Here you go! The absolute last chapter of Tears of Blood! Bring Them to Their Knees will go up on Tuesday.
Thank you guys so much for sticking with us and making this a phenomonal success! We love you guys!
And the article wound up NOT mentioning Tears of Blood and rather only my story The Phoenix: Burning Day. Nonetheless, I'd be thrilled to have you check it out-it's in the Wall Street Journal. An article called "The Weird World of Fanfiction" by Alexandra Alter.
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Aleah Armani, Victor of the 24th Hunger Games
'People fear death even more than pain. It's strange that they fear death. Life hurts a lot more than death.'
You know that when the first thing you do upon re-entering normal society is kick a peacekeeper in the balls that the day is shaping up to be a pretty terrible one. Actually, scrap that, kicking the crap out of peacekeeper would normally be rather entertaining, but in this context it just emphasized how horrific the next few days were going to be.
The minute that I'm lifted in up off the ladder I had been tethered to by a particularly uncomfortable electric current and into the depths of the giant, metallic hovercraft everyone around me begins to frenzy. Seriously, frenzy is the best word; they legitimately resemble those rabies infested rodents from this morning. Within milliseconds there have to be dozens of hands on me, people pulling me up off the floor and onto my feet, despite all the profanities I may or may not have been screaming at them as I told them to get their hands the hell away from me. The thing is, despite how important I've suddenly become to them, not a single person in that room listens to me.
The dozens of people that are up and restraining me as I kick and thrash within their grasp begin manoeuvring me towards a door, a door that leads to a very tiny, very enclosed glass room. My thrashing intensifies as I become somewhat of a hazard for all the people attempting to restrain me.
"Like hell you're going to get me in there," I shriek as I manage to get my right arm free by biting down on the fingers of the person who had previously been pinning it away from me. With my newly free arm I claw at the man restraining me by the shoulders, my nails digging into the material on his thickly gloved hands, before turning around and, you guessed it, kneeing him in the balls. Admittedly, I enjoyed that, but as the peacekeeper doubles over in what I assume, and hope, is excruciating pain, shit begins to hit the ceiling. My detaining detail doubles in size, literally a dozen people attempting to hold me steady, but with all the screaming and writhing it's impossible to subdue me. That, I suppose, is when they decide that attempting to get me to suddenly be compliant is futile, and I feel a syringe plunged into the back of my neck before the world starts to go hazy and I crumple unconscious onto the ground.
It could have been only a second later when I wake up, but I immediately know that's not in any way true. For one, I'm not locked in that tiny glass room as I assume I would have been for quite some time if I were still on the hovercraft, instead I'm trapped in an equally small white room, a small doorless, windowless room that makes me feel like I'm suffocating all over again. There's nothing in here besides a tiny plastic bin and the small bed that I have been shackled to, obviously my exploits in the hovercraft hadn't gone unnoticed. There are tubes and wires that have been forcefully shoved into my arms, and I have to fight every impulse in my body to not grab them and yank them out of my skin. The panic begins to set in as I look around at my cage, and as I become suddenly breathless and my body begins to quiver I start to fight against the restraints around my arms and my waist, bashing my suddenly ridiculously clean and manicured hands against the metal poles on the bed. Obviously it gets someone's attention, because within minutes one of the walls opens up on the other side of the room and a short pudgy blonde boy, who bears un uncanny resemblance to a slightly older Relk Stein, walks into the room carrying a tray of food and some uncommonly practical looking clothes.
It is only after the ugly little oompa-loompa unties my restraints and allows me to get up to get dressed that I realise what has happened. For one, my skin looks absolutely flawless as I gaze over my reflection, every single gash, bruise, scrape or paper cut that I had ever suffered in my entire life was gone, not a single mark on my cream coloured skin. But that's not what I was looking at. No, my eyes are glued on an alteration far more obvious than the removal of any of my scars: my chest. Between the time that I had been knocked out cold in the hovercraft and now my previously modest bust has almost tripled in size, my body looking considerably more forged than it had ever looked before. I look disgusting, my now overproportioned breasts looking ridiculous next to my protruding ribs and hipbones due to the severe lack of fat on my bones. I quickly run out of the sight of the mirror, unable to look at my suddenly synthetic body, and over next to the small bin in the corner of the room and throw up every mouthful of the miniscule lunch I had had just minutes beforehand.
What the hell have they done to me?
By the time that I'm dressed and walking down the deserted corridor towards the giant chamber where I know someone will have to be waiting for me I've moved past disgust and onto fury. When I turn the corner and walk into the large, ornately furnished chamber I feel something close to relief encompass me at seeing Carmen, my bleached white haired, candyfloss-coloured loving stylist, waiting there for me. For some reason I want to run up to her, let her throw her arms around me and just cry into her shoulder, but I know better than that and I quell the stupid idea the second it pops into my head. She smiles as she sees me, probably the only person within a thousand mile radius who is actually happy to see me alive, but at the look of absolute rage on my face she becomes much more sombre.
"Well," she says with a small grin, "I'd say, 'I can't believe you did it,' but in all honesty I knew from the second I saw you that could survive this." Carmen moves forward and gently rests one of her perfectly manicured hands on my shoulder, her bleached white hair pulled back away from her face in a perfect ponytail, "Do you want to talk about it?"
"No," I say through closed teeth as I step away from her, "But perhaps you could explain this to me," I hiss as I gesture towards my newly developed chest.
Carmen takes a deep breath as her face grows empathetic, "I'm so sorry Aleah. We tried as hard as we could to demand that no alterations be made to you, but we couldn't stop everything. The things they wanted to do to you were considerably worse: dimple implants, widening your hips, tightening your waist, lip implants, eyelash extensions, they wanted to turn you completely into plastic. Heath and I managed to get rid of some of the more absurd ones but they wouldn't back down on this one. They said without it you'd look too unhealthy, starving even, without some of their 'help.' I did manage to point out that for the sixteen years of your life you actually had been starving but they insisted and we couldn't change their minds on this one. I did manage to make sure they gave you nothing more than a D cup by threatening that it would be impossible to fix your dress if they gave you implants that were too large but apparently they stretched that limit a little."
I fix my face in a hard line, "So you're saying I should be thanking you for limiting the amount of mutilations that were allowed to occur on my body without my knowledge?" I ask harshly, despite the fact that I know it's not Carmen I'm so enraged at. She is not the one who turned me into a human dress up doll.
"I'm saying that you've gone through hell," she says fixedly, "And now you're going to have to go through even more shit, but just remember that there are still a few of us fighting for you."
She wraps her arm around my shoulder as she guides me out of the chamber and up into foyer of the terribly familiar training centre, slowly heading towards the elevator. I immediately stop in my tracks as I realise where we are headed and pull myself out of Carmen's hold.
"I'm not getting in that thing," I whisper as I stare down at the tiny metal death trap in front of me.
"What?" Carmen asks, sounding a little puzzled as she looks at what I assume is a stupidly vulnerable look on my face.
"The elevator," I spit out quickly, "I'm not taking one step closer to it, no matter what." Just the thought of stepping inside that tiny metal box was making my stomach churn and my heart rate soar. Stupid freaking heart.
Carmen's face loosens a little, and her eyes quickly fill up with sympathy before she gives a little nod and whispers something into the ear of one of the men standing next to the elevator, before he nods and walks into the lift himself. Within less than a minute my extremely irritating prep team enter the foyer, their constant flabbergasting obvious not in any way deterred by the fact their tribute is glaring at them with a much venom as she can muster up. But I don't focus on the annoying little freaks in front of me, I instead focus on what the bald, heavily pierced girl with bright orange skin is holding in her hands.
The first thing I notice, and detest, is that it's strapless, with a ludicrously low cut sweet-heart neckline that obviously has been designed to accentuate my newly developed assets. Secondly, is that's it's freaking tiny, so tiny in fact that at first I mistake it for just being a shirt. The neckline and the hem are heavily embellished with thick red crystals, that even in this low light throw the light around the room, bathing this small space in a light red hue. What remains of the dress is made out of smaller red tinted gems, the whole thing looking terribly uncomfortable, not to mention ridiculously revealing.
"I thought you said I was wearing a dress," I exclaim in absolute disbelief as I look at the miniscule scrap of material in the prep lady's hands, "It would be pushing it to call that underwear."
"I knew you wouldn't be happy about this," Carmen admits apologetically as she moves towards me, "But a week ago every stylist with a tribute left alive had to submit five potential designs for their tribute should they be victorious. Out of the five I sent in the design of this one was the one they selected, only on the sketch they had written, 'tighten the bodice, lower the neckline, shorten the skirt and make it red.' So voila, enjoy every inch of my previously marvellous creation."
