Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
Between the Justice Building and the train something sets in between them.
Peacekeepers and their escort march them to the train with stun guns at their backs, and it all seems like so much fuss for something that should have been so easy.
On the train they’re allowed to go wherever they want, and it’s the first time Clove has been allowed to go wherever she wants in her entire life, or at least that she can remember. “Go ahead, explore!” their escort encourages them, in a tone that sounds too warm and syrupy to be sincere (because things that seem nice are almost always dangerous). It’s only a short ride to the Capitol from Two, but she sits in one of the sleeping cars anyway, puts on a different set of clothes because she can, pants and a shirt instead of the tight, orange-red blouse and skirt the Center dressed her in that morning.
There’s food in another car but she doesn’t eat. She sits, instead, staring out the window as mountains and woods fly by outside. Brutus is eating, his big frame wedged almost uncomfortably into one of the fancy little chairs there. Cato is talking intently with his mentor, whose name is Titania. She holds the record for shortest Games in Panem’s history – a day and a half – and her hair is the color of the dark red cherries the Center used to serve with dinner in the summer, until the trouble in Eleven caused them to boycott out-of-District fruit. Red is the color of so many things in Two – hair and dresses and fresh bruises and blood.
She sits. She waits. She speaks when spoken to; hence, she does not speak to anyone.
For the opening ceremonies they dress them in black and gold. There is no silver for steel and no white for Peacekeeping and for that they suppose they should be thankful.
Their stylists position them carefully on the chariot, stiff and set wide apart from each other. The crowd loves them. Cato looks perfectly brutish and monstrous and Clove is tiny, deadly, a warrior princess leading her nation into battle, and they wave to the crowd and give the Capitol salute, three fingers over the heart and into the air and the audience loves every minute of it.
Near the City Center, she catches a glimpse of another screen and it has changed. Every camera is trained on District Twelve. They’re in all black, holding hands. Their costumes are on fire.
In an instant, she knows she has been forgotten.
She feels her expression falter, and Cato nudges her with an elbow. “Don’t,” he mutters, and his face has gone from glowing to deadly serious. The camera stays on Twelve for the rest of the ceremony, even during the President’s speech, and she hates this. She hates this. She hates this.
Back in the Training Center, the rest of the room glowers at Twelve as they greet their gushing team of stylists and admirers, and this time it’s Clove who glances at Cato and murmurs, “Don’t. Save it for the arena.”
“Oh, I will,” he says, and there’s murder in his eyes already, because no one upstages a Two.
They don’t speak to each other the morning of the Games.
Her prep team drags her out of bed early and they braid ribbons through her hair so tightly that her scalp feels as though it’s being yanked apart in a thousand directions. She does not speak to any of them. They make her up pretty and she stares straight ahead, unmoving, unyielding. There’s frost in her eyes and something harder, something worse, something that looks like fury and maybe like fear. The woman doing her makeup cannot look her straight in the eye without flinching. She thinks this is a good start.
They dress her in the dark, loose pants and black shirt and boots and give her a jacket that, while not very warm, will keep her dry. Her hair hurts from being pulled and her eyes hurt from lack of sleep and her body feels gritty and used, and this is all wrong. She shouldn’t feel this way. She shouldn’t be here. She should be back in Two, watching the Games on the screen in the Center with the rest of the seventeens and the sixteens and fifteens as well, taking notes and betting on Cato and Scoria, but Scoria had to go and get herself killed three months before graduation and now she’s here instead. A year ahead of time. She’s more prepared than anyone else and it’s not losing that she’s worried about, but it wasn’t supposed to be this year. It wasn’t supposed to be her and Cato in there. It was never supposed to be them.
This is all wrong and she hasn’t said a word, because it’s what she wanted, isn’t it?
In the hovercraft she offers her arm just a little too freely and doesn’t flinch when they inject the tracker. She knows it looks bad – not supposed to show that you know the procedure – but she couldn’t give a shit. She stares straight ahead and little Eleven is sitting right across from her and she knows her eyes are cold, dead, something out of a story written to scare children. Those stories never scared her because she doesn’t know how to be scared (or maybe she did, one time, but she can’t remember). Eleven cannot look her in the eye, either, and she thinks this is good.
