The house is quiet, dusty, as it has been for nearly three years now. I sit on the plush couch, trying not to sink too far down into the upholstery, as the smallest movement causes clouds of dust to rise up in gentle wisps, reminiscent of the ghost of the man who inhabits this place. This house could be one of any of the uninhabited ones in the Victor's Village if it weren't for a few telltale personal signs. A shimmersilk scarf laid on the mantelpiece. A few letters in elegant handwriting on the table. And of course, the massive portrait that hangs over the fireplace, depicting a handsome young man dressed all in black, staff raised triumphantly in one hand, as the savage golden pony he rides rears up in defiance. I grin to myself each time I see it. Blight hated that painting with a burning passion from the moment it arrived as a gift from one of his patrons in the Capitol. Jason, on the other hand, roared with laughter at the ostentatiousness of the piece and the look of disgust on his lover's face and insisted that it be hung in the place of honor in the sitting room.
Twenty years later, it's still here. Jason, of course, is not.
A burst of dust leaves me coughing, and I rise from the couch and walk over to the mantle of the fireplace. Below the painting is a small photograph. Two boys, young men really, arms swung over each other, laughing on the beaches of District 4 during Blight's Victory Tour twenty-three years ago. Jason looks the same as always, of course. The laughing smile that never faded, the face that seemed to be blessed with perpetual youth, the eyes that never ceased to look at anyone with kindness. Blight, on the other hand. There's so little resemblance between the man I know and the boy in the picture who became a legend two decades ago. Not in appearance so much, among all the Victors Blight is one of the few who never turned to drink or drugs to numb the memories of the Hunger Games. He had Jason, after all. So his body remains strong, his face that of a man ten years younger. But he's no longer the devil-may-care bastard who smiled easily and wickedly. He's not even the serious, somber man I knew when I was reaped myself all those years ago. His eyes have that deep, dead look in them, as if all the life in them had been extinguished. The same look that Haymitch has. And Cecelia, on occasion. Enobaria. Myself.
I shake my head as I walk around the room. It seems foolish to compare myself to Blight, as Victors we couldn't be more different. I have my reputation, carefully cultivated, as the hellfire bitch of District 7. Eat your vegetables, or Johanna Mason will come! Stop fighting with your sister, or I'll call Johanna! That's what mothers tell their children in the Capitol. I'm the monster under their beds. In the district, I'm left pretty much alone, although they can't help sending me looks of pity as I pass, no matter how much I may hate it. They all know, although the reports are that my family died in a freak accident. They know how I refused President Snow, defied him, told him I wouldn't be his little toy. Blight was able to win that fight, before Snow had absolute power. I was not. I watched as my family, Mother, Merrill, and the others died in a hail of gunfire before my eyes. I'm a tragic figure here. A fearsome disaster.
Blight, on the other hand, well, he's the district shame. Not because of what he's done, but because of what was done to him. Sold to the Hunger Games so that the district could bet on him, we all know the story. People fear Blight, have left him alone. If Blight ever had the desire to show kindness or generosity towards the people of his district, then he did it through Jason. People skirted him in the roads, like they avoid me. We would all watch him on the screens in the Tav as he laughed with his Capitol friends during each year's trip to the Capitol. The powerful friends and allies that assured his and Jason's survival. Cold, some called him. Unfeeling. A heart of ice. But no one had the courage to call him a traitor to his district. No one expected him to have any loyalty to us.
They were wrong, though. Only a few people know, but they were wrong. Blight did care, he was capable of compassion and comfort, and that side of him came out each year when a child was placed under his care in the Hunger Games. He did his best to be there for them, to comfort them, encourage them, make sure their last days were not ones of total despair. He did this unfailingly, no matter who the kid was. Even when Connell, a man who had tortured Blight throughout his childhood, came to Blight when his youngest brother was reaped. A strange reversal, it was, the former tormentor on his knees, crying and begging Blight to bring young Connor home. If ever Blight had a reason to forsake a tribute, it was then. The kinsman of one of the men who conceived his betrayal. But no matter who Blight became, he always resolved that he would never be Eamon. And that year, Connor came home, broken and silent, but alive.
