"Let me go!" she screamed.
I catch myself staring out the window again, replaying our last moments together for the hundredth time in my mind. I shake my head, and return to my painting.
Over the last several weeks, Dr. Aurelius and I have spent countless hours sifting through my muddled memories. Painting helps. I conjure up images from my shifting thoughts, and many times we've used my renderings to decipher real from not real memories and events. The process of depicting the scenes in my head on the canvas in front of me soothes me. I let myself focus on the colors, textures and strokes, providing increasingly frequent moments of escape from the startling images that sometimes torment me otherwise.
Today I'm painting an image of her, of Katniss. I can't quite place it, though, and I'm hoping Dr. Aurelius will be able to help me figure it out at our next session. She's looking at me, with an expression that mixes concern, confusion, urgency and fear all at once. Trouble is, I only have her – there's no background to the image yet. It's still too murky in my mind to make out. Right now, I'm struggling with creating the perfect shade of grey, when I realize I'm no longer alone.
I look up, and confusion crosses my face for just an instant. "Hey, Gale." Not someone I expected to ever find standing in my doorway, frankly. I try not to show my surprise.
"Can I come in?" he asks.
"It's a free country, or so they tell me."
He grins and takes a couple of steps inside the room. He can't see the canvas I'm working on from where he's standing, and I don't make any move to get up. I have mixed emotions about him being here – I remember enough to know we've never been friends, and my instinctual reaction to his presence is apprehensive. But, I also recall our time together in the Capitol, and know (or have at least been told many times) that we are not enemies, either. Eventually my curiosity wins out. I'm not really eager to make this easy for him, however.
"So, how have you been? Are you feeling, uh, better?" he inquires.
It's not clear if he's asking about my physical or mental progress, or both. "I can't complain, I guess. Probably feeling better than you look, though." He looks….weary.
A rueful smile. "Yea, probably." He doesn't make any move, in either direction, and seems at a loss for words. For the life of me, I cannot figure out what he's doing here. I would have expected him to be…elsewhere, with the military, back in District 13, training new recruits, or possibly with her. I wonder, briefly, if I should be preparing for an attack, but I'm pretty sure I could still take him.
"So, Gale, what have you been up to? Or have you decided Capitol life is for you, now?" I don't mean to sound so snide, but I can't take it back now.
He looks at me then, not taking the bait for once, but rather as if he's debating something in his head. I keep painting, glancing between him and the canvas, waiting for him to figure out what he wants to say, or do, or whatever. I can't say I'm happy to see him, but part of me is grateful for an opportunity to interact with my past, if for no other reason than to see how it affects me, whether or not it will trigger another episode.
"Just passing through, really," he starts. He pauses, though, and seems to still be testing the waters with me before getting to his real reason for being here. "But, first, what are your plans? Any idea how much longer you'll be here in the Capitol?"
I look at him now, totally perplexed. Small talk was never Gale's forte. And, seeing as how the last conversation we had was in Tigris' hidden room, I find his thinly veiled attempt at chit-chat amusing. Clearly, there is something on his mind. I'm just not sure what's keeping him from getting to it.
"Well, I don't seem to have worn out my welcome just yet. But no, I'm not sure how long I'll be here. Why do you ask? Looking for a roommate or something?" I grin. The suggestion that he and I might ever exist in the same room for more than a few minutes without trying to hit each other is ludicrous, of course.
He looks shocked, for a second, but then laughs when he realizes I'm kidding. I'm not prepared for his next question, though.
"So, I know it was all part of the Games, the strategy and all, but…that night of the Victory Tour, with Ceasar, on stage. How much of that did you really mean?"
I stop painting. This is awkward. Fortunately, I know he's talking about my proposal to Katniss. The one we agreed needed to happen publicly as a desperate attempt to keep everyone we knew and loved alive. But, he should know that answering that question would be challenging for me now. I may have seen the tapes of that show, but I can't possibly remember how much was real and how much was staged. And I certainly never, ever imagined Gale would be asking me about this. Something is definitely wrong. I put down my brush and stand up, taking a step towards him, evading the question I can't really answer anyway altogether.
"What's wrong? Has something happened?"
Gale looks positively conflicted. Anguished. He just keeps looking at me, clearly struggling with whatever it is he came here to say.
"Gale, tell me why you're here."
Finally, he gives in. "She's not doing well, Peeta. I went to see her, in 12. I knew, after everything that happened, that it was a long shot. But I had to see her, to talk to her. Only…"
As he starts talking, my heart starts racing. I knew Katniss had been sent back to District 12. I knew that she was restricted there, that Haymitch had gone back with her, and that President Paylor had conditionally pardoned her for killing Coin. But that was all I knew. I had not attempted to contact her, nor had I gotten any information from anyone about how she was doing. I figured she was struggling, but I also figured that once she was able to get back to the woods, back to hunting, she'd find herself again. Hunting was her painting, her best therapy.
"Only what, Gale?" I keep my voice as steady as I can. I need to know what he knows.
