Note: So, this is it! I just want to say a quick thank you to all of you readers and reviewers who have stuck with this story from beginning to end. This is the final chapter, and I really hope you enjoy it, because it's for you.


11 – Out of the Dark

'In a strange, strange place, lying on the edge of a star... In these violent days, I only want to be where you are. Even fools, they say, can find a way out of the dark.'

–"Out of the Dark" (Matt Hires)

It all started on reaping day, and I wish that I could go back there. I wish that I could be in the one place I never needed to escape from. I wish that I'd never met someone for whom I would do anything. I wish that that person hadn't pulled me in like a piece of driftwood caught in a riptide. I wish that I didn't have to count down the seconds until my time with her will be over. I wish that I'd never made the Capitol so angry, and that they'd never made me wait. I wish that I hadn't fallen apart, or at least that I could have the time to put myself back together. I wish that she didn't need me to carry her home, or that we didn't need each other. I wish that I'd never made her my destination when I knew how impossible such a journey would be. I wish that I hadn't stared into the eternal sunset of sleep. I wish that I could find my way out of the dark and go back to the start, when I still knew how to deal with my pain – how to deny it… how to lie… how to pretend.

Right now, I'm trying to hold onto the note from President Snow that an Avox brought to my door. I'm trying to keep them steady, but my hands won't stop shaking, because I know exactly what this letter will say. I know that it's just another one of Snow's ultimatums, like the one I've kept on my bedside table for five years but have never given in to. The only difference between this letter and the one at home in District 4 is that now, the Games are over; Snow isn't playing anymore, and he knows exactly which buttons to push to make me hand myself over to him.

I have to tell myself not to look at Annie as I slowly rip open the seal of the white envelope, then pull out the personalized parchment that smells so strong it makes me gag, and read:

To Mr. Finnick Odair,

Please accept my most sincere congratulations on your impressive mentorship that led to Ms. Cresta's victory in the 70th Annual Hunger Games. Though I am sure you are eager to return home to the Victor's Village of District 4, I would like to remind you that my offer of providing you a permanent residence here in the Capitol still stands. I do hope to hear a response from you regarding my latest request, as I assure you that it is in your best interest to oblige.

Best regards,

Mr. President Snow

The Capitol

Just as I expected, his words are eerily similar to the ones he wrote me after I won my own Games. The only real difference is the last line, which is very clearly meant not as a request, but rather a demand. He's threatening me, and as much as I'd like to ignore it the way I did before, I can't think of only myself anymore. I have somebody else that I need to protect. I have Annie.

It's the thought of her that makes me crumple the note in my hand and walk out the bedroom door without once looking back. Annie has plenty of sleep to catch up on, so I have a feeling she won't be up for hours, and right now, anger is spreading through my veins like drops of water splattering onto the flattest glass. I need to deal with that anger before I can be anywhere near Annie, because even though I might have wanted her to be scared once, I don't want to be the one she fears. I only want to be the one she loves.

Mags is in the living room, sitting on the couch and flipping through the pages of Kasen's book on knots, but I walk right past her until I'm standing in the camera-filled hallway outside the suite. Dax, who appears to have been dealing with questions about Annie all night, helps push me through the crowd and into the elevator. He doesn't ask me where I'm going, or why I don't have Annie with me and am still undressed with only the swim trunks I was wearing yesterday tied around my waist. I probably look like I've returned to my usual bachelorhood, which Dax presumably appreciates, but I also think that he's recently become even more loyal to me and Mags and Annie than he ever was to the Capitol.

When I get to the ground floor of the Training Center, I start to wonder if I have any idea where I'm going. I'm not sure that my head does, but my legs seem to know exactly where to go. They place my feet in a long, winding path that leads me through the automatic doors and into the streets of the Capitol until I'm standing in front of the city's very own Justice Building.

The giant slab of marble doesn't look anything like the Justice Building at the end of the pier in District 4, or any of the personalized government structures in all the other districts of Panem that I saw on my Victory Tour. This building is located at the edge of a man-made lake, with a moat flowing around the staircases that descend from all sides. There are guards on each step and hidden cameras in both the stone exterior as well as the pristine water fencing. At the top of the stairs lies a towered edifice built atop two ancient double doors fit with knockers in the shape of the Capitol crest.

