AN: Thank you all so very much for your unending support of this story. Your reviews mean the world to me, as does your patience. The last several months have been very trying for me and writing took to the back burner. If it wasn't for everyone's encouragement to continue writing this story, I don't know where we would be right now. I hope you find this chapter worth the extremely long wait. Enjoy!
Lily heads straight to her bedroom once they walk through the front door of the house, and Prim watches their mother with a worried frown. "Does she always do that?"
"After appointments she does." Katniss shrugs helplessly as she tosses her keys on the table beside the door.
They spent all morning and a good part of the afternoon out at Greenfields with her mother's psychiatrist. It took a lot of convincing on Katniss's part, but somehow she'd managed to persuade the older man to let Lily stay at home while they attempt to adjust her meds again after last week's suicide attempt.
It's going to be tougher now. Lily will be attending therapy sessions once a day, and Katniss isn't sure how she's going to get her mother to and from Greenfields on the days she has work, but she couldn't force her mother to be institutionalized again so soon after she was released.
Prim remains skeptical of the entire situation, even after the long discussion they had during the entire ride home. She doesn't seem convinced that Lily will be safe at home even with Haymitch watching over her when Katniss can't be at the house.
"Don't you worry about her, Katniss?" Prim questions now, her brow furrowing as she stares at the empty staircase.
She stares blankly at the younger girl for a long minute until her sister's blue eyes meet hers. "Of course I do," she says quietly, "but you're not always here, Prim. You don't know her routines like I do. She needs some time. There's no point in bothering her. She'll be okay by dinnertime—or as okay as Mom ever is."
"Well, I'm sorry I'm not always here," Prim retorts, an irritated edge in her voice. "You were the one that encouraged me to get out of town and see the world—"
"I didn't mean it like that, and you know it," she argues, tugging anxiously at her braid. "I did want you to get out of here. You're going to do great things, Prim."
A pregnant silence falls between them as they both stare at the floor. Katniss nearly jumps when her sister's gentle hand reaches out and gives her arm a squeeze.
"That doesn't mean I can't help," Prim reminds her. "I'm not ten anymore; I can handle the truth."
Katniss rolls her eyes in hopes that it will hide the tears that begin to gather upon hearing her baby sister's words. She fixes a smile on her lips before joking, "I turn around for one minute and all of a sudden you're grown up."
Prim snorts and heads towards the kitchen. "So what are we making for dinner?"
"Prim," she argues, trailing after her sister. "It's my dinner. I can cook the food."
"Really." Prim arches a pale eyebrow, fixing Katniss with a disbelieving stare. "You want to woo the guy, Katniss, not poison him."
"I can cook!" she retorts with a huff, pulling ingredients from the cabinets to avoid the narrowed blue eyes following her about the room.
"Kraft macaroni doesn't really count as dinner when you're an adult, sis." It's impossible not to hear the laughter in the Prim's voice.
Katniss turns to face her and bites her bottom lip. It's the truth; both women know it. While she was able to keep her family afloat in terms of food while they were growing up, Katniss was never much of a chef. To this day, she still doesn't understand how she managed to set the toaster on fire while making Pop-Tarts one morning before school.
"What were you going to try to make?" Prim questions, maintaining a casual stance where she rests a hip against the counter.
"Fine," Katniss sighs, pulling out the recipe for a chicken in white wine-and-mushroom sauce that she printed off from the Internet. Prim glances over the ingredients before smiling up at her.
"You were really going to make something on the stove that has alcohol as an ingredient?" Her blue eyes twinkle with laughter, earning one of Katniss's signature scowls. "Were you trying to make this night end in disaster?"
There's a silent pause before both girls burst into laughter, and Katniss smacks her baby sister's shoulder halfheartedly. "Shut up you little brat. I would have made it work."
"Sure," Prim gasps, her hand pressed against her stomach as she continues to laugh. "Peeta could have bandaged your hands from all the damn burns you would have gotten."
They quickly dissolve into chuckles, but it only takes a glance at one another before they fall into another hearty round of laughter again, unable to control themselves now that they've started. Katniss wipes the back of her hands along her cheeks as she catches the tears streaking down her skin. Her stomach hurts in that glorious way that only a good bout of silly laughter can cause.
"Wh–what else," Prim gasps as she tries to regain her composure and act like the mature adults that they both are. "What else were you planning to make?"
Katniss shrugs. "I don't know. I guess a salad and some rice."
Prim nods and goes to work about the kitchen as she gathers the necessary supplies. "Why don't you just stick to the salad and let me work on the rest?"
"Because it's my dinner!" she repeats, snatching the saucepan from her sister.
"Do everyone a favor," Prim begs, pulling the pan back from Katniss's grasp, "and make the best damn salad you've ever created."
"This is delicious!" Peeta praises through a mouthful of chicken. His hand finds Katniss's where hers rests atop the table, and he gives it a light squeeze. "You don't realize how much you miss real food until you've been on call for a week and only eaten crap."
"Like what?" Prim questions from across the table where she sits beside their mother.
"Well," Peeta shrugs, wiping his napkin across his mouth as he thinks for a moment. "Yesterday's dinner consisted of some graham crackers that they stock on the nursing unit. I couldn't get away long enough for anything better before the cafeteria closed."
"You can thank Prim for the chicken and the rice," Katniss states, her cheeks blushing slightly when he turns to her with a confused look. "She commandeered the kitchen. I've already told you I'm not the greatest cook."
"But Katniss did make the salad," Prim points out with a chuckle as she stabs at the leafy greens, lightly tossed in raspberry vinaigrette.
"And it's the best salad I've probably ever had," he gushes with a grin that lets Katniss know he's messing with her just as much as Prim.
Her cheeks burn beneath stare and she nearly jumps out of her seat when his hand comes to rest on her upper thigh. Her gaze snaps toward her sister, who is oblivious to his attentions below the table, and she releases a slow breath.
