a/n: So I know it's been a while since I've written or updated anything, especially this story. Hero of the Story was originally only meant to be a two-parter, and it was technically completed. But this story was my baby, still is, and I've missed the universe and the characters. And I had a lot of people asking for me to write an epilogue or something for it. I kept promising them I would, but I didn't want to write anything until I had a really good idea for a third part. I didn't want to taint the tone and message of the first two chapters with something banal or unnecessary. So I held off on writing anything for a while. Until back in February or March, when I suddenly had an idea of where to take this story, how to really wrap it up. And it felt right, finally.
Hopefully, readers agree. I'm very nervous about this part, much like I was with the original story, because it dealt with controversial themes, but themes I was confident in. I hope what I've written here doesn't undermine or negate the matters I touched on in the first two parts, however. I was hesitant about that and tried to be very conscientious of the serious subject matter I first wrote about, even though this part goes in a different direction. So I hope it's satisfactory to the readers while remaining true to the tone and message of the first two parts.
Thank you for reading, and if you've been waiting on a follow-up to this story, I hope it brings you closure and contentment.
Katniss kept her head down as she made her way through town, certain she could feel the eyes of every Merchant she passed boring into her. And she knew most of them were, silently judging her, hating her. Merchants were not the forgiving type, she had learned fairly quickly, and even two years later, they still refused to absolve her of her greatest sin to date: sleeping with a married Merchant man. She couldn't say she blamed them; she hadn't really forgiven herself, though most of her pain and guilt lie with the hurt she'd caused Gale.
The Seam people were a little more gracious, at least—maybe because they had more pressing issues to deal with than who was fucking whom. Issues like death and starvation. Katniss was grateful she had been able to continue her business in the Hob with few repercussions; she still provided the best meat and most affordable birth control, after all. And she needed the money. While she lived with Peeta, his salary wasn't much more than what Gale had made in the mines. The district didn't seem to esteem school teachers any higher than coal miners, apparently.
Peeta only fared mildly better than she had after the affair and through the resulting scandal of his divorce and his shacking up with her. As the "Seam slut," she bore the brunt of the town's hostility. Part of her really didn't care, but she hated herself for putting Peeta through the misery, especially because it had caused a rift between him and his family. Katniss at least still had the support of her mother and Prim, but Peeta fought regularly with his mother, when she would even acknowledge him. His brothers kept their distance, and she knew that hurt him the most. His father was nice enough, but he was noticeably silent when it came to his wife and her treatment of Peeta. Too many times Katniss had found Peeta hunched over the dining table in dejection after another failed argument with his mother. It broke her heart. She tried to give him an out each time, offering to pack up and return to her mother's house, but he refused to let her go; each time, he was absolutely incensed she would even suggest it.
"Nothing makes sense without you," he'd murmur heatedly as they made love, pushing into her repeatedly.
They'd had a slow courtship after his divorce, both solemnly aware of how the district would react to their relationship; she'd only moved in with him six months ago. If she were a smart woman, she would have turned him away that day in the meadow when he'd come to her. But she wasn't smart. She was selfish, and she couldn't deny him. Being without him was unimaginable.
Katniss was glad their house was away from the heart of town, at least. As a teacher, Peeta had been assigned a small house not far from the school, and while they had neighbors, it was more isolated than his old house near the square and the bakery. She didn't have to deal with as many judgmental glares as she trekked through that part of town, and as she approached her house now, she finally lifted her head, her shoulders already lighter, more relaxed. Jogging up the steps to the porch, she quickly unlocked the front door and slipped inside. Her empty game back slumped to the floor where she toed off her boots, and she wandered to the back of the house to the bathroom. She twisted the knob on the faucet to fill the tub with water. After a day in the woods, sledging through the melting snow and mud, a bath was in order. Indoor plumbing was one of the benefits of living in town—maybe the only benefit, really.
As the tub filled, she stripped out of her clothes and stepped into the tub once the water level was high enough. She sank down into the steaming water with a sigh and waited till the temperature turned lukewarm before finally scrubbing herself raw with a washcloth. Once she was clean, she climbed out of the tub and dried off, redressing in a fresh outfit. She threw her dirty clothes in the clothes bin to be washed later that night, after she'd made and eaten dinner with Peeta. He would be home from school soon, so she immediately got to work preparing their planned stew.
She was chopping vegetables when she heard the front door open. An automatic smile spread across her face, as it always did in Peeta's presence, and when she heard his heavy footsteps approaching, she glanced over her shoulder to greet him.
"Hey," she said, but her face immediately fell at his hard expression. His eyes were cloudy, the skin pinched between his eyebrows, as he stalked toward her purposely. "What's wrong—"
Her question stuck in her throat when his body pinned hers against the counter, and he wrapped his hands around her wrists, flexing them slightly to force her to drop the knife she was holding. He then flattened her hands to the counter and pressed the full length of his body against her back. Shocked, she faced forward; her eyes were trained on the small kitchen window, where she could see out across their backyard at the leafless, scrawny trees and soggy grass. His breath was hot on the back of her neck as he breathed heavily, making the tiny hairs on her skin stand up, but she wasn't scared. She could feel the beginnings of his erection through his pants against the lower curve of her back.
"Peeta..." she tried again, but her voice lacked any conviction. Her body was pliable and yielding. He really didn't even need to hold her hands down, but she gave him this, sensing there was something he needed to work through.
"Spread your legs," he demanded, already nudging her thighs apart with his knee. She complied, sliding her bare feet out across the hardwood floor. Peeta released her wrists then, snaking them down to her waist where he unfastened her pants and pushed them down her hips. Katniss braced herself against the counter as she stepped out of them with the aid of his eager hands, and then she resumed her stance once he'd kicked the offending garment out of the way. He gripped her waist with his hands, her own flat against the counter still, and he pressed his mouth to her ear. "You're gonna stand here while I taste you," he breathed.
Her breath hitched in her chest, and she began to tremble in anticipation of his tongue between her thighs. "Okay," she agreed shakily, her hips already arching back against his erection, but he pushed her against the counter and dropped to his knees behind her. Her eyes closed when his hands slid down her backside, his fingers disappearing under the edges of her underwear as he cupped her cheeks firmly. When they dipped between her thighs to tease her lips, she shuddered; his fingers passed back and forth over her folds to ready her. She could feel the wetness starting to leak out of her in response, her clit fluttering with pleasure, and she exhaled loudly, his name a soft sigh on her lips.
That was all the encouragement Peeta needed. She felt him stretch the crotch of her panties to the side, and then his tongue was gliding through her folds to lick up her arousal. "Shit," she hissed, squeezing her eyes shut as he dipped his tongue inside her. The coarse whiskers of his thick beard tickled her lips with the movements of his mouth, and he cupped her pelvis with his right hand, his thumb parting the apex of her folds to stroke her clit. Katniss released a moan, which he echoed, the vibration resounding through her core, and she moaned louder. His thumb began rubbing tight circles on her clit, syncing with the flicks of his tongue through her lips. He stopped to open his mouth over her wider, his tongue darting inside her to taste her better. She fisted her hands around the edge of the counter to steady herself, hunching forward. Her legs were trembling now from the exertion of holding herself up, from the delicious electric current his tongue sent through her body.
"Peeta," she whimpered, panting hard. He moved his mouth toward the front of her mound to swipe his tongue over her clit, and she cried out, prompting him to furiously lap at the swollen bud in varied patterns until he was pleased with the response. Her hips began rocking against his face, her legs mostly uselessly as she used her arms to hold herself above him. "Peeta, I'm gonna come," she begged, as if it were a plea, and his tongue resumed tracing her folds while his thumb resumed its attack on her clit. The pleasure mounted mercilessly and swiftly at the command of his tongue and fingers, and she only managed a choked sob of relief when her orgasm hit. Her clit throbbed with each wave of ecstasy, and Peeta drank up her arousal as it seeped out of her.
By that point, he was providing most of the support for her boneless body, and when he moved out from between her legs, she let her body slump down. He wrapped his hands around her waist and lowered her to the ground, propping her up in his lap as he sat down with her. She held onto his thighs as she caught her breath, willing her limbs to stop shaking, and he just buried his face against her neck. His erection was still hard against her ass, but he made no move to undress himself or fuck her, and once her vision had stopped swimming and she'd regained control of her motor functions, she twisted in his arms to look at him.
"What was that for?" she asked breathlessly.
He smiled slightly, but his eyes were still cloudy. "Didn't your parents ever teach you not to look a gift horse in the mouth?" he replied wryly, loosening his hold of her to lean back on one of his hands.
She scowled at him, but it was playful. "Yes, and I'd always tell them there were no horses in Twelve." Peeta chuckled lightly, then he huffed, blowing air through his lips to imitate a nickering sound, and she rolled her eyes. Her jaw set in determination, however, and she regarded him sternly. "Peeta, seriously. What's wrong?"
His expression shifted, his mouth drooping slightly, and he just shook his head, averting his gaze to stare at the floor. He fell silent, and she reached up to caress the beard that shrouded his jaw, finally eliciting a sigh from him. He just shook his head. "Nothing new. Just the usual shit."
His mother. Of course. He must have talked to her, swung by the bakery on his way home for some reason.
Katniss' face fell, guilt blooming in her stomach as she stared at his forlorn face. Helpless, she offered the only thing she could think of at this point: Dropping her hand between them, she rubbed his erection through his pants suggestively. "Do you want me to do something for you?" she asked coyly. The corner of his mouth quirked before it tipped into a crooked smirk, but he just gave her another resolute headshake.
"No, it's fine. You're in the middle of making dinner." With that, he pushed off the floor to stand up, helping her to her feet as well. She didn't budge, however, searching his face, but he avoided her eyes. "I'm gonna go clean up, and then I'll help you with dinner," he murmured, kissing her forehead before slinking out of the kitchen.
Despondent, Katniss let her gaze linger in his direction, then she sighed. Scanning the floor, she picked her pants off the ground and, scrunching her nose at the sticky feeling, positioned her underwear back in place and slipped her pants back on before washing her hands and resuming chopping the vegetables. True to his word, Peeta returned a bit later, his hair damp and his skin smelling of soap, and they finished making the stew together in silence.
"Fuck, Katniss," Peeta hissed as she rode him later, his fingers digging into her thighs. She braced her hands on his chest and leaned forward, swiveling her hips purposefully to stimulate her clit on his pelvic bone. The reward was almost instantaneous, the delicious sensation swelling in her clit until her orgasm claimed her, crashing through her fiercely. She gasped, losing her rhythm as she rode out her climax; her walls pulsed around his cock, and he groaned appreciatively, bucking his hips up against hers.
Once she caught her breath, she sat back and reared up on her shins to sink down on his cock, setting a steady pace as she bounced on top of him. She watched his face, locking eyes with him every time his blue eyes would peek through the blonde fringe of his eyelashes. His teeth encaged his bottom lip before he released it on a quiet moan, and he thrust up into her to accentuate her bouncing. Her breasts swayed before him, and he groped at them greedily, sitting up suddenly to capture her nipple with his mouth. Katniss desperately wrapped her arms around his shoulders to pull him closer, mewling as his tongue and teeth worried her nipple. "Peeta," she whispered against the crown of his head, and he groaned in response.
"You feel so good," he gasped against her breast, gripping her ass in his hands to aid her thrusts down on his cock. "Fuck, I love you so much." Her chest tightened, an overwhelming emotion swelling inside her.
"I'm sorry," she blurted, her movements faltering, but Peeta kept thrusting her down onto him, undaunted.
"What?" he gasped, distracted, and she knew it wasn't the place or time to talk about it, but the words bubbled out of her anyway.
"I'm sorry for—about your mom, that—that I'm not—not more," she rambled, the apology wholly inadequate and nonsensical, and Peeta went still underneath her. She couldn't look at him, pressing her face against the side of his head, and she took a deep breath. "I just—sorry I'm...causing so much trouble—for you."
