Author's Note—Thank you so much for your patience as I got this chapter ready for readers. August just got away from me. I can't promise I'll have much time to write in the next month or so, but I have a bit more writing banked so I'm hopeful for at least a few updates of my stories in the coming weeks.

As always, only my eyes have seen this, so all mistakes are mine. THG belongs to Suzanne Collins and The Selection belongs to Kiera Cass. Many thanks to El for talking through plot points and giving advice and her secretarial duties on Tumblr. LOL.

Chapter 18—The New Guard

I stifle a gasp and flatten myself against the near wall, my heart starting to race. Did I really just see that? I peer around the corner just as Officer Odair and Annie share a second kiss, and then he nudges her back into her room and the door closes. I hear him clear his throat. And then there's silence.

I remain where I am, pressed up against the wall, and I count to twenty, slowly, and then I ascend the last two steps and hurry down the hall to my room. My hunting skills come in handy; I've always been stealthy. Officer Odair does not even see me until I'm at my door just a few feet from him. He flashes me that dimpled smile and gives a slight lift of his chin.

"Good night, Lady Katniss?"

The inflection in his tone tells me it's a question, not a statement. Instinctively I press my lips together and try to manage a tight smile.

"Yes, thank you."

His dimples deepen. "Excellent. Good night, then."

The door closes behind me and safely ensconced in my room, I exhale a long breath as I process what just transpired.

Annie and Odair. Kissing.

And he had been in her room. After midnight. When he should have been on duty. Who knows how long he had been in there.

The pieces start to click into place. All the exchanges between them that I've witnessed—the private smiles, the little waves. Annie's distractedness any time we're in the hall and it's Odair on duty not Officer Cato. And her tardiness to the competition yesterday; the bruise on her neck.

That bruise was a love bite. A hickey, I think Gale had called it. I had seen one on his neck once and needled him about it until he had admitted he had been at the slagheap with a girl. He never would tell me who, and when I continued to tease him about it, he had bitten my head off and said something about having needs. We never spoke of it again.

How many times has Annie kissed Officer Odair? Have they done more than just kiss? How long has this been going on?

My spine stiffens. A sick feeling curdles in my stomach. A vivid image of Wren's body hitting the pavement assaults me.


Annie is betraying Peeta.

And so is Officer Odair. Not that I think Peeta has any intentions of choosing Annie, but the Reaped girls are off-limits. The guards are not supposed to fraternize with us other than polite interactions. Yes, Officer Odair is friendlier than most, but he also hasn't struck me as anything but a professional.

What they're doing—being together like they are—is beyond risky. Won't they be subject to the exact same punishment that befell poor Wren if someone discovers them?

But someone has discovered them: Me.

And an even worse realization sours my gut anew: I'm betraying Peeta if I don't tell him what I saw. For all I know, I am the only person other than Annie and Officer Odair that knows about them. But if I tell Peeta, I'm the one condemning them to that awful fate. To their possible deaths.

I press a hand against the sharp pain suddenly piercing my stomach and sink down to my bed, Peeta's parting words ringing in my ears.

There's no way my dreams will be sweet tonight.

By the next morning, the sick feeling hasn't fled my gut, but as I head to breakfast I am resigned to what I must do: I have to tell Peeta what I saw. I have to cling to the hope that there's an explanation for what I saw, or if Annie is indeed fooling around with Officer Odair, the palace will offer her some kind of leniency. But my loyalty must lie with the prince. I intend to get his attention and give him our signal.

Peeta is not at breakfast, though. None of the royal family is. And even though just three girls left yesterday, and there are still 25 of us, the room does look a bit emptier. I realize as I approach my usual table that it is emptier. An entire table has been removed.

We almost never have assigned seats at breakfast. Therefore, girls tend to sit at the same tables, in the same seats, with the same girls. But now, with this eliminated table, the seating arrangements have shifted.

Thankfully, I am still able to sit with Delly. Johanna and Zoe join us, as usual, along with the two remaining girls from 11, Olivia and Vivienne. Juniper from 4 claims the second-to-last seat at our table, which leaves just one seat.

I'm surprised when Madge slides into the last chair not but a second later and gives Delly and me a small smile. I don't say a word, but I do feel badly that Annie won't be able to sit with us as she usually does. Maybe that's a good thing, though. I don't know how I'll look at her all through breakfast with what I know and what I have to do.

