Disclaimer: I own nothing. Not even Cato...

A/N: This is one of the most complicated things I've ever written. The events in this one-shot aren't written in chronological order - they kind of jump from one time sequence to the next. This is AU, not insanely and completely AU, but there's a good dose of it. Just warning you now. Oh, might I take this time to advertise my other Katniss/Cato fic He Knew Her First. Feel free to check it out and support the Katniss and Cato ship!

So that its not terribly confusing, I'm just going to tell you now that in this fic, Cato and Katniss enter the 71st Hunger Games, not the 74th. Hopefully this story makes somewhat sense. Hope you enjoy this one and please review ;)


However Long the Night

(the dawn will break)

A boy meets a girl. Isn't that how all stories start?

...

To the rest of the world, she may just be the Girl on Fire, one of the Capitol's favorite marionettes to play with.

But to him, she is the one thing that truly belongs to him. His. Cato can rightfully say it without the repercussions of fear hanging over his head. He can nuzzle the column of her pale neck without being reprimanded, breathe in her scent of honey and apples like a morphling addict, and kiss her behind closed and secluded doors. He can thrust in and out of her all day and night, letting himself forget just for a moment that there are no other clients after her, that he could stay in bed with her forever if he wanted to.

Just as he's murmuring sweet promises into her ear of a brighter future, one with a house by the sparkling ocean and an adorable set of petite children running around in their front yawn with that picturesque white picket fence that everyone dreams about, the light above the door flashes red, signaling the arrival of yet another customer of his. Usually she leaves before this ever occurs, but now they're both stuck in a loop and it's his entire fault. Luckily, she's always been so smart, so clever, that she kisses his lips one more time before sprinting towards the closet.

As his only valid lover embeds herself into the tacky clothes that belong to the citizens of the Capitol, a familiar bulk of a man strides through the door, involuntarily making the blond's stomach clench when the man smiles darkly at him. Though he has enough brute strength to rival that of Cato's, it is certain that the younger male could easily throttle the older man, Titus is his name, to death if he wanted to, and yet he can't. Part of him dies inside at the sight of Titus because he doesn't want his precious girl to see what this male can do when Cato is forced not to fight back.

...

The tiny blond boy is ruthlessly beaten to the kitchen floor again by his own father. ("You call that throwing a knife? Boy, those better not be tears coming out of your eyes. Men don't cry.") His mother refuses to watch, although her back rests against a wall adjacent to that room, clutching the teddy bear her son holds at night and knowing after this day, he would never hold that old stuffed animal again.

Far away in another district, a black-haired girl introspectively copies her grandmother's movements as she helps her guardian bake a batch of sweet cookies. Her tiny hands are rolling the dough into balls, sitting on a high stool because her head could barely reach the kitchen counter. She can't help it if she cocks her head, wondering why she was the only girl in this neighborhood that didn't have at least one of her parents watching over her.

"Greetings to the final contestants of the Seventy-first Hunger Games. The earlier revision has been revoked. Closer examination of the rule book has disclosed that only one winner may be allowed. Good luck and may the odds be ever in your favor."

Both at the ripe age of fifteen, easily two of the youngest competitors in this year's Games, and they manage to get down to the final two together. Countless nights have been spent sharing a sleeping bag, much to the Capitol's squealing pleasure, and pouring enough energy into keeping the other alive. And now they've killed the last tribute collectively to reach at nothing because they were just that stupid enough to think that the officials would actually let two tributes win any Hunger Games.

His hands—fingers that had stroke her hair the night before—fling the sword down with adamant force. A sparing glance to the side is all it takes to realize that she's getting rid of her bow and arrows as well and it's plainly clear that neither is willing to commit one more murder. When he holds out his hand, she takes it without hesitation and it isn't long before both are running towards the edge of the outer arena, to the cliff where they know jagged rocks rest at the bottom.

Done in complete and trusting silence, they squeeze each other's hands before nodding. One. He thinks that even if the sharp points of the boulders below would pierce every inch of his body, he won't think of letting her go. Two. She vaguely wonders if they could have met outside the world of the morbid Games.

Three.

They jump.

Hurling headlong into the air, boy and girl tighten their hold on each other. They are so close to the rocks, so close to actual freedom because they know that the lucky ones who enter the arena are the ones who get to die. A net that springs from the overhead hovercraft, catching them before the eventual fall, extinguishes all fantasies of that, indicating that liberation is a goal they can never reach while Claudius Templesmith's voice congratulates them on being the two victors of the Seventy-first Hunger Games.

(Disgusted. Utterly revolted at the sight.)

