Chapter 10: Peeta's POV
The counter is covered with food and we've clustered all the side tables we could find into the kitchen.
"They're going to be here soon!" Prim panics. "How do I look?"
"Here, let me fix that ribbon," Katniss says, tying the bow on her braid tighter.
"Why are you worried about that?" I demand.
"Peeta," my father warns. "You leave Vick Hawthorne alone tonight."
"If he leaves her alone," I grumble. Katniss smiles at me over the table. She's wearing her Mockingjay pin on her dress.
There's a knock at the door. Prim squeals. "Should I stand here or come down the stairs?" She runs for the stairs. "I'm going to make an entrance!" She makes a racket running up the wooden steps.
My dad rolls his eyes. He walks through the kitchen door to the storefront to welcome our guests. "Make an entrance," he mutters affectionately. "They probably heard her in the Seam...Oh." He opens the door.
"Um. Hi," a female voice says.
"Can I help you?"
I peer around the doorway. The mayor's daughter is standing on the doorstep.
"I was wondering...I heard...Fern...Mrs. Mellark is expecting. I was wondering if you'd be hiring soon?" she pleads. "If you have any work?"
I push into the kitchen. I can hear Katniss following close behind me.
"Um. Hi, Katniss," Madge whimpers. Her lip trembles. "I saw you in the market the other day. Your sister-in-law's having a baby, I heard. So...I was wondering." She bursts into tears. "I can't stay there!"
Dad shoos her inside and closes the door. Katniss hurries forward to collect her in her arms.
"I'm so sorry," Madge blubbers, wiping her eyes and trying to speak to my father. "I'm very professional. I've had cooking lessons and musical training and...and herbology lessons," she starts to cry again. Katniss holds her tighter. Her hand drifts to Madge's white blond hair and pulls her head to rest on Katniss' shoulder.
"Did he ever love my mother?" she whispers.
"Yes," Katniss insists gently. "Yes. They loved them both. But they're gone now. She's free now, Madge. Just like my dad."
Madge nods and swallows hard.
"Cob? Find another chair," Dad calls at the eyes peering through the kitchen doorway.
"Oh, I'm so sorry. It's Feast!" Madge realizes. She pulls away from Katniss, rubbing her damp cheeks. "I interrupted your dinner. I forgot." She looks up at me. "I...I just left. I walked out the back door and didn't turn around."
"It's okay. We made a lot of food," I tell her.
"I can't interrupt," she says.
"We haven't even started; our other guests aren't here yet," Dad says. "You're just in time."
Madge begins to protest again, but my father cuts her off. "Katniss, show her the washroom. If Prim isn't fixing her hair again."
"Don't laugh," Katniss warns Madge as she drags her to the stairs. "Prim has a bit of a crush on a boy who's coming over."
"Who?" Madge asks.
"You'll be able to tell," I groan.
She is desperately grateful as Katniss leads her to wash up.
"We're out of chairs, think I can get the sofa through the door?" Cob asks. I go to the kitchen and wheel my stool over to the overstuff table. I stand back.
Our table had an empty seat for so long. Now we can't contain the number coming. I forgot that you have to let people in.
The second knock comes. I hear Prim squeak from upstairs.
"I'll get it," I smirk. My father is pleased. I haven't faced the front door in a long time.
Posy Hawthorne immediately hands me a ribbon wreath. "It's for your head," the five-year-old tells me.
"It's for Primrose," Vick hisses at her.
Posy frowns at me. "But he's got the gold hair too!" she argues.
"Thank you, but I think your brother's right," I tell her. "It'll look better on Prim."
I show their family of five into the kitchen. We made two geese so there'd be extra food and Fern boiled all the potatoes she could find. She ate one already; she's snacking frequently. We catch her eating a hard-boiled egg as our guests enter.
"Oh! I'm so sorry," she flushes. "I'm a bit hungry."
