This story will be multi-chaptered. Thanks to anyone that reads and reviews, it means a lot seeing as I never get any ever, but here we go.
When choosing books, Ace's eyes immediately skipped over the skimpy novels that he knew his brother had already read and appreciated. His nails trailed the threadbare bindings and came to loom over a promising story, on it a forked, cobblestone road as the cover.
There was something innately personal about used books, turning pages that other licked-fingertips had flipped and reading the lines that other eyes had scanned. But new ones, hot off the press and still having a fresh, crisp smell of parchment clinging to their seams, never held the same character as the frayed, butchered ones with ethereal beauty. He'd been lucky to find this area of the book shop. To have no sound but the shuffling of wrinkled pages was a rarity in District Two—not that there was going to be much talk today, of course. That day, the silence hung heavy in the air.
Ace turned slowly, unsurprised, to see his hindrance of an uncle block the exit.
"Hello, Peter," he said coolly, not bothering in an attempt to side-step the cranky relative.
His uncle's profoundly contoured face tightened. "I said no more books!"
"But I'm your nephew, Peter."
This was, on the whole, a rather stupid thing to say to Peter, and although Ace knew this, he couldn't help but mention it anyway, just to watch the reaction.
"I don't need reminding," Peter yelled, and he tried unhappily to snatch the book from Ace's hand, a task which was deflected by deft skill on the small teenager's part. "You can't pay for the damn book, why should you have it?"
"You know very well why I can't pay for it, and you also know it could be the last blasted book I read to the poor guy, too."
Peter's face, if possible, softened at the mention of this, and his wrinkled forehead smoothed out with little effort.
"Fine then," he said miserably, letting Ace pass, "just this once! And you had better be at work tomorrow."
"You know I will," Ace said in a sing-song voice, and Peter gave him a withering look.
With a collected expression on his face, Ace strolled out of Peter's Books, leaving his only uncle alone again with nothing but ink and paper to comfort him.
The sky was a melted color of red and yellow, and a small crack of daybreak poked above the horizon-line. He tried to stay focused on his visible rooftop, which was mingled in with others down the street, but devilish curiosity spiked him, and he cut the corner at the end of the sidewalk, taking a shortcut to the town square where Capitol Peacekeepers were painting a stage white and setting up large jumbotron screens. Just as Ace had suspected, he was not the only one with morbid curiosity. Other children were gathered there, staring vacantly at the workers and mumbling harshly to one another. Ace smiled. They were all so predictable, every one of them.
Many of the people present were wearing their red jumpsuits, having just got the day off from training at The Shift, a private center where future Careers trained for the games—that is if you had enough money for it, which was ninety-nine point eight seven percent of the District, including Ace. They all knew each other well, grew up together, and trained from day one with only a few hours of free time a week. The worst part was that they liked one another—as much as people competing can—and enjoyed the company. But in more ways than not, it wasn't the physical activities they should have been worried about.
Ace rolled his eyes. No, they were all arrogant Capitol-junkies who were too high off their own glory to see the actual task at hand. The physical training that consumed lo those many years of their life meant nothing if they did not know who they were up against. If it had been him working there, he'd be more focused on learning his possible opponent's weaknesses. There was no time for making friends, and they were all wasting their fortunes by worrying about how big their muscles were.
"Hi, Ace!" said a squeaky voice.
He turned slowly to see two figures in red uniforms.
"Oh," he said dejectedly, "it's you."
Sherri's cheeks colored red by his comment, and she hunched her shoulders some. Ace pretended not to notice, because he really didn't care.
"Hello, Brickham," said the other girl, whose name escaped him. She had a cold face that Ace didn't like, and he could distinctly remember her being one of the many girls that owned a large part of the foreign-to-them land, District Twelve—a child of high society.
"Ah—hello," he mumbled. Ace couldn't for his life figure out why they were talking to him.
"Listen," Sherri said hopefully, her breath hitching, "I was wondering if you would like to get some lunch before the Reaping begins. I mean, I can understand if you want to spend it with your family and all, but you know if you want to, I know a place downtown that has great tortilla chips, and it would be really wicked if—"
"What's the place called?" Ace interrupted her.
