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Learning to Swim

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1. “You’re not very big, are you? Or particularly pretty?”

 

Those words haunt me. I can never take them back. So I dig another hole in the gray earth outside her house. It’s not the same gray as her eyes. That’s a different gray, almost silver. I haven’t seen her since I got back and I know. I know I should wait for her to come to me, as Dr. Aurelius said. He’s right, but I want to see her. I love her. Real or not real? I push down hard on the shovel with my good leg and I can feel how
weak I still am. In better days I would have been dug all five holes in the time it is taking me to dig this one.

“Real,” I say. All those things are real.

She comes flying out of her house. I can tell she’s just had a nightmare. Her eyelids are heavy and her pupils are enormous. I know that half asleep horror on her face all too well.

I take a good hard look at her and I grip the shovel to keep myself from reaching for her because she looks like hell and it’s true. She’s not very big, but I was wrong. The tracker jacker venom blinded me. She is beautiful, even with her hair all snarled and sleep crusting the corners of her eyes. Nothing they could do to her in the Capitol could make her more beautiful, because what I love is her tenacious hold on life, her fierce earnestness, her purity of purpose. Though if I am being honest I love her eyes, her slightly pointed nose, and her little bow of a mouth, which is very chapped.

“I went to the woods this morning and dug these up. For her. I thought we could plant them along the side of the house.”

I go back to digging and wonder why she looks so horrified by my offering. She stares at the primroses as if she wants to set them on fire with her mind. Then she nods and hurries off. Maybe my gesture was too on the nose, but she doesn’t know about the conversations I had with Prim while she was away in District 2. She doesn’t know that I wanted Prim to be my sister too.
The doctors had worried about Prim setting me off, but she was so calm I felt better around her. It was her idea to let me make Annie and Finnick’s wedding cake.

The funny thing about Prim was that she was nothing like Katniss, except every now and then a stubborn look would cross her face and it was so clear they were sisters. Prim had my coloring and it was almost like looking into the face of the child Katniss and I might have someday. Real or not real? Who knows?

Prim told me what it was like after the reaping. My father brought her bread and cookies and even watched some of the broadcasts with Prim and her mother. She was saying that she was certain I was on Katniss’ side the whole time.

“Real or not real?” I ask the primroses, but they cannot answer. I planted them for myself as much as I planted them for Katniss, or Prim. I’m still trying to come to terms with strangling Katniss. I did that with my own hands. Everyone says it wasn’t my fault, but they were my hands and propelled by my fear and anger.

I don’t feel any better once the primroses are planted. I haven’t been back to the spot where the bakery should be. I can’t face it. Yet. I need to have a plan. Planting flowers there won’t work. Perhaps I should bake some bread and crumble it over the spot. No, that’s ridiculous. Maybe there is nothing I can do for them. My father, my brothers, and my dear mother. I don’t miss them nearly as much I should.

 

2. “We seal the pages with salt water and promises to live well and make their deaths count.”

 

Peeta and I have eaten breakfast and dinner together every day for months. We work on the book about the Tributes in the evenings. He tells me what he did while I was out hunting. Every day he grows stronger and more muscular. Sometimes I can’t help but stare at his arms and the fine down of golden hairs, until he catches me and then I blush. He smiles. I don’t care. I just like to watch his muscles moving under his fair skin as he paints or sketches. It’s like watching magic. Not only the art he creates, but also that he is alive to do it. Neither of us should be alive. Sometimes I am not sure I really am until I lock eyes with him and then I know I am very much here and alive.

He’s decided to build a new bakery in a different place than the old one. He has hired Delly and is teaching her how to make cookies, how to make bread. Every evening he has a new funny story about something she said. I have nothing to offer him in return. I go to the woods. I wait. I walk. I shoot something and bring it to Greasy Sae. We eat my kills. It’s the only nourishment I can offer him. He always was better with people and with words than I am.

