I can't believe I'm saying this but this is the last chapter! I've never written a victor before so it's nice to be able to take the story back to where it started and to not have to write yet another death scene...
Thank you to everyone who has reviewed, especially to those of you who have been with me from the beginning :) Even if you haven't, this is the end of the story so I'd love you to tell me you've been reading - reviews keep people writing and I know I'm not the only one who thinks that ;)
Several hours later, Felix finally declared me ready to go. That is only after having a slow and almost relaxed breakfast listening to the latest gossip from the Remake Centre and the rest of the Capitol, and then having my make-up applied with almost surgical precision by Drusilla. I wasn't allowed to move from my chair until the real boss of my style team was satisfied that I was quite ready to face the Games-watching public. Instead of being annoyed by that, I found myself appreciating the time and effort she put into ensuring that the mask I present to the world was well and truly in place.
That's how I came to be standing in front of a full-length mirror in the dining room, gazing at the reflection of a girl dressed in a blue silk dress that is embroidered with shining silver thread, a girl who couldn't be more different to the creature I remember from the Games recap.
"It's time to go," calls Felix, opening the door just enough to peer into the room.
"Go where?" I ask, knowing from my memories of watching previous interviews that they are never held with a live audience like the other ceremonies.
"Only to the sitting room," he replies. "Everyone's there already. They're waiting for you."
He smiles at my question. "He was there too, but I don't know if he still is. Even I'm interesting when there are so many reporters gathered in such a small space, so I'm sure a true celebrity like Falco will probably be appearing on someone's television show as we speak."
"Don't put yourself down," I reply, returning his smile. "I've read as many of the papers as everyone else so I know the truth. One good thing to come out of this is that dressing me has made you famous."
"I wouldn't exactly call it fame," he says, but I can see the pride and ambition in his eyes however hard he tries to hide it. "And that's enough about me. They'll be waiting to start and they can't start without you."
I take a deep breath and a final look in the mirror before making my way out of the room and across the corridor. When I open the sitting room door, I'm immediately hit by a solid wall of noise, and a second later I am surrounded by people.
"Give the girl some space," calls a very familiar voice eventually, and I peer through a gap in the crowd to see Caesar Flickerman pushing his way towards me before immediately doing the opposite of what he ordered everyone else to do. His hair and lips are still lime-green, and I honestly don't know whether to be afraid or amused when he pulls me into a hug.
"My style and make-up team," he says by way of explanation. "They tend to get a bit over-excited." And the award for the understatement of the year goes to…
I smile to myself as the brightly dressed people continue to swarm around me, trying to appear confident as I can see some of the camera crew are already filming. They all want to congratulate me and many get me to sign newspapers or photographs, and though I always thought I would enjoy this, I quickly find the reality to be very different. Now I just wish they would leave me alone and let me go home.
"This way, please, Miss de Montfort," says an official-looking man carrying a clipboard, which is seemingly mandatory for someone who does his job. "We have to start now."
I do as I'm told and allow him to guide me to one of the armchairs, which is carefully placed next to Caesar's familiar golden throne. It doesn't take long before Panem's most famous presenter joins me.
"Three, two, one…"
Caesar immediately launches into his usual introductions, telling jokes and funny stories in his inimitable style. I wish he would talk forever, that the interview would be over by the time he stops, but I know I would never be that lucky, that every moment of this programme is planned a lot more carefully than it appears. Before I know it, he's introducing me and all of the cameras are suddenly focussing on my face rather than his. He congratulates me on winning the Games and it takes me a minute to realise that it's my turn to speak now.
"Thank you," I reply with the biggest and most convincing smile I can manage, "and thank you to everyone who supported me. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you."
"I'm sure I speak for the whole city when I say that we couldn't be happier to celebrate your victory."
