The Gouge in the Table

By Ibbonray

Romance / Action

Opening Ceremonies

Disclaimer: I do not own the Hunger Games

Warnings: Language and the urge to Google black sclera contacts

Chapter Four

"Gladiators?" I shriek, enraged as I stare at my reflection in the floor-length mirror. How I resemble a gladiator, I haven't the slightest idea; if I didn't know better, I'd assume Ivor has dressed me as a poor replica of Hermes. I am wearing a skin-tight costume made with spandex fabric and bronze scales, as well as the most atrocious headpiece with wings on either side. Hermes, indeed. The golden bracelets twisting around my arms, molded and engraved to look like snakes, are no help. "Gladiators? More like Greek gods. Whom is Cato? Artemis? Athena?"

Ivor's rosy lip curls. "Either way, the costume suits your district. The gladiators fought in the Coliseum, as you very well know- your district has the privilege of being taught such things- and as the Coliseum was made of stone, that represents masonry. The gladiators wore metal armour and fought with the weapons one can find in the Cornucopia; swords, spears-"

"I don't need a history lesson," I snap, narrowing my eyes as I gaze into my stylist's pallid face and brick red hair.

"- and as for Greek gods and goddesses, I'm sure you and your district partner resemble them remarkably in battle," Ivor goes on, a leer taking up the bottom half of his face. "You've had plenty of practice, haven't you? Despite being so young-"

"If you're implying that I've been Trained, I've nothing to say to that; besides, I don't resemble Hermes whatsoever, he's male!"

"- obviously, nobody is going to mistaken you for male, Clove. You seem feminine, look feminine, and act feminine."

My eyes are ablaze with fury. "Take that back," I say in a low tone, unsure whether or not I'm talking about his comment indicating I "act feminine" or the intense stare he currently gives at my breasts (which, unfortunately, are impressively sized, and, unfortunately, he got the chance to see without anything to cover them. Personally, I like to keep my breasts tied down and shielded from public view as often as physically possible, thank you very much).

There is a long pause in which I glare at my white-skinned, blood-haired freak of a stylist. Eventually, the silence is interrupted when Ink, one of my three pathetic, trembling prep team members, steps forward. "Well," she says in a small voice, "I think you look stunning. Almost circean." Ink recedes as fast as she advanced, blushing underneath the multitude of tattoos that cover every inch of her body. Even her face sports a hummingbird sucking nectar from multiple, decorative flowers that surround her eyes. One of the hummingbird's wings extends over her shaved head. I think Ink is pretty, in her unique, Capitolite way.

Piqua and Latan, my other stylists, aren't as sweet. Piqua has grape-coloured hair spiked with a stiffening gel, and a mouth surgically altered to turn up at the corners in an ever-lasting smile. Even so, her eyes, covered with black sclera contacts, never fail to disturb me. Latan, on the other hand, is a plastic surgery explosion gone long-haired llama. I'm serious. Sometime, somewhere, somebody found out how to implant false, lemon-coloured hair into Latan's skin. The man is monstrous. Doesn't help that he's pulling a Benjamin (in the fact that he never speaks. Ever).

"Thank you, Ink," I say stoically, after directing one more scowl towards Ivor.

Piqua makes a vague comment about the time, and suddenly I'm whisked out of the Remake Centre and directed through the maze of white hallways. The effect of the repetitive colour reminds one of an asylum. There's an asylum on the edge of District Two, and I know of a few people who failed their killing tests and were sent there as a result. I've visited the place once or twice, and the paint job is appalling. No wonder barely any mental cases make it out of there. You could go insane just by staring at one of these walls for an hour, give or take. If not for the occasional Capitolite prep member, stylist, or apprentice strolling down the hallways in all their vivid glory, I'd be half mad.

The entrance hall of the Remake Centre is crowded with tributes, mentors, escorts, stylists, and whatnot. Ivor, being begrudgingly tall, is able to direct our little party to our destination: a spot in the middle of the hall where Evilian stands, a sour expression permanently pasted on her face. Surrounding her are Benjamin, Amber, Cato, and a multitude of gaudily-dressed Capitolites. Observing one of them, I perceive that Latan is not alone with the long-haired llama thing. Must be the new trend.

