AN: So this is the first time I've attempted to write anything Everlark at all. I tried my best to keep them in character and such, hopefully I didn't mess it up (at least not horrifically if I did!). The story is a series of shorts that take place each year (more or less) on Katniss's and Peeta's daughter's birthday (what a mouthful). Hope you enjoy it!
Disclaimer: Of course I am not Suzanne Collins and I do not own The Hunger Games, silly rabbit.
Reason to Hope:
I've been denying it to myself for a few days now but there's no point anymore. As I rest my head against the porcelain of the toilet, I come to terms with the fact that this is going to happen whether I talk about it or not. My heart rises up to form a lump in my throat, cold terror washing over me. What was I thinking? Why did I let this happen?
The answer is simple. I love him. He wants a family so badly and, after that night nearly four months ago, he'd somehow managed to convince me that this would be okay- wonderful even. Since then, I've wanted this too; that is I've wanted it until now when I realize exactly what this means. He seems to have a lot more faith in my ability to be a mother than I do. But he was so sure of himself when he told me I would be a great mother and that we would be able to keep a child safe; that the world isn't the same place it used to be.
As I raise my head and dry heave into the toilet again, I'm not so sure now. I spend a few more minutes as my stomach tries to empty its nonexistent contents from itself. Eventually I find the reserve to stand shakily and rinse my mouth out at the sink, taking time to splash water over my pale face. The sun hasn't even risen yet and I'm already exhausted. I stare at myself in the mirror, looking for some sign that I'll be able to do this but I don't find any.
A soft knock comes at the bathroom door. I've woken him up.
"Katniss, are you alright?" He asks softly through the white wood door. I stare blankly at it for a moment, unsure of what to say. I can't honestly say whether I'm okay or not but I'm thinking that I'm probably not.
"Katniss?" He repeats after a minute of silence, sounding more concerned this time.
I turn the handle and crack the door open just enough that I can see him with one eye. It's dark in the bedroom but the light from the bathroom falls across a sliver of his face, finding his eye and lighting it the same bright blue as the summer sky.
"Are you okay?" He asks, "What are you doing up so early?"
I stare at him, gathering courage before speaking, "Peeta- I-" I trail off at a loss for words. He's always been the one for talking. I want to tell him the news as eloquently as I know he would be able to tell me. But the words just aren't there for me, like I'm grasping at smoke. I take a deep breath, watching his brow crease with worry. I slide the door open the tiniest bit more, allowing the light to find his other eye.
"I'm pregnant." I whisper, staring into those blue orbs, hoping that he can sooth the terror running through my veins and banish my regret over the decision to try for a baby.
He stares back, the only acknowledgement of my confession is the momentary dilation of his pupils and quickening of his breath. I worry that he's going to have another episode. My heart thuds loudly in my chest as I wait for him to react, holding my breath for agonizing minutes that feel like hours.
"Peeta, say something." I plead, looking away from him and letting the door fall open the rest of the way.
"You're pregnant." He whispers in awe, causing me to look up at him again. One of his hands is hovering in the air between us, his eyes cast to my stomach.
I nod and his face breaks into a radiant smile, one that lights his entire being from within.
"We're going to have a baby." He murmurs, his hand finally falling to rest over my stomach, still flat and unchanged as though there isn't a tiny human growing inside of me.
"Yes." I answer softly, the word trembling as it falls from my lips.
His hand leaves my stomach and lifts my chin so my gaze meets his own.
"Thank you." He says so reverently my heart swells in my chest, "You are so brave, Katniss." He places a soft kiss on my forehead before pulling me into a hug. I rest my head against his chest, listening to his heart thudding steadily, albeit quickly, away. It's become one of the most cherished sounds I know.
"It'll be okay, Katniss, you'll see." Peeta soothes, his lips brushing my hair, "The world is safer now. They wont have to suffer like us. We'll protect them."
I look up from his chest, placing my hands on each of his cheeks as I gaze steadily into his bright blue eyes, "We'll protect them." I repeat as if to assure myself.
He smiles and nods before lowering his lips to meet mine in a deep kiss. One that reminds me how much he's been longing for this- a family of our own. One that tells me he knows I'm scared but that he'll be there with me every step of the way. And for some reason, his kiss, his touch, his warmth is enough to sooth my worries even if just for a moment. It's enough for me to imagine our child smiling, playing near the lake in the woods. It's enough for me to smile as I return his kiss and as he feels the change, his lips turn in a smile against my own.
"Come on sweetheart." Peeta says tensely as I grip his hand, turning the tips of his fingers white. "You can do this."
"Don't tell me what I can do, PEETA!" I yell as another contraction seizes me. I've felt so much pain in my life but this is like nothing I've ever felt before. I push as hard as I can, screaming against the pain.
"You're almost there dear." Greasy Sae's friend, the old midwife of District 12, says from the end of the bed. "You're crowning. Just a few more good pushes."
It feels like fire and as another contraction takes me, I'm positive I can't do this. I'm too tired and this has been going on for an eternity. It's not possible. I'm not meant to be a mother. How will I keep this child safe if I can't even handle its birth?
Peeta leans forward, "I can see the head, Katniss." He says excitedly squeezing my hand tightly. "The baby has your hair." He turns back to me, beaming brightly; cheeks flushed, eyes glassy and lit up. He looks so alive, so much like the Peeta from before the hijacking. As the next wave of a contraction comes over me, I summon up a power I never knew I had and push harder than I have during this entire ordeal.
"The head's out dear. Give one last big push for me and you can be done." The old woman coaches. I do and suddenly the pain is gone and her hands, knotted with old age, work deftly. It seems like an eternity but in reality it's a fraction of a moment before our child takes its first breath and lets out a strong cry.
"It's a healthy girl." The older woman says fondly, lightly wrapping the baby in a blanket before placing her, still bloody and wet, on my chest. As I look down at the messy infant, it's as though something is released inside of me. The gut wrenching fear is gone though the worry is not. I love this tiny human more than I ever though possible and I would never regret having her. The old woman quickly uses another towel to clean off most of the blood and mess, leaving our daughter slightly damp in my arms.
"A girl." Peeta croons, brushing a hand through my sweaty hair. "You did it, sweetheart."
I can't look away from her though- our little girl. She's quieted down now, her blue eyes watching my face blurrily. They're Peeta's eyes exactly but he's right- she has my hair.
"Would you like to cut the cord, Peeta?" The wizened woman asks, holding out her metal scissors to him. He takes them wordlessly and cuts where she tells him to before he turns his attention back to the two of us as the woman continues working silently from the end of the bed.
"What should we name her?" I ask softly, brushing a damp lock of hair off her tiny forehead. She's so unbelievably small that, for a moment, I'm terrified I might break her until she lets out a deep, sweet breath that instantly calms my nerves.
We've talked about names but agreed we didn't want to decide until after the baby was born. We wanted the name to fit.
"She looks like a Heather to me." He says, voice choked with emotion. "What do you think?"
I smile at the tiny life, so full of promise, dozing in my arms, "I think you're right, Peeta. Heather Mellark suits her just fine."
I look up to him and see his face is wet with tears as he gazes at our daughter in awe, "I'm a father." He whispers, reaching a finger into her hand which she instantly wraps her tiny, fragile fingers around. "She's perfect, Katniss. Look at her."
