Disclaimer: I own nothing of Hunger Games. R&R please.

Chapter 1

He lies there, slumped in the damp, stained silk sheets, near-faint with exhaustion and his body tense and sore from the hours of strain.

His patron today has paid a fortune to book his weekend, and he wonders what the hour is now. They seem to have been holed up in here for far longer than he can bear, and that is saying much when Finnick Odair has learnt to tolerate so many things.

His patron is licking at him with her forked tongue, the result of some twisted Capitol fashion from last month that she undoubtedly got stuck with. This is the first time they've met—she's a first-time patron. She isn't unattractive per se, as most Capitol women are, even if plenty look arguably freakish to him. Still, she and most have figures that they pay to maintain at all costs, even if they do all sorts of silly things like altering their skin tones or eyes or have cat whiskers put into their cheeks.

He decides that she is worth pandering to. She did pay a record sum for him, after all, and there's more of that where it's come from. Also, talking to her will give him a little more time to rest before he's expected to rattle the bed posts again.

He inserts a soft, suggestive tone into his voice—the sort that tends to persuade his patrons into doing insane things to please him. "I like your tongue."

"Do you?" She says appreciatively, and she flickers it at him.

He stares at it in disturbed fascination. Why do these Capitol women think that looking like animals is the way forward? He once had a patron who'd had too many whiskers in her cheeks— it had taken all his effort not to shake with laughter when she'd tried to give him head. The funniest thing is that they all want him because they find him so natural. But they all want him to like them back and thus add on more artifice to make themselves more attractive. It drives the difference between him and them to a point of bitter irony.

This client is almost as ridiculous as the cat-styled patron with what must have been a painful alteration— she's running her long nails and fingers in his hair, whispering that he was born a God.

"Me, a God, when you are gracing this entire place with your presence?" He laughs gratuitously, hiding his sarcasm. "Do you really think so?"

"Of course." She is sliding away the sheets and slithering up his waist, ignoring how spent they both really are. She probably wants value for money, since she paid a great deal. Even though he left her gasping and exhausted just minutes ago, the reminder of the fortune that she paid to be here is making her hungry again. And of course, he must comply, or Snow will hear of this. She leans her head on his hipbone, tracing the hard ridges and sighing. "You are so beautiful. You are the only one who's good enough."

If only his patrons here knew that his mother had been arguably plain, and that his father had died somehow waxy and wasted with only the merest suggestion of eroded youth and vitality. His parents were certainly not Gods—or they wouldn't have struggled as fishermen despite having their uncanny talents for life near the seas of District Four.

But Finnick, for all his humble origins, has been told that he is a looker. If he is doing anything that requires clothes at all, he is supplied with fancy Capitol fashion and high-quality textiles from District Eight. It's been three years since he's won the Games, and since then, he has been with hundreds and told that he belongs in the Capitol.

He is being told that even now.

Clearly, that is why he spends his days and nights the way that he does, even if he would rather be left alone. When he'd been interviewed after being crowned the Victor, he'd expressed his wish to go back to District Four with the winnings. He hadn't really expected to be held in the Capitol after that.

But since then, Finnick knows why the silver parachute with the tridents came. Swords or knives would have sufficed; the silver trident was given precisely because the patrons thought that he was the perfect embodiment of an ancient sea god Poseidon. It sickened Finnick the first time when one patron had called him that and explained how Poseidon had been known to be virile and an insatiable lover. Now wonder this place that Snow sets him up in is sea-themed. It makes Finnick all the more exotic, and his patrons like that. He has this place within a casino at the outskirts of the Capitol, and after each auction, he is holed up in here for days at an end.

He doesn't curse his face and form though; if he hadn't had his looks, he wouldn't have caught the viewers' attention and admiration. He wouldn't have had so many sponsors, even if many of those eventually became patrons forced upon him. They wouldn't have sent him that silver parachute that paved his road to survival—even if it was littered with perforated, impaled, limp forms. Even now, he has a firm belief that human bodies are the most reminiscent of fishes when those are lifeless.

For now, Finnick Odair has chosen to live, and if he must live, he won't regret the day when he decided that death was too common and undistinguished a choice for him.

He has earned him adoration, no matter how fickle it is. In the early days, the fear of having his younger siblings killed made him eager to satisfy patrons. But those left too satisfied and took him for granted. Some were rough; some left him with bruises that needed attention for weeks, and some used supplements and toys that hurt him. They have to pay more, but Finnick is not the one who settles the prices, in any case. He never gets to take anything more than the gifts they give aside from what they pay. Since then, he has learnt to withhold a little. That keeps them wanting to please him instead, and the secrets and gifts that they give him come from their desire to pander to him.

So he pouts for his patron's pleasure, answering her inane questions. She hit him; scratched him in the throes of her frenzy, but for now she is calm. Later, he will be the one asking questions and she the one giving him answers for fear that he will become sullen and withdrawn from her. She has information, he is sure of that. She works quite closely with Snow.

"How old are you?" She strokes his face lovingly. She wants to be reminded of how lithe and young he is; how a youth will make love to her over and over again.

He tells her, as if she doesn't already know. "Seventeen."

While he is a simple, solid beast to be used in beds and wherever else that people deem fit, they value him at least for his youth and looks and the pleasure that he's learnt to give them.

"So you've had quite a bit of experience by now, eh?"

"I suppose so." He isn't sure whether she is mocking him.

In the hour that he had turned sixteen, he was sent on his first assignment—even President Snow, a stickler for laws, found it an utter and complete waste to obey laws prohibiting minors from being penetrated when it concerned Finnick and profits. Snow had long figured a discreet way to set up a place at the edge of the Capitol, where auctions were held weekly. For now, Finnick is the star of this casino. If there were once victors who held the same appeal for Snow as cash-cows, Finnick is the only viable one now. The rest became undesirable, and it remains that Finnick is young and handsome. People will pay for him.

