My prep team can hardly contain their tears. Yesterday when they once again ridded me of my body hair, they were all excitement for today. After all, they had been invited to the event of the century. Everyone they know is green with jealousy and they enjoy that fact very much. But now as the day has come, they cry out of joy and pure silliness. I try not to listen to them.
Today I am marrying Peeta Mellark.
I know that my situation could be worse. Peeta will be a good husband to me. He loves me genuinely and we are friends. Sometimes I think I do love him. But in what way, or how much, not even I know.
Then what makes this such a dreaded day for me? It's not my choice. The only other option I had would kill everyone I cared about, including Peeta. And the fact that this is breaking Gale's heart isn't making it any easier. My best friend must be so hurt right now, knowing in an hour I'll be wed to another man. Whatever feelings I might have had for Gale I can't explore any more. It will hurt me too much.
So how can I possibly go into this with a smile like everyone is expecting? I can't.
Add that to the fact that the Capitol will force us to have children, and this is the beginning of a nightmarish life for me. My children will be sure to have their names drawn in a reaping to punish me. And I will have to mentor them as I had to mentor Mabel ten months ago. She made it far. But she wasn't any match for the Careers. They got her. And I watched her head get smashed in.
I shouldn't be dwelling about such things on my wedding day. But today won't make my future any better. Whether or not I married Peeta, I will always have to mentor the girl tribute from District 12, unless another wins. I will have to watch so many die. At least Peeta will understand. He will have to do the same with the boy tribute. Somehow, knowing I won't be alone helps a little. I can cope better.
But sometimes I wonder if it would be best if I had died in that arena two years ago.
When my face is painted and my hair styled just right, Cinna finally comes in. I've been waiting all day to see him. He's the one bright spot in this awful trip.
"Thank you," Cinna says to the prep team and they leave. He smiles at me. "Let's have a look at you."
I hold my head up for him. He puts his fingers under my chin and observes my make-up. Then he walks behind me and adjusts my hair a little.
"There," he says. "Let's get you dressed now."
I remove my robe as Cinna unzips the bag that has been hanging in my room this whole visit, taunting me. I hadn't been able to open it to see which dress I am to wear. Cinna holds it out to me and I step into it. Cinna laces me up in the back. The dress is beautiful, of course. Its lined in pearls, real pearls, and so lush I don't know how it could possibly be real. Cinna then puts on my jewelry, all of them made of pearls to match my dress. Then he fixes the veil onto my hair. For the ceremony, I will be wearing a long, trailing veil that some Capitol children will be holding as I walk down to Peeta. But Cinna has assured me that for the reception a much more practical veil will be traded out.
Finally, I step into my shoes. Cinna has again considered me and I'm in heels that are only two inches high.
Now all we have to do is wait for them to call me. I get a horrible, sick feeling in my stomach.
"I feel like I'm in the Launch Room again," I whisper.
Cinna must know my real feelings, although I've never been able to tell him directly. He just seems to know my mood anyway. He smoothes a part of my hair back.
"Remember, head high," Cinna tells me, smiling sadly. In that smile, I see everything he can't say out loud because my bridal chambers are sure to be full of bugs. His gentle eyes are saying I'm sorry.
Just then Prim comes bursting through the door, alongside Madge. Because Peeta has two brothers as groomsmen, we needed someone else to come along as an extra bridesmaid for me along with Prim. I suggested Madge and it was agreed. After all, Madge was the Mayor's daughter. No reason for her to rebel.
My mother is the only other person I brought. She was all the Capitol allowed to come. Gale, even if he wanted to go, was refused. The Capitol wouldn't want him ruining everything by begging me to leave Peeta and be with him as we stood at the altar. Peeta had also only brought his parents and two brothers.
Everyone else there would be from the Capitol or they were the other victors the Capitol would use any excuse to drag out here. Particularly Finnick Odair. Other victors, like the morphlings, were left behind. I honestly had no choice over the matter although it was my wedding. I didn't have control over any of it. The dresses, the colors, the location, the food, the man. All was decided by the Capitol for me.
"There are so many people there!" Prim gasped excitedly, flushing in anticipation. "They've all come for you Katniss!"
"Even President Snow is here," Madge says.
My stomach becomes ice. President Snow. The reason why this all is happening. I don't know why, but I didn't expect him to be here. He must just be making sure I don't ruin anything. That having his snake eyes on me the whole time will guarantee I go through with this.
