Rating: M (violence, language, child abuse, character deaths, disturbing themes, sexual content, implied forced prostitution in later chapters)
Characters/Pairings: mainly soulmates!Cato/Clove, brief non-con Cato/Finnick, Annie/Finnick, past Katniss/Peeta
Summary: Clove and Cato survive the Arena and become the first dual victors in the history of the Hunger Games. President Snow is keen on using them as anti-Mockingjays for the Capitol, but what happens when rebellion inevitably hits Panem anyway? This is the story of how two trained Careers go along with the Capitol’s plans… and how they don’t.
Notes: My computer is still broken. This is sad. But you have a new chapter, which (hopefully) isn't sad! Thanks to lorata and sabaceanbabe for their ever-present help with this fic.
Chapter Four: Prey
The President’s eyes sharpen around the edges. “What’s this? You kneel before a bunch of common Games attendants, and I get a salute?”
Without hesitation, two pairs of knees hit the ground.
The President eyes them for another tense moment as Clove feels her stomach drop somewhere between her shoes. This isn’t the protocol, not what they were told at the briefing. She drops her eyes to the carpet and tries to think of anything else but what is happening, even the Arena, and her mind replays what Cato told her, this is the hardest part. She can feel the President’s gaze burning through her skull, just as the thick rug under her burns her knees.
Then he starts to laugh.
“Delightful! I love it when they come pre-trained! Up, both of you,” the President commands with a wave of his hand, and they obey. He laughs again. “Now this is a fun game. What if I asked for your knees back on the carpet? Could we do this all afternoon, do you suppose?”
They glance at each other for a split second, trying to figure out what he wants from them, ready to drop back down if that’s the right answer. Cato’s expression holds no answers, just the same bewilderment.
“Only testing you, of course,” the President says merrily. “I love a good game, but we’re partners now, you know. Come, sit.” He gestures grandly at the table in front of them, decorated with white roses and laden with food Clove couldn’t begin to identify. There’s a stack of paperwork at the President’s place setting. “We have so much to discuss and so very little time.”
When they sit, Clove’s hand finds Cato’s under the table.
“I have it on good authority that you two have your own affinity for games.” The President adjusts his tie.
“Games, sir?” Clove asks, her mouth dry.
“Spare me,” says the President as he flips open the first folder in the stack of paperwork. “The rest of Panem may believe that you learned knife-throwing in three weeks, but idiocy is one game I’m not fond of. This file will tell me the number of hairs on your head, and it came straight from the Athletic and Personal Growth Center of District Two.”
“They told us not to mention it – we’re sorry.” Clove’s heart hammers in her throat as she squeezes the life from Cato’s fingers.
“Indeed. But we aren’t here to talk about your history. What’s most important is the welfare of this nation, to which I understand you’re fully committed?”
“Yes,” they answer without hesitation. It reminds Clove uncomfortably of their conversation with Brutus and Lyme that morning.
“You see, we’re in a tumultuous time. And the people here, the people in your District, in the outer reaches of Eleven and Twelve – they need something to believe in. You are that something. I am here to underscore the importance of your role.”
“We understand, sir,” Cato says, stepping in when Clove’s shoulder begins to protest the lack of meds. “We fully expect to dedicate our lives to the glory of Panem.”
The President scratches the side of his face thoughtfully, and Clove is suddenly cold. “You see, I don’t think you do understand. Your sound bites may be great on television, but this isn’t dedication I am asking for. I require the glory of Panem to become your lives. That’s precious, by the way.” He indicates their hands under the table as he leans closer. The smell of blood assaults Clove’s nostrils. “I gave you each other. In return, I want the both of you. Don’t forget that.”
For a terrible moment, there’s nothing but the blood in Clove’s ears and the blood-smell on the President’s jacket – who the hell cleaned his clothes today?
Then Cato answers for both of them, smooth and solid underneath what Clove knows must be exhaustion and pain equal to her own, “Our lives stopped the day she went in with me. Any life at all is more than we thought we’d have. We’re grateful for this chance to repay you.”
Snow studies him like a child at the Center readying to kill a rabbit. “I like you two,” he says at last with another smile, and some of the tension dissipates from the room. “Now, let’s bring in some experts to discuss tonight’s strategy, shall we?”