"Is your hair naturally this colour?" She looks fascinatedly at its deep brown tones. It has been called bronze, although it is actually fairly common back in District Four. Not that he's been back there much anyway; he's visited a grand total of six times ever since he was crowned the victor of the Sixty-Fourth Games. "Like autumn leaves. Gilded leaves on the ground that catch light and become the essence of those veins."

"Yes. Some call it bronze, but I haven't heard anyone call my hair what you did." He laughs once, somewhat amused at her gift for expression. She does work in Snow's key propaganda department—he should have expected it. "Do you like it?"

"I don't like it." She buries her face in it, inhaling deeply. "I love it. I'm sure everybody waxes lyrical about it."

"Not the way you do." He says simply. This is somewhat true.

She kisses him deeply and he tries his best to respond. Her next question however, is far more predictable than the way she'd described his hair. "Do you love me?"

He smiles in a way that looks like he means it. "I can't answer that question."

His patron, as he had hoped, seems to become even more enraptured by his enigmatic answer. She props herself up on an elbow, studying him. "What was your first time like?"

What should he say?

His first time was a strange haze, with this queer, purple-skinned woman with back tattoos kissing him everywhere and talking in language he'd been startled by at first; then slowly picked up as part of his repertoire. It had horrified him at first—he'd been bewildered and he'd woken up wondering if he was still sane. But since then, he's decided that he is. Surely Finnick is, if he is alive and able to take secrets and savour them. It gives him pleasure in knowing that Snow has no idea that his most loyal supporters would rather have a good, willing fuck than to keep Snow's secrets for him.

"Well?" She prompts him. The sheets smell strongly of artificial perfumes that don't quite cover the real scent of sweat and spent come. The cleaners give him fresh sheets every morning when they do room service, but that's not enough.

He looks at his patron, grinning cheekily. "I can't say that it was as good as this."

She is satisfied with his answer. What she doesn't know is that Finnick's first time felt like his second, third, fouth and subsequent time. Within the same day of his first assignment, the next patron had been stranger yet, sporting alterations and modifications that made Finnick wonder if he would die of some disease when he'd been ordered to join the patron in bed—well, on the table top, actually.

Of course though, the Capitol has long found ways to deal with diseases and illnesses and that sort of thing. Besides the curability of diseases, getting infected is near impossible; the management always screens and schedules the customers carefully in the interest of sustainable returns. For that same reason, the strict rule is that his patrons can't be too rough with Finnick, or they'll face being blacklisted. Nobody likes a bruised apple.

"You're perfect," His patron tells him. "I'm not interested in anyone else except you."

"Not even the latest District Four tribute?" He questions, testing how ready she is to give him information. "I hear he's competition."

"Oh he's a looker alright," His patron says nonchalantly. "District Four tributes tend to be. But I don't think he'll last long. It's been a week now and he's already half-gone. Even if I wanted to pay for him, he'd be dead meat by then."

"True." There hasn't been a District Four winner for the years since Finnick won.

His patron is still curious about him. She is stroking him now. "Is it true that you like men more than women?"

Frankly, he is indifferent. "I haven't made up my mind about that." He lifts a brow teasingly at her, making her smile deliriously. "Although you might be the deciding factor."

Apparently, Snow's belief is that homosexual activity increases the risk of disease. While Snow himself hates the idea of homosexuals, the money offered is too good to ignore. To that extent, male patrons are only allowed to bid for Finnick once every two months, and the price usually goes up to be sixteen times the amount that the average female patron forks out. Not that the diseases are incurable in this day and age, of course, only that it's time-consuming and pricey, and Snow would rather have Finnick Odair functioning for all days of the year. The exclusive, ridiculous pricing-policy works though— the price itself generates demand.

For Finnick, he is screened once every two weeks, and he welcomes the poking and prodding with a ghoulish glee that surprises the doctors every time. They don't know that their kind of invasion is far better than other kinds. They don't know that he near bleaches himself every time he comes near water.

"Kiss me, Finnick."

He does, letting her deepen it even though he fights the urge to gag at the split in her tongue caressing his. He can't refuse the people that Snow sends him. The last time he resisted and refused to do what a heavily-tattooed, beefy-looking patron had asked of him, Snow had heard of it and Shelley was taken to be an Avox. She couldn't even scream after that. Even so, she tried to run in the weeks after she'd been brought to the Capitol but was neutralized later. He has two more siblings— he can't risk that happening to them. Even when Finnick mentors the District Four male tribute each year, he is reminded not to root too much for them. Getting to know them is bad enough—feeling anything for them opens himself up to the risk that Shelley had to suffer for.

But Shelley haunts him on some days when he toys with the idea of slitting the throats of particularly demanding patrons or even Snow's. She died because of him. For that reason, Finnick hasn't gone back to District Four much, even when he sometimes has the time. He hasn't met his other siblings—doesn't dare to. Doesn't dare to care about anything more in case those things are used against him one day.

His patron is getting more excited. She grabs him around his waist, still kissing him greedily.

Sometimes, he wishes he could go back to District Four, where he hears his parents' old house on that cliff still stands. It is deserted now— apparently his siblings couldn't stand how haunted it became after Finnick and Shelly had been taken to the Capitol. Nobody would notice him if he stole back there. But he knows that he is unlikely to pitch himself over and to smash himself on the rocks, and that keeps him away from District Four. That place is only good for memories now.

For most days of the week, he hangs around the casino until it is time for him to report back in his quarters. Even when it is time for the Games and he must mentor the male tribute from District Four, he still has to put up with patrons coming to find him at the Game Center with authorization that Snow provides as a form of access to Finnick. When he hangs around the casino, cameras focus on him, and there are people who want to talk to him all the time. He is told that everybody loves him.

At very least, Finnick thinks grimly, they want a piece of him. His patron has gotten tired of questions and kissing. Now she wants to stretch her money. She begins shifting the sheets around, indicating what she wants. He bites back a sigh and flips her onto her back, parting her legs as she squeals that he is being too eager.

