Chapter Thirty-Nine


"I can't un-know the monsters but I can become the person who would have saved thirteen-year-old me." —3/365, Wesley King

As if sensing my growing trepidation, Peeta rests his hands on my shoulders and begins to knead his fingers along the contours of my neck and shoulder blades. My body quickly relaxes as he works his magic on my sore muscles, and my eyelids become so heavy I can barely keep them open. All my worries soon fade as I focus my full attention on his blissful, soothing caresses.

"Sorry for not coming sooner, I had a shirt and a leg to put on. I could've hopped to the kitchen in my boxers, but I'm sure that would've been a little awkward for everyone," Peeta says. "On the bright side, at least there's no need to sneak around anymore. I think it's safe to say that my dad was well aware you slept in my room last night and he didn't seem very fazed by it."

"Or he didn't want to make a fuss about it at 6 in the morning," I counter, rolling my head forward as he rubs his thumbs up the middle of my neck, to my hairline, and back down again.

"Maybe," he replies softly. "But I'm sure he has a lot worse on his mind than our sleeping arrangements. I'm also pretty sure he knows we're smart enough not to do anything that could make this situation worse."

I don't understand how there could possibly be a way to make this situation any worse than it already is, but I'm far too tired to ask or think too much about it so I simply nod in reply as he begins to massage my upper arms.

"What did he say to you anyway?"

"Nothing major. Mostly just thanked me for taking care of my mom," I answer, decidedly leaving out the short discussion we had about Peeta and his mother.

Peeta falls silent for a moment. From the distracted, abrupt change in the movement of his hands and the loud exhale that escapes him, I can tell that what I'd just said touched a nerve.

"Well, I don't really think he should be thanking you for that. If anything, he should be apologizing that the adults in your life failed you," he asserts. "Taking care of your mom should've never been your burden to carry, and it's nothing more than a shame that it was."

"I'm just grateful he didn't give me some sort of awkward lecture. He caught me coming from your room and I thought for sure that's what he wanted to talk to me about. So the 'thank you' about my mom was a relief more than anything," I dismiss with a shrug. "He meant well by it. I think he's still just trying to make sense of everything."

"So am I," he replies vaguely before sighing and mumbling as an afterthought, "though I'm not really sure I want to."

"What do you mean?"

"Katniss, do you think our parents—" He stops abruptly and clears his throat. "Nevermind. It's stupid."

"I seriously doubt that it's stupid. What were you going to say?"

"It's nothing. I could be wrong, and if I'm right it doesn't matter anyway. No use digging up old bones. Just forget I said anything, okay?"

"You didn't really say anything for me to forget, but okay…."

As much as I'm curious about what Peeta was going to say about our parents, I'm far too exhausted to argue the point or really give it a second thought. However, I do make a mental note to ask about it later, when I'm more awake. I yawn and roll my shoulders as he massages his fingertips in tiny circles along my spine, "That feels beyond amazing, Peeta, and I don't really want you to stop, but I might collapse from exhaustion if we stand here much longer. We should probably get a few more hours of sleep while we can."

"Right." His hands slide down to my waist as he kisses the juncture of my neck and shoulder. "Warm our bed and I'll come join you in a few minutes?"

I nod and he steps back, leaving tingles dancing in the place where his lips and breath had just warmed my skin. I turn around to face him and he gives me a half-smile, but it doesn't conceal the stress and concern in his heavy-lidded eyes. I can tell that he's just as worried about his dad as I am, but I don't want to stress him more by talking or asking about it. There's nothing we can say or do that will make a difference right now anyway. Discussing it would only result in feeding each other's fears.

When I climb into Peeta's bed and burrow beneath his blanket, I drift to sleep almost instantly. I'm roused minutes later, however, when he sits softly on the edge of the bed to take his prosthetic off, and then moves under the cover to spoon himself against my backside. Without a word, I move closer against him as he brings his arm beneath mine and entwines our fingers right below the swell of my breasts.

"Does this hurt you or make you uncomfortable?" he whispers near my ear, causing a shiver to run down my body. I shake my head in reply, squeezing his hand and bringing it closer to my chest.

