Rating: Hard T (harm to animals, language, child abuse, kids killing people, and brief implied underage sex)
Characters/Pairings: Clove, Cato, various D2 OCs
Summary: And this is the price of the thing on her wrist, the thing she will take into the Arena with her to remind her of her oaths and vows and the weight that they carry.
Notes: This is a short series of fics in this universe about Cato and Clove's experiences before and during the Games. They fit more or less into canon and do not deviate from where canon leaves them, although I'm also working on another story that uses the same background and will definitely deviate. I've written a ridiculous amount of D2 backstory, so organizing it is a challenge -- but because I felt like it was only fair to share with a fandom that has provided me with such awesome inspiration, here's my best attempt!
And the past comes back to smack you around
For all the things you thought you got for free
For the arrogance to think that you could somehow
Defy the laws of gravity
-- Don Henley
She remembers when she got her first bracelet, at the end of her first year in the program. It came wrapped in paper and nested in a large cardboard box with dozens of others just like it. No. Not just like it. Some of them are white, some are blue, and some, like Clove’s, are black. It’s a thin braided rope that’s softer to the touch than it looks, fastened with a steel clasp around your right wrist. She remembers the seven-to-nines trainer explaining to them how important this is and that they are to never, ever take them off. She remembers peering over the heads of the taller kids in front of her and catching a glance or two of the pile and wondering what the colors meant. Later, Tess tells her that black is best. It means you’re the top of your class. Blue is okay. White is the worst. Tess has three strands on her wrist, not one, all connected at the clasp and braided into each other so they look like they’re one big, thick rope until you get up close. One is blue. The others are black.
Clove is the smallest kid in the room with a black bracelet.
That summer at Reaping Day, Clove starts noticing the bracelets and suddenly sees them everywhere. It’s like a secret game, picking them out of the crowd of kids. She’s too young to stand in the square, so she points them out to Mommy and Daddy in a hushed whisper before the ceremony starts. She feels very important.
Clove finds the most bracelets in the Twelves and Thirteens, near the back of the square. The others are harder to find because there aren’t nearly as many, but the ones she does find are different. They’re even thicker than Tess’s and sparkle when the light catches them right with orange and red and silver beads.
When the first Volunteer stands up, her right arm is gleaming with all sorts of beads, and since the camera is focused on her and projecting her image on the big screen in the middle of the square, Clove can see it up close. She is beautiful and strong and looks like a warrior from their history books with her long red hair and her golden dress, but it’s the bracelet that Clove notices. She’s got maybe ten strands, all a dark forest of solid black and dotted with a string of beads near the clasp, enough for at least one on each strand. In front of all the other beads is a large, beautiful gold one.
Clove grasps Daddy’s wrist and nods to the screen. “I want a bracelet like that one day,” she says in a hushed whisper.
Daddy gets a funny look, like he bit into an apple and found a worm.
Tess tells her what the beads mean one day outside the Center before class. She’s got an orange one on one of her strands, a little wooden oval slipped on next to the clasp with iridescent gold threads running through it. It’s really nice and looks like somebody made it by hand, even though probably a Capitol machine did it, which just makes Clove like it more.
“Orange is animals,” Tess says neutrally as she points to the bead with a fingernail broken down to the nail bed. “Red’s people. I don’t go for those till next year.”
Clove thinks of the girl Volunteer with the red hair and the beautiful beads and asks, “What’s gold?”
“Gold’s Graduation. Reaping. Volunteer. Silver’s – they’ll tell you next year. I really shouldn’t. I could get in trouble.”
“You like trouble.”
“Yep,” Tess says with her favorite dangerous grin. “I’ve gotta go now. We get handicaps for being late.”
Clove imagines something small and furry from the Animal Locker lying dead in her hands in exchange for an orange bead. She could do it. She’s got three strands now, and they’re all black.
The trainer’s hands are so clean when she puts the bead in Clove’s palm and closes her fingers over it. Probably Clove notices this because her own hands are stained a dark red. They won’t let her wash her hands until after the bead ceremony, so it’s just sat there drying while she listens to her evaluation and her passing score and the words they’ve said so many times in group training. For the first time, she’s answering them alone.
“May your every heartbeat bring honor and glory to District Two and to the Capitol,” the trainer says as the blood on Clove’s palm stains her clean, clean fingers. It’s chipmunk blood. They put the body in a black bag to be dumped into the incinerator at the end of the ceremony.
