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The Highland Games Experience

Chapter Text


 It really wasn’t a bad gig, at all.

Take drink and snack orders from the folks out on her assigned route of the course, occasionally fetch things like suntan lotion or caps from the ridiculously overpriced clubhouse boutique.

She could’ve done so much worse. Jo was spraying disinfecting spray into dozens of pairs of moldy shoes down at the bowling alley all summer. At least, here, she had fresh air, greenery… the outdoors. Her element.

Sure, there was the pesky matter of human interaction. She had to speak to those whose needs she catered to as part of the job description. And, yeah, she made a fraction of the tips made by those girls who laughably passed off the two-sizes-too-tight club polo shirts and nearly-nothing tennis skirts as uniforms. That was just fine by her. She was perfectly content in her confortable club issue tank top and khaki shorts as long as they came with her perpetuated dignity.

She was even fine with her shift boss, for all the ominous warnings Madge had given her about the man when she’d first lined up the job for her, thanks to her father’s influence as president of the club’s board. Her friend had made the man out to sound like an ornery, bitter, reclusive alcoholic. Which ninety percent of the time he absolutely was – she’d quickly learned in her short tenure there – but, he was the highest functioning drunk she’d ever met. He ran the staff like a well-oiled machine. He didn’t take bull from anyone and even the patrons seemed to walk on eggshells around him. He was her type of people. Even better still, from the first encounter she’d had with the man to the present day, he’d always been too blitzed when approaching her to manage little more than mumbling a few barely coherent commands while handing her a wooden clipboard with the holes allocated to her for her shift. To say that was a man of few words would’ve been the understatement of the century.

It was her idea of heaven.

She found talk useless. Action was more her style and, apparently, her boss was so likeminded on that front; he’d taken to requesting her as his personal valet for his weekly round since she’d begun working at the club. Four weekends in a row, since her junior year had ended in June, she’d joined Haymitch Abernathy at eleven o’clock in the morning for his Saturday tee off with his golf buddy- the jovial man who’d run the bakery in her town since before she could remember.

She liked the baker. He was always congenial and belly laughed at all her boss’s inane, drunken rambles. It was the kind of laugh that made a smile inadvertently spread across her own face whenever she left the pair to fetch their next order. It was an infectious bastard of a laugh. So annoying.

But, perhaps, the effect it had on her usually somber disposition wasn’t so much what bothered her about that laugh. Maybe… maybe it was the familiarity of it. She knew next to nothing about the broad shouldered man with the perfectly trimmed blonde goatee and clean shaven head before she’d begun catering his games with Haymitch at the club, but she knew of him. She correlated a memory of a bad time in her life to this man… or, more precisely, to this man’s son.

She doubted the jolly, burly man had any idea what his children were up to on a day to day basis, it was impossible for any parent to keep those kinds of tabs on their kids. So she tried her best to remain cool and detached while in his company, but always very, very serviceable. She owed this man that much- even if the gesture was poor collateral recompense.

How could she not? How could she ignore how much the man’s liquid blue eyes glinted like those that’d haunted her conscience for nearly seven years- like those that blinked away conspicuously every time she’d felt them on her in class for just as long? And, yes, she recognized the timber in that laugh. He had been laughing just like that with a group of friends a few yards from her locker that first time she’d found a white wax paper bag tied to the handle with yellow ribbon, containing three perfect cheese buns. When she’d lost her father and the insipid insurance company had taken nearly six months to determine if they should pay out on his policy before the mining company completed their investigation on whether the collapse that buried him and another seventeen miners was their own negligence.

Like it mattered. He’d been entombed and her despondent mother’s FMLA was almost up. Not that it was paid. They’d subsisted on a limited life benefit her father’s company had provided for ‘final expenses’. Since there’d been no body to bury, at eleven, she’d forced her mother out of bed and into that bank to deposit that ten thousand dollar check. She’d used the money to pay necessities like the mortgage, water, light, heat. She walked to the grocery store a few blocks over from her home and bought store brand bread, peanut butter, milk and cheese. She did her best to keep her baby sister fed and clean, keep family services from realizing her mother had totally checked out on them. By the time her father’d been dead almost five months, she’d had to stretch the money too far just to keep the mortgage paid. She’d stopped eating every day to make sure Prim did. She’d lost so much weight, she’d taken to wearing his hunting jacket even when the weather did not necessitate it to hide how her clothes hung off her slowly emaciating body.

Those cheese buns on that hollow April afternoon were such a godsend, she’d wolfed them down in the girls bathroom (she’d long since stopped frequenting the cafeteria) in less than five minutes- not giving much thought to who might have left them, until the hunger pains had abated. When she’d been satiated enough to think properly, she’d pulled out the paper bag, its bottom decorated with translucent circles, a brand left behind by the delicious bounty it’d held. Her eyes had narrowed when she’d read the grease lightened moniker of the local bakery on the bottom of the packaging.

It’d been months since she’d had the kind of funds to venture into that bakery, with its fancy breads and pastries, though it had once been a favorite stop of her and her father’s before heading out to the woods to hunt or camp. She’d never even spoken to any of the baker’s children, though she’d shared classes with one of his sons – the youngest, if she wasn’t mistaken – for most of her school career. Even now, they shared four classes.

That had taken her aback. Could the popular blonde boy, the one always surrounded by friends – by girls – have taken notice of her situation and left her that small, but oh-so-necessary meal? She’d immediately dismissed the idea as preposterous, chucking the bag into the trash bin on her way out of the bathroom to her next class. Rich, well-adjusted boys didn’t feed half-starved girls and that was the end of it. Or, it would’ve been- had she not found an identical bag hanging from her locker the next day, then the day after… and the day after that. Every day, it was a different treat, always savory, always delicious, always nutritious. Thick sliced banana nut bread, spinach and cheese brioche, croissants baked with ham and cheddar…

He was always just within peripheral eyesight when she found them, always corralled by a gaggle of students that’d make it psychologically impossible for her to thank or even question him about the gifts. But, as surely as she breathed, he’d kept her fed those last few weeks until the insurance check finally turned up in the mail.

After that, once she’d shoved that greenish piece of paper in her mother’s face, forced her into a shower and clothes to get her down to the bank to deposit it, the woman who’d given her life slowly came back to them. Or, more accurately, came back to her baby sister. She could never fully trust her mother not to abandon them again. She’d refused to. But, the woman went back to work… all the time she could possibly spend at work- often twelve hours a day. That and the money from her father’s life insurance, allowed her the ability to settle her life back into a semblance of normalcy and, within a few days of showing up with a bagged lunch in the cafeteria- her locker gifts stopped.

She’d been relieved at the time. After all, she’d been raised never to accept charity without offering an equitable service in return. Everdeens earned their keep. She’d never really known for sure who it was that left the pastry bags. All she had to go on was a bakery label and many, many stolen flitting glimpses into eyes of impossible blue. There was no reason to doubt, but not nearly enough reason to break her cocoon of reclusion to venture an actual confrontation. Even so, back then, if she’d been honest with herself, she would’ve admitted she’d missed the small gestures once they were gone.

She’d often wondered over the years if he’d stopped due to her lack of appreciation. Had he wanted her to thank him? He’d never outwardly shown any interest in recognition for his kindness if he did. He’d never even so much as acknowledged her existence prior to or post the event. She could’ve easily dismissed the entire thing were it not for that grating little voice in the back of her head that kept nagging at her to thank him. Every time she made an excuse to see one of his wrestling matches over the years, every time she deviated from her usual path home to hedge the bakery- just to see if he was working the counter that evening. Every time her chest tightened in anticipation when Prim asked to see the beautiful cakes that were staples at the display when they were shopping in the square. Something inside her kept churning, reminding her much was owed. She had to wipe that red.

Therefore, yes, she was always kind to the baker. Even on a day like today, when she was pointedly trying to ignore the fact he’d shown up to his and Haymitch’s tee time in a skirt.

A bloody skirt.

Though she did have to admit, the knee-high socks accentuated his calves wonderfully. The man had an amazing physique. Who cared if he was old enough to be her father? If he was going to cross dress, she was going to gape. He was a decided upgrade from staring at most of the other men who’d shown up in similar garb at the club that weekend. And definitely something acceptable to divert her eyes from Haymitch’s hairy chicken legs. Why wasn’t he wearing those odd socks?

There was some kind of costume golf tournament going on that day. Apparently, the club, course and adjacent park had all been reserved that weekend for some cultural thing. Gale had even been out the previous week to help unload a truckload of tree trunks from the mill a county over for the strange event in the park. He’d been working odd jobs to pick up spending cash in between classes. What required the use of two dozen tree trunks of varying sizes… she wasn’t sure she even wanted to know.

“Here you are, Mr. Mellark. Jack and coke on the rocks, two Heinekens right out of the freezer - just like you like - and a Dewar’s neat for him.” She gestured with her head a few yards to their left as she handed the older man his drink order, failing to hide her disgust at how her boss was hunched over his nine iron, squinting repeatedly at the ball on the green to line his shot. Yeah, perfect form. It was the second hole in the course, not even noon. The man was barely ambulatory.

“Hey, Haymitch! You want some coffee? I’ll brew you a pot myself- none of that cheap crap in the lounge. That prissy Moroccan stuff you keep hidden in your top drawer. Black with lots of sugar…”

The man made an uncoordinated one-handed waving motion in her general direction. “Mind your pretty little business, sweetheart. I’m just f-fine.”

He was something that started with 'f', all right. Fine just wasn’t anywhere near the hemisphere of it.

She turned her frown away from him when a snort escaped the man beside her. “Forget him, Katniss. And, for the love of all that’s holy, stop calling me Mr. Mellark. Do you have any idea how old that makes me feel? I’m not even forty.”

“Are you flirting with my ball girl, over there, Mellark. You filthy bastard. That’s not what the title implies.”

They both ignored Haymitch’s ranting, the older of the two with a pointed roll of his eyes, “You should probably bring out a pot of whatever that is he’s got in his top drawer with the next round, Katniss. And, really, the name’s Dannel. Call me Dan, Danny, Nel… pretty much anything but Mr. Mellark. You’re killing me here. Here’s something for the extra trouble…”

He handed her a bill, which she usually wouldn’t look at (she’d learned early on it was in poor taste to look at how much you’d been tipped in front of the tipper), but found her eye drawn to the currency due to the unusual number of zeroes she’d glimpsed in passing. Immediately, her eyes snapped up at the man, brows furrowing. “This is too much, Mister… Dan…” she sputtered, trying to find the right way to address the man as she fumbled the hundred-dollar bill back into his closed hand.

An amused golden eyebrow arched high on his boundless forehead. “Well, I’m not taking it back. You put up with that ill-tempered jerk week in and week out,” he gestured with his beer in Haymitch’s direction. “You deserve that and more.”

Suddenly, the topic of their discussion turned irate, bloodshot eyes in their direction, growling scathingly, “Least I’m not wearing that banshee’s colors. It ain’t even your people this proud tradition celebrates and you still manage to defile it by wearing that.”

Now, she was at a complete loss. Was her boss disparaging the baker’s skirt? Sure, the green clashed with his pale skin tone, eyes and probably hair color (if he’d had any hair to speak of), but the earthy tone was just about her favorite color. The interjecting black only heightened it. She could see herself wearing a skirt like that if she ever felt inclined to wear a skirt, at all.

“I’m supporting my boys, Abernathy. Regardless what she did or did not do for them, I didn’t bring them into this world on my own. They’re the product of two cultures. If they choose to embrace this part of hers, so be it. Mind your shot, old man. I’m wiping the floor with your sorry butt by five strokes.” The baker turned softer eyes back toward her after his rather heated and rather out of character barrage. “Anyway, Katniss, like I was saying before we were interrupted by this ass… I know you’re working the Games this weekend…”

It was true. It was the long Independence Day weekend this group had chosen for this… whatever this was, and Haymitch had roped her into working the event for him. She wasn’t sure what she’d be doing beyond her usual duties on the course. Haymitch had mentioned something about concession stands being set up in the park for competitors? Supposedly, she could make out very decently for her efforts. And, really, she had no other plans. She could use the money.

“So, here’s the thing: I want to hire you as a full time concierge for the next two days- as long as the Games are in force,” the man continued. 

“No, Dannel. You ain’t taking one of my girls as your personal valet. I need her. Pretty sure the club won’t allow it, either,” the dark haired man forgot his shot and sauntered over to them, looking more sober than she’d ever seen him.

“I’m a third generation member, Mitch. I’m pretty sure the board will make a concession for me. And I’ll pay twice her wage,” the baker countered, leveling a glacial jeer at the other man that caused him to narrow his eyes in response. He didn’t offer further objections, however.

“So, Katniss, I want you to show up tomorrow at the northernmost edge of the park at nine o’clock. You see the pattern on this?” He lifted a piece of his… um… lower wear? In her direction. “There will be a tent set up there when you arrive. The canvas will have the same exact pattern. It’s my family’s tent- sort of our base of operations for the next two days. I want you to buy the biggest wheeled cooler you can find and fill it with ice, Gatorade, water, deli meats and cheeses for sandwiches. Don’t worry about the bread,” he let out a snort, “one of them will handle that. Maybe get some chips, too. Get enough stuff to feed maybe four people for four days. Oh, and get a two dozen bananas- ripe. They’re going to need that.”

Katniss’s mind reeled at the grocery list. “You’re hiring me to cater for a family of four?”

The man stared at her as if she’d grown a second head. “What? No. You’re feeding three teenage boys for eight hours and I’ll be shocked if a single cooler lasts the day. You’ll have to refill that sucker for Monday- maybe, even make some runs to the clubhouse for anything weird the boys might need that you can’t predict. But, under no circumstance, are you to get Rye booze. Believe me, he’ll ask, he’ll seduce, he’s likely to even beg. Don’t give that child any alcohol, Katniss. My oldest is twenty. None of them are legal. Liquor will only hinder their performance, anyway. And any kind of drinking is strictly forbidden outside of my home. Is that clear?”

Still profoundly confused, she shifted her eyes between the once blonde man and her boss, her mouth opening and closing a second before she ventured dumbly, “I lose my job if I don’t ID and serve spirits only to adults, Mr. Mellark…” She brought a hand up to rub the bridge of her nose as she continued, still frazzled. “And your kids are supposed to eat enough to feed a family for a week in a day?” She let her hand drop exasperated.

The baker softened his features into a commiserative, analytical grin. “You’ve never fed growing boys in the middle of strenuous activity, have you, Katniss?”

Another out-of-left-field inquiry. “No, sir. I only have a younger sister. She eats like a normal person… activity level, notwithstanding.”

She flinched when both her boss and the baker let out simultaneous, uproarious guffaws at her response.

“Well, my boys do not eat like ‘normal people’, not even when they’re not straining through Games aimed at testing the bounds of their physical prowess. So, trust me, you’ll need to fill that cooler to overflowing,” the blonde gasped out between chuckles. Then, he dug a hand into the wallet he’d pulled out of the golf cart at his side and handed her a credit card. “That’s a prepaid Visa. It’s got a grand. It should be enough for both days’ worth of groceries and any gas you need for the errands. If you run out, tell Flax, my oldest, he’ll call in to have more funds transferred to the card for you. Whatever’s left after the two days is yours to keep for your trouble. Sound fair?”

Katniss looked down at the card in her hands, certain her eyes were wide to the point of hilarity. She was at a loss for speech. Was the man serious? Two weeks’ worth of groceries did not cost a thousand dollars. Still, she pocketed the card and focused determination brimming, quicksilver eyes on him. “I’ll be here at nine sharp tomorrow, Mister… um… Dan?... argh… I’m really not comfortable calling you anything other than Mr. Mellark, sir. But, I promise to take extra good care of your kids. Let me go get you the next round. I’ll meet you guys at the next hole over…”

With that, she turned and quickly paced away down the pebbled path leading to the clubhouse, her mind reeling from the conversation she’d just had, the potential use the money she’d earn in just those two days fogging her awareness in the most delightful way. College fund or car. College fund or car. For once, she had only good choices to wrangle with. The normalcy of it was jarringly nice. How screwed up was her life?

The men left behind watched her dark braid swing as she disappeared swiftly into the slopes of green.

“What’er ya doin’ Danny?”

The casual smirk that had graced the baker faded somewhat. He did not bother turning to address his friend as he spoke. “I’m making sure my boys are taken care of tomorrow in my absence like any good parent should. I can’t take three days off in a row on a holiday weekend…”

The man beside him let out a cynical scoff. “Okay. I’m calling your bull. You own the shop. You have employees. Worst-case scenario, you can close for a few days. What are you really doing, Mellark?”

The blue-eyed man lowered his head to the lawn at his feet, releasing an anguished breath as he answered, “She’s got nothing of her in her, does she, Mitch? She’s all her father.”

Haymitch ran a hand through his salt and pepper hair, inhaling sharply. “You can’t do this to yourself, Dannel. She was never your responsibility. She chose her own path long ago… and it was never beside you.”

The baker now lifted remorseful, haunted eyes to meet those of the man at his side. “So, that means I abandon her? I forget my best friend because she’s honest enough to admit she can’t be more to me when I ask her to be and let her waste away to nothing when she loses the man she loves. What kind of monster does that make me, Haymitch? I didn’t call her. I didn’t reach out to her in any way. I knew she had to be going through Hell. Some sick part of me wanted her to be- wanted to punish her for what she did to me… to us. For being happy with all her choices for so long when I was miserable with all the half-baked ones I made in failing attempts to forget her. How petty is that? I didn’t even realize how bad things had gotten for her until I caught the baby sneaking food to her little one months later. I couldn’t even bring myself to face her at that point, how ashamed I was, how much a coward I realized I was. I just helped him, encouraged him, helped him look out for signs that things worsened. I was willing to step in if they did. I swear I would have, Mitch. But, thankfully, they picked up after that. And I just never had the balls.”

Haymitch scratched at the heavy scruff on his face pensively. “So, this is some kind of comeuppance? Sorry to break this to you, but hiring the girl for a weekend hardly makes up for seven years of negligence.”

The baker smiled sadly, shaking his head. “Nope. There’s no making up for what I’ve done to her. This? This is for an entirely different purpose. I lost her because of all those things I allowed to go unsaid, because in twelve years I never made her feel as wanted as she felt with him after six months. I can’t allow the cycle to continue because of my mistakes. Mir screwed him up bad. She screwed them all up bad, but him in a way that could make him regret things left unsaid. That’s on me. I can’t allow that. I’m fixing this for him.”

A knowing, lopsided smirk edged Haymitch’s lip and he reclined back against the golf cart, looking off into the plains of green where the Everdeen girl had disappeared.

“So… the baby, huh? There’s somethin’ ‘bout the girls in that family and you Mellarks…”

A real smile split the baker’s features as he traced his baby blues in the same direction as his friend, imitating his posture against the cart.

“Oh, that’s a certainty.”


 

Chapter Text


Rolling a hundred pound cooler over unlevelled lawn, while simultaneously balancing a flimsy cardboard cup holder with two venti caramel frappuccinoes and two venti mocha frappuccinoes (because she had no inkling what the Mellark boys preferred) was turning out as challenging as it sounded.

Katniss squinted under her visor at the about two dozen tents lined up along the perimeter of the northern edge to Panem National Park, near parking lot M, hitching the weighted backpack further up her shoulder with a violent shrug. All the patterns on the banners were starting to blur in the escalating heat. She focused on eliminating those that contained colors she knew were not the Mellarks’s, like reds, blues, whites or yellows. Annoyingly, that left a whole lot of tents containing varying shades of green. Albeit, not that many that weren’t interwoven with the aforementioned colors. It took her another five minutes of wandering – trying not to look half as conspicuous and out of place as she felt – to find the one that only contained the correct interlacing forest, black and evergreen pattern and waddled her way over.

She found the sixteen-by-sixteen space, curtained on three sides by that same patterned canvas material for shade, void of anything but a collapsible long plastic picnic table, already set up at the furthest end. She was contemplating the best position for the cooler – under as opposed to beside said table – when a deep, rumbling baritone broke through her thoughts, causing her to snap around toward the tent entrance, her hands instinctively gripping the edges of the table at her back. For what purpose, she was not sure. It wasn’t as if she could plausibly throw the thing.

“You must be Katniss. You’re punctual. I like that. Dad always says good employees respect others’ ti- Whoa! Did I freak you out, there?”

‘Yes!’ “No,” she huffed defensively, her default reaction when cornered in any way- physically or metaphorically. Her eyes inadvertently narrowed at the skeptically smiling young man with short-cropped hair so blonde, it gleamed silver in the morning light filtering in near the entrance where he stood. Who could blame her for feeling slightly unhinged? He made no effort to hide his obvious knowledge of her fib.

That wasn’t grating, at all. Social grace demanded he at least try to pretend he didn’t see right through her lie, did it not? That mischievous glint to his navy eyes was a dead giveaway. Navy. The kid’s eyes were almost black; they were such a dark hue of blue. She’d never seen eyes that color. Was he albino? Nah, he was fair, but not any paler than his father. But, those eyes…

“Staring is kinda rude, you know. I’m Flax, by the way. And I apologize in advance.”

His statement broke her out of the trance his idiosyncratic eyes had unwittingly lulled her into and she frowned in response. “Sorry. Um. I’ve never seen… um… eyes like your… those? Wait, apologize for what?”

He allowed the four folded lounge chairs he’d been holding to plummet to the grass at his feet and she was able to get a better look at the rest of him. He wore a dark green - almost black - muscle shirt and the same sort of pleaded, plaid skirt his father was wearing the previous day, matched with white knee-high socks and odd metal tipped leather boots. And every inch of him seemed carved with brawn.

Somehow, the bizarre outfit didn’t look any more off-putting on someone with a body like his than it had on his father. 

“I’m apologizing for whatever they say or do over the course of the next two days that might and likely will piss you off.”

The eyebrow was hitching, the question on the tip of her tongue, when another shorter blonde barged into the tent, his obscenely toned arms laden with dozens of towels and some kind of woven mat. His baby blue eyes immediately dashed in her direction upon entering, widening with excitement. “Oh, lookee! Club logo tank! We have our very own butler! I shall call you Jeeves!”

You shall receive a swift kick to your balls,’ she mused scornfully. Outwardly, she scoffed, “I’m a valet, not a butler… and my name’s Katniss. You can call me Katniss.”

This new guy ignored her entirely to shout over his shoulder with exaggerated fanfare at a third newcomer to the enclosure, “Hey, Peeta. Dad got us a she-butler. Isn’t this just spectacular?”

Her breath hitched when those familiar electric blue eyes met hers from under a mop of untamed ashen waves, confusion mixed with anger? glazing fleetingly over them before he quickly traced them off toward the oldest boy in the tent. The unvoiced inquiry clear in his glare, even to her. Obviously, all the baker’s sons were not made privy to her presence there today.

Joy.

Flax pretended blue ice was not burning its way through his skull, doing an admirable job at ignoring his baby brother to chastise the bulkiest of the three. “Are you deaf and stupid, Rye? She said she’s a runner. Call her that again and you’re eating grass, man.” He then, tentatively, turned softer, almost plaintiff eyes to the youngest boy in the tent, who’d moved off to place two dozen different varieties of breads and baked goods on the table, obviously trying to avoid him. “Dad asked Katniss to help us out this weekend, Peet. You know… since we’re going to be going from event to event. She’s going to be getting some stuff for us when we need it.”

Katniss noted the boy tip his head toward his oldest brother, an almost imperceptible gesture, which made Flax’s expression lock into something she could not read. He then turned to her with an odd smile she couldn’t quite interpret, but was sure did not phase the intensity in his blazing eyes. It made a jolt run through her that confused her senses, making her unsure whether to feel anxious of exited. Her heart didn’t seem to make a distinction, judging by the way it thrummed wildly against her ribs.

“I’m guessing these are for you, then. Dad made a ridiculous fuss over me making sure I brought them. We all like them just fine, but I don’t think anyone appreciates them quite as much as you.”

It took her a split second to realize he’d stopped speaking to veer her eyes down from where she’d watched his lips move as he talked (he had a very full lower lip and almost nonexistent upper lip that dipped into a perfect ‘V’ right at the center) to realize he was holding out a white paper bag. She steeled her nerve so her hand would not shake as she reached out for it. Why would it shake? Why was she so nervous around him? He was just another boy. So what if he’d done something nice for her forever ago? That was no reason for her to lose her cool around him. Even on the off chance he remembered her, at all. She’d been his charity case. She made him feel better about his big house and nice clothes and comfortable life for a while. Good.

