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District 12

Christmas Eve, 1843

The Seam girl suspected that she may have wandered into a dream. For winter wore a prettier face in this fancy part of the district, where people lived in snow-capped, iron-gated townhomes and shopped along cobblestone lanes. Bells rung out everywhere, swaying from the church and jostling from the furry-hoofed horses that pulled sleighs down the streets.

Not only that, but the silvery sound could be heard at each storefront, whenever doors opened and closed. The windows glowed with treasures: rosy-cheeked puppets at the toy shop, hats festooned with primroses at the milliner's, and bolts of satin at the seamstress's. Most of all, iced gingerbread cookies and raisin bread at the bakery, which made the girl's hollow stomach grumble. People bustled around her, going from one business to the next. All manner of merchants and gentry convened here, their purses fat and their arms laden with packages tied in green ribbons. Some had children with them. Girls around her age, perhaps ten or eleven, wore velvet capes lined in ermine, their glossy ringlets bouncing as they trotted beside their parents. Meanwhile, the Seam girl smoothed over her braid and gathered her tattered cloak closer to her chest.

A brother and sister—they looked exactly alike, so they must have been siblings—quarreled over a peppermint pinwheel, their whines overlapping.

"One at a time," their father said. "Speak one at a time, or you will loose your voice."

The siblings clamped their mouths shut. Having eavesdropped, the girl smirked at the falsehood, amused despite her envy. She wished she had a mama and papa, too, that sickness hadn't stolen them away when she was a baby, or that she hadn't been left with Grisly Uncle Cray, who didn't care a snit for her. Having a real home and a real family was her biggest wish, more than a toasty feather bed or a full belly. However wishing hadn't worked before, and it wouldn't work now. The stars—any star, for that matter—were too busy to hear the pleas of someone as insignificant as her.

A lamplighter strolled across the sidewalk, his movements catching the girl's attention. Arrested, she watched as he inserted the end of a shaft into the bottom of a lamp strung in garland and released a quiet burst of flame. He winked at her and then moved on, humming to himself. The humming reminded the girl that she had work to do. Grisly Uncle Cray had warned her that if she didn't return home with wages, he would toss her into the workhouse. And that frightened her more than anything, more than ghosts.

Breath steaming against the glacial air, she brushed off a knoll snowflakes from her shoulders and trudged through the streets, her gangly legs carrying her deep into the residential area of town. These homes were not the grand seats of the aristocracy, but they were still a world away from her own, ovals of fog outlining the window panes to reveal candles that flickered from the needled branches of Christmas trees. Such a magical life, that these people could afford to use up so many candles!

The girl crept past the front gate of a four-story townhouse, to a towering door with a brass knocker, topped by some sort of bird figure. She was too intimidated to touch it, so she used her fist instead, timidly at first, then more insistent because both her knuckles and nose stung from the cold. She ached for the orange glint fluttering from inside. She listened to the ruckus of a latch being unlocked, followed by the sight of the strangest beard she'd ever beheld, coiling and sharp at the ends. A man dressed in gray livery—she thought he was called a footsir or footmer or footman—filled the doorway and pruned her down to a twig with his gaze. He slid a fob watch from his pocket and flicked the lid open with his thumb. "You have precisely three seconds to make yourself scarce, beggar."

The girl longed to snuggle into a protective shadow but forced herself to stand her ground, though it did little to stir an iota of the man's sensitivity. Her teeth clattered as she prevailed upon him, "I-I-I've c-c-come to s-s-sing for—"

"This is a respectable home. We don't deal in charity. Off with you now."

He was about to shut the door, but the girl's cry of protest startled him so much that he paused.

"I say, what's all the fuss?" inquired another man from within the house. The servant—she was sure now, he was called a footman—moved aside for an older gentleman with a kind face, threads of gray in his hair, and a dusting of flour on his arms.

"My apologies, sir," the servant sneered. "This urchin refuses to leave, though I've told her twice to be on her way."

The man turned his attention to the shivering girl. "What can I do for you, little miss?"

His voice was like whipped custard, softer than the footman's or Grisly Uncle Cray's, and more refined than the brogues and cockney accents of her neighbors in the Seam. It eased her chills, enough for her to speak plainly. "If you please, sir, I'm here to sing a carol for you. For a small wage."

The footman was aghast. "A thief up to no good, indeed."

It shocked the girl that the servant would speak out of turn, but his master simply waved off the comment. "Oh, thief-smief. Go away, Seneca. You have enough to do, so look smart about it. And fetch Peeta for me."

The servant blanched and grudgingly disappeared into the townhouse, his coattails flapping behind him.

"I always thought butlers answered doors. Not footmen," the girl said, more confident now that she and the man were alone.

He quirked a bushy brow in amusement. "A curious one, aren't you? Indeed butlers do, but ours is terribly ill at the moment. Our first footman is doing the honors temporarily."

"That's too bad for your visitors."

At the man's agreeing laughing, the girl said, "I can sing anything you want. I know all the carols."

"Where are you from?" he asked.

"The Seam, sir."

"Orphaned?"

For a second, she hesitated. "No. I'm working, 'tis all. Carols for pennies."

"You're rather brave to jaunt all the way here on your own," he remarked with a concerned expression that she didn't quite understand.

Heat shimmied up her neck. "I can survive just fine," she assured him.

He chuckled once more. "I suppose I'll have to believe that. Em . . . just a moment." He craned his head over his shoulder and then back at her. "My son was helping me bake, and he's a bit slow coming from the kitchen. He loves handling the dough even more than his drawing pencils."

Warmth brimmed from inside the house, as well as the smell of black pudding and sugarplums. "Baking?" she asked.

"Indeed. I own the bakery in the square."

The girl brightened. Food was his skill. That made him a magician! "Oh, I know that place," she exclaimed. "I've seen your raisin loaves in the window."

The man bowed. "You have a fine eye. That's our specialty. We prosper a great deal from it."

Funny that. And how strange. And confusing. Wasn't he a gentleman? Rich folk, with houses like these, who talked fancy like him, didn't need to work. They had no reason to be in trade.

"In fact," the man continued, "my son and I were just starting a new batch of raisin loaves. However, I'm sure he'd like to indulge in a break and hear you sing."

It certainly seemed that way, because just then a boy appeared, peeking behind his father. He was light itself, with golden hair and a face that reminded her of an ornament. And his eyes—they were extraordinarily blue, like jewels. Or better yet, like faerie wings. His eyes widened and gleamed when they looked upon her.

The girl was suddenly aware of her fingerless gloves and the filth caking her nails. She should have washed her hands before venturing here, but from the way he smiled at her . . . it was like he didn't mind that she was dirty. He stepped closer, eagerly planting himself in front of his father.

Peeta. That was what the man called him.

The girl's cheeks felt like they were roasting, which was a comfort but also scary. She averted her gaze.

Peeta tugged on his father's sleeve until the man leaned over, listening as the boy whispered something in his ear. The man nodded and ruffled his son's hair. "Good choice. Now." The man rubbed his hands. "How much for The Valley Song? It's not a carol, but—" Wistfulness glinted in his eyes. "But it's a special one for us. It was a favorite of Peeta's mother."

Oh? Peeta must have lost his mama. The Seam girl understood what that was like.

"What's your price?" the man repeated.

"A copper?" she suggested, fretting whether she should have gone higher than a penny and possibly asked for a tuppence.

"Hmm." He tapped his chin, giving it such consideration that the girl braced herself. Finally, he said, "If your voice earns it, a shilling seems more fair. Don't you agree?"

The little girl gasped. A shilling!

"Go on, then," he encouraged.

The girl's stomach flipped over at the thought of having to sing in front of this boy. She cleared her throat and began, the lyrics curling from her throat and blending into the winter night. Peeta's eyes danced with blueness. She never thought of the color as hopeful until now, and that she had something to do with it made her proud. She liked to think her singing voice was mythical.

When she finished, the gentleman was speechless. "That was remarkable. Thank you very much. Truly, my dear."

"Th-thank you," the boy echoed, his voice reaching out to her like a hand would. He bit his lower lip and shuffled his feet in an anxious manner. "Um . . . one more?"

"Peeta," his father scolded with good-nature. "We can't take up so much of the girl's time. She has other houses to enliven." Yet there was a heavy pause in which he scratched the back of his head, delaying for some reason.

Ah, of course. He must have been waiting for a proper goodbye. The girl curtsied, grateful to have earned her shilling but feeling an even greater loss as the man sighed and ushered his son back into the house. Before the door closed, Peeta gave her one more desperate look.

As she headed down the lane, she was surprised by how much she missed his face already. But at least she had her wages, and she tried to cheer herself by skipping like she used to when she was five. She thought how pleased her uncle would be and wondered if he'd let her keep some of the money for a treat.

Her skips got higher and faster. And then she fell, her knees skidding over the pavement, and disaster struck. For a dark figure helped her up, then dashed off, and that's when she discovered that her shilling was gone. The nasty pickpocket! Her night turned to spoils! She couldn't even run after the crook and tackle him because it happened too fast.

Frightened by what Grisly Uncle Cray would do to her when she got home, the girl hid in a murky alleyway and dropped onto the ground in despair, weeping for the loss of her good fortune. Maybe this was where she'd starve. She hadn't had a bite in ages, and if she did perish here, at least she'd be with her mama and papa again. Maybe she should let herself die. She was on the verge anyway. Of that, she was certain.

"Psst," came a pinched voice to her right. "Hey. Psst."

She whirled around and scanned the shadows, her eyes popping when she discovered the baker's son, Peeta, edging towards her. His own eyes trembled with worry. "Are you okay?"

"What are you doing here?" she demanded.

"I followed you. I ran out of the house when my papa wasn't looking."

"That's not nice of you!"

"Are you hungry?" Peeta asked, crouching in front of her and holding out a slice of raisin bread that smelled of cinnamon.

The girl wavered. What was he about, coming after her like this? Oh no, had he seen her fall?

"Go on," he said, wiggling the bread at her. "It won't bite. That's your job."

Fine. She had nothing left to lose, and her stomach hurt so badly, like a knife twisting into her gut. She fancied a good long pause before accepting the slice, her fingers touching his in the exchange. She feasted, ravishing the crusted morsel with her teeth. Jehoshaphat, it tasted like life itself!

The boy plopped down next to her, hugging his legs to his chest. "You sure have a pretty voice."

She examined his waistcoat, cravat, and tailored pants. "You're going to ruin your fine clothes," she warned with her mouth full. "The ground is wet and grimy. So is everything else in reaching distance."

"I don't care. It's worth it to sit beside you."

"You shouldn't be following people."

"Sorry. What's your name?"

"Katniss."

"How old are you?"

She swallowed the last of the bread and then wrinkled her nose. "I don't like questions."

"I'll give you more bread if you tell me."

All he really needed to do was keep smiling, but that was a private thought, and she vowed never to reveal it. Never ever. Not in a million years. "I think I'm eleven." When he squinted, she explained, "That's what my Grisly Uncle Cray says. But I don't know my birthday."

"What about your mama and papa?"

"They died. I live with my uncle, but he's not really my family. He doesn't want me around. No one does."

Peeta shook his head, which shimmered in the dark. He jabbed at his chest. "You're wrong. I want you around."

"No, you don't. You're a boy. Boys don't want girls around."

"I'm not just a boy. I'm Peeta."

She rolled her eyes, elated by his declaration. But once more, she wasn't going to say it out loud and make a ninny of herself. "Fine," she said. "I'll allow that. You can have me around if you offer more bread." And again, if he kept smiling at her.

Peeta thought about something. "Do you come from the stars, Katniss? Because you sing like you do. You sing like magic."

She managed a weak giggle. He grinned back, revealing a duet of dimples, and the effect was like a match against a tinderbox, sparking inside her tummy. She liked how their breaths clouded together in the frosty air. Giddiness bubbled inside her.

She opened her mouth to thank him for the bread when a distraught voice cried out. "Peeta! Peeta!"

"Uh-oh," Peeta groaned. "I'm in trouble." He cupped his mouth and called, "Over here!"

Just then, his father came bounding into the alleyway. In his haste, he nearly slipped on the icy ground. Katniss watched in fascination, and with immense longing, as the gentleman sank to his knees and yanked Peeta to his chest, hugging him with all his might. When he pulled back, he braced his hands on Peeta's shoulders, his face wrinkled with anger. "Have you gone bedlam? What were you thinking, dashing off like that?!"

Peeta babbled his response. "I had to, Papa. Katniss was hungry, anyone could see it, and I couldn't just let her leave, and I went after her because her voice made us happy, and I wanted to hear it again and give her some bread, and she was here, and I'm sorry, but—"

The man belted out a tired laugh. "All right, all right. Hush, now." He regarded the girl while still holding Peeta. "Katniss, is it?"

Katniss fiddled with her braid. "Yes, sir. Forgive me, sir. I didn't know he would follow me. Please don't be mad, sir—"

"None of that. I'm Mr. Mellark to anyone who knows me."

"But I don't know you."

"You sang for me, so now you know me. You know us."

"Katniss is a star," Peeta boasted. "That's where her voice comes from."

"I'll wager it does," Mr. Mellark answered fondly.

"Can she come home and help us bake?"

Katniss scowled. She wanted to shove Peeta for asking that. It was mortifying.

"Peeta, you must remember that Katniss has a family to return to," his papa said.

On the other hand, his rejection injured her far worse than any embarrassment could. Weariness dragged her shoulders down. These two had been so kind to her. She liked them very much. She wanted to keep them.

Grisly Uncle Cray didn't want to keep her. And even though she didn't want to be pitied, she enjoyed making Peeta grin, and she thought she might follow his eyes anywhere. Also, there was more food at the Mellarks' house. A fire and a Christmas tree, as well.

The words tumbled from her mouth like marbles. "I don't have a family."

Mr. Mellark twisted toward her and frowned. "I thought you said you weren't orphaned."

"I fibbed," she fibbed.

Only a trifle, though. Cray wouldn't miss her, to be sure. So it was partly the truth.

Peeta stared at her intently but didn't give away her secret. He was a good ally. He smelled wonderful, too, like fresh snowfall and sweets and dough. Like hope.

They swapped shy glances, and she noticed Peeta's father studying them both, his gaze traveling between them. She wondered what he saw, but whatever it was, it softened his features and swelled his voice with affection. "Well, Katniss the Star. It appears you've had quite the effect on us. We do have two raisin loaves to finish before tomorrow. Your assistance would mean a great deal. We can pay you with supper and a warm bed, if you'd like." He got to his feet and offered her another kindly look. "We have plenty of room."

Supper. A warm bed. Ohhh.

Her chin rose. They needed her. She liked being needed.

Peeta straightened his cravat, all gentleman-like, and held out his hand. "Would you like to come home with us, Katniss?"

The question felt so important, like a gift that would last for as long as she wanted it to. She took Peeta's hand. Impulsively, she kissed his cheek, then jerked back, feeling as red-faced as he looked. However, that smile of his returned, even bigger than before. He squeezed her hand, and all the way back to the house, he never let go.

Before they stepped through the front door together, Katniss glanced up and saw a cluster of stars. And it was funny, because when she gazed at them long enough, they got fuzzy around the edges and became something else.

Something like a dandelion.

Chapter Text

District 12, 1850

Sneaking out the window wasn't the difficult part. It was the fifteen-foot drop that gave Katniss pause. With one leg dangling over the sill, the skirts of her forest-green gown hiked to her knees and revealing her stocking-clad legs for all the world to see, she braced her hands on the frame and bit her tongue in contemplation. Drat. A daring escape wasn't going to be as easy as those swashbuckling heroes make it seem in books. Not to mention, those characters were grown men in mortal peril, not eighteen year-old girls wishing to flee a party.

She hated the Season. She hated the debutante balls, masquerades, fetes, teas, and luncheons that came with this time of year, when Panem's social elite woke up from hibernation and pranced out of their gilded cages to play hosts. The only enjoyable thing about these events was the food. Yet even the most decadent lamb savory couldn't persuade Katniss to endure one more moment of Miss Deliah Cartwright. An angel to the world. A dragon to Katniss. Since the day they met, the spoiled chit has never fooled Katniss, a fact which has fueled their mutual hatred ever since.

Fine. There was another reason why Deliah's talons came out every time they were together. It circulated around Katniss's best friend.

She shook her head. There was no point in dwelling on that when she was hanging out of a second-story window, intent on breaking a social commandment and possibly her leg. It was bad enough that Deliah had beaten Katniss—by one blasted anonymous vote!—and was crowned president of The Young Ladies Committee for the Habitat of Endangered Mockingjays and Redeemable Mutts. Now, Katniss was stuck in the dragon's townhouse, enduring the Cartwright version of a "humble" fundraiser. Musicians, lavish gowns, and scores of inebriated attendees who couldn't care less about the cause.

No surprise, Deliah used this charity to show off. All she cared about was popularity and connections—and torturing Katniss. At dinner, the dragon purposefully sat Katniss between the devil and the deep blue sea. The two most annoying gentleman in existence. To Katniss's right sat Percy Flickerman, the horse-toothed son of Caesar Flickerman, who possessed the unique ability to talk and shovel enormous forkfuls of passion fruit mousse into his mouth at the same time. He'd prattled on, subjecting her to the fumes of his opium breath and an impassioned dissertation about the merits of inbreeding. Katniss's attentions were divided between trying to guess what mental institution he'd escaped from, and the wandering fingers of her other companion.

To her left sat Marvel St. Marvel II, son of Marvel St. Marvel I, a dandy with a fetish for outmoded pastel waistcoats and bloated breasts. His eyes had slithered to the off-the-shoulder neckline of her dress, and under the polished mahogany table, his palm landed on her thigh. If she weren't so repelled by his touch, the bold move would have impressed her.

Instead, she casually stabbed the bastard's knuckles with her fork. And that was the end of that.

Deliah tittered behind her fan and relished Katniss's dilemma. Well played. Deliah wanted war? Katniss would give her war! Vengeance was hers!

But for the moment, she just had to get out of this house. Pleading a headache or an attack of the vapors was out of the question, for that would make her look weak. Deliah the Dragon might notice Katniss leaving and make a snide public remark about it, perhaps poke fun at her for being a sourpuss, or feign sympathy and declare Katniss a poor "sickly" thing in front of everybody.

Sneaking out the back window into the crisp spring evening was the best option. The townhouse was conveniently located on a street corner, free of neighbors to the east, which made escaping from the garden possible. And risking a broken bone was a meager price to pay. Besides, a blossoming apple tree was just in reach.

Katniss plucked off her gloves and buried them in her reticule. To free up her hands, she stuffed the handbag down her bodice and stifled a giggle at the way it made her chest pop. She grasped the open shutter and leaned forward, extending her arm, her fingers scraping the edge of a thick branch. Almost there. Almost. After minutes of huffing and cursing the invention of stiff petticoats, Katniss seized the branch and hoisted herself into the tree's embrace. Then she hung there like a chandelier.

Oh boy. She predicted the tongue lashing she was certain to get at home for this. Greasy Sae, the only servant who called her by her given name, would lecture her to grow up and start acting like a respectable lady. The cook would ignore Katniss's excuses and squawk the usual lecture: "Oh, fiddlesticks! If you wanted to be babied, you should have asked Peeta."

At the very thought of her best friend, Katniss grunted and began kicking out her legs to find purchase on the tree. "Well, Peeta's not here," she snapped aloud to herself, dejected and cranky.

He wasn't here. He'd been spending the past twelve months gallivanting across the country and embracing the many advantages of being a male, all but abandoning Katniss to a lifetime sentence of etiquette and needlepoint. The traitor.

At last, her feet made contact with a knob in the tree trunk. The foundation stabilized her enough so that her hands clamped along the upper branch until she reached the cradle of the tree. From there, she crawled down and plopped onto a lower bough. Now it would be an easy descent to the ground, and then a quick hop over the side gate.

The tree's brittle hide had scraped her palms, tore her left slipper, and stained the hem of her gown. And it was wonderful. To be disheveled instead of primped, to inhale the fresh green scent of nature instead of the guests' perfume, to rub her nose against the flowering blossoms instead of choking the stem of a champagne glass. Breaking the rules shouldn't feel this jubilant, yet Katniss rebelled and allowed herself to enjoy it.

Also, the stars were out. They always gave her comfort. Years ago, on that fateful holiday night when she sang carols for pennies, the stars followed her from the Seam into the fancy part of town. And when she was rescued from the streets and whisked away into the heart of a loving family, it felt as though something special was granted to her.

Gazing up, Katniss found herself smiling. No matter where life took her, the stars would be with her. One of the first things Peeta ever said to her was that she sang like she came from the stars. She often linked her best friend to the sky, too. The points of light that led her home. She missed him terribly. He—

"Ah, what have we here?" a nasal voice droned.

Katniss tensed. No. No, please!

She glared down through the branches and into a pair of carnivorous eyes bulging from the sockets of young Marvel St. Marvel. Yes, it was him. Devil take her! With her skirts open to him like this, she must resemble a first-rate doxy. If Deliah got wind of this, it would give her the ultimate ammunition to ruin Katniss.

"We meet again," St. Marvel said. "Hunting for squirrels, are we?"

"I—"

"Shh. I understand perfectly."

Comical and unconvincing, indeed. Seven years had passed since she became Mr. Mellark's ward, but she still exercised her Seam wits. Still needed them. "Ha. You must think I'm a simpleton," she scoffed.

"Of course not," St. Marvel insisted, then leaned into the tree trunk and spoke in a conspiratorial tone. "This party is the dullest of the Season. I can't blame you for fleeing." He extended a hand encircled with lace. "Come. I won't tell a soul."

At Katniss's scowl, he sighed. "I behaved appallingly at dinner. Allow me to make amends. Please."

Humph. But maybe he wasn't as revolting and stupid as she thought. Maybe he was fond of her but had been educated in the wrong manner—by his miserly weasel of a father—on courting. No boy had ever shown an interest in Katniss before. Not that she encouraged them. So perhaps it was time to change that. If she could be a lady for a moment, St. Marvel could be a gentleman. And if she was wrong, she would simply punch him.

Careful not to expose her legs, Katniss descended the tree. Accepting Marvel's hand, she hopped to the ground and exhaled with relief. "Thank y—" She squeaked as his arms flung around her waist and pulled her against him.

"I can't bear it," he growled. "No more of this game. No pretending we're proper. End my suffering!"

"What?" She flattened her palms on his chest and tried to wrench herself back. "Let go of me. Now."

Scarlet flushed Marvel's face. He grasped her so desperately that her head whipped back. "Ughhnn," she groaned.

"Miss Everdeen. Flame of my dreams. Pearl of my heart—"

"Oh, my God."

"No need to be flustered or ashamed, my Kat."

All right. No one . . . nooooo one . . . called her Kat except her best friend. She was Peeta's Kat. Not Marvel's.

"I see my prose has compelled you," he said.

"Yes," she agreed. "To commit murder if you don't release me!"

"What is death?" he declared, looking a bit insane. "I'm willing to die in glory for your kiss."

"Good heavens. Cease! Heel!" Katniss hissed, wrestling with him across the veranda while gaping around in fear that someone would catch them, or that someone wouldn't. She ducked out of his arms, then twirled away, only to be snatched by the shoulders and spun around for another dance of resistance. Her annoyed grunts clashed with his clumsy attempts to wax poetic.

"Don't deny the passion between us," Marvel wailed in a theatrical soprano. "Spare yourself."

"I'm trying," she assured him, swinging out her arm to reach a topiary urn, perfect to knock him unconscious with.

"I'm not a reckless man. Nor a fervent one by nature, but I say, I say, I say. You've bewitched me, stirred my immortal soul. I would walk on fire for you."

"By all means, the hearth is inside."

Her fingertips grazed the urn, but Marvel snatched her wrist and pressed it to his bony chest. He wet his lips not once, but twice, and dove in for what promised to be the most disgusting moment of her life: her first kiss. She arched her face away. The shrivel fruit of his puckered mouth mashed into her cheek—then vanished altogether.

An elegant, masculine hand appeared out of nowhere, seizing Marvel's collar and shoving him into the balustrade. The force wasn't brutal, but strong and graceful. Almost playful. She knew that hand. She knew those movements like her own.

His voice curled into the night air, a tangle of boyish amusement and authority. "I believe you have the wrong lady. This one is mine."

Katniss's attention latched onto him, just as he turned to regard her. Same naughty blue eyes. Same rakish grin. Same golden, unkempt hair. Same sweet cologne. But he'd gotten broader over the year, filling out his black tailcoat and trousers beautifully. And naturally, like all he needed was the sun to grow.

Peeta.

Her Peeta. Her ally. Her partner in mischief was home.

Well, it's about time. Katniss puffed out her bottom lip, blew the hair from her eyes, and pouted at him. You see what you left me to deal with? This is all your fault!

Peeta merely cocked his head and smirked. A blanched and repentant St. Marvel stuttered a chorus of apologies. "M-mellark, w-when did you . . . My apologies, I truly don't know w-what came over me. I've b-been in the cups. I would never dishonor—"

"St. Marvel," Peeta said calmly while staring at Katniss.

"Mellark?" Marvel replied.

"I'm handy with a kitchen blade, but if you ever touch my Kat again, forget domesticity. I'll crush your windpipe. Now go away."

St. Marvel tripped over himself en-route to the townhouse. Once the dandy disappeared inside, Peeta crossed an arm over his chest, balanced the opposite elbow atop, and placed a finger to his lips. He regarded her with a "Hmm," then curled his finger down so he could speak. "St. Marvel? Poor taste, Kat. I expected better from you."

Peeta's gaze slipped to her chest, his face alighting with mirth. "Apparently, you thought he did, too."

Oh, blast. Cheeks bursting, Katniss yanked her reticule from her bodice, then anchored her fists onto her hips. "Not funny. How long were you watching us before you decided to interrupt?"

He rolled his eyes and flicked his digits into the air. "Please. You can take care of yourself."

True. St. Marvel's concussion was on the horizon once her best friend finally intervened. And none of this was Peeta's doing. She only thought so because she was mad, but she'd never been able to blame him for anything he did. She was the fool who made the mistake of trusting a buffoon.

