It's my first day of training today. No, not really training, but training with the big kids. I'm not old enough but they told me I'm special. My father says I'm special.
"Clove," he says, "you're a very special little girl. You'll win the Games, won't you? Won't you?"
I will win the Hunger Games. The Hunger Games are special games for special people like me. A lot of the littler kids don't know what it is really, the ones running around with plastic knives jumping on each other and laughing. But I know what it is and that's why I'm special, I think. They kill each other. They send in a lot of girls and boys and then they watch them kill each other. It isn't nice and it isn't not nice. It just is. But I can kill. I've killed lots of things. I killed a mouse by crushing its skull between my fingers so its insides got on my hands. It didn't taste very good. I killed a bird by throwing my knife at it when it was sitting on a branch. I like knives. I like how they're cute little sharp things in your pocket until they can't be anymore. And when they absolutely can't be, all you have to do is whip them out, put them in a person, and that's that. Then the person dies. Of course, there are other ways to kill a person, but I like this one. It's easiest and prettiest. It makes pretty little lines with the blood that drip down like icicles in the mountains.
And to win the Hunger Games, you have to train. You have to get really good at killing and hurting and hunting and surviving because while you're trying to kill everyone, everyone's trying to kill you. I'm not good enough yet. I'm not even old enough yet. You have to be twelve to go, but nobody goes when they're twelve. You have to think you can win before you volunteer. Or else you're just skipping off to be killed, which is moronic. Which is why I'm standing out here in front of this big brick building with a knife in my belt and my scariest glare on. You can't do a lot to look scary when you're six, so I have to try extra hard. Maybe if I put some blood on these clothes I would look more intimidating…. I can't think of where I'd find the blood but the door opens after I knock.
"Hello," says a cold voice from a cold-looking lady. She has steely gray hair and a large presence in the doorway. Like I can't get by. "You must be Clove."
"I'm Clove," I say, because there isn't anything to say to that but I won't give this strange lady the advantage of dominating this conversation. I scowl at her to show her I'm not to be messed with.
She looks me over like I'm a piece of meat in the butcher's. "Hmm," she says, as if there's some doubt I might be satisfactory. "Well, come in. We'll need to see what you can do before we accept you. An exception is being made in your case, young lady."
"I'm sure you won't be disappointed," I sniff right back at her, like I'm supposed to. I think that sounds commanding enough. The lady's eyebrows flicker but she doesn't say anything else and walks me inside. It's a long hall, metallic and shiny with brushed steel. The floor is linoleum and it's shiny underneath scuffmarks from shoes. The lady goes through a blue door into a little room with blue padding all around the walls. There are those foam dummy-people standing around, waiting for me to dismember them.
"Well?" the lady says, pulling up a clipboard. She sits down next to a man I hadn't seen before. He looks a lot like the lady, big and strong, and just as grumpy.
"Well what?" I ask, because I don't know what she's talking about.
"Well, do you have any special skills to show us?" the man asks and he has a clipboard, too.
"I'm good with knives," I say, but by the looks on their faces they've already known that and I've just made myself look stupid. So I glare at them and walk over to a little table with lots of knives spread out over it. I'm not very good with a wide variety of knives, yet. I need a lot more practice. But I pick up a small one with a heavy handle, like my own. I make sure they're watching me and I turn around and throw my knife the whole way across the little room, it might be twelve feet, and it goes right into the heart of the dummy. But the people don't look impressed.
So I find another knife like it in the collection and put it between the eyes of another dummy. You know, if these were people they wouldn't just stand there and let themselves die in pain. They'd scream and ask me to stop. I've always wanted someone to do that for me. I've heard it before, the screaming. The "No, don't do it, why would you do this? I thought—" parts. It sounds very nice. It makes me want to feel somebody else's blood dry on my hands. But the people still don't look at me like I'm special. So I pick up one more knife. It's got a wide blade and a black handle and I grip it so the blade is pointing down. And they still look bored. So I stand there like I'm done for a moment. And then I let out a wildcat scream and fly across the room at the last foam dummy. I land on it and it crashes to the ground with me on top. The knife has gone the whole way through its shoulder but it hasn't made a death blow yet. At least the lady has raised her eyebrows now. I whisper things, delightfully terrible things I think they can just hear, to this dummy. I put the knife in it where a person would screech terribly but not die, not yet. And I keep doing this, again and again, always a new place that isn't quite deadly. And then I move the blade behind the back of its neck and cut down.
I pull the outer layer of the foam away from the dummy as if I'm skinning an animal. I very proudly present this to the lady and I don't say anything. They told me to let my actions speak for themselves. The lady takes the foam from me gingerly between her fingers like it's a real human skin. She and the man look at each other and their faces are still blank. But they look back at me.
"Come with me, Clove," says the lady and she stands up and hands the foam and the clipboard to the man, who looks annoyed that he as to take them. "We're going to introduce you to the others."
I want to ask if that means I've made it but I don't. I figure she'll tell me one way or another soon enough and I don't want to look like a whiny little kid who needs to be told everything twice. They don't want that, not from a new kid. I shouldn't even be here. I've seen people in the little kids' gyms whispering about me. They don't want me around the little kids. They think I'll hurt them. I probably would.
