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: Nobody knows better than Center kids that fame and glory aren’t free.
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.
The day Clove finds out that Cato will be her partner, she lands a knife in the head trainer’s tendon that earns him a trip to the emergency room. His minions lunge for her before she can blink, but Clove is a fighter. Even when they take her knife she still gets one of them with an elbow in the solar plexus and he stays on the concrete where she puts him. It takes four men to finally bring her down, cart her off screaming obscenities and lock her in the residential area. They don’t do anything after that. Probably they decide that anyone in there can hold their own against her.
Before the bead ceremony, she finds Cato in the recreational gym with a deceptively slim bar over his head that Clove knows weighs twice what he does. His forehead is coated in a sheen of sweat and his eyes are focused and intense. It’s what they call his “warrior face,” and it terrifies everyone but Clove, who has always found it comforting. They get each other.
“You heard, too,” he grunts as he lowers the bar into its cradle. “I was hoping to tell you before they did.”
“I gave Pryor a new scar.”
“So we all heard. You shoulda killed him. We know you don’t miss.”
“Won’t do any good, and I didn’t miss. I didn’t want to kill them, anyway. If I had, they’d be dead,” Clove says. She takes a seat on the bench next to Cato’s. “We should have known this would happen. We’re the good show. They’ll never get a more interesting performance out of either of us.”
And they did know, didn’t they? In the back of their minds, they always did. You don’t get to pick when you go in. You don’t get to pick your partner. You do what the trainers tell you to do and smile pretty. Kids from Two are always the best at obeying their stylists because they have practice doing it and they know what they signed up for and what they sacrificed. Nobody knows better than Center kids that fame and glory aren’t free.
Cato sits up and places a hand on Clove’s bench. His features are more ‘warrior’ than ever.
“Midget,” he says, but he doesn’t try to add anything after that. They both know. Reassurances and false promises have never been a part of their relationship, and they both like it that way.
“Are we going to stay together in there?” Clove asks. Her voice comes out as barely a whisper.
“We probably should. Can’t expect to stay alive for very long if we don’t.”
They stay in the gym for hours, plotting, ironing out every last detail of their strategy, of how they’re going to rearrange themselves to make this possible. Clove doesn’t say it, but she knows that this is their version of reassurances and false promises.
They don’t talk about the obvious. They’ve both got weak points against each other, and Clove’s split Cato’s lip open for every time he’s pinned her to the mat. It’s too close to tell who’d win between the two of them, but Clove knows it’s on Cato’s mind – she’d be an idiot if she didn’t know that, and there are no idiots in the Center. She’d be an idiot if it wasn’t on her mind, too: the advantages and disadvantages each of them have, extrapolating from their sparring matches who would do what, the two ways it might end.
There are no idiots in the Center.
Later, she runs a bath in her private apartment with water so hot it sends pins and needles cascading down her skin. Her wrist hangs over the lip of the bathtub, and the bracelet seems to pull it down closer and closer to the floor. She leans her head back into smooth porcelain, and her hair floats in a dark halo around her head and neck. Eyes closed, she sinks down, down into the water until only her eyes, nose and mouth are above the surface. There’s a lump in her throat that she can’t swallow, sharp like her favorite knife. Cato’s smile materializes inside her mind then, the one that nobody else sees but her, and Clove’s eyes snap open to make it stop.
But it won’t stop. Today is only the first day. It will keep going until the end, until one of them has to make a choice. The thing on her arm stares her in the face with its terrible gold bead like a snake’s eye. She tilts her wrist and lets the light from the ceiling bounce off the iridescent threading in the beads. They’re shinier than usual for some reason. Her throat hurts. It’s not supposed to be this way.
She turns her head from the bracelet and sobs into scalding water.
She wonders what it’s like for the kids who don’t wake up knowing that it’s them.
Kids from the Center have been called from the lottery before, usually as a punishment, and they hate it because it robs them of that coveted moment of glory. They’ll never get to step forward and take the honor from whichever poor sucker got called first. For them, that’s the shock, and she thinks that it’s not much different from the “it-can’t-happen-to-me-except-it-just-di
Clove’s never had a real Reaping before, not like the kids in the square or the ones in the poor Districts who get paraded up like meat with no one to take their place. She’s never really prepared for it before this. In the back of her mind, there’s always that little voice. It won’t happen to me. It can’t happen to me. My year is Eighteen.
