Once again, what was intended to be a short drabble to fulfill a Tumblr prompt was blown way out of proportion. Props to me for being disgustingly wordy.
His Little Songbird
The first time he sees her, she's five years old. Ms. Everdeen's been teaching her how to fold laundry – it's one of the many duties she'll be responsible for as she, like her mother before her, is raised as a palace maid – and she'd be rather good at it if she didn't find the entire thing so damn pointless. What could a single family of five possibly need with seventy-nine towels?
Still, it's what's required of her, so her stubborn nature falls flat to her learned sense of subservience. But she does what she can to make the time crawl by a little more quickly, particularly by singing along to the mechanical whir that shimmers through the utility room. For the most part, her voice is soft enough that the motorized sounds drown her out, but with certain pitches, the pureness of her tone rises above the clamor, gently wafting through the corridor beyond the slightly ajar door.
At the time, she doesn't know that the youngest prince of the palace happens to be tip-toeing his way down that corridor, curiously exploring the small annex of the palace which his parents (particularly the Queen) forbade him to ever enter.
At the time, she doesn't know that over the noise, her voice bleeds out through the door and slithers around his body, making goose bumps pop up all over every inch of his flesh.
At the time, she doesn't know that this draws the seven-year-old prince closer, prompting him to peek through the door frame and see an olive-skinned girl with two chocolate-colored braids rippling over her shoulders, singing as she folds one of his family's seventy-nine towels.
At the time, she doesn't know that a blush is flowering under his chubby, dimpled cheeks.
And, at the time, she has absolutely no idea that the youngest prince is, unquestionably, a total goner.
Although she's forbidden to ever interact with the princes, Katniss knows nearly everything about them. The oldest is stone-faced but incredibly brave, proving to be the best sword-fighter in the kingdom. But, beyond his stern exterior, he loves to dance – Katniss has stumbled upon him several times waltzing to classical melodies that float from his record player, always by himself. Maybe it's why he's such a talented sword-fighter; his footwork is absolutely phenomenal.
The second prince is the tallest and most colorful of the trio. With his overblown confidence, he's always the first to crack jokes that make his mother groan, and always the last to finish his sautéed asparagus. But he's incredibly charismatic when he wants to be, magically able to woo any palace guests in under five minutes.
The youngest prince, however, is Katniss's favorite, although she doesn't know why. Maybe it's because he's a beautiful painter, spending nearly half of his days penned up in his bedchamber, propped by the window as he gently strokes a canvas with a brush. Maybe it's because he's clearly the kindest of the royal family, never uttering a bad word about anyone, not even the mother who criticizes his every move. Maybe it's because he's so quirky, needing his window to be open before he can fall asleep, and refusing to leave his room without double-knotting his laces first. Maybe it's because of his smile alone, which could stop the tide and instigate world peace in its dimpled perfection. Maybe it's his impossibly compassionate eyes, so blue and wide and genuine.
Or, maybe it's the bread. Definitely, definitely, it has to do with the bread.
Her father is killed when she's eleven. In a mining accident, nonetheless.
It kills her mother, too. Not physically, at first, but her mind detonates like a hand grenade until all that's left is an empty shell of a woman who can't even look at her only daughter.
Being raised as a palace maid was never luxurious, but it was enough. Now, with her father dead and her mother so catatonic that she's permanently dismissed from the palace, Katniss's tiny paychecks aren't enough to sustain her, and she begins to wither. Her strength fades as her energy falters, and each chore becomes too arduous for her skeletal frame. One afternoon, when she's turning down the youngest prince's bed, the tiny peppered spots behind her lids flare to life, the world under her feet spinning faster and faster until she collapses.
When she wakes, the young prince is crouched on the floor beside her, a burned loaf of whole-grain bread propped in his hands.
"You're sick," he says, his voice so gentle that she can't do anything but trust him.
She tries to sit, but she can't muster the strength. He slips his hand under her neck, holding up her head.
"Here. Eat this." He tucks the bread in her hands, letting her feed herself.
Although the charred flavor sticks in her mouth for days, the bread is the only reason she made it. The significance of the youngest prince's charity dawns on her more and more as each day passes. She wouldn't have survived had he not snuck the bread up to her. She wouldn't have survived had he not waited until she could sit up on her own again. She wouldn't have survived had he not fetched her water when she couldn't even swallow in effort to speak. She wouldn't have survived had he not done a good deed for which he was rewarded by a vicious tongue-lashing from his mother and a day without food.
But she survived that day, and because of that, she was able to find the motivation to carry herself through the days after.
It was definitely the bread.
She's fourteen years old when he finally speaks to her again.
Her task for the afternoon is to clean the windows in the princes' bedchambers. Because it's the first nice spring day of the year, the King encouraged the princes to indulge in outdoor activities, so Katniss expects to be alone. In the first two rooms, she is.
But not in the youngest prince's.
For good measure, she raps on the door three times before entering, and nearly jumps out of her skin when she sees the boy sitting on the bed, his thick fingers ash-colored from graphite stains as he works away on a sketchpad.
Her hand flies to her chest, and she coughs. "I—I'm sorry, Your Highness."
He throws a casual smile her way before focusing again on his sketchpad. "You have nothing to apologize for."
She clutches the bucket of soapy water in her hand, taking a shaky step inward. "If you don't mind, I'm going to—well, I've been sent to wash your windows."
He quirks an eyebrow at her, and then motions toward the open screen. "By all means."
