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Choosing

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Chapter One: Voting

It wasn’t a secret ballot.  That would have defeated the purpose.  In fact, in was only reluctantly that the Capitol had given up as too time-consuming the idea that each citizen should stand before the child they were voting for, look them in the face as they cast their vote.  Instead, they compromised on a huge viewing screen with each person’s picture shown with their choice listed in large block letters.  The rest of the screen was divided between live pictures of the kids who had received votes, with those who had received the most getting the most screen space.

District 1
Quell smiled widely, not letting his face get stiff or look unnatural with the lengthy period he had to hold the expression.  What was training for, after all, if not this: the beginning of the most important period of his life?  He felt the wind change a little and turned his face into it so his blond hair would catch it and sparkle, not letting his eyes narrow against the sting of the breeze in them.  He looked at the huge image of himself at the front of the square, and widened his smile a little further, tensing the muscles of his shoulders a bit so they stood out further.  He had been born for this.  Literally.  His father had won the Fourth Games and his mother the Sixth.  He’d been born a year later, and if he hadn’t been conceived in the period that would make him less than three months short of his nineteenth birthday when the 25th reaping arrived, they wouldn’t have bothered.  They had been fiercely determined to prove their loyalty to the Capitol that loved them despite the sins of their parents, and with the first Quarter Quell coming at year 25, he was their way, their proof.  He’d been born and raised for this, for these few upcoming weeks, and this Game was his  For the honor of District 1 and the Capitol, he would persevere.

He spared a glance for Precious, beside him, and found her looking lovely and composed.  He didn’t think anyone who didn’t know her well would see the very faint pallor to her features, or that she was breathing just a hint faster than usual.  He couldn’t fault her for those minimal signs of discomfort.  She was going in as his support: her first priority was to watch his back.  They coludn’t just fight for themselves, they had to fight for their district, and District 1’s best chance was him.  But she could make that chance even better if she helped rather than the two of them fighting separately.  She’d been trained for her destiny as long as he’d been groomed for his, had accepted it years ago, and he could forgive her the tiny signs of fear that she could hide from everyone but him.

District 2
Merith kept the score screen in the corner of her eye as she raised the bullhorn to her mouth again and let out a shout as another adult picture showed her name under it in big block letters.  “Well done, Ana!  I’ll be fighting for you out there!”

“No, bad choice!” Ina shouted into her own bullhorn, shaking her head.  “I’m the one you want to watch in the coming weeks, I’m the one who will come back to you with the Chapion’s crown!”  Her eyes flicked to the board and she called out the names of those who were voting but hadn’t placed a name yet, the men first: she always focused on the men first.  “Jato, Carson, Anson—Merith won’t give the capitol the show they want to see, the show you want to see!  Vote for me, and you’ll get the Games of your dreams!”  She posed, thrusting out those oversized boobs of hers, and offering a wink right into the camera.

“Only if you dream of losing,” Merith shouted back.  “You’ve all seen our practices, seen the ads.  Time and again I’ve shown my superiority!  I’m the one you want representing you this year!”

The boys were occasionally shouting, too, but it was pretty much obvious that Zander was going to the Games, and Drake had given in relatively gracefully, unlike certain vapid vamps who thought they could win the Games by flirting their way out of combat.  But Merith was gradually drawing away from Ina--the people of District 2 weren’t stupid after all--and now it was just a matter of time as her picture got bigger and Ina shrank into the obscurity she deserved.  She didn’t pause in her encouragement and prodding for votes, however.  It may be only a matter of time, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t worth being absolutely certain.  Merith had always been a fan of overkill.

District 3
Almost nobody voted for the most advantaged kids.  They might have if it had been a secret ballot, might have been glad on some level to see the most powerful, the ones who never had to take any tesserae chosen--but advantaged kids came from powerful families, and those families would punish those who voted for them.  They chose among the families who would have no recourse.  Smaller families, mostly, so there wouldn't be too many angry aunts and uncles and older siblings.  Poor families.  Kids with disabilities were chosen a lot. 

