Written for the Caeser's Palace forums OTP Hunger Games Challenge.
What are the odds (that you could love me)?
His eyes race around the circle of tributes. Where is she? He sees no hint of her, and soon his ears and thoughts are drowned by the countdown ringing throughout the arena.
The final echo lingers in the air as he sprints towards the center. When his feet sink into the spongy, blood-soaked earth surrounding the Cornucopia, he at last spies her – Natasha! – several yards off and already fully engaged in the bloodbath. Her body arches and spins in a deadly, delicate ballet, twin blades in either hand slashing and thrusting in time. Her pale face, wreathed in scarlet and daubed with jewel-like patterns of blood, suspends for an instant on his crouching form, a fog of recognition clouding her eyes – two seconds of surprise and one of regret – then the smoke clears and she is Natasha again, eyes sleek and icy, a friend turned foe as she pirouettes away and strikes another killing blow.
Clint grabs the bow, grabs the quiver, and runs.
Clint sees her for the very first time under the stars. It's a clock strike away from midnight as he slinks to the practice center they call the Coliseum. He'd come there for the same reason all the children of District Two came: to train with the enfeebled weapons provided by the Capitol in the hopes of gaining a margin on the competition, should he against all odds ever be reaped.
This, the Capitol told them eight years ago, is District Two's reward for their unswerving loyalty during the Dark Days rebellion. When humbly asked by the mayor if exemption from the Hunger Games could be their reward, he was answered by his daughter's name drawn out of the cup at the next reaping. That's why no citizen of District two, neither Clint nor his parents, nor the other eligible children nor their parents, ever question the privilege of learning the skills of death at a young age. They pour into the Coliseum like fish at feeding time after the drills are shut off and thick silence blankets the quarries. Well into the moonlit hours
Natasha shreds the air with a dull set of blades, smack in the center of the arena, as Clint brushes by. Her skin faintly glows in the silver light. It looks to be made of steel, as metallic as her weapon. Sweaty ribbons of hair plaster her face and neck. Clint is slightly revolted by the thick scent of sweat and copper coming off her in waves.
He hopes he never sees her again.
Bow in hand and on the move, instinct takes over and Clint moves in the only direction that whispers to him of a chance of survival – up.
Battle cries wane at his back as he slips into the dense forest cradling the Cornucopia. He barrels up the steep slope of the mountainside, climbing, climbing, climbing. Tree limbs weave with the images of her twirling in the moonlight solo, in the daylight with many partners. But then dancing was forbidden in District Two. In the arena it is encouraged.
Time moves. Clint slows, but never stops. Rest, his muscles plead. Go on, Natasha tells him with a mouth filled with blood.
On the night end of twilight he stumbles and falls at the base of a giant Oak. The uppermost branches poke through the green ceiling of the canopy like a grown up in a sea of children. Clint raises his eyes to the tippy top. Visibility is at a premium for archers, and Clint reckons he could see most of the valley if perched up there for just an hour or two, let his eyelids drip just a little, maybe blackout the red hair and the red lips and all the other red things staining his eyes, and rediscover his Natasha lined in silver, dancing under the stars.
It takes a few trips, a few times stooping over the scattered arsenal, until he finds his weapon. Or rather, it finds him.
Knife fighting is too close, too personal. Swords flimsy. Javelins bulky. The bow feels light yet sturdy and right in his hands.
Natasha, practicing gymnastics on the mat in the corner, stops to watch him test out the tension in the string. They've never once spoken, and she initiates their formal introduction with a peal of disdainful laughter. "That thing?" she says, hand on hip. The bow, it seems, is not a popular choice.
He looks down and runs his hand along the half-moon curve. "Why not?"
She walks over and yanks it out of his hands. "You'll be dead ten times over before you ever get a shot off."
"By who?" His eyes move up and down over her slender figure, appraising. He knows of her unprecedented skill through both reputation and experience, but for some reason can not bring himself to fear her. He smiles broadly. "Someone like you?"
She walks towards him, each step measured, deliberate. "Overconfidence and stupidity go hand and hand." She stops just short of arm's reach. "And it looks like your hands are full."
"Maybe. But with enough practice –" he lifts the bow with a crooked grin – "I could be very dangerous at long distances."
He must look like a failure to her expertise, but Natasha smiles for the first time, full but cautious, like standing on a precipice, unsure if the jump is worth the effort. "Then let's practice."
On the second day of hiding up in his perch, Clint is painfully reminded of the hunger part of the Hunger Games.
His stomach cramps and whines. His throat is parched and a slight nausea visits him with every movement. He wonders whether it is worth leaving the safety of the boughs to search for food and water. Natasha would know. With her, every action or decision is a careful balancing act, weighing the odds and considering the options, and it hits Clint between the eyes that her tight-wire existence is the very reason she has trained so long and hard. She knew the odds were not in her favor. The odds were not in his either, though for different reasons.
His empty belly drives him down the first few branches when an eruption of flaming hair glides into his crosshairs. She walks stealthily, quietly. He only catches her because he's hanging fifty feet in the air, wouldn't have heard her if he'd been three inches from her foot with his ear to the ground.
But now she's in his sights. Clint loosens his fingers. The arrow flies, the bowstring twangs, and the dead body of District Seven's female tribute drops at Natasha's back.