I smile tiredly, certain that I look like a sight for sore eyes but when Peeta looks back to me a moment later, you would think I've been styled by Cinna again the way he watches me with adoration. He smiles, cheeks still damp with tears.
"I love you so much, Katniss." He kisses the top of my sweaty head gently. For tonight, he's completely the Peeta from before the hijacking, the one who didn't need to worry whether I was a threat or not. This is my Peeta, the one who loves me without a doubt in his mind.
"If you want to help me, Peeta, we just need to get everything cleaned up and I'll be done here until the morning." Sae's friend says softly, tearing his gaze from mine. He moves swiftly, working with her to get the sheets changed and everything cleaned up so it doesn't look like I've just given birth in our bedroom.
The midwife coaches me on how to get little Heather to latch on and breastfeed before leaving us to the deep silence of our house in the early morning hours. Heather is suckling sleepily at my breast when Peeta returns to the bedroom after showing the midwife out. He smiles softly at us as he climbs into bed next to me. He reaches out a hand that seems impossibly big next to her tiny head to brush back a soft tuft of dark hair and she opens her eyes, wide and bright, at his touch. I watch him, his face soft and amazed at the little life before him and I realize that this is what Peeta was always meant to be- a father.
I doze off a little while later as Peeta's hand runs rhythmically through my hair. Peeta gently takes Heather from my arms, doing his best not to wake me though he doesn't realize he's unsuccessful. He slides to the edge of the bed where the bassinet is sitting but pauses before settling her into the tiny white basket.
"I promise to keep you safe." He whispers softly. I can hear the tears thick on his words, "I'll always love you, my little girl."
I settle down to sleep again, a smile pulling at the corner of my lips. Maybe I have it in me to be a good mother after all. I know without a doubt though that Peeta will be a good father. His ability might even be enough to make up for any of my shortcomings and this thought is immensely comforting as I drift off for once into a dreamless sleep.
"What do you think?" Peeta asks me, looking up hopefully from the center of the living room where he's sitting cross-legged in the middle of a huge model train set.
"Honestly?" I ask, quirking an eyebrow, "I think it's a bit much."
Peeta continues to smile gleefully, "Sure it is, but it's her first birthday. Do you think she'll like it?"
The miniature train buzzes by on the track in front of him, gleaming in the early morning sunlight. It's an amazing toy, too expensive and Heather is probably too young for it, but it's worth all the money in the world just to see Peeta's face light up at the prospect of giving this gift to his daughter.
He's even kept it a secret from me, sneaking off to order it and pick it up from the train station once it was delivered. He got up before the sun this morning to start putting it together. After a few hours of muttered oaths, he's finally finished setting the contraption up and it is quite impressive.
It is top of the line technology straight from the inventors in District 3. Apparently it's all the rage in the Capitol, though it's a stretch for most Capitol citizens' budgets to afford anymore.
"I think she'll love it." I reply with a smile, which he returns with a smug smile of his own. "You've certainly outdone me."
He laughs at this just as a bell rings once in the kitchen signaling that the bread Peeta made earlier is done baking. It smells wonderful in the house and my stomach gives a hungry gurgle at the scent of fresh cheesebuns.
"Cheesebuns for breakfast?" I question, following him into the kitchen.
"I thought you deserved a little celebration too." He muses as he pulls the steaming bread out of the oven and places it on a rack to cool.
"Me?" I ask in confusion, "Why me? My birthday was six months ago."
He fixes me with a deep gaze, his eyes just a touch darker than usual and I hope I haven't somehow triggered an episode.
"Today's a pretty big milestone for you too, Katniss." He explains, "You've been a mother for an entire year. A little over a year ago, you thought that would never happen. And so far, you've done an amazing job."
I'm not so sure about the amazing part but I haven't entirely screwed my child up yet so I guess he's right. I hadn't really thought about it like that but it is a pretty big deal, all things considered. I smile, "So you make me food?" I question, but grab one of the still steaming buns off the tray and take a bite.
"You're not that hard to figure out, Katniss." He jokes. I shoot him a glare but stop when I hear Heather start to fuss upstairs in her crib.
"I'll get her!" Peeta says excitedly, jumping up from where he'd been leaning on the counter and hurrying upstairs.
I can hear him murmuring excitedly to our daughter upstairs as he changes her. She babbles along with him happily. She adores her father and although typically she's quite fussy and temperamental for a baby, she loves it when Peeta does her morning routine. In fact, she loves it whenever Peeta is around regardless of what he might be doing. She's a complete Daddy's girl already. I smile softly to myself as I finish eating before taking a seat in the living room and waiting for them to come downstairs.
She's still babbling, one tiny hand fisting in his curly blond hair as he carries her into view. She smiles upon seeing me and holds out her arms, "Mama!" She chants.
"Hi Heather." I coo taking her from Peeta to give her a big hug, "Happy birthday!" She smiles obliviously before I set her down and Peeta joins her, taking a moment to situate his prosthetic leg.
Peeta, very seriously, explains how to use the toy train set and Heather sits next to him staring up at him as if she can actually understand what her father is saying. She let's out a squeal of delight once Peeta starts up the train and the shiny silver machine glides around on the track. Heather pats her hands together in glee, Peeta's face glowing as she does. The way he looks at her makes my heart melt.
He glances up and catches me staring at him. Without a word he reaches a hand out to find my own and squeezes gently as Heather pulls the toy train off the track and bangs it excitedly on the ground. Luckily, it appears the Capitol has built the toy with this use in mind and it remains in one functional piece. I laugh easily, squeezing Peeta's hand back.
Perhaps this mother thing wasn't such a bad idea after all. It's actually pretty enjoyable on mornings like this.
"Heather, stop that." I call from where I'm seated on the porch snapping beans from the garden.
My chubby two year old daughter glares and me and throws the fist of dirt she had been aiming to put in her mouth onto the ground. She waits until I look back to my work before picking up another handful.
"Heather!" I warn. The tone has become second nature to me as she's grown more inquisitive and increasingly mobile. She doesn't typically take kindly to me telling her no however so I wait patiently for the inevitable and it doesn't take but a moment.
She lets out a screech of dismay before turning away to tinker with a shovel and bucket, ignoring my presence. I shake my head slowly as I watch her fill the bucket with dirt. She's more like me than I'd care to admit. Peeta says it's endearing that she's so strong willed but I'm not so sure. She has a temper as quick as fire, ready to burn a forest at any turn. The fierceness isn't something I wanted for my daughter. She doesn't need to be strong like that in this new world. Peeta says it will serve her well though as she grows up; that, as she matures, the fire will turn into passion. I hope he's right.
I finish snapping the beans a while later and she's still digging, resolutely ignoring me.
"Heather, baby." I call from the steps of the house, "It's time to go in."
She doesn't look up. In fact, she doesn't acknowledge that I've spoken in any way. She merely continues shoveling dirt into her pail. I smirk at her in spite of my dismay at her behavior.
"Okay, Heather, I guess Mommy will just have to leave you out here alone all day." I say in my saddest tone. I turn back to the house before she can see my smile, which would give me away instantly. I know from experience that I have to make this all believable otherwise she'll call my bluff right away. I walk slowly as there are only a few steps to the door and I want to give her time to catch up.
After my second step, I hear shuffling behind me then the patter of tiny feet in the grass.