However, she and Peeta had a rule. They protected each other. Or they used to until he left.

Dammit it all. She wanted a hug. Badly.

"How long?" she repeated.

"Enough to know one thing for certain." And then he smiled at her with unconditional affection. "You're still in love with those stars."

Katniss's glare dissolved. Her mouth split with humor. She dashed into his embrace, throwing her head back with joy as he twirled her around, their laughter shooting into the sky. His strong arms held her tight and warm, his heart thumping in tandem with her own pulse, and his body seemed even more substantial than before he left—or else her imagination was playing tricks on her.

When he set her down, an oddly bereaved feeling rose in her chest. She yearned for a longer hug, a greater claim on his arms and hands. Simply . . . or not simply . . . more. Funny that. She must have missed him something awful, even worse than she realized.

Peeta cupped her cheeks and rested his nose against hers. The night sky, and the candlelight from inside the house, bathed him in ocher and ink. His sweet, puckish face reminded her of a rich custard. She felt a peculiar urge to lick him, eat him up with a spoon before anyone else got the chance.

"St. Marvel and my Kat," he chuckled, his breath steaming notes of brandy onto her lips. "If you want my blessing, you're in for a disappointment. Seriously, the dandy's ego weighs more than I do."

Mirthfully, Katniss grabbed the ends of his cravat, threatening to tighten it until he turned purple. "You be quiet," she warned through her teeth. "He ruined my stargazing."

"Heaven forbid," Peeta drawled.

"I can't do anything right without a constellation shining down on me. It's my good luck charm."

His lips formed an impish grin. "And here I thought that was me."

Katniss furrowed her brow, not caring for the sound of that. She shoved him away and quipped, "Do not flatter yourself, rascal."

"I prefer the term scoundrel."

"You've been gone for a year, and I've done plenty without you."

"So I noticed." He nudged his head back toward the tree, where St. Marvel had been attacking her with his slimy touch. "Describe this plenty."

"It's none of your business. Besides, my escapades in your absence might intimidate you," she bluffed, tossing the words out onto the breeze. "You may regret all that you missed by leaving me here to roam the range." She mock-shivered and added, "Unsupervised."

Peeta braced his hands on the balustrade, on either side of her waist, trapping her as he leaned in. He canted his head to the side. "I'm the one who's been gone. I bet I have more stories of sin to tell."

Excellent! A shame-a-thon! In the distance, a piano struck up a lively tune, as if encouraging the moment. And oh, how she'd longed for this again, playing games with him.

"Bet not," she dared.

"Let's hear it, then," he said. "Ladies first."

"Ah, ah, ah. Terms must be negotiated. If I out-scandalize you, what will I get?"

The veranda swayed beneath her feet as, for a dizzying instant, Peeta's gaze tripped to her mouth. "What would you like from me?"

Katniss blinked. She must have looked like a hooked and gaping fish out of water. Was her best friend flirting with her? Ewww. What had his travels done to him?

She had barely come up with a suitable joke to neutralize the moment when the garden's double doors swooped open, breaking them apart. Henceforth, a demon appeared on the threshold. A creature of scales and snout, an ancestor of gargoyles, a veritable she-dragon in a circle of pastel pink silk.

Deliah Cartwright. The debutante whose elitist jibes Katniss had failed to develop an immunity to over the ages, the girl whose sugar-coated grin proved as fake as her compassion. Her eyes targeted Katniss with a predatory gleam, but the instant those eyes shifted and leached onto Peeta, Deliah's entire demeanor changed. Her expression bubbled into champagne, her mouth perked into a voracious smile, and her bosom magically inflated to twice its size.

She sprung into action, flouncing over to his side. "Oh, my, my. If it isn't Peeta Mellark," she simpered. "I didn't know that you'd returned, you scoundrel. And how greedy of you, Miss Everdeen, holding Peeta prisoner out here."

Mr. Mellark, Katniss griped. He's Mr. Mellark to you. Not Peeta.

"Deliah," Peeta said informally, not helping matters one bit. With a gallant smile, he took the creature's hand and kissed it. "You look angelic."

Katniss rolled her eyes. Polite or not, did he have to use that word to describe her?

The sight of her best friend charming evil itself made her blood curdle. He and the enemy grinned prettily at each other: Peeta and Deliah of the sunny hair, rosy complexion, and wealthy bloodlines—things Katniss would never possess.

Everyone knew about Katniss. Instead of lying, Peeta's father had been forthright, claiming her as his orphaned ward and bringing her up like a lady. In time, most of the people accepted her, thanks to the Mellark name. It had taken her forever to master their vocabulary and table manners, but even now she didn't measure up, the grime of her past still caked under her fingernails. The proud side of her often felt like a charity case, a notion that others held in private, concealed behind their polite expressions.

Beneath the corset and petticoats, the modern hats and gloves, Katniss was no more a lady than she'd ever been. Her pride insisted on doing whatever she could to earn her keep, be it managing the gardens or shadowing the gamekeeper on the Mellark's woodland estate outside of District 12. She refused to let people think her a useless damsel. She loathed the dainty life of a debutante, the sort of girl Peeta was destined to marry. A girl like Deliah.

"I saw St. Marvel dispatch himself from the veranda looking flushed," Deliah confided in a stage whisper. "I thought to investigate. Silly me not to consider your popularity with the beaus this season, Miss Everdeen. First Percy Flickerman, and now St. Marvel," she ticked off, then spoke to Peeta. "I should have known he'd be out here with her again."

Peeta's gaze shot to Katniss. "Again?"

Katniss glowered. Again, eh? This was news to her. She'd never been alone with either gentleman, neither St. Marvel, nor Percy and his hyena laugh. What was Deliah doing, implying that Katniss's heart was spoken for? Or that she was a hussy? As if Peeta would give a hoot about the former or believe the latter. He'd just witnessed what St. Marvel was capable of.

Deliah always tried to steer Peeta's attention from Katniss, make him see her in a cheaper light. Yet no matter how obvious and unfair Deliah's pursuits, Peeta still tolerated her.

"Your father's ward has such creative taste in men," Deliah gushed. "I suppose coming from where she does, it must be necessary, what with so few choices."

Where Katniss came from. Deliah couldn't even utter it: The Seam. The land of shacks, smokestacks, and almshouses. The poor side of the district, where laundry hung out to dry over pits of mud, where babies wailed for milk, where people couldn't read or even define words like destitute. Where foundlings like her were born.

"Nevertheless, Miss Everdeen, it's in poor taste to monopolize two bachelors at the same party," Deliah lectured with a fixed smile. "You should restrain yourself, or the guests will get the wrong idea." Her eyes flitted to Peeta and back to Katniss, as if to push the meaning home. "Just because you're hungry doesn't mean the rest of us should starve. I daresay, one might call you greedy."

"Oh, no. Was I stealing your hostess thunder?" Katniss feigned remorse. "Aww, forgive me. I didn't realize it was so easy."

In response, Deliah's nostrils flared. Like a weapon, she snapped open her lace fan with a loud thwack and flapped it madly.

Peeta cleared his throat. "I hear you're raising funds for wildlife," he prompted Deliah, ever the buffer.

She sighed demurely. "I'm wretchedly attached to the cause, you know."

Oh, please! No, he didn't know. Neither did Katniss, since she was the one who'd suggested the charity in the first place. Deliah couldn't tell a mutt from a poodle, wouldn't know a mockingjay if it shat on her head.

In a false display of compassion, Deliah swept a tendril of hair from her face, exposing her creamy throat to Peeta. "So many poor, wild half-breeds to be tamed. Mockingjays," she proclaimed for the hundredth time tonight. Crossing her eyes, Katniss mouthed along with Deliah's rehearsed speech: "What a sorry lot, being hunted down and caged, raked over the coals for things they cannot control. If we don't build a habitat to redeem the savage beasts, who will?" Deliah threw up her hands to emphasize the point. Behind her, Katniss mimicked the gesture.

"We fight. We dare." Deliah wiggled her fingers in the air. "And all that."

Katniss mimed along. From his peripheral vision, Peeta caught what she was doing and thrust his tongue against the inside of his cheek in order to keep a straight face. It did wicked things to his jaw.

"It must be terrible," the damn girl continued, "being a primitive hybrid of good and bad. Mostly bad, of course." And here was the part where she detoured and lost Katniss. "But Miss Everdeen has been most helpful in educating us on the topic. She of all people knows what it's like to be of mixed breeding."

Fists balled, Katniss stepped in her direction. Peeta intervened before she did anything rash, hopping in front of her and offering Deliah his arm. "Might we have a dance? It's been too long."

The problem was that he sounded like he meant it. At his invitation, Deliah practically floated off the ground, and Katniss festered as the strumpet pranced toward the house, stealing her best friend not minutes after his return.

Poker up, Katniss. He's only being polite to her and pacifying you. How bloody valiant of him.

But just before they disappeared into the light and music, Peeta twisted toward Katniss. And he winked. A silent promise to rejoin her after his social duties were through, to go home with her, where they would talk into the wee hours under his blanket. After all this time, nothing had changed between them, and nothing ever would. Having a best friend was too precious a gift to lose. Thankfully, there was no threat of that.

Katniss relaxed with a chuckle. He would be back later. He always came back.

Chapter Text

The hem of Katniss's robe kissed the rug as she hastened across the hall and hopped down the stairs to the second floor. The glass sconces swelling from the walls pulsated with a sleepy light, though she didn't need them to guide her. It could be pitch black and she'd find her way to him, she knew this route so well.

A thrill skipped through her at the prospect of joining him for a midnight round of chatter, a tradition she longed to rekindle. Because Deliah had interrupted them on the veranda during the charity, Katniss and Peeta had yet to finish their shame-a-thon, and she hoped they would slide back into it without a hitch.

Rounding the corner, she skittered to a halt. The double doors to Peeta's room gaped, the query being that he never left them open at this hour. He'd been anticipating her, and they had a special knock, which she was hankering to use. So where was the dummy?

She peeked inside, scanning the wainscoting and the paintings with his initials dabbed into the canvases, the embers from the fireplace popping and skipping over the grate, and his empty sleigh bed looking lonesome. Then her eyes narrowed at something lying atop the coverlet. A shadow of something long and curved, tied with a ribbon.

"Oh," she breathed, her hand flying to her chest. "Oh, Peeta." She dashed over to the longbow and swept it up for closer inspection, pulling on the string and imagining her target.

Take that, Deliah Cartwright.

"Ah-ah-ah," his mirthful voice lectured from behind. "Thank me first. Play later."

Katniss dropped the bow on the bed and whirled around. Peeta leaned against the door frame. Without the constraints of his jacket and vest, and with his cravat dangling from the deep split in his shirt collar, he looked as beautifully windswept as she felt.

He nudged his chin toward the present. "I saw it in 7 and couldn't resist. Do you like it?"

She spilled into his arms, too overwhelmed by his gift to speak. Inwardly, she squealed, Thank you, thank you, thank you!

"You're welcome," he laughed, reading her mind. "Happy birthday, Katniss."

Katniss's eighteenth birthday came and went a week ago. Peeta missed it, but on their way home from Deliah's party, he explained the reason: He'd planned to surprise her with an early return from his district adventures, in time to toast with her, however a broken-down carriage and a nasty thunderstorm delayed him.

No bother. She shared a cake with Mr. Mellark, Effie, and her two friends, Madge and Johanna. But with Peeta here, both he and her guardian now insisted upon a grander affair, belated in her honor. Parties made Katniss gag, but if a social charade pleased the men in her life, it would be worth it.

The bow also made everything worth it. Aside from stargazing, singing, and eating, archery was her favorite pastime, but her old gear had seen better days. This new model, inlaid with her name, fit in her grasp as though tailored for her.

Peeta knew her well. They had plenty of years to explore one another's quirks, secrets and passions, flaws and strengths, since she came to the Mellark household.

Peeta's father had no title, but he was a wealthy, highborn gentleman who pursued the baking business as a hobby. Many considered it an odd, though respectable, pastime. Besides, the Mellark duo had a way of charming their peers into accepting anything the men did. Including bringing Katniss into their lives.

On that first night, she'd cowered in the townhouse foyer, petrified of taking another step. In such a shiny place, she felt dirtier than she ever had, and little Peeta had to coax her from the shadows by promising raisin bread. In the main room, Katniss turned a full, slacked-jawed circle, her wonder multiplying as they gave her a tour. Artwork in gilt frames. Roaring fires. Thick carpets under her feet. Cushioned chairs in creams and oranges. A study and game room. A solarium—whatever that was. A music space cluttered with instruments.

The harp caught her eye. Katniss wanted to reach out and touch its spine, to trace its bow-shape, but soot caked her fingernails. The whole time, she kept her arms firmly at her sides while gaping around, oftentimes lagging behind Peeta and his father.

And the Christmas tree! The scent of pine, the rosy candles, and the fat, gleaming ornaments dangling like ripe fruit.

And a bedroom, just for her! With clean blankets and feathered pillows!

On the threshold, Mr. Mellark said, "We'll have it decorated to your tastes. Colors and trimmings—and toys. Would you like that?"

Katniss idled, not daring to explore. She swallowed a boulder, her eyes burning with tears at the family's kindness, which she'd done nothing to earn. And in her opinion, who needed toys when she had that tree to marvel at?

A maid bathed her, a procedure that Katniss hated. She didn't want to be scrubbed down by a stranger, but she did want to play with the bubbles, so she preoccupied herself thus while the water muddied around her.

At supper, she wore one of Peeta's shirts and trousers. His father promised to buy Katniss clothes, but she didn't mind. The material smelled like snowflakes and sugar and Peetaness. She sat across from the boy, trying her best to act fancy—and doing a fine job of it, with her back straight and her fingers stuck in her lap.

That was, until the food arrived. A glazed goose, spiced apple stuffing, and the promised raisin bread.

Katniss's tummy howled. She dove into her plate with a ferocity that bordered on madness. She might as well have been punishing her meal, from the way she fisted handfuls of it and stuffed it into her mouth. A glimpse across the table, where Peeta gawked at her, his wide eyes reflecting the bluest sort of shock, stopped her mid-gulp. Mortification swam up her neck, thick and hot, followed by terror. She was behaving like a heathen. They would boot her back to the Seam for this!

Mr. Mellark patted her arm. "Slow down, Katniss. Your stomach needs to adjust. There's no rush." He overwhelmed her with tenderness. "You're not going anywhere, are you?"

No, it appeared she wasn't. She paced herself through the rest of the feast, encouraged by Peeta's mini smiles. Covertly, he tapped the correct silverware to use whenever another exciting course was served.

Because she couldn't sleep in that endless bed, in that giant room, she sneaked downstairs to the Christmas tree. Curling up on a settee, she watched twilight from outside cast a sheen across the needles, blunting the sharp points. She wondered what part of the neighboring forest the tree came from.

"May I join you? It looks fun."

Katniss canted her head to the side, to where Peeta shuffled a few feet away. Even in the dark, his hair brightened the world, which meant he was perfect. And that made her scowl, because she didn't want to live with someone perfect.

Sadly, she had trouble saying no. Having him near chased away the bad feelings that kept her awake. Not visions of Grisly Uncle Cray coming for her—he would consider himself blessed to be rid of the burden. No, these were the bad sorts of butterflies that cautioned her not to get attached, because the Mellarks would stop wanting her eventually.

She'd overhead that grouchy footman, Seneca, lecturing Mr. Mellark about taking in a stray. Something about Katniss ginning them with trouble, raising brouhaha in the house. Maybe the whole staff agreed with Seneca, even if her new guardian didn't yet.

Peeta's presence swept away those concerns.

"Okay," she said. "But don't hog the chair."

"Hog?" he repeated, not knowing that word.

"Never mind," she sighed. "Just come on."

Confidence bloomed in his face. He dragged a blanket with him and crawled onto the chair, covering them both to their chins. After some squirming and giggling, they achieved a comfortable arrangement, their arms and limbs tangled, Katniss's toes wedged between his calves.

"You're warm," Katniss said, making it sound like an accusation.

"I'm only warm because of you."

"That's a dumb-dumb thing to say."

"I'm warm because you're cold. Your feet are cold."

She poked him. He poked her back.

Sweat trickled across his chin, and up close she noticed bits of apple stuck in the crevices between his teeth. Also, his hair flopped around a lot and had a few knots. Maybe he wasn't so perfect after all.

"Oh wait," he exhaled and then extracted an item from his pocket. "For you."

It was a box of inky blue wood, painted with stars. When Katniss flipped it open, a tune tinkered into the air. A music box, and the prettiest thing she ever held.

"It was my mama's," Peeta said. "I'm giving it to you."

"Why?" Katniss asked.

"Because it's Christmas, dumb-dumb. You're supposed to get a present, see? Now you have something to sing to you, too."

Words of gratitude—a language she hadn't learned—abandoned her. Her heart thought, Thank you, and his eyes beamed, You're welcome, and they fell asleep to the tiny melody.

Over the years, he gave her many presents. The music box. A pearl necklace. A watercolor.

Tonight, a bow. Peeta admitted that he spent days debating over a selection of wood models, handcrafted by Johanna's Uncle Blight in District 7.

After testing the feel of it in her grasp, Katniss and Peeta burrowed into his bed. They adjusted the coverlet so that it became a tent over their heads. Then they clamored for each other simultaneously, assuming the usual position, with her body tucked into the shell of his, her back caving into to him and her feet sneaking between his calves.

She swept her thumb over his knuckle hairs and thought of golden pixie dust. His fingers weaved through her locks at a languorous pace, always patient. Silence prevailed as they settled in, unsure where to begin. Typically their conversations hit the ground running, yet she felt rusty all of a sudden. His rhythmic breathing made her wonder if he'd fallen asleep and whether she'd have to pinch him awake.

At last, Peeta spoke. "Is this new?" he asked, plucking at her robe, dyed a restful sunset orange with a matching nightgown underneath.

It was a recent purchase. But humph, his ego assumed too much.

"Don't flatter yourself," she said. "I didn't wear this because you're here."

"I love this color," he teased.

She wiggled around to face Peeta and give him the response he deserved. But how could she when his happy features spilled light all over her?

"Tell me where you've been, what you've been doing without me, and whom you've been doing it with," she demanded.

"Shame-a-thon time, eh?"

"You allowed Deliah to interrupt us before we could start."

"Pffft. She was the hostess. What was I supposed to do? Reject her? Anyway, I was traveling with Finnick. You know that."

"Finnick and . . .?" she prompted.

Peeta's gaze swooped toward the blanket above them. "You were the only girl on my mind all year, Kat."

"You lie," she said with mock-theatrics, flicking the word off her tongue like a slap.

His lips twitched with unspoken knowledge. Katniss leapt onto her elbow and yanked his sleeve.

"You whore!" she gasped. Equally, she recoiled, despising whoever had had their paws on him.

Peeta was hardly an innocent. He disclosed everything to her. He had plenty of admirers and plenty to offer them in the way of kisses and sensual caresses, both above and beneath their clothing. Of course, he behaved like a gentleman, courting the debutantes first and trying to establish a lasting connection, then choosing discreet moments and locations to be alone with them. The last thing he intended to do was ruin reputations.

Nevertheless, he dabbled with fire. On that score, Katniss had been able to see and judge these local chits.

Whatever Peeta's escapades while away, she'd had no such liberty. To top it off, she knew Finnick's influence on him. That dimpled cad had been the reason Peeta grew from a sweet boy to a sly one. The freedom to pursue outside of society might have given them both leave to do more intimate damage, in more disreputable establishments. And that bothered her.

Before her thoughts stomped further down that rocky path, and before Peeta could see its effect on her, she reigned herself in with a strong dose of denial. She quirked her mouth. "Confess or I'll shave your legs while you sleep?"

"Never do that again," he warned, referring to a dare when they were thirteen. Honestly, it had been Johanna's fault. Peeta was napping, and Johanna suggested a diversion more intriguing than their afternoon tea.

"Was she pretty? The girl from your tryst?" Katniss sulked.

"Finnick thought so." Peeta tossed her an entertained glance. "A lady named Annie. I may have gotten a few minutes alone with her until he sauntered into the room, asking me to point him to the nearest bottle of sin. They saw each other, and I might as well have been invisible. I guess I'm not as good a smoocher as I thought."

"Did you get your hands down her bodice?" Katniss interrogated.

"Give me credit," Peeta said. "Of course I did. They proved a little too big for my fancy, though."

Come to mind, Katniss had never liked the name Annie. It sounded skittish.

She could have punched the air in relief. Despite the numerous places his lips and fingers have been, and where other girls have put their lips and fingers on him, she knew he was a virgin. If he lost that, he would tell her, which she'd been prepared for tonight. She'd waited for him to chop off a piece of her heart.

Once true love invaded, as it inevitably would, Peeta would no longer be hers.

When he asked whether she had anything to tell him about her year—he grunted as though digging the words from his throat with a shovel—Katniss conceded defeat. No boys. No scandals. No mayhem, not compared to him groping Annie's breasts. Indeed, Katniss's antics paled in comparison.

Strangely, Peeta perked up at the sound of that. Probably because it meant he won.

He segued into a recap of Finnick's romance, followed by their tour of the districts, and Katniss updated him on family and friends. Officially, but without saying so, they abandoned their little shame game. Which was fine.

She didn't feel like playing anymore.

kpkpkpkpkp

They'd been at the breakfast table not two seconds before they started bickering over the last dollop of plum jam. Their arms whipped across the polished wood surface at the same time, to see who could get to the jam first.

Peeta snatched the crystal bowl in his grasp with a victorious, "Ha!"

"Hey," Katniss complained, launching forward to whack Peeta's shoulder.

With a playful grin, he hit her back. She smacked him again, catching his shoulder as he tried to vault away.

From her peripheral vision, she saw Mr. Mellark watching them in amusement. He'd have stopped them by now, but he clearly missed this ritualistic scene as much as Katniss missed being a player in it. Since childhood, squabbling with her best friend took up the majority of her time. On Christmas morning, she and Peeta had chased one another throughout the townhouse and caused a racket, overturning furniture and forcing a red-faced Seneca to leap out of their way and twist his ankle.

To this day, the servants knew when to flee a room if they heard the wild pounding of her and Peeta's feet coming nearer. In their path, no one was safe. Except for Mr. Mellark, who merely had to raise a gentle but reprimanding eyebrow, grinding them to a halt wherever they were.

Presently, morning light yoked through the tall windows and over Katniss's ivory lace dress. The early hour smelled of hot chocolate, bacon, and fresh bread that crackled. The sounds of cutlery and humor tolled through the room.

Katniss's fingers swiped madly, trying to steal the jam while Peeta held it out of her reach. She leaned so far over the table that her corset dug into her ribs. "Be a hero," she grunted. "Ladies always have the last morsel."

"Oh, so now you're a lady," Peeta baited. "How convenient."

Mr. Mellark broke through the ruckus. He folded the D12 Post, his thumb and forefinger gliding across the black and white creases, and pointed the edge of the newspaper at them. "Everlark."

Katniss and Peeta reared back, dropping into their chairs obediently. Peeta's father had invented that private endearment for them by combining their surnames. Tired of exercising his breath from scolding both of them, as one never got into trouble without the other, he'd sighed and said, "It's no use. Your names might as well be inseparable, too."

Everlark. He used it whenever he had to put his foot down. All it took was that one word.

Peeta popped the spoonful of jam in his mouth, tasting it with an exaggerated flourish and a dramatic Mmmmmm of approval. His tongue darted out to lick his lips. Katniss glowered at their blushing tint, their shape, the short teeth peeking out, the way his cleft shifted as he swallowed.

And then she forgot why exactly she glowered. She loved plum jam, yes, but something else about his mouth roused a viciousness in her. She imagined the burst of flavor, a collision of tart and sweet, the smooth consistency riding down his throat.

Peeta set down his utensil and regarded her with a quizzical frown. Katniss startled and promptly dug into a helping of gooey eggs. For goodness sake, since when did the sight of Peeta's mouth clog her head? She'd seen his ugly mouth thousands of times. It was nothing special.

Oh, very well. His looks epitomized what girls dreamed of, she'd give him that. And his gray jacket hugged his frame nicely today. But still, Peeta was Peeta to her. No more, no less.

The brass knocker smacking the front door resounded from the hallway.

"Are we expecting someone?" Peeta asked, draping a linen napkin across his lap while surveying the extra place setting.

Mr. Mellark groaned. "That's what I meant to say before you two launched at each other. I'm sorry. I know you wanted for us to be alone, but unfortunately, Aunt Effie will be joining us."

"That is mahogany!" Peeta and Katniss quoted unanimously, altering their voices to sound like Peeta's great aunt. The instant they finished, they pointed at each other in surprise and burst into uproarious cackles.

Mr. Mellark put a fist to his mouth to contain his laughter. "And if either of you care a wit for my sanity, you will not say that when she's here. You know how Effie gets."

Peeta and Katniss saluted him. On that note, the butler stepped into the room. "Mrs. Trinket, sir."

Aunt Effie, formerly Mrs. Boggs, formerly Mrs. Aurelius, and finally Mrs. Trinket, flounced into the room in a swirl of magenta, a color far too young for a woman of seventy who'd outlived three husbands. Her first died in the war decades ago, when the country succeeded in overthrowing its tyrannical president. Her second from a rare disease that he contracted while visiting a hospital specializing in morphling addiction in District 6. The third from a massive heart attack.

Her cane thumped with every step she took, but her spryness never failed to impress Katniss. "That does it!" Effie announced with a huff. "I've had my fill of this family. Patience is no longer a virtue."

Peeta and his father rose, planting kisses on Effie's shriveled cheeks. "Ah, Peeta," she said as he hurried to hold out a chair for her. "You've decided to come home, have you? Well, something is going right, then."

"Don't expect the rightness to last," he joked.

Effie twisted in her chair to stare up at him. "Huh. I see. You're being sarcastic. Well, stop."

Peeta stopped and sat. Taking villainous pleasure in the sight, Katniss nudged him under the table with her foot. Haha. Your turn to deal with her.

