A/N: So as you can see, I've decided to continue this story! A big thank you to reviewers MarbleSharp and Amanda Katniss Granger! Also, I'd love some reader help coming up with questions for Foxface's interview. PM or review if there's something you'd like to see!
Render Unto Caesar
I have no memory of stepping out of line. In a single unlucky instant, my entire existence had been suddenly upended. I will not be a solar operator. I will not enjoy the desert silence. I will not live to see my nineteenth birthday. When I next came to myself I was stepping haltingly up to the stage, flanked by four grim-faced Peacekeepers.
As I mounted the stairs, I instinctively glanced to my father for comfort. I wish I had not. His eyes were wide and hollow; his face devoid of any color beneath the skin. I have only seen this devastated expression on his face twice: once when they told him my brother had died, and once the day of my mother's funeral. My fears magnified. Has he written me off so quickly?
Absolute silence fell over the square as Lora Fervan asked for volunteers. I spotted Cath's stricken face standing out among the other relieved girls, tears streaming down her cheeks. For a terrible, irrational instant I feared she might volunteer. But the allotted time expired with the silence unbroken. No one would take my place. My heart sank. I was going to the arena.
This final rejection hurt almost more than I could bear. I tore my eyes away from Cath. The alcohol-addled female victor, Yana, stared blankly into space on the far side of the stage, oblivious to the drama unfolding around her. My father was frozen in his seat. I wanted nothing more than for him to take me in his arms and protect me from this insanity. But we are both powerless in this cruel game. There were now Peacekeepers between my father and me and he had never been so close and yet so far away.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Faraday Cromwell watching me intently. He nodded his head ever so slightly towards his right shoulder. Towards a camera.
Drat. In the horror of the moment I had forgotten the cameras. All of Panem is watching me now. I must get a grip on myself. I swallowed my fear and straightened up, clasping my hands behind my back like we do during oral exams at school. The familiar posture helped ground me. I cannot afford to go to pieces now. Not when a potential sponsor could see my self-control and take notice of me. I must think strategically. Cromwell's head bobbed in a tiny nod of approval.
The mayor swallowed once, twice, but no words came. He looked anxiously to Lora. She reached into the boys' drum, her lacquered fingernails selecting another accursed slip of paper.
"Watt Gallegos!" she called out over the crowd, and a skinny boy from the fifteen-year-olds' row stumbled into the aisle separating the boys from the girls. His face was whiter than mine as he mounted the stage. I don't know him personally; he must be on one of the other Tracks at school. He has the hungry look that only the poorest of District 5 have, those who live on tesserae rations and whatever meager fare their desiccated gardens produce.
Watt's eyes rolled fearfully as he joined me on stage. He is small for fifteen and obviously terrified. I'll have a better chance to size him up later tonight, but I do not have high hopes for my district partner. After a moment, Lora called for volunteers. Watt looked hopefully out into the crowd, but of course nobody would take his place. His face fell as the allotted time expired. I could not help feeling a prickle of contempt for him. Did he really think anyone would wish to die in his place?
The mayor plunged onward with the remainder of the ceremony. He read the Treaty of Treason and said the customary few words before wishing us luck. He cannot help glancing back at my father as he does so. I focused on an invisible point on top of high voltage pylon across the square. The glass insulators glinted hopefully in the sunlight. It was all I could do to control my facial expression. I did not dare look into the crowd, for fear of spotting Cath again.
"District Five, your tributes: Lucretia de Vries and Watt Gallegos!" Lora announced over the crowd, as soon as he had finished. "May the odds be ever in your favor."
Things suddenly began to happen very quickly. There was a smattering of half-hearted, Peacekeeper-enforced applause. Watt and I shook hands at the mayor's behest. Lora and the Peacekeepers herded us off-stage. The mayor had to guide my father away from the stage after us. We were marched with little fanfare into the Justice Building, where there were two rooms specially set aside for Tribute use before we will be shipped to the Capitol. From the windows I could hear the relieved crowd dispersing back to their lives. I hated them for it.
I do not remember the details of interior of the room; only that I paced nervously inside. I compulsively smoothed the folds of my soft green dress, my reaping dress, again and again while I paced. The room was exactly twenty and one-half paces long. My mother always dressed me in green, she said, to bring out the fire in my hair and the amber in my eyes.
After what seemed an eternity, the door opened to reveal a Peacekeeper and my father. I was surprised but pleased when he stepped forward to embrace me immediately. I cannot remember the last time he held me in his arms; probably not since my mother's funeral. My father is an intellectual creature. I know he loves me deeply, but he has never been particularly affectionate. Neither of us has.
"I hoped we would never have to do this," he said, a note of sadness in his voice. He released me and placed his hands on my shoulders. "But it appears we must."
"I'm afraid," I finally admitted. There was no lying to my father. He can read me like one of his many books. The full brunt of the emotional chaos of the past few hours hit me in that moment, and tears began to sting my eyes. "I'm no warrior, Father."