Do you regret paying for me?" Finnick asks lazily, looking at his current patron as he gets ready. "I hear that you set a new record."

"Oh no," She looks scandalized that he even questions her commitment to him. She sighs blissfully, lying there as he works dutifully on her. "I've seen you; I've been watching you for a long time. I had to work hard to win Snow's praise, and when he offered something for the recent campaign that I came up with, I asked for a chance to come here to bid for you. It's worth every cent."

The auction is where masked patrons that have paid for a chance to bid gather. Most of them are debtors to Snow in some way, and they come on the pretext of bidding for art and precious things like that. But the final object for bidding at every session is a 'mystery prize' that is actually the point of the gathering at all. Overall, it is a speedy, efficient process, voila! Business starts rolling in.

It has been rolling ever since.

He feels her hiss and contract around him, and he gasps, trying to keep in control of their rhythms in case she takes control. He'd rather have control, if he must be in this situation at all. But she wrestles him, then leans over and smothers him with breasts that feel hard even if they are generous, crushing his cheeks. In retaliation, he pinches the tattooed mounds, but she doesn't sense his spite and gasps, apparently aroused. He fights to get above her, and she mistakes his repulsion for a dominance driven by lust. She responds with even more fervor.

But he tolerates this. He teases her. He makes her beg. If there is one thing that he enjoys, it is seeing other grovel around him when they were the ones who paid for him in the first place. She doesn't know who has the real power here.

The days when he was controlled are fading—they will fade completely in time. Now, he does the controlling, even if he is currently confined to the context of working as a whore. So long as Snow remains the pimp in this sordid state of affairs, Finnick will never be free. But he knows what he is doing.

His patron is screaming her pleasure now, begging him. Finnick pants his terms, "Only if you tell me what I want to know."

She is too tense to care what he will eventually ask of her. "Anything!" Her voice grows into a shriek, and she is trembling with sensation. "I love you so much, Finnick, I'll tell you anything!"

"Promise?" He must make sure.

She shrieks again, and he proceeds.

Later that day as he sits up in his bed, he reminds himself that the exact marks that Finnick has etched at the back of his closet will be replicated on Snow's pale, withering cheeks. That is if Finnick keeps counting. If he can't keep count—

Finnick pauses, looking at the limp form in his bed. Well, he'll just carve as many as he pleases on Snow. Until then, he'll continue to earn and save those secrets.

It is the only way to keep from going mad.

The days continue and he tries to keep count still. In the early days, the closet had one mark for one patron. Now, one mark means five. A bundle with a stroke through means twenty-five. There is only so much space for marks on the wood and only so much surface of Snow's face—the face that haunts him every night.

The days don't mean much to him. Time seems to have stopped when he'd taken his first assignment at sixteen, willing himself to be strong for his siblings. Even now, he is afraid to die—Shelley was punished for his one moment of weakness, and if he dies, the others will suffer much more when Snow seeks retribution on the living. What is another year when the last of his family can see the seas that Finnick can only dream of? At least they have their lives and he his liver and vital organs and his strength, his health and his smile—even if it has turned somewhat cold.

Tonight, he will have to meet another patron. Just when he thought that people were getting bored of him. Just when he thought that the start of the Games would distract them for a while.

He is justified in thinking that; he hasn't had a patron for a whole week now, and he's been savoring his time alone. Of course, he is never left alone per se, since everybody recognizes him and wants to talk to him. He is never rude with them; he prefers to make friends that might have information for him one day. He isn't rude with the most demanding patron—why should he be rude to other people?

This place in the Capitol is also a break from the casino that he would have normally been stuck in. Here, the patrons can still reach him, of course, but at least he must be a Mentor and take time off to train. That will give him a break.

He lounges about, knowing that the cameras are already zooming onto his face and body. He eases himself out, ignoring how people pass by him and murmur things to him and drop him roses and all sorts of notes and find opportunities to brush their hands on him. He hates roses. Of course he does. But he doesn't throw those back at their faces immediately. That would anger them.

"So what is your take on the dismaying trends of District Four tributes these days, Finnick?" A reporter asks. "I understand that you've had three years of mentoring already. This is your third year since you've won the Games, yes?"

There is a trill from the audience. On the opposite sides of the screens, he is sure that a hundred patron-hopefuls are swooning.

He doesn't have to pretend to be bored. Are the other mentors and previous victors so uninteresting that they must all crowd around him as if his answers are the only ones that matter? Surely, Haymitch, who Finnick has become quite familiar with over time, is good entertainment? Haymitch, when sober, is gruff and comical in ways that Finnick can appreciate. Still, nobody seems to want to talk to the other Mentors except Finnick.

So he smiles winningly, even if his answer is careless. "Yes, this is my third year. As to the dismaying trends of District Four Tributes in the past decade, I have no comment. Not worth any."

A lady is pressing herself near to him now, and he smiles lazily, thoughtlessly. Her voice is breathless, and he can see her undressing him with her eyes. Too bad, Finnick thinks. She isn't high-up enough for her to have any secrets worth hearing about.

"But at the coming Games," another reporter insists, "Surely you have your hopes up?"

Next to him, Mags is silent, and Finnick pities the pain that she must have to bear year in year out. She won nearly six decades ago, but that is why she has suffered the most. She has had to relieve the Games for all these years as one of remaining Victors that haven't become wasted. Finnick has only been asked to mentor for two years, and in that time, he's learnt from the lesson that Shelley had to pay on his behalf and learnt how to be even more careless and cheerful and removed.

"Every Mentor hopes that their mentee will be fast learners, of course." Finnick says simply. He shoots a smile at the camera, hamming it up. "I handle the male tributes and Mags here the females. Where my mentees are concerned, I'd like to think that I'm a good teacher."

Mags is different. She isn't like Finnick—she can't even pretend to be careless. She had to mentor him and to watch him win and mentor others. She was the one who was beside him when he'd recovered after the Games, and she was the one who hinted what his fate would be. She's had to watch him this whole time.

