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Enlightenment

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Brutus was in 5 for his tribute’s Victory tour when he accidentally peed on the tracker jacker nest. He’d had just a smidge too much to drink that evening at a bar on the outskirts of town and he wandered out to relieve himself in the scrubby desert hedgerow. No one saw him stumble out the side door, so no one thought to warn him that in these parts, the wasps liked to build their homes in the shrubbery. He didn’t understand, at first, what the faint buzzing sound was that interrupted the sibilance of his stream, but as soon as he felt the first sharp sting in his thigh, he knew, and he turned and ran, penis flopping, urine still flowing.

It sounded like a funny story in hindsight,  but he could have easily died, if not for the powerline worker who’d found him just as the awful, searing pain began to give way to the hallucinations, and Brutus knew it.

Brutus also knew that said powerline worker, whose name, he learned when he woke 2 days later, was David Crossley, could have just left him there to rot. They were none too fond of him in any of the outlying districts, and 5 was no exception.

But David Crossley, known for his heart of gold, had immediately sprinted into the bar to call for a doctor and had returned to crouch down at Brutus’s side and pluck the stingers from his flesh.

And what was more, he came to visit Brutus in the hospital after he regained consciousness, bringing along his little 7-year-old daughter Finch, an inquisitive bundle of knees and elbows and tangled red hair adorned with a pair of copper-wire rimmed eyeglasses.

“What is 2 like? My teacher says you have prairie dogs there. What are they like? Have you ever seen one? I asked her what prairie meant, but she yelled at me and made me stand in the corner. Do you know what prairie means? Does it rain a lot there? What do you eat? What is masonry? What’s the Capitol like? I heard people there have blue skin and purple skin. Is that true? How does their skin get like that?”

Exhausted as he was, Brutus had felt enough gratitude to at least indulge the man’s daughter a little by giving the shortest answers possible to the volley of questions she fired at him, but her father cut her off when she asked him if he’d killed people in his games.

“That’s enough, Little Bird,” he said. “This nice man is very tired, and I’m sure your questions aren’t helping any.” He turned back to Brutus. “Well, Sir, I’m glad to see you’re feeling better. I heard the nurses saying you’d be able to leave the day after tomorrow. Safe travels to 4.”

Brutus, who wasn’t used to such kindness from anyone, let alone from total strangers who should by all rights hate him, actually choked up, and, unable to speak, he offered David Crossley his hand in thanks.

xxxxxxxxxx

When he returned to the Academy at the end of the tour, Marcus, one of the other instructors, sought him out immediately.

“You know Cato Hadley? From the 7-year-old class?”

“That the little runt with the blond hair and the gray eyes?”

“That’s the one. He beat up Rocky today.”

Rocky?!” Rocky was 10 years old. Large for his age. Generally considered the top of his class in both hand-to-hand and swordsmanship.

“Yeah. It was a sight to see. And Rocky, that little shit, he came away blubbering like a baby.” Marcus rolled his eyes, disgust dripping from his voice. “We had to pull the little guy off of him.”

“We?”

“Yeah. Me and Enobaria. I wondered if maybe you’d want to take him under your wing. See what you can make of him. Kid’s got potential. I got a good feeling about this one. I think we’ll be sending him into the Third Quarter Quell.”

Brutus found Cato sitting on one of the benches outside of the weapons building, digging in the dirt with a long, pointed stick.

“Hey there son, I heard you beat up a kid twice your size today,” he said, taking a seat beside him.

“Yeah.” The boy’s voice was dull, and his cheeks were tear-stained.

“What’s wrong?” Brutus asked. “Are those bothering you?” He pointed to Cato’s hands, the knuckles split and bleeding.

“No.” The boy scrubbed at his cheek with his hand.

“Well then what is it?”

“I’m stupid.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Rocky said I was. And he’s right. I can’t read like the other kids. I can’t get my letters right. And I failed my math quiz. I heard the teachers talking about how they were gonna have to put me in rem...rem...remi--”

“Remedial classes?” Brutus finished for him.

“Yeah. See! I can’t even say that right.”

