Annie's Games


Annie’s awake the next morning before Mena can come in and do her human alarm clock act. This is a good sign. She can’t rely on Mena forever, especially since she’ll be in the arena in a few days. If she doesn’t get in the habit of waking herself up now, she’ll probably sleep through the Games.

She actually laughs at that thought. That would be quite the strategy. She could find some tall tree, make sure the branches hid her, and then sleep until everyone else is dead. No one would even see it coming. But then the image of Sebastian, dead on the ground, kills all the amusement in this fantasy. She’s barely spoken to him so far, but he’s been nothing but nice. He did hold her hand when she was freaking out on the carriage. And those giant hugs are friendly, even if they are a little painful. She imagines his toothy smile wiped from his face, his soft brown eyes staring, open and vacant, at nothing.

The arena doesn’t seem even remotely funny anymore.

She shudders and gets out of bed. Training starts today. Which means she needs to focus on making allies and learning skills. She haphazardly pulls her long, dark hair into a ponytail. Bits of her hair stick out at random, but she ignores them.

Sometime while she was sleeping, someone came in to clean her room. She only notices because her costume from last night is now gone. There’s also a simple black uniform hanging from her mirror with the number 4 printed on it. A pair of matching running shoes sits under it.

She sighs, strips off the clothes she slept in, and pulls on this new outfit. It’s so comfortable she can hardly believe it’s even there. The shoes have soft soles and good traction. She tries a few stretches to test everything out. It all fits and moves like a dream. She wonders if Stella had any hand in making these clothes.

There’s a knock on her door, and Mena comes in before Annie can yell that she’s already awake.

“Oh, good, you’re up!” Mena sings. Today her hair is black, long, and straight, but the rest of her outfit, including her makeup, is a pale lavender. “Come get some food before training starts!”

Annie’s stomach grumbles. She leaves her bed unmade and follows Mena down the hall to the main room, where the familiar smell of fish fills the air. Annie makes a small, eager noise. As she approaches the table, already arranging a plate in her head, Mags pats the seat next to her. This tradition Annie likes. She sits down and piles her plate with eggs and salmon filets and bread.

Glancing around the oddly quiet table, she notices the guys aren’t out yet, which strikes Annie as odd. Maybe not for Finnick, he was still awake when she went to bed last night, and he can technically sleep as long as he wants to today. But Sebastian, who’s so eager for the Games, and wants to show how good he is, should be awake by now. Mena seems to read her mind, because she clicks down the boys’ hall in teetering heels. It’s a miracle Mena hasn’t killed herself on those yet. Annie could barely walk in heels half that height.

She tries to wait for the guys, but another noise from her stomach tells her that’ll be impossible. Especially when she can’t remember the last time she had salmon. She starts by taking just a few bites, while Mags puts some food on her plate, but that soon turns into a whole strip of fish and half her eggs before Mena comes back with Sebastian.

“Good morning,” he says cheerfully. Mags smiles widely at him. Annie makes a noise that’s supposed to be “hello,” but the word gets stuck behind a mouthful of bread. Sebastian is also already in his uniform, which matches hers. He’s apparently starving as well, because he doesn’t say another word as he sits in the closest chair and starts shoveling food onto the plate in front of him.

Being from District 4, Annie knows neither of them ever went hungry. There was always enough food there. Every few years, they’d experience a shortage, but her dad would always take her fishing to make up for it. In her entire life, Annie had gone to bed hungry maybe twice. But all their food was very bland. Some grain portion to make gruel or bread, which they flavor with seaweed. Some fish, cooked with oil. That’s all they really need. She’s never heard a complaint about the plain food, though. It’s strange to her that now all she and Sebastian can do is eat like they’ve been starved. She can’t imagine how the kids from other districts must be reacting to all this rich food.

She finishes her second filet and starts on the rest of her eggs when Finnick comes out of his room, rubbing his eyes, and sits on Annie’s other side.

“Late night?” she asks. He shoots her a look.

“Good morning to you, too, Cresta,” he says, nudging her with his elbow. He pours himself a cup of a strong-smelling brown liquid that he adds milk and three sugar cubes to.

“What is that?” she asks him, her mouth filled with eggs.

“Coffee,” he replies, taking a long sip. “Want to try it?”

