A/N: okay, this is an idea that I mused over a few months ago, but recently it really found its footing. It's based on the movie "Good Will Hunting" about a savant with a troubled past, trying to find their place in society, and named after the Elliott Smith song "Miss Misery." I'm going to play it safe and say that there may be some Trigger Warnings for abuse, sexual assault, and neglect. I've tried to play Katniss's plight with justice, and have read several stories from foster kids who "aged out" of the system, and the struggle they had.
During the first week of the spring semester at the Panem Institute of Technology, Doctor Plutarch Heavensbee would place a physics proof on the whiteboard outside of the Quantum Mechanics lecture hall. It wasn't one of the standard, textbook written problems that were regularly assigned in class. No. This problem was one that even the world's leading physicists found difficult to unravel. One that had taken Plutarch and his colleagues nearly a year to solve.
It was a competition of sorts. One offered to the undergraduates of PITs physics program, who were on the cusp of finishing their degree, and in search of opportunities and accolades to kick off their doctorate studies. The prize was a position as one of Doctor Plutarch Heavensbee's research assistants on his latest funded project. Quite the achievement for an undergraduate, as Doctor Heavensbee was a world famous, well respected physicists, one of two to ever be awarded the Fields Medal for his work in statistical mechanics. When Heavensbee set out on a research project, it was a guaranteed publication in practically every APS journal around.
Often the graduate students would spoil the competition by solving the proof long before any of the seniors could wrap their minds around it. But on this particular year, not even the PhD students could crack the code. That was until the morning, one week before the solution was to be revealed, when Plutarch noticed an addition to the board.
The student had done what no other had thought to do. Assumed that the mass was floating along a conductive plane, designing the foundations for a hovercraft.
He announced proudly to the class, that whomever had tackled the beast was entitled to a lifetime of bragging rights, and free to start basking in the glory. But as all the young, wide eyes darted around the room, waiting for someone to stake claim, not a single soul raised their hand. And when he hounded the graduate and doctorate students, none would take credit either. Even the faculty members he addressed hadn't a clue who the mysterious physicist was.
And so, he began leaving a new problem on the board, each more difficult than the last, and with the same effortless organization of postulates and proofs, the solution was found.
Determined to stump them, it became his obsession. He searched through all of his research, all the publications made in his name, and finally, selected a problem that had yet to be solved. The subject of his latest research. He had some theories on the matter, but they all led to dead ends. He was still missing a piece to the puzzle and hoped his mysterious savant could find the answer. He wrote out the proof on the same whiteboard outside his classroom, leaving citations and equations as guidance, and then left, to wait.
Katniss Everdeen hoisted her mop from its bucket and rested it in the cradle to squeeze out the excess water. The motion was tiring, but her body had grown accustomed to it. The muscles in her arms and shoulders were rigid and strong, albeit smaller than most. She hid her strength in her petite form. Not by choice – she wished that she was taller. Heavier. People wouldn't consider her weak, which would have been an asset to her.
Instead, she barely existed. That was good too. It was easier not to exist.
The hallway to the physics building was dimly lit at night, especially on this floor. Elsewhere, tables were packed with buzzing students, working furiously on homework sets, even though it was a Friday night. That was the price for attending the Panem Institute of Technology, she supposed. That, and the $100,000 a year tuition.
Sliding the murky water across the floor, Katniss hummed quietly to herself. Her braid had frayed, and dark, wiry curls fell into her eyes with each pass. She paused to smooth her hair behind her ears, and pressed her lips together when she caught sight of the stack of handouts in Professor Chaff's drop box.
He taught Vibrations and Waves, a slightly more advanced course than Physics I or II, and left most of the assignments outside his office in case someone had missed his class. Katniss had checked out the textbook for the course from the library on a whim, and had been following along – as she found some of the material to be beneficial to her snare work. Not that she depended on snares to feed herself anymore. It was more of a hobby now. Something to distract herself from her mind. She took a copy from the drop box and rolled it up to slip into her back pocket.
