“Hey, Soto,” Ander said, striding through the front door of Carmen’s house, a warm smile forming on their face. “You look like you just rolled out of bed.”
Carmen contemplated on punching them in the face, but the idea subsided and her stomach twisted into knot. Reaping Day. It’d be a pretty shit idea to ruin Ander’s face on Reaping Day.
“Oh, she did. Like, twenty minutes ago,” mumbled her younger brother Thomas from the kitchen table, where he was helping her other, even younger brother Noah with the red tie slung around his neck. “Did you know Carmen snores really loud? She does.”
She narrowed her eyes at the boy, then turned to face Ander, whose smile only grew wider.
“You’re such a twerp,” Carmen finally says, giving the taller other a gentle nudge. She turned to her brothers. “Come on, guys. Don’t wanna be late for the best day of the year. Yipee.”
The boys snorted and with a taunting “Race ya to the stage!” from Noah, they were off, leaving Carmen and Ander to themselves in the now-silent living room. Carmen’s mother had apparently left earlier, saying that she’d meet the kids there. Slowly, Carmen turned her head to scrutinize Ander, who was tugging at the messy braid they had clearly done, tying and untying the red ribbon that held the black locks together. She heaved a heavy sigh, which caused her friend to glance her way, inklings of a smile forming against their face.
“What?” They said. Carmen chewed on her lip.
“May the odds be ever in your favor,” she says, voice barely above a whisper. Ander scoffed.
Silence began to stiffen between the teens, and Carmen began to tap her fingers hard against the table, her other hand preoccupied with picking at the buttons that ran up and down the olive dress she wore. It was kind of hideous, she admitted, but her mother loved the dress so dearly that it was such a disservice to not wear it.
“Hey, Carmen?” Ander suddenly said, shifting through one of the pockets on their pants. “Hold on. I have something for you.”
She felt her eyes widen as she watched the kid fumble for something on their person, resisting the urge to poke fun at them. It wasn’t often that Ander would give her a gift, nor was it often that she’d return the gesture, so whatever this was, Carmen couldn’t find it in her heart to tease about it.
“Here,” Ander said suddenly, withdrawing something that seemed to shine, palming it and taking gentle hold of the hand that was once drumming insistently on the table.
“What are you--” Carmen began, surprised as the other lifted it, their touch warm and relaxed, before casually slipping a ring on her finger. She gawked at it for a minute, at the intricacy of it's shape, the soft shine of silver against the olive tone of her flesh.
“It’s a fidget ring. I was gonna give it to you on your birthday, but I was so excited to show it you that, well,” they shrugged, green eyes flashing. “I had to give it to you now.”
“A fidget ring,” Carmen echoed slowly. She lifted her other hand to it's surface, giving it a spin. Her gaze fixed back on her friend, who was still giving her that stupid, pleased, highly infectious grin. She sighed. “It’s… it’s really great. I… thank you, Ander.”
“Don’t mention it. Now, I think we have a Reaping to attend.” They extended their hand back to Carmen, and she took it, giving it a squeeze before the two abandoned her living space.
“I should say hi to my mom,” Carmen says to Ander before leaving them to join her mother and brothers. Noah frowned at her.
“You really, really lost, Carm.”
“I wasn’t trying to race,” she said absently, running her fingers through his red-brown curls, turning to her mother and pressing a kiss to the woman’s cheek. “Sorry, mom.”
“That’s alright,” she said softly, smiling at her daughter. “Okay. Carmen, Thomas,” she indicated her oldest son, who stood at rapt attention. “Good luck today, you two. I love you both so, so much. Be strong.”
Carmen began to tune her mother out as she broke into the same half-assed monologue she gave every year. Noah was still much too young to be entered into the Reaping. Carmen admitted to be grateful for that, but the idea of Thomas’s name being called to stand up there on that stage…
She snapped back to attention, watching her mother’s hurt gaze fall on her. “Yes?”
