It’s the first time I’ve boarded a train since the one that brought me to the Quarter Quell. In my dreams, I still revisit it: the long tunnels that suffocate me, light that grows ever more distant instead of approaching, the rumble of tracks that reverberate through my body, as though awakening some deep-rooted fear. As far as nightmares go, these ones are relatively tame, but I still wake up from them shaking and bathed in sweat, and clinging to Peeta like a wounded animal seeking refuge.
Here, in waking life, I manage to hold it together by telling myself to think of other things—anything other than the recycled air circulating in this cold metal box. My fingers rely on an old habit of tying knots with a piece of rope. Knot, unravel. Knot again. It’s repetitive and dull, but it numbs my mind in the right way. Peeta has his own piece of rope, but seems content to watch me fiddle with mine, and he keeps me distracted by telling me about how construction is coming along on the new site in the center of town where his bakery will open in a few months.
We watch the landscape change as the train speeds along. Flat, endless plains, bare trees, and rolling hills of dead grass eventually give way to a rocky coastline that borders a vast sea. Foamy waves—green-gray instead of the usual vivid blue beneath a sky that threatens rain—beat against the shore with brute force. Our train begins to slow as we approach our stop.
We’ve arrived at District 4.
I get to my feet, setting aside the rope for now to look out the window as we pull into the station. Peeta’s hand squeezes my shoulder and I reach up to hold it, twining my fingers with his. He kisses the top of my head and brings his other arm around my waist to pull me into him, my shoulder blades pressing against his chest. I can feel his heartbeat quicken ever so slightly, drumming against my back. It seems he’s just as anxious as I am over what awaits us when we step off this train.
“You ok?” he asks me. As always, his first instinct is to think of me.
I give a non-committal shrug. “What about you?”
We haven’t been here since our Victory Tour nearly two years ago. I can see by the way his jaw is set that he’s rifling through memories that must be coming in rapid succession, and he’s working to keep up with their pace, cataloguing them as they surface. He just grips my hand more tightly and looks down at me with a smile.
“We’re here for a happy occasion,” he says, as though trying to remind himself. And I think maybe I needed the same reminder.
My mother is waiting for us at the station. She has a smile on her face, but it’s somewhat tentative, growing more certain as we approach and she sees me start to raise my arms in embrace. I don’t hold back when I draw her into me, which I can tell takes her by surprise. When we ease off each other, she brings her hands up to my cheeks to cup my face and looks at me, her eyes glossy with unshed tears.
“You look well,” she says. “You’re doing better?”
I nod and reach for Peeta’s hand. “We both are.”
“Good,” she says. “Good, I’m so glad.”
“What about you?”
“Keeping busy.” There’s a pause, then she adds, “There are a lot of things to keep me busy here.”
“How’s Annie doing?” Peeta asks.
We begin to walk along the platform, dodging people who are rushing forward to greet their loved ones as they spill out of the train. Some of them recognize us, their eyes lingering on us a little longer than they would on any other stranger, but we push ahead until we’ve made our way out of the station, where the crowd has thinned considerably and we’re able to have a decent conversation.
“She’s recuperating nicely. Surgery is never easy, especially when there isn’t anyone to help you through it, but she’s tough. And that baby is a fighter.”
I feel a sudden tightness around my chest. This should have been Finnick greeting us at the station, I can’t help but think. Finnick, who should have been telling us about his newborn son, who came six weeks early. Finnick, who would have been elated at the sight of me and Peeta together, telling me he always knew we’d find our way back to each other, just as he and Annie did. I want to tell him that he was right. That Peeta crept up on me, too. That he saw it before I did.
But he isn’t here, and the best that Peeta and I can do is visit his widow and pay our respects.
Once again, I have remind myself this is a happy occasion.
* * *
I haven’t held a baby since Prim was born. There haven’t been many opportunities to do so since then, and I think I’ve deliberately avoided them anyway. Now I see I was right to do so. Because if I give myself the chance to remember how this feels—this weight in my arms, the warmth of this tiny body, the sound of his breath, so even and so rhythmic—I lose the very last wall of defense I have left. And I cannot afford to lose it.
You’re going to make a great mother, you know.
Peeta had said this to me once. In another time, another place, another circumstance. It seems like a lifetime ago now. I wanted to tell him then that he was wrong, that nothing could be further from the truth, but the truth was, I just didn’t want him to be right. I couldn’t risk opening that door, not if it meant opening the door to everything else that came along with it: the threat of loss, the fear of failure, the overwhelming dread of not being able to protect those I hold most precious in this world. These are things I already wrestle with on a daily basis in loving Peeta. I’m just not sure if I have it in me to love someone else in that way, too. I don’t know that I ever will.
I feel his eyes on me now as I cradle Annie’s son, watching me as I stroke the tufts of fine hair on his head and hum a simple lullaby to lull him to sleep. But I know that the longer I hold this baby, the harder it is for me to keep up my resolve, so I hand him back to Annie before I feel it weaken any more than it already has, crossing my arms so I won’t think of the sudden emptiness I feel in them.
