Hey there! Sorry for the little hiatus last week—this chapter is about twice as long as usual, and I wanted to perfect it and tie up several loose-ends before I published it for you all, considering it's the final chapter. (Sobs.) On top of all that, I'm on spring break so I visited my aunt in Pittsburgh (Lovely city. If you live there, I'm eternally jealous.) and then went down to Arkansas for the remainder of the week. So, in short, I've been super busy and didn't have much time to write/edit this monster of a chapter. But hey, it's here now! Hope it's worth the wait. ;)
I can't believe that it's all coming to a close. (Sort of… there's still the whole sequel ordeal.) This story has been such a huge part of the past three-and-a-half months for me and I feel like I'm watching my child graduate from high school. This was such a wonderful first fanfic to write, and all of your support along the way—your reviews, your messages, your alerts and favorites—has been far more than I ever could've wished for. I am beyond grateful for every single one of you. You've made me feel so welcome in this fandom and now I don't think I can ever go back!
So, the song of the chapter is called "Never Stop (Wedding Version)" by SafetySuit. If this chapter isn't emotional enough for some of you, you could play that song while Katniss is walking down the aisle or dancing at her wedding or whatever you please. I warn you, this entire chapter as a whole is going to be pretty cheesy and even a little tacky. But hey, it wouldn't be a true wedding without overinflated emotions, right?
I just want to thank you all again for everything. Your encouragements and suggestions have meant the world to me and have helped mold me into a better writer, and I couldn't be more grateful.
Without further ado, here we go. The final installment.
Disclaimer #1: I (as always) own nothing THG-related. All due credit to Suzanne Collins.
Disclaimer #2: There are some sexual themes in this chapter. Everything is 'Teen' appropriate, of course, but it's still present. Read at your own discretion.
Our day begins with an overly-enthusiastic alarm.
"Rise and shine, Brainless and Pegleg, we've got a show to put on today!"
The mattress under us begins to shift and bounce unsteadily. I groan as I attempt to extract myself from Peeta's firm hold, but his arms only tighten more securely as he nuzzles his nose into the crook of my neck.
Hesitantly, I will my eyes to open to see Johanna jumping with abandon at the foot of our bed, encouraging the springs to squeal underneath us.
"Go away," I mumble as I turn back to the man with the tousled golden hair, his fingers lazily stroking the contours of my spine as he blinks himself awake.
"Not a chance. What am I supposed to tell the guests? 'Peeta and Katniss are postponing their wedding so they can get their beauty sleep?' Effie will be so aggravated." She chuckles at herself. "She's waiting outside, you know. I still can't get used to the sight of that gaudy woman and her pink, six-inch stilettos. It's like she's completely ignorant to the concept of dirt roads."
"You're surprised?" I mumble back, my words muffled against the skin of Peeta's chest. Suddenly, before I can firmly latch myself to him, I feel a small hand grasping at mine, ferociously yanking me away. My eyes fly open in alarm to see Johanna rip me from his hold so suddenly. She drags me to the floor.
"Come on. As entertaining as she is when she's flustered, I don't want to completely drive her up the wall. She's waiting to escort you to Alta and your prep team."
With a guttural sound rumbling from somewhere in my throat, I hardly try to put up a fight. Instead, I steady myself on my feet and look to Peeta, who's jolted upright in bed in surprise at my absence. My gaze finds his widened blue eyes.
"I guess I have to go, Peeta," I toss his way with a half-amused, half-irritated giggle as Johanna tugs me toward the door. His brows knit together, his irises deepening—he doesn't want me to leave. It's a look that's become one of his signature expressions, and despite the unease it delivers, his concern is nearly comforting in its familiarity. So, I tack on, "I'll see you at the altar."
This elicits a slightly crooked smile from him as he runs his fingers through his ruffled curls. "I love you," he promises.
"I love you t—"
Johanna yanks violently on my arm, hauling me through the entryway. "You two make me sick. I almost liked you guys better when Peeta was still trying to strangle you."
Her jest is harmless and I take it as so, deciding that today is not the day to become offended by petty, meaningless comments. I follow Johanna down the stairs of my own accord, allowing her to lead me through the front door to find Effie stationed on the porch.
She looks nearly twice as ridiculous as usual, with monstrous, feathered epaulettes and rhinestones dabbed all over her garish gown. She cups her palms around my shoulder, inspecting me up and down, chewing on her silver-painted lip.
"Oh my. We've got our work cut out for us," she chirps in her dripping Capitol accent. "When was the last time you took a shower? And goodness, those eyebrows…"
I expect to find a leather-shrouded chair behind the door to the den—a room of my old home that had never seen any use—and a prep team eager to transform me into some plastic rendition of myself. As if I'm back in the Capitol again, being primed for the games.
But when Effie corrals me and Johanna into the room, instead, I'm greeted by a team of grinning individuals. There is no chair, no table; only a wooden platform fenced with three panels of mirrors.
The first person to pull me into a tight embrace is my mother. I hadn't expected her to be here, but maybe I should've. Her breath trickles through my tangled mane as she clutches me tightly. "Good morning, Katniss."
Her presence over the past week has been more than I could've ever requested. Although we still have yet to mend our disparities, she's come to the place to which she vowed she would never return… for me. For her daughter. We haven't had the time in this whirlwind of a week to step aside and talk for more than a few minutes at the time, but even in her simple day-by-day deeds, she exerts a degree of motherly love that I'd never expected to see from her again. She's nearly as she was before Dad died—far more reticent, more wary, of course, but her affection is clear as ever.
As my prep team strips me down and helps me into a small tub to scrub the sweat from the previous night off of my sticky skin, Mom asks me if I'm nervous.
"What do I have to be nervous about?" I reply with a slight shrug.
She laughs quietly, crinkles forming at the corners of her eyes. "Most brides are a little anxious on their wedding day."
My response is as flat and as characteristically "Katniss" as possible. "Well, I'm not 'most brides,' am I?"
This elicits a muffled chuckle from Flavius as he works a dollop of serum into my hair. "There's no one quite like you, darling."
Although Flavius, Venia, and Octavia work away at my rugged exterior with archetypal diligence, they do so with less aggression than usual. Instead of scrubbing me raw, they gently work off the dirt and the sweat until I'm comfortably clean. It's a satisfying change of pace that I readily welcome.
After they've lifted me from the tub and swathe my dripping body with towels, they usher me behind a paneled dressing screen where they've laid out a slip. Johanna sneaks me a bag, and with a suggestive wink that leaves my insides curling, she whispers, "A little gift for the groom."
Behind the tri-fold, I dig into the small bag and pull out a pair of underthings that provokes an insanely intense blush to heat my skin. I can't imagine how anyone would find these two thin lace garments attractive by any means, but I swallow the thick lump in my throat and snake into them anyway. After pulling the slip over top, I emerge from behind the screen to find Alta standing beside a wooden stool.
She grins the moment our eyes meet.
"Katniss. You're looking so… healthy."
Of all the compliments in the world, this one settles particularly well. Healthy. Having lived on the wayside of starvation for so long, satisfactory nourishment was hardly something I'd grown familiar with. Even in the summer, when game was ample and accessible, jutting ribs and sharp elbows had become too close a companion. And after the revolution, with the depression from my own losses and ineptitude, my condition only worsened…. Until Peeta, at least. Until I had the baker boy providing profligate meals each morning and night. Until he led by example, teaching me how to recover. Because Peeta is persistent and he is dedicated. He's taught me how to try again.
My health serves as the soundest piece of physical evidence that proves my revival. Katniss. You're looking so… healthy. It suddenly becomes more valid, more significant coming from the lips of someone else rather than the girl I seldom gather the courage to study in the mirror. It feels more real with her confirmation.
