sure.

Simm looked up from a mess of papers when I knocked on the doorframe. "Katniss! Please come in, or do you prefer Mrs. Mellark now? Don't mind the mess." He rose, indicating to the chair across from his desk. I clicked the office door shut behind me.

"Katniss is fine, Mrs. Mellark makes me sound like Peeta's mother," I said nervously. I shook off the thought of that terrible woman, and my rambling.

"Of course," he nodded. "I hear Peeta is doing much better. So what can I do for you?"

I opened and closed my mouth a few times. It was so hard to say, so personal and humiliating. I gulped and steeled myself. "Can I trust you to keep something to yourself?" My voice made me sound very small.

"Naturally," Simm stated, professionally. "It's part of our highest moral code to keep all medical information private. Is anything wrong?"

"Not exactly. Well, I don't know if it is... or not..."

"Are you feeling all right?"

"I feel fine. It's just..." Why was it so hard to ask?

"Do you need a test of some kind?" he guessed.

"Uh... I think so."

He smiled, knowingly. "I'll be right back."

I heaved a sigh. My bare foot bounced, sending vibrations up my leg, up my spine. He hadn't been gone more than a minute, but it was a very, very long minute.

He pulled his chair up to mine. "Press your finger here." He held up a sleek, gray device with a small screen and a round receptor. I placed my finger over the round part, and it poked me. They used something similar at registration for the Reapings, I remembered. I voiced the passing thought.

"Yes, it isn't very reassuring, is it?" he wrinkled his nose, then the box beeped. "Well, there you have it. Negative." He turned the box for me to see. "Should I offer my condolences or congratuations?"

The corners of my mouth turned up in sheer relief. A sigh escaped me.

"Congratulations, then. In which case, I have a number of preventatives, if you're interested."

I left his office with a pocketful of sample tablets.

Peeta was just rousing when I entered his room. "Out, Haymitch." I held the door open.

"Feisty's back," the older man laughed, pushing himself up out of his chair. "You be nice, Sweetheart," he patted my shoulder. I clicked the door shut behind him.

"Katniss?" Peeta looked confused at my none-too-subtle entrance. He held his hand out to me. I blew out the breath I was holding. I rounded to the other side of the bed, where the extra space was, and climbed back in. Peeta weakly tucked me into his good side, and I reached up to absently comb his hair with my fingertips. His free hand plucked the oxygen tubes from his nose and let them fall unceremoniously over the bed rail.

"Feeling better?" I asked. My expression must have been more pleasant than I thought, for he smiled and held me a little closer.

"Yeah. Moreso now that you're here." He laughed a little, leading to a cough and then a wince, then another smile. I just rode it out with him; he wouldn't have liked me to fuss. If the pain was unmanageable, he'd let me know. "Are you all right?" Of course, he worried more about me than himself.

I nodded. "Just relieved you're still with me."

"I'll never leave you. Ever," he vowed, pressing his lips to my temple. "Tell me what happened," he said, a little offhandedly. He was trying to keep things light. I knew this as code for 'just the essentials', that he was shaky on the reality, and responded in kind.

"She cornered me," my voice was low and even. "You snuck up on her with my hunting knife. She saw the blade's reflection off the wall behind me, disarmed and stabbed you, and I killed her. You didn't do anything wrong. You didn't hurt anyone," I reassured him.

He nodded, but the warring relief and regret within him was palpable. "I was so afraid I'd done it, even more that I'd hurt you. When I woke up and saw Haymitch holding you, I was so relieved. He said... that you wouldn't let go of me... that it took three people to pull you away. He made me promise not to tell you... sorry for this Haymitch... that he gave the order to have you knocked out. He was real worried about you. About us." Peeta sighed. "That man truly cares. More than we'll ever know, I think."

"Peeta, can we talk about something else?" the words rushed from my mouth. Not that I wasn't... touched, at the old mentor's soft interior, but the nagging from earlier was still in mind. I felt the packets crinkle in my pocket between my hip and the mattress.

"Sure, of course."

I forced myself to relax, to resist tensing at these thoughts, to avoid clamming up. "I really, really want to talk about this with you. I hope it doesn't cause a fight; you deserve to know how I feel about things, even when my feelings change. Please, please try not to be mad, okay?"

"You can tell me anything, Katniss. I love you," he reassured me.

"I love you too." I placed a soft kiss on his cheek. "More than you know, I'm sure."

"I know you do, love. Tell me what's on your mind."

I sighed. "I can't think what might have happened differently if I'd not gone downstairs that night... but that's not the point. I got out of bed because I was afraid." My words came more and more quickly, and I struggled to stay calm. I needed to be rational if he was to understand. "Not of you, and not of what happened between us. It was... beautiful, and amazing, and so much more than I have words for... but I didn't think to... to use anything." I let the words sink in.

