A/N I used to listen to this album a lot when I was in college. Yes, I know, I'm dating myself by saying that. I don't care. I dug out one of my old CDs the other day and listened to this song in the car on the way to work...and then this plot bunny bit me in the ass, and I couldn't concentrate for the rest of the day.
So here you go. Kind of a digression for me, I've never written AU. More chapters to follow, this is kind of just to gauge interest, and I want to finish the 10 Steps before I delve too deeply into this.
Plot bunny, leave me alone now? Pretty please?
When I step into the light
My arms are open wide
When I step into the light
My eyes searching wildly
Would you not like to be
Sitting on top of the world with
Your legs hanging free
Would you not like to be ok, ok, ok?
When I'm walking by the water
Splish splash me and you takin a bath
When I'm walking by the water
Come up through my toes
To my ankles
To my head
To my soul
And I'm blown away ...
I can't believe that we would
Lie in our graves
Wondering if we had
Spent our living days well
I can't believe that we would
Lie in our graves
Dreaming of things that we
Might have been
Would you not like to be
I can't believe that you
Would not like to be
Would you not like to be
Ok, ok, ok
-DMB, Lie in Our Graves
The late August afternoon is hot, the classroom is on the fourth floor of the high-ceilinged, non-air conditioned old building, and by the time I reach the top of the eighth flight of stairs, I know I'm in trouble. I check my watch. Shit. 2:05. It's a 2:00 class.
I hitch my schoolbag up on my shoulder and survey the row of heavy-looking wooden doors up and down the dim hallway, each with a small, square window above the brass classroom number. To my left, in a shadowed alcove, is the elevator. Might be a good idea, next time.
410 is only a few paces down, I note with a sigh. I shuffle over to the door and go up on tiptoe to make sure this is the place. I can just about see through the high window.
Ah, crap. I catch sight of a group of maybe ten students filling nearly every desk in the tiny classroom. They are eager and smiling, all of them freshmen, none of them late. Most of their faces are shining with sweat despite the open windows, and the fluorescents can't really chase away the dusty gloom.
My eyes find the professor at the front of the room, and I sigh again. She's sitting on a small desk at the front of the classroom, bouncing one leg excitedly up and down and talking in a very animated way. There's no use postponing the inevitable. I bite the inside of my lip and turn the knob, pushing at the door with my shoulder, expecting an old building like this to have doors that stick.
It opens easily, too easily. I'm spilled into the tiny, humid classroom and eleven pairs of eyes are immediately on me. There's a sharp clatter to my right, and I and everyone else turn to see that my bag has caught on the handle of a polished wooden walking stick, one that was obviously propped against the wall near the door, and sent it falling to the floor.
"Oh..." I sputter. I can't meet anyone's eyes as I kneel to pick up the walking stick.
"I'm so-oh god." It slides down and almost clatters to the floor again as I attempt to re-prop it. "I'm sorry."
I turn around, my face hot. I'm the subject of eleven curious stares: a couple of future sorority sisters in the back, already sniggering behind their hands; a fox-faced red-haired girl in the front, fighting back a smile; a blonde, jock-type guy sitting right in front of me with a wry half-grin. That's all I have time to see. "Uhm. Professor Trinket?"
The professor is regarding me with a delighted grin that I can only imagine would look at home on the face of a cat who'd cornered a particularly vulnerable rodent. "That's Doctor Trinket to you, missy." She's trying to make a joke; I just know it. "And yes, this is your freshman seminar. And no, you're not that late, we were just getting started. So you can have a seat." The delighted grin stays on her face during this entire speech.
It takes me a second, because I'm really not accustomed to being talked to like I'm five, but I manage a choked "Okay..." I hear what might be a stifled laugh from the desk in front of me, and I scowl down at its occupant. It's the blonde jock-looking kid; he's resting his chin on his hand, and has his fingers splayed over his lips, clearly trying to hide a wiseass smirk. I feel my face pulling down into its accustomed frown, and I damp down the little flame of anger. Go ahead and laugh, asshole.
