Closing Walls and Ticking Clocks
They raised the deadly berries to their mouths in unison, gambling their lives on the whims of the Capitol. Neither of them believed that the Gamemakers who had controlled their lives since the reaping would fail to take action now. The girl knew it was a possibility; the boy simply trusted the girl. She couldn't kill him and live with herself after; he wouldn't kill her, far better to kill himself.
The voice that had announced the rescission of the change in rules remained stubbornly silent and the boy did the only thing he knew might save the girl: he swallowed the berries. Her eyes widened in shock as he fell, and when a cannon fired seconds later, she jumped.
The report of a second cannon announced the end of the 74th Hunger Games.
"On the seventy-fifth anniversary, as a reminder to the rebels that even the strongest among them cannot overcome the power of the Capitol, the male and female tributes will be reaped from their existing pool of victors."
Finnick watched the replay of the reapings from an overstuffed chair in a train car meant for social gatherings as they hurtled toward the Capitol at more than 100 miles per hour. He was the only one there; Mags had gone to bed right after dinner and the others had followed soon after. Finnick knew he wouldn't be able to sleep, so he figured he might as well torture himself by learning who he'd have to kill if he wanted to go home to Annie.
When they called his name, Gloss calmly walked to the foot of the stairs that led up to the stage and waited for his sister to join him. It was as if they both knew they'd be the ones reaped. They followed the red carpet, walking hand-in-hand up the steps to join their district representative; watching them, these two who were his friends – and, at least in Gloss' case, occasionally a little more – Finnick knew things weren't going to get any easier.
In District 2, first Brutus and then Enobaria volunteered, he enthusiastically, she with stoic resignation. Beetee mounted the stage in 3 only to hurry back down a moment later to take Wiress by the hand and lead her up the steps to stand beside him. It hurt Finnick to see how lost Wiress looked until Beetee took her hand. Annie had looked like that in the days after they pulled her from the arena; he wondered if she'd look like that again if he failed her and didn't come home.
He fast-forwarded through the replay of 4. He didn't need to see it; he'd lived it. But he couldn't stop the memory of Annie's screams when LaSalle called first his name and then hers, or the sound of Mags' strong voice as she shouted out a single word: "Volunteer!" Mags was going to die in the arena and there was nothing Finnick could do to change that. The only thing that made it bearable was that Annie would live because of what Mags had done.
When the replay reached District 7 and Johanna Mason, Finnick choked down an animal sound of pain; almost as bad as Annie in the arena was Johanna. He hit the pause button on the remote when he realized he couldn't see the screen anymore. And because there was no one there to see, Finnick finally let his tears fall. Eventually, he drew a deep, shuddering breath, wiped his eyes, and finished watching the reapings.
Peacekeepers almost literally tore Cecelia from the arms of her daughters when the girls rushed the enclosure in which their mother stood. Finnick clenched his hands into fists when Chaff walked up the steps to take the stage in 11, waving his stump in defiance, quickly followed by Seeder in all her willowy grace and strength.
He braced himself for Haymitch, the sole victor in District 12. Haymitch was the one who had helped him after Snow sold him that first time, had kept him from spiraling out of control too many times to count. Along with Johanna, he was Finnick's oldest, closest friend and, like Jo, who was the only female victor in 7, his reaping was a foregone conclusion. Closing his eyes as if he could somehow hold back the pain with that tiny gesture, Finnick dug his fingers into the arms of the chair and listened as a woman called out his friend's name in a chirpy, cheerful voice.
So many friends. Fully half the field. Finnick turned the television off and sat there, staring into the darkness outside the wall of windows and the deeper darkness inside himself.
"Maybe I should just step off my plate," he whispered. But even as he said it, he knew he wouldn't do it. Annie needed him. And that broken part of him that had compelled him to become a victor in the first place was too strong. Even after all that had happened to him, even knowing what was to come if he did win, Finnick Odair wanted to live.
Surrounded by shimmering water, blinding beneath a too-bright sun in a grotesque pink sky, Finnick didn't hesitate. The moment the countdown ended and the gong sounded, he dove into welcoming saltwater and raced for the Cornucopia, hoping that Mags, Johanna, and Haymitch did the same. They weren't allies, however much he might wish things were different, but they were still his friends. His family.
They'd discussed an alliance, talked about being stronger together and trying to keep each other alive, but there could only be one victor. He had to make it home to Annie. If he died here, he didn't want to even imagine what would become of her, what might become of her even if he won the Games a second time. Alive, he hoped he could still shield her from the worst of it, but if he were dead, Snow wouldn't simply use her, he'd use her up until there was nothing of Annie left.
Mags had said his best chance would be to ally with the Careers and let them carry him along as far as possible, exactly the same as if he were a green tribute. Haymitch had agreed and said that if someone had to win it, he hoped it would be either Finnick or Johanna; it was obvious he had no intention of trying to win himself. Jo had simply stared at Finnick, looking miserable and angry, and he'd wished there was something he could do or say to make it right. The best he'd been able to do was to swear that he wouldn't be the one to kill her, but she knew what was at stake for him. She'd laughed, a bitter, ugly sound, and told him not to make promises he couldn't keep.
