Rating: M (strong violence, language, kids killing people, harm to animals, child abuse, sensualization of a minor, disturbing themes)
Characters/Pairing: Clove, Cato, D2 OCs
Summary: One of the last tests every would-be District Two Volunteer must undergo is a mock Games. This is Clove's Field Exam.
Notes: It's not required to understand this fic, but the full explanation for my take on D2 Career training is here if you're interested. I've received a request to organize all my Career-fic into a master post, which I'll link to here as soon as I get it done to make things easier to follow. This fic was written pre-movie.
You see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push! -- The Joker
She doesn’t know what time it is when they come for her, only that it’s completely dark outside her small window when they haul her out of bed with rough hands jostling her shoulders and a gruff, “Up. Now.” She knew that it would be this week, but not what day. They never tell you what day. The surprise is part of the test, to see how you react when you don’t have time to prepare.
Clove’s expecting this and is moving before she’s fully registered the carpet beneath her feet, but the hand at her back pushes her toward the door when she doesn’t move fast enough for their liking. There’s three of them, one at each side and one behind her. They’ve got Peacekeeper helmets on, so she can’t see who it is or if she knows them. She doesn’t recognize the voices, anyway, but none of that matters as they march her down the hall in her standard-issue sleeping clothes with bare feet and a stun-gun at her back. She keeps her expression carefully neutral and stony. The mindgame has already started, and they’re being tested from the moment they wake up.
They take her into a little room she’s never seen before and order her to strip. She obeys without comment, and one of them starts work on her hair as soon as her soft t-shirt is over her head. Their hands are rough, and Clove is thankful that her hair doesn’t tend to knot itself while she sleeps because it hurts more than enough as he drags a brush through the tangles and begins yanking it into two tight braids. The second one applies a little makeup with an equally rough hand while the third one dresses her in the usual Center underwear, dark green pants, boots, and a black hooded jacket. Through all this, they call out commands to her to turn this way, look this way, mouth open, eyes closed, smile, stop smiling, head down. Again, she obeys in silence because that is the only acceptable response. Her scalp and skin are raw when they finally release her, but they only step away so the one with the gun can prep the tracker syringe. She waits for the command to offer the underside of her arm – not supposed to look too eager or like she knows the procedure – and the one with the gun efficiently finds the place between veins and injects her. Somewhere in a meeting room on the ground floor, a screen with her image has flickered on and will remain so until they pull her out of the forest. Dead or alive.
The one who did her hair hands the one with the gun a second syringe, and Clove knows what this one will do, too. This one goes in a vein. This one will knock her out in under ten seconds. This one will make it so her next conscious thought is in the middle of unfamiliar woods where she will spend the next three weeks fighting for her life, her test score, and her place on the Senior Trainee hallway.
She thinks of Cato as they sink the needle in.
She wakes up and the world’s on fire.
The smell of smoke invades her senses and starts a stabbing ache in her sinuses. There’s a terrible heat drenching her skin and a dull red glow behind her eyes that tells her it’s not all in her head, and she forces her eyes open. For a moment, blind panic grips her and she doesn’t know where she is, only that there’s a ring of flames around her, eating away at the trees and the underbrush. The fire pops and roars with its angry tendrils reaching for her, and a dead branch falls inches from her face to the brown leaves below her and she’s started a scream when she remembers.
She can’t stop the scream now and she can’t think, so she does the only thing that comes to her and intensifies it, sharpening the edges and raising the pitch until it doesn’t really sound like her. Then she lets her eyes go wide as dinner plates and plunges her body backwards, crawling away from the burning tree branch and the flames like an insane animal. She lets a sob escape her throat while she swings her head desperately for a way out – and she’s not surrounded, she realizes when she does this, there’s a hole in the ring of fire just behind her where the flames haven’t reached. She pulls herself to her feet and stumbles once and lets out another sob as she powers toward the opening to safety and keeps running. She runs awkwardly and frantically but keeps her usual speed, squeezing her eyes shut so she can barely see to jump the low hanging branches and dodge the trees. She keeps running until the crackling of the flames has vanished behind her. Probably they turned off the fire.
When she slows to a stumbling stop, she looks around with wide, vulnerable eyes on the sky, chest heaving. She looks over her shoulder once more, then collapses into a pile of sticks and leaves and begins to cry in earnest.
“I want to go home,” she sobs into the leaves. Little bits of them stick in her mouth. She slaps a palm against a thick branch and continues quietly, hopelessly, “Mommy, help me. Mommy, I want to go home.”
Clove hasn’t seen her ‘mommy’ in over two years and has no desire to go home.
It’s not the most obvious angle, and after making that mistake at the beginning she’s a little locked in with what she can do, but as she slobbers all over the pile of dirt she realizes that it’s a pretty good angle, actually. This is as much a test of their acting as it is of their survival skills, and all winter they’ve impressed upon her the idea that, in the Arena, acting is survival skills. So they like to see you play roles you’ve never played before. They like it when you show them something new. It’s not required, but it does make them look at you favorably during the evaluation. They want to know that you can tell all kinds of stories, that you aren’t limited to what’s true and can adapt based on what’s thrown at you.
