He sees her a lot at school, her fingers always wrapped around the handle of a knife, as sharp as she is. He doesn't think much of her, she's kind of small and plain, and she tends to keep to herself. He, of course, is always surrounded by admirers and fans, people who consider him friends. The feeling isn't mutual. He's training with a sword one day when he glances over, catching her watching him. He lifts his eyebrows, a cocky smirk sliding over his lips, but her lips just purse and she turns away, uninterested. His smirk falters. He's never met someone who wasn't interested in him. His family name, producing victor after victor, has always caused acclaim, not to mention his skill with a sword or long knife. He shrugs it off. If she doesn't care, neither will he.
The next time he interacts with her is during a test day. They are pitted, one on one, against another student or teacher. His name is called, much like he hopes it will be the next year, and he steps forward, his knife swinging between his fingers like an extended part of his arm. "Clove!" The referee announces. The crowd parts, murmurs spreading through them like a fire. He glances over and spots the girl stepping forward, her face cool, expression cold. She looks at him as she would a target dummy, her fingers wrapped around a familiar knife. "Remember, we're here to have fun," the referee says, a laugh erupting from his large stomach. "So try not to hurt each other too much, eh?" There's plenty of medical help around the academy, so no one's too nervous. Cato glances out at the audience, and they seem eager, almost like they've been anticipating this. He pays them no mind, reaching for his sword. The girl - Clove, he corrects himself - pulls out one of her knives, eyes studying him intensely. She might actually make a formidable opponent, he thinks. Finally. A challenge.
The ref steps back and blows his whistle, and immediately Clove is on the move, darting across the platform with ease. To someone else, it would look like she wasn't giving any effort, but to Cato, he could tell it was just years of training. He reacted to each of her movements, stepping back when she moved forward, pushing forward when she danced back. They were fluid, in tune with each other, and just when Cato believed neither of them would get a hit, she sprung forward, her knife against his chest. "Checkmate," she murmured, and for the first time in his life, Cato is speechless. She hops away, twirling her knife, and he swears her hips have an extra swing in them.
He doesn't avoid her. That's not what it is. He just doesn't want to be near her, that's all. It's not that she injured his pride, it's just that she injured his pride, and he hates her for it. He trains extra hard, until everyone he faces goes down in the first minute, his knife pressed against their chest or their neck. Each time, her voice rings through his head, and he can't stand it.
When they're Reaped, he can't believe his luck. Or lack thereof. He says his final goodbyes to his family, and the adoring girls that show up to express their love and promises to send him as many gifts as possible, and then he sits next to Clove in the back of the car on the way to the station. She turns to him, her eyes as unreadable as the first day they met, and says, "I want to work together." She's just full of surprises. He hates it.
"You need me." She replies, a shrug of her shoulders emphasizing how firmly she believes it. He wishes he could hit her, if just to get her to express something other than cool condescension. "We'd make a good team." He rolls his eyes, ignoring the rational part of him that thinks she makes sense.
"We'll see." He sneers, turning to face the front of the car. He doesn't see it, but she smiles slightly,a smirk in the corner of her lips. He's sure if he had noticed then, he would have hated it.
When they meet their stylists, gushing imbeciles from the Capitol, Cato wishes his fans from back home were here. They'd appreciate his jokes on the stylists behalf, he's sure of it. As they get dressed, Clove glances over, catching his wandering eye. She smirks, and it's the first time he's seen her do anything than just stare critically. He returns it, and as they walk out to the chariot, he swears her hips are swinging.
Their mentors, victors from a couple years ago, commended Clove on her idea of working together. "It's a tradition! We're the Careers, we must stick together until the very end. Then it's free game," the woman winks, her male companion laughing behind her. Cato glances over at Clove, who still won't look at him. It's like their brief moment of camaraderie never happened. He doesn't care, of course. It doesn't bother him in the slightest. They begin training the next morning, and soon, the tributes from District 1 join up with them. The girl's attractive, Cato guesses, and from the way she clings to his side makes him feel that she thinks the same about him. It isn't difficult to comprehend, he's hot and he knows it. He tells himself it's because Glimmer's smoking, and not the way Clove gives the girl an indignant look and trains harder, that he allows her to hang off him. He doesn't care what Clove does, as long as she has his back.
And has his back she does. They can never stop moving in fluid motion during training, each step mimicked by the other without even having to converse. He hates the connection, but he figures it will save his life. So he tolerates it. It's because it will eventually come back to help him in the arena, and not because he likes having her around. He hates her, because every time they finish one round of training, she looks at him with a smirk on her lips and he wishes her damn emotionless expression would come back. He thinks he likes that more.
That is, until he finds her sitting in the living room, tapes of previous Hunger Games playing on the TV. "What are you doing?" He asks, and she jumps. He smirks. It's not often he can catch her off-guard. He slides onto the couch, and she looks over at him, composing herself quickly.
"What does it look like I'm doing?" She retorts sharply, letting go of the pillow she was clutching. He chuckles, shaking his head.
"Sorry." They sit in silence, the only sound coming from the TV. The sound of murder is something Cato finds encouraging, like a push from his older brother or a smack from his dad, a reminder that he is better than his failures. Glancing over at Clove, he is reminded of his biggest. Being put at knife-point by a girl half his size is something he doesn't like to dwell on, but he cannot stop thinking about it. It was a year ago, and still it hangs over him, the shame wet and hot.
