Waverly leaned against her older sister Wynonna as they sat together on a small hill looking into the trailing sunset. Her right hand absent-mindedly ripped at the grass near her feet, and Wynonna gently put a hand down and squeezed.
“Woah there, Waves,” Wynonna joked. “Leave some for the forest creatures.”
She winked at Waverly and offered a grin. Waverly tried to resist a smile.
“We just eat them anyway,” Waverly quipped back, tossing a handful of torn grass at Wynonna’s face.
“Ah, but we need them nice and fat when we do. They’re not the ones who are supposed to be starving. We are.” Wynonna held up a plump dead rabbit they had caught earlier for emphasis and patted its round belly, then poked Waverly’s gaunt stomach in comparison.
A high-pitched giggle escaped from Waverly, feeling ticklish at the poke. Wynonna always knew how to make her feel better, even when…
Wynonna’s grin softened when she noticed Waverly’s mood change.
“Hey,” Wynonna smiled gently. “Don’t worry, your name’s only in there four times. It’s like, a thousand in one chance, and believe me, us Earps aren’t that lucky.”
Waverly nodded and tried to smile back. It was true; Wynonna and Gus never let her apply for tesserae, extra rations for extra entries, but even so, each year after her twelfth birthday passed, the more her name was entered regardless. She was sixteen now, so even without applying for tesserae, her name was in the pool four times.
How did Wynonna do it every year? When her name had five times as many entries as Waverly?
Wynonna abruptly coughed violently, slamming her fist into her chest until she spit a hunk of something tarry into the bushes. Waverly furrowed her brow in concern. Ever since Wynonna turned 18, she had taken a job in the mines to support her and Gus, picking up extra shifts whenever they were available for more rations. A time like this was rare for them – time to check their traps for any wild game they could take home and trade and time just to spend together being sisters.
And this particular time was a special occasion.
Wynonna shrugged off her coughing fit and reached into her bag, offering Waverly another mischievous grin as she pulled out a small bundle wrapped in cloth that fit in the palm of her hand.
“Happy sixteenth birthday, baby girl,” Wynonna said, passing the bundle to Waverly and kissing her forehead affectionately.
Waverly beamed, soaking in the sisterly attention she hardly received. She unwrapped the cloth and gasped when she found a burned misshapen cupcake.
“A-a cake??” She asked incredulously. “How did you afford this??”
Wynonna laughed. “Believe it or not, they were just gonna throw that sucker away.”
Waverly let out a breath of disbelief. Throwing out food? And food with sugar??
Wynonna bumped her shoulder with Waverly’s, nodding at the cupcake. “You better eat it before the forest creatures smell it. That’s way better than the crap grass they normally get.”
Waverly laughed, then tentatively took a bite of the cupcake. She’d never eaten anything like it before; baked goods that included sugar were usually only afforded by the well-off merchants in District 12, not those that lived in the Seam like the Earp family.
Wynonna smiled as she watched her little sister eat a cupcake for the first time. She had never eaten cake before either, but it was so much better watching Waverly enjoy the sweetness than it would have ever been for herself. Wynonna was 22 now, and she spent so much time working, making sure Waverly got fed and didn’t have to put herself in more danger for the Hunger Games… moments like this made it all worth it.
It had never been easy for the Earps. Their father had been a Peacekeeper that had an affair with a woman in the merchant class. Since Peacekeepers aren’t allowed to get married or have families, the affair had been secret. It was such a scandal when their mother was discovered to be pregnant that she was banished from the merchant area and had to move to the Seam. Luckily Gus and Curtis took pity on her and offered to lend a hand, though it didn’t help that their father kept drunkenly barging in on his “family.” He fathered three daughters altogether – Willa, Wynonna, and Waverly.
When the head Peacekeeper found out about the children thirteen years later, the Peacekeepers stormed in their home during one of Ward’s “family visits.” They beat him with their batons in front of a frightened six year old Waverly and a glaring twelve year old Wynonna. Dragging Ward’s slumped body away, the head Peacekeeper ordered Willa to be taken as well, as retribution for the shame he brought to the Peacekeeper ranks.
