Kevin stumbles out of bed that morning with a throbbing headache settling in and making a nest between his eyebrows. He wrinkles his nose as he flings off his duvet and throws his legs over the side of the bed. He already knows what today is, and it’s exactly why he’d spent the previous night drinking alongside his brother, Riko Moriyama.
There’s another set of hurried knocks being placed against his door, so Kevin is quick to tug on the robe he discarded the night prior and open it. On the other side is a handful of people Kevin doesn’t entirely recognize. They have faces that he remembers, but their names are a memory he’s long since lost.
They bathe him, dress him, poke and prod at him until he’s fit for perfection. His outfit is sleek and suits him well, and the usual discomfort is lost, whether it’s from him having grown used to it, or if it’s from the design, he doesn’t know.
Under his green gaze is a smudge of coal, bringing out the green of his eyes. Everything else is left alone, including the two tattooed on his face. Briefly, he reaches out to run his finger over it. He knows Riko bears the matching number, the pretty 1 that stands proudly there. Kevin ignores the itch for his own.
They let him go forty minutes later to meet Riko and Tetsuji downstairs. Riko’s outfit is tailored to fit him, but is designed in the same way Kevin’s is. Their hair is styled the same way, and it’s plain to see that the only differences that they can’t quite eliminate are the tattoos and their heights.
“Let us go,” Tetsuji says blandly, leading the way out. It takes no time to reach the square, where the people of district one are gathered proudly. It’s always been a tradition to have people volunteer, but they all know exactly what would be coming up today. It was no surprise to anyone, really.
The first name called is one Kevin doesn’t recognize, but it doesn’t matter when Riko is stepping forward in their place, confident strides and the words ‘I volunteer’ wrapped around his tongue. Stifled gasps take the place where Riko stood, but Kevin ignores them.
He waits, his breath bated, for the next name. It’s not his own, and yet he raises his hand anyways. His stomach clenches at the mere thought of spitting those foul words out, of stepping up there alongside Riko and sentencing himself to death, but he does it anyways.
“I volunteer,” he says, halfway to the podium. “I volunteer as tribute!” His voice is ragged and he thinks there’s a hint of panic to his tone, but it doesn’t matter when he takes his place next to Riko. They clasp hands, raising them above their heads before they disappear.
Kevin doesn’t spare a glance behind, and he doesn't bother waving, either. Nobody cares whether he makes it out in the end, only that Riko does.
District one’s reaping plays over the television, and Nathaniel watches as he finishes buttoning up his suit. He had been woken early by people meant to help him prepare for the reaping, but all it had taken was a loud, but polite, ‘I’m fine, thank you,’ and the general dismissive wave of his hand and they had fled the room.
He didn’t mind them, really. If the circumstances of his life were any different, maybe he would’ve allowed them to help him. He has scars he doesn’t exactly want anyone else to see, starting from his shoulders down to his mid-thighs, they cross over each other like X’s on a treasure map.
He hates them.
He brushes his hands down the front of his suit, careful to keep it from wrinkling under the pressure. He knew exactly who would be watching, and exactly who would be doling punishments when the time called. He did not exactly desire to go through that today, especially not in such a nice suit.
He turns to the closest mirror just as Riko begins walking up to the stage. Nathaniel has no care to watch his formalities or to see the sadistic grin on his ‘friend’s’ face. Instead, he focuses his eyes on his reflection, dusting coal beneath them and swiping gel through his ruddy red hair.
If he notices the deadness lurking within them, he doesn’t acknowledge it. Instead, he chances one last look towards the television, listening in as Kevin Day makes his own move to volunteer. Nathaniel can hear the quiver to his tone, the shakiness that turns his confidence to cowardice.
Nathaniel leaves the room and heads straight away. Along the way, he runs into Jean, number four of the careers and the one expected to volunteer after Nathaniel. He allows himself to dream, for a single, solemn moment, that his friend wouldn’t have to participate, and then flings the idea to the ground and steps on it as he moves forward.
It’s foolish to dream, he knows. He’s known this for years now, and yet he does it again and again and again. Every nightmare and every night he spends awake, he thinks he can escape again. His mother had thought so too, he reminds himself, flashing back to the moment when she’d been caught and killed.
He figured he’d have the same fate soon enough, but at least it wouldn’t be at his father’s hands this time around. Or, well, not entirely, he realizes belatedly. There was an escort standing before them, prim and proper and without a worry at all. Another capitol toy, he notes. He wouldn’t mourn her if she died.
He doesn’t even bother waiting for her mouth to open. She reaches into the bowl just as he steps forward, breaking through the peacekeepers that try to hold him back. He shoots them a glare, a headnod, and continues forward. He ignores the confused looks and the sharp gasps as he takes to the stage and focuses his gaze away from them.
He zones out the rest until Jean joins him and they can take off.
“We’re going to be fine,” Nicky says lowly. He doesn’t sound sure of himself, nor does he look the part. He grips Erik’s shirt until it wrinkles beneath his grip and presses as closely as the world will allow. There’s a dog barking somewhere in the house, and another boy yelling at it to hush. Erik ignores it in favor of placing a solid kiss at the top of his husband’s head.
