There is a party at the president's mansion. A so-called "Victory Banquet." After he welcomes me to his home I don't see anything further of the president. Basically I try to eat, because all of the food looks so amazing and now that my nerves are settling down I'm actually sort of hungry, but even though Apple and Aulie and Mr. Zimmer stand and sit around me as a buffer, mainly I'm interrupted over and over by presumably important people who want to congratulate me.
I sign autographs with both hands to keep myself amused. In the distance of this ever-shifting sea of people I see some of the other escorts (Ferdinand is particularly recognizable), but none of them come to speak with me. They probably feel sensitive regarding the tributes they've lost. The people who do introduce themselves to me are Gamemakers and sponsors of the Games and people who work in the government- and their children. There are already little girls wearing heavily-beribboned versions of my hairstyle. There are girls and boys both running here and there with tiny fishing poles, which first comes to my attention when one of them snags Apple's dress with his hook and sets her fussing.
Longinus Bronze gives me a present of a multi-purpose camping knife where another man might give me flowers.
"I'll keep this and you can keep the shark," I tell him.
I think it's at that moment that I finally impress him. "Deal," he shakes my hand. I think he really means it too. …Of course Mr. Bronze would have the size of house to accommodate a fifteen-foot shark.
It's around two in the morning and I'm nodding a bit when Apple forces her way to having me excused to go back to the Training Center to sleep up before my interview. Mr. Zimmer is already gone, she notes to bolster her argument, and he's far more used to operating on a schedule of long nights at parties and early mornings on television than I am. The president's personal aide okays me to go.
Jack Umber slips from the grasp of conversation with several scantily clad women who don't seem particularly pleased to let him go to try and speak to me as I head out the door, my loyal chaperones flanking me, one on each side (Apple stubborn and focused, Aulie doing his best while visibly tipsy). …Couldn't he have tried this earlier? Apple isn't going to let me stop walking and I'm a bit tired for this. "Good night, Mr. Umber," I try to stifle a yawn.
"One thing," he says, trying to convince Apple as well as me, "Ma- Miss Gaudet," he alters his form of address in light of how I spoke to him, "I just want to ask you about one thing before you go."
"Ask fast," Apple allows him since I don't protest.
"I watched this particular bit of footage of you over and over but even though I could hear you just fine I couldn't figure out what it was you were saying," Jack talks fast, gesticulating as he tries to walk alongside us, looking down at me, but not walking into Apple.
"What footage?" I reply and realize what he means a half-beat later: the saints' names I say to calm myself.
"That thing you said to yourself. Those weird names. …What does that mean?"
We pass through the doors out into the yard. Is it safe to say what it means in the Capitol? I can't help but think that sort of thing might be prohibited somehow since they didn't let my words go be heard in the recap. Well, we're leaving the party? Between Apple, Aulie, and Jack, who's going to report me? "Brendan, Elmo, Nicholas, Peter, Zeno," I pronounce each name clearly and separately, "In District Four, we pray to those people to watch over us at sea and bring us a good catch."
"Ocean gods?" His eyes are alight. He looks curious and it makes him look young.
"No," I shake my head, "Not gods, but God's people. Isn't there anything like it in District One?"
"Jaaaack, you can't leave now!" the president's daughter clatters out behind us on her tall, teetering heels and grabs his hand to pull him back in.
"Oh," he jerks to a stop at her grasp, "Well, I guess that's all I get to learn about that. Good night! Congratulations!" he waves my minders and I head off to our car, "See you again!"
"Did I ever ask you before?" I ask Apple as we ride back to the Training Center, "What your opinion was of Jack Umber?"
"I don't believe so."
"Hmm, well then, how about now," I remove my crown and run my fingers along its lovely finish, "What do you think about him?"
"He's wonderful as a TV personality, but, honestly, in person I've met him just about as much as you. He's a bit plain for my tastes- I'm sure that's not what you meant though."
"I like him," Aulie chimes in from the front seat where I wasn't sure if he had fallen asleep with his head against the window.
"And here we are- our home away from home," Apple cuts the conversation short there to hurry me back to the fourth floor and into bed.
What's nice about staying out late and having wrung myself out emotionally earlier in the day is that I have no trouble falling and staying asleep. My last night of this stretch in the Capitol, I have no dreams.
Erinne is happy and slightly hungover when she shows up in the morning. I haven't had much opportunity to mess up my looks from the elaborate treatment they gave me the night before, so she didn't bother to bring her team along. She fixes my hair and does my makeup and sends me off with Aulie and Apple to the soundstage of Mr. Zimmer's regular talk show in a plain and comfortable outfit- dark pants, dark boots, a dark tank top and a billowy white long-sleeved shirt over it. I like the outfit. It feels like the designer version of something I would be wearing anyone out on a boat.
