A/N: This is over twice the length of the first piece in the series. That one dealt more with K/P after a storm and this one is before it. I think Katniss and Peeta were a little more taken with the times, too, so it kind of got away from me. I'm sorry.
Also, this was inspired by the student protests during that time, particularly the SDS/SAS (Students for a Democratic Society and Students Afro Society) one at CU.
April 26, 1968
Interstate 80, en route to New York City
Gale Hawthorne only made $2.15 per hour at the lumberyard, but he spent over ten to print out a stack of anti-Nixon flyers and homemade leaflets. That was when Katniss finally got how important it was to him. So she sucked it up and agreed to travel the nearly 6 hours to Manhattan, squashed between two flower children in a car that smelled of pot and sweat. Oh the things she did for her best friend.
He kept staring proudly at his work and she watched him from her seat. "I'm pretty sure I was the first one to come up with this," he told her with a grin, holding up one of the papers. Nix-On Nixon. "You're a revolutionary thinker," she replied dully. The smell of marijuana wafting off of her seatmate was too much; she held her breath as she unceremoniously crawled over a stranger's laps in order to sit next to Gale.
The Doors' Light My Fire was blaring from the radio, and the three men in the front seat, acquaintances of Gale's, talked animatedly. She felt out of place and somehow alone, even with Gale's strong and always reassuring presence right beside her.
"Ready to see the big city lights, Catnip?"
"Sure," she shrugged. "Anything's better than Conemaugh."
"Amen to that."
She plucked one of the papers from his hands and gave it a cursory look over. "I'm not really sure about staying with strangers, though." She felt the strung out girl next to her begin to stir, and she instinctively moved closer to Gale in response. The idea of spending two days in tight quarters with people she'd never met before was overwhelmingly unappealing. The ride alone was torture.
"Rye said Peeta's a nice kid." He sighed at the look she gave him. "Ah, come on. It won't be so bad."
"If this odor follows us everywhere, I'm killing you."
"It's just weed."
"I hate the smell."
He rolled his eyes. "No complaining. This is as close to a vacation as we get. Let's enjoy it."
"We're not even students, Gale. I don't understand why we're going so far for it when there're plenty of rallies closer to home."
"Come on, Katniss, everyone's talking about Columbia right now! How often do opportunities like this come along?"
"Fine," she relented, resting her head back against the seat as her eyes grew heavy. "But you owe me." She heard him chuckle at the reminder, tit for tat a long running theme in their relationship. And then she was asleep.
The car dropped them off on Broadway, and the group of travelers dispersed immediately, much to Katniss's relief. Gale took her hand to lead the way as they navigated through the throngs of people on the busy sidewalk. She'd normally pull away from him, those little touches always making her uneasy. But New York City made her feel so small, and she welcomed his warm palm against hers.
"We've got a couple hours before we've gotta meet up with Peeta," he called back to her as they pushed through the crowds. He had his flyers and other anti-war leaflets in one hand, hers in the other, and both their backpacks on his shoulders. He was a hulking man, nearly a foot taller than she was, and she imagined that they might appear to others as a harried father and daughter misplaced in the city.
Then, suddenly, the main entrance of Columbia University loomed before them in a breathtaking view. Katniss never saw anything like it in her small town; the huge, foremost brick building with what seemed like countless columns, and more people than she could have ever imagined congregating in one space. They were in clusters, large groups dispersed randomly on the steps, or in the grass, or on the sidewalk. Many were even sitting on the ledges under the library windows. Katniss pulled her hand out of Gale's and assured herself that she could handle this.
"Let's go find some assholes to educate," Gale said, again leading the way.
Katniss held back, content to scan the area and take in the scene. She tugged self-consciously at her navy blue A-line skirt. The second-hand mod dress she wore was one of the nicest articles of clothing she had, but now she felt out of place and almost visibly poor.
Gale was surveying the crowd as well. The college was in the middle of a large student protest, though she wasn't quite sure of all the politics behind it. Gale had mentioned something about the students standing against the university's affiliation with a weapons research group, but there seemed to be more to it than that. She watched as a group of about 15 black students marched angrily past them, exchanging shouts with some of the white students littering the campus. There were numerous NYPD officers scattered around them, some acting as peacekeepers, others as antagonists. Katniss frowned. It had only been a few weeks since MLK's assassination. She could sense the heightened emotions radiating from everyone in every direction.
But her best friend seemed to thrive on it. As Katniss nervously eyed the police, Gale was searching for the future recipients of his anti-war leaflets.
His focus settled as the crowd momentarily thinned. He caught a glimpse of something that spurred him forward, calling for Katniss to follow. When she hesitated, he reached for her again. They made their way through hundreds as Gale marched forward- determined, angry, alive. They marched up the library steps, pushing past students and faculty alike. Gale stopped in front of the large sculpture of Athena, and she saw what grabbed his attention.
There, leaning against the sculpture's base, were three young men. They observed their surroundings with casual indifference, arms folded, heads nodding. Unaffected by all the chaos around them. Untouched by it all.
She could see why they caught Gale's eye, and then he nudged her with his elbow. "Look at 'em. Like something right out of the college catalog. Fucking preps." It wasn't unheard of for a group of the more conservative students to rail against the demonstrations. Gale had ranted for hours, on more than one occasion, about such pro-war activists. "Everyone loves a draft when they're safe from it," he had told her bitterly.