"Mama!" My daughter's sweet voice calls shrilly from just behind me. An instant later, short, pudgy arms wrap around both of my legs. I smile more brightly as I look down at the blue-eyed little girl clinging to me desperately.
"What is it sweetie?" I ask innocently.
"Take me." She orders, reaching one chubby hand up to me.
"You don't want to stay out here alone?" I ask. She shakes her head quickly, brown locks swaying against her cheeks. "Oh, okay then." I say before swinging her up into my arms. She buries her face against my neck, weaving her tiny, dirty hands into my hair at the nape of my neck.
This is the part that always sooths my concern about her personality. This part of her, I see as entirely Peeta- sweet and loving. Peeta disagrees. He says Heather is me all the way- furious one minute and sweet the next- but I don't see it. I've never been the openly affectionate type like Peeta.
I walk us both through the door and Peeta is working furiously in the kitchen. I notice the big white box tied shut and resting on the table. He's been keeping it a secret from me, telling me he wants it to be a surprise for all of us when he unveils his work. I know he'll have overdone it but I still can't wait to see the first cake he's made for our daughter. His talent never ceases to amaze me.
"Hey." He calls over his shoulder. I note the way he stands and don't miss the tension in his muscles as he works. My good spirits drop slightly at the sight.
"Hi." I respond easily as Heather wriggles unhappily in my arms.
"Daddy." She squeals gleefully, running toward him with her arms outstretched. Part of the tension in Peeta's shoulders melts away at her voice and he turns around with a bright smile, scooping her up as he does.
She squeals again, "Heather!" He says in mock surprise, "You're getting so old! I can see a wrinkle I think."
I smile at the game the two of them sometimes play ever since Heather walked into the bathroom one day as I was lamenting over a wrinkle next to my eye. I don't know why it had upset me as much as it did; maybe because it was a reality check that I am indeed destined to age like the rest of the world. Peeta had been making fun of my reaction, telling me I still looked beautiful to him. Heather had been sitting on the edge of the tub watching me when she'd stood up and patted my leg telling me she didn't mind if I was 'old with 'inkles.' Peeta had spent a good minute laughing deeply at this before sweeping her up and finding nonexistent wrinkles to kiss on her face.
Heather giggles in her father's arms, "Where?" She asks excitedly, knowing what's coming next.
"Right there!" Peeta exclaims before planting a sloppy, wet kiss on her forehead between her eyebrows. She lets out a loud belly laugh as Peeta pretends to nibble on her neck. Once Peeta stops she catches her breath, placing a small hand on each of his cheeks, her blue eyes meeting his identical ones.
"Love you." She says quietly.
Peeta breaks into that soft smile he only has for his daughter, one without any worry or fear. It's a smile he used to look at me with before the hijacking but now there's always the tiniest, most remote part of him, even on his best days, that fears I'm a threat to him.
He ruffles Heather's hair lightly, "I love you too, my little girl."
He puts her down and she toddles off to the living room to find a toy she suddenly wants, leaving Peeta and I alone.
"Dinner's almost ready." Peeta says without meeting my gaze. The tension is back in his shoulders and I know today must be one of the not-so-good ones. Hopefully we can avoid it becoming a bad one.
"Okay." I say softly, hoping to avoid triggering an episode. He left early this morning before I'd woken up and I have no idea what happened to trigger this Peeta again. He's been doing so well lately. "I have green beans ready that we can cook."
He sighs, reaching a hand out for the bowl I'm holding, "I'll do it, Katniss."
I hesitate, wanting to help him and not just by cooking the beans, but I don't know how to do that right now without causing him to have a full-blown attack. He looks up at me, blue eyes clouding darkly, pupils constricting and dilating quickly before returning to normal.
"Please, Katniss." He murmurs before dropping his gaze to the bowl in my hand. "Just let me do this. It's okay." He assures, knowing the exact reason for my hesitation even through his fear. That's what this tension always is when he has off days. Something I've done or he's thought of has reminded him to be afraid of me and he's having a hard time shaking the feeling- the feeling that I might kill him.
"Okay." I say, handing him the bowl and turning toward the living room, defeated. I just wish there were something I could do on days like this but often it is just time alone that he needs. I hate to see him suffer like this though.
"Katniss?" He calls from the counter. I turn to look back but he's facing away from me and doesn't turn around before he says, "Thank you."
I nod though he can't see me and walk silently from the room, trying to ignore the slight prickle behind my eyelids reminding me that I'm still a human with emotions I can't fully control.
I settle down on the floor next to Heather and watch her play with some blocks. She's building towers out of the colorful blocks before knocking them over with her fist, laughing happily at her destruction only to rebuild it again.
It's a half hour later when Peeta walks into the room, still drying his hands on a towel. Our eyes meet when I look up and he smiles tentatively at me, the tension gone. His time alone seems to have helped him and he's no longer anxious in my presence.
"Dinner's ready." He says softly before squatting next to us and asking, "Are you hungry, Heather?"
"Ya!" She says smiling and reaching her arms around Peeta's neck.
There's a heavy knock at the door as I stand to follow. "I'll get it." I say turning the deadbolt and opening the door to Haymitch looking groggy, the smell of stale alcohol on him. He must have just woken up from a binge.
"I thought I'd say happy birthday to the kid." He explains, stepping around me and into the foyer. I don't say anything at first, simply closing the door behind him. "Are you going to invite me in, Sweetheart?" He mocks.
"Are you sober?" I counter sharply. He smirks and gives a curt nod, not at all offended by my inquisition. I usher him inside without another word and he settles himself at the table next to Peeta with a nod.
"Happy birthday little lady." Haymitch says, reaching to ruffle Heather's hair.
She giggles as she picks up a green bean between her short fingers, "Uncie Haymitch."
He chuckles good-naturedly. He's enamored with our little one. In his mind, she can do no wrong. I've never seen him so soft around anyone and it still stuns me a bit that he can be so kind and warm- so unlike the drunk mentor I remember first meeting.
We eat contentedly. Peeta has managed to make a delicious, warm dinner that fills us all, something I had never expected as a child and still appreciate now. It still seems unreal sometimes that we can have such an easy life; easy at least in terms of physical needs. Mentally, of course, it's been a terror ever since the first arena. We've managed and things have gotten easier as time continues but we'll never be without the scars the arena and the war left on us.
"Is it time for cake now?" Peeta questions.
"Yes!" Heather squeals, clapping her chubby hands together.
Haymitch laughs, "You heard her, kid, get the cake!"
"Don't encourage her, Haymitch. The last thing we need is her ordering people around all the time." I reprimand lightly. I try not to smile as I do to make it more convincing but I fail miserably.
"Why not?" He counters, "If she knows what she wants, she should take it. She's too cute not to get what she wants."
I laugh, "You'll turn her into a little monster if you're not careful." I argue and he simply shrugs as Peeta lowers a masterpiece onto the table in front of us.
As I expected- it's excessive. There's a wide bottom tier with a smaller top tier settled in the center. He's spent a week working on it after hours at the bakery and the time shows. He's created a masterpiece of icing, recreating one of Heather's favorite places- the meadow. Green sprigs of grass cover the edges of each tier and a multitude of brightly colored wildflowers pop up between the green blades. Tiny spotted, red beetles and stunning, lifelike butterflies fly over the grass. There are even little yellow dandelions. Of course, Peeta doesn't understand the significance of those tiny blooms but he's managed to make a perfect replica of the meadow.
