Disclaimer: I do not own the Hunger Games.
Another week of training, another Friday. It was suppertime, and most of the kids were already packing up to go home for the weekend.
Cato, Alix, Clove and Dyan were huddled around their usual table, eating the specialty usually reserved for Friday nights: a nice hot bowl of rice porridge with mystery meat and chives and a serving of fresh rolls.
"So what do you think the meat is this time?" Clove challenged, nudging Alix with her hip as they went to get a second serving. Dyan made it through three before he announced he was stuffed, but Cato was still able to scarf around four.
Alix shrugged, laughing as she looked over her shoulder back at their table. Dyan and Cato were slumped backward, rubbing their bellies with satisfied smiles on their faces. "Oh, I don't know. Beef, probably."
"Yeah, I think so too," Clove said, ladling out some more porridge into her bowl. "It has that chewy quality about it that beef has."
"Well, as long as the rolls are fresh," Alix said, sniffing the warm roll in her hand, before setting it down on her tray next to two other rolls. "I couldn't care less."
They sauntered back to their table, taking their places between the two boys. They proceeded to gulp down their meal, enjoying it thoroughly.
"That was delicious," Cato sighed, smiling at Alix. She stuffed a spoonful into her mouth, feeling the nice, goopy texture of the porridge slide down her throat. "Of course, I know you prefer the rolls more."
"Well, I disagree," Clove smirked, emptying the contents of her bowl. "By far, the porridge is the best."
"No, it's the rolls," Alix said, shaking her head, stuffing a half-roll into her mouth, then swallowing it down. "There's something so sweet about them that so good."
"Bah, it's your opinion," Clove shrugged, pushing her tray away. "I'm full, but I do want to dig into more of that porridge."
"And wait for yourself to explode," Dyan commented dryly, before smiling at her. He looked at his sister, then asked, "Are you going home this week? Mom and Dad really want to see you. They told me last time I visited."
Alix polished off another roll. "I don't know," she admitted, running her fingers through her ponytail. She shared a look with Cato, whose eyes were sort of sad.
"C'mon, it's just for the weekend," Clove said. "Your parents barely get to see you. It's just two days, then you'll be back here in no time."
Alix stared at Cato concernedly. "Are you going home?"
Cato's blue eyes grew hard. "Who cares?" he said dismissively, an edge to his voice.
"Your parents," Clove said sarcastically, but Cato cut her off.
"My parents don't care whether or not I go home," he snapped. The moment he did, a tension hung over the table, like it always did when Cato was angry. "They probably want me to stay here than go home."
"Your mom might want to see you," Dyan said carefully.
"Yeah, but Dad wouldn't be too thrilled," he said unfeelingly. "He'd wonder why I went home rather than focus on training. I don't care. I'd rather train than go home."
"Then do it for your sister," Alix said finally, her voice gentle. "C'mon, Cato. The Games will be in three weeks, and you haven't seen your sister in - what? A month?"
Cato's jaw clenched. Alix knew he loved his little sister more than anyone in the family, and she might be the only reason for him to go home. He wouldn't do it for anyone else.
"C'mon, Cato," Alix repeated. "I'll go home too. My house is right in front of yours if you need me. Your sister misses you, I'm sure of it, and you miss her too. Please, Cato." She met his eyes, and for a second, something other than callosity and cynicism was in them, something...soft. "Let's go home."
Finally, Cato relented. "Fine," he huffed, and the tension around the table lifted. "I'll go home. But only because you forced me to."
"You'll be fine, Cato," Clove said, as Dyan gathered up their empty trays and took them to the dishwasher. She looped her arm through his, saying in a teasing manner, "Alix will make sure of that."
Cato rolled his eyes. "I don't need Alix to protect me," he said, extricating his arm from Clove's grip. "I can take care of myself."
"Sure you can," Clove said sarcastically, smirking widely at him.
"I am right here," Alix said irritably, taking her place between the two, with Dyan catching up to Clove. "Stop talking about me, will you?"
"Well, we weren't talking about you, per se," Clove said a little too innocently. "I was just telling Cato he needs you."
Alix blushed, and Cato growled. "I don't need anybody," he said defensively. "I do well on my own, okay?"
"Enough with the callous exterior, Cato," Clove said snootily. "We all see how much you enjoy Alix's company. Don't tell me you'll deny that, too."
Cato looked at Alix, who was watching him expectantly. He recognized the expression on her face - something like a mix of caution and pain - and she usually used it when she knew she was about to receive a painful blow during a sparring session.
