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The quarters they’ve been assigned just fit a family of four. Lights run the eaves of the low ceiling, emitting a dim subterranean burn. Peeta's daughter sits on the floor by the heater, a cup of their ration water in her hands, the sleeves of her gray jumpsuit folded up to her elbows.

“Where’s Ash?”

Her eyes dart fleetingly to a spot a good three inches away from his face. “Mess hall,” she says.

“With your mother?”

“I guess.” She sets the cup down between her feet, digging her nails into the taut fabric on her knees.

“Have you eaten?” he asks, crossing to his bunk and loosening the straps of his shoes.

“Not yet. I’m not hungry.”

“You should eat.”

“Okay.” She shifts her weight on the floor, rubbing her hands together in the warmth from the heater.

“Thank you.”

“Papa, can I ask you something?”


“How … how much did you and Mama have to hide from us?”

His beautiful baby girl has grown up thinking the man whose image the rebels tear down and burn is her grandpa.

“Too much.”

He can see that she hadn’t really wanted him to say it, but she deserves to know. He sits up, takes a breath.

They’ve hardly spoken a word since the children arrived here, since the first rush of clinging and crying. How long has it been since he and his daughter could have a normal conversation?

Willow is staring at him with eyes he remembers begging for a bedtime story. He used to tell her stories every night when she was young enough to care. Fairytales or made up adventures starring her as the brave heroine. But her favorite story was always the one that Katniss told about a kind baker who saved a starving girl’s life.

This is what she wants: a story about her parents. Though this one is anything but a fairytale.

“Your mother and I got married when we were seventeen. You know that.”

“They made you?”

“Yes, they did. But I don’t want you to think that your mother and I didn’t—don’t—love each other. Because we do. It just wasn’t the same. We weren’t given a choice.”

“You would choose each other,” Willow says, not a question, but a statement.

“I think we did,” he says, “in a way.”

“Tell me.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“I don’t want the simple version, Papa,” Willow says. “I want you to tell me everything. Even the bad things. I can handle it. You know I can.”

“Yes, I know. I know you can. I just wish you didn’t have to.”

And then when she doesn’t rise to defend herself, he sees no more point in stalling.

“After the wedding, we thought we would live in Twelve. But then Snow bought us a house …”

seven days after the wedding of the century

They’re given a mansion—terraced gardens, cascading chandeliers, the most elegant, expensive style and convenience—in the nicest part of the city.

And then, they’re given a schedule.

He thinks there’s an ancient story like this: about a girl and a king and a land far underground. For eight months of the year, they are to live in the Capitol. For the remaining four, in the Victors’ Village. Visits from their families to the mansion are allowed three times a year, but never overnight. These parameters are nonnegotiable.

It’s frightening how calmly Katniss takes it. He can make his peace well enough (his family is fine without him), but her everything is in 12. Her mother, her sister, her reasons for living.

He expects her to go mad. When she doesn’t he expects her to do something desperate when he’s not there. For a month after the parameters are issued he lives in paranoia that he’ll come upstairs to find her having slit her own wrists or drowned herself in the bathtub. She does nothing of the kind.

In fact, she seems to be trying to rush through these eight months as quickly as possible to get to the precious four at home. She puckers through photoshoots, cuts ribbons and signs autographs with practiced ease, and he has to race to keep up. In short, they make Effie proud.

It really could be much worse. In public, they cuddle and coo. At home, they sit on their couch, sigh. They sleep in. They eat meals in bed. They don’t watch television. They talk a lot, learn things about each other: favorite scents, favorite memories, each other’s birthdays. A few times, they dance in the bathroom, where there’s a built in sound system that plays instrumental music. He likes those moments. He thinks she likes them too. It’s a break in the rhythm.

They make friends too. Former victors, close to their age. Johanna Mason, who they know is their friend when she starts smiling instead of sneering in their presence, and Finnick Odair, who they know is their friend when he drops his overly bright smile and allows himself to sigh.

When the Quarter Quell arrives that year, their weekdays turn into strategy sessions at the kitchen table, which turn into endless dinners with sponsors, which turn into “what went wrong?” and “are the Star-Crossed Lovers qualified to mentor?” conversations for television hosts when both of their tributes are slaughtered at the Cornucopia. The girl was sixteen. The boy was twelve.

Katniss won’t go out in public for a week. It takes all he has in him to convince her to eat. Haymitch has to ride up from 12 to do the post Games publicity, smooth things over.

The train that takes them home leaves in the cold hours of the morning and arrives at 12’s station early that evening. No one is there to greet them, but he prefers it that way. Katniss has slept the whole way. She’s still yawning as the porters lower the luggage down. Peeta isn’t tired, but they move dazedly towards Victors’ Village. Lights gleam through windows, but the snowy town is so quiet, it’s surreal. It’s like the weather was the final blow to the rebellion. The wedding, the weather: either way, the fire has been put out.

Prim stands at the doorstep of his house. When they round the bend of the big fountain her whole countenance lights up and her shoes send gravel flying as she rushes out to them. “Katniss! Peeta!”

Katniss drops her bag and trips forward to intercept Prim’s embrace.

“I love you,” Prim says, gripping tightly. Over Katniss’s shoulder, she smiles at Peeta.

“Hey,” he says. “It’s good to see you, Prim.”

“Oh, you’re getting a hug too.” She detaches herself from Katniss and throws her arms around his middle. He pecks the crown of her head, thinking how easily she could pass for his real sister. “I missed you both,” she says, stepping back. “So much.”

“We’re here now. We’ll be here until March, duckling.”

“I know,” Prim says. “I made soup.” She leads them back to the house. “Mom’s resting. She spent all day clearing up for you.”

Peeta’s house is swept, candles are burning on the breakfast table, and a vase of flowers is set by the sink. Sitting on the counter is the pot of soup, steaming in a homey way.

“We put fresh sheets on the bed and there’re new baking ingredients in the pantry and Mom made some medicines for you; those are in the bathroom cabinets.”

“You didn’t have to do all this,” Katniss breathes.

“But we wanted to,” Prim says and bounces on her toes. “Welcome home.”

A year goes by. Peeta feels as though there should be more to say about that, but there isn’t. It was all too much of the same: photos, parties, mentoring two more doomed teenagers, going home when it gets cold.

In retrospect, he would give a lot to stay forever in that year.

