Hi, everyone! The response was so wonderful for Do Not Go Gentle. I am so grateful for every review and every follow, rec, or favorite. You guys are the best. I know I said that I wouldn't be writing a sequel and, I suppose it's kind of bending the definition, but I don't count this as a sequel. I see Do Not Go Gentle as complete and does not need to have anything after it, however the response was so wonderful and I had so many dedicated readers ask for more, even weeks after the last chapter was updated, that I couldn't say no. So, this is a continuation for you guys. It doesn't need to be read as a sequel.
Since Do Not Go Gentle paralleled the three books (three parts for three books), I guess this would technically be the unwritten pages between the last chapter of Mockingjay and the epilogue, where Katniss and Peeta grow back together. So, I feel like I'm writing a fanfic of my own fic, as weird as that sounds. So, I guess you could think about this as a post-Mockingjay parallel.
This will also be split into parts, just like Do Not Go Gentle. Again, I struggled as to whether I should split them into chapters or just give them to you whole. I decided it flowed better whole. The parts will be around the same length those in Do Not Go Gentle, but there will be five parts instead of three, which will loosely follow the five milestones of adulthood - completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and starting a family. Since I'm at school, the updating will not be as frequent as it was when I was writing Do Not Go Gentle, but I hope to be as frequent as possible.
Enjoy! This is for you guys.
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
They Shall Not Break
Here we are, now you're in my arms
I never wanted anything so bad
Here we are, for a brand new start
Living the life that we could've had
There's a tradition we do in Miner Falls. It's called a toasting. When two people get married, the reception is held at their home. Those invited – which, let's be honest, ends up being the entire town – bring various items to congratulate the couple. Practical gifts, like glassware or quilts, or food items for the potluck with a recipe guide for the couple to put in their books are the typical fares. Then, after the cake and some dancing and right before the first of the crowd head home for the night, the couple takes a loaf of bread and toasts it in the fire. They feed each other. I suppose it dates back generations.
It signifies that the couple can sustain on each other. They don't need any outside influence. They have each other and their love and, according to legend, that's always enough.
In today's modern capitalist society, our tradition is more fantasy than anything else.
Rye's fiancée, or wife now I suppose, thought the tradition was darling. Her mother thought it was quaint. Her father looked at us all like we were uncivilized, as did the majority of her fancily dressed out-of-state guests, including her snotty sister Glimmer. Primrose Everdeen, on the other hand, thought it was the most romantic thing she's ever seen and, when Rye and Lux fed each other she just about died.
Prim tugs on her sister's arm as Leaven shoots a cork out of a champagne bottle, my mother hissing behind him all the while. "Will you and Peeta do a toasting, please? It's so beautiful."
Katniss blushes and it's so dark her face turns purple. In order to save her, I walk around and grab Prim by the waist, lifting up the fifteen-year-old and swinging her around. "Planning our wedding already?" I joke while she giggles.
I set Prim back on the ground and she goes over to hug Katniss, telling her she was only kidding, but Katniss now looks thoroughly uncomfortable with her arms crossed over her body and her foot tapping the ground. It's not that Katniss doesn't love me. I know it's not that. It's that she never imagined being married. She never wanted it. And, on top of that, Katniss doesn't plan for anything. It goes against her views. After surviving a fierce battle for her life, a battle that can rage suddenly and without warning, talk about the future makes her uneasy. She knows more than anyone that plans can change at the drop of a hat.
When Prim is whisked away by Rye, I walk up to Katniss and bring her close to me. She rests her head on my chest and my chin falls on her hair.
"You okay?" I ask.
She shrugs and adjusts the glasses on her face. Due to the total body irradiation she received prior to her stem cell transplant, she developed cataracts in both of her eyes. She just had surgery to remove the second cataract two weeks ago and her eyes are still healing. She absolutely hates wearing glasses and is hoping that it won't be a permanent feature. Her ophthalmologist, who specializes in cancer patients with drug-induced eye problems, is keeping her hopes cautiously high that she'll only need them for activities such as reading.
For the past few weeks, Haymitch hasn't let her do much of anything. He's even waited on her hand and foot, thinking that if he doesn't let her move she won't do anything to her healing eyes to cause any complications. Today's the first day in weeks he's let her out of the house except to go to her appointments and I can tell she's exhausted.
I find a seat against the wall and fall into it, bringing her with me. She curls into me, taking a much-needed load off her feet. Although she's no longer battling leukemia, there are daily reminders of her fight. Despite her physical therapy appointments with Finnick Odair, and the fact that she can run freely most days, there are moments when the nerves in her legs decide to malfunction. She developed chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, which can leave her feet numb or cause fiery pains to shoot through her. That's rare though. Mostly it's in her physical appearance. Her hands will be scarred forever due to the graft-versus-host disease that took over her body after she received the stem cell transplant that put her into remission. The radiation to her lower abdomen and pelvis left her with digestive problems, so she has a nutritionist to ensure she gets the nutrients she needs and a dietician who works to keep her from becoming underweight. It takes more effort for her to learn something than it does for others, but her tutor Annie has worked with her tirelessly to ensure she's ready for college in September, the first time she'll be in a school setting since kindergarten.
But she's strong. Nothing impresses me more than the fact that, despite everything she's been through, she can smile. And, let me tell you, it's a beautiful smile.
While Katniss rests, I scan the room. There is such a clear divide between those from Miner Falls and those who came to see the bride. My mother, who I see cozying up to our new in-laws, couldn't be more thrilled with Rye's choice of spouse. I can see why he gave me Grandmother's pearl engagement ring. Although – having met Lux before – I know she would have loved the charm, her family would not have. Considering Glimmer's maid-of-honor dress cost upwards of a thousand dollars and the fancy plantation where the engagement party was held featured in The Notebook, I can only imagine what her parents would say to an old pearl engagement ring.
Not that I'm complaining. I look down at Katniss's hand and trace the pearl with my thumb. I like being able to see Katniss wear it, more of a promise ring for us than the engagement ring our grandmother expected it to be when she left it to Rye in her will.
My father sits with a few of the Miner Falls guys at a table, all of them tugging at the ties around their necks. Mr. Cartwright and my dad, who I don't think I've ever seen dress formally for anything, look completely out of place. My father couldn't care less about fancy parties and social functions. My mother, on the other hand, is thriving in this new development. Bonus points to Rye, the son who was already far and away her favorite, for picking a girl of status. He's got the degree and he's secured himself with a major corporation after an internship with the company's vice president his junior and senior years. They're even paying for his MBA.
Leaven and I, we've got a lot of catching up to do. Although, I think I'm pretty much sunk in my mother's eyes. I heard her earlier tonight telling Lux's mother about my schooling. She hates that I go to State anyway, so for her to have someone to complain about it with, since my father doesn't care and most people in Miner Falls live and breathe for State football, is like a godsend.
"What are you thinking?"
I look back down to see that Katniss has lifted her head off my chest and is staring at me as I let my mind wander. She looks up at me through her glasses and any thoughts of my mother fly right out of my head. I lean down to kiss her forehead and grin.
"You're the most beautiful girl I've ever seen," I say.
Katniss is terrible with taking compliments. She ducks her head a little, blushing fiercely, but her lips creep upward. "I'm not supposed to upstage the bride," she says.
I shrug and tighten my arms around her, pressing her toward me. Lux is beautiful. She's blonde, with the brightest green eyes and a nice smile, and I can see why Rye is attracted to her, but Katniss's beauty is both inside and out. Her perseverance is just as wonderful as her appearance.
I'm hopeless and it's a lost cause. I've fallen into Katniss Everdeen's trap and have no desire to ever crawl out.
Rye and Lux's living room, which is about the size of our house in Miner Falls, has been organized so there can be a food station and room to mingle. The door to the deck and yard is open. There had been a dance floor out there earlier, but now that the sun is beginning to go down and the late summer's night breeze is beginning to set in most of the guests have come inside. I can see Hersh on the deck with Prim, both of them sitting on the railing with sodas and Prim animatedly telling him something, her arms flailing wildly. Delly's out with them and she catches my eye through the open door. When her eyes flicker to Katniss, whose head is back resting on my chest, she smiles.
"Hey," Rye says softly in my ear, coming over to rest his hands on my shoulders. He stands behind the chair and looks down at Katniss before ruffling my hair. "You can head out whenever, you know. The important stuff's done."
I nod, realizing Rye is whispering because Katniss is asleep, despite the loud sounds of the room. It is a long drive over state lines to get Prim and Katniss home and then another forty-five minutes back to Miner Falls. Leaven is staying the night with his girlfriend, who lives closer to Rye and Lux than we do, and our parents have taken the luxury of renting a hotel room. I'm the only one heading out for the long journey home.
It's weird to think of home without Rye, even though he hasn't lived there for a year and, for the previous four years he was only home in the summer. It's even weirder to acknowledge that my brother is married. Even though I knew it was coming – even before they announced their engagement it was obvious Rye would marry Lux, his girlfriend all through college – I just can't stop thinking of him as my older brother, the same one that punched Slate Colliery for spreading a rumor about Leaven and then told me that he was the only one who could shit on us. But, I suppose, everyone grows up and moves on.
Lux comes over just as I'm lifting Katniss up, Rye heading out to grab Prim, and she kisses my cheek.
"Congratulations," I say. "It was beautiful."
The wedding was beautiful. Since they wanted to keep the Miner Falls reception and toasting tradition, her parents had insisted on the venue. Therefore, Rye and Lux had gotten married in an outdoor ceremony at the Roanoke Country Club, the backdrop being the Blue Ridge Mountains, in a scene that was absolutely breathtaking. I had never seen anything like it. The chairs were draped in lush fabrics and there were flowers everywhere, but the coordinator obviously knew what they were doing because nothing took away from the bride, the groom, and the mountain views.
She smiles. "Thank you so much for being here and bringing Prim and Katniss," she says, her eyes falling briefly to the girl in my arms. "They're wonderful and it meant so much to Rye."
I nod and she pats my cheek again before lifting the gigantic skirt of her wedding dress and going to another couple that looks like they're getting ready to leave. I had originally been nervous about bringing Katniss and Prim to the wedding. Everyone from Miner Falls knows about them now. Just about everyone knows the story of how Katniss and I got together, how I became all but infatuated with her, and that Prim is sort of part of the package. Lux's guests, though, would have no idea and I worried about their reactions. I worried for weeks about them judging Katniss if something went wrong, if she couldn't walk that day or if they would balk at the special dinner she would need to eat for her dietary restrictions.
But Rye had wanted them there. He and Lux had even sent them their own invitations. I had been surprised at how well Rye took to Katniss and Prim. He and my father took to Prim like the girl our parents never had. As soon as Prim gets her license, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if my father offered her a job at the bakery and Rye, who always had a terrible case of older brother syndrome, clicked with her immediately. As for Katniss, my father liked her the first time I introduced them before Katniss relapsed. Rye said he liked her because she made me happy.
Leaven and my mother, on the other hand, didn't take to them as quickly. Leaven liked Prim enough. He could have suitable conversations with her, but he shied away from Katniss, especially before he met her. He would avoid Rye and I when we would talk about her when she was ill, finding excuses to leave the room so he didn't have to talk about her uncertain future. All of their meetings so far have been awkward with Leaven only sticking to safe topics like the weather and he's blatantly obvious in that he's trying not to talk about her illness.
