What Finnick said when he found out that tributes for the 75th Hunger Games would be picked from the existing victors would certainly have been heavily censored on Capitol television. But then, he was from District Four, and had picked up quite a vocabulary from the sailors and fishermen.
"What's wrong?" Aurelia stood in the doorway of the apartment, just out of bed though it was nearly noon.
Aurelia was a Capitol girl whom Finnick almost liked. She had nice eyes, a soft voice, and kept her hair the light blonde nature had made it.
If he could, Finnick would have spent more time with her, simply because she wasn't as pushy as his other "lovers." She could tell when Finnick needed his space, and gave it to him. But the Capitol had decreed that everyone could have a piece of Finnick Odair, whether he wanted it or not.
Well, f-k, they could have his body but they weren't getting his heart.
"Finnick?" Aurelia walked over to where Finnick was lounging in front of the television and leaned on the back of the sofa. "What is it?"
"They're picking the tributes for the Quarter Quell from the previous champions," said Finnick. "Same drill, one male, one female…"
"Finnick?" Annie was clearly confused as he jumped up and started yanking his suitcase out of the closet. "Finnick, what's going on?"
They're not getting Annie, though Finnick savagely. I don't care what they do to me but they're not getting Annie. She's not going back in the arena. Not even if I have to destroy the whole damn Capitol. And he pulled so hard on the handle that it completely separated from the suitcase.
Finnick fell back, landing hard on his butt, the impact jarred tears to his eyes. To his constant disgust, Finnick was an easy crier. Unless his guard was up, any sort of emotional stress started the tears flowing. He'd gone through hell for that in school. During the Hunger Games, he'd had to work hard to make sure he didn't start tearing up.
"I'm going back to District Four," said Finnick, looking up at Aurelia. The tears disappeared and his voice grew rock-hard. "I need to be there."
"But why – " Aurelia's purple-blue eyes grew more distant as she realized. "Of course. Annie." She seemed to shrink in a little on herself, and her voice was resigned.
Finnick looked up at her, measuring. He'd suspected for a long time that Aurelia was actually in love with him, not just stupidly infatuated like most of his "lovers." In a way, he pitied her for it…
"Do you have another suitcase I could use?" he asked.
Aurelia nodded, biting her lip, and left the room. Finnick supposed she was crying.
His supposition was proved correct when it took her nearly fifteen minutes to "find" a suitcase. He used the time to order a hovercraft back to Four and collect his personal items.
An only slightly red-eyed Aurelia handed him his suitcase. While Finnick packed, she sat curled in a ball on the incandescent pink cushions of the sofa.
Finnick was ready in record time. He was probably leaving half his possessions in Aurelia's apartment, but he didn't care. All he wanted was to go home.
"Well…I'm leaving," said Finnick, standing by the door. "Bye."
He thought Aurelia wasn't going to do anything, but as he opened the door she rushed over and hugged him tightly. Finnick sighed and put one arm around her (the other held his luggage).
"Please come back," she whispered.
"Yeah, all right," said Finnick. Gently, he disengaged himself, holding her at arms' length.
Aurelia was actually quite pretty. Especially now, with her hair all tousled and the sun shining on the translucent rose fabric of her nightie. But what was more, she saw him as a person. Even if she didn't see the real Finnick.
"Aw, hell, Aurelia," said Finnick. "Don't cry." For her wide blue eyes were filling up again. "Look, I'll come back. Half the victors are old farts, and the other half are all addicted to drugs or alcohol. It shouldn't be that hard to win." He looked closely into her eyes. "That's not what you meant though, is it?"
Looking down, Aurelia gave a tiny nod. Finnick sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Look, sweetheart," he said, tossing the endearment out carelessly, "you know me. I never stay with the same girl twice."
"Except Annie," whispered Aurelia, so quietly he barely heard her.
"Yes," said Finnick. "Except her." He started to leave, but on impulse stopped and kissed Aurelia swiftly on the cheek.
Her startled blue eyes were the last thing he saw before he closed the door and stepped onto the hovercraft.
"Finnick!" Riley Odair greeted his son as he stepped off the hovercraft with a one-armed bear hug, a grin splitting his face. Even the omnipresent Peacekeepers or the fact that his only son might be going back to the arena soon couldn't keep him unsmiling for long.
People thought Finnick was handsome. He always wished they could see his father. Finnick privately thought Riley was the best-looking guy he knew. Even at forty-two his tousled red-gold hair was still thick, his tall frame still lean with muscle. Finnick had inherited Riley's smile and vivid green eyes, but not his infectious charisma and sense of humor.
True, a lot of District Four woman had their eyes on Riley. But after losing Gaila, Riley never even glanced at a woman. Finnick didn't remember his mother much, but he knew her death had left a huge scar on Riley. Particularly because it had been so senseless.
