A/N: I'm very new to this fandom, and I've really only dabbled in THG drabbles up until now (thanks to the Prompts in Panem challenge at Tumblr). This is unbeta'd, and so I'd appreciate any thoughts or constructive criticism you may have.
June 14, 1944
Navy Base Hospital #12
"Shh, you're okay. You're okay."
She never dared to say this to any other soldier. It would have been considered flippant or patronizing or, frankly, an outright lie. But the man before her was, for all intents and purposes, okay. Physically fine, aside from a minor shoulder wound. She had removed the shrapnel herself, and then administered the penicillin that would ward off any infection. He would make a full recovery.
But perspiration dotted his brow as he stared back at her with wide, terrified blue eyes. She reached to smooth back a lock of his blonde hair, an uncharacteristic gesture on her part, but he flinched.
"Benjamin Cato. 845222," he repeated. It was the only thing he would say.
"You're in a base hospital now, Private. You're with the Allies."
"Benjamin Cato. 845222."
Defeated, she moved on to the next bed. She could set a broken bone, but what hope was there for a broken mind? Benjamin Cato, service number 845222, was now classified as mentally ill. The shock of what he had seen and done just too much for him.
As she tended to another soldier, her thoughts wandered to dangerous places. Katniss's mother was a fabulous nurse. She could mend the body and soul of anyone injured, and she always remained calm and collected in even the direst of situations. Her baby sister Prim had inherited all of those healing skills as well. But Katniss must have lacked some fundamental trait those women possessed, because all she could do was wonder how she was going to make it through the rest of this war without losing her own mind.
It was a betrayal to the other women who surrounded her. If any of them ever shared her feelings, they hid it extremely well. They never so much as flinched at the start of an air raid, never nearly lost their coffee at the sight of particularly gruesome severed limbs and charcoaled flesh. She liked to think she was strong like them, but that was only when she was at home. Here, where it counted, she was nearly falling apart on the inside.
The barrage of wounded had now trickled to a slow stream. The days following the invasion of Normandy had been an onslaught of patients that they were ill-prepared to handle. Katniss had never even imagined such devastation possible at the time. Finally the last of those injured on the beach had been moved, and the nurses' workload somewhat lifted. Now they received a few of the men who had made it further inland, but the field hospitals were able to complete a brunt of the care.
After redressing the wounds of the last patient in her room, Katniss made her way to the tent for some shuteye. As exhausted as she was, she almost yearned for those earlier days of chaos, for the period when it was impossible to think or linger because there simply wasn't the time for it. She would sleep now only because her body instinctively shut down, but she would undoubtedly be awake for the nightmares.
She rested for six hours before she had to relieve another nurse, and when she returned to her room, she found that eight men had been moved (including Private Benjamin Cato, service number 845222) and only two had taken their places. The first new patient was recovering from surgery, and the second was just about to be wheeled in to it. At this point the hospital was an effective assembly line of sorts, and Katniss found a small comfort in the monotony of it all.
She checked on her new patient first, as per her routine. Private First Class Peter Mellark, a lower left leg amputation, appeared to be resting comfortably. He had several severe burns on his thigh but they were already debrided and dressed by the surgeon. Aside from administering medication and monitoring his vitals, all she could really do now was wait for him to wake. But before she moved on, she afforded herself one more look at him. He was young and quite handsome: army-short ashy blonde hair sticking up with sweat, a strong jaw, a thick neck and broad chest. But the serene smile he wore in sleep is what caught her attention the most. She almost pitied him for ever having to wake up.
But he did just that several hours later, just as she was preparing another dose of morphine for him. He was understandably disoriented, but his eyes cleared a bit when they settled on hers. "Hello," he whispered hoarsely.
"Hello. How are you feeling?"
"Lighter," he said, staring down at the bandaged stump. "But I guess that's to be expected."
She never knew what to say in these situations. Did she offer her condolences, and risk sounding pitying? Did she thank them for their sacrifice? Their limbs and lives for freedom, an unfair cost to anyone, she thought. Freedom, of course, should be free.