The straps of her graphite taffeta gown dig into Clove’s shoulders, and she focuses on that instead of the searing pain shooting down her arm when her handlers fuss with her posture. One checks her microphone while another winds an invisible strand of hair around a curling iron.
“Reunited for the first time live, please welcome the unprecedented co-Victors of the Seventh-Fourth Hunger Games, District Two’s Cato and Clove!”
Clove’s watched seventy-three people before her do this, dissected everything they did and committed their every word to memory. But of all the things she’s learned and all they trained her for, the one thing they didn’t tell her is how your mind blanks out for that first instant as you look at them, at the cameras flashing, the confetti, at the posters and the shrieks and the people piled out in the streets watching on screens. The noise knocks the breath from her lungs and, in that instant, she knows she will carry this moment on her skin forever like the shiny body polish of the Remaking Center.
And then the air comes to her, and with it, her senses, and she sees the subtle differences in the crowd from the other Games. Some are hesitant, peering at the stage waiting for something to happen. She catches a few handmade signs that proclaim undying support for the true and perfect love of District Twelve, a few mockingjay pins, ladies with their hair in Twelve Girl’s signature style. The smell of blood and white roses brings her back to what she has to do. Clove paints on her dazzling smile and walks with Cato to the center of the stage, waving at the crowd and making the eye contact that makes them feel like her smile is only for them, catching their flowers and trying to stay aware of her every heartbeat and who it belongs to.
She doesn’t so much notice that she’s taken Cato’s hand as she registers the roar of the crowd increasing, and her smile turns a touch inward when she looks at Cato, who has an “Aww, not me, not really” look on his face as he looks from them to her and back. She can’t do this smile for anyone else, but then there’s no one else in the room but Cato and he lifts her in a hug that dangles her feet a million miles from the stage. His grip is fierce and solid and real and lasts for a long time. The crowd loves it, but she hardly cares. Every warning bell from her training is going off because when you start living the moment instead of living the audience, that is when you make mistakes. She reminds herself that living the moment is exactly what they were instructed to do by the President himself and holds onto Cato with everything in her.
When Cato finally puts her down, he bends to nuzzle her cheek and whispers “I love you” in her ear. The microphone doesn’t pick it up, but the audience can see his lips move and screams approval. At least, she thinks they do because all she can hear is his voice and his heartbeat alive and strong and hers forever. And she thinks that, at last, at last, she is home.
At some point they remember that Caesar exists, and the crowd giggles as he beckons them to their chairs, pushed close together and twice as many as usual. Clove calls herself back to years of interview training. Now is the time to say the lines that come so much easier to Cato, and she sits, all stoic professionalism again – which is brought to a quick and bitter end when Cato sits on her.
“You fucker!” Clove puts an elbow in his back before she can think that maybe she shouldn’t have done that. The auditorium dissolves into cheering and giggles.
Cato releases her with laughing eyes that are only for her. “Oops. Didn’t see you. You’re kinda small, you know.”
“And you would be the last person to notice that.”
“Guess I am,” Cato says as he scans the crowd. “I think they noticed. She’s a lot of mean in such a little package, isn’t she?”
He gets his answer in the form of explosive laughter, which only intensifies when Clove kicks him in the shin. She avoids his left leg, which is badly bruised and still very sore underneath his expensive suit.
“Now, now! You two don’t have to fight – ”
“We do,” they interrupt in unison, and Caesar throws up his hands.
When Cato sits down in his proper seat, Clove puts her head on his shoulder and the crowd coos at them. It’s so good like this, up here and safe and loved, and they tug a smile from her lips.
The film has been hastily edited to match what was clearly a last-minute unexpected victory. What was once the story of fire-princess Twelve and her starcrossed handsome prince has become Clove and Cato’s story, and they’ve been recast as the heroes, not the dragons to fight at the end. They didn’t give the editors much to work with: until the rule change, they’d stayed away from each other when they could and were professional when they couldn’t, but they put in everything available. Clove whispering to Cato backstage at the interviews. Clove sleeping in Cato’s room the night before the Arena earns sighs from the audience and starts a deep sickness in the pit of Clove’s stomach. Footage from the hovercraft and Launch comes next, shopped to look like they were gazing longingly at each other. The bloodbath slams onto the screen in full color before she’s ready, and film-Clove tears through Ten Girl’s face and gets Five Boy’s bloody handprint on her neck and the audience cheers and her head hurts and Cato puts his hand on her knee. She covers his hand with her own when film-Cato breaks Three Boy’s neck and film-Clove finds him at the lake and they try to convince each other to play right except they can’t.
