Disclaimer: The Hunger Games is not mine.
Note: And with this chapter, we've reached the end of For a Reason. It's been a fun ride, as well as the longest story I've ever written, both in terms of words and how long it took to write – nearly a full year. Thank you to everyone who read, and especially to everyone who submitted a tribute. And congratulations to Lupus Overkill for Imalia's well-deserved win.
On a different note, no, I'm not disappearing. Forged in Fire is still going. (Almost done with the reapings, almost done with the reapings...) And there will be something else coming in this particular canon between this story and my next SYOT. I'm not entirely sure what form it's going to take yet. It might be a one-shot or a series of shorter things. I'll figure it out. More on that at the end of the chapter.
Anyway, without further ado, back to our Victor...
Where I Am Now
Victor of the 42nd Hunger Games
She wished they would leave her alone.
Imalia took another deep breath before plunging beneath the waves once more, letting the water wash over her. It had been weeks before she'd dared to venture out into the water, but, once she'd overcome that initial reluctance, the water had become a refuge. They knew not to bother her here – the young, hopeful Careers-to-be who came to her for advice. The ones who wanted her to help them train. The ones who saw her as the savior of the Career system.
But she hadn't saved it – not really. There were still trainees, yes, but not nearly as many as there had been before. Their weapons were gone, as was the training center. Training nowadays consisted of sparring with homemade weapons and going for long runs or swims to build endurance. And maybe that was better than nothing, but it was still pitiful compared to the training she'd received.
Imalia surfaced again, letting the air fill her lungs before returning to the depths. It wasn't fair to compare the two. Kalypso and Naomi were doing the best they could with the tools they had. But the fact remained that interest was dwindling. Part of the appeal of training had been the fun of playing around with different kinds of weapons. Picking up a sword or a spear or a trident gave trainees a small taste of the glory of the Games.
Now that glory was gone. And maybe that was good. It helped weed out the trainees who were only there for fun. The ones who were left were guaranteed to be the ones who were serious about volunteering, not just training because it was something fun to do. But still…
"Imalia!" The voice echoed across the waves as she surfaced once more. "Imalia! It's almost time!"
Imalia took a long, deep breath and dove beneath the waves. Deeper. Deeper. Until her lungs ached from holding her breath for so long. Only once she was sure she could last no longer did she finally swim for the surface, breaking the water with a gasp. Breathing. Still breathing.
"Don't scare me like that!" her mother scolded playfully from the dock. "You know I hate it when you do that."
Imalia smiled a little as she pulled herself up onto the dock. She'd survived the Hunger Games, and her mother was still worried when she went for a swim. She shook her head, flinging water across the dock as her hair, now a few inches long again, flapped across her face. "Sorry."
Her mother shook her head, draping a towel around Imalia's shoulders. "Come on. You don't want to be late for the train."
The train. Her victory tour. Imalia took a deep breath as she and her mother headed back to Victors' Village. She'd been stalling – that much must have been obvious. Returning to District Four was one thing, but having to face the other districts…
Imalia clenched her fists. The other Victors had made it through their tours. So could she. And after the last two years, the Capitol would probably be satisfied with anything that wasn't a complete breakdown. She didn't have to impress anyone. She just had to not say anything stupid.
Twenty minutes later, she was dried off, cleaned up, and dressed in a simple blue-grey gown. Mags and Kalypso met her at the door, along with the cameras. Imalia smiled for the audience, gave her mother and father a hug, and let Kalypso and Mags lead her to the train.
She could do this.
District Four Mentor
"Just keep it simple."
Kalypso took a seat next to Imalia, pouring a few glasses of juice. "Everyone always wants to say something important. Something meaningful. Trust me, so did I. But there is no right thing to say. There's nothing you can say that will change the fact that forty-five other children are dead. Just say what you have to, get through this, and let them go back to their lives."
Imalia nodded a little. "Simple," she repeated. "Right."
"I know," Mags said quietly. "Nothing about this is simple. But sometimes, people don't need to hear the truth. Sometimes they need something normal. After what happened last year, and the year before that … they need stability more than they need honesty."
Honesty. The truth. Imalia was good at keeping the truth to herself – so good that, most of the time, Kalpyso wasn't even sure what their youngest Victor was thinking. She put on a brave face in front of the rest of the district – smiling, encouraging the younger trainees, grateful for their support and welcome. But behind that…
Behind that was the girl who went out for a swim nearly every day, disappearing under the waves as long as she could, pushing herself to the limit. The girl who would sometimes pick up a makeshift weapon and spar with the trainees as if she were one of them – but who, just as often, would turn them away. Her moods seemed to come and go like the tide, but without the same rhythm and predictability.
