"Girl. Girl, wake up."
Katniss jerked to awareness at the voice that prompted her.
It sounded gruff, and oddly familiar. She made an attempt to open her eyes, but it felt as if they had been sealed shut with a stapler.
Images swirled and raced behind her closed eyelids, and for some reason, they were tinted with orange. Shattered buildings. The Peacekeeper. Chaff. Gun, blood across the dirt.
The memory knocked into her heart like a piercing bang, and her eyes tore open, despite the rawness that scraped at her tender eyelids.
When her gaze could focus, the first thing she saw was Haymitch's haggard face, and lanky dark hair that drifted about his strained stare. His jaw was impossibly tense. Under the dirty rags of his clothes, his paunchy torso heaved visibly.
She frowned slightly. "Haymitch?" her hands pushed at the ground - the layers of dirt - while she struggled to sit up. "What are you -"
"I've come back," he cut her off. "Too late."
She stared at him, after managing to push her back off the ground and lean back on her elbows. Then, her fearful stare traveled across their surroundings.
The sky was still black. The early crowd and commotion had completely disappeared, leaving their surroundings almost peaceful - save for the lingering fire that still crackled on top of the ruins here and there, the fire squad men that were trying to put them out, and the few bodies that littered the ground in her peripheral vision.
Her limbs froze. When her eyes landed on Chaff's dark skin and stretched out body, her heart plummeted and shattered in her guts. She wanted to throw up again.
"Chaff," she whispered. Her eyes stung and filled with tears, and she turned away, unable to take the sight anymore. "He's dead."
Haymitch didn't say anything back. His face was lined with rue. He merely gave a shake of his head; the movement was almost imperceptible.
"He saved me," she continued to say, while tears trailed down her cheeks. "Why did he come back?"
It took Haymitch a while to answer her. "He was the one that saw you. Left behind in the crowd. He didn't like leaving people behind. Didn't believe in it, even though we're all hard-pressed to survive this damn war ourselves."
War. Was that really what they were caught in?
"He didn't owe me anything," she croaked. "We've just met."
Haymitch smiled mirthlessly. Katniss wished he wouldn't, because the expression looked odd, almost misshapen in the shadows of the night and fire.
"Chaff doesn't do anything because he thinks he owes people something. He does them because he is... him." He waved his hand around exasperatedly, as if frustrated with the lack of a more adequate term. "You made quite an impression on all of us. The Capitol girl, who sacrificed her wealthy, comfortable little life and her safety to save a District mutt. How many times do you meet someone like that, huh?"
"You're not mutts," she said. Her voice was strangely empty.
Haymitch scoffed. "We all are, in the Capitol's eyes."
"Well, because it's blind."
He looked at her then. "Well, I can't argue with that," he drawled.
Katniss glanced down at her knees. The bruised skin was visible through her torn tights. At least she still had her jacket on, the only thing that shielded her from the unforgiving winds tearing through the dead of this night.
"So you've come back too," she muttered, "To see your friend, I suppose."
"Well, I followed him. I could barely even see him in that goddamn chaos; didn't even fucking realize he was gone until it's too late. Just kinda ran and stumbled around 'til I found both of you here." He ran a hand over his face, a tremor wracking his shoulders. "I closed Chaff's eyes. Who shot him?"
Katniss' shoulders convulsed. She willed herself to glance around, until she found the Peacekeeper too, sprawled across the ground. "That one. Over there."
Haymitch looked at where she pointed. "Well, at least the fucker's dead." he noted with grim satisfaction. "How'd that happen? Did Chaff kill him? No, he couldn't have. He didn't have a gun..."
"No, I did." Katniss said in a small voice. "I shot him with his own gun. The Peacekeeper, I mean."
Haymitch's eyes widened. "No shit?" he rumbled in disbelief. "May I ask how?"
She swallowed the cotton in her throat. Her brain chewed over the words while she fought to sort through her own memory.
"I pretended to give into him and knocked the gun out of his hand. We struggled and he hit me a couple of times, but I still managed to get that gun first. I had to shoot him. He left me no choice."
"Well, fuck me sideways. You're something, sweetheart, aren't you?" Haymitch mused. "You ever killed anyone before?"
Wordlessly, she shook her head.
"Well, I'll be damned. You're a fighter, you know. You're tougher than you look."
She narrowed her eyes at that. "Thanks," she said flatly.
Haymitch studied her.
"You just may be able to live through this," he said, and the gruffness seemed to seep out of his voice. "You're a survivor, aren't you?"
Katniss didn't know how to respond to that. Exactly what was she surviving? What was she in for?
"Live through what?" She asked him. Her eyes searched his weathered face, long and hard, as if it could open up and offer her the answer she craved. "I know something's going on. I know some Districts are rebelling against here. But what's the extent of it, Haymitch? Do you know?"
Haymitch rubbed at his brow. "The extent of it. Didn't the virtuous Capitol ever tell you anything?"
His patronizing tone, coupled by his half-smirk, made her glare at him.
"I think they tried to hide what's going on," she admitted grudgingly, "Although they couldn't hide all of it."
"Hmph." He huffed. "Well. I guess that's what the government is so bloody good at. Hide things from the people they're s'pposed to protect."
"All the good that's done." Her fingers curled, the dirt further burrowing into her nails. "What's the point of this hiding? We're all getting screwed, anyways."
Haymitch let out a barking laugh at that. He raised an eyebrow at her.
"Screwed. Well, you're only beginning to taste what it means, sweetheart."
Her jaw tightened at that. She didn't need Haymitch to remind her of that, especially in that stupid, borderline smug tone of his. "Don't call me sweetheart," she snapped. "My name is Katniss."
"No? Not fond of nicknames? Well, okay then, Katniss." He emphasized her name deliberately. She rolled her eyes, facing away from him. "To answer your earlier question, there is a point to all their hiding. They don't want a riot here, on top of what they have to deal with in the Districts. An ignorant flock is much easier to contain."
Katniss couldn't help but glance back at him then. He shrugged.
"What, you think the Districts are the only places that the government's trying to control? No, girl. It's trying to control every damn person in the Capitol too. Just in a different way."
Katniss stared up at the bottomless, pitch black void that was the sky. Abruptly, she thought about the monitors that followed people everywhere, like the ones she saw at the entrance to Snow's party - containing all of their information and flashing it at a moment's notice.
"Maybe that's true," she murmured. Then, her voice gained more force behind it, but barely. "But you still didn't answer my question. Just how far along is the rebellion? You must know more than I do."
"What makes you think I want to tell you that?" Haymitch replied, "You may be the oddest girl I've ever seen - trust me, I'm saying that in a good way - but you're still from here. How do I know you won't use anything I say against me?"
Katniss couldn't contain her snort. "Use it against you? How?" she asked, "I'm not on their side, Haymitch."
"You're still one of them. Born and bred."
"One of them?" she echoed hollowly. "I betrayed the law to help a District boy. I lied to save him, even though I was told I will face severe punishment for it. I killed a Peacekeeper. I think I'm officially on Capitol's shit list right now."
Haymitch's brows shifted. Then, to her surprise, he broke into something that almost resembled a smile. A genuine one.
"True. I suppose that kinda makes you a friend to us." he said wryly, "Seems it's kind of hard for them to tame you, isn't it, sweetheart?"
