WARNING: SPOILERS - If you haven't read all three books in the Hunger Games series, my story will be full of spoilers. Also, you might not understand what's being talked about, nor understand the significance of each reference to the original books.
Disclaimer: I do not own The Hunger Games series and I am in no way making any money by writing this.
Somewhere in my foggy mind, I hear Rue's four note melody being sung loud and clear as a bell. As I slowly open up my heavy eyelids and my blurry eyes begin to focus, I realize that it isn't just a dream, that it's real. It's like hearing an alarm clock going off while you're still in mid-dream and realizing that the sound isn't just part of the dream, it's reality dragging you out of your dream world.
As I begin shifting around in wakefulness, the arms wrapped around me loosen enough to allow me to slide out of bed. All my focus is on that familiar four note song, the one that Rue once told me signaled the end of a day's work. Where is it coming from?
I make my way across the bedroom until I'm standing in front of the window. It's coming from outside. I stare hard through the glass panes and realize it's not a person singing the song, it's a bird, or to be more exact, a mockingjay. Slowly, but steadily, more and more mockingjays pick up the song until it seems that an entire flock of them in the trees, both in and surrounding District 12, are singing Rue's song, but rather than being the noisy, senseless chirping of other birds, the mockingjays' song is pleasant to the ears, their voices overlapping and blending together in harmony. If I had the time, I could just sit here and listen to them all morning.
Now that I know the source, more questions come to my mind. Mockingjays don't just start singing a particular song. First they have to hear someone singing it. After they do, they mimic it, which means that someone out there, a person, began this domino effect. I wonder who and I wonder why?
"They know" a soft voice says next to me.
I look up at Peeta who apparently got out of bed and made his way towards me while I was lost in thought. In contrast to my own expression, however, there's a smile on his face and a soft look in his eyes as he looks out the window in the same direction I was looking.
"You say that like it's a good thing," I say confused.
"It is," Peeta says, looking away from the window to look me straight in the eyes.
"For all they know, singing that song would only make me want to cry. Maybe it's someone trying to hurt me," I say.
"Or...they know that she was special to you and they wanted you to hear this song so that you'd know she's here, especially today."
"You really think so?" I ask, already feeling some of the tension begin to leave my body.
"In spite of what you may think, not everyone's out to get you, you know?"
This makes me laugh. "Can you blame me?" I ask incredulously. "Just look at my history!"
"And just look at ours and look at how that turned out. For the longest time you thought I was against you when that couldn't haven't been further from the truth."
"You can't blame me for thinking that way. We were in the Games." I say defensively.
"But I proved myself to you, didn't I?" he asks with a knowing smile.
I can't help but smile back, but I don't want him to win too easily. Hard to get is our game, after all. So I break his gaze by turning my eyes back to the window.
"So you're saying that's a gift," I say, giving a small nod to the view outside.
"Just listen to them," Peeta says, wrapping an arm around my shoulders and pulling me against his side. "Isn't that one of the prettiest things you've ever heard?" he asks.
"Yes, it is." I have to agree, wrapping my arm around his waist and resting my head against his chest.
For a long time we just stand by the window in each other's embrace, listening to the mockingjays sing. It's only when we hear a knocking on the bedroom door that we both turn away from the window.
"What are you two doing?" my mom asks, looking at us confused through the opening of the door. "Why aren't you getting ready yet?" she asks, concern on her face and in her voice.
"We..." Peeta and I say at the same time, but are quickly interrupted by my mom saying, "It doesn't matter. You-" she says pointing to Peeta, "I made some breakfast downstairs." It's not a statement. It's a command.
"Yes, ma'am" Peeta says obediently, giving me a quick kiss on the lips before releasing me from his arms and walking past my mom with apologetic eyes.
"And you-" my mom says, looking me over. "Let's get started. We'll start with your hair."
I instinctively raise my hand up to my bed head, feeling the soft mess of tangles. I say nothing and quietly sit down in front of the vanity.
After years of heading the medical staff in District 4, my once frail mother now moves and talks with an air of confidence and authority. She's the mother I wish I had while growing up. At the same time, however, Peeta and I (and anyone else who comes across my mother for that matter) have learned to respect her out of sheer fear of her. If something doesn't get done "Stat!" all hell breaks loose, so I sit here now, watching my mom's reflection in the mirror as she begins untangling my long, dark hair with a hair brush and I can't help but smile at her because I'm no longer ashamed of my mom, I'm proud of her.
Besides, it's going to be, as Effie used to like to say, "A big, big, big day!" so might as well get started with the first and easiest thing to deal with right now...my hair.