With a hint of a blush, I slip onto the stool at her side. She brushes a wet strand of hair from my face. "You're giving me quite the palette to work with. Thank you."
Now, with this comment, I'm reluctant to accept her words as anything other than sarcasm. I look down at my scar-scored body, so exposed and bared to the world with nothing but a satin slip to hide it, a flicker of anger glinting in my core. I may have developed healthy curves, but I am still a patchwork collage of callouses and scars, with permanent dark circles under my eyes.
A twinge of hostility anchors in my tone as I grumble back, "Sorry, I haven't been sleeping much since—"
Alta surprises me by emitting a slight chuckle. "I'm serious, Katniss. You look beautiful."
"Well, of course she does, now that Venia's taken care of those eyebrows," Effie croons from the side. My mother shoots her a reproving look.
Disregarding the rolling commentary, Alta rests her palm over the ridge of my jaw. "I don't want to completely cake you in makeup. You're absolutely stunning as is."
This, too, is a compliment I simply can't receive. "If you think scar tissue is gorgeous, then sure."
I start once the feathery touch of fingers graces over my palm. I whip my head over to see Mom watching me with a gentle smile. "Peeta loves you for who you are, dear. Not some sculpted, embellished version of yourself. He wants to marry you."
In a life so full of uncertainty, that is one thing I do know. Indisputably. After all we've been through, I couldn't possibly doubt Peeta's intentions.
I point a weak smile her way as Alta begins giving modest directions to the prep team on how to do my makeup. I fall silent as they work away at my skin and my hair.
A muted, radiating heat prickles by my ear as I feel Flavius curling my freshly blow-dried hair. I'm thankful he doesn't even attempt to trim my mane; Peeta loves my hair long, even more so when it's down.
The women in the room are tossing whispers at each other somewhere off to the side, but the sound of Flavius, Venia, and Octavia's chatter quells any hope I have of understanding it. Johanna lets out her characteristic cackle at something my mother has said, and Effie scoffs.
Once Venia has curled my eyelashes, my lids flutter open to see Alta moving toward the door.
"Where are you going?" I ask her, my voice throaty as I strain to keep my head back so Flavius can continue with my hair.
She flings a gentle smile my way.
"To get your dress."
A piercing hollowness drops in the pit of my stomach; I hadn't even thought about the dress. Of course, I hadn't thought about anything, really—Peeta had shouldered all the stress of planning—but I feel a slight pang of alarm. Isn't this something brides always stress over? Or at least something they should stress over? Granted, planning outfits is never something I've delighted in, let alone something I've had to do. When costuming mattered, there was always Cinna. And Cinna could never disappoint.
Although, in the one week where we shot the propos for Plutarch, Alta didn't let me down either. Her designs were certainly far from Cinna's caliber—no one could compare to him—but they were satisfactory, and… fitting, I suppose. Suitable for the occasion.
Alta must sense my unease, and her smile only softens. "Don't worry, Katniss. I'm sure you'll love it. Peeta will, too."
At the mention of wedding dresses, an excited squeal resonates from the corner of the room. Effie clambers over to my side, grasping my hand in hers. "Oh, Katniss, it's absolutely gorgeous!"
I gulp. "Oh, god…"
Again, a cackle bubbles to Johanna's lips. "For once, Effie's actually right. It's fitting for you."
I don't know whether it would be rational to trust the judgment of either Effie or Johanna, but I figure I'll find out soon enough.
Just as Venia has finished powdering a thin film of blush over the apples of my cheeks, Flavius announces he's done with my curls. Octavia helps me onto my feet, and when I steady myself, Alta has reemerged with a black garment bag draped over her slender arms.
She instructs me to close my eyes; I do as told. Almost instantly, the cool texture of fabric gliding against my skin sends shocks through my body as she tugs the dress over my head. My arms find their sockets, pushing through. Against my back, a hand tugs at a zipper, yanking it up until it comes to a sharp halt.
"Can I open my—"
"No, come this way." There are two hands on my back now, urging me toward the corner of the room where the three panels of mirrors have been angled. My escorts guide me up to the small platform, carefully positioning me, messing with the fabric of the bodice and tousling with my hair.
And suddenly, they all draw back.
"You can look now."
I alleviate the dull throbbing of my lids by willing my eyes to flutter open. Immediately, my gaze locks with a girl, a look of anxiety sewn over her gentle features, and I feel my heart catch somewhere in my throat.
A sudden tide of emotions sweeps over my unprepared body as I study her. This girl—this beautiful, magnificent woman—is not some Capitol creature who, under thick casing, minutely resembles Katniss Everdeen.
She is me. In every curve, every edge; in the curious look in her grey eyes, in the ghost of a smile on her lips. In the dark, impossibly long waterfall of curls over her delicate shoulders. She wears a white dress, cascading down to the floor, which hugs her where it should and doesn't squeeze what it shouldn't. It's satiny with lace overlay, its texture looking much like that of her olive skin; it's filigree, fragmented, but it's still beautiful.
I've never felt so comfortable in my own skin, not even before it was as patchy and flawed as it is now. The dress itself is as simple and modest as its barer, yet still flattering. While it doesn't make an effort of concealing my imperfections, it doesn't highlight them. In this dress, I am myself—nothing is hidden, nothing overly-ornamented.
I feel my eyes welling up. Who would've thought. The bold, pigheaded Katniss Everdeen, crying over a dress.
Truthfully, it's not the gown that's triggering this reaction. It's the image of a girl standing on the opposite side of the glass—a girl that is so clearly me, and yet, somehow unbroken. The woman in the mirror is healthy. She's happy. She is nothing like the damaged being that arrived in the district nearly eighteen months ago.
She is truly a phoenix. What was once the Girl on Fire, who had lost her flame along with nearly everything else that mattered, has risen from the ashes into some beautiful creature that is, somehow, magnificently… alive.
I revolve slowly on the platform to see every pair of eyes latched onto me, coupled with encouraging smiles.
"You look stunning, Katniss," Effie muses, and at her side, my mother has pressed white knuckles up against her thin lips, willing herself not to cry.
"I told you it's fitting." Johanna's brown eyes glimmer. "It's clean, unadorned, but absolutely beautiful. Just like you."
Alta is watching me, her expression brimming with both pride and benevolence. Somehow, I manage to choke out, "Alta, you… you shouldn't have—"
"I didn't," she muses softly, advancing toward me. Her delicate fingers sweep a stray curl from my shoulder.
My chin is beginning to quaver without my permission, but almost instantaneously the confusion begins to settle in my chest. I feel my eyebrow tweak up in some attempt at inquisition. "What?" I manage to wheeze.
"This isn't my dress." Her voice is melodic as she purrs the admission out through grinning lips.
Nervously, I chew on my lip, the gears of my mind squealing in disorientation. What does she mean, this isn't her dress? Who else could have designed—
The answer crashes over me in an instant, nearly propelling me backward from the shock.
"Cinna." It's not a question; more like a breathless testimonial.
She nods, watching me carefully as if I'm about to stumble once again. "He designed it just before the Quarter Quell when Snow gave him the other wedding dress. You know, the painfully extravagant one, the one that—"
"—that turned into the mockingjay dress when I spun in it. Yes, I remember," I finish, my voice husky with disbelief.
Suddenly, her hand is on my shoulder, her eyes undyingly kind. "He wanted to make you a dress you could wear when it was all over," she tells me sympathetically, nearly apologetically. "When things were finally better."
Tears well in the corners of my eyes, threatening to spill over my coated lashes. I force myself to look to the side, catching my breath with clenched lips.
