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Let Me Fly

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oOo

 

Last Time in We Didn’t Start The Fire:

 

“You are correct. So!” She claps her hands. “We have a lot to work on and not much time to do it. We’d like for you to make your debut soon.”

 

“When?” Katniss asks.

 

“Well, we’re still trying to figure out what day would resonate the most with the districts. I’m arguing for Reaping Day, personally, the symbolism of announcing you on the very day your defection was discovered is far too poetic to pass up.” She pauses, frowning. “But there are still detractors. Some feel we should announce you as soon as you’re ready.” She makes a face, showing what she feels about that suggestion. “Others feel that a better time would be the Victory celebration. There’s really far too many options, and it all ultimately comes down to two variables. When the technicians feel they can break in and when you three, specifically you, Gale, are ready to make your debut.”

 

“Wonderful,” Katniss grumbles. “At least by then we’ll have the baby.”

 

oOo

 

“People of Panem, we fight, we dare, to end this hunger for justice!” Gale shouts, lifting a pole that they tell us will have a red flag added to it later. I think they said by computer or some other form of incomprehensible technology. All I know is that Gale looks like an idiot raising a metal pole and shouting asinine slogans.

 

I cover my face with my hands. They’ve had Gale say that stupid line over and over again. It’s not working and nobody has sense enough to realize it.

 

When we first got the script and I read it through, I knew immediately there would be problems, especially with the dialogue. I tried to raise my concerns, but no one listened. Instead, I was brushed off. ‘What does he know about a rebellion?’ their eyes seemed to say. I wanted to shout back at them, I may not know anything about a rebellion but I know my husband and wife. I know how to twist words and make them sing for me, much like how Katniss is able to sing notes. I know, if we could capture Katniss in one of her rare unguarded moments singing one of the old songs from our district, that it would be much more moving than this green screen effect that they’re trying to do now.

 

“Cut, cut, cut!” Fulvia says, her voice full of frustration. The crew gratefully lower their equipment while the former Capitol woman minces over to her star.   “Now Gale, you need to put some more life into that phrase. You want people to rebel. You want them to rise up with you. With us!” She tilts her head and asks, “Don’t you want the rebellion to succeed?”

 

Gale runs a hand through his hair in frustration. “Of course I do! Just… these lines suck.”

 

I nod my head emphatically.

 

“Why Peet could shit out better crap than this!” He motions at me with his pole.

 

“Gale, you’re flattering me.” He’s not wrong though. This pile of tripe deserves to be in the compost heap, not on the page.

 

Fulvia sighs and looks over at me. “I suppose you have a better suggestion, Mr. Mellark?”

 

I shrug. I want to say that I had lots of better suggestions that no one wanted to hear earlier. But there’s no point in rubbing it in. Instead I say, “How about I give it a try?”

 

“You?” Fulvia asks with some disbelief.

 

Shrugging again, I tell her, “I’m a better actor than Gale.” It’s not a lie. It’s also not hard to be a better actor than my husband or wife, too, if I’m honest. Both of them are too honest and earnest. “If you need someone to say something that they aren’t feeling or that they didn’t write themselves, I’m your Mockingjay. So long as I have the ability to improvise a little with the emotions, I can say the lines.”

 

“But why can’t Gale?” Fulvia wails, scrubbing at her face with her hands. “Gale’s the one we need!” She motions vaguely at my husband. “He’s the spokesperson!”

 

“No, I’m the spokesperson,” I correct her. “We’ve gone over this. You need all of us.” I motion to the three of us. “Gale is good at action, not so good at words. Katniss… she’s good when she’s off-script. If you can just capture her when she actually feels something, I guarantee you’ll understand what I mean.”

 

“So what do you propose we do?” Fulvia asks, her voice tired. “We need these propos to go out to the districts.”

 

Katniss looks up from where she’s sitting, absently stroking her belly. “Why? It’s not like you’ve figured out how to break into the Capitol’s communications networks. Who are you gonna show these to?”

 

“We’re still working on that,” Fulvia admits. “We’ve managed to sneak some propos in to loyal members of the rebellion, but it’s not easy, which is why it’s so very important that we have something inspiring! This is your first propo, my dears. We need it to be memorable!” It’s clear she’s trying to keep it together.

 

“This sure as fuck ain’t memorable,” Gale grumbles.

 

“Yeah,” Katniss agrees. “It sounds like the typical--” She trails off, her hand stopping in mid-stroke.

 

“Katniss?” I ask.

 

She stares at her stomach, her eyes a little apprehensive. “Well, that was new.”

 

“What? What was new?” I rush over to her, kneeling down in front of her. “Is the baby okay?”

 

“Baby’s fine. Just felt… something, a little twinge of something. It’s gone now.” She waves her hand at me. “Go back to what you were doing. Rip these guys a new one and show ‘em how it’s supposed to be done.”

 

I nod my head and obey her orders, but I keep a nervous eye on Katniss. She’s still got a week left before she’s due, but according to Dr. Andrews, our child could be born at any time.

 

“Gale, get rid of that pole,” I order.

 

Gale tosses the metal stick away with a loud clatter and a big grin.

