Not Even Remotely Nice
The next three weeks are spent researching whatever relationship Katniss and I might or might not have had. Speaking to Prim has piqued my interest. It's the first time anyone has mentioned a possible reciprocation – all focus seems to have been on my own feelings towards her. But when I begin on this self-designed quest, there are plenty of opinions chiming in. Those who visit me who spend time with Katniss are fairly sure she loves me, even if she doesn't realise it herself. The doctors, who sit and watch tapes with me, give a running commentary of muttered comments between themselves that confirms my own objective view. It suited her purposes to appear affectionate, but what lies beneath is cold as stone.
It's rare that I have a 'mutt outburst', as the doctors have taken to calling them, while I watch the tapes. The temptation is there, sometimes more strongly than others, but I am able to push it away. I'm fairly sure now that my gut instinct of fear can't be trusted. Whatever this girl is, she is perfectly human. She has moments of fragility, of fierceness, moments when she seems so tiny and exhausted, others when she looks close to breaking down. And there are the tapes from our first Games, showing her injuries, cataloguing her near death experiences. There is a moment where I have made an alliance with the Career tributes and she drops a tracker jacker nest on us. I feel a life-like surge of the terror the venom causes when I watch it, and hate her for doing that to me whatever her reasons.
When Prim visits, we spend some time putting what I have learned into order of when each event happened. Though, as there are only really three taped events – our first Hunger Games, the Quarter Quell, and her more recent propaganda tapes for the rebellion – it's not too difficult to get the timeline straight in my head. Privately these tapes are labelled either 'pretending love', 'possibly love' or 'too tired to care'. The only confusing ones are promotional shots and brief interviews between the Games, when I can't quite place things into order.
Prim doesn't tell me much about what Katniss is doing now. She says it's because Katniss is in District Two and she doesn't hear from her often, but I don't know whether to believe her. If it's true, it doesn't speak highly in Katniss' favour that she's neglecting her sister, who's clearly concerned about her. Although she's younger than me, I can't help feeling that Normal Peeta was a bit dim for falling for the crabby, calculating, emotionally-stunted sister. Prim's very sweet and patient, and I feel like even if she needs to give me a blunt answer, she will try to do it kindly.
But at night, it is not Prim that swims into my head. Sometimes I get flashes of memories. Again and again, I go through an episode where a scrawny, black-haired little girl is digging through the bins of the bakery I once called home. So I burn some bread and take a strike from my mother in order to give her something to eat. Prim confirms this happened, and I experience a small thrill when I realise that not all of my memories have been destroyed or changed beyond recognition.
However, this is the only dream I can check with Prim. The others must be fantasies, maybe repeated in my head often enough before the hijacking that they lodged somewhere permanent. If I'm right, there is something very perverse in my imagination. It doesn't seem to matter how often I dream about my hands skimming over a too-slender body, we never seem to kiss. It's only once I dream about her talking to me, and that's to say that we can't carry on this way. Normal Peeta was clearly a glutton for punishment. These dreams leave me waking uncomfortable and unsatisfied and grateful that they no longer restrain my hands at night. I don't mention them to anyone. The doctors would have a field day.
For three weeks I carry on this research. At one point, Haymitch sits with me watching a clip of us on the beach during the Quarter Quell. For once, Katniss looks quite enthusiastic about the attention she's getting. I've seen it before – it's actually one of my favourites. Every time, I am disappointed when Finnick wakes. I want to know what would have happened if we had been left, how long it would have taken her to push me away. Haymitch asks if I'd want to see Katniss, if she asked to visit. No one's asked me this before. Again there's the uncanny feeling that the doctors have all pricked up their ears. I shrug as nonchalantly as I can. "Yeah, that would be fine." But there's a flicker of something low in my belly that I can't quite name. Like fear, like anger, like excitement – but none of those things, and all of them altogether.
When the doctors say I've had enough of the tapes, I work on the design for the cake, or do a fitness routine that I can carry out in the confines of my room in the hospital. I am steadily building up my strength, and the food rations are helping to bulk me up a bit. When I look in the long mirror which, I'm sure, is really a window, I don't look so drawn. I at least look more like Normal Peeta.