Without needing to tell her, my mom carefully starts braiding my hair up the same way she did for Prim's first and only Reaping. I know that the hair style should conjure up bad memories, but it doesn't seeing how Cinna himself would sometimes have my prep team braid my hair up in the same way during the Games, to remind me of home perhaps. And now, it reminds me of him as well. So, I let my mom put my hair up this way again. Even if she hadn't decided to on her own, I probably would have asked her to do it that way anyway.
Around the same time my mom puts the last pin in my hair, Peeta is coming back into the room so that he can start getting dressed. It's perfect timing because that's when my mom and I leave to go downstairs to have our own breakfast. We are working like clockwork. As soon as we're finished eating and making our way back upstairs so that I can take my turn getting dressed, Peeta is making his way back downstairs and heading out the door.
I quickly grab his arm as he passes me by, stopping him long enough to give him a quick peck on the lips.
"I'll see you in a bit," I say.
"Don't keep me waiting," he says in return.
"Don't worry. I won't." I promise him. "I think I've kept you waiting long enough."
"You got that right!" Peeta exclaims, and even my mom, who is a couple of stairs ahead of me, also can't help but laugh at this.
Peeta and I kiss for one last time and I release his arm so that he can go. Then, my mom and I make the rest of the way back up the stairs, back to my room.
With my hair already up and my dress being rather simple, I'm ready in only a few minutes. My mom adds the lightest touch of makeup to my face and soon we're out the door ourselves. I wouldn't have it any other way. I was never high maintenance to begin with. Back when District 12 was still in disrepair, there wasn't any reason for anyone to get all dolled up. What for? Only to get covered in coal dust? And the animals in the woods sure as hell didn't give a damn about what I looked like. If anyone in District 12 ever got dressed up for anything, it was for the Reaping, and that was because it was mandatory. I've had more chances to get dressed up, being a tribute in the Games twice. If I ever did take a long time getting ready for those, it was only because my prep team insisted on doing things to me that I wouldn't otherwise have done to myself. But today, all I want is to be myself, which means wearing clothes that I feel comfortable in and leaving my face and body as natural as possible. I've already spent too much time being someone else for other people's benefit. Today, I want to be myself for Peeta's sake, for my friends' and family's sake, but most importantly...for my sake.
Outside, it is the peak of spring. The air is warm with a bit of cool, gentle breeze. The sky is a deep, clear blue with just a few wisps of clouds scattered here and there. And it seems that no matter where I look, there are bright yellow patches of dandelions on the ground, which makes me smile. It is my second gift today.
Before long, we are climbing up the steps of the Justice Building. It isn't the same building from when I was growing up since that one was blown up years ago by the old Capitol, but this new building still has the same bones, so it's essentially the same building, just not rundown and dilapidated. The last few times I was here were under less than desirable circumstances. First, when the mayor gave his condolences for my father's death in the mine explosion. The second and third times, when I was chosen as tribute for the Hunger Games. I don't have good memories associated to the Justice Building, but it's a "new" building now, and it'll be nice to have good memories associated to it for a change.
As I cross the threshold, it takes my eyes a minute to adjust from being in bright daylight to dim indoor lighting, but as soon as they do, he's the first person I see. Without thinking, I quickly close the distance between us and literally throw myself into Gale's arms. I feel him wrap his own arms around me and hug me back gently.
"I'm so glad you could make it," I tell him softly close to his ear. It's been years since I've seen him and I've missed him so much. Being with him here now makes me feel like I've finally gotten back a missing part of me.
After a while, he finally releases me from his arms, not completely, though, but just enough to take a look at me.
"You look beautiful," he says, cupping the side of my face in his hand.
I smile up at him, the tears in my eyes dangerously close to spilling over. "Thank you" is all I can manage to say. Anything more and I just know I'll fall apart and I can't afford to do that, especially not here, and especially not now.
I still have money from winning the Games, so I don't have to rent a white dress, but I didn't choose anything remotely close to what President Snow or all of Panem had chosen for me when I was supposed to be married the first time around. I have no desire to magically transform into a mockingjay today. So instead, my gown has thin spaghetti straps, not flowing silk sleeves coming down from my wrists, down onto the floor. It is strikingly simple in comparison to what I had been dressed up in before. The most extravagant thing about my dress now is that it flows down from my hips, down to the ground, flowing into a pool of white silk behind me. There are still pearls, but not stitched into my gown or ropes of it wrapped around my neck. Instead, my outfit only has one pearl, the one that Peeta gave me during our second time in the arena. It now hangs on a delicate silver chain around my neck, the necklace long enough for me to still rub the cool, round jewel against my lips the way I used to when Peeta himself was not there to kiss me himself.
