I lean into Peeta as we ride on the hovercraft that is taking us home. I am so comfortable that I think I could even fall asleep. At a little more than seven months pregnant, I am getting tired easily these days since it is hard to rest with the awkwardness of my body. I snuggle in some more and smile as I close my eyes.
In the eyes of those in charge now, we are married. I still couldn't believe that Paylor had just ripped apart the divorce document and let us be together as we wanted. I guess after everything that has happened I am pretty suspicious of anyone in leadership, but Peeta's former commander really seemed to want to help us. I decide to just take the good now and be grateful to be heading home with the man I love, and get ready to have our baby.
Peeta nudges me awake. "Katniss, we're here."
I open my eyes and stretch. He takes my hand and leads me as we get off. As my feet touch the ground of my district for the first time in over a year, I gasp. Everything seems to be a dull grey color. Where the train station and merchant housing used to be there is only now some pile of ashes. I can only imagine what the Seam must look like. I glance at my husband and I can tell that he is in shock as well. Neither of us knew what we were going to see, but I don't think we could have ever imagined this…total devastation.
Gripping my hand tighter, Peeta begins to walk and I follow him. As befits his personality, he heads in the direction of my old home first. We trek the couple of miles to where there used to be small houses where the miner families like mine would have lived, but all we find in nothing but more grey dusty ground.
When we finally reach the place where my house once stood, I just blankly stare at the open space. In the sadness I feel, it's not about the loss of the actual structure, but the memories I had there. I think of my father singing to us when I was little and Prim smiling as she would pet Lady. I also remember our neighbors, hardworking folk who are now no more. I grieve for a few moments, and Peeta just holds me.
Once I have composed myself enough, we then head back to the town area. All we see is emptiness. We find the place where the Hall of Justice had been, and I think of sweet Madge and her friendship. Eventually, we come to the spot where the bakery was. I feel Peeta freeze, finally letting go the composure he had been keeping. I watch him just stare at the space for a few minutes, and then he finally begins to cry.
Not being great at dealing with emotions, I am unsure what to do at first, so I just decide to hold my husband as he had me. I'm not sure he ever fully grieved for his family during this whole ordeal, and now, in this moment, he is finally having the chance. He has lost so much, yet has stayed strong through it all. I wrap my arms around him and let Peeta have the time he needs.
"I know we had our problems, but I did love them." he notes after he composes himself. He focuses his gaze on the ground in front of him. "I'm going to rebuild it. Start fresh. It's what I know." He looks thoughtfully, "It's who I am."
My husband then looks directly in my eyes with the tears still shining in them. I am asking him my silent question. "I'm okay," he answers while running his hand down my braid, "I have you and the baby now."
"You do." I touch his cheek gently in reply. "And we love you very much." He gives a small smile at this and after one more look lets me know we can move on.
Eventually, we come to find the old Victor's Village. To our amazement, the houses here are still standing. It's too much to consider the reasoning, but Peeta and I are just grateful that at least something of the district was left. Not only that, but there are inhabitants. Lights are on, and we can barely see some figures through the windows of each of the dozen homes. As we draw closer, I note that there is what seems to be a city of tents that has built up on the left side of the circle. People are returning.
"I guess we are not the first to come back," I say to Peeta.
"Obviously not," I hear him reply. "It's good."
We walk towards the patchwork village and we finally are noticed because a group of people begin to emerge from the house. It's dark and I can't see them very well, except that one of them begins to run in our direction. As the figure comes near, I smile at the vision of Delly approaching us.
"Peeta! Katniss!" She is almost crying with joy. "You're here. I can't believe it!" She envelops me in a hug first followed by Peeta.
"We've come home Delly," Peeta says.
"Well," she giggles, "you've come back to find what's left here. Most of us are originally from Twelve, although there are a few from other places." She looks back at those who are observing our interaction. "Greasy Sae came back, and I'm here with Thom."
This last statement has us curious, and our friend explains. "After Fred's death, Thom and I became friends. And when the war ended, he asked me to marry him."
"That's wonderful Delly," I tell her.
"He's been so kind, Katniss. He's great with Lila, too. Treats her like she is his own." She looks over softly at the tall familiar young man coming up to join us. "We're leading the rebuilding plan for Twelve." Thom reaches us and shakes Peeta's hand and then mine. He then stands next to his wife and puts his arm around her. "Oh, and I'm expecting a baby, too." I watch as Delly looks up at him with adoring eyes.
"Congratulations," Peeta says to the couple.
