Author: aimmyarrowshigh
Fandom: The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
Story Title: "Valor, Valeria"
Summary: Gale sells and Finnick is sold, and there is no honor in Panem.
Character/Relationships: Gale/Katniss, Gale/Madge, Gale/other(s), Finnick/Annie, Finnick/Cashmere, Finnick/other(s)
Rating: M
Warnings: Spoilers for all three books (although as long as you know what Finnick does for a living and who Annie is, you're probably okay on Mockingjay). Forced sexual slavery, emotional/sexual abuse, bad language, underage sexual contact, prostitution, explicit sexual content.
Wordcount: 8,700
Notes: This is a gift for poppypickle for beta reading The Five Places Cinna Came From for like four months. ILY, and I hope this doesn't butcher your bb Gale. ...It probably does. 8\
Notes, Parte Deux: HUGE NEVERENDING BETA THANKS TO audreyii_fic and raife, as well as to hulamoth and mithrigil!
Disclaimer: I don't own anything. All characters, settings, and proprietary language are owned by the author of the work from which this is derived.

Valor, Valeria

When Gale Hawthorne is fourteen years old, the gruesome reverberations of the mine collapse shake the ground below the one-room schoolhouse like a war zone, the earth they all depend on rebelling against them and tossing Gale to the ground. It's a broad-scale tragedy. Every child in that classroom loses someone in those mines.

Not every child. Not the Merchants. The doors of the schoolhouse open after the shaking stops and the children of the Seam pour out, dark and running on skinny gelding legs, wet gray eyes following the billow of dirt and dust and black, black damp that rises out of the Southwest. Gale is out in front, running towards the smoke, shoving the smaller children back towards the schoolhouse and the safety of the District center. Gale has the longest legs.

The Merchant kids huddle at the long lunch trough in their clean clothes, pale hair and pale skin and pale, soft fingers all quiet as they watch the Seam fall apart.

Gale Hawthorne is all of fourteen years old, still getting his bearings around the break line, when they pin a medal on his chest and say that he's so brave and so honorable for taking on the mantle of taking care of his family after the black damp steals his father away.

As though he has a choice.

Finnick Odair is fourteen years old and one of three Tributes left alive in a cliffside Arena somewhere that he can smellis on the outskirts of Four. It doesn't really feel like the Four he knows, a wet hot that seeps through his skin and makes him feel like he's a part of the ocean; the Arena is so dry that he knows he would have died long ago if Mags didn't keep him well-plied with water. It's a certainty. He watched it happen to six of the others. He knows that back home, everyone watched and wept and felt a little hollower. With every cannon, everyone loses a little more.

Not everyone. Not the Capitol. Finnick saw them from the windows of the train as it pulled into the station – Mags had made him lean out the window and wave and blow kisses, and they stared at him with alien eyes, red and blue and purple and gold. Don't stare back, gosling, Mags had murmured. They're not for you. You're for them to eat up.

So Finnick stared at the towering spires of the Capitol City Circle, spirals of glass and iron like a reef, and tried to ignore the dark creeping feeling as the Capitol citizens converged along the length of the train track with their chameleon skin, blowing him kisses and placing bets on when he would die.

Finnick Odair is all of fourteen years old when a rockslide crushes his last two opponents in the Arena that once sheltered the Ancient Ones from the dark desert nights and he is fetched, fingers a pulp, from the pueblos in the cliffside, and they crown him Victor: so brave, so strong, so loved.

As if he'd had a choice.

Posy is born three weeks after the mines collapsed. She comes in the middle of the night, and the healer lost her husband, too, and is so incapacitated with grief that there's no one, no one, that Gale can find to help his family.

It's the most terrified he's ever been.

Finally old Greasy Sae comes and her gnarled hands help slide Posy free, but the sun is rising and Gale knows that starting today, there is no more dependability. No others whom he can turn to in the middle of the night to take care of his mother and his brothers and this screamingnewhungry baby.

He has to do whatever it takes.

President Snow knows the names, ages, and favorite places of every one of Finnick's sisters and every one of Finnick's cousins. He shows Finnick cinemographs of them, projected up on the videoscreen in his office, from moments that were meant to be private: there's Perce pulling a lemaranja from the tree out back, there's Eireann dunking baby Brennan into the sea. There are his parents, kissing in the kitchen.

And then there's the family that the District Twelve Victor used to have. And the burned-out husk of where Johanna Mason once lived.

For all that happened in the Hunger Games, every Tribute that Finnick killed or watched killed or saw wither and die in the sandy hot heat, Finnick Odair had never felt fear like he did when Snow showed him the cinemograph of his parents' boat clipping out towards the horizon.

No one told him that winning came at a higher cost than losing. There is no option but to keep playing their Games.

Gale Hawthorne is fourteen years old when he tosses the first stick at the electric fence and it falls flat, unharmed. He scoots through an opening in the wire and loses himself in the dark world of the woods, where it's quiet and lush and free.

Free. It's a new concept.

It hits his gut like a stone and lodges there, gnawing, even after he ducks back under the fence and heads towards the Merchant quarters with a heavy wild turkey and a bundle of squirrels, already skinned, slung on his back and a sunburn on his nose.