Finnick reached the island that housed the Cornucopia and pulled himself up onto sand-covered dirt, flinging the water from his eyes with a sharp shake of his head. Piled in front of the opening were dozens of weapons, but nothing else. With a thought toward reminding the citizens of the Capitol of his first victory, a desperate plea for sympathy and sponsors, he pulled a pair of tridents from the pile and then snagged the end of what looked like a net. He recognized most of the other things as the primary weapons they had all used to good effect in their first Games as he yanked the last foot of the net free, sending an axe, a half dozen knives, and three swords cascading to the ground. Flinging the net over his shoulder, he snatched up a knife as well and ducked into the shade of the horn, trident raised, just as someone else splashed onto the island on the other side.
Hamilton Thorne of District 5 was the first to die when he rounded the Cornucopia, intent on the stack of weapons waiting there. He never saw the trident coming. Finnick impaled him with it without even thinking about what he did; he almost lost what little breakfast he'd managed to eat that morning when he realized what he'd done.
And so began the 75th Hunger Games, the Third Quarter Quell. That he turned killer again so quickly and easily would haunt him for the rest of his life, no matter how long or short it might be. Feeling numb, Finnick stared down at this man who had taught him how to play poker and how to tell good wine from bad, or at least from not so good.
Enobaria arrived next, rising dripping from the water with her shark's grin. "Games on, I see," she observed with a pointed look at Ham's body and the three jagged holes in his chest as she pulled two long knives from the pile. By the time Finnick shook off the numbness and took a step away from Ham, three more people had reached the island – Haymitch, Seeder, and District 9's Rye – and the traditional bloodbath at the Cornucopia began, with Finnick fighting alongside Enobaria.
The battle lasted nearly an hour and by the end of it, eight victor-tributes were dead, although Finnick didn't learn how many or who until that night and the roll call of the dead. The only ones he was sure about, other than his fellow Careers, were Haymitch and Cecelia.
Haymitch lived to fight again when Finnick "tripped" while dodging an attack by Rye, running into Brutus and turning a killing blow into a glancing one; with an ironic salute, Haymitch escaped into the water, resurfacing twenty yards away where he climbed onto a land bridge and sprinted toward the beach in the distance. It was a lucky thing for Finnick that Rye kept Brutus occupied – the big man didn't notice Haymitch's gesture and, although he and Brutus nearly came to blows over the incident later that night in camp, Enobaria talked Brutus into letting it go. She always did have a soft spot for Finnick.
Cecelia was a mercy killing. Ewing of 10 left her lying in the sun, gutted and bleeding to death. Finnick knew at a glance that she couldn't survive her injuries, saw it in her dark eyes that she knew it, too.
"Kill me, Finnick," she mouthed. "Please."
"I'm so sorry, Cecelia." Meeting her gaze and holding tightly to her hand, he made it quick.
When the anthem began to play later that night, Finnick and the rest of the Career pack gathered on the beach and watched as the faces of the dead appeared and then faded away. Mags was the first; the sight of her face in the sky was like a physical blow. He remained steady when first Gloss and then Cashmere put their arms around him in sympathy, brother on one side and sister on the other, but later, alone on watch, he broke down.
From that moment on, everything became a blur. A few things stood out, though.
The debilitating thirst of the first day, alleviated toward nightfall with the realization that they could chew the spongy bark of the trees for moisture.
Fireballs in the jungle that came without warning. Enobaria took one to the head; it killed her instantly. Seeing her fall, Finnick evaded another and, instead of killing him, it burned the left side of his face and along his shoulder, neck, and arm. When they made camp a few hours later, a silver parachute dropped almost at his feet, delivering a tube of medicine for the burns. The physical relief was excruciating.
Beetee, Wiress, and Chaff joined Enobaria in the ranks of the dead that day. There was a fifth, but Finnick missed who.
Brutus stumbling into camp to the sound of a cannon, carrying with him a backpack that held a thermal blanket, a thin coil of rope, and a device that allowed water to flow from the trees as though from a spigot. A few minutes later he fell dead; he never told them who he had fought for his prize.
In addition to Brutus, five more died that day; the nighttime display ended with Haymitch, and it wasn't until days later that Finnick learned Haymitch and Brutus had killed each other. As Finnick watched the faces in the sky that night, he added up the number of dead and realized that Johanna, himself and his allies were the only ones left. It quickly became clear that Cashmere and Gloss had done the math, too. Gloss glanced quickly away when Finnick looked over at him, and Finnick thought he looked unhappy, but Cashmere just stared at Finnick.
Later, while the siblings prepared a meager meal of rats and nuts, Finnick told them he was going to tap for water and headed into the jungle, striking out on his own before they had a chance to turn on him.
After a tense and restless night spent alone, watching over his shoulder, Finnick woke the next morning and set out for the beach. But as he made his way through the jungle, he saw signs that he wasn't the first to pass that way: broken branches, footprints in the sandy dirt, a snag of fabric torn loose and left behind. He slowed to listen and heard something larger than a rat crashing through the trees.
"She went that way!" Gloss shouted in the distance. She. Not he. Gloss and Cashmere were chasing Johanna. Not thinking about the consequences of what he was about to do, moving quickly and as quietly as he could, Finnick ran toward Gloss and his prey, trident at the ready.
Finnick neared the outer edge of the jungle when Johanna broke from the trees into the sunlight, Gloss right behind her. As far as Finnick could tell, she was unarmed. Gloss' left arm hung useless as he ran, a dead weight, but he held a sword in his right hand and he was gaining on Johanna. Shouting her name, Finnick left the jungle not far behind Gloss and let his trident fly.
