EDIT 5/14/21: This fic features heavy themes of mental, emotional, and physical abuse, both detailed and implied. Additional trigger warnings will be in effect for chapters that contain other triggers. If you would like a summary of a particular section or chapter, I would be happy to provide you one via PM.
People are not born.
They are made when they become
human beings within ritual,
tradition, purpose, responsibility.
—From Becoming Human, Simon J. Ortiz
a great leap in the dark
part I: fourteen
I lie still on my stomach, but my back pinches tighter, sharper, the pain swelling until it's choking me.
Sobs get caught in my throat or struggle to free themselves, sounding strangled. Avari's somewhere to my right, trying to explain what happened. I squint my eyes shut.
I can't be here. I need to be back out there.
But I can't move, not when every shallow breath sends daggers dragging along the right side of my spine. Not when the lightness of his two fingers, pressed against my low back to test the sore spot, makes me hiss reflexively.
"Sorry," Rhodes says. "Right there, huh?"
I don't respond. I don't dare try to nod. Slowly, I turn my head to the side just so I can try to breathe, my cheek pressing into the cracked vinyl. But I can't, because I'm still trembling, my chest alight with dread and panic.
I catch Avari's eye. I've never seen her look so terrified.
"And can you…" He tries getting me to move, but as I shift myself forward on the bench, pain shoots through my right side and down my leg. I gasp sharply and he's quick to stop me. "No. Okay. Don't push it. I'm going to go get Aspra for you, alright?"
Tears burn in my eyes. I shudder with cold and shame. Avari's apologized more times than I can count but it's not her fault, not at its core.
It's my mistake. My failure. My weakness.
Akello is right, and we both know it.
"Caverley, right?" Aspra's voice comes from behind me, sharp and piercing. "Tell me what happened."
"We were doing the testing lifts—"
"I asked her," Aspra says sharply. Avari withers.
I don't want to tell her. Even if I did, I don't know if I can. I don't know if my lungs can handle trying to talk and breathe all at once. But she'll yell at me, too, if I don't try. "I was— we were squatting, I couldn't do the last weight, I— I dropped the bar—" I cough, every gasp aching. "Then we had the swim, I had to swim, and my back—"
I shift my legs and the pain flares up again, swift and severe. The sound that slips from between my lips is soft and sad, like a mewl.
"Right when it happened, what did it feel like?"
Nell's gaze, stormy and hateful. Avari, spitting oh my gods and I'm so sorrys, crouched beside me. The pounding of my chest, louder in the aftermath than when the bar slammed down on top of me, the wide weights at either end keeping the bar off the floor, keeping it from choking me.
"Get the fuck up. Pick it up."
My knees bending, my fingers curling around the bar, spotted metal pressing into the pads below my fingers. My heels, digging into the floor. My body, lifting.
Then pain, sharp and sudden and staggering, all through my right side.
Somehow, the shame still hurt worse.
"It— it was sudden. And strong."
I swallow. "Really— really sharp, really painful."
"Right. And then you kept going." Aspra makes no effort to hide her judgment. "And swimming made it worse."
Of course I kept going. Even if it almost killed me. Even if that pain was so stunning, so suffocating, that the fact I even kept my head above the surface was a miracle in itself. "Yes," I manage.
Aspra grumbles something unintelligible under her breath before collecting herself. "Okay. Let's get some ice on you right away, before we do anything else."
Someone passes her an ice bag, I can hear it crumbling in the hand-off, and then she lays it against my back. Through my soaked-through shirt, the sensation makes me instantly tense.
"I'm hoping it's nothing more than an aggravated strain, but we'll wait and see how it reacts to the ice." She sets a timer on the bench next to me, twirling the dial around anti-clockwise. "Twenty minutes. Try to stay still. And you— come with me for a minute. Let's chat."
Avari trails after her, looking concerned.