Sometimes I want his arms around me. I want to lean against him and listen to his heartbeat. I want to smell his skin. But he keeps his hands to himself and I don’t know how to reach for him. I can’t make my arms do it. They hang at my sides like traitors and the air is thick with what we can’t express.

He is painting Rue wreathed in flowers and me singing. He’s made me prettier than I am, not in the glamorous Capitol way. I look so alive in his painting. I would like to feel like that again, even the anguish I felt then, would be better than this all pervading numbness. When I don’t say anything about the painting, he understands the blank look that must be on my face.

“It’ll go away eventually, Katniss. When you’re ready to feel again, you will.”

Buttercup jumps onto the table and butts his head against Peeta’s arm until he scratches the cat behind his ears. The cat blinks at me. I blink back. I can manage that much. I can say, “I am not your enemy. If I close my eyes, I know you will not attack me. I am safe.”

Safe? I know what people can do. Can be. I am never safe. No one is ever safe. We have peace in Panem now. But I do not have peace. I miss my sister like she was an internal organ I can’t function without. I feel hollow.

My mother telephones every few days and she talks. I listen. She has much to tell me about her work. I have no work. I need something to do.
Peeta has taken on a second trainee at the bakery and we are sitting with Haymitch, who is describing a girl he mentored called Helen and right then I think of something I can do. I can teach archery. I can teach people not to be afraid of the woods. I can teach people to swim in my pond.
I grab Peeta’s arm in my excitement and he ruins the painting he is working on by drawing a great rosy slash across the girl’s face.

“I’m so sorry,” I say.

Peeta just smiles and holds my hand. I tell him my idea and he says I’ll be a good teacher. I feel fizzy and full of energy.
Our schools haven’t been set up yet so my pupils are children. I get two girls and one lanky boy, who reminds me so much of Gale when I first met him. It’s easier to think about Gale now, than it was at first, but it still smarts. I miss him.

I teach my little group basic tracking and survival skills. I teach them to respect nature and when to fear it. When the weather turns warm I teach them to swim in my pond. I have to order swimsuits for them from a catalog. It is very strange to call someone on the telephone and ask from something and then for it to show up at your door, but I am pleased when four swimsuits arrive. The children are ecstatic over them and I realize that this might be the first time they have an article of clothing that is new. I make a mental note to make sure they all have good boots this winter.

At last I have stories to tell Peeta too. Sometimes we get very little work done on the book because I am too busy telling him how Ruby learned to do a hand stand under water and Owen is overcoming his fear of putting his head under.

And I can reach across the gulf and take Peeta’s hand. It’s easy now. It’s comfortable. I know he wants more and he is patiently waiting for me, but this is progress.

By the start of August I have six students ranging in age from eight to sixteen. In the evening I study catalogs and decide that instead of ordering bows and arrows I will teach the students to make them. It’s good to know how to make things from whatever is at hand. I think Prim would approve. I wonder if she would take swimming lessons, but then I realize that if she’d survived she’d be off studying medicine somewhere and training to be a doctor. I’m angry that she did not get a chance to do that. I make Peeta leave early and go to bed and put the covers over my head. I can feel the warm weight of the cat on my feet. Prim would laugh if she could see us, but she can’t. I don’t sleep that night.

I try not to be short with my students the next day. Peeta surprises us by bringing us warm cheese rolls and cold chicken and the iced orange cookies I like. He has never been in these woods with me before and I am surprised that he doesn’t look out of place. He sits and watches me as I walk among my students and offer help here and there as they work at their bows. I tell them they may need to make several before they can make a good one.

“You’re good at this,” he says and smiles. “So why don’t you teach me?”

“You want to make a bow?” I’m confused.

“No. I want to learn to swim.” He stands up and strips off his shirt and pants. He has navy blue swimming trunks on. He must have ordered them from one of my catalogs. The children stare at his prosthetic leg. They all know how he got it. It occurs to me that they’ve seen a lot of both of us.

They never ask me about the Games though. They have that much sense.