Before I can think about the consequences of doing such, my feet march right up and past the guards and then my hands take to the knockers and pull both doors wide open. As they hold and then fall back gently with the morning breeze, I walk inside to find a décor that looks no different from the rest of the Capitol buildings – vast, white, and empty – and am soon facing the similarly fashioned President Snow.

It takes one look between us for him to understand why I've come and to see the crumpled letter balled into my fist. With a single jerk of his bushy bearded head, the guards retreat and we are left alone, standing about two yards apart with me ten yards from the now closed doors and him the same amount of space from a glass desk, atop which sits nothing but a long, thin vase with a single red rose stemming out the top. That rose is the only speck of color I've seen all morning, and though it should feel relieving to see such, I find myself staring at the flower and feeling nothing but disdain. Snow has no right to take something so beautiful and turn it into something wretched. He has no right to prune its thorns and clip its petals, only to let it wilt from its lack of light. He has no right to tease his etiolated country with the hope of color when he's the only one who really gets to see it.

Snow has his hands clasped together at the bottom of his black, collared shirt. He is stoic and calm just as I remember he was when I met him for the very first time, in this very room five years ago on this very day. That day, he did all the talking as he made arrangements for my mother's medicine and for my way of payment that I would provide him the following year, when I returned to the Capitol as more than just a mentor. Today, I'm going to do the talking, and I'm hoping to make him believe that he no longer has any leverage over me.

"I've come to decline your offer," I tell him. I am going to go home with Annie, and I'm going to say goodbye to my dying mother, and then I'm going to stay there forever. I won't come back here. He can't make me come back here.

When Snow shows no sign of reaction, but rather keeps his eyes set on mine, I try to make my point clearer by saying, "My mother is barely holding on anymore. Medicine won't help her now, so you have nothing to barter with." But he does, and he knows it. I suppose I was just wishing that he didn't.

Once again, he doesn't seem at all thrown off or disappointed as he paces back to his desk and leans his nose toward the rose, then pulls it out of its vase, snips off its stem with only his fingernails, and pins it to the lapel of his blazer. Then he starts walking back toward me as he voices his first words in a question. "Why do you think Miss Cresta won these Games, Odair? Was it, perhaps, because she was an underdog?"

I'm not sure how he wants me to respond, so I just answer the way I want to as I say, "No, Sir. Annie won these Games because she was the best swimmer." I don't want to admit to flooding the arena myself, so I think it's best to give Annie all the credit for her final days in the swamp. And just because I can't help but refute Snow and his insinuation, I add, "And anyway, she wasn't the underdog. Underdogs are victims, martyrs, sacrifices. That was Kasen."

"Ah, yes," Snow nods, "The boy who can't be touched – well, I do believe that statement was proven wrong."

I try to resist the urge to punch the president until he's lying dead on the ground as he takes a short breath and continues, "Though after the hysterics Miss Cresta displayed last night, it seems to me that it may be time for her to become her own martyr."

Of course, this is about last night. Annie couldn't hold herself together after watching Kasen's beheading in the arena recap, and Snow doesn't support public tantrums. To him, insanity is even worse than rebellion, because while rebellion can be contained, insanity is merely contagious.

Still, I expected the reason Snow would have to use Annie against me. He doesn't want us together because he wants to own me for his city, and because he wants Annie to disappear and never be thought of again. What I want to know is how he plans to make any of that happen. That's why I ask, "What are you suggesting?"

He smiles to see that I'm now willingly following the conversation and explains, "There is a psychiatric hospital located a few doors down from the Training Center. I'm sure that Miss Cresta would be warmly welcomed there."

"No," I say practically before he's finished. What he's talking about is no hospital; it's a prison for the insane. It's a host of cells with doctors that use the latest torturing techniques to turn their patients into vegetables and then wait for them to die. It's where Snow sends all the mentors that try to kill themselves after their tributes do the same, and I won't let Annie be one of his lab rats.