In her absence, the pain feels stronger, the cold sharper somehow. Tears prickle in the creases of my eyes and this time I can't swallow them. It's too much, the buildup of Nell's icy mannerisms, Akello's scathing tone, fatigue from the testing, and underneath that, of course, my fear of what I've done to myself.
My breathing doesn't settle, even when Avari comes back in with Aspra, and when Avari pulls a stool up next to me I reach my hand out towards her, desperate for any sort of reassurance.
Avari's stunned, uncertain, but takes it.
Her fingers squeeze around mine. It's surprisingly calming. The fact she's still here at all is therapeutic, even as her hair drips and her soiled t-shirt clings to her shoulders. I wouldn't blame her for leaving to go shower like the rest of our year, but I'm grateful she stays.
"I'm so sorry," she repeats.
"I'm not mad at you."
"You don't need to be. I still feel terrible."
I don't want her to feel bad. She doesn't need to blame herself when I'm the one whose knees buckled, who wasn't strong enough to lift the bare minimum of what's expected of me.
"What did Aspra want?" I say.
"Oh. She…" Avari scratches her neck. "She just wanted to know about the testing. What we were doing, why you got hurt, all that."
"Any reason?" My chest is quieting, some of that initial, overwhelming panic dissipating.
She looks up and across the room, but Aspra's on the far end, out of earshot. "She just… she doesn't agree with Nell and Akello on some things. But I didn't tell you that."
My back is numbing now, the ice bag muffling must of the angry swelling that caused so much instant pain. "Some things like what?"
"It really doesn't matter." Suddenly Avari's closed-off again. I wait for her to elaborate, but she stays silent. I don't push her.
Once the initial cold burns off, the rest of the twenty minutes pass quickly. My timer goes off from the bench beside me. When Aspra returns to extract the cold pack, some pressure lifts from my back, but the cold remains. I'm still shivering.
"How do you feel?"
Worse, truthfully, as the reality of my embarrassment seeps in. "A little better," I say. My back might, at least. I'm not sure. I'm still afraid to move.
"Good," she says, although she remains unsmiling. "Sit up for me, if you would."
Slowly, nervously, I prop my palms under my shoulders and ease myself up. There's a tugging along the right side of my back, still uncomfortable, but no longer unbearable.
"Sore, but better." I wince, still, as I turn, twisting my legs underneath me to face her. "That still hurts."
"Careful," she warns. "But that's promising. What I'd like to do is give you a bit of a break, then get some more ice on you to bring that swelling down. It should help your pain, too. How long can you stay?"
I was supposed to get dinner with Cas and Khione, but that might be off the table if I can hardly walk. My parents expect me home afterwards, but I'm in no hurry to get back. "As long as you need."
"Shouldn't be too long," she clarifies. "Just another round of ice and I'll send you home with the rest if you're doing alright. Again, I'm not worried it's much more than a strain."
That's it? I'm not disappointed, by any means. More so I'm surprised, given the amount of pain I've been in. "Okay. Good." My breathing's easier now, if still labored.
"But you shouldn't have kept going. I don't care if you're being tested. Unless you're trying to hurt yourself, it's just stupid."
She tears open my ice bag, the crystals crumbling into the sink. "And I blame Nell more than I blame you, if I'm being honest. She doesn't know when to let you kids stop."
But it's not Nell's fault, either. I didn't dare tell her about an injury, regardless. Avari could lift my weight, no problem. Why couldn't I?
I don't say anything. I lean back, propping myself against the back wall for support. I do feel better, sort of. Really, I wish I could do this day over, so I wouldn't get hurt, wouldn't screw up, and wouldn't embarrass myself in front of… well, everyone.
"You did well, though," Avari tries, more uncomfortable with the stretching silence than I am. "Really. The long run, the weapons work."
"I was so tired," I say, a cautious laugh trickling out of my throat, despite myself. "Oh, my Panem. The sprints? After three miles?"
"Three miles of hills. And then after all that, they throw us back in the gym for sword work. I thought my legs were going to fall off."
"I felt like I died and that was before the lift."