Hazelle Hawthorne takes her in. "Three months? Nearly four?" she gauges.
Fern nods in amazement.
"Eat while you can," Hazelle cautions with a smile. "Two is harder than one." She nods her head back to her brood.
"Bah!" commands Peppermint from her high chair. Her plastic spoon sprays strained turnip onto the wall. Cob sighs.
"Mama, look how tall this man is!" Posy shouts as she watches Cob pick up and clean the spoon. She runs to stand on his foot to look up. "He goes to the sky!"
"For crying out loud," Rory moans in embarrassment. He slumps into a corner and assumes the mortified pose of every thirteen year old forced to be seen with their family.
Gale leans over to me and my father. "I'm sorry we're so loud. It's just with the boys and the baby..." Madge is at the foot of the stairs. She dabs her eyes with a handkerchief. Katniss pats her shoulder.
"Madge, do you know our friend Gale?" she prods.
Madge shakes her head and smiles weakly. "How do you do?"
Gale stretches out his long, lanky arm and takes her hand. "A pleasure."
My father watches them. He leans over. "Are we using the good china?" he murmurs in my ear.
Katniss and I lay in bed, stomachs straining with food, smiling in the dark.
Vick Hawthorne is a fool for Prim. He must have dropped his fork three times before his mother told him to get his eyes on his plate instead of Prim. He was so pink we thought he'd melt. Prim giggled and grinned and dropped her fork.
Peppermint pushed her bowl of strained carrots off the highchair in approval. It splattered on the tablecloth and curtains. Hazelle was pleased to start working for Cob and Fern the next day. She will have plenty of work.
Gale helped Madge wash up. She asked him about his work with the Auction Investigation team. He asked her about her music lessons. They listen to one another with rapt attention.
Katniss rolls over to me. I can see her eyes peering into mine through the darkness of our room under the stairs.
"Are you worried about Prim?" I whisper. "I'm keeping an eye on Vick."
"Peeta," she sighs. "Prim likes him. Leave her be."
I growl. "Fine."
A quiet settles. She still watches me.
"Are you all right?" I ask.
She takes a deep breath. "I'm late."
It takes a moment. It's like freezing. Being encased in ice; paralyzing me from the outside in.
"Yeah. I waited longer this time. I've missed two cycles."
I should have been more careful. This is my fault. I swallow hard.
"Do you want to work out a contract?" I whisper.
"When...she or he gets here. We can make new terms...if there are children." My lungs hurt.
"You don't want him?"
I can't say that. I won't lie to her. I say nothing.
I hate being the cause of it.
"Peeta, please. Say something."
"What if he's afraid of me?" It's my worst fear. I never meant to share it.
"If he sees…my scars. What if I scare him?" I can see him looking at me in my mind. Her eyes. Her mouth. My hair. Trembling in fear at the monster of his father.
She jerks upright. "You think you'd scare him?"
The sheet of ice holding me captive cracks.
"Peeta, you're beautiful," she insists. Her voice is firm. She's not whispering anymore. "You're the most beautiful thing I've ever known."
I grab her and kiss her. I have to stop her talking before I lose my resolve. But then she's kissing me back. And now I can only think about how much I want this. I want to have what my parents had. I want to have what Cob and Fern have.
Katniss kisses my cheeks. My eyelids. My hair.
"I want him to look like you. I want him to be as beautiful as you," she rasps.
"Katniss," I mumble, trying to remember this is what got us into trouble.
"I want him to have your smile," she continues. Her fingers are on my shirt. "I want him to have your courage."
She doesn't stop. She lays me down. She always wins these arguments. I think she always will.
I don't think I mind after all.
Madge Undersee is a wonderful help at the bakery while my father is completely distracted with Peppermint and Fern can no longer stand at the counter all day. Katniss' back has started to ache and she has to take breaks to sit on the wheeled stool now. She smirks when she sees me watching the little bubble under her shirt.
