Annie’s still shaking as she walks up to the stage. Twenny immediately runs forward and hugs her, tight, around the waist. She absentmindedly places her hands on the girl’s shoulders. The crowd turns into a blur of people when she turns her head to try to find her parents. They’re gone, swallowed up by the sea of District 4 citizens. Twenny then lets her go and runs off the stage and back into the group of 12s she had emerged from. It occurs to her just now that she’s on camera. The entire country just saw that, or they’re going to later. Will they see it as an act of mercy? Or as Annie wanting so badly to compete that she robbed a little girl of the chance? She’s not even sure which one she would prefer.
Mena is beckoning to her, like she’s trying to pull her forward with her mind. She looks vaguely confused. Annie is positive that she looks lost. She can feel every one of the thousands of eyes that are watching her slow steps across the stage. The people of District 4 seem to be confused, or angry, or ecstatic, but they can’t collectively decide. There’s a jumbled mush of yells and cheers as she settles behind the microphone. Mena places her hand on the small of Annie’s back as she begins talking. For some reason, this makes Annie uncomfortable.
“And what’s your name?” Mena asks. Her voice seems even more sickly sweet than normal. Mena’s voice has an odd trill to it, so it sounds like she’s singing everything. In the past, Annie found it annoying but tolerable. At the moment, though, it’s making her irrationally angry.
“Annie Cresta,” she says, as proudly as she can. The crowd bombards her with equal amounts of hatred and love. She adopts a smile and waves to them.
“And what prompted you to volunteer for that girl, Annie?”
For a brief moment, she freezes. She’s in the Games now. She’s a tribute. Every move she makes from here on out could determine if she lives or dies. This is her first opportunity to win over the people of Panem, and apparently win back some of her own District. She widens her smile and actually grabs the pole of the microphone to speak.
“Well, Mena, that girl was so small,” she begins. “I thought, why should she needlessly die in the arena when she should grow and try again in a few years? And then I thought, ‘Why, Annie! You’re stronger and smarter and faster than she is. Why don’t you volunteer?’ So I did. So I could try my best at ensuring a District Four victory!”
To her relief, the spectators all cheer. The older kids, though, the potential tributes who all know her, aren’t so dazzled. Their outrage is quickly overpowered by the love from everyone else. Some of them begin chanting her name. She flashes another smile and waves in their direction. Even Mena bursts out clapping before shaking Annie’s hand. Then she moves to the Mayor, who claps a congratulatory hand on her shoulder. Next is Mags, who not only shakes her hand, but pulls her close to kiss her on the cheek. And then Annie is face to face with Finnick, who shakes her hand for a very long moment, a look of pity and fear knit across his face. Finally, she turns to shake hands with Sebastian, but he pulls her into a huge, rib-cracking hug instead. When he places her back on the stage, they both turn to the audience. The roar from them has reached deafening levels. Mena puts her hands up again, but it’s not until she speaks into the microphone that the people actually stop.
“Here we are, everyone! This year’s tributes from District Four! Sebastian Dehlia and Annie Cresta!” she announces, then stands back so Sebastian and Annie can wave or bow or say goodbye to the people of their District however they want to. Annie decides that waving is suiting her just fine, so she keeps at it. She doesn’t pay attention to what Sebastian’s doing. Then there’s an arm around her shoulders, and a peacekeeper is moving her off the stage and through a door that she knows leads into City Hall.
The peacekeeper practically shoves her down a long hallway and through a door partway along it. She’s in a simple room that has three chairs and not much else. This is one of the few moments she won’t be on camera for the coming weeks, so she sinks to the ground, hyperventilating. She squeezes her eyes shut. This isn’t real life. She’s going to wake up in a few minutes, in her slightly lumpy bed, and some proud 16-year-old is going to be reaped, and she’ll spend the afternoon swimming. She opens her eyes, and the old cream-and-maroon striped wallpaper of this tiny room in City Hall is right in her face. Nope. Not a dream. Her eyes sting from holding back tears, but she refuses to cry. She can’t have puffy eyes at the train station. Anyone who knows her will know she has zero chance of winning, and that wasn’t a fact she wanted broadcast to the entire country, let alone the other tributes.
