There were few times in her life that Katniss Everdeen was glad to be female. Being a woman meant being repressed and treated like cattle, woman's movement or not. But as she celebrated her 18th birthday in the comfort and safety of her home, with her mother and sister by her side, she knew that in that moment she had it better than half of the population in her town. At least she wasn't in line at the town justice building, completing her draft card.
It had been seven years since the war in Vietnam started. The war that she silently questioned her country's need to be in. The army hadn't called for a draft yet, but on his 18th birthday every boy went down to the justice building anyway. It was required of them all, under harsh punishment if not obeyed. Her best friend, Gale, threatened not to go. But Katniss saw him waiting in line on her way to school the morning of his birthday. Every night since, she watched the news with fear, waiting for President Johnson to announce the start of the draft that she had heard rumors about. Instead, local anchors announced the names of the boys who did more than complete their draft cards. They enlisted on the spot.
It was suicide. In seven years, the war had already racked up too high of a death toll. She knew Gale would never enlist and she wasn't particularly close to any other eligible boys, so she never paid much attention to the names. It wouldn't do any good since most would never come back.
She graduated high school later that month. Already her class was missing a handful of boys. Their names weren't even announced at the ceremony. Katniss wondered how many died without reaching that milestone. She got lucky after graduation. Her high achievement in math made her a perfect candidate for a teller position at the local bank. She hated every second of it, working for the very government that sent her father off to die, but the money was the best she could hope for at her age. And she still had her sister to look after.
"Good morning, Delly," Katniss greeted her coworker. She had a strong dislike of Delly Cartwright, a curvy blonde with an eternal smile. She was too damn optimistic all the time. Plus she was clearly the boss' favorite new hire, given the way he would stare down her blouse whenever he came in to talk to her. It wasn't Delly's fault but Katniss found it sickening that her former schoolmate just accepted it. The one time old man Cray came near her, Katniss stuck the heel of her shoe straight into the top of his foot. She should have been fired, but he was too embarrassed to admit a girl got the better of him, so he just left her alone.
"Huh? Oh. Hi, Katniss."
Katniss frowned as she prepared the morning till. "What's wrong with you?"
Delly looked over at Katniss with fat tears rolling down her face, making Katniss incredibly uncomfortable. She sniffled, "Oh, it's nothing," she answered with a wave of her hand.
"Okay," Katniss shrugged, turning back to her station.
"It's Peeta!" Delly exclaimed.
"Your cousin? What about him?" Not that she particularly cared, but she knew Delly was looking to talk something out with her.
"He..." she sniffed again, "he enlisted and was shipped out this morning."
Katniss dropped the pile of banknotes she had been organizing, sending them flying to the floor, feeling her stomach drop along with them. She quickly knelt down to pick them up, keeping her eyes on the carpeted floor. She could still hear Delly's sniffles and knew if she looked at her friend, after the news, that she wouldn't be able to keep it together. She didn't know Peeta Mellark very well. They were in school together, but ran in very different circles. They never spoke a word to one another. Yet somehow the news of him going over to that dreadful country, likely never to return, made her heart feel like lead in her chest.
But Peeta was smart, she reasoned. He got the best marks in school and was the second best wrestler, only behind his brother. He surely had college offers, which would have prevented him from even being drafted if it ever came to it. Why would he volunteer his life so cavalierly? He was not a soldier, he was a kind boy. A sweet boy. She had never seen him so much as push another child in all the time she knew him and he somehow thought he'd be able to...to kill?
"Why?" It was the only word out of her cotton-dried mouth.
Delly shook her head. "Both of his brothers enlisted a few years ago. And his father fought...I'm sure…" Tears overwhelmed her again and she ran toward the bathroom, leaving only the sounds of her sobs and the clack of heels on the linoleum floor behind.
It was the last time she spoke about Peeta Mellark. Delly never gave any updates and Katniss never asked. She couldn't live with the guilt she had over never thanking the boy for helping her after her father died. And now he was gone and she'd never be able to thank him.