With her bubble of self-righteousness air tight, she furrowed her brow into a distrusting scowl and opened the bag. Immediately, her façade of aplomb crumbled and it was all she could do to keep that awful disgruntled squeak building at the back of her throat from escaping.

“He used to get them for you all the time before… you know,” Peeta whispered softly, as if recounting this in anything above a whisper were sacrilege. “And your whole face would light up when you’d get one. They were too big for your hands, so he’d break them in half for you and blow on them to cool them off, because you always demanded them right out of the oven.”

She sniffed to stave off the moisture building behind her eyes at the sweet, happy memory, reaching in the bag to pull out one of the still-steaming cheese buns. “It fits in my hand just fine now,” she breathed just as softly, to no one in particular, bringing the treat to her mouth and taking a bite. She closed her eyes to savor the feel of the flaky crust melting with the delicate cheese on her tongue, the indulgent taste heightening the euphoric feelings of joy that treasured memory of her father unraveled.

She opened her eyes to find his still locked on hers. Darkened to the point that vibrant azure was a mere sliver of an aura. Was he allowed to look at her like that? But, really, could it be helping matters that she was gawking right back?

“Aw, sweet! You brought caffeine and calories. You are forgiven for not allowing me a cool stereotypical butler name.”

The moment effectively dashed by Rye’s comment, Katniss forced her eyes away from Peeta to focus them on him. A heartbeat later, she was dashing past and reaching for the bottle the kid was untangling from between two of the many towels he’d brought with him.

“No, Rye! No. Your father specifically said I was not supposed to get you booze. I can get in so much trouble if he finds out you have that out here! If anyone on the club staff finds out.”

In a ridiculously practiced move, the teenager had the bottle of whiskey clear out of her grasp and held securely over his head. None of the Mellarks were tall. Flax was likely the tallest and he barely breached the five foot nine mark. Rye was the shortest – probably around five foot six – but even he towered over her petite five-foot frame. Add his wingspan, and there was no way she was getting to that bottle.

“Chill, pretty lady,” the thewy blonde replied with a lopsided, sly grin. “You can’t get in trouble for what you did not provide. I’m guessing Dad’s keeping track of your spending if he asked you to keep a leash on me. This is the old man’s private stock. He’s been keeping the key to the liquor cabinet under the ugly bust in his study since I was nine. He needs to get more creative.”

Katniss slumped her shoulders in dejection, subconsciously pawing the plastic square in her shorts pocket. The guy had a point... about everything. She needed to get the pin to cash out that card as soon as that weekend was done and over with. Last thing she needed was a virtual stranger knowing how she spent her cash. Her frown still deepened as she watched him pore the liquor into his iced coffee. It was mid-morning, for Christ’s sake.

“Any other takers on a little ‘Irish’ in their refreshment?”

She balked when the other two instantly offered up their cups for Rye to tip the Jack into. This was perfect. She was babysitting a gang of future AA members. Still, she somehow only seemed irked by the fact the youngest was partaking. There was no logical reason it bothered her so that the kid was getting blitzed before noon. Or, at all, for that matter. So what if he was a few months younger than her from what she could recall, making him no older than seventeen. It was none of her business what he did. She was not his keeper.

Still bothered the crap out of her.

“Um, didn’t your father mention something about alcohol affecting your performance in whatever you guys are here to do?” She grunted indignantly, coming to snatch the last ‘untainted’ cup off the table, purposely barreling between Flax and Rye. “I saw some of the contraptions set out for this thing on the way in. It looks like you sickos are reenacting some screwed up medieval crap. Why are there forklifts and boulders out there? And is pole vaulting involved at some point? I’d think you’d want to be as clear-headed as possible for whatever that entails.” She finished with a very audible slurp through her straw, blazing a sneer from one to the other.

As if she wasn’t annoyed enough with them already, they actually laughed at her- all three of them.

She focused her wrath on Peeta, however, since he actually had the gall to address her. “We’re likely the youngest team here, Katniss. If we were to finish just this one bottle between the three of us, we’ll still be the most sober people out here. You work with Haymitch. Have you ever seen that man sober a day in his life? Do you think any kind of male sports bonding – let’s forget the fact that this is a culture so known for its love of drinking, there’s a freaking form of whiskey named after us – can take place with completely sober men? How much credit are you giving our gender in general? Plus, look at us, do we look like we can’t handle a little liquor? Rye’s been at it since he was thirteen. Granted, he shouldn’t have, but he’s developed a very high tolerance. A third of a bottle won’t make a dent. Besides, there’s no way you’d know this, but unless you’re drunk beyond sight, not much coordination is necessary for the events on the first day of this thing- just brute strength. Tomorrow’s when the skill challenges take place… and the archery tournament. But we’re not signed up fo-”

“There’s an archery tournament?” She did a piss poor job at permeating her front of righteous indignation to disguise her excitement at the prospect of competing with other people. She’d never tested her skills against other competitors. 

“Yeah,” Flax answered, glacial eyes narrowed warily. “But enrollment for all the contests closed last week.”

“Oh,” Katniss snorted, trying to hide her disappointment with another sip of her drink, avoiding eye contact. “That’s all right, then.”

“We can show you were the targets and stuff are set up, though,” Peeta quickly offered in a near squeak, then cleared his throat and ran a hand through his hair, adding sheepishly, suddenly finding something on the grass at his feet very interesting , “the first events don’t start until eleven. We can walk to the far end of the grounds to see the archery set up and get back in time for our first meet.”

She responded with a nonchalant shrug of one shoulder, trying to downplay her growing exhilaration and all around brightening mood at the prospect of that. They were all still on check with her, after all. They weren’t getting off that easy.

“So…” she tipped her half-full, clear plastic cup downward in a sweeping motion at their legs. “Anyone want to explain why all the dudes at this thing are wearing stuff they found in their grandmother’s closet? Repressed mommy issues?” she ventured in an overtly mocking tone. Curiously, she noticed for the first time they were in matching outfits. She would’ve found it adorable were she not determined to latch onto that quickly thinning thread of ire at them.

“First of all, darling,” Rye started in, visibly slighted with a tug at his sarong. “These aren’t freaking skirts. They’re kilts – tartans – their use dates back to before the rise of the bloody British empire. And they’ve always been worn by Scottish men… warriors… soldiers… men… as a sign of clan affiliation. They’re a symbol of tradition and family and your little statement was outright ignorant.”

Oh, no, he did not.

Within three strides, she was invading Rye’s personal space, burning molten steel eyes into his with such ferocity, he was shrinking back into the fabric of the tent wall behind him. “Do you know the name of the man who invented, invented, the written Cherokee language so their existence wouldn’t be completely wiped off the map? There’s a humongous freaking species of tree named after him. Do you know the legends of the men who raided the hoard of settlers to these mountains during the gold rush down South three-hundred years ago because they ravaged their ancestral lands? Or the name of the man who’s believed to have sacrificed himself so his people could stay hidden deep in these mountains, where no one but they would venture, when the rest of the tribes were forced West?”

She violently stretched out an arm in the direction of the pines in the distance, flanking the park. “Could you survive a single night in that wilderness with nothing but the clothes on your back? Don’t judge how little I know of your ancestry when the very fact it exists in this place all but decimated mine and you don’t know any more about it than I know why you showed up today in a skirt. Because, call it what you will, private school girls wear rip-offs of your proud heritage, guy.”

Satisfied with how the larger boy lowered his eyes to his feet, sputtering out a duly humbled apology, she began to move away when her eyes caught those of the boy’s youngest brother to his left.

She learned what that buck she and Gale had felled last Autumn must have felt those last moments when his humongous eyes had caught sight of their barely flickering lantern in the twilight, right before the kill shot.

She had no description for what roiled through those cerulean eyes, focused on her with an intensity that made the hairs on her arms stand on end. There was mirth there. Obviously, he’d taken delight in her humiliation of his older brother. But, it was subdued, overshadowed by something blazing, domineering- pride... reverence… veneration… desire?.. possessiveness?

Whatever that was brimming in his eyes scalded, branded, burrowed under her skin. Confused her. He needed to stop looking at her like that as much a she needed to will every neuron firing in her brain to stop aching for him never to stop looking at her like that. Allowing merely a stare to make her feel this exposed, this raw and aware, was not okay. So… why could she not break his stare?

“Ugh, guys I forgot one last thing back at the truck. Don’t destroy the tent before I get back,” a large blur of greens and diffused pale colors dashed past, effectively liberating her.

Thank you for existing in this universe, Flax.’ Katniss let out a centering breath as she turned back toward the table to empty her backpack of the two extra-large bags of Doritos, two bundles of bananas and a bag of fuji apples.

“Oh, good. Food. I’m starving. What’s in the cooler?”

Katniss arched an impressed brow when Rye heaved the heavy plastic container off the floor and onto the table top as if it were nothing, flipping the lid open like an exited toddler unwrapping a present.

“You’re not starving, stupid. You ate four bagels before coming here. That was less than two hours ago,” Peeta retorted from where he was busying himself with unfolding the large weaved mat (which Katniss now realized was a makeshift floor), before starting to unfold the lounge chairs over it.

The teen beside her jerked his head back to side eye his little brother. “And you dictate my digestive system… why, exactly? I’m a growing boy. I have a fast metabolism.” He then turned to wink provocatively at Katniss. “I need what makes a body good.”

She couldn’t have put a name to it if anyone had asked, but she could feel the palpable shift to the atmosphere. It made turning back to look at Peeta when he spoke impossible, his tone a dangerous register she’d never even thought his voice capable of achieving.

“Rye…”

So much expressed in just that pronoun. It was an unveiled threat, a warning- a promise.

It went completely unheeded by its target.

“So, Katniss,” Rye leaned in to her with a devilish gleam to his morning sky eyes that perfectly matched the quality of the smirk inching up one end of his lip. She was too distracted with trying to decipher what game the siblings were obviously playing on one another to notice when he brought a hand to her face to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. Had she been clear-minded, had she realized the endgame here, she would’ve shoved him away posthaste with a revolted sneer and accompanying slap. Her normal reaction at being handled this intimately… and by someone who met her less than half an hour ago. But the shift had been too fast. Weren’t they just discussing the cooler?

“I’m going to need some sunblock if we’re escorting you all the way to the other side of the field to that range. We Mellarks have some very delicate skin- burn up like ants under a magnifying glass in this sun. Dad says you always get it for him, ‘cause he never remembers to bring it.” His smile took on a sinister edge as he inched even closer, almost hissing in her ear, “Is Daddy paying enough for me to get a proper rub down?”

Eew! The price does not even exist, prick.

That had shaken out the cobwebs and her clenched fist was in midflight on collision course with his tapered nose, when he disappeared from her field of vision in a blur of movement. It took a fraction of a second to register the two sounds she’d heard next were Rye’s head making hard impact with the table surface – courtesy of Peeta ramming it there by a fistful of his dirty blonde hair – and the laugh that exploded from the older boy immediately upon impact. The psycho was laughing even as his little brother held his arms braced behind him in a hold that looked capable of wrenching his shoulder blade out of its socket.

Katniss couldn’t help wincing at the way the older boy’s arm flexed at an odd angle. And Peeta was not relenting an inch, his breathing accelerated as seemingly every thread of sinew in his exposed arms strained to keep the hold. Or, the reason those muscles rippled and jumped so hypnotically was the effort exacted not to go any further, Katniss contemplated, still enthralled by the power this usually sanguine boy could unleash in a breath.

“You need to calm down, little brother,” she heard Rye gasp between guffaws. “You aren’t ‘blessed’ like us with the gift for using it to your advantage, making it fuel your strategy. She didn’t break you that way. It’ll cloud your judgment, make you careless…”

Before the surprised yelp had chance to escape her, the Mellark middle child had somehow wedged his leg between those of his younger brother from behind, twisting him off balance enough to allow the older boy to reverse the hold and just about body slam Peeta into the mat behind them. He pinned the struggling younger teen’s forearms at his sides with his massive thighs, settling astride his hips and using one of his free hands to brush the blonde waves away from his forehead in an almost tender way.

Everything about this confused the daylights out of Katniss. Guys were freaking insane.

“You think those bastards out there won’t use this to their advantage, Peeta?” Rye hissed at his jeering younger sibling in a low, concerned tone. “Imagine the things they’ll say to get you here… the things they’ll try. Control it. You’re better than this… better than both of us. You have the gift of control. This changes nothing. So, there’s a cog in the works. Deal with it. The wrestling trials are tomorrow and this has to be in check by then.”

She noticed a flicker of comprehension roil though the molten ocean Peeta’s eyes had become before his breathing noticeably slowed, his face warping slowly into a practiced, blank mask. It was bizarre to behold.

“Wonderful. Five minutes. I leave for five minutes and you two try to kill each other?”

Katniss wrenched her eyes away from the duo on the ground to send a vexed look at Flax, who was making his way to her, his outstretched hand holding a scarf, patterned identically to the boys’ kilts. “This is for you. Hope you’re not allergic to cashmere. What stupidity did Rye say?” he sighed, gesturing with his head toward the boys on the ground.

Still reeling from everything that had transpired in the last ten minutes, Katniss took the lovely scarf, growing hotter just from looking at it, as she mumbled her numb response, “He either implied I’m a call girl or some kind of very hands-on masseuse. The details have understandably become sketchy in the last few minutes.” She brought a hand up to rub the bridge of her nose. “What am I supposed to do with this? It’s like eighty-five degrees out and getting hotter. And are they hurting each other? It looked like Peeta was going to dislocate one of Rye’s arms a moment ago and he didn’t fall particularly well on that mat when Rye threw him.”

Flax lifted an index finger in a ‘hold a moment’ gesture, then proceeded to kick his second youngest brother, still poised atop the youngest, somewhere in the lower ribs, questioning, “Is your arm okay, moron? Apologize to Katniss.”

“Dude, what the f-” Rye began but quickly stifled himself with a quick glance in her direction. “I’m fine except this growing bruise in my side, prick.”

“Did what I just say sound like a request to you, Ryland?”

The teenager narrowed his eyes at his older brother in that same odd, unvoiced communication all three seemed to favor amongst themselves, before breaking eye contact to stare at her. She was impressed neither his expression nor his tenor betrayed just how forced the apology was. It rang with nothing but sincerity. “Sorry, Katniss. I was just messing with you. Took it too far.”

The realization struck that these children were masters of subterfuge - all three of them. Something in their lives had forced them to develop this unique skill, this need to submerge true emotion in preference of what was socially expected of them. There was something unspeakably sad and sinister about that notion.

What kind of monster would do that to these boys?

“You all right down there, Peeta?” Flax asked his baby brother, moving around to kneel near his head.

“Oh, just peachy. Just trying to figure out how to get this turd stain off me,” he responded with a voice brimming with sarcasm.

Katniss looked on in amazement from where she’d moved near Peeta’s feet, wondering why Flax didn’t just pry Rye off the younger boy and ended this. Then, all thoughts stopped when Rye leaned all the way forward to place a very sloppy, taunting kiss to Peeta’s cheek, effectively causing his kilt to hitch all the way up the back of his thighs…

“Oh, dear God, Almighty!” Katniss blurted, both hands coming up to shield her eyes as she jerked her body back towards the table.

Intrigued by the outburst, three sets of varying blues veered to her, including Peeta’s, who had to crane his neck well off the mat to accomplish the feat. Still unsure what had spooked her, Flax was about to question her when he noticed the patch of too-much paleness protruding from where Rye’s kilt hitched.

“Dude! You’re not wearing anything under that?” He arraigned outraged at his younger sibling.

“What?” Peeta screeched. “Get the hell off me, Rye!”

“Yup,” the baker’s middle child replied, devoid of shame. “I went full tradition under this sucker.” He then added in a thick Scottish brogue, “Any naive who crosses me’s gettin’ thar’ far shar’ o’ ye’ ol’ moon, laddies.”

“Get off me, you deviant freak!” Peeta huffed, flexing his ample calves and thighs to arch his body off the mat, the unexpected move unbalancing Rye enough for him to free his arm and send him quite literally flying off. The older boy landed on his back hard, the impact forcing the air out of his lungs.

He was still laughing.

Katniss ventured a turn back to see if the kid was all right. Whatever had just transpired sounded like a burlap sack of meat slapping compacted earth. She instantly regretted her decision.

“Oh, my god!” And the balls of her palms were back to applying pressure to her eyes, hoping to burn away the visual of Rye Mellark flat on his back, knees splayed completely apart.

“Man, close your legs! Katniss is right there! If not out of the respect you so blatantly lack for yourself, out of respect for her. Dad raised you better than this,” Peeta assailed furious, kicking his older brother’s legs closed. The older teen just curled into a fetal position on the floor from laughing so hard.

“Does the clubhouse sell underwear? Boxers?”

Katniss peaked around her hands to grace Flax with an honestly clueless expression. “I have no idea, man. I’ve never had to check. This is some unprecedented crap, right here. I usually cater to people who can dress themselves- not infants. It ain’t daycare.”

Flax ran a hand though his short hair in frustration. “Can you go look, please? We can’t have him competing like this. Most of the people here know our old man. He’s not just embarrassing us.”

“Okay,” she conceded. The last thing she wanted was this nearly grown man-child ruining his father’s reputation. “The clubhouse is nearly three miles from here, though. I’ll probably make it back just in time for the first event…” she finished, looking down at her phone to verify the time.

“Why?”

They both turned at Peeta’s inquiry. It was a fair question.

“‘Runner’ isn’t just a job description in my case. I don’t have a car. My friends dropped me off here this morning on the way to the beach. They’re picking me up this afternoon. It’s fine, though. I’m fast. I can make it there and back before the Games start.”

Flax let out a scoff. “Yeah. No. There is no way that’s going down like that.” He turned to fetch something out of a fuzzy? purse-like thing he’d been wearing around his waist when he’d first arrived but had since discarded on the table. He turned back to her with a set of keys and a knowing expression.

“To answer whatever it is that’s going through your head, that’s not a woman’s purse. It’s a sporran. Kilts have no pockets. I need a place to keep my phone, wallet and keys. It’s men’s gear in Scottish tradition.” He handed her the keys. “It’s the black late-model F-250 with the lift kit, parked in section M32. The license plate says F-L-A-X-N.”

She worked hard to choke back the scoff. “As in a play on words for flexing? You don’t come off as the type to brag. Anyway, I’ve never driven a truck this… large before. Sounds… impressive. Hope I can handle it.”

She could hear Peeta chuckling in the background. Flax looked at her with a tight-lipped expression. “That car means more to me than four of Rye.”

“Harsh!”

Flax continued as if his middle sibling were non-existent. “It was my high school graduation gift from Dad. And, yes, I have a custom tag. No, I don’t want to share the story behind it. You want to drive it to get some underwear? Or would you rather be treated to an eyeful of Rye’s frank and beans whenever a strong gust picks up for the next eight hours? Your choice.”

She bit her bottom lip to keep from laughing, diverting her attention to the boy on the mat. “What’s your size?”

Rye shrugged, at an honest loss. It’d been ages since he’d bought underwear and, honestly, he wasn’t too keen on his plans of flashing the competition getting derailed.

“Dad buys the same size for both of us. He’s a twenty-eight waist. Does that help?” Peeta supplied.

“Uh-hum”, she mumbled in affirmation, avoiding eye contact and rushing away toward the exit. She wasn’t sure why knowing Peeta Mellark’s underwear size was making her blush, but she definitely did not want anyone witnessing the reaction.

“Oh, and Katniss…”

She stopped mid-step, turning to quirk a questioning brow at Flax.

“Call your friends and tell them not to bother. We can get you home.”

“I’m not heading home from here. They’re taking me to the grocery store to get more stuff for the cooler tomorrow.”

“That’s an even bigger imposition, isn’t it?” Peeta waged in. “We’ll take you to the store and get you home after.”

“I don’t want to go to some grocery store after this, guys.”

“SHUT UP, RYE,” came the chorused reply from the other Mellarks.

Katniss couldn’t help the smile that forced its way onto her features. “He does have a point. You guys will be exhausted. Tell you what: my mom’s got a late shift, so I’m on my own with Prim for the night. If you guys take me shopping, I’ll get you a change of clothes – some sweats and t-shirts – in the shop while I’m there. I’ll use my employee discount so that place doesn’t rob us,” she added with a roll of her eyes. “Then, you can shower at my place. We’ll call out for pizza. Sound cool?”

She traced her eyes from one of the boys to the next for affirmation, lingering when she caught Peeta looking at her that way again.

He had to stop that.

She needed to go.

It felt like a strange sort of vow when she heard him speak.

“It’s a date, Everdeen.”

She nodded quickly, whether in concession or as a frantic spasm to break that grip his eyes and voice held over her, she was not sure.

She just had to move, get some distance between her and that boy with those intense, mesmerizing blue eyes.

She had to go.

No thinking, just moving.

Oh, who was she kidding?

She was already royally screwed.


 

Chapter Text


 She could not find it in herself to begrudge them that bottle of Jack Daniels.

She couldn’t imagine anyone, excepting those burdened by some bizarre masochistic tendency, would subject themselves to what these children had endured thus far- not without something to buffer the signals blazing through nerves in their straining muscles to their brains. She was impressed they’d restrained themselves to something as tame as whiskey.

Peeta had been right. They were the youngest team in this thing- and not by a narrow margin. The next youngest person competing after Flax was some twenty-five year old Greek-deity-come-to-earth with a similar family history as the boys… Irish father, Scottish mother. Finnick Odair was here with his mother’s entire extended family, it appeared. Their ‘clan’ – as she’d learned was the proper terminology – numbered at fifteen, though not all of them were participating in the same events.

In fact, that was the other thing that made the Mellarks unique– well, aside from the fact that theirs was the smallest affiliation on the manifest. They were the only clan with every member participating in each one of what the Games referred to as ‘heavy’ events. Apparently, because no one in their right minds put their bodies through two days of what these bastards were doing.

The first event at eleven was fundamental enough. They went for the promised walk to the other end of the grounds, beforehand. Peeta had even tried to search out someone who could maybe find Katniss a bow when she’d literally been bouncing on the balls of her feet with excitement upon reaching it. But, when he’d been unsuccessful, she’d explained bows and archery gear were not cheap and anyone who left some lying around for any number of things to happen to them was a complete idiot, who she’d rather not have as an opponent, anyway. That seemed to cheer them both up about the situation.

When they arrived back where the first event was to take place, they learned they’d missed the opening ceremonies, which apparently showcased an impressive bagpipe line march and traditional line dance number she would’ve liked to have seen. They’d also missed the ‘amateur’ level round of the first event… which turned out to be tug-o-war.

Her initial instinct was to scoff at the absurdity of grown men playing something she herself had not partaken in since kindergarten, but that notion was quickly abolished when the first round of competitors – clan McKintosh versus clan Gunn – stepped up to compete. There were five members on each end of a rope thicker than her arms and these were not regular men. These were monsters. They did not possess necks- not a single one of them. Their heads all connected directly to their massive shoulders by interwoven ropes of sinew. It was not an appealing look. It took well over a minute to get the flag in the middle to budge more than a few centimeters in either direction.

While she looked on in horror at the competition, she took the opportunity to point out the obvious to the baker’s oldest directly beside her.

“Flax… um… aren’t you guys pathetically outnumbered for this event? Why didn’t more of your family come with you? Everyone else seems to have brought their cousin’s cousin to this thing?”

Of course, because nothing personal asked to these kids could be answered without one of those creepy, unspoken eye conferences, he exchanged an unreadable look with each of his siblings as soon as she asked this. The answer ended up coming from Rye, who’d apparently drawn the short straw in the Mellark family mute staring contest.

“Dad’s Danish. I know. Baker, Danish, pun. Hilarious,” he let out a humorless, clipped laugh before continuing completely seriously, which was pointedly unsettling coming from him, “We’re Scottish on Mom’s side- clan Graham. Please, don’t say anything about how that also relates to the baking thing. I will smack you and, although it’ll be soft, I don’t need these two rearranging my dentistry work in front of all these people.”

“And there is no denying that’s happening,” Peeta confirmed with a tight grin.

“Anyway,” Rye continued with a roll of his eyes, “Our great-uncles used to bring us to these every year when we were little. Peeta was barely old enough to remember. They competed well into their sixties. It was a family tradition. They made our other cousins come, too.”

“What happened that they stopped coming? Why aren’t they here today?” she asked, steel eyes brimming with curiosity.

