A/N: This is my very first attempt at an AU fic. This is not my cup of tea and I'm definitely working outside my comfort zone here. I will try to keep the main cast as properly in characterization as I can, but, as this is an alternate setting, characterizations must be adaptable.
In an effort to get the chapters out as quickly as possible, I will do minimal editing and research. Please forgive any medical or technological inaccuracies in this. I wish I had the time to put the research into this that a work of this magnitude requires, but the reality is that I simply do not have it to give.
I wish to dedicate this to fic Salanderjade, who is my very favorite AU writer in this fandom.

Banner courtesy of Ro Nordmann

Disclaimer: The Hunger Games and all the characters in this fic are the property of Suzanne Collins.

Enjoy!


He couldn't stand the omnipresent smell of that place.

Granted, he could understand the need for the pungent, sense-assaulting stench of Clorox that greeted anyone the moment they'd set foot through those unassuming, plain white, heavy metallic security doors.

If there was anything, he'd learned to appreciate after nineteen months working there: it was decidedly the benefits of very strong antiseptics in plentiful quantities.

After all, one needed to be prepared for whenever one of the permanent residents decided to strike up their own personal blitzkrieg against whatever nightmares their meds were unable to submerge any given day, and the staff here made good and sure these folks weren't particularly well equipped for those delirium-induced battles. Far more often than not, bodily functions made for perfectly rational ammo to the mentally unstable.

Yes. He could suffer through the caustic smell of cleansers in this place, he thought with a grimace, waving his identification card under the scanner next to the door leading to the minimum-security ward. There were definitely worse evils to contend with; he'd certainly been a personal witness to a bevy of them in the little over a year he'd worked there- far worse smells, too.

Made him grateful this was technically only his day job. Well… one of them, anyway.

"What is our assignment du jour, my friend?" he sighed with a quirked lip, picking up the tablet with his name off the stack on the windowed ledge of the nurse's station.

He was resolved not to let his exhaustion from his antecedent shift in the shop color his mood while he was here. The patients picked up on all kinds of negative vibes. He needed to cruise through the next six hours without any incidents, so he could have some semblance of sanity left to get something composed for the weekend.

The bronzed Adonis he'd addressed with a tap to the shoulder, barely moved his lips to mutter out his answer, still flipping through the pages of his own chart. "Looks like nothing new, beyond a fresh arrival from last night," he paused a moment to gesture with his head toward a dark-haired girl sitting in a corner under intersecting windows, staring at a laptop on a table. She had her knees tucked into her chest as if she was trying to curl into herself entirely and disappear.

He still didn't bother taking his eyes off the tablet in front of him as he elaborated in a voice entirely too lazed with humor for the subject matter, "I'd stay away from her, though. She's here for the long haul- some kind of serious emotional crap. Chart says, she's a ward of the state 'cause she stabbed some guy to death. Supposedly, it was in self-defense, but you know half these people can go psycho on you at any given moment…" he now lowered his voice, shifting his eyes around the room in mock suspicion, "and crazy gives these suckers super-human strength."

Peeta narrowed his eyes at the man's obscenely twisted sense of humor. One corner of his mouth twitched up into a sneer as he shifted toward their newest charge. Getting introductions out of the way as soon as possible was best. Those were always the most awkward and it was always easier to work with the interned once they were acclimated to their caretakers.

"You're one seriously disturbed bastard, you know that, Finn? Why do you even work here if you have these incredibly 'enlightened' ideals about the mentally ill, anyway?"

The emerald-eyed man let out a maniacal laugh that had most of the occupants in the common area staring wide-eyed and panicked at the pair. He completely ignored them, stating matter-of-factly, "Are you kidding me, Mellark? These people make more sense than most you'll meet once you walk out of here. Okay, so, yeah, they'll go 'chimpanzee strength' on you when they lose the few marbles they have left… but the eight-five, ninety percent of the time they're not trying to beat your brains out for stealing their thoughts in their sleep or whatever, they're the most enlightened people alive, dude. We should all be this nuts."

Completely at a loss as to how to respond to all whatever that qualified as, Peeta feebly shook his head in an effort to clear the bizarre imagery the man's words evoked, wrenching his wide-eyed glare away from him and toward the still oblivious dark girl in the corner table. Finnick was on a completely different sphere. They all had to take psyche evaluations and were regularly drug tested to work with these patients, the guy had to pass the tests clean or he wouldn't still work there. One of lives greatest mysteries had to be how this man managed to remain this off-kilter without the benefit of any artificial chemical embellishment.