Bit and Byte Yeren were twins, sixteen, though Bit showed no signs of the soft curves of womanhood that maturity might grant her slim body, and Byte’s shoulders were still narrow as well as being faintly stooped.  Their mother had gotten pregnant with them not long after winning the Second game.  She’d had a period of being rather promiscuous in the Capitol, and they were the result.  She’d also had a period of heavily using a personally modified version of morphling that made it considerably stronger and longer lasting—and they were the result of that, as well.

She’d known there was something wrong with them before she’d even given birth, and had tried three times to abort, but had been stopped by Capitol watchdogs each time.  She’d tried to kill them as soon as they’d been born, but the doctor had saved them and they’d been raised in an orphanage.  She died, not long after.  But she hadn’t been mistaken in her belief that they were not right.  It was immediately apparent that, far from their mother’s nearly incomprehensible genius, they were barely present in their heads.  They could follow simple instructions.  Eat.  Get dressed—if their clothes were laid out.  Lie down.  Stand up.  But that was the limit of their abilities.  And it was almost instantly clear to everyone in District 3 that they were ideal candidates to send to the Hunger Games.

District 4
Bella Carson’s parents had been overly optimistic in naming her, and she had a smile that glittered knives and promised anyone who felt like pointing out her name’s unsuitability would soon find themselves playing a scavenger hunt looking for the bones she’d be delighted to start removing from them.  Despite her protruding forehead, muddy eyes, short legs, and long arms, she stood with quiet self-assurance as she watched her face growing ever larger on the screen, that glittering smile whispering of satisfaction, this time, instead of imminent death.  She’d worked damned hard for this, and, while she didn’t exactly get to volunteer, the School had put her name around, along with Finlay Corker’s, as the ones appropriate to vote for. 

Cork was standing next to her, seeming, as always, more like an evil little kid than nearly a man.  He was short and big boned and bouncing on the ball of his feet with excitement, looking maybe half his eighteen years.  The ways the names showed on the board was kind of funny.  The voter’s picture would appear, and then her name.  And then there would be a long hesitation before his joined her, as if they weren’t quite sure the school actually meant himHe couldn’t be the volunteer.  He was too little and bouncy, like an eager puppy.  Her smile glittered brighter and she ruffled his hair, earning herself a bright, eager smile back that filled his eyes right up and didn’t show the slightest hint that he was imagining beating her to death with a stick.  He’d always been good at hiding his feelings, way better than her.

District 5
Daddy!” Isra Rand shrieked, catching sight of her father far away in the crowd of grownups, staring at her where she stood on the stage.  She waved madly.  “Daddy, look at me!  I get to ride the train!”

Terent Laker, beside her, closed his eyes for a moment, and then forced a smile and reached up to pat her on the shoulder.  She looked down at him, that grin as blazingly happy as always, and he was relieved that she’d never see through how weak his own was.  “Let’s go to the Town Hall now with the nice peacekeepers, okay?” he said.  “Then your dad can see you before we go on the train.”

“Okay!” she agreed happily, slipping one big hand into his and the other into that of the startled peacekeeper on her other side.  She offered her smile to him, then.  “Thank you, Mr. Peacekeeper, for taking us.  Peace is important!”

Terent was bitterly pleased at the miserable expression on the peacekeeper’s face.  “Uh, yes, miss,” he said.  “This way, please.”  He tried surreptitiously to pull his hand away, but Isra stood over six feet tall and was built like an ox and once she got a grip on something, she never, ever let go until she wanted to.  She swung her arms as they walked, Terent and the peacekeeper swinging theirs, perforce.

Terent wasn’t mad about himself.  He’d know he was going in.  After that accident three years back, well.  He was the obvious choice.  Nobody could prove him directly to blame, or he’d have been punished already, but everyone knew he’d started the fire.  He hadn’t meant to, but he’d done it.  And finally he was getting the punishment the law hadn’t been able to give earlier.  But Isra hadn’t done anything wrong.  She couldn’t if she tried!  Sure, she was special, but she wasn’t useless: she could clean and stuff: would for hours without dimming her spirits.  And there was no way she should be sent to this.

