AN: As always, a HUGE thanks to Chelzie for beta'ing this and putting up with my crazy. Also, to JennaGill and ModernLifeofAsh: THANK YOU for reading over this and convincing me not to hit delete on this. All of you ladies are amazing!
I remember reading a description of sharks circling the survivors of a shipwreck once long ago. It was chilling to think of those poor men struggling to swim while watching large, gray predators moving around them, waiting for just one drop of blood before starting their grisly frenzy. As I walked down the stairs on Matthew's arm into Effie's foyer that Friday evening, I could see the sharks begin to circle and knew that I was the intended feast they were waiting for. Effie had insisted that it would be better for me to make "an entrance" rather than just greeting guests downstairs with her and Peeta, but right then I would have given anything for his steady calm at my side as nearly two dozen eyes stared up at me.
"Breathe," Matthew whispered in my ear.
I looked up at him and tried to paste on a smile. Breathing didn't feel like much of an option at the moment. Between the corselette that Octavia had helped me stuff myself into and the butterflies in my belly, I felt a tad light headed. And then I saw Peeta roll himself into the foyer and smile up at me. Just like at the wedding, I could tell the exact moment when he could make me out. His smile widened and I felt air in my lungs for the first time in what felt like forever.
In that moment, I knew that I had been right to demand to wear the dress I had chosen against Effie's wishes. It was a stunning—even in my uneducated opinion—formal dinner gown with tiny capped sleeves just off my shoulders and beading that went down the front, emphasizing my lack of cleavage, and a silk sash that accented my waist. The gown was very fashionable, I'd been told, but the color was all wrong. It was red—and not just any red, but the bright red of a ripe apple with crystals and beads that gleamed, reminding me of drops of dew in sunlight. Madame Portia hadn't so much as batted an eye when I requested fiery tones for my wardrobe, but both Effie and Octavia had been aghast when I showed it to them. I was painting myself as a scarlet woman, according to the two of them, but I didn't care so long as Peeta could pick me out in a crowd.
"You're beautiful," he said as soon as I hit the last stair.
"Thank you," I replied through lips that felt drier than dust.
"Katniss, there are several people I'd like you to meet," Peeta announced, suddenly reminding me of what I had been dreading.
The sharks filtered by in front of us in near perfect two by two order. I tried to remember the names and faces in front of me, but by the fourth couple, I was lost. I did the only thing I could do and tried my best to emulate the proper responses that Effie had been drilling into my head for the last three days. I must have been doing at least a decent job of it, because no one commented on it. Most of the folks I was introduced to looked more curious about me, although Peeta was the one they showed the most obvious discomfort toward. The worst of them talked so loudly that I almost had to take a step back to stop my ears from ringing while others looked over Peeta's shoulder or at their shoes to avoid looking at him. But Peeta managed to smile through it all. Thankfully, one of the last people in line was a familiar face.
"If I didn't know any better, I would swear there was padding in the shoulders of your jacket," Miss Mason drawled as she arrived on the arm of a dark haired young man.
"Johanna!" the man hissed in a warning tone, blushing as only a teenager could.
Miss Mason laughed. "Katniss, I'd like you to meet my charming younger brother, Blight—I mean, Benjamin Mason."
Mr. Mason barely acknowledged me before turning his attention back to Peeta. "It's good to have you back, Peeta," he said, clapping my husband on the shoulder enthusiastically. "I knew those good for nothing Krauts couldn't keep you down. They're just lucky they got you before you snatched that helmet right off the Kaiser's head."
Before Peeta could reply, a murmuring sounded from the doorway. All eyes turned toward the pair of men who had just arrived. One was fair and one was dark, but both were undeniably handsome and well dressed. I didn't recognize either man, but it was obvious that everyone else did and no one seemed too happy to see them. Matthew looked like he wanted to gut the pair and even Effie looked horrified as they strode into the room.
"What's the matter?" Peeta asked.
"It seems your worthless brother and his toadie have decided to grace us with their presence," Mr. Mason answered bitterly.
I glanced at the pair again and had no trouble telling which of the men was a Mellark. My brother-in-law was tall and much more slender than his brothers, but his blond hair and defined jaw were enough to give him away. There was something about him that was almost familiar beyond the resemblance to Matthew and Peeta though. And then it hit me: Luke Mellark looked a lot like the painting that hung from the stairway back at Mellark house. The thought was somewhat unnerving.
"I didn't know your brother was even in town," I said to Peeta.
"Neither did I. I haven't seen him in almost five years, not since..." Suddenly the color drained from Peeta's face. "Oh God, Jo, I swear I didn't know he was going to be here."
Johanna shrugged. "I'd never accuse you of conspiring to get the three of us all under one roof again. Anyway, it doesn't really matter to me all that much. Luke could be on the other side of the room or burning in Hell for all I care. I would worry more about whether or not you will be the sole heir to the Mellark millions once the two of them finish with each other."
