My father deals a bruising blow to my arm. I yelp and nurse the battle wound, pouting. “Dad, I wasn’t ready!”
“Do you think the other tributes in the arena are going to wait for you to be ready?” Dad growls. “C’mon, Ember, what do I always tell you? What do I tell you all the time?”
“Always be ready,” I mumble.
“Exactly. That was, as you said, not ready. If this were the actual Games, you’d be short one arm and dying from blood loss, sweetheart.” He taps his wooden sword against his thigh, contemplating if he should extend our sparring session. But he relents and dismisses me. “You’re done for the day. Go clean up. Your mother should have brunch ready soon.” Dad whirls around and pins his glare on my little brother, who is unsuccessfully trying to remain unnoticed behind his book. “Cedric! You’re next.”
“Dad,” I hear Ced whining while I dart into the house, grateful for the reprieve. The smell of coffee and the sound of my baby sister’s nattering drift from the kitchen as I dash upstairs. For Summer, this day is no different from any of the others she’s experienced in her six years. We’d like to maintain that illusion as long as we can.
I disappear into the bathroom and lock the door before stripping off my sweat-drenched clothes. My saint of a mother, bless her, has already anticipated my needs and filled the tub with hot water and—am I dreaming?—bubbles. God, I can’t remember the last time I had a bubble bath. It’s a huge luxury, because bubble baths serve absolutely no functional purpose whatsoever, except to be fucking amazing.
Today might be the last time I ever have a bubble bath.
I slip into the tub with a fervent determination to enjoy my soak. But now that the thought of the finality of it all has entered my head, I’m too tense to really luxuriate. I scrub myself clean from our rushed training session that morning. Dad wanted to prepare Ced and me as much as he possibly could in the last moments before the Reaping, even though he knows we’ll have more opportunities to practice at the training center in the Capitol. Personally, I think he was just using it as an excuse to squeeze in what bonding time he has left with us.
You know, if you consider whacking each other with fake weapons to be bonding time. Kind of is in our family.
I should have been reaped when I was twelve. I had expected it. Mom and Dad had expected it. The whole world had expected it. That was what always happened with the children of a Victor, let alone two, let alone two who emerged from the same Games. But a Seam girl had been chosen for the Seventieth Hunger Games instead. Now I’m sixteen, and my name has still yet to be selected by Effie Trinket.
My time, I am sure, has run out. Because Ced is twelve now. His name is only in the bowl once, one out of thousands—but how can the Capitol possibly resist the opportunity to pit two siblings, two Victors’ children, against one another? This is what they have been waiting for, and if both of us aren’t called today, then I have severely overestimated the Capitol’s capacity for cruelty.
Whatever happens today, Cedric is coming home. One way or another.
I dunk my head underwater to soak my hair. As I sit there, submerged, I fleetingly wonder...what if I just stay here? Force myself to stay under. Make it so an Abernathy family tragedy won’t have to play out in the Games—only in the privacy of our home. But...no. Although Summer is only six, there are only six years separating her and Ced. They would both be in the Reaping bowls at the same time, when she is twelve and he is eighteen. The Capitol will just have their fun then.
I will not force Summer to take my place. I will not force Cedric to have to sacrifice himself for Summer, years down the road. I sit back up, gasping for air. Just then, someone bangs on the door. “Ember, hurry up!” Cedric yells from the other side. “I want to shower before brunch!”
“Chill out, pipsqueak. I’m finishing up,” I bark back as I stand and drain the tub. Then I pat myself dry as much as possible with my favorite fluffy towel before wrapping it around myself and throwing the door open. “All yours, doofus.”
Cedric makes a face and slams the door shut. I grin to myself as I flit to my bedroom to change. Mom has laid out one of my good dresses, a soft lavender one that won’t make me stand out too much from the other kids in Twelve, who will all be adorned in varying shades of gray and brown.
At least, that’s the theory. In reality, I know the cameras will be pointed at me and my family more often than not, because we’re the Abernathys. And everyone wants a piece of the Abernathys. It’s a simple fact of life.
I put on the dress and run a brush through my tangled tresses. Hair looks presentable enough. I hurry downstairs, passing Dad on the stairwell as he clomps up to shower as well.