But maybe that wasn't the important thing. Maybe the important thing was that she was still here. She hadn't secluded herself from the district entirely like Misha had before his death. Maybe she hadn't thrown herself back into district life the way Bierce had, or into Career training, as Kalypso and Naomi had, but she was trying. Trying to find her place.
Kalypso gave Imalia's hand a squeeze. "Don't worry. You'll do fine. And in a few days, none of it's going to matter. They'll all forget what you said, anyway, and everyone will just be grateful you didn't cause a riot."
As long as you don't cause a riot. Not that Imalia had given any indication that she might say anything rebellious, but, after the last two years, there was no telling. Who would have known that Kit's nervous breakdown would have led to a rebellion? Who would have known that Misha's paranoia would finally lead him to self-destruct?
Kalypso shook the thought from her head. No. Imalia would do just fine. She wasn't Misha. She knew what she had to do. She had done just fine during her interview after the Games, and she would do the same now.
She just had to hold it together for a few days.
Brother of Shale Avenheim
He was tired of holding it together.
Asher blinked the tears from his eyes as he and Raver herded their younger brothers onto the stage. Karinth followed silently, ignoring the crowd around them. The six of them were quickly joined by Elani's parents and older brother, Philus' parents and five siblings, and Pan's mother and younger brother and sister. All waiting for Imalia to arrive and tell them how brave their siblings had been, how nobly they had died, how much honor they had brought to their district.
Asher gave Raver's hand a squeeze. He didn't care how much honor Shale had brought them. He just wanted his brother back. But he was gone. Shale was never coming back.
And it was Imalia's fault.
Not only her fault, of course, but she'd had a part in it. And that was something he could never forgive. But he kept those thoughts to himself. He had to. If anyone ever found out what he had thought of doing, that he longed to do to Imalia what Septimus had done to Shale, then the Capitol would take care of him – and probably his brothers along with him.
No, there was nothing he could do about it. Not without jeopardizing his brother's lives along with his own. And Shale wouldn't want that. Not when he had used his last breath to tell Asher to take care of his brothers. Asher swallowed hard. He had to hold himself back. For their sakes. He had to take care of them.
The crowd hushed as Imalia joined them onstage, clearly more uneasy than she had been in District Twelve. Of course, she'd had no hand in the deaths of District Twelve's tributes. But District Eleven … she had killed Elani and Pan and all but arranged Shale's death. Maybe she was right to be nervous.
But no one did a thing. No one said anything when she commended Elani's bravery for engaging her in a fight, even knowing it was one she wouldn't win. No one objected when she applauded Pan and Philus' dedication to their district and their willingness to fight on behalf of District Eleven.
And no one did anything – he didn't do anything – when she turned towards him and his brothers and praised Shale's loyalty, his dedication to his district and his family even in death. "His sacrifice brought honor to your district and your family – and probably changed the course of the Games. If he hadn't killed Septimus and Liana, things might have gone very differently … and I might not be standing here. Thank you for your brother. Thank you, District Eleven, for your tributes."
Thank you. As if they had given them willingly. As if they had freely offered up four tributes to die so that she could live. Asher gripped Raver's hand tightly but said nothing. There was nothing to say.
Nothing that would make one bit of difference.
Mother of Indira Serren
Nothing she could say would make a bit of difference.
Rissa took a deep breath as she, her husband, and their son Auron took their places on the stage, waiting. Waiting along with the other families of the fallen tributes. Beckett's parents, Calantha's parents, Elizabet's parents and younger brother. Waiting for Imalia to come and reopen the wounds that had just begun to heal.
Not that it was her fault – not really. She was a victim, just as much as Indira had been. She had volunteered for the Games, yes, but she had been raised in a district where that was encouraged. If Indira had grown up in District Four, instead…
Rissa swallowed hard. Imalia's words at the interview after the Games had never really left her. If Indira had been born in a Career district, if she'd had access to the same training Imalia had received, she might have survived.
No, not 'might have.' Imalia had seemed fairly certain that, given the same amount of training, Indira would have won their fight. That Indira would have been the Victor. Whether she truly believed that or whether she was simply trying to say something kind, Rissa wasn't sure. But the words had stayed with her. Her daughter could have survived. Maybe her daughter should have survived.
Rissa looked away as Imalia joined them onstage. She took a step towards the families, hesitating. "I didn't have the honor of knowing Elizabet or Calantha or even Beckett very well. But all three of them were willing to fight for their district. All three of them brought honor to District Ten and died bravely."
Imalia took a step closer. "Indira, on the other hand, I did know. She was brave. She was strong. She was determined – sometimes even more determined than I was. She was the one to remind me, more than once, exactly what I had volunteered for. And while that sometimes made me question my choice … in the end, I'm convinced I made the right one, because…"
She trailed off for a moment, but then recovered. "Because I got to know her. I've never felt as close to anyone as I felt in that week in the arena … and I don't know if I ever will again. Indira and I – we were allies. We were friends. We fought side by side to the end, and there were times when I thought – when I was sure – that we would die for each other.