Brutus laughed at him but it was a warm laugh. “No seven-year-old can say remedial. Look, so you’re stupid. So what? It doesn’t matter. Everyone’s very impressed with what you did. I wish I’da been there to see it. I came to ask if you’d like to start training just with me a few times a week.”

Cato’s face practically lit up. “Really?”

“Yeah. But no more crying, you hear? Victors don’t cry.”

“Yes sir,” Cato said, sitting up a little taller.

xxxxxxxxxx

“Hey there Foxy.”

Great. Wonderful. Lovely. Finch didn’t look up from her book. The nickname, she knew, was a facetious one, meant to mock her about both her sly, vulpine features and her undesirability to the opposite sex.

“I said hey there Foxy.”

She still didn’t look up.

So Garrett Cooper, the richest, most popular, most gorgeous, most sought-after boy in the entire senior class, plucked the book from her hands and tossed it into the trash.

Then he plopped down next to her and took the other half of the one roll she had for lunch right out from under her and stuffed it in his mouth.

Finch gave up. “What do you want?”

“I need you to write my report on the First Quarter Quell.” Crumbs spilled out of his mouth and onto his lap, and Finch wondered why on earth the other girls found him attractive.

“Go to hell.”

His hand was in her hair immediately, yanking her head backwards.

“You write that fucking report and give it to me tomorrow morning or I’ll snap these in half,” and he swiped her eyeglasses right off her face, dangling them just above her reach. Finch could feel the entire lunchroom’s eyes on her, could hear the titters from the tables where the popular girls and boys sat, and the nervous laughter from the ones where the less popular ones stationed themselves.

“Fine,” she growled, her face warm. She hated feeling humiliated, hated it. She snatched her glasses back from him.

“Good girl,” he said and patted her cheek mockingly as he stood up to walk away.

Finch wanted to cry but mostly she was just relieved that it was over with. At least for the day.

“She’s such a fucking nerd and she’s so weird looking. She’ll probably die a virgin.” she heard Lacey Smalls say in her soft high-pitched voice, and her whole table erupted into giggles.

xxxxxxxxx

She figured out how to get that bitch Lacey back later that afternoon.

She exited school along with everyone else, but waited around the corner until after everyone had left, as usual, and then she began her routine.

Shimmy up the drainpipe.

Crouch low to the roof and slip through the access panel and down into the maintenance room.

Open the door, set up the ladder in the hallway, climb said ladder, slide the ceiling tile to the side.

Hop up into the ceiling (careful not to step on any tiles of course--balance was key here).

Slip into the air duct, slide along it for about ten yards.

Drop down--carefully--into the ceiling above the cafeteria storeroom.

Two tiles forward, four to the right. Drop down onto the top shelf of the stand that held the commercial-sized cans of vegetables.

Climb on down to the floor.

Fill up her knapsack with rolls and cheese and apples (just enough that no one would notice anything missing).

Repeat the whole process in reverse.

But today, just as she was almost to the ceiling, she glanced down and to her right and she saw the ketchup packets.

An idea formed in her mind.

She laughed and swiped up one--just one--and then she swung herself up into the ceiling.

xxxxxxxxxx

“Oh my god, Lacey!” Gretchen Nichols hissed, just as the entire hallway started to point and laugh as Lacey strode confidently down the center of it after first period.

“What?”

Gretchen grabbed her arm and whispered into her ear, and then Lacey’s eyes widened in horror and she craned her neck around to look at the bright red splotch staining the spot right between her ass cheeks.

“Gross!” Garrett exclaimed.

Lacey erupted into tears and fled into the bathroom. Finch wondered how long it would take her to figure out that it was just ketchup and not blood.

The most brilliant part of the whole thing wasn’t even part of Finch’s plan; she’d had no idea that Lacey would wear a white skirt to school that day.

xxxxxxxxxx

Butterflies in his stomach. It sounded so girly. So weak. But Cato had to admit that it was an apt description for what he was feeling right now. He had never been so excited, so impatient, in his life.

The video seemed interminable this year. He wanted to punch Paris, who seemed to be doing everything--walking across the stage to the glass bowl, drawing out the female tribute’s name, walking back to the microphone, unfolding the slip of paper, taking in a deep breath before reading out the name of some girl Cato didn’t know (it didn’t matter anyway; Clove was going and everyone knew it)--in sloooooooooow mmmmooooooootshuuuuun.