"So how's the Capitol?" Riley asked Finnick the same question every time he came home. It was a routine. Finnick would step off the hovercraft, Riley would greet him and shoulder his luggage, and ask his question. Finnick always gave the same answer.
Then he would ask his question. "How's Annie?"
And usually Riley would say, "She's good," or, "She misses you, but she's holding up fine," or, "Lad, you are lucky to have a girl like her."
But not this time.
"She's all right," said Riley. He stared straight ahead as they walked down the road to the seaside victors' village. "She didn't watch the broadcast, of course…but someone had to break it to her."
"…And?" When Riley didn't continue, Finnick had to prompt him. He was dreading the answer, dreading it so badly his heart was pounding and his palms were slick with sweat.
"Well, she went a bit hysterical," said Riley. "But Ciara calmed her down."
"And she's okay?" demanded Finnick.
"She's perfectly fine," said Riley.
"You're sure?" said Finnick. "You're absolutely sure?"
Riley looked his son steadily in the eyes. "Positive," he said.
And then they rounded the corner to the victors' village and Finnick was finally, finally home. He forgot his father, he forgot where he was, he even managed to forget the Hunger Games as he held Annie as close to his heart as possible. She needed him too, he could feel that – her embrace was almost fierce and he returned the pressure gladly. At last, when their urgent need for each other had gentled, Finnick pulled back and looked Annie over.
His heart sank.
Riley had lied, or perhaps he just hadn't known. But it was clear – to Finnick at least – that Annie was not all right. Her hair, usually so sleek and shining, was mussed, tangled a little. Her dress was wrinkled, as if she had slept in it. And in her eyes, a hint of that look – dear God, that haunted, heart-wrenching look – that he had hoped he would never see again.
"Are you – how are you?" said Finnick quietly. His voice was hoarse and he had to clear his throat.
Annie stared up at him, green-blue eyes huge. Then her lower lip trembled and she buried her face in his chest again.
"Oh, no – oh, sweetheart, don't cry," whispered Finnick, cradling her comfortingly and bringing his head close to hers. "It'll be all right, it will be, you'll see – "
Annie drew in a long, shuddering breath. Then she looked up with a wan little smile that just about broke Finnick's heart. "Of course it will," she said, with a brave attempt at cheer. "Of course." But the shadow of that look was still in her eyes.
Finnick kissed her – gently, gently, like she was made of spun glass and flower petals – and then tucked her securely against his side. "Come on, mermaid," he said. "Help me get settled again." For the first time, he turned his attention away from Annie. Ciara, was standing nearby; now she came over and put an arm over Finnick's shoulders briefly.
"I'm glad you're back," said Ciara in her cool lilt. Her brown eyes were warm as they rested on her daughter and Finnick, but he saw the stress in them, the same worry in Riley's and Annie's and his eyes too.
Annie looked up and between Finnick and Ciara, reading the tension and interpreting it. Her eyebrows met. A lot of people didn't understand that Annie was intelligent. All they knew about her was that she was some poor mad victor from District Four. Annie was unstable, yes – and sad and sweet and scared and a hundred other things – but not stupid.
"Come on," said Finnick again. "Let's go." He and Annie walked down the path, Ciara and Riley falling behind. Finnick forgot them very quickly. All his attention was on Annie, the feel of her arms wrapped around his waist, her silky hair brushing his cheek, the way the sunlight looked on her skin.
As they drew nearer the pretty white mansions, Annie took Finnick's hand and began to pull him down the cobblestone path that skirted Annie and Ciara's house and led to the modified greenhouse where she kept all her ceramics work. Finnick laughed at the eagerness in her eyes.
"Got something new to show me?" he said. Annie smiled and tugged harder.
The greenhouse was a peaceful, sunlit place. The warm beams that filtered through the marbled, iridescent sea-glass touched everything with a soft glow. There were two wood-topped tables, and large cabinets to hold supplies and works in progress, and shelves lined with Annie's shell-like handiwork. One wall was decorated with scrolling vines and flowers, done when Annie and Finnick had spent a happy afternoon finger-painting on the smooth glass.
Annie danced over to one of the tables, where an exquisite porcelain seashell lay, the sunlight gleaming on its fragile white edges. "Well?" she said breathlessly. "Isn't it pretty?"
Finnick shook his head in wonder. "Annie, it's – it's gorgeous," he said. "How long have you – "
He stopped. As he had been taking a step forward, his foot had brushed something. Now he looked down and saw a lump of half-dried clay sitting on the floor, clearly torn off of a larger piece.
"What – what's this?" he said. Looking around, he saw more pieces of clay scattered about, some of them the shards of finished work. "Annie…"
She covered her face with her hands, and Finnick knew. This was Annie's reaction to the 75th Hunger Games.
