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: This chapter wouldn't exist without dreamfall_nnwm, so you have her to thank for the added misery. As it were. ;) Also, I love my readers like Clove loves knives. You guys are the reason why I am posting this instead of leaving it on my hard drive. I am very grateful for everyone who's reading.
Chapter Two: Sunshine and Rainbows
Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious. -- Oscar Wilde
“This is lunacy. Those kids know there’s nothing we can do.”
“Maybe there is,” Lyme says neutrally. She never thought she’d be challenging the woman who led her through two years of Transition training, now Assistant Head Trainer. Of course, she never thought she’d be facing the possibility of both Two Tributes coming out.
Lucia’s mouth is set in a tight line, the one that means she wants to say something distinctly opposite of the thing she’s about to say. “They’ll be okay. They know the score,” she lies.
“They’re not going to be okay,” Lyme says. “You know that, don’t you?”
She’s met with silence and a shuffling of papers.
They’re interrupted by Pryor who’s shouting into a headset and tapping furiously on some tiny device in his hands. He motions them to follow with a swift jerk of his neck, and they walk with District Two’s Head Trainer down the long, long hallway to the meeting that could end all of their lives.
She thinks of the night of the Tribute scores and Cato’s fierce, protective grip on Clove as they sprawled together on the couch. She remembers Clove nestled easily in his arms, so unafraid of the elbow at her throat, and the possessive look she shot their escort when he lectured them about ‘fighting before the Arena.’ She remembers the look in Cato’s eyes when he turned to grin at her.
Try, Lyme. Just try.
Seneca rubs his chin. “The rules state – ”
“Sir, you changed the rules.”
“I don’t care what he did or didn’t change,” the President says grimly. “I am the rules, and I’m the one you must convince. I am not convinced.”
“Mister President, respectfully, I have known Clove and Cato since they were thirteen years old. In my best experience, forcing them to fight now will leave us with no victor. Neither of them will come out. Not really.” Lucia’s fingers grip the mahogany desk tightly, but her eyes don’t leave the image of Coriolanus Snow on the screen at the front of the room. She is a product of eight years in the Center, and only every ounce of that courage will keep her facing him in this moment, but she is determined to use it.
“Interesting. I don’t remember being concerned with their mental states,” the President muses.
“But I feel that it is relevant, Mister President. Let them both win and you will gain two loyal servants for life. Let them destroy each other and you will gain one insane animal.”
“Insane animals must be put down,” Seneca offers.
“Indeed,” Lucia says, her mouth in a tight line. “But the choice is between one insane animal for as long as it takes for you to put it down or two loyal servants who will never stop being grateful for what you gave them. We have trained them to build and maintain public images. They know how to work for you, sir, if you’d just let them.”
Next to her, Lyme shuffles the stack of papers in front of her. “Given the state of things, Mister President, I agree.” Her eyes dart briefly to the side. “It would be a substantial task to clean this up, and one that I don’t believe we’re prepared to undertake. These two could help put out the fire instead of fueling it.”
“The ‘state of things’?” Seneca asks across the table.
“The state of things,” Lyme says smoothly. She’s unhappy. She’s thinking. She’s something else that Lucia can’t read.
The President leans forward slightly on the screen. “And what insurance do I have that they will not lose this sanity and become part of the problem?”
“They ground each other,” Lucia says, perhaps a little too eagerly. “I’ve seen it myself. Give them each other and they will never ask you for another thing.”
“I don’t appreciate being at the mercy of teenagers, Assistant Head Trainer.”
“Nor do I,” Pryor intercedes. “Which is why you will not be. We made them. We know how to control them.”
Lucia thinks of Clove’s knife in Pryor’s tendon and says nothing.
“I vote no,” says Brutus from the other side of the table, his arms crossed over his massive chest like a sleeping tiger. “This isn’t how the Game is played.”
“Maybe not,” Lyme answers. “But this is about more than the Game, and I think the President is aware of that.”
They stare each other down, and next to her, Lucia feels Pryor tensing in his usual anticipation of a fight he might need to break up. How things change and how they stay the same.
