“Emma?” Henry’s quiet voice poked through the gloom. “Emma? Are you awake?”
“No,” Emma Swan groaned, rolling over. She buried her face underneath the pillow, trying to ignore her brother. “Henry, go back to sleep. It’s not even dawn yet. We don’t have to get up for a few hours.”
“You mean for the Reaping,” Henry mumbled. That got Emma’s attention. She sat up and opened her arms to her younger brother. He gladly climbed in and nestled against her. “I’m scared.”
“I know, kid,” Emma said quietly, hugging him close. “I know you’re scared. But you don’t have to worry about anything, okay? You’re not going to go to the Games.”
By Games, she meant the Hunger Games. The Hunger Games were an annual event that pitted 24 children--two children from each of the twelve Districts that were spread across their country of Misthaven--through the ages of 11 through 17 in what could only be described as a fight to the death. A mandatory broadcast across the country that only got more twisted and brutal with each passing year. The competitors were brought to the Capitol—the center of the country—to compete in an arena designed by people specifically to kill tributes in the most ‘entertaining’ way possible.
This was the 74th year.
The Reaping was the selection process to determine who would be going to the Hunger Games. One boy and one girl were selected from a pool of names of everyone eligible in the District. This was Emma’s last year to be entered in the Reaping. This was Henry’s first.
She dropped a kiss into his hair. “You’ve got your name entered in once. My name is there…I don’t know, about seventy times? My name’s never been drawn before.” She tried to smile, but Henry only pressed himself in closer. “It’s okay.”
She tried to not think about how her name was in the drawing pool 77 times. There were the six entries she had from 11 to 17, with a new one being added each year. But in order to keep her and Henry living at least somewhat comfortably—a meal every night, clothing—Emma had signed up to a program that her name was added to the pool an additional ten times in exchange for supplies to keep her and her brother alive.
This was the last year she was eligible for the program, as she could start officially working for pay in the District next year. She was determined to have her brother’s name be entered in the drawing as little as possible. If there was anything in this world that Emma wanted to protect, it was Henry.
“I don’t want you to go either,” Henry mumbled childishly. Emma’s heart broke a little bit. She knew that it was hard for him. He was only eleven, and they were all each other had after their parents died in a forest fire. She sat there and stroked his hair gently, hoping to lull him back to sleep. “If you go to the Games, what will happen to me?” he asked worriedly.
“Well,” Emma explained, feeling much older than she was in that moment. “You’ll go to Neal’s. You know my friend Neal? He’ll take good care of you. You like him, right?” She looked down at Henry and smiled while her younger brother nodded. “So then you’ll stay with Neal…it’ll be okay.” Her voice choked up and she held Henry tighter. “I love you, kid,” she whispered. “I love you so much.”
“I love you too, Emma,” Henry piped up softly, burying his face in her shoulder. “Promise neither of us will go to the Games. Promise.” His knuckles turned white as he held onto her, and she couldn’t help but think how lucky she was to have him. When she felt lost, all she had to do was remind herself that Henry needed her, and she felt strong again. Steeling herself yet again, she dropped a kiss into her brother’s hair.
“I can’t promise that,” Emma said quietly. “You know I can’t.” She stroked the back of his head. “But I can promise that you’re going to be okay. I won’t let you go to the Games. You’re going to be safe. You’re going to be okay.”
“What about you?” Henry pressed. Emma was quiet. In the dark, she was able to press her lips into a thin line without Henry seeing. “Emma?”
Emma pressed her forehead to her brother’s, giving him a small, but real smile. “You’re my number one priority, Henry. Everything else is secondary. Including me. If you’re safe, then I’m happy.”
Henry gave a little, disgruntled sigh as he settled in closer to her. “Will you sing to me?” he asked quietly. “Like Mom used to do? I want to go back to sleep.” He wanted to say more, Emma could tell, but he chose not to.
“Okay,” Emma agreed, stroking his hair. She’d been doing this for the last few years on nights that were particularly hard for the both of them. “Just let me think of which one I can sing to you.” She was quiet for a moment before she started singing to him.
Down by old oak tree
That’s where you and I will be
The rivers will run
Day after day
Down by the old oak tree
Down by the old oak tree
That’s where we said to meet
I’ll be in white
Your eyes will be bright
Down by the old oak tree
Emma looked down after two verses and sure enough, Henry was fast asleep against her side. Emma smiled and dropped another kiss into her brother’s hair. She closed her eyes and soon fell fast asleep.
Smoke was heavy in the air and the noise of fire crackled through the night. She stumbled out of the forest confusedly, not sure where to turn or who to look for.
"Emma!” her mother called and Emma pressed on forward, recognizing her mother’s voice anywhere.
“Mom!” Emma coughed. A pair of arms wrapped around her tightly, and Emma nestled into them. “I was with Dad and the fire started and I tried to get him and the other workers out and I—”
“I’m going in—” Emma’s mother whispered, stroking her daughter’s hair back. “It’s gonna be okay, sweetheart. I promise. I’ll be back with your Dad soon. Stay put. Watch Henry, okay?”
“Ingrid, it’s bad in there,” their neighbor, Archie, called. “We’ve called the Mistguard. They’ll come take care of it.”
Emma held onto her mother tighter and hid her face in her mother’s shoulder, despite being fifteen years old. She felt five in that moment—singed closed and utterly terrified—as she curled into her mother’s hold. If the Mistguard, the disciplinary force of Misthaven, would have to take care of it, she knew it was bad.
Ingrid responded in turn by putting a hand on the back of her daughter’s head and kept her close, a fierce protective embrace that Emma cherished. “It’s okay, Emma. Everything is okay.”
" Please don’t go, Mom,” she begged. “I’m scared.”
“It’ll be okay,” Ingrid promised. “I love you, Emma. I love you very much.” She dropped a kiss into Emma’s hair. “We’ll be home for cocoa in ten minutes tops.” She let go of Emma and ran off into the forest. A few moments later, several trees collapsed, blocking off the path that Ingrid had gone down.
“Mom!” Emma screamed. “Mom! Dad! Where are you?” She began to run toward the fire to get them out, to save them, but something was holding her back. “Let me go! Mom!”
A knock at the door pulled Emma out of her dream. She bolted awake with a gasp, sweat dripping down her back. Henry was still curled up beside her, fast asleep. She took in a few moments to calm herself down, before the knock sounded again, much more insistently this time.
“I’m coming,” she called, pulling on a sweater to go answer the door. She tried to rub the sleep out of her eyes as she opened the door. “Hey, Neal.”
“Just want to make sure that you and Henry were going to make it to the reaping,” Neal told her, taking in her appearance. “You okay?” Emma shrugged half-heartedly and didn’t meet his gaze. He smiled gently, but didn’t say anything else. “You know you have to dress up, right, Emma?” he teased playfully, hoping to divert her attention.
“Yeah,” Emma said, a small smile returning to her face. “I was going to shower after I got something to eat. You want to come with me to check the traps?”
“Do you want me to come with you?” Neal asked, leaning against the doorframe. “Or would you rather I stay here with Henry and keep him company while you have your brooding alone time?” He waggled his eyebrows playfully and Emma shoved him. Neal stepped closer with a laugh, nearly tripping over something. “The hell?” he asked, picking up something that was wrapped in paper.
Emma picked up the package and held it in her hand, eyebrows furrowed, before she opened it. Inside the wrapping was a fish, properly cleaned and gutted. Attached to its tail was a note “For the bread & hunting tips yesterday. Let me know if you need to learn how to fish!-KJ OCP”. She couldn’t help but smile a little to herself. She ran her fingers gently over his handwriting before taking it off the tail and putting it in her pocket.
“KJ, huh?” Neal teased. “As in Killian Jones? I thought he was grouchy and hated everyone.”
“Killian?” Emma asked incredulously. “No. Everyone avoids him.”
Killian had moved to District 7 at age fifteen, completely and utterly alone. No one knew where he came from, or how he got there, but he had papers from the Capitol granting him permission to be there. A move from a district was rare enough, let alone a Capitol sanctioned one.
People wanted to ask questions, but the paper with the Capitol seal kept them quiet. People barely made eye contact with him, except for when they wanted to trade things for his fish. No one really seemed to know where he caught them.
But then again, no one really asked.
“So are you in love with him or something?” Neal asked, his tone still light and playful, but there was something behind it that was a little more probing. She couldn’t help but look up at him. He knew her better than anyone, and she was surprised that he didn’t already know the answer to that question.
“The only love in my life right now is Henry,” she replied, equally as light and shoved at Neal playfully again before wrapping the fish up again. “That’s all I have room for. That’s probably all I’ll ever have room for.”
He laughed, straightening his shirt out. The brief tension of the moment dissipated. “What’s OCP, anyway?”
“Orphan Club President,” Emma responded quickly but dryly, putting some oil in a pan so she could fry the fish up for her and Henry. “The Enchanted Forest’s one organization dedicated to helping those who have lost their entire families and are raising themselves.”
There weren’t many orphans in District 7, affectionately known as the “Enchanted Forest” to its residents. There were plenty of single parent families, particularly after the forest fire that had killed Emma and Henry’s parents. In fact, it was really just Emma, Henry and Killian who all were trying their hardest to get by.
Of course, their neighbors tried their hardest to help them out when they could, but there were a lot of accidents with transportation and poor weather that had cut them short on supplies coming in from other districts in the recent months. Or so Emma heard when she went through town on her way to the forest. But according to the mayor and everyone she knew the Enchanted Forest was thriving just fine. The trees were green, the lumber bountiful, and everyone content.
Besides, Emma hated asking others for help, unless she felt like she could do something in return. And sometimes, it was hard to help those who had been close with her mother. The comparison was often brought up between the two of them, something Emma had grown to hate. It wasn’t that she hated looking like her mother. Missing her simply hurt too much.
Which was why Killian could be such a good friend to her: he didn’t have stories about anyone in the District. He was completely unattached to everyone, except to her and Henry.
When Killian had found out that they were all alone, all three of them, he wryly suggested that they made a club. Henry eagerly agreed to this, immediately designating Killian the president, since it was his idea. Emma just smiled and went along with it, as she did with most things Henry dreamed up. It was enough to see him smile, in her eyes.
Asking to be a part of something more resonated with Killian, he would later tell her. Henry absolutely adored his new friend and tagged along in Killian’s shadow whenever he could. She, personally, valued the companionship she had with Killian Jones very highly. She didn’t want to call it friendship, not yet, but she knew that they understood each other.
“Oh,” Neal said quietly. “I just…never mind.”
Emma turned around and raised an eyebrow. “Neal,” she said gently, smiling fondly down at him. “Of course Henry and I know how much you’ve done for us. And how much we mean to you. Believe me, I do. This is not the time to be jealous.”
“I’m not jealous,” Neal muttered, blushing a little bit.
“You are,” Emma replied affectionately. She wrapped her arms around him tightly. “It’s not like that, okay?” She rolled her eyes at him when he still didn’t smile, but grinned a little when he returned her hug. “You’re not an orphan. Killian is. There’s something he just gets about me that you don’t. It’s nothing against you. It’s just how it is. Now stop pouting before Henry wakes up. He’s already stressed out as it is.”
“Looks like he’s not the only one,” Neal said, cracking a little smile.
“May the odds be ever in your favor that I don’t punch you in the face,” Emma said, trying to be as serious as possible, before starting to laugh.
Every year, at the same time of year the Capitol came to their District with the same irritating and bone chilling message. The same phrase was blasted across the television screens across the country during the entirety of the games.
May the odds be ever in your favor.
The phrase had become an inside joke among the residents of the Enchanted Forest, particularly when something could happen but most likely wouldn’t.
Henry came into the kitchen to see what all the noise was about. “Hey, Neal,” he said, waving to the older boy. He sat down at the table and peered over at what Emma was making. “Is that from Killian? He told me he was going to teach me how to catch one today after the Reaping. Can I go, Emma? Please?”
“As long as it’s still okay with him after the Reaping,” Emma replied, serving some fish on a plate for Henry. “Make sure you brush your hair and teeth after you eat. We have to look nice.”
“It’s just the Capitol,” Neal muttered, crossing his arms. Emma shot him a look, her eyebrows raised. Neal sighed and leaned back in the chair. “Sorry, kid. Your sister’s right. You want to look good for the cameras.”
“Hey, could you go out and see if any of the lilies in the backyard have bloomed yet?” Emma asked. “I want to give them to Neal to bring to his mother for the bread baking lesson she gave me last week.” She smiled softly and playfully ruffled Henry’s hair as he ran out. Once he was out of sight, she wheeled around, glaring at Neal. “Do you mind? Or are you just trying to get him killed?”
“I told him to listen to you,” Neal said with a shrug. “Henry’s a good kid; he’s not going to act up.”
Emma’s neighbors talked about the trees and the land. No one ever talked about the abundance presence of the Mistguard in their district.
“He looks up to you,” Emma said, her voice strained in an effort to keep herself calm. “Even putting the idea in his head is dangerous. Just…don’t, okay? What if he mentions it in passing to someone? Or he talks like that and gets overheard by a Mistguard? He’s all I have and you’re putting him in huge danger by saying stuff like that. Do you know what they could do to him?”
“Come on, no one’s been punished by a Mistguard in years,” Neal scoffed. “The Mistguard is here because they think someone in this district is going to start the Second Rebellion. They’re too chicken to actually hurt anyone.”
“And what if they do hurt Henry?” Emma fired back.
Neal opened his mouth to argue and then thought better of it. “You’re right,” he said softly. “I’m sorry, Emma. I didn’t mean to say it out loud in front of him.” He got up and hugged Emma tightly. “You know I wouldn’t let anything happen to you or him, right?” he asked softly. It was only then that Emma allowed herself to sink into the embrace, nodding. She closed her eyes as Neal kept her close. “I’ve got your back, Emma.”
“I know,” she muttered before stepping back. “And I have yours.” Emma smiled at him, before plating the fish and putting it on the table.
Henry came bounding back into the room with a few lilies in his hand. Neal gladly took them from him. “Thanks, buddy. I’ll bring them to my mom right away,” he told Henry, ruffling the boy’s hair. “Enjoy your breakfast!”
Henry waited patiently until Neal left. “So, like, are you two gonna start dating or something?” he asked mischievously.
“Not you too,” Emma chuckled, shoving him playfully but much more gently than she had with Neal. “Now, c’mon, eat your breakfast before it gets cold.”
“Stay still,” Emma said patiently, straightening out Henry’s shirt. Her hands were shaking a little bit but she kept strong for Henry’s sake. “I’m almost done getting you ready, I promise. Then we’ll go.”
Henry continued to squirm as Emma tried to get him to look presentable. His foot tapped against the wood floor and he kept trying to duck out of her hold. “It’s fine,” he huffed, puffing out his chest a little bit, trying to look tough and strong for her.
Emma smiled and pressed a kiss to his forehead, and he curled up against her, melting into the familiar gesture. She stayed with him a moment longer, gently rocking him back and forth in her arms. “There,” she said, pulling away, tugging on his shirt just a little bit. “How do you feel?”
“Like I’m going to throw up,” Henry admitted, looking up at her. She smiled softly and brushed some hair out of his face. “And we have to go?” He pouted up at her, but she smiled patiently and reassuringly until he smiled too and he hugged her.
“C’mon, don’t let Neal influence you. He gives me enough trouble as it is, and I like you better than him,” Emma sighed exasperatedly, grinning only when Henry sent her a teasing smile back in return. “It’s a lot easier to just…keep your head down on days like today. There will always be another day to fight, kiddo.”
“How come Neal wants to fight the Capitol so badly?” Henry asked, looking up at her. “I know things are bad when the Games come around, but in school we learned that the Capitol has our best interests at heart. If we work hard enough, we could even live there. All the resources from the other districts go to the Capitol to be distributed across Misthaven, but because the Capitol is the center, it means that its citizens get taken care of too. We wouldn’t have to worry about bad winters anymore. Your name wouldn’t have to be in Reaping all those times so we can eat.”
Emma knelt down and looked Henry in the eye. She couldn’t help but gently reach out and stroke his cheek. He looked so hopeful that she nearly cried.
“You’ve got a big heart, kid,” she said lovingly. “But I want you to know, to understand that I don’t…putting my name in all those times. I don’t care how many times my name is in for the Reaping. If it means you’re safe…if you’re taken care of? Then I don’t need to live a rich fancy life in the Capitol. I’ve got the best thing that ever happened to me.”
She smiled at him, hoping she was being reassuring. It broke her heart that he knew how they sometimes scraped to get by. It wasn’t fair. But they never could live in the Capitol. Those odds weren’t in their favor, at least not like that.
“I love you too, Emma.” Henry smiled up at her. “It’s okay to be nervous and scared though, right?” he asked her, biting his lip.
“Here,” Emma said, grabbing a golden swan pin from the top of the dresser. “Mom’s swan pin. It’ll make you brave.” She fastened it to his shirt, only a little surprised when he didn’t fuss or roll his eyes.
His eyes watered a little bit and she pulled him close as she let her eyes flutter shut. “I don’t feel all that brave,” Henry whispered against her shirt, wrapping his arms around her. “I wish Mom and Dad were here still.”
“Me too. I don’t feel very brave and I wish more than anything they were here right now,” Emma admitted, feeling her breakfast roll around in her stomach. “But the Reaping’s only once a year, and it’s only for a few hours. We can be strong until then, right? All we have to do is stand there and applaud when they tell us to.”
