I wake up with the dawn sunlight through the window, and I blink at the white ceiling. There's an odd familiarity here. I've woken in this bed, in this room, in this way before, with bad memories seeping into my mind, fresh from the day before.
I sit up and turn my head to the left to see Vivienne sitting in a chair she must have had an Avox fetch, right next to my bed. She's fast asleep, her head resting in one hand. She'll be stiff when she wakes up.
But she stayed.
Of course she stayed, Kayla. We all stayed.
I turn my gaze to the bedspread, not looking up at the boy and girl who I know I will see standing there, if I were to look.
Why don't you look, Kay? We're here to help you.
Because I can't look. Because what I need most now is reality, and they can't be real.
Don't you trust us, Kayla?
And the voice, her voice, is so heartbroken and sad that I have to look up at her, the dark-skinned girl, and at the tan-skinned boy beside her. She's dressed as we were in the arena, with the dark green, sleeveless, hooded shirt and black leggings. He's wearing the clothes he wore at the Reaping, the green tunic with the animal patterns.
Don't you trust us? they ask me.
"I don't know!" I cry, a strange sort of shudder passing through my body as I realize how truthful that claim is. "I just don't know!"
A hand rests on my arm. Vivienne's.
"How… How many people are in this room?" I ask, turning my head to face her. She won't lie to me; I know she won't.
"Who do you think is here?"
Why is she asking me? I look around the room again. They're gone.
"No one," I reply. "There's no one else. Just you and me."
Vivienne's grip tightens for a moment; the pressure is reassuring.
"Let's go," she says. "You've got an interview in a few hours. Then we can go home. Just stay strong for one more day, and then I'll take care of the rest, okay?"
And then there's another long period of bathing and makeup and prep, and while my prep team's still relatively sedate, they talk just enough to distract me from thinking about the boy and girl who may or may not have been in my room.
Of course, they're talking about the upcoming interview, which turns my thoughts in other unpleasant directions, such as what the heck I'm going to say out there. I don't want to talk about the Games. I just want to go home.
By the time Arrian comes in with my dress, I'm so worried I'm nearly trembling.
"You won't be a wolf today," he tells me as he helps me into the green fabric. "But I think that this should be a pleaser anyway."
When I look at myself in the mirror, all I can think of is the forest. The main part of the dress is a dark green, not unlike the arena outfit, but there are many almost-see-through layers over my legs, of different colors, lighter shades of green and yellow that overlap, filtering the light in the room, giving me the impression of sunlight and shadows on the leaves of trees. Small, white flowers have been woven through my hair.
I think that I look very pretty, but it's not something that I can appreciate at the moment.
"Are you ready?" Arrian asks me.
I shake my head. "Arrian, what am I going to say out there? What story do I tell now?"
My stylist adjusts a flower. "Just be honest," he replies. "Answer his questions with how you feel. Your honesty has earned you acclaim from your viewers."
"I've never been honest," I protest. "From the very beginning, I was a living lie. Nothing I said to Caesar, about my life, my leg, none of that was true. Everything I did in front of an audience was a façade."
"That's different," Arrian says. "Once you entered the arena, the façade fell away. Was the poem honoring Bergamot also a lie? Were the things you said later, when you confronted Shimmer, also lies?"
I shake my head, slowly this time.
"You can be endearing when you lie," my stylist says, his voice lowered to a whisper, right in my ear. "But when you're honest, you're beautiful."
"Really. Now, are you ready?"
I nod. "Yes."
Arrian takes me down the hall, back to the sitting room, where the interview will take place. There isn't a live audience this time. That may make it easier, I think as I manage to give Caesar Flickerman a small smile as he shakes my hand and points me towards the victor's chair, which has been moved up here. I sit down, and Caesar sits in a chair facing mine. I can see Vivienne, Arrian, and Minnie standing behind the cameras.
"We are on in five," one of the cameramen says, holding up five fingers. "Four…Three…" he continues, lowering his fingers one by one, the last two without speaking.