The reporter is asking again. "Do you think you'll get good students this year?"

It's been two years now of this strange entrapment in a large, sea-themed house on the edge of the Capitol, where a seemingly endless stream of visitors drop by. He 'd grown quite sophisticated in the days that followed from winning; he'd been weighed down with all sorts of things that people gave him on top of filling up government coffers with those Mentoring the subsequent Tributes seals the deal for having one become like Haymitch, who prefers to be drunk rather than sober.

He shrugs now. "I do my duties as a mentor. I can't change what is inherent. You either have what it takes to win or not." He looks straight at the camera. "I had it."

Only hours later, it frightens him that his words come back to haunt him, and that he spoke the truth without feeling any particular emotion. His words had rang true in the room, and those ring true in his mind right now.

The District Four tributes have been dressed in the usual sea-themes, and his eye is drawn to the female.

Perhaps it is the lighting or the makeup the stylists usually ply on the Tributes or something else. This female doesn't have the golden skin that the children of District Four usually have before those darken to burnt, unpleasing tans from the constant exposure to the sun while out at sea. She is pale and fair, although her hair seems to be that common brown and her eyes are that usual green that District Four people tend to have.

He moves a little closer, ignoring some person who tries to catch onto him. The male tribute is like the average child from District Four, of course, and already people are oohing and aahing at him. The male, in his scaly, golden, gleaming strips, looks stiff but resigned and even edgy. He answers questions politely, probably aware that sponsors and popularity itself is the key to survival. He is fifteen this year, and he says that it is an honour to be in the Capitol.

The female, on the other hand, is another case. It is not her very apparent youth at thirteen that makes her look vastly different from the male counterpart. It isn't just the female's pale skin that looks luminous with the silver scales on her, or the hint of curves that are beginning to bloom. It isn't even those enormous, kohl-lined eyes that catch Finnick's own—it is her expression. She is not just frightened; she is muttering silently and incessantly.

The first time that Finnick saw Annie Cresta on the screen, he missed her name as it was drawn out and read. This was no fault of his—the patron would have screamed even if he'd done the minimal. For that matter, only the position that he'd been in with the patron kneeling on the edge of the bed, scrambling for balance, had enabled him to watch the large screen in the Game Center room and to see the results of the name-drawing. Even as that tiny girl had climbed to the stage, shoulders trembling and face white with fear, his patron, kneeling and hands clutching at the bed's edge, had erupted into an ear-splitting scream that drowned out any hope of Finnick hearing anything else.

Now he stares at the tributes standing before him. Most Mentors would have met the tributes this year by now, but for Finnick who lives in the Capitol, this is the first time that he is meeting them. Mags though, seems familiar with her female mentee; she has her hands on the female's small shoulders and Annie Cresta looks trustingly up at her.

Did she want to be ceded? Finnick wonders what her thoughts are. The male Tributes that he's mentored so far were all eager to win. Some seemed to think that it was glorious to be ceded—the usual Career mindset, of course. The mentees he had were all eager to learn from Finnick, and this one seems to be just as eager. The females, who are all under Mags, tended to be that way too. From what Finnick sees, the male Tribute for this year seems to be of the usual District Four stock. The female?

Finnick looks at her paleness. He isn't sure.

Finnick sees her give Mags a pleading, grateful, confused look. She is still mumbling even as Mags answers questions for her. There is something disjointed about her, something delicate and fragile—something that suggests that she isn't normal, even if she is a child that is beautiful to look at. Perhaps she is in shock over being sent here. But it's been two days, and even the most frightened Tribute has gotten over it and started preparing for the upcoming training.

And Finnick knows.

This is the kind of Tribute that has no chance whatsoever.

When Finnick trains with the male tribute, he doesn't address him by name, even if he knows it. It is easier that the boy has proven to be scheming and willing to harm if need be. He isn't particularly good with the knife or with netting or any of the techniques that Finnick used to win, but he does have a good mix of every skill needed to survive. The boy's one determining trait is how very stoic and competitive he seems—how unfazed he is by this entire situation that he's been placed in. It reminds Finnick of himself.

At the time that Finnick was ceded, he decided that it was just as well that he was called to the Capitol. He'd been the head of his family for some time already, and he'd trained his siblings sufficiently for them to take care of themselves. But the food was never enough and the one good thing about Finnick being ceded was how it was still a chance to feed them. At first, that was what kept him strong in the training. Upon entering the arena, the instinct for survival kicked in, and the potent mix of will, instinct, and luck gave him his survival.

Finnick looks at his mentee, who is practicing knife-throwing.

It seems almost a pity that this boy probably won't make it, since the District One and Two Tributes this year are incredibly competitive and very, very prepared.

Of course, Finnick doesn't really care. It's a one-in-twenty-four chance of survival and Finnick doesn't bother much about guilt or pain or emotions or things these days. He wears his smile happily and acts the usual flirt with those who might matter in the future, jesting around and keeping his popularity up. These things never bothered him much even in the first year of his being a Mentor.

The girl though, is a lost cause. He isn't in charge of her, since Mags handles the female tribute, but Finnick wonders how Mags deals with the thirteen-year old girl. He's heard from the male tribute that she's constantly confused and somehow pitiful as she ties ropes and nets together. Miraculously, she is incredibly skilled at nets and snares, even if Mags declares that she is hopeless with a knife. The boy said that she nearly sliced off her own thumb in training. But then, the boy is fifteen this year—surely his experience would make him scathing of his female counterpart.

He ignores the Tributes, by and large. He doesn't like to look at them. He doesn't want to befriend them even if he is cheerful and merry with them all. He doesn't want to see them and be reminded of himself. So far, it works. His mentee is respectful and learns from him, and the female Tribute keeps to herself. The other Tributes who want to befriend him seem to be satisfied with his jokes and his friendliness, not realizing that they are nameless and faceless in his mind.

It is better for all of them that way.

