Katniss glared at the parking attendant's outstretched hand. She couldn't believe she had to pay $10.
To park her car.
At a venue that had already swallowed up almost $300 from her bank account.
And what about those extra bullshit fees that were tacked onto the cost of the concert tickets? Where did those dollars go? Apparently not to parking.
Katniss took a deep breath. She would not yell at this nice man. It was not his fault that she was hemorrhaging money just to see a boy band she had zero interest in. It was not his fault that her boss, Effie Trinket, had kept her an hour late, preventing her from arriving with Annie and Prim. (And apparently saving $10.) It was not his fault that she was exhausted and overworked and starving because she hadn't had time to stop for dinner and that all she wanted was one night of not worrying, one night where her sister was happy and smiling and she could turn off her brain even if she had to listen to crappy music to do it.
It wasn't anyone's fault really.
And this nice man was just doing his job.
Her cell phone dinged from the passenger seat. A succession of rapid-fire dings followed, and her anger turned into disappointment. She knew the text messages had to be from Prim. She and Annie must have found their seats.
She shoved the $10 at the attendant, pulled into an empty space, and looked at her phone. She was thrilled to see a video message from Annie. It was hard to hear at first thanks to the crowd, but Katniss could make out Prim's confused questions as the usher led them down the ramp rather than up several flights of stairs.
When the usher left them five rows from the stage, Prim emitted a high-pitched shriek.
"Thank your sister," Annie prompted from behind the cell phone. "This was all her idea."
But Prim was too busy jumping up and down in the aisle to hear.
The rest of Katniss's messages were from Prim. The first three were simply exclamation points filling the screen. The next two were "OMG" and "I cant believe this!" The second to last was about twenty variations of the happy face emoji, and the last one, finally, read:
"youll never guess whos sitting in the row behind us. glimmer and clove! i cannot believe their faces. they didnt believe me when i said i had tickets. omg this is the best bday ever! u r the best sister ever! thank you!"
At the age of fifteen, everything to Prim was either "the best ever" or "literally the worst," but pride still swelled in Katniss's chest. The last year had been hell, but Katniss was determined to make Prim's birthday a happy night. It had taken months of careful saving and a $75 membership fee to District*4's Fan Club in order to get the presale code, but Katniss had succeeded in purchasing the best tickets she could get her hands on. Prim had known about the concert all along, but she had believed they'd be sitting in the very back, relying on the giant screens to see the stage.
Katniss had wanted to be there when Prim realized how close their seats were, but work had run late as usual. She wanted to curse her boss, but it was hard to do so when her position as Effie's personal assistant was the major reason the courts had granted Katniss custody of Prim. "Love" and "family" were important buzzwords, sure, but the court preferred phrases like "full-time job" and "health insurance."
At least Annie had recorded Prim's reaction. This was a video Katniss could watch whenever she needed a reminder of why she had dropped out of college, clocked sixty-hour weeks, and slept on a pullout couch in the middle of the living room.
Prim's smile was a really good reminder.
As Katniss entered the venue, ticket in hand (thank god she had the foresight to take hers with her just in case), she heard a roar rise up from the crowd. Her heart sunk. While she wasn't excited to see the concert (District*4 wasn't exactly her preference), and she could have saved herself a lot of money by staying home and sending Prim with Annie, who actually was a huge fan, she wanted to be part of her sister's special night.
Even if it made her ears bleed.
"Is that...?" Katniss asked as she handed her ticket to an usher.
"Opening act just finished," the woman responded. "There's still one more band before District*4 comes on."
The women did a double take of her handheld scanner.
"Hold on just a second," she said. She turned away and mumbled something into her headset.
"Is there a problem?" Katniss asked. Because that was just what she needed. Another obstacle. "I bought that ticket legally."
"There's no problem, ma'am. It'll just be one moment."
Katniss didn't like the "ma'am" or the brushoff. She wanted to argue, but she didn't want to cause a scene and risk being booted from the venue before she even made it past the velvet rope. She stepped to the side to allow the next person in line access to the usher.
Two minutes. That's how long she would wait until she insisted on being let through. She stared at the throngs of people in the lobby buying overpriced merchandise and began a silent count.
At one hundred and eighteen, a man dressed in an ill-fitting suit appeared at the usher's side. His hair was disheveled, and his eyes were glassy. He smelled faintly of vodka.
"Where is she? It is a she, right?" he asked.
The usher rolled her eyes and gestured for Katniss to come forward. "Yes, it's a she."
Katniss crossed her arms over her chest when she caught the man looking her up and down. "Is there a problem?" she asked. "I purchased my ticket through the fan club presale. It's a legitimate ticket."
"You're a little older than usual, but a lot saner." He started to circle her, but she spun around, not interested in having this greasy man check out her ass.
"What the hell are you doing?" she demanded. "Am I being let in or not?"