Blight wasn't my mentor, Vera was. She gave up on me before the train even reached the Capitol. I was satisfied with my success, my plan after all hinged on everyone drastically underestimating me. But Blight figured it out. Or perhaps he always knew. He may not be Nuts and Volts level of genius, but no one knows duplicity and deceit like Blight does. He knew. He went to his powerful friends, got sponsors, not for his own tribute but for me. He sent the ax in a parachute that saved my life, allowed me to spring my trap. He was there to warn me not to cross the President, although I didn't listen. And as I lay in my new empty house, shaking and raging and wailing, Jason came through the window, scooped me up and carried me over to their house, and it was only there that I ever felt safe again, with Jason holding me in his arms and Blight bustling around making tea like some deranged Capitol housewife. All those in Blight's home were to be left alone. That was the deal that Blight made with the President, and it had only ever been meant for Jason. Entrance into his home for anyone else was unheard of.
I feel him behind me despite not noticing him enter. Even at nearly forty, Blight still has the ability to move silently, although the thick layer of dust on the carpet surely helps. I turn. He's smiling at me, gentler than he used to, but no longer with any humor behind it.
"Sit down, Johanna," he says.
"I'd rather not," I reply. "I can't imagine that Haymitch's place is much dirtier than this."
"You wound me, Johanna."
"You can't say it wasn't deserved."
His stern face is offset by that fact that I can always tell when his eyes are smiling. "And speaking about our dear fellow Victor from exotic and lovely District 12, I just got off the phone with him. And you'll no doubt be enthralled to hear what he's come up with this time."
I glance around the room. "You're sure it's safe to talk about it here?"
"Volts says so. And I trust him. Well, no I don't trust anyone, but I believe him."
I sigh. "Very well. What did dear Booze O'Bum say?"
He grins at me. "You know why the Quarter Quell was announced? The real reason behind it?"
"Yeah, Snow's furious at the lovebirds, and he's going to kill two birds with one stone. Literally in this case. Remove the Rebellion's most fervent supporters and its symbol of resistance in one go."
"So I can imagine you know the plan already?"
"Yeah, if one of us is reaped, we make sure to come home and begin reorganizing, this time with a figurehead who occasionally acts like she's off the rag."
Blight full out laughs at this. "Unfortunately, people like dear Ms. Everdeen only come around once every hundred years or so. Haymitch and Heavensbee have made it clear, and the other Victors agree. We're going into the arena with one goal in mind, and that's to get the Mockingjay and her boy toy out of there alive."
It takes a few seconds for his words to sink in, and then I'm screeching at him. "What? WHAT! No way! No way am I risking my life for that puffed up, pin-headed, prissy, dewy-eyed, camera-kissing little tramp! No way!"
"You will if you want the Rebellion to have its Mockingjay," says Blight. "You will if you were serious when you told Heavensbee that you were willing to do anything to bring Snow down."
"I know, but I thought he meant, like, torture or dismemberment. Not having to schmooze up to Katniss The Edible Root Freaking Everdeen!"
"I know, Johanna, I know. If it were up to me, I'd be in the control room doing everything in my power to get you back home. But it's not up to me, you know that, and we need to think about the big picture here, no matter how much we wish that Cinna had lit Everdeen with real flames instead of synthetic ones."
I look at his disgruntled face, a smile crossing my lips despite myself. "Don't tell me you're still jealous that her costume at the Opening Ceremonies was better than yours."
He looks at me, affronted. "What? No! Of course not! The very idea." Blight continues with some unintelligible muttering, in which the words 'Bitch on Fire' are clearly discernable.
"Anyway, that's not our job, at least not at the beginning. Being Everdeen and Mellark's bodyguard is Finnick's job. We all know that he's going to be Reaped. And Jade and Nolan have agreed to join him if they end up in the arena. And eventually we'll meet up with them. So try not to pull an Enobaria and rip her throat out until we're off camera and the war is over, okay? Restrain yourself, at least in the beginning."