"As for you, Katniss Everdeen." Effie whisked toward her. "I demand satisfaction, or whatever you young people call it these days. I've heard some offensive news. News which you—" her finger jabbed in Mr. Mellark's direction "—failed to reveal to me at once."

Mr. Mellark beckoned the footman and plucked a flute off the servant's tray. He offered it to his aunt. "Champagne?"

"Damn the champagne." Effie took the glass anyway and pointed it at Katniss. "Sources say—"

"Way too much," Peeta interjected.

"—that at Deliah Cartwright's charity, you were seen on the veranda, carrying on with none other than that peacock, Marvel St. Marvel. And that was before you were seen flirting with that renowned hyena, Percy Flickerman. Say it isn't so."

"Um . . . it isn't so?" Katniss parroted, feeling the bite of Peeta's questioning gaze on her. Her reply hadn't really sounded convincing.

Effie drained her glass, then accepted a splash of tea from the footman. "Ladies do not abandon their chaperones. Ladies do not climb out windows and dangle from trees like amazons. Ladies do not let their suitors fondle their feminine parts."

Katniss's fork clattered onto her plate. Mr. Mellark pinched the bridge of his nose, scarlet running rampant across his face.

Peeta chocked on his cocoa. "I've soooo lost my appetite, thank you."

Katniss snapped at him, "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing against you. I'd just rather be spared the vision of St. Marvel or Percy groping anyone. At least until I've digested my food."

"That's nonsensical. I thought you lost your appetite. If you did, then you can't digest a thing."

"Are we getting literal here?"

"I did not let those idiots fondle me," Katniss said, her gaze jumping from one person to the next. "Great Aunt Effie, how do you even know that word?"

"What word?"

"That word."

"Fondle," Peeta supplied. "Our pure Katniss means fondle."

"Don't call me pure!"

"That foolhardy request will hardly serve your case. The rumors are spreading," Effie replied, officially annihilating her green tea with a river of cream and ten thousand sugar cubes. On a tragic sigh, she lamented, "We've never had a nymph in this house."

Katniss snorted. "If I'm a nymph, then Peeta's a cherub."

"I object," he said. "If we're going to get fictional, show respect. At least make me a centaur."

"You're too short for that."

"But I'm gilded and fighting fit. You've seen my chest."

Yes. She had. Many times.

Katniss wiggled in her chair. Living with him for years, sleeping in his room on a regular basis, had provided her with an eyeful. Under those garments, he was an evil specimen. The endless span of muscle, the way his abdomen jumped when he laughed. It was enough to do permanent damage to a girl's vital organs.

She shook her head. She shouldn't be thinking about him like this.

"Say something," Effie demanded to her nephew. "Make them listen."

Mr. Mellark dismissed the topic with a wave. "Katniss admitted to me this morning what happened. She knows that she made a mistake and promised it won't happen again, and come now: No one takes St. Marvel or Flickerman seriously. My girl may have given the wrong impression, but she's learned from it. The rumors will deflate soon enough."

"Over Deliah Cartwright's dead body," Katniss countered.

"Katniss," Mr. Mellark scolded. "You're not a child. You don't go accusing other people of your own troubles. If you can't take responsibility for your actions and be accountable, you may forget about becoming a lady. Is that clear?"

"Hear, hear," Effie said.

Katniss glanced at Peeta, expecting him to provide back-up. But he remained silent, staring at her with a pitying grin, which she detested. "This is so unjust! I was only there for the cause. I wanted to support the treatment of wildlife."

The three members of the Mellark household swiveled toward the unflappable Effie. "Charity," she observed. "Amusing. And why on earth would you do such a thing?" she asked, looking truly serious.

"The benefit had to matter to somebody," Katniss griped. "All that Deliah cared about was status, how the party made her shine. She told me so herself. But no, the gossip hens merely want to know whether I let the guests slip their grimy paws up my skirt. That's all people care about."

"Thus far, I fail to see the problem."

"It's insincere!"

"Oh, claptrap. Protestations and naivete are for the lower class. Katniss, we worked so hard to get you past that."

"Great Aunt Effie, your tea's getting cold," Peeta deflected. "I brought it from the Capitol, just for you."

The woman beamed. "How considerate of you, my boy."

Throughout breakfast, Peeta and Mr. Mellark methodically steered Effie into a discussion about Peeta's travels, allowing Katniss to retreat into the sanctity of hot chocolate and scones. No more plum jam, though.

"Please don't forget your trusty cane on your way out," Mr. Mellark said once the meal ended.

Effie dabbed her lips with a napkin. "I don't consider my cane trusty and never shall. Regardless of my age, I'm not that sentimental. I leave that to the fluffy wives who enshrine everything, down to their husbands. Now, there's one more thing I'd like to discuss with you before I go, my nephew. Walk with me."

Poor Mr. Mellark. He scooped up a second glass of champagne, tossed Katniss and Peeta a wry look that begged them to wish him luck, and escorted Effie from the room.

"And he never came back," Peeta narrated in a Gothic voice.

Katniss shoved her empty plate away. "Effie's impossible."

"She's a stiff drink, but she means well. She cares about you."

"I'm not a floozy."

"Nope. You're a rebel."

"I don't want to be a rebel, either. I don't want anyone looking to me, or judging me, or making me into something I'm not. Not for any reason."

"None of us want that, Katniss. None of us want to be some . . ."

"Piece in a game," she quoted him.

Peeta grinned. "You're better than that. You know that, right? You're perfect."

She wasn't, not by half. That didn't prevent the pride from filling his eyes.

She thrust back her chair and began to clear the plates. At the footman's horrified expression, she reluctantly set them down and strode to the window. Alone with Peeta—with his hypnotic pupils, that fitted suit, and that disgustingly carefree sense of humor—she felt the urgent need to keep her hands occupied and resented the servant for depriving her.

When the footman disappeared through the door, Peeta fetched something from the floor. Then he got up and rounded the table while hiding it behind his back. "I lied," he said and held up a second jar of plum jam. "I'm a terrible person. You were late to breakfast, so I stole it. I was planning to save this for future bribes, but then Effie showed up and killed your mood. Which is unacceptable."

"You sneak," she said with a quiet chuckle.

He set the treat on the table. "Hide it in your room. Otherwise, I might change my mind later. You know how I like to torment you."

They had a beautiful, bountiful view of the garden from this room, yet she stared at the jam. It was the best thing she'd seen all morning.

Katniss smiled. Well, almost the best thing.

He shadowed her from behind, encircling her waist with his arms, his shirt brushing her dress. A thrill shimmied up her spine and then across her shoulder, where he rested his chin. She was used to such an embrace between them, yet touching him, and being touched by him, had never felt this foreign.

"I'm sorry," he mumbled, dropping a light peck on her ear.

What he apologized for, she had no clue. The jam. The rumors. The failed charity. The creature that was Deliah. The migraine that was Effie. Katniss didn't know or care, not with his breath prowling her skin. In the past, he'd done this in harmless fun or while drunk. It hadn't meant anything.

Their silence and the roar of her heart. So old, yet so damn new.

"Sorry for what?" she exhaled.

"For this," he said and then proceeded to tickle her.

Squealing, Katniss keeled over, her open-mouthed chortles bursting into the quiet. She spun around and attempted to fight back, but Peeta was too strong. She hooked her foot around his calf and sent them stumbling into the wall, the impact crushing her breasts against him.

It knocked the wind out of her.

It knocked Peeta into her.

He froze. They gaped as that erect part of him nudged its way between them like a red flag. He'd committed this offense before, at dawn as they slept together, when he was unconscious and most likely dreaming of the perfect loaf of bread, or of other girls. This had never occurred after breakfast, after scones and plum jam, with them fully dressed.

Katniss panicked. She needed to spare them the humiliation, to laugh it off, and she needed to do it now. Right now!

But the feel of him, the heat of him, rendered her stupid. And so she couldn't have picked a worst time to sigh. A pathetic noise, the sort that a harlot would make, just the type of girl that everyone accused her of being.

At the sound, Peeta veered back, crimson racing across his cheeks. He cleared his throat with such vigor that an outsider would mistake it for a hacking fit. Then he glanced down and forced a laugh. "Well, uh . . . this is . . . quite a pickle."

"Huh?" she croaked.

"What?" he asked, his head whipping back up. "Nothing. Just, nothing. Never mind."

With that, he strode from the room. Katniss puddled into her chair. All right: Accidents like these happened all the time, to all men in every country. His response to her was a simple biological one, out of his control. Except he'd been ashamed, as they were nearly brother and sister. His reaction to her appalled him, and therein lay the turmoil, because Katniss knew she should feel the same.

The problem was, she didn't.

Chapter Text

On the night of her belated birthday party, Katniss confined herself to her bedroom. Ivory linens, sage green walls, walnut furnishings, and vases loaded with wildflowers usually guaranteed her sanctuary, especially when she tucked herself into the window seat and closed the drapes framing it, concealing herself further from the world. She did so now, yet the confusion and restlessness stayed with her.

She wrestled with her merciless corset and petticoats, wiggling deeper into the cushions and not caring if she wrinkled the silver folds of her gown. So what if Peeta's body reacted to her in . . . that way. So what if he got a "cock stand"—as Johanna put it when a beet-faced Kat had confided in her. According to her friend, it was bound to happen eventually. In fact, no one in their social set would be surprised by the news if Kat told them. Apparently, the only two people too dumb to realize it were her and Peeta.

"It was only a matter of time," Jo had grunted during her visit, the same day it happened. "You're Everlark, for Christ's sake."

Whatever that meant. Katniss refused to dig deeper, seeing as her friend was the last discreet female on the planet. If asked to elaborate, Jo might thrust facts at Kat that she wasn't prepared or willing to swallow.

It happened, but no harm done. Friends made mistakes. They had gotten carried away when they didn't mean to.

Except since that mortifying ordeal yesterday morning, she'd been feeling strange. Thoughts of him pestered her, distracted her, constantly. She'd daydreamed about his body, what it might look like bare and excited—hers for the taking. She caught herself glancing in mirrors, wondering what he saw when he gazed upon her. She'd even fallen asleep to visions of him, and not innocent or playful ones. The fantasies had been so intense, so very naked, that Kat had stormed awake last night, moisture clinging to her nightgown.

Peeta had been avoiding her since the incident, which wasn't like him. Usually, he didn't fear confrontations. And neither did she.

The whole mess scared her. Indeed, it terrified her. Maybe it was the time he'd spent away that changed Katniss, seeing as their rascally friendship lacked its former appeal. For her, it was no longer enough. She yearned for Peeta, though she wasn't sure if the yearning was familial or something else. Something outrageous.

She doubted that Peeta would echo that sentiment, because he was smart, whereas she was a moron. Despite his male response to her, he didn't want her romantically. Men's bodies had minds of their own, subject to any woman's nearness. She was his best friend, practically his sister! That was all.

Deluding herself was out of the question. Anything beyond a friendship would be a risk, would ruin everything, and would destroy their routine. Not to mention what Mr. Mellark would say, how disgusted Great Aunt Effie would be. And how much it would hurt if Peeta rejected her.

This attraction . . . it was a phase. Kat would get over it.

One hour later, during the coach ride to her party, she repeated the mantra. Ensconced across from her loving ward and beside Aunt Effie, Kat chanted, It's a phase. Just a phase. A damn phase!

The coach rocked through town and then into nature, trees netting on either side of the lane. The vehicle's wheels ground into the dirt, grating on Kat's nerves.

Effie leaned over with a warning. "Don't fidget."

"Don't lecture," Kat replied.

"Brooding over my grandnephew won't do you any good."

"Who said I was brooding over Peeta?"

"You didn't need to say a thing, dear. Your demeanor practically screams it. What he's done to vex you? Is it his relationship with Miss Cartwright?"

"He doesn't have a relationship with Deliah," Kat seethed.

"Pfff. He will soon. And obviously you don't approve. Well, good. Neither do I. Every girl in town would sever a toe to be with him. He can do much better."

"I'd prefer not to talk about this. Ever."

"That hypocritical little chit," the elderly woman sniffed. "Miss Cartwright has no right pursue him and then look down her nose on you, as if she's so pristine."

That got Kat's attention. "What do you mean?"

Effie hedged, then glanced at Mr. Mellark, who'd dozed off. Satisfied that he really was asleep, she curled her finger for Kat to lean closer. "This doesn't leave the coach. Understand? No one knows," she warned. "I make a career out of judging others, and my opinion is widely valued, but I don't consider myself petty. I'm only telling you to boost your confidence around the girl. Your heathen actions of late have given me inflammation, but compared to her, you're an innocent."

"Is that supposed to be a compliment?"

"Of course. What else would it be?"

"I won't utter a word," Katniss promised.

"That's one thing we can always count on. All right, then."

Effie knew everything about everyone, which made people afraid of her. But Katniss hadn't imagined the degree of information stocked in the woman's brain until sixty seconds later, when she spilled an astonishing piece of information into Kat's ear. Information that she could hardly believe.

She concentrated on nothing else until they arrived at the party. From there, the sights and sounds preoccupied her.

The event exuded the Mellarks' signature style: sweetly excessive. They'd spared little expense, choosing a public setting rather than their private garden at the townhouse, hosting the event in one of Kat's favorite places on earth. Tonight, the meadow had been transformed into an enchanted forest. Candles in glass vials pumped gold into the twilight, giving the place an ethereal glow. In the shimmering half-light, everything looked secretive, including the trees trembling from the shadows, with moss lacing their branches.

On a platform erected for dancing, a piper and fiddler played. In circles of pillows, guests lounged and laughed. At the tables, they were served glorious food. Stewed lamb wafting from tureens. Platters of game and vegetables drenched in creamy sauces. Baskets of Peeta's bread. Punch and lemonade. A cake, baked by her best friend, adorned with sugar leaves and pinecones to express her love of forests.

Aunt Effie perched in a chair and gripped her cane, using the telescopes of her eyes to police the crowd, nitpicking at the barest hints of social indiscretions. Mr. Haymitch Abernathy, Effie's nemesis, set up camp by the champagne. And Johanna was here, as well as other debutantes from The Young Ladies Committee for the Habitat of Endangered Mockingjays and Redeemable Mutts. Miss Undersee, Miss Clove, and ugh, Miss Glimmer, to name a few.

But some of the attendants, Katniss didn't know well. An unfamiliar gentleman scratched his beard as he listened to his comrade's monologue. A woman slapped her fan against a younger man's shoulder, openly teasing him. A group of girls Kat's age giggled and compared fashions.

Even after living in this part of the district for years, Kat couldn't recall the names and relations of each guest. The affluent ones with plump bloodlines, at least.

However, she did know the merchants better, recognized their faces more often. To her delight, the Mellarks had invited both sides of the social spectrum to her party. Her family was known to hold the merchant class in high regard, considering Mr. Mellark owned the local bakery.

The classes didn't mix on the lawn. They kept their distance from each other, but they enjoyed themselves all the same, fluttering happily across the green like intoxicated, pastry-bloated butterflies. Katniss stood at the fringes of the meadow, feeling dazed by the extravagance. The twinkling lights, the feast, and the musicians. How did she end up in a world where families could afford to celebrate like this?

She liked parties about as much as she liked pneumonia, but this was a milestone for her. Her family insisted she welcome society to at least one birthday in her life. For the sake of affinity and community.

Still, the Mellarks customized the event to her personality. They made it hers. And they made it big, because the more people who attended, the easier Kat could disappear into the background without being noticed, as they expected her to do.

The only adornments missing were the stars. Instead, a lone white moon pooled in the sky.

Kat skimmed the crowd for Peeta. Earlier, he'd made some excuse to his father about having "things" to attend to, after which he'd call on Finnick Odair and then head to the party from that stinker's residence.

So much for hoping Peeta would escort her here. Yet she couldn't blame him. Even while she hunted for his blond curls in the mass, she dreaded locating them, partly relieved that he was nowhere in sight.

With the guests engaged in their own revelry, Katniss retreated into the wood, until the melodies and chatter dissolved. At the lake, she lowered herself to the ground and watched the ripples glint across the black surface. One time, she took a mighty chance and swam in there naked. Johanna had dared her.

Yellow primroses puffed from the ground. A ladybug crawled across one of the flowers, a sign of good luck, and how funny to discover the creature at night! Maybe it was a rare type that only came out in the evening, though she'd never heard of one.

Reaching out, she scooped the insect onto her pinky. She stared at it, a shell of glossy red and black wobbling up her finger.

"Hello," she said. "How old are you? I'm eighteen."

The ladybug paused, as though it might answer. Katniss leaned forward, closing her eyes and listening, trying to hear if her visitor was breathing. There had to be noise coming from its body. Everything made noise.

But nothing. No sound.

When she opened her eyes, the ladybug was gone. It had flown away.

"You always loved talking to nature," a husky voice observed.

Katniss twisted and saw a young man idling near an evergreen. If she hadn't been sitting, her knees might have buckled, not only because he startled her, but also because he was handsome. Very handsome. Tall, dark, and . . . handsome. Longish, coal-black hair and tanned skin, from what she could tell in the meager light. An athletic build and the relaxed posture of someone used to being outdoors. A countenance that could have been carved from a tree.

He was the exact opposite of every dandy, heir, bachelor, suitor, and buck in her circle. The exact opposite of Peeta.

The stranger wore simple trousers and a shirt, but no tail-coat or hat, which meant he wasn't a party guest. Nor was he dressed as one of the servants offering refreshments tonight. He looked too rugged to be a gentleman, held himself too aloft to be in service.

Drat. Without a chaperone present, this was a bad state of affairs. If anyone came upon them, Katniss would be ruined. Her precarious reputation would be cemented, she'd never hear the end of it from Effie, and the Mellarks would suffer the humiliation. And Peeta . . . frankly, she had no clue how Peeta would feel, or how he did feel towards her at the moment.

She should tell the young man to leave, yet he seemed to think he knew her. Why else would he comment on her love of nature with acute fondness? With familiarity?

Katniss struggled to place him. Guilt and disappointment gnawed at her when she couldn't.

"I'm disturbing you," he said, misinterpreting her silence.

"Not at all, sir," she said. "I was making friends with an insect."

"Some things never change."

"Forgive me, but are we acquainted?"

"We used to be," he answered, his lips quirking. "My presence alerted your companion, I think. Sorry for making it fly away. I'm usually more adept, but I was so surprised to see you that I lost my footing and made a racket. Enough to scare a ladybug."

"You saw it from where you stood? Impossible."

"I know these woods. Every bit of them."

He sounded like these woods, too. She should be alarmed to find herself in this newcomer's presence, in a place where he could accost her without anyone hearing, but evidently her experience with St. Marvel at Deliah's party hadn't made her vigilant of these situations. And besides, she could take care of herself, as she'd told Peeta. So instead, she found herself grinning and immediately feeling a kinship with the stranger.

Then she stopped grinning as he approached, his movements stealing her breath with recognition. He breezed across the grass stealthy and quick, the way he did when they were Seam children. Back when they would skulk through alleyways searching for edible rodents, digging through the trash for scraps while avoiding pickpockets and peacekeepers.

Six months before she went to live with the Mellarks, they'd lost track of one another. With no explanation, he'd stopped showing up at their meeting spot behind the slag heap. For weeks, she cried over him, believing he had abandoned her. That he'd gotten sick of teaching her his street ways and protecting her from Grisly Uncle Cray.

It couldn't be him. But it was. Wasn't it?

Katniss surged to her feet, met him halfway, and clasped his face. Those eyes confirmed it. Those silver eyes.

"Gale," she breathed.

"Katniss," he replied.

She wrenched him into a hug, saying his name over and over. Her former chum. Gale Hawthorne.

Pulling back, she surveyed him closer, while he did the same to her. The last time they'd been together, they were impoverished kids. Since then, it appeared they'd both been handed their share of luck. Despite the bark texture of his hands, Gale's appearance wasn't as humble as she'd first thought. His clothing for instance: The cut wasn't tailored to his physique, but the material was decent quality, closer to what a merchant would wear.

And his vocabulary. It had become almost as polished as hers. Rough around the edges, but markedly improved.

"You've done well," she said, giving him a lively shove like old times.

"You clean up good, yourself," he complimented.

Her smile faded. She should hate him, but she couldn't, not until she got his side of the story. "What happened to you? Why did you disappear? Where did you go?"

He hunkered down onto the grass and coaxed her to do the same. "I'm sorry, Katniss. I didn't leave you on purpose."

"Tell me everything."

Gale averted his eyes as he spoke. It turned out, he'd not abandoned her at all. No, he'd been kidnapped.

He'd been taken in broad daylight and forced into labor as a coal miner. For a year, he lived underground, experiencing the nightmare that Katniss had often feared for them both. There were devilish characters in the Seam, known to swipe youth off their heels and trap them in a life of heinous servitude as chimney sweeps and coal miners. A life of soot-caked eyes and lungs, and bloody joints. Many of those unlucky children didn't survive it for long.

Thank goodness, Gale managed to escape and return to his family. However, Katniss was gone by that time, adopted into a new world of her own.

Gale worried the same fate had befallen her, or that Grisly Uncle Cray had done something to her. For months, Gale combed the Seam and the woods for Katniss. Eventually, he gave up. He had to focus on feeding his mother and brothers, never thinking to search the merchant quarter, nor the wealthy part of town. Why would he? In his mind, the chances of her being there would have been nil. In the land of fat purses and leisure, residents hardly tolerated the poor crossing into rich territory. Kat had experienced that directly, the public sneers and ignorance, back on that Christmas Eve night when she first braved Peeta's neighborhood as a child. She wouldn't have bothered to venture there if she hadn't been desperate.

In any case, the one benefit to Gale's kidnapping was that he learned to read and write. One of the overseers took a liking to Gale, and for two hours each day, he summoned Gale aboveground for tutoring, seeing potential in the boy. Though they didn't speak about Gale being a slave, the man paid him through education.

Gale used it to his advantage after he fled. Over the years, he got stronger. He taught himself to hunt, raised himself up from a Seam urchin to a schooled young man, smart enough to negotiate his game in town and make a real business of it. He supplied the butcher, fur traders, and a few upper class clients as well. He supported his family and recently bought a modest house in the merchant sector.

Katniss was proud of him. At twenty, Gale had become his own man, self-made without a title or inheritance.

"That's how I heard about you," he said. "Everyone in the neighborhood was gossiping about your party."

"People love their clucking and gossiping," Kat said with a roll of her eyes. "Does that mean you came around to stalk me?"

"Would you mind if I did?"

"I would mind if you didn't!"

They chuckled, the sound skipping across the lake, blending in with the strum of crickets. Their hands entwined and squeezed.

"You can't imagine my relief, finding out that you've led a good life," Gale said. "I missed you."

"I've missed you," she replied through a lump in her throat.

"Actually, I was planning to call on you tomorrow. I had no idea the party would be held in the meadow. The gossip mongrels didn't say anything about that. I came out here tonight just for myself, to talk a walk, clear my head. But then, out of nowhere, I saw you."

"And you're a hunter!" she beamed with excitement. "I want to know all about it. I have a bow, too."

Gale threw his head back and laughed. "If that isn't a sign, I don't know what is."

"I'm good at archery, but I want to learn more, but ladies aren't allowed to hunt. Will you teach me?"

He plucked a blade of grass and pointed it at her. "Now that's the girl I know."

"I promise, I'm a fast learner and—wait." She peered at him. "You don't hunt endangered animals, do you?"

"What do you take me for? An aristocrat from the Capitol?"

"Then take me with you on one of your rounds. I'd have to find a way to sneak out, but you know I'm good for it. And I'm quite and patient. And did I mention, I'm a fast learner? Oh please, Gale. Please."

"I don't want to get you in trouble. What about this family you live with?" he asked. "I just met Mr. Mellark a few days ago. He expressed an interest in buying my squirrels. Seems like a good fellow."

Warmth fizzled in Katniss's chest. "He's very good. He's like a father to me, and his son . . . Peeta . . . Well, he's . . ."

As she drifted off, Gale studied her. His voice lowered, adding some kind of weight to the question: "He's what?"

She hesitated, staring down at their laced fingers. It had been years, but would Gale feel hurt to discover that she'd found another best friend? Was that all she could call Peeta, after what happened in the dining room? Was it still that simple?

Was it simple with Gale anymore? He looked the same yet different, more confident and self-assured, though not wholly refined. An attractive, clean-shaven face. Weathered hands that bespoke of hard work and industry.

His eyes roamed her curves, trussed up in watery lengths of silver silk. He gazed at her in an unfathomable way. A primitive way that made the air thicken.

Two boys who meant everything to her. Two boys she'd thought she knew.

Before she could put her thoughts of Peeta into sensible words, the hedges rustled. As a golden head popped from the undergrowth, Katniss's heart went berserk. She shot to her feet alongside Gale, at the same instant Peeta emerged like a wicked fairy. Deliah Cartwright materialized with him, hanging onto his arm like his nymph-in-waiting.

A champagne flute sparkled in Peeta's hand, as though he'd used the glass to catch the stars. The nymph leached to his side smirked, as though she'd been invited to share those stars with him.

Had they been coming here for an intimate rendezvous?

At the very thought, Kat's soul blazed into an inferno. She felt her retinas burning so hotly that if she didn't look away from Deliah, her eyeballs would incinerate the girl where she stood. A puddle of ash beneath a larger puddle of teal satin.

All right. This thing Kat had begun to feel for Peeta might not be just a phase.

Peeta wore no hat either, but his black suit and snowy linen shirt molded to his ridiculous shoulders. The necktie with a tiny sapphire winking in the center made his pupils explode. He should have stayed the hell in the meadow with everyone else.

The instant he saw her, he broke into a smile. But that smile died as he took a slow inventory of the gown hugging Kat's body. It appeared to have an unnerving effect on him, because he suddenly seemed winded, then confused, and then slightly angry.

Then again, that was nothing compared to when he noticed Gale. Those blue eyes, visible even at night, locked on the stranger and narrowed. Distrust? Protectiveness? It was hard to say which emotion dominated Peeta the most.

Deliah's purr broke the silence. "Well, well. It seems we've interrupted a private moment. You see, Peeta. I told you she was fine."

