Another chapter for you tonight (and only a couple of days after my last update too. I'm on a roll). I feel like I should warn you. We're not at the happy ending yet.
Please review xx
CHAPTER THIRTY TWO - PAID IN FULL
I spend the next hour and a half lying flat on my bed, staring up at the ceiling. I don't sleep like I told Mags and Finnick I would. I'm not tired. Instead, I lie there, thinking; thinking about Mags and Finnick and the ocean and Ava.
A little smile traces my lips as I imagine her hugging me tightly. I knew you could do it, she'll tell me with that warm, knowing smile of hers. And then we'll live together in Victor Village, right next door to Finnick and Mags...
What to do about Finnick isn't exactly a problem easily solved. I know he cares about me, plus he admitted he wanted me to win and not just because I was one of his tributes either... but I'm not sure he likes me in the way I've started to realise I might like him. The note in the arena, the holding of my hand during the interview, the vague answers to the journalists' probing questions. It was all just for the sponsors, wasn't it? The truth is that when it comes to Finnick and his charm, I'm not really sure about anything.
One thing I am certain of, however, is that I need him like I need to breathe and I'll be damned if I'm going to do anything to compromise our friendship.
So what if the way his coppery hair falls about his forehead makes my stomach flutter? So what if the wicked glint in his eyes makes my spine tingle? So what if his smile makes my heart falter? Just because I'm attracted to him doesn't mean I have to do anything about it. We can still be friends.
A knock on my door interrupts my thoughts and my stomach flips a little with excitement. We must be close to 4.
"Annie?" Finnick's asks tentatively. "Are you awake?"
Ignoring the extra flip my stomach turns when I hear his voice, I slide off the bed and pad over to the door, sliding the lock across and throwing it open towards me. Apparently leaning against it, Finnick nearly falls into my room.
I take a surprised step back as he regains his balance.
"Crap." He says, grabbing hold of the door post. "I thought you might still be asleep."
I can't help myself, I let out a little giggle.
"Why were you leaning on my door?"
"I was trying to listen for signs of movement." I snigger again and he rolls his eyes. "Laugh it up all you like, Cresta. You didn't answer me."
"I opened the door." I point out. He gives an exaggerated sigh.
I smile at him and he smiles back. Our eyes meet and there's a faintly awkward silence. Unnerved, I fix my gaze on my boots but I sense his is still firmly on me.
"Annie..." He begins seriously.
"Are we nearly at district 4?" I interrupt brightly, jerking my head up to look at him. He pauses, apparently not wanting to drop whatever he was about to bring up, but then he sighs.
"Yes. We've crossed the border. You wanted us to come and fetch you as soon as we could see the ocean."
"You can see the ocean?" I ask eagerly, the previous awkwardness momentarily forgotten in my excitement. He nods, a little smile creeping across his lips.
"Yep," He holds out his hand. "Through the big window in the main room."
I hesitate – holding hands with him won't exactly help the confusion I'm already feeling – but then he raises a teasing eyebrow and I realise it'll be more awkward if I refuse to take his hand. We seem to be holding hands more often than not these days. And so, swallowing a little anxiously, I slip my hand through his. He gives it a squeeze, before interlocking his fingers in mine and tugging me gently along the corridor.
"Come on then." He says, softly.
I let him pull me down the hallway, back into the main room. Mags is standing at the window, but she turns as we walk in and her smile is kind. I smile back, but then my attention is caught by the faint glimmering of water in the distance.
Pulling my hand free from Finnick's, I dart over to the window, pressing my palms against the window as the ocean flashes into view again between the trees, far away on the horizon.
"The ocean." I breathe. An inexpressible sense of euphoria overtakes me as the trees slowly dissipate, allowing me to see it clearly; stretching out infinitely before me.
I never thought I'd ever see my ocean again. I never thought I'd see my towering rocky cliffs, never thought I'd feel that indescribable sense of freedom that comes from looking out over these endless waters, never thought I'd hear the cries of seagulls ever again.
Finnick joins us at the window and for a few minutes I think he and Mags are enjoying seeing our district again as well, but then I become aware that they're both watching me, matching smiles of contentment on their lips.
I lean back from the window, glancing between the two of them. There are tears in Mags' eyes.
"Welcome home, Annie," She says thickly. "Welcome home."
It takes us nearly half an hour to reach the town and as we pull slowly into the station, I hear the town clock chime eight. Mags hands me a navy blue coat.
"Starla sent this for you." She says, helping me into it and tugging it tightly around me. "You'll need it too, there's a storm moving inland."
