What the hell am I doing? I've barely bothered to give guys and boyfriends and the whole mess of it a single thought and now I'm playing late night card games and having afternoon cabin time with Peeta Mellark? We're touching hands? He's touching my face? What?!
Our time in Oak Hill was surreal. I'd become so comfortable around him, felt so safe. Then Prim started talking about crushes and jealousy and making decisions. I thought for sure I'd never be able to look him in the eye again. But then there we were, his hand, warm and strong on my cheek, and me, asking questions I never thought I'd ask out loud.
He's in Morgantown because of me, at least in part. It thrills me, confuses me and freaks me out all at once. I want to be with him and to never see him again. I'm so not meant for this kind of thing.
Our ride back was pretty uneventful for the most part. I was busy trying to sort out my shit, so was even less of a conversationalist than usual and Peeta opted not to push it, as he usually does. He normally waits for me to initiate our plans, but before I got out of his van he asked if I wanted to come over for dinner on my next night off. I said yes, because it's Peeta and because we hang out together fairly regularly at this point, but the invite now feels loaded somehow and I'm already stressed about it.
To make matters worse, I've got my end of semester appointment with my student adviser, Haymitch Abernathy, today. He's a miserable man who looks way older than he probably is and who reeks of booze. Like, all the time. It turns out he's from Oak Hill, so at least we have that in common. I have no idea why he stays in a job he clearly loathes. I guess though if he can earn a living not doing a whole lot and the powers that be just ignore his drinking, it's probably worth it.
His office is one of the small ones tucked away in the far off corner of one of the administration buildings. There's a single hard, wooden chair outside his door for waiting students.
Fifteen or twenty minutes late, he opens his door wide and invites me in with a booming voice saying, "Katniss! My favourite student. Come on in."
This is sarcasm, of course, because I'm pretty sure he hates me.
I enter the room, ass sore from the awful chair, and am greeted by the familiar stale liquor stench that is ever-present in Haymitch's vicinity.
"I've got some bad news for you, darling" he says. His frequent use of various terms of endearment pisses me off. And, I'm pretty sure is totally in violation of university policy, but since he's the man who's the direct link to most of my scholarships and financial aid, I don't make a big deal about it.
"Oh yeah? You transferring to another school?" I ask, matching his mocking tone.
"Ha, you're a funny one Miss Everdeen. No, it's about your funding. Times are tight and the foundation you were getting your scholarship from couldn't stick it out. They're broke." I can tell from the sound of his voice that he's not kidding around.
"Seriously? What about the bursaries?"
"Yeah, your bursaries are probably still alright, but they'll only get you about a quarter of what you need for the year and the foundation won't even be able to cover next semester's installment of your scholarship."
"But my financial aid...I don't think I can get anymore...I'm fully extended." The panic is setting in now. I've only got one year left after this one. I've borrowed so much money already. And I'll need to help pay for Prim's schooling as soon as I graduate. She wants to be a doctor which means I'll need a real job to get her the money she needs. I can't just flip burgers for the next ten years and expect to cover all the bills.
"Take next semester off, work a little, come back next year." Haymitch states casually, like he's suggesting a picnic in the park.
His cavalier attitude sets me right off. "I can't take a semester off, Haymitch! It's a little more complicated than that. I have to graduate and make some real money. I can't just...take a break!" I'm practically yelling at him, but he's barely reacting.
"Well, I've explored all your options and unless you can land yourself a husband by January, sweetheart, you're s.o.l." He replies, matter-of-factly.
"What? What does getting married have to do with it? I don't need a man to take care of me."
"And I'm sure the men of the world are thankful as hell for that, darlin', but you do need a husband to live in the new subsidized family residence the university is opening. And to get your hands on the generous bursaries that come along with it."
"That's the only option? I have to be married or I can't graduate? That's such ass-backwards b.s.!"
Haymitch chuckles. "I like you, sweetheart, you're a feisty one."
My response comes out as more of a chortle than anything.
"Look," Haymitch continues, sounding bitter, "I hate this high-moral, what's-best-for-public-perception bullshit as much as you do, but this is where we're at."
"So there's nothing I can do?" I'm already sounding defeated. And I hate it.
"Well now, there might be something we can do if you're willing to get...creative."
"I might be. What are we talking about?"
"Could you find some poor sucker willing to help you out? I could make sure your paperwork says what it has to if you can play the part of the happy wife until you graduate."
"This is crazy...I..." I'm at a loss. Pretending to be married to finish school? The whole thing is ludicrous and I can't believe what I'm hearing.