We take a limousine, driven by an Avox, toward the Opening Ceremonies destination. It's the first time I've ridden in a car and it's a thrilling experience. The limousine even has a built-in mini-fridge (I didn't even know mini-fridges existed!) containing a multitude of drinks. The kind I try has bubbles floating to the top and leaves a fizzy, lime-y taste on my tongue. Evilian, ever the addict, indulges in a glass of champagne. By the time we're inside the large room accompanied by a dozen horse-drawn chariots, I'm hyped up on sugar and excitement.

"I've decided," I tell Cato with a snicker, as Ink reaches up to adjust my hideous, winged hat, "that you resemble Athena." And I'm not kidding you, his stylist has put him in a bronze tunic (*cough*man-dress*cough*) with an owl emblazoned on the metal covering his back. Gladiators? Screw that. We're a Greek god and goddess, suffering from an obviously unpleasant gender switch.

"You've noticed?" Cato snorts, batting away Ghana, District Two's famous, turquoise-haired stylist (who, by the way, is deaf). "I dunno what they were thinking. I in no way compare to the Greek goddess of wisdom. You see what they've put me in? A fucking tunic-"

"Man-dress."

"Tunic!"

"Man-dress."

"Careful there, Clovie," he says, pointing one of the false plastic spears they've given us as props at my chest, "I might just have to impale you if you push my masculinity any further." There's a twinkle in his eye as he says this, and suddenly I have to look away from his penetrating stare, shifting uncomfortably and fighting away a blush. Why am I blushing? I don't know why I'm blushing. Meanwhile, Cato's lowered the spear and doesn't seem to notice anything out of sorts. "…But I agree," he says, "that I look ridiculous."

I shake my head in a futile motion to clear it. "For once he admits it," I retort, rolling my eyes. "Even if they had to resort to a man-dress to coax out the truth."

Ducking the swat he would have delivered to the back of my head, I paste on an innocent expression and look around the large room we stand in. Stylists, preps, mentors, and escorts mill about everywhere, catering to us tributes, who stand in the twelve chariots placed in a strategic line. Some cower, others stand firm. The girl from Seven is weeping, her tears smudging her cosmetics and falling onto her costume, which depicts, not for the first time, some sort of tree. The boy from One rolls his eyes at his simpering partner while absent-mindedly picking at a silver gem glued to his forehead. Is it authentic? I haven't the slightest idea.

My gaze shifts towards the tributes from Twelve, whom I didn't get to see during the Election. For once, they actually look confident, despite how unremarkable their costumes are. At least, to their benefit, they aren't naked this year. Their stylists have them in dull black unitards that aren't bound to gain them any sponsors. I watch at the girl looks in our direction and recoils, but from my stare or Cato's, I don't know.

"Competition?" I mutter to Cato.

"Not sure," he says. "There's something disturbing about her. Seems weak, as if the confidence is misplaced, but it's confidence nonetheless. Then again, Twelve never makes it far- but let's not underestimate Twelve this year."

I nod slightly and focus on District Ten. The girl, with her long braids, red lips, and young age- she's fourteen, I think- is bound to get a few pity sponsors, but she and her partner are bloodbathers for sure. The boy's a cripple, see. Probably can't walk without a cane for shit, so the "tough" angle he's trying to pull at the moment won't get him anywhere. Neither will his costume: overalls and those wrap-around-brimmed hats with the distinct indent on the top, with point-toed boots to perfect the "cowboy" look, like they wear every year.

Suddenly, the chariot lurches beneath my feet and I grab Cato's arm to steady myself. His arm jerks out of my grasp out of reflex, I think, but the way he stares at me (like an accusatory, wounded calf) reminds me of the time I woke him up by holding a lit match to his wrist. "What?" I ask, as the dark horses begin to trot after the District One carriage, toward the large wooden doors that should open into the Capitol square. I hear Amber's distinct screeching from behind me, as well as Ivor's yells and Ink's reassurances, but tune out their words entirely as I wait for Cato's reply.