“I guess,” Henry replied softly, tightening his fists in her shirt. “I just wish we could stand together during the Reaping. I always hate that they break everyone up by age. I’m not scared when I know you’re right there protecting me.”
“I know.” Her hand came up to the back of his head and stroked his hair. “What do you say, after this is all over, you and I just hang out and pick berries like we used to?” Henry nodded and Emma pressed another kiss to the side of his head. “Sounds like a plan then, kid.”
“Wait, can we do that after I go fishing with Killian? Or can Killian come berry picking with us?” Henry asked eagerly.
“I’m sure Killian would love to come berry picking with us. We can ask him after the Reaping.” Emma stood up and pulled away, trying to smooth his hair down. The thought of spending the afternoon with Killian and Henry made her smile, even though she was terrified of what the morning would hold. She kept trying to fix Henry’s hair to make everything stay down.
“It’s fine, Emma. Stop fussing,” Henry said, letting out a small and partially unwilling giggle. He slipped his hand in hers, and they headed out the door together.
Emma and Henry lived on the outskirts of the town, so it took them a little bit longer to get to the Town Hall, where the citizens of District 7 converged for the reaping every single year. Henry’s hand tightened around hers as they got closer. It wasn’t until Henry’s friend, Avery, waved at them, that Henry let go of Emma’s hand and he went to go join the other eleven year olds.
Emma sighed and soon found the dark mop of hair that belonged to the one and only Killian Jones. “Last year,” she said under her breath as she got closer to him. He exhaled out of his nose and the corners of his lips twitched upwards in a smile. “Thanks for the fish this morning, Henry and I really appreciate it.”
“Any time,” he replied, looking at her now. “I was worried it wouldn’t be big enough.” His eyebrows were furrowed a little bit.
“It was perfect, thank you,” she told him sincerely, smiling at him. “It was a wonderful breakfast. And hopefully, if all goes well here, Henry would like to go fishing with you this afternoon. Before or after berry picking is your choice. We might bake something from the berries. I just…if you’re interested in coming with us.”
“Absolutely, Swan,” Killian said with a grin. “I’d love nothing more than to join you both for berry picking. Perhaps I can finally get you out on that lake, hmm?” He gently nudged her with his hip. “You know, for someone whose last name is Swan, I thought you’d like the water a bit more.”
“Yeah, in your dreams,” Emma huffed. “I can swim. That’s enough for me. But Henry will be happy to know that you’re on board for hanging out with us this afternoon.”
“You mean if he doesn’t get reaped.”
“No. If you don’t get reaped. He’s the only family I have. I’m not letting him go to the Games. I’d rather die.” Her voice was hard and flat, and she couldn’t help but clench her fists tightly.
Killian frowned, before opening his mouth to speak and then closing it. He clenched his jaw tightly and looked away.
She was about to apologize to him, feeling bad for alienating him on a day when feelings were already high, when someone rudely shoved her away from him. “Hey!” A Mistguard--the disciplinary force of the entire country of Misthaven sent straight from the Capitol--wormed his way in between the two of them. “Girls on the right, boys on the left.”
Neal heard the commotion and was pushing through the crowd, a look of complete and utter fury on his face. Emma went to shove back when Killian reached around them, grabbing her hand with his right one. He shook his head.
“Remember Henry,” Killian told her quietly. A little bit louder, he added, “It’s okay, Swan. I know you’re feeling antsy, but there’s no need to take it out on someone who’s just trying to do his job. I’ll see you in a bit.”
She nodded, squeezing his hand in thanks. He couldn’t really promise her anything, but the words and the sentiment behind them were enough to get her to walk away with a muttered, “Sorry.” She watched Neal back away from the scene, a scowling in displeasure. Admittedly, a quick scuffle probably would’ve been the best thing for her nerves, but she knew that if really wouldn’t face the repercussions for that fight: it’d be Henry who suffered.
She looked over across the crowd at her brother, who was also being held back by his friends. Emma smiled at him quickly to show him that it was okay, and that she was fine. Henry relaxed and Emma moved to the edge of the girls’ section. Killian was still close enough where they could talk if they needed to.
Tinkerbell, District 7’s Capitol ambassador, flitted onto the stage. She was wearing a vibrant green dress that seemed to sparkle as she walked, with impractical, ornate wings attached to her shoulders.
“Never dress me up like that,” Emma muttered under her breath.
Killian huffed out a quiet laugh, giving her a quick glance before drawing his attention back up on stage.
“Welcome to the 74th Annual Hunger Games. It’s so wonderful to see all your…smiling faces again,” Tinkerbell announced, her voice carried by the microphone. Even if she hadn’t used the microphone, Emma was sure the short, blond woman could be heard everywhere. Tinkerbell’s eyes flickered up to the cameras that the Capitol had brought in for the occasion.
Are you sure that they need that to see and hear her? she wondered with a flitting, wry smile even as she clenched her fists together as she looked down and away from the cameras. It’s only another thirty minutes or so. It’s okay, Emma. You’ll be okay. Just keep making yourself laugh. It’ll be okay…
The ceremonies began with a long and flowery speech from the mayor about the perseverance of the district, like the evergreens that surrounded them. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Neal roll his eyes and it caused her to snicker lowly. A member of the Mistguard loudly unsheathed his baton and the smile dropped from her lips.
The speech was followed by a video about the history of the Hunger Games from the ruler of Misthaven, President Gold, which was to be shown in every district.
The man was called so for the flecks of gold under his rough and grey skin, which immediately brought attention to his lizard-like eyes. Emma couldn’t help but shudder every time they did a close-up of his face, and couldn’t look away despite every instinct that told her to hide.
She hoped to never meet the man face to face.
After the video, the tense mood was broken up by the drunken ramblings of the last victor from District 7, a man by the name of Victor Whale.
“Do you think the odds would be more in our favor if he wasn’t the mentor?” Killian asked lowly, watching the man throw up onto the podium. The corners of Emma’s mouth twitched into a smile again, but quickly smothered it.
“And now for the drawing of the names,” Tinkerbell said in a tone that suggested she was making an attempt to be cheerful. “Ladies first.” The slender hand dipped into the glass bowl and rooted around for a name until she pulled a piece of paper out of the bowl. “And our female tribute this year is…”
It was as if the district had taken in a collective breath at once: Tinkerbell’s silence for effect, the District’s out of fear.
Emma felt like she’d been punched in the gut and took a moment to close her eyes and take a deep breath before she walked toward the platform.
“Emma!” Henry pushed through his friends and hugged her tightly as she passed him.
She hugged him back, her hand stroking the back of his hair. “Henry, you gotta let me go, okay? It’s gonna be okay…I love you, kid.”
“Please don’t go, Emma. Please,” Henry begged wildly, clinging to her like his life depended on it. His hands were shaking as he held her, and he struggled not to sob openly in front of everyone. “I don’t want you to go.”
Tears came to her eyes and she buried her face in his hair. “It’s gonna be okay, kid. It’s okay. I love you. I love you so much, Henry. It’s gonna be okay.” She knelt down and wrapped herself protectively around him. “Remember what I promised you?” He nodded against her neck.
She wasn’t sure how long she stood there with Henry in her arms but when she saw the Mistguard heading toward them, she nodded at Henry’s friends, who pulled their friend back into the crowd. Emma couldn’t make eye contact with her red-faced, sobbing brother. It would only weaken her resolve. She could already hear Tinkerbell sniffling, and the monitors beside the stage showed the woman dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief.
Emma climbed up to the stage and faced her district. She was sure her knees were shaking, and Henry’s sobs were ringing loudly in her ears. From the back of the crowd, Neal’s mother Milah made eye contact with Emma and nodded.
Emma nodded with a small and trembling smile. Tributes weren’t allowed to show any other kind of emotion.
She was scared—terrified--that this was the last look she would ever get of her district. But she didn’t feel alone or abandoned. No matter what the outcome, her district would be supporting her. She hoped that Henry would remember that for a long time, and that they would protect him when she couldn’t.
“Right,” Tinkerbell choked out in a wavering voice, harshly bringing Emma back into the reality of her situation. “Onto our male tribute then. Which lucky young man will be joining Miss Swan in this year’s Hunger Games?”
Emma was briefly annoyed at the Capitol woman’s theatrics, but knew she had to keep a passive face. It bothered her that Tinkerbell felt like she had a right to be touched by Henry’s display. This woman was an outsider and never would mean anything to Emma or the District. Tinkerbell straightened her shoulders and cleared her throat, making direct eye contact with the camera in front of her.
Emma looked over at her, licking her lips nervously. Another camera zoomed in on her, telling her a cold, harsh reality of being a tribute. It rung out in her ears, harsh and low, and sounded vaguely like their President.
Everyone watches you until you die.
The rustling of paper startled Emma out of her stupor.
Tinkerbell’s hand rooted around in the bowl and pulled out another name. The woman opened it, and although her face was caked with white make-up, Emma saw her go pale. There was a moment where Tinkerbell paused, as if she needed to either think or collect herself.
“Our male tribute this year is…is…Henry Swan.” Henry’s name was read with less enthusiasm and the crowd’s murmuring started up almost immediately.
Henry stayed stock still as all of his friends looked at him, horror dredged up in their young faces. Emma looked out into the crowd, her eyes wide and desperate. Please, please, someone, don’t let him do this! she wanted to scream.
The cameras kept her from saying anything.
Just as a Mistguard made to grab Henry, a voice called out through the crowd, “I volunteer! I volunteer as Tribute!” Killian pushed past everyone to stand in between Henry and the Mistguard. “I volunteer as tribute,” he announced, his chin jerked up high with defiance and his jaw clenched.
A heavy silence descended over the crowd yet again, as the Mistguard glowered at Killian. Still, he did not move an inch or stand down. Emma tried to breathe, but felt as if there was a hand inside of her, clamping down and constricting her.
“Very well,” Tinkerbell said, her voice echoing the shock that they all felt. Emma let out a huge sigh of relief, the hand gone as soon as it had come. “Come up here to the microphone, young man, tell us all your name.”
As Killian shuffled through the crowd, people gently clasped at his shoulder, or let their hands brush along Killian’s elbow. Confusion flitted across Killian’s face for a moment, and he flinched at the first initial touch.
Just before he got to the stage, however, Neal clapped his hand on Killian’s shoulder in a show of solidarity and support. Killian put his hand on top of Neal’s with a small grin and squeezed it before climbing up on stage across Emma.
“What’s your name, dear?” Tinkerbell asked, giving a kind and genuine smile in Killian’s direction.
“Killian Jones,” Killian said, his voice echoing across the deadly silent square. His eyes traveled over the crowd, watching as every face in the district meet his, the way that Milah’s gaze had met hers. His lower lip trembled slightly but his eyes were dry.
Quietly watching it, Emma realized exactly what the gesture meant to him. It was an apology. It was acceptance. It was an invitation into the family. It was everything Emma knew Killian had been looking for since arriving to the district two years ago.
How horrible to only get it now, Emma thought. When death seems all but certain.
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It's the first time they've been alone since the Reaping.
The Mistguard led her and Killian away into the mayor’s mansion, and up into separate rooms. Emma began pacing frantically not knowing what was going to happen next. She was terrified and furious. Her hands were trembling violently and she clenched and unclenched her fists in an attempt to get them to stop.
Terrified for the obvious reasons and furious that she wasn’t enough to protect Henry. She couldn’t help but angry at Killian, who had just thrown himself in harm’s way. “Who does he think he is? Just…volunteering himself like an idiot? What does he think? That I can’t protect Henry?” she mumbled to herself, eyebrows furrowed. “Bastard.”
“Emma!” The door burst open and Henry threw himself into her arms. The Mistguard attempted to scold him but the look in Emma’s eyes told them that Henry was not to be moved from her arms just yet. “Can’t they take it back? Can’t they choose someone else? Why did it have to be you, Emma?”
“I don’t know, kid,” Emma whispered. “I don’t know. They were both shaking as they gripped at one another. “It’s okay, kid. Breathe. It’s going to be okay.”
“Emma, you have to win. You can’t die. Please, Emma…” her brother whimpered, hiding his face against her stomach. “I don’t want to be alone. Please. You have to come home to me. Don’t leave like Mom and Dad. I don’t want to lose anyone else.”
“You won’t,” Emma promised in a shaking voice. “You’ll have Neal and his mother, and they’ll be so good to you, you know they will.” She gripped him tighter and the lump formed in her throat.
“That sounds like a goodbye! Stop! You’re coming back!” Henry sobbed, clutching at her tighter. “Please don’t go, Emma…” His knuckles were turning white from how hard he was clutching at her.
“I have to,” Emma whispered in a choked up voice. She hid her face in his hair. “You know it’s going to be okay, don’t you?” She rocked him back and forth gently. “You are so brave and strong, kid. And I love you so, so much…”
“You’re coming back,” Henry replied in a small voice, his voice muffled by her shirt.
“I know I am,” Emma lied, hands shaking as she used every ounce of her strength to keep Henry rooted to her and to keep her rooted to the moment. The reality of what was really happening was starting to overwhelm her and she couldn’t help but cling to her little brother. She felt like she was struggling to breathe, but she held onto her brother to keep her grounded in the moment. “I just need you to know, kid, that you are the most important thing to me. And that I love you so much. And that I will always love you.”
The boy nodded tearfully, looking up at her. “I love you too, Emma,” he told his sister. “And I believe in you. I know you can win. You won’t die like Mom and Dad. You won’t.” He undid the swan pin on his coat and placed it in her palm. “To make you brave,” he whispered.
“You want to put it on me before I leave?” Emma asked with a sad smile. She knelt in front of him and he fastened the pin to her shirt. She didn’t flinch when he accidentally pricked her with it; she just stood there, smiling sadly at her brother.
“Time to go,” the Mistguard told them, standing in doorway menacingly. “She’s got another visitor.”
“No!” Henry cried, trembling, but Emma pulled him close. “Emma, please don’t let them take you away. I don’t want you to go.”
“Please, just one more minute,” Emma whispered, not looking at anything but Henry. As far as she knew, this would be the last time she would ever see him. She tried, in vain, to memorize every detail of Henry’s face. She stroked his cheek and gently. “It’s gonna be okay, Henry. I can take care of myself. You know that I can.”
“I know, but I still don’t want you to go!” Henry cried. “You’re the only thing I’ve got…”
The Mistguard came and yanked Henry away from her, causing both Emma and Henry cry out.
“No!” she shrieked, trying to follow him. A rough shove with a night stick had Emma sprawling back into the room they kept her in.
Neal brushed past the Mistguard and helped Emma up. “You okay?”
“No,” Emma muttered, looking back at where they’d taken Henry away from her. “I didn’t even get to…to…” Tears welled in her eyes and she brushed them away, trying to calm herself down.
“Hey, it’ll be okay,” Neal tried to assure her.
“God, I’m so worried about him. He’ll be all alone.” She began pacing back and forth wildly across the room. “He’ll try to push his limits on how late he can go to bed. And he’ll try to sneak in desserts after dinner. He’s scared of thunderstorms.” Her breath was coming out in bursts, trying to keep herself calm. “Oh, God, I don’t want to leave him…”
“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” Neal promised, pulling her close to rub her back. “I’ll take care of him. You know I will.”
“Don’t touch me,” she replied, yanking herself out of his grip. Her hands came up to her head miserably. “He’s just eleven, he’s not supposed to be alone in the world. I wasn’t supposed to leave him.”
“What can I do?” he asked, keeping his distance.
“Feed him, make sure he goes to school, make sure he brushes his teeth at night…just…just take care of him, okay?” she told him in a wavering voice. I’m supposed to be here to do all that stuff! she thought miserably. “T-tell him that I love him. Every single day, tell Henry that I love him.”
“I will,” he murmured. “Anything else.”
Emma closed her eyes, trying to steel herself for the next part. She wasn’t sure how she could ask this of Neal, or how he could even assure it but she was going to try. “If…if it looks like the odds won’t be in my favor, don’t let him see?” she asked in a small voice. “He can’t…he can’t see something like that, Neal.”
“Don’t die then,” he grumbled in a choked voice.
“I can’t control that!” Emma snapped back. “So just do what I ask for once, okay?” She tried to get her breathing and tears under control, and was failing.
“I’m okay,” she whispered, squeezing her eyes shut. “I’m okay. I’m going to be just fine. I’m coming back home. I’m going to see him again.”
Neal nodded, trying to control his own trembling lip. “I know.”
Outside in the hallway, Henry noticed that no one was lining up to see Killian the way he had rushed to see Emma. Biting his lip, he walked down the hallway and gently knocked on the door to Killian’s room.
“Hello?” Killian asked confusedly, opening the door. He looked down, and gave Henry a strained but friendly grin. “What can I do for you, lad?”
“I, um,” Henry started, rocking back and forth on his heels nervously. “I wanted to come wish you good luck before you left. I mean…I guess leaving makes it sound like you’re going on vacation or something, doesn’t it?” A heavy moment hung in the air before Henry added in a small voice, “I wish you were just going on vacation.”
Killian knelt down so he was at Henry’s eye level. “Thank you,” he said gently, trying to put the boy at ease. “I appreciate you coming to say good-bye.” He smiled sadly. “I’ll miss you very much while I’m away. I’ve really enjoyed our friendship.”
“Me too,” Henry said in a wobbling voice, looking up at Killian as he continued to fidget. “Hey, Killian?” He looked over at his friend and said sadly, “I’m sorry. This is all my fault.”