He offers the cup to her. She sets down her plate and takes it from him. He watches her as she takes a sip and immediately spits it back into the mug. It’s overbearingly sweet, and on top of that, she can still taste the bitterness. Every head in the room snaps to her. Mena smiles, but rolls her eyes. Mags, after seeing that Annie is okay, goes back to her meal. Sebastian laughs so hard he starts coughing.

“It’s awful,” she exclaims. “I don’t know how you can stand something that sweet.”

Finnick takes his cup back from her and stares into it.

“Luckily, I don’t have that problem with you,” he says, a small smile curling at his lips as he pours himself another cup of coffee.

They all finish their meals in silence. Finnick seems to be holding back a laugh, but Annie’s a little ashamed. It seems unlikely that she’ll ever stop making herself look like an idiot in front of Finnick. But why does she care about that?

A little after nine, Mena claps her hands twice.

“It’s time to go!” she says, and begins to usher Sebastian and Annie, who both still have food in their mouths, onto the elevator. Finnick turns in his chair to yell final advice over his shoulder.

“Remember to make friends with One and Two,” he calls. “Learn something new today. That means a weapon, Cresta.”

She waves without turning around to let him know she heard him. Then they’re on the elevator, and Mena tells them which button to press. Annie thought she’d accompany them down, but they’re Career tributes. They can’t have their escort accompany them. Just before the doors close, Annie locks eyes with Finnick. He gives her a weak smile before the metal gates separate them.

“Are you nervous?” Sebastian asks. The entire training center grows before them as the elevator pulls them down.

“A little. You?” She notices her hands are shaking and rubs them together.

He shrugs.

“A little. What do you think you’ll learn today?”

“I don’t know. I guess I’ll wait and see what’s down there.”

He nods and they don’t talk for awhile as they glide further and further down.

“Finnick’s right, you know,” he says. “You should get good at a weapon.”

“I don’t want to kill anyone, though,” she admits.

“I don’t think any of us want to kill anyone.”

She looks at Sebastian. He’s smiling a little, but his eyes are heavy. He pulls off the moronic puppy dog athlete thing really well, but Annie thinks that maybe she misjudged him. Maybe he’s also wearing a mask, only his is successful. She returns his small smile.

“Thank you,” she suddenly blurts.

“For what?” he asks, taken aback.

“The carriage. Last night. Helping me stay steady when I couldn’t breathe.”

He actually laughs.

“Oh, that. What are district partners for?”

The words are barely out of his mouth when the elevator stops and the doors slide open. Annie crosses her arms to hide her still shaking hands.

The entire room is filled with large, soft pads, weapons of all kinds, various stations covered with paints and ropes and plants. There’s a large panel set high in the wall on one side where a large group of people sit, surrounded by food and talking to each other. The Gamemakers. Annie knows they check on the tributes’ progress, but she didn’t realize they’d be there from the beginning. She forces her eyes away from them to take in the rest of the room.

She and Sebastian are some of the first people there. The District 5 tributes are standing nervously near the station marked EDIBLE PLANTS. Neither of them looks at the other. Districts 10 and 12 are also there, standing in the middle looking lost. And District 2 is there, stretching out on the pads. They’re both huge. The girl is at least twice Annie’s size, and probably a full six inches taller. They both have dark hair and huge muscles. A shudder goes down Annie’s spine as the boy spins a spear almost expertly in his hands. Then the girl notices her and Sebastian, taps the boy’s shoulder, and they both walk over to the elevator.

“I’m Titus,” the boy says, holding out his hand. Sebastian shakes it, heartily.

“Romana,” the girl says, giving a curt nod. Annie’s glad she doesn’t offer her hand. Romana could probably crush her skull between her fingers with no problem. “You’re the mermaid girl, right? You looked great last night. I was basically just a giant rock. What the hell is that? If I killed you right now, do you think they’d let me have your stylist?”

Annie feels all the color drain from her face. Titus laughs.

“She’s kidding,” he explains.

“Obviously,” Romana says. “I have to save that for the arena.”

Annie makes a mental note to kill Finnick when she gets back to the floor for telling her to align herself with these people.

