Alder Hawthorne was unsure of himself.
This state of affairs was becoming an all-too-frequent experience in the ten-year-old's life as of late. He was not used to it. In fact, the boy prided himself on his wide level of comprehension on a variety of subjects. Simply put, he knew he was a genius. In fact, he knew he was so much of a genius that the actual word didn't even do his brain justice. He had known since he was seven.
He sat with Beetee in the lab, his legs, long for a child of his age but still too short to do anything but dangle from his stool, swinging back and forth as the old man described to him the inner workings of the electron microscope. Before he had even finished his explanation, the boy began a barrage of questions to which the scientist did not know the answer.
By the fifth question, one that had brought out an issue with the microscope that Beetee hadn't even considered before that moment, the man stopped him and gazed at him strangely over his glasses before shaking his head with amusement. Reaching across the counter, he picked up a blank inkscreen and entered a few commands before handing it over to the boy.
"Read these, and then we'll discuss it," he grinned.
Beetee hardly ever grinned, or even smiled very much, unless he had just figured out the answer to a particularly difficult problem, so Adler knew he had done something right. Running his fingers over the inkscreen, he saw several titles. One was the manual for the microscope, but the others were composed of enormous words that he hadn't ever read before. For the first time in his young life, Alder felt overwhelmed. After he queried the words in the basic dictionary on the inkscreen only to be answered by "item not found," he started to feel almost frantic, the way he sometimes felt when he wanted to talk to his dad but he didn't know what to say.
"I don't know if I can read these words…" he began. He had been able to read the simple books his mother and father had read to him since he was maybe two. More recently, he had moved on to books that were interesting, actually about things instead of silly stories. Written for grown-ups. But these words, things like "cathodolumiescence" and "ultramicrotome" gave him pause. No one, not even Uncle Vick, talked like that. He couldn't be expected to know terms that he hadn't read before, or ever even heard someone use.
Beetee had already moved back to the microscope and was focused on whatever he was doing as he responded, "Well, what is it that scientists do when they don't know something?"
Of course he was right.
Instead of answering, the boy opened the dictionary again, and painstakingly gathered the definitions for all the little pieces of the enormous words, and then in his head, mashed them together. It wasn't perfect, but it gave him some indication of what they meant. He sat on his stool, swinging his legs, as he pushed through the complicated sentences, trying to use the terms he did know to explain the ones he didn't.
He didn't move from the stool until hours later, when it was nearly time for his mother to pick him up. By then, he knew the most common of the large, confusing words, and, although he didn't have the answers to the original questions he had asked, it had ceased to matter. He had hundreds of new questions now.
Beetee had moved from the microscope to a console in his office and he was staring at the holographic projection of his prototype, making the face he made when he was trying to figure something out.
"That piece is upside-down," Alder pointed dispassionately out as he stepped into the room. "If you put that inside someone's heart, it will make it blow up, which might be neat to watch, but not very fun for the person."
Shaking his head vigorously, Beetee looked over his glasses at the slowly revolving image made of light, squinting for a moment, and then his eyes opened wide.
"Well I'll be damned…" he said in a hushed voice, turning his eyes from the hologram to Alder and considering him with something like awe, but also something like fear.
And that was when Alder knew for certain that he was different.
Because Beetee never swore. And he never looked afraid.
His mother, on the other hand, was a different story. She proved as much when she burst into the lab only a moment later, ranting and raving about the "damn cameras," that had followed her all the way from the defense building. But when she saw her son, she smiled so big that Alder had felt warm and safe just by looking at her.
He loved his mother, and love was not something he admitted to readily. He knew that she was mean, violent, and had killed at least five people, but that didn't matter. She was brave and strong and funny and smart, but a special, different kind of smart. She wasn't good at science like Beetee, or even amazing at figuring out how to fix huge problems, like his dad was. Her kind of smart was the kind that made her good at tricking people. As they walked through unfamiliar places, she taught Alder how to watch the people around him, how to observe their reactions so that he knew what they were going to do next, and so he could imitate them if he wanted.
The last part had been especially helpful once he had to go to school. He hadn't reacted to situations the way the other children did, nor had he cared about the same things. At first, the other students had been cruel. He hadn't even cared so much about the way he was treated because it was so obvious that they were all kind of silly, but their regular attention had made his life awkward. So he had quickly realized that sometimes it was better just to blend in. So he had done what his mother had taught him and had pretended to be shy and unsure of himself, despite the fact that nothing was further from the truth. After that, the children had, for the most part, left him to his own devices.
