a/n: I said I wouldn't be able to write for a few days, but I was so excited for this story I've spent time that should be spent elsewhere on this. oh, well. This is a historical AU, and I'm sure it'll have historical inaccuracies, but I've tried my best with the time and the resources I have. I apologise in advance to any Civil War fanatics. The current outline is ten chapters, but I'm pretty terrible about predicting how many words a scene I planned will take to write, so that may change.
This is the day he will finally ask.
He repeats that to himself. This is it. He smoothes his hair back as he takes another long look in the mirror. He looks as presentable as he possibly can, hands and face clean, hair brushed, a fresh shirt and vest on. If his mother could see him, she would tell him to put on a walking suit before he went out, or at least a frock coat, because she doesn't need the entire town to call her son a hayseed.
But he knows that Katniss doesn't like ostentatious displays, that she will feel easier around him if he isn't dressed up to the nines. She doesn't care for that balderdash, and he likes that she doesn't.
This is it. He nods at himself in the mirror. He murmurs his prepared speech. He can do it.
He hurries down the stairs and heads straight for the door, but he hesitates when he sees his frock coat and his hat. Maybe he should wear them. He doesn't want to make her think he doesn't have a sense of propriety, or that he doesn't make enough money to afford a coat let alone to support her.
"Wear the coat," Rue says, popping her head out from the kitchen. "It makes you look handsome."
He nods. "Yes. But my frock, not my overcoat or my walking suit." But he hesitates, waiting until she nods agreement to that, too. She does. "Yes. The frock." He pulls it on, and he puts on his hat.
He looks over at Rue, and she smiles. "Perfect."
It isn't a short walk from town to the outskirts where she lives, but he doesn't mind. It lets him take a few more minutes to prepare himself. He needs to do this right. The road becomes muddier as the streets slowly start to narrow, and the houses become crowded together, their walls darkening with coal dust. And it's louder, too, with the shouts from children scattered in the alleys, running under clotheslines, giggling, playing ball. He tips his hat at one little girl, and her dark cheeks turn pink.
No one seems to think him suspicious, thankfully, even this far from town; it likely wouldn't have been like that only a few months ago, but the prospect that Virginia might join the secession makes people assume he is around to talk politics with someone, perhaps deliver a message, make plans.
Her house is further down, among the better houses in the Seam, with a front porch and a sparse, brown yard where a skinny goat is kept penned in. He knows her grandfather bought the land and built the house himself, passing it down to her father, and he knows it is a point of pride for her.
He can feel himself sweating through his shirt, but he can blame the sticky April afternoon for that.
He wipes his face on his handkerchief, though, before he steps up onto the porch. The door is open, but the screen door is closed, and he takes off his hat, knocks on the door frame with a shaky hand, and nervously shifts from foot to foot as he waits. He swallows thickly. This is it. Finally.
This is the day he will ask Katniss Everdeen to marry him. This is it.
And she is suddenly walking towards him, stealing his breath, her hair neatly pinned up, circled by a braid, hunting boots she shouldn't wear peaking out from under her dress, her sleeves rolled up, her hands pink from washing. Her face is purposefully blank when she appears, but she almost seems to brighten a little when she recognises him. "Mr. Mellark," she greets. "Good afternoon."
She stops, staying behind the screen door. He nods. "Good afternoon, Miss Everdeen." He turns his hat a little in his hands, his palms shamefully sweaty. She stares right at him, but this is it.
He just needs to ask. He practised this, didn't he? He can do it.
"I, um, I —" He can't manage to spit it out. He needs to tell her that he has always admired her beauty and her strength, that he knows she deserves to be courted like a lady and that he would be honoured to court her should she want, but already his own feelings compel him to ask if she —
"Mr. Mellark, is something the matter?" she asks, frowning a little.
He stares at her. Just spit it out. Just say it. Her beauty and her strength, start with that. Just say it.
The country is fractured, war a painfully possible prospect, yet his knees buckle at this small task. He reprimands himself, tries to force himself to stay calm, for he need have only a little courage.
"I came to call on you today," he starts bravely, "because I — I need a little blue mass." And he looks at his shoes, fingers curling into the brim of his hat. He just couldn't do it. He just couldn't.
He is not a brave man, not at all.
"Of course," she says, voice relaxed. "For your mother?"
He nods. "Yes, ma'am. I know I ask for it a lot, but her head continually plagues her —"
"I understand, Mr. Mellark," she says, voice warm enough that he dares to look at her. "No need to be troubled about it. As long as you can pay, my mother keeps plenty to sell. I'll be just a moment."