Two of them were now huddled together in conversation. One had a bronze pompadour that outshone the statue above them, and as he talked, his hand on the other boy's shoulder, Katniss observed his ridiculous appearance. He wore a black velvet smoking jacket over his chiseled bare chest, and in the hand not presently anchoring someone in conversation, he waved a pipe. He didn't appear to be the poster boy for all-American values that Katniss had initially envisioned. The one he spoke to was a better fit. He was draped in a dark three piece suit, his black hair cropped short.
They both turned to leave, quickly calling out a few departing words to the other boy. Katniss watched him now. On closer look, he didn't seem to share the same relaxed, lackadaisical attitude as his former companions. He also appeared to be a few years younger than them as well. He was dressed conservatively like the other boy, though he seemed to have lost his jacket and the sleeves of his collared shirt were rolled up just past his thick forearms. She stood frozen, admiring, as Gale approached him.
"Big Dick fan, are you?"
The apprehension on his face as he looked out on the crowd fell away, replaced immediately with confusion. "Huh?"
Gale proffered one of the flyers. "Let me tell you a few things about Nixon."
He took the paper and quickly adjusted his horn-rimmed glasses. "Bobby follower, I assume?" he asked as he read over Gale's words.
Gale straightened, immediately on the defensive, and then broke into some tirade. But Katniss wasn't really paying attention at that point. She was fixated on the two young men in front of her, astounded and amused by their vast differences. Gale was tall, all lean muscle, strong arms and intimidating haunches. He was dressed down, as always, in old jeans and a green army jacket, and his black hair fell to his shoulders and over his dark eyes. He nearly towered over the other boy, who was stocky and fair, the very epitome of clean-cut and outfitted like a Senator's son.
They were both very good-looking, though. Even Katniss could admit that.
They also seemed to share a similar, albeit opposing, passion for politics. As they argued back and forth, Katniss watched with rapt attention. It was like a verbal tennis match. Then, suddenly, the blond boy stopped, a brief grin gracing his face. "Well, you've convinced me," she heard him say. "To Hell with Nixon."
Gale looked perplexed. And he never looked that way. "What?"
He held up Gale's flyer. Nix-on Nixon. "I said, you've convinced me. Nixon's Not the One."
Gale continued to eye him suspiciously, "You shitting me, kid?"
He chuckled. "Okay, yeah. I'm actually a chair at SDS here." He stopped himself and shook his head. "Well, I was. Anyway, I prefer McCarthy, but I admire your dedication." He handed the paper back to Gale.
Gale took the flyer and was about to turn away wordlessly before he stopped himself, and Katniss could almost hear Hazelle's voice echoing in his head. "Manners!" she'd chide. "Gale Hawthorne," he announced, extending his hand.
The boy looked taken aback, his mouth open in surprise, but he recovered quickly. "Peeta Mellark," he returned, shaking Gale's hand. "I guess you got in early. And Walt Disney was right- it's a small world after all."
Now Gale laughed, honestly and heartily. "What the hell are the odds? If anyone told me you shared blood with Rye, I'd never believe it."
Peeta chuckled, too. "Yeah, well, Rye's the black sheep. I'm just the lamb." He stopped, his eyes suddenly on Katniss as she moved to stand next to Gale. He stared a little longer than he should have before addressing Gale again. "Have you been here long?"
"No, just got in actually. Hey, this is Katniss. Rye said you wouldn't mind if I brought a friend."
Peeta smiled at her, shy and sweet. "Not at all. Hi, Katniss." He turned back to Gale. "I'm glad you're early, actually. I know you probably want to get in the thick of things here, but would you mind coming back to the dorm with me first? There are some things I think we should discuss."
"Sure," he shrugged. "You don't mind, do you Catnip?"
Katniss shook her head. "I'm just along for the ride."
They chatted idly on the long walk back to Peeta's residence hall. "You're in luck, actually," he said to them when they finally reached his door. "All of my roommates are at the sit-in and security's occupied with the rally, so there won't be any hassles while you're here." He handed Katniss her backpack, which he'd carried on the way. "So make yourselves at home." He gave them a brief tour of the suite- his room, the three other bedrooms, and the common kitchen and sitting area. It was nicer than she'd imagined, Katniss thought.
"You can take whichever rooms you want," he said. "My roommates won't care."
"You're trusting," Gale remarked as he peered into an open door.
"Only of Rye's judgment."
Gale grinned. "Yet you're still going to vote for McCarthy."
Peeta tried to return the smile, but it failed to reach his eyes. "If you'd rather share a room," he said, looking pointedly from Gale to Katniss, "that's fine, too. Whatever."
Katniss hated that. The implications, the ever present assumptions everyone made about her and Gale. She didn't look at either of them as she marched forward and declared, "I'll take this one." She shut the door behind her with a loud bang and then leaned against it, exhaling loudly.
She was surprised when she awoke from a nap, as she barely remembered crawling into the bed. When she saw the clock and realized nearly three hours had passed, she bolted upright. Her dress was wrinkled and her braid a frizzy mess, so she worked at making herself somewhat presentable before joining the boys. She could hear Dean Martin's Ain't That a Kick in the Head playing in the common room, but the volume was reasonable. The sounds of conversation and laughter lingered more loudly, though words were indecipherable.
When she opened the door, the thick cloud of smoke hit her immediately and she felt her stomach turn. She really would kill Gale for this.
"Hey, look who's up!" he exclaimed when he saw her. He was at the dining table, flanked by the two boys she recognized from near the sculpture earlier that afternoon. Half a dozen others, including a few girls, were sprawled out on the floor in the sitting room.