It makes too much sense for my reeling mind to wrap around its veracity. Cinna knew, especially after crafting the mockingjay dress, that the Capitol would take him away from us. That the Capitol would take everything from us. And that, at the end of it all, after two games and a rebellion, I would turn to the only soul who offered me the hope I craved. The hope that I needed to survive.
He knew I would marry Peeta, didn't he? Somewhere, in the arcane depths of my chest, I'd known it, too. I knew that I would end up with my dandelion. But when it came to my emotions, I always seemed to be two steps behind everyone else—Cinna included. He must've realized that every trial would ultimately guide us to this destination all along before I reached that conclusion on my own.
Cinna really never could disappoint.
"I'm going to leave you a few moments alone, alright?" Alta whispers, her fingers grazing over my cheek before she takes a step back, ushering Johanna, my prep team, and a reluctant Effie into the hall. But my mother remains.
A sob begins to build up in my chest, bubbling up to my throat. My head is pulsing, my muscles beginning to quiver, and suddenly, I find myself darting toward her.
She gathers me like a jumbled, broken puzzle into her thin arms as I shudder with curbed sobs. I find that I'm glad she stayed when the others left; I needed her embrace. Not as a guest, or as a friend, but as a mother.
Her hands smooth over my hair as I bury my face into her neck. Once I allow myself to succumb to the sobs, it seems I can't stop.
"I wish he was here," I whimper against her skin, my voice uneven and rugged.
She whispers nothing more than, "I know." But it's all that I need.
Cinna's not the only absentee, though. There are too many remaining vacancies that shouldn't be, that should never have been missing in the first place. "I wish…" My voice cuts off as a chill runs through my veins. "I wish Prim were here, too." More than anything.
It's the first I've spoken her name around my mother; truly, it's the first I've spoken her name in months. I can hardly say it anymore, too afraid to disgrace it, to dishonor it. But in this moment, with the overwhelming sentiment of loss drowning me out until my mind can no longer spin, my need for her surpasses all else. While my mother may have returned to Twelve for the wedding, I would've given anything for Prim to be at her side.
I don't expect her to respond; in fact, I almost assume she'll grow still, taciturn. But she surprises me.
"She would've loved to see you get married," Mom whispers compassionately, reassuringly. Her voice soothes me with its soft timbre, and I find my muscles steadying. I picture Prim, sitting before the alter, her incredible smile lighting up her features in the stunning grin she has coined all to herself. A flower in her golden hair, blue eyes glimmering, cheeks rosy with excitement. She always loved weddings.
"She would've," I murmur back as my mother pulls away just enough so that she can lift my face with her palms. She's permitted two tears to fall, rolling over her stretched lips. "She would've wanted this more than anyone."
Prim was the idealist who chose to see love bloom even in the shadows. To her, hope was everywhere.
Mom's grin deepens, a third tear brimming over her bottom lid. She sniffles slightly, coughing out a curtailed chuckle. "Well, except Peeta."
"No one wants this quite like Peeta," I agree, running my finger under my eye to collect the moisture there. Venia is going to kill me; she'll have to redo the light coating of makeup. "But Prim would've been so happy. She always did like Peeta, didn't she?"
We lower ourselves to sit at the edge of the platform beside each other, our backs to the mirrors. She rests her hand over mine absentmindedly and the gesture sends a shock of warmth through my system. When was the last time she was so unafraid to touch me?
"Yes, of course she did. But she loved you. More than anything."
I haven't spoken of her like this since her death, apart from a conversation or two with Peeta. And, although it ignites a dampened ache in my chest, talking about her is something I've needed to do. With my mother, it provides an element of release that I've dismissed for far too long.
"She loved everything," I murmur back, my voice low as it fights through the thickness of my throat. "She loved helping people. She loved her goat. I mean, hell, she even loved that stupid cat that—"
Mom's hand pulses on mine, severing my escalating rant.
"She didn't love anything like she loved you, Katniss. She always wanted to see you happy—seeing you with Peeta, like this, would've been the highlight of her year."
"She wanted everyone to be happy." And that is one of the most enduring truths I ever knew of her.
A stray strand of hair has fallen in my face; Mom lifts a finger to push it back. "When will you see that you were her whole world?" Her voice doesn't contain even a trace of hostility—the nostalgic undertones are clear, with a resonating pain underneath her satisfaction. Before I can open my mouth to speak, she continues. "You practically raised that girl. You weren't only her sister, but her best friend. And you were her mother when I couldn't be."
My brow has furrowed as I watch her judiciously. Per usual, words have failed me. I don't know what to say.
She sighs with difficulty and continues. "You two carried each other. You gave her a foundation to grow on, and she gave you hope. You guys took care of the other because I couldn't do—"
"Mom." My eyes harden.
But she only shakes her head, her face flushing slightly. Her breaths are labored as she fights through her own lurking sobs, but she manages to suppress them for the moment. "I need you to know this, Katniss. I should've told you years ago, but I… I wasn't in a good place. And that's not meant to be an excuse. I just—" She runs her fingers through her blonde hair in inarticulate irritation. "—I loved you both. So much. But after… after your father died, every time I looked at you, I'd see him. Every time you spoke. Every time you sang. You were too young to have to deal with what I put you through, but I was too sick to understand that I was killing you. If you hadn't been as strong as you are…"
Her palms dig tiredly at her cheekbones in frustration. She doesn't have to finish.
I've aggregated quite a reserve of resentment for my mother over the years—at her taciturn isolation, her rejection, and her negligence. It had grown into a monster, so fierce in nature that I only invited her here because of Peeta's petitioning.
But now that I'm here, the antipathy is beginning to dissolve. Pieces of it still linger here and there, filling the corners of my mind, but the overbearing whole of it is quickly evaporating. It confuses me; how can I still clasp onto fragments of resentment for my mother, but still love her?
I suppose that's where forgiveness stems from. It roots itself in anger, metamorphosing the fury into bitterness, which slowly dulls in its ache. As long as you love someone, I suppose any other emotion can be disbanded.
"I don't know if I can do it right now, but… I want to forgive you, Mom."
She lifts her head from her hands, an expression of disbelief crocheting in her gaze.
A humorless chuckle escapes through my chapped lips. "What. You think I'm not capable of forgiveness?"
"It's just not something you've ever been really good at. You're stubborn, Katniss. You hold grudges like no other."
I feel a smile threatening to surface, but with the weight of the pending conversation still pressing from overhead, I manage to keep it down.
"I guess Peeta's really rubbing off on me."
It's a realization I've considered on several occasions. I suppose when you're broken, your entire being is dissembled into shambles; in order to recover, you have to build yourself up from scratch. Maybe, in my restoration, I muddled some of my wiring. I think I let Peeta do too much of the work for me—I'm far more akin to him now than I ever would've thought possible. The spirit of the old Katniss Everdeen is still present, more evidently during some moments than others, but I can't deny that I've changed.
I am getting married, after all. That's hardly something the old Katniss would've done so readily.
"You're really growing up, aren't you?" she whispers quietly after a prolonged hiatus in the conversation. "It seems like only yesterday I was getting you dressed for your first day of school—"
"Mom," I groan.
"—and I was braiding up your hair for you…" She takes in a quick sip of air, and when I look to her, her eyes have zoomed out of focus in wistful reminiscence.
An idea flickers through my mind.
"Do you think you can braid my hair for today?" I ask her quietly. She looks to me in subtle surprise. "I mean… I want to keep it somewhat down, since Peeta likes it like that, and Flavius went to all the work of curling my hair, but… I wouldn't really be Katniss Everdeen without a braid, would I be?"
My own slight smidge of a smile elicits a paralleled one from her, and she moves behind me without protest, her fingers immediately working through my mane.
"No, I suppose you wouldn't," she whispers quietly, taking a few strands in her palm.
