Merlot Apertif, 18, District One Male, Apertif Manor
“No, no, no; your posture's all wrong.”
Merlot blinked back into reality as his father's voice, soft yet grilling, was picked up by his ears.
“I'm sorry, Father,” Merlot said, lowering his head in shame. His dark auburn hair lowered from its styled up position ever so slightly. “It will not happen again.”
“As it should be,” his father replied. The man, around fifty, was stood behind Merlot, arms folded. Merlot was standing in front of a full-body mirror, able to see his father in the reflection. His attire consisted of an immaculate white dress suit, complete with coattails and bow-tie. The only item of clothing Merlot wore that was not white happened to be his shoes. “Now, stand up straighter next time: shoulders slightly parted, back vertical, feet firmly on the ground.”
“As you wish, Father,” Merlot replied, adjusting his posture accordingly. A faint smile appeared on his father's thin lips.
“Much more adequate,” his father said. “This is a far more presentable way to appear.”
“I am glad you think so,” Merlot said. “I am not ignorant in how much appearance will matter in the coming hours.”
“However, appearance will in no way matter if you miss your opportunity,” his father added. “You do recall the precise moment when you should make your movement?”
“Yes, Father,” Merlot said coolly. “When the young man has mounted the stage and made four steps towards the podium. I am not a fool, Father: I have been in Career training for the past eight years with enough success to be selected as this year's representative; therefore I believe I am capable of this.”
“Must I remind you to watch your tongue?” his father warned.
“No, Father. I apologise,” Merlot said. “I merely think my nerves have been frayed from spending all morning preparing for my public appearance; would it be too much to ask to take a brief respite?”
“You will have a half hour,” Merlot's father said. He glanced at the oak grandfather clock on the other side of the room. “The Reaping Day event does not start until two; I expect you back here by noon.”
“Of course, Father,” Merlot said.
“And don't leave the building in that attire,” his father said. “I do not want to risk ruining this outfit.”
“I wouldn't dream of it, Father,” Merlot said, bowing courteously before walking out of the room, and into the hallway.
The red carpet below softened his footsteps as Merlot continued along the hallway. There was a large door at the far end which led to the landing. However, before he moved to reach the door, Merlot turned to his right, and walked up to the window, nestled between two portraits of two different male ancestors of Merlot's; his great-great grandfather and great-great-great-great grandfather, respectively. He leaned against the windowsill, and looked out over the garden. His mother, a woman with expertly maintained auburn hair and porcelain skin, was sat at one of the tables, drinking late-morning tea. For most in District One, such a beverage was a rare commodity, but being the richest family in the district meant that such things were always available in abundance. Two of the maids were assisting his mother. All was as it should be.
Merlot moved away from the window, and instead carried on down the hallway, and out to the landing. The moment his polished shoes touched down on the mahogany floor, another door opened, revealing a nine year old boy with wild auburn hair bounding down towards him: Merlot's younger brother, Flagon.
“Merlot!” Flagon exclaimed, as naively joyous as ever. Merlot couldn't help but crack a rueful smile: the rule of the Apertif family was that the eldest son would be the one to carry on the tradition of the family – to continue to bring glory and fame to the Apertif name, which included participation in the Hunger Games. Merlot was the second child, but the first-born had been his elder sister, Chenas, who had cut all ties to the family following her eighteenth birthday. It had been five years since they had been in contact with her: Merlot's parents had as good as disowned her, and he didn't dare seek her out out of the fear of bringing shame to his family. Flagon, however, would never have to bear such responsibility or pressure; at worst, if Merlot failed, Flagon would merely have to father an heir to continue the tradition. Maybe he was supposed to feel envy, but Merlot was just relieved one as innocent as Flagon wouldn't be subjected to what he had gone through. “On a break?”
“Yes,” Merlot replied curtly. “Father gave me thirty minutes.”
“The old man's getting lenient,” Flagon sung, his eyes lighting up with mischief. Sometimes it was easy to forget the intelligent mind behind the boyish face.
“That he may be,” Merlot said.
“Maybe he'll let up making you go into the Hunger Games?” Flagon offered.
“We have just reached the stage of half hour breaks,” Merlot responded. “Be grateful for what we have.”