"My," I give a breathy, nervous laugh. "All of this for me."
"Isn't it just like you dreamed?" Prim asks, spinning around in the sky blue dress Cinna designed for her and Madge.
I struggle to smile. "More."
I see Madge give me a concerned look. I'm not convincing enough. I have to act even more over-the-top today, but all I want to do is crumble in despair. I try to focus, to think of all of the faces that matter to me. I have to do this, for them.
There's a knock on the door. Prim answers it. Haymitch is standing there in a tux. He's shaved, clean, and sober. I can't remember the last time he was all three of those.
"They're ready to start," Haymitch says, his voice still gruff.
I can't move. I'm frozen. It takes Cinna pulling up on my elbow and leading me to Haymitch to get me where I need to be. Cinna pulls the veil in front of my face, gives me a kiss on the cheek, and leaves to take his seat. Haymitch keeps his arm around me and takes me where we are lining up for the march. Someone, I think an Avox, hands me the bouquet I am to hold. I blink, trying to find my courage now. But I've lost it.
"Nothing's changed sweetheart," Haymitch tells me as the music starts up.
"What?" I ask, confused.
"This is a big act like the rest of it," Haymitch replies. "Don't be so nervous or else everyone will know you're acting."
Two chubby-faced children, the flower girl and the ring bearer, start marching out. I see a glimpse of a crowd, an aisle, and then the doors close again.
"This will change everything Haymitch," I tell him. "After this, my life is gone."
"Your life was gone when you volunteered for your sister," Haymitch corrects me. He shakes his head. "You should be grateful you don't have to go through this alone. And you should be damned happy that it's Peeta you're with."
The doors open and Madge marches out beside one of Peeta's brothers. The door shuts again.
I flush. "What do you know about it?"
"I know plenty," Haymitch snaps. "Just wait. You'll see."
"You know they're going to make us have children," I hiss. "You've never gone through that Haymitch. You've never had to mentor your own child!"
Prim and Peeta's other brother are now walking. Haymitch and I will be next.
"Then why am I about to give you away?" Haymitch asks me.
I open my mouth, too shocked to say anything. I struggle to understand, but it comes to me. He thinks of Peeta and I as his own children. He thinks he knows what it's like. I would be furious at him for trying to compare two children he had just met to someone you created, gave birth to, and raised, but I'm too startled by his declaration.
And then the doors open once again, the music at a peak of swelling. Everyone stands for me.
I have a smile plastered on my face as I walk down the aisle, guided by Haymitch. Among the crazy dyes and costumes, I can easily spot my mother and Peeta's parents in the front row. Mrs. Mellark frowns, but I think that look is permanent. The baker, though, smiles genuinely and warmly. My mother has tears in her eyes and I can't tell whether or not she's pleased for me.
And then my eyes fall on him.
Amongst the dread and the fear, finding his blue eyes there's suddenly a small, warm point in my chest. And now, my smile doesn't seem fake. He's here for me, just like he always will be. Maybe something Haymitch said is true. I won't have to be alone. And that is comforting.
When we reach the end, Haymitch gives me a kiss on the forehead and claps Peeta on the shoulder. Then he places my hand in Peeta's. Just like always, Peeta's grip is warm and secure. It keeps me grounded and steady.
Prim takes the bouquet from my hands. I'd completely forgotten about them. I'm in a daze right now. I can't listen to the words being said. I'm sure they're very beautiful, talking about love and rising through challenges together. I only wish it weren't being said in that ridiculous Capitol accent.
This event is being broadcasted all through Panem and is considered mandatory viewing. President Snow must want everyone to know the berries were just an occurrence that happened because of two crazy teens in love. I'm sure that's the point of the marriage maker's speech.
And then, Peeta's turned to me, holding both of his hands in mine. His eyes are so intent on mine I feel something in me again, deep in my heart. Only, I don't know what it is or what to do with it.
Then, in a clear but emotional voice, Peeta declares, "I do."
The child they had hired for our wedding comes up solemnly with the ring. Peeta slides it onto my finger. We never did such things back home. But this wasn't a District Twelve wedding. This was a Capitol wedding and we were doing things the Capitol way.
I pay closer attention because I know that my turn is coming up soon. As the marriage maker says the words, I find tears sliding down my cheeks. I don't know why. If I'm angry or frightened or happy. I'm all of those things right now. It's terribly confusing. But hopefully when the audience sees me, they'll think it's because of love.
