As Venezia clasped the lock of the emerald necklace shut and checked her reflection in the mirror, she couldn't help but smile to herself. Her necklace. And below it, her dress, gaudily accented in golden frills. And she was going to her lavish two-month anniversary party. Part of Venezia was mildly disgusted with herself - a two-month anniversary party? It was the kind of ridiculous rich people thing she and her old crowd on the streets would've jeered at a few years ago. Like you couldn't even wait for half a year?
But for the most part, she was proud of what she had accomplished, of where she was now. Sure, whispers on the street called her a cruel gold-digger or a lucky ditz (and those were the tamer ones), but Venezia knew better. Relishing in the grandeur of her dressing room (again, part of her laughed. Really? A dressing room, Venezia?), she smirked to herself. She earned this - she deserved it.
A faint, familiar voice pulled her out of her thoughts. "Stunning," Jeanne cooed, wrapping her arms behind Venezia as they both peered at her reflection in the mirror. Jeanne nestled her head into the crook of Venezia's neck and proceeded to mumble into her neck as she played with the emerald gem on her necklace. "This is your color, love."
Venezia turned into her wife's embrace and grinned nervously. "Not too much? I'm scared it's too much and I'll look like a decoration." She paused, a touch of mock concern coloring the corners of her face. "I don't wanna look like a chandelier."
"My beautiful chandelier," Jeanne said dreamily as she unlatched herself from Venezia and twirled across the room, giggling as her white heels clacked against the dark wood floor before stopping abruptly and turning back to Venezia. "Or maybe my beautiful candle - I think candle captures the look more, you know?"
A genuine laugh bubbled out of Venezia's throat as Jeanne rambled on about what light fixture really captured her. It had been hard for Venezia to let these little moments of authenticity slip past her careful mask at first because she was scared of showing her hand. The hand of a former street rat that tricked the Mayor's daughter to fall in love with her. And beyond that, Jeanne had fallen in love with the Venezia that she crafted - there was no telling if she would even tolerate the real girl beneath.
But as days became weeks and the grip Venezia had on her persona loosened, nothing changed between her and Jeanne. Jeanne was always this beacon of warmth and light, and as Venezia let her act falter ever so slightly, Jeanne stayed.
That didn't quite capture it, as Jeanne would put. As Venezia let herself open up, Jeanne's love for her burned even brighter. And against her will, Venezia began to flicker to life every time she saw Jeanne. Some days, Venezia wondered who tricked whom.
Jeanne waved her arms from across the room, making that little radio transmission sound. Venezia couldn't fight the smile that hijacked her face if she tried. "Earth to lamp. I don't know what you're thinking about but if you keep ignoring me I'm going to keep talking like this until you hear me. We might miss our party but it'll be your ass, not mine. Over."
"You are," Venezia started as she made her way over to her wife, pulled her into her arms, and planted a quick kiss on her cheek, "an absolute lunatic." Jeanne tilted her head expectantly.
It took a second for Venezia to put together what Jeanne was waiting for. "I truly cannot believe you," Venezia laughed, rolling her eyes. "Over."
"Thank you! Imagine the tragedy if you hadn't closed transmission like," Jeanne paused dramatically, pretending to get choked up, "I just - I just wouldn't know what happened to my astronaut lover."
Venezia opened her mouth to respond - she hadn't really come up with something clever yet but she wasn't one to miss a beat - when a light knock on the open door interrupted her. Mayor Malstoy playfully raised an eyebrow and walked over to his daughter and daughter-in-law. "Girls, I have no idea what you're talking about," he started as he got to them. "And I truly. Truly. Never want to know."
The three of them - her family, Venezia quickly corrected in her head - laughed as Mayor Malstoy (she couldn't bring herself to call him Lorance as he insisted. Dad was also pretty weird, but she was trying.) pulled them into his signature bear hug. Venezia let herself lean into them.
Even though she was still acclimating to the term, this was her family. It was true - she started off with her silver tongue and her watchful eye scouring them up and down for a way in. It was how she had been her whole life, and certainly not by choice. Stepping on people was part of her past. She wasn't proud of it, but she wasn't ashamed of doing what she needed to survive, either. When you're playing from the bottom, you have to get your hands dirty if you want a chance at moving up. So up she moved, nevermind the price.
