4 years earlier...
The wind shifted through trees, a faint rustling of leaves the colour of butter pumpkins, honeyed pastry and the dying embers of a fire. Katniss sighed quietly, her arm aching from holding the bowstring so steadfastly, waiting for the wind to gentle and for the small deer to still on its meandering journey through the woods.
It was days like these, when mother was wrapped up in her quilt and her own mind in the chair by the fire, thoughts of the evening meal non-existent, that Katniss was thankful for the time father had taken to show her how to hunt before he died.
He had first agreed to it on a whim, more for sport and pleasure than livelihood, a way of spending time with the daughter who cared more for the forest than for dolls. While yes, the added meat supplemented their meagre table, they did not live or die by their hunt alone.
That had changed more so in the years since his passing.
Many in the village near their small cottage had looked at her indulgently over the years, the young Everdeen girl who traipsed around the forest on occasion in her fathers old trousers and worn jacket, dismissing her as a girl so caught up in her grief that she no longer cared that she often looked undesirable towards the young men in the county. It was obvious that she did not, they gossiped, by the way she gave such utter disregard to the way a young woman her age should dress, regardless of her status.
At 15, Katniss could not have cared less.
She did not wear the clothes out of grief, as the faint woodsmoke smell she associated with her father had long since disappeared from the threads. Nor did she wear them as a way of discouraging men like Jeffrey Wakefield or bloody Edward Adams, as busybody Victoria Finlay was prone to chatter about.
She wore them for they were practical, suitable for hunting, and because they reminded her of what she needed to do.
She needed to be a provider, a guide for Primrose, and the glue that kept this family together. And, she would admit begrudgingly to herself, avoiding the young men in her village was a pleasant added bonus.
Marriage was something she did not believe she cared about.
Love was all well and good, she supposed. But it was not practical if you lost your love and spiralled into the depths of depression and loneliness as her mother had. While at first any chance of her returning to her old self seemed futile, but time passed, and Mrs Everdeen recovered over the years to function well enough and to resume teaching her daughters to speak and write and act proper, as she had begun when they were young. Katniss often assumed it was because she wished for them to make appropriate matches, or to earn suitable positions of employment, such as a maid for a well to do family. But there were still days the loss would overwhelm her again and Mrs Everdeen would rock herself to sleep until in her dreams she could be with her husband again. Katniss was sure her mother would never be entirely the same again.
So while Prim - even at such a young age, bless her - dreamed of a prince on a white horse to carry her away, Katniss thought of employment, of a way to support her family through thick and thin. Of a roof over her head, food in her belly and a warm bed.
If, on occasion, she considered a bed kept warm by another by her side, she disregarded it quickly. She did not need to be distracted by love. Love did not put food on the table. Love was something she had decided she would never bother with.
The wind stilled, and she took a deep breath. She needed to be silent here - something she was generally quite adept at, for who needed to speak incessantly? - or she would not be taking that deer home.
She watched, and waited, biding her time until the right moment. The string on her old makeshift bow grew taut as she pulled it back a little more, resting it against her lips, blowing out gently as she narrowed her eyes at her target. The deer turned slightly, and she could see the glint in its eye. This was the hardest part, taking the life of an animal.
For mother, for Primrose, for life, she chanted to herself in her head. And loosed the string with a faint thwack, the arrow neatly finding its mark. She moved from behind her hiding place, slinging the bow across her back and studied the deer. Right through the eye, she thought with a satisfied nod.
She carried the deer back to the cottage, thankful that it was no bigger or heavier than it was. The autumn leaves crunched under her feet, and she carefully navigated around tree roots that had snuck through the dark soil, over the occasional tree limb that had fallen from above. The wind had picked up again, sending a chill through her every time she stepped into the shadows, beyond where the sun could filter through the branches.
By the time she arrived home, Primrose was in the garden, twisting her fingers through the weeds that dotted their small, but lovingly kept, square of wildflowers. The younger girls' eyes widened as she saw the mass Katniss carried.