 

I roll my eyes at my husband’s antics then turn back to the Capitol woman. “I think, Fulvia, that it’d be a lot more moving to have the districts learn just why Gale left,” I explain. “It wasn’t just the Capitol’s neglect in taking care of its districts, but it was also the extremely unfair chance of someone from District Twelve being Reaped versus someone from any other district. It’s a story of brotherly love and what one man would do to save what’s left of his family. That’s something I think we all can relate to, that everyone in Panem can relate to, the need to protect our loved ones.”

 

I can see her considering my suggestion. “And you think this… interview, I suppose, would be more moving than a rousing call to arms?”

 

“Are we ready for the districts to rebel?” I ask her pointedly. “Are we ready for them to face the consequences? We need them all to join with us, or at least enough of them that the Capitol can’t just bomb one district into oblivion and stop the rebellion in its tracks.”

 

Fulvia makes a face. “I don’t know. They don’t tell me how military proceedings are going.”

 

“Then find out,” I tell her, struggling not to growl. “Because this? What we’re doing right now? It’s useless--”

 

From behind me, Katniss lets out a loud moan.

 

I whirl to look at her. “Katniss?” I ask her worriedly. “That wasn’t nothing.”

 

She shakes her head. “No, no, that definitely was something.”

 

“You think the baby’s coming?” Our husband takes a step forward, concern on his handsome face.

 

She places both hands on her stomach and concentrates. “I don’t know? I mean, I’ve been feeling kind of weird all day, but that’s pretty much normal now. I’ve never been pregnant before, so I don’t know what to expect.”

 

Gale crosses to our wife’s side. “Are you having any pains?”

 

“Just the two.”

 

“They were about…” he tilts his head, thinking about it. “Maybe five minutes apart. Pretty close.”

 

“Maybe they’ll just go away!” Katniss’s voice is a little panicked.

 

Gale chuckles and shakes his head. “Unless you want to have that baby in you for the rest of your life, at some point you’re gonna want them to not go away.”

 

“But it’s only two. Can’t we wait until I have another one?”

 

All eyes are on Katniss and Gale, including mine. Cressida motions for Castor to film the exchange and I can see that Fulvia’s bouncing slightly on the tips of her toes in excitement. Great. The birth of my child is going to be a media circus.

 

I debate asking them to stop, but I understand their interest. This is the most real thing that they’ve seen us do since we’ve come to Thirteen. This is the most real they’ve seen Katniss and Gale, and frankly it’s kind of endearing.

 

I come over to sit beside my wife and take her hands. “It’s okay, Katniss, we can wait until you have another one. But if you do, we’re going down to the Infirmary.”

 

She nods her head. “Fine. But you’re wrong, you know. It’s just a false alarm.”

 

I smile at her. “I hope not. I’m getting impatient to meet this little one.” I place my hand on her stomach.

 

She smiles over at me and reaches down for Gale’s hand. She places it on top of my hand resting on her belly before enfolding the two in hers. “You’re right. I want to meet him too. I never thought I’d have children,” she says, half to herself and half to the two of us.   “But being free of seeing them be Reaped for the Games, it’s given me new hope. Maybe I can be a mother.” She strokes her belly lightly with one finger. “This child won’t be Reaped. I won’t birth my son just to have to watch him go to his death twelve years later. That’s why we ran, so none of us and none of our children would have to be Reaped.”

 

I’m struggling to keep my emotions in check. “That’s right, Katniss. Our son will never ever have to go into the Games.”

 

“That’s something worth fighting for,” Gale says. “It’s something worth dying for. And I promise, right now, that to keep my family out of the Hunger Games, I’d lay down my life. Nothing is more important than you three. Nothing.”

 

Even though Katniss and Gale weren’t speaking to the cameras, I’m very aware that our whole exchange was just videotaped by Cressida and her crew. This unrehearsed, unscripted moment shows how inspirational my spouses can be when they’re allowed to just be themselves. I’m also aware of just how powerful this message, this whole exchange, was, and how much it’s going to resonate with every parent across Panem. How many of them would be willing to trade their life for that of their child? Other than my mother, every parent I know would do that. I’d do that, and I haven’t even met my son yet.

 

Katniss makes a face and I feel her belly contract underneath my hand.

 

Our husband feels it too. “And that’s three,” Gale says with a smile on his lips. “Sorry, Catnip. Looks like this kid’s interrupting our propo session.”

 

“Oh, oh! But please, before you go! That was lovely!” Fulvia wipes away nonexistent tears. “So moving!” She turns to me. “You are completely correct, Mr. Mellark, I should have listened to you first! That, that is what we need! And what would make it even better is if we could see the Mockingjay Chick taking its first breath of freedom!”

 

“What?” I ask.

 

“Why, we need to film the birth! Show your son being born! It would be just the thing the districts need to see to rise up and throw off the yoke of their oppression!”

 

“Have you ever had kids?” Gale asks.

 

“Well no,” Fulvia admits. “I’ve been too devoted to my work. But I don’t see your point.”

 

“Um, birthing babies takes time,” our husband tells her, slowly. “Like, we’re talking hours of time. You probably don’t have enough tape to film it all.”

 

“That’s what editing is for.” The woman waves away his logic. “We don’t need to focus on the buildup! Just the final act, as it were.”