My mother is the worst. She hates Katniss, stemming from her need to blame someone for my decision to go to State and not some fancy private college, and she ignores Prim, mostly because I think she sees her as the daughter she never had and always wanted. Of course, my mother and I have been rocky for years. We go weeks without talking to each other, even when we're in the same house. I still can't get over the last thing she said ("Peeta, she's a ticking time bomb! Why can't you find someone who won't die on you?") and I cannot wait to go back to school.
But Rye wanted them here so I brought them and no one really noticed anything different. My worries had all been for nothing. It took a weight off my shoulders.
My father stands when he sees us and I can hear Prim's shoes clicking behind me. He ruffles my hair and kisses my head, as if he's never going to see me again, before patting my shoulder. "Drive safe."
"I'll text you when I get home."
He says goodbye to Prim and then the three of us head out of the house. I have Prim open the door to the truck and she slides in to take the middle seat before I place Katniss next to her. Prim gets her settled while I walk around to the driver's side.
"Lux seems nice," Prim says as she fiddles with the radio. "I like her."
I smile and eye Katniss stirring while I merge onto the highway, leaving Roanoke on our way out of Virginia. It will take us over three hours to get back and I fully expect us stopping more than once. However, the truck is in better condition than mine. Haymitch let me drive his, not trusting my old Ford to make the journey and not wanting us to get stuck halfway home.
"What are we listening to?" Katniss whines groggily, moving her hand to rub her eyes under her glasses.
Prim giggles and turns up the volume of her favorite pop radio station, humming along before going full out with her off-key rendition. I laugh and add in, our voices blending in a horrible cacophony. Katniss reaches for her ears.
"Sing for us, Katniss," Prim says.
She shakes her head. "Not to this."
I let out a laugh and change lanes. I've never heard Katniss sing, but I have heard her hum. The first time I saw her she was humming with the birds and it was, to this day, one of the most memorable parts of that meeting. But, she doesn't sing, hasn't in years, and I don't push her, even though Prim tells me that she's amazing.
The bridge of the song hits and, to get Prim off her tail, I burst out the lyrics. "Hot night, wind was blowing. Where you think you're going, baby?"
Prim explodes in a fit of giggles and, out of the corner of my eye, I can see Katniss staring at me incredulously. "You are so bad," she deadpans.
"Well, we have three hours of fun ahead of us," I joke. "Hopefully your ears don't bleed before then."
"Haymitch will kill you if you bring me home broken."
Prim can hardly contain herself as we merge onto I-81 S toward Salem. She's lost to a fit of laughter that transfers to Katniss and before long the two are overpowering the radio. Prim's giggles are definitely contagious and I find myself smirking. Most of the time, a three-hour car ride is a terrible experience. With these girls, three hours will go by in a snap.
There's something about leaving. I don't know if anyone else feels this way – maybe it's just me – but the world is always calm when we leave home. As the last of Hersh's boxes get piled in the back of my truck, I can't help but notice the swaying of the trees in the wind. The leaves are almost dancing against the clear blue sky. The gravel roads lift up dirt and crinkle under the weight of our shoes.
I wonder if I was leaving home for some other reason, like when we were five and Katniss left Miner Falls for a fancy children's hospital in the state capitol, if the world would be just as calm. A calm before the storm instead of the turbulent weather always depicted in films and literature.
"Don't do anything stupid."
I turn to Delly standing beside me, her arms crossed over her body in stern warning but the grin across her face giving away her tease. I throw my arm around her shoulder and laugh. "When have we ever done anything stupid?" I ask, knowing that if anyone has enough ammunition to fight that question, it's Delly Cartwright.
Delly rolls her eyes and looks to where Mrs. Donner keeps her death grip on Hersh, our best friend trying to get away. When I follow her gaze, she laughs.
"I just feel bad for your RA," she says. "The two of you in the same dorm."
People always say not to go to college with your best friends. College is the time to branch out, meet new people, and start a new journey. My mother always tells me I never do anything right, so naturally I wouldn't follow this advice either. Most of the kids at my high school that go to college end up at the same places – the state university, a community college, and a select few end up leaving for good like Rye and Leaven. Delly went off to a school that excels in education. When Hersh and I found out we were both going to State, we vowed to go our own ways.
Obviously, that didn't happen.
It only took a few weeks before our groups started to intersect. Hersh and I had a class together. I had class with his roommate. He was on my friend's intramural soccer team. We had the same free time to get lunch. Slowly the group of friends he had made in the first few weeks started to eat dinner with the guys I hung around with in my dorm. By December, our group of guys was solidified.
Hersh finally gets away and comes up to Delly, lifting her in air. "Don't go crazy, Del," he says, setting her down and patting the top of her head.
Delly rolls her eyes. "I could say the same for you."
He puts his hand over his heart. "I'm wounded."
Before the two of them can get into one of their bantering tournaments, I step forward and hit the back of my truck, like in old movies when the man hits the car he puts his girl into as she drives away. Only, it's the opposite for me. "Come on, Hersh. Let's go."
He rolls his eyes and nudges my side. "A week without Katniss too much for you?"
Delly giggles as I glare before going to hug her. "I'll see you soon," I say, kissing her cheek. She shakes her head and hits my shoulder.
"Go on, don't keep her waiting," she tells me with a wink. "And get him all settled. Lord knows he needs guidance."
Hersh laughs. He's standing in the truck's doorway, his feet on the floor, his arms holding the hood. "Yeah, come on, Mama 'Lark! I got to get settled."
"Hold your horses," I shout, but I'm running to the driver's side. I slide in and Hersh falls into his seat, reminiscent of so many times before when we've done the same. Delly hits the back of the truck like I did before and the two of us take off down the road.
When we get off our exit, we follow a line of vans and trucks all full of college supplies. Campus is crowded with all the upperclassmen moving in today. Katniss is already on campus, having arrived with the other freshmen on Monday for a few days of orientation. We sit in a line while the traffic piles into the parking lots surrounding the sophomore dorms.
Hersh groans and taps his fingers on the outside of the car to the radio. "With a school this size, they should have about eight move-in days," he whines, pulling his sunglasses off his eyes. He squints and points out the window. "Spot."
I pull in where Hersh is pointing and he jumps out of the truck, taking claim to the left side of the room. He grabs the lightest box he can and all but sprints inside. I roll my eyes and look up at the building that will be my home for the next nine months. It is certainly a step up from freshman year.
Taking out a box, I turn my head down the hill to where the freshmen dorms are located. The dorms are separated into housing districts that the resident assistants patrol and the lower the number, the lower the grade. Each district has three buildings assembled like row houses in that they are all connected. Freshmen housing is in districts ten, eleven, and twelve. I know Katniss's dorm, Lime, is in district twelve. It's the district I was in last year, only I was in Coal. Slate, Hersh's freshman dorm, rounds out the twelfth housing district.
I set the box down and pull my phone out of my pocket.
Scrolling through, I find my last text from Katniss and hit reply.
Here. I'll come find you when I'm done moving in.
I hit send and grab a box.
This year, Hersh and I have moved up in the world. Instead of the tiny two person rooms with the common floor bathrooms freshmen get, sophomores living in districts seven, eight, and nine live in four-mans with the basics – bathroom and fridge. Next year, juniors get full kitchens tacked on and, by the time you're in district one, two, or three as a senior, it's like you're living in your very own apartment of college luxury. Hersh and I, and our two roommates, have a decent room in district seven's Poplar dorm. It has a nice little common area with a couch.
There are a bunch of boxes everywhere when I walk in the room. One of our roommates, Dalton, brought a television. The box is on the ground next to the outlet along with enough gaming systems to stock a small army. I sneak a peek in one of the bedrooms and see Dalton's stuff all set up on one side, the other completely bare. Then I head in to see Hersh lying on his half-made bed on the right side of the room.
"I thought you wanted left?" I tease, dropping my box on the desk.
He lifts his head and grabs the comforter off the floor, draping it over himself. "I think this bed is more comfortable," he says.
I shake my head and fight a laugh. "Come on, we have to get the stuff out of my truck so I can park it in the student lot." He doesn't move. "Lazy, get with it or you're surviving on half a bed set."
After freshmen year, we're allowed cars on campus, which means I get to bring my truck. It's more convenient for everyone. This way, Hersh and I can come and go back to Miner Falls whenever we want and I can drive to Panem Children's Hospital to continue my volunteering on Tuesdays. Although, Katniss and I mastered the public transportation system last year, so it wouldn't have been too bad anyway.
Hersh and I unload all the boxes and while I let him settle his side, I go to park the truck in the parking garage designated for students. It doesn't take long to get my permit and register with the office, so I wander around because Hersh takes longer to get his stuff ready than anyone I know and having people in the room tends to slow him down. I pull out my phone on my way back to the districts and see that Katniss texted me her room number.
Lime Hall is the closest freshmen dorm to the sophomore districts, so I wander over. Since my key card will only let me swipe to get into district seven dorms, I lean against the wall and wait for someone to open the door. It doesn't take long for a huge group of freshman to walk out, their lanyards around their necks holding their key cards and signifying to the entire student body what year they are. I made the same mistake and so did everyone else. Live and learn, I suppose.
Katniss's room is on the third, and top, floor and I make my way up. The names on the door are decorated with twitter symbols, each name inside a tiny blue bird and the room number under it in a hash tag. All freshmen dorms are single sex by floor, and I know that Lime is usually boy-girl-girl, so I'm not surprised to see a ton of girls wandering around, their doors open as freshman do to meet people.
Katniss's door, however, is shut. I smile and knock three times. There's a shuffling on the other side and then it opens, Katniss standing on the other side. She smiles and jumps up into my arms, her legs around my waist, which is not what I was expecting. She hugs tightly onto me and kisses my neck once before looking into my eyes. Her glasses are gone. This is what she wants me to notice.
"When'd you lose them, four-eyes?" I joke, walking into the room so we're not in the middle of the hallway.
"Yesterday," she says. "Haymitch took me out of some awful leadership something or other and the doctor said that I only need them to read."
"I'm glad," I say, setting her down on her bed so I can take a look around.
Her side of the room is just as neat as I thought it would be. Her desk is organized by a color-coding system she and Annie figured out for her. On her calendar, red ink means the assignment is time consuming. Green means reading that needs to be done. Orange ink signifies meetings. She has her books all sorted in a shelving unit on her wall. I'm surprised that her comforter isn't green. It's tricolor, starting with pink and bleeding into white before it bleeds into a sunset orange.
I smile. "I like your bedspread."
She rolls her eyes. "Prim picked it," she mutters. "I wanted green."
I'm not surprised.
"Come on up," she says, patting the bed. I jump up on the lofted bed, looking down to see that she has a step stool. It's on the highest notch, which means she'll definitely need help getting up. "I missed you."
Sometimes it astonishes me how far we've come. Two years ago, she told me she didn't believe in love. And then we went through the ringer. There were nights when I was scared I'd wake up to a phone call from Haymitch telling me she died in the night. There were nights when Katniss would call me, terrified that the nightmares she had were real. The hallucinations she suffered from her fever mid-treatment for her relapse scared and scarred her. Sometimes her nightmares are so vivid that she has to call me to hear my voice, terrified I'm really dead.
