Fallen from Grace (Hunger Games)

68th Hunger Games

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26. Crowned Victor

    It was just a nightmare . . . a really bad nightmare. She didn’t actually win. No . . . she died immediately once the Games started. She died in the bloodbath. It only made sense. There was no way she won the Games. Two weeks of the Games was merely a what if that her mind played before she lost her life. Like her life flashed before her eyes, except it showered her what could have been if she were strong enough . . .

    But every time Emily opened her eyes and found herself in the clean white room, it was clear it all happened. Her heart broke in a thousand pieces every time. The Games, Liam telling her he loved her the night before the bloodbath, his death . . . oh god his death—

    His face appeared for a split second, the pain he felt, the horror, the realization that he wouldn’t make it, perhaps a hint of betrayal in his eyes. Did he think she was a traitor? Was that thought in his eyes? Emily couldn’t remember, but her guilt told her he hated her for killing him. It was her fault.

    Her fault.

    Her fault.

    Emily sobbed and pressed her palms against her eyes, her nails dug into her forehead as she cried. Physical pain felt better than the emotional torment of guilt and heartbreak. Drawing her own blood hurt less than crumbling into pieces. The Capitolites had to strap her down, struggling to keep her calm and fought back when she resisted. She already harmed herself the first time she woke up and had to strap her down before putting her to sleep.

    She was unresponsive whenever she woke up. People kept trying to talk to her but she never answered. Her eyes always remained on the ceiling. Still and lifeless. Like a doll.

    In some occasions they said something that triggered the memories, but her body remained unmoved. The only sign that she was even mentally there was when tears escaped from her eyes. It felt like a week since she had been brought back to the Capitol rather than two days since the end. Two days of the Capitol cautiously cleaning her up to look as presentable as possible. Two days to show her off . . .

    Why did it have to be her?

    Why couldn’t it have been Liam?

    Better yet . . . why couldn’t she have died with him? Why didn’t she kill herself? Emily made it clear she couldn’t go home without Liam and yet there was still air in her lungs and her heart beat, reminding her she was alive. A life she felt she didn’t deserve . . .

    Emily groaned awake and felt a burning tickling sensation on her back and the mumbles of people in the room. Naked, she was completely naked, save for the cloth that covered her lower body as she laid on her stomach. She wasn’t strapped in anymore . . . of course, they thought she was tame enough to keep her wrists and ankles free when she showed no signs of response or resistance. Of course she wouldn’t try to attack anyone. When she opened her eyes, the redhead gasped and shot up to hug herself. The Capitolites gasped and screamed a short second from her sudden outburst of physical life and watched her carefully.

    “Misses, please lie down—”

    “Why . . .?” she interrupted, keeping her arms around her. Her voice was shaky, keeping herself to not sob then and there.

    “We have to heal your back, get rid of those scars—”

    “No . . . keep them . . .” she shook her head and looked toward them. Her naked body trembled and tears threatened to spill. “I want to keep them . . .”

    “But your tattoo is ruined. We could fix it . . .” one of them said.

    “No . . .” she shook her head. She swallowed the lump in her throat, but the tears spilled down her cheeks. “You can do anything else . . . just don’t do anything with my back . . . please . . .” she begged in her hurt tone.

    The new victor wanted the scars to remain. Liam was the one that suggested she get a meaningful tattoo in the first place. Even though her back was shredded and the wings were in broken disconnected pieces, it still remained as a piece of Liam. He always called her, in a joking tone, that she was his angel before the Games. Fallen from grace and was born to change him. But she knew better. He meant every word of it . . . And Emily didn’t see it that way. Not anymore. Liam was her angel. He always protected her. Did everything to keep her alive until the end. The wings on her back were his wings, torn apart by death and worn on the back of a sinner.

    She never wanted it fixed . . . Emily wanted to remember what she had done. To constantly remind her of her crime . . . it was a punishment after all.

    The new victor sobbed and curled into a ball, her forehead to the metal table, her arms still covering her chest, and the blinding crushing pain in her chest. Being alive wasn’t worth that much pain . . .

