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Achilles Heel

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I watch the sun come up. It always rises over the land and sets at sea, but it never seems like it’s being extinguished when it sets. I wish it would set so the day could be over. Just today, not every other day. Today’s different. Today is going to be beautiful, but only because it’s taunting me. The sky was red all last night. I know because I didn’t sleep.

Now the land is red and the sky is blue. It made more sense the other way around.

We still have a while to go before we can moor the boat, but if the District’s in sight, then so are the docks. We’ll be on time for the reaping. It happens later in District 4 than in most of the others. I remember two years ago, the first Reaping Day that counted for me, the district representative and Old Neal had an argument onstage, and that was one of the things the representative shouted to make Old Neal be quiet. It meant they couldn’t edit all the footage.

That was the sixty-third Hunger Games. This will be the sixty-fifth. My name is on twelve cards that the reapers could draw. I’m less afraid than some of us kids and more afraid than others, I suppose, but I don’t get to ask much. Most of the other people my age are on boats not too different than mine, some larger, some smaller, all working. I see them on land, during the rainy season, or on public holidays like today, or at training.

We pass the first buoy, so I have to stop watching the sun rise and wake Dad out of his hammock. He knows what day it is, I can tell, but he doesn’t say anything about it, and neither does my Mother when she knocks on the underside of the deck to tell us she’s made breakfast. She’s already eaten, she says, but I can tell she mostly just wants to get back to taking in one of Dad’s old suits for me. It’s only a little long, but Dad’s got broader shoulders than I do. I make sure to eat fast so I can help her by finishing the jacket. It has ropes across the front instead of buttons, but some of the knots are frayed, so I ask if I can pick away the topmost knot and use it to repair the others. I break the rope down into its three strands and quickly twist each of them into frogs, one for the end of each closure, and start sewing them on. I’m finished by the time Dad shouts at the dock workers.

They unload our haul for the last two days, but I’m told to go off with Dad and get myself cleaned up for Reaping Day. Mother won’t be coming—she can’t—but she gives me a kiss and says she hopes she’ll see me tonight. And I tell her, the way I told her last year, that if I don’t she’ll see me on the television in a week, and I’ll make her proud there, don’t worry.

I tell Dad I’m not going to wear a shirt under the suit, it’s too hot and they’re all too large or too small. That’s fine. The suit looks all right. My hair’s gotten long, but there’s no time to cut it, and Dad says it doesn’t matter as long as it’s clean. Getting all the salt out takes work, especially since most of the bathwater is only half-filtered. Dad helps. He didn’t last year.

We arrive at the square in front of the Justice building, and I am sorted and counted and left with all the others in my year. The proclamations go on and on, the old victors take their places. Old Neal has been quiet these last two years. The other victors fall in line. Mags is smiling, drifting. I’ve wondered what her smiles mean for as long as I can remember watching. There's a story she tells, how she volunteered for her Games to save my grandmother Fiona. Fiona lived a long and happy life (though not to hear Mags tell it) and died the year I was born, so I'm named for her. Mags doesn't let my dad and uncles forget it.

They draw a girl first, Pacifica Jordan, someone I don’t know. She looks strong, thick-set and dangerous and out of place in her dress. No one volunteers to take her place. She must have been trained like me.

Then they draw me.

The sun holds still in the sky. I expected this, I accepted this, I prepared for this like so many others. I walk up the red stone steps of the Justice Building without lowering my head.

And I just stand on the edge of the stage gaping like a fish, and wonder what all of them are staring at.

-

My name is Finnick Odair. I am fourteen years old. I am a citizen of District 4 in Panem, but I wasn’t born in any country. I was born at sea.

That’s what they’re telling me to say for the cameras.

The cameras love me, almost as much as the people back home. They say that too. They, my prep team, my stylist, my mentor Mags, the people she says are already lining up to sponsor me. But if the cameras love me, won’t they believe anything I tell them?

Mags says a flat no to that, tells me that she loves me and she doesn’t take any of this with a grain of salt. I don’t believe her. If she loved me, I wouldn’t be here.

I don’t think love is the right word for what the cameras do to me.