 

Katniss shakes her head. “No.”

 

“But, Ms. Everdeen--”

 

“No.” My wife’s voice is firm, unyielding. “I am not having a film crew in my delivery room shooting pictures up my crotch for all of Panem to see on top of doctors and nurses and who knows who else. Just no.”

 

“But, but Katniss dear--”

 

“You heard my wife,” Gale interrupts. “No cameras in the delivery room.”

 

“But, but, how else will we show the happy ending?” Real tears start to form in the Capitol woman’s eyes. “How will we let Panem know that your chick has been born free?”

 

My mind races, trying to think of something that will satisfy Fulvia but isn’t incredibly invasive and won’t upset Katniss. Finally I settle on, “When Katniss is ready and cleaned up, and after we make sure that our son is healthy, we’d be willing to let you be the first to see him and film him, for posterity. Does that work for all of you?” I’m actually watching for Katniss’s decision, not Fulvia’s.

 

My wife chews at her lower lip for a bit, then nods her head once. It’s an acceptable solution.

 

“Just keep me in the loop,” Fulvia says with a sigh, accepting that this is the most she’s going to get. “Cressida, darling, perhaps you and Castor could stay in the waiting room until young Mister… what’s his last name going to be? Mellark? Everdeen?”

 

“Hawthorne,” I say.

 

“Right.” There’s no judgment in her tone or on her face at our son’s last name. “Until young Mister Hawthorne makes his grand debut.”

 

Cressida nods and looks over at the rest of her team. “We’ll talk about shifts later.” She sounds resigned, like she knows it’s going to be a long night. I wonder, briefly, where she got her knowledge.

 

“We should probably get going,” I say, glancing at the members of our new entourage. “You don’t want to have the baby here in the studio.”

 

“You’ve got that right,” Katniss states with conviction.

 

oOo

 

Our son is born a little after 7:30 pm on May 7th. Gale says Katniss had a relatively fast labor, but it seemed like eons to me, watching her be in so much pain and fearing the worst, knowing that women die in childbirth making each contraction excruciating. Katniss is so tiny. I wanted her labor to be over as soon as possible. Thirteen’s doctors offered to perform something called a Caesarian section on her, but Katniss refused, probably because she didn’t know what it was. Later, once I learned what the procedure entailed, I kind of wished she’d taken them up on it.

 

Toward the end of her labor, it was all Katniss could do to not scream, she was in so much pain. All I could do was hold her hand and let her squeeze my fingers until they turned purple under the pressure.

 

Some of the medical personnel tried to remove Gale from the room and got a punch in the face for their efforts. Idiots. At least Dr. Andrews was there. He understands. No one was going to keep Gale from witnessing the birth of his child. Genetics be damned.

 

When our son is finally expelled from Katniss’s body, it’s one of the happiest moments in my life. Hearing his high-pitched reedy cry… I feel tears prick at my eyes.

 

That’s my son!

 

I look up and see Gale’s expression mirroring my own.

 

Our son.

 

And he’s alive!

 

My husband and I turn our attention back to Katniss to see that, as exhausted as she is, she’s as relieved as we are that our son is fine. A few more pushes and he’s free and the doctors take him to do whatever doctors do as well as clean him up while Katniss deals with the afterbirth.

 

I’m glad Katniss refused to let Fulvia and the others film her childbirth. It was a messy and agonizing process and it’s something I wouldn’t subject anybody else to. Especially not as a rousing call to arms.

 

Gale leans over and presses a kiss to Katniss’s damp forehead, smoothing down the tendrils of black hair that have escaped her braid. “You did good, Catnip,” he murmurs. “Looks like our boy’s healthy.”

 

“Where is he?” Katniss asks, looking around. “I want to see him. Dammit, I just spent ten hours pushing him out of my body, I deserve to see him.”

 

“I’m sure you will,” I try to soothe her. “I guess they’re just going off and doing doctorly things with him.”

 

She glares first at me, then at everyone else in the room. “I want my son. Bring me my son.”

 

There’s still one nurse in the room with us, the older gray-haired woman from before. I note that her nametag says Stephens but I can’t quite make out the first name. She says, “Oh don’t worry about it, Ms. Everdeen, it won’t be long. They just want to clean him up a bit, make sure your son’s all healthy and that he doesn’t need anything, take a few quick measurements, give him a few vaccines, and then we’ll bring him right back in here.”

 

“What kind of measurements?” I ask. “And what’s a vaccine?”

 

“Measurements are simple. We just want to know what his height and weight are, as well as how much body fat he’s got on him.”

 

I nod my head. That seems reasonable.

 

“And you don’t know what a vaccine is?”

 

All three of us shake our heads.

 

“We don’t have them in Twelve,” I tell her. “Whatever they are.”

 

The woman looks taken aback. “Oh. Oh my. Well that could be a problem. We’ll need to talk to all of you imports. There may need to be a change in protocol.”

 

“You still haven’t answered our question,” Katniss notes. “What’s a vaccine? And why are they giving it to my son?”

