a/n [I'm giving in to my love of writing children. Even if it goes against all of my headcanons. For the Odesta contest at Caesar's Palace. Also uses prompt 'buffoon' from c/p.]

—-

yesterday we were just children
playing soldiers, just pretending
dreaming dreams with happy endings

but now we've stepped into a cruel world
where everybody stands and keeps score

-Eyes Open by Taylor Swift

—-

1.

—-

The houses are next to each other, on the left side of the road coming from town. The first house is painted blue, and being the only house on the street that's not the original white, it's considered magic by the school children. Everyone knows what the paint means: the residents have money, and they probably don't need tesserae. They can have full plates every day of the year. They could've lived in the nicer houses closer to town, but they chose here, where it's dingy and reeks of fish. No one understands. The older children dare the younger ones to go up and knock on the door.

It's always the same little girl who opens the door each time, long after the culprit has ran away. She has to reach up for the doorknob, and she turns it with both hands, pushing the door with her body to nudge it open. With wide green eyes, searching for her knocker, she always says, "Hello?" in that shy tone of hers. Sometimes, a boy watches her from next door.

The second house has peeling paint and a door that's been squeaky since it was built many, many years ago. One of the front steps is broken, so you've got to skip over it as you walk to the door. But no one ever visits that house, because everyone knows that the family wears the same clothes every day and that their ribs show through their shirts in the winter. Next to the magic house, they make the oddest pair. The family who likes living in the poor side of town and the family that should realistically be starving on the streets, begging for food like the strays.

And unlike the sheltered girl next door next door who owns seven dresses, one for each day of the week, of course, this boy knows the hardship of being the odd one out. But they really aren't that different, and he wonders how she opens that door with a smile every time.

"No one's gonna be there," he tells her when she opens the door yet again. He's standing in the streets, pretending to swordplay with a stick he's kept for awhile.

"They might," she answers, yelling across the few yards between her house and his, even though he can hear her just fine. "One day."

He doesn't have the heart to tell her otherwise. He's seen the children running away almost every time. Sometimes he doesn't recognize them; sometimes they're from school. It makes him mad, but he never intervenes. He returns to attacking the old pine with his stick.

—-

The girl's name is Annie Cresta. She was born in spring like all sweet things, the first and only child of Keron and Mayla Cresta. All she's ever known are the cans of blue paint in the kitchen, the patterns of the tide, and the cookie always gets on her birthday—she's gotten six. There's a boy next door, and a girl across the street, and only one of them has talked to her more than twice. She learned to swim before she could walk, and she spells her name with only one N because writing out two seems unnecessary. Her favorite color is the sky.

Once, on a Saturday in October, six months after her fourth cookie, she climbed over the neighbor's fence. The vertical boards of wood holding it all together was the perfect ladder, and she wanted to test out her climbing skills. Her problem was that she had only figured out climbing up.

She sat on top of the fence, legs dangling over the edge, for a good few minutes. Her mama or papa would come soon and rescue her. They always did. But, not this time. Instead, a little boy—who had never had a cookie before in his life, but if he lived under her cookie rule, he'd be a few months shy of seven—stood in front of her, his head tilted up.

"What are you doing?" he asked, an accusatory tone in his voice like who's this girl and why is she on my fence?

"Climbing," she answered. She had learned the word a couple weeks ago and was rather proud of the sound of it as it passed her lips.

He crossed his arms. "You're sitting," he said.

"I want down," she said, lifting her from their purchase on the fence to cross her arms like him.

The boy's eyes widened and his arms reached up, trying to stop her. "Wait, don't—"

She swayed for a second on top of the thin boards of the fence. A loose board tilted under her weight, and before the boy could utter another word, she fell. Before he could blink, she was on the ground, lying on her stomach, her face in the dirt. Annie propped up on shaky arms and rolled over. The bright sun stung her eyes.

"Ow," she muttered.

The boy crouched next to her, alarmed. "You okay?"

"Ow," she said again, louder. Slowly she got up, cradling her arm to her chest. She sniffed at the boy, a single tear rolling down her cheek, before running out of the yard back to her mama and papa.

"Stupid girl," the boy mumbled, his eyes still on the spot she'd fallen. He didn't wonder if she'd gotten home all right, he just continued on his way to the beach, already forgetting the determined eyes and dark ponytail.

