Written for the monthly challenge at Caesar's Palace forum. A little play on the "five things" style of fics. Many thanks to Estoma for the beta.
The passenger car swayed gently, a skiff in low tide, and the rhythmic clack-clack held a lulling quality. But Annie could not sleep, fearful of the monsters manufactured by dreams. She could neither allow her mind to drift onwards to the next second or minute or hour and the deadlier creatures that lurked there. Seized by inertia, capsizing by the winds of the coming storm, Annie's mind sought for ballast, and found it in the diametric pair seated at the opposite end of the train car.
District Four's oldest victor and her prodigal tribute. Finnick and Mags spoke quietly to one another. They sat too far off to be heard, but their paralanguage spoke loud and unmistakable, heavy sighs, pursed lips. Words like hopeless and maybe not.
Annie didn't dwell on the portent. Rather, she latched onto their easy rapport, the intimacy of their exchange. They were perplexing, a puzzle waiting to be mastered – in short a perfect distraction. So Annie ignored what lay ahead and instead watched what lay before her. They were an odd pair who, by all outward appearances, should not be acquaintances much less friends, should tolerate one another as oil did water. Why such affection between them, she asked herself. Why?
Mags padded over, said, "You should try and get some sleep," in her soft, scarred voice, like whispers through gravel.
"No thank you."
"You really should, dear. It'll be a circus once we get to the Capitol. A bit of sleep w'do well to calm your nerves."
Annie didn't speak or blink. Instead she turned her neck to stare out the window for long minutes. Their lavish westbound train bore them swiftly over sun-quenched hills, orchards of red and green, and the long, lonely fields stretched like golden oceans and to which Annie paid no heed. Finally she said, "No. I don't think I will. And besides, Reef–" She flicked her head to the adjacent chair. Reef was out like the sun at midnight.
"And Reef is getting some rest, just like you ought to be doing, just like Mags told you." Annie lifted her chin at the great Finnick Odair sauntering over in all his heroic glory, coming, no doubt, to stand and condescend over her. Annie pressed her lips together. Did they expect some kind of submission?
"I'm not closing my eyes once until I get back to District Four."
Finnick broke into a smile. He glanced at his co-mentor. "What do you know, Mags. We have a fighter on our hands." Then he kneeled, eyes level with hers. "I like that about you, Annie Cresta. I didn't have you figured."
"So what did you have me figured?"
Finnick opened his mouth, but was cut off by Mags. "Finnick. That's enough."
His smile slackened. He looked down to the floor. "Look, Annie, I didn't mean any disrespect." Then he looked back up at her, features hardened, smile gone. "But I genuinely meant what I said. You've got some fire and I'm glad for it. You'll need it." He paused, eyes hazy, unfocused, seeing not her face but a place and time so distant yet so palpable that she could nearly see the grasping images reflected in his deep green irises. "The games," he whispered, "they –"
She shot to her feet. "They what? Kill you?" She itched to cover her ears but instead folded her hands over her chest, squeezed her arms till her nails left half-moon indents. "Thank you, but I already knew that. All of Panem knows that!"
Finnick slowly rose, an aloof smirk spreading in tandem. "Oh, if you're lucky they'll kill you." The quality of his voice had shifted. Everything about him had shifted. He spoke and gestured like they were about to step into the arena together. "The games, they're like….a rip tide. You know how it goes, you thrash around, try to fight against the current, and what do you get for your effort? Well, it just grips you harder, pulls at you harder until you finally slip under." He made a diving motion with his hand. "Down you go." He smiled broadly. "You're only real option for survival is to stop fighting, stop all that whining and posturing and thrashing about and just let the tide take you, pull you farther and farther out to sea."
Annie refused to shrink. She kept her face level and steady. But the vivid reminder of eight kills at fourteen forced her eyes to the floor. "But then you're stuck in the middle of the ocean," she said quietly. "Stranded."
"Not quite." He nodded towards Mags standing beside him. "Look hard enough and you'll find some company out there. All the others who wisely decided to stop fighting the tide." Mags smiled. She reached up a hand and ruffed up his hair, prompting a mock outrage that was twinged, Annie observed, with a real note of irritation. "Do you know how many people I'd disappoint stepping off the train while looking like this, Mags?"
She barked a laugh. "The more the better!"
He threw her a stabbing glare, right hand gingerly patting his ruined coif. "I need to get this fixed." Then he headed towards the back of the car.
"After you finish primping you should take your own advice, Finnick," Mags called after. "Sleep a bit. You need it. I'll sit up with Annie."
Finnick tipped his head, then disappeared through the door, and watching them – watching the effect they had on each other – the answer to the question that pestered Annie, the reason as to why Finnick and Mags were Finnick and Mags, finally awakened within her.
Because they were the same.