"Katniss, my goodness!" Primrose exclaimed, jumping to her feet and running to her sister, though she was careful not to get too close to the deer. "What a feast we shall have tonight!"
"For the next few nights, I should suppose," Katniss replied. "There is plenty of meat here, and with the sack of potatoes, onions and carrots mother purchased last week, we should be able to eat well with no worry."
She moved inside to the kitchen, Primrose trailing behind her, her voice a hurried whisper. "Mother fell asleep not an hour ago. She should wake soon, and be more herself again."
"Let us hope so, for mother will need to be the one to cut those onions," Katniss replied with a small smile, with the hope of dashing away the hint of worry in Primrose's voice. As the more sensitive of the two, Primrose always took these episodes of their mother's a lot harder than Katniss did.
Primrose giggled - both knew Katniss did not handle the onions very well at all - and pulled the cloth Katniss used to cover the table when she needed to carve the meat from the small pantry, laying it out so that Katniss could relieve herself of the weight of the small deer.
"Are you going to remove the meat now?" Primrose asked. Katniss grinned.
"It is fine, little duck. I will not do that while you are here. Come, this will not spoil in 5 minutes. I will walk with you back out to your garden and rest in the sunshine for a little while."
Primrose smiled happily, tucking her hand in Katniss' and pulling her back outside. She immediately dropped to her knees, continuing to weed the garden. Katniss enjoyed the warmth of the sun on her face as she watched Primrose work - she was not the most skilled of gardners, though she was trying to learn, for her sisters sake - but shot a hand out as Primrose reached toward a small flower to pull from the earth.
"Stop!" Katniss said quickly. "Do not pull that flower out."
Primrose looked up at her, squinting her eyes in the sun. "But Katniss, it is a dandelion. It is a weed."
"Leave it, please," Katniss begged. Primrose glanced back down at the weed, her fingers slowly loosening from the root of the plant.
"I shall leave it then," she said softly.
"Thank you," Katniss replied, her face blooming bright red in embarassment. She did not fully comprehend why she insisted Primrose keep it. She simply could not bear to see it removed.
Flustered, she returned to the kitchen. If she finished with the deer quickly enough, she could be done in time to perhaps give some to the baker in return for a fresh loaf.
It was past time to worry about weeds, and time to focus on her task.
The world had not stopped. She could still hear Mockingjay snorting softly in her stall, could hear the faint whirl of the wind and the snow outside. She could still feel her heart thudding in her chest, could still feel the nervousness mixed with excitement that was radiating from Peeta.
The world had not stopped just because Peeta had given her a gift.
Katniss' palm suddenly felt clammy, the box becoming slick in her hand. She had never been given something like this before, regardless of what she would find inside. It did not matter what it was. It was something he should never have considered giving to her.
"Open it," Peeta encouraged, his eyes bright and excited, like she assumed he looked when he was a young boy on Christmas morn.
"Are...are you sure?" Katniss asked tentatively. Her finger rubbed against the fabric of the box, slightly fuzzy against her skin. He nodded, his left hand resting on hers reassuringly, while she noted his right shook slightly by his side. With a deep breath, she slowly flipped open the lid of the box.
Even in the soft early evening light, she could see its luminescence. The small, perfectly formed pearl rested against the box's interior, shades of pastel purple and yellow and green shifting across its surface. She could see the small silver loop at the top, and the thin chain attached to it.
It was the most beautiful thing she had ever been given, and Peeta was the one giving it to her. As a gift.
He could not have been more stupid.
Her lips firmed before he could see them quiver. Did he not realise what he had done? What if, because of this, someone found out? It was almost as bad as if he had announced their relationship to all the gentry via telegram.
Peeta cleared his throat, and she glanced up to see him studying her intently, eyes fixated on her. And she knew what she had to say.