"Nothing," he mutters, rubbing his arm where I touched him, and then everything I know is drowned out by noise.

The chariot glides through the recently opened doors, into a colourful conglomeration of screaming and squealing Capitolites. They seem to surround me, and my own thoughts are affected by the pressing atmosphere. I grip my plastic spear until my knuckles turn white, and for a brief, panicked moment, I don't know what to do with myself.

Then, I happen to glance at Cato, who is following the instructions of the Centre precisely (they used to educate us on form during the Opening Ceremonies and Interviews, and I remember how fascinated Cato was with performance… born to put on an act for the cameras, he was). His eyes are steely and confident, his head held high, his muscles bulging as he flexes them. My brain is immediately endowed with the commands of Trainer Valencia, back in the day. "You will be the object of their attention," she said. "Love it. If you don't love it, then what are you doing in the Centre?"

So I love it. I love the explosion of colours, love the flash of the cameras, love the screams of my name, love the way Cato's side is pressed to mine, signifying that he'll be here with me every step of the way. I love the attention, and for once I matter, for once I'm not just the little girl at Training with the drunk daddy and the body-building best friend. For once the lady with the feathered hat and the man with the three-inch earlobes see me and know me and love me, and I love them because their eyes make me feel important. For once, Cato doesn't even matter- he's just the weight that keeps the balloon from flying too far.

And sometimes I need a weight to keep me grounded, but why does one envelop the ground when they can embrace the sky? (Answer: Because the ground has more sources of food, duh.)

I'm screaming in delight, eyes blazing, when Cato grips my shoulder and points to something else aflame. Or rather, two somethings. Their image takes up the screens set up in every direction I look, and I don't even have to glance behind me to realise the image displayed is real. Why else would the crowd abruptly begin chanting, "Kat-niss! Peet-a! Kat-niss! Peet-a!" at the loudest volume the chanting has reached this evening? Why else would the roses stop falling and the audience stop calling for Clove Saber and Cato Sangue? Because District Twelve has become the favourites. Their bleak costumes are now extraordinary, and ours are dull in comparison.

They lift their hands in triumph, linked together in a bond that has the crowd screaming at a new level, and I swallow bile. What do they have that we don't have? What makes Twelve so special this year? I scrutinize her face in the nearest screen, trying to discover her hidden secrets, but I find none behind a brilliant smile and blown kisses. I watch her take a glance at the boy, who looks at her affectionately, and I see nothing but a shallow ditz of a girl that has nothing that I don't have. I gaze at their interlocked hands, then stare at my own hands, clenched, my fingernails digging into my skin where bloody half-circles are already forming.

What makes her so special?

The act goes on- I still exude confidence, as does Cato- but the crowd doesn't care anymore. They don't even try to discover my inner turmoil, not through the completion of the circle, not through the same speech Snow recites every year, not through the final encircling of the Captiol square. Their eyes are for the special, a special I can't see nor understand. What makes her so special? What makes her so special? I am more than she will ever be, and yet they prefer affection over strength- an affection she doesn't even have!

She will be mine to kill.

Mine.

At the end of the Ceremonies, we meet up with Benjamin and Evilian. Evilian stiffly congratulates us, although her gaze is coldly disapproving. We weren't the ones to steal the show, but what were we supposed to do? I watch as Benjamin shoots flickering glares at Haymitch Abernathy, who, for once, looks jovial and sober. I've never seen him sober on television, albeit during his Games, which were twenty-four years ago. I doubt he's been sober since. If there's one thing I know about an alcoholic, they don't give up their alcohol unless they've got good reason to.

Does he think "Katniss and Peeta" are worth it? If so, why? What makes them special? What makes her so special?

