A/n: This story will cover from Annie's Reaping until the end of Mockingjay. All from her POV.
It starts like this.
I am dizzy as I sit up in bed. It's humid and sweltering inside my home—regardless of the window that has been thrown open—and my sister is resting against me, her skin hot and damp with sweat. I clutch my spinning head in my hands firmly and count backwards until I feel some semblance of stability.
Through the periwinkle light that fills my room, I can make out the dresses my sister set out sometime last night, probably after she snuck into the house and before she slid into bed. I peer tiredly at them for what feels like three minutes at least, and then I am opening my mind to focus on the rest of the senses that are fighting for my attention.
The sound of waves is a familiar and gentle backdrop and I can hear my father conversing with my brother from downstairs. He is talking firmly and using words like "absolutely not" and "never". Words that are ridiculous. From the muffled, wet gasps I can make out, my little brother is crying.
Panic grasps at my heart and squeezes and I don't realize I'm shaking until my sister is lightly patting my forearm, still half asleep. She murmurs something that sounds like an odd mixture between "'s okay" and "don't worry".
I fist my hands around the old, worn quilt that rests on my bed and fight back the inevitable worry that is beginning to overtake me. Today is Reaping Day. I can't ignore that, not with the sounds of my brother's crying climbing up the driftwood stairs. With acknowledgement of this day comes the acknowledgement that two people that I most likely know and have come in contact with at least once will be taken from us and shuttled off to their deaths.
My sister sits up suddenly, now completely awake. She immediately jumps into a speech about what we are going to do today, as if she was wide awake the entire time. My sister is like that. She's older than me by five years, and everything she does is either all or nothing. She can tie any kind of knot to ever have been tied with her eyes shut, she can convince any boy to take her anywhere, and she has an astounding command over her emotions. Her full name is Coral, but she ditched the "l" around the same time she graduated from school, along with six inches of her dark blonde hair. She's engaged to be married in only a few months. She's my best friend, too.
"Annie? Annie?" Her voice is kind but firm, two words that are synonymous with my sister.
I look up and meet her eyes, so much bluer than mine, and allow myself to take a deep breath. The breath fills my lungs fully and I feel a bit of the panic ebbing away. Cora smiles, her face lighting up. She wraps an arm around me.
"There we go! No need to worry, see?"
She takes her arm off me and pushes the quilt off our legs. She pushes past me, perching on the edge of the bed and hanging her legs off the side. She waits until I mimic her, leaning my head against her shoulder. She brushes her fingers through my hair.
"As much as I love our routine Shell, I am very glad that there is only one more year left after this one. I worry about you."
Her words are delivered to me like soft, pressed flowers would be: gently and wholeheartedly. Cora does not admit to what she is feeling much.
I smile despite the worries. Cora started calling me Shell when I was only a toddler. She made the observation that I was just as fragile as one, and has never wavered from that view. My hobby of stringing shells and creating jewelry did not help to discourage the nickname much either.
"I'm sure I will be okay." I mumble into her shoulder. She smells like Marv, her fiancée. He always reeks of fish as he spends most his time out on his boat. He is one of the district's fishermen. I guess that's where she was all night. It stings me a bit that she skirted our full routine for him, as dear as he is to me as well. For as long as I can remember, Cora and I made the night before Reaping Day almost a holiday. We would spend the day on the beach, sifting through the sand and collecting sea shells, drifting along the shore in search of sea glass, playing in the surf. For dinner we would always eat clam chowder that we prepared together, followed by frozen blueberries and grapes for dessert. We would spend the rest of the night out on two rickety chairs in the back of the house, looking at the stars, singing silly songs from our childhood. We always went to sleep in my bed—I was usually too afraid and too apprehensive to sleep on my own—and then got ready together the next morning. Cora was there for the day on the beach and then dinner yesterday, but had slipped out of the house after the frozen fruit. I didn't see her again until sometime in the very early hours of morning, when she slipped into my bed as quietly as she could.
I did not bring it up now, because I love Cora. I could not bear to make her feel guilty over it. Especially not today of all days, when the risk of her never seeing me ever again was hanging over our heads. I did not want her to have to live with guilt that she hurt my feelings that last night we had together.
I press on, worried that she could sense my slight hurt in my silence. "I will be glad, too. It's nice to know there's only two more years I have to worry, but it still gets almost worse in a way each year, because the odds get stacked higher and higher against me."
At age seventeen, I have my name entered in for the Reaping more times than I did when I was just twelve. Our brother, Arnav, is just turning eight this year. He worries for me more than I do.
Cora tightens her arm around me in a brief, tight hug.
"There's no way they are going to reap Annie Cresta. Your jewelry making abilities are the finest of all in District 4, and we all know the poor Capitol just cannot do without authentic seaside jewelry handmade straight from District 4. Whatever would they wear to their seafood dinners?" Cora teases.