She disappears back into the house. "Yes, I can pay," he mutters pathetically to himself. "That's all I can do. Pay for pills my mother doesn't need." He pulls out his change purse. He should've worn his walking suit. It would've made him more courageous. He sighs, annoyed at himself.
Maybe he can still —
"Here you are, Mr. Mellark." She pushes open the screen door, and she holds out a small little bottle. His hand shakes a little as he takes it from her and his fingers brush hers, but it only lasts an instant, and he drops a dime into her open palm. "Thank you, sir." She offers him a small smile.
He nods, telling himself to take this last chance, but she is already turning away, the screen door closing. He puts his hat on, pocketing the pills. "And thank you, Miss Everdeen." She nods, and he starts down the steps, is off the porch, crossing the yard, when he just manages to do it.
"Miss Everdeen," he says, and she looks back at him. "I also — may I say that you — you look particularly pretty today." There. That's something, at least. He is almost afraid to see her reaction.
"Thank you, Mr. Mellark," she murmurs, and he wishes he could read her expression better.
He turns on his heel and hurries towards the street. Maybe that wasn't such a good idea. And why did he say today when she looks particularly pretty everyday? She probably thinks him pompous.
He doesn't understand how she does that to him. He isn't like this with anyone else; he can easily charm Delly Cartwright until she all but cries through her laughter, and he certainly doesn't act like a chump with the girls his mother presses him to court. But Katniss Everdeen looks at him, and he can't remember how to breathe properly, let alone tell her he is madly, hopelessly in love with her.
The moment he walks in the bakery back door, Rue smiles eagerly at him. "What did she say?"
"I didn't ask," he confesses, stripping off his coat and his hat. Rue hangs them for him, and he can hear his brother and his sister-in-law Lorie in the kitchen, probably annoyed that he disappeared for no reason in the middle of the afternoon. "I just couldn't. She would've laughed in my face, Rue."
"No," Rue says, "no, sir, I don't believe that. Just wait. The next time you try, when you do ask."
"No," he says, shaking his hand. "I shall never be able to ask. Never."
"You shall," she insists. "This was only your twel — thirt — fourteenth try, sir. You shall. Soon."
He snorts, petulant. "Only my fourteenth time. That's just hunky dory, Rue." He starts towards the kitchen, knowing she can't continue the conversation when they're in the kitchen, his family able to listen in. As much as he loves them, he just can't talk to his family about Katniss. He only really trusts Rue with that talk; his family likely wouldn't approve, or at least his awful mother wouldn't.
That wouldn't matter if Katniss agreed to marry him; he would ignore anything his mother might feel the need to say, and he would marry her regardless. But why bother to handle all the nasty comments his mother will toss at him before he even works up the courage to talk to her properly?
Bannock doesn't ask where Peeta was; he only tells him a fresh cake is ready to be iced. Peeta nods, and he pulls off his vest, tosses it over a chair, and rolls up his sleeves. Bannock runs the bakery these days, now that their father can't do much more than sit up in bed, but Peeta works under him, helps with the cakes mostly, because he doesn't have any other work to do, and Bannock pays him enough money that Peeta can both support Rue and buy countless pills.
He knows his mother wants him to do what his brother Rye did, wants him to find a pretty girl from a respectable family that doesn't have a son, so that Peeta can become that son, apprenticing to his father-in-law and taking over the business. His mother actually cried when Rye married Edith.
His terrible old mother, always on the make, nevermind what her sons want.
But Peeta isn't interested in any such girls. Only Katniss, always Katniss.
And that means, of course, that he'll end up a bachelor his entire life, that loony old fellow that makes the cakes, mutters unsaid speeches to himself, and buys pain pills like they're sweets.
The afternoon passes far too slowly, his hands busy with the cakes as he tasks his mind to think about anything but Katniss. At dinner, he listens to his mother complain about the charity function the church hosted that afternoon, how this lady did that wrong and that lady did this wrong, and he finally escapes with his usual excuse that he needs to meet with a few friends for drinks.
It is a lie, but Peeta reasons that ends justify the means, God forgive him.
No one tries to stop him, not anymore. This is his accepted habit after the last month.
Thresh lets him in the back door, and they take the stairs to the second floor, where George, Benjy, and Charlie all wait. They hail him with nods, and Thresh fixes a drink for him. The moment Peeta takes a seat, Charlie leans forward in his. "The telegram came in last night," he tells them, voice low, "and it'll be in the papers tomorrow. This is it, boys. This is the day that shall make history."