It comes time to draw my cake design for the last time. I am not allowed to actually bake the cake, which is a little disappointing, but whoever's in the kitchen has done a decent job. It's a little dryer than I might have managed, but it'll be a nice change for everyone at the wedding. I've not seen a single baked item, except for some very plain-but-nutritious bread, since I've been here. Everything I need is brought to my room. Water, icing sugar, colorants in the three shades I've said I'll need, and the various tools of my trade. I've been allowed two hours to finish it, but I manage in an hour and a half. When I'm done, I'm pleased and proud with the result. And for the first time, feel a stab of regret that I will not be able to see others enjoy it. This is the first time I've experienced any kind of desire to leave my cosy, safe room. When I tell the doctors, they seem very pleased. I just feel unsettled.
The day after I've iced the cake, which I suppose must be the day of the wedding, I'm working on a drawing when there's a flurry of activity and excitement amongst the doctors. I watch them carefully over the top of my sketch pad, and muse on how they're sometimes like a gaggle of geese when something exciting is happening. What new test have they devised for me, I wonder.
"Peeta," one of them calls up my attention. I raise my eyebrows expectantly. "Katniss is going to come and visit. If you think you're ready."
I shrug, like I did when Haymitch first suggested the idea.
At the mention of her name, that flicker of something is back. There's a surge of interest elsewhere in my body as well, but I put that down to too many fevered dreams of residual frustrated lust.
The room is cleared, except for one doctor – chaperone or bodyguard, I'm not sure of his function, but he makes himself blend into the background. My gaze flicks up to the mirror. Are there just doctors back there, or am I about to become part of their propaganda films? With a sigh, I watch the door instead, trying to decide how I feel. If she's anything like what I've seen on the tapes, I don't like her. This much is certain. There's nothing left of whatever love or infatuation I might have felt before, except for the fantasy-dreams which I treat with the same disdain and distrust as the mutt flashbacks.
But what if she's … loveable?
This question has been raised in my mind a few times. I loved her. Gale loves her (this is something else I vaguely remember). Prim loves her. Delly and Haymitch have very little to say in the way of negative things. Perhaps there is something about her that doesn't translate to camera, that you have to experience. Something I just can't remember clearly enough, but will be immediately apparent when she walks into the room.
The moment she steps through the door, I know that's not going to be something I need to worry about. She's dressed fairly plainly, as it seems most people do in Thirteen. Her dark hair is pulled back in a braid that winds up around her head, as it is in some of the videos. Her cheeks are flushed. She's not as sallow as she appears in some of the clips I've seen. But she's very thin. The bones stick out in her wrists, and her face looks pinched and sour. She's scarred, as well. Short sleeves bare her forearms, and one has a nasty gouged-looking lump of a scar. There's another thinner one above her eyebrow. And I can tell from the way she's standing that there are probably more scars covered up, the former injuries still plaguing her like ghosts of her past. It's something I recognise from myself, and I know I shouldn't hold it against her. But I do.
There's something closed off about her, in the flesh. And I can see now that the propaganda films have made her seem bigger, fiercer, than she really is. The girl that stands before me is a sullen teenager, who is small and uncertain of herself. If anything, I hate her more for not justifying the considerable amount of fear my body has expended on her.
She stands there for a moment. I wonder if she is studying, judging me with the same scrutiny. Partly to take a little control, I speak first. "Hey," I say, keeping my voice steady. Trying not to seem like a lunatic – though I don't really understand why that should matter.
"Hey," she replies. For a long moment, in which I refuse to speak, I think this is the only golden nugget of conversation my doctors are going to get to witness. Then, covering herself with her scrawny arms, she says, "Haymitch said you wanted to talk to me."
Haymitch has somewhat stretched my actual words. But she's given me the clue that he's probably behind the mirror watching us as well, so I don't correct her. "Look at you, for starters," I say. It gives me a cruel thrill to see her brow crease, her arms draw tighter around her midriff. It's not like Normal Peeta to enjoy her discomfort. I know that and, somehow, that is liberating. I don't want to be the lovesick fool any more. "You're not very big, are you?" I ask her, and I watch the dent in her confidence deflate her a bit. "Or particularly pretty?"
