Thank you to Lbug84 for betaing (have you read her story 7 Steps yet?) and Chelzie for prereading!

Chapter 13: The true survivor

Peeta's POV

Cashmere and Finnick want the grand tour of 12. Haymitch, who has surprisingly come over for breakfast, guffaws and says that won't take long. Katniss scowls and looks down at her plate. But I don't miss the sidelong glances she sends Cashmere when she thinks no one sees her.

When we pass each other in the kitchen, it's out of habit that my fingers brush against the small of her back. It's only for an instant, but Finnick notices. He winks at me, and his eyes twinkle at Katniss. She blushes furiously and almost drops her plate.

There may not be much to see in 12, but it's a beautiful day. Why not make the most of it? My guests and I decide to go with Katniss, Ivy and Arrow to the Town. Katniss looks uncomfortable at my suggestion, but doesn't object. Arrow is excited to show off Finnick to his friends at school. The two of them have really hit it off. "Perhaps you could come to school and tell my class about 4, Finnick!" he says, his gray eyes shining.

"If your teacher says yes, I'd love to do that, Arrow," Finnick says. "I can tell them about fishing. How does that sound?"


"Mrs. Grayson might not say yes, Arrow," Katniss says. It doesn't look like Arrow is listening, though.

Finnick dresses casually, in light brown chinos and a white shirt, which is of course buttoned down too low. Still, he doesn't look completely out of place in 12. Cashmere, on the other hand, does. She doesn't wear high heels – she's survived the Hunger Games, after all, so she knows she needs comfortable shoes for walking around all day. Still, the pink designer dress she's wearing, though casual – even plain - by Capitol standards, isn't like anything in 12. She shows skin, but not too much - Cashmere is always classy. Add blonde curls, manicured nails and a pair of big sunglasses, and she looks very glamorous indeed.

I don't miss Katniss's scowl. She pretends not to notice Cashmere as she wraps Ivy on her back. Her motions are smooth, practiced, and she gets her daughter up in no time. Cashmere raises an eyebrow. "Practical," she says.

"Huh?" Katniss says, confused.

Cashmere nods at Ivy. "Wearing Ivy on your back like that. She seems to like it, too."

Cashmere takes Ivy's little hand, and Ivy giggles. Ivy loves Cashmere. Katniss looks like she can't decide whether or not she should smack Cashmere in the face. Thankfully she doesn't. Instead she pretends as though she needs to check Arrow's bag, putting some distance between Cashmere and her daughter. "Yes, it is. Although it's also a matter of necessity in 12. No one in the Seam can afford prams."

"Cinna should see this," Cashmere says. "I bet he has all sorts of exclusive fabrics that would look divine."

"Well, in 12 we usually choose function over divinity," Katniss says dryly. Cashmere doesn't answer. Katniss avoids my eyes as we leave the house.

Haymitch tags along, too. He tells Finnick and Cashmere stories from 12 that are definitely not the kind that Arrow should hear, but at least he tries to make them sound as innocent as possible. Cashmere laughs, hooking her arm through his as we walk. Haymitch and Cashmere have always gotten along, although I'm not quite sure why. I know he's never slept with her, because I asked her once. Perhaps that's a part of it.

We follow Arrow to school, and that's when we get the first taste of what this is going to be like. Haymitch and I are victors, but everyone in 12 is used to seeing us – drunk, mostly. We're hardly glamorous in the eyes of our district.

Cashmere and Finnick, on the other hand, are the very definition of glamour. Arrow basks in the glow of the two career victors, even if they only spend about ten minutes in the school yard signing autographs and talking to the children before the first class. Finnick talks to Arrow's teacher, and agrees to come and talk about 4 and teach the children some knots next week. Mrs. Grayson looks like she's about to faint, and Haymitch and Cashmere are barely able to contain their laughter.

Katniss mumbles something about having to work, and goes back to the Victors' Village with Ivy, which leaves the four of us alone. Four victors. I never thought I'd function as a tourist guide to 12. This is surreal. We are about as far away from the Capitol as we could possibly get, culturally, economically, and geographically. I feel it even more so now that we're not in the privacy of my house. The divide between 12 and us seems bigger than ever. We walk through Town, and I feel hundreds of pairs of eyes on us.

