This story began as a Prompts in Panem submission for their "Everlark at War" day, but it took on a life of its own and I decided to turn it into a multi-chapter fic. This first chapter should be enough to establish Peeta and Katniss and where they both are at the start of the story. I have a definite arc and a definite ending for this story but now that I'm not trying to limit it to one-shot length I'll probably add more meat the the middle, and more HG characters.
In case anyone was wondering: I don't own The Hunger Games.
August 25, 1862
Her plan was perfect. There were already rumors of other women secretly joining up to fight. She knew she was tough enough to serve in the army. She knew that with her hair cut short she could pass for one of the teenage boys signing up. She knew that her army pay would be enough to support Prim and their mother, something she couldn't do now that all trade in town had dried up amidst war worries. Trade had been growing scarce ever since the disaster at Bull Run a year earlier, but Lincoln's draft order earlier in the month had been the death knell for her ability to trade in town.
The really brilliant part, the part she had taken time to pat herself on the back about, was leaving her small hometown of Panem, Pennsylvania and traveling to the state capitol to join a volunteer regiment. Everyone from Panem was serving in the 47th Pennsylvania, and if she tried to join that regiment they'd recognize her in an instant. Gale in particular would expose her just to make sure she got sent home; he always had been overprotective. But by volunteering and going to the capitol, she wound up filling a spot in the First Volunteers. She shouldn't encounter anyone who might recognize her form home.
The idea was so perfect that someone else had already done the same thing.
"Mellark!" Captain Abernathy bellowed as he entered the tent. "Meet your new bunkmate. Peeta Mellark, Kat Everdeen. The two of you'll be bunking till we string up Jeff Davis. Or till one of you dies, I guess. But don't do that. Stay alive."
Captain Abernathy sure had a way of inspiring his troops.
"Well, never expected to see you here."
Katniss gave him a hostile look. "What are you talking about?"
Peeta raised his hands, as if in surrender. "Come on, you don't need to pretend with me. I know we're not exactly friends back home, but you don't need to treat me like the enemy. 'Kat.'"
A tine flame of hope sprang to life in her soul. "You mean you won't turn me in?"
He looked shocked at the idea. "Of course not! Why on earth would I do that?"
"I'm not allowed to be here," she said vaguely. She didn't dare state the truth; they were only in a tent, who knew who might be listening from outside.
"It's life and death out here, Kat," he said, trying to get himself used to using the name. "You'll find that not many folks care about what's allowed. For instance, Haymitch is a drunk."
She was horrified. "Our captain is a drunk?"
Peeta smiled at her reaction. "Yep. Don't let that affect your opinion of him, he's handy on the battlefield. Just don't expect him to be coherent later that night."
Katniss shook her head. "Sounds like I have a lot to learn about being in the army."
"Here's hoping you'll get the chance to learn it," Peeta said.
It wasn't until he saw her horrified expression that he realized what he'd just said. "Sorry," he said timidly. "Gallows humor. You'll be more comfortable with it after a few battles." He decided to change the subject. "Will you tell me what happened at home that you're here now? I can't imagine you left Prim willingly."
Katniss debated whether or not to answer. She decided that keeping Peeta as an ally would probably help her survive this mess. "What happened was that everyone left. There weren't enough people left in town to keep supporting Mom and Prim by trading game, and certainly no one willing to give a job to a woman."
"But they could live on a soldier's pay," Peeta finished for her. "Wow. You literally went to war for your family."
Katniss scowled. "Don't mock me."
Peeta's eyes went wide in surprise. "Who's mocking you? I'm in awe."
"You're just saying that to poke fun at me," Katniss said sullenly.
"I'm saying it because it's true," Peeta protested. "You've dedicated your entire life to taking care of your family, when by all rights at your age your family should still be taking care of you, and now you've literally put yourself into a war just to make sure they have enough. Do you honestly not see how remarkable you are?"
Katniss was uncomfortable with where the conversation was heading, as she always was when she received compliments. So she changed the subject. "What about you? When you vanished last year there was some talk that you'd joined the army, but nobody's heard anything about you since then. It's like you fell off the face of the earth."
"I'm hiding from my mother," he said sheepishly. "She would never allow one of her sons to do anything so common as serve in the army, so I snuck away to the capitol to enlist. If she knew where I was, she'd get her cousin the senator to get me out, or get me transferred to a unit guarding the Canadian border or something. What about you, who are you hiding from?"
"Everyone," she said. "Most everyone from Panem is in the 47th, I wouldn't last two seconds in there before someone recognized me." She paused to consider him. She hated owing people, and she already owed this Peeta Mellark so much. Now she owed him even more for not turning her in. "Peeta, I don't know how I can ever repay you for not turning me in."
