Hello everyone!

This chapter is dedicated to all my readers who have stuck with me and this story since the beginning. You all are fantastic!

Warning: This chapter is closer to M than T.

Enjoy!


"There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable."

- Mark Twain


It was his second client for the night and Peeta was exhausted.

His bones ached. His mind ached.

He was falling apart.

Just one more visit. That's all he had to do before being allowed to leave this wretched place. At least until Snow needed him again. One more client and then it was home sweet home.

The door to the apartment flung open on the first knock and in the doorway stood a tall, lanky woman dressed in nothing but a sheer white nightgown. She smiled at him, her teeth brighter than was natural, her lips puffy from the surgeries he knew the Capitolites were so found of, and her dark hair resting over her shoulders in perfect curls. Her eyes spoke years, but her skin seemed too perfect to be real. It was a typical issue all the Capitolites seemed to have, and Peeta couldn't understand why they were so obsessed with looking young. Age was a beautiful thing in District 12. It was so rare to see anyone older than fifty because of starvation and mining accidents that they celebrated age whenever possible. It was an achievement to make it so long in this cruel world.

Just another thing the Capitol took for granted, it seemed.

"Victor Peeta Mellark," his client purred, attempting to be seductive and demure. "I've been waiting for you."

The words were cringe-worthy at best. All of his clients started with this line, as though he was some prize they'd been waiting weeks on⎯and to them, he was their special prize. He was nothing more than a pretty object handed to them on a silver platter. Even though their commentaries bothered him, Peeta had to pretend that he was doing this of his own free will⎯that there were no deadly strings attached if he didn't oblige.

Act the part.

That's what Finnick Odair had stressed soon after his arrival to the Capitol on the last lap of his Victory Tour. Here he was not Peeta Mellark, the baker's son from District 12. In the Capitol he was prestigious, brave, a Victor. He had to be everything he was not and did not want to be.

Plastering on the most charming smile he could muster⎯the smile he and Finnick practiced for hours after Peeta's first failed night with a client⎯he kissed her hand and asked how her night had been. And just like all the others before her, this one invited him in and said something about her designer ruining a line of hers. He didn't know what any of it meant, and frankly he didn't really care what was going on in her life, but he knew they liked talking endlessly about themselves. So he let them talk. It was the only opportunity he had to calm his nerves before things got too serious in the appointment, and it was extremely important to never show his fear to anyone. Ever.

"You have to hide it," Finnick had instructed. The happy-go-lucky Victor facade everyone in the country saw was gone and in its place was a man who had seen far too much in his life; a man far older than his years. "They don't pay to see a frightened boy. They pay for a night with a Victor, and they like you because you're handsome and charming. You ever heard of a fairytale?" And Peeta told him he had. "You're their Prince Charming, Peeta⎯act the part."

And he did.

Every night, Peeta would follow his schedule to a T, and whenever someone requested his presence, he would go without question. That's what good Victors did. That's what they did to protect their loved ones. They were the marionettes in a sick and twisted puppet show and Snow controlled their strings.

At first Peeta wanted to believe that Snow was bluffing, but Finnick had hinted at a few of the punishments Snow inflected on Victors. His only ally in this game told him about a sudden forest fire in District 7 shortly after Johanna Mason refused to sell herself, and how it was such a coincidence that half her village died. "You don't try biting," Finnick told him. "They'll just bite back ten times harder. Trust me."

There was no way around getting out. Not if Peeta wanted to be responsible for the deaths of his sister and father, or even his entire District. He didn't think Snow would go as far as to destroy District 12, but then they had annihilated 13 all those years ago. Who's to say they couldn't do it again?

He couldn't take any chances.

It was all a terrible game of pretend, and it reminded Peeta of a time in his childhood when he and Katniss would play in their meadow without a care, chasing each other and waving sticks around like they were the most powerful weapons in the world. They controlled the outcome of their game, always deciding when they were done for the day. Here Peeta couldn't call the shots. He was powerless. He asked how high when told to jump and danced when Snow commanded.

And Snow had him traveling to the Capitol a lot after his Victory Tour.

Sometimes it was only a few days; other times it was for more than a week. But each time Peeta got off the train and met his entourage, his eyes squinted at the too-bright sun shining off the concrete buildings and a piece of himself would slowly wither in the glare of his surroundings. It was all a circus. Nothing was natural. Nothing was real. Not even the sun or the trees looked natural in comparison to home. They looked too bright, too green to ever be real.