Gale had bright eyes and a flushed face. She suspected more than pot. "Why aren't you at the rally?" she asked him.
"Ah," the bronzed-hair boy said. He still had that ridiculous smoking jacket on without a shirt, but at least he'd lost the pipe. "That would be a bad idea. The shit, as they say, is about to hit the proverbial fan." He blatantly looked her up and down, his lips pursed. "I hope you're not too disappointed. You don't really strike me as much of an activist, though."
She shrugged. "I just thought that was what we came here for."
"Change of plans, Catnip. We're just going to hang out here, maybe see the city. It's not like we can afford to get arrested."
She moved to take a seat at the table, and then pointedly moved her chair away from Smoking Jacket. He laughed in response. "Catnip, huh?"
"Can I call you kitten?"
She glared at him. "No."
"Katniss, this is Finnick Odair. Finnick Odair, this is Katniss. Or kitten, if you want."
"Shut up, Gale."
He only smiled in response, and she wondered what he was thinking. She couldn't have imagined he would ever be able to tolerate someone as obnoxious as this Odair fella. If drugs had that kind of effect on your judgment, then she really was glad she always stayed away from them.
"I'm Frank," the other boy, man really, offered noncommittally. He was playing with a deck of cards, and he seemed more interested in that than any of his present company. Not that she could blame him.
"But you can call him Beetee," Finnick declared. "All of his friends do." He looked over at Beetee as he shuffled the deck. "Yep, all two of us."
That reminded her, and she searched the room for another familiar face. "Where's Peeta?" she asked.
"Oh, on the roof. In the throes of an existential crisis of sorts." He looked over at her, a thought occurring to him. "Be a dear, won't you, and go checkup on him. Make sure he hasn't flung his body over the edge in some fit of despair."
Her eyes widened in horror. "How can you joke like that?"
"I don't think he would," he replied. "But if I'm wrong, we'll have to alert the street cleaners. So run along, kitten."
She sighed as she stood, even though she was more than eager to get away. "Where-" she was about to ask, but Finnick cut her off with a finger pointing toward the window. She saw the fire escape and sighed again.
'Good thing I'm not afraid of heights,' she thought to herself as she made her way to the roof. At least she gained something from all those years spent climbing trees in the woods. She briefly thought of her father but then pushed him away; nothing was going to help those tarnished memories.
She found Peeta sitting nearby, staring out at the sky as the sun set. He had loosened his tie but was still wearing the waistcoat. She moved to sit across from him, and only when her foot accidentally brushed his did he seem to realize she was there.
"Oh. Hi," he smiled, but again she noticed that it was off. As crass as he may have been about it, Finnick was right; something was really bothering Peeta.
But Katniss was never good with this, the talking and emotions and comforting. She was an awful friend, which is why she had so few. In hindsight, she was a terrible choice to carry out this task.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah." He looked over at her, gave one more attempt at a smile. It was a little better. "I'm doing all right now, I think."
He shook his head. "I don't really know how to explain it. I guess I just feel...expendable."
She frowned. "How so?"
"All the good I've thought I've been doing has been steadily blowing up in my face. I'm not really needed here." He sighed. "I'm sorry. I'm just having a little pity party up here for myself."
"No, I get it." Katniss couldn't really relate to that specific feeling; she knew she was needed by Prim, so she always understood her place. But she still had plenty of insecurities of her own. "I'm not very good with people." She tucked her feet underneath her and flattened her skirt, her palms sweating at the admission. Katniss found she could sometimes only contribute to a conversation by tossing her words out there before she thought better of it. Otherwise she'd stay stuck in her own head, the unspoken thoughts bouncing around in her mind.
"I'm beginning to think I'm not so great with them either." He stretched his legs out in front of him, and she stared as the toes of his wingtip shoes inched dangerously close to her. "My best friend, Thresh, isn't talking to me right now."
She settled in closer, intrigued now and silently urging him to continue. "The group I was a part of was originally working with Thresh's black students' organization, but then everything went to hell and the black and white students were separated…" he trailed off, shaking his head. "I don't know what happened. I didn't like how we were approaching everything for the last month, but I didn't quit until it was too late, and now he won't even speak with me.
"He's from Harlem, so I guess the issues are hitting too close to home in more ways than one. He's a great guy, really close with his family…he's a better man than I am."
She found that she wanted to try to comfort him, even if she didn't know how. "I don't really understand what's going on," she said. "But everything's crazy right now, Peeta. Things will get better when it settles down."
He shrugged again. "You're probably right. But it's strange. I really feel like we're all on the cusp of something profound. I guess every generation thinks that about themselves. Part of our inherent self-importance. But now…"
"The times they are a-changin'?" Katniss supplied with a small smile.
"Yeah, exactly," he grinned. He smacked his hands against his thighs and looked out over the city. "What a boring first day in New York you've had. C'mon, let's go for a walk." He stood, offering her his hand.
She hesitated before finally accepting the help up. "Where do you want to go?" she asked.
"Where do you want to go?"
She stared in awe at the view before them. It really was beautiful. And massive. She didn't even know where to start.
"How far are we from Central Park?"
"A couple miles, but we can take the subway. There's a real New York experience for you."
She tried to imagine Peeta, with his perfectly pressed slacks and sensibly short hair, using public transportation. Of course he must, she knew, but it was still hard to picture.