"You don't owe me anything."
"Of course I do! This was the only way I could earn enough money to support Prim and my mother. With your discretion, you're literally saving their lives." After a moment, she added in a soft voice, "Again."
"Again?" he questioned.
"You probably don't remember this, but a few years ago, you gave me some bread-"
"Of course I remember," Peeta cut her off. "It was right after your father died, and you looked like you were going to drop at any moment. How could I forget that?"
"You never mentioned it," Katniss said.
"Didn't think it was my place to," Peeta said. "Figured if you wanted to talk about it you'd bring it up, and if not I wasn't going to force you."
Katniss was floored for a moment. He had saved her life, and then he was careful not to make her uncomfortable about it? People that nice didn't really exist, did they?
"Katniss, you don't owe me anything for the bread."
"That bread was the first food we'd had in days. Me, my mother, Prim, none of us would be alive right now if it wasn't for that bread. I'll never stop owing you for that."
"If you really think you owe me, then here's what you can do for me: Stop acting like you owe me. I gave you that bread because I wanted to help you. You just said that it helped you. Good; that's my reward."
"Tell you what, can we at least table this discussion until after you've been in your first battle? After that, we'll each owe each other our lives so many times over that you'll lose count."
October 5, 1862
He was right.
Less than a month after "Kat" Everdeen joined the First Pennsylvania Volunteers, she got her first real taste of battle, at Antietam Creek in Maryland. There had been a few small skirmishes before that, and each one had filled her with a terror she hadn't felt since that day in the rain, when she had been ready to die, until an angel appeared with two loaves of burned bread. This is what it feels like when you're about to die, she realized, and she knew she was going to have to get used to the feeling if she was going to last long in this war.
But then, she still had that same angel with her. Peeta had been right about Antietam, after the chaos of battle she owed her life to all of her fellow soldiers, and they all owed their lives to her, and there was no way to account for all the owing. And somehow that only made her feel more indebted to Peeta Mellark, because in the middle of the chaos he was an anchor she could cling to. Something from home to remind her that this wasn't all some surreal nightmare.
But she didn't talk about it anymore. For all that he was helping her, from keeping her secret to keeping her sane to being a soothing presence when she woke up from terrifying nightmares about the battle, she could at least do him the favor of not bringing up the one subject he had said he didn't want to discuss. So she didn't talk to him about it anymore. But she didn't stop feeling like she owed him.
It had been several weeks since Antietam, and they hadn't seen any major action since then. She and Peeta were sitting around the fire with several other members of the First Volunteers. They were an odd bunch, but Katniss decided she liked most of them.
In his mid-30s, Caesar was the old man of the group, with hair so black that it almost looked blue in the firelight. She didn't even know his first name, he never used it and neither did anyone else. He was a gregarious guy, always helping the younger guys feel at ease. And when he and Peeta started going back and forth with each other, the entire company sat back to watch the show.
Doc Aurelius was another good guy. He was quiet and kept to himself, and Katniss could respect that. He was a doctor back home, but had wound up with the First instead of the medical corps. Peeta had suggested that she tell Doc Aurelius about her situation; getting injured and sent to the medics was the most likely way of her being found out, and having a doctor who could treat her in confidence might help prevent that. Katniss wasn't sure she was ready to trust him that much, though.
Andrew Cato and Jonathan Marvel were the careers: newly-minted Lieutenants fresh from West Point, not enlistees like the rest of the company. They couldn't stand the disorganized, slovenly, drunken Captain they'd been assigned to serve under, and Haymitch wasn't too fond of them either. They mostly kept to themselves, rather than take out their frustrations on the enlistees they were technically in charge of.
Katniss couldn't help but think of some of the people missing from their gathering. Jackson, Mitchell, Homes, and Messalla had all been lost at Antietam. She had barely been here a month and was already losing friends and comrades.
Right now the focus was on Finnick Odair, the veteran. He had been a career officer like Cato and Marvel, he had graduated from West Point in '54, but quit the army four years later to settle down when his wife, Annie, became pregnant with their first child. He had re-enlisted when the war began, but for reasons he wouldn't go into he hadn't been restored to his previous rank. Haymitch treated Finnick more like a legitimate junior officer than he did Cato and Marvel.
Caesar liked to get Finnick talking about Annie and the kids, because it completely transformed the man. Odair normally maintained a cocky bravado, but it completely disappeared when he talked about his family. Whatever else the man was, it was obvious that he loved his wife and kids.
Eventually Caesar tired of Finnick and turned his attention to Katniss. "What about you, lad, you got a girl back home? Or is it too early for that quite yet?"