All at once, the rest of the tributes arrive. When District 1 shows up, they immediately join their little group of Careers and introduce themselves. The boy is about 16, tall, muscular, the usual. His name is Ivory. The girl is blonde and shockingly small for District 1. Her name is Holiday. The rest of the tributes mostly stick to their district partners and stay quiet. Then the head trainer steps forward, gives them a quick rundown of all the stations, and leaves them to their own devices.

“I’ll be at the sword station,” Holiday announces. She sounds bored. Sebastian decides to join her. Titus, Romana, and Ivory all go to archery, leaving Annie alone to explore the room. She casts her eyes around and sees the girl from District 3, sitting alone at the knot station. Perfect.

“I’m Annie,” she announces, sitting next to the girl and picking up a length of rope. She looks Annie up and down curiously. It’s understandable. She’s technically supposed to be a Career.

“I’m Hera,” the girl finally replies as her fingers fumble over a complicated knot.

“Do you want help?” Annie asks. She shows Hera how to tie the knot using her own rope.

“Thanks,” Hera says, still somewhat weary.

The instructor guides them through a few more knots, most of them fairly complicated. Annie gets them all down the first time without looking.

“How are you so good at these?” Hera asks with a shaky laugh.

Annie smiles. She’s been tying knots since birth, basically. Her father works out on the fishing boats, and he would always bring rope home and show her how to tie it. Once, when she was about eight, he brought her out on the boat with him, and she tied knots and watched the water all day.

School was cancelled that day. Or maybe she just didn’t want to go, she can’t exactly remember. She kept running around the boat and getting tangled in the net. Some of the other fishermen were getting fed up, but kept their cool, because she was only a child. Her father finally sat her down and put a rope in her hands. He told her to practice her knots, then smiled, ruffled her hair, and kissed her on the forehead.

Her stomach aches at the memory. She last saw her dad a couple days ago, not even, but it feels like it’s been months. She wishes he were here now. Finnick somehow helps with the growing ache that started in her heart when she volunteered for Twenny, that has now spread to every inch of her body. But she knows her dad would help with that even more. He’d pull her into his arms and say only a few words, and she’d be fine. That’s what happened whenever the other kids would beat her up because they knew she wouldn’t fight back, at least.

Hera’s questioning face breaks her train of thought, but she didn’t hear what she said.

“What?” she asks.

“I asked if you wanted to go to the edible plants station,” Hera says, sweeping her long, dark hair behind her shoulder.

Annie glances over to the other Careers, her supposed allies. Holiday is throwing axes into bullseyes. The rest are moving to the knives. Sebastian catches her eye and waves her over. She should join them. Finnick said to learn a weapon. Finnick said to team up with 1 and 2. But her gut is telling her that Hera is better, safer.

Stay safe. That’s what her dad told her when they said goodbye.

She shakes her head to clear her mind and looks back at Hera. The girl was appropriately named. She towers over Annie. With her shiny hair and olive skin, she looks like she could be a goddess.

“Edible plants sounds good,” Annie replies. Then, thinking of Finnick, she adds, “But after let’s try archery.”

Hera nods and, together, they work through both stations before lunch. Annie decides she likes Hera. She knows a lot about the edible plants, which is odd, considering she’s from District 3.

“How are you doing this?” Annie asks when Hera successfully completes the entire chart of berries and leaves.

“I made it my business to learn some survival basics in case I was reaped,” she replies in a low voice, making sure the instructor and other tributes can’t hear her.

“So you’re also a Career?” Annie asks, marking another plant on her own chart.

“That one’s not edible,” Hera says, correcting her. Annie swears and fixes it. “And I wouldn’t say I’m a Career. I wouldn’t say I came with an advantage. I only taught myself things that would keep me alive. Nothing that would kill another person.”

“Why’s that?”

“So no one could accuse me of being a Career,” she replies, eyebrows raised to Annie. She feels her face drain of its warmth. It’s true, she got prior training in combat and weapons, but who knows how much of it stuck. Still, it’s not a good idea to broadcast how unprepared and unwilling to kill she is.

“Point taken,” she murmurs.

Hera helps her finish her chart and they move on to archery, which it turns out Annie is pretty good at. All of her arrows at least hit the little circle in the dummy’s chest. Hera starts out horrible. Her first three arrows miss entirely, but after that she manages to hit an arm or a leg or somewhere in the torso. Her last arrow flies right into the dummy’s head.