There isn't a live audience for the interview, just the ordinary onlookers for any sort of filming, who, apparently, I'm becoming used to already. Apple sits in a little chair and watches like she's my one-woman audience, which could come off dumb, but actually seems sort of sweet.
"Good morning! Congratulations!" Mr. Zimmer greets me, an unintentional parallel to Jack's parting words to me last night. "How are you feeling today?"
"Oh, pretty good. Happy."
"Good, good. Then let's take our marks and get this show on the road, as they say!"
The live audience isn't here with us, but watching at home instead. This will be it for the required Games programming. It's easy to talk to Mr. Zimmer and the knowledge that I get to head home immediately after this helps to relax me further.
We discuss the arc of my belief throughout the Games and the process preceding them that I couldn't win or that I wouldn't win at the expense of my closest allies. Either Mr. Zimmer or someone else who worked on the program had a keen eye for picking out the moments where my confidence or priorities appear to shift.
We even fall into some good-natured bickering about the odds that someone as uncoordinated as me could make it through the Games. "Yes," I agree, "I get surprised easily, but I can usually pull it together when it counts."
"Oh, please, roll the tape," Mr. Glimmer laughs and prompts someone offstage. And there I am in quick succession: tripping, jumping, looking around- a dozen cannon blasts where I look like I'm about ready to fall on my face in surprise.
"…So about that coordination of yours, Mags…"
"I apologize for being the least graceful victor ever," I grin. What else can I say?
"I have a feeling that a run on Celebrity Dance Floor is not in your future."
"Well, I don't know all the rules on that show. Do I have to be graceful to win or can I stick it out by just being likable?"
I'm pretty sure that I'm getting the hang of this talk show give and take sort of thing. I'm honestly enjoying it by the end of our hour together. No one's going to ask me to kill a person ever again. That part's over. Play nice and go on camera is considerably easier to handle. …It's the mentoring part that's going to be hard. I can't let myself forget that in that respect, the Capitol's still got me in a bad place in the end.
"I really am going to be looking forward to seeing you again, Mags," Mr. Zimmer says as he escorts Apple and me out to her car. "You take care of yourself and have a good rest before your victory tour."
And just when I think things will end on such an unambiguously good note.
"I hope that next year's tributes from District Four will be just as entertaining as you."
Apple can tell as we head to the train station that this hope of his is bothering me, but it's harder for her to know how to deal with my feelings about it. "You know that whether or not the tributes will interest the Capitol isn't all on you. And it's not something that you should be concerned about at all until next year anyway.
"Oh, hmm." What she's saying leads her to an even more troubling conclusion.
"No district has had back to back wins, right?" I guess.
From the look in her eyes, I read Apple better than she reads me. "…Well, there's a first time for everything, right?" she replies.
For her sake, and because wallowing in it isn't going to do me any good anyway, I lie about my feelings. "And if anyone can do pull that off, we can."
Aulie's waiting for us at the train and saves us from ourselves and our horrid thoughts with a clueless, lovely cry of, "Good morning, ladies!"
I spend the train ride back looking forward.
After lunch, I'm glued to the window, because we'll be there anytime now. I twist Faline's ring around and around my finger. Aulie and Apple, who I'm starting to feel are like the crazy uncle and aunt I never had (or never knew- I'm not sure whether my mother ever had siblings, come to think of it), watch me watching with amusement.
The terrain is starting to look sort of familiar.
And then I know.
Hello, hello, hello, most beautiful place I've ever had the good fortune to lay eyes upon.
I sit up a little straighter to see it better.
Between the buildings and the distant masts of sailing ships I can catch a glimpse or two of it before my view is blocked- the truest, dearest part of District 4- the sea.
I had to explain to the camera crew that our train station was far enough removed from the centers of activity in District 4 that the turnout for my homecoming would be doubled if they didn't expect everyone to come out to the rails to meet me and instead someone provided a car to usher me into the town square. Apple, having a good enough understanding of the distance involved and vehicles available, had no problem backing me up on this matter.
She called ahead and secured a car. When I see it waiting, top down and all decked out in nets of shiny ornamental string and ruffled crepe paper, mimicking the rush of foaming waves, I think at first that Apple did it, but she's just as pleasantly surprised as I am and disabuses me of the notion.
Mayor Current is sitting in the driver's seat. He waves and I run up to the passenger side door.
Faline pops up out of backseat where she was hiding by lying down on the seat. If there were any obstacles in my way, I would fall over backwards as I jump away in surprise. "Mags!" she cheers, "You're home!"
Apple chimes in with a dainty giggle, her gloved hand over her sea green-painted lips. The cameras are rolling and that's that. I'm awkward and goofy and there are people back home who love me.