They’re familiar words that they recited cheerfully from Clove’s first day at the Center, but that’s not all this time.
This time the trainer adds, just like they practiced, “What is freely given cannot be withdrawn. Will you knowingly and freely dedicate your life to the victory of our great nation, forfeiting your legal guardian’s privilege over you in favor of service to the Capitol, forsaking all rights and privileges therein, and remaining a faithful servant of President Snow until your last heartbeat?”
“I will.” Clove’s heart thunders in her chest.
“I accept your offering of service with the whole heart through which it is given. Long live Panem and President Snow.”
“Long live,” Clove echoes. Her voice does not shake.
They let her wash her hands before she signs the papers. And just like that, the Center is her only family.
When Clove meets Cato for the first time, they have two orange beads each on their bracelets, but no reds. Cato has one more strand than Clove does. They are all black, just like hers.
Cato’s human kill is scheduled right before that year’s Reaping Day, and the Center is insane with activity as it always is this time of year. Everyone is focused on the Seniors and has little energy to spare for some fourteen-year-old making his first kill, but of course they find someone with the hours to spare to oversee it. Clove doesn’t know what happens that day, only that Cato is not present at morning drill and that the next time she sees him, at lunchtime, he has a new red bead between the two orange and doesn’t talk at all. She remembers a terrible, shadowy look in his eyes as he stared into his lunch – pasta, she remembers, she can’t forget – as if daring it to speak to him.
She finds him in the gym that night, running and running and running on the treadmill, and he stares at her reflection in the mirror as if he’s never seen her before but doesn’t say anything, just turns the speed up again. Clove sits on one of the benches and waits until he’s finally stopped, and he looks exhausted but not from the treadmill. She asks him once if he wants to talk. He says no. They leave it at that.
Clove’s test comes the next winter, on a cloudy day in January a week after her birthday.
“They piss themselves sometimes, before they die,” Cato warns her the night before. “Don’t look at the eyes. Look right at the forehead and it still looks like you’re looking in the eyes. They’re probably going to make you fight hand-to-hand because you’re shitty at it. Go for the balls first if it’s a dude and they don’t give you a knife; they won’t take off points.”
Clove’s kill is a thief who broke into a family’s house and killed a teenager who tried to fight him. He doesn’t piss himself, but he does vomit onto her face right at the end.
Much later, she’s in the lounge staring at the cracks in the gray paint on the walls when a big hand lands softly on each of her shoulders. Clove doesn’t spin around to attack him because she knows who it is.
Cato asks if she wants to talk. Clove says no. He makes an assenting noise like he’d expected that and rubs her shoulders until they call for lights out.
It’s never been a competition between them. Oh, there’s competition, but not over the color of the strands or how many red beads they have. They compete at the throwing range and on the obstacle course and especially on the mat with all their vicious energy directed at each other, and it seems like every day that Clove has a new dislocated joint or Cato has a new knife scar. They even compete for the bracelet with others in their class because they know exactly what it means when someone in their year receives a blue strand instead of black. They’ve long since realized that their right arms earn them free juice and flowing compliments and intimidated stares and the occasional free meal when they’re allowed into town. Cato’s starting to realize that it can help with getting him other kinds of attention, too. Of course it’s a competition. Clove’s always known that, and Cato shows that he knows it too every time he pretends to catch a boy staring at his arm and counting up all the people he’s killed.
But it is not a competition that they share. Cato’s a boy and Clove is a girl, and so it will never matter what’s on the other person’s bracelet except in the Arena. And that will never happen because Cato’s got one more black strand than Clove since he’s a year older, and this means that they won’t go in together and they’ll never compete like that.
Cato starts sneaking out at night that summer, when Games fever sweeps the District as it always does and his decorated wrist garners even more stares than usual. Clove knows that’s not all they’re staring at, either, but his beauty is even less of a concern for her than his class ranking. She also knows they’re doing a lot more than staring, but that’s pretty much last on her list of interests.
They seem to get closer the heavier their wrists become, and each red bead brings less space between them, less distinction between where Clove ends and Cato begins. She begins developing a temper with the trainers, and he sometimes gets an ice-cold, nasty look in his eyes just before he throws a spear. They learn that they sleep better together than they ever did apart, and that Cato’s laugh when he swings Clove over his shoulder while Clove curses like a grown Peacekeeper is the closest thing to children they will ever be again.