    Why didn’t she die . . .?

*****

    Emily was quiet and she had been since she was cleaned up to be presentable for the Capitol. She merely stood there with her hands to her lap while she waited for Caesar's show to begin and get the interview out of the way so she would go home. She couldn't believe she was back and doing the whole thing again. She couldn't believe that it had been two weeks since she last spoke with the man about her plan in the arena.

    They had sedated her fiery emotions to avoid her attacking the host. The last time someone did that was years ago and they didn't want it to happen again, and while she had shown signs of fury they had to keep her calm. She could still respond well, but if she wasn't angry or crying her eyes out, she was as quiet as a mouse.

    The redhead pat the end of her hair at the back of her neck, feeling the curls underneath her palm bounce back. It was so much shorter compared to last time and the first thing that came to mind was Liam running his hand through her once long hair, his fingers tangled in her curls as he pulled her closer for a soft kiss. Emily took in a deep breath so she didn't end up crying and squeezed her eyes shut. No tears. Just be happy you won and you're alive. Do what the Capitol wants for now and you're home free.

    She took in more deep breaths through her nostril as she heard the Caesar's theme announce the start of the show.

    "Laaaadies and gentlemen! Welcome, welcome to the most special event of the year!" Caesar announced as the lights flared over his head, the flashy song that announced his presence fighting with his voice on the mic to be heard. "Now I know we've all missed our favorite girl, but here she is again! Emily Horwitz, please come up here!" His sentence was practically cut in half by the cheers that blared louder than what he could muster.

    Emily took small steps forward, the spot light blinding her just like last time. She blinked a couple times, seeing spots behind her lids as she took careful steps forward to the colorful man. She clenched her hands harder as she grew closer.

    "Welcome, sweetie! We're glad to have you back!" Caesar cooed, motioning for her to take a seat when she came up.

    She nodded to Caesar and took a seat across from him. Deep breaths. The medication should last a while. She should still be normal like the first time she spoke to the man. Emily looked over her shoulder at Peacekeepers that were on standby off stage, reminding her that she had to behave if the drugs didn't last.

    "Before anything, Miss Hor—Ah! I almost forgot," Caesar smiled.. "Mrs. Aldair, how have your past couple days been back?" he asked eagerly.

    Emily pursed her lips and successfully kept herself from cringing at the name. Misses . . . he just wanted to twist the knife in the barely healed wound didn't he? The new victor looked at the man as thoughts swam through her head. Don't tell the honest truth, Snow would be pissed. He still had control of her, it would be over within the day. Just think positively. "It's been . . ." she began quietly and cleared her throat, "A safe and quiet recovery," she lied and looked down at her twiddling thumbs in her lap, keeping the meek personality true then looked back up at Caesar again. "It's a little surreal I’m back, to be honest."

    THAT was true.

    Caesar nodded but cocked a brow at her. "Ah, but dear, wasn't it a promise from the beginning?" he cooed with a bright grin. "We were all cheering for you to begin with, but I understand there were many close calls."

    She stared at the man with sadness and took in a deep breath through her nostrils, "Yes . . .I just didn't think I’d be able to keep it." She had thought she didn't have it in her to even survive, it just felt like a terrible dream.

    He nodded at her and gasped a little, like he remembered something incredibly important. "Speaking of which, how's your back?"

    She looked up at him with an unemotional look in her eyes as he spoke about her back. Boy, they'd be shocked. THAT she couldn't lie about. "It healed, but it left bad scars," Emily answered.

    Caesar gasped, this time seemingly genuinely, and leaned back in his chair. "I'm sure the medics can fix the scars," he suggested with a smile before moving on. Emily was just about to add her decision to keep the scars but was immediately interrupted, all for the sake of interest and time: "Mrs. Aldair, let's back track a little bit before we move to your recaps . . ." He glanced toward the closest camera and waggled a brow, though his expression became curiously somber.
    She didn’t even bother to correct him when he kept calling her by Liam’s last name. Going with it would only gain her popularity and sympathy, and Phox had told her she needed that to keep her untouchable by the Capitol.