And because Annie faced the same dilemma, because behind Finnick's disturbing analogies she understood the underlying clarion call; because her options were either to die or become one of them, she kept to the same routine over the course of her stay at the Capitol. Whether eating, dressing, training, learning, she watched. She studied. She occupied her mind with her two mentors, observing them as if her life depended on it.
Mags, to her mind, was the easy one – which didn't mean she was simple or bland. Mags had layers, but she was unafraid to undress her intricacies, air them out for all to see. Annie learned quickly that she was hearty and kind, a grilled fish and potatoes type, but also that she was demanding, like a good wine that challenged one's palate, expecting her tributes to rise to the occasion of her standards.
Of particular note: she slept hard, and disturbingly often.
"She's old," Finnick tried to explain once, very early on, after they had settled into their apartments but before Annie had shaken the feel of the train rolling under her feet. "What can you do?" he offered with a shrug.
"Wake her up?" She shot a look over to Mags. A champion sleeper, that woman could put stones to shame. It frightened Annie, to see her wrinkled, grey head so resolutely shut down.
So she poked her, just to be on the safe side.
"Stop that," Finnick scolded, and batted her hand away. "It's incredibly endearing that you care so much for dear Mags, but she's just a deep sleeper." And then he fixed her with such an incisive, accusatory look that he might as well have sent her to bed without any supper. "Like I told you before, she's just old. You should let her rest."
Annie frowned, her temper ignited. As much as her mentors were growing on her, there remained the imminent fighting-to-the-death aspect of their relationship. "She has the rest of her life to rest!"
A stark silence followed, the forbidden I don't littered like land mines across the space between them. "Annie. I know," he said, and she rolled her eyes and stormed away, collapsed on the sofa in her room before he could utter another syllable. How could he know? He was the legendary Finnick Odair and therefore could have no possible notion what it was like to be ordinary Annie Cresta. Finnick trailed after her. "You think I don't," he persisted, "but I do. Because no matter how strong or smart or popular a tribute is, the arena is the great equalizer and the odds are always one out of twenty four. And that's why we're going to do everything we can for you." He closed his eyes briefly. "Both of you."
Annie kept her face wedged into the cushions. "I know." Tears soaked the fabric. "I know you're trying." After a few minutes she collected herself, drew herself up, wiped her face, and glanced out the door towards the dozing Mags. "Both of you." It occurred to Annie just then that Mag's frequent need for unconsciousness might be more a matter of survival than choice. "And I don't blame her, not really. Sometimes I wonder…" She looked down at the hands in her lap, fingers twisting together. "How many years has she been a mentor? How many children did she lead by the hand to their deaths? I think I'd sleep forever after all that blood."
Her tears renewed. "Hey, hey." A light hand on her cheek delayed them. She looked to its owner, now seated beside her. From her television set she knew Finnick Odair had winsome smiles, wicked smiles. Right now he smiled like a friend. "Don't worry about Mags' problems. You've got enough of your own."
Annie watched his face. She studied his eyes. "And what about you?"
He laughed. "You should definitely not worry about my problems."
"But how do you bear it? Watching them die year after year? How can you sleep each night knowing you can't do anything about it except pretend it never bothers you?" The tears blossomed, branched down her dusky cheeks, for these were the real lessons she needed to learn if she wanted to survive more than merely her games.
She caught faint shadows in his bloodshot eyes, wondered at the ever-undisturbed sheets lining his mattress. "Maybe it doesn't bother me," he said with a smile.
Annie kept her eye roll in check, but just barely. "Right." A month ago she might have believed it of the unparalleled Finnick Odair, the Capitol darling, the ruthless and efficient killer, the lover of droves. "Except now your act is a little harder to swallow since the first thing I ever learned about you is that your best friend is actually a seventy-four year old woman."
"Not the first thing." His features began walling up, that portcullis of a smirk "I'm Finnick Odair, after all – you must have learned all about me from your television, anything you want to know in the comfort of your own living room."
She shook her head. "I don't trust anything I see on television. I only trust what I know is real. Sand in my toes. The taste of salt." Her eyesight unhinged, peered at him as if looking through glass. "Sometimes you don't even seem real, even when you're sitting right in front of me." Leaning in closer, close enough to brush her chin against his lapels, she stopped a hairsbreadth from nose-to-nose and was startled to be confronted by his youth. Wash off the paint, gouge out those ancient eyes and she could really believe he was only a year or two older than her. Up close Finnick Odair was everything he was not from far away. Not a murderer of children, not the pavonine seducer.
"I'm sitting right in front of you," he said. "What do you see?"
"I don't know. You're the most opaque person I've ever known." And her eyes widened at the recognition that she was starting to see right through him.