When she sits up achingly slow and wraps her trembling arms around herself, she’s already got the beginnings of this story.
The backpack is dangling from an overhang a good forty feet in the air. The only way to get to it is by climbing a rough rope tethered to a root.
She’s very hungry and wants the supplies now, but the story is half her test and she spends a good ten minutes pacing, tugging at her hair, pretending to try other ways of reaching it. She grabs the rope and half-pulls herself up several times, cringing at its hard bristles and falling once. Then she takes a deep, solid breath, swipes at her eyes with the back of her hand and lets them sharpen with determination as her hand comes away.
Then she climbs.
It’s not an easy target even for her, and halfway up her well-calloused hands start to actually burn. The last five feet are murder, and the reach up for the pack, draped by its strap over a smaller root, takes all of what remains of her strength. She’s not sure if her scream of triumph when she gets the thing over her shoulder is real or not; already she’s losing the space between her true self and this unfortunate person trapped in the Game. She tries to descend steadily but goes down with a lot less grace than she’d intended and falls the last few feet. Her hands are scalded with blisters. She’s become acquainted with far too much fire today.
She wants to lie there forever, but she only gets a few minutes before a mob of screeching bat mutations descends upon her. When she forces herself up and running as her burned hands scream at her, she really feels like screaming.
Her pack contains a thin, hooded piece of pink waterproof plastic with space for her neck and arms, a box of Center protein bars, iodine, an empty water bottle, a hammer, a package of dehydrated beef, a chocolate chip cookie and two pairs of underwear. She will be in here for exactly three weeks.
It starts to rain as soon as she puts the items away again, as if showing her what the first is for. She finds a spot under an oddly-shaped rock with soft moss growing underneath, huddles under the strange raincoat blanket, and collects rainwater in the bottle as she nibbles the cookie and talks to an invisible mother she never had.
She’s inventing cousins for herself when the first Target appears. They’re faceless robots with crude features and no more detail than a typical Center dummy, and one of them ambushes her before her bottle is halfway full. She only spills a little of the water as she gets to her feet and drops her mouth open and starts to beg with this silent, inanimate thing with the blinking lights that will extinguish if she ‘kills’ it. They’re all different, but this one spits paintballs, she finds out as she narrowly misses one. Apparently her new friend is not interested in bargaining.
It gives her next to nothing to play off, and success here is just like all their other acting lessons: You have to stop seeing a hunk of tin with blinking lights and remember something that made you feel whatever dark, terrible reality you’re conjuring for the camera. You have to lose yourself. You have to forget that it isn’t real. You have to forget who you are underneath this strange new person in this strange new world.
The thing shoots another bead of green paint at her. It would do no damage outside of the mock Arena, but if that paint hits her in a vital spot, it’s game over because those are bullets and she’s dead. She thinks of failure and a lifetime without Cato and in that moment, she is afraid. In that moment, when this thing could take Cato from her with one stupid swipe of paint that would barely hurt, she hates it.
And so she gets angry, unhinged and hurt at the thing’s ignoring of her pleas and refusal to play nice, and when its accuracy improves as it gets a feel for her movements, she shrieks and puts an end to it with a hammer thrown directly at its imaginary skull. It goes down with a satisfying clang, and the light goes out. Her first kill. She makes a show of holding her breath, a shocked hand over her mouth, and she crawls toward the robot with her face screwed up in horror. But she lets her eyes hold a little bit of careful fascination as she looks up and over the ‘body’ at the camera lens she knows is watching. She holds the audience’s gaze for a tense moment. Then the spell is broken and she is the scared little girl again and scurries away from the thing, as if repulsed by the sight and by what she’s done.
Eleven years old and Tess puts the squirming little body in her fingers and says to dig the edge of the rock underneath its spindly little neck, the skin is thick, you gotta really scissor it –
She picks up the water bottle gingerly and sets her mouth in a tight line.
After this, Clove covers the pink raincoat with moss and mud. They send her a box of matches, and she is not attacked again that night.
She finds a pond at the end of the first week after the rain had dried up for days and her carefully-rationed water was long since gone, and she cries out relief as she runs to it. After purifying the water in her bottle and drinking enough to make herself sick, she looks at the pond and then down at her filthy clothes, considering. She looks over her shoulder, then spins in a full circle, searching for all the cameras that she knows are trained on her, gives them a doe-eyed “Who, me?” look and bites her lip. Then she pulls her shirt over her head, shoulders hunched as if trying to hide her body, though she makes sure to give the camera a good look as she removes the rest of her clothing and steps into the water. Skin is never a bad idea.