"Don't call me sweetheart," she repeated. "And no, I won't let them control me."
As she said that, a flare of resentment rose up like a tidal wave inside her chest. That was what they tried to do. They tried to control her, and when they didn't get what they want, they did everything they could to intimidate her. They presented this sense of peace, security and wealth to those who believed them - but it was all a facade, a thin surface to cover the image of the rest of the country starving. "I hate the Capitol. I hate what Snow's done to this country. If I betrayed you, it'll be a slap to my own face."
Haymitch rested his chin on top of his fist, and he rubbed a thumb over his cracked lip. His pensive, gray gaze pierced through her, as if he were trying to gauge the contents that rattled inside her brain. It unnerved her. But she stared back at him, almost defiantly, refusing to back down or retract her statement - which was probably what he wanted her to do.
Finally, the hard lines that etched across the corners of his lips relaxed.
"You know what? Maybe this is a foolish thing to say," he said quietly, "But I'm willing to believe you."
It had become a day and a half since Katniss had last seen food. A couple of withered apples that had hung from a tired-looking tree.
She had been travelling with Haymitch for the past two days, since that fateful night. They were in search of two people, named Bonnie and Twill, whom Haymitch said he was acquainted with. Apparently, they lived in a cabin north of the woods that surrounded the Capitol.
Katniss followed him, because she had nowhere else to go right now. She didn't have the means to get anywhere, either, because not a slip of money was left on her. All that remained were her beat-up, increasingly dirty clothes.
As she looked at Haymitch now, she tried not to cringe at his dirty appearance. His hair was strung together with grease, and he smelled like garbage and sweat when she was close to him. But she supposed she couldn't really judge - she couldn't be in much better shape than he.
Their conversation from two nights ago remained swirling in her mind, replaying in broken fragments at random moments. It was when he told her what he knew about the rising rebellion.
"If everything pulls through, I don't think there will be a Capitol in a few years, to put it simply. Maybe even just two years, if not one. More than half of the Districts are in on this now, even some of the poorer ones. Especially the poorer ones."
The shock of his words had felt like a volt of electricity, scorching and reverberating through her, while she used a thick rock to finish carving out the space they later used to bury Chaff.
Maybe she should have expected to hear something like this. After all, everything she had seen were adding up - the production halt in District Eight, the desperate way people fought back in District Seven, the bombs that were dropped right here in the city.
But that made it no less awakening, to hear the rebellion was gaining strength at such rapid speed, instead of being just the series of scattered events that she'd seen. As much as she despised it here, and as much trouble as she was in, this was the only home she had ever known. Her family lived here.
What would happen to them, if the rebels infiltrated the city?
"In one or two years?" she had braced herself to ask him, "Is that really possible? It's not the first time a rebellion is attempted."
"Well, it's different this time around. People are a lot more prepared," he had replied, "They know what to expect. The previous rebellion was a disaster, but all the shed blood have bought them some very valuable lessons about how not to make the wrong strategies. Do you know that rebels are planted everywhere in the city right now? Even in the government? Even close to our beloved President, undetected?"
"You seem to know a lot about this," she told him, after he divulged all of that to her. She hadn't missed the way his eyes shined, when the topic of the rebellion breached his lips.
"Not everything. But I guess you can deduce by now that I was a part of it, too. I am part of it."
After they escaped from the land that surrounded the prison, they ran through the night. They ran, until the orange, watery light of dawn broke out and splashed into the sky, and the residential area was far behind them. They did not stop, for fear of encountering a Peacekeeper, until they reached the dense, unguarded woods that littered the edge of the city.
It was there that they collapsed, and decided to rest for a few hours before moving on. Katniss was debating the merit of finding a more comfortable room up in a tree, but her legs decided that was a stupid idea for her; her calves creaked with pain from the tenuous, non-stop exercise it had through the night. So for the first time, she found out what it was like to sleep sitting in the dirt, her back against the scratchy bark of a tree.
During her fitful sleep, she thought of her parents. She tried not to imagine how scared Prim must be right now, but failed. And a dull pain gripped her chest, every time she wondered if Peeta ever made it to District Ten or Eleven.
Now, almost two days later, she wasn't sure how much longer she could go on. She realized she didn't truly know the meaning of hunger, until now.
There were plenty of trees, but most of them were high up, and signs of fruit or any other edible things were sadly lacking. Bird chirps filled the space around them, and now and then, some squirrel scattered about. Haymitch tried to catch them when they appeared, but they seemed to sense the humans before he could get within five feet of them.
She couldn't help but think if she had her bow, she might be able to shoot something. Besides the apples they found at the beginning, they were hard-pressed to even find any edible roots, not that Katniss knew a whole lot about them. When she had found a bunch of plump, bluish black berries among a blanket of leaves, she was initially overjoyed. Until Haymitch told them those were called Nightlocks and would kill her before they reached her stomach.
At least dehydration wasn't a critical issue. It rained sporadically in this forest, with the last bout being a couple of hours ago. The water helped stave off the hunger, but only for a short while.
Her limbs were shaking, from the lack of nutrients to sustain the strength in them.
"I'm so hungry," she said faintly. Her footsteps were faltering. She hated herself for saying this, like Haymitch didn't already know and wasn't starving like her. But she just didn't know how much longer she could take it. Her stomach hurt; hunger pressed down on its insides like a relentless beast, squeezing an acidic taste into her throat.
"I think we're almost there," Haymitch informed her. Even his voice had lost its slightly snarky edge at this point. He just sounded exhausted. Exhausted to the bone. "This part of the woods is starting to look familiar to me."
"You know, if you've been here before, why don't you know more about how to find food in the woods?" she asked. She wanted to snap at him, but that would take too much energy and she had to reserve it for walking.
"Well, I'm sorry, Miss Katniss," he bit back. "It's not like I pranced my way through here many times before. I've been here once with Chaff, and we had food with us. I haven't exactly gone a-livin' in the wild with the squirrels and the monkeys before."
"Great," she grumbled. "I wish there were monkeys. At least they'd be easier to catch. Bigger."
"Oh no. Monkeys are sneaky motherfuckers. Not to mention potentially vicious, too," he replied.
"I was joking, Haymitch," she droned. For a moment, she almost had to stop, because her head started to swim with dizziness. The streams of sunlight weaving through the leaves and creating spots in her vision wasn't helping, either.
"Sorry, my sense of humor is getting lost somewhere in the fuckin' trees behind us." He groused. Then, he must've noticed the expression on her face. "Hey, you okay?"
She blinked, and pressed her thumb to her temple. "Yeah," she mumbled, "I'm okay."
"You want to take a rest?" he proposed, "You look like you're about to keel over. For a little girl, I'm surprised you made it this long without complaining or crying. Well, besides complaining that's made at my expense."
She shrugged. "How else do I entertain myself?" she asked. It was almost an attempt at teasing, but her voice fell flat at the end.
He shot her an unimpressed look. "You're a pain in the ass, sweetheart."
"Don't call me sweetheart," she said, almost automatically.
"I like the reaction it gets outta ya."
Katniss rolled her eyes. "Whatever," she said bleakly, "I just hope we find this Bonnie and Twill soon."
About another thirty to forty minutes later, Katniss leaned against a tree trunk heavily, her eyes downcast while sweat beaded along her temples. She really didn't think she could walk a step further. Everything in her body felt like they'd melted into like jelly, even her bones.
