NOTE: The epilogue! So sad, but thanks again. Make sure to review.
My boots scuffed against the stones on the path to the Victor's Village. Even after 15 years I never got over the beauty of the sun streaming across the sky behind my house early in the morning. The walk back from the woods was one of my favorite parts of the day. The fresh air smelled damp, the rain from last night fresh in the air, but the warm summer air swirled around me, and I never felt so at home.
I quickly glanced down at my watch and picked up the pace. It was almost ten o'clock, and I had a lot to do before noon. The tents were all set up in the courtyard, and I could hear voices shouting to each other, placing the chairs up in neat rows. When I reached my house, I smiled when I heard my mother's voice above the rest, taking charge and instructing the workers on what to do. Pushing my key in and opening the door quickly, I took my boots off and set them down in the bottom of the coat closet.
I no longer carried a game bag, as I mostly just hunted for sport now. All of Panem was well fed, what with the new farming innovations implemented by the tech center of district thirteen, so there was no need for my squirrels and deer now. It was just a way to calm myself, clear my mind, and remind myself of who I was. "So hunting went well?" I heard Peeta ask, his voice calling out from the kitchen doorway.
Smiling widely, I made my over to him and kissed him lightly on the mouth. "It was perfect. How could you tell?"
He shrugged. "You're smile." The grin that spread across his face was so genuine. I leaned in and pressed my lips against his, wrapping my arms around him and pulling him close. I pulled back and pressed my forehead against his, biting my lips to try and stop my smile from spreading too wide. "I love you, Mrs. Mellark." He whispered.
"And I love you." He leaned in to kiss me again, when I heard a small voice from the kitchen.
"Gross. Cut it out!" I laughed and pulled away from Peeta. My son was standing there in his pajamas, hair disheveled in the most adorable way. Kneeling down next to him I smoothed it back, and he frowned slightly, but then I tickled his sides, and a smile spread across his face. Before he knew it he was rolling on the floor with laughter. "Ok, ok! I give in I give in!"
I let go of him and he got up, throwing his arms around my neck. "Marley mom's home!" He yelled next to my ear. He was only twelve, and he probably didn't want his sister to see him hugging me. Less cool.
"Move, Tim!" His sister pushed him aside and gave me a hug. When I pulled her back, she was smiling brightly. "Mom, dad let me help make breakfast. Pancakes, yum. We saved some for you, I made Tim stop eating them. Also, Aunt Primrose and Grandma came by before they went to set up for the wedding. Yesterday, when I visited the medicine shop-" For a second, time froze. I had been here before, or at least near here. A long, long time ago I had a dream like this, and part of me expected to wake up right now. For my daughter's voice to go mute like it had back then, and to wake up in Peeta's arms, laying in a bed in our apartment in district thirteen. But there was no waking up. My daughter continued her story, "They let me help mix the medicine and stuff. It was cool."
I patted her head and ruffled her hair. "That's great, but you two have to get ready! Look what time it is. We're going to be late if we don't hurry up. Tim go with your father, he'll help with the tux and tie." I grabbed Marley by the hand and took her into her bedroom. She rattled on about a dream she had last night and I laughed. There was a wiseness behind her huge, blue eyes, one that I would never understand. She inherited those from her father, but Peeta said she got her attitude from me. Rebellious and strong-willed, she reminded me more of Sydney than anyone else.
Not a day went by when I didn't think about my best friend. It got easier, over time. The memories came with smiles instead of tears, and it got easier to talk about her. When Marley was born and started talking, I was amazed at how like Sydney she truly was. Just the way she spoke and acted and walked around like she owned every room she was in. She had inherited just the right amount of Peeta's charm and my spunk to be the perfect combination, just like Sydney had been. While she was only eight, I could see the image of my friend in her, and that made me happy. I could only hope my daughter would grow up to be like Sydney Harper.
I slipped her dress over her head and brushed out her hair. Then, using careful technique taught by my mother, I curled in with an iron and topped it all with a deep purple bow. She looked adorable, as all flower girls should. "Don't you have to get ready, mom?" She asked, her eyes shining up at mine.
