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The Highland Games Experience

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“Okay, Dad,” the seventeen-year-old spouted in triumph, aquamarine eyes glinting in the blazing midday sun.  Not even the shade of the large oak he reclined under managed to dull the brilliance of the idiosyncratic hue. “I got the international uplink going. Remember the time difference. It’s like midnight there or something. Don’t be shocked if she looks trashed.”

Flax twisted the thin metallic band at his wrist casually, causing the small translucent display he’d been eying above it to disappear in a shimmer of light. He leveled an unimpressed look at the boy. “It’s seven hours, Red. She’s not in China. And she never looks trashed.” He bumped his muscled shoulder against the teenager’s, causing an exaggerated groan to escape his victim. He focused his attention on the quickly expanding rectangle of refracted, shimmering static above his son’s extended wrist.

“That’s really impressive.”

“Shut up,” the teen scoffed, retaliating with a buffet back at his father. “The feed takes a second…” He clucked his tongue dramatically. “You know what? If you can’t appreciate my efforts here, next time I’m just taking off with Mom.”

Flax let out a laugh, swinging an arm around the mock-pouting boy, inwardly cringing at how far he had to distend to achieve the feat. When had he gotten this big? “Oh, she’d love that. She’d have you running from house to house. Everyone would want you in their seasonal line. You wouldn’t get off one runway before stepping on the next. You’d make her year. You should totally do that.”

The teenager slumped, his face twisting in horror. “Jesus, no,” he ground out, agonized. He cocked a resentful chestnut eyebrow at his father. “Bad enough you’re making me do photoshoots here to pay my way through school. I’d shoot myself before doing that crap full time.”

“Don’t look at me like that,” Flax grinned flippantly. “I’m not freeloading your butt through college. Get your grades up and we’ll talk. ‘Till then, be grateful Mommy gave you that pretty face and her connections so you can earn your way doing next to nothing. Your aunt worked fulltime at this place to get her degree. You can cry me a freaking river. It’s hot as balls out here. I could use a good swim.”

The teenager cast his disappointed eyes off toward the projection, huffing petulantly, “It’s demeaning. Industry people treat me like I’m a mindless, emotionless rag.”

Flax’s grip tightened around the boy’s shoulders, he tried to soften his tone. “Well, they’ve been doing that to women since time immemorial, kid. Sorry. It’s part of the bargain. At least you get to keep your gigs when you refuse to lose your clothes. It’s far worse for them. Keep that in mind when you’re complaining about the doors you’re not getting slammed in your face.”

“My girls don’t lose their clothes, thank you very much.”

They heard the familiar, lyrical voice, underscored by that nearly imperceptible French accent a moment before the interference cleared and the delicate lines of the striking woman’s face materialized. Her amused ochre eyes beamed at them and Flax’s breath hitched at the play of ambient light on her bare, deep mocha shoulders – likely from ancient lanterns hung overhead – the way it danced off her long, elegant neck. She looked radiant.

He choked back a groan when he noticed the paved street with the humble fruit stand in the background, just over her left shoulder, the intersection he knew lead to a roundabout with a breathtaking fountain off to her right. She was sitting at her favorite little bistro. Their favorite. He didn’t know whether to laugh or wince at the impropriety of the child beside him seeing this magnificent woman in that suggestive setting. Lord knew, he’d rather die than explain the role that unassuming little cafe played in his conception.

“Cinna believes there is inherent beauty in the dignity and strength of women. Objectifying them only diminishes it. I like to think our designs showcase this quite eloquently. How are my boys?” Her dashing smile caused wide dimples to edge up both sides of her mouth.

“Mom! Dad’s being mean to me. Punish him when you get back. Oh, you look really pretty, by the way.”

“Oh, he is now, is he?” she mock-chastised, her eyes glinting with bemusement at the older man. Then she settled her gaze back toward the teenager, demeanor sobering. “Whatever you want to charm me into, Xandros… no.”

The boy gasped, poorly disguising his spreading smirk. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I just think Milan does wonders for you. Did I mention I placed sixth in the wrestling trials? And it wasn’t even beginners. I was fighting Dad and Uncle Rye and Uncle Peeta and a bunch of other really humongous dudes. You should be thankful I didn’t get hurt. I think I heard something pop when I over rotated for one of my throws yesterday…”

The woman on the projection broadened her smile, interlacing her fingers on the table before her and bringing her chin to rest on top. It was a grin one afforded while waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is what she directed at the prattling boy, one perfectly manicured eyebrow arched.

After a few more moments of dribbling, the teenager stopped abruptly, narrowed his eyes at his mother and blurted, “Fine. I don’t want to model my way through school. It’s not fair. You guys instated a college fund for me since I was an infant. Why can’t I just pay my way with that?”

The ebony-skinned woman shot a look at her husband that spoke volumes of how little she wished to breach this topic again. “You know the deal, Red. If you don’t get a scholarship, we will only pay as much into your schooling as you do. You don’t want to model? Fine. You were the one who asked for dance classes. You were the one who asked to be on the television like other little kids when you were three. No one forced you into it. You’re sick of it now that you’re getting older? Great. Get a job with your grandfather. He can always use the extra help at the store. Ask your aunt about openings at the park. Ask one of your uncles if they need a really great secretary. Anything. But we are not letting you squander your potential, young man. You’re going to college and if you don’t hear about that cheerleading scholarship before the end of next year, you’re going to have to pay your share yourself. You should’ve applied earlier and you should’ve kept up your grades. This is what you get for slacking.”

The teenager let out a petulant breath. He really wished he could cross his arms, but the location of the link prohibited the action.

“How’s the week going this year, love?” Flax asked to divert the conversation. He didn’t need to deal with a moody teenager the rest of the afternoon.

She softened her almond eyes toward him with a lopsided smile. “Lonely,” she sighed. “I miss you when I’m here,” she gestured ostensively to her surroundings, her eyes locked on his intensely. “Especially at night.”

“Ewww! Don’t do this in front of me, guys.”

Flax chuckled at the way his son’s face pinched. It made him look years younger and decidedly adorable. “It’s only a few more days and what? two more countries? You’ll be back home in no time, telling me about how ridiculous half the winter trends will be.”

“Or,” she was now circling her middle finger around the rim of a champagne glass measuredly. “You can hop on a flight and be here by tomorrow afternoon, spend the rest of the show as the best accessory I can flaunt… keep me company in the suits after the shows...”

“Seriously, I am going to find something pointy and jam it in an orifice in my face if you don’t stop…”

The teenager’s pained objections faded into white noise in the background as Flax blazed glacial eyes at the woman on the projection, halfway across the globe. “I have a deposition at eleven tomorrow, Portia. I can’t just take off. You know that,” he nearly snarled.