Finnick insists that I show them the bakery, and I reluctantly agree. Just as I feared, my mother is there, but to my surprise, Finnick completely wins her over. She's practically purring by the time I manage to get us out of there. I have never seen anything like it, but it's Finnick, after all. He can charm anyone when he wants to, regardless of sex and age. I'm sure my mother would fuck him on the flour sacks in a second if he asked her to.


We also pay an awkward visit to the mayor, Mr. Undersee. Haymitch insists we have to, since it would be an insult if two high-profile victors came to 12 without seeing Mr. Undersee.

The mayor has become so old. He never got over the loss of his only daughter, not that anyone expected him to. His wife died years ago, not long after Madge was killed. They said she had a tumor growing in her brain. There was nothing the doctor in 12 could do, and not even the mayor could send his wife to the Capitol for treatment.

Ever since the day I came back to 12 a victor, it's been practically impossible for Mr. Undersee and I to relate to each other. We do meet for official functions, but I never know what to say to him. The fact that I'm alive highlights the fact that his daughter is not – since only one of us could come back. What's more, I caused her death. So I don't blame him for seemingly being unable to meet my eyes.

So I do what I usually do when I'm around Mr. Undersee - I try to say as little as possible, and I'm relieved when the four of us get out of there and walk to the Seam. It is a beautiful day, but not all the sunshine in the world could distract us from the abject poverty. I stop by the orphanage with a bag of bread I picked up at the bakery. Katniss's mother mentioned in passing that the conditions in the orphanage were bad. I am still not prepared for what meets me: a house full of children as thin and frail as Arrow and Ivy were when they first moved in. It's eerily quiet, too. I suppose they are preserving their energy for… surviving. Just one more day. There is no energy left for playing, or even showing any kind of emotion.

They are all dark-haired, with olive skin and gray or brown eyes. How many of them have lost their fathers in the mines? I wonder to myself. Some of them might even have mothers that are still alive. Sometimes a desperate mother will leave her child on the steps of the orphanage to keep from starving to death. But looking at their gaunt little faces, I can't help but think that starving to death is just what they are doing here, too, though perhaps a bit more slowly.

We are all very quiet after.

I'll be making more trips to the orphanage in the future.

When we reach the border of the Town and approach the Meadow, Cashmere breaks the silence. "Was that what it was like?" Her voice is so low I can barely hear her. "With Ivy and Arrow?" I nod. She mutters some curse words under her breath. "It's worse in 12 than I had imagined," she says. "We're fucking privileged in 1." She shakes her head slowly. "I never thought I'd say it."

Then she puts on her sunglasses. The wall is back up.

On the way back, Finnick asks if we can go down to the river.

"Are you missing the ocean already?" I smile.

"Always," he answers. "If you've been raised by the ocean, it's in your blood, and you miss it as soon as it's out of your sight." He doesn't smile back at me. I guess this is yet another reason why Finnick detests being in the Capitol.

The river is the only body of water we have here in 12. The nearest ocean is beyond the wilderness, so it will have to do for Finnick for now. Cashmere complains about her shoes. I guess they weren't as comfortable as she'd thought. But we've been on our feet all day, and I bet she doesn't walk this much in 1, or anywhere for that matter. Haymitch and Cashmere decide to head back to the Victor's Village, while Finnick and I take a detour down to the river.

Finnick sheds his clothes and jumps into the water before I even have the chance to remove my shoes. It doesn't bother me, it's hardly the first time I've seen him naked. After all, we are both in the prostitution business, and more than a few rich Capitolites have paid for the services of two of Panem's most popular victors – at the same time. Finnick moves through the water effortlessly, it's as if he belongs there. He stops, treading water as he looks back at me, with my pants rolled up and wading in the shallow water, and shouts back, "Jump in, Peeta!"

I shake my head. The water does look inviting, as we're upstream of the mines. This is where 12 gets its drinking water. Downstream, the river is dead. "I can't swim," I shout to him.

"What?!" Finnick looks like he can't even imagine that it's possible for anyone not to know how to swim. Well, he's from 4, so I guess he can't.

"Most people in 12 can't swim," I tell him.