Finnick was fairly sure there was a hidden camera and/or microphone in his bedroom. It made sense. The Capitol had the technology to put cameras and mikes all over the arenas, and they were all nature-y and sh-t. How much easier would it be to bug a house? Especially since the victors' villages were practically built by the Capitol anyway. And since the rebellion after the last victors' Victory Tour…there were more Peacekeepers than you could shake a stick at. Constant surveillance of the victors wasn't such a big step.
He didn't know exactly where the camera was, of course. But in Finnick's mind it was right in the corner between the ceiling and two walls, angled so that if he was lying on his bed, it was looking straight at him. Privacy didn't bother Finnick much anymore.
At any rate, it was convenient, having it "there." If Finnick was hacked off about something, or really upset, or just plain angry with the whole world, he would lie on his bed and rant to the imaginary camera. It was necessary, in a way. Therapeutic. He used the camera to vent his feelings, the same way Annie made pottery and Mags wove baskets and Riley wrote long letters to Gaila.
Late that night – the night he came back – after he had lulled Annie to sleep by telling her stories of swans and selkies in a low, singsong voice, he stole back to his and Riley's house, flung himself on his bed, and gave his emotions free rein.
He began by cursing the Capitol, raging at the cruelty and injustice of an institution that could take children and twist their world so that those who lived, lived broken. He expected it to end soon. Normally his rants lasted less than ten minutes. But instead of leaving him, his rage and horror and pain grew stronger and stronger until he was shouting at the pretended camera, only half-knowing what words were streaming out of him in the heat of his emotions. At last, at the height of his passion, he seized his pillow and forcibly hurled it at the corner. It hit the wall and then flopped rather pathetically to the floor.
Finnick stared down at it, chest heaving, his mad energy quickly ebbing away. For a long time he looked at the pillow. Then he pulled a shirt on with shaking hands and left the house, stumbling slightly on the moonlit path that connected the Odair and Cresta houses.
Annie's breathing was soft and light, like a butterfly, as Finnick slipped into her room. Her hands were folded under her pillow; the moonlight kissed her smooth cheeks, slightly parted lips, and pulled-back hair. She looked so sweet and fragile, so utterly at peace, that Finnick's heart clenched. The Capitol wants to destroy that peace, he thought suddenly. Not just for her, but for everyone. Every last one of us. Sudden anger flared up in his heart, but he wrested it down.
Instead, he sat on the bed next to Annie – carefully, so as not to jostle and wake her – and smoothed a few stray strands of hair behind her ear. His fingers lingered on the curve of her cheek, traced the contour of her jaw. Leaning forward, he pressed his lips to her temple.
Annie's breathing deepened, and her eyelashes fluttered, but she did not wake. Finnick took his shoes off with his feet and tucked his legs underneath him, lying down with his arm around Annie. He felt very still, very peaceful. Resting his cheek against her hair – ah, it still smelt like the wreath of violets he had made for her that afternoon – he closed his eyes and slowly drifted off to sleep.
Some hours later, he was awakened by Annie. She was having a nightmare.
Still groggy with sleep, Finnick pushed himself up on his hands. "Annie? Mermaid?" She moaned slightly and writhed feebly, blindly seeking an escape from the dream world she was trapped in. Finnick raised himself over her and fitted one hand to the side of her face, stroking her cheek with his thumb. "Annie, love, it's not real…Don't worry, I'm here."
But instead of responding to the soothing influence of his words, she only seemed more distressed. A little cry of fear or pain escaped her lips and her head twisted out of Finnick's hand. Suddenly she arched her back with a half-choked scream, her hands clutching the sheets and the sweat running in rivulets down her forehead.
"Annie!" Finnick took her face in his hands, desperately trying to call her back from her nightmare. "Annie, Annie, darling – "
She cried out again, twisting and turning in his arms. Her seeking hands arched clawlike over the covers and Finnick grasped one tightly, hoping the pressure would wake her. But instead she tried to jerk her hand out of his.
"I'm not letting you go," whispered Finnick, bringing his face close to hers. "Annie, I'm never letting you go!"
Her eyes flew open, wide with terror, and her breathing was quick and shallow. "Silas," she moaned. "Silas…"
"He's not here," said Finnick, quietly, comfortingly, but also firmly. "He's gone."
But Annie would not be reassured. "Silas?" she gasped again, eyes searching Finnick's face.
"He's gone," said Finnick, grasping her hand tighter and placing his other hand on the side of her face. "He won't hurt you anymore."
Slowly, Annie's breathing slowed and her eyes lost their panicked look. Then, with a small sob, she turned and curled into a ball, scrunching herself into as small a shape as possible.
