Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with The Hunger Games series in any way, and do not hold any rights to it. I am not deriving profit from this.
The lights on the ceiling are glaring, showering the sterile room in their harsh whiteness. He remembers them too well, their power to make him want to keep his eyes closed, drifting in and out of consciousness. As a nurse scurries by with a tray of instruments, he lightly touches her forearm, whispering his request close to her ear. She gives him a sweet smile in return -of course she does, they always do- and hurries to turn down the lights a bit. Ah, this is much better.
It only buys him a second though. He still has to go forward from here in spite of his feet being glued to the ground. After days of raging at capitol officials, trying to win over doctors and coming here ten times a day only to be sent away again, it's suddenly hard to move forward. He wishes Mags were with him, but knows she wouldn't approve, doesn't approve of his being too pushy around capitol officials. She has told him countless times to rely on his charm instead, and he doesn't even want to think about how bizarre it all is, him charming "lovers" into keeping some kids from dying. That is something he pushes from his mind.
He steps up to her bed slowly, not wanting to frighten her. He remembers how she jumped about a foot into the air at their first real meeting after the reaping, just because he had tried to lighten the mood with his entrance. Great. A jumpy tribute. She doesn't startle today though.
Actually, she doesn't do anything. She just lies there, eyes wide open, palms turned upward on top of the covers, looking spread-eagled and ready to accept whatever might happen to her next. He feels that stab between his shoulder blades again, that same feeling he had when he saw her face up on the big screen as Reg lost his life, her struggling to keep afloat in the water as he had never seen her fight before. God, Reg…Annie's face… The images creep up on him every day. All the fight has clearly gone out of Annie now. How is he going to get through another year of "mentoring"?
"Hey, Annie." His voice sounds hoarse, and he clears it quickly, trying to sound the same as always to give her something familiar to hold on to. "Nice swim. There's a talent you kept from us." It comes out all wrong, but he can't really think of anything to say. It's unlike him to be so strapped for words.
He pulls up a chair and sits down next to her bed. Suddenly, he notices he's still clutching the bouquet of the little pink wildflowers he picked in his hand. There isn't anything around here to use as a vase. He slowly holds them up to her face. "I got these from the meadow outside once the guards weren't looking. Thought they might make this place look less…" There's no word for this place. "They're not from the shop, not like those perfumed, smelly-" He stops himself from using the word "mutations" because it will surely trigger a memory of the snake mutts hidden under the rocks in the arena. "Had to sneak them past those guys outside. I guess I'll leave them here and get someone to find a vase later." He puts them down on the white nightstand. They are the only bit of colour in the room besides Annie's wavy dark hair, which is framing her head on the pillow. Someone must have washed it, combed it out and cut out the worst tangles. Of course they would. Prettying her up already.
He takes a closer look at her. There are pink marks and scratches on her body where the wounds and gashes have been healed and her right check is still slightly bruised, but other than that, she looks remarkably white and clean. Too white for someone from District 4. Her skin looks much thinner than the sheet she lies on, stretching over her bones, letting blue veins shimmer through. There are dark circles under her eyes, and she has the look of all victors right after their games - emaciated, broken and utterly vacant. He almost can't look at her. A drip leads from a clear bag on a stand into her arm. Does it bring pain relief or force-feed her nutrients?
"Annie-" He breaks off. He doesn't know what to say to her without doing more damage. He knows what he has been brought here to do: Work his magic, prep her up to be a victor, do what the head doctors at the capitol have been unable to achieve with a few hearty words. They have told him that she hasn't spoken, has refused to swallow unless forced, has not moved since waking. Her reflexes are intact. Her brain is intact. (Is it?) No visible damage. The shock and hypothermia have worn off. And still, she lies here as if dead. A dead victor is no victor. He is to make her usable again. He can't tell her that she's safe, that it's all over now, because that's simply not true. So he says nothing.
"I won't do it."
"I won't! I'm not a killer."
Mags mumbles a phrase containing the words "not a choice", shaking her head sadly.
"There is. I don't kill."
"That's crazy!" Reg shouts, jumping up from his chair. "You're crazy! Might as well off yourself right away."
"Hey!" Finnick shoots him a look of disapproval, although he can't blame him for his exasperation. "Not helpful. Sit down."