That was when I realized Katniss was afraid of abandonment, not necessarily afraid of love. It was so obvious that she loved Prim and Haymitch that I knew love itself wasn't the issue. The consequences of love – falling out of it, losing it – were all too real for her. Her father had died in a car accident attempting to get to the hospital to see her. Her mother had killed herself with grief over losing her best friend and then her husband with the probability of losing her daughter that night in the PICU.
But, Katniss is strong and she can overpower fear. I still remember the first time she said she loved me. It had been a little over three months ago, after my last final, and she'd just blurted it out accidentally after I said I missed her. But it was real. She told me real, like I tell her real when we play our game after her nightmares.
I smile. "I love you," I tell her.
She shakes her head at my corny replay of our first declaration of love in reverse. "That's my line," she says, chewing on her bottom lip.
All I do is laugh and pull her into me. She rests her head on my chest and we sit in contented silence, just basking in the knowledge that we're together. I kiss the top of her head before I break the quiet lull that has fallen between us. "So, how has it been?" I ask.
Katniss has been at school for almost a week for the freshmen orientation. Hersh can attest to the fact that I've been worrying about her nonstop. He and Delly told me she'd be fine, she'd make friends, she was easy enough to get along with, but I know Katniss's least favorite thing to do is meet new people. It took her a few times of hanging around Hersh and Delly, even my father and Rye, before she felt comfortable around them. Unlike Prim, who introduces herself with a hug, Katniss has a fight or flight reaction to new things. She likes routines. Being stuck in a new place with thousands of new faces was probably nerve-wracking.
She shrugs and I wait for her to give me more information. She doesn't so I start again. "Do you like your roommate?"
"She seems nice," Katniss says.
I start to rock her back and forth, aware that this conversation is going to be like pulling teeth. She's tense and I want her to relax so I kiss her temple and smile at her. She scowls at my trick, well aware of what I'm doing and shakes her head. She's not getting into this with me right now. So, instead of pushing her, I press my lips to her forehead. "It'll take a while to find the people you'll be friends with," I tell her honestly. "In the mean time, feel free to hang around Poplar. Lots of video game wars, but I think you can handle that."
She smirks. "I'm going to kick your butt."
"It wouldn't take much," I say, pushing her off me so I can jump off the bed. "I suck."
A giggle escapes her lips before she can stop it. "Well, hopefully you're better at video games than you are at baseball," she teases.
I mockingly glare at her. I have to give her that one. Our baseball team won two games my senior season. "Come on, you," I say, taking her waist in my arms and pulling her off the bed. "Here's the deal. You help me unpack and then I whoop your butt at Mario Cart."
Before she can get the stinging comment out about her beating me, I cover her lips with mine.
Hersh, Dalton, and our other roommate Mitchell leave around eleven after pounding five shots in quick succession. When asked if I wanted in, I just shook my head and Hersh started laughing, deciding it was the perfect time to inform our friends about the one and only time I've ever blacked out. I ended up losing my mind. It was the summer of my junior year of high school and my brother decided it was high time for me to experience the burn of a shot. Leaven said he couldn't go to college without bringing me to a party.
The only thing that accomplished was my inability to remember anything about that night – although, Delly tells me I sang a beautiful cover of Beyoncé's famous 'Single Ladies' complete with a matching dance – and the world's biggest hangover. This, coupled with my mother's screeches at Leaven for his role in my delinquency and my father's disappointed glances in my direction the following day, didn't exactly shoot excessive drinking to the top of my list of things to do on a Friday night. I haven't blacked out since.
I sent Hersh a glare over the screen of my laptop and he just smirked. I thought we had decided that would never be discussed again, but I guess I couldn't be that lucky.
The door slams shut behind them, the three loudly discussing where to head first as they walk down the hallway. I continue the essay I'm writing for my Honors class that should have been written days ago. But days ago I'd been working shifts at the bakery to help my dad out while my mother went back and forth to Roanoke to help Rye and Lux with their new house, although neither asked for her help and probably don't really want it. For the woman who raged at me for going back and forth to the capitol every day, wasting forty-five minutes each way just to see Katniss, she was doing a three-hour trek one way to a different state. It was ridiculous and even mild-mannered Dad was starting to get frustrated.
I never told my mother about being invited into the Honors Program. It was a pretty big deal, considering the invitations came from the heads of the departments and would require extra work and a service-learning project to be done junior year. I told my dad and he was beyond thrilled. I also told Rye when the letter came to the house in June and he'd said he was proud of me.
I've never been that close to Rye before but sometime between my senior year and now I've one-upped Leaven as the favorite brother. Leaven's down in Florida doing his own thing, thousands of miles away, and when he graduates this spring, I don't think he'll come back for much of anything. He's got his girlfriend he met down there – who coincidentally grew up in the Cave Spring area of Roanoke that Rye and Lux moved to – and he's looking to stay there. Part of it, I think, has to do with our mother. She's gotten everything she's ever wanted out of Rye now that he's working and married to Lux and living in the type of area she always wanted to live in. No matter what Leaven does, he'll always be second. At least I've come to terms with the fact that my mother will never think of me as she does Rye, but I think at least up until now Leaven was still trying.
Really, it was only a matter of time before the family self-destructed. In complete honesty, I'm surprised we lasted this long.
I look down at Plato's The Allegory of the Cave and then back at my screen. I type the quote I'm commenting on, "Education is not what it is said to be by some, who profess to be able to put knowledge into a soul where it is not present, as though putting sight into blind eyes," and then look back at my outline for the theory behind it. I scratch the back of my neck, the walls bumping behind me with music of the party in the room over, and lean my head against the couch. It's not due until Tuesday so technically I have plenty of time. I just want to get it done.
My phone buzzes beside me and I smile. It's nearly eleven so I know exactly who it is – Katniss. Sure enough, her face pops up on the screen, her hands plastered in front of her trying to avoid the camera. She hates that this is what shows up when she calls, but I had to do it. She left Poplar around eight to go to her floor meeting and I wonder what she's been up to since.
"It's so loud," she says when I pick up.
I shake my head. "Welcome to the first night back." She doesn't giggle or make any noise except a yawn, so I have the feeling that she's calling because she can't sleep. "You want to come over here?"
"I don't want to bother you and your friends."
"Well, it's just me and Plato, so I could sure use the company," I joke, slamming the book closed with a bookmark holding the spot I had highlighted. That's all it takes for Katniss to hang up, clearly on her way, so I walk down the stairs to get the door for her. We walk back up the stairs, trying to avoid the drunken mess that elevators become on the weekends, and I type in the code on the door.
We go to the couch and I've barely sat down before she's curled herself up in my lap, her face burrowing into the fabric of my shirt. She's exhausted. I remember the week of orientation. It's hands-on all day, as if they're trying to discourage the night culture by making everyone too tired to function past dinner. It had wiped me out, so I'm not the least bit surprised that it took its toll on her this week.
Despite the fact that her physical appearance is normal, she's still struggling to find normalcy. I think it's one of the reasons why Haymitch pushed her to come here. Her childhood was all but destroyed by disease and death, and by extension her outlook is so much different compared to every other kid our age, myself included. She doesn't look to the future and dream of weddings, children, and dream jobs, like the majority of the girls on her floor. She doesn't look to the future, period. She still lives her life test to test, scan to scan, truly believing each time she goes to his office Dr. Heavensbee is going to tell her she's used up her nine lives.
Her breathing evens out and I kiss the top of her head before gingerly standing up. As carefully as I can, I walk into my room and set her on the lofted bed before climbing in behind her, her quiet breaths relaxing me as I shut my own eyes.
I wake up in a tangle of limbs with the sunlight flooding in through the cracked shade. We changed positions in the night. Katniss is basically on top of me, her right leg thrown over mine, her face pressed into my side, her hand over her head. Her fingers rest on the pillow so close to my head that when I turn, my lips graze her skin.
A peek at the alarm clock tells me it's around nine. Hersh's bed is empty but slept in across the room. I rub the sleep from my eyes and disentangle myself from Katniss with care, as not to wake her. When I succeed, I slide off the bed and eye her for a moment, but she stays resting so I head out into the suite. Dalton and Mitch must still be sleeping, which doesn't surprise me, and the common room is covered in Chinese food containers.
I'm about to pick them up when I hear someone pound the code into the door. It swings open and Hersh walks in with a container from the dining hall in one hand and a bottle of orange juice in the other. He always wakes up early after a night drinking and tends to go for a run to try and pick himself up. I roll my eyes and he glares at me, taking the iPod armband off his arm and taking the headphones out of his ears.
"Morning, sunshine," I say.
He kicks off his sneakers and glares at me. "Shut up," he says, collapsing at the table and running a hand over his face. "I shouldn't be awake."
He chuckles. "I don't really remember," he says, looking down at his food and scrunching his nose. "You want this? It's biscuits and gravy. I'm not sure I can do this."
"Then why did you get it?" I ask, sliding into the chair beside him.
The container gets pushed in front of me and Hersh shrugs. "I dunno. I ran about a tenth of a mile and decided that wasn't happening, so I stopped at the dining hall. It made sense at the time." I grab one of the biscuits, getting the gravy all over my hand. "How was your night? I see you didn't get that essay done."
"Yeah, Katniss was having trouble sleeping." He wiggles his eyebrows and I flick the remaining gravy on my fingers toward him. "Not like that, doofus."
"Oh, come on, Peet," he says. "Lighten up."
It's not like this is the first time Hersh has teased me about the physical side of my relationship. Sleeping with Katniss is the last thing on my mind. Okay, maybe it's not the last thing – that type of connection to her is one that I'm looking forward to in the future – but she is in absolutely no way ready and I respect that. She needs to love herself first and understand that I don't see her for her scars before we move pass the stage we're at now.
Which, as Hersh likes to tease me for, is kissing. He told me once that we're like a pair of middle schoolers. She's fine with handholding and I've been surprised to see that she is extremely touchy in this sense. Personally, I think this goes back to her fear of abandonment whether she realizes it or not. If she's touching me, I can't leave. I kiss her forehead or cheek as much as I do her lips, but this is partially because I know she's not a huge fan of public displays of affection. Whenever anything happens in public, she has to initiate it because I don't want her uncomfortable. That's one reason why we're reserved.
And then there's the one time I gave her a hickey. That halted any passion for a while.
My roommate freshman year walked onto the baseball team and, as a result, would spend extended amounts of time away from campus for travelling and games. Katniss would come hang out and occasionally she'd stay the night. At the time, I thought Haymitch was the coolest guardian ever for trusting her that much, but it was only after she bit me and I retaliated that I realized she just wasn't telling him. In hindsight, it made sense as to why she needed to leave so early in the morning.
When Hersh saw me with the discoloration on my neck, he said finally. I suppose he was right. At that point, Katniss and I had been together for almost a year and had yet to do much more than get chapped lips and become out of breath.
Haymitch, on the other hand, was not as pleased with our newest development as Hersh. Prim pointed out the hickey at breakfast and Katniss, being Katniss, tried to avoid embarrassment and just ended up making everything worse. Apparently, she said she didn't know where it was from and Haymitch went into full out panic mode. He grabbed her chin, looked at the hickey, and nearly dragged her out the door, dead set on taking her to the emergency room for a blood test and meeting with her oncologist, Dr. Heavensbee, in fear she was relapsing. I thought for sure I was going to get an arrow through the eye for that incident, especially with the looks I got from Haymitch for the next month. Needless to say, Katniss was held under lock and key at night until I left for home at the end of the semester.
