A/N-Thanks for all your reviews, follows and favorites for the prologue of this story. I'm excited to finally get this going.
Thanks to ILoveRynMar, streetlightlove and IzzySamson for their support in the planning of this story and to everlarkrecs for inspiring this with her Fairy Tale Challenge.
THG belongs to Suzanne Collins and Cinderella/Ella Enchanted are not mine either!
"Katniss! Get up!"
I groan at the sound of Haymitch's gruff bark—the third time he's had to call up to me—and pull the sheet further over my head, fighting a sharp gasp of breath as I burrow down into the warmth of my bed. Another wheeze seizes me as I pound my pillow and try to untangle my nightdress from my legs. By the time I finally throw back the duvet and stumble to my feet, the room is spinning and it feels as though I have been swimming underwater for minutes without surfacing—and I am a remarkable swimmer, it should be noted.
I breathe deeply, my chest expanding and deflating alternately for several minutes as my body returns to normal.
An abrupt knock on my door precedes it being flung open. In the threshold stands one of my stepsisters, Madge. Her glossy blonde hair is still in its nighttime pin curls, and she purses her pink lips at me in a petulant smirk.
"I want to wear that orange gown of yours today."
"So?" I reply, avoiding her eyes as I cross to my bureau and dip a washcloth in the bowl that Cinna has set out for me. I begin washing my face carefully, careful not to meet Madge's irritable visage in the mirror above the dresser.
"I like that dress," she persists, twirling the ends of the ribbon tied into a bow at the column of her throat. Her white and pink nightgown is far too frilly for my taste.
"So do I." I pat my face dry with a thick, soft towel, inhaling deeply to enjoy the freshly laundered scent. Cinna always adds orchids and lavender to the washbasin. I lock eyes with her in the mirror, and she narrows the icy blue gaze that so mimics her father's at me.
"Give me the dress, Katniss."
I close my eyes and steady my hand on the bureau drawer as I process the command. Opening my eyes again, I reach for my hairbrush and drag it through my long, ebony tresses. My hair is always a snarled mess by morning; I have long suspected I am a very restless sleeper.
A flash of brilliant white light pulses in the plane of my vision, followed by a throb of pain at my temples. I continue to brush, refusing to meet Madge's perturbed expression again. The ache persists, and I grit my teeth, grinding my back molars to alleviate it—but I know any relief will only be temporary. I can only resist the order so long before the pain will become so excruciating that I'll have to give in.
Another burst of light causes me to stagger, and I slam the hairbrush down in frustration, stomping to the alcove where my wardrobe hangs. Snatching the beautiful sunset-hued gown (my favorite, she knows), I thrust the dress into Madge's waiting arms, and immediately the pain subsides and I can breathe freely again.
"Here. Go away."
She tosses her head and gives me a cool smile. "Don't get too jealous when this looks better on me than it does on you." Her hand strokes the silky fabric, her smile twisting into a smirk. "I know I'll certainly fill out the bodice more than you do."
"That's because you stuff it with wadded up handkerchiefs." I give her a snide smile when her smug face pales with embarrassment that I know her secret. "I hope it gives you a rash," I add under my breath as she flounces from the room. Once I'm certain she's gone, I sink down to my bed again and bury my face in my hands. I hate having to listen to her. Stupid curse.
I refuse to call it a gift, despite what that idiotic fairy called it. Over the years, I've come to refer to it as a spell because I harbor the hope that it can indeed be broken one day. Mother has always insisted that it can, but only my fairy godmother knows how to do it—a fairy godmother whose identity I will only learn on my sixteenth birthday. My nerves zing with anticipation, as I am just one week away from reaching that milestone. I'm giddy to think about what my mother and Haymitch have planned for the occasion, though I all I want is to finally be free from the restraints of this ludicrous enchantment.
Frowning into my wardrobe, I decide on a cobalt blue gown with silver shirring along the bodice and tiny pearls sewn into the narrow waist. I plait my hair and secure it with a velveteen ribbon and dash down the hall, taking a quick peek over the balustrade. Seeing the coast is clear, I straddle the banister and slide along its length, leaping off at the bottom with a flourish. My stepfather loathes it when I descend the stairs in such a manner, but my father always permitted me to do it—in fact, he practically encouraged it. My heart seizes painfully as I realize the anniversary of his passing is also just a few short days hence. It will have been four years, and I have a sudden need to venture out into the meadow and gather wildflowers to take to his grave today. I think that I shall.
