Chapter 23: Not Scared
Here it is folks, the end. A very sincere thanks for taking this journey with me. I started this story before I knew what fanfiction was. Now, with hundreds of readers, I'm finishing my very first novel length story. So thanks for all of the kind words, support, prompts to update and for giving me to motivation to finish.
(Slag)Heaps of thanks to Solaryllis and Medea Smyke for proofreading, making me rewrite things that made absolutely no sense, listening to my daily whining and NOT letting me quit.
Will there be a sequel? Most likely not, but never say never.
(The story starts back with a flashback right after the scene with Plutarch)
It all starts when Delly comes back District 13. In awe of sunshine and wonderstruck at being home, the girl can't stop smiling. She takes dinner with us in the evening, and stays to chat about everything from trying her first piece of fresh watermelon to the new stamps that just came in for the permits office.
She brings her books over one night to answer a business question Peeta has and tells him he can look it up while she dangles a piece of yarn in front of Buttercup.
Peeta flips through the book and settles on a page and gets the most starry-eyed look on his face. When he catches my glance, he grins back and quickly turns the page. "Katniss, did you know you can get a license to hunt?"
He's almost too cool in his response, so when he gets up to get a glass of water, I wander towards the book and steal a look at the previous page.
I should have known: marriages licenses.
It would be the most logical step. Still I keep my face unknowing when he comes back to the table.
While we all still live in fear, Peeta's nightmares of losing me have manifest in some strange notion that one wrong step will be his undoing, that everything—happiness and sanity—could unravel with one wrong word, one wrong question to me.
Most days that's simply not the case, but some days one wrong word is all it takes for my heart to race, my head to spin, my breathing to quicken in a fit of rage. Or despair. There are those days too. But, it's a knotted and twisted thread that unwinds slowly while still threatening to snap without notice.
For days, he doesn't bring it up, not wanting to risk it. All the while I know it's coming, that he wants to ask.
He comes to the bedroom one night with a piece of paper in his hand. It could be one of his sketches, an invoice for the bakery, a letter from my mother, but by the way he looks at me I know exactly what it is.
"What's that?" I ask, wondering if it's up to me to broach the topic.
"Just one of those never-ending forms." He sets it down on the dresser where I can't quite make it out.
He goes to get under the covers but pauses to give me a puzzling look with his forehead rumbled and eyes an expectant blue.
I concentrate on the end on my braid, pretending to be more nonchalant than I actually am in the moment. It's almost absurd the care he takes around certain subjects. Sometimes I wish he wasn't so cautious with me. I just want to scream at him that I can handle it, that I'm not that fragile.
But I can be.
And I hate it.
With him, however, there's no going back. If taking this final step might somehow lessen his fears that this life we've created together could come to a sudden and abrupt end, then I'll do it gladly.
"I love this," he finally says. "Being here with you."
My cheeks flush and I give him a shy glance.
"This is what I wanted," he continues.
"More," he adds nervously. "I love having you in my life, being able to call you mine—even if it's just behind these doors."
And I know what's coming. "With the permits office opening up, and Delly working there, it might be nice to." He bites is lip, cutting off his words, doubting himself. And I find his nervousness entirely too endearing. "She can keep a secret," he starts again. He wipes his hands on the sheets, trying to work past that fear. "If you ever wanted to."
"Yes," I kiss him before he can even get the whole question out, tell me he loves me a hundred different ways or make some elaborate speech that makes me feel incredibly undeserving. The gleam in his eyes is the only love letter I need.
"Really?" It comes out a high-pitched mix of relief and disbelief.
"Let's make it official," I tell him.
"Are you sure?" he says ever so slowly, like I don't understand, like I couldn't understand what it would mean to him.
"I don't want to be without you," I say, my voice shaking more than I want it to. I don't know how to say these things, not like he does. I don't know how to make it sound grand or romantic.
I owe this boy every happiness. Any small thing I can do, form I can sign.
"It's just a piece of paper," he cautions like he's worried it's too much for me, that I won't want the strings attached, that I'm tired of being a marionette to anyone—the Capitol, the new government, even to him. But I saw the glint in his eye when he was looking at the form.
So I take the thick memory book from the nightstand. I flip to an empty page towards the back. "It could go right here," I motion. There's an empty page after the picture of Annie's baby boy. "It can be our proof that things can be good again."
Peeta and I sneak off into the shadows.
"They know," I swallow.
"They knew anyway," he grins.
It's true. We haven't really been a secret, not in District 12 at least. But here, we're all survivors and they kept the secret, too.