"You were looking for me?" Katniss asked, sounding too hopeful for her own good.

Peeta opened his mouth. Deliah cut him off. "You difficult thing. You vanished from the meadow, so he insisted on searching for you. Ever the caring guardian, is our Peeta. Of course, I couldn't let him go into the wild alone, with all the mutts prowling about and equally concerned as I was for your well-being."

If there were mutts in these woods, they wouldn't go after Katniss. She'd be hiding up in a tree, watching as they mauled Deliah, who wouldn't last two seconds in a zoo, much less the forest.

Deliah appraised Gale, the wheels turning, considering the details she could hatch throughout the district. Apparently, she'd forgotten that Katniss wasn't the only female present without a chaperone.

"And here you are, gone and caught yourself a hero," the girl taunted. "I do believe that makes three admirers in less than a week. Percy Flickerman, Marvel St. Marvel, and now this gentleman. We can't leave you alone for a minute, can we?"

"Miss Cartwright," Katniss began, gesturing to Gale. "This is—"

"Don't make introductions for me, Miss Everdeen."

Right. That was the men's job. Except both were too busy sizing one another up to bother.

Katniss took reins anyway, making a hasty and sloppy job of introducing everyone. Despite Gale's lack of pedigree, Deliah whisked up a smile for him, while tension twisted Peeta's face. He hiked up his cleft chin, turning aloof after learning that Gale was an old Seam friend—and that he was a hunter.

Peeta, typically the friendliest person in the world, didn't offer his hand to Gale. Neither did he accept when Gale finally reached out in greeting.

Katniss frowned. Peeta was being rude to Gale and embarrassing her.

At last, Peeta spoke. The sound of his voice, vacant from Kat's ears for the past thirty-three hours, turned her knees to mush.

"Funny," Peeta remarked. "I've known Miss Everdeen for years, yet she's never mentioned you."

Gale's mouth tipped up. "Some things are too personal to mention. I'm sorry if I kept Katniss away from you. She and I had a lot to catch up on. Lucky you were able to find us before we got swept away."

The deliberate use of her first name did not get past Peeta. "I knew where Kat was. Rest assured, I always know where to find her."

"It's not hard," Deliah supplied. "The wild is her natural habitat."

"We have that in common," Gale remarked. "Among other things."

To make matters worse, the hedges rustled yet again. This time, with more aplomb, leafs dancing in the air. Katniss groaned inwardly as Finnick Odair swaggered into the clearing. He glinted like a rare coin, bronzed and polished, expensive and sought-after. The heir to a shipping empire and a renowned flirt who loved being the center of attention. A bad influence on Peeta.

"Mellark!" he boomed to Peeta, throwing up his arms. "There you are, you jolly bastard. Having a powwow without me? Evening and happy birthday to you, Miss Everdeen. Oh, and it's a pleasure to meet you, Person I Don't Know," he said to Gale. But upon seeing Deliah, Finnick's green irises flashed with humor. "Hellooooo, Miss Cartwright."

Finnick's heart was spoken for, now that he'd met Miss Annie Cresta during his travels with Peeta. However, that didn't stop the cad from admiring Deliah's tits. Kat had once overheard Finnick whisper to Peeta, "You could float across the ocean on those things."

Finnick swiped Peeta's champagne glass, took a gulp, and squinted. "Hell, this won't do. We need something absurd to drink. I'm in the mood for a bumper of whiskey myself. Besides, I hate parties where nothing demonic happens. Here, Deliah, take this." He handed the flute to her and then slapped Peeta on the back. "Shall we make the rounds?"

"It's Katniss's party," Peeta said with mild sarcasm. "Ask her if I can go. I'm at her disposal. Apparently, all men are."

"Miss Everdeen, my dearest. May I steal your man away? I need to get hogged. I'm lonesome without my Annie and require a bucket's worth of amber to remedy it. You understand."

"I'm not holding Peeta back," Kat said, glowering at her best friend. "I never have. He comes and goes as he pleases. He disappears whenever he sees fit. It doesn't matter what others think."

Peeta dragged his gaze to her. "Says the girl who vanished into the forest without a word."

"With a veritable lumberjack in toe," Deliah added. "No offense, sir."

Gale canted his dark head. "Trust me, there's no way someone like you could offend me."

"Of course. I'm sure you hardly notice when people do."

"Deliah," Peeta scolded.

Katniss tore the champagne from Deliah's hand and guzzled the last of it. The effervescence went straight to her head, sparked a vicious frenzy on her tongue, and caused a wholly uncensored thought to trip from her lips. "Miss Cartwright's not a virgin. She slept with her servant."

Silence. Dead and utter silence.

Gale stared at Katniss. Finnick's brows jumped. Peeta whipped his head toward Kat, his gaze pinning her to the grass.

The color drained from Deliah's cheeks. As Great Aunt Effie had explained in the coach, no one knew about this. Six months ago, Deliah had given herself to a footman employed in her house. Her mother had confessed the scandal to Effie during a sobbing fit. Naturally, the family had vowed to keep it a secret.

Deliah shrank into Peeta's side, humiliation washing over her. It wasn't an act. By blasting that information out into the air like a cannonball, Katniss had truly mortified and hurt the girl, to the point where she failed to deny it. It didn't matter that the men wouldn't repeat Kat's words to anyone beyond the woods.

In seconds, Peeta's expression contorted into disgust. How could she? How could she betray Effie's trust and stoop so low? And in public, in front of Peeta, Finnick, and Gale?

Remorse consumed Katniss. She wasn't the sort of person to disgrace another. She took no pleasure in other people's ridicule. Plus, she didn't know the whole story. Unless Deliah cornered the footman and gave him no choice, which Kat doubted—Deliah was selfish, but not that selfish—what the girl did wasn't truly that terrible. Intimacy before marriage didn't offend Kat, as it did many others. Nevertheless, such news amounted to a girl's ruination. And she'd used it as a weapon.

"Let's go," Peeta said to Deliah. "I'll escort you to your coach."

"Th-thank you," she managed.

As they left with a speechless Finnick, Deliah turned and peeked at Katniss beneath her lashes, tossing her a ferocious look. You'll be sorry for this.

Katniss was already sorry. Especially when Peeta swung his head over his shoulder and glowered like he hardly knew her. Like he hardly wanted to.

From that second onward, Katniss drifted weightless as a feather through the rest of the party. She suffered through Gale's consoling goodbye and his promise to take her hunting, while a weak smile twitched the corners of her lips. She endured Mr. Mellark's questioning gaze as Peeta leave the meadow with Finnick after taking Deliah to her carriage, and the expression wrinkling Kat's face as she watched them go. She endured Effie's huffing and puffing, Jo's surly wisecracks, and the guests who congratulated her.

She blew out eighteen candles poking from the cake Peeta had baked her, the tendrils of smoke curling under her nostrils. Too late, she realized that she'd forgotten to make a wish. Not that she deserved one.

And in the lower corner of the three-tiered pastry, hidden beneath a sugar leaf, one word looped across the icing . . . by his hand and meant for only her to see.

Everlark

Kat wanted to laugh. Or to scream. Or to do something even more stupid, so very stupid, like cry.

She didn't sleep that night. She couldn't, not when Peeta hadn't returned home yet. Who knew where Finnick had taken him or what they'd gotten themselves up to.

What about her? What about all those times, at balls and dinners and picnics, when she and Peeta broke rules of etiquette together? Dancing too close to their partners, mocking one another across the table, using coarse language, baiting guests into taboo subjects and debates, hosting poker matches and races in the gardens of numerous hosts during soirees.

Had Katniss lost her place as Peeta's partner-in-crime? Had Finnick replaced her? Worse, had Deliah replaced her?

Sometime before dawn, as the sun crawled over the rooftops, Katniss lumbered out of bed. Five hours since she came home, and not a wink of rest to show for it. Maybe warm milk with honey would do the trick. Also, a slice of raisin bread. With butter.

The servants would be rising about now. She didn't want to alarm them or get in their way, so she'd have to hurry. Creeping out of her room, she padded down hall. Then froze by the stairs.

Peeta blocked her way. He climbed the last step, swaying as he reached the landing. Seeing her there, in her robe and nightgown, his lips threaded into a tight grin. He towered over her in his rumpled clothes, his necktie dangling like a hooked fish from his open collar.

"Ahhh," he said, his voice stretching lazily. "Katnissssss. Morning."

He moved to step toward her, then stumbled and gripped the banister for support. On instinct, Katniss reached out to help him, then flinched back. A disorientating smell lurched from his body like slap. Not perfume, thank the universe, though he definitely reeked of something uncorked from a bottle.

His eyes were glassy, relaxed, and foolish. He could barely stand upright.

Katniss crossed her arms. "You're foxed."

Peeta raised his hand, pinching his thumb and index finger together. "A little. But it should wear off any day now. It's been—it's been a while."

"You went and got foxed without me."

At her scowl, he sighed. "What else? Let'sss hear it."

"And you left my party," she said through her teeth. "It was my birthday, and you left me there, stuffed with sponge cake."

"Did you like the cake?"

"Very much, thank you."

"You're welcome. Anyway, didn't your new fffriend keep you company?"

"That's another thing. What do you have against Gale?"

"Mister Hawthhhorne," he corrected, sounding like Effie.

"He's Gale to me," Katniss said.

"Don't get any ideas about him. He's not right for you."

"That's for me to decide."

Peeta sobered instantly. He shoved a hand into the pocket of his trousers and locked his jaw, silently telling her that if she was expecting him to apologize for his attitude, she was surely kidding herself.

He couldn't be objecting to Gale's lower class status, the fact that he was in trade. Peeta didn't care about those things. He treated everyone with respect and kindness. Usually.

"You were callous to him," she accused.

"You were beyond uncivil to Deliah," he countered.

"Peeta, I . . . I'm sorry about that. It was wrong of me, and I shouldn't have said anything. I don't know where it came from."

"I do. I know everything about you. You were mad that I brought her with me, because you didn't want her to mock you in front of your companion. Suffice it to say, I'm not thrilled about the effect he has on your conduct."

"And you were mad that I had a companion, a man who wasn't you. You were jealous."

He burst out laughing. The racket that sprang from his throat pointedly declared, I was no such thing.

Never mind that her attack on Deliah had nothing to do with Gale and everything to do with Peeta. Kat could not reveal the turbulence of feelings that had begun to rattle inside her. Anyway, her sensitive mind told her that he was on a mission to hit a nerve and was close to succeeding.

She whirled and marched toward her room. She made it halfway down the corridor when his hand clamped on her arm, spinning her around so fast that she collided with his chest, the impact snapping her head up to meet the his livid gaze. They glared at one another.

The floor creaking alerted them. Jerking their heads sideways, they caught a pair of housemaids carrying buckets and balking at them from the entrance to an adjacent hallway. From another corner, Seneca and three footmen had appeared, watching the scene.

"Get to work!" Katniss and Peeta barked.

The servants scattered like mice. When they disappeared, Katniss hissed at him. "Why don't you trust me with Gale?"

"It's not just Gale," Peeta said. "You've proven I can't trust you with any man. Not after the fiasco with St. Marvel, and not after what you said about Deliah—"

"Miss Cartwright," she shot back.

"—merely because she baited you."

"She insulted Gale!"

"Gale-schmale. He's a big boy. He can handle it. You didn't have to lower yourself to her level and wound her that way, just so he wouldn't see you as weak. Your behavior around men is pathetic. Sooner or later, you're going to start earning the rumors spread about you."

"This isn't your business."

"The hell it's not. You're every bit of my business."

"Why?" she demanded. "Because of what happened in the dining room?"

There it was. The issue they'd both been avoiding. That embarrassing incident when Peeta's body reacted to hers.

He startled. He held her tighter, as though he might fall otherwise. She felt a sudden hyperawareness rush over them, of her delicate frame pressed against his hard one. Their rapid breathing. The heat of it.

Peeta swallowed. "You're my business because I . . ."

She waited, her pulse leaping. Abruptly, he let her go. "Because I'm responsible for you."

Katniss's heart splashed to the floor. Responsible. He'd never associated their relationship with that word before, but that's what he felt now. How dumb and naive of her to think things would never change, even after being parted for so long.

"Well, guess what," she sneered. "I'm newly eighteen, in case you haven't heard. I'm old enough to manage without you, so don't bother. Don't trouble yourself one bit, Peeta."

"Fine," he growled.

They stomped off to their bedrooms and slammed the doors shut.

Chapter Text

He'd changed. And she'd changed.

No matter how much Katniss tried to deny it, they'd both changed. Peeta had never laughed in her face like that, in blatant mockery . . . at least not intentionally, not to injure and embarrass her. Being deep into his cups was no excuse. He had to have known how he'd made her feel.

Very few moments since he'd returned home had been like old times, like the old Everlark. Damn, that dining room incident! Why had it created anarchy in their relationship? Why did it have to ruin everything?

As for Katniss, she had never kept secrets from Peeta before. But here she was, in the woods with Gale, doing just that. Ever since her spat with Peeta in the hallway, she'd begun sneaking out of the house at dawn for archery lessons with her chum. How exhilarating to wake up with nature, to fill her lungs with the dewy morning scents of pine and bark, to hear wings flapping as birds chased one another, and to creep through veils of mist and laced nets of branches. Gale was a fine teacher, and in the past five days, she'd caught on quickly to his instructions.

What wasn't exhilarating were the clandestine looks he constantly gave her, when he thought her oblivious. It had been years, so of course, he was different, too. Older. Smarter. So very heedful of her movements and strangely preoccupied with her face. Gads, what did he find so fascinating? What was wrong with her?

Today, she watched him target a squirrel and hit his mark. His focus, patience, and speed amazed Katniss. Like a child, she hankered to knock him out of the way and exclaim, "Let me try!" She didn't enjoy being idle, but she behaved.

As they hiked back into town, employing one of Gale's secret routes, Kat's olive suede skirts beat a rhythm against her legs. Her partner had been unusually quiet for the last two hours. During their previous outings, they'd conversed and caught up on the missing years, but not on this occasion. Had she done something to offend him? It wouldn't be her first time insulting someone, over the course of her career as a human being.

As they reached the border leading to the main street, which linked the Seam, the merchant shops, and her neighborhood, they paused. Shrouded by trees, no one would see them together, would see them say good-bye and go their separate ways. Awkwardness wriggled in, though Kat didn't know why. Maybe now that he'd had time to mull it over, what she'd done to humiliate Deliah had finally caught up to Kat, and it soiled her in Gale's eyes. Her behavior had been out of character. Apparently, she'd changed as much as Peeta had.

Peeta . . . Gale.

Gale stared down at her, the lazy shadows of leaves speckling his countenance. Kat opened her mouth to make some inane comment about the squirrel in his game bag, but her friend silenced her. With a kiss.

He dove in, his lips smashing into hers with such force that she stumbled back. His hands caught her elbows, steadying her, as his mouth softened. A chaste thing, this kiss, her first kiss. Pursed and sudden and rather clumsy, but . . . not terrible.

Before Kat could decide whether to explore, to kiss him back, Gale leaped away. "I had to do that," he said. "At least once."

Like any thoroughly confusing young man, he fled, leaving her there gaping like a hooked fish, her lips even more chapped than they were before. Gob-smacked, Katniss glanced around, momentarily forgetting where she was. And then remembering in the worst possible way as her gaze stretched across the road.

Deliah Cartwright.

It was only a second. Those flinty enemy-eyes, which then shifted away as the girl jostled by in a carriage, accompanied by her mother.

Foreboding sprang into Kat's chest and chilled her to the bone. Had the dragon just seen her with Gale? Had she seen? It happened so fast. Kat couldn't be sure, especially considering that Deliah's expression hadn't changed. No shock or elation to have witnessed the scandal. No malice.

And the foliage was thick. And the carriage had been quick in passing.

No, Deliah hadn't seen. It had been Kat's imagination.

kpkpkpkpkp

She sped home, frazzled by the kiss and a precarious brush with the apocalypse. The further she walked, the calmer she became. The leather gloves that she'd chosen for the hunt, with charming laces up the wrist, had gotten stained with muck. Evidence.

She peeled the garments from her hands and stuffed them into the pocket of her cape before scaling the rear fence of the Mellarks' townhouse. Migrating through herb beds and lemon trees, her pace slowed along one of the narrow paths. Despite the racket of a gushing fountain, her ears picked up the sound of a throat clearing. Her nostrils detected his Peeta smell.

Katniss stopped beside the gazebo, where he leaned against its white crisscrossing frame. He looked like a servant, with his wind-tossed hair, his wrinkled shirt and trousers. Through the early-hour fog, beams of sunrise glinted off his hair, yet sacks of purple drooped beneath his eyes. His features twisted with exhaustion and remorse.

Sometimes he came to the gazebo to think, so this meeting had to be a coincidence. He hadn't caught her slinking back into the house. The fact that he wasn't suspicious or irritated told her so.

Katniss ground her teeth, despite the pain slashing through her, because his baleful puppy face would not work this time. She stormed away, her cape snapping around her limbs.

She heard him rushing after her. "Katniss," he pleaded. "Katniss, wait!"

Curse him. His voice. His broken voice.

Katniss whipped around. "I'll apologize to Deliah," she bit out. "I know what I said wasn't right, but what about you?" She stabbed a finger at Peeta's chest, almost making contact because he'd gotten that close. "You've avoided me since that thing happened between us. You didn't escort me to my own party. You showed up late. And then you left early with Finnick. You left me. On my birthday. The callous boy who arrived in the woods with Deliah and glared at Gale, and the sloshed boy who mocked me in the hallway—that wasn't you. Where's the sweet Peeta that I grew up with? Where's the wily Peeta that I cherished? Where's the Peeta who would never hurt me? Where is he?"

"Katniss—"

"No, don't bother making amends. Don't feel obligated on my account. I'm not your responsibility anymore."

He winced as she threw his repellent words from the hallway back at him. "Katniss, listen to me. Please!"

That last word came out with a desperate little crack, preventing her from leaving for a second time. She waited, fixing him with the stoniest expression she could muster under the weight of those infernal blues.

Peeta drew in a breath. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm so sorry, Kat. Our friendship . . . it hasn't felt the same. I was . . . embarrassed. I was embarrassed about the dining room. I was jealous about Gale. You were right about that. And when I learned he used to be your best friend, that you'd just found each other again, it cut me. I was angry, confused . . . I don't know. I was just so jealous."

"You spent a year away from me, with Finnick. How do you think that felt?"

He stepped nearer. "But I wrote to you constantly. You were always in my heart."

Katniss crossed her arms. "I know," she mumbled.

She did know. To be fair, Peeta had devoted most of his life to her, had done whatever she asked, jumping eagerly whenever she needed him. Yet she kept harping on him for the twelve months he was gone, as if he couldn't wait to leave, which hadn't been the case. Touring Panem was what gentleman did when they came of age, as a rite of passage. It hadn't been Peeta's harebrained idea or his choice, and although he'd had fun with Finnick, he hadn't wanted to go. In fact, he'd tried for weeks to get out of it, but Mr. Mellark and Effie hadn't budged.

The night before Peeta left, as they held one another in his bed, he and Kat both had tears streaming down their faces. And yes, his letters to her had been frequent. And long.

"You've been acting differently, too," Peeta said. "I never thought you'd say something like that about Deliah. It confounded me even more, and she deserves an apology, but you deserve one, too. I shouldn't have left your party. By the morning, I'd turned myself into a drunken ass. I was defensive and said things I didn't mean."

She spoke to his double-knotted bootlaces. "They say when one's foxed, the truth comes out."

He cupped her face, and she let him, because he was Peeta, and because she wanted him to touch her. "Please don't believe it," he said. "Not every truth comes out. Sometimes, it's the opposite: It makes lying easier. You're not weak, Katniss. I know you better than that. I know you can take care of yourself. And I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." His forehead landed against hers. "I fouled things up, with the one person I care more about than anything in this world."

He's said as much about his feelings before, on the veranda at Deliah's charity. And over the years, as they grew up, Peeta had been her ally. The only person besides his father who showed confidence in her, who encouraged her independence. The naughty one who proudly got into scrapes with her. The boy who had faith in her abilities and saw more worth in her than she saw in herself.

That was the boy looking at her now. That was the Peeta she knew.

They moved at the same time, wrapping each other in a hug. His petal soft shirt brushed her cheek, and his hand stroked her nape, making her eyes drift shut.

"I don't feel responsible for you," he avowed. "That's not what I feel. Not at all."

Katniss's heartbeat tripped. "What do you feel?"

"You're my best friend. My family. My light."

"And you're mine." She leaned back. "We can put this behind us. We can forget."

He shook his head, his voice low and tender. "I don't want to forget. I don't want to forget anything where you're concerned. I want it all."

Her breath seized in her throat, but she tried to shrug it off. She had no business getting her hopes up.

"Where are you coming from?" he asked as they released one another.

Guilt ran its awful course. If she wanted to put things right, this was her chance to tell him about the hunting trips with Gale. However, her tongue couldn't seem to agree. She couldn't bear to lose the calm they'd just reached. She didn't want to risk another quarrel. A lie was easier to construct since she didn't have her bow with her, since Gale only wanted her to observe during the first stage of her lessons.

She confessed to Peeta that she'd been walking in the woods, but not why or with whom. "Don't tell Mr. Mellark. I just wanted to do something for myself."

Peeta cocked his head. "Alone?"

When she answered yes, his features relaxed. He was threatened by her history with Gale, as if it had been longer than her history with Peeta, which couldn't be further from the truth.

"You'd like Gale, if you gave him a chance," she said.

Peeta thought about that and nodded. "I was wrong not to trust your judgment before. If you say he's a good man, I believe you." He stretched out his hand. "I'll do anything for you."

Kat knew what it would feel like to press her palm into his, because she'd felt it nearly every day since they were eleven. He would be downy and warm. His grip would be solid, anchoring her to the day, but not too tight that she couldn't free herself. Locking her fingers with Peeta's was like grasping freedom and home all at once. It was like holding a hundred different choices, a thousand memories.

But right then, what she wanted more than touching him, was the sight of him reaching for her. She wanted to delay the moment of contact, just for a moment, to gaze at his calloused fingers trembling. His hand waiting for hers. The offering. The possibility.

The what-ifs. What if she ran her thumb across his? What if she linked their pinkies together instead? What if she took him and never let go? What if the touch triggered a new sensation? Something unforeseen?

Such disarming thoughts. Frightening ideas. Temptations.

Her fingers met him halfway. They sighed, goofy grins sweeping across their faces as they strolled back to the house.

kpkpkpkpkp

They spent the weekend together. They spread a blanket in the meadow and watched the sun rise, drifting into a comfortable silence as the morning poured over the landscape. In the past, Peeta would cradle her back against his chest, tucking her into him. But he didn't this time, which she both appreciated and missed. Despite their joy, she sensed them teetering on a thin, invisible line, as though one wrong move would clip it in half. It motivated them to be careful, measuring the meanings and consequences of each word, each gesture, each look.

Still, they basked in the hours, determined not to waste them. Kat stole glances at Peeta's profile, how the orange-pink light washed over him. She began to appreciate things she hadn't before, in more intimate ways. The threads of his lashes. The way his left arm flexed as he leaned his weight against it. The stubble around his lips. That narrow waist and how it shifted toward her.

She felt him admiring her, too, whenever he thought she didn't notice. Sneaky boy.

They swam in the lake and tried to head-dunk one another. As children, competitiveness used to consume Katniss. After she'd taught him to swim, all she'd wanted to do was beat him at some game, or slap water in his face, or pretend they were pirates. Or, at fourteen, she'd tugged down his pants when he wasn't expecting it and then cackled.

Now she found herself on the verge of going mad. It was all she could not to melt from the sound of his labored breaths, not to leer at his wet lips and even wetter chest, not to blush everywhere his gaze lingered on her, at the places where her soaked undergarments clung to her flesh, not to burn with excitement as his hand grazed her hips, as he grabbed her and flung her across the water. They played, but the playfulness seemed more intentional. The touches seemed calculated, excuses to be close without being close.

If Peeta's body experienced the same problem that he'd suffered in the dining room, she couldn't tell. That didn't stop her from wondering. What would it be like to feel the hardness again? To wrap her legs around his waist and float in place with him? To comb through his soaked curls?

A terrible ache pounded between her thighs. Katniss plopped her scorching face beneath the water to calm herself.

Sloshing out of the lake, still in their drenched underclothes, they got into racing position and counted down. Then they sprinted to see who would make it to the blanket first. As Katniss gained on him, she unleashed a lengthy, mighty scream of determination. A battle cry that had the golden flash beside her laughing all the way to the finish line.

They got dressed—partially. To her dismay, Peeta slipped on his trousers but remained shirtless. She got as far as one layer of petticoats and her corset before digging into their basket of cheese buns. Her damp hair hung in wild layers over her shoulders, and as she licked cheese off her fingers, she caught those blue eyes riveted on her. All of her.

He glanced away, his teeth tearing through another bun. They waited out the troublesome moment until it passed. Once it did, they retreated back into the safety of their friendship, lying next to each other, making jokes and talking for hours, then savoring the sunset before going home.

On Sunday, they visited the shops in town. At the clockmaker's, they twisted the knobs of a dozen wind-up clocks, setting them to go off at the same time, then trotted out of there, giggling as the devices began to rattle, startling the customers and enraging the shopkeeper. They indulged at the chocolaterie, swooning over thick hot chocolate.

In the afternoon, they traveled to Finnick's house for a round of poker with him and Johanna. Finnick dealt, a cigar poking from his mouth as he wooed Katniss with his shuffling skills, the cards whizzing and biting the air. When he offered her a smoke of her own, she decided that he wasn't half bad, as far as rogues went.

Kat and Peeta regaled their group, reminiscing about a night when they'd sneaked into a gentleman's club, when they were fifteen. Kat had dressed in Peeta's clothes, and they'd lasted about an hour at the gaming tables before being caught and kicked out. As they recapped the tale, finishing one another's sentences, Finnick and Jo swapped amused glances, trading some secret knowledge of which Everlark was apparently ignorant. It puzzled Kat, but she refused to dwell on it. She was having too much fun.

