I slowly come to a groggy awareness. I don't know how long I've been out. The drugs still hold me down in sleep, but I fight them, dragging myself up to consciousness. I wake up and find myself strapped down, hands and ankles pinned in place and a metal band across my chest. Fear overwhelms me and I struggle to pull free, not caring that I'm rubbing my skin raw. Something floods my system, a cool, heavy feeling that pushes me back into the dark.
I wake up again. I'm still strapped down and my instinct is to fight my way free, but I push down the panic and evaluate the situation. I'm in a pale, sterile room with no doors or windows. I'm wearing a thin gown made of paper and I've got tubes strapped to my arm. Everything's so foreign and strange that it takes a moment for me to realize what really feels off. There's no pain. No cuts, no burned flesh, no aching head. Even the skin I scrapped on the restraints has been healed.
Talia's sitting next to the bed in a plastic chair painted the same color as the walls. "Jason," she says softly. She reaches for my hand and gives it a light squeeze. "Do you know where you are?"
"The Capitol," I say. "In a hospital?"
She nods. "Yes. You're out of the Arena. The Games are over." She says it in a careful, pointed way, like she's talking to a child, but there's something under her words. I'm not her only audience. Others must be watching and listening to us, but I don't know what she's afraid they'll see.
I nod, since she seems to expect a response.
"Good." She smiles and lets my hand go. A panel slides open on the wall and I try to see what's beyond it, but I just see more pale walls. A nurse enters the room. He approaches the bed slowly, watching me intently. I don't know what he thinks I'll do when my body's strapped down.
"Boo," I say, just to see, and he jumps.
"Jason," Talia scolds.
"Don't worry," I say to the nurse. "I know the Games are over now. I don't need to stab any more people." I give him a big smile. Oddly, he's not reassured. He scuttles back out of the room and the panel shuts. A moment later, another nurse enters. She's several decades older than the previous one and doesn't look like she's easily spooked. I let her remove the tubes from my arm without comment.
"Let's get you out of here," Talia says. The metal bands suddenly retract into the bed, which confirms that we're being watched. I push myself up and realize I'm very weak. I'm not sure I can stand, let alone fight.
"How long has it been?" I ask.
"Three days since you were lifted from the Arena," Talia says.
I hold up both my hands and turn them over. There's no scarring and no melted skin. I study my hands closer and notice that all my scars are gone. The thin, white one on my thumb, where my hand slipped on the cutting blade at work. I was beaten for getting my red blood all over the white fabric. The faded one across my palm from when I was five and tried to grab a pan off the hot stove. The rough patch on my forearm I got when my dad and I were playing in the alley and I took a bad fall in the gravel.
"Get dressed and come on out," Talia says. She pats my leg and leaves me alone in the room. There's clothing on the bed, the same uniform I wore in the Arena, only this one's fresh, clean and undamaged. I study my hands again. Nothing to show I'd been in the Arena at all.
I pull on the clothes and I'm glad to find I'm a little stronger than I thought. I need to eat though. I look around for my pack, remembering that I filled it with food. But I'm a victor. I'm not supposed to go hungry anymore. I go to find Talia.
The panel on the wall slides open before I can touch it. Talia's in a room at the end of the hall. She's waiting with my escort, Rutilius, an older man with silver-blue tattoos to match his silver-blue hair and my stylist, Ceria, whose hair and eyelashes are dyed a dark magenta.
They all give me hugs and congratulate me. Oddly, I'm glad to see them. Stuffy, impatient Rutilius and obsessively picky Ceria drove me nuts before the Games, but they're still vaguely familiar faces in a very strange place.
"They gave you a full body polish," Ceria says. She tilts her head and looks me over from head to foot. "Let me see your hands." I hold them up. My nails have been cleaned, filed and buffed. "Well, you're too thin, but your outfit for the ceremony will give you a bit more bulk."
"Marvelous," I say. "I'd hate for everyone to think you've been starving me."
Ceria gives me an unimpressed look.
"Let's get some food," Talia suggests. She links her arm in mine and guides me to an elevator. We emerge in the District Eight apartment in the Training Center.