Even though she's one table over, because she's seated directly behind me, I can hear Cashmere loud and clear as she broadcasts the details of her date with Peeta to the girls around her. Specifically, her kiss with Peeta.

"…And his lips are so soft." She sighs. "I could tell that he didn't want to stop kissing me. Neither of us wanted the date to end."

I roll my eyes and stab my fork into the egg pastry concoction on my plate. Even though Peeta has reassured me that he only kissed Cashmere out of obligation, it doesn't make it any easier to hear her exaggerating about it.

"Big deal, he kissed you," Glimmer snipes. "That was hardly a kiss. It was a peck. We all saw it. He didn't even use tongue."

"You only saw what they showed," Cashmere retorts.

"Has the prince kissed you?"

It takes me a moment to realize that question is directed at me. I look up from my plate and find Vivienne staring at me. My entire table is staring at me, actually.


"You had a private date with the prince. Did he kiss you?" Vivienne asks.

"Oh, um." I play with my fork and contemplate how to avoid answering, but the heat flooding my cheeks probably responds for me. Yet there's no way I'm divulging just how much I've kissed Peeta. "Yes, he kissed me," I reply.

Thankfully, before I can endure any further prying, Johanna turns to Madge and says, "What about you, Blondie? You had a private date with the prince too. Any action?"

Madge's cheeks instantaneously stain pink. She looks down at her plate. This is the first time I can recall seeing her flustered. She's usually so poised and composed.

"Well," Johanna prompts. "Katniss fessed up, so it's only fair you do too."

"No. I haven't kissed the prince," Madge replies. A little ripple of relief rolls through me.

"But," she adds hastily, "it's not because he didn't want to kiss me. It's because I asked him not to."

The ripple is swallowed by a crest of nausea. And then, disbelief. I try not to think about the fact that Madge says Peeta wanted to kiss her. I'm more shocked that she wouldn't want to kiss him. I'm almost embarrassed by how much I think about doing nothing else but kissing him.

I'm not the only one in disbelief. All the girls at our table are gaping at Madge.

"Why would you ask him not to kiss you?" Olivia gasps. "I'd kill to be alone with him long enough for him to hold my hand!"

Madge fiddles with her necklace and then straightens up in her seat. "It's personal," she says with an edge of determination in her tone. "I made a vow years ago that I would only kiss my future husband. So when I kiss the prince, it will be when I'll be certain that he won't be kissing other girls."

Johanna snorts. "Let me know how that goes for you. He's already kissed at least two girls here. And you can bet he's going to kiss more. He's got carte blanche to do it. He's an eighteen-year-old boy."

Madge stiffens again. "There's more to a marriage than…a physical relationship."

I study Madge's pretty face and process her words, and they make me think about her father and her mother. I can't remember the last time I saw the two of them together. Madge is always the one at her father's side at ceremonies and mayoral obligations.

And she's an only child. There are not many only children in 12. Birth control is forbidden in Panem, so most families do not have only one child. There are families that have five, six, even seven children. Gale once told me that his mother admitted Posy had been a "happy surprise."

My parents, however, chose to only have Prim and me. With my mother's medical training, she knows things others did not, and she's been better at natural family planning than other, because I know my parents still have sex on a regular basis. Our house is very small. It's always made me uncomfortable to think about it, and it's really grossed me out on the nights I can hear them. But I guess what I should be is grateful that they're still in love after all these years.

"Please." Johanna scoffs. "Future queen or not, you can make damn sure Prince Peeta is going to want to be attracted to his wife, and he's gonna give a bunch of us test drives to be sure there's chemistry."

"And I'm saying that's not always the basis for the best marriages," Madge shoots back. She relaxes a little and inhales. "Yes, it's important. But other things are…more important."

"So, uh, who's looking forward to our etiquette lesson this morning?" Delly interrupts with mock enthusiasm. Everyone laughs and the mood lightens a bit. Chatter turns to speculation about our next competition and the rest of breakfast passes without incident.

It's not until our etiquette lesson commences an hour later that I realize Annie never did arrive at breakfast.

Because she's missing from the lesson too.

I find it a challenge to focus on the escort from District 3, who is droning on about rules and protocol when traveling as a royal. My eyes keep straying to the empty seat next to Juniper, where Annie should be seated. What has happened to her? What if she's with Officer Odair right now? What if she's lost track of time again and doesn't realize she's now missed two required events?

