It may have taken all morning, but I am finally some kind of beautiful.

My prep team, a unanimous smile, bustles around me like an aura of joy that I just cannot radiate. Although I laugh with them and entertain their childish excitement, the darker recesses of my chest are heavy and full of burden under the silk of my dress.

"It's like a dream!" Venia exclaims, fixing the last of the little white jewels into my hair. "We're actually going to see you get married – properly this time! You must be so excited." She grins like a Cheshire as she hovers behind me, admiring her handiwork in the mirror. I do not meet her eyes; how can I when just one look could rid her entirely of her happiness?

So I smile to no one in particular, and I remain silent.

Flavius fixes similar gems, little droplets like morning dew to my neck and to the corners of my eyes. Every turn of my head and bat of my eye is like a cool and gentle shower that glints pleasantly. He and Octavia exchange elated glances, eyes flitting from each other, to me, to the mirror in which I am reflected; the very image of bridal beauty. My skin is even and rich, my hair full and lush; they really have worked wonders in repairing the damage that I had thought irreparable. I am soft, and delicate, and not at all myself.

Then again, when was the last time I was?

My vibrant band of attendants is called away, to their greatest resentment; already their eyes are alight with the faintest hint of tears, shed especially for my happy day. My special day. Mine and Peeta's. With as genuine a smile as I can muster, I bid them goodbye, and tell them to look for me at the altar. With an uproarious laugh, they disappear. I am left alone with my reflection.

The woman staring back at me is not of my own design, nor is she entirely to my liking. It's true that she is lovely to behold; but at what cost? What good is a fancy dress and perfect poise when all it is hiding is a broken and beaten little girl, her grey eyes dead and littered with coarseness and abandonment? Even I can see it in myself; my eyes can hide nothing.

Today I am to become Mrs Katniss Mellark. I am not prepared. I am not willing. But I have no say in the matter.

It takes all of my strength to tear my eyes from my reflection and stand; my shoes are flat and comfortable, a welcome change from the tumultuous Capitol heels that my prep team had initially insisted upon. I make my way to the centre of the room to the full-length mirror, where I can take in the entirety of the hard work put into making me look like a bride.

The dress is long and simple, modest in cut and very light. It fans and flutters with my every movement, and I truly do feel myself in it. This is a dress made for my real wedding; not my Capitol wedding, the mournful symbol of my imprisonment. In every stitch and seam I can feel Cinna's love and his blessing, his wish for me to be happy.

His beautiful work is complimented by a simple and practical hair style removed from my face, awaiting the attachment of a veil. Soft and subtle lines illuminate my skin, and my eyes shimmer bold and white.

By all accounts, I am beautiful. I should feel as though I am, but all I feel is constricted. This is not me. The real me is out in the woods, clad in leather and mounted by a bow, feet whispering to the undergrowth as we work together harmoniously and with a mutual understanding that can be found nowhere else in all of Panem. The bond I share with the woods is sacred; it is the last remnants of normality, of a life before all this undue grandeur.

A life before Peeta, and a life before the war. The forest is my last piece of Gale.

It's been five years and still I feel I must hate him. Every time I hear his name my heart constricts painfully, and a searing heat washes over me and I am blind to reason. I often think I feel the heat of the blistering fire that had consumed me and my sister, the fire that he ignited; but not by his own hand. I have to keep reminding myself of that, and when I do, I am left blisteringly cold. The fire was not long of Gale.

So how am I to hate him now? I just thought it would be easier. I'm getting married; it only made sense. Except, now, nothing made sense.

At Peeta's insistence, Gale's name was among those who received an invitation to the wedding. I thought it was too soon; I knew as much when not three weeks later, that little card arrived announcing far and wide that he would indeed be present today. And as the unimportant details, such as music and location and ceremonials were deliberated, every nerve sung Gale's song. Nothing fills me with more dread than to see him here.

But even so, I cannot help myself; I am at the heavy mahogany door, eyes peering through the chink, for any sign that Gale might be near.

