A/N: This chapter comes to you later than I had hoped, and on the heels of a major laptop disaster. I won't bore you with the details, but basically my hard drive crashed. Completely unexpectedly and out of nowhere. I lost everything- all my photos and unfinished writing projects, including this story. It's completely my fault for not backing up my work, but there it is. There's a potential to recover some of it, but I'm still waiting on my computer guy for the news.
In the meantime, I rewrote this chapter as quickly as possible so I could update before I leave for my vacation later this week, and I wanted to throw a bone to my ever- patient readers. You have all been so wonderful and encouraging and I couldn't be more grateful for every one of you. All I ask is a little more patience while I rewrite the remainder of this story, because despite this setback, it will be finished.
Once again, thank you for your patience and please enjoy this chapter!
If one thing about Peeta has never failed to captivate me, it is his hands. The way they move to complete a given task, strong and calloused, yet always skilled and impossibly gentle. Whereas I need a bow and quiver of arrows slung over my shoulder, his hands are the only tools he needs. From their prowess in the bakery to creating beautiful works of art- not to mention, I think, a blush coloring my cheeks, his ability to touch my body and bring me to ecstasy with only his fingers- Peeta's hands are his best tools. It should not have surprised me, therefore, that those hands are no less skillful when it comes to changing diapers. I watch him in slight amusement as he folds the cloth in all the right ways, then deftly pins the sides of the diaper to secure it to the squirming baby.
"You picked that up fast," I muse.
Peeta grins and scoops the freshly changed baby from the floor. "I guess that's what happens when you're doing it twelve times a day."
"That's for sure," I yawn widely. But I can't deny that it bothers me slightly, the ease with which Peeta has slipped into parenthood. Anyone who met him before his hijacking could have predicted what an amazing father Peeta would be, myself included. He's probably wanted children since he was one himself. While I was in the woods every day, struggling to survive and vowing to never have a family of my own, it is not difficult to imagine little Peeta Mellark, product of an abusive home and the boy who wanted to share a bunk bed with his school yard crush, wishing only for his own family to love. But who would have thought Peeta would flourish in a situation like this? He's been hijacked and tortured, but he's fighting back against the venom and lies that once dominated his mind. And he's winning.
As for me, I feel as though I've been thrown in the deep end of a lake without any swimming lessons first, and told not to drown. I'm doing my best, but I'm barely treading water.
"Katniss?" His voice breaks through my thoughts, and I get the feeling he's called my name more than once.
"I asked you what you wanted to do next." During the limited amounts of time that Peeta has spent with Willow and me, this has been his constant refrain. His excitement in learning how to take care of our daughter has not waned in the slightest since he met her. Most mothers would be grateful to have such a caring and attentive father to their children, but it adds to my resentment more that anything. His sense of duty to Willow only heightens my own feelings of inadequacy. Yet another reason that I will never deserve Peeta.
Instead of answering his question, I blurt, "Why does it come so easily to you?"
He stares at me, confused. "Why does what come easily to me, Katniss?"
"Being a parent! Taking care of a baby you didn't ask for! I don't get how you're so calm all of the sudden when I'm hardly keeping it together. How are you doing it? It's not fair." I clap my hands over my mouth, horrified at what I just said. Who am I to talk about what's fair when the boy sitting in front of me was tortured and corrupted, largely for my benefit?
"Peeta, I'm so-"
"It's okay," he says, cutting off my apology.
"No, I really mean it. I shouldn't have said that." I cast my eyes down, unable to look at him.
"You're right though," he mutters. "It's not fair. Nothing in our lives has been fair since our reaping. But you know what? We keep rising above it. We've overcome every single thing they've thrown at us. And this little girl here-" he glances down at the baby in his arms - "She's my reason to keep on going. Every time I look at her, I see our future, and that's enough to stop the voices and the flashbacks. It's enough to keep me fighting."
I pick at a nonexistent speck of lint on the floor, absorbing his words. Of course he would know the exact right thing to say. "I told you I'd be a lousy mother," I grumble.
Peeta chuckles, shaking his head. "Katniss, you're an amazing mother. Look at all you've done so far. You put your life, even your own recovery, on hold to take care of Willow when I couldn't be there to help you. And now you've taught me everything I know." I look up at him and meet his infectious grin with a small one of my own. "I think you're just tired, is all," Peeta says, and I know that he's eyeing my stringy, unwashed hair and the purple bags that have taken up residence under my eyes. Evidence of the fact that I've barely had time to sleep, much less shower, in the past couple of days.
