AN: Thanks to all readers, followers, subscribers, and those who've favourited, bookmarked, and gave kudos to this story. Special thanks to my reviewers: Juliet's Shadow, axes tridents and snares, jc52185, and Anla'shok. You're all awesome.

Disclaimer: All belongs to Suzanne Collins. Just borrowing.


Part One - Children of The Islands

Chapter Five: Friends

"Finnick has applied to volunteer for the Sixty-Fifth Games."

That stunned her. Finnick. Her friend Finnick. Volunteering for the Sixty-Fifth Games, which would be...

Just in a couple of months.

"But it's this year!" she hissed at her father. "How can it all be, Papa? He'll lose it!"

Seriously, it was ridiculous. Finnick was just fourteen. Though the rules said all children between twelve and eighteen were eligible to be picked, they hadn't yet had any Victor younger than fifteen so far. Especially these last years.

Bram looked sadly at Johanna.

"It's not yet certain he'll be picked," he told her. "Most likely he won't. There are older boys in The Academy."

He paused and inhaled, before continuing, "he'd taken the dowry from The Academy, though. He would need to stay with them until he's eighteen."

Each children accepted into The Academy was rewarded with some amount of money for their trouble, straight from The Head Trainer and The District Mayor's pockets. They called it the dowry, and it was pretty much a binding contract. The only way to get out would be to pay it back. Johanna knew of a couple of teenagers who'd backed out. The Academy made sure their names were released, that the whole district know of the "cowards" as they called it.

Johanna sighed. Finnick was definitely being an idiot here.

"I'll get Reuben to talk to your uncle once he's calmed down," her father said, pulling her into a hug. "Would be great if you can keep Finnick company, though. He's definitely really sad."

- The - Guardian -

When Johanna approached Finnick at the dock the next morning, "keeping him company" wasn't much more than a wistful plan than it was a real intention.

All truth told, she was feeling pretty apprehensive. She didn't appreciate the way he'd made her feel the previous day. The way he'd dug the guilt even deeper in her. The way he'd pushed her off. The way he'd spoken to her, as if she was the shark mutt.

The way he'd become an idiot and applied to volunteer.

"Odair," she greeted him, firm and angry, as he walked past her. "I heard you're doing something."

He stopped and turned to her.

"Yes I am," he said, sure as fire. "I'm doing what I can to help my brother."

Somehow, it stung her.

"You should have told me!" she snapped at him, pushing aside that guilt he'd again instilled in her. "I could've talked to my uncle! You don't have to be a Victor yourself!"

There was a change in the air as he stepped forward towards her. Being two years older, Finnick had always been taller, and he'd grown up even more these past two years that he had several good inches on her. The top of her head barely reached his chin as they stood face-to-face, but she'd never felt bigger and braver than this, standing up against him.

"Then why haven't you done it?" he challenged her.

"Your Dad didn't want it."

That conversation between his father and her uncle replayed in her head as she said that, each and every word as it was that day. If it wasn't for Reuben Mellark's refusal, they would've gotten Peeta a better leg. They wouldn't need to scrap around like this. Finnick wouldn't have needed to sign up for The Academy.

Johanna might be at fault for planning that fateful outing, but it was the boys' father's fault that Peeta hadn't gotten the best of legs now.

She looked up to meet Finnick's eyes, and straight away felt that sharp hostility he aimed towards her.

"You're talking my Dad here," he said, sounding much older and harsher than the Finnick she knew. "How about yourself? You could have arranged it yourself, Mason. Be responsible for it. You're such a kid."

"And what are you?" she sassed out at him. "A warrior or something?"

He averted her gaze.

"Just trying to do something," he finally said, his voice breaking. "I just need to do something."

Their school ferry chose that very moment to dock in, honking its horn hard in an effort to round them all. Johanna relented and get on it with Finnick, as he resignedly follow her a couple of steps behind.

"We'll go talk to Uncle Haymitch when he's back," she told him quietly, as they took their favourite seats at the back. "He'll be able to do something. We'll find a way to pay The Academy back."

"Johanna!"

He sounded so ruffled, that she couldn't help but shrinking down a bit in fear as he grabbed her arm.

"I'm no coward," he told her. "I can't break that promise. I will volunteer as I said."

He looked around, as if afraid that someone was watching them, then released her.

"I know you're scared," he whispered. "I'm scared too. But I've got to do this, Jo. Please let me. Now, let's be friends again?"

He offered his pinky finger at this, waiting for her to take it with hers.

"Friends again," she agreed, her need for his friendship and her desperation to redeem herself in his eyes defeating the strengths of her resolve.

- The - Guardian -

One afternoon, a couple of weeks after they decided to be friends again, Johanna found herself waiting for Finnick at The Academy's terrace just for the sake of it.

Like the rest of the gray, cold-looking building, the terrace was stiff and unwelcoming. The floor Johanna now sat at - having found no seats to sit on at all - was hard and cold, totally uncomfortable. It didn't help that she was in her school uniform, either. The skirt and stockings did little to ward off the cold, or the dampness left by that light rain around lunchtime.

She'd been here for a while now, having headed here after the school librarian kicked her out. The small library closed at four thirty in the afternoon - an hour earlier than the end of Finnick's training session. The Marketplace was ramping down too when she got there, thus The Academy was her only choice. Located right near the piers, it was a pretty safe place, so she guessed it wasn't that bad. After all, she would only be there for thirty or so minutes.

Supposedly.

It was now forty five minutes past five o'clock, and there was no sign that the activities inside was winding down. Johanna could still hear the coaches - some of the past Victors - barking orders inside, getting all those candidates to 'move faster' or 'fight better'. And it tempted her damn hard, for strangely it sounded like fun. They seemed to have a lot of fun roughhousing in there, all laughter and playful jibes and other things. The kind of play that Johanna liked.

