The letter comes on a Friday, and her face doesn't change as she reads it.
She folds the letter, says, "my mother died," and continues to skin the rabbit. He is startled, gaping at her while the children continue to race around his legs. Fred squeals loudly when Finnick picks him up, and Annie comes out from the house to collect the rabbit meat from Katniss.
"Katniss," he murmurs, and she stares attentively at her work.
"I promised the boys that I would let them each have a rabbit foot," she says.
Nellie tugs on his trousers, looking up eagerly at Peeta. They were playing blind man's buff, but the game degenerated into something else, and he chases after the girl for a moment, twirling her around when he catches her and making her giggle madly. But across the yard, Finnick, who hasn't yet taken off his blindfold, grabs Junior around the middle, roaring loudly in triumph, and the boys run to save him, tackling Finnick. Peeta sets Nellie on the ground to let her help slay her daddy.
He climbs onto the porch to read the letter for himself.
It's from Madge, who explains everything as kindly as possible, but it's as Katniss said. Her mother is dead.
She was taken with fever, and she passed on Sunday.
Peeta looks at Katniss. "Do you want to go to Virginia?" he asks. "We can collect your mother's possessions," he says, because that's practical, and Katniss appreciates the practial. "And I'm sure Madge would love to see you," he adds. "Rue can look after things at the bakery for a little while."
Annie pokes her head out from the house, frowning, clearly curious, and Peeta hands her the letter.
"Oh, Katniss," Annie says, looking up from the neat scrawl.
Katniss shakes her head. "I haven't spoken with my mother in years, Ann."
But Annie isn't about to listen to that, Peeta can see it. He needs to talk to Rue about the bakery, because they're going to Virginia. Annie will convince Katniss. He learned long ago that Anne is persuasive where Katniss is involved; he suspects her sweetness is too much for Katniss to refuse.
They've been in Texas for seven years, and those years've been good.
Rue came to Texas with them, and she married a man who towers over everyone, too tall to walk properly through doors, having to duck every time. He works as a carpenter, and Peeta likes him.
It wasn't easy to make their way to Pennsylvania after the war, and Peeta remembers how Katniss started to doubt that they were right to leave as quickly as they did. They should've waited for a letter from Rue, Katniss said. When they reached Philadelphia, no one wanted to talk to them.
But, well, Rue was waiting for them, keeping an eye out, and she found them.
Katniss was with child at that point, and she couldn't stop crying as she clutched Rue, who started crying, too, when the baby kicked wildly between them, and Peeta was laughing through his tears.
Rue survived, and she came to Texas, and she married Albert Jackson.
And Finnick survived, too, recovering enough to work. Annie helps him, of course, because "who do you think kept this farm running while somebody was off at war?" she says, hands on her hips.
Their daughter was born three weeks after Katniss gave birth to Junior.
Peeta and Katniss hadn't intended to stay in Texas, but the bakery in town was closed down and boarded off, abandoned, and Katniss was happy, settled, able to hunt for the first time in years. Peeta bought the land, and he hired Albert to help him rebuild the bakery, and they stayed in Texas.
Frederick Mellark was born in May the next year, and Rue was married to Albert in June.
Texas didn't suffer as badly from the war as Virginia, and their life fell into an easy routine as time went on. Peeta suffered from a dull, cramped pain in his leg, but a few years ago Albert gifted him with a simple stool to keep in the bakery, which helps him keep the weight off his leg as he works.
It's nice, too, living close to Finnick.
Dorian takes after his father; he has the very same bright red hair and bright green eyes that Finnick possesses. And Nellie takes after her mother; she is blessed with thick, curly brown hair and a round, pleasant face. The little girl is Annie in miniature, and she is as sweet as her mother is, too.
But Junior and Fred don't look anything like Peeta. They're dark like their mother, and they're identical to each other. Peeta loves how much they look like Katniss with dark hair and grey eyes, but he could tell how pleased Katniss was when Jesse was born with soft blonde hair on his head.
Jesse was born in February, and he died in September.
Katniss hasn't been the same since they buried him seven months ago.
Peeta hates that he couldn't stop her from having her battered, bruised heart broken yet again, and he hates that he can't do anything to help her pick up the pieces. He knows she loves their boys, and he knows she loves him, but that's small comfort on the days when she can't leave bed.
