Octavian August, Mayor of District 2
It's been a long time since I've ridden a train.
My fingers clench tightly around the pages of my book, knuckles turning white from tension. I don't want to say this scares me, but I still remember the horror stories from the war, when 6 rerouted all trains through their hellhole of a district before we could do anything about it.
So many of those trains carried Capitol children, shipped off to weather out the war in a safer part of the country.
So many dead.
"Your leg's doing that thing again." Nero scowls, taking the book from my lap and placing it on his own non-bouncing one. "Stop. I can't read."
"Now I can't either." Marius frowns at him from my other side, even going so far as to stick out his tongue. Nero gives him the finger in answer.
Twenty-plus years they've lived, and five of those were spent enduring one of the harshest wars in history. Yet still my siblings are as immature as ever.
I want to scold them. But I also want to thank them. Thank you for being the light when so many only see the darkness.
"I thought the youngest always got what he wanted."
"You're twenty-five, asshole, suck it up."
"Don't swear at your brother." I can't stop myself from reprimanding Nero. Situations like this I've lived through so many times, all my reactions are unconscious at this point.
"Whatever." Nero rolls his eyes. "He should have brought his own book."
"And you? Remember, that's mine."
"Not like you can read it when you're jiggling your leg like that. Seriously, stop. It's giving me a headache."
I try to, for all our sakes. No one needs to be reminded of my nervous habits, which can lead to nervous fits, which can lead to nervous breakdowns, which can—
An attendant appears in the doorway of our compartment, bowing swiftly in my direction before turning to my brothers. "Mr. August. Mr. August. We've just reached Capitol borders now. We're stopping for fuel before we continue into the heart of the city."
"For God's sake, we're not there already?" Marius groans as the attendant leaves. "I'm bored."
"Should've brought a book, asshole."
"You should have brought a book, you—"
I cough, my signature gesture for "stop being idiots and listen up". Funny enough, they both do. Perhaps they do still hold some shreds of respect for me, despite all they've seen me do, the low points they've seen me hit. They still value me as a leader, both their mayor and older brother.
Or perhaps they're listening out of sympathy, because they're worried what I might do otherwise. That thought is . . . less appealing.
"Compose yourselves, please." This command is lessened in power slightly due to my leg still shaking. I make a conscious effort to hold it steady as I continue, "Remember, we are about to meet with the president of Panem."
"Don't give her fancy titles." This time it's Nero sticking out his tongue in disgust. "She'll always be bratty old Julia, mother's dearest Julia, spoiled-as-they-come-with-a-giant-stick-up-her-ass Ju—"
"Ahem." I try to inject more force into this cough. "President of Panem. And your sister. Who you shouldn't swear at."
Well, his response could have been worse. I won't comment on it.
What will she be like, though? We haven't met face to face since . . . has it been twenty years? Time sure does fly.
That's not to say we haven't seen her since then, of course. Her face has been all over Panem for a while now. Young Capitol upstart climbing the political ladder faster than acceptable, scandal alert when the tabloids learned said upstart has family in the districts, of all places. And look, her twin brother is in the political game as well. Small world.
Funny, Julia and I had never seemed that similar growing up. Yet here I am, running 2. And here she is, running the world.
And here she is, walking into our compartment.
All three of us jerk out of our seats as the new arrival enters, flanked by three discreetly-dressed bodyguards. They fade into the background though, grey suits and black glasses easily overlooked in favour of the rainbow they guard.
I would have never recognised her, had I not seen her since Mom and Dad split. Her dark hair is a shocking shade of orange now, cascading down in a fiery shower. Her face seems thinner, and at first I think it's the stress of war, but no, she's had some work done. Finer cheeks, higher cheekbones, and her nose looks smaller as well. I'd be surprised if I hadn't seen her on TV only a few days ago. She's really gotten into the Capitol fashions.
For an instant, we're all shell-shocked. Julia stares over red-tinted glasses, as though she doesn't recognise a single one of her brothers. Nero and Marius, meanwhile, are gawking at her clothes, a glaring ensemble of yellows, oranges and reds with so many ruffles and poufs she looks like she's drowning in the material. It's a ridiculous getup, one I'd scold anyone else for wearing, but somehow, she pulls it off, and worse, she's got me worrying about my clothes. Suddenly I feel terribly underdressed in a simple, dark suit.
