Real Or Not Real

From Mockingjay, Peeta's Real Or Not Real game and the events before/after that. From his perspective, how he struggles to deal with his hijacking and his feelings for Katniss.

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1. Real Or Not Real

Over and over, I knot the same piece of rope Finnick gave me. I twist it around and around, trying to form knots until my fingers feel sore. Pushing Leeg 1’s soft sobs out of my mind, I recreate knots I remember from training and some that Finnick tried to teach me so I don’t have to sort through the memories, both tampered and real. My sleeping bag is pulled up around my chest to combat the chill of the night.

At midnight, Katniss appears from her tent but never volunteers to speak. The soldiers’ snores fill the empty atmosphere around us. Jackson sits by the heater, cleaning her gun.

I consider how Katniss looks, her hair is ruffled with unsettled sleep but her grey eyes strike me first. They are filled with conflict and sadness. I feel a need to comfort her, maybe the instincts of the Peeta that loved her still linger within me. She looks more like a woman than girl that was reaped. She’s only a year older but seventeen seems to make her more adult, perhaps because of all of weight she has to bear on her shoulders. I think she’s lost the little girl I threw the bread to in the two Games. And suddenly, I feel a slight sympathy for her.

I’d overheard those debates that were attempting to decide whether I should be killed or be used as some sort of torture tour guide of the Capitol. Katniss has been debating my death since that first reaping in District 12. The day she finally knew I existed and she began her long battle with her inner huntress. To kill me or not to kill me, her only reason against it was the shame she’d have faced back home and the confession of love I had made.

“These last couple of years must have been exhausting for you. Trying to decide whether to kill me or not. Back and forth. Back and forth.”

I watch as the comment I’ve just made sinks through her fully guarded defence. She bites her tongue to prevent the retaliation I’m sure she’s formulating in her head.

“I never wanted to kill you. Except when I thought you were helping the Careers kill me. After that, I always thought of you as...an ally,” she says, her words carefully and strategically picked so they don’t force her to commit to any emotions.

“Ally.” I say slowly, I try to pick the word apart before adding it to the list of words I’d gathered to describe Katniss. “Friend. Lover. Victor. Enemy. Fiancée. Target. Mutt. Neighbour. Hunter. Tribute. Ally. I'll add it to the list of words I use to try to figure you out.”

I continue wrapping the length of rope around my fingers. I want to do something to distract myself, not only from this awkward atmosphere Katniss is trying so hard to diffuse, but so I don’t have to think about whether I truly hate her or whether it’s just what Snow has told me.

Her face remains solid throughout what I’ve said, and not a single word affects her. It’s as if she tries to not give me a reaction of any kind.

“The problem is, I can't tell what's real anymore, and what's made up,” I add.

People must give up trying to sleep as the only sounds left are those of homesick soldiers trying to keep up the act of being tough. I’ve heard Boggs talking to the picture of his wife and kid before he sleeps. Finnick sings to himself when he misses Annie. Gale sits as still as stone when anybody mentions his family. Everybody has these strange ways of coping just like Katniss has her expressionless stares.

Finnick, I knew he wouldn’t have gone to sleep because I have the rope he knots, pipes up from the darkness that surrounds the camp. “Then you should ask, Peeta. That’s what Annie does.”

I consider Finnick’s suggestion but come up short. I can’t recall who my allies, as Katniss puts it, are and who the enemies are. “Ask who? Who can I trust?”

Jackson looks up from her gun. “Well, us for starters. We’re your squad.”

The darkness probably conceals my questioning look.

“You’re my guards,” I point out.

“That, too,” she says. Her eyes drop to the floor as she adds. “But you saved a lot of lives in Thirteen. It's not the kind of thing we forget.”

We dip into silence as Katniss’ face fills with anguish. I watch her and wonder what she’s thinking. I wonder what they’re all thinking. Knowing they want me dead, I wonder why one of them hasn’t killed me while the rest of the squad sleeps. I saved lives in District 13 when I still knew vaguely what was real, when I knew that there was hope that Katniss and I could survive to salvage the friendship we’d agreed to have on the train. But now, between watching Katniss and Gale, with their conversations in each other’s ears and the way he can bring out that smile of hers, I cannot fathom where I stand in Katniss’ life apart from somewhere between “kill him” and “care for him” because I’m broken. And Katniss has a weakness for protecting those who are broken.

I consider all the things I can recall about the girl I’ve apparently been hopelessly in love with since I was five. She’s stubborn, secretive and I’ve wanted to wrap my hands around her neck since the moment I arrived back from the Capitol. It comes in murderous waves and most of the time, I can fight them. She can hunt, she has a sister called Primrose whom she adores and she can create magic with a bow and sheath of arrows. The forest is her true home, there her grey eyes trust the surroundings and she feels free. I picture the green of the forest from our first Hunger Games. But all of this, all of it is tampered with. I know nothing about myself or Katniss that constitutes us ever pretending to be in love.

