It had been almost three years since Sgt. Peeta Mellark had been outside, had breathed fresh air and actually seen the sun. Had talked to anyone other than his guards and fellow captives. He started making tallies on the wall when he was first dragged into this hell hole as something to do, to keep some shred of sanity. Naval captain, Finnick Odair, tied knots with some rope he smuggled from the guards. Day in and day out. Tying. Untying. Knot after knot until his fingers bled. But he kept tying. They all had their systems. Something to distract from the pain of being beaten with the buts of rifles. Or held in some torture device until they could no longer lift their arms. Or branded like cattle with iron rods straight from the iron.
Or thrown into solitary for days on end. Solitary was the worst. Stuck in a cramped room; alone save for the rats that scampered across their bare feet. Solitary drive more men crazy than any physical punishment the North Vietnamese soldiers could inflict. Peeta watched as men who came in as big as they came shriveled down to whimpering shells of their former selves after solitary.
The guards always gave the men an out. "Denounce your country. Call for a cease-fire and we'll end your suffering." It would stop the physical torment but meant a lifetime of mental anguish for anyone who gave into temptation. Denouncing the war effort as a soldier was a clear act of treason. 'Country first' was a motto all the servicemen lived and died by. Peeta tried his best to remind the newest POWs of their duty.
"The body is soft," he said. "But your mind, your heart, your spirit are strong. Your country stands behind you. You must stand behind your country."
"How do you keep such hope?" Beetee, a relatively new officer asked, his face blackened and bruised. "You've been here for so long. What are you holding onto?" Peeta had been attempting to stop the blood flow from Beetee's head wound when the question was asked.
"The same thing we're all holding onto," Finnick answered. "Whoever's waiting for us back home. Me, I got this girl, Annie, as soft as the ocean breeze but as strong as the tide. She was pregnant when I got captured. A boy, the last I knew."
Peeta smiled. Finnick's love for his wife was evident to anyone who met him. The pair married right before Finnick shipped off, as so many young couples did. Finnick's son would be nearly three by now and more than anything, he wanted to be the father he never had.
Others told their stories. Thresh talked about his youngest sister who would hide in the apple trees in their orchard and could leap from branch to branch like a bird. Gloss told us about his hyper-competitive twin sister and how he had to fight her off when he was drafted. "Not because she was worried," he joked, "because she wanted to fight for her county." Men talked of their mothers, their fathers, everyone they left back home.
"What about you, Peeta? Who are you fighting to get home to?"
Peeta leaned back against the wall and smiled. "The girl I've loved since we were kids: Katniss Everdeen." He relished in the way her name played on his lips, like a sacred prayer. "I can still remember the first time I laid eyes on her the first day of school, in her red dress and two braids. She was the prettiest girl I had ever seen. But it was her voice that hooked me for good."
"Yeah," he said, closing his eyes. "She volunteered to sing that first day and as soon as she opened her mouth, I was a goner. To this day, she's the best singer I've ever heard."
Cato snorted. "Better than Helen Reddy?"
"Or Karen Carpenter?" Thresh asked in his low, rumbling voice.
"The absolute best. I swear to you, boys, when she sang, even the birds stopped to listen." He would never tell them that Katniss knew nothing of his love for her. It was his own secret, and shame, that he meant to tell her when he was drafted. That he wrote letters to her that were never sent. That he thought of her constantly while she hardly knew of his existence. Tallies. Knot tying. Katniss Everdeen. They all had their methods of keeping sane.
Peeta couldn't contain his screams as a soldier pierced the delicate skin under his fingernails with a bamboo skewer. The blood flowed freely, covering his knuckles in seconds.
"Ready to talk?"
Peeta refused to answer. It was the only time he wouldn't talk. They could make him scream but they'd never make him speak. The guard clicked his tongue, said something in his native Korean, and pointed at Peeta's legs. The younger guard, the one administering the torture, hesitated slightly before placing the bamboo skewer back on the table. Peeta watched in horror as he replaced the skewer with a thick, sturdy piece of metal piping. In one stroke, the young guard shattered Peeta's left kneecap.
"You know how to make this end."
Peeta lifted his head, ignoring the tears streaming down his face and stared the older guard in the eye. With the last bit of strength he had, Peeta spat a mixture of saliva and blood in the guard's face.
In solitary, there was no way to know how much time passed. Prisoners were fed whenever the guards thought about it. There were no windows or cracks to allow any indication that time had moved at all. His knee was in constant pain, and he swore he could feel shards of bone piercing through his skin. His body passed out at least four times that he remembered and it was his only relief from the physical agony. But he preferred to be awake. When he was awake, he could think of her. Of his girl. The girl he drew imaginary pictures of on the walls. He drew her eyes, imagining the swirls of storm and coal dust. He drew her braid. Her lips. The bow and arrow she so loved in high school. He talked to her, promising her he'd come home, pretending she'd be there waiting for him when he does. He said her name over and over, forcing his lips to make the movement. He heard her sing in his head, lulling him into a light sleep that rests his aching body.