I kissed her forehead. "Why, yes. I guess I do little duck. Why don't you go outside and see whose here. Ask Grandma if you can help with anything, but don't get your dress dirty, ok."
"I will try." She said with a flick of her eyes and another smirk. Spitting image. I laughed, heading to the bathroom to wash the dirt off of myself.
The warm water fell down over me in waves, and I took a deep breath. It felt good, but I knew I needed to hurry. I was in the wedding, at the groom's request, so I had to be there early. No doubt everyone would be nervous, and the little stability I could provide would help matters. When I stepped out into the room in my fluffy towel, wet hair dripping onto the floor, Peeta was there, standing in front of the mirror and buttoning up his shirt. He turned to look at me when I entered, and smiled. I dropped my towel to the floor and started to put on underwear and a bra. "No, I think you should go like that." Peeta said, walking over to me. "I wouldn't mind, really, though you might outshine the bride." I laughed and kissed him as his arms wrapped around me. "Who am I kidding, you will anyway?"
We kissed again, but I pulled back, much to Peeta's dismay. "We have to get ready. There's a wedding to be had." He rolled his eyes and let me go reluctantly.
"Yeah, she's got enough to deal with. The best man and one of the bridesmaids being late wouldn't help matters." I chuckled slightly, but couldn't bring myself to smile. The same sad thoughts had haunted me this morning as well. Peeta seemed to sense my dismay as he roped his tie around his neck. "What's wrong, Kat?" He asked.
Pulling my dress over my head, I shook my head. There shouldn't be anything wrong. One of my closest friends was getting married today. "I don't know." I shrugged. "It's just so weird. I never thought Gale would get married. At least not…I mean, I thought that it would be…"
"Sydney." He said, eyes dropping to the floor. I nodded half-heartedly.
"It's like he's replacing her. I'm afraid that when he gets married, he'll forget she was ever here. Then I'll forget she was here, and it'll be like she never existed. Sometimes I think I'm crazy. That I dreamed her up and it never really happened. Grace is a fantastic woman, and Gale deserves someone like her. It's really awful of me to think like this." I felt tears rush to my eyes.
"Hey, hey," Peet walked back over to me, turning me around to zip up my dress for me. "It's ok to miss her. I miss her too, and so does Gale, but he has to move on Katniss. To be honest, I never thought he would. I still don't think he has, not completely. But Grace does make him happy, and that's what matters. Nothing will make us forget Sydney. I promise you that I won't let that happen." He lips met mine again, and he pressed my head into his shoulder, stroking my hair. I had promised her I wouldn't let anyone forget. The letter would be an everlasting reminder of that, burned into my memory forever.
I smiled. "I know." He went back to put on his jacket and cummerbund, and I braided my hair with practiced fingers, looping it around my head and pinning it in place with the lavender rose all bridesmaids wore. I put a thin veil of makeup on my face, then did up my eyes like Grace had specified. Turning to Peeta, I held my arms open. "How do I look?"
"Stunning, as always." He did the same. "How about me?"
"Spectacular." He grabbed my hand and we walked together downstairs and out of the house to the courtyard where the tents were set up. My mother waved me over quickly.
"Thank god you're here. Grace is in a state, and she says that she wants to talk to you. No one knows what its about. Johanna's been trying to talk to her, but she only wants you." Puzzled, I followed her to my old house, which was being used as the dressing rooms for the bride to get ready. Grace and I had never been especially close. We had only met a few times, and while I thought she was extremely nice and great for Gale, it wasn't like we were any more than distant friends. I was only part of the bridal party because of Gale.
"Why me?" I asked my mother. "Is she getting cold feet or something?"
"No. I think she fears he is." My mother shook her head. "I think she's afraid of his…convictions."
Suddenly, I understood. Knocking on the door, I gave my mother an anxious look, "Grace, it's Katniss. Open the door. I'm here for you."
