A/N: So, I'm back! I hope you haven't forgotten all about me during those two weeks. London, apart from the weather, was absolutely brilliant, in case you want to know. I'm really sorry for posting this chapter so late, but since I got back, my life has been a complete chaos. Apocalypse came earlier this year, and to make things worse, I'm a bit ill. I'm sitting in my house with a running nose and my aching throat, catching up with TV shows (yeah, not really true, because yesterday I went to see the Avengers with my brother. IT WAS SO AWESOME I HAVE NO WORDS but ah, the spoilers, I don't want to ruin your fun so I'll stop here and now XD).
So, getting back to the story. Here you have the continuation of Cato/Katniss conversation. I really stirred things up a bit (yeah, I admit, more that a bit, but I like it messy). I think it's time for Cato to realize some truths about life and finally wake up. I do hope you won't kill me for doing this. R&R, as usual, please ;)
Cato knows he's on dangerous territory. Each time he's having doubts it means he should change tactics, deflect, or get clever really quick. So he does all those three things in one swift, elegant move.
"I was just telling Clove how beautiful you look tonight," he compliments Everdeen, making her snort. Well, at least he's telling the truth. She does look stunning. "What? It's true."
She doesn't reply. Cato is a tiny bit disappointed. He was hoping that she'll make a snug counter-remark of some sort, a one that would make him irritated and offended. He was hoping on any kind of reaction, really, anything but a chilly silence on her part.
"The music is fine, and so is the food. Extraordinary," he continues. "This is a fest of the best sort. Not that I have attended many."
She remains silent, trying to avoid his gaze.
"I have complimented the food and everything in general, now it's your turn to say something about the décor and the people," she looks at him then, but just for a second, only to avert her gaze again, searching for something. "Or we might dance here and enjoy the awkward silence. Fine with me."
But Cato is not a patient man. After a while, the silence is maddening. Suddenly, the music is just out of tune, people are laughing a bit too loud, the atmosphere is beyond stuffy. He guides them toward the back of the ballroom, behind the columns that muffle all the sounds a little. They are still dancing, but now Cato doesn't strain to really adjust to her moves. He then says sourly, "You don't want to dance with me, fine. You didn't even had to say yes when I asked you."
"I'm dancing with you because I wanted to," she finally replies, her voice steady. "And you asked me to dance not because you were trying to be nice and get some publicity. Which brings me to the original question: was it really a bet with Clove? Tell me," her tone is demanding.
"Yes, a part of a game we two enjoy to play when we're bored," he replies, trying to sound just that, uninterested and dismissive. "Nothing more."
She shakes her head. "You're not the sort of a man who goes blindly and does other people's bidding. This can't all be just a game. It can't," there's a hint of desperation in her voice, and fear, and this is all it takes for him to break. It happens so fast, he only realizes it when they suddenly stop dancing and Everdeen looks at him with surprise on her face.
"Open your eyes and really look, Everdeen. We're all part of the game, even you," when she opens her mouth to deny it, he makes an impatient move with his hand. She jumps, scared by this sudden gesture, but Cato doesn't care. Not anymore. "That's right, Everdeen. You're a player. You've been hiding your skills from the very beginning. Smart, very, very smart. Hiding aces in your sleeves only to pull them out in the last moment. I bet it wasn't you idea, but you're executing this plan very well. You pretend. Isn't this just the very concept of acting?" he whispers to her ear, watching her reaction. Her eyes are wide open. Cato likes her like this – vulnerable, but still not so easy to read. She looks at him, hard and unforgiving, prepared to strike back. "You know what you're doing, and you're doing it with pure premeditation, just like me, and Clove, and Marvel, and Glimmer, just like everyone else, for fuck's sake. You're no different."
"You don't know anything about me. You don't know why-"
"Of course I know why. It's so simple. Staying alive. That's what's on stake. Not even honor or victory, those empty words people tried to imprint into my head during all those years of training. I've learned what is important. The odds of cheating death, the chances to keep breathing whatever the cost. It doesn't matter how you call it. And let me disillusion you here," he bares his teeth, knowing he has won already, knowing that he has the upper hand. "When you finally get thrown on the arena, darling, you will kill those kids if it means you're going to survive. You are not going to think twice when you'll be spilling someone else's blood."
She tenses up, like something inside her snapped. "You're wrong," she says through clenched teeth, with all the firmness of her voice. "I'm not going to kill anyone. You're wrong."
"I'm not wrong," he replies. "But you're smart, Everdeen, you knew that already. We're all just pawns in their games. We do not get to decide. Not in this life."
"Of course we can decide. There's always a choice," Katniss says without a doubt in her statement, believing it completely. Cato smiles bitterly. She seems so young, with her faith and belief that there is a line between what's black and what's white.