I continue to smile, mostly because I haven't got a clue what else to do. I certainly don't know what to say, and I don't know how I find words to answer Caesar's questions as he proceeds to ask me about the Games and what I was feeling throughout my time in the arena. Somehow I get through it, trying to focus on the build-up rather than the actual arena because I find it a lot easier to thank Felix for his wonderful dresses and Falco for his help and support than I do to talk about anything else. That is until Caesar asks me the question I have been dreading.
"Tell us, Cashmere, how did you feel as you ran up that staircase when your alliance fell apart? What were you thinking when Corvinus gave you the chance to run?"
"I didn't know what to feel," I start, my voice shaking. I didn't think I'd ever say it, but in the absence of Falco and Felix, who are presumably enduring interviews of their own, it is actually Charis who is keeping me going. I stare straight at her as she stands behind the main camera, smiling encouragingly at me as she has been ever since I sat down. "It's difficult to think straight in there," I continue, and I have to force myself not to comment when Caesar nods in what appears to be understanding of something he could never possibly comprehend. "I just ran. Corvinus saved my life, if not there then he did before. He was a good man, and I have no idea why but he was a good ally and friend as well."
Caesar smiles but doesn't raise the subject of the man from District Two again, probably because he suspects I will inadvertently say more than I should if he does. Even though I don't like what my interviewer does or what he stands for anymore, I can't deny that he does what he can to help the tributes out, and I am relieved when my ally is left out of his next question.
"When did you first realise you had a real chance of winning?"
"The odds were always more in my favour than they were for most of the others," I reply, trying to smile even though I don't know how to answer that. I can't very well announce to the whole of Panem that I trained illegally for the Games even if everyone knows the real truth anyway.
"Very true," says Caesar in response, "but as you've already said, you had some very strong competition. It was very difficult for us viewers to know which way to turn this year." The crowd murmur in agreement and it takes all of my willpower to keep my smile fixed upon my face. How very traumatic that must have been for them, I think bitterly, how the Capitol have suffered. "I think for me it was when you fought the creatures in the cage. None of us could doubt you have brains as well as beauty after that. After all, it was you who saw the trap coming before any of the others."
I stare at him, knowing the end of his sentence is my cue to speak but somehow remaining unable to find words. Any planning that took place when we actually fought the muttations was Corvinus's not mine, and I can't bring myself to take credit for what he did.
"I always knew I had a chance," I reply, speaking just before the silence becomes awkward and Caesar is required to prompt me again, "but I didn't dare believe it until I heard the trumpets play. I kept going from one day to the next because the one thing I knew for certain is that I wanted to get home."
"To see your brother," prompts my interviewer, no doubt remembering our previous meeting and how I had told him that Gloss is the person I love most in the world.
"Yes," I tell him, looking into the nearest camera and hoping my brother is watching. "I've missed him."
"And how proud he must be, the brother of our newest victor."
"I'll be with him very soon, so he won't have to deal with the circus on his own for much longer," I answer cryptically, referring, of course, to our family and so-called friends in District One. Not that Caesar or anyone watching this apart from Gloss and perhaps Falco will understand that. It doesn't matter though, as my words are for my brother and nobody else.
"I'm sure he's missed you," replies Caesar, and to his credit, he doesn't miss a beat despite how he can't possibly understand the meaning behind what I just said. "Although I have to say that we will miss you when you go," he continues, gesturing to the crowd, who call out their agreement immediately.
"Thank you," I reply, looking out across at them all. "I'm sure I will return soon."
"I'm sure you will too. I understand your ambitious young stylist wishes to exhibit his designs at the Grand Hall," Caesar continues, proving once and for all that he either reads the gossip columns in the papers or is actually the one who writes them, which seems infinitely more likely to me. "Perhaps you could come back to model some of his fabulous work for us."
"Perhaps," I reply cautiously, hoping that my sudden unease doesn't show in my voice. Falco had told me he would visit me rather than the other way around and it sounded like he has a reason for wanting it that way. I abruptly realise that I don't want to rashly agree to anything I won't want to keep to later.