She hopes he hasn't noticed the wildly embarrassing blush in her cheeks as she shuffles across his bedroom, depositing her bucket at the base of the window.
Halfway through her wipe-down of the first pane, the abrupt sound of his voice nearly gives her a heart attack.
"Do you still like to sing?"
It feels like someone's bayonetted her aorta with an icicle. She freezes on the spot, the sopping rag plunging to the floor with a sickening sound. Keeping her eyes pinned to a dirty streak on the glass in front of her, she remains cemented in place, too afraid to turn around.
She hears him shift slightly on the bed. "I'm sorry. I just…" She hears him swallow. "I heard you sing. Once. I was six or seven, maybe."
She manages to pivot – slowly of course – and when her eyes fall on him, she finds that his face is just as crimson as hers.
"You heard me sing?"
His eyes fall to his lap, and he nods faintly.
"Yes." And then, his focus flits back up to hers, the striking blue carving into her steely grey until her breath entirely evaporates from her lungs.
He says quietly, "It was beautiful."
"Katniss," he greets gently, his tongue curling around the t in her name as if he's savoring the taste of those two syllables.
Her heart parkours against her ribcage. How did he figure out what her name was? Or, more importantly, why would he even care? She's a maid. Just a maid.
Of the billion questions spooling in her head, all that comes out is:
"Don't call me that."
Instead of being startled by her brusqueness, he only smiles amusedly, leaning against the countertop piled with the dirty laundry Katniss should be folding right now. "Then what am I to call you? Miss? Ma'am? Dear? My little songbird?"
"Your Highness!" she hisses.
"'My little songbird' it is," he chuckles, and without warning, he boldly reaches across the space between them, tucking a curl that's escaped from her braid behind her ear. She wants to flinch away, but she's so awed by the notion that the young prince is touching her, talking to her, and potentially flirting with her that she's frozen in place.
He's so beautiful, this boy. Which is something she's known for quite some time, but it's even more apparent now as he stands a foot away from her in the utility room that he's banned from being in. The number of times they've interacted could be counted on Katniss's fingers, and even in those rare instances, the conversation wasn't exactly flourishing. Why is he risking so much to speak to a substandard maid?
She doesn't have the opportunity to ask, however, because suddenly he's shuffling next to her, digging his hands in the mound of fabric piled on the countertop.
"I can help you fold laundry." He yanks out a sheet and whips it in the air, awkwardly trying to gain a secure grasp on the edges.
Before he can get too cozy, though, she grapples the trim, trying to tug it away from him. "Pardon me, sir, but I can't let you do this."
The corner of his beautiful mouth quirks up. "And why is that, my little songbird?"
She ignores the way her stomach tangoes to the sound of his pet name. "You're the—the prince! You can't just… help!"
He shrugs casually. "Why not?"
But she doesn't let go of the sheet. She tries to rip it from his grasp, but he doesn't relent; instead, he slips one hand from the trim to her wrist, his skin feeling like fire and heaven against hers.
"Why are you doing this?" she asks, her voice cracking on the last word.
She feels his hand pulse on hers.
"I just want to spend some time with you, Katniss."
What she should've never let happen in the first place becomes a customary mid-morning pastime for her and the young prince, who gently reminds her almost every day to stop calling him the young prince, and to start calling him Peeta. It takes her several weeks to get used to his name on her tongue, although she must admit to enjoying the texture of it bouncing on her lips whenever they clown around in the palace basement together.
Nearly every day, he joins her in the utility room while she's folding the laundry she's responsible for. He comes after the other maids have left to chip away at their daily chores, because this way, he can be alone with her. It's easier like this, they decide. Peeta's mother would mobilize the kingdom's troops if she learned he was fraternizing with a maid, of all people.
Even with the risk hanging like a storm cloud over their heads, though, Peeta still refuses to ditch his time with her. It isn't much – maybe a half hour, or so – but he seems to relish every moment of it, as unfathomable as that is to her. Their mornings together usually begin with innocent fabric-folding, but most of the time, they spiral into something much more off-the-cuff, such as Peeta swathing Katniss in a coverlet and rolling her up like a burrito. Or pitching blanket forts in between the counters. Or boogying around the room with sheets draped over their heads, pretending to be ghosts.
Regardless of the exact schematic, Katniss finds that she actually enjoys these moments with Peeta, because when it's just the two of them, he doesn't seem like a prince at all. And she doesn't feel like a maid. Together, they can act like the kids they truly are. They find some common ground in both being teenagers deprived of healthy childhoods in entirely different ways, but who both need each other to stay anchored to what's important.
One day, when they're sorting the towels together, he asks her if she can sing for him again.
"Please, Katniss. It's been too long."
She plays with the end of her braid, avoiding his eyes. "Exactly. I don't even remember if I know how."
He snorts, bumping her hip with his. "C'mon, my little songbird. I know you have it in you."
It takes a surfeit of deep breaths and twice the courage she knew she had, but as Peeta's fingers graze over the back of her trembling hand, she finally surrenders.
One of the other maids, Bristol, falls ill one day, and so her duties have to be rationed out to the other maids until she recovers. Enobaria is assigned to clean the bathtubs. Wiress has to polish the oldest prince's swords.
Katniss, by some odd twist of fate, is sent to prepare the youngest prince for bed.
Huddled in the dark corridor, she timidly knocks on Peeta's door, unsure of exactly what these tasks will entail. At least it's him, and not one of his brothers; she trusts he'll be forgiving and help her figure out what to do.