-

“A merman,” Drusus says. “An honest-to-god merman. For once, this design is going to work.” He’s my stylist, so I trust him. But he doesn’t ask if I’m all right with being paraded around in a chariot with no shirt on. It’s fine, because I am all right with it, at least as far as not wearing clothing goes because that’s always fine as long as it isn’t cold, but I’d be more comfortable if he wasn’t having the prep team glue gems and scales under my navel.

I tell him so.

He laughs.

“You country boys don’t know what’s good for you,” he says, sighing. Drusus has braided eyebrows tipped in real silver. It’s hard not to talk to them instead of his eyes.

“I’m not country,” I tell him anyway.

“How many days a week do you spend on a boat, kid?”

Before I can answer—and the answer is four—one of the prep team rips a patch of gems off my skin. Apparently there was hair there too that they must have missed when they did whatever it was they did to everything else.

Everything else.

But for all the jewels and scales and paint, and for all the curls and gold debris they’ve put in my hair, I don’t feel like they’re making me up like a girl. I stare up at the ceiling, let them consult their sketches and reapply the scales, making sure they line up with the cut of the pants. They still tear the gems off when they don’t get it right. I wonder if this is what fish feel like when I rip their bones out, only backward.

When they stand me up, I can’t walk.

Drusus says I don’t have to walk.

I don’t think I could swim either.

-

Grant is seventeen and twice my size. His father is a Peacekeeper, he says. He’s almost as good with knives and spears as I am, hits the targets in the gym eight for ten. I show him how to brace his fingers around the point and he tells me to sit with him and Scilla and the others at lunch.

Scilla and Gemma are from District 1, and Grant came with Marcia from District 2. Pacifica is also at the table, but she doesn’t say much. The food’s good, heavier on the meat than I’d like, but I know we’re supposed to keep ourselves full since we don’t know what kind of food will be at the Games.

Marcia asks if I’m a diver, I tell her yes, and she’s glad for it, says I’ll be good to have around if the arena turns out to have a lot of water. I know what she means, I know how the Games work, I know these four want me in their pack, at least for the first phase.

Instead of thanking her, I ask her what she can do.

-

Drusus lets me go without a shirt again.

I’m the only one in a suit without a shirt at the interviews. I think he’s trying to say something.

But the rest of the suit is much easier to move in than what he made me wear for the parade, so I don’t complain. That’s probably because I actually do have to walk, up to the stage to talk with Caesar Flickerman.

Caesar Flickerman wastes about thirty seconds of my interview time just looking at me.

I should be offended, right? Not on camera, though. On camera I’m supposed to be myself, but nicer, Mags said so. So I slide a little forward in my chair and ask Caesar Flickerman if he’s all right, and offer him the cup of water on the little table between us.

He takes it, and he touches my hand, holds onto it a little longer than he probably needs to. His skin is cold and clammy and too smooth. I wonder if the seconds are ticking away, if someone’s trying to stop me from having an interview. And then he looks into my eyes and leans a little forward and I’ve probably done something wrong. I can feel color rising in my cheeks. I can’t even tell what he looks like beyond the white makeup.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Never better,” he says, and takes a drink of the water.

-

“You don’t think very highly of yourself, do you.” When Mags says it, it’s not a question.

“I do,” I say. “I’m good with a knife and a net and a spear. I’m better with rope than anyone here, except maybe Pacifica. I’m fast enough. Strong enough. Smart enough, I think. And I know what the inside of a body looks like.”

“But not the outside,” she says.

-

There isn’t a mirror in my prep room on the hovercraft.

They probably just don’t need it. I’m not wearing anything special for the Games; just the tracker they injected into my arm, the kind of pants and jacket that keep you dry, a tight vest with several pockets and straps, and boots with rubber tips and heels. Already I know I’m going into water, so I come up calm, just like surfacing for air.

The Cornucopia is the source of a wide river. We surround it on our starting discs, all twenty-four of us. Some are afraid, even now. Some look like they’ve gone beyond that. One boy is smiling just like Mags.

I hear the starting whistle. I get to the Cornucopia and take what I need, it isn’t hard, the water is shallow enough to see the bottom in but not shallow enough to touch. There are packs and weapons and rope and I need all three, I know, so I scramble and grab whatever I can, three coils of rope, some knives, the first backpack I see. It’s easy. Too easy. Is anyone else trying?

It occurs to me that not many of the tributes can swim.

I start throwing all the weapons I can into the water.