Little Eleven dies. Twelve sings and the audience sniffles and Clove and Cato look stoic and respectful on stage, and then it’s back to the new heroes. They’re at the lake’s beach celebrating the rule change, screaming and shouting and playing in the water, and as film-Clove falls asleep in the sandy sun, she hears clearly what Cato said to her a lifetime ago: “I couldn’t have lived without you anyway.” A collective sigh escapes the room, and then they’re trekking to the feast, the warrior king and queen with hard, bloody eyes and hearts that beat for each other. Twelve’s death is shortened, just the part where Clove offers to end Loverboy’s suffering, and she thanks the editors silently. There’s ominous music as Twelve bleeds out in the grass, a prelude to what’s coming. The audience gasps at the showdown with Big Eleven and the “twist” of Five Girl’s poison, and no one speaks as the hail and ice and mutts come.
The final shot is film-Clove’s knees hitting the ground with a sickening thud. Her hair slides into her eyes as her blue-tinged palms catch her on the smooth floor of the hovercraft. Watching from the outside, Clove can see that she looks very small, much smaller than she sees herself. On the screen, her shoulders shake like leaves in a strong gust of wind. She doesn’t cry, not really, but she makes a little desperate choking noise that doesn’t sound like her at all as her dirt-crusted, purple fingers clench the smooth floor and gain no purchase. It’s miserable and frightening – and incalculably relieved, all at once. Clove knows that she’s currently on the screen in a little box in the corner, and so she tries to keep her public face arranged, but it’s hard. Cato grips her hand and murmurs a barely-audible, “S’okay, midget.”
As the screen goes dark and the lights go up, the cameras shift to a full-on shot of the two of them on the couch. As if cued, the room fills with supportive applause. Approving voices shout encouragements at her, and she allows herself to show a hint of the roiling emotions threatening to drag her under. It fits the story they’ve been told to craft of a girl overwhelmed with gratitude and relief and love for her country – and, fuck, it’s true, and Clove’s afraid she might get used to being honest if she keeps doing it on camera.
Caesar keeps the applause going and booms out of his microphone, “Let’s show some support for this very brave little girl, hmm?”
The ceremony is not the end. There’s a party and an after-party and three outfit-changes between them. After Clove’s preps get the latest new dress zipped – short with eggplant sequins – they’re pulled into a back room by a medic and given more drugs, but that doesn’t stop the fire in Clove’s head. Maybe Twelve will never leave her alone, after all.
They pass the 65th Victor on their way into the second limousine of the night. Finnick Odair, clothed more than usual for the occasion, spares them a wave and a lively, “Congrats, kids! Gotta go, late for a date!”
Cato’s too tired to even comment, and Clove’s almost too tired to notice that he didn’t comment.
It’s fully dawn when they drag themselves back to the Training Center. Maybe that’s not the right phrase, Clove thinks. Brutus is sort of dragging her, and while Cato’s faring a little better, his walk has a bit of a drunken sway to it even though they were forbidden alcohol at the parties because they’re still on a restricted diet. And if Cato goes down, no one will be able to catch him, so Clove seriously hopes that doesn’t happen.
This isn’t Clove’s first eighteen-hour workday. They both know it won’t be their last, either, but right now Clove just hopes that she won’t ever have to begin one as tired as she was this morning. She puts one shaky foot in front of the other and feels her public face melting away the further they get into the Tribute living quarters. If they suddenly asked her to put it back on, she’d die trying but is sure she’d fail. Her eyes are half-shut, and all she can see is the different gradients of light marking hallway versus wall versus carpet. The lights on the ceiling are like pins sticking into her brain. Her shoulder hurts a lot. Brutus mercifully isn’t dragging the injured one.
They stop at Cato’s door because it’s the first one they come to and nobody’s kidding themselves that they’re sleeping apart at this point. Nothing happens for a few moments, and when Clove forces her eyes open wider to find out why, she sees Cato staring at the key card as if he has no idea what to do with it. Brutus sighs and opens the door with his own.
“You’re live at two,” Brutus informs them. He knows they’re listening even though they’re dead on their feet. “We’ll get you up at one. Sleep until then.”
“Like you have to tell us that.” Cato giggles. It’s really scary.