When she finished mopping on the second floor, she returned the bucket to the closet and changed out of her gray jumpsuit. Her jeans were too big, sagging from her hipbones, and she hugged her large Army jacket tightly around her small frame to hide it. Her weight was always fluctuating because her body didn't know what a normal appetite was. Some months she would gorge herself, until she was bursting at the seams, but other times, her body shut down, preparing itself for imminent starvation. Her body hadn't overcome survival mode yet. She wondered if it ever would.
The bus that would take her back to her apartment didn't come for another 45 minutes, and while it was spring, it was still too cold to wait outside. Katniss stood in the alcove that separated the entrance doors, her eyes flitting towards the commons, where students huddled around tables and passionately argued over a particularly interesting problem. She unfolded Professor Chaff's handout from her back pocket, and smoothed out the creases to inspect it. None of the systems looked too difficult, and she had a pencil in her pocket. She sat at an empty table near the edge of the room and methodically worked through each problem. There were eight in total, and when she looked up at the clock on the far wall, she saw that only 10 minutes had passed.
Letting out a resigned sigh, she crumpled up the paper and dropped it into the trash bin. She decided to take the long way to the bus stop, traveling up the empty corridors to reach the far side of the building. There was an atrium near this entrance, with giant glass windows that stretched for three stories. From the ceiling, a thin, twisted piece of metal was suspended, and as it spun around it resembled different mathematical symbols, like e, infinity, and pi. Katniss watched as it caught the light and morphed into the different shapes, casting silver streaks across the walls.
There was also a giant whiteboard at this entrance, in front of one of the main lecture halls. Usually, it was cluttered with random student's notes, those who had paused mid debate to work out an equation, or prove a point. The past few weeks, however, complex theories had been left for students to solve. Katniss wasn't sure what the point was, but she found these problems to be much more challenging than Chaff's coursework, and had managed to figure out all the proofs that had been posted so far. Taking out a piece of scrap paper, she copied all the notes on the board, before stepping outside to catch her bus.
The city of Panem swept past her as the bus hurdled down the main drag of town. The yellow glow of the streetlamps was hazy and stretched and constricted as the bus paused at each stop. Near the outskirts of town, she recalled that Gale and the guys were waiting for her down at the Hob, the bar they frequented. Fortunately, it was a few stops before her apartment, and she reached up to tug on the cord that lined the bus' windows just in time to catch the correct intersection.
The Hob was more of a dive bar, with sticky, smelly floors, and walls that were covered with stolen street signs and other bizarre antiques. There was an unspoken rule that anything on the wall was up for grabs, as long as it was replaced with something of equal value. For example, Katniss had traded an albino squirrel hide, which she had caught and skinned in the woods, in exchange for an olive green jacket that had been swiped from an army surplus store. The pelt was the crowning glory on the wall, and the jacket was Katniss's favorite.
Rory, Gale's younger brother, and Thom were beneath the colored glow of a neon Keystone sign, leaning against their pool cues as they scoped out the spread from their break. Katniss acknowledged them with a small nod, and sat down at a nearby table. She was friends with both of them because of Gale, but outside of him, they were more of acquaintances. It was hard for her to make friends, and the relationship she had built with Gale over the years had sort of been a coup over her usual trust issues.
Katniss tapped her finger against the damp table top, and stretched her neck to look above the crowd. The Hob was never this crowded, but since most of the local universities had just started their semester, a lot more coeds were frequenting the bars on 12th Ave than usual.
She rolled the long sleeves of her coat over her hands, covering half of her face when she propped her chin in her palm. She spotted Gale almost instantly. It wasn't difficult. He was the type of handsome that effortlessly drew a crowd. Tall, with strong shoulders that tapered to a lean waist. Gale had similar coloring to Katniss, but while her features were sharp and harsh looking, his were rugged. His silver eyes were set deeply beneath his heavy brow, and stubble peppered jaw.