Annie jumped to her feet, backed away, bound her hair up with an overstretched rubber band she wore on her wrist in a single swoop, and declared she was going to bed. Finnick took the hint and wordlessly departed, and that was their last moment of propinquity, the last time he spoke of himself or she cried in front of him, before they parted the morning of the games. In the interim:
The interview – "Annie Cresta, Ladies and Gentleman! So what do we have this evening? A sea sprite? And what a stunning gown! I think compliments are due to Drusina, wouldn't you all agree? Yes, yes! Now Annie...our dark, mysterious Annie – there are those of us simply dying to know what's going on behind those forbidden, green eyes, what sort of schemes do you have in store for the Seventieth Hunger Games….?"
The training – "Take it from me – stick to the survival stations – fishing, hunting. I can teach you to make a proper bait and tackle easy enough, not that you'd need a refresher. Practice building a fire. Learn what to eat. Learn what not to eat. I can teach you the basics of close range fighting, but I'm telling you now, we won't focus on that –"
The last night she would spend alive – "Listen to me. You're not hopeless. You have wits. That's more than can be said for a lot of these tributes. You stay focused and sharp. You read your opponents, every word they say, every move they make, and you stay ten steps ahead of them. You can do that, Annie, because The Hunger Games may be all about killing, but more than that they're about surviving. And I think you're a survivor."
"A survivor?" High pitched laughter tumbled from her lips. "You don't know me! You don't know anything about me! You haven't seen enough of me." Back home Annie had always been categorized as one of the bless her heart types – toes always managing to find the washed up jellyfish, tripping and tangling over the belts of seaweed lining the shore. Where would her clumsy feet chance to purchase out in the arena?
Finnick crossed his arms for a moment, shook his head with a scrunched up mouth, no doubt biting back words. He threw up his hands. "Then what do you want to do, Annie? Dig a hole, crawl in, weep until someone puts you out of your misery? Because you're going in that arena" – he pointed towards the window – "in one hour!"
"Maybe I could talk to Drusina. Have her paint a target on my back."
He covered his eyes with a hand. "Don't even joke about that."
"Why not? Isn't that what I am? A great big joke? There are people out there right now, betting on the games. Betting for me to die. They want me to die, Finnick!"
Without word he reached out and folded her into his arms, Annie too surprised to struggle, to do anything except accept the heat of his body, the feel of his skin against hers. "Close your eyes," he whispered. "Listen."
Her breath came in heaving rushes. "Just stop, Finnick! There's nothing you can say –"
"Listen." She quieted her lungs. Closed her mouth, then her eyes, and complied. "Now, what do you hear?"
Her head resting on his chest. "Your breathing." In and out, in and out. The steady pulse of the tide, drawing her away with a hand on her back and one woven into her thick, dark hair. "Your heart." Rhythmic, deep, solid. Sure enough to hang a future, a hope, an anchor that could save her or one day drown her. "The ocean. Home."
"Home. And all those people waiting for you to come back home. So don't give up. Try, Annie. Try for them, even if you won't for yourself."
"I saw them before I left. They were devastated but...they understood. They made their peace with my fate." Before this moment, before she had laid eyes on him and spoke words with him, she thought she had as well. "We said our goodbyes."
"Then someone else back home waiting for you?" He paused. "A boy?"
He pushed her slightly back, enough to look into her face. "Then what about me?" His green eyes pierced, demanded answers. "What if I want to see you again?" Fathomless eyes that could not be mapped out in the short time they had left. Annie supposed he must find her a bit sweet. Like a morsel of sugar. But she couldn't rely on any fleeting attachment on his part. After all, Finnick Odair was a veteran of loss, four tributes down and counting, and in a few days she'd be gone as well, dissolved away in a thrice, the taste of her all but forgotten.
And that was the worst part. He's going to forget me. Oh, she'd known boys. Boys that made her laugh, cry, the gamut in between. And she'd watched Finnick and studied him and observed him enough to know he was nothing like those boys, this boy who was every boy she'd ever known, this boy who was unlike any boy she'd ever met, this unearthly boy who could break her as surely as any arena.
And in that moment she almost hated him, the fact that she would never see him again, never study him again, so she pushed him away and said it:
"I think you're the last boy on earth I would ever want to see. Even if I do win."
Five boys who were not Finnick Odair.
Annie lived with her brothers, and her sisters, and all the concomitant noise and bustle, on her tiny, crowded street in her even tinier house. The Crestas were known throughout the neighborhood as a rather prolific family, always two underfoot and another one on the way. It wasn't that her parents didn't love her so much that she would often discover herself lost, adrift in a sea of limbs and vying faces till she slipped beneath the surface unnoticed, the press of bodies to all sides like an oppressive, ever-shrinking cell.