"Would you like more rice, Mom?" Prim questions of their silent mother who has been picking at her dinner for the majority of the meal. Lily had showered prior to Peeta's arrival, but anything more was clearly beyond her energy and her hair hangs in a pale, golden sheet about her shoulders.
"No, thank you," Lily replies, her voice somewhat hoarse from disuse.
"But you've hardly eaten anything else," Prim presses, her tone encouraging as she scoops another pile of rice onto their mother's plate.
Lily pushes the dish away and stands abruptly. "I said no. I'm finished. It was lovely seeing you again, Peeta."
It's the first she's addressed their guest and he stands awkwardly, reaching a hand out to her. To everyone's surprise, she takes it and Peeta smiles brightly. The room is silent, save for the sound of Lily's retreating footsteps until Prim clears her throat and Peeta reclaims his seat.
"So," Prim starts, her fingers fiddling with the edge of the table until she looks up. "I guess now that it's just us three there's no point in beating around the bush. What exactly are your intentions with my sister?"
"Prim!" Katniss shouts, slamming a hand down on the table with a look of horror.
"It's a reasonable question!" Prim argues, a scowl not unlike Katniss's on her features. "You're a doctor. My sister is a nurse at the same hospital. Do you really think it's wise for you two to be carrying on an intimate relationship—"
"Stop it!" Katniss stands, her face burning and her hands trembling—from anger or embarrassment she can't quite say.
"I'm just saying, Katniss!" Prim counters. "What happens when this thing ends?"
Tears sting her eyes and Katniss has to bite her tongue to keep from screaming at the younger woman.
"It's okay." Peeta's soothing voice breaks the tension. "Prim just cares about you." His hand finds one of Katniss's, and she closes her eyes tightly when he tugs, pulling her back down to her seat beside him. "It may not be the most prudent decision to start a relationship when we work so closely with one another. But I care very deeply for your sister," Peeta explains calmly.
"You hardly know each other," Prim points out. "What will you do if it doesn't last?"
"We're both adults." Peeta shrugs. "I imagine we'll get along just fine in a working capacity."
"You clearly don't know my sister," Prim mutters.
"Stop it, Prim," Katniss hisses, her silver eyes molten with fury and fear.
"If you haven't told him, you should," her sister retorts, her voice hushed as though the words are too heavy to be spoken loudly. "He deserves to know about everything you went through—how being with Seneca—"
It's only one word, but the silence that follows it is deadly, and Peeta glances nervously between the two women. Katniss stares at Prim with such venom that it's surprising the younger woman doesn't drop dead instantly.
It's Peeta who clears his throat now, running a hand along the back of his neck as he does. "I don't plan on leaving your sister anytime soon," he assures Prim, his tone leaving no room for argument.
Katniss lets out a heavy sigh. Tonight has gone much differently than she imagined, or rather – hoped, it would. She'll kill Prim once they're alone with one another. She should never have subjected Peeta to her family so soon. It's asking too much. Surely he will change his mind and leave her now that he sees what a mess her life is—and he's only seen the tip of the iceberg.
"Katniss tells me that you've just started medical school," Peeta says, once again breaking through the tense silence of the dining room, trying to steer the conversation towards more neutral territory. "How are you liking it so far?"
Prim taps her perfectly manicured nails against the table for a moment before responding, her blue eyes somehow challenging as she peers up at the man across from her. "It's alright. Hard. Busy. But it's what I've always wanted to do. When did you know you wanted to be a doctor?" she counters smoothly.
"I was about twelve, I think," Peeta replies easily. A faint smile tugs at his lips. "I realized that there is something very special about healing a person."
"Why internal medicine? What made you decide to be a hospitalist?" It's clear Prim thinks he might have lost his mind sometime during medical school. Working as a hospitalist is a demanding and often thankless job.
Peeta shrugs. "I like working in the hospital. Sure there are downsides, but I like meeting new people, and I don't think I was ever cut out to have my own practice and sit in an office for most of the day."
Prim nods, appearing temporarily satisfied by his answers.
A ringtone breaks through the quiet of the dining room and Peeta gives a frustrated sigh as he reaches into his pocket. "Sorry," he apologizes, silencing the phone, but not before Katniss sees Finnick's name on the screen. He absently sets the phone on the table before looking up again.
Prim opens her mouth to speak but before she is able to form a single word, the phone starts vibrating loudly on the table. Peeta's cheeks turn pink as he reaches for the little black box. Finnick's name is on the screen again.
"I should probably take this," he mutters, his chair scraping loudly along the floor as he presses the button to answer the call.
"What's wrong, Finn?" he asks as he walks quickly from the room, his hand grazing Katniss's shoulder lightly as he goes. Prim gives Katniss a sharp look and the room remains silent after Peeta's departure, his muffled conversation drifting back to them.
It's not long before his large form enters the doorway again, a worried frown pulling at his lips. He slips the phone back into his pocket but doesn't make any move to sit back down. Katniss's stomach drops uncomfortably, and she suddenly wishes she hadn't just been eating.
"There's an emergency at the hospital," he says, his voice tight as he shuffles his weight from one foot to the other. "Finnick needs some extra hands to help out —"
"I thought you were off duty," Prim points out coolly, her eyebrows knit tightly together. "I thought there was some other doctor on call."
"This is a personal favor. It's a big case and the ER was already busy to begin with." His hand runs anxiously through his curls. "They need more hands than they've got."
He's upset, tension tightly wound through his shoulders. Katniss wishes she could take it away. "Do they need nurses?" she questions.
His eyes finally meet hers with a flash of relief before he nods. "It wouldn't hurt."
She stands without another thought. Prim looks put out when Katniss turns toward at her again.
"I'm sorry," she says. "We'll try it again before you leave, okay? I promise we'll have a nice dinner."
Prim rolls her eyes but shrugs. "It's part of the job, right?" The small smile that pulls on her sister's lips gives Katniss some comfort. At least she knows Prim won't hold this ruined dinner against Peeta.