"But we didn't. We couldn't. We both wanted to come home too much – and, in the end, neither of us was willing to give that up for the other. Killing her was … it was the hardest part of the Games. The hardest thing I've ever done, and, hopefully, the hardest thing I'll ever have to do. But if I had to do it again … I would, because I know she would have done the same. She would have killed me for the chance to come home. She fought for every last breath, and, for that, you should be proud."
Rissa brushed the tears from her eyes. She was proud of Indira – but not for the reasons Imalia had given. She was proud that, even in the midst of the Games, Indira had been able to find happiness and friendship – if only for a little while. That something her daughter had done, something about who she was, had touched Imalia deeply. Maybe even changed her.
That was something she could be proud of.
District Three Mentor
How could she possibly be so calm?
Avery gripped Miriam's hand as Imalia joined them onstage, along with Horatio's parents, India's family, Aleron's parents and sister, and Evander's parents and younger brother and sister. Imalia's expression was calm, stable, even after so many districts.
Then again, Imalia had returned home to a family who loved and supported her, rather than returning to find her family had been killed because of her actions. Imalia had helped restore her district's status as a Career district, rather than contributing to their reputation as rebels. Maybe it wasn't fair to try to hold herself to the same standard.
After all, she was still here. And some days, that was a victory in and of itself. But time and again, Vester's words had come back to her. Not tonight. One day, and then another, she had found a reason to keep going – just a little longer. Just one more day. And then another.
Six months later, she still wasn't entirely sure why she was holding on.
Imalia smiled at the families of the fallen tributes, gave her same little speech about them having brought honor to their districts – or close enough to the same speech. Not that she had expected anything else. Imalia hadn't really known any of District Three's tributes at all. To pretend otherwise would have been more insulting than a standard speech.
But after the cameras turned off, after the families had gone, Imalia made her way to Avery's side. Avery glanced up, surprised, as the older girl held out her hand. Hesitantlay, Avery reached out and shook it. Imalia gripped the younger Victor's hand firmly. "Your district should be proud," she said quietly.
Avery swallowed hard. Her district. Her fellow mentors, Miriam and Percival. The others in her district who had lost so much. They were looking to her, to see how she would react. They were looking to her to be strong. Avery nodded a little as Imalia let go of her hand.
Mother of Imalia Grenier
She was finally home.
Meredith smiled a little as the train pulled into the station. As soon as it came to a stop, the doors opened, and Imalia stepped out. She looked tired. Drained, even. But it was almost over. Just one more speech to give.
Meredith and Allan accompanied Imalia back to the square, where the families of the five fallen tributes were already waiting onstage. Mavina's parents and sister. Auster's parents. Kendall's parents and younger brother. Brevin's parents, two brothers, and younger sister. And a few of Jarlan's friends from the academy.
Imalia took a deep breath, glanced at the paper in her hand, and then tucked it inside her pocket. "I thought District Four would be easier," she said quietly. "After all, all six of us volunteered for this. We wanted this. We had a choice – and we all chose the Games, even knowing the danger. I thought that would make it easier.
"And it did, in Districts One and Two. But I didn't really know any of them. Jarlan and I decided early on during training not to try to join the main Career pack, and, once we were in the arena, we were completely separated from the other Careers. So I never really got to know them.
"But I did know my fellow tributes from District Four – at least a little. Auster and Mavina were my fellow Victors' first choice as volunteers – and with good reason. Both were capable. Both were determined to bring honor to our district. And both died far too soon in the Games. They deserved better, but they fought as hard as they could and were outmatched. There's no shame in that.
"Kendall and Brevin fought their hardest, as well, and didn't shrink away from any challenge – even attacking a much larger alliance in a well-defended position. If they hadn't been separated from the rest of their alliance at the start – if they'd had a few more allies to help them early on in the Games – then things might have gone very differently.
"And Jarlan … What can I say? We disagreed, we argued, but, in the end, we respected each other. I asked Delvin to kill him because I was beginning to doubt his motives, but the truth was that some part of me recognized him as one of my most dangerous opponents. I don't know who would have won in a fair fight between us, but I have my guesses.
"But, ultimately, he was too trusting. Too idealistic. He didn't see Delvin's betrayal coming – a betrayal that wouldn't have been possible if he hadn't spared Delvin's life earlier. He wanted to be in the Games, but he … he didn't want to do what it would take to win them once he was there."
Imalia shook her head, turning to face the rest of the district. "The Career system in District Four has been a strong one, but it has its flaws. Sometimes people don't stop to think – really think – about what's going to be asked of them once they're in the Games. I know I didn't. Not fully. I had some inkling, yes, but I didn't realize just how hard it was going to be, just how far I would have to go.
