A sharp scream tore through the near-silent morning air as I pulled on my worn and tired boots. I'd been up for hours but I had figured that most other people weren't awake yet. They were trying to shake off the fear of what was to come in just a matter of hours. Shaking my head with the tiniest of smirks - as I had been betting on this and already had a plan laid out - I rose to my feet and sprinted out the door of my tiny home. Not that I exactly had too far to go.
My house wasn't much. It was a one bedroom - one room really - house. There was only a small counter that I used as a kitchen and a lumpy bed that was a bit smaller than me. The only area of privacy that I had inside was a small bathroom with a door that was about to fall off of the hinges. The only nice thing that I owned was a dark wood cabinet that Katniss Everdeen, my neighbor and best friend, had donated to me when we were younger. It was the only thing that I treasured in the house. That and a few things that my parents had left me. But they were long gone and it made no difference now.
Pulling my hair up into a ponytail, I burst through the door of the Everdeen house and smiled at the mess. Clearly Katniss hadn't gotten up to clean lately. Ms. Everdeen glanced up from her cooking and I noticed that there were dark circles under her eyes. She hadn't been sleeping well. I gave her a quick hello as I made my way to the back of the house. The screaming had stopped right after I had left my home but I knew that the tears would still be going. Walking through the archway that led to Primrose Everdeen's bedroom I saw that the younger girl was in tears, buried in her sister's arms.
Even though Prim was a pretty brave kid I had figured that she would be woken the same way that most twelve-year-old kids woke on this day. Reaping Day. It was the same way that I had woken on this day six years ago. It was a day that haunted most kids all year round. But we had to do our best to forget about it and continue like normal. Katniss nodded me over to the bed and I made my way across the room, dropping onto the bed with Prim. She looked up at me with tear-filled eyes and I did my best to give her a smile. But this wasn't exactly a very happy day for me. For anyone, I supposed.
"Hey, bug," I told the younger Everdeen, who looked up at me with a small smile.
"Hi," she whispered weakly.
"Listen sweetie, your name is in there once. They aren't gonna pick you, okay?"
The younger girl nodded at me and I gave her a brief smile before standing up. As I began to walk out of the room, I felt a hand on my shoulder stop me. "But what if they do?" she asked in a meek voice.
The whole idea of the Reaping and Hunger Games had always driven Prim out of her mind with worry. I wished that it didn't. I wished that she still had another year to not worry about it. I had to fight to keep the smile on my face as I looked over at Katniss. She shook her head at me and I sighed. I knew that this one was on me. Katniss had tried enough times to calm Prim down over the past few weeks. Nothing really worked. Walking back over to Prim, I smiled at the younger girl again and leaned over the bed.
"Your name is in there once, Prim. That's like one out of twenty thousand slips. The odds are in your favor kiddo," I promised her.
"Are you sure?" she asked.
"I'm pretty good at math. I'd say that I'm close to being right."
"What if you aren't?" Prim asked.
"I'll tell you what. If you get Reaped, I'll step forward and take your place."
The moment I offered I knew that it was the wrong thing to say. I stood up from the bed when there was a sharp shriek. Prim came running after me. "You can't do that!" she yelled.
I smiled at her and shook my head. "Now why not? Better me than you, right?" I asked.
"Aspen -" Katniss started to warn.
"Well, since your name is only in there once and you won't get Reaped, it looks like there isn't anything to worry about, right?" I asked, speaking over Katniss.
Prim nodded and I gave her a small pat on the back. "You'll be safe, right?" Prim asked.
"Of course. We have an understanding?" I asked her.
"Yes," Prim muttered.
"Good! Go back to bed. May as well get all the sleep that you can."
Prim turned around and headed back to bed. I watched her go, spotting the dark glare I was getting from Katniss. I knew that she would be mad at me for acting the way that I did with Prim. At least I had gotten her to calm down. We had both feared that it would be a nightmare this morning for the past few months. Prim was a sweet kid and she was brave enough when we needed her to be, but she was still rather soft about things. Particularly the Games.
Turning from Katniss's glare before she could drill a hole in my back I walked out of the room and out of the house, only stopping to tell Ms. Everdeen I would be back later. Heading straight for the woods, I let my mind wander. As I walked past the Square I shook my head at the stages and speakers that were being set up. Everyone was still in their homes, trying to ignore what was about to happen. The entire thing was horrible. Everything that these people did just for these two weeks or so that the Games surrounded.
The Hunger Games. Born of thirteen Districts rising up against their neglectful Capitol. It turned out that after the war twelve were defeated, and one was obliterated. It left Districts 1 through 12 at the hands of the Capitol with District 13 reduced to nothing more than rubble. The Capitol then decided that they would instate the one competition that no one could have been anticipating. They claimed that it was in reminder of rising up against their so-called caring Capitol and ruining what they had thought was a good enough thing.
The ultimate punishment was that once a year one young man and one young woman between the ages of twelve and eighteen would be Reaped from a random selection from each District. These young people would be called Tributes and these Tributes would be briefly trained in combat and survival skills before they were sent into an arena. There the Tributes would fight to death until there was one person left standing. That person would be gifted with riches and so would their District for the next year, until the next Games rolled around. It left twenty-three innocent kids dead every year.
Eighteen. I was finally eighteen this year. It meant that it would be my last year that I would actually be eligible to go into the Games. I had actually turned eighteen during last year's Games. It had been on the day that the new Victor had won. It had been a girl from District 11, much to the surprise of the Capitol. My birthday hadn't been much of a celebration that day. I'd known the boy that had died from District 12. This year I would also have my birthday during the Games. Just like every other year. I would be nineteen and I would never have to deal with these Games again.