Mercifully, the lesson ends, and I say a silent plea that our next Game isn't dependent on what I was just supposed to be listening to. I guess I'll need to skim my handbook tonight, to be safe.

But we aren't dismissed. District 3's escort orders us to remain seated, and then quickly retreats from the room. I hear Peeta's name murmured amidst the whispers and hushed conversations around me.

A moment later, King Wheaton strides into the room, Queen Aster at his side. Peeta walks several paces behind his parents. When they reach the front of the room, he lifts his head and his eyes find me automatically. His mouth curves into a smile, but it doesn't reach his eyes. He looks sad; defeated, almost. His expression evokes a faint ache in my chest. And then I remember Annie and what I saw and my duty to Peeta. This might be my only chance to signal him that I must talk to him. I raise my hand to my mouth and discreetly press three fingers to my bottom lip, giving it an extra rub for good measure. He gives an imperceptible nod and cuts his gaze over to his parents.

The massive screen materializes in front of the fireplace as the Anthem plays. My heart plummets to my knees. I know what I'm going to see a split second before Annie's portrait appears. My eyes flit over to Peeta. His expression is somber. I look back to the screen just as Annie's portrait fades to grey. There are audible gasps from several girls. As I'm looking over to gauge Juniper's reaction, I catch a glimpse of Glimmer, a huge smirk lifting her glossy pink lips. Cashmere is smiling too. My jaw locks and I narrow my eyes. Of course they're happy about this unexpected elimination. They don't even stop to consider why Annie is suddenly gone.

"Good morning, ladies, " King Wheaton begins. "Some unfortunate news was brought to our attention recently. As a result, Lady Annie has been removed from the Reaping." He pauses and casts a brief glance over at Peeta. "It is only at the insistence of my son that she is being held in the dungeon and not being dealt with swiftly."

While I am profoundly sad—and scared—for Annie, I'm also proud of Peeta. Judging by the icy stare on his mother's face, whatever her did to fight for Annie's fate could not have been an easy battle. I resign myself to tell him that when I see him—though I guess telling him about Annie and Officer Odair's kiss seems pointless now.

King Wheaton clears his throat before he speaks again. "Lady Annie broke a number of rules pertaining to the Reaping, but she did not act alone in her treason. Officer Odair was complicit in these actions. He has been relieved of his duties and is also presently imprisoned."

I briefly close my eyes and picture Officer Odair's handsome face and those deep dimples. He's certainly not smiling now.

"I remind you, ladies, that fraternizing with any of the guards or Peacekeepers is strictly against the Reaping rules," King Wheaton continues. "But it appears many of our Reaped guards have gotten a bit too comfortable around you as well, and there are boundaries that simply must not be crossed. With the exception of one guard, the entire corps that has been manning your hallways will be reassigned. Our new guards will complete their orientation later today and be in their posts by the evening shift."

"These guards are the highest-rated recruits from their respective districts," Queen Aster says. "While patrolling the halls of the Reaped is certainly not the illustrious assignment many of them hoped for, when this competition ends and Prince Peeta chooses his bride there is prime opportunity for promotion. They are all aware of this. They have swore their loyalty to the crown, and I am confident that none of them will be foolish enough to throw away their futures by making the same mistake as Officer Odair."

She pauses and her frosty blue eyes sweep the room. "And let us hope none of you ladies make the same mistake that Lady Annie made." She clasps her hands together and her mouth tightens into a smile. "Now, then, we have had a slight change in schedule given today's unexpected drama. So listen carefully, ladies."

It is strange not to see guards in our hallway. As I enter my room, I glance up the corridor, still half expecting to see Officer Odair's smiling face or Officer Cato's menacing scowl.

Annie's door is closed. I wonder if her stuff is still inside, or if the room has been cleared out already.

As soon as my door clicks shut, I kick off my cursed heels and bend down to rub the aching arch of my left foot.

Our afternoon dance lesson had commenced immediately after the royal family departed the Great Room. At the end of the lesson, we were ordered back to our rooms, where we were told we would remain for the rest of the day. No afternoon tea. Dinner would be brought to our rooms.

I cross to my window seat and stare outside at the abundant sunshine and lament being trapped inside for another day. Why couldn't it have rained today? Sighing heavily, I sit down and continue to massage my aching feet while I ponder how to pass the time stuck in my room.

I've just decided to write Prim a letter and then start to read the book I borrowed from the library when there's a knock on my door. Perplexed, I don't move for a moment, but then I pad across the floor on my bare feet and open the door. I'm stunned to see Peeta standing there. He gives me a wry smile.