I look at Peeta and I see the burn scars and the prosthetic leg, but I also see his broad chest and strong arms and feel like someone has filled me with boiling water.

“What?” He looks down at his leg.

“Can you get that wet?” I say to cover my ogling.

“I can, yeah.” He reaches into his bag and pulls out a flipper and attaches it over his fake foot. He grins.

My students spend as much time teaching Peeta to swim as I do. The pond is a little small for six kids and Peeta, but they are having a blast. After the first lesson I mention that the pond is too small, but to Peeta alone.

“So, you don’t want me to come back?” He looks hurt.

“No, I think you should have private lessons,” I say. “Meet me tomorrow at dawn?”

“Anytime. Anywhere.” He pulls his shirt on and I hope he will lean down and kiss me, but he doesn’t. He just gives me an intense look that sets me on fire in a way I have never felt before. It’s not the spreading warmth I felt on the beach in the Quarter Quell; it’s a crackling blaze in my belly.

 

3. “There are no more Hunger Games… “

 

In the morning Greasy Sae is just starting the fire in the kitchen when I tell her that Katniss and I will be back in an hour for breakfast. She winks at me and I have to stifle a laugh. I have on my swim trunks and shirt. We walk in silence to the pond and I can tell she feels shy taking off her shirt and pants in front of me, even though she has a swimsuit on underneath. She keeps her eyes carefully on the ground as if that could somehow make her invisible. I like her suit. It’s the color of a tangerine. Her flesh is gloriously tanned from being outside so much this summer. My fingers twitch.

“I thought green was your favorite color.” She knows I’m teasing her. We both know orange is mine. I take off my shirt and fold it neatly and set it on top of her untidy pile. I can’t help looking at her, even if I can’t touch her, though I ache to. Her legs are strong looking and so pretty. She’s small, but perfectly made. Her scars do not make her less beautiful, because I know what they cost her and what she’s survived. Sometimes I feel drunk on looking at her.

We wade into the cool water. The air is not hot yet, but it’s pleasant. This pond, ringed with ferns, is nothing like the arena in the Quarter Quell. I feel safe here, more or less. I feel safe with her.

“So what do I do first?” I ask.

“Float,” she says. Her shyness is retreating in the face of a task. She has me lie on my back in the water and I start to sink right away. She puts her hands under me and I let go. The pale blue of the sky is deepening to a hot cornflower blue. She talks to me about buoyancy and breathing, but my ears are full of water and I am focused on the feel of her hands on my back, one between my shoulder blades and the other just above the waistband of my trunks. It takes all my will to keep from grabbing her and kissing every part of her. Holding back is painful, but I know one wrong move with set things back even further. And I have to wait for her to come to me.

“Peeta? Can you hear me?”

“Sorry, water in my ears.” I stand up.

“Want to try dead man’s float?” She demonstrates floating facedown in the water and without thinking I grab her and pull her up because she does look dead floating face down.

“Peeta!” She shrinks away from me.

“Sorry.” I hold my hands up palms out to express that I won’t do it again.

She gestures that it is my turn. I take a deep breath and lie down on the water, which is a weird thing to do. I start to sink again and her arms go under me and I am leaning against her torso, which makes me dizzy and I inhale some water and come up spluttering. She laughs at me. I laugh at myself. She makes me do breathing exercises for the rest of the hour. I put my face in the water and breathe out, turn my face out of the water and breathe in.

Then I watching her dive under water and swim to the edge. She’s like a fish, an emotionally damaged fish.
We repeat these exercises morning after morning. As I get better and stronger she lays her hands on me less. I would be tempted to pretend drowning if I didn’t know she would see right through my ploy. The thought of her pressing her whole body against mine and breathing into my mouth? Makes me inhale water as I practice my untidy crawl across the surface of the water.

“You all right?” she’s treading water.