They made their way back to the common area to find Finnick and Gale dropping acid. Katniss was disappointed but not surprised, and Finnick grinned at her sheepishly. "I waited until you left. I'm a gentleman like that."
Peeta glanced over at her, confused. "You don't use, Katniss?"
"No," she stated firmly, glaring at Finnick and Gale. Finnick scoffed in response and began rolling a joint. "How proper."
"Shut up, Fin. Kat's a good girl."
Katniss rolled her eyes at Gale and then moved to the door, tugging at Peeta's shirt sleeve for him to follow. "Let's get out of here."
"Where are you going?" Gale asked.
"I was going to take her to Central Park. Is that okay?"
Now Katniss turned to Peeta in annoyance. "What the hell are you asking him for?"
"I-I didn't know if you were…together, or not." His face flushed in embarrassment.
Her eyes narrowed at him. "We're not. But even if we were, you still wouldn't have to ask him for permission."
At the table, Gale, Beetee and Finnick grinned, thoroughly enjoying Peeta's dress down. But when Katniss scowled at them, they sobered immediately. "Let's go," she commanded again.
"Try to be back before dark, children," Finnick yelled over his shoulder.
"Don't worry, I'll protect him," Katniss called back. And Peeta couldn't help but smile at that.
He apologized several times on the way to the subway station. "I'm really not some chauvinistic asshole," he promised.
He stood next to her in the crammed car, but they didn't speak. Each listened to the sound of the tracks as they gently swayed back and forth with its motion. When she looked up at him, he once again smiled shyly at her, and she dropped her gaze and hid the returning smile she couldn't quite contain.
"We'll see what we can," he said as they walked to the park. "We can always come back tomorrow, too."
"You don't have to act as a tour guide," she said kindly. "I'm sure you've got better things to do."
He shook his head. "I don't mind."
It was a warm spring evening, trees in blossom and the sun beginning to set. "This is beautiful," she said as they found a walking path.
"It's one of my favorite things about the city. I come here whenever I can, which isn't often, to paint. There's inspiration everywhere here."
"You're an artist?"
"Hardly," he laughed. "It's just for fun."
"What's your major?"
"Political science. Much to my parents' chagrin." At her look, he elaborated. "They wanted me to major in business. They also wanted me to choose Harvard, which I obviously didn't do either."
"You must be such a disappointment," she teased.
He shoved his hands into his pockets and shrugged, and she suddenly felt uneasy. "Sorry," she said, regretting what she thought was an innocent joke. She remembered their earlier conversation on the roof and she wanted to kick herself. Maybe she just shouldn't talk.
She had just assumed his perfection was obvious to anyone. It certainly was to her. And how could any parent be disappointed in such a wonder?
How could such a wonder be disappointed in himself? Yet he was. She knew that much at least.
"It's fine. I need to stop being such a wet blanket." He nudged her with his elbow. "What do you think of New York so far?"
"It's beautiful. It's…big." She rolled her eyes at herself. She just wanted to say something semi-intelligent for once. "I like the architecture?" She bit her lip. "Like the campus library. The columns."
She was cursing herself inwardly but Peeta only nodded in agreement. "Yeah, definitely. A lot of the structural elements were inspired by The Pantheon. I don't really understand the fascination with the Roman Empire, myself. I get that a lot of beautiful things came from it, but when I think of Rome, I think of the fall." Now he looked embarrassed. "But you're right. It's amazing to see. I actually don't know too much about New York architecture."
'Thank God,' she found herself thinking. She knew nothing about it. She barely knew anything about the Roman Empire. How was she supposed to carry a conversation with him?
"Are you in school?"
Now she really felt shamed. "No," she mumbled.
She didn't want to tell him that she dropped out in the 11th grade, forced to go to work full-time to support Prim. She didn't want to tell him that the reason she never used was her mother, seeing what she'd become. Even Gale didn't know much about that.
"You think you'll go?"
"I doubt it," she said, but it came out harsher than she intended.
He clearly sensed the underlying hostility and immediately backed off. So when the conversation lulled, Katniss felt it was her obligation to fix it. "Are you close with Rye?" she asked.
"As close as we can be, all things considered." He smiled. "We call and write."
"I'm close with my little sister," she offered. Then: "She's really my only family," which slipped. She braced for the onslaught of questions about her parents, was already preparing paper-thin excuses, but he didn't prod, much to her surprise.
"I always wanted a little sister. Thresh has four, and they're great. I got stuck with brothers." But his smile told her it wasn't all that bad.
"Prim, my sister, is on a school trip this weekend in Hershey. She promised to bring me a souvenir if I get her one."
He grinned. "What're you going to get her?"
"I don't know. Maybe a Columbia sweatshirt."
He scoffed. "Oh, I have a hundred of those you can have. You want to get her something quintessentially New York." He stopped in thought. "I think I know just the thing. Let's get going before they close."
"A cheesecake?" she asked.
The baker was wrapping it for them as she spoke.
"New York cheesecake," Peeta clarified. "The best in the city."
"Will it keep on the ride home?" she asked.
"Sure. I'll have Beetee get some dry ice from his lab." Peeta paid for the cake. "We should probably test some of it tonight, just to make sure it's good." Katniss laughed.
There were several more people in the dorm when they returned, and Peeta rolled his eyes. "Dammit, Fin, use your own place for once."
Finnick didn't bother to look away from the girl he had pinned against the wall. He was playing with a lock of her long dark hair as she stared back at him. "Oh good, the rectangle has returned."