When she’s done washing, a parachute falls from the sky containing a loaf of bread and a large bowl of her favorite soup.
She kills a squirrel on the ninth day when the protein bars run out and her silver parachutes run dry. She cringes away from the blood and pets its matted, bloody fur and screws her eyes shut for a long time before she skins and cooks and eats it. She does not think of Tess.
She gives a name to herself, to this thing she’s becoming. Poor sweet little Nina, trapped in the Game. She never says it out loud.
She knows how long she’s been here by the small holes she’s been punching in the lid of the protein bar box. It’s fourteen days. That doesn’t feel right. It must be more. Maybe she’s counted wrong. Maybe they’ve forgotten her in here and she’ll age out of the Reaping in the woods alone with nothing but target robots for company.
Three robots attack her in the scarlet light of dawn, and the one that shoots arrows narrowly misses her face, but when she dodges that she gets a throwing star in the leg from another one. She lets out a scream that isn’t hers (and yet it is) and she thinks of cousins that she never had and will never see again and she thinks of Cato and the bloody sunrise blinds her and she can’t tell the difference.
She takes down the last of them, the one that threw the star, with a rock to the chest. It goes down but its life light is still blinking, and Clove knows what this means and she wants it, she wants it so bad as she stalks up to it with punctuated, staccato steps and kneels over its head. Her eyes hold so much blistering hate that it burns, her skin flushes with rage as she leans inches from its faceless face with the pointy tip of the hammer at its life light. And she threatens it with everything under the sun and screams out every profanity learned from eight years in the Center and she rattles its not-body and demands to know why it’s doing this to her. Why it’s left her here. Why she hurts so much and why her chest feels like there’s an open, gaping hole in the middle.
She doesn’t get the answer she wants, and of course she doesn’t because robots can’t talk but it makes her mad, anyway, and so she brings the hammer down over the life light, once, sharp and efficient with eyes of stone. And that doesn’t make her feel better so she keeps doing it, over and over as she feels the gaping hole inside of her congeal and freeze over, all the hot flush in her face sealing into cold, cold hate as she brings the hammer down over and over and over. The thing’s a smudged, filthy pile of gears and circuits and mud when she’s done with it, unrecognizable, and she leans away slowly, slowly and rises, stepping on its not-face as she walks away with her eyes glued to the camera.
Then she starts to laugh.
After, she’s sitting under a tree staring at the thing’s ruined body with her hands in her lap. After, she gets the parachute with the knives. After, she turns the beautiful leather package of them over in her hands and runs her fingers over them lovingly, like old friends returning after a long trip.
She selects one that has favorite-potential and runs her finger smoothly over the blade. Her eyes are tunnel-focused on it as if it’s the only thing in the world. It’s the whole world, sitting in front of her, that little silver blade making up all of the universe. It opens a cut and draws little beads of dark blood down her skin. She puts her finger in her mouth, drags a little extra blood over the corner of her lips on the way in, and smiles.
She’s been here for nineteen days or ninety thousand years, she’s not sure which. She’s stalking the robots now, her knives resting safely in her jacket and in her belt loop and in her hands. With every new discovery of a blinking life light, she starts laughing and cannot stop until long after she puts the light out. It’s scratchy and uneven and her throat is so sore.
She doesn’t know if she’s Nina or Clove anymore. She doesn’t know if it matters.
She remembers Cato.
It’s been raining for two days and you can see her ass through her torn pants, and the last target is a human – at least, she thinks it is. It’s standard procedure, back a thousand years ago when she lived in a place that had standard procedures, anyway. He seems just as real and just as fake as all her other targets, but he runs with an ungainly, effortful stride towards her with mad eyes that look just like the robots’ except robots don’t have eyes. That thought is hilarious and then the laughter’s started again, and his eyes flash with fear and recognition as he understands what she is and where she is and that he will never, never win.
She brings him down with a knife to the spleen and then carves him like a squirrel while he screams. He’s so pretty. She tastes some of his blood and laughs and laughs and laughs.
The rain picks up as the body in front of her soaks the leaves with blood, and she looks up to the sky and lets it pour into her eyes and her hair slips into her mouth and tastes like mud and snot and tears and she’s won, she did it, she’s going home and Nina’s going home and she used to be someone else once and she fists her hands in her matted hair and cries.
Someone is playing music. She recognizes it but can’t remember it. It has something to do with her cousins, or with Cato, or with Nina or with knives. It’s a nice song, though. It reminds her of order and safety and things she used to remember.
After the song, a voice in the sky says, deep and calm, “And that’s time. High pass. Stay where you are and we’ll get you out in ten minutes.”
She stays where she is. The rain pours down on her and it’s cold and quiet again. She has the body for company until a ladder stretches down from the sky.
Later, Clove doesn't remember most of this. Her first clear memory is papaya juice in her mouth and the bed she now sleeps in every night and someone's hands, Cato's hands on her back, and looking down at her wrist to a silver bead.