Except it isn’t. Except this is her year and she’s seventeen and Cato is across the hallway going through the same motions, and Clove tries desperately to stick to that long-planned script of how she was going to do this. She does not have enough room for all the things she told herself she’d do on this day, all the thoughts she told herself she’d have. They’re pushed out by knives in trainers’ arms and Cato at his weight bench and too many hours of doomed planning.
When an aid enters her room and sits her at her dresser and begins doing her hair into two elegant braids, Clove isn’t anything she should be in this moment. Not even dressed.
The burning sun is merciless in the square, but Clove feels her blood freeze when her name is called. Of course it is. They must have decided at the last minute that they didn’t trust her to volunteer. That this would be her punishment for Pryor’s knife wound. Weeks of rehearsing the exact words she would say, the look on her face as all eyes turn in gratitude to her, all wasted. Instead, a hush falls over the crowd as their attention is instantly focused on her like a white-hot spotlight, sympathetic but with that palpable glad-it’s-not-me that permeates all the non-volunteer announcements. The crowd’s confused, most of them a little afraid because this is irregular and irregularities at the Reaping are always bad. She’s a condemned criminal being led to her execution, not a hero. Figures they would take this, too.
It can’t happen to me. It won’t happen to me.
And then, blessedly, her training kicks in and she’s moving to the stage with her head held high as if someone else is pulling puppet strings. Shoulders back. Footsteps even and sure. Confident smile.
There are no volunteers. Of course there aren’t. None of the other girls in the Center are ready, and they know you don’t step forward for a Graduate. And nobody else in District Two would dream of it. They all remember the twelve-year-old who volunteered on a dare and got carved like a turkey by his partner ten seconds into the bloodbath, his entire family still actively shamed almost ten years later, and this just makes her think of Cato dead in the Arena and she nearly stumbles on the last step to the stage. Clove looks into the crowd and raises her hand in a wave as camera flashes go off. Now she knows why so many of the Tributes are always squinting into the camera on TV. It’s blinding up here, but Clove has been trained for this and forces her eyes open. She’s standing strong and solid on the stage but feels like she’s going to faint, fall off, or kill the kids in the front row. Or all of the above. Where is the glorious, most wonderful day of her life that they told her this would be?
They call a small boy with dark skin and scared eyes from the Fourteens, and Clove catches herself wishing that Cato will keep quiet. She can kill this one as heartlessly as she carves the squirrels – she’d do it right here in the square if it would stop what is going to happen. But Cato doesn’t have a choice, not really. He has lived for nothing but this moment since before he could walk and talk. More than that, there’s something unfamiliar and unsettling on his face that Clove’s never seen before as he quickly replaces the Fourteen with a menacing stride to the stage.
It’s not how they practiced. It’s not protocol. He doesn’t bother waiting for them to finish the other boy’s name, he does not say his lines correctly, and he’s walking like he can’t get on that stage fast enough. Every movement is angry, and Clove can tell the real anger from the cultivated kind designed to look scary on camera. A nervous edge pierces the crowd at this new irregularity, but Cato is just as much a favorite as Clove, and happiness and hope quickly overtakes the fear when they realize that nothing’s gone wrong.
Everything’s gone wrong, but they will never know. Clove digs a fingernail into her palm, one of the few grounding strategies her interview coaches allow her.
Clove wonders if there are any boys in the crowd that Cato’s fucked and what they’re thinking right now as they watch him cross the stage to her. Cato fixes a blood-freezing glare on the crowd and raises a meaty fist to ecstatic cheers. Clove’s not sure what’s gotten into him, but she’s a little afraid that he’s going to pick up the announcer and throw him into the crowd by his stupid blue-and-yellow curls.
She’s trying to remember the script after Cato so eagerly broke it when Cato turns to her with that intense, warrior’s face that terrifies everyone in the District but Clove and mouths, “Mean little midget.”
It makes her smile, a real smile for just an instant, and then Clove is staring into the cheering crowd, somehow, and this day is a little more like it should have been. Their energy sings in her veins and holds her upright and she joins in the chant Cato’s started and feels the crowd go insane. Her heart hammers in her chest, but it’s a little more in line with how it should be beating now, the only way the Center allows it to beat. She catches an image of the two of them on one of the enormous screens, and they are beautiful and powerful and nothing can hurt them. The cameras are still flashing everywhere, but now they’re welcoming, somehow. They’re spotlights, not shackles.
She’s sure just then that she’ll never be able to repay Cato for giving this moment back to her.