The morning that they're supposed to leave for Virginia, Katniss doesn't want to leave bed.
Their bags are packed, they've tickets for the train, and he wrote to Madge, telling her to expect them.
The boys are supposed to stay with Finnick and Annie.
But Junior crawls onto the bed, wrapping his arms tightly around Katniss, a six-year-old looking after his mother. Fred possesses boundless energy, talking and talking whenever anyone lets him, but Junior is quiet, thoughtful, watching people with large, curious eyes as he takes everything in.
It makes Peeta wonder how Katniss was as a child.
"Let's sing," Freddy says, hopping onto the bed. "Right, Dad?" He looks at Peeta, who nods.
It's something for them to do to try to comfort Katniss, and she manages to smile for them when they do, because she is heartsick, Peeta says, but everybody knows that singing cures a sick heart.
Peeta can't carry a tune to save his life, but the boys are beloved in the church choir, singing like sweet, earnest angels, and Katniss taught them every song that her father taught her. They pick their favorite, of course, to try to cheer her up, singing that here is the place where they love her.
Katniss smiles faintly as they finish. But she doesn't leave bed that day.
On Wednesday, though, they leave the boys with Annie, and Rue sees them off at the station.
She wrapped up a plate with ham biscuits, potatoes, and rhubarb pie for them, and she hugs Katniss tightly. Katniss returns the embrace, but she avoids looking straight at Rue, because she doesn't want to look at how large Rue is. This is her first child. Peeta knows that Katniss is happy for her, but —
Rue understands, though.
She kisses Peeta on the cheek, and they board the train.
It's four days to Virginia. They've barely stepped off the train before Peeta spots the boy hopping from foot to foot, waving excitedly at them. Peeta hasn't met the four-year-old yet, but Madge writes about him constantly.
Madge is beside him, her hand to her face to shade her eyes, and she waves, too, grinning.
She looks healthy, pale from winter, and she wraps Katniss in a hug the moment they reach her.
Her son steps forward eagerly. Rory is dark-haired like his father, but his face is plump and pleasant, and his bright blue eyes shine as he stares up at Peeta. "I'm Rory," he announces, "and I'm four, and I like baseball." He sticks out his hand.
Peeta takes his hand. "Hello, Rory. I'm Mr. Mellark, and I'm thirty-two, and I like baseball, too." Rory nods, turning to Katniss, and Madge grins at her son, ruffling his untidy hair.
The walk from the train station is pleasant, and Peeta feels as though they're pretending they haven't come to Virginia for unpleasant reasons. Katniss seems happy to see Madge for the first time in years, and she smiles again at Rory, but Peeta isn't surprised; Katniss adores every child she meets.
Her expression tightens when they reach her home, or what used to be.
Gale is waiting for them, cooking rabbit on the stove, and he grins at Katniss, brushing his thumb affectionately against her cheek. There is a shyness between them, the kind born when closeness fades to leave behind a shadowy echo. "I've missed you, Catnip," he says, and Katniss tries to smile, nodding. Gale doesn't seem to mind the reservation in her eyes, and he turns to greet Peeta.
Madge makes small talk as they eat, and Peeta helps her clean up the dishes while Katniss talks with Gale. "I can sell the house and the land for you," Gale says, "and I'll send you the money from it. Do you have a house in Texas?" Katniss nods, but she doesn't say anything, and Peeta explains that they live in the rooms over the bakery, and they bought a little land outside town.
They haven't built a house yet, though.
"The money from selling this place will help with that," Madge says, encouraging.
Peeta nods, asking after Posy to change the subject.
He wants to tell them that Katniss isn't unhappy, that she isn't quiet like this at home, or she wasn't before Jesse died. The sadness that overtook her when she lost Prim wasn't dispelled entirely after the war ended, yet she learned to live with it. But things changed when they lost Jesse, as though the scales inside her tipped at the loss, and the sadness won out. The ghosts in Virginia don't help.
But if anyone understands that, Peeta realizes, it's Gale and Madge.