But from the top, things were different. She finally had what she had always dreamt of. The roof over her head (and one with a chandelier, no less), food on the table, clothes on her back.
She hadn't realized how badly she craved having someone always at her side. The streets had been a sea of shifting allegiances and convenient friendships, but in this house (mansion, she mentally added, patting herself on the back one last time. Never got old), Jeanne and Mayor Malstoy were always on her side. Shielding her from the caustic remarks and the hateful critique. Supporting her as she found her footing in her new life.
Looking at the two people locked in this embrace with her, Venezia felt a lot. She was proud of having earned this life. Happy to finally have people to channel her love and laughter into. But more than anything, she was thankful to finally be able to let her guard down, just a little. Just enough to breathe and laugh and live in her own skin.
Emeric snapped his head to the distant sound of a familiar voice and nickname, and the sack of flour that was over his shoulder hit the floor with a thud as he turned a little too quickly. The already sketchy stitching of the sack gave out on impact, and flour poured out in streams and rivers onto the ground at his feet.
Shit. Marcello was going to crucify him. This was his fourth split bag this week, and Marcello wasn't his biggest fan from the start. Maybe he could blame it on Jamba? She was the only person near his level of clumsy, but he could probably pin it on her. She wasn't exactly the brightest, and Emeric didn't want to use that against her, but he also wasn't a fan of the prospect of Marcello somehow hating him more.
There was also something to be said about bagging the flour and selling it to the rich pre-tweens of Nine and pretending it was coke. Not just for the money, but also the thought of simply eating the rich. But also for the money - his growling stomach was almost as demanding as the mental image of the stupid little shits trying to snort flour. Close second. Tight race.
He was still mulling over his options and seriously considering who he could ask to help him sell little bags of coke-flour when the voice, now just in front of him, came again. "Pipsqueak?"
Caught red-handed (white-footed?), Emeric was petrified of the grilling/beating he was about to take, but honestly sadder at the prospect of not being able to live out his coke dream. But as he turned to face the voice, that fear of a forlorn dream was quickly replaced with joy. He inwardly squealed as he kicked the flour off his shoes and catapulted into Ailinn's arms. Which, for the record, were also holding a bag of flour.
Easily twenty-five pounds lighter than him, Ailinn collapsed under Emeric's weight and the two hit the ground with the thick flour sack between them. "God, you're like a big, dumb dog," Ailinn moaned, but she couldn't hide the grin that spread across her face as she looked up at him.
Emeric stuck out his tongue and pretended to wag a tail when he realized that that was kinda weird, but he was already here, so might as well commit, right? Ailinn chuckled, shoving the younger boy off of her playfully before offering a hand up as well. She was all tough and exuded this big-girl-in-town vibe, but Emeric knew the softie behind that facade better than anyone else.
So when Emeric pulled this girl who had been both his best friend and guardian in the orphanage into a hug, he knew she wouldn't resist. "Missed you, Em," she whispered, pulling away and pinching his cheek just hard enough to make him wince and pull away. "Oh, what, are you gonna cry? Want me to grab you a tissue?" He grinned at her, shoving her back lightly, and his chest welled up with the warmth and sense of home that Ailinn had always given him.
Growing up mute, he had been overlooked his entire life. Yeah, the obvious one was not getting adopted like the other cute little babies at the orphanage (and let him tell you, he was a cute baby. He simply could not know that since there wasn't an orphanage yearbook or anything, but he wasn't a bad-looking boy, so if you just carry the one, he was probably a pretty cute baby, right?). But more than that, he was never part of the pack of fun-loving friends at the orphanage because they just… forgot him. And not for lack of trying and charisma on his part - Emeric was Sunshine Central. King of Pranks. Master of Meddling. Jubilant. Compassionate. Yet somehow, always forgotten.