Before she can get a grip on herself, there’s a knock at her door. She wipes her eyes and stands up just as it opens. She’s hoping to see her parents, but it’s Twenny who comes in. The girl runs to her, wrapping her waist in another hug. This time, Annie returns it. They stand like that for awhile. One minute, two, Annie loses track. Finally, Twenny pulls away and stares into Annie’s face.
“Why did you volunteer?” she asks.
“You looked terrified,” Annie answers. “I-I don’t really know. I just couldn’t let you go.”
“But you’re scared, too,” Twenny says. It’s not a question.
Annie only nods in reply. The girl hugs her again.
“Thank you,” she whispers.
A peacekeeper comes into the room and pulls Twenny out.
“I’ll be rooting for you, Annie!” she yells just before the door is closed.
Once the door closes, she sinks down into a chair and continues to hyperventilate. She balances her face in her hands and tries to just focus on her breathing. Too quickly, her door opens again, and she looks up expectantly. It’s not her parents, though.
“Hello,” Annie manages to say, not even attempting to move from her chair. The old woman smiles in response, and she remembers something about her being unable to speak. Then Mags walks forward and places her hands on Annie’s shoulders. The contact relaxes her in a way she can’t exactly describe. They stay in that position, silent, for the rest of the visit. The only noises in the room are Annie’s heartbeat, her breathing, Mags’ thumbs as they rub against Annie’s skin. When the peacekeeper comes in, the old woman dots a kiss on the top of her head and leaves.
Now, Annie can’t sit still. She’s on her feet, walking in wide arcs around the small room, wringing her hands. Then the door opens again, and this time it is her parents. Her mom is smiling and crying and just scoops Annie into her arms. Her dad is smiling, but only with his mouth. She knows what he’s actually feeling. He was the one who taught her to respect all humans, and all life, no matter what. He’s the reason she never liked fighting. He finds it barbaric, an attitude that rubbed off on her, much to her mother’s dismay. Except for today. Today she gets to be the apple of mommy’s eye.
“Oh, Annie, sweetheart, we’re so proud,” her mom practically screams. “All these years, we thought you didn’t want to go, but now here we are! Saying goodbye to our little hero!”
She holds her daughter at arm’s length. Annie forces herself to smile as her mother’s hand smoothes down her hair. Then she’s back in her arms, and her mom is blubbering and gushing about “her tribute.” She knows her mom means well. Overall, she’s glad for the support. At least someone will mourn her death.
Eventually, her mom lets her go, just as the peacekeeper comes back in. Her dad gives her a quick hug.
“Stay safe,” he tells her as the peacekeeper begins to drag them both out of the room. Then he calls, “I love you,” back to her just before the door closes.
“I love you, too,” she says out-loud, but she knows he didn’t hear her.
A few seconds later, the peacekeeper comes back and escorts her out the back exit of city hall and into a car, which takes her to the train station. Annie’s never been in a car before. She hates how fast it goes and how her feet aren’t connected to the ground. She’s used to walking everywhere. The city had a sort of hum to it that she loved feeling under her bare feet. Would the Capitol have the same feel to it? Probably not. She sighs and watches the city rush by her. It’s leaving too quickly, pulling away from her too fast. She doesn’t like it.
Then, much too soon, her car pulls up to the train station, along with four others, identical to hers, she hadn’t noticed before. Simultaneously, five peacekeepers step out of them and retrieve their respective passengers. Annie can mostly only focus on the man’s tight grip on her arm, and the cameras, even more than there were in the square, right outside the train. Sebastian and Mena are just ahead of her. Everything else is blurring at the edges. Each step brings her closer to the reporters. She takes a deep breath and puts on another smile.
