Chapter One

The Reaping, the beginning.

Annie hadn't slept in days. Her green eyes were dull from lack of sleep, in contrast to the rest of her body that was on-edge and shaking as she stood in the square, roped off in an area of other sixteen-year-olds. The square was damp from the night's rain, making it appear even grayer and depressing on that Reaping Day. Annie could hear her nervous heartbeat in the inner caverns of her ears.

She felt as though she was about to just kill over right there in the square. The stress of the approaching reaping had been so intense that this morning, she felt seasick for the first time in years when she went out on the boats with her brothers. Having lived in District Four for her entire life and spending nearly all of her free time on the water made that an incredible cause for concern to her brothers, and prompted them to dock early and fetch a doctor. Annie hated having people dote on her like they did, but it was well worth it because whatever the doctor had given her had calmed her enough that she could stand at the Reaping without completely losing her mind.

A stage had been set up in the center of the cobblestone square, just as it was every year, and the children of the district aged twelve to eighteen were corralled into roped sections before it, with the oldest in the front. The parents were lined up around the perimeter, each crossing their fingers in hope that their proud little Career will be reaped. Annie was different. The Games were a far off nightmare to her, something she dreaded each year. She had always been too small to train as a Career, so without that reassurance and skill under her belt, fearing the Games came all too easy. All five of her older brothers had trained lightly through their years of eligibility, though mostly focusing on fishing and sailing, just so they could stand a chance in the Arena because they wanted to take out as much tesserae as they could each year. Her parents didn't want their only daughter to strain herself with the pressure of training, so she didn't. And now she stands in the square, coated in a sheer layer of nervous sweat, listening to her racing heartbeat.

She cut through crowds of enormous boys, years younger than her, and monstrous ones hardly any older, and girls that appeared rather average, but could easily snap her in half just to get to the end of the ropes. Annie found all of her brothers standing there, along with her mother. While attendance to the Reaping Ceremony was mandatory, her father and his fishing crew appeared in the square late every year, but it slipped under the noses of the Peacekeepers unnoticed because they haul in more fish than anyone else docking at the bay. Vance reaches out to take his sister's shaking hand and envelopes it tightly to reassure things will be alright. Beside him, her mother smiles, though her dark green eyes are sad that one of her children is still on the other side of the ropes. Mrs. Cresta had gone through five children up for grabs at the Reaping, and now that everyone but Annie was safe, the ceremony was even harder for her. Annie felt terribly guilty, and it took all of her brothers to convince her not to worry about it when she flips out.

"You're not going to be picked," Vance whispers in her ear, dropping her hand to wrap his arms around her. He holds his sister's head delicately against his shoulder. Annie had always felt closest to Vance out of all of her brothers; she couldn't say it was because they were the closest in age, because four years is a fairly large gap for siblings, but because he didn't baby her like the rest of her family. "We didn't let you take out any tesserae for a reason. Your name is only on five of those slips – what are the odds?"

"Ever in her favor," grunts the oldest, Fletcher, glaring across the crowds of Career tributes crawling over one another to get closest to the stage. His dark tone was laced with the clipped Capitol accent, something that is openly mocked throughout the district. Annie hated how uncomfortable the Games made him; he suffered worse than anyone she knew this time of year. Several years ago, before she was even eligible for the Games, Fletcher had been sweet on the girl who was selected. Annie remembered him, hunched over on his knees, sobbing because he had just been forced to watch the girl sliced open in the Arena by another tribute on the big screen that broadcast the Games across the square. Her heart still aches for him when she thinks about it.

Annie glances into Vance's dark eyes as she pulls away from him, keeping her brother at an arm's length. He has never looked so much like their father before now; Annie had never noticed it before. Maybe she was seeing things differently because she knows it could very well be the last time she ever looks into the faces of her family.

She gives his hands one last squeeze as she sees Gossamer Swarm, the woman who escorts the tributes from District Four every year, trotting happily to the stage beside the mayor out of the corner of her eye. Annie knows that means the Reaping will begin soon. Her heart sinks past the pit of her stomach and she turns toward the stage again, not finding herself able to release Vance's hand.