And then I see him.

Just another face in the crowd, a Seam man among guests from far and wide. His olive skin, hardened by battle, still looks incredibly smooth; a subtle curl perfectly sculpted into his mop of hair. But his eyes; they're just like mine. Wide and grey and peppered with anguish, a familiar fear held for the day ahead. And although they do not meet mine, and he has disappeared as soon as I have found him, that he is just as scared as I am for the day ahead.

I sink back against the door, and smooth my skirt over my knees.

How is it that I've seen through two Games and a war and all the gory stuff in between, but the very idea of my getting married terrifies me to the core? Gale and I had often spoken before of marriage and children; it was a death sentence for all involved. Or at least, it used to be. Women tearing themselves apart to give life to a defenceless being that more often than not, never saw the next spring; men hundreds of feet below the earth, treading dangerously the coal-dusted boundary between life and death; families torn apart by a tiny slip of paper that promised grand and inglorious execution.

But now we are free. For all my efforts, the country has been overturned, and a new era of Panem has risen from the ashes. No barriers segregate the districts; no President presides over us; no child goes hungry or sleepless for the looming threat of the Games.

So why do I still feel so trapped?

Suddenly the room is stifling. The sunlight sifting through the window burns me in its glare, and every mirror is now my enemy. I am reflected back into my prison, enveloped in layers of false beauty that is not of my own. The laughter and light music that carries through the chink in the door erupts into violent screams that reverberate around my skull, and I am engulfed in my own terror. I want to scratch and peel away at my skin and fall out of it, if not to give it to someone else.

I have to get out. I have to flee. I cannot marry Peeta Mellark... not today. Not ever.

The window proves to be my only salvation; if I were to leave by the door it would rouse too much suspicion, and I would be forced back into my cage. In seconds I am on my feet and wrenching back to curtains, fighting with my perfectly manicured fingernails against the stiff and sturdy latch that seeks to keep me from escaping.

But after much struggling and several snapped nails, it groans free; I am just able to slither through the window, and between the bars of my cage; I tumble into the sunlight, and take flight.

In this dress I am no longer the Mockingjay, the former symbol of the rebellion. Cinna has transformed me into a dove, elegant and graceful even in my frenzy to escape. I run blindly from the centre of town, through mulling crowds which spare me quizzical, disdainful, and sometimes sympathetic looks; but I don't care about them. I am taking this moment to be selfish and to do something for myself. I am nurturing my own happiness as my feet thud into the smooth new pavement that interconnects the sections of the district. I don't know which direction I'm travelling in, but as I feel my lips part in a quiet personal triumph, it doesn't even matter.

Before too long I've made it to the meadow; the grass is long and soft, the earth even. Only those who knew would ever be able to tell it was disturbed. My face is flushed and my heart pounds, and so I bring myself to a stop amidst the graves of the people who died for me. Their presence has always haunted me as I dared to cross this ground before, but now I am comforted to be among all my old friends. It's as if the blooming wildflowers that creep among the grass are their arms, embracing my ankles as I cross further into the meadow. I think for a moment that they are proud of me.

My calm is short-lived.

The meadow is expansive and open, and serves as no cover. All I want to do now is hide, conceal myself so that no one may find me and drag me back to the altar before my time. With gentle and respectful steps, I pay my wishes to those who lay beneath and carry myself beyond the meadow, into the waiting bows of the woods: the only place where I am truly safe. Where I can be alone with my memories and my selfishness, and none will judge me.

I walk for what seems like mere minutes, cramped into the space of eternity. Time holds no meaning in the woods that encircle District 12, and that's just the way I like it. When I am here, I am protected by the sway of the trees, the smell of the earth, and the world beyond the canopy does not exist; when I am ready, I can rejoin it. But I feel as if I will never be ready.

This place reminds me so much of happiness that it almost hurts. I think of my sister and how she would have loved to see the wildlife bloom; I think of strength and survival and how scarce such commodities were; and I think of Gale at my wedding, petrified like a deer mere moments before my arrow could pierce him. He's a mile away, and yet he is all around me. Our friendship, long dead, will live forever in the forest.

