Months pass. Before I know it, it's the second Day of Remembrance. Peeta and I spend this one together and it's a little easier.
We still have bad days, though not very often. Dr. Aurelius eventually takes both of us off all the medications. The waste bothers me so I pack up all the bottles of pills I haven't been taking and send them back. That gets me a very exasperated call from the doctor.
My nightmares don't get any less intense but at least they're not a nightly occurrence anymore. And not being able to sleep isn't such a problem when we end up making love until we're exhausted. Things are going so well, in fact, that I almost don't recognize the next issue when it comes.
Peeta starts getting a lot of calls from people in the Capitol. They're getting serious about setting up the new government that every citizen will vote for. The difficulty is that they're only working from history books and no one really knows how to get things going.
First, the callers offer Peeta the position of representative for District 12. That would mean spending a lot of time in the Capitol so he flatly refuses. Then they try to get him to be the new mayor of the district. He's not thrilled with that idea either, but makes the mistake of being willing to consider it. The recruitment team takes that as a sign of weakness and doubles down.
I come home one autumn afternoon to find Peeta on the phone again. His side of the conversation is stilted and very polite. When he hangs up, he sinks down into a chair and buries his face in his hands. I move behind him and rub his shoulders.
"That was President Paylor," he groans. "She wants to step down but can't until there's an election. And that can't happen until there's official district leadership."
"That makes sense," I say neutrally.
"Of course it does. I don't blame Paylor for not wanting the job anymore. Hell, I don't want to get involved in the first place!"
"Which is part of why you're perfect for the position."
He frowns, then pulls me around and into his lap. "Care to explain that?"
"I don't trust people who actually want to be in charge. Think of Coin, or Snow. Or even Plutarch. People who want power for the sake of power are dangerous."
"So you really think I should say yes?" he asks, clearly pained by the thought.
I kiss him thoroughly before responding. "I think you're the only one who gets a say in that. But look at it this way. People already come to you for input all the time. And I don't believe for a minute that you don't want to help make the district a better place. It's what you do with your time anyway."
He sighs. "But…being in charge…officially…"
"Officially, you could do so much more. They're the ones courting you. That means you can dictate the terms. Make them agree to what you're comfortable with," I point out.
"That's a really good idea," he says, "but why are you crying?"
"I am not!" I sputter. Then I choke on a sob and press my face against his shoulder. I let him soothe me for a few minutes. When I'm pretty sure I've gotten myself under control, I explain. "It was Prim's idea. When Coin wanted me to be the Mockingjay. I didn't want to. Then Prim suggested I make some demands. Like keeping you safe." And with that, I'm crying again.
"I know, sweetheart. I miss her too," he whispers into my hair. I stay in his arms until the grief subsides.
For several days, we avoid the topic. I'm certainly not going to push if Peeta doesn't want to discuss it. I meant what I said about the decision being his to make.
Now that things in Panem are changing every day, we've gotten into the habit of turning on the television while we're preparing dinner. I doubt I'll ever completely trust news that comes out of the Capitol, but it's the easiest way to keep an eye on things. Plus there's the occasional, bittersweet pleasure of seeing old friends.
This evening's newscast is particularly interesting because the focus is the push for elections. The host promises an interview with someone very close to the project. I'm both surprised and not to see that the interviewee is Gale.
I haven't seen or heard from Gale since the fall of the Capitol almost two years ago. The grapevine has provided me with infrequent updates – his government job in District 2 immediately after the war, his continuing work with Beetee in the Capitol, his neverending social life. I'm happy for him and relieved that he's moved on so well and completely. Sure, there's a twinge of pain every once in a while when I think about the friendship we lost. But I know a clean break is better for both of us. It might even have been crucial.
Behind me, in the kitchen, Peeta is still concentrating on dinner. He's banging around with more force than is really necessary. A totally wild thought starts to take shape in my mind.
"Gale seems to be doing great," I say casually. Peeta makes a noncommittal sound. "You never mentioned he's on the recruitment team."
That gets his attention. "I haven't talked to him directly," he says. I wait for him to respond to what I actually said. Finally he mutters, "I didn't think it was relevant."
I raise my eyebrows. "Does this have anything to do with why you're so reluctant to sign on?"
"No! Of course not. That would be silly," he says defensively. Too defensively. Again I wait him out. "Okay, fine! You're right. On top of all the other reasons, I really don't want to work closely with the former love of your life. Happy now?"