From the way Caesar smiles, I can tell he's picked up on my emotions however much I tried to hide them. I guess that comes from years and years of interviewing tributes, and that responding to the feelings of others must have become second nature to him.
"Talking of your stylist, the whole city is talking about how the dress you wore to your Victory Ceremony yesterday evening was a remodelled version of a garment worn by another tribute girl. What can you tell us about that?"
I knew this was coming. I'd prepared myself for it and after everything that has happened, I don't see why I shouldn't talk about Sapphire. The Games are over for us now, so why shouldn't they know about her?
"The dress was worn during the Opening Ceremony for the Sixty-fifth Hunger Games by my foster-sister, Sapphire Beaufort." The crowd gasp, and I can hear the reporters jostling with each other as they attempt to get that little bit closer to the stage so they don't miss a single word. "She was my sister in every way but by blood and I loved her. I still do, even though she isn't with me anymore. It meant a lot to me to wear something that was hers when I celebrated my victory. Something else that was hers," I add, raising my hand to touch the sapphire pendant that was my district token.
My last words stick in my throat as I don't honestly feel that what I did in the arena is something which should be celebrated, but it's what the audience want to hear. They would never understand the whole truth so I do what I've done all along and give them half the truth. That is all their minds can cope with.
"Is she the reason you volunteered, Cashmere? Did you want to succeed for both of you after she came so close to victory?"
"I wanted to succeed for all three of us," I reply, shocked by how steady my voice is.
I take a deep breath as I prepare for the onslaught of questions that are sure to follow my revelation about Sapphire, and Caesar doesn't disappoint me. In a way I feel relieved to be talking of her rather than of the arena, so I answer him willingly about virtually everything he asks me about, and before I know it he is announcing me to the nation one last time as the interview is finally over.
I sigh with relief as the cameras stop rolling. The moment has arrived. It's all over. I can go home. Caesar congratulates me one last time and then promptly vanishes, surrounded by his usual flock of attendants, leaving me stranded on my chair and wondering what will happen next as countless people swarm around in every direction.
"It's time to take you home, Butterfly," says Falco as he abruptly appears by my side, holding his hand out to me.
I smile and allow him to pull me to my feet, relief that it's finally all over drowning out all other emotions as he leads me from the room towards the lifts. We descend directly into yet another mob of reporters, and the only regret I have at how Falco almost carries me over to the car which waits to take us to the station is that I don't get to say a proper goodbye to Felix. He hugs me briefly, promising that he will speak to me very soon, and then he is gone, swallowed up into the crowd as quickly as he appeared.
It's nearly midday when the train grinds to a halt after pulling into the District One station. That will please the Capitol people who still seem to be everywhere I turn, clutching their clipboards and desperately trying to ensure we stay on the all-important schedule.
The carriage door slides open and I look up, thinking it will be Falco, but I'm disappointed when only Topaz appears.
"We're here, Cashmere," he says. "The photographers will want to get a look at you first. Then you'll be free to find your family."
I stare up at him, torn between my need to see Gloss and my fear that he saw me in the arena and no longer recognises the sister he loved. Then I realise that I don't care. All I want is to see him again.
Topaz steps fully into the carriage and as I rise to my feet, I see why. Lace is standing in the doorway now, looking me up and down as critically as ever. She crosses the small cabin and roughly straightens the collar of my dress, pulling it down a bit further. I immediately pull it back up and she smiles tightly.
"The Capitol's going to love you," she says.
"They already love me. I wouldn't be standing here if they didn't," I reply, not quite understanding how she still can't see that.
She smirks as if she knows something I don't and then steps to the side so I can get to the exit door. I am about to ask where Falco is but don't get chance to, because the next second, Topaz throws open the doors and I'm instantly blinded by a mixture of sunlight and camera flashes.
"Cashmere! Look over here! This way, Cashmere!"