Haymitch stopped a few feet in front of her. A minute of silence passed between them, while Katniss bore the sharp pangs of hunger, which had become her constant companion, and listened to the staccato rhythm of her own breaths.
"Look," Haymitch said, and pointed ahead of them. "It's there. I see it. Shit, I think we found the place, girl."
"The cabin?" Her head perked up, and her desperate gaze trailed to where he indicated. You better not be fucking with me, Haymitch.
He wasn't. Sure enough, she saw the outline of a small, wooden house a distance away from them, more than half of it hidden by the trees in their path. But still visible.
"There it is," Haymitch let out a swoop of victory, and even his grievously low voice was lifted with spirit. "There it is."
The sight of their end goal, so gloriously close in front of them, refilled Katniss with a heady rush of energy. She almost felt like weeping in relief.
Food. She could almost taste it, sliding down her tongue into her hollow stomach.
Maybe even a bed.
Their ragged footsteps echoed against the forest floor, while they tried not to stumble toward the cabin.
"Shit, I'm dying for some white liquor," Haymitch noted, "And a hot pie."
As they got closer and closer, more of the cabin was revealed to them. To Katniss, it looked like a dismal, square block made entirely out of peeling gray wood, with a smudged window squeezed under the overhanging logs. The only thing that looked painted was its door, which Katniss suspected had once been white, instead of the rust and yellowish peeled paint that ran all over it now.
The place almost looked abandoned, if not for the piles of wood that were stacked right next to the house - and the faint trace of smoke rising from one of the piles, indicating that it was recently used to create fire.
Fire. Maybe used for cooking.
There was no porch attached to the cabin, and their path to the door was littered with dirt, scattered dead leaves and wood shavings. Nonetheless, they followed along this path dutifully.
In no time, they came to an abrupt stop in front of the door, the overhanging logs offering them little protection against the glare of the sun that beat down on the earth.
"Sweet merciful fuck, we're finally here." Haymitch breathed in deeply. Then, he gave the door three hearty knocks, rattling its frame, and bellowed out,
No one answered in kind, but they heard a loud noise from inside. Like chair legs scraping against the concrete floor.
"Open up! It's Haymitch!" he glanced at Katniss, before adding, "And my companion!"
Katniss' heart was in her throat. She stared at the door silently, willing it to open.
They heard footsteps echoing inside, getting louder and louder. Her hands shook by her side. She hoped her presence wouldn't startle this Bonnie and Twill, whoever they might be.
The door flung open. Before either of them could even breathe out a word, a gun was pointed directly at their faces, its end darting between the two of them.
The anticipatory smirk fell from Haymitch's face. Katniss had to stifle a scream.
A Peacekeeper was the one holding it. He didn't remotely look like any of the women they were expecting to see. He wasn't wearing a helmet, but his severe white uniform with the glinting metal plate was unmistakable.
"You two," he barked, and brandished the weapon at them some more. His dark eyes glinted under a heavy set of brows. "Who are you?"
Please let this be a joke, Katniss thought wildly, as she and Haymitch started to back away, slowly, on shaky legs. This was just a friend of Bonnie or Twill's, pretending to be a Peacekeeper as a safety measure, right?
The Peacekeeper got out of the door too, and started to advance on them. "Who are you!" he hollered again.
"Haymitch, is this a joke?" the words flung out of her, before she could stop them. She couldn't take this shit anymore. "This isn't very funny!"
Haymitch stumbled a little in his path, before he found his footing again. Katniss didn't look at him, because she couldn't spare to take her eyes off of the uniformed man, and that bloody gun, which she found herself at the receiving end of again.
"It's not," Haymitch sounded short of breath. "What happened to two women who live here?" he addressed the gun-wielding man.
The man scoffed. "The two women who lived here, you mean," he said. "They were rebels. Traitors to the country. They tried to run, when I found them. I shot one of them, right here," he pointed to his chest, his teeth bared. Then, he added sourly, "I didn't get the other little bitch."
Katniss didn't even feel her jaw drop open, until the painful mouthful of airs filtered into her own lungs. She couldn't help but risk a glance at her companion. Haymitch looked like he had the wind knocked out of him. His face was completely bloodless.
"You bastard," he slung at the Peacekeeper. "You complete, utter, heartless son of a bitch."
At the insult, the man's lips twisted into a gnarled shape. He was clearly nettled.
"Tell me one reason that I shouldn't shoot you right now," he tightened his grip on the rifle again, and pointed it straight at Haymitch this time. "You knew those two women, yeah? That must mean you're a traitor too, and your little friend here. D'you know the country's big on collecting traitors' heads right now? I'll get a big reward for it." He sneered, and his eyes raked over the pair of them. "And you just sent yourselves straight to me. This is too easy."
Katniss closed her eyes, before reopening them. Her arms dangled by her sides. They might have fumbled for something to defend herself, if there was anything other than the dirt beneath her feet. She was utterly exposed, and completely defenseless against the man.
"Don't kill us," Haymitch pleaded. He appeared to dissolve into a breakdown. Katniss looked to him, completely stunned at the sudden change of behavior in him. "I'm sorry for insulting you, sir, I was just upset at the loss of my friend. But I don't wanna die, I really don't. I have information. About the rebellion, it can help you. I'll tell you anything you want to know."
The Peacekeeper's heavy set of eyebrows lifted with astonishment. He shook his head with a slight smirk, as if the whole exchange amused him.
"Oh, will you now?" he taunted. He stepped closer to Haymitch, who made no move to back away, although Katniss did. The uniformed man adjusted the position of the gun on his shoulder, and the amusement faded from his face. His menacing eyes bore straight into Haymitch's gray ones.
"I knew you mutts are cowards," he spat, and in their proximity, his spittle flew in Haymitch's face, "The sluts who lived in this house were, too. You all crack under a little pressure, don't ya? Well then, be a good egg and tell me what you know, old boy. Then maybe I'll spare you." He even patted Haymitch's cheek, for good measure.
"I'll tell you," the black-haired man said again. The Peacekeeper leaned in closer, apparently anxious to hear what Haymitch had to say, despite wrinkling his nose at the smell that came from the grimy man. He might have been imagining the glory, the honor he would get, from uncovering some piece of information not privy to his commanders.
"It starts," Haymitch continued in an uneven, conspiratorial tone, as if he was giving up a valuable piece of information, "When we murder your family. Sleeping on those heated feather beds made by people who are dying from the cold."
The uniformed man reeled back. "What?"he roared.
Before he could get another word out, Haymitch's fist flew out and careened into the side of his face.
"Like I'll ever give information to you, you ass-licking swine!" he volleyed.
The man in white yelled and stumbled, the gun almost slipping from his grip, before he righted himself and tried to swing the weapon at Haymitch. He missed, but by only a hair.
"Haymitch!" Katniss yelled, and spots dotted her vision again while her head swam. Sweat made her inner shirt stick to her skin, and every fibre in her body burned with the need to help him; but she was at a devastating loss as to how.
The next thing she knew, Haymitch had his grip on the Peacekeeper's gun, and the two men were both struggling with it, their feet kicking at each other. Without turning around to face her, he wheezed out in a strained yell,
"Run, girl! Get outta here! I got this!"