"The rectangle?" Katniss asked
"Since you're both squares," Gale said good-naturedly. He moved around Katniss to stand in front of her, effectively blocking her from fully entering the room. "Can we talk for a sec, Catnip?" He leaned in closer to her and motioned to the group behind them. "Since we're not going to the rally, Finnick's throwing a party here tonight. Things might get a little crazy. You won't mind, right?"
Her face fell. "Are you going to be partying at this party?"
"Well, yeah, but I'm not going to leave you by yourself."
"What do you even want me to say?" she asked, annoyed.
He smiled in victory. "Cool! You owed me, anyway."
"For what?" she asked with disbelief. "At last count, you owed me for coming here with you!"
"Yeah, to keep me company. But you slept or were out almost all day."
"And you took that time to get plastered. Again, owing me."
He thought for a moment as he tried to best her. "I'm pretty sure you owed me for something before we even left."
"Nice try, but no. I talked you out of wearing that purple Nehru jacket here. So you owe me for that, too."
"Jesus, Hawthorne, you're in debt forever on that!" Finnick yelled out.
"You can hang out with me," Peeta offered from the kitchen. "Katniss, if you want, I mean."
She shrugged indifferently as he moved across the room to confront Finnick. "And as long as we're on the subject of debts and credits, you owe me. Next time you want to throw a party in my room, at least ask first."
Finnick grinned at him and cupped his shoulders, then his face. He adjusted Peeta's glasses and then tousled his hair. "Pete, my boy, I'll make you a cup of tea. Then we can all relax and get this party started."
The tea was made with Opium, Peeta told her. It was always Finnick's last resort to get Peeta stoned. He said he tried it once, enjoyed the warmth and loose feeling it gave him for a short time, but he usually tossed it out as soon as his friend walked away.
"It tastes awful, anyhow," he said as he emptied the cup into the sink.
"You know, you don't have to stay straight on my account. I get it if you want to unwind."
"Are you kidding?" he grinned. "I'm thrilled that there'll be another person here not trying to climb the wall."
She rested her elbows on the counter and looked up at him with a smile. "What do you usually do when everyone else is stoned?"
"Mostly buildup blackmail collateral, but I make my own fun, too. I'll show you."
She stuck with him as the crowd thickened. After an hour, some were already on the floor, slumped over in horribly awkward positions. Katniss was surprised to find Beetee passed out across the couch, both hands stuffed down the front of his pants. Peeta grabbed his sketchpad and pencils and took a seat on the arm of the sofa. "He'll want to remember this," he said as he drew him. "He's almost a Ph.D. in engineering, you know." Katniss laughed and leaned over his shoulder to watch him draw.
She laughed a lot with him that night. When The Beatles' Twist and Shout came on the radio late in the evening, he tried to pull her to floor. "What are you doing?" she said, shouting over the noise.
"There's no better time to dance than when half the room's unconscious and the other too far gone to notice you."
"No, no," she resisted, pushing him away. "I'm awful at it."
"Me too, but who cares?" He grinned at her as moved with the music, and after a few seconds, she gave in and joined him.
It was well after midnight and most were asleep, save for a few couples fervently making out. Katniss was next to Peeta on the floor, their backs resting against the door to his bedroom. They sat in comfortable silence until Peeta stood up abruptly. "How could I almost forget?" She watched as he rushed to the kitchenette. "What are you doing?" she loudly whispered. The room was mostly quiet, the only sounds snores, lips smacking, and low music.
He returned quickly with two plates. "We've got to test Prim's present, make sure it's up to par." He handed her a slice of the cheesecake, and she didn't hesitate to take a large bite, her eyes closing in bliss. "Oh wow," she said, bringing her hand to her mouth. "That's amazing."
"Like I said, best in the city."
They devoured the dessert and then fell asleep on the floor. When Katniss awoke early the next morning, his arm was wrapped around her and her head was pillowed against his chest. She pushed away from him quickly, panicked. He stirred but did not wake.
She surveyed the room and relaxed when she realized everyone else was still asleep or passed out. The sun was only beginning to rise, so she picked herself up off the floor and snuck into her room. Surprised but relieved to find it unoccupied, she collapsed on the bed.
The sound of Peeta and Gale talking and laughing woke her hours later. She pulled her hair out of the braid and combed her fingers through her hair. It was hopeless, she realized. She'd been wearing the same dress for over 24 hours, anyway.
They were sitting at the table, eating breakfast, and they both smiled at her when she entered the room. Only Finnick remained from the night before, and he was asleep on the couch, snoring loudly. The suite was clean and organized again, and both Peeta and Gale looked ready for a new day. Gale was now wearing jeans and a black t-shirt, Peeta dressed in tan trousers and a thin sweater. Their appearances made her even more aware of her own.
"Hi," she said awkwardly, tugging at the hem of her skirt.
They greeted her good morning and Peeta motioned for her to sit. He pushed a plate of bacon and eggs in front of her and she gratefully took it.
"Our poor cheesecake is long gone," he announced. He looked over at Finnick's sleeping form, and said loudly, "I suspect the fool with crumbs all over his bare chest." Finnick only snored in response.
"But we can get another one today."
"Yeah. Ready for some sightseeing, Kat?" Gale asked happily.
She felt more at ease after she showered and changed into a clean shirtdress, and then they were off to explore. They traveled all over the city, only stopping to have lunch in the park. Peeta was a wonderful tour-guide, and she was amazed by how easy it was for her and Gale to enjoy his company.