“Mom bailed on Dad when Peeta was eight,” Flax waged in with a sad smile. “Her side of the family… well, the great uncles were too old to keep in touch too much and our cousins… That side of our family is a lot like her. Cold. We lost track of them after we lost track of her.”

Katniss’s heart clenched for these boys’ loss. “She doesn’t call you?”

“Oh, but that’s a blessing,” Rye immediately chimed in. “Nothing that woman has ever said or likely will ever say can be called anything but toxic.”

“Rye!” his oldest brother admonished.

The boy turned a sneer back on him. “Oh, please, Flax. Don’t defend her. She’s poison.”

“She’s sick. No one chooses to be sick.”

“Yeah? Well, people may not choose to be sick, but they sure can choose to go off their meds for weeks at a time. She was many things, but she was never stupid. She knew exactly what she became off them, exactly what she would do to us. She liked it. So, don’t give me that crap about her not being able to control it. She had chemical means of controlling it. Beating the sh-”

Suddenly, Rye cut off, flitting choleric eyes towards Katniss as if noticing her presence for the first time. Abruptly, he turned from the group, pacing several yards off – away from the crowd of spectators. He wrapped his arms tight across his chest, clenching and unclenching his fists as he closed his eyes and breathed through his nose.

“Sh-should I go talk to him?” she inquired quietly to the remaining siblings, guilt churning her insides from the thought her question had caused this kind of reaction from the obviously traumatized youth.

“NO!” came the unanimous response. Then Peeta added in a calmer voice, “He just needs a second to rein it in. He’ll be fine. He just needs to be alone for a second. Don’t… don’t pretend it didn’t happen when he comes back, though. He hates when people pretend around him. He’s had enough pretending for a lifetime. Just… it’s another layer to who he is, you know?”

She could understand that. When her father died, everyone was okay with her feeling miserable and reclusive at first, but when it didn’t stop, when she didn’t want to be around other people, when colors weren’t as bright, when songs stopped being worth singing anymore- they tried to force her out. When she fought back to stay the person her circumstances had molded, they labeled her antisocial- an outcast. Only a few accepted her: Prim, Gale, Jo, Madge, even ornery old Haymitch. Everyone else wanted her to fit their molds. They could shove their molds. Yes. She understood Rye Mellark. There was kinship there.

“None of that explains how you’re supposed to compete with only three of you,” she changed the subject with a challenging slope of her brow.

Peeta’s eyes glazed over with something undecipherable that sent another of those interesting jolts up her spine. She could grow used to those. Flax graced her with a grateful smile.

“Then, we lose, I guess,” he offered with a nonchalant shrug of his shoulder.

And lost they did- spectacularly. Though it would not become a trend they’d have to burden for long.

At the next event, the Stone Put, they put competitors twice their age, a hundred pounds heavier and often a full head taller, to shame. The concept was simple enough: competitors were to ‘put’ (as in golf- meaning throw) river stones weighing between 16 and 28 pounds, using only one hand. The competitors were allowed about a seven and a half foot approach to the toeboard or trig (a marked baseline from which they had to make their throw). If an athlete touched the top of the trig or the ground in front of it, the throw didn't count. The furthest throw won. To gain the momentum required for the longest toss, most competitors glided or twirled before throwing the stone. The Mellark boys used a twirling technique that garnered them third, fourth and sixth place, respectively. It seemed to her like more than an admirable accomplishment for the greenhorns on the field, who were going up against men who’d competed for decades in some cases.

In between the second and third events, Katniss led them back to the tent for a snack. They had an hour respite. She handed them each a towel and a one-liter bottle of orange Gatorade as they collapsed into the lounge chairs. Then went to work splitting three entire loaves of bread.

“Okay, guys. What’ll you have? Roast beef, turkey or black forest ham and Swiss?”

“Yes,” she heard Peeta answer from behind her to the left, the sound muffled by the towel likely covering his face. She submerged a chuckle. She loaded the overflowing hoagies onto a plastic serving tray she’d ‘borrowed’ from the clubhouse during her quick visit and swerved toward her charges with a winning smirk.

“Okay, guys, here’s the gru- oh!”

Gratefully, the plate hadn’t cleared the edge of the table when her grip slackened and one end tipped. It would’ve been a waste for all that food to have ended up on that filthy ground.

She took the driest swallow she’d ever taken in her seventeen years. Not three feet in front of her, lay Peeta Mellark on a canvas lounge chair, in a green patterned kilt, one leg folded over the other and arms folded lazily behind his head… entirely bare from the waist up.

Unable to help herself, she traced her eyes over every inch of exposed skin. She started where the kilt met a milky, smooth expanse of skin, flanked at both ends by sculpted columns of muscle, tapering off into his torso. An almost invisibly golden trail of curly hairs cleaved it, leading up to the sunken slope of his navel. The skin there took on a sun-kissed pinkish hue. Obviously, nothing below this line received much sun exposure. Something about this realization made Katniss’s skin break out in gooseflesh. Her eyes continued their anatomical exploration, counting the valleys between each of his easily distinguishable abdominal muscles, before traipsing up the dip of his sternum to the deep crevice between the quadratic swells of his pectorals, accentuated by two perfect little rose nubs. She brazenly ventured upward, following those twin tendons enfolding his gently bobbing Adam’s apple to where they met his angular jaw.

Lord, he must have been carved out of marble.

“Just in case you want a memento you can stare at even longer… I took a picture with my phone. Of your expression, too…”

Rye’s taunting whisper brought her to her senses and she turned mortified eyes to him.

“What? No. What?” She was still fuzzy from her voyeurism. It took a moment to process the fact she’d been openly gaping at a half-naked boy and his older brother had obviously caught her red-handed. Naturally, only one recourse would do.

“Shut up, Rye,” she bristled defensively, tacitly. “Eat your sandwich,” she added, handing him a paper plate and one of the massive loaves.

“What?” the blonde continued to antagonize with a mock innocent quirk to his lip. “Don’t I get a comment about how poorly I’ve kept up with my sunscreen applications? Look? Peeta doesn’t look like he’s burning at all in this brutal sun. He looks the perfect shade of baby pink,” he infuriatingly accentuated the ‘k’ sound on the last word. “Doesn’t he, Flax?”

“Dude, what do I care how singed any of you idiots…” Flax begun, then stopped when he saw Katniss turn back to the table, a flush so deep creeping up her neck, he could see it from where he reclined, and he was the furthest from her. Even Peeta was bringing the towel down from over his face to leer at Rye in disbelieve, obviously realizing what his jerk of an older brother was doing.

“Oh, dude! You’re such a humongous prick!” Flax heaved.

“Um, I have to use the bathroom, everyone. Sandwiches and chips are on the table. Help yourselves,” Katniss muttered, quickly dashing past the trio and out of the tent, pointedly avoiding eye contact.

Peeta watched her retreating form, eyes full of commiseration, before turning them back on Rye, murderous. “This. Remember this the day you wake up with me holding that pillow over your face, jackass.”

The baker’s middle child merely chortled into his next bite.

*~*~*~*~*~*

It’d taken her ten minutes of sitting in that disgusting port-a-potty with her face in her hands to realize she was in there because of Rye Mellark.

Rye-freaking-Mellark.

Who cared? So what if he’d seen her staring at Peeta? He was the equivalent of a mentally-challenged chimp.

Feeling angry beyond comprehension at herself, she’d marched back to that tent and told Rye exactly where he could shove his next snarky comment the instant he’d attempted it.

Another had not been forthcoming once that’d been settled- at least, not about the fact that Peeta was shirtless. And he’d remained shirtless – all three of them had – for the next two events.

It was well past two when the weight for distance trials and hammer toss started and the sun was blazing. No one could have paid those kids to keep those shirts on.

The weight for distance turned out to have the same principal as the Stone Put. Depending on ability, either a twenty-eight or fifty-six pound weight attached to a D-ring was thrown one-handed from a rectangular (four and a half feet by nine feet) area behind a trig. The competitors had to stay behind the trig at all times during the throw for it to count. Like before, competitors used spinning moves to gain momentum for the throws, each one getting three attempts. Placement hinged on distance. 

The same concept served for the hammer throw, except this event implemented the use of a steel ball attached to a four-foot wooden handle. The competitors used an overhead propelling motion to catapult the thing backwards over their shoulders. Again, distance determined placement.

The boys, again demonstrated amazing ability in these events and Katniss found herself bouncing (yes, bouncing) in excitement each time one of them outdistanced a veteran at the weight for distance. When the results were read through the loud speaker and she’d learned that Peeta had placed first (his first time placing that high) she’d rushed the trio out in the field before all the results had even been listed off.

She was so giddy, so deliriously proud. If anyone one asked later how her hands wound up around the blonde’s neck, she could honestly not have provided an answer.

It wasn’t until a split second after she’d done it, that nth of a moment it took to register the intimacy of the act, the surprised gasp breathed into her ear, that she abruptly pulled back, too late realizing that burning she’d felt on the small of her back… That was his large hands coming up in delayed reaction to return the gesture.

Unsure how to reconcile that – any of that – she worried her bottom lip between her teeth in embarrassment, forcing her eyes away from anywhere near his face. Those pools of blue were dangerous enough territory when she hadn’t done something that unimaginably reckless. Of course, that didn’t help her quickly deepening blush, because, at this proximity, that only left his sweat moistened broad expanse of chest or sculpted shoulders to focus on. Which really wasn’t much help to her flustered state, was it?

Some part of her registered she’d moved her hands away from his neck, down to those swollen biceps. Maybe as part of some subconscious, half-dreamed scheme to push him off? But now, her short nails were digging into the oddly soft yet unyielding skin there as if the bizarre gesture would anchor her to reality.

She should stop that. That had to be bothering him. That skin felt so nice under her nails, though…

She sneered irately at her traitorous nails, murmuring sheepishly, “Congratulations, Peeta. You were… um… you did… good… um…” she broke off distracted, continuing to glare at her hands. She needed to stop that. She was going to tear skin. It was entirely ridiculous a muscle that large felt so absurdly good to the touch. His skin was like silk there. Was that a mimic of the gesture she felt, confusing all the nerve endings on the skin of her lower back?

“Hey! I broke second. Don’t I get a hug, too?”

Grateful for any excuse to break away for the all-encompassing force of nature that was Peeta, Katniss didn’t even hesitate before throwing her arms around a very sweaty Rye, who immediately proceeded to lift her off her feet into a spin.

“Eew, Rye. Put me down. You’re drenched in sweat,” she giggled, really giggled, pulling one of three towels she had wrapped around her neck to throw callously over her aggressor’s head.

She felt another getting tugged off the moment the bulky boy set her down.

“That call was total bull,” Flax huffed, wiping his face and down his neck a lot more roughly than was necessary. “There was no way that Buchanan guy’s last throw was close enough to mine for the judges to make a judgment call. I was cheated.”

Katniss could only offer a condoling if completely oblivious frown in response. She figured it was safest not to offer an opinion on whatever that topic was, (lest she reveal just how little attention she’d been paying the last several minutes) and just handed Peeta the third towel as the group began the seventy yard trek to where the hammer throw trials were to take place.

“Actually, Flax,” Peeta begun, voice edged with concern as he shortened the distance to his oldest sibling and brought both hands to his right clavicle, massaging the area. “All your throws were just a bit… off, man. Like you couldn’t get enough behind them. Is this thing still bothering you?”

Flax looked somewhat embarrassed by the attention when the other two members of their group turned back to him. But, as whatever had been indoctrinated into him demanded, he quickly schooled his features into an aloof grin. “It’s been well over a year, Peet. I think it’s more in my head than anything else. I think now that I got a few out of the way, I can stop psyching myself out.” Bringing the same arm to wrap around his youngest brother affectionately, his expression turned somber for effect and he finished in a softer voice, “I swear, it doesn’t hurt. I’m just working out the kinks.”

Rye noticed the way Katniss’s brow pinched in confusion and offered, “Flax got into college on both an academic and athletic scholarship for wrestling. He pulled a ligament in his shoulder a year ago during a match. Preparing for these Games is the first major training he’s done since the injury. Peeta worries.”   

“Don’t you?” she couldn’t help asking.

Something… dark glazed over that sky that was the teenager’s eyes, before a sad smile broke onto his face and he answered with a shrug of one shoulder. “Not in my nature, beautiful. I take care of things my own way,” he finished cryptically, dashing off toward the flat meadow where she could see a rudimentary wooden brace stacked with half a dozen ‘hammers’. The hordes of spectators where already crowding the bleachers beyond.

 *~*~*~*~*~*

They didn’t make out too bad in the hammer throw. Rye was the only one to place in the top three with second place. Flax placed fourth again and Peeta placed sixth. Though, he didn’t seem all that bothered by it. In fact, Katniss had a sneaking suspicion he’d held back on his throws on purpose.

She also had a sneaking suspicion Flax noticed the same as she had, because he’d been royally pissed from the moment they’d announced the placements. He’d barely spoken a word to any of them as they’d headed back to the tent for a final break. He just went straight for one of the last towels, wiped, put his shirt back on, and went to work on making himself a massive sandwich.

Katniss had made the mistake of offering to make it for him, but ended up with a chilling, “I didn’t ask anyone for help, did I?” for her trouble. So, she just retreated to the lounge chairs with the other boys until he was done and then proceeded to make them their snacks after.

She’d been carrying the backpack with apples and bananas during the course of the day, handing them out to the boys after every event, along with bottles of water and Gatorade. She was surprised to note pretty much everything she’d brought for them was gone by the time she finished those last sandwiches. Mr. Mellark had been right. They ate like savages.

Twenty minutes before their hour was up, she tipped the cooler and cleaned up the empty bags of chips to discard in the trash. When Peeta tried to get up to help, she resolutely made him sit back down. From what they’d told her, the last event was the killer of the day and all three would need all the rest they could get before facing it.

It was late afternoon when they made their way to the center of the field, to where an archaic-looking wooden bar contraption loomed over five, perfectly carved, cylindrical, soapstone boulders.

The Atlas Stones trials in the Highland Games were as brutal as they were primal in their simplicity. The competitors had to get the five two-hundred and seventy-five pound stones over the five-foot high bar. Whomever did this fastest won. That was it.

The theory of it sounded simple enough. However, Katniss realized, the practice must have been nothing short of agonizing, considering only three clans volunteered competitors for the challenge- the Mellarks included. Even then, one clan had but one brave soul willing to attempt the feat and the other had two.

How bad could this thing be?’ she found herself musing, for about the minute it took to see the first competitor attempt it.

The first two spheres went over the bar within seconds of each other, the man just kneeled, hoisted them up against the length of his massive body, maintaining his knees bent, and propelled them over the bar once they were secured in his big arms at about chest height. However, when he got to the third boulder, the entire process slowed, the muscles obviously fatigued from the previous two stones. He still got it across. The fourth stone was an ordeal. He huffed his way through hefting the stone up against his body, his arms visibly quaking. He barely got the stone over the bar after doing a sort of bouncing thing for a few tries. By the time he kneeled for the last stone, every muscle on his exposed legs and arms quaked violently with the effort. He got it mid thighs before letting it drop, tagging out.

The next person to try, clan Robertson, did not fare any better, but his clan counterpart was able to get the stones across in just over six minutes.

When the boys’ turn came, she realized the order in which they would compete had been decided long before that moment, as evidenced by how Peeta immediately took his place before the stones as soon as clan Graham was announced. The moment the whistle indicating the timer had started blew, Katniss noted his technique for hauling the stones was very unique, but somehow familiar.

The Mellarks were at a disadvantage here. The bar was too high. Rolling the boulders up their chests would not do for them. Chest height for them was still well under the bar’s threshold. So, Peeta did what he’d been doing since he’d started working at the bakery at the age of six… he employed muscle memory. He kneeled beside each stone, one knee on the ground, and lifted them up steadily as he stood, balancing almost all the weight on his massive right shoulder and bicep before tossing it over the bar. It was exactly like when she’d seen him tossing bags of flour into the shelf in the back room those times she’d found excuses to hedge the bakery throughout the years.

The technique was practiced and methodic. And very, very fast. And, although his visibly sore arms struggled to lift that last stone to what had to be his screaming shoulder, he managed to tip it over the bar at the three minutes and thirty one seconds mark.

Both Katniss and the gathered crowd, who’d been cheering him on as he progressed, erupted in rapturous cheers at his accomplishment. She felt an overwhelming urge to run up and hug him again. It’d be justified, right? Innocent. He’d just done something superlative. So what if he could barely lift his hand to the crowd in a wave of appreciation for their praise. She could survive without him returning the gesture. Her body was just aching for physical contact with him.

“Next competitor up!” boomed through the speakers and she deflated as she saw her opportunity fade. Flax was already moving behind the stones, his baby brother staying within a few feet to encourage him, far too distant for her to reach. And it seemed there was some unspoken protocol at these things that no one but the competitors were to move away from the spectator areas until the results were announced, anyway.

The Mellark oldest did his best to emulate his younger brother’s technique, but it became evident by the fourth stone the mannerisms were nowhere near as natural to him and he had to struggle through cradling that one up his torso, much as the previous competitors had. Fortunately, the couple inches of height he had over his siblings aided in getting the weighted boulder over the bar. The last stone was a nightmare and he had to cradle it to his chest for a full fifteen second count before gathering the strength to rise from his kneel on visibly shaking legs. Katniss had no idea where he drew that final reserve of power to shove it upward and forward once he was up. He looked about ready to collapse, had Peeta not been right at his side with an obscenely proud smile and a strong arm to secure around him.

Obviously, his arms weren’t that fatigued.

The counter sounded off at four minutes, fifteen seconds.

Rye didn’t bother with either of his brothers’ technique, favoring a lift that reminded Katniss of the few times she’d flipped to the Olympics by mistake while the weightlifters competed. He lifted the stones from their underside the entire way, using only his powerful legs and arms to balance the weight, before shoving them over the bar. However, without the use of anything else to help the growing muscle fatigue, by the time he had the fourth stone in the air, it was obvious he lacked the strength to heave it over the bar. With a defeated growl, he let the stone fall and tagged out.

*~*~*~*~*~*

“I’m focusing exclusively on just that and making those bastards mine next year, man. There is no excuse,” Rye huffed, barging into the supermarket with purpose.

“You pricks realize this is what you get for handing off all the restocking grunt work no one wanted to the kid who couldn’t even see over the counter, right? This is poetic justice,” Peeta countered with a self-righteous beam, pulling out a cart.

“You know, Rye,” Flax quirked a mischievous brow, moving Peeta aside with a pointed looked as he stepped behind the cart, commandeering it. “You can always try to redeem some of your bruised pride right now...”

Before Katniss could look up from the flyer she was leafing through, two of the boys had taken off (lord knows where) and she found herself cradled in Rye’s arms bridal style a split moment before getting dumped unceremoniously into a cart. The surprised screech echoing as they barreled down the first isle.

“What are you doing, you psychopath! Let me out! We’re so getting kicked out of here!”

“Cart race!” Rye supplied with a deranged, supremely unhelpful grin. “They start at the opposite end. There’s fifteen lanes. They get half the stuff you took today and we get the other stuff. Whoever makes it to lane eight first, wins.”

It took her a few blinks to realize he was serious. “That’s insane! You’re going to hurt people!”

“It’s never happened before,” he shrugged, flippantly. “How many bananas?”

“You’ve done this before?” she gawked, too numb to help but pick at the stand he’d stalled them by, trying to ignore the way passersby stared and murmured in obvious disapproval.

“We do this every time Dad sends us out to do groceries. We can’t stand it. Passes the time.”

Oh, yeah. That was totally normal. She was stuck with lunatics.

“We need apples, too,” she relented. “And let it be known I’m feigning Stockholm Syndrome when we get caught doing this.”

More deranged laughter was her response.

*~*~*~*~*~*

“Still can’t believe the manager and that rent-a-cop with the roid rage issues confiscated the carts,” Rye ranted, knuckles whitening around his basket handle.

“You should be grateful we’re not banned from this place forever, you morons. I like this store,” she huffed, sending him a glare over her shoulder before turning back to the Deli counter attendant.

“And why doesn’t she have to carry one of these,” he pretended she hadn’t uttered a word as he and his siblings reclined against an Entenmann’s display a few steps behind. “My arms are killing me.”

“Because we’re pretending you didn’t batter chivalry to death when you tossed her in the freaking cart, retard,” Peeta ground out.

His older brother rolled his eyes dramatically. “Oh, please. You just have sand in your vagina over losing, fetus. Like you left me all that much alternative when you blitzkrieg us. Besides, she weighs a hundred pounds soaking wet. We’ve loaded carts with the equivalent of two of her. She was liking it towards the end.”

“Was not.” Katniss chimed in, voice edged with hostility, not bothering to turn.

Betrayed, Rye side eyed the back of her head, fleetingly. “Besides, what’s this Neanderthal machismo crap? I’m pretty sure she could gut any of us if she had the mind to. She gets this evil thing in those eyes when she gets mad enough, man. I’m telling you. See? That!” He pointed excitedly at the glare Katniss turned to bestow upon him.

“Gird your loins if you ever piss her off out in the woods, people.”

“Who says your boys are any safer now, Rye?” she leered in response, pulling her phone from her back pocket. “Good hunters carry utility knives for emergencies.” Satisfied with the dirty blonde’s wince and recoil, she turned her attention toward his older brother. “What do you guys take on your pie?”

Flax’s response was spontaneous. “Supreme, double pepperoni, light on the sauce and Hawaiian.”

Katniss’s brows furrowed. “All that on a pizza?”

“No, all that on three extra-large pizzas… and two two-liter cokes. You should get some bread sticks and wings, too. Do you want me to place the order?” he replied with a commiserative smile.

“No,” she answered, still processing how much food that was for one person to consume in a sitting. “No, I can remember… all that.” She turned back to dial. “Maybe we should get some antacid while we’re here,” she murmured under her breath, bringing the ringing phone to her ear.

Poor Mr. Mellark. His entire salary must’ve gone to keeping these black holes supplied.


 

 

Chapter Text


 “I’m home, Little Duck!” Katniss held a foot to the base of the of the door leading to the garage so that it wouldn’t spring closed, allowing for the boys carrying the many paper grocery bags to follow into the adjoining kitchen. “And I brought that company I texted ahead about, so make sure you’re proper before coming down,” she added as an afterthought, plopping her single bag and house keys on the counter. She looked up to find the three young men, arms still laden with bags, staring at her with curious grins.

She scowled.

“Oh, like you guys don’t hang out in underwear at home when it’s just you?”

“Less,” Rye supplied, his grin turning impish. “Just never figured chicks did it, too. What other fascinating tidbits shall we learn from you Everdeen gals while in your domain, hmm?” He wiggled his eyebrows seductively.

She didn’t bother suppressing the cringe, leaning into the counter and bringing her arms up to cross over her chest. “So, I’m guessing you failed biology? We’re not a different species, plumbing’s just inie instead of outie. Any excuse to rip that bra off-” she broke off with a fleeting dash of spectacularly round eyes toward an even wider grinning Peeta, before turning completely, emptying that one bag of its contents suddenly becoming imperative to her next inhale.

Had she seriously turned the topic of conversation toward her physiological differences and underwear preferences with them? With him?

Jesus, she was losing her bloody mind!

“Um, Katniss… where do we… um… we’re still holding these?”

She closed her eyes, contrition fighting mortification for control of her motor functions. Hoping the overpowering flush was only half as noticeable as its heat, she half turned to send Flax an apologetic grimace.

“You can just throw those right in the fridge, if you’d like,” she offered in a quivering voice.

“Yeah, I’m not rummaging through your fridge, dude.” Rye scoffed, coming to settle the two bags he held on the counter beside her. “Besides, my stuff’s all chips and bananas. That’ll be one hot mess if it stays in the cold overnight.” He braced his torso across the counter behind her – invading her personal space – craning his neck in a ridiculously obvious attempt to find the eyes she pointedly turned away from him. When she finally let out an irate breath and swung a glare at him, he smirked triumphantly. “I’ll take first dibs on the shower, though. I’m all sticky. Unless you like me all sticky…”

“Rye.”

That electrical jolt shot up her spine at Peeta’s threatening, low register. How did he make his voice do that? She felt the vibrations of the command in her soul. The power of it confounded her.

Thankfully, before she had to dwell on the phenomena long, her attention was derailed by a much more pressing situation.

“Hello, everyone- Whoa! Are you guys in some kind of medieval cosplay getup? Cool. Wow, you have the most amazing eyes. Are those real? Those are some wicked contacts if they’re not…” By the end of her out-in-a-single-breath statement, the thirteen-year-old was on the very tip of her toes, face inches away from Flax’s, gazing in fascination.