Peeta didn't know what else to do in his situation. He didn't know what else to do except take Haymitch's advice and drink until he couldn't hold his head up anymore. It helped a little.

There would be days when Peeta stumbled to his mirror after a bad hangover, or after finishing up with a client, and look at the reflection and question the person staring back. He didn't know this stranger with the haunted eyes and the dark black and blue circles under them. This stranger looked so defeated, so lost.

Dying would have been better.

He thought about it every day⎯more so when visiting the Capitol, but Snow would never allow his precious Victor to kill himself. That would be too merciful.

So, Peeta suffered like all the other Victors suffered: alone and self-medicated.

What had happened to him?

Where did he go?

Who was he anymore?

Peeta Mellark didn't exist.

Not in the Capitol, anyway.

His hair was blonder now, silkier from the expensive shampoos they'd give him, and all his childhood scars were completely erased from his skin as if they'd never happened. His simple button-up shirts were ripped to shreds by his stylists and now his entire wardrobe had nothing but the rich golds and blues worn by fairytale princes. Snow was slowly erasing all traces of Peeta and in his place came a synthetic Capitol creation. Peeta was now a handsome, clean slate for the Capitolites to ravish, and even though his eyes screamed of pain, of the horrors he's witnessed every hour, there was one thing he knew he could be: charming.

Peeta knew he had a way with words. He'd known about this talent since the time he entered Middle Level in school, when girls started taking notice of his blue eyes and his soft blond Merchant hair. They would do anything he asked, and of course he was conscious not to purposefully manipulate his admirers, but it was hard to fight something that came so naturally to him.

On a few occasions, Peeta would use his gift for gain. It was never for anything big, but there were days where he just didn't feel like doing his chores or wanted an extension on an assignment. It was simple, really. All he had to do was smile earnestly at his target, compliment them on their appearance, and start up on their favorite topic, putting them in a good mood and then bam! they would be eating out of the palm of his hand in no time.

He never bothered with it much, because he always felt bad about it afterward, but his sister begged to differ on how often he used his talent. She would get so enraged with him, demanding to know how he did it, and once she punched him in the stomach when he tried it on her, threatening to stab him if he ever thought of tricking her like that again. He tried to show Katniss how he did it, knowing what worked and what didn't, but she could never get the right element of charm the skill needed and they'd often end up arguing because of how awful her failed attempts were.

She especially hated when Peeta would have his admirers do things for him.

"How'd you convince Nell to do your chores?" she fumed one hot summer day when he was in the bakery decorating a cake for Delly's brother's birthday.

"I told her how busy I was with orders," he told her simply, not bothering to look up at her sour face. "She was nice enough to volunteer her assistance."

"I hate Nell," Katniss scowled. "Why her?"

"You hate anyone who's nice."

"That's not true! I don't hate Delly, or Madge, or any of your friends. I just hate Nell because she's annoying and thinks she can get anything handed to her if she bats her eyes. It's annoying; she's annoying."

Peeta looked up from his work and smirked at his sister. It always entertained him when she tried to hide her annoyance. "You hate any girl who takes notice of me."

Her brow twitched under his scrutiny and her grip tightened around the broom. "She's doing all your chores, Peeta. You must have said something to convince a person to scrub the porch in this heat."

His grin widened into a full grown smile. "Don't know what you're talking about, sis," he said.

"I knew it! I knew it! You weaseled your way out of chores again!"

"What you're talking about?" he asked, going back to his work. "Nell asked what I was doing today and I told her how busy I was with chores and work. She offered, Nissy. It would've been rude to say no."

Her eyes slit into a death glare. "How come you never convince them to do my chores? I hate scrubbing windows and cleaning the porch!"

"You didn't ask." And with that Katniss stormed out of the bakery, not hiding the sound of her stomping feet, and throwing over her shoulder how he should be careful with his natural gift.

"It's going to bite you in the ass one day."

He had laughed at the time, entertained by her temper, but standing in his client's apartment made him wonder if this was Fate's cruel justice for all he'd done wrong in the past.

"Make yourself at home," the woman purred again, and Peeta wished she'd just drop the act and use her natural voice. But nothing was natural in the Capitol. Why would its citizens be any different?