    "A mentor brought up the cloth band you created in the arena . . . But we couldn't be sure of its true meaning without asking you about it. What was its significance between you and Liam?" The crowd hushed, already tense with guesses, but they didn't want to miss a breath or a blink that came from Emily.

    "It's exactly how you interpret it. Liam and I . . ." She paused at the painful pang in her chest, "We got married . . . since we didn't have rings to give each other or any that we could find in the arena, we went with the cloths . . ." Emily continued. She couldn't honestly talk about the Eight tradition on camera, the President and host were allowed to know since they had to talk/gossip to the tributes, but she couldn’t say it on camera for the rest of Panem to hear so the redhead had to half lie to keep her head.

    "Aha, now what did I say about the name?" Caesar boasted with a sad smile. He raised a finger to halt the dimming lights and looked directly at the girl. "All the talk of you both wanting nothing to do with each other . . . When did you decide this had to change?" he asked solemnly.

    Just keep twisting the knife in that wound. Don't mind her, it wasn't like she was hurting or anything. Her eyes dropped to her hands, the absence of the cloth around her wrist making her feel empty and cold. "Right after the interviews . . ." she answered. "He told me he had feelings for me . . . for a long time actually." Emily recalled their night before the arena and their first kiss. "We told each other a long time ago to not keep any secrets . . . so we shared our last one . . ." The redhead shrugged and shook her head. "Can we talk about something else," she weakly smiled, her voice shaky as she held in tears, "It still hurts a lot . . ."

    The audience cooed at her response, the sadness coming off of them like waves. All that sympathy. All of that empathy.

    "Yes, of course," the host sighed, nodding at the men backstage to dim the lights. The screen behind them flickered to life with the seal and the anthem, giving Caesar enough time to swivel his chair back to watch.

    Emily exhaled a breath and wiped the corner of her eye, feeling a faint droplet of a tear trying to escape. God, it was pathetic how much she had cried in the past week. Her eyes felt puffy from sobbing so much for days while being cleaned up to appear presentable. She sniffled for a second as the lights dimmed and the screen flickered. Oh great, the really uncomfortable part of the show.

    Emily's eyes looked up as she saw herself pushing the electric fence and watch it tumble. It was then that she saw that the wires had electrocuted and killed a few tributes. Oh god, she had killed people right from the start and she didn't even know . . .

    The cameras followed them around and kept tabs on their dialogue. As the cameras followed EVERYTHING. They showed their most intimidate moment when they got married, when Liam took care of her when she got sick, the explosion that buried her under rubble before it changed views to Liam for the shock factor. And she saw there that he never allowed himself to take a break. His hopes remained high before he didn't see her face in the sky and kept digging. His companion joined the party ready to kill him, but Liam begged him: "Please . . . help me." He was so exhausted but he kept pushing himself.

    She didn't even come back on screen until the moment he saw her. She tried not to cry, his dedication to save her was ridiculous. How could he make her his first priority and risk his defenses for her?

    It was because he loved her. He loved her so much Emily couldn't even begin to imagine how deep it was and couldn't possibly, for the life of her, reach that level the way he did . . .

    The reel kept going on and Emily began to fidget in her seat, it was getting closer. Closer. Closer. Closer to the awful day. The redhead looked down at her hands picking at her dress as the gases turned on and locked her and Liam up in that room. Any minute now. She merely listened to their voices, his voice that could sooth the pain but now tore her apart.

    And then she heard their voices. The Careers. Just like how she hallucinated. Emily shook in her seat hearing their laughter and their calls and their mockery, the fear she tried so hard to destroy in the arena had resurfaced and the fear of what would come up was so strong it made her nauseous. She gulped back some air and heard her breathing, it was coming.

    And then the hissing of the gas stopped. "Liam . . ." her voice cracked.

