Thanks to my sister for Beta-ing this monster baby. I owe you one.

I've done my best to make this story completely canon, except for three things:
1) I invented the idea of Career Dispensation.
2) Johanna wins the Games before Annie (because hell, I wasn't going to miss the chance to include that firecracker, was I?!)
3) This one's a spoiler. But trust'll know when you get there.

Lastly, there's depiction of a character experiencing mental breakdown and PTSD in this story. I have done my best to portray this as empathetically and accurately as I am able to, based on my limited knowledge of mental illness. Any inaccuracies or problematic aspects are completely my own error.

Julius Caesar

and the Roman Empire

couldn't conquer

the blue sky.

- Crowded House, Weather With You

There's a fine drizzle falling as we gather in the square. I don't mind getting wet. I look up at the clouds, but not to pray. The sky is sliced through with power lines and pale enough to hurt my eyes despite the spitting rain. We're packed in tight here, and most people have gone to some effort. It's always good to look your best on choosing day, Mom says, what with all the cameras of the nation pointed straight at you. I say that's stupid, because there are more than a thousand teenagers here and they can't possibly see us all. Even so, I scooped up my light brown hair in a clasp on the back of my head this morning, and I'm wearing the best shoes I own.

'Welcome, District 4, to the choosing ceremony for the70th annual Hunger Games!'

I don't listen to the man with the purple hair who reads out the names. I never do. He's a tiny figure against the sweeping white backdrop of the town hall, which rises up behind him with its two square turrets and central clock tower. His voice sounds odd; not quite the distinct Capitol dialect I'm used to hearing on screen, over recordings, but certainly no longer the accent of a man who came from District 4.

I'm nearer the front than most, and I can make out the raised rows just in front of the temporary stage. That's where the Career tributes stand, all dressed in white, slim fitting jackets, mirroring the white of the peacekeepers' uniforms. There are almost a hundred Careers this year. When I was twelve, Mayor Brockford said he wanted us to 'up our game' so that we could 'show the other Districts what we've got.' After that they came round all the schools, and took away the hopefuls. The strong ones, the ruthless ones.

The ones who needed the money.

They say that in Districts One and Two, it's the parents who pay for them to take their children. Families will ruin themselves to win their child a chance at glory.

Only Districts 1 to 3 have dispensation allowing their Careers to volunteer as tributes every year. I know Mayor Brockford applied for the same allowance, as part of his plans to raise the status of our District. Rumor is the Capitol wouldn't have it. Who would want the Games to be full of Careers every year? That would spoil all the fun. That would make the fighting too equal. There'd be no point in the choosing ceremony. People would get complacent.

And yet for six years now, District 4 has put forward two Career tributes every year. In six years, only one has come back.

I crane my neck over the heads in front of me to see where the old Victors, standing ranged in a line on the stage, have their hard-set faces projected on the vast screens either side. Mags Cohen won before my father was even born, but her eyes don't let you forget it. Iron-haired Shona Mackenney; my mother remembers how she strangled the last two boys who faced her down, and took a dagger to the one who begged for mercy. Her husband, Conway Eschea, won two years later with dark eyes and a smile sharper than his blade. Maxine Reedbuck was quick, so quick, that they didn't like the Games in the Capitol that year. Josiah Tetham won when he drowned District One's final Career in the mud.

And Finnick Odair.

District 4's very own poster boy - the most casually dressed of them all, of course, his white cotton shirt is open at the neck. It's unusual to see him here at all. He's normally in the Capitol with a Capitol woman on his arm, young as he is. Maybe a year older than me. Maybe less. Now his green eyes are narrowed, his jaw clenched; perhaps he's not so happy to be back, to be reminded where he came from. If it wasn't for his Games he'd be down here among us, the boys and girls who will grow up to be thrifty fishwives and strong armed sailors.

They didn't take down his banners for the whole year after he won, and his face stared down at us from every street corner with the smile that always gave me the wrong sort of chills. The girls at school loved him, but I remember him from back when we were small, and that makes it different somehow. Before his parents took him up to the white house on the hill and he joined the Careers, I remember that he used to love to swim.

So I don't like seeing him, although he's certainly gorgeous. Every time I do, I remember the look that was in his eyes when he speared the final tribute through the heart with his trident, and I remember that he's someone who used to be like me.

It makes me sick. The Games always make me sick.

Mom named Finn after him, and before I entered the square she buried her face in Finn's hair as she squeezed my hand.

