AN: I know I promised Downton Abbey fic. It's coming, I promise. But I have been completely laid bare by the realization that Katniss and Peeta weren't the only pair of would-be lovers in the arena. Whatever the connection that Suzanne Collins intended for Cato and Clove, there are enough tantalizing hints for me to take the idea and run with it.
The very best part about not writing "good" characters? They are free to do all sorts of nasty things to each other. Yes, I am talking about sex. That means if you are under 18, I would not recommend reading further, this is going to be a hard M story.
Cato knows what she is capable of before he ever sees her face.
The different ages aren't encouraged to mingle at the training school, but the day Clove shoves a knife into the thigh of one of her sparring partners, whispered gossip spreads like wildfire. There is talk she will be sent away, but Cato knows better. After all, they're trained to be bloodthirsty monsters; she has just proved with one casual flick of her wrist that she is better at it than nearly anybody else. So he isn't surprised much when the next day, she's been moved into his training group.
From the beginning, it's clear that she's being trained in earnest to enter the Games at the peak of her deadliness, but he thinks the trainers must be insane if they believe they can keep her contained until she turns eighteen.
At twelve, she is lean and lithe and tiny, but the rage burning in her eyes belies her small stature. He takes her seriously, and as what he says goes, the rest in their group follows suit.
He keeps a casual eye on Clove as two years go by. He watches as they sharpen her already-deadly skills and whittle her viciousness to a keen point. By the time she turns fourteen, they are the best two fighters in their age group—the best two fighters in the entire training school, and therefore probably the best two fighters in all twelve districts.
So it should come to no surprise to him that eventually he reads the training board and sees his name linked with hers.
"Better watch your back," his best friend Roman mutters as he glances over the newly-paired names. "She's unpredictable. Insane."
Cato disagrees. He sees the stunt two years ago for what it was—a bid to gain the trainers attention. And it worked, because instead of languishing in her age group, she's been accelerated and is taken very, very seriously.
The first afternoon he faces her, her hair is braided tightly back from her face. The light falling in from the skylights carves across her cheekbones, and for the very first time, Cato doesn't feel the immediate and overwhelming need to conquer, to dominate. Whatever he feels, it isn't normal-and so he ignores it, or at least he tries to.
They circle each other slowly, each clearly respectful of the other's skills. Cato knows it is to his detriment that he is better at short range weaponry and that Clove specializes in long-range—her deadly knives specifically. She can hit a target spot-on at a hundred paces. The heavy wood of his sword thunks as he switches it from one hand to another, as effortlessly as breathing. Her eyes narrow at his overt display of strength and he can't help but smirk a little. Nobody else in the training school has been capable of pushing her buttons, but give him five minutes, and she's putty in his hands.
Cato vaguely hears the frustrated grunt of Enobaria and he knows she is sick of waiting for the first strike, so he half-heartedly stabs forward with his weapon, which she evades nimbly, spinning out of his reach, and then back into it, her short wooden knives moving in an intricate dance. He parries her next strikes but finds himself sweating nervously as her movements grow more and more inventive. "Unpredictable," Roman called her. Cato can think of another word: a serious pain in his ass.
He keeps her occupied in the short range, knowing if she manages to get away from him for even a moment, she will throw one of those knives and though he'll only have a bruise from their impact, his pride won't ever let him live down being beaten by this nutcase.
He's so caught up in the moment of her twisting, fiendish slashing that he forgets for a moment everything else, and the world shrinks. It is only her weapons and his and the steely determination in those gray-green eyes. He has heard for years of Clove's skills, but today, for the very first time, Cato thinks that all of District 2 has underestimated her deadliness.
He has underestimated her deadliness. With a feline grace, she snaps away from the range of his sword, and a second later, Cato feels the sharp thump of a wooden dagger hitting the side of his neck.
His sword falls to his side, his arm burning from the wild goose chase she'd just let him on, but she doesn't smile, even in victory. So serious, she is, with a deadly earnest that he finds fascinating.
"Carotid artery," Enobaria announces. "You're dead, Cato."
Those aren't words he's heard pronounced in years. As Enobaria lifts Clove's arm in victory, Cato wonders if maybe they moved her to give him a little bit of a challenge. He knows he should feel a lot more humiliated than he is; instead, he just feels a strange pulse of happiness. As the fellow Careers gather around to congratulate her, everyone avoiding his gaze, she glances over at him and for the very first time, she looks at him. Not at his sword, not at his slashing arm, or his feet, but at him.