Johanna and Grace's two sisters were there, anxiously awaiting her response. "Come in. I unlocked it." Her voice sounded strained. I widened my eyes and sighed, giving my mother one last fleeting look as I stepped inside. I had never really been good with girl talk. It's why I didn't have that many female friends.
I let the door click closed behind me. Grace was standing in front of the vanity, staring in the mirror, eyes wide. It looked like she had cried a little, but there wasn't too much damage to her makeup. "Hi." I said, awkwardly, making my way towards her. "You're weddings going to start soon. It can't exactly go on without you." Ok, maybe jokes weren't exactly my strong suit.
Grace gave me a sympathetic smile. She was really perfect. Anyone who laughed at something I said was too kind. Her raven hair fell to her shoulders in waves. The veil hadn't been put in place yet, but it was almost a sin to have it there. She had a beautifully innocent face, full of goodness and strength. Her eyes were a deep brown and her smile was simple and elegant. There was no evil in her, no struggle, no pain, only hope. Peeta was wrong, I couldn't outshine her. Not today. "It's kind of you. I know I'm not exactly the comic relief." I said.
Sighing, she put her hands on the vanity in front of her, doe eyes trained on the brush in front of her. "What was she like?" She asked softly.
Confused, I stepped closer. "Who, what was who like?"
"Sydney Harper. The girl that Gale loved. What was she like?" My breath caught in my throat. It was hard enough to think about her, but I hadn't talked about her to anyone other than Peeta for years. It was a subject we tended to avoid, as all of us were still wounded by it. I stammered a little, and she shook her head. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't ask you that. I know it must be hard for you. I just…I feel like she was this amazing enigma who I'll never understand. This girl who was everything anyone ever wanted who I could never even dream of competing with. I just want to know if I ever have a chance."
"It's ok." I said. My hands folded across my chest. "Sydney was…incredible. You're right about that. She was smart and witty and courageous and loyal. There was an air of confidence to her that I haven't found next to anyone, and that made her sexy and exciting. She would do anything for the people she loved, and there was nothing that could stand in her way when she wanted something." Grace's shoulders fell and I saw a tear fall down her cheek. "But, Sydney was also stubborn and willful. Cruel, at times, and cocky. Elitist and more than a little arrogant. She and Gale fought, all the time. If they weren't fighting, there was usually something wrong."
This didn't seem to make her feel any better. "Look, I really suck at this. I don't want you to panic." I stood next to her and put my hand on her shoulder.
"How am I supposed to compete with someone who is dead? Someone who can never do wrong in his eyes again, and of whom he has this immortal image burned into his mind."
"Grace, Gale loves you. You make him a better man. Your kindness and strength are the reason he's alive. When you found him, he was this close to death, struggling with issues that your wonder-woman left him when she died. She was amazing, and my closest friend and sister, but that doesn't make a difference. Gale is marrying you because he loves you, and he can't imagine his life without you. The reason that you're the only one for him is because you can accept that a part of him will always love her. It's buried, and it's pained, but it's there, and for you, that's ok. It's the reason that I liked you so much when we first met. That's what Gale needs. Acceptance."
She shook her head. "You're right. I've always known that. I just, I guess I panicked. Bridezilla and all that."
I laughed. "You have been the polar opposite of a bridezilla. If anything, Johanna is the one whose made me want to tear my hair out." That got her to smile. "You're going to smudge your makeup if you cry more." I scolded playfully.
"I know, I know." She dabbed at her tears with a tissue. "You look beautiful, by the way. I understand how you captivated an entire nation."
That one got me to snort with laughter. "Hilarious." Grace had been our age when the games had happened. She had seen everything. "But I could never be more stunning than you are. Really, that designer outdid herself. Your gown is amazing." I grabbed her hand. "Now let's go, we have a wedding to get to, and I think your sisters are panicking."
"Katniss," she stopped me, "thank you. I was kind of sick of everyone lying to me about her. I always knew she was amazing, I just needed someone to be honest with me. And I'm glad. That he loved her. It's made him into the man he is today. She must've really been something."