Although I had told Prim that there was nothing to be worried about, I was smart enough to know that the odds were not in my favor this year. Being in the state that I was in I had to take out Tessera. It was the only way that I could completely manage to support myself without having to rely on Katniss and her family. Tessera was a small portion of grain and oil spread out over the year. Just like I did every year, I took out as much Tessera as I could. There was no limit on how much we could take. I lived on my own and it was hard for me to make ends meet.
The only way that I didn't starve was hunting. But it was illegal and sometimes hard to manage to get out into the woods. This year, as the slips from Tessera were cumulative, my name was in the Reaping Ball one hundred and twenty three times. It wasn't odd for people in their last years to have their names on numerous slips. That was why the Tributes were normally on the older spectrum. But there were always the younger ones too. The twelve-year-old kids that made people wonder why these Games existed. Why was it fair to punish us for something that our ancestors did? It wasn't. That was just how it worked.
Sick of the depressing and angering thoughts I shook my head clear as I climbed under the fence that separated District 12 from the woods. The fence was supposed to be electric but it was rarely turned on, making it easy for me to get out into the woods. We barely ever actually had electricity in District 12. It turned out to mostly work in my favor. Carefully running through the woods, I smiled at the feeling of real freedom. Out here it was like there was no way that anyone could get to me. Out here I was carefree and alone. I was happy.
Of course that happiness had to end when I heard a very familiar voice tear through the air. "Aspen Antaeus!" the voice cried.
My feet automatically halted from my previous near dead-sprint. I skidded against the leaves underneath my feet and nearly went crashing down the steep incline to the hill that I was running on. I cringed at the use of my full name and slowly turned to the owner. It was Katniss. Naturally she was yelling at me. We seemed to yell more than we actually spoke to each other. I loved the girl to death and she loved me too, but we were always fighting. Nothing serious, mostly just silly bickering.
This time it was most likely about what I had said to Prim earlier. I wouldn't take it back though, I had meant what I had said. Katniss was only sixteen this year. There would be people in the Games that were far more trained than her. And the Gamemakers didn't put in a bow and arrow every year. That was the weapon that she was the most proficient with. They had to see a pretty talented tribute with a bow and an arrow before they would be willing to put one in. A bow and arrow was no fun. They wanted to see the close-up action of a knife fight. Those were bloodier and far more fun to watch.
As the younger girl moved towards me, I smiled. "Katniss Everdeen!" I yelled back mockingly.
The look on her face told me that this time I wasn't getting out of her scolding with humor. "Don't be an ass," Katniss snapped.
"I hope you don't speak to Prim like that," I teased.
"What? Come on, I didn't even do anything this time!" I yelled back at Katniss, who was stomping up to me.
The younger girl marched up and towered over me. Although I was older by almost three years, Katniss had always been taller than me. Hell, the girl stood at five foot nine. Me on the other hand, I barely topped off at five feet. Everyone that had known my parents always said that I looked just like them. I had never really known them though. I just had some pictures. If it weren't for the small photo album I had of them, I would have no idea what they even looked like. There was one way but I wasn't turning to that.
Giving Katniss a lopsided smile, she ignored me and grabbed my shoulders, shaking me. "What was that about Aspen?" Katniss howled.
She had always tried to use her height against me. She thought that it would make me angry or afraid of her. She didn't realize that my lower height actually just gave me a shorter tolerance. And I was getting to my wits end with Katniss. I had tried to make things better with Prim and I had succeeded. So I rolled my eyes. I could either be nice and apologize for whatever it was that I had done wrong or I could be an ass about the whole thing and play dumb. I already knew what I'd do.
"My dear Catnip, I have no idea what you're talking about."
To my complete pleasure I saw that Katniss's eyebrow briefly twitched at the mention of her childhood nickname. Myself and our other best friend, Gale Hawthorne, had been out hunting one day when we came across Katniss. I'd known her and been placed mostly in Ms. Everdeen's care, but up until then we hadn't been very close. It was only after we met through Gale that we had become like sister. He had asked her what her name was and when she told us Gale had thought she'd said Catnip. To this day I still used the name whenever she was annoyed with me. And that was quite a bit.
Moving to the side, Katniss followed me as we walked through the woods. "Aspen! Wait up!" she yelled.
As we walked, Katniss slowly caught up to me. "Hurry up. We don't have much time today," I called back.
"Thought I saw something up on the west bank earlier," Katniss said.
"Let's check it out."
It took her a few seconds to actually catch up to me. I'd always been a little faster with moving around than she was. When she finally did manage to catch up to me, I actually felt bad about having ever said anything to her in the first place. It took me a little longer than it should have to realize that this day was as hard on her as it was on Prim. Katniss's face looked broken and it tore me apart. I would do anything in my power to protect her and Prim, even if it meant dying myself.
"Why did you say that to Prim?" Katniss asked.
"You know why," I muttered.
"You really would take her place?"
"You know that answer as well as I do."
"Well now she has it in her head that you're going to get picked today," Katniss told me.
It made me feel a little bad. I sighed and continued forward with Katniss close on my tail. "At least I won't have to worry about Prim. At least I can keep her safe for her first year," I told the younger girl.
"You shouldn't need to," Katniss snapped.
Fighting the urge to slap her, I sighed softly. "Well I do," I bit back.
The two of us fell into a brief silence as I grunted, fighting to climb over a fallen log. The moment that I'd landed back on my feet I heaved my chest as I swung up over another log. Katniss had always hated this path to our spot, as it was much more obstructed than the one that she liked, but I loved it. It made me feel like I was out on the playgrounds that were in the Capitol. It made me feel like I was a monkey. Like I was free to roam around and jump and swing. Maybe a little silly, but it was the freedom that I wanted. It was the freedom that I would never have. That none of us would ever have.
"Aspen, you can't do that," Katniss said, racing to catch up to me.