"There isn't an inch of it to appreciate," murmur as I glare hatefully at the contraption, "I guess they decided red was my colour," I say harshly, not even pointing out the irony with that because I knew it hadn't been wasted on Carmen. For all her capitolness, like the bleached white hair and the terribly pink clothes, she's actually one of the few people around here with a brain. I'll admit, it's somewhat refreshing to know there's a scrap of intelligence within a hundred kilometre radius.
Eventually Carmen coaxes me into getting the thing onto me, and as soon as it's zipped on I can feel just how tightly it hugs every contour of my figure, not leaving anything to the imagination. Like I had anticipated, the neckline was a joke, so low that I felt like at any moment everything could just pop out, and the skirt was so short than I could only feel material maybe an inch or two below my ass. Once the prep team has done my extremely dramatic makeup, complete with a bottles worth of foundation, blood red lips and creepily smoky looking eye shadow, and turned my thick dark hair into long, dark curls I'm allowed to see what I look like. I don't even have to look for more than a second before I know exactly what the gamemakers want me to look like, the word pops into my brain the second I see my own reflection.
We are quickly ushered out towards the stage , and movement begins to whirl around me as I am placed in the desired position. I've watched these ceremonies a million times over back home, I know how the process works so I'm prepared when it begins. First the anthem plays, obnoxiously loudly I might add, loud enough to quell the roaring of the enormous crowd that has gathered here, and then Caesar Flickerman Sr. begins greeting the audience, wowing them completely speechless with his astounding stage presence, until he is joined by none other than my horribly ditsy escort Esserenda, who has probably been dreaming of this day since her sadistic excuse for a childhood. Then my prep team, Carmen, and then Heath, my pathetic excuse for a mentor, are all lifted up onto the stage as well. It doesn't go unnoticed that Heath has ever so skilfully avoided meeting me, believe me we will be having confrontation very soon, he won't be able to hide from me forever and he has a lot to answer for.
But as the metal plate on which I'm standing begins to raise itself up towards the stage I feel my heartbeat echoing in my ears, a thousand times louder than the screaming crowd. I know what's waiting for me on that screen, a three hour retelling of everything I lived through, of everything I'm trying to desperately to forget. I'll have to watch it, everything, and simply the thought of that fills me with dread. I can hide from it, send the thoughts back into the recesses of my mind when I know that it's in the past, but will I be able to hide from it when I'm forced to live through it again? I'll have to, no one can see me falter or they'll jump down and attack my point of weakness. They'll find a way to break me if I show them one, and I can't break, not after I fought so hard to pull through that hell. So I plaster an expression of outward confidence and condescension on my masked face, and as I am lifted up onto the stage I keep my head held high as the roars of applause become deafening.
The lights are absolutely blinding on the stage, and as I make my first appearance the crowd goes absolute wild, a cacophony of cheers, screams, wolf-whistles and applause greeting my cocky half-smile as I walk down towards the ornate chair sitting next to the ever-present Caesar Flickerman and his offspring. Caesar stands to greet me, his huge meaty hand suffocating mine as he offers me a round of congratulations, which the crowd then verify by screaming and cheering off their heads. I sit back down in the chair nonchalantly, crossing one leg over the other as Ceasar continues to joke around with the crowd. But, thankfully, his crappy excuse for stand-up is cut short when the mandatory, three hour recap of the games begins.
The first half an hour or so is more boring than bat shit, just a blow by blow of the first few days of preparation: you know reapings, chariot rides, interviews, training scores, all those really generic, really boring things that everyone's already seen and no one really gives a crap about. But once the tributes are launched and the games begin I find it considerably harder to watch, or to repress the feelings bubbling up inside of me. The bloodbath is chaotic, from every angle, and people drop left right and center. The filmmakers make sure to include absolutely every single detail about Onyx's tragic demise, the soft, heartbreaking music in the background as she 'sacrifices' herself so ridiculously over the top that I just want to press the fast-forward button.
I'm quite surprised at just how much happened during the first few days of the games that I had no idea about: the fact that Relk speared himself (why am I surprised I hear you ask, I honestly don't know), that Boston had been killed by Elia because he had thought she was me (again not all that surprising that ultimately it had been me to drive him insane, but I feel a little insulted at the fact he thought that ginger teen bride was me: surely I have a little more class than that) and that Nella had asked, that's right asked Claus to kill her (once again, shouldn't have been surprised, but I had thought that that little twig had had some sort of intelligence. Look, if that's what love means, I want absolutely nothing to do with it). But none of those are the worst, the worst is pretty easy to pick out. I mean I'm not sure whether or not it's just the filmmakers editing or whether it was actually like that, but when Claus-slash-other Claus begins ripping Mack to shreds I have to look away for a second, firstly because it's freaking horrific and secondly, which concerns me considerably more, is that the image of Claus lying there on the floor of the cave immediately flashes through my mind and paralyses me for a few seconds. God damn it.
But by the time I watch Jules drive a syringe filled with tracker jacker venom into Elia's thigh and watch her writhe in agony I can't bear to watch for one more second. I've managed to tune most of it out, to look but not really absorb everything, because making me watch this, making me live it all again, is just one last final torment. I've kept my face perfectly masked, the same half amused, half confident expression branded across my face the entire time because I know there are about a billion cameras on me right now. But as my eyes gaze across the screen as Jules and I are being pushed towards each other and that goddamned cavern I have to fight to keep myself from going absolutely berserk and storming out of here. I can't watch this again, I can't. I don't know why, but I just can't look at it anymore. The memories I've repressed begin beating at my brain, demanding that I face them and it takes all my will to hold them back.
The fight I can handle, it is in fact edited perfectly, every shot transitioning into the next with so much momentum and so much tension that it has little Ceasar Flickerman literally sitting on the edge of his seat. This is the part where someone notices the fact that a ten year old is watching a whole bunch of teenagers murder each other and he is enjoying it. Anyone else wanting to point out how fucked up that is? But seriously, it's so tense in this giant theatre that if someone had dropped a feather on the other side of the room it would have sounded like an avalanche approaching. It's only when Jules lunges at me that final time, and the two of us roll out towards the edge of the cliff, Jules clinging onto my arm desperately as her whole miniscule body is suspended in the air that my face hardens and my breath simply stops coming, my whole body screaming for some oxygen. Because I'm staring into those huge, pleading eyes of Jules Surket, her enormous irises conveying every human emotion known to man, doubt, terror, dread, horror, guilt, dismay, desperation, the list goes on and on. But the one emotion that stands out, as the filmmakers dramatically zoom in further and further onto Jules' eyes, is fear. That look, that feeling, is that of a young girl who's just absolutely terrified to die. And I watch myself, in slow motion, heartlessly pry her fingers from my flesh and let her drop into oblivion.
I didn't need to see that shot, didn't need to see the desperate, fear-ridden look in Jules' eyes as she clung to my arm. I didn't need to watch it because I see it every time I close my eyes, like it's permanently burned into the back of my brain.
I snap out of my weird state of absolute internal agony when I hear the anthem booming in my ears again, the horrible melody echoing throughout the entire hall, before our dearly beloved President Aeron Finn himself graces us with his presence. The urge to begin sprinting across the stage, tackle him down and begin clawing at his big black eyes wells within me, but after spending so many days in the arena I decide doing something suicidal like that would probably not be the smartest idea I've ever come up with. Instead I just watch his royal cockiness strut across the stage, followed by a tiny little boy carrying a marvellous gold crown on a little pink pillow.
I stand with my face fixed in a confident smile as Finn walks towards me, his brilliant smile as sweet as acid as he places the golden crown, which for some reason feels like it weighs a million tons, on the top of my head. He then takes my hand and the two of us bow, a few billion times, and I wave over and over again at the crowd before Caesar Flickerman signs off and I'm whisked away to Finn's mansion for the Victory Banquet.
For a banquet, there is really not much to eat around the place as I am thrown back and forth between Capitol Authorities and people who claim to be my 'most generous sponsors.' Hmm...That's funny, people who claim to have donated me money yet I never seemed to receive any parachutes. Interesting. A million pictures are taken, a billion faces flash by and tell me they thought I was going to win from the very beginning, and a trillion times I end up sarcastically flattering someone before I get dragged into it all again. The whole process would have been quite entertaining, if I hadn't had one particular meeting with my dear President.
"How lovely you like tonight Miss Armani," I hear his slithering voice echo in my ear, the urge to gauge out his eyes resurfacing all over again, "I think you're going to make such a wonderful Victor."
"Why thank you President Finn," I say with an overly dramatic bow, "I wish I could say you're going to make an equally wonderful President but I've been told lying is bad for one's eternal soul."
Finn laughs, the sound a sharp, whispy kind of noise than would make much lesser people shudder, "Oh Miss Armani, you really do have the sharpest tongue," his eyes quickly lose their humour as his face hardens, "It would be wise, I think, for you to learn to blunt it."
I don't back down for a second, "That's strange your Excellency," I say with mock sincerity, "I'm always told that I'm far too blunt already."