She doesn't even pause to think before the retort is out of her mouth, "Well, you've looked better."
This makes me laugh. Because somehow, she's everything I expected. Everything I hoped she would and wouldn't be. "And not even remotely nice. To say that to me after all I've been through."
I expect this to deflate her further, so I can feel that – although I may be mad and may spend the rest of my days in a small room surrounded by doctors – we are on an even keel. There is also a part of me that wants to see her register some emotion, even if it's a negative one. But she is closed off completely now. Her dark eyes are blank and hateful as they stare at me, and I can understand why my nightmares would turn her into a cold, unfeeling mutt.
"Yeah," says that harsh, steely voice. "We've all been through a lot. And you're the one who was known for being nice. Not me." This is hardly news. I don't always feel it, but I can tell from the way those who knew me act around me that I used to be a very pleasant person. It's one of the things I'm working hard to earn. One of the things that makes me wonder if Normal Peeta found everything quite as difficult as I do.
She's shifting from one foot to the other, inching steadily towards the door. "Look, I don't feel so well. Maybe I'll drop by tomorrow."
A wrenching in my stomach. I don't like her, but neither do I want her to leave. My brain does the thing where it bypasses my conscious decision making, and words tumble out of my mouth from nowhere. "Katniss, I remember about the bread."
Katniss shrugs. "They showed you the tape of me talking about it."
"No. Is there a tape of you talking about it?" The doctors certainly haven't brought it to me. But then, she doesn't know about my weeks of research. "Why didn't the Capitol use it against me?"
"I made it the day you were rescued," she explains. Still, that was months ago. My eyes flicker to the large mirror, as I wonder if the doctors kept it from me for a specific reason, or it's just somewhere in the pile and I haven't got to it yet. "So what do you remember?" she prompts, as though there might be a discrepancy between her memories and mine.
I list the events that I've dreamed, that feel concrete, as though they were a calming exercise where I name only the things of which I'm certain. No emotion, no attached feeling. Just facts the in the order they happened. "You. In the rain. Digging in our rubbish bins. Burning the bread. My mother hitting me. Taking the bread out for the pig but then giving it to you instead."
Her lips stretch, and I wonder if she thinks she's smiling. She's not. "That's it. That's what happened." Katniss doesn't look at me as she speaks. "The next day, after school, I wanted to thank you. But I didn't know how."
This triggers an additional memory. It's clear as day, just a few moments in time, but I'm certain they're real. "We were outside at the end of the day. I tried to catch your eye. You looked away. And then … for some reason, I think you picked a dandelion." That was her moment of trying to thank me? A pretty poor effort, by anyone's estimation. And on these great events, I chose the love of my life. By all accounts I loved her regardless of how else she might have treated me. Despite lack of reciprocation, lack of even a thank you. "I must have loved you a lot," I say. Because I can't these things having the same effect on me, if they were to happen again right now.
A scrawny girl half dead from starvation. A beating over two loaves of bread. A failure to say thank you, because she was distracted by a weed. These are not the things on which romances are built.
"You did," she says, for once her voice sounding choked. Katniss turns it into a cough, but no one's fooled.
Time for the big question, I think. Though I'm certain by now that I know the answer, whatever words Katniss speaks in reply. "And did you love me?"
"Everyone says I did."
That's not an answer, I reply in my head. But I grind my teeth, gritting my jaw in order to let her finish.
"Everyone says that's why Snow had you tortured. To break me."
"That's not an answer," I say, when it's clear there's no other explanation forthcoming. I'm angrier than I expected. Not the rages that overtake me when I have flashbacks, but a low burning fury deep in my gut. Words are tumbling from my lips in a rush, "I don't know what to think when they show me some of the tapes. In that first arena, it looked like you tried to kill me with those tracker jackers."
"I was trying to kill all of you. You had me treed." Her voice is much too calm. I need to regain control – and the only way I can think of doing it is by taking away some of her control, to put us on an even peg again.
"Later, there's a lot of kissing. Didn't seem very genuine on your part. Did you like kissing me?"