She sent him a mock innocent pout. “Oh, that’s a shame. Well, I can at least show you my evening attire…” She slowly rose from her seat, a simple black shift dominating the projection, until she paced backwards a few steps and turned… showing the back of the dress dipped so low, the dimples Flax knew bordered just above where her ample buttocks cleaved, featured prominently.

A guttural, feral growl emerged from somewhere deep in Flax’s chest before he could subdue it. “What are you trying to do to me, woman?”

“Okay,” The teenager huffed with finality, twisting on the band at his wrist so that it expanded with a soft swish, allowing him to pull his arm out. “This is sick. No one wants to hear their folks get into this kinda crap.” Gingerly, he placed the band in his distracted father’s hand before turning to the projection. “I’m going to go lose my lunch in a bush now, Mom. I’ll link you tomorrow.” Then he blew her a kiss, which she returned before focusing back on her husband.

He pushed off the tree in the direction of the rest of his family, snickering when he heard his father whimper pathetically again as he stepped away. His mother was cruel.

It didn’t take long to find them, even without the help of a link’s tracker guidance. The group had left the weight for height events moments before and were heading for the archery tournament that was supposed to start in half an hour. He and his old man had taken a detour to check in on his mom, but the plan for the rest of the group was to rest somewhere midway between the staging area with the height pole and the one with the shooting targets to hydrate. A grouping of that many rambunctious, raucous people would not be easy to miss.

It took all of a three minute walk to find the outcrop of greenery they’d congregated near.

“No, keep your legs distended like this,” an athletically built girl in her early teens, with a pony tail dyed in an outlandish shade of forest green to match her tartan, instructed a laughing boy right around her age in a kilt of the same pattern, who was pulling a handstand. “It makes it easier to complete the flip.”

“It’s hard to concentrate when you’re tickling me, Thalia,” the curly-haired blonde with the unusually dark golden skin hiccupped through his laughter.

“I can’t believe you’re letting them talk you into cheerleading, Mellark? The gymnastics part of it I can understand. There’s some ripped guys that do the bar events in that. You can totally gain some upper body strength, but cheerleading?” Another tall, lanky brunette with cobalt eyes, also in his early teens, waged in with a sneer. “That’s a girl sport.”

Madge Hawthorne quickly excused herself from the small group of women conversing not far from the young people and came up behind the last boy who’d spoken, reaching up to latch onto his ear.

“Ow, Mom, wha… ow… let go! Let go!”

“What did you just imply about women and cheerleading, Avery Ian Hawthorne?”

It was never good when a mother used your full name in that cadence- the pissed mom cadence. It was the stuff of many a child’s fevered nightmare.

“Mom, please! Christ, let go. I’m sorry. It’s hard. Gymnastics is hard. Cheerleading is hard. Women are freaking super heroes for doing it. I’m sorry,” he whined, bouncing spastically to shake the woman – who he towered by a head – away from his bruised ear.

Madge released him to a chorus of laughter at his expense from the four other teens witnessing the exchange. The brunette cradled his stinging ear gingerly in a hand as his mother continued her arraignment. “That’s not the point, Avery. You shouldn’t be making fun of Rion for that, at all. Cheerleading isn’t gender explicit. Shaming someone for it is wrong.” She slapped her arms at her sides in exasperation, turning to her husband. “Gale, talk to your son.” Then she stormed off fuming towards the group of women.

The tall man turned from the conversation he was taking part in with Rye and Peeta to look at his blushing son. He tried to ignore their snickering and the fact that they followed, uninvited, as he made his way over from the shade to where the kids hung out. “What did you do now?” he ground out at his youngest.

The dark-haired teenager’s gaze didn’t make it all the way to his father’s eyes, keeping station somewhere near the man’s flaring nostrils. “I didn’t do anything, Dad,” he defended, “She just blew a gasket ‘cause I said cheerleading’s a girl thing.” He waited a moment for effect, then added, “It’s not like I insulted anyone.”

The chuckling from the other men around him increased and Gale brought a hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose. “I don’t even know where to start with that, Avery.”

“You can start by calling him a misogynistic, close-minded idiot,” Xandros supplied, having arrived at the rendezvous point as Madge was chiding her son. “Or, you can let me have him – no questions asked – for ten minutes, so I can show him what it feels like to do a full split. But, no one’s allowed to press charges for the fractured pelvis.”

The laughter from the Mellark men exploded at the not-so-veiled threat. Gale pulled Avery to him protectively, both their eyes rounded in outraged disdain. “I can take care of my kid, thank you. And he’s not a misogynist. He’s just… misinformed,” Gale retorted heatedly, after a beat.

Xandros shrugged a bronze, freckle-speckled shoulder flippantly, veering turquoise eyes toward the younger teenager. “Whatever delusion helps you sleep better at night. But it’s not the first ignorant comment he’s made about the girls and it’s grinding on me. He does it again and you won’t have to worry about me, at all. I’ll just let Thalia have free reign at him.”

They all turned toward the sinisterly grinning girl, who’d moved closer to their group, flanked by her sisters and younger cousin. She winked at the Hawthorne boy and he swallowed hard, visibly cowing.

Rye couldn’t help the proud lopsided grin that broke out on his face. That was his girl.

“I didn’t even think that was something bad to say to girls,” the steel-eyed boy mumbled as his father lead him a few feet off from the group for a talk.

“Trust me, kid. If there is anything women generally do that makes them seem inferior to you… do me a favor and automatically label thinking that as wrong. Let me tell you about when your mother was captain of the cheerleading squad…” they heard Gale respond, obviously trying to be patient with him.

“Ugh, why are they even here?” the teen girl next to Thalia, who mirrored her almost exactly in looks, but for the strawberry blonde pigtails and curvier frame, exhaled softly enough for just the males and her siblings to register.

“He makes up a third of my closest friends outside of you guys, Poly. You know he doesn’t mean half the crap he says. He’s just picking stuff up from the older guys on the team, but he’s generally a really cool guy. Maybe he’s just like that because he doesn’t have enough girls around. There’s nothing but boys in that family.”

“Vicky’s a girl. His cousin’s a girl. That’s a lame excuse. And even then, that hasn’t been my experience- with any of the Hawthornes,” the third sister chimed in, this one only distinguishable from the last by a medium, pink birthmark on her clavicle and a blonde braid that stretched half way down her back. Beyond these small differences, telling the three apart would be a challenge for anyone. “They all walk around… I don’t know… with this sulky air of superiority or something. Makes them insufferable.”