Emeric brushed away the thought as he'd done for most of his life. It was sad and it was unfair, and Emeric had spent his fair share of time being annoyed and angry. But at some point, enough was enough. And he certainly wasn't going to be dopey now, when the one person who made him feel seen and normal was standing right in front of him for the first time in literal years since she left the orphanage. You know how it goes.
Also, the whole sad bit took too much brain power and he had to channel all of his seven brain cells into remembering how to sign. Ailinn had taught herself with some dusty, torn, barely legible book in the orphanage before forcing him to learn it, too. It's not as if anyone else in Nine knew a lick of sign, but as much as he complained about it before, signing with Ailinn made him happy.
Knowing that someone went out of their way to see and hear him and put themselves in his shoes… it wasn't something he could afford to not appreciate.
"What are you doing here!" he signed, pointedly avoiding any more complicated words that he had definitely forgotten.
Ailinn, on the other hand, was clearly not rusty. Damn, did she have another mute kid stowed away somewhere? Imagine, a treasonous speaking-ally… the horror! "Starting my new job as this field's manager," she responded, and seeing his eyes light up giddily, she quickly added, "If you jump on me again, I will kick the shit out of you."
He honestly wasn't planning on it, but since Ailinn brought it up, not jumping on her would just be? Cowardly? Rude? Happily, he launched himself into her (still not outstretched) arms once more, and this time, the two of them landed squarely in the flour that Emeric had spilled earlier.
Ailinn giggled as she blew the flour out of her face and dusted herself off. Emeric, by law, was required to make a flour angel now that more of the white powder was all over the ground. She shook her head, but the smile was still there. "Now that you're my underling again and you've messed up…" she signed, trailing off and raising an eyebrow.
"No!" he signed back. "Absolutely not! No!"
"You know the drill," she said aloud as Emeric turned away from her, ready to flee. She caught his shoulder sharply just before though, and as he fell to the floor and she loomed over him, she reverted back to sign. "Twenty push-ups, Pipsqueak."
His wiry frame struggled with the flour bags, and push-ups were simply not supposed to be on the menu, but Emeric smiled in spite of it. He would have done way more than twenty just to have a conversation with Ailinn. And to have her back in his life for good?
Things were looking up for him.
Objectively, it was hard not to hate them.
As Mara and Ivette and Ellery and Timber kept yapping about Timber's latest conquests, Adaire stifled the scoffs and eye rolls that were begging her for a chance to put these ditzy girls in their place. Because even as Adaire braided Mara's hair, she felt the eyes gravitate towards her for approval. All things considered, they didn't need to be put in their place, Adaire reminded herself. They already knew she sat above them.
"He did not," Adaire exclaimed, earning an unnecessarily dramatic cry from Timber. She stifled a cringe at her own prattle - she knew she was being the worst, too. It was part of the deal, unfortunately.
"Adaire, I swear, he was so drunk he said my sister's name," Timber huffed, massaging her temples in distress. "Like, what am I supposed to do? Stop? God, I need a drink."
"Behind the laundry basket, honey," Mara waved her in the direction of her stash of wine coolers and rose before turning to Adaire. "Do you want something, too?"
"Oh, if it's not too much trouble," Adaire cooed, casually accepting the glass with a small smile. She took a light sip before returning to Ellery's hair. But before she did, Adaire took one last glance and relished in Mara's eyes, oozing desperation as she observed Adaire take another sip. It was like the rest of the girls were invisible behind her.
That was why she stuck with these bratty, honestly kind of boring girls. The proximity to attention, to wealth. To power. Adaire certainly didn't come from nothing - her father's job comfortably raised her massive family - but flutes of champagne weren't served with dinner back home.
But more important than the gifts and the expensive meals were the eyes on her. That was definitely something she didn't get at home, what with her five older siblings and younger brother. But here, the spotlight was hers. These girls had worshipped her their entire lives because she knew what made them tick, what they wanted, and how to become essential. Indispensable.
Ellery, for example, was in love with her. She felt it in the way Ellery would steal glances off of a mirror's reflection or the small smile she would get when Adaire called her 'Ellie.' And in the even smaller smile that Ellery would wear and thought Adaire didn't see as she would talk about how the boys in her life just weren't making her happy.
