"Over there, boy!"
Down the close, darkening lanes they sing their way to the station by the siding shed. the mix of them, the starving youths march down the hard lanes in blues and whites and pinks, all of their best, but still somehow cheap, with faces grim and gay.
The girls, not in linens, who run with them pass out flowers. White, galbana lillies, so rare because nothing so beautiful has business here. the boys, stuck in their march, take them with humility, those memento moris, breat all stuck with wreath (as men's are, dead).
The Capitol mock what the girls mean, who give them flowers, who they will never kiss again. And the others, the girls in dresses and colours, stare over one shoulder without saying a word. These boys are not their to kiss or keep, but Surplus to capacity and requirement.
"Hurry, now! Lateness is not the virtue of a Valuable Asset."
Dull porters watch them, and the casual tramps stare hard, sorry to miss them from their greyest daydreams. Unmoved, signals nod, the Capitol women in their frocks and wigs begin to shout and tug and get the rabble in line.
So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, the youths lead out. Somewhere in the seam, mothers listen for the train whistle, they mutter their goodbyes guility: and never hear to which front they are sent.
At the head of the procession, a mockery in her lace and bows, Effie Trinket starts to speak. The boys stand to her left, silent, watching the girls who organise themselves quickly. The Peacekeepers at the end of the station watch hungrily, waiting for the first of them to fall out of the line, or sob for a parent, or sibling.
"Now, now." Effie says, animatedly, so affected that her words are like a strange musical babble. "No family in the Capitol ever paid to see a Surplus cry." her word are unfeeling and unkind, but not a soul dares disagree. She folds her hands in her gloves and stares hard over the sorry lot. The weakest ones get nudged by friends, urged to stop their sobbing.
It happens every year, the custom. The games are for all of the Districts to see, even the rich ones, the power of the Capitol. This is different: it is theft of the youth, a slave-trade. It keeps families fed, they argue, how unjust can it be?
Peeta stands in the second row, alone. In the satchel at his side, there is a tiny piece of stale bread, and some cheese, as a parting gift. It means little from the family that's selling him. It means the world to a Surplus.
In outline Districts, those who cannot make a living have few options. There's always a tesserae, but it provides little, and getting reaped is death in all certainty.
The other custom is submitting a youth, above the ages of sixteen to become a Surplus to a rich family. There's no telling to where one might be sent: there's always the Capitol, for the very lucky, pretty things. Or District's 1 or 2, depending on the skills of the Surplus, or the favour of the family.
A Valuable Asset, as Effie is quick to remind them, will get the best home, and the nicest family. Unworthy Surpluses are subject to beatings, starvation, neglect. Peeta knows, just like the rest of them, that it isn't skill that gets you a good home. It's luck. Appeal to the right family, and you will be fed and watered and cared for.
A Surplus is bought by an initial cost, and then weekly payments, so meaningless to the families that own them with all of their wealth. The money gets sent home, and is the only reminder of these forgotten children.
"The register will begin in a moment." Effie babbles, excitedly. she claps her hands in this parody of a dance. "Good luck to you, Surpluses of District 12." Her voice is loud and strong now, this monotone little speech from her own home. "An obedient Surplus is a Valuable Asset. Good luck to you all."
If Peeta could breathe, he would vomit. A Valuable Asset, indeed, he thinks. How lucky he will be if somebody in the Capitol fancies owning him, and having him as property. It's dehumanising, they know, but nobody seems to care.
The crowd lurches forward, along with Peeta's stomach, still unsettled. A single line, one on each side, runs through a set of Rendering Officers, who seal each Surplus' hand with a scorch mark, detailing to which District they'll be sent. It's very rarely outside of 1, or 2, or the Capitol. In 4, however, it's supposed to be much better for Surpluses. Treated better, and less like slaves, or furniture. It's typically worse if you belong to a Career house.
In a flash, Peeta is standing between the two of them. He's rendered mute, staring at their faces, hoping for some kind of sympathy, but none is ever found. They remove a very small sample of blood that makes him pale, testing it for anything contagious or work-hindering, before selecting the appropriate District to brand him with. The moment seems to last forever as the two dispute quietly.
The Capitol? Peeta thinks about their garish fashions, of their wigs and shoes and clothes. They keep Surpluses in collars, there, as another reminder of how the Capitol dominate. He knows he doesn't want to be sent there, so far away, too far away to even remember. It's because of them that this custom is set into place, along with the Games, too barbaric and demonic to be humane. Peeta will not go with them if they sent him to the Capitol. He will fight.