With just as serene and steady a voice as before, Snow silences me by saying, "All right. If you would rather she return to District Four and be watched over by her father, then I assume that you will take her place here. Granted, you should find your accommodations much more satisfying, though you will be given plenty of work. You will also be permitted to visit District Four one day each month, excluding the months in which you shall remain here as a mentor. Either way, one of you must stay and the other must go."

He's going to make me a full-time, commonplace prostitute in exchange for Annie's safety. He doesn't need my mother's illness anymore, because now he has Annie's. He let me interfere with the Games just so that he could gain something new to hold over my head. This was his plan all along.

Snow is walking toward the front doors and opening them for me as he says, "If you step foot on that train, I will take it as a sign of your decision to return to the Capitol next day. If you decide otherwise, I will be expecting to see Miss Cresta here at noon. The choice is yours."

The Tribute Train leaves this afternoon to take our whole team back home and announce Annie's victory to her local supporters. I am going to get on that train and go with Annie and Mags and Dax, and then I will come straight back here the very next morning. There is no 'and', 'or', or 'but' in this scenario, because Snow is wrong. The choice isn't mine, because there is no choice. There is only love. There is only safety. There is only sacrifice.

I'm ushered outside before either of us says another word. The walk back to the Training Center is slow and lonesome, but I need it to be. I need the emptiness and the translucence of the Capitol. The reason to fight for something more. The reminder that I can't let its darkness inside Annie's head. The promise to myself that I am strong enough to walk through its twisting turns and spinning streets without getting lost along the way.

When I make it back to the fourth floor suite, Dax and Mags have already eaten breakfast, and Dax apologizes to me for not being able to wait for either Annie or me to join them. I tell him not to worry about it and then head to my room, where I find Annie sitting up on the floor with her eyes wandering from one blown out candle to the next.

As I close the door and lean my forehead against the wood with my back facing Annie, I hear her take a breath and stand up. Soon, her arms are wrapped around my waist, and she's pulling me ever so slightly away from the door as she whispers into my neck, "We're going home today."

I close my eyes at the words, because I won't lie to her. But I also know that I can't say anything yet, so I try to slow the beats of my broken heart as I turn around and wrap my own arms around Annie. "Yeah. We are. We're going home today." I say the words, but my voice is cracked, and she notices.

She pulls away so that she can really look at me, and I know that she's worried. She wants to ask if I'm okay, but she doesn't get the chance to when Starlin knocks on the door. I suppose the stylist must have realized that Annie would be in my room after what she discovered about us yesterday, and I let her inside to dress Annie and say her goodbyes before we head off for the train station. At first, I try to leave the room in hopes of getting some food to bring back to Annie, thinking that she'll be okay as long as Starlin's with her, but Annie refuses to let go of my hand long enough for me to walk away.

Our hands remain intertwined until we're both leaving, when Dax tells us to stay apart on our walk out of the Center, since there are enough Capitol onlookers waiting for us outside to fill the stadium used in the Tribute Parade. Dax seems to have done his job well, too, since none of the Capitol folk appear any less excited about Annie now than they did before her interview gone wrong. Either he convinced them that the event wasn't anything worth fretting about after all, or the people here are just too selfish to care who the victor is so long as there's a victor.

Still, Annie isn't comfortable with her fame, so Dax and Mags try to keep her as hidden as possible as I pose for everyone and answer questions about what I'll be doing in my time off by saying things like, "Don't you mean who I'll be doing?" Then I wink and put my hands on my hips and smile, and I think about how used to this I'll have to get now that it's about to become the real me.

When we finally make it to the train, I stay by the windows in the main compartment until we're out of the city, waving to everyone as we pass to keep up my appearance. As I'm doing so, I can feel Annie's eyes on me, and I know without having to look that my pretending hurts her. She isn't like all the possessive fan-girls I've been with before, who want me all for themselves. Annie wants the entire world to see me for who I really am, but she doesn't realize that the only thing that's me is what she sees.

Once we're outside Capitol borders, I sit down at the couch in the compartment and take Annie's hand to tell her that I'm sorry, and this time I'm the one who never lets go of her. For the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, we sit with Mags and Dax and talk about all the things we missed in District 4: the daily routine, the salty smell, the changing tides. I only lose Annie a couple of times all day – it happens whenever the topic of conversation has anything to do with Kasen – and I always manage to bring her back to me.