“An excellent suggestion, Brutus,” the President says. “Let’s have a vote, and I will make the final decision.”
Lucia fights the urge to flinch. It’s absurd, this illusion that anyone else but him has a say, but he always did like spectacle.
“I’ll start: no,” Brutus repeats shortly.
“Yes,” Lucia says. “There’s no other choice if you want a living Victor.”
Pryor glances at her before turning his gaze to the rest of the table. “Yes,” he says. “We know them, sir. Please consider that.”
“No,” says Seneca after a long, hesitant pause. His face is that of a dead man who knows he’s dead as his eyes flicker to the President.
Everyone’s attention turns to Lyme, who’s sifting through her papers again with that same unreadable expression. Finally, she says, “Yes. That’s all I have to say.”
The President smiles.
“Tell them,” Seneca demands. Fingers rake through his hair, pausing for a near-invisible moment to clench at his scalp.
“I don’t have a script, sir,” Claudius says.
“There’s no script!” A hand shoots out and scatters papers off a desk like snowflakes. “Tell them they’re dead! Tell them they’re both dead!”
Claudius swallows. “Sir?”
“No, you say what you want,” Seneca says, and he’s at his station now, typing furiously. “But they’re dead. I’ll make sure of that.”
Claudius runs a fingertip over the microphone. And then he says what he wants.
The sky opens a chorus of hail down on them like snarling animals. It doesn’t fit the temperature, which is falling by the second, but nothing here has to fit. They don’t move to the woods because that could be the whole point of the hail the size of bullets, but there’s partial cover under a tree with a branch hanging over into the sand. They pull up their hoods and Clove crawls under Cato’s arm and listens to her teeth chattering deep to her jaw bone.
As they watch, a skin of ice begins forming at the center of the lake and expands outwards, stretching toward the edges like fingers, faster and faster. The ice thickens in the wake of its path toward them, and this is not how lakes freeze, she knows enough of lakes back home to know this and she will never go home again if she doesn’t stop thinking about that. The sky has darkened to an angry shade of eggplant, murky but free of clouds as the hail falls seemingly from nowhere. The wild howls in the trees and pushes thick branches sideways. The last traces of unfrozen water lap against the shore. Fierce dread coils itself tight in her belly as she swings her head around looking for the threat that’s sure to come.
The sky answers them, as it always has, in its booming voice that sounds a touch unsettled, but of course she’s imagining that because the Gamemakers are never unsettled.
“Greetings to the final contestants of the Seventy-Fourth Annual Hunger Games! As a final test of your worthiness, there is one more challenge for you to face together.” There’s a heavy pause, and then the voice finishes suggestively, “Or not.”
They glance desperately at each other. “Or not” is unacceptable. Clove knows that much. Cato’s eyes tell her that he understands. His shuddering breath condenses in the air as he holds her possessively to his side.
Then a pack of writhing black shapes breaks through the clearing. Then the snarling they thought was from the sky stares them in the face with fur and teeth and claws and twenty-two pairs of dead, dead eyes.
Then a thing with Twelve’s dark, matted braid down the scruff of its neck howls like it wants to tear the world to pieces. And then they all charge, with Twelve’s gray eyes promising hatred and fury and murder.
“Well. Fuck that,” Cato says, and Clove drags him into a run.
“Won’t make it,” Clove says.
They’ve got a partially-frozen lake between them, and for a moment at the beginning of the chase, they thought the mutts would try to cross on the ice. It’s a shorter trip that way, and the little one with the ‘11’ on its collar got a few steps before three more mutts followed and the ice cracked. Eleven barely made it back to the shore with an angry, defeated whine. But they’ll catch them on the long way before they make the Cornucopia.
Clove’s gaze swings out to the lake, thinking back to all the other frozen water she knows from District Two, measuring, wondering. Of course, this ice does not exist in nature and doesn’t have to. Maybe --
“Try it,” she says, and she takes a few steps onto the ice. Cato hesitates then follows her, but he only gets one foot down before falling back to the freezing sand and pulling Clove with him.