That night, Peeta and Kat climbed to the rooftop of the Mellarks' townhouse and stargazed. Blissfully worn out from the weekend's activities, she rested her head on his shoulder and drifted, only vaguely aware of him carrying her to her bed.

As he covered her in a quilt, she mumbled something, to which he whispered back. A single word that bled into her dreams.

kpkpkpkpkp

Monday morning, Katniss floated into the kitchen. Peeta had gone to the bakery with Mr. Mellark at the break of dawn, and she saw no need to eat by herself in the dining room, so she bypassed a formal breakfast and went in search of Greasy Sae.

The room stretched ahead of her, bustling with activity. A knife slammed into a cutting board. Plates clanked together. Cooks and kitchen maids and scullery maids scampered about, dodging one another and dunking beneath overhanging bronze pots. The smell of bread sailed through the air, flour coating the countertops and floor.

Kat also caught a whiff of onions and eggs. Yum!

Swapping "Good morning's" with the cooks and maids, Kat skipped over to a basket of strawberries and proceed to steal. Popping the fruit into her mouth, she hummed with pleasure.

The next berry was plucked from her fingers. Greasy Sae dropped the morsel back into the basket and then set her fists on her hips. "One more illegal bite, and I will toss you out of here like a sack o' beans."

"What are you talking about?" Katniss inquired with mock innocence. "I was looking for you, I swear. The basket just got in my way."

Sae shook her head fondly. "And you felt obliged to empty it, did you? I wager Peeta's return has increased your appetite."

"You have no idea," Kat mumbled, recalling the sight of Peeta wet and panting in the lake.

"Oh, I have some idea," Sae remarked, no doubt referring to a more platonic version of Everlark. "You could have rung for breakfast. I'd have sent one of the girls up with a tray."

"I'd rather eat here."

The woman blushed. "You're just saying that because nobody else is home."

"I like your company. You know that."

Sae did her best to mask her pleasure, but Kat winked all the same. Growing up with the Mellarks, she and the chef had swiftly established a bond, from the time eleven-year-old Kat crept into the larder at midnight and accidentally locked herself inside. Perhaps it was her Seam roots, but constant hunger swam in her blood. That night, she'd been on the prowl for plum jam and had failed to mind the storage door's latch. Greasy Sae, who fancied midnight snacks just as much, heard Kat crying for help and found her.

To calm Katniss down, Sae served her biscuits and the jam Kat had wanted so badly. Like Effie, the older woman had a stern way about her, quick to give Kat a blunt talking-to whenever she needed one. But whereas Effie was the uppity great aunt, Sae was like a humble one.

Kissing Sae's cheek, Katniss grabbed a scone from a platter and blithely headed to the rear of the kitchen, where she'd be out of the servants' way. Tonight, she had plans to attend the symphony with Peeta and Mr. Mellark. Ah, it was the start of a beautiful week, and nothing could spoil her jubilant mood. Everything was lovely. Lovely, lovely, lovely.

Copies of the Capitol Chronicle and the D12 Post rested on a chair. Katniss picked them up and sat, discarding the Chronicle but keeping the Post on her lap. She flipped through the pages, opening to the scandal sheets as she chewed.

Then she proceeded to choke. The scone clogged her throat, crumbs spouting from her lips and pelting the black text marching across the page. She bent forward, wheezing. Despite the suffocation, she refused to die this way, most likely turning purple, flapping her arms like a crow, and hacking as though she had a fur-ball wedged down her windpipe. No, she was too infuriated to die.

Sae dropped the spoon she'd been holding and dashed to Kat's side, tailed by the rest of the servants. "Katniss! Oh heavens, Katniss!"

After one of the cooks performed some kind of maneuver, in which he seized her around the middle and thrust her toward the ceiling, the chunk of scone catapulted across the room. Sucking up a mouthful of air, Katniss grabbed the paper again, crushing the margins in her fists as she reread the square of text smack-dab in the page's center.

Noteworthy and Notable: It appears that 12's own Miss Katniss Everdeen has taken her interest in wildlife to a new level. According to a secret socialite insider—we shall call her DM—the Mellark family's young ward was seen at the stroke of dawn two days ago, exploring the woods with Mr. Gale Hawthorne, also formally of the Seam. One wonders if the wily debutante is revisiting old roots out of charity, a bout of homesickness, or something more. DM would say the latter, based on that kiss she'd witnessed. However, as to the true state of affairs: Only time, and lips, will tell.

Katniss cursed up a storm. "That spawn of Satan! That . . . that . . ."

Oh, she knew who tipped off the paper. The initials were a code: Deliah Mellark.

Shot taken. Retaliation achieved. Payback for what Kat had said at her party and a cheeky prediction of what the future held. Deliah wanted to destroy Katniss and worm her way into this family. Into Peeta's life. Into his bed.

Red hot rage surged up Kat's throat. That and fear, because by now, the whole town had read this.

Peeta had read this.

Chapter Text

Refusing to sit back down like a weakling, Katniss sagged against a cabinet. She was guzzling water from a glass, recovering from choking on the scone, when Mr. Mellark blew into the kitchen with Greasy Sae trotting behind him. Covered in flour from knees to knuckles, he rushed over to her and clamped his palms over her cheeks, inspecting her face. "Are you all right?"

"Physically or mentally?" Kat croaked, setting the empty glass on the counter.

"She'll be fine," Sae assured Mr. Mellark. "She's finally breathing normally again. And she's ceased swearing."

Well, that did it. Mr. Mellark's jaw went rigid. Sae had shooed the staff out of the kitchen, ignored Kat's pleas not to send word to Mr. Mellark, and dispatched a messenger to the bakery, where he'd been working with Peeta. Katniss wasn't ready to face either of them yet. So after Sae accused her of making things even more difficult than they needed to be, the cook reluctantly promised to send a missive addressed only to Kat's guardian, asking him to come home and settle a "household dispute," but not to alert Peeta about it.

Upon Mr. Mellark's arrival, Sae must have informed him of the real problem. He snatched the D12 Post from Katniss's free hand, his eyes tearing across its contents and then lifting to her. "This kiss—were you taken advantage of? Did this person, Mr. Hawthorne, force himself on you?"

"No. He caught me by surprise, but it wasn't deviant. He's my friend, not a blackguard. I simply had no idea how he felt about me."

"And you have no idea how relieved I am to hear that. I'm not as good a shot as I used to be."

"It was a mistake. I'm sorry."

"So am I," he said with disappointed affection, a gentle sort of anger that made her feel worse. She'd been sneaking out of the house to meet Gale. She'd betrayed her guardian's trust and confidence. She'd lied to him and to Peeta. She'd been caught kissing Gale, and now everyone knew.

Katniss harbored no regrets about her passions or love of archery—neither would the Mellarks ask or expect her to. Yes, she coveted the freedom that men had. However, pursuing that freedom didn't justify deceiving her family, who'd only ever supported her independence. What society thought of her didn't matter; what her family thought of her did.

Because of her carelessness, Mr. Mellark could have demanded plenty of things from her—he could have shouted them. And he would have every right to do so; no longer could he brush off her antics as fixable, harmless incidents that the district would eventually forget. But in spite of what she did, he was quick to fester and then forgive.

Not that it made her feel less guilty for burdening him. He hadn't asked for any of this.

"As for my parental duties, let's see if I've got this straight." He counted off his fingers. "You lied, you sneaked off with a young man, and you could have been hurt. I don't care if Mr. Hawthorne's a hunting guide. He's not a proper one if he thought it was acceptable to take you to the woods alone without my permission, and especially when I've only met the chap once in town, which means I hardly know him. Am I missing anything else?"

Katniss cringed. "Other than it being public knowledge? I don't think so. I'm sor—"

"Sorry. Indeed, I heard you the first time. Oh my girl, I want you to do what you love. I want you to excel at hunting if that's your wish, but not at the expense of honesty in this family. You're still young, I'm still your guardian, and we must trust in each other. Do you understand? Do you agree?"

When she concurred, he patted her wrist. "I'll consider your discipline later, but for time being, tell me exactly what went on."

She recounted the events from her birthday onward, while Mr. Mellark rubbed the bridge of his nose, absorbing the details with reproach and fatigue. Instead of Deliah being Mr. Mellark's next concern, he jumped ahead to another priority: Katniss and Peeta.

"What's amiss between you two?" he asked. "He came home from a year away, you were both ecstatic to see each other, and that first morning everything seemed fine in the Everlark world. By that afternoon, you could barely look at one another, and when you did, you'd both flushed scarlet. And now I hear that it got worse on your birthday—I thought you were avoiding each other, hardly speaking at the table, because of some stubborn quarrel. Then this weekend, you were joined at the hip again, and . . . good grief, it's ceaselessly teetering this way and that."

"Peeta's going to be furious with me," Katniss predicted.

"You're fretting over his reaction to this news? Why? Kiss or no kiss, these hunting outings sound like something he'd approve of. Rascals, that you both are."

"He envies my friendship with Mr. Hawthorne."

Mr. Mellark looked as though he might have laughed, had her indiscretion not been immortalized in the newspaper. "Ah. I see."

Except Katniss doubted that he did. She didn't even know what was truly happening with her and Peeta, and she guessed that Peeta didn't either. At their picnic by the lake, he'd admitted that he stayed away from her purely because he wasn't sure how to approach her after the things they'd said in the hallway, on the morning he was drunk. And Katniss had understood that because she'd been feeling the same way, awkward and uncertain.

For the sake of damage control, Mr. Mellark insisted they pay a visit to Great Aunt Effie immediately. When the elderly woman got wind of this, she was going to burst a blood vessel, but once she recovered, she would know what to do.

In the carriage with her guardian, Kat bent forward, dropping her forehead into her clammy palms. Deliah had seen Kat and Gale together. She'd seen Gale kiss her, yet Deliah hadn't merely injured Katniss. No, she'd attacked Gale too, hurling him into this cesspool of scandal and smearing his good name all over the page.

What's more, Kat wouldn't see Peeta until tonight. They were engaged at the symphony with Mr. Mellark, but according to him, Sae wasn't the only one who'd sent a letter to the bakery. Deliah had as well, begging for an escort because her father had declined to go with her and her mother. Apparently, Peeta had agreed to accompany the women there. He would clean up and dress at the bakery, then ride straight to Miss Cartwright's townhouse on the way to the theatre.

If Peeta hadn't heard of Kat's disgrace by now, he would once Deliah got her pincers into him. On the way to the symphony, she would casually bring up the scandal, then fake-blush, and then fake-apologize for assuming that Peeta already knew. By pure coincidence, she would have the article tucked in her mantle, the evidence close at hand to brandish like a trophy. Then she would bombard Peeta with theories.

Katniss wouldn't be there to defend herself. She wouldn't have the chance until they were at the theatre, trapped in their seats with an entire brass section honking into their ears. Very likely, there would be no prospect for discussion there.

Who was she kidding? It wasn't going be a discussion. It was going to be a fight.

Arriving at Great Aunt Effie's and lumbering up the front steps, Mr. Mellark advised Katniss. "Effie's been plagued by a cold since yesterday. That's a good thing. It probably distracted her from local gossip, so we can break it to her gently and tactfully. Let me do the talking," he said, while Katniss bobbed her head in agreement. "Like I said, chances are high that she doesn't know yet."

The door tore open before he'd even grabbed the knocker. Instead of the butler, Effie's furious face cut into the doorway, her mouth bunched into a prune, her nostrils flaring like a bull's.

Never mind. She knew.

In the purple upholstery of the sitting room, Effie paced around a settee, punching the floor with her cane. She lectured Katniss for an hour, denying her the opportunity to apologize.

"Kissing!" her aunt shrieked. "Kissing like a common tart! You might as well have let him truss you up and have his way with you."

Mr. Mellark's eyes shot heavenward. "Effie, there's no need to be vulgar."

"He kissed me," Katniss muttered. "Furthermore, he's only a chum."

"It doesn't matter," Effie piped. "He's a man who's never courted you. A man in trade. Lips met lips—in broad daylight! And in front of Miss Deliah Cartwright, whom you recently humiliated to the masses. I trusted you with her secret, thinking you smart enough to handle it, and what did you do? You announced it to the world instead of picking your battles and taking the high road. Now look what's happened. Of all the witnesses you could have selected—"

"I didn't select her!"

"Karma is giving you what you deserve, young lady. Percival Flickerman, Marvel St. Marvel, and now a Seam drudge. How could you be so stupid? In all my decades of greatness, I've never known such a reckless daredevil. At this rate, we'll be forced to admit you to a sanatorium." Impatient, she yanked on the bell-pull and hollered, "Where is my tea?!"

It went on like that. Aunt Effie declared Katniss the most naïve girl in the district, then groused about the ways of this country, then grunted how Katniss should have known better, how society sees everything, hears everything, smells everything, and how Katniss had been warned, and . . . it came to a point where Effie started repeating herself.

Mr. Mellark ordered a midday spirit from the footman, calmed Effie down, and then consoled Katniss. They agreed on a course of action: Effie would damn her cold to Hades and make house calls to diffuse the gossip, using her powers of persuasion and influence. And Katniss would show up to the theatre in the most brilliantly modest of gowns, and keep her head high.

If anyone asked about Mr. Hawthorne, she would laugh it off as misinformation provided by an incompetent staff of journalists. Effie made Katniss memorize every false report printed in the Post within the past six months. Bringing those incidents up would add credibility to Katniss's innocence.

Lastly, Mr. Mellark would steer Kat toward other supporters at the symphony. Respectable ones, people whose opinions ranked well in society. She needed advocates, she needed sponsors, and she needed them fast to sway everyone's attention from the slander, to make them doubt anything untoward occurred between Katniss and Gale. Being seen on her guardian's arm, and in the approving circles of particular socialites, was the gateway to redeemability.

That evening, Katniss stood in front of the mirror as her maid wrestled dove gray satin over Kat's head. The gown tapered to the hips and flared out beneath in layers that reminded her of feathers. It was pure elegance, with a smattering of beads across the scooped neckline. It had been ordered from a new designer, whom Effie had begun to frequent, someone who went by the name of Cinna.

Despite being at her wit's end, Kat appreciated the gown's beauty. Rarely did she forget her good fortune, how lucky she was to have clothes on her back, a loving home, and food on the table. So why did she constantly push that luck with her behavior? Why did she deserve these things when so many others suffered?

Bereft of an answer, she scrutinized her reflection until it was time to depart. Twenty minutes later, as their coach rounded the theatre drive, a needle of fear stabbed at her. A throng of heads—peacock feathers, ropes of jewels, stiff black hats—all swerved toward their ride, recognizing the Mellarks' vehicle. They were staring, staring, staring.

Kat shrank back. She needed Peeta. She needed him on her side. She needed him to remind her that she'd done nothing wrong.

She needed him. So much.

She dreaded him. So much.

A weight settled over her knuckles and squeezed warmth into it. Mr. Mellark grinned at her. "You can do this, my girl. I'm right here."

"Peeta will be, too," Aunt Effie added, in all her fashionable splendor. She hadn't planned to attend tonight, sick as she was, but she'd done it for Kat.

When she was a child, this family told the world that she was someone special, someone worthy, by accepting her into their lives. Now was the time to show that she believed it as well.

It was showtime.

They exited the coach, a picture of unity. The crowd shifted into murmurs, but none of them turned up their noses, not with Effie and her nephew flanking Kat. She heard Peeta's voice in her mind, the words he'd whispered to her the first time she attended a ball with him. She'd been fifteen and terrified, but for the hundredth time, her best friend said she was a star, a bright flame. A musical girl on fire who'd suffered and survived far worse than a frivolous assembly. She'd overcome more than any of the guests could handle.

Smile. Shoot straight.

Don't be ashamed of who you are.

That's what he'd said.

She took a step, and her family followed, and the frosty gazes melted into hesitation. Perhaps a few of them even looked amused, impressed that she'd made an appearance.

As they reached the third step, Finnick broke from the crowd, greeting her family loudly. "Miss Everdeen, you look exquisite," he said, offering his arm. "Do me the honor."

Despite his cavalier manner, the approval of Finnick Odair was a benefit, and it eased the tension further. Katniss took his arm and gave him a grateful smile, parading into the theatre ahead of Mr. Mellark and Effie.

"Thank you," she said under her breath.

"Thank you," Finnick responded. "You'll owe me a debt after this. How fun will that be!"

He waggled his brows. Kat actually laughed.

Inside, droplets of light rained from a chandelier, swimming across the forest murals and deep green carpet of the foyer. This theatre in particular was small and intimate, which she liked.

As the crowd mingled, a handful of allies—Mr. Plutarch Heavensbee, Lady Paylor, Mayor Undersee and his daughter, Madge—dared approach and offer tentative greetings. Kat should have begun to relax, but she couldn't. Not until she found the one person she was most anxious to see. She craned her neck, scouring the crowd for him.

She turned and caught Finnick watching her. He studied her face, then spoke quietly. "Careful, kitten. Anyone paying attention will be able to see it."

"See what?"

"You know what."

"Oh, I get it. It's riddle day. I'm supposed to figure that one out on my own."

"Honey, don't get bratty on me. I'm merely an observant sidekick who's actually trying to be discreet. Or do you wish for me to spell it out right here? With an audience at my disposal?"

Katniss felt herself deflate. "You're right. Forgive me, I'm—"

"Terrible at communication. Yes, I figured that much out." He shrugged. "Anyway, Miss Cartwright is going to do everything she can to keep our boy beside her tonight. Although Peeta's not near you, it doesn't mean he doesn't want to be. Just . . . it might look worse than it is. Don't jump to conclusions."

"Shouldn't you be telling him that?" she countered, referring to Peeta's inevitable reaction to the paper.

Finnick chuckled. "I don't need to tell him a thing."

Kat appreciated that, but she knew Peeta better than he did, and if she couldn't guess what her best friend was feeling about that article, Finnick couldn't possibly. However, she lacked the energy to argue the point.

Along the east corridor, lanterns bled orange over the velvet curtains that flanked private boxes. Tucked away in their shell of space, her family occupied three of the four available seats. Mr. Mellark and Aunt Effie sat in front, with Katniss perched behind them, as she and Peeta always were.

When they were younger, Peeta would whisper tidbits about the performance to Katniss. As they got older, they simply held hands and listened together.

The first half of tonight's program consisted of Schubert's 5th. At the final curtain call, attendants flocked down aisles and jostled across rows, their voices ringing throughout the theatre from the pit to the ceiling. Musicians tuned their instruments, a wild and angry mess of noise bottle-necking through Kat's ears. She wriggled in her seat until Effie told her to stop it. Resigned, she rested her head against the plush chair, inhaled Effie's gardenia perfume, and shut her eyes. She waited for the atmosphere to settle, for the crush of sound to recede into an anticipatory silence. Then her favorite part came: the last collective hush before everything changed.

That's when the hairs on her nape jumped. Her lids opened and found his. A hot blue gaze that scorched her from a distance, from the box on the opposite side of the theatre. He sat behind Deliah and her mother, neither woman aware of his hard gaze aimed at Katniss. A gaze that swallowed her whole.

They stared at one another. Kat had thought she'd known all of Peeta's expressions, but she couldn't say whether the look on his face was anger or jealousy or something equally threatening. Whatever it was, he struggled to contain it, his mouth compressed in a line.

Deliah might have relished this exchange, might have flung Kat a snide quirk of the lips, if she weren't busy clapping at the conductor's arrival. When had that happened? How had the man walked onto the stage without Kat noticing?

Peeta ignored the spectacle. He fixed his attention on her, determined not to let her go. Even if she'd demanded it (Let me go, Peeta), he would have refused (I can't). She wanted to duck and hide, even though she'd already been spotted, but Peeta had never been an easy person to flee from. Not in the rare moments when she'd attempted to.

Wood and brass instruments burst into a shrill tantrum of sound, making Kat jump out of her skin. Her fan toppled off her lap, but she didn't bother retrieving it. As it was, she wouldn't be able to move if she tried. Not with him locked onto her like that, forcing her to gaze back.

The first movement finished, creating a brief gap as the musicians shifted for the second: a slower, more resigned melody that floated to the rafters. Finally breaking their trance, Peeta leaned toward Deliah's mother and said something to her. Then he stood, his solid frame clad in black evening attire. Katniss blinked, watching as he swept the box curtain aside, glanced over his shoulder at Kat, and jerked his chin before disappearing into the corridor.

Anxiety fluttering across her chest, she almost tripped over her gown while rising from her chair. "I need some air," she whispered to Mr. Mellark.

"Naturally," he said. "You'd better hurry if you mean to catch up with him."

At least Great Aunt Effie hadn't heard that; she was too busy swooning over the performance, swishing her hand in the air to the music. On that score, thankfully Deliah appeared unaware of the transaction as well. In fact, the girl stared into the void, as if the melody had taken her elsewhere, beyond the stage. In spite of Kat's vantage point and the muted lighting, the sight proved too unusual to go unnoticed. A trace of something—sorrow?—betrayed Deliah's features.

Kat sighed. Obviously, she needed to have her vision checked.

She hastened from the box and down the hallway, the carpet and distance muffling the orchestra. Rounding the corner, she halted, just as Peeta did at his end of the theatre. One intake of breath later, he cut into a stride again, heading her way. As he did, he yanked a folded piece of paper from his pocket.

Katniss broke from her spot and rushed toward him, meeting him at the main staircase. Not the most private location, but she didn't care. The instant they reached each other, she lifted her hands in a placating gesture. "Peeta, I—"

Gently, he slapped the newspaper article into her open palm. The channel between his brows crinkled, his eyes trembling all over her. Now Kat knew what emotion claimed him: hurt.

They must have stood like that for a while, because eventually someone cleared their throat. It took a long, labored moment for them to pry their attention from one another. They trailed the intrusive sound and found Deliah behind them, dripping with topaz jewels and pouty impatience. That odd, forlorn expression she'd worn earlier had vanished. "I do hope I'm interrupting something."

Katniss saw red. "She did this."

Peeta frowned. "She what?"

"She tipped off the Post."

"I beg your pardon," the viper said, feigning offense. "I haven't a clue what you're talking about. The music's rapture has apparently made you delirious."

"No one else saw Gale and me that morning." Katniss rattled the paper in her hand. "You're D.M., the anonymous source that journalist cited in his article."

Deliah had the gall to address Peeta intimately. "Peeta—"

"Don't call him that," Katniss growled.

"She's lying through her teeth. Those aren't even my initials."

"And they never will be, you meddling snitch!"

Katniss barreled toward Deliah, but Peeta grabbed Kat's shoulders and eased her back. He cupped her cheek and shook his head in a warning. The instant she relented, Peeta whipped toward Deliah, his voice glittering with outrage. "You did this to Katniss? Why?"

Deliah huffed. "I wouldn't dare—"

"Why did you do this to her?"

"You're taking her word over mine, after she lied to you about Mr. Hawthorne?"

Peeta flinched but made no reply. He simply moved closer to Kat, not shielding her like a damsel but rather standing beside her. For that alone, she wanted to launch her arms around him.

"Look at how she's behaving," Deliah spat. "Society deserves to know whom it's letting into its sphere. You deserve to know the truth."

"Don't. You. Dare. Judge. Her," Peeta hissed. "I've cautioned you enough about this, and I've tried to be polite while doing it, however I've hit my limit."

"What about the way she mortified me on her birthday? Was it fair to expose my business, just like that? But her faults are irrelevant, aren't they? She has you wrapped around her finger—always has. The reason is so obvious, isn't it? You two are the only fools who don't realize it."

Pink blanketed his cheeks. "Keep your voice down."

"Whatever. I'm overdue for an apology."

Katniss pounced on that. "Not anymore."

"Is that so?" Deliah challenged.

"You warrant nothing after what you've done. Forget about me; think of Mr. Hawthorne. He hasn't done a thing to you, but you compromised him. You made a mockery of his integrity. You might have hurt a good man who you don't even know!"

The girl stopped short. Realization leached the color from her face . "I . . . I-I didn't—"

"You want an apology? Fine. Let me shove it down your throat."

"Enough," Peeta snapped, pressing between them and addressing Deliah. "Your unfortunate mutual pettiness makes you both even, so let me be clear: I can throw verbal punches in public that nobody would ever see coming—do not underestimate that. What you do to Katniss, you do to me. Threaten her character in any capacity again, and I won't be as refined about it. Now excuse us."

He turned to Kat. "Come with me."

Snatching her wrist, he pulled her from Deliah, storming through maze of hallways and up a set of stairs leading toward the theatre's attic. At the landing, he smacked open a door and tossed her inside. Katniss's gaze hopped across the racks of costumes dulled by inky darkness: gowns, suits, ribbons, stockings, and shoes. A corset trimmed in fur. Harlequin tights. A gladiator helmet. A cat mask. A set of black and blue wings meant to span a person's arms. All of it illuminated by skylights, where silver leaked through.

Peeta stalked past her and took refuge beside a child's tattered cloak. It was the garment of a poor child, muddy brown and frayed, not unlike the one she'd worn when they met. He reached out to touch the cloak, brushing it between his thumb and forefinger, a great sad breath escaping him.

The quiet gnawed at Kat. "Peeta, let me—"

He whirled on her. "We were in the garden, weren't we? When it happened? When things went back to normal? We stood across from each other and made amends, then spent a beautiful weekend together. Everything as it used to be. I didn't imagine it, did I?"

"I have an explanation. If you give me a second, I can string it together."

"Excellent. Because when I want to know what's real and what's not, I'm supposed to rely on my best friend. So tell me, and I'll believe you. That—" he pointed to the article "—isn't real. It can't be. Right?"

"You said you would give Gale a chance."

"And I expected you not to lie to me when I asked you a question!" he exploded. "I asked you if you went out alone that morning. You said yes."

She puffed out a laugh. "So it's fine for me to break society's rules with you, but with another buck, it's out of the question?"

"This isn't about breaking rules! This is about my best friend telling me the truth!"

"I knew how you'd react." Katniss gestured up and down at him. "Exactly like this."

Peeta threw his arms out to the sides. "Kat, how can I possibly give him a chance if you're keeping things about him from me?"