The dining room table's piled high with food, but I'm only permitted a small bowl of soup and a fresh roll. I discover it's enough to fill my empty stomach, but I still slip two rolls into my pocket for later. When Rutilius is telling a clever story and all the attention's on him, I take the chance to slip a table knife in my pocket as well.
Zoanne was at this table the last time we were all together. No one mentions her name.
The prep team arrives and I get up for my afternoon of being plucked, scrubbed and styled. Talia puts a hand on my arm. "Remember," she says quietly. "We still need a Capitol patron to help your mother. I know someone and you'll meet him tonight, but nothing's set in stone yet. Keep that in mind."
I give her a tired smile. "I'll be on my best behavior."
"Leave the knives behind," she suggests and holds out her hand.
"Just for you," I say. I give her the table knife.
The crowd roars when I come out on stage. If Joker had won, you'd be cheering him, too, I think. I paste on a smile and wave to the audience. My heart's pounding, the lights are blinding and I can hear people screaming, laughing, shouting my name. I throw out a few obscene gestures, but I do it between smiles and waves, so the audience just laughs and cheers.
Someone pushes me towards the victor's chair and I stumble to my seat. I brace myself, knowing I'm going to watch Bart and Roy die again and it's going to be bad.
I forgot that I'm going to see them alive again, too. I watch as their names are drawn in the Reaping. Bart's startled and confused, looking around at his friends for confirmation. Roy's mouth sets in a thin line. He looks grim, stoic, even, but I can tell from how he's holding his fists that he's terrified. Clips play from their interviews, where Bart talks a mile a minute and Roy smirks at the crowd. I feel my chest tighten again when I see him there, wearing a red suit, his hair slicked back and his freckles nearly invisible in the stage lights. I barely noticed him the first time, except to size up a potential threat. Now I see the way his fingers drum on the arm of the chair and remember what it was like when he touched me.
Then there's a boy on stage in a black leather jacket who jokes with the interviewer and tells a story about facing down a gang in streets of District Eight. The story's true, mostly, though the kids were younger and not nearly as big as I tried to make them sound. Talia liked the story, though, and Rutilius agreed that it made me sound tough. Part of the image they sold the sponsors: ruthless, streetwise Jason Todd. I never mentioned my mom.
The Games start. I see the joy Joker takes in killing his opponents and I know that's one death I'll never be sorry about. He laughs, twirls and splatters blood all around him and the audience laughs along with him.
I rescue Bart twice and we join up with Roy. Floyd from District Four negotiates a deal with the kids from One and Two. Cheshire slips into their camp at night and sets fire to a barrel of cooking oil, destroying the bulk of their supplies. We see the kids from One, Two and Four picking through the ashes and moving to a new camp. Cheshire kills a snake for its venom.
Deaths that were just faces in the sky are now vivid, full-screen nightmares. The boy from Twelve dies in that horrible, golden fog, ripping out his own throat to stop the pain. The girl from Ten succumbs to one of Cheshire's darts.
Bart takes the crossbow bolt to his lungs and the audience quiets down to a low murmur. I'm cold and calculating, looting the bodies, while Roy tries to comfort the dying boy. The boy who trusted me to protect him.
It's jarring to watch Roy and I suddenly lock lips while Bart's corpse is only a few feet away. Shame burns my face. We didn't even wait until his body was lifted from the Arena. I can't make myself regret it. I wish I'd kissed Roy sooner. More often. Or maybe not at all. I'm not sure if any of the choices I made in the Arena were the right ones.
I watch Roy and I split up. He battles the girl from Nine. One of her eyes is swollen and bruised and I remember that Bart stuck his thumb in her eye. Roy takes advantage of this, coming at her from her weak side. She gets a couple of good hits on him with her sword, but Roy disarms her and cuts her throat. The cameras don't linger on him, but I see the expression on his face when he kills her. I could have killed her myself and saved him that small bit of pain.
But I was getting pinned down to die in the desert. They show me getting captured by Joker and Harley, them beating me and tying me down. Joker taunts me again and my hand goes to the empty spot at my throat. I never got my robin back.