The countdown is at sixty seconds, fifty-nine, fifty-eight. She stares at the walls and does not think. She clears her mind and slowly gives herself over to impulse and reflexes. She doesn’t think about knives or the other tributes or past winners or what challenges the arena may hold. She doesn’t think about the couch in the Center back in Two where she sat just a year ago, waiting for the countdown with bated breath and one leg flung over Cato’s because they could do that back then. She doesn’t think about the way her father clasped her hand before she left for the train and she doesn’t think about the way her mother refused to meet her eye and she doesn’t think about killing Cato because she can’t afford to think about Cato at all now.
Encased in glass now. Fifteen seconds on the clock and she’s rising. They searched her for knives before they let her inside and they only found two. She lets her lips form the words that ground her. Monster, monster, monster. Time to put on your monster face. Get blood under your fingernails and taste it in your mouth. Daddy’s little girl is a fucking monster.
Five. Four. Three –
Somehow the arena is nothing like they said it would be, because they’ve prepared for circumstances so much worse. She thought there would be concrete or ocean or walls of fire, or something like last year’s icy, bitter-cold tundra (and the winner came from Seven because they’re used to the frozen wasteland up north), or a maze like all those years before. The maze was her favorite arena, even though it happened before she was even old enough to remember, but they studied it at the Center and she didn’t care that the winner wasn’t even a Two. She wouldn’t want to compete in it but she thought it was brilliant and beautifully executed and a testament to what the Games can be. But her arena (because it is her arena, oh yes) is fine. Not spectacular, but fine, and she’s got a set of knives and three kills already (should’ve been four), and the blood of the last piece of meat is spilling onto the green grass of the clearing as Marvel yanks his spear from the girl’s stomach. The air is warm and clear and she can hear birdsong and then there’s a stirring from around the other side of the Cornucopia and she whips her head around.
There’s a flash of blonde hair, but it isn’t Cato’s, because Cato is right by her side, wiping the blood from his sword onto the grass.
“Hey!” She yells across the clearing. “Loverboy!”
Loverboy starts to back away and run, but Cato holds up a hand. “You fought good in there,” he says, and his voice is smooth and ingratiating just like they planned. “You’re almost as good with a knife as she is.”
“Fuck you,” Clove mutters, but it’s funny and charming all the same, and Loverboy slows a little. She raises her voice and fixes him with a stare. “What do you say? Work with us?”
Every muscle in Loverboy’s body seems to tense and he freezes, tense and nervous. “How do I know you’re not just going to kill me now?” he asks, his hand curling around the hilt of his knife.
Cato laughs. “Oh, please,” he says, walking toward Loverboy, sword dangling loosely from his hand, totally at ease. Clove keeps even with his stride (it takes her three steps to match two of his, but whatever). “You’re more valuable than that.”
And just like that, they take him in, just like they planned. He’s not really that good of a fighter but they need to keep him close, at least until they find Twelve Girl, so they shower him with compliments at the beginning and put him at ease. Glimmer smears a little bit of blood on the end of his nose and makes a joke about initiation rites and being “one of them,” but this is so untrue it’s laughable, because he could never be one of them. His three days in the Capitol don’t even come close to the things they’ve seen and done, and she isn’t envious of his life because he may have been living, but he’s had nothing to live for.
Glimmer is long dead and now Marvel is dead and little Eleven is dead and both Twelves are still alive, and that leaves those two and the two of them and the other Eleven and – there’s one more. Five. Six more. Their supplies are gone and so is Marvel, and he was the one keeping their alliance together. Because now they can’t pretend it’s them against everyone else anymore.
And then the announcement comes, and maybe it isn’t real. Maybe it’s a hallucination or another trick, or – no, because Cato has heard it too, and in the back of her head she knows it’s not about them, it’s all for the benefit of those fuckers from Twelve, but she can deal with that. This rule change, maybe it isn’t meant for them, but they can exploit the hell out of it because that’s what they do and it’s what they’ve always done.
Cato grabs her and holds her like he’s afraid to let go and it’s the first time – since the reaping, since they found out they’d be going in together, since she-can’t-even-remember-when – that she’s allowed herself to touch him like this.