He stops for a moment, and Peeta is tense, worried. "What is it?" George asks.
"Lincoln called for soldiers," Charlie reveals.
No. Peeta shakes his head. "He wouldn't do that."
"He did," Charlie says, expression grim. "And the whole world finds out the moment they read the papers tomorrow. Lincoln wants us to provide seventy-five thousand troops to end the secession."
"It means war," Benjy murmurs. "They won't come back without a fight. It means war."
"I do not believe Lincoln wants a war," Peeta insists. "I will not believe it."
"So what does he want with seventy-five thousand troops, Peeta?" George asks, frustration brimming, his moustache twitching as he holds his scotch with white knuckles. "He wants a war."
Peeta only continues to shake his head.
"Look, the only way war might not happen is if we do send troops to Lincoln," Charlie says. "If we side with Lincoln, with the Union, if we refuse to secede, it might diffuse the situation. As long as we don't secede, Arkansas shan't, nor Tennessee, nor Kansas. They shall surely do as we do."
"South Carolina won't come back without a fight," Benjy insists. "No matter what we do."
"But it won't be a bloody fight if they don't have Virginia to back them," Charlie replies, and Benjy doesn't argue that. "If Virginia stays with the Union, we can end this war before it really starts."
"Except what Virginian will agree to stay with Lincoln after this?" Peeta asks.
"The crux of the matter, that," Charlie says, and he leans back in his seat, pulling out a cigar.
"Lincoln doesn't deserve for us to stay," Benjy replies coldly, "not after calling for troops."
"But the Union still does," Peeta says. "And if not even you can remember that, Ben, how many other Virginians will?" Benjy doesn't respond, his eyes on his scotch. Peeta shakes his head at him.
"It must be our job to remind them," Charlie finally says. "The next few weeks will be crucial. If the convention decides to abandon Lincoln and votes to secede, the secession must still be ratified. We are free men in Virginia, and it is we who determine our fate. We can vote not to ratify it."
They talk a little more, discussing ways to keep support for the Union strong. They can have the most impact with the small, local paper that Charlie prints with his uncle, and Peeta readily agrees to write an unsigned editorial that warns against secession. Benjy is beloved among the socialites, and he can find ways to disparage secession without too much ado, and George, the only coal miner in their small party, can make certain the miners understand the situation for what it really, truly is.
As Peeta walks home, though, he feels hopeless despite it all.
At best, they can only influence their own small town. Virginia itself must make the final decision, and Peeta can easily imagine how many men are like Benjy, so easily turned against their president.
He wants to talk about it with someone else, and perhaps he will with Rue.
But what would Katniss think? He imagines that with her pride in her home, she possesses pride for Virginia as well. Is she among the proud Virginians who believe their fate lies as leaders in the Union, or is she among those who believe they would do best to defend their institutions alongside those who wish to defend the same institutions? He would do anything to know her mind.
He is a dope without any grit, however, unable even to speak a single coherent sentence to her, and he knows any thoughts she might have on the possible secession will never be shared with him.
He doesn't sleep much that night. He writes a little, starts a rough draft for the editorial. The word secession denies the truth, he writes. This is a revolution against their home, a revolution against the Union the founding fathers created, a revolution against the liberties they intended to protect.
It betrays the founding fathers; it would be a complete calamity to dissolve the Union they created.
He likes that. He'll print that. He wonders if Katniss would like it. And he shakes his head at himself.
The convention passes the articles to secede, just as Charlie predicted. It is up to the Virginians themselves to choose whether or not to ratify it. Peeta finishes his editorial, and Charlie prints it that night. It is widely read, Peeta knows; he hides a smile every time he hears it mentioned.
He can barely manage to hide his smile, though, when he catches Miss Prim excitedly reading aloud a passage to tall, wiry Rory Hawthorne.
They're both in the bakery the very pnext morning to trade cheese for a few loaves, and he can't resist. It isn't wise to ask outright what a person thinks on the matter, but sweet little Primrose Everdeen isn't about to start a fight. "Heard you reading that editorial, Miss Prim," he says, wrapping up the three raisin loaves for which she traded. "What'd you think?" He keeps his voice carefully light.
