My wonderful beta, eeg01, commissioned a "light n' fluffy" story earlier this year. This was the first version I came up with...not at all what she had in mind. So I rewrote a shorter version that became "You're Just You", so there are some similarities between that story and this one.
I hope you enjoy it all the same. Thank you eeg01 and Darkened Ruby for all your help!
Katniss Everdeen kicked her sneaker against the curved tile where the linoleum floor met the wall. It made a satisfyingly loud squeak that echoed down the hall. She smiled to herself and kicked again.
When its entertainment value had worn off, she rearranged all the pushpins all the bulletin board by color. She let her backpack slip off her shoulder. Holding both straps, she swung in up and down until it was helicoptering around her head and she grew dizzy.
She spotted him watching her and stumbled to a mortified stop. She had no idea how long he'd been standing by the door to the boys' restroom. Her face grew hot wondering if he'd seen that ridiculous display.
"It looks like you're having fun," Peeta Mellark smiled.
"I'm waiting for Prim," she mumbled.
"Oh." If he wanted to say more, he didn't say it. He opened the door and disappeared.
Katniss cursed herself silently. She looked at the clock over the doors to the music room where the botany club met. Ten minutes then she could go home.
Peeta emerged from the bathroom a few moments later and glanced at her again. She saw the falter in his steps; the hesitation that had dogged their encounters for years. But he kept moving and hurried out to the track to rejoin the cross country team.
Katniss decided to wait in the parking lot.
Gale Hawthorne's car was already in the usual spot. He was lying across the hood in the unseasonably warm March sun. Katniss smiled and hopped down the cracked concrete steps. She crossed a long way off the other side of the parking lot so she could double back very, very quickly. She left her backpack by the back tires and crawled silently to where his head was resting near the windshield wipers.
She flicked his ear.
He batted it sleepily and let his hand fall back.
She flicked it again.
He jerked his head up to look for the gnat that was circling him. She pressed herself against the door and grinned to herself. He lowered his head back down.
She tugged his ear.
"Ow!" He rolled his head. "Should've known."
She smiled and stood up. "Should've."
"Where's your sister?"
"Still in the botany club."
He checked his watch and yawned. "Scoot over," Katniss demanded. She laid down on the hood next to him. The metal was warm from the sun and eased her tired shoulders. Her lower back groaned as she stretched.
"You hear about this senior trip?"
Katniss rolled her head. "What?"
"Something about the athletic teams trying to do a senior trip to the Outer Banks."
"Why do you know about a trip for teams you don't belong to?"
"To which I do not belong," Gale laughed, mimicking her English teacher.
"Ugh, don't remind me about prepositions. Trinket wants to fail me as it is," Katniss groaned. "And no, I haven't heard of any senior trip. How did you?"
Gale shrugged. "Madge's stepmom brought in the car they got for her birthday last month. "Was talking on the phone with her about it."
Katniss ignored his casual mention of Madge's new Audi. The cross country champion with the million-dollar smile had been surrounded in the parking lot for three weeks while the boys fawned over her car, and her father's third trophy wife.
"How nice for Madge," Katniss gritted her teeth.
"Well, it sounded like her dad didn't want to let her go," Gale said quickly.
"I'm sure she can convince him," Katniss sighed.
When Gale said nothing, Katniss looked over at him. He was smiling and shaking his head.
"You gonna try to go?" he asked.
"I'm not on a sports team."
"Crystal Undersee was saying Madge was going to room with Leevy; she's not on any teams. I don't think it matters as long as you're a senior."
"With what money?" she scoffed. She glanced at him. "You gonna go?"
"Nah," he sighed. "Heard Dad saying Rory's going to need braces; can't spare it."
"Katniss!" Prim was waving a single sheet of paper frantically in the air and shouting something.
The after school clubs were letting out and a small wave of teenagers appeared at the edges of the sports fields and streaming out of the front doors. Prim weaved in and out of the freshly showered cross country runners mixing into the botany club members.
"What is she saying?" Gale asked, squinting in the sunlight.
Katniss stood up on the bumper of his car and used her fingers as a sun visor. She shook her head. "I can't tell."
"Watch the paint, Everdeen," he teased as she hopped off and started back towards the school. She stuck her tongue out at him over her shoulder.
"Katniss! I won!" Prim was running breathlessly down the walkway to the senior parking lot. "I won!"
"Won? Won what?" she called back, happily confused at her sister's excitement.
"The essay contest!" Prim shouted. She bounded across the edge of the parking lot and ran smack into Katniss.
