For those of you who haven't read the rest, this is the fourth in a series written by be-nice-to-nerds and I, which basically changes the events of the Seventy-fourth Games so that different tributes win.
If anyone recognises my name on here, it is usually because of my story 'Love is a Battlefield', and while this is supposed to be separate from that, I very quickly realised that I can't write District Two any other way so this is really an AU continuation of my old story - if you are unfamiliar with that then this will make no sense whatsoever, just thought I'd warn you ;)
BNTN, if you're reading this then I know it's too long and I know you think it's too fluffy (and I'm guessing that you will too if you're out there, Geth :P) but I wanted to write a happy ending for once so I can't quite bring myself to apologise :P
"Greetings to the final contestants of the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games. The earlier revision has been revoked. Closer examination of the rule book has disclosed that only one winner may be allowed. Good luck, and may the odds ever be in your favour."
Claudius Templesmith's voice booms out across the arena less than a minute after the hovercraft which came to bear Katniss's body away vanished from sight. It was just a ruse all along, just another part of the game, a meaningless promise that the Gamemakers never meant to keep. I bet that they took one look at both of the love stories that developed on screen before their eyes as the Games progressed and decided that to implement and then revoke such a rule change would be the most exciting twist to happen since the last Quarter Quell. I should have seen it coming but I didn't. Or should I more accurately say that I didn't want to.
I look down from my position on top of the Cornucopia to see Cato standing by the golden horn's entrance, surrounded by the dead, wolf-like muttations that had been the last ordeal the Gamemakers had subjected us to, or so we thought at the time. He isn't even looking at me, he's just staring at the floor, his features fixed in a blank expression of disbelief.
I shuffle towards the back of the Cornucopia, as hampered by my poorly splinted broken leg as I have been since the day of the feast, and slowly and painfully edge myself down the sloped side to land in an undignified heap at the base a couple of minutes later. Cato has walked around to meet me and if he wasn't looking at me before then he is making up for it now, his eyes never leaving mine.
So this is what it comes down to. The Capitol expect us to fight, they expect us to fight until one of us dies. Well one of us will die and it won't be Cato. I reach for the knife that is tucked into what is left of my jacket pocket, the last one I have left after our fight with the muttations, but my reflexes are nowhere near as quick as they were before I endured my time in the arena and he sees what I am doing immediately, in plenty of time to reach for a knife of his own. Does he really think that I would kill him? Is he really going to kill me? If one of us has to die then do I really care?
My hand closes over the handle of the knife and I yank it free of my jacket, not throwing it at Cato but bringing it up so that the blade pushes against my own throat.
His shout echoes across the arena and I look up to see that the knife he drew is not aimed at me but also held to his throat by his own hand.
"I told you four years ago that I would die for you and I meant it!"
"And I told you that I would never let you die for me!"
I push on the blade a bit harder, hard enough to draw blood, which trails down the side of my neck for the whole of Panem to see. I am just an orphaned district girl. I have no power here and am as subject to the whims of the Gamemakers and the rest of the Capitol as anyone else who was born away from the bright lights of the big city, but they cannot make me kill Cato. They can have both of us or neither, there is no other way.
I take a deep breath which I fully intend to be my last, but as I start to draw the knife across my skin the trumpets blare once again and I hear Claudius Templesmith's frantic shout "Stop! Stop! Ladies and Gentlemen, I am pleased to present the victors of the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games, Clove Jacia and Cato Marcelli! I give you - the tributes of District Two!"
Cato closes the distance between us immediately, pulling my knife from my hand and flinging it away like it burns him before scooping me up in his arms and crushing me against him.
"You're so stupid, Clove," he whispers, "did you really think I would let you die for me?"
I don't get chance to respond because a hovercraft appears above us and a ladder is quickly dropped down. Cato steps forwards, supporting me with one arm while the other reaches for the ladder. As soon as his foot touches the lowest rung, we are frozen into place and raised up as we are taken from the place that I know will forever haunt my nightmares.
For a brief second I see the unnaturally bright lights which illuminate the interior of the hovercraft, but then I feel a sharp stabbing pain in my arm despite there being nobody close to us. The last thing I hear is Cato shouting my name as we both collapse to the floor.
Cato's shout echoes in my head as I begin to struggle violently. I can't move my arms or my legs and there is a solid band of metal across my stomach, stopping me from getting up. My eyes fly open but I can see nothing but the completely unmarked white ceiling above me. We won. Why isn't this over? I had known for a long time that I would forever be held captive by the Capitol but I thought they would at least be more subtle about it than this.
"Clove, stop struggling or you will ruin your dress."
Initially the vaguely familiar voice sounds like it is coming from a long way away, but gradually it gets louder and more focussed. I turn my head as much as the restraints that I continue to fight allow me, to see Ambrosius leaning over me, his bright orange suit painfully bright against the background of stark white.
"Where's Cato? I need to see him. Right now. Cato!"
"He's not here," replies my stylist, making me panic and fight the restraints all the more. He looks like he wants to reach across and hold me down but I can tell that he doesn't quite dare. "You can't see him until the Victory Ceremony."
"And when's that?"
"In about half an hour. I thought it would be in everyone's best interest if you were still unconscious when we prepared you."
The shudder that is my physical response to the thought of the prep team touching me when I was asleep is so pronounced that I know he will notice, and the horror I feel inside is very temporarily enough to make me fall still. It doesn't last for long though, for the next second I remember Claudius Templesmith's voice booming around the arena as he revoked the rule change. What if they intended to keep to their decision? What if the Gamemakers made it for us when we refused? If they did and I am still alive then that can only mean one thing. At that thought I struggle even more than I did before, screaming Cato's name at the top of my voice until I can scream no more.