"Um, yeah, I'm gonna go over there, now." Peeta couldn't help the inadvertent twitch upward of his own lip as he spared a glance back toward his friend and noted he was still wearing that deranged grin. Before he could pull away, however, he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder and shifted his eyes back to lock with those of the odd older man behind him.

"Seriously, though, Peeta, tread lightly with her. Docs say she's had it rough. Read her actual med charts. She has no idea who she is. She can't even speak. As far as they can tell, she can understand all of us just fine, but don't expect much conversation from her… Oh, and note the part in your file that says she's 'temperamental'. I know what you're going to say: 'All women are'. But, if what the doctors think about this chick is true… you need to watch your back around her, man."

Peeta couldn't help quirk an eyebrow at his friend's suddenly solemn expression. "Finn, are you actually afraid of this girl? She's gotta be a buck fifteen the most, soaking wet. You've got a hundred pounds on her, easily. Seriously?"

The taller man shifted the elbow he'd been reclining on the window ledge to straighten to his full stature and crossed his arms high across his chest in a near-pout. His words came rushing out in a heated, defensive hiss. "Fear is a healthy defensive mechanism, moron. It's what makes us higher life forms want to, you know, keep breathing? But, you know what? Since, you want to be a jackass; you can just bite me and strut over there. See if I care when she slits you from ear to ear."

At that last comment, the soft laughter that erupted from Peeta as he started moving away from the nurse's station was unavoidable. He took a moment to throw back over his shoulder, "We don't even give them plastic forks, man. It'll take her a month to finish the job with a plastic spork." He quickly looked away so he didn't have to see the single-handed gesture his friend threw up in response.

As he neared the new girl's table, he realized how fitting the moniker 'girl' actually was. She didn't appear to be out of her teens yet. He looked down at her chart and skimmed over her date of birth, noting with curiosity that she was, in fact, nineteen.

'Far too young to be in here,' he mused inwardly. Then again, a what point was lunacy age appropriate, anyway?

Once he was close enough to see her clearly, he noticed the discoloration of burn scars that painted the olive skin of her hands an odd pinkish color. They also licked up what little skin the hoodie she wore exposed of her neck. He took the opportunity that she was still ignoring his approach to peruse her file again and read that she'd been in some sort of car accident that resulted in a prolonged comatose state, after which, she was committed. The file didn't specify much else about her condition beyond. Apparently, her physicians didn't think the underlying cause of her current predicament was something those charged with her day-to-day comfort should be privy to. He wondered briefly what strings Odair had pulled to get a hold of her medical charts.

He let out a short breath and looked up, stopping right in front of her table. He cleared his throat roughly to gain her attention and was startled at the intensity in the piercing steel eyes that shot up from behind the screen of the laptop to meet his in an almost challenging glare.

Quickly regaining his easy manner, he allowed the most disarming smile in his arsenal to split his features. "Hello, my name is Peeta. I know you just got here and I wanted to introduce myself and maybe show you around a bit…"

She cut him off with a roll of her eyes and a huff of air out of a corner of her mouth, quickly typing something into her computer and turning it towards him. It took him a second to realize she meant for him to read whatever it was she'd written in size forty-eight, italic, purple font on her screen.

Doctor?

Peeta's smile widened, as he looked from the screen to her again, stating casually, "College drop-out, furthest thing from, actually."

She turned the computer back to herself and he watched as her slim, long, dexterous fingers flew over the keys before she quickly turned the screen back to him.

Loser, then.

"Well, aren't you judgmental for a mute, psych ward internee?" he huffed out with a genuinely bemused snort. "At least, I don't have to be locked in my room at night to sleep like a petulant two-year-old."

A deep 'V' creasing her brow, she turned the computer back to herself and typed a single word before turning it back with another huff.

Touché.

He snickered softly to himself, bringing a thumb and forefinger up to rub the bridge of his nose tiredly, while she turned the computer back to type something else. This had to be the strangest conversation he'd ever had with anyone, much less a pretty girl.

'Ah, crap, Mellark. Don't think of the patients as 'pretty'. That can't lead anywhere good.' He really needed to start listening to that little voice in the back of his head more often.

He was broken from his brief reverie when she turned the screen back to him.