My last thoughts before drifting to sleep is how natural it feels being enveloped in Peeta's arms, with his body so intimately snug against mine, and how strange it is that until he came along, I never considered myself the type of girl who could ever enjoy physical closeness. Romance and pleasure never entered my mind as a possibility, and if they had, they were forgotten almost immediately. I mean, I wasn't blind to the couples around me at school, and there were times I found myself foolishly longing for someone to hold my hand or kiss me, but then I'd remember who I was and what I had to go home to and I'd cynically discard those fleeting fantasies.

Peeta has given me something to hold onto, though. He's given me something to look forward to, to live for – aside from keeping others alive. For the first time in a long while, as selfish as it sounds, I just want to live for me.

"Katniss…?" I wake to Peeta's fingertips trailing down the length of my arm, causing every hair on my body to stand on end. As he begins to move his hand back up to my shoulder, he plants a kiss on my neck and says lowly near my ear, "Believe me, I don't want to leave this bed either. I'd love to just lay here all day with you, but it's almost ten and we have a lot to do today."

I cringe, bringing my shoulder up to my ear in an attempt to stop the vibrations of his voice from tickling my skin and sending chills down my spine. I open an eye and peer over my shoulder to see him smiling down at me with his eyebrows raised apologetically. With a sleepy scowl, I yawn and flip onto my back, stretching my arms over my head and squinting against the sunlight pouring into the room.

Given the circumstances, it doesn't seem right that a day should be so bright and cheerful.

My mind immediately drifts to what I'd do with this type of day if I were back at the trailer. I'd most likely spend it in the woods, foraging the wild harvest of autumn: walnuts, pecans, acorns, persimmons, apples, cherries, mushrooms and, of course, blackberries.

Squirrels are also active and plentiful this time of year as they stockpile for winter, making hunting an easy task. Sometimes I'd even get lucky and come across a turkey, a rabbit, or a duck. The traps work exceptionally well during this time of year, too, with something being caught nearly every time I'd check. Gale had also given me an old bow and arrows on my 14th birthday, which I kept hidden in a nook of a tree, kept secret from Snow. While I'm admittedly a pretty good shot with it, I only used it when the traps hadn't caught anything—not only because I didn't want to break it from overuse, but because I didn't want to take the chance of scaring off any animals with such a direct approach.

Of course, I never looked forward to killing and skinning, but given the choice between being elbow-deep in the blood and guts of a wild animal or Prim starving to death, I'd take the former in a heartbeat.

Unfortunately, I was never able to do anything with the pelts myself. It would've tipped off Snow that I was hunting regularly, and he'd use it as a reason to punish me or threaten to tell Coin, seeing as to how it was technically illegal. So instead I'd give them to Gale's family, who'd always make use of them. Hazelle would sometimes even create things like scarves, earmuffs, gloves, and hats for me and Prim, which Gale would give to us as gifts under the guise that he'd collected the pelts himself.

Autumn was the harvest before the drought, the feast before the famine, and the bounty of color before the chill of desolation. It's a strange feeling, lying here beside Peeta in a warm, clean bed, knowing Prim and Mom are safe, fed, and comfortable just down the hall. I think of the woods that were my sanctuary and survival for so long, of the good times Prim and I had found in them despite everything, and I'm reminded that in the midst of hell, we still managed to find interludes of happiness.

I then envision my bow as I'd seen it last, hidden in the hollow of an oak, and I'm struck with the realization that after helping to ensure our survival for so many years, I'll never see or hold it in my grasp again. It'll rot where it rests, becoming only a memory as the tree eventually entombs it.

Then again, as there's no going back now, everything on that land and in those woods is a memory from this point on.

Finding it a bit ridiculous to feel nostalgia for a place I'd always dreamed of escaping, I quickly sit up and rub my eyes, bringing my thoughts back to the present. The bed shifts beside me as Peeta follows suit, his hand caressing the small of my back.

"You were sleeping so peacefully, I feel bad for waking you," he states quietly. "You said you wanted to have all this stuff done by tonight and get it over with, though, so I figured you wouldn't want to sleep the day away. But like I said last night, if you're not feeling up to it or you can't get it all done, I can always call Haymitch and put it off for a day or two."