She blinks, but otherwise there's little sign of discomfort, and I'm disappointed. "Sometimes." Her dark eyes glance at the mirror as well. "You know people are watching us now?"
"I know." It's becoming more difficult to keep to the thread of what I want from her. There's a flash of a memory - a current memory, not an old one - of the tape where she sings the song to the mockingjay. The first tape of her that the doctors showed me. And Gale was with her. "What about Gale?"
A beat. "He's not a bad kisser either." Her timing is flawless.
"And it was OK with both of us? You kissing the other?" I'm well aware that, once more, my temper is fraying.
"No. It wasn't OK with either of you." Well, that's got her angry. At least if I have to sit here, stewing in my own fury, I will know I'm not the only one who couldn't keep a grip on their fragile self-control. "But I wasn't asking your permission."
I laugh. It's a hollow bark that makes me think of the mutts of my nightmares. There's a lump riding high in my throat that's making my words stick, but I swallow it down well enough that I sound almost normal when I say, "Well, you're a piece of work, aren't you?"
There's not even time to register a reaction from her. She turns on her heel and walks out.
I should be satisfied, that I had the last word. That I got a reaction from her. That I made her feel at least as bad as I have been feeling for the last three weeks, as I watched her artfully play the boy that I used to be. All I feel is hollow. And a little disappointed.
It takes a long time for the doctors to get around to coming back in. There is one with me, my chaperone-guard, but he stays in the background. I've nearly forgotten that he's there. My hands are gripping the arms of my only chair. I'm concentrating on the feel of cold, solid metal biting into my hands. It is real and certain, unlike the swarm and rush of my emotions. They are refusing to take form, to be definite. I want to feel satisfied. I want my mind to tell me that it's ok to hate her now. But there's too much confusion, and I can't pick out a single solid emotional reaction.
Putting this down to the hijacking would be too easy. I have been sheltered here, in my little hospital room. Things have been made simple for me so that they're easier for my damaged brain to consume, like mushing up food for babies. This - the uncertainty and hate and anguish and, if I'm honest, longing - is what being alive really feels like. Complexity is the norm. This is what I remember from my real life, before the hijacking.
By the time the doctors return I am breathing normally again. I have shoved away a panic attack and ignored the temptation to be overtaken by flashbacks that would allow me to simply hate her. Once again, the route to getting better seems to be the most terrifying, confusing one available.
Only doctors come into my room. I know Haymitch was behind the mirror, Katniss as good as told me so. He must have followed her when she ran off. Another stab of confusing emotion, as I recall her words, "We've all been through a lot," And I know I am not the only one for whom the last two years has been traumatic. I wonder if there is a room very like this, in which Katniss has spent more time than she should.
"You did very well, Peeta," is all I'm told. If they have made any breakthroughs from watching me confront my biggest fear, they don't enlighten me about it.
My teeth are grinding again, as my mind goes over our conversation again and again. I look for details I might have missed. I look for ... I don't even know what. As though my mind is searching for proof of something, a feeling from her in one direction or another, but I don't know exactly what I'm hoping to find.
Katniss knows that she's not nice. She didn't even pretend to be. She didn't ask how I was. But she presented herself, because she was told I wanted to see her.
Katniss says everyone has had a rough time. I try to remember her scars from the tapes, try to judge how recently the ones I saw were made. The one on her eyebrow, that was the first Hunger Games. The one on her arm? I can't remember if I've seen it before or not. The aches that made her stoop slightly would be more recent. And now that I try my best to think about it, to remember, I can't tell whether she was covering her stomach with her arms out of self-consciousness, or she was holding something that hurt.
Katniss said she sometimes liked kissing me. Said that everyone says she loves me. It's not an answer. Except that it is, it's her answer, and probably the only one I'm going to get. Everyone says she loved me: the coward's way of saying 'no'.
"I'm tired," I tell the doctors. The slump of my shoulders, the abatement of the adrenaline that has been keeping me going, confirms that this is true. There are no arguments when I manoeuvre to the bed, and pull the blankets up over my head to block out the lights and be left alone with my circling thoughts.