“Your favourite colour… it’s green?” I say as I think about it.

“That’s right,” she says back and she looks surprised I have remembered. “And yours is orange.”

“Orange?”

I crease my face at the thought, the garish orange of a woman’s wig comes into mind but I can’t recall who she is.

Katniss tilts her head. “Not bright orange. But soft. Like the sunset. At least, that’s what you told me once.”

I don’t understand why she says the last half. It’s like she feels she must prove to me I once trusted her to know the shade of my favourite colour. Once upon a time, I trusted her to save my life.

“Oh,” I say, closing my eyes to picture last night’s sunset. She’s right. Sunset orange is my favourite colour. It’s the colour of hope, of second chances, and of a long day drawing to a close. “Thank you.”

I expect her to sit in silence again because Jackson is waking the new guards to watch me but she surprises me.

“You're a painter. You're a baker. You like to sleep with the windows open. You never take sugar in your tea. And you always double-knot your shoelaces,” her voice catches before she can stop it. The words appear to flow out of her mouth like a river that has just broken the dam.

She covers her mouth with her hand as if she can stop the sobs and moves back into her tent to stay there for the night.

In the morning, I watch Katniss, Gale and Finnick leave with the camera crew to film scenes to make them look fierce. No amount of propos could scare Snow; he simply hurts people instead of worrying about the Mockingjay and her special squad.

The soldiers sit around me in a circle, their guns waiting by their feet and they watch me.

Jackson lifts her head up and smiles to herself. “You said you cannot devise what’s real and what isn’t last night, Peeta. I think Finnick is right, you should ask. You say something you aren’t sure about or think happened, we’ll answer to the best of our abilities. We’ll call it “Real or Not Real”.  We can play it any time you want.”

I nod, still fiddling with the rope.

“Start with anything,” Jackson encourages.

“Your name is Issamay,” I say, frowning at the knot I’ve made. “I overheard that man in Thirteen call you Issamay.”

Jackson takes a deep breath, lifting her chin up higher. “That’s right. My husband refuses to call me anything but Issamay.”

By the time I can think of anything more to ask, the three most familiar faces return. When they join the circle, I want to make a sarcastic comment about roasting marshmallows over the heater and singing traditional songs but I know that nobody will find it amusing.

I finally say the statement I worry most about being true.

“Most of the people in Twelve were killed in the fire.”

Jackson nods regretfully. “Real. Less than nine hundred of you made it to Thirteen alive.”

I think about the people I believe to be my family. I recall my mother being stiff and heartless. She was never content, that woman. My father, however, was a man I aspired to be like. My brothers too.

“The fire was my fault,” I say in frustration, pulling the knot open to start again.

“Not real,” Jackson says softly. “President Snow destroyed Twelve the way he did Thirteen, to send a message to the rebels.”

The game continues day and night because there’s always a familiar face. Katniss, Gale and Finnick take turns so one is always on hand to give me answers to things the District 13 soldiers can’t. My mind stumbles over small details with Gale about 12, Finnick discusses my two Games with me, but Katniss is the only person who can tell me about us. I know she finds it hard to form the words because they are either too painful or she fears them being too clumsily strung together.

One night, her usual shift of midnight until four, she sits on the camp stool and watches me intensely. I ask her for details that shouldn’t matter but they do to me. I want to know if her dress in District 7 was a pale caramel, if she does prefer the cheese buns I made her in 12, if our math teacher was called Mrs Croxley. I want to piece my life back together and Katniss is the largest part of the puzzle.

I know she doesn’t believe my memory will ever return but I want to try my hardest.

At four, Finnick replaces her and sits closer to me because he doesn’t treat me like I’m a ticking time bomb. I think he believes I’m lost in my own mind. Maybe he’s right.

“Enjoyed your time with Katniss?” he asks. “Did you find out much?”

“She likes cheese buns,” I say, pulling the sleeping bag back up to my chest.

Finnick nods. “That’s a good piece of information.”

I know he’s just humouring me because nobody cares if she likes cheese buns or whether she doesn’t.

“Finnick, did she ever love me?”

He looks up at me, frowning. “Why are you asking me that? You just had a full four hour opportunity to ask her.”

“She would dance around the question and asking Gale wouldn’t be advisable.”

Finnick smirks. “No. You’re right.”

He pauses for a moment, bunching the front of his sleeping bag in his hands in the absence of his rope.

“I think she did,” he says, “in my opinion at least. I think she realised in the Quell that she did love you. When you hit that force field, I thought she was about to crumble and ruin the rebel movement. I remember the way she was screaming at you, calling your name and shaking you to wake up. That was her sudden realisation she felt something, but you’d have to ask her.”

