Hello, everyone! I hope y'all had a great holiday. I'm currently enjoying my winter break, which ends in about 5 days. Super sad about it, but it's my last semester as an undergrad! I've gotten in a decent amount of writing, too - after this chapter I have 2 more that are fully written. All-in-all, there's going to be 50 chapters, including an epilogue. So we're in the home stretch here. There will be lots of stuff happening in the coming chapters. I can't wait to share it with you! Please enjoy this latest installment, and as always, happy reading :)


CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE: LET'S PLAY WHO'S TO BLAME


"Unworthiness is the inmost frightening thought that you do not belong, no matter how much you want to belong, that you are an outsider and will always be an outsider. It is the idea that you are flawed and cannot be fixed. It is wanting to be loved and feeling unlovable, or wanting to love and feeling that you are not capable of love."

Gary Zukav


Snow sips from a delicate china cup, his puffy lips rosy and obscene.

"Please enlighten me, Ms. Everdeen. Why shouldn't I have you arrested right here and now?" His smile tells me that whatever I say to defend myself is irrelevant. He's judge, jury, and executioner, and he's already found me guilty.

I swallow and suppress a wince as my arms rub against the fabric of the chair. "Well, it would be nice to know what crime I've committed first. Then I can provide a defense."

A white, caterpillar-shaped eyebrow pops up. "You sound defensive already, my dear. Are you sure you don't know?"

"Don't know what?" I snap, on edge. "That you were almost blown up?" My arms hurt, and I'm worried about Cato. When Snow and his Peacekeepers led me to a room on the second floor where we could converse privately, Cato had to be forcibly restrained from following us. Even now I can see the fear in his eyes, hidden beneath wave upon wave of pure fury. I hope they haven't hurt him.

"Are you sure you don't know of the allegations brought against you?" Snow asks, ignoring my other remark.

"Allegations?" Then it clicks. "What, you think I'm responsible for the bombings? You think I tried to kill you, even though I was in the same room? I mean, have you seen my arms?" I scoff because it's the only thing that keeps me from laughing or crying or maybe both.

"Surely you realize your…less than pleasant feelings for me are well-known, Ms. Everdeen. When a disaster of this magnitude happens, we look to my greatest enemies, and who else should come to mind but this year's surly Victor?" Snow smirks. "These allegations shouldn't come as a surprise."

"A disaster of this magnitude also garners a lot of attention," I spit, "and I loathe attention, you know this. After the Games I wanted nothing to do with anyone. That's never been a secret. Why would I attack you when the consequences are so high?" I let this simmer for a moment before adding, "Oh, that's right. I wouldn't. I'm not so stupid. Or so rash." I breathe deeply, trying to organize my thoughts and shove aside my concern for Cato. "Of course I hate you. That's no secret, either. But I'm not about to blow up everyone else just to get to you."

Snow shrugs, seemingly indifferent, but I can tell my words have struck a chord. My reasoning is solid. Still, he tries to find the cracks.

"There's a kernel of truth in what you say, Ms. Everdeen, I'll grant you that," Snow sighs, relenting. "But it also makes sense for you to act in such an outstanding fashion because it doesn't make sense. You were there at Heavensbee's ball, yes, which should move suspicion away from you. But isn't it true that such a move would be clever precisely because your presence indicates you cannot be involved? Hurting yourself to hurt me….that's smart. That's something you would do."

"Maybe," I say, my poker-face in place. It's true. That's exactly a move I would make. Like I would ever admit that to him, though. Besides – two can play The Game of Logic. "But I'm telling you right here and now, straight to your face, that I didn't do it. At this point, why would I lie? If I really was responsible, and if you'd connected the dots so easily, denying my involvement would be absolutely pointless. In fact, part of me wishes this plan had been my idea because I can see now…" I pause, taking a moment to study him. Crooked tie. Thinned mouth. A tinge of bloodshot to his eyes.

A smile nearly pushes its way to my lips, but I control myself. "I can see now that it's riled you up, and I'd honestly like nothing more than to introduce a little chaos to your life."

