Disclaimer: I do not own The Hunger Games.
Rated T for ... Okay, let's be honest. If you can't figure out why a Hunger Games fic is rated T, you've probably forgotten the basic premise of the series.
How You Play the Game
A Heavy Summons
This year marks the 25th Anniversary of the Capitol's victory over the rebels. It also marks our very first Quarter Quell!
This year, as a reminder to the rebels that their children are dying because of their choice to initiate violence, every district will hold an election to determine its own tributes. No volunteers will be accepted.
Happy Hunger Games!
Names. Through tears, Rowan studied the list of names in front of her. A list of boys and a list of girls, grouped by age. All around her, eligible voters – anyone over eighteen and thus ineligible for the Games – sat with their own ballots, all wondering the same thing: Which of these children would they condemn to death?
And it was almost surely a death sentence. In the wealthier districts, young boys and girls had probably been begging friends and family and even strangers to vote for them, especially since this year wouldn't allow them the opportunity to volunteer. But not here. Not in District Seven. Here, axes were for hewing trees, knives for carving wood. Most children would never dream of using them against each other.
Rowan's hands shook as she found her own children's names on the page. Not hers by birth, but the old woman cared for each child in the orphanage as if they were her own. Forty-seven children, twenty-three of them listed on the pages in front of her. But surely no one would vote for any of the youngest. The first page of each section – boys and girls – listed the names of the seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds. Rowan hadn't even glanced at the other pages. Surely no one would be that cruel.
Of course, any choice was cruel. To force parents to vote for their children, their nieces and nephews, their son's or daughter's playmates. How could anyone vote for a child and then expect their brothers and sisters to watch them die? But how could they vote for an only child, their parents' only son or daughter?
And that, Rowan knew, was what placed her own children in particular danger. Children were only left to the orphanage if they had no one else – no parents, no close relatives, no siblings old enough to care for them. Her children weren't well-known in the district. Not the names people would recognize. And, Rowan acknowledged with a twinge of guilt as she read the names herself, it was easier to consider voting for someone you didn't know.
But Rowan fought back that urge. That was what everyone else would do. So, instead, she circled the names of the mayor's twin son and daughter. Everyone knew them. Everyone loved them. No one else would vote for them. She would be outnumbered, and, whoever was chosen, she would have no hand in it.
At least, that's what she was able to convince herself of long enough to circle two names and hand the ballot to the nearest Peacekeeper. He checked it first – several people had tried to hand back blank ballots – and then gestured towards the exit.
It was dark outside. Fitting, Rowan thought, for such a dark, cruel act as this. Now they would have to wait until morning to learn the results. To learn which children they had betrayed to their deaths.
Most of her children were asleep – or, at least, in their beds – when she returned, but five sat by the fireplace. Basil, Oliver, Laurel, Holly, and Fern looked up as the door opened and Rowan collapsed beside them.
Fern wrapped her arms around Rowan. Rowan returned the hug, grateful that Fern, at least, was safe. She had turned nineteen only a month ago and had decided to stay and help Rowan care for the younger children. She tall and strongly built, but the children saw her as a mother hen, kind, nurturing, devoted – all of them good things at an orphanage, but deadly in the arena, where ruthlessness was praised and kindness was rewarded with death.
Oliver stoked the fire a little. He was days away from turning nineteen himself, but that didn't matter. The skinny, jumpy bookbinder's apprentice was in just as much danger as any other older boy – maybe more. He was shy. Timid. Few people outside his small portion of the factory knew his face, let alone his name.
As if he'd read the older boy's mind, Basil spoke up. "They're not gonna pick you, Oliver."
"How do you know?"
The seventeen-year-old lumberjack smiled a little. "Because, ever since the President made that horrid announcement, I've made sure to tell everyone at work about you. How you take care of the other children, teach them to read, tell them stories. How we'd all be lost without you." He patted Oliver on the back. "As far as they're concerned, you're a hero."
Rowan smiled. It was true enough. Every one of the older children was indispensable, especially now. This year's non-traditional Reaping meant no tesserae, so the older children had to work even harder to make sure the younger ones didn't starve. Some as young as thirteen or fourteen had taken jobs in the factory to bring in more money. And they got by, but this year was definitely the leanest in Rowan's memory.
"But what about you?" Oliver asked.
"They won't pick me." Basil sounded more like he was trying to convince himself, though, because, due to his size and strength, he was a somewhat natural choice. "None of the lumberjacks would pick one of their own, and there are so many of us that … well, the odds are in my favor." Rowan hoped he was right, that his close-knit group of friends would be enough to protect him, because outside their circle, he was relatively unknown.
Eighteen-year-old Holly looked up from the flute she was finishing, her usually cheerful face barely masking a deep fear. Without a word, she handed the flute to Laurel and headed for the door. Before Rowan could call out to her, she was gone.
Laurel fingered the flute gingerly. "It's all they've been talking about all night," she explained. "She probably just needs to clear her head."
Rowan nodded. "And you?" she asked. "How are you doing?"
Laurel shrugged. "About as well as anyone else, I suppose. At least it won't be any of the little ones this year … Will it?"
Rowan shook her head emphatically. "No. No, especially not after last year." Last year had been a thirteen-year-old girl and a twelve-year-old boy, both of whom had been killed early and easily. No one wanted to relive that.
"I thought about volunteering last year when I saw her," Fern admitted. "But I was so scared. And I just kept thinking that it was my last Reaping, that now I'm safe, but, Rowan, this is even worse!"
