And here we are towards the end. Once again, thank you to anyone who took the time to read and to review – I hope you've all been enjoying the story. This is far from the last you'll see of me on here though, never fear :)
They give me ten hours between the Games Recap and the interview, but I only manage to get a few fitful hours of sleep before the prep team comes around again. The Games plague my dreams; nightmares of falling and falling and falling like Abbie, guilt about becoming a murderer, and about how much easier killing Glint was. Most of all, though, my nightmares are about Rowan, and I see his awful death time and time and time again.
It must show that I'm barely sleeping, because Blue hands me a cup of coffee halfway through the prep team's work and orders me to drink it. Even looking at the coffee reminds me of Rowan. Tears almost come to my eyes; I order them away, and snap at Blue to mask the weakness.
He snaps back, and soon we have a nice little argument going. Until my terrified prep team sends for the stylist, who in turn has the sense to send for Willow, who comes in all guns blazing.
"What are you two doing?"
"She started it," Blue says, pointing to me.
Willow half sighs, half laughs. "Snow, Blue, how old are you? Five?"
I roll my eyes. "Aren't you the epitome of brilliant humour."
"Johanna, stop winding Blue up. Blue, stop letting her wind you up," Willow deadpans. "And come on; we'd better let the prep team work in peace."
They both leave, mostly to my relief. I've got a few hours worth of trying not to say something that could be interpreted as treason on national television ahead of me; I'd rather not deal with Blue. Or Willow and her unneeded sympathy.
After the prep team finishes up with me – and finishes praising each other over what they've done to me, and how 'absolutely fabulous' my hair looks now they've finished with it properly – my stylist comes in, does her usual insanely unoriginal approach and sends me off to my interviews via Willow.
"Just try not to antagonize Caesar Flickerman too much," my mentor warns me the second she sees me. "I know you can act, and it'll go better for you if you try to act civil. Please?"
I don't bother to dignify that with a reply and instead go straight into the main room of the District Seven tributes' area, where the interview will be held. It takes far too long to get everything organized, but finally Flickerman gives the go ahead and the cameras start rolling.
"Well, the ending of these Games was certainly unexpected."
I bristle slightly at the implications of what he's saying, intentional or not. "Not to me it wasn't."
Flickerman laughs. "Well said, Johanna, well said."
Once he sees that I'm not going to comment, he continues.
"You were obviously planning this right from the start. What was going through your head on Reaping Day?"
"That I wanted to come back home. At any cost."
"And so you did. Still think your plan was the right choice?"
I swear it's like the guy is trying to force me into committing treason by voicing everyone in Panem's opinion on the Hunger Games. I might have a habit of not thinking before I speak, but I'm not that stupid. And anyway, I quite like being alive – there is a reason I won the Games, and it wasn't a desire to commit suicide.
"Why wouldn't it be? I'm still here, aren't I?"
"Point taken. So how did you come up with your plan?"
I didn't, I think, but don't say.
"I'm not quite sure," I say instead. "It just popped into my head a few seconds after my name was drawn."
"Well that was quite a stroke of luck for you, wasn't it?"
I know my abrupt answers aren't making this easy for him and I don't care. If I can't be my usual self to Flickerman then at least I can very well not be all sweet and helpful to him either.
"And did your cousin figure out what you were up to?"
At least they've been doing their research this time I think, probably a tad too bitterly.
"Instantly," I say, because there's no rule against lying in this thing. I'm going to have to when the subject of Rowan comes up – as it will, because of course my reaction in the Arena won't have gone unnoticed.
Slowly Flickerman questions me about every tiny little aspect of the Games buildup and the Arena itself. I suppose you need to when you've got three hours of television airspace to fill, but it doesn't make it any less annoying. I answer shortly and abruptly, try to avoid the biting sarcasm that's become my best friend for years, and most of all pray that they won't think to bring Rowan up.
But he does.
"So did your District partner know about your plan? I can't imagine it would be easy to keep secrets from people who live in the same area as you do."
Newsflash: Districts aren't that small. Well maybe Twelve is, but that'd be the exception rather than the rule. Even so I answer yes, because really, what's the point in lying.
"So did you two know each other before the Games? You seemed quite affected by his death."
"He was the only person in there who I'd said more than two words to, and we'd become friends." I'm not lying per say, just bending the truth. And I'm not giving the Capitol the satisfaction of knowing just what they've done, not ever. "Of course I was upset when he died. Who wouldn't be?" It takes all the self control I have not to add 'oh yeah: you,' onto the end of it.
Caesar Flickerman asks me a few more questions and then, thankfully, moves off Rowan into the rest of the Arena.
"You've made quite a dramatic change in appearance. What prompted it?"
"My hair was getting in the way."
This gets a laugh out of him. "Well, you certainly are practical, Johanna. Like how you won that last fight of yours – I believe I speak for the entire male population of Panem when I say it was almost painful to watch. Don't you think it was a bit of a low blow?"
"What, other than literally?"
Another laugh. I'm getting to be quite the comedian.
"Seriously though, why did you use such… unorthodox tactics?"
"Same as for the rest," I say. "I wanted to get home alive. At any cost."
Once my interview is – finally – over I'm bundled back into my room, where I'm given orders to amuse myself for a couple of hours before we get put onto the train back to District Seven.
"I'd get some sleep," Willow tells me, as usual trying to be helpful. "There are sleeping pills in the cupboard under the bathroom sink. One should do it for such a short time."
"I don't need them."
My mentor just looks at me. "Johanna, don't lie to me. You've burst a blood vessel in your eye from tiredness. Get some sleep."
She leaves the room, closing the door behind her. As much as I don't want to listen to anyone else, Willow's right. I do need sleep. Doubt I'll get any though, sleeping pills or no.