They scream my name from all directions, making it as impossible to know which way to look as it usually is. Once my eyes have adjusted to the brightness, I scan the crowd but see nobody who is more than vaguely familiar. Where is Gloss? Why isn't he here? The crowd of reporters, photographers and regular citizens of District One push forwards, and when I look down, all I see is a mass of people.
"I had to take a phone call," says Falco as he strides into the carriage behind me. "Stand back now, please," he continues, speaking in what I call his work-voice, his calm authoritativeness making them all do as he says so he has room to jump down from the train onto the platform. "Your family are at the other end of the station. There are Peacekeepers keeping the mob away," he continues with a smirk as he puts a hand on either side of my waist and lifts me down beside him.
I let him clear the way for me, my eyes searching for Gloss the whole time. Eventually the crowd starts to thin, the calls of my name decrease in frequency, and the white uniforms of the Peacekeepers appear. For some reason I think of the man who tried it on with me just after the reaping, but there is no sign of him. I saw him only briefly, but I know I would remember the face of a person who presumed to think he could touch me.
Then all thoughts of that man, who could almost have been from a memory of a previous life, disappear as I see the small group of people standing at the end of the platform, clearly loving the attention they are getting. I approach them because I have no choice, and stop a couple of paces from my father.
He looks exactly as I remember him, right down to the arrogant sneer on his face, completely unchanged. Mother and Satin stand a step behind him, both wearing new Capitol-made dresses almost as fine as mine. Satin's is still my size not hers. Some things never change.
"You won then," says Father. "I didn't think you were going to when you were fighting that girl from District Two. But it was clever of you, allying with her district partner," he continues, his tone of voice telling me exactly what he thinks I did to earn Corvinus's loyalty. "Maybe the Games have taught you about the need to be practical in this life."
"Where's my brother?" I ask, unsure exactly why I am shocked by how little has altered here.
"Back at the house. We didn't all need to come here so I ordered him to stay."
My heart sinks as I step forwards to accept my mother's hug. She is questioning me about the Capitol before she has even let me go. I pull away from her as gently as I can bring myself to and look up at Satin. She nods but says nothing, her face emotionless as she moves to stand beside Father.
I ignore them all, moving away in search of the solitude I crave like I never did before as I try to tell myself that this is nothing. In a very short time, they will present me with the keys to a house in the Victor's Village. Then I can go and find Gloss myself and set him free from our father's chains.
I look around for Falco but he has disappeared, no doubt because some reporter wants to interview him as usual. They love to interrogate him, probably because they get to talk about two of the subjects closest to the heart of the Capitol citizens, which are the Hunger Games and themselves, and they get to do it both at the same time to the same person.
The Capitol people are waiting for me at the station entrance, I know that because the schedule was drummed into me so hard over breakfast that I am convinced I will remember it forever, and my family are already heading in that direction, accepting the limelight that association with me suddenly brings them without caring if I am there or not. I can't help imagining how different the welcome would have been for Davena if she had made it home to District Seven. And I bet little Elsah's father wouldn't have treated her with such casual indifference.
Then I stop my thoughts in their tracks. How can I be jealous of those I killed? They didn't get the chance to live their lives but I do. I have to, and then maybe they won't haunt me anymore. 'No, Cashmere,' says the nagging voice in my head. 'They will always haunt you because you killed them. You deserve the pain they bring.'.
I shake my head to clear it, sighing deeply before starting to walk again. If I don't then the Capitol people will be looking for me. Resistance is futile in the face of The Schedule, I have learned that much since they pulled me from the arena. Then I stop abruptly, not quite daring to turn around.
"Have you missed your little brother, Cashy?"
Slowly I turn back, still not quite willing to let myself believe it was his voice I heard. But who else would call me by the nickname he hasn't used since he was six years old?
He stands there on the edge of the platform, as casually perfect as I remember him, his loose-fitting white shirt spotless, his dark-brown hair falling into his eyes slightly more than it did when I left him.
I sprint the short distance to him and throw myself into his arms, laughing when he lifts me up and spins around.