Apple, Aulie, and I pack into the car and Mayor Current drives us into town. The camera crew follows behind us in another, more subdued vehicle. I'm stuck up front beside the mayor to give people the best view of me as I arrive, but Faline keeps leaning forward to tell me something and something is often nothing more than "Wow" and breathless smiling at me.
She's so cute. People wouldn't think I was so amazingly easy to like if they got the chance to meet her. But one of the things that I can be happy about regarding Faline is that she kept her innocence. Eventually I settle on reaching back to hold her hand while we continue on.
What's there to say but "I'm here?" Holding hands does that pretty well.
It looks like every person in District 4 has come out to meet me. At the very least, it's every person that I know- from the principal and his wife to the net-making Crestas. A haphazard band is playing the national anthem and as soon as Mayor Current's car jerks to a stop I've dropped Faline's hand to fly to Papa's arms.
The anthem swells and morphs into a local dancing song and Papa spins me around. "Olé," he smiles, but quiet tears are pouring down his face. He seems to have aged a year for every day I spent in the arena. Unfortunately that may not be too far off the mark.
I can't look him in the eye unless I want to break down crying too. And not yet- I'm not ready for more crying yet. I look away to Aulie, shaking hands with Mayor Current, Faline, standing beside her mother, and Apple swaying slightly to the beat of the dancing music. "Thank you!" I say as loud as I can without yelling, "Thank you, everyone!"
And just like that it's an impromptu (well, as far as I can tell) party and everyone in the Capitol is going to see dancing and music and laughing and say, "Well, the fashion might be dated and the trappings might be poor, but we can relate to life in District Four." My win will buy a little extra interest in our lives and commodities, but a way of life here will, in the Capitol, be nothing but a fad.
Mrs. Mirande approaches me, as grayed and aged as Papa. "You and I are still like family," she says, "My son, you know, he couldn't stay with you- not because he was worried about having to fight you- but because he didn't want you to sacrifice yourself for him."
I'm sure that the cameramen have plenty more interesting things to take in now. I can hear Apple laughing nervously, uproariously as someone tries to teach her how to do the dance. At first I'm not sure Papa is going to let go of me even for me to do this one thing, but I break away and hug Mrs. Mirande. "Of course we're still like family. And that's just like him," I say, but what I mean is "Forgive me, forgive me."
Papa and Mrs. Mirande and I sit down together on a bench at the edge of the festivities and all engage in what I think they call "a good cry."
There's only so much emotion left in my system though. I guess I'm going to have to stock up all over again. Apple and Aulie turn down Papa's invitation to stay the night, opting inside to catch the evening train back to the Capitol. I can tell them how thankful I am for both of them without crying anymore at least. Aulie whispers something about Beanpole to Mrs. Mirande that makes her smile, then writes down his phone number and tells me I should feel free to call him anytime.
Not to be outdone, Apple reminds me I left my suitcase in the dressed up car, gives me her phone number, and asks for mine in return, so that she can call me, but this backfires because I don't know the number yet. I look to Papa in case he can resolve things, but he hasn't learned the number either- it's written down on a scrap of paper taped to the phone. We're only half moved into the new house in Victor's Village anyway. He didn't want to set my things up without my at least being there to voice my opinion ("It is, after all, technically your house, Mags.").
"I'll call you and let you know what it is soon," I promise her.
The celebration gradually quiets, but it isn't going to end until this night is over. There's a sort of uncontrollable mania and emotional outpouring to it. Because of me, District 4 can express itself openly, but I'm not really the source of a lot of what comes bubbling forth. There are all the tributes that were lost before I won to think of. Beanpole and Aoko and Apple's little darling Simon Belair and the other twenty we've lost before.
The small group around me gradually falls away as Apple and Aulie leave to catch their train, Faline's mother takes him home to bed, and Mrs. Mirande retires to her own home.
"So, which house are we going home to?" Papa jokes.
"Our old house then, if I'm making the call. Unless there's nowhere set up for us to sleep there." Papa carries my suitcase. I limp slightly on my right foot. "I guess I'm hoping that I can get back in my old bed and wake up in the morning to the sound and smell of your cooking and I'll still be me."
"Sounds good enough," he agrees, so up the hill we go toward home.
We go silently, each wrapped up in our own thoughts. I'm just happy to be here; to see him. Papa and I have always been close.
He puts my suitcase down just inside the doorway when we enter and I leave it there after another hug and a mumbled good night. Half of my room is as I left it and the other half is on boxes. I only bother to remove my socks and boots before melting into bed. I can hear the gentle movement of the ocean. It creeps into my mind and invades my softly worrisome dreams.
Papa is making breakfast when I come downstairs, confused about what's more likely to be real- that I'm actually back home safely or that it was just a nightmare that I left in the first place.