"Easy!" she laughed, picking Prim back up from the pile of giggles she'd dissolved into.
"I won the essay contest. I get to go!"
"To the final round!"
Prim tried to contain her excitement to speak clearly and slowly. "I won the Presidential essay scholarship contest and I'm going to Disney World in three months for the finalists' readings."
"Wha…wha…" Katniss gaped at her.
"I know!" Prim squealed and jumped up and down. "Gale, look! I won!" She ran away to share the good news, leaving Katniss stunned.
"Disney World? Wow," Gale whistled. "Nice goin', Prim."
"I can't wait to show Mama," she sighed through her grin. She absent-mindedly opened the car door with her eyes glued on the prize letter. She passed it from hand to hand as she shrugged off her backpack and tossed it into the backseat. Katniss grinned at Gale and shook her head in pride.
Gale dropped in behind the wheel. "C'mon, we can go. Vick's got late detention and Rory's out sick."
"Detention for what?" Katniss asked, climbing into the car. Prim was still re-reading the paper with a small smile on her lips.
"He allegedly put a potato in Miss Trinket's tailpipe."
"I thought you did that!" Katniss exclaimed.
"I was allegedly involved," Gale smiled mischievously, starting the rusty '89 Camry. "He also is allegedly getting $50 to take the rap for me."
"You're paying him to do your detention?" Prim laughed.
"I have things to do," he smirked. "People to see."
"People like Madge Undersee," Prim giggled from the backseat.
Katniss felt her stomach twinge. She wished Madge wasn't so nice to her. She'd be easier to hate with her perfect face, golden waves, and popularity if she didn't always ask how Prim and her mother were doing with genuine interest.
Gale blushed and shrugged. "I have no idea what you're talking about." Katniss raised an eyebrow at him. "She's just…friendly."
The car inched forward among the line of students departing. Gale gestured the car to their right to go ahead of them. Katniss glanced over and recognized the sleek, late model couple instantly. "Speak of the devil," she grumbled.
Gale ignored her and reached over her lap to roll down her passenger side window.
Madge rolled down her window in response. "Hi Katniss!" She looked around her. "Oh. Hi, Gale."
Gale gave her a far-too-casual head bob that nearly made Katniss explode with laughter. Madge's passenger sat forward. Katniss' heart sank.
"Hey again, Katniss," Peeta waved shyly. "Gale. Prim."
"Prim! I didn't even see you back there," Madge smiled. "What's up?"
"I won!" Prim shouted out into the cabin without rolling down her window. She mashed her prized essay against the glass. "I'm going to Disney World!"
"I couldn't understand a word she just said," Madge frowned. "What, sweetie?"
"She won an essay contest," Katniss started, but Prim had started to roll down her window and was speaking a mile a minute.
"My entry was the northern Midwest winner for the Presidential essay contest, and I won! I get to go to the finalist rounds in Florida!"
"That's incredible, Prim," Peeta cheered from the front seat. "Well done."
"Thank you," she said with a pleased smile.
Katniss met Peeta's eyes unexpectedly as he looked back to her and smiled. She gave him a courteous quick smile and ducked her head. She could feel his eyes on her. She focused on the dashboard.
"So Madge," Gale started. "What-"
"The line's moving!" Katniss pointed to the traffic light to the main road. "Go ahead, Madge!"
"Thanks," she grinned. "Thank you, Gale. See you tomorrow, Katniss!" Her brake lights disappeared around the corner as she sped towards the new suburban development of cookie-cutter homes across town.
"Why did you do that?" Gale snapped. "I didn't get to say anything to her!"
"The 'her' you're not interested in?" Prim quipped gleefully.
"Oh shut up," Gale growled. "Besides, Peeta was giving you the eye, wasn't he? Something going on there?" he dug at her.
"What?" Katniss panicked. "No, why would there be? I barely know him." She realized she was talking too quickly and Gale was getting suspicious. "He's weird, anyway."
"Mellark? He's cool. One of the first things he did on the budget committee was making sure Rory's team got new jerseys."
"I don't know," Katniss huffed. "He weirds me out. There's just…something about him."
"Huh," came from the backseat.
"Nothing," Prim said with a shrug.
Gale eased the car onto the main road and headed to the blue collar homes to the east of the town.
Katniss watched Madge's car in the rearview mirror. She wondered if Madge knew what she knew.