 

“It’s… I don’t quite know how to explain it. Typically it’s a shot that prevents you from getting certain kinds of illnesses,” Nurse Stephens begins. “The history books tell us there used to be a lot more deadly diseases out there, but some of them were eradicated through vaccines. There’s still some we haven’t quite eliminated yet, specifically the disease that struck so many of us down twelve years ago, as well as that terrible flu that took out so many in the districts.” She pauses for a second before adding, “It was completely preventable, you know.”

 

The three of us exchange a look. “No. We didn’t know,” Katniss says slowly.

 

“Oh yes. It’s not that hard to synthesize a vaccine from a survivor. Why, in fact, we actually were able to synthesize one from you, Ms. Everdeen.”

 

“What?” our wife exclaims. “How?”

 

“From your blood,” Nurse Stephens answers as if it explains everything. It doesn’t and she must realize it because she follows up with, “We were able to isolate the antibodies still present in your system and come up with a vaccine. So in a very real sense right now, we’re giving your son a little bit of you to protect him.”

 

“Thank you, I guess?”

 

“Oh no no no, thank you, Ms. Everdeen. Without you and your party, we wouldn’t have this protection at all. And I’m sure it’ll be very important for all the soldiers going off to the war.”

 

We don’t get to talk much more with her because the door opens and the other nurse, the younger one with light brown hair and pale blue eyes, returns, holding our son in her hands.

 

“Here he is, your young baby boy!” she says in a sing-song voice. “He’s all clean and healthy and we’ve put this little anklet on him that matches Mr. Mellark’s and Ms. Everdeen’s patient bracelets, that way no one will try to give your son to anyone else other than you two, and only you two will be able to access the nursery for feedings and family time.”

 

“What about Gale?” Katniss asks.

 

“What about him?” the other woman retorts quickly.

 

Katniss narrows her eyes. “He’s our son’s father too.”

 

“No, he’s not.”

 

“Yes. He is.”

 

“No, that’s not how it works, Ms. Everdeen,” the young woman tells her, her voice angry.

 

“That’s how we work.” I pull the bracelet that they’ve given me off of my wrist and hand it to Gale. “Here.” I turn to the nurse. “Now you. Give me my son.”

 

“This is highly irregular!”

 

I take a step forward, my eyes and voice hard. “I don’t care. Give me my son. And after you do that, go get me another one of those bracelets.”

 

She glances at the other nurse for help. To her credit, Nurse Stephens just shakes her head, refusing to get involved. The younger woman is livid. “I’ll have to take this to my superiors!” she threatens.

 

“You do that,” I state. I’m not going to be a diplomat now. She’s excluding a member of my family, someone I love, with her adamant refusal to acknowledge the three of us as one cohesive unit. “Please, by all means, have them come speak to us. I’m sure President Coin will be happy to know just how unwelcome we feel and how you attempted to keep Gale Hawthorne, the Mockingjay, from his son.”

 

“But the baby’s not his!” she protests.

 

Gale has had enough of her obstinance. “He is my son, you irritating twit!” he thunders. “Just because you can’t get it through that thick head of yours doesn’t mean it’s not true. Give Peeta our boy and get the fuck out of here.”

 

She does what Gale commands, placing our son into my arms before fleeing the room. I want to say something insulting to her fleeing back, but I’m too entranced by the tiny human in my arms.

 

I’m a little surprised our son isn’t crying at the commotion, but instead he’s just resting comfortably in my arms, allowing me to take stock of the moment. Our son is so small. Small… but perfect.   He’s got a fine dusting of light blond hair on his skull, but no eyebrows. His eyes are closed, so I can’t see what color they are. I carefully note that his fingers have tiny nails on them and wonder at them. I still can’t quite believe I’m a father, but now with our son in my arms I’m starting to believe it.

 

The baby starts making little sucking motions with his mouth. “I think he’s hungry,” I say, looking up at my spouses.

 

“Well you’re not gonna be able to do anything about that,” Katniss tells me with a little smile on her face. She extends her arms. “Give him here.”

 

“Just a sec.” I walk around the side of the bed and over to Gale and hold out the precious bundle to my husband. “I want you to meet your son, Gale. Say hello to Rain Hawthorne.” Giving voice to the name we’d decided on a week ago.

 

Gale takes him gently, tears forming in his eyes. “Hello, Rain. Papa loves you, you know that? Papa loves you very much.” My husband’s voice is thick with emotion.

 

Katniss and I share a glance, for once understanding each other perfectly. No one should doubt that Gale is our son’s father.

 

Rain curls up his face, letting out a squeaky cry.

 

“Alright, hand Mister Squeaker over to me,” Katniss repeats.

 

Gale does so reluctantly. I understand how he feels. I want to hold our son forever, keep him safe. But only Katniss can feed him.

 

Katniss takes him into her arms for the first time. She caresses his delicate cap of hair before dropping a kiss between his eyes. “So you’re the one who’s been dancing on my bladder,” she murmurs to him. “I love you anyway.” The baby squeaks again and she undoes her hospital gown, placing our baby to her breast. It takes a little bit of doing before Rain latches on, starting to suckle.

 

“Well that’s weird,” Katniss says, looking down at him. “It feels nothing like when you guys do this to me. I can’t describe it. It’s weird.”

 

“Bad weird or good weird?” I ask.