Still, her nerve endings pulse angrily under each inch of her skin, and when his gentle voice calls out, "Come in," it does nothing but fuel her anxiety.
She slips into his bedchamber, flattening her back against the door as she scans the room, her focus falling on the broad-shouldered figure by the window. Her aggressively pounding heart flies straight up into her throat as she takes in his shirtless form, his porcelain skin stretched beautifully over the corded muscles defining his back and arms. Dear lord. The kid's only seventeen – two years older than her meagre fifteen.
The moonlight falls on him in a way that illuminates his entire body, painting him more as a divinity than a teenage boy, and maybe that's what makes heat rip through every capillary bed beneath her flesh. She's always thought the boy was attractive, especially once she flowered into adolescence and bypassed the stage of thinking all guys had cooties. But this, this, is an entirely different matter.
Wait. No, she can't think this. She's a maid. He's a prince. Granted, he's not the oldest, so it's not like he's about to inherit the throne in the next twenty years, but he's still the riches to her rags. He's not only out of her league. They aren't even playing the same damn sport.
With pink cheeks and sweaty palms, she folds her arms over her chest and clears her throat.
He begins to pivot. "My apologies, Miss, but I don't believe I'll be going to bed for—"
But when he sees that it's Katniss, his eyes grow wide, and he jolts a little in surprise.
"Well. You're not Bristol."
Katniss scratches her elbow and stares at the intricate swirl patterns of his rug. "She's sick."
"So, I've been sent to fulfill her duties."
He releases something of an amused snort; her eyes flit up to his, her eyebrows knitting together as he takes a step closer. "I'm seventeen years old, and they still think I need a nanny to tuck me in."
Embarrassment curdles in her stomach, her face adopting a darker shade of scarlet. "Oh. I—I'm sorry. I can just go—"
"Wait!" he blurts suddenly, reaching out his hands as if they might have a magnetic pull that'll haul her in. "I mean, Bristol usually doesn't do much beyond turning down the bed and cracking open the window if I haven't already. So, I—I don't really have anything for you to do. But you can stay." He swallows hard. "If you wish, I mean."
She tries to keep her eyes locked on either his or on the patterned carpet, but they seem to be drawn to the bare expanse of his chest. Since when does her throat feel so dry?
"Yeah. I—I'll stay."
Katniss wakes to the cozy feeling of sunlight glazing her skin, which is an entirely foreign sensation, having been raised in the lower-level maid quarters. She blinks herself into consciousness, the heat from the rays so delicious and snug that she almost falls back to sleep. That is, until she pinpoints a different kind of heat radiating all over her back. It's a lot heavier, but more welcoming, and for a brief moment she tries to bury herself in it.
Until she realizes exactly what it is.
She jolts, tearing away from the source and toppling off the bed, taking a few sheets and a feather pillow down with her. Above her, the mattress rustles, and over the top pokes out a head of errant curls and startled blue eyes.
"Are you alright?" Peeta asks, his voice crackling with sleep.
"What the hell am I doing here?" she nearly screeches, her body thrumming with mortification as her stomach hollows out and bubbles with nausea.
She fell asleep on Peeta's bed. On the prince's bed. She's a maid, nothing more, and she spent the night in the room of one of the five most important people in the all of Panem. She could be fired for this. She could be thrown in jail for this. Perhaps she could even be hanged for this.
She scrambles to her feet, the sheets tangling around her ankles and hampering her balance. She clutches the edge of the mattress for support, but while doing so, Peeta's thick hands grasp her waist to steady her.
Lord, he's shirtless. Shirtless. She slept with a boy and he didn't have his shirt on. Oh my god. She thinks she's about to vomit. Or faint. Or vomit, and then faint, and then fling herself from the window.
"Katniss, you look a little green," he comments, his eyes drowning with concern, just like she's drowning in her own self-hatred. How fun.
"I can't be here," she gasps, her head spinning. She tries to pull herself away, but he has an iron grasp on her hips, and he anchors her to the edge of the bed. "Peeta, please. I—I messed up. I didn't mean to stay here... you have to know that. I'm so sorry."
He frowns. "Sorry? Katniss, don't apologize."
How could he say that? She breached every segment of her code of conduct by sleeping with him. Granted, it was an accident – they'd been talking until the dark hours of the morning, and she'd only meant to lay her head on his pillow for a moment – but it's still forbidden. His mother would have her roped up in a tree for this if she knew.
Oh god. What if she finds out?
"Please don't tell your mother," she begs, her voice a choked whisper. "I could lose this job, I could lose everything—"
"I would never tell her." His tone is as gentle as his eyes, and he pulls her back to the bed, sitting her carefully on the mattress. "Look, I didn't mean to upset you. It was just so late, and you looked exhausted, and I was exhausted, and... It isn't a big deal. It can be our little secret, alright?"
Katniss palms her forehead, pushing the sticky beads of sweat up into her hairline.
But suddenly, he's leaning closer, giving her a soft smile as he takes her hand.
"I slept well," he tells her quietly. "Really well."
Even with the mortification and the self-disgust swelling in her lungs, she still manages a small but genuine grin.
He comes down to the laundry room as he always does, and helps her sort the warmed towels and sheets as he always does, and cracks moderately-decent jokes as he always does, and teases her, and tickles her, and calls her his little songbird as he always does.
Nothing has changed. She doesn't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, or even if it's what she wanted. She supposes it's what she should want – for their accidental communal slumber to not throw off their dynamic – but something in her stomach feels sunken in.
