After two weeks they have decided I don't know anything about the rebellion. It's not that I held out on them. I really don't know. I think I said a lot of things that weren't true to get them to stop. They probably had innocent people killed because of those things I said. I can't remember what they were, though. I do remember the outline of most of what I said. It was shaped like a plea to kill me and let Katniss live.
After two weeks, they stop torturing me, and I drift in a haze of pain and think they'll probably kill me. That's because I'm delirious with it. The pain, I mean. A separate, detached part of me knows they'll keep me alive to try to manipulate Katniss. I wonder, though, why they've stopped torturing me.
Somewhere, I hear someone, a new voice, saying, "We have the tracker jacker venom. We need to start immediately."
Someone else is there too. An old voice. "Not acceptable. He's too fragile."
"We need him fragile."
"Can you risk killing him?"
Yes. Yes, they can risk killing me. I have been hoping all this time they'll risk it one time too many. Just like they did with the Avox woman. Then I'll be gone and Katniss will be free. But I know they can't. They've been so delicate with the things they've done to me. So good at driving me to the brink of death but not beyond it. Sure enough: "No. How long do you need?"
"A week of rest and restoration, ideally. Three days. Three days will do it."
"You have two."
"Get me more morphling."
Stupid. They tried that early on. It only made my begging for Katniss's life more incoherent.
"Don't you have any?"
"Enough to make him babble. I need enough to sedate him properly this time."
"Why don't you already have it?"
"What good is an unconscious captive to an interrogator?" So that's who that voice is. My torturer. One of them, anyway. "But he needs to be under for the healing process or he'll kill himself."
"Why are we healing him again?"
"You can't use that venom on someone in his state. It will kill him. Then what will we do?"
I start to wonder if there's any way I can avoid the sedation and accomplish what my torturer says I could without it, but then the constant pain rises up enough to overwhelm me again, and I black out.
Morphling. It's too late; they've put me under. Two days. Two days until what? I am dreaming too distantly to try to imagine it.
"Peeta." It's Katniss. This was all a dream. We're still in the Games. The Seventy-fourth Games or the Seventy-fifth? Doesn't matter. No, it does matter. I'm dreaming now. It's the morphling. "Peeta."
"I'm sorry," I say to dream-Katniss. "Let me hold onto you a little longer. Is that all right?"
"No," she says. "You have to grind me into dust."
Somewhere I'm retching. Of course, I would only imagine words like that if I were very sick. "I won't let them," I say.
"You do it first so they can't," she says.
I'm six years old, sweeping up flour dust from the floor. It gets in my eyes and makes me cry. I wipe the tears away before my mother can see. They leave tracks of wet flour on my hands. But it's different in the grip of the morphling (I'm not really six years old, I'm not really sweeping up flour dust from the floor of the bakery). I can see that at the center of every tear is a single grain of flour.
Flour. Flower. Each grain turns into a dandelion, like the one Katniss picked the day after I gave her the bread. They're suspended in the teardrops.
I'm seventeen again, but back in the Seventy-fifth Games. At least I know the number, this time. I'm giving Katniss the pearl. I'm giving Katniss the pearl again. And again. And again.
I don't remember anything more for a while. Then voices again. I'm on the edge of consciousness. My body is really on fire this time, even though it was always Katniss who burned best. No, I'm not really on fire. That's just how it feels. Voices. I have to listen to them.
"All the equipment's ready."
"Give me four more hours to work on him. Then he'll be stable enough."
"Remember, we still need him weak."
My reprieve is almost over. I slip back into the morphling dreams and try to find the grain of sense in them.
I'm giving the pearl to Katniss again, but this time she refuses it. "Grind me into dust," she says. "Make me..." She's speaking still but I can't hear her words. I roll the pearl between my fingers. I'm missing something obvious.
"If you put enough pressure on coal, it turns into pearls!" Effie Trinket says. I don't want her here. They may have already killed her anyway. I don't need the reminder.
Reminder. Yes. I need a reminder of something. No. That's not how pearls are formed. Pearls are formed by building up layer after layer around a single grain of dust, encasing it forever.
"Katniss," I say. I try to hold her hand, but it turns to dust. That's all right, because I understand, now. I have to make pearls of her to save her. So they can't take her away from me.
Layer by layer. Somewhere inside my heart.
When I wake up, I am in less pain. My artificial leg is still missing, but they've taken away the devices they'd attached in its place, too. I feel too heavy to move, but I can do it anyway, just a little. I'm hungry, but not on the border of starvation. I must be ready for whatever they're going to do to me now. I must be, because I'm in a different room, and there's a woman I haven't seen before sitting beside me.
"Hello, Peeta," she says. I say nothing, so she continues. "I'm going to show you something. You tell me what it is." She holds out a picture.
It's Katniss, as she was back home. The real Katniss, not in any of the costumes she was forced into here or on tour. I just look at the woman. What do they hope to gain from this?
"Come on," she prompts me.
"Katniss," I rasp out. Too used to answering their questions to suppress the name.
"Who is she?"
I don't understand. "She's the girl I've loved for twelve years."
"All right," the strange woman says. She picks up a syringe. "We have a lot of work to do."
My arms are restrained, but somewhere inside me I am clutching a fist around a handful of pearls. It won't last. They will spill out of my fingers one by one. There is no question, though. Someday I will find them again.