The silence was heavy, perforated only by their shallow breathing, and Katniss mentally berated herself for ruining the moment. She hated that she couldn't seem to control her emotions around him. He always could get under her skin. She bit down on her lip, hard, unwilling now to apologize for apologizing.
Suddenly, she was on her back then, Peeta flipping her down onto the bed, and she inhaled sharply when she got a brief glimpse of the dark look on his face as he moved above her. But he rolled her onto her side, sliding up against her back, and she cried out when he sheathed himself inside her again. She curled herself forward to allow him a better angle, and he slipped his leg under hers, forcing her knee up as he plunged in and out of her. His hand was tight around her hip, pinning her to the bed, and she screwed her eyes shut as she grunted, feeling him drive into her wildly, possessively.
"Stop. Saying. That," he gritted out between clenched teeth. Katniss arched her back even more, meeting his cock with backward thrusts of her hips. "This—none of this...makes any sense without you."
With a choked gasp, Peeta pumped into her a few more times rapidly, their skin slapping together, and then he halted his thrusts. She braced her hand on the bed and pushed back against him, taking his cock as deep as she could while he emptied into the condom, muffling his groan in the back of her neck. She could feel his heart racing through her back, his breath hot and moist on her skin, his cock throbbing inside her, and she relished the sensations.
After a moment, he tipped her face over her shoulder so he could look at her. His eyes were glossy like blue glass, and she lifted her head to place a delicate kiss on his lips, but he held her there, molding his hand to her jaw and kissing her till he was satisfied. Then he released her. "You have to stop," he said firmly. "If it's a choice between you and them...I already made that choice a long time ago. I'll work it out with my parents, okay?"
Holding his gaze, she nodded slowly. "Okay," she agreed simply, as hard as it was.
Exhaling hard, Peeta pulled away from her. Already she missed him inside her, the steady warmth he provided, and she rolled onto her back as he carefully peeled the condom off. Sliding to the edge, he stood up and crossed toward the bedroom door. Even in the dark, Katniss admired his solid frame, the broad shoulders and torso that tapered down into a firm backside. She couldn't help the small smile that graced her lips at the sight.
"I'm gonna rinse this off and bring you a washcloth," he said, almost to himself as he opened the door.
"Bring the condom back with you," she called after him softly. He stopped to look at her, his eyebrows raised in understanding then he let his own sly smile mirror hers before quickly disappearing into the hallway.
Katniss stood at the threshold of her and Peeta's house, staring out the small window to the side of the front door. She had her coat and boots on, her bag of homemade condoms in hand and ready to be bartered at the Hob in exchange for money or food or some other provision. But she didn't budge just yet, warily observing the few Merchants milling around as they began their days. In the near distance she could make out the buildings of the town square. This was her trek every day, whether to the Hob or the woods or the Seam to visit her mother. She couldn't avoid the Merchants. Which was ironic, she supposed, considering how resentful they were of her presence in their part of town, the "Seam slut" dirtying up the neighborhood; she knew they wanted her gone, thought she didn't belong, but even when they ignored her, she could sense their judgment and hostility, directed at her like arrows. But arrows probably hurt less.
She didn't belong here; that much she knew. If Merchant and Seam intermarried, they were regulated to the Seam usually, like her parents had been. But, unmarried, she had no place of her own, no free house assigned by the district and certainly no money to afford even the shittiest of houses in the Seam.
She couldn't leave Peeta behind. So here she stayed, a dark blot on this supposedly pristine town. What a joke.
Exhaling tiredly, she tightened her hold on the strap of her bag and opened the door to begin her walk to town. As she passed by Merchants, she purposely avoided eye contact and kept her sight trained straight ahead, even as she cut through town. Half an hour later, her relief was immediate the moment she saw the hazy outline of the Hob. She picked up her pace so she could escape the oppressive judgment of the Merchants she felt every time she made this trek. The sight of Greasy Sae was always a welcome reprieve; the older woman had never been anything but kind to her. When news of her affair with Peeta had hit, Sae hadn't breathed a word of it to her. She'd never even asked about her divorce, or her eventual relationship with Peeta; Katniss had been grateful for this. While others might have been offended by Sae's seeming disinterest in their personal lives, Katniss liked that the woman kept their interactions simple and unintrusive.
"Mornin', Sae," Katniss greeted her, earning a nod from the older woman and a familiar smile. She laid her bag down on her regular booth and got to work setting out her condoms. Then she settled onto her stool and waited for the customers. Normally, she got a fair amount of patrons every day she was at the Hob. Mostly, it was Seam folk purchasing condoms from her, or trading for them, but, gradually, the number of Merchants who came to her increased. It was funny to her, the same people who shunned her, coming to her in need. They didn't dare judge her as she handed them their contraceptives and took their money.
By late morning, Katniss was quietly sipping from a bowl of soup she'd purchased from Sae, her usual lunchtime meal. Business was slow at the moment, as most patrons were breaking for lunch, as well, and she engaged in idle chitchat with Sae in between gulps of the salty broth. Movement from the corner of her eye caught her attention, and she twisted in her stool to assist the customer who'd stopped at her booth.
Air stuck painfully in her throat as she inhaled too quickly, her eyes going wide in the split second it took her to recognize the man in front of her.
"Gale," she exhaled raspily, clearing her throat in embarrassment. He gave her a polite smile and a curt nod in return, like they were strangers and not childhood friends and former lovers. Or, most likely, he regarded her with the indifference and coldness afforded cuckolding ex-wives.
"Katniss," he said simply, the first words they'd exchanged in two years, since the day she'd signed the divorce papers. She'd been careful to avoid accidentally running into him since she'd started dating Peeta. She didn't hunt on Sunday mornings, as she knew that was the only day he had off from the mines to go into the woods, and she was out of the Hob before the evenings in case he stopped by to trade or get a drink. Some days, she almost forgot he still lived in the same town as her; being on the other side of the district, away from the Seam, she felt like a thousand miles away sometimes.
She took him in now, the two feet of distance between them the closest she'd seen him in a long time. He was as handsome as ever; very little had changed, aside from the small ponytail he'd pulled his hair back into. In the sun, she thought she could see a faint streak of silver winding from his temple to the elastic band at his neck. His eyes were the same gray as hers, the same familiar eyes that used to observe her with love and admiration before something more hateful consumed them.
But even now that was gone.
Her lips parted as she grasped for words, finally summoning them after a strained moment. "I...you're not in the mines," she said lamely, and he shook his head, the corner of his mouth quirking into a wry smile.
"Not today," he replied, and his smile spread. "I got the day off."
"Oh?" she asked, unsure where he was going with this.
His shoulder lifted slightly as he nodded again. "Yeah. I'm getting married."
Katniss blinked at him uncomprehendingly, his words lost in the rush of blood through her ears. She couldn't have heard him right. "You're—getting married?" she repeated, her voice squeaky, and she winced at the fragile sound.
"Yeah, in a couple hours." There was silence as she stared at him, unsure how to respond, unsure still if she even understood. Shifting uncomfortably, Gale adjusted the strap of the bag slung over his shoulder, and after a beat he added, "To Lorena Black."
"Oh," she finally managed. It took a moment, but a vague image of a Seam woman surfaced in her memory, a woman with the requisite olive skin and gray eyes and long black hair that swung down past her backside when she walked through the Hob. Katniss wasn't sure, but she thought Lorena was much younger than her or Gale, mid-20s at the oldest. "I didn't know you two were dating."
"For about a year now. Well, 10 months to be exact."
Katniss nodded absently. "That's...good?" She gave herself a mental shake, hoping her grimace looked like the smile she intended it to be. "I mean—that's great. Congratulations. Um."
His smiled again, and this time there was something more serene about it. "Thank you. I'm pretty happy."
She felt her shoulders sag slightly, the tension she'd been holding there since he'd walked up to her booth dissipating, and she was finally able to manage a small, genuine smile. "I'm happy for you. For both of you. I...wish you the best," she said, and though she meant it, the words still felt clumsy in her mouth, as if she had to force them out with her tongue.
"Thank you," he said again, and there was a natural lull, like if they were anybody else in that moment, he would inquire about her own love life. But it was too uncomfortable and awkward, and maybe he still harbored some resentment about Peeta. She'd never told Gale, but he had to have heard from others by now that she was living in Peeta's house.
Nervously pulling on her braid, Katniss released her hair and gestured to her display. "Did you, um, need something...?" she offered, assuming he wanted a condom, but he flashed a rare grin at her.
"Ah, no, I was picking up some liquor from Ripper. Just thought I'd stop by," he said. His eyes flitted across her arrangement of condoms, and he shook his head with a low chuckle. "Actually. Lorena's pregnant."
Her body seemed to process the words faster than her brain, the visceral reaction of blood rushing through her eardrums, of her heart dipping to her stomach, stealing any coherent response from her. She just stared at him mutely; she couldn't even care how ridiculous she must look to him, her eyes wide and mouth agape, like he'd just told her he was President Snow or something equally improbable. His brow creasing in concern—or suspicion—roused her from her stupor, and she stumbled over her tongue to force out some kind of reply. "You're—pregnant?" she squeaked.
Gale laughed at that. "Well, no, not me. But I am gonna be a father."
"Oh," she breathed, her vision swimming; she blinked a few times in an attempt to clear it. "Oh," she repeated. Gale, a father. Gale, getting married. It all sounded ludicrous. "That's...I mean, that's...good. For you. Wow."
"We found out a couple weeks ago. We think she's about nine weeks along," he explained, but it sounded like he was talking to her from the other end of a tunnel. "It's still early though, so..."
"Yeah," was all she offered. She briefly wondered if they'd gone to her mother. Did her mother know that Gale was expecting?
"Yeah," Gale echoed as the conversation floundered. If he expected her to engage him any further about his new wife and their baby, he was going to be waiting forever. She wished he would leave already. Clearing his throat, Gale offered another laugh. "So I guess we won't be needing a condom anytime soon."
"Guess not," she said flatly, swiping at the sweat beading along her forehead. She couldn't even make eye contact with him, focusing on the dingy collar of his undershirt poking out from underneath his jacket.
"Well...take care," he said, his voice tighter than a moment ago as he nodded to her, then to Sae. He didn't wait for Katniss to respond before he turned away, walking out of the Hob. Once he was out of sight, she released the breath she'd been holding, visibly deflating. Her hands started trembling—a mounting of nervous buildup in her body—and she glanced to her right at Sae.
The older woman was watching her critically, her mouth twisted into a frown. "You okay, girl?" she asked, and reflexively Katniss nodded her head.
"Yeah," she said, trailing off before she shook her head. "No. I think...I need to go home for the day. I just...I need to go home." She was mostly talking to herself as she hurriedly began to pack up her supplies, carelessly shoving the condoms into her bag with her bartered items and the few pieces of money. She bid a distracted farewell to Sae and then darted out of the Hob, practically running all the way back to her house. She didn't stop running until she was safe inside her house, for once oblivious to the stares of others.
She spent the rest of the afternoon in bed burrowed under the covers until Peeta came home. She was dreading this conversation, but she knew she couldn't keep it from him. Still, when she heard him enter the bedroom, she didn't budge.
"Katniss? What are you doing in bed?" he asked. The concerned lilt to his voice was comforting but not enough to coax the words out of her just yet. The bed dipped under his weight as he sat down on the edge behind her, and then she felt his hand rest on the crown of her head. And just like that, the tension drained from her body, almost as if he were absorbing it through touch. With a sigh, she rolled onto her back so she could see him. His face was pinched in worry as he stared down at her, his fingers brushing the hair out of her face. Just looking at him, suddenly she implicitly understood what she was upset about, what had been gnawing at her since her talk with Gale. "You okay?" he asked again, voice low.
She nodded slowly. "Yes. I mean...I will be. I just...had a bit of a shock today. At the Hob," she said haltingly. Peeta's brow dipped further in confusion.