Their friendship was one that should have turned to romance, she was sure, but they never connected on that level. In fact, it was an idea she had hardly even humored. She and Gale were not lovers. They were not family. Simply put, they were what they were.
Bystanders, however, did not share in this interpretation, if the icy glares trained in her direction was any indication. Gale was flanked by two women, wearing their university's name tightly across the chest of their tee shirts, and they both seemed to have taken note of Katniss looking in their direction. Their laughter was fake, and they leaned into him as if marking their territory. Gale wasn't the type to play those kind of games, and he shook them off when his eyes connected with Katniss's.
"You're late," he said. He slid a beer into her hands and she frowned. It resembled a root beer float more than a stout, the way Sae poured.
"I thought this type of head was illegal," she said, holding the glass up to catch the light.
"From what I've heard that's your stance on all types of head," Gale said with a rye chuckle.
"Your brother is not a reliable source on that matter," she mumbled before taking a long swig.
He leaned his elbows on the table. "Would you like to set the record straight?"
"Gross," she shoved his arm, and he caught himself with his hand before he lost his balance. "Remind me to never allow either one of you near my sister." Gale dropped his gaze, his smile immediately fading. That was his usual reaction when she spoke of her sister. Like she was deluded and he was too kind to let her down gently. It made her angry, to be treated like a child, but she never brought it up. Maybe it was because she didn't want to know why he was so doubtful of ever finding her sister.
"You should ask your friends over there what their stance on the matter is?" she said, effectively changing the tone their conversation had taken. "I'm sure they'd love to go into graphic detail."
Gale glanced over his shoulder at the table of girls that he had left behind. He shook his head, his eyebrows quirking upward in a thoughtful manner. "They go to Four Districts College. Marine biology. Invited me to go out on their boat."
"They offered to show you their tits, and you're sitting here with me?"
"Funny, Catnip," he said, before lifting his beer to his lips.
Panem was a unique city in that it stood on its own as a thriving industry, but was also well known for its endless list of prestigious universities. Capitol and PIT were the most notorious, but they were not the only schools. Four District College was one of the twelve other schools on the list. It wasn't a community college, but it was close to it. They were top ranked for their nursing program, marine sciences, and quite literally, their student body.
Gale tipped his glass until it was empty of liquid and then dropped it to the table. "Pool or darts?" he said, licking his lips clean.
"Darts," she said, finishing her own beer and standing from the table.
There was a cluster of dart boards on the other side of the bar, and she spotted one that appeared to be vacant. Only problem was, it was located directly adjacent to the Four girls that Gale had rejected.
Katniss passed them carefully, picking up a rag to clean off the board beside the target. She kept her head bowed as she worked, hoping to avoid attention, but the girls beside her didn't speak with discretion.
"I'm hardly jealous of some dyke," the blonde said, tipping back her apple rimmed martini. "Look at her, she's disgusting."
"It's charity that he even talks to her," her friend assured her. "Can you not afford a hair brush on welfare?"
"Careful Clove, she may shank you in the parking lot," her friend warned with an icy giggle.
"She'd probably like that."
Katniss balled the rag into her fist and dropped it on the rack. She scooped up the dart set and crossed the room to rejoin Gale. Turning briskly, she launched a dart so that it struck the inner red ring beneath the 20. Without pause, she shot another dart, easing away the first one to land in nearly the same spot. She could still hear the obnoxious laughs of the girls, and it caused her heart to pound with rage, deafening her ears.
This hadn't been the first time she'd heard these types of insults hurled around. And every time she felt this dehumanized, she felt the anger rush through her blood like a mind of its own.
"Careful hot shot," the blonde girl, Glimmer, called out. "You're supposed to hit the center."
"Trip 20's worth more, Goldilocks," Gale called back, giving the girl a wink.