Finn is nearly three and the only one of us young enough to be completely safe. Marcus is eleven, and watches every second of the Games with eyes wide and breath caught in his throat, even as I hide my face from the blood. But my family have never been desperate enough to put Marcus forward as a Career, not even the year the storms were so bad that all the electricity cut out, and for a fortnight we waded ankle deep in water. We ate into half a season's stock that summer. Old Bab's house, right down by the waterfront, was completely washed away, and when the sea finally settled all that was left was driftwood. It looked like the waves had thrown up all along the quay, soiling the sand brown and leaving stones and bits of plastic scattered across the streets. That's where I found Bab's corpse, twisted and bloated and caught among the wreckage of his furniture.

'Firstly, for our male tribute.'

If Marcus was chosen I think I would die. But they always choose the Careers; somehow, it always comes out that way. Even so, I clutch my brother harder by the shoulders.

'Clyde Laiken!'

I don't know him, and my grip on my brother's shoulders lessens slightly. Heads turn to see where he'll come from. Then the picture on the screens zooms in on a tall, dark skinned boy in white. One of the Career tributes. He stands up taller, face splitting into a grin, and pushes through his fellows up onto the stage.

'Welcome, Clyde. It's a delight to see such enthusiasm,' the purple-haired man ushers him up to stand by his side. 'And now, for this year's female tribute.'

This is my final year, and for six years they've always picked a Career.

I'm almost safe.

Annie-can't-kill, they used to call me. Squeamish Annie. I know I deserved it. It's just that when I was younger I couldn't bear to watch anything die, not even fish. It always made the bile rise in my throat. I'm sorry, I would whisper to them, tracing their gasping gills with my fingers as they lay out on the promenade in their hundreds, thousands, silver bodies flapping and sparkling in the light as they thrash for water. After Josiah's year, I didn't want to eat them any more either.

Of course, I got over myself soon enough. You can't afford the luxury of being a vegetarian in District 4. Not down here by the water at least, in the lowest levels.

The purple-haired man rummages in the glass bowl, shifting through bits of paper.

'Be grateful,' my father always said, 'Be grateful you live in a District where the food is plentiful and everyone has a roof over their heads. Count your blessings and be grateful.'

Everyone knows that in the Lesser Districts, children sometimes starve.

So I help to bring the catch in, and I swim out far with my net. I swim better than my father ever could; I swim better than anyone. In summer when the sun cuts clear through the water, I run down the beach and swim out along the bottom for hours. The weeds brush past my face and small, flickering fish dart away from the touch of my fingertips as I send rippling bubbles back up to the surface. What I love most is the silence, heavy all around me.

The man with the purple hair unfolds the slip of paper. I'm not completely safe. But I'm eighteen, this is my final year, and they always choose a Career.

'Annie Cresta.'

That's my name, by the way. He's saying my name.



My attempt to flee is so instinctive that I am moving before I realize what has happened. I am an animal with the hunter upon me. I make it three steps, bursting between the two boys standing behind me, before someone grabs my wrists and pulls me up short.

'Let me go,' I gasp, ripping my hands from her. But instead she wraps her arms around me so I cannot move.

'Annie, stop!' It's Julie, my friend from down by the quay, my oldest friend in the world. Her eyes are bright with tears. 'You have to go up there, Annie. Or the peacekeepers will chase you down.'

I stare around me at the surrounding sea of faces. Their expressions are hard, identical, so much older than the adolescent faces that wear them. I have never felt fear like this before.

'Annie, listen to me.' Julie really is crying now. 'You have to go up to the stage. You have to go up there and show that you're not afraid.'

The audience already know I'm terrified. If I run, they'll also know I'm a coward.

Shaking, I nod. Julie slowly releases her arms, grasping the fabric of my sleeve for a second as I turn back around. 'Annie, I -'

I don't hear what she says. I walk forward through the crowd of people, who silently part in front of me. Perhaps some of them pity me. But I know that mostly, they're glad it isn't them who has been chosen. A hand clutches my own, and I look down to see Marcus walking alongside me. His eyes are wide, but now it's with fear, not excitement.

I have been chosen as tribute. I cannot think about what that means. I cannot listen to the voices in my mind. All I can do is keep making my way to the front, one step at a time. When I reach the front row, the Career tributes ranged above me, I gently unclasp Marcus' hand.

'Go home, find Mom,' I whisper. 'Don't worry about me. I'll see you later.'

He says nothing, but sinks back into the crowd as I climb the steps onto the stage.

'Welcome, Annie Cresta.' The purple-haired man's smile is wide and bright and hollow. I sense the Victors' eyes on me as I pass. Conway's gaze is full of undisguised curiosity. Shona seems almost triumphant. There's a curling smile on Finnick Odair's lips.

