I was pacing back and forth across the small space of my bedroom, thankful that my mother had left for work and Prim was staying at a friend's house for the weekend. It was a couple hours since I ran away from Peeta's house like a coward and I still hadn't heard from him. Each minute that passed without contact made my muscles pull tighter. I had no idea what I left him to deal with. Why did Peeta's mother have a bat? Did she hit him with it? Unwanted images of Peeta's bloody corpse lying on the floor filled my head. Even though I knew I was being ridiculous, the picture made me shudder.
I dialed Peeta's number for the twenty-third time that day and growled when it went to voicemail. Frustrated, I hurled a towel that Prim left on the floor in her hurry to leave the house across the room. It landed unceremoniously on a lamp in the corner. If I didn't hear from Peeta within the next half hour, I was going to call the police.
Just as I was reaching for the phone again, there was a heavy knock on the front door. I ran to answer it, swinging the door open without checking who it was first. Pure and sweet relief washed over me as Peeta's face came to view, his floppy blond hair disheveled on his forehead. Without thinking, I flung myself at him, wrapping my arms tightly around his neck. Peeta cried out and shifted awkwardly under my attack, so I immediately stepped back, pulling him into my house and toward my bedroom.
"Are you okay?" I asked, after I had closed the door behind us. "I was so worried."
Peeta walked toward my bed. He was limping slightly and stepped with careful and contained movements before sitting gingerly on my mattress. He cringed as he scooted back to lean against the pillows.
"You're hurt," I said, rushing to him and kneeling before him to examine his face. If he hadn't moved so cautiously, I wouldn't have known he was hurt. There were no visible cuts or bruises anywhere on his face or arms.
"I'm sorry," Peeta began, his voice low and tempered. I knew he was trying to hold back the pain. "I should've answered when you called, but I didn't know what to say."
I wasn't angry that he ignored my calls. I still had to figure out what was wrong with him.
"Where does it hurt, Peeta?" I asked, quietly.
He hesitated before sighing and motioning to his side. I leaned forward and grabbed the hem of his shirt.
"I need to take this off so I can see," I told him.
He nodded and leaned forward slightly. I raised the shirt and winced when he groaned at the movement. Slowly, I got it over his head and placed it to the side before turning to look at his body. What I saw made me gasp. His entire torso was covered with bruises, all a deep shade of purple, blotchy and blackened at the edges.
"Oh, Peeta," I said, trying my hardest to fight the tears building in my eyes. I leaned forward and pressed a feather light kiss to the center of his chest, reassured when I heard him let out a content sigh. As softly as I could, my fingers traced each wound, watching Peeta's face carefully for signs of discomfort. His eyes were closed and he wore a frown, but he didn't react until my hands reached the side he had indicated earlier. His entire face scrunched together when my hand made contact and he sucked a harsh breath through his teeth.
"Did your mother do this to you?" I asked, disgust and anger saturating my voice. I already knew the answer and I was sure I had never hated anyone as much in my life. How could anyone find the audacity to hurt someone as kind and sweet as Peeta? And his own mother? I wanted to go back over there and give her some of her own medicine.
Peeta opened his eyes at my question. I'm sure he could read my thoughts on my face. "Yes," he whispered.
"And the last time you showed up at my house hurt, that was her too, wasn't it?"
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Why didn't you tell me about your dad?"
"That's different," I argued. "My secret wasn't hurting me. I wasn't in danger on a daily basis."
"It's not like that," Peeta said.
"Are you defending her?" I asked, aghast.
"No! It's just…" Peeta lifted his hand to cover his face. "If I tell you, you have to promise you won't tell anyone. No one knows about this, okay?"
"What about your dad?"
Peeta gave a weak chuckle. "Especially not my dad. Just promise me."
I bit my lip. "I don't know if I can, Peeta. I mean, you're hurt and – "
"Promise, Katniss. Or else I'm not telling you anything."
I knew Peeta wasn't going to back down. And even though I thought that was extremely unfair and disagreed entirely, I said, "I promise."
Peeta took a few minutes to collect his thoughts. I allowed him this, grabbing his hand and running my thumb over his knuckles. It caused me pain to see him this hurt. My heart was beating erratically, squeezing in my chest. I held my breath when Peeta began to speak.
"This…thing…my mom does – "
Peeta cringed. "Yeah. She didn't used to. It only started after both my brothers had left the house. And even now she doesn't do it often. This is the worst it's even been. I think you being there sent her over the edge or something."
"So this is my fault?" I asked, my heart dropping. "She's mad because you let me sleep over?"
"No! God, no, Katniss. Never think that. This is not your fault. And it has nothing to do with you sleeping over, okay?" Peeta squeezed my hand tightly.
"Why don't you tell your dad?"
"I can't," Peeta said, his eyes wide. "He's – that's the reason she beats me."
"What?" Now I was confused.
"Like I said, it started after my brothers left for college. My dad was visiting Ryder for the weekend. My mom didn't go with him because she didn't want to close the bakery. I was staying at a friend's house, but he got sick so I had to go home early. My mom didn't know and when I came home, I found her in bed with some other guy. She freaked out and after she kicked the guy out of the house, she hit me, screaming at me not to tell my dad."