“Who’s being judgmental now, Cal? They aren’t all bad,” Thalia remarked with a giggle that crinkled her nose and made her look impossibly more like a miniature of the woman who’d birthed her a few feet off. “Right, Red?”

Her oldest cousin smiled back conspiratorially at her pointed look and she gestured with her head off in the direction of the trees their fathers had just been standing under. “Then, there’s them. They seem to get along just fine.”

All eyes veered to where she’d indicated.

“Wha- Oh, for the love of all that is holy,” Peeta vociferated, angrily. “Gwyn! Climb down from there right now! You too, Hawthorne! What part of ‘stay within the group at all times’ do you two not understand?”

As the little crowd looked on, and the adjacent trio of chatting women refocused their attention toward the greenery at the raucous, a small framed girl in her mid-teens with raven dark hair let out an expletive under her breath from high in the foliage of a massive dogwood. With practiced ease, she climbed from branch to branch before making the final six-foot leap to the ground and adjusting the bow at her shoulder. A honey blonde boy, who appeared just around her age with at least a foot and a half height advantage over her, landed a step behind a moment after. She crossed her arms tightly over her chest and leveled an icy, defiant sneer at Peeta, stomping her way over.

“We were just talking, Daddy.”

“Watch your tone, Gwyneth. And you can very well talk on the ground like the rest of us,” Peeta rebutted, digging deep to find the equanimity not to raise his voice. He narrowed his eyes at the tall teenager who’d sidled up behind his daughter, adamantly keeping his eyes downcast. “I suppose you have a good excuse for disobeying me, Mason?”

The tall teen kept his eyes focused on the lawn at his feet as he stuttered a response, his neck coloring, “Um, no Sir, Mr. M. I-I just saw something up in the tree I thought Gwyn would like and went up to get it for her. We just made a game out of seeing who could climb the furthest, after. We didn’t notice you moved away from under us. Sorry, Sir.”

Peeta brought a hand up to rub through his hair roughly, trying to ignore Rye’s soft chuckling off to his right. This was what he hated about this kid- the fact he couldn’t bring himself to hate him at all. There was nothing of his father in him. He was all bloody Madge. He was taciturn, polite to a fault, incapable of hurting a fly and so smart. He just had to go mess it up by finding his daughter even remotely interesting. That fact alone made him want the boy dead. But every time he spoke two words to him, he’d always end up feeling like the worst human being on the planet for not hugging him on the spot. The kid was the walking embodiment of fatherly frustration.

“Do I even want to know what you climbed up there to get?”

A fraction of a half-smile made its way onto the boy’s face as he extended his large right fist and opened it to reveal a perfect little white blossom in half bloom. “It’s a late bloomer,” the teen explained in a shy voice. “Only one left on the tree.” He turned to the tiny girl beside him, swept a strip of bangs behind her ear and used the little bloom to anchor it there. It was the raven-haired girl’s turn to downcast her eyes now, her cheeks a furious red.

“Oh, this bastard is good,” Rye exploded in guffaws as all the women who’d joined the exchange swooned.

“I can’t deal with this, Katniss.” Peeta turned pleading eyes on his wife. “They’re bloody sixteen. Remember sixteen? He’s just… I can’t… Deal with this.”

Katniss bit the inside of her cheek to keep from grinning at his exasperated expression, coming to wrap an arm around his waist. She swept a hand soothingly through his tousled curls before facing her daughter and her best friend’s oldest child with a firm yet understanding set to her steel eyes. “There is no excuse for disobeying your father, Winnie…”

“But, Mom, we weren’t doing-”

Katniss held up an index finger to stifle her daughter’s impassioned defense, continuing in the same measured tone, “Why you did it notwithstanding, you were told to stay with the group and you disobeyed. Anything else you say is just an excuse for that, am I wrong?” At the blue-eyed girl’s defeated shrug, Katniss continued, “Now, your father and I can’t control what Mason does. And he definitely did not do anything implicitly wrong, but if he chooses to divert from the group again and you choose to follow, your link is mine for the next two weeks as is your com at home. There will be no lunch dates, no drives home from school. You’re cut off. Do I make myself clear, young lady?”

The teen girl’s electric blue eyes rounded in horror at the prospect and she quickly bobbed her head in affirmation.

“Now, your father is obviously trying to do what’s best for you. You are very, very fortunate to have that, you know.” Her voice grew soft, her eyes unfocused for a fraction of a moment. “Very fortunate.” Then she recovered and finished firmly, “Do you think he deserved your tone just now?”

Her face set in a scowl so much like her mother’s, the teen girl huffed, stepping forth to wrap her arms around her father, burying her face in his broad chest. “Sorry, Daddy,” she mumbled into the dark green fabric of the muscle shirt.

Peeta tucked his head to land a soft kiss to her crown, reciprocating the hug. He glowered at the oldest Hawthorne when the boy ventured a look up from the grass. The teen quickly ducked his head back down in deference. He couldn’t help but smirk in satisfaction even as guilt churned his insides. Worth it.

He allowed his daughter out of his arms to join the rest of her friends and family as the golf cart with their ‘reinforcements’ arrived, driven by their valets (something that’d become a Mellark tradition since that first year Katniss helped them out during the Games and a few other clans had taken to emulating). Of course, their clan had grown to a size where one runner no longer sufficed. It helped that Katniss and Gale had familial connections at the club. He wrapped his arms around his wife - circumventing her own sheaf and bow – and lighted a soft kiss to her lips. “Owe you one later.” She arched an intrigued eyebrow. “We’ll discuss the terms of repayment during my massage,” she hummed against his lips, before moving off toward the arriving cart.

“Okay, Grahams,” a teenager with striking silver eyes so pale they were almost white, vaulted out of the cart as soon as it stopped, his dark, shoulder-length hair swaying wildly, touching the straps of his club issue tank top every so often. He waved his tartan scarf like a beacon with a huge smile to garner everyone’s attention before quickly wrapping it around his waist. “We’ve got towels, water, Gatorade, food – ‘cause you Mellarks eat like beasts – and sunscreen… so much sunscreen. You pasty bastards go through this stuff by the buckets. But Mom says you need to reapply every two hours, so have at it. Doctor’s orders.”

He suddenly found himself shoved to the lawn from behind and turned to find his sister, the fair-haired girl who’d arrived in the cart with him, frowning down with deep cornflower eyes narrowed. “You’re not funny, Nate. If someone told you otherwise… they lied,” she snorted with a roll of her eyes, moving off to disburse the armful of towels she held.

“How does it taste to have lawn fed to you by your sister, man?” Rion snickered, coming to offer a hand to his friend.

