Hello again! Well, this is like... the conclusion to the conclusion. It's irritatingly- not satisfying, and just sort of serves as a bridge between my story and Suzanne Collins' canon stories (BLESS HER SOUL MAY SHE LIVE FOREVER SHE WHOSE CHARACTERS ARE LEGALLY HERS AND NOT MINE FOREVER AND FOREVER AMEN).

I had a lot of issues with switching verb tenses in this for some reason, so let me know if I didn't get everything fixed up correctly... One last time... Here goes... ;D

It's worth it.

Isn't it? As long as Annie never has to feel like this.

Burned up. Washed out. Like a dozen sponges are dipping into her, soaking her up bit by bit. They think I'm a never-ending spring, and aren't they going to be surprised when they hit rock bottom?

I grip the ornately carved handrail of the balcony, seven stories up, high enough to look down on the darkened streets of the Capitol below. Colorful tiles glisten in the beams of neon and streetlights and headlights, forming twinkling ribbons in the shadows. Gold necklaces draped across velvet. Pretty words for such a dismal sight. A hazy pink dawn is rising in the east, over the heavy forms of the mountains looming on all sides of the city, serving as watchtowers and strongholds- to keep us in. It's strange and wrong to watch the sun rise over snow-capped peaks and skyscrapers when just two nights ago, I saw it swallowed by the ocean's reflection as it sank.

Two nights down. I couldn't begin to tell you how many more. I lost the strength to count after a hundred or so.

A hundred. I shiver in the early morning breeze and wrap my thin robe more tightly around me, cursing silently so as not to awaken the lovely young lady still sleeping inside. Heaven forbid Finnick Odair get to wear more than a bare minimum of clothing.

None of us thought it would be a good idea to bring Annie down to the train station that morning, so I came to her house to say good-bye. It was as brief and as painful as possible, because Annie wasn't mentally there and I was afraid she wouldn't come back before I left.

I underestimated her, of course. I'll never forget her family's dropped jaws when I picked up my suitcase and stepped out onto their porch without daring a backward glance. Annie suddenly cried out and ran after me. She grabbed both of my shoulders and spun me around and she kissed me again.

Right on the lips! Bryce hissed in astonished amazement.

Right on the lips.

My hands were full and I wasn't expecting it, so she nearly knocked me down the front steps into the sand. It was the most wonderfully awkward second kiss of my life. Wonderful until we broke apart, and Annie broke down again.

She'd been in a daze the entire time I'd said farewell, her voice hollow and wooden, like she was stuck in a stranger's body. I'd have given anything to pull her out of her imaginary world and just talk with her one more time. Then I wished I had left her in peace. Annie cried and carried on and hung on for dear life. I didn't. I wanted to. But instead I was so brave, so calm and patient, quietly reassuring her that everything would be okay. I'd come back. We'd be okay.

I'd be okay.

One thing I've learned is that if you repeat a lie to yourself often enough, you start to believe it.

Back in the present tense, the door leading in to the suite slides open quietly, and my little princess herself slips out onto the balcony, shiny black hair falling in a curtain over her face. Cassandra sweeps it back over one shoulder and then tightens her sheer robe around her, purposefully tugging it down so I can get an eyeful of her brand new birthday tattoo. It's got something to do with shark teeth, I think, and it's probably supposed to be making my mouth water. Oh, well.

Cassandra sneaks around behind me and bends over, sliding her cold hands around my neck, down my chest while she nuzzles my ear. I barely catch her whispered words. Love you.

Of all the girls I've met, Cassandra has to be the absolute worst. Because the thing is, she's too young and too naive and I can't quite manage to hate her like the others. I can't quite convince myself that she's ugly, either, and the guilt is already threatening to strangle me.

I tug her down onto my lap. Love you, too. Now is the time to swallow back the nasty taste in my mouth. Cassandra leans forward until I feel hot breath on my lips, and for a moment, I'm staring into dark brown eyes that flutter shut in expectation.

All I can see are bright green ones.

I turn away from her at the last second. After everything else, one simple kiss is suddenly just too much. "I'm sorry, babe," I mutter to the tiled balcony floor. "I'm not feeling well."

It's not a lie. Exhaustion has been creeping up on me for the past several days. Snow has wasted his time planning my visits, ensuring that I get no rest, because I'm a bit of a nervous wreck anyway. Obviously, I can't go on like this forever. The girls are starting to notice something wrong, oblivious as they are. The real question isn't whether I can survive this. It's whether I can survive feeling so powerless like this.

Cassandra asks what's on my mind, and I say her, of course, but she seems to know I'm lying. I'm actually wondering just how sick heartache can make you. I'm wondering if you can die from it.

