It's a gentle sound, Peeta sawing through a hunk of thick bread, methodically pushing and pulling the large knife-back and forth, back and forth- until an even slice falls from the loaf with a soft thud. He offers it to me, and I take it, ravenous from a busy night of bad dreams. I was running, through the arena and the woods and the maze-like tunnels of District Thirteen all mixed together. I woke up panting, feeling more exhausted than when I fell asleep. So when he offers me a second slice, I don't refuse. It's sweet and soft, and pairs perfectly with the tall glass of milk he pours for me. It feels odd to be taken care of, especially by someone I feel like I should be caring of myself. When we're both finished, he leans back and sighs.
"You've got the paper?" he asks, and I give a knowing tap in the large box on the edge of the table.
"Shipped in this morning." I say, running my nail along the grooved box. It's full of paper, thick parchment that crinkles when you wiggle it. It's similar to the pages of my father's plant book, except more synthetic. You can feel the stronger fibers rather than the flimsy stuff my father scrapped together from the Hob. The pages are mixed, too. Some date back to when the book was first started by my mother's family, and some are newer and crisper. I think of the drawings I added with Peeta, how they were created with such precision and grace. It's magical how the ink flows from his hand, how he creates something beautiful in the matter of minutes. What's a straight shot compared to beauty at your fingertips? If the Games could have been won with talent, not strength, Peeta could have won the entire country over in moments. But maybe he did anyway.
After he rinses the plates and cups in the sink, Peeta lifts the large box of paper from the table-which I could not lift on my own, but he picks up easily and quickly- and whips his head to motion the direction to follow him in.
"Here," he says, and guides me down the hall. The floorboards creek under our feet.
"The door?" he asks, and I step in front of him to turn the knob. It's stuck, though, and I can't make it budge.
"Pull it, then turn." He instructs me, and I try this. I can hear a click as I pull it out, and it turns with ease as I do so. I don't know what I expect to find behind the door; an office, a workspace, maybe. I should have realized.
"Oh," I gasp. I take in a deep breath. It takes a moment before I can let it out again.
The room, just a square with four long walls, seems to consume me. A counter wraps around two walls, facing one of the windows. It is covered in pieces of paper and brushes and splattered paint. A few papers scatter the floor and some empty bottles of paint and broken pencils litter the area. But it's not the clutter of papers that shocks me. It's what covers the walls.
Pictures. Paintings, to be more precise. A collage of faces and scenes and things I don't recognize, pushed together and wrapping around the walls. You can tell they weren't meant to be together, but that they were accidentally formed as one as each new thought of paint was added. It's like I'm seeing Peeta, if he could be painted. His thoughts and his feelings and his fears. This is him.
But this is also me. I see things I recognize. The arenas. The victors. Rue. Cato. Thresh. The glowing silhouette of the Capitol wraps around one corner of the room, the view we shared from our rooms before the Games. I'm there, too. In some splotchy scenes, in my fiery dress, on the train. Some tell a story, others provide only a tiny memory. The shining trident in Finnick's hand. The whiskers that hung over Tigress's dyed and wrinkled lips. A bottle of liquor in a hand that must belong to Haymitch.
Other things don't register. Two children playing in the snow. A plate of cookies. A ring hanging from a thread. A room full of fire. These must be from his past, things he's never shared. I feel odd seeing them now, like they are these personal memories that I shouldn't invade. This is his mind, and seeing it makes me feel like an intruder. But it's beautiful. It's achingly beautiful. The colors are vibrant and make the memories feel fresh in my mind. But this is not a planned piece, a final project. This is must be how he copes. Just like I use the woods as my escape, he escapes through a paintbrush and this wall he calls his canvas.
"Sorry for the mess," He mumbles awkwardly, and sets the heavy box down on the table. He pushes a few papers out of the way, compiling them into a neat stack. He stands by the table, shifting his gaze from his feet to me. He scratches the back of his head as if to provide some sort of explanation, but offers none. I am left to gaze in wonder at his work.
"Peeta," I finally gasp, turning my head the way I always catch myself in the act of, as if I'm trying to comfort him for the pain he's felt and then admire him for the beautiful composition he's turned it into.
"I guess we all have hobbies." He suggests with a sheepish grin, and I send him a sympathetic smile back.
"When did you..." I start, not sure how to finish.
"Some before," He says, looking around. "Some after." His eyes wrap around the room and focus on the farthest corner. He watches it a while and sighs. I take a step closer to him, pushing past him to get a view of what he's caught up on. But I see it almost immediately. It's Prim. Her blonde hair flowing over her shoulders, dressed in the monotone wear of District Thirteen. She's surrounded by gray-people, objects, light-yet she smiles. That wide smile she only showed the people she loved, where her eyes would light up like shining little marbles and made you want to do anything for her. This was the sweet, innocent, little girl I loved. This is the girl who's gone forever.
I try to clear my throat, to assure him that I'm fine and happy and entirely whole, but no sound escapes. I shake my head, lightly as first and then harder, trying to push the sadness away. I have to stay together; I can't let it eat at me like this. But she's there, watching me with her persuading eyes and and I want to pull her close and feel her warmth again. I want to protect her.
Peeta gently touches my shoulder, and I whip my view to the side, startling him. This time he turns his head, gives me the sympathetic smile, sees the fog in my eyes. I swallow like my father used to, when he was about to cry but didn't want to, hoping it will keep the tears from spilling over.
"I'm sorry." He says, "I shouldn't have brought you here. I...I thought...We can do this later." I shake my head.
"No," I say quietly, "No. I want to. Now. This is why I want to. I don't want to feel like this. I want to feel happy again Peeta. I'm so tired of being sad. I have all these ideas and memories and I don't know what to do with them! I just-I need to do this."
It's quiet for a moment, and then he just nods.
"Okay," he says, "Let's start with Prim."
Primrose Everdeen was, entirely and thoroughly, joy. She was joy, in every definition of the word. She was gentle; with patients, with friends, with everyone she knew and even those she didn't. She was smart and never boastful, but could listen to even the proudest. She was happy. She was funny. She was beautiful. But most of all, she was brave. I cannot pretend to say I knew everything about her; I know she kept things hidden. She had secrets, just like us all. But if I do know one thing for sure, it is of her bravery. The way she faced everything, with a braver face than I could ever manage. In so many ways, she was protecting me. She was the reason I loved, the reason I tried, the reason I fought so hard. I thought I couldn't leave her behind, alone here. But I see now that I was wrong. She didn't need me to protect her.
I needed her.
I still do.