The mayor approaches the podium, clears his throat, and leans down over the microphone to begin his speech. It is the same, monotonous lecture every year about how the districts owe everything to the Capitol and the Hunger Games remind them of the rebellion known as the Dark Days, how they take away defenseless kids and throw it in the districts' faces that there is nothing they can do about it. The mayor's voice fades into the noise of the restless Careers in the crowd, something Annie has already drowned out. She spends the extra moments clinging to Vance, refusing to let go, praying that things will go quickly and she can return home to sleep off the anxiety that builds in her before the Reaping – just as she did every year.

Next, Gossamer Swarm steps to the podium, smiling. Her appearance has literally stayed the same all of these years, unchanged by the ever varying fashion seasons in the Capitol. Annie thinks that she looks so plastic it is hard to believe the woman thinks she looks good like that, what with her plump lips died crimson and her jet black hair unnaturally straight. For the slightest second that Gossamer spends adjusting the microphone to her height, Annie's heart stops abruptly and picks up beating even faster than it had before.

"Welcome, welcome," chirps the woman in her irritating Capitol. Annie expects heartbreak when she hears Gossamer speak, it triggers the remembrance of every District Four tribute she has walked up onto that stage, cheering and celebrating, and then never returning home. Of course, there were those who did return, like Finnick Odair, the handsome teenager who easily passes as a man and mentors the tributes every year. He won five years ago at fourteen, shocking everyone. Annie sees him standing at the back of the stage, waiting beside an elderly, wrinkled woman propped up on her cane, and instantly is sick to her stomach – she spent his Hunger Games hiding her eyes so she didn't have to watch him spearing people to death with a trident. Gossamer reads the list of winners from District Four, and it is quite lengthy, and Annie's heart drops even further at the mention of Mr. Odair. The Capitol woman then asks who would like to be added to the list next, and particularly the older Careers cheer with excitement. "Happy Hunger Games! Now let's begin!"

"Ladies first," growls Fletcher somewhere behind her at the same time as Gossamer. Everything they listen to at the Reaping Ceremony is the same every year, and he has heard it more than any of the Cresta children.

Annie wills the woman not to reach into the large glass ball containing the slips of paper with all of the eligible girls' names in the district. But her slender hand dips inside, anyway. The brunette girl thinks she might seriously pass out. Her head is throbbing and her vision is growing blurry as Gossamer plucks a single slip of paper from the top.

"Annie Cresta!" Gossamer smiles into the microphone.

The world dissolves from under her feet and she crashes to her knees on the cobblestone. Nothing is real. Not crashing against her brother's shins, not his arms wrapping around her protectively, not the Peacekeepers finding her and ripping her away from Vance and carrying her to the stage. She drops into a heaving pile at Gossamer's feet. Annie couldn't manage to get enough air into her lungs. All that is swimming through her mind was that she was never going to see her family again.

Her green eyes scan the crowd for her family. Annie's mother has run off to her father, who had just stepped into the square. She doesn't want him to see her on the stage, she doesn't want anyone to have to see her at this moment, but she knows that every television screen in Panem is showing her face. Even if her father can't see her, Annie is on the screens all around the square. She watches Vance break down into tears, Fletcher is throwing punches at the Peacekeepers, and her other brothers – Nero, Penn, and Spensa – are rushing over to their parents.

A strong pair of hands grips her shoulders from behind, holding her still. Annie's head snaps around, eyes wide and glossed with tears. She finds herself staring into the incredible sea green eyes of Finnick Odair. His face triggers images of him poising the trident in the air, ready to strike like a poisonous snake. She scrambles away from him. Somewhere in the back of her distraught mind, Annie knows that every woman in the Capitol must think she is insane; this is a Victor with a string of lovers there and a million more fangirls absolutely drooling over him. Annie digs her nails into the stage, defensively glaring at him.