As Johanna evaded Gloss' sword, Finnick's trident took Gloss in the back and he fell, started to roll until the length of the trident hit the sand, bringing him up short and pinning him in place. The cannon's boom reverberated through the ground beneath Finnick's feet and Cashmere shrieked as she barreled toward Johanna from a different part of the jungle, running her sword through the smaller woman's chest. Another boom sounded and Finnick stumbled, falling to his knees only a few yards away, still shouting Johanna's name.
He rolled just in time to avoid Cashmere's blade; instead of taking off his head, she buried a foot of tempered steel in the sand. Finnick emerged from his roll with his knife in hand, meeting Cashmere as she jerked her sword free of the ground and charged him.
They struggled, rolling over and over, neither one able to gain the upper hand. The fight nearly ended when Cashmere brought her elbow down hard on his forearm; he heard the bone snap long before he felt the pain. He rolled again, flung sand in her eyes. Half a breath later Finnick pushed his knife up under Cashmere's chin, through the soft flesh and into her brain. A third and final cannon shot echoed through the arena as Finnick pulled back from yet another friend's dead body.
Cradling his left arm to his chest, he managed to push himself to his feet and stagger the few steps to where Johanna and Gloss lay. A sob tore free as he dropped to the ground beside Jo. Reaching out with his good hand, covered in both Cashmere's blood and his own from where her sword had kissed his shoulder, Finnick closed Johanna's eyes against that pink morning sky. Dropping to sit in the bloody sand beside her, he pulled her head into his lap, smoothed the hair from her face, and waited for it to end.
The buzzing in his brain wouldn't stop, and if he slowed down, if he let it slow down it would resolve into the voices of the men and women, the boys and girls he'd murdered over the years. And so he paced, rapid footsteps along the line of makeup stations in a room behind the stage, still waiting for it to be over. Thirteen steps. Turn. Thirteen steps. Turn. Back and forth, he knew the patterns in the floor tiles by heart.
Almost a week he'd spent under sedation, so out of it while his injuries healed that he didn't know where he was or what had happened. He remembered calling for Annie, calling for Mags, for Johanna, for Haymitch, and he remembered begging the people with the needles and pills to just let him go, but they kept insisting he wasn't going to die of mostly healed burns or a broken arm. They never mentioned anything about a broken soul.
Thirteen steps. Turn. Thirteen steps. Turn.
Sometime during his recovery, they'd scheduled the Closing Ceremonies, the final interview with Caesar Flickerman. They started weaning him off the drugs, allowed him to get out of the narrow bed, to walk around a little, if only to make his way from bed to bathroom, but they hadn't listened to him when he'd warned them about the nightmares, much worse without the drug-induced sleep.
They should have listened. When the drugs wore off, the nightmares had attacked with the ferocity of a muttation. He'd awakened the previous morning face down on the hard floor, screaming in fear and pain, one of the metal bed rails and his left arm under him. The bedrail acting as a fulcrum on the still weakened bone, his arm had snapped once more. It was too late to reschedule the Closing Ceremonies, so they'd done what they could to again repair the damage.
Twenty-four hours later, they turned him over to his old familiar prep team. Rafe, his stylist, had supervised while the others washed him and dressed him. When they were finished, even with a few lingering burn scars and his broken arm in a light cast and hanging from a sling, Rafe had made him pretty for all his adoring fans. For his future consumers.
Thirteen steps. Turn. Thirteen steps.
"Finnick!" Caesar Flickerman called enthusiastically from behind him. Finnick stopped, but he didn't turn. The buzzing in his head intensified, became so strong his vision began to turn white at the edges. He clenched his hands into fists as Caesar continued almost breathlessly, "I'm so pleased you won the Quell." The man stepped in close, the fabric of his suit whispering as it slid against Finnick's. His voice dropped, low and insinuating. "I was thinking that perhaps the two of us could celebrate in private, after the Closing Ceremonies. I'm sure your girl won't mind…"
"Aren't I a little old for you, Caesar?" My girl? he thought, wondering if Snow had already sold him again.
Flickerman chuckled as he ran a hand down Finnick's good arm and suddenly Finnick saw his future, clear and cold – endless days and nights – with the Caesar Flickermans of the world, men and women of the Capitol too blind to see, too self-absorbed to understand what was right in front of them.
The buzzing reached a crescendo and Finnick whirled, slammed Flickerman against the wall with his right arm and pinned him there with his body. His arm protested, but he ignored the pain, brushing his lips against the older man's jaw and purring into his ear, low and throaty, "What if I don't want to celebrate with you?" Flickerman shivered and Finnick bit his earlobe hard enough to make him squirm and whimper a protest. "But then that never mattered to you before, did it, Caesar?"
Someone knocked at the door – "Ten seconds…" – and Finnick pushed away. He didn't hide the revulsion he felt and a small part of him, one that he was neither proud of nor comfortable with, enjoyed the fear in the talk show host's eyes before he scurried out the door. Finnick followed more slowly, and the buzzing backed down to a softer level.
Finnick thought he knew what to expect when he went out on the stage; after all, he'd been through it before. The crowds looked the same, sounded the same, responded to him in the same way when he raised his good arm to wave before taking his seat across from Flickerman, warily watching Finnick and keeping a careful and uncharacteristic distance between them. The questions couldn't be that different and if he didn't look directly at the screen when they played the highlights, he thought it wouldn't be too bad.
