He’s nursing a drink when I come up to him. Staring into the ice cubes as they clink around in the glass, running his thumb up and down the sides of it to wipe away the beads of condensation that have gathered. He doesn’t notice me walking towards him until I’m halfway across the lawn, stopped at first by Greasy Sae, who grabs my hand to tell me how radiant I look, then by Annie, who reaches up to touch my veil, and finally, by Johanna, who notices where I’m headed and simply leans over to say, “Go easy on him, will you? The guy’s still got a thing for you, if you haven’t noticed.”
I smile and glance down at the sparkling lemonade that’s fizzing in her glass. “Haymitch has all the liquor stashed in the kitchen,” I say. “You know, in case you’re looking for the hard stuff.”
She picks off a ball of goat cheese from the plate I’m carrying and pops it into her mouth. “Thanks for the tip,” she says, then she saunters off towards the kitchen, making sure to first throw a wink at Gale and, just for good measure, bump his hip with hers.
Gale shakes his head as he watches her walk away, then looks back at me. “I still can’t figure her out.”
“I don’t know that any of us has been able to,” I say. I hand him the plate. “Here. You may want some food, if you’re going to be partaking of Haymitch’s special collection.”
He takes a big gulp of his drink, finishing it off, then takes the plate from me.
“Where’s your new husband?”
Gale says the words with a smile, but it’s strained. And after all of these years—after all of this time—I still know when there’s something more behind what he’s actually saying.
“Effie intercepted him a few minutes ago,” I say. “I think he’ll need some rescuing soon, but I thought I would stop over first and make sure you don’t start on a third drink before getting something into your stomach. Something with some sort of sustenance, anyway.”
He grins. “Thanks.”
He’s still holding the glass, bouncing the ice cubes inside of it against each other. He watches them catch the light from the sun, then finally looks up at me. “So my mother tells me that they’ve broken ground on the medicine factory.”
“Yeah, just a few weeks ago.”
“No more mining, then?”
“Doesn’t look like it.”
There’s silence for a while. I catch Peeta’s eye in the distance; Effie is talking his ear off about something, and I’m tempted to walk over there now, to end this sorry excuse for a conversation with Gale and put us both out of our misery, but I see Peeta give me a smile, as though to encourage me. It’s ok, he mouths. Talk to him. I nod and look back at Gale, who’s been watching me for the last few seconds.
“You look beautiful,” he says quietly. “I always knew you’d make a beautiful bride.”
His stare is intense, and it makes my cheeks burn. I’m out of practice in having a conversation with him; words used to flow easily between us, but they come only in spurts now. Awkward pauses and old resentments skimming the surface. I’m not sure what I expected, being around him again. There’s a part of me that’s been missing ever since I found out he’d gone off to find a new home in District 2, a hole where there was none before, but it’s only now that I realize it was the part of me that needed to die off anyway. That it was a part of me that simply couldn’t have been sustained and would have left me suffocating in the grief and darkness that was choking me.
Because that’s what Gale and I are for each other. Anchors to a past that needed to be let go of. A past that never would have let us either one of us heal. I was lucky. I was finally able to close the old wounds, thanks to Peeta. Now I just hope Gale can do the same.
“I’m glad you made it today,” I say. “I… wasn’t sure you were going to make it, to be honest.”
Gale breaks the gaze and forms a wistful, faraway smile. “I wasn’t going to,” he says softly, then nods towards Peeta, who’s still stuck in an animated discussion with Effie. “It took a little convincing by someone who wanted to make sure you had the perfect wedding day.”
I blink back at him, trying to process his words. “I don’t… I don’t understand…”
“Peeta talked me into coming,” Gale says, as the realization of it all begins to sink in my brain. I look back at Peeta, suddenly remembering the last-minute trip he’d gone on a few weeks ago, which I’d just assumed he had taken so he could get my engagement ring made. Now it was all starting to fit together. “I tried to tell him that me not being here wasn’t the end of the world, but… he seemed to think otherwise.”
Gale falls silent for a few moments, and as the pieces all finally fall into place for me, he looks up.
“I guess he was right,” he says. “I’ve done enough terrible things to you. Not showing up here today would have just given you another reason to hate me.”