Brutus tilts his head at them but doesn’t comment. He does hold out a cup to each of them, inside which is a small pile of brightly-colored pills. Cato’s has twice as many.
“Sedatives, painkillers, anti-inflammatory for your shoulder and your stomach, and they threw in a little something to dull your dreams.” Brutus presses a tiny water bottle into each of their hands – he mercifully removes the cap first because neither of them are really up for that.
“Swallow,” he commands after they both just stand there with glazed expressions for a few moments. They obey. It reminds Clove hysterically of the commands her prep team tosses out when they work on her. Head up. Head to the side. Look up. Look down. Mouth open for the teeth whitener. She half expects Brutus to shove her into another dress, but he doesn’t, and now she’s the one fighting back a giggle.
Brutus gives a put-upon sigh but takes the empty cups from them and says, “Let’s help you find the bed, then” and guides them inside. Clove’s half-gone when somebody sits her on the bed and takes off her shoes, but she hears Brutus saying “You did good, kids. Really, really good.” It’s the last thing she can remember hearing for awhile.
“So Clove, tell us about when you first met Cato. You two were, what? Fourteen?”
“Thirteen,” Clove says. She’s in a smoky raw silk day dress and red heels. Cato’s tie matches her shoes. “He was almost fourteen.”
“And what’d you think when you first saw him?”
“I thought he was an asshole,” Clove says. The crew backstage stifles laughter.
“Well, obviously your initial perception changed a bit, right?”
“You could say that.” Clove turns to Cato with a raised eyebrow. “Now I know he’s an asshole.”
Cato squeezes her shoulder, and she leans into him just slightly.
Caesar laughs merrily. “Cato sure knows where he stands with you! Now, I know there’s been a lot of talk about this rule change that allowed the two of you to become co-winners this year, but I understand that the Gamemakers have made it clear it was a one-time only change? So no future Tributes should count on it, is that correct?”
“Yes,” Clove says with new seriousness and a humbling flush to her cheeks. “And we’re incredibly grateful. The Capitol made us an exception – ”
“The only exception,” Cato finishes. “And we plan to make the most of it.” He smiles at Clove as his fingers find the ends of her hair, curled in ringlets around her shoulders.
Caesar clucks his tongue in the general direction of Cato’s hand. “Now are you sure there’s only friendship between the two of you?”
“No,” Cato says confidently, and Clove swears she can feel everyone in the room lean into his microphone. “We’re not friends. We’ve never been friends. It’s more than that. But we aren’t lovers, if that’s what you’re asking.” He winks at the camera. “On that front, I’m still available.”
The shrieks of a million Capitol fans seem to echo through the room.
“On that note, do you think that’s what allowed you to win over the previous favorites this year?” Caesar doesn’t need to say who.
This is Clove’s question, and she drags herself out from under the weight of sore muscles to answer it. “You know, I’m not sure that was real, at least for Katniss. I know you didn’t see it firsthand, Caesar, but that look in her eyes when I asked about Peeta –” She lets an expression caught nicely between disgust and fear cross her face. “She was calculated to the end, that’s all I know. She was thinking about winning. I would have been thinking about Cato. What we have isn’t so easy to throw away.”
“Not even in the Hunger Games?” Caesar asks gently.
“Especially not in the Hunger Games,” Clove says. “We aren’t afraid of death. We’re afraid of losing each other.”
“Exactly,” Cato adds as he pulls Clove closer to him on the couch. “That’s why I couldn’t leave her when the mutts showed up.”
“You couldn’t leave me if you tried because I’m faster,” Clove cuts in.
“Shut up, midget.” They grin at each other.
“And what’s your opinion of Arena romances, Cato?” Caesar asks. “I know you had a bit of a jaunt with one of our fan-favorites this year. Tell me, what was really going on with you and Glimmer?”
“I think Clove said it best,” Cato says, returning to seriousness, though he doesn’t let go of her. “When hormones get involved, things get complicated, just like we all saw that Katniss was ultimately out for herself. As for me and other Tributes, well.” Cato artfully avoids the camera’s gaze and rubs the back of his neck. “It was fun while it lasted, but I think Glimmer and I are over.”
“Touché!” Caesar chuckles. “Well, here’s to a love stronger than romance, then! And how lucky for your many admirers, too!”
“They’re lucky, alright,” Cato says. “If they’re really good, they might even get lucky, too.”