This morning, Finnick finds the girl singing wordlessly on the roof. He'd decided, an hour ago, to get some fresh air. He needs some of that, since he will be meeting another patron this evening. Snow has sent a message, and each time Finnick gets one from the usual Avox that tends to him, he is filled with dread. But over time, he has learnt to control that too, so long as he has a little time alone to steel himself.

He's come here in hopes that nobody would be up this early and spot him. But his plans are ruined, thanks to her. He takes a moment to decide whether to find another place to sit in or to stay.

She is still singing.

Kahn amiyah nani yaoh solete imalieh, aita inanii, sole, sole… and so on and so forth.

The syllables are so clear, even if they aren't words.

Somehow, he stays. Like an animal that knows that it won't be harmed by this human, he stays still. He watches her as she sits with her small feet dangling off the edge, into the air, her voice small and clear. So she has a singing talent, does she?

The gibberish is musical still. The District Four people are generally good with their voices and ears; those things sustain them at sea, but this girl will never go out to sea with how she purportedly handles a knife.

The tune that she sings doesn't seem to be the kind that Finnick remembers hearing out at sea—the tune is one that she must have heard elsewhere or made up. He listens from where he stands behind a pillar, wondering if her parents miss her. Mags did mention that Annie Cresta's mother died at childbirth. Her father's supposedly an invalid who didn't blink once when she was ceded. If there's a parent at all, at least it's only one that might mourn.

He wouldn't know. His mother had died years before he'd been ceded, and his father had died shortly after that. He wouldn't know what it's like to mourn or be mourned for. He knows how to laugh and to banter and joke and smile though, and that's supposed to be good enough to sustain his sanity.

But when she stops singing, he feels somehow empty. He decides to talk to her, because it can do no harm. Mags seems to like this girl even if Mags generally becomes a mother-figure to all District Four tributes, as she did with Finnick. But if Mags consciously likes this one, it can't be a total waste of time to see what appealed to Mags. Finnick after all, cares for Mags even if he is careful not to show it.

He approaches carefully. "May I sit here?"

She looks at him, eyes startled. But he instinctively knows to act as if he is hunting for fish with a spear; taking great care not to make sudden movements in this river of atmosphere. He smiles.

And then she smiles back. It is a strange smile; curious, gentle, sweet and perhaps, frightened. He has been told that his smile is a beautiful thing; his patrons constantly request that he smiles at them. One was so eager for his smile to the point that she traded a secret just to see him flash his teeth at her. Strange people, all of them.

They have never seen this one smile. It makes him wonder what other would pay to see this girl smile.

He finds his voice.

"Annie Cresta, is it?"

She nods. She certainly isn't a mute—he heard her singing, that's for certain. Her silence is a strange one, and he wonders why he is so eager to hear her speaking voice suddenly.

"Annie—," He pauses. "Annie, as in for Annabelle? Or Anna-Marie?"

She shakes her head. "Annie."

"Just Annie then." He stares.

"And you are Finnick." Her voice is like her smile, and he finds it brilliant and lovely. Those green eyes are like sea-glass, wide and flawless, even if the shade is common—one that Finnick shares.

"That I am." He manages smoothly.

She looks at him curiously, as if she's heard a great deal about him. But there is no speculation in her gaze—there is only a mild interest as if he is a creature that she has pulled out of the tidal pools near the cliffs in District Four.

He is the one who strives to make conversation suddenly. This is strange, because people are the ones who usually fight to talk to him. Maybe that is why he can't resist interrupting the silence this time. "What are you doing, up so early?"

"Couldn't sleep." She looks away, to the distance. The skies are lightening up. "Too many thoughts."

He forgets to flirt and to tease and banter as is his way with everybody; she seems to be a child even if it has been a long time since he'd thought of any Tribute as one. Her voice is like her song; flowing and bright, soft and clear. In the wind, her hair is beginning to shift, and he notices that it isn't the brown that he thought it was—it is much darker than his own. And it wasn't the lighting of the room or any make-up; she is very fair. In the approaching daylight, it is clear that she has a pale skin that reflects light and seems to have absorbed milk at some point.

He continues staring at the girl. "You were singing. Without words."

"Words." She doesn't smile again, which he had hoped for. "Yes."

He wonders if she is normal. He can't quite tell. He makes a note in his mind to ask Mags later. She does come across as slightly slow, but she looks so normal and so harmless that it is possible that the way she acts is actually just part of her character.

"I don't know if you can understand me," He says slowly. "But you've got to work harder if you want to survive this."

The girl looks at him. Her lips are full and pale pink, although those look somehow dehydrated and a bit chapped. Has she been chewing her lips? Her fingers fly to her lips nervously. "I'll work harder. Mags will be proud of me."

He stares, surprised, not sure if she really does understand. "Good." He injects harshness into his voice. "You don't really understand the Games, do you?"

She shakes her head honestly. "I don't." And then she looks at him, a pleading note entering her voice. She looks almost hopeful, as if asking for directions that she doesn't even know how to describe. "Do you?"

His breath catches again. "I—,"

It is all too much for him suddenly, and he isn't sure why there is an upwelling of pity and anger that rises in him. That itself frightens him, and he whips himself up and leaves, determined to ignore her.

It works for some time.

He doesn't see her much since she trains under Mags. If he sneaks glances at her, she seems to be being bullied by the other tributes, and it is with some effort that he manages to stop from reaching out to help. Her male counter-part doesn't care—why should Finnick? She doesn't seem to notice him unlike everybody else, and that suits him fine.

In the evenings, when the Tributes eat together with their Mentors, it is difficult to forget what she asked of him. But he doesn't know the answer. He doesn't even know what they are all doing here, laughing and smiling for the cameras and hoping that the potential sponsors will take notice.