Her eyes brighten. "I agree with it completely, Mr. Mellark! Completely! My sister says —"
"Aw, come on, Miss Prim," Hawthorne interrupts, teasing, "the only reason you agree is because Miss Everdeen does, and you think she knows everything." He shakes his head fondly at her.
"I don't think she knows everything," Prim argues. She looks at Mr. Mellark. "But you've met my sister, Mr. Mellark! You know how smart she is! And she says for Virginia to secede would be every bit the calamity that editorial says." She nods her head firmly, and Hawthorne simply smiles, obviously among the two dozen boys who would do anything to court pretty, precious Primrose.
Peeta only smiles, too, holding out the bread.
Katniss liked the editorial. She stands with the Union. It makes him want to attempt another proposal.
But the time for proposals has passed, hasn't it?
A call from the town militia for volunteers is sent out only days later, and brawls break out across town. Peeta himself tears Rye off Arthur Wood, a thin man with whom Rye attended school. Rye shouts that Arthur isn't a Virginian if he would so easily turn his back on its liberties.
It isn't until later, at the bakery, that Peeta learns Rye means its liberties as a commonwealth that intends to defend their peculiar institution, a commonwealth that intends to join the Confederacy. Peeta can't find the words to reply to his brother. He doesn't let himself ask what Bannock thinks.
It is Bannock who shakes Peeta awake three days later. "Troops are on their way," he says, voice low and urgent, and Peeta blinks sleepily, unsure what his brother means. "Peeta, the Union army is on its way here. They went to secure the town. All able-bodied men are called to help defend it."
"No," Peeta says, scrambling to sit up. "No. The vote to ratify secession —"
"It doesn't matter," Bannock says. "No one cares. Look out the window, Peeta. That smoke? They're fighting in the streets, those who want to arm against the Union and those who want to welcome them with open arms. So what side are we on, Peeta? What do you want to do?"
Peeta blinks at Bannock, his quiet, introverted brother, always letting Rye and Peeta outshine him.
"Lock the doors," Peeta finally breathes. "That's what we do. We lock the doors, and we pretend we're not here, and we wait out the night. That's what we do." He runs a hand through his hair. "If they've started to fight in the streets, it doesn't matter who is right or who is wrong. It doesn't. And we don't need to be involved in a bloodbath." He stares at his brother, and Bannock only nods.
He wakes Rue, quickly explains, and asks her to cover all the windows.
They lock all the doors with help from Lorie, their parents still asleep, and they stay silent, all the candles snuffed. Peeta retrieves the revolver his father keeps under a floorboard in the pantry, and he waits on a stool by the door. Lorie finds stale soda biscuits for them to eat. They can smell smoke within an hour; angry, drunken shouts echo down the street within two, but otherwise the night passes easily, quietly. It is almost too silent as sunlight just peaks through slits in the curtains.
Whatever happened, the fourth street shops, their small bakery among them, escaped the worst it.
As soon as he hears the birds start to sing, he unbolts the door. He keeps the revolver in hand, and he steps out onto the street. He spots Greasy Sae first, pushing her soup cart. The doors to the blacksmith are open. He sees Janice Snyder looking anxiously out her window across the street.
He starts towards Sae. She smiles a gummy smile. He doesn't even have to ask.
"Mr. Lee sent troops," she explains, "and they pushed back the Union 'fore our militia could."
He nods, and she continues. "The battle didn't even come into town; stayed out by the river, it did, little ways north from the mines. But them Confederate soldiers are all around town this morning, more just pouring in by the dozen, whipping any fellows they suspect have Union sensibilities."
"So we're for the Confederacy now, are we?" he asks.
Sae chuckles. "If that's what the troops stationed all around want to hear, that's what I'll tell 'em."
If anyone can survive a war, it is old Greasy Sae.
"I suspect everyone'll be out soon enough," she adds, "going about their business like all's well."
"A fresh bowl for my first fresh loaf?" he asks, and she nods, smiling. He heads back to the bakery to tell Bannock and Lorie. And, like Sae predicted, it doesn't take long for people to venture out onto the street, opening shops, making trades, acting like nothing changed. He explains to his mother what happened as if he had slept soundly through the night, too. She doesn't question it.
It isn't even noon when Peeta spies Confederate soldiers out on the street.
He keeps his head down as he delivers bread to Sae, and she winks at him as hands him cold pea soup. He doesn't know how long the soldiers might stick around, but he knows they can't possibly have enough whips to keep the peace for too long, and the town will trade hands at some point.
He finally finds a chance to sneak away from the bakery for half an hour a little past three.