He doesn't look in any way amused. Gees, what a buzz kill. I'm about to lash into him again when this sadistic little smile creeps across his face and he looks at me with an unidentifiable glee, "We had such a joy watching your family during the final eight interviews," he says casually, and I immediately freeze, "Your twin brother is particularly charming. Such a lovely, charismatic, kind boy, so very different from his sister."
My face becomes menacing, as I hear the threat in his voice, "I know, somehow the gene pool was so unevenly split. Yet for all the graces I lack I make up for it when it comes to dealing with pricks like you."
"You'd be careful with what you say and do Aleah," Finn warns with a hiss, "We wouldn't anything to happen to that lovely brother of yours."
"Touch him and I swear to god-" I begin but he cuts me off with a raised hand.
"There's no need for you to threaten me, Miss Armani," he says calmly, "That is, if you can show me you know your place and that you can do what you're told to."
I don't say anything, but I don't contradict either, just keeping my face hard as Finn turns around and points to one of the million well dressed, middle aged Capitol men in the room.
"Do you see that man?" he asks quietly, his voice sounding so serpentine it's making that giant snake from yesterday seem like a fluffy teddy bear.
"Yeah," I affirm, "Balding, muffin-topped, drooling. Basically your typical, middle aged, Capitol douche."
"That's the one," he agrees, gesturing to the man who is staring at me with a greedy grin, "His name is Walden Henning, he's one of the leading television producers in the capitol. He's very...interested in you Aleah. If you want to make sure that your brother stays completely unharmed, I want you to go home with that man, at least until your escort comes to pick you up later on this evening."
Let the record show, I'm not twelve years old. I completely understand what 'going home with that man' actually entailed, even if Finn was too much of a self-righteous prick to actually say the word sex. But the very thought makes my skin absolutely crawl and I have to fight not to throw up all over Finn's ugly grey suit. But at the same time I know that whatever threats Finn makes against Sean, they weren't empty. And I couldn't let him touch Sean, not as long as there was life in my body would he so much as give Sean a paper cut. So I harden my exterior, and prayed that I could think of some way to get out of this without Finn knowing about it later.
"Let me just go tell me mentor that he doesn't need to escort me back to the training centre," I say curtly, before excusing myself from Finn's presence and strutting away.
I actually have no intention in involving Heath in this, I have absolutely no desire to try and get my pathetic excuse for a mentor to help me with anything, but instead I find Carmen amongst the swarm of people surrounding the buffet table.
"I'm leaving now," I say overly loud, assuming that someone somewhere is listening to this conversation, "Can you please tell Heath that he doesn't need to escort me back to the training centre."
Carmen plays along, but there's a flash of concern in her eyes as she turns around and looks at me, "Where are you going? I don't want you to miss your own banquet."
"That lovely gentleman over there has invited me over to his house and I simply must oblige him," I reply, hoping that my ridiculously sarcastic explanation is enough of a clue for Carmen to understand what I'm hinting at.
Carmen quickly nods as she pulls me into a quick hug, and I feel something cold press against the outside of my thigh, underneath the miniscule skirt of my dress. I look down and see that she's subtly tucked a long steak knife from the buffet table into the top of my stockings, obscured from vision underneath my skirt.
"Make sure nothing happens to that dress," she says with a little flick of her hair, but her eyes show me her real intention. Make sure nothing happens to you.
"I will I promise," I say, as someone in a black suit and a headpiece comes to guide me outside.
I'm quickly escorted out of the President's mansion by limousine and taken to some crazily elaborately decorated condo a few miles away from the training centre. I'm surprised to see that Walden has beaten me there, and is sitting on the couch as I walk through the door.
"Miss Armani," he says, his greasy, balding hair reflecting the dim light coming from above him, "It's such a pleasure to have you here with me. Please come sit." He says, gesturing to the seat next to him on the couch. I find myself fighting the urge to run out of here this very instant, but I know that whatever happens, it has to at least look like I had had sex with this disgustingly sleazy man, because if Finn hears so much as a whisper of what I'm planning he'd probably have Sean's head within the day.
I slowly walk over towards him and sit down on the couch, trying to keep as much distance between me and Walden as possible.
"May I just say Miss Armani, or may I call you Aleah," he asks to which I can't help but give him a small glare.
"Let's stick with Miss Armani," I say through closed teeth, before quickly silencing myself. Walden gives a small laugh before continuing.
"I'm sorry Miss Armani, it just seems like I already know you so well, I was always such a big fan of yours, from the very first moment you came out in that chariot outfit," I swear to god he licks his lips at that moment and I can't help but cringe, "but looking at you tonight, you are just absolutely ravishing," he says as he puts one huge sweaty hand on my bare leg.
As his hand moves up my thigh, his clammy hands not in any way expert at this kind of thing, I immediately step back and kick him in the chest, drawing the steak knife that Carmen had given me out of its hiding place under my skirt. Walden looks startled, and immediately backs away from the knife like it might leap out and bite him. I give a small laugh at how pathetic he is before making my point.
"Here's how this is going to go," I say in a tone that suggests I'm not in the mood for negotiating, "If you feel like losing a couple of fingers, and maybe a kidney, by all means continue attempting to rape me." I pause dramatically, "If not, I suggest you keep your filthy hands away from me."
Walden's eyes pretty much double in size as he takes in the sight of the knife in my hands, but immediately frowns before scowling and saying, "You're bluffing. You can't hurt me."
"Want to try me," I query, the knife held out in front of me a very strong contradiction, "It'll only cost you a limb if you're wrong."
Walden shuts up, looking defeated and as scared as a little girl who's afraid of the bogeyman under her bed. I imagine he's never been in a position like this in his life, where someone he's trying to pay for sex has actually stood up and said 'fuck off.'
"Now, what's going to happen is after tonight, you are going to tell President Finn, and anyone else who asks, that I was absolutely compliant and did everything you asked me to," I command, my tone suggests he listen and listen well, "You're not going to go out there and parade your sexual exploits, simply if someone asks who say 'yes we had sex' and then move on. Understood?"
I hear some kind of mumble in reply so I ask again, my knife inching closer to him, "Understood?"
"Yes," he shrieks, backing further away from the pointed steel, making me roll my eyes. Pathetic. He's a grown man for god's sake.
"Now get up, take off your shirt and put it back on inside out," I say, as I begin to rustle up my hair and smear my make up a little, before lightly dousing my hairline in water from Walden's kitchen tap. Bringing a cup of water back I throw it over the crotch of his pants, and at the dismayed expression on his face I smirk and say, "Dramatic effect."
I then proceed to get Walden's tie off him and loosely drape it over my own neck, while at the same time, quite skilfully I might add, manage to get my own bra off from under my dress and throw it down on the couch next to Walden. I do battle with the zip of my dress a little, forcing it to break in a way that looked like it was forcefully broken, before I go and rustle up both the couch cushions and the bed linen. Once I'm finally pleased with my work of art I come back and stand glaring over Walden with the knife held out in front of me.
When finally the doorbell signalling Esserenda's presence rings I lean in and whisper one final threat to Walden, "If anyone so much as hears about what happened, or more precisely what didn't happen tonight you can bet I will know exactly who to blame and who to come punish. So are we perfectly clear?"
"Yes," he whispers back, the terror in his voice extremely clear for everyone to hear.
"Good," I say as I strut over to the door. Esserenda looks absolutely appalled at my shoddy appearance, as does the man who had escorted me in previously, which is probably a good sign. I turn back around and beam at Walden, who is still sitting in complete shock on the couch, probably another good sign.
"Goodnight Mr Henning," I say in a small sing song voice, "It was such a pleasure to meet you." And with that I strut out of the apartment, leaving Walden Henning alone in his room, and my virginity still one hundred percent intact.
The next day, it starts all over again. Tonight's my interview, and the whole beautifying process has to be completely repeated. Once again I am poked and prodded into 'perfection' every inch of me lathered in some kind of chemical and my whole body doused in disgustingly potent perfume. Heaven forbid I not smell perfect. I never thought it could have been possible, but the dress I'm wearing tonight is even worse than last night's. Oh don't you worry, it's equally tight, equally short and equally red only this time it comes complete with elbow length red gloves and eight inch high heels. Joy of my freaking life. Just in case I needed to be whored up some more, here it is. Now I'm the total package. It comes to the point where I'm about to start physically attacking people, believe me I've had no issue verbally abusing people all morning, but this one bitch with so many tattoos covering her face it's hard to see where her nose is has just seriously been asking to be backhanded all bloody day. I'm about to completely explode, everything just becoming way too much, before a sound coming from the door stops me.
"Let the Victor get some air," I hear an awfully familiarly gruff voice behind me, strong and steady as always, the kind of voice that doesn't demand authority but generally gets it anyway, "I think she's earnt it."
I turn around slowly and dramatically, the glare that settles on District Ten's only other victor one hundred percent genuine.