"I'm just kidding," Hersh says after I haven't responded.
I know he's kidding. Hersh is about as eager as a cat jumping into a lake when it comes to being serious about deep emotions. His coping strategy has always been to spin it into a comedic light. This is why I roll my eyes and flick a little more gravy in his direction, a symbol of truce, and lean back in my chair. Unlike our other friends, he knows what Katniss has been through and knows just how far to take his jokes. He knows he can direct them at me and not her. And, on top of that, he knows when to actually be there, struggling with his awkward hugs and comfort when I really need it.
"It's cool," I say.
Hersh nods and taps his fingers on the table. "So, uh…did she sleep well?"
"Yeah." To be honest, I hadn't even realized how well we both slept last night. Katniss's nightmares are commonplace, to the point where I spent many nights in the hallway of my dorm last year on the phone with her when she woke up terrified that I had been killed in some sort of explosion her mind had thought up. "No nightmares."
"What about you?"
My nightmares are usually about losing Katniss. I don't scream out or anything, but instead I tend to wake up paralyzed in fear that I've dreamt the last few years. Sometimes I wake up fully believing she's dead, that I spoke at her funeral, that Prim's stem cells somehow didn't work and Katniss's cancer came back with a vengeance. Hersh knows about this. Delly forced me into telling them when I hadn't slept one night and had bags under my bloodshot eyes when I saw them the next day.
I guess sleeping with her in my arms benefited me as much as it did her.
"Great," I tell him.
He nods his head and looks at our door. "Well, tell her she's welcome anytime," he says and then his serious face breaks and he turns to me with a smirk. "As long as I don't start hearing noises I shouldn't. Don't want to ruin my innocence, you know?"
I roll my eyes and he snorts with a bit of laughter before putting his head back in his hands. He stands up and takes a deep breath, looking into the common room. "What a mess," he mumbles. "I'm going to go take a shower. I think I'm still drunk."
He walks into our room, comes out with a t-shirt and shorts, and smirks. "Sleeping beauty's looking for her prince," he teases before walking into the bathroom and shutting the door. Once the water turns on, I get up out of my chair and go into our room.
Katniss is sitting up and rubbing her eyes. Half of her braid has fallen out in the night and hangs around her shoulder. I smile and walk toward her, jumping up beside her and tugging on what's left of her braid.
"How did you sleep?" I ask.
She smiles shyly. "These rooms are nice," she says. "They aren't as loud."
"Yeah, the walls aren't as thin," I say, knocking on the cinderblock. The walls in the freshman dorms are made of plaster and, therefore, anything can be heard through them, especially freshman parties that stuff dozens of kids in a two-person room.
"And I didn't have any nightmares," she adds.
"I know." I kiss her forehead and smile, staring into her eyes that are still full of sleep but look rested. "If you ever need to, you come over here and sleep. Alright?"
She nods and I collapse beside her, wrapping her up in my arms. I lean against the wall, pulling her into my lap. I swear I could stay here for days. Katniss rests her head against my chest and lets out a sigh. "So," I say, my fingers playing with the tip of her braid. "What are your plans for the day?"
I think I've said something wrong. She pulls away from me faster than I thought humanly possible and eyes me with concern. "Plans?" she asks in a small voice. "What do you mean?"
I shrug. "I don't know. It's a Saturday before we get any real work. Did any of the girls on your floor mention doing anything?"
Katniss looks down at the floor and shakes her head. "Are you doing anything today?" she asks and it's so quiet I can barely hear her.
My eye falls to the philosophy book on my floor that Hersh must have put there last night because I had left all my things on the couch. "I have a short paper to write." It almost sounds like a groan coming out. I really don't want to write that paper.
When I turn back, Katniss has looked up from the floor, her eyes wide like a puppy about to get a treat. I frown at her reaction but it doesn't change. "I can stay and help," she says, her voice suddenly loud and confident.
I laugh at the suggestion. "Katniss," I tease. "I'll never get anything done if I have you around to distract – "
"I won't distract you," she interrupts.
She's fidgeting, playing with the hem of her shirt, so I reach out and take her chin in my hand. Now that I can look into her eyes, I can see that she's legitimately anxious about something. "What's the matter?" I ask. She shakes her head, but I don't let go and repeat my question.
She avoids my eyes when she answers. "I'm not good at making friends."
I want to slap myself on the forehead for being so stupid. How had I not thought about this? Katniss has anxiety anyway. Put her in a new place with people who have no idea what she's been through, it's enough to send anyone into seclusion, let alone her. No wonder she's been so clingy. I've just been reaping the benefits. My teeth grind together as I think about how to proceed.
I take her hand and tangle our fingers together. "You still don't understand the effect you have on people," I say, leaning forward to kiss her temple. She sighs and I keep my lips on her skin, even as she struggles to move away because she doesn't believe me. She stops squirming and I look into her eyes.
"Do you trust me?" I ask. She nods. "You will make friends. I promise."
She crawls toward me again and collapses into my lap, nuzzling my chest and wrapping her arms around me, and I resign to the fact that I'm not getting my essay done again.
There is a handle of vodka on Katniss's roommate's desk when we stop there later in the day. I don't think much of it until I notice Katniss has stopped midstride on her way to her desk to get her books. I'm at her desk, so I grab the book I know she needs and stick it in her backpack before looking up. She's glancing from me to the alcohol, as if waiting for me to stay something.
"What?" I ask.
She points at the desk but doesn't say anything. I have to think fast. To be honest, I don't know Katniss's stance on alcohol. I know she grew up with Haymitch, so she's not ignorant as to its effects, but other than that we've never really talked about it.
"You don't have to drink if you don't want to," I say.
She looks up at me. "Is that what you do on the weekends?" I don't know what she wants me to say. "Is that why you wanted me to have plans?"
"No," I tell her. "I asked if you had plans because I want you to make friends so you'll be happy."
She lets her arm fall and then kicks her sandal against the carpet. I set her backpack down on the ground and walk toward her. I lift her up on her bed and lean between her legs, taking her hands in my own. "Talk to me."
At first, she doesn't say anything, but I wait. I just keep staring at her until she cracks and sighs. "I'm scared I'm not going to make any friends and you're going to get sick of me always being in your hair."
"I will never get sick of you," I tell her.
She closes her eyes and I lean forward enough to kiss the hollow of her neck. The frown that has found its way to her face remains and I let go of her hands to take her face. "Katniss, open your eyes," I say. She does and I find myself lost in seas of gray. "I love you."
Her face cracks slightly. "I love you, too."
"All I want is for you to be happy," I continue. "It's become my purpose in life. Do you understand how special you are? Don't worry about friends. I'm sorry I've been pushing it. You won't necessarily make your best friends the first week of school and I shouldn't have insinuated that you would. I just wanted you to be happy so that's why I kept asking about if you were making friends."
She looks confused, so I keep going.
"You don't have to change yourself to make friends," I say. I point toward the vodka. "If you don't want to drink, don't. People that are important enough for your time will respect that."
She stares at me and brings one of our joined pairs of hands to my face. "Peeta, you have to stop doing that," she says. "You take my stupid personality traits and turn them into your problems."
"It's because I love you."
She snorts and rolls her eyes. "Now you're just being a sap."
"Hey!" I exclaim, breaking our contact and wrapping my arms around her waist. She squeals and leans back, but my arms restrain her. I press my face to her stomach and she throws her head back, giggling as I use my nose to nuzzle her, tickling her in the process.
I stop when she starts screaming and pull her down off the bed. "Come on. Library," I say. "I really need to get this paper done and if we stay here, I'm not going to do it. We'll continue this later. We'll have a movie night."
"Don't you want to go out with your friends?" she asks, the same look on her face as she had earlier when she told me I'd eventually get sick of her.
"I just want to spent every possible minute of the rest of my life with you," I say.
She rolls her eyes and takes her backpack, throwing the straps over her shoulders before heading for her door. She spins around and raises her eyebrows teasingly. "Come on, then," she says, holding out her hand for me to take.
I don't have to be asked twice.
I walk Katniss to her first class and the closer we get to the lecture hall the more her shoulders slump. By the time we reach the door, she's shaking, so I pull her around the corner and press my forehead to hers.
"Hey, look at me," I whisper. She opens her eyes and looks up. "You're going to be fine. It's a huge lecture anyway, so you don't even have to talk."
She nods unconvincingly and I kiss the tip of her nose. "I'll come here after my class lets out, okay? Seventy-five minutes and then you get to see this ugly mug again."
That gets the response I wanted. She rolls her eyes and lets out a chuckle, shaking her head. "I like that ugly mug," she mumbles. She eyes the door and takes a deep breath. "You better go. I don't want you to be late."
"You'll be fine," I say, kissing her forehead and turning around. I keep looking back until she walks through the door of the building and then I look at my watch, powerwalking across the quad to my building. Like Katniss's, my class is a large lecture, so I'm not planning on paying much attention. The first week of classes is always lax, considering it is still add/drop and the professors mainly go over the syllabus.
I find the lecture hall and walk in, standing at the front to try and find a seat. The room is packed. I knew this class was popular, but I wasn't expecting this.
My eyes fly to the left side of the hall and I see someone waving toward me. It takes me a minute to place him, but once I do I walk up the stairs and sit down in the seat next to him. Thresh volunteered at PCH on a different day than me, and then he graduated a year of ahead of me, so I never really had a chance to meet him. However, since I've become friends with Rue, I've gotten to know Thresh better through her. He lives down the road from her and he helps out on her family's farm, so I've seen him a few times.
"How did you get in this class?" he asks. "Sophomores never get in."
I shrug. "It was open when I went to sign up."
"Lucky," he says. "I didn't realize you were a bio major."
With a shake of my head, I let out a laugh. "I'm still undecided. I just thought this would be interesting."
Thresh nods. "You still volunteering?" I nod. "I ran into Rue the other day when I was there. She said Katniss is here. You must be excited."
"Oh, you know," I say with a laugh. "It's definitely nice."
It has been nice having Katniss so close. I thought it was great last year when she was only a short bus ride away, but having her only a few buildings away at all times is even better. This weekend, we definitely took advantage of that and the fact that we don't have Haymitch and Prim watching us at all times. We went to the library so I could get my paper done and Katniss almost finished the book Prim wanted her to read. She'd been begging her all summer to read it and since the movie is coming out in November time is ticking. She even bought it for her as a going away present. But after that we just spent time together. We watched a couple movies, played on the Dalton's PlayStation, and talked for hours before going to sleep in each other's arms. And, of course, we spent some time letting our mouths become reacquainted after the week of separation.
I get pulled out of my thoughts by the class's hushed silence. Thresh pulls out his notebook and I look down to the front of the room. I've heard great things about Professor Beetee. They say that you should take one of his classes prior to graduation, regardless of your major. I don't know what exactly I was expecting him to look like, but he's hurriedly setting up his laptop on the desk with an almost fidgety air. He's small, with an ashen face and dark hair. His round glasses look too big for his face, as if they were made for someone with a larger head, and they continuously slide down his nose.
