Characters/Pairings: Cato and family
Summary: Young Cato and his grandfather talk about life, death and the Capitol.
Notes: My name is Katie, and I love District Two. I'm working on another story in a similar vein about young Clove, but for now I thought I'd post this one. First time writing young Cato.
A month before his seventh birthday, Cato sees the Justice Building for the first time. His family lives in a very big house surrounded by lots of very tall trees in what his mother calls the “middle-of-nowhere” part of District Two, but his grandfather lives near the Justice Building. They travel to visit him once, on Reformation Day, and they have to take two different trains and Cato has to sit very still for hours and hours in their little compartment. He hates that. He’s no good at sitting still.
He doesn’t like the middle of District Two much, either, because it’s crowded and closed in and there’s nowhere to run and no trees to climb and he has to hold tight to his father’s hand because there are too many people and he could get lost. Cato hates that, too. He’s not a baby. He’s going to start Training when he turns seven, he argues, and Cato doesn’t really know what Training is, but his parents always say it in big, serious capital letters like that, so it’s got to be important and grown up and the opposite of baby. His father says that they’ll “train that mouth out of him” – whatever that means – when he starts Training and grips Cato’s wrist as they walk through the crowd. His mother gets a strange look in her eyes and says, no, they won’t.
Cato’s grandfather has leathery-strong skin and the oldest eyes he’s ever seen, and he walks straight and solid, not like the other old people in Cato’s town. He walks like he owns the city. He tells Cato that Training taught him that. It taught him that there was an easy way and a hard way, and to always choose the hard way. One day, he takes Cato downtown right into the center of the District and buys him sherbet and lets him get lost in a clothing store and find his own way out.
His grandfather loves to talk about Training. He has so many stories that Cato wonders where he fits them all inside his head. He’s not forgetful like other old people Cato knows. He’s not crazy like Ms. Rosie down the mountain with her pet ferrets – Cato’s mother won’t let him visit Ms. Rosie because she says she is crazy and has “ideas,” but she’s always seemed kind of fun to Cato. But even Ms. Rosie moves very slowly and has a distant look in her eyes and looks fragile like a little bird. His grandfather is not like that. He still moves more slowly than the other grown-ups, and his fingers tremble sometimes, but there’s a fire in his eyes that looks just like their Tributes on TV each year, and when Cato looks at him it’s like Games Month has come again and looked him in the face.
“I made it all the way to the end, you know,” he says. He says that a lot, even though Cato heard him the first time. Maybe it’s one of the few “crazy” things he does. “They were just getting started with the program, so it wasn’t as organized as it is now. It wasn’t as safe. Some kids died training – you won’t, don’t worry. But it was down to me and Briggs, and they picked Briggs.”
“Do you wish they’d picked you?” Cato asks from across the bench.
“Sometimes,” his grandfather says. His eyes are somewhere else as he stares at the buildings across the square that make Cato feel very, very small. “But they picked the right person. That’s a nice thing about it: you always know they picked right. Whatever happens was meant to happen. It wasn’t my time, but I have had a wonderful life because of them. I wouldn’t change it. You’ll look back and feel the same.”
Cato swings his legs on the bench, and they barely scrape the dirt. His grandfather’s shoes rest easily on the ground. He wants desperately to be big already. To have those fire-eyes from the TV.
“Daddy says they’re going to train my mouth out of me. I don’t think I want to lose my mouth. How will I eat?”
His grandfather laughs, bright and alive. “Don’t you worry about that. Your father says a lot of things about things he doesn’t know about. You and I, we’re going to share something he can never understand. Lucetta – your mother qualified, but she didn’t want to go, so we didn’t push her. Your father – ” He wrinkles his nose a big, like he smelled something gross. “Your father can never understand. Don’t forget that.”
“I won’t,” Cato promises, though he’s not sure what it means.
“I want to show you something, Cato. It’s very important. You see that place?” His grandfather points across the square with a finger that doesn’t tremble, to the great white building in the center that looks like it’s tall enough to tickle the clouds. It’s strong and solid like his grandfather and like the Tributes on TV.
Cato nods. Oh, he sees it.
“That’s the Justice Building. That’s the place you go if you make it all the way to – what do they call it now? Graduation? Silly name, those kids – if you make it, that’s where you get to go. You go up on that stage – they make it bigger for the ceremony – and this square is packed full of kids and their families, watching. More people than you’ve ever seen in your life. And do you know who they’ll all want to see?”
Cato’s pretty sure he knows, but he asks anyway, “Who?”
“You. This is something you must always remember when you go to train. You must never forget why you’re doing it. All those people will be watching you because you’ll be their example of how to live in this country, and how to serve it. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we live and why we have a Hunger Games to begin with. There is no greater honor in the world than to stand on that stage, Cato. There is no greater service to Panem. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
“I think so,” Cato says. “So I’m gonna be a hero?”
His grandfather smiles. “Yes, but the Capitol was your hero first. Remember that, too. They’re going to be the reason you get to stand on that stage. They’re the reason any of us gets to stand at all. There is no greater joy than to give back what’s been given to you.”
“What if you die?” Cato whispers. He knows that a lot of Tributes die in the Hunger Games. Even though he thinks it’s probably wrong, he’s a little bit glad that his grandfather didn’t.
“Impossible,” his grandfather says. His voice is hard and strong. “You can never die serving the Capitol because you will live on in those you inspire. Even in death, there is no greater honor than to die defending them. Think about the things in your life that you love. They’re the ones who gave you those things. Your job is to show everyone else how to repay them properly.”
“So this is how you live forever?”
“In a way, yes. It’s certainly the closest thing to immortality I’ve been able to find. Ah, these are such hard things to learn at your age. But I know you’re going to learn them well. Just remember every time you take a breath that the Capitol is the reason you have air in your lungs. Your strength comes from them. That’s really all that matters, when it comes down to it. The rest will follow.”
Cato’s quiet for a few moments. He can’t take his eyes off the brilliant building in front of him as it sparkles in the afternoon sunlight, calling to him, it seems like. He imagines a roaring crowd and a sea of people and is sure he can feel the strength of the Capitol in his blood like the anthem they say every morning in school. He finally understands what that means, he thinks. They’re the reason he will stand on that stage. They’re the reason he stands and walks and runs and smiles and lives. They’re everything that’s good about life, climbing the big tree by the river all the way to the top and getting to stay up after dinner and the chocolate bar he gets on his birthday every year, all sewn together like one of his mother’s quilts. Cato loves them. He knows that as much as he’s ever loved anything. And when he gets to that stage, he will thank them for giving him something that’s better than every joy he knows.
“Do you promise you will remember that?” his grandfather asks, and then the spell is broken and it’s just his grandfather beside him, not all of District Two and the Capitol.
“Yes,” Cato says, and he’s sure he’s never meant anything harder than he means this.