I raise an eyebrow at him, an expression that I picked up from him. "As long as you're able to restrain yourself and not kiss Mellark in front of Everdeen, at least in the beginning. Take him out to dinner first."
Blight looks at me, mouth agape. "Peeta Mellark is twenty- three years my junior, you repulsive woman!"
"You're old, Blight, but you're not dead yet. Or blind."
He shakes his head. "I have no aspirations on Peeta Mellark. And no delusions either, just because he's a Mellark, doesn't mean..."
His eyes are distant, and I know that he's lost in the nightmare once again. The terrible nightmare that's lasted three years for him.
It came to District 7 in the height of summer that year. The Great Sickness that had swept through several times before, this time more fierce than ever. The Bleeding Blight, we appropriately called it. It struck the very old and the very young first, as sicknesses tend to do. But then it spread, and it spread quickly. The names of the victims grew by the day. Vera, my old mentor and the only other female Victor of District 7. Greta and Reuben, the local leaders of the rebellion. The merchant area was hit hard, and many of the District's well-to-do found that their money couldn't save them. Ex-Mayor Lourdes, his daughters, their families, the blonde Avox who attended them, all wiped out. The Tav sat silent and empty, occasionally echoing the wails that rang across the square.
Blight wasn't home at the time. He and Connor were mentoring the Seventy Second Hunger Games. But I was, I refused to go to the Capitol, and who on earth was going to make me? Jason was home as well, and of course he was never one to stay away when people needed aid. He used the pension given each month to Blight and himself to buy food for the sick, medicine for the hospital that had been set up in one of the lumber warehouses for the many, many sick and dying. And of course he was there with the best of us, going from bed to bed, making jokes with the kids, helping to bathe the elderly, changing sheets, boiling water. He had refused to slow down, insisting that he wasn't wearing himself out, even when he began to cough uncontrollably and his handsome face grew as white as a sheet. It wasn't until the blood began to pour from his nose and ears that I convinced him to return with me to the Victor's Village.
I tended to him there as best as I could, even though I knew that there was virtually no hope for anyone who displayed symptoms as quickly as Jason had. But through a supreme effort of will, Jason managed to stay alive until the Games had ended. I was there, wiping his sweating face when I heard the footsteps thundering up the stairs. The door burst open, and when I saw the look on Blight's face, I was scared. Johanna Mason, the girl who feared nothing and no one, was afraid for my friend in that moment. But I merely handed Blight my cloth and took my leave. He nodded his thanks but his eyes were all for the man wasting away on the bed in front of him.
I went home, lay on my bed, and listened. Sure enough, a few hours later, the whole Village rang with the despairing wails of a man whose heart had broken.
The hovercrafts came a few days later, on a mercy mission with medicine from the Capitol, ready to heal us all with a miracle cure before there were too few of us left to work in the forests. The confirmation came a few days after that, from Haymitch via Heavensbee. The Bleeding Blight had been manufactured in the Capitol. Its target was the long-hidden District 13, meant to decimate and sterilize their ranks. But the Capitol had needed a test subject first, and the expendable lumberjacks had sufficed. But it had a side effect that hadn't been anticipated. Blight had become the final Victor to join the Rebellion, now that, like the rest of us, he had nothing to live for beyond revenge.
"Blight?" I say after a few moments, shaking him out of his thoughts.
"Sorry," he says. "Anyway, protecting Everdeen isn't our original job, that's Odair and company, as I said. Seeder, Chaff, Rivina, and Cecilia, in the meantime will attempt to lure the Careers away from our precious Mockingjay, taking as many with them as they can manage."
I snort in disdain. "Cecilia? Really? Even if she is reaped, you think she could go against a Career?"
"She wasn't called the Angel of Death for nothing. Ten kids died at her hand once before."
"Ugh," I say, "I'm so glad I was never a Victor who got a nickname. The Angel of Death. The Tree-Elf. The Mockingjay. It's so pathetic."