The black damp seeps over everything and gets under his nails, gets into his skin. The entire District lives under a gray cloud that presses low, closing everyone beneath an impenetrable ceiling. Caged into the tin Seam, blocked into the red-brick Merchant row. Gale walks the same circuits around the District every day. But the woods… these are big, and dark, and growing.

Suddenly, his world feels all too small.

Finnick Odair gets two weeks' reprieve at home before he has to report to Snow in the Capitol, like it's a job. After his mother cries on his shoulder and his father gives him a new fishing knife and Eireann's baby Brennan chews on Finnick's new fingers, Finnick heads out to the ocean and wades in, walking like he's never intending to stop. He keeps walking, even though the night is falling and the animals and creatures and monsters are coming out from the deep to feed.

He knows monsters and creatures and animals now. He's fed right alongside them in the dark.

When he was in the Arena, it had felt so vast – like he could walk forever to find the way out and it would never come. Like he would be trapped in the Games forever. And of course, that was the point.

But he'd forgotten, somehow, just how endless the ocean is. He closes his eyes and lets it buoy him to the breakers where he bobs gently, going under and surfacing, going under… and surfacing. The salt gets into his skin. Fish kiss his knees and nibble his toes. He loses his bones, feels himself spreading out into the eternity of hissea.

He breathes in the spray under the moonlight and knows: he can never let himself forget this again.

The ocean is bigger than the Games. Somethingis bigger than their Games.

It doesn't take long for Gale to master the rhythm of bartering and trading. He'd seen it before, in the Hob, and there is a kind of prestige in being one of the recipients of that Survivors' medal – there were a lot of people left behind by the mine collapse, but not too many eldest sons and daughters. Gale suspects that the other traders are going easy on him for now, and it angers him a little, because he can't afford for when they rip that rug out from under him.

Greasy Sae offers him nuggets of advice, bring strawberries to the Undersees, Farll Mellark likes squirrel, but shoot it clean and skin it fer him. Gale resents that he needs it so badly. He wants to be independent.

He wants to be a man.

Every morning he slips into the woods and checks traps and sets snares and marvels at the silence of the woods. He wonders at how clean the air feels in his nose, away from the fly ash of the excavation. He lets the sun melt down over him as he butchers and skins and tans, and he washes his hands and face and shirt clean in the brook and he thinks, I wish life were this way.

After a few months that feel both too long and too short, his reflection in the water shines back a little shadow around his jaw and on his chest. He's proud of it.

Things have been changing for him as he trades, too. They're not going easy on him anymore, but he knows what everyone can afford and he knows how to get the best deal. It's not always about having the best product; it's about how he offers it or what else he can do. Greasy Sae will feed Vick and Rory after school for a week if he sweeps out her chimney. The mayor pays price-and-a-half on strawberries if they're washed and wrapped in paper. Ripper will actually give him cash, money in hand, if his shirt's unbuttoned down his chest when they haggle over the rabbits.

At fourteen years old, Gale Hawthorne already looks like a man. Sometimes, he thinks he just might be.

On the first gray, slushy day of March, he hits the bricks of the Merchant quarters a little late – Posy was fussy in the night and he needed to carry Vick to school because the kid was so tired – and Farll is already gone around to the kitchens by the time he knocks on the bakery's back door. Mahra Mellark answers the door and Gale wishes he didn't even have squirrel today.

"I don't eat squirrel," Mahra Mellark says. "What else do you have?"

Gale unloads the pack from his back. His shirt gapes open over his chest. "I got two rabbits, but they aren't cleaned. And I got strawberries, but you'd have to pay over Mayor Undersee, and he gives me market 'n a half."

"I'll take the strawberries for double and I'll give you twenty-five for the rest."

Gale looks up at her in shock. "Twenty-five for two rabbits? I mean, I guess I could clean them for you at that price, but – "

Mahra cuts him off and laughs. "Not the rabbits, stupid."

Gale's brow furrows. "I don't have anything besides the rabbits, unless you want the squirrel after all."

Mahra's eyebrow arches. "I see something besides ratty squirrels and rabbits on my doorstep."

Gale looks at her for the span of a breath. Blonde hair, meat on her bones. Money in her wallet.Twenty-five would be enough to heat the lamp for a month, but he's lived in the Seam his whole life and he knows the value of things and he knows he's worth more. "Thirty-five."

"Twenty-seven," Mahra says, eying him up and down like she's already got his clothes off.

"Thirty-three, and I'll throw in a rabbit," Gale says. He shifts his weight and notices that Mahra's eyes follow his hips. He files that away for later; always remember the finer points of a sale.

Mahra's pale, pale blue eyes don't stray from his face as she nods once, slow but curt. Final. "Thirty-three. And you skin the rabbit. After; I don't want blood in my bed."

She turns and walks into the stairwell that leads up above the bakery. Gale's never been inside before, so he's surprised at how warm it is – almost uncomfortable and prickling with the backdraft from the ovens.

"Shoes," snaps Mrs. Mellark, pointing at his mud-crusted boots.

Gale's brow furrows, but he kneels down to undo the laces. He ties them together when he's finished; he can't afford for one of her sons or their Merchy friends to steal them. They're good boots, strong, and still watertight. Almost.