He passes main street, and he pretends not to hear the sound leather makes when it smacks skin.
It looks worse as he walks from town; he sees shattered glass sprinkled on the street, bullet holes pepper a bookstore, and more Confederate soldiers hover as he reaches the Seam. He starts to walk with a limp, and they mostly ignore him. A small man with beady eyes does stop him, though.
"Just on my way to see my girl," Peeta answers, voice hard. "Them damn Yankees better not have touched her, or I'll give 'em worse than I did last night." He narrows his eyes at absolutely nothing.
The soldier nods. "They're all mashers, those Yanks," he says, and he spits on the ground. "But long as we're around, you don't gotta worry about your girl." Peeta asks him if anyone waits for him at home, and he is treated to a picture. Another five minutes, and he learns that the troops are spreading across Virginia to make sure the Union can't swoop in the moment secession is ratified.
He finally escapes, a little the wiser for it. It looks like nobody doubts that Virginia plans to secede.
He can't remember the last time he came to see Katniss and found the door closed, but he isn't surprised. He knocks. No one answers. It could be that they only mean to be careful, to do what he did all last night, but it could also mean something is the matter. He coughs as loudly as he can.
If he sounds sick —
The door just barely opens. He lifts his hand up, a cautious hello.
"Mr. Mellark," Katniss says, sighing as she swings open the door. She isn't harmed. "I should've known you'd be by after last night. Something for your mother?" He nods, grateful that she so easily makes the excuse for him. She turns away, only to pause. She holds open the screen door.
"Why don't you wait inside?" she asks, eyes scanning the street over his shoulder.
Her house is dark, the windows all tightly shut, but he doesn't really care, not when she stands so close to him as she bolts the door shut. "Just a moment," she murmurs, as she always does, and she disappears down a narrow hall, leaving him in the small foyer. He spins his hat in his hands.
He spies an old musket around the corner, sitting innocently on the stairs.
He shouldn't worry about Katniss. She can take care of herself.
Moments after he thinks it, someone exclaims his name. "Mr. Mellark!" And Miss Prim hurries down the stairs. "I'm so happy to see you! I've been so worried about everyone in town! Mother left to help the injured just after sunrise, and she sent word through my dear friend Abigail that the Hawthornes were well — you've met Rory Hawthorne, haven't you? — but I haven't heard from anyone in town, and Katniss threatened to lock me in the pantry if I tried to step foot outside!"
"And the threat still stands," Katniss says, reappearing, pills in hand.
"I can't speak for everyone in town," Peeta tells Prim, "but my family is well, as is everyone who lives along fourth street, including the Undersees." Prim nods, her relief evident, and Peeta realises that Katniss looks relieved, too, as he pays her for the pills. "I should also say — just to make you aware, of course, I do not mean to make any assumptions — that Confederate soldiers are everywhere, and they've started to whip anyone they suspect might sympathise with the Union."
Katniss nods, and he just barely catches her eyes flicker to the hidden musket.
He doesn't want to leave, but he doesn't have a reason to stay, and he heads out.
He remembers to limp on the walk back. He feels a little better about the day now, assured that the Everdeens are perfectly fine, but Rue meets him in the backyard behind the bakery the moment he returns. "A man is here to see you, sir," she says, her voice small, her eyes wide and worried, "a Confederate. He won't say what he wants, but his uniform — he looks like he might be a general."
His stomach clenches. "Stay outside," he tells her. He walks in, and he finds Lorie making tea for the plump man who sits at the kitchen table. They don't usually let guests into their small kitchen; customers are only welcome in the front, and visitors are taken upstairs to their small parlor.
"Ah, finally!" the man exclaims, "is this the youngest Mr. Mellark?"
"Peeta Mellark, sir," he introduces, holding out his hand, and the man shakes it with fat, sweaty fingers, but he doesn't offer his own name. Peeta tries not to stare at the uniform that belongs to a general. The man is older, too, with badly combed white hair and a thick, unkempt white beard.
The general looks at Lorie. "A minute alone, my dear lady?" he asks, smiling.
Lorie nods, looks nervously at Peeta, and scampers out to the front.
"Have a seat, Mr. Mellark, I insist." He nods at the chair across from his. Peeta is almost glad to sit, his legs turned stiff under him. "I had a talk with an awful fellow just earlier. A right blowhard, no common sense, no idea what to say and what to keep himself." He pauses to sip his tea. "Ah, yes. That's it. My compliments to your lovely sister. Are you married yourself, Mr. Mellark?"
