~Kiss In the Rain~
I still remember when Finnick taught me to swim. Not just me, but all of the sixes. It was a cloudy, rainy, gloomy day. He was so graceful, even at eleven. He moved through the water like magic. As I watched him dive beneath the foamy crests, and felt the steady push and pull of the waves against my body, I could almost forget the reason I was there. I say 'almost' because none of us can ever forget what we were doing. We were in training, as each of us had been since reaching the age of five.
Being an orphan in District 4 meant being responsible for preserving the innocence of children lucky enough to have people to miss them. We were fed and clothed and taught to survive. We were given the best chance possible. Then, when we were old enough, the strongest volunteered for the Games. It was a cruel reality that we faced, but it was better than letting everyone live in fear. We were respected, honored even. In some districts, we were called Careers, in others- a variety of harsher, less forgiving names. But here, we were the Protectors. We guarded our home from the terror of seeing their most precious, defenseless family members in the arena. We were heroes whether we won or lost. This was of little comfort to me. I jumped at noises in the night. I went queasy at the sight of blood. I could barely lift the blunt practice spear that the combat instructor had given me. I was not a hero. Not like Alanna Morgan, who would be this year's girl. Not even like Finnick, who managed to make me laugh at my own hopelessness. He'd never spoken to me directly until that day, and when he did, it was accompanied by a playful tug on my hair as he swam backwards beside me. I was paddling my legs and arms rapidly, out of breath, when he spoke.
"Best hope your arena is on dry land or that all the other tributes have anchors for legs, Annie Cresta." He returned my glare with a grin, and gave a quick wink as he swam off to watch Brady Connard maneuver around an obstacle. Once he was a good distance away, I let the smirk slip onto my face. I wasn't so sure that I didn't have anchors for legs, myself.
When I was nine, word got around that Finnick would be volunteering on Reaping Day. It was still a month away when it was announced, but it took me by surprise. Usually, you weren't allowed to step forward until sixteen. Finn still had two years before he was supposed to be eligible. They had made an exception because he had outshone the older boys at Demonstration, and younger tributes always got more audience sympathy, anyway. I was furious. He was the only reason I got through my lessons. He was the only thing that made all of this bearable. And, if I admitted it to myself, I was afraid for him. Finnick Odair wasn't the type we usually saw come home from the Games. He wasn't hardened and cold like most of our victors. He was gentle, and funny, and sweet. He was too good to survive. But I would do what little I could to help him.
Weaving was one of the only skills I really had. I had always been good with knots. So I made him a token. Our tributes rarely had these, given that we had no families to give us anything. But Finn would. He wouldn't go there, to that awful place without knowing that he had a friend to come back to…even if we'd never really been that close before. It was a simple rope bracelet. Common in our district. Most of our jewelry was made out of rope fibers, because they were accessible. Scraps could be gathered from the docks, where our net-makers worked in small clusters, singing haunting melodies of maidens lost beneath the waves and lovers torn apart by storms at sea. I never liked them, but found myself humming them to the shadows as I tried to fall asleep every night. And also as I wove. I braided braids into braids, making it strong and durable, pouring into it the hope that he would be the same. That he would last long enough to come home and make fun of my frizzy hair, my knock knees, to tug on my hair as he swam away. I knew I couldn't lose the one bright spot in my daily torment. I was being raised for the slaughter. I knew as much. But Finnick made it easier. His good-natured, unsinkable optimism was indispensible to me now.
The night before the Reaping, I went out to the beach, where I'd seen him from my window in the Community Home. He was knee-deep, staring out at the angry sea. It was a cold night for summer. There was no moon to shine over the waves. I remember thinking that the water and the sky were mourning his loss with me. Like they knew where he was going. It made me slow my careful pace. He must have sensed me there anyway, because he rubbed his eyes and turned to face me.