Heather claps excitedly as a gasp escapes my lips. Peeta's eyes are alight with happiness, all earlier traces of anxiety erased. Heather has always been so good at dashing away his memories of the hijacking. He somehow manages to lift the top layer of the cake off and sets it in front of Heather.
"Dig in, sweetie. Happy birthday." He says with a smile.
Heather coos delightedly at the sugary feast in front of her. She hesitates just a moment before sticking a fist into the squishy frosting and soft fluffy cake. Gleeful blue eyes meet mine as though daring me to reprimand her now for getting messy and she stuff her messy fist into her mouth, effectively smearing more cake on her face than in her mouth.
Laughter tumbles out of my mouth before I can stop it and Haymitch guffaws loudly as Peeta ruffles her hair sweetly.
"That's my girl." He says placing a kiss on her hair before turning to cut each of us a slice of cake from the lower tier.
After we're all served, Peeta settles down in his seat next to me again. The cake is delicious but Heather's laughter makes it taste even better. Somehow the icing continues to spread over a larger area of her face, first over her cheeks, then on her nose, all the way until it's up in her hair and behind her ears. Peeta's laugh mingles with her delighted giggles as his hand somehow finds its way into my own under the table, warming me from deep inside my chest.
I look at him, all rosy cheeks and bright blue eyes, and wonder how I could have ever questioned having a child with this man? He's the best father I could ever imagine, in spite of his episodes. He loves her with his entire being and I know it would be enough to make up for any of my faults.
Of course I still have days that remind me why I was fearful of having children. Days where Heather stumbles while I'm turned away and her screams freeze my blood, fearful that she might be gravely injured. But as the days and then months pass, it becomes more natural. The worry doesn't go away but I learn how to deal with it. I learn that, while I can't protect her from everything, she's safe from a death sentence in the arena. The government will not harm my child. I took part in the war that assured her safety from that.
"Come on." I whisper, just barely louder than a breath, "Quietly, Heather."
She bobs along next to me, her step unusually quiet for a child, a natural my father would have said. I haven't taken her out with me often but today she was up with me before the sun asking to tag along on my hunting trip. At first I had told her to go back to sleep, today is her third birthday and we have a party planned for this afternoon, but she begged and I had relented without much struggle.
"You have your arrow?" I question and she smiles with a nod, showing me a tiny arrow and holding up her bow for good measure.
"Okay." I whisper squatting down next to her, "There's a rabbit right there. You see it? That's the one I want you to aim for."
She squints, a tiny furrow forming between her eyebrows as she concentrates on the small grey rabbit several yards in front and to the left of us. She notches the arrow carefully and pulls back on the bow like I showed her. I correct her elbow gently as she aims. She takes in a deep breath and lets it out slowly, letting the arrow fly as she does.
It flies about a foot to the left of the rabbit and a bit high as well. But for a three year old, I'm once again astounded by her ability to hunt. I hope she'll never need to hunt to survive but I know if she did she would make it.
Her head sags a bit as the rabbit dashes off to hide somewhere in the underbrush. I place a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
"That was so good, Heather." I say encouragingly, "Soon you'll be outshooting Mommy."
"Really?" She asks, looking up at me hopefully.
"Really." I reply, settling the heavy game bag over my shoulder more comfortably. "Come on. We should get home. Daddy will be making breakfast for the birthday girl. What do you think it will be?" I ask her with a smile.
"Cinnamon rolls!" She cheers loudly, scaring a few birds from the trees. Good thing we're done hunting for the day since she's dashed any hope of catching something living.
I chuckle and tousle her long dark hair that still hangs freely around her shoulders. Most days she's too impatient to let me braid her hair and I don't care enough to fight her about it. It doesn't bother her to have her hair blowing in her face so I don't see the point in arguing with her in the morning.
We make good time walking back through the woods. The morning sunlight is weak and watery through the layer of clouds as the sun tries to break through them. Tom passes us on his way out to the apple trees that lie just beyond the edge of the woods.
"Happy birthday, Heather!" He calls with a wave in our direction.
Heather waves back at Tom and giggles. She's shy whenever we see him because we don't go into town for visits all that often. We cross into the Victor's Village to see Haymitch chasing one of his geese around in the front yard.
"Looks like Uncle Haymitch forgot to shut the gate again." I muse.
"Uncle Haymitch is funny." Heather responds with a delightful laugh as Haymitch dives with surprising agility for his age and manages to grab the goose. He hurries away with it to the backyard where the rest of the geese are penned. He'll be joining us for the party tonight along with several children from town that Heather has made friends with on our trips to the park. The government has built the small park in town as a memorial to all the children lost in the games. It always pulls at my gut to go because it makes me think of how much Prim would have loved playing there but Heather loves to climb and swing on the play set so I try not to think about it that way.
"What do you think, Heather, should I race you home?" I challenge with a smile. This has become a game between us whenever we leave home together. She's only three now but she loves to run and she's damn fast too. I can still beat her without trying but I also have a longer gait. One day, probably sooner than I can imagine, she'll be able to beat me.
She nods, "Three!" She shouts and pauses, taking her running stance and waiting for me to count us down.
"One, two- hey!" I yell after her retreating form with a laugh. I jog after her, the heavy game bag slapping against my back. She veers off toward the backyard of our house next door. She knows that the backdoor of our house will be unlocked.
I take a shortcut between our house and the one next door as I speed up, planning to catch her as she crosses from one backyard to the next. I jump out from between the houses just a few paces behind her, which I quickly close and grab her.
She lets out a blood-curdling scream of surprise, as I roar and toss her up in the air above my head. I catch her and she lets out another squeal of surprise. I start tickling her belly and she kicks futilely in my arms, screaming through her laughter.
A loud bang comes from our house in front of us and my head snaps up to see Peeta looking wildly around. He spots us after a moment and rushes down the stairs. It only takes a minute for me to realize he looks manic. As he gets closer, I can see his eyes more clearly, feral and dark with fear.
"Peeta." I say softly, probably too quiet for him to hear.
He takes a few more threatening steps before shouting, "Get away from her!"
Heather tenses in my arms at her father's anger, snuggling in closer to my chest.
"Peeta, it's okay." I say taking a slow step backwards.
"Don't you lie to me! You're always lying to me!" He yells, his face turning red.
"Peeta, that's not true." I murmur lowly, hoping to calm him so that he might see some sense and come back to me.
"Give me back my daughter!" He screams, lunging at me.
Heather cowers away from Peeta's outstretched hands and whimpers in my arms. I stumble back a step but let him take her from my arms easily, knowing there is no point in keeping her away from him. He wouldn't hurt her even in his manic phase. All he wants to do is protect her from me- the mutt, the threat.
"Mommy!" Heather screeches, reaching her arms out to me as Peeta staggers away from me. He wraps his arms protectively around her, trying to shield her from my gaze.
"It's okay baby. Everything is okay." I soothe, stepping farther away from Peeta, hoping that this would calm him down some- show him I'm not a threat.
"Why is Daddy mad?" She asks fearfully.
"Don't talk to her sweetie." He whispers in her hair, planting a kiss lightly on her temple, still gripping her body close to his own. "It's okay."