Nero's opening his mouth, and for fear of whatever scathing comment might emerge, I quickly step forward to speak first. "Miss President," I say evenly, inclining my head. "We weren't expecting you."
This is it. This is when we find out exactly how much she's changed.
"Please, 'Tavian, it's Julia." She strides over, wraps me in a hug containing far too much fabric, and promptly collapses onto the couch we'd previously occupied. "I swear, if I have to hear 'Miss President' one more time, I'll explode."
"Power getting to your head so soon?" There's Nero, recovering from his surprise quicker than anyone wants. "Didn't think your ego had an expanding limit, Julia, dear."
I'm going to hit him. All right, no I'm not, but I'm going to lecture him so hard when we get back to 2.
Julia flicks her glasses down her nose, shooting a condescending stare up at her younger brother. "Neer. As douchey as ever."
"Jules, as slutty as ever. With all those stupid ruffles, you'd think they could spare the material to make sure your tits aren't spilling out of—"
"Language," I say before I can stop myself. My cheeks are red, partly from Nero's horridly inappropriate words and partly from my own. My sister or no, I'm not sure I should be telling off the president of Panem for swearing.
But Julia smiles up at me, a surprisingly genuine smile. "The perpetual big brother. You don't know how much I've missed you."
Really? "I, ah, I feel the same way."
"And Marius! You're so tall, my God, I'd never have recognised you! Please, boys, come sit."
She taps the spot next to her, currently occupied by my book Nero hastily discarded. Julia frowns, picking it up to take a closer look.
"Ancient Rome and Its Fearless Leaders?"
"Bit of light reading," I say quickly. "Just to pass the time. And brush up on some history."
"You never stop, do you?" She laughs and sets the book on a nearby end table. Not carelessly, but disregarding all the same.
Don't you understand? History is important. Ancient history is the most important. Why was Panem named Panem, why does the Capitol and its strongest ally bear so much influence from ancient Rome? It's connected, it's all connected.
"Come. Relax," she says, patting the couch again. After a moment's hesitance, I take the spot to her left, Marius sitting to her right. Nero remains standing. "And please, let me know if your fearless Roman leaders have any tips for me. Any help would be greatly appreciated."
"What?" Nero's expression is mock-shock. "The star sibling, asking for help from her lowly brothers? Impossible!"
"Hey, I never valued myself over you three, all right? Mom did. Sue me." Julia's hard look softens as she turns back to me. "Speaking of parents, how's Dad?"
The question catches me off-guard. She cares? "Um, dead. Sorry."
Her expression turns sympathetic. "No, I'm sorry. The war?"
"Fell down a mine shaft drunk and broke his neck," Nero snaps from the wall he's lounging against. "That was, oh, a year after we moved to Two?"
"What? Oh, guys, I'm so—"
"Yeah, I'd say the split hit him harder than Mom, huh? 'Course it didn't help when she claimed the whole goddamn Capitol as her territory."
"Hey, don't blame that on her," Julia snaps. "He wanted to get away as much as she did, you know that."
"Yeah, well, he got pretty far, didn't he? Not far enough though—think they got a room together in hell?"
"Nero, that's enough," I hiss. Beside me, Julia's broken eye contact and is looking down at her lap, eyes glistening behind her glasses.
"What? We laugh about Dad's death."
Laugh is not the first word I'd use, but I don't call him on it. I know better than anyone how he deals with tragedy. "Still, Mom just, you know . . ."
I peter out, turning my attention back to Julia. My arm's sliding around her shoulder before I can think; the act of comfort is just so natural. "I'm really sorry. We all heard. Really, really awful."
"Which part?" Julia gives a small laugh that's 0% humour and 100% defense against tears. "A district citizen somehow getting to the Capitol? My Peacekeepers missing the obvious assassin on the roof? The man shooting Mom when his real target should have been me?"
"Look," I jump in quickly. "It's not your fault, if that's what you're—"
"Of course it's not my fault! It's those damn district scum. Sorry," she adds at the end of her outburst. "No offense."