"Welcome to your new training facility," the lady says to me in her cold voice and she leads me through a pair of swinging double doors to a room that looks just like the little one I was in, only way bigger. It's dimly lit and padded all around the concrete walls with blue foam stuff. The floor is normal gymnasium flooring, springy but firm. There are a number of mats folded up in the corner and for a moment I hope I won't have to wrestle anyone. I don't have very good technique. I get by with scratching and biting and covering their eyes. And there are kids everywhere, all a year or two older than I am all the way up to perhaps the ten-year-olds. They go to a different gym with a more serious schedule if they really want to continue. They usually do. All the kids look stronger and more suited to this than the cutesy rough-and-tumble place I've come from. For a moment I'm worried about the culture shock but I figure I won't talk to anyone, anyway, and if they want to pick a fight, so be it. I've come pretty close to putting a knife in some of the little kids, who'd always start crying like little babies. I wonder if the big kids do that, too.
"Right now we have a free period," the lady informs me, and she nods in the direction of a glass cabinet on the wall, in which I see rows and rows of shiny knives on a black velvet stand. "You may do what you like so long as you remain active and follow our safety rules."
I wait for her to tell me the safety rules but she doesn't. She just glares down at me, like I'm an annoying little bug or something. I squish bugs. Sometimes I put a knife right through the middle of them if they're within reach so I can watch their little legs go waving round and round as they try to figure out what's going on and why there's a knife in their back. "What are the safety rules?"
"You'll find them posted next to each station. Feel free to try as many activities as you like. We encourage well-rounded tributes in District Two." That means no spending all day with knives. That means I've got to learn other things. Because what if I can't get my hands on any knives in the arena? What would I do then? Maybe I would get a stick. I could pound a stick into people instead. It wouldn't be the same.
I don't thank the lady and I leave her alone to go to the knives cabinet because that's where I'm going to start, anyway. I read the safety rules quickly because there are circle-crossed-out pictures along with them: no killing, no maiming, ask an instructor for permission before engaging in combat, and no muddy shoes. Pretty self-explanatory, I figure, so I don't say anything to this lady about reading the rules. I open up the cabinet by standing on my tip-toes. It's high up, for the bigger kids. I pull down a few knives like mine and some that are longer and thinner and one that's shorter and fatter, just for a nice variety. I tap the cabinet door and it pulls itself shut with magnets, I think. I look around this big room for the targets. The only ones I see are the dummies pulled out into a line along the back. I'd prefer some round targets, actually, to make sure my form is right, but I'm not going to ask the lady for anything now, especially since I really shouldn't be here. I'm here because I'm special, I remind myself and I walk up to take my place in the line.
There are kids doing all sorts of things to the dummies, throwing spears and knives and shooting arrows. The air is full of these weapons but nobody seems concerned. Back in the little kids' gym, we had grown-ups everywhere making sure we survived to get to the Reaping. I figure we should just let all the kids who can't handle it and get hit or something die, and let us bigger, stronger kids get the attention instead. I mentioned this to the nice man in charge of my knife lessons. I think that's when he suggested I be moved to the big kids' training building. But nobody's in the way. Nobody's running out of line. Hardly anybody's even talking. They wait for their turn, step up, do their thing, walk back to the end of the line. By the time they get through about twice, the dummies look like porcupines and need to be replaced. They switch them out one at a time from the end. I'm in the back of the line, of course, but I don't even get so much as a glance from anyone else. Their eyes are all ahead.
Far up, near the back of the line of dummies, a boy a little older than me hurls a spear. At first it looks like it's flying just fine and it's gonna hit that foam guy right in the heart. But then out of nowhere comes this shiny little arrow. It just nicks the spear's shaft but it does enough to knock it off course. The arrow whizzes in the wrong direction and the spear clatters to the ground. At first I think, no big deal, he'll just try again. But he doesn't. The boy makes a loud complaining animal roar and nearly everyone scoots backwards like the little kids. He stomps out to the fallen spear and it's like everyone is holding their breath and still moving backwards until they've made a little ring around him. And around me, too, I realize, because I haven't shuffled away. I see no reason to. No killing, no maiming. I'm safe. The boy picks up the spear and in his two little hands he snaps it, splintering the wood as long as he is into two pieces and he throws them to the ground. He looks up and his face is all red and angry and sweaty and for a moment he doesn't notice me. And then he does. And I'm just standing here like I have nothing better to do because I don't, really.
He marches himself over to me and I guess he's much taller than I am. He's also burlier, for a kid. He's got blond hair and blue eyes that look like they'd really like to have the no killing, no maiming rules revoked. But he must think he's something special because he curls a fist around my collar and practically lifts me off my feet and asks me, "What are you looking at, runt?"
I'm special, not him. He didn't get moved up early. He's not going to win the Hunger Games. I am. He just missed a shot. I've got my belt full of knives. I think he's just made a mistake. But I'm not going to let these snotty little babies think I'm weak, so I lift up one little fist and pound it into his face. It glances off his cheekbone and slams into his eye, hard enough, apparently, for him to let go of me so that I return to my feet. My hands instinctively flit to my knives and while one of his shoots up to his face. The eye I can see follows me to my little weapons.
The entire room gasped collectively when my punch connected. I guess this kid is someone they don't deal with too often. Maybe they consider him special. Maybe he'll move up early, too. Now people start whispering to each other, all nervous. The one blue eye not covered by his hand looks me up and down, again like I'm a large piece of meat or something. His hand moves down and I figure the eye doesn't hurt him because it's hardly swollen and his cheek's just a little reddish-bruised, is all. And then the most peculiar thing happens. He smiles. The big scary boy smiles. For a moment it looks even more threatening and my feet jump apart a bit to get a more firm stance and my fingers hold onto my knives more tightly. But then the scariness goes away and he looks like a real, human kid.
