Author's Important Note of Dire Importance: To say that lately I've been fangasming over the Hunger Games trilogy would be an understatement. I have fallen madly and hopelessly in love with it the second I laid eyes on the first book. So I thought, what could possibly be more badass than combining the two things I love most at the moment? And then, the first chapter of this was born. Yadayada I not speak language of your tribe since birth yadayada
Pairing: None as of yet, but you know me and I know myself fairly well too, so I'd say expect future Swan Queen vibes because of reasons that are entirely too related to the plot. And mainly I just can't resist writing Swan Queen. And Red Swan. And Red Queen and…
PS: I know Ruby is probably older than eighteen but for the sake of the story, let's jumble up the age of certain characters a bit (because hell, Once needs more minors when it comes to me having to write with them).
Chapter 1: Once Upon a Reaping
Once upon a time, there was an enchanted forest filled with all the classic characters we know – or think we know. One day they found themselves trapped in a place where all their happy endings were stolen.
"What did you tell them?" asked the Evil Queen upon discovering that her mortal enemies, Snow White and Prince Charming, had been searching for ways to prevent her curse from happening.
"The truth! That nothing can stop the darkness!" Rumplestiltskin hissed. Indeed, his mannerisms quite often bore resemblance to snakes – in voice, in swiftness, and in venom too. Behind bars, however, he posed no threat to the Queen who, more than satisfied with this answer, was already imagining herself as the sole ruler of all the lands, when… "Except, of course, their unborn child. You see, no matter how powerful, all curses can be broken!" sing-songed the imp, watching with a knowing jeer as the Queen's apparent smugness turned to apprehension.
"On the day of her twenty-eighth birthday, the child will return. The child will find you, and the final battle will begin."
I shut the book closed and hide it safely under a fallen tree trunk. Although this might as well be the last day I can read it, I don't need more unhappy endings to start the day with. Besides, the odds are entirely in my favor today. Yes, I am eighteen, but I also have no extra mouths to feed so I never had to trade having my name put in the glass coffin more times than necessary for food.
Here in District 10, the economy is in the gutter, if there even is one, that is. Our job is to raise livestock and provide mostly beef and pork for the Capitol. As for what it means to us, well, in the promos they always say we should be proud of having enough provisions to make for strong and healthy tributes. Everybody knows it's bullshit but no one ever speaks their mind out loud for fear of being prosecuted. All the food goes straight to the Capitol and we get the waste – that is the old meat that's started to rot already – to feed our own stomachs. Legs and heads and tails only, no torso. Moreover, half the district isn't as lucky as to get this, at least. Those who own no cattle can't keep what they never had in the first place and are essentially considered useless to the higher powers. Those who do have cows or goats or pigs would never sell us any – partly because we can't afford to pay a reasonable price and partly because it would mean a decrease in income. Sure, if we were the only customers, they would have to share something with us so that we could pay for their meat or milk in return; but ninety percent of their deals are with the Peacekeepers. They don't need the poor to wear them down.
Then there are people like me, who make a living hunting outside the walls of the district, never staying in one place for too long. The only places I return to is the log with my book and the district school. Not because I'm a student; I've never attended school in my life. It's not like they teach you anything useful – mostly just propaganda about the various ways we should worship the Capitol in our everyday lives. I come there because of one of the teachers. I don't know her full name; everybody just calls her Mary Margaret. She trades with me from time to time. I prefer selling what I can to her because she gives me a cup of hot chocolate every time; it's her way of greeting me. I have no idea where she gets it from, but I'm not stupid enough to ask.
Mary Margaret is about thirty years old from what I can guess – come to think of it, her appearance hasn't changed much for as long as I can remember – and she's always taught first graders. Her hair is short, black as ebony, in contrast with her pale skin, much like the shade of mine. Mary is also the only person who's ever smiled at me for reasons unknown to me. Then again, she smiles at everyone. I consider myself lucky to never have been in her class because her sweetness would probably make me feel sick to my stomach eventually.
