I do not own The Hunger Games.

Trigger warning: Prenatal complications, discussion of abortion, wristband therapy.

GNO 29: Flowers Bloom

I carefully balance the box I'm holding along with our mail as I make my way back up to our room. Today is Katniss's birthday and I'm thrilled that she's received a couple of cards– at least one from Prim, and another from Haymitch, the guy she talks about every once in a while. I'm thrilled because it takes some of the pressure off me to make this birthday fun and exciting even though we're heading back to her hometown in a week.

Like I need that pressure on top of fucking finals.

Plus, I know Peeta is going all-out with some crazy dinner for all of us and I need to compete with that like I need a freaking hole in my head. He's probably going to finish it off with a pastry homage to his undying love for her. Why he's not taking her upstairs for a private party, a la Lady Gaga, I don't know. Frankly, I've stopped wondering why these two kids aren't spending every second jackhammering each other on any available flat surface.

I drop everything on the desk and flop into my polka dot beanbag chair while I wait for Katniss to wake the hell up. Kicking off my sneaks – which promptly reminds me to put some baby powder in the bottom of them – I rip open the latest letter from Angus MacLeod.

Yeah. Brue's grandpa and I are pen pals. So? He's sharing his life's wisdom in a way that's at least as helpful as my sessions with Dr. Aurelius. I'm not sure what he gets out of this deal, but it works for me so I don't question it.

Dear Johanna,

Lass, I hope you are well. I hear finals are coming soon. Although I'm sure that concerns you, I am confident you'll have a strong finish.

About your friend and his marriage – I'm sure that Elizabeth will say that "a baby is a blessing". That's true but not in the way she thinks. A baby makes a man, Johanna, and your friend will become the man he was meant to be. Nothing changes a man like knowing they must provide for someone else in the world. I suspect you're aware of how powerful the need to take care of someone is, or you wouldn't have the concerns you do. You can't control what happens to him any more than you can control his reactions. Not every choice of his will be your choice. Family is like that and all we can do is be there to celebrate the successes and help them through any failures. That's the best we can do, lass, for the ones we love – walk alongside them.

Try not to stress about the future for it will be here soon enough.

Hold fast,

Angus MacLeod

I stop and stare out the window for a minute. On the one hand, that sounds a lot like a bunch of bullshit. On the other hand, it's pretty much what Dr. A. and I have been working on, so I decide to go with it. Besides, Finn and Annie seem to be able to take care of each other just fine and the weeks since Vegas have passed by almost exactly the same as the weeks before it. We study; we have dinner at the frat house; we party there. Oh, Annie doesn't join us for that last one and Finn's cutting back as well, but if it weren't for the baby bump she's sporting, I would completely forget she's pregnant.

I hear rustling behind me and glance to confirm that Katniss is waking up. She's such an angel this early in the morning – not. Sure enough, she's wiping drool off her chin and drowsily squinting at where I sit.

"Jo?" She sounds like a frog who mated with a feral cat.

"Wake up, Brainless! I brought you breakfast." I walk toward her, gingerly cradling the pastry box that holds her special birthday doughnut.

She sits up. "What is that?"

"Take a look." I plop it down on the edge of her bed then go get forks while she takes in the deep fried glory.

"Jo…this is…this is…" Katniss can neither speak nor take her eyes off of it. I take both as a good sign.

"Everdeen, any day now you can stop being so pure. It's a Cock 'N Balls doughnut," I say matter-of-factly. "Since I know Peeta's not gonna slip you a cream-filled treat today…Dig in." I hand her a fork.

I wait for her to gingerly poke the beast in the box before snagging a bite of one of the balls myself. I'm not disappointed: the cream is cool, but the doughnut and chocolate glaze are still slightly warm. I doubt even Peeta could do better.

She takes a tentative first bite. I know I've got her hooked when she immediately goes back for more. "How did you get this made? I'm guessing you didn't go to Peeta."

"No way did I go to your forever-frustrated boyfriend and ask him to make a cream-filled cock for your birthday. Even I'm not that cruel. I went to the guy I know works the opening shift at Commons. He was amenable once I offered him a blowjob."

Katniss's mouth hangs open, her fork paused in transit and a small glob of pastry cream drips onto her Sesame Street pajamas. "You blew someone to have this made?"

"No. I offered to blow someone. Vast difference. Poor guy, it looked like I made his year. Not only did he get right on the fryer, but he used the one with the freshest oil too. And I think he gave me the friends and family discount." I punctuate the statement with a long lick up the edge of my fork while Katniss laughs.

At the sound of a knock on the door, I urge her to keep eating.

"Is the birthday girl awake?" Madge motions behind me with shell-pink nails that perfectly match her lip gloss. I know I should be used to Madge looking photo-ready no matter the time of day or night. Before I invite her in, I idly wonder if she looks that perfect when she's riding Gale with a ten inch strap-on.

"Come help Katniss eat some cock for breakfast. God knows she can't finish it all." I scrounge an extra fork when Madge raises an eyebrow and joins us on Katniss's bed. When she takes a bite and gives a little nod of approval, I raise my Go Girl! energy drink in salute.

Hey, it takes a lot of effort to eat that much deep fried cock.

"To Katniss!" I cheer. "May this be her year for all sorts of cocks."

"Gee, uh, thanks Jo." Katniss blushes the color of the Elmo on her pajama top.

"You're welcome. Oh, you have some mail."

I hand her the envelopes that came for her and she eagerly rips them open. Prim's includes a card with a recording of her singing Happy Birthday inside, as well as a picture of her and some kid named Rory all dressed up. Just the sight of her sister lights up Katniss's face so brightly I have to turn away. Today may be her birthday, but I still have trouble witnessing how happy her sister makes her. I may get over it someday. Today is not that day.

I figure it's safe to turn back to her when I hear the other envelope ripping. It's most definitely a card accompanied by what looks to be a check. Where most kids are happy to get money of some sort, Everdeen's frowning like someone just told her to do her homework with a Sharpie.

Her frown clears when Madge asks quietly, "Everything alright?"

"Yeah. Sorry. Just…Haymitch." Katniss blows out a slow breath. "He knows I can't repay him and he's done so much for me already-"

"It's your birthday, Katniss. If he sent it to you as a gift, maybe you should just take it."