Natasha, for all her deadly graces, had never once noticed the predator lurking like a second shadow, and she whips around and stares at the corpse, stiff fingers gripping the hilt of an axe that was a minute away from being buried into her back.
"Up here, Nat."
Her eyes move from the corpse to the rustling branches. "Clint?"
"Guess I could be a help to you out after all."
Frowning mouth. Hand on hip. She's shaking her head in the typical Clint way. "Either come down here or shut your mouth. Unless, of course, you've got enough arrows for all the tributes you'll bring over here with your shouting."
"Why don't you come up here? We'd be safe; I can pick off anyone who comes our way."
She gives a slow shake of her head, mouth puckering. "You're unbelievable." She turns to leave.
"Wait. What are you doing? I just saved your life! The least you could do is thank me!"
"Thank you," she calls over her shoulder.
"We'd work better together!"
She whips around. "And then what?" she yells to the leaves. He is silent. "And then what, Clint? You kill me?"
"Then I kill you?" Silence. "Stay in your perch, Clint." She unwinds the strap of a satchel from around her neck and shoulders, then tosses it into the tree where it snags on a branch. "Take this and stay in your perch."
Once she has dissolved back into the forest, all traces erased saved for a dead girl with an arrow for a third eye, Clint shimmies down to the satchel and opens the flap.
Bread, berries, and a canteen of water.
They dangle their feet over the quarries that stretch hundreds of yards below, a battered landscape of smashed rocks and a layer of dust that never quite settles.
Natasha never gives visible cues, but after two years Clint's tuned in to they way her voice shifts ever so gently with her mood. "I've been thinking, Clint. You shouldn't spend so much time with me." Low and a bit shaky, he thinks. A touch on the blue scale. "If you do, they might start thinking you're like me." By "like me" she means "like my parents" – those tarred and feathered few who sullied the good name of District Two by rebelling with the rest of the Districts.
Clint, never one to rush anything, takes his time responding. After a full minute he says, "Who's they?"
"Family. Friends. The Capitol."
To that he takes no time. "Let them think what they think."
Natasha tilts her head up to the sky. "Reaping is tomorrow." Light and soft, now. Her reflective voice. "I think my number just might be due."
"What do you mean? It's a lottery."
Natasha smiles with a half-laugh. "You're so cute sometimes, you know that?" Her eyes narrow, as if searching. "You'd never rebel, would you?"
"No. But that's my pragmatism – I won't ever bet on losing odds. But you?" She smiles. "Loyal to the bone."
Clint stares into her blue eyes. "To some things."
Clint runs. His single focus is the Cornucopia, where a fresh set of arrows awaits.
Twenty yards out a searing pain blooms on his left calf – a sharp blade taking root in his flesh, prying apart muscle and sinew. Only the handle remains visible, a black curve poking out of his leg like a thick stem.
He doesn't pluck the knife out of his calf. He doesn't look back at the girl from One gaining ground behind him, the blood from his wound trailing like breadcrumbs.
Pain screams through his body. Every step consumes him, swallows his conscious, and everything ends when a heavy body tackles him to the ground and all that is left is –
The red of her hair. The blue of the sky. A tranquilizing black.
Confusion was the reigning sentiment when the Capitol announced the addendum two years ago concerning Volunteering.
Who would do that? Who would volunteer to die? And after eight years of Hunger Games, not a single person in Panem had raised their hand.
But on the day of the reaping for the Ninth Hunger Games, Clint hears her name broadcasted from twenty mounted speakers, a levy to great to ignore.
And he will follow Natasha to her doom.
Loyal to the bone.
Natasha stands unruffled on the stage as he joins her and they clasp hands to a choking silence. She sits poised and wordless in the waiting room as his parents wail into his arms and batter him with pleas that would not undo the undoable.
On the train she refuses to look at him. "Don't you see what you've done, Clint?"
"But I did it for you. So that you won't have to be alone. We could even be allie –"
"No." She shakes her head, and he can almost hear the calculations stacking one upon the other in her mind. "No we can't. And now there's no way out of this."
Clint wakes to a swarm of flies and a stench he's never known. Blood and sweat and decay and all the foul things that rise up when they dig too deep into the quarries.
He looks to his left and sees the girl from One. The flies have made a home of the side of her face, half peeled from her skull. He looks to his right and sees Natasha, and knows he will be the Victor of the Ninth Hunger Games.
But Clint doesn't know the climate back home. He does not foresee the precedent he's unleashed, the rumbling desires that stir in the bellies of his people. Feed them and they will forget their chains. The brewing of a new and dangerous culture who in less than ten years time will go willingly to the slaughter with the gift of a few weapons, a simple promise of glory, and two easy words:
By now his leg is a carcass. He drags it behind him as he crawls over to where Natasha lays on her back, holding her insides in. He pulls her head onto his lap and strokes that red hair away from her face. "Why did you do that, Natasha?" Washes the blood out with his tears.
Her lips move slowly. "I owed you a debt." A note in her voice he's never heard before; it sounds like dying.
"Please. Please. I only came here to protect you."
"No no no no no." He lifts her now, rocks her in his arms. "Don't do this. Please. I love –"
Blue lights dimming. "Love is for children."
"We are children." Blue lights out. Cannon fires. She will never dance again. "We are children."
He holds her till the claws take him away.