Katniss Everdeen was used to pain. That may sound sad, but she did not think of it that way. She was used to the pain of aching bones and sore muscles earned from a long day at work. She wasn't bothered when she came home with a headache or foot pain from standing all day, because this pain reminded her that she was able to provide for herself and her little sister. The knowledge that Prim was able to go to sleep in a warm bed, with a roof over her head and a full stomach was enough to push Katniss through any discomfort, whether it was a pain in her shoulder or the stress of being her family's sole provider. Acknowledging her own suffering didn't do anyone any good, let alone Prim. All it did was make you weak.
But on the day when Katniss pulled back her right arm and felt a hot, searing pain that pushed the breath out of her lungs, she could not push it aside. She was preparing to shoot an arrow 200 yards away and win a challenge her best friend Gale had posed – most consecutive bull's eyes wins, and loser buys lunch. The action itself was one she had done thousands, if not millions of times, since her father taught her so many years ago. Perhaps it happened because she was tired; having worked so many consecutive days of 12-hour shifts as a park guide that she could not recall her last day off. Maybe the excitement of finally having a day off and actually having fun for once caused her to be lazy with her form. She would probably never learn exactly how she managed to injure her shoulder, but it did not change the fact that it was definitely injured.
The pain was sharp and intense and caused her to drop her beloved bow to the ground. Katniss grabbed the back of her right shoulder with her left arm and tried to blink away the tears pushing against the corners of her eyes. Gale ran over and picked up her bow, and placed his hand on her back in concern.
"Catnip, what happened?" He was the only one allowed to call her that nickname, and the familiarity was comforting as she tried to steady her breathing.
"I'm not sure… I pulled back and it felt like someone stabbed me in the shoulder. Just give me a minute, it'll be fine."
Gale led Katniss back a few yards to the tailgate of his truck. She leaned against it and tried to breathe through the pain, ignoring the look of concern Gale held. This was supposed to be a day off so she could enjoy herself, damnit.
"Figures we'd both finally have a day off together and you'd have to go and get injured."
Katniss looked up from the ground and glared at him. "I am not injured. And you've had plenty of days off."
"They're not as much fun without your sparkling personality." Gale smirked. "Besides, that's how my shifts work. Twenty days of work, then ten days off. Rinse and repeat."
There were a lot of things that Katniss liked about her job as a park guide in District 12 Park, and one of the biggest ones was working with her best friend from childhood. Gale was a park ranger, having landed the job immediately after getting his degree in forestry and interning with the department during the summers. He now worked in the various parks of the state, clearing and maintaining the grounds and trails. It seemed like a dream job to Katniss, but it was off limits to her because she did not have a college degree. Maybe one day Panem's Parks and Recreation Department would loosen the rules, but she couldn't afford to stop working to get her degree. She needed to provide for Prim now, because no one else would. Her father had passed away from a sudden heart attack during Katniss's senior year of high school, and her mother might as well have died, too. She lived a few hours away with her brother now, leaving Katniss and Prim to themselves. Katniss abandoned her college plans to start working, but she was determined to make sure that Prim would fulfill her dream of being a doctor, which meant every spare penny went to the college fund. She just wished the college fund wasn't just the nickname she had for a large water jug full of spare change and crumpled singles.
Being a park guide meant she mostly manned the visitor's center, handing out maps and answering questions to the local residents. But once in a while she got to lead a hike, or help out during park clean-ups, or even lead a group of kids and their parents in the woods to spot local florae. It was these times in the woods that she felt happy, and Gale told her it was the only time she ever smiled.
These thoughts allowed Katniss to keep her mind off the pain in her shoulder until Gale poked his finger along the edge of her collarbone. She would have punched him for that, if it didn't bring a fresh wave of pain throughout her shoulder so intense she shouted out every curse word she could think of.
Gale sighed. "You're definitely injured. Come on, let's go."
"You don't need to take me home."
"I'm not. We're taking you to Urgent Care." He opened the truck's passenger door for her, which he knew annoyed the shit out of her.
"I don't need to go to Urgent Care, and I don't need you to open the door for me. I'm not helpless."
Gale rolled his eyes, a typical reaction for him. "Shut up and get in the truck. You should get that looked at before you injure it any more. Besides, Prim will tell you the same thing and I know you'd do it for her."
He was really insufferable when he was right. But she refused to give him the satisfaction of acknowledging it, not during the 15 minute car ride to the clinic, or when he had to fill out her paperwork in the waiting room because the pain was shooting down her right arm and made it impossible to write, or when she finished with the doctor's exam and found Gale in the waiting room, reading an outdated news magazine for the third or fourth time.
He raised an eyebrow at her new accessory. "That sling is great, Catnip. Really brings out your cheekbones."