We remain in silence as she works at my hair, lifting a lock at a time, weaving it with another. From this angle, I can't see what she's doing—but Mom has always outshined me in this capacity and I trust her work. So gently that it raises goose bumps all over the surface of my skin, she plaits my hair for me, and for a moment, my mind is totally at peace.
After a few moments, she cups my shoulders and urges me to turn toward the mirror to appraise her craft. From my side part all the way around my head in a folded crown, she's woven my hair into an elegant waterfall braid. The loose curls Flavius spent too long trying to perfect are still intact; Mom has done nothing but enhance his effort. And now, what was missing before has fallen into place.
"You look beautiful, Katniss," she tells me quietly over my shoulder.
Through the mirror, my eyes meet hers. My response is nearly inaudible, but the shape of my lips define my words clearly for her taking. "Thank you."
Her arms snake gently around my waist, her cheek nuzzling against mine with such maternal empathy that it ignites a warmth inside my chest. Her touch reminds me that, maybe, some of what was lost can be found again.
And, with a voice impossibly soft yet enduringly compassionate, she murmurs, "She would've been so proud of her big sister."
I stand in the back of the empty bakery, my fingers contorting the fabric of my skirt as I lift it off the floor so I don't stumble as I pace. Johanna is perched on the counter beside me, a half-eaten croissant tucked in her nimble fingers as she watches me with amusement.
"Someone looks a little restless."
I shoot her a death glare but don't allow my meandering to arrest. It's already past noon, and the guests are theoretically taking their seats before the alter that's been erected. Peeta's been with Gale, Haymitch, and Rory all morning, fixing up the meadow. How long could it take to line up a few rows of folding chairs?
"You know," Johanna continues, a hint of mockery painting over her words. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say you're getting cold feet."
Finally, I plant my feet on the tile and pivot to face her. "It's called impatience, Johanna."
"You should probably start working on that right about now, for the record. Hate to break it to you this way, but marriage is all about patience." She plucks off a section of her croissant, tucking it between her lips.
My jaw is impossibly hard as I strain not to grit my teeth at her. "I think Peeta has enough patience for the both of us."
"That's not how it works," she chuckles. "Peeta's a wonderful guy, but even he can't magically make every problem go away. You guys are about to start on one hell of a ride… might as well take my advice and buckle in."
"Your metaphors suck."
Her eyes narrow as she tosses me a sardonic grin. "Why, thank you." Almost immediately, however, she jumps off the counter and slips up to me, raising a hand to arc around my bare arm. "In all seriousness, though, take a deep breath. Everything will be ready soon enough. Try to enjoy your big day while it's still within reach."
The small of my back presses into the edge of a counter as my hands find my freshly made-up face. Venia, Flavius, and Octavia had parted no more than fifteen minutes ago to take their seats, leaving the bride under Johanna's supervision, of all people…
"You okay?" she asks.
I find my head bobbing fervently in a resolved nod, yet my stomach is churning. "Yeah. I just—is marriage supposed to be all that different than whatever we're doing now?"
In contrast with the soothing strokes of her palm over my arm, she emits a snort. "It may involve a lot of more bedroom time—"
I peek over the tips of my fingers to see her rolling her eyes. "In regards to technicalities, I think it'll be essentially the same. It may feel a little different—more permanent, you know—which may be a little scary. I know how much freedom means to you."
Although she's not too far off the mark with that notion, the freedom I thrive on is not the freedom that will be confiscated after the wedding. As long as I'm still allowed to spend long afternoons in the woods, I'll survive.
"I don't mind the permanence," I tell her quietly. If anything, the intransience of the situation is more comforting than off-putting. "I've been living on shaky ground for so long that it'll be nice to have something solid I can depend on. Everything else has been so temporary." The company of my father; the peace between reapings; a decent meal; it had all never lasted. Not even Prim, the only constant in my life.
She smiles faintly. "Peeta's good for you. Don't ever lose sight of that."
Before I can marshal a response, the door to the lobby of the bakery flaps open and in walks a surprisingly sober Haymitch.
Once he sees us, however, he stops, his guarded eyes narrowing.
"You clean up nice, Sweetheart," he tells me flatly, broadening his shoulders.
Despite the lack of enthusiasm in his tone, I've come to understand that compliments are rare from Haymitch and I should accept them whenever he tosses one my way.
"Johanna, you should go find a seat," he continues. "I need a moment alone with the bride."
She lifts an eyebrow at his recommendation but does not waste her breath by questioning it. With a final reassuring squeeze to my arm, she parts the way Haymitch came, leaving me alone with my old mentor.
The Haymitch that stands before me is essentially a walking paradox. Despite donning a carefully smoothed tuxedo and a clean-shaven face, the habitually tired look in his eyes is still as vibrant as ever. Although it's clear the man isn't inebriated, he's got the demeanor of a drunk, as I imagine he always will.
"Well?" I ask him, folding my arms stubbornly over my chest.
"Everything's set. Ready to head out there?"
The moment his tongue flips up at the end of the question, my stomach plummets. Before I can swallow down the sudden tidal wave of anxiety, it must work itself over my expression because Haymitch's thin lips turn up in a smirk.
"I never thought I'd see you, of all people, nervous about their own wedding. If anything, I assumed you'd be jumping to get this over with."
My palm flattens over my heating forehead. "I'm not nervous, I just…" Okay, maybe I am, but just a little. "I really don't want to mess this up for him. I know how much this whole ordeal means to Peeta."
"But it doesn't mean anything to you." It's not a question. His voice is nearly taunting, clearly aimed to elicit some sort of emotional response from me.
A flash of anger surges through me and I swallow hard, squaring my jaw. "Of course it does, Haymitch. It's just… this is for Peeta—"
"Is it really?" He's grinning at me now, his smirk almost mocking.
My teeth grit, my knuckles tensing as I ball my hands into fists. I feel a sudden urge to lash out, physically or verbally, but then another thought flickers through my mind. I find myself stopping still as my muscles grow rigid.
I'd been the one who gave him permission to ask me. I'd been the one growing restless in the month before he finally did. I'd been the one to fight for him this past week when he tried to pull away out of shame.
My palms flatten up against the counter as I lean back, my face growing hot with confusion. "I don't—I'm not sure—"
He steps beside me, turning around to lean against the counter, too. He crosses his arms and watches me carefully. "Swallow your pride for one second, Sweetheart, and admit that you want this, too. Not as much as he does—I don't think that's physically possible—but it matters to you."
A sharp pain shoots out from my fist and I realize I'm aggressively digging my nails into my palm. The last thing I want to do is wear my heart on my sleeve for Haymitch to see. He already torments me enough as is.
"I just want to see him happy."
He cocks an eyebrow mockingly. "Is that all?"
"Since when is that not good enough for you?" I prod, my voice raising an octave, throwing my arms down in desperation. "Does everything I do have to have some sort of selfish motive? You used to say I needed to do more for him. Well, that's what I'm doing by marrying him. I'm giving him what he wants."
"Sweetheart, all that boy wants is for you to be happy. Well, under the condition that you be happy with him, but he's too humble to admit that to himself." He stares at me long and hard as I fume before him, too irate to muster any response. "He wouldn't force you to marry him if he knew it would make you miserable."
"What the hell do you want me to tell you, Haymitch? That it's not going to make me miserable?"
"I want you to tell me why you're doing it."
"That is why!"
He turns to me sharply. "There's more. I know it. You always have an ulterior motive."
By the look emanating from his expression, I can tell that he knows; he's aware of exactly why I'm marrying Peeta and he's just waiting for me to vocalize it. But exactly what he's expecting to hear, I'm not sure.