At one point on some evening, he sees her being pinned to a pillar in a rose garden that he passes by. The funny thing is that she doesn't even cry out for him to sense her presence, although the person with her is arguably loud enough to draw attention to where he has dragged her in the garden. Some former peacemaker turned government higher-up is trying to kiss her. He must be drunk, or he would have restrained himself from trying to take a girl who is not yet sixteen. Her skirt is pulled up, and the peacemaker is growling and his hands are clawing at the delicate, almost translucent dress material.

She doesn't scream, for her hands are near her mouth in fear, but she does look past the man to Finnick with wide, helpless eyes. Before Finnick can decide what to do, a Gamemaker suddenly appears and brings the drunk official away. The Gamemaker doesn't notice Finnick, but shoots a look at Annie that suggests that he feels sorry for her. At least there's one person looking out for her, even if Finnick has decided that he doesn't have enough strength to be like Mags, year in year out.

Finnick leaves quickly; even before the man who'd wanted Annie Cresta is brought away.

He tries not to look at her at all. There's this day when they give interviews in hopes of securing sponsors and the Tributes show off their talents.

Annie sings with words that Mags has taught her, and Finnick knows that there are some out there who are raving about the beautiful, doll-like girl with her quaint charm. She is small and fine-boned, short even for her age, and she is a vision, dressed in white chiffon. When Finnick sees her being led around to dance, he wonders if she feels the stains of people's hands on the cloth.

When he sees her on the day of the Games, he feels as if he has been knocked over with a ram of emotion. It sickens him to see her in a dark, clinging suit like a seal's skin, her hair braided tight and a small pack on her back. He feels Mags stiffening as they watch the Tributes enter, and he wonders if Mags feels ten times worse than he does. He tries to console himself, telling himself that it was fortunate that he did not feel attached to the District Four Tributes— otherwise, he would have felt worse. He can't be like Mags and grow attached to something and then sit still to watch as it is destroyed.

He feels terrible today as he services a patron in this room, and because it has become his habit, he throws himself into the activity. The screen is still switched on and he watches as the District Five and Six Tributes engage in a knife-fight and end up impaling each other at the same time. Not so much because there is blood everywhere and that the screams from the screen resonate with those from his patron, but because he is wondering if the girl is dead by now. There isn't much footage of her even though he's been watching since the start; perhaps she was killed immediately and there wasn't much to show. By the end of tonight, they will know how many limp forms the metal claw has had to pull out.

In the meantime, his patron is gasping and writhing. "Finnick, Finnick—,"

He thinks of the girl with pity. Despite her beauty, her strangeness and unwillingness to pander makes her unpopular and the last he heard, she has much fewer sponsors than some of the less beautiful Tributes. Still, she is good-looking enough to garner what she needs, and food has been parachuted to her, which is what he last heard from Mags. He wonders if it will last.

"Finnick—," His patron is moaning, clawing at the sheets.

His mind is elsewhere. Mags had sighed when the District Four male Tribute had been attacked. The boy had managed to survive, although he was currently badly injured with his ankle all twisted. "I wonder how she is."

Finnick had asked why she cared so much.

"She's special." Mags had told him. "She doesn't know how to kill."

Mags said that Annie can't possibly know enough about the Games. For sure, even when Finnick had won those years ago and the entire District Four had talked for weeks about their Tribute, she had been only a child of nine then. Mags mentioned that her mother had died at childbirth and her father has no time for her. For all of her life, Annie Cresta had been tottering about weakly near the tidal pools, looking for shells to be collected and then sold at the Capitol, mending nets that caught little even for the most skilled.

Of course, Finnick doesn't need to know all that for him to know that Annie is dead meat.

Finnick grunts and turns his frustration to his patron. "Not enough for you?"

The patron is shaking deliriously. Finnick of course, is stretching both of them, glad for once to be distracted in many ways. "There isn't ever enough of you, Finnick. Let's do that again, shall we?"

He barks his laughter, his eyes still trained on the screen but his actions becoming rougher and angrier. "Why not?"

Even when he is free to be alone, he watches the Games compulsively. The trackers injected into the Tributes are working just fine, and the cameras have tracked Annie. To his surprise, she has hidden herself in thick shrubbery, compressing herself so well that she is almost invisible. She didn't fight for the supplies; she simply ran and hid. But her seal suit however, is ripped in many places, and she seems weak and ill with hunger and some kind of fever. She does have sponsors who send her food and water though, and Finnick finds himself glad for that. She won't have a good weapon though, she doesn't have enough money from sponsors for Mags to send anything more than what keeps the girl barely alive.

He can see that there is a madness that has begun to settle over her already. She mutters even more to herself than when he first noticed about her, and she spends an awful amount of time by herself, not doing anything but curling up for hours at an end. He watches her clamping her fingers over her mouth each time someone approaches, and feels her fear even when it is technically only a screen. Mags did tell him that she is a little slow; she had a fever when she was young, although she is by and large able to function normally. This time, on screens, it is clear that she isn't functioning normally.

But the sponsors are getting bored of her—they have begun to support the more active Tributes and they have taken their money elsewhere. Few are betting on her, unless they hope for a mega windfall that's purely made because of its unlikelihood. Sometimes, he wonders if Annie will last any longer, but then he reminds himself that he doesn't care.

Finnick finds himself with a different patron every night now. Snow must really be chalking up debts somewhere; debts that Finnick is now saddled with the burden of.

He never stops watching the Games though. There is somehow a desire for him to watch every minute of this year's. It suits his patrons fine. They don't want to miss out anything either, and Finnick comes to a point where he is servicing his patrons in a fixed position that allows them both to watch the screen. He doesn't lose his expediency and effectiveness, however. If anything, it increases. It is like a conveyor belt in a factory. A fucking factory.

The polls show that the Games this year are going too slowly. Viewership is dropping, and the Gamemakers are being criticized for a lack of creativity. So far, there isn't a clear winner, but that in itself is boring too.

Day in, day out, Finnick watches the Games.

There are poisonous plants everywhere that manage to take down one Tribute from District Ten and leaves two others sick and vomiting incessantly. Those plants however, are far away from where she is.