"If you don't stop that then they will sedate you again," says Ambrosius, who now stands a lot further away from the bed than he did before.
"I won't stop until you let me go," I tell him, my voice cracking slightly.
Ambrosius cautiously approaches me once more. "They are just outside the door, listening to everything we say. If I have your word that you will remember that then I will release you. It is time we were going anyway. The production team won't be happy if we're late."
I nod but don't speak, which he obviously takes for my agreement as he flicks a switch at the foot of the bed and my metal bindings retract into it's frame. I sit up immediately and swing my legs off the bed, pushing myself to my feet as quickly as I can. My face contorts with anger and humiliation when my legs refuse to take my weight and I fall back down for a reason that has nothing to do with the ridiculously high-heeled sandals that I seem to be wearing.
"How long have I been out for?" I snap.
"Six days. Your leg was that badly broken they had to operate."
I hadn't even thought about it, but now that he has mentioned it, I look down and see that my leg is completely healed, as if it had never been broken. That's not my priority though.
"You didn't answer my question. Where's Cato?"
Ambrosius sighs deeply, as if he can tell that he isn't going to get another response from me until he answers my question properly. "Marchesa was getting him ready for the ceremony. I would imagine he is just waking up too."
"Why was he sedated? He isn't as repulsed by the thought of total strangers touching him as I am," I say, feeling slightly better when I hear some of my old confidence returning as I find myself unable to resist making what I think of the prep team abundantly clear to him.
"They took him off the sedation yesterday when his injuries had fully healed. He was back under a couple of minutes later."
"Why do you think? He was told he couldn't see you. I'm sure you can imagine the response."
I smile for the first time I can remember since the feast at his words, and I push myself up off the bed once more. My legs take my weight this time and I stumble shakily over to the full length mirror that has been set up in the corner. It looks so out of place in this totally white, clinical room that it is obvious the style team have had it brought in here specially.
It is a real effort to force myself to look at my reflection in the mirror, for once again they have given me the full Capitol makeover and I look nothing like myself. I wrap my arms tightly around my body, wishing that I could just leave all this behind me and go home. Not that home will be the same when I get there, but if Cato is with me and I can choose my own clothes again then it will always be better than this.
The dress isn't metallic silver this time but a deep blood red, with a single patch of silver over my heart. It looks random and I spend as much time as I can puzzling over what could have made Ambrosius put it there to avoid looking at the rest of my outfit.
"It's too tight," I say eventually, hating the way the fabric clings to my body. "And this is too low and this is too high," I continue, gesturing first to the way the back of the dress falls completely away to just below my waist and how the split at the side reaches virtually to my hip.
"Not for the audience, it's not. Do you really think you can play the innocent little girl after your little display in the arena?"
My stylist's usual calm voice changes, just as it did before the Opening Ceremony when I tried to cut my dress, and I am sharply reminded of Vikus. For the first time I wonder where he is. I'm sure that both he and Selene won't want to miss this. They are probably waiting by the stage already, unwilling to miss a single second of their time in the spotlight.
"I don't want to play anyone. I want Cato and I want to go home," I reply, hating myself for sounding so weak and pathetic but unable to stop myself from voicing what I am really thinking. Then I turn around to look at the non-existent back of the dress and feel a surge of anger at what I see. "What have you done to me?" I snap, turning to look accusingly at Ambrosius.
"Improved you greatly. Did you think I would send you to your Victory Ceremony looking like you did. I would be the laughing stock of the Capitol."
"You mean if you sent me to my Victory Ceremony looking like myself," I snarl, reaching over my shoulder to trail my fingers across the now totally flawless skin of my back. "You had no right."
He stalks over to the door and yanks it open. "Go. Now. Or you will find out exactly how few rights you have."
I glare at him as I stride from the room as best as I can in my stupid clothes, making myself drop it in the hope that they will let me see Cato if I do.
I continue down yet another stark white corridor with Ambrosius following, and as I turn a corner, I see Vikus and Selene standing by a set of lift doors. She beams at me, obviously because she is pleased with the amount of attention she is getting as a result of our victory rather than because she is actually happy that I lived, but he stares emotionlessly at me, his eyes hard and cold.
"You're a little fool, Jacia. They should have let you both kill yourselves. Have you any idea of the trouble you have caused?"
I look up at him, my eyes widening a few seconds later as I abruptly realise for the first time that Cato and I had inadvertently defied the Capitol by refusing to fight each other. It hadn't been our intention, but when I had held that knife to my throat, intending to take my own life so he could live, and he had done the same for me, we had refused to do as the Capitol commanded, and everyone in Panem knows the consequences of that. We had done it for love not rebellion, but will they see it like that? I suppose I will find out soon enough.
"Now you understand," he growls, not stupid enough to say words that might incriminate him in any way. "You'd better be convincing."
"I don't have to try. It wasn't an act. Now tell me where he is," I say harshly. I am a victor just like him. He doesn't own me anymore.
Selene seems to sense the obvious tension and bustles forwards in a cloud of pale blue silk to intervene, probably because she's been escort to District Two for long enough to understand the likely conclusion to our argument. "Just up here. The audience wouldn't want to miss the big reunion, would they?"