“You look nice, sweetheart,” Dad mutters. He claps his hand on my shoulder, looks as if he’s about to say more, but then changes his mind and continues his way up.
My mother has set out the spread on the table. I ask if she needs help, anyway. “No, thank you, Ember.” Mom kisses my head. “You can start eating. No point in waiting for your brother and father—God knows they’ll inhale everything in seconds.”
I sit beside Summer, who has a napkin that’s almost as big as she is tucked into her collar, undoubtedly to keep her pretty yellow dress stain-free. Summer garbles something around the heap of pancake she just shoveled into her mouth.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full, Summer,” Mom chides gently. “Chew, swallow, then speak.”
Summer looks disgruntled. I side-eye Mom to make sure she’s turned back to the stove before stuffing pancake into my own mouth and grinning grotesquely at my baby sister. Summer squeals in delight, but by the time Mom turns around, I’ve already gulped down and am demurely cutting my next piece. Mom looks suspicious but leaves us be, and I wink at Summer.
Dad and Cedric join us at last, and brunch is a deceptively merry affair. The usual teasing and mischief-making is tossed back and forth over the table, but everyone except Summer can see the tension in our family’s shoulders and eyes. This is probably the last pleasant family meal we’ll have.
After we finish eating and cleaning up, Dad and Ced tromp off to go over some survival books. Summer plays with her dolls on the floor while I sit still so Mom can fix my hair. She is thorough as she combs my inky black locks, then braids a few strands into a facsimile crown around my head. I can do ponytails and simple braids well enough, but I’ve always loved the feeling of my mother’s fingers in my hair—the touch in the entire world that I know best, that I would recognize anywhere. I coldly comfort myself with the reminder that, unlike most tributes, at least my mother will be with me until the very end.
“There,” Mom whispers. “You look lovely.”
“Wait!” Summer toddles to her feet. “You’re not done!” We watch her run to the kitchen counter, stretch, and swipe a bunch of slightly crushed white violets. Plucked not from my treasured garden, but from the wild. “Put these in Em’s hair!”
I lean down to rub my nose with Summer’s. “Thank you, Summer. They’re lovely! You’re so thoughtful.”
In the hallway, the phone rings. I hear Dad pick it up and conversed muffledly with whoever’s on the other end. Mom smiles as she tucks the flower stems into my braided coronet. Then she checks the time, and her face falls. “We need to go.”
Our family walks to the town square, resembling a funeral procession. We’re halfway there when Cedric tugs on my hand. “Is Ash showing up today?”
Oh, Ashton. The prodigal son, if there ever was one. And with good reason. Our eldest sibling and brother has lived in his own house in the Victors’ Village ever since he won the Sixty-Fourth Hunger Games, when he was only twelve years old. And he is expressly forbidden from stepping foot into ours when he is or has recently been drunk or high.
My older brother, like so many Victors, did not escape his Games unscathed.
“He has to be there,” I say wryly. “The Peacekeepers will probably dig him out of his sty of a house if he tries to hole himself in.” Even if it weren’t required for all Victors to be present at the Reapings, the Capitol still loves to see the entire Abernathy clan all at once. It’s a rare treat, since Ash is usually doped up on something and unfit for public consumption, and Rain is—
I scowl and shake Lorraine Abernathy out of my head. Ash’s twin sister isn’t worthy of my thoughts.
“Ash?” Summer’s high voice pipes in. “Who’s that?”
Well, that just goes to show how frequently our brother has been clean in the last few years. Which is to say, not frequently at all.
“Your brother, sweetie,” Mom murmurs.
“I thought Ced was my brother.”
“Ash is your other brother. You have two.”
“Oh.” Summer wrinkles her nose. “Then why doesn’t he live with us?”
“He has his own house. The one down the street.”
“The scary house?”
I look back down at Cedric, who’s downcast. He’s old enough to remember a time when Ash wasn’t perpetually trashed. And he misses that big brother, not the frightening, half-mad, drunken addict. I squeeze his hand in commiseration.