My jaw clenches and I screw my eyes shut, steadying my breathing. From somewhere deep down, I pull a string and bring out a response I'd been hiding for God knows how long. And the moment it slips from my lips, I know it's the truth; it's a reality so secret, so personal, so enfeebling that I'd pushed it to the other ends of this universe in attempt to make it suddenly fallacious. But I suppose that's not how it works.
"Because I want to know that this is real, Haymitch."
It's something I touched on with Johanna. After a life so unpredictable, I finally need an anchor. Everything I love has been taken away from me—and regardless of how irrational the fear is, I feel that unless I gain an iron clasp on this relationship, it'll slip away before I blink. It's a desire that's easily disguised as something else. Of course I want Peeta to be happy, but my aspiration to please him comes second to my undefeatable, absurd, selfish phobia of loss.
Haymitch watches me for the longest time. I nearly expect a smug grin to cross over his features, but it doesn't; instead, he allows me a minute of silence to dissect my thoughts and register my admission. But he is not surprised—he knew my slice of truth before I did. Why does everyone know what's going through my head even when I don't?
My hands are trembling as I lift them, uncurling my fists. They hover over my cheeks as I ache to hide my face, but Venia would kill me if I smudged my makeup again. My eyes sting, my throat thickening, aching, and—
"It's real, Sweetheart," Haymitch murmurs after what could be years. "Peeta's not going anywhere."
I manage to cough out a weak, "I know," but it's far from convincing. Even I don't believe it.
Haymitch runs his fingers through his hair, puffing his cheeks out in an extensive exhale. "You know, there's something I've been meaning to tell you for months now, but it's actually a compliment, God forbid. You know that's not my area of expertise so you can understand why I've been holding off." I let out a broken chuckle before he continues. "Remember how I told you that you could never do anything to be worthy of that boy out there?"
Of course I do. You could live a hundred lifetimes and not deserve him. And I knew that he'd been right. Peeta is light—he is comfort, he is joy, and he is hope. I am destructive and selfish, warped beyond repair.
Haymitch stares at me as I nod meekly.
"Well, I can honestly say that I have never been so proud to be wrong."
My brows knit together as I dismember his sentence, attempting to decipher some alternate meaning. Even my stubbornness is no match to Haymitch's; he would rather give up alcohol for life than admit to a flaw in judgment.
"How dare you mock me like that," I manage to spit out, up to my ears in anger.
"I'm not mocking you—I'm telling you the truth. You love that boy more than he could've ever prayed for." He speaks lowly, quietly, in a voice so genuine that I can hardly believe it's my drunk of a mentor standing beside me. Reassuring compliments are so out of character for him.
But then again, aren't we all out of character? Maybe that's what tragedy does to you. It shreds every last piece of reality you hold, changing you into some hardly recognizable being that does whatever it can to cope with the pain. For Haymitch, it's transformed him from a hopelessly antagonizing cynic into an actual mentor—arguably a father figure—to those who need it. For me, it's altered me from a guarded recluse into a coward who clings onto every shard of love she manages to find, every shard of light in this hopelessly darkened universe. Tragedy makes you into someone—or something—new.
It makes you a phoenix, I think for the second time today, hardly able to digest the totality of my revelation.
"I do," I finally choke out, my eyes watering. "But—Haymitch, I really do want him to be happy. I'm not… am I really that selfish?"
"No." The corners of his lips arc up slightly. "You're not as selfish as you make yourself out to be. You go into survival mode, because that's how you've always dealt with adversities your entire life. But that doesn't make you selfish. It makes you human."
"Another compliment," I laugh through a thick throat. "Are you sure you're not drunk?"
After a dismissing roll of his eyes and a regaled grunt, he turns to face me. "Watch it, Sweetheart, or you may never be graced with my generosity again."
The throbbing in my chest and the stinging in my eyes begin to numb minutely as I rub my temples. I want to express my gratitude for his impossibly rare empathy but I don't know how. Thanking Haymitch is hardly an act I'm acclimated to.
"Now, as fun as it sounds, I don't think I should make the bride cry on her wedding day. What do you say we go out there before Peeta thinks you've run out on him?"
I crack a hint of a smile, running my fingers under my eyes to swipe away any stray moisture, prompting him to turn toward the door. But on a momentary impulse, my hand flies out to grasp his forearm, my thin fingers gripping at the fabric of his tuxedo jacket. "Since you're clearly in such a giving mood at the moment, I do have one favor to ask you," I tell him as he revolves, a crease forming in between his brows.
"And what is that?"
My heart lodges in my throat as I ask him a question I could've never predicted lobbying for.
"Will you walk me down the aisle?"
It's an entitlement reserved for the father of the bride. And with all of his advice, his accessibility at the bakery, his snide jests that actually come from some deep-down, concealed sentiment of compassion… Haymitch is the closest thing I have. Especially after today.
He attempts to appear somewhat reluctant, like the idea itself is so demanding, but with the smile that toys at the corners of his mouth, I know he's grateful I asked.
"Whatever you want, Sweetheart."
As I stand at the base of the aisle with my fingers practically suffocating the stems of the bouquet in my hands, I feel a strange heat expand from the center of my chest. My nerves are vibrating, my stomach churning, but every over-hyped sensation in my electrified body is pleasant somehow. It brings me back to that moment with Peeta on the night he first made love to me—it's a fear so thrilling, so enlivening it's hardly fear at all.
I can't wipe the smile off my face, but I promise myself that it's alright. For the first time since we returned to Twelve, happiness seems so… right. In this brief moment of time, there is absolutely no weight on my shoulders. I feel free, almost as if I'm about to develop wings and take flight.
In the infancy of spring, the meadow is coated in a thin tier of grass. Small yellow dandelions bloom, adding bright splashes of color to the earth—Peeta has lined the aisle with them, too. My heart leaps at the recognition of the symbol, and I will myself not to start crying before Peeta even sees me.
He's stationed at the opposite end of the walkway, underneath an arch wrapped with more dandelions, his back turned toward the audience. He's speaking with the man from the justice building who's presiding over the ceremony, and both of them are laughing at something trivial. My arm linked with Haymitch's tenses, and he looks at me and grins.
The guests notice me before Peeta does. Annie is the first to turn around, an exultant smile breaking out over her soft features; with the arm she's not using to prop up her son, she elbows Johanna who twists to see me, too. Before long, I feel everyone's eyes on me except the pair that matters most.
The magistrate nudges Peeta, pointing straight at me, and I watch him as he circles anxiously to face his bride. Grey meets blue, euphoric smiles surging forward on both parties.
There may be music, and there may be whispers; there may be some stray movement or something that hints life is still evolving outside of this moment, but I sense none of it. The only thing my mind can fathom is the boy—the man—that stands impossibly far away.
I haven't seen Peeta dressed so nicely since before the games, but even then, he'd been sporting outrageous Capitol garb. Now, he dons a simple black tuxedo and a white bowtie, golden curls carefully styled away from his face, his eyes a stunning cerulean.
Those blue moons don't desert me for even a second as Haymitch begins to march me down the aisle. His smile only grows as he watches me near him, his knuckles pressing into his lips as a tear spills over. Silently, he asks me our routine question.
Real or not real?
As I blink the moisture out of my eyes, I give him a hardly perceptible nod to present him with the answer he wants to hear. To present him with the truth.
I have never been so sure of anything in my life.
The journey to the alter is impossibly elongated, the aisle lined with miles and miles worth of dandelions. Dandelions that represent the conviction that Peeta has given me, the faith that I have promised him in return. Dandelions that grow and bloom from where our old friends and families are buried. I realize that this ceremony is for them, too. It's to prove that violence, that war and death, is not the strongest force we face.