I giggle along with her, relishing in the way it makes some of the worry release me from its clenches. "They would have to result to wearing your rope bracelets."
Cora isn't looking at me, nor I at her, but I know we are both smiling now. She knocks her shoulder against mine.
"Can't have that! There's not a flash of shine on those ropes. And you know how the Capitol loves its shine."
We giggle along, but both of us know that it does not matter how much the shallow Capitol women love the fresh pearl and seashell necklaces and bracelets I string together. I can be reaped just as easily as anyone else can, and for today's Reaping, I have a higher chance than a lot of the other younger kids in the pool.
Cora and I pull our nightgowns off. We dress in our Reaping Day dresses in silence, each worrying over our own fears for this day. I turn to Cora and see her slowly and methodically fastening a necklace I made her years and years ago around her neck. It has small white seashells and fragile bits of light blue sea glass, the same blue as the linen dress she is in now. Her engagement ring glitters in the light that's drifting in from the window as the sun rises, and the light makes the fine copper highlights in her dark blonde hair stand out.
I pull at the lace at the hem of the seafoam green dress I'm in, suddenly feeling like I am suffocating. I realize I do not want to leave my big sister. Not today, not next year, not ever.
"Cora," I whisper. "I'm scared."
She turns around to look at me, and her eyes shine with tears I know she will never let herself shed. Her hands shake as she runs her fingers through her hair.
"I remember when you were five, Shell. You saw a cat that had just gotten in a fight with another cat limping down past the bakery. He wasn't injured too badly, but there was a lot of blood. You were in a brand new white dress dad had managed to get for you. I was holding tightly to your hand, until I wasn't any more, and the next thing I knew you were on the ground with that cat, cradling it to your chest. Its blood was seeping all into your dress, and you were crying hysterically. At first I thought you were crying because your dress was getting messed up, but then I realized that's why I would be crying. You were crying because the cat was in pain. You asked me about that cat for the rest of the week, and you even cried a few more times." Cora turns and fiddles with the jewelry in the small box on top of the dresser. Her hands are still shaking. She takes a deep breath and when she has composed herself, she turns back around to look at me. "That's all I can think about on Reaping Day, Annie. Because you are my seashell. Not in the way that you are not strong, but in the way that you are fragile where everyone else is hard. You are kind to your core. I do not ever want to see your dress covered in someone else's blood ever again."
She shuts the top to the box loudly and I taste the saltwater from my tears on my lips. Cora has never said anything like this to me on Reaping Day before. She has always dismissed the threat of me being Reaped. It scares me that she is telling me this, almost like she is telling me goodbye.
She crosses the room and puts her hands on my shoulders. She's a head taller than me, and tears cling to her blonde lashes as she smiles down at me.
"Not that I think you ever will have to, Annie. I just want you to know that it's okay to be scared. Because I am scared too. That's what happens when you love someone: you fear for them. But we are going to be okay. You still have to see me and Marv get married, right?"
I nod, and she busies herself with pulling my dark, long hair back into a bun. I almost wish she wouldn't as she's tying it up. My hair is so long it reaches all the way down my back, and sometimes it feels like a guard against things I do not care to be around.
A small part of me wonders if she thinks of it that way too, and wants it up in case I do get reaped. First impressions are huge in the Games, and she would want me to come off as strong and steady, with my hair pulled up tight and my eyes focused straight ahead, hands unwavering.
I want to tell her that I'm not her, that while she might have been strong and brave enough to even briefly consider volunteering in her prime, I am not.
Arnav clings tightly to my hand as we walk along the cobbled streets. The breeze from the sea is especially harsh today, and I expect storms tonight. Maybe they will be far enough off that I can take Arnav down to the beach and we can watch the lightning off in the distance. It has always been my favorite thing, even if it frightens me.
"Maybe they won't even take a girl this year! I don't see why they can't just take two boys. Right dad? Right? Don't you think that they could just take boys this year? Then Annie really won't get taken. Or actually! Actually dad! I have an idea!" Arnav jumps up and down, yanking on my arm and my dad's as he revels in his sudden idea.
My father gives him a strained smile. "What idea would that be, Nav?"
Arnav grins up at our father and then glances at me, and even though he's smiling, I can see the remains of his tears from this morning in his eyes. "They should have a test where they see who is the meanest and then they can take those people! That is the fairest."
He presses his palm tighter into mine and looks back up at me. He and I have our mother's eyes, deep green. "They would never take you, Annie. You are the nicest. You didn't even yell at me that time I dropped mom's vase."
