I wake up from an almost sleepless night, feeling miserable. I tossed and turned in my bed for a good two hours before giving up and pacing the length of the train. On my numerous strides passing Katniss' door, I could faintly hear her fretful night. I wanted so much to go inside her compartment, shake her out of her nightmares and maybe comfort her like I did during those horrid Games. But I restrained myself. Had to remind me firmly when hearing a particularly hair-rising scream that she didn't want me. That she was the one that thoroughly betrayed me. Betrayed us. If even there ever have been an us. Then, when the sky had been slowly turning to grey, exhaustion crept up on me, and I finally dozed off, only to be stuck in the mud of the arena again, bleeding and hopeless, waiting to die. The suffocating sensation jerked me awake, sweating like mad, and I welcomed the shower that followed with a long sigh.

I spend the morning in my compartment, not wanting any company, too busy trying to compose myself for the ordeal that is coming. The pain in my stump, where my new leg is connected to my body, is nearly non-existent compared to the dark void consuming my heart. I sit on my bed, doubled over, hugging myself tightly, trying to breathe when all I want is crumple on the floor and let myself drift away until I can finally be numb, devoid of all the pain that is gnawing at my entrails worse than the bite of the mutt at the stinking Cornucopia.

Why? I keep asking myself, the word resonating in my head. Why would she pretend to be my lover? What was there to gain, aside from life? If life meant torture racking my body like right now? A faint moan escapes my lips against my will just as I hear uneven footsteps outside my door. Whoever that person is, and I strongly suspect it's Haymitch, he stops for a few moments, probably listening hard. But I clench my jaws together, fighting back the howling building in my hollow chest, until the footsteps start again and fade in the distance. Control yourself, I order myself sternly. You have a role to play.

I fight back the need to scream, but I can't help the tears running down my cheeks or the huge sobs raking my chest. So I lock myself in my private bathroom and let go until I run out of tears and the aching heaving stops. When I raise my head and look at my reflection in the mirror, I'm almost frightening myself. My cheeks are pale, my eyes puffy and swollen, huge worry lines creasing my brow. But I have to be strong. I have to pretend. I am Katniss' lover, at least for a few more moments. I know we're approaching District Twelve, and I can't fall to pieces. You're a Victor now, I remind myself firmly, washing my face until no trace of my breakdown remains. You'll perform just like in the Games.

When Effie Trinket gently knocks on my door and tells me we're arriving in five minutes, I'm ready and master of my nerves again. But I feel empty, as if I've been whole during the Games, being in love with Katniss, and the truth she came up with during that train stop yesterday hollowed me out completely, and I'd never be whole again.

I exit my compartment as the train is pulling in the station of our district. I can see through the windows the crowd waiting eagerly for our appearance, the cameras rolling, and I have to fight back a wave of nausea, leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. Then I see Katniss, looking beautiful as always, a conflicted expression on her face, watching me making my way towards her. I nod, trying my best to remain neutral when all I want is to yell at her for her betrayal and crush her into my embrace at the same time. She looks away first, but I could swear I saw guilt in her startling grey eyes, although her face stays as expressionless as ever.

We stand side by side until the train stops, and then, mustering all my remaining courage, which isn't much at the moment, I extend my hand towards her. "One more time? For the audience?" I say, surprising myself with my calm tone.

Katniss startles me with her torn expression. But it's a fugitive one, so much that I wonder if I've imagined it. Then she resumes her composed face and grabs my hand. I have to concentrate to set a wide smile on my face as the door opens in front of me, and we climb down the stairs onto the platform. A forest of cameras separate us from the crowd, who is cheering and applauding loudly, but our families are waiting for us to our left. At once, I wave and see Katniss doing the same out of the corner of my eye. Then I turn to face her and, trying to rein in my despair under what I hope is a bright expression, I lean in to kiss her. She is smiling too and kisses me back, but I can see her eyes are too misty and a little sunken. She hates this pretence, it's obvious, and it visibly upsets her. So I end it as quickly as I can, knowing that the people around us and in all of Panem were waiting for of display of love, and finally Effie, who exited the train right behind us, ushers us towards our families.

As soon as we're within a three metre range from them, Prim bounces forward and into Katniss' arms. I let her go as my elder brothers come and embrace me warmly, and I admit my eyes get a little teary. Then my father takes me into his wide embrace too, and whispers in my ear how he is proud of me and relieved that I made it home. I can hear a metre away from me Mrs Everdeen introducing Gale's family as Katniss' and Prim's cousins, and I find it a little weird. But at that moment my mother walks to me and, just for a moment, she looks like she might be proud of me. She actually hugs me, a thing she hasn't done in about all my life, and plants a forced kiss on my cheek, for the cameras' sake, I assume. "Welcome home, Peeta", she says quite formally.

I nod with a smile, and turn towards Katniss, to continue the star crossed lovers pretence. And I see Katniss in Gale's embrace. All of a sudden my vision is tinted red, and for an awful moment I feel like I might lose my cool, but then Katniss breaks the hug and steps back too. I can't see her expression very well, but her eyes seem desperate too. As I take her hand and we come close and kiss again, like the true lovers we're supposed to be, Gale looks like he's swallowed a full lemon. Maybe he really is her boyfriend, I think, fighting the urge to smack his face deep down in my already aching chest. Maybe she lied to me about that too.

We kiss and hug for a few more moments, then some questions are asked for quick interviews. Katniss and I answer them as easily as we can, but then a question unhinges me. Someone asks Mrs Everdeen what she thinks of me. "Peeta is the very model of what a young man should be", she says quietly. "But Katniss isn't old enough to have any boyfriend at all", she adds, looking pointedly at me. I take my cue and drop Katniss' hand and take a step away from her as the crowd make ironic comments. The void consuming me is threatening to overwhelm my composed behaviour, but luckily Haymitch, as drunk as usual, intervenes by shouting how he is proud of us and proud of himself for having brought the two of us back. At these words the crowd erupts into applause again, and Katniss and I have no choice but to kiss again, huge fake smiles plastered on our faces. Then Effie says we're to go to the cars and be moved into our new houses at the Victor's Village.