I stalk across the room as quickly as I can, making for the only empty desk I can see, by one of the open windows.
I'm almost there when I hear the piercing clatter behind me. The sound of the walking stick sliding down the wall and hitting the floor yet again.
They can't hold it back this time: the entire room dissolves into hilarity, the professor (Doctor Trinket, I correct myself) included.
I plunk into my seat, dropping my bag to the floor and dipping my head down to rummage for my notebook and a pen. I glance across the room and my eyes find the blonde kid by the door.
He's not laughing with the rest of them, but he's got his lips pressed together and his eyes are twinkling at me. I feel another flood of warmth and look away, fixing my eyes onto a point above the white board behind the professor's desk.
When the laughter finally dies down, Doctor Trinket has her eyes fixed on me again, and if it's possible, she's grinning even more widely. "Actually, we were just about to run through a little get-to-know-you exercise."
Fuck. There is nothing I hate more than those stupid, go-around-the-room-and-say-your-name games. Please let it not be one of those...
"So we're going to go around the room..."
"...and you're going to tell us your name, age, hometown, and..." She pauses dramatically, and runs her eyes over each of us in turn. I try to keep from visibly squirming as her gaze settles on me again, and she continues: "...and one thing about yourself that no one knows." She brings her hands together in front of her in what is almost a clap.
"Why don't you start, my dear." She's zeroed in on me, and there's absolutely no getting out of this. And it's absolutely terrible.
"Uhm." I have to stop and clear my throat. I glance at my classmates, trying to find sympathy somewhere, anywhere. My eyes are drawn to the door, where the walking stick fell (and this time, no one has picked it up again). And the guy sitting there. He's still not laughing; his eyebrows raised, he looks genuinely curious.
I take a deep breath. "Okay, my name is Kat. I'm twenty. I'm from Portland and..." Crap. Something no one knows about me? What is that shit? Like I'm going to tell a bunch of people I don't know anything at all. Which means she's looking for some clever answer, which I'm not going to be able to think of, because she called on me first.
I hate Doctor Trinket.
Finally I settle on: "And something that no one knows about me is that...I like to sing." It's lame, but it takes care of business. I settle back into my chair, ready for the grilling of the next victim to begin.
Or so I think. "Oh, lovely, dear! Why don't you sing something for us right now?"
Did I say I hated her before?
I honestly don't know where to look. Is she kidding? The grin still plastered on her face says she's not. "Oh, I um...I couldn't..."
"Oh please, dear."
"Really...no..." I'm starting to panic.
And then, a voice pipes up from across the room. "Aw, I wouldn't mind a song, really. Only, you shouldn't make it a sing-along. I can't sing worth a damn."
Okay. I have to say, accents have never done much for me. I never got how some actor's voice could be that compelling. When all the girls in my high school were swooning over James McAvoy and his sexy accent, I didn't see the point. It's just a different way of talking, right?
But this voice...belongs to the blonde jock sitting next to the door, and he has now captured the attention of every female in the room with his soft, southern drawl. It's not a heavy or twangy accent, but it's not something we're used to hearing in the northeast, either.
I take a closer look at the guy who has just saved me from major embarrassment: curly blonde hair, square jaw; flat, wiry muscles; thin, but strong. Thin, but he still fills out his jeans and grey Guinness T shirt quite nicely.
And, that voice. Wow. I could listen to that all day, and I'm listening now with my mouth gaping, like a fool. I snap my mouth shut and turn my eyes front just as he glances over at me with a sly grin. You can thank me later, that grin clearly says.
Because he has Doctor Trinket's full attention as he continues, "I'm Peeta Mellark. Twenty, from Charleston, West Virginia." The accent softens his voice, makes it gentle and kind-sounding. "And something that no one knows about me..."
I can't stop myself from looking back at him. He meets my eyes, and I can see that his are a light, piercing blue. He shoots me that sly, half-smile, and I can't stop my own mouth from pulling up into a grin as he continues, "...is that I'm an excellent cook."