It’s funny, because, with the noticeable absence of the cameras and the reporters, their days in 12 are much the same as in the Capitol. They sleep in. Eat breakfast in bed. Talk. Katniss can’t hunt anymore, not with security under Thread, but just being home seems to sate her. She works on the plant book. She helps him bring bundles of their food to anyone who will accept charity. They dance sometimes, to the music that comes through the radio in a static crackle.

It’s worlds of improvement from the mansion.

Because they have Prim, who is in and out of their house constantly. They have Haymitch who is … Haymitch. They have kind, distant Mrs. Everdeen. They have Peeta's father round for dinner every so often. Sometimes they have Madge, or Delly, or one of the Hawthornes. Except for Gale. He works in the mines all day, rarely sees them except in passing. It’s tough on Katniss, Peeta knows, but he can’t think of any way to fix it.

It’s February when he gets an idea.

“Why don’t you take Gale some dinner?” he says, kneading dough on the counter. “Go to the mines and surprise him when he comes up for the day.”


“Of course.”

“I didn’t think you liked Gale.”

“I don’t mind him. But it’s not important what I think. He’s your friend. Take him some food. He’s got to be hungry, working as hard as he does.”

A hearty loaf of bread, two big potatoes, and a jar of cider go into Katniss’s hunting bag. She scurries around like a flighty animal, tugging on her boots and gloves.

Her hands fumble over Peeta’s when she takes the food from him, and her “thank you” is hurried and breathless.

He smiles as the door slams and she flies up the road, but his smile fades as he goes back to his work. She deserves Gale. She does. The wild woods and the rude humor. Seam kids, her old life. Gale, who wasn’t foisted on her. Gale, the choice.

He burns the loaf of bread he’s making, lost in his thoughts. He throws it out, gets his sketchbook, sits at the table. He unlatches the kitchen window, breathes the air in deeply.

His pencil traces out cardinal birds, the lacy design on the curtains, and her, always her. Up in a tree, or bundling herbs, or stringing her bow, or adjusting the neck of her nightgown, or tumbled out on their bed with her hair unbound, or balancing a baby on her hip —

No. He chides himself furiously. Stop that. You can’t want that. You can’t.

The sound of the door opening sends him messily folding the paper and shoving it in the back of his sketchbook.

“Hey,” he calls into the hall. “How was it?” She doesn’t respond. He hears her boots clunk against the door, hears her growl in frustration and watches her braid whip out of his sight into the bathroom.

He doesn’t follow her. She’ll want a moment. His mind runs through any number of reasons for her mood as he sets out dinner. Being in the mines might have set her on edge. Something she saw on the way back, some injustice of the Capitol meted out in the square. Or just the fact that she has to come home to him after spending time with Gale.

She returns as he’s setting out a jug of milk. Her face is wet with the water she must have splashed on it in the bathroom.

“I’m sorry,” she says defeatedly. “It’s not you.”

“Why don’t we eat? Then we can talk about it,” he says, gesturing for her to sit.

But she doesn’t sit. She considers him with a strange look, her mouth parted slightly.

“Are you alright?”

What happens next is a flurry of movement so quick he has no time to make sense of any of it. When his brain catches up, Katniss is arched on her tiptoes, her arms are knotted behind his head, and her mouth is pressed firmly to his. Her eyes are shut, but his remain wide open. What is she doing? It’s not that he’s unused to any of this when the cameras are around, this and more. But there’s no reason for them to be acting right now. He can’t understand it.

What if whatever upset her sent her to Haymitch and his liquor bottles? That thought urges him to push her away for her own sake, but his arms betray him halfway. Instead they tug her against him. His eyes close. She doesn’t taste of alcohol, but she might as well, the effect she’s having. His blood rushes and ebbs with the beat of his heart.

Katniss’s fingers tangle in his hair and a soft whine escapes her. The sound makes his knees weak and drives sense from his mind. He barely draws a breath when they break apart before he’s kissing her neck. She gasps, head canting to one side, and in response he skims his lips down her throat, her collarbone —

What are you doing? shouts something inside him and at that moment a shattering sound brings the outside world crashing back in as he realizes they’ve stumbled into the table and knocked over the jug of milk.

“Oh great,” he grumbles. He fumbles around to clear up the mess, picking up shards of ceramic.

Katniss stands where he left her, frowning and breathing hard, her lips red, her shirt awry. “I don’t deserve you,” she says.

“What?” Disbelief surges through him. “You deserve so much better than me.”

“You don’t believe that, do you?”

“I do,” he says and his voice drops to a whisper. “You deserve freedom that I can’t give you. You deserve your own choices, your own life.”

“That’s what he said,” she says, much louder. “Gale. That’s what he said before I left. How can he?” she shouts and she pounds her fist against the table. “How can you? You saved my life when we were kids and now you’re the only thing that keeps me from going insane when we’re back — ”

“Katniss,” he says, reaching for her, “I’m sorry. I didn’t … I don’t.”

“You think you’re trapping me,” she says, “and so does Gale. You’re wrong. You’re both wrong. It’s like the arena again; you’re just as trapped as I am. Why can’t either of you see that?”

Then she squirms out of his arms and retreats down the hall. He hears the bedroom door slam. He clears up the uneaten dinner and sleeps on the couch.

Perhaps he thinks that something will change between them after that, but the next morning, she acts like the incident never happened.

When the day comes to return to the Capitol, she is noticeably subdued, but not inconsolable. They arrive at the mansion late. She sleeps into the afternoon of the next day, whereas he barely sleeps at all. He takes to roaming the house, taking stock of the pantry and the linen closet: anything to keep his mind occupied on mundane things.

She’s gone when he does come to bed. He thinks about going to search for her, but something tells him she wants to be alone.

He must sleep, because he remembers waking as the weight of her stretches out on the covers.

“I’m glad. If we are in the arena, I mean,” she whispers, “I’m glad it’s you with me.”

In April, they receive a letter.

My dear Mrs Mellark,

I would be delighted if you and your husband would join me for luncheon this afternoon. I will send a car and an escort at one.

Coriolanus Snow

“He’s efficient, if anything,” Katniss comments, glancing at the clock. They have an hour to get ready; he makes the concession of a nicer shirt, but she doesn’t dress up.

They arrive at the president’s estate at one thirty, are escorted to an indoor veranda. Snow has a rose pinned to his lapel, a gracious smile to his face. The sun keeps drifting in and out behind clouds, dappling the tablecloth set for three.

“My dear,” Snow greets Katniss. “Peeta, my boy, I hope you are well.”