She realizes she's being ridiculous when she fantasizes about what it could mean for them. It shouldn't mean anything. He's a prince, and she's an insignificant servant girl. He's absolutely beautiful, and she's plain. He's got potential. She's withering every day.
Still, he seems to want to be her friend, even if their friendship is outwardly dysfunctional. She's clueless as to what he could possibly see in her, but there must be something. Maybe it's her pathetic lack of standards – perhaps he likes passing time with her because she doesn't expect much from him. Or anything, really. It must be nice getting to be himself for once.
He confirms this one morning, after they've dismantled their blanket fort of the day and sorted out the laundry onto the carts. She's propped herself up on the counter, with Peeta shifting in between her knees, his palms flattened against the steel surface on either side of her waist.
"I don't have to put on a show for you," he tells her, peeking out from underneath his canopy of thick, golden lashes. "I love that. It all feels so… real."
She gives him a soft smile, one that masks the celebratory cartwheels her stomach does in response. But the cartwheels turn to violent turbines when his palms move from the countertop to her hips, the heat in his hands radiating through her uniform and freckling her skin with goose bumps. He's leaning in now, his lips just inches from hers, and his breath sweeps over her face in a way that makes her shiver. There's something intoxicating about his scent, which is a fragrant mixture of cinnamon, sandalwood, and fabric softener (or maybe that's the laundry room) – but whatever it is, it annihilates her and draws her in. Their noses brush, and her eyes flutter closed just as—
They jolt away from each other, heated faces whipping toward the doorway. Annie, another maid around Katniss's age, stands in the threshold with a bucket of charcoal-colored water clenched in her hands.
Peeta coughs awkwardly, and when Katniss looks his way, she notices the violent blush flowering under his cheeks. It must match hers pretty well. "I should—I have to go," he stammers, and before Katniss can even digest the situation, the door seals behind him.
Without looking at her, Katniss can feel Annie's eyes drilling into her skin. Annie inhales. Then exhales. Then inhales again. "What were you two…"
Katniss rubs her face, hoping it'll magically erase some of the color. "Nothing. He was just—" Well, there's no good explanation, so she lets her voice taper off as she accepts how incriminating her own silence must be.
Annie slides the bucket onto the floor, rounding the countertop as Katniss hops onto the floor. "That's the prince."
"And he was… helping you with laundry?"
"And he… he was about to kiss you?"
Banging her own head against the stainless steel countertop suddenly sounds remarkably appealing.
Annie takes a step closer, but cautiously, as if Katniss is a rabid dog that needs to be tranquilized. "How long has this been going on?"
Katniss leans her back up against the counter, anxiously twisting her braid. "Nothing's happened. Nothing will happen."
"That's not what it looked like just a minute ago," Annie says with more curiosity with reproach.
Katniss feels her shoulders slump. "He comes down here, sometimes. Mostly just hangs around while I fold laundry. But that's the full extent of it."
And I slept in his bed once, but since that was an accident, I'm just going to pretend that doesn't count.
Annie's eyebrows arch, and she folds her arms over her chest as she tries not to smirk. "I think he likes you, Katniss."
Blood flares in her cheeks as she aggressively shakes her head. "No. No. I'm just—we're just friends, I guess. I'm a maid, Annie. He could never like me like that."
"He was about to kiss you."
Her teeth grit. "He wasn't. I don't know what that was, but it wasn't what it looked like."
"It was exactly what it looked like." Annie's lips curl up in an amused grin. "Sounds like we've got ourselves a Cinderella on our hands."
When she's buffing the veneer on the banister, she hears uneven footsteps thumping down the steps, and the hair on the back of her neck stands.
"Hey," Peeta whispers, sweeping past her and around the bottom of the staircase, the rail separating them as he peers up at her. "I've been looking everywhere for you."
She doesn't know what to say, so she keeps her lips sealed as she swipes the smudged rag over the gloss.
Even with her eyes fixed on her work, she can see his brow crinkle through her peripheries. He takes a step closer. "Are you alright?"
Honestly, she doesn't know. Since Annie barged in on them this morning, her mind's been a battleground, leaving her disoriented and completely unsure of her feelings for Peeta. All she knows is that she cares for him a million times more than she should, and that this exact mindset could be lethal if she were to let it win, which she won't do. Peeta is royalty. She is nothing. It'd be best for both of them if she just waits for the foundation of their friendship to crumble beneath their feet.
He must sense that she isn't going to answer. Taking another step inward, he grips the mahogany spindles holding up the guardrail, anxious eyes raking over her. "I was too forward with you this morning, and for that, I... I can't apologize enough. I never intended to make you uncomfortable, and I definitely never intended to push you away. Please, talk to me."
Katniss's heart feels like it's being shoved through a meat grinder. Everything hurts, even more so because of the way his voice sounds so strained, so apologetic.
"I'm a maid, Peeta," she tells him as coolly as she can manage. "Maids can't be friends with princes." It's such a brutal struggle to keep her voice flat and emotionless. She wonders if he can tell.
He must not be able to, because his expression falls, shredding her heart all over again. "That doesn't matter to me."
"It matters to everyone else. I don't want to be so selfish that I force you to sneak around just so we can be friends. It's dangerous, and it isn't fair to you."
"No one's forcing me to do anything, Katniss." His knuckles blanche as they strangle the banister's spindles. "I sneak down to the laundry room to see you because those thirty minutes are the best minutes of my day. I want to spend time with you."