He slings the boots over his shoulder and Mahra's jaw ticks, but she doesn't make him leave them in the vestibule. She turns and walks up the narrow, curving staircase. It creaks on every step, and Gale is painfully aware that her husband is on the other side of the wall. Farll Mellark is a big man. All of the Mellarks are big. They never go hungry.

Gale follows Mahra up the stairs. There are three rooms at the top of the stairs: one with two narrow beds and a single dresser, one with a big bed, and an indoor bathroom. The only one Gale's really seen is at the school, but he should have figured that Merch families could afford them. Thirty-three may be a raw deal after all.

Mahra's half-smile isn't as cold as he would have predicted when she pushes him up against the door of her bedroom. Gale isn't great with people – just doesn't really care – but he thinks, he thinks, Mahra Mellark's smile looks a little lonely.

But then her hands are down in the front of his pants.

She smirks. "Are you afraid of me?"

"No," Gale says. "You just surprised me."

"Were you expecting sweet, coal-flavored kisses?" Mahra asks, and works down Gale's fly.

"Were you?"

Mahra looks up. Her blonde hair wisps out from its bun and Gale realizes that she's still young – at least not the crony old witch he'd always thought. "Try it and find out."

So Gale cups her jaw in his callused, coal-miner's-son hands, and kisses her. And she kisses him back, peeling his shirt off, shrugging out of her own.

And it's not that bad.

Their clothes are in a muddled pile on the floor when Mahra pushes Gale onto the enormous, soft bed. He thinks there might be three blankets layered over the mattress, which is as many as his whole family has in their house. Mahra's body is soft, too, even though he can feel hard burns on her hands and arms. She's got stretch-striped scars on her hips, but she has fat on her hips, too, and they're wide and curvaceousand Gale winds his hands around them and flips her over on the soft mattress and really… this isn't so bad.

That might be because he seems to have her speechless, and silence makes Mahra Mellark infinitely more attractive.

Her hands push their way through Gale's dark hair and she guides his head between her legs.

And the fact of the matter is, Gale's not actually totally clear on what he's supposed to do down here.

He's seen animals do it, but that isn't as involved as Mahra Mellark seems to expect. And of course he's seen Lil do her thing on her knees in the back alley behind the Hob; everyone's seen that. Like all Seam boys, Gale's had his shoulders shoved by his friends and been dared to go over and see if she'll trade for it, but he never has. Doesn't seem right to him. She's just earning a living.

Same as they all are, really.

"You're clueless, for all I've always heard about Seam boys," Mahra says, amused. "You'll never spawn a whole flock of mine canaries at this rate."

Gale grits his teeth and thinks about the soap and oil that thirty-three could buy. Rory could get boots, good boots with thick soles, and there would still be money left over.

He tucks his head between Mahra Mellark's white thighs.

Mahra sighs and threads her fingers through his black hair, pulling him off her. She reaches down and touches herself with two fingers and despite what a bitch she is, Gale is a fourteen-year-old boy – and really, this is probably the hottest thing he's ever seen, and if he ignores who she is, he thinks he could like it.

It occurs to him that he really should pay attention now. It's a way to make good money. Lil's gotten by on it for years.

"Here," Mahra says, making small, tight circles with her thumb. "You suck on this, here, and make it worth my money."

So Gale does. And he tunes out her voice. And without thinking about the fact that it's Mahra Mellark, the white witch of District Twelve, it's nice. He likes that he's in charge right now, even though she's got a king's ransom to burn – or to take away if she doesn't like him. So he makes sure she likes it.

"Why?" Gale asks after she's kissed him again and he's lying flat on his back in a bed softer than he'd realized was possible.

Mahra isn't an ugly woman. She's pretty, actually, in a square-jawed, bump-nosed way. Her pale hair is soft and flowing around her flushed face and shoulders, hanging down to her heavy, round, milk-pale breasts. But her face turns when Gale asks her 'why' and she pushes down onto him, hard and fast, and beneath her, Gale is slightly repulsed. "Because the husband of the woman my husband had a child withjust died, and if he's going to leave me, I want to give him a reason."

It takes three times before he lasts long enough that she says it was worth her money. He puts his pants back on, but leaves the shirt hanging loosely on his back when he skins and cleans the rabbit.

Mahra looks impeccable and cold again, every blonde hair in place, every button tight, when he presents her with the paper packet of butchered, lean meat. There's blood on his fingers now, but he's grateful that it will cover the smell of her when he goes home until it's his turn for a bath tomorrow.

"Flat fee. Twenty-five a week. You come by at least twice. And no more damned squirrel," she says, pressing the money into the front pocket of his trousers. "I don't eat squirrel."

The sconces are carved in the shape of badgers.

Of all of the things that Finnick could be thinking about and noticing and seeing that would make his heart race and get tight like this, it's the fact that the heavy wall sconces are badgers baring their sharp teeth at him that makes Finnick's stomach tie itself into a knot.

A soft, cool hand grasps his cheek, turns his head. The lavender skin feels as limp and smooth as skinned fish.

"You really are beautiful," coos Annika Templesmith, the wife of the legendary Hunger Games announcer. Well, his fifth wife; the latest in the procession. She's nearly forty, though, and will be traded in for a newer model soon.