We journey towards the Training Centre, and once there, catch a lift, but we aren't lucky enough to snag one solely for our little party. District One manages to slip in at the last moment. Cashmere and Jacen (Jacen Iridescent, mind you- the Finnick Odair of District One, back in his day, some thirty years ago) nod to Benjamin and Evilian. Evilian nods back, her posture still immaculate, her mouth still turned down in a sour frown, while Benjamin stares dazedly at the ceiling. The tributes, a busty blonde beauty with puckered lips and lime-green eyes, and a sand-haired, hazel-irised jokester, introduce themselves as Glimmer and Marvel. Glimmer is all up in Cato's face, batting her eyelashes and biting at her lips in a blatantly obvious attempt at seduction. Marvel rolls his eyes at her and says, "Don't mind her. She's really not that bad- she just tends to..."

"Act like a slut?" I interrupt, smirking as everyone in the lift turns to me and glares (with exception of Benjamin, who continues to stare blankly at the ceiling). However, I'm silently relieved when the lift's doors slide open to emit District One, whom I'm sure won't be forgiving me anytime soon.

Evilian gives me a lecture on the duties of a Career as the lift travels up to District Two's floor, but I don't bother to listen to what she says. I'll treat people how I want to treat them. If someone is rubbing their face and their boobs into my property, I'm going to treat them like shit.

Did I just designate Cato "my property?" Shit. Never mind. (And I call him possessive.)

When we reach our flat, I take my bronze winged cap and fling it across the room, which is both refreshing and satisfying. Evilian continues her (more enraged) lecture when the thing knocks over a glass keg of champagne, but Cato stops her from talking my ear off when he says, "Oh, give it a rest, Evilian. Can't really blame us for being fucking angry at everything, because after all, we're the ones who were overshadowed by District Twelve of all people."

"Didn't help that Ivor dressed us as Hermes and Athena," I say, moving to locate my room so I can change out of this horrendous costume.

"At least you can take off your hat without being immodest, whilst removing my tunic would lead to inevitable embarrassment," Cato says to me.

"Touché," I reply. "Although I'm quite positive you'd escape embarrassment. The crowds would be oohing and ahhing at your masculine features while you basked in the glory of attention. The only person in this world who hasn't wished to see you in the nude at some point in their life would probably be-"

"You?"

"Well, I was going to say Katniss Everdeen, but that answer works too." And with that, I step out of the dining room and into a side hallway, which, too my satisfaction, displays the rooms of my mentors, escort, fellow tribute, and yours truly. Not a moment too soon, for the split second after I make my flourishing exit, the lift issues a faint "ding" as it emits Amber, Ivor, and most likely Ghana into the dining area.

I don't care to listen, but nevertheless, their voices drift into the hallway and reach me before I enter my bedroom. Amber rambles on about our performance, expresses her disgust for a certain "Effie Trinket," and ultimately ends her soliloquy with, "the day coal turns to pearls will be the day Cato and Clove finally express their love for each other!" I shake my head in amusement. She still hasn't given up on that, has she? Not that it matters- I'll let Amber play matchmaker as long as she desires, but Cato and I are definitely best friends, and that's anything but an ephemeral thought.

I can still hear Amber's high-pitched screeching, occasionally accompanied by Ivor's despicable low drawl, Evilian's impatient lecturing, and Cato's pleasantly orotund tone. I can't distinguish what they're saying, but I can easily assume they're all discussing the Opening Ceremonies, while Ghana and Benjamin have a silent pastry fest in the corner. Letting out a snicker, I turn to gaze into the depths of my designated bedroom, which is a great deal more luxurious than the one I was previously given. The wardrobe is twice as large, as is the bed. Although the colour scheme is the same as the room on the train, somehow the colours seem richer, as if the wardrobe has been re-polished and the walls given three coats of paint rather than two.

On one end of the room is a large window showing a view of the downtown Capitol, although the picture doesn't seem to be marred by any substance- namely glass. However, when I reach out to touch what I assume to be air, my hand comes in contact with an almost fabric-like material that gives when exposed to pressure. Pondering this, I casually glance around the room to see if there are any clues as to why there is fabric and not glass as a window pane, and happen to spy a small remote control on my bedside table.