"Oh come on! Don't hog her all to yourself!" I hear a familiar female voice complain.
"Effie! Octavia! Flavius! Venia!" I exclaim, and at this point Gale has no choice but to release me completely so that I can be hugged by four pairs of other arms instead.
"I just knew you two were meant for each other!" Octavia gushes. "I'm so glad I could be here to finally see you married off! You two sure took your sweet time though, didn't you?" she teases.
I open up my mouth to protest, but picking up her role from our first Hunger Game, my mother wraps a protective arm around my shoulder and explains "Well, she's my only daughter left, after all. I wanted her to grow old enough to enjoy life on her own first. She lost too much of her childhood already to the Games and even long before that," she says, turning her head to look me straight in the eyes. And that's when I know my mom is secretly telling me "I'm sorry for abandoning you and Prim when you were still children. I'm sorry you had to be the adult back then."
But out loud she finishes by saying, "So don't blame her for the long wait. Blame me. I just wanted my daughter to have a chance to live life for herself for a change, and not for the Capitol or the Rebellion or all of Panem. She deserves as much."
I cross my arm across my chest and gently squeeze my mom's hand on my shoulder as she softly kisses me on the temple. When I open up my eyes again, I see that my entire former prep team is on the verge of tears.
"That's so sweet!" Octavia manages to squeak before burying her face in her handkerchief. Venia, always the strong one, wraps an arm around Octavia's shoulders and tries to comfort her.
For a brief moment, Peeta and I catch each other's eye and smile at each other. Just like old times we silently say to each other.
Like me, Peeta chose to dress as himself today, albeit a slightly more dressed up version of himself. There's no elegant tuxedo and white gloves this time around. Instead, he's wearing a simple black dress shirt with a collar and buttons going down the front, although the first few buttons near his neck are casually undone. On top of it, he's wearing a sleek black blazer to still keep the look dressy and formal. The outfit is completed by black slacks and shiny black leather dress shoes. He's handsome, and the contrast of his bright blue eyes against all the black is striking.
"I know we've had our differences, but don't I get a hug too, sweetheart?" a gruff voice asks resentfully.
"We see each other almost everyday!" I say exasperatedly, squinting my eyes at Haymitch and pouting at him, but I make my way to him all the same, wrap my arms around his waist, and bury my head against his chest. I feel him gently kiss me on the crown of my head, and after a while, he finally lets me go.
Yes, Haymitch and I may have our differences or, according to Peeta, we're so similar which is why we're always stepping on each other's toes, but Haymitch is the closest thing I have to a father now and after everything we've been through, I wouldn't hesitate to say that I love him as one too.
And as for Greasy Sae, she could be my grandmother. She sits quietly on a bench against a wall with her granddaughter, who is practically a grown woman now. Greasy Sae, who was already old when I first met her, is even older and frailer now. Otherwise, I'm sure she would have jumped up and greeted me with a hug like everyone else. I make my way towards her and her granddaughter and give them both a tight hug. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't have been able to handle those first few weeks of returning to District 12. If it wasn't for their care and attention, I probably wouldn't even be here now.
With everyone we know and love already here (with the exception of those who couldn't make it), Peeta and I take our places in front of the officiant while everyone else gathers around us in a protective half circle.
There aren't any cameras to speak of, save for the one Octavia brought with her from the Capitol. As it is, she's currently snapping happily away with it, stopping only to dab at her tears every now and then, but even then she still manages a couple of shots. From the hundreds that she'll surely be taking today, Peeta and I will choose a few of our favorites and those will become the official wedding photos that will later be shared with all of Panem because, after all, people have been waiting for this wedding for years. We would be naive to think that no one cares about us anymore, even if the old Capitol has been defeated and Peeta and I have become hermits of a sort, hiding away in far off District 12.
If Peeta and I had wanted to, we could have agreed to the new Capitol's offers to hold our wedding for us there at no expense to us. It could have been the grandest wedding in all of Panem's history with all its citizens watching, but Peeta and I have no interest on putting on a show this time around. We had done plenty of that already in the past. This time, we want everything to be real, so we chose only a handful of our closest family and friends to join us and decided to stay in the district we both grew up in. It just seems that by doing it this way, we don't have to play up to the cameras and hundreds of thousands of people we don't even know.