"What happened?" There was a note of alarm in his voice. She wanted to kick herself for causing him to worry. She was an adult; she should be better equipped to handle unpleasant situations.
Pinching her lips together, Katniss surveyed their bedroom as she formulated her response. "I saw Gale today," she finally revealed, and there was a flash of surprise across Peeta's face. She rushed ahead, "He's getting married today. And his wife is pregnant."
Something dark dimmed Peeta's eyes, and his jaw tightened as she felt more than saw him stiffen on the bed beside her. He withdrew his hand and regarded her wearily. "Oh," he said. His throat bobbed with a hard swallow. "And...this upsets you?"
Katniss exhaled loudly through her teeth and forced herself into a sitting position, the covers falling into her lap. "Not in the way you're thinking," she said firmly, her eyes glued to his face. His expression didn't change; he just waited for her to elaborate. Licking her lips, she pushed her hair out of her face. "It's just...I haven't spoken to him since that day at my mom's house," she said, recalling the day he brought her the divorce papers to sign. The palpable hurt she had caused him, that seemed to follow him into that house, it still stung to think about. "We used to be friends. Best friends. There was a time when I knew him better than myself. And now...we're strangers. It was like learning that somebody I didn't even know was getting married. I don't even know him anymore. I just—how did I get it so wrong?" she implored, though she knew Peeta couldn't answer that for her. She shook her head to herself. "I don't know how I screwed everything up so badly. I never should have married him. I don't even miss him, really. Which is the weirdest part. I just...I'm upset that I don't miss him, that I ruined things to the point that I can't even miss our friendship because...I don't even know what that's like anymore."
She wasn't sure she was making any sense; exasperated, she sighed and dropped her gaze to the comforter, picking at an errant thread. She wanted to be happy for Gale; she was, a little. She was glad he'd found someone else, a woman who could love him and give him the children he wanted. But it was with the same detached regard she gave anyone else in the district when she learned of their happy news. Less than, really, because there was still the looming threat of the reaping in 12 years.
"Sorry," she muttered after a moment. "I guess I just needed to process everything. I haven't heard anything from him for two years, and then it was all dumped on me at once. It was overwhelming."
She watched Peeta, his broad frame hunched over the bed. He wasn't looking at her now, his eyes trained on the bedspread, but his profile was pinched in consternation. Finally, he took a deep breath and released it, lifting his head to meet her questioning gaze. "I get it. I can understand why that would be hard for you. I have to hear about Analise all the time, so I'm constantly inundated with news on her life."
Katniss frowned at that. "Oh?"
Peeta's eyebrow quirked slightly, the corner of his mouth twisting into a wry smirk. "My mother, of course."
She rolled her eyes, pulling her knees up to her chest and hooking her arms around her legs. "To remind you of what a horrible decision you made, I guess?"
"Sounds about right," he said drolly, then he shrugged. "Well...I guess it's great for Gale, right? That he's moved on and found somebody." Katniss nodded quietly, and after a moment of silence Peeta added, "I guess it's safe to assume we're not invited to that toasting ceremony, huh?"
When she narrowed her eyes at him, he broke out into a grin. But he continued, assuming a thoughtful pose. "Think I should make them a loaf of bread for their toasting?" he suggested, and she snatched a pillow up to smack him with it, causing him to laugh.
"You're awful," she chided him, unable to fight her own smile.
She found Peeta in the kitchen Saturday afternoon after she'd returned from her hunt and her regular Hob visit. He was exuberantly pounding out a slab of dough, and for a moment she watched him, thinking he was angry about something. But then she noticed the smile on his face.
"Hey," she greeted him, shrugging out of her jacket and slinging it over the back of a dining chair. It was mild out, but sweat had already dampened her shirt during her walk home. When he looked over his shoulder at her, his face split into an even wider smile. "What's got you so happy?" she asked, a faint smile already teasing her lips. He stopped kneading the dough and snatched a towel off the counter to wipe the excess flour off his hands.
"I talked to my parents earlier," he started, and immediately his words had her on edge. He noticed this and shook his head. "No, it was—it went well, actually. My mom finally agreed to let you come over. I mean, she invited both of us to dinner. Tonight."
Katniss was a little dumbfounded; she wasn't sure how to react. While it was nice that his mother was finally willing to acknowledge her existence and presence in Peeta's life, Katniss still wasn't sure she was ready to confront the woman, not yet. For some reason, Mrs. Mellark intimidated the hell out of her. "Tonight?" she hesitated, pulling her braid over her shoulder to stroke anxiously. "That's...it's such short notice."
Peeta stepped toward her, his expression hopeful. "You can get cleaned up now, there's plenty of time. I'm gonna make some dessert to bring; you don't have to worry about anything else," he said placatingly, and Katniss chewed on her lip, doubtful. "Please? I feel like this is our only window of opportunity, and if we back out, she definitely won't be willing to reschedule. I just want her to meet you and see what I see in you."
At that, Katniss cut her eyes to him, her face twisting into something sardonic. "Peeta, you know as well as I do she'll never see me that way. Not after everything."
He pursed his lips together but relented, his face softening. "No, you're right. But she can at least accept that you're not horrible," he joked, and she scoffed.
"Such high standards," she grumbled, but she smiled despite herself when he pulled her against him, resting his hands loosely on her hips.
"It'll be okay, I promise. And if it's not, this is the only dinner we ever have to do with them, okay?"
Katniss took a deep, steadying breath before nodding her acquiescence. "Okay, yeah," she agreed, reaching up to peck his lips before untangling herself from his embrace. "I guess I should get a headstart on scrubbing all the Seam grime off me, huh?"
Peeta shrugged. "I like the Seam grime. But yeah, you do smell kind of bad," he teased, laughing when she shoved his chest before stalking off to the bathroom.
Katniss had changed outfits for this dinner four times, rotating through all the hand-me-down dresses her mother had given her until she'd found one suitable for a meeting with Peeta's mother. "Suitable" meant the least amount of holes and noticeable stains. The green dress she'd finally settled on, a relatively simple cotton frock that tapered at the waist to give her the barest semblance of curves, only had one small hole, where the threads were unraveling around a seam, but she was able to stitch it back together before they'd left for the bakery. Katniss didn't want to give Mrs. Mellark anymore ammunition to hate her, and she had the distinct feeling the woman was the type to hold a grudge over threadbare garments. It was nerveracking, being the deciding factor that would determine the course of Peeta's relationship with his mother. Under any other circumstances, Katniss wasn't sure she'd care about appeasing her, or any other Merchant, but she knew how important this night was to Peeta, and she didn't want to cause anymore upheaval in his family's life.
Now, as she walked side-by-side with Peeta to the bakery, her hand securely tucked into his, she nervously smoothed down the flyaways of her elaborately braided updo with her other hand; the stares the two of them got as they strolled purposely through town did not go unnoticed by her, though she wasn't sure Peeta noticed them. She didn't think him stupid, and they'd discussed the matter before, but he hadn't grown up under the staunch oppression she had in the Seam; she sometimes thought him naive to the fact that the Merchants didn't just judge them for the circumstances of their relationship but for her class, as well. Naive maybe wasn't the right word either. Unconcerned, rather. The attention still rattled her, however.
But this time on her trek through town, their stares were the last of her worries as they neared the bakery. Once it was in sight, she inadvertently squeezed Peeta's hand. He glanced at her and smiled. "Don't worry. It's going to be fine," he whispered, but his words couldn't conceal the anxiety in his eyes and the creases over his brow. Oddly enough, she was somewhat comforted by his nervousness.
Her heart was in her throat once they stepped up to the backdoor of the bakery, and she reluctantly released his hand so he could knock. She briefly wondered if it was weird to him that he had to knock on the door of his childhood home, so unwelcome by his family now. It was a tense moment as they waited for someone to answer the door, and Peeta flashed her one more smile for reassurance before the door finally swung open to reveal his father.
His hair was a dusty blonde now, and his face bore the harrowing marks of age, making him look older than he was, as living in Twelve did for anyone, but his eyes warmed at the sight of his son. "Hey, son," he greeted kindly, pulling Peeta into a hug. Katniss shifted uncomfortably, nudging a loose pebble off the brick steps with the toe of her boot, but when Mr. Mellark's eyes switched to her, she managed a more genuine smile. "Hey, Katniss. It's good to see you. Welcome to our home," he said as he released his son. For an uncomfortable moment, the three of them stood there, and horror washed over her as she realized she wasn't sure if she was supposed to hug him or shake his hand. He made no move to do either, uncertainty flashing in his eyes, and an awkwardness began to settle between them.
Luckily, Peeta broke the standoff, thrusting the container of strawberry shortcakes he'd made into his father's hands. "We made dessert," he offered. He was being fairly liberal in his statement as Katniss had spent all afternoon preparing herself for this encounter, not helping with dessert.
"Ahh, the old Mellark family recipe," Mr. Mellark appraised, then he stepped back to let them inside. "Thank you. Come on in. Your mother is finishing up dinner now."
Katniss followed Peeta over the threshold, and as she passed by Mr. Mellark, she suddenly realized she hadn't even spoken yet. "Um, hello, thank you," she mumbled hurriedly, embarrassed, but he nodded at her with another gracious smile.
"I hope you two like pot roast," he said as he trailed them through the bakery kitchen to the stairwell that led upstairs. Peeta cast a surprised look over his shoulder at his dad.
"Pot roast? Mom didn't have to go through that much trouble—" he started, but Mr. Mellark waved him off, shooing them up the stairs.
"This dinner's important," was all he said from behind Katniss. She was equally as surprised as Peeta, as his mother most certainly had to go to the butcher to buy the fairly pricey meat, but Katniss had a sinking feeling that Mrs. Mellark indulged on the dinner to remind Katniss of their status; that sort of thing was more important than her resentment for having to cook a nice meal for "Seam trash."
Once inside the modest-sized living quarters over the bakery, Katniss took a moment to discreetly survey her surroundings. Their home was nice, even nicer than the house she and Peeta lived in, but the furniture and walls showed signs of years of wear and tear. The Mellarks seemed to take a keen interest in decorating, something neither she nor Peeta really bothered with. She was curious about his childhood room but didn't think it a pertinent time to ask to see it.
Peeta turned to her when her father disappeared into the kitchen to put the dessert away, his eyes wide with concern. "You doing okay?" he asked quietly, and she nodded, forcing a broad smile for his benefit.
"Yeah, I'm fine," she replied, and once he was reassured, he leaned forward to press a chaste kiss to her lips.
Unfortunately, Mr. Mellark returned at that second, his wife at his side. When she saw them, she cleared her throat scornfully, causing both of them to jerk apart. Katniss got a glimpse of Peeta's red cheeks, sure they mirrored her own, before he spun around to face his mother. "Mom, hey, thanks for having Katniss and me over," he said, striding over to hug her. Katniss stayed rooted to her spot, frozen underneath the icy stare of Mrs. Mellark.
This was a bad idea.
"Well, it's what you wanted," Mrs. Mellark sniped, barely sparing Peeta a glance as she offered her cheek for him to kiss, her gaze still fixed on Katniss. There was nothing welcoming in those eyes, eyes so similar yet so different from her son's. Katniss used to think Peeta resembled his dad the most, but now, seeing his mother up close, it was obvious whom he took after. How could someone so cold produce someone as warm as Peeta? It was unfathomable.
If Peeta was bothered by his mother's tone, he didn't show it; he was probably used to it by this point. Nervously, Katniss smoothed her hand over her braid before folding her arm across her stomach. She didn't know if Mrs. Mellark was going to greet her—it didn't seem like it, despite the glare she was leveling at her—so Katniss swallowed thickly and squared her shoulders back. "Um, hello, Mrs. Mellark. The roast smells good," she said carefully, enunciating each word clearly.
