A/N: Here it is folks, Chapter 32! And sadly, this is the last chapter to this story. Don't worry, I'm not done with Katniss and Peeta yet! There will be a sequel, so be on the look out for it! I hope you enjoy this chapter (and I'm so glad all of you liked the last chapter. It took me a while to write, as did this chapter). Thanks to all my readers and reviewers - you have been an amazing audience, more than I could have ever imagined! This has been a wondrous experience, writing this fanfiction. Two months ago, when I started the first draft of chapter one, I never would have thought it would become this 32 chapter labor of love. Thank you again for reading, and enjoy!
He looked worn, and older. It had only been about a year and a half since she had last seen him – in person at least – but it seemed like a lifetime had passed. He still had the same gray eyes – almost exact mirrors of her own – with a fire raging beneath. The same dark hair and olive skin. But there was something else, Katniss noticed, something that hadn't been there when they had both been mere children hunting the woods together. She had seen it in him, smoldering there beneath the surface before the Quarter Quell, until it had flickered and risen to burning during their time together in District Thirteen and throughout the Rebellion. She had turned to him for comfort then, though, when Peeta had been taken, and so she had consciously looked past the change in him. It had only been after Prim's death that she knew they were too alike – and altogether too different – to be together.
When she had seen Gale off to the side, at the end of the aisle, she had at first been shocked. Anger had quickly welled up inside of her though, and she had been glad when Peeta – who had stopped just as abruptly as she had – tugged on her arm and pulled her past the brooding man. All eyes had been on Peeta and Katniss, and she knew that it was better to not create a scene. She had turned her head, and caught Gale's eyes following her. He made no move to follow, though, and was soon swallowed up by the crowd leaving their seats and heading to the reception area.
Katniss had pulled away from Peeta near the edge of the tent, determined to find Gale. Luckily, Effie was striding forth in her spiked heels, her crew of assistants following closely behind.
"No, no, my dear," Effie said, grabbing Katniss's wrist. "It's time for pictures." She announced.
Katniss scowled, feeling her anger boil up inside of her. How dare he show up like that, unannounced? Peeta came to stand beside Effie though, and the sight of his blue eyes calmed her. His blond hair falling over the scars on his forehead – so similar to hers – and the pleading look on his face were the undoing of the tempest of rage she felt at that moment. She let out a long sigh and nodded at Effie. Effie seemed greatly relieved as she directed the couple back toward the manicured lawn, and Katniss realized that Effie had not been so oblivious as to not notice the tension Gale's appearance had caused. Katniss felt Peeta lace his fingers in hers and she let the reassuring warmth of his hand comfort her.
The crowd was being herded underneath the large tents by Effie's group of assistants as Katniss, Peeta, and Effie headed back toward the beautifully landscaped yard. Haymitch, as well as Katniss's mother, caught up with them. The older woman wore a look of concern on her face, but kept silent. Haymitch gave Katniss a long look and opened his mouth to say something, but went quiet after a menacing scowl from Effie. Katniss thought she saw Gale in the crowd, surrounded by Hazelle and his siblings, as well as some of the locals that had once been friends. She realized she had stopped to look more closely when she felt Peeta tug gently on her hand. Then her prep team descended on her, fussing over wayward strands of hair, the positioning of her headdress and veil, and Katniss lost sight of Gale. Though Peeta's presence had calmed her, she still felt anger and frustration at war with the happiness she was supposed to be feeling. With her emotions in chaos, she slowly felt herself slip into the numbness she knew all too well. She was vaguely aware of smiling for the camera as she stood next to Peeta. Then she was being repositioned by Mara, while her prep team straightened her full skirt and long veil for another set of photos. Her mother posed beside her, then Haymitch – grumbling the entire time – and Katniss blinked furiously between the bright flashes. And then Peeta came to stand beside her once more. Effie was telling him something loudly, but before Katniss could process what had been said, he was leaning forward to kiss her for the camera.
His warm lips touched hers and she suddenly felt the tension leave her body. The numbness that had taken over her thoughts and emotions slowly drifted away as well. She was somewhat aware of the camera flashes, but as the kiss deepened, she soon forgot she had an audience. Her hands gripped Peeta's arms, feeling the hard curve of muscle through the tuxedo. His hands were pressed into the small of her back and she had the sudden need to feel skin on skin. She slipped her hands inside his jacket and felt him shudder slightly as she clutched at the soft silk of his waistcoat. Her fingers found the buttons, but then she heard the collective sound of several people clearing their throats, and she pulled away slowly from Peeta, her cheeks burning.