It just showed how much I should be in the Games over her. I had the shorter legs but I tended to move a lot faster than Katniss. Speed was one of the many skills that I possessed that made me confident that if I was to ever get Reaped, I would have a fighting chance. There were a number of things that made me confident enough. Not that I would ever want to be in the Games. Turning back to Katniss, I let out an exasperated breath and shrugged at her, wanting to avoid a fight.
"Why is that, Katniss?" I asked.
"You know why," she said.
"Because it's not fair to you," she muttered.
"It's not fair to you either. You have a family that you need to take care of. I have no one except for your family and Gale's. I don't need to stay alive for anyone. I'd have a better chance in the arena than you and you know it," I argued.
Katniss let a shocked face fall for a moment before going back to her normally stoic look. "I don't know what you mean," she said.
"Don't bullshit me. That's right, I know all about your deal with yourself. If Prim does get Reaped today, you'll take her spot. I'm no moron. I know and Gale knows too."
"I guess neither one of you can be surprised. Gale would do the same for his siblings."
"So why can't I do it for Prim?" I asked.
"Because I'm not really her sister? I know that. I know that just as well as you do. But she is my family. You both are," I growled.
The guilt was evident in Katniss's eyes. "I wasn't going to say that," she whispered.
"I know," I said honestly. I knew that Katniss thought of me as a sister as much as she did Prim. "Cat, I'd be better in there than you. We both know that. If she gets Reaped, I'll take her spot. You will stay here and help her grow up. Help her take care of your mother. She needs her sister, not me."
As I expected, Katniss opened her mouth to argue with me. "Aspen -"
I cut her off before she got the chance to say anything. "No, Katniss. My word is final and you would do best to listen to me. You know that I'm right," I told her.
"You're not as smart as you like to think you are," Katniss said.
It almost made me smile. It wasn't common for her to make little jokes like that. "Maybe it'll come back to bite me one day. We're here," I told her.
Leaning down, I grabbed her bow and handed it off to the younger girl. It was old and valuable so I was very careful with it. Searching through my array of weapons, I picked up my sheath with my three throwing knives and strapped them to me. I usually used knives on days that I was angry as they were better for taking the anger out. Looking over at Katniss, I saw that her bow and arrows were strapped to her. I wanted to open my mouth, but I thought better of it. She didn't need to hear any more from me.
"You take the right, I'll take the left. Meet at our usual spot in twenty minutes," I told her before walking off.
I knew that she probably still wanted to talk to me, to try and fix the strange argument that we'd just had, but I wasn't in the mood. I never was on this day. Although I think I have more reason to hate Reaping Day than others do. My mother had gotten pregnant with me at a young age. She had been sixteen and my father had been eighteen. It wasn't uncommon for poor mine workers to have children young. My parents certainly hadn't been the only teenage parents. That year had been the beginning of it all. The curse that for some reason had fallen on my family.
My father had gotten Reaped that year, just weeks before my due date and his own nineteenth birthday, and promised my mother that he would come back to her and to me. It would have been the first time that he had been able to see his daughter. But it hadn't worked out that way. He had known his way around knives and been a decent hand-to-hand combat man. That was what people had told me at least. Hell he had made it far from what I'd heard. Been in the final two. Him and the District 2 male. But the District 2 Tribute had pierced him in the heart with his sword, killing my father.
It wasn't a shock to anyone. They were always some of the best Tributes. His death had destroyed my mother from what I had heard. But she vowed to raise me properly. Unfortunately things hadn't worked in her favor. Just under two years after I had been born, my mother had gotten Reaped. Like my father, my mother had been skilled in combat. Although her own skills had been with a bow, just like Katniss. But just like clockwork, in the final two, my mother had been stabbed in the heart by the District 2 male.
Both of my parents had left me their weapons and apparently I had been born with their skills. But that didn't matter. I always liked to train by myself, making sure that I was ready if the family curse continued with me. So far I only had this Reaping to go. If I wasn't picked, then the family curse would end with my parents. But if it didn't end there I had one goal. It wasn't to live. It was to kill the District 2 male. I wanted to stab him in the heart. I wanted to make sure that he feels the same agony that my parents felt when they died.
It wasn't really his fault. It was more of a revenge thing. After all, the District One and Two Tributes are normally volunteers. They train from a young age for the Games and when they're eighteen, they volunteer. It's technically illegal to train for the Games, but the Capitol turns a blind eye to it. They want a good game and the District One and Two Tributes normally give them one. They signed up for it, which made it easier for me to think about killing them. But I was getting ahead of myself, the Reaping hadn't even happened yet. And I might actually make it through. Although, I had never been one to have much luck.
A crack of a tree branch snapped me out of my thoughts and I raised my knife. I had never seen a wolf or anything too dangerous out here, but it was better to be safe than sorry. In this society dying from a wolf while hunting was something to laugh at. Not when there were so many more creative ways that the Capitol could think to do it. Scanning through the forest I saw that only about one hundred feet from where I was standing, there was a deer. A big one too.
As quietly as possible, I moved over a fallen tree trunk and placed myself behind a bush not even fifty feet away from the deer. A large smile was spread over my face. I hadn't seen a deer in a damn long time. I knew that it would go for a good amount at the Hob. Or we could eat the entire thing. It would be dinner for almost a week. I just knew that I would be happy with something like that for dinner. I'd been living mostly on soup for the past few days as the woods had been relatively empty.
Slipping a knife from my sheath, I raised it to the side of my head and prepared to throw it. But for a moment I stopped and stared at the deer. Part of me didn't want to kill it. The animal looked so peaceful and so happy. It wasn't fair of me to kill it. Then again, life isn't fair. Just as I prepared to throw, I saw Katniss on the other side of the bank with an arrow nocked. Turns out I wasn't the only one that wanted the deer. Shaking my head at her, she spotted me and nodded, letting me know that she was going to let me shoot it.
Taking a deep breath, I prepared to throw the knife when a voice rang out, shattering the silence. "What're you gonna do with that when you kill it?"