Really, how easy could it get?
And today, as Adaire's hands "accidentally" brushed against Ellery's back as she braided the older girl's hair, Ellery couldn't stop moving. Adaire smirked at her electric touch - the amount of power her dainty little fingers had was exhilarating. That was her favorite part: the thrill. All of the perks she got along the way were great, but it's not like she needed any of it.
"...and it has a pretty low cut, but that's what we're here for, right?" Adaire tuned in just in time for today's episode of Ivette overcompensating for her past with bulimia. Today's feature? A magenta dress that was so… deeply ugly that it would scare blind kids. The aura was just repulsive.
Beyond their gross materialistic obsessions, (which, to be honest, Adaire could understand. She was here for a low cut if she was being frank. The one thing this number got right.) the others were just so transparent. They were all so intimately aware of each other's lives that these dodges and averted eyes - these pointed silences - were deafening.
A part of her wondered if the other girls ever thought the same thing as her. That they were really her equals, thought on her wavelength. But as she looked around at the ditzy, tipsy, glitzy idiots in the room, Adaire dismissed the thought as she always did. Nope, just stupid.
Everyone carefully danced around the topic of Ivette's past, as always, and showered the eyesore in praise. Hopefully, Ivette would wear it to the Reaping. Adaire would sparkle even brighter beside her. "Literally," Adaire paused, fanning herself, "breathless. Jonah's belt will literally unbuckle and his pants will be at his ankles in seconds."
Ivette and the rest of the harem giggled on cue. "I'll drink to that!" Timber yelled, haphazardly throwing an arm around Adaire as she downed the lime green concoction in her glass. I swear to god if this bimbo spills that on this silver top I'm going to end her. It wouldn't be hard, she's literally slept with half of Seven and Mara's boyfriend. Her social life could crumble in seconds.
Adaire flashed a bright smile to Timber. She pretended not to see Ellery glare at Timber in the corner of her eye.
"Are you sure it's not weird, Mara?" Ivette whined, turning to Mara with a frown on her face. The one nice thing about Ivette was she was so unsalvagably stupid that she couldn't be fake. Like that took a degree of talent that Ivette just didn't have. "Tell me if it's weird and I'll drop it. No questions, no bad blood."
Mara, on the other hand, was probably the most put-together of the monkeys. "Ivette, I swear it's not a big deal," she promised. "We only dated for like two weeks - old news." Mara waited until Ivette turned back to the mirror and took a long sip of her drink to mask a pained wince. Smart girl.
Adaire didn't like smart girls. She didn't like threats, and the more Mara became ingrained in their lives - her life - the more evident it became that she was a promising socialite in the making, an aberration from the spoiled messes surrounding them. To some degree, Adaire felt a sense of respect. But ultimately, competence was competition.
And it's not to say that her respect and competition weren't interconnected. If you really thought about it, the subtle process of social demolition that Adaire was about to firebomb onto Mara was a sign of respect. She realized the other girl probably wouldn't see it that way. She'd probably see it as an unwarranted attack from an anonymous, malicious enemy.
That really sucked for her. Adaire wouldn't be losing any sleep over it.
The arrow landed squarely in the dummy's thigh, which, at this point, was progress. Adela had learned to take her victories when she could.
"Nice shot!" Adela exclaimed, rushing up to Holden and ruffling the kid's blonde hair as he turned to face her. Nevermind that she would've berated herself for ages for the off-center finish, the questionable posture, and really everything in between. As hard a critic she was to herself, she was keenly aware that a lecture was not what a ten year-old needed to hear from his mentor.
"Wouldn't have been a kill," Holden murmured, hanging his head in shame.
Adela shook her head. "But it would've definitely taken someone down," she insisted, smiling as Holden turned back to her with a glimmer of something akin to hope in his eyes. "And then…" she trailed off, nodding towards the knife in his belt.
It took the kid a second to follow her line of sight and put the pieces together, and as soon as he did, Holden raced off to deliver the finishing blow to the helpless dummy. Adela winced as he really went to town on the plastic mannequin, haphazardly hacking at the hunk of plastic. The laughter that bubbled out of his throat was slightly alarming. Just a phase, she assured herself hesitantly.