"If there's one good thing that's come from our Career system being a bit … dismantled, it's this: It's forced trainees to take a much closer look at why they're training. At whether they really want to be here. I believe I made the right decision when I chose to enter the Games, but I also know that decision … it wouldn't have been right for everyone. Maybe it wasn't right for Jarlan. Maybe…"
She shook her head. "Maybe we'll never know. But I just want to ask those of you who are training for next year's Games to think. To be sure. Because once you volunteer, there's no going back. And once you're in the arena … everything changes."
There was silence for a moment. But then, slowly, quietly, one person and then another began to applaud. A few young trainees ran onstage, clapping, shouting loudly that, yes, they were sure. They were ready. Imalia took a step back, letting them have the stage as they began to cheer. To smile and wave, letting the Capitol know that, yes, there were still Careers in District Four, ready and willing to lay down their lives.
Not that any of them meant to lay down their lives, of course. But at least three of them would. Meredith saw the weight of that knowledge in her daughter's eyes as Imalia slipped quietly off the stage. Next Games, there would be four tributes. Four volunteers, more likely than not. At least three of them would die. And there would still be more.
There would always be more.
"There are always more of them."
Eldred shook his head, watching the screen. The three volunteers from District Four had been rejected by the main Career pack, and were now planning an attack on the cornucopia. "I don't understand it," Eldred admitted. "I never have. Why would they volunteer for this when—"
"When they know they'll probably die?" Imalia slid into a seat beside Eldred and Nicodemus.
"Well, not to put it too bluntly, but yes," Eldred nodded. "Nine volunteers this year – nine. Two from One, Two, and Five, and three from Four. They have to realize their chances."
Imalia nodded a little. "Some of them do. Some of them don't. Most of the ones from Four, though … they know what they're volunteering for. And they make their choice, anyway. Sometimes … sometimes I wonder why, but then I remember why I volunteered, how eager I was, and … well, it makes a bit more sense."
"Why did you volunteer?"
Imalia hesitated, then leaned forward a little. "Look, we all know this isn't your real job – tending this bar. But imagine for a moment that it was. Imagine that you knew you would be doing this job for the rest of your life – day in and day out. Imagine the customers are rude, pushing and shoving, complaining that you don't have the right kinds of drinks even though it's not your fault you don't have the supplies you need. Imagine the bar is always dirty, no matter how hard you try to keep it clean, and you make enough money to get by, but you have to work every day, and your children have to work every day in order to do it.
"Now, imagine that happens for a few generations, and, one day, one of your grandchildren, or maybe your great-grandchildren, decides they've had enough. What are their options? They can stay put and complain every day. They can run away, try to start their own life – but they don't want to do that because they still love your family, even if they hate the job. Or they can volunteer for the Games, take their chances at a better life even though they know that chance is slim. Do you understand why someone might choose the third option?"
"I think I understand," Eldred nodded. Imalia smiled a little, then got up to rejoin her fellow mentors from District Four.
"No, you don't," Nicodemus said quietly, leaning back in his wheelchair. "It's not your fault. It's just hard to imagine something like that when you've had more than enough all your life. You can pity them, but you don't really understand their desperation, their need for a better life."
Eldred opened his mouth to respond, but thought better of it. Nicodemus was right. He still didn't understand – not really. After four years, he still didn't understand.
Eldred leaned forward a little. "Then show me."
Nicodemus cocked an eyebrow. "Show you."
Eldred nodded. "We all know what Imalia said is true; bartending isn't … well, it's not my real job. My real job – at least during the Games – is to watch you, all of you, and try to understand. But after four years, I still … I still don't. Not really."
Nicodemus shook his head. "Where's this coming from, Eldred?"
Eldred glanced around, wondering who else might be listening. The president hadn't said it was a secret, but…
"There's a reason he picked me," Eldred said quietly. "There's a reason I'm here, trying to get a better understanding of the districts, but … well, there's only so much I can learn from sitting and talking with all of you for … what? Two weeks? Three? And then I go back to—"
Nicodemus smiled a little, putting the pieces together. "The reason you're here – the reason he wants you to understand the districts – is it…?"
Eldred shook his head. "Don't throw me a party just yet. I haven't said yes."
Nicodemus nodded. "You'd be foolish if you did – say yes right away, that is. But I still don't understand … why come to me?"
Eldred hesitated. Why had he chosen Nicodemus? "Because you're the only person I thought might say yes."
Eldred took a deep breath. There was no going back now. He had made up his mind a few days ago, but now that it came to it … it wasn't so easy. Maybe this was how Careers felt, just before volunteering for the Games. Maybe. Eldred smiled a little.
"I have a favor to ask."
"No, I needed that pain — to get to where I am now."
Note: And that's a wrap. Thanks for reading, and I'll see you on the flip side.