Her heart stopped. No, she couldn't -
"Fuck!" the hoarse cry tore from his lungs, while he landed a solid kick to the Peacekeeper's shin, "Just do me a favor and run!"
Katniss whimpered. She didn't need to be told twice. As much as she didn't want to think it, she was only holding Haymitch down at this point. Swivelling her sluggish body around, she forced it to move, throwing the last bit of the strength she had left into launching it forward. To where, she didn't know.
She looked back, just once, in time to see the Peacekeeper punching Haymitch in the stomach and her companion doubling over. Her eyes filled with tears, and she faltered, torn and wanting to turn around and go back to him.
But she stopped, and her hands bunched into quivering fists. Run, he had told her. Two dead birds with one stone would do nothing but make the Peacekeeper's day. She couldn't take him on; she was weak and delirious and empty-handed. She had nothing. She couldn't help Haymitch.
At least he might still be able to fight.
Hot daggers of despair lanced through her, when she forced herself to turn around once more. Tears dripped from her cheeks, and she wiped them away roughly, knowing she had no more time to stand here and mourn.
I'm sorry, Haymitch. Please, you can still win this.
I promise I won't let your protection of me mean nothing.
The desperate puffs of her own breath filled her nose, her mouth, and her ears, while her burning legs pushed and kicked, every time her feet made impact with the crunchy leaves below. The trees blurred past her. Her lungs were on fire.
Pant, pant, pant.
Her eyes were nearly blinded. From sweat, or hunger, or the wind whipping into them, she didn't know. She could barely just see the outlines of tree trunks and more dirt ahead of her, and even they were hazy, as if someone drew distorted lines around them.
I don't know where I'm going, the realization flashed across her mind, as she limped and stumbled her way through the increasingly darkening forest.
She felt like she was chased through the woods - by guns, by invisible Peacekeepers, by the ghosts of people whose deaths she witnessed. Even by Cato's cold eyes, which surged to the front of her mind without warning.
The dirt would eat her whole, and she could never be found again. She would die, with the weight of the blood on her hands, and her family's broken hearts at her heel.
I'm sorry. She didn't even know who she wanted to say that to anymore. There were too many.
She just wanted to live. To live.
She burst out of the forest, and into a large, clear and open field.
And promptly collapsed onto her hands and her knees, which no longer had the capacity to hold her upright. The evening light almost shined like fire to her eyes, as compared to when she was under the canopy of leaves.
When her eyes adjusted themselves, she turned her strained gaze upward, and observed her surroundings listlessly.
Ahead of her was a field. A field littered with small rocks, covering the curved path that led up to what appeared to be a train. It was a navy blue train, in fact, instead of the white ones that she was used to seeing. It rested on the railroad tracks at the top of the slight hill.
A train, she marvelled. It was a potential place to hide. Maybe there was food on there.
Or maybe it was filled with her enemies. But it wasn't a white train, and she couldn't see any men in white hovering around, either.
She half hurtled, half crawled toward it. Suddenly, nothing was more important to her than getting to this train. It was her last hope, the only hope that she still felt like hanging onto.
The small rocks in her path dug into her palms, knees and shins. But she couldn't feel the pain; she was numb to it. The train went in and out of focus in her vision, and she grunted and struggled for breaths, pursing her lips tightly as she pleaded for her limbs to move her forward, just a little bit more.
When she finally, finally closed in on one of the open train doors, she eyed the height between the bottom of the door and the ground beneath.
It was a formidable distance, but not undoable.
Her arms shot up, and latched onto the metal bars by each side of the door. Another surge of wooziness hit her when she tried to stand, and this time, her throat burned with the nausea that the dizziness had brought.
Come on, she panted, and closed her eyes, steeling herself. Come on, one more push, fuck. One more.
She gripped the bars as tightly as she could in her slippery hands. With a strangled sound stuck in her windpipe, she pushed herself off the ground with her feet. Her arms quivered and strained to hold on, while she lifted one of her legs and forced the shin to latch onto the floor inside the train.
When one was secured, she gritted her teeth, and with one more forceful swing, her other leg connected with the floor inside as well.
And then, she was in.
She did it.
Every inch of her body shook from the exertion. She crawled forward a bit, to get away from the door - heaving out jagged spurts of breaths, and sensing nothing but walls around her.
She tried to get to her feet, but every muscle and bone in her body felt like they've been stomped to mush. The nausea returned with a vengeance, and with nothing in her stomach, a few beads of saliva dripped from her mouth instead.
She made an attempt to inch forward more, across the obscure space. But the lightness in her head blanked out her vision.
Specks of dots fizzed before her eyes, and the next thing she knew, her arms had collapsed under her, and her stinging cheek was pressed against the musky smelling floor of the train.
When the train started to move again, the screeching of its wheels and the rocking rhythm of the compartment didn't even register with Katniss. Her consciousness, despite all of her determination to keep it afloat, fled her weakened body.
"Do you think she'll be alright?"
Katniss grimaced, while sounds filed into her ear, like distant echoes of whispers.
She felt warm. Numb. Sheets seemed to be tucked around her entire form, and she felt more snug than what she remembered from the last little while.
When her eyes fluttered open, she found a large pair of green eyes gawking back at her, in her immediate vision. The eyes held concern in them.
Her limbs snapped straight, and grew rigid with the alarm rising in her.
When her gaze trailed, she realized that her watcher was a girl, whose long, brown hair flowed around her heart-shaped face and shoulders, and appeared to be dressed in a blue sleeping gown.
For a stranger, she didn't appear to be that intimidating. The alarm coursing through Katniss began to subside, although she still felt slightly on edge.
"Are you alright?" the girl's question followed. Her voice was soft. It sounded very gentle to Katniss.
Katniss' throat grated painfully, producing a croaked sound. "Yeah," she muttered. Her anxious gaze flitted around her surroundings, like a bird darting here and there, finding there were more people around her. Peculiarly, they were all girls, clean and dressed in attractive clothing. They were watching her.
She must've appeared frightening to them, a soiled duck caught between a bunch of swans.
But she couldn't dwell on that, when a table at the far right corner of the room caught her eye. Baskets of fruits, baked goods, and a jug of milk appeared to be set upon it. She couldn't believe her eyes.
"Is that food?" she blurted out, before she could stop herself. Her face burned at her weakness.
The girls looked at each other. It was the girl in the blue gown who answered. "Yes. Are you hungry?"
Katniss couldn't speak, so she simply nodded. The girl inclined her head in sympathy.
"Just a second, I'll get you some," she said, "And I'll heat up a glass of milk for you."
Ten minutes later, Katniss was devouring the fruit, cheese bagels and croissant chunks in her plate, and the milk in her glass was all but gone. She knew she was eating like a savage right now, in front of the gawking audience, but she didn't care anymore. The relief this food offered her was more than what words could express.
"You can slow down, if you wish," Blue Gown girl said gently, "You don't want to eat yourself sick."
The girl was right. Katniss tried to slow down her chewing, albeit with mighty difficulty. Now that her brain wasn't addled with starvation, it finally came to her that she just tore into these people's food, and she barely said more than three words to them. She felt like a lunatic right now.
"Where am I?" she asked sheepishly, after swallowing her last bite of the croissant.
"Who are you?" another girl piped up to her right, rather coldly. Katniss looked to her. This one was blonde, and her skin was slightly tanned, a contrast to the gentle girl next to her. "You're the one who got onto this train. How did you even get on here? You're not supposed to be here!"