Katniss fidgets in her seat, and he wants to take her hand, but he knows her moods, and she doesn't want to hold his hand. She can't stop looking around, and he hates to think what memories every corner and every crack bring to mind. Another hour, and Rory falls asleep. Gale carries him out the door while Madge murmurs something to Katniss about the funeral, squeezing her hands.
They leave, and the house is quiet.
"Mother didn't change anything," Katniss murmurs. "It's as though I never left and Prim never —"
He nods, waiting, hoping she'll want to talk. She doesn't, of course.
They go to bed, sleeping in the small room where her mother slept. It's the room where her mother died, but she isn't about to return to her bedroom, the bedroom where Prim slept, where Prim died.
The next morning, they bury her mother next to her father. Mrs. Hawthorne says something, but Katniss keeps quiet, reaching out to grasp Peeta's hand suddenly, startling him. But he intertwines their fingers, and Mrs. Everdeen is lowered into the ground. Afterward, Katniss brushes her hand over the headstone, and she kneels to press a kiss to the stone marked for Frederick Everdeen.
Prim was put to rest further into the cemetery, and Peeta follows Katniss to the spot.
She moves to sit without a word, and Peeta lets her have a moment to herself. He wanders off, and he finds dandelions in the meadow. Katniss loves them, and he collects some to put on the grave.
When he sits beside Katniss, she doesn't acknowledge him.
She touches his arm when he puts the flowers on the grave, though.
"Have you told Prim about the boys?" he asks. But she wouldn't have. Katniss isn't the sort to talk to headstones. "I think you'd like them, Prim," he murmurs. "Junior is like Katniss. Quiet. Quick. But he's a sweetheart. I guess he takes after you. Fred is louder than life, I'll tell you. His uncle Finnick bought him a drum for his birthday, and I don't think we slept for a month. Katniss tried to hide the drum from him, but he found it, and we had to pretend that fairies hid the toy from him."
Katniss leans her head against his shoulder.
"And I guess I don't have to tell you about Jesse, because you're looking after him for us."
He intends to go on, to talk about Finnick, about Nellie, about Albert Jackson, about everything he can think to say, because he doesn't know what else to do. But Katniss surprises him when she reaches forward, taking a dandelion from the bunch he brought, and tucks the weed behind his ear. She looks sadly at him for a moment before she shifts, her forehead resting on his cheek, and hides against him. After a few minutes, he quietly resumes telling Prim about their life.
They leave when his stomach rumbles, Katniss smiling slightly at the sound.
Madge started to cook a feast at their house after the funeral, and Katniss goes to help her while Peeta talks with Vick, who confides his plans to go west with a few friends from school. "Ma is sore about the idea, but there isn't nothing for me in Virginia, and there's a whole world out there."
Rory steals his attention, though.
"Mr. Mellark, there's a flower on your ear!"
Peeta feigns shock. "Where?" He pats his left ear. "I can't find it!"
"No, Mr. Mellark, your other ear," Rory says.
Peeta touches his right ear, easily avoiding the flower tucked behind it. "Wait, which ear?" he asks. He brushes his hand over his nose, pretending to search for the flower, and Rory shakes his head.
"That's your nose!" he exclaims.
"And it's not in my nose? Wait, is it in my hair?" Peeta asks, patting his head.
"No, it's behind your ear, Mr. Mellark!"
Peeta touches his left ear. "I can't find it!"
"No," Rory giggles, "your other ear!"
Rory is a sweetheart, and he wears himself out again that night, running around, talking at everyone who sits still for more than a minute, until at last he falls asleep under the table where his mother sits. Gale fishes him out, lugging the boy over his shoulder like a flour sack, and Madge follows behind them, making Peeta promise a fourth time to come over for breakfast the next day.
"Madge says they're going to Winchester on Thursday," Katniss tells him.
Peeta glances over at her in surprise. "To visit Mr. and Mrs. Abernathy?"
"She said they visit every few years. She asked whether we might like to accompany them." She shakes her head. "I told her that I couldn't stay away from home that long. I've been missing the boys, and we haven't yet been without them for more than a week." She starts up the stairs for bed. "I cannot help thinking every other moment what they're doing. I've never been away from them."
She turns, and he starts to unfasten her dress for her.