Her eyes shifted from the bulls eye to focus on the apple slice balanced on the rim of Glimmer's glass. She lifted her last dart to align with the bull's eye, but at the last second she turned her aim, and let the dart fly, the tip piercing the apple wedge and lifting it from the glass to pin it against the nearby wall.
The girls shrieked, one toppling her blood red cocktail over the front of her blouse as they fused around the speared apple.
Katniss bit back her smile. "Oops," she said flatly. "How do you like them apples?"
"Play nice," Gale said, rolling his eyes with faint amusement. He tugged on the end of her braid. "I'm going to go do damage control."
Setting her jaw, she clenched her teeth so tightly that she began to tremble. She and Gale tended to get along well because they understood one another. Their tempers were like fire, generally calm, unless rightfully provoked. She tried not to see the flirtation he carried on with this girls as a betrayal, but the feelings of doubt flared within her.
While she and Gale were alike, they were also greatly different. Both had lost their fathers when they were young, but Gale still had a mother, two brothers, and a sister. He was able to keep his family together, with the help of his mother. Katniss, on the other hand, had failed.
She didn't want to sulk anymore, and decided to get another drink instead. The area around the bar was densely packed, and she'd have to squeeze between a bunch of strangers to get Sae's attention. She hesitated, watching carefully for a break in the crowd. The music that had been humming idly in the background changed abruptly, drowning out the other sound around her, including her heart, which had been beating loudly in her ears.
"You sheltered me from harm. Kept me warm, kept me warm."
She narrowed her eyes, turning to look at the jukebox. It was a bizarre song to play at a bar. Mellow. Easy listening. She almost laughed it was so out of place.
Abandoning her mission to get a drink, she moved to the abandoned jukebox.
"You gave my life to me. Set me free, Set me free," it sang to her. This time she did laugh, her eyes rolling back into her head. She braced herself against the frame of the jukebox as she laughed, any anger or anxiety she felt earlier suddenly lifted.
"Bread," she read the name off the screen. She shook her head, and began to flip through the menu to pick another song.
"What do you think you're doing?"
Katniss looked up, squaring her shoulders into a defensive stance at his accusing tone. There was no reason though. He looked harmless. Sure, his shoulders were broad, stronger looking than Gale's, but his eyes were a soft, gentle looking blue and the wild mop of blonde curls that dusted the frames of his glasses almost looked cartoonish.
He leaned his elbow against the jukebox and continued to speak with mock authority. "You can't change somebody's song. I think there's a rule against that."
"I wouldn't want to ruin my pristine record," she said wryly, and turned her attention back to the menu.
"Maybe I was trying to impress somebody," he argued.
Her eyes focused on his brown leather loafers. They looked expensive. His khakis looked freshly pressed too, and although the top few buttons of his dress shirt were undone to reveal a white tee shirt underneath, it was still tucked into his pants.
"You're going to have to try harder than that," she said.
He scoffed. "If you're going to insult my taste in music, at least have the decency to put something good on."
Katniss was scrolling through the Doors catalog and looked up at him incredulously. "What's wrong with the doors."
"Nothing," he bit back with disgusted amusement. The corner of his lips turned up into a grin, and she noticed the way it made his eyes sparkle, even beneath the glare of his lenses. "Just that Morrison is a glorified hack."
"This from a guy who thinks elevator music is appropriate for a bar."
"Fair point, but if you're going to override somebody's selection, it better be exponentially better," he said.
Katniss held up her hands and stepped away from the jukebox. "By all means. If you're the expert, please enlighten me, what is a worthy artist?"
His lips were pressed into a thin line, his eyes completely serious. "Justin Bieber."
She laughed again, so hard that her cheeks hurt. She punched a few more buttons and Guns N' Roses version of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" began to play. "How's this?" she asked.
"A bit macabre," he said with a grimace. "But acceptable. I'm Peeta, by the way." He held up his arms trying to figure out the proper way to introduce himself, but he held a drink in each hand.
"Katniss," she said, nodding curtly.