"Look who woke up and decided he wanted to be a mentor," I shoot at him, my gaze locked on him as he quickly averts his gaze from me, "Sorry Heath old boy but you're a little bit late."
Heath doesn't look at me; instead he focuses on the bitch with the shrill voice, the one currently holding the multiple weapons of mass destruction, aka eyelash curlers and chicken fillets. Oh didn't I mention that, despite the fact that my chest now has a freaking kilo's worth of plastic on it apparently it needs supplementation. Insert disgusted eye roll here.
"My tribute and I need to have a discussion privately," he says coolly, "for all of your sakes I think it would be best if it were outside," when they look a little confused he clarifies, "Away from any sharp instruments."
"But-"the cotton candy haired lady begins to protest before Heath quickly cuts her off.
"You've already done a beautiful job with Miss Armani," he praises, all-though for anyone with a brain more than the size of a gnat it would be painfully obvious to see how forced his compliment is, "She's already looking far lovelier than anyone ever could have thought was possible. Now I need a few moments with her before she goes on stage."
My loathing glare intensifies with each double edged compliment, and as much as I want to tell Heath to go screw himself, the prospect of getting out of this tiny, ridiculously cramped room is far too good to disregard.
"Aren't you going to congratulate me Heath?" I say with a pathetic little laugh after we've made it onto the roof, raising my arms a little and doing a mock curtsy as I step back away from the edge of the roof.
"No, I'm not," he says softly, stepping out away from me and looking out across the city, the last few precious rays of sunlight disappearing behind the horizon, "I may be the only person not to, but I don't think you really want to be congratulated."
"Oh, and how would you of all people know what I'm feeling?" I laugh back, his attempt at empathy ridiculous considering how very dissimilar we are.
"Because I've been where you are right now Aleah," he explains calmly, "And believe it or not, I know exactly what you're feeling right now."
I'm about to tell him that he has no idea what I'm feeling, and that he never will, when he raises his hand to shut me up and walks over to stand by the roof's railing, leaning his hands on the frosted glass in front of him.
"I suppose this is generally that point in a Victor's life where they sincerely thank their mentor for all the help they gave them during the games," I say nonchalantly, breaking the silence, turning around to look at Heath, "where they earnestly show every appreciation possible for all the life saving provisions they sent down to them in the games. Where they say something along the lines of, 'I simply couldn't have done it without you.' Well, here's the thing Heath, I did do it without you. What did I get from you? What did you do to help me whatsoever? Answer, absolutely nothing. Not one half-decent piece of advice, not one little tip to give me an edge, not one single, solitary parachute sent to me while I was fighting for my life in there."
Heath won't look at me, but the flash of guilt in his eyes is indistinguishable. He sure as hell should be guilty, I'd be willing to bet that someone put some money on me; I was the last outlier left alive after all and had had one of the highest death counts in the games at certain points. There are a lot of people on this planet, and a fair few of them have a shitload of money that they have nothing to do with. I may not have been a good investment at the start, but at least by the time we were down to the final eight people would have had to have sent in some money, I've never heard of any tribute not getting a single cent. So then it all comes down to, where did that money go? Answer: my mentor. My mentor who had probably never been happier than the moment I was shipped off to my death.
"It was never any kind of secret that you wanted Boston get out of there a million times more than me," I say strongly as I glare him down, "The creepy bromance you two had was enough of an indicator of that. But he was dead and gone by day four, day four. So where were you for the rest of it? Where were you for all the other days?"
Heath turns around and looks at me, his face now calm and calculated and his body poised. I don't know what's running through his pea-sized cranium but there is the smallest touch of pity in the way he looks at me, which infuriates me even further.
"You left me in there to die!" I yell, taking a step in towards him, "You're the person who was supposed to be watching out for me in there, the one person who was supposed to have had my back and you couldn't have cared less whether I lived or died! You were my mentor and you abandoned me!"
I don't know why I'm so terribly furious at him, like I said we had never exactly had a budding relationship, and I never asked or expected him to help me. But at the end of the day it was his job, his responsibility to help me, and the fact that he had hated me so much that he had ignored that is absolutely enraging. I may not have liked him, and I knew he hadn't liked me, but I had had to put that basic level of trust in him, I had been forced to, and he had broken that trust when he decided he didn't want me to live.
I take a deep breath and try to calm myself, my fury at him so overwhelming that my body is literally shaking. He doesn't really look all that phased by my accusations, he just stares at me for a few, long seconds, watching me fuming with rage before saying, "Feel better?"
"Oh, you haven't even seen me angry yet," I spit across at him, refusing to back down for one second, "And, believe me, you don't want to."
"You're emotional, enraged and you're pissed off at the entire world." Heath says, his voice sounding irritatingly balanced, "There's a hundred different feelings racing around inside you, but most of all you're scared and you're angry and you need someone to focus all that fury on, which is why you're lashing out at me."
"I may be in an incredibly hostile place right now, but that doesn't mean what I said was any less true and you know it," I shout at him, the temptation to throw my heels at his face increasing with every single word that comes out of his oversized mouth. The only reason I don't is because I know that if I break these shoes Carmen will just go and find me an even higher pair and force me into them. Damn that woman.
That quick stab of remorse flashes across his face again and he winces a little, but he has regained his composure so fast I'm not even sure I saw him falter in the first place, "I can take it, being your punching bag, but you need to get it together before you go on stage."
"Why?" I say with a mocking laugh, "Who cares what I do or say now? The Games are over, it doesn't matter anymore."
"That's where you're wrong Aleah," Heath cautions, his voice much more earnest now, "This is where the real game starts. For the next year everything you do and everything you say will have to be planned, thought out, predetermined. You can't just leave anything up to chance anymore."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" I query harshly, admittedly confused at this point.
"You don't know just how much power you have in your hands right now Aleah," Heath says practically, "You represent everything they hate, or at least everything they hate from an outlier. You're strong, you're outspoken, you don't back down and you are not in any way compliant. That's powerful, and they don't like sharing power with anyone, especially not someone with as many authority issues as you."
I don't need him to explain who the illustrious 'they' he is referring to are. I know who he means, the Capitol, the Gamemakers, the people who keep everything going in motion. The bastards who just sent me through hell and back, and who now apparently want me broken even more than they did before.
"So what does that mean?" I ask cautiously, my previous hostility seeming a little inconsequential now.
"It means that whatever they ask you to do, you do it," Heath instructs, gently grabbing onto my bare shoulders before I slap his hands away and step back, recoiling away from his touch, "They're going to want to subdue you Aleah, and you have to let them. Step one toe out of line and there will be repercussions, serious repercussions. They will push you to breaking point until they find some point of weakness, and if you give them a reason to they will completely snap you, or anyone they think they can use against you."
I turn around and kick one of the walls behind me, and immediately pay the price. You think I would have learnt my lesson after getting beaten up by walls several times during the arena, but apparently not. I let out a few profanities before turning back around to Heath.
"This isn't why I won this thing Heath!" I shout back at him, my toes throbbing after the impact on the cement they just endured, "I didn't survive for the chance to fight another day. I won this so it would be over, so everything would be over."
"Well unfortunately, it's not," Heath says gently, his eyes intent, "And trust me, if they get their way, it never will be. Starting today, you have to learn to listen to orders, because one rebellious thought pops into your brain and they will end you." Heath takes a deep breath, "But before that, there's something I need you to do."
I scoff at him, not able to contain my laughter at the irony of it, "You need me to do something for you. Tell me Heath, why should I want to do anything for you?" If he thinks I owe him anything, and that I am in anyway feeling generous towards him, he is seriously mistaken on both counts.
Heath's gaze intensifies, and his usual cool begins to crack a little, "This is important Aleah. This is bigger than you and it's bigger than me. This is something that, if you don't fix it, could be absolutely catastrophic for everyone in the districts."
"Geeze, cool down with the melodrama," I say with a small roll of my eyes, "Why don't you start by actually telling me what it is you want from me."
Heath takes a deep breath before looking head on at me, "When you go to this interview tonight, you're going to have to watch and say a lot of things. You'll have to comment on the arena, on some of the moves you made, on the events that took place and most importantly, on the tributes that fell while you were in there," he says composedly, "But what I need you to do, is to completely destroy the credibility of Moss Dorian."
Okay, I'll admit, that I wasn't expecting.
"Moss?" I ask, sounding disbelieved, "What does Moss Dorian have to do with anything? That airhead didn't even make it to the final four."
"Maybe not," Heath says sternly, "But he did manage to do something fairly significant before Jules Surket killed him."
The mention of Jules name stabs a little at me, and the look on her face as she hung suspended in the air by nothing other than my arm flashes in front of me again, but I ignore it as Heath holds out some small, portable device, motioning for me to watch the screen on it. I look down and see a very familiar looking scene on the screen in front of me, a field of ash surrounding the golden cornucopia and a round metal table with what is now five vials of thick, clear, putrid liquid in them. I myself had been at that table what could have only been minutes before this was filmed, because lying in Moss's ludicrously muscled arms was a very distinguishable blonde girl with blood stained on her clothes, blood from the knife wound I had etched into her back. But it was fairly obvious Aella was dead by this point, the lifeless glaze over her charred features was enough of a giveaway. I quickly swallow the knot in my throat and the slash of pain inside me as I look at the girl I murdered, but instead focus in on the crazed looking boy cradling her.