"I think that's enough photos for now," Effie announced, giving Katniss a look. "Let's head back to the reception, shall we?" She said as more of an order than a question.
Katniss's mother walked nearby as they marched back across the lawn and toward the tents.
"You didn't think he'd come, did you?" She asked her daughter quietly. Katniss turned quickly to look at the older woman.
"No…" Katniss admitted. "Hazelle wrote me and said she was coming, with Rory and Vick and Posy. But she said Gale was busy with work." Her mother gave her a reassuring look.
"I'm sure that's what he told them," Katniss's mother replied. "Hazelle looked quite surprised to see him here as well."
Katniss was suddenly relieved that she hadn't been the only one surprised by Gale Hawthorne's appearance. At least she now knew that Hazelle hadn't misinformed her on purpose, though Katniss knew the older woman was beyond such deceit. Her eldest son, on the other hand, was a different case altogether. Whatever purpose was behind his visit, Katniss longed to know. If he was there to stop the marriage, he was a few weeks too late. But the look in his eyes, as tempestuous as it had been, had not been one that foreboded an altercation – at least on his part. And he had been swept up into the crowd, greeting his bewildered family and other acquaintances with a steely smile. He hadn't sought her out yet, but Katniss knew she wouldn't be able to avoid him for the rest of the day. And part of her didn't want to.
Katniss sat with Peeta, her mother, Annie and Finn, Haymitch, and Sae at a table near the front of the tent. She felt relief to get off her shaky legs and was glad that Portia had dressed her in boots with only a hint of a heel instead of a pair with more height. She would surely have teetered and fallen by now had her balance not been intact. She watched Effie running around – in four-inch heels no less – like a chicken with its head cut off, her team of assistants following dutifully, and couldn't help but laugh. Peeta gave her hand a squeeze and laughed too. It was then that Katniss realized how well Peeta was handling everything. From the lavish ceremony in front of hundreds to Gale's sudden appearance to the bright flashes of light from cameras, he had not once grimaced or neared the verge of having a flashback. Katniss smiled to herself. Either he had given in and taken one of Effie's little pink pills, or he was just that strong.
Peeta was looking off, probably continuing to watch Effie, and so Katniss took full measure of him. He looked quite handsome in the formal black suit. Underneath he wore a soft green waistcoat and matching, patterned tie atop his crisp, white shirt. It was then that she noticed the cluster of pink evening primrose blooms pinned near his lapel. Her breath caught in her throat for a moment before she swallowed hard, holding back tears.
"Katniss…?" Peeta asked softly, his gaze back on her.
"You're wearing…" Katniss started, nodding her head toward the blooms on his jacket. She couldn't say the word though.
"Yeah…" He replied, reaching up to touch the delicate flowers. "Effie had some other thing for me to wear, but I told her no. I hope it's alright…" He added quickly, searching her face.
Katniss nodded, a few tears escaping as she leaned forward to kiss him. She pulled back and smiled, letting out a laugh at the thought of being a weepy bride.
"Are you ok, Peeta?" She asked earnestly, her face close to his. Their gazes were locked, and she could see something dark flicker in his brilliant blue eyes. His bright smile was hiding whatever he was truly feeling.
And it was then that Katniss was reminded for the thousandth time why she needed Peeta, why she had chosen him over Gale. Peeta was selfless, kind and loyal, always putting her above anyone else, even himself. He loved her fiercely, unconditionally, despite the torture he had been through, despite all he had lost. He didn't blame her for what had happened, and had forgiven her for her uncertainty, for leading him on for so long. There was true strength in Peeta that few had, that had allowed him to overcome the hijacking – the false memories, the distorted reality – and grow into someone quite amazing.
She remembered a conversation from a few months back, late one night after their passion had been sated. Apart from whispered "I love yous," Katniss was usually quiet after, reveling in his warmth before drifting off to sleep. But that night, she had been tracing patterns on his neck, the pads of her fingers stroking his skin softly. She could see where his lifeblood pulsed strong and quick, and she touched the area gently. She looked up to find him watching her, the hint of a smile playing on his lips.
