We are lying outside on the grass, Peeta and I, our hands clasped between us. It is a cloudless night, so the stars are unusually bright. Peeta smells like the cheese bread he brought home for me. I turn my gaze from the cold and distant stars to my very warm and very near love, and I find that he is already looking at me. We smile at each other. I feel his hand tighten in mine.
"Did you make any wishes?" he asks, glancing up at the sky. When I look confused, he goes on, "My father once told me about an ancient custom of wishing on a star. It became a bedtime ritual for us after that – until I grew up, anyway. He would tuck my blanket around me and ask me which star I had chosen, and I would point out the window. He would pretend to know exactly which one I meant. 'Ah, yes, what a good choice!' he would say. And then I would whisper my wish in his ear."
Wanting to be next to him, I shuffle my body ungracefully over the short distance between us until my head is on Peeta's chest. "What did you wish for?" I ask.
He answers with a quiet laugh. "Most of the time, I wished for what you might expect a little boy to want. But sometimes I would wish for the Games to end before I was old enough to be in the drawing. Sometimes I would wish for my parents to be happy. Sometimes…" He stops and laughs again.
"What?" I prod.
"Sometimes I'd wish that you would talk to me the next day at school."
"You did not," I grin, rolling my eyes.
"I did," he says softly. "I really did."
I reach up to touch his cheek. "It sounds like none of your wishes came true."
"None of the ones that mattered, no," he says, and I hear the forced lightness in his tone. "I guess I never picked the right star."
I stretch my arm across him to hug him closer. "Well, tonight you'll pick the right one. Point to one and tell me your wish, and I'll make sure it comes true."
"What if I wish that you would bake me a five-tiered cake covered with edible flowers?"
"It has to be something I can actually do!" I laugh, slapping his chest.
"Okay," he says. He pulls us both to our feet, takes my hand in his, and points up at the sky. "You see that really bright one right above us?"
The one he means is unmistakable. "Yes," I reply. "Now tell me your wish."
He lowers our hands and draws my body up against his. "I wish you would marry me," he whispers, his lips soft against the shell of my ear.
Not this. He knows it can't be this. I step back from him, tugging my hand away from his. Three years ago he asked me to marry him, and I told him I couldn't. I couldn't explain why then, and I still can't. Something in me fears, even hates, the idea. Peeta knows all this. I thought he understood.
"Why did it have to be that?" I ask him angrily. "You know I would gladly give you anything – anything but that."
He puts his hands in his pockets. "That's my wish," he says. "There's no law that says you have to grant it." He looks towards our house, then back at me. "I'm going in," he says, and he does.
I cross my arms and close my stinging eyes, though that doesn't stop a few tears from creeping down my cheeks.
Why can't you?
Until I answer this question, really and truly answer it, then I have no good reason to refuse Peeta. I love him fiercely and completely. I want to be with him for the rest of my life. Why, then, can't I bear the idea of toasting a piece of bread with him?
I stay outside alone for a long time before I return to the house. Peeta is already in bed, his breaths deep and even. When I slide in beside him, I lay my head on his shoulder and hold him close, the way I've done for over five years.
"Are you awake?" I whisper.
"Yes," he says. He opens his eyes to meet mine. "Are you okay?"
"I'm okay. I just need to talk to you."
"Listen… earlier, that was wrong and unfair of me. I know how you feel about marriage, and I shouldn't have ruined your very sweet gesture by asking for something I know you can't give. I'm really sorry."
I sit up and wrap my arms around my knees. "You didn't do anything wrong, Peeta. I asked for your wish, and you answered honestly." I take a deep breath. "Let me try to explain why I can't marry you. Why I shouldn't marry you, really." Silence hangs between us; he is waiting for me to continue. I can't bear to turn and face him as I go into what will probably be a garbled excuse for an explanation. "I love you so much that it makes my heart ache sometimes. And it aches because… while I want to be with you always, I can't help thinking that you won't always want the same. I keep thinking – fearing – almost even hoping, sometimes – that you'll fall in love with someone who can give you everything you want and deserve. A woman who…" My voice catches in my throat, and I take a moment to swallow and bring myself back under control. "A woman who will give you children."
"Stop," he says.
"No, you have to understand-"
"I do, Katniss." He pulls me down to him and kisses me gently. "I do understand."
"You're the only man I want, the only man I'll ever, ever want. But I love you too much to marry you." I am crying now, my face buried in his neck.
For some time, his hands move soothingly over my back, occasionally running through my hair. I feel myself relaxing into the safe, familiar comfort of his body.
"Katniss," he says gently. He waits until I lift my head, and then he holds my face in his hands, stroking my cheeks with this thumbs. His eyes wander over my face for a moment before locking onto mine. "I do want children. I want them more than almost anything else."
"See?" I murmur. "That's why-"
"Almost anything else. I don't want them more than I want you. And the only children I would want are your children. Our children. So if I can't have children with you, I don't want them at all." He draws my face slightly closer to his. "And if I can't have you, Katniss, there's nothing that could ever make me happy again. Not all the children in the world."