The woman's eyebrow twitched as it hiked up her forehead, just barely. "It should," she said coldly, dismissively, and Katniss stared at her wordlessly, at a loss as to how to respond to that.
Sensing the tension, Mr. Mellark swept his wife back into the kitchen. "Why don't we finish the food while Peeta and Katniss set the table?" he suggested, gesturing at the stack of plates left on the dining table.
Once the two were out of the room, Peeta grabbed Katniss' hand to steer her over to the table. "You okay?" he asked, divvying up the plates for the two of them to set out. Katniss took a deep, steadying breath.
"You already asked that," she muttered, slowly circling the table as she placed the two plates in front of seats.
"We won't stay long," he reassured her, as if he could already tell dinner was going to be painful. Katniss just nodded, helping him set out the silverware as well.
His parents returned after a moment with the dishes of food, Katniss and Peeta assisting them with the food as well. Katniss made sure to avoid direct interaction with his mother as each time she passed her, the older woman leveled her with a steely gaze that made Katniss feel like that helpless 11-year-old again, digging through the woman's trash for scraps. She hated how intimidated the woman made her feel, but she was beginning to understand how Peeta lived a life completely kowtowed by his mother.
"Please, have a seat," Mr. Mellark instructed them once the table was set. He smiled at his son and Katniss as they rounded the table, Katniss looking to Peeta to tell her where to sit. "We're interested in hearing more about you, Katniss, though Peeta's already told us so much." There was a jarring screech of wood as Mrs. Mellark pulled her chair out sharply, and Mr. Mellark glanced at his wife warily before turning his attention back to Katniss. "Oh, let me take your jacket for you."
Surprised, Katniss looked down then quickly shrugged her jacket off and reached across the table to hand her coat to Peeta's father before settling down in her seat at the table. There was a sharp intake of breath to her right, and her eyes darted to Mrs. Mellark. The look in her eyes made Katniss' blood run cold, and she froze in alarm. What had she done now?
Mrs. Mellark suddenly slammed her napkin down on the table, rattling her plate and cup. "You slut," she hissed, eliciting appalled gasps from her husband and son. Katniss just stared at her, wide-eyed. Peeta was the first to jump to her defense.
"Mom, what the hell—"
Shooting to her feet, Mrs. Mellark nearly knocked her chair back as she fixed her son with a deathly glare. "How dare you disrespect me and your father like this—"
"Disrespect you? Us?" Peeta asked incredulously, his voice rising in anger as he stood up as well.
Mrs. Mellark continued, raising her own voice over his. "How dare you knock this Seam slut up and bring her into our house!" she yelled. Her accusation rendered Katniss and Peeta speechless, and they could only stare at her mutely as they tried to process her words.
"Honey, what are you—" Mr. Mellark tried to intervene, weakly, but his wife fixed her glare on him.
"Look at her tits! They're huge! They're full of milk, Farren! He knocked her up!" she screeched, then she whirled back on them. Self-consciously, Katniss crossed her hands over her chest as her cheeks burned in humiliation. "After everything you've done to this family, this is the worst—"
"Mom, she's not pregnant!" Peeta yelled over her. "You're insane!"
"I had three sons! You think I don't know when someone's pregnant?" she sneered at him. Peeta looked at Katniss helplessly, and when she felt their stares on her, she shook her head weakly.
"I'm—no, I'm not pregnant. We use..." she trailed off, embarrassed she was being forced to discuss her sex life with these people. "I'm not—I'm not."
Mrs. Mellark slammed her hand down on the table so suddenly, Katniss jumped. Peeta's cup rolled off the side and shattered on the floor. "How could you do this to your family? It's one thing to sleep with a Seam bitch, but to get her pregnant? Do you know how that makes us look?" she demanded.
"I don't give a fuck how it makes you look!" Peeta growled. "I don't give a fuck how it makes me look. Why are you doing this? She's not pregnant! Why can't we just have dinner—?"
"Because you ruined this family!" Mrs. Mellark screamed. "You ruined our reputation! And look what you did to poor Analise! Who do you think is going to marry a barren, divorced 30-year-old woman?!" At that, Mrs. Mellark's eyes homed in on her, narrowing into slits. "And all for this-this slut," she spat, leaning over to shove her. With a gasp, Katniss tipped backward but was immediately pushed forward by Peeta catching her chair. He slapped his mother's hand away, hard.
"Don't touch her," he threatened, advancing on her as he pulled himself to his full height, but then his father inserted himself between his wife and son.
"Peeta, leave. You two need to go now," he said quietly, and though he was only just shorter than his son, Peeta backed down. A wounded look flickered across his face before he set his jaw, helping a dazed Katniss out of her chair.
"Don't worry, we won't be back," Peeta spat out, his hand clasped tightly around Katniss' hand as he led her away from the table. He snatched her jacket off the couch and stomped down the stairs to the bakery. Katniss had to hold onto the wall, the rush of adrenaline making her lightheaded as Mrs. Mellark's screams followed them out the back door.
Black spots begin to pepper her vision, and Katniss had to physically force Peeta to slow down. "Peeta, not so fast," she gasped, still stumbling behind him and squeezing her eyes shut. He slowed to a minimal pace but kept walking.
"I'm sorry she touched you," he said tightly, sparing her a glance as he led her home, but his eyes were glazed, his neck blotchy with anger. She stayed quiet, keeping her head down to stop the rush of blood and to watch her step so she didn't trip. "I'm sorry I brought you there. I should have known...I should have known she'd..."
They didn't speak the rest of the way, trying to hurry as quickly as they could and dodge the prying eyes of neighbors, though even through her haze Katniss could feel their stares, hear their whispers. She knew she and Peeta had to look a sight at that moment, both frazzled and stumbling in their haste to get through town back to their house. She hoped that Mr. Mellark had at least kept his wife inside the bakery and that she hadn't stormed out the back after them to yell more obscenities.
Once they were back in the safety of their home, Peeta angrily shut the door before releasing a heavy sigh, then he turned to her, taking her face in his hands. "Are you okay? I mean, physically?" he asked, his voice thick with concern as he critically examined her face, her torso. Katniss nodded.
"Yeah, she barely—I've experienced worse," she tried to reassure him, but she couldn't deny how shaken she felt by the encounter. She studied his face, finally noticing the tremble in his hands, and she curled her fingers around them. "Are you okay?"
Something swelled in the blues of his eyes, his face tightening, and after a moment he released her, stepping back to rub his hands over his face. "I...I didn't mean to hit her like that, I've never—in all these years," he bemoaned, his voice muffled by his hands. "I just...the moment she laid a hand on you, I couldn't see straight. I thought I was going to black out, I was so angry."
"It's okay," she whispered soothingly, advancing on him to stroke his arm and coax his hands down to his sides. Despite her words, she didn't feel okay; her stomach was still twisted in a knot, her pulse pounding, but she swallowed against the dryness of her throat. "What else could you do? She was out of her mind. I'm not—" She stopped abruptly, thinking back to the moment, and she absent-mindedly touched her chest. "We haven't...had any accidents. I haven't been sick or anything."
Peeta's eyes focused on her face, and he fell silent for a moment as if he was only just then remembering what had sparked the fight. Then he shook his head, his nostrils flaring as he inhaled then exhaled deeply. "I know. I think she just was looking for any reason to hate you. She's always been like that. I'm so sorry I brought you into that environment. I should have known better," he said contritely, but she pulled him into a hug, putting his arms around her waist and then wrapping hers around his neck.
"It's okay. I'm sorry too," she murmured against his ear, inhaling deeply, dragging his familiar scent into her lungs to calm herself. After a few deep breaths, Peeta rocking her slightly, it seemed to help. But something continued to tug at the back of her mind, weighing her stomach down like a stone, that she couldn't quite shake off.
She still couldn't shake it the next day, or the day after that. She tried to put it out of her mind, but Mrs. Mellark's words haunted her. She forewent her trek to the Hob one morning, instead lying in bed until Peeta left for the school.
Eventually, once she was sure he was out of the house, she dragged herself out of bed and stood in front of the mirror, taking stock of her body. Her night shirt still hung loosely on her body, and she gingerly cupped her breasts through the loose material. Were they bigger? They felt like it, but she couldn't decide if it was a reality or just Mrs. Mellark's accusation shading her perception. She recalled how much snugger the dress felt around her chest, only a minuscule difference in the fit that she hadn't thought twice about before.
Chewing the corner of her bottom lip, she pulled her shirt off over her head so she was standing topless before the mirror. Then she observed the reflection of her breasts, touching and testing the weight of them in her palms. If they were bigger, Peeta hadn't said anything—or noticed, it seemed. Katniss pinched a nipple lightly, furrowing her brow? Were they sore, too?
With a deep frown, she dragged her hand down to her stomach to examine her belly. She stretched her fingers out over the plane of her abdomen. It still felt tight, flat, maybe the faintest swell. Closing her eyes, she exhaled in frustration and dismay.
When had her last period been? She forced herself to do the mental calculations, but she couldn't recall. It had to have been at least a couple months now. That wasn't necessarily cause for alarm; she often had irregular periods, going months without a normal cycle because of stress or malnutrition. While her eating habits had improved over the years, especially in the last couple, her stress hadn't abated in the slightest.
Now that the germ of concern had been planted, she could feel the icy tendrils of fear seeping down her spine. Something was wrong. She needed to see her mother.
Katniss wasted no time getting dressed and making the journey to the Seam, hoping her mother wasn't off helping someone else. She didn't bother knocking, flinging the front door open with frantic haste. Her mother, who sat at the dining table sipping tea, startled at her entrance, her eyes going wide.
"Katniss?" she asked, setting the cup down. "What's wron—"
"I need a pregnancy test," Katniss blurted. Her mother froze, her lips thinning into a line as the two women stared at each other. Then she very carefully, but resolutely, stood up from the table.
"Okay," she said simply before walking over to the hutch of medical supplies in the living room. Katniss wrung her wrists as she waited, only moving closer when her mother turned back to her with a immunoassay test strip. "You know what to do."
Quietly, Katniss took the strip and headed for the bathroom, grabbing a cup from the kitchen on her way. The next few minutes were a blur as she robotically went through the requisite steps. The time she waited for the strip to change seemed to stretch on, and her hand shook as she pulled it out of the urine simple.
She stared dumbly at it for a few tense seconds, holding her breath, before she realized she had no idea how to read it. She released the air in her lungs on a tight, short laugh, then she exited the bathroom. Her mother looked up at her expectantly from the table.
"I don't know what it says," Katniss said sheepishly, handing the strip to her mother. Mrs. Everdeen took it gingerly and studied it only for a second before sighing.
"You're pregnant," she told her solemnly. Katniss winced; the statement was a punch to the gut, despite how much she knew it already, deep down. Inhaling shakily, she covered her face with her hands.
"Shit," she said simply, the sound muffled. Distraught, she dropped her hands to her sides, sure her mother's look mirrored her own.
Setting the strip on the table, her mother eyed her warily. "Peeta's?" she asked cautiously. Katniss' mouth twisted into a sneer.
"Yes," she snapped, indignation swelling at her mother's insinuation. "Of course, it is."
Her mother held her hands up placatingly. "I just meant...do you two want...?" She left the question hanging, and Katniss felt uneasy.
"No, we agreed...I mean, after last time, it just...He knows why I can't. And he agrees," she explained quietly, but even as she talked, she felt a more acute dread filling her. She and Peeta had talked a handful of times about the impossibility of having children and bringing them up in this world; she knew they were on the same page about that.
But she knew how much hurt it had caused her the last time she aborted her—their—baby. And she knew how hurt he had been, even if he refused to say it.
And now she had to do it again? What sick joke was this? How many times would she have to be punished for her transgressions in the past? Swallowing a whimper, Katniss closed her eyes against the prickling tears.
"How far along are you?" her mother asked, and Katniss' eyes fluttered open, blinking away the water.