I nod and wipe my streaming eyes. “We’re not all fish like you.” This earns me a smile and she disappears beneath the water. I don’t know if she does it on purpose or it’s a mistake, but she swims straight for my legs. Then she pulls me under. She wants to play.
I grab her up and launch out of the water and throw her as high as I can. She shrieks with glee. She rushes at me and tries to lift me, which she can do in the water, but she can only heave me a few inches.

“Come on,” she says and we dry off and dress and go to breakfast in high spirits.

The next morning it’s raining great heavy drops and we drink hot tea and glare at the windows. I am elated that she seems just as disappointed to miss our swimming lesson.

She doesn’t know what to do with herself when she is stuck in doors all day. When I suggest we go for a walk in the rain she is almost out the door before saying, yes. I don’t need to be at the bakery until later thanks to Delly and Will.

Katniss slips her hand into mine and we walk way out into the woods. We’ve both grown so much stronger that we can do this. We walk in silence until we are soaked. I assume she knows where she is going, not that I wouldn’t follow her anywhere. She takes me to a small hut and inside it is mostly dry. There is a fireplace and a stack of dry woods, which she coaxes into a good fire. She strips off her outer layers and hangs them to dry. My tongue is glued to the roof of my mouth. My heart beat races out of control and everything in the room grows shiny.

“No.” I back away from her. I close my eyes tightly and crouch onto the ground.

“Are you all right? Peeta?” She doesn’t touch me because she knows what’s happening.

The bad spell passes and she says I look pale. She helps me take off my cold, wet, clothing and we sit near, but not touching until our clothes are dry.

I wonder desperately what would have happened if I hadn’t had a venom flashback. There was something different about her expression and the way she removed her clothing in front of me. Damn Snow and what he did to me.

We walk home without speaking. I feel farther from her than ever. I’m beginning to doubt Dr. Aurelius’s advice to let her come to me, but I know that is only selfishness on my part. My frustration is so deep I could swim in it.

 

4. “You love me. Real or not real?”

 

A mix of nightmares and dreams about Peeta that leave me aching and raw disturb my sleep. I had planned to kiss him in the hut yesterday, but he had a venom attack and I worry that it was my fault. The weather is fine today and I hope I can get up the nerve to try again. I find myself staring at his lips much too often. I walk around dazed and thinking about nothing except Peeta’s arms and lips and eyes.
I know what I want, but I am still afraid of something ruining it, of losing him. Anything could happen. I get out of bed and slip on my swimsuit. It’s comfortable enough, but I miss swimming naked. I imagine swimming naked with Peeta and I have to sit back down on the edge of my bed. My heart is thrumming and I slip off my suit and put it back in its place. I get dressed and go downstairs to meet Peeta. My face is burning.
“Do you feel all right?” He looks worried.

“I’m fine.” I try to smile, but I am too conscious of having nothing on underneath my clothes.

I can’t follow anything he says on the way to the pond. The buzzing of my nerves blots him out. At the edge of the pond he strips off his shirt and my breath catches.

“I--um, forgot my suit.”

“You what?” He stands up from slipping the flipper onto his foot.

I gather all my courage and walk up to him and place my hands on his chest. I make myself look into his eyes and I say as clearly as I can through my heavy breaths, “I forgot my swimsuit.”

“So just swim in your underwear,” he says. Not getting it.

“No. I forgot it.” I say and I reach up and touch his cheek and lean towards him. At last it clicks for him. He smiles and bends to me. I kiss him until I feel like I can’t stand up. I pull away and he looks disappointed.

“Turn around,” I tell him. He sighs, but does it.

I shuck off my clothes and run into the water. It’s good to be just myself in the water. I tell him he can turn around. He shakes his head at me and takes off his trunks. He wants me to see him so I watch for a moment and then I dive under the water because it is too much.

He swims to me and scoops me up and throws me. We wrestle and laugh and then I put my arms around his neck and I plant a little line of kisses on his cool, wet flesh from his ear to his shoulder. I kiss the spot over his heart. I kiss his scars and I swim around him and kiss his back and his neck.