Finally, Roy rescues me. He takes care of me, gets me to drink water and rubs me down with the burn lotion. The scene shifts to nighttime and Roy and I are in front of our little rock alcove. I'm guiding his hands and taking off my clothes. I sit on the stage in front of the Capitol audience, my face hot with humiliation. I knew people were watching, of course, but they weren't important at the time. Now Roy's dead and the audience is watching our most private moments and making appreciative noises. I dig my fingers into the arms of the chair. My vision blurs with rage. I could dive off the stage right now, probably take a few of them out with my bare hands before the Peacekeepers shot me down. I force myself to breathe in and out, slow, focused movement of air through my lungs. If I kill any more people, I won't get a Capitol patron. If I kill audience members, my mother will die.
On the screen, I fall asleep in Roy's arms and I expect them to cut away to something more interesting. But when the scene shifts, it's just me and Roy later that night. I frown. I don't remember anything happening then. I'm just sleeping… and then I see my arms lash out and I let out a cry in my sleep. Roy strokes my arm. "You're okay, Jason," he whispers. I calm down and fall into deep sleep. The audience lets out a collective "awwwww".
The rage rises again, but it's different now. It pushes inward and twists my stomach into knots. I didn't know. Everyone else watched and knew, except me. I didn't know I'd trusted him that much. It was real. It was real for me. I didn't know.
The camera keeps catching him giving me soft smiles when I'm looking the other way. I see the moment where we discovered the water was gone and from the way the camera lingers on me, everyone knew I was thinking of killing him. He never would have killed me.
They show Joker's death. Harley's death. I lean forward, press my hands over my ears and close my eyes. It doesn't help. I can hear every sound and I know what the screens are showing. Cheshire's death. The look on Roy's face when he killed her. He could have shot either of us, or both. Why did he choose me? Because she'd already killed him?
Roy's dying now. I squeeze my eyes tighter and keep my head lowered.
"Help him! Help him, please!" my voice begs, and a few moments later, a broken, "No!" A few audience members start clapping, then others join in and it becomes a huge round of applause. For my victory. For Roy's death.
The lighting shifts and I lift my head. President Snow comes on stage to crown me. She's flanked by Peacekeepers in full dress uniform. The "honor guard" is here to keep me from killing her. I calculate the odds that they'd succeed.
She makes a short, flowery speech and places the crown on my head. We're so close I can see a loose eyelash on her cheek. We look into each other's eyes. She knows I want to kill her. She believes I won't dare, that I won't squeeze her throat with my manicured, unscarred hands.
She congratulates me, shakes my hand, then turns her back and walks away, unharmed. Even after everything, her death would cost more than I can afford.
Rutilius sweeps in as soon as I'm off the stage and I'm herded into a car with Talia. She touches my leg. "Jason-" she begins.
"Don't," I say, my throat tight.
She nods. "I can give you something to get you through the evening." The Victory Banquet. It isn't over yet.
I shake my head. "No. I can do this." I can't be drugged. I need to keep my head clear.
"This time tomorrow, we'll be on our way home," she says. She means it to be encouraging, but I just hear that there's twenty-four more hours of this.
The party is at the President's mansion, but the President herself is nowhere in sight. Talia introduces me to a dozen sponsors, all done up in their strangest finery for the occasion. Strange to me, at least. Maybe it's what they wear to the corner store.
They ask me to take photos with them. I grit my teeth and pose as requested. After the second one, Talia leans over and whispers, "They saved your life, darling, try to fake a smile."
I'm pretty sure it's more of a grimace, but I do my best and the Capitol citizens don't seem to notice a problem. I nearly lose it, though, when a chubby guy with blue tattoos slaps a table knife in my hand and says, "Pretend like you're stabbing me!"
Talia wraps her hand around mine and pries the knife from it. "Oh, no, that doesn't look right at all. Here, try this." She pushes a curvy breadstick in my hand instead. After the photo's taken, I open my hand and I've crushed the breadstick to crumbs. I try to eat what's left of it anyway, but it sticks in my throat and I nearly gag. I spit it into a napkin and Talia presses a glass of wine into my hand. "Let's keep something in your hand for the rest of the pictures, okay?" she suggests. I nod.
