My sincerest thanks to my readers who left reviews and most especially to my long-suffering beta, ct522, who encouraged me to continue this work. I would be lost without you all!
Generally, I would write a summary for Chapter 1, but I really think it's worth reading if you haven't already. I do hope you enjoy this tardy update!
Warning: Rating is now bumped up to M due to the anticipated content in a couple of chapters. I can't seem to keep my mind out of the gutter.
Chapter 2- To Fall at a Lady's Feet
Capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia, June 1864
Even in late morning the heavy velvet of the draperies made the room perpetually gloomy, and I preferred it that way. In the dim light, I could look down at the bedclothes and almost imagine I saw my left calf and foot still attached at my knee. Almost.
The pain was just becoming almost bearable after hovering around agonizing for a few weeks. It boggled me how something that wasn't there anymore could still hurt so very, very much. They called it phantom or ghost pains. My body knew something important was missing and was clamoring to tell me about it. As if I would ever forget.
Highly respected doctors and surgeons from the Medical College of Virginia had been called in, everything possible had been done, but in the end, my leg was not to be spared. It should seem such a minor thing compared to the death of my VMI friends and comrades, at the Battle of New Market. I was already up and walking, after a fashion, with the aid of crutches and a clunky wooden and metal prosthesis. The leather sleeve that bound my thigh, and held my "new" lower leg in place chafed something awful, but everyone agreed I was "lucky." Father was beside himself with relief, that I was home in Richmond, safe from the war and relatively unscathed. My two older brothers were still in the fight, but one of his sons at least was home for the duration, so he believed, and my father looked slightly less care-worn at that fact.
I felt exhaustion and guilt consume me when I thought of what I must yet do. It would break my father's heart to see me go haring off across Virginia after nearly losing my life first in battle and then to an infected leg wound. What I had promised to do a few short weeks ago when Gale Hawthorne was still among the living was a debt of honor I must pay and as soon as I was able. Being in no state to fulfill my promise of taking the small packet of letters to my fellow cadet's fiance had been beyond my abilities with the bout of pernicious fever that overtook me upon my return to Richmond a few days after the battle and my injury.
"Mr. Peeta," my former nanny, Portia, bustled into the room just then, throwing open the heavy drapes with a flourish sending the golden light of the late morning streaming into the room and temporarily blinding me. I threw up my arm to cover my eyes as I laid there on my childhood bed like a lump of wood. Too much to hope that my feisty surrogate mother would leave me alone, "I won't have you lazing about in your bed all day as though you was the king of Siam. Time to get up and have your breakfast with the rest of the family, young man, and that's that."
Peeking from under my arm, I saw the look on her regal, cinnamon-colored features and recognized it immediately. There was no hope of evading that determined woman who had cared for me my entire life. She would have me rise and go down to breakfast, so I would. With a heavy sigh I sat up in my bed suddenly feeling 7 instead of 17; 18 actually as I had a birthday last week. The pain had been especially truculent that day.
Portia interrupted my self-pitying musings with her smooth southern tones, "And none of that sighing and moaning, either. You're young and healthy, so I won't have it. Doctors say you're fit as fiddle and can move around on your own now, so get ye behind out of that bed, young'un!"
Portia was a wonder. She had tirelessly cared for me during the worst of the infection with my leg, going so far as to defy the doctors and stay to hold my hand during the actual procedure that parted me from the lower portion of my left leg forever. I was raving out of my head with the pain and the fever of infection, so I had little memory of it, but I did have a smattering of recollections of her usually healthy brown face being pale and drawn with concern. That was almost as alarming as my own symptoms. She was more of a mother to me than ever was the woman who'd borne me. This was one of the reasons I was trying to do Portia's bidding now. I felt I owed it to her to put on a brave face no matter how cast-down and low I actually felt.
Portia eyed me closely, taking stock in my appearance as any careful mother would before softening her authoritative tone, "You must come to table today, lamb, as you have an important visitor. Do you need help with that new-fangled gadget, or can you manage?" Referring to my prosthesis.
When I shook my head in the negative, she said,"Still- I'll send Thresh in to help you shave and dress right quick."
"Portia, I'm really not up for entertaining any of my old friends from the Capital today," I began, filled with dread at the very thought of making polite conversation with one of the few friends I had remaining in Richmond. Most of the men my age were off at school or war or dead. The few that were left tried my patience severely with all their talk of the intense fighting that had just broken out twenty-five miles to our south near Petersburg. I found I had little interest in any of it of late. I could not fight and talking about it made me feel worse than useless.
