Beetee must feel me tense because he cautiously takes my hand and squeezes lightly.
"It's ok Wiress. The worst is over, you managed just fine. I'll be there beside you tonight."
"But I can't…what if…"
"Don't worry. The people of the Capitol love nothing more than to hear themselves talk. Most of them won't even notice. As for the rest, well, I'll explain it to them. We'll worry about tomorrow tomorrow."
"Thanks," I whisper. My mouth has suddenly gone dry. I just want to crawl into bed and sleep. Let these people spend days starving and fighting for their lives and see if they want to stand around at a party.
I swallow hard and try to put on a friendly expression as we get out. Some of these people did save me after all. And some of them wanted the others to win. No point making them like me less.
Thankfully, Beetee's comment is accurate, and I spend most of the night smiling and listening. I'm officially introduced to plump Plutarch and his grey-haired father, who sponsored the painkiller and bandage. They also chipped in a little towards the antidote to the flowers. Yellan Garfunkel's money also went to that, a fact he mentions no less than seven times during our conversation.
Dido, whose skin is bleached white and wears silver chains from her ears to her nose called him eccentric. She didn't mention he was incredibly vain and so convinced of his importance that he could have sat on his ego. Even so, I like him more than many of the others because he chose to help me.
Certainly much more than the Redferns. Beetee did end up going to them as well for that one tiny bottle. It was only a small contribution by their standards, enough to feed our entire apartment block back home for a few months. Minister Redfern says she looks forward to meeting me again in the near future and that I might be able to assist them with a few things. I try not to look into her eyes. They're cold like mine were when I killed Jasper.
I don't mind Clara though. She actually gives me a chance to reply, and when Beetee explains my problem she immediately promises to look into various cures. The whole time she clasps my hand like a sister and I force down the impulse to tug free or lash out for nearly fifteen minutes. With darker hair and eyes, a slightly longer nose and freckles she would be the mirror of Francis.
At least a dozen people tell me they were hoping for one of the pretty boys to win, twin girls about my age glare at me while wearing butterfly tattoos and an older man tries stroking my hair from behind. If I'd been faster I might have broken his fingers. Beetee apologises for me and drags me across the hall to the food tables.
The night becomes one big blur and the clock is chiming three in the morning when we finally escape. I don't remember passing out in the car, which is probably good since I doubt Beetee carried me up. If I'd woken in a strange man's arms I would probably have tried to kill him too.
That's the problem with killing and violence. Once you've done it, it becomes too easy to do again. I stare at my hands, my smooth golden hands that shine in the morning light. The slight tremble has nothing to do with thoughts of killing. I am a monster of the games after all, though not as much of a monster as Jasper or Sparrow became.
That thought alone gets me out of bed and I wander down to the dining room where breakfast is already laid out. Cupros is reading a newspaper and guzzling coffee. I let the Avox load up a bowl of fruit and yoghurt for me. It's the same man who was in here before the Games and he remembers which fruits are my favourites. He also pours me a glass of apple juice when my trembling hand nearly up-ends the pitcher.
I dimly remember seeing Cupros at the banquet early on in the night. He doesn't look particularly hung-over today. Maybe the knowledge that he won't be back here next year was enough to limit his drinking. He doesn't speak so I don't either. Just sit and eat my breakfast like nothing has changed. Like I haven't hunted and killed since the last time I ate here.
Finally he sighs and tosses the paper down. I only jump a little; I must be getting better. The front cover is President Snow crowning me. My empty eyes stare back from the glossy image. There is a full analysis of my arsenal of traps and creations on pages 3 and 4 and five reasons why I'm a better winner than Jasper on page 7. I push it and the half-eaten bowl away.
"It takes a bit to eat normally again."
I'm not sure anything will go back to normal again.
"One more day and you'll be home. It gets better."
Says the man who drinks himself into a stupor every year on screen, who turns up to district events unkempt and unshaven, always sharp-tongued and grouchy. It this is better I don't want to see worse.
He must see something in my face that tells him what I'm thinking because he grimaces and says, "You're doing a helluva lot better than Beetee did."
The disbelief must also show and he adds, "One of his prep team looked like the girl from Two that year. He stabbed her with a file during the ceremony prep and she nearly lost the eye. I had to pin him down for an hour before he got back to where I could reason with him."
