Disclaimer:

Mockingjay. Real or not real?

My answer: not real. And my story will reflect that. I don't want to go into what I will and will not incorporate from Mockingjay as I don't want to spoil anyone who has not read the books. But when I started this story, I had a certain direction I wanted to take, and SC's story conflicts with that. Having read MJ, I don't feel it necessary to follow her vision. I'm substituting my own. I hope you enjoy this alternate reality as much as I do.

Originally, I attempted to alternate POV with every chapter, but I found this easier to write from Finnick's POV. So I'm writing from whoever's POV I feel like it. =D

I apologize if there are typos. I'll go back and fix them, but right now, if I don't post, this will never go up.


Anonymous Review Replies:

Annalee - I did not enjoy MJ! Well, I liked maybe the first two-thirds. The rest was butt. I promise a much happier ending than in the book. Thanks for reviewing!

Melliody - Yay! I'm glad you like Annie making that move. She was scared to death, but it all worked out in the end. =D Stay tuned to chapter 6 to see how F handles the Games and how Annie goes mad.

ohhey- thanks! I'm going to keep on keeping on. Hopefully you'll like it!

AWhiteBlankPage - I'm glad you are enjoying this story. I have lots of thoughts about Mockingjay. If you want my thoughts, feel free to PM. I have a whole long list of them, most of them negative. I don't want to spoil anyone so, I'm not going to put it here, but suffice it to say, my story is going to be seriously AU.

Lu - I'm glad you like the progression of F/A's relationship. Things are going to start to get really interesting for them soon. =D

Hajakuru Luver93 - thanks for the review. =D


Mad With Hunger

Chapter Five


I wake before the dawn, a habit I've had since living on the boats that's only been reinforced by the nightmares I've had since my Games. Only this time, there was no nightmare. When I finally fell asleep, I was out like a rock. Which is surprising, considering the odd angles my body has managed to contort itself into.

Looking down, I find Annie's head resting on my shoulder. The gray of early morning fills the room, giving her skin a silvery, otherworldly tint. Her dark brown hair lies across her pillow and my arm, and one of her legs is thrown haphazardly over me, resting in between my knees, tangled up like so much fishing line. Every breath she takes presses her closer to me, and my arm tightens around her of its own accord.

The hand that isn't tucked under her body rests on my chest, moving slightly every now and again in response to something she's dreaming about. Hopefully me. I throw my head back against the pillow and groan. It would all be so very innocent, if only I were asleep. The cool of the morning and air conditioned room have no effect; there's only a drowsy, suffusing warmth where our bodies are connected, which continues to make its way over me with each passing second. I should move away.

"Annie," I whisper. I try again, a little louder. Nothing.

Careful not to wake her, I attempt to unpin my arm, which is starting to go numb. She whimpers slightly, but does little else as I slowly extract myself out from under her. Blood rushes back into my dead limb, bringing with it pleasantly painful sensations. As I flex my fingers and wait for the tingling to stop, I go back to my newly discovered favorite pastime: looking at her. It quickly morphs into my other newly discovered favorite pastime: touching her. Searching my conscience, I find no guilt. After all, I did move away. I never said it would be very far.

Last night, I'd promised to wake her before the sun rose, so I use that as my excuse for what I do next. My finger sweeps along her collar bone, up the line of her neck, and just below her ear, memorizing the feel of her skin. The left corner of her mouth twitches, and she shifts away from me, but not out of arm's reach. Her mouth twitches again, and my fingers find a new playground. Her breath comes in unworried sighs, soft and warm as her lips.

Would it be wrong to kiss her while she sleeps?

Just as I'm about to find out, she turns her face towards me and her lashes slowly flutter open, struggling against sleep. Making sure my smile is the first thing to greet her, I lean down, waiting for her to wake up. The instant she sees me, her eyes widen and for a few moments, she just stares up at me. Her mouth parts to say something, but then she snaps it shut and yanks the sheet up over her nose.

It's disappointing. Like reeling in your line only to find that your great catch is nothing more than a muddy boot. Her initial shyness is understandable. I guess. I just thought we were past that. But her hesitation introduces new worries, because what if I'm wrong and it's not shyness, but regret.

Not really knowing what to do, I stretch on the bed, raising my arms above my head and arching my back to relieve the stiffness I have there courtesy of Annie. Her eyes sweep over me, prickling my skin. I'm not sure, but I think I hear her swallow. Good. It's shyness then. That I can deal with.

"Morning, Annie."

"Hi," she squeaks back, her voice muffled by the black satin sheets of the Capitol. Huh. Do all the rooms have black sheets, or am I a special case? Doesn't matter.

My smile goes wider, and I reach for the sheet and tug. It doesn't budge. Probably because of the white-knuckled death grip she currently has on the poor blanket. It's not going anywhere. At least not with these tactics.

"Are you insane? I haven't brushed my teeth," she yelps.

Is that all? That's nothing.

"Shhhh," I whisper, putting my finger to my lips. The whole point of waking her up early is so that no one would know she was here. While the Capitol walls aren't paper thin, they're hardly sound proof either. And they're most likely bugged, but I try not to think of that. I have other pressing concerns. "And what does it matter? Neither have I."

As far as flirtations go, admitting you have morning breath to score a kiss is a new low. Fortunately, it doesn't seem to gross her out. But I'm not taking any chances. I incline my head and kiss her through the sheet. Her fingers loosen on the fabric, and just as I start to pry the security blanket away, she rolls over to her side, away from me. "You could have just asked me to brush my teeth," she gasps, trying to stifle her laughter.

"No time. It's almost sunrise. You should be going," I stand up from the bed and walk toward the door. The muffled sound of my feet padding through the lush Capitol carpet is quieter than it should be. I turn back and find Annie still in bed. She's lowered the sheet and is staring up at me, a small smile on her mouth.

"What?" I ask, walking back towards her.

Annie holds out both her hands, and I take them in mine, pulling her into my arms. Rather than answering me, she holds me in a hug so tight my ribs are in danger of cracking. Convincing myself that we have a few more minutes before she really needs to go, I rest my cheek on the top of her head as she relaxes into me.

"Thank you," she says at last, her hoarse voice breaking the silence.

"What for?"

The air is so heavy, I'm tempted to make a joke but something tells me that wouldn't go over well. I might be stronger, but Annie is capable of inflicting some damage of her own, as reports from the training center testify and as I've seen for myself back home at the Career Center. Plus, there's the specter of Cliff hanging over my head. Not that Annie really could go to him after me, but why risk it?