"Ah, I think you'll want to see this visitor. He arrived late last night from Lexington after you'd gone to bed," Portia smiled down at me slyly.
My interest was definitely piqued as to whom of my fellow cadets would go to the trouble of travelling the onerous 140 mile overland trek across a good half of the interior of the state to reach me, so I said as much, "Who is it, Portia? One of my fellow cadets? I have a permanent leave from school, so I can't imagine what they'd want with me given my new… circumstances."
We both looked everywhere in the room but at the empty spot on the bed where my leg should have been before Portia admonished tartly, "You get yourself up and presentable, and you shall see for yourself, I reckon." With that she tugged at the bell pull hanging at my bedside that would summon Thresh and then regally exited the room with a rustle of her scarlet, flannel petticoats that she insisted on wearing even in the humid heat that was a Richmond June.
Thresh, my valet among his many other tasks, arrived soon after and silently assisted me with my morning preparations of dressing and shaving. He helped me strap on my new leg with a completely unreadable look on his face. Thresh had always been quiet, even as a boy while we grew up in the same house together, he a servant and me, the youngest scion of the Mellark clan. I was so very grateful for his silent aid now. Chatter of any kind seemed too much on my nerves of late, as though my injury had made me sensitive where I had never been before.
With a heavy heart, I carefully navigated the grand staircase of our home in the Union Hill neighborhood of Richmond. Mother always disliked its location as it was too close to the trade district of Shockoe Bottom with it's tobacco warehouses and nearby canal originating on the James River. Father felt differently, as it was convenient to his flour mills and storehouses.
None of this was of any import as I tightly clutched the curved balustrade at the bottom of the steps before his cultured tones and infectious laugh reached my ears. Memories of happier times at VMI assaulted my senses as though I hadn't left. Suddenly, I was back in the barracks and was contemplating sneaking out with my compatriots, the owner of the voice I now heard among them, to perform some deed of mischief or other. Those were simpler times before the war, before New Market, before I lost my leg.
"Mrs. Mellark, you must write my mother with that story. I assure you she would be as delighted as I," Finnick Odair's voice drifted from my mother's morning room into the two story foyer where I stood stock still, attempting to steel myself and put on a cheerful facade for one of my oldest friends. It was unfair to leave him in my mother's company for so long, their temperaments being so dissimilar. Finn was gregarious and friendly to everyone, from the lowliest slave to the Governor of our fine state, whereas Mother was not. Finn had long been a favorite of hers, but I knew my kind friend found my mother's affected airs and prejudices painful and frustrating, so I attempted to spare him when I could.
"Perhaps, we can convince you to stay a bit longer, and you might persuade my son from his morbid wallowing. He always had the unfortunate disposition of being a sensitive child," she said the word "sensitive" as though it were a vile crime, "His father has always indulged him too much for my liking, and this is what came of it. His son drifts about the house like a ghost. Won't see any of his former friends here. Why, Reed Mason, whose father is ever so essential in promoting the Confederacy's cause to the French, came to call last Tuesday, and Peeta didn't see fit to come down and show his gratitude for such great condescension."
"Well, ma'am, Peeta has been rather ill, from what I gather. I'm sure he would have attended Mason if he were well and able. Everyone at VMI says that Peeta Mellark is a stout, true friend to have," my friend defended me, bless him. It was a losing battle with my mother, alas, in whose eyes I apparently could do no right, even before I had the inconvenient misfortune to get myself permanently maimed in battle.
"That may be, but my son should remember he has responsibilities to his friends and to his family, especially. Mr. Mason sat over half an hour waiting, and I finally had to send him away. He was kind about it of course, but it mortified me no end to send the son of such an important Virginian away from my door as though he were a common tinker and not worth Peeta's notice," Alva Mellark's tone conveyed the full force of how put upon she felt.
Stepping into the room with a stiff spine in spite of my limping gait, I felt a moment of peevishness as I defended myself where at one time, I would have let her complaints go unanswered to keep the peace, "Good morning, mother," I bent to kiss her white, powdered cheek, "I did send Mason a message, and I think he forgives me my ingratitude."
Turning to my friend and extending my hand with the kind of desperation of a drowning man reaching for a life-ring, I said, "Finn! How good of you to come all the way from Lexington to see me! How're Saunders and Burke? Recovering from their wounds, I hope."