Sherri suddenly smiled, her face literally glowing with red-stained cheeks. "Trinity's."
Ace couldn't figure out why she was giving him this information at all, especially at such an odd time. He wasn't even hungry, and since when did she care when or where he ate lunch?
"I'll check it out some time," he told her, turning around to examine the stage, which was now being crowded by more Capitol Governors.
Sherri, who had the most bewildered expression of her face that Ace had ever seen on a person, mumbled desolately, "Bu—I—yeah. Yeah, you do that…" She turned and left.
The nameless girl stepped forward. She looked even colder than before. "Are you that much of a heartless bastard, or are you just ignorant beyond belief in the category of social interaction?"
Ace, stony faced, and said rather lazily, "Hardly." His green eyes roamed her, taking it all in, and when they caught the sight of her pendent, he smiled. "It's obvious from your necklace that you have a lover back home that you met at training, and you're completely mad for her, but you know what? She's getting worried about you. How many times is your name entered, yeah? Once? Twice? That's hardly something to worry about, you stupid girl. Obviously she thinks that you're going to volunteer. By why would you that? Fame? Glory? I can tell from the badge on your chest that you're only a stage one career—not very impressive if you ask me. You hardly have a chance of winning, so what, if not who, is your motivator? How many times is—Elaine's her name right?—Elaine entered into the Reaping? She's a commoner. I've seen her, yet you don't talk about her much at all, and we both know what that means around here. Because your parents don't approve. Whether that because she's a girl or because she's poor is considerable, but probably the latter. No one really cares about the first anymore, anyways. So she's poor. One of the few here in District One. That means she lived down in the Field. Probably makes a living off of sewing clothes like most other people down there. Maybe makes a few coins a day. She'll need the extra food. Her names entered in there a lot, isn't it?"
The girl just stared, dumbfounded and flushed, and after a moment of hesitation, mumbled a quick goodbye and left.
He reached the farmer's porch that wrapped around his home less than ten minutes later, the thick soles of his boot crunching small helpings of gravel around their mother's flower garden. On the outside the one-story home looked crowded and dreary, doors hanging off of loose bolts and shingles chipping off the side of the house. It wasn't as if the Brickhams didn't have enough money to fix it, just that no one could be bothered to try, and Ace certainly didn't care what the house looked like to the passersby. The door creaked loudly when he pushed it open.
"Darling!" his mother said, clearly just woken up. A mug of coffee was pressed into her left hand, and her bathrobe hung loose over a floral nightgown. She'd always had a shrewd, knowing look to her, but at that moment her face was unusually blank.
"Hello," he said back, hanging his coat on the rack. "How's Noah?"
His mother wrung her hands. "Same as always, dear."
Ace had expected no less. "Are you ready for the Peacekeepers?"
"Bunker is all stocked up; Dear, but you know them. They hardly come around this neck of the woods. He will be safe."
"Why would they need to?" Ace muttered, but his mother ignored it.
"I left out a suit on your bed when you're ready to get dressed. Green vest to match those pretty eyes of yours."
He rolled his eyes. "Mmm." Compliments were a specialty of his mother's, but they were always for other people, like her husband or for Noah, never himself; he suspected this was because she was worried for him. It always happened this time of year, where he'd wake up to morning coffee, bagels, and toast with jam, or he'd get days off of work from the bookshop for unnecessary personal time. The odds weren't exactly stacked against him, but the possibility of going into the Games in the persona of his brother was just as possible as going as himself. He hated their pity, because it was strong, a mistake, and obvious. Being that emotional about it would have made no difference to the Capitol; they were going to take him either way. Ace chose not to make the error of feeling a long time ago.
Besides, one day after this was all over, she would go back to her thin-lipped, tight-faced self, bitterness leaking out of every word, and every breath he took would be at cost. Not that he cared much.