"I've surprised you again, I see."

"Well, yes," I exclaim as I usher him inside and close the door behind him. "You don't usually come to my room midday."

"I don't have much time," he begins, "but this is likely the only chance that I'll have to see you today, and since you signaled me—"

"Oh." I sigh, remembering why I gave him our sign in the first place. "I—I'm sorry."

One blond brow wings up and he tilts his head to study me thoughtfully. "Sorry for what? Signaling me?"

I bite my lip and nod. "What I needed to talk to you about…it's not, um, relevant anymore."

"Well, now you've stoked my curiosity." He steps closer to me. I take a deep breath and that pleasant scent that's all Peeta floods my nostrils. God he smells good.

"It was…I was going to tell you what I saw last night. But given what happened this morning with Annie's elimination…"

"Ah." Peeta nods and prompts me with those big blue eyes. "What did you see?" he hedges.

"Annie and Officer Odair were…kissing."

"And you were going to tell me this."

I purse my lips. "Well, yes. Of course. I won't say I didn't agonize over it, because I really do like Annie, and Officer Odair has been nothing but kind to me, but my loyalty lies with you, Peeta. As a friend. An ally," I add. Peeta stares at me, his gaze so intense that my pulse quickens, and then slowly, almost painfully so, he lowers his mouth and whispers, "Thank you," before brushing his lips over mine.

Then he says gently, "I knew."

I step back and gape at him. "Y-y-you knew? About Annie and Officer Odair. You knew?"

Peeta's lips twitch and his jaw flexes. "Yeah. I…" he starts, and trails off. He closes his eyes and when he reopens them, his face is etched with pain. "I knew. I've known all along. And this is all my fault."

"Your fault? How?"

Peeta checks his communicuff and I see him warring with himself before he lowers his arm and says, "I only have ten minutes before I need to meet with my father and Haymitch. If I'm late…"

"It can wait, then. I don't want you to risk getting in trouble—"

"Katniss," he says huskily, curving his palm along my jaw, "you're worth any risk that I could possibly take. I'm here now, aren't I?" His words turn my limbs to liquid, and my heart soars. Boldly, I lean up and press my lips to his, the only way I can think to express how much that confession means to me. He groans and deepens the kiss, his palm skating down my side to clutch my hip. I let my own hand glide up his back and into his hair. I'm always struck by how soft the strands are. My fingernails lightly rake against his scalp. He gives a little shudder and I grin against his lips. Reluctantly, he draws back.

"Have I mentioned how much I hate some of the duties and obligations that come with my position," he murmurs. "I'd much rather stay here with you all afternoon than go over security plans and mayoral appointments."

"It is going to be very boring trapped in here all day," I point out. Peeta frowns.

"Yeah, I'm sorry about that. But it's necessary with all the upheaval with the guards." He grimaces. "And that brings me back to Finnick.

"I guess I should give you some background," he starts. "Finnick was one of my personal guards before the Reaping. For the past two years. But he's been here, in the palace, for four years. He was drafted at 18 and only in the Academy for two weeks when they sent him right here. He was an excellent guard. Even my mother liked him. And that's saying a lot.

"But in the past year or so, Finnick and I…we've grown close. My parents wouldn't want me to use the word 'friend' but in reality he is the closest thing I've ever had to a friend."

The wistful edge to his voice as he begins to talk breaks my heart a little. I don't like to think about how profoundly lonely Peeta has been all these years.

"Until now, of course," he murmurs as he reaches for my hand and clasps it in his. He gives me a private smile that invites my heart to hammer against my ribs again. We share at each other for a few beats, and then Peeta clears his throat and continues.

"As the Reaping approached, I began to confide in him more and more. It helped to have someone who wasn't my parents—or even Haymitch—to talk to. Someone more my age."

"It was a day or two before the applications started to arrive," Peeta continues. "Finnick approached me and asked if I would look for a very specific application. From District 4, for a girl named Annie Cresta."

I listen, rapt, as Peeta divulges the details of Officer Odair—Finnick—and Annie's courtship. Clandestine, of course, because no exceptions were made to the courtship laws, whether you were inner district or outer.

"They had fallen in love when Annie was fourteen and Finnick was seventeen," Peeta explains. "They dated in secret for a year. But then Finnick was drafted."