"I wanted to tell you. I would have in time, but Deliah—"

"Enough about her. I'm sick of it."

"She wants you, Peeta. Tell me you don't know that. That's why she did this, because she thinks I'm in the way."

"Of course, I know that! And I've made my feelings clear to her. I made them clear the night of your birthday."

"Then maybe you shouldn't have escorted her here," Kat fired back. "It doesn't necessarily send the right message."

"I wanted to be with you tonight, not with her. But what else was I supposed to do?"

"I don't know, maybe spare her the gentleman act for once!"

"She insisted her mother wouldn't attend without an escort. She said not having a male companion in their box would be unseemly."

"Well, I'll bet there isn't much Deliah wouldn't say to get you inside her box."

Peeta lashed out, striking a lamp that stood on a table. It hit the floor and shattered, staying Kat's tongue. She'd never seen him like this.

Bracing his fists on his hips, he hung his head. "I've tried to keep the peace between you two. I've tolerated Deliah in order to curb her grudge against you, and I hoped you'd rise above it, too, but clearly that's backfired. Is competitive viciousness the best you can do, Kat? Is it?"

"No," she said, awash with remorse, because he was right. She was better than this.

He lifted his face to hers, his features brittle and beaten. "Do you remember our first Christmas together? Your singing, the alleyway where I found you, the bread? That was us. For years, that's been us." He approached slowly. Her back hit the wall as he reached her, the span of his body blocking her view of the room, filling her sight with only him. His pleading expression and sweet chin and bobbing throat. "I want it back, but I'm tired," he said. "I'm tired of other people coming between us, when we never let that happen before. I'm so tired, Katniss."

She gulped. "Thank you for what you said to Deliah."

"Christ. There's nothing to thank because it wasn't a favor. Caring for you is who I am. It's all of me."

Because that's what we do. Protect each other.

She admitted, "I thought you and her might favor one another."

He canted his head. "And I thought you knew me better."

On her birthday, Effie had predicted Peeta's courtship with Deliah, but from what transpired these past ten minutes, it was clear that he'd never had such intentions. It shouldn't have been a surprise. The only reason Katniss had believed Effie was because her Great Aunt had caught Kat at a vulnerable moment. Otherwise, Kat would have come to a stark conclusion: Effie had been overreacting. No matter what, Peeta would never marry a girl who looked down on his best friend. He'd never wed her enemy, nor anyone who disrespected her.

"If you believed that about Deliah and me, it's my fault then," he sighed.

This near to him, with his spicy cologne filling her lungs, Kat could scarcely think. "I didn't know that Gale fancied me."

Something sparked in Peeta's eyes, a prism of emotions flashing as he leaned over her. He flattened his palms on the wall, caging her in at the waist, his jacket rustling against her torso. He spoke low, his words sharp under his breath. "Did you need him? All these years, is he the one you needed?"

Under that bold exterior, fear peeked back at her. Fear that she would say yes.

But where was Gale when she was thirteen and fell from a tree, fractured her leg, and needed someone to carry her around until she healed? Where was he when Kat hit her first archery target? Who was there for her, always?

Not that she could blame Gale for his absence; he'd had his own demons to fight. Meanwhile, fate had led her to Peeta. Her life had become his life. That Christmas Eve when she came to his house, he gave up his mother's precious music box, entrusting it to Katniss. When they were twelve, he built a tent for her in their meadow, so she could spend the night there. At fourteen, he accompanied her, without complaint, to every craftsman's shop in the district in order to find the perfect model for her first bow. At seventeen, just before he left on his travels, he painted all her campaign signs when she ran for the Young Ladies Committee President against Deliah. He helped Katniss write her speech and coached her on delivering it.

All the times in between. The times she fell ill and he took care of her, losing days of sleep in the process. Every time he defended her to the snobs of this world. He knew what dishes to cook when she was moody. He knew what to say when she was sad.

Kat meant to answer Peeta, to confess what resided in her heart. The problem? His heat and strength, his proximity, drove her to distraction. The llama costume in the corner could have come to life and danced a jig through the attic, and she wouldn't have paid it a second glance.

Her lips ached. She licked them, which caught his attention.

"Did you need his embrace?" he muttered to her mouth. "Did you enjoy it?"

The questions plucked at her temper. "He's not a bad kisser."

"Compared to whom?" Peeta angled his head, his words tickling her ear, causing a shower of goose flesh down her back. "How far will you let him go, my Kat?" His teeth scraped her lobe. "Do you want him?" He nibbled the sensitive spot. "Would you give yourself to him, and to hell with the consequences?"

They'd both sworn in each other's presence before, dared to ponder wicked notions while in private, and found themselves touching even more freely than engaged couples—pecks on the ears, love bites, kisses on the undersides of wrists, even the occasion backside pinch—but what they were doing right now, what he was asking, wasn't playful or friendly. It was intentional. A dare. A need.

As his mouth grazed her cheekbone, then down the side of her throat, a foreign sensation howled through Katniss, setting her blood aflame. Foreign indeed, yet she knew what it was: desire.

This couldn't be happening. It shouldn't be. It was madness, a surefire way to ruin everything that had come before . . . and possibly after. Yet his lips felt so good, so impossibly good. If he kept this up, she was going to faint.

"Oh, my god," she panted, arching her neck for more. "What are we doing?"

"I have no idea," he responded along her jawline.

"You're my best friend. You're practically my brother."

"Kat, I'm many things to you. But I am not your brother, goddammit," he whispered.

Then he swooped down and sealed his mouth to hers.

A gasp sprung from the back of her throat. Neither a protest, nor a cry of surprise. No, it was a noise that rose from an eager place inside her body.

Her hands flew into his hair, the strokes of his mouth consuming her, fogging her brain. A moan spilled from her as she opened her mouth wider for him. Peeta shuddered, looping his arms around her waist and hauling her against him. He tilted his head and deepened the kiss, his tongue slipping past her wet lips, arching into her mouth with determined thrusts. Her muscles melted, turning her into a puddle in his arms. Her fingers released his hair and dove into his jacket, where she gripped his shirt, and she swore she'd never wanted to shred something as she did right then.

With a starved groan, Peeta dragged his own hands up to secure the back of her head, then shoved them both harder against the wall. He slanted his lips to the opposite side and worked their kiss from a different angle. When he began to suck on her tongue, she lost her mind, pleasure clenching between her legs. Her thighs spread, draping around him, cradling the width of his hips.

They pulled at one another's lips, his insistent mouth moving over hers, her pulse kicking against his chest. Kat welcomed the push of Peeta's jaw as he claimed her, as she claimed him. They threw themselves into an aggravated, passionate kiss. On and on and on.

Just as swiftly, it ended. They reeled back at the same time, their exhalations heavy, their bodies quivering. What had they just done?

"Katniss?" Peeta asked, her name coming loose like gravel.

"Peeta?" she replied, equally helpless.

An interlude of shock followed, then another burning impulse. He moistened his lips, and she nearly tasted the motion. She sensed it in them both, this confusion of longing. And hunger.

An entirely new kind.

Chapter Text

They fell against the wall together. They struggled for air, through heat and starlight and dust. In the attic, in the dark, in each other's arms. Over Peeta's shoulder, Kat focused on a scarf hanging from the costume rack, limp and flushed pink. She had just kissed her best friend. The recollection burned her cheeks, because she'd liked it, because it had put Gale's attempt to shame, because it felt like her first real kiss, and because it was the first one where she'd actually wanted more. And more.

She'd been so lost in Peeta's mouth, in every time he'd inched back and then slanted over her again. They'd kissed each other throughout the entire second movement of the symphony and good portion of the third. They'd kissed so thoroughly that her lips still felt restless.

In the times she envisioned being with Peeta, she'd imagined it taking place somewhere beneath the stars, perhaps on the roof where they liked to sit at night or beside the lake. She pictured it to be soft and sweet, quietly romantic. Not the pent-up kiss it actually had been.

His body, his weight. The toe of his shoe was braced over hers. That's how packed together they'd become.

Finally, she found the right words. The necessary ones. "Get off my foot."

Peeta pulled back, arching a golden brow. "So you can run?"

"So my circulation can return to normal."

Resting his forehead against her temple, he went ahead and said something beautifully terrible, as he always did. "I want to live in this moment."

Delight and heartache. Both of them tangled up. "Well, I want my foot back."

He obeyed but kept her trapped. "Katniss, no. I'm not giving you time to avoid this, or to think about this."

"Why?"

"Because you'll talk yourself out of it."

"Out of what?"

He took her face in his hands, thumbing her cheeks. He beamed, his happiness unfolding, spreading like wings in the shadows. "I have so much to say. I missed you so much when I was gone. I . . . even with girls, when I flirted with Annie until Finnick got to her, it didn't feel right. I wanted it to feel right, but it didn't. I couldn't understand why. I just knew that only your letters gave me pleasure. They dulled the ache and made it worse at the same time.

"When I came home and saw you again, I felt an indescribable . . . fullness. You were my home, and I had you there, just within reach. And you were beautiful and daring as ever. And I just wanted you. I've always adored you, but right then, I wanted . . . this. I tried to pretend and go on as usual, but all I've truly wanted was this—"

"You shouldn't."

"Why not? If I'm honest with myself, I've been feeling this way my whole life."

"Peeta, don't confuse things. It—"

"You can't tell me this was nothing. It's never been nothing, Kat. You kissed me back."

"Of course I did. You're handsome and good at it, and I need the practice." When Peeta grinned, she scowled. "I'm not joking."

"I'm scared, too," he admitted.

The words punched through like a fist. Kat clamped her eyes shut and dissolved, letting him gather her into his arms, hating and relishing the comfort. "Say something," he tried, his breath on her neck. "Something real. Please."

"Later," she spoke into his collar. "Talking will ruin things."

He sighed, and that was fine for now, because they needed this respite, this pause before the inevitable happened. Because she knew better. Everything they had, everything they'd built, was already ruined.

Retreating back into the Mellarks' box for the final movement, Kat slumped into her chair and stared dumbly at the orchestra, swaying about in a tide of sound. She sensed Peeta's return to the Cartwrights' box, his blue eyes entreating her to glance his way. But if she let herself look at him, if she allowed it, every emotion cascading through her would be plain on her face. And if that happened, somehow they'd both find a way to cause a scene. They were masters at that.

On the journey home, she pretended to sleep so that Mr. Mellark and Effie wouldn't burden her with questions or chatter. To Kat's relief, she made it back to the house before Peeta did, although they'd agreed—without actually agreeing—to give each other space.

Sleep wasn't going to happen. In bed, she pushed her face into the pillow and pounded her toes into the mattress, resisting the impulse to rush to his room. Instead, she tore off the sheets and went to the next best place. The kitchen.

kpkpkpkpkp

"You did what?" Greasy Sae dropped into a chair at the prepping table, red flags of shock riding up her cheeks. "At the theatre? In public?"

"In private," Katniss corrected, sitting across from her, strangling a mug of warm milk and honey.

"For mercy's sake, child. That's not much better. If anyone saw you—"

"We were in the attic."

The clock struck midnight. The entire house slumbered except for her and Sae, the two of them tucked in, candles twitching between them as she recounted the story aloud. Everything except the bit about lusting after Peeta, the sheen of his lips, the sweep of his tongue. The taste of him.

Finnick Odair was right. She carried a torch for Peeta, a torch so bright she wouldn't be surprised if people living on the moon could see it. Even in this cold, dismally-lit kitchen, he affected her. If she gazed to the right, she would see cupboards filled with the jars of raisins and almonds and grain that Peeta used for baking. If she looked overhead, she'd see the bundles of dried lavender and fresh rosemary that he added to cakes and cookie dough. Kat's head thunked onto the table, where years of meals had seeped into the wood, the permanent smell of lemons and carrots. Of milled flour.

She burst into tears.

"Ah, girl." Sae's hands covered hers around the mug. "It couldn't have been all that bad."

"I don't want things to change. I don't want to lose him."

"Fiddlesticks! I've been serving you since your eleventh year. That's long enough to know when too much hot air has gone to your head. You're permitting fear and stubbornness and drama to cloud your reasoning. Things always change, girl. You find yourself knee-deep before you know what's happened. This isn't the time to tuck tail. You need to talk with him."

Sae rose, came around the table, and knelt beside her. Kat twisted in her seat, wrapping her arms around the woman.

Change took her parents from her. Change took Gale from her. Change took her home from her. Would it take Peeta from her, too?

"There, there." The cook rubbed Katniss's back. "You know better. If there's one person you'll never lose, it's that boy. You've made a thousand mistakes, and he's still here, isn't he?"

Katniss drew back, wiping her eyes. "I can't guess why."

Sae chuckled. "Sometimes our minds take a while to catch up with our hearts."

"That's a platitude," she criticized with a sniffle.

"Very well." Sae tucked a wisp of hair behind Kat's ear. "It's because he's in love with you."

Kat shook her head. "No."

Peeta had desired her as much as she'd desired him, but he's in love with you wasn't possible. They couldn't allow it to be. She may have urgent feelings for him, but that didn't mean his feelings matched her own, no matter that his lips and hands had responded to her. However much Peeta cared for her, however deeply she cared for him, she refused to call it love. Friendship was safer, permanent.

So the next morning, she prepared to face that. From a hanger, she snatched a frock of soft, honeydew cashmere, the color pretty but practical. A subdued, friendly sort of color, the kind meant to call a ceasefire to temptation. The yarn brushed her skin as she dressed herself, not bothering to wait for the maid. She never liked someone else tending to her anyway, as though she were a doll.

The corset was a problem, but she managed. If she could wield a bow, she could tie a few silly strings from behind. She also threaded her own hair into a side braid, opting for a looser style, letting rogue wisps fall around her face. Sae and Effie would have vouched for a proper updo instead, but while demure, it would also seem uptight and formal, and that would be going too far with Peeta.

When Kat headed for the door, she discovered that all her effort had been wasted. Someone with familiar, loopy handwriting had slipped a note beneath the crack.

The bakery needs me unexpectedly this morning. I had to leave, but I'll return in the afternoon. Please be there when I do.

~P

Katniss flopped onto her bed, the note crushed between her fingers as she glared at the ceiling. She'd dressed and then rehearsed for an hour what she would say, but would now have to endure hours of waiting.

Archery was out of the question, since Mr. Mellark had sentenced her to disciplinary probation until he was good and ready to trust her. Yesterday before the symphony, she'd finished drafting a fundraising letter for endangered mockingjays, on behalf of the Young Ladies Committee, so that was done. It was also too early to call on Johanna.

She could write to Gale. As soon as possible, she wanted to settle what happened in the woods, and to apologize on behalf of Deliah and the D12 Post. Still, she'd rather make amends in person. The problem was she couldn't be seen visiting him, not with everyone's eyes on her. That would compound the scandal.

A letter would have to do for now. A few hours hence would be an appropriate time to write and send it.

Until then, there was only one other thing that could successfully occupy her: food. She took a long breakfast with her guardian, then munched on fruit in the solarium while reading a book about plants. At midday, a lunch invitation arrived from Effie, severing Kat's plans to finally write Gale. She groaned, the distinct whiff of Agenda rising from the paper like a fume.

After Effie's carriage pulled up to the Mellarks' townhouse on the hour, they rode to the sort of fashionable eatery where everything on the menu was either unpronounceable or still in possession of its head. They dined in a private room, which made absolutely no sense to Katniss. If they were going to be alone, why not have their meal at Effie's house?

"To be seen but not heard," Effie clarified, unfolding her napkin and snapping it out so hard that Kat twitched. "To maintain a healthy public presence, for your sake. To give our audience the impression of innocence, all the while we discuss something exclusive."

That explained why Effie had chosen this particular room, with its glass walls. People could see Effie and Katniss from their tables, yet the arrangement prevented the nosy spectators from eavesdropping. Life in District 12, carefully plotted. Always a game, always a show.

Exhaustion settled on Katniss's shoulders. Against her very nature, she lost her appetite.

Effie ordered them an unpronounceable, which simply turned out to be pheasant with a savory of caramelized butternut squash, and a smidgen of cream and walnuts. If Peeta were here, Kat would declare that she wanted to try every dessert on the menu, he would tease her to pace herself, and they would pick off of one another's plates. They would serve each other from the platters, knowing without having to ask what the other wanted to taste, knowing the right portion of sweets to serve.

"Sit up straight," Effie instructed. "And smile. And eat. You have the air of the lovelorn, and I have reasons for bringing you here, which cannot be achieved if your face turns purple. I want to see that pheasant gone by the time I finish my tea. And I told you to smile."

"I'm not lovelorn."

"Oh, goodie. Denial. At least you and my grandnephew have been consistent all these years." Before Katniss could inquire what that meant, Effie asked, "Aren't you curious why else I'm being so calculated? This is a delicate matter. Therefore, I'm going to speak delicately."

"By all means. Anything's possible."

"You're in love with Peeta."

Kat's fork clattered onto her plate. Effie tsked. "You see? This racket is another reason why I requested the room. Katniss, do close your mouth. You look like a blowfish."

"I . . . I . . ."

"Mmm-hmm. Quite." Effie resumed cutting into her own dish. "You belong together. I knew it from the moment I saw him holding your soot-covered little hand—you'd been hiding in the chimney when we were introduced, remember? Anyway, since neither of you have come up to snuff, I felt it was due time to stage an intervention—I'm not finished," she stressed when Kat opened her mouth to argue. "I'm not getting any younger; my patience has worn thin. As much as I hoped you'd figure it out for yourselves, it seems I have to do everything in this family. Therefore, Katniss: You love him, he loves you, and I would love to see a litter before I die."

Kat worked to pick her jaw up off the table. "On my birthday, you said Peeta would end up engaged to Deliah."

"Did you believe me?"

"Only until I realized you were overreacting."

"On the contrary. I wasn't overreacting, I was baiting you. I deliberately made that ridiculous prediction so that you would open your eyes. I wanted you to consult your feelings once and for all, I wanted you jealous, and I wanted you to take action. Are you aware that you haven't refuted what I said?"

You're in love with Peeta.

Objections crowded her tongue. But just then, a large figure passing by the translucent wall diverted Kat, who recognized the olive skin, dark hair, and athletic build. "Gale," she said aloud, which despite the wall separating them, somehow flagged his attention. He halted mid-step, glanced sideways at her, and his gray eyes twinkled, relieving her to the tips of her toes. "It's Gale," she repeated stupidly.

"Why don't I find that to our benefit?" Effie remarked.

In the space of a moment, Katniss tallied the moves and countermoves, sensing Gale doing the same. People in the dining hall had taken note of the scene. If Gale walked away, it would give the impression he was ashamed of what they'd done, or that they'd done anything wrong at all. It would also be considered an affront to her and her great aunt, to be cut down.

Based on the harrowed look on Effie's face, the woman agreed. If they merely nodded at him and went about their business, it would seem just as guilty. Keeping a distance might be a wise tactic, but it would also imply discomfort around one another, which would imply something sordid or theatrical had happened between them. But if they acknowledged Gale by welcoming him into the room, it might confirm a more serious attachment than existed.

Kat hated this game, but she played for her family and Gale's sakes. She took the first step by nodding at him and offering a half-smile. That would show she had nothing to fear from him, while offering him the opportunity respond appropriately, gallantly. Gale caught on and nodded back, then tapped his knuckles on the glass.

"Oh, for pity's sake," Effie complained, beckoning him inside.

There. A dance perfected for the spectators.

Gale opened the door and closed it behind him, stationing himself just inside the room, maintaining a formal distance. Unfortunately, that meant this was going to be brief. And sadly necessary, no matter how much Kat wanted to embrace him, to have an honest talk somewhere far from an audience. Somewhere in the forest where they hunted.

Katniss struggled through the introductions. Effie offered Gale a curt inclination of the head.

"I only have a moment," Gale said, by way of apology. "I'm meeting with Mayor Undersee and his daughter. They've shown a fondness for my squirrels."

"Oooh, a delicacy," Effie sang. "I dined on squirrel once and fell deathly ill for three days. One would think the innards of that varmint poisonous, but of course, what else could one expect from such a pointless creature. It's a wonder that they're an enterprise at all."

Katniss glowered. Gale clasped his hands behind his back, narrowing his gaze at Effie. "Perhaps the meat wasn't roasted thoroughly."

"My cook isn't incompetent, young man."

"And I'm not out to poison anyone, my lady."

"Well, bravo, then. You've reassured me."

"I'm at your service."

"I should hope so. Now, if you don't mind, might you two hurry up and address the kiss before our meal's over?"

Gale and Kat gaped at Effie, who simply waited.

"About the Post," Katniss began to apologize.

"Don't." He shook his head. "It's my fault. It was too impulsive. You shouldn't have been put in that position. I should have waited to see how you felt . . ." Gale stared at her intently, wordlessly asking, but whatever emotion tripped across her face made him look sad. "That settles it, I guess. I can also guess why." He tried to smile. "He'd better deserve you."

Katniss's eyes stung. Her life could go on. She could snatch Gale, she could say yes to everything he asked of her, and they would enjoy one another. Gale would stay with her and she would have a good life. A happy life.

But it wouldn't be the life she wanted. He would never be Peeta.

Her sensible mind told her this was an unwise choice. The district would think her crazy for choosing spinsterhood over a flesh and blood suitor, but her heart told her that Gale was meant for someone else.

They drifted into awkwardness. She didn't know what to say other than, "Will you be all right?"

"As long as you'll be," he said.

"Well . . . enjoy your lunch with the Undersees. They're good people, especially Madge—um, Miss Undersee. She's always been nice to me."

Gale's expression warmed. "Yes. She's very nice." He hesitated, inclining his head and lowering his voice. "Are you under house arrest?"

"For a spell."

"And then afterward?"

Katniss's spirits lifted. "If we go, I'll need a companion. My guardian won't budge on that."

"Then I'll see you both in the forest."

She watched him leave. She'd wounded him today. But hope simmered that soon enough, they would be fine; they would find their way back to hunting, and it would no longer be in secret. Perhaps she would invite Johanna to the woods with them. Or Madge instead.

kpkpkpkpkp

By some miracle, Katniss made it back home in one emotional piece. Clouds sailed by the windows, heralding a spring rain possibly by nightfall. She could practically smell the sweet dampness of it.

Peeta would be home any moment. Where should they talk? Was there some neutral ground on which she could trust herself to think—and act—straight? It seemed that every part of this house had suffered the tension between them.

The study. Yes. A place of business, arranged with sturdy leather-bound spines and pages of knowledge, philosophy . . . and stories. Romances and, blast it all, poetry. Oh, well. It would suffice. They hadn't argued in the study yet; it held no strained memories sure to preoccupy them.

Unfortunately, it was occupied. By the unlit hearth, Mr. Mellark twisted in a wingback chair, poking his head around the frame and spotting her on the threshold. With a book resting in his lap, he swiped off his reading glasses and smiled. His stockings and slippers peeked from under the hems of his trousers, endearing him to her.

"I'm disturbing you," she said.

"Never, my dear. Come in."

"I was just waiting for Peeta."

"Still going at each other's throats, are you?"

He didn't know the half of it. They'd definitely been down one another's throats last night, except instead of with sharp words, it had been with their tongues.

Katniss ducked her head so that he wouldn't see the truth. She heard the book close and plop onto the side table. "As it is, my time here is done. It's been a long day, and I could use a rest," he announced, a languid stretch to his voice. "I'll leave you to settle your angst in private."

"What about your book?"

"The characters will still be quarreling when I get back." Mr. Mellark stood, crossed over, and took her hands in his. "I trust that reality won't mirror fiction?"

"I'm not good at talking," Katniss cautioned.

"You are when you're not being told what to say, how to behave, or what to feel. When you open your heart without thinking about it."

"That's also gotten me into trouble."

"True," he chuckled. "You'll both figure it out."

"Will we? Does it get easier to figure out what to say?"

His voice chimed with tenderness. "I saw it in him the very Christmas night you came knocking on our door. I know my son, and I know you. I know my Everlark. I was married once; I know those looks. To that end, I approve."

Katniss's mouth parted. He knew how she felt, yet the man was grinning. The thought made him happy.

Gently, he tugged on her braid and left her to the quiet. The very loud quiet. She stared at the carpet, taking stock of everyone who understood what she and Peeta hadn't, what had been clear to the world except them. She didn't like it. In fact, as dear as all these people were to her, she resented them knowing first, as if she'd lost some hold on what she and Peeta shared, some control over it, some say in what did and didn't happen between them.

This was their friendship, their feelings. Those things belonged to them. No one else.

Something long and fluffy bumped against her calf. Katniss glanced down at the ugliest cat known to man: Buttercup, Sae's pudgy feline. Usually, the tabby was hiding under tables, avoiding humanity and storing up each of its nine lives.

Now, it was raining. The shower pelted the windows, blurring the world outdoors, and for some reason, Buttercup was being nice to Katniss. And for some reason, Katniss wanted to be nice back. Maybe because the cat only materialized when Peeta was around, and it seemed anxious, its patience worn. It had an itch only the boy could scratch and wanted satisfaction in his absence.

Katniss sank to her knees and stroked Buttercup's orange girth. The cat whimpered for good measure, and Kat sighed. "You miss him? I know how you feel." She closed her eyes and whispered, "I love Peeta, too."

"Meow!" The cat slipped through her digits. "Meeeooow!"

Kat's eyes sprang open as she whirled, her gaze following a thrilled Buttercup as it shot across the carpet and wound itself around a pair of masculine legs. Her breath caught, her heart like a bruise in her chest. Kat couldn't look up, but she had to. She forced herself.

Peeta was standing there, watching her.

In his hand was a bouquet of wild flowers, the exposed roots telling her that he'd picked them on the way here. Though he'd clearly forgotten them the instant he entered, because they dangled loosely from his fingers, in danger of slipping to the floor. His stare went to the marrow of her bones, sending fissures streaking through her. A stack of excuses, the list of long enough to wallpaper the house, piled on her lips. It took the utmost restraint for her not to bolt from the room.