Annie asks Peeta if he wants to hold the baby, and he eagerly accepts. He’s a natural, of course. It should have surprised me, given that he was the youngest one in his family and can’t have had too many occasions to be around children, but in the back of my mind, I think I always knew this, expected this. Always saw it in his gentleness, his sweetness, his boundless capacity to love. And suddenly, I feel a stab of sadness as I watch him look longingly on this little boy. Because if there’s any justice at all in this cruel world, then Peeta Mellark deserves to be a father.
And this is the one thing I can’t ever give him.
* * *
“You were awfully quiet at dinner.”
I don’t hear him come into my room, the padded carpet dulling his heavy foot fall and the door only now falling shut with a soft click. It was a silly thought to get two hotel rooms anyway, since one of us was bound to end up in the other’s room before the night was over, but my mother had already gone ahead and booked two rooms before I could tell her otherwise. Eighteen is still too young to spend the entire night with a boy without scandal—even if half of Panem still probably believes the charade of us being married—and I just didn’t feel like having to explain to her that the only way either of us is able to get a decent night’s sleep these days is to have the other by our side.
It seems like no one’s business but our own.
“It’s been a long day.”
He comes up behind me as I sit at the vanity, where I’ve been brushing my hair absently. I don’t turn to look at him, instead bringing my eyes up to meet his in the reflection in the mirror, as though leaving my back to him won’t let him see what’s truly going on inside of me.
Stupid of me, of course. Because Peeta has always been able to see right through me.
He sighs, then digs his hands in his pockets. “Yeah, I know.”
I begin to braid my hair, an excuse to break the eye contact, but I still feel the weight of his stare. I sense that he’s trying to formulate a question in his mind—I think I may even know what it may be, but I’m not ready to have this conversation—so I decide to take a little initiative and steer us down a different road altogether.
“Come look at this view,” I say, getting up from the vanity and making my way over to him to take his hand and lead him to the balcony. It’s a fancy room—the hotel recognized us the moment we’d checked in and insisted on giving us the best rooms they had available—and mine faces the ocean. The storm that had raged earlier in the day has passed, but the sky is still a deep, inky violet, and the waves have not relented in their brutality. Peeta and I watch, mesmerized by their rhythm, and I turn into him and lay my head on his breastbone, feeling his steady heartbeat against my cheek.
“Annie seems like she’s holding up,” he says. His hand makes small circles on the small of my back. “I don’t know how she’s doing it. Managing without him. And now…”
“Maybe that’s how she’s managing,” I say. “She has to. For the baby, doesn’t she?”
He’s quiet for a long time, then I feel something shift in his breath and I know he’s going to say it. I know it, before he ever gets the words out. I lift my head and rise up on my toes to kiss him, hoping to delay him for as long as possible. Hoping that if I pour everything into this kiss, he won’t have to ask the question, because he’ll already know how I feel about him. Even if I can’t give him what he wants.
He responds right away, bringing his hands up to my face and sweeping his thumbs over my cheekbones in the way that always raises goose bumps all along my flesh, but I know I’m only putting off the inevitable, and when we part for air, he just looks at me, studying me, gently brushing away the hair that’s fallen in my eyes.
“When I told everyone you were pregnant…”
Don’t. Please don’t.
“I really wanted it to be true.”
I bring my hands up to close my hands over his wrists. “I know.”
“But you didn’t.”
It was a statement more than a question. I’ve underestimated him again. I should have known he already knew.
“Katniss, there are no more Hunger Games.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
I have to turn away, because the pain in his eyes is too much for me to bear.
Silence hangs in the air, then I say, “Do you hate me for not wanting children?”
“Do you hate me for wanting them?”
His hand reaches for mine. How can I not take it?
“I could never hate you.” Then I swallow hard. Now it’s my turn to ask a question. “This is what you get, Peeta. Me. Do you still want me? Even if I can never give you this?”
I wonder if I am imagining his hesitation. The thought of it is pure agony. I tear my eyes away, thinking maybe it’ll be easier for him to answer if he’s not facing the pressure of my stare. I start to step back in the room when he tugs on my hand.
“Always. I will always want you.” He pulls me into him, lifting my head up to kiss me. Then he says something else, and I feel the shape of the words against my mouth before I ever hear him say them out loud.
“What did you just say?”
I’m not sure how I get the words out, because there’s no air left in my lungs.
He just smiles and drops his hands to my waist. “I said… marry me.”
I half-laugh, half-cry. I’m not really sure how to process what I’m feeling, except that I know I’m happy, because I know that this time, we are doing this for ourselves. No one is threatening us, no one is manipulating us, no one is forcing us into a choice we wouldn’t have otherwise made. Because I know now that this would have happened anyway. It would have always come to this.
He lets out a shaky laugh, then presses his forehead into mine. My hands find their way to his face again, tracing the line of his jaw, the shape of his lips. And I remember his smile from earlier, when he was holding Annie’s son. I know I can’t deny him this, even if he says he accepts my decision. Silently, I make a promise. That every day I will chip away at that wall. The last vestiges of my guard. Brick by brick, it will come down, and someday, one day, I hope I can give him this. Because he deserves it.
But for now, I seal my unspoken promise with a kiss.