In fact, I'm far more absent most of the time than she is. I don't get the chance to tell Mags about Snow's ultimatum and my ultimate choice, even though I would tell her if I could, since I'm always with Annie. And I like always being with Annie, so I try not to think about what will happen when I'm not. But I can't hide my anxiety from any of the three other people on this train. Luckily, they all seem to understand that I don't want to talk about it, so they never ask.

I spend the night with Annie, but again, we don't do anything other than sleep. We don't even talk. We just hold each other and breathe each other in because I think we both know that soon we won't be able to. It feels like the night before Annie's scheduled enter into the arena all over again, except that now there doesn't seem to be any hope of a happy ending.

The next day, Annie and I sleep until noon and then sit in a bath of boiling water together until our skin grows pruned and wrinkly. By the time we get dressed – and this time I'm fully clothed in shorts and a shirt – and head back into the main compartment with the dining table and living room couches, Dax announces that we're only twenty minutes away from the peninsula.

Those twenty minutes go by faster than any I've ever lived through. Time works that way sometimes; it speeds up when you want it to slow down, almost like it wants to remind you that no matter how determined you may be, you have no control of the things around you. This idea is particularly frustrating for somebody like me, because I also have no control over myself.

I can feel Annie growing excited beside me when the sight of the beautiful blue shines through the windows. If there is any place that can make her feel safe right now, it is here, and seeing her smile for the first time since before the Games is more than enough to make me sure that I'm doing the right thing. Her smile is worth every frown that will ever penetrate my heart.

The four of us step off the train and walk right onto the boat that's awaiting our arrival. Even the driver of the ferry is pleased to see us as he steers us to the pier, where a stage has been set up in front of the Justice Building just like the one that was used on reaping day. Peacekeepers are stationed at various points around the wharf and the beach below, but there are none this far out on the pier, since it is completely filled with the families of fishermen who finally have reason to celebrate.

Annie's standing on the railing of the bow as I hold her steady from below, and everyone is cheering for us as the boat is anchored. A walkway connecting the ferry to the stage is lowered for us, and we walk across it in a near run, each one of us feeling fueled by the wave of energy emitted from the crowd that is already a thousand times warmer than the ones in the Capitol were.

Mags and I stand on each side of a perfectly lucid Annie, all of us in a row behind Dax as he takes a microphone and yells into the crowd, "Thank you! Thank you all! Thank you, citizens of District Four, for sending us your best and brightest to compete in the Seventieth annual Hunger Games!" The screaming doesn't subside, and I don't think any of us want it to, as Dax steps away, reaches his arm out to Annie, and adds, "So, without further ado, here she is: the girl from the water and this year's victor, Miss ANNIE CRESTA!"

Annie and I have had our index fingers curled around each other behind our backs throughout the journey from the boat to the stage, and she waits for me to uncurl us before she takes one last look at me, sees my reassuring smile, and then steps forward for Dax to place a crown – the one she left too early to receive from President Snow last night – on her head and shoots her hand into the air.

I keep an eye on her for the next few minutes, but she doesn't even come close to throwing a fit. She is more herself than she's been since reaping day, with her eyes locked on the two people who have been waiting for her in the center of the crowd, and tears streaming down her face with happiness to have finally returned. There are tears all around her as well – salty water staining the cheeks of people to whom Annie has given fresh and eternal hope – and I try to take in every drop of water like each person standing on this pier is as significant as the ocean that encircles it, because they are. We might all be small and petty, but every last one of us comes from the same sea and the same world. We are all victors here.

Thinking such makes me look around as I attempt to take it all in, and soon I'm looking at Mags. She too is crying, but I don't sense the same elation in her as is in everyone else. Then I notice that her sad eyes are focused on a couple standing near the back of the crowd who seem to share her loss. I follow her gaze and immediately recognize the two people. They are those shop owners who used to have the most amazing son, who'd been avoided by so many people who never knew just how brilliant he really was. They are Kasen's parents. They are the two remaining strands in the Strand family.

