It was a small wedding, just as we'd wanted: full of ribbons and braids and songs, and room to spare at the back of the tiny country church. Then again, when you're marrying your in-laws, it tends to pare down the guest list considerably.
Peeta stills the engine and grins so widely that I can hear it in his breath. "Shall we, wife?" he asks, turning to me and beaming like the newly risen sun, and I lean across the console to press a kiss to the tip of his nose. We may be securely ensconced in our twenties and married for thirty glorious minutes already, but there's still a shy, almost childlike aspect to our relationship – probably because it began in childhood, with a folk song and two braids and a kiss on the cheek over a pail of maple-iced cookies – that I hope never goes away.
To be sure, there will be plenty of blushes and shyness and nervous laughter tonight, when we see each other naked for the first time and try to figure out how everything fits together.
"Enough with the canoodling," teases my sister from the back seat, playfully thumping my headrest. "You're not the only one with a toasting to get to."
I grin back at her and reach for the door handle but my husband is already there, ushering me out into our driveway.
Ours, in every sense.
Prim doesn't even get a hand to the door before Marko scoops her up in his arms and carries her like a trophy, amidst giggles and shrieks of delight, up their front steps. My brother-in-law is built like a grizzly bear and has the stamina of one to boot, and for the twenty-sixth time today I forbid myself to think about their wedding night. My clever baby sister may be well on her way to becoming the finest nurse practitioner in the Midwest, but she's still not supposed to know about boy-bits, let alone be naked and involved with said bits.
"Hurry up, Peet!" Marko bellows jubilantly from the doorstep, hefting Prim to one side as though she weighs no more than a loaf of bread. "We're putting you to shame here."
"To be fair," I call back to him sportingly, "you have Prim and about six ounces of vintage satin to cope with. Peeta's got me and two deer."
Strictly speaking, Prim was the second Mellark bride by a matter of minutes, but there was never any doubt over whether she would wear Grandma Lydda's wedding dress, or her bridal crown, or her thick gold ring with its wheat-head etchings. Nor was there ever a question about what I would be married in. I'm shorter than Granny Ashpet and surely smaller-breasted than she ever was, but still her bridal doeskins fit like a glove.
I've always felt a little fey, even savage, around my burly golden in-laws and never more so than when I stood before the altar in a dress of deerskin with my black hair falling loose to my waist, in anticipation of Peeta's skillful hands to plait and weave with ribbons and wind into coils on either side of my head. None of us wanted posed pictures, but before Pollux left for the reception, he showed us a few of the candid shots he took during the braiding ceremony and even I couldn't hold back the words "Indian princess."
Peeta, on the other hand, has been torn between saying everything he can think of in breathless bursts and staring at me in silent, teary disbelief from the moment we were declared man and wife. "The ivory skins of two perfect does," he corrects me softly, pulling me close. "Though I'd happily carry two grown deer, and more besides, to bring you into this house as my bride."
I sink against him with a little moan and press my lips to his, not so much a kiss as a need for connection; to be as close as I can to this gentle boy of a man – my bridegroom, my husband – with his honeyed mouth and tender heart, and Peeta meets me with a kiss of his own, snugging his arms around my shoulders as our lips move against each other's in a hushed, unhurried caress.
Marko allows us about ten seconds of this before cajoling, "Come on, little brother! Some of us want to eat tonight!" and Prim punctuates it with an emphatic "Amen!"
I can't really blame her. When you've married into the oldest bakery in the tri-state region and the finest butcher shop to boot, your wedding fare is well worth the rush to the reception.
Though of course, none of us are truly rushing, not this part, and wouldn't dream of doing so.
Peeta obligingly scoops me up but it's a slow, almost leisurely motion, accented at every juncture by soft little kisses to my lips and cheeks and chin, and I curl my arms about his neck to keep him close.
"Right, that's it," Marko declares, but his voice is brimming with good humor. "Primrose, let's to the fireplace and get this over with. At the rate these two are going, we can make out for twenty solid minutes and still beat them back to the car."
"I like this plan," my sister replies wickedly, and I glance away from Peeta for a half-second to see her small face disappear behind Marko's bearded cheek and cap of curls as he shoulders open their front door, kissing her all the while.
"They're not supposed to do that," I remind my husband sternly, and he laughs.
"They are married, sweetheart," he reminds me in turn, kissing the tip of my nose. "And for that matter: so are we."
"Oh, right," I reply with a foolish grin. "I suppose we'd better go in and finish the ceremony, then?"
Approximately twelve kisses later we finally make it to our own front door, a whopping two-stall garage's width from Prim and Marko's. "Are you sorry we bought a duplex yet?" Peeta asks, balancing me against him as he jiggles the key in the lock.