Peeta leads the way to his car, opening the door silently for her before jogging around and getting in behind the wheel. As he pulls away from the curb, the car moving at a clipped pace, Katniss reaches a hand over, her fingers pressing gently into the tight muscles of his shoulder.
"What's the emergency?" she asks quietly, trying her best to keep her voice mellow and soothing.
"A DCFS case." His words are cool and short, so unlike the Peeta she's come to know so well.
"How many kids are there?" It's as though a rubber band has suddenly been tied around her chest. As a nurse on an adult medical-surgical unit, Katniss doesn't normally deal directly with cases of child abuse and neglect. However, the news passes quietly amongst the staff throughout the hospital whenever a case does come in.
Katniss's only experience with the Department of Child and Family Services was right after her father died, when Haymitch was appointed guardian over her and her sister. There were a few scattered visits from a social worker, but he somehow quickly managed to prove that they were a functional family, and their days of dealing with DCFS were pretty much over.
"Seven." His knuckles are white against the steering wheel and Katniss realizes that his normally pale skin is drained of all color in the dim streetlights as they pass.
A tense silence permeates the car until they pull up to the physicians' parking. Peeta releases a shuddering breath before getting out of the car. Katniss has never seen him this anxious. It's disconcerting, his emotions bleeding into hers, causing her anxiety to increase tenfold.
"Finnick said he'd be back in Trauma Bay 1," Peeta states, nodding towards the back of the ER and leading the way.
Katniss follows slowly behind him, trying to block out the din that seems intrinsically linked with every ER in the world. Patients coughing, moaning, crying, mixed with nurses giving directions, doctors giving orders, phones ringing—and in the middle of it all bodies are rushing back and forth from one bay to another.
A haggard-looking Finnick comes into view as they reach the door to the trauma bay. He looks up when Peeta moves to stand in the doorway and nods, crossing the room to meet them. Katniss catches the glimpse of the patient over Finnick's shoulder and her blood runs cold.
He can't be older than twelve and though a boy of his age should be vivacious and rowdy, this boy's eyes don't even open when they approach. Peeta's cheeks blanch and she knows he has seen the boy as well. Katniss finds herself looking at the machinery surrounding the small body, checking off possible diagnoses as she looks at the IV's dripping and the vitals monitor, among other things.
"Thanks for coming," Finnick breathes, exhaustion rife in every movement his body makes. "Peet, if you could work with the boy in bay ten. His name is Daniel—"
"Are they all as bad as…" he trails off, his voice too choked to finish his thought, though he never looks away from the little boy over Finnick's shoulder.
"No," Finnick replies. "He bore the brunt of it from the looks of things. But, Peeta, it's pretty bad. Will you be all—"
"Bay ten?" Peeta cuts the other man off. Katniss has never seen him this way and reaches for his hand. His fingers are clammy as they give hers a shaky squeeze before he heads towards the bay Finnick had mentioned. She wishes he would look at her, give her some sign that he'll be all right. Katniss gets the distinct impression that he might not be, that this case might eat away at him.
Finnick sighs heavily, watching the blond head of curls as they disappear amongst the crowded ER before he turns back to Katniss. "I could use your help in here, if you're okay with it," he states, nodding back towards the trauma bay. "We're waiting for MRI results before we decide what we're going to do with him."
"Okay," she replies quietly, barely loud enough to be heard over all the noise in the hallway.
Finnick grabs a pair of gloves from a box mounted on the wall as they enter and Katniss follows suit. She can see the IV drips more readily now and notices a bag of Mannitol hanging from one pole. A Versed drip infuses slowly into a second IV.
"He has a traumatic brain injury?" Katniss questions, reaching for a clipboard with several spreadsheets used to monitor the boy's vital signs and level of sedation.
"We're not sure yet," Finnick responds, pulling wound care supplies from a cupboard above the sink. "The MRI results will tell us more, but he clearly has head injuries. The X-ray showed several fractures to his skull, most of them old. I didn't want to take any chances wasting time though.
"Can you pull the curtain and lower his gown?" he asks, snapping on a pair of sterile gloves. "He has some lacerations I want to take a closer look at and make sure they don't need stitches.
Something cold and hard forms in the pit of her stomach as Katniss pulls the thin, green gown back from the boy's torso. He's covered in bruises, his skin a mottled canvas of yellow, blue, and purple splotches. Near his shoulders there are several deep cuts oozing blood through the steri-strips that must have been haphazardly applied when he first arrived to the ER.
Finnick sighs, using a pair of forceps to remove the narrow strips that are now saturated with blood. The boy begins to stir slightly when Finnick swipes antiseptic over and around the area. "What are his vitals looking like?" he questions, his brow furrowed with concentration as he continues to clean the wounds.
"Blood pressure stable. Oxygen saturations are still in the nineties. Respirations 16 per minute," Katniss replies, as she looks over the spreadsheet to ensure that each vital sign is trending stable.
"Okay," Finnick nods, busying himself with a needle and suture thread. "Go ahead and bump the rate on that Versed up another 0.5 mg. I'm going to give him some local anesthetic, but I don't want him waking up too much."
She programs the new dose of the sedative into the IV pump, noting the change on the charting as well. It doesn't take long before the boy settles again, his muscles relaxing as Finnick infuses small amounts of Lidocaine just beneath the skin surrounding the wounds.
His hands are quick, their motions smooth as he sews up the lacerations. A knock at the door to the bay pulls her attention away from Finnick's work. An ER tech hands her a CD and printed report of the boy's MRI.
Finnick glances up for a moment when she steps into view again. His lips press tightly together when he sees the small, white envelope. "Can you pull it up on the computer there while I finish up?"
"Sure," she boots up the computer mounted to the wall of the room, keeping a close eye on the monitor still collecting the boy's vitals while Finnick works. "His saturations are dropping. He's down to 90%. End tidal CO2 is down too."