"Peeta, please." I whisper, hoping beyond all possibility that the plea in my voice might bring my Peeta back to me. "Not today."
"You just stay away from us!" He threatens, eyes widening wildly.
"Daddy, ouch." Heather whimpers, trying to push his arms away. He instantly relaxes them a fraction from the death grip they had around her waist.
"Peeta, I don't want to hurt anyone." I promise but I can tell by the steel in his eyes that it doesn't work. He watches me warily.
"Don't you ever touch my daughter again you- you-" He stumbles at the word his hijacked mind is screaming at him to say but his rational, doctored up mind tells him is untrue. They spent too many days in thirteen convincing him that I wasn't a mutt for him to call me that now without a struggle.
"Daddy." Heather says, voice quivering, as she puts a hand on either side of his face, forcing his eyes to meet hers. "Daddy don't be mad. Mommy didn't mean it. We were playing." She turns slightly for a moment to look back at me and her face is wet with tears.
"It's okay, Heather." He assures her, his voice starting to sound less panicked but his eyes are still clouded, "It's okay you don't have to be afraid of her anymore. I've got you."
She shakes her head, dark hair sticking to her wet cheeks, "I'm not afraid, Daddy. Please don't be mad at Mommy."
He stares at her for a moment, blinking slowly as he does. I watch the cloud of terror dissipate slowly as he watches our daughter's eyes. Something in her brings him back to us in a way I never could. All I could ever do was wait with him, hoping he would come back. Occasionally he would let me get close enough to him to wrap my arms around him and press myself against him but it was always a dangerous move because sometimes it just didn't work.
He blinks slowly once more, "Katniss, I-"
"Let's go inside and get Heather some breakfast." I whisper, tremulously, knowing he's still on the brink of rationality. Focusing on our daughter will keep him safely planted on the side of his mind that loves me, or at least the side that isn't threatened by me.
We go inside, safely avoiding eye contact as we eat the fresh, warm cinnamon rolls that Peeta made for Heather's birthday. Peeta only has to reassure her a handful of times that everything is okay- that he's not mad with Mommy and that he was just confused like he sometimes gets- before she seems to settle down and forget the incident. If only we could all forget so easily. It's one of many gifts that childhood innocence provides. After Heather finishes eating and gets washed up, I send her to the living room while Peeta and I clean up the kitchen.
"Katniss," Peeta murmurs as I draw water into the sink to wash the dishes. I look up into his eyes, the same sky blue I know and love so much. He frowns and his eyes squint as though he's in pain. He whispers, "I'm sorry."
I shake my head, "It's not your fault, Peeta. I know that."
"I wasn't going to hurt her." He says, his voice shaking.
I reach a hand out tentatively to brush his cheek. I hover over his face for a moment but he doesn't flinch and his eyes stay the same clear blue so I lower my fingers to his skin, so warm and soft. It's hard to imagine this man is capable of such anger towards me when an episode takes him.
"I know that, Peeta." I assure him, "I never questioned her safety. I know you could never hurt her." I watch relief wash over his face at my words. He seems comforted by my confidence. I know without a doubt that no torture in the world could turn him into enough of a monster that he would harm his little girl.
"What happened? What triggered it this time?" I question.
"I heard Heather scream from out in the yard." Peeta says slowly, as though remembering it is hard, even painful, for him. "I ran outside to see what was wrong. You were holding her and she was screaming. I- my mind thought you were hurting her."
I nod, tears prickling at my eyelids much to my dismay. The idea that I might hurt my daughter is one of my greatest fears. I constantly worry that I might somehow bring suffering upon her.
Peeta's hand finds my shoulder and rubs gently over it, "Katniss, I don't really think that you would do that. It's just my mind…"
I give him a weak smile, "I know, Peeta." I tip my head up to meet his lips as he lowers them to mine in a brief, soft kiss. I watch him for a moment afterwards, wrapping my arms around his neck, afraid that if I don't this Peeta might slip away again in exchange for hijacked Peeta.
"Will you still be okay for the party?" I question softly, "We can cancel. They'll understand and Heather-"
"I'll be fine. Don't worry about that." He cuts me off, his hands coming to rest on my hips.
I stare at him skeptically for a moment and he notices.
"I don't feel like it's going to happen again." He reasons, "I feel in control again."
I nod wordlessly before leaning forward and giving him another peck. He's gotten better from all the therapy with Dr. Aurelius. Normally he can sense an episode coming on now and once he recovers he can tell whether the rest of the day will be good or bad. I trust his judgment since clearly still I can't predict what will set him off.
I step away to go join Heather in the living room but Peeta holds me by the hips tightly. I look up, confused as to why he's not letting go, momentarily worried that he was wrong and he is falling into another episode. But I look up into sky blue eyes, watching me carefully.
"I love you, Katniss." Peeta murmurs gently.
"I love you too, Peeta." I reply without hesitation. There's no doubt in my mind that I made the right choice in building a life with Peeta. His lips meet mine more passionately this time, begging forgiveness for something that my heart has already forgotten. I kiss him back, feeling that burning in me that only he has ever been able to kindle.
I pull away quickly when I hear the patter of feet against the floor in the other room. Heather is going to walk through the kitchen doorway at any moment.
I smile at Peeta, "Save it for tonight." I order and give him one last peck before our daughter bursts into the room carrying her stuffed teddy that seems to have hurt its paw and needs a kiss to heal his maimed limb.
I bend over and administer the medical attention it needs with the swift mentality of a healer. When I look back up Peeta is watching us both with that soft smile tugging at his lips. My heart skips lightly. I love this man and the child he gave me more than I could have ever imagined was possible.
Peeta and I are tangled around one another in the weak grey light of morning when a knock at the door wakes us. It's still so early that Heather hasn't woken up yet to bound excitedly into the room and throw her jumping body on our bed, exclaiming it's her birthday. She's been telling me for weeks now that she is going to be four- as if I am about to forget how many years it's been since I gave birth to such a bright spark of hope in my life.
Peeta slips out of bed, grabbing crutches rather than bothering with his prosthetic leg before heading to answer the door. We both grumble a bit, figuring it's probably Haymitch on a drunken run for more liquor which still occurs, although much less frequently since Heather questioned why he doesn't stop by more often. I slip out of bed behind Peeta but head straight for the bathroom. As I relieve myself, I look down at the small swell of my belly.
I'm just over four months pregnant and I still find it hard to believe sometimes. I was positive that after Heather I didn't want to do it all over again. I didn't think I could stand the constant terror during the pregnancy and the pain of childbirth again. Peeta didn't pressure me about it even though I know he would have loved more. In his eyes, I had already given him the world and he couldn't dream of asking for more. It wasn't until Heather asked me why she didn't have a baby brother or sister that I began to question my resolve.
Several of her friends from town now have younger siblings and she's noticed that she's the odd one out in that department. Peeta jumped in and explained it away in a way that Heather could understand and accept but the idea continued nagging at my brain for several weeks.
I still remember clearly how Peeta's face lit up when I told him I wanted to try again. You would have thought I gave him the moon to go along with the world. And I remember even more vividly his tears of happiness when I told him he would get to be a father again. It's not quite so scary this time, though not entirely easy either. I've had a few days where getting out of bed seems an impossible feat but now Heather is there to bring me out of myself. She needs a mother and I won't do to her what my mother did to me, no matter how helpless I might feel.