"How can you love me…?" She asked softly, voicing the thought that had been plaguing her for quite some time.
"What…?" He asked, somewhat incredulously. A look of confusion passed over his features and he opened his mouth to speak again.
"I mean, after all that happened," she cut him off quickly. "After the hijack– after what the Capitol did…" her voice trailed off and she was sure she was ruining the moment. She wasn't even sure she was explaining herself correctly.
"I just…sometimes it's just hard to understand how," she started again, her voice calmer and her tone more even. "How you could still love me…"
She paused and looked up at him, his eyes dark in the unlighted room. His features had turned from confused to thoughtful, and he was silent for quite some length of time before he responded.
"It's different…" He started finally. He looked her in the eye, then his gaze flitted to the ceiling. "At first, I had these memories – false memories, of course. It was difficult. Difficult to be around you." He continued to focus on the ceiling as he spoke, his voice even. She felt a pang in her chest to think back to when he had been rescued from the Capitol. "Difficult to be around" was an understatement.
"But once I learned more – about how things really had been, about you – it got easier. Talking to people who knew you – Delly, Johanna – that really helped. And then the doctors started the reversal therapy…." He paused, and Katniss waited quietly. He glanced down and met her gaze again, smiling. His arm was around her, holding her close, and so she rested her head on his chest as he continued.
"The reversal therapy, it didn't exactly reverse things," he was saying. "More like it gave me a clean slate. Like all those bad feelings the Capitol planted in me were gone. For the most part, anyway." He added.
"So before they sent me back here, to District Twelve, I kind of had to relearn things. I watched the tapes of the games and the Victory Tour and the Quarter Quell, and that helped. Much of my memory came back – true memories – but it's different." He said again. "It's like remembering things that happen in a story. Like watching someone else's life." He paused. "Does any of this make sense?"
Katniss nodded, her head bobbing against his chest.
"But I came back." He continued. "And there you were, next door, and I wanted to do something for you…so I planted the primroses. And you looked so fragile – and lost – when I saw you…"
Katniss remembered that day as if it had been yesterday. Sitting in the rocking chair, oblivious to the world, wearing the same clothes she had returned from the Capitol in. And yet there had been the sound of a shovel scraping the dirt, and it had pulled her out of the oblivion. Seeing him there had frightened her, and at the same time it had made her nervous in a different way. And the primroses. Those had broken the dam she had built, had torn down the walls she had constructed to house her grief. It was then that she had slowly begun to heal. And it had been the start of something between them.
"I know I loved you before…" He was saying. She could tell he was searching carefully for the right words. "But it's like that Peeta was someone else. I mean, I know it was me, but I just had to start all over…only, it's like breathing," he said, his voice growing more animated.
"It was as easy as breathing, Katniss, falling in love with you all over again. It's like, even if I am a new person, I can't help it. No matter what, it'll always be you." He said, burying his face in her hair and breathing deeply of its scent. Katniss pressed her lips against his chest, felt her forehead resting against his neck.
And like that she started crying. She had closed her eyes when he had started to explain, and the tears were escaping as she let out quiet sobs against the crook of his neck. He kissed the top of her head as one strong hand stroked her hair. She thought it cruel, that whatever being, whatever fate controlled the universe saw fit to have him love her no matter what. Even if she had chosen Gale over him, she knew that Peeta would still love her like he always had. But at the same time, his love for her was the greatest gift. Despite what he had been through, despite his fractured memories, he loved her. And she knew then and there, clinging to him in the dark, that if his memories had been wiped clean, if he had been sent back to District Twelve and had met her for the first time, he would still have fallen in love with her.
"I'm fine," he said, and Katniss was jolted from her thoughts back to the present – their wedding day. "As long as you're okay…" He added.
And Katniss realized that he had been thinking solely of her all day. That the reason he hadn't given in to his demons was because he was too worried about her to think of himself. She would never have had that kind of devotion from Gale, she realized, and so she leaned forward and pressed her lips to his once more. And this time, it was a lingering kiss.
"I'm ok," she whispered. As long as you're beside me, she thought.