Snow stares at me, humming absentmindedly. He's thinking. Considering my line of logic. Soon enough he'll deem it true. He can't find a fault with what I say because I'm right. My involvement with the bombing doesn't exist. Of course, I know who's responsible, and maybe that's incriminating, but after Snow crosses my name off his list, his sights will no doubt turn on the next logical suspect, the truly responsible party – the rebellion.

"I shall reconsider the allegations brought against you," Snow says slowly, and it's then that I know I've won this battle. A part of me rejoices. Verbal sparring is not usually my forte; I'm more of the hit-now-ask-questions-later type. I don't have the patience for wordplay.

"Great. You know where the door is," I say, standing quickly. My thoughts linger on Cato; if Snow's Peacekeeper goons have hurt him in any way…

"One last inquiry, Ms. Everdeen." Snow's voice hits me as I reach for the doorknob. I grit my teeth, sure that whatever wisdom he's about to impart will not be appreciated.

"Have you been in contact with your prep team?"

I blink. "My –?" Prep team. I haven't heard those words in a while.

"Haymitch, in particular. Effie Trinket, too."

My head's shaking before he finishes, an automatic denial. "I haven't spoken with or seen Haymitch since my trip to District 12. As for Effie, I…" My throat closes. "I'm not sure where she is or what she's been up to." I hope she's okay. Haymitch insinuated that she's, somehow, been working with the rebellion all this time, but I still have my doubts about that bit of knowledge.

I look up to find Snow watching me. In his eyes I see the gears of his brain turning, turning, turning. Calculating something.

"Why do you ask?"

Snow's shoulders heave, but he releases no sound. "Mere curiosity, Ms. Everdeen. Their whereabouts are unknown to me as well, and I'd like to remedy that." He pauses, still calculating. "Regardless. It is only a matter of time until I locate them." The President stands, smiling sourly, and strides past me. I instinctively shrink back, distancing myself from the fetid stench of blood and roses.

"Until next time." Snow's words drift down the upstairs hallway, echoing like some ominous bell. I stand rigidly in the open doorway until I hear him and his Peacekeepers leave Rubicund House two minutes later. My entire body relaxes when the sound of his hovercraft buzzes and fades into the city.

He probably thinks a swift retreat is in order to reassess the battlefield, I think ruefully. Until he finds a new plan of attack. Until he scavenges some damning evidence to throw at me.

Until next time.

I'm halfway down the main grand-staircase when Cato appears at the bottom. There's a wild gleam in his eyes, and although his body is slightly tensed, for all intents and purposes he looks relatively normal. I mean, normal for Cato, who never really relaxes.

"Katniss," he says softly, and even though it's little more than a whisper I hear him loud and clear, as if he's shouted my name through a bullhorn.

He barrels up the staircase with surprising finesse given his agitated state and yanks me against him, his arms hooking around me, viselike. I gasp a breath as my ribs, crushed under Cato's strength, groan alarmingly.

"I'm okay," I reassure him. "Really."

He obviously doesn't believe me, for his grip, unbelievably, tightens. He presses his face inside the curve of my neck, and his hot breath fans across my body, driving away the frigid cold Snow brought with him.

"Yikes, okay," I say hoarsely, squirming, "please lighten up a little, Cato. Kinda can't breathe here."

Cato immediately releases me, remembering my burned arms. He checks them over quickly with his eyes before they flicker back to my face.

"What did he want? Did he do anything to you?"

"Besides piss me off?" I pretend to think. "Not really, no."

"Katniss," he says flatly, "be serious."

"Oh, well, we played a quick round of Who's to Blame. Not sure who won, though. Too early to tell." I smile weakly.

It fades when Cato only stares expressionlessly back at me.

"Look, it's nothing to worry about. Did his goons hurt you?" I've already assumed they didn't do more than rough him up a little. Cato seems physically okay, and I don't sense him trying to hide any internal pain. I'd know if he was.

He snorts. "No, they didn't. However…I came close to breaking one of their arms when they pulled me into the living room off the kitchen. They kept their distance after that." He moves close to me, fingers gently whispering up and down my burned arms. "I was worried about you, though."

I shrug, suppressing a grimace. "He threatened me, but that's nothing new. With…jail? Actually, I'm not really sure what he was intending to threaten me with. We didn't get that far because I told him I didn't do it."

A muscle in his jaw ticks. "It?"