“I think you have to get on up there. Both of you.” Their mother quickly embraced Thomas, then Carmen. “May the odds be ever in your favor.”
“Right. Yeah.” Carmen muttered, and the two began to walk briskly to join their peers. She snuck a gaze at Thomas, whose gaze was fixed firmly on the path in front of them. “You alright?”
“I am.” Silence. “Cateline signed up for tesserae this year. And Garth.”
“They’re brave,” Carmen said. The boy went quiet again.
“I think if I don’t get Reaped this year, I’ll sign up too.”
“We don’t need it.”
“Just in case. You’re getting too old. I should at least try.”
“I’ll be too old when I start shoving prunes into my face and going to bed at six.”
Thomas smiled at her, grabbing her hand and giving it a squeeze. “Not to be sappy, but I love you, Carmen. Don’t get drawn, alright?”
“You too, dummy. I love you.” She pressed a quick kiss to his cheek before he abandoned her to join the rest of the fourteen year olds, and she pushed forward to the sixteen year old age group, rejoining with Ander, who gave her a sad smile, not saying a word. The escort began to take the stage. The crowd was, for all intents and purposes, deathly silent.
The escort gave a quick jab at the mic, recoiling as the feedback sliced through the silence. They cleared their throat, a smile full of shark-like teeth widening on their face.
“Happy 69th Hunger Games, District Three! Happy Reaping Day!”
The creature rattled through their usual spiel, lastly indicating the two glass bowls set in front of them, their pearly whites glinting in the glare of the cold sun.
“Let us begin, then! And, as always, may the odds be ever in your favor!” They ended, a titter in their voice. They picked from the first bowl, that odd, empty smile still firmly painted on their visage.
“Audience, please give a round of applause for Carmen Soto, our first tribute!”
Carmen felt her heart leap to her throat. Next to her, Ander stiffened.
A weak applause crackled in the air. Carmen froze, still, unmoving, numbness wreaking through her veins. Her jaw worked first.
She surprised herself with how loud that seemed to sound in the quiet of the district. The escort’s smile faltered in surprise.Great job, Carmen. So verbose. A real star, Carmen cursed internally. I am absolutely screwed.
She forced herself to stand straighter, walking stiffly, robotically to the stage, ascending with careful precision and heavy steps.
“One more round of applause for Miss Soto! May the odds be ever in your favor!”
She hardly noticed the second victor called. She hardly noticed the hands of Peacekeepers leading her away as the Reaping ended. She hardly noticed the emptiness and uncomfortable atmosphere of the visitation room. Her brain could only so manage to replay her name being called, over and over, a broken record dead-set on phasing her.
She collapsed into the nearest seat.District Three tribute, huh? The girl that practically shouted “holy shit” to the entirety of Panem as her name was called. A real winner.
She felt her blood boil.
The door slid open, and her family entered, Noah barreling into her arms, squeezing tightly.
“Congratulations, Carmen!” The boy muttered into her hair, and she resisted against the urge to scream by squeezing him back.
“Thanks. I’m so damn excited. Yay,” Carmen said, and looking at her mother and Thomas did she realize now wasn’t the best time to be an asshat.
Noah pulled away from her, his smile fading as he still held tight to his sister. “You’re gonna come home soon from the games, right?”
Carmen felt her heart plummet, and she turned to the others for an answer. Her mother had clamped a hand hard over her mouth, choking back a sob and turning away. Thomas’ eyes were red-- he had already been crying. She turned back slowly to the youngest. “Y-yeah. Of course. I’m going to come right home and we’re going to have dinner and I’ll tuck you in and tell you your favorite bedtime s-story, the one about the knight and the fairies--” Carmen stopped herself when her voice began to crack, and she pressed her lips to Noah’s head. “Yes. I’ll be right back. It won’t be long.”
Carmen stood up with Noah, and quickly gave Thomas a hug and pressed another kiss to his cheek, passing off Noah to him. She nodded slowly. “Take care of them, Thomas. Please.”