“Pretty sure I was born with them,” the oldest boy grinned congenially, trying to edge his face a little further from the young girl. “So I’m guessing the improper staring thing runs in the family?” he questioned at Katniss.

“People don’t look at your eyes all the time? They should. They’re medically fascinating. That’s got to be a one in ten million recessive gene or something. I’m Prim, by the way. Nice to meet you,” she smiled back, extending a hand. Flax shook it, snickering softly at her verve.

“Prim’s really into medical sciences. She’s going to be a doctor,” Katniss provided, an unabashed proud gleam in her quicksilver eyes.

“You’re hot.”

Okay, so that wasn’t so much a medical evaluation. She was a newly hormonal teen, after all. But could she have chosen a worse target?

“You’re jailbait,” Rye answered, making no attempt to touch the hand the little girl held out as her crystal blue eyes failed to meet his in preference to roaming over the rest of him.

“Rye…” This time, the warning came from both the other Mellarks. Katniss briefly wondered if the kid ignored them so completely, specifically because he’d become so acclimated to his name having become some bizarre synonym for ‘don’t’.

Allowing one end of his mouth to edge up into something predatory, the Mellark middle child waited for the little girl to finish her exploration of him and bring her attention back somewhere near his face, before offering in an icy, clynical tone, “Prim, right? You’re in what? Eighth grade? You remember those awful PSA videos they showed us as part of Human Growth and Development, Prim?”  

“Ryland, this isn’t funny. Stop.”

Something about that dangerous edge to Flax’s deep baritone, the way he tensed, the way Peeta subconsciously moved closer to his second oldest brother. It all made her coil defensively, her eyes narrowing dangerously at the dirty blonde inches from her.

None of them. None of them knew the lengths she’d tread to protect that little golden-haired girl.

“You know,” Rye continued, unfettered, Prim’s eyes focused on him with innocent intrigue. He pretended he wasn’t instigating melee beyond. “Those crappy videos where some loser in a Technicolor vest would bring out a doll and show you where not to let strangers touch you on its epicene body. Then the quintessential creepy dude would roll up in the windowless van and invite stock video, multi-cultural children into it with a promise of finding a lost puppy in exchange for a candy reward…”

Rye now took Prim’s extended hand and it was as if all the oxygen in the room got sucked into a vacuum, everyone waiting on his final words. “You know why I keep myself looking this way, Prim? Because it works better than puppies and candy. And I don’t need to invest in a van. Those willing are openly willing- no traps needed. No one ever suspects someone who looks harmless, do they? The smart ones don’t need traps. They just need to look like everyone else- better. They can even talk you into believing it was what you wanted all along,” he finished in a lowered voice.

Prim blinked a few times, before narrowing her eyes analytically at him. To the surprise of everyone holding their breath surrounding her, instead of releasing the hand she gripped in disgust, her hold tightened, the gleam in her eyes searching. “How much of that is true?”

With an exhale of a laugh, Rye straightened, releasing her hand. “Does it matter? You have no clue. You just met me, didn’t you? You don’t even know how old I am. Got a long way to go, kid. Tread lightly. Where’s the bathroom?”

Still introspective, the little blonde absently held an index finger up to the roof, before supplying, “We have two. I’ll show you.”

“Lead the way, sprite.” Rye gave her a thumbs up, watching her head up the stairs next to the kitchen before turning towards Katniss. “Can I get my gear, pretty lady?”

Still awed and confused about what exactly that was she’d just witnessed, Katniss shrugged the backpack off her shoulders and began rifling though it for the change of clothes she’d brought for the boys. “Do I get to know what kind of mind screw you just played on my baby sister, psycho?”

The teenager beside her let out a scoff. “You wound me, Katniss. You should be thanking me. I did you a favor. She’s too pretty to be that friendly. And you have no idea how apropos that moniker you keep using is. Out of the three of us, I’m the only one who drew the genetic jackpot gifting me the psychological profile most inclined to take that same trip down the rabbit hole as mommy dearest.”

Her hands stilled instantly, eyes darting up to meet his in unspoken commiseration.

He graced her with a sad smile. “Don’t look at me like it’s a death sentence. It’s not. It’s not even a certainty. And, even if it is, and it manifests in the next few years, psychological advancements in therapy and mental chemistry balancing agents have come a long way. I plan to help the science along in the meantime.”

He plucked the clothes from her hands, propped closed her still gaping mouth with a knuckle and pecked a quick kiss on her forehead, before she realized he’d dashed off up the stairs.

Still reeling, she brought both hands to her face, turning to the two remaining boys in the kitchen. “W-what?” she he heaved through her fingers.

“He’s going to major in psychology at Michigan this fall, Katniss. You’re not going to tell me you haven’t noticed what he does? How he can mess with people’s heads? He has a gift,” Peeta elucidated quietly.

“What if he does get sick?” she inquired, voice barely rising above a whisper.

“Technically, that’s a roll of the dice we’re all taking, really,” Flax snorted, and the haphazard response caused her to twitch in his direction, eager to hear more.

“Dad had us all evaluated when mom became so unstable her condition couldn’t be ignored,” he lowered his eyes to the floor briefly to add under his breath, “even by someone pointedly trying to ignore everything.” He shared one of those quick, unreadable, mute communiqués with his younger brother and added, “Mental illness tends to run in families. This one in particular is very predominant in Mom’s. Just because Rye has the most volatile psyche, doesn’t mean he’ll end up with the condition. It can manifest in someone with seemingly completely balanced brain chemistry- usual at puberty, but it has been known to manifest well into the late twenties.”

“But it’s not the end of someone’s life,” Peeta pitched, garnering her attention. “Rye was right. Mom took advantage. She used it as an excuse. Most people live with it. Own it. Live around it, don’t let it define them. And they definitely don’t let it turn them into what she did.”

Katniss ruminated their words, considering whether she wanted to share the thoughts and emotions coiling through her. Finally, she took a deep breath and exhaled gravely, “I understand more than you know.” Then she tried for a weak smile and added, “So who wants the downstairs bathroom? It’d be good if you’re all nice and clean when the pizza gets here. We can throw in the movie and eat.”

Flax graced her with one of those ear-to-ear smiles before turning to Peeta. “You go, Peet. Just be quick about it. I’ll go call Dad and let him know we’re not all dead in some ditch at the side of the road somewhere.”

Peeta grunted out a laugh, inching over to Katniss to get his own set of replacement clothing. He tried not to frown at the boxers. He much preferred boxer briefs, but the clubhouse only sold logo boxers and they’d been grateful enough to get those, lest they’d had Rye’s genitals broadcast to the general public all day. “I don’t know how grieved Dad would be at getting the news Rye was gone. Relieved, definitely…”

He chuckled very close to her ear, the throaty sound causing the hairs on the back of her neck to rise and a not entirely unwelcome heat to accompany it. She traced eyes up to his nose – no further – as she swallowed dryly and offered, “It’s just down the hall. Just… um… throw your stuff out once you’ve… um…” she had to look down somewhere near his throbbing pulse line, “once you don’t have stuff, you know… on? Throw it out in the hall. I’ll throw it in the laundry for you guys while the movie’s going.” She turned back to Flax, grateful to have somewhere to divert her attention. “Because I don’t figure you guys have replacement kilts for tomorrow and you’ve pretty much sweated through these today, right?”

The brothers exchanged an impressed glance before Flax beamed in response, “Right.”

*~*~*~*~*~*

She wasn’t making any kind of conscious effort to eavesdrop.

He’d just been out there when she’d gone to get the cooler after tossing Peeta and Rye’s stuff in the washer in the garage.

Who could blame her if her curiosity compelled her to hide just out of sight, behind the humongous pickup the teenager leaned against, once she heard that first part of the conversation?

“-nother thou’s fine. No, that’s not excessive. She had to buy him underwear. Underwear, Dad. Like he’s a two-year-old that had a no-no at the jungle gym. We owe her that much for the humiliation of walking into that store and asking for those alone,” she heard Flax snort into his phone and could see him rubbing the bridge of his nose from her vantage point. “Then, she offers to bring us here, buy us these outfits – which are very comfortable, by the way, worth the robbery – without accepting we pay for any of it. She won’t let us pay for the pizza. You know how expensive feeding us gets. She’s overused the fund you allotted. Her salary will be crap by the end of tomorrow without the transfer. Oh, did I mention she’s washing our crap? She’s a nice girl. I can see the appeal. Tiny, though. Any of us could break her in half. I saw her, by the way. Picture in the foyer with the girls. You have a type, old man. Looks nothing like her. Dead ringer for the little one, though. Little one looks like she could be yours. Yeah, I bet you do. You should call. You talk about him. You’re a total wuss too, you know that?”

There was a pause while he obviously listened to his father speak on the other end of the line.

“You can always get it from his college fund,” he continued, his tone growing sassy. “Doubt he’d object. He’s going for the cheapest major out of the three of us and you know there’s no way he’s going out of state as long as she-”

He went silent again, then let out an incredulous laugh. “Yeah, that’s hopeful thinking,” he gasped sarcastically. “He’s hovering like he’s done the last twelve years until he grows some balls…”

Silence again, then in pointed humor, “Or you could always get it out of that wedding fund Mom set up when she found out you knocked her up again and she swore up and down she was finally getting her little girl- to the contrary of what her doctor explicitly insisted."

More silence, before the boy sighed deeply. “Yeah, I know about that. Mom didn’t exactly have filters, once the Haldol had enough time to leech out and the mania took over. She was chatty during… At least with me. Don’t think she did much talking to the babies.” There was a tinge of bitterness and sorrow to his rumbling tenor that made Katniss’s chest constrict painfully.

“Don’t,” she heard him plead softly. “Dad…” a pause, “Dad, you’re making up for it now, right? Yes, you’re doing fine. Yeah…” another pause, “who’s to say he would’ve turned out normal, though?” she heard him try with a forced laugh.

“Look, we were all already here when she manifested. Even if you would’ve noticed the first signs, even if she wouldn’t have…” she heard him swallow hard. “Even if she hadn’t made us keep it a secret from you. It wasn’t as if you could send one of us back.” She could tell he was trying for an uplifting lilt to his voice. The result was ambiguous at best.

Another deep sigh. “That’s not your fault either, Dad. He’s old enough now to know it’s stupid. He’s actually cut down quite a bit…”

There was another lag in the conversation on Flax’s end. This one so long, Katniss looked around the tailgate. She found the boy stiffening, running a hand through his hair nervously.

When he spoke again, there was tangible anxiety lazing his words. “I-I… see, the thing is… I can’t really in good conscience do that, because… well… we all kinda drank it together…” another pause, where she could have sworn she could hear arraignments clear through the kid’s phone. “Yes, him too.”

At this, the cell exploded into an unintelligible gibberish of loudly expressed condemnation, to the point she watched Flax pull it away from his ear, wincing. Once the harangue had ebbed somewhat, the boy pulled the phone back.

She had to bite the inside of her cheek until she tasted copper to keep from laughing. Tears pooled in her eyes.

Flax Mellark’s rich, sonorous register was never meant for whining. “But you weren’t there, Daddy. It was so hard. No. No one got drunk. I swear. It helped my shoulder feel better.”

Oh, my god!’ He was so royally full of it. She was going to piss herself out there holding this bull in.

She started inching away from the truck, one hand clamped over her mouth, the other clenched between the juncture of her legs to keep any ‘mistakes’ from seeping out. She still managed to overhear one last request leave Flax in that ridiculous, ill-fitting timber he likely outgrew the moment his last testicle descended.

“So, Daddy? Since everything turned out fine today and the hardest events are tomorrow… Can we have one of the Johnny Walker Black Labels you keep in the safe at the bakery? You know… for umpf?”

Not only had she no inkling the usually mild mannered baker knew so many expletives, she would never have thought him capable of vociferating them loud enough for her to plausibly make each one out clearly through a cell phone while she ran in the opposite direction.

The moment that door sprang closed behind her, the uproarious laughter echoed up the stairs in her wake. Rye had better been out of that shower or he was getting trapped behind that curtain in an unbelievably uncomfortable situation.

Either way, that wicked piss was coming.

*~*~*~*~*~*

“So, what are we watching?” Rye plopped himself on the couch beside Prim, propping his box of pizza on his bare stomach and bringing his naked feet up on the wooden coffee table.

“I bought you a t-shirt, guy,” Katniss chastised from Prim’s other side, where she separated a slice of plain cheese onto a paper plate to hand off to her baby sister.

“Yes, you did,” the blonde concurred with a humongous bite to a folded slice, then added without swallowing, “An’ a wan’ a’ kee’ i’ cleen’ so a’ ‘ent we-en’ i’ fo’ peea.”

“Dude, you’re too disgusting for human interaction.” Peeta threw a balled up napkin at him from the timeworn, but very comfortable leather recliner he’d claimed.

The boy blew black a greasy kiss, un-balled the napkin, and used it to wipe his mouth.

“We got either Pacific Rim or Frozen from Red Box,” Flax answered, looking at the dvd’s in his hands. “Your choice, Prim. Since you’re the sweetest thing in this house- no offense Katniss.”

Katniss suppressed a smile, noting how her little sister blushed and looked at her hands at his compliment – shameless charmer – before getting up to grab the movie out of his hands. She knew exactly which one the little girl would choose.

“Frozen!” Prim quickly moved around the table to pop in the disk.

“Ouuuch,” Rye groaned dramatically and folded his arms over his lower abdomen, doubling over. “I think I just grew an ovary.”

“You’re so stupid,” Flax snorted. “Don’t pretend you’re not dying to see what all the fuss is about with this thing. Stop being such a bro. If we all had girlfriends, we would’ve totally seen it by now.”

This caused Katniss to veer an intrigued upturned eyebrow at him. “Why don’t you have a girlfriend, Flax?”

The toe-head shrugged, flippantly. “Too much maintenance. With the physical therapy after the injury and my academic workload, taking four classes this past year… if I did have one, she would’ve dumped me for neglect. I don’t have it to give right now.”

“To translate for you, Katniss,” Rye chimed in. “Flax is an over-achieving, anal-retentive control freak of a quintessential class D personality, who must maintain his four point O average to prevent his universe from imploding. The day he meets a girl – say a nice, patient type B, who tears his obsessive compulsive reality asunder – he’ll realize his priorities are crap.”

“You feeling analytical, you neurotic freak?”

Oh, this could not end well.

“Why don’t you tell Katniss why you don’t have a girlfriend? Or, even better yet, explain to her why, off and on, you have three, simultaneously? Or try explaining to Peeta how you’re dating his best friend behind his back… again.” 

“What?” Peeta screeched, vaulting to his feet. “Dude, you promised never again after the last time. Delly was completely screwed up for half a year. And that’s bordering on incest; she was raised to think of me as a brother!”

“Okay…” Rye began, doing a terrible job at suppressing a guilty smirk. He sent a fleeting, pleading look at Katniss, who shrugged back helplessly. “I have not heard from Bristel or Leevy since graduation, Peeta. And I’d broken it off with both of them long before then. Delilah… I tried with her, Peet. I swear I did. But she knows things, man. She was there- through all of it. There’s no effort with her. She’s so annoying. And Lord knows, she’s exhausting, but she gets it. I don’t want to let things be with her. And, for the record, it ain’t incest if she ain’t family. Her background’s English and Portuguese. We ain’t even distant cousins.”

Katniss watched the younger boy’s shoulders slump in defeat, betrayal and joy for his older brother vying for dominance within the oceans of his eyes until he lowered them to the hardwood at his feet. “Why wouldn’t she tell me about it?” It was barely above a whisper.

Rye ran a hand over his face roughly, the smirk warping into a pained scowl. “Don’t take it like that, Peeta. You know how she is. She wants everyone she cares about to be as maniacally happy as she is, twenty-four/seven. She’d rather spike your coke with like crank or something than see you sad, man. That’s how she is. And she knew you’d be disappointed in her for rebounding with me. I’ll be decent with her this time around, though. She’ll have to dump me to get rid of me.”

“She dumped you the last time. You cheated on her- twice,” Peeta scoffed with no humor, bringing a hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Do you have any idea how bad it sucks when your best friend and your big brother are in this kind of toxic relationship? There are no winners here. I’m just stuck picking up everyone’s pieces.”

Rye sent him another of those lopsided smiles.

“I so have to smother you in your sleep.”

 *~*~*~*~*~*

“Please, I know you’re in there...” *sniff*

“People are asking where you’ve been…” *sniff, sniff*

“Dude, are you crying?”

“No,” Rye bristled at his older brother with a glare so intense it made the blue in his eyes glisten through the darkness of the room. “I think it’s allergies.”

“You developed ‘allergies’ in the last fifteen minutes now, did you?”

Prim giggled softly from where she’d snuggled into Rye in her purple blanket when the movie began. She reminded him of a trusting, helpless kitten and her laughter only served to fuel his mortification further.

“Don’t get kicked in the head, Peeta.” He turned his attention back to the movie just in time to catch the image of the sisters, both huddled against opposite sides of the door, mourning the loss of each other and their parents.

*sniff*

“This is a Disney movie for Christ’s sake. We’re at, like, the second scene, and they’ve nixed these poor girls’ parents, left them to fend for themselves. What kind of sick bastard thinks this is entertainment for children, anyway? And, I’m touched in the head?”

“They’re filthy rich princesses, living in a palace with a staff to wait on them hand and foot. Except for the fact that one of them doesn’t seem to be capable of physical interaction with other people without freezing off body parts… they’re better off than almost anyone else who loses a parent, realistically. Trust me. I speak from experience. You want a hanky for those pesky allergies, Rye?”

He didn’t like that saccharine tone. “You’re not too good not to get kicked in the head, Katniss.”

Prim giggled again.

“Try it and you’ll have a an entire kaleidoscope of ‘feelings’ to get in touch with, prick,” Peeta countered.

x-x-x-x-x-x

“For the first time in forever, there’ll be music, there’ll be light…” Prim sang along softly, absently to the movie.

“You have a very pretty voice”, Flax lauded.

She shrunk into the warm, bulky boy beside her, flushing furiously. “Thanks, but it’s nothing compared to Katniss. She’d be singing them with me if you all weren’t here. I sing the Anna parts and she sings the Elsa’s. We own the soundtrack. We know all the songs. You make her nervous. It sucks.”

Katniss just tucked her chin further into the knees she had tucked into her chest, hoping to curl inward and disappear, when all those intrigued sets of blue turned her way.

x-x-x-x-x-x

“Okay. Anyone else have an overwhelming urge to punch this Hans guy in his perfect, prissy jaw for no explainable reason? Show of hands.”

Rye surveyed the room and let out a satisfied sigh when he counted four arms raised.

“I thought so.”

x-x-x-x-x-x

“So, Olaf is mentally handicapped to the point of suicidal tendencies?”

Prim giggled, looking up at him from where her head rested across his massive thighs. “No, silly. He’s just very naïve. He doesn’t know what sun will do to him, but he wants very much to feel it. He’s sweet.”

Rye stared down at her, tight-lipped. “You just described what retarded to the point of suicide is, darling. Just because someone nice and funny wants to put a bullet through their brain to find out if it tickles, doesn’t mean they should be allowed to. It’s considered ethically reprehensible. That’s why medicine exists to keep Olaf kind of people from hurting themselves.”

She narrowed her eyes at him, scrutinizing, before a broad smile broke on her face. “You’re a good kind of screwed up, aren’t you?” she whispered, conspiratorially.

“Don’t let it get around,” he whispered right back.

x-x-x-x-x-x

“Show of hands, who thinks Kristoff kinda looks like an older version of Peeta?” Flax, snickered.

He laughed harder when everyone but his baby brother raised their hand.

“He does not. My nose is not bulbous like that,” the youngest Mellark sulked.

x-x-x-x-x-x

“Please, please, please, Katniss! It’s coming up. I’ll do anything. I’ll do the dishes for a month. I’ll clean the bathrooms. Please just this one please. Anything you want,” Prim begged, tugging on her older sister’s arm, as the boys all leaned forward in their seats in anticipation. “You used to love doing it before Dad…”

Yeah, there were lots of things before their father had passed.

There was hunting. That she’d regained with Gale. There were the cheese buns. She was slowly regaining her appreciation for those. Thanks to that boy in her dad’s old recliner with the electric blue eyes. There’d been music once. Her father’s superlative voice. She could try to bring it back for her.

The opening riff began as the scene in the movie broke to that of a blizzard-strewn mountain. She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply and intoned on the exhale…

“The snow glows white on the mountain tonight, not a footprint to be seen.”

“A kingdom of isolation and it looks like I’m the queen.”

“The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside.”

“Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I tried.”

 She opened her eyes on the inhale for the next scale. She wasn’t sure why she’d looked his way. The recliner wasn’t really in view of the television. Something compelled her to seek out his approval.

He was doing it again, scorching her with his eyes, adulating her. Suffocating her in those pools of infinite blue that inexplicably still shone in the darkened room, managing to infuse her with a vibrant energy she’d never known.

She found herself lost in his gaze as her voice rang out each note without conscious effort.

Maybe Prim wasn’t the only one she could bring music back to her life for.

x-x-x-x-x-x

"Man, I’ve done some jerk things to chicks, but I’ve never told a girl outright no one loves her. And especially, not right before I turn away from a kiss. At minimum I leave her with that kiss. A nice last memento of our time together, you know? This guy's a total prick. I want his nads in a jar.

“He’s fictional, Rye.”

“Still want them bastards in a jar.”

“I kinda second this notion.”

“Don’t encourage these psychotic fixations, Flax.”

“Can you imagine if the Imagineers wrote traditional ritual castration into one of these suckers. They already kill characters in every movie they make now, just for shock value.”

“Oh, Peeta. Don’t tell me I’ve lost you, too.”

“Come on, Katniss. This dude’s genitals gotta go,” Rye huffed with reignited verb.

Prim giggled again.

Katniss let her face fall to her open palms.

x-x-x-x-x-x

The scene cut to the busy pier, where Anna led Kristoff to a beautiful new sled. *sniff*

Then an awkward request for a kiss that led to a cute actual kiss. *sniff*

“Those allergies still acting up in the middle of summer and out of nowhere, Rye?”

“Flax, I swear I have no qualms with fratricide, man.”

The Mellark oldest chuckled, getting to his feet with a stretch. “Anyone else in the mood for ice cream?”

“You endless wells just ate less than two hours ago,” Katniss exclaimed. “You can’t possibly be hungry again.”

“I want ice cream!” Prim jumped up from the couch excitedly. Katniss narrowed her eyes at her, jilted.

“Since when does ice cream have anything to do with nutrition? Ice cream is just for ice cream’s sake. Let’s go get the squirt some empty frozen calories,” Rye chimed in.

“We can’t,” Katniss huffed, irritated she had to be the adult, the bad guy in this situation. "The cooler still has to get rinsed out for tomorrow and you guys need to get home to get some bloody sleep. We have an early day tomorrow. It’s past ten. My mom’s about to get home. She’s fine that you were here for dinner, but she’s not okay with three dudes sleeping over.”

Flax brought a finger up to his chin in thought a moment before offering, “Tell you what, Rye and I will take Prim to get some cones for all of us real quick while you and Peeta stay and finish off the cooler. We’ll drop Prim off in ten minutes and pick Peeta up. You get some help and the little princess gets her sugar rush before bedtime.

She was ready to object, but those humongous crystalline puppy eyes of her little sister’s did her in. “Fine. There and back in ten minutes. You guys need your rest for what awaits you.”

*~*~*~*~*~*

Having someone else around to help with this kind of stuff was nice for a change. Peeta’d gotten the cooler scrubbed down with dishwashing soap much faster than she could have, his large hands covering twice the surface hers could.

She tried hosing it off, but he’d tsked her off in the most inoffensive way possible. He was just finishing the process of propping the thing upside down to dry. It would be good to go tomorrow. They just had to make a quick stop anywhere for a few bags of ice. So, she’d gone off to get their stuff out of the dryer, folding each kilt and shirt neatly on top of the other.

“Thanks for the help, Peeta,” she smiled earnestly as he made his way toward the laundry area in the garage. “That took half the time it would have taken me. And you must be exhausted from today… just… you’re really great for staying and-”

She had been avoiding his face, avoiding those dangerous eyes. That’s how she found her upper lip suddenly trapped by his, her face cradled in his large, powerful hands. The gesture was not rushed. His lips massaged and pulled at the tender flesh before she felt the sharp graze of teeth and let out an involuntary groan.