The effect his words have on her is the exact opposite of what she wants. They thaw her, her icy demeanor melting away as she finally looks down to him.
"You can't feel that way," she murmurs.
But his eyes sparkle with the physical affirmation of his declaration. "I've felt that way for ten years, Katniss. It will take a lot more than one or two sentences to annul that."
She opens her mouth to protest, but he rounds the banister, pausing on the step below Katniss, their eyes at equal heights. She can taste his breath again, and begins to feel her parapets crumbling as the sensation rouses her into total alertness.
"Please come to my room tonight. Bristol is usually gone by ten o'clock, so ten-thirty would be entirely safe. I need to talk to you, actually talk, without worrying about interruptions."
Leaving her with no time to protest, and no breath to do it with, the youngest prince slips by her as he clambers up the stairs, but not before grazing the back of her hand with his fingertips.
When the other maids have retired to their quarters, Katniss crawls from her creaky cot and slips into the corridor. She knows exactly which routes to take to slink unnoticed through the palace, and within five minutes, she's arrived at the prince's door. Her heart does a tiny backflip when she finds he left it slightly ajar in anticipation of her arrival.
As she enters, she knocks faintly on the doorframe. Her veins pulse as she discovers him at the edge of his bed, hands folded in his lap, ankles crossed, and eyes anxious as they flit toward the door. When they take in her form, however, the apprehension fades to calm relief, and he immediately pops up into a stance.
"I thought you weren't coming," he exhales, padding toward the her.
Truth be told, she thought she wasn't, either. But her feet seemed to have a plan of their own.
She toes her way deeper into the bedchamber as he slides past her to gently seal the door. And then he's behind her, his palm grazing against her back in a directional gesture, guiding her toward the bed.
He raises an eyebrow.
"Katniss," he whispers.
"Peeta," she says.
With a frustrated sigh, his hands lift, the heels of his palms slanting over his eyes. "I've been trying to find the right words to tell you all day. And I have nothing." He rubs his face. "All I can say is that I don't want this to end. Whatever we have, it's wonderful, and I can't stand the thought of letting it go."
Her throat thickens, but she remains two feet from the edge of the bed, toes anxiously curling inside of her socks. "I don't want it to stop, either. But this isn't safe."
"I don't care about what's safe," he blurts suddenly, his hands falling away to reveal red-ringed, pained eyes. "I care about you. You—you're my only friend, Katniss. My best friend."
She feels like someone's dropped an anvil on her chest. "Peeta—"
"If you don't want this because you don't feel the same, then I can accept that. But if you don't want this because you're worried about me…"
He doesn't finish. He doesn't have to finish.
She steps inward, her toes brushing his, and sparks shoot up her legs. "We have to be careful, Peeta. So careful."
"Like what happened in the laundry room today… it can't happen again."
"You'll have to pretend you don't recognize me everywhere else."
He gives her a sad smile. "I know." But his fingers reach out, finding and lacing in with hers, pulling her closer. "Now, come lie down with me."
With little hesitation, she allows him to lure her up onto the bed, her knees sinking into the mattress as he leads them up toward the headboard. When he lies on his side, she follows suit, her heart kick-starting as his legs weave in with hers.
"Do you want to 'accidentally' stay here again tonight?" he murmurs, his palm cupping her neck as his nose grazes her cheek. She feels his lips pressing to the skin there, leaving a white-hot mark in their wake.
With a spark of heat licking up the sides of her belly, she curls her calves tighter against his, their stomachs flush up against each other's. She gives him a soft nod to answer his question, although the nod must double as her permission, because without anything to interrupt them this time, his mouth slants eagerly over hers.
She fervently inhales his taste, the inebriating blend of cinnamon and honey engulfing her as he kisses her enthusiastically, yet somehow, still gently. It's the first time anyone's ever done this to her; she assumes it isn't his, because his lips are so adept as they seal with hers, his tongue sliding against the seam in a way that makes her moan. His hands graze over her back, her waist, up her neck and finally lace themselves in her hair, crushing her to him at every possible point.
Everything is so sudden, but at the same time it feels like a long time in the making. It was over a year ago that he spoke to her for the first time since the bread, every blanket fort and bad joke and indulgent glance in the meantime leading up to this. She's aware of how opposite their worlds are, and how impossible their connection is, but she doesn't care.
She doesn't know how or why, but something inside of her tugs at her heartstrings and promises that this would've happened anyway.
She comes back the next night, and the next night, and the next. It's always after the rest of the palace has gone to sleep, and the entire world is peaceful and quiet and theirs.
He paints the moon for her, and she sings him lullabies, and they memorize the spaces between each other's fingertips and the taste of each other's mouths. He makes her feel like royalty. He treats her like a princess.
Although, he still calls her his little songbird.
She's polishing the silverware in the kitchen when two maids, Clove and a redhead that looks too much like a fox, burst through the door in a fit of giggles.
"You should've seen his face, Clove."
"I did see his face. The poor kid looked like he was about to have a heart attack."
"Probably will, if he ends up marrying the broad. Of all the possible brides in the whole world, the Queen had to pick the one with breasts the size of cantaloupes. She'll suffocate the lad."
Katniss's chest begins to prickle, a sickening feeling sinking into the pit of her stomach. As she massages the fork in her hands with the wrinkled cloth, she prays they're not talking about what she's thinking, and takes a round of deep breaths.