“What do you mean?” Killian asked, his eyes widening.
“You had to be a tribute instead of me. I’m sorry that they called my name. It should be me instead of you.”
“I’m not,” Killian said with a little grin, clapping a hand on the little boy’s shoulder. “It should never be you. You want to know why?” Henry nodded, tilting his head to the side as his eyes lit up. “Because when your sister comes home from the Games, she’s going to be much happier when you’re the first person to greet her here. Oh, there’s the spoils of winning, but nothing is going to be better for her than the smile on your face.”
“You really care about her, don’t you?” Henry asked softly.
“Aye, she’s my best friend. But don’t tell her that. That’s a secret between us,” Killian murmured softly, ruffling Henry’s hair. “Besides, who else is going to check on my boat for me? Y’know, the one that I’ve got on the lake just in the middle of the forest by our secret hangout?” He made a great show of thinking about it. His smile was stretched too thin, and his eyes kept watering. “Actually, I should say, who else is going to take care of your boat, lad.”
Henry hugged him tightly, and Killian was knocked back with the force. His eyes widened in surprise before he wrapped his arms around Emma’s younger brother. “Hey, it’s okay,” he soothed, rubbing the small boy’s back.
“I’m sorry,” Henry repeated, starting to sniffle a little bit. “I don’t…thank you for the boat.” It was clear that the boy was close to sobbing again so Killian just hugged him tighter. “You’ll take care of her, won’t you? You’ll make sure she survives. Sometimes, she’s trying so hard to seem strong that she won’t do anything to help herself, but you gotta make her sometimes. Make sure she comes home safe. She’s my big sister…”
“I know, lad,” Killian murmured, kneeling down to look Henry in the eye. “But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about your sister, it’s that she’s more than capable of taking care of herself. She’s one tough lass.”
“I know,” Henry agreed, rubbing at his eyes. “But promise me that you’ll help her get home anyway? It’ll make not having her at home easier…”
“Then I promise that I’ll protect her with my life,” Killian murmured.
Henry hugged Killian again, burying his face against Killian’s shoulder.
“Love, you’re gonna have to stop pacing or you’ll wear out all of your energy before we even get there,” Killian rumbled, an amused lilt to his words as Emma paced around the train car like a caged animal. “Whale told us we need to rest. We should rest.”
“I don’t care what he has to say. He’s a drunk that got lucky,” she growled, tapping agitatedly against the window before resuming her pacing. If she was honest with herself, she wasn’t actually mad at Killian, but it was easier to pretend she was.
“He’s the drunk that’s going to keep us alive,” Killian reminded her patiently.
Even the sound of his voice was getting on Emma’s last nerve. How dare he try to be calm and patronizing right now? she thought angrily. “You know what? I don’t even want to hear a word out of your mouth,” Emma snapped, jerking her head back at him. “In fact, don’t even look at me. Don’t even take too deep of an inhale.”
They’d been on the train for half an hour. Once they’d forced her on the train, she’d immediately torn herself away from everyone and Killian had followed her to make sure she was all right. She’d powered through all the way to the last car of the train, an open space that was one large sitting area. The couch cushions were gray, only haphazardly strewn across the floor in Emma’s path of destruction and agitation.
Killian’s eyebrows furrowed. “Me?” he asked, clearly confused by Emma’s outburst. “What have I done?” Emma rolled her eyes and continued her pacing, trying her best to ignore him. “Emma…” he sighed, running a hand over his face. “Emma, it’s going to be a long two weeks if you don’t talk to me. What was so different from this morning? We were friends this morning, weren’t we?”
“You! You’ve changed!” Emma growled in return. “What is it with you and your stupid heroism? You…volunteered like your own life doesn’t matter. Nobody’s volunteered that wasn’t from one of the Favored Districts. People don’t just volunteer for the Hunger Games. Not when we know we’re gonna die.”
His jaw clenched in return. “I’m very well aware of all of those things, Swan,” he told her icily. So you’d rather it was Henry on this train right now?” he asked, his agitation starting to grow. She didn’t answer him, and he stood up to face her. “You want to bring Henry into the Games? Is that really what you want, Emma?”
“I would’ve protected him!” Emma shouted back at him. “I can protect him! He doesn’t need you!”
“You think I’m trying to replace him in your life or something?” Killian asked, staring at her as if he were trying to follow her line of thought. “Emma, that’s ridiculous. You’re his sister. No matter what I did then or ever could do would never change that.”
“Then why the hell did you volunteer for him? That wasn’t for you to decide, it’s not your job!” she shouted at him. She walked back to the window, her hands clenched into fists. She looked back at the trees that whirred past them. Gritting her teeth, she muttered, “Evergreens are Henry’s favorite trees. Did you know that? He likes the color of the needles. And he likes that they’re always there. Like me. Except I’m not there for him now, am I? And that’s your fault, Killian.”
“Emma…” he started.
“I didn’t ask you to do this! Henry and I have always been just fine! I would’ve looked out for him. I would’ve taken care of him, and it would’ve been just fine! We’ve managed since our parents died, and we’d manage again!”
His eyes widened in understanding. “You haven’t been apart from Henry since your parents died, have you?”
“No,” she admitted, looking down and feeling ridiculous. She flopped down on the couch and stared up at the window. The more she looked up at the endless patch of fog, the more her angry she seemed, and the more shame built up inside her. “When she called his name…I don’t know. I thought…I thought he and I could get through it because it’s what we’ve always done. Now I just feel alone,” she muttered. “I never felt alone when Henry was around.”
“If you feel like I took away your family from you, I’m sorry,” Killian replied, lying down on the couch in the opposite direction. His head was by hers, but he was looking up at the gray and dreary sky above them. “That wasn’t my intention. But where you saw something you’ve lived every day for the last few years, I saw something very different.”
“What did you see?” she whispered.
“You having to bury your brother in the Games,” he sighed. “You, never being able to look at your hands again because all you’d ever see is Henry’s blood on them. You, even if you came home, never being the same again because you would’ve left the best parts of you in the arena with Henry. Me never being able to go out on my boat or enjoy fishing again or seeing him everywhere…hearing him everywhere, but never getting to see him, or answer his questions, or watch him grow.”
He swallowed the lump in his throat before he continued, “He’s your brother. I know he is your entire world. But he’s…I hope this doesn’t sound strange or alarming in any way, but he’s become important to me too. You both have become very important to me. And I couldn’t…I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if he hadn’t come home and I knew I could’ve done something to prevent it. And hopefully, they’ll never call his name. If he gets to live a long, happy and healthy life because I volunteered for him, then I don’t regret it a single bit.”
Silence descended upon them, weighing heavily on Emma’s mind. She still couldn’t look at him. The gravity of what he had done for her—for her family—was not lost on her, and it settled in the pit of her stomach. Am I even going to be able to go back to that? she wondered.
“Are you angry with me?” he murmured, shifting so he could look at her.
“I’m scared,” she finally whispered, letting out the words that held an icy grip over her heart. She refused to look at him.
“Me too,” he said, his own voice wavering a little. He reached out to hold her hand as a show of solidarity and she tugged her hand close to her chest. He hesitantly lied back down beside her, looking over at her once to make sure that she was comfortable with him beside her. When she nodded, he sighed quietly and let his shoulders relax.
The silence was more relaxed and easy going this time around and they both basked comfortably in it for a while. It was only broken when Killian asked, “What’s your favorite color?”
“What?” she asked, unable to keep the corner of her mouth from turning up. She pushed herself up on her elbows to look over at him. “Are you serious right now?”
“Your favorite color,” he repeated. “I know Henry’s. I should know yours too.”
“We’re heading into a fight for our lives and you want to know my favorite color?” she asked, the laugh betraying the look on her face.
“And some other things, if it’s not too much to ask,” Killian teased her in return, grinning up at her lazily.
“What, like team bonding?” she mocked, shoving his shoulder.
“Aye, exactly like team bonding,” he replied loftily, sticking his tongue back out at her. “We’re going to be facing our death; we might as well have some fun with it before we go.”
Emma chuckled wryly. “Green. Not like the green you get on pine needles. It’s darker than that. You see it on the trees sometimes…” she replied, flopping back down onto the couch. “How about you? Any deep and dark secrets I ought to know about?”
“Like my favorite color?” he asked, laughing a little.
“Yep,” Emma replied, grinning fully now. “You know mine, and you know Henry’s. It’s only fair that I get to know yours.”
“Blue. But an ocean blue,” Killian said wistfully.
“How do you know what an ocean looks like?” Emma asked curiously, propping herself up again to look at him. “There aren’t any oceans in the Enchanted Forest…”
“Before I came to the Enchanted Forest, I did live somewhere else,” he reminded her, the smile falling from his face.
“Right.” She’d forgotten. “Did you live near the ocean there?”
“It was a bit hard not to,” Killian said sadly, rolling away from her a little bit. “Why do you think I like living on a boat on a lake so much?”
“Because you can secretly turn into a fish?” Emma offered weakly, wanting to draw him out of the memory he seemed to be lost in. Killian let out a booming laugh and rolled back to face her, his eyes shining with mirth.
“Well damn you, Swan, that was going to be my secret weapon in the Games,” he chuckled, swatting at her playfully. “Now you know all of my secrets. How am I supposed to survive now?”
“Easy,” she said determinedly. “We protect each other.”
“You weren’t my friend a little while ago,” Killian pointed out warily. “Because of something that was out of our control.”
“Come with me,” Emma said, getting up off the couch. She raced forward to the front of the train, where Whale was drinking.
“Oh look,” Whale slurred, putting his drink on the table. “They’ve come out of hiding. Does that mean you’ve decided you’re going to try and fight?”
“Coasters!” Tinkerbell shrieked, putting the glass on a coaster. Whale, Emma and Killian all stared at Tinkerbell for a moment, mouths agape. “This is a handcrafted ebony table, and I will not have you ruin it like you ruined the last one.” She glowered at Whale, who shrugged and firmly put the glass back on the table.
“We want to survive, as long as we can,” Emma replied determinedly. “I’ve got people I need to get back to.”
“So do the twenty-three other people in that arena,” Whale replied dryly.
“Not me,” Killian said with a shrug.
“Make that twenty-two then,” Whale corrected, lifting his glass to Killian and taking a hearty swig of his drink. When their expressions didn’t change, he grinned. “Okay, you want to survive something where the odds are highly stacked against you. Sounds good to me.” Killian and Emma glanced at each other nervously, unsure of whether or not this was a good thing.
“Rest up, kiddies,” Whale replied, looking at both of them. “Now that you’re serious about this, there’s a whole hell of a lot of work we have to do when we get to the Capitol tomorrow.”
Keep kudos-ing/commenting/rec-cing! Otherwise, I feel like I'm just writing to into the void, and that's no fun for anyone. Have a good week! :)
Emma and Killian arrive at the Capitol, learn about the other Districts and learn just how high the stakes are. Oh, and someone's definitely in denial about their feelings for their fellow Tribute.
It was the middle of the night when a flash of light shone over her face. Emma bolted awake, heart hammering her chest. “What the hell?” she mumbled, terrified. She rushed to the back of the train where the couches were, to find Killian already sitting there.
“I thought it was a fire,” Killian said in a quiet voice, not looking at her when she entered. “The lights were so bright and I felt like I was drowning in them. How do people sleep here?”
Emma sat down beside him, watching the outer circle of the Capitol fly by them. “We’re really far from home, aren’t we?” she asked, her voice trembling a little bit, not looking at them either. “There’s so much…light here.” She bit her lip, her eyebrows furrowing. “The Mistguard cut power off to my house one night when I couldn’t pay them, and there’s all this light here…it just keeps going and going.”
“I remember. The night they cut off your lights and electricity in your home,” Killian said quietly. “It was only a few months ago. You had to borrow extra blankets from the boat because it was winter. You were worried Henry would freeze. Your lips and fingertips were blue when you showed up at my boat…” He shifted closer to her, as if trying to protect her from the cold even now.
How does he remember all that? she wondered.
“Look at all the houses,” Killian said as he looked out over the multitude of buildings they whirred by. His voice hardened as he added, “Do you think anyone wants for anything here?”
“No,” Emma said, her heart clenching as she remembered Henry’s words from the day before. “They don’t. At least, that’s not what they tell the kids at school.” She licked her lips nervously and looked over at him. “How do…I don’t understand,” she said quietly. “If people in the Capitol want for nothing, how can we want for so much? How can you and I be just getting by?”
“I don’t know,” Killian said quietly.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” a sardonic voice asked from the door. Both Killian and Emma jumped at the sound of their mentor approaching them. He didn’t stagger or stumble. He just looked tired. “Yep, everything you could ever want is right here in the Capitol. This is what we aspire to be to. Everything is grandiose here. Everything is lavish. Everything exists just to exist. Not because we need it, but because we want it. No one else gets to have it. And now you’re a part of that until the day you die. Congratulations. Isn’t being a Tribute wonderful?”
Emma bit her lip as Whale came to sit closer to them. “This is your first test,” he told them. “A lot of people get overwhelmed by the Capitol that it throws them off their game. I’ve seen survivalists and competitors get overwhelmed and get wiped out in the spectacle of it all. Keep your head on straight. Both of you. Remembering where you came from and what you’ve got to go back to is what’s going to keep you alive.”
“So you are capable of spitting out helpful advice,” Emma muttered in spite of herself. Whale just grinned.
“Every so often,” he replied. “Looks like you both have a pulse. That’ll be useful in the Games.”
“I’d think that the ‘Everyone’s out to kill me instinct’ would kick in, no?” Killian asked, turning both to Emma and their mentor.
“Haven’t you ever seen a Game in your life?” Whale asked. Emma frowned, folding her arms at his tone and attitude toward Killian. “The whole point is to overwhelm you before you get to the arena. Everything you do from now until Games start is going to be designed to get you rattled. Hell, even the first bloodbath is overwhelming. But this is good. We’ll get you thinking on your feet in situations like this, and it should help you get by.”
“What is the point of it all? Putting the tributes through mental gymnastics when they’re already going to die?” Killian asked, clearly disturbed by what was to come.
“That’s the best part of the Games,” Tinkerbell yawned, her voice bright where Whale’s voice had turned bitter. “To see who survives the test, to see who is really the strongest of the strong, to see who can make Misthaven proud.”
Whale just gestured to Tinkerbell helplessly, as if to say “See?”.
She rubbed her eyes, and then grimaced as paint came off of her eyelids. She looked at all of them, putting her hands on her hips. “Now. What are we all doing up at such an ungodly hour? As soon as we arrive at the station, there will be so many people who want to take your picture and talk to you. You’re very important people now that you’re Tributes. Especially Tributes as nice looking as the two of you,” Tinkerbell chided. “Even you’re important to the interviews and pictures, Whale, though I’m sure everyone is tired of you throwing up on their shoes by now. But you are their mentor after all,” She stood a little bit closer to Emma and Killian and made shooing noises at them. “Off to bed with you.”
Killian and Emma walked down the train corridors in silence, not quite looking at one another or saying anything. Killian’s car came up first. Honestly, Emma hated that they had their own separate cars. It was isolating, and unlike at home where there were trees and nature, there was just Emma and her thoughts. Even now, with Killian by her side, she felt like she was miles away from him. Yet their hands were so close that they occasionally brushed while they walked. Emma flinched the first time it happened, and moved away. After that, she noticed that Killian made a conscious effort to place his hand where it didn’t brush hers, but she found herself missing the warmth of his skin.
He stopped in front of the door to his bedroom and looked over at her. His hand curled over the door frame, rooting himself there as he looked at her. Indecision flitted across his face, as if he wanted to ask her something. She waited expectantly, hoping she looked open and receptive. He settled on saying, “Good night, Swan.”
He retreated back into his room, and the door slid shut. Emma was left with the strange feeling that he had almost asked her to stay. She found her staring at the spot where his hand had been just moments before, feeling lost and confused. “Good night,” she whispered, even though she knew he couldn’t hear her.
She quickly sped back to her own room so she wouldn’t have to mull on it further. If Killian wanted to spend the night alone, that was his choice. She had no reason to be upset by it. After all, they were friends, and she had no interest in being anything more.
“All right, heads up, smile and wave at the cameras. Don’t look at them, don’t breathe a word to these reporters,” Tinkerbell instructed, tilting Emma’s chin a little bit higher. Emma tried to smile but it was forced. Tinkerbell frowned, tsking at Emma, “No, no, no. Not like that. You’re trying to tell them you’re happy to see them. You’re using your smile to say ‘Thank you for being here today. I’m so delighted to see you’.”
“I’m not,” Emma muttered to herself.
“Hush!” Tinkerbell chided. “This is the first of your many steps in the Games. Everyone’s eyes are on you from the moment you walk out there. If you want sponsors, this is the way to get them. And—”
The rest of Tinkerbell’s words were lost in a roar from the crowd and the relentless blaring of flashing lights as the train doors opened. On instinct, Emma took a step back to try and get away from them, but the lights and the noises and the questions only seemed to swarm in closer.
She took in a deep breath in, lifted her chin up and smiled wider than she ever had in her whole life. It felt like someone was stretching her face, just because they could.
Questions bit at her at her like gnats, and she couldn’t answer them, couldn’t swat them away. Words stuck to her mouth and threatened to cut off her breath. What could she say? How could she make them go away?
Two unrecognizable figures came to either side of her and guided her through the crowd. Her breath quickened as they seemed to guide away from her and kept her away from all things familiar. The room began to spin a little bit, until someone slipped their wrist into her hand, clearly seeking shelter from all of the madness too. The noise and lights seemed to double with this action, threatening to overwhelm them both.