"I've got this extra drink," he said, holding one out awkwardly. "My friend ordered it, but he sort of abandoned me to entertain his lady friend." He tipped it towards her. "Want it? I'm not sure what it is exactly." He inspected it curiously. "A JDB? Apparently it tastes like root beer. With Jack Daniels, of course."
Her eyes flitted between his face and the glass. "Um, no thank you," she said tightly. She wasn't about to accept a drink from a stranger.
"Sorry, that was really creepy," he said with a nervous chuckle. "Look if you want to corroborate my story, my friend is probably in the woman's bathroom, third stall, he says that's where he does his best work."
Her eyes widened, and she glanced at the bathroom and then back at him. "I'm fine, thanks."
"Wow, this is not going well at all." His grin was sheepish and the flush of his cheeks was so sweetly innocent, she couldn't bring herself to be annoyed by him. "Let me try this again. I'm Peeta. I go to Capitol." He flinched. "But I'm studying art history so I'm really just a dumbass, I guess, not one of those pretentious assholes. What about you?" he said, lifting his drink to take a desperate sip. "Where do you go?"
"I don't go to school," she said, lifting her shoulder into a shrug. "I just live here."
He narrowed his eyes. "You are 18, right?"
"Twenty," she corrected him. "One," she added, when she remembered where she was.
"Well I can appreciate that," he said with a nod. "Skipping higher education. Sometimes I feel like I'm flushing my money down the toilet for an exorbitantly expensive piece of paper."
"You mean your parent's money," she said, a bit more harshly than she intended.
He sighed and bowed his head. "I suppose so."
He balanced his extra drink on the jukebox and shifted his weight to lean on the wall. "So I have to confess something," he said. His voice was playfully serious again, putting Katniss on edge as she tried to decipher his motives. "I've been looking for an excuse to talk to you all night."
She took a step back, perplexed. "Oh?"
"Yeah. Since you were making a show of skewering fruit over there," he said, hooking his thumb over his shoulder towards the dart board. "It actually helped eliminate my competition, because before that, every guy in the bar was watching you."
"I don't think so," she said, shaking her head.
"No, I'm serious, they were," he said, his chuckle infectious. "But then they saw your aim, and now they're terrified of you."
She bit back her smile. "But not you?"
"Oh, no, that Glimmer girl had me cornered before. Kind of vapid." He adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose. "You're like my knight in shining armor really, for knocking her down a peg."
He looked over her shoulder and straightened his posture. "Looks like my friend's back," he said. His eyes were still focused on the other side of the room as he pantomimed a conversation with his friend with tilts of the head and exaggerated hand motions.
Katniss followed his line of vision, to a statuesque looking man with tan skin and wild, copper colored hair. Beside him was a dazed looking brunette, clinging tightly to his arm.
"And ready to leave," Peeta added. "He's my ride, so..."
"Oh," she said, unsure of the disappointment that crept into her voice.
He bounced on his heels, chewing on his lip anxiously. "Could I get your number, maybe?" he said abruptly.
She lifted her eyebrows in surprise. Nobody had ever asked for her phone number before. Not outside of clerical workers at the courthouse and local precincts. Her cheeks felt like they were burning. "Um, I'm kind of in between phone numbers right now."
Her apartment didn't have a land line, and while she had a "pay as you go" phone for a while, it became a luxury she didn't really need. Usually when she had to list a phone number, she just used Gale, who passed along the messages. This situation didn't seem appropriate for that.
"Oh." His smile crumbled and he looked deflated. "Okay, I get it." He nodded politely at her, but didn't meet her eye. "It was nice talking to you Katniss."
He began to move away when Katniss's eyes settled on Clove and Glimmer by the dart boards. Gale wasn't with them anymore, he was back with Rory and Thom, and Katniss felt a vague satisfaction at this. They were caught up in their own world, in another conversation, probably over the earlier encounter entirely. But Katniss wasn't. And when the happened to glance in her direction, she felt a spark drive her forward.