"Tell you what, why don't I stay here tonight?" Peeta's face is alight with the thought, but I'm hesitant to agree. He's still living with Haymitch for the time being, which is the reason I've still been on my own a lot with the baby. In his defense, Peeta seems more stable that ever before. He is certainly more stable than me at the moment, but what if… what if something went wrong and he did have a flashback? What if he thought I was a mutt and tried to hurt me again? What if he tried to hurt Willow? If I let that happen while I was asleep and unable to defend her, I could never live with myself.
Peeta, seeming to sense my inner conflict, says, "It's not like we'll be alone, you know. I'll sleep on the couch, and your mom and Prim will be back after dinner." I can tell that it takes some effort to keep the bitterness in his voice to a bare minimum, not that I can blame him. He is her father after all. In normal circumstances, he'd have every right to stay and take care of her. But nothing Peeta and I have done in our relationship has ever been considered "normal."
"I don't know…"
"Please?" He exaggerates the plea, lifting Willow's face to his cheek and pursing his lips together in a faux pouty expression. He tickles her side- something he has learned is a full proof way to bring a smile to her face- and this time she even gives a squeak of unmistakable laughter. Peeta knows all too well that it is a dirty attempt at manipulation, and it works. The sight of them together, matching blue eyes and rosy cheeks, melts any of my lingering resolve.
My intention after agreeing to allow Peeta to stay on the couch for the night is to take a shower, leaving him to deal with bedtime- which, more often than not involves rocking Willow to sleep and then very gently depositing her into her crib so as not to jostle her back awake- but the scratchy gray blankets of my bed on the way to the bathroom have never looked more inviting than they do now. Just for a minute, I tell myself, stretching out onto the thin mattress, my heavy eyelids falling closed almost immediately. Just for a quick rest…
When I'm shaken awake, I know instantly that I've slept for far too long. A blanket slips from my shoulders when I sit bolt upright in the bed, my heart pounding rapidly. A looming figure towers over me and ice- cold panic seizes my chest before I realize it's only Peeta. "I'm sorry," he whispers. "I didn't want to wake you, but I think she's hungry." He nods toward Willow tucked into the crook of his elbow.
"It's okay," I say, scooting up to a sitting position and reaching for the baby. Peeta settles her in my lap, where she immediately roots around hungrily for my breast, only to be impeded in her search. I'd fallen asleep so quickly that I hadn't even had time to undress. I'm still in my day clothes, shoes and all. I manage to unbutton my top one- handed, but unhooking my bra is impossible with my arms full of baby. "Could you…" I ask Peeta, motioning toward the bra.
"Oh! Right. Of course." It's dark in the room, but I can practically hear the blush in his voice, and I am positive that his cheeks must be flaming red. Mine certainly are. When his hand slips under the back of my shirt and deftly unhooks the bra, I try to ignore the tingles of heat that blossom where his fingers brush my bare skin.
Once the barrier is gone, Willow nuzzles into my chest and latches on right away. I lean my head back against the headboard and to my surprise, Peeta sinks down onto the mattress beside me and does the same. We're mere inches apart from each other; so close that I can feel the body heat radiating from him, something I've been missing in my bed for a very long time. Resisting the urge to snuggle up next to him, I ask, "Did Mom and Prim get back?"
Peeta yawns before responding. "Yeah, they came in a little while after you fell asleep. They were both just happy to see you finally getting some rest. It's about 2 AM now. I wanted to let you sleep as long as possible, but this is one area where I'm not really all that useful."
"You'll get your chance," I grin into the darkness. "When she starts on solids. Then she's all yours. I'm sure you'll be stuffing her with all kinds of pastries the first chance you get, anyway."
He chuckles and nudges my arm playfully. "I can stuff you with pastries, too, you know. Cheese buns, right?"
"Yeah." Though I don't mention it to Peeta, the fact that he remembers this minute detail about me is enough to lift my spirits more than just about anything else.
"Katniss, can I ask you something?" His voice is laced with trepidation now, and the tone of it stirs up a sudden swell of anxiety in my stomach.
"Okay," I say nervously.
"It's, well, its something I asked you once before, but you never really answered me." I remain silent, waiting with bated breath for his question. "We were talking a few weeks ago, about what we did on the beach in the arena, remember?" I nod my head, thinking hard. The conversation is vaguely familiar to me, though it is a struggle to remember exactly when it took place. Then it hits me. We were in the midst of that discussion when my mother interrupted and I was given news that changed my life forever. News that completely wiped everything else from my mind that day.
"Well, I have this… this vision of you in my head of you saying you regret making love to me, telling me that you only ever slept with me because you felt sorry for me," Peeta says, and though I can't see his face, the downtrodden tone of his voice is enough to break my heart, especially because nothing could be further fron the truth. "You swore to me that my vision wasn't real, that you really didn't regret it, but when I asked you why, you never answered."