The fox-girl leans up against the door, rubbing her temples as she struggles not to laugh. "Why do you think she's doing this? The others aren't married yet. Why start with him?"
Nausea steamrolls Katniss's belly. She clenches her lips until they grow numb.
"I don't know," Clove says. "I mean, he's certainly not her favorite. Sacrificing him to another royal family wouldn't be beyond her."
"True." The redhead pops her lips. "But does she really have to sacrifice the kid to a woman who's got at least ten years on him? That seems inhumane."
"She's not the only one coming, you know. Apparently they're bringing in a few more later this afternoon."
"Poor girls. Being auctioned off like that. It's not all that fair."
"I feel more sorry for the prince," Clove sighs. "He doesn't do nothing, you know. Just minds his own business. Good painter, though."
Bile bubbles in Katniss's throat. She keeps her head lowered, praying the vertigo will ebb.
"He's got glorious hands," Foxface giggles, and Clove joins in, smacking the girl playfully on the shoulder.
"See, and that's why I don't feel so sorry for the ladies, you know? Cato's got hands like Peeta's. Big. Thick fingers and all. But he's not so gentle. God, can you imagine what the prince's feel like?"
The words alone make Katniss's skin tingle with the memory of his palms ghosting all over her skin. Their nights together don't go far beyond kissing, but the way Peeta caresses her is cosmic, his fingertips painting stars and moons over her body as his mouth clashes with hers.
She can't take this anymore. She lets the fork clatter into the case, the noise drawing the attention of the two maids by the door.
"Watch it there, Everdeen," Clove sneers.
Katniss disregards them, partially because she couldn't give two shits about either maid, but mostly because her head is pounding so intensely that it dulls all of her other senses. With trembling fingers, she latches the silverware case and dumps the rag on top, pushing her way out of the kitchen.
Voices waft through the corridor, the particular resonance of the sound revealing their location. Katniss follows their trail, which brings her to one of the balconies overlooking the grand hall, in which four-story stained glass windows shed splinters of colored light over the five thrones, three of which are occupied.
She clutches the guardrail to keep herself steady as she sees Peeta propped in the middle chair, the King and Queen bracketing him on either side.
"I do not want to marry her," Peeta growls, his voice reverberating off the high, stone walls. "Her, or the others."
"You haven't met the others, dear," the Queen responds back, her sugar-coated tone doing little to hide the malice beneath it.
"I'm only seventeen! My brothers don't have wives, so what makes my case different?"
The King lets out a deep, rumbling sigh. "Peeta, you are third in line for the throne of Panem. It is far more logical to have you extend our family's power by seeking a throne elsewhere. Princess Delilah could become the queen of her territory within the year, on the condition that she weds. This is a wonderful opportunity, son."
"I don't want Delly. Or Madge, or Cashmere, or whoever the other princesses are."
"Peeta Mellark," his mother hisses. "As a prince, it is your duty to serve your royal family."
In a motion that makes the entire room tremble, Peeta slams his fist against the golden arm of his cathedra. "My duty? Isn't it my brothers' duty to continue the royal bloodline? They're in their twenties, and yet they've done nothing to 'serve the royal family.' I'm still a kid! You can't ask of me what you've failed to ask of them!"
The King rubs his tired, wrinkle-stippled face. "Peeta, please."
Peeta's responding inhale is loud enough to echo off the walls, but before he can follow up with another plea, the room resonates with the low rumble of opening doors, causing him and his parents to grow rigid.
Katniss's heart plummets as she sees three heads appear from underneath the balcony, the trio gliding up the red velvet runner that leads to the thrones. The first two are soldiers of sorts, clad in all black and broad-shouldered, but the third individual is a small girl, probably not much older than Katniss.
When they reach the thrones, the soldiers introduce the girl as Princess Madge, and Katniss feels like she's about to be sick. She can't hear exactly what the princess says, but her words are gentle, soft; virtually the female counterpart of Peeta's. It's then, with the sound of the princess's voice, that she suddenly understands it's over. Regardless of whether Peeta's paired with Madge or someone else, this isn't a race she can win.
She should've distanced herself from Peeta while she still could. Before she became too attached. But she's been sleeping with the boy for nearly five months, which means that roughly one-hundred and fifty nights have been spent falling in love with a prince that was never really hers to begin with. Which is something she's known from the get-go, of course. She's just a maid. Peeta's a prince. Their worlds have a tiny sliver of an overlap, which they struggled too hard to stretch so that it could hold them both, together, but that was an awful idea, and how else could it have possibly ended?
Blinking back the stinging sensation that prickles under her lids, she scrambles away from the balcony and refuses to look back.
The maids' quarters are particularly lively that night, buzzing with the news of the visiting princesses, which prompts Katniss to curl the scratchy sheets around her body like a hermit crab retracting into its shell. She remains like that until even after the obnoxious chatter has died down, falling asleep overheated and with a raw throat.
In the morning, she feigns sickness so that she can cower in her cot, aware that if she were to leave these quarters, running into Peeta would be an inevitability. And that's something she simply can't afford. Even if he decided to evade their typical encounter in the laundry room, chances are she'd see him elsewhere, possibly courting one of the princesses or receiving a brutal lecture by his mother about his "duties."
She sleeps most of the day away until she's shaken awake mid-afternoon by soft hands, her eyes flickering open to see Annie folded at the edge of her cot.
"Hey, Katniss. How are you feeling?"
She swabs her face with the woolen blanket. "Like death." It isn't too far from the truth.