The man and woman are beautiful in that even through their grieving, I can spot tiny sparkles of happiness shine across their skin as they look up at Annie and are thankful that out of all the people who could have, she won after Kasen left. But there is also that irrevocable feeling that someone is missing, which I can see in the shadows of their eyelashes. I look at Mags and see those same shadows, and soon I feel them myself. That's when an idea comes to me.

Though at first I'm worried about how Annie will react, I decide that it can only help her when I remember what Mags told me about facing Kasen so that we can remember rather than forget. With this in mind, I hop off the stage and walk through the crowd that, for once, isn't paying any attention to me, and push my way to where the pier becomes the wharf. That's where I find Kasen's parents and shake each of their hands before leading them back the way I came and pulling them onto the stage with me.

Dax figures out what's going on after a minute or so, and then introduces the new additions by announcing the name Kasen Strand. The crowd goes silent then, but it isn't awkward or drowning. It is captivating and free. The quiet also seems to draw the welcome ceremony to a close, since of course the audience understand that Annie should be given the time to reunite with her family.

As people start filing out of the area, Annie doesn't need any encouragement to walk up to her father and sister and grab them in a prolonged group hug. Dax and I join them after a minute, though Mags stays behind to talk with Kasen's parents for a while. Once Annie is ready to move along, she huddles close to her sister, Myla, as the two follow Dax all the way to the Victor's Beach, where Annie's new home is waiting for them.

I walk at the end of the line alongside Annie's father, whose name I learn is Zealand. He's shaved since the last time I saw him, but he is still just as tall and burly as he was when he pinned me against the wall of the Justice Building on reaping day. We don't say anything to each other for most of our walk, as we're both too busy looking at Annie – Zealand admiring her mere presence and wondering just how broken she's become, and me knowing exactly how broken she is and admiring the smiles that I can tell are helping her heal.

It isn't until Zealand notices the way I'm looking at Annie that he finds out the truth. He hasn't had reason to accost me again since Annie's return, because I did what I promised him; I took care of her. But now, he can see just from my eyes that I might have taken more care of her than he permitted me to. I don't know what it is about fathers, because I never did have one myself, but when it comes to daughters, they always seem to be able to sense a threat.

"You love her, don't you?" Zealand asks me, catching me off guard at first because I was still busy staring at Annie. His tone isn't very friendly, and I quickly see that his expression is even less so as I turn to find blazing blue eyes and a jaw clenched as tight as a clam that's protecting its pearl.

I figure the best way to calm him down is to show that I can be just as protective as he can by straightening my back and answering strongly, "Yes. I do. I love her." We're far enough away from the others that Annie can't overhear our conversation, though I wouldn't care if she could. Regardless of how timid we've been around each other lately, we both know that our feelings haven't changed.

Zealand merely grunts and mumbles, "You know, I don't often change my mind about people." He's referring to the last time we talked, when he called me a piece of meat owned by the Capitol. Knowing what I do now, he probably shouldn't change his mind, but I also remember what Annie told Leo on one of their final days in the arena.

She said that she didn't change her mind about people, and claimed that it was a trait she had inherited from her father. But then she told me before my mentor interview that I had been her exception; she did change her mind about me. Trying to think more about Annie's perception of me than Zealand's, I say, "I know you don't. I'm just hoping that you can make an exception." Though he's kept his eyes facing forward so that he can see where he's going, we both stop in our tracks and look at each other when I add, "Annie did."

Neither of us realizes that we're standing on the soft sand of Victor's Beach until Myla calls her father over to gawk at their brand new house that's been painted Annie's favorite shade of amethyst. Before he reports for duty, though, he pats me on the shoulder and says rather sincerely, "Thanks for bringing her back, kid."

I nod and then let him go, watching him run after his daughters as they rush to explore the adorable cottage that sits right next to mine. I don't follow them since they deserve some privacy, though Annie does turn around to smile at me before she heads inside. While I'm nudging my head at her to get a move on, Dax appears in front of me and gains my attention.

"You should go inside," he says, but I can tell from his surprisingly imperfectly knotted bowtie that he doesn't mean inside Annie's house. I don't even need to hear it when he tells me, "Your mother's waiting for you. The doctor says she can't wait much longer."