And then finally.

“Sai An--”

“I volunteer!” Cato called before Paris even finished announcing the chosen male’s name, one foot already in the center aisle (he had purposely chosen the spot closest to the inside and at the front of the 18 year old boys’ section, and, of course, no one had stopped him).

“Well my goodness! Two volunteers!” Paris exclaimed, as though this didn’t happen every year. As though he hadn’t already known exactly which two students from the Academy would be joining him onstage. As though he hadn’t met them in person the day before.

xxxxxxxxxx

Reaping Day was the same every year. The sun beating down onto the back of Finch’s neck, the dust coating her legs. Stupid Prince Peabody (who named their kid Prince? Honestly? And the alliteration. Really?) sashaying to the front of the stage in his ridiculous white high-heeled boots and overly enunciating his words as he gushed about the special message brought to the people of District 5 “all the way from the Cap-i-tol.” The awkward feeling of being squished in like sardines with the other girls in her age group, but still alone, with no brood of girlfriends to link arms with and gossip to.

The same sickening sense of terror that gnawed at her stomach and made her break out in a cold sweat.

The only thing that changed was that each time Finch moved further and further away from the stage, and this year, for her last reaping, she found herself in the very back row.

That, and, this year, the name that Prince Peabody drew from the glass bowl was hers.

Wait, what?

“Miss Crossley? Finch Crossley? Where are you dear?”

Finch couldn’t answer, her mouth frozen in a perfect 0. But the girls to either side and in front of her answered for her without a word, turning to look at her while stepping back a pace, as though she had some kind of contagious disease. Like leprosy or the black plague.

“There you are! Come on up, girl. Don’t be shy!”

And then she felt one of the Peacekeepers that ringed the perimeter of the holding pen reach across the rope enclosure and nudge her, and she made her way through the sea of blurry faces that parted effortlessly. Like Moses and the Red Sea.

Finch--normally so graceful and lithe-- was so out of it that she actually tripped over her own feet as she made her way up the rough wooden staircase and onto the stage, bruising her knees and catching a sliver in the palm of one of her hands.

“Oh my! Careful now dear!” Prince said as she picked herself up, and there were a few titters from the front of the crowd, but for the most part no one laughed at her clumsiness. The air in their lungs was too busy expelling sighs of relief if they were on the girls’ side, and being held in fear on the boys’ side.

xxxxxxxxxx

They bawled. Her brothers. Hyde was 11 and Gavin was 9, and she’d filled in as their mother for the last three years, since their real one had died of cancer.

And her father, when they wheeled him in, was devastated. He was utterly undone and he wailed as he grasped the fabric of his daughter’s dress in his hands.

“Take it, take it,” he cried, pressing the thin copper band that had served as her mother’s wedding ring into her palm.

Finch was shaking but her pity for her father and her brothers was stronger than her fear. It was so cruel. It was so unfair. To have their mother and wife and now their only sister and daughter ripped from them.

And then the fear did take over, but it wasn’t for herself. How are they going to eat?

But before she could try to come up with a solution, the Peacekeepers interrupted and said it was time to go, and she kissed them all achingly and whispered goodbye.

She didn’t promise that she would come back to them. They didn’t beg her to try.

They all knew that her days were numbered.

xxxxxxxxxx

They were in the train on the way to the Capitol and Cato was still too amped up to pay any attention as the rest of them watched the replays of the other reapings.

“Oh shit,” Brutus said when they called the District 5 female’s name.

“What?” said Enobaria.

“Remember when I got stung by those tracker jackers in 5?”

“Yeah.”

Brutus sighed and rubbed his hand across his forehead. “The guy who found me. That’s his daughter.”

“You remember that?”

“How could I forget? He could have left me for dead. David Crossley. That’s his name. And I couldn’t exactly remember what his daughter was called, but I knew it was some kind of bird. And I’ll never forget that red hair. So distinctive. She was about 7 then. So she’s the right age now. Shit.”

“Sucks to be her,” said Cato, tossing a peanut into the air and catching it in his mouth.