Katniss' throat turns temporarily dry at the sight of this dark-haired monster forcing himself upon Cato, his hands wrapping tightly around the younger male's throat as he thoroughly rapes him. This stranger pounds the blond roughly against the mattress repeatedly, managing to elicit noticeable winces from Cato, along with the sharp intakes of breath that can only imply pain and utter discomfort. She wants to tackle this man to the ground and beat the shit out of him but a pair of familiar ice blue eyes meet hers through the hole of the closet, wordlessly pleading—begging—with her to stay put.

So she does. It is another seven hours of this before the Capitol man leaves, and Katniss is so close to barreling out that door and killing the man in cold blood had it not been for the sight of the blond boy, normally imposing, curled up to himself on the bed like a broken doll that's been toyed with for too long.

...

"You're holding it wrong."

"I know how to hold it," Katniss retorts bluntly, changing the way she holds the spear in spite of him before hurtling the long weapon at the target with the longest distance. It hits the bullseye she was intending for—straight at the heart.

A large grin lighted the blond boy's face. "Impressive, firegirl."

She swats sharply at his hands, which had clearly been in the process of grazing the sides of her hips with his long fingertips. "Wasn't trying to impress anyone." Ignoring his irritating chuckle, she swerves around him and heads towards the other side of the training center, abruptly deciding to brush up on her nonexistent survival skills.

Naturally, he follows her.

It's before the reaping for the terrible Quarter Quell when they've been approached on the sensitive subject about a rebellion. Haymitch Abernathy goes to the house that lies in the Victors' Village of District 2, knowing that Katniss will be there as well. District 13 wants them to be a part of this rebellion. They find out they've been considered as potential rebel leaders since the finale of the Seventy-first Hunger Games—the moment where they both try to kill themselves.

Despite the fact that his father's been training him in his own psychotic way, the boy is admitted into the Academy at the age of eight. He can't understand why killing other children will bring honor to his district. All of it doesn't make sense to him, even as he watches a male kill another male right before his big eyes. Looking back, he wonders if that was the day he lost is innocence, or if it had been the day he was born.

At eight years old, the girl's grandmother presses a videotape in her hands, pushing her towards the small living room where she could watch the tape alone. The girl turns her back, beckoning for her grandmother to watch it with her, only to find that the older woman has disappeared somewhere in the tiny, cozy cottage that is their home in the woods. She pushes the tape in, her countenance almost bored upon seeing that this is a recap of the Fifty-fifth Hunger Games.

Like she really wants to watch this.

The bored expression leaves her once she realizes that this is the very Games where both her parents die in.

"Look into the camera," the man demands, his voice cold and harsh even, "and tell Katniss Everdeen to come to the Capitol or you will die."

He's stupid enough to be oblivious to the fact that Cato will rather pick the second option than the first. Given his rebellious actions during his own Games as well being forced into special prostitution to save those personally close to him, Cato is practically and already a martyr for being a hostage of the Capitol.

"Might as well keep whipping me or pulling off whatever torture you can come up with," he throws back with as much indifference he can muster, his wit and tone as sharp as ever albeit the situation he is in. "Because I'm not saying any of that bullshit."

"Suit yourself."

Soon enough, the walls of which he's strapped in are reverberating with her screams. Katniss' screams. His heart is impaled and hurting with the fact that they're torturing her within his hearing range. ("No, no, no, no! Please, for fuck's sake, stop! Please, no, Katniss!") His muscles scream with ache as he continues to fight against the restraining bands that tie him back against the chair.

After they catch the blond's self-inflicting insanity on tape, they think it's good enough to send it to the Mockingjay before they throw him back into his prison cell, unknowing that the screams still ring loudly in Cato's mind.

President Snow made it cloudlessly clear that Cato is able to play the dominant role with his female clients. Sometimes he can get away with it if his customers happen to be effeminate Capitol men. But if it's men who are almost equal to him in formidable width and height, Snow is deadly inexorable that Cato must be submissive to this type of customers.

On his first night as a Capitol whore, still only fifteen and fresh after the Seventy-first Games, he gets six clients. Four of these appointments force him to be unwillingly submissive and by the time the sun makes its appearance to the blue skies, he can't find the energy or endurance to walk. It hurts too much. An ex-Career such as himself isn't supposed to feel such pain because in his heartless world, pain does not exist.

"It doesn't get any better," a voice murmurs close by before someone sits beside him in the bar that's nearly empty because of the hellishly early time. Citizens of the Capitol don't wake until ten-thirty or eleven a.m.

Cato snorts. "As if I didn't know that already." Ignoring the fact that Finnick Odair has just decided to grace his life with his presence, the blond takes another shot at the strongest alcoholic liquid the bartender is willing to give him.