I wander into the kitchen and snatch a sweet roll from a plate that Haymitch has left on the counter. He whirls about from his place at the hearth and glowers at me.
"Put it down, sweetheart."
I flash him a scowl of my own and take a large bite from it before obeying his order and returning it to the plate. He rolls his eyes at me and mutters something under his breath and goes back to stirring the porridge.
When I am convinced he's not watching me, I grab the roll and cram the rest of it into my mouth. Savoring the warm, yeasty bread as I chew, I creep to the edge of the kitchen and steal a glance into the dining hall. I wrinkle my nose when I see my stepfather already seated at the head of the table, still appearing like an interloper nearly two years after he married my mother.
Archduke Coriolanus Snow could not be any more different from my beloved father; I truly question whether my mother herself was under some kind of bizarre spell when she first laid eyes upon him. He's much older than she—old enough to be her father, and thus my grandfather, I should think. He's not unattractive, but he certainly has none of the rugged handsomeness that my father did. His clear blue eyes would be lovelier if there was any warmth to them.
There can be no mistaking the paternity of my two stepsisters. Madge and Delly are mirror images of their father, though Madge is by far the more beautiful of the two, at least as far as countenance is concerned. She's also smarter. (Delly once asked me how to spell her own full name—Cordelia—when she was penning a letter to some boy she fancied. How does a thirteen-year-old girl not know how to spell her own name?) Personality-wise, however, they are both ugly to their rotten cores.
Madge is one year my elder, and she enjoys reminding me of it at every opportunity. She delights in bossing me around, and I cringe to think how much domineering and impudent she'd be if she knew about my obedience spell. She's spoiled, as is her sister—the result of Snow doting on their every whim and request. Their mother died giving birth to Delly, and they have been raised by a network of servants and governesses. None of them ever stayed on very long, according to Madge's boasts. I can't say I blame them. I stay as far away from them as I can too.
I try to discreetly retreat back into the kitchen, intending to beg off breakfast and go out to the garden in solitude, but my stepfather has eyes like a hawk and even more acute hearing. "Katniss, is that you?" he calls sharply. I hesitate, slumping against the doorframe just out of view. "You are late for breakfast. Get in here and be seated."
I sigh and reluctantly heed his command, moving as though I am wading through quicksand. I bite back a sneer at the sight of Madge, her shiny blonde hair pinned back at the nape of her neck, the curls tumbling past her shoulders, and I yearn to rip my dress from her frame. I should think I'd rather destroy the lovely garment than see it on her again.
Sliding into my chair opposite Delly, I slump down and make a production of biting at a stubborn hangnail on my left pinkie finger. Snow abhors it when I chew on my fingernails at the table and thus, I delight in watching him cringe until he has to order me to stop.
"Where is my mother?" I ask, nibbling at the skin. My stepfather's lips twist in revulsion as he sips from his goblet.
"She's gone into the village for two births," he replies, his tone heavy with contempt. He's made no secret of the fact he thinks my mother should allow someone else to tend to the labor and delivery needs of the peasant class. "She will be gone all day. How many times must I tell you what a vile habit that is?" He sneers at me.
I shrug, taking a tiny piece of skin between my teeth, hiding a smile. Truth is, it's not a habit. I can stop doing it any time I wish—it's simply that it gets under his skin so easily that I persist in doing it.
"Finishing school did you a lot of good," he grouses, stirring some brown sugar into his oatmeal. Madge gives me a haughty smile and dabs at her mouth with her linen napkin.
Haymitch appears in the doorway, bearing the tray of rolls and he gives me a look. I finally tear off the hangnail, earning another reproachful glare from Haymitch, though he says nothing. He sets down the plate and stalks back into the kitchen.
"Katniss, stop! That's disgusting!" Madge screeches. I bring my napkin to my mouth, spitting the skin into it, and then I fold it and place it to the left of my plate. Madge makes a big production at being repulsed. "Father, make her stop!"