"She lied to me," I interject softly, unreeling memories of my conversations with Annie about Officer Odair. One time I had asked her if she had known him back in 4, and she had said she knew of him, but hadn't met him until she arrived at the palace.

"What?" Peeta asks. I shake my head.

"Nothing. Not important. Go on, I know your time is running short."

He nods. "In all the time he was my guard, he never mentioned Annie. I didn't know anything about her. Not until the Reaping." He pauses. "But I knew what Finnick wanted as soon as he mentioned her application, though he knew enough of his position because he never explicitly asked me to do it."

"He wanted you to choose Annie as your selection from 4," I reply, putting together the pieces. This is why Peeta thinks he's to blame for this. He brought Annie here, to Finnick. Where they could be together.

"Exactly." Peeta nods. "And I so I did. And I went one step further. I had Finnick reassigned, to be one of the Reaped guards. I made sure he was assigned to Annie's wing. Your wing."

He sighs. "I had warned them to be careful. Especially at first. And even more so after what happened to Wren. They were supposed to keep their distance until I eliminated Annie. And by then I would have figured out a way for them to be together. To get married. I guess I just didn't know then…or expect…that it would be so hard for them to stay away from each other."

"They hadn't seen each other in a long time," I counter, trying to assuage his guilt. "It's not your fault at all that they couldn't control themselves. Love is…strange. Unpredictable."

"But I get that part now too," Peeta says softly. "I get why they did what they did. Because I know just how hard it is to stay away…when all you want to do is be with that person…" He latches those blue eyes on me as his words trail off. My stomach does a flip.

"So how did your parents find out? Did you…" I hedge.

"What? Oh, no. No, no." Peeta scratches at his jaw. "It wasn't me. I wouldn't have betrayed my promise to Finnick and Annie. That was Officer Cato. He told my parents."

I can't say that revelation surprises me. If Finnick and Annie were careless enough that I saw them, it's more than likely Officer Cato—who was in our hallway as much as Finnick was—would have seen something or at the very least suspected it.

"What's going to happen to them? I ask softly. Peeta sighs heavily.

"Once my parents knew, that's when I had to tell them what I did—that I was responsible for putting Finnick and Annie in close proximity. My parents, especially my mother, were furious with me. But my culpability is what's sparing Finnick and Annie from execution, so I don't regret it at all."

He adds, "But they'll still be punished. 'An example must be made,' is how my father phrased it. It's against the law, even with extenuating circumstances." Peeta shrugs helplessly. "I can only do so much." He grimaces. "And I'm sure I'll pay the price somehow too."

"You did what you could. And that is why you'll make such a great king one day," I insist. Peeta's mouth trembles and he parts his lips, as if to speak, but he doesn't actually say anything. He slides his hand around my neck and into my hair and draws me toward him.

"For someone who claims not to be good with words, you seem to know exactly what to say to me," he says softly, then initiates another kiss, fitting his mouth to mine; this one lingers even longer than the previous two.

"I should go," he mumbles. "I don't want to, but I should."

I step back and use the pad of my thumb to trace the swell of his lower lip. "Thank you for coming by." He purses his lips, kissing my thumb, and then steps back.

"I'll see you tomorrow—hopefully with less time restrictions," he says. I walk with him to the door, but I don't dare get any closer to him once he opens it.

He gives me one final smile and then strides briskly down the hall.

I write a letter to Prim. I write a letter to my father. And then I feel guilty that I've written to the two of them so I write a letter to my mother too. I even start a letter to Gale, but I wind up balling that one up and throwing it in the trash. I realize there's very little that I want to share with him. He hates the institution of the monarchy and the House of Mellark. I doubt he will want to hear about my growing feelings for the prince. I can practically hear his voice, disdainful as ever, complaining about the life of privilege the prince has lead. The whole swimming pool thing would really chaff Gale's hide.

I manage to read about a third of the Bradbury book before my dinner arrives. I have to admit that it's holding my attention, even if I'm not completely sure I'm comprehending all that I'm reading. I'm more pleasantly surprised by how quickly time moves when I'm engrossed in reading.

Predictably, most of The Capitol Report centers on Annie and Finnick's indiscretion—though naturally Caesar Flickerman calls it "an act of treason." I just find it hard to think of it as such given what I know now. How can the love between two people be a threat to the monarchy?

So maybe that's one thing I'd agree with Gale about.