Even for her age, Annika Templesmith is beautiful – in the Capitol way. A sheet of glossy, jet black hair falls in ribbons to her waist. This year, she's rubenesque, polished and plumped with silky lipids synthesized in Six that made her hips and breasts and thighs puff soft but smooth. Her skin is dyed a lavender so pale it looks more like marble, veined through with violet tattoos. She's become a living statue.

Her fingers run all over Finnick's face: they trace his lips and cheekbones and nose and she makes perfectly satisfied little noises, like she's appraising art. But of course, she is – she purchased him and had him made just for her in the little winged gold loincloth with seashell scallops. He was literally wrapped in a bow and delivered to her doorstep, perfectly coiffed and oiled and waxed and sloughed.

They injected him with something that made the last of his babyfat melt off and his muscles tighten, and when he looks up at the mirrored ceiling, he's surprised by how much he looks like a Capitol man.

Finnick Odair is fourteen years old and his ankle is chained to the bedposts and the last thing in the world he wants to be is a man.

He wants to go home, and be a boy. Like before the Games. He wants to go home and listen to his father's stories out in the loud silence of the boat. But he's heard the stories of all the navigating stars enough to know: he doesn't get to go home again, not really. He's the Water-bearer now, and he has to serve the Capitol gods nectar until they tire of him. And he dies.

Annika Templesmith dips her cold finger between his lips like she's inspecting his teeth for auction. She's wearing a sheer gown that gapes open around her gargantuan breasts. Finnick doesn't know where to look.

Above him is an inescapable mirror, reflecting everything back down at odd angles; on tuffets and ottomans and chaises longue around the room, Capitol bureaucrats and celebrities and fellow Victors writhe, naked and sweaty and grotesque. Pills and powders and needles circle the room on platters.

"You are magnificent," simpers Annika, letting the dressing gown fall from her body. "The way you handled that trident…" She grins. Her teeth are oddly small, like she'd stolen someone else's mouth. "I simply neededto get my hands on you."

Finnick nods, not trusting himself to speak.

Annika mewls. "Oh, Finnie, darling, I know this might seem scary for you. You're not used to luxury like this, are you?" She rubs her lavender thigh across Finnick's legs like they're a pair of crickets.

"No," Finnick croaks. "I'm not used to this."

Annika makes a sound like a newborn sheep. "Well, sweetheart, I think I know someone who can help. Cashmere," she calls, and a long length of blonde and tan unfolds from a roiling mass of skin in the corner of the room. "Will you assist me with Finnick?"

Cashmere, a good ten years Finnick's senior and long-wrung out in this game, moves with the slow grace of a leopard on her approach.

They didn't bind her ankles, Finnick notices. Someday, they stop.

"You killed my Tributes," she greets him, an easy grin on her face. She's stunningly beautiful save the gory scar down one side of her face, through the eye and down to her jaw. If she hadn't been Remade, she'd probably be blind.

Finnick wonders why she kept the scar at all. It doesn't seem to have repulsed anyone in the Capitol. There are pink handprints all over her body and smears of different people all down her thighs and chest and Finnick is as scared and trapped as he was in the adobe caves of his Arena.

"I did," he confirms. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be," she says, coming over to the bed. She straddles his thighs and runs her hands up and down Finnick's chest, nails tracing lines on his bronze skin. "They couldn't beat you. You deserved to win."

There's a wet animal screech in the corner of the room and Finnick meets Enobaria's eyes in the mirror. She's still got those teeth clamped down on someone's breast. Her lips pull up in either a sneer or a grin.

Finnick's not sure he did deserve to win. But he must have, because here he is.

Annika's hands join Cashmere's in their circuit around Finnick's body, and he looks at the ceiling: it reflects back both a man sandwiched by two beautiful women, and a little boy being descended upon by frightening and inhuman succubi.

Finnick isn't sure which is truer.

He watches in the mirror as Annika's cold marble hands begin to stroke his face again and Cashmere lowers herself down onto him with a slow roll of her back. Annika mewls in Finnick's ear and reaches one puffy, cold, too-smooth hand down his body so that she's touching both Finnick and Cashmere at the same time, her alien fingers sliding around where they meet.

"My Victors," she coos, and it almost makes Finnick feel better that thatis what's getting her off. "My unbreakable beauties."

Cashmere is as clinical and clean about fucking as she was about killing: up, down, around, up, down, around, nails rake Finnick's nipples, fingers scrub through Finnick's hair. Even though they aren't scarred, her eyes are dead. Annika doesn't notice, but Finnick does.

Cashmere lifts Finnick's hands and rests one on her own breast, one on Annika's stretched lavender skin. "You can't hide forever," she tells Finnick. "You have to play the game to win."

She grinds down hard against him.

And Finnick Odair splits in two: the boy in the mirror disappears and gets buried down deep, somewhere blue and green and gold and shushing with the tide and its stories, while the Capitol man reflected back at him seems to swell and grow and he grins, just for a moment, before pulling Annika Templesmith down for a wet, sloppy, ravenous kiss.

Even as he tongues at the other woman's lips, Cashmere pats his cheek – maybe a little harder than would be friendly – and she says, "There's a good man."

Finnick keeps his eyes open, watching in the overhead mirror as he puts on a show to challenge anything moaning and groaning and spurting and writhing on the sofas that line the room. He and Cashmere look good, objectively. They stand out stark against the Capitol Technicolor; their skin is brown in ways that don't quite match. They rut and roll and their legs get tangled by the chain of his manacle. Cashmere's hair tangles like reeds. They look primal.