Papa's egg and fish fry is as good as ever, but he's not as interested in the food as I am. He drinks a lot coffee and can't sit still, although I don't think the coffee is the cause. "Is there, uh, something you want to talk about?" I inquire.
"At the very end, when they took you from the arena, I was almost as scared as when you went in," Papa tells me. Even as he brings up the subject, he keeps fiddling with a piece of rope, weaving and unweaving the various fibers until the entire thing is a fraying mess. I certainly believe he had been frightened. He is acting high-strung right now.
"Why was that?" I want to know. I've seen the way that other families have behaved in the past. It's obviously (and understandably) harrowing for them. Still, this is an interesting moment for Papa to focus on- I mean, I feel like I was a lot further from dying at that exact moment that at least three other times in the arena. It wasn't like Haakon had it in him to jump back up and hurt me then.
"Because of your eyes," he answers, "I was afraid that even though you were coming back you had been lost."
Oh. A body with empty eyes. Like the sailors who ended up too far out and gone too long. The ones who lost their minds to the sea.
"I came back, Papa," I assure him.
Maybe it's like that feeling of unrealness that I've been grappling with. He nods and tells me that believes me, but I don't think he'll be completely sure of it that immediately. Sure, I looked pretty good on TV for the recap and interview, but that was TV and in the Capitol they could make me look and act however they wanted with drugs or threats or editing, right? And, sure I seemed like myself when we were reunited yesterday, but was he just imagining it or was it only temporary?
I hate to think so, but if he's wondering if I've changed, I probably have. Hopefully not for the worse.
We finish moving into the new house by the end of the week with help from a variety of friends and neighbors. On Papa's suggestion, Mrs. Mirande moves into our newly vacated house. A new place to make new memories. A house that Beanpole visited, but one he never lived in.
Life goes on with an uncertain rhythm.
I am home. The cameras are gone - for now. The killing is over - for me. At the next Games, I'll get to do my best alongside Aulie (assuming he sticks around to help) to aid some other dumb or brave or unlucky kids try to find within themselves what it takes to kill. …It's a dubious honor, but it isn't as if anyone told me that staying alive also meant being free.
When I go fishing with my father for the first time since my return, I hook and clean my share of our catch almost the same way I did those kids. I don't have to say anything about it to Papa. I don't scream or faint or anything, but I stare at my blood-stained hands for what feels like an eternity. It's actually just a couple of minutes.
Back home on shore I begin weaving baskets to calm my nerves. I use reeds of different colors on them to make patterns and designs. Apple Smitt calls me up on our brand new telephone and when I tell her about it, she gushes about how weaving could be my talent and asks if I can weave anything for her. I don't think it's as a result of feeling particularly generous, but I change my usual sort of fishing basket into something like a purse. When I let Apple know about it, she's absolutely sure she'll love it and makes plans to use it for my entire Victory Tour. She doesn't doubt that it will start a fashion trend (or at least a short-lived fad).
When I sit out in front of the boat weaving I find myself wondering what Beanpole's talent would've been. Or Sparrow's. …What I will say to the families I encounter on the tour… …How long will it take for District 4 to have another victor… Downer stuff, basically.
If I'm only making simple stuff, I barely need to look at it as I work. I'm doing things by feel. As I braid the strands of my current project, I lie back and watch the seaweed dry on the racks. I might as well be watching paint peel.
"Hey," says a boy.
I sit up. It's 'Lito Ortiz, a former classmate of mine. I barely know the guy. "Hey," I respond; it's casual, neutral.
"I watched you being so brave, Mags, and I don't guess I'll ever be half as brave as you, but I suppose it egged me on to get my courage up a little."
I take a second look at tan and gangly 'Lito. His eyes are as dark as the shore at midnight. After a second, I realize he's waiting for something from me. Some kind of cue. "Yeah?" I prompt him.
"I like you, Mags," he says, and after that he holds his breath.
It feels good. I remember all over again to be liked by someone I won't be expected to kill. Inside I sense a question mark: maybe I could like him back? "Since when?" I ask, but show I mean it nice by beginning to smile.
"Since we were fourteen and I saw you win the girls' high jump competition at school."
It feels like a lifetime ago. "I guess if you still like someone even after you've watched her kill people you like her a lot," I wager.
"Yeah, probably," 'Lito agrees.
"Why don't you come inside?" I decide, "I've got limes and ice tea."
"Limes are really good with fish tacos," 'Lito offers.
I don't know what to say to him any better than he knows what to say to me. But, well, okay. Soon enough, I'm sure that won't be the case. I mean, what with all that happened, I am changed, but… I'm still Mags.
"I like stuff that's sour." The better, of course, to bring out the sweet.