She opted for professionalism, always a safe bet. "I'll administer more morphine now, to help with the pain. If you need anything else, let me know."
"Can you hold off on the morphine?" he asked. Her brow furrowed. "The pain's not too bad right now."
"The pain's not too bad right now because you still have it in your system. So we need to keep it going."
"The morphine makes me feel…not myself."
"So you'd rather feel pain?" she asked doubtfully.
"Pain is preferable, yes."
She agreed reluctantly. "But please don't wait too long to ask, when it starts to hurt."
He nodded. "I promise."
He held out for about two hours before it became too much. "You must think I'm incredibly weak," he told her through gritted teeth.
She stared back at him incredulously. "That's ridiculous. You're incredibly strong."
When the relief from the drugs washed over him, he held out his hand to her, stopping her as she made her way around the room. "What's your name?" he asked dreamily.
"Katniss," she replied, ignoring his outstretched arm and reaching fingers. "It's a family name," she added, as she always did. It was a reflex, an attempt to intercept any questions regarding its peculiarity.
"Katniss. That's beautiful."
She thanked him quietly, unsurely, and then moved on to the next of the wounded.
Later, she asked him if he felt up to eating. He shrugged indifferently but she would have none of that. "Some broth," she offered, adjusting the pillow behind his head to elevate him. "You'll feel better for it."
"Hard to imagine that, really." But he took it from her, slurping loudly from the spoon. She let a smile slip, and he returned it. "How long will I be here for?" he asked between bites.
"Oh, usually a day or two. Then you'll be transferred to a hospital inland before you can go home."
"Home," he repeated, as if it were unimaginable.
"Katniss?" he asked later, when she was administering another dose of medicine.
"How old are you?"
She frowned, not wanting to encourage the commiserating other young nurses may engage in. But he looked so bashful and innocent, so she let the answer slip with a sigh. "I'm 22."
He grinned back at here, a kind of smile she doubted possible in his physical condition. "What a coincidence! I'm 22!"
She wanted to laugh at his eagerness, which she could probably write off as a mild side-effect of the pain medicines. "What are the odds?"
"We have something in common," he replied proudly.
He continued to talk as she changed his bandages. "I enlisted with my brothers the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Bran and I went Army, but Rye picked the Marine Corps because they have nicer uniforms. I bet he's regretting the hell out of that decision now." Her smile fell after his. "I…I don't know where he is now, though."
She looked around, saw that the other patients were mostly asleep. So she pulled up a rolling chair and sat next to his bed. "My younger sister is in nursing school right now. I think she's worried the war will be over before she gets the chance to help." She shook her head, knotted her hands together nervously. "I pray it is. But anyway, she's much more cut out for this than I am. This is something she was born to do."
"You don't think this is what you were born to do?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. It was certainly something my mother encouraged. She's a nurse too. But I don't know if it's what I'm meant for."
"I think you could do whatever you wanted," he said. "But for the record, Katniss, I think you're a wonderful nurse."
She felt her face warm up. "Well, thank you, Peter."
"Peeta," he corrected. At her look of confusion, he elaborated. "Everyone at home calls me Peeta. It's sort of a joke. My family runs the biggest bakery in Richmond."
"Richmond, Virginia?" she asked with surprise.
"That's the one."
She laughed softly. "I live just outside of Charlottesville."
His returning grin was even warmer than the ones he offered earlier, and she took it as a sign that it was more genuine as well. "So we share a state, too! Another thing we have in common. I bet you even hate this war as much as I do."
She looked down at her hands folded neatly in her lap. "I do. But maybe not quite as much as you must." She cleared her throat, mentally cleared her thoughts. "It's getting late," she told him. "You need to rest."
He whispered goodnight, and she repeated it after him.
The thunderstorm began brewing before sunrise, and by early morning it was raging. Katniss didn't think all of the science in the world would ever explain how the weather could so greatly affect the missing limbs or broken bones of her patients. She had heard once that the drop in atmospheric pressure caused the ache, but it seemed to her more spiritual than that. It was almost as if the earth was urging everyone to embrace their pain and acknowledge their losses, the roar of thunder symbolizing their screams.