They’re running low on food and so they pack up what they have left and head off into the forest, and Clove turns to the camera and gives it her most knowing smile, because they are okay and they are going to kill everyone else and get out of here and everything will be all right in the end. Then she lets the smile turn back into the face of a monster, all hard eyes and curled lip, and this feels right, this is her, and everything’s going to be all right.
That night she dreams of Twelve blood staining the grass beneath her, but maybe it’s her blood, too.
“We need to figure out a new angle,” she says, her voice quiet and muffled as she kneels on the ground, rolling up her sleeping bag. “A new way to sell us as a pair. Star-crossed lovers is taken, but we can try childhood sweethearts.”
“Like anyone’d buy you as a lovestruck little girl.” Cato pokes her in the shoulder. It’s a joke that deflects from what they both know, which is that they couldn’t have been honest about what they have anyway. Telling the truth would mean explaining a lot of things. It would mean explaining what they are, which doesn’t fit neatly into a narrative of star-crossed lovers or childhood sweethearts, but instead is messy and incomplete and full of half-empty threats and promises that begin “When we’re both victors…” It would mean talking about the Center, and even though it’s an open secret that One and Two train their kids, no one ever acknowledges it to the rest of the nation.
But more than that, it would mean giving up the one thing the Center and the District and the Capitol couldn’t take from them. It would mean giving up all the years they spent fighting and fucking with each other in that stupid, horrible way that teenagers do, eating lunch together every day and keeping each other, in some small way, sane. It would mean giving up how she used to fall asleep curled up next to him after the hardest days of eliminations even though it wasn’t really allowed and how they fit so perfectly together, like two halves of a greater whole. It would mean giving up the thing that makes her real, because Cato cares about her and not just what she is worth to the Center and the District. Cato occupies the space inside her wormy rotten-apple core body that makes her more than Female, District Two, five foot three and 51% muscle mass and a five-and-a-half minute mile and 93% accuracy rate with knives. She needs him because she is not just a collection of statistics. She needs him to remember that she is not just Female, District Two; she is Clove, seventeen, likes red plums and cold weather so sharp that the air pricks your lungs and the smell of fresh paint on walls and rain on the earth. And she doesn’t want to admit this to anyone, because she has been trained and bred for the highest honor her nation can give her, and to throw it away because she feels sentimental about another person would be the ultimate dishonor.
But the truth is, the Center has already taken that from them. The Center and the District and the Capitol took everything from them the day they sent them into the arena together. There’s not much left that they have left to lose, and to be honest, she’d rather give up that small part of herself than give him up entirely.
She thinks of how her trainers would react if she said any of this out loud and shivers.
They get two days of this and it’s the best two days of her life.
The feast is starting in only a few minutes.
“I’ll go,” she says, an easy smile on her face. This is how it should be. She’s faster than he is and better at stealth and besides, Twelve Girl will be there and she’s been planning this for days. She’s a little dizzy from lack of sleep but it’s okay, because this will be easy. She’ll kill Twelve Girl and they’ll let Loverboy waste away wherever he is, and then there are only two more and they’ll be easy, so easy, and then they’re going home. It’s so close she can practically touch it it; can feel the cool metal of the half-crown on her head. Monster, monster, monster. She chants the words in her head again but this time it's a rallying cry.
Cato doesn’t argue. “See you in a few,” he says, and she reaches into her jacket and touches steel kept warm by her body heat, but it feels like something better. Like victory.
9. He’s holding her too tightly again, or maybe he’s barely touching her at all, she can’t tell. He’s whispering her name and chanting it over and over, Shit, Clove, Clove, Clove, don’t you dare don’t you dare this isn’t okay don’t you dare, you promised, you promised, you promised –
She wants to tell him that it’s okay, that she’ll be fine, that she just needs a moment to rest and then she’ll get back up and they’ll be fine, but her mouth feels thick and it’s full of blood and her body doesn’t move when she tells it to, and all that comes out are slurred words and then silence.
He tells her over and over again not to leave and she promises she won’t, only she’s not saying anything at all.
No one really cared that much about her, anyway.
(Well, he cared. But he’s gone now, too.)
It doesn’t really matter. They all die in the end. For their District. For their country.
It doesn't really matter. They never really died because they never really lived.