"This district is the most fucked up place I've ever seen." Then he disappears under the water again.

I'm not quite sure how it happens, but somehow we're all planning a picnic by the river the next day. Complete with swimming, of course. Actually, Cashmere and Finnick do the planning, while Katniss scowls and Haymitch mutters something under his breath.

Cashmere says she'll do the cooking. I remember Gloss once saying that she loves cooking in 1, but I've only met her in the Capitol, where food is simply something you order, not something you make, so I have a hard time imagining it. She's so excited about it that she even goes back to the Town to get some more supplies, her previously aching feet apparently forgotten. Although she does wear a different pair of shoes for her second trip to the Town.

Katniss and the children will go on the picnic, too. Tomorrow is Saturday, so there's no school. I suspect that Katniss doesn't want to, but it's impossible to say no to Arrow when he's given the option of spending more time with Finnick.

Katniss and I have very little time together with visitors in the house. It's probably a good thing, considering how heated our time alone had become before Finnick and Cashmere showed up. Still, I crave being alone with her, and it's not only because I want to feel her body against mine again. But this morning, the opportunity for some time alone readily presents itself as I look for a clean t-shirt after Ivy accidentally knocked over a glass of milk in my direction. Katniss comes into my room to change the sheets on my bed. She looks startled for a second as she drinks in my naked chest, and I can't help but blush. I quickly slip on the clean t-shirt and smile at her.

Something is different now, though. The usual scowl is still on her face, even though we are alone, and she still avoids my eyes.

"What's wrong?" I ask her.


She's pushing me away again. "Aren't we past this?" She doesn't answer. I cross the floor, closing the distance between us. "Look at me, Katniss – please?"

When she looks into my eyes, I'm surprised to see that hers are shining with tears. "What's wrong?" I whisper, and I'm even more surprised when she actually comes to me, seeking my comfort. I offer her my arms, and holding her is so easy, so natural. Her body is so small yet so strong, and it feels like it belongs here, next to mine.

"It's… the river. I used to go there… with Gale. And…"

It's not easy to hear her talk about Gale, but that's just me being selfish. I want to comfort her. I'm glad she trusts me enough to tell me what's bothering her. It shows how far we've come from the quiet, reserved woman who moved into my house five months ago. And I guess how far I've come from the angry, drunk victor, too. "You don't have to go if you think it's too much," I tell her. "I can take Arrow if you want to. It's okay."

She shakes her head. "No, he really wants me there. And I want to go, too... I think," she adds, after a pause.

"If you're sure, we'll go together. We'll try to enjoy ourselves, okay? And if it gets to be too much, we can always come back home."

She looks up at me, and her cheeks are wet with tears. I gently brush them away. Her eyes are hesitant. There is guilt there too, I think. It's not hard to imagine why. She's crying over one man in the arms of another. I guess I'd feel guilty if the situations were reversed, too – not because I had any real reason to feel guilty, but because I probably couldn't help it. "I'm sorry," she says.

"For what?"

"For laying this on you. I know things are complicated, it's a lot to handle, and…" Her voice trails off. "I'm sure things would be less complicated with Cashmere." She suddenly sounds defensive. Her eyes dart to the floor.

I can't help but laugh. She looks up at me, surprised. "Trust me, there's nothing that could possibly be more complicated than Cashmere." I tighten my grip around her. "We're both fucked up, okay? Two victors together – it would be a disaster." I shake my head, still chuckling.

I kiss her forehead and release her, but our touch lingers. This talk somehow seems more significant than the recent… advances we've had in our physical relationship.

It's another beautiful day, and we're all in a good mood as we get ready to leave for the picnic – except Katniss. She's quiet. Too quiet. So, I watch her. Haymitch seems to keep an eye on her, too. Does he know that Katniss used to go to the river with Gale? It seems unlikely, but I don't really know what happened after I asked Haymitch to check on her, back when I was in the Capitol. Katniss does seem to relax a bit more once we get down to the river, though. There is even a small smile on her lips as she sees Arrow running around in the grass. I take that as a good sign.