And so she fell into the role of the bride flawlessly. She took her place, smiling, near Peeta as he stood in front of the crowd, giving an eloquent speech. He thanked the guests for coming, made a few jokes that were met with warm laughter, and then announced Katniss as "Mrs. Mellark" to the sound of deafening applause. Katniss was caught off guard when Peeta looked at her expectantly, waiting for her to address the crowd as well. Effie stood near the edge of the tent, mouthing the words "say something" enthusiastically. So Katniss took a deep breath and thanked the crowd briefly, and looking toward Effie out of the corner of her eye, Katniss thanked the older woman for planning the event. Katniss turned to clap for Effie and the crowd cheered loudly. Effie waved it off with feigned modesty, but Katniss could see the delight in the older woman's eyes. Shortly after they returned to their seats, a meal was served. Katniss ate the food, though she hardly thought about the taste.
After servers dressed in dark pants and white cotton shirts cleared the dinner plates from the table, Katniss rose to admire the cake that Peeta had so skillfully created. It stood near the front of the tent on a table to itself. There was tier after tier of cake, covered in pale green icing. Clusters of white and pink and soft orange flowers seemed to grow and bloom right out of the side of the tall structure. There were white leaves drawn on the cake as well, mirroring the lace leaves on Katniss's gown. How Peeta had seen the fabric to mimic it on the dessert was beyond her, as the gown had been kept under lock and key since its arrival. She gave him a look, but he just smiled back innocently. Cameras flashed and Pollux stood nearby, filming, as they cut the cake, wrapping their arms around each other's to feed each other a bite of the delicious treat.
Guests congratulated them throughout the reception. Katniss and Peeta were bombarded by friends, both old and new. Anabel gushed over Katniss's dress while Marc shifted Rye so that he could offer Peeta his hand for a firm shake. Delly Cartwright, who had made it all the way from District Thirteen, was as bright and bubbly as ever. She didn't even bat an eyelash when Katniss gathered her up in a tight hug. Delly just laughed cheerfully and chattered on, while Peeta gave Katniss a knowing look. Theo and Edda came to talk to the couple, and while Peeta was distracted, Katniss scanned the crowd for any sign of Gale. She caught sight of him standing near a table in the back, having an animated conversation with Thom and Leevy. Of course Gale and Thom had been friends, having worked on the same crew in the mines. Katniss imagined that they were catching up, and deep down she hoped that Thom wasn't trying to convince Gale to move back to the district. Leevy was blushing, and Katniss wasn't sure if it was from how close she was standing to Thom or from Gale's presence. Gale was laughing at something that had been said, and the feelings of rage that Katniss had thought dissipated began to manifest once more. She was two seconds away from lifting her skirts and stomping over to yell something at him when the music grew louder and an area was cleared out for a dance floor. She felt Peeta's hand slide into hers and she let him lead her to the center of the floor.
"You still ok?" He asked, their faces close as they danced together. She pressed her forehead to his cheek and let silence be her response.
Soon, other couples had joined them and the area filled up quickly. Little Posy had coaxed Vick to dance with her, and she smiled brightly as he scowled, Hazelle giving him a look when he tried to break away. Katniss saw Haymitch try to convince Effie to dance with him, but the older woman started protesting animatedly, most likely telling him she was too busy. Effie managed to slip away from Haymitch, but Katniss's mother greeted him with a smile and offered him her hand. Leevy and Thom were dancing near the edge of the crowd, and Katniss noticed how the usually reserved girl was practically floating across the floor. Annie sat at the table with Finn, feeding him little tastes of the icing. Katniss felt a pang of loss to think that Finnick should be there, dancing around the others, Annie in his arms. Mrs. Everdeen and Haymitch made their way back toward the table, though, and the older woman sat down, taking Finn in her lap. Annie shook her head when Haymitch held out his hand, but he continued to stand in front of her. She stood, smiling, after a moment, and began to dance with Haymitch. Katniss then caught sight of Gale, sitting near the back of the tent at a table by himself. They locked gazes, but he made no move toward her. Katniss buried her face in Peeta's neck and continued her slow movement around the dance floor.