I'm already half way up the beach by the time Dax goes quiet, and soon I'm on the stairs that I used to carry her up every day, and I feel much lighter on my feet than I used to. Then I'm standing in the open doorway of Nola's bedroom, and she looks heavier than she used to. But she hasn't gained any curves or muscle; if anything, she's lost all that she ever had. She's heavy because her chest can no longer support her breathing, her graying hair can no longer find the strength to grow, and her fading mind can no longer hold onto all the memories that she's trying to keep from flying away.

"How are you doing today?" I ask as I tell myself not to cry and walk to her bed, which I climb into so that I'm laying half beneath her and half beside her. I know that she's been unbelievably strong these past few weeks because she needs me to be here for this, but I'm beginning to wonder if I can really handle it. That's why I decide to treat it like anything else, and to treat today like any other day, just like we would always do on reaping day when I would leave her, but when I wouldn't say goodbye.

"You're home," she whispers groggily at the feel of my arms around her scaly skin.

"Yeah. I'm home," I say to her, and I try to tell myself that I'm not lying. I am home, even if I won't be for long. And anyway, I can't lie to my mom.

"It's been a long time," she says. Usually, her dementia would keep her from knowing how long it's been, but I think that she's talking about more than just this year's Games. She's talking about all of the Games – all of the time that has passed since the day my own name was called by Dax Dirigible and the first day I left her without saying goodbye; all the time that has passed since the day we found out that she was sick and I decided to do everything in my power to make her better.

I let myself cry, more for her than for me since I know that she doesn't have the energy to do so herself, when she states, "I hate the Hunger Games."

"I know."

Then we're quiet for a while, each of us waiting for the moment that we're desperately hoping will never come, and eventually she tells me, "I have to go." She doesn't say that she'll see me soon, because she won't, and because she can't lie to me.

"I know," I say again, this time in between cracking sobs. But then I find myself thinking about something that Annie once asked me to say to her father in case she didn't make it out of the arena alive. As my mother drifts slowly into death, I say goodbye by letting her know that there will be someone left even after she leaves me.

"It's okay, Mom," I tell her, "I am loved. She loves me. I've been loved."

And as if those words are exactly what she's been waiting for, I feel Nola's heart stop beating beneath my shirt once I finish talking. It's funny, but I swear that her heart's final thump is louder than any other I've ever heard, almost like that very last beat has to pump more blood than usual. It's like when you take a giant gulp of air before holding your breath for five minutes, except that Nola's heart just pumped enough blood through her body to last a second lifetime.

I stay with her, or at least what used to be her, for a couple of hours before Mags finds me and makes Dax take Nola's body away. Then Mags just sits with me for as long as it takes me to stand up on my own, watching me tie knots on the bed with Kasen's rope until I've tied too many to unravel. We end up walking downstairs and outside onto my front porch, where I lean my arms against the railing and stare out at the full moon and the shooting stars reflected in the nearby water as Mags waits for me to say something.

I think that knowing my mother was going to die was half of the grieving process, because even though I do feel like a part of me is missing, I'm able to stand here and be okay as I open my mouth to say, "I have to go back, Mags."

She doesn't respond, because of course she already knew this. She's known for a while now, just like she was always the only person who knew about my mother's medicine. She knows what I'll do to protect the people I love, which I think is partly why she's always been so strong since she came into my life. She doesn't want to ever give me a reason to feel like I have to protect her.

When I can't think of what else to say, Mags sighs before finally speaking up. "I'm not the one you have to say goodbye to, Finn," she says. As we both catch sight of Annie walking from her house to the water's edge as if she'd rather swim than sleep, Mags adds, "You have to tell her."

Because I'm in pain, and because I don't want to be, I break down in front of Mags, taking my frustration out on her because I know that she'll forgive me for it as I whine, "And what about me? What am I supposed do? What am I supposed to do without her?"

"You do what you've always done, since you were fourteen years old," Mags practically scolds me as she points a finger straight to my chest and tells me to do exactly what she's never wanted me to. "You pretend."

We stare at each other for a few seconds that turn into minutes and then I walk away from the woman who helped raise me just as my mother walked away from me, stopping at the stairs that lead to the sand to glance back at Mags and say, "Well, while I'm not pretending, I should probably tell you that I love you a whole lot."