I wiggle my fingers at her. "I'm not doing anything." And I couldn't continue even if I wanted to, as her order ceased my antics.
"Katniss, stop," Snow bellows, and I don't need to be told twice—truly.
Breakfast is a mundane ordeal. It's akin to torture listening to the inane things that Madge and Delly find interesting, and I am still silently stewing over Madge wearing my dress. (For the record, that shade of orange does nothing for her pale complexion.) Nothing the three of them discusses even remotely engages me, and I tune them out, planning my morning's journey to the edge of the western woods. I am considering the most advantageous route there when Delly speaks a name that instantaneously commands my attention. I pretend to be transfixed smearing sweet cream butter on my roll as I perk up my ears.
"All I'm saying, Father, is that I wish I had thought to have a new gown commissioned for his birthday celebration," Delly whines.
"You can borrow one of Katniss's," Madge interjects, shooting me a knowing glance. "She has a lovely extensive wardrobe." It's a ludicrous statement as Delly is about four inches shorter than I and about twenty pounds heavier, but Madge isn't sincere in her offer to help her sister clothe herself—she's goading me. I fight the urge to give her a nasty hand gesture and ignore her completely.
Snow smiles at his daughter. "I'm sure you'll look lovely, Delly. As will your sister, and you'll have a grand time. It's going to be quite the occasion."
"What occasion?" I ask casually, feeling three sets of icy blue eyes on me.
"The Prince's sixteenth birthday celebration, you ninny," Madge huffs. "Heavens you're almost as dense as Delly sometimes."
"I wonder how handsome he's gotten since we last saw him," Delly swoons.
It's been years since I myself saw Prince Peeta. My last memory of him was when we were children, when I pressed my lips to his before my mother dragged me away, his bright blue eyes fixed on mine in earnest. He has been away at boarding school since he was young, being educated in whatever it is royals and nobles must learn to be able to rule a kingdom. In truth, I've always wondered what things a future king could possibly need to know—can't they just order their court to do things for them? I smile wryly to myself at the thought of giving an order as opposed to having to obey one for a change.
"What are you smiling at?" I glance up to find Madge glaring at me.
"She's probably fantasizing about Prince Peeta," Delly giggles. "As if the prince would give a daughter of a dead earl a second glance." I sit up straighter and narrow my eyes at her; any mention of my father by either of these two brats raises my ire faster than when they boss me around.
"I was not dreaming about the prince."
"Of course she wasn't, Delly, don't be ridiculous," Madge says, taking the last bite of her toast. "Even Katniss isn't that stupid to think Queen Alida would allow her son to wed someone like her." She smoothes back her shiny curls. "A daughter of an archduke, on the other hand would be an ideal bride, wouldn't she, Father?"
"Perhaps, my dear," he replies, leveling me with a sharp gaze, and I know the look is meant to hold my tongue.
I give her a sweetly sycophantic smile. "I guess it's a shame you chose to borrow that gown today. Now you won't be able to wear it to the celebration two days hence."
Madge's blue eyes lift with a flicker of irritation before that smug air returns to her pinched face. "At least I'll be going to the celebration."
I press my lips together tightly to keep my temper in check and grip the edge of the table. "What is she talking about?"
Snow shrugs. "Your mother merely mentioned she did not wish you to attend."
My stomach somersaults, raising a wave of queasiness. I am not sure which sickens me more—the possibility that my stepfather is lying to me or that my mother would truly wish to keep me from a felicitous occasion that will likely be the talk of the kingdom for years to come, probably until the prince marries and that celebration trumps it. Blood starts to boil in my veins, heat bursting through them like a log catching fire in the hearth. I push back, rising from my chair and tossing my linen to the floor.
"Pick that up," Snow barks at me. Seething inwardly, I hide a smirk as I get an idea. I flex my leg and let the toe of my slipper slide under the crumpled napkin. With a jerk of my foot, I launch it into the air and snatch it expertly in my hand, throwing it to the table with a flourish. My stepfather's face flushes crimson. I turn my back and smile more broadly, striding confidently out of the room with my chin held high. When I hear him call after my retreating form that I was not excused I am more than happy to keep walking. After all, he didn't tell me that I wasn't excused.