It's a bit disturbing, having both Peeta and Gale standing practically side by side in front of me. It's like a cruel joke by fate asking me "All right, Katniss, so who will you choose? Your childhood best friend or the boy who went through hell and back with you at the Games?" Sure Gale has found someone new in District 2, but it isn't like he's already married off. It would be so easy to run off with him if I truly wanted to. Old loves never really die, after all. They're like a smoldering fire that may die down to nothing more than embers, but given the right kind of fuel, it could easily be brought back to a blazing inferno and there's so much fire in both Gale and me that all we would have to do is get together and the world would see a blaze, the likes of which it had never seen aside from those that blazed during the Rebellions.
But when I look up into Peeta's cool blue eyes, see the calmness, the kindness, and the gentleness within them, I feel the rage inside of me start to calm down. I feel an inner peace that actually allows me to breathe and see straight again.
There's a reason why I chose Peeta in the end. Why I would choose him over and over again if given the chance. Because he tames the fire in me. He makes it manageable and warm and inviting. The kind of fire you wouldn't mind holding your hands up to on a cold winter's night. The kind of fire that welcomes people, not scare them away. With Peeta, people can live with me, but more importantly, I can live with myself. He brings out a side of me that I would never have the ability to bring out on my own.
Knowing all this, my focus changes and I no longer see Gale, or my mom, or Haymitch, or anyone else really. I only see Peeta. So when I'm asked "Will you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?" and I reply "I do," it's as truthful and heartfelt as telling Peeta "Real" when he asks me if I love him.
The vows we're told to repeat are short and to the point, and the official ceremony itself is quickly over with, a remnant of how weddings were done in the past when people were too poor to afford to hire an officiant for more than a few minutes. Peeta and I both neatly sign our names on a few forms and that's it. For all intents and purposes, we are officially, legally married.
I didn't want to at first. I just had never planned on ever getting married. I never even planned on ever falling in love. And I didn't want to do it either because of how the Capitol had already tried to force me into marriage once before. It just seemed to me that if I held my ground and stubbornly held on to being single, then I would remain my own person, obligated to no one else, husband, Capitol, or otherwise. But the old Capitol is gone, no one is forcing me to do anything, and whether or not I want to commit myself to another person for the rest of my life is completely up to me. It is in knowing that I decided to marry Peeta out of my own free will that I find marriage liberating, not imprisoning. And it is because I decided to marry Peeta out of my own free will that I know just how much I truly love him.
Since I already have a house in the Victors' Village, Peeta and I don't need to be assigned a house. Peeta will simply move into my house instead where he's pretty much been living anyway seeing how he crawls into my bed every night, holds me in his arms, and keeps the nightmares at bay.
The song our loved ones sing to us as we enter our home is the same lullaby I sang to Rue. It's not a wedding song, but it holds a special place in my heart, so they sing it for me, for us.
Deep in the meadow, under the willow
A bed of grass, a soft green pillow
Lay down your head, and close your sleepy eyes
And when again they open, the sun will rise.
Here it's safe, here it's warm
Here the daisies guard you from every harm
Here your dreams are sweet and tomorrow brings them true
Here is the place where I love you.
Deep in the meadow, hidden far away
A cloak of leaves, a moonbeam ray
Forget your woes and let your troubles lay
And when again it's morning, they'll wash away.
Here it's safe, here it's warm
Here the daisies guard you from every harm
Here your dreams are sweet and tomorrow brings them true
Here is the place where I love you.
Yes, in this house, where Peeta and I have already spent countless nights in each other's arms, protecting each other from nightmares and painful memories, this place truly is the place in which I love Peeta.
We have a real wedding cake, not just a bit of cake. It's a cake made by Peeta himself. Anything he makes is beautiful anyway, but because it's for us, the cake is especially beautiful and personalized. The icing is made of whipped cream instead of regular icing so that it's light and not too sweet. A satin ribbon trims the bottom edge of each layer of the three-tiered cake. Even the ribbons were carefully hand painted by Peeta himself, the deep forest greens softly blending in with the soft sunset oranges. On the top of the cake and cascading down the side to the lower levels are real evening primroses and dandelions, the very same flowers that make up my bouquet. One set of flowers to guarantee Prim's presence and another set of flowers as a reminder of hope.
Lastly, we make our first fire as a married couple, toast a bit of bread, again made by Peeta's own hands, and then, like we had done so many times in the arena, Peeta and I break our meager meal into two equal halves and share it. And then, and not just on paper, we are finally, officially married. You never truly feel married, after all, until after the toasting.
Maybe it's because of the clinking of forks on champagne glasses, or maybe because we just really want to, but either way, Peeta and I close our eyes in front of the crackling fire and kiss for the cheering crowd once more. This time, however, it is on our own terms. This time it's real: the marriage, our love for each other...All of it real this time around. It is the last and final stand against the Capitol, the final offense: To love and be loved not through force, but out of our own free will.