“Did you see that?” she asks, dumbfounded. “Kill shot!”

Annie half-heartedly cheers, but Hera doesn’t even seem to notice. She retrieves her arrow, and then the head trainer calls out that it’s lunchtime.

They all file into a large room filled with tables. The far wall is laid out with food in trays so they can serve themselves. Annie smells fish and her stomach aches for her father again.

“Want to sit with us?” Hera asks. “Leeri can get annoying, but he’s alright.”

She points to a table where the boy from 3 sits. He’s tiny and has bright red hair and pale skin. He must be 13 at the oldest.

Across the room, Annie sees Sebastian going through the food line.

“I should eat with my district partner or my mentor might eat me,” Annie says.

“Isn’t your mentor Finnick Odair?” Hera asks, blushing a little, like she’s been waiting for her to bring it up.

“Yes. Why?”

“You want to trade?” she asks, laughing. “I don’t think I’d complain if he ate me.”

Annie’s cheeks are suddenly on fire.

“I’ll see you after lunch, okay?” she says, and heads over to the food line before Hera can say anything else about Finnick.

She picks up a plate and tries to focus on what food she’s putting on it, but all she can see is the woman jumping out of the crowd to kiss Finnick when they first got to the Capitol, and then how defeated he looked when they were away from the public. He’d probably be upset by Hera’s comment. That must be why it’s affecting Annie so much. She shakes her head and turns around to find Sebastian, who’s sitting in the middle of the room with 1 and 2. She takes a deep breath and walks over to them.

“Where were you all morning?” Romana asks when Annie puts her plate down and slides onto the seat.

“Training,” she says, shrugging. “I thought you knew that.”

What is she doing? Why can’t she control the things she says? She’s beginning to panic, but Holiday laughs. Romana shoots her a look.

“What? She’s funny,” Holiday says. Romana looks back to Annie.

“I know we’re training. Which stations? We all thought you’d learn weapons with us all day.” Everyone looks at her, except for Sebastian, who is suddenly very interested in his pasta.

“I was learning survival skills,” Annie says. “I thought one of us should. I still have time to learn weapons, but I wanted to be sure I could get us food.”

That answer came from nowhere, but they seem satisfied by it, because they all go back to eating. The truth is she doesn’t want to be anywhere near them. They’re huge and bloodthirsty and unpleasant. But Finnick said to ally with them. Getting along with monsters is what’s going to keep her alive. She glances over at Hera as she picks at the swordfish on her plate. Hera would be a much better ally. She’s smart, she’s strong, she’s just going to get better and better with weapons, she doesn’t make Annie fear for her life.

Her dad told her to stay safe. Finnick said to get friendly with 1 and 2. Even though his suggestion feels wrong, listening to him doesn’t. He’s her mentor. He’s lived through the Games. Anything he says will probably be pretty sound advice on how to keep living.

She swallows the mouthful of fish and rice she’s been chewing for much too long and keeps eating, only half-listening to Titus prattle on about sword technique until lunch is over, when they’re all herded back into the training room. For a moment, Annie’s worried she’ll have to stick with the Career group for the rest of the day, but they walk over to the archery station. She tells the group she spent part of the morning there, and quickly walks over to the knife station, where Hera is standing.

Knives are easier than arrows. Annie misses the first few, but then hits the center of the target every time. There. That should make Finnick happy. Hera struggles with the knives, but still manages to stick a couple in the dummies. When they’re done, they move on to snares. After knots, snares are simple. They both master all of them quickly, and then it’s time to go.

“See you tomorrow?” Hera asks.

Annie nods and then runs to join Sebastian on the elevator. They have to share with District 5, who both stay silent the whole time and stare out the back wall at the expansive courtyard that cuts through the middle of the training center.

“How was your day?” Sebastian asks. Annie expected him to be a little mad that she ditched him, but his tone is pleasant. The District 5 tributes both jump when he speaks.

“It was good. I learned a lot.” She shrugs.

“Do you mind if I join you tomorrow?” he asks. She’s taken aback by the question.

“Of course not. What are district partners for?”

The elevator stops just then and the door slides open at their floor. Annie swears the District 5 tributes let out deep breaths when she and Sebastian leave. They must have seen her with the knives, or him with whatever weapons he learned today, or maybe both. Couple that with their status as Careers, and it’s easy for her to see why they’d be nervous.