"Actually, yes," I say as a grin spreads across my face, "I am. You're jealous." It's unfair and downright petty of me to be so amused by this. But I can't help it. He's so intrinsically good that it gets annoying sometimes. Like he's too perfect to be real. But knowing that my sweet, steady Peeta is capable of something as irrational as jealousy is comforting. And truthfully, I'm kind of flattered that he's jealous of Gale.
Hey, I admitted it was petty.
He throws up his hands in frustration. "And now you're laughing at me. I've been jealous of Gale practically my whole life, because he had you. If it weren't for those horrible bombs, you'd probably be with him now!"
I am no longer amused. I take a deep breath and remind myself that Peeta's lashing out because he's hurting. He doesn't mean to insult me and probably doesn't even realize he's doing it. As calmly as I can, I say, "No, I wouldn't."
"You don't know that!"
"Yes I do! Damn it, Peeta." I take another deep breath. "Every time I lost you or tried to give you up, Gale was there. I chose him over and over. I tried to want him. I wanted to want him. But I never, not once, wanted to be with him the way I wanted to be with you. Even all the way back to our first Games."
He still won't look at me. I hate this. I hate trying to talk about my feelings. Peeta knows me so well he can practically read my mind. Trying to articulate this kind of thing to him is doubly frustrating because I don't usually have to. "You're right. After the bombs, I could never be with Gale. But I knew that anyway. Even when we were trying our hardest, we couldn't go ten minutes without fighting about something. And when I kissed him –"
"I don't want to hear the details," he grumbles.
I walk over to him and take his face in my hands so he has to look at me. "And when I kissed him," I repeat, "it was pleasant, Peeta. Pleasant."
It takes a moment for that to sink in. "Pleasant," he echoes with a reluctant smile, shaking his head. He wraps his arms around me and adds, "Poor Gale."
"Hey!" It's supposed to be indignant but comes out a lot less forcefully than I intend because his mouth is on my neck.
"Poor Katniss," he amends. "Pleasant."
"You're never going to let that go, are you?" I ask.
"Nope," he cheerfully agrees, then goes back to kissing me. I surrender with a sigh.
* * * * * * * * * *
It's really amazing, when I look back at the past four years. I'm so different from that girl in the woods, hunting with her best friend, trying to keep food on the table and far more free than she knew. And I'm not the Girl on Fire anymore either. Figuratively or literally, thank goodness. Not the star-crossed lover surrounded by danger or the fire mutt mired in pain and grief.
The full extent of the change doesn't occur to me until the day I catch myself singing.
I've taken to whittling toys for the little kids in the district. There are a whole bunch of them now, including some who were born here after the war. I'm pretty good at coaxing wood into basic shapes, so I make a lot of blocks and teething rings and things like that. Between those and the cookies Peeta always has on hand, our house is very popular.
I'm sitting by the hearth in the kitchen, both for the warmth and so I can feed the shavings directly into the fire. I start out humming to myself and end up singing without really thinking about it.
As I finish the song I notice Peeta leaning on the doorframe. He looks entranced, and it's only then that it dawns on me that I was singing the Valley Song. I didn't even know I still remembered the words.
I'm safe. I'm happy. Most importantly, I'm home.
There's only one thing that can make this even better. Peeta's twentieth birthday is less than a month away. If I can get everyone on board, I can surprise him. The thought makes me almost giddy.
I talk Peeta into having a party for his birthday, which we haven't bothered with in the past. We invite what feels like half the district. Even since taking the mayor job (on a part-time, only-until-the-real-election basis), Peeta's gotten to know just about everyone. We make enough food for an army and Peeta doesn't complain too much about having to make his own cake. I offer to do it; he thanks me for the thought but declines based on my previous efforts in that area. Turns out the patience and attention to detail required for hunting are not at all transferrable to baking.
I raid the storage closet of fancy clothes for something to wear. There's a dress that suits my needs so well I'm tempted to believe Cinna designed it especially for the occasion. It's cream satin shot through with gold threads, with simple lines and a soft, sunset orange sash and accents. The heavy fabric and long sleeves make it appropriate for a party on a cold February night.
By the time I'm done fussing with my appearance, I'm swearing and feeling like a fool. I don't have any makeup so I couldn't use it even if I wanted to and knew how. Leaving my hair loose seems obvious because of how much Peeta likes running his fingers through it. Of course, that's usually after he's taken it down. I start second guessing myself about maybe putting it up in the first place. I want this night to be perfect. Driving myself nuts before it even begins is really not going to help, but I can't seem to stop.