"Ask me in the morning," I tease, but without spite. My husband already shares a bakery with his father and brothers; sharing a mortgage, utilities, and snow removal duties with supremely reliable Marko was a natural progression. That they married sisters was merely an added bonus.
"On the bright side, we've got the garage in-between," he points out with a grin. "It's not six feet of solid concrete or anything, but at least we're not sharing bedroom walls."
The door opens like a sigh and, with a silly mouth-trumpet fanfare, Peeta carries me into our home. I've been here a hundred times before; just yesterday, in fact, but today everything is deeper, richer; almost magical, somehow. Today I am Peeta's wife, and everything in this house belongs to me. The suede sofa with its cinnamon-colored upholstery and the glossy hardwood underfoot, the fireplace with its neat heap of pine for burning, the snug double bed with its brown patchwork quilt that perpetually smells of woodsmoke and yeast and roast chicken – and this sweet, perfect boy, all blond curls and strong arms and pure adoration.
"I love you, by the way," I whisper, my voice breaking, and at once Peeta turns to me, pressing his face against mine in a primal sort of embrace that we both resort to when we're physically aching with love and don't have the words to properly convey it.
"I love you too," he moans. "Love you, Katniss, so very much. Always loved you."
He sets me on my feet in front of the fireplace but we don't move apart; don't even consider it for a moment. My arms encircle his waist as his own curl across my back and we press together with desperate little whimpers and groans, straining not at the confines of our clothes but our own flesh. I'd shed skin and bone in a heartbeat if it were possible; if my soul could shuck its body like a cloak and merge with his, and I know Peeta would do the same. We've discussed it on a dozen occasions, sometimes in tears, as we twine together on the sofa or his bed and strain so hard to be closer than physical bodies will allow.
"For…for what it's worth," he murmurs against my ear, "I'm told that…that making love," he says in a rush, and I feel the skin of his face heat against mine, "comes pretty close to…to what we we're trying to do."
I try to sigh in response but it comes out hitched and ragged with longing. "Better do that soon, then," I tell him, and rub my belly against his groin, arching a fraction to feel his firmness at the juncture of my thighs and making him give a sharp little cry.
Save for a recent night or two when hungry kisses at my throat led to bare breasts beneath an eager mouth and my hands fisting in Peeta's curls, our years-long courtship has been downright prudish, and yet there's something purer still about our intimacy at this moment. A breathless sense of sacredness that swells at the anticipation of our wedding night. Of warm bare skin from head to foot; of two bodies aligning and interlocking like halves of an oyster. Of opening myself wholly to my husband and taking him deep inside me, body and soul…
Peeta gives a muffled groan and draws back a little, his cheeks ruddy, and I know that as much as I enjoy the rising bulge in his trousers – the promise of completion that resonates ever deeper as I press up against him – this is not quite the time. "Bread," I pant in perfect understanding. "I'll build the fire."
Peeta's house – our house, now – always smells of fresh bread and mulled cider, but I expect something special for this meal and he doesn't disappoint. By the time the bark and twigs we collected yesterday have caught fire, he's bending to lay the tray on the ledge in front of me and carefully lower himself to his knees. It's an awkward position with his prosthesis, even uncomfortable, but I know better than to suggest another pose. This is how generations of our relatives have pledged themselves to each other – Grandpa Asa and Granny Ashpet, Grandpa Marko and Grandma Lydda, my father and mother, and four months ago, Peeta's father and my mother – and neither of us, nor Prim and Marko, would have it any other way.
Bread and fire, honey and wine… A toasting is, in its way, a sort of folk-sacrament and, some would say, as binding as vows made in church or a courthouse. To be sure, no Mellark or Everdeen would truly feel married without completing the rite, however brief and informal.
Peeta reverently breaks the small round loaf and passes me half, and I give a little sob as I recognize its contents. Toasting loaves are traditionally the finest bread the newlyweds can afford, and when the groom is a baker the bread is finer still; more often than not golden-crusted with a soft, weightless core that melts on the tongue. When Peeta's father married my mother, their toasting bread was heady with honey-glazed almonds: her favorite since their youth, when she had been a rich man's daughter and sweetheart to a baker's son.
The bread in my hand is plain in comparison: a dense, dark loaf, heavy with nuts and raisins. The very same bread that another baker's son pressed into my hands three months after my father died, when I shivered in the rain beneath an apple tree and wept for my hollow belly and Prim's. The stocky boy with a fiery blotch on one round cheek where his impatient mother struck him for letting the crusts burn on two loaves – this perfect boy who kneels beside me – was radiant as an angel in that cold, cruel rain, and his hands on mine were like the sun itself, uncurling my frozen fingers like petals to receive his gift.Life, I thought that day and the next, as I devoured fistfuls of the dense, hearty loaves, but it took a bouquet of onion tops, tied with a red ribbon and presented with a blushing but eloquent confession, for me to understand that the bread had meant more, much more, to both of us.