"I can still hit you with my left hand, you know." She sat down in the plastic chair next to him and handed her new pile of papers to Gale. Dr. Aurelius had examined her shoulder and proclaimed that she had the classic symptoms of a torn rotator cuff. He wrote a prescription for a pain reliever (which she did not plan to use) and made a referral for her to see a physical therapist (which she did not plan to do). All she cared about was that it would hopefully heal on its own and not need surgery.
Gale glanced at the physical therapy brochure. "I know this place. A buddy of mine works there. And it's near your house, so that'll be easy for you. And yes, you are going to this," he told her before the inevitable refusal had a chance to form in her mouth. "Look, a torn rotator cuff is nothing to mess with. If you don't take care of it, it could hurt forever. Do you really want to live in pain for the rest of your life?"
But she was used to pain, and he knew she just might be stubborn enough to refuse treatment in some misguided attempt to prove a point.
Gale sighed. "Put it this way – do you really want to risk never using your bow again?" And that was what convinced her. The idea of never feeling the pull of the bowstring against her lips as she narrowed her focus to the target was a little bit heartbreaking. Because her heart was broken enough that her father was no longer there to see her hit the bull's eye every time. Her bow was actually her father's, and using it was the only time she still felt close to him. Sometimes when she raised her bow, she closed her eyes and could pretend that her dad was next to her again.
Gale really was insufferable when he was right.
"Fine. But you're buying lunch today."
"Only because I'm such a nice guy… because technically, you lost."
Victory Physical Therapy sounded like a stupid name for a place where Katniss would be subjected to 6-8 weeks of torture. She didn't feel particularly victorious when she pulled into the parking lot for her first session. If anyone was a victor, it was Gale and Prim for convincing her to keep the appointment. Her first encounter with them was the day after her injury, when she was told by an insufferably chirpy voice on the phone that she had an appointment with them later in the week for an initial assessment and rehabilitation discussion with one of their physical therapists. Katniss was told to wear comfortable clothes she could exercise in, and to prepare for a "big, big, big day!" She learned that day that it was possible to roll your eyes hard enough to give yourself a headache.
She was thankful that this place had flexible hours, and she was able to snag a 6:00 am appointment that allowed her to be seen before she had to go into work. Gale told her that his friend Finnick worked there, and they opened early enough for student athletes to be seen before school started. Great… She figured she would be surrounded by the sort of hulking Neanderthals she remembered from her high school's football team. At least she did not have to worry about anyone trying to push her into a locker here… right? Maybe. Perhaps this was a bad idea. Prim. Think of Prim. And Dad.
Her nerves were the last thing on her mind once she entered the building, because she was visually assaulted by the most ridiculous person she had ever seen. Sitting behind a reception desk in the lobby was a woman (at least she seemed to be human) with a large updo of bright pink, curly hair. Her hair was piled on top of her head in some sort of elaborate hair do that was anchored by sparkly hair clips. Her hair was the exact shade of her garish lipstick, and they framed the bright green eyeshadow caked on her lids. She wore a neon green skirt suit that was probably very fashionable in some country, but it really just looked uncomfortable with all of the seams and tucks and poufy shoulders. She certainly could not exercise in it, so it seemed pretty pointless here.
"You must be Katniss! Welcome, welcome. We spoke on the phone – I'm Effie, the intake coordinator here. We are so pleased to have you here at Victory Physical Therapy!"
The creature speaks! Katniss should have known that the ridiculous voice matched an equally ridiculous looking person. She shook Effie's proffered hand and mumbled a hello.
"I'll let your therapist know that you're here. He'll be with you in just a moment – I'm sure he can't wait to work with you!"
Effie disappeared through the double doors behind the reception desk before Katniss could even attempt to hold back what she thought was a well-deserved eye roll. She sat down and adjusted her sling. Maybe she could leave before Effie got back. Her shoulder didn't hurt as much, maybe the time in the sling was helping it and she didn't need to bother with this. Maybe…
"Well, sweetheart, are you coming or what?"
Sticking his head out of the double doors was someone who did not look like a physical therapist by any stretch of Katniss's imagination. In fact, this guy looked like an old drunk. His dirty blonde hair hung in his face, and his company-issued red polo with the corporate logo had some sort of stain on the front of it. The scowl on his face made it seem as if he was tired of her wasting his time already.
"Excuse me?" she asked incredulously.
"I'm Haymitch, and I'm your PT. And I'm pretty sure your insurance isn't paying for you to just sit there and fidget, so let's get a move on." He opened the door for her to follow, and as she got close to him she smelled the distinct scent of vodka on him. Great. A drunk physical therapist was going to fix my shoulder. It's more likely that gold coins will start flying out of my ass.