"I told you I'd come back."
"I watched you all the time," he whispers. "I wanted to help you and it killed me that I couldn't be there with you. I thought she'd killed you. She fell across you and then the cannon fired. Even the commentators didn't know whose it was until they were told. They played it back over and over again."
His words come out in a jumbled rush and he still doesn't put me down, but I don't care. Now we are free and nothing else matters.
Then I am suddenly conscious of the total silence around us. I look up, still enclosed in the circle of my brother's arms even though my feet are now back on the floor, and the camera flashes start again. It looks like they finally got the shot they were waiting for. Gloss and I will be on the front page of every newspaper in Panem this evening.
It takes at least an hour to complete the five minute walk from the Justice Building where the final presentation was held to what will be my house in the Victor's Village. I can barely move because of the vast number of people, both Capitol and District, who crowd together, desperate to catch a glimpse of the newest Hunger Games victor.
"I don't see what's so special about you," says Gloss, leaning close so he can be heard above the noise and chaos that surrounds us.
I glare at him but tighten my grip on his hand at the same time. He grins back and pulls me forwards, doing his best to shield me from the crowd.
Eventually the people separate into two groups ahead of me, and my brother steps to the side so I can see the path that leads to a house which is easily bigger and grander than Father's. I have been to the Victor's Village before, as many parties are held here, but it looks different now I know that a part of it is mine and that I will never have to live under my father's roof again.
I call my brother's name in panic when his hand is pulled from mine, but he smiles reassuringly at me before the groups of reporters and cameramen swallow him up as they surge forwards.
"Go to the top of the steps and wait by the front door," instructs yet another clipboard-wielding Capitol official.
I do as she says, knowing that the sooner I have been presented with the keys, the sooner I can close the door on the lot of them. I scan the crowd for Gloss but I can't see him. After his brief reappearance, Falco has vanished again too, and I miss him even more than I thought I would, and not only because most people are too intimidated by either his position or his mere physical presence to hassle me as much as they would wish to when he is with me.
Eventually, after what feels like all eternity, I am allowed to press the key into the lock, open the door and disappear into the house with one last wave for the cameras. There will be a final ceremonial dinner back at the Justice Building tonight, but until then I will have over half a day of peace and quiet. Or not.
I hear them before I see them, and I make my way down the bright and airy corridor to the open door at the end of it to find myself in a kitchen. A kitchen that seems to be full of members of my family I have no recollection of inviting in.
"Look at this," calls Satin to my mother, gesturing wildly to a drinks machine virtually identical to the one that was in the Training Centre.
Gloss is sitting at the beautifully carved table in the corner, and when I catch his eye he shakes his head and mouths "I'm sorry. I tried."
I smile grimly at him and stride across the room towards Satin, my heels clicking sharply on the tiled floor. I snatch a gold wine glass from her hand and have to struggle not to laugh at the look on her face, which is somewhere between affronted and confused.
"This house and everything in it is mine, sister dearest," I say to her firmly, my voice telling her that the only genuine feeling behind the endearment is long-standing dislike. "So if you want to visit then it has to be with my permission and when I'm here."
She is clearly lost for words, because she gawps open-mouthed back at me. I give her one last smirk before spinning on my heel, intending to insult her further by making her leave through the back door instead of the front, only to find myself face to face with my father. I take a deep breath, immediately realising that dealing with Satin was one thing, but dealing with Father is something else entirely. I'm still determined that all I've been through won't be for nothing though, and I can tell by the look on Gloss's face that he's waiting for the fireworks to start even though my father seems oblivious.
"You have a lovely home now, Cashmere," he says, the calm, even tone of his voice immediately putting me on edge. I've heard it before, and I know it's more of a warning than shouting could ever be.
"I have, and I would very much appreciate the chance to settle in in peace," I reply, trying to match his tone.
"Of course, of course," he answers, "but surely you will be lonely here by yourself. Did you hear that the Lancasters broke off their son's engagement to that horrific Courtenay girl while you were…away?"