"Just saying," Finnick shrugs his shoulders, looking jacked up as much as Cato is in the process of. The male from District 2 feels that there is something wrong with the world because he is in a similar case as Odair—he has something in common with the older man and that was something Cato thought would never ever happen in his life.

"You could use it to an advantage you know," Finnick speaks up once again.

Use sex as an advantage. "How?"

Finnick leans in close to his ear, because they're both smart enough to know that there are bloody cameras all over the place no matter where they go, and whispers, "Secrets."

The boy volunteers because he has to. He has no choice. It's uncommon for District 2 to sprout tributes that are younger than seventeen but it's been seven years since District 2's had a victor, and that's seven years too long. They want blood so badly and all of them are desperate enough to push him towards volunteering. He's stronger, taller, and deadlier than all of the upper division trainees and the whole district overlooks his young age with the persistent claim that with his potential and youth, he could verily be the next Finnick Odair.

She also has no choice. In District 12, it's uncommon to have volunteers, but she'll be the first. When they call up Primrose Hawthorne's name—a sweet girl who is her sister outside blood—there is no other choice but to volunteer. She almost breaks down at the sight of her grandmother sobbing quietly in the back. Her grandmother thinks that she'll end up just like her deceased parents.

Like a moth drawn to a flame, she can't look away from the television when she sees her mother and father hacked to pieces by the manic Careers. The girl feels somewhat comforted to know that at least they died together.

He should feel elated the moment he beats his opponent to a bloody pulp. The instructors do the rare task of giving compliments to him and he should feel joyous, but he feels just like his father, and that makes him sick to his stomach.

Katniss feels her entire body shaking with an emotion she can't describe. Never has she felt this way. Bounding out of the closet on emotionally trembling and wobbly legs, her lips thin tightly at the sight of Cato just looking oh so broken on the bed at the center of the room. Cato is many things, but broken was never one of them. She can tell that by the fifth hour of that vomit-worthy experience, he has probably temporarily forgotten her hidden presence in the room and she honestly can't blame him for that.

Finally noticing the near silent way she is creeping back towards the bed, Cato instinctively straightens his body, refusing to look weak in front of her wellbeing, but he's unable to pull off the task. Every strain of his body hurts him and tears begin to prick at the corners of Katniss' twilight eyes because even in a situation like this, he does not give up his pride. The salty tears that are blurring up her peripheral vision feel oddly foreign because she never cries, not even when she was watching her dying parents in their Hunger Games all those years ago.

"You told me that you only get female clients," she says in a quivering voice, hating the fact that she sounds that way.

She knows all about this dark business and is forced to pay in money for Cato's time because there's no way President Snow could ever allow them to be together. Cato is too valuable of a prostitute and Katniss is booked for other reasons—parties, social events, modeling for whatever Cinna is willing to put her in for a fashion show, etc. Their coming together would cause the president to lose thousands of money.

She accepts the fact that she's in love with a man who's not free.

"I get men too," Cato mutters when the silence is too much. "But most of them aren't like that man you just saw. He's one of the few exceptions, trust me."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" she demands, the tears hanging on by a thread. Knowing that Cato's been used and abused over and over again like that for the past three years shatters her heart.

"Katniss…"

He's never seen her cry before and the sight literally stuns him. Cato softens before opening his arms to the best of his ability, and he doesn't have to hold them out for long because the black-haired girl is already clinging to him without hurting him, sprinkling his bruised torso with wet tears as she—for once in her life—sobs her heart out.

They are reunited for the first time when they see each other at the Seventy-second Hunger Games, with Katniss hugging him with quiet passion and losing the over-indulgence he receives from the hugs he gets from other women. She is perfect and Cato can't help but think that her willowy body was meant to be in his arms the entire time.

Not forgetting the fact that she comes from the poorest districts in all of Panem, Katniss reveals that she hates the lifestyle she has now. She hates it when they force her to go to some rich Capitol citizen's birthday party for a special appearance and she particularly hates it when an involuntary photo shoot of her in another fiery outfit lands on one of the billboards that overlook the city. It's next to the billboard that holds Cato's own photo: shirtless with a plastic smile on his face.

He can't help it if he kisses her the night before the Games, both pretending that the towering Capitol lights are just millions of true white stars in the sky. It doesn't matter that he should get on to his next appointment and she should be giving a last-minute mentor prep talk to her tributes this year. It doesn't matter if anything is fake these days.

All that really matters is that she kisses him back.