So she would run outside. Escape to the sky and the coast, as did so many in District Four where backyards hosted the door to the rest of the unknown world. Annie liked to plop onto the sand and simply watch the horizon, her drawn up knees a pillow for a head too laden with massive curls and tangled questions.
Was it really as the Capitol told them? All other bodies of land gobbled up by the rising waters that undid the nations of old, nothing but tattered wastelands beyond the seas?"
"You think too much."
Annie rolled her eyes. Her mother often chastised her for the very same failing, and she decided this would have to be the last time she ever shared her deepest thoughts with Julian, whom she had just met the month before, and of whom she really knew nothing.
What she did know: he was thin and wiry. He liked to jog, miles and miles and miles up and down the beach, the unceasing exercise and practice required by a fledgling career. The boys on the beach. That's what everyone called them. Of course there were girls too, but fewer. Just one of those nameless, hope to be famous boys who looked longingly towards the Capitol and glory rather than the white caps and freedom a boat ride away.
They were ten and tanning, laid out on the beach watching the herd of careers sparring, spearing things that moved in the water.
Annie didn't get it. "Why would you want to fight for them?"
"You mean the Capitol?"
Annie nodded. "Of course, who else do you think I mean? The people who keep us locked in our Districts,starved half to death!"
"Annie, I'm not fighting for them." This was a constant sticking point for any of the so-called careers in District Four. They were not One and Two; they were not willingly subservient, complicit in the tyranny. Julian beat his chest with one fist. "Me, I'm just fighting for myself. Someone's got to win, may as well be District Four. May as well be me. And when I win my games," here he smiled, "I won't have to worry about money or food or none of that anymore."
"Yeah, that's what I mean. I'll be living the sweet life. Right over there." Annie was bidden to use her imagination at his avid pointing northward, for they lived nowhere near the wealthy subdivisions that flanked the Victor's Wharf.
"But what's a big house worth? Or all the money in Panem?" Dying. Killing. Annie shivered. "I don't think I could name a price to make it all worth it."
Julian lifted a handful of sand, let it slip slowly through his boyish fingers. After the last grain descended, he shrugged, said, "I dunno. What have I got to lose anyway?" And he ran off after another boy with a laugh.
Annie watched him thrust and parry, thought about everything she knew about Julian. She knew he never spoke of friends or loved ones. She knew he didn't go home to a large family crammed into a small house. From what Annie could see he spent all day training and tanning under the sun, that he never went home to anyone at all.
A boy on the beach. Nameless. A lost and lonely boy with nothing to lose and everything to gain. It made Annie sad to think about it, and one day she said so to her mother.
That made her sit up and listen. "What?" She blinked. "Annie, I don't want you spending time with this boy anymore."
"Why not? He's nice...enough." After all, he noticed her, which was more than she could say for the current occupants of the kitchen.
Her mother pursed her lips. "I don't want you associating with him, or any of the other careers." She gave her a pained look. "One day you might understand."
It took sixty-three more days for Annie to understand. One afternoon, baking hot after finishing her quota on the trawler, she went down to the beach in search of the cool, finding instead a crowd and commotion.
"Training match gone bad," an older man told her. "Boy went and killed another child practicing with the tridents." He shook his head, cast her a queer, sidelong look as if just noticing he was talking to a child himself. "Run along, now. This isn't the place for you."
On her way home Annie caught a glimpse of the peacekeepers leading Julian away, hands cuffed behind his back, chin up, the same face she would see as he sat and gutted fish by the hour with a pair of eyes that never looked quite sated.
Annie grew like grass in summer, and by thirteen years old could look down her nose at every boy in her year.
Every boy except one.
Seamus was awkward and gangly – tall for his age, but not for his family, a line of sturdy fisherman who'd selectively bred themselves into the most impressive stock District Four had to offer to the Games. The more prosperous families like Seamus' differed from the typical, desperate careers by reputation only. They did not train openly for the games, nothing so vulgar as to volunteer. Instead they pontificated on the need for preparation, the pride of District Four, and trained behind closed doors while hoping the odds would be in their favor.
Seamus' home was just a few streets away from Annie's – neighborhood friends, they were called, and well on their way to childhood sweethearts according to certain, local sources of gossip.
"I wouldn't mind a marriage with one of the McNally's boys," her mother tittered one morning. Annie planted her face onto the table. Her mother was naturally a transparent person, but this was a bit much.
"We're thirteen, mom!"
That was also the year that a boy, only a year older than Annie and Seamus, was the quickest to raise his arm at the reaping, that terrible catchphrase on his lips, to take the stead of Seamus' properly reaped, eighteen year old brother in the Sixty-fifth Hunger Games.
Seamus' family was livid. They viewed their honor as snatched away. Robbed. "He's an idiot!" Seamus declared whenever the television screen snapped on to reveal a golden haired boy with bewitching green eyes, and the epithet never left his lips for long.