"None taken," Marius pipes up beside her. "I mean, we were allies and all."
"Right. And thank you for that," she adds, speaking mostly to me. "We needed you, and you didn't abandon us. You even, ah, kind of secured my position." She laughs. "Guess people figured if I had brothers in the districts, I could stop us all from fighting."
Nero snorts. "And look how royally you screwed up."
I tense for another argument, but scarily out-of-character, Julia just sighs. "Yeah. Yeah, I did."
Even Nero doesn't know what to say to that, especially when she buries her face in her hands. "It's all shit," she mutters into her palms. "I thought it'd be over when we won, but it's all still shit. Still with the riots, still with the violence, still with the threats. And in my own city too! God, I can't even meet my brothers normally for a simple chat. Seriously, I had to order four different trains to leave from Two, make sure no one knew which one you were on, leak the information we were meeting in my house then—"
"Hey, it's okay," I say, more for my benefit than hers. That anxious rambling sounds awfully familiar to how I get when I'm nervous, and I don't need that reminder hanging over my head right now. "We're here now, and that's all that matters."
That gets a small smile from her, at least. "Yeah, thanks for that."
"No problem. So what did you want to talk about? The districts?"
"Ugh, anything but, please. I've already got thousands of angry Capitolites on my back. 'Vengeance, we want vengeance!' What more am I supposed to do? We already execute so many district citizens they've made a TV channel specifically for it."
"Justice is Served," Nero murmurs. "We know." It's not uncommon for our TV to be tuned in. Sick? Probably. But that never stops the thrill of power and relief I get when I watch a Peacekeeper put a bullet through someone's head, even if it's a citizen of 2. All the rebels have to go. Until then, I won't be safe. My darling Clodia won't be safe. My little Agrippa won't be safe. My dad won't be—
No—Dad's dead. Clodia and Agrippa are dead. Dad died nineteen years ago. Clodia and Agrippa, they were shot a month after the war ended. After. Not unlike Julia's situation with Mom: some rebels wanting to take their anger out on me, instead finding easier targets in my pregnant wife and five-year-old daughter.
They haven't learned. History is doomed to repeat itself unless we learn from our mistakes, but they won't learn. Ever. Not by themselves, not when Julia lets the rebels off with what little punishment they're facing right now. We need a display of power, like our ancient Roman ancestors used so long ago. And I have it, I have it. A way to satisfy the need for vengeance from the Capitol, a way to punish the rebels further, a way for them all to feel my pain—
"'Tavian. Stop. Jiggling. Your. Leg."
I glance up at Nero, then look down at my leg. Sure enough, it's bouncing rapidly to the beat of my pounding heart. Everyone's staring at me, especially Julia, who's also trying to pry my arm off her shoulders. My grip is so tight my fingernails are tearing the material of her dress.
"Sorry." Without looking any of them in the eye, I remove my hand from Julia and stop my knee from bouncing. Get a grip. Julia just lost Mom, Marius watched dozens of his friends and co-workers get slaughtered, and Nero's boyfriend was captured and killed by rebels. I'm not the only one who's lost people I care about. It was just . . . it was just supposed to stop after the war.
It has now. It's been five months since Clodia and Agrippa . . . it's been six months since the war ended. Sure, there've been fights, but no one you know has died. Maybe you're being a bit hasty. Maybe we should avoid more violence.
All at once, my cheeks flush with the heat of shame. I think back to my study at home, desk drawers filled with charts and notebooks and diagrams detailing the districts' punishment. Could I be overreacting? Yes, yes, perhaps I am. Will more violence really help?
Clodia. Agrippa. Mom.
But no one else has died. The worst is over.
The loud clap startles me from my thoughts. "Well," says Marius, rubbing his hands together as he hops to his feet. "You know what this little reunion needs? Drinks. Am I right?"
He winks at Julia, who giggles. "Oh my God, yes. Please."
"Do you even have to ask?"
"Sure." And thank you. Thank you for always picking up my slack, for smiling when I can't.
He chuckles, waves, and heads off towards the bar car. Smart of him not to just call an attendant. No need to advertise how drunk a decorated army captain, the head of 2's public relations, the mayor of said district, and the president of Panem are going to get tonight.
