This started as a fill for a prompt at the RotG Kink Meme on Dreamweaver which quickly grew out of control. Still, I'm loving where it's going, so I hope you'll all enjoy it too.
Fair warning: in true Hunger Games fashion, future chapters will include violence, gore, and major character death, so if that's going to upset you unduly, you might want to skip this one. Also, it's a Hunger Games AU/crossover-type thing, so if that's not your cup of tea...yeah. Consider yourself warned.
Beneath a Sanguine Moon
Chapter One: Before
There's a new white shirt waiting for me the night before Reaping Day.
It hangs opposite the window in the little room I share with my sister, crisp and clean without a hint of darning or stain. I'm almost afraid to touch it with dirt caked under my nails. My fingers skim the edges just long enough to get a feel for the cloth. It's thick and just a little rough, made from the scraps of wool rejected by Districts 1 and 8. I can tell because, despite the bleaching, there are still irregularities in the threads.
Mama frets when she sees me trying it on for the first time. It's not much, she says, and what she really wanted to get me was new shoes, but she couldn't afford the pair and the missus down the street gave her a good price on the shirt and…and…
It takes three reassurances before she accepts that yes, it's fine, and not to worry about the shoes. I outgrew the last pair two years ago. Been going barefoot ever since, but it doesn't bother me. Besides, it isn't like anyone's going to see my feet anyway. I'm lucky Frost, the one who survived. The odds are in my favor.
Mama smiles, but it doesn't get all the way to her eyes.
That night, we sit together for hours, turning her bed into a nest to defend against what's coming with the morning sun. She holds me close and won't let go, ignoring the protests that I'm not a child, I'm seventeen. That's practically a man. My sister Emma curls in my lap, chiming in on occasion but mostly just listening. We don't move again until she falls asleep.
I'm not wearing the new shirt when I slip out the next morning. I wouldn't want to dirty it before the Reaping, not after all the trouble Mama went through to get it. My old clothes, tattered and shapeless though they are, will do just as well until it's time.
Emma stirs when I first leave the bed, whining in her sleep like a newborn kid. I linger beside her until she slips off again, then gather my cloak and staff and escape into the cool, crisp air of the mountains in the early morn.
In school, they tell us that District 10 is one of the three great land-districts of Panem. Along with the people of District 9, who grow grain, and those of District 11, who grow everything else, we make up the food belt: the backbone of the nation. Other Districts are contained to a single city or system of mines, but our people are spread throughout a wide area of varied ecosystems and terrains, each carefully chosen to best support the animals in our care.
For my village, 10-23, that means goats. Lots and lots of goats. They're not vital to national sustenance like chickens or cows or pigs, but apparently there's enough Capitol demand for rich milk, earthy cheese, and textiles like cashmere and mohair to warrant a dozen goats for every man, woman, and child in Village 23.
Normally, at this time of day, the dirt road outside our house – which is the only way in or out of town, save for the birds – would be crawling with the little bovines as grown-ups herded the flock from their barn by the south river to the grazing fields north of town. But today is Reaping Day, and so the road is empty, save for the ice-edged morning dew that pools in ridges left by cloven hooves.
Silent as a snake in the grass, I go around back of the house next door and rap on the rear windowsill three times. It opens immediately. Jaime Bennett, his hair tousled and his eyes rimmed with red, peers out from between the panes.
"Is that you, Jack?" he calls in a whisper.
I snort. What a silly question. "'Course it's me, kiddo. You coming or what?"
"I'm coming! Just a sec."
He disappears, scrambling back into the room. I hear him drag the too-large hunting boots onto his bed and scramble for his other clothes. He's moving much slower today than most. And don't think I missed those red-rimmed eyes or the smeared remnants of tear-trials on his cheeks. Poor kid didn't sleep a wink last night, and I don't blame him. It's his first year.
When he reappears a moment later, Jamie doesn't protest when I lift him from the window to the ground, even though he hates being treated like a child. That gives me the chance to run my fingers along his ribs, right where he's the most ticklish. The laugh bursts from him in an undignified shriek. Jamie clasps both his hands over his mouth.