"Just relax," he whispers to her, stroking her back lightly. Finnick Odair's voice is a seductive purr that utterly enthralls her. Despite having built up a wall to brace herself from him, Annie relaxes under his fingertips. "I know it's a lot to take in right now. Just make it through the first night. Things will get easier, I promise. I'll protect you."

"No," she gasps. "No, no, no, no, no, no." Annie wants to collapse on the stage, but she keeps her eyes open for the sake of the cameras. She knows that playing weak hardly ever works well as a strategy.

Annie catches herself quickly. She is already thinking of strategies and sponsors and the Games, meaning she has accepted being shipped off to die. This isn't real, she tells herself, but Annie knows that it is and there is no helping it.

She has entirely missed the selection of a male tribute, her partner, and is now watching a monstrous young man bounce to the stage, prompting cheers from fellow Careers. Annie recognizes him vaguely, and can't place her finger on it, so she decides that she just sees him hanging around the docks before she spends too much time trying to remember something that she never really knew. She catches people chanting his name from the crowd. "Rayne Saltwood." Another pang of familiarity strikes her.

"Let's hear a big round of applause for the newest tributes of District Four!" cheers Gossamer, throwing her twiggy arms into the air in celebration. Of course she does, thinks Annie, because the Games to her are just another celebration in the Capitol."Congratulations, Annie and Rayne! May the odds be ever in your favor!"

The Justice Building is very expensive looking, with thick carpets and glossy walls and polished furniture. It was a nice distraction to Annie; it reminded her that not everything in the world was awful and ugly like the Hunger Games. She stood, crashed against her father's chest, tucked under his arm like it was the ratty old blanket she had kept on the end of her bed and wrapped herself in every night before she fell asleep. These were her last goodbyes, the last she would ever see of her parents and her brothers. Annie felt heavier, despite being thin from never having just enough food, weighed down by sorrow.

In the corner of the room, Rayne sat in an armchair, muscular arms wrapped around a little girl, maybe seven years old, with his same dark hair and bright eyes that Annie assumed was his sister. His entire demeanor had shifted from the typical, mindless, strength-driven Career to a real person before her eyes. She noticed that he didn't have parents there, meaning the girl would be left alone. Annie felt guilty.

"Take care of her while I'm gone," she told her mother, nodding to Rayne and his sister, choking on her words. Annie looked her mother in the eye and saw every night of being kissed as she was tucked into bed and rainy afternoons collecting flowers on the hillside for her and learning how to tie knots to form fishing nets from the woman flash before her.

Her mother smiled sadly at her, tears swelling in her eyes. She nodded in agreement, sniffling and wiping away tears. Mrs. Cresta threw her arms around her daughter, tugging her away from her father, and squeezing her until there wasn't a breath of air left in her lungs. Annie breathed in the woman's saltwater scent, tinged with the deliciousness of homemade bread, knowing that it was the little things she would miss the most.

"Stay strong," gulped Vance, patting his sister on the shoulder. "Someone has to."

It was hard enough the first time, all those years ago, when the girl that Fletcher had fallen for was whisked off to the Arena. Annie remembered how because her brother was depressed and heartbroken, it brought the entire family down and the Games that year took an especially hefty toll on them. None of them could bear to see him so upset, and hardly anyone could stay strong for Fletcher. Now, watching their own daughter snatched from their hands, Annie knew that her family would fall apart. She glanced at Fletcher over her mother's shoulder, and it was like the darkness had surfaced again, as he was digging into his fleshy palms with his nails and gritting his teeth to keep from crying.

Annie nodded at Vance quickly, overwhelmed with guilt for what she has brought upon her family. She wanted to throw up she was feeling so sick, but she hadn't eaten since yesterday because she was so nervous, so there was nothing in her to keep down. Annie was wrecked with remorse.