"You know what? You're all right," he tells me, still smiling as if I've done something funny. I hear an intake of breath all around from the other kids and I decide that the only thing I know for certain in this situation is that I'm confused and that's dangerous. But he sticks out his hand, a big square hand, for a kid, I guess, and he says, "I'm Cato."
I stare at his hand. What's this, an introduction? I'm not here to make friends. I'm here to win the Hunger Games. I could shake his hand with my knife. I know where to put it in a hand to avoid all the bones. But every eye of every kid in this room, since even those doing other things have stopped to watch, every eye is on me. So I glare my scariest glare at him this time and put out my hand. "Clove," is all I say, and we shake. I've never thought of myself as a small person but my hand feels tiny in his and I don't like it. So I yank it back and put it back on my knife belt and narrow my eyes at this person.
"So what can you do, Clove?" he asks me amiably, as if he still thinks this whole situation is amusing and I hear whisperings start around me again.
"I'm good with knives," I tell him proudly, because it's obvious. I have seven on my belt.
"Well, let's see," he says. He puts an arm around my shoulders and steers me off to another dummy, the one off next to the one he missed. The whispers grow louder. He's going to kill her, they say. Should we get someone? they ask, but nobody moves.
I shove his arm off me and he seems to think that's even funnier so he leans back smugly to watch as I pull out my knives. I'm about to let one fly when he suddenly speaks.
"You're new here, aren't you?" I'm startled and I almost lose my balance. I glare at him and nod. I line the knife up again and I've nearly let go of it when he speaks again, teasing laughter in his voice. "You're supposed to be in the little kids' building, aren't you?" My eyes narrow again so that I'm practically squinting and just shrug. I will not waste my words on this person's meaningless questions. This time I block out absolutely everything. Time seems to slow down and the air is thick and milky. My eyes travel the distance between me and the target. I breathe properly and let the knife go. It slips through the air like a delicate little thing and lands directly in the dummy's heart. I think the Cato-boy may have said something but I ignore him and pull out my other knives, one by one, practically tasting the heavy atmosphere and feeling that fast rush of adrenaline that comes from burying a knife into any part of anything. Three to the head, two to the heart, one in the liver, one to the lungs. This person wouldn't live to see the evening if they weren't made of foam.
I look back at the boy. He's not saying anything. He doesn't look impressed but he certainly doesn't look smug anymore. He's staring at my knives. Very slowly his head turns to me and my mind repeats no killing, no maiming. I'm not sure if I'm saying this to him or me. But the smile returns and this time it looks genuine. A little out-of-practice and out-of-place but genuine.
"Clove, you said?"
"Yeah, Clove, you're all right. Can you throw spears?"
I shrug. I never bothered with things I wasn't good at. Spears are heavy and clunky, not sweet and pretty like a knife.
"Well, you're going to need to learn," he decides. And then there's a loud bell ringing, echoing through the room. I almost want to cover my ears. "Right after lunch," he adds.
Lunch is served in a great big room. There are lots and lots of long tables with little stools attached to them. In the middle of all the tables are plates of sandwiches and fruits and bowls of vegetables and some meat-thing. I almost worry about where I'll sit because everyone seems to have their own little private place. They all sit down but they don't really talk about much. Just idle chatting. I see a number of fervent conversations that stop when I look at them so they must be about me. I'm going to just sit down off in the back of the room by myself to eat this food when I feel someone prod me between the shoulders.
"You'll sit with me," the someone decides, as if that's all there is to it. I think I jump a little, not having expected it and it is, of course, this Cato person. If I could have it my way, I wouldn't talk to anyone, so they'd know they can't mess with me, that I will be bringing back the crown. I wouldn't sit with anyone. But I apparently have no choice in the matter because I've been steered to the end of a table, far removed from most of the rest of the room. On one side is the length of it, and there are only kids at the other end. The other side is blocked by a pillar. I guess I don't have another option so I sit down on my little bench. The Cato person circles around the pillar so he's across from me. He loads up his plate generously. I take a sandwich and an apple and some carrots. I'm not going to stuff myself and roll around that training room.
Neither of us says anything but we watch each other. We make no secret of that. We're watching each other very closely. I can see his eyes flickering over my face, his eyebrows wrinkled together as if he's trying to figure something out. So I see nothing wrong with sizing him up. He's probably nine or ten, by the looks of him. He's awfully strongly built for a kid and I figure he's a proper Career. But there's something familiar about his face. I know I've never met him before but I feel like I've seen him somewhere, somehow. He has an oddly delicate facial structure, not blunt and rough like most of us. Huh, I think to myself as I munch a carrot away. Who would have thought a pretty-boy like him would be as… Cato as he is? Wonderful, Clove. You don't even know him and already the kid's an adjective. I whip out one of my knives and stab the apple with it, holding it up like a lollipop and munching around it. Cato says nothing so I say nothing. And that is the extent of our communication during lunch.
I wonder if there's any way to get out of hanging around this Cato-person. I don't think he'd mind if I left him alone, after today, that is. Right now he has to act nice around me because I punched him and if he doesn't then he's weak for not hitting back. He's got to act like he's impressed and I'm special (I am). I've thought this through. So I figure it can't be too hard to humor him for a little while. Especially if this makes him vulnerable. I smirk a little into my apple. This could be fun. His eyes narrow at me over his sandwich. Oh, yes, I'm definitely right. He wants to be here just as much as I do.
