Author's Note- A huge thanks goes out to Chelzie for betaing this and to Maltease for her character notes. Without these two, I wouldn't be posting this.
Chapter 2 (Peeta)
Katniss Everdeen. The name suited her – not very feminine, but still very pleasing. I sighed and stared back at the house she had disappeared into. Even then, I realized how foolish it was to like this woman and to offer her family sanctuary here. Finnick was going to regret sending me alone to this place, yet what was done was done. I could no more turn out this brave slip of girl and her family – who I spotted watching me from the windows – than I could turn a beggar away from the bakery door in the cold of winter when I was a boy in Poland. Both had consequences. Years ago, that had resulted in a harsh slap from my mother, but who knows what this new lapse would bring.
I grabbed my cane and hobbled out of the barn. Each step sent white hot shards of pain through my whole body. Usually the old injury doesn't bother me much, but hours in the saddle had left me in agony. Still, what I wouldn't give for a leisurely soak in a tub and a comfortable place to sit and rest. Instead, I washed my hands in the bucket beneath the pump before heading into the house. Despite years spent in the war and then on the road, I still had a shred of the manners that my mother had literally beaten into me and my brothers.
Knocking on the door, I did my best to conceal my discomfort. It would do no good to let the Everdeen women to know of the pain in my leg or the unrest in my mind. I had learned many years ago that it was best to wear a smile and push the clouds from your eyes. Charm was the best defense I had to my name, and I used it well on the small woman who opened the door.
"Please, come in, Mr. Mellark," she said hesitantly. Her wide blue eyes were heavily lined in the corners and her cheeks bore the hollows that spoke of many hard years, but I could see that she had been a beautiful woman once. If I had any doubts of that, I merely had to look at the girl standing at the stove to prove it.
"Thank you for your hospitality," I replied, removing my hat. "Please, call me Peeta."
She eyed me warily. "I'm Lilian Everdeen, and this is my youngest daughter, Primrose," she indicated towards the sweet looking girl at the stove, to whom I gave a curt bow. "You've already met my oldest."
"Your daughters have inherited their mother's beauty," I told her with a smile.
"Katniss didn't say that you were a snake oil salesman," Mrs. Everdeen teased with a small smile.
Primrose giggled endearingly. "She didn't say much at all about you. Where are you from, Peeta?"
"Poland," I answered, giving her a roguish grin. Some women were easily charmed by accents, and I had a feeling she would adore O'Dair if it weren't for his wife.
"Please, have a seat, Mr. Mellark," Mrs. Everdeen said formally.
I pulled up a chair to a table that was well worn, but still adorned with a thin table cloth. My eyes idly scanned the room. Like Mrs. Everdeen, the house was marked by poverty. The furnishings were sparse and for the most part, threadbare. A faded quilt lay across the back of an old rocking chair that had a sewing basket beside it. I spotted two doors along the far wall that I assumed led to the bedrooms. Despite this, the home was clean and well maintained. This must have been a very happy home at one point, I decided – nothing like the place I had left behind.
"And where is Miss Katniss?" I asked curiously as Primrose started to set the table.
Mrs. Everdeen pursed her lips. "Cleaning up. I won't have a hooligan at my table."
I nodded and opened my mouth to make some small talk when I caught Primrose staring at my outstretched leg and cane.
"Did you hurt yourself?" she asked.
"Primrose Everdeen!" her mother huffed.
"An old war wound," I replied with a smile. "It doesn't bother me very much, nor does talking about it. I simply do not move as quickly as I once did. But at least I can always knock on wood for luck," I joked, leaning down and doing just that beneath where my knee had once been.
The girl looked away quickly, but not before I'd seen the flash of discomfort cross her pretty features. It was a reaction that I had become quite accustomed, if not immune to, since the war. I wondered if the fact that I had been wounded while fighting for the enemy would have changed things between us; it certainly had with Katniss.
"Well, I am sure your Mama is just glad you came home," Mrs. Everdeen said with a haunted look. There was something breakable about the woman. The hollowness to her eyes reminded me of Annie O'Dair, and I hoped that I was wrong in making the comparison.
Suddenly, one of the doors opened and Katniss appeared. I blinked a few times, certain that I wasn't seeing the same tomboy I had met not an hour before. She was wearing a simple blue dress that was a bit too short for her, and her hair was braided and pinned up in an intricate knot. Her eyes met mine dead on. Her tanned skin made her eyes seem almost eerily silver rather than gray, a stunningly beautiful combination. For a moment, my thoughts scattered until she began tugging at the sleeves of her dress underneath my gaze.
"You look like you ain't never seen a girl before," she grumbled.
I grinned. "No, just surprised to see that you are actually a woman, not a girl."
"Call it what you will. I'm still not a lady," she muttered, looking away.
"And what if I beg to differ?"
Mrs. Everdeen cleared her throat and set a heaping plate full of ham and fried potatoes in front of me. "I was hoping that you would be so kind as to say grace."
I squirmed uncomfortably under her gaze. In the last seven years, I have not spoken to God once. It was a promise that I had made myself on the field in Gettysburg after I crawled to my brother's side and watched him die in agony from a wound to the stomach. Although I had prayed that day, God had not seen fit to answer that prayer, nor any of the ones made by the fifty thousand dead and dying men. God did not care about his creations, so why should I care for him? Despite my desire to please Mrs. Everdeen, I couldn't do it. I swore that I would never again bow my head to Him until I had proof that Divine Mercy existed.