On the podium, Plutarch finishes his speech by announcing the groundbreaking for the new medicine factory. That's the good news for everyone in attendance.
When that part of the ceremony is complete the gamemaker turned bureaucrat makes his way over to our corner. "You two…." He shakes his head. "Always keep me guessing."
"And that's precisely why you love us so." Peeta dials the charm up to an impossible-to-resist level.
At that Plutarch smiles, nod and overall looks less likely to skin us alive.
"This calls for a wedding gift," he booms, and I want to tell him to keep it down. "What can I get you?" Plutarch calls his assistant over to take notes. "Nevermind, I know. Call Dr. Perpolio and make them appointment for body buffs. Perfect. Settled."
He looks so self-satisfied. He must not know we were told they couldn't help with our scarring. It's simply too bad, with not enough salvageable skin. But of course he wants us looking our best.
"Actually there is one thing," I tell him. Peeta shifts uncomfortably.
"Anything for the Mockingjay," he promises with eyes shining.
"Write that down, Fulvia," he dictates.
"What store is that from?" he says blankly. "Only the best, of course."
"Privacy," I repeat.
Peeta catches on and fills him in. "We'd really like not to live out our lives on TV. The Games and the war are both over."
Now, Plutarch's mouth hangs open. I expect baby gurgling noises to spew out at any second.
"Let me put it in your terms. We're retiring." I plaster on my tightest Capitol smile. "After tonight, no more cameras, no more specials unless we want to."
Fulvia, with silver flowers edged along her plump cheeks, scribbles furiously on a jewel encrusted blue clipboard.
"Of course," Plutatch bellows like it was his idea. "Fine idea. Go out with one last hurrah."
Then he whispers to his assistant: "Comeback special."
We've had enough cameras. We just want to live our lives like anyone else. We're just not that interesting. While I do appreciate having an archive of some of my memories, I'll be happy to leave the public eye.
And while Plutarch is happily brainstorming future TV specials, Peeta takes my hand and whisks me out of the ballroom. The cameras are still trained on the speeches, so no one notices.
He pulls me into the hall's massive kitchen. Everything is shiny, stainless steel and smells new. I give Peeta an arched eyebrow. I am hungry, but there's a buffet and plenty of food being passed around at the party. There's such promise in his eyes that I know he's not thinking about watching the shipped-in cooks decorate pastries.
"I made you something," he says bashfully.
I follow him over to a large white box. This must be what he was working on at the bakery yesterday—before all the guests arrived and this circus began.
He lifts the lid revealing a wedding cake: tiny but ornate. It's not the tiered one wheeled into last fall's ocean-themed wedding, but I can see all the time he put into it.
The cake is decorated, but not with traditional rows of swirls and flowers. Each tiny flourish is different. I see red ribbons, two loaves of bread, a bright yellow dandelion, a reaping bowl.
"Peeta?" I look back at him, my mouth agape.
He turns up the corner of his lip, revealing the smallest dimple. "I wanted to make you a wedding cake," he says. "And since today it's official, here it is. Do you like it?"
I try to pretend that it's just something in my eye, but Peeta knows better.
I continue scanning every detail of the cake: hot chocolate mugs, ropes, a TV camera.
A year ago I wouldn't have thought this possible. His memories of me were a convoluted mess, something that made his hands twitch, made him mumble obscenities to himself, made the vein on his forehead bulge in anger. But this, I can tell, he did with steadfast devotion.
Flowers, a sword, arrows, a tree, a cave, a picnic, berries—all frosted in the most intricate detail. The memories all flood back to me, the way the lamb stew tasted in that damp cave.
Lovers roses, train cars, a beach, a pearl, a locket, a lightning bolt, syringes, a mockingjay, a question mark, a book, a house and finally bread. It's our story.
And seeing this, seeing that he remembers all those little moments in how we've come to grow together—it's a gesture sweeter than any sugary creation ever should be.
He clears his throat and takes my hand.
"Katniss Everdeen, I have loved you since I was five-years-old and first heard you sing. I admired from a distance when we went to school together. And fate brought us together in the Hunger Games. You brought me back to life, risked your life for mine and saved my life so many times I've lost count. We made it through a second Hunger Games, both going in with the intention of the other surviving and I loved you even more than I thought possible. And maybe the odds were in our favor, because we both survived a war and I got to fall in love with you all over again: hearing you sing in the bathtub, you taking care of me when I was sick, bringing me hot chocolate when I was sad, putting up with my flashbacks, holding my hand when I had nightmares, writing notes on my arm to help me remember home, keeping me company when I didn't want to be alone, and constantly reminding me of all the beautiful memories we had together, have together and will have together. Thank you for putting me back together, for helping me remember who I am. You are so much stronger than you realize."