Arnav's words are as sincere as he is, and I want to cry again today. Arnav is the only person in this world that I get to take care of. Everyone else takes care of me. Our mother died when Arnav was only one, so he's looked to Cora and I for maternal affection. Our father is dear, but he is gone most of the time. Cresta Nets is a fairly large business that my dad runs all by himself. Cora and I took over taking care of Arnav during the day. I know they would cope just fine if I were to be reaped. I trust Cora more than anyone else. She takes care of me so I know Arnav would be fine with her. But still, I know it would break his heart to lose me, and so I find myself for the thirtieth time hoping my name will not get pulled.
"That is an interesting idea, Arnav. But we don't want anyone to get reaped, do we?" I asked, gently correcting him.
He nods fervently. "You're right. No, it's bad when anyone is. But still, I hope it is that mean girl who works at the produce stand and not you, Annie."
Cora bites off a laugh and even my dad chuckles.
Our conversation comes to a standstill when we reach the gathering in the square. I give my family one last look before I begin making my way to the girls my age.
It is a blessing to be the only one eligible for the Reaping in my family for the most part, but in some other ways it is hard. I would have given anything to have Cora's hand wrapped tightly around mine as I stand here, with the sun beating harshly on the back of my neck. I get the strength I don't have from her, and I am feeling very short on it today.
I stare blankly at the screen as they show the same film they always do, not really paying attention. A glint of bronze has my attention and I find myself absentmindedly staring at the hair of District 4's most recent victor, Finnick Odair. He is watching the film on stage with the other victors, but I get this feeling he is only half watching it as well. He's beautiful, but he has always made me uncomfortable. Perhaps it's the dishonest way in which he comes off. Perhaps it's the smirk he gives to almost everyone. Or perhaps it's that every time I glance at him, all I can see are his muscled arms lifting the trident that dig into the flesh of a girl in his own Games.
District 4's escort, Annora Bellamy, makes her way on stage. Her Capitol fashion of fluorescent skin highlights and bright, cupcake like skirts threatens to give me a headache. I avert my gaze and stare off towards the boy's side. I catch the glance of one of my classmates. He winks at me, and I smile halfheartedly back.
"Now, I will draw the lucky girl chosen to represent District 4 for the 70th Annual Hunger Games! Remember, volunteers will be chosen based on who volunteers first. You may not volunteer for a volunteer. May the odds be ever in your favor!"
Annora Bellamy gives this same speech each year, ever since there was a scuffle in which three people fought over who was going to be allowed to volunteer.
Her fingers—clad with bright yellow nails that have got to be fake—dip into the bowl with all the crisp, white pieces of paper. My stomach is in knots so tight that even Cora could not untie them. I desperately turn my head, longing for a glance of my family. I catch Arnav's eyes. He simply stares at me, not ever breaking his gaze, and it's in that moment that I know I am going to be called. I do not know how. I have had the same sensation a few times while in school. My teacher would be handing out graded assignments, and I would just know the moment right before she called out my name that it was going to be my name.
I was never mistaken when I got this feeling.
I only break my eyes away from Arnav's when I hear Annora Bellamy's crisp, Capitol voice.
My eyes drift shut, and I can hear Arnav scream out. I do not have to open them to know what is happening. Cora is gasping, but she's got Arnav wrapped up against her. My father is green and likely to vomit. I even know what my girlfriends from school are doing without looking (probably standing with their jaws dropped, guilty relief in their eyes).
What I do not know is what I am doing.
I cannot seem to move my body or even open my eyes. My entire body is taunt as if all my muscles are coiled for flight. I know I cannot run, as much as I wish I could. I feel likely to pass out any moment, and I cannot breathe, and I want to die now.
"Come on up, Miss Annie Cresta!" Annora Bellamy's voice prods me back to reality.
And somehow, I am walking. I am crying too. I want to die. I have never wanted to die before. But I know now that I do so badly, if only to save my family. I think of Cora's confession this morning, and a small sob works its way out of me. Oh, my sister. My sweet brother. My steady father.
I trip on the last step before I make it on the stage, and Annora Bellamy steadies me. I will not look out into the audience. I instead stare down at my hands. I touch the rope bracelet tied to my right wrist. Cora made it for me five years ago. I have never taken it off. I push the fingers of my left hand under the small rope and tighten my fist around it. Tears burn against my skin.
I did not even remember that there could be volunteers, but I am glad that I did not. Because the next thing I am aware of is Annora Bellamy's voice asking for any volunteers for the male tribute. He gets none either. I finally glance up to see who it is, and at first I am relieved that I don't know him. The feelings of relief are later drowned by dread. I don't know him, but he is younger than me. If I had to guess, I'd say fourteen.
It's a testament to how badly the past four Games have gone that no one volunteers for him. Ever since Finnick Odair's win, District 4 has barely made it a day into the Games.
We shake hands, and his hand is so clammy under mine. He has tears in his eyes. And in that moment, I know he is going to be that injured cat from all those years ago.
I am so sorry, Cora.