"Respirations?" He grabs a pair of scissors, snipping at the final suture.
"Twelve. I'm bumping his oxygen up to three liters," she states, turning the dial on the meter in the wall.
Finnick nods, pulling off his gloves and reaching for the printed report still grasped in her free hand. His green eyes flit across the sheet before he turns to the computer, viewing the image for himself with subtle nods as though answering questions only he can hear.
"Looks like there's minimal swelling considering the fractures we found earlier," Finnick mutters after staring at the screen for a long moment. His green eyes find hers looking very much like she's feeling right now. It's a small victory and not one that she takes any joy in.
"I want to clean some of the smaller wounds while he's still sedated," Finnick says, motioning to several round, puckered scabs that appear infected. Katniss hadn't noticed them at first.
"What are those from?" she questions with an unsteady voice, a scowl pulling at her brow as she hands him a fresh pair of gloves.
"They look like cigarette burns," he replies gravely, his face taut as he presses around the tender flesh. "These look like they've developed abscesses beneath them."
Her stomach curdles, and she has to swallow against the bile rising in her throat. It's disgusting to think that any human being could do something like this to another, but to know that this boy was harmed by the very people who were supposed to protect him—it's unthinkable for Katniss. To know that this boy's parents, his very own flesh and blood, allowed this to happen makes her ill.
"How could a parent do this?" she whispers, her words searing with hatred. Anger boils through her blood.
Finnick shakes his head as he deftly lances one of the areas, releasing the infection from beneath the boy's skin. "I don't know, Katniss. I'll never understand it either."
Her eyes burn with tears as she notices much older, healed scars—round, white dots scattered across the soft skin of the child before her. It's then she realizes where she's seen scars like this before. Small areas of puckered skin on a pale chest. Her hands clench into fists, shaking silently at her sides. She has to bite her tongue to keep from screaming.
"Why did you call Peeta?" she asks, earning a sharp glance from Finnick while he drains the wound before swabbing the area with antiseptic and covering it with gauze.
"We needed the help," Finnick reasons, moving on to the next area of infection. "And I knew he wouldn't say no."
"Why?" The word is barely a whisper, and how he can hear her over the din of the ER she'll never know, but he does. She can tell by the way his shoulders tighten and his hands still momentarily.
"It's not my story to tell, Katniss," he murmurs, his eyebrows furrowing together as he finishes the job at hand. "But I think you have a good idea why I chose Peeta."
He doesn't need to say anything more. A chill runs through her body and she glances over her shoulder. There's a small crack between the curtains that allows her to see a sliver of the ER outside of this trauma bay, but she doesn't see Peeta. She is filled with an urge to go in search of him. Her stomach churns uneasily when she turns back to her patient. She has a job to finish.
She continues the slow process of weaning the small boy off the sedative dripping into his vein. His vitals remain stable and Finnick snaps off his gloves once he's finally cleaned all of the cigarette burns. He nods his head, lips pressed in a tight line that tells her tonight is wearing him down just as much as it is wearing her down.
"I think that'll do for tonight," Finnick sighs, shoulders slumped slightly. It's a far cry from the easygoing smile he usually wears. "He doesn't seem to have any unstable internal damage. Once he wakes up, he's free to go up to the pediatric unit. The other kids are already up there by now, so I'm going to head that way."
Katniss nods her understanding before Finnick slips silently between the curtains. There's not much to do aside from monitor the boy's vital signs, and the machine at the bedside makes it relatively simple. A sudden wave of exhaustion overwhelms her, and she settles onto the stool Finnick used while he cleaned the boy's wounds.
She finally takes a moment to look at the thin chart where she's been writing out vitals on the spreadsheet. The X-ray reports reveal several fractures to his skull in varying stages of healing. He has two fractured ribs and a fractured clavicle. While the MRI is stable, there is still a risk that his brain may begin to swell overnight and he will have to be sedated again to minimize the damage to the precious tissue. There are pictures too—so many pictures of bruises and old scars and lacerations.
His name is Thomas. He's ten years old.
Katniss reaches for the boy's limp hand, squeezing it lightly in hopes that it might make the tears burning in her eyes disappear. What kind of monster does this to a child? She doesn't know a single thing about Thomas aside from his name, age, and list of injuries, but she knows he could never have done anything to deserve this. His fingers twitch slightly beneath her palm and his eyelashes flutter slowly.
"Thomas?" she whispers, reaching her free hand to brush the dark locks of dirty hair from his forehead. "My name is Katniss. I'm a nurse. It's okay. You're safe."
His eyes open, revealing bright green orbs that seem to see right through her. It breaks her heart when she sees the brief flash of fear followed by relief when he sees she's a stranger and not one of his abusers.
"Katie?" he questions, his voice hoarse as his gaze flits about the room. "Where's Katie?"
Katniss shakes her head, "I'm not sure. Is Katie your sister?"
"She was crying and Dad got mad," he replies, trying to sit up on the cart.
"Lie down," Katniss orders in her most soothing tone, pressing him back until he relaxes and rests his head against his pillow. "I'll go find out. You need to rest though."
He nods, his eyes already drifting shut again.
It only takes a few tries before Katniss finds a nurse that knows the whereabouts of all the children involved in the DCFS case.
"He's the last one left down here," she nods towards the trauma bay that Katniss had just come from. "The rest weren't in such rough shape. They're all up on the pediatric unit."
"Katie? She was one of them, wasn't she?" Katniss questions, realizing she never asked Finnick if all the children even made it to the hospital.
"The youngest. Two years old," the ER nurse affirms before hurrying off towards a new arrival from triage.
Her stomach twists at this new knowledge, but Katniss returns and informs Thomas that his baby sister is safe. This seems to appease him for now and he relaxes visibly as she releases the brake on the cart and starts the journey to the pediatric unit.