"Oh, Annie…" Finnick lay back down, pulling her against his chest. His arms wrapped around her, cradling her tenderly, but there was a hard knot of anger in the pit of his stomach. It wasn't enough what Silas had done – or threatened to have done – in the arena. No, his memory still had to haunt Annie to this day.
God damn that son of a b-tch.
"Good morning, Finnick."
Riley grinned as his son shuffled into the kitchen, blearily running one hand through his tousled hair. "Did you spend the night at Annie's?"
Finnick nodded, covering his yawn with his fist. Plopping himself down on a stool, he drew the coffee pot towards him across the counter and filled a mug for himself.
Leaning on the counter, Riley watched Finnick with his usual grin. Damn morning people.
"So what's the plan for today?" asked Riley.
Finnick shrugged. "I dunno…might take Annie out…" He sipped his coffee, wrapping his long fingers around the mug.
Riley, sensing that intelligent conversation was at the moment beyond Finnick's capabilities, began cooking breakfast or something. Whistling, of course.
As Finnick's torpid brain began to revive itself, he registered something odd. "Why aren't you at work?" he asked his father. Usually Riley was out of the house and on his boat before dawn.
Riley shrugged. "Just felt like taking a day off."
Finnick's eyes narrowed. "You're a horrible liar, Dad."
Sighing, Riley put down the frying pan, his back to Finnick. "I just thought that…given recent events…you might want me around."
Finnick stared at his dad, suddenly and unreasonably touched. "Um, well…thanks." His words were weak but his tone unmistakably sincere. Hastily clearing his throat, he added, "But I think I'll manage."
" 'Course you will," said Riley. He neatly slid two fried eggs onto a plate and placed it in front of Finnick, who picked up his fork. Rather than eat, however, Finnick looked Riley squarely in the eyes.
"Annie's not going in the Hunger Games."
Riley meditatively rested his elbows on the counter. "I hope so, lad. But what if they pull her name?"
"Then we're getting someone else to volunteer for her." Finnick's tone brooked no denial.
"That might be a problem," said Riley softly. "You remember who the other two female victors are…"
"Aoife and Mags," groaned Finnick, dropping his head into his hands. "Oh, sh-t."
"Could you do that?" asked Riley, even more softly. "Could you ask something like this of Mags? You'd be sending her to her death as surely as if you shot her."
"I don't know," said Finnick hoarsely. "I don't know what I would or wouldn't do for Annie anymore." He raised his head, expression desperate. "Maybe I could persuade Aoife…"
"You'd be wasting your time, lad," said Riley, tone gentle. "You know she won't have anything to do with the Hunger Games anymore."
"Well, I have to try, don't I?" said Finnick, his eyes burning. "I've got to try."
Riley looked sad. "I know," he said. "I just don't want you relying on false hopes, that's all. It's – " he hesitated, then continued, "it's a horrible thing when something you've counted on comes crashing down around you."
He was talking about Gaila, Finnick knew. Sighing, he looked away. "But we've all got to count on something, haven't we?" he murmured.
Finnick ignored his dad, hopping abruptly off the stool and heading towards the door. "Where are you going?" called Riley.
"Finding Aoife," Finnick shot over his shoulder. "Dammit, Dad, I'm not giving up without a fight."
It wasn't easy finding someone in a city, especially if they didn't want to be found. Aoife wasn't picking up her phone, so Finnick had to physically search for her. He doubted he would have found her at all if he hadn't seen a distinctive mane of red hair disappearing around the corner of the pharmacist's shop.
"Hey – hey WAIT! Aoife!"
She paused long enough to let him catch up to her, behind the building. "What do you want, Finnick?" she asked coolly.
Finnick swallowed, intimidated a little, as always, by her. Though barely taller than Finnick, Aoife still managed to somehow look down on him. It wasn't for nothing she had been nicknamed "The Ice Queen" during her Hunger Games. Aoife's features could have been sculpted from a block of marble.
"I have a favor to ask," said Finnick steadily. This is for Annie, he reminded himself. Think of Annie.
Aoife merely folded her arms. Finnick took a deep breath and continued. "At the Reaping," he said. "If Annie's name is picked…I can't have her go back in the Games. It would destroy her completely."
For a moment, Aoife was silent. "What is that to me?" she said at last.
"If – if her name is picked…" Finnick looked straight into Aoife's eyes. They were the color of the sea in winter, and as unforgiving. "Would you be willing to volunt – "
"No." Aoife cut him off decisively, the faintest hint of steel touching the ice of her voice. "I will not."
"But – "
"I will not," she repeated, with more conviction. Then she drew herself up haughtily. "I will have nothing to do with the Games, that abomination," she said, and her voice could have frozen Hell itself. Certainly it chilled Finnick to the bones. "And if it is my name that is picked, I assure you I shall be dead long before I step into the arena."