"How was school today, little duck?" Katniss asked, ruffling her sister's hair as she came home from the bank. It had been almost a month since Delly Cartwright told her about Peeta's enlisting and the two hadn't spoken of it since. Katniss noticed her coworker's ever perky demeanor slipping slightly some days, but figured if she wanted to talk about it, they would. Since she never brought it up, Katniss kept her mouth shut.
"Fine. We learned about coal."
Katniss laughed. It was the same curriculum every year in their tiny coal-mining town. Most people went down into the mines so the town decided everyone needed to know everything there was to know about it. The image of sweet little Prim going down in the mines was almost as laughable as her being shipped off to Vietnam. "Don't believe them when they tell you coal can become a pearl." Katniss set the fry pan on the stove and pulled the pack of bologna out of the fridge. "Where's Mom?"
"In the living room," Prim answered, wrinkling her nose. "Fried bologna, again?"
"Don't complain," Katniss snapped. "I don't get paid until the end of the month and we don't get Dad's insurance check for another few weeks." She sighed. "What's mom doing in the living room?"
Prim shrugged. "She was in there when I got home from school."
Glancing into the dark living room, Katniss let out a sigh. At first, when her mother got out of bed in the mornings, it was an improvement, but all it was was a transplant. She put together her sister's sandwich without a word and began to prep another for her mother, knowing she wouldn't eat it. "I'm going to watch the news. You can come out when you're finished with your homework, okay?"
Katniss didn't want to still be living at home, she was often embarrassed about admitting that fact to her coworkers, but with a catatonic mother and Prim still in school, she didn't have much of a choice. They were lucky the house was already paid off so Katniss' paychecks went to the bills and food rather than the mortgage. They didn't have many luxuries in their home; their dishes were a mismatch of hand-me-downs and thrift-store finds, Katniss tried her best to mend her and her mother's clothes for Prim, but she spent her entire first paycheck on an old black-and-white television. It only consistently received three channels and even those pictures were fuzzy, but it worked well enough for what they needed.
She watched the news every night, waiting for the list of fallen soldiers. The name of boys who would never come home, anxiously waiting for the one she hoped would never show. Night after night, she watched and waited and worried.
"It should make you angry, Catnip."
"I am angry, Gale," she answered, slipping out of her uncomfortable work shoes and into her old leather hunting boots. They didn't go with her attire but since she was just walking home, she cared less than she normally did. "But I have my sister to care for, still. I can't risk being arrested and the 'peacekeepers' finding out about my mom."
Ever since Gale found out about the protest a few towns over, he had been going on and on about it, trying to convince Katniss to go with him. "You can't get arrested for protesting, you have rights."
Katniss rolled her eyes. "Clearly our rights are what the government cares about. What good would any of it do anyway? Holding a sign saying 'get out of Vietnam' isn't going to make it happen."
"But it's better than nothing."
She shook her head. "I can't risk it. Prim has a few more years and she'll be safe in college."
"She'll be safe because she's a girl," he muttered. Katniss felt her shoulders drop. She knew why Gale had a bigger dog in this fight. No one knew who would be eligible if Johnson ultimately used the lottery system for soldiers. Gale was probably safe but there was no guarantee for his brothers; Rory was the same age as Prim and boys from poorer families were usually the ones who went into the military since they couldn't afford college. The war may have stolen both of their fathers from them, but Katniss could at least live in relative security that the rest of her immediate family was safe. She felt guilty for not realizing it sooner. The Hawthornes may not have been blood but she knew her life would fall apart if Hazelle ever had to receive a pinewood box with a flag draped over it.
"Okay. I'll go."
Katniss knew something was wrong when she got to work and saw Clove standing at Delly's terminal. Delly, for all her annoying traits, was just as punctual as Katniss and hadn't missed a day of work. Mr. Cray, the bank manager, forced her to go home early once but that was only because she was so upset about Peeta's deployment.
Katniss' chest tightened. Peeta was probably the only reason Delly would miss work. And only if something big happened. Something bad.
"Are you going to throw up?" Clove's acidic voice cut through. "Because the bathrooms are around the corner."
Katniss didn't respond and instead left the pinched face girl alone in the bank as she ran down the streets in her heels and skirt to the richer side of town. The bakery was around this way and she knew the Cartwrights and Mellarks lived near one another.