"Anyway," Blight interrupts loudly, "That's not our job either. You and Connor and myself get a much better assignment. Much more dangerous, much more filled with glory and prestige. We get to make sure that Nuts and Volts don't kill themselves off before we can get them to Everdeen."
He waits for my swearing and shouting to stop, which admittedly takes a few minutes. It's only before I let out a strangled "WHY!" that he answers.
"Because Nuts and Volts are the ones that are going to break you folks out of the arena so you can get out and do some good in this world."
"Oh that's just great," I say. "Just grand. Babysitting two old cuckoos while they fiddle around with - wait. Wait a minute. What do you mean 'you folks?'"
He looks at me sadly. "Johanna..."
"No," I say. "No. You're coming home. If I have to deal with Nuts and Volts and Everdeen, you're going to be with me every step of the way. You don't have a choice."
"Johanna, I'm an old man-"
"You're not even forty!"
"And I've had twenty years of happiness. I'm ready to leave. I'm ready to put an end to it all. Maybe I'll survive, maybe the gods have some further purpose for me. But in the arena, I'm not going to put my survival on the rungs of the ladder. Not above yours, not above Odair's, not above Everdeen's So when there's risk to be taken, or a sacrifice to be made, I'm the one making it, no arguments. Okay?"
"But, but." To my horror, tears are welling in my eyes. "But you can't leave me. You're all I have left. Your-your home. You're the only one I have left to love."
"And when I'm gone, you'll find new ones to love, Johanna. Finnick cares for you. Annie likes you, or she would if you would give her a chance. You might even find that you have more in common with Everdeen than you think."
"We'll see. But no arguments anymore Johanna. We'll cross bridges as we come for them. In the meantime, let's figure out how we're going to save Nuts and Volts from themselves."
Despite myself, I curl up against Blight on the couch. "I can't believe our role in the great Rebellion is babysitting District 3."
"So glamorous. Oh, and I have another job as well. Haymitch wants me to write Finnick a poem."
I look at him. "A poem? What for?"
"For the interviews. You know how much the Capitolian women, and a lot of the men, are enthralled with him. Haymitch wants me to write something that will tug at their heartstrings, make them feel the loss of their beloved Finnick Odair, send them in to wails of despair and screams of grief."
Blight's talent is writing poetry. He's known in the Capitol for his reflections on nature's beauty, his lyrics about the simplicity of love, his verses extolling the virtue of the Capitol. Of course, I've seen the stuff he doesn't show to everyone, the brutal satire on the private lives of government officials, and the pure, unadulterated smut that he publishes under a pen name and is ravenously devoured in the Capitol.
"Finnick will be thrilled, I'm sure," I say.
Blight laughs. "It will surely be my greatest work. I just hope Finnick doesn't actually read it before he's onstage."
The tears that come are mingled with laughter and crying, as Blight and I lay on the couch together for the last time, sharing memories, old jokes, and secrets. We talk long into the night. Let the Quarter Quell come, we say. Tonight, it doesn't intrude into this old house in the Victor's Village.
Blight's story does not have a happy ending. Nothing anyone can do or say will change that. His story ended abruptly, almost in obscurity, a brutally anti-climactic close. But Blight had, as he said, twenty years of happiness, and he knew that he would be content with that.
It was raining lightly on the morning of the Reaping. The four Victors stood by as Lola Puddlemeer - Tutti Marble had flatly refused to attend - drew Johanna's single slip from the bowl. And then Connor, Blight, and Jules had only a moment to give each other wry glances as the slip was chosen and the name Blight Gavin was called.
They were shipped off to the Capitol together. No one said much. There wasn't anything left to be said after all. The Opening Ceremonies came. Messalina had, as expected, dressed Blight and Johanna as trees. Blight had persuaded Madame Lucia that this was not going to be a good year to be a stylist, but he found himself regretting it as he watched Katniss and Peeta on the screens looking like they had stepped out of the depths of the fire. However, it was worth it as he and Chaff and Haymitch watched Johanna strip in front of Katniss. Both Haymitch and Chaff bought Blight a drink after that one.