Oh. Has my lack of an answer been torturing Peeta all this time? Is this what still has some part of him doubting me, preventing us from moving forward?
"It's because I love you, Peeta," I say boldly, throwing caution to the wind. "I'll never regret anything I did to prove that to you. I was never… intimate with you because I felt sorry for you. And when we were in that arena… we thought we were going to die. We loved each other. We wanted each other. And that was all that mattered at the time."
Peeta contemplates this for a long while before responding. "I must have loved you a lot," he whispers.
"You did." My voice cracks and I fall silent.
"I think I still might. Love you, I mean," he says quietly. I look into his blue eyes shining in the darkness, and I hope with every fiber of my being that what he says is real. Because I can't survive without him at this point. He reaches for my free hand and encloses it in his big, warm one. The gesture says more than words ever could. We remain like that until Willow finishes nursing.
"I've got it from here," Peeta murmurs when she is done, taking the baby from me and draping her over his shoulder. He pats her back with the heel of his hand, exactly like I showed him earlier. "Why don't you get some more rest?" My head hits the pillow before he even finishes the sentence, and he leaves the room with Willow, shutting the door behind him. Despite the fact that Peeta is no longer lying next to me, the sense of steady calm that exudes from his very presence stays with me, and my usual nightmares do not disturb my slumber tonight.
When next I wake, it is not to the hungry cries of a screaming Willow to which I have grown so accustomed, but to my own biological clock. Being this fully alert and rested is an unusual feeling for me, and the place feels eerily silent in the absence of her cries. Rising from my bed, I tiptoe to the doorway and peer out into the living room. Sure enough, Peeta is still there, fast asleep and stretched out on the couch, bare feet dangling over the edge. One hand behind his head acting as a pillow, and the other protectively holding the tiny figure resting on his abdomen. Willow. Curled up and smaller than ever when compared to Peeta's broad chest. Her whole body rises and falls in sync with the motions of his deep breathing. Both are completely oblivious to the world and the most at peace I've ever seen them. I stand in my doorway drinking in the scene for a long time before Peeta's eyes finally slide open.
"Morning," he says when he spots me watching, voice still thick with sleep.
"Should I be jealous?" I tease.
"That another girl is hogging my spot," I clarify.
Peeta responds with a sly grin. "If you want your spot back, come and get it."
Behind the teasing lies a very real challenge; one sends a pleasant shiver down my spine and triggers a long- dormant stab of hunger within me. There's something inherently… well, sexy about Peeta in daddy- mode; I can't deny it. Peeta's grin fades and he takes on a suddenly serious expression, his eyes hooded in the way I know so well. I'm very much mistaken if his mind isn't in the exact same place as mine right now. But the fact that Mom and Prim are still here and could potentially walk in at any minute stops me from acting on any sudden impulse. To cover the awkward moment, I offer to go and pick up breakfast before Willow wakes, to which Peeta readily agrees.
The cafeteria is already abuzz with the sounds of chatter and cutlery clinking on plates when I arrive, but isn't until I'm standing in line for my trays that I notice it. That stares. The pointing. The whispers. All of them aimed at me. A sickening feeling invades my stomach and suddenly I am not hungry anymore. This is it then. Word must have gotten around about Willow. The child of the star-crossed lovers that survived against all odds.
A miracle. A freak. A weapon.
Of course I knew there was no hiding such a thing forever and now that people clearly know, a whole new set of fears invades my mind. What if other doctors or scientists want to study her, the medical miracle that wasn't supposed to exist? And Plutarch and the rest will surely be clamoring to put her in propos like Peeta and me. No. I'll never let it happen. If there is one thing I can promise myself with utmost certainty, it is that my child will never be subjected to the same blinding spotlight of exploitation that Peeta and I have lived under for the past two years.
With the fresh worries heavy on my mind, I grab the breakfast trays as quickly as possible and rush from the cafeteria. The guard, already aware of my special circumstances, allows me to pass without argument.
Back in the compartment, I relay none of my newfound fears to Peeta, who scarfs down his breakfast while I merely pick at my lukewarm oatmeal. Still, he can sense that something is wrong now that my bright disposition from earlier has been replaced with the weighty silence that hangs in the air.