"Let's just go pack up," he said dismissively, brushing the issue off gruffly. He strode forward, avoiding the others.
Clove shared a look with Alix, who gave her a small, sad smile.
What Cato said - or rather, didn't want to say - affected her a lot.
She knew Cato didn't like talking about feelings, and he usually did his best to hide anything that wasn't happiness, relief, violence or anger. The only time he ever showed anything other than that was when he was overly infatuated with a girl named Kyra, back when they were fourteen.
That was the first time he'd expressed obsession, and he unconsciously drove Alix away because of it. He refused to acknowledge her presence, and they fought over the smallest things. When one of them got fed up, they would stop talking and just go to bed, not facing the other out of anger.
He discovered after a month of dating Kyra that she was only after physical intimacy, a prospect that Cato didn't entertain and was horrified to entertain. He eventually distanced himself from her, but not before he had an all-out rampage of curses and threats because of feeling used.
He quickly returned to his former self, the one that only ever focused on training, winning, and just hanging out with friends, and his friendship with Alix was renewed.
She thought it grew stronger because of it, even though sometimes she wished it never happened, because Alix couldn't stand the sight of Kyra's silky, wavy blonde hair and curvy body all over Cato.
Things went back to normal. She and Cato were best friends, and they trained together, like they always had. He assumed his violent, strong and assertive personality, the one Alix loved, and they pretended everything that concerned Kyra never happened.
Of course, that just meant that, once again, sadness was not a part of Cato's vocabulary.
And neither, apparently, was love.
Alix sighed. She loved Cato's tough exterior, because it made him seem intimidating, confident and strong. But she also wanted that part of him that broke down under weighty circumstances, the one she used to comfort, to reassure.
Now, it seemed, he was trying to carry all his feelings on his shoulders.
"Don't worry about him," Clove said, interrupting her thoughts. "He's just confused. You know how he is when the Games are nearing."
Alix tried to muster a smile. "I know."
Clove tilted her head, looking at Alix quizzically. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," she lied. She looked at Clove, trying to mask her distress by beaming at her, but somehow with the look in Clove's eyes she knew she wasn't convincing.
Soon, Clove parted ways with them again, headed for her room on the fifth floor. Dyan bid them goodbye when they reached the sixth, leaving Alix alone with Cato.
There was a tension between them that was new to her. She didn't recognize it, and she couldn't explain why it was there. Maybe it was because he looked so angry and spiteful.
They didn't speak until they reached the eighth floor. They were both quiet until they reached the room, and Cato murmured to her, "Do you have the key?"
Alix blinked at him, them fumbled in her pockets for the room key. She handed it to him, her fingers brushing against his skin. His eyes flickered to her for a second, before he popped the key into the lock and opened the door.
When he handed the key back to her, she felt his hand close around hers for the longest second. Then he went in, as if nothing occurred.
She clutched the key in her hand, and, taking a deep breath, went in after him. She closed the door behind her, and silence enveloped them once again.
"Cato, listen - " Alix began, but Cato cut her off, holding his hand up to stop her.
"No, Alix, you listen," he said, his voice firm, but there was something in it that made Alix realize he wasn't going to lash out at her. "About what happened a while ago. I'm sorry. I wasn't - I mean, I didn't know what to say. I didn't mean to, you know, seem so callous or rash or something. You're supposed to be my best friend. I'm supposed to be able to tell you everything."
"We're best friends," Alix affirmed carefully. "But you're not supposed to feel obliged to do anything for me. That's not how friendship works, Cato. It's not some sort of give and take relationship." She looked up at him, meeting his eyes, then quickly looked down. "I choose to give and give and give, even if you don't give me anything in return."
"But that doesn't feel right," Cato told her. He ran his hand through his hair. "Thanks a lot. Now I feel like I'm taking advantage of you."
She gave a shaky laugh. "Don't," she told him. "You're not. I like doing that. I'm your friend, and I like just giving and giving to you."
"But I don't like taking and taking from you," he said, and there was a slight bitterness in his tone that he couldn't mask even if he tried.
"Then you try to give to me," she said simply, but he shook his head.
He looked at her, and stepped closer to her. "I don't know what I can give you that's worth anything you give me," he admitted. "You've done so much for me, and I'm not doing enough for you."
"Just being my best friend is enough for me, Cato," she said. "Don't try too hard."
She bit her lip. Honestly, she really wasn't sure about that last comment.