She felt his wrist tremble and she squeezed it tighter. It didn’t squeeze back, but she knew that he’d squeeze back if he could squeeze her hand in return.
The din started to recede at the hand squeeze, and Emma felt her breath return to normal, the further and further they moved away from the initial chaos of the train station and toward their district’s apartment.
Each district had one floor in the building in the middle of the Capitol. The Ebony Castle, where President Gold resided, and the Capitol building, where the President worked and gave his addresses, were visible from every single floor. Each floor had at least ten bedrooms, seven full bathrooms, a magnificent dining area, and a living space that had a multitude of couches in it and a television.
“Bloody hell!” Killian gasped, his face ashen as he all collapsed onto a dark green couch. “That was miserable.” She could only nod, barely registering when he took his stump out of her hand. He ran his hand over his face. “No wonder Whale drinks,” he teased weakly. “If he has to do this all the time?”
As if on cue, Tinkerbell said loudly, and somewhat dryly, “You didn’t throw up on anyone’s shoes this time, Victor. I’m so proud of you.”
“I live to please you,” Whale shot back, looking at his two Tributes as he walked into their apartment. “You guys look like garbage,” he said with a lopsided grin. “Capitol life not everything you anticipated? That was some welcoming committee, huh, chickadees?”
“It’s certainly something,” Emma groused, flopping down onto the couch. “That was exhausting.”
“This was on purpose,” Whale reminded them. “Even when you’re a Victor—” He smiled wryly at this as if it was an inside joke. “Every press conference you do is very guarded and there’s a lot of distance between you and the media. Not this. This is meant to scare you and overwhelm you so you’ll choke. Luckily, you both did okay so they won’t try to pull any stunts with you.”
“What do you mean by that?” Emma asked. “Killian and I grabbed hands in a frantic panic. I don’t even remember if I kept smiling. That was a disaster.”
“You were fine. It wasn’t the best you could’ve done, but you kept yourself out of trouble. You stayed calm cool and collected,” Whale said. “I’m sure there’s some kid who mucked up worse than you, and they’ll focus on that for a while and leave you alone. The more the media leaves you alone before you get your pre-Games score, the better off you’ll be.”
He flicked on the television where the District 6 train had just arrived. The two Tributes made the mistake of saying hello before they were swarmed with more comments and questions. Reporters were shoving one another to get their first words in. The girl Tribute had a flighty and startled look about her, while the boy looked grim and somber.
Their mentor, a man by the name of Robin Hood, swooped in and began batting the reports back with a kind but firm, “The Tributes will answer your questions at our press conference in two days’ time. Thank you so much for time and attention. Excuse us.” He quickly ushered his two Tributes in to the building.
“Do we have to do a press conference?” Killian asked, watching the way the girl all but flew into the building. The boy from 6 seemed a little more confident and sturdy as he walked beside his mentor, his head held high.
“Nah,” Victor said, sitting on one of the couches. “Press conferences are only for those who don’t do well when they first come to the Capitol or if they throw a meltdown when they are Reaped. You have a brain so you did just fine. You’re not gonna fall for any of their tricks.” He stretched out his legs so no one else could sit on the couch right as Tinkerbell started to take a seat.
Tinkerbell let out a quiet noise of indignation before she busied herself with pouring a glass of wine in the kitchen.
“Hey, can you pour me one?” Whale asked over his shoulder, giving her a pout. She rolled her eyes, but poured him another glass. He turned back to Emma and Killian. “All right, the two of you,” he instructed. “Dinner will be in a few hours. Your best bet is to try and sleep until dinner arrives. After dinner, we’ll be watching some videos.”
“What kind of videos?” Emma asked.
“Tribute videos,” Whale replied.
“I’ve not been this full in a long while,” Killian sighed contentedly, laying back on the couch and looking up at the ceiling of their living room. “At least we’ll be well fed before we die.”
“Is there an image you wish to see, Mr. Jones? Our database has over one million images to choose from to suit your viewing needs,” the ceiling chirped back at him. Emma threw her arm over her eyes, still feeling overwhelmed from the light of the cameras that had been thrust in her face when they arrived. She didn’t need to see more of it.
“No the ceiling’s fine as it is,” Killian replied. “Thank you.”
She could hear the soft, but gentle telltale sound of Killian scratching behind his ear. Emma lowered her arm away from her face and settled for closing her eyes. “Did you just say thank you to a ceiling?”
“It offered something kind for me, Swan. Besides, what if the ceiling just rose up one night and decided to poison us in our sleep?” Killian mumbled. She didn’t need to open her eyes to know that he was blushing.
“I would not do that to you, Mr. Jones,” the ceiling responded. “My sole function is to make sure the Tributes are comforted and cared for before the Games. My system is constantly assessing and reassessing to make sure you have everything you need.”
Emma opened one eye and looked up at the ceiling. “Hey does that mean you—” She was broken off as Whale plopped down on the couch in between them.
“All righty, kids, let’s take a look at these reaping videos,” Whale said, pressing a few buttons on the television.
“Why?” Killian asked.
“Because I have things to say to you about the districts that you need to know, got it?” Whale responded, poking Killian firmly in the chest. Killian nodded and showed his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Good.”
“In order to maintain privacy of the Tributes before heading to the Games, I must turn off the ceiling assessment system, do you confirm?” the ceiling asked Whale.
“Yes, we confirm,” Whale said, waving the ceiling off. He waited a moment to make sure all was quiet. “Strategy time. How does this work? I tell you all the shit you need to know and if you’re competent, you’ll use it.”
Killian nodded. “Let’s do this then.”
“All right, we’re going to start in order of number of Games wins,” Whale explained. “The districts that usually win are 1, 2, 3 and 4. Do you know why?”
“They have the most money, and the most resources,” Killian replied, an odd note to his voice. “Also, 1, 2 and 4 are districts that often train their citizens for this. To volunteer is a thing of glory, not a thing of necessity.”
“Correct,” Whale replied, pointing at Killian. “Their exports—Luxury, Weapons, Technology, and Fishing, respectively—make the tributes from the other districts sponsor-worthy. Usually from Capitol businessmen looking to strike deals in those districts.”
“So the odds really aren’t in our favor,” Emma replied, feeling slightly betrayed in spite of herself.
“They’re more in our favor than you think. We’re what is called a ‘second tier district’,” Whale told them. “We provide necessary things to the Capitol, and that makes us favorable if your odds, specifically, are in our favor. The better you do at training this week, the more likely we’ll get more sponsors.”
“What other districts are second tier districts?” Killian asked. There was an unreadable look on his face.
“It’s us, 5, 6, and 8,” Whale replied. “We’ve got lumber, 5 has power—”
“What do you mean by that?” Emma asked.
“6 is in charge of transportation, and 8 is textiles. If we’re honest, 8 is probably more up there with the higher districts especially because fashion is so prevalent here in the Capitol,” Whale continued, ignoring Emma’s question. “Up and coming designers will usually support 8, and any inventive textiles can help someone break into business here, or designers will get picked up by 1 and 2.”
“Oh, yes, that happened to Flora, Fauna and Merryweather,” Tinkerbell said cheerfully, only just coming to join them. “Three sisters from District 8 all sent in fabric to help protect their tribute that year, a lovely young girl named Cinderella. You’ll meet her probably at the ball before the Games.”
“Wait, there’s a ball?” Emma squeaked.
“Seriously, I tell you all this life-altering information and all you care about is that you’ll be asked to wear a dress?” Whale asked disbelievingly.
“Well, Hectate—she’s the ambassador for District 5—and I were so impressed that we brought it to our mayors. In the end, their style was really quite better suited for 5 anyway. And then Nimue brought us Merlin, and really, Merlin is perfect as a designer,” Tinkerbell said, clearly not hearing them or anything they had to say.
“So that makes 9, 10, 11 and 12 the lowest tier districts,” Killian said, speaking up for the first time since Tinkerbell joined them. He thought about it for a moment. “Those districts must produce more…underdeveloped products then, right?”
“Smart boy,” Whale praised. “9 is grain, 10 is livestock, 11 is agriculture and 12 is mining,” he explained to them.
What do we still need coal for? If District 3 is responsible for technology and District 5 for power? Emma wondered. “Wouldn’t 9, 10 and 11 do well because they’re responsible for food?” she settled for asking instead. “They have enough to feed their Tributes plenty.”
Whale flicked on the television so they could watch the Tribute videos. Though he had initially planned to start with District 1, Emma could tell that he wanted to prove a point. In both District 11 and 12, the camera was uncomfortably zoomed in on their hollowed cheeks and slender figures. In Districts 9 and 10, the Tributes were lean, clearly toned from their day to day work and lifestyle, but there was a dullness in their eyes that Emma was all too familiar with.
Her heart clenched each time a young child was called from the crowd, trying not to tremble for the cameras. The girl Tribute from 11 especially caught Emma’s eye. She was 11, Henry’s age, but she looked to be about 9. Killian tensed beside her, his eyes trained on the bottom of the screen.
Though the camera was mostly blocking it, they both recognized the gnarled skin of someone who had lost their hand.
The other Tribute videos passed by without much incident, though Emma began to take note of the people who seemed too comfortable being up on that stage.
“Boy from 5, both from 2, both from 1,” Killian mumbled to himself when they’d finished watching the last video.
She wasn’t going to admit it to him, but she’d been thinking the exact same thing. She yawned, suddenly feeling a bone deep exhaustion. She wondered if she could get her bed to change and be extra soft.
“We better let these two kids get their beauty sleep,” Whale said. “You two have to walk the Green Mile tomorrow.”
“Oh, yes!” Tinkerbell exclaimed excitedly. “The Tribute Parade! I’d nearly forgotten! Yes, yes, off to bed you two!” She immediately grabbed Killian’s collar and hauled him upright before practically shoving him off to his room.
Emma stood up and headed to her room. She paused at the edge of the living room, turning to face Whale. “How come you don’t do anything?” she asked quietly. “About…any of this? It’s all so…I don’t know. Unfair.”
“Cuz I’m not the only one that can get hurt,” Whale replied, getting up to go fix himself a whiskey. “Ceiling systems back on.”
Suddenly, Whale’s second piece of advice--about remembering what you had back at home--made much more sense.
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Emma and Killian meet their stylists, other Tributes, the president, and learn just a little bit more about each other.
“So, what exactly are we wearing for the Tribute parade?” Emma asked, shifting nervously. This was familiar territory, to some extent. Everyone was forced to watch the Tribute parade in the village square. Each district sent their districts down a mile-long runway—a lush green carpet made of silk—for all of the Capitol and Misthaven to see.
Still. It was one thing to watch the parade every year, and quite another thing to be in it. Oh God, what if she fell? Then what would happen?
Whale shook his head, and cleared his throat to bring her out of her stupor. “We don’t see the designs until you come out. He says he’s feeling particularly inspired this year. I’m willing to trust him.” He began filling his flask with whiskey. “You know, a lot of people think it’s unfair that we have him. He’s young, but he’s talented. Well, he looks young anyway. For all we know, he’s as old as time.”
“I guess it’s gotta be pretty easy to be called talented when You’ve got 7. There’s not much you can do with leaves, is there?” Emma replied. “And lumber.”
“And the two of us,” Killian supplied.
“Thankfully, both of you are perfect looking cherubs, so no, he won’t have to do much in that regard,” Whale said wryly. Emma rolled her eyes and Killian turned a lovely shade of pink. “It’ll help, I promise. Especially you.” Whale pointed to Killian at this statement.
“Me?” Killian asked, the shade of pink getting redder by the moment.
“Mhmm. You ever hear of David Nolan?” Whale asked. Emma and Killian looked at each other confusedly. “You haven’t? It’s a shame. Well, you’ll get to meet him at some time this week, and his wife, Snow. They’re both mentors for their District. They won back to back years in the Games, but that was before you were born.”
“Wait, why do we need to know about David Nolan?” Emma insisted, wanting him to get to the point.
“He’s a nice guy. Very friendly and cheerful, all things considered. He was the youngest winner of his Games at age 14 and that was about twenty years ago. He won because he got a ton of sponsors. You’ll see why when we meet him.”
Emma huffed exasperatedly.
“Besides, it’s not like you’re this kid,” Whale huffed, pointing to the boy from District 5. “Looks like a monkey, jeez he’s ugly…” He snapped his fingers and pointed at Killian. “Who is he?”
“Walsh Ozmund,” Killian responded quickly.
“Very good,” Whale praised.
“How come he gets praised for identifying someone quickly, but I only get yelled at all the time?” Emma complained.
“Because your personality doesn’t match your startling baby blue eyes,” Whale said wryly.
“My eyes are green.”
“All right, I’m ready to go!” Tinkerbell announced, flouncing into the room. They all stared at her, confusion clearly read on their faces. “Green and brown,” she explained. “For District 7!”
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware that trees were neon colored,” Whale mocked.
Emma opened her mouth and then closed it again, thinking better of it. Tinkerbell was clearly making an effort to support them, and Emma wasn’t going to make her feel bad about it. Judging the look on Killian’s face, it was clear he felt the same way.
It was just…the design on Tinkerbell’s dress was nothing like any tree she’d ever seen in the heart of her District. Then again, she hadn’t seen a real tree since they left 7. Emma wondered what trees looked like in the Capitol, or if there even were trees at all.
“Swan?” Killian prompted gently, tapping her elbow. “You coming?” She nearly jumped out of her skin to realize that Whale and Tinkerbell had already left the apartment.
“Yeah, I’m coming,” Emma said softly. He offered his arm to her and she got up, walking past it. He sighed, rolling his eyes at her, though there was a brief moment where something like affection flickered in his gaze.
“You’ve been lost in thought quite a bit lately,” he said softly as they walked together. “Everything all right?”
“There’s just a lot to think about.” She frowned, not looking at him, as they walked out of the apartment and into the elevator, still thinking about the trees. If the Capitol could make something as simple as trees so…outlandish, what else were they getting wrong?
Once they were in the elevator, Killian hesitantly slipped his hand into hers and she yanked it away.
“Cozy,” Whale snarked at them as the elevator doors opened. He took a huge swig from his flask. “Looks like we’ve got a real team of winners over here. A real confident and together look, you guys.”
They couldn’t look at him or each other, so Whale just let it go. The four of them began walking down the hallway, and two figures approached them from the other direction. “Okay, so approaching us right now? We’ve got Triton and Ursula, mentors from 4,” he explained lowly.
As they walked by, Killian and Ursula made eye contact, and Ursula’s lips curled into a knowing smirk. Emma felt Killian tense up beside her before wrenching his gaze away from Ursula’s and staring straight ahead. His clenched jaw and tensed shoulders made her wonder what the hell was going on. She opened her mouth to ask her, but he began to walk away from her, his strides a little bit longer now.
His head was held low, and if Emma didn’t know any better, she could’ve sworn he was crying. And she wasn’t sure why, but it broke her heart.
Whale grabbed her arm and yanked her back a little bit. “What the hell was that about?” he demanded, between to Killian and the mentors from 4, both who were out of earshot.
“I have no idea...” Emma murmured, staring at the dark entryway where Killian had gone through.
“Merlin, meet our tributes this year: Emma Swan and Killian Jones,” Tinkerbell introduced them excitedly.
“Swan. That’s an interesting last name,” Merlin said to Emma as he bowed to them.
“Thanks, it was my dad’s,” Emma said dryly.
“I’ll be sure to send my regards,” Merlin responded, arching an eyebrow at Emma. Emma’s eyes lit up and the two shared a laugh as if they were old friends. Emma grinned excitedly.
Maybe this wouldn’t be all bad.
“Holy shit, you’ve already worked your magic. That’s the first real smile she’s given since she got here,” Whale groused. “Change of plans, you’re now on Emma’s team now and forever. You can be her mentor, I’ll be in charge of the easy one.”
“I don’t know how I feel about being called ‘the easy one’,” Killian grumbled.
“I think Emma and I will get along just fine without me taking your job,” Merlin responded, still chuckling a little bit. “All right, you and Tink better find your seats. I’ve got work to do with these two.”
Tinkerbell grabbed Whale by the arm and dragged him off, muttering something about “being responsible and not embarrassing his Tributes”.
For the first time since coming to the Capitol, they were alone with people they did not know. Killian shifted nervously, though whether it was from this or his earlier encounter Emma wouldn’t know. Merlin snapped his fingers and some chairs were brought forward.
“Let me introduce you to your team,” Merlin replied. “I’m Merlin, and my two assistants are Tatiana and Mab. They’ll help you get ready in every conceivable way. I’m merely the designer. But, I did want to get to know you a little bit before I show you my designs. So, tell me about yourselves.”
He sat down in the first chair and looked expectantly at them. They sat down, eyes flickering to one another and back to Merlin. He smiled sympathetically. “I’ll go first. My name is Merlin. I grew up in District 8, in a little section on the outskirts that actually was in walking distance to the border. At one time, we could’ve been neighbors,” he started. “I’ve no siblings, my parents are gone, and I guess you could say I live a lonely existence, but it’s not all bad. The Capitol made my apartment look like a treehouse because I work for District 7 now,” he joked.
Killian grinned at that. “So you know what a tree looks like then?”
“Who do you think had design input on their own apartment?” Merlin responded. He leaned back in the chair and gestured at both of them. “Tell me more about yourselves.”
“Emma and I are the only orphans in District 7,” Killian supplied helpfully.