“I learned a new song on the piano earlier,” Flagon chirped. “Wanna hear?”
“Of course,” Merlot replied with a thin smile. “I always love your music.”
“Then come on!” Flagon exclaimed.
Merlot followed as his younger brother bounded down the hallway, full of energy. He remained at a much slower pace, maintaining his image even when not being watched. It was all part of his training: the Games were won by appeasing the cameras as much as they were by overpowering the competition. But, with Flagon, a brief respite from the conditioning was a welcome distraction. Merlot let himself smile as the first notes reached his ears.
Victoria Rochas, 18, District One Female, West Canal Training Facility
A light breeze blew through, pleasantly cooling Victoria's skin as she sat by the water. Her feet idly twirled in the clean water of the canal, and her cream sun dress rippled in the breeze, pleasant against her olive flesh that was still slightly sticky with sweat from training a couple of hours ago. A thick mane of brown hair fell to her shoulders, framing her face perfectly and accentuating her wide brown eyes and full lips. Two hours until Reaping Day officially began, and all was well.
“Vicky, do you think I'm a skank?” Well, not everything was well. Victoria looked up from the water to see Lazuli, her training partner, standing anxiously on the tiled mosaic that lined the west canal. Lazuli's long blonde hair was a mess, and her pale face was marred with blotchy red cheeks and puffed blue eyes.
“I'm sorry, Laz?” Victoria asked, standing up out of the water, taking a moment to slip her black dress shoes back on. Upon seeing her friend's distress, her scepticism softened. “What's the matter?”
“Cullinan,” Lazuli explained.
“What's that bastard done?” Victoria asked, folding her arms as she took a step towards Lazuli. This wasn't anything new; Lazuli and Cullinan had been in an on-off relationship for the past two years. But after each fall-out, each time Lazuli fell apart as a result, Victoria was there to put the pieces together. Only... now was hardly a good time; with less than two hours until she left the district for a few weeks, Victoria doubted the extent of her influence. Still, she couldn't just leave Lazuli like this.
“I saw him this morning to show him my reaping dress,” Lazuli said shakily. “Including that lipstick I bought from the market last week. He said I'm nothing but a trashy skank for blowing all my money on something as trivial as aesthetic appeal. I thought he loved me, Vicky... what went wrong?”
Victoria took a moment, mulling it over in her head. During the rough patches in their relationship, Lazuli became akin to a Capitol diva in terms of emotional instability, and Cullinan locked himself away and wallowed in self pity until they both ended up reconciling and continuing as if nothing happened. She had to tread lightly. “I wouldn't take it to heart,” she said. “He's a man; their world is function over form. Personally, I don't see a problem with both.” Lazuli was captivated by her every word. “Although, that was a definite low blow, calling you a skank. You drag his sorry ass out from wherever he's hiding, and you make him apologise.”
“You think he will?”
“Definitely,” Victoria reassured, softly placing a hand on Lazuli's shoulder. “He loves you too much.”
“Thanks,” Lazuli replied. She gave Victoria a warm smile. “Hey, maybe your angle for the Capitol should be the motherly type.”
“So soon after Hilda?” Victoria said sceptically, referring to District Ten's victor from three years back. “They'd get bored of me before the bloodbath was done with.”
“Then what's your angle gonna be? Or are you still not allowed to tell me?” Part of the final phase of training involved private tutoring on angle and how to play the cameras; it was kept a secret from all the other trainees. After all, they couldn't have a repeat of the fiftieth Games where both girls from One decided to play the seductive temptress role together. The one with the bigger breasts lasted ten days longer.
“Warrior,” Victoria replied coyly.
“She's more of a soldier than a warrior,” Victoria said. “Think ancient-world Roman gladiators. That type.”
“Ah,” Lazuli said. “I think the last person to do that was from Two ten years or so ago. It'll go over great.”
“Hence why Primo Amaranth advised it,” Victoria said. “I think he went above and beyond in terms of coaching.”
“Think he's making up for his son's failures?” Lazuli offered.
“He has a son?” Victoria enquired. “I didn't know.”
“Yeah, he's in training,” Lazuli explained. “Second year, goes by the name Cris. Kid can't use a weapon to save his life, and his only saving grace is his innate clumsiness. I think Primo put him there just to humour the boy; he wouldn't last two minutes in the arena.”