I forgot that specific privilege of being a victor. If living by myself in an enormous house a kilometre away from the Square and my family's bakery is considered a privilege, I think gloomily as I climb into the car assigned to my family. I can see Katniss isn't looking happier, getting into another car. As we make our way through the still cheering crowd, I eagerly take a look at my surroundings while waving and smiling, taking in the view of the district around me. Until that moment, I didn't realize how homesick I was of the familiar-looking decrepit buildings and narrow streets, the black coal dust settling everywhere, the Square with our bakery. "We brought all your things to your new house yesterday", my mother tells me smugly, a glint of malice in her wicked eyes. "If you want us to move in with you..."

"No", I snap back at her, effectively wiping the hopeful expression on her face, feeling sick at the thought that she would be with me then until she died.

"It's better if I live alone", I add more calmly, noticing with secret satisfaction her hurt feelings showing on her disdainful features. "I'll never recover completely from the Games. I have terrific nightmares and can't stand being with too many people at once. It's better that way."

Across from me, my father pats my knee with a small smile while my elder brother next to me nods in agreement. My mother looks more unpleasant than ever. She had probably visualized herself in the opulent house like a queen, ordering me around and controlling my life like she always did, even beating me when she felt like it. But I haven't lived through the Games, suffered so much, nearly even died to be under my tyrant of a mother's iron rule anymore. I would be free at last. Alone, even lonely, but free.

When we arrive, I notice immediately that I'm three houses away from Katniss' one, and across Haymitch's. The cameras are still rolling, so we pretend a little more, cuddling like we can't be without the other even for a few hours. Well, I certainly feel like this. Katniss just looks overwhelmed under her composure, and I can relate to that, but at least she has a true family to rely on. It seems like her sister and her mother have moved in the house with her, whereas I'll be spending the rest of my life alone in this big house. For the briefest of moments I'm tempted to ask Haymitch for a bottle of white liquor, then virtually slap myself. Never would I sink so low, I vow to myself. I would grit my teeth and endure. Maybe the pain would fade one day.

After a tour of my huge house, still followed by cameras and answering every question about how I feel having such a luxurious house for myself, I'm back to the place in front of the Victors' houses. My family is long gone for preparing next day's breads and cakes, and we hadn't much to say anyway. So I'm all by myself waiting for Katniss to reappear from her own visit. She isn't long, and at first glance I can see she's upset, even more than me. All of this isn't meant for a Seam girl used to fend for herself for so many years. She won't cope with all of this well, and for the first time I'm a little happy that I won't have to be there next to her twenty-four hours a day seeing the pressure building in the coming weeks. But I wouldn't mind helping her along the way either.

She comes straight into my embrace and we kiss, still hounded by cameras stealing all our privacy, and we hug a little more. Then Effie comes to tell us goodbye, and I can't help hugging her. She kept us sane and on schedule in her own infuriating way, but I know for certain that without her Haymitch wouldn't have been so good at keeping us alive. Well, mainly Katniss, but I don't resent him anymore about that. He kept me alive by keeping her alive, and her safety is still all that matters to me.

Haymitch then approaches us. "Behave and don't be strangers", he says gruffly.

"Haymitch, we live twenty metres away from you", Katniss says wryly. "We couldn't be strangers even if we wanted it."

"True enough."

And with that, our former mentor goes to his house, not bothering to answer some cameramen's questions and slamming his door in their faces. I turn to face Katniss again, knowing that the parting moment has come. The sun is slowly setting in the horizon, behing the beautiful forests surrounding our district, and I feel pain expanding from my heart throughout all my chest. I know things will never be the same for us, since she doesn't love me. But even in my own ocean of despair, I try to hide what I truly feel and kiss her a last time, hugging her as tightly as I can, stealing this last comforting gesture from her, fueling for the loneliness already seeping through me.

"See you tomorrow", I whisper with what I hope is a joyous expression etched on my face.

"See you tomorrow", she echoes with a smile that doesn't reach her startling eyes.

Then we break apart and she makes her way to her house, escorted by her mother and sister under the eyes of the cameras. I wait until their door is closed before going to mine, all alone, no doubt followed by whispers about my family's absence at my side. But I don't care. I couldn't care less. On that matter, I'll finally be happier than I've ever been. But for the rest...

I cross the threshold and close the door, leaning heavily against it. I'm exhausted. I slump onto the doormat, not feeling hungry, finally alone. I rest my head against the door, hearing the people outside loudly making their way outside the Victors' Village until a hushed silence falls down with the coming night. I stay there for a good hour before rising to my mismatched feet and slowly going up the stairs to my new bedroom. I don't bother to undress and collapse onto the huge king-sized bed, feeling lonelier than ever.

God, I wish I could forget all that happened during the Games. Forget all the Capitol freaks, the nightmarish arena, the horrific mutts, the dead tributes, the terror of being left alone suffering and dying, the crushing guilt at having killed kids only defending themselves like me. But most of all, I wish I could forget how I liked having Katniss by my side, the sweetness of her kisses, the comforting warmth of her hugs, the beauty of her eyes looking at me. Because I know what it felt like having those things, even if she acted them, and now I know what it feels like not having them anymore. And at long last, after so much effort pushing it back all day long, I finally let out the howling scream that had built up in me, and I allow myself this coming night to mourn for a love that would never be returned to me. It hurts, but I say it through the sobs raking my chest and piercing my heart once again. "Katniss, I love you. I always will love you."