"You're probably exhausted," Thom chimes in. "We'll find you a place to sleep tonight." We're led in to one of the houses where we are greeted by everyone. Some are vaguely familiar, and others are new to us and we are introduced to them. It's obviously a communal existence at the moment, but Thom shows us the drawn up plans for houses, a new justice building, and little start up shops. My husband throws in his ideas for a new bakery, and they are happily added in.
"We have been promised wood and other supplies to start building," we're told, "the trains should be arriving with everything we need to start next week." Dinner is served and it is then that we see Greasy Sae.
"Hello there you two," she chuckles at us. "Thought you got rid of old Sae, didn't ya?"
"Never," I reply. "I just wasn't sure you would be up to coming back here."
"Well, someone's gotta cook for all these folk." She continues to place food out on the long table.
"I saw the oven here," Peeta notes. "I'll start baking some bread as soon as I can get ingredients."
"I can still hunt a little for now," I add. "Get you some fresh meat."
"Sounds good," the old women states, "We need the food, and bread's one thing I've never mastered. We might have enough of what you need to get started. Supplies come each week if the train can get through so you can get what you are missing then." Peeta nods and everyone joins in to eat the prepared meal. It's good, and afterwards, we immediately head up to our room. Exhaustion has overtaken us both, and all we want is to sleep. I curl up next to my husband on the bed and cozily let my mind drift off into the land of dreams.
The next morning, it is time to check on my father's house by the lake. We wake early and get dressed to walk the few miles it will take to get there. I find my hidden bow and arrows on the way so that I can hunt like I promised. Peeta starts to get concerned.
"Are you sure you can handle this? It might not be good for the baby," he offers.
I scowl, and can't hide my stubborn side. "I'm fine. As long as I take enough breaks." Peeta decides to not fight me this time, so we begin our trek. It's slow, with me stopping to shoot something every once in a while and my engorged middle hindering my speed, but by the late morning we finally make it to the lake.
I look around and immediately find it. The small structure that my father built to be a shelter in the woods. I take Peeta's hand and excitedly and take him towards it. "It's still here!" I call out.
He grins as we get close and enter through the wooden door. We look inside at what awaits us. It's not large, only enough space to house a bed, a table a chairs, and some semblance of a place to cook. But, I think it is enough for our needs at the moment. Peeta takes everything in.
"What do you think?" I ask him.
"It's great," he says with a smile. "Are you sure you would rather be here than with everyone else?"
"Yeah," I sigh. "They're great, but I really just want a place to ourselves."
"Alright," he agrees. "It is beautiful here."
We spend the rest of the day getting settled in. We grab our bags with our few clothing items, and the group shares some food and other necessities from their supplies.
After that, we settle into a new routine one more time. Peeta goes to the village each day to use the ovens to bake. Everyone is grateful to have fresh bread again. After a couple of weeks, trains with building materials finally arrive and Thom organizes everyone to different tasks to begin the construction. They decide to work on housing first, as well as the bakery.
For the first month, I am able to still hunt. Peeta frets over me doing this, worried that I will begin climbing trees and injure myself or the baby, but I assure him that I will stay on the ground. Eventually, even I have to admit defeat that with weeks left until I am due, that my large middle will just not allow me to do it anymore. I start spending my days resting at home, and of course, I am bored out of my mind quickly.
"UGH!" I scream. "I wish this baby would get out already. I'm tired of just sitting around. I need to get out."
"Why don't you just take a short walk each day?" Peeta suggests quietly. He is trying to calm me down. "It will give you a little exercise and out for a little bit. If you get tired you can come back here."
I shrug, deciding that at least the idea was better than nothing. The next day, I walk a few times around the lake. Soon enough, I manage to make it to the village to visit Delly and Sae. I end up going every other day or so, as daily treks prove too much. They become my favorite times, and I count the minutes until I can put on my shawl and head out.
When we talk, there is pretty big news coming out of the Capitol now. The Council finally brought Coin in front of them and brought the charges against her of using her power to manipulate and control people. The woman was a fighter, claiming that she believed she was doing good for the country, but there was too much evidence against her. Especially damaging was the information they gathered from Haymitch Abernathy which detailed Coin's agenda to gain power in Panem. The former leader was stripped of any power, and placed on a strict work detail in the factories of District 2, where she will be constantly supervised to make sure she does not cause trouble again. And the one in charge of her movements is none other than Gale Hawthorne. That should be fun to watch. The council will continue to remain in charge of the country until plans are completed for elections in six months.
One day, instead of my usual jaunt to the village, I head in the opposite direction. I breathe in the fresh air of the trees and glory in the sunshine that comes through them. I have lost track of the time when I find myself in the meadow. It's the first time I have made it here since we returned, and instead of the green I remember, its brown and grey, dirty and muddy. I notice different sized mounds spread throughout the area.