My yearning to be close to my father has increased tenfold given the morning's unpleasant events. I need to get out of the house and be alone with my thoughts for a while, and the meadow is as good a place as any to sit in quiet contemplation.
Haymitch is still in the kitchen, stirring a large pot of broth that is simmering on the hearth, no doubt for the day's supper, and he gives me a curious stare when I withdraw a leather pouch and a sack from the storage shelf. I ignore him as I stuff the sack with two more sweet rolls and an apple.
"What gives, sweetheart?" Haymitch asks as I fill the pouch with water from the pewter pitcher near the washbasin. When I don't immediately reply, he sets down the wooden spoon and fixes his own stony eyes on mine. "Answer me."
I sigh. "I want to visit my father today." I do not tell him that I plan to visit the meadow first.
His countenance instantaneously softens. "I see." He nods at the pouch and the sack. "You want me to saddle Buttercup for you?"
I shake my head, thinking of my beautiful horse. A majestic grey mare had galloped up to the gate of our cottage, adorned with green ribbons the morning of my tenth birthday, bearing a note that only revealed that the gift was from my fairy godmother. While it would be nice to canter through the woods, the wind in my hair, I reply, "I think I shall walk today."
"Be careful." And he turns his attention back to his soup. "And be home for supper."
The meadow is lush and green and verdant, teeming with life on this beautiful May morning. My heart lifts when it comes into sight after a nearly hour-long walk through the village to the end of the square and past a few small clusters of peasants' cottages. I kept my pace brisk in the village—I knew my mother was inside one of the homes, and I was cross with her and did not wish to see her should she be going from one birth to the other at the moment I came through. Fortunately, there was no sign of her and no telltale shrieks of a laboring woman either.
As I approach, my thoughts stray to Prince Peeta. I realize that all those years ago, I so much as told him about the curse on me. I wonder if our paths should cross, would he remember me? And then, foolishly, I wonder if he would ask me for another kiss. I should be more than happy to oblige him that again.
Finally I am in the midst of the meadow, and I race across the field, wishing I were barefoot to enjoy the swish of the grasses under my toes and against my legs. Alas, the damn itchy stockings and my slippers offer me no such freedom.
But then I pause and glance around. I am alone; there is no one in sight—at least not of the human variety. No one to give me orders, no one to tell me I can't do this or must do that. The promise of sweet freedom for a few fleeting hours lifts my spirits, and a wide grin spreads across my face as I reach down and kick off my slippers. Then I reach up my gown and peel down my stockings. Gleefully I spin around, the skirt of my dress swishing and swirling about my bare ankles and calves.
The sun climbs steadily in the flawless blue sky, and it warms me as I tromp through the grass, plucking flowers sporadically. The troublesome thoughts of my stepfather and my mother and Prince Peeta's birthday celebration melt away. Within minutes, my arms bear a spectrum of blooms: pale pink lady-slippers, lavender lilies of the valley, bright yellow buttercups and white daisies. Satisfied with my bouquet, I make my way down to the little creek that cuts through the west edge of the meadow where the forest begins.
I set down my flowers and lie in the grass by the creek. The water is clear, and I can make out my distorted reflection in the gentle ripples. Spontaneously, I raise my hand and tug off the ribbon from the end of my braid, unraveling it. My fingers comb through the freed tresses and they tumble down my back.
I begin to sing softly as I gather some stray dandelions and start weaving them into a chain, which I then decide to fashion into a crown. My voice blends with the drone of the bees and the hum of the dragonflies skating across the surface of the creek. After a few verses of an old lullaby that my father used to sing me, I hear a perfect imitation of the notes coming from the din of the forest.
My father once told me that mockingjays inhabited the woods where the ogres and trolls dwelled. The birds were some kind of strange mutation that occurred when two species mated when they shouldn't have. Nature can be cruel, he explained. The queen did not care for the unusual creatures and felt their uncanny mimicry was dangerous and ordered the birds to be eradicated. There were hunts and feasts and merriment when she was satisfied her kingdom was rid of them. Apparently the mockingjays did not get the message. They resurfaced years later but didn't dare migrate to Panem.
