The Seventy-Fourth Hunger Games had been exciting, to say the least. No one could deny that: not the game-makers under the delighted guidance of Seneca Crane; not the viewers around the districts; not even the thwarted Capitol citizens who had lost on the outcome of the gladiatorial competition. Even those who had supported the erstwhile 'star-crossed lovers of District Twelve' couldn't say the games had been dull, even if a little disappointing.
Odd that the girl tribute from Twelve, most people couldn't recall her name six months out, had chosen to let down her sense of self-preservation to sing for the dying tribute from Eleven, another girl whose name many of the viewers neglected to recall. It had been lovely, the singing and the weeping over the bleeding twelve-year-old, but the District Twelve tribute almost seemed to deserve her fate. She had made it quite easy for the girl from District Two to sneak up and knife her in the back. So much for the girl on fire - - it was general consensus that outlying districts probably shouldn't encourage any more volunteers if the tributes were going to be that sentimental.
The games ended quickly after that, with the boy from Twelve bleeding to death; the body retriever having to rely solely on the boy's tracker to locate him buried in the mud of the riverbank. The girl from Five, desperate and starving since the cache of food she'd been robbing had been destroyed, ate some random berries from a bush; the berries proved poisonous, and the girl died before she finished swallowing. Finally the boy and girl from District Two ganged up on the last remaining outlier tribute, the very large, impressive District Eleven boy known Panem-wide as the victor Thresh. He managed to massacre the pair rather easily, despite the odds.
With all of the unexpected twists and turns, not one person could claim that last year's Hunger Games had been in the least dull.
This year, being a Quarter Quell year, promised to be an even greater show once the card was read and the viewers knew the exact tribute rules for this very special reaping, the third since the beginning of the games seventy-five years before at the end of the Dark Days. A Quarter Quell, with an arena years in design, promised more excitement than any two regular game years.
The entirety of Panem practically held their breath in anticipation, especially the viewers, gamblers, and sponsors located in the Capitol. And the Capitol citizens spent time and money preparing for the parties, the dinners, the elaborate displays, and most importantly the security of Panem. After all, tributes would be coming in from every district and so Bor Odinson, head of President Snow's personal security and advisor for game security, would most definitely prepared.
Nothing could ruin his very first Quarter Quell in such an important position of power . . . nothing, that is, but the very twist in the games which distinguished the Quarter Quell from all other annual games. Nothing, except the oddity of the rules set down seventy-five years before and designed to unbalance even the most complacent of citizens far into the future.
The Seventy-Fifth Hunger Games promised to be extremely exciting indeed.
The Reading of the Card
Excitement filled the air in Capitol City. People stood in great crowds outside the Presidential Palace in anticipation of the announcement to come. Those who could not make it were at vast parties, ready to celebrate the unofficial beginning of the Hunger Games season, as on that very special day the third Quarter Quell, an event which happened only every twenty-five years, would be announced. Naturally, it would be televised to all of Panem so no one would miss a second of the historic occasion.
Head of Security for President Snow, Bor Odinson, known by most simply as Odin, stood behind the scenes, monitoring all activity and making certain there was no threat on the President’s life. His family stood in front of the podium and would be captured on television during the live event so all were dressed in their very finest, without being so showy as to make the President look foolish in his own understated wear. Beside Frigga, Odin’s wife, stood his sons, Thor and Loki, and all three looked excited yet in control.
Loki, tall for his age of sixteen, raven hair curling just above his shoulders and ice green eyes watchful with intelligence, leaned close to his older brother by two years, big, muscular, blond haired and blue eyed. “I’d bet they aren’t this thrilled in the districts, brother,” he whispered.
“They never are, brother,” Thor whispered in return, keeping his pleasant smile in place since they would be on national television in just a few minutes. “But, it is the price they must pay.”
“They? Brother,” Loki kept his voice so soft his mother couldn’t understand the words, “they must pay for what their grandfathers did?”
Thor looked at his brother, a warning in his blue eyes, “the Hunger Games are served as a reminder, brother. It is the price they must pay.”
“And I wonder just how many grandfathers were able to hide amongst those of loyalty, perhaps in the Capitol itself? Those children are not paying penance, are they?” Loki was ever a very private dissenter, though he’d been wise enough to keep his radical views to only himself and Thor some still noticed.
“Hush,” Thor hissed at his younger brother, blue eyes flickering to make sure no one had overheard Loki, “the President is approaching.”
Obeying his brother’s warning, Loki shut his mouth and applauded, politely, with the other residents in attendance. He might not be the most enthusiastic of President Snow’s people, but no one present could or would fault the younger son of the Head of Security. As the white haired, rose-smelling President raised his hands in acceptance of the adulation, Loki smiled in an excited, happy way reminiscent of his yunger, more carefree days before his education.
Lowering his hands at last, the volume hushing as he did so, the President spoke into his hidden microphone. “Welcome, citizens of Panem, to the reading of the Quarter Quell for the Seventy-Fifth Hunger Games.” He nodded amiably as applause and cheers broke out then silenced a moment later. Odin handed over the box of Quell Cards, only used twice before to reveal the rule twist for the special anniversary games.
Loki whispered from the side of his mouth to Thor, “here it goes. Once it was districts electing their own tributes, then double tributes. What did the original lawmakers decide was worthy of this Quell?”
Thor simply nodded to show that he’d heard Loki, but he didn’t say anything in reply.