Clove snickered.

xxxxxxxxxx

Finch and Tate Odom, the fifteen-year-old male tribute, sat on the train in terrified silence as Prince chattered on and on about god knew what. Something about hot chocolate and rose bubble baths and a bunch of other shit they’d get to experience in the Capitol.

“Shut up Prince,” said a gruff voice from behind them. Finch turned her head to see Rush Petersen, the youngest of District 5’s living Victors. He had won the 49th games at the age of 16, mostly, by his own admission, because they’d been held in a desert environment that year and he’d been the only one who’d known how to survive the harsh conditions.

He held a glass of ice water in each hand and he held them out to Finch and Tate before plopping down in the armchair across from them.

“First of all,” he said. “I’m sorry this happened to you. But I promise that I will do everything in my power to try to help you both. Today, though, I think we should start by watching the recaps of the reapings.”

District 1: The girl, Glimmer was gorgeous. Long blond hair, big brown eyes, tall and slender with curves in all the right places. She looked like she belonged on the arm of a rich bureaucrat, wearing diamonds and sipping champagne. Marvel was also quite good looking. Tall, dark and handsome, though a little lean for a male Career in Finch’s opinion. He had a wide goofy grin and his eyes sparkled merrily.

District 2: Clove. Tiny and dark with a surly expression. Finch wondered how anyone that slight could be a Career, until the commentators announced that she was known for her prowess at throwing knives. Cato. Tall and built and blond with gray eyes as cold as ice. His expression was one of pride and contempt. It was insufferable, really.

District 3: Brigita. Small with dark hair and big, kind-looking eyes. She stared off mournfully to the side and Finch assumed she was looking at her family. Aaron. Also small with dark hair. Bawling his eyes out. Bloodbath casualty. Finch wasn’t trying to be insensitive, but really if she looking at things realistically…

District 4: Serena. As gorgeous as Glimmer. Long, thick straight hair so black it looked almost blue. Tall but slender. East Asian descent, Finch thought as she looked at her facial features. Volunteered. So probably a Career. Lucan. Golden and lean, and not entirely unlike Finnick Odair. Volunteered. Probably also a Career.

District 5--”Ok, can we not watch this?” Finch broke in. “I was there. I know what happened. I tripped like an idiot in front of everyone.”

“Alright,” Rush said. “The reapings are still going on anyway. I think they’re on District 11 right now. We’ll watch the rest of them later this evening. And, yes, we can skip watching our own. Anyway, your biggest threats--the Careers--have all already been reaped. They’re all lethal, of course, but the favorites to win this year are Cato and Clove. There’s quite a bit of contention and debate among the citizens of the Capitol as to which will win.”

“No, they’ve dropped that subject for the time being and now all they’re talking about is how the Third Quarter Quell twist hasn’t been announced,” Prince broke in.

Finch had completely forgotten. “Do you know what it is?” she asked the escort.

“I do indeed,” Prince said smugly. They all stared at him.

“Well are you gonna tell us what it is or not?” Rush finally asked.

“Ahhh, I can’t. But you’ll find out, Rush. All in good time.”

xxxxxxxxxx

It was after dinner that Brutus called Cato in to join him. He was leaning forward from his perch on the couch and he had the screen paused on the face of the female tribute from 5.

“Look son. I gotta do something for the girl. Something to help her.”

“What do you mean help her? You’re my mentor. And I’m gonna win.”

“I know but I’m going to make things easier for her. And you’re going to help me.”

“Fine. Done. I’ll slice her head off first thing at the Cornucopia.”

Brutus sighed. “Maybe. Maybe that’s what we’ll do. A quick and painless death. I’m just worried she’ll be one of those tributes who doesn’t run into the Cornucopia.”

“Just tell her to. Tell her to run straight for me and I’ll get it over with.”

“Are you an idiot? I can’t just say that. ‘Hey I owe your father one. So just run right for my tribute so you can be his first kill.’ And if she runs away from the Cornucopia, who knows what will happen. It could be a long and painful process for her before she dies. Some tribute could wound her and she could get an infection, or she could break her leg or something and then she could die of dehydration, you know. If she can’t get up to find water.”

“Well that’s her fucking problem.”