"What's going on, dummy?" Johanna grinned, ruffling his hair. Not that it mattered because his hair was always a curly mess anyway.
"Alder was just demonstrating the profound depths of his brilliant mind," Beetee answered.
She shrugged dismissively, "What else is new?"
That was the best part about his mother. She didn't care how smart he was. It was just a part of him, and she loved all the parts. If he wanted to sit with Beetee in the lab after school, that was okay, but if he wanted to run around and be silly with the other kids in Two, that was okay too. Of course, he never did the latter, and he certainly wasn't likely to start, but it was nice to have the option.
Basically, his mother didn't expect him to be anything but himself.
As they left the Science Ministry, they stepped right out into a flurry of cameras. Alder didn't know what it was like to live in a world without them, without having to make certain that his fly was always up and that he never looked out of the ordinary. Two years ago, he had fallen down the stairs and ended up with a nasty bruise on his jaw. A few days later a really mean kid at school had teased him, saying his crazy mom hit him, claiming it was all over the news. That everyone knew she was nuts.
When the teacher had finally pulled Alder off the other boy, he too looked like his mom had hit him.
Or perhaps several moms.
It was at this point that Alder had decided it was important to appear as normal as possible in front of the cameras: an average boy with a blissful life who never did anything out of the ordinary other than having famous parents.
He had also decided that most everyone in the world was basically an idiot.
"Get the hell out of my way," Johanna bellowed at the reporters as she made her way to the car, pulling Alder behind her. She didn't care at all about how she looked on the broadcasts, despite what dad would say to her when they had fights. She didn't care what people said about her, if they said she was crazy, or not.
She didn't care about anything, and it was wonderful.
"Mom," Alder began after they had settled into the car and she pulled away from the crowd of reporters, "am I an abberation?"
"No, you idiot!" she gave him a quick glance and then looked back at the road. "But you already know that. So why don't we just skip forward to the part where you tell me why you're asking?" Her words were a little mean, but as usual, her voice was full of poorly concealed laughter. It could have been at his choice of words, but he knew it was actually a reaction to what she considered a ridiculous thought. She never made fun of the way he talked.
It took a moment to pull his thoughts together. Emotions mattered so little most of the time that he had a lot of difficulty accessing his. Sometimes he wasn't certain if they even existed at all.
"No one is as smart as I am. I go to a school for intelligent students and they all seem slow and stupid. I don't understand how they can care about the mindless stuff they care about. I don't care that you and dad killed people in the War, and I can't understand why other people do. I ask questions that Beetee and Uncle Vick can't even answer and…"
"And what?" his mother prodded, more gently this time.
He sighed, "I think Beetee was scared of me today. Because I said it would be neat if someone's heart blew up."
The anger rolled off his mother in cold waves that filled the car as she pulled over suddenly and turned to him with the most serious look in her eyes that he had ever seen. But before she said anything, she took several deep, calming breaths.
"People, even really good people, are scared sometimes, Alder. Scared of you, scared of me, scared of your dad. That doesn't mean that there's a thing wrong with any of us. How people react to you is their problem, not yours. Remember that, okay?"
He nodded, and she pulled him close to her, hugging him tightly.
"And it doesn't matter, because we both know I'm the most important person in the world, and I'll never be scared of you, dummy," she added. "You're stuck with me."
But there were still a lot of things he didn't understand. Mostly when it came to people. That had been true most of his life, though. People were concerned with silly things, like what kind of food they would eat for dinner, if their favorite programs would be rebroadcast, or who was friends with whom. People caused stupid problems that his dad had to work late to solve, making it really hard for them to eat dinner together and making his mother sad, even though she tried to hide it.
People had once decided it was a really good idea to make twenty four healthy kids kill each other once a year, and the idea had survived for seventy five years, even in the face of a declining human population.
Really, there were no limits to their idiocy.
In general, Alder had a difficult time understanding people's motivations behind their behavior, especially the more emotional reactions. But that had only been "people" in general. Once he became used to them, the people around him tended to make sense. His mother specifically, had always made sense, been predictable. At least she had before.
It wasn't as though she suddenly became unpleasant. She had always been mean, at least outwardly. But Alder always understood her, could read the care and concern behind her snappy retorts. He always knew, despite what she might call him or his father, despite the fact that his parents still weren't married, despite the fact that nearly everyone in the country was terrified of Johanna Mason, that she loved him and their family more than anyone else in the world. That she would always be there, that he could never scare her away. And since she was the only person whose love he really accepted or reciprocated, that was pretty important.