It's Snow she was supposed to kill, not Alma Coin. Before she can prevent it from happening, the arrow is already flying from the bowstring, striking the woman in the head. She was the reason why the innocent Capitol children were dead, also killing off another important group that includes Cato's remaining family—mother, brother, and sister—and Primrose Hawthorne.

When Coin falls out of the balcony, Cato squeezes her hand tightly. It's a silent thank you. If Katniss hadn't shot her, Cato would have literally ripped her to pieces himself. For all it was worth, Katniss had saved the woman from a painful death.

A handful of short days later, Cato rightfully exploits his Career-embedded ways by hunting down Titus and the more vulgar of his clients, mercilessly slaughtering them without a blink of an eye. Katniss tags along, and for some unexplainable and inhumane reason, she enjoys watching these clients suffer.

Their son is happily swinging into the air, his left holding onto Cato's hand while his right latches on to Katniss. Every musical laugh that comes out of his adorable mouth brings identical smiles to husband and wife. Their dream is finally fulfilled once they moved to District 4 after the rebellion, taking a nice house that was near the sea. It's become a daily routine for the small family to walk along the shore in the bare feet, feeling the gentle curls of the ocean waves with their wiggling toes.

For Katniss, the nightmares have stopped along with the rebellion, but Cato still suffers from sleepless nights. Most of them stem from the affliction the Capitol had caused when they had taken him during the Quarter Quell. He still hears her screams in his head and on bad nights, she would wake up to find her bedside completely absent of his warm body. She'd find him somewhere around the neighborhood, claiming that he had to go save Katniss before it's too late. Katniss peppers his face with butterfly kisses, hoping that can give him a good sense of mind, but it's really the laughter of their blond, grey-eyed two-year-old son that brings Cato back to reality again.

She loves both of her boys.

After annoying the crap out of her, Cato offers an alliance. Katniss persistently claims that the only reason she accepts his proposal is because working with the Careers would increase her probability of survival in the arena. It isn't because his pale cerulean eyes are so mesmerizing and it definitely isn't because his smirks give her unwarranted shivers.

He's trained all his life for the Hunger Games. Funny how that turned out, because no one trains him for the life after the fated Games.

President Snow tells him it's an honorable thing, considering that this is the first time he's chosen a victor from District 2 to partake in this special business of his. Cato is the first victor from his district to have both the imposing strength and the rare beauty. As he goes on about the gruesome details of Cato's new job, Snow ignores the fact that the younger male's face has lost all of its healthy color. He tells the new victor that he should be proud to represent his district. ("And if you fail to accept these terms, accidents will happen. I assure you of this, Cato.")

Cato reluctantly accepts, on the conditions that his family won't be touched and that Katniss should never enter this business. This hinders the president, since people have been bidding to take the Girl on Fire as well, but Snow waves the matter aside. He would just have to make Cato work twice as hard.

At twelve, the boy can't take it anymore. He can't just sit there while his father beats the crap out of his mother, due to pure drunk oblivion again. He isn't responsible for his actions when he grabs his father by the neck and tears him away from his bleeding and bruised mother. He shoves his father against the wall easily, because they are nearly the same height now, and takes in the sickening pleasure of hearing the older man's bones break underneath the boy's fist.

His mother hurriedly ushers his younger twin siblings into their rooms, reassuring their worried tears that she will be alright. By the time she makes it out of their room, she sees the sight of her eldest son punching the bloody mess that was her husband's face before shoving him one last time. Her husband misses his step by an inch of her son's strong push, causing him trip and fall down the stairs, tumbling brilliantly until his final breath escapes the moment his head hits the bottom of the stairs.

The boy is reassured by his mother that all of it was none of his fault, and she isn't all that remorseful that her husband's dead. When the Peacekeepers arrive to collect his body, she tells them that it was just an accident.

"No!"

Katniss is technically unarmed, but her fingernails are more than willing to do the job. In less than a millisecond, she lunges herself across the table, her nails raking sharply down upon Haymitch's face, actually satisfied as she sees the blood flowing down one of his eyes. They were yelling terrible things at each other, some true and some not. She doesn't even stop when she feels Finnick pry her off of the normally drunk-assed man.

"How could you?" she continues to screech as Finnick drags her back to the table. She writhes in fury as numerous hands do their best to restrain her. "How could you let the Capitol take Cato? You asshole! How could you?"

The angry girl is still screaming at her mentor up until the moment where a needle pokes into her arm, sedating her momentarily for the time being. It doesn't make her go to sleep, but it traps her in fuzzy, dulling misery. They talk in soothing tones to placate her, but none of their voices reach to her.

She never stops thinking about Cato.

The day Cato tells her he loves her is one of her happiest.