I let my breath out, not aware that I've been holding it.
The next hour and a half may be the longest of my life, and when it ends, the temperature in the tiny classroom is approximately 105 degrees. My Secret Powder-Fresh is no match for it, and I'm sweating through my army-green tank. Tendrils of hair have escaped my long braid and the loose strands are frizzing around my ears. The sorority sisters in the back are practically sleeping, the redhead in front has had her head down on the desk for the past 45 minutes, and we've all pretty much had our fill of Freshman Seminar: Current Events From a Pacifist Perspective. This will be my last class on Tuesdays and Fridays until Christmas, and it's going to be hell.
As we're all gathering our notebooks and bags, I stupidly glance again at the blonde by the door. The sorority sisters have the same idea; they are huddled by his desk. The tall leggy blonde girl chatters at him, blocking the doorway as the petite brunette stoops to pick up the wooden walking stick...and hands it to him.
Holy shit, it's his. Peeta takes it and nods his thanks, leans on it as he rises from his desk and tucks his notebook into his bag. He looks over at me again, and I look down quickly, stuffing my pen into my jeans pocket. I track him with my peripherals as he leaves the room; only a slight limp is in evidence.
Clearly he's got some sports injury, which necessitates the walking stick. Clearly he was being far more gracious toward my clumsiness than he had to be. Clearly, he's a nice guy.
It makes me simultaneously ashamed of myself and suspicious.
I'm one of the last people to file out of the classroom, carefully avoiding eye contact with Doctor Trinket (who seems to have forgotten about me for now). I'm halfway back to the stairs when I see him again, off in the shadowy alcove at the end of the hall, punching the button to summon the elevator.
Of course, he can't take the stairs with a bad leg. I glance at the stairs, then back at him. It doesn't seem right, somehow, for him to be waiting all alone up here while our classmates thunder in a herd down the echoing stairwell. And I'm very guilty about knocking over his walking stick. And...he's really cute.
But that is totally, totally not the reason I'm doing this.
Sweat is making his curls stick to the back of his neck, and the T shirt cling to his back. These details do not escape me, but nor do I let them into the front of my mind.
I walk up behind him slowly and clear my throat.
He turns around, and there's that half-smile again. And I swear his eyes light up.
"Hey," I say, and my voice sounds too high and squeaky and totally unlike me. God, I'm bad at this being-friendly thing. "Mind if I share your elevator?" Corny as hell.
He raises his eyebrows, but: "Sure, if you don't mind waiting." His accent is soft and lilting. "It took forever on the way up. I think it's about as old as this building."
"Yeah, well." I set my bag down. "I don't really feel like facing eight flights of stairs right now. Especially after that." I incline my head back at the classroom door and let out a kind of half-giggle. A giggle? What the hell is wrong with me? I don't talk this much, and I don't giggle.
"Neither do I." He's eyeing me curiously, probably wondering why the hell I won't leave him alone. It's a good question.
"Speaking of which..." I bite my lip and look down. "Thanks for bailing me out back there."
He chuckles. "Oh, no worries." He shifts his weight, leaning on the walking stick and shifting a little closer. "She shouldn't have called you out like that. Besides, you weren't any later than I was. I walked in just before you."
"And uhm..." Oh, god. "I'm sorry about..." I gesture lamely at his walking stick.
This time, he laughs out loud, his grin spreading wide across his face, and the entire hallway is now a bit brighter. His eyes crinkle and he dips his head to the side. It's adorable, and I can't look away. "It's okay. There's really no good place for this thing." He's the kind of person, I realize, who looks right into your eyes when he's talking to you. He's got pools of blue that are so deep; he's trapped me. "Besides. You have to admit it was kind of funny."
I smile back, and tip my head to mirror his without realizing it at first. "Yeah...it was..." We both let out a gentle laugh, almost at the same time.
I can smell Old Spice. I really love it. It's like what Dad used to-
I shake myself. The hallway suddenly seems too small and too dim, and I shift away from him a little bit, readjusting the strap on my bag and looking away.