“It won’t hold us,” he barks out, his voice like death. “You go. You live.”
They both know they will never be allowed to live like that. That’s the “Or not.”
Clove clings to him. “I’m not leaving you,” she forces out around the tremors from her teeth. Hail sweeps into her eyes. Maybe the test is to see if they’re willing to stand here and let the mutts tear them apart rather than separating. Maybe the Gamemakers will call the things back if they allow them to come.
Maybe this is as hopeless as it’s always been.
She’s so cold. She bites her lip just to feel the warm blood. Then her eyes find the crack in the ice left by little Eleven.
Then she knows what to do.
Clove steps gingerly onto the ice again and cringes at the familiar instability of a lake that isn’t safe to walk on. She takes a few more steps away from the shore, away from Cato, and his eyes ask the question she knew was coming: Are you trying to get us both killed?
“Trust me,” she screams to him over the roar of the mutts and the storm.
And then she turns her attention to the things charging her and shrieks, “Come on, fuckers! You got a brain in there? No, of course you don’t. You’re a fucking pack of wet dogs.”
They’re fifty feet away. They hear her. Their snarling intensifies as the pack becomes more cohesive. Clove’s skin’s on fire under her thin jacket.
“You always were a fucking idiot, Marvel,” she says, light-headed with cold and adrenaline. “Still slutting it up, Glimmer? Yeah, I’m talking to you. All you fuckers come out here and do something about it.” She pulls a knife from her belt loop and waves it invitingly, then uses it to open a cut in her arm, waves the blood in their faces. “Hey Twelve, not so fiery now, are you?”
Twenty feet. Their dead eyes are on her now, not Cato on the shore.
“Remember when I drenched the Cornucopia in your blood, Three? Come get me. See if I can’t do it again.” Ten feet. She can see their teeth. Her voice breaks, but she forces the rest out, “You want me? Come kill me, fuckers. Come and fucking kill me!”
She has time to hear Cato scream her name before Twelve and Eleven crash through the ice, side by side, and she goes under with a shattering crack that silences the universe.
She’s fallen through ice before. Or, more accurately, was thrown at thirteen as part of the staff’s hazing of new Residential trainees. They had to be prepared for all types of weather, they’d been told at the time. The Arena doesn’t have to make sense. No one gives a shit that you’re cold, they’d said to her. She’d said nothing back, just focused on dragging herself out and doing what they said. These things can happen.
These things can happen, she thinks as the water knocks the breath from her lungs.
Fight the gasp reflex. Control your breathing or the water controls you. Find the place you came from – where the hell did she fall in? She lifts her head to the surface for another breath, doesn’t make it, and numbing apathy weighs her down and all she can hear are teeth snapping and dying dogs. The film of water between her and oxygen might as well be the weight bar in the gym programmed to maximum. Arctic water floods her mouth. What a way for a Two to go, she laughs from somewhere far away.
Then a warm hand, so warm, wraps around her forearm and pulls her out by her shoulder. She’s dimly aware that it’s the one Twelve injured in their fight, but she feels no pain, just ice-needles jammed into all her pores.
She blinks at frozen, bright blond hair, and Cato’s on his stomach dragging her backwards out of the water, toward the shore. The wind hits her skin as he lifts her feet from the lake, and her vision unfocuses and then darkens.
The next time she can see, she’s staring at Cato’s armpit. He’s naked from the waist up and her jacket’s too big and too dry. A blanket of hail pellets coats the sand below them. There’s no snarling. There’s no water.
There’s just Cato trying to warm her with his hands and his body as he whispers fiercely, “—fucking shit, midget. What the fuck? What the fuck did you think you were doing? What the fuck, midget. The fuck’s wrong with you. The fuck – ”
And they’re still here. They’re still here.
“Never gonna let us leave,” she forces out between gasps, fight the reflex, except no, it doesn’t matter now. “Next thing’ll kill us. Or next.”
Cato’s arms tighten around her so even her frozen limbs wake up a little. “I know. I goddamn know.”