He absently rubs his shoulder and I wonder if he got stabbed too. Beetee was only thirteen when he…survived. Then again I saw last night how much damage a thirteen-year-old boy can do.
"Look, I saw you last night talking to the Redfern girl, and she looks as much like Waverley as Riococia did like Cicely. You didn't try to attack her."
I also didn't kill her. Not directly. And it was a close thing last night as well. There were a few times when I "nearly lashed out."
"But you didn't. Good thing too. The Redferns would have…well."
Hitting important people is bad. I nod and he gives me one of his twisted half-smiles, as though he forgot how to do the real thing a long time ago. Too many years of watching over the dead.
My prep team arrives with another burst of color and chatter. I let them drag me away to poke and prod while I stare at the face of the girl I'm not sure I recognize in the mirror. She looks like me on the outside, but there's something not quite right under the surface. I can see it in the involuntary movements, in the glazed eyes, in the way she clenches her fingers. It should bother me a lot more than it does but the same numbness that has taken over me since I woke in the white room keeps me still. Numbness to pain, to violence, to death. It was before the white room, back in the arena when I stopped caring about the deaths. Without it I'm not sure I would have survived the viewing, or the Games at all for that matter. I'll need it again today while we talk about my 'victory'.
At one point Marius disappears to find a different shade of some powder and Juliette steps out to fetch Dido, leaving Lorcan to keep me from doing anything stupid. I see his reflection open its mouth then close it a few times with a shake of his head as he adjusts the copper flowers now growing in my dark waves. Marius and Juliette have been their same talkative, excited selves but Lorcan seems to be more wary of me.
I'm not sure it it's because we're alone or because he saw me knife a boy not much younger than himself on television. The fourth time he opens his mouth I catch his eye in the mirror and he looks away first, hands shaking slightly. Maybe he heard about Beetee stabbing the woman from his prep team and thinks I might try the same. Not that there is anything in reach I could use to stab him. Even the comb handle on the table is only slightly pointed and too far away to grab while sitting.
He must see the movement of my eyes because he slowly reaches out and shifts the comb further away. This time he meets my look and stays there, just out of reach.
"It's worse than it looks isn't it?"
I'm not sure what I'm supposed to say here. What's worse? The Arena? Living with the knowledge that others have died at your hands so that you can live? The Games as a whole?
I guess the answer to all of the above is the same.
In the mirror his hand reaches out, slowly, slowly and touches my neck, near where I stabbed Jasper. I don't flinch. Don't lash out. Just let my copper-coated nails dig into my palms until the door sweeps open and he is suddenly adjusting the flowers in my hair again.
As mentioned yesterday the dress is green. Layers of green like the hedges with tiny flowers sewn here and there. Like everything else I have worn it covers me well past the point of modesty, for which I am immensely grateful. Let them remember me as an intelligent and distant killer; it's better than having creepy old men paw at my hair.
The interview takes place in the lounge room with its wonderful view of the city through the balcony doors. The camera people are still setting up and Caesar has Beetee pinned in the corner, chatting amicably away. He doesn't seem to notice how Beetee pulls away from the hand on his arm, how his fingers clench and his blinking increases as he tries to draw away. I understand now why the contact bothers him. It's not about them touching us; it's about us trying not to hurt them. They don't understand that we are killers. We survived on instinct and violence and they want to pin us down like trained animals, like pets to dance for their amusement. No-one who has survived what I survived would be tame.
Ceasar does let go once he sees my reflection in the windows and hurries over to bestow a fatherly hug. He doesn't grab me tightly though. Too experienced for that. I guess he doesn't realise how little the killer instinct wanes over time. Will I still instinctively lash out at people ten, twenty years from now? I hope not.
"So Wiress, Beetee here says you're a little worried about talking?"
He leads me to the chair by the hand like a small child and I let him. It's ok if I can see where he is and what he is doing with his hands.
"I…I seem to be…struggling…"
"With finishing your sentences. Yes, yes, he mentioned. Not to worry my dear, that's what I'm here for."