It was the voice of my other best friend, Gale Hawthorne. Unsurprisingly, the deer took off running at the sudden noise. In a panic at losing the food I threw the knife and it just barely grazed the ear of the deer. Definitely not a kill shot. Clearly not wanting to lose the deer either, Katniss raised her bow and shot for the deer. But she too, missed. Her arrow had flown over the head of the deer. Shaking my head, I gave up on the deer. It had sprinted off and we didn't have the time to track it now.
Whipping around to my male best friend, I saw that he was laughing and I felt my breath shorten and my eyes narrow. That could have been dinner for all of us and our families. For a few days maybe. All I Knew was that it was better than the garbage that we had been eating recently. My stomach gave a low growl and I groaned. Now all I could think about was the loss of my dinner.
"Fuck you, Gale!" I yelled at the same time that Katniss had yelled, "Damn you."
Growling at him, I walked over to him and punched his shoulder. He held his arm from the punch but continued to chuckle. "Thought you were faster than that?" Gale asked me.
"It's not funny," both Katniss and I told him at the same time.
Gale laughed at the two of us and pulled me into him. "What're you gonna do with a hundred pound deer, Tiger? Hey Katnip."
Both of us rolled our eyes at the nicknames that we had been graced by Gale. I had gotten my nickname from the first time that I had met Gale. He had been chasing me through the woods because I had stolen his bird. I had been getting away but he had longer legs. Once he had finally caught me, I had put up a hell of a fight where I had left scratch marks all over him. From then on Tiger had been Gale's favorite name to call me. It was also not long after that, that the two of us had met Katniss. And the three of us had been best friends since then.
"It's Reaping Day, the place is crawling with Peacekeepers," Gale said as he let me out of his vice grip.
Shaking my head at Gale I rolled my eyes. "I know that, Gale. I was gonna sell it. To Peacekeepers..." I muttered the last part.
Katniss came up to the two of us with my knife in hand. "Here," she said.
"Thanks," I said, smiling at her and grabbing the knife to sheath it, watching as she put the wasted arrow back into its sheath.
"Of course you were," Gale said with a slight eye roll.
This time it was Katniss that stepped in. "Like you don't sell the Peacekeepers," she told him.
Not saying anything, I nodded at her. He sold to them all the time, I had been with him before when he had done it. The Peacekeepers were supposed to keep us from illegally selling items and hunting, but if it was beneficial to them, they would turn a blind eye to it. The whole thing was fine by me. It meant that I could feed myself and the Hawthorne's and Everdeen's, while being able to keep up my skills. My own form of training in case the day ever came that I was Reaped. Or if I had to step in, in the case that Katniss or Prim were Reaped.
"No!" Gale yelled.
I jumped at the sudden volume change and turned to Gale. "Quiet. We don't know whose close," I whispered.
"Not today," he said, quieter after realizing that he had startled me and at my warning.
I wanted to fight him on it, but he was right. Just because the Peacekeepers here in District 12 turned a blind eye to the illegal activities that went on all around 12, didn't mean that those from the Capitol would be so kind to it. About half of the Peacekeepers here today were from the Capitol. And most of the Peacekeepers in the Capitol wanted nothing more than to see the Districts suffer. Even though I knew that he was right, I still sighed. I had lost out on that deer big time. Someone at The Hob - District 12's illegal black market - would have paid an arm and a leg for it.
"It's the first deer I've seen in a year. Now, I have nothing," I told him with my head down.
"That's the first animal I've seen in a week," Katniss muttered.
It was better safe than sorry, but that didn't mean that I was happy about losing my deer. Deer were pretty rare around here. Once a year was about all we saw them. It just figured that we would see one on the day of the Reaping. The one day a year where we couldn't do anything about it. It was also true that the animals were gone. They normally cleared out with the commotion during the Games. Gale pulled me into him and gave me a small hug.
"Okay," he said, let ting me go and picking up a rock.
"What are you doing?" I asked. I raised one eyebrow and saw that Katniss was giving him the same look.
"Don't talk. Here, watch this," Gale said.
He chucked the rock at a tree just a few yards from where we were standing. Right when the rock hit the trunk of the tree a flock of birds flew out of the leaves. Chicken was good enough for me. As quickly as I could, I grabbed a knife and flung it at the birds, while Katniss shot an arrow at the flock. Not a moment later two birds fell out of the sky, landing a few feet in front of us. The two of us rarely missed shots and I smiled, feeling better for making up the missed deer. I looked at the birds and laughed. Bulls-eyes.
"Nice," I told Gale.
"Good shooting," he told us.
"I'm still pissed about the deer," I growled. We all laughed as Gale grabbed me and dragged me away from the site.
Ten minutes later, we had the small birds stuffed in our bags and the three of us were sitting in a small clearing. We had found it not long after we had met Katniss and it had quickly become our favorite spot to sit. It was so peaceful out here, like there was nothing that could get to us. No Capitol, no Reaping, no Games. If only. I knew that we were all thinking about the Games, but everyone's mind was somewhere else. I was sure that Gale were thinking about how it was our last year, just like me. Katniss was surely thinking about Prim. But so was I. Would I volunteer if she was called? Absolutely.
"What if they did?" Gale asked, cutting off my train of thought.
I gave him a curious look. "What are you talking about?" I asked.
"Just one year. What if everyone just stopped watching?" he clarified.
I shook my head. Not this again. Every year when the Games came on, we were all required to watch them. Here in 12 it was really the only time of year our television even worked. The Capitol didn't care enough to fix it at any other time of the year. Gale had been thinking about this for a long time. If one year people didn't watch it, the Capitol wouldn't have a show. But that would never happen. People either actually liked it, or were too afraid to disobey the Capitol.
"They won't, Gale," Katniss said before I got the chance.