I consider whether she could have ever loved me. Katniss Everdeen is incapable of emotions because they make her vulnerable. She tries to reduce the weaknesses in her defences. Everybody she loves creates a chink in her armour.

“There was a baby,” I say before I truly think about what I’ve said. “Why do I remember a baby?”

Finnick sits uneasy for a moment. “That wasn’t real. It was a stunt before the Quell, Peeta. You confessed you had married Katniss and she was expecting a baby to test the Capitol audiences. You wanted to cause rebellion and see if they could stop the Games. There was no baby, never was.”

I fold the rope and place it in my lap. “Are you sure?”

He looks at me with sympathy. “Peeta, I’m sorry.”

I shake my head to dissolve the flashes of the Capitol audiences, their sighing and gasps filling my mind. A man stood with me, trying to calm the audience after the revelation. There never was the baby I’d told them about. I could see that now. I remembered the Games, using it to gain sponsors and sympathy as Katniss and I argued over who deserved to survive. I gave her a gift, something I’d found in the arena.

“I see her sometimes with a pearl; she stares at it like it holds the answers to everything.”

“She carries it with her wherever she is. It reminds her of her Peeta. The one she loved.”

He pauses. “You gave it to her, Peeta. It holds memories, not answers. Simple memories she needs to cling onto to stay strong.”

For the rest of our time, Finnick tells me about how he met Annie and when he realised he was in love with her. I don’t stop him because he’s only happy when he talks about Annie now.

The next day, they’ve finally realised I was right about Coin and Plutarch not being happy with the material they’ve been getting for the propos. They’ve chosen a block with fewer pods to trigger. Boggs, surprisingly, gives me back my gun even though he warns me it’s filled with nothing but blanks. But this isn’t what I’m interested in, it’s Pollux because he reminds me of Darius and Lavinia.

Everybody notices my curiosity of him.

“You're an Avox, aren't you? I can tell by the way you swallow. There were two Avoxes with me in prison. Darius and Lavinia, but the guards mostly called them the redheads. They'd been our servants in the Training Centre, so they arrested them, too. I watched them being tortured to death. She was lucky. They used too much voltage and her heart stopped right off. It took days to finish him off. Beating, cutting off parts. They kept asking him questions, but he couldn't speak, he just made these horrible animal sounds. They didn't want information, you know? They wanted me to see it.”

I cannot contain the horrors I saw in the Capitol. The blood, screams, and deaths all stamped into my mind and would remain there until I was in a coffin.

Nobody replies to me which causes me concern.

“Real or not real?” I ask. My temper rises as I remember the pain. “Real or not real?!”

“Real,” Boggs says. “At least to the best of my knowledge…real.”

Part of me is glad that it wasn’t a lie that I had created for myself. “I thought so. There was nothing…shiny about it.”

I move away from them, knowing Gale would move in and comfort Katniss. I still wasn’t sure about how to feel. I contemplate my conflicting thoughts when they force me to proceed with them. I think I love her, I think I hate her. I repeat it over and over in my mind. Love. Hate. Aren’t they the same thing?

A spray of gun fire awakens me from the depths of my mind. The Hunger Games flood back in waves that drown me. I’m back in the arena. Everybody is a danger, an enemy. I stand frantically trying to get my head above the memories as I watch deaths of tributes, of people back in District 12, of people I don’t know. My mind can’t focus on the squad who are filming the half-hearted reactions to the bullets.

The dead, they surround me, unforgiving and full of hatred because I survived.

I survived.

Two bombs shatter my thoughts, black oil spills into the street, and gunfire create chaos around me.

I see a girl with her hair in a braid and I need to kill her. I need to get home to 12. Grabbing her, I drag her to slam her down onto the pastel street. My gun is above my head, really to crush her skull. Fuelled by hatred, it comes down with all of the force I can offer when it cracks into the cobbles.

She moved.

I find and lock eyes onto her. Mitchell challenges me after seeing the gun. He attempts to pin me to the ground but I push him off as the squad pile onto me.

I fight against them in blind panic but when they shut me away, I give up. My imaginary Katniss taunts me until it goes black.

I wake up to hear it.

“The Mockingjay is dead,” says a news reporter on television. “The rebel squad has been obliterated during an attack on the Capitol. Gale Hawthorne, Finnick Odair, Casper Boggs, Peeta Mellark, Cressida Belfair and Katniss Everdeen are amongst the dead.”

“So, now that we’re dead, what’s our next move?” asks Gale.

I murdered Mitchell.

Katniss hates me.

Why live?

Nobody knows I am conscious until I speak.

“Isn’t it obvious?” My eyes find Gale; I know he’d do it in a heartbeat. “Our next move…is to kill me."

 

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