I catch Peeta's free hand in mine and bring it to my lips, to cover those strong oven-scarred fingers with kisses, and he laughs a feeble protest. "That comes later," he reminds me, but still he spreads his palm against my cheek and sighs as I fill it, edge to edge, with even more kisses.
We hold the bread to the flames, turning it this way and that to darken the crust in a manner not unlike those first loaves that brought us together, and when it's done we shift on our knees to face each other. In simpler times this was the moment when vows were made, but we've made our vows before God and family already and we didn't discuss this part ahead of time. I knew Peeta would say something utterly perfect and make me cry, and once again, he doesn't disappoint.
"Katniss Mellark," he begins, evenly enough, but his eyes are on fire with love and pride and mine are already streaming at the sound of my new name on his lips. "My name is yours," he declares, low and soft as an oath, "and so am I. Body and soul, I belong to you, and like this nuptial bread, I place myself in your hands." He takes my free hand in his and presses it to his heart – or rather, lays my palm on his chest and presses his heart into it. "Yours," he says again, fervently this time. "Always and entirely yours."
I lean forward to meet his lips in a desperate, salty kiss. "You know I am yours," I choke out in reply. "I've always been, since long before I knew it, but I never dared to claim you."
"So claim me," he whispers, and there are tears in his eyes now too.
"Mine," I say simply, splaying my fingers over the warm blue velvet of his waistcoat, and if there is a little of the cougar's growl in my voice, a measure of her protective pride as she stands over her cubs or between her mate and danger, it only serves to increase my husband's joy.
"My huntress," he sighs through his tears, and he brings his free hand to cradle my cheek one more. "My wild bride. My mourning dove, my doe, my silver-eyed fox kit. I am yours."
After this there should be nothing in the world but kissing; kissing and caressing and the quick but careful removal of each other's wedding clothes, but of course both of us still have a handful of toasted bread, and as Peeta hastens to remind me between groans so deep they cause a pulse between my legs: "Whatever we're 'not doing' right now, sweetheart, I guarantee Prim and Marko are totally 'not doing' the same thing next door. Mellark men may be renowned for their patience in matters of the heart, but Marko's had to wait a lot longer for this than I have," he explains with a crooked grin that somehow still makes his eyes crinkle at the corners. "And at the risk of being indelicate, my love: I don't imagine Prim will feel much like walking, let alone dancing and cutting cake and chatting with my entire extended family, if we let things go too far right now."
I pull back from him with a shriek of only half-mock dismay. Luka, their middle brother, informed Prim about her "well-endowed" fiancé on the night of their engagement and my terrifyingly practical sister promptly consulted an army of illustrated textbooks on the subject to, in her words, "see what I'm up against." Despite being four years older and entirely comfortable hunting, trapping, skinning, gutting, and carving all manner of wild game, I literally hid in the bathroom till she promised to put those books away, but not before I caught a horrifying glimpse of about ten graphically photographed specimens, laid out over Prim's daisy-patterned duvet like so many flashcards.
It took Peeta ten minutes, a mini peach cobbler, three love notes pushed under the door, and the offer of a chastity belt – on him, for as long as I wanted – to coax me out of that bathroom. And I'm still fairly certain I'll spend the first half of our wedding night with my red face buried in a pillow while my poor husband sits naked and dejected beside me.
"You're right, you know," he says with a gentle chuckle, as though reading my thoughts, and he presses a reassuring kiss to my forehead. "The female body is a beautiful thing, all dips and curves and hidden secrets, whereas the male body is a joke. Everything's hairy and dangly, and the curves we do have look ridiculous."
"Oh shut up," I huff, well aware that my face is turning crimson at this topic, and Peeta mollifies me with a shower of chaste, happy pecks all over my face.
"Tell you what," he says lightly, but his eyes assure me that this is a serious offer. "I'll let you, um, see me right away when we get back from the reception, and if your immediate response is less than positive, I'll put my pants right back on and just make love to you for the rest of the night – and every night after, until you're ready."
I want to shake my head at this precious, silly boy who'd rather lay me naked in his bed and savor me with his hands and mouth for the duration of our honeymoon than force me to overcome my ridiculous squeamishness, but his offer is too sweet to laugh at and more than a little reassuring.
