|The Empty Space Between Us
Author: Jairissa PM
They fell in love while a country was burning; it shouldn't be a surprise they find their way back to each other as a new one rises from the ashes.Rated: Fiction T - English - Drama/Romance - Katniss E. & Peeta M. - Chapters: 2 - Words: 33,265 - Reviews: 17 - Favs: 17 - Follows: 34 - Updated: 01-15-12 - Published: 12-23-11 - id: 7664404
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The nurse skitters around Peeta and he can see how careful she is that no part of her come in contact with him; apparently his insanity is contagious. To be contrary he trips over his own feet and avoids careening into her by less than a foot. His sense of satisfaction at her disgusted expression is smug and petty; he thinks she will strike at him with the hand she has raised to fend him off, but her extensive training wins out and she smiles, sickly sweet, and leaves alone again.
He blames the Capitol and this institution of theirs for the carefully cultivated cruelty that has been so well honed in his sessions with the pugnacious Doctor Aurelius. The good doctor is firmly of the opinion that anger, and the expression thereof, is critical to mental health. During their last session he plied Peeta for information on his mother; Peeta threw a heavy metal paperweight through the window.
Doctor Aurelius, apparently delighted with his "good work", declared they were making progress. As a reward for his temper Peeta has been given special privileges: he will be able to take short walks in the garden, eat his meals in the common dining hall, attend group therapy sessions and watch one hour of television a night. This week that is from five to six pm. The news hour.
He arrives late and find that, as the newcomer, he has been relegated to a hard-backed wooden chair near the back of the room. It offers him a view of many rows of bowed heads and, just barely, the top half of the screen. He has missed most of the first part of the program, a long and detailed list of the luxuries the Capitol citizens who remained in their city are still unable to obtain.
Peeta finds himself with less sympathy than he thinks he would once have been able to summon.
The bulk of the show is more interesting to him. A fresh-faced young woman is gravely discussing the power outages that are a result of continued outbreaks of violence in District 5. Peeta is looking forward to a greater investigation into the causes of the fighting and the state of the other Districts. He is rewarded for his attention with a whining monologue of remembrances: luxuries she has lost, lifestyles she can no longer lead, fashions that remain stagnant. The inmates around him grumble and Peeta is reminded that whatever is wrong with them, most have been trapped here longer than 13's dubiously successful rebellion.
The television flickers to an advertisement, a cheerful, animated thing that instructs Peeta to buy the very best in home tattooing technology. He wryly decides to do just that as soon as the institution's commissary decides to stock it and someone on the outside decides they love him enough to provide an allowance. He will hold his breath.
Then it changes back to the last segment of the evening: Trial of the Mockingjay, Day Nine. Katniss' overly thin face is shown along with a percentage: fifty-six percent for, thirty-nine against, and four undecided, with a one percent margin of error. Peeta grips the rattling arms on his chair, glowing memories of a snarling mutt lunging for his throat overlaying the quiet, steady image on the screen. Through the screaming in his ears Peeta is able to deconstruct the numbers.
Percentage of jurors currently in favour of execution: fifty-six percent for, thirty-nine against, four percent undecided, with a one percent margin of error.
Peeta smiles and he can feel the strangeness of it, the way it twists his whole face and still doesn't find its way to his eyes. The chair beings to crack under his grip and rather than let it shatter entirely Peeta stands, forcing his clenched hands to relax. There is a rustle of clothing as nearby patients turn to face him. Peeta keeps his eyes fixated on the screen, and on the way various parts of it twist and shine as he looks directly at the face of the rebellion.
There is a path between the inmates, linking his spot in the back of the room to the television at the front. Peeta's feet map it before his eyes do. He looks down to find himself still dragging the chair behind him and steps to the side, twisting the seat to sit down in front of him. He can hear Haymitch's voice describing how traumatised Katniss has been: traumatised by the loss of her sister and the hijacking of her fiance; how he doubts that she'd known what she was doing when she let that arrow fly.
Peeta growls: at Katniss who has her memories and her choices and her ability to make the most painful of shitty situations worse, and at Haymitch who is taking her side again.
This is Peeta's choice: to pick up the chair and swing it at the brightly lit screen, taking personal satisfaction from the way it cracks down the middle of Katniss' face on the first impact.