A nurse in Mickey Mouse scrubs directs her to Room Five when she rolls off the elevator. She's an elderly, grey-haired woman who has a smile that calms Katniss's frayed nerves when she introduces herself to Thomas.
It only takes a few minutes for Katniss to help her transfer the small boy to his bed and she's dismissed from the room while his new nurse makes him comfortable and does a baseline assessment.
She spots Finnick on a phone at the nurse's station and waits while he finishes dictating on a patient. He releases a long breath when he hangs up and rifles a hand through his hair as he leans back in his chair. He looks exhausted.
"Where's Peeta?" Katniss questions, causing Finnick to jump slightly in surprise.
"Damn. I didn't know you were standing there," he says with a hollow laugh. "You're sneaky, Everdeen."
She shrugs wordlessly, shuffling her feet and looking around for a mop of blond curls that is mysteriously absent.
"He went home," Finnick informs her, after a few moments. "He looked like he was about to drop."
"So do you," she points out. His green eyes are dull, the night clearly having taken its toll on him.
Finnick shrugs. "I need to give admission orders on two more kids. Once they're settled in, I'll see if I can catch a few hours of rest in one of the on call rooms."
"Do you need anymore help?" Katniss asks.
"Go home, Katniss," he orders, standing slowly before reaching out to pat her shoulder, a thankful smile tugging at his weary lips. "You've done more than enough tonight. You must be tired too."
She scuffs the toe of her shoe against the white linoleum, trying to stop the blush from coloring her cheeks before she admits, "I don't really have a way home right now."
Finnick frowns. "What do you mean you don't have a way home?"
"I came here with Peeta," she whispers, her voice barely louder than a sigh, but she knows he's heard her when his eyebrows shoot up to his hairline.
"You two were together?" he questions, his surprise melting into a cocky smile as he crosses his arms over his chest.
Her cheeks burn, but she nods, fiddling anxiously with the end of her braid. Peeta trusts Finnick, she knows that much, but she still worries he might not approve, that he might report whatever it is that's going on between the two of them.
"Well, I'll be damned," he mutters, chuckling quietly as he shakes his head.
Her heart sinks and Katniss immediately wishes she could take her confession back, that she could pull each word from the air between them, but his eyes glitter with amusement when he looks up at her again.
"The boy certainly doesn't waste any time," Finnick says, pulling a set of keys from the pocket of his pants. "At least he chose a good one."
She frowns, staring at the silver ring of metal as though it's some sort of monster, unsure what Finnick expects her to do with them.
He shakes his wrist, jingling the key ring for emphasis. "Take them, Katniss. I'm not going anywhere tonight and, truth be told, Peeta can probably use somebody right now."
"What do you mean?" she asks, her brow turning into its familiar scowl.
The man shrugs, pressing the keys into her hand. "You'll see if you go to him. It's a black Cadillac parked in the second row of the physicians' parking lot. I'm on call until tomorrow evening, so don't worry about getting the car back to me early." He winks and doesn't wait for her to reply before heading down the hall to check on one of the children.
Katniss stands in the center of the deserted nurses' station, unsure of what exactly just happened. She looks down at the silver keys in her hand and frowns. Something tells her that she'll have more questions to answer when she returns the car to Finnick, but right now her mind just keeps replaying the one moment that is still ringing sharply in her mind.
Peeta can probably use somebody right now.
The simple sentence causes an inexplicable fear to tug at her belly. Maybe it was the flash of sadness that she saw in Finnick's eyes. Perhaps it's because Peeta left her stranded at the hospital without saying goodbye. All she knows is that there is only one place that she wants to be right now, and it's a few miles away in an apartment far fancier than her own home.
Katniss knocks softly at the door, hoping that Peeta hasn't gone to bed yet and she isn't waking him. There's no answer, but she hears a quiet shuffling inside the apartment.
"Peeta?" she whispers quietly as she tries the door and finds it unlocked. The front room is empty. "Peeta?" she tries again, noting that the door to his bedroom is slightly ajar, a faint beam of light pouring from the crack.
She crosses the room and her hand immediately moves to push the door open. It's against her better judgment. It's prying. Seneca would scream at her when she did things like this. He hated when she forced herself on him when he clearly wanted to keep her away.
The sight awaiting her when the door swings open is enough to break her heart, though. Peeta paces across the room, his hands tangled in his gold curls, tugging furiously as though trying to extract some awful thought. His shoulders are tense, the muscles rigid beneath the soft fabric of his sweater.
"Peeta?" she whispers.
He finally hears her and his movements freeze. His eyes are wild with fear when they meet hers. He swallows thickly, his throat bobbing visibly. His hands drop to his sides, shaking as he tightens them into fists.
Katniss crosses the room silently, reaching a hand to cup his cheek when she's near enough. He releases a shuddering breath and turns his face into her palm. His eyes close tightly as though trying to block something out. She's close enough now to see that his eyes are red-rimmed and puffy behind the dark frames of his glasses.
His bottom lip trembles against her palm a moment before his arms wrap themselves around her, pulling her impossibly close to him. He's so tense, every fiber of his being pulled taut with the fear she saw in his eyes only moments ago.
He takes several unsteady steps backwards until the backs of his legs hit the bed and he sits, tugging her into his lap and refusing to release her from his arms. He rests his head against her chest, his blond curls tickling her lips when she presses her lips to the crown of his head.
"Tell me what to do," she begs, brushing her fingers along his back, pressing soothing circles into his shoulders. "Tell me how to help you."
"Don't leave," he breathes, his voice hitching on the last word. The sound of it makes her stomach twist. She's so used to him being the strong one. She's not sure how to be strong for him. She wishes she could take this pain away, but this is a pain that morphine can't heal, so she holds him closer, humming softly against the crown of his head and hoping that the demons in his mind might leave soon.
Katniss doesn't know how much time passes before Peeta lies back, taking her with him and settling her beside him. He doesn't speak at first, letting his forehead fall forward until it meets gently with hers. Their lips are close, his breath fans over her cheek when he sighs.