I make my way downstairs and find a surprisingly sober Haymitch sitting at the kitchen table. Peeta is seated next to him, their heads bent close together as they murmur quietly in conversation with furrowed brows.
I freeze in the doorway knowing immediately that something's wrong. Peeta notices me and his face confirms my fears.
"What is it?" I demand, pulling out another chair for myself at the table.
"Well, Sweetheart, it's nothing good I'm afraid." Haymitch drawls slowly and he honestly looks sorry as he explains his reason for visiting.
There's been an uprising in the Capitol. A small militia of citizens charged the Presidential Mansion overnight and they managed to breech security before anyone realized there was something wrong. There was hardly any resistance because no one realized what was happening. There is no word yet if the President, Paylor's successor, is still alive and well. Haymitch assures me though that there is also no word to the contrary either.
A familiar, primal fear tears away at my gut again with a fierceness that hasn't occurred since I was first pregnant with Heather. One of my hands falls to the swell of my belly and I realize with utter terror that I have made a huge mistake by bringing not only one child into this world but having the audacity to try for another.
I fell into the same trap as this fledgling government did. I thought we were safe. I thought the government was strong and that this new world was stable. But in the watery morning light filtering into the kitchen I realize that it's no safer than it was all those years ago. There are still those that want power, no matter the cost. There will always be danger so long as mankind lives and power is in its reach. There's no telling what kind of world these insurgents are looking to create but I know that I will only have limited power to protect my children from whatever horrors it might bring.
Haymitch notes my reaction with a sad glance before standing, promising us he'll be back for Heather's birthday dinner and that he'll update us if he hears any new information. He shows himself out of the house with a soft click of the front door. After that, the house is silent with an early morning lull as if it was any other day and nothing horrible has happened.
I'm breathing heavily but I can't seem to make my mind work. I can't coordinate any thoughts or movements. At the moment all I can do is keep breathing.
"Katniss." Peeta says softly from beside me, his warm, strong hand covering my own that's still placed protectively over my belly- our child. "Katniss, it's going to be alright." He assures me with a gentle squeeze of his hand.
"You don't know that." I whisper, barely louder than our breathing but he hears and his eyes darken, "You can't promise that it wont all go to shit again. What have we done, Peeta? What were we thinking bringing children into this?"
"We just have to hope for the best right now, Katniss." He sooths, his thumb brushing over my knuckles, "There are never going to be any guarantees in life but you can't let that fear keep you from living your life the way you want to."
"You're wrong." I say firmly, pulling my hand out from under his, "If we'd never had children…" I stop because I know this is such a soft spot with Peeta and I don't want to conjure up an episode today. Not on Heather's birthday.
I stand and brush some nonexistent dirt from my pants. Peeta looks up at me curiously, wordlessly questioning the purpose of my actions. The sun still hasn't crested over the horizon even though the inky black of the sky has already begun to water down to grey.
"I'm going out hunting." I say flatly before heading toward the door and grabbing my hunting gear.
"Now?" He asks softly, following me slowly, hindered by his crutches. "Heather will be up anytime now."
I pause next to the door but don't turn to face him. I don't want him to see how shaken I am by our early morning news. "You can tell her I'll be back with something yummy for dinner." I say over my shoulder before hurrying out the door and across the yard.
I need time to be alone because this is one thing Peeta can't truly understand no matter how much he tries to. He can never fully understand why I'm so fearful for our children's safety. Of course part of it has always had to do with the Games but another part of me is scared that we'll fail them in other ways; that one day they wont have enough food for their bellies; that one or both of us might die leaving them to fend for themselves.
I let a hand drop to my swelling stomach as I cut through the dewy grass towards the woods. I think silently, walking without much thought as to where I am going until I find myself at a clearing in the woods. It's beautiful, all lush ferns and tiny white wildflowers, and on any other day I would be able to appreciate its beauty but today I fall to my knees and lean against a tree in despair.
"What have I gotten you into, little one?" I question my unborn child. Then I whisper, "I'm so sorry."
Tears burst forth without any warning and great heaving sobs wrack my body. It's been a while since I've cried like this. Honestly, I don't think I've cried this hard since that first night Buttercup returned home after the war. But something inside of me seems to have cracked with the realization that our safe, new world isn't nearly as stable as I had thought.
I lament the day that I decided to have a child with Peeta because it's the day that I fed into a weakness I never desired to experience. The government can control me like a puppet now. I would do anything to protect my children. I don't even think it would be a far stretch to say I would be willing to watch other peoples' children killed so long as I could guarantee my owns safety. The idea causes my stomach to roll and I vomit on the forest floor.
I don't know how long I stay there. My tears dry up sometime after the sun has risen above the trees but I can't make myself move from my spot in the woods. My terror has paralyzed me and I try to steady my breathing and bat it back down into the tiny box where I keep it. I try to think of Heather and her birthday. I know I'm ruining it but it's a slow process to repress this amount of fear.
I hear the crunching footfalls before they've probably even realized they've found me. They're clearly not the feet of a hunter but I can tell they aren't Peeta's loud thudding steps either.
"Sweetheart, I'm really getting too old for this." Haymitch says, slightly breathless, as he leans against the tree. I should have known he'd come looking for me. Peeta probably called and asked him to stay with Heather and rather than agreeing he took it upon himself to come find me. He still hasn't lost the tracking skills he learned in the arena even after all these years.
"I didn't ask you to come after me." I respond sharply, unsure of how I feel about his unexpected presence.
"I told you I'd inform you of any new news." Haymitch grumbles, "Didn't think it would involve hiking halfway through the woods, of course, but..."
I sit up straighter, my heart pounding, "Is there new information?"
"Effie called." Haymitch says with a nod, "It's been over thirty years since I last saw her and I still don't miss that woman one bit-"
"Haymitch." I warn, anxious to hear what he knows.
"Right, right." He shakes his head, "The President's fine. Some members of security caught on earlier than previously thought and got him out through a panic tunnel of some sort. Paylor apparently had them put in. She must have figured something like this might happen- smart as a whip that one. Several of the rebels were apprehended. They're Capitolites from the old days. Cracked like eggshells under questioning." He explains with a disdainful look. I let out a shaky breath of relief.
"Their plan was to take the Capitol back and try to return to the old ways. Seems like they missed having anything they desired at their fingertips. They have to work for things now and they don't take too kindly to that. Paylor is consulting with the President now though and everything is under control according to what Effie was told. They're working to identify any other rebel groups that might be a threat so they can handle them swiftly."
I nod, thankful for the information and grateful that our world is still in one piece. There will be no war or governmental collapse; at least not today.
Haymitch scrutinizes me carefully, "This isn't just about what happened in the Capitol though is it?" He asks.
I shake my head. There's no use denying that it's not. "Today just made me realize that I think we were crazy to bring children into this world. It's still not safe. Nothing is stable. Everything can be pulled out from under us in an instant."
"Katniss," Haymitch says with a sigh, "If you waited to have children until you could guarantee a completely safe and stable world to raise them in, you would be waiting until the end of the world."
"That's my point." I argue, "I should never have agreed to do this."