She wasn't sure if them being friends was enough for her at all.
Sure, she loved the way they were now - light, carefree - but somehow a part of her felt that that wasn't enough anymore. That she wanted, maybe even expected, more from Cato than just friendship.
But she also knew that deep down, Cato wasn't capable of that. She didn't like that circumstances were the reason Cato was how he was - cynical and how he wanted nothing to do with love. He thought feelings were a weakness, and the only feelings worth feeling was triumph, violence and anger.
And she was stupid enough to love him still. She wondered why she did. Maybe she felt that he needed her to help him get through things, and she needed to help him realize feelings were never a bad thing.
She pushed the negative, depressing thought from her mind, then chuckled. "You might end up hurting yourself."
Cato's lips twitched, and he smiled. "Me? Get hurt? As if," he told her, and slowly, the pressure that was weighing both of them down lifted, and they felt lighter. "I'm Cato. I never get hurt."
Alix laughed, and Cato took that as some sort of cue. "We're best friends," he said softly, raising his eyes to look into hers. "You?"
She waited for him to raise his fist, but he didn't. She was confused for a while, before she realized that Cato wasn't trying to joke around. He was really, sincerely asking her a serious question. If they were best friends, and if they always will be.
She smiled softly, and her head nodded slightly. "And me," she completed.
There was something in Cato's eyes that was different, but she didn't understand what it was. Finally, he said, "C'mon. Let's start packing. We're going," he mock-winced, "Home."
Alix and Cato stood side by side on the road in front of their houses, and she could sense the reluctance that Cato was trying to hide.
Their houses looked somewhat alike; medium-sized and shabby-looking, painted white but looked worn as time passed. But since Cato had better living conditions since his father had a better job, his house was slightly bigger than Alix's, and he had a front porch. Their roof was also extended, so it was easy for them to climb on it without worrying that the roof will come crashing down.
Alix remembered how when they still lived with their parents she and Cato would climb up on the roof and just sit there, watching the sun disappear behind the mountains, sharing the rolls her mother gave them despite the fact that they could barely afford enough rolls for the family.
Smoke was drifting upward from the chimney of Alix's house, and it looked warm and cozy from the outside, whereas Cato's looked cold, the only light on being the one from the kitchen, where his mother was making supper.
"I can't believe you talked me into doing this," he muttered under his breath, and Alix smiled sympathetically.
"You'll be fine, Cato," she told him, placing a hand on his shoulder. He impulsively reached up to catch it, but caught himself instead, and lowered his hand.
The gesture was not missed by Alix. Her eyes flickered to his hand, and she reluctantly withdrew hers, placing it tentatively on her side.
He turned to face her, and sighed. "Well," he shrugged, his head cocking to the direction of his house, "See you."
Alix smiled at him. "You'll be alright," she said. "It's just two days. Okay?"
He chuckled, shaking his head. "Okay," he told her, walking toward his house. "Bye," he called out, raising his hand to wave at her.
"Bye!" she said cheerfully, waving back, before taking off to the other side of the road. He lingered long enough to watch her knock, and her parents opened the door for her. He felt a pang of jealousy as her father embraced her tightly, and he swore he could make out the words 'my little girl' coming from her father's lips.
Her brother was right behind her parents, already home. He'd left the Academy a couple of hours earlier than they did, and yet he was still in his Academy clothes.
Cato gritted his teeth, then told himself, "Here goes nothing," before raising his hand to knock.
It was several seconds before the door burst open, his mother and sister waiting behind it.
"Cato!" the little girl yelled, launching herself in Cato's arms.
He tried to suppress a laugh, but he failed. "Hey there, kiddo," he said, carrying her up in his arms. "God, you've gotten heavier," he jokingly winced, and she giggled.
His mother had that worn look on her face from the day's work, but she was still happy to see him. She gave him a peck on his cheek. "Cato."
"Hi, Mom," Cato smiled, setting his sister down. He leaned in to embrace her. "How are things?"
"Well enough," she said, wiping her hands on a kitchen towel. "But look at you. You're getting thinner; have you been eating?"
"Mom," Cato groaned, "How on earth can I be getting thinner, I eat, like, fifteen servings a day - "
"I swear you're getting thinner," his mother said, with a tsk. "Come on, wash up so we can have supper. I was making your sister's favorite soup, I hadn't realized you'd be coming. It's been so long."
Cato immediately felt guilty, but he shook the feeling away almost as quickly as he felt it. "Yeah, well, I've been training hard," he said dismissively. He looked around, then asked, "Where's Dad?"