In fact, the male tribute's name never left the lips of anyone in District Four for very long. Finnick Odair. She'd heard of him now and again before that fateful reaping, but he was a year older and lived several wharfs over, so she didn't know much outside of his reputation for catastrophic good looks and a melting smile. Once the promotional broadcasts for the games began in earnest, that same smile lit up posters and television screens and left panting, female bodies strewn across the streets of District Four and, Annie suspected, the entirety of Panem.
Seamus and the other malcontents didn't think he had a snowball's chance. But Annie watched his poise and swagger on the television and smiled to herself. "Hm. You know Seamus, he's going to win."
Beside her, Seamus scoffed. "Why would you say anything so stupid?"
"Because it's true."
"He's fourteen! No one has ever won that young. And he's far from the strongest."
"But he's smart." She thrust her chin at the screen. "Look at him. It's obvious. He knows exactly what he's doing."
Seamus fumed. "And what's that?"
"He's playing them."
Indeed, Finnick Odair played them all, and he never once stopped playing, right down to the very last kill when he swung that glistening, dripping trident over his shoulder and pumped his fist in the air with a hollar and a smile. He returned to District Four, a phenomenon writ large across the banners unfurling from the tall columns of the Town Hall, plastered all over with his impeccable victor's portrait.
Seamus became star struck. It had been years since a victor had lived among them, and his wrath immediately turned to adoration from the first time he spotted the golden head smiling and waving on his victory tour. Finnick Odair was living proof that a mighty killer held a kind of spellbinding power in world they lived in. "I'll be fourteen next year!" Seamus began to enthuse. "I'm already bigger than he was when he volunteered." But it was rather pushing the odds, even for a career District like Four, to hope for a Finnick Odair two years running.
Annie covered her ears so she wouldn't have to hear him say it, left her eyes wide open as he was led to the stage because she somehow knew it was the last time she would ever lay eyes on her friend in the flesh.
She wept on the tenth night of the Sixty-sixth Hunger Games when a saw blade shot up from the ground and sliced her friend in two. Shouted, "You idiot!" at her television through a waterfall of tears.
One year, Annie abruptly stopped growing. At least in length. She noticed with some alarm the way the rest of her body began forming itself into unfamiliar shapes, curves that had no business bulging out of her once loose and willowy clothes.
One year, Annie woke up looking astonishingly like a woman.
She didn't like it, at first. As a rule she resisted change, and this would be no exception. She didn't like learning to navigate this new body, or the new attentions it garnered.
"You're pretty," was her elder sister's only comment on the matter, which came out more as a reprimand than a compliment. "Don't complain about it."
The boys came and went in waves, most of them casting all hope to the wind after the second rejection and the invitation of another girl's smile. But Conrad was different, a steady admirer. He was brown haired and forward, rustled her sleepy heart awake with clever talk and a smile she swore was lifted straight out of one of her mother's novels. More importantly he wouldn't be deterred by cold stares and detached conversation. Annie didn't like him. Annie was afraid to like him. She was afraid that every boy she might like or kiss would one day die on the sharp end of a sword. Gutted like a fish, halved like Seamus. So she kept her heart a virgin, her lips doubly so.
But he was just so persistent. "Annie Cresta – did they find your hairbrush yet?" And so undeniably handsome.
Annie pushed back a heavy curtain of locks. "No," she smiled. "And they never will."
"Good." He laughed. "It means I hid it well."
The biggest draw was his unfounded fascination with her. Annie did not know why, but every lineament, every movement, seemed to capture him, and eventually that kind of devotion was a bait too tempting to dismiss.
"See what I have here, Annie?" He lifted a brown, wicker basket. "These are the makings of a picnic."
Annie had just come off a twelve hour shift. She waved a hand at him. "Thanks for sharing. Have fun with that."
"Come on Cresta, don't pretend. You're just the type of person who would love to eat a meal out over the water."
"So come with me." Dark, curly hair fell just so over his eyes. "I've packed enough for two."
Annie bit her lip. She was exhausted and starving. His smile was refreshing, sustaining. "Yes." And with a single word Conrad had caught the elusive heart of the coldest fish on Wharf Twelve.
Close to sunset they pushed off from shore in a little canoe. They paddled some distance, enjoyed smoked salmon and the rippling purple waters. Sun traded light with the moon. Stars awakened to the tune of their talk and laughter. The night was benign, but not their conversation. "Have you ever kissed a boy?" he asked with a nascent smile.
Annie stared into her lap. "Have you?"
He laughed. "No." He leaned closer. "Would you like your first one now?"
In her imagination she said yes, a million times yes, kissed him in a soft and warm, steady and perfect way that would mark this moment as the pinnacle of her girlhood, to be rhapsodized ever after to friends and daughters.