Pacifica’s here too; for a moment she’s staring at me and I remember that she can’t win this if I do, but she seems to catch on. They trained us for this in District 4, taught us to upset the field as soon as we can. She takes a spear for herself, and a knife, and then reaches her arm into the mouth of the Cornucopia, sweeping the backpacks and tools into the river.

By the time the other tributes have caught on, I’m riding the current away, picking up whatever else is in my path. I can hear Gemma shouting at me, and Grant growling, but I only swim out as far as the first bend before I turn to watch the slaughter.

It is a slaughter. If these clothes weren’t waterproof, they’d be stained just from wading where I am. It’s a difference between fish blood and human blood. Warm blood stains deeper.

-

The six of us listen to the cannons fire at the close of the first day. Nine dead. I thought it was more at the time, but some of us got away wounded, so some of the others might have too. Grant still can’t open his left eye. Scilla wrapped Marcia’s arm himself. I can tell they don’t know what to think of me by how they don’t talk about what Pacifica and I did to the stores.

I care what they think of me, so I don’t say anything either. Not just yet.

Gemma asks me what I’m doing.

“Weaving a net,” I say.

“For fish?”

“Well, what else are we going to eat? The food they gave us is all packaged. It’ll last longer if we save it. And there’s plenty of food here.” I point to a couple of almost adjacent rocks, with a whirlpool brewing between them. “I’ll string the net up there. If it doesn’t catch fish, it’ll at least pick up some of the other things that’ll drift downstream. The backpacks. The weapons.”

“And anyone else trying to get them,” Pacifica says, looking at the others, like she wants their approval.

She gets it, from Scilla and Gemma at least.

I didn’t have to say anything.

-

There’s almost no vegetation and barely any cover. The river is in a gorge, steep smooth rocks on the upstream-right side, jagged red spires to the upstream-left, and both sides are higher than I can see. At night, when the fog rolls in, the cliffs seem to go up forever. It’s hard to keep watch on a night like this, with the rush of the river to drown out anything coming near, and the sky like a blanket keeping the heat and sweat in.

Scilla is watching with me, so I tell him I’m going fishing. Not far. Just out into the rapids. I take off most of my clothes and grab one of the spears and a mostly-empty pack, and step across the stones.

It’s quick work, finding a school of fish large enough for the spear to hit. They never look up. One of them never will. And then another, where they reconvene, a little further upstream. There’s no point in driving them against the current for too long, they’ll just get tired and let it carry them away, but I have a better idea.

I chase them across, stabbing shallow, letting them think it’s some fool with stones. They never look up, they only look away, and dart where I herd them. And they keep together, because that’s what they think their strength is.

It only means I catch all of them in the end.

-

The fish won’t go rotten so fast if we keep them in the water. Most of them are still alive, and there’s no way we could eat all of them this morning. I rig up another net, and show the others where I’m tethering it. Scilla calls it a corral, a pen. I make it obvious enough, like bait. Maybe the other tributes will catch on, try and make a grab for it.

They eat, but I hold off. I tell them about the two fish I speared last night, and when they ask, I say I ate them raw, which is true. It’s fine, raw, as long as it’s fresh and not too bony. Pacifica vouches for me, but the others don’t get it. So I’m not hungry.

Besides, three silver parachutes fell last night, two loaves of bread from home, and a reel of clear fishing wire. That, I don’t tell the others.

-

More cannons fire. I tie knots in the dark.

-

I kill the girl from District 12 when she tries to steal our fish. It’s my watch, so it’s my responsibility. Marcia, Gemma, Scilla and Pacifica are out hunting and climbing, and Grant is asleep. I kill the girl from District 12 so quietly that Grant doesn’t wake up until after the cannon.

The river carries her body away, and I sit on a rock and watch. She gets caught in the same rapids that were pulling at my ankles before they made it to her. When the hovercraft comes down from the steep side of the cliffs it has a hard time fishing her body out of the rocks. I can see the wounds I gave her, like black open holes. She must have bled everything into the water. The thought makes me cry. It’s probably not supposed to.

Everyone congratulates me when they come back, like they know.

-

It’s Marcia’s fault they build a fire.

They wait until I’m asleep, maybe because they know I’ll tell them no, because I’ve been telling them for the past three days that the fish is fine raw as long as it’s fresh, but they don’t like it. Someone was hoarding dry wood, I don’t know who or how, maybe a gift, maybe in the backpacks, because otherwise it’s too damp to get a fire going.

