A/N: The story cover for this piece is attributed to Courtney Carmody on Flickr
The Time It Takes
Weeks passed without more than a few words spoken now and then. Pleasantries regarding the weather, a please, a thank you, the trappings of civility. Seeing one another in passing became a walk together to get into town. Moments sitting on the steps lead to a shared meal. When the blank pages arrive from Dr. Aurelius, I use the telephone to call Peeta.
"It's me," I say blankly into the phone. Part of me recognizes that this is unnecessary. Who else would be calling Peeta? Everyone else in his life is dead. "I was wondering if you'd like to come over to have something to eat."
"Okay," he says, his voice slightly more animated than mine, but not much.
"And bring your paints."
"All right." He hangs up before I do.
This is the longest string of words I've said to him at one time in months.
The first night I just stare at the blank pages, not knowing where to begin. Peeta sits in the rocking chair by the window, moonlight cutting across his face, obscuring half of it.
At one point I begin to cry, shuffling through the pages, trying to find where to begin. He doesn't move from the chair to try to comfort me. For some reason this makes me feel better. The old Peeta would have rushed to my side to try to take away my pain. This new Peeta marks the change in our lives, what we have lost. He understands that there is nothing he can do, that things are irrevocably broken, and that the only way to move on is to let the pain do its work.
But he doesn't leave either.
The next afternoon is better. I find I work better in the light, feel surer of the room since I know where all the shadows are, and that there is nothing waiting for me in them. Days turn into weeks and we begin to work on the pages together, allowing more and more words to pass between us. At first it is simple descriptions, and then memories and then feelings.
Feelings come easier to Peeta, but then they always have. Peeta is angry, but somehow he is better at finding the root of the issue. He is angry because he was tortured. He feels betrayed by people who were supposed to be his allies. He feels confused about what happened between us. He feels sad about the loss of life, what happened to my sister. He mourns his family.
I find that I have to concentrate very hard to describe how I feel about the things that happened, but in truth, most of how I feel is angry.
Late one afternoon we are sitting at the kitchen table, which we have pushed up against the wall underneath the window for the light. We leave it like this all of the time now since we are the only two people who eat here. We take most of our meals together now. We part after dinner and Peeta returns to his house. He knocks on my front door in the morning and we have breakfast, resuming wherever we left off the day before.
We are sitting side by side, the sun streaming in through the window. Peeta is focusing on a drawing of an oyster shell. I am staring out the window. I lean forward to reach across him to take a piece of paper. The movement is natural, almost lazy.
Suddenly Peeta seizes my wrist. An odd thought crosses my mind, taking me away from the insanity of what is happening.
This is the first time he has touched me purposefully since we've been home.
My mind snaps back to reality, which is that Peeta has my wrist clamped in his vice-like grip, and though it is not quite hard enough to make the bones rub together, the pain is severe. I emit a sharp cry of surprise, looking at his face to try to understand. His eyes are closed and he seems to be gritting his teeth, but he makes no sound.
"Peeta!" I cry. "Let go of me!"
But he does not relent. Tears are running from his closed eyes, and I can see the muscles tense in his jaw.
"Peeta, please stop," I say, fighting for control of my voice, as I have begun to shake. I start to look around the table for some kind of a weapon. I try to stand, to pull away, but this makes him squeeze harder, so that now the bones are rubbing together. I emit a short scream, and am bringing my other arm across my body, preparing to elbow him in the face, when suddenly his grip is gone. He is up and out of his chair, toppling it over as he moves. He is standing in the corner of the kitchen before I can blink. His back is to the corner, hands behind him. He is looking at me.
I take several steps backward, gripping my wrist with my other hand. It is already hot and swelling.
"Peeta," I say, trying to infuse my voice with calm. I am about to continue when he speaks.
"Katniss, I am so sorry."
"It is nothing…" I start to say.
"You were reaching for the paper. Real or not real?"
"I thought you were going to strangle me," he says, his voice betraying fear.
"I would never do that Peeta," I say.
"I know, I know," he says, shuddering and shaking his head. "Are you hurt?" he asks, but makes no move to come see for himself.
"I'm fine. It'll bruise a little, but it's nothing."
He nods his head. I can see that he is shaking, and I decide that I should stay where I am for the moment.
"Why do you think they let me come back here?" he asks, his voice hollow.
I am standing near the sink and there is a long kitchen knife sitting in its bottom. I turn away from him slightly and turn the water on cold. I put my wrist under the flow of water before answering.
"I think they sent you back here because this is your home."
" I think they sent me back here so that I would kill you."
I keep my hand in the sink, under the stream of water, hovering over the knife. I level a look in his eyes. He is sweating and breathing a bit heavily, but his eyes seem normal.
"Are you planning on hurting me Peeta?" I ask, trying to sound dismissive of the idea.
"What I plan to do and what I actually do haven't exactly been one and the same for a while, Katniss," he says, exhaling.