"I cannot accept this, Peeta," she said softly. His brow furrowed, his eyes confused. He covered her hands with his, placing them over the open box.
"Why not? Do you not like it?"
"It...it is beautiful. I love it, but..."
"But what? It was my grandmother's, the Dowager Duchess. It was given to her by her mother, whose mother gave it to her. Alas, my father was an only child as am I, and as such it came to me. The Duchess did not want anything to do with it; she considered it too plain and simple and boring. But I always found it beautiful - quiet and strong. Simple, yes, but stunning in its simplicity. And the moment I met you, I knew it was perfect for you."
Katniss shook her head emphatically. "Peeta, this should go to your children; your daughter, or even your wife. Not me. And how would I wear this? If it belonged to me, it would ever be able to see the light of day. Something as lovely as this deserves to be seen."
Peeta's fingers tightened around hers. "But it is a gift for you; I wish for you to have it more than anything else. I cannot give you anything more than this at this time-"
"What?" Katniss interjected. "At this time? What more could you desire to give me?"
With a frown, Peeta dropped her hand, turning and stalking partway down the stable walkway. He ran his hands through his hair, mussing the waves until they no longer sat in any sense of order. "What more could I desire to give you?" he retorted angrily. "Katniss, I love you. I did not think I could make it any clearer. I would wish for you to be my wife."
The box fell from her hand, hitting the ground with a thud. It tumbled, end over end, until it hit the edge of the door to the horses' stall.
"What?" she gasped again, feeling as though she was doing nought but repeating herself. "How can you say such a thing? How can you say something that you know would make my heart leap with joy, but also break it at the same time, knowing it can never be?"
"I do not say things lightly, Katniss. Everything I say is for a purpose."
"And what purpose is this? To make me ache? To question everything I believe in? Peeta, what do you not understand about the implications of what could happen if someone was to discover this gift? What do you think people would say if they heard the words you just uttered?"
"I do not care," he declared. "And I believed, from your contempt of how society conducts itself, that neither would you."
"You need to begin caring," Katniss demanded. "And no matter my thoughts on social injustice, I am not oblivious. People do not take lightly marriages between those of two different social classes, and this is not something that will change overnight, on our whim. Not to mention the Duchess would skin me alive. It is..." she trailed off, biting her lip.
"It is what?" Peetas asked, though his voice was softer and less firm than it had been.
"It is simply an infatuation that you feel," Katniss insisted softly. While she knew the sincerity of her feelings for him, she could not consider for a moment he felt the same, even if he did spout those very words. Why would he? "We both know that there is nothing that can come of this - why do you continue to insist otherwise?"
"Because I love you, Katniss, and nothing you can say will change that," Peeta implored. "If we want something enough, we will make it happen-"
"Not something like this!" Katnisd interjected. "If not only society, but the Duchess would never allow such a thing. She has made it perfectly clear to me that I am useless as a maid, let alone as anything more. It would not matter if I were as rich as Her Majesty herself, your mother would not accept me."
"My mother is not the Duke," Peeta retorted. "She does not make all the decisions in my life. Knowing my father loved another, yet was forced to marry-"
"The Duke?" Katniss interrupted him. She wondered when, along the way, she found herself ignoring the advice provided to her by her mother, and not think twice about interrupting someone of a superior class.
Peeta leaned against the wall, bringing one leg up and resting the flat of his foot against the stonework, his hand tapping his raised knee.
"I discovered recently that my father was in love with another, but was forced to honour a marriage arrangement that had been made for him with my mother. You have seen them together, surely. You must be aware it is loveless, empty, nothing but for show. I do not want that."
"I do not doubt that, Peeta, for it is surely what you deserve," Katniss sighed. "One day, your wife will be the most wonderful person you have ever met-"
"She is," Peeta snapped, staring at her intently.
"But it will not be me," she finished firmly. She moved towards the box, bending to retrieve it, and wiping the hay dust from the surface with a hand that shook slightly. She held it out to him, lips firming as he stubbornly refused to take it. "Peeta, please take it. While it is the most lovely gift I have ever been given, I cannot accept it. And...and we should no longer continue our actions, our flirtations."