“You love me. Real or not real?” he says.

I kiss his shoulder. I feel shy answering.

He pulls me in front of him and holds my face in both his hands and asks again. He looks for the answer in my eyes. I owe him this truth. I owe it to myself too.

“Real,” I say keeping my eyes focused on his.

“I love you too,” he says and he devours me with kisses and I realize he’s been holding back until now. The floodgate is open and he crushes me against him and I still feel too far away. His hands travel down my back and brush over my bottom, which makes me giggle through my kisses.
Peeta kisses my earlobe, my neck, my shoulder, my collarbone and he keeps going lower until he reaches my breast. He stops and asks me if I am OK. I nod because there is no word that can express how OK I am.

I watch as he takes my nipple between his red lips and I thought I was on fire before, but that was just the kindling going up. This is a blaze between my thighs, racing up my torso, licking my ears and lips. He moves to my other breast and I realize I am panting and making funny little noises. I hope no one is out in the woods this morning.

He pulls away and smiles at what must be a look of disappointment on my face.

“I don’t want to rush this,” he says. “I don’t want to rush you.”

“I want to,” I say and reach to pull him back against me.

He catches my hands and threads his fingers through mine. “I’ve waited a long time for this and I want it to be right. I just don’t think you’re ready.”

I shake my head. He sighs and says I will be. Eventually. He dries off and puts his clothes back on. I ask him to turn his back again so I can get out of the water. He rolls his eyes, but does it.

 

 

5. “Peeta and I grow back together.”

 

It’s too cold for swimming so we walk in the woods in the mornings. Peeta holds my cold hand in his warm one. I run to him and kiss him whenever I see him. Occasionally our kisses turn fevered and our hands wander, but I still don’t understand what he wants me to say or do and things do not progress any further. This is almost worse than almost dying of dehydration in the first Games and trying to puzzle out Haymitch’s logic.

Peeta and I both start to develop dark circles under our eyes and Haymitch accuses us of using morphling.

“No, it’s just love,” Peeta says. Haymitch laughs and tells me not to wear the poor boy out. I am so angry I storm off to my room.

Haymitch yells an apology up the stairs and I hear Peeta coming up. He taps on my door.

“What?” I snap.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “May I come in?”

I say nothing so he opens the door and leans in the doorway. I am sitting on my bed tying knots with a length of rope. I am sure Finnick would have some advice about this situation and I miss him. I block out the memory of the mutts ripping open his throat.

“What do you want from me, Katniss?” He sounds weary.

“I want you,” I say.

“What does that mean?”

“I love you,” I say. Hoping that is the right answer.

It must not be because he doesn’t move from the doorway.

“I want you,” I say again and tie a bowline and throw the knot down. I get up and walk to the door and lead him into my room. I pull him down on my
bed. I take my hair out of its braid and shake it out around my shoulders. “I want this. You want this. What is the problem?”

He kisses me and then sits on the edge of my bed. “I need you to trust me. I need you to be able to take off your clothes in front of me. I need you to be able to talk about sex. And I need you to see me. If you want me, you have to want all of me.”

“Oh,” I flush. I understand. I’ve been so stupid.

I take a deep breath and sit up on my knees and lean toward him. I slip my shirt over my head and I fight the urge to cover myself up with my arms. I let him look at me and the smoldering look in his eyes makes it totally worth it. I’m scrawny and scarred, but he seems not to mind. I unbutton my trousers and slip them off so that I am in nothing but my white underpants. I can barely look at him and I want to hide, but I don’t.

“You’re so lovely,” he says and I reach for his hand and hook his fingers through the edge of my underpants and make him draw them off with my help. He looks drugged, hypnotized and I find myself pleased. It is so strange to be with him and to have no clothing on, but I like it. My lips are trembling. I pull his shirt over his head. I kiss the spot over his heart and lick each of his nipples the way he did mine. He giggles.