District 6
Dug Coggen snarled silently around him, glaring.  Fuck them.  Fuck them one and fucking all.  They thought they were punishing him, thought they were avenging poor little Misty, who’d been goddamn asking for it with those short skirts and low-cut shirts, and with the lewd looks and her goddamn cocktease act of pulling away.  As if he’d given her anything more than she’d fucking begged for.  He wouldn’t have had to hit her if she’d just admitted she wanted it—and they couldn’t prove he’d done anything anyway.  As for her father, that was obviously self-defense.  The dumb fuck had come at him with a knife in public, and him hands as empty as the fucking priest’s.  Not a man in the world could blame him for taking the knife and sticking him with it—and the peacekeepers said as much.  So now they figured this was their chance.  Fuck them.  This—maybe he wouldn’t have chosen it, but this was a goddamn opportunity.  He was coming back, and he was coming back rich.  Goddamn champions could do pretty much whatever the fuck they wanted.  He stalked to the stage, leapt up onto it without bothering with the stairs, and glared around, eyes finally landing on Misty, who was trying to look defiant, little cunt.  “I’ll be back, honey,” he promised her.  “Just you wait for me.”  She stumbled where she stood and dropped her gaze, and his smile widened.

“Dick.”

He snickered and looked Myra Shill, who had preceded him onto the stage, up and down.  “You still look like a little boy.”

“If it keeps jackasses like you from being interested in me, I’ll take it,” she said.  She was a year behind him in school, seventeen, and they were punishing her, too.

“Your life of crime finally caught up to you, huh?” he said.  “Rob any more little old ladies?”

“Fuck you,” she said levelly.

“No thanks, I ain’t gay.”

“A pity for women everywhere, though I’m sure the men are grateful.”

He snarled and moved to hit her, but was grabbed by a peacekeeper.  He relaxed, calming as quickly as he flared up.  “Poor little Myra.  I’m gonna kill you with my bare hands.”

She grinned suddenly, fierce and joyless.  “Think so?”

“Oh, I know so.”

“Good,” she said.  “It’ll be nice for you to die confident.”

Before he could respond, their guide told them to stop bickering, and the peacekeepers herded them off towards the town hall.

District 7
Rosin Parsons had spent his anger and his grief and his betrayal and his fear long before he was selected, long before the voting even began, in fact.  It hadn’t occurred to him when the announcement had first been made of how the Quarter Quell would work, but when people started discussing who they were going to vote for, he saw eyes slip his way and then hurriedly away.  It didn’t take much of a leap to figure out that when they were choosing who to send to his death, the boy who had been born with only little stumps where he should have had arms was not going to feel like much loss to the community.  A lot of folks thought his parents should have quietly let him slip away as an infant—he’d never hold a job, never contribute, he’d always be a drain on a family that could barely afford to keep themselves fed.  But they hadn’t.  And now, thirteen years later, the choice was being taken out of their hands.

When he’d realized, he’d spent two days locked up in his room with his heaviest blankets over him to muffle his screams and sobs.  He said he had a migraine, and they left him alone.  He took those days to let himself mourn a life that had never really been and now never would be.  It probably wouldn’t have anyway, but now it was certain.  When he’d emerged, he had been pale and thin, but he’d smiled at his family and eaten his breakfast and never mentioned the Games.  He didn’t say anything to the neighbors who suddenly couldn’t meet his eyes anymore, and he went to the reaping in his best clothes and stood serenely as his picture appeared, sharing the screen only briefly with others before growing and growing and growing.

He didn’t look at it much, more interested in the girls’ side.  It wasn’t his older sister, nor any of the cousins, nor any of the girls he knew well from school.  In fact, he didn’t think he’d ever seen her in school.  Her name was Becky Thuren, and she was slim and pretty and, according to the bracketed number next to her name, sixteen.  He wondered what was wrong with her.

She was standing with her shoulders hunched, staring at her feet, with a wide open circle around her, everyone studiously avoiding looking at her.  There was something strange about her face though, a sort of immobility, and when her eyes randomly looked straight at the camera for a moment, there was a dullness to them that he’d seen before in people with severe mental problems.  So that explained that.  He felt a certain fellow-feeling with her as he watched their faces growing ever larger on the screen.  They were the two most deeply flawed teenagers in District 7, apparently.