"What?!" Peeta pushed away from the wall, his hands grasping onto her upper arms. She could see the urgency, the shock, clouding his eyes. How could he have not seen this coming?
She raised her hand, pressing the box firmly to his chest. "I am sorry, Peeta. But I mean what I say. We both knew this day would come eventually. I just..."
"But I have barely returned from Cambridge! You have not even given us a chance!" His voice rose, though he did not lose it's sense of command.
"Society will not give us a chance," Katniss retorted. "I am only doing what it is I see fit, now, before either of us get hurt any more than we are."
"Hurt?" Peeta scoffed. "The only one of us hurting right now is me."
Katniss shook her head. "Then you are stupid if you believe that. Not being with you is going to hurt me as much as it will hurt you."
"Then why are you doing this?" His voice dropped, almost sounded broken.
"Because it is the right thing to do," Katniss said softly. "What we had was going to be wonderful while it could last. But we both knew it would end. Today is that day, Peeta. I am sor-"
Her words were cut off as he yanked her to him, covering his mouth with hers, his lips hard and firm. His arms slipped around her shoulders, drawing her body in until she was not sure that there was a centimeter of space between them. She felt the rapid pounding of his heart against her chest and, whether it was a good idea or not, allowed his tongue to sweep across her lips, into her mouth, tangling with hers. It was a bittersweet kiss, one of longing, of sadness, of need.
She pulled away, ashamed at the feeling of tears on her cheeks. Peeta swallowed heavily, the line of his throat straining against the collar of his jacket. Her hand still rested against his chest, the box tight in her grip.
She looked at him imploringly, and finally he reached for it, limply taking it from her grasp. Katniss took the oppprtunity to stumble backwards, giving her the space she needed.
"Thank you, Peeta," she said quietly.
"For what?" He croaked.
"For giving me something I never thought I would want to experience, even fleetingly. I shall never regret it." With a gentle nod of her head, she turned and walked away, ignoring the cracked sob that echoed behind her.
The heavy wooden door slammed open, the crack echoing down the hall. His feet moved with purpose against the parquetry, across the thick woven rug that covered the library floor in shades of cream, burgundy and green. He reached almost blindly for the crystal decanter that sat on the wooden sideboard that was older than he could comprehend, a hand that alternated between steady and shaking pouring a generous swallow of amber liquid into the decanters matching tumbler.
Peeta lifted the glass to his lips, throwing the drink back in one swallow. It burned on its way down his throat, but it did not stop him filling the glass again and repeating the process.
She had ended it.
He took another step forward, resting his head against the cool glass of the window. He could not understand where he had gone wrong; a simple gift that had ended a dream that had barely begun.
Did she feel so little for him that she was able to discard them so easily?
He had not anticipated her reaction, had not considered that she would be so taken aback by something he did not believe was of such importance. It was not as though he was giving her diamonds, something ostentatious that would seem out of place on her. But he had misjudged, had underestimated her and overestimated himself.
He had ruined it.
"Is there a problem here?" Peeta turned slowly at the deep voice, saw his father's imposing form in the doorway. He was still dressed in the formal attire he had worn for their lunch, when they had dined on Sae's plentiful Christmas spread. The Duke's eyes were tired, and despite his impeccable posture, his body echoed the fatigue.
"No, Your Grace. My apologies for disturbing you," Peeta apologised formally, his shoulders straightening automatically. He gently laid the empty glass on the sideboard, clasping his hands behind his back.
"You did not disturb me, Peeta, but I could not help but hear your racket. And if I could, so could the Duchess, and we both know we would prefer not to disturb her. I would suggest next time you elect to slam about, you choose a library on the other side of the house." The Duke stepped into the room, moving beside Peeta and filling a tumbler of his own. He sipped it slowly, studying Peeta over the rim of his glass, before sighing.
