This is the last chapter of my first fanfic. Thank you all so much for reading, reviewing and following this story and for your encouragement and comments along the way. I'm blown away that so many people read and actually enjoyed this. What can I say, my heart is filled with love for you all.
Thanks again to the magnificent for-prim for betaing and holding my hand throughout this story. I could not have done it without you.
(Three years later)
Katniss wasn't supposed to be working today. And she wasn't – not really. Checking emails certainly wasn't the same as working. She was just making sure that everything in the park was going smoothly, and that the requisitions she and her assistant had put in were going smoothly.
That's not "working," that's just being a good supervisor.
Who am I kidding, I'm working.
The change in leadership at the park had happened over two and a half years ago. It was a Thursday morning, and Katniss hadn't had any reason to believe that day would be any different from any other workday at District 12 Park. But she'd known something was up when she walked in at 7:30 a.m. and saw the light on in Seneca's office. He was never in before nine or even ten a.m., even in the previous few months when he had been trying to show off his skills for his own supervisor and planning his expected promotion. In about three years of working for Seneca, he'd never showed up before she did.
Technically, his streak remained unbroken. She never saw him again, though.
A rotund, middle-aged man with kind eyes and a blindingly white smile named Plutarch sat in Seneca's chair, and informed her that it was, in fact, no longer Seneca's chair at all. For the next month it would be his chair, and after that it would be the chair of the new Park Director. Specifically, Katniss – if she would accept.
"We've been monitoring the operations of this park for several months now, and there's been a lot of impressive work out of District 12 Park. Work gets done under budget and before schedule, the area is possibly the most well-maintained of any park in the state, and visitor numbers have been steadily increasing," Plutarch had said, leaning back in his new chair. Well, new to him. "Since these results most definitely did not come from Seneca, we asked around about you. Seems you have quite a reputation with the rangers and the community as the one who does everything."
Katniss wasn't sure if that supposed to be a good thing or not. She was pleased to be recognized for her work, but if her ability to get things done at the park and creatively manage the budget and resources cost Seneca his job, she wasn't sure if she was about to be praised for doing well or admonished for making a well-connected employee look bad in comparison.
"Seneca had lots of connections, and a college degree, and years of experience. I don't have any of that," she had protested. "I'm not qualified to do his job. I just did what needed to be done."
"If Seneca had used any of his qualifications to his advantage, he would be here right now. Instead, he pissed his time away preening and playing Farmville while letting you do his work for him. Besides, Miss Everdeen, you have been here almost three years and done an outstanding job. You have the utmost respect of other employees, rangers, supervisors, and the community. As for the college degree, I think I have a way to work around that," Plutarch had said.
He had explained that while he personally valued experience and a hard work ethic over a degree, he did not have the power to remove the stipulation for advanced education, and her promotion could not be approved by the Parks and Recreation Department without some sort of college training. To rectify this, he proposed a compromise – if she was willing to take relevant coursework at the local college on evenings or weekends and start immediately, her promotion – and the salary increase – would be approved right away. The department would cover the tuition, and would even fund enough for her to earn her degree, if she chose.
Technically, she'd never said 'yes'. But the shocked expression on her face and sputtering noises emerging from her throat as she frantically nodded had said enough for her to accept the opportunity of a lifetime.
"Excuse me, but you're not supposed to be working today, Miss Everdeen."
Katniss looked up from her computer screen and smiled. "That color looks good on you, Prim."
Her little sister smiled and smoothed down the sides of her emerald-green silk dress. "It better look good, I'm the one who picked it out. Now stop working, we're going to be late!"
Katniss booted down her computer and nodded. "I was not working, I was checking my email. That's totally different," she rationalized.