She was also amazed by Gale's attitude throughout the day. She had expected disappointment that they were missing out on the rally, which was his sole reason for traveling to New York in the first place. She even anticipated anger, but she was pleasantly surprised by the opposite. Maybe he needed this more than the demonstration, she realized. Maybe he actually needed to get away from that since the heart of it all was constantly weighing him down. He needed time to relax and recuperate, needed something else to occupy his thoughts. She was glad he was having fun and smiling. And that was all she needed to be happy.
But when they returned to the dorm in the evening, the mood was decidedly somber. Finnick sat the dining table in the same jacket he wore the day before. "I'm sorry if I was too much last night," he said, and Katniss was shocked to see him appear so meek. "Everything's just getting to me. I needed to blow off some steam."
"It's okay, Fin," Peeta said. "We get it." Finnick only sighed and ran a hand through his disheveled hair.
Katniss leaned against the countertop, her brow furrowed in concern. "What's going on?" she asked with evident concern.
"I get my Masters in Theatre next month," he replied in a daze.
"Then his school deferment ends," Peeta clarified for her.
And with that, Gale's good mood dissipated like smoke. He took the seat opposite of Finnick. "You worried your daddy's not gonna pony up for a lawyer to get you out of it?" he asked with an edge.
Finnick glared at him. "My grandma barely has two dimes to rub together. There'll be no lawyer." His face flashed and there was a hint of the cocky façade she had come to know, but it was menacing. "I suspect I'll be a 1-A, just like you."
Draftable, Katniss thought, her knees growing weak. Every morning she imagined Gale walking to his mailbox, always waiting. Always dreading.
Finnick sighed. "Maybe I'll admit my undying love for Beetee. Annie would understand."
"Well that's not going to work for me," Gale said. "I do anything dishonorable to get out of it and I lose my job. Then what would my family do?"
"You might not get drafted," Katniss said, trying to sound hopeful and failing.
"Because the odds are so in my favor?" he replied.
"Maybe I'll taint my piss like Marvel. That got him out of it." Finnick was practically talking to himself now.
"Keep it up, Fin, and you won't need to bother tainting anything," Peeta added good-naturedly
The two other men turned to glare at him. "Easy for you to joke, Mellark," Gale growled. "You're as safe as they come."
"Really?" Peeta challenged. "Because I already told the registrar I won't be returning next semester."
"Oh for fuck's sake, Peeta. So you'll transfer to Harvard or Yale. You won't have any lapse to worry about."
"I'm not transferring anywhere," he declared. "And I'm not going to try to get out of anything. If they come for me, I'm going."
Finnick gaped at him. "My god, you're serious." Peeta was silent, which he took as confirmation. "What are you thinking? You could stay a 2-S for years here. Hell, with your old man's money, you could get a 4-F for your vision. Don't be a fool!"
"It's not right!" he yelled, his fist slamming against the tabletop. "Why should I get to stay while others are forced to fight?" He pointed at Gale. "I'm no better than him just because my father's a successful businessman."
"No one said it was fair or right. But you're not personally doing him any favors by throwing your life away. You're not going to take his place."
"No, probably not," Peeta admitted. "But maybe I'll take someone else's."
"Jesus, at least tell me you're seeking conscientious objector status." Peeta shook his head, and Finnick's face paled. "Then enlist! If you enlist, you're less likely to ship to 'Nam."
"You believe that bullshit?" Gale interrupted.
"I'm not enlisting. Whatever happens, happens."
"So you're leaving it up to fate? You don't buy into that destiny shit, so don't lay that on me. You're practically committing suicide with this."
"Nice to see you have such faith in my safe return."
"Peeta," Finnick said, pleading now, "don't do this. I get why you want to, I really do, but, please, don't. You'd do everyone a much better service if you stayed and helped change things. Become the President one day and right the wrongs then. That was your plan before, right?" He sounded desperate. "That's why you've worked so hard." His voice nearly broke. "Dammit, Peeta, you're 19. You're just a kid."
Peeta headed for his room. "So are most of the ones already there."
Katniss jumped with the slamming door, her heart in her throat. Their perfect day was now a distant memory. She was suddenly overwhelmed with the urge to run to the campus demonstration, to shout and yell along with everyone else at the wrongness of it all.
They stayed in silence for nearly an hour before Finnick approached her. "Hey, kitten," he said sadly, and she tried to offer him a small smile. He eyes flitted toward Peeta's closed door. "Why don't you go in there and try to make him feel better."
"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked crossly.
Finnick had the decency to look insulted. "Do I look like someone who whores out other people?" She cocked her brow as he looked down at his clothes. "Okay, so maybe I look like someone who does, but trust me, I'm not. Just…be his friend. Please? He doesn't need me right now."
She bit her lip in contemplation and looked over at Gale, who was still sitting at the table lost in his thoughts. "Okay."
"Peeta?" she called quietly as she rapped on his door. "It's Katniss. May I come in?"
She entered the room and found him sitting on the floor, his back against the wall, his knees bent just like they were the previous day on the roof. Why did that seem like an eternity ago, she wondered.
She closed the door behind her and sat in front of him, mimicking his pose. "How are you doing?"
"I'm fine, Katniss. Thanks."
She decided to try again. "I…think what you're doing is admirable. Really."
"Even," she continued, looking down at her hands. "Even if I wish you wouldn't do it."