So that's why they've been keeping us apart. Because they want to reunite us live on television. I should have known. The lift rises quickly and when the doors open I find myself in the entrance hall of the Training Centre, which is full of people, all dressed in such vivid colours that it hurts my eyes to look at them. Vikus grasps my upper arm roughly and starts to drag me away from the main doors and through a smaller one which is set off to the side.
"Don't touch me," I snarl, pulling away violently but still following his lead.
He just laughs his low, cruel laugh and pushes open a second set of doors, which lead to a dimly lit area that looks to be underground. It is only when I hear the camera people calling to each other that I realise where I am; underneath the stage. I can hear the rumbling of the crowd above, so loud that I don't hear a word Selene is saying to me. From the way she gestures to my dress, I quickly decide that it is probably just as well.
The crowd goes wild as I hear Caesar Flickerman giving his typically exuberant speech, welcoming everyone to what he calls 'The show you've all been waiting for'. I look frantically around me, searching for Cato or anyone who might tell me he is nearby, but I can see neither him, his stylist, nor even any of his prep team. I turn to demand once more to see him but then I notice that I am alone, and it is only when I face the metal platform that will raise me onto the stage that I see why. The platform is already lifting my prep team up and I can see Selene, Ambrosius and Vikus waiting for their turn next to a pair of very official looking Capitol people, who are clearly supervising proceedings and following a carefully planned schedule that is mapped out on the clipboards that they carry.
In no time at all, the platform has been raised and lowered a further three times, and the crowd are cheering louder than ever for Vikus, who has always been well-known and incredibly popular in the Capitol, when one of the officials steps towards me and gestures for me to step onto the metal plate.
The heel of my shoe makes a clanging sound as it hits the plate and I am suddenly sharply reminded of another, much smaller, metal circle that raised me up into the arena just over three weeks ago. It seems like a lot more time than that has passed since then, both because I have been through so much and because so much has changed, but I still feel the same butterflies in my stomach as I hear Caesar announcing my name to a fanfare of trumpets followed by the overwhelming roar of the crowd as the plate rises upwards.
Then, despite how I know that the noise is unceasing, everything falls silent as my mind blocks out everything but him. He is standing there, dressed in a ridiculously over-the-top silver shirt and trousers, as altered by the stylists as I am, but he is whole and healthy, and when his eyes meet mine they are the same dark-blue that I could never forget, the familiar half-smile that is never directed at another is the same as it has always been.
I don't know how long we stand there, fixed to the spot, mesmerised by each other but not daring to move, but finally I kick the hated sandals from my feet and race across the stage towards him. He steps forward to meet me, lifting me high in the air and spinning me around and around, just like he did when I won my first prize fight back home. The sound of the crowd returns then, and I am almost deafened by the noise they make, just as I am almost blinded by the camera flashes.
He lowers me slightly so that my eyes are level with his, smiling as he pulls me closer to whisper in my ear. "Do you care about the cameras now, my Clove?"
I shake my head slightly and he kisses me, supporting me with one arm and wrapping the other around my shoulders, entwining his fingers in my hair to pull me even closer to him. Who cares what people think? What do the cameras matter? When I think how I nearly lost him on so many occasions, I quickly reach the conclusion that the fact the whole of Panem is watching our reunion means nothing at all.
It could be seconds or it could be hours that we remain there, so totally absorbed by each other that we sense nobody and nothing else, but it still feels far too soon when Selene eventually pulls us apart and looks at us with mock disapproval. I can't avoid noticing how she tugs on Cato's arm not mine and I smile at the thought that maybe my reputation isn't totally lost after all.
"There will plenty of time for that later," she says in a very loud stage whisper. "We have a show to do."
The crowd laughs and Cato reluctantly lowers me to my feet as Caesar guides us to the front of the stage. There is not one but two ornately carved chairs waiting there this time, in recognition of how for the first time ever, the Games has two victors, but as our host ushers us to the chairs, pulling the smaller one to the side for me in a great show of chivalry for the cameras, Cato shakes his head and lifts me back into his arms, sitting down on the other chair with me on his lap, much to the delight of the audience.
As soon as we sit down Caesar raises his arms above his head in a call for silence, and a good natured smile appears on his face when he is promptly ignored. It is only when the studio lights are dimmed that the crowd settles down, that there are no more sounds of stomping feet and clapping hands, no more calls for 'District Two!' and 'Cato and Clove!', which sound so much better now that the arena is in the past, at least physically if not psychologically.
Since waking up I have thought almost constantly of the events that took place in the arena, the memories only leaving me completely when I was reunited with Cato, but I am still shocked by how much I have blanked out, as if my mind is deliberately suppressing that which is too horrific to contemplate. It is stupid things that seem to make me remember; a woman's dress that is the exact shade of emerald green as Glimmer's eyes, the way Cato refuses to let me go and looks at me like he thinks they are going to revoke the rule change all over again, an intricately carved brooch which bears the same pattern that was on the handles of the knives I fought with in the arena. I wonder if the woman who wears it had it made that way deliberately? Knowing the Capitol, she probably did.
The lights dim even further as the massive television screen sparks into life to show the seal of the Capitol as Caesar welcomes the audience to the highlights of the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games. I feel as well as hear Cato's sharp intake of breath in response to the famous presenter's words, and when I look up at him he whispers in my ear, disguising our communication with a kiss.
"That won't take long then."