"Hey there, Annie Cresta." His voice was quieter, more solemn than I'd ever heard it, but he managed a small smile. "What are you doing out here alone? Good way to drown yourself." His voice held traces of the playful lilt that told me he was just trying to spark my temper. It wouldn't happen. Not tonight. I was far too sad and frightened to rise to it. But, I could pretend for his sake.
"Nah. I saw you there. And it's not like you could let me die. You'd have no one to pick on when you get back." Finnick chuckled softly. I could sense the edge in it. He didn't think he'd be coming home. True, I had my doubts about his ability to kill, but it was different for him to be thinking that way. So I continued, hoping that the words would come to inspire some semblance of confidence. "I brought you something. It's not much, but I wanted you to have a token. No one from Four ever does. I just want you to remember that you need to win." I held out the bracelet for him. I'd thought he'd been crying before, but now I was sure. The tear that escaped his eye came too easily. It had been whisked away before I could linger on the jolt of pain it sent through me. He didn't move to take my offering, but met my eyes fully for the first time. He stepped closer, bending down so that he could see me better in the darkness.
"Why, Annie?" His voice was barely above a whisper. His bright green eyes managed to shine even without light to reflect off of them. I wasn't sure why, but it made it hard to speak. I was suddenly very nervous. I managed to force the words out, if only to break the intensity of the moment.
"Because, you're my favorite part of all this…awfulness." Finnick made no attempt to hide the tears that ran down his cheeks. It was different, though, the smile that accompanied them. It was almost genuine. He held out his wrist for me.
"Okay, Annie Cresta. I'll try to win every day that you practice your swimming. And if you don't, I'll know. And then I'll just sit on the Cornucopia singing sea shanties until someone guts me." He tapped his temple, grinning widely while he spoke. I laughed, but nodded all the same.
"It's a deal. Be careful, though. You might come back here to find I'm better than you are." I raised my eyebrows. The clouds finally broke as I began to tie the ends of the bracelet together. Like it had been waiting for a cue, rain started to pur from the heavens in heavy sheets.. Finnick tugged a strand of my hair, like he had years ago. His expression was warm.
"I hope so." I picked up the double meaning, but didn't mention it. I had been lucky so far, but I wasn't sure how to navigate this anymore. I finished the knot, and Finnick leaned down to kiss me on the cheek. I was glad for the darkness and the rain. It hid the blush that crept over my face. I felt, rather than saw him move past me, back toward the Home. He stopped halfway up the beach, glancing over his shoulder. He held up his wrist and gave me one last smile. "Thanks, Annie." I didn't respond, but he didn't wait for me to. I watched him disappear into the night, the air around me suddenly seeming colder, darker with him gone. When I spoke, it was to empty space.
"You're welcome, Finn."
It was a piece of bad luck that Moira O'Dell came down with pneumonia that spring. Because it meant I was the only sixteen left of the girls. It meant I would have to volunteer. I was completely terrified. I thought back to the way I had felt watching other kids prepare to be sent to the Capitol. We hadn't had a victor since Finnick had won seven years before. I couldn't help the dry chuckle that jumped from my throat. I had kept my word, and as I'd predicted, I was now one of the best swimmers in the district. And Finn had kept his. He had fought so hard, and the Trainers had been so proud of him. I was proud too, but mostly because of what he did when he came back. He marched up to me in the crowd, pulled at my hair, and demanded I get in the water and demonstrate my progress. The Games had not broken him. He was every bit as warm and bright as he'd been before he'd left. It was a choice, I knew. He wouldn't allow them to destroy him like the others. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
Then, as I waited for my own Reaping Day, it was raining again. Some odd sort of symbolism coated the moment, and I found myself called to the water, unable to shake the memory of that same night so long ago. I had been a child then. I knew that I wasn't that little girl anymore, but I didn't feel old enough for the weight that had settled so firmly on my shoulders when Mags told me I'd be going in Moira's place. I knew I had no right to feel that Finn had been more prepared. I was two years older than he had been. But I still wasn't like him. I could swim in any storm. I could scale a mast in under a minute. And I could trap absolutely anything. My nets were strong, inescapable even. I'd been taught to make them out of almost any natural fiber. I had been given the best possible chance. Despite all of this, I knew in my heart that the Games would change me in all the ways they hadn't changed him. One way or another, I feared I would never leave that arena.