    The moment she heard his body drop, tears welled up and spilled within a second. Stop it . . . stop the film . . . it was already bad enough remembering it, hearing it was worst. And she couldn't look or she'd break. Emily's begs reached her ear and she tried so hard to keep her sobs in. The redhead covered her mouth to keep muffle any escaped cries and tears wouldn't stop. Her body was shaking and doubled over in her seat as she muffled her quiet sobs.

    She couldn't hold it anymore. She wasn't strong. She was weak . . . she was always weak . . .

    Emily gulped her cries away when she heard the growls and grunts between her and Four. Her kills were glorified, seen as acts of anger and vengeance, just as she had felt when she took them all down. The redhead whipped the tears from her hands and tried to dry herself as quickly as she could while there was still time, so what if the audience saw? The watchers in their homes didn't know. They couldn't see, all the attention was on the recap. Caesar could spin in his chair during the recaps and no one would comment or know about it except the live audience.

    She glanced up at the screen and saw that the cameras paid more attention to the Careers after she took the tracker out. Her presence hidden from view for a long time until she gained the Two’s attention. She kept disappearing off camera and would only appear when the Careers noticed her again. It was like she was an unseen being that attacked selectively. Everyone was at the edge of their feet every time her red hair appeared on screen and fought.

    It was down to the last kill. Emily had managed to put the noose around his neck and tightened it before she went to tie it to a pole moments before she was hit with a metal pipe. The struggle went on for a while, the cameras on her face fighting between life and death before she pushed the Career off. She delivered her kick and curled into a ball. She kicked him again while he was still on the ground until he rolled off the edge and hung himself.

    The recap was over and Emily's eyes were as pink and puffy as her lips. Oh god, could the show just end there? Or before they showed that awful show? No more questions. She was done. Just give her the crown and let her go home and be done with all of it before she'd lose it again . . .

    "Now wasn't that something?" Caesar mused when the recaps closed, turning back to face the audience. "It's a surprise every time." He looked over at Emily, "How did it feel to have that much power in the arena, Mrs. Aldair? You had the Careers wrapped around your little finger," he chimed with a smirk.

    Emily's eyes remained on her hands in her lap. She couldn't answer that. No, she was dumb. The new victor ignored his question and kept her lips pursed in a thin line. It was a simple enough question, but she couldn't answer how she felt out of fear. Fear of what everyone thought, fear of what Conner and Scottie would think, and fear of herself. She was already afraid as it is and whatever unfiltered words that'd come out of her mouth would have to be her actual thoughts on the matter and that scared her.

    So she ignored him and stayed silent and unmoved.

    Caesar pursed his lips at her lack of answer and leaned in a little closer to her, acting like perhaps she hadn't heard him. "I know we all cheer loudly, my dear," he chuckled, "But you've gotta listen up here, right?" Caesar chuckled lightly, getting a few others in the audience to follow. "We know now how you feel being back, but how about before? When you were in the arena, Emily?"

    Emily's eyes fluttered and barely turned her head to Caesar and gave him an unemotional stare. What do you think? That she was happy being under rubble? Nearly getting eaten by a crocodile? Having been the reason her best friend was dead? And having to come back and pretend it was all just a fun day at the park? She wanted to strangle him, she wanted to break his neck, and she wanted to stab his eye out with her heels.

    But she took in a deep breath and looked out to the faceless audience, the lights too bright to see the weirdly define features of the people staring at her and listening to their words. "I went in knowing very well one of us had to go . . ." She answered. "And . . . as selfish as it sounds, I had actually hoped we'd die together." She had to restrain herself from adding more.

    Caesar pouted at her response, a very sad look coming onto his expression. "Oh, Emily," he sighed dramatically, many of the audiences mimicking in similar tones. "But then who would be sitting here with us tonight, huh, folks?" The question was directed at the crowd, and some, aside from cheering, cooed out responses such as 'no one!' 'You deserved it!' but whether they meant well or bad was left at the interpretation of the listener. "And it certainly wouldn't have been very nice for Liam, now would it?" Caesar asked, turning back toward the redhead with a quizzical look. "Mrs. Aldair, one more thing—" he smiled and tilted his head. "—If Liam hadn't volunteered, what do you suppose would have happened?"