"The bombing," I explain, remembering belatedly that Cato wasn't there for the whole conversation. C'mon, Katniss, use your brain. "Snow thought I was responsible for blowing up Heavensbee's place. Which is obviously dumb, and I told him so. He dropped his accusations pretty quick after I hit him with that logic bomb." Oh, damn, poor choice of words, Katniss.

Cato continues to stare at me, and looking into his blue, blue eyes, I can see the wheels turning. I shift my expression into one of unconcerned hopefulness, not wanting him to know just how much Snow's little visit has shaken me. "Look, it's over and done with now. Snow has no basis for any of his claims, and he knows that. I'm sure he has a lot to focus on, and since we had nothing to do with what happened today, we can focus on us."

Pretty good, eh? Convincing? Good. I thought so too.

Cato, apparently, is not so easily fooled.

"Cut that shit out," he growls at me, uncharacteristically angry. I see the expression on his face and immediately feel a combination of guilt and irritation. Why does Cato have to be so goddamn attentive? For once, can't he just not see what I'm trying so desperately to hide? I can't have any secrets around him, not anymore, and yeah, maybe that's a good thing overall, but sometimes it can be extremely frustrating.

Now would be one of those times.

My body slumps, the fight going out of me just like that, and I move past Cato, continuing down the main staircase and into the living room where I collapse on a lime green sofa. I stare up at the ceiling. "How did you know?"

He sits down a second later. Never very far behind, is he? "You tried to oversell yourself. Tone it down a little next time."

I nod moodily. "I thought I was doing a pretty convincing job, truth be told."

Cato's silent for a moment. "Like I said, you oversold it. Don't be so eager to convince."

"Got it," I say grumpily. No secrets from Cato, ever, I guess. We got us a Mr. Sherlock Holmes over here. Wonder Boy with an eye for the subtle. Fantastic.

"Now, what did Snow really say to you?" Cato places a large hand on my upper thigh. In comfort? Restraint? Who's to say? "The full extent of it, Katniss, not your dumb-downed interpretation."

I sigh, shifting a little under his touch. "Snow wanted to know who bombed him and why. I admit, it's not a stretch to consider me a liable suspect, but once we got to talking, well, it was clear that he'd overlooked a few things. Like the fact that, hmm, I was there too, and why in the living hell would I risk blowing myself up to kill him?" I snort. "Not to mention all those other people. I hate Capitol citizens, don't get me wrong, but not in a manner quite so…violent, you know?" I pause, gathering my thoughts.

"He then asked me about my prep team. Haymitch. Effie." I continue to stare up at the ceiling, trying to count the little dots. Too many. It's overwhelming, and I shift my eyes away. "I was telling him the truth when I said I had no idea where they are. They might be dead for all I know."

We sit in silence. Lost in thought, I realize that, despite Haymitch's penchant for survival, he might actually be dead. It's a possibility, a true one that I've never really taken the time to examine. Maybe because I don't want to.

Cato lightly touches my chin, imploring me to look at him. I do, not without some hesitation.

"I'm sorry," he says, surprising me. "It's been a rough day, and I hate to press you on things that clearly upset you." He pauses thoughtfully, his eyes stormy. "I'm just…trying to get a full picture here. It's a lot to process."

I smile weakly again. "Don't I know it." A deep breath. "And I appreciate what you're doing, Cato. It's not your fault that Haymitch and Effie are MIA, and it's sure as hell not your fault that Snow's a dick."

He laughs. The sound warms me. "An apt comparison, I think."

We stare at each other for a moment, and I become acutely conscious, for the second time, of his hand on my upper thigh. He's begun to massage it, inadvertently rubbing the velvet of my dress against my skin.

We're both still in our formal attire: Cato in his onyx suit, me in my green gown. However, my gown is ripped in about half a dozen places, and my arms are burned along the outside, so it's not as if I look particularly ravishing. Meanwhile, Cato looks more dapper than before, if that's even possible. He removed his suit jacket once we entered Rubicund House, and sometime during my little tete-a-tete with Snow, he must've rolled up his shirt sleeves. His exposed forearms, weirdly enough, turn me on. His skin is smooth and undamaged, unlike mine, and his slight tan from time spent outdoors makes his skin emit a healthy glow. His hair is a little rumpled, but it looks intentionally wind-tossed, as if he's just returned from a late-afternoon wine-tasting on the terrace.