I smiled as we walked to the door. "Yeah, that she was." I handed Grace off to her sisters. "I'm going to go visit the groom. I'll meet you in the aisle." I squeezed her hand, making my way outside.
The guests had started to take their seats, and I waved to Chase and Brooke as they talked busily with my sister. Annie was sitting in the front row with Haymitch and Jacobs. Her and Finnick's son was the ring bearer to Marley's flower girl, and Finnick himself was a groomsmen, so they were occupying her. I smiled at her as I made my way to Haymitch's place. It was fixed up and serving as the place for the groom to prepare. "Knock, knock." I said, turning my head away. "Is it safe to come in?"
"You can turn you're head, Catnip, it's safe." Gale was standing in the living room, sipping on a glass of water and talking to his groomsmen.
"Can I have a minute to speak with the groom, gentlemen?" I asked. They laughed and slapped Gale on the back, heading to the opening of the aisle to get ready to walk. When they were gone, Gale sighed and smiled brightly. "Are you ready?" I asked, walking over and hugging him tightly.
"Yeah, yeah. I think so." His smile was infectious. "I love her, Katniss. So much."
"I know you do, Gale."
"I heard she was a little worried. I'm afraid she's getting cold feet. Your sister said you talked to her? What happened?"
"She's not getting cold feet, but I did talk to her. She was just a little…nervous. About…things. Just needed reassuring of how you feel about her. Pre-wedding jitters you know."
He looked at me suspiciously. "Katniss, you're my oldest friend. I know when you're lying or not telling the whole truth. What was wrong?"
I sighed. "She was asking me about Sydney. Wanting to know what she was like."
"And?" His voice was strained and soft.
"I told her the truth. That Sydney was amazing and that you loved her more than anything." He looked at me angrily. "But I also told her that I've never seen anyone as happy with someone as you are with her. And that you're damaged, but she fixed you, and that's what you need. Someone who is willing to share you."
"You think she has to share me?" He asked.
"Of course I do, Gale. It would be kind of cruel to lie to yourself like that." He sighed, but I put my arm around him. "And that's ok. There's a hole in your heart. I know the feeling, but this woman is going to make you happy. You don't have to forget about Sydney. Share her. Cherish her, but know that she's gone. Grace, on the other hand, is here, and ready to give you her heart. Take it, and hold on to it. She deserves that."
"I will." He smiled. I made my way back to the door, bidding him well and letting go of his hand. "Katniss, she was real, wasn't she? Sydney? That wasn't a dream, right? It actually happened. It was all real."
I shook my head. "Yeah, she was real. Unfortunately." I turned my head to the sky. "Damn you, Sydney." I said jokingly. Gale laughed, but I saw a tear fall down his cheek. I was right. He would always love her, and he would be happy with Grace, but there would always be that hole there. For all of us.
The ceremony was beautiful. Grace and Gale looked happy, and for that moment, I knew Sydney was forgotten, and I didn't mind. She would return, hopefully in a nondetrimental way. The reception was even better. There was a lot of dancing to be had, and Peeta had me in his arms all night.
"Mom, mom," I felt a tug on my dress. Marley, Tim and Jace, Finnick's son, were all standing at my heels. Jace stood almost as tall as I was, dwarfing my son with all of his fifteen years. "Grandma said we ran out of candlesticks and it's getting too dark." Tim said with an exaggerated look of concern.
"There are some in the basement. Think you can go get them for me?" I looked to the three of them. "It would really help me out. There in one of the boxes, just bring them right here and I'll sort them out." Tim and Jace ran off, pushing each other in their hurry. Marley scurried after her older brother, yelling for him to wait.
"Our kids are adorable." Peeta whispered into my ear.
"Yes they are." I rested my head on his shoulder as a soft, sweet melody played in the background. "We've done alright, haven't we?" I asked.