After a few slow melodies, the music picked up into a more upbeat tempo. Katniss recognized the songs of the district, the fiddles and bass and other instruments. She remembered her mother and father showing her the steps to traditional dances when she was young. She had delighted in the quick movements and the swirl of her skirt. But that had been a long time ago, and she had to watch some of the older folks of the district dance before the steps came back to her. She winced as Peeta, clumsier with his prosthetic leg, stepped on her toes during some of parts of the dance. But she was breathless and laughing by the time the music changed tempo again and she collapsed into her chair, her gown billowing up around her.
It was dark by the time the crowd dispersed, most heading back toward town for the night. Katniss stood dutifully beside Peeta as they said their goodbyes to the departing guests with waves or handshakes or embraces. A few folks lingered later into the evening. There was Leevy, with a yawning Levan, who looked reluctant to part from Mayor Thom, who had a dreamy look on his face. Haymitch was seated with Marc and Theo and Rolf, having an animated conversation. Effie had finally sat down and was sipping a glass of wine and eating tiny bites from her piece of cake. The last Katniss had seen of Gale, he was talking with Cressida.
Peeta was thanking an older gentleman whose name escaped Katniss, when a pair of familiar gray eyes appeared in front of her. He towered over her and had a smile – no, more like a smirk – on his face that Katniss dearly wanted to rid him of.
"Hey Catnip," He said, his tone light and teasing. In the past, she might have smiled and teased him back. That night, she just frowned up at him.
"What are you doing here?" She asked him quietly, her tone taking on a sharp edge.
"What? Can't I come to my dear cousin's wedding?" He teased again, a dark bite in his voice. He folded his arms across his chest, and that's when she took full stock of him, not having seen him in over a year and a half.
He did look worn, and older – tired lines on his face making him appear aged beyond his twenty-one years. Had he not been sleeping? Was it his new job that had been keeping him busy or was it simply the news of her marriage that had been keeping him awake? Katniss shook her head at him and mirrored his pose, crossing her arms over her chest.
"No bullying the bride…" A rather intoxicated Haymitch announced loudly as he stumbled up beside Katniss. He took a swig from his wine glass and narrowed his eyes at Gale.
"We were just having a civil conversation, weren't we, Katniss?" Gale said, an even wider smile spreading over his features. Katniss noticed that his normally olive cheeks were a slight shade of pink and realized he must have been drinking as well.
Katniss's frown deepened and she opened her mouth to snap back when she felt a warm hand on her shoulder. She turned slightly to see Peeta standing beside her and Haymitch. Peeta searched her face and she gave him a forced smile in return. Then he slid one arm around her waist and turned back toward Gale.
"A conversation?" Peeta asked brightly, looking from Gale to Katniss to Haymitch. "Well count me in, you know how much I love to talk…" Gale's smile faltered and Katniss saw the smoldering look from earlier return. Could it be jealousy, she asked herself.
Haymitch took another gulp of wine as they stood there quite awkwardly, Peeta with a fake smile plastered on his face, Gale with his stormy eyes, and Katniss scowling at them all. The tension between them was tangible, and Katniss was scared that any minute it would detonate like some sort of bomb. The sudden analogy that crossed her thoughts made the ache in her chest grow sharp and almost unbearable and she suddenly felt faint. She swayed where she stood, and luckily Peeta had an arm around her waist or he might not have been able to catch her in time. Gale and Haymitch saw her begin to collapse, and for a moment she thought that she would be caught in Gale's arms. But Peeta was closer, and faster, and wrapped his other arm around her and led her back to a chair. She felt better seated, though altogether foolish and weak for almost passing out. Her mother was quickly by her side, touching her forehead and asking her a barrage of questions as Peeta stood near her, protectively.
"I'm ok," she repeated over and over to her mother and Peeta. Gale stood close by, but didn't hover.
"I'll get you some water," Peeta said, bending down to kiss the top of her head. "I'll be right back," he told her as he sent a concerned look her way.
"Are you sure you're alright?" Her mother asked again. "You don't feel dizzy or lightheaded?"
"I'm ok," Katniss repeated herself. "And I feel fine sitting down."
Her mother gave her a worried look, but didn't ask any more questions. The older lady straightened up and turned to Gale.
"Gale." Katniss's mother said, inclining her head slightly in greeting. Her features were blank, though, Katniss saw as she looked up.
"Mrs. Everdeen," Gale replied, his voice deep and even. The pink was gone from his cheeks and Katniss wondered if he'd sobered. Gale and her mother eyed each other for a long moment before the older woman glanced back down at Katniss.