A long look that I can't interpret passes between Katniss and Madge, which would normally piss me off as badly as if I caught the two of them talking about me behind my back. Today, though, I let it go. It feels good. Like I'm becoming a better person.

Holy shit! Maybe all that time with Dr. Aurelius is working!

Madge's phone rings before either she or Katniss can explain whatever the Haymitch look was for. Her greeting has me snorting energy drink up my nose. And let me tell you how much that stings like a motherfucker.

"Hi, Kitten. Did you find out from Peeta what time dinner is tonight?" She pauses while Kitten - so help me God, if that's Gale, I'm going to tease him forever – explains whatever it is he or she has to say. "Okay. We'll see you later. No, I haven't forgotten our other plans. Someone is very excited, isn't he? Save it for tonight, pet."

By the time she hangs up, I'm rolling around on my bed, trying not to guffaw. "Was that Gale? Please, please tell me that was Gale."

Madge leans over and hugs Katniss, ignoring my chortles. "Happy Birthday. I'll see you at the frat house at 6." She shoots me a glance on her way out the door. "Johanna, do not ruin my night by messing with him."

I look her dead in the eye and meow loudly before collapsing in another fit of laughter.

I'm wiping my eyes and giggling through aftershocks long after she's gone, so I almost miss Katniss's statement, "You're in a great mood."

"Did you hear that? She called Gale Kitten." I let out another snicker.

Katniss gives a little smile. "I heard. But you've been in a great mood for a couple of weeks now –even through finals – you've been different. What's up?"

I shrug. "Nothing, really. Oh! Except I have a new porn crush on Tyler Nixon." I smile because that has really perked me up lately.

As usual, Everdeen is completely clueless. "Who?"

I swear it's like she was time warped here from another reality. One where they barely have electricity. "Tyler Nixon. He looks just like the guy from Journey to the Center of the Earth? The cute one? With the dark hair and the amazing ass?" I shake my head at her continued look of complete confusion. "Never mind. I'm just in a good place right now, I guess: I'm excited to meet Prim and spend the summer with you in Fairfield; I'm stoked that the school year is over; I'm learning I don't need to control everything; and I'm just really grateful for all of the friends I've made this year."

"Jo, was there an alien pod next to your bed this morning?"

Katniss's delivery is so straight that I almost miss that it's a joke and a movie reference as well. When it finally sinks in, I gape at her and she grins back.

"Are you complaining about my good mood?" I draw my brows together in the best impression I've got of her. "Because I did get you the biggest dick you've seen all year, barring that cucumber Peeta used in lieu of his Sasquatch penis. And, might I remind you, you haven't even thanked me for it. Or thanked me for not singing Happy Birthday."

"His what? And I am eternally grateful you did not sing. Really."

"His Sasquatch penis. Because you still haven't confirmed its existence. Sasquatch? Get it?"

Another blank look answers my question: despite her brief moment of brilliance, my roommate is totally hopeless.

-o—

Peeta's dinner is fucking amazing. I know I say that every time we eat a meal of his, but it's like he has some sort of culinary voodoo. Tonight is no exception, and the breaded chicken breasts in habanero cream sauce are sublime: the combination of spicy, smooth, and sweet is the perfect complement for the slightly bitter taste of the asparagus and the tang of the cilantro-rice. If fruit and chicken and had an orgy, this is what it would taste like. Peeta even makes the presentation lovely. Cloth napkins adorn the table instead of the big-box store paper ones we normally use, and three small vases of daisies grace the table. I know the second Katniss gets overwhelmed and starts to feel guilty that he's gone to all of this trouble because her eyes dart around the room like she wants nothing more than to go hide in a closet.

I figure it's time to provide a distraction. "So, what can I expect in Fairfield? I have to admit that I can't wait to see how the East Coast lives."

"You're going back East this summer?" Brue asks as he helps Peeta dish. It's probably the most civil thing he's said to me lately that doesn't involve running or music.

I nod. "Yeah. Everdeen was nice enough to invite me. It's going to be quite an adventure."

"Fairfield will never know what hit it." Gale laughs. He pours drinks for everyone and adds, "It's not that different from here, except the food is better."

I snort. "I find that hard to believe."

Finn jumps in. "The pizza is amazing. The bagels too. And there're doughnuts, like, everywhere. Dad and I ate our way from one side of New York City to the other. If you didn't gain the freshman ten here, you will this summer."

The importance of doughnuts in my life has never been debated, but I shoot Finn a look like he's being disloyal. "I bet we have better Mexican."

"True. But we have real Greek diners, not just Daphne's." Peeta takes his place at the table and we all consider our dinners, chicken and asparagus lying there glistening like they're in a post money-shot euphoria, soaked in orgasmic-sauce. Yeah. I can see where a chain store wouldn't be something Peeta considers to be real food.

"I wouldn't worry about the food, Jo. Worry about the bugs. Katniss, did you tell her about the mosquitos?" Madge wags a finger at her when Katniss shakes her head. "They're the size of airplanes."

Brue chuckles lightly. "Well, the bugs better beware of Johanna: she bites back."

When he winks at me, I glare at him before turning back to Finn. "What are you and Annie doing for the summer?"

Finn shrugs, a light blush of embarrassment coloring his cheeks. "I'm gonna try to keep up lifeguarding. They haven't confirmed yet whether they need me, though."

"I'm going to take some classes and try to get ahead of things." A frown crosses Annie's face for a second but then clears when Finn reaches over and squeezes the hand she's resting on her small belly.

"I'll be in L.A. the whole summer, if you guys want to get together, or need anything…" Brue looks from Finn to Annie and back. I'm struck by how available he seems tonight. Normally he stays more on the periphery, quiet conversations seem more his thing. I idly wonder if there was a pod next to his bed or something, because his megawatt smile gives Peeta's grin a run for its money.

I ignore the butterflies that flutter in my stomach. Even when – especially when – Brue asks if I'll help him do the dishes despite Peeta's protests that he'll clean up later. I'm not sure what Brue's ulterior motive is, but I find myself saying yes, butterflies-be-damned. I actually have to clamp my thighs together from the grin he gives me.

It pisses me off. It's been so long since we've had a cease fire after our disaster trip to Vegas that I've almost forgotten how attractive he is. And to suddenly remember on tonight of all nights? Not cool.

"What the fuck is up with you tonight?" I ask quietly when I am up to my elbows in soapy water. When he shrugs, I glare at him. "Seriously. You're all friendly and outgoing. Are you on meds?"

