Breathing deeply and holding onto Gale's hand for reassurance, I prepare to take another plunge.
"I do," says Gale.
His voice is gentle, but firm and resolute, just like his grip on my hand, claiming me for the entire whole world to see, to hear.
A few moments later, I return the favor.
The answer flows from my lips without a catch, without hesitation, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
Gale is mine and I am his. Now it's official.
Signing my new name next to Gale's in bold and steady letters, I believe I couldn't be happier.
Then we kiss as if we were already alone, and I reluctantly pull away only when the whistling gets loud enough to break through the rush of blood in my ears.
Mother stands a little to the side, leaning on Hazelle, both smiling widely but blinking back tears. Haymitch has amazed and honored me by staying sober for long enough to walk me down the aisle, but disappeared from my sight immediately afterward, presumably on a quest for something to drink.
Not surprisingly, then, Peeta is the first person to congratulate me. Instead of shaking my hand, he lifts me up by the waist and twirls me through the air, grinning.
"I couldn't be happier for you, Katniss," he gasps as he sets me down. I believe him, just like he believed me years ago, when I told him the same thing after he married Delly. No more lies remain between us, and it feels almost too good to be real. But we both know it is.
I shake my head a little, matching his grin. "You are incredible… thank you."
Then Delly kisses me on both cheeks, chirping excited congratulations, and I notice her elaborate golden earrings, shaped like tiny dandelions.
Younger Hawthornes officially welcome me to the family, with coughs sounding suspiciously like "long overdue". Posy clings to me like a long-lost little sister, even though she's already taller than me.
My head swirls with joy as wishes and congratulations shower me like confetti. Haymitch, now drunk up to standard, clasps me almost as if he changed his mind about giving me away; Johanna snidely offers some very creative wedding-night advice; Annie, slightly hassled by the loud buzz of excited voices, yet radiant, squeezes me in her arms; Finnick, looking his worst, but smiling his best, whispers: "Congrats on making it to the right shore."
Now I am blinking back tears. "You too."
We all passed through the darkest depths, but now, embracing every survivor, I see that there is still light left for us.
Light that was worth fighting for.
Much later, retreating from the whirlwind of the celebration, Gale and I head back to the house we'd built in the former Seam, right next to where Hazelle came to live with Gale's siblings before they scattered away with their own partners. Now we stay there when duties call, but the cabin by the lake remains our true home, the place where we belong. Quickly, we change into hunting clothes – new for the occasion – and set out into the woods before the dusk deepens into night. When we reach the cabin, Gale scoops me into his arms with a lightning-quick motion and carries me over the threshold.
"Hey…" I gasp as he lowers my toes to the ground, not quite releasing his hold on me. "What was that for?"
Gale shrugs with a disarming smile. "It's a part of the tradition I kinda like."
Pressing myself closer, I breathe against his neck, "I know."
While Gale starts the fire, I run back out to fill a simple vase with lake water to put my wedding bouquet in. A magnificent and vaguely familiar primrose, a gift from Rory, dominates the beautiful creation.
Soon the fire is roaring, and I slowly summon courage to face it. Until now, I've always let Gale tend to the hearth while I averted my gaze, fearing visions that might emerge from the flickering heat. Only now I find strength to look into the open flame, this time burning for us, bright and reliable.
The blaze crackles and swirls; and my mind stubbornly insists on seeking familiar shapes, until I find the image of Prim's face. She is smiling in delight. Turning my head back to Gale, I see her joy reflected in his eyes.
"So, what are we toasting, Catnip?" Gale asks softly.
"Something I got this morning."
Gale raises his eyebrows. "A Mellark wedding special?"
"Sure, they offered. Delly wouldn't take no for an answer, so I accepted it, but only for the reception. I got something more fitting for the toasting earlier."
We'd gone for an stroll in the woods shortly after dawn, not really intent on hunting, but when an opportunity presented itself, I dared Gale take a shot…
Reaching into my game bag, I pull a parcel out with a flourish and lay it on the mantelpiece. "Well, I thought that bread wouldn't be the best option for us."
Recognition begins to dawn on his face.
… and he did. Straight through the eye. For the first time ever.
"So, let's toast the squirrel."
Gale shakes his head a little, and then starts laughing.
"That's my Catnip," he says victoriously, pinning me down on the warm rug in front of the fireplace.
"Catnip Hawthorne…" I whisper, entwining my fingers in his hair.
Saying the name aloud makes it feel real.
A new name, nobody has ever stolen it, nobody ever would.
Is that me?
Here, in his arms, I believe it.
"…I think I can live with that."
"Me too," he breathes against my lips.