I cross the room in a couple strides, picking up the remote. A caption at the bottom says it is a "scenery screen." On a whim, I point it at the enormous window, and click the largest button, which depicts an arrow. Instantaneously, the scene changes from the downtown Capitol to a picture of a large, golden fountain. I recognise the fountain from images of District One I've seen during previous Elections- it's at the centre of the District and I've heard they drop coins in it for luck. I've never understood the ways of District One. Luck? Bullshit. It's just a waste of money.

I flip through the images upon realisation that the window is not a window at all, but more like a sizable, digital photo album. There are quite a few scenes from District One to choose from, but eventually, the collection runs out and moves on to District Two. There's a photograph of Tine that makes me smile, as well as pictures of the Mountain, Town One's train depot, and the Square. Finally, I come across the most astonishing snapshot of all.

It's Ghostlium.

The tree from the park, the tree Cato and I claimed as our own and designated our sanctuary since we were old enough to walk, is on the scenery screen. I stare at it for ages, and find that if I look at it close enough, I can image I'm in the park with Cato, sharing a joke and laughing until my sides hurt.

I'm hit with a strong feeling of longing. I want that right now. I want to live a carefree life with Cato at my side, forgetting the moments of my future and forgetting the moments of my past. And then I'm promptly struck with a memory I've tried to suppress from my thoughts ever since it occurred.

I was thirteen, see. We'd just been dismissed from a long day of Training at the Centre, and Cato and I had sought refuge in our sanctuary. For some reason, I'd thought Aysche's performance in sparring that day was not up to par, and was laughing my head off while reminiscing her failure of an uppercut. Cato didn't seem to think it was funny, and just stared at me, his blue eyes looking… well, I dubbed the expression as condescending, but I wasn't quite sure.

"What?" I asked defensively.

"Beautiful," he whispered, as if in a trance.

"What?"

Cato's eyes widened and he shook his head rapidly. "I mean… I mean… beautiful day, isn't it?" He then began to whistle cheerfully as I looked on suspiciously, not buying it. Nevertheless, Cato pretended as if he hadn't said anything out of sorts, and I quickly dismissed it as a slip of the tongue, or possibly my imagination going wild. He didn't think I was beautiful, did he? Of course not. I was pretty at best- I am pretty at best, and he's already declared that he thinks my appearance is less than pretty. Not that I care.

I squeeze my eyes shut and then open them again, turning away from the scenery screen, and then began to strip. The spandex fabric isn't easily removed and I have trouble undoing the zipper in the back, and the weight of the bronze scales are no help, but in no time I've shed it and the snake bracelets Ivor forced me to wear. Stepping into the shower, I expect there to be a handle to turn on the faucet, but instead there is an array of buttons to choose from that confuses me to no end. I eventually just decide to press a few random buttons and suffer through scalding water and a vat of eucalyptus extract, but at least I'm clean of the makeup my prep team applied in layers until I felt like a cake.

When I've successfully located a pair of night-shorts and a too-large t-shirt, I lay down on the gigantic bed, which is covered with a goose-feather duvet. My stomach rumbles but I want nothing more than to fall fast asleep and forget that I woke up this morning to my father and a shard of plastic. The cut's gone; Piqua apparently nicked a jar of scar cream from the Victor Recovery Centre and it healed up in seconds. "We don't normally use it on tributes," she explained to me, her literally black eyes piercing, "unless they have injuries or scars that are easily visible to the audience. Snow's given his permission, if so. He doesn't like owning damaged goods."

Which made me feel real special.

Turning on my side, I spot a small desk in the corner with a menu resting on the smooth wooden surface, a condensed version of the microphone that Amber Riverlace spoke into at the Election, and a metal flap in the wall large enough to emit a plate. Room service, I suppose. My stomach growls again, but I don't feel like getting up and ordering something from the menu. I decide that I'll just eat in the morning and shut my eyes, willing the world to go away.