His expression couldn't have been more slack with shock. The euphoric kind, the very picture of disbelief and joy. If she didn't do something immediately, he was going to make her repeat herself—more than once.

She stumbled to her feet. "I meant—I only meant it in friendship," she sputtered. "I love you as a friend."

The effect was terrible, that brilliant smile rolling off him, disappearing. "You don't mean that," he said.

"I don't?"

"I mean—yes, you mean it, but . . . the kiss."

"You've kissed plenty of girls."

"It's not the same. They weren't you. Do you honestly think I would have pursued any of them, if I'd thought you would have ever kissed me back?"

"You weren't infatuated back then. You said so yourself. It didn't happen until you came back."

"Jesus, it's not infatuation. I told you: I've been feeling this way forever. I was unaware. If you'd said something, I would have snapped out of it. I know that."

Buttercup wasn't pleased about being ignored. The cat swiped Peeta's pant leg, hiked up its tail, and exited the room with a departing hiss.

Katniss was helpless to stop Peeta approaching her, capturing her cheek in his free hand, burning her with his touch. "I don't regret it," he said, searching her face. "Do you?"

"Yes."

"You're lying."

"This can't happen."

"Why, Kat?"

She shoved his chest. "Because I don't want it to! I don't want you that way! I realized that when I kissed you!"

That wrung a good and pained look from him. He turned, requesting a moment to process what he'd heard.

What she meant to say was, I don't want to want you that way. I don't want to love you. I don't want to hurt you. Yet who was she trying to fool?

And even if this didn't put their friendship at risk, she was a mess, just like Deliah had said. Katniss Everdeen may be his best friend, his family, and his partner-in-crime, but when it came to more, she was wasn't good enough for him. She would rather be alone than pretend she was.

Peeta kept his back to her. "You saw Gale today."

She didn't bother asking how he knew. Besides, he was drawing the wrong conclusion.

"I didn't choose him. But I can't choose you, either," she tried to explain, tried to swallow, tried not to cry, tried with everything she had to keep her distance from him. "It's just . . . Peeta, the more mistakes we make, the more confused I get."

They listened to the rain slapping the windows, little gray pellets sliding down the glass and splashing apart.

Peeta didn't turn back around. Carefully, he set the wildflowers—goldenrods—on top of the book his father had been reading. A scene where people had been fighting, probably over nothing but lies.

"Well, let me know when you figure things out," he said before walking away.

Chapter Text

Katniss lay on her side, blinking through tears at the goldenrods bunched together on the nightstand. The wildflowers that Peeta had left behind in the study after she'd broken him. Her mouth quivered, ready to spill over in a fresh round of sobbing, but she choked them back. She yearned for Peeta to come to her as he always had. She longed for that, then she didn't, then she did. These feelings were night and day, in constant rotation. Her heart just wouldn't let her be.

The memory of his face, the elation draining from it when she'd lied and told him she didn't want him. She'd seen nothing but that face ever since. Blast her. She was a fool. She'd had her chance, and like a coward, she threw it away.

Outside, the dawn arched to life with swatches of pink and orange unfurling over the treetops. It was a thirst-quenching sight, an hour for archers and animals. Kat wondered what Peeta thought of sunrises, since they'd only ever talked about sunsets. Did he enjoy the former as much?

Her thumb skimmed across the petals, then she withdrew her hand from the softness. She wiped her eyes with her knuckles, the place where he'd kissed her many times in greeting, affection, or play. She tried to wipe away those times as well, because it served her right. Losing Peeta was what she deserved. Letting him go, to find someone better, was what he deserved.

A sleepless night of self-reproach dragged on her shoulders, but she refused to lag and be useless. Kat hauled herself out of bed and started a new day, away from home, where she could do some actual good—after procuring Mr. Mellark's permission. She didn't like taking a carriage into the Seam, fancy as the vehicle was. She'd done so only once for a trip to the almshouse because she'd brought too many baskets of fare and clothing to carry alone. Peeta had joined her that day. He'd baked a dozen loaves of bread and driven the carriage himself.

This time, she walked, from the iron-gated townhouses of her neighborhood to the shops and markets of the merchant quarter, and then onto the woodland road. Armed with a basket of fruit, the fresh air lifted her spirits . . . until the air wasn't so fresh anymore. The grainy, windswept texture of coal swirled around her. Brittle cottages and shacks, some in need of new roofs or paint, lined wayward paths. The scent of sweat and root vegetable plots clashed, as did the sounds of trash being rifled through, neighbors bickering, and children roughhousing. She'd lived here once, had dug through those piles of refuse with Gale, had played—when Grisly Uncle Cray gave her a spare moment to play—with other peasants. She had survived here.

Yet she hadn't returned often, a mere handful of visits so far. As a child, there had been no reason to, not even to continue looking for Gale. Before the Mellarks took her in, the one time she braved his family's door in search of him, they also couldn't say where he'd gone. None of them had known that he'd been stuck in the coal mines at the time. Kat hadn't been close to his family, and they had their own troubles, so she hadn't dared to bother them after that. She had figured that if Gale came back, he would find her.

He hadn't. He'd escaped the mines but hadn't found her because by then, she'd been safe in a new home, after which she'd been too afraid to cross paths with Grisly Uncle Cray anyway. Not that the brute would have wanted her back, but his temper alone had scared her from setting foot in the Seam. As if Mr. Mellark would have even allowed her to risk it in the first place.

It was only after learning from Effie—who knew everything happening within this district—that Cray had drunk himself into an early grave last year, that Mr. Mellark permitted Kat to make charitable trips to the Seam. Yet during these trips, she'd never seen Gale. She hadn't sought out his family again to ask about him, too scared to hear that he'd become a ghost. Without knowing it, they'd been so close to each other. It would have been easy to run into one another here or in the merchant quarter, where he sold his game. But instead, fate reunited them in the forest.

Katniss hiked toward the orphanage. Unlike among elite society, she knew how to protect herself in this part of the district, how to behave, and the people welcomed her and her offerings. At the children's home, she passed out apricots and grapes to the boys and girls, then sang songs with them, delighting in their joyous faces.

Afterward, she paused outside the building and stared ahead. Maybe she could convince the Young Ladies Committee to make a joint trip here, on a regular basis. That was, if Deliah Cartwright didn't stick her nose up—

Katniss blinked. Was . . . was that . . .

"Deliah?" she blurted.

The girl froze at the sound of her name, her fingers gripping a half-open parasol. She'd been exiting a cottage, positively glowing until ensnared by Kat's voice. She wore a drab oatmeal frock and a plain bonnet, an ensemble the girl would never willingly choose for herself, but Kat knew that haughty stride anywhere. Deliah Cartwright. In the Seam.

She turned in Kat's direction, her eyes downcast for a moment before they lifted—and popped wide. The parasol snapped shut. Deliah whipped around and rushed toward a mule wagon that waited for her at the end of the sidewalk. Kat's gaze narrowed at the elderly driver passed out on his seat, his hat tipped over his eyes and his mouth split open. Why would Deliah hire such a ride?

"Wait!" Kat sprang into action, running across the road and catching Deliah by the elbow.

The girl hissed and pulled back. "Stop it. You'll make a scene!"

"Everything's a scene here," Kat said, gesturing around. The Seam possessed no shortage of distractions. A woman brandished a rolling pin out her window and shouted obscenities at a man leaving her building. A pair of hounds growled at each other, their fur bristling. A baby wailed from nowhere. Men lurched into coughing fits from illness. Street children howled with laughter. And now, Deliah.

Kat shook her head in disbelief. "What—"

"I'm doing nothing wrong. Just shh." Deliah hustled Kat into a ramshackle stable near the mule wagon, backed her against the wall, and aimed her parasol at Kat's chest. "Were you following me?"

"Don't flatter yourself."

"Well then, what? What do you want?"

"Want?"

"To keep your mouth shut," Deliah squawked. "What do you want?"

Kat knocked the parasol out of the way. "I'm not a snoop."

"And I'm not an idiot."

"I was visiting the orphanage."

"Oh, that's right. This is your old turf. Of course you'd feel free to come back whenever you felt like it, not a care in the world."

Katniss stared at her. She stared and saw something remarkable, something the girl struggled to hide, indeed a phenomenon: the veins thick at Deliah's temples, her chest short of breaths, her eyes glittering—not with anger, but with fear. Some conclusions were easy to pin down: No one knew Deliah was here in pseudo-disguise, and they weren't supposed to know. She'd been visiting someone, a person who made her happy based on her euphoric smile only moments ago.

Katniss remembered the secret Effie shared with her about Deliah's footman. The one she'd apparently done intimate things with. The scandal that Kat had announced so thoughtlessly in front of Gale, Finnick, and Peeta.

Deliah's color climbed so high it might actually fly off her face. "It's always easy for you, isn't it? To be accepted into our world, to be fearless, to break the rules and still be loved. How lucky for you."

"You're wrong. I'm not fearless," Katniss admitted, internally replaying her mistakes of the past weeks, including the way she'd humiliated Deliah. "I'm . . . I'm sorry about what I said on my birthday. It wasn't fair."

"No, it wasn't. Thomas is a good man."

"Thomas?"

Stricken, Deliah clamped her mouth shut. Abruptly, she turned away. Could Thomas be the footman? Had she come here to be with him?

"But . . ." Katniss hesitated. "I thought you liked Peeta."

Deliah scoffed. "Don't be silly. Peeta Mellark is young, handsome, eligible, kind, and a fine match. I've always liked him. What girl wouldn't? But I don't . . ." She whirled around, drew her shoulders back, and glared at Kat. "But he's not Thomas. And if you dare say anything about this, so help me, I'll—"

"I won't," Kat answered. "I won't do that."

"You did before."

"I know. I apologize."

"I won't let you ruin him."

And now, Kat understood. Deliah had fallen for her servant. She loved him.

She glowered at Katniss. And then, with an involuntary cry, she dropped her face into her free palm. Shocked, Katniss watched the girl fall apart and then right herself within seconds, giving Katniss no time to offer a handkerchief or ask if she was all right. It barely gave Katniss time to process her own wash of sympathy, nor her amazement. Here they were, up to their ankles in hay with horseflies bobbing around the stable, while Deliah Cartwright grudgingly wept in the presence of Katniss Everdeen.

"My family caught us and fired him," she said as the dam broke and flooded the stable. "I tried to stay away for his sake. I kept pursuing Peeta instead, to please my family. I didn't realize how far I'd taken things until the night of the symphony, when you reminded me of what I'd done not only to you, but to Mr. Hawthorne. The whole time, I should have chosen Thom instead of squandering my energy on Peeta—and on you. I'm sorry about the newspaper."

Katniss didn't know what to say. At all.

"Work is scarce, so Thom has been living with his family until he finds new employment. I needed to make amends and took a chance that he might be home." A tender smile quirked Deliah's lips before she recalled to whom she was speaking. She straightened her spine and swiped a fist across her cheek to clear the tears. "There. Now, you know. You win."

"There's no winner," Kat mumbled. She had offended Thomas the same way Deliah had done to Gale. Not to mention everyone else who'd felt the brunt of the girls' bickering over the years. For that alone, shame curdled inside Katniss's stomach.

After an awkward pause, she asked, "What will you do?"

Deliah deflated. "We'll find a way."

"If you ever need someone to listen—"

"I won't."

"Fine. But if you do ever need an ally—"

"I doubt that, especially you." Deliah's rolled her eyes toward the ground, then back up. "However if, in a moment of insanity or desperation or poor taste, I change my mind . . . If I need to talk . . ."

Katniss stifled an amused grin. "Okay."

"Right. So go ahead and serenade Peeta. He's all yours."

"I'm not intent on Peeta."

"Honestly Katniss, don't lie to yourself. Your nose will grow. Furthermore, stop insulting all my devious efforts by saying they were in vain, not when you were such fierce competition."

"Um . . . thank you?"

"Matter of fact, don't insult Peeta. Do you know what he said on the way to the symphony, right after I described, in precious detail, your kiss with Gale? He said he didn't blame Gale for wanting you. 'Loving her is natural,' Peeta said. 'Love and friendship—they grow together. They make each other real. At least, they do to me.'"

Kat's heart twirled in circles. "He said that?"

Deliah poked her again. "If you don't do something about it, I'll go back to hating you. It will hardly be a challenge."

Finnick, Johanna, Sae, Gale, Effie, Mr. Mellark. Everyone who mattered. Everyone had nudged her, had given their blessing. Everyone but herself. It hadn't been enough that they believed she was right for Peeta. She'd needed to believe it. And how could she, coming from the Seam, barely acting like a lady? It was one thing to be a friend to Peeta. It was another to be a sweetheart.

She wanted to deserve him. She had to believe that she did, more than anyone else, but why hadn't she? She'd made him happy all these years. Could any other girl do that? Had any other girl done that?

Of all the people to convince her . . . Deliah Cartwright. If a psychic had predicted this, Katniss would have belly-laughed in their face.

"I rejected him. He'll never speak to me again," she reminded herself.

Deliah waved that off. "He shouldn't have to speak to you. He's done enough of that, I'll wager. You have to speak to him."

"He won't listen, and I'm not the most skilled talker."

"Ugh, will you stop it for once? He's Peeta. He'll listen to you. You only need to entice him."

"I haven't an enticing bone in my body."

"True, but Peeta seems unaware of that. Fortunately for you, I have some experience with the opposite sex." Deliah surveyed Kat's figure from top to bottom. "Lead me to your closet."

kpkpkpkpkp

Katniss sat on her bed, traumatized by the sight of Deliah Cartwright huffing and puffing through the velvets, lustrings, brocades, cashmeres, linens, cottons, and satins of her wardrobe. The past ten minutes had felt like an hour. Kat winced each time the girl scrutinized a dress and flung it to the side. "No . . . Nope . . . Noooooo."

Once upon a time, Kat thought her taste had surpassed Deliah's fetish for pastels. And not for the first time, Kat second-guessed her decision to let her enemy—her former enemy—talk her into this. Their aesthetics couldn't be more opposite, and Deliah couldn't possibly know what Peeta would swoon over, and what good would a dress do when Kat had recently torn his heart out?

The stress of finding nothing that met with her approval turned the girl's glossy locks into a tracker jacker's nest. Then, at last: "Ooooh!"

An ooooh from Deliah. This couldn't be good.

She emerged from the depths, her face coiled into a manic expression of glee. She held up a gown of copper sarcenet. The long, fitted bodice melted into a skirt, which split down the middle at the knees, revealing a copper lace underlayer in a feather motif. It was delicate enough to be chaste but sheer enough to reveal bare ankles. Only two braided straps of material held up the entire thing, and the neckline ended in an arrowhead-shaped point, one that only a girl with minimal breasts could pull off without being vulgar.

To be fair, Effie had purchased the thin silk dress for Kat, declaring it a trailblazer of style. Despite her flawless reputation, her advanced years, and her three-time widowhood, Effie preferred fashion that made an extreme statement. Instead of dowager-approved bombazines, she preferred cloths and cuts with flair. She excelled in dominating a room.

Katniss was not her great aunt. She shot to her feet. "Pick something else."

Deliah grunted. "You may as well be Amish."

"Why are you helping me? I appreciate this, truly, but . . . why?"

"Thomas, of course. I know what that's like to want someone you never expected to, I owe you for keeping our secret, and perhaps I'd like to redeem myself. Let's leave it at that."

"Maybe talking to Peeta will be enough. I need to write a speech—"

"You won't get to that part if you don't get his attention first," Deliah said, shaking the hanger for emphasis.

"I know him better than you do."

"Do you know him when he has a broken heart?"

Kat bit her tongue. She didn't. In all their years, he'd never suffered a broken heart until her. He might ignore her, he might glare at her, he might . . . who knew? But what if her change of heart confused him and made things worse? What if a dress and speech did little to impress him? Was this really her? What other choice did she have? Her own impulses hadn't served either of them well thus far. Besides, Peeta deserved to be wooed.

And upon closer inspection, the gown was rather lovely. The arrowhead-shaped neckline. The feather motif. The woodland color. If she was going to humble herself, she'd best do it in something attractive, to show Peeta that he was worth every effort. Tonight, they both would attend a ball at the residence of Caesar Flickerman. The gown suited the occasion, but it wasn't a seduction, she told herself. It was a declaration.

kpkpkpkpkp

An hour later, Kat summoned additional reinforcement. She, Deliah, and Johanna gathered in front of Kat's upright mirror, inspecting the copper gown brushing her curves. Sunrise and sunset. Half of her hair was braided at the sides and harnessed by a simple clip, with the rest swaying down her back. Compared to Deliah's fondant-yellow confection of a dress, which she'd had delivered here, and Jo's navy silk, Katniss stood out like a sore thumb. She'd never worn anything this bold before.

"This is a dumb idea," Kat said.

"I second that," Johanna said. "Katniss, his bedroom door is twenty paces away—use it."

"No," Deliah protested. "This is a grand gesture. It's romantic."

"Caesar Flickerman's ball? Are you serious?"

"There will be fireworks. She can whisk him away during the spectacle, when no one will see them. She can declare herself in the garden, under the lights."

"A party isn't the time or place. Especially not when they live in the same damn house. They have privacy right here," Johanna persisted, then addressed Katniss. "Go down the hall like a normal person, knock on his door, and just tell him how you feel."

"How booooring," Deliah said, aghast.

"What's she doing here?" Jo asked, motioning to Deliah. "Since when did you two become allies?"

"It doesn't matter," Kat said. "I'm going to throw up."

She didn't, but as they left the room and halted at the foyer downstairs, she was tempted to use the excuse yet again. The masculine voices of Peeta, Finnick, and Mr. Mellark drifted to her from the entrance. Her guardian wasn't attending the evening's festivities, but the two young men were. She peeked around the corner and saw a dark gray jacket wrapped around Peeta's broad back, his blond curls sweeping the collar.

Katniss reared backward into the shadows. "I-I can't."

"Good," Jo said.

"No. Not good." Deliah snatched Kat by the wrist. "You look ravishing and so do I, and I'm fed up with your wishy-washy nonsense. Let's go."

Kat's sweaty palm latched onto the nearest doorknob. "I'll fail."

"You've faced this entire district before."

"This isn't the district. This is Peeta."

"And you're Katniss Everdeen." She pointed ahead. "March."

"But what if I—"

Deliah gave her a tame but effective shove. Finnick and Mr. Mellark looked up as Kat stumbled into the hall. Only their shocked expressions saved her from faltering into a tall vase of primroses. She straightened, clearing her throat. Peeta glanced over his shoulder quickly before moving to turn back around.

He stopped. His gaze snapped up to take a second look. She watched him spin toward her fully, his expression ballooning from surprise to awe. Aside from the slight parting of his lips, she wasn't certain whether he was even breathing. Those dumbstruck eyes traveled the length of her.

But it wasn't the gown that affected him most. It was the pearl. When he noticed the pendant at her throat—a past gift from him, a present from one best friend to the other, and the only piece of jewelry she wore—the skin between his brows crinkled. His irises dulled before he flinched away.

Pain. That's what she'd just seen.

Finnick whistled. "Well, aren't you a shiny little good-luck penny."

Beaming, Mr. Mellark came forward and pressed a kiss to her forehead. "My girl, you are as radiant as the sun."

"We're late," Peeta said, his words strained as he pinched his sleeves.

"Fashionably so," Deliah corrected, stepping into the foyer with Johanna.

The men startled at Deliah's presence. Their faces shifted between her and Katniss, but because Kat was too busy agonizing over other things, Deliah wiggled her fingers in the air, explaining that they'd reached a truce. Understandably, it took a while for that concept to sink in.

After Mr. Mellark made them all promise that they would behave themselves, Peeta strode past Katniss and offered his arm to Jo. It hurt, but Kat knew why he'd done it. After everything that had happened, Jo was the least complicated partner between the three girls, which left Finnick to escort Deliah and Kat to the coach.

Deliah gave Kat an encouraging nod, to which Kat forced a smile. Caesar Flickerman's home wasn't her first choice of location, but it would have to do. If she didn't seize the perfect moment tonight and sweep Peeta off his feet, he would believe she'd worn the pearl to echo what she'd claimed in the study, to labor the point that they were only friends. She needed to see this plan through, to find a spot in starlight and reveal her heart.

They squeezed into the coach. Finnick chattered during the whole trip through town, essentially holding court with himself since no one else was in the mood to participate. Peeta stared out the window, the muscles of his profile set in a concentrated manner that Kat knew: He was mentally reciting his favorite rye bread recipe. He did this whenever he needed to distract himself.

She perched across from him. Each time the coach rocked, their calves bumped.

Beside her, Deliah kicked her ankle and mouthed, Say something. However, the only thing Kat wanted to say, she couldn't divulge in a cramped coach. For reassurance, she dipped her fingers into the reticule on her lap, feeling the folded paper that she'd tucked inside there earlier. The speech she'd written.

Caesar Flickerman's townhouse appeared, blooming with candlelight. The dandy had a reputation as a gossipmonger and the proud owner of the most eclectically decorated home in the district. Parrot-printed wallpaper, gilded furniture, self-portraits, and lots of blue. Blue in the guestrooms, blue rugs, blue cushions.

Snubbing the traditional expectations of a large, stuffy ballroom, the festivities took place in the garden, adorned with lilacs and bluebells, cockatoos in cages, and a wind quintet. A banquet table yielded wine and tarts, turtle soup, lobster tails, and a roasted pig with an apple lodged in its mouth.

Once they arrived, Peeta tipped his chin at the females of their group. "You all look very—" his eyes held Katniss's "—beautiful."

She watched him walk away, halting here and there to greet friends, finally joining a group of men who'd called out for him. And the women . . . their gazes followed him, too.

Finnick sighed. "I'll keep an eye on him."

Jo's expression was sympathetic, Deliah's frustrated. They didn't leave Kat's side, although she secretly wished they would. She wanted to be alone with Peeta. She wanted to stomp over to him, grab him, and kiss him crazy. Rather, she let herself be sucked into random discussions, from one group to the next, and urged into dances on the lawn. Caesar Flickerman pestered people for honeyed tidbits of scandal and ordered around his son, Percy, who jumped out of his coattails with every snap of his father's fingers. Marvel St. Marvel caught sight of Katniss, his lips peeling back into an amorous leer.

The only consolation was the image of Gale and Madge, engrossed in conversation with her father. Gale spotted Kat and waved, easing some of her tension—at least until a flaxen-haired debutante approached Peeta with big fat hearts in her eyes. He chuckled at something she said, so that to anyone watching, they were flirting. Anxiety skittered through Kat's chest. She doubted that she would last until the fireworks at midnight.

The supper bell chimed. Guests piled their plates and navigated the assigned seating of a dozen tables scattered throughout the garden. Not surprising, the candidates with the most rumors circling around them earned a prime invitation at Flickerman's table. Gale and Madge conversed in low tones, their heads bent toward one another. Deliah ignored the ramblings of Marvel St. Marvel, guzzling her wine in order to spare herself from having to respond to him. And Mr. Haymitch Abernathy lay passed out in his seat.

The atmosphere reeked of rich sauces and overripe flowers. The chairs were made of wrought iron, unyielding and uncomfortable.

"Mellark!" Flickerman's massive teeth shouted at Peeta, startling his guests from their own exchanges. "I have an itch to be meddlesome, Young Mellark. Entertain our curiosity and tell us what you and Odair have been up to since returning from your trip."

"Wreaking local havoc, of course," Finnick joked.

"Elaborate, if you please."

"We don't have enough courses for that."

"Besides, there are ladies present," Marvel St. Marvel added, a hypocritical objection when Kat recalled his desperate advances weeks ago, on the night that Peeta came home.

"Ahh," Flickerman said, extending his pinky. "Now, that's a subject of intrigue. Ladies and bachelors. Indulge me, gentlemen."

"I'll make it easy for you. I'm spoken for," Finnick said.

"Indeed, we've all heard about Miss Cresta and your intentions, et cetera, et cetera. And you, Mellark? Any special attachments yet?"

Beneath her lashes, Katniss chanced a glimpse of Peeta. He focused on chewing and then swallowed before answering. "Not particularly."

"I don't believe it," Flickerman booed. "Look at that face—a handsome, well-born man like you."

"This is impertinent dinner conversation. Love is a personal matter," Madge interjected, casting her eyes at Gale.

Flickerman looked genuinely perplexed. "Miss Undersee, why would I give a hoot about love?"

"Agreed," mocked Finnick. "This is about a completely different matter: the market of convenience. Wedlock based on a prosperous engagement and a rational union. That's the pudding to fatten your futures with." He tapped Peeta on the arm. "Pay attention, oh young, hungry one."

Johanna rolled her eyes. "He doesn't need that kind of advice, brainless."

"Why not?" Peeta asked. "It makes sense to me."

"Actually, I was . . . joking," Finnick drew out, puzzled.

"I'm not. Maybe it's better when the heart is practical. Maybe love is a daydream. It keeps us from seeing what's real and not real."

Katniss's head swung up. The clinking of silverware and crystal ceased as every guest frowned at Peeta. Rascal aside, he was a gentleman, a charmer, and sensitive by nature. Many of the guests might describe love that way, but he never would.

"Maybe you haven't been schooled by the right females," said the debutante beside him, the pretty one he'd been bantering with for most of the evening. Her fingers slid across the white tablecloth, intending settle on his forearm.

A bold gesture. In fact, aside from Deliah, the only other girl here with that kind of public nerve was . . .

Kat's arm whipped across the table's width. Her hand slapped the surface, landing in the open space between the girl's venturing digits and Peeta's arm, the force of it causing everyone's plates to dance and a gentleman to spit out his drink. The girl lurched back, her fingers curled, her jaw unhinged. A servant, who'd been watching the scene, walked blindly into the banquet table and nearly tipped the whole thing over. From her seat, Deliah covered both eyes and shook her head in misery. Even Mr. Abernathy had awoken from his slumber to properly hiccup and witness the drama.

A horrible pause followed. Peeta gaped at Kat, his features hardening into confusion.

Burning with remorse, she retracted her arm and met his gaze. "I didn't mean to—"

"You never do," he said. "You don't mean to do a thousand things, but you do them anyway."