"I have an appointment with Dr. Aurelius this morning," he pipes up, and when I don't respond, he continues slowly, "He, uh, he asked me to tell you that his door is always open if you ever need to talk." The expression on my face must show that I don't think fondly of the fact that Peeta is suggesting I need therapy, because he goes immediately on the defensive. "It wouldn't be a bad thing, Katniss! He just thought, you know, that you might need a little assistance coping with… everything. I meant what I said yesterday, about you putting your own recovery on hold for me and Willow. That was so incredibly brave, but now that I can help, you need to put yourself first. I think Dr. Aurelius could really help you. Please just consider it," he begs.
"I'll… consider it," I say, thought I still don't care much for the idea. However, if Peeta is going out on a limb to suggest it, then he must strongly believe that it would be beneficial for me. And I will consider it, if only for him.
He leaves in a better mood for his own appointment after my vow to contemplate therapy, kissing Willow on the forehead and giving me a quick hug with the promise of returning with lunch afterward. Soon after he goes, Mom and Prim emerge from their rooms and leave for breakfast, and then the hospital and school, respectively.
Once again, I'm left alone with the baby. But it's not so scary anymore. "We'll be okay, won't we?" I say to Willow. She stares back up at me with her innocent blue eyes, mouth slightly ajar. I slip my finger into her fist so that she can hold tightly to it. "Yeah. You and me, we'll be just fine," I coo, bouncing her slightly in my arms.
Just then a knock at the door startles us both. My stomach sinks when I swing open the door to reveal the person behind it.
"Hey, Katniss." After a brief moment during which I'm frozen in shock, I step back and beckon him into the room, registering the perfectly pressed gray military uniform and closely- cropped haircut as he does so.
"Um, this is-" I stutter, gesturing to the baby in my arms.
"I know. I heard about that," he says. "Word gets around."
It's just as I suspected then. If Gale knows, I'm sure the entire district is talking about it as well. "I just wanted to stop by and tell you that I'm leaving for District Two. The base of all their operations is centered in a mountain and our soldiers are having trouble penetrating it. President Coin requested me personally." His chest puffs out proudly.
Whatever reaction he was expecting from me, it certainly wasn't the indifferent "Oh," that slips from my mouth. His face falls and he stares at the tops of his scuffed boots.
"I just thought you should know."
I nod. "Well, thank you for telling me. I hope… I mean… stay safe, okay?"
He gives a consenting grunt, followed by a silence loaded with everything left unsaid that settles between us. Of all the times I would welcome a crying fit from Willow, she chooses this moment to remain quiet, gurgling contentedly in the cradle of my elbow. "She looks like him, you know," Gale says abruptly. "The, uh, baby-"
"Willow," I interrupt.
"Yeah, well, she has his eyes."
I glance down warmly at my daughter. "She does," I agree, relaxing a little. It even occurs to me to ask Gale if he'd like to hold her, but before I can ask, he sucks all the air from the room with his next comment.
"So I guess that's the final nail in the coffin for us then, huh?" My mouth falls open and I gape at him in disbelief, but he is apparently oblivious to my reaction because he doesn't stop there. "You know, when you first got to 13, I thought I might still have a chance with you. Mel- I mean Peeta was gone and I thought… well, if he couldn't give you a baby, then maybe I could."
Recalling the long weeks of silence between us up until this point, it is hard for me to believe he still thought there might be something even resembling romance left in our relationship. When Peeta was gone I needed Gale to be there for me as a friend, not a replacement lover. He couldn't even do that.
"It… it was never about who could give me a baby, Gale. I never wanted children. You know that better than anyone." It pains me to say it with my daughter here in my arms, but it's the truth.
"You want his baby," Gale accuses.
"Yes," I whisper. "Very much."
"But not mine." It's not a question, but a confirmation. And I know that this is it. This is the breaking point. The crack in our friendship that surfaced after my first Hunger Games has been growing steadily wider ever since, and now it has grown so wide that it is impossible to bridge the distance any longer.
"I should go. The hovercraft for Two leaves in an hour and I haven't said goodbye to my family yet." Gale's steely eyes have nothing on the hardness in his voice.
"Please don't do this, Gale." He turns away from me anyway, ignoring my half- hearted plea and heading for the front door. "I miss you! I miss having you as my friend," I call after him.
He turns back slowly to face me. "The problem is, I don't think I'll ever want to be just friends with you, Katniss." We stare at each other for several long seconds, Gale's hand tensing around the doorknob.
My own whispered goodbye has hardly made it past my lips when he slips out the front door.
Once again, thank you for reading. I worked hard to ensure that this version of the chapter lived up to the original I had written, and I can only hope I succeeded. Also, I lied- there will be one more chapter following this, and then the epilogue. I need a little longer to wrap this up that I had anticipated. If you are so inclined, please leave a review with your thoughts on this chapter. Reading your comments is always the highlight of my week.
Till next time, xoxo.