The smile disappers when Finnick starts taking his clothes off, though. Katniss turns beet red and stares down at her feet. When Finnick is down to his swimming shorts, and I'm more than a little relieved that he's not swimming naked this time, he looks at the rest of us expectantly. I know Finnick very well. He's actually not putting on a show to make Katniss flushed and uncomfortable right now, and he knows Haymitch, Cashmere and I don't care. Still, I guess all Katniss sees is that he's almost naked. I smile at that. She's so pure.

Finnick looks at us, grinning. "Coming?" he asks.

I shake my head. He already knows I can't swim. Haymitch says, "Hell no!" and guffaws, and Katniss sends him a dirty look for swearing in front of the children. I guess he can't swim, either. Cashmere sticks her toe into the river and complains about the cold water, and says she'll get the food ready instead. Finnick taunts her, but she doesn't listen. She knows him too well to care.

"How about you, woman on fire?" he says to Katniss, and I fully expect her to shake her head and say no. Very few people in 12 can swim. But instead of instantly saying no, she hesitates, and looks longingly at the river.

Katniss can swim. The realization hits me hard, almost as hard as the idea of seeing Katniss wearing… I'm not sure what she'd wear to swim. But I'm sure she wouldn't be wearing that summer dress.

"Daddy was going to teach me to swim this summer," Arrow says, his little face serious. "Wasn't he, Mama?"

Katniss nods, stroking her son's hair. "Yes. But perhaps I can teach you instead? I was the one who taught your Daddy to swim, after all."

"You taught Gale to swim?" I ask her, surprised.

"Yes. My father taught me when I was little." She looks at me. "Can you take Ivy for me?" I nod and take her.

Katniss sheds her dress, and for a split second I think I'm going to faint. She must have planned to go for a swim, because she's wearing a dark tank top and a pair of dark, tight-fitting shorts underneath. She's quite a sight. Those legs… Ugh, I'm a creep. I'm lusting over her while holding Ivy in my arms. I force my gaze away and look at Finnick, who's already wading in the river. He looks like something out of a fairytale with his perfectly sculpted upper body. Katniss follows him, and without looking directly at him, starts swimming when the water reaches her thighs. The river runs slow and wide here, and I suspect Katniss has swam here before, because it looks like she knows exactly which place is the best to get into the river.

And then the strangest thing happens. Katniss, who has previously been so reserved and flustered in Finnick's presence, actually appears to have fun. It starts when he splashes water in her face. Instead of scowling, which I had expected her to do, she splashes him back. I smile at this unexpected change in her behavior.

Finnick is a better swimmer than Katniss, which is not surprising, but she's keeping up. The two of them talk to each other as they swim, too – and it's not a conversation centered around Finnick pushing Katniss's boundaries or making her flustered just to see if he can. From what I can hear, they are talking about swimming and fishing - an everyday, relaxed conversation. Arrow stands on the river bank and watches them. Finnick pretends to be a whale, and Arrow laughs.

I sit with Haymitch, Cashmere and Ivy on a blanket in the shade under a tree, keeping Ivy out of the sun. We observe the strange and unexpected sight. "She's really something, isn't she?" Cashmere says, keeping her voice low. I guess she doesn't want Arrow to hear her.

"Yep," Haymitch answers with a smile that is hard to place. I think it's a proud smile? Yes, it must be pride.

"What do you mean?" I ask her.

Cashmere nods towards the river, raising an eyebrow when she sees my confusion. "Finnick sensed it immediately, too."

I don't know what to say. Haymitch winks at me. "I used to buy squirrels from her, years ago. She got them right through the eye, every time." His voice is very low now. I don't think it's just because he doesn't want Arrow to overhear us. Is he afraid someone's listening here, too? I know my house is wired, as is his, but could they really be listening out here by the river, too?

I can't be sure. But I see the look on Cashmere's face. She curls some wrapping paper that was around a sandwich in her fist, over again and over again. The sound is almost loud enough to drown out Haymitch's near whisper. I'm sure it's not a coincidence now. "Got them? With what?"

Haymitch's eyes dart to Arrow, and he raises his eyebrows as he looks back at her. Cashmere nods slowly. "Really?" She pauses, then continues, "I didn't think there would be that many squirrels here in 12. There aren't that many trees." She's still making those noises with the wrapping paper.

"There aren't. She had turkeys sometimes, too. Even deer meat."