They'd known each other their whole school lives. From finger-painting to trigonometry, she'd always had at least one class with him. But after a rainy night in the first semester of eighth grade everything changed. She'd come home from Girl Scouts to find her mother holding a crumpled note in her hand, staring at the dishwasher as it clanked. Katniss stopped the cycle and found there was only one fork inside. The dinner dishes were piled in the sink. The casserole in the oven had burned to a crisp long before she got home.
She pried the note from her mother's catatonic hand. When she got to point where he explained the other woman was a twenty-two year old waitress who lived three towns over by his truck dispatch and he'd like the girls to meet her someday, she put the note in the dishwasher and started it back up. She envisioned the fork stabbing it to death with satisfaction.
She watched her mother cry into a wine glass every night for three months.
She told her friends he was dead.
She started forging her signature on her eighth-grade reports cards so her mother wouldn't have to worry about her, and so she wouldn't know about the string of Cs and Ds. She skipped her homework to help her little sister with her multiplication table and fourth-grade reading tests. While Primrose excelled in school, Katniss started to fail.
When final exams rolled around, she was woefully unprepared. Madge tried to help her with reading and composition before Girl Scout meetings, and Gale gave her his science answers from the previous year when he'd been held back. They tended not to change them so much that it wouldn't be too different this year. But then there was math. It was a new test and she had no way of knowing what was on it. She studied the entire night before.
The morning of the exam she walked into the class exhausted and sweating with fear. Her pencils were damp in her palm. She slipped into her desk beside the son of the bakery owner. Peeta gave her a shy wave hello. He looked nervous, too. She doubted he needed to be. He'd always been good with numbers. He looked at his exam book on his desk. She realized she could see it clearly.
And she decided what she would do.
When she was called to the principal's office three days later, she sat rigid with terror. She felt so stupid not changing how she worked out the answers, but she'd panicked and written down his answers verbatim. He worked slowly enough for her to copy but at the right pace to finish the test in the time allotted. When he was brought in to sit beside her she couldn't look him in the eye.
"Now, I'm sure at least one of you knows why you are here."
Peeta blinked and Katniss tried to achieve a poker face. Peeta glanced nervously at her. Neither spoke.
The principal held up their test booklets. "We may teach a specific way of working out geometry, but never have I seen exact answers for two test takers. So either you worked together to cheat, or one of you copied. You both are good kids, so I'll make you a deal. You get one chance to tell me what happened. One. And I will let you retake your test, but if you don't tell me what happened, you both are going to fail this exam."
Peeta's face flushed red. Katniss wanted to disappear.
"I copied off of Katniss."
She jerked her eyes up from her lap and gasped.
"I just didn't study enough and I heard her talk about how she was going to nail the exam 'cause she worked so hard and I panicked. I'm so sorry. She didn't know, I swear."
Katniss stared at him. Her voice was lost in her throat.
The principal cleared his throat. "Peeta, I am incredibly disappointed in you. You've been such a good student until now. This is a terrible way to finish middle school."
"I know," he said, hanging his head.
"I think you owe Katniss an apology."
He turned to her. She couldn't look him in the eye, so she looked at her chewed fingernails. "Katniss, I'm so sorry. That was so unfair to you. I'll never do it again."
She nodded, unable to bear responding.
Their principal sighed. "Katniss, you may go. Thank you for coming in." She staggered to her feet, and tripped towards the door. She overheard him continue, "I'm going to have to call your parents."
She closed the door behind her and ran to the bathroom. She locked herself in a stall and fell apart.
He'd of course passed his make-up exam with a perfect score. She spent all summer trying to think of what to say when they started freshman year together. But nothing was strong enough. Nothing sounded right, so she gave up and stayed away from him. They'd passed into a silent agreement of avoidance of one another.
It was difficult in a small middle school of less 150 students, but she did her best.
She never told a soul.
"Prim, I am so proud of you!" Her mother swept her into a hug. "You are so smart!"
Prim beamed. "Thank you, Mom. I'm really excited. I've never been on a plane before," she breathed.
Katniss saw her mother's brow furrow slightly. "How much…Can I see the form for a moment?"
Prim handed it over reluctantly, as though it would evaporate if she let it out of her sight.
"Prim, why don't you call Grandma before dinner? I bet she'll be excited," Katniss told her.
"Okay," Prim nodded. She ran for the hall phone.
"Is there any way we can send her, Mom?" Katniss quickly turned around. "I want her to go."
Mrs. Everdeen sighed as she read down the estimated costs on the reverse page. She shifted the apron over her scrubs. "This is over a thousand dollars," she breathed. She sighed heavily. "I…I don't think so, honey. Even with these extra shifts we're just paying the mortgage."