 

“Oh definitely a good weird, just… weird.” She yawns. “But after he gets his first meal we probably should bring those idiots back in for the propo. I’m not sure how much longer I can stay awake.”

 

“Do you want to get cleaned up a bit, dear?” the grey-haired nurse asks. I’d almost forgotten she was still in the room.

 

Katniss nods emphatically. “Please.”

 

“Let me see if I can find a robe around here,” the woman says, heading toward the door before pausing and looking back at our wife. “I’ve got a comb back in my things, if you’re okay with sharing. Us medical staff have to catch sleep when we can, and it’s not good for patients’ morale to walk around with bedhead.”

 

I laugh. I like this nurse. I squint my eyes to see if I can make out the name on her uniform. Danielle Stephens.

 

“Thank you, Nurse Stephens,” I tell her in lieu of Katniss who is mid-yawn. “We’d really appreciate that.”

 

“Oh it’s no problem,” she responds, waving away my thanks. “It’s just nice to see more babies and happy families. I’ll let that nice blond lady with the half-shaved head know you’ll be ready in a few minutes.”

 

“Thank you,” I say again.

 

She leaves and the three of us are alone for the first time with our son. I take my seat next to Katniss and stare wonderingly at the tiny human that we made. “I still can’t… is this real? I’m a father? Real? Not real?”

 

Gale reaches over Katniss to take my hand. “Real.”

 

oOo

 

Despite Katniss’s protests that she got everything she ever wanted for her birthday the day before, my mother-in-law, Prim, and Rory insist on celebrating Katniss’s birthday with her in the Infirmary. There aren’t any presents, per se, and the feast is definitely nothing to speak of, being more of the same boring tasteless food that Thirteen is known for, but it’s good to catch up and find out how everyone is doing.

 

“You won’t believe it, Katniss!” Prim says, looking up from where she’s cradling her nephew to her chest. “Dandelion had her babies just this morning!”

 

Katniss shakes her head. “How many?”

 

“Actually only two survived.” Prim looks down at our son and coos, “And I’m saving one of them for you. Yes I am! You’re gonna have a kitten of your very own.”

 

“Isn’t he a little young for a kitten?” Katniss asks, arching her eyebrows at her sister.

 

“Every kid should be able to have a pet!” Prim protests.

 

“Aren’t Dandelion’s kittens a little young to be separated from their mother?” Katniss tries another tack.

 

“Well yes,” Prim admits. Then she rubs Rain’s nose with her own. “But as soon as they’re weaned, I’m giving the best one to you.”

 

I struggle not to laugh at Katniss’s expression of sheer horror. Our husband looks almost as terrified. A baby’s one thing. A kitten’s another. Looks like our little family’s expanding by leaps and bounds.

 

“That’s nice, Prim. So how are you liking it here in Thirteen?” I ask, diplomatically changing the subject.

 

Shifting our son so he’s cradled in the crook of her elbow, she answers, “It’s okay. Mom’s transferring to the nursery unit but I’m too young and too inexperienced to go with her, so they’ve moved me to the medical corps training barracks.”

 

“You’re too young for the nursery but not the medical corps?” Katniss asks.

 

Prim shakes her head. “You’re enlisted in the military at the age of fourteen here and they start training at twelve. Rory and me are actually a year behind.”

 

“You’ll catch up soon,” I say encouragingly.

 

“Oh I know. I’m not worried about that. I just miss home,” she says.

 

Gale ruffles her hair before taking Rain from her. “I know what you mean, Squirt.”

 

“Hey!” Prim glares at him, mimicking her older sister perfectly. “I’m not a squirt! I’m almost as tall as Katniss now!”

 

She’s not wrong. It’s pretty clear that Prim is going to be taller than her sister, and I know Katniss is happy about that.

 

I turn to Violet. “You’ve transferred to the nursery?”

 

She nods. “They don’t let the babies go home with the parents for the first few months,” my mother in law tells us. “They keep them in a communal nursery. They say it’s for the child’s safety and so that the parents can get a full night’s sleep, which, let me tell you, is not that bad of an idea. But I figured you’d be happier if someone you knew and trusted was there keeping an eye on things.”

 

I appreciate her thoughtfulness and I see from my spouses’ expressions that they feel the same. But something about what she says bothers me. “Why didn’t they tell us this before?” Separating a family like this isn’t done in Twelve. Kids stay with their parents no matter what. Only in extreme cases of neglect or abuse does the state step in and then only to protect the Capitol’s assets. Hearing that our son won’t be able to come home with us after Katniss gets out of the Infirmary is troubling.

 

“Probably didn’t think of it,” Violet replies with a shrug. “It’s been this way in Thirteen for years now, I only found out about it by chance.”

 

“I don’t want to be separated from my son,” Katniss protests. “Especially not here.”

 

“I don’t think you get a vote, Katniss,” her mother states. “They’re pretty strict about child safety in Thirteen, and the powers that be don’t want to risk a parent sleeping through a baby in distress, or worse.” She sighs. “I don’t like it myself, but I can understand why they do it. Babies are a lot of work and cause a lot of stress. I’ve seen it plenty with new parents in the Seam. Exhaustion takes a heavy toll and not everybody’s able to deal with it. There’s a lot of shaken babies back in Twelve, especially in wintertime.”

