Disclaimer: The Hunger Games is not mine.
Note: And ... yeah, this is it. Last chapter, everybody. I batted around how I wanted to wrap this one up for a while, but finally decided to go with this.
Galen Archer, 66
Victor of the 75th Hunger Games
It seemed to take ages to wash the dust away.
Galen took a deep breath, brushing his hair out of his eyes one more time before taking the stage. He could still feel that strange burnt orange dust on his skin, in his hair, in his eyes. He still didn't quite feel clean. Maybe it was his imagination. Maybe it was the fact that it had barely been twenty-four hours since he'd left the arena.
Usually, they waited longer. A few days, at least. Usually, they gave the Victor more time to recover before being presented to the Capitol. But, physically speaking, he was in pretty good shape. The Games had lasted only a few days. Twenty-three of his fellow Victors – his friends – gone in a matter of days. Physically, he was fine, but…
Stop it. He was alive. He was going home. That was what mattered. Not what he was about to see when they played the tape of the Games. His fellow Victors were gone, yes, but they wouldn't want him to spend the rest of his life dwelling on that fact. That wasn't what he had done the first time, and that sure as hell wasn't what he was going to do now.
But there was a time for mourning. A time for remembering. And, as much as he might try to avoid it or wish it away, that time was now. Galen braced himself as the host, Gabriel, finished his introductory speech. "And now, the moment you've been waiting for! Please welcome the Victor of the First and Third Quarter Quells, Galen Archer!"
The crowd roared. Galen couldn't help smiling as he took the stage. As much as some of the others might not want to admit it, the crowd's excitement, their enthusiasm, their liveliness … it was contagious. Even if it was a bit misplaced, it was still rather thrilling.
He took a bow. Then another. Then, finally, as the roar of the crowd died down a little, he took a seat next to Gabriel. "Bet you didn't expect to see me again," he teased.
The crowd got a laugh out of that. "Certainly not this soon," Gabriel deflected. "One of the shortest Hunger Games ever. Do you think that's a product of the tributes' experience?"
"Maybe. Even the oldest of us knew we couldn't hide out in a cave with spiders forever." Another round of laughter. "But I think a lot of us just … well, wanted to get it over with. Don't get me wrong – I'm glad to be here. But to be honest, I'm a bit anxious to get back to my family."
That much was certainly true – and part of the reason he'd agreed to such an early appearance. It had been less than two weeks since he'd left District Four, but it already seemed like ages.
"That's certainly understandable," Gabriel conceded, "but I hope they'll forgive us is we keep you a little while longer."
Galen chuckled. "I wouldn't count on it. Storm was already a bit upset that she didn't get to volunteer this year. But I think getting me back will be enough of a consolation prize."
"Let's hope so – for all our sakes." Gabriel gave Galen a hearty pat on the back. "This was certainly an emotional Hunger Games for all of us. Saying goodbye to so many familiar faces – it's been hard for us all. Shall we have a look back at it together?"
That was his cue. As soon as he said yes, the tape would start to play. The highlights from the Games – all there for him to see. How his friends died. How they killed each other for the Capitol's amusement. Galen shook his head. "Not yet."
Gabriel raised an eyebrow. "Pardon?"
"Not yet," Galen repeated. "First … first I'd like to tell you a story."
Galen nodded. "A story. Well, no. That's not quite right. Not one story." He smiled a little, turning towards the audience this time.
President Julian Linus
Julian tensed as Galen paused for a second. What was he doing? The older Victor probably didn't mean any harm, but any deviation from the normal post-Games routine was an opportunity for rebellion. The mood in the Capitol had been rather strained throughout most of the Games, but, when Galen had emerged victorious, there had been a collective sigh of relief. He wasn't a Career by any means, but he'd certainly never showed any signs of rebellion.
After a moment, Galen continued. "For most tributes – at least in a normal year – the Capitol is a somewhat … distant concept. They've heard of it, of course. Heard stories, rumors … but that's not the same as experiencing it. But by the same token, the districts are … well, let's just say they're probably not the first thing on your minds when it's not time for the Games. The point is, for most tributes, the reaping is the first you see of them – and their deaths in the Games are the last. You get to know most of them for a few days. A week or two, if they're lucky."
Galen leaned back in his chair. "But me – well, you've known me for a good fifty years now. And if you know anything about me, you know I love to talk. I got to know almost all of the Victors who were in the Games with me this year. And that made it harder, it's true, but it was also … it was also a privilege, to be able to witness their lives. We all witnessed their deaths, but, for years, I got to see them live.
"I got to see a boy from District Five who tricked and manipulated his way to a win fourteen years after my own victory grow into a loving father and grandfather. I saw a pair of brothers from District Two help each other through the Games – and try to support each other in the aftermath. I saw a young orphan unite her district with her kindness, and an old woman shepherd dozens of tributes through the Games – and several of them to victory. I've seen Victors, each in their own way, striving to move on with their lives, to make something of their time. Because if there's one thing that the Games has taught all of is, it's that our time is short.
"But I'm not here to bemoan what happened in the Games. I'm here to celebrate what happened before. Not only how my fellow Victors died, but also how they lived – with courage and dignity and a fierce desire to survive. It's a desire we can all understand. A desire we all share. A desire only eclipsed, perhaps, by our desire to be remembered. To know that, once we're gone, there will be someone to remember, to tell our story."
Galen leaned forward a little. "So tell their stories. Of their deaths, yes, but also of their lives. Their accomplishments. Their dreams and their faults and their triumphs and their failures. Death … death is easy to talk about. It's final. It's certain. Life … life is so much more intimidating. So much more unpredictable. So much more exciting.
"So for all of them – in their memory, in their honor – promise me this … this one thing. When you talk about these Victors, these tributes, these people, don't just talk about their deaths. Share the stories of their lives. And for their sakes – in their names – make the most of your own. Have a good life. Make your own life a story worth telling." Galen flashed a smile.
And the crowd cheered.
"History is a burden. Stories can make us fly."