Finnick and Mags are waiting for them in their living room. Mena is not.

“Where’s Mena?” Annie asks.

“She’s checking on dinner or shopping or something,” Finnick answers, frustration ringing clear in his voice. “I can only listen to Capitol citizens for so long.”

She doesn’t know what he did today, but whatever it was put him in a bad mood. She and Sebastian exchange a look but don’t say anything.

“I learned knives today,” Annie says, quietly, hoping to cheer him up. He does perk up a bit.

“You listened to me?” he asks. She nods.

“We also made friends with One and Two,” Sebastian offers. “Well, I did at least.” Annie elbows him to shut him up, but it’s too late.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Finnick asks, looking between them both.

“Annie trained with the girl from Three all day.”

“Her name is Hera,” Annie snaps. “And maybe I would’ve spent more time with you all if Romana hadn’t started the day by threatening to kill me.”

“So you only half listened to me,” Finnick says.

“No, I listened. I ate lunch with them. I was just unnerved by the death threat.”

“They’re trained killers, Cresta. What did you want? A hug?”

“No!” When did she start shouting? “But it’s not unreasonable for me to be upset when I wake up to a death threat!”

At this point, Sebastian has fallen silent. Mags steps forward and places a hand on Finnick’s shoulder in an attempt to calm him down. He flinches before waving her away and taking a step closer to Annie.

“I get that you don’t want to be here,” he says as calmly as he can. “I don’t either. I wish there was a way for us to be swimming back home. I would make that happen in a heartbeat. That said, you signed up for this, Cresta. You volunteered. I want to help you stay alive, and I want to help you do it your way. But you have to meet me halfway. One and Two are hard to get along with, but that’s how you survive in the arena. Got it?”

“Yes,” she says. The word almost sticks in her throat and comes out much quieter than she intended.

“Good,” he says. “What all did you learn today?”

“Snares,” she begins, shakily. “Knives, archery, edible plants, and knots.”

He smirks.

“You don’t know knots, Cresta?”

“I wanted a refresher.”

Finnick shakes his head and turns to Sebastian.

“How about you?”

“Swords, knives, archery,” Sebastian replies.

Finnick nods.

“Alright, then. And you’re getting along with One and Two?” he asks.

“As much as I can with them,” Sebastian mutters. Annie almost smiles at him. She thought he was going to be another super Career when he was reaped, but he’s turning out to be an actual human being. If she’s not careful, Annie may end up being his friend. Her stomach sinks at that thought.

“Good,” Finnick says. He starts down the hall to his room. “I need a shower before dinner.”

“What’s wrong with him today?” Sebastian asks as soon as they hear his door slide shut behind him. Mags stares sadly towards his room.

“I don’t know,” Annie says. He was nothing but pleasant this morning. Almost like the morning of the reaping. She chews the inside of her lip carefully. “He seems upset, though.”

Some impulse pushes her forward. Maybe if she talks to him, he’ll feel better. Maybe she can comfort him like he comforted her. But Mags grabs her arm before she can go more than a few steps and shakes her head.

“Long day,” she says softly. Annie didn’t notice last night, but Mags’ voice is strained, like there’s something actually wrong with it. It’s widely assumed in District 4 that she doesn’t speak by choice, or due to trauma from her Games. Some kids made up wild stories about how she lost a bet or fought off a giant squid, but Annie never believed them.

Mags places a hand on Annie’s shoulder, and her other one on Sebastian’s, and squeezes. Annie can’t help but smile. She’s telling them she’s proud of them. Why she can’t say it out loud, Annie doesn’t know. She decides not to press her too much, though. Maybe if she comes home, then she’ll ask.

Then her stomach sinks again. If she comes home. She’d almost forgotten about the Games. It’s the “if” that trips her up, and her hands begin to shake. She quietly excuses herself and goes down to her own room, even though her legs and stomach want her to go to Finnick’s, despite Mags’ warning.

Mood swings or no, he would know what to say. Or, at the very least, he would help calm her down.

She flops onto her bed and pulls a pillow over her face. So far, she’s managed to avoid these sorts of thoughts. While her imminent death has been looming over her, she hasn’t put a lot of thought into the arena. Or the other tributes. Or how to walk out of there alive.