Tomorrow was the reaping.
"No," she said, and turned her face to the black horizon.
She was thankful for her decision the next morning, when her name echoed amidst the silence, for now she would have nobody to regret.
The ground split in half under her feet. She stood frozen, falling, vertigo threatening to topple her. Prodded by the buzz of whispers and a thousand pairs of eyes, Annie somehow delivered herself up to the stage, all of Panem ready to judge just how pitiful District Four's next female tribute would be. Then she heard a second name reverberating from the speakers:
For the second time in five minutes, Annie's axis tilted. She knew Reef. He was exactly her year, and two heads taller. She searched for a few seconds, found him in the throng. His body seized for a painful minute, then his muscles restored and he walked unabated up to the stage, his hands quaking with every step.
Graco's voice rose like an untethered balloon. "And here we are, our District Four tributes for the Seventieth Hunger Games!" Applause, applause. Annie mutely received her accolades, the first time in her life she had ever been bestowed with such unadulterated praise, not for the way she dressed her sister's hair on her wedding day, not for the excruciating hours she spent on the trawler to pitch in whatever meager wages she could, not for her oyster soup on Yuletide of which there were never any leftovers.
"May the odds be ever in your favor!"
The farewells were long and arduous, the forecast clear that Annie, thin, headstrong Annie, would not be coming home.
They boarded the train. Reef clung to her. They clung to each other. They wept for their stolen futures, their pasts that would soon be consigned to the dull annals of memory, both of them oblivious to their two mentors hovering.
"I wish it wasn't you, Annie," he told her when their hearts had calmed but the tears still flowed generously.
"Don't say that. At least now you'll have a chance. Couldn't say that if they'd reaped Melinda or even Coral."
Once they reached the Capitol and the last strands of shock had been thrown aside, their emotions stabilized, they began to strategize. Reef put it to her bluntly: "We have to ally with the careers."
Annie flung her eyes to the ceiling. "No way!" She glared at Reef. "We are not even close to their league. They'll kill us before we finish the word 'alliance'. We need to come up with something better."
"There is nothing better! It doesn't matter how good we are, as long as we can prove how useful we are."
"Here's the problem: we're useless."
"Annie…" He sighed. "You always sell yourself short." He held up one finger. "We can fish." He held up two. "We can swim." He held up three. "We're fast and smart and older than almost everyone." He leaned back. "You've seen the other tributes. We're top drawer compared to everyone else." He nodded. "They'll ally. Just watch."
Two days later, Mags burst in. "We've got ourselves an alliance!" Reef whooped, Finnick smiled, and everyone celebrated but her, small anchors of doubt that never lifted.
Over the course of the training Annie was reminded of Reef's astounding memory and intelligence. He was the kind of student who combined natural ability with work ethic. Top of the class, never an iota of nervousness when tests were handed back. The careers were duly impressed, and in the arena that intelligence translated into an inexhaustible well of survival tips. He pinpointed every poison leaf or mushroom. He formulated the most likely places for traps and steered them away.
Her district partner had a good head on his shoulders, she always thought.
Until he lost it.
She watched their allies, the other careers, leering at her over the blade painted with Reef's blood. Her eyes followed the path of his decapitated head as it slowly rolled down a vein in the gorge, landing with a thud in the river valley, right next to her left foot.
She lost it.
The moment Claudius Templesmith announced the start of the Seventieth Hunger Games, that single word became the linchpin for the rest of Annie's life.
But she made it out of the bloodbath. But she ran from the pack before they could devour another of its own. But she immersed into her surroundings so no one could find her. But she could swim. But she could swim well.
But she survived.
Annie decided that it was plain dumb luck that had conjured her victory. She expressed this to Finnick, possibly shouting, possibly whispering (it was hard to make out volumes when every everything sounded like the earsplitting boom of a cannon) as she lay flat out on a sterile hospital bed, a variety of doctors bending over her, trying to stitch her mind back together.
"That's how everyone wins the games, Annie," he replied.
"No." She jerked up towards his face, but was curtailed by the restraints. "You killed eight people!" She fell back onto her hospital bed, warped laughter like brisance ricocheting through her ears.
Annie lay shuttered in the hospital for two weeks. Surrounded by the shroud of doctors attempting to pluck the shrapnel from her mind, Finnick occasionally popped into view like a well-timed commercial break. Her madness was much like a curtain. It rose. It lowered. It draped over her mind and made her wonder what was real and what was merely a show for entertainment's sake.
But she was going home, she was a victor.
But she didn't feel like a winner.
After the restraints had been removed and the doctors had signed the bottoms of the all the correct forms, the night before she was allowed back on the train to District four, Finnick took her by the hand and led her to a strange, red door.