It takes all of my willpower not to either roll my eyes at him or hit him, but I just about manage it and stare evenly back as I reply.
"I have been slightly preoccupied," I say, realising that the fact his youngest daughter has recently killed six people so that she could save her own life, a life she very nearly lost, means nothing to him in comparison to the knowledge that the only son of the only man in District One richer than him is no longer betrothed.
"We are having a party at the house tomorrow night to celebrate your victory. The whole family will be there and the Lancasters have already accepted their invitation."
I sigh, especially when I can see Gloss laughing out of the corner of my eye. Nothing has changed here, Father is still as subtle as a sledgehammer. But I have changed. I'm not the girl who left this place to go to the Capitol those weeks ago. I control my life now, not him, and the sooner he learns that, the better.
"Stop," I say, pleased by the firmness in my voice considering how I am trembling inside. "Just stop. I can tell you right now that there's no way in Panem I'm marrying Miracle Lancaster, so you might as well stop wasting your time. If you're that keen to have him as a son-in-law then maybe he can marry Satin instead," I suggest, knowing full well that there is no way a vain, shallow and self-absorbed man like Miracle, who I have known and despised all my life, would marry my sister. He would marry me as a trophy, both for my beauty and my new fame, but he has barely ever acknowledged Satin's existence and everyone in the room knows it. "And I won't be lonely," I can't resist adding. "Because as of today, Gloss is leaving home."
My father opens his mouth to reply after glaring at my mother in response to her shocked gasp and whimpers of disappointment, which obviously result from the demise of her wedding plans for me, but he is silenced by a firm knock at the back door.
Much to my displeasure, Satin reaches for the handle and pulls it open before I can get there. My heart leaps when I hear the voice of the person on the other side.
"Where is Cashmere?" asks Falco, skipping all introductions and pleasantries with my sister and leaving me in no doubt that he was definitely listening to me as I told him all about my previous life here.
I step to the other side of my father and Falco smiles when he sees me, the expression lasting for a couple of seconds before the mask reappears as he looks to my left.
"And you must be Sleek de Montfort. I've heard so much about you that I feel I know you already," he says silkily, and for the first time in my life, I get the pleasure of witnessing my father being intimidated into dumbstruck silence.
"Yes…yes, I am. I am honoured to meet you, Mr Hazelwell," he manages eventually.
"Hmm," replies Falco, crossing the room to stand beside me, looking down at Father in a perfect picture of Capitol arrogance.
"I'm pleased to meet you too," simpers Satin, and I feel my lip curl up in disgust when she pushes past our mother to put herself in my not-quite-lover's way like a common whore.
Falco looks at her briefly and then returns his gaze to me. His smile is almost imperceptible but it's definitely there. I can tell he's enjoying this and that he knows I'm enjoying witnessing it.
"I will be returning to the Capitol shortly but I wanted to ensure that Cashmere has everything she needs before I go," he says, and it's immediately obvious that only I can tell his over-formality is deliberate.
"Thank you," says Mother, speaking for the first time. "And thank you for looking after her in the arena and finding her all those sponsors."
Falco smiles, and the shadow that briefly clouds his expression is there and gone so quickly that I almost think I imagined it. "You don't have to thank me for that," he says in a much gentler voice than he used to address my father and sister. "But I do think Cashmere would appreciate the opportunity to rest before tonight," he continues, changing tone as he speaks to everyone, making it clear that underneath the façade of false politeness, he is really telling them to get out and stay out.
Mother gets the hint first, and she does her best to guide Father and Satin out of the door. It is only when Gloss gets up to follow them that I step forwards to block his way.
"I have to go, Cash," he says softly, his eyes darting to Falco every few seconds.
Only then do I realise that when he looks at Falco, all he sees is a powerful government official straight from the Capitol who has almost limitless authority to do whatever he pleases.