Peeta finds it almost funny, as he shakes the president’s hand, the show of amiability between them. Katniss is making no attempt to hide her scowl as she sits down and the first course of bread, vinaigrette, and stuffed dates comes out.

“I hope you both have had an enjoyable year?”

“Sublime,” Katniss says and shoves a date in her mouth, putting a close to the conversation on her end.

“It has been a good year so far, sir,” Peeta amends.

“Excellent. I should also offer my congratulations to you, I believe.”


“Why, for the coming addition to your charming family,” says the president. “Am I wrong in supposing that you have a bundle of joy on the way?”

“Yes. You are,” Katniss snaps.

“Katniss, please. I believe you are mistaken though, sir. We’re not expecting.”

“Oh. My apologies.”

Silence ensues. Snow sips wine and Peeta, after a moment’s unnerved inaction, starts to cut a slice of bread.

“When might we anticipate you will be?”

Peeta stops, sets the bread knife down. “Pardon?”

“When might I anticipate a happy announcement?”

“Sir, we haven’t thought much about having children. We just want to spend as much time as possible as a couple for now, don’t we, Katniss?”

“Mr. Mellark,” says Snow, leaning forward in his chair, “don’t play that game with me. Certainly you understand what I am asking here.”

“I do understand.”

“Then I think you should be able to answer my question.”

“Please,” Katniss says in a thin voice and the president tuts.

“There now, Mrs. Mellark. A child will be a blessing to your whole family. I’m sure your mother would agree with me. Your sister too.”

The implication of these words—that if they refuse to comply there will be repercussions for Prim and Mrs. Everdeen—makes blood pound in Peeta’s ears. Katniss stands.

Two guards seem to melt from the columns of the veranda, but Snow halts them.

A nerve is pulsing in Peeta’s temple. He folds his napkin delicately and stands too.

“A pleasure, as always,” says Snow, still sitting. He says nothing more as he swirls bread in the vinaigrette.

Katniss shoves her chair against the table. She starts for the door, but Peeta doesn’t follow. He can’t. Not yet. He remains rooted to the spot by one outlying detail.

“By when?”

“August. That should coincide nicely with Game coverage.”

There it is. Now the ultimatum has been laid and he can move again. Katniss has run from the room and he takes after her without a second thought for the president, catches up with her in the courtyard.

“Katniss!” he shouts, grabbing at her arm as she slams her fists against the hood of the car.

She whips her wrist from his grip. “Don’t touch me!”

He steps back. What can he say? It’s not as though he hadn’t expected this at some point … and there isn’t anything they can do. If the president wants them to have children then they’ll have to.

He cannot think of that now. As soon as Katniss is in her seat, she scoots herself up against the window, knotting her legs and arms and leaning as far away from him as possible.

He feels it might be the right thing to do to sleep in one of the spare bedrooms tonight. He tries not to feel hurt when she doesn’t disagree.

They regress.

There’s a ridge of cold sheets between them.

The bags under her eyes become pronounced.

The light bill must be ridiculous because they never turn the lamps off.

Good thing they’re so rich now.

“How many weeks has it been?”

“Since what?”

“Since we had lunch with…”

“Five, I think.”

Prim phoned earlier and Peeta's sure Katniss has been thinking of nothing but her sister all day. That’s the reason she’s bringing this up now.

“We…” she mutters, “we should…”

“Oh. We can. If you’re ready.”

“I’m not ready,” she says. “But I can be.”

She stands at the window after dinner. He keeps his distance, taking a shower and tidying the kitchen. By the time he’s finished, it’s midnight. He returns to the living room.

“Katniss?” They’re standing clear across the room from each other but she gives a start like he’s just shouted in her ear.

“Yes?” She doesn’t turn.

He goes to her, slowly. It feels wrong, touching her waist. He doesn’t think it should feel wrong, but it does. She’s trembling.

“We don’t have to do this.”

“We do. We just have to get it over with.”

He doesn’t like that. He doesn’t want to “get it over with.” That feels more wrong than anything else. Like this is the last item on his list of chores this evening: shower, tidy kitchen, get wife pregnant.

“I don’t want that, Katniss,” he says. “I don’t want you to be unhappy.”

“I’m going to be unhappy, Peeta,” she says sharply, then her voice becomes a quiver. “I didn’t mean that. I’m sorry. I don’t … know what to do. Not really.”

“And you think I do? We can figure it out together, okay?”

“Okay,” she says, but she seems scared. He hopes it isn’t him she’s afraid of as he takes her hand. Her fingers jerk from his every few feet as she turns out the lamps. She’s stalling. He doesn’t mind stalling.

It’s dark in the bedroom, save for the light of the outside and that is enough. She sits on the bed, worrying at the hems of her shirt sleeves. Her breath is coming shallowly, like she’s ill.

“Katniss,” he says weakly, “it’s just me.”

She blinks at him. It’s that look, that look from the kitchen. He takes it as a cue to kiss her, but she looks away as he leans in and his lips peck clumsily at the corner of her mouth. He takes a deep breath that does nothing to clear the nausea in his head.

“If you want to stop, you only have to ask. We’ll stop.”

“Thank you,” she says. “I — I think it’ll be okay.”

But it isn’t.

It’s too hot in the room and they’re sweating more than he thinks is usual even under the circumstances: nasty, clammy sweat like that after a nightmare or on the day of the Reaping.

He is gentle but she is hurting. “It’s not so bad,” she says, but he doesn’t believe a word. She’s wincing in pain and he’s apologizing with every breath but she’s telling him they can’t stop if they want to keep their families safe and … and then it’s done and he scrambles away from her and clutches his hair like he’s going to rip it out of his scalp.

“Peeta,” she manages, pulling the covers up to her chin, “this isn’t your fault. Peeta, it was fine. It was fine.”

“You are such a bad liar, Katniss,” he says, going to the bathroom to get a washcloth.

She is crying when he comes back and for what is maybe the first time in his life, as he holds her close and cleans her, he doesn’t have a clue what to say.

She’s not pregnant.

They try again. It’s no better than the first time.

She’s not pregnant. They try again. She’s not pregnant. They try again. They try and try and try. She’s not —

— they stop trying.

The distance creeps right back between them (if it ever left), scuttles in and settles down like those roaches he and his brothers used to find in their shoes. Their house is big enough that they can go the whole day without seeing each other and that is what they do. They behave as usual in public, though it’s more an act than it ever was in the arena.