"But you have." He counters, "So now you just have to make do with what you've got. If this world crumbles to pieces, you can't change the fact that you have children. It's too late for that. You just keep pressing on and raise them to the best of your abilities. You'll protect them from any suffering that you possibly can, Katniss. I don't doubt that for a minute."
"But-" I start but Haymitch holds up a hand to silence me.
"But nothing. You can sit here and 'what-if' situations all day. It's not going to change a damn thing. You love your daughter and you'll love this baby too," He says nodding at my belly, "They need you- they need their mother- and you can't just worry yourself into nonexistence trying to protect them from things that are out of your control, Katniss."
I blink, shocked by the stark reality Haymitch is verbally beating me with. He's right, no matter how much I hate to admit it. I can't protect my children from everything. It would be impossible. My only option is to deal with things as they come to me, taking each problem in stride. I have to be their mother first and hope that that is enough to keep them safe and healthy and happy. And I certainly can't sit here, stuck in my head, instead of at home, living with my family. I won't slip into the dark recesses of my mind again. It was hard enough to get back to this point the first time when the war ended.
"Okay." I say softly, standing somewhat unsteadily. Haymitch reaches out to support my elbow, fixing me with a surprised look. "What?" I ask.
"I think it's the first time in your life you've ever listened to me, Sweetheart." He explains with a soft poke to my side.
I shake my head with a rueful smile, "I think it's the first time you've ever actually been right about something, Haymitch."
He guffaws loudly at my jest. We both know he's been right more than I'd ever care to admit. He's saved my life more times that I can count and without his coaching I probably would have died in my first Games.
The walk back is a quiet one, hindered slightly by Haymitch's slow gait. His age is starting to show and I can tell his knees bother him even though he doesn't say so. I know he just doesn't want to admit that he isn't the young man he once was.
We part ways at my backyard without a word. He simply gives my shoulder a squeeze and heads to his home where I can hear hungry geese calling from the backyard. When I walk through the door, Peeta is there kneading dough furiously and I can smell there's already bread in the oven. The door gives a quiet creak and he looks up, relief flashing across his face. His hands still as he watches me cautiously, looking for some indication about how I'm doing.
"Hey," he tries for lack of any better ideas.
"Hi." I say back, rubbing my hand embarrassedly over my arm, "I'm sorry I just ran out like that."
I haven't done that since we first arrived back in District 12 after the war. I know it worries him if I just wander off without telling him where I'm going or when I'll be back, especially now that I'm pregnant again. It also drives him crazy when I run from a problem instead of talking about it but he's always been the one with the words not me.
He brushes his hands off on a towel that he's tossed over his shoulders before stepping close to me and wrapping his warm solid arms around my waist. He buries his face against my neck and I inhale his scent- warm yeast and fresh flour.
"It's going to be okay, Katniss." He whispers, brushing a hand over my head.
"I'm still scared." I confess softly, afraid that admitting it might make all my worst fears come true.
"I know." He murmurs, placing a kiss against the tender skin of my neck, "I am too but we'll take it a step a time just like we always have. And it's not all going to change today at any rate. Everything is still okay, just like it was yesterday."
I nod, agreeing with him. I know he's right. There's no use worrying about the future when we have today. I don't hear the little feet enter the room and it's not until Heather speaks that I look up from Peeta's chest.
"You didn't catch anything Mommy?" She asks innocently, taking note of the empty game bag I'd dropped next to the door.
I had completely forgotten to even try to catch anything while I was out in the woods. I'd been so caught up, so devastated, that I hadn't even notched a single arrow while I was out.
Peeta speaks up, coming to my rescue, "I bet Mommy couldn't find anything this morning. All the animals must have heard it was your birthday and they knew she'd be coming after them. The might have even thought you were going to be with her and so they hid because they know what a good hunter you are."
Heather's bright eyes widen in awe as she turns them to me, "Really?" She asks for confirmation.
"That must have been it." I say with a tentative smile at my daughter, still oblivious to the happenings of this morning. "I couldn't find a single living animal out there today."
"Wow!" She trills happily, "I'll tell Hannah at the party." Hannah is a little girl from town that she's become fiercely competitive with over the last few months.
"You do that." Peeta nods encouragingly as she floats happily out of the room, "My girls the hunters." He murmurs, gazing down at me fondly.
I smile, "It scares me how much she's like me sometimes."
"Scares you? I love it." He argues, eliciting a chuckle from me.
"I hope this one is even more like you." I say, my hand falling to my belly once again.
"Oh now, that would be sad." He says, taking my hand and planting a kiss on my knuckles. "I hope it's the perfect blend of Katniss and Peeta."
I smile softly, "I guess that might not be so bad either."
"Hi Daddy." Heather calls from in front of me as we walk back into the house from hunting this morning.
"Hey birthday girl." Peeta replies smiling from the counter where he's rolling out cookies for her birthday party this afternoon. She invited her entire class from school so our house will be filled with wild five year olds hyped up on sugar this afternoon.
"Cinnamon rolls for breakfast?" He asks as though he thinks there's another possibility. It's been a tradition since the first birthday he made them for her that we all have cinnamon rolls for birthday breakfast.
"Yes, silly." She giggles.
"You go wash up then, Heather, and we'll eat after that." I say, pulling off my hunting boots before walking farther into the kitchen.
"Good morning, Bennett." I coo, to the little blonde boy sitting in a high chair next to Peeta.
He gurgles a happy greeting before giving a wide toothless smile. Carrying him had been easier but his birth had been miserable. I was in labor for what felt like an eternity. However, it seems as though that was the biggest fight he will ever give me because he's been the sweetest baby since then, sleeping through the night long before his sister ever did and hardly ever fussing.
He's a mess with flour that Peeta has spread out on the highchair's table but I kiss his chubby cheek anyway. He lets out a happy squeal before patting his hands in the flour again, sending little clouds of white into the air.
"He's helping me bake this morning, aren't you Bennie?" Peeta asks with a wide smile that matches his son's. Peeta never said so, but I know he was hoping for a boy when Bennett was born and now his family is complete.
Bennett gives a happy crow, watching Peeta with wide eyes. He adores Peeta already and it's obvious that Peeta feels the same way, both of my boys so kind and sensitive. While Heather seems to have inherited more of my personality, Bennett has proven to be most like his father. He's always watching us, carefully mimicking our emotions and cooing if he senses we're upset. Bennett curls into my chest like Heather never did after he finishes feeding in no hurry to be separated from my warmth. We can't cuddle the little boy enough it seems.
"Looks like he'll be a baker just like is Daddy." I say with a smile, placing an arm around Peeta's hip and planting a kiss on his cheek.
He turns his face to me and places his lips softly over my own as he wraps his floury hands around me. The kiss is unexpected and sweet and warm, my insides heating contentedly at his touch. How can he still do this to me so easily after over twenty years?
Bennie lets out a squeal of joy as he tosses a handful of flour in our direction. Peeta pulls away from me with a joyful laugh.
"Bennie, what a mess!" He exclaims with mock disapproval. The boy can do no wrong in Peeta's eyes even if it means more work for him cleaning up. Our son squawks loudly as he watches Peeta's hands close in on his feet.
"The flour monster is hungry for sweet little boy toes." Peeta says lowly, his eyes alight with laughter. Bennett's wide grey eyes glitter in anticipation. This is their favorite game.