He pulled back then, and she realized she’d closed her eyes to better relish the sensation his lips pressed to hers surged from where they made contact, if only because the loss of him caused them to snap open in alarm.

“I-I’m sorry, Katniss. I…” he tried, his nearly obsidian eyes blazing into hers- through hers. “No, I’m not. I’m not sorry. Tell me to stop.”

He captured her lower lip this time, forgoing the softness of lips, favoring the urgency of teeth scraping pliable flesh. Like a man desperate for a last meal.

Shock merged with exhilaration, feeding the butterflies losing their tiny minds in the pit of her stomach and, of their own accord, her nails found their anchor: that tantalizingly silky patch of skin on his upper biceps, right under the large swells of his shoulder blades.  The guttural sound he made when she clamped down, reverberated through their joined skin, off the roof of her mouth, wrenching a gasp from her throat at the electrifying jolt to her nervous system.

It took only that nothing of a moment, that tiny part of her lips, for the tip of his tongue - that had previously edged and teased at the seams as the rest of his mouth nipped and ravaged - to make its full incursion.

Her head swam, coherent thought lost to her. There was only sensation. She’d never experienced this. So, it was probably good reason was lost to her. Reason would probably dictate she be repulsed at having a foreigner’s tongue in her mouth, that it should feel slimy and intrusive. But, with only sensation reigning her psyche… the opposite was reality.

Every swipe he made at the roof of her mouth sent pins and needles flying to every nerve ending in her body and wrenched a needy, keening sound from the back of her throat she’d be mortified to death about if reason were allowed into this equation.

And the way he was running his tongue down the length of hers, pinning it down forcefully when she tried to emulate his motions, to learn; that made her crazed with an exhilarated kind of frustration that would surly leave angry red half-moons in that soft flesh of his arms. How could she ever ‘rationalize’ the loss of control just one kiss from this blue-eyed boy evoked?

A horn broke the vacuum of their stolen moment and Katniss flinched as if she’d been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. Her eyes snapped open to meet a slowly reemerging pool of darkened blue, etched with mirth. “Someone’s jumpy,” he hummed against their still-joined mouths, moving one hand down to wrap loosely around her waist as the other stayed at her jaw, his thumb drawing lazy circles on her cheek. “Your heart’s drumming a hundred beats a second.”

Well, she wasn’t sure if that had been Flax’s unmistakable vanity semi-truck horn or what they’d been doing not five seconds before it rung, but you’d think common courtesy would keep him from calling her on it.

“Um…” she tried. Her brain wasn’t nearly oxygenated enough for speech. Why was he still staring at her like that? She could conjugate sentences if he’d stop looking at her like that. It’d be really helpful. And that swirling thing his fingers were doing to her lower back? Yeah, that wasn’t distracting, at all.

“…Prim…this… I-I don’t… don’t think this is… good…”

Me, Tarzan. You, Jane.’ Great. One kiss and she’d been reduced to the mental acuity of a blunt head trauma patient.

Understanding lighted Peeta’s eyes and he immediately separated from her, moving around to collect the clothes on the dryer she hadn’t even noticed he’d all but sat her on as they’d kissed. “Oh, right. Of course…” He couldn’t keep a stupid grin off his face, but she still felt panicky the moment she was no longer in his arms. She couldn’t fathom why. She’d gone the whole of her life to that point outside the breach of those arms.

When he sidestepped with the obvious intent to leave, she grabbed at his shoulder with some foreign sense of desperation she was not one bit comfortable with. Her brow creased in confusion at her own reaction when he turned back to face her.

Oh well, she’d figure out whatever that was later…

Oh, crap. He was looking at her again. There went words. “It was good, though. That… before. It was. I mean… I liked it…” Argh! Stupid brain!

Peeta’s smile went from ridiculous to making all those butterflies in her stomach want to come out and do unspeakable things to him. He reached a hand up to cup her cheek. “Yes, it was.” And his mouth was on hers again, sweet, grazing, torturously short.

“Good night, Katniss. Thanks for taking such good care of us. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she heaved back, watching him open the garage door and leave through half-lidded eyes.

*~*~*~*~*~*

“Does anyone else feel like they got hit by a bus?” Rye, exhaled, stretching out in the backseat as soon as he heard the passenger side door close and the rumble of the engine, indicating they were pulling away from the Everdeens. “I need to be naked in a boiling hot tub ten minutes ago.”

“Thank you for waiting until the minor was out of earshot to indulge us with that little tidbit, freak,” Flax shot back.

“I like her. Makes me want a little girl. Someone to protect. Sucks what happened to their dad, man.”

“Dude, you shouldn’t procreate? That’d be the uglies-” Flax suddenly turned on the cabin lights, grabbing harshly for their baby brother’s arm to drag him closer. This, of course, piqued Rye’s curiosity and he sat back up in his seat, moving to the edge.

“Twleve years,” Flax snorted a disbelieving laugh. “Twelve years and twelve hours, but we leave you alone for ten minutes? And what’d she try to do? Hoover the skin right off ya?”

Now Rye had to know. He wedged himself between the two front seats and took his baby brother’s face roughly in his hands.

“Ouch,” Peeta groaned in protest.

“Christ, dude. She went all preying mantis on you.” He made a ridiculous, exaggerated gnawing simulation, inches from Peeta’s nose. "She’s totally repressed, ain’t she?”

Peeta pried his face out of his older brother’s hand, sneering venomously before flipping down the visor to get a look at himself in the mirror. “She’s not repressed, prick. She’d never been kissed before. She was just following my lead. Whoa, this is bad!”

“You’re kidding, right?” Flax scoffed, side eyeing him. “She’s what? Seventeen? And it’s been getting around school since before I graduated that she and that Hawthorne guy were tied at the hip. No way, she’s never...”

“She had no idea what she was doing,” Peeta rebutted defensively, shoulders tensing. Something about Katniss’s name being mentioned in conjunction with Hawthorne’s rubbed him the wrong way. It always had. “And this,” he pointed at the angry reddening around his lips. “I doubt very much was just her. More than likely, this started from being in that sun all day. I’m going to have to use SPF lip balm tomorrow. But I can’t let Dad see this. Do you guys know how to get rid of it?”

“I have moisturizer.”

Two sets of golden arched eyebrows turned toward Rye- one through the rearview mirror.

“What? It’s Delly’s! She left it in my car. I’ve found it really helps with our sensitive skin issues. What? If you jerks are going to judge, I’m going to stop being helpful.”

Peeta and Rye exchanged a somber, calculating look before the pickup erupted in laughter.


 

Chapter Text


 

Katniss wiped her sweaty palms on her shorts as the black pickup pulled up. She clamped one down on the handle of the cooler and used the other to hike her sheaf and bow higher up her shoulder. With resigned determination, she made her way around the rear to the tailgate.

She had no reason to be nervous. So what if the previous night she’d kissed a little (a lot) one of the offspring of the man who’d hired her for this job? She still had that job to do. She’d been paid. Then again, if she’d been paid, what did that make her- the fact she’d kissed the son of the man who’d paid her while technically doing her job?

She needed to stop over thinking this. It was seriously psyching her out.

“Good morning.”

She flinched her head toward Peeta, when he suddenly appeared beside her at the tailgate. Or, to be more exact, when his voice broke her reverie and she realized he’d likely been standing there a while expectantly. “Still jumpy,” he grinned lopsidedly at her. “It’s cute.”

She furrowed her brows at him. Was he being condescending?

“It’s not,” she huffed. “It’s not cute. It’s a twitch. It’s a nervous twitch. You make me nervous… and confused, and several other things I haven’t been able to place a name to,” she added in a hushed, harsh hiss. “There. You happy?”

His smile faltered for a flicker before lengthening, an edge of challenge shimmering in his azure eyes. “Why?” he nearly rumbled.

Why? Maybe because I know the inside of you mouth tastes oddly of spices?’ Her eyes narrowed at him in disbelieve. “Because I was hired to make sure you and your brothers are taken care of and I’ve behaved completely unprof-”

And he’d crushed his mouth to hers again.

For the split second of coherent thought she’d been allotted, she considered struggling him off, but then her concentration became entirely enthralled by the aftertaste of the toothpaste he’d apparently used that morning. Peppermint. Yum.

He broke away with a little nip and she found herself pitching forward to perpetuate the contact, hating herself for it immediately afterward. What was wrong with her? She’d gone forever without the feel of this boy’s lips. She needed to pull herself together. Neediness would not be a trait attributed to Katniss Everdeen.

“You need to stop overthinking some things, sweetheart. You’re doing great at your job with us. We need to get going,” Peeta asserted, effortlessly hauling the cooler into the back of the pickup, whose tailgate she hadn’t even realized he’d propped down. “Twiddle-Dee and Twiddle-Tragically-Mentally-Disturbed are going to start wondering what’s taking so long back here. I take it from what you said about Prim last night you’re more comfortable keeping what happened between us relatively down key. You planning on hunting him for sport?” He gestured at her gear with a smirk.

“Something like that,” she scoffed, one end of her mouth hitching, her heart swelling with gratitude. Avoiding the awkward conversation about keeping whatever it was that had begun between them the previous night private until she could sort it out lifted a humongous load off her shoulders.

“That cooler must weigh a ton,” Rye commented, voice dripping with cynicism, the moment he heard the doors close behind him.

“You’d know if you’d volunteered to get it on the truck, prick,” Peeta rebuffed caustically.

“Oh, but then I would’ve cheated you of your chance at giving our lovely valet her proper greeting this morning.” He turned over in his seat to grace Katniss with an obscene mockery of a smile. “We wouldn’t want that, now would we?”

She leered so intensely back at the dirty blonde, the steel in her eyes could’ve burrowed clear through his degenerate, thick skull. They knew. Of course they knew. These bastards told each other everything. And whatever they failed to communicate verbally, still disseminated through that creepy, staring telepathy crap they pulled. She was so over this.

“I didn’t tell him anything. He’s screwing with your head.”

She snapped burning eyes at Peeta, eyebrows almost to her hairline at how perfectly he’d read her thread of thoughts. He just pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “It’s his thing, remember? He screws with people’s heads. He gets a twisted kick out of it.”

“He didn’t have to tell us, Wild Thing. You tore ‘im up. Left him looking like an over-Botoxed Kardashian. May as well have written it across his forehead,” Rye huffed, turning back in his seat.

Katniss’s eyes narrowed skeptically at the back of the passenger seat before flitting back at Peeta. “He’s joking, right?”

Peeta tilted his head analytically and she had her answer.

“Oh, god,” she gasped, horrified. Then brought a hand up over her mouth when a snicker escaped.

“Are you laughing at me?” Peeta heaved in disbelieve.

“No?” she tried, failing to subdue her growing smile, especially when his inherently plump lower lip started to jut out in a pout. That was foul play. “No, really,” she tried again half seriously, reaching out to run her index and middle fingers over the protruding stretch of skin. “I’m just getting a visual. It’s hilarious in my mind’s eye. But it happens to my mom and Prim, too. I forgot just how… ‘white’ you are. My dad used to know a plant out in the woods that was really good for that.” She finished, absently caressing the soft flesh as if he was a small child who’d suffered a boo-boo.

“You need to stop that.”

She arched her eyebrows at him, refocusing her attention from his mouth to his eyes, noting just how thin the irises had grown. “You’re sending mixed signals I can’t deal with,” he supplied in a near growl that made something in her belly clench.

“Hey! Anything on the leather upholstery back there gets wiped up by the depositor!”

“Ugh, Flax, you’re vile, man,” Peeta’s nose pinched in disgust.

“Just sayin’,” the Mellark oldest rebutted over his shoulder flippantly. “There’s a reason you freaks don’t get to borrow Flaxn. You heathens are disgusting. She’s too good for you.”

“Oh, my god! It’s the thing’s freaking name!” The mocking snicker escaped her before she could stop it . “And you’ve somehow deigned it female, have you? Flaxn? You’re literally riding around in some physical manifestation of an inferiority complex?”

Flax sent her a staid look through the rearview mirror. “It’s not a synonym for ‘flexing’, smartass. It’s for flaxen. As in the color of my hair, I have nearly silver hair. And, yes, I happen to find it’s an onorthodox attribute, which might honestly not last long, considering our genealogy. Dad shaves because he started losing it mid-twenties. And I’d like to flaunt mine for as long as I can. Does that make me a little self-absorbed? Likely. I couldn’t care less. That being said, another crack about my ride… and you have a perfectly good charge card. We have the cooler. If the transportation is not to your standards, I will pull over and you can hail a cab to the park. Don’t rib on the truck.”

“You so need a girlfriend, man.”

“Rye, I won’t even stop for your dumb butt. Just tuck, roll and hope you don’t rupture any vital organs on the landing, spaz.”

A thick silence fell over the cabin for a few moments, all the inhabitants’ eyes glued with everything from open shock to disdain on the driver, who kept his glacial, stone-cold gaze adamantly focused on the road.

No one screwed with the truck.

Finally, growing weary of the tension, Rye broke his sneer off form the older boy to throw over his shoulder in a singsong voice, “So, are you guys a ‘thing’ now?”

Katniss straightened and shrugged. She hadn’t really analyzed or labeled whatever she and Peeta would be past this weekend. She’d been freaked out enough about seeing him again that morning. “Do two people kissing twice equate to being a ‘thing’?” she asked honestly.

“If it does, I have a ‘thing’ with half the women under the age of twenty two in this and maybe the next county over,” Flax snorted.

“Same here,” Rye seconded.

“Pretty much.” 

“Oh?” Her brows furrowed at Peeta. That last one was decidedly unexpected.

He turned a tightlipped expression on her. “Oh, come on, Katniss. We’ve been in the same school, same grade, same classes since kindergarten. You’ve seen the girls I’ve had a passing interest in before.”

She wracked her brain quickly for anyone she could remember seeing him especially close to over the last few years, but she was drawing a frustrating blank. He’d always been surrounded by girls… for as far back as she could remember.

“I thought they were friends,” she whispered, feeling foolish for thinking herself somehow distinctive in Peeta-freaking-Meelark’s menagerie of conquests.

Peeta moved closer and she felt strangely smothered. Her arms came up to clamp across her chest. He let out a frustrated breath. “A lot of them were friends- before and after. You’re not being fair here, Katniss.”

“A lot of them were my ‘friends’ during, if it makes you feel any better, pretty lady,” Rye called back.

“Not helpful, deviant.” Peeta smacked his older brother over the head from the back seat.

“One free shot, ‘cause you’re dealing with some rough domestic issues this morning, fetus,” the older teen spit in a dangerous laugh. “Don’t test my charity.”

Peeta turned back to Katniss, who’d contorted in the seat so that only her back faced him. She was solemnly staring out the window at the passing cars. He leaned over to whisper in her ear, ignoring how she stiffened at his proximity, “I know this probably rings pointless and hollow to you now, because you’re pissed. But I’ve wanted to do what I did last night since I first saw you in kindergarten- when we were lining up to go into our class on that very first day. Before I even knew what it was I really wanted to do with girls, at all. Dad pointed you out, you sang for the class during music hour, and I fell for you from that moment. But I always thought you were so far out of my league, so I could never work up the nerve to talk to you- not even when I left you those bakery bags after your dad’s accident. Yes, other girls came and went. I’m a normal guy. Hormones are hormones. But it has always been you in the background- just out of reach.”

He moved back to his side with a slump to his broad shoulders and stared out the window at his own set of passing cars.

After a few minutes that lasted an eternity, he felt fingers interlacing with his. He looked down to note with wonder how perfect those dark, long digits fit woven amongst his thick, pale ones. He ventured to trace up that arm the color of baked cinnamon, and met wide mercury eyes, vibrant with conviction.

She lighted a feather soft kiss to his upper lip.

“Thank you for the cheese buns.”

*~*~*~*~*~*

The final day of the Highland Games was the marquis event day. And, boy, did it seem everyone within a hundred mile radius knew about it.

They’d arrived at the park an hour earlier than the previous day, as per the baker’s suggestion. Apparently, he’d had to deal with the anarchy previous years. The man’s foresight had been the only reason they’d been able to get decent parking. They’d learned people in the surrounding homes were renting out their driveways to stragglers for exorbitant prices and cops were towing those who parked illegally in the streets.

Needless to say, the boys would have a rabid audience during competitions that day. And, almost the entire manifest was participating.

Katniss wasted no time setting up the cooler exactly as she had the previous day (why mess with what work?). Then she wrapped the tartan scarf haphazardly around her waist as she’d sported it the previous day – the only way it was not chokingly hot –  in support of the boys, and turned to her charges, bow in hand and quiver over shoulder. She had to make a conscious effort not to bounce excitedly. “I want to go to that range and shoot. I know I can’t compete, but I’ve never shot at real targets before.”

Flax finished shrugging his head though the neck hole of the shirt he’d removed to facilitate Rye applying the suntan lotion to his back and shot her a curious look. “You look like you’re about to piss yourself. Your knees are knocking together so bad.”

“Pst! Yesterday you guys didn’t take this lo-” she began to protest with a pointed roll of her eyes, which landed them squarely on the younger boys on the other side of the tent. They happened to be in the process of getting the protective cream on Peeta’s massive, very bare back.

“Um…” What had she been saying? “…to, you know… get…”

“Wow, you’d think that picture I texted you would’ve gotten you over the creepy stalker gawking thing, Miss Subtle,” Rye chortled and Peeta elbowed him before turning to her with a warm, apologetic smile. She immediately turned back toward the table, pretending to riffle through her backpack for something she’d forgotten, a furious blush surging up her neck.

“I don’t care if you see me, Katniss.”

Dear, lord. He was so close behind her, she could feel the heat radiating off his naked chest onto her back through the thin cotton of her tank top. He’d breathed the words into the shell of her ear, his lips ghosting just so over the sensitive flesh- the tact sending lava thrumming through her veins. Her head swam with sensory overload and her eyes closed of their own volition. So lost in the waves of sensation was she that it was the gentle rumble of his throat against her temple as he chuckled lightly, that alerted her to the fact she’d settled her head listlessly into the crook of his shoulder.

Flax cleared his throat roughly, “There are two other people in your general vicinity, guys.”

Katniss recoiled away from Peeta, feeling somewhat bereft at the sudden lack of warm contact and swirled to face him, determined to work through the haze to get some things straightened out with the boy.

She found herself face to face with that dip where that perfect cleft between his massive pectorals met his Adam’s Apple and had to swallow hard. Fine. It was better than looking into his eyes. She tried for putting her hands up against his abdomen – maybe to brace him back a little and gain some breathing room – but the muscles there twitched in the most exquisite way the moment her fingertips grazed them and she dropped her hands immediately. She couldn’t even start to process the stimulating jolt those undulating ropes of sinew had sent from her hands through her system in that split moment of contact. “O-okay… some ground rules. Flax has a point. You are… um… you are very… distracting? You need to stop doing this. I have… this is my job. You need to stop,” she tried in a flustered stutter.

Peeta sent his older brother a quick, withering glance before settling his gaze back on her, his head slightly tilted as he analyzed his response.

“No.”

Eyes alight with indignation shot up to meet his in challenge. “What do you mean ‘no’? You don’t get to say no to that. That’s not a bloody request. I’m getting paid to take care of the three of you, not to ogle you… and definitely not to do the things I…” she broke eye contact, panting heavily at the patch of lawn next to her. Why was he being so freaking difficult about this? “You need to stop, so I can do what I’m supposed to do here today well. We’ll deal with us – whatever we are – after, okay?”

She felt an impossibly gentle kiss to the temple she’d turned away from him and couldn’t help but lean her head ever slightly into the gesture. “I said no, Katniss, and I meant it,” he spoke directly into her hairline. “I have a rough day ahead of me here. I don’t need to compound any more frustration onto it. If the urge to stare at you strikes… I’m going to look. If the urge to touch you strikes, I’m going to do it in a way that will not demean you to the people around us. And if I want to kiss you… well, I might have to get creative for that one.”

She suppressed an unwitting shudder, obstinately keeping her face turned from his.

“I’m tired of this. I waited too long to be sure you felt half of what I feel for you. We played this stupid game all day yesterday and you were able to perform above and beyond what Dad expected of you. You’ll do just fine today, even allowing yourself to indulge. Trust me; he doesn’t think any less of you because of what’s happening between us. Probably quite the opposite. He adores you.” He lowered his voice to that rumbling register that made her stomach tighten. “Don’t you want to look at me, Everdeen?”

Shutting her eyes tight, she shook her head obstinately. She knew she was behaving like a petulant toddler, but somehow she also felt in her gut if she held out, she’d be rewarded for her reticence. She knew she’d been right when she felt those impossibly strong, steady arms wrap around her waist…

“Look at you! You’re a matched set! Can you get any more adorable?”

The foreign, high-pitched, distinctively feminine squeal caused Katniss’s eyes to fly open to seek out the source.

Upon finding it to be a somewhat familiar, curvaceous girl with two curly, strawberry blonde pigtails, sporting a grey and black plaid patterned, woman’s length traditional skirt and button up white shirt, who’d thrown arms around Flax in a hug- she separated from Peeta with a blush. That same flush turned into a different kind of heat that boiled deep into her bones when the rambunctious girl bounded straight over to replicate the gesture on Peeta, placing a kiss square on his cheek, so close to his lips, she was sure she caught at the very minimum the edge. The only reason she’d missed was the boy had made a last instant veer of his face to the left. Obviously, this girl was more than accustomed to aiming her kisses dead center on the youngest Mellark’s face. She was unprepared for how much that notion rankled.

“Oh, my god, Katniss! You look so pretty in their colors! You’re the perfect compliment to this little ragtag group of underdogs. I hear they’re doing wonderful thanks to you. Thank you so much for all your support with these boys. I know they’d be lost without you.”

Was this girl seriously wrapped all over the boy she must have noticed she’d been intimately engaged with when she’d entered the tent and speaking to her as if she’d known her the entirety of her life? The nerve. In lieu of responding, her eyes narrowed venomously at this interloper, who just continued smiling deliriously at her.

“Real subtle, Dell. Everyone can tell what you’re doing. Ha-ha, ignore the one person you should be here to see. Who’s tartan is that?”

Katniss’s eyes widened at both the uncharacteristic weariness in Rye’s voice and the resulting falter in the strawberry blonde’s saccharine smile. She still didn’t bother turning to address him. She kept her eyes focused pointedly on Katniss, annoyance bleeding into that genuine effervescence in her cornflower eyes.

“I didn’t get a single call or text from you yesterday, Rye. Even Peeta texted me at midnight, told me he had an amazing surprise. That he’d finally done it,” she punctuated this a wink at Katniss, who immediately mouthed, “You told her?” at Peeta in irate shock. He quickly mouthed back, “Had to. Best friend. Bursting to tell someone,” with an apologetic shrug.

“Delilah,” Rye had moved from his perch in one of the lounge chairs to stand directly beside the golden-haired girl, who still avoided looking at him. “I told you Friday I was going to be here. There was no way I was calling you yesterday. I had enough potentially bone crushing crap to deal with without adding you to the mix. All I wanted last night was a hot bath and a warm bed.”

Both girls turned to shoot outraged daggers at him. “Oh, are we no longer doing that full disclosure thing you wanted? Because, believe me, honey, I can lie up a storm for you,” Rye scoffed humorlessly, trying to bring an arm around the blonde girl that she quickly shoved off.

“I can smell your bull from a block away, Rye. I’ve been able to since you were four. You can’t actually lie to me. But, there’s being honest and there’s being a complete jerk. You need to find a happy medium.”

“You want a happy medium?” Rye let out a clipped laugh and, in the blink of an eye, had wrenched the girl out of his younger brother’s arms, pinning her to the table with his lower body, arms on either side of her hips. He flitted one of those unreadable looks at Peeta when he tensed at the sudden and seemingly violent maneuver that, to Katniss’s ever-growing dismay, caused the younger teen to relax against the table and just bring a hand up to rub over his face. She still looked on in vexation at the scene that played out. Rye grabbed at the fabric of the blonde girl’s skirt harshly, nearly growling into her entirely aloof face, “Here’s your medium: you are too happy, too high maintenance and entirely too much work.” Then he crushed his mouth to hers aggressively, bruising- to the point Katniss had to avert her eyes.

“God, is that what we look like?” she asked no one in particular, feeling queasy.

“I can’t imagine anyone looking quite so disturbing… much like dipping into your own genetic pool… as these two, man,” Peeta offered with a thumb pointed in the general direction of what was going on to his right, though he kept his face in his hand. “This is just so nasty.”