So, you're the warden, huh? Well, I'm not tonging my meds. I went to my last one-on-one with the shrink in maximum two days ago and he said I'm not scheduled for another one until this afternoon with some Dr. Aurelius guy down here. He's supposed to say if I go to group or not. I brushed my teeth this morning, like the doctors say is supposed to be healthy for my recovery. I haven't showered yet down here because I'm working up the nerve to do it in that communal petri dish you people call the women's bathroom. And, I swear if any of you dudes offer to sponge bathe me, I'm kicking you in the balls. I don't care if they transfer me back to maximum and strap me down. You're getting kicked in the balls if you try to touch me. And shaving is out of the question down here, 'cause I'm not shaving in front of any of you freaks and I'm too crazy to be near a razor in private. So, I hope you like fuzzy legs.

She was positively smug when Peeta met her gaze again after reading her little message. She wasn't quite grinning, but something about that mischievous glint in her silver eyes, spoke volumes of some hidden part of her that yearned to do so.

He unceremoniously plopped himself in a chair opposite her at her table, intertwined his fingers before him and clucked his tongue, stating flippantly, "You can grow moss on your body for all I care. I'm more of a baby-sitter than a warden, really." At the expected warping of her features into an insulted scowl, he continued with a superior, lopsided grin, "As long as I don't have to clean your filth along with that of the rest of your friends around here on any given day, I'm going to consider it a notch on my win column. How's that sound to you, sweetheart?"

With an aggravated grunt, she jerked the screen back around, typing furiously at the keys. When she turned it back, her eyes were burning with such fire; he was hesitant to look away from them to see what she'd written. He wondered briefly if she had any notion, how she affected others with something as innocuous as those penetrating stares.

You're kind of a jerk. Aren't you guys supposed to be extra nice to us since we're all sick in the head or something?

This caused another bout of soft chuckling to erupt from deep within the blonde, which caused the already frazzled teenager to flush deeper with anger in response. He rubbed his face with one hand in a half-hearted effort to subdue it.

"You're not the worst case I've seen in here, by a long shot. But, I suppose we can call it a truce on the grounds of your poor mental health. What do you say? Friends?" He held out his hand to her in invitation.

She stared at it as if it were a dangerous snake, her eyes growing to the size of saucers in panicked surprise at his sudden proposal. After what seemed like an eternity of debating and scrutinizing the proffered appendage, however, she cautiously reached out and clasped her comparatively far smaller hand in his, noting how impossibly warm he was. He was like a radiator.

He gave her hand a soft but firm shake and she felt sturdiness, a rare steadiness, radiate from him that she couldn't help but find enrapturing. She found herself missing it when they finally mutually released each other's grasp.

She continued staring down at her tingling hand until the sound of his chair scraping the floor forced her eyes up to meet his now, once again, horizontal form.

He smiled at her, that smile from before that made the dimples on both sides of his mouth prominent. "Well, I'll be taking my leave of you now. Places to go, people to see. Indiscernible goo to clean. You behave yourself now…"

For some unknown reason, she found it imperative that he know one last thing before he moved away from her table. She waved her hand frantically, making sure she still had his attention, before typing the brief missive onto the screen and turning it to him.

I'm Katniss. It was nice meeting you, Peeta.

With a wink and a smirk, he leaned over the table and spoke to her in a rumbled voice she wasn't sure was supposed to make her stomach flip quite the way it did. "Oh, I know your name and I'll be back every now and then to check on you… we'll see if I can learn anything else about you."

She watched him walk away, inadvertently letting her eyes wander down the contour of his muscled back, amazed not even the hideous scrubs everyone in that hospital had to wear could entirely hide the definition. She felt the heat of a flush boiling up her neck and quickly looked around to make sure no one had caught her staring.

She caught a brief glance of the other ridiculously good-looking orderly (Honestly, where did they even find the guys they hired to work in this hospital? Abercrombie & Fitch?), who quickly averted his eyes with an infuriatingly knowing smirk. She scowled and looked back down at her computer.

Stupid orderlies.

Stupid Peeta.

Stupid blush.

As she went back to browsing, she absently wondered how long it would take him to make his rounds and come back to talk to her.

'Cause really, how many crazy people could there possibly be in the minimum-security ward? Did he say he only worked this ward?

God! Was being nuts making her needy?

She really, really hoped not…

She needed that like she needed another hole in her head.

The one they'd put in for the shunt to bring down the swelling was plenty. That still gave her headaches. Then, they gave her meds for the headaches… and the meds made the nightmares come back…

How long did it take someone to finish rounds, anyway?

With a determined set to her jaw, she folded up her laptop and set off to find out.


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