"I don't know," she answered honestly. "We were careful. I didn't even realize...I haven't had any symptoms, not like last time. I haven't been sick. I don't know how long it's been since my period...but at least a couple months. Three, maybe."
A veil of worry clouded her mother's eyes, but she moved toward the hutch. "Do you want me to make you the tea again? It's not guaranteed to work."
Katniss nodded, dazed, and watched her mother pull out the blue and black cohosh and the other supplies. But as she went about preparing the tea, Katniss got a sinking feeling in her stomach, panic starting to squeeze her heart.
"Wait," she blurted, her mother stilling her actions. "I should—I need to tell Peeta first. I can't—it wouldn't be fair to do it before he knows. Right?"
Her mother just nodded, but her forehead wrinkled in consternation. "It's up to you. But we can't wait much longer if you want to abort. It gets less and less likely with each week."
Katniss released a heavy breath she was holding, swiping at an errant tear. "I'll tell him tonight," she whispered, and as she moved to leave, her mother surprised her by pulling her into a hug. Although their relationship had improved over the years, Katniss was still caught off guard by this display of affection. She stood stiffly in her mother's embrace for a moment before the comforting strokes of her hand on her head relaxed her, and she buried her face against her shoulder.
"It's going to be okay, Katniss," her mother said, feeling the slight trembling in her daughter's limbs.
But all Katniss could think was: You don't know that.
Katniss sat on the couch in their living room as she waited for Peeta to return from the school. She'd managed to gnaw her fingernails down to jagged, tender stubs as her anxiety mounted. She couldn't think about the thing, the life, growing inside her at that moment; it was too real. All she could focus on was informing Peeta about the abstract concept of the life inside her. Then it would be real. And then she could really let the panic set in. But right now it was taking everything in her to keep it at bay so she could manage as calm a conversation with Peeta as possible.
She knew they were on the same page when it came to having children in District 12, in this environment. At least, she thought they were. Her past experience with Gale made her wary now. And even if Peeta agreed with her decision, she still knew it would hurt him.
It hurt her, too, if she was honest with herself, but she couldn't afford to think like that. Not now.
She jumped when she heard the door open, and she shot to her feet and spun around to face Peeta as he shuffled inside, shooting her a smile in greeting.
"I need to talk to you," she blurted, and he pulled back apprehensively.
"Uh oh," he joked nervously. "That's never a sentence you want to hear." His face hardened suddenly, alarm sharpening an edge to his voice. "Wait—is it my mom? Did she do something again?"
Katniss shook her head. "No. Sit down," she said quietly, gesturing to the couch. Confused, Peeta circled around the sofa and sat down. Stiffly, she sat back down beside him, avoiding his eyes as she summoned her courage. She could feel her heart thumping against her rib cage then, her pulse spiking in sheer nervousness. Her hand twitched on the couch, her nails scratching at the rough fibers of the upholstery fabric, and she took a deep breath before swallowing the lump in her throat. "I—" she croaked and swallowed again to force the words out. "I went to my mom's today. I—I'm pregnant."
For a second, she wasn't sure he heard her; his expression didn't change, his eyes still clouded with confusion and apprehension. Finally, he blinked. "What?" he breathed, as if he were exhaling the life out of his lungs.
"Pregnant?" he repeated incredulously, and on the last syllable his expression broke, a flicker of excitement lighting his blue eyes and upturning the corners of his mouth, just barely. Her breath caught in her throat; it was what she feared.
But just like that, his face dropped. His whole body seemed to sag in that moment. "Oh." A beat passed, and then he repeated himself uselessly. "Oh." She wanted to reach out to him, grab his hand, but she was afraid. Afraid that she had disappointed and hurt him yet again. She didn't know how he was going to react.
Another tense moment passed before he asked, "Did you..." The words seemed to stick in his throat, and he cleared it a few times. He was getting choked up, she could tell, but trying not to show it. Sadly, she pursed her lips together and shook her head.
"No, not yet," she said, her voice wobbling. "I thought...I wanted to tell you before..."
He took another deep breath and began to nod absently, though she wasn't sure if he was even aware why he was nodding. She wasn't sure herself. Then he pinched the bridge of his nose and shakily released the breath he was holding. "Um...h-how? We've been careful, right?" he asked.
She shrugged. "I thought so. I don't know. Maybe the condom is too old now," she suggested wanly.
"Dammit," he whispered, his voice muffled by his hand. "Dammit. This—fuck, this sucks. This is bullshit," he swore, his voice rising as he suddenly stood up. Katniss stared at him speechlessly, her eyes wide. Peeta shook his head, tugging at his hair. "Sorry—I'm not mad at you. I'm just...I'm mad. I'm mad at this situation, at all of this," he gritted out, gesturing wildly around them. "That we're forced to live like this! It's fucked up! How can anyone live like this?"
He was right. She understood his anger, but she couldn't help him.
Peeta sighed raggedly, rubbing at his eyes. "I just...I'm sorry. I understand what you have to do. I just...I need to be angry for a moment. Alone."
He didn't wait for a response, storming past her out of the living room. A second later, she heard their bedroom door slam shut. The sound stung. She knew he'd be upset, but she didn't anticipate his anger. It was hard not to take it personally.
He didn't come out of the bedroom for hours, and Katniss was too afraid and stubborn to venture after him. So she stayed put, curling up on the couch and eventually dozing off despite the worried frenzy consuming her thoughts.
She was awoken sometime in the middle of the night by Peeta softly stroking her hair. Blearily, she stared up at him over the back of the couch, furrowing her brow at the concerned, remorseful look on his face. His eyes were red-rimmed, too.
"You didn't come to bed," he whispered, pulling his hand back to brace himself against the couch. She frowned.
"You said you wanted to be alone," she said hoarsely, fighting the urge to pout.
He sighed, dipping his head slightly before looking back at her. "Sorry. I know this is hard for you, too." She looked away, and he brushed some hair out of her face. "Come to bed, okay?"
She chewed her lip for a moment before relenting, pushing herself up. To her surprise, Peeta leaned over the back of the couch and pulled her up to hoist her into his arms. She clung to his shoulders, burrowing her face against his neck while he carried her into the bedroom. He helped her undress, his movements tender, then they climbed in together under the covers. Reflexively, she curled up against him, feeling immediate relief when he wrapped his arms around her. They were silent for a while.
"Sorry," she mumbled against his chest, her fingers teasing the soft blonde hairs there, but Peeta shook his head.
"Don't. I understand. It's...what I want, too."
It wasn't entirely true, Katniss knew that, but she didn't push it. They said nothing more, and after some time, they drifted off to sleep, where she dreamed of meadows and lakes and children and somewhere they could be safe, finally.
The next morning, Katniss left their house early. Her trek took her to the Seam, but instead of stopping at her mother's, she kept walking until she reached the edge of the district demarcated by the fence separating them from the woods. She easily slipped under it and began her familiar hike through the trees. She wasn't really cognizant of where she was going; she just let her feet take her, one in front of the other. Her mind was a haze—not even a flurry of thoughts and anxieties. Just a haze.
Soon, she found herself at the tree where she normally stored her bow and arrow. But she didn't pull it out; instead, she found a nearby tree, one sturdy enough for her weight and easily scalable, and she lifted herself onto the trunk, carefully but stealthily climbing until she was perched high on a branch, obscured by leaves.
She didn't know what she was doing. Hiding, most likely, as if camouflaging herself in these trees could somehow shield her from the tough decision that awaited her. She knew she couldn't idle too long; her time frame for taking the tea successfully was shrinking by the minute. Still, she couldn't bring herself to climb back down. Shifting her position, she firmly pressed her back against the tree and, once she felt stable, pulled her knees up to cradle them against her chest.
She thought a lot about Peeta. Her indignation at his anger. But if she pushed past that wounded feeling...and the terror of her—their—predicament...she could feel the anger, too. Barely there, a tiny, electromagnetic pulse buzzing under layers of denial and self-preservation. He was right, in a way. It was bullshit that they had to live like this, in constant fear under the heel of the Capitol's boot. It wasn't fair for her, for Peeta, for anyone.
But she couldn't change that. Even if she could, would she still want a baby?
The answer to that question was harder to parse, one she hadn't really pondered before. What was the point? As long as the reapings still happened, as long as the risk of sending her child off to the games was even a remote possibility, the idea of having this baby was unthinkable. Off the table.
But now she forced herself to actually think about it, to consider having children in a world devoid of the games. Would she? Could she do it? If there was a place they could be safe?
If it were with Peeta...
Katniss spent the next few hours debating the possibilities, her mind churning. As the day wore on, she couldn't even feel the hunger gnawing at her stomach—something else formed there, sprouting slowly at first then faster, taking root in her chest, in her bones. It solidified, making her blood course and her heart beat hard, strong.
Abruptly, she glanced at the sun to gauge the time: mid-afternoon—she would have to hurry. With her limbs shaking, she scrambled down the tree, barely fazed when she lost her footing and clumsily slid the last few feet to the ground. She ignored the scrapes on her hands as she took off for town, running carefully enough to avoid tripping or running into branches. She wasn't sure she'd get there in time…
She was exhausted by the time she made it back to the Seam, but she didn't stop running until she reached the school on the other side of town. She didn't even care how crazy she must seem to the townspeople she passed, her thoughts solely on Peeta. By the time she reached the school, a cramp forced her to slow down. There were no kids meandering the yard or filing out of the building, so she finally stopped to lean against the fence and catch her breath.
Finally, when she heard the bell sound in the distance, and the first students came piling out, she wedged her foot in one of the panels to lift herself off the ground so she could see over their heads. Her eyes scanned the crowd, sticking close to the entrance. All she saw for the next half hour were kids, only a few teachers peppered through the crowd, but no Peeta.
So she continued to wait, unaware of how much time had passed by the time he finally emerged from the building. Her heart shot into her throat at the sight of him, his blonde hair and beard glinting in the late afternoon sun. Jumping down from the fence, she jogged around it to the opening and stopped when he finally spotted her. He wavered in his trek, pausing momentarily in confusion; she could discern the familiar crease in his brown even from a distance. But then he resumed his direction, walking up to her.
"Katniss, what are you doing here? Is everything all right?" he asked, and just as she saw the spark of alarm ignite in his irises, she blurted out the question she came to ask him.
"If I asked you to run away with me, would you?"
"Yes," he replied automatically, no hesitation or forethought, and her stomach filled with warmth at just how willing he was to throw his lot in with hers, no questions asked. But then he shook his head, laughing lightly in disbelief. "Wait, why are you asking me that? What are you talking about?"
Here it was. The moment of truth. Excitement and nervousness and fear spiked all at once, bottoming out in her stomach and swelling in her throat, and she swallowed past it, clinging to those shreds of certainty and hope she'd found in the woods.
"Because we can't raise our child here in District 12."
Peeta stared at her uncomprehendingly, and she waited for the words to sink, apprehensive yet hopeful of his response. Finally, he blinked a few times, his brow furrowing in confusion. "I don't...what?"
"We have to get out of this place. I can't have this baby here, not like this," she said, dropping her voice and stepping closer to him. His eyes widened then, the full weight of what she was saying hitting him.
"You're going to keep it?" he asked, a precarious delicateness to his voice, as if he were afraid to consider it. "I mean, you want to keep the baby?" Katniss nodded her head, her eyes locked with his, and as the excitement blossomed in his eyes, a slow smile spread across her face. "Really?" he pressed in disbelief, and she nodded again, her smile morphing into a grin when he started laughing and pulled her into a hug. "Katniss, I can't believe..."
She squirmed in his embrace, pushing on his chest slightly so she could look him in the face. "But we can't do it here, Peeta. We have to run. Into the woods," she said urgently, glancing around them to make sure no one else was walking by.