The pleasure of making something break apart mixes with impotent anger to create a burning kind of fury. It gives Peeta strength and lets him ignore the shards of glass, metal, wood and plastic that fly into his face and cut his hands into mounds and ribbons of flesh, bone and blood. It feeds on the screams of the patients behind him until the shattered remains of the former television fall off the wall and crumble at his feet.
He drops the chair on top of it, a headstone for an exposed grave. He is caught from behind when he lets his arms fall to his side and dragged towards the door. Peeta fights instinctively, struggling against an unknown enemy that is keeping him restrained. He lands a lucky blow with his elbow and one of the orderlies lets go, swearing. He is in the process of trying to free his other arm when he registers the opinions of the other inmates: most are various forms of upset or angry, yelling at him for destroying their treasure.
There is one that captures his attention. A middle-aged woman is cowering in the corner, her arms raised to shield her head. Through all the commotion Peeta can hear her chanting.
"No, no, no. Not again, please. I'll be good. I'll be good."
Shame lodges in his throat, sharp and hot. He falls limp and is pulled, feet trailing behind him, from the room.
He doesn't yet have a room of his own. One is scheduled to be assigned to him tonight. Peeta supposes he has saved them the trouble: the room he is hauled into is white, lacking any fixtures or furniture and padded. Peeta thinks for a moment that he will be thrown against one of the walls and left to rebound on the floor but one of the orderlies holds onto him from behind while another yanks on his arm until it is stretched painfully out in front of him.
The nurse from earlier, the one Peeta seems to have personally offended in some unknown way, wields the needle. It slides smoothly into his skin with a sharp sting, distributing its clear, viscous liquid into his bloodstream. He feels the change almost immediately, the Morphling calming the worst of the fear and taking the edge off the anger. It doesn't eliminate all his broiling emotions, but it relieves enough of the pressure that Peeta is able to breathe again.
For a moment Peeta misses the constant numbness of the Morphling intravenous drip he has only just been weaned off. He had thought he missed feeling emotion, even painful ones, but the flatness of the drug is a sweet kind of oblivion for him, one he is so busy enjoying that he doesn't notice until too late that there is another drug hiding behind the Morphling. It muddles his head and leeches the feeling from his limbs and it is only the strong arms of the orderly that keep him upright.
Those arms fall away and the last thing Peeta remembers as he collapses into a sleeping heap on the floor is another needle sewing together his un-anaesthetised skin.
The cell is cold when he wakes. He has enough time on waking to pull himself upright and wipe the dried blood from the injection site. His hands are covered in a patchwork of stitches that have left blood smears all their own and Peeta gives up entirely on cleaning himself up. They must be monitoring him as he does not stay there long.
He turns his head away from the door when a nurse opens it, half-expecting the same grumpy witch from the night shift. This one is younger, softer and without the quiet judgement in her eyes. She tutts over his hands like a mother hen, raiding supplies from the cart she has brought with her.
"This is a bit of a mess," she says sympathetically, with a click of her tongue. Peeta avoids looking directly at her: there is the faintest hint of a dark braid tucked behind her ear and she seems too kind to want to kill her this early in the morning.
She must be one of the volunteers from District 6. The capitol nurses seem to despise him. The ones from 6 still seem to have a soft spot for him after his treatment of their District-mate in the Quarter Quell. They treat him like a fellow human and are stubborn enough to ignore the many times he has given them reason not to.
"Does this hurt?" She probes when Peeta remains silent. It does, however gently she wipes his fingers down with antiseptic and covers them with bandages. He shrugs and trains his eyes on the wall, clenching his teeth in an effort to ignore the flapping of the dark plait as she ministrates to his aching hands.
"When's my appointment?" Peeta asks flatly. All shows of violence so far have been followed by an interview with Doctor Aurelius, deconstructing his actions and their motivations; he doubts a few white cloths covering his own handiwork will allow him to escape altogether.
"We want to make sure you're better, first," his nurse assures him. He is not listening for it, but Peeta can hear the undercurrents of desperation and unhappiness behind the practised cheer.
"Is it me?" He asks, struggling to turn his head to look at her. He catches a glimpse of her eyes; they are brown and soft, empty of guile, and Peeta's voice softens. "Or is it the job?"