"Talia!" a man says. "It is wonderful to see you again." I look over at a tall, broad-shouldered man coming our way. He's wearing a black suit with yellow highlights and a long, black cape. He's eclipsed, fashion-wise, by the young man with him who's wearing an outfit made entirely of feathers. It's blue, with a yellow chevron across his chest and yellow feathers dripping from the undersides of his arms, like wings. I'm not sure if he's wearing a bodysuit under the feathers or if his skin's dyed blue.
"Bruce! Come meet Jason," Talia says. She and Bruce kiss each other's cheeks in greeting. "Jason, this is Bruce Wayne. He was your biggest sponsor."
"Jason, it's great to finally meet you." Bruce shakes my hand. "Good job out there. This is my son, Dick." He gestures to the blue-feathered guy, who also shakes my hand. "And my son, Tim… where's Tim?" A boy, about fourteen, slips free of the crowd and joins us. He's dressed all in feathers, too, like his brother, though his are black and red. His are sewn to a visible bodysuit. Guess he's more modest than Dick. "Tim, this is Jason."
"Hi." Tim offers his hand. He's got wide, earnest blue eyes. "You were really great."
"Thanks," I say. I give him a brusque handshake. He picks up on the ice in my voice and his shoulders hunch in slightly. Dick touches Tim on the shoulder and gives me a cold look.
"Let's find a quieter place to talk," Talia suggests. She leads us out to a balcony. "Bruce has expressed an interest in helping your mother."
"I was touched to hear of your situation," Bruce says. "I'll do whatever I can to help."
I guess I shouldn't stab him then. "Thanks," I say. I take a long drink from the wineglass. "You want a photo or something?"
"Absolutely." Bruce drapes an arm around my shoulder. His two birdboys stand on the other side, close, but not touching me. I grit my teeth and grimace at the camera until Bruce removes his arm. "There's one for the scrapbooks," he says. "Shall we send you a copy?"
"Oh, don't worry about it," Talia says. "I've arranged for Jason to get a book of all his photos so he won't forget his time here in the Capitol." She shoos the photographer away.
"Did you win a lot of money?" I ask Bruce brightly.
"Betting on me," I say.
"Oh!" Bruce says. "Yes, I'm very pleased with the outcome of the Games."
Roy's body going limp as he dies in my arms.
I punch him.
Bruce stumbles back, putting a hand to his jaw, and I feel my spine go ice cold. Birdboy Senior steps in front of his father and I realize his lithe body is solid muscle.
I step back and hold up my hands. "I-I'm sorry," I say, knowing it's too late to take it back. After all I've done, I've killed any chance of saving my mother. "Please. I'm sorry. I didn't mean it."
Talia sighs and takes a sip of her wine. "We have got to work on your temper, Jason."
Bruce taps his son on the shoulder. Dick relaxes and steps aside. "You did mean it. I'm sorry, Jason, that was a cruel thing for me to say. I am pleased that you survived the Games. I would have liked - " His eyes flicker to the side for just an instant. "Your friends were good boys, and I understand that you grieve for them."
I shake my head. "They weren't my friends. I barely knew them."
"You knew them well enough," Bruce says.
I clench my fists. If that's a dig at what happened between Roy and me….
Talia touches my arm. "Jason," she says. "Give him a chance."
Bruce doesn't look like he's mocking me. I take a deep breath and loosen my fists. He took the first punch better than I'd thought, but I probably shouldn't push my luck and hit him again.
Rutilius slides the balcony door open and sticks his head out. "Everything all right out here?"
"Excellent!" Bruce shifts moods instantly, now boisterous and jolly. "Jason here gave me a demonstration of his right hook and wow, he packs a punch." Rutilius glares at me and Bruce waves a hand in the air. "No, no, don't give the boy a hard time. I did ask him to do it; wasn't expecting him to have so much strength. Be a good fellow and send over an Avox with some ice, will you?" Rutilius takes that as a dismissal and goes back inside.