I wanted to ask exactly what had happened between them all, but it wasn't the right time. Without so much as stopping to pay his respects to his aunt as hostess, Luke was heading our way with a determined fire in his blue eyes. The Masons muttered their excuses as soon as he drew near, but I could tell from the look that passed between Luke and Johanna that there was an old debt she would be settling very soon.
"I see the stories of your return weren't exaggerated, little brother," Luke drawled as stopped before us. Though there was a smug smirk tugging at his lips, there was a look in his eyes that I couldn't exactly place. It almost looked like relief.
"I'm alive and mostly well despite the Germans' efforts," Peeta agreed tightly. "Was Aunt Effie expecting you tonight or did you decide it would be more fun to cause a stir?"
"I wasn't invited, if that is what you mean, but after sending several telegrams and making more than a few unanswered telephone calls, my appearance here isn't quite the surprise you think it is. No matter what Matthew says, I never intended to remain in exile," he said bitingly.
Peeta sighed heavily. "Why did you come back, Luke?"
"Shouldn't that much be obvious? I came to meet my new sister." His eyes landed on me for the first time, and I could tell by his bland expression that he wasn't impressed. "Won't you be so kind as to introduce us?"
"Luke, this is my wife, Katniss. Katniss, this is the good for nothing son of a bitch who should have stayed in New York," my husband seethed.
Unperturbed, my other brother-in-law let out a bark of laughter. "A pleasure to meet you, my dear," he said with an exaggerated mocking bow. "And allow me to finish the introductions; this is my associate, Mr. Gloss."
The darker haired man who had remained silent so far only gave the slightest inclination of his head to acknowledge me.
"Wonderful," a voice cut in from behind us, "Now that you have met Katniss, you can both leave."
I hadn't noticed Matthew and Effie's approach, but that wasn't too surprising. I doubt anyone in the room noticed much aside from the drama that was threatening to enfold in the foyer that night. Scandal, Effie had warned me, was society's true love. Nothing relieved boredom like a good bit of gossip, and I knew that we were going to serve up quite the feast before dinner was even served.
"Do you think I'll jump just because you tell me to?" Luke sneered.
Matthew's nostrils flared. "I think you'll leave before I rip your..."
"Boys, please!" Effie begged, cutting what would have been quite a threat in half. She stepped between the feuding brothers and managed a brittle smile. "I'm sure we can save the more private details of your reunion until after the meal has been served."
"So sorry to disappoint, Auntie, but Gloss and I have another engagement to make tonight. I simply wanted to stop by to give my regards," my newest brother explained.
And just like that, they were gone as quickly as they had come. A flurry of whispers surrounded them as they left to the point where I could barely hear their goodbyes. I think I was still a bit off balance from the whole thing as Effie began herding the guests toward the dining room. From the corner of my eye, I watched Luke and Gloss disappearing through the door and wondered if I would ever really know what had caused such hard feelings between them all.
If I had thought that the evening was bound to get better after Luke's departure, I was soon disappointed. Dinner was stuffier and less interesting than Reverend Undersee's worst sermon. Talk went back and forth between the men about all aspects of business and industry while the women twittered on about fashion. I tried to fake interest as a few of the younger women tried to draw me into their ranks. Thankfully, I had a rescuer.
"Exactly when are you going to make good on your promise?" Miss Mason asked suddenly from a few seats to my left.
I blinked and tried not to frown too much—something Effie chided me about constantly. "My promise?"
"To volunteer. Surely you haven't forgotten," she scoffed haughtily over her wine glass.
"Is Monday soon enough?" I asked, pushing aside the urge to point out that I hadn't actually promised anything.
Smiling slyly like a cat playing with a mouse, she cocked her head to the side. "Monday should be fine."
As if merely speaking on friendly terms with Miss Mason had tainted me, most of the other women on our end of the table seemed to lose interest in me. Matthew had told me that she had a reputation for being wild, but I hadn't given any thought to what kinds of repercussions would come of being friends with her. I didn't like being "told" what to do. It brought out a rebellious side to my nature. Maybe that was why when coffee and wine were served on the terrace after the meal, I immediately found Miss Mason smoking along the railing.
"Come to ask me about what happened between Matthew, Luke and I?" she asked with an arched brow.
I shook my head. "I didn't think you'd want to talk about it."
"My stunning fall from grace doesn't bother me," she assured me with a throaty, smoke laced laugh. "I suspect that it bothers other people more than it ever did me. It's more fun to play the villainous vixen than it ever was to be the debutante. You'll have to learn how to play the game, too, I think."
"So if it doesn't bother you, what did happen five years ago?"
"Oh, I snuck off with Luke in the middle of Matthew's and my engagement party for a quick tryst in the library. When we were caught, Luke refused to make an honest woman of me," she told me as if it were no more than the weather she was commenting on.
"And Matthew broke off the engagement," I finished, feeling an urge to hog tie both of my brother-in-laws.
Miss Mason looked away. "No, Matthew is far too honorable for that. He made a grand show of telling all and sundry that he would stand by me in my scandal—that he could forgive the mistake of an innocent young girl led astray by his dastardly brother. I was the one who broke off the engagement. I have no desire to be forgiven or to have my husband tolerate me."