We say nothing to each other all day. He is keen to keep me nearby, underfoot, almost, and while he doesn't address me directly he shoots enough appreciative glances at my beginner's work with a spear to let everyone know that he views me as someone worthy of his time, energy, and the sacrifice of his reputation. But I can very clearly see that he doesn't mean it, doesn't mean it at all. The day ends and I am slowly getting the hang of throwing a spear. The loud bell rings again and everyone carefully puts their weapons away, leaves their trainers, changes their shoes, and leaves. They don't speak to each other, they don't run and chase like the little kids do. They move in a steady stream out the door. I'm near the back because I spend a minute or two hanging aimlessly around my spear center, trying to figure out what to do. When I'm finally out into the wide open air, the natural light of four o'clock sun blinding me, I'm actually relieved. After spending so long in a dim, cramped room full of mediocre killers and trying to trip up my new biggest fan, I'm glad to be out looking at the long empty fields and the gray, boxy town. I'm about to start for home when a dark shape catches in the corner of my eye. I turn to see Cato leaning against the side of the building as if he thinks he looks indifferent, eyes narrowed at me.
"Took you long enough," he grumbles.
"Hadn't known I'd kept you waiting," I say, but that's all I'm going to. I turn my head back so that my course is set for town and I start marching away. But I've hardly made it two steps when New Biggest Fan has caught me by the collar again. Before I have time to protest, and I most certainly intend to, he drags me around the corner of the building to the western side, entirely hidden from the view of just about anyone in District Two. This time, instead of just picking me up, he slams me up against the wall.
"What do you think you're—" I start, because this has happened once today and it mustn't happen again, I'm Clove and I won't have my dignity affected by this crazy person. I try clawing at his hand and kicking him but he's surprisingly steady.
"You think you're really cute, don't you?" he asks, his voice so angry you'd think I killed his puppy or something stupid like that. "Something special?"
"I am special," I snap at him, because I am. "They all say so."
"Who says so?" He looks like he wants to snap my neck here and now. No killing, no maiming. No muddy shoes.
"My father. And the people in the little kids' gym. And that lady. I'm special. Put me down, you idiot!"
"What did you call me?" he growls, which is stupid because he's got me right here, two feet away from his ears, he can hear what I'm saying.
"You called me runt." I try kicking him but I'm too small and can only hit him in the shins. "I called you idiot. Put me down."
"You're not special," he growls at me, "you're like me."
"Yeah, you're like me. They didn't move me up because I know how to keep it inside. You're just some dumb kid."
"Shut up. I'll cut off your eyebrows!" I threaten, wishing I could get at my knife without him hurting me too terribly.
"They'll either call you full of potential or mentally disturbed," he recites, as if he's heard it somewhere before. But I don't have the slightest idea what he's talking about.
"And I'll make you eat them! I'll make you eat your own eyebrows!"
"Listen to yourself," he scoffs, looking me over from head to toe again like he did before, only more derisively, as if all of me is despicable. "That's why they moved you up. You can win for District Two. You'll be a mutt like me."
"I'm going to win," I say, my own little recitation. "I'm going to win the Hunger Games."
"Are you not getting this?" He's nearly shouting now. "You're just some stupid little girl with stupid little ideas about hurting people. It's not that big of a deal. You can't come in here thinking you're so much better than I am and everyone else because they think you're a dangerous little psychopath."
"I am not!" I retort, trying to pry his hand off me. He's going to rip my training shirt. "You take it back! How would you like it if I cut off your feet and hands and made them switch places?"
His disgusted scowl only deepens and he sort of throws me away so that I bump into the wall and almost bounce off back at him. I want to whip out my knife and give him a nice close haircut, maybe take a little skull off the top while I'm at it, but the kid steps back and then swings his fist around at me. I'm taken by surprise, really, and don't have time to even register what's going on. He connects with my face and I'm sent flying once again and this time I fall down so that I'm sitting beside the wall in the dust, shocked because this is the first time in my life someone has dared do such a thing to me, me. It doesn't really hurt, I've been hit in the face with spears and various other things, but it's the gall of this boy that keeps me from flying at him and biting and scratching at the moment.
"You aren't better than me," he snarls one more time and he just walks away. Just… leaves. As if he goes around punching special little girls in the face and sauntering off every day. Some little girls might start crying. Some little girls might sit there in shock. But not me. I'm not some little girl, I'm a special little girl. So I stand up and sprint right after him. I catch up before he even reaches the concrete road down to the city so I take a flying leap and tackle him. He's surprised, but not enough not to fight back. We go ripping and rolling and punching and kicking and biting all over, each of us only intent on the other's ultimate destruction. Someone is going to die. There can only be one special person, only one fastest and smartest and strongest. And it is going to be me.
But I'm just six and he slams my shoulders into the ground, glaring like I'm the worst person he's ever met in his whole life and that such a person doesn't deserve to continuing living. Apparently in Cato-land, this is absolutely true.
"Never, ever do that again," he demands warningly and as hard as I try to pull up my knees and kick him in the chest or wiggle out from under his hands, he's still too strong for me.
"Don't make me," I condition. "I'm special. You don't understand."
"Oh, I understand perfectly," he says sarcastically. "I understand that you're some spoiled rich brat whose daddy wants her to win the Hunger Games so he can take all the prize money. Some spoiled rich brat who scared all the other little kids. You've got quite the reputation."
"See?" I say, because here's my case in point.
