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Homeward Hopes

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Ravel wrinkles his nose as the train comes to a stop outside of District Twelve. "Well, here we go," he says to Honoria, who gives him the sort of look she might a dog who thinks a mess on the carpet is an appropriate birthday present.

"I don't see why we actually have to go through with this," she says under her breath. "Some kid from the Seam isn't going to pass any of the tests. It's obviously just the parents wanting to get them out of there. Which, don't get me wrong, I understand, but it's not going to be enough. Can't we just write this one off as ineligible and take an extra day in Four or something?"

Ravel snorts. It's tempting, because Honoria is, in all likelihood, absolutely right, but. Rules are rules, and Honoria made it to residential, too, so she knows this as well as he does. "Come on, his application sounded interesting, at least. Worst-case scenario, we waste the morning. At least we're getting paid."

"Hmph," says Honoria, but she doesn't argue with him after that.

They ask for directions from the first Peacekeeper they see, and Ravel has a moment of curiosity over whether the ones stationed here have any regrets about their choices. Anyone sent to Twelve scored on the lower end during their time in the Program, unless they specifically ask for it, and the ones who do are usually the ones drummed out for excessive sadism. Oh well.

The Seam is depressing. Ravel has never actually seen it in person and he really hopes he never does again. He steps over what could be an alcoholic or a dead man and ignores the crying child at its feet, because what can he do? The buildings are run-down, caked with coal dust, and the whole place has an aura of poverty and hopelessness. A small flicker of pity sparks in his chest, and he knows that any parent who would send their child into the Centre from Twelve does it so they'll get away from this. He can't fault them, and finds himself hoping this kid tests well enough to get taken, even just for a year, because once they make it they won't go back here.

They find the house after a depressing trek through the slum, and it's at the back almost at the mouth of the mine. Honoria presses her lips together. Ravel knows she was one of the few kids in Two whose family had to take tesserae, but whatever she grew up with could not have been this bad.

There's a woman waiting for them outside the house, brushed and scrubbed in a way that means she's spent the whole morning, but that can only do so much with a dirty sponge and filmy water. Ravel tries not to think about it. Her bone structure is good, at least, which bodes well if she's passed it on to the kid. This will all be for nothing if they can't make him look good on camera.

"Thank you for coming," she says, pressing Ravel's hand. "He -- Loki is a very special boy, I just know he is. This opportunity would mean the world for him."

And for her and her husband, since they'd receive compensation for their contribution to the program, but she doesn't seem like a money-grubber despite the well-worn dress. Ravel smiles. This is his job, and he's good at it. "Well, let's hope you're right, ma'am. Now, usually we conduct these interviews in private. I promise you, there's nothing to be worried about, and you can just sit outside if you like, but we'll need to be in the room with him alone. Is that all right with you?"

"Oh, of course," she says, and chuckles, but there's not much humour in it. "I don't think he'd find much comfort in my being there anyhow. He's a very independent boy. And you don't need to worry about Laufey, he's in the mines until after dark."

She ushers them in, and the house is poverty-clean, free of clutter and looking like a museum simply because there's nothing in it. The walls are scored with lines from daily scrubbing to keep the coal at bay, and she's even made a go at the windows despite it being a hopeless endeavour. Ravel hopes this goes fast, one way or the other. He didn't like Twelve on the television, and he doesn't like it now.

Honoria chokes back a sound of protest when they meet the boy, and Ravel has a better hold on himself but he feels it, too. He's Seam-dark, olive skin and black hair, and his eyes are a bright, piercing blue. But the thing is, this child can't be more than five, tiny and wide-eyed and earnest, and they said specifically that all applicants must be turning seven by the week after next summer's reaping."Manners, Loki," says his mother, and he nods.

"Good morning, it's a pleasure to meet you," Loki says, and Ravel relaxes just a hair because his voice is clear and high, but he doesn't articulate like a five-year-old. His eyes, now that Ravel gets a closer look, are sharp and focused; he's watching everything, recording it in his mind. Maybe he's just small, though that doesn't look too good, either. Well, if he does check out they'll get copies of his medical records and make sure, at least.

"And you," Ravel says with a smile. "May I sit down?"

The boy nods, and he turns to his mother. "I think they want to speak to me alone," he says, and again that doesn't sound like a five-year-old, so maybe, maybe. "Thank you for everything, Mother. I'll take it from here."

Honoria raises her eyebrows at Ravel as the mother kisses her son on the forehead and leaves. He bears it stoically, and once she's gone, he turns to them with a shy smile. Except that it's not quite shy, it's calculated that way. He's excited as hell and doesn't want to show it, because in the lower districts, if you want something, they take it away. Ravel has seen this before with some of the kids from Eleven. They didn't make the cut.

"Right, let's get started then," Ravel says, smiling, and he takes a seat on the floor. Honoria sits back on one of the hard-backed chairs. She has a clipboard. Ravel doesn't. Loki's eyes flick between them, and he catches that. "Why don't you tell me about school? Do you like it?"

And yikes, that's a reaction he isn't expecting; Loki's eyes go wide and panicked before he locks it down, and his gaze darts about the room. It's a trapped bird looking for an exit, and Ravel frowns. "It's okay if you don't like school," he prompts. "This isn't a trick question. I'm just curious."

Loki sucks in a hissing breath and lets it out. "I've never been to school," he says. "I -- we don't start until after seven because most kids die before that." His eyes flash, and he raises his head, just a little. "But not me."

Ravel stares at him. He doesn't look at Honoria, doesn't have to because she's staring goggle-eyed at Loki in horror. They've never done this with a kid who hasn't been to school before. There go the academic tests, the teacher interviews, and the notes on social interaction with classmates. They should probably pack up and go home.

"Don't leave," Loki blurts out, and his eyes are big and afraid. "Please don't leave, I'm smart. I promise. I -- I can read." Honoria makes eye contact and holds it, and he shifts a little. "Well, I know the letters. And I know words. Like, like, like this means 'bakery'." He grabs a piece of paper and a thick, stubby pencil from the table, writes 'MELLARK BAKERY' and slides it over.

"You're right, you are pretty smart," Ravel says, and Honoria gives him the look, the 'no don't this is a waste of time we could be swimming in the ocean c'mon what are you doing' look, and he ignores her. "You figure that out yourself? What other words do you know?"

