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Caged Birds Can't Fly

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Ochako Uraraka was never one for birthdays.

They came and went every year with little fanfare other than an encompassing hug from her father that often left her covered in dirt and soot and a special fresh loaf of bread that her mother splurged on at the local bakery – if she was really lucky, it would still be warm. She didn’t mind the lack of festivities; it wasn’t exactly common to have large-scale celebrations here in the districts. The only reason she even knew anything about birthday parties in the first place was from a ratty book her mother had gotten for her, filled with colorful pictures about a girl and her imaginary friends. The girl in the book had a birthday party, and it had everything from balloons to a giant four-tiered chocolate cake – Uraraka thought she would like the taste of chocolate, because the girl in the book said it was sweet, and Uraraka liked sweet bread the one time she had tried it. She told Uraraka that one day, they would strike it big, and they would live a good life, and they would throw Uraraka a birthday party with a chocolate cake even bigger than the one depicted in her book.

The idea used to fill her with wonder and hope when she was a child, but once she turned five, it changed. She knew that birthdays were simply symbolic, signifying to her that she was another year older, and every year since that fateful birthday that her quirk had developed, they had begun to fill her with dread for she knew what was to come – eligibility.

Her parents told her early on what it meant to be born with a quirk –nowadays, over half of the population was born with them, varying superhuman powers, mutations ranging from catastrophically powerful, earth-shattering battle quirks and insignificant body-altering or non-life changing quirks, such as extending fingers or anti-aging skin.

If you were blessed enough to be born with a battle quirk, you were often plucked from your life and brought to the Capitol where they would live a life of fame and fortune and food. Regardless of their status, however, nobody with a quirk was safe from the reaping, not even the Capitol Pets.

Uraraka had been born with a quirk, and her mother had cried. Her father had tried to look supportive, as Uraraka grinned, still bright-eyed and hopeful at seven years old as she showed her parents how she could make her bowl of oatmeal float but Uraraka remembered the tears forming in his eyes. Even now, ten years later, she can remember the resulting conversation.

Her father had sat her down in his lap – she was getting too old for it now, but she didn’t mind. It was comforting. He told her the story of the Great Quirk War as her mother wept quietly. He explained to her how when humans had first began developing quirks, that they were feared. For years, they were struck down, killed in masses, imprisoned and tortured. The government didn’t trust this new breed of superhumans, and had decided they needed to be handled, regulated and confined. Quirk usage became a highly illegal crime, punishable by life in prison or even death.

Eventually, as more and more people in the world began to be born with quirks, the government began to struggle with keeping them contained. Quirks began to mutate, and the masses were motivated by the screaming voices of wronged quirk-users who were tired of the abuse, and who decided to fight back.

In the end, all they had achieved was destruction and death fueled by the betrayal stemming from quirk-users turning their powers toward the government and aiding in their mission of control. When the war ended, those with quirks were the downtrodden, the imprisoned. They were the twelve districts, and the government had transformed into the Capitol, an all-powerful dictatorship that held the fate and the livelihood of the quirked in the palm of their hands.

But the war wasn’t the end of it – no, the Capitol wanted to make sure that those who had risen up against them never forgot their place, and so they split them into the districts, promising them a lifetime of servitude where they would never know peace, relaxation or full stomachs. They would live their lives only for the Capitol, producing whatever it is that they needed. Uraraka’s district was on the lower end of dirt poor – district 12; coal. Coal was an outdated energy source, and only necessary for the meagerest of Capitol needs, and therefore, district 12 had been in a state of neglect for Uraraka’s entire life, filled with starving children, crumbling households, and the most jaded Peacekeepers the Capitol could provide.

Peacekeepers were glorified prison guards. Uraraka had become accustomed to avoiding them at all costs, keeping her head down and walking with quick steps whenever she had to run errands for her parents. There was one in particular who seemed to have an infatuation with her that made her stomach hurt; his eyes followed her whenever she passed him on the streets, giving her a predatory smirk. She never gave any reason for him to approach her, but she could tell he was just waiting for the opportunity.

After the war had ended and the districts had been formed, the quirked population thought that that would be it – they were resigned to their new miserable existence, but the Capitol didn’t stop there. No, that was only the beginning. Uraraka could never forget her father’s face when he told her about the Hunger Games.