—-

He's attacking the tree with his makeshift sword, winning, of course, when Annie comes up behind him and taps him on the shoulder. He jumps, spinning around and pointing the end of the stick at her chest. She smiles up at him.

He frowns. "You're dead."

She promptly pulls up a stick of her own, one that she brought all the way from the big tree by the Justice Building. When it finds its mark on the older boy's chest, she giggles. "So are you."

"That's not how it works." He lowers his stick back to his side.

"Then show me."

First, his eyes narrow, wondering if she's playing some sort of trick on him, but her eyes are bright and honest, and he finds himself grinning at her. "Okay."

As the two children practice, clanging makeshift swords and swiping at legs and sides, laughing with each successful hit, twenty-four other children sit in a room. It is their time to show off newfound, or long practiced, skills. They will not remember the past days spent laughing with friends. But for Annie, this is all she knows. She swings her stick at his head, and he doesn't duck in time. It hits his ear, and everything stops. For now, this is the biggest of their worries.

—-

2.

—-

The boy's name is Finnick Odair, and he was born in the exact middle of winter. As the tale has it, his family has lived in his house since before the war, but now they're on the verge of having to give it up. And even while so young, nothing is sugarcoated. Corliss and Hayden Odair are stern people more concerned with their own wellbeing than their child's. It's a tough world and Finnick has got himself caught in the middle of it. But luckily or unluckily, he's tough enough to keep his head above water.

The first time he met Annie Cresta, he was two years old. Word travels faster than the wind in this part of Four, so seconds after Ms. Cresta was in labor, the whole town knew, even little Finn who was still half asleep in his bed, hearing his parents talking in the next room, using words he shouldn't hear. He got up and waddled out of the bedroom.

"Where's baby?" he asked, voice slightly muffled from the thumb in his mouth.

"Don't do that, Finnick," his mother scolded, lifting him onto a chair and making sure he dropped his arm to his side. A dish of applesauce was placed in front of him.

When his parents went back to their discussion, not including him, he became frustrated. "Where's baby?"

His father frowned, his forehead creasing. "Next door. Eat your food."

And Finnick did, the conversation leaving his mind. But later that evening, there was nothing stopping Finnick from stepping out from his yard to the one next door and knocking on the wooden door. A man answered, and he was smiling. Finnick paused a moment to smile back. "Where's baby?"

Keron didn't pause a second to ask if Finnick's parents knew where he was. Everyone knew about the Odairs. He bent down, eye level with the child. "Would you like to see her?"

The boy nodded, and the man called into the house, saying something about a guest. The response must've been something pleasant because Finnick was led to the bedroom and introduced to a little girl in a blanket.

"Hi," he said, waving a hand. Big eyes stared up at him, curious. He leaned in closer. "Hi."

Mayla smiled down at Finnick, and grasped the hand of her baby, waving it slowly, gently. The boy smiled and reached up to touch the fingers on her other hand. Something in his mind registered that this girl was small, that he needed to protect her. His fingers were careful as they extended her fingers to line up with his, but she just closed her hand right back into a fist in his palm, making him giggle. Then the newborn's eyes shut and she drifts to sleep, and Finnick is carried home.

—-

The beach is something extraordinary, and as the children grow, none of the excitement fades. Annie Cresta is one day away from her eighth cookie when she reaches into a tide pool and picks up a sea snail. She shouts, "That's ten, I win!"

Finnick Odair looks up from a different tide pool farther down the beach. "No, we're going to fifteen!"

"That's a dumb number." She looks at the snail in her hand, wound back tight in its shell. It is completely at her mercy right now.

"Well, fine!" He digs a bit in the pool as Annie watches. Eventually, he lifts up his hand up, showing off a black dot, which she guesses is a baby snail. "Fifteen, I win!"

She gently places her snail back in the water, watching as it slides back out of its shell and pokes around before hiding behind a rock. A bit of water is flicked onto her cheek, and she frowns, wiping it off. Finnick grins beside her.

"Come on, it's getting late."

She takes another moment to watch the tide pool, noticing for the first time how much life is in just that one little spot. Then, she's abruptly standing up. "Race you!"

Annie is off running, sand flying behind her, before he can fully process what she's said. But soon he's up as well, almost caught up with her. When she trips in the sand and falls down, she reaches for his arm and pulls him down as well. They're lying on the sand, staring up at the orange sky and laughing, as the sun goes down.