If he locks his feelings away, he can understand why Annika Templesmith wants to watch them.

Her Victors. Unbreakable and beautiful.

For the grand finale, he groans and bares his teeth and bites Cashmere's shoulder. The sconces around the walls flicker and shimmer in the ceiling mirror and the huge glass windows. Capitol citizens always like teeth.

After, when the party is over and they're all shooed from the house, Cashmere holds the door on her cab for Finnick. She looks older with her hair pulled back. She looks tired.

"Thanks," Finnick whispers, wrapping his arms around himself and staring at his knees.

Cashmere closes the door, but Enobaria opens the window. Victors don't like being caged, Finnick notes; it's not just him. He looks over at Cashmere, resting her head against the pane of cool glass, the scar on her face shining a little in reflected light. It's not just him.

"When does it stop?" Finnick asks.

Cashmere pulls her blouse neckline tighter, like there's anything to hide from him now.

"When you don't have anything left that they want," Enobaria mutters. She closes her eyes and puts her hand on Finnick's knee, and he lets her leave it there.

Time is a luxury that can't be wasted, but it's the only luxury Gale can afford. He closes his eyes and lies back against the warm, tickling moss on a huge rock, just for a moment, to let the sunlight filtering through the trees toast his skin.

Even though they sneer at him on the street and their sons call the Seam kids dirty words in the hallways at school, Gale knows the Merchant women like it when he's darker. He's outside of their world, and that reminds them. He doesn't need the reminder that they think he's beneath them, but he likes the sunshine and the spring.

Mockingjays chirp and sing and laugh in the trees overhead, and Gale feels a lightness in his chest that might even grow into a chuckle as he picks out the sound of Vick's schoolyard shriek, captured by the birds and tossed around from branch to branch. It's nesting season now, the last chill of winter melted away into a muddy slick on the forest floor. He won't shoot the birds until summer.

"Go away."

It's barely a whisper – could even be a far-off mockingjay – but Gale is a hunter and he shoots upright, shading his eyes against the streaming light –

The girl is kneeling at the coil of one of his traps, staring at the white-striped badger lying dead in the snare. She pauses to glare at a fat-bellied lynx, still lazy from winter – it rubs its head against her ankle and she rears back, snapping a twig.

"Hey, that's mine," Gale says. He jumps down from the rock and shrugs into his shirt as he approaches her.

The girl winces and looks up and shrinks at the sight of Gale.

She's tiny, he thinks. Not in a good way. And she's afraid of him. He thinks he can remember seeing her maybe fifteen pounds ago getting a medal after the mine explosion, but everyone from the Seam looks alike and he can't be sure.

"Hey," he repeats, and she looks down at her feet. "What are you doing out here?"

The lynx rubs at her ankle again and she scowls, shaking it off. She whispers something so quiet that he can't hear and he's no good at reading lips, but she turns just enough to let him see the huge bow and quiver of arrows strapped to her back. It looks like it could knock her over if she steps wrong, she's so small.

"What's your name?" he tries, impatient.

She whispers –

"Catnip?" he asks, crouching down a little so he can try to look at her downcast face. "Your name is Catnip?"

Her face colors. "No," she whispers. "Katniss. Like the plant."

"Oh," Gale says, standing back upright. "Katniss. Right. What are you doing out here?"

"I'm hunting," Katniss says, a little more loudly. She nudges the lynx away with her ragged boot. "It's my job now. There's nobody…" she trails off.

Gale nods, looking down at her. He can see on her bones that it's true, and besides, he's surer now that he did see her at that ceremony.

"You know how to use that?" He nods to her bow.

Katniss' brow lowers, but she just nods mutely.

"You know your way around the woods?"

Katniss' chin lifts defiantly. "Enough."

Gale sighs. "If you get lost out here or the Peacekeepers see you, they'll whip you." He looks down at the way her clavicle is wrenching its way out of her skin. She wouldn't survive a whipping.

Katniss stares as Gale retrieves the badger from his snare and bleeds it before she says, "Sunday. I can bring a bow Sunday. If you show me some snares."

Gale shakes his head. "I don't have time to teach you to hunt, Catnip."

Katniss scowls at him the way she had at the lynx, and not twenty yards later, she shoots a squirrel out of a tree high above Gale's head. When she trots over to retrieve her prize, Gale sees that she shot it cleanly through the eye.

It's good that she's a good shot, he thinks. He doesn't even know her, but how little she is, with that little-girl braid… she looks like Posy will in a few years. It's an odd thought – that little girls grow up.

Annie Cresta is swimming naked.

It's not a big deal; everyone in District Four swims naked.

But Finnick stares anyway. He'd had a girl before the Games, but everyone watches Annie Cresta. At least, he assumes they all watch her as much as he does, slipping through the waves like a nereid. Finnick is just at the cusp of fifteen and Annie's only been fourteen for a month, but he always sees her in the schoolyard, reading the books like she cares about what's in them.

Or he did, back when he went to school. Before the Games. Back when he'd always had Maritia leaning against his side at the rough-hewn tables. Back when he did anything at all.