"Quite the reputation for a six-year-old," Cato continues and I wonder if I'm going to need to get out my knife. "Almost outshines mine. And when someone who might overshadow me with her tiny little-girl-shadow I get a little worried, you see. I am the most important person here, okay? Do you understand that?"
"No," I tell him coldly. "You are the one who's not getting it. I'm special."
"You keep saying that!" he exclaims angrily, nearly slamming me back into the puffs of dust swirling around my shoulders. "Do you even know who I am?"
"You're a mean, slimy, idiotic pretty-boy who can't throw a spear to save his life." There. The worst insult any of us could throw at anyone. Couldn't do something to save their life. Saying they stand no chance in the games. And his eyes (blue, I notice, like the sky, if the sky wanted to pour your blood down the road into town and flood out the stores from tsunami waves of the warm red stuff) go wide like a proper child's for a second but slam themselves almost shut in a dangerous squint. But I can actually see his face relax. Like it's not worth it anymore. And Cato rocks himself back onto his feet and stands up so that I'm lying here on the rocky ground, reaching for my knife in my belt.
"Go home." That's all he says. And his voice is so empty, so cold, so unlike the deadly fire he was a few moments ago. I'm surprised he isn't freezing up inside at the sudden change in temperature. But he just walks away. He turns his back to me, puts his hands in his pockets, holds his head up high, and walks away. And I jump to my feet just as quickly as I can and brush the dust off the parts of me I can reach. I consider not going back just to spite him but come to the conclusion that he'll never know and it'll just be silly of me. So I do what he says. I go home.
I'm a little reluctant to go into the training room the next morning, after my little run-in with Number One Fan. But I figure that since nobody had much to say about it once Cato made me throw spears and things with him, the novelty's worn off and I can do my own thing. I'm wrong, of course. When I check in at the front desk in the bleak hall, I am met by the large lady from my audition, for lack of a better word. She looks exactly the same as she did yesterday, hasn't even changed her clothes, it seems. She could be a robot for all I know.
"Clove," she says, as if she's trying to be pleasant but only making a half-hearted attempt, "how nice to see you."
"Hm," I say tersely, because I don't want to just let her talk at me.
She sighs, as if my little noises are tiring, even though it's only seven thirty in the morning. "Nero and I noticed—"
"Who's Nero?" I interrupt, because I don't know and really don't care about being polite to this woman.
She glares at me. "Nero is the man who was present for your competency test." Competency test. That's a much better phrase than audition. But Nero must be the strong silvery man. Great. Names for faces is always good. Stalling this lady is good.
"Nero and I noticed that you seemed to get along well with a certain young gentleman, Cato?"
Ha, lady, are you ever wrong, I want to say to her. I've never gotten along with someone quite so outwardly poorly. They clearly missed our first introduction. But I only repeat, "Hm," for lack of anything better to say. I am concerned about where this is going, however.
"We have been keeping an eye on him and think that he, like you, is full of potential. We'd like you to start out a new program with him, some new methods we don't want to put the others in yet. It isn't time-consuming at all."
"What isn't?" I really don't want to be involved with Cato in any way. Everyone around here seems to do their own thing. Why can't we do that?
"The new program," she answers shortly. "Will you be willing to participate?"
What, I have to make a decision now? What kind of a program is this? Is it dangerous? What do you mean, it isn't time-consuming? How long will it take? You want me to say yes or no right now?
"Your father has already given us permission," she says, as if that will have any bearing on my decision. My father will sign away any rights necessary to me if it'll win us the Games. But he clearly expects me to do this so I just shrug and nod once. The lady nods back and starts walking down the hall, so I suppose she wants me to follow her. I do and she says nothing as I fall into step beside her.
"Why Cato?" I ask. She seems surprised, but she doesn't say so or even look it.
"You are both full of potential." She might as well be that robot. I remember what Cato said to me yesterday as he hollered at the angry little girl in the dirt. They'll either call you full of potential or mentally disturbed. Why do they keep saying that specific phrase? About me, I mean. So Cato's full of potential, too, huh? Full of potential and mentally disturbed. We don't have to get along. She's just telling me what she's doing. Cato being Cato has nothing to do with it. We're both full of potential.
She stops at a door I almost pass and pushes the heavy metal open far enough for both of us to go in. The Nero-man and Cato are already waiting, both sitting stiffly at a table with orange plastic chairs. The room is very small and lit only by one clunky chandelier. There is a table directly under it with four chairs. The lady stares at me and so I sit next to Nero, refusing to look at Cato.
"I don't expect you to understand this," Nero starts right away, sounding so condescending I want to slap him right now, let my handprint on his face be a reminder that I am important and precocious for a little girl. "But you have both been chosen as test subjects for a new training technique. You have been chosen because you are in the right age range and are both full of potential." I wonder what everyone else is if we two are full of potential. Are they only half-full? Not even close?
The lady interrupts Nero and my thoughts. "This has been specially developed for trainees with the most potential as it is still in the experimental stage and it would be a waste to try it on incompetents." I'm about to ask her what this is when she lifts a bag to the table. It's deep forest green and looks like it's holding its shape from a plastic liner inside. She unzips the bag and pulls out two plastic cups stacked inside each other, thin and easily broken. An insulated bottle I can't see into but it holds a liquid, based on the metallic splashes I can hear. A flat, square orange paper box with a slide and something shiny inside. Nero takes the cups and bottle away and pours out two waters, I presume, as the lady opens the shiny part of the box. Inside are little plastic compartments with pills. Nero pushes the cups back and the lady dumps a pill in each. They fizz and give off little monochromatic fireworks displays of bubbles. And then a glass each is pushed toward me and Cato.