I smile in response and snuggle closer to him, tucking my head underneath his chin as I take his hand and entwine his fingers around the fabric of the skirt of my evil dress before returning it to its original position on my lap. He understands what I want immediately, and smirks as he pulls the fabric even tighter so that my legs are completely covered, but then his expression becomes serious once again as the review programme begins. Three hours of reliving the horrors of the past three weeks, an overwhelming quantity of footage condensed to paint a picture of what the Gamemakers and the rest of the Capitol consider the most important and significant parts.
As ever, it starts with the reapings of those tributes who featured the most in the arena, and I feel a stab of grief when Glimmer appears. Cato squeezes my hand as if he knows what I'm thinking, and I lift my hand to grip the thin metal chain of the district token he still wears, letting my hand rest over his heart so I can feel it beating.
They include a lot more of the reapings than normal, and I see first ours and then the boy from District Three, Lysandra's, District Eleven's and finally District Twelve's, where I watch Katniss screaming her sister's name as she volunteers to go to her death so that the younger girl doesn't have to go to hers.
Dead. All of them dead. Not because they had committed a crime or an offence against another that demanded vengeance but as punishment for something that happened before they had even been born. I have known since I was a young girl that I was destined for the Games, my father made sure of that, but I didn't expect it to feel like this. I didn't expect the unimaginable happiness I feel because we both lived to be tinged with regret caused by so many needless deaths. I didn't expect to value Glimmer's friendship or to admire Lysandra's unwavering courage and determination. I had never once considered that fighting in the Games would be nothing like fighting at home. But then I look up at Cato, his face an expressionless mask of stone as he stares at the screen, and I realise that I will never feel as much regret and grief at the death of the other twenty-two tributes as I should. For when I look at him I cannot even think of them, the only thing in the world that matters is that he lived.
As the victors, Cato and I get a lot of time on the screen, and I watch as we parade through the streets of the Capitol on the night of the Opening Ceremony, receive our matching training scores and then get through our interviews with an impenetrable shield of aggression that looks a whole lot more convincing on screen than it felt at the time. They are obviously focussing on our relationship, which is no great surprise following what happened when they tried to revoke the rule change, but they focus on the other tributes as well and it quickly becomes apparent that we didn't give them much to work with until we actually got to the arena.
It is about three quarters of an hour into the programme when Claudius Templesmith finally announces the start of the Games, and the rest of the time passes by in a blur. I see Cato and I fighting back to back outside the entrance to the Cornucopia at the bloodbath and watch as I throw my knife into Arturo's heart, I see our capture of the boy from District Three and I see myself arguing and debating with Glimmer, but throughout the whole thing I also see every look that Cato and I exchanged, every time he touched me or I touched him, all given new significance now that the Capitol knows the truth of what they were seeing.
The audience laugh when they see my initial reaction to Glimmer sleeping beside me, but as I watch my onscreen self lying there between my lover and my friend, I soon have to look away, knowing that soon I will be expected to watch her die. Glimmer's death is the first unknown that I see, and I turn to bury my face against Cato's shoulder when she falls to the floor, overcome by the tracker jacker venom. Not everything new that I see is as horrific though. I watch in stunned amazement as Lysandra makes her way cautiously through the minefield to help herself to our supplies, smiling when I hear Cato's soft and unexpected laughter.
All of the memories come flooding back when I watch what happened, blushing like a little girl as I watch our response to the rule change, turning away from the screen and causing Cato to laughingly ask if I'm trying to tell him that I'm ashamed of him, which only makes me blush more, but then the next second staring at the screen, frozen with horror as I watch myself tackle Katniss to the floor only to be lifted off her by Thresh, who throws me to the ground so hard that my leg breaks before turning to meet Cato, who is charging forward to meet him, protecting me when for once I can't protect myself.
That is how the remaining part of the programme makes me feel, alternately embarrassed and horrified by what I see, until it eventually all ends, finishing as Cato and I are lifted into the hovercraft and shot with tranquiliser guns by Capitol people who were clearly unwilling to attempt to separate us when we were conscious.
Then the lights brighten once more, so quickly that it makes my eyes hurt, and the anthem plays as the crowns are brought onto the stage. President Snow himself places them upon our heads, a small intricately carved silver one for me and a larger but no less intricate gold one for Cato, and I can't bring myself to meet his eyes. Even after all I have seen both at home and in the arena, there is still something about the man who rules our nation which is so utterly terrifying yet impossible to define, and I have never clung to Cato's hand tighter than I do now.
When the crowd finally stop cheering and the lights dim again, Cato asks me if I think they will let us leave and go upstairs. I am as intolerant of the crowds of brightly dressed and vacuous people as he is and am about to suggest trying to escape when Selene lunges towards us, praising our performance on stage and telling us it is time for the Victory Banquet. I groan inwardly and am surprised that I manage to express something that even resembles a smile in response. Fortunately she doesn't seem to notice and trots happily away, clearly expecting us to follow. We do, but with more reluctance than I have ever felt before.
"That is your room," says Ambrosius several hours later as he looks at Cato, "and that is yours," he continues, looking at me this time. "It's late and you have to be well rested for the interview. Go and get some sleep."
From the way both stylists look at us as they wait, it is clear that they intend to remain there until we have gone to our individual rooms, and however hard she has been trying to hide it, my eyes are as sharp as they ever were and I can clearly see the key that Marchesa has enclosed in her hand.
Our stylists stare at us in stunned silence when Cato's immediate response to what we can both see is to grasp my arm and push open the door to his room in the same movement.
"You must be joking," he says incredulously to his stylist as he pushes me inside before following and slamming the door behind him.