"You think about it, puddin', and get back to me soon so I can get you both in for next semester. It's the best I can do. You play the game and I'll do my part."
I leave Haymitch's office feeling like I've been hit by a truck. I don't know how to process the information I've been given. Without my main scholarship and without being able to get anymore financial aid, I can't finish school. But the alternative...it's unfathomable.
Still, I can't stop myself from considering the idea. Gale's out. He has to live at home to help his mom with his siblings and besides, he'd never be able to pay the part of the rent we'd owe at the new residence. Which leaves only...Peeta.
How could I ask something like that? What would I say? And what would we tell people? Living together is a big deal. Sure, we're friends, but this is a whole other thing. No, it's not worth thinking about. It's crazy.
By the time Thursday rolls around, I'm well beyond on edge. I've had nightmares the past three nights. One was about Prim and I starving to death behind Peeta's family's bakery. Another was about me telling Prim she couldn't go to medical school and her just vanishing, leaving me in the woods alone endlessly searching for her. The third was about the president of the university taking away my diploma and banishing me from the graduation ceremony in front of hundreds of people.
When I sit down beside Peeta in class, I don't say anything and instead rest my forehead on my folded arms on top of the table we share.
He puts a hand on my back as he leans over and asks, "Hey, what's going on?"
I don't answer immediately and he keeps his hand where it is until I do.
"I'm just tired," I finally say.
His face falls a bit when he says, "Maybe we should have dinner some other time."
I shake my head. As much as the vibe of this dinner feels different and as much as that terrifies me, I dread the thought of disappointing Peeta and then going back to my apartment to worry about how I'm going to keep paying for one.
"Okay," he says, looking relieved, "do you want to just come back there with me after class? You can just hang out while I'm cooking."
This time I nod and go back to my previous head down position until Professor Trinket comes in and chirps, "Posture is everything Miss Everdeen. Up and alert please, up and alert!"
I raise my middle finger up towards her back as she's walking past me and resume the position.
When class finally ends, I can't be sure I've succeeded in retaining consciousness for all of it.
I grab my stuff and follow Peeta wordlessly out the door, off campus and towards his nearby neighbourhood.
His apartment is as I remember it, only now there are a few new paintings on the wall. The one that catches my eye shows a shadowy figure walking away into the darkness. It may just be my favourite one yet.
I follow his lead and get cozy on the couch, across from the chair he sits in. "Want some coffee or tea or something?"
"Either," I respond simply, thinking that the caffeine boost will do me some good.
As he stands to make his way to the kitchen, Peeta reaches behind him, grabs a blanket off the chair and tosses it to me.
"Here," he says,"it gets drafty in here."
I say my thanks and busy myself spreading the blanket out over my legs as I curl them up towards me and rest my head on the arm of the couch.
It's the last thing I remember until I hear a familiar voice coaxing me awake, "Katniss... Katniss, dinner's ready."
I open my eyes to find Peeta crouching on the floor in front of me, his hand reaching around and rubbing my back gently as he whispers my name and tells me to get up.
"What time is it? How long have I been sleeping?"
"It's just after six, so, a couple of hours."
"I'm sorry Peeta, I -"
"It's okay," he interrupts, "I was busy in the kitchen. The food is ready though. Do you want it now or I can just keep it warm if you want to wait a bit."
"Yeah, food sounds great, let's eat now."
Peeta has prepared another incredible and homey looking meal that includes ham, squash and cornbread. I dive in without a lot of prompting and am soon full and relaxed. Peeta has such an enviable knack for comfort. I'm happy to so often be the recipient of his natural ability.
He's talking about his classes next semester. Any moment he'll ask me about my own and I'll have to confess that I don't even know if I'll be in school next semester. I hate the thought of his pitying look and the offer of help or money he'll no doubt give.
"How about you? What's your schedule like in the new year?"
"Uh, I'm not sure, it's complicated," I offer, hoping the vague reply will suffice.
"What do you mean?" No such luck.
I start to tell Peeta about the scholarship and how I haven't worked out what I'm going to do yet. He listens without saying anything and manages not to look like he's feeling sorry for the destitute girl who's about to become a college drop out.
"There are seriously no other options?" His face is a mask of seriousness and concentration, like he's trying to work out an overlooked solution.
"Basically, I mean, there aren't any other options that make any damn sense."
"What are they?"
"What are what?"
"The ones that don't make any sense?"
I take a deep breath and begin explaining the preposterous idea that is the new family residence and the tuition bursaries that come with it.
With a face that's as serious as I've ever seen it and in a tone that suggests his mind is already made up, Peeta looks me directly in the eye and states, "Then, let's do it."