Epilogue

A month had passed since Ruth returned to District 9, the sole survivor out of twenty-four tributes. During that time, she had tried to pick up the pieces of her life as best she could, only to find that it was easier said than done. The Games were constantly in her thoughts, no matter how much she tried to shut them out; there was no escaping the memory of the arena, except one which she was not prepared to take. She was not going to end up like Autumn or any of the other victors who depended on drugs or alcohol to help them cope.

In the last few weeks, she had often found herself looking at young children and wondering if she would have to mentor them in around ten years' time. That was one of the hardest aspects of being a victor, knowing you would have to take a hand in coaching future tributes, knowing most of the tributes you mentored would end up dying in the arena. Ruth wondered how she would deal with that, especially if the tribute concerned happened to be someone she knew well. But she had no choice in the matter; every victor was expected to do their share of mentoring, unless they were so psychologically damaged that they could not perform this duty.

During the day, she tried to fill her time with various activities to keep her mind off the arena as much as possible; Demmie hoped one of these activities could be developed into Ruth's talent, the skill she would take up instead of getting a job in the grain industry. At night, however, with nothing to distract her, images from the Games haunted her dreams. Not just the Games in which she had been a tribute, but every Hunger Games she had ever seen. As a result, she began to dread going to sleep, knowing the nightmares that would inevitably follow.

And then there was the memory of the twenty-three tributes who had not survived, whose bodies lay mouldering in their respective graves. Even though she had only been directly responsible for the deaths of three of them, she felt guilty for being alive when they were not. If she had had the option, she would have pushed them all to the back of her mind and avoided thinking about them ever again, but she did not. In a few months' time, she would be taken on her Victory Tour, during which she would visit each district in turn and be paraded before the people to remind them of the Capitol's power. And, she knew from previous Victory Tours, the families of the dead tributes were always given a place of honour at the ceremony which took place in each district's main square.

Ruth gazed at her reflection in her bedroom mirror. She looked the same as she had before she went to the arena - light brown hair and hazel eyes, her body filled out again. There was nothing to indicate what she had been through just a few weeks earlier, nothing to indicate that she was alive at the expense of twenty-three lives. Except the dark patches under her eyes, the result of having her sleep disturbed by bad dreams night after night. She hoped it would get easier in time, but she doubted it ever would. Indeed, when Katie had tried to offer consolation after yet another nightmare, Ruth had rounded on her, something she had never done in her life before.

"What do you know about it?!" she had yelled at her sister. "Do you know what it's like to know the only reason you're alive is because twenty-three others are dead?! You've only ever seen the Games on television, so don't give me any of that crap about "understanding how I feel"!"

It was this more than anything that revealed how much being in the arena had changed Ruth. She and Katie had always been close and had rarely quarrelled when they were growing up, but now things were different. Before the Games, Ruth had been fairly even tempered, but, since returning home, she had often found herself flying into a rage at the slightest provocation. And one thing that was guaranteed to set her off was any mention of the Games in which she had been a tribute, so people had quickly learned not to question her about her experiences. It was the same with Ethan and Thalia; they did not like to discuss their Games either and she was beginning to understand why.

If only there was some way to erase the memory of the arena, to rid herself of the images which haunted her constantly. But there wasn't, at least not one that didn't involve her turning into another Autumn, constantly drunk and probably headed for an early grave. Hardly any of the victors, especially those who came from outside the Career districts, were physically or mentally sound; some, like Thalia, had lost parts of their anatomy, while others were so deeply traumatised that it was unlikely they would ever fully recover. And nor did the Capitol allow them to do so; instead, they forced all but the most severely damaged victors to mentor the next lot of tributes, and the next, and the next . . .

A sudden feeling of overwhelming rage at everything that had happened to her engulfed Ruth, made worse by the fact that she was powerless against the ones responsible. She grabbed the mirror off the wall and dashed it to pieces on the floor, then collapsed, sobbing. As the tears traced their way down her cheeks and her shoulders shook, she heard herself gasping out the words: "I'm sorry . . . so sorry . . ." Words addressed not only to the tributes who had died in this year's Games, but to all the youngsters (including those not yet born) who were destined to become victims of the Games in the future.

Victims. Almost everyone who ended up in the arena became one. Even if you didn't die physically, the Games could, in effect, kill the person you had been before. And, Ruth knew as she sat crying on the floor, she was just as much a victim as Lukas, Till and all the others. She might have the special status granted to all victors, have been rewarded with a grand house in the Victor's Village and a life of leisure, but the price was not one she would have paid willingly. In many ways, she was a victor in name only; all she had really done was outlive several other youngsters in a sadistic contest devised as a punishment for the failed rebellion. There was only one real winner in the Hunger Games - and that was the Capitol. She and all the others who got out of the arena alive were nothing but tools in the oppression of their people.

Would there ever be an end? Would there ever come a time when the youngsters of Panem could grow up in a society free from the cruelty of the Capitol, where they did not have to face the prospect of becoming tributes in the Games? Those were questions that could not be answered - yet.