He lifted his head and his blue eyes focused on her. "I feel like it's something I have to do, you know?"
She did. Somehow.
"So you want to be President?" she asked with a smile, and he smiled, too.
"I'd settle for Governor."
She laughed softly. "I work at Piggly Wiggly."
"You take care of Prim, huh."
He saw her surprise. "It's the way you talk about her. I can tell it's not just a typical sibling relationship. You take care of her the way Thresh takes care of his sisters. The way Rye took care of me."
"Rye took care of you?" She didn't understand.
"Our parents have money, but our mother…she doesn't care about much outside of appearances." He sighed. "And there was a reason we all made sure to get away."
He slowly rolled up the sleeves of his sweater and then held his arms out to her. His ivory skin was littered with small, circular pink scars, and Katniss recognized them immediately as cigarette burns.
"Oh, Peeta," she whispered.
She could see the muscles of his throat as he swallowed. "I just want things to be good for everyone."
She wrapped her arms around him, her embrace tight. She wished there was a way to make sure no one else ever hurt him again.
He briefly returned the hug before his arms fell to his sides, and then Katniss pulled back and regarded his face. Her breath hitched as she realized how much she wanted to kiss him. She'd never really been struck with the urge before, but with Peeta…
She leaned in and seized his lips, and he stilled immediately beneath her. "Don't," he said, and she pulled back. "Don't just do this because you feel sorry for me. Please."
She shook her head furiously. "I'm not." She leaned in again with a fierce determination, her mouth moving awkwardly against his until they found their rhythm. But when they did, and the kiss deepened, her toes nearly curled in pleasure.
She pulled his arms back around her, and he clasped her hips eagerly, but his hands stayed where she had placed them and did not dare to wander. Katniss allowed her fingers to trial along the strong jaw she'd wanted so badly to touch, and he sighed contentedly against her mouth.
A knock at the door broke them apart. "Katniss?" Gale called. "Thom's here to pick us up."
She'd never so acutely felt disappointment before. "Okay," she called out, her eyes still locked with Peeta's. "I'll be right there."
They untangled their bodies and silently rose to their feet. Peeta followed her out of the room and watched as she went to gather her things.
At the curbside, he handed her the box with Prim's cheesecake. "It was wonderful meeting you, Katniss," he said, and she could only manage a pathetic nod in return. Peeta turned to Gale. "You too, Gale. It's been fun."
"Yeah, man, thanks. Let me know when you're visiting Rye." They shook hands and then Katniss was getting in the car, Gale right behind her. She tried not to look back at him, tried not to turn her head, but she couldn't stop herself.
He was gone before the car pulled away.
And when they got home late that night, Gale had a letter waiting for him.
May 11, 1968
The supermarket was slow for a Saturday, and it was making the day drag by endlessly. She didn't even bother to look up at the next customer as she greeted them.
"I'm trying to have zero expectations here so I won't be disappointed."
Her eyes widened as she looked up at Peeta, but he only smiled back her and then motioned to the cheesecake in her hand. "I don't think it'll be quite the same," he said.
"What are you doing here?"
"My classes were canceled after the bust. So I'm staying with Rye." He cleared his throat. "I leave for Basic next week."
So does Gale, she thought.
"I just wanted to see you again. Before I left."
She didn't want to waste any time. "Pick me up at 5, okay?"
"Okay," he agreed, surprised.
"And don't even bother with this," she said, holding up the cheesecake. "It's awful."
His returning grin made her heart soar. "I'll see you at 5."
If the hours were dragging before, they felt at a standstill then. Until, mercifully, it was quitting time.
He was waiting for her right outside of the store, leaning against a silver '67 Mustang. She must have gaped at the car because he looked down at it and then back at her. "Graduation present," he said quickly, but she was already getting in the front seat, barely giving him the chance to hold open the door for her.
He followed her directions to the local park, but was surprised when she didn't want to park near the trail. "Keep going north," she said. "To the Point."
It was his turn to gape. "The Point?"
"It's early, there won't be anyone else there," she promised.
He nervously slid his hands along the steering wheel but did as she said. When they reached the high-up spot overlooking much of the town, he parked near the railing.
"Why did you want to stop he-"
She was already in his lap, her lips against his. He groaned against her mouth and moved his hands to her waist, pulling her flush to him.
"I want to be with you tonight, okay?" she asked.
He nodded wordlessly, his mouth open in a stupefied expression. "Okay."
They moved to the backseat and then she yanked the t-shirt over his head, dropping it carelessly to the car floor. He slowly started to unbutton her work uniform, his fingertips barely grazing her bare skin. She felt maddened by his patience but tried to slow down with him, even if all she wanted was to feel him inside of her immediately. But he continued to take his time, one arm wrapped securely around her waist, his hand twisting the end of her braid.
He kissed her breasts as they were revealed to him, and she threw her head back in pleasure, her fingers tightening in his hair. "God, Peeta," she found herself moaning, and that seemed to set him afire, and, finally, he moved faster.
She used his shoulders for balance as she arched up, allowing him to pull her underwear down her legs. But he froze her hands as they reached for his belt. "I-I don't have a rubber or anything."
"Can you pull out?" she asked breathlessly.
He thrust against her, the denim of his jeans roughly teasing her clit. "Is that okay?"
"Yes," she moaned, the desire overtaking everything else. She could barely see straight, let alone think, but she knew she needed to reveal one of her admissions soon. "Peeta, I've never done this before."