—-

Their task for Monday is to make money at the market. They make the plan in the morning when the sky is bright and blue while walking down the coast, hand gestures wild as they discuss. The issue is that they can't figure out what to sell. He suggests they bottle sand, but she argues that sand is already everywhere; people can get it whenever they want.

"People never take the sand home," he points out.

"Because it's stupid!" she argues, hands flying in the air.

"You think of something then."

Her idea is to make jewelry, but he says that's overdone. Kids always make jewelry, and people always buy it because they can't resist.

"What's so bad about that?" she asks.

"I want to be original!"

The next idea, Finnick's idea, is to try fishing. Immediately they look to the ocean, watching the waves form and crash, seeing the boats out in the distance and knowing that it goes on much farther than they can see. They shiver at the same time. The only fish they could catch would be small ones, lurking in the shallows.

Annie comes up with the next idea. They could help out the merchants already there and receive some of the pay. She watches his face as he thinks it over, and recognizes the crinkle in his nose that always comes before he smiles.

"I bet I could make more money than you."

No one mentions that she already has five times the money he'll ever have.

She grins, too. "You're on."

They race to the market, splitting up immediately, both trying to find a booth that will accept them before the other. The general answer from everyone is negative; most of the time they don't spare the children a second glance. Annie finds luck first, sliding into a booth with an older girl selling oranges from the tree that sprouted in her family's yard about six years back. When Finnick walks by, still searching, she smiles at him as innocently as he can.

The fishermen let him sell with them, and he's making twice the money Annie is. The crowd has come for a meal, after all. Not a sweet desert. He catches her eyes seven times during the day and doesn't bother giving a friendly smile. He looks at her like he's already celebrating his victory.

She's mad at him in the end, when he shows her the ten coins piled in his hands. It's a silly child's game, but she keeps her eyes narrowed and arms crossed. His smile falls once he realizes she's not speaking to him.

"Oh, come on, Annie. How much did you make? A lot, right?"

She turns away from him and starts walking home, her feet trudging. But they're both going in the same direction, to almost the same place, so it doesn't do much help.

"We can go into town and buy something sweet," he prods.

When she still doesn't respond, he stops, angry with her for being angry with him. "Fine!" he shouts. "I'll buy something for myself."

She doesn't even glance his way, just keeps walking, and he's not angry anymore, just sad. He just wants rewind the day to when he was laughing with his friend. Once Annie is out of his sight, he begins the walk home. Alone.

—-

3.

—-

"Which kind do you want?" she asks, spreading the grape jelly on her bread. For the first time in her life, they've got two flavors of jelly, and while she knows she should be saving them, she can't get over her excitement for them. "Finnick?"

He's sitting on the comfy chair, head in his hands, brow furrowed.

"Finn!" she calls, waving her arms, a bit of jelly flying off the knife. It falls on the floor with a splat as she watches, making her wince. She grabs the towel from the sink.

"Yeah?" he says, lifting his head a bit, reluctantly.

"Strawberry or grape?"

"I'm not hungry."

She turns away from cleaning the floor, standing up and getting good look at him. He's always hungry, that's just the way it is. Has he eaten at all today? She wipes at the floor one last time and spreads the strawberry on his piece of bread. When she hands it to him, he takes a bite immediately.

"What's wrong?"

He looks at her for a moment, studying the frown on her face and thinking how much better her lips look when they're smiling. It's a tragedy when she's worried, and he doesn't like being the cause of her worry. "Nothing," he answers, not quite meeting her eyes.

—-

It's the summer after her twelfth cookie when everything changes. It starts out normally, of course. A blue sky, too many seagulls, and a bit of fruit with breakfast. She wears her white dress, the dress she isn't allowed to wear on any day except today. Finnick's wearing something clean, and that's about the best he'll get.

The oddity starts right away, though, because Finnick looks nervous. It's only her first year, so she isn't sure, but she thought no one in Four was worried on this day. They've got volunteers to ease the worry of ending up in the Games.

"It'll be all right, Finn," she says, lacing her arm through his.

They've always walked together to the square on reaping day, it seems. But here's another difference: this time she's in the pool, too.