Lately though, he was beginning to wonder if his mother might want to run away after all.
Of course, this hadn't been entirely independent of another pretty significant event. Or two significant events, that were currently wreaking havoc in his home.
"JASPER HAWTHORNE, WHEREVER YOU CAME FROM, I AM SENDING YOU BACK!" he heard his mother's roar echo through the house. It was followed by a smash, Jasper's loud cackle, and Juniper's soft giggle.
He crossed his room and slammed the door hard, hoping that perhaps they would all get the message that he was in the middle of an important experiment. These modified cells were not going to achieve mitosis on their own, and certainly not while everyone in the house was causing such a ruckus.
Unfortunately, shutting the door did no good to prevent the deep groaning sound, and subsequent resounding crash that made the entire house shudder. Startled by the sound, Alder knocked over his microscope, scattering his slides everywhere.
"JUNIPER YOU CANNOT CLIMB THE SHELVES!" Johanna bellowed, and then her voice faltered, "How are you not dead?"
His mother was always loud, and brash, shouting when just a quiet statement would do, but there was a level of frantic anxiety in her words that Alder had never noticed before. Since he made it his job to notice everything, it was indicative of a major problem. Replacing his microscope wearily, he made his way across the room. As he opened his bedroom door, he was greeted by a squelching sound, then a muted pop and the noise of shredding, as though a seam of fabric had been filled with air until it burst. His mother moaned in anguish and then began laughing somewhat madly.
"That's it," he heard her say in a voice that could only be called maniacal.
He ran down the stairs and into the kitchen just in time to see his mother, holding the squirming Jasper by his ankles, and dangling him out the second floor window.
"Mom!" he gasped out, feeling intense shock for what might have been the first time in his young life.
He could hear Johanna grinding her teeth as she glared out the window at her youngest son, who despite his current situation, was shouting with glee. The veins on her temples pulsated angrily. One of her eyes looked larger than the other, she was scowling so hard.
The reasons why were pretty obvious.
The cabinets under the sink had been crudely carved into with a butter knife and from the looks of things, the work in progress was almost completed, and the aesthetic value of the cabinet completely destroyed in the process. One of the large shelving units in the kitchen had toppled over completely. Its contents shattered and splashed all over everything in sight. Unfortunately, the most prominent items in question just so happened to be the two enormous jars of molasses that Thom and his wife had sent them for his dad's birthday. The brown goo oozed as it slid down the refrigerator, which Juniper happened to be perched on top of. Settling on top of the molasses was an entire pillowful of goose feathers.
Jasper called out his hellos to a passer-by, and the resulting scream of horror from the woman on the street drove Alder to action.
"Mom, you need to bring him in now," he stated calmly. The boy himself began to shout his dissent in response which, to anyone outside the room, likely looked more like his displeasure at being held out of a window than his actual refusal to be brought inside.
Johanna glared at her oldest suspiciously, like he was planning on blowing up one of the walls.
"I promise, I will keep him under control. Just bring him in the house before someone calls the camera crews."
With a yank and a slam, his little brother was once more standing in a puddle of molasses that squirted out between his toes. Not holding on ceremony, he sat himself down and began scooping fistfuls of molasses into his mouth.
"Momma that was so fun! Can we do it again pleeeeeease momma!" he said through fistfuls of liquefied sugar.
She answered by slumping against the wall and gently caressing the skin inside of her elbow. Juniper slipped down from her perch and toddled over to her mother, sitting on her lap as she helped herself to dainty licks of molasses.
Alder turned on his heels and left the room, the concern for his mother filling up his chest uncomfortably. He rarely experienced concern. The only person who existed to be concerned about was his mother, and she was more than able to take care of herself in every situation, up until now. And it was clear that there wasn't much he could do alone as a ten-year-old. There was no choice. He had to do it.
The phone only had to ring twice before his father picked up.
"Johanna, I'm really sorry. I'll be home soon, but there's been a labor complaint in Eight again, and I need to set a regiment out to provide security for the protestors."
"Dad, this isn't Mom. You need to come home immediately."
"Alder? Is everything okay? What happened?"
Not realizing that an entire description was unnecessary, Alder began to explain.
"Mom caught Jasper sitting on a pillow and carving pictures into the cabinet again. When she caught him, Juniper got nervous and climbed those shelves, then they fell down into the middle of the kitchen."