Cashmere's eyes widen. I can see that she understands. "Wow," she breathes. "That's… extraordinary. And it certainly explains a lot." Cashmere is not only very intelligent, she is also a survivor. Surely she recognizes survival skills when she sees them. Such as the silent walk of a huntress, or the way Katniss moves effortlessly through the water. And now she's been told of Katniss's archery skills, which must be spectacular. I've seen her squirrels, too. My father used to buy them, at least he did before I was reaped. What he did after, I don't know. Haymitch is right – they were always shot through the eye.

Katniss would come to the back door of the bakery to avoid seeing my mother. Usually my father or Rye opened the door, but sometimes I'd be the lucky one. I never trusted my wavering teenage voice to actually say anything to her, other than perhaps "hi," and even that one word would often come out squeaky, and I'd hate myself afterwards. But I'd notice everything about her. The gray shade of her eyes. The strands of hair that had escaped from her braid. How skinny she was, yet the strength and confidence in her gait when she moved.

I also noticed the tall, dark, handsome boy who was always with her. His voice was deep, dark, and never cracked.

Katniss wades out of the water, still laughing. Water drips down from her hair and her dark garments, which cling to her body. "Do you want to try to swim before we eat?" she asks Arrow, and he nods eagerly. "Take off your clothes, then," she continues, and he does as he's told. She helps him into the water and she encourages him to lay flat on his back and float, keeping her hands under his shoulders and knees. Finnick doesn't help her; I suppose he realizes that would be going too far, but he does offer advice, and he tells stories about when he learned to swim that make Arrow laugh.

"It's a good thing for you Katniss wasn't reaped, Peeta," Cashmere says. "She would've kicked your ass. You never would've made it out of that arena alive."

It should be an insult to me, but strangely, my heart swells with pride instead. What's more, I know that she's right. Of the two of us, Katniss is the true survivor, not me. I'm grateful Katniss wasn't reaped. The very real possibility that she would beat me is one thing, of course, but what's even worse is the thought of going into the arena, knowing that even in the best case scenario, only one of us could live. I can't imagine anything worse than having to kill Katniss, or watching someone else kill her. Madge and Rue's deaths were bad enough. But Katniss…? I'm not sure if I would've survived that.

Katniss never had to go through the desperation, the murders, and the paranoia in the arena. She didn't have to experience what came after, either. Prostitution, surveillance, and constant control. I know she's had a difficult life. She lost her father, her mother had a breakdown that took her years to get over, and she lost her husband. Katniss has starved for almost half her life.

But at least she was never reaped.

The three swimmers come out of the water when we promise them sandwiches, apple pie and cinnamon rolls. Cashmere hands me a sandwich, and I take a bite, trying not to stare at Katniss as she wrings the water out of her long hair. Cashmere really is a good cook. I try to identify the ingredients in the sauce, but I can't quite place them all.

Katniss and Arrow disappear behind some bushes with a bag and a towel, and come back a few minutes later, wearing the same clothes they wore when we walked here.

The conversation flows easily with lots of laughter, which is still a new sound to me. I laugh more than I ever have in the presence of other the victors in… ever, probably. Finnick entertains Arrow and the rest of us with fishing stories. I'm certain he must be making up most of them, or at least exaggerating wildly. Even Katniss is doubled over in laughter when he tells a ridiculous story of a man who was swallowed by a great fish, but who – days later – was spit out alive. I don't know much about fish, but surely that can't be true. Haymitch has put his bottle away in the presence of the children and seems relaxed and content, despite being almost sober. Cashmere keeps passing food around.

"You have to tell me the recipe of that sauce," I tell her.

She laughs. "No way, Peeta," she says. "It's a family secret."

"Oh, come on, we're family, aren't we?" The words slip out of my mouth without thinking, and I instantly regret them when I see from the corner of my eye that Katniss freezes.

"My mother wouldn't agree with that definition of family, Mellark," she says, rolling her eyes. "She'd kill to protect that recipe. One time, I thought she might just do that, when her nosy neighbor tried to steal it. Mother later told me that she came to her senses when she realized that she'd mess up her newly manicured fingernails if she'd strangled the stupid woman."

"Your mother isn't a victor, is she?" Haymitch laughs.