We reach the square, and I can see the cameras all swiveling to ogle us. The Mockingbird, the Jabberjay, and their nest of Mockingjays—most of it, at least. Panem’s favorite family, even if the Capitolites do have to sometimes cover their eyes while a not-so-little Mockingjay pukes up vodka and absinthe.
Mom hugs Cedric and me, and Dad pats us both on the shoulder. Then we part ways: my parents for the stage, with Summer in tow, and Cedric and me to the pens that hold the sacrificial lambs. Cedric knows how it works, so I don’t worry about him while we check in. A prick of the finger and a blood sacrifice are no big deal. It’s what comes after that’s the worst.
My cousin Madge is already in the holding cell for the sixteen-year-old girls, as is our friend Katniss. Madge’s and my mom are twins, and Mrs. Everdeen might as well have been a third sister. I start toward them, but a Capitol reporter and her cameraman stop me first. “Hello, Ember! I’m Cornelia Applewhite, with the Capitol Report. How are you feeling today?”
Cedric and my parents are getting the same treatment. Mom will do most of the talking, while Dad will just look grumpy as usual, and Summer might get in a few cute remarks that’ll make the Capitol go aww. Cedric, I’m sure, will use plenty of big words so the reporter will go away as soon as possible and he can get back to the book he has tucked inside his jacket. I decide to go for honesty, with a touch of drollness. “Hot.”
Cornelia looks confused—she was expecting a “great,” or “excited,” or even a “fine”—but finally gets it. She titters, as if it’s the funniest thing she’s ever heard. “It is very humid today, isn’t it? And, of course, I’m sure you must always be rather warm, what with your name and all.” Ugh. Like I’ve never heard that one before. “Now, how are you feeling about the Reaping, dear?”
I shrug. “The same as usual.”
“And what’s the usual?”
Angry, bitter, terrified, take your pick. But I can’t say any of those things aloud. “I’m curious to see who the Tributes are for the inner Districts. Their volunteers never disappoint. Of course, you can’t count out the outer-lying Districts, either. You get a few surprises here and there.” I pause, then add lightly, “My parents, for example.”
“Oh, yes, your parents! Well, I see Marcus is taking care of them, but, well, I’m wondering about your perspective. Just as we’ve watched you and your brothers and sisters grow up, we’ve seen Haymitch and Maysilee Abernathy change over the years. How different do you think they are now, from when they were in the Games?”
I raise my eyebrows. “I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t alive then.”
Cornelia’s ostrich feathers tremble as she giggles again. “Obviously, dear! But surely you’ve seen the recordings or heard about their Games.”
The orange chicken really wasn’t going to let this go, was she? I’ll toss her a bone. “They’re as clever as ever, that’s for sure. Mom catches me every time I try to sneak an extra sweet, and Dad slips it right back to me under her nose.”
Cornelia practically guffaws, catching the attention of everyone around. I try not to flush in embarrassment. Honestly, it wasn’t that funny. I just want to fulfill her entertainment quota and escape. “Oh, you’re wonderful! Just as charming as your parents were in their day. And still are. Well, your mother, at least. You look a great deal like her, you know. If it weren’t for the hair, I’d say you were twins.”
I force a smile. “Mom already has a twin. One’s enough, I think. Now if you’ll excuse me, Ms. Applewhite, I should get going.” I extricate myself and hurry off before the orange chicken can reel me back in. Amusement radiates from Madge and Katniss as I finally join them. “Shut up.”
“We didn’t say anything,” Madge protests, lip twitching.
“You don’t need to,” I harrumph. “By the way, apparently I’ve replaced your mom as my mom’s twin.”
Madge places her hands on her hips. “But I’m your twin.” Though cousins, Madge and I were born close enough to each other that we have joint birthday parties every year. And although not identical in appearance like our mothers, we still look similar enough—despite our hair colors—that we could be mistaken for sisters, if everyone didn’t know everyone in Twelve.
And if I weren’t part of a celebrity family.
I lean forward and tug on Madge’s plait, an action I know she hates. “Unfortunately.” I laugh as Madge bats my hand away, and I turn to Katniss. “How’s Prim?”
Katniss frowns. “Nervous.”
“She won’t get picked. She hasn’t gotten any tesserae, has she?”