I strip out of my dress and go have a shower. The intention is just to wash off all the gunk my prep team's insisted on putting on my face, no matter how much I tell them I can't stand the stuff. I end up being there a lot longer than I'd planned, though; awful as the Capitol is, it has some upsides. Incredibly luxurious showers being one of them.
So for most of the time allocated to me I sit in the shower fiddling with all the different settings. Gives me something to do if nothing else.
Only then I start thinking, and that's when I'm glad I'm in the shower because I doubt even the Capitol would have cameras in here, and in the Arena will have been the last time I ever let anyone see me cry.
But cry I do, because it's the Snow-endorsed Hunger Games I've just come out of. I think I'm allowed, and better to just get the fit of weakness over with now. And once the crying's over I do feel better at least a bit.
Rowan's dead. He was tortured and I wasn't there to help. I was a moron to let myself get that close to anyone else, but I've learned my lesson. Vince stays, because he's Vince, but no one else will. Getting close just leads to pain.
That doesn't bring Rowan back, and try as I do to distance myself from him his death still hurts. It shouldn't – I've avenged his killing, I've won the Games for him – but it does. Doubt he'd want me to keep moping like this, but I do, and think I will for quite some time.
But as awful as death is, at least I've dealt with it before. The killing – now that's different. I'm a murderer now, and that fact scares me a lot less than it did when I puked up the contents of my stomach after killing District Four. I might have been guilty, but then I went and killed Glint effortlessly anyway. Almost in cold blood, too.
What does that say about me? I was never a nice person, but at least I wasn't a killer. I am now, and I don't care, and that scares me so much more than just the killing bit does. I've killed, twice, and know I won't hesitate to again.
Johanna Mason, Hunger Games Victor. I'm quite attached to being alive, thanks, and being alive meant being a Victor. But the title doesn't sound anywhere near as it did anymore.
So I sit in the shower, and let the water hammer into my shoulders, and let my mind wander back to my Games. Which are over now. They're over, I've won; and it's like I still haven't grasped it and what it means yet. Or maybe I just don't want to – being rich loses a lot of its appeal once you've been in and out of an Arena to get there.
My mind conjures up images of blood and death and never-ending falls, and I sit there and let the water soothe me into almost some sort of trance. Which is broken when someone – probably Blue, by the impatience – raps loudly on the door of my room.
"Hurry up Mason," he yells. Yeah, definitely Blue.
So to spite him I stay in another ten minutes before getting out and getting dressed. Maybe it's petty, but who said I wasn't? Anyway, Blue is just so fun to wind up.
He glares at me once I meet up with the others.
"What took you so long?"
"Stuff," I say. "Anyway, it wouldn't kill you to wait. The star of the show can't be rushed."
Blue snorts. "Don't get cocky."
"What, jealous that I'd have more of one than you?"
His hands clench into fists. "Watch it, Mason. I'm still bigger than you, and a Victor too, remember?"
"Oh yeah? I bet I could take you, grandpa."
"You want to try?"
Willow steps between the two of us. "I swear, you two are worse than children. Don't start anything, either of you. Or do you want me to get Bastin involved?"
And my mentor might be far too nice for her own good, but she's scary when she gets an idea into her head, and no one in District Seven ever wants to get Bastin annoyed, not even his colleagues, so Blue cools it and I do too.
"Good. Now you can keep it that way until we get back to District Seven. Then you won't have to talk to each other if you don't want to. Now come on, children – the train awaits us."
"Children?" Blue mutters. "Who you calling a kid?"
"Those who act like them. Shut up and come on."
And surprisingly enough, Blue obeys without a fight.
The train ride back to Seven is peaceful enough, I suppose. Willow must have told Bastin how much Blue and I manage to piss each other off just be being in each others presence, because whenever the two of us are in the same room one of the other two is there as well.
Willow tries to recruit Blight, who I only meet on the train, to her cause as well. Unfortunately the one thing Blue and I can agree on is our shared contempt for our District's token drunkard, so her plan ends up backfiring dramatically.
It's fun annoying Blight for a while but he's far too easy bait, being completely off his face when the train ride starts and collapsing a few hours into 'lets make sure Blue and Johanna don't kill each other' duty. I go over and give him a tentative kick in the side, and the Victor just groans and rolls over.
"Even Chaff and Haymitch refuse to associate with him," Blue tells me, grinning at the sight of his unconscious colleague. "And that is the saddest you can go, let me tell you."
After that the two of go our separate ways, and I try to get some sleep. Soon it's pretty obvious that that's not going to happen; I give up on that option and head to where the television is on the train instead. I give up on that about the time I realise that there's nothing on but shots of my Games, which I'd really rather not watch.
Then finally we get back to District Seven. Back home.
The cameras flash as I step off the train, flanked by Willow and Blue and followed by Bastin and a hurriedly-revived Blight. Olga Stevens is there to meet us on the platform, leaning heavily on her walking stick. Good thing we've got a new Victor this year, because our oldest one looks like she's going to end up on the wrong side of the tree any second now.
All six Victors together. It makes for a rather picturesque scene really; the cameras lap it up. But I don't care. I'm scanning the crowd waiting at the platform, searching for a familiar face.
I see a family huddled together, two parents and a boy. The boy's thirteen or so and the splitting image of Rowan. This must be his family, I think, swallowing down a lump in my throat at the sight.
Then I see a familiar twelve year old, all wide grin and green eyes and black hair. Vince.
And just for a few seconds, despite everything that's just happened, despite thoughts of Rowan still in the back of my head, I'm happy.
I'm back. I've made it. I'm home.
End of Book One