He was wrong.
"Tell me, Finnick," Flickerman said as he started to lean forward and take Finnick's hand before thinking better of it, "how does it feel to conquer, not one, but two arenas? No one else in the history of the Games has bested forty-five tributes to emerge a two-time victor." Finnick closed his eyes as the buzzing grew louder again, but he fought it back down.
When he felt calm enough to answer, he opened his eyes and said, "That's not quite true." The man's aqua brows climbed his forehead and his skin wrinkled beneath his too-pale makeup.
"But, Finnick, you can't deny that no one else has gone into the arena twice…" Finnick smiled, the expression not at all friendly, as he interrupted to deny that, too.
"Twenty-three of us went into the arena twice, Caesar, and if not for what happened last year, it would have been twenty-four." Flickerman started to say something, but Finnick spoke over him. "That's not the point, though. Haymitch Abernathy 'bested' forty-seven tributes in the last Quell, two more than I faced between both arenas." Flickerman sat back in his chair and studied Finnick; his gaze flitted from his face to his hair to the satiny black sling that held his left arm steady, and finally returned to Finnick's eyes.
"You do bring up a good point, Finnick, but it doesn't make you any less unique among your fellow victors." He turned his head to look out at the audience. "Am I right?" he asked them and they responded with vigor, shouting out Finnick's name and cheering. When the noise died down, Flickerman turned back toward Finnick. "And though Haymitch won his Games against a larger field of opponents, he still fell in his second arena. You did not." Turning back toward the audience once more, Flickerman said, "Let's take a look at how Finnick succeeded where the others failed, shall we?" Once the show began, Finnick couldn't look away; it had been that way ten years ago, too.
From the first scene, the Gamemakers showed the citizens of Panem a vicious, ruthless killer. Finnick speared Hamilton with his trident without any sign of remorse. When he found Cecelia lying on the ground in the shade of the Cornucopia, he slit her throat. He watched emotionlessly as Mags' face appeared and disappeared in the sky that first night, and later shrugged off his allies' sympathy, calling her an old woman as though her death meant nothing. He left those same allies in the dead of night, abruptly breaking their alliance. But the worst of it was the edit that made it look as though Finnick deliberately distracted Johanna so that Gloss and Cashmere could kill her, only to turn on them a moment later.
The only part that showed Finnick in a sympathetic light was at the very end when he knelt beside Johanna and closed her eyes, then sat with her head in his lap, stroking her hair until Peacekeepers descended from a hovercraft and made him let her go.
Through it all, Finnick thought, over and over again, But that's not how it happened. Knowing how it must look to the people back home, to his family, Finnick almost wished he had died. He looked up toward the presidential box and saw that Snow was there, that he watched Finnick, not the highlight show. What the hell are you setting me up for?
"—Annie?" The world crashed in on Finnick in the space of one word. He whipped his head around to face Flickerman.
"What did you say?" As he stared at the man, he realized Flickerman had been speaking for some time, but, staring at the screen, Finnick had heard none of it.
"I was just wishing you congratulations on your upcoming nuptials." Flickerman couldn't possibly know about Annie. Other than Snow, no one outside of his family and a few of the other victors – most of them dead now – knew that he and Annie were together. Wait. Nuptials?
"She's a lovely girl," Flickerman continued, "and well recovered from when we last saw her." He leaned in closer and conspiratorially dropped his voice. "You are a sly dog, Finnick Odair. No one even knew you were serious about anyone." He straightened and asked of the crowd, "Did we?" The crowd answered with a roar. "Though I might have placed my bets on Johanna Mason, after watching that last scene of you together."
Finnick had no idea what the man was talking about. The only discussion he and Annie had ever had regarding the possibility of marriage was that there was no possibility. Not while Snow still used him to pad the treasury. And not while Finnick still stood between Annie and Snow, something he hoped she didn't know about.
The buzzing in Finnick's brain dissolved into one word, repeated over and over and over, a wave of silent sound. No no no no no no no. Finnick saw Flickerman's lips moving, heard him ask more questions, but he couldn't parse anything the man said. Glancing up again to the president's box seat, his gaze met Snow's and the president slowly smiled.
Shading his eyes against the brilliant midday sun with his right hand – his left arm was still in the sling, and would be for at least another week, according to the Capitol doctors – Finnick stepped off the train. There were fewer people at the station to greet him than he'd expected and he was surprised to hear a few boos and catcalls from the midst of the crowd, although after watching the highlights of the Quell, maybe he shouldn't be. He thought he heard someone actually call him "murderer," but that might have been his imagination. Or his subconscious. Ignoring it, he searched the crowd and had just spotted his parents, neither of them smiling, when Annie's voice rose above the chaos.
"Finnick!" She broke free from the press of people and took the steps up to the platform two at a time, hurtling headlong into his arms and sending him stumbling backward. A spike of pain shot through his left arm as he caught her and spun her around, their bodies coming to rest against a column, but the pain was nothing. Not anymore. He clung to her, his fingers digging into her waist as he buried his face in her soft hair and breathed in the scent of her skin as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders. She smelled of sunshine and the sea and of Annie. Home.
"Enjoy the time in your district, Finnick. You'll make your home here in the Capitol soon enough."