"If you dislike the Mellarks so much, why did you come here tonight?" I asked. I was becoming nosy, but I didn't care. There was a burning curiosity in me that night. I actually liked what I had seen of Miss Mason so far, and I knew that she had played a very pivotal role in shaping the brothers' relationship.
"Still haven't figured it all out, have you?" she asked as the snuffed out the last little bit of her cigarette. "The more intriguing question would be to ask why I was invited."
The rest of the night was a blur. Effie found me standing there with Miss Mason that night and all but dragged me back into the fold of respectable but boring people. Conversations that evening were stilted and not worth remembering. I had erased any doubts that I was going to be a hellion in the eyes of society, and I couldn't bring myself to follow along with the chit-chat surrounding me. Finally, the clock struck late enough for the guests to filter out on their way. I was bone tired and had to force my eyes to stay open during the short car ride home. Peeta and Matthew were both suspiciously quiet, but I didn't have the energy to press either of them.
Peeta and I slept in later than usual the next day. I opened my eyes and blinked against the bright sun streaming in through the windows. I had survived my first bout with society and lived to see the light of the next day. In fact, there weren't even any angry notes from Effie presented to me at the breakfast table. It didn't sound like all that impressive of a feat, but I was willing to take what small victories I could.
I decided to take a walk in the afternoon around my favorite route in Allegheny Commons. When I mentioned to Peeta about having Thresh drive me, he asked to join me. I had taken a few trips to the sprawling park since we'd arrived in the city, but when I had asked him to come along before, he had always made one excuse or another. Having him along was a pleasant surprise, but as I pushed his chair along the path, I couldn't help but wonder what had prompted him to join me.
"Did you have a nice time last night?" he asked, clearing his throat uncomfortably.
I let out a snort. "I'd rather stroll through this park naked than do it again, if that tells you anything."
"As much as I love picturing you naked, I don't really like the idea of sharing that sight," Peeta replied with a chuckle. "I knew it was going to be something you lived for the way Aunt Effie does, but I had hoped you wouldn't hate it so much. That probably won't be the last dinner we have to sit through while we're here."
"I suppose I can survive if I have to."
My arms were tiring quickly from pushing, and I was relieved to see a park bench nearby with a nice view of the pond. I parked Peeta's chair beside it and took a seat. For the time being, we were both content to enjoy the nice weather. The sweltering heat had simmered down enough to make it bearable outside and the cooling wind that ran along the water made it actually enjoyable. Sunlight danced off of the water, making me wish that we were sitting beside our lake, but even I had to admit that the park had its upsides.
"It seems like you and Johanna get along pretty well," he commented, breaking the peaceful silence.
"Is that so wrong?" I asked. My hackles were raising even at the hint of censure I thought I heard in his voice.
Peeta shook his head and let out a heavy sigh. "I like Jo. Despite everything that happened and everything people say about her, she never fails to prove that she is a true friend to me. She and Ben were two of the only people to not treat me any differently last night. Even if I hadn't liked them before, that would have been enough to change my mind."
It wasn't too hard to divine what exactly it was that Peeta was struggling with concerning Johanna. "But it's hard to get past what happened with her and your brothers."
"Someone told you?"
"She summed it up pretty bluntly," I confirmed.
"She does have a way of doing that," he agreed, cracking a smile that faded as quickly as it came. "I don't suppose she told you any of the important things, though. Katniss, I don't think you realize how perfect things were that summer before it all fell apart. Luke had come to spend a few weeks at home after finishing law school, and it was like he was a changed man. He'd always been so unpredictable and brooding that—blood aside—I couldn't say I knew anything about him at all. For the first time, he was happy and always joking with Matthew and I. It felt like we actually had another brother besides the two of us. Things were almost too good to be true. And then Matthew asked Johanna to marry him after almost a year of courtship. Luke seemed to be genuinely happy about the engagement... just like the rest of us. I wasn't expecting things to collapse the way they did. He and Jo were caught by Matthew, who had been taking some friends to have a cigar in the library. Luke's jacket was off and his suspenders were dangling. There wasn't any real doubt about what had happened, but when Matthew demanded an explanation, neither of them would answer. He asked what Luke's intentions were toward Jo, but there wasn't so much as a prayer for Luke doing the right thing. And Matthew cared too much for Johanna to just let her suffer the consequences, so he made sure that everyone knew he intended to stand by her. I'll never understand why she wouldn't let him."
Johanna's words about not wanting to be forgiven or tolerated echoed in my head. "I understand."
Peeta let out a rough chuckle. "Then maybe you can explain it to me."
"Maybe someday," I muttered, turning my attention back to the pond. I didn't think I could really explain it to Peeta. His world was so black and white. It was easier for a man to see the honorable action as the right one. I don't think he would ever understand that it was more important for Johanna to live by her own judgment than it was to be society's darling. I understood though, and maybe that would be enough to form an actual friendship.