 

“But how am I supposed to feed him?” It’s a good question.

 

“Feeding times will be added to your daily schedule, and they’ve got supplements for any additional feedings,” Violet explains. She pauses, giving her daughter a nervous look. “You’ll also be expected to provide additional breast milk that may or may not be used for Rain.”

 

I can see Katniss’s eyes flash in anger, and I can tell she does not like this idea.

 

“How strict are they about this?” I ask, attempting to head off the storm I sense is coming.

 

“Very. There aren’t a lot of babies down there right now. And what ones there are, the mothers all seem to appreciate being able to get a full night’s sleep.”

 

“Are they gonna try to keep me from my baby?” Katniss’s voice is low, dangerous.

 

“No, no, of course not! They just want to make sure that the baby’s sleeping five to six hours a night before they send them home with the parents. I’m sure they’ll explain it to you more later, but it’s expected that you’ll leave the child in the nursery during any training or other things.” My mother in law pauses. “I’m sorry, Katniss, they’re not going to let you carry your baby into the woods when you go hunting.”

 

Katniss waves her hand dismissively. “Wasn’t planning on it,” she says. “He’d probably cry at the wrong time and scare away any game.”

 

“Not to mention, carrying a baby would throw off your aim,” Gale points out.

 

She glares at our husband. “I know that.”

 

“They’ve moved me up a level,” Rory jumps in. I’m thankful for the boy’s distraction. “I’m no longer with the twelve year olds. They say I’m a crack shot and that I’m sure to make marksman soon. And they’re talking about having me become a sniper.” Rory doesn’t sound all that excited about his promotion, which has me worried.

 

I’m not the only one. “Is that what you want?” Gale asks, his voice intent.

 

“It’s something to do.” Rory shrugs. “I’m not special like you. I’m just the Mockingjay’s brother. They don’t care about me.” His tone is dejected. Looking down at his feet, he says, “To them, I’m just another soldier in this war.” He pauses, turning to me and Gale. “Did you know that all of us have to… you know… before they even let us move on to the final stages of training?”

 

Gale blinks in confusion. “No, I don’t know.”

 

Rory squirms uncomfortably, shooting glances over at Prim. “Do I have to say?”

 

The girl rolls her eyes.

 

“You’re the one who brought it up,” Gale points out.

 

“It’s embarrassing!”

 

“Oh! I know what he’s talking about!” Prim exclaims. “You’re talking about the genetic database, aren’t you?”

 

“Yes!” Rory latches on to Prim’s explanation without a thought, before his brain catches up to his mouth and he adds, “I think?”

 

“What’s the genetic database?” Katniss asks.

 

“Well, it’s not really a database,” Prim explains. “It’s more like a freezer. They take samples from all fertile soldiers, just in case. Women are scheduled to have an ovary removed before being deployed, and men are expected to submit regular contributions.”

 

I blink my eyes at the implications. “They’re… making babies?”

 

“Not yet,” Prim corrects. “There aren’t enough carriers, you see. There’s lots more women whose eggs are viable, but there’s not very many women who can actually carry a baby to term. They’ve been experimenting some with artificial wombs without any success. But I think until they win this rebellion, Thirteen doesn’t want to start forcing people to breed.”

 

“Which means that they’re considering it.” Katniss’s voice is flat.

 

Prim shrugs. “Maybe? I mean, I can kinda see their point.”

 

“All children should be wanted.”

 

“But they are!”

 

I agree with my wife. “Not just by the government,” I say, shaking my head. “That’s what we’re fighting against. The Capitol wants our children for their entertainment and to be their slaves. How is this any different? Breeding stock, forced labor. It’s the same thing.”

 

“I guess I see your point, but I suppose if it’s voluntary...” Prim trails off.

 

“If it were voluntary, I’d have no problems with it,” I tell her. “Kids like Rory just shouldn’t be compelled to jerk off in a cup just so that they can join the army or be part of this rebellion. That’s not right.”

 

Gale reaches out and clasps my shoulder. “Sounds like you’ve found another condition, Peet.” Telling me that he agrees with my assessment of the situation.

 

I chuckle, I hadn’t expected to find another cause so soon. “Guess I have.”

 

“So, I’ve got some good news,” Violet says, breaking in. “Madge is going to make it. It was touch and go there for a while, but she’s finally fought off the last of the infections. They weren’t sure if they’d be able to save her leg, but in the end, they were able to save most of it. They only had to remove the dead muscle. She’s going to have a limp for the rest of her life, but she’s going to have a rest of her life.”

 

I smile. It’s one of the best things I’ve heard all day. “Any word on my brother? Or Rooba?”

 

“They’ve got Rooba working down in the kitchens. She’s not allowed near knives, but she can knead bread or mash potatoes or stuff sausages.” She shrugs. “There’s not a lot we can really do until she decides she wants to come out of it, and they’re keeping her away from sharp objects, but at least it seems like she’s getting the attention she needs.”

 

Rain starts squeaking, which is his form of a cry. I think he’s hungry. Katniss obviously thinks so too, ‘cause she gestures for Gale to hand her the baby. She opens her gown to nurse and Rory averts his eyes.