He can hear her, just as clearly as if she was speaking out loud. You are mine. I am yours.
The next time they fight, the crowd is even larger. Cato knows his father is here, and he sees Clove's mother, a past Victor, speaking seriously to her daughter, her hands resting on Clove's shoulders. She glances up at him again, still wordless. Even though they have been in the same class for two years, she has never said an unnecessary word to him. Nothing overt or even remotely friendly. Only that hot, steely look of two months ago—You are mine, as I am yours.
It unnerves him still, as if she can see deep into the soul he tries to forget he owns, and can read every secret he stows there. At the very least, she must know that they are perfectly matched—two deadly weapons forged to be Victors.
Clove's chin lifts, and they step into the ring. This time, as the world shrinks to the two of them and their clashing weapons, he maintains the focus that has made him the Career to beat him in his class and across all twelve districts. Against his single-minded determination, this time it is Clove who falters. In fact, it is his strength that gets her in the end, as he bears down with his sword against her paltry wooden dagger. She struggles mightily, and he can taste her breath on the air, as she pants for control, her eyes hardening with the pain of keeping his sword away from her vulnerable throat. Finally, the wood cracks under his strength and in a second, his sword is against her skin.
This time, as he claims victory, she won't meet his eyes. Show me, he wants to plead with her, even though he is not exactly the pleading kind, show me you understand. You are mine, and I am yours.
But she turns from him, turns and heads into the bowels of the training center, no doubt to find some empty room where she can let her fury at being overcome loose.
He is right. He finds her in a training room, with a shining blade in her fist.
The dummy in front of her has been carved to bits with her knife, and for a heartbeat, he is afraid. Roman was right; she is insane, but it's the kind of insanity that he understands.
To get her to turn around, to face him, to look at him in the eye, he says the one thing he never expected to say. "I'm sorry."
"Go away." Her back is still to him, as she assesses the dummy and where next to cut.
"I'm sorry," he repeats. "I shouldn't have used my strength. It was cheating."
"Don't," she spits out, as he wanders closer to her. Anyone sane would think he had a death wish, especially after getting a load out of that desecrated dummy.
"You don't scare me, Clove."
She whips around now, her braid swooshing through the air, and the knife in her hand is a second away from being thrown with deadly accuracy in his direction. "I should."
"Yes, you should. But we both know that isn't true."
Her eyes raise to him, and this time he has the leisure to study them. They're grayish-green, the light changing their tone as she takes a step closer.
"The others. . .they pretend, they tolerate," Clove says bitterly. "But I don't. I want it. And so do you."
You are mine. I am yours.
"And you'll have it," he says.
"I want to volunteer," she admits. "I feel like I might explode, some days."
He knew the trainers would have trouble containing her until the age of eighteen, when they would unleash her fury upon the other eleven districts. "You know you can't," he tells her slowly, and the gentleness in his tone surprises even him. There is no gentleness in him. It has been beat, and trained and sweat out of him long ago. But for her. . .he is not certain why she intrigues and torments him so.
She shakes her head a little, the braid quivering with her movement. "Then take it out on me," he offers. "I need the challenge, before I volunteer."
It is unspoken between them that even though she should not volunteer next year, he will, because it is his last chance to become the Victor he was raised to be.
"Okay," she says with just the hint of a smile curving her upper lip. "Let's start." Her arm flashes out with the shining knife, and he jumps back, startled.
"No wooden weapons. Those are stupid," Clove demands. "I want my knives."
"If you get your knives, I get my sword."
This time her smile is the sun, and for a moment, he is struck by how suddenly beautiful she is. Her skill only serves to add another facet to her beauty and before he can stop himself, he imagines slowly peeling the training suit off her shapely limbs and absorbing the full effect of Clove.
But she slashes out with the knife again, and his head clears just in time to move out of the way.
"I'm waiting," she says, clearly annoyed at the delay. "Go get your sword."
"You know we can't tell anyone. We're only supposed to spar with wooden weapons. And in front of a trainer."
Clove shrugs, as if this is the most minor of obstacles. He remembers belatedly that she jumped two years to join his class, and if she wants something, she gets it.
"We'll start tomorrow. I can't go upstairs and grab my sword without everyone realizing what I'm doing."