And Loki shows him, scrawling things on the paper with a careful child's hand that, more often than not, imitates the font he saw them in. Some things he gets right, like names, but others leave Ravel completely confused until Loki explains the context where he picked up the word.

"So you don't go to school," Ravel says. "What do you do?"

Loki's cheek twitches. "I work," he says. "In the mines. I'm a trapper, because I'm small, and I can sit still, and they can trust me. I -- I open the doors to let the air in and out. To keep it moving. The other kids work up on the ground, sorting out the coal, because they're too stupid and distracted. You can't trust them underground."

And ah, right there, and it's not a lot, but it's something, and Ravel cannot believe what some of the outlier districts get up to. It's sick. Even Honoria's face has twisted. "Tell me about the other kids," he says. "Are they your friends?"

"No," Loki says, pushing the word out and away from him with force.

"Why not?"

Loki's face curls into a mix of disgust and anger. "They're stupid. They don't know anything. They don't want to read. They -- they couldn't be trappers. They'd get bored and leave and then everyone would die."

"But you're not bored?"

"Sure I'm bored!" Loki says, and his eyes blaze with the injustice of it. "It's dark and it's hot and it's hard to breathe and nobody talks to me. But I practice my letters or I -- I make patterns in my head. And if I get really really bored I just think about what Brill looked after."

Ravel glances at Honoria. He doesn't want to know the answer to this, he's pretty sure, but it's too late now. "Who's Brill?"

"He was my friend," Loki says, and the anger is back, strong and clear. "He died. Mallory got bored and left and the door was shut and the gas built up and he died. His throat got all torn up where he tried to make more room for air."

Breathe, Ravel, breathe. He focuses on the rage. "And what did you do to Mallory?"

Loki jumps. "What? Nothing!"

Ha, he thought so. "Loki," Ravel says, and draws out the word. "I'm not going to tell anyone. But you need to be honest with me."

Loki takes a second to think about it; Ravel watches him weigh the options in his head. But in the end, obedience wins out, and Honoria makes a mark on her clipboard. "I took her down to the mines," Loki says, low at first, but the more he talks the firmer he gets. "I locked her in where he died and I shut the door. I told her not to scream because it would use up the air but I knew she would anyway. And she did. And I kept her there until she stopped screaming and then I opened the door and let her out." He stops, gnaws on his cheek. "She's fine. She just doesn't like dark places anymore."

"I see." Well, that's a borderline if he's ever seen one, but it's not an automatic no, not yet. At least he didn't kill her.

He watches the panic in Loki's eyes again. "You said to be honest," Loki protests, and it's not accusing or angry, but it is confused. "I -- I only did it once. And maybe I shouldn't have, but they trusted her and she didn't -- she just left -- and you don't do that."

"It's okay, relax," Ravel says. "Who trusted her?"

"Everyone!" Loki frowns. "It's the mines. Everybody has a job and if you don't do it, people die. It doesn't matter if it's boring or hard, you can't just stop." He lets out a breath. "But --" And then he clamps his mouth shut.

"But?"

"But I don't want to do it forever." He clenches his hands. "I want to do more. There are lots of people who can work in the mines, but I." Loki pauses, but Ravel doesn't say anything, waits to see if he'll do it. Finally Loki draws himself up. "I'm smarter," he says. "You don't have to be smart to work in the mines. I'm smart, and I'm -- I could be strong. I can do things. I want to do things where it matters."

"You could Volunteer here in Twelve," Ravel says, though he's pretty sure he knows the answer.

Loki doesn't quite make a face, but the effort of not doing it is just as strong as if he had. "Haymitch won't train me. He won't train anybody. And even if I won, I'd just come back here. If I went to Two, I could -- I could train. I could learn things. And then after I could get a job and it wouldn't be in the mines and I could do something. It would matter."

It's a lot farther-thinking than any of the kids Ravel's ever dealt with; most of them get as far as 'I'm bored' and 'fighting is fun', or being excited that they can go to a place where no one will scold them for kicking a classmate or brawling. Ravel nods. "If you're right, I think Two would be a good place for you. But you said you're smart. Let's talk about that. Would you show us?"

Loki nods, and he sits up straight, eager to please, eager to prove himself. Honoria is scribbling away. Ravel has a pile of books and papers, but if Loki can't read -- well. "Let's start with something easy," he says. "I'm going to list some numbers, okay, and you tell me what the next one is."

"Okay." Loki's eyes narrow in concentration.

He hasn't ever been to school, so Ravel starts at a younger level. "Two, four, six, eight, ten …"

Loki frowns. Ravel repeats the sequence, and Loki's frown only deepens. "I don't understand," Loki says finally, and Ravel holds back a wince. This is worse than he thought. "I don't -- I'm sorry," Loki says, and he's frustrated, Ravel sees it in his posture and the clench of his fists. "I can't find the second question."

Wait, what? Now it's Ravel's turn to blink in confusion. "What second question?"

"Well, you want me to say twelve, because that's the obvious one. A baby could do it. But I don't know what you want me to say." Loki hisses. "Is it something with the spelling? Do they make a word? As soon as I can read I'd get it, I promise."

Ravel actually laughs aloud, and Loki stiffens. "No, you're right, it's twelve," Ravel says, and Loki is clearly taken aback. "Sorry, that's my fault. How about I try a different one, a little bit harder? If the pattern is A, Z, B, Y, C, X --"

"V," Loki says immediately, and then, without prompting, rattles off the rest of the sequence. "It's the first one, then the last one, then the second, then the second-last. I can do things like that with numbers too," he says, and he's eager, so eager, and Ravel can't remember the last time they got a kid so excited about the mental tests. "I can list the numbers when they get all the way as big again. One, two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four --" and he goes on until Ravel stops him. "Or, I did this once when I was in the mines and I couldn't fall asleep, I added up all the numbers in a line with the one before it, so it goes 1, then 2, then 3, then 5, then 8, then 13 --"

Ravel finally holds up a hand and grins. "You're right, you are smart," he says. "I've got some more patterns if you want to look at them."