"Oh, give her a break, Cashmere. I think the poor girl's suffered enough, look at her."Blue Gown girl chided the blonde. Then, she turned to Katniss. "You're in our compartment right now. This train is on its way to the..." she swallowed, "To the Capitol right now. We're headed for the Play Mansion tomorrow."
"The Play Mansion?" Katniss repeated. She frowned in confusion. Why did that place sound so familiar...
...then, she remembered.
The Play Mansion. The 'house of entertainment' for the rich, the cream of the crop in the Capitol. To put it plainly, it was a high-end strip club, built for the important people with a shit ton of money to burn - like District commanders, council advisors, governors, etc.
She knew what it was, because Madge had once told her about how Cato bragged about getting into the Mansion, along with his father. He claimed to have had three girls for his entertainment that night. Katniss was not sure exactly what the entertainment entailed - pole dancing? Private show? Or even that?
Her heart plummeted.
"So... you are... to be girls there?" she stammered. Of all the trains, how did she jump onto this one?
"Yes." The Blue Gown girl murmured. A sad shadow adorned her delicate features. "I take it you know that place?"
"I... yeah." Katniss replied. She set down her plate, and her fingers traced the edge of her blanket, before twisting it nervously. She didn't need to ask where these girls had come from. Even though the mechanics of how the red light establishments got their workers was foreign to her, she wasn't completely naive. These girls were shipped from their Districts, most likely at handsome profits to the dealers who "discovered" them.
"Were you looking after me?" she asked, even if a hundred other questions clamored in her head.
The girl nodded. "Yeah. You've been asleep for a while. When I found you, you looked to be in really bad shape."
"Annie saw you near the door," Cashmere supplied, looking to Blue Gown girl. Or Annie, as Katniss was able to note now. "We were pretty shocked. The train only stopped here for a short time, because we had to wait for some debris in an area ahead of us to be cleared. And boom, you came out of nowhere. We thought you were dead or something."
"I thought I was too." Katniss blurted. She shifted her eyes away, but not before she caught the curious gaze of the third girl. This girl had sleek red hair, and pointy features that almost reminded her of a fox.
"Oh, really? So who are you?" Cashmere asked, "Are you running away from something? Are you from the Capitol? Because if you are, I swear to God I will -"
"Cashmere," Annie warned.
Oh, wonderful. "I'm..." Katniss stumbled. She debated over just what she could tell them. "I'm not from the Capitol. I'm trying to run away from it," she finally got out. The partial lie tasted like ashes in her mouth. But weakened as she was, and facing a bunch of people who obviously were not fond of the Capitol and practically strangers to her, it was easier than trying to explain the truth.
Everyone's eyes seemed to soften, even Cashmere's. "What are you running from?" Annie asked.
"From Peacekeepers." Katniss thought she could admit this much, without giving away her identity. "I did something they didn't like, and they're after me for it right now."
The girls shot each other glances. "Are you a runaway?" Cashmere asked.
"A runaway?" Katniss looked at her.
"Yeah, you know. From your master?"
The meaning of her words clicked in Katniss' brain. They thought she was a slave.
She bit back a dissenting noise. That did seem like the most logical explanation, given her answers. She supposed she could run with that. After all, wasn't she almost falling into the same plight right now?
"Yes," she said, and let out a sharp, jerky breath she didn't even feel she was holding. "I ran. I should have, a long time ago."
A moment of silence ensued. Cashmere closed her eyes, and shook her head. "I knew it."
"Well, you can't go out there now," Annie's quiet voice followed, "They'll kill you for sure, for running away."
"What? We can't keep her with us!" the blonde protested. "She's a runaway. She's a danger to us!"
"Yes, we can," the girl with the fox face suddenly interjected. Her voice wasn't commanding, but it seemed to exude a sense of cunningness. Everyone looked to her. "She can blend in with us. If anyone asks, we can just say they must've missed a person on their list."
"Are you serious?" Cashmere demanded.
Foxface nodded. "I'm dead serious. She's looking a lil rough right now, but nothing that can't be fixed with some rest." She eyed Katniss, "And some makeup."
"And why should we do that?" Cashmere demanded, crossing her arms. "We don't know her! Which District is she even from?"
"Does that matter? Look at her, Cashmere. Have you lost your compassion? Do you not remember when your brother had part of his chest skin burned off by a client? The Capitol doctors refused to treat him, and another Escort had to secretly nurse him back to health," Foxface said coolly, and Cashmere's face crumbled. Her exterior began to crack. "If we don't help each other, who will? If we leave this girl out there, what do you think we're sentencing her to? We can help her. And we should."
"Okay, okay," Cashmere whispered. Katniss swallowed, when she realized tears pooled in the blonde's eyes. She herself was at a complete loss for words.
Annie contemplated Katniss. "What's your name?" she asked.
Katniss hesitated, before giving them her first name.
"Would you want to come with us, Katniss?" Annie asked earnestly, "It's not the best option, I know, but you can be safe with us for now.
Katniss looked down at her hands, suddenly discovering the bruises that shadowed her skin here and there. She clasped them together sadly. No, she thought. She did not want to go with them, into a godforsaken place where the sole purpose was to be used by rich men.
But what other option did she have at this moment? Jump off the train and be captured by anybody who might recognize her? If any Peacekeeper suspected her, they could pull up her information with a flick of their wrists. Maybe she could escape the detection of a couple of them, but with the presence of them everywhere in the country, how long could she escape the suspicion and the hounding?
If they catch her, they would take her right back to the cell. Asking where Peeta was. And torturing her to get that information. And maybe they even documented her other crimes as well, like shooting a Peacekeeper and then running away with a rebel.
She would escape, once she could figure out a safe place to go to. If she could. She definitely couldn't go back to her family now, especially with the rebellion on the rise. The less her parents were dragged into the mess of their daughter, who was more than likely considered a traitor at this point, the safer they were. They could say she brought shame on them, or even say they disown her, to save themselves. She almost hoped they would.
Her eyes filled with tears at the thought. She missed them so much, that every bone in her body ached with the feeling.
"Hey, hey," Annie prompted gently. She even reached for Katniss' hand. "I know you're scared..."
The dishevelled girl couldn't form a reply to that. If only Annie knew. Yes, she was scared. But for an entirely different reason than they thought.
That night, around nine o'clock, the train pulled into its station. The girls - including Katniss - were ushered from the train by an impatient looking man standing on the platform.
She had been washed, combed, and dolled up in a dress that a girl named Tania had to spare. Annie had been the expert at making over her face - the greenness of her skin was erased with foundation and soft blush, and her lips were coated with a matte plum color (which Annie thought looked good with her olive skin tone). Annie had even drawn winged lines around her eyes to make them stand out more.
While they made their way toward the station exit, she could hear some of the girls marvelling at the grandeur of the platform - the vast and shining tiled floors, and the chandeliers dangling from the impossibly tall ceilings, their light bathing the entire place in its shimmers.
It felt very strange for Katniss, being back here again and seeing all of this - only under an entirely different circumstance this time.
The man barked at them to keep moving. After they exited the station, their guide waved for them to step onto the large bus that waited for them on the street, one by one. Katniss couldn't make out the color of the bus very well in the night, but she saw the words "Come Play at the Mansion - Unleash Your Ultimate Fantasy" splayed across its side in cursive, bold letters.