"Peeta, wait," she called out. "Maybe you could give me your number?"
He turned on the balls of his feet to look at her curiously. "If this is your way of letting me down gently, it's fine. I can deal with the rejection rather effortlessly."
"No," she said, her voice carrying genuine sincerity. "I want it."
His grin widened, and she noticed the dimples that pinched each cheek. "And you'll call me?" He stepped back towards her, his shoulder lifting anxiously when he tucked his free hand into his pocket, the other cradling his half empty beer. "When your number situation is worked out?"
She smiled, nodding briskly. "At the convergence of my numbers, I will be sure to give you a call."
He began patting on his pockets, a bewildered look in his eyes. "I usually just use my phone for these types of things."
Katniss reached into her pocket and leafed through the scraps of paper in her pocket, handing him a clean one, along with her pencil. He jotted his number down quickly and extended it back to her.
"Nice meeting you Katniss," he said with a wink.
She pinched the scrap of paper between her fingers, feeling dazed as she watched him walk away. She pushed off the jukebox, scooping up the JDB he had left behind. Lifting it to her lips, she took a small sip, just as he turned in the doorway to give her one last wave. The drink was sweet, with a biting edge. It made her think of him.
Katniss returned to the table with Gale, Rory, and Thom, listening quietly as they teased one another, and dodging all of Gale's off handed questions about "that preppie guy over there."
When their glasses were all empty, Gale dropped them off one by one. Katniss lived closest to the Hob, and was the first stop. "You're picking me up after work tomorrow?" she confirmed as she climbed out of the passenger seat (her designated spot.)
He nodded, tooting the horn for good measure before driving off.
The key stuck in the doorknob, and she had to force it to twist before the door finally sprang open. She stepped carefully through the darkened room, making sure nothing was out of place. Every cabinet and closet door was left open, and she peered inside them and behind the shower curtain to confirm that no one else was there. This was her routine.
Katniss lived in a run down row house, which she rented from a family while the usual tenant was serving a back to back life sentence in the Arena Correctional Facility. It wasn't in the nicest part of Panem. But it wasn't in the worst part either. She would know. She'd spent most of her adolescence there.
It was nothing special. A tiny kitchen with a two burner stove, mini-fridge, and sink you'd usually find installed in a wet bar. A living room that consisted of a patched up couch and coffee table that she and Gale had pulled from a dumpster, and a bedroom with only a mattress and box spring piled on the floor.
Her walls were bare, with no pictures or decorations. She didn't have anything from her childhood, and as she grew older, holding onto memories seemed kind of pointless.
She slipped into a pair of shorts and sank onto her bed. Her comforter was clean and warm, always smelling of detergent. It was the first thing she had ever bought new. The only thing in her life that wasn't tarnished. She pulled the blanket to her chin and rolled onto her side to stare into her open closet.
The night was the worst. She was always trapped in her thoughts. Her memories. She never wanted to be there.
Katniss flipped on the lamp beside her bed and drew her knees to her chest. There was a pile of library books at the foot of her bed. Some of them were math and physics books, but others were manuals for the City of Panem's Child Protective Services regulations. She had read the manuals cover to cover countless times. Always in search of the loophole that would reunite her with her sister. She picked up one of the plastic bound books and turned to the page that listed qualifications for a guardian. The page was littered with highlighted passages and notes in the margins
"Embrace and protect."
"Stable and strong."
Tears clouded her vision unexpectedly, and she tossed the book aside as if it were on fire. She reached for her jacket to retrieve the scraps of paper in her pocket. Sorting through them, she selected the one with the latest proof scrawled across it. This was easy. This she could do. She reached for her notebook, and pressed her pencil to the page, working through the equations and unknowns until sunlight began to trickle through her window.
Song lyrics are from Bread's "Everything I Own" and a JDB is a Jack, Dandelion & Burdock, which seemed appropriate for a bread scene parallel. I'm on tumblr (absnow) feel free to drop by and join the party.