He stared at her, his hand cupping her face. "Me either." Then he grinned. "I barely know what I'm doing."
"We'll figure it out," she promised, reclining against the seat and pulling him on top of her. She undid his belt and fly, lowered the zipper and then pushed the material down his hips. She felt him thick and hard in her hand and gently squeezed once before releasing him.
"Let's slow down," he suggested. "It doesn't have to happen here."
"No," she insisted. "Now."
"We have a week," he said, peppering kisses all over her face.
But she knew they didn't.
"I want you so much, Peeta," she told him, and it was as true as it was scary to admit. "Please."
He was so worried about hurting her, so taken with her comfort over his own pleasure. That only reinforced her decision.
When he was inside of her, moving slowly even though it killed him, she held his face in her hands and stared straight into his eyes. "Whenever you're scared," she told him, "think of this right now. Think of me."
He kissed her then, was still kissing her as he spilled out against her stomach. "I love you," he told her. "I'm not just saying that. It didn't even take two days and I fell in love with you."
She closed her eyes, pained, and said what she needed to say as well.
"I'm engaged to Gale."
He scrambled off of her, recoiling as if she burned him. "What?" he choked.
"We're not together!" she promised. "We're not! I…I didn't want that. But we heard that there's a better chance he won't see combat if he's married.
"Please don't hate me," she whispered, trying so hard to not cry.
"I don't," he said sadly. "I couldn't. When?"
"We're supposed to go to the courthouse in a few days."
"I wish I could help you, too. I would," she vowed.
"No, Katniss," he said, pained. "I'd want it to be real."
They cleaned up and dressed slowly and he drove her home. "I'm sorry," she told him when they pulled in front of her small house.
"Don't be. You love him." He cut her off before she started to argue. "Not like that, I know. But he's your best friend. You want him to be safe. I understand it."
She leaned over to kiss him and then wiped her eyes. "Bye, Peeta." He whispered it back to her and she rushed out of the car before the tears really fell.
A couple nights later, she sat on her old porch swing and looked at the stars. She used to love to watch the sky when she was little. It made everything in the world seem possible. But now, it all hurt. Everything hurt. She had to say goodbye to Peeta and Gale would be leaving in four days. What did it matter if the stars shone?
She sat up. "Hi."
"Inside, doing homework. Mom's…gone. What's wrong?"
"I'm leaving," he said, his voice hitching on the words.
She knew this already, she thought, her brow furrowed. It was the reason they were getting married in the morning. It was the reason her heart ached. Was he only now realizing what it all meant for him?
Gale sighed as he pushed away from the banister and sat beside her. "I can't do it, Katniss."
"It'll be okay, Gale. It will."
"Even if I got shipped to a base in Germany, there's no way my mom could support everyone without my paycheck. They don't even pay half what I make now."
"We'll figure something out."
"And I can't ask you to marry me for it."
"We've been through this," she sighed.
"You know you don't really owe me, right?" he said with a sad smile.
"I'd do anything to keep you safe."
"I know." He took her hand in his, and she let him. "That's how I know I can't do this. Katniss, I want you to be happy. I need it. Just like I need my mom and the kids to be okay." She started to protest, but he wouldn't hear it. "I'm leaving tonight. For Canada. I've already got a job lined up."
"What? You can't leave!" she exclaimed.
"I can't go to Vietnam, Kat. Or Germany or Australia or anywhere they'd send me even if our plan worked. This is what I have to do."
If he already had his mind made up, there'd be no changing it. She wiped at her eyes. She was so sick of crying. "Will I see you again?" she asked pitifully.
He winked at her. "Of course you will. We're not going to let a little thing like war tear us apart, are we?"
She hugged him, her arms nearly choking him as she did it. He laughed against her hair. "It's funny, but I actually envy Peeta now."
She pulled back to look at him. "I mean, he's walking straight into hell, but he has your heart."
"It's okay, Catnip. Everything you've given me was more than I could ever ask for, anyway." He kissed her forehead. "Be happy."
She planned on seeing Gale off at the bus station before he left for Basic, but they said their goodbyes on her front steps the night before. Now she wished more than anything that she'd get to speak to Peeta at least one more time.
Thom kindly offered to drive her to the station, but the weekend traffic was a mess and they were running more than 20 minutes late. She barely had the time to call out her thanks as she rushed out of the car and to the stop.
But she sighed in relief when she spotted Rye, Finnick and Beetee. If they were still here, he probably was, too. They wouldn't leave until he was out of sight.
And then there he was in the crowd, standing with a tall, young black man she didn't recognize. She faltered, not sure what to do next, as the two shook hands. Then he was moving toward the bus and she couldn't breathe.
"Peeta!" she called out. "Peeta!"
He stopped at the doors, turning around at the sound of his name. "Katniss?"
She pushed past the friends and family members of other men leaving, her heart pounding, her breath in short gasps. "Peeta!"
He grabbed her hand and pulled her into a hug. "I didn't think I'd see you before I left," he told her.
"We didn't get married," she said, the only thing she could think to tell him. Others were already boarding the bus.
"We didn't get married! He left last night."
"C'mon, Peeta," one of the men called. "We're leaving!"
Peeta kissed her soundly, a bright smile gracing his face. "Write to me?"
She nodded her promise and he turned to leave. "Peeta!" she called one more time, and he turned around again.
"Promise you'll come back," she pleaded. "Come back to me."
He ignored everyone's annoyed shouts as he rushed to her again, one last time for just one more kiss.