Rating: Hard T (child abuse, language, disturbing themes, and harm to animals)
Characters/Pairings: Clove and family, Cato
Summary: Young Clove's experiences at District Two's Athletic and Personal Growth Center, or, as it is cynically called, the Career Farm.
Notes: I am obsessed with Career culture, and this fic began as an attempt to develop a cohesive curriculum that would produce the Tributes from Two that we see in canon (Clove, Cato, Brutus, Enobaria, etc). Other stories I've written will build on this one, but it can stand alone if you want it to. Also, I realized there was no Clove tag and I got sad, so I made one. Hope that's okay!
“How was class today, Clovey?”
That’s what her mother calls it. Class. Clove’s not sure why. It’s not anything like school, where you have to sit in desks and listen to a teacher talk about math and reading and stuff. They do a lot of games at the Center: exercise games, mostly, where you have to run obstacle courses as fast as you can and learn how to climb walls and ropes and poles and pretty much everything. They also play games like dodgeball and soccer, and they let you throw as hard as you want in dodgeball and there’s no rules where you can’t kick the other players in soccer like there are at school.
Sometimes they sit in groups and learn things from teachers. They learn all about the Capitol and the history of District Two and about the Hunger Games, but not like how the teachers at school say it. They learn how the kids who win do it. They learn the best things to do and how you should play once you go into the Arena. The teachers at the Center call it strategy. They also learn about what happens when you win and all the wonderful things you can do. They learn about the people from District Two who have won a Games and how much everyone loves them.
There are always teachers watching them in the Center, and not in the way that teachers watch you at school to make sure you’re behaving. Teachers here wear all black and watch you while you play and while you listen and learn. They watch when Clove throws the ball and makes a big boy two years older than her cry. They watch when Clove asks questions and they write down what she says. They carry clipboards everywhere, probably. They’re always, always writing.
But Clove’s favorite thing is the food. They get all the snacks they want at the Center, and they’re great snacks, things she’s never had before in her whole life. They pass around a big basket of something called protein bars, and Clove doesn’t know what protein is but she knows that it sits in her stomach in a wonderful, solid way like nothing else at home does. There’s fruit and vegetables – fresh, not dried, how do they do that? – and nuts and eggs and this magic powder that they put in your drink that you can’t taste but will make you strong, they say. Clove eats so much that she’s usually not hungry for dinner when she gets home. They always tell her that she’s allowed to eat as much as she wants.
“Great!” Clove says. “They gave me papaya juice!”
Clove has no idea what a ‘papaya’ is, but she knows that nothing in the whole world tastes better and that she’ll keep going back to the Center if it means she gets more.
“How was class today, Clovey?”
Today they tell her that she is doing a great job. Today they also send her parents test scores. That’s what her mother says, but Clove doesn’t remember taking a test. There aren’t any tests in Prep One, they assure her. She mostly just plays games and learns about strategy, though they are starting to do more organized exercises now on the blacktop with some of the kids who are ten or eleven and in the transition to Prep Two. Clove is still in the seven-to-nines, but when they exercise with the bigger kids, she can tell that she does more pushups than many of them, and she’s really good with the sit-ups. She hasn’t thought too hard about this before today, but winning is one thing that Clove likes even more than papaya juice.
Whatever test happened that she can’t remember taking, Clove must have done well on it because they tell her what a great job she’s doing and how she is one of the best kids in the seven-to-nines. But Clove doesn’t want to be just the best in the seven-to-nines. She wants to beat the tens-and-elevens, too, so today during exercise time she does pushups until her shoulders burn and tries really, really hard to beat the others, even the boys. She’s not sure how she does because it’s hard to do pushups and watch everyone at the same time, but she does see a teacher looking at her when they’re stretching and writing something on his black clipboard.
“I love it,” Clove says. “I can do more pushups than probably anyone.”
That night, when she’s supposed to be asleep, she sees her mother and father talking in the kitchen with Clove’s great test scores between them. They’re whispering intensely, and her father seems mad. He stabs the paper with his finger like it just spit in his face. Clove frowns. Maybe her test wasn’t as good as she’d thought. She’ll have to try harder.
“How was class today, Clovey?”
She’s in Transition now. That’s what they call the tens-and-elevens who are staying on to try and get into Prep Two, though they’re still really part of Prep One. Things are a little different at the Center for Transition kids. They have an extra hour after the seven-to-nines go home, and now that it’s winter, it’s usually dark when her mother comes to pick her up. They don’t play as many games anymore, though they still play sometimes. They start Survival Classes, which are held in a clearing in the woods about half a mile from the blacktop where they do group exercise. They don’t have to do anything in the woods by themselves yet, but their teacher says that they’ll have to if they get into Prep Two. She makes them lead the way back to the Center, and today they have to do it without following the path.
They also show Clove the Animal Locker, which is where they keep the small targets that the bigger kids practice with. They talk to Transition kids about killing a lot. If you want to keep going in the program, you have to get used to killing. Nobody can finish their first year of Prep Two without making their first kill, and they talk a lot about how the Games are hard in a lot of ways, and that’s why they do this, to be prepared for all the different kinds of ‘hard.’ There are rabbits and squirrels and chipmunks and lots of other things with thick fur coats and little, twitchy whiskers in the Animal Locker.