"You don't," I reply with a smile when the door clicks shut behind Satin. "I want you to stay. Falco, this is Gloss. Gloss, this is Falco."
"So this is the famous brother I've heard so much about?" Falco asks me, all traces of his previous arrogant formality suddenly vanishing without a trace to leave behind only the man I know.
I nod and he extends his hand towards Gloss, who is still eyeing him with distrust.
"Please, Gloss. Falco saved my life. He's…"
'He's what?', I ask myself. 'What exactly is he to you?'. I quickly realise that I can't really answer that, but my brother must read something from my expression, because he reaches out to shake Falco's hand and all the tension in the room evaporates.
Gloss smiles at Falco as he releases his hand, but then he turns to me and pulls me against him.
"I've missed you. I didn't think you'd come back to me. I thought it would be like Sapphire all over again."
I shake my head and try to pull back so I can look up at him. He doesn't let me. "I promised you I'd come back and I always keep my promises," I tell him before continuing in a much less serious tone. "So you can let me go now. I'm not going to disappear in a puff of smoke, I promise you."
He laughs and reluctantly releases me, giving me a playful push in the direction of the storeroom that's next door to the kitchen.
"Have they left you any food? I'm starving."
"Gloss de Montfort, are you ever not starving? Some things never change."
My brother vanishes into the storeroom himself when he sees I'm not going anywhere quickly, and I smile to see him make himself so at home. He didn't respond when I told Father he wouldn't be living at home anymore, but I know my comment won't be lost on him. I just hope he agrees. I hope he still sees the Cashmere he remembers when he sees the person I am now, because I don't think I can live without him.
"I can see how much he loves you," says Falco softly, interrupting my thoughts.
I move over to stand beside him and rest my head on his shoulder. "I wish you didn't have to go. I wish you could stay here with me."
He laughs. "Believe me when I say that I wish I could stay here too, but you know I can't."
He takes my hand and leads me into the sitting room, away from the sound of Gloss ransacking the storeroom. I sit down beside him on a sofa by the huge glass doors, which have been thrown wide open to let in what little bit of a breeze there is on this stiflingly hot District One summer afternoon.
It doesn't take my brother long to reappear, carrying a tray laden with food. His eyes widen almost imperceptibly when he sees how little distance there is between Falco and I, but he says nothing as he places the tray on the table and sits down opposite us.
The next few hours pass very quickly, and though the images of the Games still return to me unless I make a conscious effort to fight against them, I find I feel a lot more relaxed now I am away from the Capitol and back home with my brother. I feel more like my normal self, or what was my normal self before the arena.
The three of us talk mostly about inconsequential things. Gloss talks about the petty politics of District One and Falco questions him, clearly taking in and storing everything my brother tells him, and then they switch roles and Falco talks while Gloss questions. I had always thought and hoped they would get on, but even I am surprised by how easily they converse and how much they seem to have in common despite how vastly different their lives are. I could listen to the two people I love most in the world talk forever, and their words wash over me, driving the nightmares of the Games away.
"Are we keeping you up, Butterfly?" asks Falco eventually, and Gloss's eyes snap to mine in response to the nickname which is already so familiar to him even though he never used it himself.
"Don't stop on my account," I reply with a smile, temporarily ignoring my brother's reaction even though I know I won't get away with it for long. "I'm quite happy here. I wouldn't mind another drink though," I add teasingly, not really expecting him to actually get up. I'm surprised when he does.
"If I'd known you were this demanding then I'd have stayed in the Capitol," he says just as teasingly.
"You've always known," I retort, smiling innocently back at him. He simply smiles back and disappears in the direction of the kitchen.
I can feel Gloss's eyes boring into me before I even look at him, so I know exactly what to expect when I finally do. His look is more one of concern than anger, just as I knew it would be.
"What are you doing?" he whispers. "And don't tell me he means nothing after what I heard him call you because I won't believe it for a second."