"You have a lovely home," he complimented, looking around the lavish apartment. Out of all his visits so far, this home had to be his favorite, and that made him worry that he was completely gone now. Never before had he ever noticed such details like the stitching on the couches or the client's surgical enhancements until frequently visiting. Before his Games these small details had never mattered unless they were on a cake.

This new Peeta frightened him.

He just wanted himself back.

He just wanted to be the naive teenager again who only had to fear starvation and the punishments of Peacekeepers. Those were simple times compared to all this.

The sun was setting now as he walked further into the apartment, touching crystal and golden knickknacks on his way to the couch. His favorite time of day. He watched in awe as the sun's colors morphed from different reds to pinks to golds, hitting the mountain tops just right. It was a breathtaking view⎯one he would never tire of if he were anywhere else, doing anything but this.

His throat tightened at memories of believing sunsets meant a new beginning, a new start. Now he dreaded them because it just meant another day had passed and he was still alive.

"I hope you like champagne." The woman's voice startled him, dragging him out of his thoughts, as she set a silver tray with two flutes and a bottle of champagne on the coffee table, her smile still unnatural. He hoped his was genuine enough for her. "They say it's the best stuff in the entire country," she said pleasantly. "Do try some."

Thankful for an excuse to numb his mind for a bit, Peeta took the bottle and kindly poured some champagne into her glass. "A fabulous drink for a fabulous woman." He wished she'd tell him her name so this could flow better, or at least to ease his mind that he wasn't about to have sex with a total stranger.

Her cheeks darkened a purplish pink against her lilac skin, and she lightly pushed his shoulder in good humor. "You're too much! I don't think I've met as nice of a Victor as you, Peeta."

"And I don't think I've ever met as fair a woman as you." They clinked their glasses together and took a sip. The champagne was bitterer than he had anticipated, but after another glass he was already beginning to feel the effects of the alcohol. "So..." Peeta trailed, running his hand up the woman's thigh. "Where shall we begin?"

She giggled, all air of seduction gone, and confessed how she wasn't an expert at this like her friends were. "This is only my second time, but we started in the bedroom last time..." and she pointed down the hallway.

Getting up, Peeta bowed, hand out for her to take, and asked if he may have the honor of her leading him to her bedroom. She took his hand, blushing and giggling all at the same time, and led him to the far back part of her apartment where a large canopied bed awaited them.

"I don't know if you remember," she started, breaking away and heading to the corner of the room, near the window where over a dozen plants were potted, "but you visited a friend of mine last week. Ovid Drunmar?" The name wasn't recognizable, but Peeta nodded as though he remembered. "He said you loved plants, which isn't surprising. You used your clever knowledge of them to kill District 2's female."

His guilt and homesickness mixed with the alcohol made him want to vomit on the spot, but Snow would surely hear about him emptying his stomach out on a paying customer's carpets. He didn't want to think about Snow or the Games, or even home, but this woman brought in so many plants that he recognized because of his sister that a tear slipped down his cheek.

One more day, he reminded himself. One more day.

"They're beautiful," he forced out over the lump in his throat. "Thank you."

"Come closer." And he did, looking over her shoulder at the petal her finger was tracing. "This one is called a Rose Pogonia. Isn't the purple so pretty?"

It surprised him how natural the flower⎯and all the plants for that matter⎯looked. They didn't look like they were enhanced like everything else in the Capitol and it only made his throat tighten more.

He missed Katniss.

He missed home.

But home was out of reach until he finished his business here.

It was best just to get it over with.

"Not as beautiful as you," he whispered lowly, putting his hands on her hips. Peeta leaned in and started to kiss her neck, muttering names of different flowers he was familiar with. Fairy Candles, Black-Eyed Susans, Primroses... His client groaned in pleasure, moving his hands to her ample breasts, begging for more.

Peeta tried to oblige, but all his thoughts focused on were the flowers. The pretty flowers. The simple flowers. He felt like one of them, being pulled from his home, being displayed for all to see simply because he was handsome. It was silly, comparing himself to a plant, but all his life he'd been surrounded by plants. Or at least one.

"I told you to knock."

"I know."

The client's hair darkened under his vision as he pushed her into the bed, sucking on her bottom lip vigorously, and her body grew smaller under him, more muscular than anyone he'd been with before, more sharp. This body felt familiar to him, and that made his heart warm at the memories flooding his mind.

"Peeta."

Clothes were pulled off.