“Oh,” Victoria said.
“Anyway, enough about that,” Lazuli said with a smile; already her troubles were forgotten, thankfully. She jabbed Victoria's chest. “This is your big day, Vicky! You'll be the pride and joy of the district by sundown!”
“I'm only half of One's representation,” Victoria stated. “Speaking of which, know anything about my district partner?”
“Rich kid,” Lazuli said. “Comes from a line of nobility dating back to before the Decimation. Old world rich.”
“How'd they end up in One?” Victoria asked, astounded at Lazuli's ability to garner information about people with ease.
“Capitol citizens that defected at the start of the Rebellion: old money,” Lazuli said. “Realised they picked the wrong side too late, and got stuck here. If anything, I think the father's pushing him into it for status purposes.”
“Huh,” Victoria mused. “Interesting. Does he know of me?”
“Doesn't get out much,” Lazuli said. “He got a private instructor to train him up, but the old man insisted on the angle. So if the guy's a head case, he'll be blowing his family's horn every minute of the day. I doubt it though; apparently he's quite the clever one.”
“How did you find this out?” Victoria asked.
“My cousin's the instructor,” Lazuli explained. “We're pretty close, and since my best friend's the tribute, she decided to spill the beans a little.”
“Well, I appreciate it,” Victoria said. “I almost wish you were coming with me; my observation skills are weaker than the escort's.”
“Yeah, but I wouldn't want to face you in the arena,” Lazuli said jokingly.
A couple of blocks away, the bells on the Justice Building chimed out. Every citizen in one knew that chime: the square was to be cleared for Reaping Day to commence soon.
“What're you gonna wear?” Lazuli asked as she and Victoria walked across the bridge a little further downstream. The sound of a car engine could be heard once the bells had stopped.
“Mom saved up for this really pretty dress and cardigan,” Victoria said. “It's hardly Capitol, but I like it. What about you?”
“Just a cute strapless dress,” Lazuli chirped. “I want to look hot without upstaging you.”
“Plus, you might just win Cullinan over once again, Laz,” Victoria said with a wink. Lazuli let out a laugh, and Victoria smiled widely. There was an aura of positivity in the air, and she welcomed it eagerly. Inside, her stomach fluttered as the minutes ticked away towards the moment she would claim her place as tribute.
Merlot Apertif, 18, District One Male, Navette Town Square
He sat at the back of the bus, looking fixedly out of the window as they drove down to the centre of town. Inside, the bus was full of life as youths ranging from twelve to eighteen sat around, full of anticipatory energy for the reaping. Merlot spoke to nobody, instead working his angle even now, or at least the angle his father had so foolishly put forth. Instructor Jasper had advised he instead follow the angle of a bearer of both brains and brawn, and basically not be a stuck up rich brat. The Capitol loathed district dwellers who thought they had any wealth. Of course, his father wanted him to behave as a true Apertif and be above the rest of them, but the Career alliance would never have room for someone like that.
His father just didn't understand: the Games were something you played by moving the pieces three moves in advance. Personality and skills only got you so far. Even now, Merlot's reaping outfit was something to be echoed during Interview Night; nothing was left to chance.
“Hey, you looking forward to the reaping?” Merlot turned away from the window to see a boy, barely twelve, sitting next to him with wide eyes. His voice was still high as a child's. “I can't wait to see who our tributes will be; do you think we'll get a victor?”
“I hope so,” Merlot said with a thin smile; the boy's fervour reminded him of Flagon. “After all, I am volunteering.”
“What? You?” The boy's face was awestruck. “I'm talking to the representative! This is awesome!”
“I'm pleased I live up to your standards,” Merlot said, bowing his head. Humble was good; humble made him human. It had crossed his mind to ask the boy to sponsor him, but that would have come off as desperate. No, his charisma would be enough to win them over.
The bus jolted suddenly as it was stopped by Peacekeepers. Merlot looked out to see the roadblock preventing traffic from getting close to the square. Luckily it was only a block away, so it wasn't as if their punctuality was going to be hindered.
“All right, time to go,” the driver called back. Instantaneously everyone stood up, smoothing over their reaping outfits in case they were reaped lest they ruin their two minutes of fame.