"He's a good man, Gloss," I tell him, not even bothering to try and lie. "I like him, love him even, and I think he loves me too."
"But he's Capitol. And he's a Hunger Games escort. Aren't there rules against there being anything between you?"
"And since when have I followed the rules, brother mine?" I reply, and even I am surprised by how much I sound like my pre-arena self when I speak.
He laughs, shaking his head in resignation. "I won't go on at you, Cashmere. You're the best judge of character I know and even I like him. And I've never seen you look at anyone like you look at him. But think about what you're doing, about who he is. You're playing with fire and I know you know it. All I ask is that you're careful."
"Gloss, I'm the older one. I'm supposed to look out for you, not the other way around," I reply with a smile.
"We look out for each other, just like always. If he makes you happy then I've no problem-"
"Let me finish," he says firmly, almost managing to keep a straight face. Almost. "What I was going to say is that I have no problem with him now, but if he hurts you then I will hurt him. I don't care if he's a Hunger Games escort, a government minister or Panem's president, nobody hurts my sister."
I laugh lightly and step forwards so I can lean against him, smiling when he instinctively puts his arms around me, just like he has done since we were young children.
"He won't hurt me. He keeps me sane."
"I thought that was my job," he replies, and I can tell instantly that he's only half joking.
"It is. I need both of you. Please, Gloss-"
He cuts me off mid-sentence again. "It's alright, Cash. I understand. As much as I can when I haven't been to the Capitol anyway. And I wouldn't want you insane. If you went mad then I'd be forced to attempt to make conversation with Satin, and then I'd soon be far less sane than you."
I laugh, loving my brother even more than I did before, mostly because that one comment makes me abruptly realise that his final words to me as he left the Justice Building after the reaping were true. It wouldn't have mattered what he saw on the screen as he watched me in the arena, he still would have kept loving me.
When Falco returns, Gloss and I say nothing of what we just said, and we sit as we were before, talking about everything but the arena. At some point I abandon my corner of the sofa to lie down with my head pillowed on a cushion which rests on Falco's lap. Gloss keeps talking without a pause, and I realise my brother has accepted my almost-lover like he accepts most new people and things in his life, which is calmly, easily and without drama. Even though I have grown up knowing it, it still amuses me how different we are.
The dawn light is filtering through the exquisitely embroidered curtains when I wake, and I find that Falco has been replaced with a note telling me that he had to leave for the Capitol before daybreak so he was back in time. The postscript is a line of numbers which confuse me initially, but that's only until I read on and he tells me the phone is in the entrance hall. I wake Gloss with the laughter which is my response to the final line, which simply reads 'my phone line is like the dining room'. I smile at the knowledge that I will be able to talk more or less freely with him and that the Capitol won't be listening in.
"Get up then," calls Gloss, speaking far too loudly for this time in the morning. "If you wake me up this early then you have to come with me to get some fresh food for breakfast."
I groan but take his hand and let him pull me to my feet anyway. "If I didn't know you better then I would begin to think you're only here for the food," I say teasingly.
"You know that could never be true," he replies seriously, linking my arm through his as he leads me to the front door before continuing in a very different tone. "Do you think you leaving the house to go to the bakery will be enough to make the front page?"
I laugh, following his lead and choosing not to talk about the past. I'm sure we will talk about the Games, and that the memories of the arena will never go away. How could I forget when I have my Victory Tour in less than six months time? But I'm determined that I won't let what has happened ruin my life. The reality of the Hunger Games is very different to what I imagined it would be before the reaping.
I am a murderer and that will never change, but if I don't live my life then the Sixty-sixth Games will claim it's twenty-fourth victim, and then everything that happened will be for nothing. I refuse to let that happen, and I can't help thinking that Gloss and Falco won't let it happen either. Between us, we will cope, because I won't let it defeat me, I will never give in. I promise.
I was genuinely shocked and pleased at the number of you who think I should carry on with this - I'll try my best so look out for the sequel or do the author alert thing ;)