But more often, he told himself stories of her. He reminds himself of how strong she was when her father died. Jeremiah Everdeen was a great hero in their hometown and died only months before the Korean War ended for good. Their small town was rocked when his flag-draped casket was returned to the small Everdeen home. Peeta could vividly remember his father taking him to funeral. He was only able to focus on the young Katniss, accepting the folded flag for her father at the gravesite. He didn't understand her loss or her grief but even at the tender age of six, he knew she would never be the same. When she went up to say goodbye to her father one last time, she tapped out a message on the top of his casket.
Someone kept up his tallies while he was in solitary for the past four week. He was dehydrated and starving and he couldn't walk on his own but his mind was on overdrive. When he was strong enough to speak, he told Finnick of his plan.
"Peeta, do you understand the consequences if this doesn't work? You'll never be able to go back home again."
His friend was rightfully concerned. Peeta knew the risks but it was worth taking the chance as far as he was concerned. It was his own status compared the wellbeing of all his men; there was no other option. 'Country first.' "Trust me, Finn. It needs to be done. But we only get one shot at this, so we need to be certain we know exactly where we are."
Finnick nodded thoughtfully. "I may have some leads. You need a few days to heal anyway. I'll get back to you when I can." Peeta didn't question the way Finnick would go about acquiring the information they needed. One thing he learned inside these walls was not to go poking his nose where it didn't belong. He focused his attention on tending to his injuries as well as possible and practicing what he would say. This was quite possibly the most important message he would ever deliver and it had to be perfect.
"Ready to talk?" The guard asked.
Somewhere between the cords tied above his elbows to cut of blood flow to his hands and his arms being forced behind his back toward his head, Peeta felt his shoulders pulling out of their sockets. It was not the first time they tortured him so nor was it the most painful thing they had ever done. And under normal circumstances would not break him. But these were not normal circumstances. Today was the day he saved them. "Yes," he answered hoarsely. "I'll say it." He howled in pain as the guards tightened the cords further, tears stinging his eyes. "I'll call for a cease fire. Please."
The guard snapped his fingers and almost instantly a camera was brought out and set up facing Peeta. The others worked to untie him and set his hands on the arms of the chair, giving the appearance of a normal, almost comfortable, position for him. It was an act, clearly, because if anyone knew what was really happening, the North Vietnamese would have the Geneva Convention to answer to. Peeta shook out his arms and wiggled his fingers as much as he could, his eyes staring at the unblinking red light of the camera.
"My name is Sergeant Peeta Mellark of the D12 platoon 74th brigade. I was captured by the North Vietnamese army three and a half years ago. I have a message for the US military home and abroad." He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. tap / tap-tap-tap. tap / tap. "Think about what this war means for us as humans." tap-tap-tap / tap-tap-tap-tap. tap-tap / tap-tap-tap-tap. tap-tap-tap-tap / tap-tap-tap-tap. "We have been involved in too many incidents such as these; too many have lost their lives, soldiers and civilians." tap-tap-tap / this really what we want to do? We need to lay down our weapons." tap-tap-tap / tap. "We are wrong for being involved here."
Peeta was sent back into solitary after filming. For the rest of his life, he never knew how he spent in that tiny cell that time. He lost track of time and space, sleeping more often than not. He was sure he had lost his mind when he heard the heavy footsteps outside the walls. He heard voices. English. American accents. It had worked. He had never been happier to see the green fatigues of the US Army as in the moment that a pair of soldiers carried him to a waiting helicopter to take him home.
Recovery took longer than expected. His left leg was amputated below his knee, the infection had spread too far and the bone shattered beyond repair. They spent weeks increasing his weight and nutritional levels. He saw psychiatrists to make sure he was "fit" for return.
His father was at the airport to take him home. His brothers and mother were waiting for him at the family bakery for a special celebration. Peeta wasn't interested in celebrating his return. The doctors said he was fine, that he seemed to be in as adequate physical and mental health as could be expected. But nothing about him felt fine. His mind was still hazy from the drugs they pumped into his system, along with the mental anguish he suffered in Vietnam. It wasn't until they passed the local bank that he had any spark of life.
Through the windows he could see the tellers. One in particular, with raven black hair in a braid and grey eyes the color of storm clouds and coal dust. Leaving his father behind, he veered off, nearly ripping the door off the handle. The bank crowd fell silent at the wounded Army veteran. Some saluted, others flipped him off, but he paid no attention to them. He walked as quickly as he could toward her.
Her eyes widened in surprise. "Peeta? What are you doing back? Why are you-"
She was interrupted when he held her face in both hands and kissed her deeply. She melted into his body, allowing his tongue entrance into her mouth. She had never quite been kissed this way, she could feel everything he was pouring into it. When he released her, the bank erupted into cheers. He smiled and stepped back, "Thank you," he said quietly.
Her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "For what?"
"You saved my life, Katniss Everdeen."
AN: I do not claim to be an expert in history, in torture, in war, in any of that stuff. There likely are glaring mistakes, which I accept :)
I haven't decided if I want to continue this story or not, so it's marked as complete, but that easily could change if I get the time to work on it. But...no promises