"Fine." She's pouting, and damn if he doesn't find that insanely attractive. Cato wonders if he's sick for thinking that—after all, she's only fourteen. He glances at her again, and decides he's not. Those are womanly curves on her, after all, and he remembers that look again. You are mine. I am yours.
They spar almost every day in secret, with real weapons. Cato becomes intimately familiar with all the ways she can hurt him with those damn knives, and she feels the sting of his sword more than once. He steals a first aid kit and stows it down in one of the farthest, least used training rooms. They become adept at treating each other, but as days turn into weeks, and weeks into months, Cato finds his hands nearly shaking as he smooths ointment onto her warm, creamy skin. Sometimes he wonders if she feels his trembling fingers, if she can sense his confused longing. He wants to decimate her and strip her naked all in the same moment, yet she acts as if he is nothing, not even a hot-blooded male.
"Almost done," Cato breathes out unsteadily as he taps down the white bandage onto her upper back. He sees two other scars that he made on her otherwise flawless skin, and gluttonously wants to trace their path, to revel in the fact that he and he alone has marked her.
"Good," she grumbles. "You're taking forever."
So she has not guessed that he elongates their treatment sessions merely to continue to put his hands on her. She is either unbearably naïve or not interested. Cato suspects the former has not been true in years, but he can't settle for the latter. He wants her until his blood burns with it. It isn't fair that she doesn't feel the same.
"I won this time," he says, hating the hesitant edge to his voice. "I want to claim a boon."
"A boon?" Clove asks crossly as she pulls her training tunic down over the bandage. "What's that?"
He wants to pull back at her annoyed voice, but the determined edge of those eyes doom him. He can't retreat now, even though his next actions might lose him the best training partner he has ever had.
"A boon. A prize. Because I won."
"It's not like you win all the time," she grumbles, and he realizes that he's pricked her insufferable pride with his talk of winning.
"Of course, you can claim yours whenever you win. It will just add an extra . . .edge to our bouts," he quickly inserts. "What do you think?"
She looks rather skeptical. "You don't think I'm challenging enough on my own?"
"Fine." Cloves sighs, clearly peeved with the entire exercise. "What do you want?"
Before he says it, he's pretty much certain that she will laugh in his face. After all, he is the great Cato—destroyer of District 2 and the almost-certain Victor of next year's Hunger Games. He is supposed to be above petty, emotional concerns.
Her faces closes, and she says nothing. He takes an experimental step forward. "You have to know. . ." he clears his throat, aware that his voice has suddenly become embarrassingly gravely. "You have to know how I feel, Clove."
"We don't feel, Cato," she sneers at him. "Feelings get you killed."
For a split second, he believes her derision, then he glances down and sees that her fingers are clenched tightly together, just as his are. She is trembling.
His exultation at defeating any of his sparring partners at training is nothing compared to what he feels when he realizes that she is just as vulnerable to him as he is to her. To nobody else, but each other. He takes a step forward, and her knuckles grow white with the need to control herself. "You're right," he admits quietly, as he comes face to face with her, "but when I go into the arena, I don't want to win just because I can. I want to win because I know you'll be waiting for me."
Cato can see the pulse in her neck and he tangles a hand in the hair around the base of Clove's braid. "Fuck," he finally growls when she still says nothing, wide eyes focused on his, "you started it all anyway. With that look you gave me after the first fight."
"I was stupid," she whispers. "Cocky."
"And now?" he challenges, yanking just a touch too hard on her braid, wrapping the dark strands around his fingers until they are completely enveloped. Her hair, he thinks, is the only soft thing about her.
She begins to melt against him, around him, and for the briefest of seconds, he almost realizes what kind of havoc she could wreak on him, but before she can move any closer to him-that last devastating centimeter-her eyes grow cold and flat and she pulls herself away, yanking his hand away from her head, quite a few hairs coming along with it.
"We can't do this," she grinds out, her voice metallic and far away in his ears. Cato's blood is pumping, thumping in his body, he can feel it beating a tattoo out in his cock. He has never wanted anything in his life as badly as he wants Clove's surrender. But he can tell from the expression on her face that she had made up her mind, and unless he wants to force her to change it, then the best he will ever get from her is fighting and a few precious moments when she allows him to mend her.