It did not occur to Finnick to doubt her. Aoife was a chemist. Half the poisons in District Four came out of her laboratory.
Still, he had to try. "Couldn't you just – for Annie's sake – "
"No." The word came down between them like the steel blade of a guillotine, killing their conversation dead. Without waiting for a response from Finnick, Aoife swept away, the green silk of her long dress clinging to her erect, rigid figure. Finnick stared after, mouthing silent imprecations. B-tch, he thought. Uncaring, unfeeling, ice-hearted b-tch…
Finnick didn't want to talk to Mags about this. He couldn't. It was wrong, utterly wrong, for him to go to the old woman whom he regarded almost as family and ask her to willingly lay down her life. But something, some driving force compelled him to ignore the sick guilt in his stomach and turn his feet toward Mags' house.
She was sitting on her front porch, weaving, of course. Normally Finnick was inordinately fascinated with the way her wrinkled fingers, still white and slender, wove the laths or wet straws together. But today…
"Mornin' t' ya, Finnick," she called cheerily. "How does Annie be?"
"She's all right," said Finnick, managing a smile. He walked over, lowering his long frame onto one of the steps at her feet. Mags drew another reed out of the bowl of water and began adding it to the intricate pattern.
"Mags…" Finnick began to reluctantly voice his question. Better sooner than later.
She did not look at him, but remained concentrated on her work. Finnick tried again. "Mags, I – about the Hunger Games – "
With a small sigh, Mags lowered the basket onto her lap. Finnick looked up at her and was surprised to see a rueful little smile on her withered lips.
"Ah figured ya'd be askin' me this," she said. "Sooneh or lateh."
"I did go to Aoife first," muttered Finnick, ducking his head.
Mags' fingers, cool and dripping with water, slipped under Finnick's chin, raising his head. Astonished, he stared up at her. "You would – you would actually do this?" he said.
"Ah doon't know, lad," she said. "Ah suppose one could say, Ah doon't have many years left in me anyway…but then, wouldn't tha' make 'em all the more precious?"
"You don't have to," said Finnick. The words slipped out before he could stop them.
"Ah know Ah doon't," said Mags. "Do ya think tha' matters?"
"No," muttered Finnick. After a pause, he added, "Mags, I really do feel like a di – I feel rotten about this."
"Ah know tha' too," said Mags, with a smile. She returned to her weaving.
Finnick watched her nimble fingers plait the rushes for quite a while. He liked watching Mags weave. No pressure to fill the silences.
After a little while, however, he got up and went back to Annie.
"Annie, I – "
"But – "
"Not now, Finnick…"
Annie bent her sun-warmed lips to Finnick's and kissed him. He responded fervently, of course, but there was something very important he had to tell her…
Pulling back, Annie looked down on him from where she lay on his chest. "You're not going to kiss me properly until you say whatever's bugging you, are you?"
Finnick grinned shamefacedly. She was right, of course. But then again, the moment was too perfect to ruin – the two of them, all alone, lying among the drying grasses and last wildflowers of the meadow, surrounded by the sweet, hay-like scent of sun-warmed grass.
"C'mon." Annie settled herself more comfortably on his chest, crossing her arms on his sternum and resting her chin on her arms. "What is it?"
Sighing, Finnick looked away, one of his hands tracing little patterns on the thin cotton fabric covering the small of her back. Annie tilted her head, resting her cheek on her arm instead. "Finnick?" Her voice was very quiet. "Is it about the – the you-know-what?"
"About the – goddammit, Annie, what else would it be?" he burst out in desperation, a sob catching in his voice. "It's eating up all we've got – "
Annie gently touched his face, her lips parted and her eyebrows pulled together in a worried frown. Finnick closed his eyes at her touch, holding her hand to his face and willing himself not to tear up. If he started crying, then Annie would, too – and he'd rather lose a gallon of blood than see her shed a single tear.
Calmer now, he took a deep breath and opened his eyes. "Okay, I have two things to say," he said. "The first one is that even if your name gets picked, you're not going to the Games. I talked to Mags the other day and she'll volunteer for you."
"She – she would do that?" Annie's eyes grew wide.
"Yes," said Finnick. "She as good as promised."
Annie closed her eyes, lips forming a silent prayer of thanks and her shoulders sagging in poignant relief. Finnick suddenly felt a little miffed. Shouldn't she have said something along the lines of, "Oh, Finnick, I don't care about me – I just want to know you'll be safe?"
Then he felt extremely guilty. The Hunger Games had changed her, deeply and permanently. She had every right to be selfish.
Annie opened her eyes, tears shining in them. "I must thank Mags," she whispered. "Such a sacrifice…"
"I know," said Finnick. His voice caught in his throat and he cleared it before speaking again. "Annie…the other thing I wanted to say…"
"What is it?" Annie sat up straighter, alerted by some subtle change in his voice.