I bring my free hand to the front of his trousers and shyly brush against the firm bulge beneath, making him shudder and groan. "I really want to try tonight," I tell him honestly, because as worried as I am that this won't work, that I'll laugh or blush too hard for us to even attempt it or he'll be too big for me or it'll hurt too much, I know that this is what we've been moving inevitably toward since that first clumsy maple-scented kiss in the schoolyard. I need Peeta inside me, the closest that flesh will allow; to merge with him into one gasping, exuberant being, radiant with sweat and ecstasy and pure, blinding love.
"I want it so badly," I whisper, and I know he can see what I'm envisioning without me fumbling through the words. I see it in his eyes: his broad, pale body, flushed with arousal, moving over my slight, dusky form; black hair spilling across his pillows – our pillows – in a tangled cascade, and my small hands splaying over the firm muscles of his back. "But maybe we could…well, ease into things," I venture, "with…what you just said?"
Peeta smiles, and it's as glorious and blinding as the first rays of the rising sun as it crests the horizon. "It would be my pleasure, Katniss," he says. "An honor and a privilege to love you with my body, for as long as you wish."
After this there's no way there should be anything but kissing and grasping and a few tears of unbridled joy as we shed our clothes here and now and begin our wedding night a few hours early, but of course we're still on our knees with a handful of toasted bread each and a little more of the ceremony to complete. "Soon, sweetheart," Peeta soothes through a groan, cupping the coil of my left braid as he presses his forehead to mine. "So soon."
"I'm beginning to understand why the toasting was traditionally performed in front of witnesses," I pant, and wonder if there's any part of my body remaining that doesn't ache for the corresponding part of Peeta's.
"Too right you are," he teases, but raggedly. "Let's finish this before we lose it completely. I really don't want to face your father if we've done anything less than chaste with you in his mother's wedding dress."
His mention of my father instantly sobers us, but in a serious way only, not a sad one, and we turn back to the fire and the shallow earthenware cups of honey and wine. Peeta's warmed both, naturally, and I tear off a piece of my bread to dip into the honey and raise it to his lips. "It's apple blossom," he murmurs before gently closing his mouth around the bite of bread, and my fingertips to boot, and I lean up with a whimper to steal a taste from his tongue.
To my surprise, the honey is more fruity than floral, and Peeta moans as my tongue strokes his hungrily, seeking the sweet stickiness as much as the rough, powerful muscle beneath. "You can take honey from the bowl too, greedy gosling," he groans, and I lean back on my heels with a daring smile.
"Can we keep it for later?" I ask, my mouth pulsing with the mingled flavors of apple blossom honey and Peeta, and I blush at my boldness. "For…what you said a minute ago?"
Peeta crumples a little, and the raw longing in his eyes steals the breath from my lungs. "For…for making love to my wife?" he says huskily, disbelieving. "You want me to cover your skin in apple blossoms and savor them both together?"
"Only if I can drink honey from your lips in turn," I whisper, boldly again, but this time I don't falter. "And your throat, and your navel." I've tasted the musk of his skin a hundred times as I buried my face in the warm curve of his neck, and I think I might burst at the pleasure of laving it from his belly through a glaze of bridal honey.
Peeta moans so loudly that I'm sure he's in agony, but neither of us attempt a kiss this time. His trousers are tented sharply and there's still the wine to exchange, to say nothing of meeting Prim and Marko outside, visiting my kin on the way to the reception, and then sitting in the Sons of Norway lodge hall for three hours of feasting and folk dances with my husband's sprawling clan. Another kiss, even a chaste one, and we might as well call it a night, and we owe it to my father, at the very least, to do this properly.
With trembling hands, Peeta tears a piece from his half of the bridal loaf and dips it in the wine, then raises it carefully to my lips, his other hand lingering beneath with the rest of the bread to catch any drips that might stain my dress. I know before I taste that this is Grandma Lydda's famous spiced wine, a homemade blend of sweet red wine, cider, and cranberries that is strictly reserved for the most special of occasions. There will be gallons of it at our reception, naturally, that have simmered over the bakery stoves for the past week or more, but this batch came from Peeta's kitchen.
From our kitchen.
I take the winesop between my lips and gasp at the familiarity of the flavors, so simple and symbolic at once. Pastor Aurelius wrote an exhaustive thesis on the toasting ceremony as a sort of primitive Eucharistic rite and Prim and I both pored over the document in turn, but I never truly understood the connection before this moment. In the home that we will share as man and wife, I'm kneeling before the hearth – the heart of the home, in earlier days – and taking not Christ but my husband into my mouth. The dense nutty bread, kneaded and formed and toasted over the flames by his strong hands; the very same bread that saved my life when I was a child, and from the same hands. Bread is my husband's lifeblood, and this piece is made more meaningful still by the rich spiced wine of his heritage.