The slideshow pops up on the big screen and he steps out from behind the podium.
"Uh, welcome," he says. "Is everyone here for BI316? Intro to Bioethics?"
The class shrugs, for lack of a better word. There are a few mumbles and a bunch of nods. Professor Beetee smiles and pulls out a fancy clicker for his slideshow and starts his presentation. The first slide is a little information on himself. Professor Beetee is a leading researcher in the field of medical ethics. Originally a president of a biotech firm, he ultimately became interested in the uses and ethics of various products and procedures his company helped create. He even went back to school to get a Ph.D. The credentials of this guy alone are enough for me to realize why everyone wants to take his class.
Unlike most professors, he doesn't start out with the syllabus. He dives right in, posting a real case in the bioethics world for us to learn about. He explains the case, in which a man needing cardiovascular surgery refused to consent to possible blood transfusions for religious reasons. The doctors agreed. After surgery, he required a transfusion, the doctors gave it to him under the pretext that it wasn't during surgery and his family okayed it. Now the man is suing.
As he explains, I find myself completely mesmerized. It brings me back to Katniss and her stem cell transplant. Like the man in the case, she refused consent; she didn't want Prim's stem cells. But her opinions were overlooked and Haymitch hid the truth from her for months. As Professor Beetee continues on, asking the class when we begin to have the choice to choose our own medical treatment, I try to imagine a world where Katniss was taken seriously. She wouldn't be here.
"What do we do?" Professor Beetee asks. "How do we go about deciding who exactly is in the right – the physician or the patient? This is where we'll start on Thursday."
Stealing a glance at my watch and seeing that my class let out early, I stuff my books in my bag before walking down the steps, barely saying goodbye to Thresh. I'm a man on a mission.
"Professor, do you have a minute?" I ask as I approach him. He's disconnecting his laptop and he stops to look up.
"I do if you have a question," he says with a smile.
I grin. "Thanks," I say. "I'm just intrigued by how the case plays out, I guess. I was thinking about how this sort of plays out with a minor instead of a grown man."
Professor Beetee leans against his podium and nods his head. "Yes, that would complicate the situation even more. It would really depend on the age in that case and how aware of the consequences they are, and if the parents agree or not."
He fiddles with his glasses. "It is. Case by case, different situations add different complexes and often times we are dealing with minimum time requirements."
"I was just wondering because my girlfriend had a stem cell transplant about two years ago now and she had an issue with consent."
"Interesting," Professor Beetee says after I explain a little further. We converse on the subject for another five or ten minutes and he starts looking more and more excited the more we speak. After a good chunk of time, he asks my name and shakes my hand, the rest of the class having left. "I think you'll really enjoy the reading, Peeta."
When I leave I head to get Katniss. I walk into the building and take a seat on a bench in the lobby. I sneak a look at my watch and see that her lecture should end soon, so I pull out a book. When I finish the chapter, I frown and look at my watch again. There is no way a syllabus week first lecture lasted this long. So I put the book back in my bag and walk toward her room. The door is open and I don't hear anything, so I peek inside to see the classroom empty. I check my phone. No messages. I climb the stairs of the lecture hall while texting her and walk through the backdoor.
I put my phone back in my pocket and sigh when I see her, curled up on the ground with her knees to her chest. She's sitting in the corner, looking up at me with wide gray eyes.
"How long have you been sitting here?" I ask, walking toward her and sitting down.
She shakes her head and I mimic her position. "What's wrong?"
"I had to sit in the front row," she whispers, breathing shakily as she does. "The professor asked our row to demonstrate reflexes to the class. The whole class laughed at me."
"Oh, Katniss," I say, blowing out a breath. I thought lectures would be good for her because she wouldn't have to talk. Of course, she'd be in the one lecture where the professor has the kids demonstrate concepts in front of two hundred peers.
"Kat, why are you sitting in a stairwell?" I ask, trying to get her mind off the actual class.
She shrugs. "No one was here." She turns to me and bites her lip, closing her lids over her watery eyes. "I want to go home."
I let my legs fall to the ground so I can pull her into my lap. The urge to call Haymitch or just carry her to my truck and drive her there myself is overwhelming. My chin rests on the top of her head and I don't say anything. I'm not bringing her home. It is in her best interest to stay. As much as it hurts to see her like this now, I know that in the long run this will be for her benefit.
"Hey," I whisper in her ear. "Have you checked out Mags'?"
She frowns and shakes her head.
"Well, then we got to go," I say, standing up with her still in my arms. "It's a diner run by this little old lady. She makes the best fries and Hersh swears by her chocolate shakes."
Katniss looks up at me with her big gray eyes wide and I lean down to kiss her forehead, keeping her in my arms for just a moment longer. It's the only place I can keep her where I know she'll be safe. I'll be selfish and keep her there until her next class. I'm sure she won't mind.
The next four days are torturous in that I worry every time Katniss goes to class. But, she isn't called to the front of any of the lecture halls again and does fine. I have nothing to worry about and Hersh keeps telling me to stop fidgeting. I've never had a nervous foot tap before, but I'm coming to develop one.
On Thursday, Professor Beetee stops me on my way to my seat and hands me a stapled packet of paper. "I think you'll find this interesting," he says. Thresh teases me about being a teacher's pet, but I focus on skimming the packet prior to class starting. It's a group of cases about stem cell transplants in various situations. I go to his Friday office hours while Katniss is in class to talk about them.
After her last class on Friday, Katniss doesn't leave my side. Hersh calls her my little shadow. I know it's because of how uncomfortable she's been this week. As if to emphasize how stressed she's been, she's had nightmares every night. On Thursday night I just gave up and walked over to Lime and took her back with me to Poplar. I found her sitting in her hallway, curled up in a ball and shaking as she listened to the recording Prim put on her phone. I told her to grab her stuff for Friday and literally carried her across the field to my dorm.
We stop in front of her house and I see her shoulders instantly relax. It's Saturday morning and most of campus is still asleep. Katniss is going home for the weekend and, after the night she had last night, I realized the quicker she saw Prim and Haymitch the better.
When we walk in, I can hear Prim in the kitchen, eagerly telling Haymitch something over the clinking of breakfast dishes. When the door shuts behind us, she comes running and she launches herself on Katniss. It's weird to see Prim taller than her sister. It's only by a couple inches, but those last few inches really make a powerful punch. It makes me wonder how tall Katniss would have been. Maybe the drugs didn't affect her, but I'm inclined to believe her growth was stunted.
"How's college?" Prim squeals. Her arms still wrapped firmly around Katniss's neck. "I missed you so much!"
"I miss you too, little duck," Katniss says, her voice sounding more at ease than I've heard it in days. "So much."
Prim reluctantly lets go and Katniss walks to Haymitch, who's leaning against the doorframe. He kisses the top of her head and rolls his eyes. "Aww, sweetheart, did you really miss me that much?" he teases.
"No," she says, but we all know otherwise.
"Come on, I'm attempting breakfast," he says. "It's funny. Right, blondie?"
Prim giggles. "You might want to stick with cereal."
Katniss shakes her head but follows Haymitch into the kitchen. Once they're out of the room, Prim throws her arms around me. I chuckle at her bubbly personality. Some things just don't change.
Prim pulls back and looks at my face, her fingers reaching up to trace the dark circles I know are under my eyes. Last night was terrible. It didn't seem to matter if she was in my arms or not, her nightmares were so vivid I swear I could see them when she started muttering. Luckily Hersh was all but dead to the world next to us because she woke up nearly every hour. Or rather, I had to wake her up, and finally around six I just took her into the common room and kept her awake until we left.
"You look tired."
"I'm exhausted," I tell her truthfully.
Prim eyes the door Katniss just left through and turns back to me. "What happened?"
I shake my head. "It was just a rough night," I say. "I've been letting her sleep with me but it didn't help."
She sighs and looks down at the ground. "That happened this summer too," she says. "Haymitch went crazy trying to get something to help her, but the sleeping pills they put her on just got her trapped in the dreams."
"I just wish there was more I could do," I confess.
"I know," she says. She feels the same way.
I follow her into the kitchen. Katniss is sitting at the island with a cup of juice in front of her and is laughing at Haymitch's poor attempts of pancakes still on Prim's plate. They're terrible cooks, all three of them, and it always surprised me. But Prim told me they either ate out or their neighbor Sae would cook for them if she saw the delivery car come too often. Prim's a decent baker though. She says it's different than actual cooking and I know better than anyone how true that can be.
As I sit down beside Katniss, Prim on her other side, Haymitch slaps a plate in front of her. The eggs are runny. The toast is burnt. The effort and love is clearly there, but the food does look less than desirable. Katniss sticks her nose up at it.
"This looks disgusting," she states.
"I don't care what it looks like," Haymitch says, as if she's said something completely ridiculous. "You're eating it. I send you to that goddamn school and you come back skinnier than you were when you left!"
This is a constant battle between the two of them. Given Prim's body type, I'm inclined to believe Katniss would have a slight figure and fast metabolism by genetics alone. The drugs that saved her life screwed that all up. She has to consume a specific number of calories a day to maintain her weight and the number is extraordinarily high for a nineteen-year-old girl. It wouldn't be difficult if her digestive tract didn't get messed up in the process of healing her as well. It's hard enough for such a tiny girl to eat that much as it is, but add in the food restrictions and I know she has a schedule given to her by her dietician on what to eat at what times to make sure she's taking in enough nutrients. She eats the same thing every day in a monotonous routine that soothes her. It gives her structure.
"What the hell happened to the freshman fifteen?"
"I've been there for two weeks!" Katniss exclaims.
Haymitch rolls his eyes. "That's plenty of time. Am I right, Peeta?"
Prim bursts into laughter, so I'm sure my face is hilarious as I look back and forth between the two as they bicker. Yeah, that sounds like a good idea – drag me into it to choose a side. I glare at Haymitch and he laughs, nodding at Katniss. "You're good, sweetheart," he says. "Got this one wrapped right around your finger."
Katniss smirks at me. She knows that already. It's so blatantly obvious that I plan my life around her that she'd have to be blind not to notice. I wiggle my eyebrows in her direction and she blushes, looking down at her plate.
Prim stands up from her stool and nods in my direction. "Want some cereal?" she asks. "You don't need to eat this."
Haymitch glares at her but she just bounces toward the cabinets. I follow after her as she attempts to jump up and reach the top shelf without a stool. With a chuckle, I lift her up and she reaches for the Cheerios giggling. I drop her on the counter and reach for a couple bowls. When I turn around, Haymitch is sitting on the stool Prim once occupied. I look at Prim. She looks at the floor.
"Hey, look at me," I can hear Haymitch say. It's quiet, as if he thinks Prim and I can't hear or that Katniss will be more likely to listen to him if she believes that. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Katniss says.
"You're eating?" She makes a noise in the back of her throat. Haymitch groans. "Katniss."
I can already tell this isn't going to go well. Katniss and Haymitch are two sides of the same coin. Both are stubborn and opinionated. Haymitch eyes her with his eyebrows raised. He doesn't believe her. Despite what Katniss and Prim say jokingly about their alcohol-favoring, geese-raising guardian, Haymitch Abernathy lives his life for these two girls and, as a result, he knows Katniss better than she thinks he does. He knows, just as Prim and I do, that Katniss isn't fine, but she'd die before she tells him, or Prim and me for that matter, that she's struggling.