The high-pitched, whining accents of our would be jailers drift through the door immediately and I bite my lip to force myself to remain silent as we listen to their words.
"They have to be told, Ambrosius," whines Marchesa. "They can't treat everyone around them with such casual disregard."
"I think they just did," replies Ambrosius, and I am surprised to hear a very slight hint of amusement in his voice. "Are you going to break the door down and try to drag them apart? Does it really matter where they sleep?"
"Sleep is the key word in that question," she replies dryly. "If they fail in the interview tomorrow then I will hold you responsible."
It seems that that is the final straw, as Cato begins to laugh before his stylist even finishes her sentence and I soon find it impossible not to join in, laughing properly for the first time since Selene drew my name from the reaping ball.
Eventually we can laugh no more and I walk slightly further into the room as Cato walks over to the window and stares out at the Capitol below. It is then that I catch sight of myself in the huge mirrored doors of the wardrobe and all good humour fades as the memories come flooding back. How can I be expected to process the events of the past three weeks in my mind when I don't even look like me? I know I am being stupid but I can't help the way I feel. I know that I won't be able to fully comprehend how the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games have changed both me and my life until I am finally allowed to go home, where I can be myself again and not what the Capitol thinks it wants me to be.
"What is it, Clove? What's wrong?"
The concern in Cato's voice brings me back to reality and I quickly realise that if I am going to stand there staring at my reflection in a mirror then an explanation for such atypical behaviour is bound to be demanded. My love for Cato might not be a lie but virtually everything else about tonight has been and I suddenly find myself unable to maintain my front any longer.
"Cato, I want to go home. I don't want to be here. I can't bear it. I hate the cameras, I hate the interviews and above all, I hate this dress," I reply, plucking at the front of the offending garment to emphasise my point.
He crosses back over and wraps his arms around me. "Shh, Clove," he whispers quietly into my ear. "The walls might have ears, you know that."
"I know," I whisper back apologetically, "But I really do want to go home."
He pushes me away then and dims the lights before he returns to the window, taking a last look at the city before pulling the huge, heavy curtains closed. It seems to take a lot of effort but then I guess that they probably haven't been drawn before. He is probably the first person to ever want to shut the wonders of the Capitol out. But why?
I stare blankly at him as he crosses to the wardrobe, opening the doors and removing something before closing them again, thinking that if he is trying to distract me from my unhappy thoughts then he is doing quite a good job even if I have no idea exactly what he is doing. I watch as he swiftly removes the hideous clothes that the Capitol dressed him in and replaces them with part of what he took out of the wardrobe, which seems to be a simple pair of trousers, much like what he would wear at home.
Then he walks back over to me and I reach up to rest my hand over the scar above his heart, the scar that is still there despite his recent encounter with his prep team. "You kept your scars then," I say quietly.
"Marchesa said the audience prefer it that way."
I scowl at that, making him laugh softly. "More like she does," I retort, just managing to get my words out before he puts his finger to my lips to silence me.
His eyes don't leave mine as he first pushes the straps of my dress off my shoulders and then pushes the bunched fabric over my hips. He walks behind me and helps me into the shirt he carries before returning to stand in front of me, pulling the soft, warm material of the garment which was clearly made for him forwards and beginning to fasten the small buttons. I try to ignore it but I don't miss the way his eyes linger on my stomach as he notices that my old scar has been removed without a trace. Most people would feel self conscious about having scars but I quickly find that I feel the opposite and wish with all my heart that the Capitol had left me as I had been.
"Full body polish," I whisper. "I think that's what they call it."
He merely reaches down and traces the exact line of where my scar used to be before returning to his task of fastening the shirt buttons. "You're still you, Clove. You're still mine."
When the last button of my shirt has been secured, he walks over to the huge Capitol bed and pulls half of the blankets off, arranging them on the floor before returning for me and leading me over to them, pulling me down beside him so I can curl up against him like I always used to.
"Not quite like home but it's the best I can do in such inferior surroundings."
I turn to kiss him, smiling as I reply. "I suppose it'll just have to do."
When I wake in the morning I am still lying wrapped in the blankets on the floor beside the bed, but when I open my eyes I quickly see that Cato is already up and dressed in a plain white shirt and black trousers, ready to face the horrors of the day. He holds his hand out to me and I take it, allowing him to pull me to my feet.
"Breakfast, I think," he says. "I've missed the Capitol food."
"You would have done," I reply, laughing as we walk to the door. He's always hungry.
He stops me when we get there, looking down at me questioningly. "Don't you want to change?" he asks, clearly in reference to the fact that I still wear the shirt he dressed me in last night.
I shrug my shoulders, feeling considerably more decent and comfortable than I did in that awful red dress. The shirt really does cover more than the dress and it is the least 'Capitol' thing I have worn for what feels like all eternity. "Why?" I reply dryly. "A new day, a new scandal."
He laughs at that, taking my hand and leading me down the corridor into the dining room. Selene immediately looks at me in horror, shrieking in her uniquely Capitol manner and falling back into her chair as if in shock.
"You look like a street urchin, girl. Do you not realise it's your interview today?"
"He's the street urchin, not me," I reply flatly, turning to look at Cato, who contradicts my comment perfectly by being a picture of well mannered decorum as he sits at the table casually helping himself to a drink. "Besides, I'm sure it's only a matter of time before Ambrosius arrives to begin my transformation all over again. I realise that I won't be allowed to look like myself for long but I intend to enjoy it while it lasts."