He wonders why he even bothers.

Today, Finnick watches again. His patron is giggling as he teases her with a feather boa that she has brought in. Her favourite colour is obviously pink—she wears pink lipstick, a pink wig, pink nail polish, pink lace thong, pink stockings—it is like humping a candy cane but without the sweetness and with all the decay.

He watches as the announcer gives the names of those who are left. Although it doesn't come as a surprise to him who has watched every minute, he still wonders how the District Four Tributes have lasted for so long. The boy is still hobbling around, but he has taken down another tribute. With the rate he's at, Finnick is sure that he's headed towards where Annie is.

He continues tickling his patron, his eyes still roving the screen.

The announcer is making some commentary, but then the action begins and the commentator shuts up. There is an encounter between Finnick's mentee and another tribute, and their clashing and screams as they fight must have roused Annie now. She has enough sense not to come out, but curls herself up and looks even tinier, hidden by those bushes. Finnick marvels at how her tactic has been working so well for so long.

He pauses, too anxious and thus forgetting his erstwhile task.

"Finnick!" Her voice rises in a squeal. "Why are you stopping? I was almost there!" His patron isn't that interested by the action on screen—she doesn't really follow the Games, generally, except for the year that Finnick was featured, as she likes to remind him.

She demands that he continue, and swallowing his retort, he continues tickling her, making her laugh, obeying her when she tells him that she is ready and that she wants him. He pounds, his eyes still fixed above her head and focused on the scream, even when the peals become almost indistinguishable from the screams issuing from the sound system in this place.

Annie finds her partner. Or more accurately, his head finds her. It is somehow flung like a bowling ball, into the bushes, and it lands squarely in her lap; as if it had been planned all along. The footage is unsatisfying for the viewers—it is dark where she is and the cameras can only pick out her lap and the stains and the soft, muffled sounds.

It is too much for Finnick. He knows what those sounds are. Her hands are in her mouth and she is fighting back her screams, afraid to be found. The head in her lap must smell of thick blood—the same blood that he thinks of when he sees roses and ulcers. He knows that she is screaming and screaming in her mind, and that her fingers, stained with her partner's blood, are being bitten down on.

For the first time in days, he grabs the remote with his spare hand and elbows it to turn the screen off. He thinks that it won't be long before her hands won't stop her screams. Whoever who beheaded her partner will come for her.

He is honest enough with himself to admit that he can't bear to watch.

There is one satisfied person, if that's any consolation for him. His patron beams at him, sweaty and dripping. The mangled glitz and feathers on her look awful; she is like a pink, exploded flamingo. "Going to concentrate on me now, are you, Finnick?"

He forces a smile onto his face. "I was concentrating all this time. The Games this year are really terrible."

"Oh, Finnick," She is groping for his buttocks, squishing his flesh in her fingers. "At least we have our own kind of entertainment."

He doesn't watch for the next few days. Somehow, it makes him feel better that people come to him. At least, his mind is taken off things. At least, there's nothing much to feel while he is reminded of his place and how powerless he really is. He gets a few more juicy secrets, but those are of scant consolation when he wakes from his nightmares.

That is if he wakes at all.

Sometimes, he thinks he hears a voice singing. It is enough to drive him crazy.

When he emerges from his room to meet Mags this morning, she takes his hand, shaking her head. She doesn't even offer an apology for why she is disturbing him at six in the morning; doesn't even ask why he is awake and was apparently having a shower before he answered her knock. "It ended early this morning. Around three."

He doesn't need her to tell him that. He watched his mentee die. He didn't have to watch to know that Annie was to follow. He shrugs, turning away, afraid that Mags will sense why he's been so distracted these few days.

"I know it ended. I watched it."

He curses himself when he realizes that he is thinking of her by name.

But what Mags subsequently says makes him curse everything even more.

"She won. Annie did."

"What?" He whirls back to Mags. It takes him a whole minute to register the impact of what she has told him. How could she win? He rakes his mind for memories of the thirteen-year old. Had she finally snapped and gone on a rampage after having her partner's head land into her lap? Going berserk tended to happen in the Games, but surely not with Annie, who wasn't able to use a knife properly even on the last day of training?

He didn't know that Annie stood even a chance. Beyond that, why should he care? What is this pounding in his head? What is this leap to his throat that catches him off guard.

She takes his hand again, her voice trembling. She has become hunched with age, and know she has to squint to look up at him in the eye. "Annie's come back."

"How?" He feels cold with dread, as if Annie knows that he has been watching her the way everyone does for entertainment. Could he have reached out and punched into the screen and helped her at some point? He doesn't know why his thoughts are becoming like this. He isn't sure why he's even taking notice of the scrap of the girl who has somehow come back.

But Mags is surely in joy—her hands are trembling.

"A flood." Mags says, sensing his confusion. "There was an earthquake first—the Gamemakers planned it to drive up the ratings, but the damn broke and the water went everywhere." She shakes her head tiredly. "Most of the remaining Tributes were in the lowlands."

"And Annie?" He stares stupidly at Mags. She was in the highlands for most part. She barely moved anywhere after finding a place to hide in. She did consume some poisonous shrubs at some point though, and the medicine that Mags sent didn't seem to have worked all that well. Even if the person who'd beheaded her partner hadn't found her, or even if the flood hadn't drowned her, it would only be a slower death by poison. "I thought she was poisoned."

"The medical team is draining it out of her now."

"And the flood?" It sickens him that he is taking interest in all of this. He should be laughing, merry, savoring how he is alive and how time will continue to pass and the secrets and marks on his closet continue to build.

"She swam. She's from District Four. Besides, she's lived near tidal pools her whole life." She grants him a worn smile that doesn't reach her eyes. She reminds him of an apple-doll, all dried out with crumbling, peeling skin and with her life juices extracted a long time ago.

"She didn't kill anyone." His voice is a mutter. "But she survived?"