It's not so much that she's struggling with eating, which is how Haymitch was trying to segue into the conversation. It's that she's never been in an environment like this before and she is terrible with new places. If we expected her to jump in and stick a perfect landing, we were all disillusioned.
And, I think, for a moment we all were.
Katniss stands up from her stool and pushes her plate away, effectively knocking it over so it launches off the island and onto the floor with the sound of cracking glass. With a look around the room, she spins on her heel and storms off, her usually quiet footfalls heavy on the stairs.
Haymitch runs a hand over his face. "I imagined that going better."
I walk across the room and climb the stairs. She's slammed her door shut and when I knock she doesn't respond. The door clicks open when I push on it and I sigh at the lump curled up under her dark green comforter. The walk across her room seems heavy, as if I'm moving through a raging river, and the mattress sinks under my weight. She still doesn't move or make a peep.
"I've always wondered about that bow," I say, my eyes flying to the bow in the corner of her room. Her bedroom is just as empty, if not more so, than it has always been and so the bow sticks out more than it did before. "Are you as good as Haymitch?"
Again, nothing. So, I walk across the room and take it in my hands. I lift my eyes to see if she's moved and I can see her face sticking out from under the covers, watching me intently. "You'll have to teach me," I say, holding the bow backwards and pretending to shoot.
"You're holding it the wrong way," I hear.
I smile and feign innocence. While I've never actually gone hunting with a bow before, I know the correct way to hold one. Miner Falls takes pride in the fact that we raised Haymitch Abernathy, Olympic archer, despite the fact that everyone in town just remembers him for his drunkenness after his wife died. Because of this, our gym class dedicates a week of work toward teaching kids the basics of shooting a bow and arrow on the off chance that someone will prove to be the next great archery legend. So far, it hasn't happened yet.
"So teach me," I say.
She lets out a breath and rolls out from under the covers and pads across the room. She takes the bow in her hands and models the correct way. It's hot. As undistinguished as that sounds, there are not better words for it. Katniss looks like she was made to handle the wooden bow.
She drops her arms and looks up at me with her eyes slightly glassy. "This was my dad's," she says.
I suck in a breath. Katniss doesn't talk about her parents. Her past, for all intents and purposes, is off limits. She doesn't talk about her father who died on his way to see her, her overwhelmed mother who killed herself, her best friend who asked her to kiss him so he knew what it felt like before he died. I've learned bits and pieces about each of them and that's it.
She sets the bow on the ground and sighs, looking up at me with a look I'm not exactly sure I've seen before and don't even know how to describe. She blinks and then turns to her window, crossing her arms over her chest and focusing on the yard. I follow behind her and see that Prim is outside now, feeding something to the geese. One of them begins to chase after her and she runs, giggling as if she's five years old again. Katniss sighs.
"Katniss, talk to me," I say, taking a risk by wrapping my arms around her shoulders.
Over her shoulder, I can see her fiddling with the bracelet on her wrist. It's a stainless steel cable of twisted metal that connects to her medical alert ID tag. It says Stem Cell Transplant – Use Irradiated & Leukocyte Poor Blood Products Only on one side and on the other has a green medical cross.
"I'm never going to be normal," she says. She turns in my arms so that she's looking into my eyes. "Real or not real?"
When I don't answer immediately, Katniss pulls out of my arms and looks down to Prim again. Her eyes follow her sister and I know exactly what she's thinking. Prim can run around and do as she pleases without having Haymitch breathing down her neck with worry. Prim can bruise. Prim can eat what she wants. Prim can get bit by the geese for all anyone cares.
"Normal is relative," I say.
When she turns back to me, her eyes are filled with tears. I bite my lip, hoping I haven't said anything wrong.
"Why me?" she asks.
I'm not entirely sure what she means. It could be anything. Why did she get sick? Why did she survive? I look into her eyes, trying to figure out what she means and I see my answer very subtly in her features – the way she has her lips pouted, the fog of her gray eyes, the fact that her eyes are locked on my lips and not my eyes. She's not asking me about her health or her future or her luck. She's asking about me.
And then, as if to stop my questioning, she clarifies. "Why did you stay?"
I use my fingers to lift her chin so she's staring me. "Because there's no one else that fits in my heart," I tell her.
I'm half-expecting her to roll her eyes like she usually does when I make comments like this. I'm fully expecting her to call me out for reading romance novels in the dark of the night to get these cheesy lines. But she doesn't. She needs to hear this.
"I think I even knew it when I was five and wrote you those letters. I knew that there was something about you that would change my life. I knew that you'd be it for me." I rest my forehead on hers. "I don't care if you're normal or not. I love you. That's real. Trust me, that will always be real."
"Will it?" she asks. She ducks her head.
I truly hate that Katniss has gone through this. When I met Katniss the first time she was guarded but sure of herself. Now is different. She's self-conscious more than not. I know she hates her scars. I know that she's terrified of meeting new people partially for the reason that she thinks people will judge her. She thinks she's broken. Her ordeal has changed her and I still love her but sometimes I just don't know what to do to help her.
"Katniss," I say. "Always. Always, always, always. I'm yours."
I pull her into me and feel her tense shoulders relax. I want to keep her here forever. I want to never let her go. I want to tell her that she is perfect in every way. And, I suppose, the only way to convince Katniss is to show her. I'll spend the rest of my life doing that if it's what she needs.
I think my ears are bleeding. I can almost picture the blood seeping out, trailing down my neck, and onto my shirt. When we leave, I know I'm not going to be able to hear. Hersh stands on one side of me, Mitch on the other, and both are utterly enjoying themselves, singing along with the artist that came for the fall concert as if they're not the world's worst duet.
All I can think is that Katniss would have hated this.
Katniss doesn't enjoy loud noises. For the past few years, I've taken Prim – and Rue and Rory last year – to Miner Falls to watch the fireworks for the Fourth of July. The first year I took Prim, Katniss had been in the hospital. The next year, I'd dropped Prim off and walked up to see her only to find her in her favorite hiding place – her closet. The capitol's spectacular launches their fireworks out of the park near their house, and Katniss can hear everything. Haymitch and Katniss spent the time in her closet while she shook in fear.
She went home for the weekend as she's gotten to doing. Especially now that midterms are upon us, she's been stressing too much and it's leading to nightmares. On top of that, her homework load is at its peak and she's doing nothing on the weekends besides homework trying to keep up with everything. She usually stays on Friday and spends the night with me before I drop her off on Saturday mornings. However, she left right after class today and I'm pretty sure she did it so I would go to the concert and not think that I needed to stay with her.
Because I would. And she knows that.
Hersh said that tonight is my night to let loose. I've gone out with them before on Saturdays when Katniss has been home. In fact, after my first exam I woke up Sunday morning with the worst hangover I've ever had. We usually end up somewhere in the junior dorms where Hersh knows a hulk named Blight from his Spanish practicum. Once I headed out to a rager Thresh's room was throwing. I haven't outright told Katniss about my drinking, but I think she knows. I mean, I basically outed myself when I texted her a poorly misspelled love letter at three in the morning before Hersh could rip the phone out of my hands. Katniss hasn't said anything and I don't know if I should bring it up or not. Hersh says I'm overthinking things, that if Katniss was that concerned or upset she'd say something, but I know that sometimes she lets things boil inside her until she's a raging fireball.
I pull my phone out of my pocket and my thumbs fly across the screen. I miss you
The phone vibrates almost immediately in response. I miss you too
I'm not going to be able to sleep without you
We've been at school for almost two months and I've spent a good proportion of those nights with her in my arms be it in my bed, the blow up bed we have in the common room, or in Katniss's room when her roommate's away. I can't sleep without her. I toss and turn when I wake up in the middle of the night without her beside me and I just lay there for hours waiting to text her until she texts me so I don't wake her up. I'm pretty sure it's unhealthy how dependent I've become and that is one of the many reasons why I didn't fight her about leaving campus on the weekends.
My phone vibrates. Sleep here. I'll leave my window open ;)
I snort but the music is so loud no one even thinks anything of it. Sleep over at her house? I understand that she doesn't see Haymitch as a huge threat, but I do. I'd rather not have to deal with a man who is known as a professional archer after having climbed through a window to the girl he sees as his own daughter's room.
Haymitch would bury me in a ditch.
Probs. He still brings up the hickey all the time.
My point exactly. The man knows how to hold a grudge. And he has weapons in that house. Not a good combination.
My phone vibrates again before I can answer. You can give me one on Sunday. It'll be gone before he sees me again, right?
God, she's trying to kill me. I love you.
We have a smiley face war for the rest of the concert and I continue texting her until she goes to bed. Suddenly, with my mind off of my conversation with Katniss, the party I'm at with Hersh, Mitch, and Dalton is less fun. I tell Hersh I'm heading out and walk back to Poplar, jumping in bed and just laying there, trying to get to sleep.
Katniss nips at my chin, her back arching off the bed in order to reach, and then falls back against my pillows. I bury my face into the crook of her neck, kissing every inch of her skin. When I move so I can reach the other side, my math book flies off the bed and lands on the floor. I ignore it and continue my current work of sucking her neck all the way up to her chin before taking her lips again.
Her hands slither down my arms and then back up and over my chest. This isn't the first time that she's touched there, but every time she does I feel like I'm on fire. This is no exception. I'm a living, breathing inferno and, when she slides her fingers underneath to actually touch my skin, I'm sure I'm about ready to spontaneously combust. Instead, I pull my lips away and kiss the last bit of visible skin before her shirt covers her.
We moan in unison.
Katniss tugs on my shirt and I sit up, the fabric suddenly too unbearable. It's too hot, too constricting, and too everything. I lift it up over my head and it falls to the ground with my math book, hoping to be forgotten. When I look back, already halfway to Katniss's mouth, I find that she's staring.
"Is this okay?"
This isn't the first time that I've been shirtless, but it's one of the few times. I'm always nervous to push her too much. I want her to be comfortable so I let her lead. She kisses my chest, where my heart is, and then sucks on my collarbone. I am so glad that I did all my work on Saturday – and Hersh didn't – so I could get the room for when Katniss came back. I don't know what's gotten into her, but I'm not going to complain.
Katniss is about as pure as an angel. She blushes during movies, when sex is only implied, and the guys like to tease her about it. Even Prim teases her about it, now that she's fifteen and has been reading Seventeen with Rue. (I'm pretty sure Haymitch is thrilled with Katniss's aversion. Not so thrilled about Prim, as I've been on the receiving end of a text rant about how Rory isn't allowed in the house when Haymitch isn't there anymore and they're just friends.) Because of this, when Katniss kisses my heart again, her mouth feathering over my sternum and down my stomach, I raise an eyebrow and pull back.
She bites her bottom lip. "Is that wrong?" she asks quietly.
I shake my head. "No, it's just...what..."
Katniss turns the color of a tomato. "I want to make you feel good," she whispers.
I lean down and kiss the tip of her nose. "I feel good when you feel good," I tell her. My hand cradles her cheek and I wait until she makes eye contact with me before continuing. "I'm not happy unless you are."