All of a sudden I feel incredibly envious. Cato is just so good at all this. So well adapted to the Capitol's environment. He makes life here seem easy and carefree and effortless. In comparison, with my torn gown, ruined skin, and cascading hair – shaken free of its former bun – I look exactly like what I am. A peasant in the guise of an elite. An interloper.

An outsider.

I tilt my head back to stare at the ceiling again, as if anything has changed since I last inspected it two minutes ago. A deep, bone-penetrating sadness descends upon me. Will I ever belong here?

"You're tired," Cato says, and I nod without looking at him.

Footsteps echo down the hall, growing closer. A moment later, Feldspar appears in the doorway to the living room, and behind him, a man in white lingers. He's clutching a small, compact bag in front of him.

"Excuse the interruption, Mr. Elliot, Ms. Everdeen," our butler says, bowing humbly. "Please, the Capitol medic you requested has arrived." He gestures towards the man in white, then at me. "Katniss, dear…?"

I stand, moving on autopilot. Or, well, I try to stand. I make a decent attempt. But I've forgotten Cato's hand on my thigh. His appropriately large hand. I've also underestimated the strength behind it. Or maybe I've just chosen to disregard it.

Either way, bad decision on my part. If we'd been playing Who's to Blame, I'd take full responsibility for that oversight.

"We're going upstairs, and that's where the medic can attend to Katniss," Cato says, his voice carefully controlled. I'm not sure if he's angry or upset or just annoyed by the situation, honestly. I should know better at this point, right? Unfortunately, Cato remains an enigma about sixty-five percent of the time. Keeps me on my toes, I suppose.

I nod, a little perplexed, and Feldspar, after casting a knowing look Cato's way, does the same. He leaves the room, off to do who knows what. Watch live updates about the Capital bombing? Exercise some damage control for our reputations, maybe? Regardless, he runs from the room like a man on a mission, and I can't help but silently applaud his tenacity.

Meanwhile…

"Shall we?" Cato stands abruptly and offers me his hand, expression pleasant, mannerisms polite. Cautiously, I climb to my feet after accepting it. He's acting weird, and I'm not sure what brought that on. Best to be wary. Sometimes his mood changes are random, other times…not so much.

The two of us start up the grand-staircase, the medic trailing a few feet behind us. With my back turned, I can't see what he's doing, and it makes me nervous for a second. Old remnants of my time in the Games briefly resurface, and I tense myself, preparing for a surprise attack. But then I remember that this is the Capitol, this is a medic who's known nothing but ease and luxury, and that, if it really came down to it, he wouldn't know a grenade from a can opener.

We enter our shared bedroom halfway down the hall, and Cato places a hand on the small of my back, releasing his grip on my hand. Immediately my palm cools, and I feel empty. He guides me to the padded bench at the foot of our bed. We take a seat and watch silently as the medic extracts a few small pieces of equipment from his tiny bag.

I swallow, holding my arms out before me. My inner forearms are burned too, definitely second-degree, and my wrists are ringed in red, but the damage is primarily on the outside of my arms. Third-degree burns, no doubt about it. Most of the pain has vanished, or at least dulled, but it's a constant, low thrum, like a persistent itch that won't go away no matter how long you scratch at it.

The medic doesn't say anything, just attends to my burns with clinical detachment. Appropriate for a professional, I should think, but still, I don't miss the slight edge to his demeanor – his bed-side manner could be described as haughty. His Capitol attitude shines through in the way he handles my arms, touching me like I'm distinctly diseased, in the way his eyes flash up to my face and away again the second he notices me watching, as if he can't bear to hold eye contact for more than a fleeting instant, and in the way his lips twist up at the placement of Cato's hand, once again firmly planted on my upper thigh.

I shrink further into myself as the medic works. He's young, no more than twenty-five, and yet he wears his disdain like a velvet cloak. Arrogantly. Superior-like. His hands hesitate every time they near my skin, and it's all I can do not to clench my own hands into fists. Am I really so vile? So…so different? Is it my Seam eyes? The color of my hair? Or just my place of birth that sets me apart, makes me inferior?