They go through the book, skipping the ones that need actual reading ability because they can make that up later. Ravel opens it to the chapter on logic and reasoning, both verbal and non-verbal; Loki breezes through the tests for sixes, sevens, eights, and nines, and they make it all the way to twelve, which is as far as the book goes, and while some take him a few seconds to think, he never misses. Ravel makes eye contact with Honoria over Loki's head at one point, and both her eyebrows are running away into her hair.

The real surprise comes when Ravel skips over a reading section, but Loki stops him. "What's that?" he asks.

"We can try those later if you like," Ravel says, but he hands the book over anyway. "The words in this sentence are all mixed up, see, and you have to put them in the right order."

Loki stares at the sentence. "Read it to me," he says, and it's a little imperious, but he's six years old and a genius with people finally telling him he's smart, and if it keeps up it'll get trained out of him quickly enough. "Not the answer, just read me the words." Ravel does, at normal speed, and Loki takes a pencil and marks 1, 2, 3 under the words, putting them in the proper positions. "I'm right, aren't I," he says, and Ravel nods. "Read me something else."

They go to a reading comprehension page, which is on the different kinds of stone in the granite quarries of District Two. Ravel reads it, again at normal speed, and Loki's eyes scan the page. "Okay," Loki says, sitting back once Ravel is finished. "Ask me to show you a word. Any word."

"What's this one?" Ravel asks, pointing. Loki tells him. And again, and again, and again. They try it backwards, with Ravel saying a word aloud and asking Loki to find it on the page, and he does. Perfect recall. Not unusual in Two, and it's definitely cultivated, but finding it present so young is definitely another asset.

"That's how I try to read," Loki says. "If someone reads it to me first, I can remember what the words are.  I --" he pauses, embarrassed, and Ravel urges him on. "I have a book. I write them down. I don't know what they all mean, but I know what they say. But I don't show anyone, because I showed Father and he said it was stupid. He said it wasn't real reading. And he's right, but I'm learning, I am."

Ravel exchanges another glance with Honoria. Even if Loki doesn't make it to the Arena, he's smart enough that it won't be a wash-out; this will be a kid who grows up to do something with himself. Who knows, maybe they've found the next Director Fury, and wouldn't that be amazing. He hopes they remember it in his Reaping bonus.

"I think that's enough of the tests for now," Ravel says, and Loki's face falls but he doesn't argue. They've been sitting for a long time and Loki hasn't even fidgeted, but Ravel guesses that comes from sitting locked in a hole in the ground for hours on end. "Why don't we talk about you some more. What do you think about your parents?"

Loki shrugs, but then he glances at the door with a guilty hunch of his shoulders. "They're Twelves," he says. "They were born here and they'll die here and they don't want to go anywhere else. I -- don't want to be like that. Father says I should grow up. He says that you never leave Twelve. But Mother says, she says maybe I could."

"Do you ever get angry with your parents?"

Loki's gaze flicks away, but he remembers the previous injunction because he nods. "Sometimes."

"Why?"

"They don't understand." Loki's expression darkens. "Mother doesn't like fighting. She told me I should go with you and then drop out after a year, because it's not nice to fight people and they'll still get the money until then. And then Father got angry because he said they should get the money as long as they can, and then Mother said I would be a monster and Father said if I stay I'll just be dead anyway and it doesn't matter." He clenches his jaw. "I don't want to drop out after a year, and Mother's wrong, isn't she, because you say it's okay to fight, and if everyone was nice then the world couldn't work, could it? Because no one could make the rules because rules aren't nice."

And again, this kid thinks more than any one Ravel has ever tested, and he's been doing this job since he was nineteen. "Tell me more about the rules," he says. "Do you always follow rules, even if you don't understand them? What if they're stupid?"

Loki flinches guiltily, but he gets a hold of himself fairly quickly. "I do if I understand them," he says. "If I think it's stupid, it's probably because I don't understand. But once I understand, it's usually not stupid."

Honoria makes a note, and Ravel knows she's putting a possible warning there. Questioning authority is never a good thing in Two; what Loki has just said is basically that he'll obey the rules as long as they suit him, and they can't have that.

"What if somebody, like a teacher or a parent, told you to do something that seemed crazy? What if they told you to do something, but you knew a better way?"

Loki licks his lips, and the calculated look flashes across his face. Six-year-olds aren't supposed to be able to filter like this, it's too early, but even so, Ravel watches him do it. Watches him try to decide what answer Ravel wants, what will get Loki what he needs. "I would do it their way," Loki says, and Ravel's not sure he buys that, but then Loki continues. "And then I'd show them my way. And even if they didn't want to do it, I'd ask if it was okay for me."

And that's better, at least, borderline instead of a straight-out 'no'. Plus, Ravel reminds himself, this is a kid living somewhere without any real role models. Just the way he looks to Ravel for approval is proof enough that if they can find him someone strong, he'll listen without question. An idea trickles into the back of Ravel's mind, but he lets it simmer, purposefully doesn't think about it too hard.

"You mentioned your parents," Ravel says. "You know that if you get accepted, you'll be adopted by a new family. You'll officially become a citizen of District Two, and your parents here, they won't be your parents anymore. You'll likely never see them again. How do you feel about that?"

Loki's mouth tightens, and his eyes punch a hole in Ravel's stomach, and good god, if he can learn to do that on command then all of Panem will be selling their own children to buy him sponsor gifts. "I was an accident," he says. "I don't -- I don't know what that means, but I know Father doesn't want me. I'm just another mouth to feed. He says I'll be pretty when I grow up and it's a waste because I'm a boy, and if I was a girl they could maybe get one of the girls in the merchant quarters to marry me, like maybe the Mellark boys, but I'm useless."

"What about your mother?"

"Mother likes me more, but I make her sad. She cries a lot and thinks I don't see her." Loki swallows and looks away. "If I got a new family, they'd want me, right? They wouldn't ask for me if they didn't. So I think … I think that would be better. I don't really care if they don't want me --" a lie, but Ravel will forgive him that one -- "but it … it would be nice if someone did."

Not all foster parents in Two are interested in the well-being of their kid, Ravel knows, and that's fine, because most of the kids aren't looking for replacement families anyway; they're too interested in the Centre. But there are parents -- a specific set of parents, actually -- who would genuinely love another child. Ravel makes another mental note.