I know I should just run, but I can’t help yelling at them.

That means it’s my fault too, when the boy from District 5 and the girl from District 7 start shooting at us.

They get Scilla, and his cannon goes off, loud enough that when he hits the floor it feels like that’s what shook it. I know what I’m supposed to do, I know where they’re shooting from, I know because everyone else is charging there too. It’s too deep, they have to take the rocks across the river. I don’t. I dive in.

Pacifica screams at me, tells me I’m an idiot.

That’s because mine aren’t the only traps in the river.

I don’t know what coils around my ankle, but something does, and I know what I have to do is breathe before it drags me down. It doesn’t feel like a squid, I’ve fought a squid, all you have to do is keep your head and get it in the eye, so I turn and breathe and try to face it, and someone shoots me.

I guess arrows work in water the same as spears.

What’s worse is that it means I’m unprepared when the thing pulls me under. I don’t have enough air, I don’t have my knife-arm in the right place, I don’t have the water supporting me, just surrounding me. And the thing, it turns out, doesn’t have eyes. Only mouths.

At least I don’t scream. The next best thing to do, always, is hack through the tentacle and break for air, so that’s what I do, grab it back and hold on. It’s not a tentacle, it’s a vine, the skin secretes like kelp. My knife slips on it when I saw through. I’m not sure if the knife or the creature is what takes all that skin off my shin, just that it hurts.

I come up screaming instead of breathing. That’s probably why I get shot again.

-

Both arrows are still in me when I wash up downstream. The first one’s hanging on to my left arm by threads of skin, in one end and out the other and only a bit of muscle torn. I’ve seen fish who didn’t bite the hook but wound up caught anyway, and it looks like that. The second is lower than that, between two ribs, and worse because I can’t find the head.

I don’t take cover. If I’m not dead, no one’s here. The arrow in my arm I just rip out, let the rest of the skin tear. That’s safest, even if it hurts even worse than storm splinters. The other arrow, I hack off enough of the end that I can still get a grip on it, and start trying to take off all my clothing off without driving it in deeper. I remember one of my cousins got sick when a piece of cloth got trapped under her skin. I widen the tear in the vest. Cutting through all the layers of the jacket is harder. The shirt’s too tight and too bloody, so I just get rid of it.

The wound is clean; the kind of clean the weapon does, not the kind water does, but I can fix that once I pull the arrow out. It’s easier said than done, and I can’t think, I don’t know if I want it to be fast so the pain is over with or slow so I don’t hurt anything else. It doesn’t matter for fish, they’re going to die, so I always do it fast, then, but it hurts them less, doesn’t it?

Water. Water lessens pain.

I kneel in the river, only where I can still see the bottom, only deep enough so that the arrow is under the surface. I bury my other hand in the riverbed, and pull the arrow out, as slow and careful as I can. It doesn’t feel like I’m slow enough or careful enough at all. The pain is awful, I can feel the arrowhead scraping my bones, slicing through flesh that had just started to close. But I can’t let it break, I can’t let it stay in me.

It probably takes half an hour for me to get it out. But I do it. And I should probably find some way to staunch the wound but the water just feels so good, good enough to drink and breathe and rest in, sleep if I could.

I think I do sleep, for a while.

The parachute hitting the water wakes me up. I almost don’t catch it before the current takes it away. It’s a First Aid kit, salve, cloth, a needle and thread. Mags doesn’t want me to die. I wonder where the cameras are, and if they still love me, and I sew up my side.

-

When I was little, probably about four or five, I stepped on an oyster shell and tore through my foot, all the way to the bones. I cried for hours. I was convinced my leg would wither up like Mother’s. A piece of the shell broke off in the cut, but Dad fished it out with tongs and tweezers and let me pitch it into the ocean so I’d never see it again. And Mother held me and distracted me by telling me stories about other people who hurt their feet and still went on to do great things, people before Panem, people before the country before Panem, people thousands of years ago. “It depends on what hurts you,” she said, “a bite, a knife, a poison, a disease. But if they lived, and if they got better, they stopped other people from hurting the same as them. That’s what I was told, and what I’m telling you now.”

I told her she didn’t stop me.

She said, “But I can make sure it won’t hurt you anymore.”