Now he just stands beneath the pier, listening to the waves crashing like explosions against the pylons as he watches Annie Cresta swim naked.

She goes under. She's gone a long time.

He doesn't worry.

She surfaces and the late-afternoon sunlight gleams off her skin like she's made of mirror. She rises: long, heavy, dark hair sodden around her thoughtful face; ibis neck and sloped shoulders. Breasts. Dark nipples. Waist just beginning to curve.

Annie sees him staring, but Finnick doesn't blink. He doesn't move from his hiding place. He can see everything from here. Annie smiles and starts her approach, ducking forward into the water until it's too shallow for swimming.

She walks through the waves until she's pressed up against him under the pier. Her head barely reaches his chest and Finnick wonders all of a sudden when he grew up.

It might have been in the instant that he started kissing Annie Cresta under the pier, all of her naked skin warm and salt-rich and sliding along his torso as she flits her hands around his waist until his shorts are floating in the water like a surrender flag and she's working him slowly with her small hands.

She moves cautiously, the way she always read her books: she spans and weighs and measures, both hands twisting around his cock, thumbing curiously. Finnick can't hear anything over the crash of the ocean echoing beneath the pier, but they can both feel the rumble in his chest when he groans and slides his palm over her breast.

Annie bites Finnick's lip when he shudders and comes over her hands.

The tide is receding and the ocean calm and gentle around them when Finnick slides his hands along the length of Annie's body, spanning the curve of her side, and kneels in the warm water, letting the current pull at him insistently, drawing the sea back into his skin. He reaches for Annie and slides his fingers between her legs, opening her for his mouth. He dips his head forward.

When the wave crashes over them, making the pylons shake, all he can taste is Annie.

The next morning, he walks the long path up the beach from the Victor's Village to the cold, far, moldering black sand where the Cresta girl and her mother live in a little pink shanty. He's just about to knock at the door when he sees Annie through the window at her kitchen table, brown hair in a messy cloud around her head and a delighted, innocent smile on her face as she slices a thin leaf of bread.

She sets it down in front of Cawlin Odoherty. She drapes herself over his shoulders like she's a set of wings and they kiss, adolescent and clinging.

Finnick stares for a long time before he turns and walks back down the beach, a raggedy bouquet of horsemint and marsh plants dangling loosely from his hand.

When Posy gets sick, Gale knows that it's time to give up any illusions of pride. He has to go after the wealthiest person in the District.

It's not hard to find Haymitch Abernathy. He's quiet today, which at least is better than if he were having one of his entitled rows with Cray, because then all eyes would be on him, and on what Gale's about to do. But Haymitch is quiet, leaning against a post towards the door and Gob's table of woolens, drinking from a fresh bottle.

His eyes measure Gale's every movement as he approaches. They should. He's alive today because he notices everything.

Gale sticks one hand in his pocket and cocks his hips forward, using all of his best moves, tossing his hair. He runs his other hand down the Victor's arm – a risky move, he thinks later, when he's sitting at home with knots in his stomach. Stupid.

"One and a quarter," he says in his Hob voice, cocking his head back to where Lil is making a similar proposition to one of the Peacekeepers. Gale smirks and switches to his Merchant voice. "And I heard she banned you, so… you won't get a better deal."

Haymitch takes a swig from the bottle and levels Gale with a stare. Gale tries to stay steady and look unaffected even as the hand he's groping Haymitch with closes around the leather wallet in his front pocket.

"I can't decide whether it would be funnier to say yes now, for the look on your face, or leave you waiting and laugh at how bad at seduction you are," Haymitch says, completely straight-faced. "Go back to peddling carcasses."

Gale slips Haymitch's wallet out of the pocket and palms it, heart pounding.

"One and an eighth," he offers, feeling a little better knowing that it seems like Haymitch will refuse at any price – he won't realize the wallet is gone until he gets home, and with any luck, he won't be sober enough to put two and two together. "Aren't you lonely?"

Haymitch crows and lets his weight fall against the back wall until he's half-sitting, bottle tilted jauntily to his lips. "I got hands, don't I?"

Gale smiles as ruefully as he can as he drops the pilfered wallet into his pack. "Your loss." He shoulders the pack.

Gale gets three steps away before Haymitch says –

"You're also a fucking terrible pickpocket."

Gale stops short and realizes with a jolt that Haymitch must not have been as drunk as he'd thought (or maybe hoped) because there's a short-edged blade pressed to the small of his back.

"Go ahead," he says, "Stab me. There's Peacekeepers all around."

"I'm not gonna stab you," Haymitch says dismissively. He sheathes the blade with a snick. "Just give me back my wallet."

Gale's hands feel cold and a little numb as he fishes the wallet out of his bag.

Haymitch holds out his hand plaintively, and the little slap of the leather against his palm sounds to Gale like it should be loud enough for everyone in the Hob, everyone in District Twelve, to hear. Gale Hawthorne is a thief! Gale Hawthorne is a thief!

Haymitch opens the billfold and riffles through it. "Why?"

Gale grits his teeth. "My baby sister's sick."

"Larkspur won't trade?" Haymitch asks, looking up like he has a stake in things, and it makes Gale want to punch in Haymitch's face.