 

“And Rye?” I press. Every time I’ve tried to check on him, he’s been sleeping or unavailable in some other way. I wonder how much of Rye’s unavailability is due to his discomfort with my marriage and how much is really medically related.

 

“Your brother’s good, almost back to full health,” Violet tells me, a hint of sympathy in her tone. “In fact, I hear he’s going to be joining your group soon.” She turns to Rory.

 

“He’s gonna be a soldier?” the pre-teen asks.

 

“He practically begged to.” Violet glances over at me nervously. “I think he feels if his little brother’s going to be one of the Mockingjays, he should be able to protect him.”

 

“He knows he doesn’t have to do that,” I protest.

 

“I think he wants to,” she says, her voice soft. “I also think he feels like he owes Thirteen for Madge’s life, and joining their army is the only way he can pay the debt.”

 

I frown internally. My brother shouldn’t feel beholden to anyone, least of all Thirteen. And I don’t need to be protected. Thirteen’s not about to sacrifice their Mockingjays just yet. It’s just a feeling I have, but what little I know of history tells me that a dead martyr is a much better rallying point than a live one. We’ve just got to keep Thirteen thinking that we’re worth more alive than dead.

 

“Hey,” Katniss butts in. “No more talk of serious things. This is supposed to be a fun day.”

 

“Well, what do you want to do that’s fun?” I ask, teasing. I’m grateful she’s distracted me from my morbid thoughts.

 

Katniss laughs and glances at both Rory and Prim. “I’m not cleared for one thing yet.”

 

I feel a flush rising up my cheeks.

 

“Not that!” she pokes my arm. “Hunting. They’re not going to let me go hunting just yet, something about how I just had a baby and it’s not safe or something.”

 

“It would be a little premature,” her mother tells her. “You don’t want to have any complications.”

 

“I know,” she sighs. “I just really miss going outside.”

 

“We’re with you there,” Gale says.

 

I nod. “Hunting’s out, and so’s swimming, gathering, and cloud-watching. But if you’re up to it, we could have a song.” I smile at my wife hopefully.

 

“Always trying to get her to sing, aren’t you, Peet?”

 

“Can you blame me?”

 

“No. Just giving you a hard time.”

 

Katniss laughs and looks down at our son. “I think I can handle a song.” She starts in on the Valley Song, smiling down at the baby nursing at her breast.

 

It might not be home, and we might all be in danger, but for one moment, we’re all at peace.

 

oOo

 

“President Coin would like to speak with you,” Topsy James says, walking into Katniss’s Infirmary room a few days later where Gale and I are watching Katniss nurse.

 

“She’s welcome to visit if she wants to talk to us,” I reply, a little confused.

 

“No, no, you misunderstand. She doesn’t want to talk to all of you, just you, Mr. Mellark.”

 

I tilt my head. “What about?”

 

The man sniffs. “She hasn’t chosen to reveal that to me. I suppose the only way you can find out is to come with me.”

 

I exchange a glance with both of my spouses. Katniss seems annoyed and confused, which is unsurprising. But when I meet Gale’s eyes, I see something else. He’s trying to figure out what kind of game Coin’s playing. There have been several requests for Gale to meet individually with various people in Thirteen, but this is the first time they’ve wanted to see just me. I can tell he’s telling me I should go and find out what they want and report back to them, but I know that doing so will piss off Katniss.

 

“I should go see what she wants,” I say to Katniss.

 

“You could make her come to us,” Katniss suggests.

 

“We’re guests in her district,” I point out. “The least we can do is see what she wants.” My eyes flick to the waiting aide as a warning that everything that we say is being heard and reported on.

 

Katniss makes another face but eventually nods her head. She doesn’t like it, but she sees the wisdom in not antagonizing Coin. It’s not just us anymore. We have a baby that we need to consider.

 

James leads me to a conference room. Seated around a large table I see President Coin, General Glenn, Commander Boggs, Dr. Andrews, the annoying brown-haired nurse, and several other people of various ages and coloring who all have the same pasty Thirteen look about them.

 

James shows me to a seat before standing at attention at Coin’s right shoulder.

 

“Ah, Mr. Mellark, we’re so pleased to have you join us.” The woman’s tone is pleasant but I don’t see any warmth in her eyes.

 

“Madam President,” I say, taking my seat. I deliberately do not ask what she wants or what I’m doing here. That would be acknowledging that I’m not in control and showing her and everybody else that she has power over me. I’m not willing to concede that.

 

Coin smiles at me humorlessly. “Allow me to begin by congratulating you on the birth of your son.”

 

“Thank you. Although Katniss did all of the work. Gale and I were just there as moral support.”

 

“Ah yes. The lovely trio.” I can hear the hint of annoyance in her tone. “As you have requested, we have reassigned your quarters to a larger space, one that I believe has a window, if I recall correctly.” She looks over her shoulder at James, who nods. “I hope that you find it satisfactory.”

 

That explains the audience. She’s making sure others see that she’s holding up her end of the bargain. “I’m sure it will be perfect, thank you.” I give her a practiced smile that’s meant to convey gratitude but really doesn’t mean anything.

 

“I have no doubts you will let us know if it is not.”