Opening the box of ancient, yellowed cards neatly ordered and labeled, President Snow smiled up at the crowd, drawing out the moment a bit longer. He then plucked out the appropriate third card in the box and lifted it high, amid excited chatter and cheers. Bringing the card level so he could read, the President cleared his throat and read from the card that held the fate of the district children.
“It is a sad truth that all rebellions begins with whispers among friends, and many times these friends sit beside the very people they eventually betray. The Dark Days began in such a way, with whispers growing to friend betraying friend. To remind the citizens of Panem that our own Dark Days came about because enemies hid at our breast, this Quarter Quell will pull tributes directly from those dark times. All tributes are to be pooled from the existing citizens of eligible age which are descended, by blood, from the known traitors to our government. This Quell will include all citizens, and should any of traitor heritage be found in even the glorious Capitol, they shall be added to the Reaping Pool. The tributes this year will exonerate the lot, so we may all know that we are among true friends and harbor no snakes among us.”
Pallor seemed to come over President Snow and he swallowed almost convulsively as the entire Capitol crowd sat, stunned and hushed, staring with wide, confused eyes. This was unprecedented. The Capitol children were exempt from reaping because the Capitol were not the district rebels.
“Dear God . . .” Thor said so softly that only Loki could hear the hushed outcry of shock.
Loki shook his head, confident in his long loyal heritage. There could be no question of Odin’s or Frigga’s loyalty, both were direct descendants of defenders of Panem. “He didn’t see that one coming,” Loki whispered with a vicious grin. “Capitol kids as tributes? I can hear the protests now.”
President Snow quickly gained control and smiled at the crowds of those before him, as well as those watching across Panem. “This shakes us, doesn’t it, Panem? To be reminded, rightfully, that even the Capitol had its dissenters. And, though they paid their price long ago, the Games are a reminder every year of what we came from and how much the Capitol loves us and provides for us. So, yes, the Capitol will also pool for the Reaping, if any should be found with an ancestor to be less than proud of.”
His words seemed to soothe the masses. They began whispering about their own lineages, their pride in having long supported the Capitol and Panem. Spirits raised as Odin escorted President Snow from the podium.
Loki shook his head. “Come Reaping Day, some of those so sure they are clean will find they are not so pure.” Loki looked at Thor. “And we are of age this year. Do you think our very public heritage will come into question, Brother?”
“There is no question of our loyalty to Panem, Loki,” Thor assured his brother as they walked back to their home a short distance from the square.
“Wake up. Get ready!” the masculine voice boomed out, rousing the two boys who slept in hammocks in the warm breeze of the bungalow style home. Startled, one of the seventeen year olds jolted up and his hammock spun, dumping him on the floor.
Blinking awake, Teejay Hammond’s head snapped up at the sound of his father’s loud voice. He appeared momentarily confused, as most did when woken suddenly. Slipping from his hammock, stumbling with his haste to get up, Teejay looked to his brother, “Dugg, why are you on the floor?” He bent down to aid his twin in standing.
“Dad,” came Dugg’s regretful answer. “Spooked me . . . again.” The dark haired boy dusted off his sleep pants and sighed. Suddenly, he lifted his head, eyes widening. “Teej . . . Reaping Day . . .” his voice sounded almost horrified.
“Yeah, I know,” TJ ran his hand through the wild, dark curls piled on top of his head and gave his twin a reassuring smile, “but, don’t worry, Duggie . . . you know even if you’re reaped . . . one of the careers will volunteer. It’s what they do, what they’ve been trained for their whole lives.”
Dugg’s dark blue eyes met TJ’s pale blue, shaking his head at his fraternal twin. “Not this time, I think, Teej. This is the Quarter Quell and that card said the reaping is from . . . traitors to the Capitol. I think volunteering would be . . . minimal?” The slender teen hugged himself, straight dark hair falling into his eyes.
“Makes sense,” TJ snorted softly, shaking his head as he padded over to the wardrobe to pull out the nice outfit he only was permitted to wear for Reaping Day.
“Makes me wish I was born in Capitol City. Those kids never get reaped!” Dugg said bitterly.
“This year they do,” TJ singed-songed over his shoulder to his twin.
With a snort, reaching for his own nice clothes, Dugg said, “yeah, that’s just a rumor, TJ. Like the President’s gonna take the chance and let his grand children get reaped if they have a ghost of a chance of a traitor in the blood.”
“Ya wonder,” TJ began, stripping off his sleep clothes, “if this whole Quarter Quell, including the Capitol kids,” the brunet continued on as if Dugg hadn’t spoken, “is because of that whole mess with that girl from Twelve, what was her name? The one that volunteered for her little sister? Ya think they are tryin’ to make it so no one volunteers anymore?”
Snorting in amusement as he pulled on his trousers, Dugg shook his head. “There you go again, little brother, dreaming. Quarter Quells were set up at the very beginning. There’s no way anyone can know what the card will say and change it. We watched him pick it out! And,” Dugg looked at TJ, “the Capitol loves a volunteer. Sponsors go wild. The girl from Twelve was stupid for letting her guard down.”
“But, who’s to say that all those cards in that box didn’t all read the same thing?” TJ questioned out loud, pulling on his soft, pale blue tunic over his head and flattening it out before bending down to pull on his shoes.
“Now you sound like Mom. She thinks the cards are blank,” Dugg sighed and smoothed his shirt on over his head then began buttoning it up. Sitting down on a chair, Dugg pulled on his socks and shoes, swiping over them with a cloth to make sure they shone. He stood and moved out of TJ’s way, reaching for the brush.