I smile broadly at this. I love sea storms. As a child, I used to run outside in as little clothing as possible and dance in the rain. Ava used to feign annoyance but she loves storms as much as I do. When I got too old to strip off in the downpours, we'd sit on our veranda, watching the rain, marvelling at the lightning, feeling the thunder rumble through our bodies. It was the very definition of freedom.
As the train's engines fade into silence, various sounds take over; the yell of the station master, the scrape of the ramp being pulled into place, the scream of a seagull. I wait impatiently by the train door, anxious to breathe in the sea air, anxious to see my Grandmother again.
Eventually, though, the doors slide slowly open and the thin cool sunlight spills across my face. I stand for a moment, my eyes flickering shut, just breathing deeply, enjoying the sensation of the cold ocean breeze inside my nose. I lick my lips and find they already taste of salt.
Home. I'm home.
I feel a warm presence behind me and don't have to turn to know who it is. My skin tingles.
"You ready for this?" Finnick whispers in my ear.
"I think so." I reply, my eyes opening, and nervous butterflies starting in my stomach. They'll be expecting me to give a speech...
And then I feel Finnick's hand press gently into the small of my back, nudging me gently forwards and I step carefully onto the ramp, then down onto the faded red carpet laid out especially for my return. A single photographer takes pictures. It's all so different to the sprawling Capitol station and its shrieking reporters, and I revel in the tranquillity.
Finnick keeps his hand on my back as he propels me gently down the length of the platform, past the line of saluting peacekeepers, closely followed by Mags and Violet. The photographer follows us, still snapping pictures and I manage a few apprehensive smiles in his direction.
The Mayor meets us inside the dimly lit station, shifting restlessly, his hand shake oddly hesitant. He looks... pained.
I expect he's worried I'll scream again or something. I'll bet he wasn't too pleased when it became clear I was half insane. Still, a crazy victor's better than no victor.
"Arrangements have been made for you to move into Victor's village right away." He tells me carefully as we head through the station, our footsteps loud on the concrete floor.
"Where's Ava?" I ask, struggling a little to keep up with his brisk pace. I'd expected her to be in the station, waiting to greet me. His eyes slide sideways towards me.
"Shall we get the welcome speeches over first?" He asks lightly. My eyebrows furrow perplexedly but before I can question further and insist I see Ava before they make me go out in front of that crowd, the station doors open and Finnick steers me gently through, out into the town square.
It's packed with people – silent people. They stand, huddled together in thick coats and warm boots, staring wordlessly at me as the frigid wind whips across the square. I pull my own coat tighter around me and move slowly across the red carpet, following the Mayor up onto the stage – the very same stage the peacekeepers shoved me onto after Violet called my name all those weeks ago.
The Mayor takes the microphone, his voice echoing hollowly across the audience.
"This is a special day," He announces. "A very special day, indeed." He continues on about honour and glory and gratitude but I'm not really listening. I'm too busy scanning the audience for Ava's warm and welcoming face.
Instead, I meet a pair of pale green eyes and my breath catches in my throat at their familiarity... but then I focus and I realise I've locked eyes with Ethan's father. I blanch under his gaze, feeling myself curl inwards, retreating further into my huge coat. His expression becomes one of sympathy and confusion creases my brow.
I'm suddenly aware that the Mayor is staring expectantly at me and I blink a little.
"Miss Cresta?" He asks. "Would you like to say a few words?"
How about no? I'd really like to just shake my head and let them get on with it, but I know there'll be at least one camera broadcasting my arrival across Panem and it's expected of a victor to make some kind of speech.
And so I nod silently, and there's a smattering of vaguely reluctant applause as the Mayor nudges me into position. I stare down the microphone, unsure what to say, unsure what they want from me.
"Um." I flinch as my voice bursts from the speakers, crackling loudly. I lean back from the microphone a little. "I, uh, I guess I'd like to thank you all for your support." I swallow nervously. "I'm sure not many of you thought I'd be strong enough to win and you were probably right. I won by chance, I was a..." I pause for a moment. "An accidental victor. I probably don't deserve to be standing here and I know I wouldn't be if it hadn't have been for Ethan." My eyes meet Ethan's father's again and my next words are specifically for him. "He was a very special person." I say huskily, hoping Snow won't be too irritated with me. Victors don't usually mention their district partners. "He deserved to win really," I continue quickly. "And if it wasn't for his bravery, I wouldn't be standing here now. That's a fact."
I look out over the crowd again. Every face is serious. Every expression is pitying. I can't explain it, but it's like there's something I'm missing, something I should know.