"I can tell you what they're doing," he tells her. "They're rattling Annie until she goes positively bonkers. Another week, and she'll be forced to turn them out before they can drag any more mud into her house, break another china plate, or eat any more apple pie filling when she isn't looking."
Katniss smiles, shrugging her dress off her shoulders.
There's a lightness in her smile, and she curls against him when they crawl into bed.
She said she didn't want to go to Winchester, but he thinks it'll do her good. This may be exactly what she needs, a little time away from home, a little change to remind her what matters, to help her find herself. "I think I would like to visit Winchester," he murmurs into the dark, expecting her to ignore the comment. But she shifts, her elbow jutting into his chest for a moment. "It would be nice to see Mrs. Abernathy," he says. "Who knows when we'll be in Virginia again? It could be years."
"What about the boys?" Katniss asks.
"Well, I don't think Annie will really turn them out," Peeta says. "And I miss them, too, but I don't see when we'll have the chance to visit Winchester again. It's another fortnight, and we'll be home."
She takes a moment to respond. "I didn't think I should ever want to visit Winchester again."
"We did promise Mrs. Abernathy that we would," he adds, "yet seven years have passed."
Talking Katniss into something isn't an easy task, but Peeta is studied in the art.
"I'll think about it," Katniss murmurs, which means yes, because when Katniss doesn't want to do something, she doesn't suffer any qualms in saying it. He kisses her forehead, satisfied with his victory, and he smiles to himself over breakfast the next morning when Katniss tells Madge that they thought they might go to Winchester with them. "I promised we'd visit your aunt years ago."
Madge is delighted.
It doesn't take more than two days to pack up the house. They aren't keeping much. There's a few old family photographs in silver frames that desperately needed to be polished, a few old family quilts that are threaded with coal dust and eaten away by moths, a few old silver candlestick holders that Katniss holds with a small smile that betrays pride. That's it, and it's easy to pack up.
They run into Delly at church, and she laughs and cries and tells them how very upset she is that they didn't tell her that they were in town, but she wants them to meet her husband, "Thom, but, oh, you've met Thom, haven't you? That's right! But you've flustered me. How many years since you've seen him? It must've been before the war! Thom, Thom, come over, say hello!" Peeta loves how happy she is, and Thom shows off his newborn baby boy with a large, toothy grin.
When Delly tries to hand the baby boy over to Katniss, though, Katniss backs away.
"Oh, no, I'm not any good with children," she says, a blatant lie, and Peeta takes the baby himself, distracting Delly. They make excuses to leave a few minutes later, but they have an honest reason to say goodbye; they made plans to visit the headstone that Peeta put up for his family seven years ago. Their bodies weren't found, but he wanted to have something by which the world could remember them. Peeta never found out what happened to Rye. He must've died on the battlefield.
Sometimes, he thinks about how things might've happened differently.
He wonders whether there might've been some way he could've saved them.
But there isn't any point in dwelling on what happened in the past, especially not when the present suffers for it. They leave the cemetery, and he doesn't know when they'll return, but Katniss holds his hand, and she doesn't say anything as he wipes away a few tears. She sings, though, under her breath, because, on her worst days, she can't look after herself, but she never fails to look after him.
They leave for Winchester on Monday, taking the train.
"I can't believe you walked this distance," Madge says, staring out at the blurring scenery. "I haven't had time to write Aunt Maysilee that you're coming with us. It'll be a splendid surprise!"
Peeta isn't sure having Maysilee scream makes for a splendid surprise, but Mrs. Abernathy starts laughing and crying a moment later, grasping Katniss tightly in an embrace.
"Oh, Lord Almighty, I've missed you, sweet girl!" she exclaims.
Mrs. Abernathy looks a little older, her blonde curls greying around her temples, but she is as cheerful as she always ways, and the Capitol is as grand as Peeta remembers. It's different than seven years ago, of course, because soldiers aren't stationed at every door, because a rowdy rumbling isn't leaking down from the upper landings, because guns aren't booming in the distance.
But, looking around the Capitol, Peeta feels as though he was tossed through time. Seeing the marble floors and the lovely foreign rugs and the glass chandelier, he feels like he's returned to Winchester, to the Capitol, to the war. as Mrs. Abernathy chatters pleasantly about renovations on the hotel, Katniss grips his arm tightly; he can feel her fingers digging into him through his coat.
