Disclaimer: I do not own The Hunger Games.
No nightmares. It's surprising how much they can affect my whole day. When I wake in the morning, after a night without them, it's unexpectedly freeing. I doubt they'll ever go away for good but I try to make the most of the days when they don't haunt me too much.
While I'm cleaning up after breakfast, I have an idea. "Do you want to go for walk in the woods?" I ask Peeta. It's still early, we've got plenty of time.
"Sure," he says with a smile.
I've never taken him out there before because he would inhibit my hunting, but today I have something else in mind. We leave the Victor's Village together and skirt along the newly rebuilt District Twelve. Even though the population is a mere fraction of what it once was, it's not a dismal place anymore. Perhaps the freedom that we now have makes up for the lack of people. Of course we feel our losses, but it's such a relief that the Peacekeepers are gone and there are no more reapings. There is a kind of hopefulness that everyone seems to share.
We reach the woods and I take Peeta's hand to lead him. We talk a bit about the new shops in town and some of the people with whom I trade meat and Peeta trades his baked goods. Then Haymitch and his geese come up.
After we've been walking for a while, and I've made it clear that we're on a deliberate path, Peeta questions me. "Are we going some place special?" he asks.
Yes. It's very special. I look over at him and nod. "It's a surprise."
As the walk wears on, I begin to feel foolish for not bringing anything. I'd forgotten just how long it takes to reach the lake. But we had a big breakfast, so I didn't feel compelled to bring food, and it's a warm day so I didn't grab towels. Plus, if I'd brought towels I wouldn't have been able to surprise Peeta. Unless I put them in a bag, I suppose…
When we finally get there, the sun is almost directly overhead. "Wow," Peeta says, eyeing the sparkling body of water. "This is where you learned to swim."
I nod, looking out over the lake. "I used to come here with my father when I was younger. We would get waterfowl and dig for katniss roots in the shallows."
"That sounds great."
"It was," I say. "It was a special treat on hot summer Sundays." I look around, remembering those happier times. "I came here a few times after the accident. But it wasn't the same."
I feel Peeta's eyes land on me. "Of course," he says, then seems to hesitate before speaking again. "Did you ever bring anyone with you?"
I know what he's really asking, whether or not I used to come here with Gale. And, though I did meet with Gale once in the nearby shack, I decide that that doesn't count. It was the winter and this was merely the most practical place for he and I to discuss running away from Twelve. It wasn't about showing him the lake.
I turn toward Peeta and smile just a little, then shake my head. "I never wanted to share it with anyone before. I always thought of it as a place that belonged to my father and me."
He smiles and reaches out to wrap his arm around me. "Until now?"
I nod, staring up into his eyes. "You're different," I say. His smile grows and I feel warmth rushing though me. Seeing his reaction causes me to realize just how true those words are. He is different. When I'm with him, I feel different. "And what we -" I pause and clear my throat, then start over. "I mean, this is different from -"
He can see that I'm having a hard time getting this out, so he interrupts me by pressing his lips to mine for a few seconds before pulling back. He understands. He knows that whatever was between Gale and I doesn't even compare to this. "So," Peeta says, averting his eyes from mine to glance over at the lake. "What now?"
I feel myself smiling just a little. "Well, I never did teach you to swim." I think of the tape we watched of the Quell. If I'd really been trying to teach him anything, we should have taken off that floating belt.
He turns toward me again and bites his lip, pretending to be nervous. "Promise you won't let me drown?"
I laugh a little. "I promise. We can stay where it's shallow enough for you to stand." I reach down, gripping the hem of my shirt, and expect him to turn away from me but he doesn't. In fact, his eyes are on my hands and the little bit of skin I've already exposed.
"Are you going to watch?" I ask, more surprised than anything else.
Peeta smiles, then his eyes raise to mine as he says, "Can I?"
He's never said anything like this before. I don't know why I didn't consider this moment, when I decided that this was what we should do today. I probably assumed he would turn away from me automatically, until I was under the water. Now that he's not doing that, I don't know what to do. I consider telling him no, that he can't watch. But why should I? What does it matter if he sees me? My underclothes are no more revealing than what I wound up clad in during the Quell, after the fog deteriorated our clothes. Though he and I weren't alone then.
I give a little nod, then continue to lift up my shirt, and pull it off over my head. There's a white, thin material tank top underneath, which I'm going to leave on to swim. I unzip my pants and slide them down, then step out of them. This shouldn't be a big deal at all, really. And, though I feel a little funny about the way Peeta's eyes travel over me, from my bare legs all the way up until they meet mine, I'm not uncomfortable.