District 8
Ven Canton watched as Armscye Stills slipped up the steps looking tiny and terrified and brave anyway.  She was covered in lurid scars, as he was himself, but she moved easily, which was more than he could say.  He knew despite how smoothly she moved, though, that that stick wasn't just for show.  She'd practiced for the last week moving forward and climbing those steps.  She planned exactly where she was going to stand, and had her best friend place her there so she could count her steps and move easily. Just as though the accident hadn't blinded her.  It wouldn't be a secret, of course.  Not for long, if at all.  You couldn't just fake being able to see.  But she said she was going to do her best to look confident anyway, and he figured that was fair enough.  They'd talked about it a lot since they figured out it was going to be them.  It's not that anyone blamed them for the accident that had killed nineteen people, including both Armscye's parents and Ven's father, and left both of them … damaged.  It was just that they were such a reminder. 

Once she was settled and welcomed, his name was called and he drew a deep breath and dragged himself to the stage.  Then he stared at the stairs wondering what the hell he was supposed to do now.  He could manage flat ground.  Kind of.  But he could no more climb those stairs than he could fly, and he hadn't come up with any solution despite all their talking.

  "Well?" Ulric Tonsed, District 8’s escort said with false cheer.  "Come up and take the place of honor, Ven!"

"I don't think I can," he said softly.

"Of course you can!  Don't worry-every tribute has some misgivings, but honor awaits you and you must step up to carry it!"

"It's not that," he said.  "It's my knees.  I can't really do … stairs."  His knees didn't bend right since the accident.  He could only take tiny, short steps and he couldn't lift his feet high enough for the eight inch steps.

Ulric, disgruntled, had a whispered conference with the leader of the peacekeepers, and then Ven was embarrassed to be lifted bodily by one of the white-clad men and placed on stage.  The peacekeeper didn't meet his gaze, and his lips were thin and tightly pinched closed.  Ven couldn't decide if it was pity or disgust, but figured he'd get plenty of both in the coming weeks and might as well get used to it, so he murmured his thanks and shuffled over to join Armscye.

District 9
Tillie Marson swallowed heavily as she watched her face get bigger and bigger and bigger on the screen until it was all she could see.  She hadn't thought it would be her.  She'd thought--she'd thought--she found a job!  Missy Penroe said she could watch her kids for room and board, and she loved the kids and she was good at it, Missy said she was.  And she'd never ever let them get hurt or eat anything bad or let anything bad happen to them, not ever.  And Mummy always said she'd be a drain unless she found a job, but she had, so she wasn't, so why was it her?  She knew she wasn't very smart (last in her class and the letters and numbers always moved around when she tried to read and figure, and she couldn't, she just couldn't figure out how anyone did it), and she had a terrible black thumb (it wasn't forgetfulness, no matter what they said, she watered exactly as often and as much as they said, just the plants didn't like her and they turned brown and dry or yellow and limp anyway, no matter what she did), and she wasn't good with a lot of people yelling at her (like when she'd tried the job in the kitchen and the chef had spoken sharply and she'd dropped the whole tray of plates and then screamed when they shattered and cut herself trying to pick up the pieces, apologizing over and over and over but not enough that they didn't tell her not to come back), but she was good with the children.  Missy said.  And she'd found a job. 

She started crying when they said her name.  She moved forward mechanically because that was what you do when you're called, even if it shouldn't be you because you did what you were supposed to.  When she got to the stage and turned back, she sought through the crowd, looking for anyone, looking for understanding.  She didn't find that, but she did find her parents, stone faced and dry-eyed and refusing to look at her.  She found Missy, too, who was sobbing even harder than she was, and the little ones who were confused and upset and crying hysterically.  For them, she managed to stop crying.

Then they called Grant Patters and a boy she didn't know with black hair and pale skin and pretty purple eyes stood up and came to the stage, looking scared and resigned and angry.  He looked awfully young, too young for them to vote for, and she wondered why it was him. 

"Because," he said, and she realized she must have wondered out loud instead of in her head like she meant to.  She did that sometimes.  "Because the district wanted to show that they didn't condone my parents’ beliefs or actions in the war, and so they're punishing them through me.  Just like the Quell's reasoning--choosing the tribute as a reminder that they chose violence before."  He looked through the crowd, and probably found his parents because he nodded at them.  And then he crossed his arms over his chest and then raised his right hand, palm forward, and Tilly gasped. 