Cato squeezes my thigh, maybe sensing my anguish, but I don't react. I don't look at him or smile or move towards him. I just sit, and I suffer through it. I endure. That's what us lesser beings do, right?

We endure.

The medic finishes bandaging my wounds with some sort of synthetic tape or something, and I drop my arms the instant he pulls back. He turns away to pack up his equipment, but then turns back a minute later, a small vial dangling from his fingers.

"To help with the pain," he says.

I snatch it away and rise from the bench, effectively dismissing him. Cato says something to the medic in a low voice, but I wander into the attached bathroom, too upset to listen. I set the vial down on the ledge of the sink, but, after a moment's consideration, swat it aside so that it falls into a trash basin. I twist a gold spigot that turns on the hot water and wait for steam to fill up the shower.

I sense when Cato enters the bathroom, even though he doesn't say anything. I keep my eyes on the enormous shower. Big enough to fit a small family. Five people? Six? Maybe even one more. My jaw clenches. I am so tired and so, so cold. It's like my insides have frozen in place, become blocks of ice. I can't feel anything right now. What did that medic do to me?

There's the quiet rustling of plastic or maybe cloth, and then a small clink. I don't turn around to see what Cato's doing. He'll leave soon enough. If he's gotten to know me at all in the time we've been living here, he must know I'm not in the mood for company.

"Why did you throw this away?" His voice is soft. Confused?

"It's probably poisoned. Even if that's not the case, why would I risk it?" Seems obvious to me. The medic's in the Capitol's employ, which only means one thing to me – Snow owns him.

"Katniss," he says.

I don't answer. Steam slowly starts to fog up the mirror to my right. I unclasp the bracelet hanging crookedly from my wrist. Some of the beads were torn off in our mad rush to escape Heavensbee's mansion. Its value is on par with a block of wood now.

"That's your paranoia talking. This is medicine meant to help you. I want you to take some."

Next come the earrings, then the necklace. All needless accessories. All worthless.

"Now."

A different note enters his voice, reminding me of his attitude earlier, on the sofa downstairs. He'd seemed…not angry, but displeased. With me? Shocker. I rarely live up to others' expectations, especially when it's something that really matters. I usually do what I think will best benefit me and those around me, and fuck everyone else.

"What did you say?"

I realize then that I spoke aloud. My shoulders stiffen, and I see, to my relief, that steam is now billowing from the glass shower stall.

"Fuck everyone else," I say slowly, distinct. I turn around, my face set. "And I don't care about the medicine. Toss it. I won't use a drop."

He doesn't move. His body is relaxed, casual. He's slouched in the doorway, as if he hasn't a care in the world. For all intents and purposes, Cato almost looks…bored.

Let him be bored. Just as long as he leaves me alone right now. I can't handle any more conversation. I…

My gaze lowers, and I see. My arms…my poor arms…and my dress…this stupid, ridiculous dress that I, for whatever reason, have grown to adore, is ruined forever. Tears prick the backs of my eyes. Of all the useless things to cry about, it has to be the dumb gown that pushes me over the edge? Figures.

"I'm about to take a shower, you know, so if you would kindly leave…" My eyes are closed, so I don't see him, but the silence is answer enough.

My temper boils over. "LEAVE!"

My shout is a roar, an explosion, a collapse. It bounces back, attacks me. My knees buckle, and I sag in slow motion. My arms are burning again – the steam has reignited the pain, and it's almost too much, it's unbearable, and the dress, this stupid dress, a perfect representation, an ideal to strive for, but now it's broken, ruined, and I was never going to be like them anyway, I was never going to be more than I am –

Somehow I'm sobbing into Cato's shoulder, clutched in his lap. He's stroking my hair, and his lips are on my forehead, pressing lightly, so lightly, like feathers, like how I imagine stardust to feel, and his arms are cradling me close, tight, and even though I'm having trouble breathing I know this time it's not because his grip is too strong. I'm panicking. I'm losing it. I'm breaking.

We stay like that long enough for the sun to set and for the sirens in the distance to finally cease. Hours. Long hours. Or minutes? I don't know. Time is an illusion here, so does it matter?