King Wheaton and Queen Aster join Caesar for the first portion of the program, though they appear on a screen behind him—so clearly Caesar is not on the palace grounds tonight. When he prompts them for details about how the "act of treason" was discovered, the king doesn't reveal much. He repeats the same scant information that we Reaped got earlier this morning, that the palace "recently became aware" of "unfortunate news" which turned out to be the "act of treason" involving Officer Odair and Lady Annie.

Of course none of the details that Peeta shared with me are disclosed to the general public. Nor is the fact that Finnick and Annie's were effectively sold out by a fellow officer. Cato's name is never mentioned.

"Now then, your Majesty, we all recall the drama surrounding Wren Followhill," Caesar begins. "She was executed for her act of treason against the crown. Should we expect a similar sentencing for Annie Cresta and Finnick Odair?"

King Wheaton shakes his head slowly. "Officer Odair was my son's personal guard, and at Prince Peeta's insistence, he has been granted a stay of execution. That is not to say that Officer Odair will not face judgment. But through the kindness and compassion of the prince, that punishment shall not be immediate death. The same applies to Annie Cresta."

"I see," Caesar says. Two words, but thick with what sounds like disappointment. I frown at my screen in disgust.

"The prince is indeed a kind and compassionate young man," Caesar adds. "You must be proud of the maturity he's shown."

"Yes." King Wheaton smiles, and I think it's sincere. On the other hand, when Queen Aster nods her agreement, the smile that barely tips her lips upward seems forced. Or maybe I'm seeing things, knowing what Peeta has told me about his mother's disapproval.

"Well, I guess we will just have to stay tuned for Annie Cresta and Finnick Odair's sentencing. Let's switch gears, your Majesty. Tomorrow, the Reaped have a full agenda, don't they?"

"Yes, tomorrow will be a very big day for the ladies. They will have their next Game, the winner of which will be awarded a private date with Prince Peeta, and the girls who finish second, third and fourth will earn a group date as well," King Wheaton announces.

"That's fabulous news! Two dates! I know our viewers love getting a front-row seat to these things," Caesar crows. "In a few moments I'll be joined by our panel of royal experts so we can all make our predictions for tomorrow's Game. I think we have some updated odds after yesterday's eliminations and Annie Cresta's removal as well.

"But for now, I must say goodbye to our king and queen. Thank you for your time this evening, your majesties."

"Thank you, Caesar. We look forward to seeing you in person tomorrow."

"Ah yes, I am very much looking forward to that!" Caesar grins maniacally as King Wheaton and Queen Aster fade from view and the small screen behind Caesar goes dark. He turns fully in his chair and speaks to the camera. "I guess this would be as good a time as any, then, to share that yes, I will be live from Panem Palace tomorrow night, for my next interviews with our remaining Reaped girls."

There's wild applause from the audience. I, however, am less than enthusiastic about this revelation. But I probably should have seen it coming. Peeta hinted as much to me at his first swimming lesson, that there was a lot on the agenda for tomorrow. I wonder when the next one will be.

I only half-listen to the rest of the Report, but I do take notice when Caesar and his assembled royal experts discuss the latest odds. Cashmere has vaulted to the top of the list, seemingly on the power of one kiss. She's followed by Madge, and Glimmer. Enobaria and I round out the Top 5. I'm sure that's higher than anyone expects me to be, given I lack the pedigrees of the other girls in the Top 4.

Most of the rest of the girls are bunched in clusters, many at even odds, but there's a huge drop between the penultimate girl and the girl who has the worst odds: Johanna. Caesar and the others even speculate how it is that she's lasted through two eliminations already.

I smirk. I suspect Johanna is still here for the very reason Peeta danced with her during that first dinner: to irritate his mother. And I hope he keeps her around even longer if that is the case.

Caesar signs off a few minutes later, but before I can power down my screen, the crest of the House of Mellark appears and Claudius Templesmith declares, "All Reaped ladies, please step into your hallways and wait at your doors for further instructions."

Sighing, I start for the door, but I remember my shoes at the last minute and retrieve them quickly. I jam my feet into the dreaded heels and scurry to my door.

As I step outside into the hall, my eyes automatically wander to Annie's closed door. I wonder how long it will take for me not to think of her each time I see it shuttered, knowing she won't emerge from it ever again. I haven't really given much thought to the other doors that won't open again, rooms that belonged to eliminated girls. Our wing had only lost one girl—Alodia, from 6—before Annie's removal. I guess there will be more and more permanently closed doors as more girls are cut.