Despite his obvious concern for my well-being, I also know by the slight hesitation in his voice that, like me, he wants to get all of this done as soon as possible. After all, the sooner we get it done the sooner there's a possibility for arrests to be made and our 'deaths' to be revealed as a blatant lie.

I just hope it all works out in our favor.

"I'll be fine, Peeta. Really," I assure hoarsely. "Thanks for waking me up." I yawn and stretch my arms out in front of me. "Any word from your dad?"

"Yeah, when he arrived at the bakery and a little while after that to say that Madge is coming over sometime after noon," he answers, furrowing his brows as he picks up his phone from the side table and glances down at the glowing screen. He then shrugs and looks over at me with a small smile that doesn't quite meet his eyes. "He hasn't said anything since, though. I sent him a message before waking you, but he hasn't replied yet… probably busy with customers. I'm sure he's just fine."

"I'm sure you're right."

I don't know what else to say. At this point, anything is possible. I don't want to upset Peeta by saying so out loud, though, and if I dwell on what could go wrong, my mind will think up the worst possible scenarios. Odds are that Peeta's right and his dad is just fine anyway.

Peeta scoots to the edge of the bed to attach his prosthetic, and I can't help but notice that he seems to be trying to keep it out of my line of sight. Surely he knows by now that his leg doesn't bother me?

With a frown, I remove the covers from my lap and stand up as a fresh bout of determination overshadows the few tendrils of drowsiness that remain. However, my vision is still a little blurry as my eyes adjust to the overwhelming brightness of the room.

"Did you want to get the picture stuff over with this morning?" Peeta asks, glancing over his shoulder at me. I narrow my eyes in confusion and he explains further, "You know, for Haymitch? I figured it'd be best to get it done sooner rather than later, before your bruises can fade any further—" He stops mid-sentence, rubs his eyes with his thumb and index finger, and grimaces as if he'd said something wrong. "Sorry, I didn't mean for that to sound so thoughtless. I just want him to pay for what he's done to you, and the best way for that to happen is for people to see the worst of it."

I cross my arms over my chest and nod.

I know what he's saying is true, and that it really isn't an option at this point, but it still makes me feel extremely vulnerable. For so long, I've kept the abuse hidden as best I could, knowing that revealing it would only bring more pain; now I'm having to chronicle every scar, scratch, and bruise, along with each memory they belong to, and share it all with complete strangers—strangers who will scrutinize my body and undoubtedly judge me.

I excuse myself to use the bathroom, where I also clean my teeth, brush and braid my hair, and splash some cold water on my face. When I reemerge, I see that Peeta is already fully dressed, sitting on the edge of his bed, holding a camera. Chewing nervously on my bottom lip, I take a few steps towards him as he stands.

"So what do I need to do?"

"You'll, um…" Peeta rubs the back of his neck, "first you'll need to take off your clothes."

I begin to lift my long night shirt, but stop right above my thighs. I fiddle with the hem, hesitating to go further.

"I don't have to strip completely, do I? I don't want a bunch of strangers seeing me naked, especially not Haymitch—"

"No, of course not," Peeta firmly answers. Smoothing a strand of hair behind my ear, he leans down and kisses my forehead. "I only need you in your bra and underwear, and I feel bad enough for that. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't complain if you stripped for me under different circumstances, but I'm not about to send nudes of my 17-year-old girlfriend to the FBI."

I snort and roll my eyes, feeling slightly more at ease, "Whatever. Let's just get this over with." I lift the shirt over my head and drop it onto the floor beside me.

My heart sinks to my stomach, however, when I glance up and see Peeta observing me with hard, scrutinizing eyes and a deep frown. Every other time, he'd seemingly admired my body with wonder and reverence, and it made me forget all the imperfections that mar my skin—I actually felt beautiful when he looked at me and I didn't feel judged. Not now, though. In fact, it's the complete opposite. At the moment I know he's only searching my body for flaws and finding plenty of them.