Finn clasped my hand firmly in his and drew me in for a brief, brotherly hug and a slap on the back, "Quite well, I should say. Burke lost part of his left arm to a shrapnel wound and has returned to Portsmouth. In fact, I was able to accompany him as far as Richmond. He sends his best wishes for your recovery, but he didn't stop, anxious as he was to get to his home. I'm sure you understand."
"Completely!" I knew that after my own injury, all I wanted was to lie in my bed and not get up, "Well, I am grateful he could part with you, so you could visit me here."
Taking a step back, my friend studied me with his keen sea green eyes, "Well, aside from being a little paler and thinner, I'd say you look I sight better than I dared hope. Leg troubling you much? You do cut a dashing figure with the returning war-hero air about you. The ladies must be swooning at your feet."
"Foot," I corrected automatically.
Finnick looked at my boots, one of which covered my new wooden foot, before quipping irreverently , "Well, aside from the limp, you can hardly tell. Really, old boy, you should have gone for a peg-leg instead. All you'd need is a false eye-patch, and you could've taken up piracy. Run through the Union blockade and all that."
An unexpected bubble of laughter escaped me. Trust my gregarious friend to make me laugh for the first time since my return home, "Peg-Leg Mellark, scourge of the Union Navy! Oh, Finn! I have missed you! Nobody gets away with saying the things that you seem to."
My mother sniffed indignantly, muttering something about "morbid talk" and took herself off in a high dudgeon towards the back of the house to check with Cook about our meal. Finn watched her go with a mischievous gleam in his eye, "Why does your dear mother put up with us?'
"Well- she tolerates me because it is her duty as she went to all the trouble to birth me," I replied, before eying my friend from head to toe in mock seriousness, "As for you, I suspect it's because you cut such a dashing figure standing in her morning room in all your uniformed glory. That and you endure her airs and graces, in a way my other friends do not."
"How fortunate for me then," Finn replied archly, looking in the direction the lady in question had disappeared with an expression of derision before turning back to me. "Actually, I came to rescue you. Come back to Lexington, and we'll see to your recovery properly. A few tumblers of whiskey and the company of one Mrs. Heartworth's ladies will set you to rights, I know. I'd take to my bed, too, if it meant avoiding the fearsome dragon that resides in your house. Say you'll do it."
"Oh, I wish I could, but I have a much more somber mission to perform," I replied regretfully, my good humor evaporating, "You may know I was with Hawthorne at the end after the battle."
"Yes," Finn said, "Tragic that. He was a crack shot and one of the best cadets at VMI, though rather a silent, dour fellow for my liking, but still a good nut."
"You and he were night and day, that's certain," I agreed before continuing, "The thing is, before the battle, he gave me a letter to deliver to his sweetheart who makes her home near Blacksburg, if the worst should happen, and I promised him I would. I've been delayed by this blasted injury too long as it is."
"Let me take it for you then," Finnick offered stoutly, "I'll see that the lady receives it."
I reached to clasp his shoulder, "You're a good man, but no. I promised him I'd put it in Katniss' hand myself, and I must honor my vow."
"Well, then there's nothing for it, I suppose," he nodded, "So when do we leave?"
In a matter of days I found myself sitting in a hired carriage on my way west across Virginia bound for Blacksburg, a remote hamlet surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains. My father was at first concerned at my plan to travel, but when I explained to him the circumstances, he understood that it was a matter of honor owed to a fallen comrade. So, the first leg of our journey went by with relative ease, considering it was by now late June, and we had mild weather and good roads, relatively speaking. Finn and I managed well enough with the long tedious hours of travel over bumpy roads, though they did take their toll on my injury, which hurt so fiercely by the end of each long day, that I was forced to resort to an ampule of laudanum in order to sleep at night. We stopped at inns in Farmville and Roanoke to break the monotony and strain of our journey. On what was to be the last day of our journey, as we neared Christiansburg, the axle of our carriage broke with a large crack. We were fortunate that our coachmen could control the horses and no larger calamity befell us other than Finn spilling his open flask of spirits on his coat. With the war, the supplies and the skilled labor needed to fix the carriage were in short supply.