The prep team and Ambrosius release me as whole lot sooner than they usually do, presumably because I had already been polished to their idea of perfection only yesterday, but it still feels like hours and I don't think I will ever get so used to them that they no longer bother me. I push open the door to the room I have been instructed to enter and immediately stiffen in horror as Caesar Flickerman hugs me as soon as I step through the doorway.
"Congratulations, Clove," he says, with way too much enthusiasm for my liking.
"Thank you," I reply awkwardly, secretly impressed with my self restraint when I manage to pull away from him in a way that leaves him both still on his feet and conscious. I quickly scan the room, desperately searching for Cato until I sense him approach and come to a halt just behind me.
"When does the programme start?" he asks as he slides his arm around me and I lean back against him. I can tell he is trying to keep the anger he feels hidden but I can also tell instantly that it's still there.
"Not long now," answers our host, clearly missing the real question that I hear instantly in my lover's voice, which is 'How much longer are you people going to keep us here?'.
The next second, a very harassed looking director bustles over to us and points us in the direction of two chairs. One is some kind of two-seater armchair and the other is Caesar's familiar golden throne. "Sit down, sit down. Quickly," he says. "We're on a tight schedule, you know. Not that anyone seems to notice."
Cato pushes me towards the window, studying my dress intently. It's still blood red but not as elaborate or revealing as the hated one from last night, a simple fitted bodice and a skirt that flares out when I walk, belted tightly at my waist with a belt carved with the now familiar and seemingly mandatory 'knife-handle' pattern.
"Will they let you keep that one?" he asks with a smirk, and now that it has returned, I suddenly realise how much I have missed that look.
"Why?" I retort, pretending not to understand his meaning even as I walk ahead of him, deliberately making the fabric swirl in an almost unknown departure from my usual response of barely suppressed self-consciousness that I still can't seem to fight no matter how much time has passed.
He laughs and pushes me out of the way, sitting down on the side of the chair furthest away from Caesar's throne before pulling me down so I am more sitting on top of him than beside him. If I am honest then I have been dreading this all day, and as a member of the camera crew begins the countdown to the beginning of the programme just as Caesar sits down, I turn slightly to look up at the fierce expression on Cato's face despite already being able to sense his mood, realising immediately that this is going to have to be the best performance of my life if we are going to get through it.
Caesar does his usual introduction and jokes before he introduces Cato and I a whole lot sooner than I had hoped for, and then he proceeds to recap the events of the Games in his own inimitable style. I am just grateful that I don't have to talk. It doesn't last though, and it isn't long before he is bombarding us with questions, asking us how we felt during various events but surprisingly staying off the subject of our relationship. I am not stupid enough to think that will last.
Cato speaks very little, and while I know he is staying silent because he finds it so much more difficult to hide his true emotions that I do, I hate having to do all of the talking and simply stare dumbfounded at Caesar when he asks me how I felt about Glimmer's death. I know that I should say I felt nothing but relief, just like I did when he asked for my reaction to some of the other deaths, but I can't do it.
"If we were going to live then she had to die," intercedes Cato, and it is very difficult for me not to react to the harshness of his tone. "That's all there is to say."
He wraps his arms around me and pulls me closer, knowing how I grieve for the girl from District One even if he doesn't fully understand why. I push myself back against him but is Caesar I watch, noticing immediately how he narrows his eyes at my lover, clearly deciding to interrogate him now he has finally decided to start speaking.
"Tell us, Cato, you and Clove were clearly one of the two pairs of star-crossed lovers in the Games this year, but you have never said if you knew each other beforehand. Did you meet your love on the day of your reaping?"
"No," he replies bluntly, making the camera crews and a few of the other assorted onlookers gasp at his aggressive tone as he refuses to volunteer any further information.
"How old were you when you first knew you loved her?" persists Caesar.
I turn away, hating how they seem to take our private business and our past and make it public knowledge as if we are their property and it is their right.
"I've always loved her. But I was thirteen when I first saw her."
The shocked gasps of outrage from the others in the room change to sighs and I even see one member of Caesar's make-up team wiping away a tear.
"So would you have volunteered if the reaping of the female tribute had been first? You looked like a man who wanted his victor's crown," continues Caesar, clearly determined to resume his interrogation.
"Of course not," Cato replies, and I cannot help but smile at the incredulity in his voice. "Did you not see how the Games ended?"
Caesar jumps on that mention of our would-be double suicide immediately. "What were you thinking as you held that knife to your throat?"
Cato's arms tighten around me, his fingers digging painfully into my leg as I desperately try to think of a response that will be acceptable to the closely watching Capitol, a response which differs from the vastly heretical one that I am sure is running through my lover's mind at the moment.
"That you could have both of us or neither," I say quickly. "I would rather take my own life than take his."
Caesar turns to me then, leaning forwards and speaking in a loud stage whisper. "Does that mean I might need a new suit for your wedding? From your escapades in the arena, I think it's about time."
I try to brazen it out but I just can't. The thought of the whole of Panem discussing my personal life makes me feel physically sick. Despite trying desperately hard to think of a comeback, I can't, so I settle for glaring at my violet suited tormentor instead, hoping that he will return to the Capitol's favourite topic of conversation, which is undoubtedly death and destruction. Unfortunately for me, however, it seems that gossip about Cato and I is a very close second and Caesar will not be dissuaded.
He smiles knowingly at me, making me glare all the more. "Is that your way of telling us that he hasn't asked you yet?"
