The room is illuminated by the strange glow of the clock set into the wall. Clove sits in the middle of the bed, blankets piled up around her like a nest, knees tucked under her chin. She gave up on sleep hours ago; the huge numbers on the wall read 3:27. She thinks about the other tributes, doubtless also sitting awake, staring at the clock. The green light and the unfamiliarity of her surroundings make her feel dreamlike, unreal. And how many times has this featured in her dreams? But it’s almost always the countdown, the tension thrilling through her body and winding tighter and tighter until there is a boom and she wakes, panting. Not this stillness.
She knows that twenty-three others are staring at identical clocks, but it feels like there’s no-one else in the world, or only very far away, outside of this smothering quiet. 3:28. Clove snaps, climbing out of the bed and padding across the living room to Cato’s door. She hesitates only for a second before she eases it open and slips halfway into the room.
Cato is awake, like she knew he would be. He’s leaning against the headboard, twisting the edge of the sheet in his lap. The tendons in his arms are picked out by the green light, creating shifting shadows. He doesn’t look surprised when he sees her, and neither of them says a word. He just pulls the blanket away from the side of the bed, waiting.
She tiptoes across the floor and slides in, and Cato wraps his arms around her and presses his face into her neck, and she wonders if she’s the only one to see how scared he is. She lets out a long breath she didn’t realise she was holding. His hands are warm against the small of her back. Clove rests her head against the big, solid mass of his chest, feeling it rise and fall as he breathes.
They both know that they’re out to win. They know that they’ll do anything to win except kill each other. Each of them knows that if they win, it will be for the other’s sake. They’ve known all this for years.
Cato shifts, cupping her cheek with one hand so that she looks up into his face. He bends down and kisses her, hand fisted in her hair, and she knows that this is their last kiss and feels a sob tighten in her chest, choking her. Once they’re in the arena everything is for the cameras, nothing can distract them. In the arena, they don’t have hearts. She kisses him harder than ever before, clinging to him. Neither of them wants to think about letting go.
Cato draws back and she curls up against his chest again, fisting her hands in the fabric of his t-shirt. He rests his face in her hair, breath tickling her scalp. She hears him say her name, so softly she might have imagined it, and only once. Neither of them says another word. She listens to him breathing for forty-two illuminated minutes before they finally fall asleep.
The last echoes of the announcement die away. Clove is shaking, and it takes her a few seconds to realise that she’s angry, really angry. This is her game, she’s been training for it all her life, and the rules have always been the same. For as long as she’s known Cato, she’s known that they will never see each other old. And now they are telling her that could change, but at the same time that it won’t. Because she knows full well that this rule change isn’t for them. He might as well have just announced the victory of the lovebirds from Twelve.
She looks across at him. He’s staring blankly at the ground, fists clenched, and she knows he’s thinking the same. ‘I’m cold’, she says, which really means please touch me. Cato hesitates, but shuffles over so that she can lean into his side. It’s not likely the cameras are on them, beyond perhaps a brief reaction shot, or she wouldn’t risk it. The focus will be on Twelve and Lover Boy. They’re probably out their somewhere kissing for the cameras while a thousand Capitol citizens dab at their eyes with perfumed handkerchiefs. Meanwhile, she and Cato can barely even touch for fear they’ll be labeled copycats, a poor second to the star-crossed lovers. Besides, she already has an identity. There’s no room for character depth, especially not with everyone’s attention on the lovebirds. Being ruthless and in love will only alienate people. Those who would sponsor them for their abilities will consider it a sign of losing focus, and few would choose their little romance over the existing one.
She is seized with an irrational determination to deny them their carefully conceived romantic ending, to refuse to allow them to have things exactly the way they planned. Why should she and Cato, who have worked for this all their lives, be forced to sacrifice themselves? Watching the Games, preparing for them, it’s been her whole life. But this is the first time it’s ever felt unfair.
Something snaps inside her at the sight of the rock in Thresh’s hand. That’s for me, she thinks hysterically. I can’t stop this happening. That rock is for me. She screams the only thing she can think of, because if she screams loud enough she can drown it all out, even the rock, even the end, because as long as there is Cato, as long as there is Cato-
The blow shatters through her, blinding her with its force. She feels disembodied. Twelve and Eleven are still there, their voices tinny like from an old radio. Over them comes Cato’s voice, her name over and over, desperate like she’s never heard him before, and she tries to reach for him but finds she can do no more than twitch her arm. Vaguely, she knows that he must be getting closer, but he seems increasingly distant. His shouts echo and blur into each other, Clovecloveclove, until it’s just noise, but it’s still Cato, Cato’s voice over the dizzying swoops in and out of the other voices.
The clouds split and merge and form new shapes, swimming among the advancing dark and the flashes of blue. Her knife hovers before her, blindingly bright, then slashes straight for her eyes, and she tries to scream but her mouth doesn’t even move. She thinks she can feel herself seeping into the ground. Her skull is soft and wrong, like the gap from a lost tooth. She can feel it, even though she can’t move to make sure. Something seems to be washing over her face, building up pressure, and everything gets fainter and fainter.
Cato’s face, twisted, shouting soundlessly. A tear rolls off his chin and melts into thin air mid-fall. Miles away, she feels her arms move, as though someone is shaking them. She can’t know for sure if he’s really there. His lips are moving, and she tries so hard to follow them, but she’s sinking under a weight like she’s drifting to the bottom of the sea and everything’s gone, Cato’s gone, and she doesn’t know if he was ever even there.