Her fingers press into the hair at the nape of my neck, breaking me from another of my internal rants against District Four's other tribute. I look down and our eyes meet. There's sorrow there. Possibly regret, which I don't understand. She seemed happy enough just a second ago.

"Just…for everything." Before I can ask what 'everything' means, she raises to her tiptoes and presses her lips to my cheek. "I'll see you later," she says before leaving the room.

Three hours later, I head for breakfast. By the time I make it to the dining room, I've decided that tonight we'll stay in her room instead. And I'll bring my toothbrush.

The door to the dining room parts open with a hydraulic hiss, and Mags, who's already at the table, glances up. She's by herself, surrounded by mountains of breakfast foods. Enough to feed a small fishing crew, but since there'll only be six of us, most of it will go to waste.

"Don't you look chipper this morning," she says as she spears some runny, cheese-smothered eggs. I run my fingers across my face. Sure enough, there's a ridiculously large smile there. Normally, I wouldn't care, but I don't want to tell her about Annie. Mags might think she understands our situation, but she doesn't, and I don't want to hear her nagging me about something that makes me happy.

I raise an eyebrow, trying to pretend that nothing incredibly fantastic has happened to me in the past 24 hours. "I'm always happy."

Mags snorts. "Right. You've been wandering around the past couple of days like someone drowned your pet fish. And now…"

I heap a pile of pancakes, eggs, toast, and sausage onto my plate, unable to look Mags in the eyes while I lie to her. "I don't know what you're talking about," I say around a mouthful of strawberries and syrup. Maybe if I stuff my face, she'll see that now isn't the time to talk.

"There's nothing to be embarrassed about, Finnick. I'd rather see you smiling than gloomy. It suits you much better. But it begs the question, what's put you in such a good mood?" Her eyes are on me, sharp and penetrating as hooks. I try not to squirm, not give her any inkling about Annie and me, but it's hard not to feel like I'm a fish dangling from her line, waiting for her to pull me in.

The dining room doors part again, and my neck snaps to the entrance. False alarm. It's only Cliff, but at least for now I'm off the hook. There are six chairs left at the table, three on my right and three on Mags's left. Cliff sits next to Mags. No surprise there. They like one another, and while I don't hate him, we haven't exactly bonded. Still, I tell myself he can't be too bad. He just saved me from Mags's curiosity and left the chair next to me open.

So when Annie walks in and takes the seat next to Cliff, I'm a bit disappointed. Angry actually. Agrippina enters a few minutes later with her fellow design partner, Germania, and sits beside me. I pretend they're the only women in the room.

Scooting my chair nearer to the designers, I ask, "So what can we expect the kids to wear for the interviews tonight?"

Cliff's lip curls at the veiled insult, temporarily warming my insides. Annie's disapproving look is harder to stomach, but I ignore it. Just like she ignored me.

Germania opens her mouth to answer, but Agrippina leans in, blocking my view of Cliff's designer. Instantly I'm enveloped in a cloud of sickeningly sweet perfume, and I have to fight the urge to cough. "You'll just have to wait and see. I'll give you a hint, though. Blue." She drawls out the last word, pursing her lips like she wants a kiss. I glance up to see what Annie thinks of all this, but she looks away at her plate the instant she catches me watching her.

As we continue eating in relative silence, my anger starts to fade. Of course she couldn't sit next to me. Though it was never discussed, I think we both know that our relationship must remain a secret. But after flirting with Agrippina, I'm too ashamed to speak to Annie. Instead, I spend the rest of breakfast picturing what she'll be wearing. Hopefully it's better than the silver mesh monstrosity Agrippina has provided me with for the interviews. You would think that after winning fiveyears ago, I could dress in less attention-getting clothes. You know, more like a normal person. Well, what passes for normal in the Capitol.

By the time I've met with Annie and Cliff about their strategies for their interviews with Caesar Flickerman, I'm still thinking about the outfit. Agrippina's hint, blue, is pretty broad, so I don't know what to expect.

Certainly not what Annie's wearing when she steps into the living room. My throat goes dry at a sight that manages to be familiar and new at the same time. Annie's dressed like the ocean. Or its clothing equivalent. The light blue material around her neck slowly fades into teal, then deep blues and greens that swirl about her bare feet, which are speckled with small blue, green, and purple gems. Annie's dark hair has been curled, with white shells and starfish pinning it back in certain places to keep it off her face.

Beautiful.

I don't even realize I've said the word out loud until I hear Mags sigh and Cliff snarl under their breaths. At least Agrippina thinks I was talking about the dress, and she's all simpers and smiles at my pronouncement. Annie's too busy disinterestedly picking at something on her outfit to acknowledge my compliment. Probably still upset with me for my earlier antics with Agrippina. Or if I'm lucky, she's just smarter than me and knows how to control herself.

"I need to change," I say, fleeing the room before I do another stupid thing and reveal to everyone that something's going on between us. Running into my quarters, I strip down to my underwear and wander into the bathroom. Gripping the counter, I peer into the mirror, staring back at my reflection. The ridiculous smile is still there. I splash water on my face. Lightly smack my cheeks. Rub my eyes. But it doesn't go away. Pulling on my silver suit, I give myself one last look. I look stupid. It's times like these I wish I could be back in Four, wearing waders, a sweater, and a sturdy pair of boots.

Our escort has gone on ahead, leaving the two designers, Mags, Cliff, and Annie waiting for me by the entrance to the elevator, which will take them downstairs to the stage that has been erected outside the training center. The usual site for the interviews with Caesar Flickerman. They're all engaged in conversation as I quietly approach them. Annie's directly facing the doors, giving me my first glimpse of her back. Half of it's covered by her hair, which falls in waves to the middle of her spine. But the back of the dress is cut so ridiculously low, there's about a foot of skin still visible. I may not like Agrippina, but the level of detail she puts into her outfits (when one actually exists) is amazing. Green, blue, purple. Green, blue, purple. My middle three fingers tap against my leg as my eyes run over the stones that are gleaming along Annie's spine. Because of her hair I can't know for sure, but I think they start at her neck, and alternate green, blue, purple all the way down, ending between the two indentations of her lower back. Maybe even lower. I can't tell because the dress ends right at the top of her—

"Nice outfit," Cliff says, smugly, causing the whole group to turn around. That little piece of seascum. I'm quick, but not fast enough. They know what's caught my attention. I remind myself that at least three of these people already expect this kind of behavior from me. Mags, of course, is frowning. And Annie…well, I don't know what she's thinking. Hopefully, that she still wants to be with me.