I feel surprise that he should be so wrong until I realise that they probably didn't hear the conversation we had on the day before the feast was announced in the arena. So much for our plan of waiting until we return home and then having someone marry us in secret, away from the prying eyes of the nation.
"Shame on you," continues Caesar, looking at Cato this time.
I feel every muscle in Cato's body tense and I instinctively brace myself for the outburst that will most likely result in both of our executions, but that outburst never occurs.
"I will love Clove my whole life, her and no other. Not even the Hunger Games could change that. I would have died for her then and I still would now, but if you think we need a piece of paper to bind us together then I'll marry her now."
For the first time in my memory, Caesar seems temporarily lost for words, recovering only when he turns to face me over a minute later. The ridiculous stylists keep crying. "And what do you think of that, Clove?"
"You can be our chief witness if you want," I reply flatly, smirking at him despite the anger I feel at being forced to discuss this and the shock I feel in response to Cato's very public declaration of love that is so unlike him.
"I will hold you to that," he says, his usual demeanour returning as he winks at the camera. "I'm sure the whole country would love to see you get married."
I'm sure they would. I'm sure the parents of the tributes we killed so we could live can't wait to see us alive, well and happy. How stupid are these Capitol people? Can't they hear themselves? Do they not see the reality of what they do? Do they not see how they play with people's lives like they are mere pieces in an elaborate game? They probably do, but they simply don't care.
Even after being back at home for just over two weeks it still feels strange, especially to see how little the Training Centre has changed. It feels odd to be a victor a year earlier than I expected to be, to have been through all of the ceremonies and worn the crown in the Capitol without going through the same here. I have seen all of the other girls still training and it seems surreal to think that I will never have to fight them, that I will never have to face the reaping trials that I have spent most of my life working towards.
However I soon realised that that doesn't make the position I am actually in any better. The Capitol didn't like our double victory, at least those who matter didn't, those who really wield the power. I remember the stony, fixed expressions on their faces as clearly as I remember the mob of so-called 'ordinary' Capitol people who loved us and our story. I have always despised those people. I despised them before the arena, when I went in and I still despised them after I left, which is why it's so ironic that it could be them who save us in the end. As long as they remain interested in us and convinced by the story that captivated their tiny minds throughout the Games then we will be safe. Well as safe as any two people who defied the establishment, however unintentionally, can ever be.
"Clove. Clove, do you mean like this?" comes a voice, interrupting my thoughts and making me snap abruptly back to reality. "Clove," sounds the voice again, dragging out my name until I look around and give it's owner my undivided attention.
"No. Like that," I say firmly, physically changing Iris's grip on her knife and then smirking with satisfaction when she throws it and it sinks into the small wooden target.
She turns to me and her eyes light up, making her for once look like the child she still remains despite how quickly this place has forced her to grow up. I hand her another knife and she quickly takes it, looking arrogantly around at the small group of her peers who are watching her and waiting for their turn. I feel pride when I look at her, knowing that her skills are improving so rapidly because of my coaching and that there is every chance she will soon be proving to the entire Training Centre that I am not a freak of nature, but I also feel something that I didn't feel before I left for the Capitol. Uncertainty. For the first time I find myself questioning whether or not this life is the right one, and that thought is so alien to me that I don't quite know how to react to it.
Iris releases the second knife but this time neither she nor I think to notice where it lands. Everyone turns to stare as the door to the training room is thrown open and Cato appears. He doesn't have to speak for me to know that something is wrong, as the tension I can see in his face and body speaks for him. He shuts the door again without coming in and I swiftly cross the room to leave.
"Dismissed," I call to my pupils as they stare after me curiously.
When I open the door I am immediately pulled forwards and then pushed backwards, my back slamming into the wall as my breath is knocked from my body. When I see the look in Cato's eyes, I don't even think to complain.
"They're here," he whispers, sounding as tense as I have ever heard him, just like he did in the arena. As he grasps my hand and pulls me down the corridor so quickly that I have to run to keep up, I realise that there was something in his voice that almost sounded like fear.
"Who is here, Cato? Where?" I gasp frantically as we leave the Training Centre and he pulls me onto the path that leads to the Victor's Village.
"The Capitol. Not the reporters and the stylists, I mean the real Capitol. There are people waiting at the house."
I don't reply, I just tighten my grip on his hand and follow him up the pathway that leads to the house he was presented with on the day we returned to District Two, the house that we have both called home ever since. I can see from the group of people waiting outside that whoever is here must be important. They must be to have such a large entourage.
Cato stops suddenly, positioning me behind him before continuing towards the house. I push past him and take his hand again, walking in my familiar position by his side.
"We face them together, Cato. You can't protect me from this when we both held the knives."
"They're not having you, Clove. You're mine, not theirs."
"They can't have you either because you're mine as much as I am yours," I reply, and he smirks in response to my reversal of his words. "Anyway, they probably just want me to choose a wedding dress or something."
He smiles but quickly becomes serious again. "I mean it. And I saw enough of him to know that this person means it. He isn't playing games."
"You'd better start convincingly declaring your undying love for me then," I say, deliberately trying to make light of the situation despite the speed my heart is racing and the almost overwhelming fear I suddenly feel.
"Words are meaningless, my Clove, especially when they involve the Capitol," he replies, and at the same time he puts his arm around me, pulling me close. "Is this convincing enough for you?"