“Yes,” Erik says, confident where Nicky is not. The quell had brought a sort of barrier against them, it seemed. Adding more names, more papers to be drawn. The chances of them being called had lowered significantly. There was no need for worry, was there?
Aaron busts into the room, two yapping puppies at his heels. He’s already ready, if one were to excuse the untamed mop of blonde curls that stood at the top of his head. He seems bedraggled and stressed, unsure. “The dogs won’t shut up.”
Nicky untangles himself from Erik’s arms, lowering himself to the level of their beloved pets. He runs a hand over their heads and lets out a low, reassuring hum. Despite his own anxieties, he wants the pets to feel reassured. “It’ll be okay, buddies,” he murmurs.
Aaron, annoyed and likely done with everything, disappears from the room just as quickly as he came. It is no surprise to anyone in the home, especially since they all know his girlfriend, Katelyn, will be arriving sometime soon. Though Erik is sure that the chances of any of them being picked are mighty slim, they can all feel the pressing fear that one of them will be drawn. Nobody can be sure.
There’s a timid knock on the door, one that neither of the Kloses move to react to. They know exactly who it is, and feel no need to disentangle themselves for. They all need a moment to collect themselves, to breathe everything in. Erik drops to the ground next to Nicky, allowing one of the pups to climb into his lap.
Gently, he brushes his calloused fingers over their soft head. “We’ll come back,” he says. “We’ll be fine.”
They sit like that, with breath bated and a subtle tenseness to their shoulders, until Aaron’s annoyed yell breaks them from it and reminds them what they had been preparing for.
Erik and Nicky hold hands the whole way there, and they both take notice of the way Aaron holds onto Katelyn’s hand a little tighter when they’re made to split. He pulls her in for an aching hug and presses his head to her neck. Erik thinks it must be reminiscent of a goodbye.
Him and Nicky turn away and to the front. They’re near the back of the crowd, their clasped hands hidden between warm, anxious bodies. Everyone knew what this was, what was going to happen. Fear was coating every corner, especially when the escort approaches the single bowl on the stage.
Her smile is as fake as her words and as her polished nails as she reaches into the bowl. Erik makes to grab onto Nicky just as Aaron’s name is called, loud and clear. Erik can hear the anguished cry of Katelyn and he can feel Nicky clinging to Erik for dear life, and maybe a drop or two of tears.
Erik clenches his fists and his jaw and wonders what kind of act they must have committed to deserve the cruelty of this.
He doesn’t think much after that. He hears them call for Nicky, but he holds his husband back. “Stay,” he whispers into his ear around the tears that he wants to release. He presses a soft kiss to Nicky’s forehead. “I’ll keep Aaron safe. I swear.”
Then, he stands to his full height and escapes the crowd. He is no Nicky Klose. He is not the name they called, nowhere close. But he is something better, he thinks. It would be better if Erik Klose ended as a cannon shot than Nicky.
Loudly, clearly, boldly, he speaks. “I volunteer as tribute.”
There’s nobody to mourn for an addict, someone who’s grown numb to the affect of the world, but not to the effect of drugs and other pain relievers. They watch as he stumbles to the stage, spewing insults left and right. He stumbles his way up the steps. There’s vitriol in every word as he glares down at the people before him.
There have already been multiple volunteers in the earlier districts, but nobody cares for Seth Gordon. They’d cry for Riko Moriyama if he died, or Kevin Day, even. But nobody for Seth, or for Janie.
“Fuck you!” He says, pointing his words to the escort, to the peacekeepers, to every single capitol body around him. “You think you’re better than us because of your fancy clothing and your ties to the Capitol! Well guess what! You’re no better than any of us!”
Hands close around his wrists and force him back, likely towards the train. There’d be no goodbyes for either he, nor Janie, to give, but that doesn’t matter. “I’d like to see you live through the games,” he spits out finally, just before the doors close in his face.
Dan settles herself on the bed. She stares down at the clothes she’d picked out the night before, but makes no move to put it on. Matt Boyd stands before her, already dressed up and prepared for the reaping that morning. He stares down at her, but she’s unfocused and pays him no mind.
Gently, Matt sets one of his hands upon her cheek to bring her face up. “Dan,” he says, gently as he can. She glances up at him and bites her lip. Neither are ready to face the day, but they know they have to. They don’t have a choice. “We’ll be okay.”
“How can you say that?” She asks. “There’s so much-”
“Dan. Let’s not worry about that yet. Right now, we just have to put on our clothes and get there. We’ll worry about the rest when the time comes, yeah?”
He picks up her dress with practiced ease and spreads it out on her lap. It’s been one of her favorites, a pretty dress made by Matt’s mother in her off time. A deep green the color of trees. Matt had been surprised she even knew how to make clothes like that, but he supposed traveling could do that to someone
“Yeah,” Dan says. She sucks in a deep breath and begins to prepare.