There were hardly any words to be said between the family other than bidding "I love you" to Annie. Each time the girl heard one of her siblings tell her to come home alive, she wanted to shatter into a million pieces. She wanted to scream in frustration, to tell them there was no way she would return safe and sound like they wanted her to – she wasn't skilled or strong like tributes should be. But Annie wasn't going to kill their only slim chance of hope. Maybe they were depending on the fact that District Four is well liked by sponsors in the Capitol, that maybe Annie could be saved by them since there was nothing they could do.

Annie's final hour with her family ends too quickly and soon a Peacekeeper is reaching to pull her away from her mother. The brunette haired girl scrambles away from his harsh touch in fear when Finnick Odair steps in. She stares at him in shock.

"Please, let me take care of this," he tells the Peacekeeper. Annie willingly steps away from her mother, giving the woman one last kiss on her cheek. It feels ghostly, unreal to leave. Finnick Odair wraps his arm around the girl's frail shoulders and leads her to the door. Under his touch, she begins to understand why so many women love him in the Capitol. "I told you I would protect you."

"Yes," mutters Annie, forcing herself not to glance back at her family. She can hear her mother breaking down into a sob behind her. They step outside the Justice Building and once the doors close; she is cut off from her family forever. She wants to cry, herself.

Annie, Finnick Odair, Rayne, and Rayne's mentor – the old woman, Mags – climb into a cab that will take them to the train station. This is the girl's first time ever riding in a car, since it is a luxury to ride in cars in District Four and she has always preferred the boats anyway. It was like paddling out onto the bay on the calmest morning possible.

"Please stop shaking," Finnick Odair pleas quietly, under his breath. Annie hadn't even realized that she was still quivering. She looked to her mentor, amazed by his incredible sea green eyes, apologetically.

"I'm sorry," she murmured, scooting towards the window, scooting away from him. It only provided a gap between them of several inches, but it was more than enough for Annie. "I'm sorry…"

Finnick Odair took the girl's hand in his own, brought it to his lips, and kissed her knuckles. Amusingly, he watched the girl's cheeks turn bright red innocently. "Don't be," he tells her. "I know it's awful."

"But you won!" she gasps through tears, turning to him with fury in her eyes. Annie knows that she will never return home, the fact is just taking its sweet time sinking in. She will never see her lovely family ever again, and that's what hurts her the most. "I won't be going home, er, Mr. Odair!" Annie spits out fiercely.

He grins and looks down to hide his expression, bringing his free hand up to hide his eyes. His bronze skin glows in the sunlight that now pours in through the windows, the sky having cleared. Annie's blush deepens. "Finnick," he corrects her.

She bits her lip, embarrassed. "Alright." Annie looks away from him to avoid flustering herself further, but her eye catches their hands, still entwined, resting on Finnick's thigh. She wants to pull away, but feels too comforted by his touch to risk going without it.

They arrive at the train station, only to find the platforms swarming with reporters and photographers and camera crews. Somewhere amidst the madness, the group meets Gossamer Swarm, whose duties apparently don't end at the Reaping Ceremony. She leads them through the mess, which causes Annie more stress than the whole situation is worth. The brunette watches her face up on the screens, knowing that her face is being broadcast across Panem. She appears calm on the outside, which is good, until her face falls when she notices that she and Finnick are still holding hands.

At just about the same, one of the reporters in the throng around them realizes it too and calls out, "Finnick Odair has a new plaything!"

Annie watches Finnick play it off well, just smiling and waving to several cameras before helping her board the train. Annie waits for him behind her in the slim doorway, her hand feeling incomplete without him holding it.

"I'll help you get settled," offers Gossamer kindly, extending a hand to Annie as she climbs onto the train. Finnick nods her off and Annie follows the Capitol woman down the narrow hallway. She is more anxious than ever, lightheaded and nauseous, without her mentor at her side. Her family's sobs ring in her ears and her breathing is weak and staggered.

Annie began to realize that she needed Finnick.

Thank you so much for reading! I sincerely appreciate it and hope you enjoyed it. Please review!

Disclaimer: I don't own Hunger Games.