“All I’m saying,” TJ said, straightening back up with a soft sigh, “is that I feel it’s pretty damn convenient that the Quarter Quell this year is designed to stop volunteers directly following the year that a tribute from a lower district volunteers to save her sister’s ass.” TJ shrugged one shoulder, not bothering to try to brush out his curls. He’d cleaned up the night before and knew that his hair couldn’t be tamed, “even if she, Kaitlyn, or whatever her name was, was an idiot. Why in the world she’d sing to a dying tribute and get herself knifed is beyond me. That little girl was dying, a pretty song wasn’t gonna stop it.”
Dugg shook his head. “And in the end, win or lose, her sister can still be reaped. Anyway, I don’t think it’s meant to directly discourage volunteers, but I do think it’s pretty creepy they have to bring that whole mess up from back then. Our parents weren’t even born then. Not like any of us are traitors.” Dugg frowned and checked the small mirror to make sure his hair lay flat. “And that dead kid she sang for wasn’t even her own district, so, yeah, if I’m reaped, you won’t find me singing to a dead ally.”
“Not gonna be reaped, Duggie,” TJ assured his twin, looking down at his outfit and then shrugging to himself as if he found the ensemble barely acceptable. Looking back up at his twin, TJ said, “you know the chance of your name being called is pretty damn small. Just two more years and we don’t have to even worry about fucking Reaping Day ever again.”
“Yeah, I’m in there six times, same as you,” Dugg shrugged. “But twelve year olds get called, too, and they’re in there only once unless they took tesserae.” He softly said, “and we will have to worry when our future children get to reaping age.”
“Not gonna have kids to worry about,” TJ said, looking over at Dugg, giving his twin a significant look.
Dugg looked up and nodded. “Yeah, Dad still thinks it’s a phase, you thinking boys are . . . that way about boys.”
“Yeah, well, Dad can suck it up,” TJ rolled his eyes and grinned at Dugg, “hey, how are you and Anne doin’? You ask her out yet? Swear you move slower than a snail.”
“Waiting for after Reaping Day, actually,” Dugg flushed and lowered his eyes, obviously thinking about the olive-skinned, dark haired, dark eyed girl in their class.
“Well, after the names are called and we can go back to our daily lives, you better ask her out!” TJ laughed, gently pushing his twin with an affectionate smile. “At this rate, you’ll be forty by the time you muster up the courage.”
“You boys stop your dallying and get your butts out here! You’re gonna make us late!” their father screamed through the door. “I told you we shouldn’t let them sleep in on Reaping Day!”
“Sir, yes, sir!” TJ called out, sarcasm dripping from his tone. He looked over at Dugg and gave his brother a quick wink before walking out of the bedroom.
“Oh, Teejay,” Elaine looked over at her son as he walked out; she frowned and said, “you didn’t even brush your hair . . .” The older woman approached TJ and started running her fingers through his hair, trying to tame the wild appearance.
Dugg smirked at TJ and hurried to the table to eat his dried fish and sea greens. Dipping his bread into the gravy of his brunch, Dugg watched as their mother cooed over TJ. His twin was the pretty one and so Elaine often tried to keep his appearance to a high standard for public days. School was about the only time TJ could let loose and be normal.
“Momma,” TJ whined softly, gently batting her hand away before stepping over to the table and slipping into the chair next to Dugg. He started eating at his meal.
Elaine glanced over at her husband, Bud, and frowned softly in worry. She shook her head and poured both boys a glass of water to have with their brunch.
“Gotta look your best, boys,” Bud gruffly stated, backing up his wife in her fussing. He sat at the table, watching the pair intently, his day having started with the dawn. Reaping Day was the only day they let the twins sleep in.
“Why’s that?” TJ asked, looking up at his father as he bit off a bite of the warm, freshly made bread, “not like we’re gonna be reaped, so, no one is gonna be lookin’ at us.”
Bud stared at TJ in surprise. “Not reaped? How do you figure that, boy? You’re in the bowl, same as any your age.”
“This year is only for traitor descendants, remember?” TJ asked.
Stiffening, Bud hissed, “and your mother’s grandfather was one of the leaders in the Dark Days, so shut your damn mouth!”
Blinking, TJ paled a shade and looked to Dugg and then back at his father, “he . . . what? But . . .”
Rolling his eyes, Bud said, “we don’t talk about him. But know this, Teejay Hammond. That man’s actions reflect on all of us to this very day. It’s the reason the reaping exists at all. And that’s what this particular Quell reminds us of: the snake at our bosom, the enemy among our friends. You will be one of those in the bowl, I guarantee. But,” he sighed and said, “I also think they’re gonna make it easier for certain people to get their name in. Your mother and I think that each name will only go in once, so the tesserae kids won’t have the higher numbers this time.”
“But . . . that doesn’t make sense. They agreed to have their names put in extra times for more supplies! That’s not our fault,” TJ frowned and looked down at his half eaten meal, suddenly feeling queasy.
“Don’t you even listen, boy?” Bud sounded like he was beginning to get annoyed. “You and Dugg are direct descendants of one of the rebellion leaders. I wouldn’t be surprised if your names were the only ones in that goddamned bowl!”
“Bud,” Elaine warned softly, frowning fiercely at her husband, “you’re scaring the boys. Stop it. They are not the only names in that bowl, there are others, I am sure.”