He seems to sense my discomfort and leans back a bit, too. He's frowning slightly when I look back up, and I want to turn and run down the stairs.
But the elevator dings and the doors finally creak open, and it would look weird to walk away now, so we both get on the elevator. It's tiny and ancient and the lighting makes everything glow yellow. I feel the floor sag a bit, and I reach out to steady myself against the wall.
Then he touches my arm with his fingertips, and a jolt of warmth goes through my skin. I look up and his eyes meet mine, and we're both silent for a few beats.
Then he smiles, small and warm and easy. "Don't worry," he says. "I think we'll live."
He drops his hand and leans away so more of his weight is on the walking stick; I face forward, nodding as the doors close and the ancient thing begins its descent.
I use my peripherals, and I see him turn his eyes toward me again. I can still feel it, where he touched me. "Do you really like to sing?"
I turn to him, and then quickly away again. "Yeah, I do." My feet shuffle, and I clutch the strap of my bag, fingernails digging into the canvas. "I, uh...couldn't think of a good lie, fast enough."
He laughs softly. "Yeah, me neither."
"So you can cook?"
"Hell yeah, I can."
"Good to know."
This elevator is slow. The silence stretches out.
"So...West Virginia, huh?" Jesus. What the fuck? Can't I do any better than that?
But unbelievably, he's grinning at me. "Yeah. Ever been?"
I shake my head, smiling. "Nope. So what made you want to come north?"
He sighs. "Probably...the desire to get as far away from my family as possible."
"That'll do it," I say, laughing. Laughing. God, I sound like a dork. "Are you ready for the Maine winter?"
"Fool, please," he drawls as the doors open, finally, onto the ground floor. I turn to him with raised eyebrows, and his voice echoes a bit in the high-ceilinged lobby as he continues, "I'm from the mountains; we get more snow than you do."
I'm laughing again, and it sounds much too loud so I cover my mouth with my hand. We're passing through the double doors that lead out onto the quad when he asks, "So...it's Kat, right?"
"Is that short for Katherine?"
Crap. I hate this conversation. "No. It's actually a pretty unusual name, so..."
He touches my arm again, and this time, not only do I feel the warmth again, but this time there's a jolt inside my chest. I will myself to calm down, but I still can't meet his eyes. "Well? Now I'm curious," he says.
"Um, it's Katniss."
"No shit!" I look up at this, and he's got such an amazed and pleased look on his face that I can't help but shake my head.
"Oh I'm sorry," he says, shaking his head. "Pardon my language, it's just...I know Katniss!"
I just frown at him.
"It's..." He chuckles. "That came out wrong. It's...it's a plant. An edible plant. Grows in marshy areas. Right?"
I feel the smile bloom on my face. "Yeah. God, I'm impressed. Most people don't even know I'm a plant, let alone that I'm edible."
I realize what I've said a moment too late. My face instantly flushes.
Luckily, Peeta is either too slow on the draw or, more likely, too polite to call me out on it. He merely blinks at me a few times, then says, "I did Outward Bound when I was younger. That's...they showed us what to eat...in the woods."
I rush on, "My dad used to say, as long as I could find myself, I'd never starve."
He leans up against the bricks. We're still standing just outside the doors, at the top of a small flight of stairs that lead down to the grassy central quad of USM's Gorham campus. "Your dad sounds like a cool guy."
"Yeah." I study my sandals, my green-painted toenails. "He was." I rush on again. "So you're...Peter?"
"Peeta, actually. With an A."
"Oh. That's an unusual..."
"Yeah, I know," he says with a sigh and an eye roll. "Blame my folks. I usually just let people think I'm saying Peter, to avoid having to explain."
"I know the feeling." I sneak a glance at my watch, and I'm amazed to see that it's only been about 15 minutes since class let out. It feels like I've been talking to Peeta forever.
I like his name. It suits him, somehow. But I don't tell him that. Instead I begin edging away, saying, "Well, I guess I'll-"
"Hey," he says. "I was about to go over to the cafeteria. Would you want to grab a bite with me?"