District 1? Luxurious, certainly, with most families wealthy and prosperous. They wouldn't have so much use for Peeta there, however: he isn't good at seeing or cleaning or most household tasks, which makes his value to District 1 decrease slightly. He wouldn't mind being sent there, because it;s a step-up from the Capitol, and there are no customs about 'collaring' Surpluses, or even restricting their movement. Surpluses in District 1 can move about as they please, which is a rarity.
Naturally, District 2 isn't like that. Collaring is optional, but looked upon as a fashion. It is, after all, the District most favoured by the Capitol. hey'd have a use for him there, mining and masonry, as Peeta is strong, and he can handle himself well enough. Laws on Surpluses are harsh: owners are encouraged to beat their Surpluses or at the very least mark them (by branding or beating or any other means). It's not the Capitol, Peeta thinks, but it's just as scary.
The thing is, they don't tell him. The scorch mark they slap on him is unintelligible, and Peeta is terrified, squawking for some explanation, by the time they load him onto the train. It's too soon, he screams, he isn't ready, he isn't a Valuable Asset, he wants to go home, this shouldn't have happened to him-
It's frowned upon to cry, Peeta knows that, but he's strong and it'll take a lot of blubbering to overlook him, even as a few tears escape and tear down his face, hot with shame. The rest of them, sat like slaves in rows of seats, try to ignore Peeta. some themselves, look on the verge of breaking, but remain unfeeling. It is a common fate. There's nothing special or upsetting about it, supposedly.
With a sigh, the train pulls out of the station, and with it waves goodbye to all of the known world. A girl besides Peeta, with mousy blonde hair and a strange accent rubs his arm.
"I'm sorry this happened to you," She says, kindly. It's the first ounce of kindness Peeta has received in so long. He looks at her for a very long time before wiping at his eyes.
"Me, too." He mumbles. For the both of them.
On the final stretch home, the train pauses briefly at a station in some District.
Either which way, Cato doesn't really know, or care. It's a waste anyway, the station nothing more than a shack on sandy paving. The station-master is a lean, dark-skinned man who presents himself in a torn, ugly uniform. At his feet, children run around in the dust, chasing chickens, all barefoot and dirty. There's nothing for miles, and it's the only stop before home, another few hours or so. Most of the passengers take the time to stretch their legs, careful not to step out onto the station, as if the air is unbreathable.
A crowd of wandering merchants, with greying beards and sad little faces hurry along, presented very rarely with the change to flog wares and rubbish, no doubt. They also wander without shoes, gasping at the passengers through the windows like dying travellers in search of sustenance. None is given. A dog remains, by a crowd of hens, brown fur, eyes rolling in purple sockets, watching the strange rabble. It's curious, Cato thinks, how desperate they can be.
One particularly bold, toothless man begins to scrape at the window along, and, not unkindly, clove opens it. The rush of warm, fresh air is a blessing, but the harassment is not. Neither of them smile to him, so desperate, pushing the grey behind his ears and bowing his head.
"Good afternoon, thank-you." He babbles, his hands shaking. The salesman tries to hold up his wares to the window, and out of a bad habit, Clove finds herself intrigued.
The menagerie of little wooden animals is quite spectacular. Detailed, painstakingly-crafted wonders peep at her, a giraffe with outlines spots and bones, and two dull jewels as his eyes. The carving stars at her, proudly, a work of beauty in itself. Better still is the lion, with an actual mane made of fine scruff, combed and beautiful. It has a silk-pink tongue, the only silk around for miles owned by these people. The lion looks fierce and bold, one paw lifted up as if somehow to rule. His eyes, too, are made of stone, but prettier. Each detail is a fine, carved testament to the beauty of the culture.
Clove can't really help herself. She reaches out and takes a hold of the lion, feeling it in her hands.
"Pretty lion for the pretty lady, please." He continues, scratching at the whiskers on his face, staring up at clove hungrily, but not for want of food. She looks across to Cato, the salient, for some kind of guidance and he shakes his head, a tiny gesture, eyes tired with annoyance.
"How much?" He gets out through his gritted teeth, making the majesty of the little lion seem crass. The opportunity seems rare, and the man grasps it, still leaning up through the carriage window, on his bare broken toes.