I sink into the bed, feeling the covers wrap around me protectively, but all I can think is that it's not like the bed I own at home. Despite my hate for Number 18L, I've grown used to it being my residence, and I somehow feel safer there than I feel here. Then again, there I store a knife under my pillow, there I am free to practice my throwing on the gouge in the table, there I have my satchel on me quite often. They took away my satchel when I entered the Justice Building. I haven't seen it since. Now my only possession is the necklace Cinder gave me, which I can't bring myself to dispose of, no matter how much of a bitch she was in the first place.

I uncork the stone bottle hanging around my neck and lift it up to my nose, taking in the aroma of cloves. Curiously, it reminds me of home. Home. Why do I miss it? I shouldn't miss it- I've wanted to volunteer for the Games since I was old enough to realise my parents were Victors, and it should be a privilege to have been Elected early on. But I've been in the Capitol for less than a day and already I'm wishing to ride the trains from Town to Town- the old, filthy ones- to swim in the lake in Tine, to get a nod from Trainer Valencia after a hard day's work, to throw a knife at the gouge in the table, to sit under Ghostlium and converse with Cato. A picture isn't enough. I want a moment.

There's a knock at the door and I spring out of bed, startled. "Who is it?" I ask.

"It's Cato," says a disembodied voice. Maybe I'll be granted one wish this evening.

He opens the door and slips inside my room as easily as a man of more than two hundred pounds can slip inside a room. (Yes, he's twice my weight. No, he's not fat. What does the word "muscle" mean to you?) I sit back on the bed and he crosses the room in a single bound, casually dumping himself on the area closest to me. "What do you want, Cato?"

And then I see nothing but black cloth as he reaches over an envelops me in a hug, squeezing tight enough that I cannot struggle out of his grasp but not too much that I die from suffocation. After a moment, I wrap my arms around his body, breathing in the scent of leather and sweat that never changes no matter how much coconut soap he uses. (His mother has it imported from District Four, and despite Cato's protests, I know he likes using it just to please her. Always been a momma's boy, he has.)

"Why did I volunteer, Clovie?" He mumbles into my hair. "I should have- I should have waited. Now only one of us is going to come back."

I tug on his arms, which loosen enough for me to pull away. "You couldn't have known," I say sharply, staring into his ice-blue eyes. They are riddled with guilt. I don't want him to be guilty. "What's done is done and there's no changing it. You volunteered. That's that. And you know what? I'm glad you're here. I wouldn't want to share this experience with anyone but you, no matter the results."

Cato's expression changes into a smirk. "I'm honoured," he says. "I'm especially honoured to be entering a fight to the death with someone who works in a eucalyptus factory."

"Oh, shut up," I laugh, smacking him on the chest. "The showers are shitty, okay? Couldn't work the damn thing."

"Neither could I. By the way, didn't you see the hair dryer? My shirt's all wet now. Thanks a lot."

"Stop worrying about your fucking shirt, District One."

"Ooooh, that burns. Does itsy bitsy little District Twelve want me out of her precious little room?" He mocks, standing up and moving towards the door.

I put a hand on his chest and shove him out the door. "Yes," I say innocently. "Itsy bitsy little District Twelve does want you out of her precious room, thank you very much. She needs her beauty sleep."

And the door promptly slams on the most gorgeous blue-eyed man I've ever seen. Despite the pout adorning his lips, the blue is silently laughing. I laugh, too, except my giggles are considerably more audible than his. (Later on I will think that if my fellow tributes saw me now, I'd be immediately dubbed the outcast of the Career pack, and would gain a few alliance requests from the outer districts. The thought shuts me up pretty quickly. Given, we all have our moments of happiness, but if I'm to be a true Career, I shouldn't let this go on.)(And then I dissolve into laughter again. What can I say? He brings it out of me.)(To be succinct? Screw it.)

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Names/Origins:

Ivor- Short for "ivory," which is fitting, considering his white skin.

Piqua- Derives from "pique," which means "to affect with sharp irritation and resentment."

Latan- Originated from synthetic latex, which, in a way, relates to plastic. You can then connect that Clove's affectionate phrasing of his appearance ("plastic surgery explosion gone long-haired llama").

Ink- Should be self-explanatory.

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