My time comes. I swallow and say as resolutely as I can, "I do."
And I fit the ring onto his finger. There. We're married.
"Then Peeta Mellark, you may kiss your bride!" The marriage maker cries.
I smile at Peeta and he lifts the veil from my face. But his face is serious. He wraps his arms around my waist and kisses me, and the audience is clapping and whooping in response. This one is deep, and I'm confused by the way his lips push against mine. It's almost as if he's saying good-bye. The thought makes me cling to him more.
After a few minutes, we've done a thorough job of that, so we pull away and they announce us as a couple for the first timeMr. and Mrs. Peeta Mellark.
We walk back down the aisle, through the open doors and onto the porch where the regular citizens of the Capitol are lined up. Rails and officials are barring their way from getting to us, but we smile and wave at them just like we did on the chariot. They call out our names and call for kisses. We indulge them.
Eventually the photographer makes us stop for pictures. We do individuals and couples, ones with our families and our bridal party and with our teams. My cheeks hurt from smiling so much. But through the whole thing I keep a hold on Peeta whenever I can, and not just for the act. He's so much better at this public stuff than I am. I feel better with him by me.
Halfway through the pictures Cinna replaces my veil. The one for the reception only goes down to my back rather than being twice the length of my body.
At twilight, the car pulls up to take Peeta and me to our party. President Snow insisted we use his house for the reception. I hated the thought, but Effie couldn't turn it down and neither could I. Unless I wanted another warning.
Peeta and I have to meet countless people, shake hands. We sit through a grand meal and have everyone stare at us for our first dance. Then we have to shove cake in each other's mouths. I don't quite get the point of that tradition. Through it all, Peeta is as constant, cheerful, and personable as ever. But of course he is. Today must be a dream for him. The two of us finally married. And then
I feel sick. I've tried not to think about it, but with the clock ticking away the hours, it's on my mind more. I know it's what the Capitol expects. Peeta must expect it as well, since we are married and it's just what we're supposed to do. Act or not, he's now my husband and we're to have children.
He'll be kind about it, I'm sure. I couldn't imagine Peeta meaning to make me uncomfortable or humiliate me. He may be just as nervous himself. But this still won't be easy. Peeta's holding me close as we dance and I wonder if he's thinking about it, too. If he's worried at all.
Then someone taps on Peeta's shoulder. He turns and I see President Snow standing there. I'm shocked. He never went to any other of the Capitol parties and I hadn't seen him tonight at all.
"Peeta, may I have a dance with your wife?" President Snow asked.
Peeta nods his head because, really, what else can he do? He steps away and gives me a concerned look. But he stays close by so all I have to do is search for his eyes and he'll rescue me.
"Enjoying your party?" President Snow asks.
"Yes," I manage to say. "Thank you for allowing us the use your home."
"You're welcome, of course," President Snow replies. "What a joyful ride it's been for the Capitol to watch your relationship with Peeta grow. Just like that old rhyme. First comes love, then comes marriage," He pauses. "I seem to have forgotten the other part."
"Then comes a baby in a baby carriage," I finish in a whisper.
His puffy lips stretch into a smile. "Ah, yes. How the people are looking forward to that in particular."
"Well, we've just married," I say. "They can't expect that too soon."
"No, but in two months the Games will occur again," President Snow says. "You and Peeta will come to mentor. What a wonderful surprise it would be for the people to hear a new Mellark will be arriving."
I know what he's saying. When I come to the Capitol again, I am to be pregnant. My heart sinks. Right away then. The Capitol wants to torture me as soon as they can. I will not have a few years of peace. I am to immediately worry about the life of another as soon as possible. I wonder if all of my children will be reaped or just one will be so unfortunate. Or if they will go in the minute they're twelve to ensure their death or if the Capitol will wait until their older, give the audience a good show, only to kill them.
The song ends and President Snow gives me a kiss on the cheek.
"Congratulations Katniss," he whispers in my ear.
A shiver runs down my spine as he leaves. I stand on the floor as another song comes on. I feel empty, broken. Alone. Then Peeta is by my side, his hands gripping my upper arms.
"Katniss?" He asks. "Are you all right?"
I fling myself into his arms, burying my face in his chest. I close my eyes and keep my face blank, so hopefully everyone thinks I'm just madly in love. When on the inside, I'm aching and dying. But Peeta holds me tightly, and my arms are around him just as strong. And I feel it again. That safety that at least I have Peeta. That I won't be alone. I'll always have him with me.