The reaping starts with the ladies, and even though she's already told herself a hundred times that it won't be her, she's frightened. She clasps her hands together and shuts her eyes. And when the name is called, it is not her name. But the worrying isn't over yet, and even watching the girl volunteer walk up to the stage doesn't quench her nerves.

And the boys' name isn't Finnick's, either. She breathes out a sigh of relief. Someone volunteers. She looks up, now calm, to see who it is. Her speeding heart recognizes the face before her brain does.

The biggest change is this: seeing Finnick up on the stage, smiling. Why is he smiling? He's so stupid, and she can't decided to be angry or upset, but she is smart enough to know she shouldn't cry out, so she doesn't. Her face morphs back into a somewhat calm expression, and she practices breathing. She pretends that she's dreaming.

—-

From the outside, the town looks exactly the same. In truth, it is exactly the same. The sun still rises behind the Justice Building and sets over the ocean. The blue paint on the Cresta's house is still bright from being repainted every September. High tide still washes in the shells that children collect and display in windowsills or hang from strings. The market is still arranged in order of produce to seafood to trinkets. Sand still sits in the cracks of pavement miles inland. The seagull's cries wake up the town every morning, and the fishermen still head out at the same time, bringing back the load for inspection for the Capitol before selling it to the district.

But to Finnick, the shrieks of children running from the tide sound fearful. The blood red of the rising sun ingrains into his vision, staining wherever he looks. His feet seem to sink into the ground when he walks, so he walks quicker to escape it. When people look at him, they don't turn away in pity or disgust, they marvel at him. The constant stares suffocate him. He wakes up each morning screaming. And he hasn't seen Annie in months. He can't bring himself to walk the familiar path from the square to the dingy little town, where her house stands bright against the rest, the same way she always did against the rest of the crowd.

He finds her in the market once, even though they're both rich enough to shop in town; he's there because she never was, and she's there because he always was. Her eyes keep scanning the crowd, looking lost and hopeless. How many days has she been out here, searching? She can't remember the number. It might be weeks by now.

He hides behind one of the makeshift counters. The old lady running the stand just smiles at him, and goes back to selling. His heart is racing, and he's not sure why. The world seems upside down. He presses the heels of his palms to his eyes, trying to block it all out, trying to disappear. It doesn't work, and he shouldn't feel disappointed, but he does.

The second time he sees her, she's by the candy store feeding the stray cats. He stays hidden safely in the bakery, peeking out through a corner of the window, not caring what the owners think of him. She's feeding the cats pieces of bread, and even from his lookout, he can tell she's smiling as they rub against her. He smiles, too, just because it's nice to see her happy and peaceful, wasting her own food on animals. It's such an Annie thing to do. He forgot how much good there was in the world still, and how much of it was because of her.

He's taking the road to his old house slowly, months after his Games, but still the world looks blurry around the edges. He watches each shadow carefully, jumping at each noise, but then he notices how the blue sand hiding in the cracks with the other grains. It had been Annie's idea to try painting the sand blue, to add a little bit of color to the tide pools. They'd made a mess of things in the process, splattering themselves and ruining their clothes. Both of their parents were furious afterwards, but the two couldn't stop laughing long enough to be reprimanded.

As he rounds the corner, he finds the old pine he'd got his old branch from. He pauses a moment, his hand on the bark. This tree might be the very cause of his situation now, the first thing he fought against, but the memories have him smiling instead.

He can see Annie's house from here; it's not that hard to miss. He's seen that shade of blue many different times. Day, night, faded, new. He'd helped paint it once or twice himself. The Cresta's even paid him for it. The smile on his face never fades as he walks up the few steps to the door. He pauses for a second, his hand raised to knock, steeling up the courage. He finds that thought odd, you won the Hunger Games, but you can't knock on some girl's door? He knocks.

Inside, Annie lifts up her head from her book. It's her favorite, and she's already read it dozens of times; she already knows exactly what the protagonist will do when she turns the page, but she never tires of it. The knock of the door just annoys her. Everyone she knows, and the list isn't long, just barges in. She wonders, briefly, if the kids will ever get bored of knocking on her door.

Finnick swallows and steps back from the door, his hand squeezing the flowers he holds at his side. His throat tightens, and he's not good enough to cry. He drops the flowers and runs away, back home, where he wishes he could just die already. Where he knows he can't as long as Annie Cresta is alive.

—-