Wynonna had lost her temper then - Willa and Wynonna were only one year apart and inseparable – she ran up to the Peacekeepers taking their father away and grabbed the revolver slung in Ward’s belt. She cocked it, having seen it done once or twice in her short life, then aimed it at the group of Peacekeepers walking away with Ward and Willa. Wynonna had intended to hit the Peacekeeper who carried Willa with an iron grip, but she was inexperienced with the kickback of the gun and had closed her eyes at the sudden boom.
Instead she had shot her father in the back, and his body slumped down further – dead.
The head Peacekeeper looked back to Wynonna, who had dropped the revolver in surprise. Seeing her shocked face, he laughed, then walked back to pick up the fallen gun.
“Well, girly, thank you for saving me the trouble of executing him myself.” His voice had that accent from the richer districts. The accent that sounded similar to the Capitol, but not quite.
He reached down and lifted the revolver from the ground, checking its chamber for bullets. He laughed again, a sick laugh that made Wynonna’s skin crawl.
“Lucky shot,” he said, showing the empty chamber. He snapped the chamber back in, rolling it for effect, then tossed it back to a surprised Wynonna. “Why don’t you keep it, girly. It’ll remind you of what happens when you break the rules. It’s a rusty old piece of shit anyway, no bullets for that anymore.”
They never saw Willa again.
Present-day Wynonna fiddled with the rusty gun while Waverly savored her cupcake. She had named the gun Peacemaker to be ironic – there was definitely a sense of peace after Ward was out of the picture, but their mother was never the same, and one day she was just gone. Wynonna kept practicing handling her empty gun, insisting that one day she’d make those Peacekeepers pay…
Wynonna’s familiar thoughts of revenge were interrupted when Waverly held out a small piece of cupcake to Wynonna’s face.
“Try it! It’s the best! Way better than our imaginary dust pies!”
Wynonna smiled. Sometimes having to take care of a little sister by herself felt like fate had dealt her a bad hand, and then there were times when she would do every mistake she had ever done again because every little thing had shaped Waverly into the perfect person she was today. Waverly was definitely the “good Earp,” just like everyone said.
Wynonna took the last bite of cupcake, letting its sticky sweetness coat her tongue, and tried not to think about the Reaping tomorrow.
Waverly listened to Wynonna pace anxiously back and forth behind her while Gus carefully braided her hair. Everyone had the day off for the Reaping, and Waverly had looked forward to spending extra time with her sister until… well, until the names were announced.
“Wynonna, stop pacin’ around,” Gus scolded, putting the finishing touches on Waverly’s hair. “You’re not helping anybody.”
Waverly turned around and watched Wynonna stop in her tracks and take a drink directly from a whiskey bottle she was holding. She didn’t want to know what Wynonna had to trade in the Hob for that.
Gus snatched the bottle out of Wynonna’s hand, examining the label. Possession of alcohol was rare in the Seam and might as well been gold. “Where did you even get this?”
Wynonna wordlessly held a finger horizontally across her upper lip and used her upper hand to act as though she had a cowboy hat on top of her head.
“Ugh, don’t tell me you got it from creepy old Doc!” Waverly whined.
Wynonna smiled and nodded her head, too buzzed to think of a clever answer.
“Huh.” Gus let out an impressed breath and took a drink from the bottle herself.
“Gus!” Waverly gasped, surprised that she would stoop to Wynonna’s level.
“That man knows his stuff,” Gus said, coughing a bit at the unfamiliar taste of alcohol. “Besides, victors always get the best.”
Wynonna gave a thumbs-up to Gus’ comment and took the whiskey bottle back to take another drink.
Waverly huffed and straightened her light blue dress. She knew that they were drinking to relieve stress from the rapidly approaching Reaping, but Waverly herself couldn’t bring herself to do much of anything but wait.
“If you get chosen, Waves,” Wynonna said solemnly, sitting down next to her sister, “I’ll volunteer as tribute.”
Waverly smiled, even though it couldn’t be done - it was against the rules. Only children between 12-18 years of age could be chosen as tributes. “Thanks, but like you said, us Earps aren’t that lucky.”