In an attempt to remind the quirked about their unholy and failed rebellion, the Capitol concocted the horror that was the Hunger Games. It was a modern-day gladiator battle, except with higher stakes, superpowers and children. The rules were simple: two children aged between twelve and seventeen were selected from each district in a random drawing, then these two lucky winners were sent to the Capitol, where they would be pampered for a week before being sent into an arena to fight to the very death.

It was the Super Bowl of the future for the Capitol – they lived for watching the quirked children of the districts die. It was what they deserved.

And every year since Uraraka had turned twelve, she had stood before the makeshift stage in the broken-down plaza of her home district, watching the theatrics that the Capitol brought with them, waiting for her name to be called. It never was, and Uraraka would breathe a sigh of relief, and feel guilt pool deep in his stomach as she heard the wails of the parents of the unlucky one who was selected – the one who would represent district twelve in the Hunger Games as a tribute.

This year was Uraraka’s seventeenth birthday. She had one more year. She just had to get through one more year and this particularly nightmarish aspect of her life would be over, and she could continue on with her regularly-scheduled misery. If it was up to her, Uraraka would rather forget this birthday all-together, because as it turned out, reaping took place on the very same day, every year. She was blessed like that, they would say in the Capitol, to be born on such a special day. Uraraka thought it was the universe laughing at her.

“Happy birthday, Ochako.” Her mother said softly as Uraraka stirred in her bed. She lived with her parents in a one-room home, complete with dirty linoleum flooring, one rickety, twenty-year old queen bed and a couch, which Uraraka’s father always insisted on taking, particularly in the winter so Uraraka and her mother could sleep closely for warmth, a bathroom, and the tiniest excuse for a kitchen that anyone could think of. It wasn’t like it mattered much – they spent the majority of their days working in the coal mines, or in Uraraka and her mother’s case, sewing. When Uraraka needed an escape, she slipped out of the confines of the district and she walked in the woods, gathering berries as a treat for her parents, or observing the squirrels that flew through the trees. Sometimes, she would even practice using her quirk.

It was forbidden, of course, to use your quirk outside of official Capitol-approved training, which was heavily policed by Peacekeepers. Punishment for rogue quirk-use was death by public whipping, so it had to be done with the utmost care. Uraraka didn’t have a flashy quirk, but she didn’t want to give the carnivorous Peacekeeper the chance to lash her.

And yet, she couldn’t help her curiosity. She was passive about most of her life – there wasn’t much to be optimistic about in her situation, but her quirk was something that fascinated her. When it had first manifested, she was shocked. She had been grabbing a knife to cut bread into slices when suddenly the knife was no longer there. As only a toddler, she panicked, looking everywhere for it and finding it above her head, floating. Her mother had made her promise never to use it in front of anyone, sobbing and praying that she wouldn’t be found out, but they always found out. There was no hiding quirks from the Capitol.

She was told her quirk was dirty. It marked her as a victim, an invalid, a potential lamb to the slaughter, but she thought it was an important part of her. If her life was different – if the Great Quirk War had been won, and the quirked were free people, she thought she could be useful with it – maybe even some kind of hero. So she practiced using it, secretly in the woods, floating leaves around her like hurricane winds, throwing rocks high into the sky and watching them disappear. She had started when she was seven, and now, ten years later, she was a master.

The only person who knew was Midoriya; her best and only friend in the world. Midoriya was the son of a coal miner like her own father, and he was born quirkless. He watched every year with wide-eyes and bitten up lips as the quirked were subjected to the Hunger Games. He told her once that he was desperate for a quirk, just so he could take the place of those who were selected. Midoriya was kind like that.

“Thanks, mama.” Uraraka said softly. She dressed quickly and splashed cold water on her face. Her stomach grumbled, but as usual, she ignored it. Her birthday treat would come after the reaping had passed – she preferred it that way. She couldn’t eat much the morning of anyway, she was too nervous.

“Your father told me to tell you he loved you and he’ll see you at the reaping. I’m going into the market to sell some things. Would you like to come?”

Her mother knew the answer. She always knew the answer. On the day of the reaping, Uraraka needed to be in the woods. She couldn’t bear to look at the faces of her neighbors that could be sentenced losing their son or daughter, or their own lives that afternoon.

“I’m just gonna look for some berries. Maybe we can make a cake.” She smiled sweetly at her mother, joking of course. They would never have enough ingredients to make a cake, but it was okay to pretend sometimes.