"No, sir," Peeta says.
"Attached to anyone?"
"No, sir," Peeta says.
"Excellent!" And the man smiles widely, making Peeta want to grit his own teeth. He keeps his face smooth, unaffected, but he still can't decide what angle to take with this strange man.
"Anyway, Mr. Evans certainly won't say much more, I'm sure, until his back patches up. I swear, they almost tore all the skin clean off!" He chuckles a little. "He should've kept quiet, old Charlie Evans." He smiles at Peeta, as if waiting for him to agree, and Peeta can barely manage to nod.
"We had a talk beforehand, though, and I told him how delighted I was with his little paper. It really speaks to the Southern mind. And I told him, I did, how much I enjoyed a particular piece written a few weeks ago, an unsigned editorial against secession. I asked if I could credit it to him."
There. That's why the man is here. To take Peeta to that same whipping pole. Peeta bites his cheek.
"Under the impression that we were of the same sympathies," the man continues, "he revealed to me that he had not the eloquence to write such a stirring piece, but it was his friend. Peeta Mellark."
Peeta wants to be mad at Charlie, too stupid to shut up for his own good, too stupid to protect his own friends. But Charlie always means well, and Peeta can't stay angry with a whipped, beaten man.
"I wouldn't call myself eloquent," Peeta finally replies.
The man chuckles. "I certainly would, rest assured. That editorial, well, it turned quite a few heads, Mr. Mellark." He leans forward in his seat, and he lowers his voice. "And, just between you and me, I wouldn't mind if you managed to turn a few more; in fact, I'd very much like to help you."
Peeta stares at him.
"If you'd like, you can simply ignore my offer," the man continues. "I already made sure Mr. Evans is blamed for the editorial. But if you really meant those words —" He stops, and he waits.
"I meant them," Peeta finally murmurs. He won't be ashamed, whipping pole or not.
The man looks delighted. "Excellent. Just excellent! I work with some big bugs, Mr. Mellark, and we can always use help with more delicate matters. It would be dangerous; this is, after all, a war, but I have a train ticket for you, should you choose to help us end all this atrocious business."
"I mean no disrespect, sir," Peeta replies, "but you still haven't exactly told me what it is you want me to do, where your loyalties lie, or even what your own name is." His hands are fists in his lap.
"Oh, dear, I can be terribly rude, can't I?" the man says. "I shall explain everything, Mr. Mellark, in time, but I cannot be so bold until I am sure that you are to be trusted. I am happy, however, to share a little about myself. I am a proud South Carolinian, General Plutarch Edward Heavensbee."
Peeta doesn't even blink when the little boy runs down the street, screaming out the news sent from Richmond by telegram. Virginia has ratified the articles on secession, has joined the Confederacy.
He makes his own announcement at dinner that night.
"I've decided to join the war effort," he says.
It takes a moment for anyone to respond. "Which side?" Lorie finally asks.
"The Confederacy, of course," his mother snaps, "you stupid girl." She looks tersely at Peeta, and he sighs, offering Lorie a small, apologetic smile as he nods. "Yes," his mother says, pleased. "I couldn't stand to see my own son fight against our state." Her pleasure doesn't last long. "But you'd shame the Confederacy," she continues. "I'd have a telegram within a week to tell me you died."
"Mother," Bannock says, almost a protest.
"What?" his mother exclaims. "And you think he can fight in a war? Heh! It is generous to claim he would last even a week. No. You aren't about to fight, Peeta. You aren't a soldier." She stabs her chicken leg, unapologetic, and he stares at her for a moment, trying his best not to despise her.
"It isn't up to you, Mother," he says. "I've already signed up. I won't join the local militia, or the troops stationed in town. I spoke with a general who passed through last week, and I'm to join his forces in two days time, no matter what your opinion is. The train ticket is already purchased."
The entire table stares at him.
"Fine," his mother hisses at last, "if you managed to fool some poor Southern general, fine." She points her fork at him. "But you will have to tell your pitiful father that you intend to kill yourself."
That's it. That's this discussion.
After dinner, Peeta does tell his father, who looks pained at the news, but who sits up in bed to shake Peeta by the hand, and he makes Peeta promise to write as often as he possibly can. Peeta needs to tell Rye, too, but he knows his brother won't try to stop him; Rye already joined the militia last week. The only person left who might try to dissuade him is —
"I'll come with you," Rue announces the next morning, face set.