We all hover in our doorways, waiting. Minutes pass. No one says anything at first, but eventually Clove heaves a loud sigh and huffs, "What do you think we're all waiting around for?"

"Duh," Glimmer sneers. "The guards. Our new ones. They said they'd be in place by evening shift. I'm sure we're out here to be introduced."

"I'm going to miss Officer Odair," Delly says. "He was so nice."

"Nice to look at," Clove adds with a wicked grin. "But dumb. Clearly. Or he wouldn't have gotten caught."

I shoot her a nasty look, but her room is far enough up the hall that she can't see me that well.

Eventually we hear footsteps and the murmur of voice, and King Wheaton appears at the top of the staircase, accompanied by Peeta. To my dismay, Officer Cato is behind them. Obviously, he is the guard that is not being reassigned—his reward, I guess, for ratting out Annie and Finnick. There are two other guards with them.

One is Gale.

The sight of him is so mind-boggling that I blink several times to be sure my eyes aren't deceiving me, and I struggle to keep my expression neutral so as not to show my complete and utter shock.

Gale Hawthorne is here, in the palace.

"Good evening, ladies," King Wheaton says as he strides up the hallway and stops halfway up the corridor, just before my door. "I wanted to personally introduce you to the guards who have been assigned to rotation in your wing. And though I addressed this issue earlier today it serves us all well to revisit the boundaries that must exist between guards and Reaped.

"You should know that before your arrival I grappled with the notion of the need for guards specifically assigned to the Reaped. After all, the majority of your time here is in sanctioned activities and competitions, and you have your escorts and maids, as well as your prep teams. It's not like you are unsupervised or unattended for long periods of time.

"But this is a competition, with very, very high stakes—" King Wheaton pauses and glances to his left, at Prince Peeta, "—and the queen pointed out having guards in place would discourage any untoward behavior between you ladies." His mouth flattens into a line and he pauses again. "We just did not fully think through the temptation it might present to some." He casts another quick look at Peeta, but this one is laden with disapproval, and I'm likely the only one, other than Peeta, who knows why.

To his credit, Peeta's expression remains impassive, revealing no visible response to his father's covert reprimand. His eyes flit to mine, briefly, and then dart away.

"Officer Cato will remain assigned to this wing, but he has also been elevated to Officer Odair's vacated post in Prince Peeta's personal guard rotation," King Wheaton declares. Officer Cato's smug countenance seems to grow even haughtier with this revelation.

"Replacing Officer Odair are Officers Maximillian Dalton and Gale Hawthorne." King Wheaton gestures to Gale, who acknowledges his introduction with only a curt nod of his head. "Both joined the most recent recruiting class to our Peacekeeper corps, and came highly recommended to the palace. Along with our other new guards, Queen Aster and I have the utmost faith that they will carry out their responsibilities without incident."

I feel Delly's eyes on me from several doors down, but I don't dare look in her direction. I still can't bring myself to look directly at Gale, either. My thoughts are giving me whiplash.

King Wheaton dismisses us a moment later, ordering us back inside our rooms. Most girls loiter outside their rooms for a few seconds, and then doors start to click shut.

I glance over at Peeta, who meets my gaze, and impulsively, I start to raise my hand to my mouth, but then one rational thought asserts itself to the forefront of my mind. What do I intend to say to Peeta—what would be the point of telling him I know Gale better than just a fleeting recognition from home? Given the drama with Finnick and Annie, it's entirely possible that if I reveal any kind of a preexisting friendship with Gale, I could ruin his career before it even really gets started. And while I still do not understand his reasoning for joining the military and pledging to protect a kingdom he's sworn a thousand times to hate, I can't take that chance.

So I give Peeta a wisp of a smile and lift my hand to push my braid back over my shoulder. Peeta purses his lips and the right side of his mouth twitches with a faint smile, and then he follows his father down the hall.

Before I close my door, I finally steal a glimpse at Gale. He's listening to Officer Cato, nodding periodically, but just as I step backwards, his familiar steel-grey eyes shift and land on me. We stare at one another for what can't be more than three or four seconds, but feels like much longer. Hastily, I fumble with my door panel and seal myself into the safety of my room.

I press my palm to my chest, as if I could calm my erratically beating heart.

Gale is here.

Gale Hawthorne is here.

And he'll be just outside my door every day and every night.

Thanks for reading...look forward to hearing your thoughts! xoxo ~Court