Even the memory of Snow's parting shot couldn't stop the previously unyielding knot of tension in his gut from loosening, and the noise of the crowd faded away along with the noise that had never really left his brain. For the first time in weeks, Finnick felt almost at peace, if only for the span of time Annie was in his arms. A shudder shook his whole body as tears he hadn't been able to shed for Mags or for Johanna or Haymitch, or any of the others, finally overwhelmed him. A sob tore free and then another and suddenly the only thing holding him upright was Annie.
Held securely in his lover's arms, in front of hundreds of people from his district and the ever-present cameras of the Capitol, there to record his historic homecoming, Finnick Odair fell apart. Unable to stop the grief from finally crashing in, he sobbed like a child; he couldn't pull in enough air, couldn't stop crying, couldn't breathe.
He clung to Annie so tightly that he thought he must be hurting her, but she said nothing save "I'm here, Finnick" and "You're home." He finally stopped crying when she said, "Baby, you're safe," but that was only to replace the hysterical tears with equally hysterical laughter. He didn't truly stop until she said, "Finnick, you're scaring me." The truth of it in her voice finally got through to him at about the same time he felt a gentle hand – not Annie's – rubbing circles between his shoulder blades.
"Hush now, son," his mother told him. "Let's get you home."
Finnick lay on the old, worn couch in his parents' living room, his head propped on one arm and his feet on the other. He'd been asleep, but his brother's and sister's voices slowly woke him. They spoke in whispers so they wouldn't disturb him, their discussion gradually growing louder until he woke completely when Shandra said his name.
"You can't believe that, Shan." Kyle sounded shocked at whatever Shandra had said, which was probably about Finnick and he doubted it was complimentary. He started to chase down what he'd heard, but gave that up when Shandra answered Kyle.
"I don't know, Kyle, but I want to know what happened to the sweet kid who used to follow us around. You saw it as plain as I did. I don't want to believe that he grew into a cold-blooded killer, but the whole district saw it. And the way he was at the very end, with that woman…" The censure in her tone made Finnick feel sick. "Between what Finnick did to Mags and what he's doing to Annie, I'm almost ashamed to show my face in town."
"I don't think it's as bad as all that, Shandra, but yeah, betraying Mags…" Kyle shifted in his chair. "Well, it is what it is and I'm sure he had his reasons. Maybe now that he and Annie are engaged, he'll at least stop sleeping with everything that moves."
"I can hear you, you know," Finnick said as he awkwardly pushed himself to a sitting position, favoring his arm. He didn't know what hurt worse, the broken bone or how little his own family thought of him. "That 'sweet kid' died in the first arena." He ran a hand over his face, his fingers through his hair before focusing on his sister. "How exactly did I betray Mags?" He tried to keep the hurt out of his voice, but he was pretty sure he failed. "And what is it I'm doing to Annie?"
Shandra and Kyle exchanged a somewhat guilty glance before they both looked back at Finnick. Kyle started to say something, but Shandra, blunt as usual, asked, "How could you not ally with Mags, Finnick? She's – was – practically our grandmother and you just let her die."
He opened his mouth to respond, but no words made it past the blockage in his throat. The same feeling of unreality that had surrounded him through most of the Games, but particularly when he saw Mags' face in the sky that night, descended and he heard his own voice weirdly echoing his brother's as he asked, "Do you really believe that?" He looked back and forth between them.
"I don't know what to believe," Shandra finally relented. "What we saw in the Games and in that highlight show isn't exactly making me believe you didn't."
"They showed you what they wanted you to see." Finnick's voice shook with anger and grief, and the buzzing sensation returned.
"They showed a vicious killer, Finnick, and that's something I don't know if I can forget." Her eyes held his for a moment before she looked away; Finnick blinked back the tears that threatened. Kyle still watched him, looking troubled.
"Why would they want us to see you like that, Finn?" Kyle asked. "The Capitol has been in love with you for years."
Before the Games began, Lyme had told him Heavensbee thought Snow suspected something and that he might have changed the terms of the Quell to remove a number of threats. Maybe Plutarch was right. Maybe Snow knew something about Finnick's activities and this was a way to discredit him both at home and in the Capitol. He focused on Kyle once more and saw that Shandra watched him now, too.
"They were my friends," he told them. "I don't know what the Gamemakers were thinking, Kyle. All I know is that the tape didn't show the whole story. It didn't show you that I cried like a child about Mags. It didn't show you that Cecelia asked me to kill her after Ewing left her there to rot in that sun." He closed his eyes as though it might cut off the pain. "They were my friends."
The three fell silent after that. A door slammed at the back of the house, his father or one of his nieces or nephews coming or going. Finnick heard low voices from the kitchen along with the occasional clink of dishes as Annie helped his mother clean up after supper. It was the first time he and Annie weren't at least in sight of each other since their reunion at the train station and the itch to be near her began to scratch once more at his brain.
He was just about to push up from the couch and go to her when Kyle asked, "Why didn't you tell us about you and Annie?" Finnick didn't know how to answer that. The truth – because I didn't know about it – wasn't exactly an option.
"Because it was never meant to be real." Blood rushed to his face and Finnick's gaze flew to his sister. "Was it, Finnick? It was just something to make you feel better about leaving her."
"I'm afraid, my dear Finnick, as popular as you are with our citizens, it just isn't enough. I haven't decided when," Snow had smiled, his eyes glittering in the bright light, "but your fiancée will be moving to the Capitol with you." His smile widened. "Such a lovely couple."