I don't know what to say. I think I knew that was how he felt. But hearing him say it does odd things to my eyes and chest.
"I love you," I whisper into his ear, saying those rare and dangerous words that I have to push myself to admit that I'm braver than. But this must be what it is. "I love you," I say again, confidence burning through me. It's overwhelming, really.
"And I love this cake," I say just to break the tension weighing down the space between us. "Does it taste as good as it looks?"
As much as I would like to hide out in the kitchen all evening, they'll come looking for us soon, so we head back to the party. We get as far as the hallway before we see them swarming around another Victor. They have Johanna cornered.
"Of course I knew," she sneers into the microphones. "How could you not know?"
Or maybe she has them cornered?
But I get my hopes up too soon. We're spotted. Instantly, their attention shifts.
"Is it true?" A tangerine-haired reporter stabs a microphone at us as crews holding lenses and lights pack around us, backing us against the door.
We're cornered, trapped, in an almost indefensible position. I take a breath and refuse to let this nightmare get to me. Not today.
But before I can even come up with a plan, Cressida elbows her way through the throng. "Nice try, sweetie," she scoffs. "This is our story." She motions away the gossip crews who have shown up for the festivities. Pollux puffs up his already broad shoulders for emphasis.
"They are our crew," I shrug at the crush of people and follow Cressida back to the sound booth we used earlier in the day.
"More interviews?" I ask when we're inside, away from the jostling crowd and the questions that I'm sure I don't want to answer. We've been on camera most of the day, so one more round would make sense. And Cressida's questions wouldn't be so bad. She and Pollux are friends. Their letters weren't just to secure the next interview; they were concerned.
"I thought you'd just want to hide out for a while." Cressida plops down on a hard black case used to transport the audio mixers. I think it's the first I've seen her rest all day. At lunch she ate a sandwich standing up while editing the footage.
Pollux begins to disassemble the filming lights. Peeta takes that as a cue to drape himself across my lap and take a nap. I reach down and muss up his hair. What a day it's been.
I try to get my bearings and notice that behind some stored scaffolding, the room has an exterior door. I gently lower Peeta's head and rise to look out the tiny glass window. Outside is the ghost town I'm used to. Everyone is inside: eating celebratory food, drinking bubbly drinks and telling exaggerated versions of war stories. And at that moment, I know just how to make my escape. We could go now, and risk getting spotted but I have a better idea.
I quietly tell Cressida part of my plan.
"A grand idea," she says and begins setting up for what I hope will be our last shoot.
Cressida starts with the usual Q&A.
"How are you two doing today?" she begins innocently enough.
"Just wonderful." Peeta pats my leg. "I couldn't be happier to be here with my wife."
I gulp at that statement. It's such a balancing act. I don't want to give anything away, but this has to be interesting enough to keep the audience's attention.
"Your wife?" Cressida questions.
"Yes, we signed the papers this morning—figured it was about time to make things official."
"Why today?" she says after a pause.
"Today was the first day we could get a permit," he answers.
"Couldn't wait, huh?"
"Actually, I waited 13 years," Peeta says. "Do you think that's long enough?"
Cressida gives a chuckle at this. And I love how relaxed Peeta is about all of this, how he always knows the right thing to say.
"What about you Katniss?" She startles me back to reality, and reminds me that I can't let Peeta expertly handle the questions with charm and humor. She's interviewing both of us. "What are you thinking?"
My eyes go wide and I don't even know where to begin.
"About today," she clarifies. "It's an awfully big day for you."
"We've had a lot of big days," I deflect before reminding myself to be pleasant. "But it's really nice to see District 12 coming back to life."
"But what about this morning? Surely you're excited about that?" She brings it right back to the topic I was avoiding. As much as I don't want to talk about us, she's right. Teenagers' secret weddings is much more salacious than the rebuilding efforts that are ever-present on the evening news.
I have to push myself to say something about our relationship, because I know I should—otherwise there's no point to this filming. Cressida even says that years from now, when we're wrinkly and stooped over, we can use this footage to remember this day. And since Peeta's memories seem far more fragile than he would ever let on, it would be wise to have a record of this day, a love letter for all the doubt and confusion his bad days bring.
"I never planned on getting married." I wring my hands in my lap, not wanting to face the camera. It comes out more honestly than I intend to. "Before."
"With the games, the old regime," I look behind the camera to Pollux when I say this. "Surviving was hard enough. But today, I think there's more to it, more than just surviving and maybe, if given a chance for peace, I'd like to think that we could thrive. Today for example, is about starting over. New beginnings."