He paused, his face falling slightly. "Where to, though? Where would we go? I'm not good in the woods—"
"There's an old house out there, a couple hours away from here or so. By a lake. My dad showed it to me before he died. No one else knows about it. We can go there. We can fix it up. We can have our baby there, and we can raise it without the reaping. We can have a normal life, Peeta," she said, hope lifting her voice. The more she talked about it, the more excited she got. They could do this. They could actually do this...
She held her breath as he stared at her, waiting for his response. After a moment, he nodded resolutely. "Okay. Let's do this. Let's run away from here."
She fisted her hands in his shirt tightly. "Are you sure? You'd have to leave this behind," she implored, her eyes darting over his shoulder at the school. "And your family. Could you do that?"
His face fell, doubt softening his eyes, and she pursed her lips to brace herself; this was the catch, of course. Expecting him to abandon his life like this…
"I..." Peeta started, but his voice caught and he trailed off for a moment, his eyes glazing over as he gazed back at the school. Finally, he shook his head. "They'll find another teacher. And my family...you're my family. And they've made it clear they aren't willing to accept you into their lives. So to hell with them," he said, his voice firm and brimming with resentment. "Are you willing to leave your family behind?"
Katniss swallowed thickly; it was something she'd already asked herself, a proposition she'd already considered for hours in the woods. It was still hard to answer, though she felt confident in her resolution. "Yes. Prim's grown up now, she has her own family. She doesn't need me anymore. Neither does my mom. I think...I think it's time I start worrying about myself."
She felt as resolute as ever looking at him then, his eyes gleaming with happiness and awe. He pulled her into a fierce hug, cradling her head against his chest. "Okay," he breathed. "So let's do this."
They spent all night working out the details of their plan, discussing the logistics. That weekend, Katniss would take Peeta to the lake to show him the cabin. They would spend the next few months fixing it up, gradually and inconspicuously taking the items and provisions they would need to survive. Katniss would do most of the work, as she could get in and out of the woods more easily with less suspicion, but Peeta would move larger items, like bags of flour, under the cover of early dawn. They would have to work relatively fast, before Katniss started to show in her pregnancy; she could hide it for a while with bulky clothes, but by summer, the oppressive heat would eventually force her hand, so they would have to be gone by that point.
The main problem would be disappearing without raising too many questions. If she had been any other person from the Seam, she could probably effortlessly slip under the district officials' radars. But as one of the main hunters and traders in the Hob, her disappearance would most be noticed. And as a Merchant and school teacher, Peeta's would be, too. He insisted he could easily be replaced at his job, though, as tough as it would be to leave his students; there was always someone clamoring for a job at the school, and the summer breaks provided a perfect opportunity to tender his resignation. Katniss was sure she could bribe a peacekeeper to overlook their disappearance, though. They weren't of Reaping age, and they weren't really anyone of importance in the district. The Capitol didn't care about the people in District 12, and she knew people in the Seam died all the time with zero fanfare from officials, but actually running away...she wasn't sure that wouldn't draw more than a few cursory inquiries their way.
She had a rapport with the peacekeepers, however, especially Darius, who'd replaced Old Cray as the head peacekeeper. She would talk to him, give him as much money as she could spare, maybe even promise to discreetly return with fresh meat for him once in a while. It was a long shot, and Peeta wasn't entirely convinced, but she felt confident Darius wouldn't turn them in. He wasn't like the others.
She would tell her mother and sister where she was going, of course. She couldn't disappear on them without a trace. She was sure she would return occasionally to town for necessities when she and Peeta ran out, and she would ask her mother to purchase them for her. And, more than anything, she would need her mother's assistance during her pregnancy and especially during the birth; she couldn't do that alone in the woods. What if something went wrong with the baby?
That left one question, really—whether Peeta would tell his family where he was going. When Katniss asked him, he was silent for a while as he mulled it over.
"I don't know," he finally said, his voice quiet. There was an undercurrent of anger there. "I don't think so. I'll say my peace with them before we go, I guess, but...I don't think they'll really care if I never come around again. Dad, maybe, but he never comes to see me. So I think my disappearance won't really matter to them."
Katniss' heart ached listening to his words, hearing the pain that laced his words. She reached her hand out to cup his cheek, stroking his beard with her thumb. She didn't know what to say to make any of it better, so she said the only thing she could. "I love you."
He smiled wanly at her, covering her hand with his own and giving it a squeeze. "That's all that matters, honestly. That's all I want," he said, but with his other hand he touched her stomach. "A life and a family with you."
Family. The thought both terrified and thrilled her now. As confident as she felt with their plan, she couldn't be fully certain it would work out. But she knew if there was anyone she was willing to try it with, it was Peeta.
That night, their sex was both desperate yet subdued, their bodies folding into each other with the familiar ease and newfound excitement they felt each time. But this time was different; it was their first coupling sans barrier. It was unnecessary now. Katniss could feel every inch of his cock inside her, in and out, his bare flesh easily, deliciously sliding against her walls with the aid of her arousal. She hadn't even come yet, and she was soaking wet—she didn't know if it was the hormones from the pregnancy or just the thrill of their plan, their future.
Peeta stopped his thrusting to move his head between her legs, his mouth descending on her to lap up her wetness and make her come with the persistent pressure of his tongue on her clit. Once he was certain she was sated, he pushed his cock into her again and resumed his slow, torturous movements. Katniss lay under him, completely open to him; her wrists were pinned above her head in the clutches of his hands, his body arching high over hers as he fucked her at the angle he knew she loved. Her moans were low and throaty, her body still quivering from her orgasm, and she pulled her knees to her chest, cradling his hips against hers. She lifted her pelvis to his every time he thrusted forward, grinding against him and clenching his cock inside her. Peeta was breathing hard, his muscles strained and flexing as he held himself over her; his eyes never left her face, even when he came a few minutes later. Her pussy milked his cum out of him, his shaft pulsing against her walls, and she pushed herself up on her elbows to kiss him fiercely.
It was a promise.
When Peeta held her after, their heartbeats and breathing synced, he whispered, "This is going to work." He might have meant to reassure himself, but she believed him.
Telling her mother and sister about their plan was harder than Katniss anticipated. Her mother was immediately worried, especially about the baby.
"You can't have that baby out there alone," she fretted, her hands twisting the dishcloth in her hands. Katniss chewed the corner of her mouth worriedly.
"I know," she agreed. "That's why I was hoping I could convince you to come out to the cabin when it's time...to deliver my baby, and stay with us a few days to help us adjust."
She expected pushback—her mother had clients to consider, and the hike to the lake was demanding—but to her surprise, she agreed readily.
"I'll come out a few weeks before your due date, just in case you go into early labor. Prim can take over any clients I have," she said firmly. Katniss smiled gratefully, crossing the kitchen to her mother and reaching for her hand to squeeze it.
Prim wasn't as easy to placate as her mother was; her initial shock quickly dissolved to resistance and distress.
"What do you mean, you're leaving? How can you just leave?" she demanded, her voice rising in the quietness of her quaint house; she and Katniss were alone, but still Katniss hushed her worriedly.
"I have to, Prim. I'm pregnant. And I'm not raising this baby here," she said softly but resolutely, rendering her sister speechless. Her blue eyes went wide at the news.
"Pregnant?" she whispered, moving closer. "Oh, Katniss—"
Katniss allowed her to pull her into a hug, dutifully acquiescing to her baby sister's fawning and requisite fussing for a moment before pulling away to continue the discussion. "I've already worked out with Peeta how we're going to do this. You can't tell anyone, okay? His family won't even know."
Blinking in disbelief, Prim stared at her silently for a moment as she tried to digest. Then began the barrage of questions. "Where are you going to live?" "How are you going to have the baby by yourself?" "But what about me? Will I see you again?"
The last question was delivered brimming with tears. Katniss hadn't heard her sister's voice sound so small since she was 12 years old, at her first Reaping. For a moment, she was breathless, feeling the familiar pull to protect her little sister, the fierce need to take care of her. Her resolve almost crumbled.
But Prim wasn't 12 anymore. She was 28, and she had a husband and a daughter. Even at four years her junior, she'd proven she could take even better care of herself than Katniss could look after herself.
"I'll come back around when I can. When it's safe, when I won't draw attention to myself," she told Prim. "But...I need to look out for what's best for my family now. I don't plan on coming back to 12 often."
Prim's eyes watered, but she nodded. "I understand," she said, her eyes drifting to a framed photo of her daughter that hung on the wall. After a moment, she cleared her throat and blinked away the tears. "Tell me how you're going to do this. I want to know everything."
At her sister's words, Katniss felt relief and immense, bittersweet sadness. She would miss Prim the most. But she reminded herself that it wasn't final—she would see her sister as much as she feasibly could. And it was for the best reason she could imagine.
Her own child.
The bag of coins felt heavy in her hand, larger than its small size conveyed, as she stalked toward Darius' house. It was the same place Cray used to live, before he was reassigned. Or killed. No one was entirely sure exactly where he went or what happened to him a few years ago. They were just relieved Darius was promoted; he was one of the younger peacekeepers, as well as the friendliest and most lax. And he didn't have a proclivity for young, impoverished Seam girls.
Katniss had spent a few weeks saving and scrounging what money she could to persuade Darius to play along with her and Peeta's plan. She didn't know how much it would take to buy him off, but she didn't want to inadvertently insult him with too little—or, hell, even too much. It was a delicate situation, and she knew she was walking a thin line, but she was still hopeful he'd agree, however reluctantly. A little money would sweeten the deal for him, she was sure. No one in District 12, not even peacekeepers, could afford to refuse money.
Stopping outside the door, she knocked, three sharp, purposeful knocks, her usual. When the door swung open a moment later, she was greeted by a mop of red hair and a crooked, pleasant smile.
"Hey, Everdeen, what'cha got for me today?" he asked in his normal, cordial tone.
"A proposition of sorts, actually," she replied. His brow furrowed in confusion. "Can we talk?"
"Sure," he agreed, but she took a couple steps back from his doorstep, glancing around to make sure no one else was in the immediate area. She didn't know what kind of Capitol devices he had in his home as a peacekeeper; it was best not to risk being recorded or eavesdropped on.
Puzzled, Darius hesitated in his doorway before stepping out to join her. "Okay. What's going on?"
She sucked in a deep, steadying breath before shoving the bag of coins at him. "This is for you." He just stared at it, so she continued, "I wanted to let you know that in a few months' time, I'm taking off for the woods. With Peeta. We're not planning to come back. And I'm hoping you'll help by not coming looking for us. Just—turn the other way and don't raise any questions about it."
His gaze was sharp, questioning and uneasy as he turned it on her, his mouth thinning into a hard line. She wasn't sure what to make of his expression, so she went for the kill. "I'm pregnant. And I want to raise my baby somewhere safe. I can't stay here."
His face softened at that, and she waited for him to respond, holding his stare determinedly, so he would understand how serious she was. Finally, he sighed. "You're asking me...to just pretend like it doesn't matter when a citizen disappears?"
She shrugged. "Seam people die all the time. The district doesn't care—it's us burying our own people, and no one in town notices. They'll just assume the same about me, I'm sure."
"You're a little more important than that, Katniss. You provide a lot of fresh meat around here."
"There are more hunters now. Someone new will fill my absence."
"Peeta's not Seam though. Townies will definitely notice when a Merchant goes missing."
"They've pretty much written him off already just for associating with me. They'll forget about it after a while. His family, too."
Darius looked doubtful. "What if they come around asking me to look for him?"
She just shook her head resolutely. "They won't. Trust me."
Darius was quiet for another moment longer as he observed her; he looked torn. She presented the money to him again, her face encouraging, and he relented with a sigh as he reluctantly took the money. "Okay. I guess I'll help."
"Thank you, really," she said sincerely, relief melting her bones. The skin between his eyes pinched together in consternation.
"Where will you go exactly?"
While she liked Darius, and even trusted him to an extent, she wasn't about to divulge their exact destination, just in case. She shook her head. "Just somewhere in the woods away from here. Somewhere safer than this place."