Prim rolled her eyes and snorted a laugh in response while closing the door to Katniss's office, allowing them privacy. "You're ridiculous, you know. You're not even dressed yet, Katniss. Come on." She grabbed the black garment bag from the back of the office door and unzipped it. It was a simple dress, because sequins and embellishments were not really Katniss's thing. The scalloped hem fell just below Katniss's knees, because she didn't want to it to get caught on the brush and rocks of the trail. While simple in looks and construction, the dress was still by far the most fancy and beautiful item of clothing Katniss had ever owned. To be honest, Katniss would really have preferred to wear her favorite jeans. But she had promised Prim and her mother that she'd wear this, and as Prim eased her into the dress, Katniss was secretly thankful that she had acquiesced to this tradition.
As Prim carefully zipped up the back of the dress, their mother came in the office with a tote bag. Katniss was wary of this bag – she saw Prim pack it the night before – but she had agreed to submit herself to whatever they had planned. It was a special day, after all. And she trusted her sister and her mother to go easy on her.
"Don't worry, we won't make you look like someone else," Clara said with a wink, pulling a curling iron and small makeup case from the tote bag.
"We want Peeta to still recognize you out there, after all," Prim said with a warm smile.
Katniss bit her lip and grinned at the mention of his name, and she calmly sat down in her chair so that Clara and Prim could get started. They added a bit of curl to her hair once Katniss had agreed to wear it down and added a light touch of make-up. They didn't have to do much – Katniss was already glowing with excitement and anticipation of what was to come. Besides, Peeta had often said he thought she was gorgeous no matter what she wore, and they knew he meant it.
After a short period of time, Prim and Clara looked at Katniss, then each other before declaring their work complete. Clara handed Katniss a pair of light-blue, silk flats and helped her slide them on. Flat shoes were a must today – high heels would be no good for trail walking, and any stilettos would just sink in the grass. Prim pulled a hand mirror out of the tote bag and showed the results of their efforts to Katniss.
"You're looking good, sis," she said warmly.
"You look absolutely beautiful, Kitten," Clara said.
"Hey, you might even get lucky tonight," Prim teased.
Katniss cracked up. "I better."
Clara shook her head, laughing softly as she pulled a small box from the tote bag and offered it to Katniss. "I do think you need a little something to complete the look," she said.
Katniss opened the jeweler's box and gasped – nestled inside the soft pink velvet casing were a pair of gold earrings, with a square emerald dangling from each post. She remembered them from years ago – they were her mother's favorite earrings, a treasured gift from Mr. Everdeen after Katniss had been born.
"Your father gave these to me to celebrate you. It seems fitting that you wear them today." Clara took the earrings out of the box and carefully put them on Katniss, smiling at this simple act that meant so much to the both of them.
"Mom, I can't take these," Katniss protested. It was taking everything in her power to hold her tears at bay right now. She really did not want to cry, not before the event even started.
"You're not taking them. You're borrowing them," Clara said with a wink.
"You have everything else, right?" Prim asked.
"I do," Katniss said. She looked over her shoes, an antique gold and pearl bracelet from Marilyn, and her very new dress. "Give me some credit - you and Delly didn't plan everything, you know."
A knock on the closed office door stopped Prim from giving a smartass reply. "Are you decent?" a voice shouted from the other side.
Clara opened the door and stepped aside for Gale to enter. "I think she's ready," she said, smiling.
Gale walked through the door but soon stopped short, beaming when he saw Katniss standing before him. "You clean up nice, Everdeen."
She smiled but blushed at the compliment. "Not so bad yourself, Hawthorne."
He smoothed down his tie before buttoning his gray suit jacket closed. "I know. I might get lucky tonight," he joked.
"Yeah, if you don't fall asleep first," Katniss joked. Gale and Madge's son was now five months old and still not sleeping through the night. The new parents were constantly exhausted but still glowing with happiness.
He shook his head confidently. "Toby is staying with my mom tonight, and I've had three cups of coffee. I'm good."
Prim checked her phone for the time. "You guys ready to get this show on the road?"
Katniss looked at Gale, hoping he had checked everything else before coming to the office. "Is everyone else ready?"