“I can name a whole shit load,” Bud grumped. “Instead of taking those who’ve shown their loyalty to make up for the stupid mistakes of those dead now, the Quell should have been scrounging out dissenters now . . . like those in the outer districts. Those people are all plotting to get more’n their share! Entitled, that’s what they think. Just because they’re the lowest districts, they think we should feel sorry for ‘em. Bunch of raving idiots, if you ask me.” Bud was off on a roll now. “That girl from Twelve last year? Stupid idiot. The cream of the crop, with that high score. And she got herself killed because she wanted to sing to some dead kid.”
TJ didn’t lift his head, suddenly feeling like the few bites of food he’d already eaten were trying to work their way back up. How had he not know that he and Dugg were direct descendants of a rebel leader from the Dark Days . . . that seemed like an important piece of information to pass along. He looked at Dugg again and said, “we ain’t gonna get reaped, Duggie.”
Nodding, Dugg slipped his hand over TJ’s and pushed his half-eaten brunch away. Dugg wasn’t one to waste food, but he felt if he took another bite, everything would come back up. “Of course not. There were hundreds of rebels, after all. We’re only related to one. Think the kids related to more than one get their name put in for each?”
Elaine sighed and shot her husband a glare; she pushed up from her chair and took the boys’ plates, knowing neither would be able to finish now that they were so worked up. “Better get a move on, boys, you know how long that line can get . . .” Her voice trembled with fear. It was obvious she was terrified that one of her sons would be reaped.
TJ nodded slowly and slipped out of the chair, waiting for Dugg to do the same.
Following his twin, Dugg got up and paused. He hugged his mother then shook his father’s hand, Bud having fallen into a sullen silence. Dugg left the house and began the walk to the great town square where the reaping was held once a year.
After doing the same, TJ hurried to catch up with his twin, matching Dugg’s stride, “we aren’t gonna be reaped,” he repeated, as if a mantra to himself, “there’s no way. We’re only two out of how many names? There’s no way one of us is gonna be reaped.”
“Thousands and thousands,” Dugg assured his twin. “We’re only two out of thousands.” He led them to the square, stopping at the great long tables where Capitol staff and peacekeepers took the blood samples that would sign the boys in. All the familiar and unfamiliar faces were around, but they all looked just as grim as any reaping day. No one seemed to be gloating over a possible escape that year.
Dugg offered his finger to the clerk, “Dugg Hammond,” and waited while she matched him to her list. He blinked when, this year, she broke standard procedure and told him, “Center sections, left side. Next?” Dugg looked at TJ, confused by what she had meant: no one was told where in their male or female sections they were to stand normally. Was this a bad sign?
Swallowing thickly, giving his twin an encouraging nod and smile, TJ offered his hand to the clerk, palm up. “Teejay Hammond,” he said.
She took his blood sample, compared it to her list, and said, “Center sections, left side. Next?”
TJ followed his brother to the ordered section and side. Noting that the square was roped into three sections rather than the normal two, and they were in the added middle section. He carefully squeezed Dugg’s hand and looked over, “we’re gonna be fine, Duggie. Just remember . . . one more year after this and then we’re done.”
Frowning as they made their way down the center section, on the left hand side among the other boys there, Dugg nodded, eyeing the kids in the far sections, boys on the far left and girls on the far right. “So, those are the kids not being reaped?” he whispered.
“Maybe,” TJ shrugged, looking around with a soft frown. He watched as the town square filled with other citizens, the parents and others too old or too young to be reaped starting to file in. TJ briefly noted his parents standing just off to the side, actually close enough that if they wanted they’d be able to talk to to the twins.
Dugg looked at his parents, lined up behind their center section, and then looked forward, determined to look brave and composed. He was seventeen, already working a man’s job when school wasn’t in session, so he would act like a man now and do his duty. But, secretly, deep down inside, he felt this entire reaping was just another way to give those spoiled Capitol people control over their lives . . . and deaths. A sport for the rich and pampered.
Eventually, a woman dressed in the colorful, outlandish style of the Capitol strode up in her four inch square heeled shoes, bright lavender and green dress with the wide, upturned collar, pointed shoulders, and nipped waist, with hair dyed the brightest mint green ever seen, pulled into a bun so tight it looked like her scalp pulled painfully. Her makeup was just as garish and applied heavily. With a bright smile for the serious crowd, she clicked her way up onto the stage and stepped in front of the microphone.
“Welcome, District Four. As you know,” she giggled . . . actually giggled despite the somber mood, “I am Tavish Delorney, and I am your escort for these glorious events. This year is a very special year, District Four, for it is a Quarter Quell.” She nodded, failing at looking serious since her eyes and lips both quirked. “And only the third in history. You, District Four, right now, on this day, are part of an historic event!” She fell silent as if in the presence of something too big to comprehend. “But, to begin, a message from our Capitol to you.”
Tavish finally fell silent and the traditional pre-games newsreel played, showing the rebellion, the war highlights, and the terror of the Dark Days that followed. Then the message of hope and the reason behind the Hunger Games and the reaping. As the vid ran down, Tavish stepped back up to her over-sized microphone and beamed widely at those arrayed before her.