She began to walk away, but he called after her. When she turned around, he smiled sadly at her. "You'll be missed, you know that?"
She wasn't so sure about that, but she just smiled half-heartedly at him and waved her farewell, continuing her walk back home.
Over the next few months, Katniss and Peeta began their gradual move to the cabin in the woods. After her mother assessed her, they determined she was due in November, October at the earliest, so they had the summer months to fix the cabin and transport their necessary belongings. Luckily, Peeta had finished the school year and officially resigned from his position, so the two of them could work together to get their move executed as quickly as possible, before she began to show.
The first time she showed him the cabin, he was put off by the distance and just how long it took to get to the lake. But once he saw the area, the surrounding woods and still, shimmering water, he was in awe. "This is home," he finally surmised after a moment, soliciting the widest grin from her.
As soon as she brought him into the cabin, they began drafting ideas for how to spruce it up, what they needed to bring. Furniture was going to be impossible to lug all the way from town, so they would have to build it themselves. It was a daunting task, but Peeta was adamant he could take it on.
"I'll learn. I'm sure there's someone around town or the Seam I can pay for some lessons before we leave," he insisted when she expressed uncertainty.
The two of them made their trips in the secrecy of the predawn hours, after the miners had gone to work, but before the rest of the district had awoken for their daily rituals; this way they could move supplies without question. When they returned later in the morning or afternoon, Katniss would return with game or whatever produce they found along the way, just to diffuse any suspicion about their comings and goings.
By the middle of summer, the cabin was mostly refurbished and well-stocked. The treks were becoming increasingly exhausting for Katniss, who by that point had to struggle along under thick jackets and ponchos. Sometimes, Peeta made the trips alone, when she was feeling particularly sluggish and tired. Her pregnancy was relatively easy despite the occasional bouts of sickness, but every now and then, she awoke in the middle of the night from a crippling nightmare where her son or daughter was reaped.
In those moments, once she'd been able to pull herself out of the riptide of terror with Peeta's reassurance, she was even more resolved and sure about their decision.
The night before they were to set out for the cabin for good, after Katniss and Peeta had spent hours at her mother's house soaking up some of the last moments she would have with her and Prim, at least for a while, the two of them sat at the dining table in silence. A solitary candle flickered and sizzled between them, casting shadows over their joined hands. She stroked the soft skin of his thumb with her own, watching his face. His eyes were trained on their hands, his brow furrowed in contemplation.
After a while, she eventually spoke. "Did you ever say goodbye to your family?" Her voice was soft, not wanting to disrupt the tenderness of the moment. But she could guess what was weighing on him right then.
He slowly shook his head, pursing his lips together slightly. "Not officially. I stopped by Rye's and Barm's to see them and my nephews. And then I spoke to my father. Told him this would probably be the last time I saw them. I assume he told my mom. Maybe not."
"Did he ask why?"
"No. I think he understands he doesn't have a right to know anymore."
Katniss squeezed his hand. "Are you sure you don't want to tell them? We can hold off leaving one more day…"
But Peeta shook his head again, finally lifting his eyes to her. "I'm ready to leave this place, Katniss. I'm ready to leave this life behind. I cannot wait to start a new life with you, and our child, and I want to do that as soon as possible, as far away as we can get from here," he said firmly, but his words were saturated with a warmth that soothed her.
She smiled at him, his assurance igniting a newfound excitement in her. "I can't wait either."
He smiled, his lips quirking into a barely contained grin. "Good, because we're kind of committed to this plan now," he said, breaking off into a laugh. She joined him, the sweet sound effusing the room like the soft candlelight.
She wasn't sure either of them slept that night, tossing and turning restlessly with excitement, slowly sinking into each other with eager hands and pleasured sighs to pass the time and ease their nerves. Dawn couldn't come fast enough, and both of them were out of bed when the first call of the waking birds came. They quickly dressed and grabbed their remaining belongings they planned to take with them to the cabin. Once they were out the door, the first rays of sun just barely illuminating the town, they said a silent goodbye to their house with one lingering look, and then they set off for the edge of the Seam. There wasn't much chance of running into any other citizens; still, they pulled their hoods up to prevent any identification should they.
It proved unnecessary, though, as they sidled up to the fence with no incident. As Katniss bent down to crawl under the fence, Peeta stopped her, pulling her straight up again. She looked at him curiously, but he just kissed her sweetly, squeezing her shoulder and brushing the crown of her head. "I love you," he whispered, and she knew he was nervous, but she had never felt so innervated.
"We're just hours away from our new life," she said, her voice hushed, but her words did the trick. With a smile, he leaned down and wedged the fence out of the way so she could slide under more easily, her expanding belly making it increasingly difficult. Peeta crawled through after her, and after they helped each other to their feet, they set off into the woods.
Walking into their cabin, hours later, was as invigorating and refreshing as if Katniss had stepped into the cool water of the lake outside, despite the numerous times they'd already been in there. Peeta must have felt the same way because his hand reached for hers at the exact moment hers sought out his, and they both gave each other a firm squeeze before making eye contact. Excitement danced in his blue irises as he spoke his next words.
Adjusting to life in the cabin was hard at first, namely because the adrenaline and fear of being discovered or tracked down kept them on edge the first few days. It was weird not waking up to the daily routine she'd had for years—hunting, trading, making condoms, bartering in the Hob—or interacting with the minimal friends she'd managed to make and keep. She knew it was harder for Peeta, acclimating to a life out in the wild; he was a social person by nature, and she worried he'd get sick of her soon enough if she was the only human interaction he had day in and day out; she could sense his anxiety after a while, so eventually she rounded up berries and other materials to make him color mixtures. He took up painting and drawing to keep himself occupied in his downtime, when he wasn't helping her finish up the cabin and building furniture.
Gradually, he relaxed, grew more at ease in their new surroundings, and she did as well. Every day the paranoia of Peacekeepers busting into their cabin at any moment, or a hovercraft descending on the lake, eased. She could direct her attention and energy to finishing out her pregnancy and keeping the three of them fed and healthy.
She was due in October or November sometime, the best her mother could figure. They'd made a plan to bring her out to the cabin the end of September just to be safe.
But she didn't anticipate the painful contractions that woke her up one night. She'd had some lesser, negligible contractions during her pregnancy, nothing to worry about, her mother assured her, but these were stronger. She laid in bed a while, breathing deeply and trying to suffer through them in silence; she wasn't ready, they weren't ready. She couldn't do this without her mother.
When the contractions hadn't stopped a couple hours, by dawn, she finally shook Peeta awake. "Peeta," she whispered fearfully; the sound of her voice stirred him immediately.
"What's wrong?" he asked groggily.
"I—I think I might be in labor. I don't know."
Alarm flashed across his face, visible even in the dark. "What? Are you sure?"
"I'm having contractions, and they hurt worse than any before. They haven't stopped." Katniss' mind raced. "You need to go get my mother."
His eyebrows shot up just as he sat up in bed. "What? Now? I can't—I can't just leave you out here in the woods while you're in labor—it'll take hours to get back!"
Katniss inhaled deeply through her nose as she felt another contraction hit, clenching her jaw tightly as she exhaled. Maybe it was her mother's natural healer instincts kicking in—but suddenly she felt calm, clear-headed. "It'll be okay. Labor takes hours, especially the first time. It could be days even. You have to get her though. I can't do this without her. Neither of us can."
Peeta looked conflicted, less than convinced. "But what if something happens? What if something goes wrong and you're alone?"
She looked him firmly in the eye. "Then you need to leave right now. And hurry."
Groaning in resigned frustration, Peeta leapt out of bed and hastily got dressed. Before he left the cabin, he grabbed her hand between his and squeezed it. "Please, just hold on till we get back? I can't miss this. I can't let anything happen to you."
She smiled at him. "I'll be here waiting," she joked weakly and pulled him in for a kiss, and then he was gone, practically sprinting out the door.
Without him there, she could feel the terror bubbling just beneath her calm exterior, but she focused her energy on breathing deeply, closing her eyes and gritting her teeth when the contractions would hit.
To her confusion, the contractions began to subside, growing lesser and farther apart, and after another couple hours they stopped entirely. She waited another hour after her last contraction before she finally accepted she wasn't actually in labor. She felt relieved but embarrassed that she'd sent Peeta off for nothing, and now her mother was going to have to trek through the woods for hours for nothing.
Now she had a new fear for their safety—her mother had never made the trip out to the cabin. What if something happened, or a peacekeeper caught them?
Katniss spent the rest of the morning pacing and cleaning the cabin, gorging on rolls and apples and leftover stew just to distract herself. The moment she heard the door open, she stood up out of the dining chair as fast as her rounded belly would let her—but it wasn't as quickly as Peeta, who was on her in an instant.
"Katniss! Are you okay? Your mother's here—is the baby coming? Do you need to start pushing?"
His questions were all one string of words, and he had such a frantic, manic look in his eyes, his cheeks flushed from the exertion and, likely, excitement, she couldn't help but laugh.
"No, I—it was a false alarm," she said sheepishly, her eyes darting to her mother as she rushed through the open door at that moment. "I'm sorry. I thought I was in labor. The contractions hurt worse than before, but they stopped. I'm sorry I made you come all the way out—"
"It's fine," her mother interrupted. She already looked less harried than she did a second ago, and she sighed in relief, setting her supplies down.. "I'm here now, so I'll just stay until the baby comes. You're this far along, so those contractions could mean the real thing is coming. It doesn't make sense to leave when you could go into labor at any moment now."
"Thanks, mom," Katniss said, smiling gratefully, and she turned back to Peeta, who had slumped down in a chair, bent over the table. She bit down on her lip. "I'm sorry I worried you."
Sighing, he lifted his head up to look at her and shook his head. "I'm just glad I didn't miss it."
Her mother's prediction turned out to be true. Within a few days, Katniss went into labor. The trickling liquid between her thighs from her ruptured amniotic sac accompanying the intense contractions made it apparent almost immediately that this wasn't another false alarm.
Her labor continued well into the night and early the next morning, Katniss writhing in pain as her mother continuously monitored for when she could start pushing. Peeta either lay beside her, squeezing her hand or stroking her sweaty forehead in encouragement and comfort, or raced around the cabin to get her and her mother whatever they needed.
Finally, her mother gave her the go-ahead to start pushing, and after what could have been a few minutes or a lifetime of grunts and cries and the most excruciating pain she'd ever felt, Mrs. Everdeen was cradling a squalling tiny pink baby in her arms. She looked at Katniss and Peeta, her eyes shining, and she gasped happily, "It's a girl."
Katniss was in a daze, barely registering the choked sob from Peeta beside her. The pain, and accompanying ecstasy that rushed in to fill the space once the immediate pain left, left her in a dreamlike state, and all she could do was stare at the tiny mass of limbs and black tufts of hair while her mother hastily cut the umbilical cord and cleaned her off. Peeta kissed her temple, and she blindly groped for his arm, too afraid to take her eyes off their daughter.
"Peeta," she croaked out weakly as her mother brought the baby back to them. "We—we have a daughter. She's here." Mrs. Everdeen gently placed her on Katniss' chest, instructing her how to hold the baby, and both Katniss and Peeta stared at her in awe. "She's beautiful."
Peeta laughed softly, the sound thick with tears, and he ever so tenderly palmed their daughter's head. "I guess we did pretty good."
"What should we name her?" Katniss asked quietly, staring into the deep blue eyes that peered up at her, somehow both wide with wonderment and squinted with disgruntlement. Katniss wanted to weep from joy and exhaustion.
Peeta gazed at their daughter, trailing his fingers very delicately over her features and down her arm to touch her wrinkly fingers. "What about Wren, like we talked about?" he suggested, referencing one of the names they'd volleyed around when they'd first started discussing names.