Normally, not attending school is strictly forbidden, of course. I'm the only exception (perhaps in the history of the district) because, to put it simply, I don't belong here. Really, I don't. All I know is that the Peacekeepers found me somewhere in the woods as a newborn infant when they were scanning the area for deserters and, because District 10 had the lowest population growth rate at the time, they dropped me off here, no strings attached. It doesn't take a genius to figure out they hoped I would carry children in a few years, like a living incubation box. Luckily I'm not a boy, because if I were, I'm pretty sure they would have killed me on the spot. (Though that depends on your definition of 'lucky'.) And because everyone's life is strictly planned out since their birth here and adding me to the equation would prove to be too much paperwork for the local Peacekeepers' lazy asses, I ended up in the hospital. As soon as I could walk and speak fluently, they kicked me out.
The only thing I remember from that period of my childhood – before I stole my bow and arrows – is Mary Margaret, who shared a loaf of bread with me when I was but a crying, starving child out in the rain. We never talk much, (which I guess is my fault, me not being particularly talkative) but she's about as close as you can get to a friend of mine.
Not today, though. Today, everybody is on their own and for a few hours, we are all, rich and poor, old and young, equal. It's the day of the Reaping; the day they sentence two of our kids to death and send them into the arena to participate in mortal combat against the other districts' recruits. Oddly enough, I'm not as nervous as people would expect me to be. I used to freak out just like everyone else when I was younger, but over the years I grew number and number to the mass hysteria that ensues every year. Besides, like I said, the odds are in my favor today, and it's my last Reaping, too. If I survive this one, I will be free for the rest of my life. Free as far as the cage goes.
I don't know why I hate the Capitol more – because they kill children (and don't tell me they die at the hands of others; it's the Capitol who puts weapons in their hands) or because they make it a celebration. Usually everywhere I look, people are running around in ragged leather pants and simple shirts, up to their necks in dirt from their labor since we're not too keen on hygiene. For most, a bath is a once a month or so occasion because we don't have enough water. During winter months it's even more rare to find a clean person because the water we get is barely ever hot. It's one of the many tolls of living in a peripheral district. Not like I speak from experience; I wash myself and my clothes out in the wild in this lake I know of, and I consider it a blessing.
On Reaping Day, it's that one day of the month. Everyone's as tidy as alabaster and they groom themselves and pick out their finest dresses and suits from a chest which dust is piling up on. A part of me is glad I possess no such chest, since at least in some way I can steer clear of this masquerade. The Peacekeepers make us do this because they want the people to look good on TV, hoping it'll get them transferred to a richer district, or even a luxurious one like 1 or 2. Normally they're quite lenient, proven by the fact that no one's arrested me for trespassing into the woods yet, but on Reaping Day, the punishment for incompliance becomes severe.
It's the same old routine. Everyone must gather in the town center in front of the Justice Building. Once parents have said their goodbyes, they circle the square, leaving their offspring to proceed on their own with hundreds of men in white uniforms (which is their way of dressing for the occasion, too) behind their backs, urging them forward. They don't want to go, but they have no other option. I make my way through the crowd in silence. It's enough half the children are crying and the rest is too terrified to. Before I realize we're there, an officer is drawing a drop of blood from my finger to identify me. Then she calls out, "Next!" like I'm a packaged toy that needs to be shipped to a buyer. I may not be worth much, but I despise being degraded to this level by the president. How I wish I were on the other side of the fence right now! Not because of the Reaping itself, but because out there, I'm free to say whatever I want. Not that I ever do; sometimes, though, I engrave my thoughts into the nature around me. It's a code we both understand. I share something with my mother and in return, she gives me food for the day. It's a perfect system within the flawed world we live in.