"You're not supposed to do that!" she whispered anxiously, though it came out too loud because she wasn't very good at whispering.  "That's the sign of the bad people!"

Grant offered her a little smile.  "The winners choose who the bad people are," he said, which didn't make sense because nobody chooses what's good and bad, it just is.  But before she could explain that, they were hushed so their guide could make a speech and then take them off to the Central Hall.

District 10
Jedric Nikai knew the odds weren’t in his favor when his face was the first to show up on that damned screen, a hundred feet high since he wasn’t sharing it with anyone else yet, with the picture of his father next to it, his name in big letters under the man’s gleefully smiling face.  It never meant anything good for Jedric when his father was smiling.  The man’s mouth was moving in the video, but, of course, Jedric didn’t know if they were playing sound through speakers or just video—his hearing had been lost to the same infection that had weakened his mother too much to survive his birth.  Maybe someone else would be chosen, but he figured most people wanted a way out that wasn’t going to make their neighbors hate them, and picking someone whose own family threw him to the wolves would achieve that.  So he followed the plan he’d made when he was eleven and knew next year it could be him.  That had been six years ago, but he still figured it was his best bet.  He let his jaw slacken and his eyes lose focus and did his best impression of a cow just after you’d whacked it with a mallet but before it actually fell down.  He wasn’t get through this on bravado.  He probably wasn’t going to get through it at all.  But if he did, it would be from them underestimating him, and he’d do his damnedest to encourage just that.

When a hand tentatively touched his shoulder, he let his eyes focus in on the face of a kid he only vaguely knew from school.  He was white-faced and wouldn’t quite meet Jedric’s eyes, as he pointed at Jedric, and then the screen, and then the stage.  Jedric gaped at him, and he nodded firmly, took Jedric by the shoulders, turned him to the stage, and gave a little push.  Carefully letting a little fear and confusion seep into his mask of stupidity, he lumbered forward to the stage, and climbed up, noting that the girl tribute was Nessa Parkins, a girl two years younger than his seventeen, who had a bad cleft palate that prevented clear speech.  The Capitol wasn’t going to be getting much in the way of entertaining speeches and interviews out of the two of them, he decided with a hint of grim amusement.

District 11
Tanna Polan laughs and lifts one hand to the glowing butterfly that bobs around her head, though she doesn't point it out to anyone else.  Nobody ever saw them, nobody ever saw anything fun.  They said she didn't see them either, she just thought she did, but that was silly because if you thought you saw something then you did see it.  They said it was Momma's fault she sees things, because of how Momma got bit by tracker jackers over in Orchard 347 when she was pregnant, but Tanna knows what she sees is different.  She knows because she got a tracker jacker to bite her when she heard about it to see if it was the same, but it wasn't.  Then she saw things, too, but it hurt, hurt more than anything, and what she saw was angry and awful.  Most of the time she sees nice things, bright things.  Sometimes even helpful things.  She can find stuff, almost always.  When Momma loses her keys, she always asks Tanna to help find them, because Tanna always can find them—after all, they'd glow and shoot off little fireworks. 

The butterfly flits away, and she follows its flight with her eyes and her hand until it disappears into the distance, leaving her pointing at the huge screen, filled with her picture, which is pointing back at her, grinning.  The grin fades and she swallows heavily, realizing what it means.  Arms wrapping around herself, she looks into her eyes and tried to figure out what to do.  Then she hears her name, crackly and achey and shot through with red and black, and takes a deep breath.  Papa said it was important to be brave no matter what, so she straightens her shoulders and walked up to the stage.