Katniss considered it, silently rolling the name around on her tongue. Then she smiled, her eyes beginning to water. "Welcome home, Wren," she whispered. "You're safe now."
Mrs. Everdeen stayed with them for a few weeks, helping Katniss and Peeta adjust to being parents and making sure there were no complications with her daughter or granddaughter. It took a while for Katniss to heal, but luckily they had stocked up on enough meat prior to her labor that they had enough to last them for a while, until she was cleared for hunting again. And they weren't in danger of running out of flour anytime soon, so Peeta was content to bake as much bread and treats as Katniss desired. And with Wren breastfeeding, Katniss desired a lot.
Once Mrs. Everdeen determined Katniss and baby Wren would be fine without her assistance, Peeta helped her get back to the Seam; she needed to get back before the first snow of the season, which would make traversing the woods more treacherous for two inexperienced trackers as themselves.
The first few months of Wren's life were hard, mainly on Katniss and Peeta. In addition to the sleepless nights and the demands of a fussy newborn, there was the lingering fear of being found and punished, of having their baby ripped away from them by the Capitol, that still permeated their existences. But every day it felt less and less likely that someone would find them, and when winter finally hit, shrouding them in mountains of snow and a sense of security, they could relax.
Katniss began hunting again in the winter, tracking down the few animals not in hibernation to keep them fed through the coming months. They were grateful for Wren's mostly good health so they didn't have to go back to Twelve for a while, until spring arrived, and one of them would covertly visit her mother to pick up any food or supplies she had procured for them. Peeta continued to bake and build whatever new furnishings they needed, especially with the baby. Taking care of a child alone in the woods was complicated and tenuous, but Katniss had learned how to do it with Prim, and with a lot less to work with, so she, Peeta and Wren made do.
Overall, it was a content life, filled with countless moments of happiness and dwindling days of fear and worry. Years passed, and Wren grew older. She was a healthy, happy child, with long raven locks and big blue eyes. She loved singing with her mother and fingerpainting with her father. When she was 4, Katniss began to teach her how to hunt, taking her out in the woods on her regular excursions to procure fresh game or harvest vegetables and fruits. She didn't take Wren anywhere near District 12, however, just to be safe. Anytime she or Peeta made the trip to Twelve for provisions, and Wren got pouty, demanding where they'd been, they'd just tell her they had to go somewhere that wasn't safe for little girls like her to go.
It was a late fall day when it happened. Katniss set out early in the morning to make the trek into Twelve, to pick up some routine medical supplies from her mother. She was lost in her thoughts about Wren and Peeta, who were back at the cabin, probably beginning the process of making an elaborate lunch for them to share once she returned, that she almost missed the telltale sign: a barely perceptible humming.
Yanking her hands back from the fence, Katniss froze as she stared at the fence. It was a sound she hadn't heard in years; the electricity had been turned on. Startled, she darted behind a nearby tree to hide, just in case any peacekeepers were nearby. She clamped her hands over her mouth to muffle her labored breathing. Were they looking for her? Did they suspect she and Peeta were out in the woods? Had they found them out?
She waited for the shaking to subside, trying to force her brain to think logically. It had been years; surely, they weren't looking for them now. It wasn't that unusual for them to turn the fence on, every once in a while; she remembered it happening a handful of times during her hunting days in District 12. She just didn't cross through the fence as much these days. It was possible that the fence came on periodically, that this wasn't the first time in a while.
Still, she wouldn't feel safe until she got back to the cabin, so she hastily jogged back home. Once she was back, she tried not to alarm Wren, pulling Peeta into another room when he looked at her with questioning eyes.
"They turned the electricity back onto the fence," she whispered. His eyes went wide before narrowing in confusion.
"What do you think that means?"
She shook her head. "I'm not really sure. It's probably nothing, but...I'll wait a few days before trying to go back into the district again, just to be safe. I'm sure it'll be off by that point."
It wasn't. And it was still on the week after that, and the week after that. Months passed, and they had to bear the hardships of winter with no access to ancillary supplies from the district. When Wren got sick, Katniss had to do her best to pull together the herbs she could remember from her mom to concoct some kind of remedy. Luckily, it worked, but there was a renewed undercurrent of fear now, about what would happen if the electricity never turned back off and they were in desperate need of supplies. Katniss worried about her mother and Prim, as well, wondering what could have provoked the need for around-the-clock security.
But, out in the cabin, they were helpless to do anything.
Katniss was watching Peeta swing their daughter around the living room, their laughter bringing a grin to her face, when she felt it, a slight rumbling. Peeta and Wren didn't notice at first, caught up in their spinning antics, but then they heard it as soon as Katniss did—a distant bang.
Peeta wrenched to a stop, cradling Wren close to him, and his eyes met Katniss'. "What was that?" he asked, voicing both their thoughts.
She shook her head, but before she could respond, they felt another rumbling that lightly shook the ground underneath them and the cabin around them. More bangs followed.
"Daddy? Why did we stop spinning?" Wren squeaked, oblivious to what had consumed her parents' attentions. Peeta quickly deposited her in Katniss' lap on the couch.
"Let me look outside," he said, and Katniss sat up in alarm, clutching Wren to her chest.
"Peeta!" she called after him, but he was at the door in an instance, flinging it open wide enough so he could peer outside. "Peeta, be careful!"
He craned his neck outside as he searched for the source of the sound, the house continuing to shake ever so slightly with every distant clap—it almost sounded like thunder, a faraway storm, but it would need to be closer to shake their house the way it was.
Finally, Peeta shut the door and stalked back inside. "I think it's coming from District 12," he said seriously, his face pinched with concern and confusion.
"What's District 12?" Wren demanded, wriggling in Katniss' arms.
"What do you think is happening?" Katniss asked, ignoring her daughter's protestations. Suddenly a thought struck her, a nearly forgotten memory pulling at the threads of her mind, and her eyes widened. She'd only felt something similar once in her life. "Could it be the mines? An explosion?" Suddenly, she was thinking about Gale and all the other Seam people she knew who slaved away down in those catacombs day in and day out.
"Maybe…" Peeta said uncertainly. "That's a lot of explosions for the mines, though."
"What's mines?" Wren asked. When her question went unanswered again, she raised her voice to a shrill pitch. "Daddy, what is mines?"
He winced. "They're places where people dig up coal—rocks, basically, for energy."
"Energy makes light, for example," he explained hastily as he circled around the couch to sit beside them, but then he elaborated. "It makes light by making a fire, like that," he said, pointing to the candles they used at night.
Katniss could see the questions brimming in Wren's face, so she intervened before Peeta could get dragged into a neverending explanation of how energy worked. "Peeta, I'm scared for them," she whispered, and he wrapped his arms around them, pinning Wren between them.
They sat there for a while for a while, listening to the explosions, feeling the shock waves reverberate through their bodies. Hoping the sounds wouldn't move closer.
The next morning, after very little sleep with Wren wedged between them in their bed, Katniss got up as soon as it was light enough outside. "I'm going to see what happened," she declared. The explosions had stopped hours ago.
Peeta squinted at her in confusion, groggily sitting up. "You're going to go to Twelve? Katniss, it's not safe—" he insisted, trying to keep his voice low even as the alarm grew in it.
"Peeta, I need to know my family is safe," she interrupted, leveling him with a somber look. "Yours, too."
He stared at her before shaking his head. "Then I'll come with you—"
"And leave Wren here alone? Or drag her out there with us?" Katniss asked in exasperation, and he clenched his jaw.
"You can't go by yourself."
"I'll take my bow. I'll be careful. I just need to know, Peeta," she stressed. She could see the conflict in his eyes. "If I sense anything wrong, I'll come back immediately. I swear."
He huffed. "Fine," he gritted out, falling back down to the bed. Katniss knew if it weren't for their daughter, he'd be adamant about following her out there. She crawled across the bed, dipping her head to kiss him. He softened, but his eyes were still troubled.
"I'll be careful. You know I can handle myself with a bow."
"If you're not back by the afternoon, I'm coming out there for you."
After kissing Wren's forehead, Katniss got dressed and then grabbed her bow, quickly setting out the door. She walked quickly in the direction of Twelve, and once she felt close enough, she found a tall tree to climb so she could scout the area. When she'd reached the highest possible branch, she settled against the trunk as close as possible and peered above the leaves. Her eyes immediately narrowed when she saw thick, black smoke billowing into the air.
Exactly where Twelve was.
"Shit," she cursed, her mind reeling. That was no mine explosion.
She was just about to scramble back down the tree when she saw movement in the distance. Her eyes honed in on the source, through the foliage. Her breath caught in her chest when she discerned the movement a moment later: people.
And lots of them.
Her heart began to hammer against her ribs, and she hugged the tree tighter, frozen as she tried to figure out what to do. Her first instinct was to hide, to stay in the tree until the threat disappeared, but then she thought of Peeta and Wren—she had to get back to them, to warn them.
With that moment of clarity, she pushed back to shimmy down the tree, but as she gave the crowd one last glance, she noticed something else; their appearances became much clearer. The people were dressed in dirty rags, their skin olive and hair dark. They were Seam people, she realized with a shock.
Wriggling off her branch, Katniss scaled down the tree. She hit the ground with a thud just as the front line of the wandering crowd broached her hiding spot. They jerked to a stop, causing the others behind them to collide with their backs. "What are you doing out here?" she barked, bringing her bow around to her front so they knew she was armed. "What are you looking for?"
The voice pulled her up short with a gasp, and she whirled toward the sound as a petite blonde-headed woman pushed her way past a few of the Seam folk.
"Mom?" she croaked.
"Katniss!" Another familiar voice called out to her, and suddenly Prim was darting toward her as well. The three of them embraced in a clumsy, forceful hug.
"What happened? What are you all doing out here?" Katniss cried, pulling back to look at them. Their faces were weary and streaked in ash. She looked behind them to see Prim's family coming up to them. As far as Katniss could tell, just from a cursory scan of the crowd, they were the only Merchants there.
"They bombed the whole district."
That voice. It wasn't either her mother or Prim who answered. Katniss turned her head in the direction of that familiar, gruff voice she hadn't heard in years. Gale. His family stood with him, a boy about Wren's age and an infant in Lorena's arms, as he stared at her from a few feet away, his face mirroring her mother's and Prim's.
"Bombed...?" she repeated dumbly, and he shook his head disbelievingly.
"I didn't know what to believe when your mom said you were out here. That she knew where to take us," he said slowly, almost to himself. "You've been out here all this time? Everyone thought you were dead."
Katniss hesitated in answering him. She didn't think she could confess she'd been living out in the woods with Peeta all this time. What kind of trouble would that invite, even from Seam people like her? She shook her head. "What do you mean they bombed the whole district? Who? Why?"
"Have you not...have you not been watching the Games?" Gale asked incredulously. "Have you not been watching the Capitol news the past year? And what happened during the Games last year with the boy from the Seam?"
"No," she answered weakly, struggling to follow him. "We don't—there's no TV out here. And the fence has been on for months now; I couldn't get back into town—"
"Not anymore," he interjected. "They turned it off. They turned all the power off yesterday. Just before the bombs came. We only had enough time to warn some people before they dropped. We couldn't get everybody out..." he trailed off, and she realized with horror what he was saying. These people right here were the only survivors from District Twelve. "We've been wandering in the woods ever since, trying to find whatever safekeeping your mother promised us."
Katniss looked back at her family with concern, as she thought about Peeta and Wren back at the cabin. She didn't want to expose them to any danger, but she knew she couldn't just leave these people to die out here in the woods. Chewing her lip, she nodded. "I can take you somewhere," she agreed, and she could feel palpable relief permeate through the crowd at her words. But she still needed to know. "Why did the Capitol destroy the district? What's happening?"
Gale's gray eyes flashed then, with something she couldn't pinpoint—anger? Excitement? His face set with determination as he said the next words, "It's a rebellion, Katniss. The revolution has begun."
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