Something about the tone of the birds' melody sends a pleasing shiver down my spine, and I continue singing. By now, a fine sheen of sweat glistens on my face, and I yearn to cool off. If the creek was deeper I could strip down to my undergarments and go for a swim, but I will have to settle for wading.
And then I pause again. There is no reason why I cannot take off my cumbersome dress and be a little more comfortable as I did with my stockings and slippers. The subtle act of rebellion—being in my unmentionables in the wide open space—sends a thrill through me and within moments, my gown pools at my feet and leaves me standing in little more than my thin muslin shift and camisole. In spite of the warmth of the day, gooseflesh prickles my arms and my nipples stiffen into peaks against the soft fabric.
The cold shocks my system as I take my first tentative steps, holding up the skirt of my shift and wincing as my feet probe over the rocky creek bed. Once I adjust to the temperature of the water, my body instantly begins to cool off. I splash about, giggling and singing, more carefree than I've felt in a while. It's magnificent.
I cannot say how much time passes before a soft whinny startles me, and I spin around, my song dying in my throat as my eyes light on a magnificent cream-colored horse. But it's the man who is astride the animal that further chokes the breath from me. With the perfect blue of the sky and buttery rays of the sun streaming down behind him, there is an almost angelic quality to the scene. I squint and blink into the brightness, shielding my eyes in an attempt to get a better glimpse of him.
"Don't stop singing on my account," he calls.
Don't stop singing. It takes me several moments to regain my composure and begin to sound normal again as I obey the command, though the clear, confident timber to my voice falters.
He watches me intently, and I realize how foolish I must look, clothed in only my undergarments, romping through the water with a ring of dandelions around my head. He is clearly someone of importance—I can tell by the finely tailored clothes that he wears. His broad shoulders stretch beneath a deep green jerkin that he wears over an eggshell-colored shirt, and his muscular legs are encased in a pair of tan breeches. His boots appear even at a slight distance to be soft and supple brown leather. Even the cloak that drapes across the horse is elegant, a rich scarlet swath of silk.
I stumble suddenly and gasp as my foot steps directly on a sharp rock and I stumble, nearly plummeting into the water.
"Miss, are you alright?" He looks concerned and dismounts his horse smoothly, taking a few steps towards where I stand in the creek.
"I'm fine," I reply, grimacing in pain and sloshing around to step out of the creek, letting my shift fall about my wet calves and feet as I lunge for my gown and clutch it to my chest. I feel my heart pounding irregularly underneath the garment.
He continues to approach me, a curious countenance replacing his previous look of concern. "Are you alone out here?"
"Would I be dressed as I am if I had company?" I return crossly, masking my mortification with sarcasm while studying his face carefully. He's incredibly handsome; his smooth complexion is like peaches and cream, and his cheekbones and jaw are exquisite, like they've been chiseled from stone. His eyes are like sapphires and framed by the eyelashes that look as if they were spun from gold. He is strangely familiar to me, and my mind reels as I search for a memory of him.
"Pardon my intrusion, then, milady. I must confess that it was your voice that bewitched me and led my horse astray to find the source of such beauty." He clears his throat. "I did not mean to interrupt your playtime."
"I was not playing," I retort, and he laughs quietly.
"You looked as if you were enjoying yourself." He stops several paces from me and scrutinizes me, confusion clouding those cerulean irises. "Do I know you?"
I lick my lips subconsciously as my stomach tightens. "I'm not sure."
"You look familiar to me."
"As you do to me."
"Tell me your name," he implores, and I am powerless to deny him an answer.
His full lips curve into a dazzling smile. "Katniss. Your mother is Lilith, and your father was the Earl of Everdeen."
I stare back at him. "Yes. How do you—"
He steps closer to me, so near that I can see the pale hairs just shadowing his upper lip and stippling his jaw. "It's me. Peeta."
The name is like a crack of a whip. "Peeta," I repeat, my tongue crowding my mouth. My stomach does a little flip at the memory. The prince—the future king of Panem—stands before me. And he does remember me.
"It's been nearly ten years. They've been kind to you," he says softly.