"Well, if Miss Morals is afraid to get her hands dirty, fine! I'm not! Can we focus on that, please?" The scrawny boy is flushed from the wine, the food and conversation.
"…in training tomorrow…" Mags mutters, handing another bread roll Reg's way. He doesn't accept it.
"The point is, you need a strategy, both of you." He is so tired of explaining this to them. "And if someone is coming at you to kill you, Annie, you don't hesitate. You don't question it. You have to react."
She looks at him, lips pressed tightly together, sealed for further arguments. It's what she does, retreating. He can see he hasn't convinced her, but it's the expression on her face that surprises him the most. It's not defiant as such, just as if her mind has been made up. For the first time since they have started their train ride, she's not that scared little girl from 4 who used to run away from her dad's place with bruises on her. She's calling the shots.
"Fine" he says. "We'll focus on survival skills with you for tomorrow. Work a strategy around that. But you need to learn to defend yourself at the very least."
"It's not like we stand a chance, anyway" Reg spits out bitterly. "Everybody thinks so."
It's true. He can't deny that and it unsettles him that he can't, but he smiles. "And wouldn't you like to prove them wrong? Just say you come out of this a victor. I bet you those girls in your class won't be able to keep their eyes off of you." He winks at the younger boy.
"It would be lonely." Annie is pushing around the food on her plate again, oblivious to all heads in the room turning towards her. "After everyone's dead."
There's an uncomfortable silence at this, which stretches on. Finally, Mags reaches out her bony fingers and squeezes Annie's hand.
He focuses on the drip, which slowly releases drops down the tube one by one. "I'm glad you made it out" he finally says. It's the understatement of the year, but he is not so sure she even hears him. He leans in closer to her, careful not to crowd her. "It gets better, you know. It gets less real with time. Less…intense." He wants to touch her, but that might just be pushing it right now. "You'll see."
It has to get better for her. It always does after a while, right? Slowly. And Annie hasn't actually killed anyone, unlike him, unless you counted that kid she got off of her by hitting him with a piece of rock. There is no need for guilt to creep up on her every night, unless it's because she watched as the sword's blade swooped against Reg so quickly, but really, she couldn't have helped that. It was too late. She made it out. She has to get better. She can get better, because anyone who can stay afloat in ice cold water and rip currents for as long as she could has a will to live. He has to help her, now that he can. He is her mentor after all -was- although that makes him sound like some old wise man, which, clearly, he isn't. But he has been to the arena, and he can still hear Reg's scream inside his head, too.
"Mags wants to come see you. She's really proud of how you've handled everything." This part is a bit of a stretch. In fact, Mags, tough old Mags, turned from the screen and sank into a chair when one of her tributes was brutally killed and the other hid between some rocks and stayed motionless for hours, keeping up a stream of constant muttering to calm herself down. They had a fight then and there, because Mags seemed to have as good as written Annie off. She told him that he couldn't understand yet, hadn't been in this business long enough, that there was no way of helping her and that he wouldn't be able to last if he got this attached every year. He ranted at her about the cruelty of the Games and his disgust with the entire Capitol, his disgust with her even, and she clutched his arm and told him to stop being a "foolish boy" and start working in silence, because no one needed another martyr but a good brain was always needed.
He stormed off to find sponsors to get anything, food at the very least, through to Annie. It turned out no one was willing to sponsor a "crazy girl" and useless killer who, at this point, had no one betting any money on her. "Darling, you know I can't refuse you anything, but with the prices where they are now I can't just throw everything your way. She's a sweet-looking thing, but…" But just a thing, just like he is a thing, a pretty little entertaining thing to be played with and discarded as soon as the novelty wears off. He has been a good plaything who has played along, who has sometimes pretended that it's all a fun game and he a player rather than a figure. But this time, he has actually played the game willingly. His body's services bought food for Annie, and she clasped the tempting parachute to her, her hunger stronger than her apathy. And Mags looked across at him, giving him the saddest of toothless smiles.
And here they are, all part of a big spectacle, a show with just the right hinge of tragedy with the crazy loser now the winner, and everyone wanting to get a look at her. It occurs to him then that she might not be a frail, broken, sick girl at all right now, that she might, at this very moment, be resisting, defying the Capitol in her own way as she once did with her refusal to kill. If so, she had better stop this, because it's a dangerous new game. If so, they had better never find out.