"What? Is Juniper alright?" the raw terror in his father's voice was enough to send shivers up the spine of a normal person, but Alder wasn't normal, and his dad's emotions rarely succeeded in generating any sort of empathy at all, especially when they weren't warranted. If the man would just shut up and listen, he could come home and take care of Johanna.
"She's fine," Alder sighed with annoyance, then began speaking as rapidly as he could, to get the explanation over with so his dad would just leave the office and come home. "She leapt onto the fridge as the cabinet was falling. But unfortunately, molasses jars don't have the ability to leap to safety, so your birthday present from Thom is splattered on everything. When he saw the destruction, Jasper started jumping up and down on the pillow he was sitting on, and it exploded, covering the kitchen in feathers, which stuck to the molasses. And then mother held Jasper out of the window by his feet, and now she's just sitting on the floor. My assumption is that she's in shock."
"Is Jasper still hanging out the window?"
"No. He's sitting in a pile of molasses, eating himself sick."
"And you just sat there and let this happen?" Of course, instead of coming home, the first thing his dad did was accuse him of being distant and negligent. This was hardly confusing behavior. It was expected.
"No, I was in my room, working on an experiment. I saw nothing. I'm only deducing what happened based on the plentiful, obvious evidence. Mom won't speak to me. I think she thinks I'm going to turn on her and blow up the house."
"I'm on my way," his dad responded gruffly, hanging up the phone.
One at a time, Alder began herding his family members out of the kitchen. First came Juniper. Alder took her by the hand and led her to her room. Pulling off his belt, he hooked it through her back belt loop, and attached the other end to the bed. As good at climbing as his sister was, she had not yet figured out how to take off her own pants. Instead of fighting, she sat calmly on the duvet, staring at him with her silvery eyes. He wondered how long it would take her to escape.
Next was more difficult.
Jasper realized the instant his brother reentered the kitchen that he was about to be taken away from the enormous pool of edible sweetness that he had been indulging in. With a feral glare, he lifted himself into a crouching position, dark hair falling across his green eyes. In one hand, he held a wooden spoon like a weapon.
"Put it down, Jasper."
"No," his brother growled.
Alder pulled Jasper's favorite toy, a scratched up wooden model of a deer that had been carved by their grandfather, and held it in both hands.
"Would you prefer I destroy this? Because I'm not particularly attached to it, and you are getting on my nerves."
Jasper's fierce veneer fell away almost instantly.
"Sorry," he whispered.
Alder still held the deer threateningly, "I suggest you do everything I say."
His baby brother nodded.
The nodding did not stop, but his green eyes widened in fear.
"Now go to your room before I set this on fire."
He tried to ignore the trail of molasses footprints Jasper left behind.
"Come on mom. Let's go sit on the couch."
Only a fraction of the mess in the kitchen was cleaned when his dad burst into the house. He could hear him call for his mother, then rush to her side on the couch. Quite soon, there was an unfamiliar choking sound, as his father made gentle, soothing noises and brought his mother out of her shocked state, something that no amount of hair petting had been able to do. Alder assumed that Johanna was actually crying, which was another first.
"I nearly killed our kid," she hissed after some time.
"I'm sure he would have bounced," his dad responded with a poor attempt at humor.
"Gale, I'm serious," it was obvious to Alder that his mother was serious, since she was calling his dad by his real name. "I couldn't think, or do anything, I was just so angry. I can't believe I did that. I just can't believe it."
"Are they okay now?"
"Physically. Who knows though? I may have fucked Jasper up for life."
"Johanna, he'll be fine. When I was that age, Ma hung me from the laundry line by my own belt. I turned out alright. Give yourself a little grace."
"But this isn't isolated! It's the worst incident, maybe, but I feel on edge all the time," she ignored the joke. "They're so different than Alder. I don't know what to do with them. He was so easy and I wasn't even ready to be a mom then. Now I have ten years of experience and I can't even handle two toddlers"
Gale coughed, "He's been suspended from school six times and he's ten. He has no friends to speak of, and he doesn't care about anyone or anything. How can you call that easy?"
"Maybe we have different definitions of easy. Or maybe you're just an asshole."
"All I'm saying is I know how to handle the twins. They act like normal kids. Normal… excitable kids. And they're infuriating sometimes, but what they do, it's what kids do. They don't keep track of your snoring habits and diagnose you with sleep apnea, or replace your analysis of the civil unrest in the Capitol with their own assessment of the situation."