He stands really close to me. Close enough that I can smell his tangy deodorant or aftershave, see the purple from his Polo shirt reflected in the deep blue of his eyes, and really notice the cords of muscle in his neck when he laughs at my statement. Close enough that I want to punch his arm to make him give me some space, or sink my teeth into his shoulder. You know. Like a warning bite.

"Maybe this is just my normal, sparkling personality."

"You wouldn't fucking sparkle if you were a vampire in Twilight." I snort.

He laughs. "I've always preferred werewolves anyway. At least they get to howl at the moon and eschew all the vampire politics. Speaking of which…are you staying on campus next year?"

It's pretty common at 'SC to live off campus. Most of the kids who go here don't want to live all four years in South Central Los Angeles. I don't mind it, though, and Katniss and I plan on rooming together again in the fall.

"Yeah. Katniss and I are staying in Trojan Hall. Madge too, I think. Are you staying in the frat house? Or moving in with some of your teammates?" My stomach clenches a little at the thought of never seeing Brue again. 'SC may only be two-point-two miles in circumference, but we don't even share a major and have never bumped into each other outside of the frat.

"I'm sticking around here. I can't possibly move away from Peeta's dinners, can I?" He bumps my shoulder, which splashes water across my white t-shirt, making it transparent and exposing the lace of my bra. Fucking bastard doesn't even have the grace to say he's sorry, but just grins and adds, "I hope your don't go soft over the summer: I'd hate for our runs to stop next year."

I flick more than a few water droplets in his direction. "Like that's gonna happen. The only one of us who's going to go soft is you, L.A. Boy."

He bumps me with his hip so he can "accidentally" scoop water at me. "L.A. Boy? That's the best you've got?"

I bump him back, drop the sponge and splash two handfuls of water at him as my answer. He drops the dishtowel and all four of our hands are in the sink and water is flying as he laughs and I shriek indignantly.

"Children!" Peeta yells after snapping the discarded towel close enough to my butt that I jump back. He takes the opportunity to smoothly pluck the stopper from the sink. "Can we please continue with Katniss's party?"

We both hang our heads bashfully and mumble apologies. When Peeta announces that we're going to open gifts before cake, I sneak a glance at Brue to find him grinning at me while he dabs at his soaked shirt with a napkin. I'm so wet that I don't even bother trying to dry off. I know nothing short of a change of clothes is going to help. I glare at him and turn away, but not before I see him wink again in my direction.

What the fuck?

Meanwhile, Katniss stares at the small pile of gifts in much the same way she looked at the Christmas gift from my mom: her expression is something between bemused and ill. Annie slides the first one toward her and urges her to open it. It's a beautiful, leather- bound journal with a stylized bird design embossed on the cover. Leave it to Annie to notice that Katniss keeps a journal. When Katniss passes me the book, a few pages flutter and I notice writing on one. I flip it open to an inscription that reads, "To Katniss - may this help you take flight. Love, Annie and Finn."

It's a great inscription, considering that I know at least some of the work she's doing with Dr. A. is about becoming something. I think a bird in flight is as great an analogy as any.

Brue gives her some music that she's been coveting; Madge and Gale chipped in and got her a picture of a knife. Gale explains that the actual gift is a hunting knife. Since he knows she'll want to use it at home rather than school, they had the actual knife shipped to Fairfield, hence the pic. Personally, I think a seven inch serrated blade is just the kind of thing you want to keep handy in your backpack, but it's not my gift so I don't get a vote.

I slide my gift to her and she takes it gingerly. I know she's thinking it's a classy assortment of edible underwear or something but she's wrong. I wait patiently for her to tear off the gift wrap and watch as her eyes widen.

Brue speaks slowly, interrupting her reaction, as if he can't believe I know how to buy normal things. "It's a book."

"Yeah. So? You were expecting what? A suction cup dildo?" I don't let on that I had considered it the last time I was on the Luv Boutique's website but those fuckers are expensive!

My directness has zero impact on him. "Well, you have seemed pent-up lately –"

I narrow my eyes, despite his words being the understatement of the century. "Are you volunteering to help me out with that now?" I watch as the verbal axe finds purchase and his eyes widen and drop from mine.

Direct hit, I think, and turn to Katniss with a grin. "I know you're into that dystopian Y.A. stuff, and I saw you take the first one out of the library. It just worked out that the second book in the trilogy released last week, and I know you're into kicking it old school with paper…"

"Jo, thank you! This is amazing." Katniss touches the cover gently. I don't let on that I know she's read the book multiple times, or that I've caught her checking out fanfic for it. I'm secretly sure that if she were ever going to leave Peeta for another guy, it would be the fictional main character. Which is funny because I've read it and Peeta is a lot like him, right down to the blond hair and blue eyes.

Peeta's gift is the only one left and Katniss stares at it the way you look at a huge spider. I can tell that Peeta is trying not to be hurt by her reluctance to open it just by the set of his manly jaw: if he keeps clenching like that, he's going to need a bite guard. Finally she takes the small package, rips it open and stares at the box with an unreadable expression. I'm not sure what's going on until I notice the flush that stains her cheeks, neck, and chest. Katniss doesn't flush like that, ever, unless it's something really amazing. Or she's drunk.

She brushes a hair back from her forehead. "Peeta, this is beautiful. Thank you." She has to clear her throat before she leans over and kisses him. I notice she's still not meeting his eyes and her flush hasn't dissipated, not even when they break apart and she nervously places the box on the table for all of us to take a look.

It's a necklace: a square of glass suspended from a black cord. Painted on the glass, or maybe between it, is a vibrant, pink hibiscus flower with accents of deep orange and center of crimson. Its intricate detail is lovely and painstaking. I can't even imagine the dedication and effort required to produce something like that.

"Peeta, did you paint that?" I ask.

"You should consider opening an Etsy store for stuff like this. You could make a killing," Annie adds. The way she's looking at the necklace, it's like she's considering how many of her hippie friends would want to buy something similar. I bet Peeta could pay for books next semester on her word-of-mouth alone.

Peeta shakes his head. "It's just a hobby."

"I'm just lucky I have a one-of-a-kind." Katniss says in a dulcet tone that makes me want to vomit even as she toys nervously with her braid.