He keeps his gaze steadily on her face as it crumbles. If she weren't holding so tightly to his injured hands he would offer her a bandage as a tissue for the tears that begin to wind their way down her pale face.
"We weren't trained for this," she blurts out. Her voice cracks on the word "trained" and Peeta winces, but he does not give in to the desire to pull his hands away. The nurse breaks down into sobs. Peeta hasn't considered how pretty tears can be, nor how much they reveal about the softness at the core of a person. "And..."
She looks at him then, helpless, and withdraws a little inside herself. Peeta guesses that she has been specifically instructed not to reveal anything of herself to the patients. He also suspects that she must be very young, possibly more so than himself, and the discretion that comes with years and hardship hasn't fully had time to develop.
"And?" Peeta prompts. The girl's shoulders shake with the effort to contain her tears and Peeta wishes he could pass on some of his own hard-won tolerance to them.
"You're just so sad!" She confesses finally. Peeta raises his eyebrows. The nurse blanches; Peeta supposes at some point he should learn her name, but her naive statement hasn't inclined him to indulge her. "I didn't mean it like that. I knew you were going to be sad, but..."
She rakes her hands through the tendrils escaping her braid, dislodging a great deal more of them. She takes a deep breath, a gesture Peeta recognises as utterly useless in calming himself. She must have a smaller wave of emotion to wade through because she is able to regain some pretense of dignity.
"I know what sadness looks like," she continues stiffly and Peeta adds his young aide to the list of people he has offended. "I've studied mind sicknesses. That's why they sent me here."
She looks at him now, and he lets himself see all the despair, helplessness and regret that she has been releasing into a pillow each night. Peeta thinks he can feel her pain adding onto his own and the weight of it crushes at his chest, until the aching of his still-held hands is the only thing allowing him to concentrate on anything else.
"I expected most of this. All these broken people. But you," she finishes and Peeta feels the censure cut deep within him, tangling itself with everything else he no longer wishes to feel. "You were so strong for her. I just thought you were that strong for yourself, too."
Peeta looks away, cursing himself for asking. The nurse looks a little ashamed and quite proud of herself. He would contemplate how many people have wanted to say exactly that to him, but the thought of that makes the tightening in his chest worse.
"Well, even pearls crack when hit right," he mutters, thinking of a clock-surrounded ocean and the sweet flesh of shellfish.
"Don't you mean diamonds?" The girl asks, baffled.
"No," Peeta says, closing his eyes to block her out. He tugs his hands away and tucks them demurely in his lap. "When's my appointment? Or do I get out of it today?"
Perhaps it is his imagination, how he thinks he can sense the reprimand in the air, but the orderlies arrive swiftly and pull him to his feet. There is no point in fighting; he may walk with them attached to his arms or he will be dragged that way. He seems to have lost the privilege of walking the hallways alone.
He keeps his eyes shut during the walk, making a game of counting his steps and memorising the direction. It is a good way to clear the remainder of the cobwebs from his mind and retrain himself into thinking properly. The asylum is large; Peeta numbers hundreds of footsteps before he is left, upright, outside the red-painted door that blocks him from Doctor Aurelius' office.
"You may come in, Peeta," the doctor's deep voice calls from the den he has created for himself. Peeta had forgotten how few places were not covered by cameras and microphones; no doubt Doctor Aurelius is fully apprised of Peeta's conversation with his recent recruit.
"Thank you," Peeta says, a bite of sarcasm in his voice as he opens the door. "I appreciate it."
Doctor Aurelius is always amused when he talks to Peeta. They once spent a full session discussing why Peeta was so entertaining. "Why not" became Peeta's answer to everything for a week afterwards. This, too, was amusing.
Peeta sits in front of the desk as the door springs shut behind him. Some days he begins his ranting almost immediately, informing his therapist of exactly what he thought of his situation; others he attempted to bait Doctor Aurelius to some hypocrisy that Peeta could use against him.
Today he settles on silence. It was a tactic that had failed him in the past. Doctor Aurelius is more than capable of staring at Peeta for the length of the session, unwilling to break Peeta's stare. The difference today is in him, and his surety that he had nothing at all to say to the man.