But then he lets loose the information that he's practically a sex slave of the Capitol. He tells her that Finnick Odair is forced in this business too, and suddenly it makes so much sense why he and Finnick Odair of all people are such close friends.

She has never hated the Capitol more in that single moment.

Katniss is utterly repulsed by how the Careers act. They whoop and holler when one of them kills another tribute and they all feel disappointment when they didn't get enough kills. She trails behind the lot of them, bringing up the rear because she's not in the mood to celebrate with the rest of them after killing that idiot of a girl who thought it would be a good idea to spark up a warm fire in the middle of the cold night.

She is surprised when Cato unlatches his arm from Glimmer's grip, wrinkling his nose in disgust at the blonde girl's pouty face before he makes his way towards the back, towards her. The trademark cocky smirk is on his face, and Katniss feels compelled to roll her eyes when he gives her a playful nudge as he walks beside her. He is smiling, yes, but when she looks closer, there is a tiny, tiny, essence of remorse that circles his bright irises. So maybe he's not just some brutish killing machine.

When he is little, the boy's bedtime stories only consist of the Hunger Games. He only knows of death and blood, but once his father leaves his room, his mother sneaks in and whispers that he's stronger than the Capitol system. She whispers that he's meant for something much larger than the Games.

The little girl's bedtime stories contain a world where children are allowed to play out in the streets without fear. Where people are equal and that there's no such thing as poor and rich. There's no such thing as a dictator, as her grandmother faintly says, and her dreams are filled with the absence of oppression.

Halfway through the Seventy-fourth Games, President Snow approaches them with his seal of approval. Apparently, this is something the Capitol's been fantasizing about for years, knowing that during their own Games, they had just been hiding their love for each other. The Capitol citizens have come up with the concept that they were truly star-crossed lovers, and now they were souls finding each other once more. Snow accepts their relationship, but of course, there's a slight catch.

"I am going to film you two making love to each other." He doesn't give a damn when both Cato and Katniss look like they're about to vomit. "Think of it as a way of me allowing you two to express your dual love to each other. I will then sell viewing rights to the tape to the highest bidder."

After the president tells them that this won't be a single occurrence, that this business would progress much longer than that, he leaves the room, the smell of blood and roses still lingering in the air. Cato's response is predictable as he completely destroys the entire room, flinging and breaking furniture everywhere with his bare hands. Katniss on the other hand, sits frozenly on the bed, vaguely wondering when they will ever be out of the Capitol's control.

Biting her lips almost painfully, she cradles Cato in her arms, slightly rocking him in her best attempt to get him to go to sleep. "You're alright now, Cato. You're not in the Capitol anymore," she murmurs in his ear, her breath tickling the outer crevice in the gentlest brush.

She wants to run her fingers through his soft hair, relishing the feel of his short tendrils and knowing that gesture could calm him down a bit, but Cato's hands are gripping tightly at his hair, trying to pull them all out. Katniss is told of the screams that go through his mind, her screams, but she can't understand why he's still trying to save her when she's right in front of him. His body shakes at night and he yells out her name all the time.

Curling her body around him, she protects him like he protected her in the arena of the Seventy-first Games, growling at everyone who comes too close to him. She threatens to kill Coin in cold blood whenever the older woman tries to turn Cato into another rebel leader when he's clearly unstable for it.

Katniss whispers to him I love you until it becomes a soothing mantra. Unbeknownst to everyone else, she goes a little crazy too every time she sees or hears Cato scream. It tears her apart.

Once Claudius Templesmith's wife stops riding Cato for dear life, he kisses her ear and says quietly, "Tell me a secret."

The woman's drunk and in post-coital bliss, so she's more than willing to tell him anything. In such vulnerable state, she huskily whispers a dark secret about President Snow, one that makes Cato's eyes glow with delight upon hearing it.

Though they live only a couple houses down, their son likes to sleep over at the Odairs, and vice-versa. After their son and Finnick and Annie's son have settled down into a bed that's almost too big for the two children together, the four parents take turns telling bedtime stories. It times like these where Cato and Annie can successfully leave the remnants of their damaged mind and partake in the enjoyment of amusing the two boys.

The stories range from a girl who's lost her slipper at a ball to the poor boy with a magic flying carpet, or the princes that constantly save their princesses, or the heroes and heroines that slay the dragons and save the day. In this seemingly perfect world, there is no such thing as the Hunger Games. The four of them destroy all the tapes of it.

A boy meets a girl. A girl meets a boy. It doesn't matter, as long as they end up finding each other.

"What's up, firegirl?"

"It's Katniss."

"Quite an entrance you made at the Opening Ceremonies." A teasing grin. "I'm Cato."


/fin