I barely have time to think about what might be up with my roommate when Peeta moves the cake to the center of the table. It's a double layer, modest for him, decorated in creamy white frosting and decorated with what can only be katniss flowers. We do the singing thing and Peeta urges Katniss to make a wish on the three candles that he has ruthlessly shoved through his gorgeous frosting job. He insists they represent "past, present, and future." The cake is dished quickly, especially once the first slice hits a plate and we all realize it's a carrot cake with cream cheese and walnut frosting.

Can I just talk for a second about the cake? Because…well…it's a Peeta cake. And his carrot cake is perfect: no raisins, no pineapple, no nuts, no coconut. From what I can tell, and believe me, I savor every single fucking bite of this carrots-using-cream-cheese-as-lube-with-just-the-right-amount-of-spice. Seriously, my stomach is tingling like it's eating the equivalent of K-Y warming gel. So. Fucking. Good. I think I get a tiny hint of orange in a bite, but then it's gone, hidden behind the scent of cinnamon and nutmeg and maybe some cloves or mace that mingle with the toasted walnuts he's ground and mixed into the frosting. I give up trying to deconstruct it after a few bites. Who cares what's in it? It's like my taste buds are after-sex snuggling.

The party breaks up pretty quickly after cake. I assume that Katniss is going to spend her night getting the requisite number of birthday spankings from Peeta, so I hug her and show myself the door with Annie and Finn. By the time I'm back at the dorm, I just want a shower, my jammies, and maybe some Hunter Hayes.

Which is why I almost have a heart attack when I head back after my shower and Katniss is sitting on her bed, hugging her knees to her chest, and biting her lip. She looks about thirty seconds away from crying.

"What's going on?" I ask. "I thought you were spending the night with Peeta."

She blows a long breath out. "Is it a problem if I stay here tonight?" She's nervously fingering the pendant Peeta must have put around her neck.

"It's your room, Katniss. Of course you can stay here!" I hop onto my bed and face her. "Wanna tell me what's got you so riled over a gorgeous handmade gift that exactly matches the custom pants you've been wearing the seat out of all semester? Because if the pants didn't freak you out, why would the necklace?"

Katniss turns a shade that can only be called True Blood.

"Brainless, come on. The only thing you ever get this embarrassed about is sex." She stops fidgeting with the necklace and grabs her braid like it's a piece of rope tossed over a cliff and she's hanging on for dear life. I practice some deduction to try to narrow the possibilities. "Okay, so the pendant has something to do with sex? Peeta put a suggestive love poem in the box? He told you his dick is akin to a hairy stamen? He compared your vulva to a flower, like Georgia O'Keefe, and said he wants to sip your nectar?" She doesn't move a muscle and I start to get frustrated. "Am I even getting close here? Because you do realize that talking something through involves actually talking. Right?"

She takes a deep breath and exhales a rush of words so quickly that I can barely process them before she hides her entire tomato-colored face in her hands. "Peeta and I had oral sex in the shower when we were in Las Vegas."

My brain catches up with my ears and I have to clarify what it is I think I just heard. "I'm sorry. I think I just heard you say that you and Peeta had in-room, all-you-can-eat while we were in Las Vegas."

Katniss doesn't remove her hands from her face as she nods.

I shoot my fist in to the air triumphantly and let out a whoop. "So Peeta finally got his tongue in your oven? Did you get to munch the baguette? And you said it was in the shower? So adventurous." I waggle my eyebrows at her, even though she still has her face hidden. I know my tone is a little wistful, but I can't help it: I can't really remember clearly the last time someone made a meal of me and it makes me want to cry. I'm happy for Katniss, though. There's nothing like finding out that your boyfriend likes sushi to make a girl's day.

It's quiet for a minute while I wait for her to give me more information. Why bring it up if you don't want to talk about it? Finally, I can't restrain myself, and I have to ask, "So, how was Peeta at pearl diving?"

"Jo, this isn't funny." Her voice is muffled behind her hands, but her eyes scowl over the top of her fingers.

"Brainless, I'm not laughing. Seriously, how was it?"

A tremor goes through her. I would think it's a bad sign, except that her face when she finally pulls her hands away is as pink as the hibiscus Peeta gave her. I cock an eyebrow and make a mental note to high-five Peeta the next time I see him. I'm pretty sure that Everdeen has nothing to compare it to, but the boy must have some skills if she's trembling from something that happened two months ago.

"So what's the problem? Unless it's that it's been awhile and you want a repeat performance. Is that it?"

Katniss scowls and cocks an eyebrow at me, but the blush doesn't dissipate. "I can't believe we're talking about this."

"Well, is that it? You want him licking you like a lollipop and don't know how to ask? Please don't tell me that we need an intervention on how to ask for oral. Do we? I'm sure I have a tasteful haiku somewhere that will probably help. If that's all, I'd like to get some sleep tonight so that I don't tank the rest of my finals, and I'm sure you would too."

"No!" she yelps and drops her eyes from mine. There's a pause before she mumbles, "Well, maybe. But that's not the problem. When we were… when he…he saw something…."

If I thought Everdeen was red before, she's absolutely on fire now. Watching her stammer is almost painful. I force myself to think about what she might actually be trying to tell me.

"Peeta saw something? Something that has to do with the gift he gave you?" I tap my finger against my lips. What could Everdeen possibly have to hide from Peeta? Something she doesn't want him to see…

Oh. My. God. The freaking tattoo.

"You have a flower on your flower?" I blurt it out because it's the only answer. I don't even wait for her mortified nod of confirmation before my bark of laughter rings out. "That's awesome! I bet he freaked out! Did he? Did he love it?"

Katniss's head is back in her hands. "I don't know if he freaked out! I wasn't really watching! It's just that he wasn't talking to me when I got it done, and I put it below my underwear line so no one would ever see it, and I never thought he would be…you know…"

"Face to face with it?" She nods. "Maybe he missed it?" That gets her to look at me, her expression clearly telling me that there's a better chance of me having sex with Chris Pine than Peeta missing her product placement. I try to soothe her. "Look, there's a million of us college kids who subscribe to the motto 'It seemed like a good idea at the time.' Think of it this way, it's like you wrote him a love letter on your vag and now he's writing one back. It's romantic."

Katniss looks skeptical. "You think?"

"I'm sure. It's like he's telling you that you're beautiful and he can't stop thinking about you. It's hot."

She's back to playing with her hair and looks worried. "If that's the case, why haven't we…you know."