Making this big step, that doesn't really seem like that big of a leap in this moment. It feels like we've landed long ago, but have taken this long to find our bearings.
"So why get married?" Cressida asks point blank.
"Because we can," I say. "Because it makes sense."
"Why Peeta?" she coaxes me, making me explain myself to get the sound bite she needs.
"Because I need him." I revert to speaking in code. I could say it, but he knows what I mean. And I do need him.
"What about him?" she continues to prod, lead me to the point she thinks I should make.
"He's really helped me," I offer up. And after this morning's session with Dr. Aurelius I want him to know what he means to me. Because everything else seems to be on camera, this might as well be too.
"He's someone I can always count on to keep me safe. He puts up with me through hiding spots and fits of rage, and the days when it was all too much. He makes me take my pills. He puts up with Buttercup. He was there for me when no one else was, going through this with me." Each word I say, I feel the heat rising in my cheeks. I'm better off with him around and he's better off with me around. I look up at him and bite my lip. I think back to those awful days before he showed up. "You gave me a reason to live again." I say this so quietly that maybe the microphones won't pick up. "You gave me hope. A smile. Bread."
And it's odd how saying this makes me feel. I thought I'd want to cringe with embarrassment, but I feel lighter getting the words out, feel like I owe him a little less.
He gives my hand a squeeze.
"That's only part of what I love about him," I pipe up. Love. I say it. Truly meaning it for the first time in any of these interviews. Love. Need. Want.
Cressida doesn't miss a beat. "So Katniss, tell me, when did you fall in love with Peeta?"
I swallow some nerves. I took a while to realize how I felt and I can't tell you the precise moment it started but somewhere along the line—those primrose bushes, those eyelashes, the way he keeps the nightmares away, the way he needs me—it all got to me.
"So many times," I say.
She motions for me to keep going, but I keep my lips sealed. She doesn't need to know that maybe he did bake his way to my heart. Sheer will and heroic determination didn't hurt either. Some secrets taste better unshared. More of our secrets have been spilled than I would like, but it's better this way. No weeklong extravaganzas or countrywide dress voting. Just a few words on camera.
Cressida signals that we're done. She stands up, straightens her clipboard full of notes. "Where was that girl last year?" Cressida balks.
Ah, Cressida, I wouldn't want to impress you too much. So I look her straight in the eye and say, "Lost."
With that, I'm hoping this never-ending day is finally wrapping up. My hair hurts I'm so tired and all I want to do is sleep for a few days. But before I can do that we have to get out of here—without being mobbed by the throng of press that has descended on our district.
After Cressida leaves, I wait by the exit for her signal.
When I hear the ballroom erupt into cheers and I push the door open, hoping it doesn't immediately trigger flashing lights and blaring sirens. But when nothing happens, I motion Peeta outside. The fall air is crisp with a hint of smoke. This tiny taste of freedom is really a thrill.
I flatten Peeta against the side of the building and wait in the shadows until I'm sure our path is clear. We make it to the next eave, which takes us closer to the ballroom, where we'll look more like a couple leaving early than newlyweds desperately fleeing the media onslaught.
Just as I'm about to inch forward, the ballroom's exit opens. I hold my breath hoping it's not a camera crew coming to look for us.
At first, just the silhouette is visible. It's a couple. A tall broad-shouldered man and a slim woman in a gown. He's staggering and she's talking loudly. "Ugh, it makes me want to vomit." And the voice carries to our hiding place is unmistakably Johanna's. "So damn sappy."
But her complaint is actually a good sign. It means Cressida is playing our hastily recorded video. So while the crowd is watching it and the reporters and photographers are waiting on us to emerge after the video, we'll be making our escape.
The couple steps into a shaft of light and then I get my first glimpse of Johanna's sloshed companion. Gale.
He has his hand looped around her waist for more than support. Together they stumble and laugh when she drops one of the heels she's carrying. He crouches down to pick it up. When he hands it back, she shoves him against the side of the building.
I put my hand over Peeta's mouth to stifle the sound of his laugh, but I can't tear my eyes away from my old hunting partner and former roommate pawing at each other in the shadows.
They stumble off towards the Victor's Village and only then can I breathe. But it's not just fear of being discovered that knocks the wind out of me. Johanna had it bad for Gale and I practically forced him on her. It's so different to actually see it, though. I grip Peeta's hand a little harder.
A minute passes and no one else comes into view. I lead Peeta away from the building trying my best to avoid any window light or street lamps as we sneak down.