The doorway in front of the train is roped off for the tributes and their team, but all around it is a madhouse. There’s a ton of people hoping to get a glimpse of her, or Sebastian, or Finnick. Annie waves in each lens, smiles at every person who calls her name, and then her peacekeeper shoves her on the train. There’s a table in the room to her right that she immediately sits at and lays her head on. Mena is standing near the far end. Sebastian is waving out the windows to the reporters who are only talking to Finnick at this point. When Mags walks on the train, she takes the seat right next to Annie and places a hand on her arm. She smiles and returns the gesture.
It takes five minutes for Finnick to get on the train. Every reporter wants to talk to him, or at least touch his arm. When he finally gets inside, he has the worn, ragged look of a warrior after a long battle. The train begins to move as he takes a seat at the table opposite Annie.
If she hated cars, it was nothing to this. Sebastian acts like it doesn’t bother him, but Annie sits bolt upright when the train really takes off. It quickly gets up to top speed, and everything out the window blurs by at 250 miles per hour. She tries not to think about it as she turns to Mena, who clears her throat and spreads her arms out wide. Mags fold her hands gently in her lap. Mena positively beams at Annie and Sebastian.
“Welcome,” she begins, simply. “We’re now on our way to the Capitol.” She pauses for a moment to joyfully clap. This is apparently a pattern for her. Sebastian is the only one who joins in. Annie lays her head back on the table. “The journey should only take a few hours. We’ll arrive a little after sunset. A lot of the tributes won’t be arriving until tomorrow, so you’ll have some down time tonight, isn’t that nice?”
Sebastian nods, enthusiastically. Annie takes a deep breath.
“Well, I’m sure Finnick will have a lot to cover with you both. But why not a late lunch first?” She smiles even wider. It’s eerie with her blue lipstick.
A door opens behind Mena, and several carts are wheeled in. Trays are pulled from them and set on the table. Annie doesn’t want to eat, but her stomach is growling. Excitement always made her hungry. Smells waft over her as lids are lifted, causing her entire mouth to fill with saliva. She sits upright and points to a weird brown lumpy dish.
“What’s that?” she asks.
“Lamb stew,” Finnick answers, somewhat coldly, catching her eye.
She shrugs and loads some onto the plate that’s just been placed before her. After the juciest, most savory bite of food she’s ever had the pleasure of eating in her entire life, she scoops up a little of everything. Sebastian settles into the seat next to her and talks while she eats and he fills his own plate.
“So District Four victory, right?” he asks, grinning widely.
She nods between bites. All the food is so rich. She’s used to fish and grains. Some greens or other vegetables or potatoes from time to time, but those were rare. There are meats before her she’s never heard of. Lamb? Beef? Of course, she knows what chicken is, but she’s never eaten it before. Everything is cooked to perfection. Flavorful. Tender. Each bite sends forth a stream of juice and sauce down her chin. Chunks of meat get stuck in her teeth, and she picks them out with her nails.
The food is so good that Sebastian has forgotten to talk to her. She’s vaguely aware of Mags eating quietly on her other side. Finnick picks at his own food half-heartedly. Mena is staring at Annie and Sebastian in horror, like she’s never seen such awful table manners.
Annie scrapes her plate clean and begins to shovel more food onto it. Her eyes meet Finnick’s across the table. The way he’s staring at her makes her blush and she nearly drops the spoon to some white and brown noodle dish with chunks of meat and mushrooms.
“What?” she asks across the table.
“Had enough to eat?” Finnick jokes.
“No,” she says flatly, taking a heaping spoonful of the noodles.
Not only is all the meat delicious, but the sauces are too. One is creamy and spicy, another is rich and savory. Yet another is almost sweet, with a hint of some fruit Annie can’t place mixed with cheese. She’s never had food like this before. Sebastian hasn’t either, apparently, because he’s eating with the same gusto.
