Characters/Pairing: None explicit; you can draw your own conclusions. As for characters, I think it reads better if the five subjects of the story are a surprise, but you can find some of them in the tags below.
Rating: T (language, violence, child abuse, minors doing disturbing things, minors using alcohol, brief implied harm to animals and underage sex)
Summary: A few untold stories of the 74th Hunger Games. We saw what it was like for Katniss and Peeta, but how did everyone else prepare for the world’s most dangerous game?
Notes: You guys were so nice in my last post here, so I decided to post a little more! I've got a massive cesspool of headcanon on several of the minor Tributes, and since a lot of it begins with this fic, I'm starting with it.
“I need water.”
Her lungs are on fire. She can’t breathe, but she gasps anyway, starting a new not-breath before the first one even ends. The crunchy leaves beneath her boots swirl together as light and sound and color lose meaning. She’s a great runner: she has long legs and a strong build, and she holds a few records at school, but nothing can prepare her for two hours over uneven terrain that can change at her trainers’ whims, frigid air in her lungs and that voice in her ear constantly shouting impossible demands. Water. All she wants is water, and then she can keep going.
“Then find it,” her headset spits out over raspy static.
Find it. That’s hilarious. He can make all the water disappear if he wants. Blood pounds between her ears and her heart races under paper-thin flesh. Sweat runs into her vacant eyes, and her mouth hangs open as she forces her body to keep moving.
“Pretty face, Glimmer.”
The idea that she could think about being pretty at a time like this is so hilarious that a sob catches in her throat. She’s covered in sweat and blood and snot and sticky dirt, and he wants her to be pretty. It’s that one card placed on the tower that makes the whole thing crumble. Glimmer tries to rearrange her face into something more attractive while keeping her pace, but it isn’t enough. Or anything, if her trainer’s derisive cackle can be believed.
“Is that what you call pretty? That ain’t pretty, angel face. That’s ‘I-just-stepped-in-cow-shit’.”
“I can’t do this,” she wheezes as she collapses into a puddle and mud sprays her eyes. Her knees protest, but she doesn’t care. She can hardly feel it anymore. Maybe she can drink this mud. She’s thirsty enough to try.
“Fine. I can replace you in an hour with a dozen more who can. Get up.”
Glimmer stares up into the artificial sky challengingly and lets the blood pound in her ears for another second while she thinks about every other day she’s hauled her body through this. About all the reasons why she’s doing it. What she would have endured for nothing if she doesn’t get up. What it would mean to stay in this mud puddle for one more millisecond.
“Better on the face. There’s a stream about five hundred yards to your left. Oh, and Glimmer?”
“What,” she huffs. It’s not the musical, alluring voice they’ve cultivated in her speaking lessons, but it will have to do. And anyway, they’ve always said a little roughness is okay in the arena. Apparently the snot was too much though, she thinks as she wipes her mouth and nose.
“Run. The arena just caught fire.”
Well, isn’t that nice.
That’s all it takes to break Marvel out of the stupor of a fifth illegally-obtained beer. “What? How?” he demands. His voice is very sluggish with effort not to slur. He’s not sure what day it is or when was the last time he ate, and he hasn’t been outside for at least that long, but he knows who Sterling is and what this means. No amount of ale could make him forget. He hopes he doesn’t sound drunk.
“That’s not your damn business, but head injury,” the phone says. “You know he could never handle the spears like you can. Turns out he can’t handle when they get thrown back. We want you here in five hours. If you can’t do that, speak now.”
Thoughts and hopes and fears and fuzzy drunkenness swirl around him, but he forces himself out of the welcoming stupor with the same effort that got him through basic training. “Yeah. Yeah, I can do that,” he grunts. He slides up the wall to a standing position with his full weight on his left shoulder, eyes half closed. He’s gotta find clothes. Where are his clothes?
“Good,” says the phone. “You know I’m not happy about this. But you’re next in line. Get your ass down here and prove me wrong.”
Marvel cradles his ear against the phone and the phone against the wall and remembers. He spent six years trying to do that but only proved them right. He was too slow, never the runner that Glimmer was. Not as strong as the others that made final training. Barely acceptable in looks and in the PT tests. Especially the pushups. Fucking pushups. He can throw a spear, but that’s it. Glimmer’s hotter than the surface of the sun and better with the short-range weapons, and she’d been picked a year ago.