"Drink it," Nero commands, as if he's been telling us what to do all of our lives and we've obeyed.
"No," Cato says flatly, staring at it.
"No. What is it?"
"I appreciate your cautiousness," the lady says impatiently, "but does its content really matter? Why would we knock off two students who are so—"
"Full of potential," I interrupt, lifting my cup up to my mouth. "We got it." They all look annoyed with me until I down the glass of water and mostly-disintegrated pill. Cato glares across the table and does the same. Somehow I think this is what the lady and Nero had intended to do, get one of us to try to prove ourselves to the other one. At least I got to go first.
Nothing happens. Absolutely nothing happens. I feel nothing, nothing at all. I wait expectantly but the lady stands up and Nero does the same across from her. Both Cato and I spring to our feet, turning our heads in different directions to avoid eye contact.
"That will be all," the lady says, and she packs up her bag. "You may go now." I do just that, ignoring Cato the whole way. I'm halfway out the door when the lady tells me to "Be here at this same time tomorrow. This is a daily routine." I make no sign I have absorbed any of that. And I don't talk to Cato all day.
In fact, I don't talk to Cato all week. I talk to a few other kids, though, others who, without Cato lumbering around nearby, think it's funny to provoke me like I'm a baby they want to cry. I'm pretty useless at spears still but once someone made the mistake of calling me Freckle Face in a knives station. I had him sent to the infirmary with a seven-inch gash up his right arm before the instructor pulled me off him. And some kids tell me what I want to know without even any persuasion, that is, without the knife entering their skin. I've learned that the lady's name is Polla and that she and Nero are Victors. I've learned how this place works, about other Victors for older kids and our Victors' reputations. Where Polla is strict and stern and ordered, Nero is just as stern but a little less robot. But that's not to say he's human. I saw him yell at some girl and she started crying. He hadn't even touched her and she was so frightened I wondered what she'd seen him do before. He's more wild animal than anything. But they're both calm, cool, and collected. They run this place with a bleak efficiency I can excel in.
Other things happen over the week, too. By the time the weekend's done and I'm back in the training room from playing catch-up with an academic tutor for two days and I've taken my daily pill in silence, I realize I'm thinking a little bit differently. Every little sound at night makes me jump. I sleep with a knife beside my bed now. I kill little things more often. I don't have to hit squirrels hopping across the ground with my knife, I just choose to. And then when I would leave it there, I open it up, like I'm going to cook it, just so I can see what's on the inside, wondering if people are exactly like that, so clean and so easy. And when I'm in training and I have the familiar weight of a knife in my hand I catch myself imagining things, warm red delicious imaginings of myself cutting away at one of these pitiful weaklings around me with no reason to do it. It's rather nice. And then the strangest part is my eyes. My vision seems to have shifted. It doesn't happen all the time and sometimes only when I've killed something or I'm really focused in training. The dim light of the training center buffers the reaction but it's unmistakable; things go a little bit shiny around the edges and I move a little too fast. People almost sparkle, the ones I want to die, which is often all of them. No, more like glow. They glow like candlelight off a knife blade.
Cato seems distracted. He doesn't miss spear throws quite so much but I've seen him counting under his breath and he has a habit of pressing his hand against the cool metal of the sword case and just standing there for some amount of time. Other people have noticed but they don't dare say anything about it. He talks to fewer people and his eyes are starting to look a little wild, like a hunted animal preparing to fight. But I don't have any idea what it's about until Thursday, nine days after I started here and eight since the first pill. That's when I see the same shadow against the building when I'm leaving. It glitters in the sun in a way it really shouldn't but I refuse to show fear and hold my head up and stalk towards the road.
"It doesn't even bother you, does it?" he calls after me, but he doesn't move. I stop, because it's the first he's spoken to me since he told me to go home. I turn around and he's still glowing there like some morbid angel and I notice he's got a knife on his belt, too. That's new.
"What doesn't?" I say, still poised to side-step out of here.
He looks almost tired, like he hasn't been sleeping and is impatient with me wasting his time. "Don't you feel it?"
"Feel what?" I snap. I have more important things to do than play mind games with him.
"You know, it all feels different. The shiny parts. The breathing. The noises."
I have to admit, that does sound familiar. I have to admit, I have been feeling like that lately. What's he going on about? My hand drifts to my knife's little pocket and my fingers close on the magnetic clasp, should I have to open it quickly.
"Doesn't it bother you? Doesn't it bother you what they're doing to you?" he asks. In addition to sounding tired he sounds a little desperate, like he just wants my agreement, my confirmation that he isn't crazy. Not sure I can truthfully give that.
"No," I say honestly. "I'm doing this to win. I'm going to win the Hunger Games."
"And what if it doesn't work? What if you hurt someone else? Then what will you do?" But District Two doesn't work like that and I can tell he knows. They don't care if I hurt someone, they'd just as soon send me into the arena than if I didn't. Assuming I have talent. And I'm full of potential. "It's designed for people like us," he says bitterly, looking at his shoes. "People who can't help it. It's supposed to make us even more dangerous. The ultimate weapon. How does that make you feel?" he says very suddenly to me, looking up sharply. "How do you like being a weapon?"
"I'm special," I say, because I can't think of anything else to. "And I'm going to win the Hunger Games."