Ravel turns the conversation aside for a while, talks about Loki's interests, before bringing it around to another section of the test. "Do you ever get into fights?" Ravel asks. "I promise I won't tell your mother."

Loki swallows. "Yes," he says.

"Do you start them?"

His eyes shift, but then he raises his chin and holds Ravel's gaze. "Yes."

"Do you win?"

This time his face scrunches up like he doesn't want to answer. "Not a lot," he says. "They're always bigger than me, and sometimes there are lots of them. But I always hurt them first. And if I have time, I can beat them."

Ravel tilts his head. "Tell me how you beat them."

"I can make traps," Loki says, and he sits up again, proud. "I can make snares or trip lines, or all kinds of things. And then when I get them they're embarrassed and mad and they run away before their friends can see. Sometimes they stop to hit me, but if I think they're going to do that I hit them first."

Ravel nods. Honoria's pen flies over the paper. "Why do you start fights?"

"They call me names," Loki says. "They make fun of me because I'm small, even though the doctor said it's because Mother breathed in the wrong type of coal dust when she was pregnant. And because I didn't get enough food when I was little. They're so stupid that if I use a word they don't know, they think it's an insult. And they don't know that many words, so that happens a lot." He squares his shoulders. "If someone taught me to fight I could beat them. I know I could. Right now I just make it up."

"Show me," Ravel says, and they get up and go outside. Loki is embarrassed at first, says he doesn't want to because Ravel knows what he's doing and it's embarrassing, but Ravel insists. And so Loki shows him the handful of down-and-dirty tricks that any kid on the wrong side of town picks up; they've seen a lot of similar ones from kids in Two who come from the less well-off areas. He keeps his centre of gravity low, goes for the ankles and the backs of the knees to destabilize, doesn't bother with tackling or pushing or anything that would be useless for someone his size. It shows he's thought about it, not just rushing in and throwing his fists around.

It's highly strategic for an untrained, undersized six-year-old, and Ravel shows Loki a few techniques to see if he can copy -- which he does, and soon adapts for his size. Ravel nods, satisfied. Loki beams up at him, and Ravel fights the immediate impulse to tousle his hair. It hits Ravel that Loki has managed to do the most important thing -- he's made Ravel care. Ravel actually wants this kid to pass, he cares about the results. They've met smart kids before, but rarely ones with charisma. It's more subtle and it takes a while to set in, but once it does, Ravel doesn't think there's any going back.

They do a few physical tests -- seeing how fast Loki can run across the yard, how long he can stand on one foot with his eyes closed, how many pull-ups he can do on the poles Ravel has brought with him -- and this is the first part where his scores plummet. He clearly has coal-induced asthma with borderline malnutrition, and his strength is almost nonexistent. Still, he tries everything Ravel asks, and they can fix that. They would skew any potential Twelve or outlier for that, anyway. What's important is that Ravel has to tell Loki to stop, and only then because his arms literally shake so hard that if Ravel doesn't, he's going to hurt himself.

"I'm going to talk to your mother now," Ravel says. "You can go play for a while if you like. We'll call you when we're done."

Loki nods, and he obviously doesn't want to go, but he tears himself away and heads back inside. Ravel joins his mother on the porch. "Do you think you can help him?" she asks, leaning forward, imploring. "He's such a good boy, but he's so troubled."

Ravel wouldn't have used that word to describe the attentive, eager-to-please boy he's just spent the last few hours with, but that's why they talk with the parents. Aside from a mild tendency toward megalomania -- not exactly a strike for the program -- and an obsession with over-thinking that might lead to challenges of authority if he doesn't respect said authority figure, Loki's looking pretty good. "What do you mean?" he asks.

"He's so angry all the time," she says. "He's -- frustrated, I know, by living here. He doesn't want to go to the mines, and I don't want him to either, but if he's not working then he gets bored, and he -- he thinks too much when he's bored. He picks fights, he gets aggressive and defensive. He's a boy who needs a purpose, and I can't give him one here. What can I tell him, that maybe one day he can be a foreman at the mine instead of a trapper? That's not enough. He needs something real. I think your program could do that."

"He said you don't like him fighting," Ravel says. "You do understand that the program tends to specialise in children with aggression. If he does well, he's not going to wash out because he starts fights. Quite the opposite."

"I know, but he's a sweet boy underneath it all, I know he is." She looks at her hands. "He just wants to please, so badly. He's not a bad boy, really he isn't. I heard that even if they don't graduate from the program, children are given good jobs when they're older."

"That's almost true," Ravel says with a nod. "Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but many jobs do require a certain number of years in the program. Your son would certainly have a competitive edge."

"Well, then. That's the only thing I can do for him, really." She tightens her jaw, and Ravel sees her son in her features. "There's nothing for him here."

Ravel is too polite to agree with her, but he does, whole-heartedly. There's nothing for anyone here, and the sooner he can knock the dust off his feet the better. "We need to verify a few things about your family history with you, if you don't mind," Ravel says. "Do you have records? Proof of birth, family diseases, that sort of thing. Photographs of you and your husband when you were younger."

"I -- we might," she says, blinking. "I'll help you as best as I can."

She has the date of his birth, thank god, which saves them a lot of hassle, though the family history is spotty. Still, from what Ravel can tell, it sounds like anything that runs in the family is environmental, not hereditary, and the fact that no one has ever lived past fifty for as many generations as she can remember is more about mine accidents and malnutrition-related diseases. They'll have to check him over pretty thoroughly in Two, but no major flags so far.

The only actual sign of instability happens when Ravel says it's time for him and Honoria to leave. Loki fights off a wave of panic and desperation, and the repression only makes the need shine brighter in his eyes. Ravel wishes he could take Loki now, but he can't. "I'm going to make my report," he says, dropping to one knee to look Loki in the eye. Loki bites his lip and nods. "Someone will contact you later in the week, and the final decision will be soon. I can't make promises, but I will wish you good luck."

Loki nods, and his eyes are wide and lost, and god, he can't stay here because Ravel knows he'll just burn up, and if the committee could just spend an afternoon with him they'd see. And Ravel is very, very good at his job -- he sees hundreds of children each year, and only admits a fraction of them -- and so for him to admit this is not just the sentimental ramblings of someone slain by a pair of big blue eyes. Ravel takes a photograph to add to the file, and even in the picture Loki's desperation stands out.