I look over at Tim, Birdboy Junior, who has been quiet this whole time. He's got his chin in the air and a bland, neutral expression, which makes me think his father does these rapid personality changes frequently. No one on the balcony seems fazed by it.
"I will arrange for your mother's treatment," Bruce says, now serious again. "Do you want a little time to get settled at home or would you prefer we start immediately?"
"As soon as possible," I say, cautiously, not sure if he's genuine.
Bruce nods. "It will take me a few days to make arrangements. Go home as planned, have your celebration, and I'll send you notice once everything's set. You'll stay with us while your mother's in the hospital. I'll have a room prepared."
An Avox girl opens the balcony door and presents Bruce with a blue gel pack on a silver tray. He picks it up and presses it to his jaw. "Ah, that's much better. Well, I can't monopolize all your time, Jason. I look forward to seeing you when you return to the Capitol." He shakes my hand again and he and his sons return to the party.
"Do you think you can refrain from hitting anyone else this evening?" Talia asks.
I frown. "Maybe."
"Make a good effort," she orders.
It helps, knowing that my mother's going to be safe. I manage to make it through the rest of that horrible part without stabbing, punching, or even swearing at the Capitol citizens who treat me like a fascinating, well-trained pet.
We return to the Training Center. The knife Talia confiscated from me is sitting on the dresser, but there's something else as well. I pick it up. Most of the grime and blood have been wiped off, but the stains on the twine run deep. Roy's district token. The simple wooden arrow, carved by his sister and painted red.
My hand's shaking when I pick it up. I press it into the palm of my hand and wrap the twine around my fingers so I won't lose it. I take the knife in my other hand. It's polished silver, not made for fighting, but it's got a point and an edge. I sit down against the wall, knees up to my chest and wait there.
That's how I spend the night. I wake up with someone standing over me and scare the crap out of the poor Avox they sent to wake me. I realize who he is just in time and pull back my arm. The knife catches on his pants fabric, tearing a long gash. "Sorry," I say. "I just… sorry."
He nods and gives me an understanding look. I hope he doesn't get in trouble for the torn clothes.
I dress. I eat. I snag another knife from the breakfast table. I get poked and prodded and styled by the prep team. Talia confiscates both of my knives. We get sandwiches for lunch, served without silverware. A crew hauls in cameras, lights and equipment and sets up in the sitting room.
I take a deep breath and look to Talia for any final instruction. She gives me a kiss on the cheek. "Entertain them, darling." They push me into an overstuffed chair, turn on the cameras and we go live all over Panem with my post-Games interview.
Julius Flickerman starts off easy, asking questions about my stylist and the Capitol, but he moves into the Games pretty quickly. He asks about my strategy, about what worked and what got tossed out the window the minute the gong sounded. Then he asks about Bart. "What motivated you to take on a twelve-year-old boy as an ally?"
"Well, Julius," I say. "It looks pretty easy to kill someone when you see it on TV, and I'll admit, it's not too difficult if you know where to put the blade. But when you've actually got a kid in front of you, twelve years old, never hurt anyone, didn't ask to be there and you've got a split second to decide whether to slice him open or not, I tell you, it's fucking brutal." I pause. "Wait, can I swear?"
"Say whatever you like, Jason, it's your show." Julius is a pro. His dad used to do these interviews before him. He grew up on TV and probably wouldn't blink if you assassinated the president in front of him. He gives me a perfect television smile.
"Worked out, though." I say. "For me, I mean. He saved my life with those rocks. Pretty much all the same to him in the end."
Julius steers the conversation into a discussion of the arena and the dangers we faced. We talk about a few other things until he comes around to Roy.
"Let me ask you something, Jason - you don't mind if we get personal, do you?"
That's cute, that he asks me. "No, go ahead."
"How long have you known you were attracted to other boys?"
"Roy was the first guy I kissed," I say.
"Have you kissed girls?"
"Yeah," I say.
"Do you like boys or girls better?" Julius asks.
"I think I need to kiss more people before I decide that," I say. There's a weight in the center of my chest that gets heavier with every question he asks.