Finally, he opens his fragile, blue eyes and meets her steady grey gaze. He's still dressed in the same pair of slacks and soft orange sweater he wore to dinner tonight. She raises a hand and slips her fingers beneath the collar of the sweater, the pads of her thumb and forefinger brushing over the slightly puckered skin where she can still vividly picture the small, circular scars from the other night.
"Someone hurt you," she murmurs. It isn't a question. There's no doubt in her mind that her words are true. She can't imagine anyone reacting the way Peeta has to tonight if he hadn't gone through a similar situation himself.
His eyes close tightly, but he nods, his own trembling hand reaching up to cover hers. She nestles closer to him, letting her legs intertwine with his and pressing a kiss to his cheek.
"Who was it?" she asks and his hand tightens its grip on hers.
He shakes his head, pressing his lips to hers instead of answering. His kiss is fevered, a desperate attempt at trying to forget. It's a feeling Katniss is well acquainted with and she doesn't have the heart to push him away. Tonight he is hurting, and if he wants to seek comfort in this physical act, she won't stop him.
His hand grazes the curve of her waist, coming to rest on her hip, his fingers digging gently against the soft skin as his tongue swipes along the seam of her lips. She sighs quietly, her lips parting easily to allow him access. She lets her fingers caress the tense lines of muscles as they ascend his neck, finding their way to tangle in his hair.
Peeta moans, a deep, throaty sound that sends heat pooling low in her belly while he shifts and repositions himself above her. She rolls onto her back without argument, her knees bowing outward to allow his hips to rest between her thighs. She fleetingly wonders if he can feel the heat that seems to be smoldering through her veins, but if he does, he doesn't seem to mind as he presses himself closer to her.
His hands tug impatiently at the hem of her shirt, and she shifts slightly so he can yank it over her head in one swift movement. His hands don't hesitate before finding the clasps of her bra, releasing them easily and allowing the rose-colored garment to fall somewhere over the edge of the bed.
It's all so fast. Her mind is drugged by Peeta's touch and she hardly has time to process what is happening before he sheds his own shirt and his lips find hers once more. The light dusting of hair across his chest scratches pleasantly against her skin, a whimper slipping from her throat when he shifts just so, grazing her nipples and sending a wave of heat rushing to pool between her thighs.
His lips suckle at her pulse point. Her hips roll slowly against his, seeking friction that might aid in releasing the fire that seems to be building inside of her. A growl echoes from deep inside his chest when Katniss's hips lift just enough to brush against the growing bulge in his slacks. Peeta's hips rock against hers in return and their shuddering breaths mingle in the short space between them.
He reaches for the waist of her pants, his eyes a deep blue when they flicker up to meet hers, asking a wordless question that causes her breath to catch in her throat. She can't answer, so she lifts her hips and her pants slide smoothly over her legs along with her panties.
Wasting no time, his fingers fumble at his belt, releasing the clasp and making quick work of the button before sliding them over his hips. Katniss can't stop her eyes from lingering on the narrow angle of his hips as he reaches to remove the boxer briefs that do little to hide his prominent erection.
It's easy to make out the small circles of puckered skin in the warm light of his bedroom, and she reaches forward again to touch one near his clavicle. Katniss can't stop the visions of a tiny, blond-haired boy screaming as a cigarette is pressed into the smooth skin of his chest, the way his face crumples in pain, the fat tears that roll down rounded cheeks.
"Peeta," she whispers, the word choked as she finally lifts her gaze to look this beautiful man in the eyes. "Who did this to you?"
She imagines any number of scenarios in a fraction of a minute, each one more horrid than the next. The thought that anyone could hurt him—hurt this man who is so gentle and kind, who has made it his living to take care of others—is unthinkable.
"I – I," his voice cracks unsteadily and he swallows, his Adam's apple bobbing quickly as he does. She presses a hand to his cheek and he blinks, shaking his head as though he's changed his mind. "I need you," he whispers, the desperation in his words evident as his hand caresses gently between her thighs, fingers dipping between her folds.
She mewls, trying to fight the way her hips writhe against his touch. It's as though he knows every nuance of her body. He touches her just the way she desires most, anticipating her wants before they've even fully formed in her mind.
It doesn't escape her that he's doing this to flee the demons haunting him tonight, but she doesn't have the heart to stop him. She can't turn him away tonight after everything he's seen and the burden of his dark history. Katniss still wants answers, but there will be time for that tomorrow, once the light of day has chased away the nightmares haunting the man in her arms. Tonight, she won't fight him.
"Katniss," he hums quietly, his lips brushing across the valley between her breasts, latching around a nipple as they reach it, his tongue laving over the sensitive skin. She is writhing beneath him in minutes, and his lips give a wet pop as he releases her dusky bud.
"Peeta," she pleads desperately, her body on fire with a hunger for him that consumes her. "Let me touch you."
He leans back, his eyes searching hers as her hands smooth over his pale skin, her nails scratching lightly through the path of fine, dark-blond hairs that trail down his waist. His breath hitches as she wraps her hand around the hard girth of his cock. She releases him after a moment, his eyes fluttering open in confusion as she reaches between her thighs, gathering some of the moisture there before taking him in her hand again.
"Christ," he swears breathlessly, releasing a heavy groan as he collapses forward, resting his weight on his elbows as she pumps her hand over his length, hoping she's doing a decent job of it. Judging by the way he begins to tremble above her, she guesses she must not be screwing everything up completely.
"Fuck." She tightens her grip slightly and he moans, burying his face against her neck for a moment before quickly pulling away, his cock slipping from her hand. "Katniss, stop. Stop."
Her cheeks flush heatedly, and she ducks her gaze to stare at her shaking, empty hand. "Sorry–I–sorry, Peeta," she stutters quickly, wiping her palm against her bare thigh and trying to cover herself with the other.