“Hey, when you win, don't forget me,” the boy said. “It'd be so cool to know a victor.”
“I'll try and keep you in mind,” Merlot said. The boy fist-pumped the air and hurried down the aisle to join his friends. Merlot was the last off the bus.
The sky was a clear blue as he walked down the street towards the square. Merlot's mind wandered to his family: they'd be in the spectators' section by now, at the far back. He imagined his mother, subdued but pleasantly anticipating the afternoon's events from under her parasol; he imagined Flagon, jumping up and down with excitement, and he imagined his father, silently watching, expecting Merlot to perform well. Luckily, Merlot wasn't known to disappoint.
Looking ahead, Merlot saw a large crowd of teenagers standing in what barely amounted to a line. Each was dressed impeccably in their finest outfits for the cameras. He idly glanced up to see a cameraman filming from atop a jeweller's. Idly, Merlot adjusted his hair before continuing down the cobble path. The façade started now.
He joined the back of the queue, listening in on the conversations of those in front of him. At first, he was disinterested; menial banter could only be entertaining for so long, but this changed when they mentioned the female tribute. Merlot tried to not look to inquisitive as he listened, the sounds of the town square growing in volume with every step.
“Yeah, she's from my training centre,” a girl with brown hair in pigtails said, maybe fourteen or so. “She ranked third in weapons, but her skill with angle is something else.” So he was dealing with an actress.
“Wasn't her personal instructor Primo Amaranth?” an older boy asked her. Merlot raised an eyebrow; Primo and his wife Vesuvia were a pair of victors who had turned the Games into a sport. The Capitol had commended them for changing how One viewed the Games, and for dispelling rebellious thoughts within the district. In Primo's Games, the girl from Six had used sign language to relay messages to Avoxes from an underground group within her district. Three hundred Avoxes had been executed following the Games, and three hundred Six citizens were publicly avoxed by the Victory Tour. Likewise, Vesuvia's Games had the tributes from Eight and Eleven all jump off their platforms during the countdown. Parcel Day was cancelled for the next victor from those districts. As such, their flawless media personalities prevented any backlash to District One, provided they make the Games into a family tradition and have each child they bear train and volunteer at eighteen. Their ability to play the cameras was inhuman.
“The Capitol's gonna love her,” the girl said. She was interrupted by the Peacekeeper at the sign-in desk.
“Hand,” she said. The girl placed her finger on a machine which pricked it; the blood caused a screen to display her name and age. “Go join your section.”
“See you at the after party,” the boy called out to her as she vanished into the throes of well-dressed teens. He was then also filed in, and finally Merlot stood in front of the sign-in desk.
“Hand,” she said. Complying, Merlot placed his hand on the machine; he winced momentarily as his finger was pricked and the blood taken. A matter of seconds later, the screen lit up with his personal details: MERLOT APERTIF, 18. The Peacekeeper nodded at him. “Go join your section.”
Merlot walked through into the town square, amidst the masses of teens that mulled about as Peacekeepers half-heartedly herded them into age and gender groups. On instinct, Merlot stood near the back, watching with a mild curiosity as the others were grouped up for the cameras, and as the mayor, escort, and the two mentors stood up on the stage in front of the Justice Building. Merlot remained focused despite the screaming urge to look at the countless cameras that were panning over him. Did anyone watching realise that he was to volunteer yet?
After another ten minutes, the square was packed and silent as the bells chimed out on the hour: it was two. Merlot was nestled between two much larger boys who had unfortunately only grasped the concept of physical strength, and obviously lacked acting skills. Even now, they both appeared as if they were willing to snap about fifty necks. It was easy to tell who was going to be shipped off to Peacekeeper recruitment after the Games. Attack dogs were always valued.
“Welcome, District One, to the reaping of the fifty-seventh annual Hunger Games,” the escort, a wiry man laced with piercings said with quiet anticipation; the man's name had slipped from Merlot's mind. “At this point, I am aware there are two eager volunteers within this crowd primed to claim the stage, but formalities are formalities.”