A moment later, though, Katniss grins when Mrs. Abernathy yanks on Gale, pulling him down to her height to kiss his cheek, and she gathers him into her arms, exclaiming, "you darling, darling boy!"
Mr. Abernathy appears in time for the lunch that Mrs. Abernathy planned.
His hair is a bright, snowy white, and his belly strains the buttons on his shirt. He glares at the grin that Peeta gives him. "Mr. Abernathy," Katniss says, "always a pleasure. I've missed your smile."
"Mrs. Mellark," he greets. "How many years are you going to stay this time?" And he hunches his shoulder up a moment before Mrs. Abernathy swats his arm, telling him to be polite to their guests.
An extravagant affair, lunch lasts well into the afternoon, and Mrs. Abernathy peppers them with questions about their lives. "My dear Mrs. Mellark," she says, "Madge wrote a few years ago that you had a son, but you haven't said a word about the little one! Has God blessed you with others?"
"Junior," Katniss says. "Madge must've written you about our oldest — older, our older son. His brother is Frederick." She smiles shortly, focusing on her pudding plate. Peeta starts to tell a story about the boys before Mrs. Abernathy can ask anymore questions, and lunch ends soon afterward.
Katniss pulls Peeta out the door for a walk, leaving Rory to entertain Mrs. Abernathy, who hasn't stopped fawning over the boy since the moment she spied him. Madge mentioned on the train that Mrs. Abernathy adores children, but she wasn't able to have her own, suffering four miscarriages.
Peeta wasn't able to gauge what Katniss thought about that.
"It's strange to talk to Mr. and Mrs. Abernathy after these many years," Katniss murmurs.
He nods. "I don't know why we haven't kept up with them," he says, but he knows why she hasn't. The war wasn't something on which Katniss wanted to dwell, and the easiest way to forget the thing was to forget everyone related to it. "But," he says, frowning, "you write to Mrs. Ableman."
It's never something he questioned, but —
Katniss shrugs. "When I came to the Capitol, I wouldn't have thought that I would write to Mrs. Ableman in the years after the war yet neglect Mrs. Abernathy. But I suppose a good alley isn't something to toss aside. Or that's what Clove says." She smiles for the briefest moment, only to add quietly, "her daughter was born in January." She clears her throat a little. "She's their second."
Peeta stares. Katniss hadn't told him, and she usually reads bits from the letters Clove sends.
Cato Ableman is a bad egg through and through, but Peeta suspects that Katniss found a genuine friend in his wife, and Clove doesn't seem the sort to take friendship any more lightly than Katniss.
"Did you tell Mrs. Ableman about Jesse?" he asks.
Katniss shakes her head. "No." It's quiet.
Peeta picks a pink bloom from the dogwoods that lean into the street, and they buy a pastry at the bakery. Katniss tells him that the treat don't taste very good, holding the flaky bun up for him to take a bite. It's the butter, he explains; they didn't use enough. Katniss nods, looking faintly amused as she wipes the frosting off his lip. Any amusement leaves her within minutes, though. "It's as though war never came to Winchester." She stares at the house where Thresh stayed with Boggs.
"They've had years to recover," he says, and she nods.
But as they turn around to return to the Capitol, she speaks suddenly. "They haven't really," she murmurs. He starts to frown, and she carries on, bitter. "The war hasn't truly left anyone, but people see fit to pretend otherwise." She fiddles with the pink flower, and he doesn't say anything.
He can't stop thinking about her words, though, until he realizes he needs to say something.
They're in their room for the night, a large, lavish room on the second landing, and she starts to wash her face. It's the right moment, a moment when she can take in his words without having to look at him, and that's what she likes. She straightens, drying her face. "No one is about to forget the war," he starts. "But that doesn't mean that good hasn't happened since the war ended."
She doesn't turn around at first, and he waits, sitting on the bed.
"I know that," she says, facing him.
He smiles sadly at her. "Do you, Kitty?"
She snorts. "Don't." But she leaves her dressing gown on the chair, crawling into bed. "I hate that name, and you know it," she says. "You're only using it to try to pull a smile from me. Don't think I don't know your little tricks, Peeta Mellark." She raises her eyebrows at him, daring an argument.