"That's the first thing they did," a voice calls out, "buried the dead that they found. Not that much was left." I turn to find Greasy Sae solemnly looking out onto the open area.
I look back and begin to quietly sob. "So much loss," I whisper.
"Yes," the old woman replies, "but don't you go set your mind on that. You focus on the now. On what you have gained and will be gaining soon." She gently touches my abdomen. "Now all of us and this one have a future ahead. They," she nods her head toward the meadow, "wouldn't want you to be stuck in the past."
I know she's right. "Thank you," I tell her. "Would you help me with the birth when it's time? My mother is still in Thirteen."
"Of course, girl," she answers. "You, the boy, and these people are all I have."
I smile at her, and head home, feeling better than I had in a while. I did have something to look forward to. I went home and gave Peeta a kiss as I entered.
"Someone's feeling better," he notes.
"Yeah," I say. "let's get ready to have a baby."
Over the next couple of weeks, things seem to go at a rapid pace as we get close to my due date. They throw a small shower for me, where I am given a cradle that the men had made from some of the extra wood, and linens, clothes, and cloths that the women had sewn. Peeta and I are overwhelmed with the generosity.
"If there is nothing else we have learned here," Thom says. "We're all in this together. We have to support each other."
The days tick by and Peeta is watching over me every minute like a hawk. Finally, in the middle of the night, I feel pains in my lower regions. They are a little dull at first, but then become sharper and shaper. When I finally feel a sharp pain and then liquid coming out of me, I wake my husband up.
"Peeta, get up," I say while trying to breathe calmly. "My water broke. Go get Sae." He opens his eyes and after a moment to get his head on straight, widens his eyes as he realizes what is going on.
"Right," he tells me quickly, getting out of bed and throwing his dirty clothes from the previous day on. "I'll be back soon, I promise." He gives me a kiss and bolts out the door.
Peeta is true to his word as long before I expected him back he comes running in with Sae behind him. She sees me breathing hard and without a word gets towels and other things together. My love sits down on the bed next to me and holds my hand.
The next few hours are full of waiting as my contractions get closer and closer. I yell, scream, and cry at Peeta through the increasing pain. He takes my words about never letting him touch me again after this with a smile and just returns soothing words in my ear. Eventually, the old woman tells me that it is time to try and push. I do, and am sweating and straining after trying for several minutes.
I am about to give up when I give one last shot and with all my might push the area where something is lodged and trying to come out. I keep going until I feel whatever was there suddenly leave my body. I gasp in relief, leaning back into the pillows on my bed. The next thing I notice is the most beautiful sound I have ever heard. My baby cries fill the silence and I begin to cry. The baby is here. It is safe.
Greasy Sae has the baby for a few minutes, cleaning it up. She takes a soft warm blanket to wrap it and walks over to us.
"There's someone I'd like you all to meet," she smiles at us. She hands the bundle over to Peeta first. He takes it in his arms, and pushes a little bit of the blanket away off its face. He looks up at the older woman.
"It's a girl," she exclaims. Peeta, already in awe, looks back down at the little creature, taking one of her tiny fingers in his large callused ones. He coos at the baby for a moment, whispering words of how her daddy will always watch out for her. If I didn't think I could fall any more in love with the man, watching this moment proves me wrong.
He finally hands our daughter over to me. I take her in my arms and begin to look over her features. Dark hair and a delicate angular face with the mouth in what might just be called a scowl.
"Looks just like her mama," Sae adds. "Although, I think you can't mistake who her daddy is, either." I glance again and see what she means. The baby opens her eyes and I see the familiar crystal blue color that has captured my heart for a long time now.
"She's beautiful," I manage to get out through my tears. I can't get over the amount of joy I feel in this moment holding her.
Peeta sits closer to me so that we are all together. A family. He places a hand on her soft head while I am holding her. "She amazing," he notes softly. We just sit there watching her as Sae cleans up and eventually leaves.
"What do you want to name her?" he finally asks.
"I want to name her the one thing that has kept me going through everything that has happened to us." I say. "It's what you have always given me since we have been together." I look into those beautiful blue eyes. "If it's okay with you, I want to name her Hope."
"Hope." Peeta lets the name roll off his tongue. He thinks it over for a moment. "I think it's perfect."
"Welcome to the world, Hope Mellark," I tell her and nuzzle her nose as she sweetly closes her eyes to sleep.