Rowan nodded. The younger adults had voted earlier in the day, so Fern had been agonizing over her decision even longer. And it was worse for her. These were her friends. Schoolmates. Coworkers. She didn't have the luxury of picking a name she didn't know. As social as Fern was, Rowan had no doubt that she had met every person on the list.
Fern hugged Rowan close. The boys remained silent. At last, Laurel lifted the flute to her lips. Holly hadn't quite finished tweaking it, so it was a little off-pitch, but it was still beautiful, soft and sad and comforting at the same time.
She had two more upstairs – different sizes. On colder nights, they would all sit around the fire. Laurel would play, and the children would sing, and, for a while, the world seemed beautiful and alive.
Eventually, Fern and the boys went to bed. Finally, Holly returned, sweating and breathing hard, but finally smiling again. She sat down beside Laurel with a doll she was carving for one of the little girls.
Holly was apprenticed to a carpenter. Most of her work was furniture, but her passion was toys, and her master let her bring home scraps of wood – too small for any other use – to carve in her spare time. Holly would leave carvings under the younger ones' pillows, claiming a fairy left them if they were good. Nearly all the children knew better, but it was more fun to play along. To pretend.
Well into the night, they sat there, the three of them – Laurel playing, Holly carving, and Rowan watching them silently. She must have dozed off, because she awoke to Laurel kissing her softly on the cheek. The fire was out, and Holly had already gone to bed, no doubt after tucking the doll under someone's pillow. Rowan wrapped Laurel in a hug, and they both headed upstairs.
After a moment, however, Rowan could hear quiet sobs coming from the next room. She peeked through the door. Laurel sat on her bed, her pillow out of place, holding something in her hands. Rowan took a few steps inside the room and could finally see what Laurel was holding. It was a doll.
"Happy Hunger Games!" Wilmer Frond's voice boomed across the town square.
Sitting behind him onstage, Amber Birnam cringed. There had been nothing happy about the Hunger Games six years ago, when she had won, and they were even less happy now. This year, those chosen couldn't blame it on the odds, as she had. They had to blame their own families. Their neighbors. And there would be no volunteers, no one to save them from their fate. Not that District Seven had many volunteers, anyway, but there was always that brief moment, that fleeting hope that maybe someone would step forward.
Amber sat back and tried to look like she didn't care. Like nothing could possibly be worse than last year. Like she wasn't searching the crowd, wondering which faces matched the names she herself had circled the day before. And hoping – desperately hoping – that there were enough older, stronger boys that her sixteen-year-old brother, Ember, would be safe for another year.
The anthem played. Wilmer rambled for a while in his thick Capitol accent, ending with District Seven's list of Victors, which contained only her name. At last, he got down to business. "And now we shall draw – oh, wait!" He stopped himself dramatically, as if he had really forgotten. "No drawings this year! I believe our good Mayor has the names of the winners!"
The winners. As if going into the arena was some sort of prize. Amber watched silently as the Mayor, pale-faced and no doubt fearing for his own children, handed Wilmer two slips of paper, folded and sealed by the Peacekeepers after they had counted the votes the night before.
Wilmer beamed. He unfolded the first paper – the one with a girl's name – and read it gleefully. "Holly Tamarack!"
Amber felt as if someone had punched her in the gut. The name was familiar. She had seen it last night. Circled it. She forced down a lump in her throat as she realized she was partially responsible for this girl's fate.
Holly froze. The crowd parted, and she knew she was supposed to walk to the stage, but her legs wouldn't obey. How could they have picked her? Surely they knew she wouldn't stand a chance. And now she was only making things worse. She had to move.
She could hear crying behind her. The little ones. Holly took a deep breath. She didn't care about the people watching in the Capitol. The other tributes sizing her up. But her little brothers and sisters – she could be brave for them. She took a few steps. Then a few more. Trying not to cry, and, when that failed, trying to hide her tears. Up the stairs. Onto the platform. Only then did her legs give way, and she fell to her knees, silent.
Wilmer wasn't fazed. Sometimes tributes cried. Usually younger ones, but not always. So, instead of acknowledging her display, he continued. "And now the boys!" Holly could hear rustling as he unfolded the paper. "Basil Ashmore!"
He'd said it wrong. But the crowd gave way, nonetheless, as Basil took the stage. "Congratulations, Basil!" Wilmer beamed.
For whatever reason, that snapped Holly back to reality. If they were going to sentence him to death in front of millions, they could at least bother to pronounce his name right. "Basil," she said softly.
"What's that, Dearie?" Wilmer asked.
Holly forced herself to her feet. "Basil," she repeated, emphasizing the short 'a' as she turned towards the cameras. "It's pronounced Basil."
Basil put an arm around her. "Thanks, Holly."
Wilmer cocked an eyebrow, sensing drama. "You two know each other. Cousins? Boyfriend and girlfriend?"
"Brother and sister," Basil corrected. Holly nodded.
Wilmer looked puzzled but shrugged it off. "Ladies and gentlemen, District Seven's Tributes for the Twenty-Fifth Annual Hunger Games!"
Basil squeezed Holly's shoulder gently. He was trying to be comforting. Reassuring. But there was nothing he could really do to protect her. There was nothing anyone could do.
She was going to die.
"A heavy summons lies like lead upon me, and yet I would not sleep. Merciful powers, restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature gives way to in repose!" ~ II, i, 6-10