Many were receiving increased doses of pain medication to compensate, and Peeta was among them. The effect was immediate; now she knew what he meant when he had told her it made him feel unlike himself.
"Katniss," he breathed, his hand once again outstretched toward her. "I-I was so worried you'd be gone when I woke up."
"I'm here," she reassured, gently squeezing his hand before moving to fluff his pillow.
"When can we go home?"
"You'll be home soon, Peeta," she whispered.
"But what about you?"
Flustered, she stumbled over her own words, but in his haze he didn't seem to notice. "I'll be home soon enough," she finally said. He reached for her hand again, but she pulled away. "Sleep," she commanded.
"Has anyone told you today that you're absolutely gorgeous?"
Such a compliment would usually cause her to turn red with embarrassment, but considering the source, she could only laugh. "I've actually heard that several times today, yes. But everyone who has said it was just as delirious as you are."
"Well, we're delirious, not blind," he smiled.
"What you are is wrapped in a cloud of morphine and not making a bit of sense."
"I'm making perfect sense. It's just that I've decided what I lost in leg, I'll make up for in self-confidence. So, Miss Katniss, I would like to ask you out on a date."
"A date?" she repeated in disbelief.
"A date. I would like to take you to France."
"Well that might be a bit dangerous, so I'll have to decline."
He chuckled. "Not now, of course. Later. After they've rebuilt the beautiful towns we've all burned to the ground. When the streets are repaved with new cobblestone and everyone feels safe enough again to hang their laundry on clotheslines out of their windows. It's so beautiful, Katniss. Almost as lovely as you are. And I want to go back some day."
She moved to sit next to him, beguiled by such pure wonderment. "Tell me more about it. About the beautiful parts."
"There are fields that look like they go on forever. The greenest grass you've ever seen, and then what seems like only inches above it, the bluest sky. Thick white clouds that you'd swear you could just reach up and touch.
"And the beaches. They almost reminded me of ours back home. The same sand. The same rolling tide. The same, but different. I want to see it again, just to be sure. I want to go when the water's not red with blood. I want to paint a picture of the shore while you lie next to me on a blanket."
"Okay." She said it without even thinking, but still couldn't bring herself to regret it.
He smiled softly. "So you'll go?"
"Okay," she repeated.
He fell in and out of consciousness as his body worked to heal itself, but in the moments he was awake, they talked. He told her about the cakes they were making at the bakery in the midst of the Great Depression, sad ones without butter and eggs. She told him about losing her father to a mining accident at around that time, the consequential struggle to survive. He told her more about his brothers, and she told him more about her sister. She talked about her time in nursing school, and he about his three semesters at the University of Virginia. And he told her about the roof of his father's bakery, about how he liked to go there to paint in the summer, and she told him about the lake in her father's woods, about how she liked to go there to climb trees and just think.
He was in her care for 39 hours before he was moved to a main hospital inland. As he was being wheeled out of her room, he took her hand again and kissed her palm.
She missed him immediately.
November 18, 1944
As soon as she stepped off of the bus, she felt like a fool. She had rationalized every mile between here and Charlottesville, but now that she was actually standing in front of the brick building, all of her reasons failed to make any sense to her. Now her mind screamed her doubts, shouted back every reason it was wrong to be there: she barely knew him, she was a painful reminder of an even more painful trauma, it was unprofessional. But it would be hours before another bus arrived, and though there was no snow yet, the air was frigid and uncomfortable.
She steeled herself for the worst before she entered. Maybe he'd be angry that she followed up on him this way. Or maybe he wouldn't even remember her. Maybe he'd be sitting with another girl, and he wouldn't even look her way. Or maybe they'd exchange a simple greeting and a few words, and then he'd send her off and they would never speak again.
She shook her head and pulled open the door, and an overhead bell announced her entry. There were already a few other customers milling about, looking over the grand display cases as they considered their purchases. There were several counters in the large shop, and a broad-shouldered man stood behind the middle one, nodding amicably at something a customer was saying to him.