As I turn to stand by the side of the man with purple hair and stare out across the pale, hostile faces below me, it's all I can do to stop myself from throwing up. I grab handfuls of my skirt to hide the fact that my hands are trembling. Is someone speaking? I don't know. I can't hear anything over the roaring in my head.

When the purple-haired man reaches for my hand, raising it over my head, I start and try to pull it back. I know that the terror on my face is being projected back onto the screens, that my freckles are standing out against skin that's white with fear for the whole of Panem to see. But on the other side of the purple-haired man Clyde Laiken grins, embracing the moment he's probably planned for his entire life, and now the crowd is cheering.

They're cheering for my death.

As soon as the ceremony is over I don't wait to be excused, but rush straight past the peacekeepers standing at the side of the stage, faces hidden behind the reflective mirrors of their visors. Someone calls at me to stop. I push through the Careers, clatter down the steps and run down into the crowd. My vision is blurred, but I almost sense that people are wordlessly moving aside. Friends, acquaintances, people from the outskirts, people from the outlying villages, people I've never seen before. People I'm not ever going to see again.

When I'm free of the throng I don't stop for a moment, even as my lungs heave in relief and I gasp in a breath of the cool, damp air. My feet pound the paving slabs as I run down the main street, one two, one two, my patent kitten heels hitting the ground. My hair works itself free of its clasp until it streams behind me, beating against my shoulders. The streets are mainly deserted and I ignore the few people I pass. All I focus on is the sound of my own breathing and the familiar buildings rushing past either side of me as I run down, down through the streets.

My feet are kicking up sand now and I hear the sea soon enough; I round a corner and it's there, slate blue waves beating the quay as it always does, as it always has done and will never cease to. Something chokes inside me, and for the first time I let out a sob. I pause to catch my breath and squint out over the water, across the bay where the beach glistens in the sunlight just emerging from between the clouds.


Marcus, and behind him Mom, and my father carrying Finn against his shoulder. I grasp for their arms, my shoulders heaving with another sob. My father crushes me to him and I shake silently as I hug one arm round Marcus' shoulders and use the other to stroke Finn's hair. Mom clutches me from the other side so that Marcus is pressed between our skirts. Finn sucks his thumb, eyes frightened at the commotion. 'Shh,' I soothe, smoothing the hair back from his forehead. 'It's okay. Don't worry, it's okay.'

After a few seconds they pull away, and my father holds me by the shoulders.

'Dad,' I say, and my voice is choking. His lip trembles but he does not speak, because what is there to say?

'You'll fight them, won't you Annie?' says Marcus, voice higher pitched than it has been for months now. 'You're the best sister I ever had. You'll show them and you'll win.'

I silently clutch him to my chest, heart pounding.

'Miss Cresta,' says a voice, and I turn to see a young woman in square glasses and a sharp grey suit, flanked by two peacekeepers. 'You will return to the town hall for your official registration before departure.'

No. It's too soon. 'I haven't even said good bye,' I choke.

'You are already behind schedule. We must depart immediately.'

'You're taking my daughter from me,' my father says, 'The least you can damn do is let us say our goodbyes.'

'She hasn't packed any belongings yet,' my mother must be panicking; practical thoughts are always how she hides her distress.

'That will not be necessary, she will be entirely provided for.' The woman's lips tighten. 'You have two minutes.'

'Please,' I whisper, 'Please don't take me.'

She is silent.

'Please let me go home,' I say, but it comes out as a sobbing gasp, and she will not reply.

'Annie,' my mother pulls me to her and folds her arms around me, 'Annie.'

For two minutes, then, I stand out on the quay with the arms of my family wrapped around me. I close my eyes and breathe slowly, breathe in the scent of my mother's newly pressed gingham dress and the tang of sea salt that accompanies my father whenever he goes. The breeze lifts my hair and my fingers are wrapped tightly through the hands of my brothers. Marcus' already showing the first soft calluses of a boy who's begun to work, and Finn's still tiny yet with a toddler's grip so firm it makes the lump in my throat ache further. We would stay like this for hours, but two minutes goes far more quickly when it's final.

We slowly peel apart.

'We're so proud of you,' my mother whispers, clutching my face in her hands. Her brown eyes search mine, earnest, pleading. 'We're so proud of you, and we love you so much. Whatever happens, remember that.'

I love you too. I love them so much. But I can't force out the words.

'Annie, will you come back?' says Finn, voice muffled because he will not stop sucking his thumb. 'Annie go, but come back soon.'

He presses something small into my hand. Shelleysticks, his little doll. Blue points for eyes, a red yarn for hair, and the heroine of every invented game I have played with my brothers since Marcus was old enough to want to play with me.