"He was eight. And he was trying to help. And Paylor actually used some of his ideas."
"Johanna, all I'm saying is that Alder is not an easy child, and you've managed to do a great job with him. The twins will be all right too."
"They'd be more all right if you were home more often. How the hell did I end up as a fucking housewife anyway?"
Alder expected his father to argue like he usually did, to bring up all the things that needed done in the government, while simmering in the background was the unsaid implication that he owed Panem his time and herculean efforts. It was always like this when they fought, his mother's cold, ruthless anger smashing against his father's hot, passionate fury. When he had been very small, their fights had terrified Alder. Now they just annoyed him. But he had come to expect his father to argue his point, no matter what logic dictated.
But this time, he didn't.
"You're right," Gale said quietly. "I'm sorry. I've been working so hard, trying to restore this country–"
"This isn't just about the damn country and you know it," Johanna interrupted.
"No, it isn't," his voice was so soft Alder could barely hear. "I needed to redeem myself."
"Well, you've managed to alienate your son in the process," she spat.
"And you don't think that bothers me?" his rage was kindled and Alder prepared for another yelling match. "Johanna, the moment when I saw that boy for the first time was the most amazing moment of my life. Don't you understand? I needed to be the kind of man who he can be proud of."
"But you don't even understand what makes him proud!" she shouted. "You're too busy trying to bring Prim Everdeen back to life! But she's dead Gale. All those kids are gone but your family is still here. And you have done so much. Can't you even try move on? Aren't you happy with what you have? Or do you just want to make things different so she'll forgive you and you two can run away into the woods."
Gale said nothing, but even Alder had to admit that his what his mother had said had been a low blow.
"Alright, that was… unfair," she admitted much more softly. "I'm just saying that all these years, you've been here for me. And I've loved you. But you haven't been here for him because you're too busy trying to make up for something that's over and done with. You gotta decide what it is you really want, Gale. Because I can make it alone without anyone, but these kids sure as hell need someone, and if you're only gonna be half here, then I can do this better by myself."
The sound of her feet as they stomped up the stairs signaled his mother's retreat. Alder released a breath he hadn't even realized he'd been holding. Obviously, that wasn't a conversation he was supposed to overhear. He focused on the now-difficult task of finding a way out of the kitchen and back into his room without his dad noticing.
But there was no need.
"I'm guessing you heard all that, son?" the man in question was suddenly leaning against the entryway and looking at him with his calculating silvery eyes.
Ignoring the adrenaline that surged through his veins without his consent, Alder prepared himself to respond calmly. Thinking he could fool the instincts of an old hunter into not noticing a rather noisy young human was on the same floor in a moderately sized house had really been somewhat of an oversight.
"That would be a correct assumption," he said mildly. "But don't worry. I already knew you considered me abnormal and difficult. You've made it rather obvious."
His father nimbly stepped over the largest puddle of remaining molasses and crouched down to lift up the shelf.
"I do," at least he had the decency not to argue. "But that doesn't mean what you might think."
The boy forced the adrenaline surge back a second time, "I don't really concern myself with what it means."
"What it means is that I don't have a clue how to relate to you. But that's not your fault. It's mine."
Alder said nothing.
"You know about the war. What I did. What was lost. I'm guessing you even knew I was in love with Katniss Everdeen once, probably before you even heard all this. But I meant what I said. I haven't been doing this all these years because of her."
"Mom doesn't seem to agree."
"She says those sorts of things when she's angry. But she doesn't mean them. You're smart enough to know that by now."
He was, of course, right, but just like his mother was the only person for whom Alder was accustomed to feel love, his father was the only person who could regularly make him angry. The rest of the world might feel his general disdain, but anger required work, and they typically weren't worth it. So he simply glared at the man and for a time, neither of them said anything.
"I'm really proud of you, son. The way you took care of things. Makes me feel like if anything happened to me, that you'd take care of them."
"Our family is important to me," Alder began warily. "Maybe not in the way it's important to you, with feelings and emotions. But their existence in my life is necessary. If anything happened to any of them, I would not be the same afterwards."
Gale nodded, looking anywhere but at his son.
"I do include you within their number, Dad," he added quietly.
The hug he was swept into was bone-crushing and uncomfortable, but he endured it. In fact, he even smiled.
Just a little, though.
Perhaps confusing behavior wasn't always a bad thing.