"I don't know what I expected, exactly. Maybe I was hoping that she would at least understand how miserable I was about what happened that day. Maybe I just wanted a chance to tell her in person. But, when I got there, I never expected to see…that. I've never seen her like this. She's just a shell, Peeta. She's not really there. She just sits by the fire all day, eyes open but not seeing. Sae says she barely eats. Haymitch, well, when he's sober enough to remember to go see her, says she hasn't spoken since they left here."
My mind is forming an image as he speaks, one that threatens to crack my calm demeanor wide open. Despite the miles and miles between us, I can see her as if she's sitting right in front of me. I can almost reach out and touch her, almost smell her hair…I refocus and try to quell the rising anxiety I'm feeling. "Go on."
He looks totally distraught now. Clearly whatever happened was disturbing enough to drive him here. That can't be good.
"When I tried to talk to her, I just started saying how sorry I was, how I would never, ever have hurt Prim, how I needed her to understand. At first, she didn't react at all, and then," he stops, almost shuddering from the memory he's reliving. "Then, she looked at me with cold, hard eyes. And she, just, snapped. Something in her just went wild. She started flailing and hitting me and screaming and…" He looks at me, pleading. "I didn't even recognize her."
There's no love lost between me and Gale, but even I can see how much he's hurting over this. But I don't say anything. What could I? Tell him it's okay, she'll come around eventually, that she knows he didn't mean to kill the one person in the world she cared about more than anything or anyone else, including herself? I don't think so. I wait, and give him the space and time he needs to come back to our conversation.
"She needs you."
His words hang in the air between us. For a moment, I'm not even sure I heard him say it. I just look at him, while my emotions run in a thousand directions at once. Fear. Hope. Anger. Anticipation. Confusion. Concern. Denial. Happiness. Revenge. Hate. Longing.
He's watching me, waiting for my reaction. But still I don't say anything. My mind is racing as fast as my heart is beating, and I'm not entirely sure that the room hasn't started spinning the way the Cornucopia did in our second arena.
"Did you hear me? She needs you. I want her to need me. So badly. But," and here he stammers. "But, I know now, especially now, that I am not the one she can't survive without."
Slowly, I let out the breath I've been holding all this time. I look back at the canvas I've been working on, and so many questions flood my brain all at once. Could it be true? Could Gale be right? Is there any way I could help her? Am I even well enough to be thinking about this? What if she reacts the same way to me as she did to Gale? What if I react to her the way I did in District 13? Would I ever survive that? Would she?
He's looking at me, staring, waiting for me to respond. I'm not sure what he's expecting me to do or say. It's not like I can just hop on the next train to District 12. While it's true I've made significant progress in the last several weeks, I also know I have a lot farther to go. And I know that I may never truly be rid of these episodes, these waking nightmares, that turn my insides out and fill my head with thoughts I never imagined myself capable of when it comes to her, or anyone for that matter.
"I'm not sure I'm the one she can survive with." It's honest, at least.
Gale looks deflated, but only for a moment. He seems to regain some of his composure. "Look, if you meant what you said that night, and all those other times, then you are. And you have to try. You and she have a connection, you share a bond I will never have with her. You may be her only hope at this point."
I'm about to lie, to say that I never had any intention of seeing her again, that I can't afford to be near her again, have no desire to help her, but I stop myself. It's not true, and I have enough lies in my life I'm trying to get rid of as it is. "You don't understand," I say defensively. "I'm not cured. I still have episodes I can't control sometimes. I can't risk hurting her. And besides, how do you know she won't react to me the same way?"
"I just know. Because I know her."
I look at him then, and I feel…I'm not sure. But I know what he means. And I also, guardedly, hope that he's right.
"What, exactly, are you asking me to do, Gale? What do you want?"
He laughs, ironically. "Well, those two things couldn't be more different. But, I'm asking you to help her. Try to help her find her way back. I think you're the only one who can. She's strong, we both know that. But I think she may have finally run out of strength, Peeta. And I would never be able to live with myself if I didn't do whatever I had to do to try to save her. Since I couldn't save Prim. So, here I am, doing it."
I study him for a good long time. It's unfathomable to me that one person could have such a profound effect on two people and, in all probability, never even know it.
"I'll think about it." That's all I can say right now. I turn away from him, growing uncomfortable now with the request I could have never seen coming in a million years. I decide to change the subject. "What about you? What are you going to do now?"
He takes the not-so-subtle hint and starts moving toward the door. "I've volunteered to go to District 2 to help with the rebuilding there."
"That's good." I wasn't there, but I'd heard he played a role in the devastation they experienced.
He looks at me one last time. "That's penance."
And then he's gone. I sit back down on my stool, and consider the image I've created in front of me, but I don't seem to know what to do with the brush now.
Oh, Katniss. Where are you?
A/N Thanks for reading! If you want more of Peeta's POV stories, check out jd121888's trilogy: Hunger Games - Peeta's Story, Catching Fire - Peeta's Story, and Mockingjay - Peeta's Story.