“Well, there’s also my younger brother,” Emma added. “But, um, yeah we’ve mostly fended for ourselves the past couple of years. And, uh, each other, I guess.”
“So all this glitz and glam is a little overwhelming?” Merlin asked sympathetically. They both nodded. “Well, then I’m glad I went with what I did. Are you two ready to see the design?” He opened his sketchbook to them.
They would both be wearing dark brown pants that seemed to grow into an emerald green patterned top that was textured like leaves. Emma shared and excited look with Killian. This was something she could definitely get behind.
“Now, because the Green Mile is made of silk, we feel it’ll be best if you both go barefoot,” Merlin was telling them. “And you’ll both be wearing a little bit of green eyeshadow on your faces. Killian, we were thinking of putting a little more eyeliner on your face because it will make your eyes look more dramatic.”
“How dreamy,” Emma muttered and Killian snickered.
“And you’ll both have white accents in your hair. Emma, for you, we were thinking a crown of swan feathers, and for Killian, you’ll have these white puffs. They’re supposed to represent the forest and the sky.”
“This is so cool,” Killian said excitedly. “When do we get started?”
“I love it when they say that,” Merlin said with a grin. “Killian, if you go with Mab, Emma and I are going to talk about styling her hair.”
“Are you sure you’ll be all right, Swan?” Killian asked, shifting closer to her, frowning at Merlin. His excitement was gone. Emma rolled her eyes and gently shoved him. “If you say so. I’m not far if you need me,” he called with a frown as he headed off with Mab.
“So, Killian’s protective of you,” Merlin said bluntly once Killian was out of earshot. He walked Emma over to a mirror and sat her down. “Now, let’s brush all this out and see what we’ve got here.”
“Excuse you, I do a great job taking care of my hair,” Emma mumbled, glowering up at Merlin.
“Settle down. I meant what I can do with it style wise,” Merlin said, brushing out her hair. “What do you typically do with it?”
“Ponytails mostly,” Emma shrugged. “I don’t know, I don’t really think about it all that much. I leave it down most of the time except for when it gets hot. I don’t really have time for style.”
“Have you ever braided it before?” Merlin asked.
“Not really since my mom died,” Emma said quietly, tucking her knees into her chest.
Merlin hummed sympathetically. “I’d like to, but if it’s too painful, I can do something else with your hair, okay?” he asked gently.
“Can I think about it for a few minutes?” Emma asked quietly, her eyes flickering up to Merlin nervously.
“Of course,” Merlin murmured quietly. “I’m going to go check on Killian and I’ll be back in about five minutes, okay?”
She nodded and took a deep breath, squeezing her knees tighter to her chest.
“I’m going to throw up,” Emma muttered as Tatiana and Mab threaded the white swan feathers into her braid as Merlin dabbed dark green eye shadow over her eyelids. Killian’s hand was on her back and she quickly shrugged it off.
“You’re okay, Swan. I promise,” Killian murmured gently. “It’s…it’s just a very long walk, right?” He smiled bravely at her and she rolled her eyes, trying not to feel guilty when he deflated a little bit.
“A full mile. Half a mile down, half a mile back,” Merlin said, straightening out Emma’s jacket. “Don’t worry. You’re barefoot, which makes you less likely to trip. And we hemmed the pants just right so that your feet won’t catch on them. All you have to do is breathe so you won’t pass out.”
“I’ve got that,” Killian promised.
“What, are you going to breathe for me?” Emma snapped, fidgeting under the many pairs of hands that seemed intent on fixing every flaw visible or otherwise. Everything seemed to close in around her, and not for the first time, she wished she was back at home.
She closed her eyes and tried to imagine what Henry was doing and it made her heart ache. She missed him so much, she felt like she was drowning in it. There was nothing of home here, nothing to steady her. The noise and flashing lights kept her from even being able to think about where her brother was. She tried to conjure a memory of the two of them, but felt like it was all being drowned out.
“It’s time,” Killian said softly, batting away Tatiana and Mab’s hands from Emma’s hair. He smiled down at her. “You ready?” he asked.
“Do I have a choice?” she asked weakly. He shook his head with an equally strained smile.
He offered her his arm, even after he rolled his eyes at her. “It’ll make us look united. Composed in the face of all this chaos,” Killian explained. “Show the other Districts that we aren’t afraid of them. That we have each other’s backs. We’re protecting each other, remember?”
Emma nodded, slipping her arm through his. To be honest, she wasn’t sure what was making her so afraid of Killian, why every instinct in her body screamed to pull away and isolate herself.
She didn’t want to be alone now. Not really.
“When you get to the runway, you will have to walk down individually,” Merlin explained, walking side by side with them. “But there will be cameras back there. If a camera zooms in on your face, don’t look at it, just look straight ahead. No expression. You’re there, but you’re focused.”
“So much coaching,” Killian muttered. “Do you think we’re going to get this much guidance when we’re fighting in the arena?” Emma snorted and genuinely smiled at that, linking their arms a little bit tighter together. He grinned a little bit at her smile.
“No jokes,” Merlin scolded. “Got it?”
“Got it,” both Emma and Killian agreed.
“Good,” Merlin said stiffly and nodded at them before
Just beyond the screen that separated them from the Capitol crowd, Emma could see flashes on either side. The tradition was that the female walked first, and then when she turned around to head back, they would send the male tribute down the mile of soft green carpet.
It was said that President Gold’s private box was so high up so he could look down and judge the Tributes as they walked down the runway. She longed to ask someone, anyone, if they’d ever seen him up close in person and if he was just as sinister as the television made him seem.
“He’s there, he’s in his box, darling,” a girl with black and white hair crowed contently to the stylists around her. Emma recognized her as the girl from District 1. “Can you imagine? All that power…”
“Cruella de Vil,” Killian muttered beside her. He linked his arm a little tighter around hers.
Emma’s eyes flickered around the crowd, trying to spot pairs from the other district. She saw Hans Faroe from District 1 not far behind Cruella. She recognized Walsh Ozmund from District 5 and for a moment, they made eye contact. He smirked at her and Emma rolled her eyes in retaliation.
“Is he bothering you, love?” Killian growled lowly.
“I’m fine,” Emma huffed. “Save it for the arena.”
Another boy, the boy from 6, deliberately knocked into Walsh, knocking him over. Walsh sprawled to the floor, while Faline, the girl from 5, leaped out of the way looking startled.
“Who’s that?” Emma asked, indicating the boy from 6.
“Graham Humbert,” Killian replied lowly. “The girl from 5 is Faline Whitetail, and the girl tribute from 6 is Reyna Avis.”
“You did your homework, didn’t you?” a low voice snarled from behind them. Emma and Killian whipped around to see a tall boy with ragged, sandy hair. There was a wild looked to his eyes and Emma stepped out in front of Killian protectively. “So, who am I then?”
“Felix Nightshade,” Killian replied, jerking his chin up as he came to stand beside Emma. “Volunteer from 2.”
“So you’re the famous volunteer from 7 I keep hearing so much about?” Felix mocked, giving Killian an appraising look. “Well, I’ll see you around…Killian.”
A bunch of stylists began lining the tributes up by District.
Girl boy, girl, boy and so on and so forth.
Emma found herself behind Graham, who’d knocked over Walsh. Behind her, Killian was making polite conversation with Abigail, the girl Tribute from District 8. From the wisps of the conversation, Abigail was the Mayor’s daughter in her district.
A wave of jealousy curled up in Emma’s stomach at the thought of parents who actually gave a damn and who would be upset about her being sent off to the Games. So instead, she decided to bother the boy in front of her. “That was a real show of masculinity before,” she muttered to Graham. “Like a wolf.”
“He was bothering Tributes from the other districts. Got right in that little girl’s face from 11 and told her how he was going to enjoy tearing her limb from limb. I know some people enjoy that part of the Games, but it’s not right, you know? Someone needed to show him that he wasn’t as tough as he thought he was,” Graham replied with a shrug. “You’re Emma Swan, right?”
“Yeah,” Emma muttered. “And you’re Graham Humbert.”
“Nice to meet you, Emma,” Graham said sincerely, and turned back around.
“Nice to meet you too,” Emma murmured softly before he whisked away on stage to walk down the runway. She fidgeted anxiously, wishing she could turn around and talk to Killian, but she could see members of the audience, whispering to one another and pointing at her.
“All right, sweetheart, you’re up,” a stylist said, all but shoving Emma up on stage. “Walk to the end of the carpet, make a pose and turn around.”
Just keep walking and breathe. Merlin’s voice rang out in her head, the phrase repeating itself over and over, until she was walking like she was just trying to get somewhere. She nearly missed the end of the runway, but stopped short, almost as if she was frozen in place when felt a pair of eyes on her, cutting through the crowd.
She didn’t need to look up to know that it was President Gold looking down at her. Still, she lifted her head up to make direct eye contact with him. And suddenly, Emma couldn’t hear the murmur of the Capitol citizens. She couldn’t see the flashing lights of the camera.
All she could feel was the cold swoop of dread in her gut as she made eye contact with the man that she never wanted to come face to face with.
Gold’s mouth curved into a smirk and he leaned forward, as if he was inspecting her for weakness. Emma didn’t move, much like a fly in a spider web, as she watched those lizard-like eyes inspect her. Seemingly satisfied with whatever he had come up with, he leaned back, crossing his arms as he continued to stare down at her, and Emma was still cold.
When he looked away, Emma found that she could tear herself away from the end of the runway and began heading back. Killian’s hand reached for her as they walked beside each other, but she yanked it away.
“You have to stop doing that!” Emma shouted once they were back in the apartments. “The reaching and the hand holding! I’m serious, Killian! Are you trying to make me look weak in front of the other Tributes?”
“I’m trying to protect you! Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing? Protecting one another?” Killian asked, looking confused and hurt.
“There’s a difference between trying to protect me and treating me like I’m glass!” she responded, getting up in his face. “So for God’s sake, just treat me like a person and not like this breakable thing that needs saving and comfort all the time! That’s not me!”
Killian’s eyes widened with shock. He took a moment before considering her words before he nodded. “You’re right,” he agreed softly. “I have been treating you like you’re breakable. I’ve known you long enough to know that you’re not. You’re absolutely right.”
“I am?” Emma asked, feeling surprised by his admission. Then she puffed up her chest and added, “You’re damn right I’m right.”
His mouth curved up in a smile and nodded to her. “I’m sorry, Emma,” he said genuinely. “I just…didn’t want to let you down. I…I didn’t want to let Henry down.”
“What does Henry have to do with this?” Emma asked curiously. He walked to the couches and flopped down. She hesitantly sat across from him. “Killian?”
“He was the only person to come visit me after we got reaped. No one else wanted to say good-bye to me. Just him,” Killian said quietly, looking down at the floor. “I promised to take care of you. Do right by you in the arena.”
“You will,” Emma said confidently.
“That’s quite a lot of faith you’re putting in me, Swan,” Killian said, raising his eyebrows. He sighed and continued, “I don’t…he sees so much good in me. Good that I wasn’t even sure was there because I’ve spent so much time alone in my own head. And I don’t want to lose that. All my life, people have been letting me down--”
“Hey, I don’t intend to let you down,” Emma interrupted, sitting closer to him.
“I know,” Killian said softly, his eyes glimmering with affection. “I know. I just…the Games, Swan. We’ve watched, for as long as we can remember, decent people turn into killers and monsters at the drop of the hat. I don’t…I don’t want to lose all that good things I’ve found since moving to District 7.”
“Like me and Henry,” Emma surmised. Killian nodded. She thought about it for a moment before extending her hand. “I’m gonna make a deal with you. I’m gonna choose to see the best in you. No matter what.”
Killian slipped her hand into hers. “And I with you,” he promised softly.
Hello! Sorry it's been awhile since I've posted. Y'know...life. But hopefully it's all worth it! Thank you so much to all who have been rec'ing, liking, commenting and subscribing! It means so much to me, really, it does!
By the way, the violence starts to pick a little bit in this chapter, but nothing horrifically graphic. Unless you count violence towards holograms, in which case, skip from the fifth paragraph from the end because that's the most descriptive one!
“Where does the king keep his armies?” Killian asked her as they headed downstairs to breakfast.
“Where?” Emma asked, raising an eyebrow at him, knowing that the punchline was going to be absolutely terrible.
“In his sleevies,” Killian said with a grin, his eyes lighting up as she let out a giggle in spite of herself.
“Killian, that’s the worst joke I ever heard. Worse than Henry’s dead fish joke and that’s really saying something,” she complained as she sat down for breakfast. He laughed again, tilting his head back, and a pang of homesickness rose up within her.
Killian seemed to read her mind, and said softly, “I’m sure Henry’s well taken care of. He probably stayed up late, waiting to see if he can watch any footage of you on those screens that are in the town square. Or he’s working on a welcome home present for you when you come back.”
Emma nodded, finding her throat too closed up to respond. “Was an awful joke,” she finally muttered out in an attempt to bring some levity back into the room.
“I know, that’s why I told it,” he responded, pushing the last apple toward her. She took a bite out of it and watched him thoughtfully. “What, is there something on my face?” he asked, leaning in closer so she could inspect it.
“Yeah, your face,” Emma snorted, shoving him away.
“Now that’s the worst joke I’ve ever heard,” Whale announced, sitting in between them. “I’m glad you two have made up because we have work to do.” He pointed at the bowl of fruit so Killian would eat something. “It’s training day. This is the first time all week you’ll mostly be left unsupervised with the other Tributes. You need to eat to keep up your strength.”
“What’s in the training center?” Killian asked.
“More weapons than you’ve ever seen in your life. Practice areas, hand to hand combat arenas, survival guides. Anything you could possibly imagine that you’d need to help you survive in the Games,” Whale rattled them off in what seemed like a practiced speech. His brow furrowed and his gaze sharpened when he looked at them. “It’s a real doozy of teenage hormones and aggression and I want you to partake in none of it.”
“Don’t we have to…y’know, train in the training center?” Emma asked, looking up at her mentor.
“That’s not what I meant, Bright Eyes,” Whale harrumphed. “What I mean is you need to be smart. A lot of the other Tributes will make the next few days about showing off their strength and you absolutely cannot do that.”
“Why?” Killian asked.
“They need to underestimate us,” Emma replied, looking over at Whale. He nearly dropped his flask and she grinned a little wider. “Well, if you watch the other games, a lot of underdogs made it to the top 8…that’s how you won, didn’t you?”
“Yeah,” Whale said with a strange little smile. “Well, color me impressed, cygnet. You do follow the advice I give you.”
“Cygnet?” Emma laughed. “What, like a baby swan? I’m not a baby, I’m seventeen.”
“Oh, you sweet summer child,” Whale chuckled, sitting down in front of her to grab something to eat. In the end, he settled for a piece of toast and began rummaging through the cabinets. “Most of the people I hang out with are in their forties. Seventeen is nothing.”
“Really, I thought most of the people you hung out with are at least hundred years old because they’re all scotch,” Tinkerbelle said dryly, coming into the kitchen with her hair done up nicely. “Also, who are you calling forty?”
“I forgot, you’re actually like three hundred years old underneath all that makeup,” Whale said in a snarky voice, sipping at his drink.
“Make sure you drink some water before we go anywhere today,” Tinkerbelle replied, putting a water bottle down on the table in front of him. “Don’t want you having a heart attack and leaving our tributes mentorless. Although sufficed to say, they might actually stand a chance without you.”
“Oh my God…” Emma sighed, eating more fruit. “Kill me if I ever get like that with someone.”
“Careful, Swan. We could get close in the arena and then I’d have to kill you, and then all our bonding would be for not, wouldn’t it?” Killian murmured with a smirk. Emma laughed into her meal in spite of herself. “All right, how long do you think it’ll take before they stop arguing?”
“At least twenty minutes?” Emma offered.
And true to form, it took Whale and Tinkerbell about twenty-five minutes to stop arguing. The argument only stopped when the ceiling announced to them that they had only about half an hour before Emma and Killian needed to be down at training.
“So we watch,” Killian said to Whale as they walked down to the training center, trying to redirect the conversation. “Might we have a need to show off our strength at any given time? Isn’t it a good idea to do that?”
“Not unless it’s life or death,” Whale replied. “People have died in the training arena, though they take more and more steps each year to prevent that from happening. Emma and Killian’s eyes both widened and they looked at each other. “Usually they get killed by a Volunteer in one of the upper districts in a gruesome show of force. Again: a doozy of teenage hormones and aggression.”
Emma’s heart began to pound against her chest and she scooted closer to Killian. They both started to fall behind their mentor a little. “Shouldn’t we fight back then? Be able to defend ourselves?”
Whale rolled his eyes. “I’m the mentor here. I give the advice,” he replied, taking a sip of his drink. “Otherwise, they can figure out what you’re about. I don’t even know what you two are fully capable of.”
“Shouldn’t you know? You’re our mentor,” Emma said curiously. “Don’t you need to know what we can do? Y’know. So you can help us.” It was hard to repress the flare of irritation that rose within her. At every turn it seemed like the games were more and more against them. How were they supposed to survive if the one person who was required to keep them alive didn’t know everything about them?
Whale shook his head, a shadow passing over his face. “You never know what they’re gonna pull for next year’s Quarter Quell.”
“Who said you’re even making it to the Quarter Quell?” Tinkerbell called back from the front. “Your liver might give out before then.”
“Please. The ceiling wouldn’t let me die, would you, ceiling?”