Deciding to chance it, I insert myself between Cliff and Annie who are standing next to each other. I throw my arms around their shoulders and give Cliff a healthy smack on the back. "Thanks. You don't look so bad yourself." Truth is, he looks just as ridiculous as me. He got the same treatment as Annie, but instead of a dress and jewels, he has a skintight body suit. It's nowhere near as good looking as her outfit. Not that I really care, but the guys always seem to get the short end of the fashion stick.

As expected, Cliff shrugs my arm off. Annie just stands there, and I think, maybe, I'm forgiven for my earlier stupidity at breakfast. And the ogling at the elevator. I'm sure I'll find out later tonight.

Before I can worry anymore about it, the elevator doors open with a ding. Since Mags is already upset with me, I give up on pleasing her. Recklessly, I trail my arm down Annie's back, guiding her through the door to the back of the elevator. With both Annie and I leaning against the wall, shoulder to shoulder, no one can see the movement of my hand. Her spine stiffens under my touch as I count the jewels. I was right. They start at her neck. Where they terminate, though, will have to remain a mystery. She might be too nice to reject my advances publicly, but even I know there are limits to her kindness.

"You look great," I say, ignoring whatever glares I'm getting from Mags, Cliff, and Agrippina. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch Cliff's designer, Germania, smirking. I think she cares for Annie's designer about as much as I do. Not that I blame her. Rumor has it Agrippina is very controlling. Which would explain why she's dictated both Cliff and Annie's outfits, when really she's only responsible for Annie's. Also, it's verified fact that Agrippina is an annoying harpy.

"Thank you," Annie says to her green-painted toes, which wiggle as if they're in the sand. The jewels glued to the tops of her feet almost make me miss the hint of a smile on her face, visible in profile. "You look…interesting."

"Only interesting?"

She looks up, finds my face inches from hers. The tiny smile morphs into a large grin. "Distracting too. I guess."

"Hmmm. I'm not sure what you mean by that, but I'm choosing to believe it's a compliment."

She shrugs. "Believe whatever you like."

"Of course it's a compliment," Agrippina butts in, reminding me that there are other people in the elevator. "I wouldn't be surprised if the crowd only paid attention to you tonight."

"That would be unfortunate, considering our job is to highlight the current tributes, not past victors," Germania chimes in, leaving a response from me unnecessary. Agrippina doesn't like this. Her jaw tenses, and her pink skin burns two shades darker. She looks like a sunburned raspberry.

The jewels start rubbing against the palm of my hand, and I realize Annie is shaking beside me, suppressing a giggle at Agrippina's outrage.

The elevator opens to the main floor, and Cliff, who is standing to my other side, pushes off against the back wall, jostling me as he exits the elevator first with Agrippina hot on his heels. Whatever. Can't please them all. I wait for Mags and Germania to disembark before I take Annie's hand in mine.

"Good luck," I say, giving her fingers a brief squeeze before letting go. I follow her out the doors to the stage, and up the stairs. An attendant greets Annie, ushering her to her assigned seat, while another attendant does the same for me.

Sitting down at the chairs cordoned off for the mentors, I watch Annie take her place next to Cliff and the other tributes. All there's left to do now is wait and hope she does well. Mags and I decided that Annie's angle is one of charm and competence. She's thoughtful and sweet, which normally isn't too exciting, but combined with her looks (especially the way she looks tonight) and the fact that she's from District Four, I can't imagine any person who wouldn't want to help her. If it weren't illegal for me to sponsor her, I'd let myself go broke to make her win.

I take my seat. Mags sits to my right, and the male mentor from District Three is on my left. This is the third year I've sat next to him, and I still can't get his name right. It's two letters of the alphabet. AC? DC? TV? Who knows? All I can think of when I see him is the nickname he's been given by some of the other Victors: Volts. His black hair sticks out at all angles. Most likely, he's just not that into his physical appearance, or his stylist went a bit overboard with styling product, but I like to think it's because he's stuck his finger in a socket. District Three, after all, supplies the Capitol with electronic gadgets. It's fitting.

Volts is quiet, hardly ever says anything to me unless I initiate the conversation. But not because he's mean. I get that vibe with some of the other mentors, especially the ones from 1 and 2. But District Three's male mentor is like this with everyone. His glasses sit perched on the end of his nose, the black plastic frames slightly magnifying his intelligent brown eyes. Eyes that watch the world, taking it all in and then doing who knows what with that information. Probably something I wouldn't understand.

Beside him is an older woman named Alva. Her black hair is sleek, streaked with silver, unlike the woman who came last year, whose slightly frizzy hair was the color of ink. She didn't seem all there when I met her, so I'm guessing they let her take a break. Three doesn't offer much variety, unlike Districts One and Two, who have so many victors it can almost be a game guessing who will represent them. My own district has just as many victors, but even when I was little I remember Mags at the Games, only missing a year here and there. I don't know how she's arranged it. As for my inclusion these last three years, there's been strong hints from the Capitol that my presence was greatly desired. And who can say no to the Capitol?

The first interview is with a girl from District One named Lace. Taking a cue from her name, her designer's covered her in the material from head to toe. A nice treat for all the perverts in the stadium, though it does her few favors. She's pretty. Usually the tributes from 1 are, but she comes across as having a mind as perforated as the itchy stuff with which she's draped. She'll probably go far because of her Career status, but she doesn't have the brains to win this.

She's replaced by her male counterpart, a hulking beast of a boy with gleaming blond hair named Lux. His body is covered in reflective silver body paint, throwing off light as he bounds across the stage. Reports from the training center say he's practically unbeatable in hand-to-hand combat, and he's also very good with knives. Has a pedigree too. As Caesar points this out, the camera swings to his father, Lucre, winner of the 51st Hunger Games. Except for some gray hairs at his temples, the family resemblance is uncanny. Lucre beams brilliantly at his son and the audience. Understandably so. Lux has been favored to win from the instant he volunteered on Reaping Day.

