I could only hide for so long. After only three hours of fitful sleep the suite was once again filled with shrill voices and people who insisted on torturing me worse than anything Allure or Luxor could have done. Death at the end of one of their swords would have been a million times less painful than what my prep team and mentors put me through for the final interview and Victor's party.
I refused to stop fighting them. No matter how exhausted and aching I was, I would never let them drag me into a dress and pin my hair up and put makeup on my face without fighting them the whole way; growling, biting, snarling, hissing, swearing, kicking, clawing. Whatever it took.
When I'd lost the battle I had retreated to the silence and solitude of my room for a few minutes. I stood in front of the mirror looking at myself with dismay. I didn't know the person there. Despite her thinness from the Arena she had curves that were accented by the slender fall of the black dress. She had freshly washed and conditioned coils of shiny ebony hair and perfectly curled tendrils framing her face. She had smoky-rimmed eyes that stared back at her from a pale mask. She had a choker of lace and beads around her throat that were the perfect colour of fresh blood.
I touched my fingertips to it, and felt the cold, smooth glass beads and delicate threads of the lace. It was no accident that they had chosen this colour. It was to remind everyone watching of the dramatic violence of my win. Cerulean and the prep team had tried to recreate the blood that smeared down my face and neck when I had walked out of that Arena. Despite everything, it was a touch I oddly appreciated.
I pulled my eyes from the crimson. As I looked in the mirror at myself I tried to imagine what it would feel like if I weren't wrong. How the last few days would feel if I didn't enjoy killing. What weight would the deaths put on my shoulders? I looked myself in the eye with these thoughts in my head and suddenly recognised the desolate look there. I knew that look and I knew what it could make you do. There was a noise as someone appeared in the doorway of my room and I knew it was him. I looked to Domitius in the reflection, the question already spilling out of me.
"Tass killed herself, didn't she?"
I saw his reflection in the mirror freeze slightly and he slowly lifted his head to me. His expression was grave. Yet again I found myself positive that he had loved Tass more than he did just any of his tributes. It was easy to see why. She deserved it. She was one of the good ones. He nodded his head slowly, meeting my eyes in the glass. "She wasn't as strong as you, Rabbit."
I turned back to the mirror and looked at myself once more. I looked like me again; no guilt veiled my eyes and pressed my shoulders down. "No. I think she was stronger."
The interview was about as pleasant the second time as it had been the first. Except now there weren't 23 other teenagers to take the force of the Capitol's attention off me for a second. It felt like someone was pressing a blanket down over my mouth. Only Domitius' cool eyes on me and the thought of Clove watching at home managed to get me through. I could picture her clearly, sitting in the large room of the junior training centre, surrounded by the other children but never really part of them.
For the first time I wondered how the past weeks had been for her. She'd been so excited for me to go to the Hunger Games. I wondered if she'd still felt that when she'd watched me kill and almost be killed. I wondered if she still wanted to go herself. I found myself desperately hoping that the answer was no. This charade wasn't something I wanted for her. She could train but I didn't want these people to make her one of their playthings.
It felt so powerless.
After the interview I was almost instantly thrown into the middle of the Victory Ball, the highlight of which was supposed to be the crowning. I didn't care about any of that. This was Capitol nonsense. The knowledge that my District had watched me win, and the knowledge that they'd be proud of me, that was my reward, my crown. This silly gold circlet was something to please the Capitol.
Whilst the President placed it on my head and muttered words of congratulations to me I fixed my eyes on Ramona in the crowd. She glared back at me, her eyes blazing with anger, and in an odd way it gave me comfort. She still hated me, crown or no crown. And despite how much I despised the way the Capitol had tainted her, there was a fire and stone in her gaze and her body that reminded me so strongly of home. It reminded me of who I was.
Afterwards I was expected to be put on display. I didn't smile but it didn't matter. That apparently was part of the image that they'd grown to love about me and every time I glared at one of the Capitol people placed before me they would shrink back and shudder with delight. I was their adrenalin rush.