"You're going to recommend him," Honoria says, once they're on the train.

"I am," Ravel says firmly. "And you?"

"Yes," she says. "That's one hell of a smart kid. Too smart for the program, maybe, but even that's better than staying there. It's barbaric."

Ravel watches Twelve fade into the distance. "I'm recommending his placement be with Odin," he says, and he watches Honoria's face to see if she's surprised or disapproving. She isn't. "After that tragedy -- I just think he's exactly what they're looking for."

"Let's hope so." Honoria shakes her head and opens the file. "Here, look this over with me, I want to see if you agree with me."

By the time Loki's acceptance into the foster program is announced, Ravel has interviewed over twenty other candidates, and recommended five. When he gets the paperwork to process the legal name change to Loki Odinson, he can't stop grinning for two days.

 

The car stops at an enormous building, bigger than Loki has ever seen in his life except on television. District Two's specialty is masonry and it shows; the whole house has been carved out of different kinds of stone, granite and marble and Loki doesn't even know what that one is but it glitters when the sun hits it. It's blocky and smooth at the same time, and in Twelve the buildings are there because you need a roof to keep out the rain but this is beautiful.

Thor has chattered the whole way from the train station, about how much Loki is going to love the Centre, and the food, and the toys, and the games, and everything, and Loki has sort of tuned him out by now. But now, Loki turns to Thor, gets his attention by nudging him in the side. "Is this the Justice Building?" he asks in a low voice.

Thor squeaks, and his eyes go wide. He spins around and runs back to Odin -- Father -- and bounces. "Father, did you hear? He asked if it was the Justice Building!"

Odin chuckles, and he rests his hand on Loki's head, ruffling his hair just a little. "No, my son," he says, and his grin is wide, so wide. "This is your new home. Welcome to the house of Odin and Frigga."

Loki stares until he thinks his eyes will dry out. He knows he shouldn't goggle like some kind of Twelve yokel but he can't help it. He didn't even know you could make buildings this big. "But -- it's not in the Victor's Village," he says. They passed that on the way up the mountain.

"Indeed it's not. But you are not going to live with just any Victor, Loki. Remember that." Father claps Loki's shoulder. "Now inside, both of you."

"He didn't know it was a house," Thor hisses to Father, and Loki's ears burn.

"Hush," Father says, peaceable but firm, and Thor hushes. Loki takes note of this and files it away; when Odin gives a command, it is to be obeyed without question. Loki can manage that. "There's no shame in being from a poor district, Thor. In fact, you should take this opportunity to learn what it's like for those less fortunate. Remember why we fight, and that not only those in power serve the Capital. Their sacrifice is no less glorious than ours."

"Yes, Father," Thor says, but he rolls his eyes and makes a face at Loki when Father turns his back. Loki is pleased to be included, but uncertain if he should show complicity in the disrespect, so he keeps his expression neutral.

Once inside, Thor grabs Loki by the arm. "Come!" he orders imperiously. "I will show you around the house. Have you ever seen ceilings so high?"

No, indeed Loki has not, not even in the Justice Building in Twelve where his birth parents signed the documents giving him into the custody of District Two. He allows Thor to drag him around the house, pointing to this and that and asking if they have this in Twelve, or this or this. By the time Thor shows him to the absolutely enormous master bathroom -- the size of Loki's house in Twelve -- Loki has gotten over his awe and is starting to feel annoyed.

"And this is called a shower," Thor says, full of self-importance, and pulls back the curtain.

"I know what a shower is," Loki snaps, and for a moment he's worried, but Thor doesn't seem to notice. "They have them in the merchant's quarters." Not Loki's house, but he's not about to tell Thor that he bathed once a week, standing, with a grubby washcloth and a barrel, heated from the stove. In the winter ice forms on the top if he's not quick enough. "They get hot water for a full ten minutes," Loki continues, lying his head off. The best shower he's heard of at school lasts for five, but he doubles it just to show Thor he's not impressed.

"Ten --" Thor falters, and the gleeful expression fades. "The best showers in your district only give you water for ten minutes? And you didn't even have one of those?"

Loki realises that, once again, he has sounded like a fool, and a pitiable one at that. He flushes. "It doesn't matter!" he says. "I'm here now, aren't I?"

Thor swallows, then smiles again and forces the aghast expression from his face. Loki thinks of his birth father in that moment, oddly, how over dinner some nights he would slam his mug against the table and spit words like 'privilege' and 'blindness' until his wife told him to hush. "Well, it doesn't matter," he says brightly. "Mother will be overseeing dinner now; if you like, I'm sure she'll ask the cook to serve your favourite food!"

"Favourite --" Loki blanks, but Thor is already running, waving over his shoulder for Loki to join him. Loki is in deep, so, so over his head now. It's like Two is an entirely different world, a fairyland where food doesn't taste like grit, where presumably the soup isn't lumps of gristle floating in lukewarm water with a bit of dried potato in it for substance. He doesn't know what to say.

"Mother, mother, this is is Loki, he's here!" Thor cries out, pushing Loki into the kitchen.

Loki shudders with shock, doing his best to keep it from his expression, but he can't help it. There are more vegetables sitting on the counter, waiting to be chopped, than Loki has seen in all of the Hob put together. He's not sure Twelve even has enough arable land to grow that much. The pig roasting on a spit over the open cooking fire is the largest Loki has ever seen.

A woman stands in the kitchen, regal and beautiful. Age has touched her face but given it wisdom rather than weakness, and Loki fights the urge to kneel to her, too. Frigga's Games were no less impressive than Odin's, happening a few years after, and they soon became famous for marrying young and becoming the most powerful Victor couple in all of Panem. "Welcome, Loki," Mother says, and holds out her hand. They're soft, but her grip is firm. "Welcome to your new home."

Loki nods, unable to speak, but that doesn't bother Thor. "I told him you'd make his favourite food, Mother, can he have it? I told him he could."

Loki's new mother chuckles, the sound a beautiful alto that sends shivers down Loki's spine. This is a dream; it's all a dream, and he will wake up in Twelve under a thin, coarse blanket. "Of course," she says. "What would you like?"