I hoped that it would end there, but I knew that it wouldn't. Gale would want to drag this thing out. "What if they did? What if we did?" Gale asked, looking over myself and Katniss.
It didn't matter if three people didn't watch the Games. They would just kill us and make us an example for anyone that was thinking the same thing. "Won't happen," I told Gale.
He didn't want to take that for an answer as he continued to badger us about it. "You root for your favorite, you cry when they get killed. It's sick," he said.
"Of course it's sick. That's the point. But they don't care about three teenagers. We don't watch the Games and we get killed or something of the likes. Everyone is too afraid to do anything. The people that aren't get executed. It's not a fight that we can win," I said.
"We haven't tried fighting," Gale said.
Deep down inside I knew that he was right. But it didn't make any difference what we felt. The people of the Capitol loved the Games. Not that they had any reason not to. The children of the Capitol had always been exempt from the Games. We all knew that they wouldn't love it if they were forced to participate as well. If they felt the fear that we did, every year when we waited for the name to be read out. When we waited to see if we would be safe for one more year.
"Gale," I warned.
We never knew who was listening and I didn't want to risk any more than we already were by being out here. Gale looked over at me and held me by the shoulders. "If no one watches... Then they don't have a game. It's as simple as that. What?" he asked Katniss, who was giggling at him.
Gale let go of my shoulders and looked at the younger girl. Katniss was two years younger than us, but she fit right in. She looked up at Gale and shook her head at him. "Nothing," Katniss told him.
After a beat of silence, Gale looked away and stared off into the distance with a slightly hurt look crossing his face. "Fine, laugh at -" Gale began to say before Katniss cut him off.
"I'm not laughing at you," she said.
The conversation dwindled to nothing for a while and I sat, staring off towards the Town Square, where the Reaping would be held in a few hours. The Reaping was presented live so that it would go in sequential order of the Districts, making District 12 the last to go. It was so that people could watch all of the Reapings, but it really only worked if you lived in the Capitol. Just like everything else. Once more, Gale spoke up and I had to repress a sigh. It was the same thing that we heard every year from him.
"We could do it, you know? Take off. Live in the woods," he told us.
It wouldn't work. We could try, but there was no way that it would work. "It wouldn't work," I told Gale.
There was nothing past District 12, nowhere to go. Nothing to eat. If the Capitol didn't kill us, either the dehydration or starvation would. "What would we do anyway? They'd catch us," Katniss said.
I nodded at her. She was right. There was no ending that would turn out good for us if we chose to leave and try to live in the woods. Gale shrugged his shoulders at her. "Maybe not," he said.
I knew that he was trying to stay calm to avoid a fight with either myself or Katniss. Today was a day that we should all be able to be happy together, not be at each other's throats. Not yet at least. But we all tended to fight a fair bit, particularly as tempers ran high on Reaping Day. Once more, Katniss shook her head at Gale, keeping her focus on the Town Square.
"Cut out our tongues or worse. We wouldn't make it five miles," she said.
I hated to admit it, but she was right. The Capitol could just send an aircraft for us. They'd have us in their custody, and maybe dead, inside of ten minutes. "I'm a little fond of my tongue so I'll take a hard pass," I muttered, clawing at the grass.
Gale laughed at her - or maybe me - and shook his head. "No, I'd get five miles. We'll go that way," he said, pointing to the woods.
He was pointing out towards where District 13 had once stood. The District that's specialty had been nuclear technology. Weapons. It was probably a good thing that they had been the district that had gotten destroyed. For the Capitol anyways. It would have been great for them to still be around for us. Shaking me from my thoughts about the non-existent District, Katniss's voice brought me back to reality.
"I have Prim. You have your brothers," Katniss said.
She was right; Rory, Vick, and Posy. Those were Gale's brothers and they were all far too young to make it in the woods. Hell, they weren't even old enough to be in the Reaping. There was no way that they could make it. And Prim... well she wasn't exactly the type to make it in the woods. She was more of an indoors type of person. That was most of the reason that I would be willing to volunteer for her. I knew that she wouldn't make it more than a day or two in the Games.
Shrugging his shoulders, Gale looked over at Katniss. "They can come too," Gale said.
I laughed at him. Rory, Vick, and Posy were too young. If they got sick from something, there was a good chance that they would die. There was no way that we would be able to risk any of them. Particularly not because we all cared very deeply for the three little boys. I was pretty sure that Prim would rather take her chances with the Reaping than live in the woods.
"Prim in the woods?" Katniss asked, voicing my thoughts about the youngest Everdeen.
Gale seemed to think about it for a moment before laughing and shaking his head. "Maybe not," he said.
Leaning back slightly I sighed. It turned out that our discussion had gone better than last year when it had turned into a screaming match between the three of us. We were all hotheads, which wasn't very helpful in arguments. After a few beats of silence, Katniss finally spoke up.
"I'm never having kids," she said.
"Me either," I agreed.
It wasn't something that I even needed a moment to think about. It wasn't something that I'd ever really needed to think about. It wasn't fair of us to have to bring kids into a world like this. Maybe if it were different, but not like this. Not where I might have to watch my kids go off and never come back. To die and never get to live an actual life. Gale seemed to think on it for a moment before speaking up.
"I might. If I didn't live here," he said.
Gale's words made me smile. He had always been the friendliest out of the three of us. It was something that always impressed me. I hated kids anyways, but he had a good point. They might not be too bad of an idea if we lived in a place where The Hunger Games didn't exist. It just wasn't fair to them, to bring them into a world like this. As much as a downer as ever, Katniss shook her head.
"But you do live here," she pointed out.
Gale turned to her and glared, making me laugh slightly. "I know, but if I didn't. Oh, I forgot. Here," Gale said, turning to rummage through his pack.