“See you soon, dear.” She clutched her daughter’s hand. “This is the last year. We did it.”

“Yeah.” Uraraka breathed. “We did.”

She kissed her mother goodbye and grabbed her small knapsack and went out the door. She held her breath once she stepped foot outside – district twelve always smelled like ash and burnt hair with the always present and overwhelming scent of poverty. Uraraka learned early on that poverty had a very distinct smell – it was the smell of unwashed clothes and stray, flea-bitten dogs. It was the smell of vomit on a small child’s shirt, because they were sick again from rotten or undercooked food. It was smell of festering flesh from the wounds given by the Peacekeepers and left untreated. Uraraka kept her head low and her nose crinkled as she took her usual route to the woods. She always had to be tactical about how she snuck off, and after years of practice, she knew where the Peacekeepers generally congregated and where she would be left alone.

The whole of district twelve was surrounded by an electric fence – they were told it was to keep wild animals out, but Uraraka wasn’t stupid. It was to keep them in.

But like everything, there was a loophole – a way out. Uraraka discovered it when she was wandering around at the age of eight; it was a gap in the fencing, somewhere that had meant to be joined together but hadn’t quite connected. Uraraka assumed the Peacekeepers didn’t bother with it, because it was thin enough that most normal-sized adults wouldn’t be able to slip through.

Uraraka wasn’t a normal-sized adult. She was petite and rail-thin, bordering on emaciated, with hollow cheek-bones, chicken legs and visible ribs. She slipped right through, and then for the few stolen hours she stayed there, she was free.

Sometimes she wished Midoriya could join her, so she would have someone to talk to, or someone to show just what she could do with her quirk, but she wouldn’t put his safety at risk for any reason.

She slid her body in-between the gap, feeling the sharpness graze at her exposed skin just slightly but not enough to be uncomfortable, and then she was at peace. In the woods, she could escape. If only for a few moments, she could pretend that she didn’t live in constant fear in the hell that was the Capitol’s creation.

Birds chirped above her head, nestling in trees and calling to their families. Uraraka identified a lot with birds – they both had the ability to leave the ground below, to explore the skies and never come down if they didn’t want to. The only difference between Uraraka and the birds she shared the woods with were that they were free to come and go and Uraraka was here.

She had thought about running away more times than she cared to admit – with her quirk, it would be so easy. But the Capitol knew that. She had seen it happen before – a quirked child gets rebellious and tries to use their powers to engage in either fight or flight. It had happened not too long ago – a boy named Hiryu Ren, the son of a blacksmith in the district, had used his quirk as a weapon against the Peacekeepers on duty, and then grabbed his little sister and tried to run. Where – Uraraka didn’t know; there were few legitimate areas of escape from district twelve, but she understood the blind desperation to get out.

They had caught him, and then as punishment they had executed his sister in front of him. She hadn’t seen Ren since.

Uraraka wouldn’t let her parents face death for her own foolish desires for freedom. Besides, with the Capitol eyes everywhere, she knew that even if she could fly, she could never be truly free.  

She would settle for the illusion of it.

She wandered through the woods, touching things as she went and watching as they floated in place behind her. This was a new part of her quasi-training she had been putting herself through – using her quirk too much used to give her a stomach ache, but now she could keep things in the air for hours on end and not feel a thing. She knew early on that she had to control the nausea; she could not afford to throw up, not when food was so scarce.

She picked up berries as she went, popping a few in her mouth to settle the aching hunger, but putting most in her knapsack for her parents. She picked up some plants that could be used for healing as well – you could never be sure when one of the Peacekeepers would get lash happy and someone would need help. Uraraka’s mother was one of the district’s go-to healers. Uraraka had learned a lot from her.

The morning carried on and Uraraka had accumulated a small army of various leaves, rocks and plants that now followed behind her in the air. Her stomach was beginning to jolt, and she knew she should go see Midoriya before the reaping, so she released her hold on gravity, and watched as everything clattered around her. She had stayed a little longer than usual, but it was her birthday, exceptions could be made.

Back in the plaza of the district, Peacekeepers were busy setting up the usual makeshift stage that the Capitol cronies would stand on and smile while they condemned two children to death. Uraraka hated them. She hated their outrageous makeup and elaborate hairstyles and the way that this whole thing was a highly-anticipated game to them. There were only a few hours left until the reaping, so she was sure they would be arriving soon. It was a different announcer every time, each one more insufferable than the last, each one more cheerful, more removed, more sociopathic.