“Victor Whale. Vital signs normal. Kidney function good. Liver trans—” the ceiling rattled off before Whale waved it silent.
“So what can we do for the next few days?” Emma asked, trying to hide the shakiness in her voice. Suddenly, all she could picture was Henry looking up hopefully at the screen for a face that would never show.
Oh, God. I need to get back to Henry. I need to.
Killian briefly slipped his hand in hers and she could feel his hand shaking. Whale stopped short and the two nearly crashed into him, never letting go of the other’s hand.
“First off, you have to breathe because they will eat you alive in there if they can see you’re afraid,” Whale said flatly, spinning around to look at them. “You’re allowed to be afraid, but for god’s sake, hide it, or I guarantee you they’ll be carrying you out in a body bag before the week is out.”
Emma nodded, trying to swallow the lump in her throat. Whale’s next words floated in and out of her ear, competing with the loud thumping against her chest. Every time she snuck a look over at Killian, he didn’t seem to fare much better.
I don’t want to die.
“Any questions?” Whale asked, looking down at them. They both stared up at him blankly before he nodded and clapped his hands together. “All right. Have fun, stay alive, and don’t get beaten up too badly.”
The Mistguards all but shoved Emma and Killian into the room. They both stumbled and took a look around them. Twenty-two other kids milled about the room, some uncertainly, some like they were ready to devour the room. Emma and Killian looked at one another as one of the Tributes was shoved to the floor by Felix, who stood menacingly over him.
“Scared?” Felix taunted, leaning over into the boy’s face. “Well you should be. Wait until I’m through with you.”
“Save it for the Arena,” a Mistguard called, stepping a little closer to the fray, but not close enough that he really could stop Felix from terrorizing any of the other Tributes. Emma stepped forward, shoulders squared and eyes blazing, ready for a fight.
Killian grabbed her hand and squeezed tightly. “Emma, no. Remember what Whale said,” he said urgently. Emma tugged ineffectively at his hand, scowling at him for a moment before standing down.
“Tributes, there are several stations positioned throughout the room,” a booming voice announced. Several of the Tributes jumped, while others smirked and sneered. “There is a weapons arena with several specialized training regimens, a survival station, a digitized survival handbook, and a sparring arena. You may not bring items from one station to the next. If you do not comply with the rules and regulations, there will be consequences.”
“What could possibly be a greater consequence than being here?” Graham muttered, and there were a few snickers around the room.
Emma’s eyes swept over the room, noting each thing the ceiling listed was in its own corner, lined up with at least two Mistguard. Though there were more doors lining the training arena, in case more needed to be called. She couldn’t see any of the Mistguard’s eyes through their shields, and she wasn’t sure if she was more grateful or unnerved.
“You may begin Day 1 of 3 of your training,” the ceiling announced before it clicked off.
Emma moved to start weapons training, when a soft “oomph” and a few snickers caught her attention. The girl tribute from 11 lay sprawled out on the floor, Walsh leaning over her menacingly. “You’re so tiny, I could gobble you up right now and still have room for lunch,” he growled in her face. The girl reached to scratch him, or punch him, of something to get away, and Walsh pinned her only hand above her head.
“Leave her alone!” Killian said angrily, moving to stand in front of Walsh.
“Two one handed wonders?” Cruella asked with a sneer, coming to Walsh’s other side. “At least this one is easy on the eyes.” Felix and Walsh began circling around Killian, before they were joined by a boy with slicked back hair and imperious sneer.
Emma’s eyes flickered to the Mistguard, who didn’t seem to care. Hans raised his arm to strike, and she stepped forward to intervene on Killian’s behalf. But she didn’t need to. Before she even blinked, Killian and ducked beneath Hans’s raised arm, twisted the raised arm behind Hans’s back and forcibly shoved Hans to the floor. Cruella and Felix both moved, as if to strike Killian, as did the other girl tribute from Two. Emma tried to weave her way through the crowd to get closer to Killian, but a Mistguard stepped in front of her, blocking her path.
“Anyone else want to go?” Killian said in a breathless growl, leaning in closer to Walsh. Walsh uneasily looked away from Killian’s piercing stare. “Best let her up then, mate.”
“Get off of me!” Hans declared, trying to wriggle free from Killian’s strong hold, but found he couldn’t even budge. “You’re dead!” he screamed. “As soon as we get in that arena, you’re dead!”
“Very threatening with your voice muffled by the floor,” Killian snickered, and Emma felt her stomach unclench somewhat. “Are you going to let the girl up, Walsh, or—” But Killian didn’t need to finish his sentence as the girl in question took advantage of Walsh’s slack grip, elbowed him and bounced up triumphantly when Walsh keeled over, holding his stomach.
Killian got up of Hans, chortling to himself, and made his way back over to Emma. Felix shoved him in the back as he was walking, and Emma slipped through to grab Felix by the throat, pinning him against the wall. “Pretty low life thing to do, attack someone when their back is turned,” she muttered.
“Best listen to the lady, mate,” Killian replied, unable to hide the amused quirk to his mouth. Felix tore his head out of Emma’s grasp and walked away muttering to himself.
“All right, enough is enough,” a Mistguard finally intervened. “All of you, begin your training. The next person to start a fight will be escorted out of the training room and will be banned from entering here again.” The tributes began to shuffle away, trying to distance themselves from the alliance that was already forming. Hans, Cruella, Felix and Walsh immediately headed to the sparring ring, followed closely by the other
“That was quite the show there, Swan.” There was a note of affectionate and surprise tinting his words. She wasn’t sure she could take in the look on his face that most likely matched them.
“Your back was turned,” Emma muttered, the tips of her ears turning pink. “So much for not being a part in all the hormones and aggression, huh?” She was determined to look anywhere but Killian’s surprised, yet affectionate, glance, when she noticed the girl from 11 holding her stump to her chest. “Hey, I think she’s really hurt.”
Killian and Emma both moved forward to see if they could help, when a boy stepped in front of them. The other tribute from Eleven glowered down at them, a good head taller than both of them, the light reflecting off his shaved, ochre brown head. “Imani is fine,” he muttered in a low voice. “She doesn’t need your help.”
“Mogarzea, my stump is bleeding and I don’t have it with me,” Imani piped up anxiously. The little girl turned to a Mistguard. “Excuse me,” she said, looking up at him. She seemed to fold into herself, clay in a potter’s hands as the Mistguard stood over her. “I have medicine in my room. May I fetch it?”
“No!” the Mistguard snapped, raising his baton over his head. Imani flinched and raised her arms to protect her head, her ebony curls swinging about her russet brown face. Morgarzea prepared to confront the Mistguard when Imani slipped her hand around his to calm him down. The two shared a long look before taking a step back.
The Mistguard stalked away, and Emma couldn’t be entirely sure, but she felt like the man was smirking underneath his visor. She fidgeted uncomfortably, looking over at the man who was now talking in a low voice with other members of the Mistguard.
Killian moved closer to Imani, kneeling beside her. “There’s a wrap that you can make with fig leaves and aloe,” he told her in a low voice, showing her his stump. “There’s a type of plant that I use to cover it and help it heal in my district. May I show you? It’s probably in the survival station.”
Imani’s eyes lit up when her eyes landed on Killian’s stump and she nodded. “You’re like me,” she declared, her voice filled with wonder.
Killian offered his arm to her and Imani slipped hers in his. Emma couldn’t help but smile at the eagerness in his voice when he asked what she used in District 11 as a salve.
“We use honey and sugar at home. Can I show you? I don’t know if we’ll have it in the arena,” she could be heard saying as she and Killian walked together toward the survival station. “But it’s easy to make if you can find it. Where did you get your leather brace?”
It stole Emma’s breath away when she remembered that Imani was the same age as Henry.
“Emma! Emma! Emma!” Henry came barreling up the front steps, water flying all around him. Killian stood at their gate, giving Emma a little wave.
“Kid, you are soaked!” Emma laughed, scooping her brother up into her arms. “What, did your sailing lesson turn into a swimming lesson?”
“Well, kinda, the boat hit a rock and I fell from the crow’s nest into the lake,” Henry admitted. Emma tightened her grip around him for a moment, bringing her hand around to cup the back of his head. It didn’t matter to her that her clothes were going to be soaked. Henry was always her number one priority.
“Are you okay?” she asked worriedly, scanning him for injuries. He didn’t seem any worse for wear, but she had to make sure. “Did you hit your head or anything?”
Henry curled in closer to her and he added cheerfully, “It’s okay though! I was all freaked out for a moment and then Killian told me to count to ten. So I did and then I found I could swim again!”
He looked out, expecting Killian to be right behind him, and frowned when no one was there. Emma couldn’t help but feel a pang of disappointment inside her chest. “He was just right there…I wanted to thank him for helping me and invite him for dinner. We were trying to catch fish, but I didn’t get anything. What’s he gonna eat?” the boy murmured, frowning a little bit to himself.
“I’ll bring something by his boat in the morning. Now go inside and draw yourself a bath!” Emma commanded playfully, tickling her brother just to get to hear him giggle. “I won’t have any sailor under my roof freeze to death because their Captain didn’t have towels on his ship.” She kissed the top of his head and sent him inside.
She went to follow Henry to start on their dinner, but found her feet unwilling to cross the threshold. She looked around one more time, hoping to catch a glimpse of dark hair, or dark clothes. Her hand lay still on the door knob, looking out over her empty yard.
“I brought you something,” Killian called, running back up the street. In his arms was a long package, covered in a blanket. Emma rushed forward to take it from him, feeling the weight in her hands. Her brow furrowed with confusion. “I found this in the woods. The lad told me that you’d been looking for your father’s sword and I—”
Emma stopped him right there, her eyes wide as she unwrapped the sword. “How did you…where did you…” she asked in a wavering voice.
“Think nothing of it,” Killian said, scratching behind his ear. “Really, it was nothing.” A drop of rain fell on the tip of his nose and he scrunched it up. “I best get home before it really starts to come down on our heads. Good night, Swan.” He walked her up to her front door, only three feet from where they’d been standing in her front yard.
“Thank you, Killian,” she said softly, her hand still on the door. He started to get farther and farther away before she called out, “Hey! You have something to eat for dinner, right?”
He lifted a hand and kept walking. Soon, he became no more than a black speck on the horizon before he disappeared altogether.
Shaking her head, Emma went over to the weapons arena. “Hello, Miss Swan,” the ceiling said pleasantly. “Based on your stature, district, and vital signs, might I recommend training with a bow and arrow?”
“No, I’m taking the sword,” Emma responded, coming over to a long row of swords. A green arrow appeared, pointing a sword in the middle and Emma picked it up, spinning it around a few times.
“Sword Beta 47. Used for training approximately one thousand and four hundred times. Notably used by victors David Nolan, Mulan Fa, and Blackbeard,” the ceiling told her. Emma lifted an eyebrow but said nothing as she stepped, taking a few more practice swings. “Would you like to begin a training sequence?”
“Uh, sure,” Emma said, wishing she could make eye contact with someone. She shifted from foot to foot, giving her head an irritable shake. “Start me off with something easy. It’s been awhile since I’ve used one of these.”
“Begin Training Sequence Alpha,” the ceiling announced. One holographic person appeared before her, its sword held high. “Your goal is to incapacitate one rival.”
Emma nodded. Three short beeps sounded and then a long beep. The hologram moved at her and she stepped out of the way, feeling the air of the sword come by her. When her opponent’s arms were both facing down, she raised her arms and struck the holograph’s arms with her sword.
“Winner!” A screen popped up in front of her with little fireworks and confetti. “Winner! Would you like to try again?”
“Uh, can I try the next training level?” Emma asked, giving her sword another experimental thrust.
“You wish to begin training sequence Beta?” the ceiling asked.
“Sure,” Emma said, rolling her neck from side to side and squaring her shoulders.
“Begin Training Sequence Beta,” the ceiling announced. Emma took in a deep breath, leaning forward on her right foot. “Your goal is to incapacitate one rival.” Once again, the beeping noises sounded and the holograph appeared. It lunged at Emma and she blocked its parry.
The hologram stepped forward. She stepped back. It moved right and she moved left. The clash of the sword sounded as real as if she were fighting a real opponent. Stepping to the side she struck her opponent in the back of the head.
“Winner!” The screen popped up in front of again. “Winner! Would you like to try again?”
“Next level,” Emma requested, not even out of breath. By now, she was starting to gather a small crowd around her, watching her training session with interest. It consisted of Killian, whose eyes were wide with shock; Imani, gazing up at her curiosity and thinly veiled delight, and Graham, whose expression she couldn’t read.
“Begin Training Sequence Gamma.”
The ringing sound of metal seemed amplified as Emma twisted and turned away from her opponent. Her breath even seemed louder. Three times, Emma and her opponent struck blades before she kicked it away from her and sent it sprawling.
With a cry, she struck her opponent, but hit didn’t disappear like the others. Pixelated orange dots began to fall from her holographic opponent. Through it, she could see Walsh leering at her, clearly eyeing her form, though now the form she wanted to be appreciated for.
Her eyes narrowed and she kicked her holographic opponent right between the legs before stabbing it in the throat. It disappeared in a puff of smoke. She jerked her chin up at Walsh, glowering at him. She was inwardly pleased when he seemed to no longer be smirking at him and let him know with a little smirk of her own.
“Bloody brilliant you are,” Killian told her when she came out of the ring, her head held high. He was grinning excitedly, his blue eyes on her and her only. “Incredible, lass. If the Tributes were all like that dummy, we’d be done for. Though, I can’t imagine the clean-up would be that easy. Come on, let’s take a bit of a break and fade back into the background.”
It was meant to be a jest, but a cold, swooping sensation passed through her stomach. Emma looked out helplessly over the other twenty-two children—Whale was right, they really were just children, weren’t they?—in the training center. Finally, her gaze settled on Killian, her chest twisting as she saw his lips moving to tell her something, but she couldn’t hear him.
The only thing she could hear was the question which seemed to echo louder and louder until it blocked out all else.
How am I supposed to kill any of them?
Chapter 7: Chapter 7
Hey, remember when I said I'd update soon? And then it was a year later?
My bad. It was an awful year to say the least. But, the good news is that there's only two more chapters before the actual Games to start! And I'm going back to school so I'll actually have some time to write because I won't be working anymore.
“You did what?” Whale demanded, looking at them, furious. His drink sloshed around in its glass as he paced back and forth. “What did I say about participating in the slew of hormones and aggression?” He stopped for a moment, glaring at them while his drink spilled onto the carpet. “Jesus Christ, no wonder they all die, no one ever listens to me!”
Emma and Killian looked guiltily at one another before looking down as Whale continued to pace in front of them. “Well?” Whale demanded, stopping in front of the two of them. “What do you two have to say for yourselves?”
“Sorry,” Killian mumbled earnestly.
“Sorry,” Emma repeated, though she wasn’t necessarily as sincere about it. Imani had taught Killian something valuable and vice versa. Emma needed to let off steam and let Walsh know she wasn’t to be trifled with. The day hadn’t been a total loss, at least not in her eyes.
“Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” Whale asked, looking down at them.
Still, her heart began to pound at the idea of doing something to mess up her chances of going home, of seeing Henry...
She lowered her face into her hands, letting out a long and low sigh.
“Now, you do as I say and you don’t utter a peep for the next two days, you got that?” Whale demanded. “We pretend that was all you’ve got, and you can save some for the Gamemakers in two days.” He continued to pace, not looking at them. “How could you both be so stupid?”
“She needed our help!” Emma protested hotly. “They were bullying her! They were gonna hurt her so we stepped in! We did the right thing, Whale!”
“You’re not here for her! You’re not here for any of them!” Whale yelled back. “You’re not even here for each other! You’re here for you! Selfless kids don’t win things like that. Maybe that’s how you two survived back home, but it’s going to get you killed here. No one’s ever won the Hunger Games by being kind and they’re not about to start now.”
It was true, and everyone knew it. It was something Emma had seen on the television year after year for as long as she could remember. Kindness, softness, belonged nowhere in these Games. It was one of the reasons that she’d wanted so vehemently for Henry to get out in any way that he could.
Her eyes flickered over, briefly, to Killian beside her. She’d seen the soft sides of him, the sides he’d shown to her earnestly and without thought now that they were friends. But she knew that he was probably the strongest person that she knew. If anyone was going to survive these games, it was probably going to be Killian.
Although he’d probably say the same about her.
But she wasn’t going to do anything to sabotage him. Not now. He deserved to keep going, to not be dragged down by her. She knew that where she had Henry, he had some kind of personal stakes in the Games. She didn’t know what. But she had a feeling that he’d tell her when he was ready.
So she deflated. “Okay,” she whispered. “No more fighting. I promise.” Emma looked up at her mentor and tried to look chagrinned enough. Killian raised an eyebrow up at her, and she added, “Look, I don’t…know about anything related to the Games. You do, Whale. And I don’t…I…” She looked down. “I’m not very good with words,” she mumbled.
“We don’t want Henry to get hurt,” Killian said evenly, picking up where Emma left off. He smiled knowingly at her before looking back up at their mentor. “It’s not worth it for us to get killed now when we’ve come so far.”
“Oh, cherubs,” Whale said, a glimmer of sadness sparkling in his eyes. “This isn’t even the start of it.” He took in a deep breath. “It is…admirable. That you want to protect everyone. In a better world, you both could do so much good. But you have to reign in that impulse or it’s going to get you killed here. And so help me, God, if I gotta go back to 7 and look at that kid with his big brown eyes…”
“They’re hazel,” Emma mumbled to herself. Whale looked at her, frowning. “Henry’s eyes. They’re hazel. Not brown.”