Laughing as if it's the most ridiculous thing she's ever heard, Mags says, "As if I didn't already know."

Our mutual smirks are the last things we see in the light of my porch lamp before I've disappeared into the darkness, my toes warming as they become engrained in the sand and my entire body paralyzing as it becomes submersed in the sea. In this water, I finally feel like I'm not lying as I tell myself that I'm home.

Annie is further out, standing waist-deep in the same nightgown she wore before she entered the arena, its hem as tangled as her hair as it floats behind her in a string of white-caps. I walk slowly toward her, waiting to let the water settle around me with each step I take, until I'm close enough to find her hand atop the surface and clasp mine around hers.

"You really shouldn't creep up on people like that," she says without looking at me, her eyes locked on the ripples forming around our two hands that have become one.

"Sorry," I apologize. Then I stare at her – her bony body that somehow seems healthier today than it did yesterday, the tired eyes that are more awake than they've ever been, and the porcelain skin that is glowing beneath the stars – until she's looking back at me, which is when I tell her, "I'm leaving tomorrow. I won't be back until next month. But we have tonight."

She isn't surprised, and I didn't expect her to be. She understands, at least as much as she needs to, and I even think that a part of her doesn't want to know the rest. She doesn't want to know what I'll be doing in the Capitol or why I have to go back there. She doesn't want to know that I'm doing it for her, because she doesn't want to feel guilty for me like she does for Kasen, and she knows that no matter how hard she tries, she won't be able to stop me.

So, instead of making me answer a slew of questions that I don't want to have to explain myself for, she merely asks, "Are you scared?" And just like I told her while we were standing at the bow of the boat on reaping day, she adds, "Don't lie."

"I wasn't going to," I say in a way that makes her believe me. "Because yes, I am scared."

She nods. She knew I was.

Before she can ask another question, though, I continue, "But I'm not scared of the Capitol. I'm not scared of being alone. I'm scared of being with anyone else but you."

We're looking at each other again, and she uses her free hand to reach up and touch my cheek, and just her touch makes me suddenly feel pure. When I'm with Annie, I feel like my body is an ocean that only she can swim in, and everyone else who's ever tried to doesn't matter anymore, because they drowned in my richness. In my complexity. In my soul.

When I ask her, "Annie, why does it feel like the worst day of my life?" I add, "Don't lie."

And she doesn't lie. She answers in the most honest way that she can, because she knows exactly how I feel, by saying, "Because it's the first unreal day you'll ever have." I stand still and lean my head down to my chest as she floats around me so that we're facing each other, her hand still on my cheek, and wraps herself around my torso as she says, "Just promise me something, Finnick."

I hold her like I always have as I listen to her say, "Don't deny it. Don't lie. Don't pretend with me."

"I won't," I say. "I promise." Then I pull her closer to me and kiss her, and soon were splashing into the sea and swimming along with the current. The water is slow and gentle, the tide rising steadily until it reaches its highest point, and she's present, fully and completely mine. We never let go of each other, not once.

And Annie is right. I shouldn't wish to go back, and I shouldn't wish for us to be taken to the start. I shouldn't wish for my pain to disappear, because that pain is a sign that I've been loved. It's a sign that I have something to lose, and I'd rather have that than have nothing at all. I'd rather be torn away from Annie and look forward to our reunions than never have met her in the first place. Meeting Annie was the best thing that ever happened to me, just like being with her during those few days that I'll be permitted to return to our water will be the only real days I'll ever have. Annie is the only person with whom I can be myself, because she has taught me to accept… to tell the truth… to finally stop pretending.

Note: Again, thank you all for reading and sticking with me through this process. Your reviews have been amazing, and I've had a blast imagining and writing things through the eyes of our beloved Finnick Odair. Please do let me know what you thought of this last chapter or of the story as whole in a review, and don't forget to let me know if you're interested in a sequel. (I have one planned and there's a bit of info about it on my profile page, but I don't yet know if/when I'll start it, since I'm probably going to be really busy with school this year.)

And at that, I guess this is goodbye! I hope these words I've written meant as much to all of you as they did to me.