I freeze. Did he just ask me out? A second later, I'm kicking myself. Don't be stupid. I'm not practised at the new-friendship thing. Plus, a guy like this simply has to have a girlfriend already.
"I would but..." I glance at my watch again. "I have to go meet my little sister off the bus."
He nods. "'Kay then, how about another time?"
I smile and manage a nod.
"Then I guess I'll see you around...Katniss." He looks down at his feet and then up again, through his lashes. I have to swallow hard as he says, more quietly, "Do you mind if I call you that? I know you go by Kat, but...I like Katniss. It...it suits you, somehow."
Only my dad calls me Katniss. Called. "Okay...I'll see you Tuesday."
I turn my back and flee, finally. My heart is beating way too fast, and I'm not sure I'm walking straight. I've just shared more personal details with a complete stranger than I have with most of my friends. Especially that old saying of my dad's. Where did that come from? Yeah, I was nervous and embarrassed, but still...
I'm only about ten paces away when my phone starts vibrating in my back pocket. There are only a few people that it could be.
It's a text from Prim. DONT WAIT UP 2NITE SLEEPING OVER RUES BYE
I roll my eyes, click my tongue and press the button to dial her back, stepping off the walkway onto the grass and crossing my arms over my chest as her phone rings.
"Did you really think you weren't gonna get a call back after that?"
She gives a long, exasperated sigh, as only a 14 year old can. "We're going to see the new James Bond movie at the Nick, and then I'm sleeping over at Rue's. And yes, her parents are going to be there. GOD, Kat."
I try to stifle a smile. "I hope you're not planning to walk all the way back to the West End after the movie."
"Thresh is picking us up." I can practically hear her eyes rolling.
"Isn't that movie rated R?"
"Good luck passing for 18." My sister is tiny, slender and blonde; her friend Rue is even smaller. They'd be lucky to get into a PG13 movie unquestioned. But the ticket takers at the Nickelodeon Theater are less than fastidious at age-checking. As in, they don't check.
"Can I expect you tomorrow, my little social butterfly?"
"Yeah, but not too early. So if you, like, have a date staying over, don't worry about it..."
"Ha freaking ha." In the year or so I've had the apartment, I've never once had a guy there, and she knows it.
"You should go out," she says, a little more seriously.
"We'll see. Have a good time, okay?"
"Kay. I love you."
"Love you too. Bye."
I'm smiling to myself as I slide the phone back into my pocket and start across the quad. Then I see him.
Peeta Mellark has settled down on one of the benches along the walkway just outside our Freshman Seminar building. He's watching me with that amused half-smile, his piercing blue eyes crinkling up in the corners.
Any other day, any other guy, I'd turn around and walk in the opposite direction. I'd find his interest creepy and weird.
But today, for this guy, I return the smile. My legs carry me across the grass, back onto the walkway, and over to the bench. He watches me the whole way. I don't break eye contact.
And then, I'm standing in front of him.
And the way he's sitting, his jeans are hitched up enough for me to see the tops of his sneakers. To see the athletic sock poking out of one, the right sneaker. Between the left sneaker and the cuff of his jeans, I see some kind of flesh-colored synthetic material. I see, also, that his left leg juts out a bit more into the walkway, like the knee won't bend as much.
The artificial knee. It's not a sports injury. He's lost one leg.
If it's possible, I now feel like even more of a total idiot for knocking over his cane. Twice.
"No sister?" He's trying to catch my eye, but I avoid it, afraid that he's seen that I've seen. That he'll realize I was too dense or unobservant (or self-absorbed) to notice before.
I fiddle with the strap of my bag. "Nope. She dumped me for James Bond."
He shakes his head. "So sad when that happens. And you never see it coming, do you?"
I shake my head back.
He inclines his head across the quad, toward the cafeteria. "So, how about that bite to eat?"
I feel my cheeks flush, remembering my slip of the tongue earlier. But I manage a nod.
And so, we go.