I hadn't seen this, I believe by this point I had been hightailing back as far away from that lunatic as possible, you know, to avoid getting a sword thrust into my spinal column. I hadn't known Claus had shown up, but I suppose that made sense considering he had seemed fairly lucid when he and I had had our encounter. The Moss on the screen begins rambling, his hysterical mumbling becoming increasingly loud and increasingly enraged. But with each rebellious word he speaks I become increasingly more anxious, the crazed look in his eyes becoming impassioned as he talks about his ability to defy the Capitol. And then I physically cringe at his absolutely idiotic grand finale.
'Fuck you, President Finn! Fuck you, Flickerman and all your prissy little friends! And fuck the whole damn Capitol!'
"Oh Moss," I groan, shaking my head at his absolute stupidity, "Even I never thought you were quite that moronic. What an absolute imbecile!"
Look, I'll be the first to admit that I'm not exactly a Capitol fan, they dragged me through hell and back and I detest each and every one of them with every fiber of my being. But something like that, that's just stupid. People have to learn that you just can't say things like that, especially not live on television! You're just asking for shit to happen if you go do something as idiotic as that.
"They'd have had to have edited this out right?" I ask as I give the device back to Heath and he nods.
"The 'live feed' that the people in the capitol and the districts see is precisely one hundred and forty-two seconds behind the actual live feed. The team of capitol editors have that much time to cut out and edit fragments as well as choose which cameras to air before the general population sees it. But us up in the mentor's box need to have the actual feed running live twenty four hours a day, because if we got it a hundred and forty-two seconds late by the time we sent something down to you it might be too late-"
"Not that you would know," I shoot across at him disdainfully, but he ignores my jab and keeps going.
"We all saw it the minute it happened, and we all recognised how significant it was," Heath says quietly, his eyes locked on the image of that lunatic still frozen on the screen of his device, "But in the past there have been people, normally from three and from five, who have been able to hack into the live stream and access all the footage. If any of them saw it and passed around the information about a tribute doing something like this..." he didn't really have to elaborate, I got what it could mean, "They're absolutely furious, I've never seen them take something like this so seriously before. What Moss has done could be disastrous."
"So what can I possibly do about it?" I ask patronisingly, "Unfortunately I haven't quite perfected my whole space-time continuum modifier yet so I can't go back and tell Moss to keep his freaking trap shut."
"You need to completely quell any rumours and dangerous thoughts that may or may not be floating around out there," Heath insists, "You just need to obliterate Moss' reputation and integrity. Say whatever you have to; say he was insane, bloodthirsty, completely paranoid and power hungry, whatever you can think of. Just do what you do best Aleah, rip that boy to shreds."
And so I do, and it's almost too easy. Obviously someone had told Caesar that he needed to give me something to work with regarding Moss, because after we'd gone over a few pointless questions regarding my favourite moments in the arena (with which I answered 'why all the marvellous friendships I made of course,' which had sent the small studio audience into a hysteria that lasted a ridiculously long time) and how I had managed to go unnoticed for so long ('Ceasar do you think anyone that looks like me really goes unnoticed,' had been my effortless reply, to which I had been wolf-whistled for the millionth time) he begins to ask me about the feast, and whether or not I was scared about going insane.
"Well of course I was worried Caesar," I say with an overly dramatic roll of my eyes, "But in all honesty I was a little surprised to hear we'd all been infected with an insanity virus. I mean I had never looked insane had I folks?" I ask with a bat of my heavily mascara adorned eyelashes , to which I'm answered with a thunderous cheer from the few dozen people in the studio, "Plus half the tributes that I was sent into that arena with were certifiably mad to begin with so I never noticed it was being hyped up." There is a roaring of laughter coming from the audience at that point and I give them a smirk before adorning mock seriousness.
"No joke people, you only got to see them on stage and behind the camera, but if you had been there behind the scenes you would understand I'm being one hundred percent serious," I say with a wink, "Some of them should have been institutionalised."
"Oh really?" exclaims Ceasar between each irritating chuckle, "Any particular tributes?"
I dramatically lean back in my chair and pretend to ponder his question, "Hmm...let me see...well of course there's your obvious ones, like Roy, Claus and of course my poor, tragically simple district partner Boston," I say with a touch of ridiculously forged melodrama, before leaning in and acting like I'm about to reveal the most scandalous secret in the history of Panem, "But you know who was really the worst of them all? Moss Dorian."
Whispers begin to erupt across the studio as Ceasar looks a little too baffled by my claim, "Moss? Really?"
"Really," I confirm as I lounge back in my ornately decorated chair, "I mean you never would have guessed it after watching that recap from yesterday but he was just absolutely insane. Even from the days we spent in the training center he had the smaller ones running away cowering. He was just completely bloodthirsty, overly paranoid about everything and everyone, I don't think I ever heard two words of sense come out of his mouth at the same time. And what was worse, was that he had what we used to describe as an 'addictive personality.' I mean you saw the way he obsessed over Lilly and Aella, how absolutely crazed he became after their deaths. The reason was because he was actually infatuated with them both, fanatical even. Aella told me during the training days that she was scared of what he'd do if she told him she didn't want to be around him, she was terrified for her life. And believe me she had every right to be, that's why she stuck around with him, because she was afraid of what he'd do to her if she tried to leave."
"Is that so?" Caesar questions, sounding enthralled with my completely bullshitted tale. Of course none of that had happened, and anyone who had two inches of sense would have known Aella and I were in no way pals, she never would have told me anything of the kind, but if I could at least convince some dim witted Capitol gamemakers that Moss had always been incredibly insane, perhaps they would just tone down the melodrama regarding his ludicrously idiotic outburst.
"Believe me Caesar, he was as deranged as they come, and I think I can speak for everyone when I say that the people of District Four are lucky their children won't have to live with someone like that in their neighbourhood."
I quickly glance over to Heath, who has been standing in the back of the studio this whole time with a worried expression on his face, and he gives me a small nod, to which I give a relieved sigh, before turning back around to Caesar. After knowing that I had successfully destroyed any credibility Moss Dorian's words could have ever held, the rest of the interview seemed to fly by. At the end of the interview, after we had walked to ten flights of stairs to the tenth floor of the training building Heath turns and lightly claps me on the back.
"Thank you for that," he says sincerely, his eyes soft as he takes in the sight of me, "A lesser person than you would have just told me to bugger off and not done anything to try and fix it."
I turn back around to look at him, my fury at him not in any way miraculously lessened because I had agreed to work with him.
"This does not mean I forgive you," I say evenly, my voice perfectly measured, "In fact, quite the opposite. But luckily for you, you'll have the rest of your life to try and make it up to me," I glare at him, simply at the prospect of spending the next fifty odd years with this crappy excuse for a man, "and believe me, you'll need every single second. Because after how you abandoned me, I will never forgive you."
And with that I storm off down the hallway to retreat back into my room, hating that I still have to make sure to keep the door wide open just so I don't feel like I'll suffocate.
I don't know why, but the minute that I step off that train station the next day, I feel so nervous that it's extremely lucky I've managed to maintain a hold of my lunch. There are cameras absolutely everywhere, millions of people wanting to document the reaction of district ten's first female victor making it home. A tad pathetic don't you think, firstly that it's taken twenty-four years for this district to produce a female victor, and secondly that almost the entire district seems absolutely enthralled considering that three weeks ago they all absolutely hated me. Funny how becoming a mass murderer can change people's opinions of you.
The flashes of the millions of cameras are absolutely blinding, different lights flashing from every different direction as my eyes strain to find the one face in this crowd of screaming neighbours that I actually want to see. But what if he's not here? What if he hates me now? What if he saw all the interviews, and flashbacks and replayings and realised that I'm just a truly despicable person? What if my twin brother can't bear to even look at me?
But then I see him, standing at the front of the crowd, fighting as hard as he can to get past the dozens of people blocking his path. My eyes meet his as he looks up at me, and for a single second my heart absolutely stops beating as he simple stands there and stares at me, almost like he doesn't quite recognise me. But then he smiles that huge, natural smile that I've seen on him every day since he was born, and he begins tearing through the crowd to get to me, and I immediately run as fast as I can off the platform to reach him. The people around us part as we finally meet, and he wraps his arms around my back and holds me so freaking tightly that I legitimately can't breathe. But I don't care, I squeeze him back just as hard and as the two of stand there, two people that until three weeks ago had literally not been separated since conception, it's almost like the last three weeks didn't exist.