And although the spot is devoid of life, our regular meeting place is where Gale is most alive.

It's here that I can't find the strength to move anymore. Not forward or backward, or anywhere. It's here, on the rock, that the gravity of my situation hits me. I've just fled from my own wedding. Undoubtedly my prep team is mortified, my mother has been enlisted to seek me out, and Peeta is being kept in the dark lest he erupt into a violent episode. The guests will wait in anticipation for a wedding that will more than likely never happen. I will be hated, known not as the girl on fire but the girl who fled from Peeta Mellark.

And I just can't bring myself to care.

For a little longer I sit in solitude, content to keep the world oblivious to my location. Here it is natural, and I feel perfectly at ease despite the situation. I feel as if nothing could harm me here, and the evils of the world are entirely blind. So later, when a figure occupies the space beside me, no ill will swells in my heart. Gale has filled his rightful place quite effortlessly, and, despite it being my wedding day, nothing feels unordinary about sitting beside him.

He is the first to speak. "Pretty dress," Gale remarks, his eyes on the slope and rise of the mountains before us.

"Thank you," I reply. "It's one of Cinna's."

"I could tell. It was made for you, Catnip."

The ease with which this exchange passes is a little distracting. I had expected to be more put off by Gale's presence, but I can't bring myself to hold any resent for him. It's almost as if this was a regular morning, and we'd just collected handfuls of blackberries, savouring the momentary freedom that the dawn provided before we were made to return to the district and the hardships it had once yielded. Except for the fact that we are both adults now, and we have grown apart in our respective ways. I know nothing of Gale's life in 2, but it isn't as if it matters.

All that matters for us is that we are here, together, and for however long this lasts, the past is forgotten. I am happy to be around Gale as long as he'll have me.

"How did you find me?" I ask, pulling a loose pin from my hair.

Gale's eyes travel gently across me, before falling into his lap where his fingers twist and writhe. "When they couldn't find you, there was a bit of an uproar. There are people searching everywhere. Call it a lucky guess, but I figured you'd be out here." He shrugs, and runs his fingers through his hair.

Of course people would have been looking for me; everyone was anticipating the wedding of the century, and a missing bride is serving to be the bane of their day. But I don't take pity on them; this is my morning, and I reserve the right to take as little responsibility for it as I wish. So I allow myself a smile, and slide my feet out of my shoes to feel the cool rock beneath them.

"Were you going to go through with it?" Gale's voice isn't hesitant or testing; he is genuinely curious. And so am I. His question provokes thought in me as I look out over the valleys, wondering if they hold the answer.

"Would I...?" I think aloud to myself. "Yes. I suppose I would have."

Nodding, Gale is a little more studious in his next question. "But do you want to?"

Without hesitation, I am able to quietly tell him no. "What kind of hurtful does that make me?" I ask him.

"The kind that never wanted to get married in the first place." Gale smiles a tad mirthlessly. "It's not wrong to want to take responsibility for your own life. You have no one to be held accountable to."

I shake my head. "That's not true," I shoot back. "I have everyone to account to. You saw how many people came today, just to see me slip on a ring and say some meaningless words that decide my future forever. Everyone wants me to marry him. Except for me."

"Then don't."

"I'm not going to."

All it may have taken was verbalizing them in the presence of Gale, but my intentions hit me so hard that I almost forget to breathe. Uttering them in the woods gives them that much more strength, more verity than if I had wrote them and signed my name to them. I am not going to marry Peeta. Gale knows it, and I know it. And I have a feeling that we had both known it all along.

"You deserve a better life, Katniss." His voice is a low rumble beside my ear, and it elicits the most vibrant of shivers under my flesh. Gale's words may not be true, but the fact that he is speaking them leads me to believe he is right. What kind of marriage might Peeta and I have had? A dutiful relationship, where every day we depend on each other just because there is no one else to depend on. We do not act out of love, but out of obligation to each other and to Panem to feel whatever we might have once felt. We're needy, broken people, and in that we're matched perfectly. But we were always wrong; I am only just now finding the strength to do something about that.