That's when it dawns on me that Katniss didn't come home because she is avoiding sex with Peeta. No. She wants sex with him. She came home because they haven't done anything since Vegas and she's worried that he doesn't want her. Which makes me want to punch Peeta, right after I high-five him.

"Look. There's all sorts of reasons guys hold back on sex." I don't tell her that I can't think of a single one, but I'm sure Peeta has some sort of strange biological makeup that makes him able to channel sperm backup into energy for baking. I mean, he's lusted after her for so long that he might even be able to have tantric orgasms. Who knows? "We're going to be back on home turf soon. Maybe the two of you will be more comfortable there? All I can say is that there is no way that Peeta made that gift for you if he didn't want you. You should talk to him about it."

Katniss looks like I just asked her to swallow a frog whole. "I'm not good at talking."

"Then put on some of that lingerie that Madge made us buy and see what he does with that." She doesn't look any happier with that answer. "Look, you either talk about it, or you do something about it. Otherwise you're just wasting my time and yours having this conversation. Right?"

"You're right." She blows a breath out. "You're right! Thanks, Jo."

I slide under the covers. "No problem. Oh, and Katniss, when you're ready to suck the filling out of his calzone, let me know. I've got a couple of educational videos for you."

I hear her gulp louder than the click of the door when she leaves to use the bathroom and cackle to myself. You're welcome, Peeta.

Fucking with Everdeen is so much fun.

-o—

Finals wind down. Everdeen and I start packing what we're taking back to Fairfield and what my parents are going to store for us. I run. I see Dr. Aurelius and he adds a behavioral aspect to my therapy: in addition to the journal and food log, he wants me to wear a rubber band. Any time I feel like I want to avoid food, or am trying to be perfect and overthinking things, I'm to snap it lightly against my wrist as a way to bring myself out of that mindset.

It's a little like a nipple twist, or a wet willy, I guess, or when someone tries to scare you when you have the hiccups.

He wants me to come up with a mantra to say as I snap it. So far, what I've come up with is repeating, Fucking get over it, Mason. He's less than thrilled with that. I tell him I'll work on it, though, and he lets it slide.

I'm pounding the pavement, trying to drift and not overthink anything given the hundreds of things still on my to-do list before we blow this taco stand in a little less than a week. Speaking of which, I add eat as much Mexican as possible to it, mentally writing it adjacent to an accompanying checkbox.

Obviously I'm having a hard time letting go of my planning and just living in the moment. That's a shock, I'm sure, but it also means that the inside of my wrist is raw from the snap of rubber.

Just as I'm getting ready to snap my wrist again – hey, I can multi-task – my music cuts out and my arm vibrates with incoming phone call. Now I'm pissed: it's got to be a wrong number because no one my age uses their cell phones for actual phone calls and I was right in the middle of a great song. It's confirmed that I'm right when there's no answering vibration that signals voicemail. I mentally flip off whoever would dare interrupt my sacred running time.

-o-

I've showered and am picking out what to wear tonight to the frat house. There's a huge blowout now that finals are over and I'm thinking I might finally get to stage a pop quiz of my own on some unsuspecting guy. I go for some tunes to help with the vibe, thinking maybe some Britney Spears My Prerogative will help things along. That's when I notice six more missed calls from Finn.

Finn never calls, not even when he's having a fashion crisis. Not even when Jen Hughes dumped him in high school. As a matter of fact, the only time I can recall Finn calling me on the phone were the days following Carys's funeral.

A shiver overtakes me and I hastily text him. Missed your calls while I was running. Everything okay?

I hit send and I swear, two seconds later the phone vibrates and I pick it up. "Finn?"

His voice is strange, like he's afraid he'll fly apart if he talks too loudly. "Jo, I need you."

"Finn, where are you? Tell me what's going on." I start tossing on whatever clothing I can reach.

"Cedars-Sinai," his voice breaks. "Please come."

-o—

I bum a ride with Brue and we're at the hospital as fast as is humanly possible.

"Finn, how is she?"

"Jo, thank God you're here. They're monitoring her." Finn's exhausted, like he's done nothing but cry for the last few hours.

"What happened?" Brue asks quietly.

"She started bleeding and cramping. We didn't know what else to do, so we came in to get checked. They did an ultrasound and started to monitor her…her contractions." Finn almost breaks down and has to take a deep breath. "They've got them stopped for now."

"So the baby is okay?" I ask. At Finn's hesitant nod, I hug him and rub his back. "Are they letting her have visitors?"

"Yeah. I only came out of the room for a minute to catch my breath," Finn says.

I know what he means is that he doesn't want to break down in front of her, so I squeeze the hand I haven't let go of yet. He looks like he could use a few more minutes to pull himself together, so I offer, "I'd like to see her."

He gives me a wan smile. I'm almost to the door of her room when Finn stops me. "Jo? Don't upset her, okay?"

I hate the pleading in his voice, or the fact that he thinks I need that sort of warning.

Annie is hooked up to a couple of IV's in a pink room that tries, but fails, to be cheery. A bright bunch of roses – probably from Finn – tries to mask the smell of antiseptic. She's got a belt around the small mound of her belly, and I see a read-out on a screen – that must be the monitoring that Finn mentioned. She's pale and small; a waif in her hospital gown, hair splitting the sheets like a dark slash.

"Annie?" I whisper her name, even though it's a private room and there's no one else to hear.

Clouded green eyes meet mine, huge in her pale face. "Jo?"

I sit at her side. I'm not sure what she sees on my face, but hers scrunches up into a sob.

"I'm so glad you're here for him," she says, crying without tears.

"Annie, shush. You have to stop." It's not lost on me that she thinks I'm only here for Finn. I imagine that she'd rather have Madge by her side. Really, even Everdeen is probably better at this than I am, but I'm the one who's here.

"I don't have any tears left. Did you know you could cry yourself out?" She sounds at once horrified and fascinated.

I did, indeed, know that. "You need to calm down." As an afterthought I add, "For the baby."

That seems to quiet her. Her eyes close and her breathing evens out although she seems to take a deeper breath every once in a while. It's a dead giveaway that she's barely holding on.

A little while later, she says quietly, "We just found out it's a boy. Did Finn tell you?"

I'm surprised at how that makes the baby so much more real: Finn's going to have a son. "No. But he did say that the baby's okay."