"I'm going to see about Annie and Finn," her mother said. The older woman then paused, as if to see if Katniss would protest. "Are you sure you're alright?"
"I promise, I'm fine." Katniss said and gave her mother a forced half smile. The older woman smiled weakly back, then gave Gale a hard look. Katniss thought for a moment that her mother would threaten him, but the older woman just turned abruptly and headed toward the other side of the tent.
Katniss sighed, looking down at her feet instead of up to where Gale loomed above her. After a few seconds of silence, Gale pulled out a chair across from her and sat down. Katniss straightened up, pushing her long veil out of the way, and turned to face him. She reached up reflexively to where the pearl hung at her neck. Her fingers touched the perfect, round stone and she saw his eyes flicker to her throat.
"You look nice, Catnip," he said softly, smiling. She kept her jaw set. If he thought he could just use her nickname like that to get on her good side, he was wrong.
"Beautiful really," he corrected himself, his smile widening ever so slightly.
Even with a smile on his face, he still looked quite sullen. His gray eyes were not warm and comforting. His dark hair and olive skin spoke of the Seam, and a life of bitterness and toil. Yet he was only twenty-one. Katniss reminded herself that he had looked grown at fourteen, when they had become friends. He had helped her stay alive. Showed her how to make snares and catch prey for her mother and Prim. He had been her only friend for years. He had looked after her family while she fought to stay alive in the games. He had been jealous of the time she spent with Peeta. And then he had pursued bigger aspirations – an uprising, a rebellion. He had turned his fighting spirit into a weapon for District Thirteen to use against the Capitol. He had sacrificed others to bring down Panem, including Prim. It was all a terrifying paradox to Katniss. He had promised to protect her family while she was in the games, yet he had ultimately betrayed her, albeit unknowingly.
She shook her head at him, exhaustion hitting her.
"When did it happen – you and Peeta?" He asked after quite some time. She cocked her head in disbelief.
"You really came all this way and you want to talk about that?" She asked, meeting his gray eyes.
"I mean, I figured it might happen, what with you two both back here…" He continued quietly, as if he was thinking aloud. "It happened kind of fast, though, didn't it? I just thought with what the Capitol did to him, it'd take longer…" Maybe he was still tipsy, Katniss thought to herself. It had been quite some time since she'd heard Gale speak so freely.
"It's been a year and a half – even longer, Gale." Katniss replied, narrowing her eyes at him. A look passed across his face and she realized that she was no longer thinking of Peeta, but Prim.
Gale looked away from her then, and Katniss saw the guilt that consumed him. She might have pitied him, had it been under different circumstances. But the die had been cast, and it was too late now.
"I'm sorry…" He said softly and looked up at her. "I really am, Katniss. I – "
"I love him." Katniss cut him off and changed the subject before he had the chance to blaspheme Prim's name. "And he loves me."
"I know," Gale said, smiling with chagrin. "I've known you loved him ever since I saw you two kiss during the Quarter Quell…"
A subdued conversation from nearly two years ago sprang up in Katniss's memory. It had been when they were hiding in the safe house, in the Capitol. She remembered Gale and Peeta arguing over whom Katniss truly loved, and she remembered Gale telling Peeta the very same thing about the kiss during the Quarter Quell. They had then talked about a choice…
"Then why are you here?" She asked.
The words came out harsher than she had intended, but she didn't apologize. She knew that he had not shown up to try and break off the marriage. She knew he had admitted defeat long ago. He looked up at her quickly and let out a long breath.
"I just want to make sure you're happy…" He said, the look in his gray eyes genuine. Katniss knew there would always be things left unspoken between them.
"I am," she replied matter-of-factly, gazing off to where Peeta stood talking with Haymitch.
As if he sensed her watching him, Peeta met her gaze and smiled before turning back to his conversation. He was holding two fresh glasses of water, and Katniss knew that he hadn't forgotten the drinks. He was merely giving her time alone to talk with Gale. And she knew that was one of the countless reasons why she loved him.
A few moments later, Peeta returned with the water, and Katniss drank it happily. He rested a hand on her shoulder and she laid her hand atop his once she was done with her glass.
"Gale," Peeta bobbed his head in greeting toward the other man.