The lights in the shoe store were off and there was a sign on the door saying they were closed for the day. A few buildings down, she saw a similar sign on the bakery door but it was flooded with lights. She sprinted to the building and ripped open the door with a force she didn't know she had.
"Excuse me, we're closed!" Mrs. Mellark yelled. "Can't you read the sign?"
"Katniss?" Delly came into view and started walking toward where Katniss was frozen in the doorway. Her eyes were red-rimmed and her cheeks were stained from her tears. She wiped her eyes and stepped closer. "What are you doing here?"
Katniss took in the scene. At the largest table in the bakery sat Peeta's parents and brothers, both Cartwright adults and Delly's baby brother. And an official looking man in a crisp US Army uniform with more medals and ribbons than Katniss has ever seen. There was only one reason official looking men in crisp US Army uniforms paid a visit to soldiers' family's homes.
The vision of Peeta's coffin being returned was too much for Katniss to stand and without her consent, tears began flowing freely down her face. "No," she whispered.
"Katniss?" Delly took hold of both hands. "Katniss, what's wrong?"
Katniss shook her head. "Is he...he can't be..."
"He's not," Delly said, a relieved smile on her lips. "He's not, Katniss. They found him. He was captured but they found him because he tapped out a code to tell people where he was. He's coming home."
Katniss nodded, still unable to stop the tears. "Good. That's...that's good."
"I didn't realize you two were so close," Delly said.
"No. No we weren't. We aren't. I was...uh...I was just concerned about you, Delly. When you weren't at work I was...worried."
Delly smiled. "Thank you, Katniss."
Katniss knew Peeta Mellark was supposed to be coming home soon. He had been injured during his captivity but no one knew just how extensive the damage was. He was a bit of a local hero, his story even made national news one night. And he was finally coming home. Alive.
Now that he was going to be safe, where no one could hurt him, she felt a stronger drive to protest the war. Boys like Peeta Mellark shouldn't be captured and injured by the Vietnamese, because boys like Peeta Mellark shouldn't be in Vietnam. No one should.
Cray gave Delly the entire week off, just so she could be home whenever Peeta got in, so Katniss had been spending more mornings than she cared to with Clove again, much to the frustration of both girls. It seemed like that entire week was the busiest the bank had ever been, but it didn't seem to distract Katniss from trying to hear something about Peeta.
She wondered what he would look like, dressed in his Army uniform. He was always strong, with a sturdy build, but he was gone for so long, and she knew better than most how malnutrition could tear down the body. And then there were his injuries. Delly didn't know specifics, but it had been so long since he was rescued, there must have been excessive damage to keep him away for so long.
It was the sudden hush that fell over the bank lobby that first caught her attention. Her mouth dried instantly at the sight of the man in his Army uniform, with chevrons indicating his high ranking status, standing in the doorway. Even with his cane and his limp, Peeta Mellark came toward her as fast as he could. "Peeta? What are you doing here? Why are you-" She was interrupted when he held her face in both of his hands, entranced by those blue eyes that nothing could make dangerous. When she felt his lips press against hers, she relaxed her body into his, reveling in this strange, but not unwanted, turn of events. She wanted to fight when his lips pulled away, wanted to reach up and kiss him again, kiss him for all the days she spent worried about his safety, kiss him to make sure he was really home, but the patrons of the bank began to cheer wildly.
"Thank you," he said quietly, stepping back from her.
In her post-kiss haze, she furrowed her eyebrows. "For what?" Surely he wasn't thanking her for kissing him. And she hadn't done anything for him. It was quite the opposite, Peeta Mellark had saved her by slipping those extra coins into her backpack at school and giving Prim snacks at the bakery when they couldn't afford anything. He was the one who told Delly, who told Katniss, that the bank was hiring girls straight out of high school. The whole point of her being concerned about his well-being was so that she could thank him, not the other way around.
"You saved my life, Katniss Everdeen."
AN: Some of you crazy kids convinced me to write some more of this. It'll be only a few chapters since I'm still not a history buff ;). I would be amiss if I didn't thank my lovely beta, modernlifeofash, for looking over this and keeping my motivated to write this.
I'm on tumblr at mitchesbcray where you can find updates, crazy life stories, and random musings. :)