Cato's face goes slack and he looks back down at his shoes, crossing his arms over his chest. "I knew you wouldn't understand. You're already one of them. You were before you started."
"I'm not!" I protest quickly, because I refuse to be categorized like that. "I'm just Clove and I belong to Clove and that's all. Not you, not Polla, not Nero, not my father. Just me."
"Then how do you like being their precious little killing machine?" he asks, still not looking at me. Maybe it's because he knows my answer already, just from that reputation he spoke of. He knows I like it all. He knows I enjoy killing, and hurting the other kids. He knows about the four-year-old who lost a leg because of me. And for once, someone is not impressed. Someone is not scared. And I think it's because he might be right. He might be like me. (I'm certainly not like him.) He seems to have developed this reputation without anything to back it besides a few childish threats and glowering around looking intimidating. So what makes him full of potential?
"Never mind." He shakes his head. "You wouldn't understand." He seems to say that a lot. What does he think he is, some charity case I should feel sorry for? Some moody teenager whose intentions and motivations are somehow entirely foreign to everyone else on the planet?
But I have no desire to understand. So I shrug. And I walk away.
In lunch, I sit in the same place I did my first day. Cato hasn't sat there and has roamed around not talking to anyone. I consider it a victory, I've pushed him out of his own little spot. But on Friday, he sits across from me. He says nothing but he sits there. In fact, while I eat and blatantly stare derisively at him, he does nothing but clutch the metal bars under the table. When I stab my apple again because I feel concerned he closes his eyes and starts counting. Very quietly, all the way up to twenty, back down again, back up, over and over and over. People begin to look away after a while and we're left alone from prying eyes. So I ask him what he's doing here. He's on eighteen and going down so I repeat myself.
"What are you doing here?"
He opens one eye and I can feel him go stiff all over, still holding the metal bar. "I'm trying not to kill you."
"You're too kind."
"I feel like I want to kill you. Wring your neck," he shares matter-of-factly. "I shouldn't. It's wrong and it's not me thinking it and I need to control it. Don't touch me."
So I kick him.
And his eyes seem to get darker and all of him tenses to spring and my brain goes shuddery and into overload and the apple flies off my knife and we're both almost standing when we realize where we are and that people are staring. Just looking at me, Cato's eyes slide back into their normal unnecessarily delicate blueness and I see his lips move as he shapes out one, two, three, four, five…. Why's he counting? That makes him not kill people? I try to think about what I do. And I realize I don't. I let me be me, I let my actions speak for themselves, like a nametag. I am Clove and I will do what Clove does. If I don't, I'm lying. And I hate liars. And so I start to sit down. But Cato's numbers just turn into excuse me, barely spoken, and he shoves himself away and around the pillar at the table and disappears down the hall. Idiot.
But Nero and Polla are standing across the room together and their eyes are glittering back at me, glittering so that I'm on edge and want to cut out their hearts just in case. And for some reason, perhaps the same strange reason I thought I wanted to hack up Cato right on this table and make a nice bloody stew out of him moments ago, I leave, too. I want to be away from those dangerous glittering eyes. So I just follow Cato. But when I glance back they look even more maliciously satisfied and Polla makes a mark on her clipboard.
Cato's outside. He's sitting on the hill. He's got a sword behind him and it looks like the surrounding area has recently been landscaped in a very erratic fashion. He's not counting and his eyes aren't closed and he doesn't whip around when I come up behind him. I guess he'd know my footsteps from either Polla or Nero, since I'm much smaller. I stop behind him and try to figure out what I'm doing here in the first place.
And to my surprise, he starts talking, like I'd care what he has to say. "I hate them so much," he says, and I can only assume he means Polla and Nero. "I want to kill them."
"So?" I scoff. "I do, too."
"Not like I do. I can imagine all sorts of awful ways I could kill them, all plausible, too. No kid should think like that. I'm starting to scare—concern myself."
"I think like that all the time," I sniff. "You're not so special."
"You aren't so special," he corrects, glaring out at the distant mountains. "I am special. There's only one of me."
"Don't be stupid," I command. "There's only one of everyone."
"You still don't get it, do you?" he asks, and I really want to pick up this sword and run it through him and see if he gets it. And then he does something thoroughly shocking. He puts his elbows on his knees and his head on his hands and his hair in his fists. "They're my parents," he says as if I'm unintelligent and stupid myself for not figuring it out. And while I might feel that way indeed, he also sounds disappointed and like he considers himself wronged.
"Who, Nero and Polla?" I ask, because now that I think about it, they're the only grown-ups I've ever seen him pay any kind of respect, even if that means not threatening them when he makes a mistake. And he nods, not letting go of his hair.
"Kids aren't supposed to feel like that," he says. "Like they hate their parents so much they want to kill them. But I do. I really do."
Why is he telling me this? We're practically mortal enemies. We don't care about how the other feels, unless the other's in pain and in that case it's mocking glee. But I realize this is no secret. Everyone knows Cato hates them, everyone hates them. And I figure everyone here knows who he is. Actually, I figure all of District 2 knows who he is and I never knew because I never cared. And that's why he has such a backless reputation. He's the son of two Victors. A first for the District, maybe for everywhere. He will go to the Games. Not like I will, where I'll have to volunteer if I'm not chosen, but he is expected to get there. To get there and win. I decide where I think I've seen his pretty-boy face and I know it's right. He looks like his mother. When she was a lot younger, of course, and smaller and more delicate. But I've seen District 2 reruns in various reapings and she's always there. That's why Cato is full of potential. It's not his skill, though I imagine a great deal of it comes naturally. It's because of who (or maybe it's what) he is. Something tells me his parents didn't marry for love, assuming they did at all. He's an experiment. His whole life is designed to create the ultimate weapon for the Games. There is no other point to his existence. The lucky kid.