I really believed it, you know. I fully believed that it would be better, easier, to go into the Capitol, knowing that no matter what happened here, somebody loved me.

Twenty-four hours and a whirlwind train ride later, I was acquainted with the side of Capitol life that is too ghastly for even the cameras to capture. My job had always been on the cleaner side of horrid. It truly was for publicity. Polished, professional, carefully constructed so as to make each woman appear to be a passing fancy. I carried one around on each arm at public events, and if they didn't make it any further with me in our day and night together, it was their fault and not mine.

This time, my first stop off the train was some fancy nightclub named for the victor of the very First Annual Hunger Games. I'd never even heard of it before. The air was thick with smoke and lights, not polished to perfection the way I was accustomed to. There were no names there but one, two, then three pretty faces and three ritzy hotel rooms. I watched them close coins into the President's hand. There was no pretense of affection. I gave and they took.

It's different now. Everything's different.

I may or may not have gotten sick to my stomach twice there- nobody was sober enough to notice. I stumbled back to the penthouse at three o'clock in the morning, very drunk and very not sorry about it, and slammed my door violently. Screamed a thousand curses into the empty night air. Collapsed with my face smothered in a pillow.

Everything's different now. Before Annie, I never, ever cried, and why couldn't it be numb and easy the way it was before? I thought it would be easier now, knowing somebody loved me, but I found it's not easy to know anything here. Not here in the harsh real world.

And this was the real world, wasn't it? The longer I remained in the Capitol, the farther Four seemed. The beach had to be a thousand miles away and the kiss was hazy, like something in a dream world. Maybe for the first time, I really understood Annie's mental escapes. Dream worlds are softer and safer and in a dream world, I had made a kiss mean something. Surely that was what was fake. Pain like this couldn't be imaginary. I curled up in bed, hugging my knees to my chest, mind pulsing with one repetitive thought. Annie doesn't love me. Annie cannot love me. And if she ever thought she did, it was because she didn't know, she didn't understand, and nobody could stay that ignorant forever. Nobody.

I found the rope buried somewhere in the pocket of my swim shorts, frayed by the constant friction of Annie's meltdowns and mine combined. The knot that her quick fingers tied was still tightly bound up in the middle of it, unbearably tangible, and in a fit of rage I tried to rip it apart again. I couldn't. I still couldn't. I can't.

You don't know a thing about love, Annie chided me sharply in my mind, just like she had that first day on the train.

Of course I don't! I snapped back. Now I was arguing with the people in my dream worlds. Who was the crazy one again?

Dawn broke before I had futilely torn up my fingers, and the pain ebbed enough for me to pass out. I dropped off into restless sleep and missed breakfast and probably lunch by a long shot. I waited for my prep team to run in a flurry of panic because I was sure I must have transformed into the most hideous person alive.

Nobody came but Pallindra. She perched on the edge of the bed and wordlessly handed me a bowl of soup. I forced myself upright to accept it.

"Before you go see any of those girlfriends of yours today, Mr. Odair, you're going to visit Mags." That frilly woman halted my exclamation, holding up a hand in front of my bewildered face. "Don't argue. Really, she and I are sick of each other and she could use some new company. Just for an hour or so, I'm afraid you don't have any choice." There was a knowing gleam in her eyes even as her penciled eyebrows shot up, daring me to question her.

I opened my mouth to thank her, but found my eyes welling up instead.

"Oh, none of that," Pallindra said brusquely, rising to her feet.

I gripped her hand before she could turn to leave and whispered hoarsely. "Marry me."

"Finnick!" she scolded sharply. It was a joke but it wasn't a proper one. I didn't care, her horrified face was such a wonderful distraction from the heart-numbing reality I was facing.

"Nobody has to know," I choked out between outbursts of laughter. "We can elope. Run away together. Come back!"

The slam of the door rattled my bed springs. Life went on, I supposed, fingering the very real rope in my hands. That knot that had become impossible for me to untie.

You don't know a thing about love, Annie whispered. This time, her tone was very tender.

Then by all means, chickadee, teach me.

"Finnick." Cassandra's irritated tone jolts me out of my reverie. She leans back and folds her arms across her chest. "I'm still here."

The sky is ablaze in orange and pink overhead. There's a long silence as I watch her face and realize how big of a window I have just missed with her, staring out at the sunrise wistfully. She's still waiting for something I don't have to give to her.

She leaps off my lap, hands on her hips, eyes flashing furiously. I've really done it now. "Baby…"

"You still love her," Cassandra snarls in an instant accusation. Her voice is ice and it sends chills snaking down my spine. Surprisingly, I've never had this one thrown at me before, because very few of the girls are naïve enough to believe that they are my only love.

"Which her?" I ask with a smirk, even as my heart sinks, because of course there have been so many I could never possibly remember one in particular.