"They are," he nodded. "He's there."
She took a deep breath. "Let's go." She grabbed a large bouquet from her desk, and accepted Gale's proffered arm. It was time.
It was a relatively short walk once they left the office – a newly built trail made it much easier to get to the meadow. Technically, it was called "Trail D12-J," but unofficially it was the James Everdeen Trail. It had been one of the first projects Katniss requested after her promotion, so that she and everyone else who visited the park could enjoy the beautiful meadow that her father had loved. The meadow that she still visited sometimes in her dreams. Today though, the trail was closed to the public and reserved for a private event. Being in charge did have its perks, Katniss thought with a smile.
After a walk of about ten minutes, the four of them reached the entrance to the clearing, and paused. There were people in the meadow – not many, just a couple dozen of their family and friends facing away from them. Katniss couldn't see what they were looking at, but she knew. She'd be seeing it herself in just a moment.
Prim peeked through the entrance and gave someone a thumbs up, then turned to Katniss and smiled proudly at her big sister. "Ready?" she whispered as she clutched Katniss's hands.
Katniss nodded, grinning back. "I am."
The sisters hugged, whispering "I love you" to each other before Prim pulled away and walked into the clearing, clutching a small bouquet of sunset-colored lilies. Gale took Katniss's right arm and Clara took her left, being careful not to disturb Katniss's own bouquet.
Together, they walked through the clearing and into the meadow.
This is it. This is really happening.
It was a day she had known was inevitable since she confessed her love to Peeta three years ago, and he confessed his. From that day forward, their hearts, minds, and bodies belonged to each other. Today only made it official.
In the months leading up to this moment, she wondered what she would feel like when it actually happened. Would she cry? Would she be scared?
But now, as she stood in the entrance to her beloved meadow and prepared to become Peeta Mellark's wife in front of their closest friends and family, she felt pure, unrestrained happiness.
Prim walked down the makeshift aisle a few steps ahead. She was every bit a young woman now, graced with maturity beyond her years. Of course, a part of Katniss would always see Prim as her "little duck," but her little sister was handling college and living on her own extraordinarily well. In fact, it was Katniss who had cried like a baby on the day Prim moved in to her dorm room at Capitol University. Prim now shared an off-campus apartment with two other students in the pre-med program, and came to visit at least once a month. Katniss had wanted to keep Prim's room set up for her, but Prim insisted that Peeta be allowed to turn it into a studio when he had moved in.
The people in the meadow turned towards Katniss to watch the bride make her way down the aisle, and she took a moment to look every single person in the eye and smile. Every person here had made a significant impact in her life or Peeta's, and she couldn't imagine going through with this without them.
There was Plutarch, her boss who had believed in her and encouraged her every step of the way. After she had marked two years as Park Supervisor and finished the required coursework with straight A's, he had encouraged her to consider working towards another promotion to the Parks Commission. But she'd declined – she couldn't imagine working anywhere else than the park she grew up in, keeping her own little spot of heaven in order.
There was Madge, now known in her school as Mrs. Hawthorne. She held Toby in her arms as he slept soundly on Madge's shoulder. The first time Katniss had met Madge, she knew she was meeting Gale's future wife. Madge and Gale complemented each other remarkably well, and it wasn't long before Gale was asking for Katniss's opinion on an engagement ring and ways to propose. Katniss had always secretly worried that when Gale decided to settle down, there would not be room in his life for their friendship. Instead, she was now thankful to be able to call Madge a very dear friend as well, and she was honored to be Toby's godmother.
There was Johanna, who was giving Katniss her usual lopsided smirk but laced with genuine love. Johanna had ended up being the one to give Peeta advice on proposing to Katniss, because every other woman he asked advised him to do something over-the-top and obnoxiously public and romantic. He knew that wasn't Katniss's style. Peeta and Johanna had become good friends, staying in touch even after his physical therapy had completed. Last year, they ran a half-marathon together and joked about sharing the tortures of training. "We've become familiar with each other's screams," Johanna had joked to Katniss after a particularly brutal training run one day. Johanna never let either of them take anything too seriously, especially themselves. She liked to tell them that she was the friend who would help them bury the bodies, and Katniss loved her for her fierce devotion and friendship.