It turns out to be worth it, though, when I go downstairs. Peeta does a double-take when he sees me, then halts in his tracks and just stares. I approach him, turn around, and sweep my hair over my shoulder so he can see the unfastened back of my dress. "Zip me up?" I purr.
The party gets underway soon after that. We invited too many people to have a fancy sit-down dinner, not that Peeta wanted anything so formal anyway. Our guests come and go, mingling and chatting and nibbling from the trays of food on every available surface.
Briefly, I wish my mother were here. But I push the thought and accompanying spasm of pain away. She's made her decision and her future is elsewhere. I can respect that.
The beautiful cake is presented, admired, cut, and demolished. Peeta decorated it with iced primroses and katniss leaves. I'm on the verge of tears when Haymitch pulls focus by pretending to vomit.
Finally, Peeta and I are left alone. We meet in the middle of the living room. "Happy birthday," I say, twining my arms around his neck and kissing him.
"Thank you for the lovely party," he responds politely. The he lowers his lips to my ear and whispers, "Let's leave the mess and go to bed."
I laugh and take a step back. He looks crestfallen until I say, "But I haven't even given you your present yet."
"Definitely better in bed," he says as he reaches for the zipper on my dress.
Playfully, I smack his hands away. "Be serious!"
"Okay, okay." He tries for a somber expression, but the corners of his mouth are twitching and his blue eyes are dancing with amusement and desire. I take a deep breath and try to focus.
"Peeta –" All this planning and I can't find the words. Damn it! This is so obvious, so right, it should be easy.
"Katniss?" he asks, getting concerned.
To hell with finesse and pretty speeches. "Peeta, will you marry me?"
Wow. For the first time ever, I've rendered Peeta Mellark speechless. He stands there, opening and closing his mouth with no sound coming out. He looks so funny that some of my tension drains away. "You once said you wanted to spend every possible minute of the rest of your life with me. Well, I want that too. I love you. So, will you? Will you marry me?"
He smiles the biggest, sunniest, goofiest grin I've ever seen. With a laugh, he picks me up and twirls me around. "Is that a yes?" I gasp as the world spins.
"Yes," he says against my lips. Then again and again, each time punctuated by another sweet kiss.
When I break away, we're both short of breath and dizzy. But now is not the time to get sidetracked. I take his hand and pull him to the front door. He is clearly befuddled by this, but he nods when I say, "Trust me."
We step out onto the porch. Half a dozen people wait there, people who were at Peeta's party. People who form the core of our new-forged family.
"It's about time," Haymitch growls. I don't know if he's talking about the past several minutes or the past several years. He's right either way. Then, in a surprisingly rich baritone, he starts to sing.
Everyone else joins in, even those who didn't grow up here in District 12. I'm unexpectedly moved by that. They must have gone out of their way to learn our customs after I invited them to the ceremony.
Peeta turns to me as the gentle cadence of the traditional threshold song washes over us. I can see in his eyes that he's made the same connection I did when I went looking for something to wear tonight. Cinna designed a lot of gowns for a sham ceremony to appease the Capitol. This one, he designed for me and my real wedding to Peeta.
There's a moment of silence when the song ends, then everyone surges forward to congratulate us, laughing and talking all at once. Greasy Sae and her granddaughter, Nenia and Tiberius, a few others we've become close to over the past years. We accept their kisses, give them our thanks, and they drift away into the night.
In the end, only three of us are left – Peeta and me and Haymitch. As it's been for so long now. Haymitch's eyes are very shiny but he covers with a smirk as he kisses my forehead, then Peeta's. He cups his hands around the backs of our necks. "Knew you two would figure it all out eventually." His voice is rougher than usual.
"We love you, Haymitch," Peeta says.
"Yeah, yeah, no need to get all mushy," Haymitch replies, turning away. "Get on with you. Better things to do than stand out in the cold." We pretend we don't see him mopping his face as he crosses the green.
"He's right, you know," Peeta says as he guides me inside, "we have much better things to do."
I grab a leftover roll while he goes into the kitchen and returns with a long toasting fork. We go to the hearth in the living room and kneel facing each other.
I tear the roll in half, put one piece on the toasting fork, and hold it over the fire. When it's golden, I offer it to Peeta. As he takes it, I recite the ancient words. "I take thee, Peeta Mellark, to be my husband. From this day forward, as long as we both shall live."
He toasts his half and holds it out to me. "I take thee, Katniss Everdeen, to be my wife. From this day forward, as long as we both shall live."
For a long moment, we study each other in the firelight. The feeling is stronger than happiness, deeper than love. As we meet in a kiss to seal our pledge, I know what it is.