"I can't go in there." There - where a man sat waiting on a bed or in a chair. A man who she didn't know, who she'd never even heard of till a letter arrived in her room that very morning, the envelope smelling of roses. "Finnick….what does he want with me?"
He said nothing for several minutes. He everywhere but her face. "I don't know."
"Don't lie!" She balled her fists. "All you've ever done is lie to me!"
Finnick closed his eyes, raked a weary hand through his hair. "He was your biggest sponsor, Annie. He's...unimaginably wealthy. He has a lot of power and influence in the capitol. And he likes you."
"I don't like him. And I'm not going in there."
He grabbed her shoulders. "You can't say no!" She'd never seen fear quite so vivid on his face.
"Why not?" He was silent. "What will they do?" His green eyes began to crack and splinter, betray the horrors that his voice would spare her. "Who will they take from me?" she asked.
He broke. "I can't tell you." He hid his face on her shoulder. "I've never taken the risk of finding out." They stood there for a few quiet, life-altering minutes. She put her arms around him, felt the small tremors running down his back. She threw away the idea of the murderer, the playboy, the Capitol favorite. Tossed in the trash bin. Nothing left but this boy only one year older than her, victor at the tender age of fourteen, and the patch of dampness spreading across her shoulder.
When he finally lifted his head, Annie Cresta looked straight into his eyes and believed she saw Finnick Odair for the very first time. "You won't have to be like me," he said. "I promise. Once you get back to District Four you won't ever have to come back here."
"Why?" she asked. "Because nobody likes me?"
"Because I like you. And I won't let them."
"How?" She put her hands on the side of his face. "You've never been able to stop them from doing anything."
He put his hands around her wrists. "What do you want me to do? Do you want me go in there and open up his throat? Throw him out the window?" He leaned forward, touched his forehead to hers. "I'll do it. If you ask me to, I'll do it."
"And then what?"
"Then we run until they catch us."
She glanced towards the door. "They've already caught us. We're never getting away." She disengaged from him and walked towards her Victor's reward. At the foot of the wide, red door she brushed her fingertips on the handle, then snatched them back as if she'd touched hot coals. "Finnick." She whipped her head back towards him, eyes wide, trembling. "I've never even kissed anyone before. Finnick…" She swallowed. "He can't be my first."
He walked towards her outstretched arm, took her hand in his. He kissed her fingers once, then leaned over and pressed his lips to hers. It was nothing like her school girl's expectations. Cold where it should be warm, fierce and desperate when it ought to be slow and savored. Butterfly wings replaced by sinking nausea. They even kept their eyes open. But for all the divergence from imagination, the hands on her back were intimate, the feel of his lips sacred. It was nothing like kissing a stranger, and the suspicion gnawed at Annie that not kissing a stranger may well be the closest thing to a perfect kiss for people like Finnick – for people like us.
"Just be here," she whispered into his mouth. "Just be here. Just be here when I come out."
"I will. I promise."
"And never leave me again."
To little fanfare Annie returned to District Four, crept into the Victor's Wharf and the massive house situated right across the lane from Finnick Odair's. Her large, cumbersome family followed after her with glee. They were happy she was alive. They were happy they were rich. She was happy for them, happy for their newfound space and prosperity. Happy that no one had to bake themselves alive out on the trawlers anymore or go hungry every other night taking turns at the supper table.
They were happy. Annie was happy. A perfect ending to the Seventieth Hunger Games, tie a bow around it, hang it up to dry, that's a wrap and the cameras headed back to the Capitol.
After two months, Annie was finally able to get out of bed and step outside of her room. After three, she managed to cross the threshold of her front door, accept the sunlight and the salt-soaked wind as friends rather than enemies. From that day she established a regime of sitting on the beach every day, sometimes for hours, wistful eyes watching the beckoning waves.
In the early days of this habit the family took turns sitting beside her on the braided blanket. Good intentions, but Annie knew they were out of their depth. They soon gave up on cajoling and were hopeful for mere communication. "Are you hungry today? So hot out...what about going for a swim? Remember Tommy Finnigan? He was asking about you. I told him he might stop by once in awhile. We're thinking of getting a dog. Remember how you used to follow around Susie's black lab all day long when you were little?"
"What are you thinking about, dear?" her mother would ask.
Annie could never look away from the swells. "Drowning."
Over the course of a half year Annie reduced to gaunt cheekbones. Her green eyes faded from burnished peridot to dots of drifting, algae covered flotsam. And then came the cataclysmic afternoon when she pulled a chef's knife from the bamboo block and cut off all her long, rope-like hair, a hallmark since her youth, in a bewildered, screaming fit, voice bursting about cold fingers closing around her throat.