“Today, this third Quarter Quell, and the start of the seventy-fifth Hunger Games, is marked by a special circumstance. Let me remind you,” she tittered, “as if anyone would need reminding.” Clearing her throat with a small smile, Tavish went on, “this reaping is coming from the descendants of the rebels of the Dark Darks. This is to remind everyone that there were hidden dangers even inside trusted harbors. To prove they are now loyal, to repent for the sins of their forebears, and to support the great nation we have become, the tributes are reaped from those very descendants of the traitors that once were.” She beamed widely at the center section of young people. “And, as an added reward, for our beloved President Snow knows you are loyal citizens, not your incorrigible ancestors, this games will host two victors.” Tavish waited for the crowd to react to that announcement, which was new.
TJ’s eyes widened and he looked over at Dugg and then back at the stage. Two victors? Such a thing was unheard of. Never before had two victors been allowed to win the games. His fingers reached out to squeeze his brother’s again before falling limp by his side once more.
Dugg reacted by nodding once, to show TJ he understood his twin’s shock and shared it. Of course, two victors meant better odds of surviving. It also meant - - what? Twice the number of tributes? Half the prize? Dugg frowned, trying to figure out what the catch was; with the Capitol, there always seemed to be a catch.
Beaming around benevolently like a benefactress, Tavish began again, “this year we will be hosting twenty-six tributes, but two will be permitted to win.”
Dugg suddenly realized what the catch was: the Capitol had just made things possible so both their tributes could win. He bitterly wondered if the Capitol kids would have special training and conveniently set up gear, too.
Tavish continued, “this means that there is double the prizes. However,” and she tittered again, a sound really too young for her advanced years, “if only one victor triumphs, he or she will get both prizes. For the first time in the history of the Hunger Games, a sole victor would reap double supplies, double pay, and double glory!” She beamed widely, as if expecting cheers or applause. When none came, Tavish sighed and nodded. “Shall we begin? Ladies first, I believe is the custom.”
“That’d be Hammond,” a soft murmur came from a boy outside of the section, his last reaping having been the year before.
TJ’s head snapped around and his eyes narrowed in the direction of the older boy. It was no secret in their district that Teejay Hammond preferred the company of other men . . . much to his father’s embarrassment and constant assurances to others that it was just a phase.
The boy, a blond handsome lad named Sean, smiled knowingly at TJ. “Pay attention, you’re about to be reaped.”
Rolling his eyes, TJ turned his head back to the front to watch as Tavish drew the name from the girls’ bowl.
Looking at the neatly marked piece of pasteboard, Tavish beamed widely, “Oh, how exciting. And this name I know . . . at least the family name. It’s Wheyle, Sandrina.” She looked over the audience expectantly.
A tall girl with mousy-brown hair and wide hazel eyes stepped forward from her section. She looked like she wanted to run or pee or pass out - - or all three. Straightening her simple pink dress, revealing that her body under the gown was rather undeveloped, she headed for the stairs flanked by peacekeepers. Sandrina climbed the three steps and stepped up beside Tavish, staring above the heads of the crowd instead of at anyone directly, her hands clenched behind her back. This girl was a virtual stranger to most, not attending school or work at all, though only rumors abounded as to why - - most concerning some type of mental illness or family shame. She looked perfectly normal, if afraid, though.
TJ waited for a career to call out, to valiantly volunteer for the young girl who everyone knew had no chance in hell of winning the games. However, as Dugg has predicted earlier, no such call came. No one wanted to be labeled a traitor, even with the prestige that came from winning a Quarter Quell.
The lack of volunteers from a District known for volunteers seemed to confuse Tavish and she waited longer than was necessary while the fifteen year old girl stood on the stage, hands behind her back, watching above the heads of the crowd. She obviously tried not to cry. Finally, Tavish said, “yes . . . welcome Wheyle Sandrina. And, for the boys.”
Tavish walked over to the bowl and, smiling wide, dipped her hand into the contents, swirling around. “Who will be the lucky boy who gets to go to the capitol?” She sounded like she thought this would be the most sought after prize for one of the young men who stood for reaping. Pulling out her hand, she looked at the pasteboard and brightly called, “Hammond, Teejay!”
TJ’s world seemed to slow down as it felt like everyone turned their heads to look at him. For a brief moment, TJ felt sure that there was a mispronunciation, that Tavish surely couldn’t mean him. When no such correction came, TJ swallowed thickly and his feet moved as if on autopilot.
Dugg reached out to try to touch his brother, his mouth opening, but a poke and hiss from behind stopped him. “Don’t you dare, Dugg!” their father growled.
Letting out a breath, TJ didn’t look at anyone as he made the walk through the middle of the crowds and stepped up onto the stage. He looked at Sandrina and then faced forward, fists clenched by his sides. If no one volunteered for Sandrina, no one was going to volunteer for him.
Beside him, the girl stood, hands clasped behind her back so tightly they were completely white. She gave him a look, sympathy in her eyes, but no words for her fellow tribute. They were equals, despite age: both were sacrifices for their way of life.
“Welcome, Hammond, Teejay,” Tavish gushed at him, smiling at the crowd. “Any one? This is the time for volunteers if you wish to try for glory in either of their places.” She paused but no one accepted her invitation that year, unprecedented.
TJ’s eyes closed for a moment, he took a deep breath of the fresh, salty air, knowing that it was very possible that this would be the last time he could take a breath of home. He opened them up and looked at the crowd; he kept his eyes away from his family, knowing he would break down if he looked at them.
Finally, she looked at both tributes and said, “very well. Please give a warm welcome to the tributes from District Four!” She grabbed for a hand from each teen, but couldn’t pry Sandrina’s hands apart. Settling for shifting her hand to the girl’s shoulder, Tavish lifted TJ’s in the air and beamed at the crowd as a spattering of disheartened applause broke the air.