Loki's throat closes. "I -- I don't need dinner, if you please," he says. "I ate yesterday, so it's no trouble."

Thor makes that face again, and even Mother pauses. The cook actually drops a spoon, and it clatters against the floor while the large, red-cheeked woman gapes at him. "Oh, you poor thing1" she bursts out. "Imagine, thinking you needn't eat every day! Well I'll tell you right now, young man, here we eat three good meals a day, and so will you."

Three-- Loki reels. How are they not all enormous? On good weeks Loki gets one meal every day, and both his parents would scrimp food off their plates to give to him, but his father needed his strength to work in the mines and so sometimes Loki went hungry. He didn't mind; everyone in the Seam knew how to tighten their bellies. Loki wouldn't even feel the pain until the third day.

"What about pie?" Thor demands. "Mother, might we have pie? You know what pie is, don't you?"

Loki would roll his eyes, but not with Mother and the cook staring at him, so he restricts himself to a curt nod. "Yes, I do, but I don't like it," he says, in a burst of bravery. Well, if they ask him what he likes he can at least say what he doesn't, can't he?

Fortunately the adults don't flinch, but Thor's eyes go so wide he looks like a frog that just got stepped on. "How can you not like pie?" he demands. "Pie is glorious! Pie is the best food in the world! I would eat pie every day, all day, wouldn't I mother?"

"Indeed you would, and we would have to roll you to the Centre every day," Mother says, amused. "But you needn't eat pie if you don't like it, Loki."

"It's just, I'm not very fond of rat," Loki admits.

Another mistake. This time the cook actually collapses, and Mother rushes to her side and hoists her back up under the armpits. Thor frowns. "You shouldn't insult Marta's cooking like that before you've had it," Thor insists. "That's not very polite."

"Well, I don't!" Loki insists, crossing his arms. "Unless it's not rat. Dog can be all right, I suppose, but still, I'd rather not."

"Oh, my son," says Mother, and she steps forward and sweeps Loki into her arms. She smells of spices that Loki can't even begin to identify. "You're not in District Twelve anymore. There will be no rat, no dog, not anymore. Not ever again."

Thor barrels into the both of them, not wanting to be left out of the hug. "Pie isn't made of rat, that's barbaric. No, you can have beef pie, or pork, or chicken. And for dessert there's chocolate, or pumpkin, or apple, or strawberry, or apple and strawberry, or apple and strawberry and chocolate, whatever you like! Could we make all the pies, Mother, and then Loki can taste each one and see which one he likes best?"

"Now, now, there's plenty of time for him to try all the pies in the world; we needn't force it on him tonight." Mother brushes Loki's hair out of his eyes, and he wishes it were blond like hers, like Thor's and Father's, so he would not immediately look so different. "You two, go and play. Thor, why don't you take him to the exercise room? We'll call you when it's time for supper." She bends and kisses Loki's forehead, and tears prickle Loki's eyes before he can fight them back.

"Yes, Mother!" Thor chirps, and tugs Loki away again.

Dinner, unfortunately, is a disaster. The food is delicious, even if Loki doesn't know what half of it is, but he only gets a few bites in to the giant pile on his plate -- enough to last his whole family back in Twelve for a week -- before his stomach tells him he's full.

"Eat up, boys," says Father, jovial. "Thor, come now, eat your potatoes."

"I don't like potatoes," Thor grumps, mashing them with his fork and screwing up his face in a massive pout. "I don't want potatoes. I want pie. Can't I have pie?"

"You may have pie if you finish your potatoes," Mother says reasonably enough, drinking from a large goblet. Loki has to lift his with both hands. Thor harrumphs, but doesn't argue.

"You too, Loki," Father says. "You haven't touched your food. You're a skinny little boy now, but if you finish all your food you'll grow up big and strong!"

Loki looks down at the veritable mountain on his plate, and his stomach churns just thinking about it. Still, he takes another bite, then another. Each one soon surpasses the previous as the most difficult thing Loki has done in his life. Soon Thor finishes, scarfs down his pie, and dashes off with a hasty "'scuse me!", likely to devise new entertainments for Loki in the meantime.

"Are you all right?" Mother asks. "You look pale."

"See how Thor finished his meal?" Father says. "They'll want you to eat your meals at the Centre, too. Come, don't be shy! We love a healthy appetite in this house."

Loki shakes his head. He covers his mouth with the back of one hand. He hasn't even finished half the food yet; they'll be insulted, they'll think him ungrateful, that he doesn't like it, that he's picky and rude. They'll send him back. He lifts the fork, skewers another piece of meat dripping with sauce, and raises it to his mouth. He chews and chews but can't make himself swallow.

"Odin, he's gone green," Mother says, standing up and sending her chair skittering backward on the marble floors. "Loki, what's wrong?"

Loki chokes the food down in order to speak to her, but before he does, he collapses sideways and vomits all over the beautiful tiles. Father lets out a small shout of surprise and calls for a servant to clean it; Loki heaves and heaves, sobbing as the bile burns his throat and the shame his soul. They'll send him back for sure now.

"How could we be so stupid?" Mother hisses, and she kneels down, her skirts brushing the mess on the floor. Loki wants to cry out but he can't, and she gathers him into her arms and strokes his hair. "Water, please!" she calls out in a clear, ringing voice. "Odin, he was malnourished, possibly starving. We need to start him slow. His system can't handle it."

"Of course -- I didn't think." Father sounds awkward. He doesn't kneel in the vomit, but he reaches down and pats Loki's head. "It's all right. We'll get you cleaned up soon enough. Nothing wrong with a little vomit, now. Makes a man out of you!"

"Odin, please," says Mother, quiet but firm, and he stops. "Let's get you out of here," she says to Loki, pressing a glass to his lips, and he manages a few sips of water. His mouth tastes vile, and his stomach churns in warning. "It's all right. It's all right."

 

Loki is the most ungrateful child in all of District Twelve or Two, possibly all of Panem. He's managed to insult the cook by accident; he threw up after the most delicious dinner he could ever imagine; and now, alone in the enormous room almost as large as his parents' house in Twelve, Loki lies in the strange bed and struggles not to have another breakdown.

