"Whatever, Cato couldn't even-"
"Yeah, right! As if he couldn't beat old Tawkey in a duel!" Spiret laughed, catching Cato's eye.
Cato simply stared at him, a smirk creeping up his face at the compliment. The other boys in their little group, who Cato wouldn't exactly call "friends", exchanged looks of doubt. Spiret, the only one he knew he could trust, both rolled their eyes, but he knew his interjection had lightened Cato's foul mood with his swordsmanship teacher.
Just then, Cato caught sight of Mr Tawkey, stumbling across the training grounds to the corner where they were talking. He straightened up, hoping Mr Tawkey wasn't going to follow up on his snide remark in class. Instead, his teacher's eye simply reflected a look of sadness, true sympathy. Something in Cato made him slam his teacher against the rotting wood fence, grabbing him by his neck.
"Why are you looking at me like that? Like you're supposed to feel sorry for me or something? What is it?!"
Cato was shaking him hard, clenching his grasp around his teacher's neck tighter. Everyone around him was backing away, except for Spiret, who was hissing in Cato's ear. Cato had no idea what he was doing, assaulting his teacher. He didn't know. What was running through his own mind, Cato had no clue. Only the glimpse of that girl – dark hair, short, with those eyes which he could fall into and never return from – only the sight of her cocking her head slightly at him made him jump out of his reverie. She didn't seem to horrified, more curious than anything. It sent a shiver down his spine.
Cato pushed himself away from Mr Tawkey. When he spoke, his voice was shaky, dripping with disgust. He managed to choke out only a few words:
"Stay the hell away."
Wordlessly, he spun round on his heels and walked straight out of the academy he had spent the past eight years at, training for a moment that would never happen – for the day he would either volunteer or get chosen at the reaping. He shook his head. As if that would even happen! It was only as turned into his father's stone mason's that he realised he was being followed. Turning, he flinched when he saw it was old Tawkey. Still, his eyes held that melancholic look of pure sympathy.
"What?" shouted Cato. "What do you have to say to me which makes you stare at me with that look of pity? Huh? Just say it."
Stammering, Mr Tawkey managed to choke out the words, "Your father's dead. A block of stone fell on him and shattered his skull." before he darted off, whimpering as the wind whispered in his wake.
Meanwhile, around him, Cato's world was falling. His father, who had always stayed strong and joked with him; taught him to sword fight from the moment he could hold a sword; had insisted he volunteer and gain glory for his district; the one who Cato had always lied to and said that he would next year, next time…his father, who he now would never be able to bring pride to. Cato backed away from the stone mason's, and stumbled back along the worn path into the empty park, trashed with bottles of alcohol and bits of stone crumbling from the cliff where miners worked all day. The place was always deserted, abandoned. Cato's stumble turned into a staggering run, blindly sprinting in a vague direction. When he came to the cliff at the edge of the park, he collapsed against it, thumping his head against it and swinging punches against it until his knuckles were bruised and bloody, letting out a string of curses. When at last, he could stand the pain no more and his throat was dry, he let loose a howl.
Her eyes blinked. Crouched behind a tree, he would never see her, and she certainly hoped not. After today, she had seen a new side to the boy who would so often reply snidely with snobbish remarks, who she had crushed on since her first day at the academy, but now felt like a complete stranger. Now she felt nothing but pity, and she resented herself for that. As she watched him howl, a shiver overtook her and she heard an almost animalistic howl of pain.
Something…longing? Overtook her, and she felt a desire to howl, as if that would help him share his pain. She gritted her teeth and reached for her the one thing which calmed her. The smooth carved handle of the dozen knives she constantly carried with her. For some reason, her eyes had glazed over with tears and she hated it. In an instant, she drew out a knife and flung it directly in front of her, aiming at the tree.
She missed. How did that happen? She never ever missed. She didn't have time to find a logical reason before Cato ducked to the side and roared, shrinking back with a hostile air, scanning the darkness which lay before him. Her grabbed the knife which had embedded itself where his head had been moments ago, and dragged it out, flinging it in Clove's direction. She could tell his aim was far from her accuracy, but it was still pretty close. As it whistled past her, she let out a whimper. Now it was her turn to react, as she turned and ran. She was no match for him. He caught up to her in a second and had pinned her to a tree. Gasping, she drew another of her knives. His face had blushed and turned away the moment her saw her eyes.
His pitiful request stirred something in her. Anger? She wasn't sure. Instead of leaving, she sent another knife whistling past his ear. As he turned in surprise, he saw he walking up to him.
"He meant a lot to you, didn't he?"
Something flashed briefly in his eyes. Clove hoped it wasn't anger, but he had grown hard for her to read.
This was why he had always thought she was different. Something about her attracted him to her, ever since that first day. Now, as the knife flashed dangerously in the moonlight, he was sure of it. He strode forward hesitantly, a clouded expression on his face. She reached forward, slipping her hand into his. His whole arm tensed up; every muscle and fibre stood out; blood rushed to his fingertips, where he swore he felt a spark as Clove's hand touched his. For a moment, he stood there awkwardly, before he snapped back to his senses and quickly pushed the knife back into Clove's palm, trying to discreetly wipe the sweat off his hand.
He hated the stutter which was coming out of his mouth. Why should he be nervous? He had no reason to be. He tried to force himself to relax, but his mouth has suddenly gone dry and seemed incapable of forming words.
"And you're Cato. Everyone knows you. Top fighter in Tawkey's class. But you always stare at me. Why? Even after you had that – thing – with Tawkey, you just stared at me." She moved closer to Cato, face a few inches from his. Her eyes seemed curious and probing. "Your heart beat certainly is picking up." She gave a light laugh. "It's alright, you can relax."
Cato gave a sad smile before walking away, before he embarrassed himself and started crying before her.
Clove shook her head and gave a sly smile. She wasn't sure what he thought of her, but she just hoped he didn't think she was just another stupid girl. God forbid if he thought that. God forbid if he thought she was just some shallow girl. She sighed before falling to the stump of a tree. Tomorrow was reaping day, and nobody knew, but she had signed up for tesserae many more times than she had needed to. It wasn't that she needed the extra supplies, but she liked to think that she might have saved someone else who would have been picked from dying a horrible death in the Games, and though she knew this was unlikely, what with her district being full of volunteers and victors, she liked to think so. It sounded completely ridiculous, but she just wanted to do something good for once, but she didn't know how. There wasn't much good you could do in a district known for bloodthirsty tributes. She planned to follow her mother's footsteps as a nurse anyway, she would never admit it, but she liked helping people. It felt good. But now, she regretting signing up for tesserae. Her name was in the reaping bowl at least one hundred times. She knew some people who had signed up many times for tesserae, hoping they would be picked and therefore get the right as tribute over volunteers, but she doubted anyone had as many slips of paper in there as her. But what if this was her last chance? Her last chance to see Cato? She didn't want it to end like that. A knot twisted in her stomach. This was not how she wanted it to end. She wanted him to notice her, and although she had tried so many times, she doubted she had made a lasting impression. After all these years, Cato only knew her as the girl with the knives. Probably thought she was weird. That explained why he always stared at her. No other reason was rational enough to make sense.
She murmured a silent whisper as she traced patterns in the soil.
"Hey Clove. Betcha can't hit Tawkey's horrid hat."
It was the first thing he had said to her. She remembered it, when they were just 8. A playful dare. A challenge. Of course she had done it. But it was a fond memory. His playful grin and sparkling eyes as he darted round the yard. Now he barely talked to her.