The next day he is surprised, but not surprised to see that a new set of sparring partners has been posted. He's paired with some stupid blond girl who can barely pick up her axe to heave it at him. As for Clove, his place at her side has been filled by Roman, who is embarrassing all of District 2 by looking terrified.
He doesn't ask why the change was made-he already knows that whatever Clove wants, she gets.
Even though he knows she won't come to the training room for their secret sparring, he goes anyway, if only to torture himself. There's a forgotten, blood-stained tunic in the corner, next to the first aid kit, and he picks it up. It's one of hers, of course. She is dedicated, deadly and probably insane. But she is also careless with things-she throws them away haphazardly to get what she wants, and he knows it's because of this streak in her that the trainers want her to wait a few more years to volunteer.
He, on the other hand, is deadly but deliberate, because he was forcibly trained that way. The one exception to his carefully thought out plans is Clove, but then she is the kind of woman who would decimate a man if given half a chance.
Cato tells himself that he should consider himself lucky that he managed to avoid her particular brand of destruction but he can't quite make himself believe it.
As the months pass, his training accelerates until Cato feels like he might be breathing, eating and sleeping parries and thrusts. Enobaria brings in a woman to teach him how to forage-the Hunger Games aren't named ironically, after all-but he discovers he is hopeless at identifying which plants he can eat, and which he can't. Finally, he gives up and tells Enobaria that he'll fight for his food. She nods her head, but he knows she suspects that his increasing temper stems from something else. She just doesn't know what.
If he is lucky, she will never know. Cato never looks in Clove's direction now. He has given her what she wanted, and if sometimes he can sense her eyes on him from across the training floor, he rigidly forces himself not to look back. Her decision, he tells himself.
The blond he's been paired with is named Gaia, and she is easy and friendly and doesn't try to stab him in the leg whenever he snaps at her. He tries to help her, and as the months go by, she improves enough that it is wordlessly acknowledged she will accompany him into the arena this year as a volunteer. She's attractive and sweet and will help with sponsors until the moment he has to kill her.
Cato knows he will have to, and as he lies in bed at night and the day of the Reaping grows closer, he finds it does not bother him in the least. He will kill Gaia without even a second of hesitation.
Sometimes, he sometimes lets himself think of Clove. Of her long hair, soft and pliant around his hand, of her steely, speculative gaze under the fringe of her dark lashes. As hard as he tries, Cato can't reconcile the hot look of their first sparring match with the absolute certainty in her eyes when she pushed him away. He decides she is just young, maybe confused. When he returns to District 2 a Victor, rich and admired and powerful, she won't be able to deny him.
He knows she too, will eventually take her time in the arena, and when she emerges Victor, then there will be nothing stopping them from coming together. She'll see, he thinks confidently, that they are made for each other.
You are mine. I am yours.
Reaping Day dawns cold and clear, the sun shining mercilessly against the frost. He feels steady and sure, and everything goes according to plan. Some useless little boy is selected by Mason Frewell, District 2's escort, and as expected he raises his hand, his voice booming throughout the courtyard.
He's showered with applause as he strides forward to the stage. He stands tall and confident next to Mason, knowing that the other tributes will be watching this later, and that a good portion of his strategy relies on them being afraid of him up front. He wants desperately to look for Clove in the group of girls to the left, to reassure her, to promise her that he will come back to her-come back for her. But to make googly eyes at a girl would be unbecoming to a District 2 tribute and future Victor, so he forces his eyes to the very back of the courtyard.
Mason dips his hand into the other glass jar, and he has barely read the name, before there is a screech that stops his heart. The same heart that he has tried to pretend for three years doesn't exist.
Today, he knows it's right there, lodged in his chest, and it's beating. And it's beating pretty much solely for her.
"I volunteer," she screams, launching herself out of the crowd of silent girls. She looks so tiny and unimportant that there is a cascade of whispers. It is rare that a volunteer in a Career district isn't 17 or 18. The other girl Careers look Clove up and down, and he is not at all surprised when Gaia shrinks under Clove's deadly glare. She will not try to contest Clove for the ability to volunteer. She knows Clove would kill her in five seconds.
After all, whatever Clove wants, Clove gets.
As she makes her way to the stage, beaming, the world slows to a crawl around him. Suddenly he realizes why she pulled away all those months ago. She knew this was his year to volunteer-his last chance to be the Victor he was born to be. And she . . .she. . .he cannot even form the words in his own head.
She is here to kill him.