In the twisted joke Peeta has come to recognise as life, Doctor Aurelius has a great many things to say to him today.
"I'd say you've had an interesting day," the doctor informs him dryly. "But I suppose that would be rather trite, wouldn't it?"
Peeta concentrates on the paperweight that has replaced the misshapen metal lump that had once sat on the desk. There are bushes and strange people that congregate under Doctor Aurelius' window. Perhaps it was claimed by one of these, as the presence of a replacement is a strong indication that it is still missing. This one is glass, delicately filled with flowers and small figurines, and its fragility represents an irresponsible form of optimism to Peeta.
"Would it help you to throw it?" The doctor asks, following where Peeta looks. Peeta refuses to show that he is startled and shakes his head. "Excellent, excellent."
There is a scratching of pen on paper, a strange anachronism for a man who has access to all the technology of the Capitol. Peeta's curiosity has ranged from mild to burning at various sojourns to this office. He is confident that any questions that do not relate directly to himself will be firmly redirected, so he files the image away under his list of things that he is not allowed to know.
They remain locked in combative silence; Peeta is inexplicably proud that he has developed the strength of late not to be the first to break.
"We can stay here for days if you wish it, Peeta," Doctor Aurelius sighs through his lecturing tone.
"You've run out of people to torment?" Peeta asks. It is barely detectable, but Peeta is astonished to see a glare on the good doctor's face.
"I'll clear my schedule." Impatience, a distinct break from the determinedly soothing voice. Peeta hadn't realised Doctor Aurelius was such a fan of television, nor that the staff did not have access to their own amenities rather than needing to share with those they were presiding over.
"That doesn't seem very fair to them," Peeta muses. "Imagine the progress that could be made in the time you're taking away from them."
Peeta doesn't know where this practice of needling has come from. It is an uncomfortable sort of fun, a dark kind of need that is pulled up from a part of himself he doesn't want to fully examine. Less fun, perhaps, than the vicious satisfaction he had always so disliked in the bullies from home. Is it the Capitol that has brought this out in him or is it a facet of himself that would always have revealed itself if given enough time?
"Enough, Peeta," Doctor Aurelius says, exhaustion warring with a mild irritation. It is possible this is the most anger the man will ever allow himself to show. The place inside of Peeta that still forces himself to feel shame throbs in agreement, manifesting more like nausea than any emotion he can define. "You're being childish."
In the eyes of the law Peeta is indeed a child; he is surprised how pleased he feels with himself when he bites that retort back. It is not a proper apology, not yet, but he supposes it might suffice as one in its own way.
When the silence extends again it is without recrimination and Peeta begins to feel himself relax.
"You know why you're here," Doctor Aurelius reminds him when Peeta is at risk of getting lost in an insect floating past the window.
"To talk about last night," Peeta answers in the same tone. "And to make amends through endless discussion for my destruction of the television."
"No one wants you to make amends for anything, Peeta," Doctor Aurelius insists, sincerely, and Peeta almost allows himself to fall into the trap of believing it. "We want you to feel better."
"Why do any of you care?" Peeta asks rhetorically. It has been asked and not answered so often he may as well be kicking a dead donkey.
"You're not able to understand why anyone would not want to help the boy we knew?" The doctor surprises him with the closest thing he has received to a response. He should be comforted and flattered by the attention.
"Not when you spent so much time trying to kill him, no," Peeta snaps, twisting his bandaged hands agitatedly in his lap. He has never understood why the Capitol takes so much enjoyment in creating heroes when their next actions were dedicated so completely to tearing them down again. It wasn't just tragic, it was wasteful, and Peeta is so very tired of waste.
"We're beginning to see what a mistake that was," Doctor Aurelius says quietly and for the first time Peeta hears a real emotion. Shame, deeper perhaps even than his own. Peeta laughs anyway, because he doesn't think he will ever see why so many people had to die to show these selfish people what they were doing wrong. The doctor smiles at him, sadly. "Yes, I suppose that may well be amusing to you."
"I'm not amused," Peeta says, but he is laughing none the less. "I'm angry."
"You have every right to that, too," Doctor Aurelius agrees, fiddling with the pen he uses to record the details of Peeta's soul. "Is that why you attacked the television? Because you were angry at how 'we' are treating Katniss?"