One voice in the back said, quite clearly, “couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy!”
No one from District Four laughed at the cruel comment, but Tavish smiled and nodded, taking it for praise and congratulations. Turning the teens towards the Mayor’s building, she had to push Sandrina extra hard to get the girl to move, as if the teen’s body had frozen there on stage. “Come along, we have so much to do!” Tavish guided the pair through the doors.
Stopping in front of a door with a peacekeeper stationed out front, Tavish opened the door and gave TJ a friendly hug. “Wait in there. I’ll settle her. I think she’s a bit overwhelmed.” She led the girl off as the peacekeeper shut TJ into the office.
Once by himself, TJ sank to the edge of the plush couch and put his head in his hands. He willed himself not to cry; he couldn’t cry. At least it hadn’t been Dugg, at least his twin was safe. He couldn’t believe out of all the names in that damn bowl, his was the name that got pulled.
The door opened and Dugg hurried in, directly to TJ, throwing himself at his twin and hugging fiercely. He whispered, over and over, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Bud walked in, stiff and grim looking, eyes blazing. He shut the door after his wife entered then hurried over to his sons. “Teejay, you listen to me,” he ordered gruffly.
“It’s okay,” TJ said softly, standing up to face his father when the man spoke. He still let Dugg hold on to him, honestly wishing his twin would never let go.
Bud put his hands on TJ’s shoulders and stared into his eyes. “You listen in training. Not just weapons. Pick one and work that hard, but you need to pay attention in case they give you cold weather or desert skills you don’t have. They’re supposed to train you, so pay attention and work hard. And when you get to the arena, go for the high ground and you keep anyone else at bay. Alliances end in someone killing the other. First import is water then food then shelter. If they let you, you review some of the past games, not the water ones or stuff you already know.” The man looked determined to help his son survive, but he was helpless to do anything more than give him advice - - three minutes of advice, only, since that’s all they had to visit before TJ left, almost certainly to his death.
TJ met his father’s eyes, his own pale ones wide as he tried to take in all the information and file it away. He nodded slowly and said, though his words came out more like a whimper, “water . . . food . . . shelter . . .”
Dugg hugged TJ tighter and glared at their father, “you sound as if you’ve been planning that speech forever!”
Bud rolled his eyes. “The day your mother determined she was pregnant, in fact. I knew that my children could be in that arena.” Bud crossed his arms.
Elaine, tears shimmering her eyes though she didn’t allow any to spill over, pulled TJ into a tight hug and then cupped his face between her hands, “you have as much chance as anyone, Teejay.”
Dugg nodded. “I can guarantee Sandrina isn’t a better fighter than you,” he said. “This time, the tributes probably won’t be careers.”
Kissing her son’s forehead and hugging him tighter, Elaine whispered into her son’s ear, “stay away from the fighting, Teejay. All you have to do is out-survive them. I love you so much.”
The door swung open and Bud took that chance to hug TJ hard against him, slip something into his hand, and kiss his son’s cheek. “You pay attention to the trainers. Love you, boy!” He let go, the peacekeeper ushering him out. Elaine and Doug were guided out, neither getting a last hug or word in. The door shut, leaving TJ alone once more.
Blinking, feeling something in his hand, TJ opened his palm and looked down. In his hand was a smooth round bit of metal, flattened, with a hole in it and a cord through, so worn no original markings could be determined. Bud always told his sons stories of finding that bit of metal while he'd had that one rare holiday exploring in the wilds when he was a boy. TJ knew that he would be allowed one item from his District, and he figured this was as good as any. He slipped the coin-shaped object into the pocket of his trousers.
No one else came to visit TJ and the time dragged by while he waited. Finally, the door opened and Tavish smiled in at him. “Are we ready, Teejay?”
Fingers tapping against his side, TJ worried at his bottom lip and then nodded once, forcing himself back into a neutral expression. He walked over to Tavish and said, “we’re leaving . . . now?”
“Well, yes, there’s nothing here for you. Not until you return as a victor!” She smiled brightly and walked over to the other room that had a peacekeeper outside. He opened the door and Tavish smiled at the man then walked in to get Sandrina, who seemed less stiff and terrified. It was obvious she’d been weeping.
When the girl walked out, TJ reached over to gently squeeze her hand and leaned in close to whisper, “head held high, Sandy.”
“Drina,” she murmured, her voice soft, almost misty sounding. But she did as suggested and squared her shoulders, lifting her head, looking proud and calm, even with terrified hazel eyes and shaking hands.
“Drina,” TJ amended, squeezing her fingers again and before letting his own hand drop back to his side.
Clapping her hands together, Tavish said, “already working together. This year that will be especially good, because there are two victors. I think bringing home both prizes would be glorious! Imagine, two District Four Winners?” She smiled dreamily for a second then shook herself and hurried the pair outside and towards the train platform “Lot’s to do, lot’s to do!” she admonished no one in particular.
TJ let Drina be in the middle, bringing up the rear as Tavish lead them towards the train. Once again, the brunet teen didn’t let his eyes wander the crowds lined up near the train. He didn’t want to see the looks of pity and sympathy as they were basically lead to slaughter.