Johanna, at Blight's insistence, attended all three days of training, preparing her body and mind and reporting back about the dynamic between the Victors. Blight however had better things to do with his last days. He locked himself in his room for hours, refusing all visitors, and wrote letters. Letter after letter after letter. To his mother, saying how much he missed her. To his father, saying that he had finally learned to forgive him. To his nieces and nephews reminding them to watch after the horses when he was gone. To his dear friend Tutti Marble, thanking her for all she had done for himself and Jason. To Madame Lucia, a letter of chatter and gossip, knowing that she would be able to decipher the code that would give her the location of a safe house where she could stay during the inevitable attack on the Capitol. To Peeta Mellark, saying things that only someone who knew what it meant to be totally, irrevocably in love would understand. And to the man he thought of every day, every hour of his life for twenty-three years, he merely wrote "You know I'll see you soon."
The interviews came, and the Victors were masterful. The pleas, the thanks, the humble platitudes that whipped the audience into a frenzy. Blight stayed almost silent, thanking Caesar for everything but saying very little else. He gave the Capitol audience nothing more than a small smile, one that was shared by Johanna. Both of them had seen the glares that Finnick Odair was shooting Blight, and both of them knew that Odair hadn't, in fact, read the poem before he got onstage.
The Games came. Not twenty four frightened children this time, but twenty four broken individuals who, despite everything, had grown to be friends and now were forced to fight one another, to break that last bond they had held onto. The bloodbath was filled with tears and apologies. Johanna managed to get a hold of a shaking Wiress, but she saw no sign of her district partner or her other charge until she noticed Beetee making a mad dash towards the Cornucopia to seize a coil of golden wire. He managed to get his prize, but not before Enobaria stabbed him in the lower back. He gave a cry of pain as Enobaria advanced on him, prepared to finish the job, but then it was her turn to be knocked to the ground. She spun over, a snarl on her lips, but even the fearsome Victor from 2 paused as she looked into the terrible eyes of the Tree-Elf of District 7 as he stood over her, staff in hand.
It was enough time for Chaff and Seeder and Cecilia to see what was happening and go after Enobaria themselves. Enobaria was forced to retreat, calling for Brutus. Blight, meanwhile, merely picked up Beetee, slung him over his shoulder, and waded out into the water, headed for the shore. Johanna and Wiress were right behind him.
Strangely, being back in the arena had an invigorating effect on Blight. He felt more alive than he had in years, knowing that he only had a few days left to make an impact in the world. He attempted to entertain a shaking Wiress with bawdy tales of unusual places he and Jason had lost themselves in passionate embraces, distracted them from their ever mounting thirst with insulting jokes about District 3, and wondered out loud to all three of them whether Finnick would ever live down the shame of having said "jiggling bazumkas" on national television.
They all heard the thunder, and then the rain. They dashed through the forest, mouths open. But then the rain began to fall, and they learned to their horror that it was blood. Blight shouted to the others, determined to get them out of the trap. He led the way. His body was no longer as fit or as lean as it had been, the forest was far different from the pines and oaks of District 7, but Blight was still the tree-elf he had been and led them on a clear path, faster and faster until he was brought to an abrupt halt by the force field that stopped his heart, killing him instantly.
The extraordinary life of Blight Gavin had been cruelly brought to its end, and not even his only friend had a moment to spare to mourn him. Johanna took the lead, bringing District 3 out of the jungle even as Blight's body was lifted away behind them. They found Finnick, Everdeen and Mellark the next day. Johanna told them what had happened, grateful that the blood hid the tears that she knew were on her face.
"I'm sorry, Johanna," said Finnick.
"Yeah, well, he wasn't much, but he was from home," she replied. Only Finnick knew just what 'home' meant to Johanna.