She swallowed the lump stuck to the inside of her throat. Hard.
While the bus drove and weaved through the streets, the girls couldn't tear their eyes away from the windows. They seemed to be glued there, absorbing the sights for the first time. It felt like a shock to Katniss' system too, to be able to see all this again. She had almost forgotten what this city looked like, after being dragged out of it and forced to see so many dirty, ugly things.
So even she couldn't stop staring. This was a city that never slept. Even now, the streets of downtown were teeming with colorfully dressed citizens and their equally odd pets. The blaring neon signs flashed everywhere, clamoring for people's attention. Banging music from the clubs seeped into the bus. Shops had piles upon piles of designer brands on display, the polished items shining marvellously from the huge windows.
Katniss' stomach was knotted in dread. Now she had to face this all over again, doubt crept in like a tenacious vine. There was no one she could pull this off. Someone would recognize her for sure, in this damn city, and she'd get thrown right back in jail, and they would go after her family -
"You okay, Katniss?" Annie's hand was around hers, squeezing slightly.
Startled, Katniss looked to her friend. Annie gave her a small, reassuring smile.
"Yeah, I'm fine," she breathed, even while her heart stuttered in disagreement.
"You'll be fine," Annie said, "That evil man won't get to you again."
Katniss blinked in confusion. "What evil man?"
"Your master?" Annie stated, with a questioning lilt to her words.
Oh, that's right.
She wiped at her cheek absentmindedly. "Thank you, Annie," she said in a low voice. Even though she was still living this lie, the gratitude that she felt for these girls was real, even toward Cashmere. "I really appreciate what you and the others have done. I might - no, I would have been dead, if not for you."
"Well then, that's more reason for us to do it," Annie said firmly. "We have enough hardships in our lives, enough people tearing us down. The least we can do is to help those among ourselves. I would be a monster not to."
Katniss' hands fiddled together on top of her lap, and her eyes drifted there. "Well. Still. I don't know how to thank you. You took on a risk, taking me in."
"You don't need to thank me," Annie shook her head. Katniss looked to her. "Just stay safe, that's all I ask for. Promise me we'll get through this together."
Slowly, Katniss ventured a smile. It felt like the first time she smiled in ages.
"I promise, Annie," she took in a shuddering breath, feeling it rattle coolly, and comfortingly, in her lungs. "We'll get through this."
The Play Mansion wasn't an enormous building, like Katniss had originally thought. But what was striking about it was that the building was shaped like a giant diamond. Its width grew wider with each level, and a curtain of incandescent gold shimmered over its shielded windows, making the entire structure reflect lights as if it was a jewel on top of a wedding ring.
Upon the group's arrival here, they were promptly ushered into one of the lounges inside. There, a small man with oily patches of black hair awaited them.
He was delivering his welcome speech to them. Since the entire area was lit up with golden and blue neon lights, when the man smiled, a bunch of his teeth also glowed in blue and yellow.
"My, my, look at you little honeys. You're a fiiiine bunch. What a fine sight you are." He said, and clearly licked his lips. The girls gawked back at him, their expressions like petrified deer in the headlights. Clearly, no one hoped to have the fortune of having to do something like sleep with this man.
"So, my name is Orly, and I'm one of the managers at this fine establishment. I meet beautiful girls everyday. Some beautiful, sweet tits, I could just eat you all up," the small man continued his lusty rant, his beady eyes raking over them, like they were pieces of meat and he was contemplating which one he should buy.
Katniss tried not to scrunch up her face. This man was disgusting. They hadn't even been inside the Mansion for more than five minutes, and the terror had already begun.
"While I love to get to know each and every one of you better, unfortunately, I have to hand you to your overseer soon." Orly continued, and her ears perked up at that. They would get out of this slimy man's company soon? Oh, thank god. "I know, you're all so disappointed," he crooned.
It was painful for Katniss, swallowing the snorting sound back into her gorge. She looked down at the ground, in case her expression betrayed her.
"As I'm sure you understand, you'll be serving some very important men here. Very, very important," he repeated, as if they didn't hear him the first time. "Your number one priority is to make them happy. Got it? If I ever find out that any one of you displeased a client," here, his simpering smile faded abruptly, like a light whose switch was suddenly shut off, "I'll string you up by your intestines and leave you hanging."
Katniss' eyes widened in horror, and she couldn't hear the sound of breathing around her. No one seemed to dare to make a sound.
"Just kidding!" Orly suddenly cracked up. He laughed, wiping at his eyes. His laughter was the only sound that filled the room. "I'm sure none of you will disappoint me. Seriously, you won't. Is that right?"
Nobody answered him. His laughter started to fade, and his gaze peeled them. "Is that right?" he repeated again.
"Yes," somebody finally answered, in a faint sound.
"Good." Orly said, "So as I said, your overseer will be along soon. He's well acquainted with how to entertain any clients," here, Orly winked, like he was sharing a secret with them, "And he will make sure that all of you are prepared in the art of entertainment. It is an art, capiche? And you're all performers. He'll see to your costumes, the dance routines you'll perform, the wines and liquors you'll learn to recognize. He'll make sure all of you act and look immaculate."
He stepped closer to them. Without warning, he reached out, and placed a hand on Tania's breast, giving it a firm squeeze. Tania's frightened gasp echoed through them.
"Like the fact you need to pad those up. They're looking a little small." Orly observed, and his hand stayed where it was for another few seconds, before he finally let go of the trembling Tania. "Okay, well I think that should do. I must run along now, sweets. Sorry to deprive you of my company, but I'm a very busy man." He announced with a flourish, "You shall wait here for your overseer."
As he hustled out of the room, Tania broke down. Her pitiful cry tugged at the girls' heartstrings. Foxface hugged Tania to her, and whispered to her to calm down.
"I want to go home," Tania said brokenly.
Nobody had an answer for her; Foxface could only offer her the comfort of her arms. After a minute or two, Tania managed to take in several breaths, wipe off her eyes and stand upright again.
While they waited for the overseer, the silence that settled over them was disquieting. Katniss looked straight ahead, while a million awful thoughts raced through her head.
Their overseer was going to be a horrible man, she deduced. Whoever he was, he was going to be a thousand times worse than Orly. Maybe like that man she'd seen at Snow's party, who had trained the slave dancers.
This time, she was the one who reached for Annie's hand. In turn, her companion shot her a forlorn smile. The brunette's skin felt just as clammy as hers, but it still made her feel better, to know that she wasn't alone in her terror.
After what seemed like an eon of listening to nothing but her own irregular heartbeats, a figure finally emerged by the lounge door. The man appeared to pause and look around, before he strolled inside. Everyone looked to him.
As he stepped closer, Katniss had to fight the urge to rub at her eyes. Hard. Because she couldn't believe them.
She knew that face. She recognized this man.
"Well, you're looking radiant, ladies," he addressed them.
His voice was rich and blithe. It brimmed with seduction, just like the way it sounded on those TV shows he appeared in.
Finnick Odair was standing in front of her. Standing in front of them, in the flesh.
Or to be precise, in a velvety, midnight blue garment that oddly resembled a bathrobe – it was parted in the middle to bare his hairless, defined chest.
Katniss's heart stopped. She wondered if she had fallen into some kind of a bizarre dream. For a moment, she couldn't help but think that Prim would never believe her.