His eyes lowered. "Oh. I... I didn't, either." Another struggle welled up in him, this time between bitter longing and deepest regret. "I'm so sorry, Katniss. I wasn't thinking."

"Don't you dare blame yourself, Peeta." The soft, subtle force of my words brought his eyes to meet mine. "It's... it's okay. I just made certain that nothing... had resulted. And I have... assurances, that it won't in the future, unless we choose to."

He nodded, eyes a little conflicted. "If there are any steps I can take as well, I hope you'll let me," he began. "But you don't have to be afraid of the words, Katniss. They won't turn me into a lovesick mess." He sighed, considering. "I do have this... desire, within me... to make a baby with you. To have a family with you one day, if you were willing. And please be assured, I won't ever, ever ask you to fulfill that need unless you absolutely wanted it too. After what just happened, I think maybe you're right. Maybe things are too unstable. I'm certain that I'm too unstable. If my meds can't prevent me from wielding knives in our own home..."

"You were protecting me, Peeta."

"Was I?" he shook his head slowly. "Something inside me wanted me to kill her. Like I was programmed to do it, some sick side-show planned for Snow's illegitimate child. Maybe he saw all this coming, used me to... to get rid of her. How a father can do that to his own child..." he shook his head, pain entering his voice. "I didn't know it was there, I don't know what triggered it; I'd seen her tons in Thirteen and then on television, and I felt nothing then. What if there are others, just waiting for a trigger to make me snap? If we had a child together and I..." his breath hitched. "I'd never forgive myself." He took a few breaths to calm himself. "It's just something I can never have. They would never be safe." Peeta sniffled. "As long as I have you, I think I'll be okay with that."

"I won't..." I muttered.

"What?"

I shook my head. "This is... all kinds of messed up." Peeta's arm tightened around me. "I feel so, so guilty. When I thought I could be... pregnant," I forced myself to acknowledge the word, if only in a whisper, "I was terrified. But then I thought I'd lost you, and suddenly, I wished I was. Like I wanted there to be something of you I could keep after you were gone. It was horrible and selfish, and after I knew you were all right, I went back to being afraid." My face crinkled, my resolve breaking. "I'm a terrible person."

"No, Katniss... shh..." he soothed, stroking my hair. "It was only natural for you to feel that way. It's all right." He let me cry, held me like the good husband that he was. "I think... maybe we should back-burner this conversation for a few years. See how we feel about it after some time has passed, hmm? It's nothing we need to worry over right now. But I'm glad you told me how you feel. Please don't ever stop doing that, okay?"

I nodded into his shoulder. I told him about Gale's gift, and his letter. The gentle soul I'd married teared up a little, so blissfully grateful to my best friend, for leaving something so profound in memory of my sister.

When Peeta lulled into a morning nap, I went to find a phone. The public ones lined a busy hallway, and I stared at them for a minute, then thought better of making a private conversation fodder for public consumption. One of the nurses took pity on my roaming around and let me use a vacant office, and I wondered sadly if he would have afforded the convenience to just anyone. My fingers trembled as they dialed.

"Hello?"

I swallowed. "M... Mom?" I didn't remember a time I'd sounded more timid. I mentally kicked myself.

"Katniss? Oh thank goodness." I heard an audible sigh. "I've been calling everyone I can think of, no one would tell me anything. Are you all right? Is Peeta all right?"

"We're fine, Mom." I paused. "How did you know?"

"It's all over the news, little one. I've been worried sick. Even when you called after that cryptic propo of Peeta's was aired, my stomach is still in knots. So is it true? Is she really..."

"She's gone."

Another sigh.

"Mom?"

"Yes, Katniss?"

"Peeta and I... we... we were married a few days ago."

Silence.

"Mom?"

"I... I'm happy for you, little one. Well, I guess you're not my little one anymore then, are you?" Her voice was sad, but peaceful. The latter was an undertone I hadn't heard in years, not since I was a child.

"There's going to be a party in a couple weeks, at the end of the harvest. Greasy Sae's idea. I'd... we'd like it if you came."

"I'd like that."

"Thank you, Mom." I paused. I did that a lot when it was my mother on the other end of the line. "I'm sorry I've been so distant the past few years. I'm really trying to work on that."

My mother sighed again. "Me too, little one. I spoke with Hazelle yesterday," her voice perked up a bit. "It seems the kids miss their home. They're arranging to move back to Twelve. They're excited to see you."

"Oh. I didn't know they were considering that. It will be nice to see them, too."

"I'm glad you called, Katniss."

I swallowed. "Me too, Mom."