He lies back, rolling onto his side and propping himself on his elbow to look at her. "A soul doesn't exist in these great States that didn't lose someone in the war," he says softly, "but that doesn't mean that good things haven't happened us, Katniss, or that God hasn't blessed us."
It's quiet for the longest time, and when she speaks at last she speaks at a whisper.
"I don't want to be like my mother," she says, her voice thick. "I don't want to be too sad to look after my children, or — but it isn't — it isn't as easy as you say to remember the blessings, Peeta."
He reaches forward, stroking her cheek. "Do you remember when Nellie kissed Junior?"
She nods. "She announced that they would be married," she says, "and he would be Mr. Odair."
"He tried to argue with her," he adds, "saying that she'd be Mrs. Mellark, but she wouldn't listen."
Katniss smiles a little, but he can see the thoughts that creep into her mind. She shifts, tucking her hands under her cheek. "I love our sons, Peeta," she says, as though he tried to claim she didn't.
Undeterred, he carries on. "Do you remember after we helped Finnick paint the fence around his barn, and Fred asked everybody who saw the posts which he liked best, hoping everyone would pick the two that he painted? And, when a friendly fellow did, he would peacock about, preening?"
"He was very proud," she says, smiling softly. It's quiet, and another story is waiting on his tongue, but he wants her to say something, to — "Do you remember when Rue came running into the bakery to tell us that Mr. Jackson wanted to marry her?" she asks, and Peeta nods. "She was breathless, and I was sure that something positively dreadful must've happened, but she smiled."
Peeta nods. "Rue survived the war, and a good man came to love her."
"I suppose those are blessings," Katniss admits, shaking her head a little at him.
His hand finds hers. "I know you've lost faith in blessings, Katniss, in people, in happiness, but blessings exist, and people are good, and happiness is to be found, I promise you, Katniss, I —"
"There's you," she says. "I've never lost faith in you."
He grins at her. "Are you saying that I'm a blessing, Katniss Mellark?"
"It seems that I am," she replies, sighing, and he laughs, leaning forward to kiss her cheek.
He means to draw away, but her hand grazes over his cheek, and he hesitates, his mouth close to hers, close enough for her easily to press forward, to kiss him, and they haven't kissed, truly kissed, in months. He waits, and her breath is warm against his bottom lip, and she kisses him.
Her fingers curl over his ear, and she sighs into his mouth, ending the kiss too quickly, but she touches her forehead to his. "I can't feel the good for the bad, Peeta. I've tried, I swear that I have."
"I'll help you," he whispers. Her head falls to her pillow, but he shifts, lying against her. "There's the boys, our beautiful boys, Katniss, and there's Rue, and there's Finnick, living his life and breathing his Texas air and loving his Annie. And there's Annie, our sweet, sweet Annie Odair."
"There's Dorian, reading a different book every day," she says, "and there's Nellie, happily bossing around Junior." Peeta chuckles, nodding. Katniss bites her lip. "I adore that little girl," she adds, her voice softening with the words. "Peeta," she starts, "I —" But she looks away from him. "There's Mrs. Abernathy pinching Gale on the cheek. He looked like a grumpy little boy earlier."
Peeta smiles. "There's Mr. Abernathy, old and fat, pretending he doesn't like anything."
"Oh, I don't think he finds any reason to hide his great love for whiskey," she replies, grinning.
"There's Madge," he says, "and there's a four-year-old named Rory who likes baseball."
Katniss reaches up, running her hand through his hair. "What about baseball?" she asks. "Is that a blessing?" She is teasing him, poking fun at the game that she continues to find dreadfully boring.
"Certainly," Peeta tells her. "What about cheese buns?" he asks, raising his eyebrows at her.
She pretends to consider, shrugging. "We can pretend your cheese buns are a blessing," she says, making him shake his head at her, but her expression changes. "Baseball and cheese buns and —"
"And people who love us," he supplies. "A bakery that's ours, and land to give our children."
She nods, and her gaze is intent on his, her fingers brushing his hair.
He kisses her.