"You make it sound like I wanted to leave her." Finnick clenched his hands into fists, a vain attempt to hang onto his self-control as anger slipped in to take its place. He was still too close to the arena; he shouldn't stay, shouldn't continue this conversation, afraid of how it might end.
"Didn't you?" Shandra challenged him. Kyle made some kind of placatory noise, but Finnick and their sister ignored him.
"What the hell is this, Shandra?" Finnick ground out. "I love her! I didn't have any choice!" He didn't know whether he meant no choice in loving her or no choice in leaving her.
"If you love her, Finnick, why don't you stop sleeping around?"
"Because I can't." He needed to leave before he said or did something he couldn't take back and couldn't cover up.
"What does that even mean?"
"Leave it alone, Shandra." As Finnick's voice grew colder, his sister's grew more heated.
"No, I won't leave it alone. I like Annie and I don't like watching you hurt her."
Finnick rose abruptly and headed toward the front door and the outside world. He had to get away from Shandra, from her distrust and her judgments and her far-too-clear perceptions. But as he slammed through the front door, he heard Annie's voice from the room he had just left; he caught the door, preventing it from closing off the sound.
"Stop it!" Annie shouted at Shandra. "How can you do this to him? I've only known him for a few years where you've known him his whole life, but I know that I trust him with my life. And I trust him with my heart. So why can't you? Why can't you trust him?"
His anger starting to cool as quickly as it had flared, Finnick released the door, letting it cut off their voices as he headed out back to his parents' stretch of beach and the welcoming water.
Finnick watched the clouds catch fire as the sun dropped below the horizon. The blaze didn't last long, snuffed out by more and thicker clouds as the wind blew in from the gulf, smelling of seaweed, salt, and rain. Although it was still hot, the temperature had dropped a good fifteen degrees since he'd left the house. He knew he should go back, but he couldn't bring himself to move, not even when the first fat drops of rain began to fall.
The rest of his life yawned before him, black and ugly. Inescapable. And the worst part of it was that he couldn't protect Annie any longer, Snow would draw her into the ugliest part of it, that fact as inexorable as the tide. As the sky grew darker and the rain fell harder, Finnick flopped back on the sand and covered his face with his good arm; Annie found him there a few minutes later.
She didn't say anything at first, just settled onto the wet sand beside him and rested her head on his shoulder. He didn't move his arm from his face, didn't look over at her, just warned, "You'll get wet," as the rain continued to fall.
"I'm already wet," she assured him and he heard the smile in her voice. He relaxed against her, lowering his arm to draw her in closer and shifting so that he could kiss her wet hair.
"You'll catch cold," he told her.
She snuggled into his body. "Silly. It's still 80 degrees out here, and you don't catch cold from being wet."
"Maybe not, but it doesn't help." She began to trace patterns on his stomach with one finger and he held his breath. The rain abruptly stopped and so did the breeze, as though the world held its breath, too. It was the first time they'd been alone together in weeks.
"We'll keep each other warm," she murmured against his chest and his eyelids fluttered closed as she worked the buttons of his shirt free, starting at the bottom and working her way up. She peeled back the soaked fabric as she went, and when she reached the last button, she began tracing those random patterns on his skin, drifting slowly – excruciatingly slowly – toward his belt. By the time she unfastened both belt and trousers, Finnick closed his eyes and canted his hips so she could work the wet clothes down and off, leaving him hard and ready for whatever else she chose to do.
For a little while, Annie made him forget the pain and despair with her mouth and her hands, the soft caress of her breath, the hard scrape of her teeth and her nails on his skin. She warmed him with her body and left him shouting her name as he lost himself inside her.
They held hands as they walked up the slope of the beach to his parents' back porch. The house was dark save for a light in the kitchen, but as they drew closer, Finnick realized someone waited for them at the top of the stairs and he glanced at Annie. She looked just fine in her tank and skirt, though he knew for a fact she wore no underwear. He, though, hadn't bothered trying to drag his wet trousers back on, instead slinging them over his shoulder, so other than his own underwear, all he wore was the silk dress shirt that he hadn't bothered rebuttoning. He had abandoned his shoes and socks in the house hours ago.
"I hope that's not one of my parents," he said, wincing when the words came out louder than he expected.
"Relax," Annie whispered, her fingers tightening around his. "We're engaged, remember?"
He shot her a look – it was the first time either of them had mentioned their "engagement" – even as he felt relief at the indelicate snort that drifted down from the porch. "I'm not Mom or Dad," Shandra said and shifted to the side to let them pass when Annie started to lead Finnick up the steps.
"What time is it?" Finnick asked, stopping at the bottom of the stairs, and Shandra shrugged, the gesture barely visible in the dim light. Although the rain had stopped, the clouds still promised more to come.
"I don't know," she said. "Late. Everyone else has gone to bed." Annie sat down beside Shandra and Finnick almost laughed at the careful way Annie arranged her skirt over her legs; he nearly choked when she caught him watching her and winked.
"Why are you still up?" he asked Shandra. She looked down at the blanket that covered her own legs before looking up once more at her brother.
"Because I couldn't go to bed with you thinking I hate you." When Finnick started to protest, she raised a hand. "I'm sorry about the things I said to you earlier, Finnick. After you walked out, Annie reminded me and Kyle of something very important." She glanced over at Annie and back to Finnick. "You're our brother and we love you. I love you." She held his gaze for a moment, then stood and draped the blanket around Annie's shoulders before turning to go back into the house.