He led her into a large room, about the size of a basketball court. On one end was a row of patient tables, like the one she sat on when Dr. Aurelius examined her shoulder. The rest of the room was filled with various equipment – there were some treadmills and stationary bikes and some machines that looked like torture devices with weights, stacks of mats and a big display of exercise balls and what looked like giant rubber bands. Every wall was covered in floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and why not? If Katniss was going to be tortured, she might as well see it from every angle.
Haymitch stopped at one of the tables and indicated for her to sit as he opened a folder with her name on it. He pulled a pair of worn plastic reading glasses from his pocket and slipped them on as he began to read her file.
"Looks like you screwed the pooch on your shoulder. What were you doing when it happened?" Haymitch asked gruffly.
Katniss glared at him. "Screwed the pooch? Is that the medical term for a torn rotator cuff?"
He smirked at her. "Yes, it is. And if you want me to help you develop a rehabilitation plan to get you out of that sling, perhaps you can play nice?"
Gale would love this Haymitch guy. He's insufferable when he's right, too.
She felt him staring expectantly at her and she looked down at the sling. "I was out shooting arrows. I had been doing it for almost an hour, and had no problems. I nocked my last arrow and drew back the bowstring. Then, I felt this sharp pain at my shoulder."
"And the doctor told you it was a torn rotator cuff?" he asked. She nodded, and Haymitch rolled his eyes.
"Well, it could be, but we need to do a lot more testing to make sure. I just love when people do my job for me. Take the sling off."
He spent the next 20 minutes examining her shoulder, back and arm. When he asked her to lift her arm over her head, she was unable to lift it past her shoulder before pain and a growing stiffness prevented it from further movement. She was surprised to discover that she could barely lift more than a few pounds with her right arm. As Haymitch lifted her arm at various angles, he explained that he was checking her shoulder for weakness, imbalance, and decreased range of motion. Eventually, he grabbed her folder and sat down at the end of the table, scribbling notes on the paper.
She waited for him to talk to her, but he said nothing. Was he done? Could she go home now? Did he know what was wrong with her?
"Well?" she asked.
Haymitch looked at her over his reading glasses with a look of perfectly practiced indifference. "Well, what? Your rotator cuff is torn. A partial tear with no impingement, if you want to get fancy about it."
Nice of him to share. "So, what happens now?" she asked impatiently.
He closed the folder and took off his glasses to look at her. "Now, we try to fix it. We're gonna try non-operative treatment, which means I get to see your smiling face in here twice a week for an hour at a time, and I'm gonna give you some homework so you can strengthen your arm at home. After a few weeks, we'll do another assessment of your shoulder and make sure it's healing. But if you push your recovery too hard, or try to take on too much before that rotator cuff is healed, you'll make it worse and you'll need surgery. And if you don't do the physical therapy, you may never get your strength or range of motion back into that arm. Either way, you're screwed. So feel free to make yourself at home here, because I'm gonna be your new best friend for a while."
He just had to smirk at that last sentence.
She looked around to assess her new "home". Thankfully, she did not see any of the hulking football-types she had feared. In fact, there were only a couple of people in there. A small girl with milk chocolate skin and large brown eyes was balancing on her right foot on top of a small foam block. A few yards to her right was a man who looked to be in his early 20's like Katniss, with wavy blonde hair and light blue eyes. He was slowly pedaling on a stationary bike and laughing at something said by his trainer, a young woman with short, spiky brown hair whose company-issued polo looked to be about three sizes too small.
There were worse ways to spend an hour a day, twice a week, she figured. Katniss was just having trouble of thinking of any right now.
"Fine," she replied with a complete lack of enthusiasm. "Let's get started."
Haymitch ran her through a series of simple movements that looked easy enough but proved very difficult upon execution. Just a series of ten side lifts with a three-pound weight caused her to break out into a sweat. She felt weak, and that was something she hated more than anything. Weakness was unacceptable to Katniss because being weak meant giving up, and she could not afford to do that. Her mother was weak, and she was not her mother. So she did what she always did and tried to ignore the pain. She gritted her teeth and pushed through the sets of arm lifts and modified push-ups and shoulder shrugs, but by the time Haymitch directed her to the hand bike, her right arm shook with muscle fatigue, and she kind of hated herself and just wanted to run away so no one could see her vulnerability.
"Five minutes here, sweetheart. Then we ice your shoulder and you're done." Haymitch started his timer and walked away as she started on the machine.
Ice and then done? That was the best thing Haymitch had said all day. The promise of cold relief on her aching shoulder was enough to get her through the first minute on the hand bike, and she tried to focus on the relief of finishing her session to get her through the rest.
"Is this your first session?"
Katniss looked up from her self-imposed daze to see the blond guy from earlier smiling at her. He was still on the stationary bike and looked like he was waiting for an answer.
"Um… yeah," she said. Go away weirdo, I don't want to talk to anyone. She looked to the clock to see if she was any closer to finishing.