Due to "his" appearance, many of the men thought Kat Everdeen was a very young teenager who had skirted the age limits to enlist. She and Peeta encouraged this view, because it was better they think that than stumble upon the truth, but it did become insulting sometimes. "No, no girls for me yet," she told him.
Caesar smiled at her. "Well, just wait till you go home after the war. Then you'll be a dashing war hero, you'll have to beat the girls off with a stick!" They all laughed at that. Katniss gave them her best fake smile.
"What about you, Mellark?" Caesar asked next. "Do you have a girlfriend back home?" As usual, the rest of the men fell silent to watch the Caesar and Peeta show.
Peeta smiled sadly. "No, no girlfriend for me, either."
"Come on," Caesar said in a teasing tone. "Handsome guy like you? There must be some special girl." Peeta shook his head to deny it, but his blush gave him away. "Come on, what's her name?" Caesar asked.
"Well, there is this one girl," Peeta finally admitted. "I've had a crush on her ever since I can remember. But she barely knows I'm alive."
"She have another fellow?" Caesar asked him.
"No, I don't think she does. But I'm hardly the only guy interested."
"So, here's what you do," Caesar said. "Same thing as Everdeen here, once we win, you're a hero. She can't turn you down then, eh?"
"Come on, Caesar," Peeta said. "I'm hardly a hero."
"Well, we all know that. But that doesn't mean you can't be a hero to your special lady!" Caesar said with a conspiratorial wink, earning laughs from everyone.
Later, when Peeta and Katniss were in their tent bedding down for the night, for some reason Katniss couldn't get the conversation out of her mind. She kept trying to figure out who Peeta might have been talking about. Pretty much all of the girls from town were aware of the kind, handsome baker's son. There weren't a lot of people in Panem who could be assured of being well fed; marrying the town baker held quite the appeal for many. And regardless of whether they were interested or not, there was only one bakery in Panem, and Peeta had worked there every day for as long as Katniss could remember. So how could anyone barely notice him, like he said this girl did?
Eventually Peeta caught her staring, and asked what was going on. She had no choice but to confess. "I'm trying to figure out who this girl of yours is. There aren't that many girls in Panem, I thought I should be able to figure it out."
Peeta smiled sadly. "I promise you, it's the last person you would ever think of."
Katniss wracked her brain for a minute, before coming up with the last person she would ever think of. "Oh my god, it's not Prim is it?"
Truly, that was the last person Peeta would ever think of as well. "What? No! No, not Prim! Jesus, isn't she like 13?"
"14," Katniss corrected him.
"Still a bit young for me, don't you think?"
"You said the last person I would ever think of."
"Yeah, well, since you've thought of Prim but not the right person, I'm still right about that."
Katniss thought for a bit longer, still not coming up with any suitable candidates. "They're right, you know," she said eventually, just to make conversation. "Every girl in town is going to be looking to land herself a war hero."
"Not every girl," Peeta said, his voice laced with more meaning than Katniss was able to draw from the statement. "Besides, I'm not a hero."
Peeta sounded so sad when talking about this girl, for some reason she wasn't quite willing to analyze Katniss wanted to cheer him up, to give him hope with his girl the way he had given her hope with the bread all those years ago. "Peeta, when we go home, everyone who fought will be a war hero. And if you're not, just make something up! You have such a talent with words. I'm sure you can tell some stories that will make your girl swoon."
Peeta just shook his head. "No, I could never lie to this girl about my war experience. That wouldn't help in my case."
"Why ever not?"
Peeta appeared to be fighting with himself. Was he about to tell her who this mystery girl was? "Why not, Peeta? You can trust me. You've kept enough of my secrets."
Finally Peeta answered, his eyes fixed on the tent above them. "Because…" He had to stop for just a moment before he could finally say it. "Because she came here with me."
The tent was dead silent. It was almost three full minutes before either of them spoke. "I'll thank you not to mock me, Peeta Mellark," Katniss said, her voice full of acid.
It was her tone of voice that finally got Peeta to look her in the eyes. Those big, beautiful silver eyes that he had never had the nerve to look into for more than a second before flitting his gaze away in embarrassment. "I'm not mocking you, Katniss," he said, using her real name for the first time since she had shown up in camp.
"Why else would you say such a preposterous thing?"
"Because it's true," Peeta said matter-of-factly. "I just said I could never lie to you."
"That itself is a lie!" Katniss struggled to control her voice, not wanting to attract the attention of anyone outside their tent. "I do not understand what sick amusement you're getting from this game, but I'd ask you to quit it!"
Peeta stared at her for a moment, then shook his head. "Oh, I should have expected this."
He looked back at her. "You're so loath to see the good in yourself, that you're angry at me because I do see it!"