I start to answer him but then the entourage step forward to meet us and I see that we have reached the house. Cato climbs the steps and opens the front door, dragging me behind him, still holding me so tightly it feel like he's trying to pull me inside him. I hope the Capitol people will see it as simple affection despite how I know his actions are as motivated by fear that they will hurt me as they are by love. I take a deep breath as he turns back to the strange visitors and invites them into our home like we have a choice about the matter even though everyone here knows that we don't.
The atmosphere in the house is different. I can tell as soon as I set foot in the entrance hall and the door closes ominously behind me. It makes me scan everywhere frantically, almost like I'm back in the arena, but I see no tangible evidence to explain why I feel like I am being stalked by an invisible enemy. The nearest Capitol person gestures towards the dining room door like this is her house and we are the visitors, and knowing that I have no choice but to obey, I follow Cato into the room.
"Now this isn't exactly right and proper, is it?" says the sole occupant of the room, a man of interminable age with iron-grey hair and eyes the same colour who I actually think would look harmless if it wasn't for the inexplicable aura of menace that surrounds him.
"What do you mean?" I reply from where I stand in the doorway, as close to Cato as I can physically get.
The man holds up one of my tunics and gestures to the table which is still set with two places from breakfast time. "You were presented with a house each for a reason."
"It's hardly breaking news or any great shock, is it?" I retort, again with more confidence than I really feel.
He drops the tunic onto one of the chairs and sighs deeply. "I am President Snow's chief advisor," he says, and I suddenly remember his face from the dinner party held at the president's mansion after the Victory Ceremony. "I am merely here to remind you that as the newest victors, you will be very much in the spotlight this year. Everyone will be watching you so I would advise you to be very careful, especially after the controversy that surrounded the end of your time in the arena. I would hate for anyone to get the wrong idea about what happened."
"There is nothing to get the wrong idea about," I reply, looking over at him with what I hope is a convincingly innocent expression.
"Then we will all be happy, won't we?"
"What are you not telling us?" asks Cato. I elbow him sharply in his side, hearing the barely concealed aggression in his voice and hoping that the man from the Capitol will not. "You didn't come all the way from the Capitol just to tell us that."
"You like to be in control, I can see that. The desire for control is something I understand very well." So the veiled threats are obviously going to continue. "Which is why I have taken time out from my inordinately busy schedule to make sure you are kept informed." He smiles, but it is a harsh expression and one that doesn't reach his eyes.
"Kept informed of what?"
He takes a step towards us and I automatically tense, only just stopping myself from reaching for the dagger that I still keep strapped to my forearm.
"Someone will contact you very soon so the arrangements for the Victory Tour can be finalised. But don't forget that we are never far away should you need help or advice, especially after the untimely and wholly unexpected demise of your mentor."
Cato grips my wrist tightly in response to the man's words but I don't look at him, knowing that to do so would look suspicious.
"It was never discovered what happened the night he died, was it?" the man from the Capitol continues, blatantly trying to see if we will reveal anything.
"Maybe he just offended the wrong people," says Cato with a deadly calm to his voice that he still seems to reserve for the man who tortured him all those years ago even now he has finally had the last word in that very long and complicated story. I push the memory of the night that Vikus died from my mind, just in case it shows on my face that I know a lot more than I will ever say.
"Perhaps," replies Snow's advisor. "The districts aren't always as safe as we would want them to be. Anyway," he continues with a sigh, "I will leave you now, but as I said, someone will be contact you very soon."
Without another word, he smiles that cold smile again and swiftly leaves the room, dropping a paper onto the dining table next to my abandoned tunic.
"It's about the tour," I say when I have picked up the Capitol newspaper, more for a distraction than for any other reason.
Anything to stop myself from thinking about the potential implications of what just happened. He might not have used the words but that was a warning, a message to make sure we know they are always watching us and that there are dire consequences if we ever do anything they even vaguely dislike. I keep reading, eventually reaching the end of the article and then staring at the paper in stunned silence.
"Clove." I dimly hear Cato call me but I don't react. "Clove," he repeats, louder this time, and when I still don't respond he crosses the room to stand behind me so he can read the paper for himself.
"You knew they would do this, Clove. The Capitol people will have nothing else to occupy their minds until at least the next Games. We have to go along with it, we have no choice."
"I don't want to marry you in the City Circle at the end of the tour. I wish they would just leave us alone."
He yanks me back against him, his lips brushing my ear as he whispers, his voice anything but gentle despite its quietness. "You heard them, they're watching us. Don't ever say that again." I try to spin around to face him, resenting the way he thinks he can issue me with orders like that even if I can understand why he said it, but he holds me firmly. "I mean it, I won't let you give them a reason. Not ever."
"Don't tell me you weren't thinking exactly the same thing because I won't believe you."
He pulls me around so I'm facing him, shrugging his shoulders but narrowing his eyes in warning. "We went through this in the arena. You will marry me because I want you to," he says teasingly, speaking loudly this time for the benefit of the cameras that we both hope aren't there.
"And don't I get any say in it?"
He shakes his head and kisses me, smiling against my lips when I instinctively kiss him back. "I always said you don't hate me really."
"I always did question my own sanity."
He smiles and pulls away just enough so he can look into my eyes. "They will get bored of us soon, you know that, don't you?" he says. "Unless you're planning on inciting the second rebellion, of course."
I laugh at the thought of it. "Me against the world?" I reply. "It would have no chance."
"I don't doubt that, little girl," he teases, before suddenly becoming serious again. "We still won, Clove. Even the Hunger Games couldn't defeat us. Don't forget that."
"Never," I reply. "Did you really think that something that small and insignificant could conquer us?"