Madge arrives early and lets herself in with a spare key Dad gave her. She stays late, cleaning countertops and polishing the bread tins. We don't mention that we know she doesn't want to go home.
Her father stops by with Evelyn one afternoon while Katniss and I shovel snow from the steps. Katniss stares. Her mother looks wistfully at the bump under Katniss' apron.
"Peeta," Katniss murmurs. "Send Prim upstairs."
I obey her, finding Prim in the kitchen working on her math homework. She is confused until she glances out the window. She goes without question. I call softly to Madge in the storefront.
Katniss takes Madge out back and the four of them stand in the garden. Katniss holds Madge's hand. I watch from the window. I know I shouldn't.
Mr. Undersee wipes his eyes. Evelyn takes his arm. They talk for a long time. An understanding seems to pass. Their time together is over. Each of them has a new life to begin.
Madge moves in that night; to the room Prim vacated for Cob's larger room. I listen to Katniss soothe her in the room above ours. Her soft voice descends the water pipes.
"Madge?" Silence. "Things change. Time goes on. Even when you think it won't. Even if you don't think you can survive the sun coming up another day. You do. You go on."
"I don't know how to," Madge's voice slips through the wall.
"You get up tomorrow," Katniss says. "You make bread. You learn a new recipe. The sun goes down. It comes back up. Until one day you realize you've forgotten the hunger and hurt. And you realize you're with people that love you. And you love them back more fiercely than you ever thought possible. And life is new all over again."
I hear her footsteps leaving Madge's room. She floats above me for a moment before I hear the door opening and Katniss comes in.
I look at her.
She nods. She sighs.
Prim's gentle voice comes in overhead. "Madge, can I sleep in here with you? I'm cold in my room."
Katniss smiles. I do too.
My father is overjoyed to finally have his long-lost daughters home.
Well, for a while.
Vick Hawthorne keeps finding reasons to stop by. He's surprisingly inventive. Prim suspiciously offers to run errands to the Seam marketplace and the Hob all the time. My father lets her go about half of the time she asks. He's not ready to marry his youngest off just yet.
The most pleasant surprise was Gale Hawthorne stopping by to visit Madge Undersee. I see something familiar in the quiet lunches they spend in the garden. They don't speak much.
But sometimes you don't need to say anything at all.
Katniss and I find a house only two streets away from the bakery four months after my second niece is born and three months before our child is due. We had found one open across town nearly two months ago but Dad refused to let us move that far. My child is going to be as spoiled as Cob's daughters.
I sigh as I collect the soaps and brushes from the bathroom to drop in a box. This little storage closet has been home for nearly ten years. I helped Katniss wash her face in this sink the first afternoon she came home with me. She stayed on that mattress for hours. Looking at her now, two years later, sitting cross-legged on our bed with her ballooning stomach resting on her ankles, tying bundles of shoelaces together, I can't see the skeleton that came home.
She is familiar but new. She makes me feel familiar and new. I don't remember how we lived without one another before. I pull the lamp light off and haul the box of toiletries out into the room with my free arm.
She's tracing her finger over the marks in the wood.
"You carved me into your life from the start, didn't you?" she murmurs.
"You're welcome." I smile. I shoulder the last bag of shoes she's collected and she takes the basket of toiletries to carry. I look around the room. "We're really leaving."
"We're going two streets away," she reminds me dryly.
"Cob is coming by to help hook up the bathroom on the first floor tomorrow," I tell her as she pushes open the door. I laugh as she doesn't hide her horror. "Gale is going to help him." She looks relieved.
"Oh wait!" I turn around and root in the top most dresser drawer. I find the scratch awl.
I return to her side. "I'll need this to put both your birthdays on the wall."
She smiles and shakes her head.
"I hope he looks like you," she blushes. "You're so beautiful."
"I hope he looks like you," I tell her. "I've loved watching you for so long."
"Well." She smiles at me. "I can always hope."