“Of course not,” Katniss growls. “I would never let her.”
“Then she’s fine.” I sigh. “Besides, we all know who the tributes are going to be.”
Madge takes my hand. “Maybe it won’t be you. They haven’t picked you all these years. Why start now?”
I look around and instantly spot Cedric, who is indeed hunched over his book. Madge and Katniss follow my gaze. “He only has one, too,” Katniss says softly.
“It doesn’t matter. He was marked the moment he was born. We all were.” I’m a touch melodramatic, sure, but my whole life has been a big, fat soap opera. Almost literally, considering how often we’re on TV. I look them in the eye. “Cedric isn’t going to die.”
They’re silent. They know what I mean. If Cedric and I both go into the arena, only one of us can come back out. And I have already decided which of us it’s going to be.
Then the “festivities” begin. I tune out the same old video to observe my family. Cedric is still immersed in his book. He knows what to expect from today, too. If he wants to bury himself in the haven of whatever he’s reading for a few more moments, who am I to tear him away from that? Who is anyone to do so? Who is anyone to rip him away from his world of books and fantasy and knowledge and force him into harsh reality?
Mom sits primly onstage, looking every inch the perfect lady, even with Summer squirming on her lap. Her eyes are on the video, but not her mind, I can tell. I know Mom is still holding on to a fool’s hope that there is a way for us to be spared, that we won’t be reaped at all. Dad, on the other hand, never had such dreams and has been preparing for our deaths since before we were born. I’m sure that whatever Games strategy he has for Cedric and me now is the same plan he had come up with for Ash and Rain, back when he had feared that his twin children would be reaped together, back before Rain had betrayed us all.
I feel a sudden burst of anger, not at Rain (I’m always angry at Rain) but at my parents. Why have kids at all if they knew their children would die before their time? Why let us be born in the first place, so that we would die the death they should have died? But that anger is soon swept away by self-loathing for thinking such thoughts in the first place. They love me. That is why I’m here today. And the love of my parents is something to be cherished, not resented.
Then I spot Effie Trinket coming back to the microphone, and I freeze in fear. Already? So soon? I thought I had more time! “Now,” the escort trills, “who shall go first this year?” She turns to my parents. It’s Effie’s usual ploy to try to engage the Victorious couple in the Reaping. “Maysilee, Haymitch, which one of you would like to call it today?”
Usually, Dad sits back and lets Mom deal with Effie, but today, he speaks up before Mom can. “Boys.”
Effie looks surprised for a moment, having expected Mom to respond, before quickly beaming. “Thank you, Haymitch. There we have it, gentlemen first. And may the odds be ever in your favor.” She trots over to one of the giant glass Reaping bowls and sticks a pale hand inside.
I am willing to bet that every single slip of paper inside says “Cedric Abernathy.”
Effie selects one and slowly opens it up. “Cedric Abernathy!”
My baby brother slowly looks up from the book he has his nose in. The cameras are already trained on him; they have been the entire time. He straightens up, but he still looks painfully tiny as he shuffles into the aisle and walks to his doom. I have prepared myself for this moment, but I still have to bite my fist to stop myself from screaming. On the stage, Mom and Dad look stony, determined not to break down when the entire world is watching them.
Cedric is small for his age, and he looks even shorter next to Effie in her towering heels. “Cedric, it’s so wonderful to see you again! You must be so excited, to be chosen for the Games in your first year!” Cedric stares blankly back at her. “Well, I’m sure you’re looking forward to following in your mother and father’s footsteps. And how are the proud parents?” Effie glances back at Haymitch and Maysilee but just as quickly looks back to the front, upon spying the glowers on their faces. “Now, onto the girls, shall we?”
I brace myself as the perfectly manicured hand digs into the other bowl. Well, this is it. I begin moving toward the aisle before Effie even reads the name.
The world stops. I stop. Murmurs start. My mind races. It’s not me. It’s not me.
How did this happen? It was supposed to be me. I spin around and spy a small blond head bobbing slowly through the crowd, then back around to Katniss, who looks horrified. Our eyes meet. Katniss is going to volunteer. I know it.