"You came back," he shouts into my ear, causing me to flinch back a little, "You came back!"
"I told you I would," I say as I pull back, a playful little smirk on my lips, "What? Didn't you believe me?"
"Of course I did," he says with a proud smile, "But you sure as hell took you're time. And you gave me a scare at the end there, when you were dangling off the edge of that rock, you nearly gave me a heart attack."
I freeze a little at the mentioning of it, and almost feel myself hanging on the edge of that cliff again, before pulling myself up and looking into Jules eyes. When she had been alive. Before I had killed her. The light in my face fades away, and Sean immediately realizes his mistake and his face quickly becomes sincere, "Sorry, I shouldn't have said anything."
"Don't worry about it-" I begin, but I stop as another pair of eyes meet mine. A familiar pair of brown irises look into my ice blue ones, irises that belong in the face of my sister, Talia. She's standing perhaps twenty metres back in the crowd, my mother, my father and Yianna all standing with her. None of them are fighting, clawing to get towards me as Sean had done; in fact none of them seem to quite know what to do. I had seen their interview, I had seen what they had said when that boorish Capitol man had come and asked them about me. Talia for her part hadn't looked liked she cared about anything more than being on television, and my father hadn't give two tosses about the fact I was fighting for my life in a man-made hell, he was pissed that I hadn't been doing my chores. Oops, sorry dad, didn't really have time in between staying alive and killing other people to scoot home and hay the horses. Shame on me. I recall that my mother had cried, but I knew exactly why it was she had wept for me. Not because she cared that I was seconds away from dying, but because it was her fault I was in there in the first place.
Now, none of them really do anything when they see me watching them, Talia gives me a kind of nervous half-smile, like she's expecting me to come over and attack her but she's praying that I won't, and my mother looks at me with a hopefulness in her eyes that makes me want to scream. Sean looks over his shoulder at our family and smiles a little at me, but when I immediately turn away from them his smile drops a little.
"You can go with them if you want to," I say evenly, focusing on just getting the words out of my mouth, "But I can't go back."
He beams at me sincerely, "Are you kidding little sis?" He laughs a little, such a pure, rich sound it makes me hate how condescending I always sound when I laugh. "If you think I'm going to let you enjoy that huge mansion all by yourself you're delusional. I'm coming with you."
See the thing about Sean is, that when he smiles it's so damn infectious that you can't help but smile with him, and as crappy as the world seems to be, when he's around that kind of fades away. Not completely, I'm not sure that I'll ever be able to completely mask that world, but with Sean things seem manageable, possible, he just has this crazy optimism about him that, I'll admit is occasionally irritating, but just seems to make you double back and think, 'hang on, maybe I can do this.'
There's a reason that my new house is called a mansion, because it's absolutely freaking huge. There are so many rooms, so much ludicrously large and ornate pieces of furniture and just so many things that I will never need and will probably never want or use, but nonetheless, it's apparently all mine. Considering that it's going to be just Sean and I living here, there's going to be a shitload of empty rooms, and more than once Sean subtly hinted at the idea of letting the rest of our family come and live with us as well but I quickly dismissed it. Sean, with his overly forgiving nature, doesn't understand what it means to hold a grudge, nor does he understand what it was like in there, and hopefully he'll never have to understand. But he tries to, he's far to empathetic for his own good, and after the cameras leave and we're finally free to just sit back and relax, all he wants to know is how I'm feeling.
"Aleah?" he asks gently, not looking one hundred percent comfortable in this new, huge, strange house that apparently was our new home.
"Yeah?" I ask, feeling incredibly exhausted after the past couple of days. Scratch that, the past couple of weeks.
"What was it like," he asks softly, not wanting to pry but at the same time, trying to understand, "in there?"
I find myself paralysed again, like I'm simply unable to move or breathe or do anything. I can't even think about it without feeling like I'm drowning under all the memories, which terrifies me more than anything.
"I can't-" I start, unable to do that thing people seem to do, you know the one I'm thinking of, talking, that's the one, I couldn't do that, "I just can't talk about it Sean," I whisper, feeling my heart hardening inside my chest and my mind fortifying the blockade it's constructed against these very kind of thoughts, "I can't even think about it. I just need to put it behind me, and just keep going focussing on the future. Because If I keep looking back-If I keep thinking about it it'll tear me apart. And I can't break now Sean, not after everything."
"I know," he coos, his voice so damn sincere I was wondering, not for the first time in my life, how on earth he was my twin, "I'm sorry. From now on we don't talk about the past; we focus on what's in front of us."
I give him a small smile, before turning over again and resting my head on one of the big, puffy pillows on my lounge.
"Aleah?" he asks again, and I fight the urge to throw my pillow at him.
"Yeah?" I groan, just wanting to go to sleep.
I turn back around and look at my twin with a confused look in my eyes. What the hell was he thanking me for?
"Thank you for what?" I ask, completely puzzled.
"For coming back," he says lightly, his eyes, almost the exact same colour as mine, glowing a little as he looks at me, "I know it wasn't easy for you. But you never gave up and you came back. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't. So thank you."
I smile tenderly at him, feeling like perhaps surviving wasn't so terrible after all, "Thanks for still being here when I got back."
"Anytime and every time," he says with a light smile, before turning over on his couch and softly drifting off to sleep. I had always envied Sean's ability to just sleep whenever he wanted, but after three weeks of complete restlessness, even I tonight had the ability to just roll over, close my eyes, and with the knowledge that Sean would be there in the morning, drift off to sleep on my couch.
Nine Months Later
It never leaves me, not for one day.
No matter what I do, no matter what I try, I can't shake it, I can't repress it. I can do a pretty damn good job, don't think I can't, but every day, somehow, someway, something will come along that will set me off, and one of the million memories that's permanently etched into the back of brain will come forward, paralysing me, causing me to forget how to breath and sending quivers down my spine and the back of my neck.
There were low points of course, over the next months. The victory tour and all the wonderful joys it contained is an obvious one, that came six months after I returned home to district ten. It was chance for me to live everything again, and to actually go around the country meeting the families of the children who died so that I could wear my stinking crown. I know, it's a fabulous concept.
There were some standout districts of course. Seven was particularly unpleasant, I mean I had blackmailed and used Aspen considerably during his time in the games, and then I had actually killed him. In my defence, he asked me to, but again that was because I held the key to destroying the lives of him and everyone he loved. It was probably my only redeeming quality in that fraction of the pain that ate at my being that I had in fact kept my word, and to this day had never said a word to anyone about the whole Aspen/Araucaria mess. Oh and then of course there was the little cherry on top which was that Nella had pretty much killed herself after I had killed Aspen. Yeah, seven was not fun at all.
Five was again not a favourite, because I had pretty much killed both of the tributes from that district. I had killed Aella, there was no doubting that, and I think technically Claus had been counted as my kill in the statistics record, but I was still mentally debating whether or not I should add him to my own personal list of people I murdered. I counted Roy on that list, even though I hadn't physically killed him it was my plan that had resulted in his death, as well as Boston, who I had driven completely barking insane. Believe me, if you think I take pride in the fact that I am responsible for the deaths of, by my count, six people, you are quite severely mistaken. Those names are the ones that haunt me the most, even now, nine months after the last drop of blood was spilt.
Speaking of which, three was equally as bad, because while I had had nothing to do with Mack's death, if perhaps I hadn't pulled myself up off that ledge, Jules would have been standing in my place at that very moment. It's not an easy thing to look into the eyes of a family who had wished and hoped and had gotten so close knowing you're the reason that everything around them fell to pieces. Yes, even my pathetic excuse for a conscience was not happy with that experience.
Even once the tour was over and after all the celebrations and the parcels they received in district ten, all the tour had done was give me more memories that would continue to haunt me, and no matter what I did I couldn't forget them. Stupid freaking brain.
Luckily enough I had managed to have very minimal contact with my family, excluding Sean who had taken up a permanent residence with me of course. I had bumped into Talia a few times around the 'town' but had always managed to escape her before she managed to say anything profound. I had, although, sent them a significant amount of money every month since returning. Well perhaps saying that I had is the wrong way to put it, technically I had made Sean do it for me.
"Take this to them," I had said one morning a few days after returning home, holding out a sack filled with money.
"What?" Sean had asked, sounding confused as he stared at the burlap sack in my hands.
"Take this to them." I hadn't been able to look at him, because I knew that the sincerity in his eyes would just bring a sting of pain to my chest.
"Aleah-" he had started but I had cut him off.
"They're probably way under provisioned now that you and I aren't there," I had said, shoving the bag in his face, "You and I were always the only two that did any work, heaven forbid Talia get her hands dirty. They're probably starving, plus I wouldn't want to not be able to make up for all those chores I missed while I wasn't here," I had said disdainfully, remembering my father's words from the interview, "Just tell them that I have money lying all over the house and that you stole it from me to give to them. Tell them you'll be able to steal this much every month and I'll never know because I have so damn much."