The fancy train which only ever came there for big occasions like Reaping Days and Victory Tours sat, gleaming and sleek. Tavish turned and smiled at her charges. “Up, up, tributes. Into the train. A wonderful adventure awaits!” She watched as Drina took a breath then grabbed the handrail and hoisted herself into the shiny vehicle car. Tavish turned to TJ. “You, too, Teejay.” excitement thrilled through the escort’s voice.
Swallowing, TJ only hesitated a moment before he stepped into the luxurious train. On the outside, the brunet appeared calm and collected, however, on the inside he wanted to find the closest room to close himself in and curl up into a ball.
Reaping Day: On the Train
As the train made its way to the Capitol, TJ settled in the main car so he could watch other children be reaped on vid - - his competition. He knew that he should be focusing on how to get himself and Drina out alive . . . but, the young girl stood even less of a chance than he did. He wasn’t completely shutting himself from that opportunity, but, he needed to figure which would be the best way to get home alive . . . and he seriously doubted that way lay with aligning with Drina.
TJ played through the different reapings, starting with Twelve and moving his way through, skipping District Four; that wasn’t something he needed to see. One of the biggests shocks, and undoubtedly a big topic in the Capitol already, was that the two tributes from Ten were fraternal twins . . . TJ suddenly felt extremely thankful that he and Dugg couldn’t be in the same games as one another. TJ figured automatically that the twins would be aligning together, that’s what he’d do. From both District Six and Seven, thirteen year old tributes were reaped: a girl from Six and a boy from Seven. TJ tried not to think of the fact that the likeliness of either making it through the first day were slim to none. The youngest tribute to ever win, Finnick Odair from TJ’s own district, had been fourteen.
Finally after making it through all twelve districts, TJ actually finish in time to watch the Capitol reaping live. He still couldn’t believe that Capitol children were being reaped . . . he wondered if the two kids from the Capitol would be targeted first by the district kids.
The large square had already filled by the time the reaping of the Capitol, late in the night so it was lit with bright electrical lights, started. There were the same three sections all of the districts had, but the middle section held only about fifty teenagers in it, rather than the majority of the population. As a tall, slim man with bright pink and magenta ringlets and oversized fuchsia glasses walked onto the stage, the crowds seemed to be getting openly hostile towards the teens in the reaping section. The man raised his hands and the crowd instantly fell silent, though animosity could almost be felt, even through the screen.
Speaking clearly into his hidden microphone, the man said, “Welcome Panem. As you already know, the twelve districts have already been reaped and their honored tributes are on their way, this minute, to our glorious Capitol City. Well, this year, the Capitol has an unique honor of also hosting tributes from our very own beloved citizens. So, since we’ve seen the historical vids a dozen times this day, let’s go right for the selection, shall we?”
“Not very professional, Dickie,” a smug baritone said from beside TJ.
TJ nearly jumped a foot when he saw Finnick Odair, his mentor, sitting beside him. Blinking wide eyes, TJ cleared his throat, trying for nonchalance, “seems like they should be forced to sit through that damn thing, too. It’s only fair.” TJ tried to remain calm; he’d never actually met the most widely known victor of his District. Finnick didn’t really leave Victor’s Village much and when he did, it was always to go to the Capitol. TJ hated himself that he immediately registered how attractive he young man was . . . he needed to keep a clear head, dammit.
“Later we’ll talk about how you just died a dozen times tonight alone, Teejay, right? Watch, though, historic and all that.” Finnick gestured towards the screen with a well tanned hand, grinning lazily.
Flushing bright red, TJ nodded and his pale eyes flickered back to the screen to watch the first ever Capitol reaping take place.
The man Finnick had called Dickie smiled at the two bowls which had been set out during TJ’s distraction. Dipping his hand into the first bowl delicately, obviously never having performed such a service before, Dickie pulled out the pasteboard and read, quite clearly, “Harmony, Dexsia! Oh, congratulations, girl!”
TJ leaned forward slightly, bracing his elbows on his knees as he watched a young girl, no older than fifteen, walk towards the stage with a deer-in-headlights expression. Her dark green hair reminded TJ vaguely of seaweed, and her bright pink dress, the skirt made of many ruffles, seemed only to contrast with her hair color. Under all the makeup and bright colors, the girl reminded TJ of Drina in a way.
Dickie smiled at the girl and asked, “isn’t this exciting? I’ve heard many a Capitol child claim how he or she would win the games and now you get that very chance!”
“This is making me sick,” TJ mumbled softly.
“It gets worse when you meet them in person,” Finnick commented.
During their small conversation, they missed Dexsia’s comment or lack thereof.
Dickie seemed not too bothered by her scared reaction. Instead he chuckled, “well, save it for the interview with Cesar, am I right? Now, the young man who will represent us.” He moved over to the other bowl and dipped delicately into the pasteboard cards. Pulling one out, his eyebrows rose like a red and purple streak on his forehead. Blinking at the card from behind his glasses, Dickie said, “oh . . . really? This can’t be . . .” He looked up, “but his lineage is impeccable. There has to be a mistake?”
TJ looked to Finnick, wondering if the other man had any clue who may be named on that card. Finnick often visited the Capitol, after all.
“Questions about heritage,” Finnick grinned maliciously, sitting forward on the couch. “And who’s secret rebel is getting revealed?”
Seneca Crane, Head Gamemaker, shook his head and said, clearly, “no mistakes were made. All investigations were thorough and verified through DNA. Read the name of our final tribute.”
Swallowing, then nodding, Dickie intoned in a shaking voice, “Odinson, Loki.” His eyes shot to the Head of Security standing, stone-faced, by the President.