This was their overseer?
How could this be? She thought he was a TV personality!
The coppery tone of his hair looked deeper than she remembered on television, but maybe it was just due to the lighting in the room. A piercing glow radiated from his eyes while he appraised them. And then, his generous lips curled into a warm smile, the movement underlining the hard chisel of his jaw.
"Why don't we do a quick introduction," Finnick Odair said. "My name is Fin-"
"We know who you are," Cashmere interrupted haplessly from among them, "Oh my god, you're - you're Finnick Odair." She gulped, seeming to realize her outburst. She instantly looked contrite. "I'm sorry."
"No, no, don't apologize. That's right, I am," Finnick smiled. Katniss wasn't sure if he would be a thousand times worse than Orly, as she had originally feared, but at least he was a thousand times more handsome. "We'll be spending some time over the next little while. Don't think of me as this overseer," he made quotation marks with his fingers, chucking away Orly's reference to him, "Think of me as your guide. Your partner, if you will. My purpose is not just to train you. I'm here to help you. Despite what Orly may have told you, we look after our girls. You can always come to me, and talk to me, if you ever have any problems."
"I have problems," Cashmere burst out. Everyone looked to her, and her face turned beet red.
"Sorry, didn't mean to say that out loud," she muttered. Katniss pursed her lips tightly together to stifle a laugh.
She didn't know if she trusted what Finnick was telling them so far. It sounded a little too good to be true. She doubted Orly didn't mean every word he had said, about what would happen to them if anyone stepped out of line. He made it perfectly clear that their lives were less than dispensable, in the grand scheme of things. Finnick could be trying to dupe them now, with this sweet talk. Even though she couldn't figure out why he bothered.
Although, judging from the way the other girls hanged onto his words, he seemed to have won over most of them. She let out a resigned breath. No matter what his true intentions were, she had to admit that he was a much, much better alternative to men like Orly.
"Well, you know who I am. If you'll allow me the pleasure, I'd like get to know a bit more about you too. Why don't we start by names and where you're from?" he turned to the Tania, who was the first one in his path. "What's your name, hon?" he asked softly.
"T-Tania. I'm from District Three." the girl said meekly.
Finnick smiled. Patches of red appeared on the back of Tania's neck, and steam almost blew out of her ears. "Lovely to meet you, Tania." He turned onto the next in line, which was Foxface. "And you, dear?"
Finnick made his round, collecting the name of every girl in his path, like coins dropping into his palms. Katniss couldn't stop from noticing the effect he had on people. When he looked at someone, his gaze seemed to have the power to make them feel as if they were the only one in the room. To Katniss, he appeared to create instant connections with everyone that he laid eyes on. She felt discomfited by his ability to do that.
When he got to her, she swallowed the dry wool that seemed to be stuck to her throat. She would be lying if she said he didn't unnerve her on some level.
"And your name, love?" he asked. Now that he was close to her, she could smell him - some mixture of soap and faint, sweet cologne. He definitely smelled like the Capitol, although a less gaudy version of it.
"Kat. I'm from District Twelve," she said. That was where she told the other girls she was from earlier. Actually, she had just blurted out the first District that came to mind, and they seemed to accept it. And she had agreed to use a name more indistinguishable than Katniss, just to be on the safe side.
Also, she didn't like the way that Finnick Odair labelled them 'honey', 'love' right and left. But she tried not to let her annoyance shine through.
He didn't nod, and move on. Instead, he gazed at her, and for a split second, a slightly confused frown creased his brows. Katniss' teeth clenched. She stared straight at him, a warm buzzing resonating in her ear. She willed him not to see through her.
"District Twelve? That's very interesting. Well, nice to meet you, Kat." He said, and winked at her. Then, he turned to Annie.
A cold sweat broke over the back of Katniss' neck. He knows. I'm a terrible liar and he has somehow seen through that, she lamented. The bastard.
When Finnick saw Annie, his Adam's apple bobbed with a swallow. His eyes searched Annie's face, with a force behind it that almost alarmed Katniss. Then, his lips twitched, as if they teetered dangerously on the edge of a smile, but couldn't quite manage it.
In the meanwhile, Annie stared back at him like she had seen a ghost. Her wide eyes didn't blink, not even once. When Katniss ventured a brief glance downward, she realized Annie's hands were shaking.
Then, Finnick cleared his throat, startlingly loud. It shattering the bizarre tension. "And you, beautiful?" he asked of Annie. His suavity was back in its full charm.
"Annie, District Four," the gentle brunette replied. Her voice was hollow.
"District Four? Ah, a girl after my own heart." He said, without missing a beat. His smile was large, almost too bright to be natural. "I haven't been back in a couple of years. It must be fairly quiet there, with the fishing season just being over!"
"Yeah," Annie echoed, the sound carrying across like a frail wind that dissolved into nothingness. She didn't offer anything else.
If there was anything strange about Annie's behavior, Finnick didn't seem to notice it. At least, he didn't comment on it. Instead, he placed a hand on Annie's slumped shoulder, giving it one gentle squeeze. Then, he moved onto the next girl.
Katniss glanced at Annie, before looking away. Something about this felt wrong to her.
Both Annie and Finnick were from District Four. They didn't strike her as two people who've just met, despite the lack of acknowledgement between them.
For a split second, she narrowed her eyes, as a sense of suspicion crept up on her. These two know each other.
It wasn't that far-fetched. Maybe they both looked so stricken at the start, because they didn't expect to see each other again, least of all in this place.
After Finnick finished the round of introductions, he stood before them again, his hands clasped behind his back.
"Thank you, girls. Now I can put a name to all of your lovely faces. I'm quite good with names, you can even pop quiz me on it tomorrow if you wish." His mouth tilted with a smirk. "I know all of you had a long journey, and you must be tired. All of your quarters are prepared for you. Between the nine of you, there are four rooms, so you will have to share, and one of the room will have to hold three." he shook his head, "I apologize for that, but the arrangement was not made by me. There'll be plenty of beds, of course, and you'll get to choose who you share with. The bathroom on your floor is for your use. You can feel free to have a hot shower and get relaxed for the night, and get a good night's sleep, because you want to prepared for the first day tomorrow. We'll meet down in the breakfast room at eight-thirty in the morning."
Katniss felt a shudder run through her bones. She could only imagine what tomorrow would bring.
After Finnick finished giving more instructions, he nodded at them with a kind smile, and told them that they were dismissed and should get some rest for the night.
On their way out, Finnick stood by the lounge door, nodding at each and every one of them as they passed by.
When Katniss got closer to him, she stopped in her track. He looked at her, bemused, but nodded at her anyways. "Good night, Kat."
"My sister is a big fan of your show," she blurted out, instead of replying to him in kind. She knew she should move on; she was blocking the remaining traffic and everyone was staring at her. But the scorching curiosity finally got the better of her. "I didn't know you also worked here -" she indicated around the lounge, meaning the Mansion.
Finnick smiled neutrally. He lifted his head a fraction, and his eyes barely darted to Annie, before they found their way back to Katniss.
"I'm a jack of all trades," he said. He winked at her.
"Annie, can I ask you something?" Katniss asked, while her friend braided her wet hair. They had chosen to share a room with each other. Foxface was also to share with them originally, but the later, the red-headed girl chose to bunk with Tania instead, when the latter girl had a hard time calming down.