The District Two Tributes, Alegra and Felix, come next. During both interviews, Caesar points out how their names mean happy. It looks like it's the first they've heard of it, and neither of them even seem capable of smiling. Typical of their district. Cold. Calculating. Dispassionate about everything except destruction. These kinds of tributes are generally successful, but rarely popular. They lack panache and charm, qualities the Capitol holds near and dear to their hearts. The Alegra girl would actually be pretty, but she shaved all her hair off to fit the mold. Bad move on her designer's part.

Volts's tributes are next, but I don't pay much attention. I can't realistically see either of them winning. And while I'm sure people underestimated Volts the year he won, I don't foresee any repetition of mass electrocutions. Things like that can only be used once. Then the element of surprise is lost.

Annie's called up next. She stands, takes a deep breath and throws her shoulders back. I didn't notice it before without all the lights on her, but she is covered in iridescent powder, and her dress reflects light, tricking the eye into believing she's emerging from the water.

As usual Caesar Flickerman is wearing his dark blue suit, which is lit up to look like the night sky. What's changed is that this year his hair, lips, and eyes are a bright sea green.

Before she can take her seat, Caesar grabs Annie's hand and spins her around slowly. "If I didn't know any better, I would think your designer, Agrippina, wanted us color-coordinated. Doesn't she," he pauses, arms outstretched to the masses, "don't we both, look magnificent?" The crowd breaks out into a chorus of oohs, ahs, and laughter as Annie takes her seat and Caesar soaks in their empty adulation.

"So, Annie—"

Caesar stops when she wrinkles her nose slightly. "Is something wrong, dear?"

"Oh, no. It's just…well, being called Annie makes me feel like I'm two years old." There are a few chuckles from the crowd as they size up another potential idol. She and Cliff were a hit at the opening ceremonies, and I'm pretty sure the Capitol will have no difficulty falling head over heels in love with her. But I can't shake my feelings of nervousness.

Caesar swats his own hand and giggles. "How silly of me. Anna is much better suited to the graceful, young lady standing before me."

Annie rolls her eyes, but the action is tempered by the smile she gives him as she tucks her hair behind her ear. "Thank you."

Caesar doesn't seem too convinced Annie believes her hype, because he appeals once more to the crowds. "Doesn't Anna—"he pauses, gives Annie a thumbs up—"look like a siren?" The crowd answers with a deafening response.

"There must be something in District Four's water, because you and your fellow partner make a very handsome pair. Should one of you win, you'll definitely give Finnick a run for best looking Victor."

"Oh, no," Annie says, taking her seat, "No one's better looking than Finnick. Just ask him." The audience keels over with laughter as the camera pans over to me. I don't have a microphone, so I spread my arms wide and shrug as if to say I can't help it. Which I can't, but what I can do is use my popularity in her favor.

"Now don't be jealous, Finnick," Caesar chides playfully, wagging his bejeweled index finger at me.

Wink. Smirk. Pander. Try not to laugh as Mags makes discreet gagging noises, which only I can hear over the glee of the crowd. It doesn't last long, because Caesar gets right back to business.

"Alright, Anna, tell us what has been the most exciting thing that's happened since you've arrived in the Capitol?"

I already know the answer to this question, and so does she, but it's not anything she can admit to before the nation. She blinks, searching for a suitable response, as Caesar leans forward like a shark tasting blood on the water.

Annie delicately folds her hands in her lap, but I can see the tension in set of her shoulders. "There have been lots of exciting things that have happened here. I don't think I could pick just one," she says, squirming under Caesar's scrutiny.

"How very diplomatic, but there's no need to censor yourself here," Caesar says conspiratorially, as if they are the only two present and the crowd of thousands has disappeared. "Are you sure there isn't anything you wish to share with me?"

"Not that I can think of. Do you have anything you wish to share with me?" The crowd laps this up. Anyone who teases Caesar is fine in their books. Caesar continues sizing Annie up, who is now nervously fiddling with something at her throat. My necklace.

Caesar shakes his head, chuckling. "You needn't keep secrets. We're all friends here."

Yes, nothing says friendship quite like forcing your friends to fight to the death for your own entertainment. Apparently Annie finds this as twisted as I do, because she laughs loudly.

"I have no secrets," she says, crossing her arms over her stomach.

Annie's wonderful, but she's a horrible liar, and the crowd collectively snickers as Caesar continues his gentle teasing. "Of course you don't. Let's move on. That's a lovely piece of jewelry you have there. Looks Capitol made. Where did you get it from?"

Man alive, he's sharper than Mags, who is now staring at me, eyebrows raised to the middle of her forehead.

Annie drops the necklace as if it's on fire. "It was a birthday gift."

Caesar makes a low whistle. "And a nice gift at that. Will you be wearing that into the arena as your token?"

Her eyes briefly flit over to me, and Mags instantly catches on. There's nothing to do but pretend her eyes aren't boring into my skull. I've made my bed. Now I have to lie in it.

"I think so, yes," she finally answers. This bit of news makes me irrationally happy. The only thing that would make it better was if the woman next to be wasn't radiating disapproval.

"Someone important must have given it to you, I'd wager. Wouldn't you?" Caesar asks, once again consulting the geniuses in the crowd. Oh, yes, they drone.

"Don't be shy, dear. It's perfectly natural that someone would give you a gift. Perhaps a young man back home?" Annie sits still as a statue, gripping the folds of her dress. "Or maybe it's a Capitol fellow? Or one of the other tributes? After all, who wouldn't love you?"

"Plenty of people," she says. Like each and every one of these barbarians who will be betting on whether she will live or die in less than 24 hours.

"Now, tell the truth, which of you sent Miss Cresta this lovely token?"

Bunches of people in the crowd stand up, hooting and hollering. Some hold up blinking marquees which can be programmed with a push of a few buttons to scroll whatever message they want in neon lights. Currently the most popular are "Marry me, Anna" and "I'm Anna's secret admirer."

Annie just shakes her head, clearly embarrassed. "I've never even had a boyfriend before." Really? This is probably messed up, but even at a time like this I still find satisfaction in knowing that I was another of her firsts.

Caesar gasps, and it is immediately echoed by the crowd, in spite of the fact they have no idea what he is going to say next. "Impossible. I'm sure you've broken your fair share of hearts back home."

Annie laughs again. "I'm not even allowed to date." Again, this is news to me, but I'll cross that bridge with Brian and Claire when I come to it. If I come to it.

"That's one of the many nice things about the Hunger Games," Caesar says with a cheeky grin, oblivious to the sudden loss of color from Annie's cheeks. "What happens in the Capitol, stays in the Capitol."