The window over her head flung open. Startled, she looked up, straight into the eyes of Dorian Waverider. That Victor she saw at Fire Island, the night Finnick's volunteering came into light.

"Miss Mason," he said, in this somewhat-too-sweet voice. "Didn't know you were here. Finally making up your mind for volunteering?"

Of all the possible causes Dorian Waverider could have, getting Johanna - and Katniss, in that matter - to join The Academy was high up in his list. There had been countless times when he would drop by at Uncle Haymitch's place when them girls were there, bringing up some supposedly fresh food and throwing compliments at their postures and agilities. A dead set hint that he wanted them as part of his academy, though he must have known by now how uninterested they - and their father and uncle - were about that.

"Not yet, Mr. Waverider," Johanna answered. If it was up to her, he wouldn't have called this faker 'Mr. Waverider', but there was this expectation she had to live to. Her mother had always taught her to be polite. "I'm just waiting for a friend."

"Finnick Odair, isn't it?" Waverider asked. There was some kind of smile on his lips, the kind of smile Johanna noticed on people's face when they were hiding something else.

"Yep," she answered him. "Could you estimate when the training would be over, Mr. Waverider? I can just come back later, if this bothers you."

"Soon," he said. "You might wait right there, Miss Mason. It's a little bit too late for a quiet stroll around."

And soon it was - if the definition of 'soon' was fifteen minutes. At three minutes past six, the stark-white door flung open, and out poured the volunteer candidates. Boys and girls of all ages, some smaller than Katniss and some much older they were practically adults. Johanna watched them dispersing - in their small groups - towards their own homes and towards the piers. Those last few public ferries transporting cannery workers from the mainland to their home islands were docking there now. The Islanders had exactly twelve minutes to get to their respective wharves, before those ferries departed.

"Finnick!" she waved for her friend, as soon as his bronze head appeared. "Here!"

There was this surprise in his face as he turned to face her. No, not surprise. He looked a little mortified.

"Jo," he finally said, stepping aside to join her. "What are you doing here?"

"Waiting for you," she answered him, honest and frank. "We're friends again, right?"

"Yeah," he said. "But you should just go home without me. It's..."

Johanna paid no attention to what he said next, for she saw something else that moment. There, behind Finnick, stood a girl. Long, dark hair, green eyes, and a kind expression on her face, Johanna immediately recognized her. Annie Cresta, one of her classmates from school. A Mainlander - and a very unlikely candidate for volunteering.

"Hey," she waved, now that they'd locked eyes and it was impossible to just ignore it all.

"Hey Johanna," Annie answered, her voice shy and small. Johanna knew this girl wasn't much for words. They'd been sitting next to each other in some of their classes, and Annie had barely said a word to her.

"Oh, right!" Finnick exclaimed, clapping his hands together. "Of course you're in the same class! Well, we can hang around together at lunch now!"

So, apparently, Annie Cresta was also Finnick's friend now.

"Well, sure," Johanna found herself answering. She didn't mind Annie Cresta at all. How could she mind someone who hadn't been more than kind and quiet throughout their acquaintance? Annie Cresta was a much better option than those Mainland Bullies or loneliness - or getting Finnick angry again at her because she rejected his new friend.

"Set!" Finnick exclaimed. "Let's start this thing tomorrow!"

Annie beamed at him. And that moment, Johanna regretted agreeing to the lunch plan. She didn't know what happened, really, but that jealousy triggered again. It felt wrong, thinking something ill about someone as nice as Annie Cresta, but she couldn't help it. Especially when she knew that the girl was Finnick's new best friend now, someone with whom he'd shared something he couldn't share with Johanna.

The jealousy stayed on as she made her way down to the wharf, with a somewhat-giddy Finnick in tow. It was there as they get on that last ferry to Fire Island, so much that she didn't even give any damn to Finnick's stories and jokes. It was there as Finnick walked her home, happily chattering about those things he'd learned in The Academy that day, and something about fighting one of the Mainland Bullies.

"Oh, damn this, Mason," he eventually snapped, after trying to catch her attention a tenth time or so. "Are you the one who's mad now? What is it this time?"

She halted and looked away.

"Jo? Mason? What did I do wrong?"

"No wonder you've been ignoring me," she barged on. Her chest tightened. It was almost like losing her mother again - this feeling of having someone important taken away. She should have known that there had been a new friend when Finnick didn't continue with their lunches together. When he spent a couple of extra hours in the Mainland after his Saturday trainings. When the only time they spent together nowadays was the ferry ride and Sunday afternoons when their sisters had playdates.

"What?" he chuckled out. "You jealous?"

"Shut up," she snapped. "I'm not in love with you."

Now, that was a lie. But Johanna wasn't going to tell Finnick she liked him. She wanted him to say it first. That way, she could never lose.

"There's friend-jealousy too, you know," Finnick chuckled out again. "And you're definitely having it now."

"Okay," she relented. "I am friend-jealous."

There was another chuckle, then a pair of strong arms pulling her into a friendly hug. Seemed like he thought she was wrong.

"Jo," he told her. "I befriended Annie because she needs it. She started in The Academy around the same time I did, and she's really scared about things. I'm just trying to keep her going."

"What about me?" Johanna asked, murmuring onto his shirt.

He pulled away and grasped her arms, planting a light kiss on her head.

"You're still my best friend," he said, his voice steady and sure. "Best friends forever?"

There were two pinky fingers offered this time, symbols of unbreakable promise.

"Best friends forever," she relented, taking both those fingers for 'best friends forever' was better than 'strangers'.


Thanks for reading! I'll try to put up the next chapter in a couple of days, but my travel has been crazy so far I can't guarantee when 'in a couple of days' would exactly be. Stay tuned, though! :)