I'd always told him that he kept far too many things in his pack. He was never able to find anything that he needed. Hopefully we would never be in a life or death situation. Both Katniss looked at the pack and waited patiently as Gale rummaged in the pack for whatever it was that he had forgotten about until now. With Gale taking too long, I poked him in the side sharply. He turned back for the briefest of seconds to glare at me.
"Come on Gale, hurry up. Might go to the Reaping early if you're gonna take his long," I teased.
"Funny," he muttered.
Gale turned back to me and shoved me with a small smirk on his face. Even if I'd had the balance to counteract his movements I didn't bother. I merely laughed and hit the grass but quickly pulled myself back up. I felt like we had needed something to brighten the mood of the day. Even if it was just a dumb joke. Gale seemed to finally get what it was that he wanted when he pulled it out. It was a loaf of bread that looked like it had come from the Mellark's bakery. And it looked fresh too.
"Oh my God! Is this real?" Katniss squealed, jumping forward and grabbing the loaf of bread from Gale.
"You're joking!" I cried.
Even from here it could smell fantastic. I laughed and sat by her as she tore Gale and me a piece from the loaf. I smiled and dug into the bread, basking at the warmth and freshness of the bread. It wasn't too often that I tasted something like that. I couldn't even remember the last time that I had bread that didn't taste like it was made out of rocks. I heard a bark of laughter and shot Gale a dark glare. I was sure that I looked ridiculous but it was fresh bread. That stuff was way too good to pass up.
"Yeah. Better be. Cost me a squirrel. Happy Hunger Games," Gale toasted.
"And may the odds be ever in your favor," the three of us said the last part together.
It was the stupid saying that our escort, Effie Trinket, had come up with, way back when she had first become an Escort. They were the people that no one quite knew what they were for. I supposed that they were a personal relations expert. They got the Tributes back and forth where they needed to be and also told us what they were supposed to be acting like. They were also the ones that transported them from their Districts to the Capitol. Effie had been the District 12 Escort for as long as I could remember. As we all ate our bread in a content silence, I looked over at Katniss.
"How many times did you put your name in today?" Katniss asked both Gale and me.
I shook my head and pointed to Gale, wanting him to go first. "You go," I muttered.
He sighed but finally nodded. "Forty-two. I guess the odds aren't exactly in my favor," he said with a small laugh.
I wasn't good odds but it still wasn't as bad as mine. Katniss and Gale both looked over at me and I sighed. "Well, just keep in mind, I have to take care of myself so I need to take out more of the Tessera. Now I want no comments, okay?" I asked my two friends.
They both nodded and I took a deep breath. "Just tell us," Gale snapped.
"One hundred and twenty-three slips."
Their eyes widened but I shook my head. They had said no comments and I was going to hold them to that. I knew that I was fucked, I didn't need to hear it again. The three of us ate the rest of our food in silence before we headed out of the woods. Katniss and I hid our weapons in the tree trunk where we always did and said a quick goodbye to Gale. I headed off to the left of the Seam with Katniss and the two of us said our goodbyes so that we could get ready for the Reaping. Unfortunately we all had to dress up for the Reaping for it was considered a formal event. I gave Katniss a hug and pulled her into me.
"I'll meet you out here in thirty minutes so we can walk over together," I said.
"Deal. Help me with Prim on the way?" she asked.
Katniss nodded at me and I moved away from her, heading to my small home. We were next door neighbors and had been for the past few years. All of the homes in the Seam were falling apart, but few were quite as dilapidated as mine was. I walked in and sighed. No matter how much I cleaned or anything of the sorts the house always looked like it was about to fall apart. I would have to be careful. During the next winter - when the snow came down in droves - I was sure that the roof would collapse. Another day and another problem.
Taking off my boots, I stripped off my brown leather jacket, black shirt, and bleached white pants. They had apparently been my mothers so naturally I always wore them. It felt like I had something of her with me at all times. Grabbing my tin tub, I ran the bath with cold water and jumped in. Shaking from the cold, I ran the soap over my body and washed the dirt and grease out of my hair as quickly as I could. I tried to keep baths as short as possible. Stepping out I looked down and saw that the water was brown. I smirked at the thought of the horrified faces of the Capitol citizens if they saw how their precious Tributes bathed.
At least, those of us in the outer Districts. The ones in the inner Districts might have at least been able to bathe with warm water. I would have loved that. The freezing water made the dirt almost more comforting than the thought of the cold water. Circling the bathtub, pushing and shoving it back into the corner of the house, I walked over to my full length mirror and examined myself.
My long light blonde hair fell over my shoulders and hit the middle of my back. It was too long but I didn't feel like cutting it. I ran a brush through it quickly and squeezed the water out. Staring at my naked body I saw that my muscles were prominent but not extreme. I looked strong, but a healthy strong. Although the dark circles under my eyes said otherwise. My skin was tan from all the days that I had spent hunting, but the dark areas were still easy to see. I usually had a hard time sleeping. I was always plagued with nightmares about my parents in the Games.
Shaking my head again, I looked over my curves. I had them as they had come in not long after my twelfth birthday. The older female residents of the Hob had always said that most girls would die for them, but I didn't care. There really wasn't anyone that I had to look pretty for. I had never had a boyfriend before and it was common knowledge that I would either marry Gale or someone that I ended up working with. And that was only if I made it past this Reaping.
I gave a quick spin and saw what the Hob residents were talking about. I did have a flat stomach, although that might be from being malnourished. I had a large chest, but not so much that running was difficult. I had short legs but they were nicely tanned and slim, the strong kind of slim. I looked at my face and smiled; it was the one part of myself that I liked. I had a heart shaped face that had high cheekbones and bright blue eyes with freckles lightly dusted under them. Sighing I looked away from the mirror. Who cared what I look like? The Capitol. They didn't care if their residents were starving or dying or anything else.