Annie fixes her with a sad smile, her sea-green eyes twinkling with sympathy.
"He asked about you."
Her lungs contort into an unnatural position, and she has to remember how to breathe while simultaneously keeping her face void of all emotion. Whatever they have – had – is a secret. Even Annie can't know, although she's definitely not in the dark.
"Who?" Katniss coughs, playing dumb.
But she's a pitiful actress. Annie rolls her eyes, rubbing Katniss's shoulder comfortingly. "You don't have me fooled, you know. While none of the other maids have noticed, I see you sneaking out of here every night. And I'm pretty confident that you're not getting out of bed just to go clean a bathtub for two hours at a time."
Katniss's face is already flushed from all the heat wrapped up in her blanket, but she can feel her skin transition to an even darker crimson. "You can't tell anyone."
"Hey. I would never tell a soul." She crosses her fingers over her heart. "Now, what's going on with you and the prince?"
Katniss squeezes her eyes shut, willing this entire situation to dissipate. But when they open again, Annie's still propped up inches from her face, waiting for a straight answer.
She feels her throat constricting again, her eyes tingling as they dampen, and she coughs to cover up the sob collecting in the back of her mouth.
"I—I think I love him, Annie." It's something she's been too afraid to admit, but as it slips from her mouth, she knows that it's undoubtedly true. She was vulnerable before, but admitting she loves Peeta now puts her in an even lower position, since it's too late for that affection to do anything but plunge straight back into her chest.
Annie gives her another smile, her thumb grazing the curve of her shoulder. "I don't think that's a one-way feeling, kiddo. The boy was a wreck this morning when he saw me."
"Of course he's a wreck. He—he's getting married, Annie. To someone else."
"Ah." Annie sighs. "So that's what this is about."
"The King and Queen are shipping him off to another kingdom to extend the bloodlines, or whatever, and there's nothing we can do."
Annie pushes the sheet off Katniss's arm, allowing some of the cool air of the basement to leak into her tight blanket burrito. "Here's something you can do – talk to him, Katniss."
"He's the one who's being forced into a marriage he doesn't want, even though he loves someone else. I think he could use some moral support, too. I mean, the poor kid was sitting on the floor of the laundry room when I came down. All red eyes, messy hair, you know? God, he was a disaster. Immediately scrambled to his feet and asked me if I knew where you were, and I said you weren't feeling well, and I swear he almost had a breakdown right there. He managed to pull himself together, but he was still pretty shaken up when he left."
Katniss pokes her arms from the blankets to wipe her nose. "I never meant to hurt him."
"I don't really think this is your fault. The situation, I mean. But you know, avoiding him probably isn't the best course of action."
Katniss nods. "You're right."
"I say you go see him tonight. Cry a little. Hug a little. Figure things out. I mean, if he's going to be delivered like a mail-order bride to another kingdom, at least make sure you two end things on a good note. Because if you don't, you're going to regret it for quite a while."
With a sniffle, she nods again, curling up tighter in her blanket. "Thanks, Annie."
"No problem. Remember, you're his Cinderella – the clock striking midnight is inevitable, so you might as well make the best out of the short time you're given."
It seems as though Peeta being auctioned off peps up the other maids to the point where the entire room hums with energy as they're all settling down in the evening. Usually the whole room is lifeless come eleven o'clock at night, but the maids are all buzzing around long after the hour has passed. It takes until the very end of the evening before it all calms, a film of silence dampening the room and providing the perfect opportunity for Katniss to slip out once again.
The bell tower beyond the palace walls strikes midnight, its sonorous ring echoing through the corridor as she arrives at Peeta's bedchamber. She neglects to knock before letting herself in – after all, that room feels closer to home than any other place on earth.
A cool breeze dances about the room, a shard of moonlight beaming through the open window and illuminating the still form of Peeta on the bed. His body's facing the window, his back to the door and to Katniss; she whispers his name into the static, but he doesn't respond, so she guesses he's asleep.
Stripping herself of her outerwear, leaving nothing but her slip and cotton panties, she pads over to his bed and slides onto the mattress that knows their intertwined forms by heart. Peeta stirs a little, but he doesn't wake. Dipping under the covers and snuggling up against the flat expanse of his bare back, she wraps her arms around him and burrows into his warmth, her lips pressing against the heated skin of his shoulder.
She feels his body grow rigid against her chest, a shallow breath sucked into his lungs.
"Katniss?" he chokes out into the dark.
She kisses his shoulder again, faintly pleased by the way he shudders under her mouth. "I couldn't stay away," she murmurs.
Before she can register what's happening, he's flipping around, his arms coiling around her thin body and clutching her to him in a bone-crushing embrace. She can feel him trembling, but she realizes she is, too, and so she grasps onto him in return, burying her face in his collar.
"I thought I was never going to see you again," he whispers, the quiver in his body manifesting itself in his voice.
She shifts in his grasp, snaking her hands up to cradle his jaw, brushing away the wet streaks slithering over his cheeks. As she does so, however, he squeezes her more tightly up against his frame, crashing his lips into hers. Even in its urgency, the kiss is still as gentle as ever, because that's the only dynamic Peeta knows. She wonders if her memory will do this part of him justice once he's gone. If she'll remember that regardless of how calm or how insistent he was, his kisses were never anything but reverent.
"I can't go," he says against her lips, his hands roaming over her bare shoulders and down to her hips, the thin fabric doing little to block the electricity emanating from his fingertips. "I can't do it."