Uraraka knew where she’d find Midoriya – he was always in the same place on the day of the reaping, doing more than anything Uraraka ever could. Midoriya would gather up all of the newly-eligible children and he would distract them in whatever way possible. He would ask for assistance with his mother’s market display, or he would teach them new skills, such as woodwork, or reading, or he would fill their heads with stories about the wonders of the Capitol and the richness of it all.

It was the kindest thing that Uraraka had ever witnessed, and even when it happened every year, it broke Uraraka’s heart every time because there was a chance one of those kids would die.

The Hunger Games had a winner, of course it did, but it was never from district twelve. The winners of the Hunger Games were bred from the wealthier districts – they were born of parents who had escaped the reaping, parents with impressive quirks that they would pass down to their offspring to create the perfect killing machine. For as long as Uraraka could remember, the winner of the Hunger Games had been one of the Capitol Pets, one of the careers, the ones genetically engineered for this. If you were from one of the poorer districts, the Hunger Games was your death sentence.

She knew of one winner from district twelve – just one. He was hardly ever seen in public, and at this point, she was convinced that he was just a legend. She knew of him only through the gossipy whispers of the older women at the market, who claimed to have seen him leave his house on a booze run.

She found Midoriya outside of the market, reading a dusty novel to a group of four. One of the girls was nestled under his arm; her face was wet with tears. Uraraka sat down on the other side of her, rubbing her hair gently. She didn’t know the girl, but she leaned into her touch.

Uraraka remembered when she turned twelve. She remembered the sleepless night before her birthday, the constant hot, sticky feeling that came over her body, the breathlessness that she experienced as the Capitol hostess held up the paper with the name of that year’s tribute.

Every year it was the same. It never got easier, but twelve was the worst.

Midoriya finished his story and shut the book. He spoke to the children in front of him, a promise that no matter what happened, they would be okay. Nothing would happen to them. A lie. They left after that, most likely to spend what could be their last moments surrounded by the love of their parents. Uraraka didn’t understand how anyone could handle having children in this world – she wouldn’t be able to do it.

“Hey, Uraraka.” Midoriya finally formally greeted her. “Happy Birthday.”

“Not much happy about it.” Uraraka grumbled. For her parents, she put up a front. She acted pleased with her mother’s treats and her father’s extra attention on her birthday, but she cursed the day she was born on, and the life she was born into.

“It’s happy this year, because after this year, you’re done.” Midoriya said, always cheerful no matter the consequences.

“Then I’ll just have to watch other children die for the rest of my life.”

Midoriya bit his lip. “Yeah.” He said. “Yeah, I know.”

They sat in silence for a while, watching the activity around the plaza. Things were buzzing more than usual as everyone rushed to get their daily activities done before they were required to be at the reaping.

“I got you something. For your birthday.” Midoriya said suddenly.

“Midoriya – you aren’t supposed to do that! We don’t have the money to buy gifts!” Uraraka scolded, feeling her throat tighten. Midoriya and his family were just as poor as she was, and she knew that he often went hungry, opting to give his rations to those he deemed needier than himself.

“It’s seventeen, that’s special. You have to take it.” He pulled something small and shiny out of his pocket. It was a necklace. “It’s a mockingjay.” He explained. “I know – I know you love the birds, and when I saw it in the market, I –”

“I love it.” She interrupted him. “Thank you, Midoriya.”

“It’s nothing.” He muttered. “My mother was asking about you. She’s at her stand, if you’d like to come by.”

“Yeah,” Uraraka agreed. “Let’s do that.”

Time moved much too quickly on reaping day. It wasn’t long before a crowd had gathered in the plaza, and the roar of voices told Uraraka that the Capitol representatives had arrived. She was still by Midoriya’s side; they had made their way to the bakery to speak with their friend Satou, who had turned eighteen just a few months ago, and was therefore safe. He was no more cheerful about it, though, and he hugged Uraraka tight, whispering a blessing of safety in her ear and slipping her a warm muffin.

Satou was the son of the district’s baker, and she probably would have died without his assistance. She was grateful he had survived the reaping.

“We should go.” Midoriya said to the two of them. “It’s starting soon.”