All she wanted to do was see the fruits of her $300 effort. She wanted to hug her sister, wish her a happy birthday, and steal some of the $8 popcorn Annie had almost certainly purchased. And if she had to yell at someone to do it, fine. She yelled at people for a living. It was the main reason Effie had hired her. Effie got to play the sugary sweet boss, endlessly apologizing for her rude personal assistant but secretly grateful that Katniss's stubbornness got results.
"Calm down, sweetheart. Of course you're going in. You won," the man answered.
"Won? Won what?"
The man offered a crooked smile and stuck out his hand. "I'm Haymitch Abernathy, District*4's manager. Now come with me."
Without further explanation, he walked back in the direction he came. Katniss hesitated until the usher waved her forward. She fell into step beside Haymitch, still confused about what the hell was going on, but she was past the velvet rope and that was what counted.
"Where are we going?" she asked.
"Have you ever been to a D*4 concert?"
In fact, she barely knew anything about District*4 except that they were "insanely hot" and "the biggest boy band ever." Of course, she had gleaned this knowledge from Prim, so she wasn't sure how accurate it was.
She didn't listen to their music, at least not on purpose, but she often heard it through the walls of Prim's bedroom.
"The guys bring a girl up on stage at every concert to sing to. A member of the fan club is randomly selected, and surprise! You're it."
Katniss's mouth opened and closed a few times as she processed this news. "Me? It can't be me." She thought of Prim and Annie dancing around the kitchen last night, blasting D*4's music until the neighbors banged on the wall.
Katniss couldn't win. She didn't deserve to. She couldn't name a single song.
"It's your lucky day," Haymitch said as if she hadn't protested at all. "Seeing as how you're such a big fan and all." He gave her a pointed look.
"They can't bring me up on stage," she said as Haymitch swiped a keycard through the slot on a door marked "Employees Only."
She followed him down a narrow hallway. This man couldn't be serious. She wasn't even a fan!
"And they can't sing to me."
He let out an exasperated sigh and stopped outside of a nondescript brown door.
"I'm not sure why this is a hard concept to grasp." He rubbed his forehead and muttered something about needing a drink. "Look, don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled you're not crying or jumping up and down like a crazy person, but you should sound at least a little excited before you meet them. Now come on."
Meet them? Was he seriously going to—
Haymitch opened the door to reveal one of the biggest flat screen televisions she had ever seen, a sofa that took up the entire left wall, a huge table full of sandwiches, chips, and cans of soda, and, oh yeah, three ridiculously handsome men.
"Look who I've got," Haymitch said. "Your winner finally showed up."
Katniss didn't recognize any of them, but she knew immediately that these were the members of the band. They just had that look to them, the just finished with a photo shoot, about to shoot a music video, worth millions of dollars look. She didn't know it was possible to have a look like that in real life, but here they were.
"Allow me to introduce…" Haymitch trailed off, staring at her expectantly.
"Katniss," she supplied.
"Alright, Katniss, let me introduce you to Finnick. He's the lead singer."
Finnick, a man who could easily pass as a reincarnated Greek god, gave her a bright smile and shook her hand.
"It's wonderful to meet you, Katniss."
"This is Gale, our quote, unquote bad boy with a heart of gold," Haymitch said.
Katniss rolled her eyes at Haymitch's label, but she could see why it fit. Gale was tall with dark hair and grey eyes. He looked a little dangerous until his mouth quirked upward in a vague smile. He shook her hand before sprawling out on the sofa.
"This is Darius, the one with the questionable sexuality," Haymitch said, nodding toward the redhead perched on the arm of the couch.
"Hey!" Darius said. "Would you stop introducing me like that?"
"We've been over this," Haymitch said. "Every boy band has one."
"I like girls," he told Katniss.
"Yeah, like sixty percent of the time," Gale said.
Darius looked over at Gale and winked. "You would know."
"Okay, I said 'questionable sexuality.' We don't need to be confirming any rumors in front of this complete stranger."
Katniss shrugged. "Your secret's safe with me."
"I swear I need to start having these fans sign confidentiality waivers before meeting you idiots. Now where's my boy next door?"
As if on cue, the door opened and the last member of the group walked in. Katniss inhaled sharply.
There was no question that Finnick was the most attractive member of the group, but he was more like a work of art than an actual person. He was something to be admired from afar, an unobtainable fantasy protected by a velvet rope.
Not like this man standing in the doorway, with his tousled blonde hair, his easy smile, his broad shoulders. He was solid, strong, and he was begging to be touched.
Mellark, Katniss thought. It took her a moment to remember why she not only recognized him but had also come up with a name. His face was splashed across the covers of several magazines. Last week, as she had stood in line at the grocery store, a nearby Entertainment Weekly had proclaimed "Mellark Mania" to be sweeping the nation.