It's not that he misses his birth parents. In his mind they're already gone, casualties, even. He doesn't pine for them, or for the house in Twelve with its card-thin walls and leaky ceilings and doors that let in the coal dust no matter how many rags you stuff in the cracks. They have the stipend from the program, and that means they'll live better than anyone else outside the Victor Village or the merchant quarters. He doesn't worry about them.

It's just that everything is so strange, but especially the bed. Thor was excited to show him, jumping on his knees to demonstrate how bouncy the mattress. "If you jump high enough you can touch the ceiling," Thor said, making it into a challenge, and Loki joined him, just barely managing to swipe his fingertips across the cool stone. Now, the bed doesn't feel like a bed. In Twelve he lay on a low box spring with a thin blanket over it to keep out the ticks, and in winter he huddled in the same bed as his parents to avoid waking up with frostbitten fingers.

Here, he sinks into the bed like he's lying on one of those fluffy desserts he's seen in the window of the Mellark bakery, though he's never tried one before. The covers threaten to swallow him, and the mattress doesn't feel like it has a solid bottom to it. Loki closes his eyes and tries to sleep, but when he does, his brain thinks he's sinking -- in quicksand, in water, in marshmallow fluff, which he only tried once when he was starving and stole one of Sally Cavendish's desserts.

Loki scrambles out of the bed in a panic, the sheets tangled around his legs. He doesn't understand why a house with such thick, solid walls needs so many blankets. He chooses one, the least ridiculously soft and fluffy, and curls up on the floor instead. He leaves the pillow, because it's so high that it cricks his neck within minutes.

He doesn't belong here, Loki thinks, pulling the blanket over his head. The hard floor soothes him somewhat, and he splays his fingers against it. At least there's no carpet in his room, only an area rug in the middle that he rolls aside; Thor's has thick plush stuff that Loki's feet sank into until the ankles, again making him think he'd gotten stuck in a swamp. He might be too smart to stay in Twelve but it's obvious that his brain is nothing but, filled with rocks and scrub and soot and hard-backed chairs and food that's meant to sustain, not entertain. He doesn't know how a district with this much pomp and wealth can produce such hard, lean warriors.

And even though Loki doesn't care about Twelve -- it's never done him any favours, and the children are mean, hardened by poverty until they're no better than rats without teeth or claws -- he can't stop thinking about how much the items in his room must cost, how much of Twelve he could feed with the bedding alone. What supper he did manage to keep down threatens to rise again, and so Loki squeezes his eyes shut and forces himself to think about something -- anything -- else. He thinks about Thor's promises of the Centre, adults who will take him seriously and show him how to be the best and bring glory to his home. How to make Odin proud; how to repay everything that's been given him.

Loki finally falls asleep, waking up when the birds chitter outside his window so he can hastily rearrange the blankets on the bed and slip into his new clothes. He doesn't like the surprised, pitying face they make when he does something Twelve-ish, and while he's still learning, he knows that sleeping on the floor probably counts. When Mother asks him if he had a restful night, Loki makes himself smile and answer yes.

 

Loki adjusts more quickly than he expected, if only because he's determined to. He still has trouble with food, especially at the Centre, where the nutritionists lifted his arms and poked his ribs and squawked at him and proclaimed that he needed bulking up immediately, where all the meals are calculated to the individual and he's not allowed to leave any on his tray, even when it's only snack time, a concept that Loki has never heard of in his life.

Mother catches him sleeping on the floor the second night, and Loki cringes in embarrassment when he tells her why. She clucks her tongue, calls in a servant and orders the bed redone with a firmer mattress, tells him he must never keep anything like that from her because she only wants to help him. He sleeps easier after that, and that's the first step; by the end of week one, Loki might not feel like a native of Two, but he's stopped gasping every time he sees something strange.

The Centre children laugh at him, and it's because of Thor, which grates -- especially given that Thor didn't mean it, so it wouldn't be nice for Loki to be angry with him. "Did you really not know what a shower is?" one of the older children asks him, pushing his face into Loki's space. "I heard you'd never taken a shower before. Do they bathe in Twelve?"

"I heard he thought you put rats in pie," says another, laughing. "Rats! And dogs, eww. Rat-eater, rat-eater, could you cook me up some rat? Is it delicious? Is it stringy?"

Loki hisses and does his best to shove it all aside, but by the end of the week he can't take it anymore. The boys are in Thor's age, and they've had more practice with roughhousing and how to throw an attacker but Loki doesn't care. Around the time when one of the boys asks if it's true that in Twelve they marry their cousins because they're too dumb to know about gene selection, Loki snaps. He launches himself at the boy, enjoying the expression of surprise on his face for the half-second before Loki's fist splits his lip and shatters his nose.

"Hey, hey, hey," says one of the trainers, pulling them apart. The other boy didn't go down when Loki hit him -- as expected of a candidate -- and one of Loki's eyes is swollen shut, and when he presses his tongue against his front tooth he feels it give. "Save that for the training." But instead of getting Loki in trouble he proceeds to give him advice -- he left his guard open here, and he went for the face instead of the throat which is why he now has bruised knuckles and a sprained finger. Loki thinks that this might be the right choice after all.

"Loki got into a fight today!" Thor crows at dinner, and Loki hunches his shoulders. No point in lying, though, not with his face swollen like that even after the medicine they gave him, so he doesn't bother to cower.

"Did you win?" Odin asks, and Frigga clucks her tongue at him.

Loki frowns and chews on his blood-filled lip. "I'm not sure," he said. "They stopped us. How can I tell?"

Odin nods gravely. "Who threw the first punch?"

Loki sits up straight. "I did."

A moment while Odin considers. "And who threw the last?"

Loki's eyes dart to the side, trying to discover whether this is good or bad, but Thor doesn't give him any clues. "I did."

"Well then. Hard to say without seeing the whole thing, of course, but I'd say you won." Odin grins, and starts to give Loki another helping of mashed potatoes before catching himself and spooning it onto his plate instead. "You shouldn't go around starting fights, Loki, but if you do, I expect you to finish them."

Loki glows a little. "Yes, Father."