I have to stay out of the water because of the stitches. That part always hurts the most. I had to then, and I have to now. And I can’t help but think that I’ve just lost my chance of making it out of here alive.

-

It’s a slow Games. No one more dies that day, not the day after either. I lay low. I don’t know if anyone else is this far downstream. Some of the weapons are, though. Rope, still coiled, caught on the rocks. The head of a spear, but not its shaft. Darts, but not a blowgun. Nothing I can use, but nothing I can leave either. I wind a net from the rope, make sure that I at least have food while everything heals. The jacket and shirt are ruined but it’s warm enough with just the vest, even at night.

I know it can’t last, especially not for me, not for someone just surviving, not playing. Is Pacifica keeping the older tributes fed? I know she’s still alive and I’m sure the rest are too. If I don’t get a weapon, one of them is probably going to win. They might win even if I do get a weapon. But at least I have food.

They know that, don’t they.

They know I’m not hungry.

-

I know that’s why Grant comes to kill me.

We’ve all been here a week, and Grant hasn’t eaten for three of those days. I can tell just by looking in his eyes, those are saltwater eyes, becalmed eyes. And it probably burns him to see me with warm skin and clean bandages and barbed shivs made from fish bones.

It’s also why he doesn’t kill me right away. He’s hungry enough that he wants me to know. He jumps down at me from the cliffs on the jagged side, he’s a climber, of course he’s a climber, he’s District 2, I should have known, and then he’s got me by the hair and is beating my head against the nearest rock. I probably stare too long if I see that there’s a stain. I should be fighting back but everything in me is running away, even my blood.

He catches me. He catches me and throws me, and before I hit the ground I realize that he doesn’t have a weapon either, not unless you count the earth. He probably counts it. My side reopens. The bandages are filthy, soaked with mud from the riverbed and my red blood pushing through, and then Grant drives it back in when he pounces on me. My hand hits the water and all I can think is no, too soon, I can’t get the stitches wet, everything will wither away.

I’m not sure how I do it, but I get out from under him, climb on his back and neck, and hold Grant’s face into the gravel of the riverbed until he stops breathing.

His cannon goes off. I take his vest and gather everything I can carry, and run, upstream. I can’t have won alone, I can’t have won with only my strength. It must have had something to do with Grant’s blind side. But I won’t know unless I survive. And even then, I won’t know unless I rewatch it. Unless the world saw it. Unless the cameras love me.

-

The trident falls from the sky when I finally stop running.

It’s magnificent. I’ve never held anything like it. My head still hurts, so I think I must be dreaming. The trident’s nearly as long as I am, I know because it hits the ground prongs-first and I almost walk right into it. If it weren’t for the parachute, I wouldn’t think it was a gift.

It’s probably embarrassing that the first thing I do is lean on it, just because I’m so tired. I don’t even pry the fork out of the earth until I’ve caught my breath, until I feel it strong enough to make the staff shake. But I do, and it’s light, like it was built for me, and that’s when I realize it was.

This isn’t just a gift from Mags. Neither was the bread. Neither was the medicine. Neither was the fishing twine. They want me to win.

They, the cameras, my prep team, my stylist, the sponsors Mags says have lined up for me. They couldn’t send something like this if they didn’t want me to win.

And they wouldn’t, if they didn’t think I could.

I’m probably still tired, but I don’t feel it anymore, not when I pull away from the trident and hold it, once, reverently, respectfully. I take off my vest, and my pants, and everything, and hide it with the rest of my gear behind a rock. I unwind the bandages, all of them, and touch my fingers to the arrow wound.

“This is for your love,” I say.

I take up the trident and dive.

-

The vines find me.

I’m ready for them this time.

They scream all the way to the surface.

The water was their home too.

-

I stab it dead on the rocks. It was a muttation, I’m sure, but it’s not that anymore, just a husk of vines and mouths and poison that sears the air, coming up in coils. The flesh had been green underwater, but browns in the air, drying into cords and sticky veins. Its blood is caustic and makes the rocks less smooth.

I don’t have a knife anymore, and the trident’s too big to use to slice it, but some of the rocks are sharp enough to hack the vines into strands. They dry faster that way. They don’t grow again, not on land.

It takes until night for me to weave the creature into a net that I can use.