"I am," she says. "I'm happy when I'm with you."
My eyes lock on hers and I look for any sort of signal. We have become comfortable in our slow-moving progression, or at least I have. I know what she likes and how far to go. This is unchartered territory. I lean back on my heels, kneeling in front of her, and take a deep breath.
First I grab her hand and kiss her palm, something I do often. She hates the scars on her hands so I make it a point to kiss them. I'd like to think that it makes her feel beautiful instead of broken. She keeps her eyes on me as I set her hand back down beside her and take her other hand, kissing the palm.
"I want to ravish you, Miss Everdeen," I say with a smirk.
She rolls her eyes and I lean forward, puckering my lips obnoxiously. She doesn't kiss me. Instead, she says, "I think you need to lay off the romantic novels. You're beginning to sound like Jane Austen's mouthpiece." I keep my lips where they are and she pushes me away playfully.
"Remember, we're madly in love, so it's all right to kiss me anytime you feel like it," I say. She scowls and I laugh. "Oh, come on, that was an original Peeta Mellark! I know I'm not published, but still..."
I let my fingers fall to the hem of her shirt and keep looking up at her eyes, watching for any fleeting look of fear to overcome those gray orbs. I get to her bellybutton and stop, looking up to check, before pushing it up to her ribs. Just like her hands, she has some scarring on her stomach. She hasn't let me even see it before. Instinctively, she goes to put her hands over her skin, but I move my face to kiss it, effectively blocking her arms.
"Katniss," I say, lifting my eyes so I can look at her. "I want you to love yourself before you love me."
"I already love you."
I press my lips to the top edge of her bellybutton, igniting a shiver from her, before travelling back up to her lips. I kiss her and then rest my forehead on hers. "I know," I tell her softly. "But, listen. I love you for everything you are."
She rolls her eyes and so I move back down to make my point. I press my lips to the skin of her stomach. "Every scar makes you who you are," I say. I move my lips to hover over a bit of skin that remains unblemished. "And I want you to love yourself as much as I love you."
I'm not the least bit surprised that, when I look up to see Katniss, she's staring at me as if she doesn't believe me. She takes everything with skepticism, even from me. It has come from years of building walls that I'm not sure I'll ever be able to tear down completely.
Instead, Katniss sighs and wraps her arms around my waist. She doesn't say anything. She just rests her head against my chest and I press a kiss into her hair. "I can wait, Katniss."
"You shouldn't have to," she says, her voice muffled by my chest.
I pull her away and kiss her. When I pull away, I rub my nose against hers. "I think of it more as anticipation instead of waiting." She looks down embarrassed, so I just rest my chin on the top of her head. "I want you to be ready and I don't care if I'm old and gray. If you'll have me then."
She kisses my chest over my heart for the third time. "I could live a thousand lifetimes and not deserve you."
I have to scoff at this. "I think you have it backwards," I mutter. She either didn't hear me or chooses to ignore it, keeping her head firm against my chest.
The months fly by due to midterms and workloads. I have all but rented the third booth to the left on the fourth floor of the library by the time I finally get a break in mid November. Thanksgiving is right around the corner and I'm more than ready for the break. I took off from volunteering the Tuesday before and Hersh has two classes, so we'll be home by mid-afternoon.
My inbox has become inundated with emails from the school. Junior year is typically when students study abroad or do external programs to other universities in the States, and now is the time to look into it. To be honest, I hadn't even thought about it. Hersh, however, keeps asking me to check out the fairs with him. Some of the programs are even cheaper than tuition and financial aid carries over. It's drawing his attention, as well as Dalton and Mitchell and our other friends.
I've never really had the desire to leave though.
I rest my chin on Katniss's shoulder and skim the pages of her history book with her, watching as she shifts to highlight one of the lines. I just finished the last of my math homework, my writing considerably messier than usual considering Katniss is stationed on my lap and I only have the use of one of my arms. The bed isn't the best desk either, but the work is legible.
Now the only thing I have to do is finish my work for Professor Beetee's class that I'm planning to do later tonight. I've gotten to know him very well over the last few months. I've gone to his office hours to talk about the cases. He's an extremely intelligent man and he stutters considerably less when he's not in front of a lecture hall full of students. And he genuinely cares despite being a researcher.
I move Katniss's braid and kiss the back of her neck. When she stubbornly ignores me, I pull the collar down so I get at some skin that won't show and begin to tease it. She swats at my face as if I'm an irritating fly.
They say that slow and steady wins the race. I think they may be right. Every new inch that Katniss exposes to me is like hidden treasure. I've added her ribcage to my routine – palms, stomach, ribs. I haven't been brave enough to go any further up, not for lack of want, but because of what I know will come. During her treatment, Katniss received her chemotherapy and many of her other drugs through a central line, which is basically a port into her body. To insert it, the doctors had to make an incision just under her collarbone, and removing it required surgery as well. As a result, she'll have a scar there for the rest of her life. I've never seen it. Unlike the scars on her stomach, which are faded and nearly invisible, this one carries a much more powerful sting and she has steadfastly hidden it by clothing.
I've looked up 'port scars' online. There are tons of blogs out there that dedicate at least one of their entries to talking about them. It's a daily reminder, like the scars on her hands from graft-versus-host disease, of what she's been through. And I know that Katniss is insecure about it.
Katniss leans back into me more and rests her head on my shoulder. "Are you excited to go home?"
Am I? I suppose. It'll be great to see my dad and we're heading to Roanoke to spend the holiday with Rye and Lux so they can try their hand at a Thanksgiving dinner. Her parents are staying in South Carolina, so it'll just be us, which I prefer. I'd rather not spend the holiday listening to my mother complain about me to Lux's family. Katniss will be staying here. She said that Sae's cooking for them, since Haymitch threatened to order takeout and Prim complained, and the Hawthornes will probably make their way over at some point. She said that Hazelle likes to help Sae because it gives her something to do to keep her mind off things.
Katniss never told me, but Prim did. Gale passed away around this time of year, in the interval between Thanksgiving and Christmas the year prior to my meeting the Everdeens. The Hawthornes have always amazed me. They've remained a solid family unit despite having walked through Hell and back. I've gotten to know Rory better than any of them thanks to Prim and it astonishes me every day that they can still interact with the Everdeens when I know they see Gale in Katniss and her struggles.
I shake my head. "I'm not looking forward to that drive."
Katniss giggles. "You had fun last time," she says, turning to kiss my cheek. "You can call me maybe?"
"Ha. Ha. Ha," I deadpan, wrapping my arms around her stomach and rocking her in my arms. "Very punny. What are you and Prim planning on doing?"
She shrugs her shoulders. "She wants to go see the movie the day it comes out," she says. I chuckle. Prim has been dying for this movie to come out for months and Katniss finally finished the book. Plus, I'm ninety-nine percent sure Prim has a huge crush on Bradley Cooper. I've heard her and Rue talking about him way too much for my own personal sanity. "Other than that, I suppose not much. If you bring your laptop to Rye's, I'll Skype with you."
"Call it date."
She turns so her forehead is pressed into the crook of my neck. I can feel her smile.
Rye's house is in a brand new subdivision that is a far cry from the neighborhood we grew up in. It's new construction and the area isn't even really finished. My mother spent the last hour of our car ride telling my father about what a deal it was because, once the area is built up, the value will skyrocket. I'm pretty sure my father did the same thing I did: ignored her.
Although, I have to say, when we arrive I'm kind of awestruck.
It's not like it's the first time I've been here, but now that I'm not worrying about Katniss and there's no wedding celebration going on, it's easier to see the actual house. Now I can see why my mother jumped on the chance for them to serve dinner instead of us. I think she'd be embarrassed to have Lux come to Miner Falls.
Rye is still in a suit when he comes out to grab the bags. My mother fawns over him and how handsome he is. My father looks largely out of place next to him, his plaid flannel making him look more like a lumberjack than a baker. He's a proud man, proud of his roots in the Miner Falls area, and I'm not exactly sure what he's thinking. Actually, that's a lie. I know exactly what he's thinking; he'll just never say it aloud. He's worried he'll lose Rye to all this fancy extravagance and Rye will look down on him as a simpleton.
But, I see him grin when Rye tells us he's going change quickly before showing us around and he comes back down in one of his old college t-shirts and a pair of jeans with a hole in the knee. My mother, on the other hand, visibly bites her tongue. I have to hold in a chuckle at her foul expression.
"Sorry, Peet," he says, chucking my bag into one of the rooms at the end of the second floor hallway. "You get the littlest room. Leaven's already called dibs the bigger one."
"Where is your brother?" Dad asks, walking out of the third of Rye and Lux's guest rooms. It's a four-bedroom house, which is two more bedrooms than our house has, and I had thought I'd be on a couch in the basement so I'm not going to complain.
"Lux's getting him from the airport on her way home from work," Rye says, leading us back down the stairs and into their kitchen. He grabs a beer out of the fridge to give my father and then goes to hand one to me until my mother gives him the worst look I've seen her direct at him in years. He smirks. "Sorry. Forgot you're still a baby."
My mother huffs and walks into the living room to check the progress they've been making and Rye rolls his eyes, launching himself up onto the counter. "How's school?" he asks me.
Rye laughs. "Okay, better question: how's Katniss?"
My father smiles and I can feel myself heating up. My cheeks are probably the color of the leaves outside – red. "She's doing really well," I say, unable to keep myself from smiling.
"There we go. We finally got a smile out of you," Rye says. Then he turns to my father. "How's the bakery?"
"Good. I've got Deacon Cartwright working with me after school." They talk for a little bit about the bakery, my mother's voice echoing as she wanders the house inspecting everything, and then my father brings up the topic of grandchildren.
"Dad, we just got married!" Rye exclaims. My father doesn't say anything, just looks at him expectantly. He's probably wanted grandchildren as long as he's wanted kids himself. "But, yeah, we've been talking about it. We get our MBAs at the end of next year, so we'll probably start trying sometime around then."
It's hard to imagine Rye with kids. In some ways, I think it makes it even harder because he's not in Miner Falls. I always imagined our family would just go on living there, but Rye has clearly moved on with his house and his job, and I'm not sure if we'll ever see Leaven again after he graduates. Out of the three of us, I think I might be the only one eager to stay.
I think about that all through the night. When everyone gets here, Rye and Lux take us to their favorite restaurant and then show us around. I can't really focus on anything. I just look out the window and wonder what's going to happen to me. I don't even really know what I want to do.
And then there's Katniss. I honestly don't see her leaving the capitol or surrounding area ever. That doesn't really bother me, since I don't have a large desire to leave the area either, but it doesn't stop me from worrying about what ifs. What if I get offered a job far away or go to graduate school somewhere else? What if I'm completely wrong and Katniss wants to move as far as her legs can take her? And, of course, the what ifs about Katniss moving spur the what ifs that induce my nightmares. What if she's not here when I make these decisions?
Katniss has her two-year checkup with Dr. Heavensbee coming up right after Thanksgiving. To say I'm terrified is an understatement. I've done a good job so far distracting myself with schoolwork and Katniss herself, but it doesn't make it any easier. I know I'm going to be a wreck all day until she comes back and tells me she's fine, no recurrence, because it's going to remind me of when she relapsed.
I'm sitting on the back deck while everyone sits around in the living room when Rye comes out and sits down next to me.