Or maybe he wouldn't even be here, and it was all for nothing. She sighed, tried to swallow what she knew was disappointment. At least Thanksgiving was a few days away. She could purchase a pie for Prim, and then it all wouldn't be such a waste.
She twisted to her left, her heart racing at the sight of him. He looked well, somehow more handsome than she had remembered. He used a crutch to move from the kitchen doorway to the opening between counters, and then he was standing in front of her.
"Hi," she smiled hesitantly.
"Hi," he returned, beaming back at her. "What in the world are you doing here?"
"I…I just wanted to see how you were doing."
He laughed. "You must be a busy gal if you're personally checking up on all of your patients."
She shook her head, her eyes down but her smile stretched wide across her face. "No, just you."
"Come on then," he said, motioning to a large mahogany door to their right. "We can catch up." He effortlessly balanced himself as he opened the entry that led to a winding staircase. "Ladies first."
She moved slowly up the steps, giving him plenty of time to catch up to her, even if he didn't need it. She soon found herself in a moderately sized apartment, comfortably furnished and warmly inviting. "I grew up here, but my parents have a house in town now. So it's just me." He shrugged. "At least until I go back to UV in the spring."
"So you're going back?" she asked happily as she took a seat at the dining table he gestured to.
"They could cut off my other leg and they still couldn't keep me away."
"I'm glad," she laughed. "Are you going to continue studying art?"
He shook his head. "Business. Bran didn't make it back, so I'll be taking over the bakery when my father retires."
"I'm sorry, Peeta."
He smiled back at her, tender yet sad. "Thank you."
"Are you okay with studying business instead?"
He shrugged. "Sure. Art was sort of frivolous anyway. I would have ended up at the bakery either way, but without Bran, I'll have to run every aspect of it."
"What about Rye?" she asked hesitatingly.
"If- I mean when, when, he comes back, he'll finish law school." He laughed. "He's a terrible baker."
"You seem well," she said.
He nodded. "I am. The first few months home were extremely hard, but losing Bran…it made me realize how grateful I am to be alive, even if I'm missing pieces. I can't dwell. It would be so unfair to him."
"That's wonderful, Peeta. Really. I know how hard it's been for a lot of men coming back."
He pulled himself up further in his seat, shifting to lean his crutch against another chair. "I still can't believe you're here. Come on, take off your coat. Relax."
She unbuttoned her long wool coat, slipped it off and onto the back of her chair. She caught his expression at the sight of her white hospital uniform. "When do you have to be at work?" he asked.
"I actually just got off. Right before coming here. I work nights at Martha Jefferson."
"You must be exhausted," he exclaimed, standing with the aid of his crutch. He held his hand out to her. "Nap here for a bit."
"Peeta, sit down. I'm fine." He did as she asked, and then she began apologizing for her sudden appearance at his home. "I just…I couldn't stop thinking about you. Wondering how you were."
"I couldn't stop thinking about you, either," he admitted with relief. "I even tried calling around the hospitals in Charlottesville, asking for a nurse Katniss, wondering if you were home yet. But no one would tell me anything. I'm sorry."
"That's…that's all right. How could I be upset with you over that when I showed up here today, like this?"
"I'm so glad you did."
They both turned in the direction of the voice; the broad-shouldered man from downstairs was poking his head through the door.
Peeta stood. "Katniss, this is my father. Dad, this is Katniss. She was my nurse in England. Took care of me after the amputation." Mr. Mellark walked to her, hand extended, but just as she held out hers to shake, he changed his mind and wrapped her in a fierce hug. "Katniss," he said. "It's so nice to meet you. I can't thank you enough for what you did."
"Do you need me for anything?" Peeta asked him before Katniss had a chance to reply.
"No, no. You two stay here for as long as you want." He turned to leave for the bakery, and they found themselves alone again.
They talked about her return to the States two months earlier, and she asked about his prosthetic ("I wear it sometimes but it's so uncomfortable. I'll use it more in college, though." She nodded in understanding). As she was telling him about Prim's early graduation from nursing school ("Top of her class, of course," she said with great pride), she realized the time.