Peeta's head dives over the tiny boy's toes as he pretends to nibble on them and Bennett's delighted laughter carries throughout the entire house. I laugh as his face turns red from laughing so hard and he reaches with dusty fingers to pat Peeta's curly hair. Peeta is laughing hard too as he raises his lips to pepper kisses all over the boy's face.
Heather comes back in, face still dewy with a fresh washing. She smiles at Bennett. She's adored him since the day he was born, never going through that jealous toddler phase that I've so often heard about. Her manner with Bennett reminds me of the way I always looked after Prim. The thought causes my heart to throb and soar at the same time. It's good for me to see that sort of love and dedication again. And I know that my children will never have to suffer like I did because of my love. Heather will never have to fret at night over how she will fill her little brother's stomach and she will never have to volunteer for certain death. I'm certain of that.
"Hi, Bennie." Heather croons, patting his head lightly and standing on tiptoes to give him a kiss. He reaches out and wraps a chubby hand around her hair as she stands next to him. Clearly he thinks she's the sun in the sky as well.
We have a simple breakfast, enjoying the sweet, warm cinnamon rolls that Peeta prepared just this morning. Heather helps Peeta clean up and I take Bennett into the living room to feed. He squirms a bit in my arms, hungry and eager. His appetite always brings a smile to my face. He'll never have to know what real hunger is.
I flip the television on for noise, knowing that it could be a while before my boy is satisfied. I'm still not completely used to this new world of T.V. programs. There's still almost always a program on that talks about the Games however the tone has changed. It's no longer a form of entertainment but of history and warning so that we never forget the evil that happened.
A news program is on now and instead of discussing the current fashion trends and relationship statuses of the riches Capitolites, it's talking about the political climate in the Capitol. Over the last year, there have been some minor protests in front of the Presidential but nothing on the scale of what occurred twelve months ago. Mostly it's just small clusters of citizens from the Capitol who long to return to the old ways. They miss the luxury and wealth that treading on the lives of the district citizens brought them. The irony of the situation doesn't escape me. It would have been punishable by death if any district citizens had protested the old government but this new government allows these self-entitled people to argue with it.
Nothing has come of these small protests though. The tyranny of the old government and the events of the war are still too fresh in most people's minds to even consider a change in the politics let alone return to the old ways. Most people are happier this way. It's safer now to live in the Capitol since people don't have to practice deception just to survive and those in the districts, while not living lives of luxury, all have enough to live comfortably.
Heather settles down next to me on the couch and watches the television quietly. I can tell by the look on her face that she's thinking seriously about something. I only have to wait a few minutes before she speaks up.
"Mommy?" She asks.
"Hmm, sweetie." I murmur, watching her brow scrunch up as she forms her question.
"Annabelle told me that you had to hurt people in the Games. Did you really?" She questions, worriedly.
It's a question I've been waiting for and fearing. One that will open entirely new doors that Peeta says we'll somehow manage to explain.
"I did." I nod slowly, "It was very scary being there and we had to fight each other to stay safe and get home." I explain. I don't want to tell her the true horror of the situation. She's only just five. She's not old enough yet.
Initially I had resisted the school's decision to teach about the Games in school. I don't want my children to know the same horrors that I did. But Peeta had convinced me after several weeks that it was important not to hide the past from the new generations. The only way to hope that history won't repeat itself is to not forget.
The leaders of the district asked us and Haymitch to work with them, deciding how to teach the topic in school. Heather has heard the most basic stories now that she's been in school for a year. She knows that there used to be a thing called the Hunger Games and that Peeta and I and Uncle Haymitch were all a part of them. She knows about the Great War and that we also took part in that to stop the Games from happening again.
She still has several years before she'll see clips from the tapes still preserved in the Capitol. I fear the day she comes home after watching me shoot an arrow at Cato's mutilated body. I don't know how I will make her understand. Peeta promises me we will though and we have the book to help.
"Were you scared to hurt them?" She asks simply.
"Yes." I reply honestly, "I was very scared but I wanted to go home."
She watches me for a moment and I wonder if she'll ask some other question that will require a deeper explanation that I won't know how to handle. She surprises me with nod though.
"I would want to come home to you and Daddy too." She says softly. My breath catches as my arms tighten around Bennett reflexively. Maybe she will be able to understand one day. Each day she's becoming more insightful than I ever could have imagined a child of mine would be.
"You'll never have to make that decision though, Heather." Peeta says softly from behind the couch. "I promise you that."
Heather looks up to him but doesn't seem to grasp how profound Peeta's promise is. It's something our parents could never have told us. It's the greatest gift of love we could have given our two children. She smiles anyway and Peeta leans in to kiss her dark hair, pulled into two braids just like when I was a child.
"I love you, baby." He whispers.
"I'm not a baby, silly." She giggles, "Bennett is the baby, Daddy."
He gives a soft, wistful smile, "You're right. You're still my little girl though right?"
"Always, Daddy." She replies, as is their ritual, giving his neck a hug as she does.
Hours later, the yard is loud with squealing children and chatting parents. I pull out sandwiches we prepared yesterday with fresh bread Peeta made. I set them down on a table outside and one of the mothers asks if I need any help. I wave her off good-naturedly, returning to the kitchen to grab the salad from the icebox.
Peeta is just finishing the icing on some sugar cookies.
"Ready?" I ask, holding the door for him. He smiles, anticipating the reaction he knows will occur once he's spotted. He loves this part.
"Heather!" One of her classmates yells across the hard. They're playing a game of tag. "Heather help! I can't get to base." The tiny, blonde girl squeals as she runs from two bigger boys.
I watch my little girl run daringly close to them before shouting from behind, "Hey! Come get me!" She waits a moment as they turn around, giving the littler girl enough time to escape and run to the bucket they've set up as base, before she takes off with a speed that still astounds me.
The boys grumble as she makes it to base before they even get close to catching her. They stop to catch their breath and notice Peeta and his colorful tray of cookies.
Instantly their eyes light up, "Cookies!" They holler, taking off in our direction. The other children all stop what their doing and hurry over to the baker's plate. Peeta grins and lowers the tray so they can help themselves. They all oh and ah over the pretty sweets before taking one and thanking him.
This is something he could never have done before the war and I know it is cathartic for him to do so now. It's not cheap to make so many cookies for free but it's possible and that in itself is a wonderful gift. The other parents feel it too, I can tell by the wistful looks on their faces. They're just the same as Peeta and I; grateful their children will never go hungry at night or wake up from nightmares the night before their first Reaping.
Once all the children are served, Peeta stands next to me and wraps an arm around my waist. As we watch the children munch happily and run around the yard, singing schoolyard songs as they continue their game of tag, I can't help but feel awed. So much has changed in our lives. Perhaps this world doesn't have to be harsh and cruel. Perhaps it can be beautiful after all.
One day Peeta and I will both pass, leaving these children, our legacy, behind us. They will continue to teach our stories and hopefully that will be enough. Hopefully they won't forget and the world will remain this safer place forever. All we can do is hope. And as I rest my head on Peeta's shoulder, I do hope, ever so much.
AN: Please, please let me know what you thought! I appreciate hearing your feedback. Thank you so much for reading and if you enjoyed this you can check out my series, which is also posted here on fanfiction. I have a tumblr as well that you can follow for fanfiction updates: thegirlofdistrict7.