"You know who!" she snaps. "The victor girl."

I give a loud, haughty laugh. "You've got to be joking, babe!" I wrap an arm around Cassandra's waist and tilt her chin toward me. "Why the heck would I want that lunatic when I can have anything and anyone I want?"

I want to be home with her. Nothing else.

Cassandra snorts, nostrils flaring hotly. "You called her name last night. 'Annie! Annie!'" she cries out, mockingly. My heart just comes to a standstill. "'Annie, don't cry!' That's what you said!"

No. No, I've never talked in my sleep before. And yet… somehow I don't doubt it a bit. Because I haven't stopped calling for Annie since the train pulled out of District Four.

Could there have been a worse moment to be overheard? She's the president's niece, and I have disappointed her. I'm going to suffer for it. Annie will suffer. He'll have her killed… Her family…

"What do you want?" I hiss under my breath.

Cassandra drops into the chair beside me and buries her face in her hands. "What do I want?" she repeats miserably. "What do you want, Finnick? Go home. Just go home to her. I don't want you here anymore."

She doesn't mean it. There's no way. The snake's child is spewing poison, and I'm a dead man now.

Cassandra starts crying then, and I stare at her blankly, bewildered and terrified because she holds my most precious secret in her hands and now she's completely cracking up. Do I break every girl that I touch?

"Baby, let's just forget all this. You know how I feel about you," I tell her in a silky voice, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. Maybe there's some chance she's foolish enough to let it go if I can distract her. "You're wearing that perfume I like, aren't you? The lilac blossoms?" I sniff her hair and lean in toward her mouth, but this time, she is the one who pushes me away.

"All right? It is not all right!" Cassandra shrieks. She sobs and wraps her arms around herself tightly. "Don't lie to me. You don't want to be here any more than I do. Do you think I'm too stupid to know that?"

Her cries are piercing my eardrums. "I can make you forget this…" I stroke her cheek lightly, although my own breathing is becoming very shallow. "You have money, of course... Fame. You want to be famous? Finnick Odair's new girlfriend? Name it. Anything you want. I have everything."

My voice cracks then. I have nothing.

"Anything I want? People think they know everything I want. Do you think I want to live here under the President's shadow my entire life? With his political legacy passed on to me like I'm his daughter? Like he can replace my father." She chokes on her own words, tears branding black streaks of makeup down her cheeks.

"Your father?" My heart rate slows to the point where I can move and breathe again. "What are you talking about, baby?" I don't have to force the sympathy into my voice.

Cassandra glares at me through red-rimmed eyes, a terrifying sight with the black stains surrounding them. "Oh, I'm sorry," she snaps sarcastically. That's another thing I'm not supposed to mention. My father was a politician, too, you know. A good one. I guess he got a little too good." She hiccups, still hugging herself tightly. "He killed him. President Snow killed my father." And then she adds with a bitter, trembling smile, "Shhhh. Don't tell."

The words slap me across the face. What have I stumbled upon here? A horrendous family scandal of epic proportions. What has it cost them to keep this quiet? Nearly everything, I'm sure.

"I shouldn't say any more," Cassandra murmurs through her tears. "Knowledge is power, and you know what happens to powerful people here."

Powerful people fight for everything they care about here, that's what happens. Powerful people rebel. Some of them lose. Maybe some grow stronger. Maybe we find allies in the unlikeliest of places.

Maybe powerful people go home.

One thing I know. A secret this valuable can't be alone. What will it cost them to know why his breath smells like blood?

"Oh, baby," I murmur, pulling Cassandra's head down onto my shoulder, stroking through her lilac-scented hair comfortingly. "Tell me everything."

Finnick loves _.

Finnick loves _A_.

Finnick loves _An_.

Finnick loves _Ann_.

Finnick loves _Anni_.

Finnick loves _Annie_.

Shhhh, don't tell.

Thanks for reading, everybody! I love you all! *physics-defying hugs and kisses* I don't have any plans at the moment for a sequel, with school and life and all, but I love these characters too much to leave them alone forever. So if you follow me I'm gonna try some one-shots, most likely. Thanks for the reviews and the encouragement and making me so wonderfully awesomely welcome on this site! :'D :'D Happy writing!

EDIT: 1/12/2015- I finished this story 2 and a half years ago, and today it hit 500 reviews! I looked over the story for the first time in years, and there's so much that I still love about it and so much that I would change if I wrote it today... (and so many typos that I never corrected!) Thank you all SO MUCH for your feedback in spite of all that, and thanks for just being awesome readers! I was so encouraged by this, and I'm actually working on my first novel now, something I never would have had the confidence to attempt before discovering this website. Seriously, I love you all and thanks for reading! Now go and follow your dreams! :D