Peeta reads this much in my eyes or, more likely, has the same thoughts flooding through his mind, because he sets aside the rest of his bread and cups my face in both big hands, but it's a gentle touch; full of blessing, not passion or hunger. "I am yours, Katniss," he says simply, almost a benediction, and traces my lips with his thumb. The place where, a moment ago, I took his very essence inside me.
"I think we need to kiss," I whisper brokenly, fighting a determined wave of tears. "This one is written into the ceremony, right?"
"Oh yes," Peeta whispers back, his voice scarcely more even than mine and his eyes equally wet, and we lean up on our knees to meet in our first real kiss as husband and wife. It's a kiss as pure and fierce as flame, as the hot heart of the sun itself, and I clutch the remainder of my bread against his broad back as I pour my love into his mouth and drink up his own in turn.
The back of his velvet waistcoat is powdered with crumbs when at last we part, but there's more than enough bread still for what we have in mind. Peeta carefully wraps both pieces in a large red pocket handkerchief – my father's handkerchief, which I gave to Peeta, knotted round a bundle of fragrant pine needles, on our first Christmas as proper sweethearts – then he helps me to my feet.
"Well, Mrs. Mellark," he says, dusting my deerskin skirt with a playful but reverent hand, "shall we call on your family?"
"In a minute," I reply, and take his free hand, entwining our fingers. "There's something I want to tell you before we go."
Peeta raises his brows. He knows me well enough – too well, I think – and is intrigued by these words, not concerned. "You love me?" he guesses playfully.
"Well, yes," I laugh, so in love with this sweet silly boy I've married that it almost hurts to think about it. "But…this is about my doctor visit."
"Ah," he replies with perfect understanding and brings my hand to his lips for a quick kiss.
Practical Prim made us both appointments with a gynecologist friend several weeks before the wedding. I'd never had such an exam before and dreaded every moment leading up to it, and afterward Peeta met me in the park with a picnic of comfort foods – cold roast chicken and bread pudding and a Thermos of his heavy-cream-based hot chocolate with spices and honey – but I'd quietly refused to talk about the appointment at all while assuring Peeta that I was, and would be, entirely fine.
"I refused the physical exam," I say in a little rush, blushing hotly, "so you're going to be the first man to touch me there, ever. I told Cinna that was what I'd always wanted, and since I'm a virgin, he was sort of okay with it."
Peeta chuckles, but it's the most tender, loving sound I've ever heard. "Oh Katniss," he says, leaning in to kiss my cheek, "I kind of guessed that. Did he still give you the birth control pills?"
"Well, he would have," I reply, "but…I didn't want them."
Peeta's eyes widen, and not without cause. I'd assured him months ago that I would be safely on birth control by our wedding night, and he won't have made other plans for contraception. "Why not, sweetheart?" he asks worriedly. "What happened? You and Prim researched for weeks to find the ones with the least side effects, and I thought you…"
And just like that, the words die away and his heart blazes in his eyes. "Katniss," he breathes, tightening his fingers around mine. "You…you're absolutely sure about this?"
"Yeah," I whisper with a tiny, irrepressible smile, and just like that, we've flown past one of a couple's weightiest conversations.
Yes, babies. Now, babies.
"Before you get too excited," I warn him gravely, "Prim never filled her prescription either."
"Oh no," Peeta laments, but he's grinning from ear to ear, not unlike a little boy who's just been handed his entire Christmas wishlist's worth of presents at once. "Two Mellark mamas in one household, and every chance of twins? There goes the neighborhood," he proclaims, and he laughs; an infectious, deliriously happy sound.
"Prim says if she's ready to be a wife, she's ready to be a mother," I explain, as practically as I can, but my husband's giddiness is spilling over. "She's not planning to try yet, per se, but Marko should probably start getting his affairs in order to be a stay-at-home dad."
"I can't imagine him wanting anything else in all the world," Peeta replies without hesitation. "Or me, for that matter."
I stand on tiptoe and promptly kiss him breathless. This time we're interrupted by an emphatic knock at the door.
We answer it, dazed with bliss, to find a slightly unkempt Marko on our doorstep with a handful of cigars and a grin identical to the one Peeta was wearing just moments ago. "I'm going to be a dad!" he announces, thrusting the cigars at my husband, and I'd throttle him senseless if it weren't for the unmistakable sound of Prim dying of laughter, just out of our line of sight.
"I'd say that was pretty quick work," Peeta banters back, merrily pocketing two of the proffered cigars. "But then my wife would probably kill you."