He pats my hand and gives that flashing white grin so famous for nearly twenty years. He's been hosting the games longer than I've been alive. Might have even been alive during the dark days. No-one knows his age and his face hasn't changed at all in the years I've been watching. For all we know he might be a Capitol creation, an eternal mutt who exists for the sole purpose of presenting the annual sacrifices to the nation. Just another monster who…
There's a hand waving in front of my eyes. Pain in my arms where the copper fingernails have dug in. From the corner Juliette gives a long-suffering sigh and brings over the powders and creams.
"Well," says Caesar, who has lost some of the polished smile. He's also no longer touching me. Doesn't want to catch my sickness.
"There's no way you can film now and broadcast later?" Beetee asks, though he doesn't look hopeful.
"Our honored president and extended audience are expecting a live interview and we would do well not to disappoint them."
He sighs heavily, reaches out to pat my hand again and thinks better of it. Juliette takes charge of my arms and begins erasing the red welts while Caesar continues.
"If you are really struggling I will end it early, provided we have made it through a few salient questions. Is there anything that would help keep your focus?"
If the questions involved a circuit diagram or design draft I could manage fine. If they wanted me to take apart and rebuild the electronics in the apartment I would focus without issue. But talking? Talking has never been my strong point. Apart from a handful of teachers and school mates the only people I speak easily with are "my family. Balia. Ezra."
Caesar smiles again and it actually looks sincere. "Your sister Balia seemed lovely in the interviews in District Three. A most charming young lady. And Ezra was very well spoken and praised you highly. The people of Panem will undoubtedly want to hear about them, but they can't be the only topic."
He continues smiling at me, waiting, I realise for other suggestions.
"Yes, we could work those around to a discussion of your snares and that wonderful crossbow you constructed. Anything else?"
Isn't that enough? Victor or not, I doubt I'm interesting enough for people to want to watch for hours. Not that they have a choice. Choices. The way I chose my path, like "a circuit board. The pathways."
His eyebrows shoot up, as do Beetee's behind him.
"Is that how you navigated the maze? Oh yes, we can most definitely work that in. There will have to be something about the end, but we'll leave that for last. Just remember your brother and sister are watching."
Everyone will be watching their newest Victor revel in their glory. I try not to snort.
The moment Juliette finishes with my arms the camera crew fire up their weapons and we are suddenly live and talking.
It's not so bad in the end. Caesar asks open-ended questions where he can and lets me segue into areas that make me feel comfortable whenever the panic sets in. I even manage several sentences when we get onto how I mapped out the maze and Caesar expresses suitable admiration.
Finally the turn comes to what I was dreading and I can feel my whole body tensing, hands scrabbling for something to hold on to. I can only hope the couch isn't too expensive when the copper ovals puncture the surface.
"And what were you thinking the morning of the feast?"
Deep breath and answer.
I can feel the terror burning up my throat and hear the couch rip a little more.
"Scared? Or prepared to win?"
Too choked to answer. I force a nod.
"It was a clever tactic to let the stronger tributes fight first. Hiding in the Cornucopia, brilliant. Brilliant."
A flash of white. His teeth or the teeth of a monster, come to eat me. I can't breathe, can't breathe…
"..Balia was thinking when this happened. Or your brother Ezra? Did thinking of them help you win?"
Clever Caesar. Just hearing their names drags me back to reality. And he's right, I was thinking of my family at the end.
"I…I thought of…Balia. She's only tw-thirteen, like S…Sparrow. He killed her…him. He killed Sparrow. It could have been her. It could have been..."
"Balia," He finishes for me, then turns to the camera.
"A courageous Victor who won through her vast intelligence and determination to return to her beloved family. I'm sure we all can't wait to see what she does as a mentor next year. Ladies and gentlemen of Panem, I give you our Victor of the Forty-eighth annual Hunger Games, Wiress LING! This is Caesar Flickerman signing out for another year."
The cameras stop rolling and I dig the copper nails out of the material. One snags and pops off when I tug too sharply. Juliette wails and starts tutting while I sit there and stare at the plain white nail below. A small part of the old me that still remains. Hopefully I find more parts when I get home.
By late afternoon we're on the train, on our way home. Carmenius didn't bother seeing us off much to our mutual delight. Now that he finally has his Victor he might retire or move up to a better district. I doubt he'll be back in Three. Surely our next escort can't be worse.