The escort, who re-introduced himself as Bartholomew, read a speech composed by President Snow himself, before passing the baton to the mayor of the district, whose sole purpose was to read the Treaty of Treason in damning tones, and announcing the two mentors for this year: Vesuvia Amaranth and Inca Sterling, a lanky man with olive skin and greying hair who had previously won the 26th Games through leading a large alliance of kids right into the Careers, and letting them tear each other up, and finishing off the survivors over the next few days. Brains and brawn, to put it simply.
Once the speech from the mayor was over with, Bartholomew reclaimed the stage as the crowd picked up interest. “And now for the main event,” he announced as he approached the girls' bowl. “Now, for those who aren't planning on volunteering, remember to at least try and appear dignified for your replacements.” Rather indifferent, Bartholomew grabbed the first name from the bowl. “Angelica DeCoin.”
The girl in question hurriedly approached the stage. She wore a light blue frock and had brown hair in pigtails. After a few seconds of observing, Merlot realised this was the girl he lined up with. Angelica showed no fear of being on that stage; instead, she was surveying the crowd with anticipation, waiting for this year's girl to present herself.
The crowd of girls at the back parted as a young woman with dark olive skin and thick brown hair walked towards the stage confidently. She wore a pale green evening gown with a white cardigan that neither revealed nor concealed; Merlot took note of this angle she was playing. Certainly she was taking advantage of her beauty, but sexy? Out of the question.
“And your name, dear?” Bartholomew asked with considerably more enthusiasm as Angelica scampered off the stage.
“Victoria Rochas,” the volunteer replied curtly. She said her name with power, making a clear statement that this name was not one to be lost to the void of misplaced betting slips when the arena came around.
“Excellent,” Bartholomew said with a thin smile. “Your female tribute, Victoria Rochas.” There was a pause in the ceremony to allow the crowd to applaud. It started from where Victoria's friends and training partners were likely to be, the back end of the girls, and rippled outwards, encompassing the entire square. Merlot, of course, joined in; it was only courteous to commend his fellow competitor for her success so far.
Once the applause faded, Bartholomew addressed the crowd. “And now for the young man,” he said. Crossing over to the males' bowl, he grabbed a slip, and read from it. “Loman Valor.”
“Haha, this is great!” From the sixteen year old section sauntered a young man with ash blonde hair and a face victimised by acne. Merlot rolled his eyes; the boy was milking his one minute of fame for all its worth. Loman even had the audacity to wave at the cameras as he continued his leisurely stroll to the stage; he only stopped when he reached the steps. Merlot watched intently as Loman ascended the steps, and began to walk towards the centre. He counted the steps: one, two, three, four...
His voice was powerful and commanded attention. And similarly to Victoria, the crowd parted around Merlot, allowing him direct access to the stage.
“Aw, come on! Already?” Loman whined as Merlot reached the stage, and approached him.
“If you are so fixated on remaining in the gaze of the cameras, then I can easily withdraw from volunteering,” Merlot said matter-of-factly. It took the boy a few seconds to register the implications, but when he did, he wasted no time in vanishing into the crowd, lost to the cameras.
“I have to admit that I am impressed by that display,” Bartholomew said with a genuine smile. “And your name?”
“Merlot Apertif,” Merlot responded with a bow.
“Regal,” Bartholomew commented. The escort then herded Merlot and Victoria together centre stage. Merlot scanned the crowd; he couldn't see his family in the section of spectators surrounding the potential tributes. But he just knew that they were captivated by his every movement. He repressed a smile at the thought of Flagon beaming with pride. “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the tributes of District One: Victoria Rochas and Merlot Apertif!”
Merlot and Victoria shook hands, and the pair found themselves making eye contact. Merlot gave a thin smile whilst Victoria gave a slight nod. They approved of each other.
Victoria Rochas, 18, District One Female, District One Justice Building
The goodbye room was fairly flashy. Thick purple curtains hung over a disproportionately small window overlooking the canal; a velvet sofa was against the wall opposing a rich mahogany bookshelf stacked with fine literature. And underfoot was a plush red carpet. Victoria was half of mind to remove her shoes and just walk across the floor, feeling the luxury fabric against her bare feet. But she knew better: there were eyes and ears everywhere.
So instead she grabbed a book from the shelf, and sat at the sofa, idly thumbing through the pages. It was an autobiography of some Head Gamemaker from bygone times, detailing the reasoning and motives behind the arenas from the 9th to the 15th Games. Victoria had just focused on a section involving carnivorous plant Muttations when the door opened.