He remembers a lifetime or a week or however hell long ago it was when they picked Sterling. And that was it. Everything he’d been since he was eleven years old, down the fucking toilet. Second place. Not good enough. Second place means loser, just like second place means dead in the Games. His girlfriend placating him, saying it’s okay, this means they can be together, that the Games won’t take him like they took her cousin. Going home and his uncle refusing to look at him.
Sterling’s got the shoulders and the power, and he must have wanted it more. That’s the only way anyone gets picked. They want it so badly they’ll claw anyone’s eyes out who tries to take it, including their trainers’. That’s how the trainers know they have what it takes to win in the real deal. Of all his failures, that’s what Marvel thinks lost him the title. He doesn’t have that ruthless edge they look for, that desperate, half-crazy need. Marvel’s never killed anyone. He thinks he can, but he never got a chance to show them. And when he found out he never would, he’d holed himself up in his tiny Training Compound apartment and swallowed down bottle after bottle until his mind was as fucked up as the rest of his life.
But Sterling had the shoulders and the power. He had the edge. Not anymore. Sterling’s dead.
“And sober up,” the phone demands, too loudly, in that tone of the third or fourth repetition of a command.
“Will do,” Marvel says. He doesn’t so much hang up as allow the phone to slither to the floor.
Won’t Glimmer be surprised.
Clove’s fourteen when she kills a human for the first time.
It’s not quite like animals. That’s much easier. She killed her first, a squirrel, when she was ten. Her first official animal came when she was twelve, but Clove already knew how and lied when they asked if she’d done it before. They called her bluff but praised her for the deception. That’s how you succeed. You don’t give your enemy more information than it needs to hang itself. They need to be scared of you, but they don’t need all your secrets.
Clove’s not sure if the trainers are her enemies or not, but they’re good practice, anyway.
The human is bigger, but not as fast. It bleeds more than the birds and the squirrels and the dogs. Humans can be complicated because they’re smarter and they can make words, but they’re loud and clumsy and soft against Clove’s knives. Their screams are bad, but not as bad as the squirrels. Human. Not ‘person.’ They train you not to call the target practice that. That’s how you stay alive in the Games; you don’t think of them as people. They’re human targets. After she does it, Cato finds her that night in the lounge. They don’t talk much, but he knows. He’s a year older; he did this last summer.
It’s two summers after that day, now, and they don’t kill much this year. This year is about growth and strength and camera prep. Clove doesn’t get half the shots and pills they’re giving Cato because it doesn’t look so great on camera for a girl to be as big as a wall, but they want Cato to be huge. She hits the weight room instead with her carefully mapped-out regimen of exercises designed to sculpt muscles that are intimidating and useful and yet attractive. They make her grow a little bit with the shots in the winter, but that’s only because Clove’s naturally smaller than their typical recruits. She got picked for her skill with the knife, not her size, and somewhere along the line, her trainers decide that the look works for her and keep her under 5’5”.
Cato likes it. He’s pushing six and a half feet and Clove looks him straight in the nipples. Cato calls her a midget and laughs at how many arm movements it takes her to climb the ropes. Clove calls down to him a deadpan “fuck you very much” from twenty feet in the air and points out that she’s much taller than him when she’s ringing the damn bell at the top. Cato scoffs at that and reminds her of her first year at the Center when she climbed all the way to the top and couldn’t figure out how to get down.
They have a strange relationship. There’s other kids at the Center, of course, about a dozen at any one time, with a couple being added and a couple more Graduating each year because District Two wants a steady stream of volunteers. Clove kind of scares the rest of them. She’s too attached to her knife and too silent and, when she’s not silent, she’s sarcastic.
“You’re mean,” Cato says to her with bright blue eyes and a twinkling smile. “Nobody wants to talk to you because you’re a mean little girl.”
And then he turns around and lands a blow to the side of another male trainee’s head that knocks him clean across the mat and through the guardrail and sends a trainer yelling after him, “Excessive force, Cato!”