"Seeing you too connect was something special. We don't get these moments often in the Hunger Games and they're more precious for their rarity."
"Yeah, slaughtering each other puts the damper on romance," I mutter.
"It does carry a higher risk than ordinary dating," Julius chuckles. Asshole. "Tell us, Jason, what made Roy so special? How did you find love in the middle of the Hunger Games?"
It wasn't love. Was it? Could it have been, if we'd had more time? "We understood each other," I say flatly.
"A rare thing," Julius says. He steers into safer topics, then, asking me about my mom and what my plans are when I get home. We wrap up the interview and it's over. Julius shakes my hand and thanks me for my time and I manage not to rip his fingers off, so I guess it went well.
"Was I entertaining?" I ask Talia.
"I think they'll remember you," she says.
We have dinner on the train and I steal a steak knife. Talia says nothing. There's a small library on the train and I pick out a collection of children's stories. We had a book like this when I was a kid; older, more worn and without gold engravings. I remember my mother reading me tales about seamstresses and woodcutters who got their wishes granted in terrible ways.
A crew of cameras and reporters are also on the train, so they can document my homecoming and the celebration in District Eight. They leave me alone for the trip, though.
The first familiar face I see when I get off the train is my oldest friend, Stephanie. Her blond hair's tied back in a ponytail. She strides right up to me and slaps me across the face. A couple of the reporters laugh.
I put my hand to my cheek, stunned. "What was that for?"
"For not telling me you were going to volunteer," she says.
"You would have talked me out of it," I say.
"I know." She looks at me wearily and throws her arms around me. "I missed you," she whispers.
"I missed you, too," I tell her, clinging to her tightly. I can feel the gaze of reporters and cameras boring into us, so I reluctantly let her go.
"Is this your girlfriend?" one reporter asks, her hair pinned into golden squares. She's probably hoping to sell the story of a love triangle between me, Stephanie and poor, doomed Roy.
"No," I say. "A friend."
"Someone's been waiting to meet you," Stephanie says. She calls over a small, red-haired boy. I don't know who he is. "This is Colin Wilkes," she says. I give Stephanie a puzzled look. "He's the boy you replaced when you volunteered. You saved his life, Jason."
Oh. I'd forgotten about him. "Hi, Colin," I say.
"Thank you for volunteering for me," Colin says. "I, um, I made you something." He thrusts his hand out and gives me a small package. I unwrap the paper. It's a wooden disc that sits neatly in the palm of my hand. Colin has painted a red-breasted bird on the disc.
"You're kind of his hero," Stephanie murmurs to me.
I'm no kind of hero. "Thanks, Colin," I say. I tuck the robin carefully into my pocket. Colin gives me a shy smile and runs back to stand with a friend, who I recognize as Talia's son.
I look around for my mom and suddenly realize she's not in the crowd. My heart nearly stops.
Steph lays a hand on my arm. "She's inside. We weren't sure what time your train would arrive, so she's sitting down. She's…" Steph chooses her words carefully. "She's had a rough time. Wait here and I'll get her."
Stephanie goes into the Justice Building. "Catherine?" I hear her say. "Jason's home." She emerges with my mother leaning on her arm. My mom's wearing her blue dress, the one she only takes out of the closet for very special occasions. It's the one she married my father in. She's got a cream-colored shawl wrapped around her shoulders. She looks old and frail and very, very ill. How could she have gotten so much worse in just a couple of weeks?
"Mom?" My voice cracks. Will she hate me for what I've done? The Capitol people are completely silent, watching the drama of the scene play out before them.
"Jason," she says, like a sigh. I see her gain strength at the sight of me, standing up a little taller. She holds out her arms and I walk into them. "I love you so much."
"I love you too," I say, wrapping my arms around her. When did she get so much smaller then me? "I've got good news," I say. "We're going to the Capitol. They're going to help you, Mom, they're going to make you all better."
"You're safe," she says. "I feel better already."
I push down the guilt and lead her toward the car waiting to take us to my Victory Celebration. She's safe. She's going to be healthy. I can live with the rest.
I don't have another option.
* * *