-

I find Gemma first, wading knee-deep, trying to fish. Marcia’s nearby and hears the cannon go off. Her knives miss me. When I hurl the net at her, it knocks her into the water. I stab her, though, because I’d be sorry if it wasn’t fast. If Pacifica was there, she gets away.

I don’t see anyone else until it’s almost night. The boy from District 7 is up at the Cornucopia. He’s built a bridge across the pool we started from, fortified and level. It can’t have been only him, the rocks would be too heavy, but he’s the only one who I kill up there that night.

The sky flashes pictures. There are five tributes left. I will probably kill most of them. I have to. They want me to win.

-

The boy from District 5 knows how to fish too. He catches one. I catch him. Four.

-

A cannon fires and I’m not there to cause it. Three.

-

Pacifica is waiting for me. There are traps, nooses and snares and nets and trips. I have to stalk her for hours, keeping to the cliffs. It doesn’t make it any easier.

The trouble with traps is until you see someone trigger them, you can only guess what they’ll do. And they could do anything. Pacifica has so much, all the rope and tools and weapons that the others left behind, enough food, enough cover.

I can’t let it be enough to save her.

I watch her weave back through the traps with her haul from the river. She has two backpacks. She must have killed the tribute that died earlier today. I have to keep my eyes open to aim if I want this to work. I wish I could close them. I don’t.

My rock hits her arm that’s carrying the spare backpack. She drops it, and it and the rock together are heavy enough to make her own net pull up around her ankles. That should hold her until I get there.

I barely make it in time. She’s cut one leg free already, is starting on the other. My net makes it impossible, and she slices open her own hand when the knife stutters and drops. The edges of my net are weighed down with bones and it’s sharp and serrated. She didn’t expect that.

I could tell her I’m sorry. I want to. I throw the trident instead. She takes it in the leg, but the tangle is hopeless now.

She stops moving except to cry. I have to get around the traps to get to her side, to get my trident back. I brace my heel on her leg, and pull it out.

“She chose you,” Pacifica yells, “that old hag chose you, you’ve gotten everything and I’ve got nothing, and I’ve made it here, haven’t I?”

“I chose her,” I tell her, because she should know, and because I’m not sure if I can do this, not to someone else from home. “I chose them. I chose everyone.”

“I hate you,” she says. “You’d better win, after this.”

“I want to.”

“Then do it.”

Two.

-

One is the girl from District 7, the one who shot me twice. She knows that the river is on my side. She’s keeping to the cliffs, and if I climb she’ll shoot me down. And if neither of us do anything, the Gamemakers will choose for us. I don’t know who they’ll chose. They’ll choose the one who acts.

I wonder if she wants this to be over as much as I do.

Once the hovercraft takes Pacifica’s body away, I head back to her camp and start dismantling the traps, at least the ones with ends I know I can avoid. I get enough rope out of that, and enough time and cover to build myself a quick, long bridge. That way, no matter which side of the gorge I choose, I can make it to the other before the girl from District 7 shoots me. Carrying it is the real problem.

I start at the cornucopia where the cliffs are lowest, and I pick the jagged side because I can’t climb the other at all. The cliffs do have a top, above the clouds, but not too high that I lose the sound of the river. Grass grows up here, but it’s more like moss, slippery and clinging to the rocks.

She shoots me at sunset. The sun sets on my side of the stream, which means it must rise on hers.

I think she might have made a mistake.

The bridge is weighed by two spears, one with a spidered head like a grappling hook. I jam the straight one into a crevice in the rocks, and hurl the other all the way to the far side, her side. I can’t guess, can’t test it, can only trust it’s tight enough and run. She has to choose between taking a shot and running to dismantle the bridge, and she chooses to shoot. I’m lucky. It’s hard to think I’m lucky when I have to block her arrow with my left arm and it tears through the scabs from the last one, but I do. I’m lucky. I’m good. They want me to win. I keep telling myself they want me to win.

As soon as there’s solid ground under my feet, I throw my net. I don’t miss. The trident doesn’t miss either. The center tine takes her in the throat.

It’s dry, above the clouds. That must be why I’m crying.

-

They say they wiped my scars away. The scars don’t feel gone, any more than the one on the bottom of my foot from the oyster. I can still find them as long as I don’t look. The leg I tore fighting the vines is speckled like goosebumps, even when the skin looks smooth. The one on my left arm is like an eye, one ring in another, dilating when I touch it. The one in my chest is just cold.