Clove makes a derisive noise and smacks the back of his head, very carefully.
There’s another party. Of course there is. This is the seventh. Or the eighth. Clove can’t remember, but her navy jeweled dress rubs painfully against her bandages.
“Just look at her! She’s so small!”
“—so adorable I just don’t think I can handle it. I may die.”
“Oh honey, I loved that part at the Cornucopia with you and – which one was it? Six? You were just perfect.”
“It was three, Maysie! I’m sorry, excuse my sister, she’s so scatterbrained. What she means to say is it was brilliant, you know, sweetheart. And let’s not forget your fight with Eleven, oh, I had chills!”
“Honey, can you show us that lovely little trick, the one where you spread the knives out like cards?”
Clove tries to follow the words over the roar of her own heartbeat. She’s overdue for her pain meds and she hasn’t slept in two days and she’s hot and cold at once. Standing hurts. Breathing hurts. Their voices buzz like tracker jackers around her. Actually, no, it’s worse than the tracker jackers and why is she here unarmed like this, naked as the day she was born without her knives? She’ll die like this. They’ll pick her apart like Marvel swore he’d do in the glow of District Eight’s campfire, his eyes like fireflies from hell as he said to her, I’m going to rip you apart bone by bone, you know.
“I just need to get a picture with her, hold on, make sure you adjust the flash – ”
He was wrong. He’s not going to. They are.
She slides something from the table behind her back without knowing what it is. Her fingers have minds of their own and they know what they want between them, and the cool touch of the blade is so wonderful that she gets out a little relieved sigh before she stops herself. She runs her finger over it, and it’s only a butter knife and it’s not enough and she needs it to be sharp, that’s all she can think, even if she has to sharpen it using the teeth of the shark-smiles before her.
One of them snakes an arm around her as a flash goes off. Another is playing with the ends of her hair when she ducks underneath his hand and grabs a glass from the table and she can use this, maybe, to get it sharp enough to keep her safe. To keep her here. To keep her away from the buzz of bees that aren’t bees and the stench of vomit and blood and piss and the shrieking giggles of the painted people before her and it needs to be sharp. That’s all she can think as her vision blurs and then focuses just on the wonderful piece of silver in her hands and her task.
“That’s adorable! Did you learn that in the Arena, sweetheart?”
She drags the dull blade, too dull, much too dull into the glass over and over and over and the splinters open a cut in her thumb and her vision blots red when Cato grabs her.
Cato can’t remember how he finally gets rid of their handlers, but they are alone in his room at last when Clove breaks. This is their last night here, they tell him, and the walls seem to press into his skin and neither of them can take any more nights here, but it’s Clove who breaks. She stumbles to the dresser where she keeps the knives and opens the drawers and touches them with her fingers, her hands, the butter knife from the party that she refused to put down. And he watches while she sinks a blade into the expensive wood with vacant, lost eyes and drags it downward and over until she hits the wall.
He doesn’t move from the doorway when she spins around and stabs a golden cushion and skewers it like her most memorable kills. Feathers weave into her loosened up-do and stick to the sheen of sweat covering her neck and forehead, and these are normal things, this is Clove, this he can sit back and accept.
What he can’t accept are the small, panicked noises coming from strong, perfect her. She should never look like this. This is all wrong. She twists the knife with expert, merciless grip, but her eyes and her face scream prey, prey, prey.
That’s why he lunges forward to take her knife and dodges the blade that flies centimeters from his throat, the one he knew was coming.
She stares at him as if she’s never seen him before and whispers, “I never miss.”
“Good thing I know that,” Cato says when he pulls her shuddering little body into his arms.
“Smiles on, kids,” Brutus says, all business as the train rounds the final bend to the outskirts of Two.
The graphite mines gleam in the sunlight, and the sun’s been up for an hour and somewhere back home the others at the Center will have already finished morning exercises and half of the first shift. Home.
Cato feels Clove take a deep breath as she leans back into his chest. They’re both wearing white, Clove in backless lace and Cato in a button-down. White for Peacekeepers, for rebirth, for forgiveness. He arranges her hair over her shoulders, and they wave together at the throng of people at the Two fence. There’s always some who travel every year to be the first to see the new Victor home. Victors. They’re going home.
Their bracelets catch the sunlight and cast fragments of red and orange on the windowpane.