“Maybe you should tell me. Lord knows Gwyn’s planted your face in dirt enough you should’ve developed a palate for it,” the teenager countered, letting him pluck blades of grass off his back. “Or your cousin, for that matter.”

“Good point,” the shorter blonde agreed with a grin. “But I pretty much let Gwyn knock me down. It’s sorta gotten to a point where I’m afraid to hurt her. It’s as if I’m growing and she’s shrinking. Dad says you learn as much from losing as you do from winning. Plus, It’s good defensive practice. Thalia’s a different story. There’s no shame in losing to a superior opponent. She’s got a year of training on me and she’s built better than half the guys in our weight class. But I can’t bring myself to actually go all out on her. It’s not that I don’t think she can take it. It’s not a chick thing. She’s family. I just can’t, you know? I can totally level you and I’d destroy Avery in a heartbeat. You guys are my best friends, but I can’t do that to family. Anyway, Vicky has no age advantage on you. You’re eleven minutes older, like thirty pounds heavier, she’s never wrestled a day in her life… and she still totally flattened you. Poor form, dude. You didn’t even go down gracefully.”

“Um-hmm.”

The ash blonde noticed his friend’s distracted non-response and followed his line of vision to where the triplets and his sister demonstrated various flips they’d been practicing as part of a new routine for Vicky.

“Oh, dude, you have a death wish. Not with Uncle Rye around. You know what? Not even if he’s not around. He’s got this creepy sixth sense. And he can break things. Like… in ways where you’d still technically be able to function, but you’d never be right again. And you know he can make it look like an accident. He screws with your head. You don’t mess with shrinks. There’re so many other fish, man. Let those three swim.”

The teen wrenched his crystalline gaze away from the girls to send him an unconvincing, innocent smirk. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Then he moved off to get something from the cart, leaving his friend to scowl after him concerned.

“What are we talking about?” Avery wrapped an arm around the shorter boy’s shoulders.

“Oh, just discussing your idiotic cousin’s likely untimely demise, courtesy of my uncle.” Rion looked up at his best friend, steel eyes inquisitive. “Your dad done schooling you on the finer points of not being a prick to women, moron? You’re gonna make some lucky girl a fine alimony payment some day, you know.”

“I didn’t say it to offend them, Jesus! But you know the rest of the guys on the team are gonna totally rag on you for moonlighting as a cheerleader, right? You gotta know that.”

The stocky blonde shrugged the one shoulder not weighed down by his friend. “I don’t care, man. My cousins need the help next year. All the guys on the team now are seniors and no one’s stepping up to take their place after next year. Anyone with issues can bite me— you included.”

The taller teen let out a soft laugh as his cousin joined them. “Red threatened to force my legs apart the way he can get them for those insane routines and I swear I think one of my balls retracted so far into me I can sing soprano. I have no idea how he does that. Dudes with nads should not be able to accomplish that.”  

“I liked to watch Mom dance since I was a baby, so I learned the motions before I could walk,” the oldest teenager’s deep baritone interjected from behind them and they all flinched to face him. “When the bones, tendons and joints all acclimate to the position gradually, since the age of two, it barely hurts when the final adjustment happens with a sharp ‘snap’ and you achieve the full split at six,” he finished conversationally. The three younger boys mimicked the same pained grimace as if choreographed.

“Yeah but don’t you crush your junk when you hit the floor splayed out like that?” Nate asked, thoroughly uncomfortable.

“Not any more than when some prick takes a dirty swipe at my groin in wrestling. I wear a cup, people. What are you guys? Idiots?” He ruffled his baby cousin’s ash waves with a snort and went back to join in the conversation the adults were having.

“Anyone else sorta fangirling Red right now?” Avery inquired, gauging the two other boys. When they both shrugged in awe, he murmured, “Good. So it ain’t just me, then.”

Nate chortled, clapping his hands brusquely once more to gain the group’s attention. “Okay. I have the sunscreen, people. I know I joked before, but Mom was very insistent about everyone slathering this crap on. For any of you lovely ladies having trouble reaching, I humbly volunteer my services as back applicator… no extra charge.”

Rye and Peeta turned murderous eyes on the boy, while the women in the group snorted and moved to take the proffered cream from him. The rest of the girls snickered.

“Don’t laugh at that,” Rye snapped in the general direction of his children without really diverting his gaze toward them. “That’s not funny. That’s idiotic. Don’t validate idiotic.”   

“Well, it’s a little funny, Daddy. It took thought and wit. He didn’t just outright ask to feel up all the women here, which would’ve been gross if you think about it, because one of them is his sister and two others are his aunts.”

Now Rye stopped fiddling with the link at his ear and turned his hulking frame to narrow eyes at the teen girl who’d spoken out. His voice had an unsettling edge of clinical detachment. “No. It was infantile. He’s trying desperately to get attention— specifically from the opposite sex. And, due to inexperience, self-esteem issues - perfectly normal for a hormonal boy his age - and, honestly, lack of imagination to come up with anything better… he broadcasted the first unfiltered stupidity that popped into his head. It was a piss-poor attempt at using humor to masque his fear of rejection. The operative question in all this, however, would be why you would bother championing his idiocy.”

Caught in her father’s probing gaze, Thalia straightened her shoulders, trying not to blink, not to breath, hiding all emotion. There were things one learned growing up with a clinical psychologist as a parent, and there were things you just knew you could do inherently, through and through. Mastering her poker face had been one of those things he’d taught her since she was a toddler. He’d taught all of them, made a game out of it, but she’d been a natural.

“Relax, Dad. Sometimes a cigar’s just a cigar, right?” the strawberry blonde off to her right, scoffed.

“And using a phallic euphemism right now strikes you as appropriate why, exactly, Calliope? Not that I was talking to you, was I, sugarplum? Rude.”

The curvy blonde poked her tongue out at her father and he returned the gesture with exaggerated flare. “This is why I don’t like any of you, you realize.”

“But we love you, Daddy,” the third of the identical girls came up to wrap her arms around his neck, surreptitiously tapping his earpiece as she did so. It caused a small translucent projection to appear a foot in front of him.

“Rye, we agreed no work stuff this weekend!” Delly spouted, peering at the calendar display around his shoulder, where she’d moved in order to rub sunscreen on him.

Instead of answering her, he directed his chilled words at the mock-innocently grinning girl still hugging him, reprobation clear in his morning sky hued eyes. “I know you’re trying to distract me, Poly. You’re not fooling anybody.”