"No," he says, adamant. "You can't."
"I can," she says. "It isn't uncommon for soldiers to take servants along to fight with them. I asked my aunt Seeder. And I want to come with you, sir. I want to fight by your side." But he refuses to listen to her arguments; he ignores her all day, ignores her continued insistence that she must come.
She corners him the next afternoon, though.
"And what shall I do, sir?" she finally demands. "If you leave, I can't stay at the bakery."
He blinks at her, surprised. He hadn't though about that. But she is right; he doesn't even try to argue the point. He knows she can't possibly stay with his mother. "It will be hard to find work as a freedwoman," Rue says, "especially with tensions so high. But if I accompany you —"
"No," he says, shaking his head, "with me you are in too much danger."
He can see on her face how much she wants to shout at him, but she is too loyal to argue too much; instead she bites her tongue, just waiting, he knows, for him to realise that it would be best for her to come with him, to fight with him, to put her life in danger as he plans to do. No. It won't happen.
"I can pay for you to board somewhere in the North," he says, "if we can find a train that will take you. If not —" He stops, sighing, because she is shaking her head with blazing, emphatic eyes.
"I'm not about to let you pay for me to hide away somewhere with money that you're earning as you risk you life," she says, her shoulders squared defiantly. "Sir," she adds, an afterthought.
It makes him laugh despite himself. "What if I pay for you to work?" he asks, a new idea springing to mind. "You'll still earn every penny." He can see her trying to decipher what his new plan is.
"But I wouldn't be with you," she says, and he nods. "What work would I do?" She is suspicious.
He smiles. This is a brilliant idea, his best ever. "You would look after Katniss Everdeen."
He knocks on the door, and he glances back at Rue, who somehow looks ever smaller as she waits nervously at the edge of the yard. "Mr. Mellark?" Katniss says, and his face snaps back to the door, back to her, looking slightly concerned, her hand on the screen door, ready to push it open.
"Miss Everdeen," he says. "My apologies for the late hour, but my train leaves early tomorrow, and I needed to speak with you before I left." He doesn't wait for her to reply. He is about to say more to her than he ever has in his life, and he can't let himself back down. "I am to join the war effort, but I need to find work for Rue before I do, to assure that she will be fed and housed while I am away, and I am here to ask if you might be so generous as to open your own home to her."
He swallows thickly, prepared lines delivered, and her face is unreadable as she stares at him.
"It is uncouth for to me ask something like this," he adds, "but I am without any other choice."
"Mr. Mellark," she finally murmurs, "you want me to look after your slave while you fight?"
"No!" he says, "oh, no! Rue isn't my slave. No, ma'am. I apologise. I should have explained, but I forget that so few know. I bought Rue her freedom from my parents several years back. I pay her wages from my own pocket now. She is a freedwoman." He smiles, but Katniss doesn't respond.
"And I would continue to pay her wages while I am away," he continues quickly, "but I fear that my mother would — would mistreat her, and I would prefer she stay elsewhere. I would pay for her to board among other young ladies, but Rue will not allow me to pay her if she does not work. Thus I hoped you might perhaps allow her to earn her wages working here. I will still pay those wages, of course, and I will pay for you to house her as well, if it would not be too much trouble."
He reminds himself to breathe.
"Mr. Mellark," Katniss starts, "I really am not sure. . . ."
He closes his eyes for a moment, and he steps a little closer, lowering his voice. "This does cause you trouble, I know, and I truly do not wish to put you out like this, but I don't know where else I might turn. She is — Rue is family to me, as much as my brothers are. She is a sister to me, and she is just a child, Miss Everdeen. She cannot be on her own. But if I were to leave her with my mother — there is a reason so few people know Rue is freed. My mother still hasn't forgiven my father for agreeing to sell me Rue with the knowledge that I would free her, and I —"
He forces himself to stop his desperate ramble, and he looks imploringly at a silent Katniss. She is the only person who he imagines might understand, her own young sister so dear to her heart.
"She is a sister to you," Katniss says, hesitant. "She is not —" She stops, eyebrows raised.
It takes him a moment. "No!" he cries, completely flabbergasted. "Not at all! No, ma'am," he sputters, "I assure you that I am not — I would never — she is only a child — I am a gentleman — the sanctity of marriage — and my Christian heart belongs to — she is not — I would never —"
Katniss lifts her hand, biting her lip, eyes amused. "I understand, Mr. Mellark. I understand."