“Nevertheless. You think I want to be the one to go back there alive again when you both are dead?” Whale asked.
“So what do we do now?” Killian asked, curling his hand over his stump, massaging at with a pained look.
“You listen, for starters. Don’t show off for the next two days. Keep cool, and save it all for the Gamemakers on your evaluation day. The higher the score you get in your evaluation, the better your sponsors and the better your odds,” Whale told them. “Got that?” A long heavy moment passed before Whale repeated more forcefully, glowering down at Emma and Killian, “Do you understand what I’m asking you to do?”
He didn’t stop staring until Emma nodded too.
“I need you to do something for me,” Killian said quietly. They were both sitting to the side, Killian teaching her how to tie knots and start fires. “When we’re in the Games, I need you to do something for me.”
Emma looked over at him, and only raised her eyebrows to indicate any kind of shock or surprise. They were going to lay low today, and that included not making any outlandish reactions that would draw attention to themselves.
Besides, the Career Pack had new victims today, and it didn’t escape Emma’s notice that no one stood up for them. Everyone kept their distance, occasionally looking over their shoulders. The boy from 6—Graham—kept looking back at her, silently imploring her to do something.
“What is it?” she asked lowly, her eyes flickering to Imani instead, who was practicing wrapping her stump with the fig leaves and aloe that Killian had shown her the day before. She grinned a little, seeing Imani chatter excitedly with the boy from her district.
“If it comes down to it, I need you to be the one to kill me,” Killian said matter of factly, not looking at her but looking dead ahead. Emma’s heart began to pound more quickly in her chest, and she looked at him in shock and horror. But he didn’t look back at her. He kept his eyes on the wall, trying to remain focused and unfeeling. “I’ve thought a lot about this. You have Henry to make it home to. He needs you. Besides, if I’d trust you to give me a mercy kill if I needed one.”
Emma scowled at him. “Only if it needs to be a mercy kill,” she said firmly, shoving him hard on the shoulder. Anger bubbled up inside her faster than she could stop or even really think about it.
“Ow! You hit me!” he exclaimed, finally looking at her.
“You’re damn right I did!” she replied, standing up so she could glower down at him. Her heart was hammering against her chest now and she was far too angry to be choked up. Still, she kept her voice low so that they wouldn’t draw attention to themselves. “You’re asking me to kill you! To take you away from me and Henry! And it’s bad enough that we’re here and the odds aren’t even close to being a 1 to 24 shot of us winning. But you’re not asking that of me again, got it?” she snapped.
Killian’s whole look softened for a moment with surprise before he smirked at her. “What? Would you miss me too much?” he teased.
“Yes, you jerk!” Emma replied hotly, too caught up in her own anger to think about why exactly Killian would be surprised that she would miss him. “I would! And you’re asking a really big thing of me like it doesn’t even mean anything to you! Like your own life isn’t worth anything at all.” She glowered at him, her hands on her hips.
“I’m sorry, Swan,” Killian said gently.
“Did you ever once think about how killing you might impact me, you asshole?” she continued, finally turning her anger on him. She began pacing back and forth agitatedly in front of him. “Did you ever think I’d have to go back home and see your ship and think about you every time and feel awful, knowing it was my fault you weren’t here?” Killian offered no answer, and Emma continued, “And if I’d asked the same thing of you? Would you have agreed?”
“Of course not!” Killian proclaimed, getting to his feet. “How could you ask me to kill you?” Emma opened her mouth to make her point, but Killian continued, “You have Milah, Neal, Henry…there are people who care about you at home, Emma…including me. How could you ask me to take your life and rip you away from all the people who care about you? Would you have even given them a second thought?”
“Did you just now?” Emma challenged, clenching her fists at her side.
“Everyone who has ever cared about me is dead and I’m not losing you too!” Killian shot back.
Emma opened her mouth and then it closed, her hands limply following to her side as she stared up at him in shock. “You care about me?” she asked, her voice barely reaching above a whisper.
Killian turned bright red, scratching behind his ear. “I, erm, would’ve thought that was obvious, love,” he said softly. “And I didn’t realize that you cared about me so much either, you know.” He was trying to sound defensive but failing miserably. The shock was so clearly written on his face that there was someone who gave a damn about him.
“Is that why you gave yourself up? During the Reaping?” Emma asked quietly. “Because you didn’t think anyone cared about you?”
“Partially,” Killian admitted. He bit his lip and looked away.
“Hey,” Emma told him gently, stepping forward to gently grab his hand. For a moment, she’d forgotten he didn’t have a left hand, so her fingers curled around his stump. She gave it a soft squeeze, trying not to aggravate it or hurt him. “You don’t have tell me if you don’t want to. But just know that you were wrong. Henry and I care about you. I don’t know if that’s enough, but--”
“It’s everything, Swan,” Killian replied hoarsely.
“Oh, do smile, Emma! You look like someone just sentenced you to death,” Tinkerbell scolded, gently tapping Emma’s shoulder.
“Didn’t you when you pulled my name out of that glass bowl?” Emma muttered.
If Tinkerbell heard her, the woman chose not to react to Emma’s comment. “You are very pretty when you smile, my dear,” she murmured, adorning a swan feather clip to the back of Emma’s hair, while Emma’s stylists continued to curl her hair. “Especially with your hair all done up like this. Although I must say, I much preferred the braid that Merlin and your team did for you the other day. But the loose curls are much more appropriate for the evaluation. You’ll look softer, and they’ll underestimate you.”
“Thanks,” Emma mumbled, her eyes flickering up to the other woman. She gave Tinkerbelle a little smile, to settle the peace a bit. It seemed to work, as Tinkerbelle began to hum under her breath as she continued to help Emma’s stylists. “Can I ask you something, Tinkerbelle?”
“Of course,” Tinkerbelle said cheerfully.
“Why did you agree to do this?”
“Well,” Tinkerbelle started. “Whale asked to talk to you both privately to work out a strategy for your evaluation and—”
“No,” Emma interrupted. “I didn’t mean sit with me, though I really appreciate it. I meant…why did you become an Ambassador to District 7? Why become an Ambassador at all? I mean, you’ve been an Ambassador I think as long as I can remember. As long as anyone can remember.”
“Well,” Tinkerbelle said thoughtfully. “When I was younger, I always liked the glitz and the glam of the Ambassadors. They seemed so stylish, ahead of the curve. Many of my cohorts in primary school were the children of Ambassadors. Oh, let’s see…there’s Blue, Cassandra, Circe, Hectate, Glinda, Nova…we were a wild crew.” Tinkerbelle laughed at this and wiped away an imaginary tear. “At The University, I joined a Diplomacy club, and graduated nearly top of my class as I had a wealth of knowledge on nearly all the Districts. This of course was when there were thirteen districts, of course, so I didn’t know every thing about every district. And then from there it took quite a bit before the previous ambassador retired and--”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Emma protested, swiveling around in her chair, much to the protestation of her stylists. “What’s The University?”
“Oh, here in the Capitol, after you graduate from schooling when you’re eighteen, you go to The University and from there you pick your schooling based on what you think you’d like to do when you’re ready to join society,” Tinkerbelle said casually. “Why do you ask? Don’t you have anything like that in District 7?”
“No,” Emma said quietly. “We don’t…we join the work force. There really isn’t need for an education.”
“Oh,” Tinkerbelle said, unsure of how to respond to that at first. “Well, maybe with your winnings you can help establish a school. Wouldn’t that be nice, Emma?”
“Yeah,” Emma said quietly. “I have to win first, though.” She sat quietly for a few more minutes before asking, “Hey, Tinkerbelle?”
“Yes, dear?” Tinkerbelle replied.
“You said when you were in school there were thirteen districts…but wasn’t 13 wiped out 74 years ago?” Emma asked, looking up again at Tinkerbelle. For the first time, Tinkerbelle’s carefree and lighthearted demeanor slipped when she smiled at Emma.
“Nice of you to join us,” Emma snarked at her mentor when he came into the salon a little while later.
“I was having a chat with your compatriot,” Whale replied, pulling up a chair beside her. “Killian tells me you’re pretty lethal with a sword. Know any long range combat?”
“I can throw the sword,” Emma answered, raising her eyebrow.
“Not what I meant,” Whale chuckled. “But I like your spark, kid. Save it for the judges.” He leaned back in the chair, rocking for a minute. “So. The evaluation. Basically they kind of put all of you in a holding tank and call you in one by one, and then you leave. You’ve got five minutes to show your stuff.”
“Sounds pretty simple,” Emma said with a shrug. “I need coaching for this?”
“I haven’t finished yet. What do you know about the Head Game Maker?”
“The Game Maker?”
“Peter Pan. You know, the guy that designs the arenas and the creatures in it, decides what will happen, when it will happen, influences the game as much as he can?” Whale questioned, clearly exasperated. Emma shook her head. “Gee, you don’t watch much television, do you?”
“Sorry, I don’t spend all my time drinking in front of the t.v. like you do,” Emma shot back.
“Anyway,” Whale sighed. “Your test is not that simple. See, Pan likes his Games, very much so. Do you remember the desert arena from a few years back?”
Emma shuddered. The arena had been a desert with no sources of water. Only Belle French, a young woman who had happened to know that water could be salvaged from the cacti in the arena, was the only one who didn’t die of dehydration. It was a quick Games, and a gruesome one to watch at that.
“That’s his favorite work. ‘His crowning achievement’ he likes to call it,” Whale responded quietly. “He loves to throw people off their game, mess with their heads. He did the same to me at my Games, and he’s done the same to everyone that has the misfortune of being chosen for the Games.”
“Just how long has this guy been Head Game Maker?” Emma whispered.
“Just remember it takes a sick person to be Head Game Maker more than once, Emma,” Whale said tiredly. “And Peter Pan might be the sickest of them all.”
“I hate this,” Emma muttered, looking down at her clasped hands. Killian nodded, his thigh jiggling as he silently tapped his foot. She tried to repel the wave of anxiety that coursed through her and she leaned down and pressed her forehead to her hands. She could feel the brush of Killian’s leg against hers.
It didn’t really do much. The stone room and its black chairs with no windows and only one door hadn’t done much for their apprehension. One by one, the Tributes had been brought out of the door, and none of them had returned, which gave Emma plenty of time to worry and obsess about the task ahead.
The thoughts kept repeating themselves, bouncing in between her head, her chest and her stomach. She willed herself not to throw up, like the girl from 5, Faline, had. The vomit had long been cleaned up, but Emma felt her stomach still churning.
It was hard not to worry. Would she get a good score? Would she see something that would impress Pan? Just how badly would he try to get into her head?
“District 7. Jones, Killian,” the ceiling announced. Both Emma and Killian jerked their heads up, and Emma reached to grab Killian’s hand without thinking about it.
They made eye contact and Killian gently squeezed Emma’s hand.
“District 7. Jones, Killian,” the ceiling repeated.
“I’ll see you later,” Killian promised, letting go of Emma’s hand. He walked to the black curtain that served as the entrance way to the Evaluation Room and then disappeared.
Emma lowered her head again, breathing in and out slowly. Everything felt so cold now that Killian wasn’t right here beside her anymore. She closed her eyes and tried to think about her strategy. Was it better to be more offensive or defensive? Was she overthinking this too much?
She’d start the training sequence. Starting with training sequence alpha. Then, she’d go through the levels. It would be fine.
Start the training sequence. Go through the levels.
Start the training sequence. Go through the levels.
Start the training sequence. Go--
“District 7. Swan, Emma,” the ceiling announced. Emma’s head shot up again, her heart slamming against her chest. Licking her dry lips, she stood up and walked toward the black curtain.
For a moment, she stopped and closed her eyes. She took a deep breath in and let it out slowly before opening them again. The Mistguard at the curtain opened it for her and walked her inside to the Evaluation Room.
A bright light nearly blinded her as she stepped into the room. Emma squinted, bringing her hand up to shield her eyes. Just behind the lights she could make out figures looking down on her. There was a group of them, but one figure seemed to be closer than the rest of them.
“Emma Swan, District 7,” a voice called, and the lights dimmed somewhat. Reading her name off a piece of paper was a man. Well, if she was honest, he looked more like a boy than a man. Perhaps a few years older than Henry, maybe barely older than herself if she had to make a guess.
Maybe an assistant?
Then, the man looked up and made eye contact. A slow smirk crossed his lips and Emma realized that this wasn’t an assistant, but Peter Pan himself. She stood her ground and jerked her chin up at him, determined not to fall into his tricks.
“You’ll have five minutes to show us what you’ve got. After which, we will evaluate your performance and release it the night of the Ball,” Peter Pan explained to her, not really looking at her. Emma shifted her shoulders and clenched her jaw, determined to keep eye contact, to try and catch his eye so that she wouldn’t be intimidated. “You may begin.”
Emma grabbed the sword, she almost recognized it by sight now, and called out, “Begin Training Sequence Alpha.” An orange, holographic figure appeared in front of her. A few quick clangs of the sword and the orange holographic disappeared. She puffed her chest out triumphantly at the scattered orange pixels.
A laugh caught her attention and she jerked her head up. The figures were gathered around a feast, laughing and chattering excitedly to one another. None of them had seen her performance at all. Pan looked down at her and smirked before turning around.
It was all intentional.
She glowered up at Pan, her heart slamming against her chest. If they weren’t going to watch her, she’d make them watch her. Putting both hands on the sword’s hilt, she raised her arms back. “Hey!” she yelled, throwing the sword as hard as she could.
The sword whizzed back Pan and stuck into the wall in the back, the sound ringing around the now silent room. All the men turned back to stare at her, mouths agape. Except for Pan. He looked absolutely delight with that show of force.
“Thank you for your time!” she snapped, turning around and marching out of the room.
Wow, I can't believe it's only been three months since I last updated. I think that's some kind of record. Anyway, glad you're all still here and glad you're all still enjoying (hopefully). Lots to unpack in this chapter and I can't WAIT to hear what you have to think!
Killian and Whale were both roaring with laughter.
“And you thanked them for their time?” Whale demanded, grinning from ear to ear as he wiped an imaginary tear away from his eyes. “I gotta say, Swan, I like you. It takes guts for you to do what you did and I’m going to remember that when you go into the Games.”
“Bloody brilliant you are, lass,” Killian added.
Emma smiled shyly and looked at the floor. It was nice to have this comradery with Whale and Killian like this. “I was mad,” she admitted with a somewhat embarrassed laugh. “Pan looked at me and I knew he was trying to rile me up…and then I kind of just acted on impulse.”
“So you threw your sword at him,” Whale said. Wistfully, he added, “God, I would’ve given anything to see the looks on their faces…” He closed his eyes and sighed contently. “Must’ve been magical.”
“I hope you’re proud of yourself!” Tinkerbell shrieked, entering the room. “The Gamemakers are furious! In all my years, I’ve never ever had to mollify so many people! The only one who didn’t want your head on a platter was Pan! He seemed to think it was funny!”
“Well, that’s an accomplishment to be proud of for sure,” Whale said dryly, lifting his glass to Emma before taking a long drink. “It takes a lot to ruffle Tink’s feathers. There’s a lot she’s seen in the last eight billion years she’s been doing this. Be proud of yourself for setting a new record.”
“Ruffling my feathers? Hmph. You do a wonderful job of that already, Victor, I don’t need it from you and Emma!” Tinkerbelle responded. Turning to Emma, with her hands on her hips, she added, “That isn’t the way to win yourself sponsors, you know. Pan may have thought it was all fun and games, but the sponsors won’t see it the same way!”
Emma drank this time, not wanting to even think about the sponsors.
Fighting was one thing, she’d been fighting for ages it seemed for herself and Henry, but now…charming people over? Making conversation until they agreed she was worthy enough to keep alive? That seemed more Killian’s department than anything.
Tinkerbell took one look at Emma’s change in mood before she sighed. “While I don’t think what you did was admirable and should not be encouraged—” A glare in Whale’s direction followed this. “You need to remember that it’s not all swords and spears. You must make the odds count in your favor in other ways. The people who win…they’re the ones that can do both.”
“Doesn’t explain how I won,” Whale snorted, taking another long swing out of his drink.
“No, it doesn’t,” Tink said disparagingly.
“Though it certainly explains how people like David Nolan win. He’s so goddamn pretty…men and women alike were throwing supplies his way that year,” Whale said, in a tone that was both envious and disgusted.
Emma scowled as she thought about women in the Capitol who had been openly ogling Killian when he walked by. She wasn’t sure why, but she didn’t like the way that they looked at him.
Like they were sizing him up for a meal.
Very few were bold enough to make comments, but that seemed very few and far between. Though Emma privately worried with more public appearances, more people would be harassing Killian. And she wouldn’t let that happen to her friend.
“Well, anyway, you’ll be able to pick his brain at the ball,” Whale added, looking between the two of them. “Which reminds me, we need to talk about that night.”
Emma groaned, burying her face in her hands.
Right. The ball.
She was starting to become sure more and more of why people from their district didn’t do well at the Games. If the ball was about wearing dresses and performing to these Capitol standards to win people over…well, she’d never done that before.
Hell, she’d never even been to a dance before. While they had those back at home, she was sure it wasn’t to the size and scale of a ball in the Capitol would be.
And now, she’d have to wear a big dress and be spun around and know steps that everyone else seemed to already know. She had to be flawless in every single way possible.