Katniss didn't even know how to deal with that statement. She was afraid that if she tried to argue, he'd start listing off all this supposed good he saw in her, so she changed the subject. "If this crush of yours is real, how long have you been harboring it, exactly?"
"Since we were five," he answered without hesitation.
Katniss almost choked. "Since we were five?"
"You don't remember our first day of school, do you?" Kids in Panem didn't get much schooling; whether from a mining family or a merchant family in town, most kids went to work young. But they did have a schoolhouse, where Miss Trinket made sure that every child in Panem got at least a few years of formal instruction in writing and mathematics. "You were wearing a red plaid dress, and you had your hair in two braids back then. My father actually pointed you out to me when he dropped me off that morning. He said, 'See that little girl over there? I wanted to marry her mother, but she ran off with a coal miner.'"
"What?" Katniss truly didn't know whether to believe him or not. She did wear her hair in two braids when she was younger, and she did remember a red plaid skirt she had when she was a child. But the baker and her mother? Impossible! "That's not true, about your father and my mother. It can't be."
"Well, that's what he told me. I even asked him, 'Why did she marry a coal miner when she could have had you?' And he told me, 'Because when he sings, even the birds stop to listen.'"
Katniss fought hard to stop the tears that wanted to fill her eyes. That was a low blow, bringing up her father's truly angelic singing voice. She could still remember their trips through the forest, when it seemed like the whole world quieted itself to make way for his voice. "That's true," she choked out, "they do. I mean, they did."
Peeta noticed her distress, but he had the decency to not mention it. "Well, that day, we had a music assembly. Miss Trinket asked if any of the new students knew the valley song, and your hand shot right up in the air. She stood you at the front of the room, and you sang, and I swear every bird outside fell silent. And somehow I just knew, just like your mother, I was a goner as soon as I heard you sing."
Katniss felt a few tears slip. It really was a beautiful story that Peeta was telling, it only proved her point that he could probably woo any girl he set his sights on. Perhaps the most distressing part was how much Katniss wanted it to be true, how much hearing this story of young love and devotion made her want to it for herself. But deep down she knew that it couldn't be true. Nobody as good and kind and noble as Peeta Mellark would give a second look sullen, starving, scowling Katniss Everdeen. He could have any girl in town, why would he waste his time with the surly daughter of a dead coal miner? She wished he would just give up this cruel game of trying to make her feel valued, and finally admit that she wasn't.
For his part, Peeta again ignored any distress he noticed. "That day, when we had our lunch break, I actually worked up the nerve to talk to you. I'll always remember that, because it was the only real interaction we had until you started trading at the bakery." Peeta smiled a small, sad smile, remembering his first interaction with Katniss Everdeen. Katniss didn't understand it until he continued. "I spent about five minutes working up my nerve, then I walked up to you and asked if I could sit with you. Once I sat down, you just stared at me, and my throat closed up and I didn't know what to say. I had an apple tart for lunch that day, so I pulled it out and I offered you half of it. You said to me, and I quote, 'I don't need your charity,' and you got up and walked away. We didn't speak again for seven years."
Katniss just shook her head. It was practically the perfect example of why no one could feel for her the things Peeta claimed to feel for her. She was mean, standoffish, surly, and if anyone ever tried to work past any of that she immediately pushed them away. The only person she hadn't pushed away was Gale, and that was only because she needed a hunting partner at the time.
Peeta was done with his story, but Katniss didn't have anything to say that she hadn't already said, so they sat in increasingly uncomfortable silence. Finally, after what felt like forever, Peeta spoke again. "Katniss I'm sorry." The statement grabbed her attention like no other could have; was he finally going to admit his cruel deception? "I didn't mean to dump everything onto you like this. I know, um, I know you don't feel for me the same things I feel for you. And that's fine, I don't expect you to. Please don't feel like I expect anything from you. Truthfully, I wasn't even planning on saying anything, but you were asking about it and you were so persistent, and I've been dreaming for thirteen years what it would be like to tell you I love you, I- I just couldn't hold it all back anymore. I know I've made you uncomfortable, and I'm sorry."
As if this conversation couldn't get any more uncomfortable, now Peeta had thrown the word love at her. Katniss was beyond wanting Peeta to take it all back now; now she just wanted this conversation to end. She needed to stop this before it got any worse.
Peeta seemed to be waiting for some response from her, and eventually she gave him one. "You were right. It was the last person I ever would have thought of."
After a moment of dead silence, Peeta let loose his laughter. It was more than laughter, it was all the tension of the entire conversation being released. Peeta understood the message Katniss was sending with that remark, even if Katniss didn't fully understand it herself. Okay, fine, whatever. I don't want this to change anything between us. That was fine with Peeta, it was actually a better reaction to his revelation than he ever would have hoped for.
"Told you so," he said in response.