Finally I stop crying. Finally I regain control. The burning in my arms is terrible now, and I realize that the only reason I couldn't feel the extent of it before was because of shock. But the protective bubble it afforded me burst as I stood there waiting for the shower to heat, and all the pain and emotional turmoil I'd been suppressing came crashing down on me all at once.

Wordlessly, Cato reaches for the vial of medicine perched on the edge of the sink and holds the dropper over my mouth. He depresses the small plunger, and a bittersweet liquid coats my tongue, making me grimace. Then he helps me to my feet – careful, always so careful with me – and unzips my dress. It pools at my feet. I don't look at it again.

Cato shrugs off his shirt and pants, pries away his cuff links and socks, and pulls down his boxer briefs. I don't look at him, but when I go to step into the shower he places a restraining hand on my upper arm. My bra and panties are still on. Damnit. Brain functioning is now at an all-time low.

Already the medicine is beginning to take effect. I feel distant from myself. From the bathroom. From Cato, even. But that's about to change, because as I finally, gratefully, step into the shower, he follows. He slides the glass door shut, and it closes with a soft click. With both of us completely naked, and me in a state of utter chaos, I'm not sure how this is supposed to work.

I turn around, not knowing what to expect, and Cato steps forward. The medicine relaxes me, and so I don't even have time or opportunity to tense because his arms wind around me and tug me against his chest. I feel something hard press against my lower stomach, but I don't react because I don't want him to be embarrassed. Is he embarrassed? Now that I think about it, Cato doesn't seem like the type of person to succumb to embarrassment in a situation like this. There's a lot about him I have yet to discover. Like I said before, sixty-percent enigma.

But the other thirty-five-percent…

Cato's erection presses against my stomach, momentarily distracting me from doing pretty much anything else. I swallow, tasting the numbing medicine in the back of my throat.

"I'm sorry for being so mean," I say, my words slurring a little.

He tilts his chin down so that his lips hover close to mine. "I know. I forgive you."

The words surge through me, and I close my eyes, letting them fill me up. I lean against his chest, the crown of my head pressing into his neck. His arms are clasped around my back, and I wind mine around his back too, so we're tangled together. We stay just like that for a few more…hours? Minutes?

For a while.

"I have a question," I whisper into his skin. He's so warm. I want to claw my way into him and rest there for about, I don't know, three hundred years.

"Mmm?" His chest vibrates with the sound of his voice, and I sigh.

"The guy," I start hazily, then add, "the medic, I mean. Who fixed my arms."

"I didn't realize there was more than one medic attending to your arms." I can't exactly tell, but I think he's being sarcastic. Jerk.

I wrinkle my nose. "You know what, just….stop. Uh, but yeah, him. The medic. He…" I pause and breathe in the scent wafting off Cato's skin. He smells amazing. Warm. Familiar. Like home.

"Yes, yes, the medic," Cato says, sighing, too, but I think he's mocking me again. Damn medicine, fucking with my brain. "What about him? Did he try something when I wasn't looking? Maybe I'll have Snow send him back so I can –"

"Why was he so disgusted by me?" It's a whisper. I don't want Cato to hear my shame.

I don't receive an answer for a minute or two, although one of his hands does start to stroke up and down my back. Muscles going slack, I lean into him even more, pressing myself to him as tightly as I can. Cato, Cato, Cato. I want all of him.

"Disgusted?" he asks mildly. "What gave you that impression?"

I snort. "This is no time for sarcasm, Cato. He clearly hated me. Like, a lot. Duh."

Apparently my vocabulary has dwindled down to a few simple sentences.

"Really? That's not the impression I got at all."

"Don't be angry," I start, sensing it's about to be true. His body has tensed beneath me. "It's not his fault I'm so disagreeable." Oops. More slurring. "He could barely touch me, and he kept frowning at me as if I was…" Damn, what's the word? The name for it? I can't remember. What's the word, what's the word…? Oh! "A bad person. Like I was somehow wrong for being burned. Sorry I'm not immune to fire," I mutter, my annoyance tamped down by the medicine.

Cato lowers his head and, unbelievably, chuckles. "The man wasn't disgusted by you, Katniss. I don't understand how you get these things so wrong. He was scared of you. Terrified, actually, and the shaky hands and nervous expressions were because he didn't want to mess up and hurt you even more than you already were."