Tears were appearing in the corner of Peeta's eyes and spilling over onto his cheek. I wiped them away gently with my thumb, bringing his hand to my mouth and kissing his palm, imploring him to continue.
"I could have fought back. I wasn't as big as I am now, but still, I could've easily fought back."
"Why didn't you?"
"My dad. If I fought back I would've had to explain why I did it and I couldn't. I couldn't do that to him, Katniss." The tears came heavier now. They started to affect his breathing. "He's so in love with her. I couldn't be the one to tell him what I saw. I couldn't break his heart like that. It would crush him. He doesn't deserve it."
Peeta was truly too nice for his own good, trying to protect his dad's feelings in sacrifice of his own wellbeing. I crawled on top of him, straddling his upper legs and carefully avoiding his injuries. I leaned forward and cradled both of his cheeks in the palms of my hands, forcing him to look at me.
"You are the best person I know, Peeta," I told him sincerely, grazing his lips with my own. "And I know you think what you're doing is in your dad's best interest, but he doesn't deserve to be lied to either. It may hurt him at first, but telling him is the best in the long term. Right now, the only person who is winning is that bitch."
Peeta smiled at that, kissing me again, longer and deeper than before. "She still cheats on him, you know. Every time he's out of town or away from the house for a while. Those are the only times she hits me. When I'm home when I'm not supposed to be or when I bring someone to the house while my dad is getting my brother from college."
Realization dawned on me. "You don't think she had someone over last night?" I said, horrified.
"Probably," Peeta grunted. "And I knew she would. It was stupid of me to bring you home. I just wasn't thinking."
"This isn't your fault either, Peeta. You know that right?"
"I know," he sighed. He was now rubbing circles into my lower back. It was really rather comfortable and I thought it was amazing how he was soothing me when I was supposed to be soothing him. I really wanted to lie down on him, but I knew he was in no condition to support my body weight.
"I just don't understand how your dad hasn't figured any of this out."
"He almost did once. It was why we moved here. She used to not be as discreet as she is now. She'd hit my face where everyone could see. People started questioning our home life. My dad asked me about it once. I told him they were pairing me against a bigger wrestler in practice who took things a bit too far. I don't think he believed me though. I think he thought I was getting bullied at school and was too embarrassed to tell him about it."
"You really need to tell him the truth, Peeta," I told him.
"I'll think about it," he conceded.
Just then, Peeta's phone started vibrating. I felt it against my leg. Peeta dug into his pocket to retrieve it, swiping at the screen to answer the call.
"Hey, Dad," he said, his eyes flitting away from my face. "Not right now…I'm not sure…Really? That sucks…Are you okay?… No, I understand. Just let me know when it clears up… Yeah, love you too. Bye." He hung up.
"What was that about?" I asked.
"My dad isn't coming back today. There's a big snowstorm up at Ryder's school and they're snowed in until it stops."
"Peeta…" I began, tensing at the thought of him going home to his mom.
"Don't worry. I'll be fine," he said, trailing his fingers down my cheek and neck to the collar of my shirt where he stopped, a smirk on his face.
"What?" I asked, confused about his sudden change of demeanor.
"You're still wearing my clothes," he said, his smirk growing.
I glanced down, confirming his statement. I hadn't even realized I ran home in his clothes. Suddenly, my face felt warm.
"It's still hot," Peeta said.
"Don't get all worked up," I said, my embarrassment flaring. "You're still injured, remember?"
"Yeah, yeah," he said, pulling me into one more kiss.
Peeta spent the rest of the afternoon at my house. We didn't do anything. Just talked and laughed and tried to focus on anything besides the heavy baggage we both carried and were now aware of. I was surprise neither of us ran. And while I was still furious and upset about what Peeta's mother did to him and my heart broke each and every time Peeta winced at the pain, like that morning, I had this strange sense of placidity, as if another barrier had been removed between Peeta and me, one we didn't know existed. It was still amazing to me how easy it was just to spend time with him.
In fact, I didn't realize how long we spent in my room. It wasn't long before I heard the front door opening, signaling my mom's return from her shift at the hospital. Peeta froze when he heard the noise. He was still bruised and battered, lying shirtless on my bed.
"It's just my mom," I told him, getting up and throwing a sweatshirt over Peeta's shirt. I didn't want to explain where I got the clothes from.
"I have to get out of here," Peeta said, trying to sit up with difficulty.
"You're not going anywhere," I said, pressing my hand to his shoulder. "I'm getting my mom to look at you."
"What? No! Katniss!"
"Peeta, you're hurt," I said. "Badly. My mother's a nurse. She needs to make sure everything's okay. I won't tell her what happened to you. I promised."
Peeta's eyebrows pulled together and his frown deepened, but he nodded once.
"I'll be right back." I scurried from the room and headed toward the kitchen where I found my mother seated at the table, rubbing one of her feet.