"It's a dress rehearsal," Prim explains, ducking under her husband's brawny arm. She's deeply flushed and not entirely, I suspect, from laughter, but her bridal crown still sits neatly atop her braids and Grandma Lydda's dress is very nearly as crisp and uncreased as when it came out of the cedar chest. "We were thinking of springing it on Luka before the speeches."
"He deserves it," I remind her, thinking of his crude, if well-intentioned, tidings at the engagement party. "Can you make sure he's drinking something when you tell him?"
"Count on it, sister," Marko replies, and stoops to kiss my cheek.
I smell clover honey and spiced wine on his breath and look quickly at Prim. My baby sister, my little duck; now a bride, a wife, and soon a mother. She smiles softly and, knowing me almost as well as Peeta, comes forward to pull me into a sound hug. "It's okay, Katniss," she assures me. "It's good."
And it is.
"I have an idea," Peeta tells his brother as the four of us make our way back to the car. "I'm thinking: two stay-at-home baker dads in one house…We convert the garage into a massive commercial kitchen and do catering gigs where we can bring the twins."
"I'm way ahead of you," Marko replies, climbing into the front seat and stretching out his large frame without a second thought. "Pie-Grams, brother, and the twins – both sets – provide the entertainment. We know Everdeens can sing; it'll be like the junior von Trapps."
Prim and I blink owlishly at each other as Peeta starts the engine, silently debating whether to bang on the hood till our preoccupied husbands get out and help us into the car or simply wait for them to drive halfway across town and realize they forgot their wives at home. I shake my head, but not in disappointment. "It's okay," I tell her, and it's far, far better than that. "It's good."
A moment later Marko's window rolls down. "Woman," he bellows at Prim, "aren't you coming?" but it's so utterly absurd that he's laughing before the words have left his lips, and a mortified Peeta scrambles out from the driver's side to open the back doors for Prim and me.
The moment she's settled, Prim gives the seat ahead of her a solid, albeit playful, kick, making Marko yelp in surprise. "I wouldn't plan on sowing your oats in that particular field anytime soon, Papa Bear," Peeta tells him with a guffaw.
"He won't be seeding any fields ever if he doesn't watch out," Prim retorts feistily, leaning up between the seats to glower at her husband, but her right arm is curled around him from behind and she presses a lingering kiss to his cheek before sitting back again and turning to me.
"For the record," she confides in a low voice, "nothing happened during the toasting, but I'm still not exactly sure how tonight is going to work or how I'll be feeling afterward. So, um…if you and I could promise not to see each other for a few days, that would be great."
"Agreed," I reply wholeheartedly, and we shake on it like businessmen.
"Not see each other for a few days?" Peeta echoes, and I don't need the rearview mirror to know that he's frowning. "That puts a damper on the honeymoon breakfast potlucks we'd planned."
"He's kidding, right?" Prim hisses to me.
My sister and I look at each other, brows knitted pensively in a mirror-image of one another. "I'd have married Marko's pie crusts if Peeta hadn't asked me first," I admit and don't bother to lower my voice, to my brother-in-law's clear delight and my husband's good-natured chagrin.
"And I suppose Peeta's pancakes are as incredible as his dessert cakes," Prim says hopelessly.
"Twice as good," her husband replies, and he grins back at us over his shoulder to add, "And Katniss, I make this deep-dish sausage and egg pie with country gravy and a biscuit crust that puts every other crust I make to shame."
"Oh God," Peeta moans. "He's not kidding, sweetheart. Personal biscuit-and-gravy pies, as big as a soup bowl and packed with Rooba's zesty pork sausage. Even if you insist on separate honeymoons, I'll be at his house for breakfast that morning. There's no way around it."
"Look at it this way," Marko tells us. "You both married bakers, so you know we'll be out of bed by four in the morning –"
"Six at the very latest," Peeta chimes in.
"This way you get twice the breakfast in half the time," Marko explains, "and everyone's back to bed, spooning and crooning and honeymooning, well before the sun is up."
Prim and I turn to each other once more and pretend, quite seriously, to consider this. "I don't suppose we could angle for breakfast in bed?" I ask her thoughtfully.
"You'll have it tomorrow," Peeta answers me. "That's a freebie; we've had it planned for ages. But after that my brother and I are joining forces, so there's no guaranteeing which Mellark will deliver your breakfast wearing nothing but an apron and a smile."
He winks at me in the rearview and I blush all the way to my toes. "I sincerely hate you all," I announce, but the words are muddled by the irresistible upward curl of my lips.