This trail of dandelions promises us that hope is more powerful than anything and will remain when all else has vanished.
Eventually, finally, I reach the end of the aisle, where Haymitch deposits me at the foot of the arch. Peeta eagerly takes my hand in his, his skin warm and comforting and grounding as we stand before the official from the justice building. Before the magistrate begins his speech, Peeta leans over and whispers nearly inaudibly, "You still get my heart racing, love. You always will."
His gaze remains fixed on my face as the official begins his oration, the smile I've grown to love never wiping from his handsome features. My ears and eyes have still tuned out everything in the world around us, my heartbeat echoing deafeningly in my brain. Before I can calculate the time that has elapsed, Peeta is saying his vows. And suddenly, I'm saying mine. I promised myself I wouldn't cry—I don't doubt he pledged the same thing—but our resolves are crumbling before our oaths are finished. Seeing Peeta so overwhelmingly elated plants the same seed of euphoria in my chest until a white-hot flash of heat has flooded my entire body, and I'm on fire. It's like the sensation that rooted in me from our first real kiss on the beach and has never truly deserted me since, only growing and conquering my systems since. I feel that same hunger, that same reckless need as we stand at the alter—only now, it's swelled a thousand times its original magnitude into something I know will never fade.
The first real string of sounds that break through my walls are the ones that pronounce me as Peeta's wife. The official doesn't even finish with the customary you may now kiss the bride before I fling myself at the boy who has become my home, his arms encircling me as our lips meet. He tastes so sweet against my mouth and my hands snake to the back of his neck, pulling him down to me. He tries to draw back but my fingers prove stronger than him, and I feel him chuckling against my lips.
"Katniss—" he presses amusedly.
A few sporadic laughs echo from the audience as I realize I've held onto him for a bit too long. I wedge a safe space between us, but my hands slip down to his—I need to feel him, to know that he's here. Always. For the first time my eyes pan over the audience to see my mother crying and even Johanna wiping away a few tears as she smirks at us. Effie is clapping obnoxiously, but that shouldn't come as a surprise to any of us.
My eyes flicker back to Peeta and I realize his gaze still hasn't left me yet. Those blue rings are brimming with the same emotion I've been witnessing for month after month, yet in this moment, it's intensified to a nearly impossible degree. It's a look I've received from him every day and pray I'm given every morning and every night to come. I may never deserve it as long as I live, but it's a gaze that ignites a passion inside my chest I used to think was merely fiction. It makes me feel alive.
Peeta's lips find my cheek before they sweep down my jaw, gracing over the cartilage of my ear. In a whisper so exceptionally quiet but implausibly adoring, he promises, "I love you, Mrs. Mellark."
I eventually come to realize that part of the reason it had taken so long to launch the ceremony was due to the extensive length of time spent decorating the house for the reception. I'd assumed we'd carry out the wedding and then share a toasting, and the day would be over. We'd be married.
But of course, Peeta treasures extravagance, and I suppose the merchant-style wedding I agreed to was destined to encompass far more than a simple exchange of vows and a fireside toasting. Although I personally would've been more comfortable with minimal, unadorned effort, this is what Peeta wants. And it's difficult to be anything but elated when Peeta's smile is oceans wide.
When everyone returns to the house, we find the backyard draped with long strings of lights over a ring of tables and chairs. Our old stereo has been placed on the deck, and by the time the sun is melting into the horizon line, the two of us are pushed out onto the grass underneath our synthetic stars for our first official dance as man and wife.
Up until this point today, I've hardly been granted the opportunity of talking with Peeta—we've exchanged a few words here and there, but overall, we've been pulled in too many different directions to actually take a breath and enjoy the other's company. But with the music lulling from somewhere far off, amalgamated with the gentle murmurs of the guests as they sit at the tables beneath the canopy of lights, Peeta whisks me to the center of the backyard to finally be together.
He swivels an arm around my waist, the other grasping my hand. Whatever expertise we'd gained from dancing in the Capitol has completely vanished, but Peeta is naturally graceful, and he guides me as we swirl through the grass. Although he is hopelessly clumsy in the woods, his dancing ability is clearly superior to mine. I cling to him readily.
As our bodies align, every inch of our frames so perfectly tailored to fit the other, his cheek presses against my temple. I feel his fingers pulse on mine.
"How are you holding up?" he murmurs, his breath tickling over my ear.
I snort. "Wonderfully. This may come as a surprise, but getting married isn't actually as painful as I used to think it'd be."
With a mock-gasp, he pulls back, blue eyes shimmering. "What have you done with Katniss Everdeen?"
"Katniss Mellark," I correct, and a trace of a blush blooms in his cheeks at the sound of his name appended to mine. That'll take some getting used to. "And I don't know where she's gone, but I'm beginning to like this new Katniss. She may be a little pathetic at times, but she's less of a pain in the ass."
"I like her, too," he jokes as he gently kisses my forehead. "In fact, I think I may actually be in love with her—who would've thought?"
"What a crazy idea. It's not like you're married to her or anything." His hand squeezes my waist as I loop my arms around his neck. For a brief moment, I allow my fingers to rake through his curls, soft and silky as ever. My sarcasm fizzles in the air between us and is instantly replaced with a tone far softer, far more sincere. "Although it doesn't feel quite real yet. I suppose it won't until the toasting."
"I keep asking myself that," he whispers, his eyebrows knitting together. "If this is real, I mean. You know, after I was rescued from the Capitol and the doctors tried to restore my old memories, some of the first ones that came back were my old dreams of marrying you, because I hardly think the Capitol thought to touch those. I would always write them off as something you'd planted in my head to lead me on, but… I remember them, Katniss. Wanting to marry you is one of the few things that never truly vanished."
I touch my lips to his nose, but he's not finished.
"And so all I can think about now is whether this is actually happening to me, if I'm actually marrying the girl I've been in love with since I first heard her sing, and if she actually wants me as much as I want her, or if I'm about to have one of those harrowing hallucinations where everything suddenly starts to melt away and I realize it's all been a dream and—"
I cut him off by delicately slanting my lips under his before he forgets to interrupt his tirade to breathe. At first, his mouth is predominantly unresponsive, but as I braid my fingers in his hair, his lips oblige to mine ardently. I kiss his cheek, his angular jaw, before tracing my lips to his ear.
"It's real, Peeta. It's all real."
While sucking in a massive breath, his forehead joins mine, his palms on either side of my face. "Always?"
I study his face as we continue to sway back and forth to the mollifying lull of the melody. His eyelids are screwed shut, golden lashes glinting in the bronze light of the dying sun, a hint of a smile on his features as he registers my promise. But suddenly, without warning, his eyes flicker open, and his smile brightens as I find him exploring me in return. I nearly lose myself in those blue oceans that have consistently anchored me when all else fails. Through a touch of a smile, he murmurs, "Have I told you that you are absolutely beautiful?"
"Routinely," I beam.
"I haven't told you enough." Suddenly, his hand has rediscovered my waist and he twirls me out in some intricate pirouette. I practically lose my breath along with my footing as he does so, and by the time he's spun me back into his grasp, my fingers are grasping onto the lapels of his tuxedo for dear life.
He chuckles musically. "Gale and Johanna taught me that."
"Since when can either of them dance?" Particularly Gale, whose sole interests used to be setting snares and defying the Capitol, neither of which involve the waltz.
Peeta shrugs. "What else is there to do in Seven besides chop lumber?"
So lowly he can hardly hear me, I mumble back, "Well, I can think of a lot of things—"
"Speak of the devil." His tone is light with not even a trace of malice as his eyes fix on something over my shoulder. The song has just tapered off, a drumming of claps echoing from the guests as they begin to prep for the upcoming number. I revolve to see Gale standing behind us, a smile on his features that reminds me of the man he was before the rebellion had the opportunity of warping him into someone nearly unrecognizable, and I can feel the corners of my lips turning up in response.