Oh, Peeta and his maddeningly unfair way with words. I find myself crying again, but the tears are happy ones. "Peeta…" I say, trying to put sensible words together. That's a lost cause, so instead, I pour everything I'm thinking and feeling into a kiss. We are both breathless when it ends.
He smiles up at me, and his eyes are shining, too. "Please say you'll marry me," he says.
"I will, but only because I love you."
Peeta turns his head to the window. "Finally, I picked the right one," he laughs. "Maybe the odds are finally in my favor."
I turn his head back to mine because I want more of his kisses. "We've beaten the odds so many times," I say, trailing my lips from his mouth to his neck, "it doesn't even matter whether they're in our favor or not."
When Peeta gets home from the bakery, it's dark and storming outside. He pushes through the door and slams it shut behind him, then he leans back against it as a puddle forms at his feet.
"You look like you went swimming with all your clothes on," I laugh, yanking a kitchen towel from the drawer close to me. I go to him and exchange the towel for the soaked bundles he's carrying under his arms.
After he dabs his face dry, he joins me at the counter, where I'm ruefully nudging through the remains of the treats he brought home for us. "Probably nothing to salvage there," he says. His shoes squish when he walks, and he's dripping on the counter.
I turn towards him and help him shrug the coat from his shoulders. "Anything to salvage here?" I ask, smiling up at him. Without a thought, I toss his coat into the rapidly forming lake on our kitchen floor. I reach up and smooth back the hair that is plastered to his forehead. His hair looks brown when it's wet.
"I'm freezing," he says, and sure enough, his teeth are chattering. "You didn't get caught in this earlier, did you?"
"No," I tell him. I had returned from hunting in a light drizzle, did a bit of trading and haggling in town, and hurried home before the downpour.
He peels the remaining clothes from his body with my help, and we leave them on the kitchen floor as we run, giggling like teenagers, to the shower. Peeta steps in and starts the hot water while I strip down and throw my clothes aside. It's hardly necessary for me to shower, too, but we seem to have an unspoken agreement that my presence is required.
His skin is ice-cold before the water begins to warm him, so I mold my body against his and rub his back briskly with my hands. When he stops shivering, I step back a little and reach behind my back to undo my braid.
"Let me," he says.
I turn around, and he steps up close behind me to begin untwisting my hair. He's always much more gentle than I am myself. There are no tangles and no pulls when he finishes and runs his fingers through. With that done, I turn in his arms to face him again, slipping my arms up around his neck.
We haven't made love in over a week, which is unusual for us. I returned only yesterday from a week-long trip to the Capitol, where I made a series of appearances to promote peace and cooperation between the districts. People still remember and care about the Mockingjay, it seems, though I would gladly put that chapter of my life to rest. There is talk of composing a constitution and setting up a new democracy. The idea gives me even more hope for the future, though I have no interest in getting involved in politics. Gale, who's become a rather important public figure and accompanied me to many of the events, tried to talk me into it, but I was adamant. I'll leave the political dealings to people like him.
I am happy right where I am. I am especially happy where I am in this moment.
At some point during our eager lovemaking against the tiled wall, we manage to wash our hair and clean ourselves. Naked and sated, we curl up together in bed and pull the blankets snugly over our shoulders until only our faces are peeking out, grinning at each other. I should care that my clothes are strewn around the bathroom, Peeta's clothes are sopping wet in the kitchen, ruined baked goods are lying out on the kitchen counter, and we haven't had a bite to eat for supper, but I don't care about any of these things. Under the blankets, our bodies are so entwined that I wonder if we'll ever manage to untangle them.
Quite without meaning to, I fall asleep.
When I wake up, I hear that the rain has stopped. There's no sound but the intermittent dripping of water from the roof and trees – and my growling stomach. I reach for Peeta, but he's not in bed anymore. Yawning, I get up, dress myself in comfortable pajamas, and wander towards the kitchen.
Lake Peeta has been dried up, the clothes are gone, and the counter is clean. Peeta is at the table with the supper I had made us (yes, I have learned to cook, and sometimes the food tastes good) and a newspaper spread before him. He looks up at me and smiles.
"Did you sleep?" I ask. I yawn again.
"No," he says. He points his fork down at his food. "This is really good." I know it's true because Peeta never lies about my cooking. He learned that bitter lesson years ago.
I fix a plate for myself and join him at the table, and we eat quietly for a little while. The food is good. I'll have to remember this dish for later. And, of course, I'll have to kill the deer required to make it.
Peeta slides the newspaper closer to me. "You didn't tell me about this," he says, indicating the front page story with its accompanying photograph. Hunger Games Banned, the headline reads, and there I am, smiling and waving from a podium, Gale applauding just behind me. I look up at Peeta, and he smiles. "This is wonderful. Why didn't you say anything?"