Prim makes a hurried call to explain that she won’t be able to visit for Katniss’s birthday. Her mother is too busy treating a pair of siblings who were whipped in the square for failing to attend school. (“Their aunt is dying,” Prim explained. “They were out trying to barter for medicine.”)

Peeta's angry at the Capitol, not at Katniss, but his temper flares and they end the evening fighting, shouting across the living room about something so trivial he’s forgotten what it was an hour later. He doesn’t apologize and he can’t sleep.

Over dinner in late May one of them must let something slip—though maybe they don’t, Finnick reads people very well, they’ve discovered—about the baby (or lack thereof).

“You can’t think about it, when you try,” is his advice. “You don’t feel bad about it. You don’t enjoy it. You just go blank.”

Peeta knows there’s something more to Finnick than he’s ever going to let on. It’s at moments like this that he begins to piece it together and then wish he hadn’t.

Maybe they really are the lucky ones, he and Katniss.

He’s standing in the arena (but he’s often standing here in his dreams, so it doesn’t surprise him). There is a hovercraft gliding down out of the sky. He goes along with the instructions of the disembodied voice asking him to grab ahold of the ladder so he can be pulled out of the dome.

Katniss is with him, helping him up because of his leg.

He’s in the craft now and there are faceless figures swarming about him. Then one face comes into sharp focus and it’s all wrong.

“You did have until August, my dear boy, but we have other means.”

Gloved hands. The sterile lights of the operation room where they amputated his leg. But he’s on the wrong side of the glass and Katniss is kicking and scratching at the masked surgeons strapping her to a table.

He throws himself against the partition, pounding his fists, but the surgeons ignore him, wheeling in machines with tangles of tubes sprouting from them like brambles.

Her eyes have found him, and though her mouth doesn’t move, her voice rings in his head as the surgeons plug the space between her thighs with the tubes. Her heartbeat is thumping in his ears and she is screaming louder and louder as the machines do their work and a laboratory creation is pumped into her.

He jolts up with a cry that he fails to stifle behind his fist and Katniss wakes. She wants to know what he dreamed about. He says he dreamed she died in the arena. He can’t bring himself to tell her what it really was. The city sprawls out for miles beyond their bedroom, twinkling in the dawn. It’s beautiful if you don’t think too hard about it.

The day he starts thinking that this place is beautiful is the day he’s really gone, isn’t it?

They can’t have a baby here, not in this world. They can’t not have a baby here, in this world.

If they must have a baby, he wants it to be theirs. He isn’t sure what he saw in his nightmare is possible, but he doesn’t want to find out.

She hasn’t slept this close to him in such a long time and it hits him how much he misses her. This—this fully clothed half embrace—is better than anything they’ve shared in this bed.

“Do you still love me?” she asks him. He tells her, “always.”

“Can we start over?” he asks her. She tells him, “of course.”

He rises early to make her breakfast, nothing too fancy, something like they’d have in 12.

“What’s this for?” she asks.

“This is starting over,” he says.

She cleans his paintbrushes for him, sorts his watercolors and his nice stationary.

“What’s this for?” he asks.

“This is starting over,” she says.

It’s about a week into “starting over.” An early June morning, misty and cool. He’s in the garden, cutting away some dead flowers from around the fountain. Katniss’s dark hair is loose and her steps are so light he doesn’t notice her until she speaks.


“Hey. Good morning.”

“You’re awake early.”

“These are baker’s hours,” he says.

“Are you baking this morning?” She settles herself on the edge of the fountain.

“Wasn’t planning on it.” He picks a fresh peony and passes it to her. “Unless you’d like me to.”

She shakes her head and places the blossom on her lap, where it stands out prettily against the white fabric of her nightgown.

“You’re beautiful.”

“So you’ve said. Several times.”

“Am I not allowed to tell my wife she’s beautiful?”

“No, you’re allowed.”


Then, after a pause during which she trails her hand in the fountain water and he clips a few more wilted stems, she says, “We should try again.”


“We don’t have much time,” she says. “I don’t … think it has to be bad.”

“I don’t think it does either.”

She twirls the peony stem in her fingers. “Do you want a boy or a girl?”

Peeta’s heart gives a jolt. The thought has never crossed his mind all this while. Not just a baby: a son, a daughter.

“I’d be happy with either. I’d be more than happy.”

“I don’t want to have a baby,” she says. “Not here.”

“I know,” he says, “but we’ll give them the best life we can. They’ll never have to go hungry and they’ll never be without a roof over their head … and they’ll have parents who love them…” He hesitates, then places his hand over hers, and something tight in his chest unravels when instead of shying from his touch, she threads their fingers together.

She studies him for a heartbeat with that unreadable look. “Come upstairs?”

“Let me wash up first.”

“Don’t take too long,” she says, and she tiptoes up the steps into the house, her nightgown dancing around her knees.

“I won’t,” he promises. He picks her a few more peonies on his way to the kitchen to wash up. He puts them in a vase and carries them upstairs.

“You were right,” she breathes, after. Pink sunrise is pouring over the bed. She caresses the curls at the nape of his neck. “It doesn’t have to be bad.”

“We’re okay then?”

“More than okay,” she says and he blushes like a schoolboy.

She isn’t pregnant, but they take it in stride. He brings her more flowers. She places them beside the peonies on the bedside table and he is gentle and she is not hurting.

They’ll get there.

He’s taking a shower when she knocks furiously on the foggy glass. “Peeta,” she says urgently. “Peeta.”

“Yes? What is it?” He hurriedly opens the shower door. “Are you okay?” They’re meant to be going to a party in an hour. Portia will be here any moment to make them up, but that is clearly the furthest thing from Katniss’s mind. Her face is ashen. She takes the open door as an invitation and pushes into the shower, shoving them both under the steady stream of water, then slumps to the floor and clutches her hands to her abdomen.

“Katniss what—?”

“I took a test,” she says. “It’s positive.”

He stares at her, speechless. He casts around for something to focus on: the water spiraling down the drain, the shampoo taps.

“You’re pregnant,” he gets out and stops, tries to think of something more sensitive to say, but can’t. “You’re pregnant.”


“We did it.”

“We did it,” she echoes.

They made the deadline.

“We’re going to have a baby.”

He thinks it should sound less like a death sentence.

They tell Haymitch first, when he arrives three days later for the Games. He bites out a curse and slams the bottle he’s been drinking out of down on their kitchen counter, sloshing liquor. “You knocked her up?”

