I grit my teeth, clutching my stomach without thinking. This hurts more than I thought.
"These aren't going to get easier, you know." Peeta eyes me carefully.
"I know" I say in a low voice.
"You can tell me to stop if you want." He says lightly, inspecting his fingernails. But I know he's only pretending.
"It's okay." I mutter.
We're sitting at my kitchen table eating stew that Greasy Sae dropped off. Ever since I decided to help Peeta, I agreed to answer his questions to help strengthen his memory. It hasn't been particularly fun. Actually, it's been painful. But I know that he hasn't even started asking the questions that he really wants to. The thought makes me squirm in my seat.
Peeta has a leather notebook open and lying on the table. He said that Dr. Aurelius had him keep a journal of running questions, strange memories, and letters so that he could go back and sort everything through. I try to keep my eyes away from the pages, but every once in a while glance down to see his messy handwriting scrawled across the page in cramped letters. I have to remind myself that it's his business and look away before he notices.
The last round of questioning had to do with the reaping of our first Hunger Games. I'd just started answering who came to visit me while we were waiting in the Justice Building. I've already finished telling him about Gale, Madge, and my mother and Prim. My heart feels like its being squeezed whenever I say her name.
"Okay," he says, writing a note in the corner of a page, "Anyone else?"
It feels like so long ago. Another lifetime. I squint my eyes, looking out the window. Clouds are rolling in, turning everything a miserable gray. It's going to rain soon.
"Yes," I say suddenly, "Your… your father."
I turn slightly and see Peeta's eyebrows disappear into his shaggy blonde hair. I don't know if he knew that his father came to see me before the hijacking. I'd wondered if he suggested it, even. His father was a warm man, always had a smile on his face, unlike his witch of a mother.
"He… came to see you? Had you two ever talked before?" He asks quietly.
"No – well, yes, but only when I would sell him game. I would come by each week to sell him my squirrels." I flush, thinking about when Peeta complimented me on the train about my good aim.
He concentrates on the wooden table, tracing the grain with his fingers.
"What did he say?"
I strain to remember. "Not much. He gave me some cookies from the bakery," I pause, looking down in shame, remembering that I threw them away, "and he told me that he'd keep an eye on Prim. He was very fond of her. Most people were."
I give him a small smile, wavering a little as I think of Prim's blonde head bobbing around.
He can tell that I can't take talking about her anymore. He stares at me with a strange look in his eyes. Pity. That's the weird thing about Peeta. No matter how much he's been through, he still has the capacity to feel bad for me. I stare back until I feel a blush start to creep into my cheeks. We both look away hastily. He makes a quick note in his book and flips through to find another question.
"Okay," he says, tapping his chin lightly with the pen, "Let's see here…"
As I watch him look for another question, I notice his body tense. He glances up at me hastily, and flips the page so quickly he almost tears the paper out of the book.
"What?" I ask. I know I probably don't want to hear the question, but I'm genuinely curious as to what kind of memory could give him such an odd reaction.
"It's… nothing" He mumbles, still flipping through the pages.
Suddenly I'm self conscious. What is it? I find myself craving to know.
"You can ask me, really. I promise I won't get upset." I say, looking into his eyes.
I watch his ears turn a slight crimson color. "I don't think upset is what you'll be. Just drop it. Please?" He looks uncomfortable.
I feel neck getting hot. What could that possibly mean? I sift through my stew, trying to find more potatoes.
After a few minutes of playing with my food, I realize that I no longer hear the flutter of pages. I look up to see Peeta observing me.
"You don't like carrots." It's not really a question. His eyes are inquisitive. I glance at my bowl to see that I've unconsciously pushed the carrots to one side, picking around them completely.
I wrinkle my nose. "No, I only like raw carrots. But I usually try not to be picky like this." I gesture with my spoon to the pile. Before the games, I would've eaten anything. I get a lump in my throat thinking of all of the hungry days my family had. Being picky wasn't an option then.
He takes the pen out of his mouth and makes a note in the back of his notebook. I roll my eyes because it's so ridiculous. Who cares about such an insignificant piece of information? Let him be, I tell myself. If you lost your memories every little detail would matter to you, too.
Peeta pushes his chair back, making a scraping sound against the floor.
"I'm going to go get some firewood from out back before it starts to rain."
I nod, looking over at the dying fire. I stand up and gather our bowls, taking them over to the sink.
Overall, the day hasn't been too bad. So far we've discussed the food from the Capitol, Peeta's team of stylists, and the many changing colors of Ceasar Flickerman's hair. They're trivial things, I know, but it doesn't matter. I can tell it's making him feel better. He actually laughed remembering how Ceasar had his tounge dyed blue to match his hair and makeup for our first interviews with him. In the back of my mind I get a nagging feeling that Peeta's hesitating. He's hedging around the difficult questions and I know I won't want to answer them.
I almost drop a plate as a crack of lightning slices through the sky. The peal of thunder shakes the house, making it seem eerily empty. A few fat drops fall from the clouds, splashing against the windows until soon enough it's torrentially downpouring. I smile to myself at the thought of Peeta's unfortunate timing. He's probably scrambling around the yard, soaking wet at this point. I peer out of the window expecting to see him making a dash for cover and am jolted with panic.
He's standing in the middle of the backyard with the firewood scattered around him, completely forgotten. He's staring up at the clouds with his eyes eyebrows together and fists clenched. He must not be able to feel anything, because his knuckles must be throbbing.
I open the door and approach him slowly. I don't want to trigger him, so I take my time, making sure he can see me coming. I eye him steadily, assessing his face. He doesn't look angry, so I immediately let out a sigh of relief.
"Peeta?" I say cautiously.
He continues to stare into the sky. I'm not sure if he realizes I'm there.
I take a few steps closer. He's still as a stone. I feel my teeth chatter. If we stay out here much longer, we're going to get sick. I reach my hand out tentatively and grasp his. It's warm and soft, just like I remembered it. He doesn't look at me, but he squeezes my hand weakly.
I don't know if I'm strong enough to do this much longer. Peeta's sick, and no matter how hard I try there's nothing I can do to help. I feel sobs building in my chest. I'm helpless to his pain.
But I've done this before, haven't I? I've taken care of him when all hope was lost. I'm abruptly taken back to our cave. The sound of the rain beating against the rocks. Peeta's fever. His warm hands in mine. He was dying then, and somehow I mustered up the strength to be strong for him. I have to do it again.
"Do you want me to tell you a story?" I say soothingly, rubbing my thumb against the inside of his palm.
He finally closes his eyes and nods slowly. I half laugh and half sob as I start to tell him, for the second time, the story about how I got Prim's goat, Lady, for her birthday. I wonder if he remembers it. He doesn't interrupt, but keeps his eyes closed the whole time, letting rain fall onto his weary face. When I'm finished, I gently tug on his hand and he looks down at me for the first time with a small smile on his lips. I see a flicker of recognition in his eyes, and something tells me he remembers our days we spent in the cave together.