This morning, the training room seemed packed to her. People were all over the place, learning the same skills she was. Out of all of them, only one can live. She presses the pillow down and screams into it.

Finnick’s right. She needs to stop doing what feels safe, because it’s just going to get her killed faster. After meeting the other Careers, she feels even less confident in her odds of winning, but she might be able to make it pretty far. She could still show everyone, her parents, the country, the kids who beat her up in school, that she’s not some porcelain doll that can shatter at any moment.

In a few days, or weeks, she could even go home. She could see the ocean again, move in next to Finnick and Mags, learn how to make jewelry, and never have to worry about herself or her parents ever again. They had enough food now, but, if she won, they could have plenty. And more variety. Maybe they could recreate some of the Capitol meals. She could go swimming every day, with Finnick, at the private beach in the Victors’ Village. Her heart pounds a little faster at that thought.

Of course, she wouldn’t be the same if she won. She’d have to split herself down the middle. Capitol Annie, and home Annie. What everyone wants to see, and who she really is. If she won, though, who she really is would be entirely different. She’s seen it in the faces of the victors when they walk around 4, or the ones who visit on their victory tour. The smiles look natural, but feel forced. It’s not that hard to imagine why. Winning means watching 23 other people die before they have the chance to kill you, even killing some of them yourself.

It pains Annie just to watch it every year. It must be hell to actually experience. In just a few days, she’ll find that out.

She flips onto her side and pulls the pillow into her chest, wrapping her arms around it. The image of Finnick stabbing a boy in the ribs returns to her. She tries to put herself in his place, tries to imagine and feel what it’s like to shove a blade into someone’s chest and feel their last breath. Their last heartbeat. The last flicker of their eyes to yours just before they die. Acid crawls up her esophagus, making her choke. She can’t do it. She can’t kill anyone, even if they’re trying to kill her. She folds her arms tighter around herself to steady her hands.

It probably won’t come down to that. She’ll probably die quickly. Her body will be returned to her parents in a simple wooden box. The funeral will be small, just her parents, probably Finnick and Mags, maybe even Sebastian if he wins. Then they’ll forget her and move on. She’ll just be another lost tribute, another fallen pawn. No different from any of the others.

Before she can fully embrace her death, though, there’s a knock at her door. She gets off her bed, walks over, and presses the button to slide the weird strip of metal open. Doors should be made of wood. Sebastian tells her that dinner is ready, and she walks down to the main room with him.

The whole meal is a mixed bag. Sebastian eats even faster than normal. Annie doesn’t think he’s even tasting his food. When he finishes, he stares blankly at his empty plate and chews his bottom lip. Neither he or Annie say much of anything. Mena, though, is tittering to Mags, who’s politely nodding along, about how the Capitol is just buzzing about Annie. Her entrance at the opening ceremonies made quite the splash, no pun intended, of course, and sponsors are already trying to line up for her.

Annie’s only half listening, though, because Finnick is sitting next to her and he’s almost back to normal. There’s an underlying current of pain or something dark, but he makes small jokes about himself and nudges Annie with his elbow when she doesn’t laugh. He knows something’s wrong, and he’s trying to make her feel better. Her heart beats faster again, like it did when she imagined living next to him in the Victors’ Village. By the end of the meal, she manages to honestly laugh.

When dinner is done, everyone is full and sleepy, so they all go immediately back to their rooms after a quick goodnight from Mena.

“You’re already a hit,” she tells Annie, smoothing down her hair. Her mother used to do the same thing whenever Annie made her proud. Mena dots a kiss to her forehead and then gets back on the elevator and leaves.

Everyone else mumbles goodnight to each other, and then Annie is gratefully back in her bed. She can almost pretend she never left, except for the leftover warmth in her limbs from being around Finnick all night. With a yawn, she turns over and closes her eyes.

But she can’t sleep.

Her body is exhausted. The muscles in her arms are tired from throwing knives and pulling bows earlier. Her eyelids droop. She tries to open them, but they don’t want to move.