 

I incline my head. “As you say, Madam President.” Let her try to figure out what I mean.

 

“Now that that’s out of the way, I do have a bit of a favor to ask you, Mr. Mellark,” her tone businesslike. “One of a… more personal, but no less important, nature.”

 

And now we get to the real reason why she wanted to see me. I knew the quarters were just a front. I raise an eyebrow and motion for her to continue. I’m doing my best not to give anything away.

 

“As you might have noticed, Thirteen has a bit of a population deficit, and while we are working on improving that deficit, we have unfortunately run into several major challenges. One of which we feel you can help us with.”

 

A little nugget of dread starts forming in my stomach. I pray she’s not about to ask what I think she’s going to ask.

 

Coin continues. “We would like to extend a formal request for you to provide some of your genetic material to aid in the restoration of District Thirteen.”

 

Oh crap. She is requesting what I hoped she wouldn’t be. To stall for time and to not reveal that I already know about her repopulation plans, I ask, “Genetic material?”

 

Coin makes a face at my feigned ignorance. “Your sperm, Mr. Mellark,” she says bluntly. “We would like your sperm. Dr. Andrews has informed me you are an ideal specimen, with no chromosomal abnormalities or genetic disorders. Additionally, Nurse Amber,” she gestures to the annoying nurse, “has noted that your son, despite being born a little early, is in very good health and appears to be thriving.”

 

That’s good news, at least. I’m happy to hear my son is healthy, but as for the rest, I need to shut this line of discussion down now. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline,” I say.

 

“But why?” the nurse bursts out. “It’s not like we’re asking you to have sex with us!”

 

I school my features to be sympathetic, even though internally I’m disgusted and angry. “My wife is already uncomfortable with the idea, and frankly, so am I. I’m married to two wonderful people. We’ve just had a child together. I’m not comfortable with the thought of Rain having siblings floating around out there that he doesn’t know about and aren’t a part of our family.”

 

“So you are aware of our reclamation efforts?” Coin asks pointedly.

 

They use so many euphemisms here in Thirteen, why can’t they just label things in a way that makes sense? The baker in me objects to their idioms. You don’t label sugar as ‘granulated sweetener’ or flour as ‘powdered and winnowed cereal kernels.’ You call a thing what it is to prevent confusion. But considering this district, confusion very well could be the goal.

 

But first I need to address Coin’s question. “Until this moment, I hadn’t been informed of them officially. My spouses and I have heard rumors, but had discounted them as unlikely. Frankly, I’m a little bit disturbed to find they are not.”

 

Coin leans forward. “Just what about them do you find disturbing?”

 

“The fact that you’re requiring children to give up their ovaries or their sperm in order to be able to join your army,” I state bluntly.

 

“They can always refuse,” the president replies, her tone even. “It’s simply a requirement of military service, so in case of unexpected loss, we don’t lose their genetic potential.” She’s trying to convince me of her cause.

 

It’s not going to work. I shake my head. “It should be their choice. And asking kids to do it? They’re not old enough to say no yet. They don’t know what they’re saying yes to. How would you feel, knowing…” I break off, realizing this is the wrong tack to take. “I mean, as a parent myself, I’m not sure how I’d feel about knowing that my son could become a father at the tender age of thirteen! Especially to a child he didn’t know about. If he had a daughter, they could fall in love, get married.”

 

“That won’t happen.”

 

“How would you stop it?”

 

“We have DNA profiles of all of our citizens, and all citizens are given a list of approved matches.”

 

That’s somehow even more disturbing. “So you’re dictating who people can fall in love with?”

 

“No, we aren’t arranging couplings.” The ‘yet’ is unspoken. “Merely providing a list of those people who would be the most advantageous and optimal pairings.” She pauses, regarding me coolly. “I believe, in the past, this would be referred to as matchmaking, and it’s my understanding that the Capitol practices it as well.”

 

“That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Look, I’m not going to try to tell you that you can’t compel your citizens to do this,” I tell her. “But for any transplants? This isn’t what happens out in the districts. Most people know who their families are, and it’s very important to us. Family is worth fighting for. It’s worth dying for. It’s one of the reasons the districts will rebel.” I pause, taking a deep breath. “Don’t compel transplants to add to your genetic diversity. Instead, ask them. I’m sure a lot of us will agree, especially if you offer incentives for donation or… other things.”

 

Coin narrows her eyes. “We do offer incentives for procreation. You yourself are taking advantage of such. We offer upgraded living quarters, increased rations, additional free time, and even more choice in permanent assignment. What else can we offer that we aren’t already?”

 

I don’t have an answer for her. But if I know anything, it’s that you shouldn’t force people to become parents if they don’t want to. A child has to be wanted. I understand that better than anyone else. I know just how seriously Katniss considered taking the herbs that would cause miscarriage. I know my mother never wanted any of us boys and only had us to keep my father. I love my son. I’ll love any of our children, whether they’re mine genetically or not. But I want to know all of my children, be a part of their lives, and I know I can’t give that up.

 

“So I’m to understand that your newest condition is that we no longer compel genetic donations from any and all transplants. Is that correct?”

 

I nod my head.

 

Coin smiles. It doesn’t meet her eyes. “Your new demand has been noted.”

 

oOo