I feel like grabbing my shirt and running to the bathroom to hide, but instead I simply close my eyes and clear my throat before asking, "Are you going to take the stupid pictures or not?"

"Sure," he replies faintly, "hold your arms out? I just want to get a couple front and back pictures of your entire body, and then a few close-ups…."

I sigh, but I do as he asks. Keeping my eyes closed tightly and biting my lip, my body trembles with each click of his camera.

When I feel his fingertips brush my ribs, I glance down to see him tracing the outline of a yellow and purple bruise; the same one that he'd helped put ice on when I'd stayed in his basement.

"Does it still hurt?"

"Just a little. It's really more uncomfortable than painful, though."

He kneels down and, as if to kiss the pain away, brings his lips lightly to my bruised skin. He then trails kisses over my stomach, down to the waistband of my underwear, as he caresses my thighs and hips. Slowly, his mouth and hands begin to move slowly towards my center, and although my heart is pounding, my legs are like jelly, and I feel warm, wet, and tingly below, I run my fingers through his wavy, sleep-tousled hair and gently pull his head back from my body as I clear my throat.

"Peeta… pictures," I remind, my cheeks burning. "Prim's probably awake and waiting for us, so…."

He nods, giving me a small smile and a wink before picking up his camera again.

He photographs my ribs and the scratches, scars, and bruises on my legs, and then stands up again to capture the numerous white and pink marks that cover my chest and upper arms—permanent remnants of Snow's belt and tree switches. He also pulls my bra down slightly to take a picture of the unsightly burn scar I received from a hot stove poker, and tilts my head to photograph the nearly healed wound where my neck had been cut with glass.

Peeta says nothing during all of this, but the way his eyes narrow, his nostrils flare, and his jaw clenches, he doesn't have to say a word for me to know how he feels and what he's thinking.

It's only when I turn around and he sees the hideous scars on my back and above my tailbone—where most of the damage resides—that he begins cursing under his breath. Though I've been topless around him multiple times before, he'd mostly just seen me from the front.

Tears sting my eyes; I feel so ugly and exposed, I just want to cover myself with layers so he never has to see my monstrous body again. I'm slightly soothed a moment later, however, when I feel his lips on my back. I hold my breath as he kisses every scar he can see, and I try to wipe the wetness from my cheeks without him noticing.

When he's done taking pictures, I turn to face him again. In an instant and without a word, he wraps me in his arms and rests his cheek upon my head.

"Prison is way too good for him," Peeta whispers.

I don't know what to say, so I simply reply by hugging him tighter.

Peeta heads to the kitchen to prepare 'brunch' and I find Prim—who is already awake and writing in her notebook—and bring her into the bathroom to photograph all the injuries her own tiny frame has endured.

Although she seems to be in good spirits about it all, I can understand how Peeta felt earlier; it's difficult to see scars covering the skin of someone you love, knowing they'll always be there when she looks in the mirror. It's bad enough to feel the pain the first time, but to be constantly reminded of the memory of that pain is a torture in itself.

It does fill me with a fiery ambition to get everything done that I need to, however.

Instead of the melancholy I felt last night when writing, this morning I only feel an indignant need for justice. It does no good to feel sorry for myself. I need to be strong and resilient; I need to have courage to stand up and not worry about the consequences. I'm not doing this for myself, I'm doing it for Prim, after all, and I should have done it a long time ago. She's spent most of her life in fear and pain, and she'll live forever with the scars because I was too scared to do anything to stop it. I was afraid of making it worse. Now, the only way I could make it worse is by not doing anything, by letting Snow get away with what he's done. I won't have Prim live the rest of her life looking over her shoulder, and I'll be damned if I let anyone hurt her again.

Peeta brings us a platter of left-over pumpkin spice cookies, apple and orange slices, and an assortment of finger sandwiches, along with two tall glasses of chocolate milk. He informs me that his dad finally texted him back, and that he was just busy with customers – as he'd predicted. He then kisses me on the cheek and leans over the couch from behind to give Prim a small kiss on the top of her head—startling her into a bashful silence—before disappearing into his bedroom to paint.