The mirror is back. Drusus puts me in front of it.

I find my eyes first. I know what color they’re supposed to be, even if I don’t know what to call it. The ocean reflects them back at me no matter how far out we are. This must be what they look like in a surface that doesn’t move.

That must be why this is so strange. Everything’s still. There’s no salt weighing down my hair, no brine at the corners of my eyes, no burn on my cheeks. Beauty Base Zero, Drusus calls it. But there isn’t any paint, either, or any jewels. This is what I look like with nothing.

This is what they want. This is what they love.

I ask Drusus, “Where did I go?”

He laughs, and says, “You’re right here. And you’re beautiful.”

-

If what they want is me with nothing, that’s what Drusus gives them. I’m wearing a bolt of white-almost-blue cloth that wraps around one shoulder and both hips. It would hide the scars on my left side if they were still visible. It hides nothing on my right. No gold, this time, no jewels, just cleanliness and cloth.

Caesar Flickerman stares at me again. He doesn’t look thirsty this time, he looks hungry. My shoulders heat up the same as my cheeks.

“I’d hoped I would see you again, Finnick,” he says, still staring.

“Well, that would mean I’d be alive,” I say. People laugh. “Thank you, for wanting me to win.”

“I was hardly the only one.” I’m not holding a glass of water this time, but he reaches out to touch my hand. It had been resting in my lap. It’s not resting anymore. “You were amazing, Finnick. Just watching you out there, no one wanted a Capitol without you in it.”

“Then I should thank them, all of them.” They applaud. They applaud, they stare. This is what Mags means by love.

“You thanked them by living.”

“So I’d better keep living to keep thanking them, right?” Is laughter also love? That’s what they’re giving now.

“Finnick,” Caesar Flickerman says, patting my hand again, “We’re going to play the recap now so you can see just how beautifully you lived for us. Would you like to see that?”

I think about Grant, about not knowing how I got out from under him. About Pacifica. About why the girl from District 7 chose to shoot instead of throwing down my bridge. “Yes,” I say. “I want to know what everyone saw.”

-

They show me.

At least, I think it’s me. It’s like the me that Drusus shoved in front of a mirror. It wasn’t hard for them to make the Games my story. I didn’t know, but I personally killed seven tributes, eight when Pacifica drove one into my net, and the vine muttation in the river, which no one else could touch. I see myself weak and bleeding to death after the ambush, I see myself underwater (there are cameras under the water?) fighting the creature, I see myself lay siege to the bridge at the Cornucopia. It doesn’t look like killing children, when I do it. It looks like killing giants.

And it’s not because they’re big. It’s because they’re ugly. Or if they’re beautiful, they’re beautiful like Gemma, cold and hateful like snakes. I’m a hero. I’m their hero. On the television, I’m their hero.

I tell them to stop. I tell them it isn’t true. I tell them I’m a monster like the vines in the water.

They don’t listen. They don’t see.

I don’t know what they see.

-

That must be why, when I dream, the vines want me too. They want me to come home. They want me because I’m kin.

-

President Snow has me and Mags over for dinner. I think he does this to make sure I still want to eat. He implies something like that when he sits us down, says it sometimes takes a while for victors to regain their appetites. I wonder how that could possibly be true. Even if I’m not hungry, I do feel empty.

“I encourage you,” he says, over rice and raw oysters, “to make some kind of home for yourself in the Capitol. Your family is more than welcome to join you, if they can get away. I understand your mother has some sort of condition...?”

“She can’t walk,” is all I say. “She can swim, though, almost as well as I can. Better, sometimes.”

“Well then perhaps it is better for her to stay in District 4,” he says. He eats his oysters toothily. I’ve always been taught to use more tongue, that the shells can chip your teeth as easily as your skin. President Snow doesn’t seem to know that, or at least he doesn’t care. “Nevertheless. You’re entitled to some space in the Training Center, especially considering your future duties.”

“As a mentor,” I say.

“Yes. As a mentor,” he says. “Well. After you see to things in District 4, and have your victory tour, I do hope you’ll find something in the Capitol. I think you’ll be very suited to life here.”

I nod. I don’t agree, but he’s President Snow, he probably has a good reason for thinking that’s true.