"Doctor-sick," Gale says shortly. "So if it's all the same to you, I have to go – "

"Shut up," Haymitch says, opening his wallet. "You'll never make a doctor's fee with wild turkeys." He nods towards Gale's hips. "Or that."

Haymitch Abernathy lifts Gale's hand and folds sixty into his palm. That's enough for a doctor's visit and any standard medication, maybe even a night's worth of kerosene, too.

Haymitch turns and slinks back to Ripper's stall, leaning his chin on her shoulder. She pushes him off with a roll of her eyes, but hands him another bottle anyway. Haymitch opens his wallet and hands her a bill, and Gale can see that there are still more in the fold.

Haymitch was right. He couldn't have made sixty in a fortnight, not even between Mahra Mellark and the other Merchy housewives.

Gale almost runs out of the Hob, feeling, for the first time, like he's actually committed a crime.

The first time that Finnick gets sent to the hospital after for something more than a superficial remake – something is ruptured and torn and bleeding inside him this time; too many drugs in his blood for him to have protested – he curls up against Mags after the surgery, puts his head in her lap, and cries for hours.

Mags has rough hands with knotty knuckles that knead his back gently, and she doesn't say anything comforting. He appreciates that.

Instead she looks over her shoulder, pushes the door shut with her cane, and starts speaking the language of District Four – forbidden in the Capitol. Finnick can barely speak it himself, but Mags grew up with it and she teaches him sometimes on her porch in the Victor's Village, while he helps her shell beans or debone fish.

"En el Olimpo, todos los dioses se llenaron de gozo al ver la belleza del joven," she reminds him, squeezing his shoulder. "Salvo la reina."

Finnick doesn't say anything. He's crying too hard. Alone with Mags, he doesn't need to be a Victor or a man or unbreakable or beautiful. Mags always smells like seaweed and sand, and he buries his face against her side, trying so hard to pretend that he's home. He wants the endless ocean and the salt in his skin, the nibbles of fish and the knowledge of monsters. He wants his own home and his own bed. He wants Annie Cresta waiting for him beneath the pier.

"Que lo trató con desprecio," Mags continues. A constant. "Su odio el muchacho."

"Why didn't you warn me?" Finnick chokes, tightening his arms around her waist, knees tucked up close to his chest. "Why didn't you tell me it's better not to win?"

Mags touches the tracks of his tears with her thumb.

"Oh, gosling," she sighs. "You were so little. I thought you were going to lose."

At sixteen, Gale starts dicking around with the mayor's daughter, just because. Friends in high places and all that. When you're a criminal, it's never a bad idea to have some sway. He doesn't charge her or anything, and she doesn't offer to pay him – he thinks that maybe she doesn't know, which is kind of a relief – but she almost always sends him on his way with a loaf of bread or some fruit or a knob of butter or cheese. She's a nice girl.

It's weird for Gale to think of Madge Undersee as a nice girl, because the kind of sex she likes isn't nice at all. Gale thinks that of all the Merchant women and their weird quirks and kinks, Madge is probably the roughest, but he kind of likes that about her. It wasn't predictable, and he can appreciate hiding secrets.

She always wants him to bite her, hard enough almost to break the skin. Her fingernails tear long, pink stripes into his back or his thighs or the curves of his ass. She likes him behind her, which most of them don't, pounding away at her so hard the bed shakes and creaks against the wall and she gnashes her teeth at her pillow, pale hands scrabbling for purchase against the headboard.

If he's not behind her on all fours, breathing down her neck and cursing, she's got him pinned down, riding him so slowly it almost hurts. Sometimes she ties his wrists to the posts of the headboard with her hair ribbons; sometimes she holds his hands flat against the mattress with her own, tits in his face. He likes it both ways.

At school, Madge eats lunch with Catnip and looks, of the two of them, like the tidy, proper, wholesome one. The thin fingers she shoves in Gale's mouth for him to suck on while they fuck unwrap little paper packets of strawberries or biscuits, and Gale's throat always goes a little dry when he thinks just how close it all skates to Katniss' realm of awareness.

Annie is something of a constant now when Finnick is back in Four. It's been three years of finding Annie waiting beneath the pier and always thinking, this time, she'll choose me, and three years of not being chosen.

She isn't his, but that's okay – he got to choose her, and that's what counts. She sees sex as something akin to a competition, too, and he likes that: who can make the other come more, come harder, and this is one game Finnick loves to win. It's okay when Annie wins, too, but lots of people have made him come. Making Annie come feels like something – special, for him. He'd spend whole days with his face between her thighs if he could.

She's lying boneless beside him in his bed, soaked in August and ocean and traces of him striping her skin, when Finnick leans over and draws his damp fingers in patterns across her hollow stomach. She smiles a little, eyes closed, as her nipples stiffen and something nasty and mean shoots through Finnick's mind and he whispers,

"I bet he doesn't make you come like I do. I'm the only one who makes you feel this good."

Anemone Cresta doesn't even open her eyes. "He doesn't. I've never gone to bed with him. Just you."

Finnick blinks. His fingers find their way between her legs again, because he's still determined to win this. "Why? You don't love me."

"No," Annie says, shifting in his bed. Her breasts are fuller below so they point gently like the spirals of conch shells and Finnick mouths at her absently, staring up at her face. "He doesn't want to until we're past Reaping age. It'd be too hard if we had done it and one of us got taken."