Caesar does some sort of upbeat introduction, but I'm still watching my team. I only turn to face my interviewer when I see Vivienne look pointedly at him.
"…only the third victor from District Nine, Kayla. How does that make you feel?"
What do I say? Be honest, be honest.
"Shocking," I say. "Unbelievable. It's like it's not me sitting here. It's like I'm still at home, watching this girl on television."
"Too good to be true, right?" Caesar prompts, and I nod. "I'll say. You've certainly taken us all for a ride. Starting with your fake limp. You must have worked a long time to perfect that."
"Since I was twelve," I say. "I had this Plan, my plan in case I ever got Reaped. I'd pretend to be useless so that no one would focus on me."
"It certainly served you well."
I shrug. "I ended up all alone on a little cliff for days. No one was hunting me. The limp didn't do much. I kept doing it out of habit."
"That was clever of you, finding that alcove. What made you think to try climbing?"
"I've done a lot of climbing trees at home, so climbing was an option anyway. The rocks looked stable enough, and there were plenty of handholds. And I thought that, if there was something to find back there, the odds were low that someone would come chasing after me. I just needed…a backpack…"
I trail off, knowing what topic will come next, now that I've gone and brought it up.
"And Bergamot gave you that backpack," Caesar says. "Were you expecting that?"
I shake my head, biting my lip, fighting back tears that threaten to flow. I will be strong. One more day. One more day.
"So you didn't have any alliance arranged with him or anything?"
I shake my head again. "No. He… He knew the limp was fake. Before the arena, he told me… He wanted to make things fair, because he knew my secret. He was a good guy."
Now I really think I'm going to cry. I look down at my lap. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Caesar nod sympathetically.
"Let me tell you, Kayla, while I'd admired your poetry at the pregame interviews, your tribute to Bergamot after his death made me cry. Just how do you come up with such words?"
I look back up at him, trying to think of an answer.
"I'm not sure," I say. "I think of things, nice things, sad things…and then I just speak, and it's like the words say themselves."
"The words do seem to have a sort of magic to them," Caesar says. "A spellbinding effect. But after that, things began to get a bit exciting, now didn't they?"
I nod. "I woke up, and the mountain was falling on me."
"It was quite the rude awakening," Caesar chuckles, and I smile a bit. "Just what was going through your head?"
"I thought, 'This is it. I'm dead.' Nothing fancy, just… 'I'm dead.'"
"But you weren't dead."
"No… I wasn't…"
"Anise's rescue was probably the most heart-stopping moment I've experienced in all the years I've held these interviews."
I nod. "She saved me. I just wish…"
My voice trails off, and the sentence gets caught in my throat.
"What do you wish, Kayla?" Caesar prompts.
"I wish…I could have…returned the favor…" I manage to choke out.
"I'm sure you do," says Caesar, reaching out and patting my arm. "You two seemed to form an instant bond. I just want to know, what did you see in her?"
I have to think again, and when I finally speak, the words are soft.
"She was a young girl, just like me.
She was in pain, that I could see,
But not from some external threat;
It was her mind that was upset.
And at the time, I didn't know
What the cause was. She didn't show.
I want—still want—to give her aid
That debt now cannot be repaid."
I look up. Caesar's taken out a handkerchief and is wiping his eyes. Vivienne's nodding slowly.
"I should think that you repaid her, indeed," Caesar continues once he's recovered. "You gave her food and company, and then you went on to defy all odds and win the Hunger Games!"
"I defied my own odds most of all," I say. "I didn't think I'd win for a long time, after Anise…but then…well, I guess I got a confidence boost."
"And where did that come from?"
"From Vivienne," I say.
"From your mentor?" I nod. "Was it the knife she sent you?"
"Yes," I say. "We use knives like that in District Nine, to hunt. I knew how to use it. I'd forgotten that I was a hunter. Vivienne reminded me."
"And just in time for the final showdown between you and Shimmer, too!" Caesar says. "Just what was going through your mind when the ground fell out from under you?"