“Can’t leave you,” she slurs. “S’why I did it.”
“I know,” he says again, scratchy and broken. His breath is so warm on the top of her head. “I’ll never leave. I can’t leave. I can’t.”
The words stop making sense.
After five seconds or five hundred years, Cato brushes snowflakes from her forehead – snowflakes?
They look up together, as one person, inseparable. It’s snowing. The hail’s stopped long ago, and Clove’s drenched hair is coated with big, thick, silent flakes. The wind died with the mutts’ final screams. It’s so quiet. She breathes a shuddery sigh, breathes in Cato, breathes what could be her last breath.
She’s wondering what form the next challenge, the last since they will never survive another, will take when the snow abruptly stops, melted away by a sudden brilliant, blinding sun.
Pins and needles assault her skin as feeling returns far too fast. And just like that, the storm is gone. The crunchy hail melts away from under them and the snow vaporizes before their eyes. Birds chirp in the distance. Green leaves paint the trees. Clove claws at her skin, on fire with sensation, as the sun warms the last traces of ice away.
They watch, bewildered, as a rainbow bleeds across the sky in a brilliant wash of color, impossibly bright, more vivid than any painting.
They’re in decent shape when the ladder deposits them in the hovercraft. Mangled bodies come with the territory of winning the Games, but they’re not exactly a badge of honor in District Two. The worse off you are, the less impressive your win, usually, and there is no fanfare in District Two for a victor pulled out of the arena clinging to life, having won by a hair. All in all, this is a pretty good victory.
Of course, there are two of them, which means there is no victory at all, as far as home’s concerned. Maybe as far as the Capitol’s concerned, too. Clove’s shaking when the attendants come to them, and the air freezes in her lungs with all the intensity of the lake. Images flash before her of what could happen now, all the things they could make them do. The things they’d be right to make them do. Hypothermia and horror overbalance her, and she sways when Cato catches her under the arms. Her shoulder hurts now. It hurts a lot. Soon, everything is going to hurt because the Game will continue.
This is not how it works. There are no rainbows and sunshine for them. Not ever.
She screams silently at herself to let go of Cato, to get away from him because this is just making it worse. It’s not over. Of course it isn’t. Any second now the Gamemakers are going to reveal what’s really going on. Any second now, they will lose each other. And Clove will lose her life, she’s sure now, because there is nothing left in her and she can’t play anymore. She can’t, but she has to. Don’t get used to it. Don’t believe it. Fuck, don’t cry, you’re on every television in Panem –
“You in there, midget?”
She tries to push him away, but this is the last time and this is goodbye and she can’t let him go. Cato tightens trembling arms around her. Clove can’t breathe but she doesn’t care and he can’t let go, either.
“Don’t,” she tries to say. Her voice is so small. This is not her. She doesn’t sound like this. “We can’t – we have to – they said – ”
She says some other things. Maybe they’re words and maybe they’re not. Cato’s saying things, too, but she can’t hear them. She only knows that he’s shaking just as much as she is and sobbing into her hair and then she knows that she’s not the only one who can’t play anymore.
They let them stay like this for a few minutes – or maybe hours or days, she’s not sure – until Clove can actually hear words again and it’s someone’s cheerful voice informing them that, no, they don’t have to because it’s over. Because they won. Because for the first time in the history of the Games, the Capitol has decided to allow two winners instead of one. Because they were loyal to the Capitol all their lives and the Capitol is good and merciful and rewards those who serve it well.
It takes a lot of words for Clove to believe that it’s real. She still can’t quite understand it and is sure that she’ll need a million more words before it really sinks in, but the attendants are calm and happy and chuckling at their tears and disbelief, and the longer it goes on, the more Clove begins to see the truth. It’s real. The Capitol has saved them when their trainers, the Center and their District couldn’t and wouldn’t. The Capitol has done the impossible, like magic, like their showers with a thousand buttons and the medicine they’re beginning to dab on Cato’s cuts.
Clove does the only thing she knows how to do and sinks to her knees before their clean white uniforms.
Chapter Three: It's Almost Over