While the headline was ridiculous, Katniss had been struck then with how handsome he was. She hadn't realized he was a member of District*4, otherwise she might have been more excited about attending tonight.
"Peeta, you're just in time. This is Katniss, the girl you'll be singing to onstage tonight."
Peeta's smiled brightly. "It's great to meet you, Katniss."
Her stomach performed a perfect flip as they shook hands. Meeting the other three had been so easy. She didn't understand why he would have such an effect on her.
It had to be his eyes. She had assumed they'd been photoshopped on the cover of those magazines, the color enhanced to an unearthly blue.
She was surprised to see that they were as blue as advertised.
"You can't sing to me," she blurted out.
Peeta frowned, and Katniss had to fight off the blush blossoming across her cheeks and up her neck.
"I mean, I'm here with my sister. It's her fifteenth birthday and you're her gift." Crap. No. She shook her head. "I mean, the tickets are her gift. She's dying to see you guys."
Peeta smiled at her again, and she wished he would stop. His stupid, perfect mouth was making it hard to focus. She looked over at Finnick instead. Greek god or not, he was less intimidating.
"Is there any way she could take my place?" Katniss asked.
"Of course!" Finnick said.
A rush of gratitude ran through her, and suddenly she was fighting the impulse to cry while simultaneously jumping up and down. Ugh. Did these guys have some kind of emotion bending pheromone coming off them? What was it about them that made girls lose their minds?
She glanced back over at Peeta. God, his jawline rivaled the actor's who played Captain America. Chris What's-His-Name. Consider her question answered.
"This is incredible," Katniss forced out. "You have no idea how much this will mean to her."
"What's your sister's name?" Peeta asked.
"Prim. Primrose, actually."
"That's a gorgeous name," Peeta said. "What's her favorite ballad? We can sing whichever one she wants."
Crap. Katniss rushed through every memory she had of listening to music with Prim in the car or at home. She had never really paid much attention. She had dismissed District*4's music as silly and not worth her time without ever giving it a chance. Whenever Prim did have it on, Katniss was usually too preoccupied calculating bill payments in her head to pay much attention.
Wait. There was a song that she vaguely remembered. It was constantly flooding out of Prim's room.
"I don't actually know the name." She shrugged helplessly. "Sorry. She's the huge fan, not me."
"Do you remember any of the words?" Darius asked.
Peeta nodded encouragingly. "Just a couple of lines. We'll figure it out."
She closed her eyes and began to hum the melody, hoping it would jog her memory.
I'll be dreaming of you
I'll be waiting for your call
I'll be hoping you'll remember
That every time I see you
I fall, I fall…"
She felt pretty proud of herself for remembering the words until she opened her eyes. Finnick, Gale, and Darius were exchanging looks, although she couldn't determine what exactly their expressions meant. Haymitch's mouth was hanging open, and Peeta was staring at her in wonder.
Oh god. Had she just sung the words to another band's song? She was certain that Prim only listened to District*4 on repeat, but she could have been mistaken.
"I'm not…" Peeta cleared his throat. "I'm not sure I recognize that song. Could you sing a few more verses?"
"You don't recognize your own song?" Katniss asked, her question almost a plea. Just say it's your song. Please, please let it be yours.
"Just another couple of lines," Peeta prompted.
Katniss tried to swallow but her mouth was too dry. She cleared her throat and plucked a few more words out of her nerve-wracked brain.
"Because every time I look into your eyes
I fall just a little bit deeper…"
Katniss tugged on her braid and considered running out the door. "Sorry. That's all I remember."
"That's 'Fall,'" Peeta said. "It's an older song. From our first album."
The relief that flooded through her made her dizzy. "You'll sing that to her?"
"Yeah," Peeta said. "When the time comes, we'll send a security guard to your seat. They'll know to bring up Prim. It'll be a surprise."
"Thank you!" The urge to throw her arms around him was strong, but she suppressed it. She was not the touchy feely type. And she certainly wasn't the kind of person to lose it over a celebrity. They were just people. People who made lots and lots of money and looked like models, but still. People.
"No problem," Peeta said.
"Well, now that that's settled, let's get Katniss to her seat," Haymitch said. "You're on in twenty."
"It was wonderful meeting you, Katniss," Peeta said.
A chorus of agreement rose from the other three, but she barely heard them. She was staring at Peeta again, turning his words over in his head. She liked his voice, the way he made her name sound like a song. She was more excited about the concert now. She wanted to hear him sing.
Haymitch and Katniss were halfway down the narrow hall when Peeta burst out of the room.
"Wait." He thrust two lanyards at Katniss. "Backstage passes. For the meet and greet after the show."
"Seriously?" Katniss asked. She was certainly getting her money's worth now. "Annie and Prim will be so excited."
"Annie?" Peeta asked.