"This is about that maid, is it not?" The Duke started without preamble. Peeta could feel his heart leap and his jaw clench, but managed to keep his expression as impassive as he could.
"I am unsure as to what you are referring to."
Peeta's father chuckled, a low sound that was rusty, as though it was something that did not get used often.
In all reality, it did not.
"Peeta, you may be adept at speaking words, however untrue, to make them believable, but you have never been able to hide yourself from me. I was fully aware there was more to your letter exchanges when we spoke last, but let it go for it seemed to bring a smile to your face, something that I had missed. But there are only certain matters that cause a man to drink such as you are, and as you do not have the worries of the Estate to contend with, I can only assume." Averting his gaze, and refilling his glass, he stood to attention, looking out of the window. "I know I have not been as attentive as you may have liked, and for most matters you have Abernathy to speak with. But if you wish, I am here to listen."
Peeta studied the older man, wondering why, after all this time, his father was taking a sudden interest in his life. He was correct - Haymitch was the man he went to, for the good, the bad and the inbetween. But was he smart to look a gift horse in the mouth when given?
He let out a heavy sigh, lowering himself to one of the overstuffed chairs. "It is not something of any more concern. Our liaison is over."
"Liaison, Peeta? Is that all?"
"It...it was nothing more than a flirtation."
"You have not gotten her into trouble?" The Duke coughed nervously, and Peeta chuckled mirthlessly.
"That would be a miracle, for we did not become that familiar with each other. I respected Katniss far too much for that, and knew it was something she would not take lightly."
"But you wished to," The Duke ventured. Peeta paused, and his father sighed. "It is not a bad thing to admit to, Peeta. I am quite certain there are some bastard Devonshires running about the country from the desires of previous Duke's. But I cannot say that I am relieved this is not the case for you. I would prefer our generations reputation to be above reproach."
"I am not relieved," Peeta replied, without thinking twice. His father blinked in surprise. "I could think of nothing more desirable than to be a father to children borne of Katniss, perhaps only to be with her officially. But our social standing deems us not appropriate, and we must resign ourselves to being apart. Which is what she advised me in not so uncertain terms this evening."
The Duke coughed again. "I...ah...Peeta, you just advised me it was a simple flirtation."
Peeta's mouth turned up in a wry smile. "I lied?"
"It seems you did." The Duke poured another glass, but did not drink, only held it in his hand. "Peeta, I do not doubt you believe you have feelings for this girl, but to the extent you are saying? I doubt it. Your desire to bed her is more than likely clouding your judgement, your true feelings, making them seem deeper than-"
"No," Peeta interrupted him. "They are genuine." How he wished he could confront his father of his own ill-fated love; but he could not. He refused to betray Haymitch's confidence. The grumpy, surly man who he saw as his mentor meant too much to him to repeat his words for his own gain. "But it does not matter. She has put a stop to our actions. I shall return to Cambridge a single man, lest Mother get her wish."
At this, the Duke chuckled, sipping at the glass as he studied his young heir. "I would not worry of the Lady Annabelle, nor of your mother's intentions. I have made myself perfectly clear to her on that front that you will find your own wife in your own time. But," he continued as he saw Peeta's eyes light up, "They shall still have to meet with our approval. Your selection of wife is not to be taken lightly. She will have obligations to meet, and socially will need to be deemed acceptable." His voice lowered, and he moved his gaze back out to the moonlit grounds. "It is best you forget this young woman. It was fine for the first blush of love, or lust, or whatever you wish to call it. She is not one of us, Peeta. What you may think you wish for can never be."
The Duke placed his now empty glass back on the table, then turned for the library door.
"Good evening, Peeta. And I hope you realise this was for the best." He moved from the room, leaving Peeta to his thoughts.
He had never felt more alone in his life.
A/N - Apologies on the wait for this chapter. It was written entirely on the roads of France ;)
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