It's unnerving to say the least.
"I, um, I..." I stammer, glancing around behind me, looking for Finnick, looking for a reassuring smile, but I can't see him, he's disappeared. "I, uh, I just want to say I'm glad to be back in 4," I continue hesitantly. "I'm glad to be home."
I give a little nod and step back from the microphone. There's a small applause and the Mayor, taking my place again at the podium, gives me a vague smile. Still, I'm feeling strangely unsettled and I don't listen to the rest of the Mayor's speech. I still can't see Finnick and come to think of it, I can't see Mags either.
A biting wind lifts my hair and I burrow my nose into my collar, shoving my hands into my pockets as I begin to shiver, partly through cold, partly through anxiety.
I'm growing increasingly concerned; I still haven't caught even a glimpse of Ava. I know Finnick told me Snow has no reason to hurt her, but he didn't hear him tell me freedom has a price, he didn't hear the twisted satisfaction in his voice or see the ominous glint in his eyes.
Where is my Grandmother? And why haven't I been allowed to see her? The fact that I haven't been able to see her straight away – as I thought I would – is both confusing and terrifying. I shift impatiently on the stage, anxious for the Mayor's speech to end.
Finally, though, it does and the crowd begins to disperse. I half expect the Mayor to come and speak to me, but he just turns and leaves the stage via the steps on the opposite side. A little bemused, I allow myself to be herded down the steps by the peacekeepers.
"Where's my Grandmother?" I ask the one who's keeping a firm grip of my arm, as we reach the bottom of the stairs.
"It's not my place to say." He says vaguely, avoiding meeting my eyes. I stare at him, my lips parted in utter puzzlement. But before I can ask him what on earth he means, I spot Finnick standing near the station doors, talking quietly with Mags.
Yanking my arm from the peacekeeper's grasp, I start towards my mentor.
"Finnick!" I call as I near him and he turns. His face is pale and it suddenly feels like I'm trying to wade through honey. My step falters but I manage to reach him.
"Annie," He whispers and there's so much pain in his eyes I can't breathe. "Annie, I'm sorry."
And then somehow, I know. I know because I suspected it the moment Snow told me he'd killed Finnick's parents. I know because I suspected it all along but told myself I was wrong.
I know, because freedom comes at a price.
My vision blurs and my legs buckle. Finnick's catches me, pulling me against his warm body and wrapping strong arms around my waist, and I'm suddenly hysterical, tears streaming down my face, sobs of pain and devastation racking through my already exhausted body.
The worst has happened.
My old house is a burnt out shell.
I stand in front of it, staring at the mass of blackened and crumbled wood and collapsed concrete posts with an odd sense of detachment. Ashes rise up into the air at every breath of wind and dance away into the grey sky. Peacekeepers patrol the perimeter, talking quietly amongst themselves, sneaking glances at me, whilst investigators probe the edges of the ruin, their gloves hands coated in ash.
They told me the fire was started last night. A few hours after I screamed, apparently, and Finnick announced my insanity. By the time the fire fighters arrived, the house was engulfed and it was clear Ava hadn't gotten out.
They found her body early this morning.
I close my eyes. This is my fault. Ava's dead and it's all my fault.
I feel a warm hand take mine.
"I'm sorry, Annie." Finnick says softly and I flinch like a frightened animal, jerking my hand from his.
"Please." I gasp. "Please don't touch me."
I hear him let out a little sad breath.
"It's not your fault."
"It is." I whisper. "I shouldn't have screamed."
He grabs my arms, spinning me round to face him.
"Annie..." He says and his voice is agonised.
"Miss Cresta?" Someone interrupts apologetically.
I extricate myself from Finnick's grasp, turning to see the Head Peacekeeper, a stout man with bushy grey eyebrows and kind eyes. Gabe, I think his name is.
"Yes?" I say, my voice cracking.
"The body has been confirmed by DNA as Ava Cresta." He tells me gently. "You won't have to identify her."
My breath shudders through my teeth.
Gabe looks at me sympathetically.
"I'm very sorry for your loss, Annie." He says. I nod, my eyes drifting towards what used to be my house.
"Me too." I say.
"We've found no evidence of arson, though" He continues. "No traces of accelerant. We believe the fire started in the fireplace and grew out of control whilst your Grandmother slept."
I snap my head back to stare back at him in disbelief.
"No evidence of arson?" I ask, my voice growing high pitched. "What the hell do you mean no evidence of arson? Of course it was arson! Ava would never leave a fire going whilst she slept!"