The reaping is something nobody could’ve prepared for, especially not Dan or Matt. They’d prepared their clothes the night prior, but they did not prepare their minds for the devastation that came. Randi Boyd, mother to Matt, was the first to be called. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the younger Boyd would be quick to volunteer.
Dan tries not to let it get to her, even when Matt looks at her with those eyes and she can feel her chest caving in. She wills herself not to cry, not to cry, not to cry, but she gives in when it’s her father figure--her everything-- who is called up next. She can’t stop herself from volunteering in his place. Her voice cracks and breaks when she says those damning words, those two awful words that she’s heard repeated multiple times on the television.
She could see the pleading look in Wymack’s eyes, the way he begged her not to do it, not to say it, not to give in to the black hole growing and growing and growing in her chest, but she didn’t care. Matt wouldn’t die when she was in the Arena, and Wymack would be safe at home. It would be fine. Fine, fine, fine.
“Swear it, Laila. I need you to swear it.”
“-Sara, you know I can’t do that.”
“Yes, you can. Do it.”
Sara has Laila’s shoulders in a death grip and a yearning look in her eyes. There’s a heavy sort of fear hanging in the air around them. Sara can feel it. She knows she will get called. She watched the television, she’d seen the downturn of everyone’s world. The volunteers, the crying, the astonished gasps and cries. Sara knows.
She just can’t have Laila making it worse and taking her place.
“I swear,” Laila chokes out finally. “Damnit, I swear I won’t take your damn place."
“Good,” Sara says, pulling Laila close. “Thank you.”
On the way out of their house, they both plant a soft kiss to the top of their beagle’s head. Sara feels-odd. She knows this could very well be the last time she sees the puppy, so she’s sure to plant a second and a third and a fourth. A goodbye of sorts that she knows won’t be enough in the long run. She even gives Laila the tightest hug she’s ever offered before they call her name.
“Thank you,” she says again to her girlfriend, a whisper thrown over her shoulder. She knows she can handle this, but she can’t handle Laila taking her place. She can’t, she can’t, she can’t.
She’s not quite sure she can handle Jeremy Knox, her childhood best friend, taking the place next to her, either. But it seems life has become increasingly cruel as of late.
“Are you scared, Andrew?”
Andrew Dobson pauses in buttoning his suit to glance over his shoulder at his adopted mother, Bee. His first reaction is to say, no, he isn’t. But he knows better now, he thinks. It’s been a slow climb, a hill that starts small but that grows, grows, grows before his eyes. He climbs, and slips, and climbs some more. His knees still ache.
“All they did is lower our chances of getting called,” Andrew decides to say, forcing himself to close the last button. He fidgets with his outfit and focuses on anything but his adoptive mother who has no right to be half as perceptive as she is.
“That doesn’t mean anything. You can still be scared,” she says, and Andrew can practically feel her eyes on the back of his head. She’s always watching. He used to be put off by her stares, but now it’s a pseudo sort of comfort. Protection rather than plot. “I know I am.”
“I won’t let anything happen to you,” Andrew says immediately, his fists clenching as he turns to face her. She’s standing in the doorway, a calm and soothing balm to his open wounds that he could’ve sworn that he hid well. Not well enough, apparently.
“I know,” Bee says. “That’s what I’m worried about.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“You shouldn’t have to.”
Andrew drops his hands to his side and relaxes his shoulders. He knows she cares, he’s known that since he let Cass go and everyone go and finally, finally, let himself have something good and decent and that wouldn’t destroy him like he’d destroyed himself.
“Yes,” he says finally, a breath blown out between his lips. “I’m scared.”
“That’s good, Andrew.” Bee approaches him slowly and in steady movements, careful enough to where he can stop her if he wants, puts her arms on his shoulders. She pulls him close in an embrace he returns. “It’s okay to be scared.”
Andrew looks over her shoulder, to the muted television on the other side of the room. On screen is a replay of the earlier reapings, displaying the tears, anger, and someone with his face. Bee backs away and he allows his mask to slip for one, one, measly second. That was him, but it wasn’t, was it?
Bee follow his gaze, watches what he sees, and says “Oh, Andrew.”
She pulls him close again, and Andrew holds onto that moment when they finally leave to go to the reaping. He can feel the restless energy of the crowd as his gaze washes over it.
On stage, he watches as a woman dressed to the nines steps up. She mutters some needless nonsense into a mic, the same droning bullshit he hears every year as he stands in the same place. It never changes; not the violence, the dramatics, the way things happen.
The only difference is that this year there was a coil of dread wrapped tight around his belly, a snake with its fangs embedded deep and pumping its venom inside him. He can feel it start when they call Betsy’s name, grow wilder as he volunteers in her place, heavier as he steps up and takes his place on stage, and at its worst when Drake Spear takes the place next to him.
He ignores all of it; the pressure, the anger, the sickness churning within him, the looks he receives from everyone and from Drake. He looks to Bee instead, gives her a nod, and exits the stage.