"And then Nell just says, Hey! Might as well go jump in the water while we're at it!"
"Genuinely," I say, shame stabbing sharp between my lungs again, "I really thought one of us was going to drown. I shouldn't…" I lower my voice. "But I don't blame Ceto. Not really. I was so close to being there, too." It slips out before I can stop it, the admittance that I'm not as sure of myself as I'd have her— or anyone, really— believe.
"Well… you were hurt," she justifies.
And part of me didn't want to do it anymore. A minuscule part, but I was still inexplicably tempted to flee by the reality of Nell's intensity, Akello's disparaging glare as he leaned against the far wall, the cruelty in his tone as he reamed Ceto for coming back instead of sinking under the water and banished her from the gym. A small part of me said I had a choice in continuing to subject myself to this every day.
I ignored it. Of course, I did. And despite the pain of what I put myself through as a result, I'm better for it. Akello can call me whatever he wants, but I'm not a quitter.
Even if he wants me to be.
"Yeah. Just a bad day," I say, redirecting. "But, actually… do you think the results are up?"
Her eyes flash wide. "Do you want me to check?"
"But do you want—"
"You want to, I know you do."
"I'll come right back."
"I know. Just go look."
She about scampers off. She's lucky the medical bay is nearly empty, too, or else Aspra would have her head for disturbing her training room. It's just me, a fifteens boy with a deep cut over his forehead and a face full of blood, and an older redhead who I saw come in a few minutes after me. She's propped up on her bench against the wall, one wrist wrapped in ice and resting on her crossed legs while her other hand flips through a manual.
She catches me watching before I can look away. Instead of ignoring me, she half-smiles— it's more of a smirk, really— and nods in my direction. "What happened to you?"
"Something stupid," I say, more miserably than I intended.
"Yeah, me too." She laughs softly through her nose, sounding more exasperated than humored. "Course, then I figured I'd go back to training and pretend it didn't happen, and now, here we are a year later, still fucked up." She notices the face I make and covers herself. "You'll be fine, though. Just don't do anything rash or stupid before you're better."
"Noted." I don't think I could, even if I tried. As soon as I was out of the water, the pain was so bad I couldn't walk on my own; I leaned against Avari the whole, tedious trek up the stairs from the Pit. My back's quieting, but that pain still lingers.
I'm in no rush to relive it.
"Could be worse," she says. "I'm pretty much the poster child for kids who don't listen to Aspra. I can piss her off now as much as I want and she'll never kick me out, because she keeps me around so I can scare everyone who tries to act like they know better than her."
"She won't kick you out, but I can." Rhodes comes back over from tending to the other boy, pulling open the ice drawer on the opposite wall. "And I probably should, because you're a real pain in the ass sometimes."
"And what about it?"
He looks at me then, almost incredulous. "See? She doesn't even care."
"They couldn't get rid of me if they tried," she says to me. "Just wait till I get back from the Games. You thought I was bad now, and I actually have sessions to go to. I think once I'm Victor I'll just hang around in here all day to torture you."
"Please don't," Aspra says from her desk at the far end of the room.
Rhodes draws a bag out of the freezer. "Anyways… good news for you," he says, nodding to me, "because it's time for more ice. Think you can handle it?"
I shiver reflexively. "I have to, don't I?"
"I mean, no. You can skip it and live with a lifetime of back pain, confined to a wheelchair—"
"Rhodes," Aspra snaps. "Caverley, you're not going to have a lifetime of back pain. Ice will just speed the healing process."
"Yeah, Rhodes," the other girl mocks. "Stop scaring the babies."
"She's not a baby."
"What year are you?" the redhead asks.
"Fourteens," I say. "Not a baby."
"Baby compared to you, Cavara," Rhodes says, busying himself with making a new ice wrap. "What do you have to be by now? Seventy? Seventy-five?"
"That's my joke, and you know it." Cavara nods to me. "Seventeens, by the way. You're still a baby."