Part of me wants to let her. It’s Katniss’s sister. Let Katniss go into the arena. Let Katniss go so I won’t have to sacrifice myself for Ced. But the greater part of me knows I can’t. I can’t expect Katniss to look after Cedric for me. I know she will, because we’re friends, and she likes Ced. But that’s my job. Just as Prim is Katniss’s sister, Cedric is my brother. I can’t volunteer for him, but I can still protect him.
Besides, with her hunting and survival skills, Katniss might be better prepared than almost anyone in Twelve for the Games, but I was born for them.
“I volunteer as tribute!” My voice rings clearly throughout the square. And then my face fills every screen. I see Peacekeepers hustling Prim back to the other twelve-year-olds, and others coming to escort me to the stage instead. Please. Total overkill. I stride forward, brushing them off as I pass by. I can’t bring herself to look at my parents as I climb the steps and join Cedric, who looks just as bewildered as I feel.
“Our first ever volunteer!” Effie gasps. “Well, Ember Abernathy, you couldn’t just let your brother have all the glory, could you?”
I entwine my fingers with Cedric’s. “I couldn’t let him go alone.”
“Oh, no, of course not. But how are you two going to work this out? There’s only one winner.” I see a flash of sorrow in her face.
“Easy,” I reply. “Cedric will come home.” And I will not was the unspoken afterthought that everyone in Panem heard.
Effie is flustered. “I see,” she says, and I wonder if she really does. “Well, here they are! The tributes of District 12 for the Seventy-Fourth Annual Hunger Games: Cedric and Ember Abernathy!” She claps.
No one else does.
I find Madge and Katniss in the crowd. My twin looks stricken. Katniss gazes back at me, and I think I see my friend mouth “thank you.” Then she raises her left hand, kisses her middle three fingers, and holds them up to me. To me and Cedric. Madge does the same. Then in another part of the crowd, Prim. Then Gale Hawthorne, and the Mellark boys, and Delly Cartwright, and Ripper, and Greasy Sae, and everyone in District 12.
I turn around. Mom and Dad are standing and saluting farewell, too. Mom’s eyes are watering, and Dad’s are cold as ice, until they meet mine. Then they soften, and I know that my parents both understand.
What I don’t know is why Dad’s eyes are burning with something that I’m tempted to call zeal, or excitement, but I know that can’t be it.
Peacekeepers rush us off the stage and into the Justice Building. I know the procedure, but it doesn’t hurt any less when Ced and I are separated. I sit on the couch in my room, waiting, wondering who will visit me. Mom and Dad won’t, obviously, since they’ll be coming with me and Ced to the Capitol. I’ve already said my goodbyes to most people, so—
The door opens. Madge enters. I fly to my feet, and we embrace. “I told you they weren’t going to pick you,” Madge says, laughing bitterly.
“So you did. You’re always right, Magpie.”
Madge wrinkles her nose. “Ugh, don’t call me that. Firefly.”
I snort. “At least Magpie actually makes sense. I can’t remember where you even got Firefly from.”
“Embers burn, fires burn, ergo firefly,” Madge says simply.
“So you’re saying I burn fireflies?”
Madge shoves me lightly. “Shush. Pretend it’s logical.” Then she sighs and looks at me with the same blue eyes that I see in the mirror every day. “I’m going to miss you.”
I smile sadly. “What, no pep talk telling me that I have what it takes to come home?”
“Oh, you do. Of course you do. But I know that you’re going to take that ‘what it takes’ and use it for Cedric.” A tear runs down Madge’s cheek. “I wouldn’t expect any less from you.”
I press my palm against hers. “You’ll take care of my garden for me, won’t you? You know no one in my family can touch plants without killing them.”
“Of course.” Madge nods.
“And,” I add nonchalantly, “I’m sure if you ask politely, Gale Hawthorne will be glad to help you out once in a while.”
Madge shoves me again, less lightly. “Shut up! I never should have told you about him.” A sharp knock raps on the door. “I’d better go. You have a line.”
“You’re popular.” Madge smiles faintly. “I guess this is goodbye.”
“Yeah. I guess it is.” I watch Madge go. “Hey, Madge?”