"So they want to crown you victor" he says calmly, choosing his words with caution. They would be watching and listening in to his every movement in this situation. "You'll go on tour for a while and then come back. You'll get a nice, big house to yourself as well. Well, I guess you know the way it goes. But think about it - a house all to yourself." '…without your dad' he adds mentally. "You'll be free to live how you want." Clearly, he's blending reality with fiction here, invisioning a life for her. They will never, not for one minute, be free. But she will be able to survive, if she can play the Games, and the games between the Games, and never hunger or thirst for anything unlike many people. Instead, she will send other kids to their deaths year after year.
"It's not a bad life, you know. You can help people. You'll be safe. You'll never want for anything." How she must despise him, think him a shallow monster for saying this. He is almost hoping she does, because that would mean that she is still there, that there is still a piece of the old Annie here. Really, he's just babbling senselessly at this point, filling the silent void. "And I'll be there, too, and Mags. It'll be the three of us."
"You just need to rest and get well again, okay? Please. Just get well, and then things will be okay." His chest feels tight all of a sudden. Weird. He looks up to see a young, dark girl gazing at him from across the room. As he looks back, she quickly shuffles her trays and slips away, and from the bowed, rushed quality of her walk he can tell she has to be an Avox, sent to do lower level service on this ward. "When you feel up to it, we'll go outside for a walk and enjoy the sun a bit. It's been really warm these past few days. Would you like that?"
She doesn't even blink an eye, just staring ahead, trapped in her own world. Or is she? He has no idea. "All right, I'll take that as a yes. You know, you really are an excellent conversation partner."
"So how did I do?"
"Very well." Maddox replies, a grin on his face. "I particularly liked the sentimental touch - 'you can help people….just get well and things will be okay, please'." His voice gives the phrase a begging note.
Jackass. He is ready to punch Maddox in the face then and there. Instead, he simply winks at him. "Girls are my specialty. You'll see. Learn from the best."
"You'll see." He turns to walk on, to leave this depressing station, but Maddox moves to block his way.
"Don't even think about it."
"Think about what?" He's never had a problem with Maddox before, not in previous years when he's come here.
The blue-haired watchman gives him a stern look. "You know what. She's a victor. She belongs to us."
Finnick laughs as much as he can. "You're way off. Talking to her is like talking to a piece of wood. I just feel sorry for her."
Maddox makes a tutting sound in response, and his hand brushes against his safety belt in a quick motion, twitching towards his weapons.
Finnick rolls his eyes. "Cut me some slack here. How often does District 4 get a victor? This'll be huge for all of us. Of course I want her out there as soon as possible."
"Don't expect it too soon." A small grin appears around Maddox' mouth. It doesn't quite reach his eyes. "They have some surgeries to do."
"You know. Plumping her up a little, giving her breasts. Shaping some cheekbones."
"Oh that." He tries to keep his tone casual, but his jaw is tensing. "Wasting more time, I see."
"Come on, Odair. She needs to be worth her money before she goes to the highest bidder."
His mouth feels dry all of a sudden. He doesn't want to think about Annie that way. He can't think about it. It's disgusting.
"You have something to say about that?" Maddox is eyeing him carefully, clearly provoking him to get a reaction. He is walking on dangerous terrain if he has Maddox up against him already.
He shakes his head. "You don't get it, do you? This girl's selling point is that she's the underdog. She wasn't supposed to win. That's what makes people out there so hot for seeing her. If you change her look and sell her off to the highest bidder right away, where's the game? It all get lost."
"And you're the expert? What, with all your experience of coaching winners? Who was it last year, that fat girl who had such a crush on you, the supposed mentor, who-"
"Whatever you say." He doesn't want to think about Riza's kind face, pale with her eyes wide open in shock as the blood was gushing from her throat. "I'm just doing my job. And you have to admit I'm pretty damn good at it." He walks away with a lazy wave to Maddox. "You're not ruining my show."
He walks confidently with a slight swagger in his gait. He knows the slightly older man's eyes are fixed on his back like a target. Only when he reaches the sliding doors and blinks at the sudden brightness of the sunlight does he allow himself to wipe his sweaty palms on his pants. Too close. He can't allow himself to make this mistake a second time.