Katniss sat back against the countertop. She studied the peeling paint on the wall.
"What if I got a job?"
"Katniss, I want you to finish school," her mother said sternly.
"I know, I know," she argued. "Something part time, like evenings or weekends."
"Babe," her mother began gently. "Your grades aren't that great this semester. I hate to think of you taking time away from studying."
"Mom, she's got to go. She may never have this opportunity again."
A soft cough came from the doorway. They turned to see Prim standing in the doorway, twisting her hair in her fingers. "Grandma wasn't home. Grandpa said it's skeeball day with her Red Hat group."
"Prim, baby-"Mrs. Everdeen took a step. Prim looked up at her, already knowing what was coming. "Oh, um. Sweetie, I don't think we can afford to send you."
"Oh. Okay," Prim said quietly. She frowned at the piece of paper. She looked back up and smiled. "That's okay. They'll tell me if I win. Right? I'd still get the scholarship money. Maybe a trophy, too?"
Katniss' heart broke at her sister's understanding smile.
Her mother looked crushed. "Of course they would," Mrs. Everdeen tried to smile back. "Hey, why don't you run down to the QuikStop on the corner and get some ice cream? We'll celebrate after dinner."
"Okay," Prim agreed weakly.
"Kat, there's a $5 in my purse. Whatever flavor Primrose wants," her mother nodded desperately. She turned to the stove to check the noodles. Katniss suspected she didn't want to make Prim feel worse.
Katniss fished in the worn leather purse hung by the door and found the wallet. Behind the baby photos of her and Prim in their father's lap she found the folded five-dollar bill. She held the door open for Prim and ushered her out the door.
They walked down the cracked sidewalk. A police siren blared a few streets over. Katniss took Prim's hand and pulled her closer to her side. They passed the three foreclosed row homes at the end of block and reached the parking lot for the abandoned department store.
"I really wanted you to go, Prim," Katniss sighed. "I really did."
"I know, Kat." It was quiet and sad.
"Dammit, it's not fair!" Katniss kicked an empty beer can and soggy cigarette butts scattered as it flew across the parking lot. "Why don't you get to go? I bet Madge Undersee goes to Disneyland every fucking year and you don't get to go once."
"Disney World. Disneyland is in California," Prim added softly.
"You know what I mean," Katniss sighed heavily. "You deserve to go more than anyone else. Especially since you're so much smarter than all those dopes."
"I haven't heard anyone used the word 'dope' since elementary school."
"You got the point," Katniss huffed.
"I did," Prim smiled, linking her elbow through her sister's arm. "You want me to go, so much it's making you mad."
Katniss rolled her eyes. "You're no good at fueling my rage, you know?"
"There's no point in being mad about it," Prim said simply, hopping over a pothole. "Mom's working so hard anyway; I don't want her to feel bad that I can't go. Please don't make a fuss," she said, looking up at her sister. "Those night shifts are rough on her as it is."
"God, you're such a good kid," Katniss sighed. "She must find me unbearable."
"You remind her of Dad, Kat," Prim said. "It's like still having him with us."
Katniss huffed. "If he ever tries to come back around I'll kick him back out myself." She buried her secret wish that he'd want to come back. She didn't know if he even remembered them anymore.
The chime for the sliding doors rang and Prim unlinked her arm to run to the ice cream freezer. Katniss caught the sign in the front window. She slipped inside and hurried to the counter. "Ed? Hey, Eddie?"
"Yeah?" The acne-marked teenager who'd been held back to her year lumbered out of the storage room reeking of marijuana. "Oh hey Kat."
"I need an application."
"Fucking hurry, Eddie. Give me a job application."
"Jeez, no need to be a bitch about it," he slurred, peeling off a form from a pad below the counter.
Katniss quickly folded the paper and shoved it into her jeans pocket when she heard Prim's sneakers squeaking down the aisle. "Find your flavor?"
"Yep!" Prim grinned as she put the container of chocolate with chocolate chips onto the counter. She rubbed the frost off the label with her finger eagerly.
Katniss gave Eddie a stern look to keep his mouth shut while he rung up the carton. She handed him the five and Prim grabbed the paper bag housing their dessert. She opened it to watch the ice cream inside.
"It's not going anywhere."
"I just want to look at it."
"You're ridiculous," Katniss grinned, shoving her hands in her pockets as they left. Her fingers stroked the job application in her pocket.