Finnick took a deep breath. "I might get chosen for the games," he said. "It's a one in four chance."
"No…" Tears began to fill Annie's eyes again, and she backed away, shaking her head. "No, don't…"
Sitting up, Finnick reached for her. "Annie, Annie, it's a possibility," he said, voice transparent with pain. "You know that, darling. We have to be prepared."
Annie drew in a deep, shuddering breath, huge eyes fixed on Finnick. "Please," she whispered. "Please don't."
"Annie…" It felt like his heart was breaking.
And then she scrambled forward, straight into his arms, with Finnick cradling her as tightly as he dared. "Don't die," she sobbed into his chest. "Don't. I can't be without you – "
"No – " Finnick pulled back a little and Annie, startled, looked up into his eyes. "No, Annie – that's exactly what I don't want. Don't you see? If something happens, you have to be strong." A sob caught in Finnick's throat, but he forced it down. "You can't – give up. You have to keep going. You have to stay strong for me."
"But what's the point?" whispered Annie desperately.
"The point?" Finnick's voice broke. "The point, Annie, is that if something happens – if you die – " his voice started to shake uncontrollably " – then the world will have lost something beautiful and rare and infinitely precious. You can't just live for me – there are others – Ciara, Riley – "
Finnick couldn't continue. The tears that came so easily were stinging in his eyes, and the tightness in his chest threatened to choke him. He tried to draw in a deep breath, to steady himself, but the exhale became a shuddering sob.
And then Annie, who had been gazing at him with wide eyes, did something totally unexpected. She reached up and, with a newfound tenderness and maturity, laid her hand against his cheek in a comforting gesture.
"Annie…" Finnick whispered her name, unable to say more. Shaking her head slightly, she brushed his cheek with her palm, smoothing away the wetness of his tears with her gossamer touch.
"Don't," she crooned softly. "It's not your part…"
Finnick laughed shakily. "But it's yours? Mermaid…"
Annie looked up at him steadily, her aquamarine eyes as clear as sea-glass. "I promise."
"I promise to stay strong and not give up if something happens…that's what you wanted, right?"
Finnick hastily found his voice. "Yes – yes, it is."
"I mean it, Finnick." Her voice trembled.
"I – I know. Thank you, Annie."
They sat in silence for a while, Finnick's arms wrapped around Annie, her head and hands resting gently on his chest. The fragrant scent of the meadow flowers and grasses rose around them; the sun shone on Finnick's bronze hair and Annie's shell-like skin. Eventually, Annie spoke.
"Is that all you wanted to say?" she asked.
Finnick nodded, touching his lips to her perfumed hair. "Yes. Why?"
Annie looked up at him, wistfully, playfully. "Now will you kiss me?"
Finnick did, willingly, his hands twisting in the long luxurious skein of her hair, treasuring every second his lips touched hers, every moment her skin brushed his. They stayed until the sun set, watching the glorious conflagration of colours in the sky, Annie leaning against Finnick as his fingers trailed up and down her arm and he rested his cheek against her hair. And when the air grew cold and the sky dark and she fell asleep, Finnick took her in his arms and carried her home.
Several nights later, Finnick was awakened by something warm and sweet and silky slipping into his bed.
"What the – ?" Groggily, he forced his eyes opened and found Annie was lying next to him.
"I couldn't sleep," she explained, her eyes reflecting the moonlight that filtered in through his curtains. "Will you tell me a story?"
"Not – not now," groaned Finnick. "Mermaid, I'm tired…" He slumped back down on the pillows, it being too much of an effort to hold up his head.
Annie, who by contrast seemed wide awake, propped herself up on one elbow. "Shall I tell you a story?"
"Sure," mumbled Finnick. His eyelids were so heavy…
Annie pulled herself closer to him, wrapping her arms around his waist and leaning her cheek against his collarbone. "Once upon a time…" Her breath tickled his ear, sending him farther into dreamworld. "Once upon a time, there was a man, and it was foretold that his daughter would be so beautiful that she would send countless men to their death…"
His eyelids were so heavy…so…very…heavy…
The Reaping was tomorrow.
Finnick woke in the early, early, morning, suddenly cold. Annie was curled into a ball, but had somehow managed to wrap all the covers around her, and the morning air was chill on his bare torso. For a second, Finnick lay still, pulling his mind out of the nebulous otherworld of dreams. As he came back to reality, another chill that had nothing whatsoever to do with the weather crept up his spine.
Today was the Reaping. In some hours – twelve, maybe? – his and Annie's fates would be decided. No, not Annie's. Hers was set. She wasn't going back. But he might…and Mags…
Unable to lie still, Finnick rolled out of bed and pulled on the first clothes that came to hand – skinny jeans, a plaid button-down shirt (which he didn't bother to button). Before leaving, he paused to tuck the blankets more securely around Annie and smooth her hair. Sleep now, mermaid, he thought, heart aching. It's the quiet before the storm.