"As they have to you, your highness." I dip in a curtsy, as I know I should in his presence, though I am careful not to bend too far in my indecent state. It's a severe breach of decorum for me to be half naked with a man—let alone a prince. "I…I should dress."
He gazes at me reverently, almost awestruck, and his eyes never leave mine as he nods. "Alright. I shall turn away."
He should. I know he should. I try to suppress a blush, but my body betrays me and I feel my cheeks flood with color. There is something very wicked about letting him see me like this, but then again, he's already seen me, hasn't he? I shrug. "If you'd like." But I waste no time in snapping my gown out in front of me to release any wrinkles before stepping into it and drawing it up over my hips and breasts.
We continue to stare at each other for several pregnant moments before he clears his throat and takes a step towards me. "What are you doing out here alone?" He chances a quick glance at the shadowy depths of the forest. "It's not entirely safe for a beautiful young maiden to be so close to the western woods. You know what they say about the ogres and trolls."
I thrust my chin up at him proudly. "I am not afraid of silly legends." In truth, I don't believe most of the gibberish that is spouted about the creatures—that they enjoy snatching virgins from the human world and taking them deep into their realm to be their slaves. Mostly I think it's an outlandish lie invented to hide the abrupt absences of a few girls who were dumb enough to get themselves with child while unmarried.
"Still," he continues, glancing behind me at the woods again, "I'd be happy to keep you company while you…do whatever it is you've been doing out here." He grins. "Not playing, I know."
His smile is radiant and infectious, and I feel my own lips curving upward in response. "If you must know, I was gathering wildflowers." I gesture to the pile of blooms near the creek's bank. "I'm going to visit my father today and I wanted to bring some along."
"I see." His visage becomes solemn. "I was deeply saddened when I learned of your father's passing. He was a wonderful man, and I liked him very much."
I nod, swallowing back the lump crowding my throat. "He was."
"I heard your mother remarried the Archduke Snow," he says. I must not contain my displeasure at the thought of my evil stepfather because he raises a blond eyebrow at me. "You do not like the man?"
"My father often said if I could not say a pleasant word about someone to keep my mouth closed instead." I mockingly open and close my mouth, exaggerating the motion, and it earns a small chuckle from him.
"Duly noted." He glances around the meadow, his brows furrowing as his forehead creases. "Did you walk here?" I nod. "All the way from the kingdom?"
"This is technically still the kingdom," I reply. "Will you not have sovereignty over this one day?"
He steps towards me again. "I will. But I meant you journeyed a long way alone with little regard for your safety. Should you have found yourself in danger you would be no match for whatever creature or man sought to threaten you—no matter how fast you were as a child."
"You remember?" I gape at the handsome man before me, my stomach fluttering when he nods imperceptibly and clears his throat. Why am I suddenly so nervous?
"I remember everything about you, Katniss," he confesses quietly. The adoring look in his blue eyes sends heat spiraling through my veins and I am dismayed when he drags them away from me. An awkward silence settles over us anew and finally, I move to gather up my flowers and exhale loudly.
"I should get going. It's a bit of a walk to the churchyard cemetery where my father lies. It was very good to see you again, your highness." I curtsy again, but as I dip several flowers tumble from my arms. Peeta moves swiftly and retrieves them, nestling them safely back in the makeshift bouquet. As he arranges them, his hand brushes against the inside of my wrist, and the heat that his touch kindles in me is no less intense than if a flame itself had singed my skin. I think that he feels it as well because his cheeks are soon tinted a soft pink and he swallows visibly several times.
"A lady should not be walking unescorted. Allow me to go with you to the cemetery."
"Alright," I agree, and I surprise myself at the haste with which I reply. I understand that it was an order, no matter how politely it was issued, and normally I would be obstinate about being given a command, let alone one that implied I could not fend for myself. But I want to remain in his presence for as long as I possibly can, knowing this is likely the closest that I will get to him for a while if my mother is serious about keeping me from his birthday festivities.
"Shall we walk or would you like to ride?" He motions to his horse and my breath hitches at the idea of straddling the animal with Peeta behind me, his arms wrapped around me. As fanciful and delicious a notion as it is, I regretfully decide we must walk.