"Aleah," he had said softly, taking my hand in his, "You should go give it to them."
"I can't Sean," I had spat out, looking away from him, "I can't see her because then she'll want to talk to me and I just can't talk to her."
He had known who I meant, our mother. The woman who had forced me to take tesserae on behalf of my other sisters, herself and our father because I had always been the most disposable child, the least loved. Because of her, my name had been in that glass bowl countless times, which is evidently why my name was picked out in the first place. I couldn't help but blame her, because I needed someone to blame and I could completely justify it. It's not like there had ever been any kind of maternal bond between us any way.
"I blame her Sean," I had whispered so quietly that I wasn't even sure he had heard me, "I blame her for everything. I blame her for turning me into this."
"I do to," he had breathed, "But perhaps, one day, when everything has settled down a bit and you've gotten past all this, perhaps then you'll be able to forgive her."
I had known then very well that according to his logic I would never be able to forgive my mother, because I was never going to be able to forget everything I'd lived through in the games, and it was never going to be behind me. But for the sake of not arguing with Sean, I had nodded, and he had taken the money to them and that was the last I heard of it.
As for the rest of district ten, my victory seemed to have polarised them. On the one hand, some of the people were absolutely enthralled at finally having another victor, and a female one at that. In the first few months I would often have people I didn't know and had never met come up and tell me how proud of me they were and how much they admired me. I never really knew what to say to that, considering how little admiration I had for myself, but I managed to generally restrain myself from verbally abusing people, most of the time. The district of the victor is rewarded as well as the victor herself, and after the conclusion of my victory tour packages of food and provisions and toys for little kids were dispersed amongst the population of my district. If anything, it made people considerably more happy to see me alive. Mind you, the fact that people could like me all of a sudden simply because I'd killed lots of people and managed to stay alive for two weeks, was a little bit disturbing. It doesn't say much about humanity as a species does it?
But then there were those people, and there numbers were considerable, who despised me even more than they had before, and I often caught people glaring at me as I walked through the street. It was nothing I couldn't handle, in fact I could teach most of those dim wits a lesson in glaring, but it was still unnerving to know that everyone in the entire district knew who I was and had some kind of opinion on me. As a result I often found myself walking further and further into the countryside, or riding out into the plains where I could simply get lost amongst the vastness of the landscape and force myself to focus for hours on trying to find my way home. It was a time consuming hobby, but it did the job of distracting me.
But today, I don't even know how I had gotten to be out here, and at the same time I know exactly where I am. I had just been riding when I felt myself yearn to be at this place, for some stupid and absurd reason, and somehow I had managed to find it, despite the fact that I had never been here before.
I look down at the simple stone plaque standing all alone in the middle of this huge expanse of open land, nothing but the words, "Boston Williams," carved messily into the slab of grey stone.
"Hey Boston," I say with a small smirk, as I come and sit down next to the grave of my oh-so-crazy district partner. I don't even really know why I'm here, or how I managed to get here in the first place, but something about being away from the mixture of condemning looks and admiring smiles is strangely refreshing.
"I'd bet you'd be laughing if you knew I was here," I say with a small laugh myself, at just how pitiful this whole thing was, "You'd be absolutely hysterical knowing that of all the people around me, it's you I've come to visit. The truth is Boston, and I'd never tell you this if you weren't already dead, but there's really not anyone else I can talk to about it. No one else who was there."
I cross my hands over my knees as I draw them into my chest, "I bet you're all up there, all twenty-three of you, laughing at the fact that you're all free of this and I'm still here, still living it."
I can almost picture them all together, all sitting up in the clouds and watching as I live every single day through this hell, and all joking about how lucky they are its not them stuck down here.
"The fact of the matter is Boston, no one knows what it was like in there," I say quietly, staring out at the open plain in front of me as though it were endless, "Not even Heath. I mean he had his own games, but he wasn't in there with all of us, he didn't go through everything I did. And while he might have had his own horrors, I can't imagine anything worse than what we went through." I pause, and try to let myself breathe in the crisp, empty air and forget, but the memories pressing down on me were strangling me, and slowly, with each word that I breathed into the silent air I was feeling more and more like I could breathe again.
"While I was in there, I could justify it all," I whisper, my eyes locking with the name printed on the tombstone of the boy I had snapped, "I could tell myself that it had to happen because it was the only way to survive, to make sure I didn't die myself. But now that I'm out of there, now that I look back," I grimace as flash of pain comes over my face, "Now I can't even think about it anymore. Because just thinking about everything, it hurts. I don't even know why but it burns inside of me Boston."
"I think Nella got it right when she said I was the only one of us who could live with all of this," I say, casting a sideways glance towards Boston's grave, "I think it takes a certain kind of person to be able to shut everything out. And even I can't seem to get rid of you all," I say with a little laugh, "I mean just look at me now, talking to my crazy, psychotic, dead district partner."
"What I'm trying to say Boston, is that while I'm sure a lot of people, Heath included, would have wanted it to be you, not me, who got home, I don't think you would have liked making it back, especially not after everything that happened to you in the arena, everything I did to you," I admit sombrely, my eyes darting sidewards as though the big brute were actually sitting next to me, "But at the same time, it couldn't have been easy for you either, for any of you. Dying I mean, none of them looked particularly pleasant. And I know that for a number of you, it was my fault, and I feel that all the time. I feel it all the time. So, that's the closest thing you're going to get out of me to an apology, so take it if you want it, because while I may not know what's happened to all of you now, just know that it's sure as hell not a picnic being me either."
I sit in the silence for a while, my mind filled with the ghosts of people who I hadn't really even know, yet had it been for one small change somewhere, could have been sitting in my position in various districts all over the country.
"They're making them vote, you know," I say with a small pathetic chuckle as I look up towards the horizon, "For next year's tributes. You have your pal Moss to thank for that, his little outburst really pissed off some people," I smirk a little as I think back to the footage Heath had showed me all those months ago, "If he's up there with you, could you slap him for me and tell him he's an idiot. You'd enjoy that."
"Can you imagine, being voted in?" I wonder, stifling a smile at the thought of it, "Knowing not only that you're going to have to go in there and face everything, but that your entire district hated you enough to actually send you in there. It's probably a good thing that I was reaped last year, because I sure as hell would have been voted in this year. Fate obviously has it in for me either way."
I pause for a second when I remember something, "I saw your sister the other day, Vienna, the one you kept confusing with Skye. I'll give it you, there's some resemblance there, but it's not like they're doppelgangers or anything. It's not so 'spit image' that I'd ever get them confused, but perhaps if you didn't know them so well you'd get one muddled up with the other," I took a deep breath before continuing on, "Anyways I got Sean to drop off some money at you're old place. Don't be so surprised, I mean I do owe you. You took out, what was it, three people? Four? I don't know, but either way you did make a dent in something more than my leg. And who knows, perhaps if you hadn't I wouldn't be standing here today."
"At the end of the day Boston," I say taking a deep breath, "We were both doomed the minute they drew our names out that reaping bowl nine months ago. We were just doomed to different fates. You were doomed to die, and I was doomed to live. Which one of us drew the short straw, I don't really know. But either way, neither of us won anything."
I decide that I've probably been here, blabbering on into the nothingness far longer than I should have, and am about to turn around to leave when I hear a voice from behind me.
"You shouldn't be here," the mystery voice says, sounding distinctly masculine and strangely familiar, "You don't deserve to apologise to him."
I stand up and turn around, seeing a short, stocky, well built boy with sandy blonde hair standing with his fists clenched in front of him, his muscled arms flexed.
"I know you," I say with a small frown, "Why do I know you..." I search my brain for any kind of clue as to the stocky boy's identity before it hits me. Wendell. Talia's friend, well one of Talia's friend, she has billions. But Wendell was the boy who had come up and tried, badly, to flirt with Talia the day I had been reaped. I grinned mischievously at the memory of our conversation, and the intimidated look on his face as he had run away from me after I had, very easily, torn him to shreds. Ah the good old days, "Wendell! The short, pudgy boy with terrible breath."
He winces at the memory, obviously it has stuck with him these past nine months, but he doesn't back down quite as easily as he had back then, "Yeah that's me. And now you should leave. I know you're not here because of a guilty conscience, you would actually need a conscience for that to be true, so just get out of here now."
I laugh a little at his pathetic attempt to use any kind of authority to intimidate me, "Were you one of Bosty's friends then? Ten bucks says I knew him ten times better than you ever would have."
"No," he says looking at his toes, "I didn't know him at all. But I saw enough of the games to know that he was a good person and that you tortured him. So go away and let him rest in peace."
"Look Wendell," I say, the tone in my voice becoming threatening, "You're starting to piss me off. You don't know anything about me, or why I'm here, and if I leave it will be because I choose to leave not because you tell me to, okay."
