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The Mutant Games

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Raven had been having nightmares about the Reaping for weeks, from the day she turned twelve. After the second time she woke the household with her screams, Mother moved Raven's cot into Charles and Cain's room.

"Your father and I already get up before dawn to start the baking," she said, snappish with exhaustion, her hands shaking. "You deal with this."

Kurt was no father of Charles's, of course, and Charles himself got up as early as either of them, stoking ovens and kneading dough as the sun rose; Cain, who was Raven's actual blood relation, and was able to sleep just a little later before his shift at the mines, was the logical choice to care for Raven. But it never occurred to either Charles or Raven that he would.

"You'll be fine, darling," Charles murmured, half-asleep, into golden hair as Raven crawled sniffling into his bed. "Your name's only in there once, Raven. They're not going to pick you."

***

The day of the Reaping, Mother and Kurt hurried to open the bakery even earlier than usual, selling bread to the crowds gathering in the Square. That left Charles to get himself and Raven washed and dressed in their finest – the same black trousers and white shirt that had seen Charles through four previous Reapings, and for Raven, a bright blue dress cut down from one of Mother's, with new-bought yellow buttons that gleamed in the early sunlight.

"Wake up, Buttercup, there's a laddie," Charles murmured, poking their phoenix into full flame. Buttercup stretched his neck grumpily, nipping at his fingers, but Charles dodged him with the ease of long practice. Phoenixes were usually sweet, gentle creatures, despite their origin as living firebombs during the War, but Buttercup was a bit of a grouch.

"Would you get that stupid mutt going? Some of us want our coffee before we're dragged off to die in the Games," Cain snarled.

Charles hissed "quiet!" under his breath, but Raven had already heard. She glanced up from her cup of milk and back down again, pale and shaky.

"No one's being dragged off to the Games, Cain," Charles said, as if the idea were quite ridiculous. "It's your last year, you're practically out of it already. And Raven's only in the running once. We'll go stand around in the sun, and watch the same silly video about the Mutation Wars, and then come home and have lunch." And then bake something for free, for the families of whatever luckless children did get chosen. That was a tradition his father had begun, and even Kurt didn't dare ignore it.

"But what about you?" Raven asked. "Charles, what if they pick you?"

Charles swung a pot of water over the merry blaze the phoenix was now producing, then sighed and knelt down by Raven's chair. "Raven, our family is very, very lucky. We've never had to take tesserae. That means our names are only in the lottery the number of times required by law, while there are others – many, many others – whose names are in two or three times that amount. The odds," he gave her a crooked smile, "are distinctly in our favor."

That won a smile, not least because Charles's accent so nearly matched that of Effie Trinket, the silly, prancing woman who drew the names and shepherded the tributes to the Capitol. Having a Capitol accent won him few enough friends in District 12 – a constant reminder that the Xaviers had been wealthy enough to send him to a Capitol school, before Father died – so he was glad to see it do some good for once.

"Will you braid my hair, Charles?" Raven asked. "It's not as pretty when I do it myself."

"I have to make breakfast, love. Cain needs his coffee, after all," Charles said with a wink, getting back to his feet.

"Pretty please?"

"Oh, I'll do it, if it'll shut you up," Cain grumbled, and Charles tried not to let his surprise show. He wouldn't have thought his stepbrother knew how to braid, and anyway an affectionate gesture from Cain was considerably rarer than a blow. But he'd always been a bit softer toward Raven, very seldom hitting her, though that was partly because Charles put himself in the way whenever he tried.

Buttercup grumbled and burbled in avian displeasure, barely audible under the crackle of flame, as Charles made coffee. He wondered how Lady, Buttercup's mate, was reacting to her even earlier start in the bakery's ovens. The bakery had had some lean years, between Father's death and Mother's remarriage, and without the phoenixes to spare them the cost of firewood, there might have been tesserae after all. It was Father who had tamed Lady, and taught Charles enough of the art to bring in Buttercup – though really anyone with patience and gentle hands could win them over, and plenty around the District had. The cat-sized birds were practically unkillable; it wasn't hard to tame something that knew it had nothing to fear from you.

It must be nice, Charles thought, to be a phoenix, and know that whatever threatened you, whatever hurt you, you didn't have to be afraid. You would always survive.

So when Raven panicked at the door, as they tried to leave for the Square – clutched Charles's arm with her feet rooted to the floor, gasping and wide-eyed, What if they pick me, Charles, what if they send me to the Games, Charles plucked a pair of phoenix feathers off the floor and pinned them to her collar.

"These are good luck," he said. "Protection. Now you can survive anything, just like a phoenix. Okay?"

And Raven, though she was really too old to believe him, touched a hand to the feathers, and swallowed, and let herself be lead toward the Square.

***

Boys and girls were separated for the Reaping; Charles bobbed and weaved through the crowd of boys, trying to get a glimpse of Raven. Cain had already friends to stand with, boys who were like him, tall and strong and mean, with coal-dust in the swirls of their fingerprints. Charles had no one in particular to stand beside – his classmates had never quite grown used to him again, after his return from the Capitol school – but they didn’t exactly dislike him either. When, after failing to find Raven in the crowd, Charles reluctantly took a place between Rory Hawthorne and one of the Undersee boys, they gave him nervous smiles and nods of solidarity.

Their district escort, Effie Trinket, minced up onto the stage, and the annual pageant began.

“During the Mutation Wars, thirteen districts rebelled against their government using unnatural powers given by the misuse of technology…”

By now Charles could nearly recite along with the video. He barely listened, still craning his head to see into the girls’ side. Had Raven found a friend to stand with, was she afraid, was she crying – surely it would help her to see him, if he could find her—

“—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.”

Charles’s attention focused belatedly on Effie Trinket as the video ended.

"Ladies first," she chirped, and swirled her hand through the glass globe of names. Chose one and lifted it.

"Raven Marko."