I laugh outright at that. "You're reaching, Cato, you really are, my friend."

"Friend?" He huffs, acting offended.

Sensing that, yes, this time he is being sarcastic, I hit his chest, though harder than I intend. The medicine is throwing my perception off, too, it seems.

"He wasn't nervous."

"On the contrary. He was scared as hell. You're pretty intimidating, love."

"Me?" Startled, I pull my head away so I can stare up at him. Also, let's ignore the adorable nickname he just gave me, shall we? Not sure what the appropriate reaction to that should be. "As if! I'm so…." I can't find the appropriate word, and after a second or two I give up. "…you know? I'm a peasant. Not an elite. Just pretending…" I trail off, lost in a numbing haze again. My eyes wander to a spot over his shoulder, then drift closed of their own accord, so I don't see him lean down.

But when his lips meet mine, the haze recedes quick.

He tastes fantastic. No surprises there, though, he always does. Cloves and wood-smoke and maybe peaches or something? But they're out of season. Not that that means much around here, but still, it's an unexpected flavor. He pulls away, then kisses me again. And again, and again. Each kiss light and short-lived, but enough to set my insides on fire. I lean forward as he pulls back and, disappointed, push my lips into a pout.

"Demanding, aren't you?" he murmurs, voice low and threatening.

Eyes still closed and only half my brain functional, I say, "Kiss me again."

"As you command, my lady," he responds seriously.

His lips descend on mine, but this time the kiss is hard on my mouth. Bruising. He sucks at my lower lip and sweeps his tongue over it fast. His mouth finds my neck next, and he bites once, hard. My breath crashes out of me in a gust, half-moan, half-sigh. He bites me twice more in quick succession, deep and painful and pleasurable, a combination that nearly makes me scream out. But that would require breath I don't have.

Cato's hands drift low, lower, until they glide over my bottom. He cups it in his large hands, yanking me fully against him. His erection is caught between our stomachs now, and I feel it pulsing, hot and thick. In one smooth motion he picks me up, and my legs wrap around his waist, viselike, without hesitation. Our chests slide together, wet and slick. Cato holds me raised just a little too high so that my breasts press against his face. He plants his mouth on my nipples, suckling and nibbling and licking each one in turn.

Head thrown back, I gasp, heart pounding in my chest, heat throbbing between my legs. The water pouring from the showerhead pounds against our bodies, slicking them, forcing Cato's hold on my ass and lower back to tighten, lest he drop me. I trust him not to, but you never know.

Cato licks up my neck, his tongue trailing saliva. For some insane reason, the thought of his spit on my skin excites me, and I grab frantically for him, plunging my hands into his golden hair. I yank our lips together, and as our mouths crash like asteroids I let out a wild moan, unable to keep it pent up any longer.

His grip on me tightens immediately, large fingers digging into my flesh to the point of actual pain, and I shriek wordlessly, overcome with conflicting sensations. There will definitely be bruises on my hips later.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he breathes, punctuating each apology with an open-mouthed kiss on my neck.

"I forgive you," I gasp, repeating his words from earlier.

He grins into my skin, and I smile too. I feel much better now. Still a little hazy, still reacting on a slight delay, but much better regardless.

But when I start to slowly grind against him, Cato lowers me until my feet hit the tiled floor of the shower and I have no choice but to stand unassisted. He continues to kiss my lips over and over and over, but compared to his earlier ones these are disappointingly chaste.

"We can't," he says softly, hands on my hips, lightly massaging them where before he'd been gripping them with such force I thought my bones would break.

"Why not?" Worried, I stare up at him, lips pursed and ready every time he draws near.

He releases my hips then and cups my cheeks in his hands. Staring intently into my face, Cato looks at me for a very long time. He doesn't release me when he says, with dark promise, "I want you fully responsive and aware when we make love for the first time. I want you to know exactly what I'm doing to you."

With that, Cato presses his lips to my forehead, then exits the shower, as if this is a statement made any day of the week, under totally normal circumstances. I gape after him, recalling belatedly that he said when not if. Also, make love? Not fuck? Not have sex?

He wants to make love to me. Cato Elliot wants to make love to me.

"Fuck," I whisper drowsily. "I knew I shouldn't have taken that damn medicine."


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