I shift down out of my seated position, twisting around so I'm back on my stomach. Rhodes sets the new ice pack down on my back and I shudder with the instant cold. "Am not."
"Until you've had Kova screaming in your face, spit flying everywhere, with his crazy eyes going all over the place 'cause you talked during one of his demos, you're still a baby to me." Cavara smirks. "What's the worst Akello's ever done?"
Told me I was worthless. Told me I should quit before I embarrass myself any more. That's only within the last hour—he's said worse things in his office, in the privacy of his own domain, where he allows himself to ignore common social sense and unleashes his true cruelty. But that's not for anyone else, let alone anyone I've just met, to know. I bite my tongue.
Cavara takes my silence the wrong way. "Don't worry. He's not really so bad. I mean, compared to Easton."
"Like you mind," Rhodes says, tossing Cavara a roll of stretchy bandages.
She catches it with one hand and drops it between her knees, undoing her ice wrap with her free hand. "Oh, I definitely don't. Easton could step on me and I'd thank her for it. I'm just saying, baby's got nothing to worry about."
But I do. I must, if my conversation with Akello is still taking up my focus. My bicep's sore from where he dug his fingers in and all but dragged me from the water. There's a lump in my throat whenever I relive his fury. You're wasting my time, Caverley. You're making excuses. You don't deserve another chance.
Don't I? I've made it this far. Or maybe I am just another lost cause, a kid with solid potential who couldn't take the pressure. Not cut out for this. Destined to fade back into the fringes of Two.
Destined for obscurity.
I take a deep breath to re-ground myself just as Avari gets back, her eyes unmistakably alight with pride.
"Good news?" I ask, even though I know the answer. For once, she's making no attempt to hide her excitement.
"First," she breathes. "First in the year. I— I'm still shaking."
"That's amazing. You deserve it."
Avari grins. Next to her, Cas is frowning, cautiously eying the ice on my back. "How are you feeling?"
Cas didn't witness my injury— our two groups were separated by gender, so neither of us saw the other's performance. No doubt Avari filled him in, and I don't want to relive this again. Avari gets her moment—why is this mine? "Fine. It's probably just a bad strain," I say, hoping he can't hear the irritation in my tone. "How'd you do?"
His features relax and he almost smiles. "Not bad. Sixth or seventh, I think. I had an off day, anyway."
Tell me about it. "That's still solid."
"Yeah, I'm happy with it," he says. "Avari's pissed I'm not first with her, but… well…"
I smile, even as my neck gets warm. As little as I want to talk scores, though, it's better than not knowing. "Okay, Avari. Lay it on me. How bad was I?"
She pauses. Bad sign. "Well… you got hurt, which probably didn't help—"
"Just— just tell me." I close my eyes. "I can handle it."
"Twenty," she says.
"You're better than twentieth, though," Cas says.
Avari nods. "And it's just a benchmark, right?"
It's thoughtful of them both to try to reassure me— even if they probably don't believe what they're saying— but it doesn't work. Maybe it would, were Cavara not right behind me. Cavara, who's Seventeens, which by definition means she's made it through Trials, cementing herself as one of the top five girls in her class. It means, just by proxy of still being here, she's worthy of respect by people like Akello and Valerius as much as the rest of us.
If I felt like she was moderately condescending before, no doubt she'll be worse now that she's confirmed I'm as bad as I look.
"Right," I confirm, when the pause begins to stretch too long. Just for an excuse to look away, I turn towards Aspra's desk, looking past Cavara. "How much time do I have left on this ice?"
"Six and a half minutes," Aspra says, checking the timer. "And if you're not getting treatment, I need you out of here."
Avari and Cas retreat as if she's physically shooing them. "We'll be out in the hall," Avari says.
"Thanks, but don't bother," I say. "You should go shower. Cas… I'm probably going to head home after this. Sorry."
"No sweat," he says. "Feel better."
"Bye, Scout," says Avari.
I rest my head back on my hands as they leave, my eyes sliding shut.