My mother. I can't help but wonder about my real mother every year. Is she dead? Is she here? Can she see me in the crowd? Does she know it's me, the daughter she abandoned all those years ago? Is she hoping they choose me so that she doesn't have to be reminded of the weight on her chest any longer? Maybe she doesn't know. Maybe she isn't even here. Maybe she's from another district. Somewhere where it's warmer and happier, with or without me. It brings me comfort how much sense this makes. All my life I've been looking for her – them – in this hellhole, trying to place myself somewhere, watching the people, learning from their behavior, all the while I've been yearning to see a sign that would tell me, "Yes, this is where you belong." No such luck so far, but I'm not willing to give up now, am I? There are a lot of people in District 10. Although if my parents wanted me to find them, they wouldn't make it so hard to look.
Damn it. I'm giving too much significance to this day. I know when I start sniveling a little that I need to snap out of it and pull myself together before tears threaten to fall. After all, we're celebrating.
After what seems like an eternity, the crowd has quieted down and everyone is in place. The mayor, widow Lucas (whom everyone calls simply Granny) is sitting on a chair in the center of the stage, her usually rosy demeanor replaced by a grim frown on her wrinkly face; her granddaughter must be in my age group, too. Yes; I look around and spot Ruby two rows behind me fidgeting nervously. Widow Lucas is tough; she doesn't let worry show anywhere in her posture. The risk of Ruby being taken to the arena is minimal because, being the richest, the mayor's children never have to opt for tesserae for food, so her name is in the reaping ball seven times, like mine. Still, it is an option, and after her mother, it must be haunting her all day. Poor Ruby; all she ever cares about is her dress code (i.e. wear as little as you can) and boys. And occasionally girls when Granny isn't looking. When she has to work, she delivers exclusive food, top class leather and other supplies to customers from around the district, carrying it all in a little basket. There is no way in hell someone like her would last a day in the games.
I turn back to the stage when a shuffling sound distracts me. There he comes – our district's tributes' mentor, Jefferson. He sits down in his chair and looks all the children up and down. When his gaze reaches me, chills run down my spine. An enigmatic fellow, this Jefferson. And I'm not fond of mysteries. Mary Margaret once told me he used to have a limp, but the Capitol fixed him up after he won the games to make him seem more respectable a victor. He seems to have a strange obsession with tea and hats; even now he's taking a sip of the kind they only serve to important people, wearing a comical cylinder that's covering most of his ruffled, blonde-ish hair. At first sight, one could easily mistake him for someone plain and stupid, even, but one look in his eyes tells you he's not someone to be trifled with. Mary Margaret also told me he had lost his wife to an epidemic and now he's alone. There's no one more dangerous than one who has nothing to lose, I think. I stay alert.
And finally, the last member of The Itty Bitty Bickety Committee arrives. He taps the microphone and we fall silent. "Welcome, ladies and gentlemen! Happy Hunger Games!" It's none other than Mr. Gold, the single most irritating person in the entire universe. Just the way his cheery voice resonates in the silence makes me want to punch a puppy and eat it for dinner. He's obviously overjoyed to see his district paralyzed by fear.
Of course District 10 doesn't belong to him per se, but even though President Snow is formally in charge of Panem, I've had a hunch for a while that Mr. Gold has been pulling the strings from behind the scenes all along, judging by how filthy well-endowed he is. He has contacts in every district, as well as a mansion, each larger than the last. I don't know exactly what it is that he does for the president, but he must be a critical piece of the puzzle. That alone is enough for me to not trust a word he says. Also the fact that he has never once brought either of our tributes safely home, though it would be unjust of me to only blame him for that.
"Once again, we have assembled here to choose two aspiring warriors from our midst, one courageous young lad and girl, to partake in the forty-seventh annual Hunger Games!"
Jefferson is the only one who claps.
"But before we put our attention to the matter, let us remember why we celebrate this day each year. Ladies and gentlemen, kindly look upon the screen to my left, where we shall play a special movie, brought to you by the Capitol itself."