The quarters were sparse, decorated with slightly peeling wallpaper. It was a stark contrast to the opulence that oozed everywhere else in the establishment. For all the money the Mansion had, it didn't appear to spend much money or thought toward creating a decent living space for them. But at least their beds were clean and warm. After the last couple of days she'd had, Katniss wasn't about to complain.
"Shoot," Annie said.
Katniss licked her dry lips. "Do you... do you know Finnick?"
Annie's fingers paused in their deft work of her hair. "What do you mean?" she sounded cautious.
"I meant what I asked." Katniss turned her head slightly, "Did you know him? Back in Four?"
Annie was quiet for a moment. The wheels churned in Katniss' head while she waited, and she almost wondered if she stepped out of the line with this question, until Annie broke the silence again.
"I guess we didn't hide it that well, huh?" the green-eyed beauty said, with a light laugh. "To answer you... yes. We did know each other." She finally confirmed Katniss' suspicion. The other girl tried not to gloat at the fact she was right. "Finnick and I... were sort of friends."
"Sort of?" Katniss raised an eyebrow, even though Annie couldn't see it.
"Yes. We weren't anything else." Annie paused. "Although I did have a big crush on him."
"Really?" a grin spread across Katniss' face. "I'm going to tell on you, Annie..." she teased, in a sing-song voice.
Annie smacked her shoulder lightly. "You'll do no such thing," she chided, although there was no real bite to her voice. "And I know what you're thinking. Of course I had a crush on him, most girls have. But my feelings for him run a little bit deeper than an infatuation." She sighed, "Though he probably doesn't even remember me very much, if at all."
"Oh, I think he remembers you, Annie," Katniss said. She recalled the way Finnick looked at her friend earlier. "Didn't you see the way he kind of lost his cool, a little bit?"
"I... I'm not sure. I think I was too shocked to process what was happening at that moment." Annie admitted.
Katniss shook her head. "That's understandable. Well, how were you two sort of friends?"
"Um," Annie got to the end of her hair, and began to tie an elastic around it. "It went way back. I've known him since I was five. He was about four years older than me." Finished with the braid, she sat down next to Katniss, who turned to her and listened attentively. "I always noticed him. He's handsome, popular, and always getting a lot of attention from people. On the other hand, I was the shy kid that everyone liked to either ignore, or tease. I used to have buck teeth when I was little, and I got called names for that a lot."
Katniss winced in sympathy. She also knew what it was like to not fit in or get teased by her peers.
"I never thought he would notice me, or give me the time the day," Annie looked down at her hands in her lap. "But he did, one day. That day, I was sitting by the ocean, building a sandcastle for my doll, Stella. This boy - I can't even remember his name now - came up to me, ripped the doll out of my hands and threw it into the water. When I tried to punch him for that, he kicked down my sandcastle, and said, 'there, you ugly rabbit freak'."
Katniss' teeth clenched together. "Kids can be real assholes," she forced out.
The doe-eyed brunette nodded. "When he left, I was a mess. I don't remember how long I sat there, just looking at my ruined castle and crying. I never thought I'd get Stella back. But then, I heard that boy yelling in the distance. When I looked, I saw him on the ground, and Finnick yelling something at him. Then, Finnick ran to the water, and he jumped in and swam after Stella." She smiled, and the tip of her nose reddened. "When he brought her back to the shore, he put her on the sand in front of me, and pretended to give her CPR and listen for her heartbeats."
"Wow," Katniss whispered, "That's really sweet of him, Annie."
"I know. I don't know why, but that just made me cry all over again, even though I wanted to laugh at how stupid he looked." Annie laughed now, and wiped at the tip of her nose, "I don't know. Right there, looking at him - something just happened inside me. I felt like I loved him so much. Maybe he was the only one to show kindness to me and make me laugh, besides my family."
Katniss smiled at the other girl weakly. "I think he's still a nice man, Annie."
"I don't know." Annie wavered, "I haven't seen him in years, since he was taken to the Capitol. We had this friendship as we grew up. We fished together sometimes, but mostly we hang out in different circles. My feelings for him never went away. They just grew stronger, but I didn't dare tell him. The last time I saw him, I was fifteen. I've changed then. And I felt like when he looked at me, something in his eyes changed too. But maybe it was just my wishful thinking."
"Well, I think he felt more for you than you thought," Katniss said. "I can feel it, from the way he acted around you tonight."
"Really? He seemed so flippant. Not to mention he acted like he doesn't know my name." The ire that suddenly seeped into Annie's tone made Katniss blink.
"Well, maybe it's acting, like you said. It's not like this is the best place to reveal you were friends." Katniss shrugged, "Plus, it's not like you were being all chummy with him, either."
"I suppose," Annie said reluctantly, "I just... blanked out. I couldn't even remember how to breathe, when I first saw him."
"Well, I think you did remarkably well, compared to Cashmere," Katniss noted with a grin.
A surprised chortle bubbled from Annie's chest. "Well, thankfully I'm not as outspoken as Cashmere," she said, "But. I just... I still feel like that awkward little girl around him, Katniss. Even now, you know?"
"Well, you're not," Katniss fell back onto her bed with a plunk, and cradled the pillow to her. "I definitely don't think there's anything awkward-looking about you now."
Annie's lips quirked. "Well thanks... I think." She nudged Katniss' arm gently. "We've talked enough about my love life, or lack thereof. How about you? Is there a special boy in your life?"
The smile fell off of Katniss' face. Her stomach clenched. She had been trying not to think about the said boy - or at least, she had willed her brain to stop imagining the things that could have happened to him. Those thoughts were subdued sometimes. But they always remained, snaking around the back of her mind like shadows, waiting to strike her when she let her guard down.
"Yeah," she finally croaked out. "Can we... talk it about it later, though? I'm really tired."
Annie gave her an odd look, but then relented. She seemed to understand, without Katniss having to explain further. "Okay," she said softly. Katniss felt grateful for that.
That night, while Annie slept, Katniss had her eyes open for a long time. Sleep tugged at her, trying to lure her into its warm and murky depth, but she dreaded the nightmares that could follow in its wake.
How did I end up here? Her silent question drifted into the darkness, where it was buried and no one could hear it. She wiped at her swollen eyes. All I wanted was some peace. And to be loved by a handsome boy who could bake. Instead, I lied, I killed and I ran and now I'm here. I don't know what my family is going through. Peeta is possibly dead. And so is Haymitch.
What do I do now?
She closed her eyes, and dreaded the moment when the sun would rise tomorrow.
A/N: Sorry for the wait of this chapter! I went on a brief hiatus due to RL obstacles. Thank you for all of your support, I take every one of your messages to heart. Thanks for the reviews, alerts, and a few of you who'd even taken the time to PM me. I wish I can bake each of you a giant cookie made out of smiles and rainbows because that's how you made my heart feel. :) my classes begin again, starting this Saturday, though this course won't take as long as the last one did. I am continuing to write, slowly but surely. Please hang in there with me!
Edit: I've seen the comments regarding the whereabouts of Peeta. Don't worry, he's going to show up very soon! I'm just as eager for him to make a re-entrance as you are ;) I just couldn't fit it into this chapter. Everything will tie together soon. There are going to be three or four more chapters left to the story - it's nearing the point of its climax :)