“No, maybe we can teach her a few things at least. You know, some survival skills, some basic self-defense. Keep her from suffering too much.”

Cato made a face, but Brutus gave him a stern look.

“After everything I’ve done for you, boy, you owe me this. I’ll talk to her mentor. A couple hours a week is all I’ll need you for. For the hand-to-hand stuff. I can teach her the other stuff without you."

“Fine,” Cato sighed and looked at the tv, the screen paused on the girl from 5. She was a strange-looking scrawny little thing with red hair and glasses. Cato was not looking forward to this. If she’d been hot, or even cute, he wouldn’t have minded so much. He would have gotten in her pants. But she was neither of those things.

Brutus had hit play, and Cato snorted with laughter as she fell up the stairs.

“She’s hopeless. And she’s a ginger,” he said.

“Yeah? And?”

“They don’t have souls you know.”

“I’m pretty sure you and I are the soulless ones my friend.”

xxxxxxxxxx

“You’re gonna what?” Finch asked the doctor the next day.

“Correct your vision. Using lasers. So you won’t need to wear your glasses anymore.”

“You can do that?!”

“Yes. We do it all the time in the Capitol. And before Panem as we know it existed---back when it was the United States--they were doing it then too. It’s foolproof, nothing to worry about,” she said.

But Finch wasn’t worried. She was fascinated. “That’s soooo cool! When are you gonna do it?”

“Right now,” the doctor laughed. “Once we’ve tested your vision so we know exactly how to adjust the laser.”

It burned a little, and for a few hours afterward Finch felt like she had grit in her eyes, but otherwise, she thought it just may have been the most interesting experience of her life. The doctor, sensing her enthusiasm, happily explained every step of the process in great detail.

“Now, a couple of centuries ago, people had to wait for a few days for the cuts from the laser to heal,” the doctor told her as she squeezed some drops into her eyes. “But these drops make them heal completely in a couple of hours. So wait at least 3 before you put any eye makeup on her,” she said, turning to Fascinia, the stylist who had been assigned to Finch.

“Will do.”

Finch was ecstatic as Fascinia led her out of the medical section and to the beautification center.

But Fascinia was over it and onto Finch’s appearance. “I was so excited when I saw you on tv,” the stylist gushed. “I thought to myself, oh my god, the things I can do with her!”

Finch was confused. Do with me? But I’m not pretty like Serena or Glimmer. But she was more worried than confused. She’d seen some of the horrendous outfits that tributes had been forced to wear for the parade, and she eyed the woman across from her dubiously.

“Don’t worry,” Fascinia reassured her. “I’m not the same stylist who did 5 last year. God that was awful. I think you’ll like what I do with you."

xxxxxxxxxx

“Ok!” Fascinia said as she led Finch over to the mirror. “Open your eyes and have a look.”

Finch was confused at first. That...that wasn’t her was it? That woman? She wiggled the fingers of her left hand and her reflection echoed the movement. Yep. That was her.

Copper. Almost everything was copper.

Copper. A conductor of power and Finch had never felt so powerful in her life.

She looked regal. She looked fierce. She looked sexy.

Her hair was piled on top of her head but otherwise had been left alone.

Her lids had been painted copper, but her eyes were ringed with a thick black kohl that winged out and up dramatically at the corners.

Her gown, long-sleeved and crew-necked and clinging to every little curve she’d never known she had, was covered in shimmering copper sequins so fine that it looked molten.

She felt like a queen. A desert queen. An Egyptian queen she thought. Like Nefertiti or Cleopatra.

xxxxxxxxxx

Cato was not particularly enthused about his outfit for the tribute parade. It was true that it showed off his perfectly sculpted arms (of which he was very proud), but the wings on the side of his head made him feel a bit silly. He glared at his stylist. Fucking idiot he thought.

Still. He’d known this was the price to pay when he’d signed on for this whole thing. Besides, no one would dare laugh at him after he’d won the games.

He surveyed the other tributes coldly as they began to line up, but he halted his gaze when he reached the chariot three places back. Was that 5? Because that...that was not what he had seen on tv the day before.

“God I wish I’d gotten 5’s stylist,” Clove lamented beside him. “If she could do that with that awkward thing, imagine what she could have done with me.”