"I'm sorry, Caesar, but my lips are sealed. Maybe when I have free time in the arena, I'll consider letting you in on my secret." In other words, Caesar, don't hold your breath. The old man frowns, as if she's just broken his heart. Or told him that his suit is the ugliest article of clothing that exists in the world. Which is true.

"Well, it looks like Miss Cresta is determined to keep us dying from suspense. But one thing she can't hide is her training score. Eight. Not too shabby. Tied for highest of all the female tributes." Still not as high as the ten given to Lux, and the nine awarded to District Two's Felix.

"Yes, I'm happy with my performance," but she doesn't elaborate since the goings on during the scoring sessions are strictly under wraps.

Caesar shakes his head, making a tsking sound against his teeth. "Always so mysterious, but then aren't all women?"

As the crowd commiserates with Caesar about the puzzles of the opposite sex, the buzzer sounds. The interview is over.

"Well, Anna, I know I'm not alone when I say I hope you win, just so I can find out the identity of your secret admirer. Maybe you'll give us an exclusive reveal at the crowning ceremony?"

Annie can't respond; her time's up. She makes her way over back to her seat, passing Cliff on his way up. He gives her shoulder a tiny squeeze, and she walks back to her seat, a relieved smile on her face.

Is Cliff's interview with Caesar successful? Are any other the other interviews successful? I don't know. I try to pay attention, try to gauge the crowd's reception to the other tributes, but my attention is split with trying to see how Annie is holding up without being too obvious about it, since Mags is still watching me. I can catch the other tribute interviews later on television.

Afterward, we all head back to our quarters. It's dinnertime. Things are relatively upbeat. Much better than the uncomfortable tension of this morning. Once we've stuff ourselves to the gills, we move to the sitting room to catch up on the Capitol's reactions to tonight's event.

A large screen hangs from on of the walls, with two couches and a recliner facing it. Germania and Agrippina each head to a separate couch. I refuse to sit next to the Great Pink One, and Cliff refuses to share a couch with me. Mags is holding converse with our escort, Alexandra, so there are two empty seats left. Three if you count the recliner, but I don't. That leaves Annie with a decision. Either she can sit beside me or Cliff.

I try not to smirk as I feel the cushion beside me shift under her weight. I'm not very successful.

As we wait for Mags and Alexandra to join us, I grab the remote and start flipping through the different channels. There are hundreds and all of them are currently devoted to some aspect of the Games. Apart from the sixty-nine channels showing every Hunger Games that has occurred thus far, there are shows about this year's fashions. The designers of the Games. Strategy and tactics. Weaponry. The science behind muttations. Hunger Games History. Weather trends and predictions. The changes to the Cornucopia over the years. Interactive travel guides at past arenas. Victors. As I flip through, I even see a younger version of myself chatting up Caesar after my victory. I'm about four inches shorter, dressed (marginally) more modestly, missing nearly twenty pounds of muscle mass, with longish, unruly hair that hangs down in front of my eyes. Annie glances over, and from the look she gives me, I brace myself for the inevitable.

"Awww, you were so cute," she says, patting my cheek.

"Were?"

Mags grabs the remote from my hand and settles in next to Cliff. She waits for Alexandra to sit in the recliner before using the remote to dim the lights. As Mags switches to the channel covering the recent interviews with Caesar, I kick my feet up on the coffee table in front of me and stretch my arms along the back of the sofa, gently pulling Annie into my side. Cliché? Maybe. Effective? Most definitely.

I catch all the tributes I missed on the replay. They're pretty much fodder. The girl from Seven shows some promise. Maybe the boy from Nine, who's awfully quiet. That doesn't always mean anything, but just last year one of the quiet ones turned into a raging lunatic. Started eating the hearts of his kills and needed to be stunned just so the hovercrafts could retrieve the bodies. Until the Capitol killed him with an avalanche. At least if you believe the rumors, which I do.

Annie's biggest competition, without doubt, comes from the other Career districts. This I already knew. I do learn, however, that Annie doesn't like watching herself on television. I stop trying to cajole her into looking at screen when she buries her face in my neck. She must like it there, because she hardly moves for the rest of the evening.

When the recaps are finished, Panem's anthem plays and then the screen goes black. On all channels. Not that it's time to go to bed. There are still parties and parades to be had outdoors straight on till tomorrow morning.

Germania is the first to stand. "There's a small gathering at one of the Gamesmaker's houses," Germania says, looking about at the adults. "Anyone care to join?"

Agrippina and Alexandra stand, ready to join their fellow Capitol citizen for what is likely one of the more exclusive bashes taking place tonight. "Finnick? Mags?" Germania prompts.

To my relief, Mags answers, "Can't make it." My only plans for the evening revolve around Annie. Pointing at the escort, Mags says, "Neither can you." Alexandra looks ready to protest, but she refrains. I've seen Mags and her go at it earlier in the week. She doesn't stand a chance, and she knows it. "And you two," she says to the designers, "make sure you're back here by morning to prep Cliff and Annie."

The three of them leave the room without responding. Probably hoping to escape any more of Mags's orders.

I slowly stand to my feet, grimacing slightly at my creaking knees. Holding out my hand to Annie, I help her up. Over at the other couch, I see Cliff do the same for Mags. But he doesn't stop there. He hugs her, and though I can't make out the words, I hear Mags whisper something in his ear. He holds her for another second, than breaks away and walks toward me.

Thrusting his hand towards me, he says formally, "Thank you for all your help, Finnick." I try to meet his eyes, but feel a bit ashamed. This attempt at peace should have come a whole lot sooner. And it should have been initiated by me. Better late than never, I suppose. I shake his hand. Answer back, "Sure. No problem, Cliff. See you tomorrow." Then, after saying goodnight to Annie, Cliff makes his way to his room.

Annie's eyes trail after him, and I notice how pale she looks. Must be nerves. I lean down and whisper in her ear, "I'll come by in a few minutes." She looks back up at me, confused, but doesn't say anything. Then she follows after Cliff, disappearing down the hallway.

Should I even pretend that I'm not going to follow her? Yeah, I probably should. Mags is already mad enough at me as it is. Besides, I need to run to my room and grab my toothbrush.

"Come on, Finnick." Mags walks over and pats me on back. "Time to go to the Games Headquarters."

What? "But I thought—" The hairs on my arms stand on end, and my skin starts to feel clammy. Just like when I wake up from a nightmare. Only this time I wasn't sleeping.