“It’s not like we had a choice, Haymitch,” Peeta says and Haymitch heaves a heavy sigh.

“I guess I should congratulate you,” he says, “for your commitment to staying alive.”

“You taught us everything we know,” Katniss reminds him sullenly, eyeing the bottle as though, if she weren’t pregnant, she wouldn’t mind a drink.

“Congratulations to me too then,” he says, toasting the air and downing an enormous gulp. “Good group effort.”

When they make the announcement—during an interview with Caesar, who is in raptures at the news—the first questions that begin to pour in from every media source in Panem are ones they can expect. What’s the name? (They're not sure yet.) Are you going to find out about the gender? (They want to wait to find out.) And then — have you decided which hospital is going to have the honor of incubating?

“What do they mean?”

“Oh, I’d forgotten you wouldn’t know about that,” says Effie. The three of them are clustered around a table in one of the more premiere restaurants in the city. “Well, most Capitol women don’t carry their babies to term you see. Around the third month, they’ll have the fetus placed in an incubation unit. It’s very safe,” she assures them at Katniss’s expression.

“But why do they do it?”

“Pregnancy ruins the figure,” says Effie. She purses her lips. “I don’t know if I quite agree with that sentiment, but it’s what the most fashionable people do.”

The news outlets spin it as “archaic district charm” when Katniss informs them that she will be carrying the baby to term. Peeta worries that Snow might see it for what it really is: an act of dignity, of defiance.

“We should think of names,” Katniss says one evening as they’re taking the elevator down from the Tribute Center.

“Names?” He’s distracted tonight. Their tributes this year are good: both seventeen, reasonably scrappy. He’s hopeful and the fact that he’s hopeful is putting him on edge.

“For the baby.”

“Oh. You don’t think they’ll want to vote on the names like they did on your wedding dress?” It’s not a pleasant thing to say but he isn’t in the most pleasant mood.

“I won’t let them,” she says and he doesn’t argue with her.

“I’ve always thought flower names were nice,” he says. “Ivy or something.”

“Ivy is a good name.”

“It was my aunt’s name.”

“I don’t know much about your family,” she says, as they walk out into the night and climb into their limousine. “Will you tell me?”

“There isn’t much to tell.”

“I’m sure there is,” she says. “I know your mother isn’t…”

“My mother wanted a daughter,” he says with a shrug. “My mother also drank a lot. Drinks a lot. I don’t think about her much, if I’m being honest.”

“Did she hit you a lot?” She’s taking the question back as soon as she’s said it. “That’s personal. I’m sorry. Never mind.”

“Nothing so personal I can’t tell my wife,” he says. “Not too often, but more than she hit Brann and Bannock. She used a belt. I used to think it was normal for kids to be punished like that.”

“My parents would never hit us.”

“I got too big for it eventually. My father didn’t hit us. He didn’t stop her,” he adds. “I guess that’s just as bad.”

“Did you know your grandparents?”

At this, he smiles. “Yes,” he says. “At least my father’s parents. They were still alive when I was younger. I loved them.”

“Tell me about them.”

“Granny’s name was Jenny Ann. She started the bakery. She liked to draw. Sometimes she would let me use her colored pencils. Granddad Ash loved her more than anything. He was very funny, very kind. He died when I was seven, but I remember that he always smelled like cardamon. He would let me take naps in their big bed and I don’t think he ever let my brothers do that.” He trails into memories of the quilted blanket and the sunlight streaming in through the ratty curtains of his grandparents’ house. “Did you know yours?”

She shakes her head. “I had one grandma who was alive when I was born but she died when I was two.”

“What was her name?”

“Lissy,” she says, “Lissy Abberford.”

“Lissy. That’s cute.”

“What about for a boy?”

“What about Jack?”

“Jack? That was my father’s name.”

“I know. He was a great man wasn’t he? Your father?”

“The best of.”

“I’d be honored to name our son after him,” he says. “If you like it.”

“Peeta, I — ” she says, almost like she’s frustrated with him, then she climbs up onto his legs and threads her fingers through his hair, bringing them to clasp behind his head. “Can you not be so stupidly good to me for … five seconds?” He’s heard the old saying about pregnant women glowing, but he doesn’t think pregnancy has anything to do with the look playing about her face.

“Not a chance,” he says.

They announce a baby shower and, as they expected, everyone wants to attend.

They have the idea to trade invitations to the shower for sponsor gifts. Their tributes are inundated with parachutes.

The boy makes it down to the last four. The girl almost wins it all. Almost.

He begins to fear they won’t be able to keep their own child safe when they’re incapable of saving someone else’s.

They go home in November.

Frigid wind blows in on his birthday, bringing with it the first snow of the year. He is up at two in the morning, tripping sleepily about the house and turning the heat up.

Katniss sleeps on, unperturbed by the cold. Hazelle Hawthorne has made her a red cotton nightgown. It stands out like holly berries against the sheets. She’s showing in earnest now. When he unhooks his prosthesis and crawls under the quilt, his hand finds hers over the bump where the baby is.

It is easier here, away from the city, to be glad about the pregnancy. To forget the vague and threatening future that no doubt awaits his son or daughter. To be excited about being a father.

Is Katniss excited about being a mother?

Being home is working its healing on her too. She sleeps better. She sings snatches of songs. Has more energy. Is more herself, more the girl he fell in love with. They danced again last night, laughing as they stumbled through the movements and lyrics of an old waltz neither of them really remembered. He wishes there would be a dance in town, but the onset of the cold has dampened that possibility. He’d love to see her do a reel, with a fiddle and flute. He pictures her, feet pattering over the cobblestones outside the bakery, her braid flying over her brown shoulders.

If their child is anything like her, it will be like raising a wildfire. That prospect does not frighten him. He has always loved fire.

She sits at the window, knees drawn up on the seat, watching the wind in the trees. It’s a stormy afternoon. She seems content, humming to herself between sips of raspberry tea.

“What’s that?” he asks. “The song?”

“It’s a miner’s tune. The Hanging Tree,” she says. “It’s not a very happy song. My mother hates it.”

“What’s it about?”

“A dead man,” she says as lightning splits the sky miles away, “calling out for his lover from the tree where he’s been strung up.”

“No, that doesn’t sound happy,” he agrees over the thunder.

“I’ve always liked it. My father used to sing it. He’d show me how to tie knots and—oh!” Her mug slips from her hold and her tea spills over the window seat.

“Katniss?” he says, jumping up. “What’s wrong?”