"Not much," I admit. "I just threw myself at Shimmer, and, well, we were falling. Slowly. It was more weird than frightening, actually."
"What about the lava?" Caesar presses.
I shrug. "By that point, Shimmer was out of knives, and I was out of tricks. It looked like everything was up to fate. But then I dropped the knife, and it hit that clear surface, so I knew that I still had a chance. A slim chance, but a chance. And I took it."
"You most certainly did," says Caesar. "And we're all very proud of you. You know, most viewers didn't think that they'd see you sitting here today when you were reaped."
"That's okay," I say. "I didn't, either. But here I am."
"Here you are!" Caesar laughs, turning to the cameras. "It just goes to show that there will always be people who can surprise us! This is Caesar Flickerman, thanking you for watching and wishing Kayla Rakkor, the victor of the Forty-Seventh Hunger Games, a safe ride home! I'll see you at the Victory Tour!"
"Cut!" says a cameraman.
It's over. Vivienne's at my side almost immediately, which I'm grateful for. Whatever confidence I'd mustered up for the cameras is quickly slipping away. I smile and nod as people come by and congratulate me, but Vivienne quickly excuses us, saying that we have a train to catch.
After a ride in an elevator, a car with darkened windows, and a quick farewell to Arrian at the train station, I'm on the moving train, through the mountain tunnels, and out of the Capitol.
I stand by a window at the rear of the train car, staring back at the receding mountains and the Capitol they conceal. I'm leaving. It's gone. I'm out.
Then I turn around.
And I see the two people standing behind me.
They reach out towards me.
Kayla, Kay, wait—
I scream and bolt, shoving past them and running down the hall, towards the front of the train, as far away from the Capitol, the arena, and the Hunger Games as I can get. I run as fast as I can; I scream as loud as I can. Whatever it takes to get away…!
Someone steps in my way and grabs me. I shriek and struggle, trying to break free, to keep running.
Vivienne. That's Vivienne's voice. She's the one holding me. I stop struggling, holding her as tightly as she's holding me.
"It's them!" I gasp.
"It's who, Kayla?" Vivienne asks me. "Who is it?"
"B-Bergamot and Anise! They're here! They're still here! But they're dead! They're dead! They're dead!"
Vivienne sits down on the floor of the train, cradling me in her arms.
"Make them go away," I sob. "I want to get out of the arena. I want to get out… Make them go away…"
Vivienne says nothing, but she holds me close as I cry into her chest. Her silence itself is an answer. She can't make the specters go away. No one can.
I'm out of the arena, but some part of me never left.
And it never will.
Vivienne pulls back the blinds, leaving the window open. It's still dark outside the train, but the sky near the horizon has a purple tint. She then walks over to the bed and gently nudges the girl lying in it, waking her.
Kayla's eyes slowly open. "Are we home?"
"Not quite yet," Vivienne replies. "But I want you to see something. Come here."
The mentor helps the tribute, now her fellow victor, out of the bed, taking her hands in her own and guiding her across the room to stand in front of the window.
"Look out there," she says.
"There's nothing out there, Vivienne," Kayla says.
"Are you sure?" Vivienne asks. Kayla nods. "Look again."
The fifteen-year-old turns her face to the window, to the distant horizon, just as the bright orange sun peeks out from beneath the ground. She watches as it makes its slow climb upward, casting its light on more and more of the grass and the trees.
"The sun always rises," Vivienne says. "Sometimes, it doesn't seem like there's much in this world you can count on. This, you can. It's a new day, Kayla. It's a chance to go forward. I can't promise you peace and security for all the days of your life, as much as I may wish that I could, but this I can promise you: There will always be another day, and there will always be someone there to face it with you."
Kayla's eyes are shining in the sunlight.
"Arise, my lord," she whispers. "And wipe away the blood."
Vivienne places a hand on her shoulder.
The two victors of District Nine watch the sun ascend into the lightening blue sky.