"We have no evidence anyone would want to target your house, Miss Cresta." Gabe replies.
Again I am dumbfounded.
"What is wrong with you?" I cry. "I know exactly who..."
Finnick grabs my arm, pulling me back against him and pressing a warning hand against my stomach.
"What Annie is trying to say," He says, his tone firm. "Is that she would prefer it if you'd conduct a full and thorough investigation of the fire before you pronounce it an accident."
"We will, Mr Odair." His gaze flickers back towards me. "I promise you, Miss Cresta, we will look into to this as thoroughly as possible. If there is someone to blame for this tragedy, they will face retribution."
I take a deep unsteady breath. I already know who's to blame and they will never ever face retribution.
"Thank you." I say unconvincingly. I wriggle from Finnick's grasp, turning back to the burnt out ruins. "May I?" I ask and Gabe nods.
"It's all stable." He says. "Just don't go crawling under any beams."
Feeling all eyes on me, I walk slowly and deliberately towards my old house, hesitating for a moment at the beginning of the ash, but then carefully stepping into the ruins. I am not hugely hopeful of finding any of my personal belongings, but I look all the same.
The wind picks up and more ashes rise, stinging my eyes and swirling around me like dark little butterflies soaring upwards into the pale sky. The burnt floorboards groan as I step on them, and everything is a blackened mess, everything is utterly destroyed. It looks – in fact – horribly similar to the forest back in the arena after the acid rain had hit. I think of poor Jasmine and her pain.
God, I hope it was smoke inhalation that killed Ava. I hope she didn't burn.
A smudge of red a little to my right catches my eye, bright amongst the black soot. I turn, squinting a little, and my heart stops.
Because there, sitting amongst the ashes, is a deep red rose.
I crunch across the brittle debris and pick it up, my hand trembling. It's crumpled and wilted, dried blood smeared across its leaves and my eyes flutter shut as I realise I recognise it.
The shape of the petals, the five thorns, the blood. It's the rose Snow gave me back in his garden, the rose that left deep scratches across my hand, the rose I threw across the car and abandoned in a crumpled heap on the floor. I have no idea how he got it here – perhaps he ordered someone from the train's staff to place it here – but I am in no doubt that it's the same rose.
It's a signature. The signature to a work of art; the signature to a perfectly executed murder. If I had doubted Snow's role in the death of my Grandmother, it would be completely clear now.
Guilt and bitterness and hatred tightens in my chest, like a hand around my heart and with a tearless sob, I drop the rose onto the ground and, stamping hard on it with my heel, grind the petals viciously into the ashes.
The price of freedom, Snow? Paid in full.
Mags was right. There is a storm heading our way.
Standing on the wild, windy cliff top, I can see it, far out above the ocean, the dark angry clouds massing together, roaring and twisting like some kind of beast. Here on the cliffs, though, the rain is light; the droplets so small they're barely visible and more like a damp mist. It's just beginning to get dark now and I should probably go back, but I can't. I just can't.
I escaped the sympathetic gazes and pitying words nearly an hour ago, snapping at Finnick to leave me alone and then wandering up here by myself. I needed the space, needed the freedom of the cliff tops to think, to breathe, to cry.
My heart wrenches every time I think of it, every time I try to acknowledge it.
Her only crime? Being the one person I loved. Snow killed her because it would break me even more. He can't control my body, so he takes over my mind, scarring me so deeply I will never ever heal; I will never ever forget.
If only I hadn't screamed. If only I hadn't shown my instability. If only Finnick hadn't exaggerated my insanity.
But I did, and so did he, and now Ava's gone, Ava's dead and I can never forgive myself.
I stare out at the ocean; once blue and shimmering like a thousand diamonds, now grey and dark and raging. I edge closer to the grassy cliff edge and the jagged rocks far below come into view. The water is white there, rough and violent, and the rocks are as sharp as knives.
I know that if I jumped, I'd die.
But would that be such a bad thing? I was sure as hell scared of death in the arena. I still am. But maybe I'm more scared of dying than I am of death itself. Maybe the thing about death is that once you get through the painful part, it's actually not that bad.
A familiar voice suddenly echoes across the cliff top.
"You know if you jump, you're just letting him win."
I turn, irritated, to see Finnick, wrapped up in a dark coat, his arms folded across his chest, scarf whipping out with the wind.
"Leave me alone, Finnick." I snap for the second time today. But he doesn't, he just stomps through the tall, damp grass towards me, stopping only when he's at my side.