"Didn't you see the schedule?" she sighs, exasperated. "This is your third year. You should know by now that—"

I take a step forward, banging my shin against the coffee table. No, no, no. How could I forget that the night before the Games the mentors don't stay in the training center. My last night with Annie was yesterday, not today.

"Those sponsors aren't going to sign themselves up," Mags says softly. I think. I can't hear much over the rushing of blood through my ears. My heart starts to hurt, and I feel lightheaded. This isn't right. I need to be with her. This is all wrong.

"I need to say good-bye," I say, starting towards the hallway, unable to breathe.

Mags says something after me, but I don't hear it. I stumble through the hallway to Annie. My feet are heavy, and it feels like I'm trudging against the surf. I push harder, almost running to her door, afraid that I won't be able to make it in time. I don't knock. The door slams against the wall, and I find her lying on her bed. Still in her dress, she is curled into a small ball, her glittering back towards me. Shutting the door, I stride over to her side of the bed and kneel before her.

"I'm sorry," I say. "I thought I'd be able to stay here tonight."

She sits up. Not waiting for an invitation, I pull her out of the bed, hauling her into my arms. She inhales deeply, then shudders against me. I rock her in my arms. Wait till she's able to speak.

"Finnick, I'm so scared," she finally says, her voice small and trembling.

"Shhh. Shhh," I whisper into her hair. "It's going to be alright. I promise."

She shakes her head and tries to push me away, but I can't let go. "How can you say that?" she says despairingly, tears glistening on her lashes.

How can I say that? I don't know, but my mind won't let me accept the alternative: that I have no power in this situation. For my own sanity, I play along. "Because, I won't let anything bad happen to you."

I feel the panic begin to overwhelm me, but I have to keep it together. If Annie sees me lose it, it won't help her in the slightest. So I retreat further into my new reality, where we both have some kind of control over what will happen to us. Where there is no rebellion and no games, and we can be together.

"And when you win, we'll go back to Four and I'll ask for your parents' permission to date you." I hold her hands, squeezing them gently. "Does that sound good to you?"

"I'd like that," she says, offering me a watery smile. "A lot."

Time is short, and even though I tell myself Mags can wait, or better yet, go on without me, I know that won't happen. Taking her face in my hands, I kiss her. Blocking out everything but Annie, I hold her to me, determined that for at least these minutes, nothing will come between us.

Annie moves up on her toes, her body sliding against mine as her fingers find purchase in my hair. She fits snugly against me, as if I've held her like this millions of times instead of just this once. We move backwards, stumbling ungracefully until the back of my knees hit her bed. Unbalanced, I nearly fall, but catch at her clothes. The sequins of her dress scratch my hands as they move over her.

The kisses are desperate, urgent, even painful. There'll be marks. In contrast, when she pushes me away, her touch is gentle, like the breeze. Air. She needs air.

Pressing my mouth to the top of her head, I breathe in, trying to steady myself. The scent of oranges is all around me, the first attack on my senses. Others quickly follow. Annie's breathing, harsh and humid against my chest. Annie's fingertips, enmeshed in the silver netting of my shirt, tingling wherever they touch me. Her skin, flushed and yet covered with chills.

Bunching fistfuls of shiny blue material by her hips and thighs, I rasp out some garbled words. Compliments most likely, but choked and made insensible by my need for her. I begin to shake as I feel her calf rub against then wrap itself around my leg.

Last night I was able to put a stop to this, but now…there's so little time left. And I want to memorize everything about her. My mouth drops to her shoulder, tasting the skin there. Oranges. I groan, running my fingers along the strap of her dress. In the way.

The zipper of her dress is cold, a small sliver of respite from the intolerable heat coursing over my body. The very open weave of my shirt does nothing, just clings uncomfortably. Tailored to fit me perfectly, the clothes now feel two sizes too small, and the soft material seems to have transformed into coarse rope, which chafes against my skin. I want nothing more than to take it off. Wait, that's not completely true. There's something else I want more. Something else that needs to be removed.

As I fiddle with the icy metal of Annie's zipper, I start to believe that pulling the clasp down will unleash a torrent that will keep me from being burned alive. Irrational, I know, but as I keep fumbling with the zip, the idea builds credence. Seconds later I'm utterly convinced that the only way to escape this fire is to drown myself in her.

As I ease the fastener down, I feel her chest hitch against mine and she goes completely still. I drop my fingers to her waist, thumbs stroking her stomach through the dress. I meet her gaze, silently pleading to let me continue.

Her fingers dig into my skin, and she closes her eyes, breathing heavily, nearly swaying into me. "Finnick," she moans, my name nearly unrecognizable on her lips.

That's a yes. My fingers start back toward the zipper. But then Annie throws herself into my arms, hugging me like I'm a child's toy. "I can't," she gasps out. When she says it again, she sounds like she's on the verge of tears.

I hadn't considered this alternative earlier, but this is another way to put out a fire. Her rejection is just as effective as a belly flopping from a bluff into our wintry sea. Complete with painful stabs of ice water and impact.

"Please don't be mad at me," she begs, forcing me from my stupor. I'm not mad. I'm furious. Though not at her. Just myself. And Annie needs to know that. Burying my embarrassment, I assure her, "It's my fault. Not yours. I shouldn't have asked for this so soon. I don't know what I was thinking." Idiot! I'd bash my head against a wall, but she still won't let go of me and I feel too awkward to do anything but stand there stupidly.

"Thank you, Finnick," she says, gratefulness evident in every word. I can see her try to figure out what to say next. I guess she can't find the words, because she grabs my face in her hands. For a second she looks unsure, but then her lips find mine. Light, sweet. She pulls back, looking me straight in the eye as her fingers move from my face, down my shoulders and chest. Further down to my stomach, stopping just inches above my belt. "Maybe…When I win…"

I nod my head in understanding. "When you win," I vow.

She's the one to let go. Stepping back, she swipes at her eyes, draws in a deep breath. "Before you leave, could you do something for me?" she asks, her hands wringing the sides of her dress.

"Anything."

Going over to her dresser, she pulls out a handful of letters, places them firmly in my hands. "If I don't…Make sure these make it to the proper people."

This last request destroys the temporary bubble in which I'd found shelter. The possibility of her death hits me again full force, robbing me of air. I can't speak. Even if I could, I'd cry and that's the last thing Annie needs now. So I just nod my head, tucking the letters into my suit's inner pocket.