It occurs to him that the people who bet on Annie are really going to have a windfall. He fights back a strange, twisted laugh that floods up in his throat.

"What a strange decision to use an earthquake." Finnick is still trying to make sense of it.

"They chose that kind of disaster that wouldn't give anybody an advantage." Mags says. "But they didn't think that the dam wouldn't hold well. So they did give an advantage in the end—to Annie."

He stands there, hair still damp from his hour-long morning shower, water still trickling down his chest with a shirt barely anywhere in sight. He wasn't expecting Mags to come and find him this early morning. But he feels like he has been drowned; been swimming furiously against currents in a flood. He feels like his head has surfaced, and that he is breathing again.

Is he supposed to feel this kind of surprise and somehow, relief?

"She swims very well. It saved her this time. Helped that she had things to cling onto too." Mags's smile dies though. It creeps off slowly, like someone extinguished the lights in her face one lamp at a time. "But she won't be ready for tonight's announcement."

He doesn't know what to say. Instead, he moves past Mags, who still stands in his doorway, and begins to walk away.

Runs in fact.

Down a corridor, past the common places in the Games Center. If she's been brought back by the Victory hovercraft, then she must surely be getting patched up. An Avox, who's travelling down some corridor, gives him a wide-eyed stare. He can't blame the Avox. Seeing a half-naked Finnick Odair run around the Game Center in early morning is definitely a strange way to start the day.

His feet, bare on the ground, are pounding hard against cement.

Mags has already told him that Annie isn't the same. He doesn't need her to tell him that. Who could be after surviving the Games? But Finnick is sure that Annie is different—she will be far more changed after the Games than Finnick or even Haymitch is. And if Mags is stating something that seems obvious—

Finnick doesn't dare to imagine what Mags was trying to say.

If Finnick has heard correctly from Mags, Annie didn't know much about the Games before coming to the Capitol. He'd asked questions here and there, and his questions had made even the placid Mags somewhat surprised.

She'd remarked that he usually wasn't interested in knowing about the District Four Tributes sent to them to be mentored.

Still, Finnick had learnt some things. When he'd been sent to the Games as a fourteen year old, he had already been equipped to kill, even if the first person that he'd killed had made him wild with pain and rage for a few good hours. She probably hadn't watched—she'd been a child of nine at that time. No parent would want a nine-year-old seeing that kind of thing.

What does Annie know of killing for survival?

Nothing, as he can see. In her hospital bed, strapped and with only a few surface wounds, she is more broken than the others can be. That is because she is alive.

But it will end soon. Annie mutters and then screams a horrible, silent cry periodically and then goes back to her wordless, soundless muttering, her eyes wild in that pale face.

One medical team member is reading the test results to another, and they are discussing if the latest Victor will be able to take another shot of morphling in a few minutes. She hasn't spoken at all. She's lost her voice.

Finnick stands outside the room, watching through the glass window as if bakers are performing their tasks at creating sumptuous rolls. He watches through that screen as if this is the continuation of the Games, not sure why he is watching, but watching still.

The doctors have already tried electro-therapy on her. Didn't work. They try it again.

She jolts up, wrists bound, hair wild. She convulses more and screams a little louder. Her voice is already hoarse and becoming frighteningly faint. He wonders when she will go mute. The schedule has been all messed up because the victor isn't even capable of normal speech, let alone camera-ready. She is flailing and tossing about in that bed, and Finnick wonders whether this is real misery or an escape.

He can't make up his mind. At least, he thinks to himself, there won't be sponsors who want to do things for Snow so that they can get this girl. Nobody wants a rotten apple.

Mags is next to him. She hobbles up painfully, her arthritis getting at her in this cold morning. She offers him a jacket, but he ignores her, still staring through that window. He doesn't feel colder than he is inside. There are others who have awoken to the breaking news and have come to meet the Victor. Some have heard that she's here. Some are watching her through the glass too. It's a new form of entertainment.

When the crowd builds up too much for Finnick to breathe, he decides that it's enough.

He leaves the girl, still bound and crying mutely. She is talking silently and nonsensically to herself behind that window. Some part of him admires her choice. His own choice to live is now one that he doubts. Maybe madness was a better way forward.

Mags is the one who speaks for her behalf. The footage of the Victor can't be aired—nobody wants to have that kind of Victor. The last of her sponsors have pulled out, save two of them. It's not worth funding something that has become incredibly strange and more freakish. If things go the way that they are, Mags is worried that she might be put down and written off as being too weak to have survived the Games. For now, the Capitol and Gamemakers are wondering if no victor is better than having a hissing, loony, completely mad one.

Heck, Finnick thinks that night, he should have pretended to be a raving lunatic. Maybe Snow would have left him alone or had him executed. Finnick after all, doesn't have the courage to terminate his own existence in case he earns Snow's revenge. Annie, mad Annie, won't earn Snow's if she's mad and he chooses to have her neutralized. She won't have chosen death and prevented Snow from working his debts off with her—her father will go scot-free unlike Finnick's siblings, should Finnick choose death over life now.

He turns in his bed, thinking about her. She won't sing those funny syllables and that haunting melody again. He won't ever know what her laugh sounds like. She didn't laugh before and she most certainly won't laugh in the future. Come to think of it, should he have tried to joke with her to hear her laugh, just out of curiosity?

He doesn't know.

That voice is disconnected from that foaming, frothing mouth and those wild green eyes now. She hits out and tries to scratch at anybody who comes near her, and the most the morphling can do is to subdue her for hours. But she made a good choice—the compromise between life and death.

Maybe, Finnick thinks, if he'd given in to insanity like her, his own world would be better than this one. Maybe there wouldn't be so much grime and fear in madness. Nobody wants a rotten apple. Nobody knows what to do with something that looks like an apple but is completely off. For one, he wouldn't have to take the responsibility of the lives depending on his own and lose the pride of choosing to live or die. That choice wouldn't be so hard.

Maybe, just maybe, Annie Cresta is the cleverest of them all.