I nod, and turn to face Gale for the first time in years. Our eyes meet, and they hold us there, not daring to move a single inch of our bodies. It's now that I realize how untouched by time Gale is; for all I know this could be a dream. He could be eighteen and sprawled next to me as he is now, and we could be sharing a little sliver of bread that cost us a squirrel or two. Life could be good again. And it's only with Gale that I'm noticing this.

When Gale brushes a stray strand of hair from my face, I let him without flinching from his touch. He gazes at me a little longer, that fear I had seen earlier nowhere in sight. I no longer feel the dread that had befallen me as I woke up this morning; instead I am perfectly at peace. "You're going to have to buckle down and face them, you know," Gale reminds me. "You can't just take off into the woods."

"Why not?" I ask him, inching a millimetre closer. "It's what we do anyway..." I feel a very small smile tugging at the corner of my lips, and notice as Gale's eyes glow with recognition. He returns my smile before speaking.

"They'd catch us."

"Maybe not."

"Cut out our tongues, or worse..." He's drawn closer to me now, so close that I can feel his breath warm on my cheek. Gale's hand rests comfortably on my hip, where it caresses the soft silk dress. With each word, his face inches just that little bit nearer to mine. "We wouldn't make it five miles."

I grin widely, my eyes still fixed on him. "No. I'd get five miles," I murmur. "I'd go that way." With the smallest gesture, I point indiscriminately out over the stretches of land beneath us, into our refuge. Our sacred ground. It is unchanged from when we had last sat here together, so completely in tune with one another. Time really didn't hold meaning out here; I am thankful that is has preserved this moment, this bond between us. I will never let it fade, as my smile slowly does. "Maybe not..."

Sombrely, Gale shakes his head. I had not noticed but his hand has slowly crept up my body to rest under my chin, where it now sits; his thumb gently strokes my cheek, and fills my face with warmth. "Time to go back, Catnip," he tells me.

I know I must. It's imperative that I return, and soon. I've probably instigated enough panic to last a lifetime, and to deprive my waiting guests of my presence any longer would be obscene. So as I go to stand, Gale does too, and he wraps his arm generously around my waist to guide me. I don't protest.

In silence, we make our way back through the woods. Although I try desperately to cling to it, the sacredness of our friendship dissipates as the trees begin to thin. I know Gale feels it too, because as he steals glances at me and I at him, there is remorse in his eyes. Although we were joking, I can't help but think he feels some kind of regret for talking me out of fleeing into the woods.

As we draw near to the meadow, and District 12 blooms into view in the distance, I feel it too strongly.

Before we can break free of the forest, however, I stop walking. Gale continues past me but I catch his wrist and bring him back into the shelter of the woods. Beyond this place, we mean nothing to each other. We are estranged, former friends, and the love I feel for him here may not reach even to town. There is knowing in our wordless proximity, and so he waits with me. Neither of us are done sharing each other. For a moment, I don't think I ever will be.

So I let something happen. I let myself stop caring that I will never be happy beyond the boundaries of the woods, and I let myself forget Peeta and Prim and the pain that comes with their names, and that I'm supposed to be getting married right now and all of Cinna's hard work has gone to waste and that Gale has to return to wherever he came from as the stranger he has become – and I kiss him.

It's when he doesn't object, and his arms envelope me as completely as his lips, that I find the strength to indulge in my weakness and draw us both back into the forest. If only for a little while.


Greetings! I am Clovely, and I thank you for reading.
I'm unsure if I want to turn in a sequel or another chapter to this, or just leave it as is. Do let me know in the Review section, or drop me a line with a request!
EDIT:
Consecrated Ground will remain a one-shot: but would you like to see a multi-chapter story from the CG canon in future? Vote now in the poll on my Profile Page!