When I look up, she's standing in front of me. And because I'm not sure if I'll ever have this opportunity again, I kiss her.

Too soon, we're interrupted by a knock at the door.

"Finnick," Mags calls through the wood. I have to fight the way my fingers want to wrap around Annie's waist and never let go.

"I'll see you soon," I say, the words sticking like sand in my throat.

She just nods, and I rip myself away from her, fleeing the room before she can see me cry.

I crash out into the hallway, ready to fight Mags about my lateness, but she says nothing. Just fixes the collar of my clothes and brushes my face with her thumb. When she pulls it back, I see lipstick there. She sticks a few tissues in my hands and looks away as I wipe my eyes.

After a few seconds, she says, "Come on, son. Let's go."

Somehow we make it to the elevators. When the elevator doors close behind us, I lean against the wall, ready to sink to the ground. Mag's hand at my elbow bears me up.

"I told Agripinna to send ahead another outfit," Mags says, her tone still hushed. I look down at my rumpled suit. The silver weave is no longer symmetrical. It gapes in places where Annie worked her way in. The suit will never be the same again. Not that it would matter. The Capitol's already seen it. Agrippina would never let them catch me wearing repeat ensembles.

"You can change once we get down there," she says as the elevators open. The instant we're outside the training center's doors, we're bombarded by a blitzkrieg of lights and noises. It's disorienting, and the world starts to spin as I feel their hands on me, trying to take a piece of me. I should run away. Take Annie and hide. But where? The muscles in my legs tense, but one look from Mags stops me. She steers me through the throng, her small hand like a rudder at my back. Occasionally patting me or rubbing the spot between my shoulder blades.

A long, black vehicle is waiting for us. An Avox opens the door for us, and we duck inside and wait as we're chauffeured to the Games Headquarters.

There is a sound of glass clinking, and Mags shoves something cold into my hands. "Drink this."

Without thought, I accept the glass and toss the liquid back, choking as it burns its way down my throat. "What is that? It tastes horrible," I say, when I've finally stopped coughing.

Mags grins. "Well, it's certainly not milk."

I wipe my mouth with my sleeve and stare out the tinted windows. While I can't hear it clearly, music is blasting so loud, the bass causes the interior of the limosuine to pulse with the beat. Outside are the Capitol citizens, dressed in all their finery, dancing, drinking, laughing as they celebrate the biggest party of the year. The car is slow going due to all the parades and carousers it must navigate through. The Games Center, which is only a few blocks away, will take a half hour to reach.

About half-way there, Mags speaks to me again. "If you want to help the tributes, you're going to need to pull it together," she says.

I nod, not quite sure what it is I'm agreeing with.

"Finnick, are you listening?"

I nod my head, rubbing my eyes. "Yes. Yes, I'm listening."

"Good. She did well. They both did, and there should be plenty of people willing to donate to our tributes. But you need to keep selling them."

"Her," I correct.

"No, them. Showing favoritism is not going to help. At least not yet. But when you show up, I need Finnick Odair to be there. Do you understand what I'm saying? Can you do that?"

I don't have a choice. "Yes."

Mags seems to believe me, because I no longer fear that she will break the glass she's holding. "Alright. According to the bookmakers, Anna and Cliff are odds-on favorites for the top eight, but Lux, Alegra, and Felix performed better in the interviews, and the boys both scored higher than her. Since they've already agreed to be allies, they might be able to benefit from this initially. But as things start to thin out, it's important that you've distinguished those two from the rest. And hopefully Anna and Cliff will help you out too."

That would be nice, but I don't see much killing in Annie's future. It just doesn't sit right with what I know about her. So that means I'll have to rely on Cliff to do the dirty work. He likes her, so he should pose little harm to her. But in other ways, he may be the most dangerous threat of all for her in that arena. She might just die protecting him. I should have warned her, told her to cut him loose the instant he began to slow her down. I add that to my growing list of regrets.

Mags gives me a firm pat on the shoulder, indicating that we've arrived. The second I step out of the limo, a Capitol reporter accosts me. I'd like to shove her aside, but what would be the point?

She fingers the collar and the torn bits of material of my shirt, smiling knowingly at me. "Looks like you started the celebrations a little early."

"When in the Capitol…" I trail off suggestively.

"So, who's the lucky girl?"

It's like a repeat of Annie's interview with Caesar, but Mags pushes me past the reporter with a, "Not you. Now if you'll excuse us."

I look over my shoulder apologetically, though the only thing I'm sorry for was not being able to say that myself. Oh to be old and popular for being a crotchety spinster. At least Mags always enjoys herself in the Capitol. She actually gets to speak her mind. Be herself.

I don't know how I get through that night. Maybe because I recognize this is the only way I can save her. So I pull myself together. One breath at a time. One thought at a time. Brick by brick, I build my walls, sectioning off the emotions I can't deal with. The emotions that won't help me here. That won't help her. By the time I've changed into my new outfit, I've done what Mags said was necessary. I've become Finnick Odair. The golden boy from Four who everybody loves. Who always gets what he wants.

From here to the start of the Games, it's a near constant stream of meetings with potential investors. Some I recognize from previous years. Many are people who sponsored me during my own Games, which they love to remind me of. Like they own me or are responsible for my success. By the time our break rolls around, at least twenty people have asked me about my trident. I pretend they're talking about the weapon hanging over the fireplace back home, but who really knows with these people. All I do know is that I hate them. Before I didn't care one way or the other, but now I just hate them. What gives them the right to converse with me like we're buddies? Or even closer? I channel this anger, use it to bilk them out of as much money as possible. When all the pledge monies are tallied, I've seen to it that Annie and Cliff are in third and fifth place.

At six in the morning, the mentors are given a brief two hour break to nap, shower, or do whatever before one last round of interviews at nine. They've erected temporary lodgings for the mentors in the Games Center to use during the next couple weeks, though we're free to stay back at the Training Center. I would go, but by now Annie is gone, flying somewhere over Panem to her arena.

During the competition, the mentors usually work in shifts after the first day, only leaving if their tributes are killed off, though some stay around to socialize with the other victors. To keep track of what goes on in the games, each mentor is given a pager that tracks the health levels and locations of their tributes in relation to the other contestants. If there is action or rumors of action, the missing mentor is alerted. They can choose to return or let the mentor on duty handle it. Both Mags and I are hands on, so we make the decisions together, but it varies from district to district. Twelve's mentor is in the most unique situation. Since their only other victor died a long time ago, he's by himself. Not that he taxes himself to make up for the missing help. He's usually drunk or cracking jokes with one of the guys from Eleven, while his escort half-heartedly tries to get him to take his job seriously.