So it is that we set off across the meadow together, Peeta leading his horse, matching my pace step for step. The sun is nearing its zenith in the sky, and its abundant rays cause me to begin to perspire again. It's been unseasonably warm for the first days of May, but it's a welcome change from the unusually bitter winter and absent spring we had. I cannot deny that Peeta makes the return trip more pleasant. At first, I am agitated and fidgety, anxious about being in the company of a prince, but the more Peeta converses with me, I realize while he may be royalty, he is the same boy I used to race with in an older, even more attractive package.
He asks about my mother and Haymitch—I continue to be surprised by just how much he recalls about me. While I fear it's rude to probe about his own life, I cannot quell my curiosity about what he has learned at school and how he feels being home after so many years away. He is quiet for several moments and then he clears his throat and his answer startles me.
"I didn't mind being away if I am being honest," he confides, looking down at me, and the sunlight glinting off his golden lashes make them seem impossibly long. "At least at school I blend in. Here…" he trails off and hesitates, as if he is choosing his words carefully. "I don't know. There are so many expectations and I'm not able to be me. I have to be what my parents and the advisers and the kingdom want me to be." He gives me a sheepish grin and my eyes are drawn to the subtle movements of his jaw as he smiles. "I should think I'm talking far too much."
"I don't mind," I reply. "It's the most anyone has talked to me in days. I like it."
The way he looks at me raises a blush on my cheeks once mroe and I hope he just assumes that it's the heat of the midday sun.
We reach the boundary of the cemetery and Peeta reigns in his horse and ties it to a large tree, but as he does, a sharp whistling sound snares my attention and Peeta and I both glance to our left to see a beautiful chestnut mare galloping toward us. Astride the horse is a man almost as handsome as Peeta—almost. The sun catches his coppery hair and as he canters and slows in front of us, he smirks, showing two rows of gleaming white teeth.
"Well, here you are."
I knit my brows, perplexed by the man's exasperated tone, but I realize from Peeta's scornful countenance that he is none too pleased to see the man. The stranger dismounts and saunters over to where we stand, not bothering to tie up his own horse.
Peeta sighs. "Hello, Finnick."
"Your highness." This Finnick character appraises me, raking his intense aquamarine eyes over my face and down the length of my body, grinning like the cat that ate the canary. "And who might this lovely creature be?" he leers.
"This is Katniss," Peeta repeats tightly. "We were friends as young children."
"Interesting." Finnick reaches into a small pouch that dangles from his belt and produces several sugar cubes. He feeds one to each horse and pops a third in his mouth, eyes glinting at me. "Sugar cube?" he offers, extending the small white lump in my direction.
"No, thank you," I reply, grateful that I can decline. This man is far too cocky for my taste.
"How did you find us, Finnick?" Peeta's words intrigue me. Find us? Doesn't finding someone imply he or she was lost—or perhaps hiding? I was doing neither. Was Peeta?
"You underestimate my persistence, your highness. You're fast, but I am faster."
"Oh?" Peeta's lips curls up. "I was in the meadow with Katniss for quite some time before we set upon this cemetery. So how is it you took this long to find me then Finn, my boy?" Finnick's lip twitches, and I wonder if the elder man takes offense to being called 'boy' by a man who is little more than a boy himself. When he doesn't answer, Peeta turns to me. "Finnick is one of my courtiers. My parents think after being gone all these years that I somehow still need a glorified nanny."
"It's royal protocol, your highness," Finnick replies. "I'm sorry if you don't fancy having a chaperone, but I'd appreciate it if you don't continue to try to sneak off when I am in your company."
"I had a lot more freedom at school," Peeta explains to me. "It's going to take some getting used to having people watch my every move as if I were a bird in a cage."
Finnick smirks. "At least the cage is gilded."
Peeta continues gazing at me, speaking to me as if we are alone and Finnick does not stand a few short paces away. "You see why I was so envious of your solitude in the meadow?"
I give him a cheeky smile. "If I recall, you scolded me for being there alone and said it was not safe for a lady such as I to be without company."
Peeta laughs. "So I did say that. I guess that backfired on me."