“I don’t think that works the same way for me as it does for you,” he says.

“Really? Is that a guy thing or a you thing?” I find I am very curious.

“I think it’s an individual thing. Some people are very sensitive and some aren’t,” he says.

“How do you know?”

“I had older brothers, Katniss.” He gives me a look like I’m a simpleton.

“And they talk about…”

“Of course they did.”

I unbutton the top button of his pants and unzip the fly. He helps me slide his pants over his hips and his prosthetic leg. I have seen him in his underwear before, but not with such an obvious bulge. Erection, I roll the word around in my mind. I don’t think I’ve ever even said it aloud unless I was talking about a building. I remember when he accused me of being “so pure” and I laugh nervously.

“We don’t have to do this if you’re not ready.”

“I’m ready,” I say. I slip my fingers into the elastic waistband of his shorts and the skin there is smooth and soft. I kiss his belly along the waistband and then I pull away the last piece of fabric between us.

I don’t know what I expected, but I am surprised at how red and large he is. I find I am full of questions. What does it look like when it’s relaxed? Does it hurt when he’s hard if he doesn’t relieve himself? What does it feel like? I reach out and touch it and Peeta closes his eyes and leans back. I am kneeling on the floor and he is sitting on the edge of my bed. He answers all my questions though sometimes a little curtly depending on whether or not I am touching his…

“What should I call it?” I say.

“My penis?” he looks confused. “You want to name it?”

“No, I just don’t like the word penis. I want to call it something else.”

“You do know other words though, right?”

“Yeah, I’ve just never said them. But…”

“Katniss, you can call it whatever you like so long as you keep doing that,” he sighs and I realize I’ve been absently stroking his smooth, warm, hard… dick. No, that makes me cringe a little. Cock. I smile and say it. He giggles.

“That sounds so funny from you, Miss Purity.”

“I’m not that pure anymore,” and I plant a kiss on the top of his cock. I flick my tongue against the tip and Peeta gasps. I know people do these things, but it all seems so strange--like I am someone new and not myself at all. I swirl my tongue around his head and shaft and then gently take the head into my mouth. It’s slightly salty and Peeta has half collapsed and is making small pleased noises and saying my name over and over and that he loves me.

I look at his scrotum, but instantly mentally edit that to balls. They look like two balls in a little sack of flesh covered with blond down darker than the rest of his hair, but still golden. I touch them and he gasps again. They are funny and I don’t know quite what to do with them so I give them a gentle squeeze, which makes Peeta laugh.

I feel something drip down my leg and I realize I am more aroused than I have ever been before and I crawl up on top of Peeta, who is lying across my bed. I straddle him and lean down and kiss him.

“I want you inside of me. Now.” I rub against him so he can feel how wet I am.

He nods and helps me guide his cock to my opening. I slide down on it and he pushes up. There is some resistance and I worry that he is too big for me. I wonder if that is possible when there is a pop and it hurts, but I slide down until my hips meet his.

“Easy,” he says. “It won’t hurt after this time.”

I catch my breath and it both hurts and feels wonderful. I move gently and watch the play of emotion on Peeta’s face. He sits up and holds me tightly and thrusts up into me more quickly, rhythmically until he stops and his face contorts, as if he is in pain, which I know he absolutely is not.

He looks at me, almost as if he has never seen me before.

“Lie down, he says. He goes to the bathroom and comes back with a warm cloth and bathes my sore crotch. Crotch? Vagina? Pussy? I don’t know if I like any of those.

“It’s your turn now,” he says. I am about to say that I think I am too sore for more, when he puts his face between my legs and with his tongue manipulates my flesh so that all my thoughts tangle and melt together. I’ve done this myself with my fingers, but his tongue is warm and wet and strokes me over and over until I explode like fireworks.

We fall asleep and I know there is still so much left to learn and to talk about. He murmurs, “I love you.”

“Worth waiting for?” I say. “Real or not real?”

“Real,” he says.