The beach was not empty, as I had expected. Perhaps he'd been pulled here by the same inexplicable force that had drawn me to this place. Finnick sat in the sand, soaked to the skin. He didn't seem to notice me approaching this time. His coppery hair fell into his eyes, weighed down with the rain. I sat down beside him, suddenly wanting to heal the sadness that radiated from him. It was strange, since moments before, I'd been completely engulfed in my own turmoil. He was the one person I couldn't stand to see sad tonight, most likely because he was normally so good at being happy.
"Shouldn't be out here with all this rain, Finn. Good way to drown yourself." He glanced over at me, but couldn't seem to manage a smile this time. I felt as utterly helpless as he looked.
"I'll get you out of there, Annie. Don't worry. I won't let them have you." I found that as much as I wanted to look away from him, I couldn't. There had been rumors of what the Capitol did with him after his Games. He had determinedly kept his spirit intact, but I noticed something new. He was scarred in a way that could never be repaired. This broken man in front of me was someone no one else saw. I had no idea why he shared his pain with me, especially with my looming expiration date. Whatever his reason, I understood now that this couldn't be fixed with humor. It was a time for honesty.
"Finnick, there's nothing you can do. You'll be working with Brady. Mags will do her best with me. It won't matter much, anyway. I'll only last as long as I can run and hide. I'm no use in a real fight. We both know that." I watched him fiddle with his left forearm for a minute, where my bracelet still sat against his skin. Once he'd removed it, he held it out to me, fire blazing in his eyes.
"You will fight. And you will come home. Just like I did for you. Don't you dare die on me, Annie Cresta. I won't allow it." I'll never forget the way he looked that night, or how moved I was by his determination to save me. The fire in his eyes kindled something in me. He was saying he would fight for me, even above his own tribute. I remembered the moment that I asked the same thing of him that he asked of me, the same offering hanging between us. Something was different, though. I could feel it. But I repeated the question anyway, needing an answer just as he had.
"Why, Finn?" My voice was quiet, careful. Finnick seemed to battle with himself for a moment, his face contorting in either pain or confusion…or something else. Before I could analyze it further, or say another word, his hands were on my face, cupping my cheeks, and his lips were crushed against mine. What had been a spark became an inferno. The warmth I'd felt at his words grew scalding with his kisses. When he pulled back, I did the only thing I could. I held out my arm for my token, knowing that I would not stop running in the arena until I could run back to him.
We would have a thousand more moments on the beach. That was the promise that was made that night, although neither of us spoke again until after the Reaping. I saw Brady's eyes take in the bracelet on the stage, the knowledge that he was alone settling on him. He wasn't, of course. We were allies, until that terrible day when he was lost to us all. The day something broke in me. I would have met a similar, equally gruesome fate if not for the flood. I still wonder whether Finnick had something to do with that broken dam. It seems impossible, and I don't like to think of what he might have done in order to ensure my survival. But his last gift to me as a mentor, floating down on a silver parachute as the waters rose, was a tiny, carved wooden anchor, which I wear on a piece of string around my ankle to this day. Our little joke, even in the darkness that surrounded me after the Games.
Finnick is gone now, but he didn't leave me alone. He gave me the best possible chance of survival, yet again. I have a new pair of brilliant, laughing green eyes to pull me from the horrors of my mind, a new smile to remind me to keep fighting. He left me with a world that didn't require children to be Protectors, which preserved the innocence that was stolen from us. I still hear his laughter sometimes in my dreams. And, whenever it rains, I find myself sitting on our beach, where I can feel him next to me.