Eventually I let go and put on my smiling face again for the rest of the evening.
Then Cinna and Portia come to get us. Its thirty minutes before midnight. We're to go with them and dress in our run-away outfits. Cinna takes me in one room as Portia leads Peeta into another. If Cinna weren't there with me, I'd be at a loss of what to do.
Cinna helps me out of my wedding gown, jewelry, and veil. Even my hair, piled high with curls, comes down so that they frame my face. Cinna produces a midnight blue dress that falls to my knees. The straps fall around my arms so my collarbone and shoulders are open.
"It's beautiful," I tell Cinna. "Like always."
He gives me another hug. "Does it still feel like the Launch Room?"
"Not as much anymore," I reply.
When I leave the room, Peeta's already waiting for me. He tries to smile, but it falters. I take his hand and we're at the top of the staircase. Everyone is lined up, already waiting for us. We come down and go through the crowds of people and run outside to our transportation. I nearly stop as I see the chariot. It reminds me too much of the Games.
Peeta and I give them one last kiss before we go in the chariot to be wheeled down the street where people are waiting for a glimpse of us. Just like that first ride, my hand is securely around Peeta's. We kiss each other for the crowd, wave at them and smile. But as we go farther down, my heart sinks lower and lower. It's almost here.
The chariot stops at a hotel we're ushered into. The workers there are all prepared for us. We have the highest floor, the very best room, the worker tells us with a wink. Then one of the workers gives me two stem glasses and Peeta a bottle of champagne.
"Courtesy of President Snow himself," the worker smiles.
Champagne. The best room. His warning. It's clear what President Snow is trying to get us to do. I find myself needing to pace my breathing more so I don't hyperventilate.
We ride up the elevator alone, not talking or touching. I try to prepare myself mentally for tonight. But I'm having trouble.
The room we get certainly is the best. The view out the windows is amazing and the bed is huge, with fifty pillows and the softest looking sheets I've ever seen. The lights are already low, and there's soft music playing.
I want to throw up.
Peeta sets down the champagne and I put the glasses next to it. Neither of us touch the booze though. Peeta takes a step closer and I need to catch my breath. I'm so nervous, I feel sick.
"Katniss," Peeta begins.
Before he can say anything else, I say, "I want to go freshen up in the bathroom first, please."
Peeta looks up, startled, but nods his head.
I practically run to the open door and slam it shut. I take a shower and scrub off my make-up so I can feel more like myself. Katniss Everdeen. But all I feel right now is fear of the upcoming night. I'm not ready for this.
The closet is in the bathroom as well. With my robe wrapped around me I open it to see the selection. The hotel we'd been staying at before we were married had supplied us with our wardrobe. But this one is empty. No, there's one thing in it.
I hold up the skimpy black lace number and feel the blood drain from my face. It terrifies me. I can't do this.
I sit on the ground, defeated. Volunteer to go into The Hunger Games? Didn't have to think about it. Blow up the Career's supplies? Sure, count me in. Face mutts? No problem. Challenge the Peacekeepers to Gale's whipping? Easy. Give myself to Peeta, who loves me more than anything? My courage was gone.
I don't let people in. That's just it. I don't love easily. And this
this was as deep as it got. This was sharing everything with each other. I'd have to let my barriers down. I would have to let Peeta in. And that is what frightened me the most.
There's a knock on the bathroom door. Peeta.
"Katniss?" Peeta calls. "Can I come in? You've been in there a while."
Have I? I hadn't noticed.
"Come in," I manage to call out.
Peeta sees me there on the floor, so defeated. I feel embarrassed for him. I must be breaking his heart even more now. Or at least hurting his pride.
"What do you have in your hand?" He asks.
I hold up the humiliating scrap of fabric for him to see. He looks shocked.
"I'm sorry Peeta," I say, shaking my head. "I just
I can't do it. I'm not ready yet."
Tears flood my eyes to my shame. After all, if his parents had put up with each other to have three boys, what must he think of my opinion of him? But to my surprise, he falls to his knees and envelopes me in his arms. I begin to sob.
"Katniss," he whispers. "Katniss, I don't expect that from you. I didn't think that tonight
What did mean he didn't expect that from me? Wasn't that a given once you were married? But I feel him hold me, those same arms that protected me, and I believe him. Of course he didn't think tonight would be any different from other nights we'd spent together. Because he's too good for me.