“What?” A male baritone called out from the side, sounding shocked, “no!” There was a pause and then the man said, “I volunteer, then!”
Dickie looked over to the far right, the very large section of males of proper age which had been cleared of a traitor’s taint. He looked towards Seneca Crane.
The Gamemaker shook his head, “you are not eligible to volunteer, Thor Odinson. Volunteers must come from the center zone. If someone would like to volunteer for your brother that is eligible . . .” he left the question dangling open.
But no volunteers spoke up, just as across the districts. This was the very first Hunger Games in history which had no volunteers.
Loki, tall and slender, black hair neatly pulled back into a short ponytail, dressed in deep emerald tunic over black trousers, stepped forward. He didn’t look to the side, merely striding up to the stage and stopping next to Dickie, on the opposite side to Dexsia. The younger son of the Head of President Snow’s own security force look calm and collected, though his eyes looked troubled and nearly overwhelmed.
Blinking, TJ hadn’t expected a Capitol kid he actually recognized to be reaped. He’d seen Loki on the television every year, standing behind President Snow.
Dickie cleared his throat and said, “isn’t this . . . uh . . . exciting?”
An assistant put a microphone close to Loki who offered her a soft smile. Turning his ice green eyes on the crowd, Loki clearly said, in a soft voice, “Thank you, Panem, for allowing me the opportunity to help clear the ugly history of this great land. I am honored to be tribute.”
After a stunned silence, wild applause broke out and Dickie quickly led the pair away.
“Huh,” Finnick grunted. “Not sure what his game is, but that could have been a very clever ploy to get sponsors. Not a lot of people are going to want to sponsor this year.” Finnick turned to TJ and grinned. “Hello, Teejay. I’m your mentor, Finnick.”
Looking back to Finnick, TJ offered the attractive, older man a smile. “I know . . . well, I mean . . . I know you . . .” TJ flushed and rubbed the back of his neck.
“I don’t sleep with the tributes until they become victors.” Finnick grinned. “Incentive, maybe?”
TJ made a soft choking noise from the back of his throat and he flushed even brighter. He ducked his head and murmured, “that’s not . . . that wasn’t . . . I wasn’t trying . . . you know? How do you know?”
“You can’t talk to me,” Finnick said, grinning. “Sure sign you either hate me or wanna sleep with me. But, relax, Teejay. Get past it until you win. I promise, you do that and I’ll be the first in line, okay?”
“I . . . uh . . .” TJ slowly lifted his eyes and met Finnick’s, “it’s TJ . . .”
“So, no dragging out the vowels? Run it all together? Easier,” Finnick nodded. He stood up and stretched. “Go to sleep, eat a big breakfast. Lot’s of work tomorrow.” He winked at TJ, “tomorrow may be the hardest day before the games. You gotta get pretty.”
“Pretty?” TJ frowned softly, looking up at the older man.
“Yah, tomorrow is Beauty, and once your stylist and the team take you in hand and choose your look, you’ll be taking pictures and speaking to sponsors. Oh, besides, the appointment’s for noon, so before that you get to sign release forms and make out your will. Busy day.”
“My will?” TJ’s eyes widened; he hadn’t even thought of a will. He didn’t have anything to give to anyone. Suddenly this whole thing felt more real.
Finnick’s smile dropped and he said, “yeah. Twenty-six kids are going into that arena in a week. Guaranteed twenty-four come back out and get buried in their reaping clothes. Only two, maybe one, will get to file that will away for a good while. If you have anything at all, you’ll want it to go to friends and family, not Panem.”
“I . . . okay,” TJ nodded slowly, trying to think of anything that would be worth writing out in a will to leave to his family. “Finnick?” TJ looked up and met his mentor’s eyes.
“Yeah, TJ?” Finnick asked, the smile long gone.
“Do I even stand a chance?” TJ looked to the TV screen, now displaying the symbol of Panem and playing the national anthem on repeat, “against all of them?” He looked back to Finnick.
“Don’t have to take all of them on, TJ. Just one on one if you’re smart.” Finnick sat back down beside the seventeen year old. “Look, there’s going to be survival classes among the training. Concentrate on them. A weapon’s no good if you haven’t had water or food for a couple days. Shelter’s important, but it depends on the arena. Poisonous plants and animals are another subject, and how to make stuff like traps, nets, and other things to catch food or even other tributes with. We’ll discuss all that tomorrow. But, yeah, TJ, you have a damn good chance. I made it and I was younger than you and twice as skinny.” He offered a gentle smile to the boy, as he had to many tributes before who hadn’t made it and probably many more who wouldn’t, either.
Letting out a shaky breath, TJ slowly nodded and ran his long fingers through his mass of wild brown curls. He looked back to Finnick and offered the man a small, worried smile, “thanks . . . I mean, I know you probably say that to all your tributes . . . but, still, thanks.”
Finnick put his hand on TJ’s shoulder and met his eyes. “I do say it to ally my tributes, and I mean it every time, TJ. Because, if you listen to me, you have a damn good chance. It’ll be hard to sleep worrying, so what I want you to do is find some place in your mind that’s nice and restful. Put people in there if you want or not. Go there, rest, be with them. Don’t talk about anything, just rest. Even if you can't sleep, your body can relax a bit.” Finnick lifted his hand. “Remember you and those people don’t talk, just be in that mental place. I find it works for more than just a sleepless night.”