The next days and weeks are full of lessons in parenting. I learn to feed, diaper, and put the baby to sleep. I get up in the middle of the night when Hope needs me, and try to gather as much strength as I can through the exhaustion. Everyone comes by to see her, and in turn, I finally start to take her out with me on my walks. I talk to her about hunting techniques, although I know she can't understand yet. Peeta helps tremendously, but is also busy working and watching over the construction of the bakery.
Time flies so fast, and even though we relish every moment with Hope, before I know it she is already two months old. That night, Peeta comes home all excited.
"Katniss, the bakery was finished today," he says. "Would you like to see it?" I nod, my excitement matching his. I get myself together; place the baby in a sling that I wrap around my body. We walk together hand in hand towards the village and go beyond it where the building has been going on. Many house are completed or almost at completion.
We keep walking until Peeta stops in front of one particular structure. I look up at the white two stories in front of me with the words Mellark Bakery written in large script above the doorway. I take in how simple yet beautiful the place is.
"Come on and see the inside," my husband tells me. We enter through the door and he shows me through the lower floor where I see the customer area, as well as the ovens and kitchen in the back. Peeta then takes me upstairs where the family living area is. There are large bedrooms for us and even a couple extra if our family does grow. There is a comfortable living space with sofa and chairs, and an intimate kitchen. One room is set up to be an art space so that Peeta can paint. He really has thought of everything.
"I even put an area at the back door downstairs where you can put your jacket, shoes, and hunting stuff," he continues to inform.
"It's fantastic," I gush. I really do love it.
"I'm glad you like it," he says with a sigh. "We can move in next week if you want. We don't have to give up the house by the lake. We can keep it so that we have somewhere we can go if we need to get away."
"Which I am sure we will definitely need to do at some point," I laugh.
"Definitely," Peeta agrees. From there, we spend the next week packing anything we would need. There are a few things I will have to order, but we have plates, towels, and other necessities to start.
The following Saturday, we gather everything up and close up the lake house. We walk to what is quickly becoming a town and as we get closer I notice that there is a gathering a people in front of the bakery. There is a noise coming from the group, but soon enough I realize it is not just noise, but singing. I listen to try and hear what the tune is, and stop in my tracks when I recognize it. It's not just any song, but the traditional wedding song of District 12.
"Peeta?" I turn to look up at him.
I can see that his face has some nervousness to it. It passes, though, and he takes my hands in his. "I know we are legally married, but I thought that maybe with coming into our new home, that we could finally do this the right way. The District 12 way." He stops for a minute and takes a deep breath. "Katniss, I love you forever and always. Will you toast with me?"
Between the beautiful song and the love coming from Peeta words, I am flooded over with emotion. I nod my head and barely squeak out a "Yes." He takes my face in his hands and kisses me. With large smiles, we walk through the gathering of well-wishers as we enter the house.
As we close the door, I hear muttered good nights to us as the crowd leaves. Alone, I take Hope upstairs and place her in the waiting crib. When I return to the large living room, I see Peeta kneeling in front of the fireplace that is now alight with flames. I notice a tray to the side with slices of bread and utensils to toast with. A couple of glasses of wine stand next to the plate.
He motions for me to come over and I join him. We take a few sips of wine first, and then both of us take a slice of bread and place it in the fire. They turn gold then finally a soft brown color when we take them out. Peeta pinches a piece off and places it out for me to eat. I take it and repeat the same gesture for him. He takes it into his mouth and chews it slowly, savoring the moment.
I can't help but to speak. "I love you," I say with everything I am feeling. "More than you will ever know."
"Oh, I can imagine a lot," Peeta jokes softly. "I love you too. So very much." He kisses me then, long and lovingly. With me giving birth, we have had to hold back on this side of our relationship. Having been so long, our kisses deepen quickly, and soon, I can feel his hand slowly undoing the buttons on the back of my dress. He eventually leads me to the bedroom where we begin the process of rediscovering each other.
Lying in the afterglow, I am amazed at how quickly reality comes back as I hear the soft cries of our little girl. Peeta gives a little groan, but I get up out of the bed and put a robe on. "The perks of being parents," I tell him as I throw some sleep pants his way.
I head into the nursery and find Hope twitching around. I recognize that she is hungry, so I take her back into our room and sit on the bed to let her attach to me and feed. My husband just sits there and watches the process, and when she is done, he brings the covers up and I lay our daughter down between us.
We just stay there, not sleeping, but just looking at each other. It's a memory I wish I could freeze forever. Here, being with my husband and child and the ability to finally choose our path ahead. In that moment, I think about everything that has happened since the districts were destroyed. I think about my life since my father died, maybe even since I was born. With my family now, there is a feeling I have that I want to relish for the rest of my life.
For the first time, I finally feel free.