She nods. "So far." She turns to me with luminous, almost feverishly intense eyes. She's not crying, not anymore, but this is worse. This is how eyes look when they're haunted. I know because mine had the same shadows right after Carys died. "Do you think this is my fault? Do you think he knew I didn't really want him in the beginning? That we talked about…about not having him? Do you think I started loving him too late?"

My heart clenches and my eyes fill with tears.

I snap the rubber band and it startles me out of the downward spiral this could take. I have to reassure her. "No. No. Annie, this isn't your fault! I'm sure the baby knows he's loved. He's your son, Annie! You're both strong. You're going to get through this and you're going to have a family."

I take her hand, lying limp and cool on the sheets and chafe a little warmth into it. Her hand suddenly grasps mine in a surprisingly strong grip. "You won't tell Finn, will you? That I…that I said that? That I told you we had talked about…."

I squeeze her hand in reassurance. "No. That will be our secret."

She closes her eyes again but doesn't let go of my hand. A single tear leaves a trail down her cheek. Her voice is low, empty, like cold wind through naked trees, chilling. Full of shame. "Jo, I feel like I'm drowning."

My heart freezes and I imagine taking great gulps of air just to stay afloat. I picture Carys, lifeless, with water around her. I don't know how I find my voice but I lean forward and grip her hand so hard I'm sure my nails will leave marks on her skin. "Annie, listen to me. You're…you're the strongest swimmer I know."

-o-

I lean my head against the leather headrest and close my eyes. The only thing audible in the car interior besides Shinedown is the snapping of the rubber band against my wrist.

"Will you please change this?" I practically bite Brue's head off because I can't handle hearing Second Chance right now.

"Only if you stop dinging yourself with that elastic," he bites back, but changes it to something orchestral that sounds a lot like the Star Trek: Into Darkness score. Does this guy not have any happy music? Maybe some Michael Franti? I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth, slowly, and count to ten. It's not Brue's fault that tonight has been seriously fucked. He's just an easy target. No, it's not his fault that he's one of only a handful of people I know who has a car. He's been amazing tonight: picking me up when I called frantically looking for a ride, coming without question, even when I said the name of the hospital that Finn had given me, even fading into the background at the hospital.

I feel the horror of her Annie's empty eyes threaten to overtake me and I swear I'm going to be sick. "Pull over."

"What?"

"Pull the fuck over!" I scream it as I scramble for the seatbelt latch. Seconds later, I'm out of the car and walking furiously away from the street as fast as my running shoes will carry me. I have to take a handful of deep breaths and finally end up bent over, focusing on my shoelaces. With a sudden burst of clarity, I'm thankful that Brue took Wilshire Boulevard and not the 10 Freeway, or I might be fighting the dry heaves on the shoulder.

I'm taking deep, shuddering breaths, counting to ten with each one, when I hear his light tread running toward me. I don't want him seeing me lose control like this and am so thankful for the minute it's taken him to park properly and lock up the car. That's Brue for you: he's nothing if not thorough.

"Are you nuts?" He's on me and almost yelling, which isn't like him at all. I had expected something solicitous, perhaps a sweatshirt around my shoulders. "You don't just run from a car like that. Good thing we're still in a good part of L.A."

I snort at that: like there's a good part of L.A.

"You think I'm kidding? You're wearing a tank top and a miniskirt. Based on the view I caught when you bent over, I'm not sure if you're even wearing underwear. And you bolt from the car like you have zero thought to your personal safety? You don't even grab your bag, so you don't have a cell phone. Jesus, Jo! Anything could happen to you. You're…You're a walking time bomb, you know that?"

"Really? Well fuck you too!" I match his anger with my own. "Give me my bag and I'll find my own way home. I've got this." I straighten my shoulders, grateful for the respite from the empty pit of despair that sent me into the balmy May night. I glare at him and wish I had lasers for eyes.

He stares me down. "You are impossible," he grinds out. "Get back in the car."

"No."

He runs his hands through his hair, then fists them at his side. I swear I can hear his teeth clenching from here and I freaking love it. "Get. In. The. Car. Please."

Awwww. He used the Magic Word! As if that's going to get me to do what he wants? I'm tired of being pushed around. "Stop telling me what to do."

He narrows his eyes and points at me. "You are being a spoiled, selfish brat. Do you think you're the only person who's hurting tonight?"

I don't let him continue. I can't. I am so pissed off that I think I could run back to campus, even in a miniskirt. My breath comes in gasps so that I have to force out, "Don't you dare tell me what I feel. You have no idea what's going through my head, so don't you are presume to think you do."

I see him unwind a little. His fists unclench and he takes a visible breath then exhales. "Jo, I know this is hard. I can't imagine what it's like for Finn to call you and tell you he needs you, to watch him going through this. But you don't have to have all the answers."

I'm shaking, angry at his asinine assumptions. God, shut up, Brue, I yell at him in my head. When he opens his mouth again, probably ready to spout out more crap that's totally wrong, I do the only thing I can think of to shut him up. I grab his shirt and lean up to capture his lips before they can yammer something else that makes me want to slap him.

He tastes like peppermint, probably the Altoids that he shared with us at the hospital to mask the coffee that he and Finn had brought back from the gift shop along with a deck of cards and a stuffed bear. I want to deepen the kiss and see if he tastes like a peppermint latte, or if the coffee left his tongue tasting bitter. His lips are softer than I've imagined. I want to bite down on his fuller lower lip, suck it into my mouth until he moans. Until I feel his hands on my bare skin. Until his lips soften under mine. Until he wants me.

It's like a bucket of cold water over my head when I remember that he doesn't want me and I force myself to pull away.

Brue, to his credit, just stands there and stares at me after I pull away as quickly as I grabbed him. Finally, I drop my eyes to the ground and mumble, "Just give me another minute."

It actually takes the whole minute of deep breathing and elastic snapping to get me back into the car. I know I should apologize for bolting and for the kiss, but I can't seem to get my tongue unstuck from the roof of my mouth. I clear my throat as he starts the engine and he waits patiently while I fumble with the hem of my tank top and stare at the streetlight several hundred yards from the car. "I'm sorry for running off like that. I just…Annie's eyes. They were so scared. I needed some time." I leave out that the darkness in her eyes terrified me more than the sad exhaustion in Finn's.