I only take a short break from writing to feed and hydrate Mom. I also check if she needs changed, but find that her undergarments are dry. It takes me some time to realize it, but I notice that she's wearing something completely different than yesterday. She went to bed wearing a white gown, but today she's wearing pink. Her hair, which is usually a matted mess of thin blonde fuzz, also seems to be combed and parted in the middle.

I'd assumed that Prim had been the one to groom her, yet when I ask about it she insists that she hadn't been in Mom's room since last night. I know Peeta couldn't have done it without me knowing, so it only leaves one person who could have….

I think of scars being the memory of pain, for the victim and those who love them. But my mother's memory is a scar, a hurt healed to protect itself, but all it refuses to remember doubles the pain for those who do.

I close the notebook, stretch my arms out, and lean my head back against the sofa with a sigh of relief.

Fourteen whole pages, front and back; I'm done.

Writing every rotten memory was nothing short of excruciating, but now that it's over I feel… invigorated; reborn; as if closing the notebook was equivalent to ending an era of pain and horror.

"Done?" Prim asks quietly from beside me, snapping me out of my thoughts.

"Yeah, finally." I glance over and see that she has a small frown curving her lips and a crease between her eyes. I scoot closer and nudge my shoulder lightly against hers. "Hey, you alright?"

She nods and shrugs. "Just… some of this stuff is hard to write about, you know? At least I only have a little bit more," she sighs, tapping her pen against the half-written page of her notebook. We're both silent for a moment before she asks, "It's gonna be a little weird after all this, isn't it?"

"What do you mean?"

"To live a life without Snow in it. It just seems weird to think about, after all this time."

"I don't know about it being weird, but it'll certainly be a hell of a lot better," I say as I bring an arm around her shoulders.

"It's just… as much as I hoped that we'd somehow get away and be safe and be happy someday, I-I also thought we'd all just wind up dying there too," Prim says, her voice trembling. "We would have and we almost did—"

"But we didn't. We're here, fully alive and safe, and we're never going back," I reply strongly, giving her shoulders a reassuring squeeze and kissing the top of her head. "I mean, I'm not going to lie to you – I'm worried about a lot of things right now. I know one thing for sure, though, and it makes all the other uncertainties worth it: we'll never ever have to live under Snow's thumb again. We'll never have to walk home in the dark, worrying what will happen when we get to the trailer. We'll never starve again or sleep outside or have to take a bath in a cold lake—"

"And we'll never have to smell that stinking toilet bucket again!" Prim adds quite passionately. "Or sleep on an old moldy cot!"

I nod, "Exactly. I'm not saying things won't be scary for a while, that it won't be hell wondering what might happen until they're arrested, but if all of this works out, our lives are going to be so much better, Prim, and for every bad memory, we're going to create a hundred times more happy ones. I promise you that."

Prim smiles at me, then turns her attention back to her writing as I scoot back down the couch a bit to give her some space and privacy. I think about going to Peeta, but ultimately decide against it. Even if I'm doing nothing more than just sitting here, half-watching some sit-com full of perfect teens with an overabundance of laugh tracks, I know my mere presence is bringing a small bit of comfort and support to Prim, and she needs it now more than ever. Plus, I'm sure Peeta could use some time to himself anyway. It'd only be a matter of time before he'd get sick of seeing me if we spend every waking moment together.

"What do you think will happen to us?" Prim asks after a few minutes, looking over at me thoughtfully. "I mean, if they're arrested and people know we're not dead and Mom gets help, what happens then? Do we just go back to our old school like nothing happened? Do we keep living with Peeta and his dad?"

"I really don't know what'll happen," I answer honestly. "If that money is actually real, though, I'd like to move far away from here eventually—somewhere beautiful and peaceful, maybe to a whole different state, where no one knows us and we can just start over new."

"But what about Peeta?" Prim asks almost defensively, drawing her brows together and narrowing her eyes. "He has the bakery. You know that's his world, Katniss, and you can't just break up with him after all this. That'd completely crush him and it'd be the biggest mistake of your life."

My gut twists at this. She's right, of course. As much as I hate the idea of living the rest of my life connected to a town that has made my life a nightmare, I love Peeta and the bakery, and I would never give him such an ultimatum.