"But you do it with me," Finnick says, partially because he likes reminding her: she doesn't do it with anyone but him, and that seems like such a luxury. He likes it more than he likes the sex itself.

Annie does open her eyes then and boosts herself up to take him inside of her again, because she isn't going to let him get that far ahead in the game. "You've already come back. I can't ever lose you."

Gale looks over to Katniss, standing straight and silent beside him as she reels in another fish at the end of her line. Most of the District are sluggish and downtrodden today – the Reaping makes everyone lie down and play dead when they should be getting up to fight, he thinks – but Katniss is steady beside him, always matching him pace for pace to provide for their families.

He's proud of her. Not of her: he's proud to have shaped her into what she is today. She's not the little girl lost in the woods. She's a Seam woman, exactly the way he thinks they should be. Steadfast. Strong. Capable.

He loves her. It's his one weakness, and he wishes he could hate her for it, but wouldn't do any good. She is his. He is hers. Their families may as well already be merged. Anything else… is unthinkable.

When it hit Gale that he and Katniss will be together, it hit like a wrecking ball. He doesn't want Darius to touch her. He doesn't want Farll Mellark or any of his big, blond sons to smile at her. He knows how this world works, how this District works, and he doesn't want any man besides him to get anywhere nearher.

On the one hand, it's a weight off his shoulders that Katniss doesn't seem to understand yet that she's a desirable woman. He's not even sure if she realizes she's a woman at all, but that's not important. Gale is a hunter – he knows how to wait. When she wants to kiss someone, it'll be him. When she wants someone to want her as a wife, it'll be him.

He's going to marry Katniss someday. It's just a matter of time, and it roars through his bones.

When she wants a man, it will be him. Sometimes when they're walking through the woods, he almost says something, anything, torn up by thinking about Katniss and him and wondering when she's going to desire him that way. They're inevitable, so it's alright, but he wants her as much as he's ever let himself want anything. Shelter. Health. Dependability . Katniss. They're all tied up together in his mind and he just wants to get there, get to where it's the two of them against the world.

He's right on the cusp of trying, a hundred times, to prompt her. He imagines tickling her neck with the end of her braid so she'll turn her head, and he can smile at her, slide his hand up around her jaw so she'll know. And he'll kiss her.

If it weren't the day of the Reaping, this would be his moment. The day is glorious, with a blue sky and soft breeze. He looks out at the valley stretched out below them.

Gale's so used to her presence and so accustomed to watching her move through the woods beside him that the first time he looked at her – reallylooked at her – he was surprised that she's still tiny. But it's in such a good way now. She's tiny in a way that makes him want to press her up against a tree and wrap her legs around his waist and keep her there; tiny in a way that makes him want to protect her and keep her safe and treat her gently and lay her her back on the shady forest ground and put his mouth on her everywhere.

He could, if he wanted. Right now. There's no one around them for miles.

"We could do it, you know," he murmurs, looking over to Katniss. There's a smear of dark red on her lip from the berries.


"Leave the District. Run off. Live in the woods." He's thought about it for a long time. Just him and Katniss with their bows and arrows and dark Seam skin and her sharp gray eyes. They would hunt all morning and run all afternoon and make love all night. "You and I… we could make it."

She doesn't say anything and he knows that the silence only lasts a beat, but it feels like an age.

"If we didn't have so many kids," he adds, and then he imagines her pregnant and it knocks the breath out of him.

He's going to marry her. They're going to have children. He's going to take care of her.

Annie Cresta will likely marry Cawlin Odoherty after the Reaping ceremony. They're eighteen and it's their last, and it hits Finnick like a rogue wave: it's the end of Annie waiting for him beneath the pier. It's the end of Annie Cresta climbing in through his window in the middle of the night, the end of laying her out on the sand in hidden coves. Annie is the only thing Finnick has that he feels really belongs to him, and… she doesn't.

She never really did.

He goes to her the night before, climbs up the drainpipe and knocks on the boards that cover where her window would be in the dry season until she knocks back and slips downstairs to meet him in the backyard.

The wind rustles the big, flat leaves of the bending trees in Annie's backyard when she steps onto her back porch. Her little bare feet make no noise, and neither does Finnick: he just watches her, in her faded, threadbare white nightgown, brown hair floating in the breeze.

"What's it like?" she asks, standing above him on the weathered wood.

He doesn't need more than that. There's only one thing people ask a Victor about.

"Drowning," he says. "It's like drowning. Every minute."

The wind blows at Annie's skirt and she nods, stepping down from the porch. The stairs don't even creak. Finnick folds himself around her, feeling her ribs and her hips and her upturned breasts pressed against him through the little nightgown.

He kisses the top of her head. "You won't drown."

She takes his hands and slides them up the sides of her thighs to her naked hips. Finnick thumbs the winged bones and Annie makes a soft, good sound where her face is pressed into his chest, and then she kisses his skin and nips with her little teeth and Finnick pulls her down onto the cold, soft ground.

They move slow and close and deep and her nightgown whispers against his hipbones when she curls her legs around his waist; Finnick can't keep his eyes off the ring of green light reflects from her eyes in the dark.

He wonders how Annie Cresta crept up on him.

And when she is Reaped, it's wretched.