Beat-up tennis shoes dangling by their laces from his hand, Finnick padded out of the room. The house was still, quiet…almost. Riley's snores drifted downstairs from his room. Finnick, seated on the doormat as he laced his sneakers, smirked. He still felt cold, though…
Shoes on, he slid open the glass door and took off at a light jog, feet pounding the trail at the edge of the bluff. The noise of the sea, such a constant that he usually forgot it was there, intruded on his consciousness as a relentless pulse. The light was cold, grayish-blue…the victors' houses shining dim white through the haze of fog. Everything else was simply shapes, patterns of gray and black and blue.
Finnick slowed to a walk when the last of the houses had disappeared into the mist and he was surrounded only by the cliffs and ocean and the grasses and flowers that grew up on this promontory. A chill breeze wafted past him, and he shivered. All his senses were dimmed, eyes and ears muffled by the fog, his hands and face numbed by chill, his thoughts empty. Only the briny smell of the sea really registered, clear and sharp.
And then, out of the mist…a dark shrouded figure. Finnick burst into a cold sweat, sure for one heart-stopping moment that this was Death himself, come to lay his icy mark on him. But then he realized that it was Ciara, a black hood pulled over her hair.
"Finnick?" Her voice, evenly modulated, held only the hint of a question.
"Ciara." Finnick ducked his head uncertainly, but he knew why she was here. It was the same reason he was.
"Finnick, I have something to tell you," said Ciara. There was a command behind those smooth syllables. Her eyes, dark pools in the faint light, fastened on Finnick's face with an intensity that made him shiver.
"I know what you have done for Annie, and I am grateful," she said. "Do not think that I am not. But it is not enough – " and she took a step closer " – to ensure her safety alone. What do you think will happen to her if you die?"
"I – " Finnick stared at Ciara. "I made her promise…Annie promised me if I…if something happened, she would…stay strong."
Ciara made a small noise of disbelief, and Finnick's anger flared. "Do you doubt your own daughter?"
Her eyes narrowed, Ciara looked over the ocean. "I do not doubt her intent," she said evenly. "But whether she has the strength to carry it out is a different matter."
Suddenly, she fixed her gaze on Finnick again, and the intensity in her eyes was searing. "Listen to me, Finnick Odair," she said. "It is not enough to have kept Annie safe. If you go in the games, you must keep yourself also. Or else all your efforts will have been in vain. Do you understand me? I will not see my daughter destroyed because of you, and I ask that you come back alive, not for your sake, but for hers." She paused, then added again, "Do you understand?"
Finnick met her eyes evenly, hiding the icy chills that were running up and down his spine. "I understand."
Cut to the Reaping.
There they were, all gathered in the district square under the hot morning sun. And Peacekeepers. Peacekeepers everywhere. The usual stage had been set up in the middle of the square, but someone had had the brilliant idea of setting up special seats for all the previous victors right next to it. As if they needed extra attention.
Annie was seated in between Finnick and Mags. She was pale and trembling, her face hidden against his shoulder, and refused to let go of his arm. Finnick leaned his head against hers and stared out into space, seeing nothing. A camera man came up close, capturing their faces and broadcasting them for the world to see. Four men and three women, all pale, still, responding to neither the crowd nor each other. Aoife, Mags, Annie…Finnick. Connor. Fergus. Logan.
The people parted, making way for "the Reapers": Mayor Danan, somber and uncomfortable in his ill-fitting suit; Jeremy Hague, the man who always picked the tributes, his golden curls slicked back; and the two young women who carried the possible tributes' names, their tight-fitting, shimmering silver dresses slit to the thigh.
Please, prayed Finnick, his eyes closed. If there's a God…not Annie and me…I don't care about me, just don't do anything to hurt her. She's been through enough already.
"Ladies and gentlemen," said Jeremy, then stopped and cleared his throat. He was lacking his usual ebullience. Why's that? thought Finnick savagely. Didn't care that a bunch of kids were being murdered, did you? But now your sad because your favorite celebrities might be hacked to pieces?
"Ladies and gentlemen," began Jeremy again. "The Reaping for the 75th Hunger Games." One of the silver-clad women stepped forward, holding the crystal bowl that contained only a few scraps of paper. Jeremy extended a shaking hand and picked up one. Finnick couldn't see him directly. But there was a huge screen up on the Justice Building, displaying everything in live time, and it was facing Finnick directly.
"The male tribute," said Jeremy. Dear God, please, please, please… "The male tribute is – is Finnick Odair."