"The bus back to Charlottesville leaves in twenty minutes," she said regretfully. "I have to get going."
Mr. Mellark sent her home with an armload of pies and pastries that she tried politely to decline, but he insisted, and then Peeta walked her out and to the bus stop, ignoring her protests. They stood in silence as they waited for her ride, but when the vehicle was in view, he stammered nervously. "I…I know the holidays are coming up and we'll both be busy, but I'll be back at UV in early January. May I…May I please see you again?"
"Of course," she answered breathlessly. He handed her the bag of treats he'd carried for her as the doors to the bus opened. "Find me at the hospital one morning, a few minutes after 7. Near the emergency room exit."
"I will," he promised.
"Bye, Katniss." She turned to leave, hesitating for a moment but then proceeding. She settled in a front window seat and watched him as he stood there until she departed. He waved to her as the bus pulled away, and she smiled happily as she waved back. She didn't turn her head until he completely disappeared from view, but even then her smile did not falter.
It was a cold morning in early January when Katniss saw him again. She had been searching for him every day, fighting the disappointment each time she failed to find him. But he was there on the 11th, waiting by the doors near the emergency room just as she specified.
He took her to breakfast, and they laughed together as they shared stories of their holidays. They made plans to meet later in the week and then he once again walked her to the bus stop, willfully ignoring any problems with his prosthetic. Before she turned to leave, he boldly kissed her on the cheek. She stared at him, stunned, and then purposefully kissed him on the lips.
Over the next several months, they met whenever they could between classes and hospital shifts. She took him home to meet her mother and Prim. He took her back to Richmond one weekend for dinner with his parents. In the spring, she brought him to her father's lake, which he painted. When they returned to the spot on June 15th, one year to the day they first met, they made love for the first time.
On August 13th, they clung to each other all day. There had been several reports circulating that the Japanese had surrendered, but they were proven false. Still, it was only a matter of time, and they wanted, needed, to be together when it was official.
She fell asleep in his arms on the couch in his small apartment near campus. They slept through the radio announcement, but at a little after 2 a.m., the sound of shouts and horns from the street woke them up.
They stared at each other, matching grins slowly spreading across their faces. "It's over," he whispered.
"It's over," she repeated, and then they were kissing, teeth clashing and tongues tangling as the enormity of the moment embraced them just as they embraced each other. She pushed him back against the sofa and climbed into his lap, all while being mindful of his leg. He let his hand brush the outside of her thigh and then wander higher, and as his fingers snaked past her underwear, finding her wet and willing, she gasped against his mouth.
They were usually so slow when they were together like this, but once they were given all the time in the world, they didn't have a need for any of it. He fumbled with his belt buckle as she kissed along the jawline she loved so much, and as soon as he sprang free from his pants, she sunk down onto him, rocking her hips forward and growling his name.
She rode him furiously, her breasts bouncing underneath her dress, mesmerizing him. He reached up to squeeze her through her clothes, his head falling back against the armrest as he did so. "Don't stop, don't stop," he begged her. "Never," she promised.
It didn't take long for them to both fall apart, and she collapsed forward after, gasping in an attempt to catch her breath. He ran his fingers through her dark, long hair as he pulled out of her, and she settled against his chest.
"Do you think we would have met if it wasn't for the war?" he asked her.
"Do you think we could have crossed paths at some point, here? Maybe I would have seen you in the street one day and somehow mustered up enough courage to talk to you?"
"Maybe. I like the idea. I hate to think you had to lose a leg just so we can be together."
"I'd give up every limb as long as it meant I met you."
She laughed. "The things you say. Even you can't believe them half the time. You're crazy."
"Only about you." She kissed him then, but he was quiet for a long time after.
"What are you thinking?" she finally asked.
"I don't think I would have talked to you. If I had just seen you in the street, I mean. I'm an awful coward."
She playfully pinched his chest. "Don't say that about yourself."
Now he laughed. "It's true though. At least in that regard, anyway."
"Well, then thank God for morphine," she replied. She snuggled further into him, very near sleep. "It would have happened anyway," she whispered moments later.
"Yes," he agreed. "And thank God for that."