Walking into the bedroom area of my house, I went into the small dresser that Katniss had given me and grabbed the only garment that was in the bottom drawer. It was a garment that I had only worn six times before. It was a dark blue dress that dipped slightly in the front, had a low back, and came up to my mid thighs. It hugged my curves slightly but was still a little lose. It was the nicest pair of clothing that I owned. I loved the dress but only for the reason that it had been my mothers.
Trying to force myself to remember that everything would be over in a few hours, I walked over to the door and grabbed the black sandals that were covered in dust from having not been worn in a year. Every other day I wore my boots that were falling apart. Turning back to my mirror, I gave myself a once over. Once I was satisfied that I looked acceptable I grabbed a hair tie and headed towards the door. Pulling half of my hair up, I tightened the loop in my hair and walked out the door, slamming it behind me.
Making a slight dash to Katniss's house, trying to ignore the little sniffles and sobs that were coming from other kids on their way to the Reaping, I walked in the front door of the house. Almost immediately I was met with the sight of Katniss, Prim, and their mother. They were all standing together in the living room of the house. I smiled at the three women and walked up closer. They all looked as nice as I had ever seen the three Everdeen women.
"You look lovely," Ms. Everdeen told me.
I smiled at her. "Thank you Ms. Everdeen. So do you," I told her.
She smiled back at me before I walked forward to where Katniss and Prim were standing together. I felt bad for the Everdeen's. They had lost their father in a mining accident, but at least they had their mother. I had neither. Walking over to the girls I smiled at them. Katniss was wearing a pretty blue dress with her hair up. Prim had her hair up the same way, but she was wearing a white dress shirt and a grey skirt, the way that most younger girls dressed for the Reaping. Soon enough she would be wearing the same dress that Katniss was wearing for Reapings.
"You ladies ready to go?" I asked them.
They both nodded and we all walked out of the house. "Let's get this over with," Katniss muttered.
Glancing down I noticed that Prim was nervous. "You okay, Prim?" I asked her.
"Will it be fast?" she asked me.
"It just takes a few minutes. Not to worry. We'll go out and take care of your goat afterwards, okay?" I asked.
She smiled at me. "Okay," she said weakly.
The three of us made our way down the street as we met up with the other thousand or so kids that would be participating in the Reaping this year. District 12 was one of the larger Districts in Panem. We had more children than others. The walk was almost silent towards the Square. The only noise that was being made was the crunch of gravel under our shoes as we made our way to the Town Square. I shook my head at the sight. It felt like we were cattle being led to slaughter. Although I guess that was basically what we were.
We came up to the Square and I scowled at the view. It looked the same that it did every year, but there was something different about this year. Maybe it was because Prim was actually eligible to be in the Reaping this year. But she would be fine. There was no way that she would be Reaped. Not when there were so many other names in the Reaping Ball. The entire area was coated with Peacekeepers and the families of the children that were in the Reaping this year.
As usual, there were people betting on who would be Reaped from the pool. People always did it to make some extra money. After all most of us were just numb to the losses year after year. I used to think that it was cruel but now I found that I didn't blame them. They weren't doing it to be malicious, they just needed the money. Katniss, Prim, and I turned to follow the crowd and found ourselves in the line that would prick our finger to check that we were at the Reaping. Unless you were on your deathbed, it was a requirement to be at the Reaping.
Keeping Prim between Katniss and me, I grabbed her hand and as we got closer to the table. It was the part that I had been the most nervous for during my own first Reaping. Gale had been the one that had managed to pull me with him. Two years later we had helped Katniss along. I felt Prim tighten her grip and back away from the table. I stopped and saw that the younger girl was slowly backing away from the table. It looked like she was about to have a panic attack. I'd been expecting this. Walking over to the younger girl, I bent down by her and went to consoling her with Katniss.
"Shh. Shh. Prim, it's okay. It's okay. Shh," Katniss said while I pulled Prim into me.
"You're gonna be fine, sweetie. Just keep it together for a few minutes, okay?" I asked her.
"What if I - I'm not?" Prim asked.
"You'll be fine. We're all gonna be fine," I said.
As I was petting Prim's forehead I saw a Peacekeeper come up from behind us. "Okay, it's time to send her now," the Peacekeeper told us.
Prim began to panic again and I groaned, standing up and glaring at the man - or woman, I couldn't really tell. Standing straight up, I turned to the Peacekeeper and had to restrain myself from spitting in their face. "Can't you give us a second? Ceremony doesn't start for another five minutes. Pretend like you have a heart," I growled at the Peacekeeper before squatting back down.
Judging by the look on Katniss's face, she wasn't happy that I'd just spoken out like that. But I didn't care. This was hard enough. They didn't need to make it worse. I had expected a blow to the head or something, but the crunch of gravel told me that the Peacekeeper had decided to walk away. As I gripped the younger girl's hand, Katniss pointed Prim to the table where they were checking the ID's of the children.
"Okay, they will prick your finger to take just a little bit of blood," Katniss told her younger sister.
Prim shook for a moment before looking over Katniss and me. "I'm scared," she mumbled to us.
I shook my head at her and gave Prim a small hug. "There's nothing to be scared of. You're safe," I told her.
When I released her, Katniss grabbed her sister by the shoulders and pulled her closer. "Prim, it doesn't hurt much. Just a little. Okay? Go sit down there with the little kids. I'll find you after okay?" Katniss offered.
Her legs were shaking, but there were other twelve-year-old kids that were screaming in tears. It would only be a matter of seconds before they all silenced themselves, knowing that the punishment for crying or making noise was miserable. Prim nodded and walked ahead. I let out a breath as I saw that her finger was pricked and she went to take her spot at the back of the crowd. The younger kids were in the back and the older in the front, as we had a greater chance of being picked.
"You alright?" I asked Katniss.
"It's your last year. Congratulations," Katniss said, squeezing my hand.