“The baby … the baby’s moving.”

An involuntary noise escapes from his windpipe. “Moving?”


“That’s good though, right?”

“I think so,” she says, folding back her shirt. “I think it’s good. Give me your hand.” There are a few heartrending seconds and then … a tiny determined kick.

“Do you feel it?”

He can’t speak. He can barely breathe.

“That’s our baby,” she says and he hears the awe in her voice, tinged with fear, but genuine.

“Ours,” he repeats. It occurs to him that’s the first time she’s ever referred to the baby that way.

As January comes on, he and Prim brave the icy roads to buy ingredients for dinner. Katniss and her mother decorate the mantle with candles to make up for the bleak weather. Peeta teaches Prim to make cornbread and Mrs. Everdeen tells them funny stories from her childhood. Peeta smiles at Katniss, curled in an armchair by the fire, watching her family laugh. The light makes her look very innocent, happy.

When they stand at the door to bid Prim and Mrs. Everdeen goodnight and watch them back to the house opposite, Katniss wraps her arms around him from behind. “You’re going to be such a good father,” she says and kisses his cheek.

One of these days he’ll have to ask her what there is between them. He is content to continue as they have if that’s what she wants. Friends forced into intimacy by circumstance. He is not convinced that is all they are. It cannot be, or else his knack for reading people is shot. Maybe it is. She fooled him once before. Only that was in the space of a few days, when he was weak and sick, and Katniss, he has always maintained, is a terrible liar. If he lets himself forget that she doesn’t love him in that way … he would believe she did.

They let Effie plan the baby shower, which ends up being a good idea, since she knows what people in the Capitol expect. It also means he doesn’t have to do anything other than lead Katniss down the back steps of the mansion to greet the photographers and the fifty lucky guests.

Tables of desserts and drinks have been set up along the terrace, decorated with frilly cloths and gold glitter. The guests have come in pastel suits and dresses, their wigs heavy with flowers and faux butterflies.

Katniss is delicate and maternal in a lilac gown that floats around her in the spring breeze as she accepts presents and advice on parenting. Peeta stays by her side, makes chit chat.

“You know,” remarks one man, “When you said you weren’t going to incubate, I said to my hairdresser, I said, ‘That’s the end of her sexy body, that is.” But do you know, I was completely wrong. You look ravishing!”

“Absolutely ravishing!” Peeta mimics in Katniss’s ear as the man sidles away and Katniss snorts loudly. “That wasn’t very sexy of you,” he says and she slaps his wrist, but she’s smiling.

The sun is rising towards noon when she asks him to get her something to drink.

“Congratulations, Peeta,” gushes a guest at the punch bowl, “You must be so proud.”

“I am,” he tells her. “Thank you.”

She gives a sigh and bustles away to fawn over Katniss. Peeta gathers up a glass and reaches for the ladle.

“Might you pour me a glass too?”

Peeta drops the glass into the punch bowl, splashing his shirt.

“Oh dear,” says President Snow, “That is some expensive silk you’ve just ruined.”

“Good afternoon sir,” Peeta says through a clenched jaw.

“Good afternoon, young man,” says the president, pulling a handkerchief from his suit jacket and offering it to him. Peeta takes the handkerchief but doesn’t dab away the punch. It’s dripping onto his shoes.

“I’ve come to speak with you about arrangements for the arrival of your child.”


“I will be in the study. Do not keep me waiting.”

“What do you want?” Katniss snarls the minute they enter the study.

“Only a moment, Mrs. Mellark,” says the president. He is sitting at the desk, his hands neatly folded in front of him. “I wouldn’t want to keep you from your guests long. I’ve come to ask if you would like me to extend visiting hours for your mother and sister during the week your child is due.”

Katniss stares at him. “What do you mean?”

“I’m asking if you’d like your mother and sister present at the birth of your child and perhaps for a few days afterwards.”

“I somehow can’t picture you being that kind.”

“You think less of me than you should, my dear,” says Snow. “Your family will be welcome too, Mr. Mellark,” he says to Peeta.

“Oh,” Peeta says, “I don’t think they’d care to visit, sir.”

“No matter then. What do you think, Mrs. Mellark?”

“I don’t believe you,” Katniss says, but her voice has lost its anger.

“Believe me, my dear, and consider it done,” says the president, standing. “They will be invited to your home as soon as it seems that the child is coming.”

He extends his hand to Peeta, who shakes it reflexively, staring dumfounded. “Thank you sir,” Peeta says stammeringly. He doesn’t believe the president either, but he figures that for the moment, it is best to be polite.

Snow has barely turned the doorknob when Katniss speaks again. “Why?”

“Why what, Mrs. Mellark?”

“Why are you doing this?”

“In any case, it speaks to the generosity of the Capitol to bring your family together on such a happy occasion,” says the president. “I should also like you to consider it a gift, my dear.”

“A gift?” Peeta says. “For what?”

“Have I ever been anything but invested in your family?” says Snow with a cool smile. “I plan to be even more invested from now on. In fact, I entertain the hope that you and your child will come to see me as something of a grandfatherly figure — ”

“Never,” Katniss snaps. “I won’t — !”

“You won’t?” Snow repeats slowly. “Mrs. Mellark, I believe you will find that you will. Think of how my favor could keep your child from harm.”

“You — ”

“Take care what you say next, my dear,” says the president, opening the door. “I am of the opinion that you would find single motherhood an arduous task to undertake.”

Peeta feels the blood draining to his toes.

“No!” he hears Katniss cry.

“Then do we have an understanding, young lady?”

“We have an understanding, sir.”

“Lovely. Good afternoon.”

The click of the door leaves a ringing in Peeta’s ears for hours after the shower is over.

“What that man won’t do to control you,” Cinna murmurs when they tell him, cold anger in his quiet voice. It’s late. The stylist has come over to give them his private congratulations, and they’ve broken into the leftover ice cream.

“He said this would keep the baby out of harm’s way,” Peeta says.

“The Games,” Cinna sighs.

Katniss’s legs are jumping in agitation. “And he’ll have influence over them … what they think of him, of the Capitol. Cinna, how … how are we supposed to go through with this?”

Cinna taps his spoon against the crystal rim of his bowl, sounding a high, lingering note. “I can’t say that I know, Katniss. I imagine … you find something that makes it all worth going through with.”