"Be glad you didn't fall for a Brognar," Marko laughs. "Aunt Rooba spent all of her honeymoons at home and most of her romantic liaisons too, so her kids think it's the norm to have family wandering in and out of your bedroom at all times. Anders planned to spend his honeymoon there, with his three siblings down the hall and all of them sharing one bathroom, until his fiancée threatened to call off the wedding."
"Poor Anders," Peeta chuckles. "What a dilemma: two weeks of his mama's best home cooking or a romantic getaway with his pretty wife?"
"Anders isn't married," Prim observes dryly, and Marko grins at her in the rearview. "Like I said," he tells us again, "be glad you didn't fall for a Brognar!"
"Strictly speaking, Anders is a Cartwright," Peeta points out, "and you know, they're relatively modest as a whole," but it's far too late to redeem the conversation, let alone his poor bachelor cousin.
When we arrive at the cemetery, Mom and Janek – Prim's and my step-father and now father-in-law as well – are waiting on the bench under the willow with our coats and bouquets. "So tell me," Janek calls out as we approach, his blue eyes, so like Peeta's, dancing with amusement. "Exactly how many grandchildren did you create during your toastings?"
Mom leans over to swat his hand where it lies against her shoulder. "The correct answer is zero," she warns us, "but I believe any number up to four would be acceptable."
"Speaking for the Peeta Mellarks: zero," I reply, with an impish kiss to my husband's cheek.
"And that goes for the Marko Mellarks as well," Marko answers before Prim can, and he tugs her backward into his arms to rest his chin on the top of her head. "Though I've got cigars in the glove compartment in case that changes anytime soon, and I've already practiced my expectant father announcement."
Mom shakes her head at this with a scowl that she doesn't quite mean, but Janek actually looks mildly surprised. "I think every single Brognar in that lodge hall owes me twenty bucks," he says. "I might actually make money on this wedding."
"You bet that we'd behave ourselves during the toastings?" Peeta teases.
"Of course," his father replies. "You're Mellarks. You don't love and long for something for the better part of your life, only to devour it the moment it's finally in your hands."
Mom clears her throat delicately and my father-in-law blushes like a schoolboy. "The moment it's officially in your hands," he concedes. "And all things considered, Lyssa: I was an astonishingly patient seventeen-year-old."
This time it's my mother who blushes, but faintly. "Not as patient as you were at forty-nine," she remarks, and she brings his broad hand to her lips for a lingering kiss.
Their relationship might have made me angry once, for my father's sake, but there's something beautifully inevitable in them being together, especially after so many years apart, and Janek has always respected and admired my father.
After all, it was almost fourteen years after Dad died before Janek finally proposed to his widow.
"Are you coming to see Dad with us?" I ask Mom as I take my bouquet from her lap.
She shakes her head. "We made the rounds before you got here," she replies, drawing me down to press a kiss to my cheek. "And he thinks you're radiant as the sun, catkin," she whispers.
My breath catches. No one calls me catkin, not since Dad died, and Mom never has. The message she just gave me, impossible though it may be, could only have come from my father himself.
Then again, he'd always said my mother was a bit of a witch.
"Thanks, Mom," I whisper, and kiss her cheek in return.
My husband, always so patient, waits behind me with his little bundle of bread and one hand outstretched, and I slip my own into it. My father's grave lies mere steps away from the bench where my mother and Janek awaited us: a bed of meadow grass in the shadow of the willow, like in the old lullaby he taught us. It's a bit late for a guard of daisies, but the fallen leaves have given his plot a fine cloak of russet-brown, not unlike the leather hunting jacket that came to me upon his death.
I crouch down, spreading my deerskin skirts around my knees with Peeta's help, and trace the letters on the headstone. I know my father is not in the stone but his name is there, carved big and bold, and will remain on this landscapes for centuries, long after the daises and dandelions have run riot over this fenced bit of field and restored it to its former glory as a true meadow.
"Hey, Dad," I say, drawing back his cloak of leaves a little to press my palm into the grass of his grave. "Peeta and I were married a little bit ago, toasting and bridal braids and all, and I brought you some of my flowers."
I carefully unwind the red and white ribbons that hold my bouquet together and draw out the stems of pussywillow. These, of course, are wildly out-of-season: Peeta cut them in March, just after his birthday, and presented them to me as part of his marriage proposal, and somehow I had the presence of mind to dry and store them up for the wedding.
I lay the catkins carefully on my father's grave along with the cattails, jack pine branches, and sprays of juniper – and the glossy arrowhead-shaped leaves and tiny white blossoms of my namesake plant. "Pine needles and swamp weeds," I joke, though I love every last stem and leaf and chose them for this bouquet with the greatest of care. "You'd have loved it, Dad."