If I dared to roll my eyes, I would, and maybe no one would notice me, but I'd rather not take my chances today. The movie is the same every year; about how thirteen districts rebelled against their righteous leader forty-seven years ago and turned the country into a battleground. Footage of women crying over dead bodies that is so staged it hurts my eyes comes up, and a few seconds later shots of heroic Capitol generals and lieutenants replace it, complete with names and titles and a list of accomplishments, reminding us of all the people who died because of us, the districts, rising against their noble beacon. One by one, we were defeated, and peace was finally achieved. To prove how generous and merciful it is, The Capitol offered to only take two children from us every year as a miserable price for our treason, and the districts eagerly accepted. Thenceforth, it was sealed in the Treaty of Treason that in return for the Capitol's care, we would offer our own to fight in a pageant of strength, wits and valor.
In other words, each year they would take the bears and the deer and wolves and sheep from their respective exhibits and put them together just to see what would happen. But of course they don't tell you that. It sounds much less windy and flowery and magnificent.
Leaning on his golden cane (oh, the irony) for support, Mr. Gold demands our undivided attention as soon as the movie has ended. "And now, the time has come for us to choose this year's competitors. As always, ladies first. May the odds be ever in your favor."
I watch his every move as he calmly walks over to one of the reaping balls filled with thousands of tiny letters. He can't pick me. The odds are entirely in my favor. I steal a quick glance at the other kids, just to see how many there are. Three hundred at least, most of which have been forced by their parents or own willpower to put their names in the ball more times up to some forty tickets to the graveyard per person. Nothing can happen to me in comparison. Right?
Suddenly, I start wishing I'd told someone about the book I've hidden, or at least that someone will find it one day. That someone will hold onto the fairytales I hold in my heart, because they're the only thing we have. Please find it, I plead in my mind. Find it, read it, keep it. At the same time, when I see the kids huddled together on the other side of the square, I feel horrible for wishing it wasn't me. I actually know some of those kids. Those siblings over there, for example, Ava and Nicholas. I've seen them before. Orphans like me, both only having turned twelve a while ago. Ava is holding another girl's hand. This one is wearing a cape the same color of her long brown hair, making it harder to tell the two apart from afar. Mary Margaret mentioned one of her brightest pupils liked to wear a velveteen cape when it got cold.
Gold is fumbling through the papers and I can't stand the sight anymore, so I avert my eyes to the ground. Whoever gets chosen is a walking corpse and I can't even seek comfort in rooting for it to be someone I despise, because I don't know anybody well enough to develop neither negative or positive feelings for them – especially not children. Just not me, just not me, just not me. I haven't found my parents yet. I can't die before I do, I can't. Surely the reaping ball must be aware of that. Great, now I'm referring to it as if it were a person. The reaping balls don't feel; they serve their purpose and disappear. Like the tributes.
The flow of time seems to have stopped in place. Just as I begin to think I've lost my sanity, two strong arms wrap around my own and practically carry me forward, towards the stage. I look down and see white gloves gripping me. Then I'm standing below the steps and Mr. Gold is urging me to come hither. I want to back off, but when I take a step backwards, my back hits the solid surface of a Peacekeeper's night stick. I have no choice.
As it turns out, I might start believing in god in my young, but seeing as I am about to die, old age. Someone must have heard my thoughts and decided to punish me; otherwise I can't see a logical reason for what just happened. There isn't one.
I walk up the stage, focusing with all my might on holding back tears. This is neither the time nor place. I'm so concentrated I don't recognize Gold's voice until he asks the one question that could potentially save my life. "Do we have any volunteers to take the place of this young woman?"
Of course we don't. The fact that there hasn't been a volunteer for forty-seven years aside, no one would volunteer to die for me. I mean nothing to them, no loss. I expect nothing, so I'm not disappointed when I see all the relieved expressions. Not a single person raises their hand or sheds a tear. Perhaps fate itself thinks it's too cruel for me to witness this because my vision becomes blurry before I can realize the futility of my search. The blonde girl standing on top of the stage with a blank expression and quivering lips is the friendless orphan with a bad attitude no one will ever know.
No need to be alarmed; the girl standing on top of the stage is, of all people, just Emma Swan.