Peeta can’t sleep. At about four in the morning he gets up and runs a bath. He runs it too hot but he doesn’t mind. He rests his head against the rim, closes his eyes, lets the water scald some feeling back into his body. He hasn’t turned on the lights. The city is bright enough and his head hurts.

He wouldn’t have thought this before he was Reaped. He doubts anyone back in 12 would ever think it. But from this marble bathtub, that barbed wire shantytown almost looks free. Unnoticed. Uninteresting. Where he could tramp dirt in on his boots, see the moon, die on something like his own terms.

When the baby is born, the president secures their complete compliance. They’ll do anything he says. They’ll have to.

He presses his fingers into his temples, groans.

“Nightmare?” comes Katniss’s inquiry from the doorway.

“No, just thinking.”

“Mind if I join you?”

“Of course not.”

She slips out of her nightgown and into the bath with him and he repositions his body to accommodate her curling against his chest.

“Did I wake you?”

“Not you. This baby of yours is a night owl.”

“Baby and I’ll have a word about that,” he says, stroking the wet skin of her hip. “Can’t have you keeping your Mama up all night, little one.”

Katniss gathers his arm across her and pins his palm against her heart. The water is cooling down to a pleasant temperature. Stray drops drip from the tap.

“Peeta.” She faces him. Her voice is fierce. “I won’t let him take you away from us. I promise.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

She bites her lip and laces her arms around his neck. The water sloshes against them, against the edge of the tub. Her breathing is rapid against his sternum. It has started to rain outside.

“We should go to bed,” he says at last. “It’s late.”

She doesn’t answer, but her arms tighten.

“Katniss, we should sleep.”

She sits up and there it is again. That look. Now, if ever, is the moment to ask —

But she cuts him short by kissing him, soft and insistent. He expects this to make him more confused than ever, but it doesn’t.

“I love you,” she says.

Once, when he was younger, he’d made the mistake of grabbing a hot sheet of cookies with his bare hands. He remembers how the shock of the heat ran from his fingers to his toes. It’s that feeling, twice over. But he composes himself. “I — I love you too,” he says lightly. She may not have meant it the way he hopes she did.

“No, you don’t understand,” she says, a shaky laugh on her lips. “I love you.”

He barely lets her finish before he kisses her and it is the most natural action in the world.

Prim and her mother help deliver the baby on a rainy March evening and Peeta’s first vaguely coherent thought is that they haven’t chosen a name. His second is to wonder how they’re meant come up with a good enough name for the most perfect thing he’s ever seen.

It’s midnight. Mrs. Everdeen has gone to sleep. Katniss reclines wearily in bed, protective adoration in every feature of her face as she nurses their newborn. He sits beside her, completely overwhelmed. He’s used to being overwhelmed, but never like this.

He didn’t think it was possible to love anyone as much as he loves Katniss.

That was before his daughter.

This fragile life, tiny and rosy, instinctively trusting that the thumb caressing her cheek is a caring one.

“Don’t you worry,” he says aloud. “Mama and Papa are going to keep you safe.”

Katniss nestles her head against his shoulder. She doesn’t say anything, but she doesn’t have to.

Prim tiptoes in. “I can’t sleep,” she says. “I’m too excited.” She perches on the end of the bed. “She takes after you, Peeta,” she notes, poking his foot with her toes. “Except for the hair. That’s her mama’s.”

The baby gives a fussy cry.

“Oh no, no,” Katniss coos. “It’s okay, baby girl.”

Prim cuddles close against their legs as Katniss starts to sing a lullaby.

Deep in the meadow, under the willow.

“I know that one,” Peeta realizes. “Where do I know that from?”

“Our father taught it to us,” Prim says. “It’s my favorite. Don’t they teach it in school?”

“They do,” Katniss says. “Or they did. Our teacher liked it.” She pauses and her lips form a sad smile. “But I think you know it because it’s … it’s the song I sang to Rue.”

Here is the place where I love you.

“Willow,” Prim says when Katniss has finished and the baby is sleeping. “What about Willow?”

“What about it?”

“For her,” Prim says. “It’s a very district name.”

“Papa would’ve liked it,” Katniss says. “What do you think, Peeta?”

“I love it.” He does. It’s simple and pretty and meaningful. Because of Mr. Everdeen. Because of Rue. Because Prim is right. It’s a resolutely district name. Nothing Capitol about it. It stings ever so subtly of rebellion.

“I do too.”

“I do three,” Prim chirps.

The Capitol’s reaction to the birth is as anticipated—interviews, photoshoots, the usual invasion of their privacy—but they trudge through it with cheerful resignation. None of it seems so unbearable now that they have Willow. She’s as good of a baby as anyone could have wished for. She is a bit of a poor sleeper, but it’s far nicer to have their own sleep disturbed by her gurgling cries instead of nightmares.

“She’s definitely your daughter,” he says one night, getting up to tend to the fussing infant.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Katniss yawns from the bed.

“I bet you were like this when you were a baby too,” he explains, gathering Willow against his chest, “singing all the time.”

“You’re absurd,” she says, but he spies her smile.

“I’ll visit as soon as I can,” Prim says over the phone the day she and her mother return to 12.

But the next visitor to the mansion is not Prim.

When one day there’s a knock on the door and Peeta opens it to a man dressed in a poorly ironed shirt and pants, shifting his weight, he does a double take.

“Gale. Uh — good afternoon.”


There’s an uneasy silence.

“Come in,” Peeta says at last. “Have you eaten?”

“Oh I’m — I ate earlier,” Gale says evasively.

“Katniss is resting. I can wake her if you want.”

“No, no. Let her sleep,” Gale says distractedly, surveying the glimmering kitchen. “Fancy setup you’ve got here.”

“One of the nicer upshots of being a victor,” Peeta says, trying for humor, though from the awkward pause that follows he has only succeeded in making their guest more uncomfortable.

He is spared trying to alleviate the tension by Willow, who begins to cry loudly from upstairs.

“One moment,” he says and hurries to fetch his daughter before she can wake Katniss. When he returns downstairs with Willow tucked against his chest, it is to find Gale in the living room, sitting across from the couch where Katniss is asleep.

“This is your daughter?”

“Yes. This is Willow. Would you like to hold her?”

“Oh,” Gale stammers, “I don’t know.”

“She doesn’t bite. Here.”

He places Willow in Gale’s arms. Her tiny fists flail for a moment before she settles down and her big blue eyes stare curiously up at this new character. Gale’s lips twitch.

“Hello,” he says gently. “You’re very cute, aren’t you?”