Rye broke the kiss with a wet slurping sound that made Peeta turn to Katniss, simulating a retch. He brandished a single finger salute at his baby brother for the slight. “You’re just jealous because she,” he pointed at Katniss, “can’t kiss for crap.”

Peeta immediately turned back to Katniss, already finding her back facing him, the exposed skin of her shoulders and neck coloring. “I never said that, Katniss. He’s messing with you, again.”

“Well, it’s not like I’ve had practice. Only other person I ever kissed was Gale in eight grade…”

“Ha! I knew it,” Flax crowed from the lounge chair he’d claimed away from the drama at the picnic table. “There was no way a guy with Hawthorne’s reputation spent as much time as he did with you without getting something out of it.”

Katniss wrinkled her nose at him before noticing the way Peeta’s angular jaw flexed from the corner of her eye. Was he grinding his teeth?

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Flax. Gale’s my best friend. I kissed him in eight grade because I was honestly curious what all the fuss was about.”

“How was it?” She heard Peeta whisper, but somehow, the question sounded like more of a charge than a request for knowledge.

She furrowed her brow into a scowl. “It was pinchy? We’d been out hunting for eight hours. He had a four o’clock shadow. He said I kiss like a drunk girl. He never tried kissing me again. And, honestly, I’ve never felt the compunction to try it again, either. Am I really a bad kisser? When he said I kissed like I’m drunk, he didn’t mean it in a good way. I know him. And it wasn’t…” she looked at the grass at her feet, “It wasn’t like our kisses. It was just a kiss. Mouth on mouth- none of the… um…”

She couldn’t bring herself to explain the rest. It felt too personal to expand upon in mixed company.

Peeta’s big hand came to wrap around her chin, forcing her face up to look at him. “I wouldn’t be wracking my brain trying to remember where there’re secluded, shaded spots on this field if you weren’t an amazing kisser. Hawthorne’s a moron.”

“He’s not,” she defended. “He’s just my friend. We can’t see each other the way I see y… well, you know.”

“I know.”

“So, whose colors are these, Delly?” Rye asked again of the flushed girl pinned to the table, still gripping a handful of her skirt.

“If you must know, it’s clan Douglas- Glimmer’s clan. She, Clove and I are dancing in the opening ceremony today and Clove’s competing in the weight for height event under her boyfriend’s banner. The boys are here, too- Glimmer’s older brother and cousin. I’m wearing this for support of my friends.” She swept a hand over her outfit.

“God, those losers are here?” Flax complained from his spot on the lounge chair and Katniss shot him a questioning look that went unanswered.

“They won’t come looking for trouble if you don’t go looking for trouble with them,” Delly supplied hopefully.

“And you believed them when they told you that? When they got you to flaunt this,” Rye tugged on her skirt again for emphasis, “in our faces?”

She pursed her lips at him. “The dance was planned months ago. You remember that time, don’t you? Anything they would’ve asked me to do back then that would’ve irked you? I would’ve done in a heartbeat. We are all coordinated. I can’t let them down now. I made a commitment.” She kissed his nose softly. “And I’m here to support them today. I promised. I’ll come over to the house after, okay?”

“Not okay,” Rye grumbled in response, crushing her to him again. “They’re doing this on purpose. You’re supposed to be here with us,” he all but whined.

She pressed a soft kiss to his lips and broke away from his arms with an effortless push against his chest. “Well, this will show you to take better care of that which you value, now won’t it, darling? Call me when you guys head home, Peeta. Oh, and Katniss, we need to have a sleepover powwow. I have so much you can use on him. You need to call me,” she jittered, her buoyancy returning as she bounded out of the tent.

“Peeta?”

“Yeah.”

“Could you make that whole smothering me in my sleep thing painless?”

*~*~*~*~*~*

Katniss breathed in deeply, pulling back on the string, and exhaled as she released, watching the arrow slice wind in an elegant arc before shattering the clay diskette careening through the air thirty yards above and northwest of her.

The crowd of roughly three dozen spectators that surrounded her – mostly passersby who’d grown curious at the lone shooter and her tiny entourage out in the target range – clamored uproariously at her accomplishment. But she hardly had the time to acknowledge them.

With a practice bred of years in the wilderness - using instinct to outsmart faster, stealthier prey - her arm shot back over her shoulder to reach for another shaft, nocking it and pulling the string back in a seamless motion spanning a heartbeat. Her right eye narrowed, tailing the trajectory of the second diskette. Her next exhale coincided with the launch of the arrow towards where the sphere should intercept it midair in a second- accounting for breeze, of course. She mimicked the motions instinctively when the telltale whistle of the a third airborne target rung out, making tiny pieces of clay rain over the delighted, clapping crowd to her extreme left.

She allowed herself a satisfied smile at that last set, sending a grateful wave to the figure by the launcher. It was mighty fine shooting. She didn’t think she had it in her to take down all three consecutively.  Hypothetically, she shouldn’t be shooting at any of these things.

They’d arrived at the range little past nine thirty and it’d taken her all of five minutes to bull’s-eye every thatched hay target on the field. So she’d taken to shooting from further and further away until an older, pot-bellied man with a scraggly beard and a face so etched with lines it resembled an ancient treasure map had approached from the wooden shack behind the targets.

They’d been terrified at first the hairy, kilted man would kick them off the staging area for the contest later on that day, but he’d only offered in a thick Scottish brogue, “A challenge worthy o’ ye far lass’s skill wit’ dat bo’.” This turned out to be an odd rudimentary wooden catapult of his own construct, geared to shoot clay discs he spun and cured himself into the air for more advanced target practice. She’d spent the last thirty minutes shooting pottery out of the sky.

Impossibly strong, warm arms wrapped around her waist from behind, crushing her back to a solid mass of interspersedly quaking sinew. “There is something intrinsically alluring about a hot girl with this kind of mastery of a deadly weapon, you realize?” Peeta rumbled into her temple, the vibrations of the rich sound feeling amazing where his skin pressed to hers.

“I thought you said PDA’s were on the blacklist,” she challenged, though her eyes still listed closed and her head tilted autonomously toward the heat of his mouth.

He chuckled lightly, making all those muscles pressed against her twitch in syncope. Bastard was doing this on purpose. “I said I would not touch you in any way that would demean you in anyone’s eyes, considering your compromising position as an employee. This? To any onlooker, this could be construed as a proud older brother or cousin coming to rain praise on their incomparably talented kin for her impressive performance,” he excused in an amused tone that made it clear he believed nothing of what he’d spoken.

She craned her head to side-eye him skeptically, her own response acerbic. “You have a bizarrely touchy family if this is par for the way you people praise accomplishments, guy.”

His smile grew predatory as he sloped down to graze his response within an inch of her lips. “You should see us get together for our rousing games of Twister at reunions…”

“EEEEEWWWW!!!”

Rye flinched his eyes from the pile of clay five yards before him he’d been eying anxiously at the screech from the girl with the bow in the middle of the field. He relaxed when his baby brother started cackling at whatever it was he’d said to her, apparently fighting to keep the now wriggling girl in his arms.

He turned his scowl on Flax, who was snickering softly at the interaction of the two out in the open field. “If I knew she could skewer organs with pointy objects at a distance, I might have made an attempt at congeniality when I first met her, you know.”

Flax turned a disbelieving expression on him. “No, you wouldn’t have, dude. You know people carry concealed weapons all the time. You’re still a smartmouthed little prick. It’s all right, though. You just gotta do you. If that makes you a tempting target for sociopaths…” he let the statement edge off with a flippant shrug of one shoulder, returning his attention to the couple on the field.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, ass.”

Flax was turning to make his repost, when a leaden arm fell over his shoulder. “Well, if it isn’t the Golden Sun of District Twelve High himself. How you been doing, Mellark? I hear you’ve just been shredding it through that first term at Ann Arbor.”

Flax kept his gaze set on the field, though he no longer saw what was happening there. He was watching what was transpiring off to his periphery, where a tall, built boy – not unlike the one who’d invaded his personal space – attempted the same gesture with Rye, only to have the Mellark middle child shoot him a glare so threatening, his arm dropped like dead weight. The kid even took a step away from his younger brother for good measure.

Flax bit the inside of his cheek to submerge the humor. “How’s the clavicle, Cato?” He felt the arm around him twitch and, instinctively, he tensed for however the blowhard reacted.

The young man beside him let out a laugh. It was not a pleasant sound. “Oh, you know. It bothers when the weather goes south. Physical therapist says the bone set nicely, tough.” Flax felt the boy shift down to add in a harsh hiss to his ear, “You owe me a scholarship, Mellark.”

Maintaining his ramrod posture, Flax turned his head to the side and craned his neck considerably to lock eyes with the almost colorless blues on the boy beside him. “You’re a Legacy, Douglas. You were getting in on Daddy’s buck and influence, regardless,” he stated nonchalantly. Then he added with a mocking, lopsided grin as an afterthought, “Or you could’ve gotten in on your mother’s knees, or has she retired those? I hear stepdad number six has actually stuck around for over a year.”

Flax saw the hatred flare in the large boy’s eyes and balled his hands in anticipation.

“Hey! Come on you guys. We’re all here in the spirit of competition,” the other lanky teenager to Rye’s left barked enthusiastically, but somehow the tone lacked what one would imagine could diffuse a volatile situation. “We even have our own cheering squad back at the tent. You guys need to come by and check it out. You wouldn’t believe how amazing our support system is this year. It’s just… top notch.”

Rye let out a clipped, almost pained laugh, bringing one hand up to apply pressure to both eyes, the other arm coming to fold over his stomach to support it, that hand clenching and unclenching. “Marvel, dude, you realize you’ve never beaten me, you trifling…” he took a deep inhale through his nose. “You cheat, you sick son of a bitch. You’ve tried every dirty hit you can think of, every banned hold… and you’ve still never been able to pin me- three years trying. And you think this,” he gestured expansively with the hand he’d held to his eyes between the four of them, “will work? This doesn’t work on us, stupid! It feeds us… and destroys you. How much punishment do you pricks have to take before you learn?”

“Whoa! Is that Cat-Piss?”

Oh, god, no.

Katniss turned in Peeta’s arms at hearing the ridiculous spoof on her name she hadn’t heard anyone use since the school bully had hit puberty and realized girls’ anatomies were more interesting than torturing them… some point during middle school. Somehow, she wasn’t shocked to find the gigantic, golden haired man-child standing next to Flax, staring between her and Peeta with an odd cross between shock, amusement and excitement.

“Seriously, Cato? How old are you?” she shot back with an unimpressed frown and a grandiose eye roll.

Something… dark, glossed over the big boy’s eyes before he bowed his head as if ashamed. “You’re right, Everdeen,” he shot back at her, the tone in his voice unreadable. She felt Peeta’s hold about her waist tightening, his breaths quickening. “I’m old enough to know so much better,” he finished, raising his eyes to focus squarely on Peeta. He casually waved over to the other boy on Rye’s left, “Come on, Marv. Wrestling trials start at eleven. Gotta prepare.” Then, they took off running toward the north end of the large park.

Flax heaved a weary breath, watching their retreating backs. “They’re going to be fun.”

Rye snorted, turning away from the retreating young men to look back at the open field, managing to gain his little brother’s attention as he spoke his next words. He locked eyes meaningfully with their youngest, enunciating clearly, “We have nothing to worry about from them at all, Flax. They won’t bother with us. They’ve chosen their target.”

*~*~*~*~*~*

Katniss had been privy to more than a few wrestling matches, courtesy of her clandestine surveillance of the baker’s youngest son over the years. Those had been matches of skill, technique and agility.

Highland Games backhold wrestling were a far more savage and less refined version of anything she’d witnessed in a high school gym- probably due to the noticeable lack of a soft mat for anyone to fall on.

Competitors locked arms around each other’s backs and clamped their hands together tight. Then, either they’d attempt to brute each other to the hard ground by tripping their opponent’s feet from under them or – in the case of some of the insanely powerful ones she’d seen thus far – by outright flipping them on their backs. Four drops out of six attempts won the match.

The coordinators of the event seemed to be matching opponents according to weight. That’s the only way Katniss could figure the boys were getting matched to some of the behemoths they were facing out there. She’d started musing they must weigh half a ton each, just judging by the adversaries they’d managed to take down so far. Half hour into the trial and all three were still well in it, but the field was thinning and champions from earlier matches were starting to get called to compete against each other.

There were three matches going on simultaneously at the start of the event, so she’d watched with just one or, at times, none of the brothers for company. But Delly would steal away through the amassed crowd whenever she’d find herself alone to cheer with her. She liked the bubbly blonde girl well enough. She was loud and never stopped talking, but she was just so… positive about everything. It felt wrong somehow not to like her.

Now that the trial had reached something of a head, however, there was only one match going on and she had two of the brothers flanking her – almost protectively – all the time. She’d feel claustrophobic by it if it weren’t so darn endearing.

Flax came back from a particularly rough match with a six-foot-three Cro-Magnon from clan Sutherland and spit at the ground at his feet. He stained the lawn a deep crimson. “I sliced right through my inner lower lip on the last fall. I’m going to hit up the first aid tent for some gauze for the bleeding. Someone tape the baby’s next match with their phone for me.”

Rye was already pulling his phone from Katniss’s backpack. “Wuss,” he snorted, “You’d think swallowing a little blood would kill him. I lost my last three baby teeth and four fillings to this sport.”

“That’s not something you should necessarily be proud of, dude. Especially since you keep swallowing those and they don’t come out the other end. You’re going to develop some serious health issues down the road,” Peeta snickered, getting in a quick drink just as the next match blazed through the speaker.

“Meeting on the field: Clan Graham- Peeta Mellark versus Clan Douglas – Vincent M. Holmes”

“Forfeit!” Rye immediately cried out, waving over one of the officials.

Peeta forced his hand down with a laugh. “Vincent? Marvel’s first name is Vincent? How have we never known this? What were this kid’s parents on when they named him? And why is this the first time the announcer’s pronounced it that way? They’ve been calling him V.M. Holmes all morning. You figure the bribe money ran dry or the main guy had to take a piss and the stand in isn’t getting a cut? And, what are you doing, man? I’m not forfeiting this. That bastard’s going down.”

Rye flitted eyes over to Katniss, who narrowed hers in confusion, before lowering his voice to answer, “You know why. This can’t end well. Tag out.”

Peeta shook his head, determination brimming in his eyes. “Nah, man. I’m cool. I got this.” Then he headed out to the center of the field where Marvel awaited.

“Isn’t this exciting, you guys!” Delly squealed, suddenly appearing between Rye and Katniss and throwing her arms around each of them.

“Christ, Dell!” Rye flinched, turning his head toward her while still trying to keep his phone focused on the field ahead. “Why are you here? You said you were hanging with Clove and Glimmer when the Douglas’s were competing.”

“They’re here, too,” Delly answered pertly, throwing a thumb over her shoulder. Rye and Katniss turned to find the entire Douglas clan – a group that numbered somewhere in the twenties – amassed a few steps behind them. Cato waved at them amicably, predominantly. “The boys thought it’d be nice to cheer the joint matches together, since your group is so small and ours is so big. Isn’t that nice of them?”

The snark was on the tip of his tongue when he caught site of Delly’s eyes, that look only a select few could ever hope to find, swimming in those ebullient pools of blue that said, “They are being civil. Agree with me, Ryland Mellark, or so help me god…

“Sure, Delilah,” he chose instead, not bothering to veil his disdain when she’d pick up on the lie, anyway. He turned back to focus his phone on the fight ahead. “It’s just bloody peachy.”

x-x-x-x-x-x

“So, you and the Indian chick. How long’s that being going on?” Marvel hissed in Peeta’s ear as soon as the bell rung, indicating the start of the match.

Peeta ignored the rising tempo of his heartbeat at the other boy’s words, concentrating instead on a strategy to bring him down. Marvel was well over a head taller and already using his longer reach to kick at his legs to unbalance him- pathetically, he might add. He chose to use that as his first method to bring him down. He waited until the taller boy tangled his right leg in his left again and, shifting all their combined weight to his left, kicked Marvel’s left foot from under him, catapulting him to the ground.

As they were both getting to their feet to reset, he leaned over him and spat, “Native Americans aren’t Indians, you ignorant bigot.”

x-x-x-x-x-x

Katniss clapped, too delirious to care if she bounced with exhilaration at Peeta’s first knock down. She looked to her right to share her excitement with Rye and Delly, but they were both cheering into the phone. She felt something of a third wheel.

“I’m really sorry about the nickname.”

She nearly jumped out of her skin at the unexpected voice very near her left shoulder and violently snapped her head back to find its source. She found Cato watching the match about half a foot behind and to the left of her. He focused eyes on her with a small half-smile when she craned her head to see his face.

“Um… it’s okay,” she mumbled, somewhat uncomfortable with his proximity. Usually, her keen senses allowed her to feel when someone snuck up this close to her long before they’d get within a yard, but there were so many people in the park that day and everyone was jostling everyone else for a better look at the contest. She was growing acclimated to the personal space invasion.

“Guys tease each other all the time. I get it. But I’m not a guy… And I don’t think these guys took whatever it is you said as a joke, so you might want to avoid that topic in the future,” she shrugged, turning back to the match. She focused her eyes intently on the way Marvel kept trying to flip Peeta, though it had to be obvious to him the smaller boy was too grounded to turn. Something else seemed off. Peeta was shaking, but it didn’t seem to be from exertion. He was barely putting effort into- well whatever that was. To her, it only looked like Marvel was turning him toward the crowd.

She was so perplexed by the bizarre technique, she never felt the boy behind her lean over her…

…Never felt him coil the end of her waist-long braid in his hand… 

x-x-x-x-x-x

“Indian… Native American… whatever, man. She’s super-hot.” Marvel laughed darkly against Peeta’s nape.

He tried to ignore him again, focus on the idiot’s strategy to turn it against him, but he didn’t seem to be trying anything beyond flipping him. The moron had to know he lacked both the leverage and the positioning to accomplish that, right?

 

“I can’t believe you’ve been hiding her from the rest of us on the team, Peeta,” Marvel continued and Peeta's breathing spiked. He needed to control it. This was exactly what Rye had warned him they’d try. He wasn’t going to let them. “That’s a very un-captainly thing to do. Can you just imagine what all us guys could do to that girl if we got her alone in, say, the empty parking lot or behind the bleachers out in the field?”

Christ, he was shaking, trying to control the racing breathing, his spiraling pulse. He had to focus. He had to get the image of her crying out, helpless, suffering. He needed it out of his mind. He needed to… Then he looked out in the crowd and saw her, eyes wide with worry… worry for him. And Cato was looming right over her ear, grinning disgustingly, bringing a hand wrapped in her braid to his nose to inhale deeply as he kept his eyes locked on him.

A sound not unlike a wounded feral thing reverberated from somewhere in his throat, his muscles going weak for an nth of a second, the nth of a second Marvel had apparently been waiting for, as he chose this exact moment to wedge his foot between his legs to unbalance him.

It took less than a blink for Peeta to realize both his mistake and their demented game. But, by then, the blind rage was far too encompassing for it to matter. Before he lost balance, he rammed further into Marvel’s frame, locking his foot between his massive thighs. He lowered his head and shoulder into the larger boy’s stomach and hoisted him, fiercely vaulting him to the ground over his head.

The moment Marvel made violent impact with the compacted earth, all the air forced from of his lungs, Peeta was on him again. He found Cato’s stunned eyes in the crowd as he brought the ball of his palm, fullforce, to the boy’s lower oblique- once, twice, three times, less than a fourth of a second interval between blows. Until he felt the give under his hand and heard the accompanying crack. Marvel half howled, half gasped, doubling over on the lawn.

“You’re probably too stupid to follow this, but you’ll want to stay as still a possible,” Peeta spat at the boy below him, choking for his next breath, as members of his extended family and the EMT’s on call for the event ran out on the field to tend to him. “Moving just makes it burn worse.”

Then he got to his feet, inching toward the gaping spectators, making sure to pass a still-shocked Cato, following the rest of his family to Marvel. They were yet to lose each other’s eyes. “If you ever so much as breathe on her again? Unlike your flunky of a cousin, you’ll have far worse than a few cracked ribs to deal with.”

Then he continued walking, shutting out everything. Shutting out the cries of alarm from the outraged crowds, shutting out Rye’s worried inquiries about his welfare, even shutting out those impossibly beautiful mercury eyes that looked upon him with such caring, such affliction, such confusion.

He never even heard when the speakers rang out the result of the match:

“Use of unnecessary and excessive brutality. Contestant Peeta Mellark is eliminated. Due to unsportsman-like conduct, Clan Graham forfeits this trial by default.”


 

Chapter Text


 

Peeta barreled into the tent, sending a lounge chair that’d had the audacity to block his path flying onto another beside it with a violent kick. His fingers ravaged and pulled at the roots of his hair, his booted feet fraying the woven mat beneath from pacing, not truly aware of his surroundings, lost in that void of rage, anguish, horror.

He’d let them. He’d let them strip away another slice. They’d turned him into that feral, raving thing, devoid of thought, devoid of mercy… just like her. He’d allowed them to shatter his carefully erected barriers of control- years’ worth of practiced discipline. And for what? For a few seconds of gratification?

He was just like her.

All in front of Katniss- without any context.

An agonized sob escaped him as the tension suddenly left his body. Devoid of the energy to stand, he slumped to the ground in one corner of the tent, his knees coming up to his chest and his arms encircling them as he let his head fall to them. His broad frame shuddered from the violent sobs that wracked his being.

This is how Flax found the boy, not a minute later, rushing to kneel at his side without a thought, wrapping his massive arms around him so tight, he almost sat him in his own lap. He rocked him gently, much as he’d often done in the bad times… when they’d both been little and a different monster had lost control.

“Shush, baby,” Flax cooed gently, rubbing his little brother’s back tenderly, “we’ve got you.”

Peeta knew he was well too old for it. But, really, how much face had he to save at this point? He brought his arms around his older brother’s neck and buried his face in his clavicle, still whimpering.

Flax responded by placing a kiss to the top of the younger boy’s head, continuing the gentle circles on his back. “That bad, huh?” he whispered into his mop of curls. “I’m so sorry I left you, Peet. I should’ve stayed. I heard who they matched you with over the prompter. I tried to get back as soon as I could. I’m so sorry. You wanna tell me what they did?”

Peeta took a deep, shuddering breath, choking back a sob. “I lost it,” he groaned, the sound muffled against the older boy’s shirt. “I hurt him bad. I wanted to see him hurt so bad.”

Flax cringed at how small he sounded, but still infused as much authority as he could into his deep tenor while attempting to maintain it soothing. “What did they do, Peeta?” he repeated, bringing his hand up to run through his baby brother’s hair, pulling gently so that the boy would face him.

Doing his best to stifle the tears with a sniff, Peeta pulled away from his brother’s shoulder, slowly bringing his eyes up to meet the glaciers that were Flax’s. “They reminded me of Gloss,” came the simple, barely discernible response.

Eyes widening in outraged fury, Flax immediately crushed his little brother to him again, allowing his head to cradle in his neck. He had to battle his own spiking heartbeat now, strain to keep the murderous intent out of his voice. “Jesus, Peeta. No. I’m sorry. Whatever you did to them. That wasn’t her. There’s nothing like that in her. That was you. You’re so good, Peeta. Infinitely good. God, you’re a saint if he’s still breathing, you know that?”

Flax felt him shake his head against his shoulder and gave him a soft tap on the back. “Shut up,” he scoffed with forced mirth. “You don’t get a vote.”

They heard footsteps approaching on the sun withering lawn beyond the tent’s entrance and Flax pulled Peeta up again, wiping the tears out of his eyes with his thumbs. “I’m guessing, in full castrati fashion, they pulled it off where neither she nor anyone else has any idea why you went off on them, right?”

His answer was a slow, haggard mute nod.

“Well, she’s here, and you’re going to tell her.”

Peeta made an exasperated noise, pulling his hands away to rub his face roughly.

“Oh, don’t give me that. You don’t tell her and I will… and you’ll just come off an introverted, wuss to her all over again. Which isn’t even who you are. You need to give her the facts to form a proper persona for you, dude. Has the last twelve years really taught you nothing?”

Peeta peaked through his fingers to narrow his eyes at his older brother.

“No, it’s not better she think you a wuss than a sociopath,” Flax hissed irately, hitting him on the shoulder harder. “And that’s not what you are. She likes you. You owe it to her to explain what she just saw. You owe it to yourself.”