Peeta's smile dropped from his face and he started as if he had been scalded. Katniss, Katniss Everdeen, Mutt, This is not real, NO, I will not play this game.
"She's doing that to herself," Peeta snarls and forces the game from his mind. It had been a useful device to prevent himself killing her when she had a necessary mission to fill. He knows now that he need never see her again and Peeta doesn't feel the need to torture himself further.
"How so?" The doctor sounds inappropriately interested. Peeta forces back the panic that she is, or soon will be, shut up in here with him. He will cause another scene, find something to destroy that they will put him away forever and never force him to be in her presence again.
"She's a survivor," Peeta says, crossing his arms protectively over his chest. "That's what she does, survives, damn whoever gets in her way."
"Interesting," Doctor Aurelius finds this fascinating enough to write down in his thick little notebook, thumbing through the pages until he can note the same information under another heading. He looks up at Peeta, far more cheerful now, as though Peeta has given him the key to a very troublesome lock. "Is that why you're angry with her? Her disinclination to 'survive' in this instance?"
Peeta snorts; for all the man's supposed training he gets the wrong of it more often than not. He would think it a gambit if the doctor didn't seem so utterly perplexed every time Peeta acted contrarily to the smitten young boy the Capitol had first met on Caesar Flickerman's soundstage.
"Let her finish herself off," Peeta says defiantly. Let her continue what ridiculous path she has set herself on this time. Perhaps if she is successful the insistent tugging between them would be broken. Peeta would be free. "I don't care."
"Are you sure about that?" It is phrased as a question, but the flatness in Doctor Aurelius' tone turns it into a statement. Peeta looks at him incredulously; how on earth could he be expected not to be sure? "You loved her once."
"No, I didn't," Peeta pushes through the closing of his throat. He can remember it clearly, the utterly rational hatred he had always held for her. Since they were children and his father had pointed out the child of the woman who shouldhave been his mother, and she had gone on to show off in that horrible high-pitched voice. "That was a lie."
It is easy, and comfortable, to believe that. It leaves no war waging inside him, no internal battles to fight, and grants him the closest thing he can come to a measure of peace.
"Hmm," the doctor hums the word, rumbling a little at the end. Peeta sees a flash of light from the corner of his eye. There is a television there, large and paper thin; he had thought it an oddly reflecting mirror for the not-so-vain. On it he sees himself, shining and unbroken. He is wrapped around Katniss like the gown she is sheathed in, kissing her as though she were as necessary to him as oxygen.
"Turn it off," Peeta growls as the couple on the screen are forced apart. They settle themselves on a small loveseat and it is not just the memory of closeness that frightens him so. It is the soppy expression on his face, and the way that, just by looking at her, the boy can make the girl incandescently beautiful through the force of his love for her. It shines as brightly as her dress, as the rush of glowing memories he cannot fight back. "It's not real."
"Yes it is," Doctor Aurelius disagrees calmly. Peeta throws himself from his chair and it clatters loudly to the ground. He paces, stopping a hair's breadth from each wall before he turns, and stabs his finger at the screen.
"Turn it off," Peeta screams, astounded that the windows don't shake as badly as he is.
"No." It is simple, decisive, and the sound that Peeta makes is animal, very like the Mutt he had been convinced Katniss had become. He reaches for the paperweight he had been offered earlier and throws it at the screen. The shattering glass Peeta had anticipated; the utter lack of damage to the screen he had not. Peeta scrambles for something else, rummaging furiously around the desk but the doctor seems to have been prepared: all the heavy objects Peeta thinks he remembers have been removed.
Not that his memory is to be trusted of late.
He can feel his anger slipping away and he lacks the props and incentives to fuel it further. He grasps for the last of it anyway, knowing that giving up to a weakness and Peeta has displayed far enough of that for the Capitol. Today he will display the strength he has left.
The only object heavy enough is Doctor Aurelius' notebook and he can see from the way the man's fingers are clutched around it he will be unable to pry it from his hands. He contemplates trying for it anyway and makes the mistake of meeting the doctor's eyes. There is none of the fear his display should evoke, nor apprehension. Peeta glares, but he is already questioning to himself what the point of trying to frighten an unflappable man is.