"I have to hang up now, but Katniss?"

"Yes, Mom?"

"Do you think you can keep dire situations to a minimum from now on? My poor heart can't take much more."

"I'll try, Mom."

"I love you, Katniss."

"I... I love you too, Mom."

EPILOGUE

~Peeta~

I got to come home four days later. Haymitch and a few others held off the entourage of wellwishers. Katniss fought me on walking home, but in the end, she allowed it, but only because I resigned to letting her have full command of my recovery once we arrived. She held my hand and matched my snail's pace; I couldn't tell her how much it hurt, but I needed the walk. I needed to feel the pain, to move past what happened and to process all the things we'd opened up about. A walk is the best way to do that, and it couldn't have been a better trade than to have the woman I loved making the journey with me. My beautiful wife.

I existed now in a state of bliss that I'd never imagined possible until I was immersed in it. 'Katniss Mellark'... I couldn't stop thinking it. Well, I'd thought it plenty, thought it to death for years, but it's different when it's a reality. I couldn't have been more grateful for her endless presence at my side. The greatest gift, for her to love me in return... it was worth the wait.

A work crew was hard a work on my old house, preparing it for the Hawthorne's arrival. I'd called Hazelle after Katniss' conversation with her mother, and insisted they live next door. Katniss says I was being far too persuasive. I hoped I hadn't tread on any boundaries; it was just important to me to have Katniss' extended family closeby. The Village needed more children.

A familiar face greeted us from our porch when we reached the steps. "You two are looking well," the good Doc told us with a smile.

"Thank you for coming, Dr. Aurelius," I greeted him. It was a difficult minute getting up the stairs, but when I made it up I shook his hand. We talked for hours, or I did, actually; Katniss poked her head in once in a while until the good Doctor invited her to join us. He told of Weaver's resignation and voluntary submission for his role in bringing Paylor down, having taken full responsibility for the actions that may be construed as terrorism. He was set to be incarcerated indefinitely, a tragic hero. And we knew, Mr. Weaver would have it no other way.

In the weeks that followed, Katniss hunted, and I baked. The Hawthornes were a welcome sight in the yard nextdoor. Haymitch's geese visited, and on days Haymitch was able to will himself from utter stupefication, he'd come by to collect them, stopping for a meal, and sometimes a story.

Mrs. Everdeen arrived on the night before the harvest festival. Their reunion was bittersweet; Katniss cried for hours in our bed that night, but the way she clung to me when her tears ran dry told of heartfelt forgiveness. The love I saw in her mother's eyes when we came downstairs for breakfast in the morning stirred a longing in my heart. I was glad Katniss still had this chance.

We'd asked for the occasion that evening be held not for us, but in dedication of the hard work and unification of all who had contributed to the district's prosperity, and to honor those we had lost along the way. Our fellow citizens found ways to recognize us, however, much to Katniss's embarrassment. She bashfully consented to dance with me, and that was all I needed to make the starry night memorable.

The air got colder. Katniss and Rory took to the mountainside for what game hadn't yet settled in for the winter, bringing back plenty to share among our families. Hazelle and Vick prepared the pelts, and Posy discovered a talent for creating beautiful blankets from the fur pieces. I entertained the idea of having her help in the bakery come spring, and do some painting on the side; she would make a brilliant art tutor in a few seasons. Twelve's education system could use a fresh mind.

There were nights for both of us, when the dreams still trickled in. When the terrors and tears ended, we'd always talk about it. Just a few words here and there, feelings. We both knew the next step. I knew she was brave enough. And where I wasn't, she helped me. She always did.

"Peeta... we have to. We've put it off long enough," Katniss whispered.

I sighed, my heart clenching in my chest. "All right."

She waited for me, in front of the fire. I needed time, time to bring myself to get out of bed, time to pull on a shirt, time to clunk down the stairs, time to wrap my head around it. What I wanted to say, how I needed to say it. And what it should look like.

Katniss met my eyes, her loose curls blazing from the firelight in the hearth. She had the book in her lap. Our book. I took my time, pencils in hand, and sank down next to her.

"Are you ready?" she asked, her eyes searching mine.

I looked away from her briefly to the portrait over the mantle, a piece I'd done of Prim in the meadow among the summer dandelions. I'd insisted on its placement there. There were times I felt I knew Prim, from my wife's stories, from the sketches I'd done. The depiction of her, so central in our home, gave me strength to do the things that were hard, to forgive those who had wronged us, long enough to ensure they were remembered in writing. I returned my gaze to the face of my partner, my best friend, the other half of my heart, and offered a small, brave smile.

"Yeah." I took the book, opening it so I could draw on one side, and she could write on the other. "I think I am."