"Why are you here?" Clove says quietly. It's the first time her voice hasn't been filled with confidence or a snarky attitude, and it kind of scares Cato. He glances over at her, but she's not looking at him. He can't afford to have this conversation. Not now, not here, not with her. In three days, one of them will probably be dead, and he's damned if it's going to be him.
"Because I want to be," he replies, rising from the couch. She doesn't look up at him, but he hesitates in the doorway, leaving only when her shoulders shake and she begins to cry.
The next morning, they don't look at each other. He doesn't mention her breakdown, and she doesn't mention his betrayal. Because that's exactly what it is. The Games are about killing, yes, but everyone knows if you kill your District partner, you're basically signing up to become a social pariah. District loyalty is important, and Cato forgot. But it's evident in the way she turns away from him every time he turns toward her, their damn synchronicity working against him always, that she didn't. It takes him a second to remember he doesn't care about her.
His stylist gives him the same speech he's sure she's given a thousand times, and then he's stepping into the glass case, thrumming with anticipation and excitement. This is what he's been training for, what his life has been put toward, and he will not give up now. He stands, watching as the countdown begins, and his eyes flicker around. There's Glimmer, waving at him with a seductive smirk, and Marvel, the boy from District 1. And there's Clove, her fingers twitching by her side. Cato smiles, knowing she's yearning for a knife, before letting his smile fade. He doesn't care. She is his District partner, and that's it. If she dies, he will feel no pain.
He buries his confusion in Glimmer, letting her fingers dance over his skin as they walk, eyes trained on the back of Clove's head, the way she lithely moves around the forest, her trusty knife at her side once again. They've got the boy from District 12, searching for Katniss, the girl who scored an eleven. It's unheard of, and Cato cannot stand that he got showed up by a girl again. They stalk through the forest, and eventually find her, chasing her up a tree. Cato catches Clove's smirk when Glimmer misses, and has to stop himself from laughing along with her. He begins scaling the tree, and when he lands on his back, staring up as stars dance in his vision, he hates himself more than he hates Clove's worried look.
When the Tracker Jackers fall, Cato scrambles, his hand reaching out and grabbing Clove's instead of Glimmer's. Later that night, when they see her face in the sky, he glances over at Clove and feels a rush of what feels like gratitude. Relief. His dancing partner is still with him, and he allows himself to be grateful. Just this once. She looks over at him, and her lips press together. Words don't have to be exchanged. They both know.
When the announcement is made that two can win, Clove turns to him immediately, and he can't help the rush of relief that washes over him. Without thinking about it, he pulls her in, crushing her against his chest, and for the first time, he thinks maybe he didn't actually want to kill her.
She says that she's going to get their bag, because he's injured and she's faster. He would argue, except he's learned that more often than not she's right about things and he really needs what's in that bag. He stands on the side, his knife poised to come to her defense if necessary. "Sweet," she murmurs, her smirk planted firmly on her lips. "But unnecessary." She twirls her knife in her hand, placing it against his chest in a movement only he recognizes as sentimental. They both know the danger, but neither are willing to bring it up. She puts her knife back in its sheath, and glances at him, lips pursing as if she's contemplating speaking. Instead, she shakes her head, and begins the walk toward the Cornucopia.
He's not paying attention. He replays that thought in his head over and over when he's next to her, but he stood at the edge of the forest, not paying attention. It wasn't until her voice was shrieking his name that he realized what he had done, and by the time he got out there, it was too late. He didn't care about the girl on fire, and the boy who had killed Clove had run off, like a damn coward. He cradled her, surprisingly gentle for a boy designed to kill, and whispered to her, demanding she stop this. Her eyes fluttered, and a brief smile flickered over her face. "What a way to go," she murmured, and he can't stop himself. He smiles, something in his chest cracking. She reaches up, her hand against his heart, and whispers, "Checkmate, Cato." The life slips out of her eyes like a secret lover sneaking out the back door, and then she's gone. He lets go of her, rising to his feet, staring into the forest, the direction Thresh went. Revenge boils his blood, and he stalks into the forest, each step deliberate. This time, it's personal.
He grabs Peeta, wanting Katniss to feel what he did. If it wasn't for her, Clove wouldn't be dead and they'd be home by now. He's bleeding from him stomach and his leg, and his mouth is covered in blood, results of his war with Thresh, and he's lost everything. Drive, his sword, Clove, sanity, it has all slipped through his fingers, drained into this sick torture the Capitol has pushed him through. He screams at her, laughing the whole time, begging for her to shoot him. She won't, and he knows, as long as he's holding Peeta, but he'll be damned if he lets a fucking girl beat him again.
When she shoots his hand, and Peeta pushes him, he experiences a few moments of peace on his way down. Perhaps time slowed, or his mind began retreating farther into its dark retreat, but as he fell - floated, it felt more like floating - he got glimpses of a life he used to have. Laughter, sweet and harmonious, food that is warm and rich on his tongue, Glimmer's kisses and Clove's smile, brief as a butterfly flickering across her face, the way her hand felt against his chest, how in tune they were, each step a dangerous dance that brought them closer and closer to death flickered in front of him. When Katniss shoots him, he can barely muster a thank you, eyes trained toward the sky. If there is a heaven, he thinks, Clove would hate it.