"That's good," Adela called out, pausing him mid-swing. She walked over and ruffled his hair once again, to which he smiled and playfully pulled away. It was a nice reminder that he was just ten, a kid. She squatted down to meet him at eye level. "Great work today, work on your stance like we talked about, remember? Back straight?" Holden nodded fervently, straightening his back on cue. She smiled as his hair flopped in front of his eyes. "Okay kiddo, I'll see you next Tuesday, yeah?"
"Yes ma'am!" Holden yelled, hurriedly dropping his bow and sheath of arrows back onto the stand before jogging backwards away from her. "Bye Ms. Adela!" He turned then zoomed off, hopefully to go play in a tree or something instead of going home to play with more swords.
Or pointy sticks, more like. There's no way any of the trainees in their little startup training center would have access to swords at home; Adela definitely hadn't. While the luckier, crazier trainees in Four enrolled in the prestigious Academy, those who really needed the money were on their own when it came to getting ready for the Games.
Not being in the Academy also meant they would never be selected as volunteers, so when they did volunteer, the poorer tributes left as pariahs. No tears were shed when Odalie took some rich white girl's spot last year and died in the finale. Her family still gets dirty looks and probably will for the foreseeable future.
It was a consequence that had crossed Adela's mind a lot - obviously, she planned on returning, but she wasn't naive. There were twenty-three other tributes. Five of whom will probably have trained with better resources and better coaches than she could've ever dreamed of. If she didn't make it back home, her family would bear the brunt of her choice. She winced at the thought of her mom and younger sisters getting harrassed on the street. The whispers would follow them for years.
Adela pushed the thought out of her head. She couldn't afford to think like that anymore.
"You know, you should probably be the one training right about now, not the kid," a warm voice boomed from the other side of the otherwise empty room. Davos. One year her junior, Davos was set to volunteer next year, assuming he beats whichever preppy boy the volunteer's picked. "He won't be needing it for… ten years?"
"Eight," Adela corrected with a smile as she picked up the bow and sheathed the arrows behind her back. "And I was getting there, Dad, but thanks for the advice!"
Davos rolled his eyes. "You know you could stop teaching, right? Probably could've stopped last year. No one would blame you, not with you leaving so soon."
About to shoot her first arrow, Adela let the tension on the bow die as she turned to face Davos. "I know, it's just…being with the kids… it centers me, you know?"
Her training partner scratched his head. "Not really," he retorted, laughing lightly. "Guess I'm not all zen or high or whatever you're feeling right now."
She found herself laughing with him. "Fair, I meant like… I don't know, like it reminds me of a lot of things I need to keep in mind. Seeing our kids share these," she paused to rattle the station of banged-up arrows to her right, "little shits while the Academy kids each have their own personalized collection of arrows?"
"It's more than just me," Adela continued, running a hand through her hair. "It's my family at home and letting Avalon and Alyssa go to school without having to work two jobs like I did, and it's about my family here and giving these kids - the ones who really need it - a fighting chance."
Davos let out a low whistle. "You should write that down and like write a book or something. You could probably make enough money to skip the whole deathmatch thing."
She punched him (hard, lil bitch Davos could take it) and found herself laughing with him once again. Every part of her wished that were true. That she could stay here and be with the people she loved. But realistically, if Adela stayed, her family would stay on the poverty line. All this work she'd put in, all the early morning and all the late nights - all for nothing.
While it killed her, Adela knew better than to think she had a choice anymore. She had decided this was her future years ago, and now… now it was time to face the music. She went back to the bow and the dummy, ignoring the pang in her chest as she turned away from Davos.
howdy fellas! before the games, every tribute will be getting 2 POVs. i'm shooting for two/three updates a week, so we'll be in the games in no time! next chapter will be the day of the reaping! then goodbyes, trains, capitol, etc.
hope you enjoyed the first introductions of Venezia, Emeric, Adaire, and Adela! would love to hear your thoughts on them in a review :-)
What were your thoughts on these first four tributes?
see y'all soon!