"I think you've been doing really well…this is the first time that you…"
"No it isn't," he says, and my heart falls to my feet. "It gets bad at night. Sometimes I see things, hear voices. Half the time I wake up convinced that you are standing over my bed ready to kill me. I jump up and get halfway down the hall before I realize that you aren't there…that it was just a dream…a nightmare."
By the time he's finished talking he is leaning into the wall, shaking.
"What if they sent me here to kill you?"
I consider this for a moment.
"What makes anyone think I'd be so easy to kill?" I ask, my voice light, though I feel like the knife under my hand is lodged in my heart.
"Maybe, they figure we will end up killing one another…be done with the both of us," he answers, looking away, but not before I see the corner of his mouth turn up.
I face my body toward the sink, turning my head completely away from him. I open and close my hand a few times under the water before turning off the tap. I give the knife one more look before I grab a towel to dry my hands and cross back to the kitchen table. I pick up his chair, working a little bit to hide the pain in my wrist and place it next to mine. I sit down in my own chair and draw it up closer to the table.
"Do you know where the saying "star crossed lovers" comes from?" I ask, looking up at him.
He looks back at me for a moment before he shakes his head.
"I asked Cinna about it once because it sounded so pretty," I begin. "It is a line from a play, written a long time before the first war. It is about two people, two children actually, who were so in love that when they thought they couldn't be together, they killed themselves."
Peeta furrows his brow, as if he's trying to comprehend what I am telling him.
"Why didn't they just run away?" he asks.
"I asked Cinna that too, and he said that they couldn't, that they were members of powerful families who wouldn't let them go. That they had no way of choosing for themselves."
Peeta sits in his chair, though it is obvious that he is leaning away from me. I turn in my chair so that I am facing him, trying to make up for the space he is putting between us. I am afraid to get too close to him, but I don't want him to know that.
"That story sounds kind of miserable," he says softly, shooting me a quick look.
"Yeah, Cinna wasn't much of a fan," I say, smiling.
Several minutes pass and neither of us speak or move. Finally, I say the words that need to be said.
"Peeta, whether or not they sent you here to kill me is really irrelevant. People have already done that...three times to be exact. Once in the first arena, again in the second, and then when they tortured you and let you be rescued and brought to me. The difference now is that we have a choice."
"But Katniss, what if I just lose it and I snap and something happens! That won't happen by choice…I will be blind and out of control." He's turned towards me now, and is leaning across the distance between us. It is all I can do to not crawl backwards over the top of my chair to get away from him. I force myself to be still.
"Well," I let out a long breath, "I'm not exactly defenseless. We'll take steps. We'll try to figure out what triggers it. What else can we do?"
"I can stay away from you," he says so quickly, averting his eyes.
"Not an option," I say, my voice firm and angry. "You are my only friend. We are getting better. If we decide to stop this now, then I may as well just be…" I trail off.
"Dead?" he asks, a hint of a smile on his lips. "Not you Katniss. You aren't the dying type."
My anger rapidly turns into indignation, which I quickly realize is ridiculous because, well, he's right. Despite everything, despite being shot and burned and everything else, despite everyone's attempts to kill me, including Peeta's, I am still alive.
"Perhaps I have been lucky," I concede, forcing myself not to smile at all. "But I do have my limits. And I draw the line at our not being friends anymore."
"That is the line?" he asks, his question rounded by the grin on his face.
"Yes." I raise my chin in defiance, pointedly refusing to smile. With that he starts laughing. It isn't his old laugh, the one that was so easy and full of sunlight. But it is genuine. He turns back to the painting, picking up the brush and resuming his work on the oyster.
I sit facing him for several minutes, watching him paint. In truth I am a little afraid to move, as if the spell of normalcy may vanish if I even so much as breathe. The sun has moved lower in the sky, signaling that the day is near its end. It is casting a pale orange light into the kitchen. After a while I stand and move to the sink.
"What would you like for dinner?" I ask, turning on the sink and beginning to wash the knife.
"I have some bread at the house…do you have anything to make sandwiches?" he asks, moving to start clearing the table.
"I'm sure I have something." I dry the knife, looking at my reflection in its long blade, before sliding it into the butcher's block.
"All right, I'll run home and get the bread."
I nod but say nothing.
He stops as he is passing me.
"Are you really okay?" he asks, remorse heavy in his voice.
"Yes, Peeta, I have been shot before…this is nothing."
"No, I know…I guess what I mean is, are we okay?"
I can't lie to him because I am so close to crying. I take a deep breath and will myself to be strong. I avoid his gaze until the last moment.
"Today wasn't the best day we've had, but I think we'll bounce back. We'll be okay." I want to reach out, to give his hand a squeeze, something to tell him that everything is fine, but I can't, not yet.
"I'll be back in a few minutes."
As soon as he is gone, I sink to the floor, tears welling in my eyes as I clutch my injured wrist to my chest. I know that he will be back soon, and that I will have to figure out a way to get past this.
I know that I can do it.
I hope that I can.