A silent corner was turned. The large and noisy family became noticeably absent and quiet in her presence. Her mother began to look upon her like a stranger. One morning Annie woke up, glanced up into the vanity mirror and realized she did not recognize the image staring back at her. She caressed the tanned, weatherbeaten skin, the dry lips. She ran her fingers through short, raggedy hair. What had happened to the immaculate complexion of this year's victor? Or even the homey good looks that graced the hand-carved frames lining the wall along the stairs?
All of it gone, along with the company of her family during her daily vigils at the beach.
In fact only one person ever visited her anymore. "Good morning, Annie." She told herself it was just as well because Finnick was the only person she could respond to with anything but a variation of, "drowning, drowning."
Knees drawn, Annie watched her finger trailing spirals through the sand. "Is that who I am?"
"Sure." Finnick bit into his apple with perfect ease, like she'd just asked him the time. "Who else would you be?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. There's these old pictures of me in the house. Sometimes I look at them and I…." She swallowed back a growing lump. "I don't think that the Annie Cresta in those pictures would scream at shadows and butcher her own hair."
"Probably not." He sat down. "But that was Annie Cresta before the Hunger Games."
Annie laid her chin on her knees, her face set towards him. "And what about the Annie Cresta after?"
"Look, no one likes to face the fact, especially the families of victors, that we all walk out of that arena a different person."
"I guess that's true."
"Of course it's true." He threw the leftover core into the water, where it was attacked by a flurry of gulls. "And sometimes…"
"Let's just say sometimes it takes awhile to find your new patterns."
Annie chewed on this. "So all of this…" she tilted her head at the sea, "these are going to be my new patterns?" She stared out into the waters. Beads of tears, by now an endemic feature of her face, rolled silently down, the salt stinging her cracked, brown cheeks.
Finnick laid a hand on her back. "Not this exactly."
"I want to be who they want me to be. Who they remember. They want back what the Capitol took from them, and so do I."
"That's impossible." He rubbed the space between her shoulder blades for a moment as she wiped her eyes. "For one, the Capitol never gives anything back. For another…" He shook his head. "I remember what it was like right after the games. You think you're going crazy, but you need to think of it more like being in a chrysalis. You won't come out exactly who you were before, but whoever does come out – it will still be you, it will still have some of the old parts of you."
"I'm not sure I believe you."
She flicked her eyes to him. "Okay. So what are these 'old parts' of you that you kept?"
He stifled a laugh. "Well, Annie." But he couldn't contain his smile. "Would you believe that even before the Sixty-fifth Hunger games I was just as devastatingly handsome?"
Despite herself, her lips twitched. "I might."
He held a hand over his heart. "I'm wounded."
"If you can, try to picture me six years ago with the same amount of attractive confidence."
"Definitely yes." Her first full smile since the reaping. "But I think most people call it arrogance." Then she laughed, a strangling laugh that fought for a foothold after so much disuse, but a small step towards feeling more like herself – or rather not-herself – the girl who she was and was no longer converging upon the only version of Annie Cresta she could possibly be post-arena.
"See? You're starting to emerge from the cocoon already." He pointed to her back. "Any wings yet?"
She sighed. "Ask me after my victory tour." Annie wished she hadn't said it. The mention of their return visit to the Capitol cast a pall over Finnick's features, his good humor evaporated.
"We won't ever get away from it." Finnick's voice struggled, as if submerged in the deep. "It defines us in the ways that matter most." He paused, then said evenly, "But I mean...even if the arena breaks us, we can decide who we'll be when we put ourselves back together." He kissed her temple. "Give it time."
She gave no reply. In time he asked, "Do you want to go into the water?" He asked her this everyday. Everyday she said no.
Today she said: "I want to try."
He stood and offered a hand, helped her to her feet. He coaxed her closer and closer to the water. By midday her toes swam in the lapping waves. By dusk she stood waist deep, legs numb as ice but feeling more life than she had in months.
Far off a gleaming sun dipped into darkening waters and she watched him, her mentor. She observed the rosey light that played in his hair, the shadows that danced on his face that had nothing to do with the waning sunlight. He was nothing like all the boys she could have loved, would have loved, if it hadn't been for a hand that plucked one slip of paper with her name out of ten thousand others.
He took her hand and kissed her fingers. "I'm glad it was you, Annie." And it struck her that he could say the same thing about her.
"Finnick Odair, do you love me?"
He stared at her, eyes like saucers, like a slap in the face.
"Annie...I think you're the only girl I could have ever loved."
They stood hand in hand in the water
So I've always been a bit fascinated by the many parallels between Finnick/Annie and Katniss/Peeta. It is my contention that if Katniss never went to the Hunger Games, she likely would have ended up with Gale, and I wanted to do a play on that for Annie and Finnick. Thanks for reading :)