When Clove passes her Field Exam and gets her silver bead that means she will remain here until she stands at the Justice Building as a volunteer, they celebrate with a stolen bottle of papaya juice and know that they will rule the world.
“Last time we’ll wear these,” Cato says. He plucks at the light, form-fitting fabric of his uniform. They’re made up for the ceremony to give them some more practice with being pawed by stylists, but they wear their usual training shirt and minimal makeup. Clove’s hair is in a simple French braid.
They’ll have another training uniform at the Capitol, something similar because the Capitol made these, too, and after that there will only be whatever they wear to the Arena. For one of them, that will be the thing they’re wearing when their body is packed into a coffin.
“Stop it,” Clove says, and she doesn’t know if she’s talking to Cato or to herself.
Cato clenches a fist at his side. “Midget,” he says, and Clove can feel the stabbing ache in his voice as clearly as if someone had sunk a knife into her neck. He looks into Clove’s eyes like he wants to say more but doesn’t.
“No talking. We said no talking.” Her voice trembles exactly how it didn’t when she did this at thirteen.
The ceremony is short, quiet, and almost anti-climactic after the ten years it took Clove to get here and all the screaming and fighting she’d done when they informed her yesterday that she would be having hers a year early. It’s tradition to watch your partner’s Graduation as the trainers rattle off a litany of their accomplishments. Supposedly it keeps you competitive and on guard until the very end, but Clove can tell the story of every thread on Cato’s wrist much better than the head trainer ever could. How hard he fought for that seventh black band, including sending a trainee to Emergency with a broken neck. How the third red bead represents a woman who had two hungry children who are in an orphanage because Cato killed her, and how he refused to talk for two days afterwards and wouldn’t let anyone but Clove touch him. How unnaturally, sickeningly pale he was when they took him out of the woods after his Field Exam.
“May your every heartbeat bring honor and glory to District Two and to the Capitol,” Pryor the head trainer says with three fingers over his own heart.
Clove mirrors the movement with the ease of long practice and says, “And yours,” in unison with Cato’s voice, so much deeper than the first time she heard him say this.
They haven’t seen the Chair up close before today, but she’s a tall woman with icy blond hair tinged with green highlights and eyes dyed a brilliant violet. It’s the first time Clove has seen anyone from the Capitol this close. Her mouth is oddly dry. She nods to Pryor, and says in a voice that doesn’t sound nearly as strange as Clove always thought a Capitol voice would, “By your authority as Head Trainer of District Two’s Athletic and Personal Growth Center, do you recommend these candidates for Graduation?”
“I do,” Pryor says. His eyes lock with Clove’s for a split second, and Clove imagines herself ripping out his heart and feeding it to him. Then he steps back and the Chair takes his place in front of them.
“Then, in accordance with your free and knowing gift of your life to our great nation, forsaking all rights and privileges therein, by my authority as Committee Chair of District Two’s Athletic and Personal Growth Center, I elect you Volunteers of these Seventy-Fourth Hunger Games.”
A hand with long, elaborately painted nails places a golden bead in Clove’s hand, carefully folding her fingers over it as she says the words that Clove always wanted to hear.
“Will you knowingly and freely fight to bring honor to District Two and to the Capitol in these Seventy-Fourth Hunger Games, either returning home a Victor or dying with honor seeking victory, and remain a faithful servant of President Snow until your last heartbeat?”
Will you kill Cato or die trying?
“I will,” Clove says.
“I accept your offering of service with the whole heart through which it is given. Long live Panem and President Snow.”
“Long live.” Clove squeezes the bead in her fist hard enough that she’s sure she could grind it to dust.
She stands solemnly with her eyes focused on the wall in front of her as they repeat the process with Cato, as he swears to kill her or come home in a coffin. And this is the price of the thing on her wrist, the thing she will take into the Arena with her to remind her of her oaths and vows and the weight that they carry. Of the thing she will be brought home wearing, one way or another, dead or alive. Of the words she’s said all those years and all the times she signed away her chance to say no. This is what they’ve always meant when they talked about honor and dedication and a servant’s heart and how the Capitol wants everything you can give them. And now they want the only thing she’s ever loved.
Later, they sit on Clove’s bed talking about strategy and how they’ll get down to the final two and “let it happen.” Clove wraps her arms around Cato’s massive neck and puts her cheek against his shoulder so she can see the gleaming golden bead on her wrist, on the hand that is fisted in Cato’s shirt.
It’s so heavy.