There was Finnick and his beautiful wife Annie, both smiling broadly at her. Finnick's arm was clutching Annie closely to him, and his free hand rested on her protruding stomach, his wedding ring reflecting the sunlight. When Katniss had first met Annie over a year ago, she thought the quiet, dark-haired woman was beautiful. But pregnancy had made her even more lovely, and impending fatherhood only seemed to make Finnick more handsome. Their love for each other and the family they were creating brought out the best in each other, and no one could question their love.
There was Haymitch and Effie, he in a wrinkled brown suit and she in a blinding yellow cocktail dress. Katniss thought they made an unlikely couple, but then again Katniss and Haymitch were unlikely friends. In fact, neither of them would probably ever use the word "friends" to describe them, but there was no better term. She still called him a mean, drunken asshole, and he still called her a stubborn idiot, but there was a mutual respect and understanding that passed between the two of them. They understood each other's losses and what they had done to survive. She still saw him once a week, as her shoulder still had difficulties from time to time. Neither would admit it, but they both looked forward to their Wednesday morning sessions with each other.
There was Uncle Chaff, looking very handsome in a new navy suit. Clara had been determined to help her brother as he had helped her, and had started bringing him to church and social events with her to help him reacquaint himself with the world. He struggled at first in church, at odds with his spirituality and his own anger against the idea of a greater power that allowed the atrocities of war to pass. But he seemed to be coming to terms with his anger and had many one-on-one sessions with the pastor to work out his feelings towards God. It also helped that he met a lovely woman he first referred to as "Ms. Seeder," a widow in Clara's support group. Ms. Seeder sat next to him now, smiling proudly at Katniss and Clara and knowing how much this moment meant to them both.
There were Jim and Marilyn, sitting proudly in the front row and positively beaming at Katniss. She smiled when she saw that they were both crying, each clutching their own handkerchief and dabbing delicately at their eyes. The Mellarks had been incredibly welcoming to the Everdeens, including Clara and Uncle Chaff when they began to visit the girls. Clara and Uncle Chaff would actually stay at the Mellarks' house instead of with Katniss when they visited. Uncle Chaff liked to get up early and go golfing with Jim, and Clara found it a bit too disturbing to stay in that house and relive so many painful memories of her husband's death and her own depression. Katniss did her best to understand and accept that her mother still had trouble with grief, but she loved her mother for trying and for living up to her word of working to be a part of her daughters' lives again. In Jim and Marilyn, the Everdeens had found a loving family who had welcomed them and their problems into their homes and their lives with open arms.
There was Delly, standing at the altar in a gown that matched Prim's. She liked to joke that she was the "best wo-man," but Peeta hadn't wanted anyone else to stand up next to him today. Like Peeta, she was warm and friendly and funny, but she had a fiery personality that was distinctly her own. Katniss had become very close to Delly in the past three years and considered her to be like another sister, and Delly felt the same way about her and Prim. Both women were fiercely protective of those they loved, and that included each other. Katniss had loved watching Delly meet and fall in love with her own soulmate, Thom, and she took a moment to smile at him from his seat behind Jim and Marilyn. In six months, she and Peeta would be watching as Delly and Thom married.
There was Gale on her left arm, taking on the role that her father would have had he been alive. Katniss and Gale were always able to communicate without words, but she had made sure to tell him how important he was to her. Gale was more than a friend to her – he was a brother, a confidant, a cheering section, and a reality check when she needed it. It seemed like it was yesterday since they were little kids, climbing trees and playing in the mud. In a way, she still felt like a little kid, but she could not be more proud of the man Gale had become.