She continued smirking, spinning on her toes right before him and bringing one hand up to tap behind his ear again, causing the screen to enlarge for both of them. “He’s not working, Mom,” she called over both their shoulders, twisting the link behind her father’s ear to manipulate the data field. “He’s been trying since we left the height events to activate his link to open his schedule, using the ocular remote. The lens is on the fritz or something. It’s interfering with the feed and it’s making him grouchy… Well, grouchier, anyway. What were you trying to do, Daddy?”

She heard him grumble something under his breath and rolled her eyes. “Come on, Dad. You can mope about this the rest of the day. I promise. But, it’s obviously bugging the heck outta you, what are you trying to do?”

“I said,” Rye snarled close to her ear, irritated, “I was scheduled to speak at a psychology colloquium at ten tomorrow. I’m trying to get this piece of crap to cancel and alert the university because I’m going to come out of here too sore to move. I was hoping to clear my schedule of anything before two.”

“That shouldn’t be too hard,” Poly asserted. She switched the readout on the screen with a flip of her wrist and commanded, “Link, switch to voice command mode. Lock out ocular control. Visual link interface.” This caused a white, epicene figure to appear.

“Welcome, Dr. Mellark. How may I be of service today?” it inquired in a congenial, computerized, androgynous voice.

The teenager giggled, finding it hilarious the machine confused her for the humongous brute who’d engendered her. Said brute brought a hand to wrap around the front of her shoulders as she voice her next command. “Bring up tomorrow’s schedule. Overlap over home display.” She surveyed the readout before adding, “Cancel scheduled Colloquium: 10:00AM,” she then craned her head back toward her father. “What’s Cowen: Acute Trypophobia Emersion Therapy? It takes up the next two hours of your schedule after that.”

Rye scowled at the projection, considering. After a moment, he sighed deeply and voiced the command himself, “Link, go ahead and reschedule Cowen: Acute Trypophobia Emersion Therapy 12:00PM to the next free appointment I have this week. Send Ms. Cowen an apology and request for confirmation. There’s no way I’ll manage the energy to control that environment tomorrow. I’m not strapping her down,” he finished in a near whisper.

“Affirmative, Dr. Mellark, please allow me a moment to complete your request,” the mechanical voice complied.

“What’s acute trypophobia, Daddy?” Poly asked softly, tipping her head back to rest on her father’s chest.

“Something you’re probably grateful you don’t have to deal with,” he answered cryptically. Then he tightened his hold on her, rumbling in her ear, “You girls rock, sticking up for one another like this. You keep doing it. Keep looking out for each other. But if you ever think for one moment this crap will work on me… You are my girls. I feed you. I clothe you. I house you. It’s my job to make damned sure you grow up knowing you’re worth more than any value another being can attribute you. So, until all the factors I’ve stated change, I get final say on who gets to kneel and kiss your superior feet. And they will kneel, because no one’s getting near any of you with their kneecaps sound. Pass that on to your sisters.”

He then placed a tender kiss to her temple before giving her a playful shove toward the rest of the young people, adding in a voice everyone could hear, “Now, go away. You bother.”

Instead of moving off, the strawberry blonde immediately turned to crush him in a hug.

“Ugh, Delly. One of them’s attached itself to me again. Get it off,” Rye whined, grimacing in mock disgust, keeping his arms away from the little girl embracing him as if she were contagious.

The woman behind him giggled, whacking him hard between his massive shoulder blades at the same time the teenager who’d held him pulled away to backhanded him in the gut. She immediately shook her hand to relieve the sting from impacting solid muscle.

“You’re so dumb, Daddy,” she giggled teary-eyed, moving off toward her friends.

Katniss moved away from where she’d been attending to her husband and son’s sensitive back and shoulders to the center of the crowd. She’d asked her daughter to take care of herself and Peeta had pretty much threatened to murder Mason when the girl had offered to help him get the cream on his back, so Madge was taking care of all her boys as the teen girl kept a rapt audience. She figured she could step away from her husband a few moments. Looks couldn’t actually kill.

She raised her voice to get everyone’s attention. “Okay, guys. We’re getting ready to move. Did everyone get another application of lotion?” She surveyed the group, focusing on the younger kids. They had a lot of fair skinned teenagers in this gathering. Her gaze landed on her oldest nephew, whose cheeks, nose and shoulders showed signs of serious coloring. “Have you been using any sunblock at all, Red?”

Xandros graced her with a lopsided grin, arching his eyebrows aloofly. “Have you gotten a good look at me, Aunt Katniss? I don’t tan. Tanned’s my baseline. I just slow simmer into a further state of unfathomable sexy,” he boasted with a sideways glance at Vicky. Noting she was giggling and stroking her milky neck at his terrible joke, his grin turned impish and he focused his attention entirely on her, causing her to avert her eyes with a furious blush.

“Prim’s little girl? Really? That’s sorta crib robbing at your age, isn’t it, kid?”

The Ginger started at his father’s amused whisper over his shoulder, abruptly turning his back on the blonde girl a few yards away. His uncles chuckled lightly on either side of the tightly grinning man. He crossed his arms and glowered.

“Lose the shirt, genius,” Flax commanded, holding up a tube of sunscreen. “Your mother will only allow so much gross negligence. I’m not having her arrive in a week to find you so scorched she can’t even get a decent welcome out of you.”

Xandros, groaned in protest, but still shrugged the shirt over his head, half turning so his father could apply the lotion. He gritted his teeth when the gruff hand passed over his steaming shoulder. He would not give the man the satisfaction of hearing him whimper. It was the principle of the thing.

“Your grades reading like the EKG of a congestive heart failure patient this past six months suddenly makes sense,” Flax grumbled as he rubbed the cream into his skin far more roughly than necessary, nearly forcing a groan. The scolding, glacial cadence to his deep baritone matched his piercing navy eyes. “So what? Are you going into full intellectual comatose once she’s a freshman in the fall? She’s a freaking child, Red.”

Indignation boiling over, Xandros gestured violently between himself and the other men. “I’m sorry, who here was forced by their father to spend their junior year of college studying in Europe because they were completely burned, and ended up coming home ten months later married to a six month pregnant French-American dance and design student? Who happens to be four years his junior, I might add. Brilliant idea: chucking stones from you fabulously appointed glass house.”

Flax’s hand now clamped down on the teenager’s arm in earnest, forcing a hissed keen. He used the vice grip to twist the boy to face him.

“Flax.”

“Back off, Peeta,” he warned, then locked that disturbingly stoic gaze on his son.

“You are a child, Xandros Mellark. A proven immature, ill-equipped, irrational, arrogant child. I have no idea where you got this ill-conceived notion that you can speak to me like you’re my equal. You’re not. I’m your father. I’m an adult. I had to go through a lot and make a lifetime of mistakes and hard choices to get here. I rate your respect and, by god, you will show it. Do I make myself clear?”