"I'd switch places with you any day," I decide and I sit down next to him where I'm closer to his sword. There's enough of me with a desperate desire to stay in control of me at all times to really do well as a killing machine in the works. In fact, I think it would be really fun. But it's all he's ever known, fighting to be a person, and he seems to think, for some reason I don't understand but would never admit, that he has it really tough and deserves more. I have a really easy life. Nothing bad has ever happened to me. And as far as I'm aware nothing bad has ever happened to him.
"You could do it, too," he agrees. He must be thinking the same thing. I can easily cope with this funny shiny new stuff. It's a little inconvenient, especially when I'm trying to sleep and I imagine my door is trying to kill me, but I like it. It makes me feel prepared and wild and strong. And I guess those are things he currently doesn't see as too terribly important. Isn't that funny, he wants to be like me and I want to be like him.
And then before I stop myself I say something, something I've never told a single person and I want to run the sword through myself as soon as it accidentally falls out of my mouth. "My father killed my mother."
Very very slowly he lets go of his hair and sits up and looks at me, all like a mining car on a track just jostling along at its own little pace. He looks at me intensely, like he's trying to decide something.
"If you tell anyone I told you that I'll kill you," I promise him honestly. I can see it now, sneaking up on him in training, a spear through the side, I'll call it a missed throw. I'm not good with spears. Why did I tell him that? He doesn't trust me and I don't trust him and five minutes ago we almost murdered each other in the cafeteria. Something's wrong here and it makes my head spin. What is going on?
"If you tell anyone what I think of my family you'll never see another sunrise," he tells me, and I believe it. It's not a joke. It's not a funny little Career thing. We're serious. We're both probably glowing and shining like silver flames and we're both calculating our odds of getting the sword first. But he turns bitter again and addressed the ground, looking away from me, "But family isn't the right word. None of us even live together."
"My father killed my mother," I remind him, because he's not the only nontraditional one here. He can stop feeling so sorry for himself and conceited. Murder is mostly frowned upon is District 2. It's rather uncommon. My father wasn't taken to trial and he convinced everyone that she fell on something and broke her neck and died. Everyone but me. Because I watched him do it. And I didn't stop him. But she wanted me to stop training and scaring the little kids and didn't want me in the Games. And all she did was cry. My family has had weaker links than Cato. And the weak links have to be removed to keep it strong.
Again, he looks at me, like I've said something different this time and he didn't quite catch it. But all he says is, "How do you do it?"
"How do I do what?"
"How do you keep up the you?"
I think about that. How do I keep being me and being in control of me? It's not something I think about, not something I force myself to do. So I go with that. "I am special," I tell him. "I do what I want because I deserve it. If I want to hurt someone, I do. If I want to say something, I do. If I want to do something, I do. Unless it's stupid or weak or babyish." And he just keeps looking at me like none of that made sense. "Just be Cato," I paraphrase. "If Cato wants something, do it." Apparently that makes sense. He nods slowly. "If you want to hate your parents, that's you. So hate your parents. Hate your parents a whole lot. Hate your parents so much you imagine them burning up or exploding or something. And that's how you can stay you."
Because he's already more person than me, I think. The fact that he feels anything at all towards his parents separates him from me. But weakness does not make us human, strength does. The strength over ourselves. That's what shows that we're superior. And I guess Cato reaches almost the same conclusion because his face and mainly all of him relaxes and he sits up straighter.
"You know what, Clove? As much as I hate you, I'm glad you punched me in the face," he says, and I decide he's going to need to work on this before he starts spouting his feelings like little girl or something.
"Yeah," I say, and I guess I agree. I could have punched anyone. Instead I punched perhaps the one person who might have some idea about the deliciously twisted thoughts my mind puts out. And now that we' re in this together and he doesn't to murder me before lunch is over anymore I think how nice it would be to have our own little Career alliance in this training center, him and me, intimidating everyone else. Yes. And I realize Cato isn't shiny anymore.
A/N Yeah, lots and lots of boringness in this one. Headcanons? I make them my own little reality. Alexander Ludwig's too pretty for Cato? Make it real and a plot point. Anyway, this is a fourquel/sequel-squared prequel for my little miniseries about Clove and Cato, the first story being Indestructible, the second Deconstructing, the third Destructible and the fifth and last coming soon. Also, kats96, my fluff deliberator, how'd we do? No fluff allowed. And to everyone who actually read this far, thank you! Please leave a review or favorite or whatever you'd like, I absolutely appreciate it and I always get all excited when my email goes ffchwing and I discover that someone formulated an opinion on a work of mine. Thank you to everyone who's read the other installments in the little story and reviewed or favorited!
This story is also for Kendall and also me, because I guess I can dedicate it to myself, too, can't I? And isn't it nice? Nobody dies! There will be more dying, though. After a nice long mental breakdown. How does that sound? Good? Good. But it doesn't matter because we can HUG ALL THE CATOS and offer them Oreos. And that is all I have clever to say because I'm not the quick thinker, that's you. Anyway, I'm back to our hole and laptop-cat-comfy corner to hang out with Isabelle Fuhrman and Alexander Ludwig and eat Cinnamon Toast Crunch and break into Honeydukes!