Her mind, though, is buzzing. She’s imagining the arena. When the Games begin, she’ll have to fight 23 other people for supplies and safety and her own life. Or maybe she’ll run off on her own and starve to death. Though, if Mena’s right and people are lining up to sponsor her, then food won’t be a problem. That’s not a horrible idea, really. Run off and hide somewhere and let food come to her in silver parachutes. She makes a mental note to visit the camouflage station tomorrow.

Although, the sponsors probably won’t like it very much if she stays completely out of the action. And if she did win by hiding, that probably wouldn’t go over well back home. She’s going to have to at least fight.

Something squeezes around her stomach and lungs and forces her to her feet. She needs to be in the water right now, but there is no water. She needs to be outside. There’s a balcony at the far end of the guys’ hall that she noticed earlier. Air will never be better than feeling water stream through her hair and over her arms, but it’s better than nothing.

She practically jumps out of bed and moves quietly through the now dark floor. The sliding glass doors that lead outside are directly ahead. She can almost taste the air when a noise makes her stop. It sounds like something breaking, or wood splintering, and it’s coming from Finnick’s room. Her chest still feels tight, but she can wait. Whatever he’s doing, it sounds bad, and she wants to make sure he’s not hurt. Her heart starts beating faster as she knocks.

Whatever the noise is, it stops. After a long pause, his door slides open. Finnick is wearing a plain t-shirt over his pajamas, which feels weird to her. Usually he wears a nice shirt or no shirt at all. He seems both relieved and anxious to see her. His eyes are ringed in red.

“Sorry, Cresta, I’m closed for the day,” he says with a small smile.

“Not why I’m here,” she says, folding her arms over her chest.

“Then what’s wrong?” he asks.

“I could ask you the same question.”

Neither of them speaks for a long moment. They only look at each other. His eyebrows are slightly furrowed, like he doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but he’s also blocking as much of the doorway as possible with his body so she can’t see inside. She peers under his arm, though, and gasps when she sees the small pile of destroyed furniture at the far end of his room.

She points to the balcony. Reluctantly, he nods and follows her outside, where they’re greeted by a rush of cold city air. It smells like metal and poison and bad weather. She misses the salt-scented air back home. The balcony itself has a few chairs lined close to the wall. Annie sits on the edge of one. Finnick leans against the railing that separates them from a four-story drop to the pavement.

“Why can’t you sleep?” he asks, trying to be nonchalant.

“Why do you think?” she says, shakily.

He nods.

“You’re right, stupid question.”

He turns around so he’s facing the city, or as much as they can see. The top floor could probably see the entire city. At least their block is nice. She stands and walks over to lean next to him.

“Finnick, why did you break all the furniture in your room?” she asks.

To her surprise, he actually laughs.

“Because it doesn’t matter. I’m stuck here forever. Who cares about a table?”

She wishes he would look at her. Something is hurting him, and she doesn’t know what it is, and it’s frustrating her that she can’t help him. Why is it frustrating her?

“I know you hate being a mentor,” she says quietly. “I know you hate coming here and watching people you know die, and—“

“No,” he interrupts. “No, that’s not the full reason. I hate sending people to their deaths, sure, but I don’t know any of them. Five years of mentoring, and you’re the only important person I’ve had to prepare for the arena.” His eyes quickly find hers and then flit away to the street below them.

Her throat is suddenly bone dry.

“Then why do you hate coming here?” Her voice is too constricted, too soft, and too scratchy, but he doesn’t seem to notice. He takes a deep breath but otherwise doesn’t move.

“The truth? My life has become a living, endless hell ever since I won.” He speaks slowly, making sure every word is the right one. Her stomach sinks. So she was right. Winning would mean nightmares and guilt and other horrors she can’t imagine. He buries his face in his hands. “Do yourself a favor, Cresta. Lose. Don’t come home.” His voice breaks on the last word. Something between rage and horrible pain seeps cuts through her, forcing tears into her eyes.

Betrayal. This feeling is betrayal.

“You want me to die.” It’s not a question.

“No.” He still won’t look at her. She wants to scream at him for it, but she doesn’t. “No, I meant what I said earlier. If there was a way to stop everything now and go home, I would do it. But dying in the arena would’ve been better, would’ve been easier….”

All her anger dissolves inside her, leaving only pain and forcing out a few more tears. He wasn’t talking about her. He hadn’t been talking about her in the first place. She can tell he’s not fully telling the truth, but, for now, she doesn’t really care.