After an overnight stay in a nearby inn, we decided to travel the remaining fifteen miles to Katniss' home outside of Blacksburg on horseback. I felt extreme relief once astride my mount and underway. I hadn't ridden much since my injury, and it was odd not having sensation below my left knee, but I managed alright once I relaxed into the saddle. The country of that area was beautiful and my artist's eye saw much to admire with sweeping vistas of rolling blue-green mountains just filling out with their lush summer foliage at our right and left. As we trotted sedately through the small town of Blacksburg itself, I noticed looks of suspicion if not outright distrust cast our way by the few folk in the area we passed. Finn had changed his coat, so neither of us were in military dress, but in civilian clothing. I put the looks down to natural feelings of wariness, given we were two apparently able-bodied men of unknown origins riding through their town as a war waged more than a hundred miles to the north. The road soon rose after we left the town and the going became more arduous, as we were forced to take a winding track over hill and vale to where I'd been instructed Katniss' home would be.
"Alright up there, Mellark?" Finn called, when the sun was casting it's long evening rays over the hollow we were currently riding out of. "Need a rest? This place has more ups and downs than a frigate in a strong gale, I'll say."
"No, I'd rather push on, while I'm still able, Finn," I replied tiredly. In truth, my vision was starting to blur a little at the edges as I was so unaccustomed to such exertion after my injury, "We should be almost there, and I'd like to arrive before dark, if we can. I'd feel uneasy out here after…."
The loud retort of a gunshot echoed deafeningly through the otherwise still mountains all around us just then, startling us both along with our horses. I struggled to keep my seat and just managed it as my mount reared up and stamped back down with a hard thud.
"Halt!'' came a firm, rich voice that was distinctly female, though deeper in timber than most, "You are on Everdeen land. State your business."
Looking in the direction of that melodic voice, I saw, not 20 feet away, a slim figure in britches and a long coat with a battered cap pulled low, casting the owner's face in shadow. As this person moved confidently out of the shadows and into the fading light, I noticed two things of great importance: first- the Springfield rifle being leveled at my chest and second- the woman who held it. This woman was none other than she who had haunted my dreams both waking and sleeping for many weeks. I had finally met Miss Katniss Everdeen.
All I could do was stare into those mesmerizing gray eyes now dark with suspicion and glaring directly at me from under lush sable brows. I'd always greatly admired Gale's picture of her that I now carried, but it did not begin to do her justice. The lady had what Portia would call- a powerful presence. I felt helpless and suddenly incredibly vulnerable pinned by those keen eyes, as though all my thoughts and wishes were laid bare under her power in that moment. I sat atop my restless horse, gaping.
"Now, my dear lady," answered my friend from where he sat on his horse a little behind me, "We both know you have just used your one shot, and short of taking a good deal of time to reload, all you can now do is fling that rifle at us. Besides, we are all friends here."
"That remains to be seen," her supple lips moved to grit out, "My uncle is nearby and will have heard the shot. I'll ask once more? What are you doing on Everdeen land?"
There was a kind of otherworldly look about Katniss Everdeen, Gale Hawthorne's fiance and in truth the woman of my dreams of late. I shook my head slightly in an attempt to clear it before somehow forcing out haltingly, "I am Peeta Mellark, VMI Cadet and friend to Gale Hawthorne. On the eve of battle, he bid me to bring you a letter and place it in your hand. I am here now to execute that duty."
Removing my riding glove and reaching into my inner coat pocket just over my rapidly pounding heart, I retrieved the packet of paper Gale had given me weeks ago. I felt like a blundering fool when I realized that I should have waited until I'd dismounted to relay this information. Katniss was quickly approaching my mount on her silent tread, her face now a mask of pain and determined grief. When she reached the horse's withers and stretched out her hand to me, I leaned down to give her the letter, our fingers accidentally brushing in the act. My last coherent memory was the remarkable sensation of how warm her small fingers were compared to mine, which were now inexplicably cold even on this warm June evening.
"Katniss…" the appropriate, polite words of comfort I'd been on the verge of uttering refused to form in my mouth. She and the dusky, wooded hills began to spin sickeningly around me. Blackness slowly encroached across my vision, as I swayed in the saddle and then I was falling. Time seemed to slow and stretch into an endless descent into nothingness. I would have found irony in falling from my horse to land at Katniss' feet, but I knew nothing of this as unconsciousness took me in its icy grasp, and I knew no more.
Thank you for reading! Well, what do you think? Please let me know how you liked swooning Peeta.
I own nothing but my own mistakes, both historical and grammatical.