Author's Note: I am so excited for this movie. So excited. Words cannot even describe. Enjoy! :)
Disclaimer: The Hunger Games trilogy belongs to Suzanne Collins.
One day, when Peeta is very small, his mother scoops him onto her lap and tells him the story of her wedding.
Now, at this point, Peeta is old enough to know that he isn't supposed to be interested in that kind of thing - his older brothers have drilled it into him well, after all - but the look in his mother's eyes is distant and dreamy, and he misses when her expression hadn't been so stern all the time, so, ignoring every manly instinct he's ever had, he sits patiently and listens until the very end.
It's the first time he hears of fancy clothes. Fancy clothes being, of course, just her mother's - his grandmother's - finest blue dress, and a dress shirt with nice pants for the groom. It's also the first time he hears of actually eating some of the fine goods they make at the bakery. Fine goods meaning just a small cake shared between family and friends, but the thought of even just tasting the sugary frosting makes Peeta's mouth water.
The thing that stays with him most, though, is the bread toasting tradition. He remembers it for a long time, but not because he thinks it's a good idea. In fact, he finds it hard to believe that two people can feel closer, somehow, just by sitting in front of a fire to watch food burn. But he keeps this to himself. After all, what does he know of love? He's only three years old.
Two years later, Peeta sits in music assembly as a girl in a red dress sings a song about valleys. Or about something of that sort. He isn't quite paying attention to the song - only that when she sings, he can't seem to breathe, and neither can the rest of the room, or even the birds outside for that matter. The only thing he can process, when she finishes, is that this is the same girl his father pointed out to him that morning. The girl whose mother chose a coal miner over a baker. He sincerely hopes with all his five-year-old heart she doesn't suffer from the same affliction as her mother.
He doesn't think of it right away; instead, for the next few years, all he wants is to talk to her, to smile with her, to be her friend. But it's only too obvious: she's from the Seam, and he's a town boy. He remembers, one day, of his father telling him a story they often used to tell long ago. Something about a boy and girl who loved each other even though they were from enemy families. Only his father never finished the story, always saying he'd tell Peeta the ending when he was older. Peeta sometimes wishes he knew, so maybe he'd have some kind of idea of how to approach her - Katniss, he finds out right after the music assembly, her name is Katniss.
The first time he thinks of it is a rainy day in March. It's a day of firsts. It's the first time he sees her outside of school. It's the first time he intentionally makes a mistake. It's the first time his mother hits him, although her mood has been severely deteriorating as of late. It's the first time he interacts with Katniss in a way that isn't just him glancing furtively at her from across the school yard.
As he tosses the two burned loaves of bread in a high arc into the rain, he suddenly remembers his mother's wedding story. And it's then he decides he would much rather burn bread with Katniss in a fire than see her scramble for it in the mud.
It comes out of nowhere. One second, they're throwing new ideas at Haymitch, the weight of President Snow's latest threat looming over all of their heads. The next, Katniss gets this furrow between her eyebrows that Peeta finds endearing, the one that says she's thinking hard and fast, and he can practically see the cogs coming together, whirring around in her head, before she blurts, "We should get married."
The silence after this is unexpected, and it drags on and on until Peeta looks up to see both of them watching him. It's only then that he realizes they're waiting for him to react. But when he opens his mouth to reply, nothing comes out, so he closes it and thinks, angrily, that this is a horrible time for words to refuse to form when he's always been so good with them before.
Somewhere deep in his subconscious, he knows hearing this kind of thing from Katniss, of all people, should make him thrilled beyond belief. But when he searches for the feeling, he resurfaces and finds nothing but Haymitch's stare and Katniss's worried gray eyes, clouding over with the doubt that maybe what she said wasn't a good idea after all. Which it is. If Haymitch doesn't seem to have any objections, it should be a good idea. Because it is. It's a good idea.