Cautiously, she closes the few feet between them and slips her arms around his shoulders. She’s never seen a victor like this, least of all Finnick, who was always happy and sweet, or, more recently, angry and a little scary. He doesn’t flinch when she touches him, but he does, finally, turn his head to meet her gaze. He’s also crying. At least she’s not alone.

“If it helps….” She stops. What would be the best way to phrase this? Now that he’s staring at her, she wishes he wouldn’t. “I, for one… I’m glad you made it out.” A sudden burst of courage makes her add, “I’m glad you’re alive, Finnick.”

A flicker of something goes through his eyes. He tries to smile, but apparently can’t.

“Why?” he asks, and she tightens her arms around him. “If I died, we never would’ve met. Your life would be the same as it was. You’d have nothing to miss.”

She winces at that and rests her head on his shoulder.

“I had no friends before you,” she admits. “The kids at school thought I was weak because I hated combat training. They beat me up, and called me names, even put me in the hospital once. So if you think I’d be better off without you--”

She means to keep talking. But at that moment the dam inside her breaks, and she has to pull away from him and bury her face in her arms as she finally, really cries for the first time since the reaping. This is more than a couple tears. Her entire body quakes with sobs. Her knees give out, but before she hits the ground, Finnick’s shaking arms encircle her waist. One of his hands comes up to rest against her face and guide her gaze up to his.

For a second, she thinks he’s going to kiss her, and her breath hitches. His thumb rubs her cheek, his eyes dart down to her lips and back up to her eyes. He presses his forehead to hers. Her heart is hammering inside her chest, so much that she’s sure he can hear it. She sucks her bottom lip into her teeth. This might be a horrible idea. But some part of her believes (has always believed) that this would happen eventually. Or maybe she only hoped. She lets out a shaky breath and wraps her arms around his neck. He tightens his around her waist.

She closes her eyes. This is happening. This is happening….

She’s aware of every breath he lets out. Every little twitch in his arms, and the movement of his fingers drawing circles on her back. Only a few inches separate their lips.

Then he moves. She leans in, heart in her throat, but his face is moving away from hers. He buries himself in the dark mass of tangled hair bunched around her neck, almost clinging for support. She breathes a sigh of relief and winds her arms around his shoulders. She relaxes into him, but her stomach knots with disappointment.

This isn’t right. Spending time with Finnick is supposed to mean laughter and swimming and teasing each other. There’s no precedence for having a deep conversation in the middle of the night, almost kissing, and then holding each other while faced with her imminent death. Then again, theirs isn’t a typical situation to begin with.

While it can’t hurt to have a strong bond between tribute and mentor, it probably isn’t good for a tribute to have feelings for her mentor.

Annie freezes, and her eyes go wide. Did she really just think that? She’s highly aware of his lips, pressed against her neck. A shudder starts between her shoulders and rips through her whole body. She pushes Finnick away from her.

“I should get some sleep,” she says. Without her to hold on to, he folds his hands together. She fights the urge to grab them. “I have training tomorrow.”

He presses his lips together. Just a moment ago, they were touching her neck. They could’ve been touching her own lips, if she had just stretched a little more…. She shakes her head. Finnick stretches a hand to her, but spends too long of a moment trying to decide where to place it. He settles it on her shoulder. Warmth seeps into her from each of his fingertips.

He leans forward and gently kisses her forehead. His hand curls around her jaw. She’s completely frozen until he pulls away. Her body is torn in half by her desire to kiss him or run down the hall and hide in her room. She doesn’t do either of those things, though. She walks, calmly, through the door, down the hall, and into her room. She doesn’t look back. If she does, she’ll fall apart.

She climbs into bed and tries to convince herself it’s not true. She doesn’t have feelings for Finnick. She can’t. He’s her mentor. It would never work anyway. He’s Finnick Odair, Capitol darling. He could get anyone he wanted. And she’ll probably be dead within the week.

Her dreams are unpleasant that night, to say the least. She and Finnick are swimming in the ocean back home. He leans in to kiss her, but just before his lips touch hers, she grows a mermaid tail and swims away. When he begins to chase her, Holiday shoots him through the heart with an arrow, and he calls out for her to save him.

But Annie just keeps swimming away.

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