"NO!" Annie's horrified scream rent the air and she clung to Finnick, sobbing, crying, pleading, but he was unable to offer any comfort. He couldn't think. Couldn't breathe. All life, all feeling seemed to have been struck out of him and he sat there, dumb, motionless. Only when the rough gloved hands of the Peacekeepers jerked him to his feet and tried to pull Annie off of him did he come to life.
"No – no, Annie, don't worry – " he said mechanically. Her hysterics, her crying, hurt him so deeply he barely felt it. It was beyond pain. It was – numbing.
"Get on the stage," snapped the Peacekeeper who held Finnick's arm in an iron grip. Another was prying Annie's fingers loose, none to gently.
"Don't hurt her," snapped Finnick, real anger beginning to boil in his stomach. Sensation was coming back to him, and with it, emotion and thought. "Get your hands the f—k off of her!"
The crowd was watching, enthralled, both fascinated and repelled. Smirking, the Peacekeeper who had held Annie released her, backing away with his hands upraised. The other one still maintained a firm grip on Finnick's arm.
"Annie – " She was clinging to him, shaking, sobbing, her face buried against his shirt and her arms locked around his waist. Finnick brought his hands to her shoulders. "Darling – remember what you promised – what you said to me – "
Annie's arms tightened around him for one second longer. Then they loosened, slipped away, and she all but fell back into her seat. As the Peacekeeper marched Finnick up onto the stage, she bent her head to her knees and let out a long, high wail of pain.
Finnick's knees nearly buckled as he stepped up onto the platform, but he held himself up. Jerking his chin up, trying to hide the tears in his eyes, he searched the crowd for Riley. Riley was…where was Riley? Finnick's heart, already hammering, began to pound even harder. He had to see his dad, had to find his face one last time –
"The female tribute." Now Jeremy's voice was shaking, as well as his hands. It barely carried over Annie's continued cries. The other young woman stepped forward, and Finnick saw that tears streaked her cheeks. Jeremy reached into the bowl and drew out a folded piece of paper, but didn't seem to want to open it. Instead, he simply stared at the white scrap that quivered violently in his trembling hands. Nervously, Jeremy licked his dry lips. It took him two tries to open the paper.
Please. Not Annie. Not –
She screamed again, this time in abject terror. Dazed again – like his brain couldn't take any more – Finnick watched as Ciara burst out of the crowd, trying to hold Annie, trying to comfort her. There was a low, angry murmur coming from the crowd, and it was on Annie's behalf. A useless murmur.
And then Mags hauled herself to her feet, leaning heavily on her walking stick like she had aged twenty years in the past five minutes. Slowly, painfully, she made her way onto the stage to stand beside Finnick. Her face could have been a death mask.
Slowly, painfully, Finnick began to take it in. Annie wasn't going in the Games. She was safe. And for one second, sweet, sweet relief swamped Finnick. But cold reality wasn't far behind.
He was going back to the Games.
"Ladies and gentlemen, your tributes for the 75th Hunger Games," announced Jeremy, who had regained some control over his voice. But there was no cheering, not even a pretense. Many among the crowd were openly weeping.
Finnick finally found Riley. He was standing far back, as if the many rows of people could somehow dilute the pain. Tears were slowly trickling down his face and into his coppery beard. But when Finnick met his eyes, he slowly squared his shoulders and took a deep breath. Then he saluted Finnick.
Finnick nearly started crying himself. But he swallowed the lump in his throat, straightened his shoulders, and returned the salute. That was all the goodbye he would get. He knew full well it might be their last exchange ever. The knowledge threatened to crush him, to send him to his knees right then and there, but Finnick ruthlessly suppressed it. Later – later he would go to pieces. But not now.
"All right, let's go." The Peacekeeper – who still held his arm – yanked on it and escorted him back off the platform. Finnick followed unresistingly.
Until they passed the bench where the other victors sat.
And Finnick didn't care. He didn't care he was on national television, didn't care the world could see, didn't care a Peacekeeper stood with a loaded gun and brass knuckles two feet from him. He tore his arm out of the man's grasp and went straight for Annie. In another second she was in his arms, crying again – they were both crying, holding each other tighter, tighter –
Don't let go! Finnick's body screamed at him. Don't let go! Don't! Don't!
I know, he thought desperately. I won't! And he didn't', not when the Peacekeepers grabbed his and Annie's arms and began to try to pull them apart. He only held on tighter, burying his face in her hair, feeling her arms lock around him and her hands clutch at him. Don't let go – don't – don't –
But the might of the Capitol was stronger than them. More than one set of gloved hands grabbed at Finnick, wrenching him and Annie apart. Unpitying, unfeeling, they dragged him through the crowd and out of the square, while Annie screamed and cried, captive like a pinned butterfly. All too soon her face was lost – gone.
And in all likelihood, he would never see her again.