In the adjacent room, Noah was lying down on the old mattress; one that used to be Ace's but was donated for a better cause. He could hear the grunts and soft moans of pain echoing off the stone walls of their cottage. No matter what they did those sounds never really left him, and he could still feel the vibrations sink deep into his bones and shake his spine with discomfort.
"How are you, Noah?" he asked, taking the loveseat next to him. He didn't need to ask, but Noah had always felt uncomfortable when Ace analyzed him.
Noah rolled over to face his brother. He had always looked uncannily like Ace did, right down to every last feature, whether it was the freckles on their noses or the angle of their all-too prominent cheek bones.
He coughed and then smiled. "Perfect."
"Liar," Ace accused, and then fluffed the pillow over which rested Noah's head.
"You shouldn't be here," Noah said throatily. "You need to get ready for the Reaping."
"I don't care about the damn Reaping."
"You should be. Aren't you scared?"
"Of a bunch of brawny morons? Of course not. Their arrogance is always confused with wisdom, and it's humiliating."
"You aren't the most humble person in the world—to put it charitably, Ace," he mumbled. "Like a robot. Need to adapt to human life every once and a while."
"Am not," Ace said.
"Are too! You're so proud. Just like 'em. And yet I still have to remind you of stupid everyday things like who's the president and the difference between expository and narrative writing."
"I don't care for literature or politics, Noah. What difference does it make if we're being governed by President Winston or a giant Birds of Paradise flower? Not the slightest. We'd still be going into the Games, and I'd still be pretending to be Noah Brickham instead of little old Ace, and I still wouldn't care about Politics."
"But it's the President! How could you not know?"
Ace didn't know whether to be hurt or angry, but his brother had a sheepish visage, so he avoided the subject all together. "I brought a new book for Peter's. Old nut."
"You shouldn't be mean to the man. He seems lonely. Maybe we should visit him."
"Well maybe the old bat wouldn't be lonely if he wasn't such a bitter little—"
Noah cackled. "Oh, because you have so much experience in the friends department, right?" he teased playfully.
"I don't need friends, and frankly there is no one I would want to be friends with in this District—besides you," he added quickly.
"I'm the closest thing you have to a friend, Ace, and that's a relative, and from the looks of it, even then some of your family doesn't like you."
"Peter's old and cranky."
"You give him a reason to be."
"Do you want the story or not, Noah?"
Noah shifted on his bed. "What is it called?"
"Looks like…Secondhand Heart. Ew."
"Sounds girly," he sniffed. "Go ahead."
Ace laughed and started on the first page, kicking his feet up against the frame of the bed. He often peeked over the top of the book to look at Noah, who was continually showing signs of weariness, yawning and drooping eyes. After a while of laughter from the ridiculous prose, Ace slowed down, trying to make his voice low and calm to help Noah fall asleep. His brother rarely got any rest, despite having to spend all day in bed. Purple marks rested underneath his lids, which stuck out strongly with his unhealthily white pallor. Ace didn't know what he did all day, but there was a strong probability that he worried.
Love was a powerful motivator, he knew that. Read about it. Love made his brother tired and sleepy, and love made his mother sing and dance and give out stupid compliments no one really cared for, but she still did it. Apparently love was stronger than bitterness and hatred and evil, but he'd never seen it in action until then, where his brother—who, mind you, had enough to think about without the Games—stayed in bed all day and worried about the family. So much that when Ace really did come home, he was too exhausted to even speak. Ace didn't want to admit it, but he thought that it was rather stupid of Noah to even care. He was only going to make himself more sick with the sleepless nights and constant frets.
Noah's breath eventually evened out, and Ace heard the comforting sound of his brother's snoring. Quietly, he put the book down and tip-toed out of the room, shutting off the light as he went. Just as promised, his mother had laid out a suit across his bedspread. Ace shrugged out of the clothes he was wearing and slipped on the silky fabric. It felt odd against his skin.
His mother really cracked a smile at him when he erupted from his room. She patted him on the back, and then after an awkward moment of silence, enveloped him into a hug. This is wrong, he told himself. This is uncharted territory. This is—uhm. Ace didn't hug her back. His arms, though twitching undecidedly, stayed flaccid at his sides.