Her first visitors were her family members. Her father entered first, followed by her weeping mother.
“You were just stunning, Vicky,” her father said, pulling in for an embrace. Victoria accepted it; she hadn't had the time to be close with her family during the last six months of training. “They're gonna love you in the Capitol.”
“Thanks, Dad,” Victoria said pleasantly. Despite herself, she could feel the onset of a lump in her throat. Of all the times to get emotional. “I appreciate it.”
“Just give them a good show, eh?” her father said. He pulled away from the embrace; Victoria felt a twinge, wishing it could have gone on for just a minute longer. “Be the star you were always meant to be.”
“Of course I will,” Victoria said with a smile. The dialogue was the interrupted by her mother sniffling. “Mom?”
“I'm sorry,” her mother said; her eyes were blotchy and tear-stained. “You just looked so, so beautiful up there... my little girl.” Victoria let her mother cry onto her shoulder. “Just be safe, all right?”
That was it, then: her mother was terrified of losing her daughter. Victoria smiled. “Don't worry about that,” she said. “My training won't be for naught; the worst I'll have to face is District Two: out of twenty three competitors, there are only two to worry about.” She looked at her mother: the woman was still distressed. “I'll win; I promised.”
“Oh, Vicky...” her mother whimpered. “I'm so sorry; you're my daughter at the end of the day. And until I know you're safe, I won't rest.”
“I'll be fine,” Victoria reassured, as if this was nothing more than a child starting a new school. “In fact, just so you know, I'll give you a message every evening in the arena after the anthem. That's a promise.” The feeling to cry grew with every second this felt more like a permanent goodbye. “I'll be back before you know it, though.”
“I love you so, so much,” her mother whispered, kissing her lightly on the forehead. “Never forget that.”
The touching moment was promptly interrupted by a Peacekeeper poking his head around the door. “Time's up,” he said stiffly. “You've got one more visitor.”
“We love you,” her father said as they left. “Remember to put on a good show!”
“Love you too!” Victoria called out as they vanished behind the door. There was just enough time for her to let out an anguished sigh before her second visitor appeared: Lazuli.
“Vicky!” Lazuli exclaimed, rushing to embrace Victoria. “You were great!”
“Thanks, Laz,” Victoria said warmly. “You think so?”
“The Capitol is going to L-O-V-E it!” Lazuli said excitedly. “You followed your angle to a T!”
“I'm glad,” Victoria said. “I've got good mentors as well, it seems.”
“Yeah,” Lazuli said. “Having Vesuvia Amaranth mentor you? I'm jealous.”
“Don't be,” Victoria said. “With her high standards? It'll be a miracle if I last to the Chariot Parade, let alone the arena.”
Lazuli laughed. “Then may the odds be ever in your favour,” she giggled. Then, a surprised look crossed her face. “Oh! I nearly forgot!” Lazuli reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a hairpin. “Your token.”
“Really?” Victoria asked with surprise.
“Well yeah,” Lazuli said. “I can't have my friend go into the arena without a piece of me there, right? It'd just be wrong.”
“Thank you,” Victoria said, receiving the pin. She studied it for a moment; it was long, embedded with deep blue gems and had a gold lining. “It's gorgeous.”
“I'm glad,” Lazuli said. “I sold my training whip to get it at the market.”
“With the lipstick that branded you a skank?” Victoria asked airily.
“The exact same,” Lazuli said. “And I took your advice; we're back together again, and Cullinan's taking me to the diner tomorrow to watch the Parade.”
“That's great,” Victoria said. “I hope you two work out in the end.”
“Well if you think that's good,” Lazuli said mischievously. “Wait until you hear what he has planned for the night you win.”
Victoria's eyebrows shot up. “Lazuli Jasper!” she teased. “Look at you go!”
“I'll spare you the details when that happens,” Lazuli chirped with a wink.
“Good,” Victoria replied, giggling, as the Peacekeeper entered to break up the farewell.
“See you later,” Lazuli said. “I'll be rooting for you!” Lazuli smiled, but it was a sad smile; a complete contrast to her flirty grin a few moments ago. So even Lazuli couldn't entirely forget Victoria wasn't guaranteed to have victory handed to her on a silver platter.