Katniss doesn't have patience for slow, chaste kisses, or for kissing at all when she knows what she wants. Her hands scrape against his skull, her mouth opening under his. He feels heady with the kiss, with her body warm against him and pliant under his touch. She raises her legs, bracketing his hips as she turns them. She rests on her knees, then, hovering above him, her hair tickling his cheek, the kiss unbroken. He pushes her shift up with his hands as her hands work to discard his pants, and the kiss ends at last when she raises her arms to let him take off her shift.
They haven't turned off the gas lamp, and the room glows warmly with yellow light.
She settles atop him; he takes a sharp breath. "Katniss," his says, because he knows why they've gone months without this, knows how frightened she is that loving him will bring a child, a child that she will hold in her arms and sing to sleep at night and love terribly, completely, dearly, only to lose without rhyme, without reason. He rests his hands on her hips, whispering her name again.
"There's you," she says, answering his unasked question, her eyes bright. "Peeta, there's you."
He nods furiously, and she kisses him.
A moment later, she rises up, and he starts to come with her, blindly following, but her hands settle on his shoulders, and he kisses her breasts, gripping her hips tightly, his teeth skating against her nipples when she starts to rock against him. And when she shifts, her nails digging sharply into his shoulders, he lies back against the pillows, looking up at his wife, and she sinks slowly onto him.
Together, they breathe out, stilling. And, suddenly, she laughs in a short, silly bark.
"What?" he asks, grasping her ass to shift her, and she takes the lead, starting to move.
"Remember the blessings, you said," she murmurs, her hands slipping from his shoulders to the pillow as she flattens herself a little, "well, I couldn't stop myself from thinking that there's this —"
He laughs, but the sound is lost in his throat when she starts to circle her hips as she moves. He nods, brushing his hands up to press on her back, to bring her down to meet his mouth. "Yes, Katniss," he says, kissing her wetly before she takes a sharp breath. "Yes, Katniss, there's this."
And there's you, he thinks. Always, there's you, war or not, happy or not, there's you.
She is sleeping soundly beside him when he wakes the next morning, and he slips from bed to gather a little scrap paper from his coat. He packed his pencils, too, and he fishes them out as quietly as he can. He isn't sure that this is a good idea, but he works in the dim dawn light from the window until he sees Katniss starting to turn in the bed, and he finishes minutes before she sits up.
"What're you drawing?" she asks, rubbing her eyes.
He glances at her sleepy face, her hair tangled on the left, flattened on the right, a softness around her mouth, as though she is ready to smile, and he moves to sit on the bed, handing over the paper.
"It's to help you remember," he tells her.
He drew their family. Peeta and Katniss stand in the middle, and Rue is to her left, standing with Albert, a newborn in her arms. Gale and Madge stand on the far left with Rory, and Mr. Abernathy is behind them, looking bored as Mrs. Abernathy beams, waving. Finnick winks from where he stands to the right, his arm thrown around Annie, whose hands rest on her children. And he drew his brothers, too, with Lorie smiling faintly beside them. Junior is looking at Nellie, and Fred is trying to escape, but Katniss keeps an arm on him. The hardest people to draw, of course, are at the front. There's Prim, smiling as sweetly as always, and she holds her nephew, a little blonde bundle.
"All the good things," he says. He is about to point out the baseball that he couldn't help drawing by their feet, or the bakery outlined roughly in the background, but he doesn't, instead watching her as her eyes trace over every face, lingering, he knows, on Prim, on Jesse. "What do you think?"
She looks at him. "I like it," she whispers. "And I love you."
He cards his fingers through her unruly hair, but her gaze returns to the picture. And she smiles.
It's not as though the bad days are forgotten; mornings remain when Katniss can't leave bed.
The boys climb into bed with her, and they sing sweetly, and Peeta knows she won't become her mother, because life carries on, and Katniss is strong enough for it. She isn't afraid to live her life.
On some nights, when they need to remember together, they tell stories to each other, repeating kindnesses that they saw in town, or laughing about something the boys did, or reminding themselves that Rue survived, that Gale survived, that they survived, and their lives are a blessing.
Katniss takes the boys out hunting for the first time when they return to Texas.