Clove’s not sure why they don’t hate each other. No one in the Center is really friends, especially opposite-sex, because that knowledge that they could go against each other in the arena one day always hangs over them. There’s nothing romantic going on, either, though a bunch of the trainers used to comment on it. Clove doesn’t have the space in her head for that stuff, and Cato’s only into dudes, she’s pretty sure. Better for him that way, she always says. No chance of liking someone you’d one day have to kill.
And Clove is a mean little girl who has killed more things in her sixteen years than most adults will kill in their lifetimes, and so it doesn’t make sense at all how she can laugh at Cato’s stupid jokes and Cato doesn’t mind that she’s mostly laughing at him. Cato is competition and has no interest in fucking her, so it doesn’t make sense why he says something stupid or tickles her or calls her ‘midget’ during the Public Speaking training that Clove is so very bad at and hates so very much. And her trainers look at her then and say “Yes! That! Do that. On the stage. Without him.” But she can’t. Maybe the part of her that could died when she killed her first human. Maybe you can’t have it both ways.
And then Clove’s stomach flips and she screams that it’s not fair how Cato’s angle gets to be strong and silent and intimidating and why the fuck does she have to be cute and then she runs to her apartment and leaves them staring at each other and cursing the fact that nobody else can wield the knife like Clove.
Cato finds her in her room with a pillow over her head and says “You’re a moron, mean little midget” and they sit silently together until Cato falls asleep curled around her like an enormous puppy.
These are the people they will never be in front of anyone else but each other. Not the boys that Cato has quick, rough sex with in alleys, not the trainers who want Clove to smile pretty and tilt her shoulder at the right angle. Certainly not the Capitol. And Clove thinks about next summer and Cato’s last year in the program and knows that her one wish, the one thing she cares about anymore, is that they will not go in together. Not Cato. Anyone but Cato. She’s got one more year, so they shouldn’t pick the two of them together, but still she worries. In this room, with this boy, she is a person. Not just a human.
Clove isn’t afraid of much anymore, but in the darkness with Cato’s heavy snoring in her ear, she knows that she is afraid of what will happen to her if this, too, is taken.
Stella can’t stop crying.
It’s not even the quiet, dignified kind of crying. It’s loud, body-shaking sobs that she’s sure all of District Five can hear. She’s wedged herself into the space between the expensive leather couch and the smooth, mint green walls of the room they put her in, hands over her head. She doesn’t know why and she doesn’t remember doing it. It feels like the world might hold together just a little longer if she can stay down here. Her fingers tug on thick handfuls of red hair, and the pain keeps her grounded like the lightning rods that harvest their electricity out in the farmland. She’ll never see that again. She’s going to die, and she’ll never sleep in her bed or walk down the long, winding road to school or help Father with his lightbulb trees again.
Stella’s wondering how it will happen – will she starve to death, get killed at the Cornucopia, drown like everyone did a few years ago? – when a warm hand clasps onto hers.
She takes a small, shuddering breath and tries to make sense of the blurry image in front of her. It’s probably a person. Nothing else would talk. Her brain is fuzzy.
“Cheer up,” the thing in front of her repeats, and it is a person, it’s a boy with dark hair and dark eyes and a pretty smile and, wait, she knows that face. He was on stage next to her just hours ago, before her life ended. He was in her math class two years ago, three seats down from the window. Next to the radiator. He always played with his apple cores.
Stella half-crawls away from him and sniffs, loud and wet. It’s really disgusting. She’s about covered in snot and eye gunk. “You tell me why we should fucking cheer up,” she spits out, probably with a good amount of actual spit.
“Well, there are lots of reasons why you should cheer up.” The boy looks down at his now-moistened shirt but doesn’t comment. “You should cheer up because you’re the top of your class in every subject. You should cheer up because you got a perfect score on your Engineering exam. You should cheer up because you noticed every thread of that carpet you’ve had your butt on for the past thirty minutes and you can name every molecule in the paint on the walls. You should cheer up because nobody’s noticed you’ve been hiding here, you’re light on your feet and can run pretty fast, and you’d chew your own arm off to stay alive and everyone knows it.”
Stella stares at him. This, at least, shocks her out of the crying.
“What does this have to do with anything?” she demands. Her voice is harsh and raw.