"She's my best friend and another huge fan. She's with us tonight."
"Let me go get another pass for you."
"Oh no, that's not necessary," Katniss said, almost stuttering through her sentence. Even though she had successfully conjured up the correct lyrics, residual embarrassment still lingered. Meeting celebrities was weird, even though it had been brief and everyone had been nice. And they were already doing so much for her. It was getting overwhelming.
Besides, she hardly knew a thing about the group. Let the real fans meet them. She could wait in the lobby.
"No, I insist. You should come back too."
Was it her imagination, or was he blushing? Did famous guys even blush unless it was on cue?
"Sure. I mean, it'd be good to have a neutral party to be the picture taker," she said.
Peeta nodded. "Exactly. I'll give Prim a pass after she comes on stage. Just come to the door after the concert."
"Thank you. Really."
"It's no problem."
Katniss watched him return to the room, trying and failing not to check out his ass. Was it a requirement in the entertainment industry that all male vocalists wear such tight pants? Because it was a good rule.
"Oh, and Katniss?" Peeta asked, lingering in front of the open door. She blushed again, hoping he hadn't caught her staring. "You have a really pretty voice."
Before she could formulate a response, the door was closing behind him. Had Peeta Mellark, a performer so talented he was reportedly making girls swoon across the country, just complimented her singing? Nothing about the past twenty minutes seemed real.
"Coming, sweetheart?" Haymitch asked.
She jumped. She had forgotten he was there.
"Is there a problem?" she asked.
"No crying. No screaming. No marriage proposals or attempts to tackle any of the guys, and yet somehow, I just know, you're going to cause me the most trouble."
Katniss brushed her braid off her shoulder and walked past him. "I don't know what you're talking about."
$75 to join the fan club. $287 for two fifth-row seats. $10 to park. Numerous sleepless nights worrying over how she was going to afford all this.
And it was all worth it as soon as District*4 took the stage and Prim let out her signature high-pitched shriek. As the music played and Prim sang along to every song, Katniss finally stopped measuring the night in dollars and started enjoying herself instead. The money was already spent. It was gone. But Prim and Annie were here, and they were having a blast.
While she was reluctant to admit it, Katniss was having a lot more fun than she expected. While the music wasn't exactly her taste—some of the lyrics were way too cheesy for her liking—it wasn't nearly as bad she originally thought. It also helped that Peeta Mellark wasn't too far away, pulling off complicated dance moves as he sang into a headset.
And as it turned out, she very much liked his singing voice. She half wished the other guys would shut up, so she could just hear him.
Five songs in, a tall, muscular security guard appeared at Katniss's side.
"I'm looking for Prim," the man yelled over the noise.
Katniss nodded and turned to her sister, who was currently jumping up and down to the beat of the song.
"Prim!" Katniss tugged on her sister's arm. "I've got one more surprise for you."
Prim gave her a quizzical glance, but didn't question her sister. She trusted Katniss. Always. Even if it meant getting up in the middle of a concert featuring her favorite band to follow a security guard up the aisle.
"Where's she going?" Annie yelled.
Two songs later, Peeta led Prim onstage. She was already crying. Katniss assumed the sobbing had begun as soon as she realized what was going on, but she had composed herself before it was time to come out. There were just a few tears now and an insanely wide grin.
Annie's shriek rivaled Prim's. "Oh my god! How did you pull this off?"
Katniss shrugged as if it was no big deal. She'd explain later. For now, she needed to take as many pictures as possible. Annie pulled out her phone and pressed record.
Peeta sat Prim down on a chair in the center of the stage. The familiar melody of "Fall" flooded the venue, and Finnick began to sing. Peeta joined in on the chorus. All four members took turns serenading Prim whose usual pale skin was as red as Darius's hair. She was a mess of tears and laughter, but she hadn't looked that happy in a long, long time.
When the song was over, she pulled out her cell phone, and the group took a selfie with her. Then, Finnick grabbed the phone and took a picture of Prim and Peeta facing backstage, so the crowd was their backdrop.
Before Prim returned to her seat, Peeta announced that it was her fifteenth birthday. The guys led the crowd in a very enthusiastic rendition of "Happy Birthday," and tears stung Katniss's eyes. She blinked them away quickly, embarrassed at her sudden sentimentality, but she couldn't take her eyes off her baby sister. Prim was glowing, practically radiating happiness.
It was all Katniss had wanted.
Her gaze drifted to the handsome blond next to Prim, his arm slung over her sister's slender shoulders.
She pulled one of the passes from her back pocket and handed it to Annie without a word. Annie let out another squeal of happiness, but managed to keep her phone focused on the stage.
Katniss hung the other pass over her neck. She fiddled with the lanyard, trying to ignore the strange rush of anticipation that swept through her.
It seemed she had found a new favorite band.