I sneak a glance at him, but the dim light in the car isn't enough for me to read him. "And I'm…I shouldn't have kissed you. I guess I just wanted to take everything out on your tonight. You were a target and that was a cheap shot. You didn't have to come tonight. I know that. So…thanks."

His hand taps the steering wheel, long fingers drawing my eyes. He has the hands of a musician.

His whole body stills and he turns to face me with a sigh, shutting off the car so he can angle his long legs. "I'm sorry too. You're right: I never should have tried to tell you what or how to feel. I forget sometimes that you don't want help. And it just makes me crazy how you won't let other people in, even when you're obviously hurting."

My eyes grow wide. I've never thought of Brue MacLeod as considering how I react to people.

He continues, "I know things have been weird between us since Vegas. I thought tonight I could make up for being a dick to you while we were there."

Part of me wants to claw his eyes out and hack his face apart at his revelation that he feels like he owes me something. And another part of me – the part that wanted that kiss to go on and on – just wants him to let me do it again. It's pathetic.

He's watching the play of emotions on my face and must see something that clues him in to how I'm interpreting his words. He shakes his head. "I'm just saying you don't need to apologize for the kiss."

I can't tear my eyes from his or I might start to cry. I'm sure this is where he tells me that we're even now for our mutual bad behavior. I even dredge a half-hearted smile from my bag of tricks to encourage him to spill it so we can get on our way. The sooner I'm home, the sooner I can stop holding myself together.

He shakes his head again, brow furrowed, and rakes his hands through his hair. "I'm making a total mess of this." He broods for a minute, looking very sinister in the half-light as he considers me and our surroundings. Suddenly, he bites out, "Fuck it."

And then he pulls me toward him. His lips find mine with more force than is strictly necessary. When he gentles their caress, I make a sound somewhere between a sob and a moan because they feel like home right in this second. My fingers knot into his curls and hold on for dear life as I suck his bottom lip between mine. His hands – those musician's hands – tug me across the center console so that I'm straddling his lap. I'm not sure how long we kiss, especially when his tongue touches the bow of my top lip and I slant my mouth to deepen it. I'm lost in the way his curls slide against my fingers, the smell of his skin up close, and the feel of his body, long and lean, between my thighs.

One hand holds the back of my neck while the other sneaks under my tank top and urges me to arch my back so his lips can skim across my jaw and down my neck in a needy trail. He follows the path of his lips with a finger, tracing my throat to the hollow where my heart drums a rapid cadence, then lower to the spot where his lips last touched. Back and forth, his forefinger traces the edge of my tank. I'm breathless from wanting him to move it aside. His eyes chase the motion of his finger as if he can't tear them away from my breasts. With his other hand, he reaches to where I clutch his springy curls. He threads his fingers through mine and pulls my arm forward, stroking his thumb along my wrist and the elastic before bringing that same spot up to his lips. His kiss there is tender, like butterfly wings, brushing a sore spot on my soul.

"It's okay. You're okay." He murmurs each word against my wrist. It tickles a little, but that's not the only reason the hairs on my arms are standing on end. He's trying to give me what he thinks I need. It makes me want to weep, especially thinking that he's doing this out of some twisted sense of duty. I would pull away and sleep with my cold honor tonight if I was a prouder person. But I never said I would proud. I'm a pauper who's been staring at this banquet for half a year, dying to feast myself on him. I don't really care why he's in this, just that he's here and this is real.

Fuck pride.

So I grind against him and my breath hitches when I feel him erect underneath me. It's a thousand times better than I thought it would be, Brue MacLeod hard against me. Both my hands grip his bunched-up shirt and I streak them down his abs to reach underneath. He hisses as they make contact with bare skin, especially when I push his shirt up impatiently so I can tangle my hands in the sprinkling of chest hair that's grown back across his pecs.

I lean in to kiss him, tangling my tongue with his. I'm not sure if it's his hands on my thighs or my voracious need to get his shirt off that causes it, but somehow I bump the horn. It goes off with a loud honk that startles us both.

I'm sure that Brue is going to come back to himself and push me away. So when he breaks the kiss and starts to say something, I interrupt him with another impatient kiss. "Don't you dare say that we should stop."

His chuckle rumbles underneath my hands on his chest. He starts again, "I was just going to say-"

I bite his lower lip, then lick the spot to soothe it. "Stop telling me how to act. Stop telling us how to act." I drag his hands higher on my thighs, under my skirt. He immediately starts rubbing circles on my hip bones as he considers me.

"What do you want me to tell you, then?" His smile flashes, very white in the dim light.

I wonder if he's teasing or testing me in some way, but I'm done playing games. It's been a long dry spell and I want him to just shut the hell up so we can get on with it. "I want you to tell me how this feels."

I sweep both hands into his waistband and pop the button and zipper. I reach inside his underwear to stroke him, shifting so I can learn his outline. Brue may have let his chest hair grow out, but he still trims so he can fit into his swimsuit. For once I'm glad for manscaping: in the confines of the car, I'm sure I'd be making this uncomfortable rather than pleasurable without it.

"Fuck," he rasps as I sketch him. He lurches into my hand when I linger on a spot near the tip, his own hands roaming at will. He announces incredulously, "You're really not wearing underwear."

I shift again in the limited space so he has better access as he resumes his own exploration. "I was in a hurry." I lean forward and kiss him again, humming as a fingertip slips inside me. He isn't tentative or cautious, the way I imagined he would be all those nights in my room with the Purple Monster. I love this unexpected, demanding side of him.

"Please tell me you have a condom," he exhales as he concentrates on mapping me with his fingertips.

My breath hitches when he strokes a spot I particularly like but I'm frustrated because there's not enough room for both of us to move the way I want. I lean forward and suck lightly on his earlobe before reaching for my bag. I have to pause because the new angle gives him room to slide a finger all the way inside me and the way he rocks his palm against my core distracts me in the best possible way. Finally I'm able to grab a condom, despite the way his wrist coaxes me to lose control. When I turn back to him and wield the foil packet triumphantly, he smirks and activates the seat presets. I jerk against him with a cry of surprise as we slide backward and the seat back reclines.

I shoot him a dirty look that has him grinning at me. It's hard to keep the scowl on my face, though, especially when he claims my lips and slips a second finger inside me. I'm torn between straining against those fingers until I shatter – it won't take me long at this rate, especially when he draws tight circles with his thumb that have me arching in delicious pleasure into another kiss– or scrambling until I can have him inside me instead.