Peeta can't seem to put this sentiment into words, though, because out of that nothing in his chest he feels something long since forgottten struggling to make its way to the forefront of his mind, and it isn't delight or excitement or anything that can possibly be good. So he agrees before he confuses himself even more. And then he leaves before the nothingness overtakes him entirely.
Later that night, he stays awake thinking about Katniss in a beautiful white dress - Capitol-made because, after all, it will be a Capitol wedding - twirling around on the stage like she did the last night before the Hunger Games. Cinna will probably design it. And Caesar Flickerman will be up on the stage too, of course, narrating Peeta's every action - as he lifts Katniss's veil, as he slips a ring onto her finger, as he leans in to kiss her - just like he comments on the bloodshed in the arena every year...
Wait, no, that isn't Caesar Flickerman, it's Claudius Templesmith, and suddenly they're in the forest, because it's the arena again, no, no, why are they back in the arena? And it's all he can do to scream at Katniss to run, run, run - but his lungs are burning and he knows he's making as much noise as the pack of muttations tearing through the underbrush after them, and when he turns to where he knows Katniss will be, she isn't there, and his heart drops to his stomach when he realizes she's fallen behind because that ridiculous wedding dress is caught on something neither of them can see, and, the moment their eyes meet and he sees the terror dilate in her pupils, there is a bright splash of red. The last thought Peeta has is that crimson and white make a horrifying contrast he will never find beautiful.
And then he wakes up, his pillow soaked in sweat, a name for the feeling he couldn't place before clawing at his lips: jealousy.
As soon as he realizes it, he almost laughs at himself. It's absurd, to be feeling something like jealousy now, when it looks like he's going to have everything he could have ever asked for: Katniss, Katniss by his side, bound to him by something more than posturing and district obligation. But deep down, he knows that's still not true, and the lie squeezes at his memory with the grip of a vice. An image of his mother flashes through his mind, smiling that faraway smile he never sees anymore, telling him a story about an inherited old dress and a tiny frosted cake and toasting bread over sooty fire. Her wedding. A District 12 wedding. Something he'll never have.
But then the feeling flares up again, consuming the nothingness in his chest, and Peeta decides that it might not be jealousy at all. It's far too fervent. It has to be anger. And of course it is, since this is the Capitol they're talking about. But then he remembers the fire in Katniss's eyes - Katniss, she's not dead, no, the Capitol's mutts haven't killed her, she's alive. No, not anger - and Peeta feels guilty even thinking it - but it's... it's hatred. Pure, selfish, unadulterated hatred.
It was then, too. He'd felt an inkling of it back then, before the Games, when he'd asked Haymitch for separate coaching. It was after a similarly sleepless night, when he'd figured that their best chance of staying alive was to play on some sentiment even Capitol citizens had to sympathize with - when he'd decided to tell all of Panem that he was in love with the girl on fire. That had been a good idea too.
That night before, he couldn't help but feel it - that hatred bubbling in his stomach, twisting in his gut until he felt sick, suffocated, breathless. Hatred for the Capitol, for the Games that would force him to use his heart as a weapon. Maybe, in another life, by some lucky twist of fate, he'd confess his love for Katniss at home in District 12, without the blade of the Games swinging over their necks. The result might not have been as pretty, but something inside of him - something in his fighting spirit that won't let him be a piece in the Capitol's Games - likes that option much more than their current relationship. Because isn't that what it came down to anyway, despite all his heroic words? His feelings used as a piece in their Games?
And he will never get that moment back.
It's almost the same now. The one freedom they have in District 12 - the right to love - is slowly being stripped away from him in a last ditch effort to save them from the Games, from the Capitol, from President Snow. Peeta will never get a District 12 wedding, with family and friends and sharing toasted bread. No, instead he'll get a dazzlingly twisted version of a wedding, the only kind they know how to throw in the Capitol, with hundreds of people ooh-ing and aah-ing under a stage and thousands more watching him reproachfully from television screens across Panem.