When Annie finishes her second plate, and Sebastian goes for his third, Finnick steps to the head of the table. He looks grim, like he’d aged about five years since this morning. He locks eyes with Annie and talks while Sebastian eats.
“Alright, tributes,” he begins. He seems very official. Annie can’t help but sit up straighter in her chair. “This isn’t just food and train rides. This first week is all about training, figuring out your strengths and weaknesses, and damage control.”
“Damage control?” Sebastian asks after swallowing a mouthful of food. “What do you mean? We were great this morning. The crowd loved us.”
“Yeah, the crowd did,” Finnick says, switching his gaze from Annie to Sebastian. “But she,” he points at Annie, “totally eliminated herself as a serious contender.”
“How?” Sebastian challenges. He seems defensive of her, but Annie knows how. Finnick picks up a remote from the table and presses a button on it. Behind him, a screen plays their reaping. He pauses it as the little girl enfolds herself into Annie’s arms and the camera gets a nice shot of how terrified she looks.
“That’s a beautiful and noble thing you did, Cresta,” he says, nodding to her. “But it’ll cost us for a little while. You may have fooled the country with your super cheerleader act, but every victor knows that look, and all the mentors are telling their tributes, right now, that you are a weak link.” He’s suddenly angry when he adds, “Do you even want to be here?”
There’s a very long pause as everyone in the room turns to look at Annie. She lays her arms across her lap, holding one shaking hand in the other.
“No,” she finally says. It comes out as a whisper.
“Wait, then why did you volunteer?” Mena asks, incredulous. There’s every chance that a tribute has never admitted to being unenthusiastic in front of her before.
“That girl. She didn’t want to go either. She was so small.”
“And now every tribute knows that you have a soft spot,” Finnick continues. “You’re from District Four, Cresta. In order to have any sort of shot in that arena, you need to start acting like it. Now both of you just relax for now. We’ll talk strategies when we settle in the Capitol tonight.”
Then he storms down the hall and into his compartment. The compartments aren’t necessary. They won’t even be spending a night on the train. But, still, only the best for the Capitol’s newest play things. Sebastian shoots Annie a weird look, then follows Finnick down the hall and turns into his own compartment.
Mena mutters something Annie doesn’t catch before heading in the opposite direction, toward the front of the train. She buries her head in her arms. This whole situation is humiliating. And why is Finnick so angry? She wouldn’t have been a contender anyway, no matter how she’d reacted.
Suddenly, there’s a hand on her arm, and she jumps before realizing it’s only Mags. Somehow, the old woman must have read her mind, because she points at Annie, then flexes her arms, like she’s showing off muscles. Annie understands, but shakes her head.
“No, I’m not very strong,” she replies, standing to go to her own compartment. She feels bad about leaving Mags alone. But she also doesn’t want to see anyone at the moment.
Despite the fact that she’s alone in the room, Annie feels like she’s being watched. Now that she thinks about it, she’s pretty sure she’s been on camera since the reaping. It’s unsettling. She shakes her head to stop thinking about it and stares around her home for the next few hours.
It’s big for temporary quarters. Bigger than her room back home. There’s a bed she’ll never sleep in, a door that she assumes leads to a bathroom, a stuffed chair near the window on the other side, and a large closet that takes up an entire wall. She starts walking to the chair, to sink in it, or maybe take a much-needed nap, when there’s a knock on her door. She lets out a small groan and answers it.
Finnick is standing in the hallway, back straight and hands disappearing behind his back. Annie folds her arms.
“What do you want?” she asks.
“I wanted to remind you to change into something more comfortable and… appropriate for the event,” he says. She self-consciously grabs one of her bare shoulders. Anger cuts through her, white hot, now that they’re alone and he’s still treating her like a dog that needs to be trained. Finnick is supposed to be her friend. Her only friend. Ever. She doesn’t think before she replies, which is almost always a mistake.
“Is the blood of twenty-three other people available? I think that would probably be most appropriate.”