But she could damn well try for it.
Merlot Apertif, 18, District One Male, District One Justice Building
He sat in a dignified manner on the sofa, idly gazing at the menagerie of tomes that were across from him. But he only looked; he would betray the angle for his father if he were to do something as common as read a book that had likely been touched by a deceased tribute. It would be too vulgar.
So instead Merlot pretended to find his right hand was the most interesting thing in the universe; he traced the veins leading along the surface, endeavouring to be marvelled by the pale blue colour they were.
His family entered two minutes later. His father first; he'd have chance to personally say goodbye to his mother and Flagon after the last-minute coaching was complete. Merlot masked his disdain as the man approached him.
“Adequate,” his father said. This was the closest to a compliment Merlot would ever hear, so he bowed his head respectfully.
“I owe it to you,” Merlot replied. “My gratitude, Father.” There was a brief pause as his father eyed him up and down. “And about the Games—”
“You will receive no less than a training score of ten,” his father said with absolute authority. “Any less will bring shame to the Apertif name.”
“Of course,” Merlot said, taking advantage of the pause in the lecture.
“I also expect to see you as the head of the Career alliance,” his father continued. “Disregard most of what this instructor Jasper has told you; playing second fiddle would be entirely undignified for the likes of you.”
“Yes, Father,” Merlot said, finding it progressively harder to humour the man. “I understand.”
“Then I will see you next when you leave the home-bound victory train,” his father said. And then, without so much as a goodbye, he was gone.
Before he could ruminate on his father's words, the door opened again, revealing Merlot's mother, and Flagon. “Merlot!” Flagon exclaimed. The child swiftly ran into Merlot, sitting on his brother's lap.
“Hello, Flagon,” Merlot said warmly with a smile. He looked up. “Mother.”
“Son,” his mother replied. She was an uptight, distant woman who had little to do with her children after giving birth. Even now, there was a chill in their dynamic. But distant was better than overbearing. “Already a man of your own right, about to embark on an endeavour to bring further glory to the Apertif name.” She remained impassive, but Merlot detected bitterness beneath her words. Maybe she cared more than she let on.
“Did Father say farewell?” Flagon asked.
“He gave me further instructions,” Merlot replied. “We remained professional.”
“Affection has never been part of his repertoire of skills,” his mother offered. “My condolences.”
“He probably loves you in his own way,” Flagon said innocently. “It has to be better than believing he sees you as nothing but a tool to selfishly make himself richer.”
Both Merlot and his mother stared at Flagon, wide-eyed. The young boy's deceptive intelligence had surfaced once more; in this moment of painstaking clarity, it was evident that Flagon knew his father better than any had suspected.
“True as that may be, for appearances' sake we must remain a unit,” their mother said knowingly. “A dysfunctional family will hinder Merlot greatly in the Games.”
“Yeah,” Flagon said. An instant later, he was smiling at Merlot. “Want to see your token?”
“Oh?” Merlot enquired. “What is it?”
“...This!” Flagon announced, pulling out a pendant with a piano key at the end. “It's from my first piano; I think it's a neat little reminder of me.”
“Thank you, Flagon,” Merlot said, smiling as he attached the pendant. “I shan't remove it.”
“Great!” Flagon said.
“I do hope for the best,” his mother said. “However, if the unfortunate does transpire, know that I do in fact love you, even if it is something I do not characteristically display.”
“I love you as well,” Merlot said honestly. His mother then lightly planted a kiss on his cheek. “Thank you.”
“To seeing you once more,” his mother said. A thin smile crossed her porcelain face, remaining until the Peacekeeper came to take them away.
“See you soon, Merlot!” Flagon called out enthusiastically before vanishing from sight and sound. Merlot remained sitting there, a warm grin on his face, the tiniest stirrings of anticipation within his stomach.
Chenas never showed up.
It was to be expected, and was perfectly reasonable, given her disowning of the Apertif family, but even still, Merlot felt the slightest disappointment in his chest as the Peacekeeper came in to announce the end of the goodbye hour, and to corral Merlot and Victoria out of the Justice Building, and out to Bartholomew, the car, and the cameras.