His touch draws a gasp from her lips, and she winds her legs around his waist, suddenly hungry for something unfamiliar, something beyond her reach. "It'll be okay."
And it will, in some ways. In others, it won't. But neither of them has much of a choice in the matter, so they'll simply have to make do with the cards they're being dealt.
"Katniss?" Her name dribbles off his tongue in a short gasp as he suctions his mouth to her neck.
He peppers a tingling trail of hot flesh along her throat, her jaw, her cheek, and finally back to her lips. He draws back just enough for their eyes to lock, his blue and her silver brilliantly bright even in the gloom.
"I want you to know that I love you. And that I never wanted to leave you."
Although the words won't fill the hollow left by his absence, it'll certainly make it more bearable. Because of this, his confession is one of the best gifts he could possibly give; she has no reservations about returning the favor.
She brackets his jaw, her thumbs stroking the sharp line of it, desperate to memorize the feel of his skin in the little time they have left. She inhales, drawing in his scent, his taste, before finally echoing his declaration.
"I love you, too, Peeta. Always."
His responding kiss is like the ribbon on package, sealing their promise and fixing it into a tangible form. She melts against his body, and he holds her in, his tongue painting everything that was left unsaid against her lips. She moans her acceptance, her reciprocation, knowing that no string of fragile words could possibly cram all the things she needs to tell him into their quickly expiring timetable.
But, even now, kisses don't seem like enough. Nothing seems like enough. Desperate for him in a way she never could've imagined, Katniss asks him to be with her, really be with her. And the young prince, who'd do anything for his little songbird, eagerly indulges this final wish of hers, gently freeing her of her clothes, and him of his own, until they're only heat and skin and shallow breaths and impatient touches. His body feels like fire against her fingertips, and his lips taste like honey and courage, and she lets him take the only thing she has left to give him as she takes the only thing he has left to give her. It's a fair, painful, beautiful tradeoff.
And in an inexperienced flurry of awkward shifting and uncomfortable giggles, the prince and the maid become each other's in a way they could be no one else's. After they've found their rhythm and brought each other higher, higher, and higher, he gives her his devotion, and she gives him her voice, singing for him as they tumble over the edge together, together, one final time.
The youngest prince leaves later that week, parked in a carriage that takes him to a kingdom a day-trip from Panem. Their final goodbye had been the night he first made love to her, because she knew she wouldn't be able to see him again after that without breaking down entirely. After they'd come down from their highs, they curled up together to fall asleep in their warm cocoon. She'd planned on crawling out in the morning before he awoke, but of course, she stirred into consciousness with the sunrise streaming through the window and Peeta's mouth painting promises between her thighs. It made her departure a little more difficult, although she knew she'd ultimately be thankful for the extra time with him.
And she was. She is. After he's been gone for a week, she can still feel the touch of his skin against hers, the ghost of his warmth lacing her up with his memory. It was hard to get out of bed the first few days, but life goes on, because the prince loved her, loves her, and she'll always be his little songbird even if they're many horizons apart.
Sometimes she wonders if he'll fall in love with Princess Madge. Eventually, she supposes he will. Madge is a pretty girl, and appeared to be sweet from the fleeting moment Katniss saw her. The notion doesn't make her angry as often as she expects it to, and maybe that's because although Madge has him from here on out, she had him first, in a way no one else could. They were each other's first loves. That must mean something. And to her, it's everything.
The first three weeks are easier than anticipated. She struggles a little with getting out of bed most mornings, but once she's active, she manages to get by alright.
But as soon as the fourth week hits, it seems the residual ache that's been hanging over her head since his departure suddenly comes clamoring down on her, knocking her breath straight from her lungs. She wakes up limp and sore all over her body, all her joints throbbing whenever she moves, and her stomach protesting to the tiniest things. The misery makes her sick morning after morning, the nausea lingering until the afternoon, but by then it's too late to get to work.
After a week of this, Katniss awakes to her blanket being yanked from her shivering body. She startles into consciousness, her stomach lurching as she jolts up to see none other than the Queen herself hovering over the edge of her cot.
"Worthless girl," the Queen sneers. Her eyes are beady, but the blue in them makes Katniss's throat clench, because it's a blue she hasn't seen in a month.
Katniss begins to shiver, her head whirling as violently as her stomach. She grasps out for the blanket, but the Queen only scoffs, holding the fabric just out of reach.
"Get out of my castle, girl. I don't pay you to lounge around all day."
"Your Highness—" Katniss begins, feeling the acerbic taste of bile gurgling in her throat.
"Don't 'Your Highness' me, you lit—" But her sharpened words taper into a mortified shriek as Katniss buckles over, vomiting on the cement floor.
The Queen lurches back, slapping her hand over her mouth and nose as if she's about to be sick, too. Katniss remains frozen, hunched over the edge of the cot, a slight chill slithering through her as she wipes her mouth on the back of her hand.
And then, suddenly, it all makes sense.
"Oh my god," Katniss whispers, her eyes slowly rising to meet the revolted gaze that looks too much like the explanation.
The Queen makes something of a choking sound, and Katniss thinks she's going to be sick all over again.
"Are you pregnant?"
Originally, my plan was to make this just a run-of-the-mill one-shot. But, since I'm not Satan, I'd be open to scrounging up a second part. If you guys are up for it, of course. Just let me know by way of reviews, angry PMs, or overly-aggressive asks on Tumblr. (You can find me there at the-peeta-pocket.)