I look back at him, struck by the shock of his words. “I could never hate you,” I say softly.
The corners of his mouth lift upwards in a small smile. “He really loves you, you know.”
Just then, Effie throws her head back in a loud laugh that no one within a ten foot radius could possibly miss, and Peeta turns his head to look at me. I give him a smile, keeping my eyes on him when I say to Gale, “I know.”
“Don’t go breaking his heart.”
“I’m not planning on it.”
“Good.” Gale looks behind him to take in what I’ve been looking at, then he looks back at me again. “I’m really happy for you, Katniss.” He leans over and kisses me on the cheek, and before I can respond, he walks away.
My eyes drift over to Peeta, and I feel my mouth curve into a new smile, then I make my way over to him.
* * *
It’s well after midnight when the last guest has left. Ever diligent about keeping on schedule, Effie began to usher everyone out the door at around a quarter to midnight, practically having to drag out Greasy Sae and my mother, both of whom were insisting that they only wanted to stay behind to do the dishes so that Peeta and I wouldn’t have a mess on our hands to contend with. In the end, though, Effie won out, and we were left with a mountain of dishes in the sink.
I find Peeta bent over them when I walk into the kitchen, arms submerged in the soapy water as he starts to scrub at one of the platters. He doesn’t hear me when I pad my way over to him and slide my arms around his waist, pressing my lips to his shoulder blade.
“You don’t really have to do that right this second,” I say.
He turns around and easily gathers me in his arms, drawing a yelp out of me when I feel the shock of his cold, wet hands press against the small of my back. “Had something better in mind, did you?”
“Something like that.”
He grins, then brushes my cheek with a soapy hand. “I do love making you blush.”
“You’re not making me blush,” I say, grabbing a piece of bread from our first toast off the counter and holding it out to him. He eagerly takes a bite, then feigns disappointment when I tease him with a second bite, but pop the rest of it in my mouth.
I grin back at him and raise myself up on my toes to kiss him, breathing in the light citrus scent of the bubbles. “You’ve sufficiently corrupted me, just so you know.”
“Have I?” he says dreamily. “Good for me, then.”
“I’m glad to see you’re not letting it go to your head.”
He laughs and leans in to kiss me, threading his fingers through my hair. Water sluices through, trickling down my back, making my spine tingle. When we part, silence settles in on us, though it’s a comfortable one. The slow, steady rhythm of our breath.
I reach up to brush a lock of hair from his forehead, letting my fingers linger on his jawline.
“I love you.”
I can tell the words take him by surprise. It’s not often that I say them out loud.
“I know I don’t say it enough,” I say. “Not as much as you deserve to hear it, but… I do.”
Something shifts on his face, surprise giving way to a sort of realization.
“He told you, didn’t he?” he says, after some silence. “Gale. He told you that I went to see him.”
Water continues to drip down my back, as his hands slide down to my waist. He looks upset. I feel a mild flutter of panic.
“I’m sorry that I went behind your back,” he says. He starts to ease off me, but I hold him in place. “I hated having to lie to you—I didn’t want to, but I just wanted to make sure that-”
I silence him with a kiss. He’s not expecting this, either, but gives into it soon enough, tightening his arms around me. “You have nothing to apologize for,” I say, taking his face in my hands. “I just… I can’t believe you did that for me.”
Softly, he says, “I’d do anything for you.”
“I know. And so would I. Real or not real?”
He smiles, a brilliant, radiant smile that warms me down to my very core. “Real,” he says, then he leans over to kiss me.
I’m still in a bit of a haze when he pulls back to look at me, and I smile up at him. “Hey,” I say. “We’re married... Can you believe it?”
“We’re married…” He says the words slowly, as though tasting each one. Savoring it. “Crazy, isn’t it?”
I laugh softly, closing my hands over his wrists as he cradles my face. “Not so crazy.”
“You’re stuck with me now, I’m afraid.”
“I think I can live with that.”
“Tough job, but someone’s got to do it.”
He smiles, then, without warning, slides his arms underneath my legs and scoops me up. I’m still laughing when he says, “What do you say we leave the dishes for tomorrow?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
He kisses me again before carrying me all the way up the stairs.