"You don't want to jump." He tells me, a little breathlessly. "Not really."
"How would you know?" I spit.
"Because I've been here." He says. "I've stood and looked down at those rocks and thought that death seemed a whole lot better than living."
"What if it is?" I ask angrily. He shrugs.
"Then at some point we'll both find out. But not today, Annie. You've barely lived at all."
"I've lived through quite enough." I reply bitterly. His eyes soften.
"I know. Me too. But if you kill yourself, you let Snow win."
"Snow has already won." I say, turning away to stare at the furious mass of clouds in the distance. "He killed Ethan. He stole my mind. He murdered Ava."
"He hasn't won." Finnick says vehemently. "He hasn't won because you're alive. You have me and Mags. You can be happy, Annie."
And then something - maybe it's because of that word happy - snaps inside.
"I'll never be happy!" I yell furiously, turning on him. "How the hell can you say that? How can I be happy without the person I love most in the whole world? How can I be happy when I have to go back to the Capitol every damn year and get to know two more kids, just to watch them die?"
"Because that's how it is." Finnick tells me bluntly. "And you learn to live with it."
"You don't know anything!" I scream over the roaring wind. "You don't understand!"
"I do know!" He shouts back, raising his voice as the storm gets nearer, bringing the gale with it. "Snow took my parents!"
"You have your sister!" I screech furiously. "I have no one!"
His eyes are sad as he yells back.
"You have me!"
Letting out a frustrated cry, I turn on my heel, storming off along the cliff face. I expect he'll follow me, but I can't hear him over the wind.
My hair whipping wildly about my face, I stomp angrily through the scrub bushes and wild grass until the ground slopes sharply downwards and becomes stone. I drop down onto my bum and shuffle down the gravelly rocks until I land on a little flat space, the steep faces I've just slid down sheltering it from the furious wind. I pause for a moment, catching my breath, and then I hear Finnick taking the same route as me.
There's a thud from behind me as he lands on the flat ground. It's quieter here than the cliff top, no less wet, but nowhere near as windy. The dark clouds have moved over the cliffs and the rain is heavy now, soaking us both to the skin in seconds.
"You guessed." I say bitterly, without turning. "You guessed Snow would kill her."
There is a pause and high high above us the wind howls like a desolate wolf.
"I had my concerns." He says carefully. I spin around.
"You knew as soon as I screamed, didn't you?" I cry. "You knew as soon as Benedict suggested you pronounce me insane!"
"I hoped." He says roughly. "I hoped he wouldn't."
"Why didn't you tell me?" I scream. I can barely see him through the tears burning in my eyes and the pouring rain. "Why didn't you tell me as soon as I won that I was in danger?"
"Because it wouldn't have made a difference!" Finnick cries. "You never meant to scream! You'd have done it no matter what I said!"
"I wouldn't." I say. My voice is quieter now, but there's a note of bitterness, cold and hard as steel, that the old Annie, the Annie before the arena, would have hated. "But you know it wasn't just the scream, Finnick." I continue bitingly. "We could have downplayed that. We could have made excuses. You decided to tell everyone I was crazy. You made it so none of Snow's clients would want me."
Finnick stares at me for a moment, his mouth open.
"Are you blaming me?" He asks with difficulty. "Are you saying this is my fault?"
"If you'd never told them I was crazy," I say resentfully. "Snow would be whoring me out right now and Ava would be alive."
"You wouldn't want to live how I do, Annie." Finnick says, shaking his head and moving towards me again. "Your Grandmother would never have wanted that either."
"She never got a chance to make that decision, did she?" I spit, glaring up at him. "You made it for us."
"If I hadn't," He says forcefully. "Snow would be advertising you right now."
"I don't care!" I scream, the tears spilling over my eyelids and streaking down my cheeks, mingling with the rain and tasting salty on my lips. "She's dead, Finnick! I've lost her forever!"
"Annie." Finnick reaches for me, concern in his eyes, but I snatch my hands away and then slap him hard across the face. He recoils, shock in his eyes, but I don't regret it. I may be one reason why Ava's dead right now, but so is he.
"I hate you, Finnick Odair." I say coldly, the frigid rain trickling down the back of my neck and freezing my bones. "Don't try and talk to me ever again."
Ahhh, this chapter was sad for me to write; Annie's gone through enough, hasn't she? But it had to happen, and I couldn't resist the dramatic fight on top the cliffs. I'm liking me some pathetic fallacy ;) Oh and all the angst! It's just too much fun to leave out XD
Hope you enjoyed this chapter anyway, please review xx