"Jack! Stop it!" he yelps in a half-whisper, kicking as he tries to wiggle from my reach. "You're gonna get us caught!"
"Me? You're the one who's laughing." One hand makes it through to his bare side, my fingers catching every one of his (much too easily counted) ribs. "Stop laughing, Jamie!"
Jamie kicks again, loses his balance, and topples into the sparse grass, still trying desperately to get his laughter under control. With a rattle of glass and wood, the window on the side of his cabin flies open and his mother leans out, clutching four-year-old Sophie around the waist.
For a split second, her eyes are panicked and wide, searching the yard for her child. Then they fall on me and a familiar expression – half frustration, half amusement – flickers in the place of fear. She sighs. "I should've known it was you, Jack Frost."
"Jack Jack Jack!" echoes Sophie, giggling as she tries to tumble out the window after her brother. "Wanna play with Jack!"
Missus Bennett keeps a tight hold on her daughter's waist, keeping her pinned safe in the walls of their home. She eyes me carefully, trying to judge my intent from a distance. "Where are you boys off to, at this time of day?"
This time on this day, she means. I send her the most reassuring smile I can muster, hooking my staff around Jamie's waist to help him to his feet. "Just checking on the flock. Promised Mr. Gray I'd swing by just to make sure everything's a-okay, and Jamie said he'd help me out. Right Jamie?"
"Yup." Jamie beams. I should probably be ashamed of myself for teaching a twelve-year-old to follow my lies, but I'm not. I'm so proud.
Missus Bennett's gaze trails from me to her son and back again. She knows there's not a grain of truth in any of it; I can see it in the wrinkles around her nose and eyes. Maybe someone, somewhere is in charge of checking on the flock on Reaping Day, but it's sure not me, and it'd never be Jamie. There's no guarantee we'll be around to finish the job, after all.
But – maybe because it is Reaping Day, or because she sees the fear Jamie that hides, or because she's a mother and she's so worried for her child – she doesn't call us out on it. Instead, she sighed again and stretches out to ruffle Jamie's hair.
"All right then. Be careful, and watch the time, you understand? Jamie, I want you back for a bath two hours before Reaping and not a moment later."
Jamie agrees with a quick and quiet, "Yes Mama. I will, Mama," before breaking into a grin and jog, calling for me to follow. Before I can, Missus Bennett reels me in by my elbow, dropping her tone to a whisper so Jamie and Sophie can't hear.
"Look after him, Jack. Please. Don't do anything too risky, not today. Just take care of my boy."
From the street, Jamie calls me again, just loud enough that he might not bother the neighbors if they're sound enough asleep. I fold my hand over Missus Bennett's, offering her a smile and a comforting squeeze.
"Don't worry," I promise. "I always do."
Five years ago, when I was twelve and Jamie was seven, our fathers – who'd been best friends their entire lives – got caught hunting beyond the borders of District 10. As always, the winter that year was cold and cruel, and if they hadn't hunted our families would have starved; but Peacekeepers wouldn't hear any of it.
Without so much as a trial, our fathers were sentenced to hang.
At the time, Missus Bennett was pregnant with Sophie. She and Emma were allowed to stay home the day of the execution. But Jamie and I, as the new men of the households, were forced to attend. Even now, the sound Da's neck made at the end of his rope chases me in my worst dreams.
The Head Peacekeeper, a cruel man who smiles like thin ice, came by while they were taking down the bodies and ruffled my hair. "Let this be a lesson boys," he told us. "Be better than your fathers."
We took that to mean, 'Be smarter. Don't get caught.'
And so we are.
Neither Jamie nor I are built for hunting, so he keeps watch while I slip across the southern river and shimmy through the gap in the fence that lines the opposite side. Jamie's faster collecting off the northern traps because he's so much smaller, but he can't swim, so along the river is my game. As far up in the mountains as we are here, we can't hope for too much in terms of rabbits or fish or voles, but what we get is enough to keep our families going in the worst of times.