“I’m sorry for kissing Gale when we were fourteen.”
She groans. “Ugh. You’re still not forgiven.”
“I love you, Magpie!”
Madge turns at the door, blinking furiously. “I love you, too, Firefly.” Then she’s gone.
I have no time to mourn, though, because Katniss and Prim come in immediately. Prim wraps her arms around my waist. “Thank you,” she sobs. “Thank you. I wish you didn’t have to volunteer, but…”
“Hey, better me than you,” I say, pseudo-lightheartedly. “Besides, someone’s got to watch over Ced.”
Prim sniffs and steps back. “I wish I had a present for you or something.”
“Just seeing you is more than good enough.”
Katniss pats Prim’s arm. “Prim, do you mind heading out first? I need to talk to Em alone.” Prim nods and retreats. When the door shuts, Katniss speaks again. “I want to thank you, too.”
“There’s no need,” I respond. “It was always supposed to have been me. Prim should never have been called.”
“Why didn’t you let me volunteer?”
I shrug heavily. “It wasn’t your job. It was mine.”
Thankfully, Katniss needs no further explanation than that. “Make sure Ced comes home, then. Make sure he wins, so that this isn’t all in vain.”
“That’s my only goal from this point forward.”
Katniss nods, hesitates, then comes in for a hug. I return it, and then my friend is gone, too.
Various friends from school come in and out, bringing and taking their tears with them. I’m starting to wonder if I should be crying by the time Delly Cartwright drags herself out. I’ve been dry-eyed the entire time. What should I be crying over? The guaranteed loss of my life? I’ve long since accepted it, and I’ll be losing it for the sake of Cedric. That’s more than a worthy cause.
When I finally rejoin him on the way to the train station, I take his hand—I’ve held so many hands today—and don’t let go, not in the car, not when we pass the hordes of cameramen on the platform. Not until we’re face to face with our parents once more.
I’ve been so distracted, I can’t even remember if my older brother was present at the Reaping. People are exempt from attending if they’re at death’s door, and Ash certainly looks as if he’s half-dead. Smells like it, too. His bloodshot eyes are dilated as they fall upon Cedric and me. “EmnCed!” he slurs. “Well, congrats, you’re the chosen ones. Howzz’t feel to be fucked?”
“Ashton!” Mom hisses, clamping her hands over Summer’s ears. “Your sister is in the room!”
“Oooh, so she is.” Ash squats so they’re eye-level. Summer shrinks back. “Wumph. You got big, Summy.” She hides her face against Mom’s leg. “Wut, don’ remember me? ‘m your big brother...Ashton Abernathyyyy!” He gesticulates wildly. “Youngest evah winner of th’ Hunnnngah Games!”
Dad grabs him by the collar and throws him in the direction of the door. “Get out of here.” He turns to one of the Capitol attendants. “Make sure he gets to his room and stays there until he sobers up.”
“Whoawhoawhoa, there, old man.” Ash stumbles back toward Dad. “Youuu can’t tell me whadda do. ‘sides, ‘m supposed to mentor. Gots to be here.”
“You’re not mentoring,” Dad snaps. “Your mother and I are.”
“But you mentored las’ year. And th’ year before. And before. And every year. S’not fair. Whenzzit gonna be my turn?”
“When you’re clean.”
Ash chortles. “Well, I guess tha’s never, then.” He starts to go, but pauses. Slowly, he turns back around to stare at Cedric and me again. “They’re gonna kill you. They’re all gonna go after you two first. Always happens.” He focuses on me. “You shouldn’a volunteered. Could’ve saved yourself. Could’ve lived. Now you’re dead. You’re fucking dead, and they’ll kill Ced soon as they’re done fucking your corpse—”
“OUT!” Dad bellows, and this time he drags Ash out the door.
“YOU’RE DEAD! YOU’RE ALL DEAD! YOU’RE DEAD, YOU’RE DEAD, YOU’RE DEAD—” The door shuts.
I shudder. Those of us remaining in the train car are silent, even Summer, who seems traumatized by the encounter. Just as we’ve all just about recomposed ourselves, the door opens again, and we jump.
“Well!” Effie says happily. “Did I miss anything?”