"We can't."

Kisses were exchanged.

"Why not?"

And Peeta straddled the client, panting and asking for a moment for air. She giggled and told him they had all night, that she didn't mind.

The air was warm, heavy, and it reminded him of District 12's hot summer nights when it was just him and his sister, alone in the apartment above the bakery.

"We can't do this," she whispered to him, pushing him back and looking for her night shirt. "We shouldn't do this."

"I know," he shakily breathed, "I know, but that night in the Meadow..."

Peeta looked down at the woman and smiled at the freckles spread across her tiny nose from too much sun, the way she bit her bottom lip and avoided all eye-contact when she became shy, her dark curls splayed across the snow white pillow... "Like a painting," he whispered to her, tracing the hidden curves he'd only seen once, and she shyly smiled back, inviting him closer.

"It's okay to touch me," she whispered, her voice low and light all at the same time. His hands continued to explore her body, his mind forcing itself to remember this moment.

"You should have knocked."

He didn't mean to walk in on her. He didn't know she'd be changing.

"It's wrong," she stated, covering herself with a blanket. "We shouldn't do this, Peeta. We can't."

There were so many things they couldn't do. There were so many things they should do, had to do. But why should they care? Why should they care what other people thought? No one had a right to care about this but them. Only them.

"I don't care what other people think!"

"I don't care what they say about us!"

Her lips sucked on his neck, soft gasps of pleasure escaping her as he did everything she asked.

"Harder," she commanded. "Please, Peeta."

"I promise nothing bad will happen."

"Nothing?"

He loved how easily his name rolled off her tongue. Like music to his ears.

He obliged.

"Nothing."

"Just...not too fast, okay?"

As they moved together, Peeta thought of all the times he would force himself to think of anything but her. Of all the times his mind refused anything but. He thought of the guilt he'd feel for imaging what Katniss would look like, feel like, taste like. All the what-ifs his mind would travel to, traveling to forbidden places he'd never tell anyone else about. It was too dangerous for anyone to know. No one could be trusted to keep it.

"I love you."

No one except Katniss.

"I know."

She might.

"Do you love me?"

She'd understand.

"That's a dumb thing to ask."

His body was sweaty, covered in shimmer she sweated off during intercourse, and his mind buzzed from the alcohol and medication he always received before every client.

"I love you..."

"...I love you, too."

Reality came crashing down when she left the bed.

"Don't let me go."

Her long, slender body slipping into a golden robe too rounded. All the wrong shades of black in her dark, curled hair. Everything was wrong. All wrong. This was his client and nothing more.

"I won't, I promise."

"I had a good time," she said, sliding back into bed with him. "They weren't kidding when they said you had quite the sex drive." She poked him lightly on the chest and giggled, resting her head on his shoulder. "I can't wait to tell my husband what a good purchase you were."

Peeta's throat was dry, his body motionless.

"Do you have any regrets?"

If he closed his eyes for just a minute, he could pretend she was another person. A better person. Just for a minute.

"Of course, but not this."

He scrunched his eyes closed once more, and tried to imagine. Tried to remember.

"We can't live in this world of pretend," Katniss said, pushing him away. "It hurts thinking of things we can't have."

No, not that one. Anything but that one.

Rejection broke his heart as he tried to reason with her. "But it's not pretend. It happened. It's real. Our secret, remember?"

She sighed and turned away from him."You're my brother, Peeta, and I... I don't love you like that. It's... It's wrong and I can't. Not like that, anyway. What we did was wrong, and we can't ever do it again. We won't."

"Please, Nissy..."

"Who's Nissy?" the woman asked, looking up at him strangely. His mind zeroed in on Katniss' face, her slight blush when she got embarrassed, her chapped, swollen lips pursed together in her signature scowl, and winced. He hadn't meant to say that out loud.

The lump in his throat cleared just an inch to let Peeta mutter out an excuse: "No one. No one important."

"Do you love me?"

"No."

He just wanted to sleep forever.


So I hope the chapter was worth the wait, and that you all enjoyed it. :) Please tell me what you think! Feedback is always a blessing for writers.

And as always, I would love to thank Shelby for being a fabulous friend and beta. This chapter (or anything that I write, really) wouldn't be the same without her amazing editing skills. You're the best, Shelby!

If anyone has any questions, don't hesitate to ask. I'm always here to answer. :)

~Terri~