I look around, locate the mentor in question. Haymitch Abernathy is already surrounded by empty wineglasses. Typical. What's unusual is the woman hanging about him. Looks like he has a new escort this year. She is younger than the last one, and there's an obstinate set to her jaw and sneer of disgust with her coworker that promises some interesting tension. We'll see if she's more successful at getting him to do his job than the last one. I'm not getting my hopes up.

Shutting the door of my suite behind me, I find my bed and collapse in it. I've been up for over 24 hours, but I know sleep just won't come. So I lay in the darkness and stare at the ceiling. Eventually, there's a knock at the door, and I recognize our new escort poke her head through, light spilling in from behind her.

It's too early in the morning for her to be wearing a wig that bright. "It's almost time," she trills with an equally obnoxious giggle. Through quick thinking and Mags, I've managed to avoid being alone with her for most of the week. No such luck now. She'll be holed up with us in the Games Center for the duration of the competition.

"Thanks, Alexandra."

"Actually, it's Alexandria." She totters in on insanely high heels, flicking on the lights. I shield my eyes against the garish lime green of her outfit as she places some things at the end of my bed.

"Sorry."

"That's alright. I've brought you breakfast. And a change of clothes."

She stands there expectantly. "I'll see you later," I say, looking at the door. She takes the hint and leaves me to get ready. When I'm dressed and fed, I join Mags, who is entertaining the Capitol citizens by casually insulting one the many Hunger Games correspondents.

The questioning goes on for half an hour, and it will be repeated again at the same time tomorrow. And the day after that and so on until one of the tributes is finally crowned. The comments from these interviews will be played, spliced, and argued over ad nauseum every couple of hours once the initial bloodbath at the Cornucopia runs its course, culminating in an hour long recap of the day's events given by an expert team of analysts from the Capitol's leading sports and recreation channel.

The lights eventually dim, signaling it's time for the reporters to be ushered out of the nucleus of the Games Headquarters. They're not going far though. They'll be kept on hand in the foyer, should interviews with the mentors be needed.

The usual pre-Games show comes on the screen, and I'm subjected to the antics of four grown men, making predictions, reminiscing, and comparing stats from the last sixty-nine years of Hunger Games. They even discuss the new camera techniques available to them for the first time this year.

Fifteen minutes to go. They go over the tributes one last time, dissecting their strengths and weakness. A rotating image of Annie in training gear appears briefly on the screen, standing feet apart and hands out to her side. 5'9", 137 pounds. Training score of 8. BMI. Birthday. Measurements. Everything you could possibly want to know. After they've gone through the last of the tributes, a woman reporter just outside the mystery arena speaks. Will this be the bloodiest opening day ever? Will District 12 be able to snap their first day tribute blues? Find out this and much more after the commercial break.

Mags and I settle on one of the couches in our area, leaving Alexandria to sit by herself on a recliner. There's a small screen that rises from the cushion between us, our link to the outside world and donations from sponsors. I settle in, taking a bottled water from one of the staff that walks by offering refreshments. I don't even attempt to eat food. There's no way I'll be able to keep it down.

Immediately before us are two screens in a console, one for Annie, one for Cliff. Beyond that is a large wall, broken up into five screens. For the bloodbath at the Cornucopia, the five screens merge into one big display to project all the action. Like going to the movies. They even serve popcorn here in the Games Headquarters. Eventually the screens will split up again, so we can see all the confrontations simultaneously. And if we miss anything, there'll be replays and plenty of commentary.

The closer we get to kick-off, the room grows progressively tense and quiet. Even Alexandria has managed to shut her mouth. It's this way every year. Perhaps all the mentors are reliving their own games. It's what I've done in the past. Only this year, I'm thinking about Annie and everything that can go wrong.

We get our first glimpse of the arena as the tributes rise from the ground on their individual platforms. Like all the other contestants, Annie's dressed in light colored clothing from head to foot. They've all been given lightweight jackets, fleece vests, and sturdy boots. So hot days, cold nights, and probably high gusts of wind. Unless the Gamesmakers decide to mess with the weather.

She stands between two boys, one from District 8, the other from District 11. Both look no older than thirteen, and neither are taller than her. Based on their scores and general scrawniness, I don't foresee any trouble. But on the next plate over is a girl from 7 that I'm not too sure about. If she tries to go towards the Cornucopia, she'll most likely be taken out by Lace, who is next to her. Annie and Lace are allies; I tell myself not to worry. It doesn't work. Once a tribute, always a tribute. I see the possible moves in my head. One action leading to an infinite number of outcomes, all ending with Annie taken away from me.

No. That's not going to happen. I shake my head. Pull myself together. Focus only on that minute. That second.

Annie's long hair is pulled back in a braid, which she's tucked inside her shirt, no doubt to keep anyone from pulling on it. Her green eyes are opened wide, hand to her forehead to block out the sun. She scans for Cliff, and once she's found him, surveys the terrain.

Desert to one side, forest-like vegetation to another, tableaus of red rock in yet another direction. Ravines and what look like Gamesmaker-made mazes thread through the desert floor. Walls of red and orange stone that rise hundreds of feet from the ground, hiding a network of caves and dwellings from the people who lived on this land hundreds, maybe even thousands of years ago. The stone is broken up by a dam, holding back the flow of a river. There are little pockets of water hidden throughout the miles of the arena, but this dam ensures the Gamesmakers' control over the largest supply of water available to the tributes.

How much of this Annie takes in during that one minute allowed to the tributes, I don't know. She doesn't have the advantage of thousands of angles from over hundreds of strategically placed cameras. The countdown on the bottom of the right-hand corner of the screen says there are only ten seconds left.

I grip the couch, hiding my fingers under my legs. Mags says nothing, but I feel her hand rest on my knee, which is starting to shake.

There is nothing but zeros left on the bottom of the screen and the booming voice of Claudius Templesmith rings out over the speakers: "Ladies and gentlemen, let the 70th Hunger Games begin."


To Be Continued


A/N: Special thanks to Medea Smyke who has encouraged me to keep writing by reading my scraps in their various stages. She has the patience of a saint.