They nodded, and then began the familiar trudge to the most sadistic show in the world. The Capitol representative was on stage, fiddling with a microphone and laughing at something a Peacekeeper said to her. She was different than the usual airheads they sent – the ones with poofed up brightly-colored hair and eyelashes to their foreheads. This woman had raven-colored, slick hair that cascaded down her back. She wore glasses and her lips were fire-engine red, but the rest of her makeup was subdued. The strangest thing about her, however, was her outfit: she was clad in a skin-tight, leather white jumpsuit, accented with a corset. Admittedly, she was hot, even by non-Capitol standards.

She could tell by Midoriya and Satou’s blushes that they noticed the change too.

Uraraka was only allowed a few more moments with her friends before she was corralled into her gender and age group. She spied the familiar faces among her and nodded. Everyone was quiet, but they had solidarity. They were all in this nightmare together.

Finally, the new Capitol representative spoke, her voice clear like a bell, ringing out over the entire plaza. “Welcome to the annual Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor!” 

Everybody cheered, because if they didn’t cheer, the Peacekeepers would have choice words for them afterwards. Uraraka’s stomach did front-flips. She knew how probability worked – she knew there was a high chance that she would be fine, but that didn’t help the nausea building up as she imagined the twelve-year-old girl with the tear-streaked face standing beside the Capitol woman on stage.

“My name is Nemuri Kayama and I’m here to support the tributes from your wonderful district! I see so much fired up youth in this crowd – I know you’re all just bursting with excitement to represent your district!” She cried. The crowd remained silent, until a well-aimed glare from a Peacekeeper on stage drew out a few half-hearted cheers. Uraraka simply stared straight ahead.

“Well, let’s get to the good part, shall we?” She winked. “Our male tribute for the annual Hunger Games will be…” She dropped her hand dramatically into a clear bowl and shuffled some pieces around. “Yosetsu Awase!”

A wail pierced the air and a woman fell to her knees. “No!” She shrieked. “Please no! Please! Don’t take him, please! He’s all I have!”  

Uraraka watched as a boy with spikey black hair pushed back by a tattered rag tied around his forehead hugged the inconsolable woman. From where she stood, she could see the fierce determination on his face. “I’ll be back, mama.” He promised, then he started his walk to the death. Uraraka didn’t know Awase. She was sure she had seen him around, but to her, he was just another face. To the wailing woman, he was her entire life.

“Congratulations!” Kayama grabbed Awase and pulled him into a hug. The boy stiffened and pulled away quickly, turning to the crowd and staring ahead with a stoic expression on his face.

“Now, for the female tribute!”

The manicured, dainty hand entered the bowl once more and it was as if time slowed to a stop. Her lips moved and in her beautiful, girlish voice, announced: “Ochako Uraraka!”

The ringing in her ears blocked out everything else. Her vision blurred, and she swayed unsteadily on her feet. Vaguely, she was aware of somebody screaming, and she knew it was her mother. Next to her, a girl squeezed her hand, but her touch felt millions of miles away.

This couldn’t be happening. She was seventeen. She had made it.

Where is Uraraka?” Kayama’s airy voice called. “Come on up, dear!”

Uraraka’s feet moved without her approval, carrying her toward the figurative guillotine. She hadn’t spent time with her parents today, figuring she would see them in the evening for dinner.

She was aware of the entire district’s eyes on her as she walked. Distantly, her mother’s cries broke off into a strangled sob. She hoped her father was holding her.

The stage seemed much closer when Awase was called, but her legs were moving like they were weighed down with fifty-ton casts. She was dizzy. She was going to faint.

“I’ll do it! I’ll do it! I’ll volunteer! Please!” A voice called out from the crowd desperately. Uraraka’s brain registered that it was Midoriya. Midoriya. Her heart broke. Even if he could volunteer to take her place, she wouldn’t allow it.

“Oh, sweetheart.” Kayama cooed. “You can't volunteer for a female tribute. And besides, you must have a quirk to enter the Hunger Games. Uraraka, hurry along, dear.”

“Please! I don’t need a quirk!” Midoriya’s voice cracked. “Please.”

“Deku.” Uraraka croaked, finally, using the nickname that only she was allowed to call him. “Don’t.”

That quieted him, and Uraraka was able to put one foot in front of the other and finally make it to the stage. Awase gave her a stone-faced look, and Uraraka’s knees trembled. Kayama took one of Awase’s hands in hers, and then one of Uraraka’s.

“Ladies and gentlemen – your tributes from district twelve!”