Beetee, Cupros and I while away the time in the dining carriage, picking over the fresh fruits and sweet pastries on display. Victors eat better than anyone in the Districts, but luxuries can be hard to get all the time. A few hours in Beetee shifts around his scribbled notes that I've been sneaking peeks at from the corner of my eye to show a different and more familiar hand.
"Oh, yes. Would you like these back?"
Beetee passes over my scribblings from that last night before the Arena. The poorly-sketched faces of my family. My assignment. I'll keep that one for Miss Tafter. I wonder if they'll let me finish up at school this year and next. Victors don't have to. Beetee didn't. I might skip the regular schooling, but see if I can continue in SSI. I already miss being in the workshop.
Hand on arm. Pen on table. Paper in hand. Deep breaths, deep breaths.
I shake my head and the panic clears. The drawing of Malcy and Mother is torn in two, as is the letter.
He laughs weakly and says, "I guess that's a no. Keep the assignment though, I'll see that it gets to Kona…Miss Tafter."
"To go back? It's probably not the best idea."
"I want to…to..try. The workshop…"
"Might help you relax. Hmmm." He rubs his chin thoughtfully. "Yes, perhaps remaining in the advanced classes would help, though I would advise not…"
"No normal school."
"Yes, good. I'll call Kona tomorrow, first thing. And if not, well, you're welcome to make use of my workshop until you complete your own."
My own workshop? Full of my tools and projects, my Talent, just like Beetee. I can spend the rest of my life with my machines and circuitry, all but a month of each year. No more hours in the factory or in the cramped design offices. Eleven months of bliss and freedom. Perhaps in a few years it will feel like it was worth the cost.
I see our district rise up from a distance, grey lumps over the flat, dry wastelands that surround us. A flash of metal here and there where the steel hasn't been completely dulled by the smog and ash of the factories. The late afternoon sun back to its familiar orange-red tinge through the greasy gray clouds. Home sweet home.
The platform is packed with a sea of dark heads, the odd fair-haired citizen standing out like streetlamps on a shadowed street. The faces are a blur, everyone the same, a wall of mechanical men and women and children lining the tracks.
They are cheering, of course; on camera they could do little else. And they are probably happy as my victory brings food and money to the district for the next eleven months. The train stops moving and suddenly I don't want to leave.
What if they hate me? Or fear me? Treat me like the monster I am. Why can't I stay here in the train where at least Beetee and Cupros understand. But I do want to see them again. My family. I need to know one way or another, will they still want me or will I live out my days in my new house alone.
The door opens and I can feel the weight of Beetee's presence behind me, urging me on. He probably wants to get back to his workshop, to start forgetting again until the next time rolls around.
I smile for the cameras that are flashing and rolling, clutching the ring strung around my neck still. I'll have to give it back to Ezra, but maybe I can make a pendant of my own.
Suddenly I'm breathless, gasping for air as something small and solid clings to my lower half. For a moment I panic until I recognize the dark curls tumbling down. Ezra grabs me next, tucking himself behind Balia so they are both hugging me. My parents on either side, holding me there where I can't breathe, I'm trapped…
Beetee murmurs something and they slowly untangle themselves, though Balia keeps her arm wrapped around my waist, leaning her head against my arm. Three steps behind them Pella has a loose grip on Malcy, who is frowning in concentration. He tugs free of her hand and wanders forwards and I kneel so I can meet him.
"It's me Malcy," I whisper and he lets me hug him the way Balia does. Behind him Pella is actually smiling, tears on her face. The warm, dry wind of the district carries the cheers of the people through the familiar gray streets as my family surrounds me.
I am home.
Thanks to those of you who have followed Wiress on her journey. I don't intend for it to end here and have already started plotting out a sequel, which will probably cover the 49th and 50th games. However RL has intruded on my writing time again, so it will probably be a month or two before I have enough to start posting.
If you're looking for more wonderful HG ff in the interim, I can recommend looking up FernWithy either here on or at her livejournal. I've been following her work for nearly a decade now, originally through the HP fandom, but she's taken up HG in the last year and is simply the most talented ff author I've ever read.
Until the next time, thanks for reading and reviewing, and may the odds be ever in your favor.