“It has to do with everything,” the boy says. “You should cheer up because you’re going to be the smartest thing in that arena, and that’s one weapon they’ll all underestimate.”
“Why do you care? If I’m so powerful, I’ll kill you, too.”
“You won’t have to,” he says, and he looks a little sad. “There’s no hope for me. I’m your average nobody. But not you. You’ve got something none of them have. That none of them understand. And you’re going to win this because we both know that you would kill me if you had to.”
Stella doesn’t answer, but when they lock eyes again, they both know the truth.
“I’m Watt. I figure that I’ve got no chance of getting out of this thing alive, so I may as well help you do it.” The boy rises to his feet and dusts off his hands grandly before offering one to Stella. “Now cheer up, Stella Meverden. Your angle’s gonna be evasive and mysterious, not crybaby. Besides, tear stains don’t look good on cameras.”
Stella puts her trembling hand in his.
“One of us might have to kill the other, you know.”
The little girl’s big golden eyes are wide and haunting, like she’s already dead and come back as a ghost. But her voice is calm, almost soothing if you could forget the words she’s saying, the room she’s in, and what she’s about to be carted off to do. It darkly amuses Thresh that she’s said “one of us.” She hasn’t counted herself out even though she’s nowhere near five feet tall and fragile like a baby bird. It takes something special, he thinks, to look at a guy like Thresh and think that there’s any chance she’d be the one who has to kill him. He would have become ineligible in August; she just became eligible this month. Two months to nineteen and two weeks into twelve.
This thought makes him so mad that he has to remind himself who he’s with and that his rage is no good here against this little thing.
“I guess so,” he answers instead. Inside he’s already wondering what to do. What can he do? People have always respected him for his size and his strength, but Thresh knows he’s no killer. Can he murder this little girl? How many other little birds are they sending for him to fight? He can hold his own in a brawl against the meathead Careers, though he doesn’t know what he’d do if it came down to killing, but he cannot hurt this little one. He’s used to fights in the street or in the fields after work, but those have rules, and you pick on those your own size. Are there more like her? He’ll never survive this if there are.
The little girl stares out the barred-off window and runs a doll-sized finger over the edge of smooth glass. “I don’t want to,” she says. Her voice sounds like it’s from another world.
“I know,” Thresh says. What can he say? He’s no good with words. He’s a working man, and that’s all he’s ever going to be and all he ever wants to be, really. He’s no poet. He has nothing to help this child who doesn’t understand.
The little girl tilts her head at him like a curious baby animal and smiles. It’s not a mocking smile, but it makes Thresh feel very stupid anyway.
“Oh, I don’t want you to tell me it will be all right,” she says. “I know it won’t. I’m making a deal. Let’s not stick together when we go in there. Let’s go in the opposite direction, and if we see each other, let’s run away as fast as we can. That way, whatever kills us won’t be each other.”
The words die in Thresh’s mouth as he stares emptily at her.
“I think we could both kill if we had to. I don’t want it to be you. You’re nice, and now I know you too much to kill you. So don’t stick with me. Let us find our own endings.” She’s got her eyes on the window again, head tilted down with her long lashes dark against her cheeks.
And he was about to offer to stay with her, he realizes. To protect her. From what? From a quicker end, a less personal one? This little bird is smarter than all of them, he knows at that moment.
“You’re right,” Thresh says, and her face lights up, delighted at a near-adult’s approval. “When the time comes, we go in opposite directions and don’t look back.”
“I’ll think about you, though,” the little girl says. “I’ll hope you’re safe.”
At that moment, he wants to tear down the Capitol brick by brick and has enough reigned-in rage that he thinks maybe he could.
“You’re name’s Thresh,” she says with a smile. “I’ll know who I’m hoping for that way. My name’s – ”
“Don’t,” he interrupts desperately. He knows they said her name at the Reaping and will say it again, but he doesn’t want to hear her say it, and he doesn’t want to remember. Thresh works alone, and if he has a name for this little bird, alone in the arena, he’s sure he won’t be able to think of anything else.
Better that they don’t know anything about each other. Better that they go peacefully to their graves with no betrayal between them.
And if he’s to have any hope of getting out alive, he must stop learning names here and now.