But Gale was watching Katniss, the way she gazed lovingly up at Peeta, her features growing soft, her scowl transforming into a warm smile. Gale stood abruptly and Katniss looked up at him.
"I think I'd better go," he managed.
Katniss stood then, Peeta's arm wrapping around her back. The three stood in awkward silence for a moment before Gale spoke up again.
"I guess this is goodbye, then…" He said lightly. The words hung heavy in the air between him and Katniss, though.
"Goodbye Gale," Katniss replied, not breaking her gaze from his. There were things she wanted to tell him. Things she wanted to yell at him – how dare he show up now, how his apology wasn't good enough. But she refrained from any type of outburst and set her jaw, looking at him long and hard.
Without another word, Gale turned and left, his tall figure growing ever smaller as the distance between them increased.
Later, after they had thanked Effie for the hundredth time that night, given their farewells to the remaining guests, and made sure those who were staying had adequate accommodations, Peeta asked Katniss about her conversation with Gale. They were upstairs in their bedroom, Peeta slipping out of his tuxedo jacket and Katniss unlacing her boots. Her mother and Annie had refused to spend the night after the wedding – despite Katniss's protests – in the newlyweds' house. Instead, they were staying with Haymitch, whose house was only inhabitable because of Sae's wondrous cleaning skills. Katniss was enjoying the quiet that had returned to their house. That is, until Peeta spoke up.
"What did he say…?" Peeta asked, pulling off his socks instead of looking at her. Katniss paused for a moment.
"He told me he just wanted to make sure I was happy…" she responded and stayed her hands from where they had been trying – unsuccessfully – to unlace her dress. Peeta met her gaze then.
"And he apologized." She continued. She saw the look of surprise on Peeta's face. "Well, sort of," she quickly added.
"Oh…" Peeta replied from where he was sitting on the edge of the bed, undoing his waistcoat.
"And he said that he knew I loved you, ever since the Quarter Quell." Peeta's gaze caught hers and a look of recognition passed across his face. He smiled to himself as he glanced down to undo his tie.
Katniss struggled with the laces on her gown, the mood in the room more solemn than she had hoped for. But at least Peeta was smiling. After a minute, she gave up on her dress, collapsing onto the stool near her vanity.
"I wish I would have known that…" She said. "Might have made things a little less confusing…" She added, somewhat under her breath. Peeta smiled at her and stood.
"I think you did know," he said, crossing the short distance to stand near her. He placed his hands on her shoulders. "At least deep down inside, you did know."
"I just wish – " she started, but he cut her off.
"Katniss," he said softly, his blue eyes holding her gray ones captive. "All that matters is that you love me now. And I love you."
And before she could say another word, he leaned down and kissed her. He wrapped his arms around her, drawing her up from the stool to stand. His hands found the laces that cinched in the bodice of her gown and he began undoing them, his fingers working deftly. Her fingers brushed the buttons of his shirt and she began her quick work undoing them as well. Soon enough he slipped out of his shirt, then stepped out of his pants. Somewhere along the way, her dress had loosened enough so that he merely had to push the delicate cap sleeves aside and the garment fell to the floor in a heap of lace and tulle and beadwork. She let out a giggle as she stepped gingerly over the gown – naked – and into his waiting arms. Their lips met once more and he kissed her for the apology she would never get. He kissed her for everything that she had lost, knowing that he could never replace those she loved, but that he would never stop trying. But most of all, he kissed her for the love he felt, the love that was as simple as breathing. The love that had been born anew in him the moment he saw her standing on the front porch of her house as he planted the primroses, her hair wild, her gray eyes full of grief.
And they lay there afterward, their legs entwined, their arms around each other, and she knew that she loved him, had loved him before she even knew it herself, and would always love him. She knew she had made the right choice. But Gale had been wrong when he had said Katniss would choose the person that she needed to survive. No, she had chosen the person that she needed to thrive. And in Peeta's warmth she had pulled herself out of her grief, just as a tiny plant pulls itself from the ground and turns its face toward the sun. And so she had bloomed in the splendor of his sun like the delicate pink primroses that were planted in her front yard.
She leaned forward and pressed her lips to his.
"I love you," she said softly as she pulled back from the kiss.
And he knew that it was real, that it always had been and always would be.