"It really is just a baseline," Cavara says, as I drift into self-deprecating thoughts. "It's not like you get cut or anything."
"Yeah?" I turn towards her. She's finishing getting her wrist wrapped now, Rhodes layering sharp athletic tape in neat, precise strips over her spongey base wrap. When he's done, she hops up off the end of the bench.
"Yeah," she says, sliding her shoes back onto her feet. "I mean, none of my class that's left was any lower than top seven. But anything can happen." She nods to Aspra and Rhodes on her way out. "Thanks, guys. Same time tomorrow?"
Somehow, Cavara's comment doesn't make me feel better. Regardless of how large my class is— somewhere around thirty girls and fifty boys— I need to be in that top ten. That's the bare minimum. Twenty doesn't cut it. Not when I need to be first by the time I'm eighteen.
Aspra doesn't care about the future, though. She's most concerned with how I'm doing at this very moment. When my timer goes off, she makes me sit up, stand up, and walk around.
"How does that feel?"
It's sore, truthfully. I'm still afraid of the pain, but part of that's surely based in my initial fear that I'd done something irreversible, broken my back or done something else irreparable because of a single mistake. But while my lower back is definitely still tense, the pain sharp, it's still more subtle than before. "Tight, but better."
"Good." Aspra opens a cupboard and presses a new cold pack into my hands. "Make sure you're icing when you get home and over this weekend, right? Take twenty minutes between treatments, no less."
"Before training on Monday, I want you back in here. And I need you to take the weekend off completely. No weapons training, no running. Rest."
I want to argue, but frankly, after today, I don't mind keeping my distance from the gym for a few days. "Rest. Okay."
"We'll see how you're doing a few days from now. Just follow instructions, and you'll be fine."
That much, I can do. "Thanks. See you Monday, then."
"Take it easy," Rhodes says with a raise of his hand.
Outside of the training room, the foyer's abuzz with activity. I find myself self-conscious of my limp and my very appearance— not only of the way the Pit water's still soaked into my clothes, but of my narrow, lanky frame and too-long legs that aren't as strong as they're supposed to be. I keep my head down, passing the seventeens and eighteens who are milling around outside the gym and ducking past the few stragglers from my own year.
I can't ignore the lists, though. They're posted on the door as I walk out and some sadistic sense of curiosity wills me to look up, to confirm what I've already been told.
1. Avari Dabral
2. Elissa Vasileva
3. Iona Sylett
4. Martina Vail
5. Denali Gessele
No surprises there. No surprises anywhere, as it turns out. As I skim down the list, my name's right where Avari said it was.
18. Emory Arella
19. Petra Arlett
20. Scout Caverley
I don't want to admit how much it bothers me. Cas and Avari don't know how precarious my position is and they don't need to. Frankly, I don't think I realized it until today, either, when Akello made it exceedingly clear how he sees me.
You're never going to be good enough to beat the others. So to me, you're nothing more than a burden on my program.
My gaze catches on my right bicep as I shove the doors open. Four equidistant markings tattoo the muscle, with a fifth pressed into the underside. I extend my arm and it flares with soreness.
I'm worth it, I insist. Even if Akello doesn't realize it.
I will get better. Not for Akello's sake. For mine.
agreatleap. weebly .com
Hello again— and surprise!
Welcome all to A Great Leap in the Dark, my take on Career culture in District Two. Anyone who knows me knows I've got a thing for Careers— District Two girls, especially— and I'm very excited to explore more of this side of Panem, as I see it.
AGL is broken into five parts representing each of the last five years of Two's intensive training program from the perspective of a single cadet, Scout Caverley. In addition to the general atmosphere of training within the Atheneum, we'll also get looks into District Two as a whole— what it looks like on a day-to-day basis, as well as how the district manages and observes the Games each year.
The blog, linked above, provides faceclaims for all our trainers and relevant trainees, with more features soon to come. Do take a look, if you're interested, and let me know what you think!
Happy 2021— and welcome, again, to AGL.