“Good,” she says. “I got picked for Leader at Survival Class again.”
“How was class today, Clovey?”
“Fine,” she says. I killed a squirrel today, she thinks.
Tess shows her. Clove isn’t supposed to talk to her now that Tess is twelve and in Prep Two, but she shows her on the exercise grounds before Clove goes home and before Tess goes to exercise. Tess steals it from the Animal Locker and breaks all its legs so it won’t be able to run, and she puts it down in the dirt behind the blacktop, right next to the fence that’s even taller than the biggest boys who are about to Graduate. They find a sharp rock under Tess’s supervision, and Tess shows her where to cut to make it squirm and squeal, and where to make it stop squirming. There’s a lot of blood. It’s hot in Clove’s hands, and a little bit gets on Tess’s cheek. It turns cold much faster than Clove thought it would. The body is also softer than she expects, fragile and breakable, and she can feel every little bone and wiry muscle under the pads of her fingers long after her mother picks her up from the Center and takes her home and asks, the same as always, how was class?
Probably her mother asks because she knows that if Clove gets into Prep Two, she won’t be allowed to talk about it anymore, and if she gets through her first year of that, she won’t be going home.
“Did it go okay?”
That’s all her mother says today. She is not allowed to ask “How was class today?”, and Clove hasn’t been ‘Clovey’ since last summer. She can ask questions that can be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but only if they do not contain details. It’s in the big book that Clove’s family has about the Center, and they signed something called a confidentiality agreement when Clove passed her Prep Two tests. This is a thick stack of papers with really small print that Clove can’t really understand. Clove has her own set of papers that she signed, and they are a little easier to read, but she doesn’t know what all the words mean, even so. Her teachers will answer her questions about it if she asks, but Clove doesn’t have many questions about that because it doesn’t seem very important.
“Yes,” Clove says, because it did.
The chipmunk is smaller than the squirrel, and she doesn’t have the luxury of Tess to break its legs for her first, but Clove is pretty fast, and she didn’t have a big problem catching it. They let them pick: hands or knife. Clove picks knife because she remembers the hot blood on Tess’s cheek and then quickly forces her brain to stop thinking about that. She does let her brain remember the places to cut that will stop the squealing quickly because it’s nails-on-a-chalkboard horrible and makes Clove grind her teeth and fight the urge to screw her eyes shut. The knife is much easier than the rock. Clove likes it.
They tell her that she did a great job, but they think she’s done it before.
“No,” Clove says. “Never.”
One of her teachers taps his clipboard and tells her to become a better liar for her next test with them, but they give her a little bonus because she’s the only one of her group who thought to lie. She passed, and that means this is her last week at home.
Her mother and father fight for a long, long time tonight, and this time it’s yelling, not whispering.
“How was class, Clovey?”
Clove tenses and feels herself readying to attack. There is no one here who should be saying that, and anyone who would needs to be reminded why they shouldn’t. She whirls around to face her opponent and stares straight into a thick collarbone and a wide column of neck. She takes an even breath and looks up into a model’s face that’s glistening a little with sweat, icy blue eyes, blond hair that hangs halfway into his eyes and is overdue for a trim – and an amused, decidedly annoying smirk.
“Not your business,” she says shortly, staring him down. He’s bigger than some of the kids about to Graduate even though Clove knows he can’t be much older than her if he’s on this hallway. His muscles are solid and well-defined; Clove can tell because she knows good muscles and body structure when she sees them even though he’s wearing a sweatshirt. He’s intimidating, sure, but Clove knows that there are all kinds of intimidating and that the bigger they are, the harder they fall. She holds the boy’s gaze evenly and is unimpressed.
“I’m Cato,” he says, and there’s a strange fascination in his tone. “You guzzle papaya juice and you’re good with the knife.”
“What’s it to you? You want one in your eyeball?”
“Fuck you in the ear.”
“I wasn’t planning on it.” Cato laughs heartily, and something in his expression makes Clove think of the seven-to-nines in Prep One discovering all the delicious food they can eat here and looking into the basket of protein bars in wonderment. “Fucking, not interested in. The knife, though, you can try. But good luck making that happen. There’s a reason why no one wants to fight me.”
“I haven’t noticed,” Clove says truthfully. She doesn’t care about anyone else at the Center unless they’re currently facing her down with orders to attack. They’re targets, just like her trainers say in Theory.
She hasn’t cared about anyone since Tess Graduated, and she never will again.
“You break my heart, really,” Cato says. He squares his shoulders defensively, and Clove sees straight through the sarcasm and into the genuine annoyance beneath at being ignored. “Clovey, you know, I like you, but you’re going to have to be taken down a peg, right now.”
“Do not call me that,” Clove says in what they call her ‘venom voice.’ The last time she used it, she made some uppity kid in Prep Two quit the program.
Cato pretends it doesn’t phase him. “Then what should I call you, midget?”
A muscle in Clove’s neck twitches. “Not that, either.”
“But it’s so fitting,” Cato says as he reaches down to tap the top of her head. “You’re so small. It’s funny.”
“Let’s go a round and see how funny you think it is,” Clove growls.
Raw energy flashes in Cato’s eyes, and Clove recognizes the excitement and anticipation of a battle and knows instantly that Cato is not just here for his size and his strength.
“I was hoping you’d say that.”