"I have no intention of breaking up with Peeta," I reassure dismissively. "It was just a random idea anyway. Nothing set in stone. Right now I'm just worried about surviving until next week. So… just keep writing, okay? And don't go mentioning any of this to Peeta. He has enough to worry about."

With a nod and a sigh, she goes back to writing. I focus my eyes on the TV, but I don't really see or hear it—my mind is somewhere else completely, going in a million different directions.

About ten to fifteen minutes pass before Peeta comes into the living room with a huge grin on his face to inform me that his cousin has arrived. He then promptly excuses himself, stating that he has to go down to the garage to help her bring a few things up.

I find myself wondering what she'd brought that would require two people, especially considering she hasn't even seen my mother yet, but I don't say anything. Instead I wait on the sofa for their return, nauseous and nervous, as Prim excitedly asks questions about Peeta's cousin, none of which I have the answers to. Aside from seeing her once in the bakery and embarrassingly misinterpreting her relationship with Peeta, I don't know the girl at all.

When they finally enter the door, my stomach flips upon seeing that it's not just the two of them.

In his cousin's arms is a toddler—a little boy with wisps of light blond curls and chubby pink cheeks. His head rests against her chest as he sucks his thumb and his bright blue eyes are fixed intently on Peeta.

I stand awkwardly beside the couch, unsure of what to do or say. Peeta obviously adores babies and, from what I've seen at the bakery, the feeling is mutual. I, on the other hand, have little to no experience with them. I was nervous enough about meeting and conversing with a full-grown adult; a baby adds a whole new level of anxiety to the situation. Not only because I feel silly interacting with them, but because if something horrible happens to this innocent little child, I'll be the cause of it and I'd never be able to forgive myself. I'd love for my mother to get better and all, but I'm not willing to stake a baby's life on it. Hell, I don't want to stake anyone's life on it.

Surely this girl was informed of how dangerous the situation was – why on earth would she bring a kid along with her?

After placing some bags on the kitchen table, Peeta gestures for her to follow him into the living room. As soon as she sees me, a smile comes to her face and she gives a small wave of greeting. While her attire is considerably plain—a simple pair of jeans and a dark blue t-shirt—there's nothing homely about her. Even with her blond hair pulled back into a sloppy ponytail and not a stitch of make-up on her face, she's effortlessly and intimidatingly beautiful. In fact, if we were at school she'd be the type of girl I'd avoid crossing paths with out of fear that she'd make fun of me in front of a group of friends for a quick laugh.

"I'm sure you already know each other's names, but Madge this little pixie is Prim," Peeta says brightly, placing his hand on her shoulder. He then brings an arm around my waist and kisses my cheek. "And this beauty here is my girlfriend, Katniss."

I avert my eyes to the floor as my cheeks grow redder than a tomato. I know Peeta is trying to be sweet, but telling his cousin I'm beautiful is like informing a peacock that a pigeon is colorful. Although I know this isn't school and that Peeta's cousin wouldn't make fun of me—at least not in front of him—I almost expect her to laugh at his statement.

"Ah, nice to put a face to the name I've heard so much about." I glance up at her in confusion to find her smiling warmly at me. With a quick wink, she smirks and arches an eyebrow at Peeta. "So I'm guessing she didn't laugh at you and pigs didn't grow wings when you finally worked up the nerve to talk to her then?"

"No, thankfully she didn't laugh, but animals mutate every day, Madge. You never know, there might very well be a pig out there with wings on its back," muses Peeta.

"What? Why in the world would I laugh at you?"

"That's what I kept saying to him, like a million times," Madge snorts.

"I don't know," Peeta shrugs at my question, looking suddenly like an embarrassed little boy. "Why wouldn't you?"

"Maybe because I'm not a horrible person," I answer incredulously. "The only thing I find laughable about you is that you want to be with me."

"Well, I guess I'm side-splittingly hilarious then."

Prim steps forward before I can think of a retort, her eyes wide with wonder as she gazes adoringly at the little boy in Madge's arms.

"Is that your baby? He's so cute!" she gushes, taking his hand in her own to play with his chubby little fingers.