"Katniss," she said. "I didn't realize you were home."
I wondered if she even realized I didn't come home last night. "I need a favor."
My mom sat up straighter, looking somewhat eager. I never asked her for anything anymore. I knew she felt left out of my life, but I had taken care of myself for so long now, it was hard to trust her for help. "What is it?"
"My friend's here and he's hurt. I was wondering if you could take a look at him."
My mom immediately stood up, her face falling into serious lines, composing herself professionally. "How did he get injured?"
I panicked. I should have thought of a good cover story before I came to her. "Uh…wrestling." It was the first thing I thought of.
"Where is he now?"
"In my room," I said and then hesitated. I wondered how my mom would take me being alone in my room with a boy. It never happened before.
"Lead the way," she said, either ignoring or not thinking much of my previous statement.
I brought her to Peeta who was sitting up straighter than when I left him. Smartly, he had left his shirt off. It was enough of a hassle getting it off the first time. When he saw my mother behind me, he sucked in his cheeks slightly and ran his fingers through his hair. If his torso wasn't so bruised, it would have been cute.
I heard my mom gasp when she saw him, the same exact reaction I had earlier. After that, she was the epitome of calm and professionalism, her face showing no emotion.
"Hello, Mrs. Everdeen," Peeta spoke first. Even injured, Peeta never forgot his manners.
My mom sat next to him at the edge of bed. "Hello, Peeta. How are you feeling?"
I wondered how my mom knew his name. I was sure I hadn't mentioned it before.
"I've been better."
"Katniss told me that this was a wrestling injury?"
"Uh…yeah." Peeta's eyes quickly flicked toward me in question before returning to my mom. "A guy took it too far. It was my fault though. I didn't tap out."
"I didn't realize football season was over."
"It's – it's not," Peeta stuttered, looking flustered. "They just overlap a bit because the football team got so far in the postseason."
I bit my lip. This was not going well at all. I just wanted my mother to examine him and leave, not question him as though he was on trial.
"Well, Peeta, I just need to take a closer look at these contusions to see if there is any internal bleeding or if anything has ruptured or has been broken. I apologize for any discomfort this may cause you."
"It's fine," Peeta said.
My mom moved her hands forward, tracing the bruises as I did earlier. When she reached his tender spot and Peeta took that all telling gasp of air, she spent a few minutes poking and prodding the area.
"Hurts." Peeta grunted through clenched teeth.
"Can you take a deep breath for me, Peeta?" my mother asked.
Peeta tried, but cried out half way through, letting the air he collected escape through his mouth. My mother frowned at this and my nails dug into the palms of my hands.
"And does it hurt when you breathe normally?"
"A little," Peeta admitted sheepishly.
My mother exhaled and withdrew her hands. "I believe one, possibly two of your ribs are fractured. But I can't be sure without x-rays. Are you sure I can't take you to the hospital."
"No," Peeta said quickly. "I mean, no thank you."
My mom pursed her lips but didn't argue. "Well, then, you need rest. Try not to move too much. Usually, fractured ribs take at least six weeks to heal properly. Ice the area for the first couple days and if you feel any pain you can simply take some ibuprofen. It's important that every hour you cough or take a deep breath to avoid contracting pneumonia or a collapse of your lung tissue. However, whatever you do, do not wrap your ribs. This would only be counterproductive."
I was actually surprised by how thorough my mother's knowledge actually was. Now I was extremely glad I insisted on letting her see Peeta's injuries. Collapsing of a lung seemed extremely serious and if that happened to Peeta… well, it better not happen to Peeta.
"Thanks so much, Mrs. Everdeen. I'll keep that in mind."
"You're very welcome, Peeta," my mom said, standing up. "Katniss, can I talk to you for a minute."
I followed my mom into the hall, afraid of what she had to say.
"Tell me the truth, Katniss. That was not a wrestling injury."
I gulped, apprehension firing my nerves. "It doesn't matter, Mom. Please. Just trust me. It's being taken care of. Just don't tell anyone about Peeta's injuries, okay?"
"I do trust you, Katniss, and if you tell me not to worry, I won't."
"Thanks, Mom," I said, smiling.
"Peeta's a sweet boy, honey. I'm happy for you."
"What are you talking about?"
My mom gave me a knowing smile, but ignored my question. "You should take him home now. He needs his rest."
"Right. Thanks again, Mom."
I watched her walk away before returning to Peeta, surprised to see his shirt back in place.
"I heard what she said," Peeta said quietly. "Thanks for keeping my secret."
I waved away his apology. Of all the things I had done in the past 48 hours, keeping his secret was probably the one thing I was least proud of. However, after keeping my secret from him, I didn't really think it was my place to share his.
"You're not taking me home, are you?" Peeta said.
"No," I said. I had been thinking about it all day and decided that there was absolutely no way I was allowing Peeta to return to his home until his father returned. However, I knew he couldn't stay at my house unless I told my mother the truth, which Peeta clearly forbade. And to solve this conundrum, I came up with the perfect solution. "No. I'm taking you someplace much better."