"The screen is of better quality than the one in the common room," Doctor Aurelius informed him pointlessly; Peeta has deduced that already. "Nor will a tantrum convince me to turn it off."
Peeta makes a childish sound of outrage, which does little to improve the infantile display that even he is aware of. He looks at the overturned chair in distaste but makes no move to right it. He means to focus his eyes on anything but the wall television, though his eyes betray him and he cannot help slanting his eyes towards every change of light. He may as well watch it outright for the comprehensiveness of the overview he gets.
"You see it there in front of you," Doctor Aurelius says in a monotone that Peeta suspects is meant to be hypnotic. If his nerves were not so jangled he may well have fallen prey to it himself. "Does it look like a lie to you?"
"It feels like one," Peeta says. Truth and lies are not, as he once thought, absolute. They are relative and easily changeable, depending on foundations as weak and fragile as the whims of a self-centred human being. He has also come to realise that there is not a person alive who is not self-centred.
On the screen Katniss is smiling winningly at him, the hospitals and laboratories of District 6 a stark background against their fineries. There is another disconnect that comes to him abruptly: how can he reconcile this untruth of hers with the blunt girl in 13 who seemed unwilling to lie about anything? Either way, he supposes, at least one of them is false, perhaps both. Why is it left to him to decipher the code?
"Feelings can mislead us," the Doctor offers as a nugget of great wisdom. Peeta looks at him queerly, unable to decide whether the man is a genius or a very great idiot.
"So can people," he counters and the doctor looks back at him as though Peeta is entirely missing the point.
"Why are you so intent on holding on to...this?" Doctor Aurelius gestures at him as he says this, and at the newly broken paperweight. "Does it make you happy?"
"Happy? Of course not, but happiness isn't the object, is it?" Peeta blurts out. Doctor Aurelius raises his eyebrow and Peeta takes a moment to puzzle out his own words, taking them apart and putting them back together until they make sense again. "It's not the point."
"Then what is?" The doctor asks and he sounds so blatantly baffled that Peeta can almost believe that he cares, in a more sincere and real way than he had believed someone from the Capitol is capable of.
"Me!" Peeta exclaims, raising his palms up to face the ceiling. "For once, me. What I want, what Ineed. Being myself and putting myself first without needing to worry about anyone else using me to do the same for them. Not letting anyone else control me."
Peeta is astounded at himself for the speech. He is pleased with himself for piecing it together, and finally, after all his outbursts, understanding what has been driving them. It is a breakthrough, he is sure of it. Yet it is exceptionally selfish, the same selfishness he is fighting against, and he is busy contemplating that divide when Doctor Aurelius punches him in the gut.
"Good gracious, Peeta," Doctor Aurelius says with such an air of baffled wonder that Peeta is momentarily confused with himself. "What part of these recent tantrums of yours haven't been dictated by someone else?"
The pressure in his stomach, a black hole of pain and fear, threatens to expand and swallow him whole. The only way to pull himself out is to prove, without any doubt allowed, that this current theory of Doctor Aurelius' is complete garbage.
"Don't bother," Doctor Aurelius says baldly, sketching a faint outline of a table on a scrap of paper. Before it is flipped over Peeta sees a WARNING and a MISSING label, the sort issued when a dangerous inmate escapes from here or one of the sister institutes Doctor Aurelius often leaves to visit. "You can't convince me."
In his table he fills in a set of labels down the left-most column. Peeta cranes his neck to see them, breath coming in gasps. For half a second he almost believes that whatever is being written will make a difference, and somehow manage to save him.
The list is short. It contains the words Katniss, District 12, The Capitol, The Games and The Rebellion.
Each of these items eats at him in different ways. His gasping breath speeds up more and the words in front of him seem to swim. It is this that lets him grasp on to the edges of his reality, seeing the words as independent squiggles rather than symbols that make any sort of sense. He is beginning to calm down and breath again, so of course Doctor Aurelius continues to do his best to drive Peeta into his dark place and slaps his open palm down on the desk.
Peeta doesn't do well with loud noises, hasn't since his first Games, and it is worse with the ones he doesn't see coming. If he was seated he may well have fallen out of his chair; instead he lands unsteadily on the balls of his feet, rocking back and forth to regain his balance.