He gave her a quick nod, his gaze flicking to their distraught mother. Carmen waited patiently as the woman’s sobs began to die down, and accepted her tight embrace.
“I love you, Carmen. So much. I know I don’t say it often, but I do. I love you.”
She pressed her face into her mother’s shoulder, taking a deep breath, inhaling the subtle scent of honey and lilacs. She wanted to stand in her arms forever and just breathe.
“I love you too, mom. I’ll do my best. I’ll come home.”
Carmen didn’t know if she meant it. Soon her family left, and the door was still for a moment too long.
It slid open again, and Ander stepped through, worry furrowing their brow. “Carmen--”
She stopped them there, rushing to meet them at the entrance and wrapping her arms around their shoulders in a tight embrace.
“I’m so sorry, Carmen.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“I can’t help but feel like, somehow, it is. You don’t deserve to be in the games.”
“You say that like you do.”
Ander fell silent, and Carmen reconsidered her earlier decision to punch them. Slowly, the two peeled away from each other, shaking hands still gripping as if Ander was her lifeline.
“Ander…” Carmen began, only stopping when the taller gave her a sad smile. They always did try to keep that smile up, no matter how bad the day was, no matter how sad they were. Carmen secretly admired them for it; she wasn’t so easily optimistic.
“I love you.”
She blinked, staring at them, making sure she heard them right. Ander’s gaze was unwavering, still smiling, still sad, and she could see tears begin to form in the corners of those sparkling green pools.
“I-- you-- Ander?” Carmen stammered.
“I’m so sorry.”
“N-no. It’s not-- I just--” She stopped herself, taking a deep breath to slow down the thoughts that raced through her head. “I didn’t expect to hear that, ever.”
Ander let out a laugh, watery, bitter, and mirthful all at once. “Neither did I.”
She pressed her lips clumsily against their cheek with a slight graze against their lips, then pressed her forehead to their shoulder, tightening her hold on them, trembling as Ander returned the embrace.
“I don’t want to leave,” Carmen whispered. “Isn’t that selfish? I don’t want to leave.”
Ander laughed into her hair. “I figured. Can I ask you to do something, though?”
She nodded, the numbness tugging at her senses again as Ander pulled away and pressed their hand against her heart. Carmen focused on the quick drumming that rattled her ribcage so wildly.
“Don’t fight for something you don’t believe in, Soto. Come back quick so I can beat you in arm wrestling again.”
She snorted, relief drowning out the other emotions that raged against her. “If I do come back, there’s no way in hell you’re going to win.”
“I’ll miss you.”
“Same here, dirtbag. Don’t go about being an idiot, okay? Not without me to watch.”
“I take that back. I probably won’t miss your bad attitude.”
“But it’s my best quality.”
Ander gave her hands a squeeze, turning back around to face the door as the Peacekeeper came in and told them their time was up.
“Be tough, Carmen. I’ll be rooting for you,” they said with a grin, following the guard through the threshold.
“Thank you. I mean it.”
The door shut, and Carmen sunk into the chair again, twisting the ring that weighed so heavily on her pointer finger.This is it, huh?
Twist.I’m representing District Three in the 69th annual Hunger Games.
Twist.I’m probably going to die.
Twist.Thomas is going to start taking tesserae next year. Thomas could get Reaped, too. Noah could lose two siblings.
Twist.I should’ve told Ander that I love them. I love them. They mean everything to me. Ander and their stupid present that I love so much. Gross. This fucking blows.
Twist.I’m going to be in the Hunger Games.
Twist.Honestly, it’d be so easy to just accept the sweet embrace of death. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll go down fast.
Twist.That was a terrible thing to think. I still have to try, right? As much as the next kid.
Twist.Yeah. I still have to try.
Twist.I have to try win the Hunger Games.
Twist.I’m going to win the Hunger Games.