"No. She didn't volunteer because she broke her wrist in training two weeks before her final reaping." Cashmere looks down, clearly uncomfortable.

"Good for her," I say dryly.

She looks up, meeting my eyes. "Yes," she says simply.

Katniss is watching us, but for once, she doesn't have a scowl on her face. When she notices that I've caught her staring, she instantly looks away, a blush on her cheeks.

Ivy, who has been crawling all over the picnic blanket, is now sitting in her lap. She looks like a miniature Katniss, down to the gray shade of her irises. Katniss hugs her daughter tighter, and she looks – worried? She knows by now that being a victor is far from being desirable. She's seen what it's done to me and Haymitch, even though she doesn't even know the half of it. And having Finnick and Cashmere here – granted, she's mainly seen the glossy surface of both of them, but I think she must have realized there's more going on here than we've told her.

It's Ivy who defuses the tension when, in a moment of distraction on Katniss's part, she realizes she's just within reach of the apple pie. Two seconds later, there is apple pie everywhere - all over Ivy's dress, smeared on Katniss's leg... Some even got on Cashmere. Ivy looks so happy with her chubby little fingers full of apple pie, sticking them in her mouth, that Cashmere can't help but laugh. And although Katniss looks annoyed at first – probably at herself for not intervening in time – she has to smile, too.

We don't talk about the Hunger Games after that. We stick to safe topics, such as fishing, or cooking, or school.

It's strange, sitting here in the sunshine with them all like this. Relaxed, content. I know the shadows are not far away. They never are.

The days pass quickly. I don't turn the calendar when we go from May to June. But I don't need a calendar to know that the reapings are coming up all too soon.

Cashmere and Finnick stay for a week, and then they have to go home to their districts. After the reapings, we'll meet again in the Capitol to mentor... and to be sold. Business as usual.

I'm strangely divided. I've enjoyed having Cashmere and Finnick here, but at the same time, they serve as a constant reminder of where we met, the horrors we've lived through, and what's waiting for us in the Capitol. It's frustrating because I don't quite know how to deal with it.

The Capitol seems far away when we sit around the kitchen table at night playing poker, with the windows open so we can smell the flowers. With Finnick here, Katniss gets more competition. Finnick is a very good poker player, and he likes to win. He takes advantage of the fact that he can still embarrass Katniss, tricking her into making mistakes. His charm is turned all the way up, he's using his dimples for all they're worth, and we all secretly enjoy how flustered she gets.

Katniss seems a lot more relaxed now, even though I know she's still observing how Cashmere and I interact. She even has a few actual conversations with Cashmere. Although they are stiff and awkward, at least on Katniss's part, it's progress. They aren't shooting daggers across the table anymore like they did that first night.

"It's a truce," Cashmere says one day as we make lunch together in the kitchen. We've started cooking together now that we have realized how much we both enjoy it. "But a fragile one."

"So… Do you approve?"

"Of her?" I nod. "For you?" I hesitate, but nod again. She looks away. "I don't think she's a gold digger, if that's what you mean."

It wasn't what I meant, but I don't ask any more questions.

I get up very early to bake. I can't get any sleep, so I might as well do something useful. As I knead the dough, deep in thought, I suddenly feel two strong yet slender arms embrace me from behind. I know who those arms belong to.

"Katniss," I breathe, and turn around, my hands covered in flour. I can't hold her without making a mess, but she steps closer, and I lean down so that our lips can meet. It's been so long. I can't believe this has become my life now – a stolen early morning kiss from Katniss. The embrace quickly becomes more heated as she deepens the kiss. My body's reaction to her is instant, and I don't try to hide it. I can tell she notices by the way her hips buck into mine. She pulls away when Ivy tries to open the door of the fridge, and she quickly comes to the rescue. Giving her daughter a couple of wooden spoons to distract her, she turns back to me, while keeping a watchful eye on both Ivy and the door.

"Peeta," she says. I love hearing her say my name. Her body is so close to mine now, but not quite touching.

"We've had so little time lately," I whisper in her ear. My heart races as my right hand trails along her spine, and I feel a shiver go through her. I've probably left a trail of flour along her back now.

"Yes. We were supposed to go slow though, right?"