"Lucretia, listen to me," my father said urgently. I looked up into his kind brown eyes. "It's just another test. The Games are just another test."
He removed his hands from his shoulders and turned to the window for a moment while I composed myself as best I could. My fingernails dug deep red crescents into my palms, but I did not cry when he turned back to face me.
"You do not need to be a warrior to win the Hunger Games," my father said, his strict, dispassionate tone cutting through my sorrow like a knife. I could tell it hurt him to seem so detached, so analytical. It hurt us both. But he knew this was what I needed in this moment. Any sympathy, any more emotion and I would have broken down completely. "All you need to do is survive. Your intelligence is a keen weapon, Lucretia. Use it. Train. Study survival. Study your opponents. Discover their weaknesses while addressing your own. This coming week will be the most important week of your life, daughter."
"I think we can agree on that," I replied, but my voice shook despite my best efforts to seem nonchalant.
"I will do what I can to assist you from here," my father added evenly.
He would sponsor me? Despite the gravity of the situation, I raised an eyebrow. Sponsorship is incredibly expensive. Even if my father were to bankrupt our family, would there be enough? Of course, he has many powerful friends all across Panem…perhaps if they were to all club together they might be able to afford the sponsorship fees. He smiled slightly at my expression, having followed my reasoning. He reached out to brush a stray strand of hair out of my face with an ink-stained forefinger.
"Lucretia, my Lucretia," he said, his voice lingering on the syllables of my name. "You have the discipline to survive the Arena. You have overcome so much already. You will overcome this as well."
My father's confidence tempered my general despair. He is a man of few words, and never in my lifetime have I seen him give praise where none was due. If he truly thought little of my chances in the Arena, he would have said so. For the first time today, I felt a very tiny bud of hope rise in my chest. But instead of words to respond, my voice made a choked sound and he held me tightly against his chest. The Peacekeeper was at the door far too soon, and my father's time was over. He sighed. Before he released me, he pressed a tiny book into my hand. "Remember what I have said," he whispered. He kissed my cheek lightly. "Make me proud."
I swallowed hard, forced back my sorrow, and stood straight as he left the room. "I will, Father."
I sank onto a stupidly ornate sofa as soon as he was gone, clutching the book so hard it hurt. Today, twenty-three other tributes will echo my words. Only one of us will make good on them. A commotion from outside caught my attention. I looked up from the carpeted floor. The door burst open to reveal Cath and the now harassed-looking Peacekeeper. Her cheeks were wet with tears, her blue eyes red and puffy.
"Cheer up," I said sarcastically, while the Peacekeeper made his retreat. "I'm not dead yet."
"Oh Cree, I never, ever thought they'd pick you!" she said, swiping tears angrily from her eyes. She thumped down onto the sofa beside me. "I'll have to share a desk with that insufferable Polarity Jenkins now!"
As usual, she said exactly the right thing to break the tension. We both laughed. There was a peculiar hollow quality about the sound that frightened us both. It seemed absurd that we were so focused on school, but we both had to keep some sense of normality. Even though I will be fighting for my life in less than a fortnight. "Well, you can keep my seat warm for me. And don't let her copy off you," I said. "She doesn't deserve to be top."
"Never!" Cath exclaims indignantly. Her face grew sober as she finally addressed the reason for my departure. "And you, Cree, don't trust anyone. Especially not Careers. They might be strong, I know it might seem the strategic choice to make allies, but alliances always end badly for someone and –" her voice choked and I felt tears in my own eyes again. I dug my fingernails into my palms mercilessly. I cannot cry, not even in front of Cath. "Well, you've just got to win! You've got to come back!"
"I will," I said flatly. Confidence is the first step in attaining any goal. If I want to come back from the Games, I cannot doubt myself, not ever. Now is as good a time as any to start believing it. "I won't be getting any knives in the back. I will come home, Cath. Cross your fingers for me."
"All of them," Cath replied promptly, demonstrating with a watery giggle. "Always. Dunno how I'll get my work done in class." I managed a tiny smile. Cath stayed with me until the appointed hour had come to a close. The Peacekeepers had to force her to leave. She managed to hug me once before they could drag her out.
My father and Cath. They are the only two people in Panem who cared enough to visit me before I boarded this train to the Capitol. I was escorted from my room surrounded by Peacekeepers. I noticed my father standing forlornly with the mayor in the entrance hall as we leave. He smiled at me sadly. Outside, a woman, flanked by a grim-faced man and several other children, wailed as Watt and I passed her. His face was tear-streaked and angry. I said nothing. His family, probably, I thought. Nursing my own pain at separation from my father, I cannot say I am particularly sympathetic to his plight as we were loaded on the train.
It's just another test, I thought, clinging desperately to my father's words. I'm the top student in District Five. I know how to take a test.
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