Disclaimer: I own nothing.

Thanks to Medea Smyke for looking this over and adding your two cents. =D

A Step in the Right Direction:


Annie Cresta stood on the doorstep, hands buried in her jacket pockets. The late afternoon sun shone off to the west, as it would for many hours still. These were the warmest months with the longest days, but they did nothing to stop a chill from creeping down her spine. Even in broad daylight, the house frightened her. The massive wood structure towered over her. Its large, expansive windows, designed to let in as much light as possible, were dark. No doubt for privacy's sake. Finnick Odair, after all, was Panem's most beautiful citizen. Though the shuttered house seemed at odds with what she knew of him. She'd never met a person who seemed to crave attention as much as he did.

Her fingers trailed along the teeth of the key, its cold metal reminding her of her errand, but she could not move. A doormat cheerfully beckoned her into the house, but her feet stood rooted to it as if she were standing in a foot of muck instead of a "WELCOME" splashed out in vibrant seaside hues. She stared at his green door, pondering what would meet her inside. Obviously not the owner. Mags had assured her countless times that her neighbor had gone fishing a few days ago and would not be returning until tomorrow. Still, Annie did not like entering new places, had never liked entering new places. Even before the Games. There was something about the unknown that unsettled her.

But he's not home and it's just an empty house, she rebuked herself. And you're wasting time. At this thought, the corners of Annie's mouth twitched. So much for Mags's argument that going next door to Finnick's would be quicker than walking to her parents' house in the village and getting the sugar they needed to complete their recipe. But then Mags hadn't foreseen Annie spending five minutes on Finnick's stoop. Apparently, Mags had more faith in Annie than Annie had in herself.

Buoyed by that thought, Annie rubbed the bottom of her sandals on the mat, watching as she trampled and pushed the fibers of the word 'WELCOME' underfoot. Removing the key from her pocket, she inserted it into the lock. Unlike her own key, which stuck in her door, it turned with ease. No more procrastinating now. Taking a deep breath, she ignored the fears that clamored for her attention, concentrating on the only things that mattered: No one's home. Get the sugar.

The door opened soundlessly and Annie slipped inside, leaving it slightly ajar behind her, just in case. Except for the sliver of sunlight that seeped in through the cracked door, the inside of the house was pitch black. Being so far north, District Four was subject to twenty four hour sunlight during the summer months, making it impossible to sleep without covering the windows in some fashion. Only instead of sheets or old sails, all the Victors' mansions had state-of-the-art blinds installed. An invention Annie did not use much. She already felt trapped in her new house; she didn't need the blinds to reinforce that particular fear.

Taking a step forward, her foot slid on something and she stumbled, nearly falling to the ground. Grasping for the wall, she groped blindly for a switch. There. She flipped it on, and light flooded the entryway, revealing her stumbling block—an untidy pile of Finnick Odair's fanmail. She'd heard Mags joke about his groupies before, even laughed at them, but after almost twisting her ankle on his love notes, Annie didn't find the crazed devotion quite so amusing.

Setting the key down on a nearby table, Annie scooped the haphazard stack into her arms and set about putting them in some semblance of order. Most of them were from the Capitol. Green envelopes predominated (surprise, surprise), but pink came in close second. Some were even decorated with hearts and tridents, and—she lifted one to her nose and sniffed— some vile floral perfume. Lillies? Ugh.

After categorizing them by size, she set the missives on a nearby table, then noticed something sparkling on her fingers. Glitter. Wiping the sparkly dust on her shorts, she made sure to look down before she took another step. She didn't fancy breaking her neck over a box of chocolates or a bouquet of flowers. There was nothing else on the floor. Her ankles and neck thanked him.

That task now done, Annie finally took a good look at her surroundings. For some reason, she'd half expected to be greeted by a life-size portrait of the house's owner, scantily clad and leering down at her from over the fire place as he stroked his trident. Instead, there was only a tidy and unassuming receiving room filled with a few chairs, a couch, and a coffee table. She didn't really know why, but she found this mildly disappointing.

Leaving her sandals by the door, Annie walked further into the house. The layout was different from the other two Victor houses she'd been in, Mags and her own. Two hallways branched off this first room, as well as a staircase. Mags had said the kitchen would be the second door on her left, but she hadn't indicated which hallway or which floor. Instantly dismissing the idea of an upstairs kitchen, Annie started down the right-hand hallway.

The light shining from behind her did little to illuminate the shadowy hall, and there was no other switch in sight. Peering into the gray, she could just make out the outline of the second doorframe on the left. Only fifteen feet separated her from her missing ingredient. Fifteen feet and one doorway.