For a split second, Annie thinks he’s about to laugh. Then he whisks into her room and the door slides shut behind him. There’s a gleam in his eyes that she’s never seen before. More than anger, it’s desperation, even fear. He gets very close to her, places a hand on her shoulder, and looks directly into her eyes.
For the first time, Annie doesn’t want to be around him. This isn’t her Finnick, or rather the Finnick she’s friends with. This is Finnick as he has to be in the Capitol. This is Finnick from the arena, Finnick the 14-year-old who walked triumphantly back into civilization over the bodies of 23 children. Finnick the victor, Finnick her mentor. Finnick the killer. She has to force herself to take a deep breath as he begins talking in a low voice.
“Look, Cresta, whether or not you want to be here, you’re here. And by choice, I might add,” he says, eyes still locked on hers. “Are you scared? Tough. We were all scared going into that arena.”
He nods, visibly relaxing, but just a little.
“I was terrified. I acted fearless. And when you pretend for long enough, it becomes a part of who you are. That act got me sponsors.”
“Actually, I think it was your good looks that got you sponsors,” she says, smirking.
He crinkles his brows for a moment.
“Regardless, it helped me win. So if you want to live, you have to adopt a similar attitude. You have to be ruthless. Fierce. Mean. And, most importantly, you have to not shoot your mouth off about the blood of twenty-three people in a Capitol train. That’s how you walk out of that arena.” He releases her shoulder, but still holds her gaze. She forces another deep breath in and out of her lungs.
“Finnick, I don’t think I’m walking out of that arena,” she whispers.
He chews his top lip for a moment before he walks out without saying another word. A shudder shoots down her spine as the door shuts behind him. She knows it’s his job to keep her alive, but she doesn’t remember any of the mentors being so adamant from her years of watching the Games at home. But then, those moments were all public. She doesn’t know how they acted behind-the-scenes. Still, Finnick seems too invested, too worried. His anger is just masking fear. But fear of what?
She shudders again as she walks across the room to the closet. The choices inside seem to be infinite. There are a lot of fabrics she’s never even seen before, in every cut and style. Eventually, she settles on a blood red sleeveless top and black leggings. She keeps her sandals. All of the dresses are gorgeous, but Finnick said to dress comfortably. He’s her mentor now, not her friend. He’s made that very clear. It would probably be best to do what he says.
An array of jewelry is hanging on the back of the closet door. She slides a gold bangle on her arm and walks over to the window. The train is still moving too fast to really see what’s happening outside, but she can tell that it’s sunset. They’re about two hours from the Capitol, tops. She settles in the chair, turning away from the view. The chair is so warm and soft, and Annie feels her eyes beginning to droop. She tries to fight off sleep, but there’s no use, and, the next thing she knows, Mena is shaking her.
She doesn’t even remember falling asleep, but she must have, because the window is dark now. The room is brightly lit from a fixture on the ceiling. Mena’s blue outfit is so bright it hurts Annie’s eyes.
“What is it?” Annie asks.
“We’re almost there!” Mena trills. She then runs from the room. Annie stretches out and slowly stands, sore from sleeping in a chair. She follows Mena out into the big room. Everyone else is already there. As are at least ten peacekeepers. It’s difficult to count them in such close quarters.
She and Finnick exchange quick nods before she stands by Mags, who greets her by squeezing her hand. Annie smiles at the old woman, glad that at least one of her mentors wants to be her friend. Sebastian seems to be actively ignoring her at this point. He’ll warm up though. In a few days, she’s going to be the only thing he has to remind him of home.
Suddenly, the train begins to slow down. Mena is audibly excited. No one else makes a noise, but they all brace themselves so they don’t fall. When the train comes to a complete stop, two peacekeepers step up to the door. Mena rushes after them, desperate to make a dramatic introduction for her two tributes.
“Welcome to the Capitol,” she says, more serious than Annie has ever seen her. The peacekeepers open the door, and a flood of light immediately blinds everyone else in the room.