I felt a cool hand on the small of my back and the only thing stopping me from twisting away was the overpowering smell of roses that I had noticed as President Snow placed the crown on my head. A moment later I felt him fall into place next to me, smiling vaguely out at the crowd.
"You gave us quite a show my dear," he murmured in my ear. I didn't reply but looked out over the people as well. I couldn't be impolite to this man and I certainly couldn't injure him as I wanted to, but that didn't mean that I had to smile and flutter my eyelashes. He turned slightly to face me and I was forced to meet his eyes. They were steel grey and icy cold. They flickered down to my mouth for a moment and I saw him smile. "We should talk to the beauticians about a permanent reminder of your courage, don't you think?"
I gave him a tense smile that didn't reach my eyes, even though I had no idea what he was talking about. He chuckled like he knew that I was clueless and glanced away at the crowd again. There was no one else around us now. They had all dispersed into the throng as he arrived, leaving him to talk to me in privacy. I almost wished my prep team would come back. The President's hand was still placed lightly on my back in a gesture far too intimate and I had to grit my teeth to keep myself in place.
He gazed out over the crowd for a few silent moments. Something in his gaze was almost adoring. He was like a grandfather, watching as his grandchildren and great grandchildren played around him. He was a man watching his future and knowing he had prepared it will for the world.
After a while he pulled his eyes from them and fixed his gaze back on me with a look that was far from fatherly. His eyes were appraising. "You're very popular here, Miss Reyes," he said quietly. His voice was as smooth as silk and sent a shiver down my spine. "There are many of my people who...adore you a great deal." I stared back at him. I didn't understand what he was getting at but I wasn't going to question him. If he wanted me to understand he could explain it clearly, none of these riddles. He seemed amused by my defiance because a small smile twisted his lips. He reached out and I felt his long, cold fingers on the skin of my collarbone as he brushed a tendril of hair away from my neck and the scarlet choker there. He admired it for a few moments. If he had been anyone else he would have lost their fingers but instead I kept my body rigidly still and stared stonily at the tie around his neck. "I think..." he said softly again, leaning forwards so his words slipped over my skin in a breath, "that when you get an invitation from me to attend a special party, I think that you should accept. I think your sister would want you to accept it...what is her name? Clove?" I looked up and met his eyes at the mention of her name and although I didn't understand what he wanted from me the threat in his words was crystal clear. His face in front of me wavered slightly as my heartbeat picked up in panic again. Not now. I'd come so far to make sure she was safe. He was watching me expectantly and so I forced my muscles to work, nodding my head stiffly. He let out a low exhale and I felt his breath against the bare skin of my shoulders. "Excellent," he breathed, and then he was gone.
I turned stiffly towards the crowd, watching him glide through his people. He paused here to touch someone on the shoulder, hesitated there to offer a kind word. They adored him and he adored them. None of them had any idea what he had just said to me but my entire body was as cold as ice and when I lifted one of my hands to brush at my skin, certain I could still feel his fingers on me, my hand was trembling. Through the crowd I caught Domitius' eye and knew that he had been watching us. I turned away, not wanting him to see in my face the fear and weakness that Snow's words had inspired in me. I wondered how much he knew anyway. He had been a Victor, a mentor, a trainer. He must know that Victory didn't mean freedom or safety.
Yet he'd never told me.
Without looking back I walked out of my own Victory Ball. I could feel eyes on my back as I strode from the room in my silky black dress, I just didn't know anymore which eyes were friends and which were foes. All I wanted was to go home and see Clove and know that all of this wasn't going to be for nothing.
I had thought that winning would be the end. I had thought it would mean that I could leave behind my childhood of fear and weakness and pain. But as I walked through the deserted hallways of the Capitol building I knew that it was far from over. This was only the beginning.
A/N: And that, my dears, is the end!
I just want to say a massive, ginormous, gigantious thank-you to everyone and anyone who has reviewed. There are not words for how appreciative I am.
There will be part two beginning shortly, as a new story, so make sure to keep an eye out. I'd love to see you all there.