“What did I just see?”

They both veered their gaze to the entry, where Katniss stood, arms crossed and a deep frown twisting her features.

“Where’s Rye?” Flax deflected.

She narrowed her eyes further at the obvious shift, throwing a thumb over her shoulder. “He had to take care of some stuff back at the staging area for the wrestling trials. Delly’s with him. What just happened back there?” she echoed, worry mixing into the confusion dancing in her steel eyes as she stepped closer tentatively, as if afraid to spook a cornered animal.

Apropos analogy.

“You don’t have to do that. I don’t bite,” Peeta ventured, unable to keep the weariness out of his voice.

“That’s not my experience as of the last fifteen minutes, guy,” she retorted, voice cautiously defensive, but still sarcastic.

Peeta let out a clipped, humorless laugh, but she could see his bloodshot eyes were filling with moisture. “Good point.”

Her chest aching at whatever it was that was making him look so miserable, she shortened the distance to him and kneeled by his side, taking one of his large hands in hers. “Sorry, stupid timing for a joke,” she whispered. “Are you okay?”

He analyzed her briefly before tracing a look toward his older brother.

“Oh, I’m not going anywhere. Look what happened last time I left you. You need space? I’ll be over here picking up after your tantrum tornado and making myself a sandwich. Stay in your corner.”

Peeta glared at him and the older boy blew him a kiss in return, moving off to tidy up the tent.

The heat of his frustrated breath ruffled her hair. She was trying to avoid his eyes- hoping that would make them both feel more at ease. “That thing you guys do is super weird, you know.”

“What?”

“The eye thing.”

She noticed him crinkle his nose from her periphery and she just shook her head in dismissal. It dawned on her the brothers’ pantomimed method of communication was entirely subconscious. “So, what happened out there?”

Peeta took a deep breath and exhaled through his nose. “Marvel has an older brother. His name’s Gloss. Not his real name. That’s just what everyone called him.”

Was that supposed to mean something to her?

“You get a really adorable crinkle right here,” he smoothed an index finger between her eyes, right above the bridge of her nose, “when you concentrate really hard on stuff.”

“Are you seriously stalling?”

His mouth edged up into a half smile at her irritation. She was beautiful when she got pissed. “Yes,” he admitted sheepishly.

Her eyes found his now, irked and resolute. “Don’t. Why did you go berserk out there? I’ve seen nearly every match you’ve been in for the last four years. I know guys talk trash during matches. I’ve never seen you let it get to you. How was this different? What did he say to you?”

Peeta grimaced. “It wasn’t something they said Katniss… it was a threat… or maybe a sick game. You can’t really tell with those guys.”

Well, that made sense. Lashing out because one feels threatened was entirely normal, healthy even. It was a preservative instinct.

“What did Marvel threaten to do to you?”

Peeta ran a hand through his hair, avoiding her eyes. “They didn’t threaten me.”

Now she was at a total loss, and apparently, it showed, because Peeta quickly elaborated, “When Flax was a sophomore in high school; the Varsity football team had an away game upstate. They and the cheerleading squad stayed the weekend in some hotel. No one knows how a bunch of kids managed to sneak out to a party, but one of the girls ended up… hurt. She alleged Gloss did it. Of course, he denied it. He talked so much trash about this girl she had to leave the school. I don’t know what happened to her.”

“What does this have to do with what happened today?” Katniss asked, honestly perplexed.

Anger flooded Peeta’s eyes. “Marvel and Gloss are old money, Katniss. Gloss was the star running back, already scouted to four different colleges. His father is one of the wealthiest investment bankers in this state. His uncle, Cato’s father, had spent a stint in the senate. These are the kind of people who buy these bastards’ way out of any ‘mistakes’ they make. That’s what Gloss called it – when the case settled out of court – he called it a ‘mistake’. The girl… she probably just wanted to move on after that nightmare. The Holmes probably threatened to keep them tied up in court until they lost everything and they barely made ends meet before. She had no one… just like you.”

Realization blazoned in Katniss’s eyes and her stomach sank. “They said they’d do the same to me,” she heaved.

His large hand came to rest on her cheek, then traced up to tuck lose strands of hair behind her ear in a feather soft caress. His voice was light, weighted with emotion. “They didn’t have to say it outright. Christ, Katniss, you couldn’t see Cato behind you. He had your hair, Katniss. Simulating doing vulgarities to you. Marvel was telling me what he could get the guys on the team to do to you. That… that’s not as likely, the guys are cool. But, Marvel and Cato… they know they can get away with some screwed up stuff. They learned they can from Gloss. In that moment, I couldn’t think. I just wanted to do something – anything – to show them you weren’t alone and defenseless like that poor girl.”

Her breath hitched at the vulnerability in his eyes, the pain, the shame. Her heart swelled, clenched, ached. Stupid boy. What had he to feel ashamed of? No one- no one had bothered sheltering her in so long. Not since her father. Sure, her mother went through the motions. Her mother loved her, but she’d long since given up on the trivialities of raising her, protecting her from the cruelties of the world. She’d forbidden the woman the task.

Would she ever stop owing this cerulean-eyed boy?

That familiar urge to feel him overwhelmed and, for once, she relented, uncaring. She tasted the salt of tears on his heated lips when the tip of her tongue grazed experimentally, her hands frantically tangling in his hair. Knees dropped as arms came to wrap around her middle, bringing her flush to his solid body. She ended up sitting on his lap, their mouths locked in frantic exploration.

He quickly commandeered, coercing deeper access with an aggressive tug of her upper lip by impatient teeth. His hold on her tightened, one hand scraping up her spine to bury in the base of her braid when a weak mewl escaped her at the feel of that dexterous tongue asserting dominance in her mouth. He was languid and methodical, tracing the seams between her teeth, the crests of the roof- seemingly learning every keen and whimper his unique skill could extort. Eventually, her inexpertness forced her to break contact for much needed oxygen, but she maintained her forehead braced to his, eyes closed, noses touching, sharing the breaths he panted into her flushed skin.

“You don’t have to worry about them.”

Katniss’s eyes flickered open to follow Flax’s comment, but she found herself trapped in the infinite obsidian of Peeta’s engorged pupils, focused with that unwavering intensity on her. The way he kept alternating between nipping and licking lightly at her upper lip was not helping her concentration any.

“Hmm?” she tried, in response to the older boy, the non-word hummed against Peeta’s mouth.

Flax let out an amused breath. “Cato and Marvel. You don’t have to worry about the crap they pulled to get in his head,” he elaborated, taking a seat on one of the lounge chairs where he had a view of the couple in the corner. He avoided his eyes to the sandwich on his plate with a wide smile when he noted their very compromised position in the corner. He shot over his shoulder, “They act like idiots, but they’re not that stupid. Cato’s old enough to be tried as an adult. Plus, he’s got a whole life away at college. He’s not going to jeopardize that over some stupid vendetta. Marvel… he knows one sick tarnish on his family’s name can be assumed a fluke. The next one’s a pattern. They wouldn’t be able to cover it up as easily. They’d sacrifice him in a heartbeat if he screwed up, just for the sake of their reputation. They won’t actually target you.”

Katniss half listened to the older boy’s words, too distracted by his younger brother’s ministrations. However, once they registered, she found her brows furrowing. Surely, if Flax had realized this, so had Peeta, so why had he?

“Don’t exactly think clearly when I get that pissed, sweetheart.”

She pulled back far enough to grace him with an awed/vexed expression. Was she that easily read? Or was this kid just this freakishly empathic?

Peeta chuckled darkly. “It takes a lot to get me really angry, Katniss. I learned a very long time ago how… undesirable my particular brand of rage can be. I keep a very tight seal on it. I believe words have so much more power and influence than physicality. But, when something like today triggers it…” he broke off, eyes listing toward the canvas wall beside them.

She sent Flax a questioning glare for the rest. She found the older boy had turned back and was staring at his little brother with commiseration. He locked eyes with her and shrugged. “They’ve tried that same crap on me and Rye. It’s never worked. We’re wired differently. We let it out- in spades. Do you have any idea how many shoulders I’ve dislocated? Bones I’ve broken? Someone pisses one of us off; they know what they’re getting. It doesn’t even phase us. He,” he gestured with his head toward Peeta, “he’s always found a way to channel it differently, creatively. He has to. Hurting someone, even unintentionally, bothers him. But, they’ve never had anyone to use against him before. He’s never dealt with this. They got under his radar. Found a kink in the armor.”

Her eyes narrowed in consideration of Flax’s words. Something didn’t add up. “But, they’ve never had anyone to use against him before.”

She turned back to Peeta. “But you’ve had a bunch of girlfriends. You just admitted to it in the car. Why didn’t they ever use one of the-” her words died on her lips when his eyes flickered back to lock on hers, that molten intensity back ten-fold. His hand was back at her cheek.

“You really have no idea. The effect you can have,” he ghosted over her lips, sending wave after wave of fire undulating through her veins. In spite of everything they’d experienced the last several minutes, she found herself blushing furiously at these last words, unable to hold his gaze.

“I guess not.”

“Are there any questions forthcoming about why and how I learned to inflict just enough damage for optimum suffering with minimum visible damage? If you’ve seen so many of my meets, as you said. You’ll know wrestling strictly prohibits those kinds of body shots. May as well ask now.”

She glanced back up to find that deep shame mixing with despair, coiling in the reemerging electric blues of his eyes. “Nah,” she asserted with a hint of a smile tugging one end of her mouth. “I wanna make you a sandwich. Come one. You’ve gotta be famished.” She bounded to her feet and held out a hand to him- an empty gesture, considering there was no earthly way she could ever haul his massive bulk off that lawn.

Still, he took her hand with a grateful smile, draping one arm around her and kissing her softly on the crown of her head once he made it on his feet. “You’re something else, sweetheart,” he sighed in her ear.

“This is partly your fault, you know.”

All the tent’s occupants turned curious eyes toward the entry, to find Rye a few yards out and making his way toward them hastily, clearly furious, Delly following a step behind. He wasn’t even bothering turning to shout arraignments at her. “They would never have gotten close enough to pull this crap if you wouldn’t have let them. You played right into their hands like a good, oblivious little puppet.”

“Excuse me?” Delly’s voice was even shriller than usual as she sped up to round before him, cutting his advance. “I was trying to keep everyone behaving. And, how do you know they did anything? They were yards awa-”

It always surprised Katniss how quickly these massive boys moved. In a breath, Rye had Delly by the upper arms in a vice grip, virtually hissing in her face. “You’ve known him since before you both learned how to walk, Delilah. When, in all the years you’ve known him, have you seen him react that way? Yes, of course, they did something to him. Don’t play this naïve bull. And the only reason they had the opportunity was because you couldn’t trust that maybe – just maybe – I had good reason for telling you to stay away from them.”

Delly’s eyes turned hard, her voice lowering to a chilly register. “And why would that be, Ryland? Why ever would I have trust issues when it comes to you?”

A guttural sound, somewhat a feral growl emerged from the teenager’s mouth and he released her to bring both hands to run through his hair, pulling hard. “No. You don’t get to do this. Be pissed at me for treating you like crap the first time around. Don’t trust me alone with another member of the opposite sex again- ever. I deserve that. I own that. But don’t use that to second guess me on every freaking decision, Delilah. And, definitely, don’t use it as some piss-poor excuse for abandoning your best friend to these sociopaths to do with as they pleased. Be pissed at me all you want. Leave me. That’s fair. He deserves better from you. He, at least, rates your loyalty.”

Obviously fighting back enraged tears, the strawberry blonde wordlessly turned on her heels, making for the Douglas tent. She got all of three steps before a hand encompassing most of her upper arm clamped down on it, halting her advanced. “You don’t get to run away from this either, darling,” Rye hissed in her ear.

She was literally shaking with the struggle to keep her composure. “Let go of me, Rye.”

“No.”

She rounded on him, shoving her hands against his chest with all her might. He didn’t even flinch. “You think it’s easy?” A fat tear streamed down her eye, but she ignored it, determined to get out her peace. “Trying to keep everyone getting along all the time? It’s not. I wanted everyone to just… get along…” a whimper escaped her. “It was only supposed to be us girls. They weren’t in on whatever happened. It’s not their fault the guys in their lives are pricks. They’re not exactly thrilled at my choices.” She punctuated this with another pointless shove to his chest. “But I went along because they’re my friends and I’d made a commitment months ago… and you’d…” another broken whimper, “you’d deserved it.”

She found herself enveloped in his arms and just allowed her shoulders to slump, her head falling into the crook of his neck. “They weren’t supposed to be there. I swear they weren’t,” she sniffed into his neck. “I’m so sorry for whatever they did to Peeta.”

“I know you are, honey,” he whispered into her hair. “But this has to go.”

With an ease that made Katniss pointedly uncomfortable from her vantage point and wrenched a surprised yelped from the strawberry blonde a few yards out in the field, Rye unbuckled the metal clasp to her skirt and unwound it from around her in a blink. Delly tried to grab for it, failingly, standing in just dark grey compression shorts and the white button-down as he lifted it over his head with an unflappable demeanor, before tracing off toward a tent not far off, where they were barbequing. The squirt went directly into the white-hot coals of the grill.

Huh. Katniss had no idea polyester was that flammable. That sucker went up in seconds.

“That wasn’t free, you jerk,” Delly huffed, slapping Rye on the shoulder hard, repeatedly.

He caught her wrist when he grew tired of it, using it to swing her around to crush her to him, that same wrist locked behind her by his muscled arms. “I’ll buy you a new one. A green one.” Then he crushed his mouth to hers. She struggled futilely for a moment before surrendering and reciprocating.

“Go get your stuff out of that den of hyenas,” he cooed against her lips once he broke the kiss.

She narrowed her eyes venomously at him. “I don’t like you.”

“I don’t like you, either. Makes it interesting, don’t it?” he retorted with an impish grin.

She rolled her eyes and pushed away from him, starting off toward the Douglas’s again. “I can’t believe I have to spend the rest of the day in this because of you…”

Looks great from where I stand,” he rebutted with a quick slap to her rear, which she answered by instantly turning and slapping him sound across the cheek. Then, she sauntered off with a cheerful giggle.

“Okay, that last one stung,” Rye entered the tent to a chorus of snickering, rubbing his face. He quickly turned a worried expression to his baby brother, which softened the moment he found him smiling softly, one arm around Katniss’s waist.

“You okay, pipsqueak?”

Peeta gave him a shrug. Yeah, he’d be fine.

“Where were you, anyway?” Flax inquired slightly miffed. “I leave the baby with you for ten minutes…”

“I’m seventeen, people… and in the general vicinity. You know, in case anyone wants to stop speaking about me as if I’m not within earshot.”

Rye pretended his baby brother wasn’t standing there when he stole the sandwich off his plate and took a humongous bite. Peeta pried the sandwich away and sent a petulant look at Katniss. She chuckled, handed him another sandwich and gave Rye a plate to place the one he’d pilfered into, along with a can of Pringles and a bottle of Gatorade. The Mellark middle child blew her a kiss and sat in a lounge chair before turning to answer his older brother’s query.

“I was dealing with the cops.”

Flax and Peeta’s brows rose to their hairlines. Oh, yeah. They’d completely forgotten police were hired as security for the event- to reign in fights amongst overzealous groupies and make sure the drinking didn’t escalate into disorderly conduct. Anxiety suddenly knotted Peeta’s stomach and he sat down his plate on the table.

Rye sent him a superior look. “Yeah, that’s right. Someone had to stick around to try to prevent you spending the night downtown, arguing who pees sitting down with a three-hundred pound, intricately body decorated biker named Allison.”

Peeta cringed at the visual. Rye barked out a laugh. “Seriously, though. Dad doesn’t need more than one of us with a juvie record…” Katniss gasped and he turned a cynical smile on her. “Is that really a shock, pretty lady. I’d think it’d be painfully obvious I have some ‘unresolved anger issues’. You ram someone’s face into a shady hole-in-the-wall latrine often enough and you’re going to end up with an assault charge… or six. Especially if you’re not technically old enough to be in said establishment in the first place.”

Katniss couldn’t help the snort that escaped her. “I’m starting to see why your father did not want me getting you booze.”

“Liquor provides a viable excuse for innate inclinations.”

She sent him a confused look and he just smiled one of those quizzical, obscene smiles. “So, anyway, the Douglas’s were biting at the chops to press charges against Peeta, here,” he gestured with his bottle at his baby brother and the younger boy cowed subconsciously. “So, I asked the nice policemen to run breathlizers on all parties involved and all witnesses. You know, since we were definitely taking this to court and we would want evidence as to how much of an extenuating factor alcohol played in the altercation and how reliable an inebriated witness could be during the proceedings.

“You make my pre-law heart proud, little brother,” Flax heaved, his voice ringing with mockery but true admiration shining in the navy of his eyes.

“Well, you don’t get arrested for drunken disorderly conduct with aggravated assault half a dozen times without learning some of the intricacies to that particular statute,” Rye snorted. Then a humongous, proud grin split his face. “You should’ve seen how quickly those bastards backpedaled, man. Apparently, those idiots have a keg back at their tent and a good dozen of them are under twenty-one: Cato and Marvel, included. They had substantially more to lose.”

“Yeah, I wasn’t passing a breathilizer either, man,” Peeta supplied with a quick glance at the three-quarters full bottle of Johnny Walker Red tucked behind their stack of towels on the table.

“Not an issue. No one’s coming in here to look. And, Cato left in the ambulance with his prick cousin. Apparently, even reptiles consider sticking to their own when they have to spend a night in the hospital to make sure bone fragments don’t puncture a lung more important than competing in these things.” Peeta wrinkled his nose at his older brother’s graphic depiction. “So we don’t have to worry about them the rest of the day. And, I get my girl back,” Rye finished with a very self-satisfied grin.

“I didn’t… the damage isn’t anywhere near where it can break off into his lungs… and they’re cracked at worst- not broken. Unless he’s stupid enough to run or something before they heal…” Peeta broke off, miserably, eyes hazing into some place dark.

Rye was on his feet, yanking Katniss from her task of making another round of sandwiches to puppeteer her arms around his baby brother’s waist. She sent him an alarmed, confused glare, but he wasn’t looking at her, his sky blues leveled intensely on the younger boy. “No. Don’t do that,” he ordered in a harsh whisper, then he turned his attention to her. “And you: keep touching him until he stops mumbling stupid.”

She narrowed her eyes dangerously at him and Peeta sighed to fight back a grin. “That’s insane, dude.”

Rye brought his index and middle fingers up in a ‘v’ gesture to point at his own eyes before sweeping them at the couple in a ‘I’m keeping an eye on you’ gesture, then went back to his lounge chair, taking an exaggerated chunk out of his sandwich. His eyes never leaving them.

“He’s dangerously unbalanced, you realize,” Katniss hissed up at Peeta, turning away from the disturbing boy.

“Yeah, but he means well… and I do like you touching me…”

She slapped him hard on the shoulder, “Don’t encourage the lunacy, Mellark.” Then she released him and turned back to finish her task, Peeta chuckling lightly in her ear.

*~*~*~*~*~*

It was nice, getting back to what they were actually there for after the morning’s drama.

Nicer still was the breeze that had picked up since they’d come out to what Katniss had first believed to be a pole vaulting stage the previous day. It was, in fact, a height rod for the sheaf toss and weight for height events of the Games.

The boys had once again chosen to forgo their shirts for these two events and both Katniss and Delly were making no effort to hide their gawking. Katniss even blushed whenever that ever-so-delightful breeze picked up and upswept the boys’ kilts, showcasing their compression shorts-clad, muscled thighs and buttocks and making Delly tilt her head a complete forty-five degrees to get a better peak at Rye. She was far too mortified to do the same with Peeta, though she’d been thoroughly tempted. There were just too many onlookers for her comfort.

Katniss couldn’t help chuckle when she’d first learned what these city slicker boys would have to do as part of The Sheaf Toss event, which employed a hay fork (yes, those forks you saw frightened villagers brandishing against monsters in cheesy old horror flicks) to toss a twenty pound sheaf (burlap sack full of hay) for height. The bar, she’d learned, was raised with each successful toss of the sheaf over the bar… and its peak towered forty feet above the ground. The highest toss won.

At least the Mellarks weren’t at any greater disadvantage here due to their youth than any other competitor. If anything, their stamina was an advantage and the older, larger opponents didn’t have their dexterity. Finnick Odair of clan Sinclair took first place with an impressive toss of thirty-five feet, eleven inches. Delly virtually jumped Rye when he came in second with a toss just below that, at thirty-five feet, nine inches. Flax, Peeta and Katniss had to avert their eyes when she wrapped her legs around his waist, locking lips to his in a very public make out session lasting well over five minutes.

After that display, Katniss felt awkward for even the hug she gave Peeta for placing fifth with a toss at thirty-five feet three inches. All the spectators around them were eying their little group as if they were all exhibitionists. It was mortifying. It didn’t help that Delly and Rye didn’t really keep their hands off each other the whole time the bar was re-staged for the next trial. Peeta just chuckled in her ear, whispering how it was cute she was so ‘pure’. Bastard.

Flax moped about his shoulder limiting his mobility for the height events. He blamed this for his inability to place. She fed him apples and rubbed his back in commiseration.

For the weight for height trial, the same fifty-six pound weight attached to a d-ring used for the distance event was tossed. Katniss could see why the boys sneaked quick shots of the Johnny Walker she’d smuggled into her backpack before this one. The more experienced competitors preceding them reached heights over fifteen feet with their throws. Considering the size of these things they were propelling across that bar, this event was akin to throwing a car battery onto a highway overpass. Like the sheaf toss, the highest toss won. Just looking at these strapping behemoths propel something half her body weight after a few swings for momentum over that bar was making her shoulders ache.

She kept track eagerly at the heights each competitor achieved. When Peeta tossed the weight for an impressive sixteen feet, seven inches to the resounding laud of the crowds, she knew he’d accomplished something special. Her stomach fluttered with exhilarated butterflies. When the trial ended and the next highest throw was that of a hulking brute from clan Watson at fifteen feet, eleven inches, she dipped under the rope separating the spectators from the competitors and had her arms around him in a suffocating hug.

She wasn’t sure where the other boys placed in that one. She’d left Delly with their towels when she’d taken Peeta’s hand emergently, leading him in a rush toward the south end of the park, where the second to last contest – the archery trial – would take place in fifteen minutes. She quickly showed him to a shady thicket of trees behind the stands she’d noticed their first trip there the previous day. As soon as they’d arrived, his back hit a willow with impressive force and her mouth was on his.

She allowed her excitement to take control, forcing her tongue into his mouth for a change, tasting, searching, learning. Her hands roamed free over his bare torso, fingers tracing all those dips and slopes her eyes had admired earlier, making him groan his approval into their joined mouths. It was quick and frenzied, but she relished the needy noises she coerced from deep in his throat, how they rumbled through his chest and made those ropes of sinew under her fingertips spasm.

When the crowds started arriving in force to the wooden bleachers a few yards before them and they knew they had to stop, lest someone found them out, he broke away with one final suck at her upper lip. He burned his eyes into her, chest heaving to slow his skyrocketing pulse.

“If this is what I get when I place first, sweetheart. Wait ‘til the caber toss. You’ve never seen a man handle his pole like I’m about to.”

The tiny outcrop of trees reverberated with Katniss’s unrestrained laughter.


 

Chapter Text


“Thanks so much for ditching us- Whoa! Dude, you’re gonna have to put your shirt back on,” Flax half-berated, half-snorted in greeting the moment Peeta and Katniss joined their group on the bleachers to view the archery tournament.

This, of course, caused Rye to turn back from the aisle below, where he’d been speaking to Delly. His sky blue eyes widened hugely at the sight of his baby brother. “Christ! What were you trying to do, Elvira? Skin him?” he gasped out, choking on laughter.

Delly muffled giggles behind a hand.

Curiosity piqued, Katniss tugged on Peeta’s shoulder, turning him so that his broad back no longer faced her. She sucked in a hissed breath through gritted teeth at the sight of his chest and abdomen.

“Okay, what is wrong with me?” the teen huffed, just as his older brothers both simultaneously shoved phones – cameras set – into his face. He took Rye’s, distending it and lowering it slightly to get an angle at his torso. He cringed at the sight of the inflamed welts gridding almost every muscle on his upper body-- arms included.

He leveled an exasperated look towards Katniss, who’d un-holstered her backpack, already rifling frenetically through it for his shirt. “Enthusiastic, were we?” he ground out in a hushed tone laced with amusement and a thread of aggravation.