He takes off his own shirt and pants and I see the extent of his scars, which are mostly confined to the left side of his body. The burns extend, in varying degrees of severity, over about a third of his chest and a ways up his neck. I let my eyes drift along them, to where they form little ridges over the side of his stomach, and then disappear beneath his waistband. They look worse than mine and I can feel myself frowning. Or am I just used to mine? It is because these scars are on Peeta that I feel sad at the sight of them? The glint of the sun, hitting his prosthetic leg, catches my eye and I look down at it for a moment. I realize that, though we share a bedroom, I only ever see him in either his clothes or sleeping shirt and pants. I haven't seen his leg or bare torso in a long time.
I realize that I'm staring and when my eyes return to Peeta's wide ones, I feel mortified. I didn't mean to stare at his leg, I just wasn't thinking. I see him swallow and look over at the lake, blushing just a little. He has to know that I don't care about his imperfections. How could I, when I have so many of my own? I step forward abruptly, wrapping my arms around his waist and nestling my head against his chest. I feel his hands on my back and his cheek touch my head and am relieved that I seem to have consoled him. He needs to know that he doesn't ever have to feel self-conscious around me. He can trust me as much as I trust him.
My lips are gently pressing against his skin, just below his shoulder, and I feel him start with surprise. I'm surprised, too. I didn't plan to do that, it was an impulse.
I quickly pull away and look over at the lake, then start to wade in, aware that he's followed me. When we're standing in water up to my shoulders and his chest, I steal a glance at Peeta and see that he's smiling casually. "Ready," he says.
I hardly have to demonstrate how I move my arms while treading water before I see him lift his feet from the bottom and begin floating. Moving through the water is a bit more of a challenge. At first, he can only swim a few feet and has a hard time staying horizontal. But he improves after I demonstrate a little more. He's able to keep himself afloat.
"Good," I say with a nod after I see him stand up again. He smiles and I slowly step through the water and toward him, to push some wet hair back off his forehead. It's a warm enough day, but the sun keeps disappearing behind the clouds, sometimes for minutes at a time, so the water is a bit cool. Peeta feels nice and warm though, so I slide my arms up over his shoulders and wind them around his neck. I feel both of his hands on my lower back, pulling me even closer. I'm nearly weightless, because of the water, and am able to easily stand on my toes so that I can rest my head on his shoulder. I feel his lips on my neck and one of his hands sliding up the back of my shirt. This was a good idea, I feel plenty warm now.
After a couple of minutes, he pulls back enough to look at me. I feel his hand on my face and his thumb gently stroking across my cheek. He smiles sweetly and then says, "I'm ready to try again."
We spend some more time swimming and then, in the late afternoon, decide to be done for the day. We walk out of the lake together and over to our piles of clothes. After a period of attempting to let ourselves drip dry and wring out our underclothes a little bit, we dress and leave for home.
That night, once I've changed into my nightclothes, I go to visit the painting of Prim again. It no longer makes me cry, and I seem to love it more and more each time I come here to look at it. I should thank Peeta again. He obviously spent a lot of time on it, and it was so considerate of him to send it away to be framed.
Peeta must have seen me on his way back to my bedroom from the bathroom, where he always changes into his sleeping clothes. I hear his footsteps in the room and then feel his arm wrap around me. We stare at the picture together for a few seconds and then I glance over at him. He smiles and runs his hand through my hair. It almost seems like he's expecting me to say or do something, but before I can make much sense of the way he's looking at me, he looks back over at the painting of Prim. "I'm not very tired, I might go downstairs and paint," he says casually, then returns his eyes to mine. "I mean, unless…" He lets his voice trail off.
"Oh," I say, surprised. I feel more tired than usual, probably because of our long walk, but am still afraid I won't be able to sleep without him. I quickly realize that whether I ask him to come to bed with me or not is in effect making a choice between letting him lie there unable to sleep, or causing myself to. "Sure, that's fine." My words sound more sincere than they really are.
"Okay," he says, giving my forehead a quick kiss. "I'll be back in a little while."
But it doesn't feel like a little while to me. I lie in my bed for what feels like hours. I try sleeping on my back like I used to, but can't get comfortable. I roll onto my stomach, but that's no good either. I reach up and tap my fingernails against the headboard. What's taking him so long? He must have been able to do a whole painting by now. I don't even feel tired anymore. I glance over at the clock on my nightstand and see that it's only been about hour since I lied down. I continue to try everything I can think of to make myself fall asleep: turning my pillow over to feel the cool side against my neck, counting backward from a thousand, thinking about nothing. But it's impossible to think about nothing, I keep thinking of Peeta. What if something's wrong? What if he had a flashback and hurt himself this time? What if he needs me?
I'm out of my bed and down the stairs in seconds. I let out a little sigh when I reach the living room and see that there's nothing wrong with him. He's sitting in the seat that I gave him to use while painting, when he started keeping his brushes and paints here at my house. Peeta glances over at me and smiles a little. "Can't sleep?"
I shake my head and walk over to stand beside him. He's painting a picture of the lake. It's not finished, but what he's done is lovely. The sun is muted behind some clouds and faint rays of light glint off the water. "It's beautiful," I say, as we both look at the picture.