And then she did something that surprised him even more—"I love you. And your brother loves you."
"You're not going to get picked," she seemed to reassure herself. "It'll be fine. I expect you for dinner, I do."
"Of course. Don't be stupid." It came out harsher than he expected, and then to redeem himself, he mumbled, "Love you too, Ma."
Her fingers raked through his raven hair and were gone as soon as they appeared.
"Don't forget that the Peacekeeper will be by soon. Sometime in the next ten minutes you need to get Noah in the bunker and make sure it's locked, do you hear me?"
His other nodded softly. Strands of her white-blond hair fell elegantly into her face.
With one last look towards his brother, who was sleeping soundly with an indolent smile playing on his lips, he left the house. The loud sound of his shoes hitting the hardwood was the last thing he heard.
The District from which Ace originated, District Two, was largely known as being the Careers, the pets of the government. It rose in the so-called "loving" hands of the Peackeepers and therefore kept high standards. They made tools and funded those military addicts. In turn, the Peacekeeprs didn't do a very good job of searching the people's homes in case they didn't come to the Reaping, a decision on their part which resulted in many people's absences. Usually this would work. The district was rather large, and there was a slim chance of a few commoners getting picked, but if by some small chance one got selected and neglected their "responsibility" to show-up, the consequences worsened. No one really knew the Capitol did to those people, but they usually ended up the first ones dead, whether they had trained to be a Career and could or not. When that happens, new Peacekeepers are chosen. No one really misses them much.
Downtown had changed a lot since Ace saw it last. Clusters of people sat rigidly in their seats, which were lined up in straight rows. A long red carpet, as if this were some kind of celebrity march, was laying down the middle of the chairs, a dividing line of sorts for the boys and the girls. No one failed to notice that is was a morbidly blood-red color.
Ace sat alone between two boys of whom he'd never met. They were both a few inches taller and broader. People like them, with the vacant expression in their eyes, were the ones who volunteered. Those were the idiots, some of which were lined up on the stage as victors. Careers are expected to volunteer at an attempt to win fame, and a lot of them do. Part of the reason why the Games weren't interesting to watch was because it was nearly always a contestant from One or Two that won. They were favored because they make what the Capitol needs, tools, and weapons, and armory. Nothing would change that.
The air reeked of gasoline and oil, two odors which loomed mercilessly from the factory a couple blocks down called the Nut. It blended in nicely with the other buildings, all black, and massive, and intimidating. Most people covered their nose and mouth with a sleeve or their collar to block out the fumes. Ace did the same in more of an attempt to seem incognito rather than because it was bothering him.
Ace stayed blasé-faced as the video of the Rebellion played, and a little symbol declaring this the sixty-eighth Hunger Games popped up at the end as a new little feature. It was only when Fae—a respectably short and orange-haired woman—brandished the fishbowl like container that was filled with names did he pay attention.
The woman selected was Anastasia Rickshire, the girl whom he'd spoken to earlier, the girl Sherri had been with…
Huh, thought Ace. Interesting.
She walked up slowly, face sorely red and eyes shining. The only surprising aspect was that no one offered to take her place, not even Elaine, the supposed lover. She stood solitary just the same, right in front of the previous victors. Out of the twenty-nine that originated from here, only fifteen were still alive.
Fae took the other bowl in her hands. Many of the men tugged at their collars and jacket sleeves, as if trying to look busy. Ace pursed his lips expectantly.
She unfolded the piece of paper, and Ace was not shocked in the slightest. It was, after all, everything he'd been prepared for. It wasn't him, but it might as well have been.
Ace, calm and steady, made his way up the stage to where Fae's absurdly wide greeted him.
"Ahh, Noah," she said to him, placing a hand between his shoulder blades. "Please say your name, Darling."
Ace faced the crowd without truly looking at them. None of them ran up and screamed "I volunteer" in his place as every other year. He kept his face low, knowing no one should be able to recognize his true identity that way. It was not a fool-proof plan, but it worked well enough.
"My name is Noah Brickham," he said evenly. "I'm seventeen years old."
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