Wynonna grinned, recalling the words she had spoken only yesterday. “Past-me was really reassuring, wasn’t she?”
Outside the town clock suddenly chimed, startling them, and it was time.
Waverly stood quietly in alphabetical order with the other children of District 12, the air somber and quiet. She snuck a glance back to where everyone was standing, and Wynonna offered a tight smile when their eyes met. Despite all the drinking beforehand, the event had a quickly sobering effect.
Waverly looked forward again, and she saw the District 12 victor, Doc Holliday, standing uncomfortably in a pressed dark suit to match his dark cowboy hat. He stood with the representative from the Capitol on the steps leading to the main municipal building while everyone else stood in perfect rows in the town square with white uniformed Peacekeepers surrounding them.
The woman from the Capitol had painted her face in garish swirls and dyed her hair an electric shade of blue. She walked delicately in her precariously balanced heels up the microphone and pair of reaping balls, each ball containing the names of all the female and male children.
“Welcome to the reaping of the 31st Hunger Games!” she announced proudly in her Capitol accent. She paused for effect, waiting for applause that never came. She cleared her throat. “I, for one, am very excited to meet this year’s tributes! No spoilers, but I’ve heard that it’s going to be quite an exciting Hunger Games this year.”
She grinned, hoping to get a reaction from the crowd from this teasing tidbit, but she was met again with silent stares.
“Well, I suppose we should go ahead and get started.” She reached into one of the reaping balls and pulled out a slip of paper. “Ladies first.”
When Waverly saw the woman’s lips scrunch together to begin the “W” sound, her heart sank.
“What the hell?!” Waverly heard behind her. “I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute, goddammit! Let me the fuck through, you shitheads!”
Waverly turned around, trying not to let the tears forming in her eyes go any further, and saw Wynonna fighting vainly against a pair of Peacekeepers in special riot gear.
“I…” Wynonna gasped, letting out a strangled sob. “I volunteer.”
The woman on the steps laughed and clapped her hands. “Oh my, how charming! I’m sorry darling, but your chance to win the Hunger Games has already passed. Waverly, dear, come on up!”
Waverly felt herself face the steps and robotically move forward, vaguely hearing Wynonna start up another cursing storm. When she finally reached the top of the steps, Waverly felt the Capitol woman touch her shoulder lightly, and then the Capitol woman reached into the other reaping ball to choose the male tribute.
Champ. Champ was a schoolmate in the same year as Waverly, but he lived in the merchant area instead of the Seam, helping with his family’s bakery. She often saw him unloading goods from the other districts, though their paths had never directly crossed more than a few times. He always offered her a smile and more often than not tried to show off his strength in front of her, causing her to blush and quickly move onto wherever she was headed.
And now neither of them were ever coming back home. Or maybe just one of them.
Champ slowly walked through the crowd and joined Waverly at the top of the steps. There was a collective relief felt from the crowd as the other children weren’t chosen, but all Waverly could hear was the thumping of her own racing heart.
The Capitol woman had applauded when both tributes were displayed to the crowd, but everyone was anxious to leave, ready to forget this event ever happened. When everyone was dismissed, Waverly, Champ, Doc, and the Capitol representative were rushed into the Mayor’s office.
“Might I interest you in a drink?” Doc suggested quietly, pulling a flask from his coat pocket.
Waverly shook her head, but Champ accepted eagerly, taking a large gulp. Doc nodded, twitching his mustache. “You keep that, kid. You’ll need it.”
The doors to the Mayor’s office burst open, and Wynonna and Gus rushed to Waverly, both entangling their arms around her.
“Baby girl,” Wynonna murmured, squeezing Waverly as tightly as she could. “I guess us Earps are that unlucky.”
“Wynonna…” Waverly started, her voice cracking as the tears started flowing out of her eyes.
Wynonna let Waverly go and held her face with both hands, looking into Waverly’s watery eyes with a determined look. “You come back. You don’t get to die out there. You’re not allowed, understand?”
Waverly nodded, reaching up to clench Wynonna’s wrists.