    Don't feel the words. Don't even think about it. They were just words. They weren't supposed to trigger anything. She merely stared at the man as she thought of the question. What would have happened if he didn't volunteer? Would she have had the confidence to go home? Was there even a possibility that she'd come home without his help?

    "I wouldn't be here talking to you again . . ." the redhead answered. "I would have been an emotional mess and wouldn't last the bloodbath . . . Liam's role was to keep me calm and safe. What do YOU think would have happened if he didn't volunteer?" she asked after her babbling, sounding too bitter and she honestly couldn't think of an interesting answer.

    "Woah there," Caesar chuckled, "You're the interviewee, aren't you? I'm not mistaken here?" Some of the audience laughed at his lame joke and he motioned for one last comment. "Can't wait to see you again, Mrs. Aldair. It was a pleasure to see you here again, alive and well."

    She could feel how uncomfortable he was with her tone. And she didn’t want to sound nice anymore. She was done with the charades and wanted nothing more but to go home and rest in her own time without being poked and touched in any way.

    “Congratulations on your victory,” Caesar said and lifted his hand to her. Emily took it and shook hands before it was lifted to his lips and kissed her newly healed knuckles. “And there you have it, everyone!” he began and looked to the audience. “Emily Aldair! Our victor of the 68th Hunger Games!”

    The day seemed to go by with a blur. She was like a porcelain doll: pretty, fragile, and vacant. Like her mind wasn’t there but she was there physically. And President Snow saw that in her eyes as he put the gold crown on her head. When she looked up at him, she saw how pleased at broken she had become like the sadistic monster he was . . .

    Emily was pushed to board the train and stared out the window. They would have to send her off home to make time with as much light as they had left. THEN they could send the other mentors home once her time was done. The new victor hugged her knees to her chest, the surroundings changed in a colorful blur when she noticed the train began to slow to a stop. She recognized the familiar brick and concrete buildings, the metal bridge she once crossed to get to the station the last time she was home. But even though it LOOKED familiar, it didn’t feel like home . . .

    It felt like another location with no meaning to her . . .

    The welcoming warmth she was so sure it once held wasn’t there anymore, even the love had died . . .

    She saw the platform and looked out the window at the other side of the car and saw the crowd of District Eight citizens waiting just outside. The cameras were set up outside, readying the timing for when she emerged out of the silver chariot of a train. Phox entered her car and stopped some feet away from her, barely in her view but enough for her to know he was close.

    “All you have to do is smile and look pretty,” he said.

    How offensive . . . but, it was what the Capitol wanted. She was just a pretty face . . . woah was the fact of the medium needs.

    Emily let out a sigh and stood up, brushed the crinkles of her new dress to appear flowy and flawless then dragged her feet to the exit. The door slid open and the crowd cheered once she was within view. The warm end of spring air blew through her short curls and breezed through her dress. Her eyes searched through the crowd while she forced a gentle smile and lifted her hand to wave back at everyone staring at her. She ignored the cameras, her importance in finding the Aldair boys was stronger than the view of the cameras hovering far too close.

    It felt like a long time until her eyes fell on the same messy dark hair and far too similar features of the oldest Aldair son, Constantine. The similarities were frightening, at first she thought she was staring at a ghost but his grey eyes reminded her it was not whom she thought it was. His eyes reflected the same sadness that Emily had memorized in her reflection, though his gentle smile spoke of his relief for her return.

    The cameras were turned off and a hand clasped around Emily’s arms and pulled her back into the train. She looked back at the Peacekeeper dragging her and threw her back in the train. “What are you doing . . .?” she asked.

    “You’re going back to the Capitol,” he answered begrudgingly.

    “What? Why?”

    “President’s orders.”

    Emily merely stared at the man behind the masked helmet when the train began to move again. Even a promised freedom was too much to ask from the Capitol . . .

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