"Mind if I steal the bride for a minute?" he asks Peeta, his eyes flickering down to me.
I turn back to my new husband, who graciously grants the application before donating a quick kiss to my forehead. As the next song begins to waft through the quickly darkening air, and the cords of lights that string overhead illuminate, I pass from my new husband's arms to the hands of the boy that used to be my best friend. Maybe he still is; it's hard to say.
The music swells around us as Gale awkwardly attempts to place his palms on me—first on my waist, then slightly lower on my hips, a deep blush flickering through his cheeks. We keep a safe wedge of distance between us, and his eyes avoid mine at first.
"Gale, you're allowed to look at me, you know," I chuckle.
He nods and his grey eyes find mine almost shyly. "Sorry, it's just weird to see you… married."
"Is it so hard for you to believe?"
He snorts. "You used to tell me all about your vendetta against weddings, and here you are. Married at nineteen." He smiles as he says this, and for the first time in months, I feel as if Gale is genuinely happy for me. "My little Catnip is growing up so fast."
"Yeah, whatever." I roll my eyes, glancing to the side as we pass Peeta, dancing with Annie. Her green eyes glimmer as she tells him something, and he chuckles freely. Seeing him laugh sends warmth from the tips of my fingers down to my toes. "I feel like I've hardly gotten to talk to you this past week."
"You've been too caught up in your girl time." His tongue swirls mockingly around the phrase, his nose crinkling.
I missed this with Gale. The teasing banter, harmless jests… it's a chief element that molded what we used to be, back in the prime of our platonic friendship. I hope things can revert back to that if they haven't already.
"And you've been spending some quality time with Peeta," I point out. In fact, some mornings, I'd visit the bakery to find the two men and Rory conferring over something in the kitchen. Trivial matters, mostly, but it was gratifying to see the three getting along with each other devoid of trouble. "I really appreciate that, in case you didn't know. That you two play nice."
"He's a good man," he responds frankly, his tone neither reverent nor dismissive. As if he's stating a simple fact. "I think I realized that once he started writing me all those letters, asking how to propose to you. You know, in the first note, he asked for my approval. Like it actually mattered."
"It does matter to him, Gale."
He snorts again. "I know it does. Peeta's like a goddamn character from those folktales our parents would tell us. He's so chivalrous, and even though it pisses me off, he's a genuinely decent guy. I tried to hate him for so long, but I can't anymore. I know how happy he makes you."
A dull sting begins to surface behind my eyes, and instead of letting my body succumb to the looming emotions while I'm in front of him, I force out a laugh. "Don't tell me that Johanna has nothing to do with this."
He nods in acknowledgement, brows arched. "Having her around has been really helpful, and I guess I have you to thank for that. She can get a little intense sometimes, but she has this odd sense of reasoning that always gets through to me. She cares about Peeta a hell of a lot, which she's not necessarily willing to put in so many words, but she froze me out for a good week until I finally accepted he wasn't the jerk I made him out to be."
I hardly think I'll ever understand exactly how their fires seem to coexist so peaceably. But I can't complain. She shreds though his stony façade and he tames her to the point where she's nearly bearable.
"So you think you can be friends with him?"
He laughs freely, the deep echo encircling us, warming my skin. "Now, that's a bit of a stretch. You know I'm too stubborn to pretend like those years where I loathed the very idea of him never existed. But I have gained some respect for him, especially this past week. At least, he treats me with respect, which is hardly something I've earned from him. As long as he doesn't hurt you, he has my approval."
Compliments are extraordinarily rare coming from Gale, so I refuse to take it for granted. "Thank you. Really."
He winks. "Don't mention it, Catnip."
After an enjoyably long evening full of cake-cutting (Peeta thoroughly outdid himself with a pearl-lined, four-tier masterpiece adorned with sugar flowers sculpted to look like dandelions), pledging, and continuous dancing, we finally call it a day. I find myself eternally grateful for how calmly the afternoon passed; it was almost beautiful the way everyone came together peacefully in a world that had once been so hostile. It proved that things can improve and that not all hope is ever lost. After the moon has risen high into the black elastic gloom overhead, I manage to find every guest and offer them a grateful hug before they retreat to their rooms. They'll all depart in the morning for their homes, which will elicit more than a few heart-wrenching goodbyes to see them off. But for now, I push that from my mind, fully intending to dedicate the rest of the evening to my new husband. So Peeta and I take refuge in our lounge.
Still robed in my white-laced gown, I tend to the fire while Peeta ventures to the kitchen to grab some bread. The flame lights easily, allowing me time to lay out a blanket by the hearth. Soon after I curl up on top of the comforter, the boy with the bread returns, holding a small loaf in his strong hands.
We kneel at the foot of the fireplace and I wait for Peeta to dip the bread in the open flame. Before doing so, he inches closer to me, splaying calloused fingers over my bare back. His skin feels as searing as the fire in front of me but it's comforting in its warmth; I naturally lean into his touch. I wonder if there will ever be a day where I don't.
His lips tenderly grace over my temple after he pushes my hair back. "We're about to have our toasting. Real or not real?"
I turn to him, tucking a curl behind his ear, my finger skimming down his temple, over his jaw; his eyes flutter closed at the touch. Under the pads of my fingertips, his skin feels like velvet, drawing me in more.
I smile softly.
Our mouths meet for a moment in an impossibly fragile kiss—the gesture is not meant to deepen, or to suggest a much more arcane, primal hunger. It's a kiss that seals our bond, that is intended more as a promise than an allusion to something greater. His lips are sweet over mine, unfeasibly delicate, his touch feathery as his palm skims over the nape of my neck.
When he draws back, his eyelids are still closed, but a sweet smile has established itself over his lips. I think to myself, over and over again, that I have never loved him as much as I do in this moment and will only love him more with each passing second.
"Are you ready to do this?" I ask him, and his blue moons find me.
I watch as he lifts his hand, the loaf enveloped in his fingers. He dips it into the ginger flames, just barely at first, until the orange tongues begin to lick the crust to a charred black hue. His fingers must be near burning, but if they are he does not complain; he holds the loaf in the fire until it is well toasted through and ready for breaking.
As he pulls it back to him, I notice that his hands are trembling ever-so-slightly, his brow creased in concentration. He takes the bread with both hands and rips it into two halves, handing one to me. When our fingers brush, a shock transfers from him to me, and I smile. He attempts to return it, but his quivering has grown more noticeable now.
So I do what I do best; I mend situations with actions rather than words. I press my palm to his wrist, delicately twining my fingers around the bone, planting a chaste kiss on his cheek. His returning smile is partially adoring but primarily thankful.
I don't notice that my hands are beginning to tremble, too, until half of the loaf passes from Peeta to me. We lift our pieces to the other's lips.
"To a wonderful, long, beautiful life together," he murmurs softly.
When I take the charred bread in my mouth, my mind whirls back to eight years ago on that hazy afternoon. I'm suddenly eleven again, at this boy's mercy, so grateful for his generosity and so intrigued by every facet of his being. My teeth worry on the leathery crust, my tongue curling around the nuts and the raisins in the dough. It's the same recipe as the bread he threw at me so many years ago, and when my gaze flickers at him in recognition, he smiles boyishly. As I blink, I see the rosy-cheeked eleven-year-old boy with dark circles under his eyes and matted curls. Now, before me, I see a man with broad shoulders and defined features, eyes bright and smile persistent. So much has changed. Everything has changed.
And yet, I can't help but think that maybe things were meant to amount to this. Tonight is truthfully our second toasting—it's almost as if those first loaves were a silent vow, however unintentional, that would bind us together for good.