Xandros’s brows pinched in a cross between a grimace and a scowl. The pressure on his arm wouldn’t have been so painful were it not for the sun damage. His father would never purposely hurt him, he knew. The man was incapable of it. Corporal discipline had always been his mother’s responsibility. She’d spent her early childhood in Southern France and spanking there was par for rearing children. But she’d always explained why he was being punished and it was always followed by a hug or some other form of comfort, until he’d aged out of the need for such recourses. His father couldn’t even stay in the room the few instances it’d been required. This experience was entirely foreign.

With a thick swallow, he nodded slowly.

“I know your neck works. I want to hear it.”

Screw the pain in his arm. That bone-chillingly low decibel his father’s voice achieved when he got this pissed was so much worse. They had nearly identical inflections, but he very much doubted he could get his voice to reach that horrifying register. “Y-yes, Sir,” he sputtered.

Flax smoothed a hand over his beard gruffly, letting out a slow, measured breath. “Now, your mother was twenty when she had you, Red- nineteen when we met. And, yes, that was idiotic on my part. I wasn’t ready to be a father at twenty four, but I made choices and I’d make the same ones again in a heartbeat, because they gave me you and your mother. I was bloody fortunate. By a different turn of the odds, I could’ve ended up ruining your mother’s life and mine. And I’d never been blessed with the gift of knowing you.” He allowed his eyes and voice to soften. “I was so stupid at that age. And, whether you want to or not, you’re going to learn from my mistakes. That girl’s barely thirteen and you turn eighteen in seven weeks. It’s not just age difference that’s at play here. You are at a developmental stage where chemical impulses can, and likely will, override that amazing intelligence I know you possess, whether you do a formidable job at hiding it or not. That child’s emotional development is nowhere near a point where anything she submits to willingly, mind you, can ethically be considered consensual. Forget that I’m your father for a moment, speaking strictly as your legal advisor, in a few months, Rory could, and probably should, press statutory assault charges against you. It doesn’t even matter that you’ve done nothing to her. The age disparity alone puts you in a position to subjugate her.”

“Aunty Prim wouldn’t let that happen, Dad,” the green-eyed teen voiced softly, unsurely.

“And you see nothing off about having a thing for the little girl of someone you call ‘Aunty’, kid?” Rye scoffed. “Do you really need me to cite the sick in that?”

Xandros turned betrayed eyes on his uncle. “You wanna head shrink me? Fine. It’s your fault I call Primrose that. You taught the girls to call her that since they could talk. I just picked it up through osmosis. The Hawthornes are not family to any of us beyond Aunt Katniss and she’s a political familial affiliation, so it doesn’t count. And I’m not going to do anything to Vicky, okay? Yeah, I’ve started to like her the last few months. I’ve known her and Nathan since they were born. I’ve babysat them since I was twelve.”

The redhead took a moment to rake his short nails through his tight curls and really analyze just how warped what he’d spoken could be construed. He let out a defeated breath. “Look, I’m not some sicko. I haven’t always seen her like that. She was just a cute little girl you guys asked me to watch so her exhausted parents could get a date night in every now and then. But, last winter break we got to talking… just talking. And I liked what she had to say. She’s smart and funny and silly. She finds half my jokes retarded and she respects herself enough not to throw herself at me like most girls do. You guys see her youth as a vulnerability. I see it as a strength. She’s not jaded or conniving like so many girls are at my age already. I like her.”

“Are you attracted to her?”

The teenager cocked an eyebrow at his uncle, huffing out sardonically. “I just said I liked her, man.”

“Not the question, kid. And you’re too smart not to know the difference,” Rye prodded.

Xandros averted his eyes with a blush.

“Then you can’t be more than a friend to her, Red.”

He snapped his eyes up to lock pleadingly with his father’s, but the conviction in those glaciers was resolute. “I’m not stupid, kid. I know if I try to forbid you, I’d just make her all the more enticing to you. You’re seventeen. You’re retarded. But, if you’ve let your schooling go down the crapper and likely your prospects for the foreseeable future for this girl, you care about her a lot more than you realize. Since she’s that special to you, you owe it to her to wait her out. Be a good friend. Share the parts of yourself that you believe only she appreciates… but never let it get past that until you’re both on the same emotional plane. Give her time to build her own agency, her own sense of self, without using you to define it. Otherwise, you’re undermining the very thing you find so special about her. If you respect her, wait her out. If this thing that you feel is still there when she’s where you are now…”

Xandros let out a shaky sigh, not caring that he winced when his father threw an arm around his shoulders, too lost in his own thoughts as he stared longingly at the young blonde girl, apparently teasing her brother about something or other a few yards off. He’d have to tell her they needed some space. She wouldn’t take it well, he knew. He was entertaining the idea of pinning the whole idea on his father, but she’d never buy it. She was too sharp for that. And he did owe her better than a half-baked pseudo-lie. She was so pretty when she laughed like that.

“We need to get you some aloe on the way home. If your mom doesn’t get her welcome from you, I don’t get my welcome from her… and you’re grounded for a week.”

The teenager turned a cocked brow to his father. “Oh, that’s right. It took you that long to check in with Mom? Where’s my link, by the way?”

“I’ll get you a new one,” Flax replied, clearing his throat gruffly and failing to hide the smile in his eyes. “It became a tragic casualty of your mother’s twisted sadism,” he added, pulling the mangled length of metal with protruding circuitry out of the sporran tied at his waist.

“Christ, Dad, what’d you do to it?”   

“I clenched my hand into a fist,” Flax answered tightly. At his brothers’ and son’s corresponding explosion of laughter, he defended sulking, “Hey, you people have no idea the things that woman does when she knows I can’t even…” his nostrils flared as he fought to restrain his own amusement. “I just spent the last five minutes trying to calm down before getting back here. These kilts hide nothing, you know.”

This only caused the laughter to escalate and the oldest finally relented.

“Hey, Professor Mellark,” the revelry stifled when a young man tapped Peeta’s shoulder. They shifted to find three young men in tartans very similar to theirs, only interjected by hints of yellow and navy – all looking duly inebriated – holding Solo cups in each of their hands.

“We would like to humbly bestow upon you the offerings of clan Sinclair’s tent,” the statuesque, athletic, apparent ringleader proclaimed with an exaggerated eloquence that bellied just how blitzed he was. “If this is not sufficient, please feel free to swing by at your leisure and partake of further libations.”

Peeta brought a hand up to rub the bridge of his nose. “Phineas, does your father have any idea how wasted you’ve gotten, man?”