Part of him says that this is nothing new, the Capitol playing with his love life. Another part of him even scoffs at his superficiality - does he really care that much about the appearance of traditions when, either way, he and Katniss will be married at the end of the day, bonded together at the heart?
But he knows there's still something separating that time when he confessed to Katniss before the Hunger Games and now. And the difference lies in the fact that this is a lie.
The truth, it seems, is that his life with Katniss is playing out right before his eyes, forever attached to puppet strings in the Capitol's hands. And that in itself ensures that it will never be real.
Watching her turn the bread over and over next to the fire, Peeta starts to remember it.
The first thing that comes to his mind is the picture of a little girl sitting on a stool, singing, oblivious to the world, but this is already a memory he knows is real. He sits at the table, spoon of stew halfway to his mouth, confused as to why exactly he feels on the verge of remembering something important, something new. The fire flickers across Katniss's skin, dancing, and when she turns back to the table he startles her by catching her hand, feeling the warmth of the flames lingering in her fingers. She jumps and nearly drops the bread, but her eyes are familiar, calming.
"I asked you to marry me. Real or not real?"
She frowns, thinking. "Real. Well, not real. You technically asked me, but I was the one who suggested it."
It feels like someone has punched him in the stomach. Her words only confirm his suspicions - no, his fears - of what he already knows to be true. "It was for the Capitol." He sees her flinch slightly but continues without hesitation. "Real or not real?"
"Real," Katniss whispers. For a moment, when she looks at him, it seems like her gaze is a thousand years old, like she can see right into his heart, can understand the source of his distress. But then she tears her hand away and starts dipping the now-cold bread in her stew. She avoids his eyes for the rest of the night, but whether from guilt or something else he isn't quite sure.
When Peeta leaves, the pain attacks him. It is the most terrible memory, because the Capitol has taken away one thing he can never reclaim with a new, rebuilt life: moments in his life that should have been real. He proposed to her, and he supposes - no, he knows - he cared about her enough to have done it as a gesture of love. But it wasn't. It was as a defense, as another part of their star-crossed lovers act. Just like his first confession was just a stategic maneouver. He may have been hijacked, may have been mentally insane - or maybe he still is and just doesn't know it - but if there's one thing of which he can be certain, it's that this memory, the memory of his entire romance with Katniss, is all wrong. Katniss is the one with a scarred sense of emotion, not him. Somewhere deep inside him, in the furthest corner of his mind, he knows this isn't how love is meant to be.
It takes a very, very long time before he can finally convince himself that when he says he wants to love her properly, it isn't just from a sense of loyalty to who he used to be. He wants to see her happy, he really does. It's like falling in love with an entirely new person - that little girl on the stool no longer exists, and neither does the girl who grew up hunting for her family. Instead, it's someone stronger than a victor of a million Hunger Games could ever hope to be. It's someone fighting a world she isn't sure of - someone just like him - struggling against all odds to maintain a grip on reality even if it means facing a horrible truth. It's someone who knows every face in the book of memories they're trying to create, stares into the past with unwavering determination, lets her tears becomes fuel for a new era of sympathy and peace. It's someone he aspires to be - again, again, again.
And then, somehow, by her side, the memories of his past life and the reality he knows to be true start to merge together, to blend, and when he knows the feeling of her in his arms is familiar in so many ways, he asks her to marry him. They've long since played their last game of "Real or Not Real," and her reply then makes him confident he knows what her answer is going to be now. Still, when he asks, her face turns ashen, and her gray eyes shut him out. He waits there, on one knee - because that's how Haymitch told him to do it - feeling like an idiot, and suddenly a million thoughts are running through his head, like that he never should have trusted Haymitch for something so important, and that if she says no he'll probably die, but mostly that this, this is how he should feel when he asks the woman he loves to marry him - nervous, giddy, but not resigned, because he knows that whatever word comes out of her mouth, it will be undeniably, irrefutably real.
She says yes. And, at their wedding, they do, in fact, end up burning the bread.