"Shandra." Finnick's voice stopped her, one hand on the doorknob. "Don't believe everything you see on television." Shandra pulled the door open and then looked back over her shoulder at Annie.
"Are you sure you want to be a part of this family, Annie?"
"More than ever," she answered Shandra, but she looked at Finnick as she spoke.
"Good night, you two."
The screen door closed behind Shandra with a bang, leaving Finnick and Annie alone once more. After a moment, he walked up the steps and Annie snagged his hand as he passed. Rather than letting her pull him down beside her, he pulled her up as the rain began again. They settled against the wall beside the back door where it wouldn't reach them.
"So tell me about our engagement," Annie said. Wrapped around her as he was, Finnick felt her voice with his whole body.
"I don't know any more than you do, love. The first I heard about it was when Flickerman congratulated me." She huffed a soft laugh, the slight sound of it making him ache.
"And the first I heard of it was during the family interviews for the final eight," she returned. "He kept asking me which one of us proposed and was it romantic and how did we keep our relationship a secret. I didn't know what to say." She shifted so she could look up at him, her drying hair tickling his chin. "Are we engaged, Finnick?" And it was his turn to laugh, the sound harsh.
"Oh, yes." He rested the back of his head against the wall and closed his eyes. "Snow's assistant is putting together a list of dates to choose from for the big day." He had to swallow hard against the sudden lump in his throat as Annie's fingers tightened on his arm, her nails digging in. "I never wanted it to be like this," he whispered, his voice rough. "It's just one more thing stolen from us." Twisted into something ugly.
She threaded her fingers with his and raised his hand to kiss his knuckles. "Why?"
"Why is he doing this?" Annie nodded and raised their joined hands to her cheek.
He didn't want to answer her, didn't want to tell her any of the things Snow said, as though that might keep her separate from it. As though it might keep her safe. But he forced the words out anyway.
"The president lost half his revenue stream in the Quell." He still smelled the combined scent of blood and roses that permeated Snow's office. "Our engagement is nothing more than marketing."
"Marketing." She stiffened in his arms and he knew she understood.
"He doesn't have Gloss and Cashmere anymore, so he'll use you and me. He can get more for us as a pair than he can for either of us separately. And so we're engaged." He buried his face in her hair. "I don't know if he'll ever let us actually marry." He stopped talking and just sat there with her in his arms. Imperfect as it was, he'd stay there with her like that forever, if he could.
But then Annie reached up to trace Finnick's lower lip with one finger. "He wants everything to be a lie," she murmured, catching his gaze and holding it, "so we'll make it the truth." She smiled then, and his heart tripped in his chest. "Finnick Odair, will you marry me?"
The months between his homecoming and his Victory Tour flew by. If he'd had any hopes that things might return to normal following the Games, they died a quick death.
The people of 4 didn't know what to do with their infamous two-time victor. And so they did their best to ignore him as much as possible. To his face they treated him politely, if not necessarily respectfully, but he heard the whispers when his back was turned. It seemed Shandra's words the day of his homecoming were a pretty good indication of how his own people viewed him: traitor, murderer, whore. Things they could forgive a fourteen-year-old boy they could not forgive a twenty-four-year-old man.
To avoid the awkwardness and his own guilt, Finnick avoided contact with anyone but his family and his fellow victors as much as he could. He fished with his father, sister, and uncles – even that was uncomfortable for the first few days – and he spent every minute he wasn't out on his father's boat with Annie. He didn't really know what Snow had planned for them, in spite of what he'd told Annie, but he expected a call to the Capitol before his Victory Tour. He hadn't been allowed five consecutive months at home since he turned sixteen, but the call never came, which only fueled his fears, both for himself and for Annie.
The days grew to weeks and then months. Temperatures dropped. Walks on the beach, hand-in-hand with Annie and wearing nothing but shorts because of the heat became talks in front of a cheerful fire or snuggled together under a blanket on the couch. One blustery day, Angel Banyan, his mentor for the Quell, showed up on their doorstep to talk about the Victory Tour, wanting to go over which districts would be as awkward and uncomfortable as visits to town here at home and which ones might actually be dangerous for him.
Angel thought 10 could go either way, since Finnick hadn't been solely responsible for Ewing's death, but that it might not be safe for him without a Peacekeeper escort in 8 and 7, 5 or 1. Finnick protested the idea that 7 might be dangerous, but Angel reminded him that no matter what had really happened in the arena, the perception was that he had engineered Cashmere's murder of Johanna even as he betrayed both Cashmere and Gloss.
The nightmares following Angel's visit were the worst since he returned home.
The morning his prep team arrived on Victors' Island was clear and cold. Capitol citizens all, they were as excited about their flight on the hovercraft as they were to be in the exotic District 4. Of the four of them, only Rafe had been with Finnick since his first victory; the other three, even the usually dignified Marjora, chattered about the flight and the scenery like giddy children. They made Annie laugh and so Finnick did his best not to snap at them or roll his eyes or anything else that might hurt their feelings.
Prepped for his first official public appearance since his victory and clinging tightly to Annie's hand, Finnick boarded the hovercraft for the mainland and the start of his second Victory Tour.
The kick-off ceremony at the train station was mercifully brief, just a speech by the mayor about the honor Finnick had brought once more to District 4, followed by another speech by Phineas LaSalle about the great privileges the Capitol afforded the winning district; the only thing Finnick had to do was smile and try to look humble and appreciative of the honors bestowed by the Capitol. It was one of the most difficult performances of his life.
