When the Red X is on the Door

My little son smiles up at me from the dough boys and girls he plays with by the light of a fire. Light emanating from the same fireplace where, less than a decade ago, that little son's father and I privately toasted a loaf of bread to seal our union. A tradition from a district wiped nearly clean off the earth, but the district we called home nonetheless. Haymitch was there for the official marriage, of course. A witness (which required him to stay sober for a nearly unbearable morning) to the legality of the marriage since he and Greasy Sae were the only two people we would allow at the small, Justice Building ceremony, and as a member of the strange little family we had slowly become over the course of two Hunger Games, a war and a large helping of irreparable physical and psychological damage.

"Mama play. Be's a girl doll!"

Over the course of my wedding daydream, my baby boy has toddled over on his chubby legs to thrust a sourdough stick figure into my face. His 2-year-old idea of a completely acceptable and friendly invitation to join in his game of make believe, I'm sure. I stroke his shaggy blonde head and try to come up with a counter offer that won't end with me on my hands and knees, speaking in my best animated baked-good voice…whatever that sounds like…when my daughter suddenly flits into the room. Her long chocolate hair is whipping behind her in the single side-braid she insists upon having it tied in whenever she's feeling 'Mommy-ish'.

"Bow, why don't you take your brother to play on the porch for a little before Daddy has breakfast ready?" I ask between good morning kisses as she climbs up into my lap on the couch.

The brother in question looks up hopefully, already distracted from his dough couple, when my heart misses a beat as I turn my gray eyes toward the dazzling blues my little girl inherited from Peeta. The look I see in those eyes is one I have seen several times in the 5-and-a-half years since she was born.

"Daddy can't make breakfast today…. the red X is on the door." She says this simply but with the edge of suspicion I always hear in her voice when she sees the wooden letter dangling from the doorknob of the bedroom I share with Peeta. We've never told her what it really means, only that when it appears, Daddy isn't feeling well and shouldn't be around us until he's better.

I give her the brightest smile I can manage under the circumstances she's just described to me which as usual, doesn't fool her for a second.

"Oh. Okay, well you'll have to eat yucky mommy breakfast then, ewww!" I say playfully cradling her in my arms and tickling her sides.

She giggles happily, her questions about the mysterious red letter momentarily forgotten.

"My Momma!" My son, whom Peeta sulkily admits is more infatuated with me than even he himself is, hauls himself up onto the couch beside us and wriggles his way into my lap as well.

I can't help rolling my eyes when he wraps his arms tightly around my neck and presses one of his soft, pudgy baby cheeks to my shoulder. Next, he reaches out to play with his (and my) favorite piece of jewelry and I bring his little fingers to my lips, kissing them gently.

"Pearl." He says testing out one of his newest words and tugs gently on the chain holding Peeta's pearl in its place of honor around my neck.

"Gentle, baby. Daddy gave me that. It's sooooo special." I whisper and beep his nose which makes him giggle. Unfortunately, my mention of his father brings to the child's attention that someone is indeed missing from his family circle.

"Dada?" he asks lifting his head and looking around the living room. My smile is weaker than the one his sister received a few moments ago, but he's younger and already thinks everything I do and say is the most marvelous thing ever so he doesn't question my motives as his sister is beginning to. I couldn't bear to have him or Bow find out any earlier than necessary what horrors lay in their parents' pasts. She, in her first year of formal schooling, has already been introduced to the basics of what the Hunger Games were and knows that we were somehow involved in them. I dread the day when they begin asking questions neither I nor Peeta wants to answer.

"He doesn't feel good, Finn." Bow says quickly hopping off of my lap and dancing over to scoop up her brother's dolls.

"Come on, I'll be the sister and you be the brother." She takes him by the hand and after one more snuggle to tide him over until the next, he follows her as loyally as Peeta has ever followed me out the screen door at the front of the house.

Bow and Finnick.

The children I never thought I'd want, but whom I can't possibly imagine my life without now. It was never a question of whether I liked children. It was through numerous phone sessions with Dr. Aurelius and late night conversations with Peeta, that I was able to admit why, in the world we had lived in before the war, I didn't want children. The idea of loving anything as much as I would love my child, without being able to protect it from everything in the world that could hurt it, was more terrifying an idea to me than any horror I had faced so far in my young life.