"Yes. Slow is good," I agree.

She cocks her head. "I'm not sure if 'good' is the right word," she says with a dark smile. Then she steps away from me. I'm about to ask her why when Finnick suddenly stands in the doorway. She must've heard him coming down the stairs, even though I didn't. Still the huntress. The raised eyebrow tells me Finnick has picked up on the tension in the room, and he knows he's interrupted something. His eyes linger on Katniss's back, and the flour there.

I pretend as if nothing's happened. I wonder what it will be like to meet Finnick and Cashmere again in the Capitol, under what is – for us – normal circumstances? We have seen each other like this now. Relaxed, far away from the Capitol. I've seen Finnick playing soccer with Arrow, heard the stories he's told him. I've seen Cashmere in the kitchen with flour in her hair. What is it going to be like when we get back into our Capitol personas only a few short days from now?

My heart beats faster just thinking about it. I try to focus on Katniss's braid instead, the way it moves as she picks Ivy up from the floor. The smile she sends me when Finnick looks the other way.

It doesn't help as much as I'd hoped it would. I take a sip of coffee, and for the first time in weeks, I wish there was white liquor in it.

The days are good. I'm mostly able to shut the Hunger Games out, at least enough to function. The nights, however, are long, dark and lonely. The closer the reaping gets, the harder I find it to sleep. I don't think I'm the only one. Haymitch has upped his drinking when we play poker at night, and he never shows up before 4 in the afternoon. Cashmere has dark rings under her eyes, and I've caught Finnick staring at the picture of Annie in his wallet, several times.

Finnick came here because of me. He sacrificed precious time together with Annie for me. He spends more time in the Capitol than any of the rest of us. No one has suffered more from Snow's prostitution than Finnick has.

One night, when it's just the two of us, I ask him: "Why did you choose to come here instead of spending an extra week with Annie?"

"Well, you said it yourself," he answers. "You're family, and Annie knows that. You think she doesn't realize how important you, Cashmere and the others have been to me over the years?"

I've always thought of Finnick as sort of my prostitution mentor. He's the one who holds it all together. I haven't really considered my own role in the group, though. I always thought of myself as dispensable, unlike Finnick. Perhaps I was wrong.

I also know that if things progress as well as they can, a relationship like the one Finnick has with Annie is the most Katniss and I can hope for. If Katniss is willing to accept what I am, that is, and what I do – because sooner or later, she will find out. She must.

But not yet.

Annie knew all about the Capitol long before she got together with Finnick. I wonder if that made it easier for her to accept what Finnick has to do to keep her safe? Katniss, however, doesn't understand the Capitol, and I'm afraid that if I try to explain how things work in the Capitol to her, I'll lose her. I know I'm weak, a coward. I should tell her. But I can't lose her, especially now that she finally notices me. Now that she looks up at me with fire in her eyes. I can make her smile. I can run my finger down her spine, and feel how her body reacts to my touch.

How can I do anything to risk losing that?

So I get through my lonely, dark nights without Katniss – and without Cashmere. And even as I try to shut the Capitol and the Hunger Games out from my mind, I know that they are getting closer.

Even though the calendar still says May.

I am woken from my nightmare by a pair of strong hands, shaking me. Even in the darkness, I know instinctively who it is.


I gasp, breathing heavily as the nightmare slowly recedes. The lamp on the night stand is on, as always, but she turns on a few more lamps as well. She knows that light makes the ghosts fade away faster. She sits on my bed, dressed in an expensive-looking cream silk nightdress . She has dark rings under her eyes.

"You too?" I ask, running my fingers through my hair. My hands are shaking.

She nods. "Yes."

"Did I scream?"

She shakes her head. "No. I heard you and woke you up before you got that far." Cashmere is very familiar with my nightmares. "I couldn't go back to sleep. I was going to go downstairs, just… to wait for tomorrow." Finnick and Cashmere are leaving in the morning.

"I'm going to miss you. Both of you," I say impulsively. And it's true.

She smiles a tired smile. "You'll see us again soon enough." That's true, too.

"Do you think Diamond is ready?"

"No, I don't. But then again, none of us are."