"They're just words," Peeta insists to himself, loudly, as if Doctor Aurelius were not watching him with undisguised eagerness.
"No, they're not," the other part of Peeta, the one that doesn't like to lie to anyone, especially himself, argues. "If they're just words, why are you yelling?"
"I'm not yelling," Peeta yells at the irritation. "And yes they are, they're wordsand words can't hurt anyone-"
He is cut off with a soft intonation of his name - "Peeta." - so quietly that he has to think for a moment before he understands that the voice isn't in his head.
"Peeta, it's all right. You're safe here."
Safe is a ridiculous word, and a meaningless one, now. Even here, in the bizarre land of doctors, endless talking and soothing medications he is not safe. He is still chased by his nightmares, his memories, and the darkness inside him that clamours for more of him than Peeta has left to give.
"Then get rid of that," Peeta gestures to the paper.
"We will, in a moment," Doctor Aurelius soothes him. Peeta is pushed to the end of his endurance, taut with hatred for himself and everything around him and he grasps for the lifeline of someone who cares, however false it is, and moans helplessly.
He sits, not on the overturned chair, but on the floor next to it and leans his tear-wet cheek against one of the legs.
"What do you want?" He begs, exhausted and pathetic.
"You to tell me the first thing that comes in to your mind when I show you these," Doctor Aurelius says, raising his hand to stall protests that Peeta doesn't make. "Basic and obvious, I know, but allow me to make my point. Katniss."
"I hate her," Peeta hisses.
"District 12," Doctor Aurelius continues.
"She destroyed it."
"Did this to me."
"A pointless waste of human life."
"And the rebellion," Doctor Aurelius finishes with relish.
"A pointless waste of human life," Peeta repeats the party line. He is surprised that the words appear in his mind, fully formed and shining. He had thought they were his own until he sees that; maybe they still are and his own thoughts can glow with the force of his conviction.
The doctor pauses, tapping his pen thoughtfully against the desk. Peeta picks at the flaking bandage on his left hand, pulling white threads until they break and dropping them on the floor. Let the Capitol cleaners, if such things really exist, clean them up.
"Peeta, you've been here over a month. I flatter myself that in between that time and your games, I know something about you." Doctor Aurelius is serious and kind and Peeta thinks he must practice those expressions in front of a mirror to get them so very perfect. He snorts because he has to maintain the crumbling wall somehow. It comes out through his blocked nose as a sniff and a trace of sympathy is added to the mix. "These words, these thoughts, they aren't yours. They've been given to you, and by continuing to perpetuate them you're not putting yourself first. You're letting a great number of people control you."
"I get that," Peeta twists his mouth in a simulacrum of a smile.
"Then why on earth are you doing this?" Doctor Aurelius asks, perplexed, and Peeta begins to understand the doctor's fascination with him: he is a puzzle that is not easily solved.
"Because it's in there," Peeta says, his eyes tracing the whorls in the wood. He could not look the doctor in the eyes if he wanted to, the desk is blocking his way. Perhaps Doctor Aurelius is craning his neck to see Peeta, but it is far more likely that he has his eye on one of the hidden cameras, enjoying a perfect view. "It's inside me, buried deep, and I can't pull it out. I fight it, with everything, but that...that's not always enough, and those thoughts aren't mine. I know that. But if I choose them now, choose to feel them and not fight them...well, at least it's my choice, right?"
Doctor Aurelius eyes him thoughtfully. He has stopped writing, but Peeta is not naive enough to think that means it will not be recorded on his file permanently.
"No, not really," he says finally and Peeta's chest heaves with silent sobs. He expected this answer, has known it for some time, but knowing it doesn't make a lick of a difference. "They're still something that was introduced into you, have invaded you in a sense. You may 'choose' to go along with them, but that only concedes the battle, not the war."
"I can't keep fighting it," Peeta whispers. He is surprised anyone can hear it. "It's too much."
"It is too much for one person," Doctor Aurelius agrees. "But you're not alone here, Peeta. Why don't you let us help you?"
Peeta pulls himself to his feet and looks the doctor in the eye. He thinks of the war he is fighting and how very tired of everything he is. So he meets the doctor's gaze and he nods.