Dirk Starden's papa apparently had forgot to tell him about being brave, though.  He’s screaming and sobbing like he had the time he fell out of the tree and broke both his legs in about a thousand places.  She can still see bright pink and orange jags jutting out from them in every direction as he finally drags himself to the stage with his crutches, glaring around the crowd and telling them he hates them all, he wants them all to die.  The crowd's roiling purple and red and blue and black like an oil spill, though, and Tanna can't hate them when they're so miserable.  A fluorescent yellow knife sliding out of the ground catches her eye, and she stares in wonder as it unfurls into a leaf with blue veining and sharp-looking chrome all around the edges, and then climbs up on a stalk and more leaves pop out, and branches, and it's a tree of knife-bladed leaves almost too bright to look at, and she laughs in amazement as the leaves suddenly all blow off and swirl around her, cutting bright red into her, and it hurts but it's still so amazing that she spins and laughs, trying to follow them as they cut and cut and cut their way into her skin, not leaving any room to be mad at the people who voted for her or worried about Momma and Papa and Kev and Starling and Ella and Jaysie. 

She stops spinning and looks for her family, which is easy because Kev, who just turned nineteen a couple months ago, always glowed in the brightest, most amazing green that could ever exist, and anyone could spot him.  She smiles at them, and waves.  She doesn't want to die.  She really, really doesn't want to die.  But maybe she won't, after all, and even if she does, she thinks maybe death would be sort of amazing to watch.

District 12
Little Kitty Pierst had a lot of votes.  Everyone said it was a miracle she'd lived to thirteen, she couldn't possibly last much longer.  She sat clenching her eyes and refusing to look at the screen, shuddering, with her best friend Tamma holding her in a tight hug, telling her she was going to live forever, she wasn't allowed to die. 

Jed Karnon was the early favorite for the boys, he was eighteen and mean, mean enough some of them thought maybe he could even win.  But then he met Old Man Tosa's eyes, and Tosa, one of the richest men in District 12, went all white and then in that mysterious way information moves through crowds without anyone seeming to really say it, it got around to those who hadn't voted yet that anyone who voted for Jed was getting blacklisted from Tosa's three grocery stores, and his votes pretty much stopped.

Kenny Tucker started getting more votes, then.  He was a good boy, but a halfwit.  Couldn't manage to learn reading or figuring to save his life--which maybe it would have, though nobody could have been able to guess that.  He was strong and a willing enough worker, but he was about to start in the mines, and the men were afraid he'd do something witless and you couldn't afford major blunders down there.  Maybe it would be better for him to just die young.

Kitty's mother started screaming, trying to draw attention to other girls, to point out how they would be better choices, and the nearest father of one of them pushed through the crowd and punched her in the face, knocking her flat.  But she got back up, blood streaming down her face, still raving, and then her eyes lit up, and she turned on Rav Kotter, and offered her fourteen-year-old, Posy, to him if he'd save her little miracle.  He'd been trying to get the girl for months, and everyone knew she was terrified of him.  He accepted though, and the votes on Kitty dried up, because Kotter would send his bully boys out to terrorize anyone who got between him and his new toy and nobody was willing to face that. 

Rebby Hawthorne was the girl whose picture started overtaking Kitty's, and she stood silent with her chin up and her arms folded, a little pale, but steady, and everyone knew she wasn't going to have a save because she didn't have any family to save her.  Her whole family died of that plague two years back, and she'd never so much as sniffled.  She was seventeen, now, and had survived alone by making clothes, and almost never talked to anyone except about work.  Nobody ever even saw her cry about her family, she just changed the subject if anyone brought them up, and acted simply unnatural.  And there wasn't anyone's picture close enough to as big as hers than anyone much thought there would likely be another upset.

Kenny had pretty much firmed up, too, and the two of them just kept swelling till they took most of the screen, though Kenny's mother and older sister and brother sobbed.

And then Torrie Caphan, their district escort, babbled about the exciting moment and announced Rebby.  And Rebby started forward, pale and unsmiling but her stride firm, and then, suddenly, a voice behind her called out, "I volunteer."

And everyone stopped dead and stared in shock as Posy Pierst walked forward, pale and terrified-looking but not hesitating.  Kitty shrieked a horrified denial, Kotter shouted, enraged, and Rebby burst out, "What?  I don't even know you!"

"Nothin' to do with you," Posy muttered, walking past her and up onto the stage.  And then she looked straight at Rov Kotter, and she smiled, hard and cool, and right there in front of all Panem, she said, "Told you I'd rather die than let you touch me."

After that, Kenny was sort of anti-climactic, his family weeping but nobody doing anything else, and the reaping ceremony for the 25th hunger games was, at last, at an end.