“He does not, Sir. He’s been called away on a faculty matter. He shall be back to grace us with his presence in few minutes.”

Peeta couldn’t help chortling as Rye reached for the cups the co-eds proffered. He’d had more than his fair share of drunken college boy experiences in his lifetime – both thanks to his time as a student and his tenure as a teacher – but having a kid take on a full out British aristocrat persona on him was a new one.

Flax slapped his son’s hand away from one of the cups before asking skeptically, “How old are you guys?”

They all exchanged worried glances and the oldest Mellark snorted.

“Phin’s a senior, Flax. The other guys I don’t personally know.”

“Okay then,” Flax proclaimed loudly, let it be stated for the record that Phineas… what’s your last name, kid?”

“Odair, my good sir,” the redhead supplied with a ditzy grin.

Of course. Flax rolled his eyes largely. “Let it be stated for the record that Phineas Odair and only Phineas Odair – who is of legal drinking age –  has graciously brought his English professor beer.” He took two cups from one of the students.

“Why are you screaming, Uncle Flax?”

The Mellark men turned to find the triplets staring curiously, arms crossed.

“Because he takes his job way too seriously- even when he’s not actually working,” Xandros scoffed and his father jabbed him in the shoulder again.

“Hssgh! That’s not funny, Dad!”

Peeta turned back to the tallest boy with a frown, yet to take a cup from his outstretched hands. “Wait, Phineas. Does this generous gesture have anything to do with the term paper that’s due on my desk at two tomorrow?”

The youngster blinked one emerald eye with a lopsided, ridiculous grin that matched his lopsided shrug. “I kinda, may need an extension on that Poffessor M. I’ve spent all weekend here competing. You know how it is…” There went the British blueblood.

Rye let out a loud laugh, taking a huge gulp from his cup. “I miss being this young and mentally deficient.”

“How are you still drinking that?” Peeta arraigned outraged. “It’s a bribe.”

“They’re not my slow-witted students. I finished my dissertation six years ago and I never want to deal with another moronic student again.”

Peeta raked a hand down his face, inwardly searching for temperance. “I can’t accept your beer, Phin. And you can get you father, the assistant director of biology at your university,” he enunciated the words slowly and clearly for the man before him, “In a lot of trouble if you pull this crap with the wrong instructor. So, don’t ever do this again, okay?”

“You’re pretty.”

Cal wrinkled her nose and backed a few steps away from the frat boy who squinted his eyes at her.

“Ah, nah, man. You drunk pricks need to leave now… while you still have motor function,” Rye seethed at the young men in general. At the one who’d singled out his daughter, he snarled, “She’s fourteen. You need to back away from her immediately.”

“Minor. Gotcha, dude,” the co-ed raised his hands in a surrender gesture. “But the one beside her’s super hot, too. Is she legal?”

“Jesus Christ!” Rye didn’t know whether to laugh or plain vault at this idiot, pound away until things crunched under his fists. It’d been far too long.

The moment he felt hands clamp on his upper arms and shoulders, he knew he’d lost the element of surprise, however. His family would never allow him to risk his professional reputation and, likely, his freedom over a few seconds of savage satisfaction. His good, rational, peacekeeping family.

“Guys, I think my last drink was spiked,” the third member of the drunken entourage chose this moment to chime in. “How many of that chick do you guys see?”

Oh, reputation be damned, he could always relocate after the trial. He needed to be elbows deep in something warm, metallic and exuding from a bevy of locations on that prick.

“No, Rye! You guys need to run… now! I have no idea how long we can hold him.”

“Jesus, has he gained mass since this morning? I swear he wasn’t this hard to bring down during the trials.”

“That’s ‘cause he wiped the lawn with you, Red. You might’ve suffered some mild memory loss. You hit the ground pretty hard a few times.”

“Shut up, Uncle Peeta.”

“For the love of mercy! Ryland Mellark, you’re almost forty. Get up from under those men-children right this instant. The tournament starts in five minutes… and you know how my ankles get if I stand around for this long…”

Rye took a centering breath, shutting his eyes. He counted to five slowly, letting the tension bleed from his body. By the end of the count, the bodies of his siblings and nephew no longer weighed him down. He righted himself from the kneeling position they’d been able to force him to and turned a lopsided smirk on the scowling woman with shoulder length strawberry blonde waves. He flitted a crossed look at his daughters, just behind, as he closed the distance and wrapped an arm around her rounded waist to rub her lower back, right where he knew she ached constantly. Delly rewarded him with a grateful keen and a list of her head into the crook of his shoulder as they began to move toward the next staging area.

“You couldn’t give a guy a warning?” he sneered at the triplets as they passed.

“Why do you think we were there?” Cal replied, with a roll of her eyes. “It definitely wasn’t to get harassed by the Phi-Beta-Molesters brigade. Way to keep your cool, though. This is why guys don’t link us. You freaking terrify everybody. They think you’re a sociopath.”

Rye made a hand puppet gesture halfway through her diatribe to mimic her words, causing her to slap him soundly in the back. “I’m serious, Daddy. You can’t act like this. It’s so embarrassing.” She stomped off to where the Everdeens and Hawthornes – who were participating in the tournament – were getting their gear and bows together.

“I bet this last one loves me,” Rye whispered in Delly’s ear, rubbing distracted circles over her distended belly. “By the time she’s a teenager, I’ll be too tired to put up with this bull. She’ll get away with murder.”

Delly let out a jittering giggle, interlacing her fingers with his. “I doubt that very much. One of her sisters will pick up right where you leave off. They’ve all got too much of you in them. They won’t let her get away with anything.”

“Yes. I am the man.”

Delly jittered again as the entire group converged.

“Alright. All my little archers stick with me,” Katniss hollered, starting to move- Gwyn, Rion, Mason, Avery and Gale fell in step close to her. It was a sight to behold: the clan Graham archers – in full tartan – on the march.

Peeta and Madge stayed close to their spouses, but stuck out without the distinguishing bows strapped to their shoulders. The rest of the group followed a step behind. This was their clan’s claim to fame, after all. This was their marquise event. The crowd always cheered when they saw the green pattern kilts and bows traipsing up that slope.

“Why do we even bother?” Avery snorted. “Everyone knows Katniss is taking the medal, Dad will likely take second and Mason will flop so Gwyn takes third.” His brother smacked him in the back of the head and Peeta bit back a laugh.

“The point is to work to take my medal, Avery,” Katniss responded with a grin. “No one can stay on top forever. The torch has to be passed.”

“That’s so corny, Mom,” Rion snickered.

“It really is,” Gwyn agreed.