"Yep, this is my little man," Madge answers, smiling lovingly down at her son as she smooths a few wisps of his hair. "Say hi, Jay!"

He doesn't say anything, but quickly flaps his hand at Prim and gives a dimpled grin before bashfully hiding his face in his mother's shirt and peeking out with one eye.

Madge casts a sudden wary glance at Peeta and me. "I'm really sorry for having to bring him along, especially given the circumstances. I tried to find a sitter but everyone was busy, and Uncle Avory asked me to come over as soon as possible. He sounded pretty serious, so I didn't want to put it off—"

"It's no problem. We're just thankful you could come on such short notice. I'd be happy to take the little munchkin off your hands for a while," Peeta offers, tilting his head with a hopeful smile and holding his arms out.

"I'll take you up on that. He's been extra clingy ever since we moved. Momma's arms could use a little rest," she says, handing her son over to Peeta. She then stretches her arms out and shakes them a little, heaving a small sigh of relief. Jay initially seems startled by the exchange, fixing his wide eyes unblinkingly up at Peeta as if trying to figure out who he is. After a moment, however, I guess he realizes he doesn't recognize him because he begins to cry and reach out for his mom.

"Hey Jay, you like cookies?" Peeta asks quickly, his tone childlike and saccharine. In an instant, he stops crying, looks back up at Peeta with a slight pout still on his face, and gives a tiny nod. "Good! You're lucky because I have a whole bunch of them. But if you eat my cookies, I'm gonna need your help making some more. Think you can help me make some cookies, Jay?" The little boy wipes at his eyes, looking excited and hopeful at the mere mention of the word 'cookie' and nods again. He then mumbles something to Peeta, but the only thing I can make out from his baby babble is the word 'kikis'. Peeta, on the other hand, seems to understand him completely, or at least pretends to, as he smiles brightly and nods in reply. He then winces and looks timidly over at Madge. "Um. He can have cookies, right?"

"Gee, thanks for asking. I'd only be the meanest mother alive if I say no now, Peeta," Madge wryly replies. "Only a couple, okay? I'd prefer not to deal with a cranky 2-year-old coming down from a sugar high later."

"I promise I'll only give your kid a slight sugar buzz, not a sugar overdose," Peeta quips. "Anyways, I'm sure you probably have other things to do today so I guess I'll head to the kitchen and stay out of your way. Iris is down the hall, to the left—Katniss can fill you in on anything you need to know. She's been taking care of her for years."

I cut my eyes at Peeta. Surely he's not going to leave me alone with his cousin right off the bat?

"So I've heard," Madge says, giving me a sympathetic look. I don't know what to say, so I just bite my lip and shrug, feeling entirely self-conscious. "I know we just met each other and that you've been through hell lately, but I have a few questions I think only you can answer, and I'm sure you'd prefer I ask them privately. Care to follow me and fill me in a bit?"

I frown at Peeta, who gives me a sheepish look, before nodding in resignation.

"Sure. I don't know much about what's wrong with her, I just feed and clean her, but I'll try to help as much as I can."

"Well, I'll leave you girls to it then," Peeta says with an air of finality. He kisses me on the cheek again before turning to Prim. "Can you help me with Jay? He already seems pretty taken with you."

Which is true. The little boy keeps looking at her with a shy, playful smile, and when she catches his eye and smiles back, he places a hand over his eyes and gives a small giggle, as if he believes he's tricked her into thinking he's invisible.

Prim seems conflicted for a moment, obviously wanting to see what Madge is going to do with Mom, but also wanting to continue playing with the little boy. She reluctantly agrees to Peeta's request, though. Not that I really expected her to refuse.

As they retreat to the kitchen, Madge and I silently make our way to Mom's room.

Placing my hand on the doorknob, I falter and turn to her. "I warn you, she's more than a bit… gone. It's not very pretty."

Madge nods solemnly, but says nothing as we enter the room.

Author's Note: Thanks for being patient and continuing to read. I appreciate it far more than you realize. I'd love to hear what you thought of the chapter; your comments are my motivation and inspiration. :)