"I did want to talk to you though," Peeta says when I've calmed down a few minutes later.
I pull away to look at his face. "What is it?"
His eyebrows pull together and I can see he's trying to not look hurt. I'm curious now what could be giving him that face.
"I know you don't want this Katniss," he says to me, but looking down. "That's why I had Haymitch get me some papers."
"Papers?" I ask.
He bites his lip and pulls me up. We go back into the main room and he shows me a thick stack of papers. I skim it, my eyebrows burying farther and farther down the more I read. I'm thoroughly confused.
"Annulment of marriage?" I ask. "You don't want to be married anymore? But
we have to. The Capitol-"
"Look, we put on their show," Peeta says angrily. "We got married. Well, they never said we had to stay married."
"They'll notice if in two months we aren't together anymore when the Games come around."
"We'll act, just like we always have," Peeta shrugs.
"I'm going to have to get pregnant anyway Peeta," I remind him. "I think we should be married for that."
"I'm not the only person who could get you pregnant, Katniss," he whispers painfully.
Gale. He's trying to give me Gale. I feel my heart choke on this.
"What exactly is your crazy plan, Peeta?" I ask.
"This," he begins. "You sign the papers. I have already, so we just need your signature. We aren't married anymore and we go on living our lives. You marry Gale. You have his children. Whenever the cameras come around, we pretend otherwise. We act married, show them your beautiful children, and mentor for District Twelve."
"People will notice if Gale's living with me and you're away," I say.
Peeta shrugs. "Who are we fooling back in District Twelve anyway? Everyone knows the whole thing was a stage. But they aren't angry enough to rebel."
I look at the papers.
"Sign them, Katniss," Peeta whispers, handing me a pen. "It's okay. It'll make you happy."
Will it? Will this make me happy? I'll still have to marry. I'll still have to have children. I'll still have to be a mentor every year. I will still have to watch my children die. The only difference will be that it'll be with Gale. And I'll have to watch Peeta's blue eyes fill with longing every time we come across each other. I'll feel guilty whenever I have to kiss him for the public, remembering my family and knowing that it's hurting Peeta.
My eyes find the fireplace. I march over to it and flick on the switch that starts the flames. They shoot up right away. And I throw those papers in the fire.
"Katniss!" Peeta exclaims by my side. "What are you doing?"
"That wouldn't make me happy," I tell him. "I can't do that. I can't keep on pretending my life is one way when its really another. I couldn't do that to you or to Gale."
"But you'll be pretending anyway," Peeta says. "You'll still have to pretend you're in love with me once a year. Why not be happy with Gale the rest of the year?"
"And why would I be more happy with Gale than with you?"
"Because you love him," Peeta whispers.
I nod my head. "That's true. I do love Gale. But Peeta
" I struggle for what I mean. And then, I say it as I realize it. "Haven't you ever thought that I love you, too?"
Peeta's startled and he searches my eyes. He blinks and stays silent. Peeta looks distrusting. I can't say I blame him. I haven't exactly been great at being truthful about that.
"Katniss, you don't have to say that if you don't mean it," Peeta says finally in a strained voice.
"I do," I say. "I love you."
"But you didn't want to get married."
I shrug my shoulders. "No. But that doesn't make my feelings for you any less real."
Peeta takes astep toward me, then another. I look up into his blue eyes that are trying to sort this all out still. I'm still trying to sort it out, to be honest. But once Peeta gave his opportunity for me to escape, I couldn't. I couldn't let go of the boy with the bread.
Peeta raises his hand slowly, as if testing his boundaries. Then he lets his hand sweep down the side of my face. And I begin to feel something. That thing I felt in the cave when he kissed me. I want him to kiss me now.
He does. He starts off gently, but I make it urgent. I don't want him to have any doubts about us. Yes, in me there was something that worried about Gale and that wanted him. But I couldn't have them both, and there's something in me that feels a need for Peeta. His steadiness, his understanding. It is what I need with the future ahead of me. I need Peeta.
That night is like all of the others we spent together. Peeta holds me in my sleep and nothing more. But there is still something different about tonight, too. Peeta had opened the door to my heart a little. With a little more time, I'm sure it'll come open. And when it does, we'll have a toasting. We'll really be married. And then I will give myself to him.