My face crumples but still I force out the lie I can't deny him.

'Yes, Finny. Annie will come back.'

The sharp-suited woman leaves me in a room dominated by a large computer bank. The glass screen and silver processor seem out of place against the old-style furnishings. As I stand before it, it hums and boots up with a soft blue glow.

The woman suddenly puts a finger to her ear and frowns. 'Yes, I'll be there right away.' She looks up. 'Stay here.'

The door shuts and I am left alone. Slowly, I sink down to the floor.

'Welcome, District 4 tribute,' says a soft female voice. 'Please commence registration.'

My knees are clutched up to my chest. Annie-can't-kill. The echo of my heartbeat rings in my ears, the veins in my wrists suddenly uncomfortably close to the surface. I'm suddenly acutely aware of the fragility of my body.

'Welcome, District 4 tribute,' the voice repeats, 'Please commence registration.'

Annie the coward.

It takes everything, but shakily, I rise to my feet.

I place my hand on the outline appearing on the screen in front of me, and it's an effort to keep my fingers straight. I feel the small pulse as a laser reads my palm.

'Identification: Annie Cresta. Female, 18. Residence: Area B1, ocean side. District citizen ID: Delta Two Gamma Four.'

Pictures appear on screen – an area map with my house position marked, the photo of me that was taken at the last census four years ago. I look young, my cheeks soft. I was only just starting to grow. Hazel eyes gazing out at me from a tanned, freckled face. Wispy hair escaping from my two braids and refusing to lie flat in the ridiculous bangs Mom had cut me that year.

'Tribute status: non-Career. Projected life expectancy: eleven days. Information updated.'

I rip my hand from the glass and the screen cuts out.

Annie the coward. Annie-can't-kill.

Annie, you're going to die.

'No,' I whisper, hands pressed to my ears, as though I can block out the sound of my own thoughts. 'No.'

The woman has not returned, and I can no longer bear to be alone in this room with the walls pressing in on me. I open the door, and it opens out into a wide corridor lit at intervals by lamps clutched in gilded holders on the walls. To my left is the way I came in. To my right, I hear voices. Human voices. Anything will be better than the taunting of my mind.

I walk down the corridor to where a heavy oaken door at the end stands ajar. Inside is a large room with a beamed ceiling and a wall length bookcase behind an elegant, carved wooden desk. I stand in the doorway of the mayor's office, but its occupants don't notice I'm here.

'How was this allowed to happen?' Mayor Brockhurst is furious, pacing across the plush carpet. 'She's a girl from the quay. A nobody. This was never supposed to happen.'

The purple-haired man stands with his hands braced on the collar of his sharp navy suit. 'The Capitol doesn't appreciate any local attempts at interfering with official proceedings.'

The mayor spins, face red. 'Are you accusing me of rigging the vote?' he hisses.

On the opposite side of the room, Finnick Odair leans against the wood paneled wall. His arms are crossed. 'Perhaps Mr Ballantine is just pointing out that for the past few years the odds have seemed bizarrely… in the Careers' favor.'

'I'm warning you, Odair,' Brockhurst says, raising a hand.

'It is true that in recent years, the choosing ceremony has shown unlikely statistical precedence towards Career tributes,' the man with the purple hair says coldly.

'There'd be even more,' Brockhurst splutters, 'With a lot more Victors too, if our District was given the respect it deserves, and Careers could volunteer –'

'Yet unfortunately the Capitol has not seen fit to grant Dispensation,' continues the purple haired man, 'And until such honors are forthcoming, rest assured that checks and balances have been instituted to ensure that any… discrepancies in the odds will not be occurring in the future.' He tilts his head forward, softly threatening. 'No further enquiry into the matter will be conducted. For now.'

A vein ticks in the mayor's neck.

Finnick shrugs languidly and smiles that creeping smile of his. 'It's a shame, really. Perhaps diverting all those funds to the Careers' school wasn't such a good idea after all. And all that money on the dispensation application gone to waste. Think what a better chance the District'd have at winning if only you'd invested in equipping all our children with basic survival skills as part of their schooling, something which as a matter of fact I suggested – '

'Odair, that's enough,' Brockhurst's hand slams down hard on the desk. I jump, and Finnick's head whips round.

'Annie Cresta,' he says, as though the words are fascinating to him, and pushes himself off the wall in a feline stretch. I swallow, because there's something terrifying about his beauty.

'How long have you been standing there?' demands Brockhurst. 'Who let you down here?'