I nod my head. She's right. None of us are ready. Every year is just as awful as the last. And in addition to the prostitution, this will be Diamond's first year as a mentor.

"It's been nice, though. Seeing you here, where you belong." My pulse is slowly decreasing, and I lean back against the padded headboard. Cashmere slips under the sheets with me, but doesn't touch me. She's lying on her side with one hand supporting her head, looking up at me. "It's different."

I know what she means. Us not sleeping in the same bed. We've retired to separate rooms, and not sought out each other's company. Until tonight. "You and Katniss don't really get along very well, do you?"

She snorts. "You noticed?" She smiles a wry smile. "She's just jealous, Peeta."

"Yes," I agree.

She lifts an eyebrow. "You've told her about us, haven't you?"


"I wasn't sure if you'd do that."

I wasn't sure, either. "She asked me. I couldn't lie to her."

She nods. Her index finger traces my upper arm, traveling lightly over my skin, past my elbow and down to find my fingers, where hers intertwine with mine. "She is a good woman, Peeta - and you are a good man, even though you don't believe it yourself." My eyes meet hers. "It's not going to be easy for you to make it work."

"Says Cashmere Graph, the expert on relationships?"

She laughs, but it's hollow. "Who said I haven't had relationships?"

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like…" My voice trails off.

She shrugs. "Never mind. It doesn't matter. I keep my life in 1 separate from my life in the Capitol, like you do." But we both know that when she and Finnick came here, the wall of separation was shattered.

"Is it even possible? To be with someone who isn't part of it all?" I whisper.

She shrugs. "There are a few victors who are in normal relationships with regular citizens of their home districts, like Cecilia. But they haven't been as deeply invested in Snow's business empire as you and I are. Their Games weren't particular popular ones, or their images weren't quite right. Then there's Finnick, of course. But that's different."

Yes, it is. Annie knows far too much about what happens in the Capitol.

I know that Cashmere is right. "I wish you both the best of luck," she says, and she starts to get up.

"You're not staying?" I ask impulsively. She can't keep the nightmares away, not completely, but it's still comforting with a warm body in my bed. I know she shouldn't stay. She really shouldn't. But still, I can't help but ask. I'm so tired, and the night is so dark and lonely.

She leans in towards me and kisses me very lightly on the lips. I feel her warm breath, and then she leans back. "No." She looks almost sad. "I don't think Katniss would approve."

"No, she wouldn't." The fear of facing the darkness alone made me ask. And habit. "Thank you, Cashmere. For… everything."

She turns by the door and looks back at me. This time, her smile is genuine. "The same to you, Peeta. Good night."

Then she is gone.

As I lie there in the darkness, alone, the weight of what is coming up – very soon – lies heavily on me. I can barely breathe, it feels as if someone is sitting on my chest. But there is no one here. I'm alone.

The reaping is only days away. Once again, I'll have to watch two children – most likely from the Seam – be reaped. I'll know, as soon as I see them, that they don't stand a chance. I'll try to prepare them, knowing they'll most likely die. I haven't been able to save one yet. And even though I've done this many times before, it will still be devastating when they are killed.

It will never end.

A few years from now, Arrow will be of reaping age. He's already seven. How is it going to feel to look down at the 12-year-olds from the stage and see his face in the crowd? How is Katniss going to cope? How am I going to cope?

There is no way out of this. When I try to imagine my future, all I see are reapings. Dead children. Capitol clients.

Knowing that they are always, always listening.

I'll never be able to escape it. The best I can offer Katniss is not having to starve, and a ruined reputation. I want her. Need her, even. But I know she'd be much better off without me. I'm poison to her. I'll drag her into this nightmare with me, and I know I could never forgive myself if anything happened to her or her children because of me.

Is she going to despise me when she finds out about my trips to the Capitol? I think she will. I despise myself. How could she not?

I don't get any sleep.

I think I need to warn you that the shit is going to hit the fan in the next chapter. There will be an explosion, as I hinted at earlier, and it's coming in chapter 14. I write this here because quite a few of you expressed relief when I told you in advance about the prostitution scenes in the Capitol.

I make a habit of dragging my poor characters to hell and back, and I'm going to do it yet again. But I need you all to have an open mind and trust me. This story is endgame Everlark, I promise!