"Do me a favor?"
Katniss raised her eyebrows. "What?" she asked.
"Don't tell me that for another ten minutes."
The corners of her lips quirked upwards into a smile. "Deal," she said.
I nodded at Katniss and she went ahead of me. "Next. Next. Go ahead," the woman told Katniss as she was scanned. I watched with sharp eyes as Katniss walked ahead and took her spot with the other sixteen-year-old kids. "Next. Next. Next. Next."
Despite my slight fear of needles I walked up to her and held out my finger. Grimacing at the sharp pain, I shook my head and walked into the area where they kept all of the kids. I shook my head as a morbid thought crossed my mind. In just about two weeks, two of the kids standing here would be dead. I'd like to think that they would have a chance, but they didn't. District 12 never stood a chance. Our Tributes were always two of the first to die with our lack of survival skills and general undernourishment.
Walking over to the front of the area, where the rest of the eighteen-year-old kids were standing, I looked back and saw Katniss and Prim in the female section. I noticed that the people standing around me looked to be a mix of relieved and terrified. We were all almost done with the Hunger Games. Scanning the crowd to my right, I saw that Gale was two rows ahead of me in the male section. He mouthed a quick 'good luck' and I mouthed the same thing back. The area was dead silent by now. This wasn't really the time for anyone to be talking.
The clicking of heels caught my attention. I looked up to the stage and saw that our Escort, Effie Trinket, was taking her place at the microphone. I nearly laughed at the sight of her. This year her theme seemed to be a horrible fuchsia. This year she had bright pink with pale face paint, or something like that. Makeup didn't make much sense to me. The woman looked ridiculous, just like she did every year. Also on the stage was the Mayor, his daughter Madge, and the only living Victor of District 12.
District 12 had only ever produced two victors. The first of whom was long dead, and the second was Haymitch Abernathy. He had competed the year of the second Quarter Quell, a special Games every twenty-five years, and had won by figuring out how to use the force field to his advantage. That year, instead of two Tributes from every district, there were four. That meant that forty-seven kids had died that year. Unlikable then, he still wasn't much better. A complete drunk, Haymitch was always found passed out with a bottle in his hands. I couldn't say that I blamed the man. He had seen, and done, some awful things.
Effie's squeaky voice made me jump and I stared straight ahead at the stage. She was starting to welcome everyone as the cameras panned over the crowd to show the Capitol their last District Reaping. Not that they probably cared. They had already gotten their Career Tributes and that was all that they cared about. I wasn't staring at Effie, but at the crystal balls that held the names of all eligible kids. One for the boys and one for the girls. One hundred and twenty-three of those slips had my name on them. One had Prim's. I was sure that about sixty had Katniss's name on them. And forty-two had Gale's.
"Welcome. Welcome. Welcome. Happy Hunger Games. And... may the odds be ever in your favor," Effie greeted. I snorted at the stupid saying that Effie had coined years ago. She sounded moronic with her Capitol accent and the saying just made it even worse. "Now, before we begin. We have a very special film. Brought to you all the way from the Capitol."
No one really knew why she made it sound like it was such a big deal. It was the same video that they showed, year after year, that made the Districts sound like we had been the bad guys. Was that supposed to make us feel better that the Capitol was sending two of our residents off to fight against other innocent kids? Was that supposed to change the fact that this day was about to destroy two more innocent families? No. But did they care? No. And they never would.
I looked over at Gale and saw that he was mocking the words as they were said by the man in the video. He had always been my comfort during the Reaping. He was always the one that I could look at and managed to smile at. He was much funnier than people liked to think that he was. I laughed slightly and rolled my eyes when I saw the scowl of two girls standing next to me. We were just trying to make light of a bad situation. I noticed that Katniss had been smiling at him too. I tried to focus on the words of the man narrating the video.
"War, terrible war. Widows, orphans, a motherless child. This was the uprising that rocked our land. Thirteen Districts rebelled against the country that fed them, loved them, protected them." I wasn't the only person to snort. "Brother turned on brother until nothing remained. And then came the peace, hard fought, sorely won. A people rose up from the ashes and a new era was born. But freedom has a cost. When the traitors were defeated, we swore as a nation we would never know this treason again. And so it was decreed that, each year, the various Districts of Panem would offer up, in tribute, one young man and woman to fight to the death in a pageant of honor, courage and sacrifice. The lone Victor, bathed in riches, would serve as a reminder of our generosity and our forgiveness. This is how we remember our past. This is how we safeguard our future."
The video ended and I rolled my eyes at the clapping that was sounding from the stage. It made me so furious that the people in the Capitol really thought that we were the monsters here. We were the people that had tried so hard to actually make our lives work. We were the ones that were beaten down and killed for no reason. The Capitol were the real monsters. Effie slowly stopped her clapping as she realized that no one else was happy with this. All this was to our District was a nightmare. A nightmare that we couldn't get out of until this day was over.
"I just love that. Now, the time has come to select one courageous young man and woman. For the honor of representing District 12 in the Seventy-Fourth Annual Hunger Games," she said brightly. I rolled my eyes as Effie dragged out her speech. Come on, just pick the names and let me go home. "As usual... ladies first."
The moment that she stopped speaking I felt my heart rate pick up as her horribly gloved hand found its way into the glass ball. Not Prim, not Katniss, and not me. Please not us. Effie swirled her hand around in the ball for a few moments, even faking out picking some papers, and I had to cover my mouth to keep myself from shouting at her to hurry the hell up. As her hand finally stopped moving she reached down and pulled out the paper. My breath stopped as she slowly opened the paper and her eyes scanned over the paper once to read the name to herself first.
Then, finally, the name was read aloud. "Primrose Everdeen!"
A/N: Like most of my older stories, I'm currently editing Revenge. So give me some time as I do that. Let me know what you think! Until next time -A