Our mouths break apart, breathless and wet. "Tell me what you want," I practically mewl, scraping my hands up his chest to tweak his nipples. His fingers are driving me crazy. I'm rapidly losing control and I'm afraid he knows it.

He props me up so I'm leaning slightly away from him. His eyes devour me as they streak from my face to where his hands leave me hot and so close to the edge that I'm trembling. He drags my top aside and plucks a nipple as I tighten around him. Our breath is loud in the enclosed space, louder than his fingers moving through the wetness pouring out of me. I don't think I can take any more. Every muscle in my thighs is taut as he brushes a spot inside me once, twice.

The heat blooms into an inferno, though, when he looks right at me and says, "I want my cock inside you."

I cry out.

He helps me ride out the golden haze with a dark look I've never seen before. Like he's insatiable and I'm his last, best meal. That look has me ripping open the foil packet before I've even caught my breath, maneuvering so I can slide the condom on and sink onto him. I'm still sensitive and it makes me clench around him, but I grit my teeth. I want him so badly, want to watch him lose control, that I don't care if it physically hurts me to do this.

I can't really ride him easily, so I let him guide my hips in a pace he likes. I expect punishing, driving, a claiming of my already burning skin, but I should know better. Brue grabs my hips, alright. But instead of the fast in and out that I'm sure is coming, he undulates his hips like he wants to learn everything there is to learn about me.

"You're so wet," he groans.

I hope he doesn't expect an answer. At this point, all I'm capable of is holding on for dear life and kissing whatever I can reach as the sinuous motion of his body hits all the spots I like. Because it feels good. Like suction from oral and rocking and thrusting, one right on top of the other, as his hips slide and writhe languorously. Forget being sensitive, I'm straining toward him with every stroke, trembling at the teasing pace. I want more: deeper, faster, until I can't think.

I bite down on his shoulder through his shirt as I clench around him and he sucks in a surprised breath. It's like he totally gets what I want, though. "Not yet, Jo. I want to feel every inch of you. You're already trembling and gripping me. It's amazing, do you know that? Like a hand job, or the hottest, tightest mouth you can imagine."

Fuck. His words are as lethal as the lazy motions of his hips.

I moan into his ear. Maybe it's a plea, maybe it's just a noise. Whatever it is, it spurs him to reach behind me to where we're joined. He's touching us, feeling himself slide in and out while gently separating me.

I can't breathe. Can't think. There's only his body playing with mine and driving me inevitably higher and higher. I'm tottering over the edge, rocking on waves of pleasure so intense that I see colors in the darkness behind my eyelids. When he shifts my leg so I'm more fully impaled, the earth shatters into a million blinding shards of every shade imaginable.

-o—

It's quiet on the way back to my dorm. What exactly do you say after the best sex of your life? I'm boneless, so relaxed that I'm afraid I won't be able to get out of the car. So, when Brue pulls up to the door, I stare at the light shining from my dorm room window for a minute trying to piece a coherent thought together.

"Thanks for coming tonight." I opt for simplicity, only realizing the double entendre after the words are out of my mouth.

It's not lost on him, though, and he chuckles. "My pleasure."

"I'll see you around," I say quietly as I unlatch my seatbelt and gather my bag and the Wet Ones we used to clean up.

"Are we running tomorrow?"

I nod without meeting his eyes. I'm not sure why I feel disappointed at the banality of this conversation. What did I expect? A declaration of undying love? You should be happy he gave you tonight, Jo. I climb out of the car, trying not to show the leap of hope I feel when he says my name.

His eyes meet mine. "Goodnight, Jo."

I nod and wave in reply.

I watch for a long time as he puts the car in drive and takes off down Childs Way, which is lined with blooming purple jacaranda. When I can't even see his taillights any more, I make my way inside on shaky legs with an even shakier heart.


A/N: This will be a long one.

Thanks

Special thanks go to my super-betas: Doc and BaronessKika. You guys make me laugh and keep me on track. Thank you so much for all of your support, especially through December. Doc, you are my partner. Thank you for showing me light even through the dark.

Thanks, also, to the fabulous pre-readers: Honeylime08, Walker, Modernlifeofash, and theotheroneoverthere. You ladies are like the Charlie's Angels of pre-readers, and your comments are always dead-on. Thanks for making this story so much better than the drafts I send you.

S2SL

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Apologies, Excuses, and my Process

My usual GNO writing style is procrastination. I have a lot of "let it form in the dark" where bits of this story flesh out for me while I do dishes, wash my daughter's hair, etc. December took me by surprise because I baked a ton of cookies and really thought that would round out the bits of this chapter that weren't written yet. (It was a third of the way done way back around Thanksgiving.)

It didn't.

I dreaded this chapter. Dreaded it. I've had it planned since the beginning of the story, but I just wasn't up to it in December. I was already an emotional wreck because Christmas reminds me strongly of my dad. Whenever I would open the file, I would immediately find some other thing to do. In December, that's easy, right? Shopping and baking and decorating and shipping, finding and making plane reservations they make it easy to practice avoidance.

I thought I would pick it up when we travelled back East. That's when I wrote Black Diamond (on our last trip there) and I reasoned that it was going to be the perfect time to crank out the rest of the chapter.

Truth? I didn't open the file once in the ten days we were there.

I told myself it was the Polar Vortex. Who wants to write a chapter about L.A. in May when there's wind chill of -7 outside? Not me. So I didn't open the file and I barely thought about Finn and Annie and the smell of hospital antiseptic.

Then I got home. And it's 74 and sunny here, no excuses, right? Well, we picked up my dog from the kennel and she had lost a dangerous amount of weight while there. After a serious consultation with our vet, we discovered the final answer to her odd liver numbers the last few years: she has cancer. We're near the end, my friends.

So we brought her home and we've been feeding her to try to keep her strength up while we take her for rides to the beach, walk her as much as she'll allow, and cuddle. We're trying to make sense of saying goodbye to our old girl.

She's put on some weight and has outlasted the one to two weeks the vet gave as her prognosis. So I felt it was okay to sit down, open up GNO, and let it all out in the form of Jo and Finn and Annie, and a little bit of Brue.

I hope you liked it. I'm always up for feedback. Don't be shy! Send me a PM, leave a review, or come see me on tumblr.

And if you have someone or something you love, give them an extra-long hug tonight for Bailey. Every day is a gift.

S.