He snorts, a breathless laugh passing his lips. "Sorry," he repeats and she burns with embarrassment at the humor in his voice. One of his hands finds hers, pulling it away from where it is trying to cover her most intimate body parts. "Katniss, don't be sorry." His lips graze her cheek as he pulls her to his chest. "I wasn't going to last much longer if you kept that up."
He leans back just enough to look into her eyes. She wishes she could look away, but the striking blue rings hold her gaze steady. "You have no idea what you do to me," he whispers hoarsely.
She worries her bottom lip between her teeth for a moment until Peeta presses a gentle kiss to the corner of her mouth. She smiles shyly, wrapping her legs around his hips and pulling him back to her.
His lips trail a heated path of kisses along her jaw, down her neck, across her clavicle. Her hands learn him, mapping every inch of him that she can reach, and still he isn't close enough. He's hurting, and Katniss wants nothing more than to make it go away.
"I should-I need to get something," he pants, his lips parting from her skin only long enough to gasp out the sentence.
Katniss frowns, unable to understand what he means as her fingers trail along the sinewy muscle of his biceps. "What are you —"
"A condom," he clarifies, his palms kneading her breasts slowly. Her body arches into his touch.
"It's okay, Peeta."
She doesn't allow him time to protest. It's her who reaches between them and guides him to her entrance. She's the one to lift her hips, allowing his cock to part her folds and slide inside of her.
"Katniss," Peeta whispers like a chant, a prayer. She doesn't think her name has ever sounded more beautiful. He leans into her, slowly burying himself inside her as he suckles her skin reverently.
It's been a long while since she's been with anyone, and she represses the grimace at the initial tightness once he's fully sheathed inside of her. His forehead rests against her breastbone as he takes several slow, shuddering breaths. Katniss is sure he can hear the rapid thundering of her heart in her chest, but he doesn't remark on it if he does.
He pulls out, moving slowly as he pushes back into her with a low growl. Her hands find their way to his lower back, reveling in the feel of his muscles as he continues pump into her. She mewls, rolling her hips to meet with his as her body adjusts to his girth and tendrils of pleasure unfold lazily in her core.
"You're beautiful," Peeta says in a hushed voice, peppering kisses over her skin. "Fuck." His hips snap, as though of their own accord, and he releases a ragged breath. She moans, reaching a hand up to cup his neck and pull his lips back to hers. She dips her tongue past his lips, her nerves burning as she brushes his palette, eliciting a deep groan.
When their lips separate, Peeta reaches a hand behind her knee, lifting it up so her thigh lays flat against her torso. Her back arches off the bed as he continues to drive into her, his pace quickening as his cock reaches a new place inside of her that leaves her hands clawing against the covers with each thrust.
"Oh my god," she mutters, reaching a hand out and placing her palm over his chest right over his fourth and fifth ribs where his heart lies.
He gives her a quirk of a smile before pulling out. She whines in protest but before she can tell him not to stop, he turns her onto her side and spoons her to his chest. Lifting her leg again, he flexes his hips in one smooth movement and is once again inside her, this time hitting a spot that makes her see stars with each thrust.
"Oh," she groans, throwing her head back against his chest. Peeta takes this as an invitation to nibble on her ear before dipping lower to suckle at the tender skin of her neck.
He slides a hand around her hips, his fingers finding the swollen bundle of nerves between her thighs easily. She cries out, writhing against him as though possessed when he presses quick, firm circles in time with the rhythm his hips have created. Her hands reach back, delving into his sweat-dampened curls, grasping desperately at the man who has turned her blood to liquid fire.
"Let go," he murmurs against her ear, his voice rough in a way she's never heard before. "Katniss, let go. I won't last much longer. I want to hear you come."
Her belly tightens at his words, and he thrusts into her with such vigor that suddenly she's at the precipice of something infinitely terrifying and enticing. He leans forward, his teeth pressing into her shoulder as his hips snap into her. Once. Twice. And she's flying, her body arching back against his as she cries out incoherently save for one word, "Peeta!" Her muscles contract with a mind of their own as she trembles against him, and he continues to pump into her while she rides out the last waves of her orgasm.
"Fuck." He pulls out as he mutters the curse. She's never heard him swear so much in the time since she's met him, but the word is somehow erotic when it falls from his tongue. His breaths are heavy and ragged as his cock pulses between her thighs, and a warm spurt of semen hits her skin. He buries his face in the crook of her neck with a loud groan that makes her shiver though her muscles are still exhausted in her boneless bliss.
It's several minutes before either of them recovers, but Katniss doesn't mind the way Peeta keeps his arm wrapped around her waist, or the feel of his chest pressed firmly against her back.
She whimpers and scoots back in the bed when Peeta starts to move, hoping he might delay their separation a few more minutes, but he stands anyway, pulling off his glasses before ruffling his hair lazily and grabbing his underwear from the floor. He places his glasses on the table near the door as he walks into the bathroom down the hallway.
The door shuts with a quiet click that causes the sudden silence to sting like a slap to her face. Her stomach rolls dangerously, and she swallows thickly against the bile that rises in her throat. What did she do? She's been here before. How often had Seneca left her alone in a cold bed after sex? She sits up, covering her breasts with one arm, though there is no one around to see her as she gathers her clothes from where Peeta tossed them earlier.
There's a towel hanging over the back of his desk chair and she uses the corner of it to clean herself off, wiping with more force than necessary at the sticky fluid still on her thigh. She doesn't waste time with her underwear as she slips back into her sweater and pants. All Katniss cares about right now is getting out of here before Peeta can tell her to get out, before he can thank her for a fun night and guide her out the front door like Seneca did so many times.
Her cheeks burn with humiliation as she silently treads past the bathroom. She's just grabbing her shoes from beside the front door when a beam of light falls across her sex-mussed hair. She steels herself for what comes next, her hand already reaching for the doorknob when Peeta steps into the front room with a worried frown.