Heat coloring all the flesh her tank top exposed, she smacked the shirt into his chest with far more force than necessary, hissing back at the same low decibel, “I didn’t hear you complaining two minutes ago. Don’t blame me if you’re so freaking white every little scrape shows. You need to get more sun. Or, change to some ultra-moisturizing soap… something.”

“Those ain’t scrapes, darling,” Rye piped in, sticking his face between them as Peeta pulled the shirt over his head. “Those are love tracks. You’re a savage little thing. Grrrrrr!” 

Peeta pulled his head through the neck hole promptly and smacked the older boy dead in the back of the head. “Mind your business, Stupid. Turn around!”

Rye charley horsed him to the thigh before turning back to Delly with a laugh, sprawling an arm around her shoulders.

Peeta sat, still jeering at the back of his older brother’s head before turning to Katniss. He found her, elbows propped on her thighs, face buried in her open palms. That lovely shade of maroon still stained all the way up to her ears.

He surveyed the crowd of spectators around them, noting they were all either still filing into their seats or otherwise engrossed in their own conversations, before inching closer to her. He felt her tense when he whispered in her ear, “Hey, it’s okay. I’m sorry I snapped. It’s not your fault. Really. I-believe it or not-I had no idea the skin there did that when someone… I don’t even know how much of it is sun damage and how much was actually you,” he finished, trying for an optimistic lilt.

She tipped her face out of her hands just enough to level a skeptical glare at him. “I’m pretty sure most of it was me, guy.” She turned her face back into her palms to finish in a muffled murmur, “I like the way your… um… feel under my nails… um…” she let out a frustrated breath. “I like how all your lumps? …and skin, or something, feels when I do that… they jump, kinda. Feels nice. Soft but strong,” she finished lamely, her chin tucking further into her chest.

Peeta had to crane and tip his head, straining to hear the last of what she’d mumbled, but a flattered grin found its way onto his features. He brought an arm around her to plant that hand on the bench close to her thigh, nipping inconspicuously at the shell of her ear as he grumbled in response, “So do I.”

Unavailingly drawn to that polarizing sensation his moist mouth on that sensitive patch of flesh sparked through her every neuron, she drifted subconsciously further into him. Lord, he’d be the end of her.

“I know I’m going to come off a total prick for pointing this out. And believe me that I’m happy this is working out for you two, but dumping our crap on Delly and taking off to play dermal Etch-n-Sketch is really not cool,” Flax’s half-serious snort tore through the stolen moment from where he’d perched on Katniss’s opposite side. “We kinda needed you back there. Oh, and by the way? You’re being totally subtle, little bro. No one’s ever going to think you have anything going here but an innocent, employer/employee dynamic,” he added acerbically as the speakers overhead crackled and the announcer boomed the names of the first competitors.

Katniss immediately stiffened, straightening so that Peeta had no choice but to remove his arm from around her and distance himself by a few inches. She could feel those questioning pools of blue searing into her cheek. She pretended his scrutiny didn’t irk, turning to sputter an apology at the older boy. Then focused her attention stubbornly on the field, where the contestants lined up next to one another, each parallel to one of the thatched hay targets twenty-five yards away.

Flax was right. She was there to do her job; she’d been entirely neglectful the last half hour. She knew better; she’d been reared to show pride in what she did. She had to earn every penny on that card burning a hole in the pocket of her khaki shorts.

Peeta sighed at her abrupt shift in demeanor and narrowed his eyes spitefully at his oldest brother. Flax raised a corresponding eyebrow in challenge. “Hey! Don’t get pissed at me. You agreed there were parameters to whatever this thing is that’s going on between you two as long as we’re competing- all three of us. You said you respected her sense of work ethic? Show it. We were barely out of the height events and you were AWOL. You’re too caught up in this to realize it, but that doesn’t play particularly well with the two of us who’re pretty much relying on her at this point. You wouldn’t be pulling that crap if Dad were here.”

Peeta’s eyes further narrowed in derision. He hated when Flax, of all people, pulled this bull. It so rarely surfaced in his oldest brother - that darkness that found exactly which frayed thread to pull, which nerve to spike - to trigger that destructive self-doubt in someone. It was an ugly gift: a petty defense mechanism they’d all fomented out of helplessness… for the oft times they’d found themselves denied the ability to lash out outwardly. After all, they were all fruit from the same manipulative, passive-aggressive tree. But, Flax had been the first to grow beyond the need to use it, with his keen mind and congenial manner. And, good riddance that was, because he wielded the bladeless weapon with a chilling, apathetic proficiency that Peeta had always found deeply disturbing.

They’d been gone for twenty bloody minutes. Yeah, so maybe it’d been irresponsible. But, was it truly so crucial that Flax pull his little alpha male assertion tirade at that precise moment? Because that totally wasn’t overcompensation for his latent abandonment and inadequacy issues, at all.

Did he need to drag Katniss into it?

Selfish ass.

“So, Katniss… You and Gale Hawthorne are best friends? How does that work out?”

Peeta wrenched his eyes away from glaring at Flax to widen them in mortification at the back of Rye’s head, since he hadn’t bothered turning to direct his question to Katniss. It flitted across his mind that this could be his second oldest brother’s tragically poorly conceived attempt at diffusing the obvious tension. But he quickly dismissed that notion. The prick was more than likely just doing this to get some warped pleasure. He so needed to smother him.

“How does what work out?” Katniss furrowed her brow at the odd question. “He calls or texts whenever he has the time to hang out at a movie or camp out for a weekend to hunt: it’s rare that we get to do that anymore now that he’s away in college,” she supplied distracted. Then she swept a hand out toward the field, groaning, “That guy in the red and yellow couldn’t hit lawn if he fell. Why is he in this?”

Rye ignored her outburst and turned in his bench fully, that impish smile edging one end of his mouth. He ignored the threatening jeer from his baby brother. “So, you go out into the woods alone for days? Just the two of you?”

Katniss averted her eyes from the contest briefly to give him a flippant look and shrug. “If we want. Crowds spook the animals. And it usually takes a few hours to track something big- like deer. Or to set up a snare line for rabbits and foxes. But it never gets boring- the isolation. We also fish and swim in the lakes and streams. It’s peaceful and beautiful out there. Gale loves it as much as I do, finds that same kind of solace in it. Maybe it’s because we have the same native ancestry. I don’t know. You can connect to something singular out there… something primal within.”

“I bet you can.”

Her brows pinched at the odd inflection to the teenager’s last remark and a follow-up inquiry lingered on the tip of her tongue, when a choked kind of growl escaped the boy beside her and she focused on him instead. She found Peeta rubbing his hands brusquely over his face, his jaw flexing erratically.

Realization caused her insides to churn uncomfortably. “Do you have an issue with Gale?”

“No,” came the clipped remark in a voice dripping with poorly restrained ire.

“Why would anyone have an issue with you spending as much time as you can find with your best friend? They’d have to be an inconsiderate, insecure, fraction of a person.”

Peeta’s hands came down from his face to slam so hard on the bleacher below, the entire row rattled. “I swear to god, Flax. Stop. You want me to admit I screwed up? Fine, I got carried away. I’m sorry. There. Does that satisfy your stupid sense of entitlement, Jerk?”

Katniss’s wary gaze pivoted between the two siblings, who wordlessly flung daggers with their eyes at one another. If what they usually did was creepy and subdued, this was downright terrifying. Finally, she smoothed her hand over Peeta’s, forcing his heated focus back on her.

“You have a girl for a best friend, too. I don’t care.”

“Oh, Katniss. I’m sorry,” Delly weighed in with a cheery if somewhat guarded smile. “I’m not a female counterpart to Gale Hawthorne. Pft, I wish. Every girl I know would donate a kidney to get with him and – just so you’re aware – they’ve said some awful things about you. Because, you know, we all figured you were his reserve in-between girl. So most girls hated you. I never did, though. I’ve always thought you were super rad,” she concluded with a perky squeak.

Peeta balled his hand into a fist under Katniss’s and she stroked it softly, avoiding his eyes as she inquired, “What’s an in-between girl?” He responded with a sudden ironic laugh, flipping the hand she held over to interlace their fingers. When he brought his other hand to pinch the bridge of his nose, it was obvious that her naïveté took the worry off his mind.

“And don’t pretend you weren’t eying Delly for target practice when you first met her, pretty lady,” Rye replied bluntly. “You weren’t exactly thrilled to have him,” he gestured toward his baby brother with his head, “wrapped in another girl’s arms. That didn’t escape me.”

She bristled at the very astute observation, instantly growing defensive. “She kissed him hello on the lips. Who does that? Friends don’t do that. I certainly don’t do that with Gale. It’s gross-” She broke off with an apologetic flick of her eyes toward the bubbly blonde, who just shrugged.

“I’ve been kissing him hello on the lips since we were toddlers, Katniss. My parents and his dad thought it was cute, so they never discouraged it. We have dozens of pictures doing it. It’s kinda second nature to us. But, obviously, if it bothers you, I’ll stop.”

Katniss sent her a grateful look before her words sank in and her face warped into a deep scowl. She turned to Peeta to find him staring at her analytically, expectantly. She took a deep breath, her grip on their joined hands tightening, eyes locking on his full of purpose. “If… this… happens… if we… continue… I’m not giving up my friendship with Gale.”

“Okay,” he responded mechanically, his face morphing into an unreadable masque.

“No,” she breathed, narrowed gaze scrutinizing. “You’re not okay with it.”

He let out another scoff and leveled her with a smile that inched nowhere near the electric blue of his eyes. “As Flax pointed out, I don’t get to not be okay with it. It is what it is.” He brought a hand up to trace fingers along her hairline, down her temple, tracing the line of her jaw. “I can’t dictate who you are, what makes you so unique. It’s the very thing I l-” he faltered, swallowing hard at the way her steel eyes widened slightly in question. His tongue swept out to moisten his lips and he continued softly, “If Hawthorne is part of that, I have to deal.” He edged closer to ghost his lips across the skin of her neck in a whisper. “But I’ll never be ‘okay’ with sharing. Not you. Never you.”

An inadvertent shudder ran up her spine at the low, possessive snarl. They’d yet to talk of what they’d be to each other past this weekend, but every time he spoke to her like that, all she craved was to somehow burrow under his skin and brand him as hers. Was that odd? That was probably odd. Lord knew she couldn’t tell. She had no context, no frame of reference to categorize what he instilled in her.

“Great! So you’re both prone to wanton explosions of possessiveness and jealousy. This is totally healthy. I augur great things for this fledgling romance,” Rye scoffed, turning back in his seat and trying to wrap his arms around Delly again, who pushed him off with a disapproving scowl.

This time, it was Flax who reached over to smack him in the back of the head. He followed it up with one of those simultaneously intimidating yet unreadable looks when the teenager turned, ill intent clear in his tightly coiled fist. One glimpse at the older boy and Rye slumped his shoulders, turning with a petulant sigh back toward the field, arms coming up to cross over his chest. Delly was coddling him a moment later.

Entirely normal romantic dynamic.

Flax let out a breath, turning to the couple beside him. “Look you two, all kidding aside, we really are okay with you guys, you know, doing what you’re doing. We’re really happy this – whatever this turns out to be – is getting a chance to happen for you. But, just give us a heads up or something before you run off. It’s plain common courtesy. And professional,” he stated, trying to soften the edge of authority he knew his deep baritone inherently projected.

Katniss graced him with a grateful upward hitch to her lips before turning back to focus on the shooters. Peeta eyed him warily, sweeping an arm around her middle to tuck her closer, also shifting back toward the field. A few moments later, he had to slap away a hand ruffling his curls roughly, fighting a smirk itching to breach his demeanor. When the gesture repeated a few seconds later, he opted to relent to the onslaught, allowing the snort to leave his throat. He’d learned from long suffering experience resistance only encouraged the stupid.

God, he wished he were an only child.

*~*~*~*~*~*

At what point did a bunch of Scotsmen get smashed out of their minds, level all the woodland within visual range and decide, “Yeah, it’ll totally be a lark to chuck those bastards. Cut them down, you say? Nah. Let’s leave them trees. Let’s chuck trees. Pass the whiskey.

Katniss muffled a light chuckle into a hand as the musing recurred in her thoughts for the tenth time since her group arrived at the staging area for the caber toss trial of the Highland Games- the overall fan favorite. The one defining event of this tradition, worldwide.

She didn’t bat an eye when Rye asked for the bottle of whiskey she’d kept stashed in her backpack all day- even going as far as offering to pour the drinks for the guys. She wasn’t surprised when he waved her off, taking a hardy swig before passing the bottle to Flax, who then shared it with Peeta; all this in plain sight of the entire competing field. There would be no judgment for partaking of liquid, mind-altering substances when it came to this event. If you signed up for this, you were either a man or an idiot. Or both.

There was no judgment for stupidity, either.

The bastards were throwing phone poles.

“Seems like such a waste,” Katniss commented in Delly’s general direction, a little peeved. They both watched the forklifts arrange the lumber – according to length – for the next contestant while the boys finished strapping on the weight belts and gloves stored in her backpack. “All these trees. Cut down for what? So that a bunch of quasi-sober men can flex some muscle and plausibly severely injure themselves externalizing a painfully obvious, exaggerated metaphor for something many of them are more likely than not lacking?”

“I’m just quasi-drunk enough not to take that personally, sweetheart.”

A shiver traced down the nape of her neck where Peeta breathed the amused words. She tried to ignore the quickly prickling flesh, turning to scowl at him. “Those trees are precious, you know. They aren’t toys. They provide shelter and food for animals. Do you have any idea how many hours I’ve spent in late autumn, sitting forty feet in the air, waiting out a fox to return to its den or for a pack of wild dogs to find something more interesting than the notion of gnawing on me? This is gross misuse of a natural resource.”

“Hey, Oakhumper, they’re going back to the mill once we're done with the Games,” Rye quipped sardonically. “If you become especially attached to one, ask the woodworkers to make it into a chair for you. Then you can straddle that bastard all you wa-”

“Rye!”

Unapologetically, the teenager veered his irreverent sky blues toward his outraged baby brother. “In case you missed it, she implied we’re all hung like chipmunks. She started it.”

“Yeah, well I’m finishing it,” Flax returned with a swift jab to his second youngest sibling’s shoulder. The moment Rye snapped around to retaliate; he narrowed his cobalt eyes in threat. His tenor matched. “Apologize to her. She didn’t direct her comment at you. Don’t blame her if you have issues with the size of your endowment. From her uninformed optic, she had a valid grievance about the trees. And she definitely didn’t take her insult where you did, Sicko. If Dad heard you talk to a girl like that, you wouldn’t see the light of day for a month.”

Rye cringed, bringing his arms up to wrap stubbornly across his chest in a mope. He turned back to Katniss, not meeting her eyes as he mumbled, “It ain’t small,” in a contrite inflection.

Delly giggled and he sent her a jilted glare.

Grateful for this small portion of attrition, Katniss responded with an almost imperceptible tug of a corner of her lip. “I figured you’re one of the few doing it for the attention and sheer contempt for nature, to be honest. I had to buy you underwear, remember?”

For the first time since she’d met him, Rye Mellark flushed - really flushed - a red so deep, it ventured into the blue scale. His laughter exploded so boisterously, convened competitors surrounding them stared on as if he were mad, murmuring amongst themselves about his deplorable mental health. “Oh, my god, Katniss,” he gasped. “I’d totally forgotten about that. I’m so sorry.” Moisture pooled in his eyes as he doubled over.

“Yeah, so had I,” Delly agreed, side eying the laughing teen with a forced smile before turning a softer expression to Katniss. “Did I thank you already for looking after him? We’re all still waiting for him to turn two.”

“Hey!”

Delly clucked her tongue at the panting blonde.

“Next on the field: Clan Graham. Participating: Flax Mellark, Ryland Mellark and Peeta Mellark. Contestants take the field,” the speakers behind them boomed.

She wasn’t sure why, but Katniss suddenly felt anxious, her eyes flitting toward the staging area of the event. They’d already witnessed one guy from clan Hamilton drop the caber on his foot when he’d lost control attempting to brace it. He’d broken two toes. The shortest caber – the one indicated for ‘beginners’ – was seventeen feet tall and two-hundred twenty five pounds. There were five poles in total and the longest was twenty-two feet tall, weighing in at close to three-hundred pounds. They all tapered at the end the person tossing them used to brace their hands under to lift.

The Mellarks were all lifting the three longest poles for their tosses.

Katniss turned back to her charges, dread sinking her innards at the thought they had to go out there. She came face to face with Delly and Rye (or face to back of head, as it were), engaging in a scandalous kiss. He’d hoisted her up against him and her legs were wrapped around his waist. She had to find a patch of grass at her feet to divert her eyes, her stomach now lurching for a completely new reason.

“I was going to ask for a kiss of encouragement, but I think that cousin lovin’ spectacle just turned me celibate.”

Katniss couldn’t help snickering softly as Peeta wound his fingers through her right hand and spun her to face him. He looked as nauseated as she’d just felt. He shuddered dramatically, trying to keep his eyes focused adamantly on hers. His discomfort made her laugh again.

“Don’t get hurt, you hear?” she ordered sternly, then reached up to graze her lips over his angular jaw.

“Is that all I get?” he asked in a near moan, jerking on her hand lightly to bring her closer.

She tilted her face up as he brought his down, their lips a hair's breadth from touching. “Until this is all done… yup,” she popped the ‘p’ with a puff of breath against his lips and relished the way his pupils grew large, his brows pinched, almost pained.

“You’re evil, Everdeen.”

She grinned impishly at him, watching him walk backwards off into the field.

At a girlish squeal and some profuse swearing, she swerved back to find Flax holding a giggling Delly by her midsection in one arm as if she weighed nothing as he gruffly shoved his younger brother out towards the field. The boy sent back a vulgar gesture as he departed. Flax rolled his eyes, sat Delly down, and gave her a peck on the forehead before stalking off after the teens.

It was completely ridiculous, but Katniss couldn’t help feel somewhat excluded. It was their little custom. All the boys kissed Delly before taking off at the beginning of events. She wasn't sure if it was as comeuppance for leaving her alone or out of gratitude that she was there to cheer them on or that they felt such a sense of kinship to the girl it compelled them. But it'd been a thing since the girl had shown up that morning. She was sure Peeta'd gotten his peck in on the strawberry blonde while she was distracted surveying the field. It wasn't something that bothered her, per se. And she could understand that it wasn’t as if they needed her to rally them now that they had the firecracker of a girl on their sidelines. That girl had the verve to drive an army. She was subconscious about bouncing in excitement too noticeably in a crowd. But it would’ve been nice to get a high five or something (though she found the high-fiving, fist-pumping thing totally lame). She was there, too.

Ugh! What was wrong with her?

She figured it’d be the wiser decision not to dwell on whatever new shortcoming was befalling her and focus on the field. Her bottom lip found itself trapped painfully between her teeth as she watched Rye and Flax haul the humongous twenty-foot caber on their massive shoulders toward Peeta, placing the tapered end at his feet before slowly lifting it to a vertical position. Peeta bent at the knees, letting the heavy pole settle in the sinew-strewn crook of his neck, slipping his hands underneath to hoist it.

As soon as he’d gotten to his feet, he was moving, shifting his entire frame forward along with the momentum of his gait, the caber angling. After about ten steps - with a resounding grunt - he hefted his arms, both the propulsion of the short jog and the acute pitch of the caber, sending it flying upward. The greater weight of the thicker end caused it to flip and hit the ground on that edge before tilting forward the rest of the way with a resounding thump.

Katniss skipped effusively at the successful flip. Her hands shot up in the air triumphantly and a ridiculous smile split her features, but quickly fell a second later when Peeta turned back toward the crowd, visibly upset, one clenched fist swiping violently at the empty air.

His disgruntlement made sense when the prompter rang out a moment after, “Nine o’five.”

The crowd still erupted into cheers, but Katniss’s brow furrowed at the teenager repositioning at the twelve o’clock patch of cleared landscape for his second throw with a twenty-one foot caber. From her perspective, that had appeared perfect form; he’d kept his frame controlled through the entire motion. The caber had flipped so beautifully, he'd made it seem almost effortless.

The object of this event was absurd.

Three clans had already competed and none had gotten that stupid pole to fall at a perfect twelve o’clock position. Half of the competitors hadn’t even gotten the poles to flip in the air. Apparently, there was considerable technique to just that feat; simply lugging it with brute force caused the sucker to slump right back down - usually sideways - potentially injuring the thrower. A complete disqualification of an attempt. Competing in this event was a first for the guys, but she’d heard them comment that the way to get the caber to flip was a combination of momentum and swinging it at just the right angle as it pitched forward. She’d been awed by how quickly they’d gleaned this from simply observing the more experienced contestants.

However, as Peeta completed another beautiful toss that resulted in the announcer booming what she knew he’d consider a disappointing, “Ten twenty,” she realized it took more than just technique to achieve that elusive twelve o’clock fall. It took years of practice controlling the trajectory of a three-hundred pound phone pole.

The Mellarks had no chance at a high ranking in this event. Not this year. The caber toss favored the initiated.

*~*~*~*~*~*

Peeta slumped on his back across the lumpy, hard bed of the pickup after shoving the empty cooler as far back toward the window as possible. He crossed his arms over his eyes and let out an exhausted breath, allowing some of the tension and aches to leech out of his over-exerted muscles.

“You look wasted.”

He peaked from under his crossed arms at Katniss, who was settling beside him on her stomach, reaching a hand to fiddle with one of the medals that had slid under his armpit when he’d collapsed.

“You did good,” she added wistfully, proudly. A small smile played at the corner of her mouth, though she avoided his face, focusing those entrancing quicksilver eyes on the gleaming medal she stroked with her delicate thumb.

He turned over on his side, propping himself on one shoulder to face her properly and bringing himself closer. They didn’t have much time. The others ‘conveniently’ asked them to come ahead and bring the cooler and lighter equipment while they dismantled the tent, but they’d be along soon enough.

“We’ll do better next year,” he asserted with determination, the back of a large hand coming up to stroke the contour of her face from her hairline all the way down to her jaw- a caress she’d come to learn he favored. She’d be lying if she said she didn’t favor it, as well. “We’ll see about getting Rye a boulder. We’ll have to get Flax one of those weights for throwing practice while he’s off at school. I’m sure he can rig himself a bar. He’s dated acrobats before. Maybe I can get you to find me a nice tree next time you go out on your nature ventures, ‘cause I sucked at that, man… Feel free to let it roll off over Hawthorne, by the way. I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.”

She let out a snort. “Keep dreaming. I’m not murdering my best friend out in the woods. And how am I supposed to lug a tree back to you, Mellark?”

“Don’t screw my vision with logistics, Everdeen,” he chastised, running his thumb over her bottom lip, his eyes growing into deep oceans when she tucked it between her teeth. His breath came heated and fast against her lips as he shortened the distance between them, continuing, “And we’ll get you a proper tartan kilt, something just above the knees. The kind of thing that’ll catch a breeze just right but strike fear into your vanquished in that archery trial.”

Her eyes widened at the veiled implication, chest fluttering with a confusing mix of emotions- most prominent amongst them longing. Her voice quavered as she venture half-mockingly, “These sound like pretty ambitious aspirations to achieve in what? a year? Sounds cocky. Don’t you think you might be overestimating your skills?”

Her answer was his mouth slanting over hers, searing, languid, probing. The arm previously propping him came to tangle at the base of her braid as he sat up, the other wrapping around her middle to bring her flush to him, clawing at the fabric of her tank at her lower back. Her hands raked up his arms, uncaring of the marks she knew she’d leave – wanting to leave proof of her abandon on his skin – on their way to his neck, where they twirled in the waves at the base of his thick neck. She pulled to assert dominance in the battle their joined mouths waged, swallowing the deep growl that reverberated through his broad chest out his throat with immeasurable gusto.

He pulled back for a moment, nearly obsidian eyes focusing on her dazed, half-lidded ones with that intensity that made her world devoid of everything excepting him. His voice was that commanding, low timber that seared her soul. “You wouldn’t believe what I’m capable of, sweetheart… when properly motivated.”

Then his lips were back on hers and she acquiesced to his folly.

After all, in the past two days, had she not perceived and divined wondrous things beyond the scope of what she’d thought conceivable?

Here, in the embrace of this blue-eyed boy, she could believe anything.

She’d be once again forever indebted.

He’d provided for a truly spectacular Highland Games experience. 


 

Chapter Text


 

“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