Head on straight, Annie. Giving a slight nod, she squared her shoulders and stepped into the hallway. Her progress was tentative at first, but grew bolder with each successive step. She was just passing the first door, when something shifted in the periphery of her vision. Instantly ducking, she scrambled to the clear the doorway. Her heart slammed against her chest, but she forced herself not to run away. Pressing herself flat against the wall, she stood there and waited, holding her breath as she counted to ten, then twenty.

Nothing happened.

Of course nothing happened, she thought, because no one is home. Silly Annie.
Opening her eyes, she noticed the faint play of lights against the wall directly opposite the first room's entrance. The lights that had caught her attention and nearly sent her into a panic. But what was causing them? Positioning herself to see inside the room without being seen herself, Annie stole a quick peek and discovered the source of her palpitations. An enormous television screen, at least six feet across was turned to face the opposite wall, making it impossible to see what was actually being broadcast from the Capitol.

Annie would never claim a thorough knowledge of entertainment technologies, but something told her this was an improper use of the expensive equipment. Even the sound was muted. As far as she could tell, the only disturbance was the shifting light against the blank canvas of the far wall, which would brighten and darken as the lights on the tv screen varied in intensity. Mostly the wall remained white, but every now and then a splash of color would invade, tingeing the room. It seemed a waste of money for a fancy light show, but Annie thought it an infinitely better use than the usual propaganda the Capitol force fed the districts. Especially now that there was only one week left till the next Games.

Annie hesitated on the threshold of the room, debating whether to turn off the tv. For once her indecision was not rooted in fear. Like the entrance, this room was sparsely furnished. Other than the inordinately large television, there was only a couch, which was also turned away from the door. Nothing scary here. She did, however, object to being reduced to Finnick Odair's housemaid. First his mail, now this. But you are taking his sugar. And breaking into his house. Annie sighed. She was already here; might as well be neighborly.

Walking by the couch, her fingers reached for the armrest, but the soft material made no impression on her fingertips. Only one thought predominated: Mags had been wrong. The house, specifically this couch, was not empty; it was full of Finnick Odair. Her hands flew to her mouth, stifling a gasp as her stomach plummeted to the vicinity of her feet. She fumbled for the key, determined to show him Mags had given her permission and entry, but it was missing. With horror, she realized she'd left it on the entry table. Her skin began to prickle all over. She counted the seconds she had left before Finnick took note of her, but to her relief, she realized he still soundly slept. She buried her face in her hands, nearly laughing with relief.

Finnick lay face down on the couch, his large body sprawled across the cushions and one arm raised above his head. Against her better judgment, her gaze shifted lower, and her face suddenly grew warm. He wasn't wearing a shirt. A blanket tangled around his hips and knees, so there was no way of knowing what else he was (or wasn't) wearing. With little more than a blanket and air between her and his possibly naked body, Annie knew she should have turned around and left. To her shame, she couldn't find it in her to look away.

His lips moved, and she drew closer, curious about the quiet murmurings. He had the world at his feet. Could have anything he wanted. What did Finnick Odair dream about?

Worried that her hair would brush against and wake him, she pushed it over her shoulder. Sidestepping a pile of clothes, she knelt beside him and leaned over, but it wasn't enough. How far would she push this? She was already treading dangerous waters, but as he kept sleeping, blissfully unaware of her presence, her confidence grew. Pressing her lips together, careful not to make a sound, she drew as close as she dared. His breath fanned against her ear, causing her to shiver, but she could not make out a word he said. And moving closer was no longer an option, because any closer and his lips would be pressed against her ear. Imagine trying to explain that. Annie couldn't, and so she scooted away.

Her eyes moved from his face, down the length of his back. The golden skin stretched tautly over his muscles and bones, hinting at his strength. Enough to crush her, though he wouldn't, she reminded herself. This wasn't the Games. His ribs expanded, then contracted. She watched the steady breaths, tried to match them with her own, but hers still hadn't calmed down since she'd discovered him there. She could no longer blame it on her nerves, though it felt much the same. Pulse pounding, clammy hands, her body alternating between cold and hot. Annie shook her head, embarrassed at what she was feeling.