"What are you doing?" he questions, his voice almost childlike in tone. There's a vulnerability in his gaze that catches her off guard. His eyes widen as they take in the scene before them, focusing on her outstretched hand just as it meets with the cool metal of the doorknob.
"You're leaving," he answers his own question.
Tears burn in her eyes as she waits for him to smile, to thank her for saving him the trouble of kicking her out of his bed, but the words don't come. Instead he crosses the room, reaching a hand towards her and gazing at her imploringly. She stares dumbly at his hand, at the fingers that gave her so much pleasure only moments ago.
"Don't go," he pleads hoarsely. "I–I don't want you to go, Katniss."
A tear slips from her eye, and she ducks her face, hastily brushing her hand across her cheek. She's so confused. When she looks up at him, he's still watching her cautiously, like she might dart out from under his grasp at any moment.
"You left. You didn't say anything," she says. "I just—I thought you wanted me to leave."
Peeta shakes his head slowly, reaching his hand a few inches further. "I never wanted you to leave. I was just cleaning up."
She swallows thickly and hesitantly places her hand in his. "I'm terrible at this," she admits in a whisper.
His fingers close around hers and he pulls her to his bare chest, cradling her head tenderly against his shoulder. "Apparently, so am I. Come back to bed with me?"
She nods against him, her heart fluttering contentedly now that she is in his arms again. His arms circle her waist and lift her easily. She lets out a shocked squeak, allowing her legs to wrap around his hips when he begins walking back to the bedroom.
He lowers her gently to the floor, and when their gazes meet, her heart skips a beat. His hands slowly remove her clothes again. This time there is no rush, no desperation, as his fingers brush softly along her skin.
They slip under the covers together, and she nestles her naked body against him, shivering slightly at the skin-to-skin contact. His hand draws lazy patterns against the dip in her lower back, and he wears a content smile when he glances down at her again.
"Better?" he questions playfully, leaning forward to press a kiss to her forehead.
"Yes. But do you feel better?" she counters, her grey eyes serious as she gazes up at him. They both know what she means. It would be impossible to forget what brought her here tonight.
His smile falters and his hand freezes for a moment before resuming its movements when he nods, a tense movement that she might have missed if she weren't watching him so intently.
"Yes," he whispers. "You made me forget, even if it was only for a little while."
"Forget what, Peeta?" she questions, reaching a hand up to caress his jaw. She can see the pain in his eyes, can feel it in the way his jaw tightens beneath her touch. "Who gave you these scars?"
He releases a slow breath, his nostrils flaring slightly as he closes his eyes. "My mom."
It's a confession so horrible, so unexpected, that Katniss can't stop herself from gasping. How anyone could hurt this gentle man, then just a golden-haired boy, she can never understand. But to think that it was his own mother—the woman who gave him life—who hurt him is unthinkable.
"Are—" her voice breaks and she swallows against the dryness that seems to have taken over her mouth, "Are they cigarette burns?" she asks, fingering one of the puckered circles of skin, remembering the red, angry marks on the boy earlier tonight.
"Yes," he breathes, screwing his eyes more tightly shut.
"Oh, Peeta," she whispers. The tears pooling in her eyes might spill over at any moment, and she blinks quickly in hopes that it will keep them at bay.
"She was sick," he explains, his voice quiet and hesitant, like he fears the woman might walk into the room at any minute. "I was too young to understand why she did it. I never meant to set her off…"
Katniss swallows against the lump suddenly forming in her throat, unsure of what she could possibly say to make this better, to make the pain go away. She has a feeling there's nothing that could ever truly accomplish it.
"She was so angry," he says in a harsh whisper, a bitter frown creasing his face. "She blamed me."
She waits for him to continue, to explain what he means. When he doesn't she whispers, "Blamed you for what, Peeta?"
His blue eyes open, unfathomable pain swirling in their depths when he answers, "For being alive."
Something breaks inside of her and tears slip down her cheeks as she leans forward to press her lips to his. She can feel him trembling, and she wraps her arms around him more tightly, nestling his head against her chest. She hums softly into his curls, partly out of habit. She would always sing for Prim when the younger girl was upset while they were growing up, and she hopes that it will somehow help soothe the hurt raging inside Peeta right now.
"She wanted a daughter," he mutters after a while. "I was the big disappointment. From the moment I was born, I was always a letdown for my mother.
"They tried to have another baby after me. My dad promised they would keep trying until she had a girl, but she couldn't get pregnant again." His voice is fragile, sounding more like a child than a grown man. "I was three the first time she hit me."
"Oh, Peeta," Katniss whispers, threading her fingers through his curls, pressing her lips to the soft pile of gold.
"She took it out on my brothers sometimes too, but I was always her main target. It was my fault that her dreams were never realized." He lifts his head so their gazes can meet, and she finds his eyes swimming with tears much like her own. He shrugs. "I tried to make her proud. I never have though." The words hold a subtle bitterness that bites at her heart. He shudders before he presses a kiss to her mouth.
"I'm proud of you," she whispers when they break apart, his lips still close enough that her brush them when she speaks. "You are smart and kind and so brave, Peeta. You do more good than your mother ever could have asked for. She's blind if she can't see that."
Silence settles between them for a long while, broken only by Peeta's shaky breaths. His thumbs brush gently along her waist while he stares up at her with something akin to awe.
"Will you stay here tonight?" he questions, his words unsteady and hesitant as though he thinks Katniss would ever be able to deny him anything, especially such a simple request.
"Of course," she smiles softly, nestling herself closer to him, trying to eliminate any space left between them. His strong arms circle around her, and he releases a soft sigh of contentment when he buries his face against her hair.
There's no place in the world she'd rather be tonight.
AN: Again, thank you for reading. Feel free to let me know your thoughts on the chapter! I love to hear from all of you! If you are so inclined, you may also follow me on tumblr at .com. Occasionally I post little snippets of what I'm working on and let you know how the writing is going.