"Good afternoon sir, thank-you." He says again, trying to be personable and patient. They both know the smile he wears is for courtesy, and not out of contentedness. Impatient, Cato repeats himself.
"How much?" The man looks down at the lion and smiles again, toothless.
"Ah, for your lady, please, I give it you for three pieces, please."
They both know it's worth so much more, the lion, with it's proud scruff and silk tongue. it seems so raw, and powerful that Clove feels the need to refuse it. What would it mean away from the place she found it? Where would it sit in her antiques collection, the one that is unique filled with goods from the Capitol?
Cato smirks and its back, shaking his head. "No." Desperate, the man nearly whimpers.
"For your lady, please, I give it you cheaper." He begs, and looks at both of them for some kind of help. None is given. Clove looks away, at her feet, anywhere but him, or even Cato, who waves him off quickly with a stern look, before shutting the window again.
They sit in the silence of the carriage. clove twirls the cool metal band on her finger. She doesn't like the way it sits or feels, but to take it off would put Cato in a temper, and he's already in a foul mood from the journey. The heat is only making it worse, stirring the mad blood. She keeps it on, and tries to tear her attention away from the fact, not even new, but still so novelty. 'Husband' she thinks to herself, in a cold sweat. It terrifies her.
"You shouldn't humour them." Cato warns her, his voice unfeeling. The words are hollow and ignorant, they make Clove feel hot with shame. "They're barbaric if you get too close." She laughs, a short, mirthless noise that sounds like being wounded.
"How ironic." She comments, smirking. Cato is wrestling with himself not to smile, and instead leans back, bringing his hands into his lap and cracking his knuckles individually, just to be difficult. He knows how much Clove hates that.
"Light of my life." He begins, tonelessly. "I'd much rather strangle you when we get home." Clove laughs again, actually affected by his humour.
"You know how I would hate to be an inconvenience to you, dear." She reaches over and pats his hand. Cato grins at her, a mixture of his annoyance and amusement and something devious, or lascivious.
"I'm touched by your concern." He says, rising from his seat, and moving towards the sliding door. Suddenly aware that she'll be alone when Cato leaves her, Clove sits up.
"Where are you going?" Cato shrugs.
"A walk." He says, carelessly. It's just like him to exclude Clove, to go out alone constantly and pretend it's not personal. It's almost funny, how much they cannot stand eachother's company, and how surely they love eachother, she thinks. Cato hasn't even joked about killing her since she fell pregnant.
"Oh," Clove says in a small voice. "Don't hurry back." She says, in a sour tone. Cato lets out another huge grin.
"I almost never do, darling." And he leaves her alone in the compartment.
The day is only getting hotter here. A few of the other passengers have thrown out food to the platform, dark chocolates that they deemed inedible. The chickens, in their proud colours, dart out and peck them up before the children or the dog can even move. Small crowds of salesmen try to flog other things, jewels and necklaces, and seeing them pass her window, Clove tries to appear invisible, turned away, holding her breath.
After what feels like hours, but is in reality only a few minutes, a whistle is blown by the raggedy station-master and the passengers start to head back into their seats. With all of his arrogance, she knows that Cato will see no problem in taking his time. It's rare that somebody has the gall to argue with a victor, especially one so hot-blooded as him.
Already, the train is started to pull away, and the salesmen are desperate now, chasing after the train, throwing jewels in the hopes that money will get thrown back. They start calling out to Clove, and she blushes, feeling intruded upon, until the train is a distance from the station and at a high enough speed that she feels alone again.
Cato joins her then, sitting in his seat, but leant forward. He presents her with something, the tiny lion from before, with all of it's scruff, and it's silk tongue. She takes it, wary of the look in his eyes.
"You didn't have to do that," She says, choosing her words very carefully. Cato shrugs.
"It was nothing, really." He laughs. "The stupid bastard sold it to me for two pieces." Clove feels herself grow heated with embarrassment and she shakes her head. Cato searches for her eyes but she gives none, and, God's bread, it makes him mad. "Jesus, Clove." He spits, furiously. "I shouldn't have bothered."
Clove nods. "No, you shouldn't have." they remain quiet for a few moments before Cato rises towards the door again.
"You better not be like this when we're picking out a Surplus, Clove." He snaps, and then lets out a breath. "I need a drink."
The train wheezes, headed straight home. It leaves her wondering, as she stares out at the desert wasteland, why she feels so angry with him. The lion sits on the sill, on it's side, unwanted.
She cannot bear to look at it.