His face flushed, he nods. "If it would not be too bold, may I just — your own sweet sister, dear Miss Prim. Think how you adore her. That is my adoration for Rue. I need her to be looked after."
Katniss seems to consider him for a long moment, before suddenly she looks past him to Rue.
He looks over his shoulder and nods at Rue, who slowly approaches, nervously smoothing her skirts. "Ma'am," she murmurs, curtsying and carefully looking at the porch rather than at Katniss.
Katniss pushes open the screen door, coming out onto the porch.
"All I can offer is a cot in the kitchen," she tells Rue, "and we'd need to put it away during the day, but if you don't mind helping clean and cook game or tending to the garden, or helping my mother and my sister with their midwifery, you're more than welcome to earn you wage here, Miss Rue."
Rue nods. "That would be quite agreeable, thank you, ma'am."
"Also, I shall need you to look at me," Katniss says.
Rue looks, and Katniss smiles softly, making Peeta clench his hat tightly in his hands. Her smile is so sweet, so rare. Rue smiles back hesitantly. "I'll return tomorrow with my things, shall I?" she asks. "After I see off Mr. Mellark? I don't have much. I shall not be any imposition, ma'am."
"I know you shan't," Katniss says. "Tomorrow it is." Rue nods, looking happily at Peeta, and Katniss looks at him as well. "Are you to fight for the Confederacy?" she asks, her expression guarded once more, and he wonders if Katniss is now among those secretly loyal to the Union.
He sincerely hopes she is, but he cannot explain that, cannot explain his situation, although he does not wish to lie, either. "I am to fight, yes, ma'am," he replies, "what my God and my country ask of me, I cannot deny." There. It is not wholly a lie. "I shall send wages for Rue by letter," he adds.
Katniss nods. "Very well."
He stares for a moment, realising that this is the last moment he might ever see her. He cannot imagine what the war will bring, but the chances that he will ever return home are small. A thousand pretty words come to his tongue, but he only puts his hat on, and he smiles at her.
As he turns to leave with Rue, however, Katniss stops them. "Just a moment," she says.
She disappears into the house. He looks at Rue, who asks what Peeta said to Katniss to convince her to allow Rue to stay with her, to work for her. "I only told her how hard you worked," he replies, and Rue shakes her head at him. He smiles, admittedly guilty, and she laughs, eyes bright.
As hard as it seems to say goodbye to Katniss —
He already cannot begin to imagine a final goodbye to Rue. It will come tomorrow, however, will come far too soon. But if she is safe with anyone, it is with Katniss; still, perhaps he will ask her to look after the ring from his grandmother, just in case it might help her to sell it at some point.
"I like her," Rue says suddenly. "And I can see why you do, too." Her smile turns mischievous. "I can't wait to help raise your children." She winks at him, and Katniss returns only moments later.
Katniss holds a small leather pouch out to him. "It isn't much," she says, "just smelling salts, a little moss to stem bleeding, blue mass, some mint leaves for hunger, and a few remedies for infection."
She doesn't look straight at him, but he lets his hand catch hers as he accepts the small gift. He curls his palm around her fingers, and he waits until she finally lifts her eyes to meets his. "Thank you, Miss Everdeen," he murmurs. She nods. He releases her hand.
He tips his hat. He doesn't intend to look back as he leaves, Rue at his side, but he can't help himself. Katniss stands in the doorway, her hand on the screen door, ready to disappear, but she doesn't yet; she watches them walk away instead. If only he had even been able to muster the courage, just once, to tell her how much she meant to him with all her beauty and all her strength.
He can only hope he finds the courage to fight this war before the train whisks him into it.
a/n: First, I am from the South — from Virginia, in fact, proudly so — and I don't mean to insult anyone with this story, but it isn't kind to the Confederacy. I don't want to offend anyone, and the "evil" characters, while Confederates, will also be characters created by Suzanne Collins.
Second, I imagine Peeta and Katniss live in what becomes West Virginia, which was the stage for vicious guerilla warfare and not much else, thus for the story I move them to actual Virginia, where major battles took place, including that which will eventually feature in the story. More on that in the next chapter, however, which will be up within a week, fingers crossed. And if you have any questions about any of the historical stuff, or any terms, or anything like that, just ask!
Third, this story will actually alternate POVs, and that means a few chapters will be heavily centered on Katniss or on Peeta at certain points. I apologise for the sad lack of Katniss in this chapter, but she is the undisputed star of the next chapter, so stay tuned. :)