Though Julia's bodyguards are still present, standing back against the compartment wall. I'd nearly forgotten they were here.
"Must be hard," I say to her. "You know, having to be escorted everywhere."
"Not now, not really. Two's been pretty quiet."
Nero raises an eyebrow but doesn't say anything. He knows the real reason I don't want to be guarded at all times is because I can't stand it. Spending the rest of my life with these faceless men and women is like a slap in the face, a constant reminder that perhaps, if I'd been more normal, I could've been surrounded by my family instead of my workers.
But you still have a family, the small voice inside me argues. You have Marius and Nero and Julia, who walked back into our lives better than anyone was expecting. You have them, and that's never going to change.
The explosion sends us all flying.
A loud blast, a scream from Julia, a gasp from Nero, a grinding screech as the train derails. But I can make no sound, only watch as the world dissolves into chaos. Julia's guards are struggling to get to her, but our car is moving too violently, and is it tipping now? Nero shouts something, but I don't know what's going on. Fear has seized me, trapping my terrified conscious inside a body that will not move and a mind that cannot think save one ever-repeating thought.
The explosion was close to Marius.
I'm unaware what happens after that. I think I stay awake for a little while longer, but what I do, I cannot say. In any case, I soon find myself struggling out of the darkness and pain of unconsciousness.
Did I faint? No, the back of my head is aching and sore. I was hit by something. Am I okay?
It takes all my remaining strength to crack one eye open and take in the scene around me. I do so slowly, dumbly, like I don't fully comprehend what's just happened.
We're still in the train car, but everything's wrong. The furniture, all us people, we're on the wall. All us people . . . Julia! Nero! My pounding head struggles to give meaning to these names, to voice my thoughts and cry out for my siblings, but I find myself unable to. It's like I'm watching them from behind a TV: able to see them, but helpless to do anything.
A pile of grey nearby is starting to move—the bodyguards, rising and helping a protected Julia beneath them to her feet. "Miss President, ambulances are on the way. Are you all right?"
"No, I'm not all right! I thought we'd been careful, I'd thought we'd avoid this, I . . . Oh God, my brothers, where are my brothers?"
"Here," comes a groaning voice from beneath the overturned sofa we'd been sitting on so casually moments ago. "Now, if you could be so kind—"
The bodyguards don't have to be told twice. With a powerful heave, they lift the sofa up, and Nero slides out, clambering unsteadily to his feet. He's bleeding from the forehead, with a nasty gash on his shoulder.
"Nero, you're hurt!"
"Forget me, where's 'Tavian? And Marius? We have to get to him right now, he was closer to the explosion and—"
"No. No, you aren't saying—"
"I'm not saying anything, Julia, but we need to get to him."
"Oh God . . ."
Julia sinks to the floor, out of site, but I can still see Nero through my one open eye. His mouth is pressed in a thin line, his jaw clenched, his eyes hard and impossible to read. But I know that look. It's the same one he wore when he heard of Aetius's capture. Everyone assured him it would be all right, they'd get back his boyfriend and the whole squadron taken with him, but Nero knew. He's not one to fool himself like others. He doesn't get his hopes up if he doesn't believe the cause merits such optimism.
I've never known him to be wrong.
My one good eye begins to burn. I shut it, feeling the wetness growing in its corner. Marius. Marius the ever-pleasant. Marius the smiler. Marius the supportive younger brother. Marius.
And Clodia and Agrippa and Mom. And countless others.
Fingers tense and my grip tightens; only then do I realise I'm holding something. Hard surface, more ragged edges within—my book. Somehow, I grabbed my book in all the chaos. Not my brother, not my sister: my book.
But I did it for them. For all of us. My book tells of empires that fell because the people could not be controlled. We need to learn from history. The rebels can't get away with this. I won't let them. I won't let them!
Aetius. Mom. Agrippa. Clodia.
They need to be taught. No, they need to be punished. I knew it, I always knew it, but I doubted, and now I've lost another. No more. They can do all the losing from here on out. They can watch their people suffer. I've had enough.
"That curtain is shaking."
"It's 'Tavian! 'Tavian, you all right?"
I'll make them pay.