There is something marked in his tone, and his eyes on me gives rise to another slight flush on my cheeks that creeps down my neck and heats my upper body, and strange swirling sensations flutter in my belly. "I guess I should be getting these to my father's grave now," I say quietly, glancing away though he does not.
"I presume you'd like to be alone?" Peeta suggests softly. "When I offered to accompany you I did not intend to intrude on your time with him."
I glance over to his courtier, who is now leaning against the stone wall that encircles the graveyard, his turquoise eyes watching us intently. His lips lift imperceptibly in a smirk and I glare back at him. "Actually you're welcome to join me," I say to Peeta softly. "But he stays here."
Peeta nods, a contented smile crossing his handsome face, and he orders Finnick to stay put and offers me his arm. My heart thumps lightly as I link my own arm through his and allow him to escort me through the entrance then hesitates to permit me to lead the way to my father's tombstone. As soon as my eyes light on the carved letters in the stone, my throat constricts and my heart seizes painfully. I struggle to swallow and find my voice as I set down the wildflowers and whisper, "Hi, Father."
Peeta is a complete gentleman, keeping a measured distance between him and where I genuflect, murmuring quiet words to my father. And I know it's just his mortal body that is buried beneath the soil and his spirit is omnipresent, but I feel more at ease in this place, where it is just he and I.
After I am finished telling him about the indignities of the morning and my precious dress, I slide my eyes to Peeta and find him staring off into the distance, lost in his own world. I wonder what it is that has him so deep in thought, but satisfied that he is not listening to my words, I softly confide in my father how nice it was to be in the prince's company this morning and how lovely it would be to spend more time with him. And finally I sing to him, the same haunting lullaby that I was singing earlier, the one he used to sing to me as a small child. I hadn't much understood the lyrics as a toddler, but the melody was so beautiful that it never ceased to lull me into a peaceful slumber.
"Are you ready to leave?" he asks me gently when I finish singing, extending a hand to help me rise to my feet. His fingers clasp around my wrist, his thumb grazing my palm and it lingers there, rubbing small circles over the soft flesh. I shiver and feel a strange swirling sensation in my belly.
I nod. "Yes, I think so."
He smiles at me and as we begin to walk back to the entrance of the graveyard, he clears his throat. "I could listen to you sing for hours. Your voice is like being under some kind of enchantment. It's mesmerizing."
"Thank you." I feel the heat creeping onto my cheeks as a blush settles there.
"In fact," he continues. "I should think that I would like very much if you would sing at my birthday celebration."
The request startles me and I stumble, his strong hand wrapping around my elbow automatically to steady me and prevent a complete tumble forward. As I straighten, he turns slightly so that we are facing each other fully, and I am acutely aware of how little space is suddenly between our bodies. I feel that heat spreading through other parts of my body, licking along my veins and causing another foreign sensation to migrate to my most private of places.
"Oh, Prince Peeta, I could not—" I recall my stepfather's words from earlier; my mother—though she has yet to inform me of it herself—does not wish for me to attend the festivities.
"Sing for me. Please." I close my eyes and do not reply. I know I have to do it now. Not only did my mother not explicitly give me such an order herself, but a command from the future king of Panem would trump any mandate from a lesser subject—my mother included. But that doesn't make the answer form on my lips any easier. "It shall be the best birthday present I will receive, I can assure you that," he adds beseechingly.
My mouth is dry and my head throbs faintly as I gaze into his eyes. "I sincerely doubt that, your highness."
"Peeta," he insists. "Say you'll do it."
My vision blurs and I find my head nodding up and down of its own accord. "Yes. Okay," I whisper. And his face alights with such a genuine smile of elation that that delicious feeling surges through me again and curls my toes inside my slippers.
"Thank you," he murmurs, raising my hand to his lips and touching the back of my palm chastely. He proffers me his arm again. "Shall we go home now?" I nod again, mutely, wondering how I shall reconcile the fact that not only will I be attending Peeta's celebration, I shall be singing with the eyes and ears of all of Panem on me.
What have I gotten myself into?
A/N -Taking a little bit of 'head canon' liberties and having both their birthdays in early May (keeping hers May 8th)...though I know most suggest his birthday was in March. :)
Thanks for reading.