Again, behind the tree line, I find the odds are once more in my favor. There's a whole rabbit – the first and plumpest we've seen since the end of winter – hanging dead from one of our snares. I return with my arms full of fresh meat and fur, and the look on Jamie's face makes it worth all the risk. With a bucket of berries and a bit of fresh cheese, this is enough to give both our families a real Reaping Day feast to share.
We ferret the rabbit away in Jamie's bag and head downriver with our feet in the shallows, talking of everything and nothing while we scrub our hands and feet clean and spot for wild berries along the fence's edge. We're half-way to the furthest south-east corner, where the village fences meet, when Jamie suddenly stops. He stares at his feet through the river, trailing out of the conversation and into his own thoughts.
"What's wrong?" I ask, bracing my staff against the shore.
Jamie shrugs, his huge boots dangling at the end of his arms. He kicks at the water, turns slowly on the spot, glances towards the village square, and sighs. "How many times is your name in today?"
I have to think about it. One for every year since twelve, plus my whole life on tesserae, means…
Jamie shudders from head to toe, sending ripples against the current of the river.
"Hey, c'mon. It's not that bad."
"Yes it is." He's breathing hard now, almost hyperventilating with the effort of keeping his emotions under control. "You've…You've got as many slips in there as there are boys in the village. That's got be like…like half the pot!"
"No, it's not." I wade a little deeper into the water, widening the stride to keep my balance on the way back. "All the older boys are in the same position as me. There's not a kid in this town who's not on tesserae, and some of them have even bigger families to worry about. We're all about even."
"That just makes it worse! If there's any chance at all…" He bites his lip so hard I can see the dent his teeth left when he finally gets the words together. "What will we…What'll we do if they pick your name, Jack?"
He's falling head-first into his own fears. If we're going to get through the day, I can't let that happen.
With a splash, I hop up on a smooth, flat rock on the edge of the bank, swiping my staff at the water to stir up a wave. "Pick my name?" I laugh, letting the sound carry like I don't care who hears. "What if they pick my name? Jamie Bennett, did you forget who I am? What is my name?"
Jamie pouts, worrying his bottom lip like it's a trick question. "…Jack Frost."
"That's right," I hop across the deep water to another rock, earning a squeak of fear from Jamie. "Now, who was it again who survived the worst winter 10-23 ever saw when he was just a wee babe?"
"Jack Frost." Jamie's pout turns into the smallest of smirks, though I think it comes more from my terrible impression of old man White than anything else.
"Right as rain." I laugh again, dropping the stupid accent. "And who is it who always finds the little milking goats the wander away from the herd, no matter how deep in the mountain they've gone or what little crevice they've nestled away in?"
"You got it. And who was it who found that ancient well last winter? By tumbling into it, head-first, through the snow and ice? And who – who, Jamie? – came out the other side of that little misadventure with only two bruises and a touch of a cold?"
"That's right!" I leap down from the rocks, splashing us both with a wave of cold and scooping Jamie out of the current with my staff. "I am Jack Frost. The winter loves me. The mountain loves me. And I'm the luckiest boy in the world."
I swing him up onto the dry shore, sweep the waterproof cloak off my own shoulders, and wrap it around him. It swims on him, the hood falling to hide every speck of brown eyes and hair, leaving nothing exposed save a cold-flushed smile.
"The odds are always in my favor, Jamie," I tell him, pinching the tip of his nose. "They are never going to pick my name. Not ever."
Jamie laughs again, shaking the cloak's hood off his head. For a moment his face is free of fear, flush only with the cold of the river and the excitement of a new day. Seeing him safe like this and smiling is enough for me.
But it's all too brief. A bell echoes from the Justice Building in the village square, chiming the hour – ten o'clock. The Reaping is scheduled for just after noon. Jamie's smile fades and so does mine. He pulls off the cloak, folds it, and hands it to me.
"We should go," he mutters. And so we do, without another word.