“Good. Take this.” Wynonna took her gold necklace off and clasped it around Waverly’s neck. “It was Willa’s.”
Waverly nodded again, letting out a shaky breath.
“Alright, tributes! Time to finally go to the Capitol!” the Capitol representative announced cheerfully.
Peacekeepers approached them, signaling Wynonna and Gus to leave.
“No! It’s too soon! That isn’t enough time!” Wynonna protested. She reached out to grab Waverly, but a baton struck her sharply from behind and she fell to the floor.
“Wynonna!” Waverly shrieked. She tried to move toward her sister, but a pair of Peacekeepers grabbed Waverly’s arms and began dragging her away. The last thing she saw as the doors closed behind them was Wynonna groggily getting back up and reaching toward her.
In District 2, Nicole waited patiently as her mother French braided her hair. She was 18 now, her last Hunger Games, and this time she had to be chosen as tribute.
The Haughts had a proud lineage; they could trace their heritage back generations, all the way back to when a country called the United States of America had existed. They even kept their old-fashioned family name instead of adopting modern trends.
And their family was a family of victors.
Nicole remembered living in Victor’s Village when she was only a few years old, running around the seemingly endless hallways and playing in the gardens. She never worried about tearing a dress or getting seconds at meal times – there was always more.
But when her father died, Nicole and her mother had to move back to the community and her mother had to get a job working at the quarry. They received strict food and clothing rations like everyone else, and her mother was sick of it.
Nicole’s mother tightened the end of Nicole’s hair extra tight as she finished, her fingers gripping her daughter’s red hair. “You will be chosen this year, Nicole,” she growled through gritted teeth. “I’m not living like this anymore.”
“Yes, mother,” Nicole replied plainly. She had always found it was best to answer simply, else she stoke her mother’s anger even further.
District 2 was famous for Career tributes – children who had trained their whole lives to win the Hunger Games. Their school emphasized physical fitness, strength, and combat training. As a result, most of the children became overly aggressive and arrogant, fighting over everything from food rations to social hierarchy.
Nicole was capable of fighting with the best of them, but she didn’t think she had to be a dickhead about it. She was known for an easy-going smile and a rare friendly demeanor… until you tried something stupid like stealing her rations or calling her a ginger, and then Nicole Haught had you flat on your back in an instant.
She had always wanted to become a Peacekeeper. The type that kept everyone safe by making sure the rules were followed, but knowing the right moments to bend them. Rules were meant to be followed, generally, but there were always exceptions.
But first, she had to win the Hunger Games for her mother.
The Reaping ceremony happened as expected, with much fanfare and enthusiasm from the whole district. The Capitol representative was dressed in a flared suit that changed colors with every step he took, his hair swept up in a dramatic pompadour and dyed in rainbow swirls – swirls apparently were all the range in the Capitol this season. When he appeared and greeted the crowd, he was almost swept back from the roars and cheers of adulation. He flashed a blindingly white smile and waved as he approached the microphone and reaping balls.
The names selected didn’t matter. This year, to prevent the riots that had been overtaking each previous Reaping, the school had set up a wrestling tournament to determine who had the right to volunteer. Every child aged 12-18 could participate in the tournament, but the older children had the distinct advantage of being larger and stronger.
Nicole had won, of course, though that didn’t stop other girls in her class from making threats and pushing her further down the social scale. She would simply smile and pinned them down again, quietly whispering in their ear that if they took the tribute spot from her, she didn’t need the Hunger Games to kill them.
“The female tribute from District 2 that will be in the 31st Hunger Games is…!”
“I volunteer as tribute.”
Nicole’s voice carried calmly across the town square, and the other children moved silently out of the way as she walked forward to claim her spot.
The Capitol representative flashed an even bigger smile and clapped his hands as the adults in the community cheered and whistled, the children giving half-hearted claps as they remembered Nicole’s threats veiled in her dimpled smile. Nicole’s mother applauded calmly and gazed steadfastly into Nicole’s eyes, and Nicole nodded back when she had reached the stage and faced the crowd.
It was the same everywhere, no matter which district you were from: win the Games or die.