They say that a mockingjay flapping its wings in a forest can cause a storm on the prairie. Blight and Katniss never met, never said a single word to each other, but the lives of the Tree-Elf and the Mockingjay were entwined more than either of them would ever know. Had Blight not saved Beetee from Enobaria, the Victors would never have escaped from the arena, Katniss would have never become the Mockingjay, the districts would have never rallied around her. But he did, and Katniss did escape, and she made it to the long-hidden District 13.
It was there that she truly became the Mockingjay, and saved Johanna's life while she was at it. It was also there that she met a cattle rancher from District 10 named Dalton. Dalton showed her nothing but kindness and understanding, although she would never find out why. Primrose Everdeen did, however. Everyone could talk to Prim, and did, and Dalton told her that he knew what she had been through, he knew what it was like to have someone you love go to the Hunger Games. He had felt her pain when his brother Devon was reaped, when he was tortured to death in front of the boy who became the Victor that year.
The war came. Images of Katniss Everdeen were broadcast to all the networks. One of them showed her in District 8, standing behind a burning hoverplane that she had just brought down. "If we burn, you burn with us!" she shouted. And burn that plane did, along with several Peacekeepers, including a man by the name of Abel Gavin.
The invasion was planned, executed. Snow fell. The Capitol fell. Coin fell. Paylor became president. The Hunger Games were finally ended. The government was reorganized. It wasn't perfect, but it was better. Much, much better.
There was so much to do, so many elections to hold, resources to distribute, infrastructure to be rebuilt. So it wasn't until almost a year after the fall of the Capitol during the renovation of a former government building devoted to the Games that the morgue was found. Inside, frozen and forgotten, were the unclaimed victims of the Seventy Fifth Hunger Games. Blight was among them, eyes still glassed and wide open, hand clutched around a small wooden coin with an etching of a rearing horse.
He was taken back to District 7. A small funeral was planned by Johanna, who had returned, and Mack, the longtime mayor of 7. They decided on a quiet affair, although Johanna mentioned something to Haymitch, which is why Katniss gave her a call a few days before the burial. She expressed her condolences, and Johanna shook them off. "He died for the same reason that Finnick did, and Boggs, and all the others. He wouldn't want us to mourn him. I doubt anyone will remember him." Katniss was silent for a long time afterwards.
The day of the burial couldn't have been more different than the final reaping. A beautiful spring day, the sun high and bright. It had meant to be a small affair, but no one had anticipated how many people had been touched by Blight. Mack and Evelyn presided, with Johanna giving the first eulogy. Annie was there, sobbing into Beetee's shoulder. Half the district was there as well, with representatives from the Rebellion and District 13. Lucia stood, tall and imposing in her signature silver, moving only to hand Tutti Marble a handkerchief.
Johanna had told Katniss she didn't need to come, that she had been to enough funerals in the past year. Katniss, being Katniss, came anyway. She owed a debt to this man, one she had never spoken to but was willing to die to get her and Peeta out of the arena alive. And Katniss Everdeen repays her debts. She hugged Annie, embraced Johanna, shook hands with Mack. She gave Peeta's regrets. He had suffered an unusually powerful flashback the other day, and the doctor insisted on bed rest. In her hands, Katniss held a book filled with pictures and neat, tidy writing. She pasted the picture of two smiling young men on a beach in District 4 to a blank page, and wrote down a few treasured sentences that Johanna and Mack relayed. And then she looked at the headstones, and silently passed the book to Johanna. She knelt down, not at the newly erected monument, but at the slightly weathered one besides it. Her fingers traced the name carved there.
"I never even knew he had relatives in 7," she whispered.
The service ended, Blight's body was trusted to the keeping of the gods and buried. The crowd departed, heading down the windswept hill towards the village, where they would celebrate Blight's life late into the night at the Tav. Johanna was the last to leave and it was she who placed the small wooden coin among the bouquets of flowers before she too turned away. The two stones remained alone, solitary, their epitaphs a witness to the two lives that had been entwined for so long, and for so much good.
A TREE ELF
NO MAN WAS EVER SO BRAVE
NO MAN WAS EVER SO LOVED