"I would say so." He laughed. "Of all the rolls you've played; sister, daughter, tribute, victor, Mockingjay, hero, I think mother fits you best, followed so closely by incredible wife." He added. I had to agree with him. Being his wife and the mother to our two children were the best things I had ever done. We danced slowly like this for a while, surrounded by friends. I took a second to cherish this. It made me realized just how amazing my life had been.
"Mom," I felt another tug on my dress as the song ended. I turned to see a box with two small legs underneath it, laughing when I realized it was Marley. "I found this."
"I told her we were looking for candles, but she had to pick this up." Tim ran up, trying to explain. He and Jace held the candlesticks between them.
Marley looked up at me apologetically, but I smiled at her, taking the box and setting it on the table near us. Marley jumped up into the chair eagerly, leaning on the table as I opened the cardboard. Inside were photos, journals and other mementos of those three years of my life. I gasped. "What is it mom?" I heard Marley ask. Peeta's hand was on my shoulders, and suddenly, everyone was crowding around us.
"Nothing." I picked up a picture. It was of the squad, on one of our off days. We were all laughing and joking about something in the living room. "It's just..old memories, sweetheart."
"Who is this?" She held up a picture of me in my tribute uniform. It was the propaganda they had used during the first games.
"That's your mother, sweetheart." Peeta said from behind me. Marley looked, amazed, between me and the photo. I definitely looked younger there. It had only been fifteen years, but so much had changed me. "And this," Peeta picked out a photo, "is me?"
Tim jumped up and grabbed the picture. "Dad, you were bad ass!" Tim exclaimed. Peeta ruffled his hair.
"Language, son." He exclaimed, clearly taken with pride.
"Look at that sword!" Jace rustled around the box and grabbed another picture. This one was of Peeta, Gale and Finnick in their military uniforms, posing for a standard picture. "Uncle Gale is that you? And Uncle Finnick?"
"Yeah, it is." Gale laughed, picking up another photo and handing it to Grace, who laughed and awed at it. The kids picked through the box and handed us pictures and notices, asking who was who and what each one was about. It was surprisingly wonderful, to trip down memory lane. I picked up an old, yellowed envelope with scrawled handwriting. It had only one word on the outside. Katniss. I ran my hand over it and smiled. Gale looked at me, and put a hand on my shoulder.
"Who is this?" Tim asked, pointing to a picture of Sydney and I that I had forgotten about. We were arm and arm in front of our apartment. "She's hot." Jace exclaimed. Tim hit his arm, chuckling.
"What, she is?"
"That's your Aunt Sydney." Peeta said, kneeling next to Tim. Marley was holding the picture in her hands, frowning.
"We don't have an Aunt Sydney." She said to Peeta.
"You did, a long time ago." I said to her.
"What happened to her, Mom?" Marley asked, eyes wide.
"She passed away."
"How?" Marley asked.
"You ask a lot a questions." I laughed. She shrugged sheepishly. "Which is a good thing. She died saving our lives."
"Yours and dad's?" Tim asked, looking up at us.
"All of ours." It was Gale that answered. "Even yours. She was a hero."
"Bet she couldn't shoot a bow and arrow like mom can." Marley said with a smile.
"No, that she could not do." Gale laughed. Taking the picture and putting it back into the box before walking over to Grace and kissing the side of her head.
"What's this?" Marley asked again, concentrating hard on a small object in her palm. The dwindling light glinted off of it, and I smiled to myself.
"It's a mockingjay pin." I answered.
"A what?" Jace asked.
"A mockingjay." Peeta said. "It's a bird. A brave, fearless bird, who stood for hope and honor and rebellion and most importantly, survival. It's was your mother's."
Marley held it out to me. I started to take it, but when I held on to it, I pressed it back into my daughter's palm. I looked into her eyes. "You keep it."
"Why?" She asked, trying to hide her excitement.
"It'll keep you safe. And, it will remind you that no matter where you are, your mother is watching out for you. Always." Peeta wrapped his arm around my shoulders. I looked back to my old squad and their families and smiled. This was how my life was supposed to be. And despite everything that had happened, I wouldn't change a thing.