Only when the turn off for Victor's Village comes, I nudge Peeta the other direction and hope he follows my lead.
We keep to the darkness, lurk under the burned out light bulbs. As we wait, I glance up at the stars, thinking back to when it was just the two of us—more questions than trust.
I love you, I want to say.
But I know it's not enough.
I feel the warm press of his body and calm my head as I listen to the steady sound of his breathing. His arms circle my waist and if it were any other night, I could stand on my tiptoes on steal a kiss. We could pretend we were any other enamored couple. But tonight, we have to get away.
He kisses the top of my head and I want to tell him not to stop, to just go home, but we can't.
Music carries down the hill from the hall, the wind picks up, but it doesn't mask the sound of someone walking in our direction. It's just one person, so I make myself as small as possible and hope they pass and go on their way.
The gait sounds familiar, but the smell is what really tips me off. All of the fancy soap he's been doused with can't cover up the smell of cabbage and liquor. And tonight he smells of beer and the champagne and I saw him plying Effie with.
"The party's over that way," Haymitch says tersely.
"Just getting some air," I tell Haymitch, not sure if he's come to collect us or hide out himself.
"Is that what we're doing?" Peeta teases mischievously, pulling me closer to him and making my cheeks flame.
Haymitch snorts and rocks back on his heels. "Really, the party's not that bad," Haymitch muses. "Well, once you get Effie good and tipsy and she stops shouting at the waiters."
I smirk at the thought of his undermining her meticulously detailed evening. But it was a good party, and Effie did seem to be enjoying herself more as the evening wore on.
"The fiddlers seemed to go over well," Peeta says. "It was nice to see all the dancing."
Peeta gives a small dip at the waist. I bite down a chuckle.
"I should probably get back," Haymitch says. "They seem to need a lot of help with the drinks. And someone's got to entertain the guests. Your guests." The way he stares at me when he says it clues me that he's saying more than he's going to do more than take advantage of the open bar. "Some one's got to take care of this place," he motions around to the houses, the soon-to-open bakery
He knows what I'm up to. He probably set everything in motion.
"You do that," I say. "Try not to make a scene."
He smiles at me, a real true smile. And for a brief moment I think he's going to say something overly sentimental like 'I taught you well,' but instead he replies, "Why, would I do that?"
"No idea," I deadpan.
Before he stumbles off, I feel like there's something I should say. "Thank you," I say. For tonight, for everything. And I give him a peck on the cheek.
He cocks his head and gives me a funny look. The next thing out of his mouth isn't fatherly on endearing, it's a liquor-scented belch.
"Now scram, you two," he clomps Peeta on the back. "Before I change my mind."
I watch Haymitch walk back up to the building and slip back inside
A train's whistle sounds. It won't be long now.
Still the crowd doesn't pour out of the building. I don't know if it's Haymitch or the video, but it's working.
I shuffle Peeta toward the platform when the train screeches to a halt, the metallic scream lingering in the air before finally fading.
The doors whoosh open and I urge him forward. "Come on," I smile and hand him an envelope, the same one my mother handed me earlier in the day. Only it wasn't another sad, dismissive letter—it was a gift. One that was exactly what I needed.
Peeta pulls out two tickets and the note authorizing my travel. He looks at the bag of clothes and medicine my mother brought me and starts to piece together tonight's great escape.
I don't know how long they've been planning it, or how many were involved—Haymitch, my mother, Dr. Aurelius—but just this once, I'm okay with them making the plans. It means that in their own ways, they're still looking out for me.
"Let's get out of here," I say. "Away from the cameras."
Peeta raises an eyebrow, thinks for a minute then nods. "Ok," he agrees. His fingers weave through mine with warmth that never ceases to surprise me. "Where to, Katniss?"
The tickets are open: no destination, no date. And after today's revelation, it's a good time to get out of the district and lay low for a little while. We could go anywhere, tour the rebuilt country, see the sites on our terms. But there's only place where I would want to visit. District Four.
"The beach. It's time we go for a visit."
He gives my hand a small squeeze. "I'd like that."
Always a team, we step aboard together.
I keep my palms on the glass as we pull away. I can see the hall in the distance—still lit up from the party. Revelers linger as they celebrate the district's rebirth. Fireworks set the sky ablaze—dazzling yellow blasts that, from a distance, remind me of fireflies on a warm evening.
And we're in train car. Right back where we started this journey together. District 12 fades out of view as we head towards our next adventure.
This time I'm not scared.
Thanks to all of my lovely readers for all of the wonderful reviews. I got more reviews than I ever dreamed possible. And thanks for all of the votes in the Pearl Awards.