"I am sure that your words would be much more pleasing to our Lord," I lied.
She didn't press the matter, and I lowered my head just enough to be polite as she spoke. I kept my mind blank of any religious feeling. Instead, I stole glances at Katniss from the corner of my eye as she sat beside me. Her gray eyes seemed to be doing the same thing. I don't think she even trusted me enough to close her eyes long enough to say grace.
"When did you say your partner should be here?" she asked before taking a bite.
"A few days, most likely. He wanted to take an easier pace with his wife and grandmother than what I had hoped for. Finnick O'Dair is a good man. I think you'll like him," I predicted hopefully.
Mrs. Everdeen bit her lip nervously. "I suppose we should ready the bunk house... that is, if you don't mind us staying on," she amended.
"No, I meant what I said when I told your daughter that you and your family are welcome to stay. When I purchased this land, I did not do so with the intent of sending you away homeless. All that I ask is that you accommodate Annie and Mrs. O'Dair until we can find something more suitable for us all. Finnick and I will be happy to remain in the bunk house," I explained.
Primrose giggled. "You only say that because you haven't seen the bunkhouse."
Actually, I had seen the bunkhouse. I had noted the decrepit looking old building on my way past the barn, and thought that we should tear it down. However, I had not truly considered how many people would be living on this ranch now that the Everdeen women were staying. I had increased the number of ladies depending on us to five without so much as a thought to the practicality of it. Finnick was not going to be pleased.
I shoveled a forkful of food into my mouth, chewing slowly to avoid any other questions. The fact that the trio of women around me were digging into their portions with such enthusiasm wasn't lost on me. I had seen enough half-starved men to recognize hunger when I saw it. I finished my plate, and Mrs. Everdeen moved to put another slice of ham onto my plate. Holding a hand to my stomach, I feigned fullness. "I am not sure I could eat it, and you took so little for yourself," I told her.
Katniss frowned. It didn't take a genius to see that she was warring between stubbornness and gratitude at the moment. I fought back the urge to encourage her to eat more as well, but knew that she was a proud woman. I respected her for it, because I knew that I was far from proud. I would sell my pride and my dignity if or when the time called for it. I already had once.
"I'll help you clear out the bunk house after dinner," she offered.
"I would appreciate the help. I was also wondering if it would be possible to ride out and see the land?" I asked.
"I think we'd best save that for morning. I'll show you the herd and go over some of the basics with you once Rory gets here," she answered, looking away.
"Rory Hawthorne. The Hawthorne's land adjoins to ours, and we've been pitching in together on all of the work since our Pa bought this stretch. He'll not be happy that you're here."
I let out a snort of laughter. "I doubt he could be any less so than you are."
Katniss' gaze leveled with mine, but she didn't answer.
Once the dishes were cleared away, Katniss led me out to the bunk house. Mrs. Everdeen insisted that I take a pillow and pile of blankets out with me. She refused to believe me when I told her that the Texas autumn was far from cold enough for me to need them. Still, her kindness warmed my heart. It felt like it had been so very long since I had felt this kind of care.
The bunk house was in far worse shape on the inside than I had originally thought. It was a small, utilitarian building meant to house no more than perhaps four or five ranch hands. Judging from the dust and dirt covering the floor, I doubted anyone had lived in it for quite some time, if ever. Katniss began sweeping at the floor without a word as I surveyed the place. I stared up at the ceiling and noted the moonlight shining down from between the rafters. The bed frames lined up against the wall looked serviceable, and the cook stove in the corner appeared to be in good order. Between Finnick and I, we could surely fix it up enough to make the place livable. The mattresses, however, were too far gone to bother with. I pulled them to the side of the room, and tried not to shudder as insects crawled out of them.
"You sure about staying here?" Katniss asked.
I shrugged. "Perhaps I will stay in the barn tonight. I'm sure it is cleaner in there."
"The hayloft isn't so bad if you can climb up there with that leg of yours," she agreed.
"Wherever I sleep, I will manage just fine."
"I suppose you will."
The silence between us began to stretch on. I was no good with women like this. In the years since meeting Finnick, he had joked that his charm had rubbed off on me. I doubted that even he could breach the walls that Katniss had built up around her. I got the feeling that she didn't want to like me, and even more that she didn't care whether or not I liked her. Because I was providing much needed help for her family, she would tolerate me, but nothing more.
"I'll have Mama put a pitcher and basin on Pa's old shaving stand on the back porch. The pump is just over yonder." She hooked a thumb back by the house.
"Thank you for your hospitality," I murmured softly.
Fury drained the color from her eyes, and she glared at me. "Let's get this straight, Mellark. It ain't hospitality. You bought this place from Snow right out from under us. It might be legal and you might not have known about us, but don't think for one minute that you are wanted here."
"Like it or not, Miss Everdeen, I am here to stay," I replied, feeling the prick of anger rising inside me. "I will be as kind or harsh as you decide you will allow for now. I don't like what Snow did to you, but there is little I can do about it at this point. Hate me for it, if you will, but do not mistake me for someone weak."
"Go to Hell!" she spat out as she stomped out of the bunkhouse.
I made no move to go after her. Instead, I stood in the darkened room and let out a dark laugh. Little did she know that she was wishing me back to a place that I had already escaped and climbed out of. It was a darkness so deep and engulfing that I doubted that she could ever fathom its depths, and no amount of wishing on her part would ever see me back there.