"I haven't changed for the worse. Neither have you, so stop acting like it."

"I'm not the one acting, Katniss. I'm done acting with you, I'm done trying to understand you, and I'm done lying to myself. I'm done hiding what I want, wanting what I can't have, and believing it's worth a try. I'm done hoping."

"Don't say that."

He leaned forward, his voice rising. "Isn't this what you wanted? For me to give up? To offer only friendship? Why does it bother you now?"

She felt herself flush. "Because . . . because everyone says . . . you love me."

"And did you ever love me? As more than a friend, even once? One moment? Or was each time too flawed and complicated for you?"

A flock of heads banked between her and Peeta. She grappled for a response, hating to do this here, in front of prying eyes. At her silence, he gulped. "That's what I thought."

"It wasn't meant to happen this way. That's not how I feel. I mean—"

"Naturally. I'm mistaken. You don't know yourself well enough to know what you feel. You kiss a man, then you push him away, and then you keep him from moving on."

"There's a reason."

Peeta surged to his feet. "I don't need a reason. I don't need games. I need you to let me go!"

Katniss stood. "I can't."

"Why?"

"Because yes! I love you, too!"

A collective gasp resounded through the tables. Katniss felt everyone gawking, disregarding the sudden ignition of sound, the peripheral flash of brightness overhead, the sparks flying. Peeta stared at her, and she stared back, and then there was no one else. Just them. Yet she heard it, saw it in the reflections of his eyes. A chaos of stars bursting across the sky. Fireworks.

Chapter Text

The first thing Kat did was clamp a hand over her mouth. Had she really just said that?

The second thing she did was pry her eyes from Peeta and let her gaze drag across the dozen garden tables, a district's worth of astonished guests on tenterhooks. Madge blinked at the scene while Gale sent Kat a wistful, almost sympathetic look. Finnick reclined in his chair and gleefully chewed on a sugar cube. Jo cringed, and Deliah peeked through her fingers. Mouth agog, Caesar Flickerman leaned forward in his seat and gripped the tablecloth, mentally transcribing the events and storing them away for tomorrow's gossip page.

Peeta's expression wavered between wonder and caution. The delicate creases between his brows and his crimson skin roused a memory. The night they met, his boyish face as she sang, and him hiding behind his father's leg while listening. He resembled that boy so much now. Yes, Katniss had definitely said what she thought she'd said—impulsively, sloppily.

Peeta read her mind. His eyes flashed, and he braced himself, preparing for a chase. Because the third thing she did was run.

Grabbing her reticule, she broke the trance and bolted past the tables, the faces, and the pretentious landscaping. As the sky exploded, raining color onto the garden, she ignored Peeta's call and fled. A cockatoo squawked at her, and gravel crunched beneath her feet, the abrasive sounds overwhelmed by the crack and whistle of fireworks. She and Peeta had chased one another enough times over the years that she knew his footfalls, could anticipate his lack of speed boosted by his frustrating ability to predict which way she'd head.

Kat smacked the veranda doors apart and barreled through the very blue decor of Flickerman's townhouse, hopping over an ottoman immortalized with Caesar's laughing face on it. A maid squeaked and bounded out of her way, frogleaping onto a couch. A placid butler stood in the parlor, calmly holding open the door for Kat, her shawl already waiting on his arm, as though all women regularly left the dandy's house in a blind panic.

She snatched the shawl from the butler's hand. "Thank you!" she called on her way past him, ignoring the family coach and making a break for the sidewalk instead. That would throw Peeta off. Surely, he wouldn't expect her to rush home on foot.

Lamplights pumped orange onto the street. Horses whinnied and trotted over cobblestones. Kat's lungs burned, sweat racing up her neck and arms. If she went home, he'd only pursue her there.

She changed direction and veered onto a different street, remembering another place she could hide. A few more turns later, she checked over her shoulder, relieved to find him nowhere in sight. She disappeared into the old alleyway and stopped at the dead end. Flattening her palm over her stomach, Kat bent over and wheezed.

I told him. In front of everyone.

No romantic setting or privacy. Bother, she'd even forgotten her speech. This night had been a disaster. Again.

Recovered at last, she straightened and kicked a stone. "Shit."

"Katniss."

Yelping, she twisted around. Peeta stepped into the alley, his blond curls half-lit from the sidewalk, half-darkened by the narrow passage. His chest heaved, impressively so. When they used to play, he'd never caught her this quickly.

He approached with caution, blocking her retreat. There was no chance of her slipping by that strong body.

"Even for you . . . this is . . . pretty extreme," he said in between gasps.

"How did you know where to find me?" she asked.

"I . . . didn't."

"But I thought I'd lost you."

"You . . . almost did. I just guessed. Or I . . . remembered."

"We've been here before."

Wintertime. A little girl singing on his doorstep for coin. The little boy following her afterward, finding her huddled in this alleyway, cold and hungry and crying. The little boy who gave her bread and offered her a home. The little girl who kissed his cheek. The stars had been bright and big that night, arranged into a dandelion.

Peeta took another step. "Did you mean it?"

She spun toward the dead end, putting her back to him, and held up her hand. "I need a moment."

"Katniss, don't—"

"Please. Give me a moment. My heartbeat needs to calm down, but my corset is too tight."

Free of his probing gaze, Kat regained her bearings. This wasn't how she'd envisioned things going, but surprise, surprise.

She could do this. For both of them, she could do anything.

Did you mean it? In the study, she'd said she loved him—as a friend. He wanted to know if she meant it differently this time. His expectant tone told her that he knew the answer, but he wanted to hear her say it. She couldn't have spouted the words in public, in such disarray, if it hadn't meant something more than friends.

Resolve finally steadied her, though her palms still perspired. No more running. It was now or never. She dug through her reticule and withdrew the sheet of paper. It shook in her fingers, but she couldn't bring herself to care anymore. Slowly, she turned to face him.

Bewilderment crossed Peeta's face, but when he began to speak, she cut him off. "Don't say anything," she pleaded. "Not until I've finished. All right?"

"All right," he whispered.

"Okay," she said to herself, unfolding the wrinkled mess of paper. Awkwardly, she rubbed it against her thigh to smooth it out as best she could, then cleared her throat. "Dear Peeta—no, sorry, I scratched that out. Um . . . D-dearest Peeta." With fresh embarrassment, she chanced a glimpse at him. He just watched her, confused but patient. "I've brought you here, to this romantic place, for romantic reasons. You'll notice the flowers and fireworks are most suitable for this moment—" Katniss glanced up. "Actually, we were supposed to be . . . never mind. Uh . . . I have a series of confessions to make and sentiments to lavish, with the hopes of revealing my heart and stirring yours. My goal is to succeed where no other girl in Peeta History has, but be aware that these budding compliments are in no particular order: One, your eyes fill my dreams, like an endless ocean. Two, your hair reminds me of a summer wheat field. Three, your smile is sweeter than my favorite frosting, sugary and . . ." Katniss drew her brows together. " . . . smooth."

Peeta's lips twitched. Maybe she should have let Jo and Deliah critique the speech first.

Kat persevered, buoying herself to be one with the prose. "Four, you're an essential best friend whom I . . ."

Her gaze strayed to the ground. She let her arm drop, the paper limp in her fingers, plagued by the empty nonsense written there. She closed her eyes and felt every shred of this act fade, so that other things filled her mind. That long-ago night, the years afterward, every moment he held her, squeezed her hand, laughed with her, believed in her. All the little things about him, about them, so painfully beautiful, the bits and pieces of them gathering in her throat.

You are most real when you don't perform. Just tell him.

Katniss shoved the paper back into her reticule and looked at him. "I've never known anyone like you," she began. "You gave me hope that night, when you found me here. You reminded me that kind people still existed, that life could be good again. You showed what it meant to have a family, what it meant to be a friend. I've been at my worst and stupidest with you, but also my best, and every time I think I've felt everything there is to feel, you prove me wrong. You are the boy who fed me once, who gave me a music box and a pearl and a bow, who doesn't mind getting into trouble with me.

"You know I like raisin bread and plum jam and lamb stew, and that I hate board games, but that I'll race you any day—and win. I love spending my nights with you, because no one else's arms could ever make me feel safer. I love our jokes and every highhanded rule we've broken together. I love how I can always smell flour on your hands, even when you've washed them. I love when you touch me—that one time, three years ago, when you ran your fingers down my braid? Yes, I noticed that. I pretended that I didn't, but I couldn't stop thinking about it, and I didn't understand why at the time. But now I do. It's all you.

"I'm jealous of every girl you've ever kissed. I'm angry at myself for being blind and then lying to you about my feelings. I was afraid of ruining what we had, of not knowing what to say, because you're Peeta. Everything I say to you comes out wrong, because you know how I overthink. I tried so hard to get it right for once, in this dumb speech." Katniss wiggled her bag, jostling the paper inside. "But for the record, I don't think your eyes are like the ocean—I don't know why I wrote that. I mean, the ocean is harsh and murky, and that's not you. And a wheat field in summer? Wheat fields are brittle and coarse, and that's not your hair at all. Don't get me started on the frosting bit, because not everybody can be as skilled with words as you. Anyway, I don't care what you look like.

"What I meant to say . . . what I mean to say . . . is that I see you." And then she started to cry. "I've seen you my whole life. You're a painter. You're a baker. You like to sleep with the windows open. You never take sugar in your tea. And you always double-knot your shoelaces. You're my best friend. You're my biggest fear and my happiest moment. You're my heart. You're mine. I'm yours. And . . . I'm in love with you," Kat blubbered. "I love you up and down. I love every kind, selfless, annoying, stubborn, honest thing about you. I love you, Peeta."

One distant firework broke through. Peeta stared at her, a tender expression blooming on his face, his hands deep in his pockets.

"Well, you wanted to hear the truth," she said with a defensive sniffle. "You're the wordsmith. Are you just going to stand there? Don't you have anything to say?"

Gently, he nodded. "Always."

"Then say it."

"I just did."

"What on earth does that . . . ?"

Katniss startled. She remembered the weekend they had spent together, when everything was briefly right between them, when they stargazed on the roof. He'd carried her to bed and tucked her in, and she'd mumbled something. Yes, she . . . she had asked him to stay.

His response had been one word, though she hadn't comprehended it at the time.

Always.

She fought back a smile. "You said that to me once, as I fell asleep."

He gave her a small grin. "It was a promise. I wanted you to know where I stand, no matter how you feel. I wanted to let you know that I'll never leave you. And now that you have me—"

"—what are you going to do with me?" she finished.

"Love you," he answered. "Like I always have."

"Except with more kissing."

"Get over here and find out."

She sprang toward him. He met her halfway, opening his arms for her, and she hurled herself into them—into that kiss. He grabbed the back of her head, his mouth swooping down to meet hers, warm and pliant and urgent. Kat made a soft noise from the back of her throat as her lips tilted, molded, and opened beneath his. The embrace was joyous and shaky and so very theirs. Peeta pried her apart, his wine-laced breath entering her mouth just before his tongue did, probing and finding her. Her head fogged, lost to everything but him and them and this. She balanced on her toes, clasped the nape of his neck, and pressed herself harder against him.

With a sigh, Peeta responded. He shoved his fingers into her hair, crushing their lips together. His tongue moved overs her with such abandon that parts of Kat's body tightened in frustration while other places melted in pleasure. When he lifted his head, she decided that she'd never seen anything more precious. Peeta was a delighted mess: his eyes dancing, his skin flushed, and his mouth slightly puckered.

They held on. They gathered one another close, rested their foreheads together, and grinned like utter fools.

"Marry me," they both said and then giggled.

Peeta grabbed Kat's waist and hoisted her off the ground. He planted little pecks all over her face while she laughed and laughed.

kpkpkpkpkp

They detoured through town, strolling down random streets, too wrapped up in each other to bother with the hour or anyone who might see them. There was nothing to hide anymore. They offered explanations for things they'd said and done, swapped confessions about what they'd each been feeling, assuming, misunderstanding, and hoping ever since Peeta came home—and even before that—trying to figure out when one had actually fallen in love with the other. To speak this candidly was pure bliss.

Yet the longer and freer they talked, the more it hit Kat that their intimacies would become something else. They'd kissed, but there was more to it than that. There were new touches, other types of kisses, hours that would involve less clothing and images that she'd only fantasized about in the past. The prospect made heat swirl in her stomach, tingles of anticipation darting up her fingers. Already, she wanted more with him.

Oblivious to the direction her thoughts had taken, Peeta's hand wandered to her hips, up and down her arm, through her hair. She encircled his waist, draping her cheek on his chest, dreading the end of the night when she'd have to let go. He kissed the top of her head as if to reassure her.

It was late by the time they got home. Peeta walked her to her bedroom door, where they lingered, prolonging the moment. He cupped her face with his palms and kissed her, this time chaste and with an aching tenderness that filled Kat's heart.

They'd slept in the same bed countless times before. But on this night, when the world had changed, she knew what he would do. Or preciously, what he wouldn't do.

"Good night," he whispered, nuzzling her nose with his own.

"Good night," she said. "And I love you."

An elated sound fell from his lips. "I love you always."

Don't go. Stay with me.

Typical, he would tease. She wanted to have her cake and eat it, too. However, she didn't know how to express that, and it wouldn't be very romantic to compare her passions to pastries. Besides, she'd said enough tonight. She could pace herself, couldn't she?

After he disappeared into his room, she floated into hers. Slipping into her nightgown and sinking into the pillows, she basked in the recollection of their alley kiss, more enduring than their first at the theatre, but no less true. She expected to drift off, but instead her feet rustled around beneath the quilt. The curtains billowed, teased by the spring breeze pushing through. Kat traced her lips, feeling restless and giddy.

I'm engaged to Peeta. I miss him.

She scrambled out of bed and crept back into the hall. Easing the door closed behind her, she turned toward his room and stopped. Peeta had just shut his own door and was swinging in her direction as well. They paused mid-step. They blinked and chuckled sheepishly, the carpet failing to muffle the noise. Peeta pressed a hushing finger to his lips. Mr. Mellark's suite was in the rear wing of the same floor, and he usually slept like a bull, but occasionally he stayed up reading.

Kat lowered her voice, cupping her hand beside her mouth. "I couldn't sleep."

"Neither could I," Peeta said. "I'm just too happy."

He did look happy, glowing in the dim light of the gas scones. And handsome in his robe, split open to reveal sleep pants and a long shirt, the thin material outlining a solid body beneath. His mussed hair suggested that he'd been tossing and turning, inspiring certain visions: other ways that she could make him toss and turn.

Face blazing, she asked, "What now?"

Peeta clasped his sly hands behind his back. "Why don't you come a little closer first?"

"Why don't you?"

They stared at each other. Together.

They approached, step by cautious step. Her overly-sensitive skin prickled from the mere graze of her nightgown against her legs. Peeta's gaze strayed to the cream fabric, sheerer than anything she'd ever worn in his presence, her curves and bare breasts shadowing through. His eyes smoldered, making Kat's pulse drum.

They reached one another. Peeta palmed her waist and dipped his head, his lips questing feverishly close but not making contact.

"You never answered the question in the alley," she said, her breath hitching. "What are you going to do with me?"

"Everything," he said in a husky voice. "I just want to spend every moment of the rest of my life with you."

She found her courage. "Come on, then."

Taking his hand, she guided him into her room, the walls and floors cradled in a silvery blue from the night sky. Kat made a production of closing and locking the door, fighting to get her . . . well, enthusiasm, under control. His intakes of air drew her back to him. Their fingers brushed as they shuffled nearer, their footfalls creaking the wood, a sudden tension consuming the space between them. She sensed the bashfulness in them both.

Peeta's thumb landed on her chin, stroking there. "Kat, we don't have to. We can wait."

She shook her head. "We have waited."

For years, they'd waited. They may not have been a pair of lovers yet, but they'd been never been closer to anybody else. They'd been best friends, family. No one knew or trusted her better, nor him. She loved, and she was loved, and she was ready.

The shyness ebbed. Now that she'd bared her soul, Kat found that she couldn't stop, that she liked it. "I want this, Peeta. I want to know how your body feels. I want to know what it's like to have you . . . inside me."

His eyes fell shut, a thousand golden lashes landing on his face. "This isn't happening. This has to be another fucking dream."

"I want you," she said, sliding off his robe and dropping it to the floor with a faint thud. "Do you want me?"

"More than anything."

"Then be with me."

He pulled back and gazed down at her, studying her face for doubts. Instead, she let him see what was real. No doubts, only yearning.

Once he did, Peeta began to unbutton his shirt, offering himself while she watched, the splayed muscles of his chest expanding and contracting. The shirt fell atop the robe. He shuddered when her hands explored the planes of skin, broad and smooth, from his abdomen to his shoulders, but that was nothing compared to his gravely moan when she wound herself around him, sunk her fingers into his curls, and brought her lips to his neck. His head slumped back as she placed open-mouthed kisses along the column of skin, tasting the salt and sweet of his pulse, her confidence building from the way he gripped the sides of her nightgown.

One strong arm enveloped her, while Peeta's free palm craned her face to meet his in a passionate kiss. Kat keened into his mouth. She matched the strokes of his lips, entwining her tongue with his own, angling herself to take him in fully.

His hands skimmed down. Suddenly, she was being lifted and carried across the room, her limbs hooked around his waist.

Peeta unfolded her onto the bed, their mouths still attached, his body covering hers. Her hem rode up to expose her thighs as he shifted between them, his pants rubbing the inner length of her skin. To experience the span of him above her was foreign and thrilling. Wonderful.

Planting a kiss on her mouth, Peeta drew back. They read one another well. Their fingers joined at the straps of her nightgown and glided it down her body, down her hips, down her calves. She didn't see where it ended up. All she concentrated on was the spellbound expression on Peeta's face as he saw her breasts, her naked body, for the first time. She shivered under the exquisite weight of his stare.

"You are the loveliest sight I've ever seen," he rasped.

"Let me see you, too," she said. "Please."

"I don't have the means to protect us."

"We don't need that. I'm going to marry you."

Peeta grinned, sweeping a lock of hair from her cheek. "I'm going to marry you, too."

"I want it all."

"Then talk to me. Tell me what pleases you."

Kat kissed his chin. "I will."

They peeled off his sleep pants and tossed them aside. Kat lost her voice. He was stunning, painted in starlight, desire hardening each part of him.

One part in particular, which she dared to touch, amazed to witness that desire grow. His jaw slackened. His pupils dilated. He sucked air through his parted lips and made inarticulate noises.

They kicked at the quilt and threw it over their heads, encasing themselves in a cave of heated gasps and movement. They spent the hour rolling about the bed, feeling, tasting, learning, and teaching, from tentative caresses to curious ones, from giggles to moans. His lips in the crook of her neck. Her foot rubbing the hairs of his leg. Her chest jutting into his. Her nails down his spine.

He laced their fingers on either side of her, his head bowing to her breasts, drawing each into his mouth, one after the other, until she began to writhe. She stroked him until he panted her name. Until it was just too much.

Peeta nestled between her thighs while her legs linked around his backside. Kat's back arched off the mattress, shoving her breasts up against his torso, her bare body straining toward his. His hardness found her, and he remained poised there, his heartbeat thrashing against hers.

Their mouths fell open as he flexed his hips forward, slipping inside her, a fraction at a time. Push and retreat, shallow and patient. It took a while for the pain to subside, dulling into something of a flaming pleasure. Peeta murmured to her until she relaxed and dissolved with him. When she did, their waists took on a lovingly gentle rhythm, their deep cries matching the circle of his hips.

"Oh," Peeta sputtered. "Kat, are you . . ."

"Yes," she said, thick and rapturous. "I feel it, Peeta."

"I feel it, too."

They didn't last long, but they made the most of it. He raised himself on his flattened palms, gazing down at her while their bodies rocked back and forth. Kat clung to his shoulder blades, on the verge of a shout, seized by an onslaught of sensation. He slanted himself and pitched once more into her, then tensed, following her into oblivion. His lips dove in and quickly swallowed their sounds.

They collapsed into tired kisses, dozed through the night and into morning, as the birds sang outside and sunrise spread across the bed. The first time had been swift and left Kat sore and wincing, but the second time was better. Much better.

Afterward, Peeta lifted his head from the slope of her neck. Exhausted, they caught their breaths, a naked tangle of limbs and arms. The quilt had formed a tent above them.

Katniss swiped a lock of damp hair off his forehead. "We're good at this."

Their chuckles skipped through the bedroom as they fell into a long, mirthful kiss.

Which was promptly caught off by the sound of Mr. Mellark banging on the door. "Everlark!"

Chapter Text

Epilogue

Christmas Eve, 1850

Katniss Everdeen-Mellark was singing. The sun had begun to sink behind the rooftops in the distance, a canvas of orange and pink, a rare view in wintertime. Standing at the balcony of hers and Peeta's suite, she thought of things to come: music boxes, meadows, and hopefully a dandelion-shaped constellation.

The baked cinnamon scent of raisin bread curled from the first floor window. Soon, she'd be called in for a holiday supper.

Not yet, though. With a smile, Kat smoothed her hands over her velvet frock. The texture was soft and comforting as she rubbed the swell of her stomach, cradling the new shape her body had taken, like a deep, protective cave. For an instant, she'd stopped singing in order to marvel at it. When she felt a tiny kick, as if demanding that she continue the song, she chuckled.

She started up the tune again, the lyrics unfurling in a soothing, patient cadence. She hadn't sung this song in years, not since another Christmas night when Mr. Mellark and his son had requested it of her, as she'd shivered on their doorstep. It had brought her to this house, to this moment, and she was grateful.

A pair of sturdy arms sneaked around her from behind. As usual, she smelled flour on his hands, even though he'd cleaned them.

Peeta whispered, "I love that song."

Kat snuggled into him. "I love a lot of things right now."

Settling his chin on her shoulder, he laced his fingers with hers over the bump they'd made together. "How is she?"

Katniss angled her head, furnishing her husband with a quizzical look. "What makes you think it's a girl?"

"Because I'm always right. I have a gift for predictions."

A month after his father caught them together and gave them a sound lecture, in which he struggled to remain gruff despite his blushing—then cried and hugged them both when they gave him their news—they'd had a private toasting. Only a teary Mr. Mellark, a beaming Effie, and an indifferent Buttercup were in attendance. Kat choose her favorite color, a pine green gown, simple but elegant, swirling around her feet like a filmy scarf, and she carried wildflowers from the woods. Peeta wore a dark suit and a perpetual smile. He was so engrossed in staring at Kat that he burned his bread.

Effie gifted them with a locket, to be shared between them, as they did all things. Mr. Mellark's present was a custom-bound book, in which Peeta could draw and Kat could write. They decided it would be a memory book about the people, plants, and constellations that mattered to them.

That evening, friends and neighbors—from the merchant quarter and the Seam—arrived to celebrate. They served game from Kat and Gale's hunt, and a cake from the Mellark family bakery. Everyone danced and hooted and clapped, and ended up bouncing in a long line throughout the house, with Finnick at the head of it. At some point, Kat and Peeta sneaked out to the roof to stargaze.

They had grown up in this house, so rather than finding their own property, they remained here with Mr. Mellark. But because he had forbidden them to spend a single night together until they were married, Kat and Peeta were antsy and rather energetic. In a honeymoon cottage in the countryside, they had jumped on each other, unable to sate themselves for the following three days. Although they'd finally come up for air, enough to take a carriage ride back to Kat's beloved forest and set a picnic beside their lake, they'd lasted about ten minutes before hands and lips met.

In his arms, as they moved together, she'd had an unexpected feeling, a peculiar sense of déjà vu, that they'd done this before, in some other time—only in the water instead of at its edge. She felt as though they'd lived many different stories, worn many different guises, but that they were always, always themselves at heart.

In the afterglow, Kat challenged Peeta, "Race you naked to the water!"

"In your condition?" he teased.

"What condition? I'm hardly fragile. You can try to best me any way you want."

"I'd take you up on that, if . . ."

"If?" she nudged.

With a goofy grin, he shrugged. "If it weren't for the baby."

Predictions, indeed. According to Peeta, it had happened by the lake. Kat liked to believe it did. In fact, she had believed it immediately, a flash of fear shadowing her surprise. Would she be a good mother? She'd never really had one herself. It had taken five, ten, fifteen breaths to calm down. Then happiness and hope washed through her, as it did now.

She and Peeta had each other. And her. Their little legend. Their tiny rebel. Their magical fae. Their floating waterlily. Their own, very real star.

Kat rested the back of her head against his chest, his collar brushing her cheek as she listened to the melody of his heartbeat. "We haven't decided on a name yet."

"That's because we've been too busy hearing everyone else's opinion," he reminded her.

"Speaking of which, for the last time, you can tell Finnick, no. If you're right, if it is a girl, we're not naming her Finnicka."

"I will, as long as you reiterate to Deliah that she's not being so honored either. Nor Johanna."

"Nor Effie."

Peeta snorted. "We've spoiled my great aunt enough by letting her take charge of the nursery plans."

Kat patted his fingers. "It's so cute how you think we actually had a say in that."

"We have the final say about our daughter's name. That's what counts."

"About that. I do have a suggestion."

"Hmm. You're going to make me guess, aren't you?"

"There are worse games to play," she quipped.

"I know." He leaned down and nipped her earlobe. "We've played them."

Laughing, she twisted her face up to meet his kiss. Her mouth parted under him, playful and languid, tasting the sweet pinch of cinnamon and something distinctly Peeta. Dares, tricks, denials, mishaps, quarrels, realizations, touches, happy endings. Friends, love, real or not—and finally, real. Truly, they had played every game.

Mr. Mellark called out from one of the windows, beckoning them to the table, somehow knowing where they were. There was food to be eaten, more songs to be sung, a family to be had, and a home to make.

"Not yet," Kat said when Peeta moved to guide her indoors, one hand encased in his, the other settled on her stomach. "Stay with us."

He collected a blanket from the bedroom and returned to the balcony, wrapping it around their shoulders, keeping his girls warm. "Always," he said.

They watched the last whisper of sunset, the sky shifting into something equally familiar. They waited to see it happen, knowing it was going to be a clear, bright night.