They love the adventure, telling everyone who will sit still long enough about the rabbit that they helped Katniss catch. Fred isn't as interested in learning to hunt as he is running amok in the woods, but Junior learns how to shoot a squirrel from a tree and how to trap a rabbit in a snare, and Peeta doesn't know who is prouder when he manages to catch a skinny brown hare, Junior or his mother, beaming as she skins the animal and Junior describes every single detail to Peeta.
She can't continue to take the boys out when her belly swells, though.
Pennycress Mellark is born three days before Christmas with fuzzy yellow hair on her head.
The boys clamor up on to the bed to look at her. "Hello, baby," Junior says. "I'm Junior."
He reaches out a single finger, poking her cheek lightly, rearing back when her hand flails.
"I'm Fred," Fred says, looming over Penny. A moment later, Fred sits back on his heels, turning to Peeta. "Babies are boring," he announces, and Peeta allows him to return to his marbles game outside with Dorian. But as Fred races from the room, Annie arrives with an eager Nellie.
Nellie hops up onto the bed. "She's pretty," she announces, and she copies Katniss, stroking Penny on the head. "Can I hold her, Aunt Katniss?" she asks, hopeful. "I've been practicing with Angela."
"Pennycress isn't a dolly, Nel," Annie says softly.
But Katniss reaches out an arm, allowing Nellie to settle against her, and she helps Nellie hold Pennycress. Nellie tries to rock her. "Hush, baby," Nellie says, and Pennycress blinks up at her.
"She is beautiful," Annie says, glancing at Peeta, and she must see the elation on his face, but she chuckles softly, sitting on the bed. "Pennycress is a lovely name. A lovely name for a lovely girl."
Katniss smiles to herself at the words. They named her after Prim, or after the poems that Katniss will show Penny, the poems that her aunt Prim wrote a long time ago about the pretty white weeds.
"Her middle name is Ann," Peeta says. "Pennycress Ann Mellark." Katniss nods.
Annie touches her hand to her mouth. "Oh!" She sighs, cheeks flushed. "Thank you."
"Me and Junior are gonna have a baby when we get married," Nellie announces.
"Junior and I are going to have a baby," Annie corrects.
Nellie nods. "And we're going to name him Jesse," she says, leaning back against Katniss as she continues to try to rock Penny in her arms, "because you gotta remember the people that you love."
Annie looks at Peeta, an apology in her eyes at the words, and Peeta looks at Katniss.
But Katniss is smiling softly at Nellie, amusement in her eyes. "I'm sure you'll be a very good mother, Nellie," she says, and Nellie nods, pleased, leaning down to kiss Pennycress on the head.
Rue comes over to help make dinner, moving about easily with her son on her hip, and Finnick arrives from town with gifts for Katniss: a little honey from Mr. Granberry, who raises bees outside town, soft cream clothe from Mrs. Anderson at the general store, a raisin pie from Miss Abby, who teaches at the school, and a pretty clothe doll that Finnick bought from Mrs. Baxter.
The kitchen is crowded that night as they eat, and the same crowd gathers on Christmas Eve.
They spent the day stringing up molasses pine cones for the birds, and Peeta bakes cinnamon buns for everyone to eat, warming the kitchen as the children manage to smear cinnamon on everything.
But before they go to bed, Fred climbs onto Katniss, claiming her lap, while Junior snuggles against her side, Nellie sitting on Annie beside him. Finnick sprawls across the ground with Dorian, and Rue shares the settee with Albert, who hums under his breathe to his chubby boy.
Peeta sits on the ground, too, holding Pennycress. She is a fussy little girl, but Junior was fussy, too, and she quiets when everyone else is quiet, staring up at Peeta with large eyes. She isn't three days old, but he adores every breath she takes, and he can't take her eyes off her as Katniss starts.
"'Twas the night before Christmas," she says.
Peeta looks up to see Junior mouthing the words.
The children have fallen asleep when the church bells start to chime at midnight, and Peeta rises to his knees, holding Pennycress between them as he kisses Katniss. She smiles against his cheek. "Merry Christmas, darling," she says, and he knows the war won't be forgotten, that the sadness won't fade away entirely, but Christmas is come and Pennycress is healthy and Peeta is blessed.
"Merry Christmas, Katniss."