"No, there isn't. I know that, because I've been living each day of my life with this knowledge," Cato doesn't know why he's telling her that, but something inside him stirs, and he can't hold it in him any longer. "I know that, because I can see how small and insignificant we really are. Just specks in the universe. We don't matter," he finishes, and he can hear his own voice quiver a little, but he still doesn't care. "Nothing really matters," and it sounds hollow and so desperate he wants to deny it right away, but it's the truth, the only truth. You win or you die and nothing else matters, and he can't say anything that will undo it.
"What about the day we were running? The night we talked?" she examines him with her eyes, burning holes in his armor of indifference, and it's just unbearable. "What about the day we've met?"
"Not this again, we've never met," Cato replies angrily, sending her a matching smile. So naïve, to think it mattered to him at all. It was just fun and it ended before it even started. "And if we have met, I damn made sure I've forgotten it."
But Everdeen doesn't know where to stop. "You told me you would. That they would make you forget."
"They? What the fuck are you talking about?"
She ignores his question completely. "When did you go to my District? When you were what, seven, eight?"
"Seven," he replies, taken by surprise, knowing he's not supposed to even answer, just get the hell out of there. "So?"
"And you started training at the Academy about that age, just after you returned?" Cato doesn't know what just happened and how the roles have suddenly reversed. Now he is being questioned, metaphorically pinned against the wall. His whole body says get the fuck out of there, but her gaze is transfixing, she has him disarmed. Cato has never felt so defenseless in his life.
"All the careers begin training at this age," he answers faintly. "Clove began when she was six."
"I'm not asking about Clove, I'm asking about you," she insists. "But just before you left on that train, you told me you were going to be programmed. You didn't want to go, you said your parents didn't have a choice. They needed more tesserae and the only way was to send you to-"
"Shut up, you can't possibly know that!" He turns around, because it's true: the tesserae and his parents sending him away like some king of commodity, like a quid pro quo. Their son for their lives. He feels like falling, like there's not ground beneath his feet.
"You were scared, Cato. I know, I saw it."
"I. Said. Shut. The. Fuck. Up," he punctuates every word, staring at her with hatred, hoping she sees it and that it will terrify her. It doesn't work. It doesn't make her stop.
"I won't. I have to take this chance. When I saw you before the chariots, I couldn't believe it was you. That I used to know you, and suddenly… You didn't remember me and I just felt…" her voice wavers, but she steadies herself, clenching her fists. "I just had to take this chance," she repeats. "I'm not afraid of you."
"Well, you should. Like you said, I was fucking programmed, Everdeen," Cato grips her arm to make his point and she winces. "I don't remember you, so what. I was programmed to kill without remorse and without thinking. I am a machine. Designed to kill. You can't change that. Nobody can. And I don't want it changed."
She takes his hand and loosens his grip. "You don't know what you want."
He tries his last line of defense, saying "Don't. I know exactly what I want."
Everdeen shakes her head and takes his hand in hers. He doesn't know why it is so simple, to stop making her feel pain, to just let her do it, being close. All the reason has disappeared, he just melts in her touch. It's not acting, it's not a game. It's like nothing else in the world. And that this is beyond the line of black and white, it's not even between the shades of grey.
"No, you don't," everything in her voice says, killing me was never an option, and still, he can't admit it, he won't admit it. Because then he'll have nothing left, just the truth, and truth will not save him. It will be his undoing.
"I want to win this. I want to kill you," but it sounds like a lie, it is a lie, and it all makes it so much worse, so much more unbearable. But he doesn't feel a thing, and yet, she's still looking at him expectantly, with warmth that seems so consuming and a thousand times more burning than at the beginning.
He has no armor left. She can see right through him and it feels like bleeding to death. "Stop this," he snatches away his hand. "Just stop. Stop looking at me like that." He almost adds, you have no idea what it does to me, and barely restrains himself. He has the shreds of control left to repeat one more time, "I want to kill you."
In that moment, she is the true hunter, watching him dying slowly, waiting for the right moment. And finally, when he thinks he can't take it anymore, Everdeen delivers her final blow.
"Keep telling yourself that, Cato," she says, softly as death itself.
He knows he can't stay, because she might say something else and that will make his world crumble and burn down to ashes. Her words will kill him in the end. They will. So he storms out, to the balcony, not daring to even look back, to see her face, to let her see his own. The madness of it all.
Outside, Cato breathes in the dusty, summer air of Capitol. He struggles back for control, for reliance on the things he knew until this evening. He repeats in his mind, over and over again, trying to convince himself, that nothing of what she said really matters. He really wants to kill her, making himself hate her until nothing else remains, until everything dies and he will be the only one left. But he can't get the memory of her smile out of his head, the smile saying something else entirely, laughing in his face. Those words, echoing in his head, Keep telling yourself that, Cato.
And he does, until the skies go dark, until these are the only words he murmurs under his breath.