I shrug. "It's just politics. We knew the Games were over."
"But to have them officially banned? That's great."
I lay my fork down, suddenly not hungry anymore. "Peeta, it's just as easy to undo a law as it is to make it."
"Ever the pessimist," he says gently. "You should let yourself be happy about this. Think of all the children who will grow up in safety." He pauses and lays a hand over mine. "Maybe we could…"
"No, Peeta." I slip my hand out from under his, pick up our plates, and carry them to the sink. I keep my back to him and stare out the window. "I don't trust anything in this world enough to bring children into it."
He comes to stand next to me, wrapping his arm around my waist. "If I let fear stop me from having what I want in life, I would live far away from District 12 and you."
"Why? What are you afraid of?" I ask him.
"Hurting you." He rakes a hand through his hair, which is dry now, but uncombed. "At any moment, one of those bad memories could take over, and I could hurt you. I could kill you."
I turn towards him and touch his face. "Still, Peeta? After all this time?"
"Still," he nods. He seems to hesitate for a moment, and then he says, "I want to say something, and then I'll never mention it again. Okay?"
"Okay." I brace myself.
"Katniss, I want us to have children. I want it so desperately." He slides his hand down my arm and takes my hand in his. "I know you don't want to. I have absolutely no expectations. I just want you to know… I need you to know…" His voice fails him.
He starts to move away, but I pull him back to me. "Peeta, I – I won't say never. I know it isn't much, but-"
His lips are on mine before I can finish my sentence. "It's everything," he whispers between kisses. "Everything."
As if I forced back the rusted lock on a heavy, forgotten door in my head, suddenly there is the light of possibility. I see a little girl, and I want to call her Pearl. But then I remember where we were when Peeta gave me my pearl. I remember everything that happened to us in the weeks and months following. The fear pushes the door shut again – but not fast enough. I have already seen what was beyond the door, and I loved what I saw.
"By the way," Peeta says as he pulls my pajama shirt over my head, "one of the packages I brought home didn't get too wet. Blueberry muffins."
See? I tell myself. There's always something to salvage.
Last month was the dedication of the Children of Panem Memorial, a museum and vast network of gardens constructed on the former site of the Hunger Games arena. Peeta and I were asked – were begged, actually – to attend the grand opening as guests of honor, but we politely and firmly refused. Today we are visiting the site on our own, which is the only way we could bring ourselves to do it. Our lives don't belong to the cameras anymore.
At the entrance, a bronze mockingjay spreads its wings to form the arches of the gates. I glance at Peeta, my stomach heavy, and he reaches for my hand. We walk slowly and take our time. I can't find any words as we stop at the memorials for Rue… Thresh… Mags… Finnick. Peeta is just as quiet.
It's after dark when we make our way out and hail a transport car to our hotel. I don't sleep, and I know that Peeta doesn't either. If we did, I'm sure there would be nightmares. We simply hold each other in the dark.
That is the night I decide to defy the fear that has controlled me for too long.
It feels empowering somehow to throw the herbs away. I lay my palm flat on my belly and close my eyes. My doubts have all been burned away like the Capitol's wedding dress that blazed into a mockingjay when I twirled. I open my eyes again and smile at myself in the bathroom mirror.
Then I go out to Peeta.
He's sitting up in bed, sketching. I catch a glimpse of Rue's smiling face before he closes his notebook and sets it aside. His eyes widen in pleasant surprise when I climb onto his lap, my knees on either side of him. He settles his hands on my hips and leans forward to kiss me.
"Do you think those wishing stars can work more than once?" I ask him.
"I'm sure they can," he says. "Why?"
"We'll find out. Let me tell you my wish." I kiss his ear and whisper, "A year from now, I wish to see you holding our baby."
He is very, very still, and I don't dare move.
Finally, he says, "You want children. Real or not real?"
I draw back a little so he can see my face, and I touch his lips with mine. "Real, Peeta." I pull my shirt over my head while he watches. Has he fallen into a trance? "The herbs are gone," I tell him. I touch his face, suddenly afraid that I am too late. "You still want them, don't you?"
I'm ashamed to say that I emit a girlish squeal when he rolls us over suddenly, pinning my body beneath his. "Want them?" he repeats, and he laughs. "Yes, sweetheart, I want them. I want them."
After all these years, we are still capable of being over-eager. Such is the case tonight. We bump noses, struggle with clothing, and mumble the occasional amused "Oops…" But Peeta's hands and mouth are both deft and generous when it comes to pleasing me. He has already left me breathless and twice satisfied when he pushes into me at last. He moves slowly, taking his time as he lavishes kisses on my mouth and everywhere else he can reach, until we fall over the edge together.
* * *
It is a terrifying and happy moment when the test confirms what I already know. But it is the good kind of fear – the kind that leads to something wonderful. This is a fear I can handle. This is a fear I can embrace. Rather than an instrument of death, I have become the instrument of life. There are no crowds screaming my name, but I have never felt more victorious.