'Enough of this,' says the purple-haired man, 'The train will be leaving for the Capitol shortly, and it's time the mentors were assigned. Though I imagine Ms Mackenney has already claimed young Clyde.'

Mentors? Of course. The Victor whose job it will be to try and keep me alive. I don't know whether I want to laugh or throw up.

'Follow me, Annie,' says Finnick Odair.

I walk behind him as we retrace my steps down the corridor. He wears a cord of twisted leather around his neck and I focus on a point between his shoulder blades; the muscles in his back move under his thin shirt. I know that if I was smart, I would ask him questions right now. Learn as many tricks as I can.

For me, keeping my mind blank is more important. If I keep my breathing steady for long enough, slowly the urge I have to scream may settle.

'You really threw us off out there this afternoon, Annie,' he says, without pausing in his stride. 'The reaction you provoked from the mayor when they read out your name was actually rather impressive.'

I don't know what to say, so I stay quiet. We pass along another corridor and by a large window set into an alcove. I crane my neck at the tops of roofs outside, and a sky that's shining its more customary blue.

'Annie,' Finnick's fallen back so that he's walking alongside of me, 'Fifty Careers out there are going home tonight sulking about how their dreams have been stolen by a girl from down by the water.' His lips curl into a half smile. 'You little heartbreaker.'

'You think it's funny that I was chosen.' My voice is sullen.

His lips thin. 'I find it ironic.'

'They've been altering the vote.' It's not a question.

'Be careful what you accuse people of, Miss Cresta,' says Finnick. 'The Capitol is always listening.' His tone is mocking, but I'm not sure towards whom.

I don't like that he calls me Miss, not when he's barely a year older than I am. He stops at a door and reaches out to turn the handle. The fine hair of his arm is bleached blonde against the bronze of his skin. I've seen that arm so many times on screen, tendons tight as it grips a trident, stained up to the elbow in blood.

He opens the door and I follow him inside. District 4's other Victors sit or stand ranged around the room, which unlike the previous two I'd entered makes no pretense at emulating a style of centuries gone. Clyde Laiken stands to one side. I cannot bring myself to face their hungry gazes, so I look down to my shoes, and then, squeezing Finn's doll in my fist, I change my mind, and raise my head to stare at the wall straight ahead of me.

'There you are,' says Maxine Reedbuck lazily. 'We thought you'd spirited the girl away.'

'Oh, ye of little faith,' says Finnick, feigning offence, 'Why would I want to do that, when this new development has made the Games more interesting than they've been in years?'

Conway Eschea gave a snort. 'If you like her so much, you can keep her. I won't mentor a dead duck.'

Dead duck. That's what we call skiffs that have taken one too many poundings in the summer storms, the ones leaking so that there's no hope of fixing them and are fit for nothing but to be broken up.

'Laiken's mine, by the way,' says Shona Mackenney, 'He always was a promising candidate in the academy.'

Laiken's handsome face has not had the training to quite hide his satisfaction.

Josiah inclines his head. 'I'll defer to that. I took one last year.'

'The girl will be… a challenge,' says Maxine.

'Challenge,' says Conway, 'She's going to die.'

Annie, the voice in my head echoes, slow and singsong, Annie, you're going to die.

'Shut up, Conway,' says Maxine. 'Annie, wasn't it?'

I realise she's speaking to me, but she doesn't seem to require an answer. She saunters towards me and cups my face in her hand, turning it this way and that. Her gaze is business like, efficient, and I try not to look away. 'It can be done, girl. It can always be done. Even the dead ducks. You'll have to fight tooth and nail and bleeding heart for it, but it can still be done.'

'You got first choice last year, Maxy. She's mine.'

I glance sideways at Finnick. I don't really care which of these strangers mentors me for the final two weeks of my life. But I don't want to spend my last days looking into the face of this boy, not when the past five years have never allowed me escape it for even a day.

Maxine raises an eyebrow.

'The Capitol gets boring after a while,' Finnick shrugs, 'All those multimillion power plays and politicians sucking up to each other. This will liven things up.'

Josiah snorts. 'You were always a terrible liar, Odair. But if you want her she's yours.'

What if I don't want him to mentor me, the thought trails through my mind. But my throat aches too much at the memory of my family's faces and my head is still ringing with shock for me to care enough to speak.

Maxine shrugs, and Shona nods. 'As I said, it's fine by me,' says Conway. 'I look forward to seeing what you make of her.'

'Mags?' Finnick asks, and if I didn't know any better, I'd think that he is seeking approval from this old, frail lady, who stands silently behind the others.

She gives him a warm smile, and that decides it.

Finnick Odair will be my mentor.