His mother's lips scrunched up, and she briefly shrugged. "He's out late working," she told him. "You know how bad things are right now with the mining accidents recently. He's trying to work extra hard for income."
Cato tried to stop himself from responding impulsively, but he couldn't help himself, so he just rolled his eyes. His mother saw it, but she reconsidered telling him off.
Cato dumped his sword and bag on the couch, and his mother headed for the kitchen. He heard water running and pots being scrubbed, and his sister resumed her place on their small coffee table, coloring.
Deciding he had nothing better to do, he followed his mother, grabbed a dishcloth and helped her dry the plates.
"So how's school?" she asked, handing him a plate to dry.
"Oh, fine," Cato shrugged. "Still the top of the class. We had demonstrations last Monday. Apparently it was to show the class what 'real victors' were supposed to be like."
"Really?" she said, and he could see her lips pressing together in a smile. "And who demonstrated?"
Cato made a sound, and his lips twitched into a smirk. "Me, of course," he said, and there was that tone of pride in his voice. "Alix was my partner. She was pretty good, but in the end, I won." He didn't add that she had that knife against his throat, because somehow that made him feel like a weakling.
"Ah," his mother said, and her smile turned smug. "How is Alix? Did she go home, too?"
"Yeah, she came with me," he said, putting the plates back in the cabinet. "She's fine. Same as always."
"Mm" was his mother's reply. "Nothing new? No fights, no nothing?"
Cato wondered where his mother was going with this. Carefully, he answered, "No. Nothing new."
His mother was silent for a while, and she just kept handing him things to dry. Finally she said, "You know Dyan comes here and visits when he's home."
"Really?" Cato said, setting aside some bowls for supper. Well, he'd already had supper, but he was hungry, so he might as well eat.
"Yes. He keeps us updated with you and his sister," she said, "and what goes on in the Academy."
"I suppose Dad's not really that thrilled that all I do is train?" Cato muttered. "I bet he's expecting more from me."
His mother stared at him for a brief second, before resuming her work. "Your father is thrilled that you're doing so well," she said cautiously, and Cato had a feeling she was leaving some major details out.
"But?" he asked, and he could already feel some anger bubbling up.
She sighed, handing him the kitchen knife. "But nothing, Cato," she smiled tiredly. "Nothing. Your father is nothing but thrilled."
"Hmph" was all Cato could say. He rubbed the knife a little too brashly with the cloth, and he could feel it making small cuts on his skin.
"Be careful with that knife, will you, Cato?" his mother snapped, grabbing the knife out of his hand before he could do further damage. "Sometimes I don't trust you enough to handle the blades."
"I handle blades all the time in school," he mumbled.
"Wash up," she ordered, waving him out of the kitchen, "And help your sister. I'll set the table so we can eat."
Cato mumbled under his breath again, feeling himself get shoved out of the kitchen. He sighed, and told his little sister, "C'mon, kiddo. Mom says we've got to wash up now."
"Wait," she said, tilting her head as she colored. Cato walked over to her, kneeling down so he could see what she was doing.
She was coloring a picture of a house, and she was busy with making the roof green.
"Is that our house?" he asked her, and she shook her head.
"No," she said simply. "It's just a house. Our house doesn't have a green roof. Ours is black."
"Well, how about I help you color it so we can wash up like Mom told us?" he said. "I'm faster."
She giggled. "No, no, no," she told him. "I want to color."
"Well, hurry it up, kiddo, or Mom'll get angry," he said, ruffling the top of her blonde hair.
He sat down next to her, watching her color. It was amazing how she found doing this so interesting, and he wondered how she could be so happy. Then again, she was five, and she wasn't aware of how hard it was being older.
Somehow, he was envious of everyone. How could they be so happy? What made them so happy? Surely, they couldn't all be victors. They weren't all successful and skilled like he was. Look at his sister. The only thing she knew how to do was draw and color, and yet it made her so happy.
And Cato wondered, why?
Suddenly, the door opened, and Cato got to his feet. His shoulders tensed, and he met the eyes of the large, muscular man standing in the doorway.
The man's jaw clenched, and he looked like he wasn't happy to see Cato.
"Ah," he said in a gruff voice, his eyes narrowing. "You're home."
Cato swallowed, his teeth gritting together involuntarily as he said, "Hi, Dad."
A/N: Please leave a review! It would be really appreciated and it would totally make my day! ^^