When he kissed Annie goodbye before boarding the train, dozens of cameras recorded the moment. He tried to cut it short, not wanting to give them anything for their tabloids and so-called news shows, but Annie didn't let him.
"I won't see you for almost two weeks, Finnick," she whispered, her smile belying the tears that shimmered in her eyes, "I don't want you to forget me."
"As if I could." Phineas LaSalle called Finnick's name and both he and Annie turned as one toward the waiting train.
"It's time to go," LaSalle said, pointing at his watch for emphasis. Annie stretched up to kiss Finnick one last time.
"Go, love," she told him. "I'll be here when you get back."
"Finnick, I do apologize, but I must leave you for a little while. Please, make yourself comfortable." Lucius Pennywise waved his arm in a wide arc that encompassed both the well-stocked bar and the plush furniture. "Our third should be here soon and I…" – he stroked his knuckles down the side of Finnick's face – "will be back before you have a chance to miss me."
Words rose unbidden – "Don't rush on my account" – but he managed to choke them down before he said them aloud, turning them into a sound he hoped approximated frustration. As the door closed behind Lucius, Finnick splashed some liquor into a glass and downed it in one swallow, then quickly poured more. He hated threesomes. It was somewhat ironic that Lucius was his third appointment of this last leg of the Victory Tour.
He took the bottle with him when he settled into a chair, propping his feet up on the no doubt expensive coffee table. The tour had arrived in the Capitol earlier that afternoon, replacing his home district as the last stop. Visiting 4 in sequence with the other districts and ending in the Capitol was just Snow's subtle way of telling him that he wasn't going home. The bastard had threatened for years to relocate Finnick permanently in the Capitol; now it only remained for him to bring Annie here, as well.
He slumped a little further into the chair, lifted his glass and sipped at the alcohol, then swirled it around so that he could watch the play of the light through the amber liquid. He didn't know exactly what he'd grabbed, only caring that it was strong and could soften the edges. And if it wasn't enough, he had a couple of old friends in his pocket that could wipe out those edges completely, at least for a little while.
The clock in the corner chimed the hour: midnight. Finnick shuddered and took another sip of whiskey, or whatever it was. The party he'd left a little while ago, Pennywise's proprietary hand on the small of his back, was probably still in full swing. He'd rather be there than here. A crowded Capitol party was a much safer space than a more or less empty Capitol mansion; a whispered conversation with Plutarch Heavensbee a far preferable way to spend an evening than entertaining some Capitol citizen with too much disposable income and too much personal value to President Snow.
He took another sip and swirled his glass again. Plutarch had told Finnick some interesting things. Things that had paired well with what Finnick had made note of out of old habit on his tour of the districts. As far as Plutarch and their friends were concerned, the Quell had only delayed their plans for a little while, no more than a few years, they hoped. The districts were still restless, on edge, chafing at the ever-tightening yoke of the Capitol. And while two years ago they'd lost Haymitch's girl, who for a while had seemed like she'd be the one to light the districts on fire, 12 was still the most likely place for their catalyst to arise. If nothing else, the Everdeen girl had a younger sister.
Heavensbee had said they merely had to be patient. Finnick had laughed and told him to fuck patience. It was easy to preach patience when no one was whoring you out for money or political gain. Or, worse, whoring out the one person who meant more than life itself. Snow had sold Annie once before, on her own Victory Tour, and it had ended in near disaster. Finnick had placated the man who'd bought her, convinced the president not punish her, and Snow had chosen not to use her afterward, but that was before so many of his marketable victors had died in the Quell.
When Heavensbee had asked Finnick if he was still with them, if he'd still gather information for their cause, of course Finnick had said yes. How could he not? The thought of the Capitol's rich and powerful using Annie as they used him, of sometimes using them both together…
He tossed back the rest of his drink and refilled his glass. The liquor should have him at least a little buzzed by now, his thoughts less clear, but no, instead he kept thinking about Annie with some of his own clients, his imagination filling in the blanks. Feeling sick, he shifted in his chair, reached into his pocket and pulled out the pair of pills he'd taken hours ago from their hiding place in the Training Center, staring at them in the palm of his hand.
A commotion in the hallway drew Finnick's attention. He heard voices, Lucius and another man, at first. But then a woman spoke and she short to his feet, nearly dropping both his glass and the pills.
"No…" he whispered. Our third should be here soon.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Pennywise. I'm new at this. I don't know what I'm supposed to do."
The sound of Annie's voice started Finnick's heart pounding and acid bile rose in the back of his throat. She can't be here. She's safe at home in Four. But she said something else, something he missed, and his heart tripped, his glass falling from nerveless fingers to splash expensive liquor on the table and the thick carpet.
"Oh, don't worry, lovely Annie," Lucius laughed. "Your fiancé will guide you. He knows quite well what to do."
Finnick heard a keening sound and when he realized that he was the one making it, he cut it off. All the liquor in the world wouldn't be enough to get him through this night. Cursing himself for his own cowardice, he popped the pills into his mouth and reached for the bottle, took a swig straight from it to wash them down. He felt like he was abandoning Annie, but he couldn't help her if he was paralyzed by his own fears.
Yes, it was possible that Plutarch and the others might someday come up with a workable plan. They might indeed start a rebellion with Finnick right in the thick of it.
But today was not that day.