When we draw the bread away from our lips, Peeta's eyes are shimmering, and I don't realize a tear of my own has brimmed over until he lifts a thumb to brush it away. I want to tell him, It's the same bread, but he knows. Of course he knows. Every symbolic deed of Peeta's is premeditated; he thinks everything through. The pearl of my wedding ring. The dandelions that lined the aisle.
We set our bread beside the hearth and his arms come winding around me, burying my thin frame in his chest. His hands are over my back, combing through my hair in reassuring strokes, but I can feel him trembling just as unsteadily as I am. He clenches me as if I'm the only thing left remaining in this world that keeps him here, and in many ways I want to be. When everything else fails, we have each other.
We spend a while longer before the fire, laying our exhausted bodies over the comforter. He leans over me, tracing the lines of my cheeks and my collar absent-mindedly. His touch sends shivers down my spine, my eyes fluttering closed; my reaction must spark something inside of him, because before long, I feel his mouth hungrily working its way over my bare skin, donating attention to each scar, each mark it crosses. That burning sensation I've come to be so well acquainted with pools in my belly all over again, grasping at every corner of my body until it pulls me under.
"Let's go to bed," he commands huskily as his lips find my pulse point. My body is electrified, impossibly far away from any hope of sleep. But I know what he wants. What I want. What we need.
We leave the fire to die and fold up the blanket before Peeta presses his hand against the small of my back, allowing me to lead the way. When we make it to the bedroom, I quietly shut the door and make my way toward the window as he discards his jacket.
My fingers shakily meddle with the lock, eventually unfastening it and pushing the shutters outward. I'm greeted by the enlivening breath of spring air, fresh and sweet. My palms drive into the frame of the window as I look out, surveying the skyline of Twelve. So much has changed since I returned a year and a half ago.
Without warning, I feel hands snaking deliberately around my waist as Peeta winds me in his grasp. He tucks all of my hair over my left shoulder, leaning to deposit several slow kisses along my neck and my shoulder. His frame is so much larger than mine, with thick shoulders and strong arms; he easily envelops me, and it's stances just like this in which I feel so irrevocably safe, secure. Peeta is my guardian. He will always ward off all my demons, keeping me safe from whatever may threaten to hurt me. For always.
Against my skin, in a low purr that sets my nerves alight, he hums, "I love you, Mrs. Mellark."
I'm unsure of exactly where it arises from, but somewhere deep in the confines of my memory, a thought emerges. And you made me promise to make love to you every night. It had been a component of a dream Peeta had, if I remember correctly. A vow he would readily shoulder.
And so, when I feel his heated breath hungrily swell over the skin of my neck, I bring the memory to life.
"Peeta, make love to me," I gasp as his hands find purchase over my hips. "Please."
He stills for a moment behind me, a tiny breath surging into his lungs, before he whispers back, "Every night?"
He remembers it, too.
His gulp is audible, but when his fingers pinch at the base of my shoulders, I can tell they're not shaking anymore. They clasp at the zipper and he theatrically pulls it down my back, allowing the dress to pool at my feet. My own hands grasp at the bottom hem of my slip, and his palms wrap around mine as we pull the silken garment from my body together.
When I turn around to help him unbutton his dress shirt, he watches me with a gaze so multifaceted I couldn't possibly identify every existing component. As my fingers work away at the buttons, he drags his lip under his teeth indulgently, but tenderly all the same. Without warning, he dotingly plants a kiss to my forehead that speaks a thousand words.
After we undress, our wedding costumes piled chaotically over the floor (including the underthings Johanna specifically donated to me to wear for the groom—what a shame), Peeta tucks me in the center of the bed before crawling to hover over me. The anxiety that used to dwell in Peeta's expression before our endeavors has since dissipated. In its place resides an astute confidence paired with unremitting adoration that stirs the butterflies in my stomach into full flight. What had once been a shy boy constantly plagued with fear has matured into a loving, devoted husband with interminable poise. He may be confident now in the comfort that the two of us have created together as a couple, but he is still impossibly gentle and attentive.
We go slow tonight, as there is no hurry—we have forever and a day together. Even though we've only done this a handful of times, Peeta never forgets which ways to move, how he should touch me. Even in the gloom of the evening, every emotion swimming in his eyes is painstakingly clear as he watches me, heeding my reactions. He presses open-mouthed kisses over every inch of skin he can reach, drawing his name to roll off my tongue over and over again. I love you, I tell him, the declaration falling like water from my lips with abandon. He returns the promise just as earnestly.
We bring each other to the edge together, my vision filling with stars as he pours my name into my mouth. It sounds so beautiful playing from his lips, almost melodic in his veneration of it, and something inside my chest twists pleasantly in its wake.
When it's over, and we lay boneless underneath the blankets, sticky with perspiration, I feel him skimming the pads of his fingers over my skin. It shocks my entire system with shivers, cooling my overheated body. With Peeta, I don't mind being touched; he does so with extreme reverence, quashing every inkling of self-consciousness. When I tilt my head over the pillow to look at him, I find he is already watching me, beaming. Even in the dark, he fills the room with sunshine, and I can't help but think how good we've been for each other. On this long and winding road toward recovery, he's provided me with the security and happiness I never thought I deserved, and I've given him confidence and new memories to replace the old ones he can never regain. We may have many long miles to go before we're fully mended, which may not even be possible, but for the time being… we're alright. We're safe, we're content, and we've learned to love even after loss has taken away every probable reason to bear such a feeling. I've given him the strength he needs to grow, and he's given me a purpose. He's given me hope.
After our bodies feel a little more like actual bodies and a little less like gelatin, Peeta uncurls an arm and pulls me up against him, my head eagerly finding the crook of his neck. Our silhouettes fit like two pieces of a puzzle, tailored for one another. I can't imagine we were made for anyone else.
A long while has passed before his voice rouses the silence in the room. "Will you sing for me?"
I peek up at him through my dark lashes and nod faintly before nuzzling back against him, welcoming a kiss to the top of my head. My voice stirs in my throat, and for a brief moment I recognize that before no one else—apart from my father and Prim—have I ever felt so comfortable with my voice. But then again, nothing is uncomfortable with Peeta.
So I sing to him. My voice is gentle, slightly breathy as I still work to catch my breath from a few moments before, but as the lullaby swells through the room I can feel Peeta's broad muscles relaxing, a sigh expelling from his lips.
Deep in the meadow, under the willow, a bed of grass, a soft green pillow…
Absent-mindedly, his fingers begin to toy with the ends of my thick tresses, nearly flat from the long evening.
Lay down your head, and close your sleepy eyes, and when you awake, the sun will rise…
His palms trail down over my back, gracing the planes and the contours there, gently kneading out any knots along my spine. His lips find my hair again.
Here it's safe, here it's warm; here the daisies guard you from harm…
His muscles flex around me, squeezing me tighter against him. The warmth of his skin seeps into my core, setting my soul alight. The boy with the golden curls—my husband, my lover, my everything—is sunshine all on his own, but he donates a little fraction of that light to me, until I do not feel broken any longer, or hopeless. I feel much more whole.
Here your dreams are sweet and tomorrow brings them true—
Suddenly, Peeta's grip on my body tightens even further, and he pulls me up to his level so that my vision is aligned with his. My fingers push a sweaty curl out of his face as he gazes at me with an expression of adoration that will last a thousand lifetimes. Those pools of blue that have been the subject of countless pleasant dreams of mine are smiling wider than his lips could ever tell.
And with a gentle kiss to my nose, he finishes the lyrics for me. From no one else's lips have they ever sounded so warm, so loving, so real.
"Here is the place where I love you."