Peeta rests a comforting hand on my back, and I smile. "You'd love Peeta too," I tell my father as I lean into my husband's touch. "In fact, I'd be surprised if you didn't already."
Peeta offers me the handkerchief bundle; an exchange for the remaining fragments of my bouquet. "I have to save back a few stems for the rest of the family," I apologize to the leaf-cloak, "but I didn't think you'd mind, and Peeta brought you another little present besides."
I untie the bundle and take out the top piece of our toasting bread, break it into hearty crumbs, and scatter it the length of my father's grave. The toasting loaf is usually consumed by the couple or their immediate family right after the ceremony, but I've wanted this almost from the moment that Peeta asked me to marry him. "You're never without birds," I remind my father needlessly, "even now, and Peeta loves birds too. He likes to say that winning my love was like taming a wild bird."
A breath of brisk wind teases the willow branches above us; my father's gentle laughter, I think, and a blessing in itself.
"So we brought our toasting bread for your birds," I explain. "Birds were always close as kin to you, and we wanted them to share in our wedding feast."
"You should have told us," Prim says quietly, coming up behind me to lay a handful of sunny primroses alongside my humble greenery. "We would have brought the rest of ours too."
"What were you planning to do with it?" I ask and, to my surprise, she blushes.
"Freeze it till we have a baby," she says, shrugging as though this is of no import whatsoever. "And then use it for their first bread pudding."
My head snaps up and I practically shove the handkerchief, with its last remaining portion of the toasting loaf, into Peeta's hands. "Is this enough for a baby's first bread pudding?" I ask him urgently.
"If we don't have twins," he replies, but he's already tying the handkerchief closed again. His expression is torn between delight at the idea and aggravation at himself for not having thought of it first, and I lean in to kiss away his frown. "Then again, babies are tiny," he recalls with a sudden, foolish grin. "I can stretch half a loaf into two baby portions of bread pudding, easy."
"I love you," I tell him, for what must be the fiftieth time today, and shift briefly onto my knees to tuck a kiss among the grass of my father's grave. "We'll be back soon," I promise. "And with any luck, you'll get four grandbabies out of the deal."
Peeta helps me to my feet and we continue on to the other Everdeen graves: Grandpa Asa, Granny Ashpet, and Laurel, their daughter; my father's little sister, who came too early and died shortly after she was born. To each I give a piece of pine, a katniss leaf and flower, and a kiss to their headstone, but I linger a moment longer over Granny Ashpet. The tall, cougar-eyed beauty who hunted deer with a bow and didn't realize she loved a plain, poor boy until he caught her sewing a wedding dress from her finest doeskins – the very dress I'm wearing now.
"She'd be proud," Peeta murmurs, squeezing my hand. "They'd all be, of both you and Prim."
"For getting married?" I wonder wryly, raising my brows.
"For falling in love," he replies simply. "My family falls in love as swift and soundly as you fall asleep at night, but from what I've observed, Everdeen hearts aren't so easily won."
"Though once you've won their love," I remind him teasingly, "I hear it's like taking a drink from a fire hose." And on the off-chance that the metaphor might be lost on him, I take his sweet face in my hands and kiss him so fiercely that neither of us can breathe for a moment or two afterward.
"How badly do we have to be at that reception?" he groans.
"At least through the cake," I reply. "You made it, after all."
"Not a problem," he says, drawing me back for another long kiss, and another after that. "We have a nice kitchen. I'll make you another cake; for breakfast, if you want…"
"You forget, husband," I chide, but merrily, taking the red ribbon from the remains of my bouquet and looping it around his left arm. "You're not the only one who gets to claim something proudly today."
I tie the ends in a simple bow and seal it with a kiss for good measure, and when I raise my eyes to Peeta's he looks like he just might burst with joy. "A sweetheart ribbon?" he asks through a radiant grin. "I should warn you, Mrs. Mellark: I'm a happily married man."
"Right, then," I reply, because if I don't fill my mouth with words, it'll be covering his face with kisses and we'll never get out of here, let alone back to our new home and the snug double bed at the top of the stairs. "Prim!" I holler. "Reception: food, one speech, cake and wine, a couple of dances, and then we sneak out the back door."
"Fine by me," she calls back as she snugs the red ribbon around her husband's left arm. "But the getaway car leaves at eight sharp, and if you're not in it, you get to stay till they close the hall and be innuendoed by Brognars all night long."
"Fair enough," I answer, and promptly turn back to Peeta. "Mr. Mellark," I wonder, "after the dinner and dancing, do you have any objections to sleeping with a happily married woman?"
"None whatsoever," he replies, and then our hands are entwined and we're barreling back to the car with Prim and Marko in hot pursuit.