"What's on your mind?" he asks.
I just shake my head. "Anything and everything," I mutter. "I'm just overwhelmed, I guess. Everyone seems to know what they want to do and I don't even know what I want my major to be."
My brothers both knew what they wanted to do before they went to college. Rye was in charge of the books at the bakery and it triggered him to choose a career in business. Leaven, who always hated the early hours and tedious work of a baker, wanted something different and since he liked building things, he went into engineering. Then there's me, still clueless, and my mother reminds me of it every time she sees me.
Rye nods and looks over his shoulder. He stands and shuts the glass door over the screen to give us privacy and sits back down. "Forget about Mom for a minute," he says. "What do you enjoy?"
"What do you mean?"
He moves his chair a little. "Peeta, you have the biggest heart out of anyone I know, so just tell me what's in it. Forget about what Mom wants you to do for a minute and just talk to me." When I don't say anything, he smirks. "I'll start you off. Katniss is in there."
"She is," I say. I bite my lip and think for a moment. "I like to draw."
"And you're good at it," Rye says.
"But I can't make a career out of drawing!" I hiss.
Rye shakes his head. "Maybe, maybe not. But just keep going. You've been volunteering at PCH for years now. What do you like about it?"
"I like the interactions, I guess," I tell him. I think back over a few of my favorite kids. "I like helping people, making them feel better. I like working with the kids."
"There are plenty of career paths you can take to do those things," Rye says. "You just have to pick one that you see worthwhile. And, don't worry if you don't know, it'll come. Just pick a major that interests you. Think about the classes you've taken and the ones that you've liked."
I do think about it, even after Rye goes back into the house. My mother has been pushing the lawyer card for years. My father even told me I'd be good at it since he's convinced I have a golden tongue, but I just don't see it. I stay up way too late looking into careers and I come up with absolutely nothing. I toss and turn thinking about majors. I think about what I have the most credits in and decide to settle.
Rye and Lux have a hard time keeping my dad out of the kitchen and ultimately they end up letting him fix the potatoes. My mother sits and chatters with Lux while she's getting everything ready. Leaven and I play video games in the basement, but I tend to lose because I'm still distracted. It's all hitting me at once and I wish it had spread out over the year and a half I've been at school.
When we had Thanksgiving dinner at our house, Dad always insisted that we go around the table and say what we were thankful for. It became a sort of tradition, one that Rye apparently wants to keep for his future children. So we go around the table. Dad's thankful we're happy and healthy. Our mother is thankful that Rye and Lux are happy in their new life. Rye and Lux give similar sentiments as her and Leaven is thankful he only has half a semester of school left.
And then it's my turn. What am I thankful for? One year I was thankful for my knee surgery. The next year I was thankful that I had gotten to know Katniss and, that year, I was still terrified that she wasn't going to get better. The year after that I was thankful that Katniss was well and that I was enjoying school. I can't say I'm thankful that I know what I'm doing with my life. I can't say I'm thankful that Katniss is still well because I'm afraid to jinx her appointment. So, I say the only thing that's true, even though it's a bit of a cop out.
"I'm thankful that we're all here together."
Monday morning I skip class. I just can't do it. Hersh skips too to make sure I don't give myself an aneurism while I pace the floor, trying to convince myself that I'm overreacting. Everything will be fine.
I'm waiting for a phone call. I'm waiting for some sort of landslide to just come down on me. I've been happy for too long and now everything is just going to collapse around me. Prim called the last time. I pray that I won't see her face light up my screen. I bite my lip so hard I taste the metallic blood in my mouth.
The hours tick away and the nerves just get worse. I'm just about ready to get up and pace again when I hear the code get punched into our door. I turn to see if it's Dalt or Mitch. My heart just about explodes when I see Katniss.
I run over to her, take her in my arms and look down at her. "And?" I ask.
She smiles. "Perfect. Two years," she says.
I swing her around in my arms. Finally, something good – clear blood work and two years in remission. It's something to celebrate.
I decide to go talk to Professor Beetee about the concerns I told Rye. I figure that he might have a better idea than my brother as to what I should do about majors. Rye tried the whole soul searching thing and that didn't work. Professor Beetee seems like a practical man, so I'm hoping he'll help.
I walk Katniss to her class and then head to his office hours. His office is located in the farthest corner of the science building, up a winding flight of stairs, and basically looks like he's living on the edge of civilization. I knock on the door and he calls me in and my eyes take in everything on the wall. He's neat. He has a poster of the DNA double helix and different figurines scattered across the room. He has an entire bookshelf dedicated to ethics, be it religious or secular in nature, on the back wall.
He looks up from his desk and peers at me over his glasses. "Ah, Peeta! To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Can I talk to you about something unrelated to the class?" He nods his head and I sit down in the chair in front of him. "I know why you decided to go into the field of bioethics, but how did you make the decision to change career paths?"
He leans back in his chair and puts his hands behind his head. "How did I go from the technical aspects of medicine to the ethical aspects? Technically, I stepped down from my position at the company and then took to my studies, but I'm sure that's not what you came here to talk to me about." He smiles knowingly. "What's really on your mind?"
I shake my head. "I just don't know what I'm doing."
"Ah, yes. The question of many students," he says. "You do know that you don't have to know right now? You have your entire life to make these decisions. I changed career paths late in my life and both have been rewarding. It depends on what interests you."
"That's my problem. I don't know what interests me."
He eyes me for a minute and removes his hands from behind his head. "Oh, I think you do," he says. He sits up in his chair and leans over the desk toward me. "Peeta, I think you have a wonderful mind and right now you're trying to corner yourself into an easy option. What's your major?"
I shake my head. "Undecided for the next few weeks and then I have to declare something."
"Well, I can't give you a major," he chuckles.
"If you don't mind me asking, what did you get your undergraduate degree in?" I ask.
He points to the wall behind him and I squint to see it. Georgetown University. John Michael Beetee. Bachelor of Science in Chemistry. He smiles. "And look where I am, teaching a lecture on ethics."
I nod my head.
"Do you see what I mean, Peeta?" he continues. "Don't pick something because you think it's the right major. By all means if you know you want to be a physician, then a biology degree may be where you need to look. But, don't settle."
"How would I be settling?" I ask.
"By picking a major because it looks good," he says. "You're an ambitious student and an incredible thinker. I want to see you challenged in whatever field you ultimately end up being in. It's minds like yours, ones that connect their lessons to their own lives and not just regurgitate the information for exams, that make me excited about being here. You have the gift of a conscientious mind and I think that the only way you can go wrong is to waste it."
"And by waste," I conclude, "you mean settle."
"Exactly," he says. "So, my opinion – take it as you want – is to go out there and major in a subject that excites you. And, I think, if you take a good look at what you do in your spare time, you'll see a pattern and that is where you should look."
It's a lot to take in and, to be completely honest, I think Professor Beetee thinks too highly of me. I thank him for his time and walk out possibly more confused than I had been going in there. He said similar things as Rye did. I sit outside Katniss's lecture hall and think about the things I do in my spare time. I volunteer at PCH twice a week now, sitting at the coloring table with Rue and helping the kids with their art. I read ethics based cases given to me by Professor Beetee because he thinks they'll interest me. Is he trying to tell me to be a doctor? As much as I respect Dr. Heavensbee, I don't think I could watch kids go through what Katniss did day after day, knowing some of them will be lucky like her and some won't. Being a nurse, like Prim wants to do, seems even worse because they're the ones that have the most patient contact.
I pull out my laptop and look at my degree audit. I've taken a few biology classes, a sociology class, a language. I finished my history core. I have my math credits out of the way and there is no way I'm being a math major. I look at the list of majors and then back at my audit and nod my head. It's beyond obvious that I've got an interest in biology, given the electives that I've taken. To keep myself sane, I email the biology department my major request form before I change my mind but I still don't know if it's what I want.
It would have been much easier if I had just stayed in Miner Falls and taken over the bakery.
The first days of December bring the last week of classes before study days and the ultimate loom of finals. Three of Katniss's classes have exams and she's basically locked herself in the library. She went home for the weekend with a backpack full of books. The fact that I haven't really seen her in a good week just makes me even more frustrated. I keep going back and forth about whether emailing the biology department my major request was the right decision or not. I can't decide what I want to do with my life. I can't even see my girlfriend and take all of these frustrations out on her beautiful mouth.
So, instead, I make lists. Endless lists. Lists of possible careers and what I need to do to get there. Hersh is calling it obsessive and tells me at least once a day that I need to relax.
Rue looks over at me from across the table and raises an eyebrow. I can't even draw. My lines aren't straight and everything just comes out wrong. I blow out a breath and try again. The kid next to me deserves a good picture.
I draw a mockingbird and hand it over to him. He smiles and grabs a red crayon, beginning with the feathers on the head. "That's really good," I say.
"Thanks!" he says, grinning with a missing tooth in front. He's a cute kid with blond hair and light eyes, kind of like a mix between me and Katniss – if I'll allow myself to think it. The poor kid's got some sort of braces on his legs. "You draw good."
"Thanks," I say. He struggles toward a blue crayon across the table so I grab it for him. He thanks me and then colors more.
I look up at Rue and she smiles. I lean back in my chair and fully appreciate what Rye and Professor Beetee were trying to tell me. There are a hundred and one things I can do with my life, but it is how I do them that is important. I don't want to sit behind a desk. I want to be engaged, get my hands dirty, and change something.
When I first started volunteering at PCH, way before I met Katniss, I told Portia I wanted to make a difference in someone's life. I'd like to think that I'm still making a difference in her life every day by being a part of it. She makes me want to be a better person. She was the first thing that Rye said was in my heart and he's right. My heart, my passion, my drive to be the person that Professor Beetee values so much comes from being with her and striving to be the man she needs. That is what I need to apply to whatever major I have and whatever career I choose, that strive toward something better, not only for her but for everyone else like her.
Now, I just need to figure out how to apply it.
The title comes from the poem And Death Shall Have No Domination by Dylan Thomas. The song they sing in the truck from the wedding, and referenced later by Katniss, is Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen. Anyone familiar with the Roanoke area will recognize that the highway Peeta takes will bring them to WV. Although I will never say it, that's where I've always imagined Miner Falls to be located, so use that information as you wish. The book Prim wants Katniss to read is The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick – the film stars Jennifer Lawrence. (Sorry, I just couldn't resist.) The scene where Katniss is called to the front of the class on the first day of school is taken from my own college experiences, watching my psychology professor do an experiment using someone in the front row who looked scared to death the entire time. Professor Beetee's class is based off my own experiences taking an ethics discussion and seminar. The case he gives Peeta's class on the first day is a real case out of our textbook.
Part I, as stated above, loosely parallels the milestone of completing school. I interpreted it as Peeta getting his shit together and picking a major/figuring out what he's doing.
Public Service Announcement: I am not condoning underage drinking. It is illegal. However it does happen on college campuses and, as wholesome as Peeta Mellark is, I wanted him to be human. Since he is perfect in so many aspects already, I didn't want him to be some mega-God. Please, any underage readers, read these and any future sections with maturity.
And, again, I don't use a beta so all mistakes are mine. Please, constructive criticisms are greatly appreciated and reviews are always welcome. Thanks for reading!