It sounded terrible. She’d almost prefer death by combat over going to the ball.
“Merlin is coming by tomorrow to go over outfit designs with you,” Whale added. He paused thoughtfully, looking over at Killian. “Well, really it’s just Emma. You’ll be wearing a suit. Pretty simple. He showed it to me, though. Looks nice. It’ll bring out your eyes.”
“Can’t I wear a suit?” Emma complained, flopping back on the couch.
“No,” Whale and Tinkerbell said in unison.
Emma kicked the table leg in protest.
“Tell you what,” Whale said, leaning back to elbow her in the ribs. “If you win the Games this year, you get to wear a suit next year when you’re a mentor. How about that?”
“Do you think Merlin will let me do that?” Emma grumbled, crossing her arms. Lifting an eyebrow, she added, “Do you think Tinkerbell will let me wear a suit?”
“Once you’re a mentor, I don’t have to keep you alive, you can wear what you like,” Tinkerbell called. Kindly, she added, “When you’re not being kept alive, and you get to do this for show, you can be as fashion forward as you like, all right?”
“Fine,” Emma muttered, trying not to sulk like a petulant child.
The lack of control she had over the situation was becoming more and more apparent with each passing day and she hated feeling so helpless. She had no control over anything here. Even the meals were preselected for her, and she couldn’t just go take a walk or talk to Henry to cool her temper down.
“Well, I think I’m going to go sit up on the balcony for a bit,” Killian said, standing up and stretching. Looking down, he offered Emma his hand. “You coming, Swan?” She looked up at him and he smiled gently at her, dipping his head.
The smile was a little too knowing and Emma knew exactly what he was trying to do for her. It was a silent invitation to get away from all the chaos and their mentors. It didn’t escape her notice that he was always trying to take care of her.
Another reason why she didn’t want him to just become a piece of meat to someone who couldn’t truly appreciate Killian’s good heart.
Smiling a little bit, she nodded and took his hand. She allowed him to gently pull her off the couch and together they headed up to the balcony of their building.
He guided her to the hanging swings on the balcony and held one out for her while she sat. He sat across from her and the two just sat there, swinging gently as the sun began to set. A few minutes passed before Killian asked gently, “You all right, Emma?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Emma muttered, looking out beyond the balcony so she wouldn’t have to look at Killian. She drummed her fingers against her thighs as she added, “It’s so hard, you know? Like…” She sighed, looking down. “I don’t do dresses or dancing or any of this. I don’t even like fighting with a sword all that much…I just…I just…”
“You don’t feel like you,” Killian said quietly, following her gaze out to the Capitol lights around them. He was quiet for a few moments before he added, “Whale wants me to use a hook when we get to the arena. He says that they’ll probably make a weapon or me that I can attach to my brace, but a hook seems practical enough for now.”
“You’ve used a hook before—”
“For fishing! Not for killing people!” Killian agonized. He closed his eyes and leaned back. He bit his lip and looked down, his hand curling into a fist. “Makes me feel like a monster.” He clenched his jaw and looked away from her.
She reached out and gently curled her hand around his stump. “Hey,” she said softly. “I’m still going to choose to see the best in you. Even if you gully someone like a fish…you’re still Killian, okay? And that’s never changing for me.”
Killian looked back at her and smiled. He turned so he could give her hand the gentlest of squeezes. Emma grinned back in return and they leaned back in their respective chairs. A few moments passed before Killian added mischievously, “And I’ll still see the best in you, even if you accidentally kill all the Capitol citizens at the ball tomorrow with your heels or something.”
“Ugh, the ball,” Emma groaned, burying her face back in her hands. She heard him chuckle and she lifted her head back up. “It won’t be that bad, right?” she asked hopefully.
“What is your obsession with the swan thing?” Emma grumbled, crossing her arms. “It’s just my last name, it’s not that big a deal.”
“Stop, you’re bending the feathers,” Merlin chided gently, waving his hand so that she would twirl.
With another roll of her eyes, Emma did a quick twirl and came back to see Merlin beaming. “Seriously, I feel like they’re going to take one look at me, stick me in the oven, and serve me as one of the main courses,” she complained.
“No, that’s the victor’s meal after the games,” Merlin replied wryly. Tatiana, one of the other stylists, let out a soft laugh from behind her. “My ‘obsession’ with the swan thing is that your last name is Swan. But also they’re a very beautiful bird.”
He came over to make some last-minute adjustments to the hem of the dress. “The thing about swans is that they’re so beautiful, that many people underestimate them. Swans won’t attack unless provoked, but I get the sense you’re well past being provoked, aren’t you Emma?” Merlin asked her.
She couldn’t help but grin down at him with a slight nod. “I guess I’d rather have people focusing on how pretty I am so when I kick their butts later they’ll be surprised by it,” she admitted.
He laughed and nodded as he stood up. “Are you ready to take a look at yourself?” She nodded, and he stepped away. “What do you think?”
Emma gasped as she looked in the mirror. White feathers were once again woven into her braids, but instead of a green outfit, she was in a simple black gown with white swan feathers decorating the bodice. “Oh, wow…” she said shyly. “I…” She ducked her head. “Thanks, Merlin. I love it.”
“I’d hug you but I’m afraid of crushing your feathers,” Merlin laughed, a gleam of excitement and satisfaction entering his eyes. “I’m glad you like it, Emma. Aren’t you glad you’re not wearing a suit now?”
“I still would rather be wearing a suit,” Emma only half-complained.
“Don’t worry, I’m already making sketches for you for next year,” Merlin told her with a conspiratorial wink and a fake nudge of his elbow to her ribs. Emma grinned up at him and Merlin bowed to her, “Shall we? Everyone’s waiting.”
Emma took his arm and he escorted her out of the room. At the end of the hallway, Whale, Killian and Tinkerbell were all waiting for him. Killian wasn’t looking at her, looking around as he waited. He was dressed in a clean black suit, but instead of a flower pinned to his breast as a corsage, he had a swan feather.
“Here she is…District 7’s female candidate, Emma Swan,” Merlin announced, drawing Emma into the room. Emma let go of Merlin’s arm and slowly approached Killian.
Killian’s jaw dropped a little as Emma approached him. If it hadn’t been for the loud clearing of Tinkerbell’s throat, he would’ve forgotten to bow all together. “Swan, you look…” he said breathlessly as he started to bow.
Emma began the beginning of her curtesy just moments after his bow. “I know,” Emma said happily, her whole face lighting up when she straightened up. “You ready?”
“Aye,” he murmured, offering her his arm.
Looping hers around his, Emma fell into step beside him as they were escorted to the Presidential Palace’s floor salon. The rooftop gardens were for things like the celebration of the victors, and Presidential invites. As they approached the Palace, the murmurs of conversation seemed to be getting louder and louder.
There were so many people there: notable Capitol citizens, the game makers, mentors from every district, and the twenty-four tributes.
And President Gold.
When Emma ascended the stairs, there was Gold, sitting on the other side of the ballroom in all his glory. He was surrounded by people trying to talk to him and curry favor with him, but he seemed completely disinterested in them. His eyes flickered across the dance floor before settling on Emma. His mouth seemed to curl into a slow, predatory smirk for just a little too long before his gaze turned away.
Her arm tightened around Killian’s and Killian turned to give Emma a confused and concerned look. She shook her head, biting her lip, only to smile a little bit when she felt Killian’s free arm come across to hold her hand. The soothing stroke of his thumb put her at ease as they just stood in the chatter, lights and movement.
It’s spectacular, Emma thought, gazing up at the lanterns. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Killian looking in her direction, but she wasn’t sure at what.
“Behave the two of you!” Tinkerbell scolded, ushering them out of the center of attention and to the side. “Just don’t stand there in the middle of the floor gawking. That’s rude to the other guests.”
Emma felt Killian’s arm tighten around her waist and she curled into him. It was only then that she had noticed that his hook was attached to the wrist brace on his left hand. “Seriously? A hook?” she hissed. “Did Merlin make you do this?”
“No, no,” he assured her quietly. “It was my choice.” His thumb still maintained its gentle journey across her hand, moving back and forth, back and forth. “Merlin suggested it might help me reconcile how I feel about it. Also, give me something signature. You’re Swan? Well then, I’m Hook,” Killian told her with a grin, raising the hook toward her playfully.
Emma laughed, gently curling her hand around it. It was cool to the touch and smoother than the hook she’d seen him use on fish back home. “I like it,” she told him decidedly. “It suits you.”
The clinking of a glass sounded, and the hum of the part suddenly fell silent. It was eerie just how quickly a lively party suddenly just stopped as if they were trained to.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen of the Capitol.”
If she was perfectly honest, Emma had been hoping that President Gold’s voice would be different in person than it was over the recordings he would send out to the Districts over the years. High and needle-like, it made Emma’s skin crawl. Goosebumps popped up on her skin and she furtively looked around to see if anyone else had the same reaction.
A squeeze of her hand by Killian’s reassured her that she wasn’t alone in her feelings.
“Stylists. Mentors. Tributes. Welcome to the 74th Tribute Ball,” Gold continued, raising his champagne flute toward the crowd at large. The lightbulbs illuminated Gold’s skin, which sparkled like the eponymous metal. Still, it was hard to ignore the slits of his eyes.
“The young people before us represent the best of our values here in Misthaven. Bold, courageous, strong and honorable, we know they will each do their district proud.” He lifted his champagne flute a little higher. “And of course, may the odds be ever in their favor.”
“May the odds be ever in their favor!” the Capitol citizens echoed cheerfully, some of them applauding afterward.
Gold stepped away from the podium and returned to his table.
A young woman, skin dotted with pale flecks like Gold, took his place. Her voice was no kinder when she spoke. “May all the Tributes come to the dance floor please, for the opening dance.”
Killian gently took Emma’s hand and began leading her when she stopped. “Are you all right, Swan?” he asked worriedly, squeezing her hand as he looked back at her.
“I can’t do this,” she hissed softly, drawing in closer to him. Her cheeks turned a little bit as she added, “I’ve never danced before. Like this. I’ll just make a fool of myself, and of you, and I’ll ruin everything and—”
Killian smiled at her affectionately and squeezed her hand before gently drawing her out onto the ballroom floor. The violins began playing and other tributes began the dance. “Well, don’t worry about that, love.”
“Wait, are you saying you know how to do whatever…this is?” Emma asked suspiciously.
“It’s called a waltz,” Killian murmured, drawing her in a little bit closer. “And there’s only one rule: pick a partner who knows what he’s doing.” Emma bit her lip but allowed Killian to lead her along the floor, gliding and turning along with the other participants.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Whale talking with other people, laughing and shaking hands, but it didn’t last long as Killian swept her to the other corner of the dance floor.
“Easy on the toes there, Swan,” he murmured out of the corner of his mouth, dropping to his knee and extending his hand toward her.
“Easy on the mocking, I think I’m actually getting the hang of this,” Emma replied, playfully, taking it as she walked around him.
“You appear to be a natural, Swan,” Killian praised warmly, standing up again and drawing her in close. Their eyes met, and she smiled fondly at him. Two just stood there, forgetting the dance for a moment, as if they were trying to remember what the other looked like in this moment before the Games.
It was only when the other partygoers applauded that Emma realized that the music had stopped.
“Thank you,” she whispered softly to him.
“You’re welcome,” he murmured. He opened his mouth to add something, but then he stared over Emma’s shoulder and Emma turned around.
A man, tall and fair, was standing behind her. He bowed to her and she clumsily curtsied back at him. “Hello,” he said cheerfully. “I’m David Nolan, one of the mentors from District 10. I was wondering if I could have a dance with this beautiful young woman?"
Emma opened her mouth to initially decline and squeezed Killian’s hand in a panic.
“Go on, Emma,” Killian coaxed gently. “It’s okay.”
“Sure,” Emma said stiffly, turning to David. “Why not?”
David took Emma’s hand as the musicians began a second waltz. Emma’s eyes followed Killian until he disappeared into the crowd altogether. “Victor pointed you out to me,” he started casually.
“Victor?” Emma asked confusedly. “Oh, right. Whale.” She tried to find Killian one more time but couldn’t.
It was then that she fully looked at David Nolan for the first time. The look in his eyes was sad, and his smile was almost wistful as they continued to dance.
“Are you okay?” she asked awkwardly. “You seem…sad.” While she was dying to know why Whale had pointed her out to another District’s mentor, it seemed more impolite not to make sure her partner was okay.
At this, the look on David’s face softened. “Yes, I’m fine,” he said gently. Spinning her around, he added, “I was just thinking how exciting it must be for you to be at your first dance.”
“Not really,” Emma admitted when David pulled her back in. “It’s very…big. Needlessly so.”
David let out a big and booming laugh. The sound was bright, and it put Emma at ease. He wasn’t laughing at her, he was far too kind for that. She smiled up at the other man, giving him a real smile. “Oh, I knew there was a reason Victor pointed you out to me,” he chuckled.
“I grew up on a farm, tending to animals all my life until I’d been reaped,” he explained to her as they moved around the dance floor. “I think the first time I saw the grand spread at one of these things, I actually fainted.”
Emma laughed too, her smile widening. “I know what you mean. It’s all so much and to come from anything else, you’re like…whoa, you know?” Blushing, she added, “Sorry, that wasn’t very eloquent, was it?”
“It’s okay, I know what you mean,” David laughed, smiling down at her. “I can’t say you get used to it, but I understand how you’re feeling right now. And it’s okay.” Conspiratorially, leaned in and added, “My wife had to teach me how to dance. And it’s a good thing too, or I’d be stepping all over your feet right now.”
“So you don’t mind if I step all over yours?” Emma teased.
“No, hop on up if you want,” David teased back.
For a moment, Emma was struck by a memory of her father.
“Emma, what are you doing?”
“Sweetheart, you’re standing on my feet…”
Her lip quivered for a moment, and David had the good sense to usher Emma off to the side where no one could see her. She looked down at the ground, but felt David pull her into a hug, his hand cupping the back of her head protectively.
“It’s okay, Emma,” he whispered. “You talk about it when you’re ready. I know the Games can be terrifying.”
“No, no,” Emma sniffled, rubbing her eyes. She wasn’t going to cry. She wasn’t going to show weakness to a mentor from another district. “It’s not that.” She pulled out of David’s embrace, she looked at the ground. “My parents died a few years ago. You just…this…it reminded me of my dad. That’s all.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” David said kindly.
For a moment, they sat together, and David pointed out mentors from other districts, trying to come up with embarrassing stories from the time they’d all started to know each other. Some of the people she already knew by sight from the footage reels like Regina Mills and Robin Hood but hearing how human they were made her feel better somehow.
“And that beautiful woman over there is my wife, Snow,” David said proudly, pointing over at the young woman who was currently dancing with Graham. “She is, without a doubt, the best thing that’s ever happened to me. We had been crushing on each other forever but afraid to act on it. Until I was going into the games and she realized I might not come back so she kissed me.” With a chuckle, he added, “I was so surprised, and it happened so fast that I didn’t get to kiss her back. She likes to say that I only made it back so I could kiss her back.”
“Do you and your wife have children?” Emma asked curiously, looking up at him. David tilted his head at her questioningly and Emma blushed. “Oh, well, I mean…you did a really good job of making me feel better. And I just thought…that…like…you must be a dad.” When he didn’t answer right away, she added shyly, “I bet you’re a really good dad.”
David looked back out across the dance floor at his wife. His eyes had the same sad look as when they’d first started dancing.
“No,” he said quietly. “We don’t have any children.”
“Good job tonight, kiddos,” Whale praised, slinging his arm around Killian’s shoulders as they returned to their apartment building. “You didn’t trip over your own two feet, and you convinced some sponsors to back you up. Now just nail the interview and you might actually get pretty far.”
Killian brushed off Whale’s hand and sprinted up the stairs. Emma stepped in to follow him
“What the hell is eating him?” Whale wondered. He looked meaningfully down at Emma and tilted his head in Killian’s direction.
Emma didn’t waste any time. She kicked off her high heeled shoes and began sprinting up the stairs to their spot.
Killian’s hook and coat were strewn on the floor of the rooftop. And although she was breathing heavily, she could still hear Killian’s little sniffles.
“Killian?” she asked softly. When he turned his head, she saw the tears running down his cheeks. “Are you okay?” she asked worriedly, stepping closer to him.
He shook his head.
“Do you mind if I…?” she murmured. He nodded, rubbing his eyes. She came closer to him, slowly until they were standing next to one another. Gently, she pulled him close and cupped the back of his head like David Nolan had done for her. “You tell me when you’re ready.”
Killian’s arms tightened around her in a fierce hug. He leaned his head against hers and the two of them stood there until Killian’s breathing evened out and his tears stopped. “Sorry,” he whispered.
“No, don’t be,” she replied, not moving out of the embrace until he was ready. She pulled back when he did, but her hands still held onto his. “Are you okay?”
“Do you know what brought me to District 7, Swan?” Killian asked softly. She shook her head. “I lived in District 4 before this. My elder brother Liam was District 4’s tribute three years ago. He brushed up against a dreamshade plant, and it’s poison killed him before he realized it was too late.”
“Killian, I’m so sorry…”
“All I keep thinking about is how alone he must have felt when he died,” Killian choked out. “The entire night, I was thinking how lucky I was to have you and even Whale sometimes. And then I saw his mentors…” A sob ran through his body. “Why didn’t they protect him, Emma?”
She didn’t have an answer.
So she pulled him in close.