Peeta glances over at me and is still smiling as he says, "I didn't want to forget it."
"We can go back sometime," I say quickly, but then realize that he probably means he doesn't want to forget exactly how it looked today, the first time I brought him there.
He nods and gives a little shrug, then sets down his brush and turns so that he's facing me. When Peeta's sitting in this seat, and I'm standing, I'm just a bit taller than he is. His blue eyes are a little heavy lidded and I feel surprised that he's stayed down here this long. I step closer to him, reaching out to cup one hand over his jaw while the other slides around the back of his neck and up into his hair. Both of his hands wrap around my waist and I feel his thumbs moving back and forth across the fabric of my shirt that covers my stomach.
I can't believe how much I missed him just now while I was trying to fall asleep. I think of how I raced down here, afraid that something had happened to him, and remind myself that I don't have to be afraid for him anymore. He's here and he's going to stay. I get to keep him… always.
I lean forward, seeing his eyes fall shut just before mine do. I only meant to press my lips to his for a second, but quickly change my mind. A second isn't nearly enough. I'm vaguely aware of a quickening of my heartbeat, but it's hard to think about anything except for him. His arms wrap around me, pulling my body against his and I start to feel that warm and curious stirring in my chest, like I did during that kiss in the cave.
I gently pull back, nervous about what it means, but then when I look into his eyes again, I feel calm. It's just Peeta, who loves me and always will. It's okay to let myself feel that way, because I trust him. I want to kiss him again, but not here. I let my hands slide down, so that they're resting on his shoulders. "Come to bed," I say.
Peeta nods quickly, releasing me. "I'll be right there," he says, turning to put his paints away. I walk briskly to the doorway, glad to have a moment alone while I make my way upstairs. To combat my nerves, I tell myself that when he joins me in the bedroom, I can just lie my head on his chest and go to sleep. That was what I wanted him for in the first place, before I went downstairs. But when I sit down on my bed in the dark room, I realize that I'm not tired anymore. In fact, all I can think of is kissing him again.
I slide beneath the covers and see his silhouette enter the room. He closes the door behind him and then lies down next to me on his side, firmly pressing his lips into mine again. The feeling that he gives me is back almost instantly. Originating in my chest and then spreading out like it did on the beach in the Quell. But now, with no wounds or lightning to interrupt us, it intensifies even more. Increasing and extending through my whole body until all I can think of, all I know is this feeling. It's the only thing that seems to matter and I can't get enough of it, or of Peeta.
My arms are tight around him as we lie side by side. Firmly, insistently, I pull him with me when I lean onto my back. It seems like we kiss forever, but eventually things start to change. My eyes have adjusted to the darkness by the time he gently pulls his mouth from mine, and his expression is one that I don't think I've ever seen on him before. It's now that I realize I've wrapped my legs around him tightly.
"You want this?" he asks.
His eyes widen, and I can only imagine what this moment must mean for him. But he doesn't seem nervous at all, not the way I am. Of course, the other things I feel are more important, but I can't help being a little uneasy, and I can't help wondering…
"I've never," I tell him. He must know that I don't have any experience with this, but I really only brought it up to hear his response.
"Neither have I," he assures me, running his fingers along my cheek and staring into my eyes. It's a relief to hear this, though I ought to have known. When you love someone as much as he loves me, there just isn't room for anyone else. I understand that now.
He gives me another kiss on the lips and then leans back away, almost sitting up, and I feel his hands slide along the bare skin that's exposed where my shirt is hiked up. He pushes the shirt up farther, until my whole stomach is showing, then I feel his lips on me, kissing all over. I love the way it feels but can't help thinking that this is taking too long. The feeling he gives me hasn't faded. I reach down to cup his face in my hands and I whisper, "Please."
My single word of encouragement must mean a lot to him, because I can hardly believe how quickly things start to happen now.
After, he lies on his back, my head and both hands rest on his chest and his arms are tight around me. I listen to his heart beating and feel his lips brushing against my hair.
It's now that I realize just how right Gale was when he said I would choose the person I can't survive without. Even though I didn't exactly choose Peeta, I know that I would have. I remember when he told me that mockingjays need wings to survive, but I'm not a mockingjay; not anymore. He's what I need to survive. He's made things better since we came home. Peeta is my reminder that life can go on and that it can be good again.
"I love you," he says softly, then tilts my face up so we're eye to eye. "I'll always love you."
And I love him. I don't know how long the love has been there, but it must have been present for some time. I'm used to it already, like I'm used to him. I open my mouth, trying to form words that will return his sentiments, but he can't wait. He's waited long enough. He whispers, "You love me. Real or not real?"
As usual, he wants to make things easier for me. I smile, amused by his use of that game at a time like this. Then, without hesitation and without any doubts, I tell him, "Real."
A/N: Thanks for reading!