“Oh, whatever,” Katniss huffed, miffed. “Just try to beat me if you can, then.” Peeta wrapped an arm around her waist and kissed her cheek as she moped.

“At least you guys get to be relevant in this,” Xandros yelled from the back of the crowd. Some of us only get to sit around on the bleachers, making for pretty cheerleaders.  I mean, I’m a pretty cheerleader year-round. Gets old, man.”

The group enjoyed a laugh at the teenager’s jest.

“At least you know your strengths. Comedy’s not one, just so you know.”

Xandros stopped laughing with his father, aunt and uncle to turn toward the short blonde who’d pulled the golf cart right up to him. He’d lost sight of her for a few moments. Now he knew why. Someone had to lug their crap around. It was her summer job – courtesy of their aunt.

“Well, we all need an Achilles heel. You know, to keep us humble,” he parried with a soft smile.

She snorted, tucking a strand of golden hair that had loosen from her messy bun behind her ear. Aqua eyes followed the motion raptly. “Yeah, because humility is definitely one of the pillars of your character.”

“I can aspire to be more,” he challenged, the world beyond them disappearing.

“I‘d expect nothing less,” she giggled, moving off ahead of the group to find a good spot under the copse of trees where the ice in the coolers would be less compromised.

He followed her with his eyes as far as he could.

“God, we really need to sit and discuss the underlying issues both you bastards have with rearing child brides. It’s so creepy.”

Xandros and Flax both sent a vulgar hand gesture up at Rye.

“But, seriously, Red. That thing with Victoria… that’s not okay.”

Xandros sobered an expression at his uncle, who elaborated in that clinical voice that always made his skin crawl, “Prim’s my baby sister. She may not have come from Mom. And thank god for that. But she’s my family all the same. I was there in the delivery room when that little girl came screaming out after her brother.” He took a moment to sigh. “Just as I was when your humongous butt erupted from that poor little girl and nearly split her in half.”

“It’s hard for me, kid. I’m trying to put myself in your shoes, but it’s hard. Because, honestly? I keep finding myself in the place of a big brother and a father. And that place? That place says I should gouge out your eyes for the way you look at that little girl, who’s the freaking spitting image of her mother at that age. I can’t know that you ever hurt her, Red.” The finality in Rye’s tenor made it clear this was not so much a request as a blatant threat.

“I won’t, Uncle Rye,” Xandros whispered. “I-I really… care about her.”

“I’ll be holding you to that,” Rye breathed. Then in a far stronger voice, laced with a completely different emotion, he called out to the front of the group, “Hey, Rion! You feel like doing me a favor, buddy?”

The stocky blonde turned to find his uncle, “Yeah, Uncle Rye?”

“Can you please tell this barely past embryonic Hawthorne prick if he values the opposability of his thumb… he better step away from your cousin?”

Thalia instantly wrenched her pinky away from Nate’s, where they’d casually entwined as they walked and talked with her sisters… several yards behind the main group… well out of the line of sight of the main group. She raked her fingers through her green dyed hair nervously, hoping the boy beside her realized this time the threat had been mostly idle. Although, no one ever really knew with her father; she was aware there was an understated fragility to the man’s stability.

“Good Lord! How does he freaking do that?” Nate shrieked, eyeing the back of the massive man’s head warily.

“Fingers are better than kneecaps,” Poly supplied in what she thought was a hopeful lilt.

Nate turned his horrified glare on her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Rion turned back, laughing. He shouted over his shoulder, loud enough to carry to his best friend in the back, “Told you, dude. So many fish. You couldn’t let it swim…”

*~*~*~*~*~*

Several yards behind the mob of green tartan kilts and dark green shirts, of various shades of blondes and brunettes and one very noticeable redhead- bickering and frolicking on their way to the bleachers… the aging baker snickered and laced his fingers through his wife’s.

They would have made it earlier, but she’d refused adamantly to leave her shift early and the long weekend always meant extra patients at the urgent care facility. He wished she’d cut back on the hours, spend some more time with him, but he knew what her work meant to her, how it fulfilled her, gave her a sense of purpose. Much as his baking did for him.

He’d always figured at sixty he’d be close to retiring, maybe handing the shop off to one of his boys, but it seemed unlikely he’d be slowing down anytime soon. People loved his confections and his oldest and youngest grandsons both had affinity and talent for the culinary arts. He could hold off on retiring until they decided if they wanted a stab at the shop. There was no rush.

Another bit of banter reached them and the once blonde – now silver-haired – but still radiant woman at his side chuckled. They’d chosen not to let their presence be known until after the big arrival at the tournament area. That should be the family’s big moment and they’d just take away from the spotlight. Besides, spying was much more fun. These kids were a riot- the lot of them.

“Was it like this, Danny?” His wife turned those beautiful cornflower eyes that no amount of crow's-feet or suffering had been truly able to dull on him. “Back when Mirren’s family would bring them? Back when they were little? Was this how it was back then?”

His liquid blue eyes surveyed the group before him: the laughing, chatting, hugging men and women, the teenagers jostling one another, sneaking coquettish stares, giggling. So much joy. So much celebration of life and family.

“No,” he declared with a satisfied sigh and a wet smile. “This? I never thought I’d live to see this."

He’d spent the last two decades making amends for the years of suffering his negligence had unwittingly caused her and his boys, piecing back the little bits of happiness they could find into a life they’d tentatively built together. But never in his most ambitious dreams had he considered a tradition he’d adopted for the sake of his children to evolve into this kind of experience. He brought her close with an arm around the waist and lighted a soft kiss to her rose lips.

“No, love. These Games have never been better.”

FIN


 

For clearer reference, here is a list of the children according to parentage:

  •        Xandros ‘Red’ Mellark: Seventeen years old. Father is Flax Mellark and mother is Portia Mellark  
  •        Gwyneth Mellark – Sixteen years old – and Orion 'Rion' Mellark – Thirteen years old: Father is Peeta Mellark and mother is Katniss Mellark
  •        Calliope, Polyhymnia and Thalia Mellark (Named for the Greek muses of music, writing and art, respectively – I have a head canon that this involved the three brothers and a drunken bar wager Peeta won): Fourteen years old. Father is Ryland Mellark and mother is Delilah Mellark. Baby girl in Mommy’s belly is yet to be named.
  •        Mason Hawthorne – Sixteen years old – and Avery Ian Hawthorne– Fourteen years old: Father is Gale Hawthorne and mother is Madge Hawthorne
  •        Nathan Hawthorne and Victoria Hawthorne – Thirteen years old: Mother is Primrose Hawthorne and father is Rory Hawthorne