When I finally agreed to them, I insisted on choosing their names myself. My firstborn I named for the tool with which I fed my family for years and used through two arenas in order to keep myself and her father alive. She wouldn't be in the world if not for my ability to use a bow and so it seemed fitting that the name of our first child should honor that. My son, I named for a dear friend and fellow tribute lost in the war. A friend who had helped to keep me sane during those dark months when Peeta was in the Capitol's possession. Annie Odair, the wife of that friend, had suggested the name not having been able to give it to her own son who was born the spitting image of his dead father. It seems that was hard enough a reminder of her husband without naming him after Finnick as well. She had offered it to me with her blessing, knowing that Peeta and I would honor his name by raising our son to be the kind of man worthy of it.

I blow them each a kiss as the door slams shut behind them and only then, do I allow my smile to falter when I look towards the stairway to the second floor.

This obviously isn't the first time that the red X has made an appearance on my bedroom door, leaving me a single parent for anywhere from a few hours to a day or two. And that's an improvement on years past when it could be up to a week before Peeta was able to work his way through broken memories that likely won't ever be completely repaired.

I know better than to try and go to him even though every instinct I have as a lover, wife and someone who knows first hand the darkness my Peeta is trapped in behind that door tells me to. After making that mistake a few times in those early years and having some of the worst names imaginable thrown my way through the door, I learned it's best just to let him find his way out when he's ready.

This doesn't stop me however, from creeping up the steps after checking on the children and pressing my cheek to the cool wood of our bedroom door. I glance down briefly at the little wooden red X hanging on the doorknob and sigh softly.

"Stay with me, Peeta." I whisper as quietly as I can.

I'm not surprised when I hear a strangled but determined, "Always." whispered back mere inches from my face through the heavy door.

I place my hand flat on it, feeling a little better as I imagine him doing the same on the other side. I slip back down the hall as quietly as I came, brushing away a single tear and putting my brave face back on.

I hear the distant, carefree laughter of my babies and let it draw me back into the light as I head back downstairs to get their breakfast ready.

Chapter 1

20 Years Earlier

"Stop looking at me like that, Peeta….it's no big deal."

"No big deal?! I could have killed you, Katniss! That's a pretty big deal!"

Peeta had been home in District 12 for a little over 3 months the first time he suggested the red X. I wasn't so sure I was opposed to the idea, but admitting to the need for it felt like just another win for the Capitol. Peeta's argument for the use of the red X was made even stronger by the bruises I was sporting on my wrists, caused by his hands gripping me during a particular bad hijacking episode.

Haymitch said I was lucky Peeta had enough presence of mind to grab my wrists instead of my throat. He too was arguing in favor of the red X of course.

"I just don't see the point." I said sitting back in my chair and folding my arms over my chest. Haymitch's exasperated sigh told me a lecture was coming and I rolled my eyes.

"Of course you see the point, don't be stupid!" he said slamming his hand down on the tabletop and causing both myself and Peeta to startle.

"You want to hurt him? Keep this nonsense up then because that's all you're doing, sweetheart. Don't you see what it does to him when he hurts you like this?" He asked waving his hands towards Peeta.

I couldn't argue with him. Peeta's eyes, which had been glued to my wrist since he came to check on me after the episode, were filled with a pain I couldn't bear to look at for more than a moment.

"It's for the best, Katniss." Peeta choked out in barely a whisper. "I don't know what I'd do if I hurt you any worse than this…" he said reaching across the table to tenderly stroke my bruised wrists. "Please…it's what I want. It helps me…if…if I don't see you when I'm like that…my episodes are shorter." His eyes pleaded with me to understand. I know it's out of his control, but it still hurt me to know that above all else, I was the cause of the nightmarish visions that plague my friend.

With both men staring me down, I finally agreed. "Fine. But that doesn't mean I'm going to stay away from you all of the time." I said looking steadily at Peeta so he knows I am telling the truth. I turned my eyes to Haymitch next, allowing myself a small smile.

"You may not be much, but the two of you are all I have left so you're stuck with me. Got it?" I said sternly, looking between the two of them. They shared a small smile between them and each nodded once in acceptance.

"Well, it's settled then." Haymitch sounded pleased that we'd worked past this particular stalemate. He leaned forward and slid a bright wooden red X across the table to Peeta who released his gentle hold on my wrists to pick it up. He turned it over in his hands a few times, before offering me a tight smile.

"So how about that swimming lesson you offered the other day?" He asked trying to lighten the mood and I allowed myself a wider smile and glanced out at the bright summer day through the kitchen window.

"Sure, I'll meet you in the meadow in five minutes. Wear something you don't mind getting wet." I said and hopped up from my chair and hurried upstairs to my room.