Peeta smiles and sits down at his wife’s feet.

“I bet she’s a natural mother, Katniss.”

“She’s amazing,” Peeta says. “She’ll be glad to see you, by the way.”

Gale looks up. “I’m not sure about that. I—uh, the last real conversation we had—I said some very rude things about you.”

“She told me,” Peeta says, “but I think I understand why you said them.”

“Truth is—” Gale starts, but they are interrupted as a key fits in the door lock and a click later, President Snow is in the living room, accompanied by an Avox carrying a large parcel.

“Sir,” Peeta says, standing.

Gale goes from the color of paste to the color of rhubarb jam in the span of ten seconds.

“My dear boy,” Snow says, “and Mr. Hawthorne. Come to visit your cousin?”

“Yes,” Gale gets out and when Peeta coughs, adds, “sir.”

“This must be Willow,” Snow says. “What a treasure. Might I hold her?”

Gale tightens his grasp on the baby and that gesture alone is enough for Peeta to set aside any bad blood there might be between the two of them. Grateful as he is, he knows the president cannot be refused.

“Of course, sir,” Peeta says, every bone in his body protesting as he takes his daughter from Gale’s arms and sets her in Snow’s.

“What a dear child. I remember when my granddaughter Livia was this age.”

“I don’t think we’ve ever met Livia, sir,” Peeta says.

“Oh. Then I will bring her to visit.” If the situation weren’t as deadly as the arena, the conversation might be agreeable. “She loves children and she idolizes you and your wife.”

“We would be happy to have her.”

“Speaking of my granddaughter, she helped me choose a present for you. A trifle really. If you will, Mr. Hawthorne,” he says and Gale accidentally slams his knee into the coffee table in his haste to get Willow away from the president.

Snow motions for the parcel and Peeta unwraps the ribboned lid to reveal a baby mobile: glass birds hanging from golden filaments. The cost of this “trifle” would be enough to keep his family, the Everdeens, and the Hawthornes fed for half a year, but for a heartbeat he almost forgets to be disgusted because the mobile is such an exquisite piece of artistry.

His “thank you” sounds a bit more sincere than he would have liked.

“You’re quite welcome,” Snow says. “Now, regrettably, I have business to attend to elsewhere. My best to your wife, dear boy.”

As soon as the car is safely out of sight, Gale glares at the gift. “You’re not going to put that thing up are you?”

“He’d notice if we didn’t.”

Katniss stirs, muttering indistinctly. Both men look at her.

“She loves you,” Gale says after a beat. “Loves you for real.”

“She loves you too,” Peeta assures him.

“I know. Just not in the same way.” There isn’t any jealousy in the way he says it, only a twinge of remorse. He takes a breath. “I came to apologize. That’s what I was going to tell you before.”


“To both of you. I haven’t been fair.”

“It’s not a problem.”

“No, it is. I’ve acted like you forced her into this and I know that’s not true. You’re good to her. I know you are. You’ve taken care of her in ways I don’t think I could.” He considers Willow for a moment. “I know you’re doing this to protect people like my family from…” He glances glaringly in the direction of the driveway, then clears his throat. “Thank you for that, Mellark. I’m sorry for being unkind.”

“Good.” Katniss sits up.

Gale starts. “How long have you been awake?”

“Just long enough,” she says. “I forgive you, Gale.”

“You do?”

“Yes,” she says, like an enormous weight has been lifted from her chest, “I do.”

“Catnip,” he says and she stands up and hugs him as much as she’s able to without squashing the baby. “Thank you.”

“For what it’s worth, I forgive you too,” Peeta says and Gale smiles.

“I thought you told me you couldn’t get out of your shift,” Katniss says.

“Friend pulled some strings for me,” Gale says. “Oh and my mother sent some of Posy’s old clothes for you.” He touches Willow’s nose affectionately.

“Tell her thank you,” Katniss says. “It’ll be nice to have clothes from home. Have you eaten?”

“That’s the second time I’ve been asked that.”

“We have plenty,” Katniss says. “Too much. Enough for your family. Take some when you go home.”

“We can manage,” Gale says. Katniss scowls.

“I know you can,” she says, “but I want your family to be full-up. Take the food. As part of your apology.”

At this, Gale grins. “I keep thinking you’ve changed, Catnip. Okay. I’ll take the food.”

Katniss is in such high spirits that evening that Peeta can’t bring himself to tell her about the president’s visit but his dream world is full of swarming birds and the piercing sound of a baby’s cry.

He’s stopped in to help his father at the bakery that winter when one of his family’s neighbors arrives to buy bread for a toasting. Later, when he and Katniss have put Willow to bed and are washing the dishes, a thought comes to him.

He’s in the schoolyard one dreary September day and he’s tripping over his shoelaces as he hurries to his father.

“Do you wanna know something, Papa?” he hears his kindergarten self ask excitedly.

“Of course I do, Peeta,” Papa says, scooping his son up onto his shoulders. “What is it?”

“Papa,” he proclaims proudly, “I’m gonna marry Katniss Everdeen.”

“Are you now?”

“Yep,” Peeta says, flopping against his father’s hair. “Maybe even tomorrow maybe.”

Twelve years worth of tomorrows later he picks up the engagement ring his fiancée discarded on the train floor after one too many bawdy comments from an abysmally drunk Haymitch.

“Wanna know something, Papa?” he mutters as he straightens. “I’m gonna marry Katniss Everdeen.”

She should put the ring back on. There will be cameras in an hour. The girl of his dreams is going to be his bride.

He would give anything to cancel his own wedding.

“Maybe,” he finishes feebly, “Maybe even today maybe.”

“Katniss,” he says, closing the cabinet door on their dinner plates, “would you like to get married?”

“Hmm?” she says, barely glancing up from the silverware she’s scrubbing. “We are married. Four years this summer.”

“No,” he amends, “I mean, would you like to get married for real?”

This time Katniss looks at him. “You — you want to have a toasting?”

“Yes,” he says. “If you don’t mind. If you do, we don’t have to. I just thought … because you said … the bath … in the…”

“Peeta,” she says, and she cups his face in her sudsy hands, “stop. When did you want to have this toasting?”

“I was thinking … maybe now… if you you’re up to it. Or tomorrow. Or whenever you want. I can wait.”

He can. He has for fifteen years. He can wait longer. Forever, even.

“You won’t have to,” she says and he goes light-headed.

“Is that a yes, then?”

“That’s a yes.”