He doesn't ask why Loki started the fight; just seems to expect it as a matter of course, and Loki assumes that Thor got into plenty in his own time. Mother does, later, and when Loki tells her, cheeks burning with shame, she narrows her eyes. "You're right to fight them," she says, her voice low and furious. "The only way to make them see is to show them you're not one to be bullied. You fight back, Loki; show them that you belong here."

"Yes, Mother," Loki says in wonder, and she kisses his forehead, to the side of the bruise he got when the other boy cracked their skulls together. The bed feels good that night.

 

Loki thinks he's gotten hold of everything surprising until Mother asks if the boys want to accompany her shopping. "Mother doesn't have to go shopping," Thor says, bouncing as they run to put on their shoes. "The servants would do it. But she likes to pick things herself, and if we come along we can ask her for things to buy. If you see something you like, just go ahead and ask. It'll be fine!"

Loki imagines Thor returning from the market with his arms full of pies, and it makes him laugh. He assumes that shopping in Two is cleaner than the Hob, with fewer alcoholics and set prices instead of haggling over whether a steak really is rabbit like Greasy Sae claims or if it's actually someone's sick dog.

He thinks he's prepared for this. What he's not prepared for is a building even larger than his family's, filled with more food than all of Twelve could eat in a year. They walk in and the scent of fresh fruit and vegetables hits him so hard that he staggers; Loki gapes at the rows and rows of produce, none of it mouldy or wrinkly, and the apples are plump instead of hard and crabby, and even the onions smell like flowers to him.

Beyond the fruit and vegetables he can see the bread, bread that would put the Mellark bakery to shame, and the smell of that alone dives into his stomach and fills him just as fast as eating would. On hungry days he would sneak into the merchant area and just stand under the bakery window and drink in the smell of the fresh-baked bread, and that would carry him over until the next day. Here it's so strong that Loki nearly feels sick.

"Are you all right?" Mother asks, and she doesn't know what's wrong, so Loki forces it down. This is normal. This is more food than anyone could eat in a lifetime, but this is normal. This is his life now. His life is oranges the size of his fist and rows and rows of rich, red steaks and fish with signs that say they were brought fresh-caught from District Four this morning.

Loki swallows, and he doesn't cry, thank the gods, but it's a near thing. "I'm fine," he says, and lets out a long breath. He walks into the store and bathes in the splendour of it.

Thor grins and heads straight for the baked goods; Loki laughs and follows him.

 

Nobody tells him that the Odin-Frigga household isn't normal for Two. That most people in Two don't have cooks and servants and a separate floor for each sibling. Nobody tells Loki until he asks another kid how many floors his house has and ends up on the floor with a broken nose for being a 'stuck-up-ass Seam reject'. Loki's cheeks burn with shame and he doesn't even bother to protest the nose-breaking because if he'd known he wouldn't have said it. He has no problem belittling others if they're stupid, but it's not their fault how much money their parents do or don't have.

"Why didn't you tell me we're the richest family in District Two?" Loki demands that afternoon, when he and Thor walk back to the house. "I got in trouble today."

"What? Are we?" The worst part is, Thor looks serious. He frowns, wrinkling his forehead in thought. "I didn't pay much attention to it I guess. Is that important?"

"It is when I got held down and beaten up for acting like I'm better than them," Loki grouses. He doesn't mind getting beaten up -- that's why he's in the program, isn't he -- but the other kids already think he's uppity. They don't need the help.

"Well, just fight them, and they'll go away," Thor says, again in that tone of voice that means he thinks he's making sense. "I talk about our house and nobody comes after me."

Loki stares at him for a second, wondering if it's possible for anyone to be so handsome and so strong and so stupid. "They don't come after you because you belong here," Loki says, incredulous. "You were born in Two. You're Odin's birth son. Nobody's going to question you. Whereas me, I'm --"

"My brother," Thor says firmly, and for the first time actually looks annoyed. "Are they starting that again? If you tell me who it is, I'll make them stop. They'll listen to me."

That's probably true, but it gets under Loki's skin anyway. "Never mind," he says. "I'll do it myself. I can't rely on you."

Thor kicks a pebble at Loki, who catches it with the side of his foot and sends it skittering back. "Of course you can. What are brothers for?"

Loki bites back a sigh. "Then I suppose you can rely on me, hm?"

Thor amends his statement with a grin. "Okay, that's what big brothers are for. You're my little brother. I've got to protect you, that's my job."

Loki doesn't bother trying to protest that it's not, and that even if it were, he doesn't want that anyway. He resolves not to tell Thor anymore, no matter what happens. In some ways Thor's just as bad, even if he means well.

Unfortunately at dinner, Odin agrees with him. "If they don't respect you, then you have to make them," he says, waving a drumstick the size of Loki's forearm, it looks like. "Thor's right. Nobody pushes him around, and it's not just because he has my blood. He has a presence that you're still learning, Loki. You'd do best to watch him."

Loki nods, says "Yes, Father" and doesn't argue, but he's still not as good at controlling his expression as he thinks he is because Odin snorts.

"You're displeased, my son," Odin says, but at least he sounds amused. "What's the matter?"

Loki risks a glance at Frigga, who raises her chin in a nearly unnoticeable nod. "It's just, they hate me because they think I think I'm above myself. If I went around swaggering like Thor it would only make it worse."

"Ah, but that's because you haven't proven yourself yet, that's all," Odin says. "If Thor went around like that but couldn't back it up, do you think being my son would protect him? No! He'd get his nose ground in the dirt every time the trainers turned their backs, and they'd be right to do it. Birth gives no one privilege that lack of ability cannot take away. But Thor has shown them he deserves his birthright. Now it's your turn to prove you have earned the one given to you. Exceed so much that they can't help but respect you."

The thing is, Loki gets the feeling that it doesn't matter how well he excels. He'll still be the kid from Twelve, still be the boy who brings Seam filth into the pristine training centre, the one who'd be grubbing in the mines if it weren't for Odin's generosity. He doubts the other children will forget that, even if their backgrounds in Two aren't much more illustrious than his.

Still, it gives him something concrete to go on. If Loki weren't already convinced to get top in his class in everything, this would have done it. He nods and takes a bite of the rich, flavoured meat on his plate, because he can now. He hasn't thrown up in weeks. He's learning.

"Yes, Father," Loki says, and this time he means it. Thor grins and passes Loki a slice of berry pie.