There was Clara on her right arm, proudly escorting her daughter who had to grow up overnight without her mother but still had the ability to love unconditionally. Clara had made leaps and bounds in her recovery since reuniting with her daughters and accepting their forgiveness. There were still days where Clara thought she couldn't bear to get out of bed, but she fought by thinking of everything she had in her life that she was grateful for. With the happy life that she had made for herself and the presence of her daughters and their support system, Clara had a lot to be grateful for. Her daughters had much to be grateful for in Clara.
There was Prim, a few steps ahead of her and leading the way. In a way, Prim had been leading the way for Katniss for a very long time. She was the first to try and move beyond her grief by cultivating a richer life full of friends, schoolwork, and interests. She was the first to find happiness after their father's death and the first to forgive their mother. Now, she was the first on their dad's side of the family to go to college. Katniss knew that Prim looked up to her, but she didn't think it could compare to how much she looked up to Prim. Her little sister was her driving force, her strongest defender, her biggest cheerleader, and her inspiration.
And then, there he was. Waiting for her, to start the rest of their lives together.
Peeta stood at the altar, beaming at the sight of his bride-to-be in her simple white lace wedding dress. He wore a simple gray suit that contrasted with the rising pink in his cheeks and the watery blue of his eyes – so watery in fact that Katniss wondered if he was fighting away tears. She fought back a laugh when she saw the special boutonniere in his lapel – a cluster of bright yellow dandelions. Since she had told him about this meadow and how the sight of dandelions reminded her of him and brought her hope, he took every opportunity he had to pick them and leave them in places for her to find around the house. He exhaled in laughter when he saw the same dandelions laced throughout her bouquet of sunset-orange lilies.
He thought she had never looked more beautiful.
She thought she was the luckiest person in the world.
Peeta once told her that he knew he wanted to marry her ever since the day they met. It had taken Katniss a bit longer to come to the same conclusion, but this day was inevitable. Since the day when they confessed their love to each other with whispering kisses and heartfelt promises, they both knew that they wanted to be together as long as the other would have them. So they took every opportunity to tell each other how they felt, so the other would know how very loved they were.
Their declarations of love were small but true, because they both believed that the smallest things meant the most. At the arch made of fallen tree branches the rangers had gathered, Gale and Clara kissed Katniss's cheeks and each gave Peeta a hug. Peeta offered his arm to Katniss and leaned down to kiss the faded scar on her shoulder. It had become one their favorite routines – once a day, they kissed each other's scars and said a silent "thank you" for the circumstances that brought them into each other's lives.
Everyone had expected them to write their own vows, but they declined. They preferred to keep the intimacy and privacy of their own vows to themselves, because the words were only meant for each other's ears. As they shared their traditional vows in front of their loved ones, they remembered the ones they had shared to each other the night before, in front of their fireplace in worn pajamas and toasting homemade bread in the flames to feed each other.
"To have and to hold from this day forward,"
I promise to have fun growing old with you, and love every wrinkle and every day. I promise to kiss every inch of you, even if it means bending over and breaking my hip.
"For better or for worse,"
I promise to never forget how much we love each other, even when we're upset at each other. Even when we don't love ourselves. I promise to let you in even when I want to shut the rest of the world out.
"For richer, for poorer,"
I promise to remember that no matter what we have or what we do in life, the only thing we need to survive is each other. I promise to kiss you every day, every chance I get, because your love makes me the richest person alive.
"In sickness and in health,"
I promise to bring you tissues and that tea you like when you're sick, and to hold your hand when you're scared. I promise to love you, even if you vomit or bleed on me.
"To love and to cherish,"
Your love makes me a better person, and I promise to spend the rest of my life thanking you for that. I promise to never take you for granted, because my world was so cold before I met you.
"From this day forward"
I promise I will stay with you.
"Until death do us part."
Visit me on tumblr (fnurfnur), where I talk about this fic, the fics I am working on, and general shenanigans.