"I thought so. Sucks you had to get Haymitch for your first one, but he does ease up eventually. Although, you'll probably work with some different trainers as well," he replied with a friendly smile.
Super, maybe they'll be drunk assholes, too. Katniss continued to look at the clock, hoping that her lack of response would give this guy the hint that she was not interested in chatting.
"I'll tell you though" - ok, maybe not - "mornings are usually easier with Haymitch because his hangover hasn't kicked in yet. If you slip him some booze, he might go easy on you."
Katniss laughed at that comment despite her efforts to remain indifferent to him. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see him smiling. She turned to him and saw his smile intensify, reaching the corners of his blue eyes which seemed to be focused on her.
"I'm Peeta. Torn ACL."
She wasn't aware that the right side of her mouth was beginning to turn upward, but he was.
"I'm Katniss. Um... torn rotator cuff."
"Nice to meet you. How did you get injured?" he asked.
Maybe if I just talk, the last minute of this will go faster. "Um, I guess I went a little nuts shooting arrows, and next thing I knew, I couldn't move my arm."
Peeta nodded. "I know how that goes. Personally, I tore my ACL when I was using my nun chucks, fighting off zombies."
Is this guy really making fun of me? She turned her head away from Peeta and resumed her watch on the clock.
He started laughing. "I'm kidding! Sorry, it's just that you were talking about the arrows, and lots of people like to make up stories about their injury so it sounds like they were doing something really awesome and heroic when they injured it. But really, most people get injured taking out the trash or scratching their back or something else normal."
"Shooting is normal for me. I've been doing it since I was seven." She still refused to look at him, but she had a perfect picture in her mind of showing him exactly what she could do with her bow and arrow. Right in the face.
Peeta smiled. "That's really cool. And truthfully, I got hurt when I was trying to show off to my team. I'm a wrestling coach over at Merchant High School, and was trying to demonstrate a move to my boys. Next thing I know… POP! They may not have learned how to escape from a clinch, but at least they got to see a grown man cry."
She laughed before she could stop herself, and immediately bit her tongue to stop upon realizing it. OK, maybe not in the face. Just in the shoulder. She was about to ask what a clinch was when she was again assaulted by the scent of vodka and sweat.
"Time's up, sweetheart. Let's get some ice on it." Haymitch motioned for her to follow him, then stopped and turned to Peeta. "Boy, hasn't she had you on that bike long enough?"
"Don't ask me, I'm not arguing with her," Peeta replied as he put his hands up in a gesture of surrender, which earned a deep laugh (and about ten seconds of coughing) from Haymitch.
"I'll get her ass out here as soon as I'm done with sweetheart."
Katniss felt ridiculous. "My name is Katniss, you know," she snapped.
Haymitch snorted. "Hell, I'll never remember that. Let's go, sweetheart."
He led her to a table and stepped over to a large chrome cabinet full of ice. As he filled a plastic bag, Katniss looked over to Peeta who shot her a sympathetic smile. Even though it had been a long time since she smiled regularly, her mouth remembered the movement and curled up in response. When Haymitch wrapped a plastic bag of ice around her aching shoulder, her smile threatened to split her face in half. Finally. As her eyes closed in relief, Haymitch threw a stack of papers in her lap.
"These are your exercises to do at home. These are all movements we've practiced here, so you should have no questions about how to do them. Do three sets of ten every day. And be sure to ice it at home when you're done. I want you here every Monday and Thursday, and we'll assess your progress and modify the exercises as you get stronger. Now sit here for five minutes, and you're done. Keep the sling off from now on, or the joint will get stiff."
Haymitch walked away before she could finish looking over the papers. It wasn't a problem, because she certainly did not feel like chatting with him. She looked over to where Peeta had been but saw that his own trainer was now leading him to a weight machine on the other side of the room. The small girl from earlier was putting on her jacket and walking through the double doors to leave. Haymitch had already disappeared – probably going to pass out somewhere – and she was left to her own devices. She sat back and tried to relax, thankful that the music being piped in to the room wasn't half bad.
Normally she'd be tapping her right index finger and thumb to the beat of the music, but she didn't think she'd even be able to lift those fingers right now. But there was nothing stopping her from closing her eyes and humming along to the melody. It was a pop song that Prim loved, one that always made her shriek and turn up the radio when she heard it, much to Katniss' amusement. Before she knew it, Katniss was quietly singing along to the chorus, keeping her eyes closed as the ice soothed her shoulder.
Because her eyes were closed, she didn't notice that the room was empty except for Peeta. She also didn't notice that he had stopped his own exercises, and was looking at her with eyes full of wonder and even a bit of adoration. She didn't see that his mouth had dropped open just a little bit, and she certainly couldn't see inside his chest. If she could, she would see that his heart had skipped a beat, just in time with the music.