"What on earth could a heartless bitch like you want to say to him anyway," Wendell says quietly, in fact I don't think he thought I could hear him. But, oh boy, was he wrong. I take a few steps in towards Wendell, covering the distance between us in a few seconds. He takes a quick gulp as I come eye to eye with him, but he tries not to show how terrified he is.
I lightly brush my hand against my cheek before saying, "Do you see this?"
He gulps again, "What?"
"This scar on my cheek," I say matter-of-factly, as I draw my finger against my skin.
"It's faint," I say sternly, "Really faint, just a thin white line the tiniest shade lighter than the rest of my skin. Not many other people notice it, no one really, because they tried to erase it from my cheek. But I still see it, every morning when I look in the mirror. And do you know what immediately pops into my head the minute I see that scar, what I think of without even meaning to, without any kind of control over my mind?"
Wendell pauses, seeming confused with what on earth I'm trying to prove.
"A name," I say sharply, "One name, that pops into my head every single time I see that scar. Roy Rousseau. He was the one who sliced a knife across this cheek nine months ago, leaving this line permanently etched on my skin."
I quickly pull down the corner of my shirt, revealing a patch of skin on the bottom of my shoulder.
"Here," I say, my volume increasing ever so slightly, my tone still nothing but informative, "there's still a small white circle from where a knife was plunged into my skin, again only a shade or two lighter than then the surrounding flesh, but visible to me none the less. And you know who I think of when I see that, Araucaria Checkov. His name and his face come into my mind's eye every single time I notice that scar.
I pull off the sleeve to the other shoulder, my voice rising with every word I spit out "Here, is where some mutated rats scratched me with their ludicrously sharp claws, minutes before another one of them plunged its claws into Claus Hendell's chest and ripped out his flesh."
I pull up the leg of my left pant leg to reveal my left calf, "Here, that boy, Boston Williams, slammed a sledgehammer into my shin."
Finally I pull up the hem of my shirt to reveal the side of my hip, where another faint white line stretched across my skin, "And here, was were Jules Surket sliced my own blade across my flesh after nearly blowing me up with a bomb."
Wendell was absolutely silent, his eyes locked on the ground, not daring to look at me as I glared at him with so much ferocity it would have reduced him to tears had he been looking.
"Since then I have been threatened, used, had my body altered and sold, been paraded around like a trophy and locked in a lifelong cage," I say, shouting every word like they were curses on my tongue, "And now, for the rest of my life I will be reminded over and over of everything I've had to endure because I will spend the rest of my life sending other girls off to their deaths year after year because it's taken twenty-four years for this pathetic excuse for a district to muster up one female victor, and it could very well take another twenty-four for it to produce another."
Wendell took a deep breath and finally met my eyes, flinching as he did at the absolute loathing in them. I leaned in so close to his face that I could feel his nervous breath on my face as he took in the sight of me.
"I may be a heartless bitch," I spit venomously through closed teeth, "But I'm a heartless bitch who's been through hell, and who will have to live through hell for the rest of her life. So until you've been in there, until you've faced what I've faced. Until you've been forced to do what I've been forced to do, you don't get to judge me. You. Don't. Get. To. Judge. Me."
And with that, I turn and storm away from Wendell, leaving him paralysed in absolute fear, standing over the grave of my district partner. It takes me a while to get home, and in the absolute fury I am in, it's a good thing no one stops me and tries to congratulate me on my way home, or all hell may or may not have broken loose. Once I do finally reach my house in Victor's Village I am pretty much covered head to toe in thick, red, dust, and want nothing more than to jump into the bath and go to sleep, putting this whole stupid day behind me, but when I walk through the door, it's not Sean's voice that greets me. It's hers.
"Hello Miss Armani," she says, her long, ironically flame-red hair pulled back into a perfectly neat ponytail, so that the angular planes of her face are highlighted, "It's been a long time. You may have even forgotten me."
But as I stare at her, I think she knows as well as I that I could never forget her, at least not her voice. That voice that had echoed through the arena that day of the feast, and had been ingrained in my memory, haunting me ever since. No, I think we both know that she is a permanent part of my history, just as I am a temporary part in hers.
"It was very brave of you to step inside this house," I say menacingly as I stare at the Gamemaker responsible for all the horrors in my world. The woman who had been single handedly masterminding my torture while I endured it, who had preyed on my fears of insanity, who had made the world around me tremor when she knew I was claustrophobic. I was genuinely wondering which one of us hated the other more, because as much as I loathed her for everything she had done to me, she must have hated me an awful lot to do it all to me. Either that or she's just some fucked up, sadistic bitch, which is also a reasonable option.
"Either very brave or very stupid. Which one are you Phoenix?" I ask as I notice that behind her, sitting in a terribly overly cushioned carrier, is a fat little baby, it's piercing black irises glowing as it expertly gnaws on its own thumb, "And to bring your offspring, very dangerous move."
"Oh I don't think you are a danger to me, or to Coriolanus," the head Gamemaker says confidently as she sits down on my lounge, "For all your talk, your threats are quite empty. I think you ought to be much more worried about us than us about you."
"Oh really," I say with a sinister laugh, "Which one of us is the murderer here? Well, perhaps that's not the right question to ask considering you murdered twenty-three kids and now plan to murder twenty-three more this year. Perhaps I should have asked, which one of us knows how to impale someone else on a knife?"
Phoenix laughs a little before her unnatural teal blue eyes turn to slits as she looks over me, "While I have no doubt that you could kill me if you tried Aleah, I assume that someone who fought so hard to keep herself alive, would perhaps be a little less suicidal. Killing me would ultimately result in your own execution, and that would just be a waste."
I glare at her as I take in her annoyingly cocky presence. She freaking exudes the kind of confidence that power bestows, and it's all I can do to not to slap her across the face and show her just how little she scares me. I'm not her pawn anymore, she can't control me like she could before. There are no walls to close in around me now, and her words don't terrify me.
"What are you doing here anyway," I ask with as much hostility as I can muster up, "Aren't there some future tributes to torture or puppies to drown or something?"
Apparently, she doesn't find me very funny. Good, I wasn't joking, "No Miss Armani, it appears you are the only problem I have to deal with today."
"Oh goody," I say with mock enthusiasm, "It must be my lucky day. What on earth could I have done to deserve such an honour?"
Phoenix's eyes do not falter for a second, but she's dreaming if she thinks I'll crumble under her gaze, "There have been rumours, Miss Armani, that you have not been listening to orders."
"That doesn't sound like me," I say with a small hint of a mocking grin, "Who on earth could have told you that heinous lie?"
"Well for one, certain people have been reporting threats to having their kidneys removed while in your presence," she says factually, and I manage to not let my face show any of the dread I was feeling at hearing those words. Stupid freaking taddle-tales had been blabber mouthing. After Walden Henning, there had been multiple other Capitol men who had attempted to buy sexual favours from me, and all met a very similar fate to their predecessors. I'm quite proud to say that up until now, my virginity has maintained perfectly intact, and up until now I had thought that so had my reputation as an absolute cheap whore. Apparently, I was very, very wrong. Phoenix knows that I haven't let any of those men so much as kiss me, the question is, who else knows?
"I don't recall making any of those kinds of threats," I say, disregarding the statement completely. Phoenix quite obviously doesn't believe me, who would? I'm lying through my teeth here, but I guess there's no real way to prove me wrong is there?
"Let me be perfectly clear Miss Armani," she says as she stands, the condescension in her tone unmistakeable, "The further you blatantly disregard our orders, the further and further you wade into deeper waters. The more you push us, the more we will push back, and believe me we will push you until you break."
"You will try," I say strongly, following her advice and standing up, the two of us almost identical heights so my ice blue eyes are almost glaring straight into her teal ones, "and you will fail. If you haven't yet realised that it takes more than a few threatening words to scare me than you're not nearly as intelligent as you want to believe you are. You think you can silence me? You're more wrong than you could possibly ever know. I'm not just a piece in your games anymore and you can't control me. You want to push me till I break, well my breaking point is much higher than yours, and you're going to have to push for a long time until you reach it. You can threaten me as much as you like, you sanctimonious bitch, but the fact of the matter is, you don't have anything on me, and I won't break for you."
We stare at each other like that for god knows how long, the two of us sizing each other up in silence as the loathing we have for each other radiates out of our pores. Every word that I said I meant, I would not bow down to her like some trained puppy, and if she thought I would she was more of an idiot than I thought she was. I hated her more than any single, solitary human being on this planet, and she was the last person I would submit to. If it killed me, I wouldn't stop fighting her.
It's in that moment that Sean walks to the door, his natural smile fading off his face as he takes in the sight of the red-headed Gamemaker and me staring each other down in the middle of the living room. Phoenix looks over at him, taking in the sight of my perfectly pleasant twin brother before looking back at me and smiling a smug, self-satisfied grin.
"We will see, Aleah Armani," she says ominously, as she picks up her chubby little offspring and turns away to walk out of the door, "We will see."