Like almost every little girl, she'd had a crush on Finnick Odair. She'd only been twelve when he'd won his games, and at that age one could indulge in childish fancies without ridicule. Annie could remember running home from the Victory Banquet, hands full of the posters they'd given out of District Four's newest victor. She'd plastered them all over the walls of her bedroom. Even sent in one or two green-enveloped letters of her own, though she'd never admit it. Five years later it seemed so ridiculous, but at the time, when life had been simple, there'd been nothing more important than obsessing over him. Not that she could exactly blame her younger self. Finnick Odair was absolutely stunning. And the years had done nothing to diminish his looks; in fact, bathed in the glow of his television, Annie could not think of any thing or person more beautiful. It was one of the reasons she steered clear of him.

Her attempts weren't always successful. She'd met him after her Games. He hadn't mentored during her year, but he attended her victory banquet, as was required of all living District Four winners. At the time she'd been so sedated with drugs, she couldn't recall the meeting with any clarity. Honestly, she was grateful for that. The idea of being in the same room with him, having him see her in such a broken state made her feel queasy and anxious. In the six months since the banquet, she'd studiously avoided him, even after striking up a friendship with his next door neighbor Mags.

She avoid him? Silly, stupid Annie. That assumed he actually wanted something to do with her, which he wouldn't.

With a sigh, she turned her head away, trying to ignore the throbbing ache in her chest. This is only physical attraction, she told herself. But it had been so long since she'd felt anything remotely like this. Right after the games, she'd been near catatonic. There'd been days when she'd wake up, take her pills and then stare at the walls of her new home until it was time to go to bed. And those had been the good days. If any emotion managed to break through her drug-induced oblivion, it certainly wasn't attraction. Only fear. Mind-numbing, paralyzing, overwhelming fear. Then, as she began to slowly wean herself off the anxiety medications and settle back into her District Four life, she'd entered into a new phase of her "healing." The cycle of depression and apathy seemed never ending, but compared to where she was last year, this was a victory.

But having refused any more medications, there was nothing to blunt the horrible truths staring her in the face. Her simple life was gone, and with it her dreams. And they'd been modest dreams. She may have been a silly child, but she'd never been stupid. It may have taken a while, but she grew to realize that guys like Finnick Odair weren't for keeps. They belonged to the Capitol.

By the time she'd been reaped, the fantasy of Finnick Odair had given way to the idea of a normal life with a normal guy. They'd marry, have kids, make a family. But not now. She'd been rejected by the Capitol, but still carried its taint. But where Finnick owned the distinction of being Panem's most beautiful citizen, she was labeled its craziest. Her parents said it was all in her head, but she saw the way the people stared at her every time she left the house. Looks of pity, sometimes disdain, and always the quiet murmurings, which sounded so much like the whispery doubts of her brain she had trouble distinguishing between the two . And so she holed herself up in her house, only coming out to meet with her parents and, eventually, Mags.

It was a lonely existence, but really, what else was there? Even if she could find a guy who would want to be with her, what could she offer him? A lifetime of waking up with her screaming from her nightmares? Guarding every word that left his mouth, like her parents did because they feared they'd trigger some terrible memory that would send her over the edge? The increased chance that their children would be reaped in the Games? Right. Annie Cresta, what a catch.

No, she was destined to be alone. The thought, as usual, made her eyesight blur and her throat constrict, though she tried to laugh it off. Her head had accepted the impossibility of any kind of romantic relationship; her heart just hadn't caught up yet. But it would; she would force it to. After it stopped mourning the fact that this would be the only time she ever saw a guy like this, and he didn't even know she was there.

Smiling at her foolishness, she rose from the floor, casting one last, regretful look at Finnick. The man stirred beside her, flipping onto his back and causing the blanket to fall onto her feet. Well, at least he had on boxers. It didn't totally absolve her for ogling him, but she didn't feel quite so guilty.

Forcing herself to pick up the blanket, she toyed with the fringe that lined its edges. In other words, delaying the inevitable. He looked so open and vulnerable, especially with the creases on his cheek, imprinted there by the weave of the couch cushion. His lips even glistened, and she almost smiled, shocked with the revelation that even Finnick Odair drooled in his sleep.

Annie shook her head. How long had she been standing here? Mags probably thought she'd fallen into a hole and would probably send a search party out soon. Reluctantly she set the blanket on his feet. She waited, just in case he stirred, but there was no movement. He was a much heavier sleeper than she. Inch by inch she carefully worked the material over the rest of his body, until only his face and the tops of his shoulders were visible. As she brought the blanket under his chin, her fingers accidentally came into contact with his shoulders. His lashes fluttered, but Annie realized it was nothing more than his eyes moving back and forth under his eyelids. Relishing the warmth of his skin for just a second more, she wrenched her hand away and turned to leave the room.

Only a firm grip on her wrist prevented her from going very far.

To Be Continued