But Mags is the one to say, “I think he’d be of more use back home.”

The smile President Snow shoots her is as red as blood. “I must disagree.”

-

My name is Finnick Odair. I am fifteen years old. I am the victor of the sixty-fifth Hunger Games. I am on tour, and the cameras love me.

In 12, 11, 10, I give speeches to the workers and thank them. In 9, 8, dinners and dances and people introducing me to their daughters and sons. In 7, I apologize, and say it was an honor to fight their children. They believe me. They love me. In 6, I inaugurate a hospital. In 5, a factory.

At home in District 4, everyone floods the beaches, and my parents and I officially christen our boat on the Victor's Wharf. We sail out so far that all we can see are the lanterns, and the musicians and dancers are just glints and wisps against the sand. The sun sets at our backs, and I can't help turning toward it, not now and not ever.

District 3 lights up for me, and District 2 salutes me with hundreds of cannons. District 1 parades me through town on a chariot. The air is so thin I can’t breathe.

And in the Capitol they ask if my Dad and my Mother like our new boat on the Victor’s Wharf, if our haul has been better this year so far, if I still go with them and spend four days out of the week at sea.

I tell them, “Of course I do. It’s my home.”

I tell the cameras I was born at sea.

-

This year’s tributes from District 4 are both older than I, sixteen, seventeen, strong and hardy. Volunteers. Mags and Old Neal will mentor them, they say, but I should come along and learn.

I do. I learn a lot.

Both tributes die in the first week. Not for lack of skill, or lack of sponsors; they die because the other tributes know District 4 is never to be underestimated again.

-

I sink.

It’s not just the vines dragging me down. I sink. The water is clear but heavy and still, and if something is pulling me it’s gentle and slow. The vines don’t tangle, they wrap around me warmly, no barbs and no acid, just touching my skin. If they weren’t everywhere I wouldn’t be afraid at all.

I ask them, do you love me too?

So much, they say in every voice I know, so very much.

-

I celebrate my sixteenth birthday in the Capitol. Actually, the Capitol celebrates my sixteenth birthday. It really does feel like the entire city is there for me, feasting, dancing, filming.

What impresses me most is that they’ve closed off parts of the city and flooded them with water. The Capitol citizens are either enjoying themselves on lavish boats, or swimming through the waters, their skin dyed brilliant colors, their hair covered in gold and jewels like mine when Drusus first dressed me. He made me gold tonight, polished me like a statue. I’m wearing more makeup than clothing, but the paint doesn’t come off in the water, just shifts and shines like a moving layer of skin. I find myself staring at my hands a lot, more than I do in dreams.

It’s all dizzying, wonderful, extravagant. The food is amazing, spiced fish and fruit and custards set on fire, and everything is served warm, except the towering marzipan castle that rises out of the water, with arches big enough to reach your arm through to get at the marzipan guards. They call it Atlantis. I drink, too, because now that I’m sixteen nobody can even joke and say it’s not allowed, and the alcohol is spiced and hot and makes everything that touches my skin send lightning through me.

President Snow congratulates me personally. He tells me the Capitol has never loved a victor so much. “We’ve held celebrations,” he says, “but since it’s so rare that the winner be as young as you were, it’s different, you know. We’ve watched you grow up. And you’ve grown up so much since your Games, haven’t you, Finnick?”

It’s true. I have. I tell him, “Yes.”

“Come,” he says. “There’s someone I want you to meet. Have you been introduced to many of your sponsors, Finnick?”

“No, not yet.”

“Well, it’s about time I fixed that. There are a few on this boat—ah, yes, there’s one. Antonia Concolor.” Miss Concolor has long straight hair that’s a dozen shades of black and gold, hanging loose and wet from the water. She looks younger than my Mother but not by much, probably about forty years old. President Snow leads me over. “Finnick, Antonia was one of your generous sponsors during your Games. Antonia, of course you know Finnick.”

“I hope to,” she says, taking my hand the same way Caesar Flickerman does when he interviews me. “I only know what I’ve seen.”

There’s something I want to say to that, but President Snow gets there first. “He is what you’ve seen, Antonia. That and more. And I am sure he’s brimming with thanks for all your help in the Games.”

“I am,” I say, because that part’s true, at least. “I can’t thank you enough. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.”

“And I wouldn’t have been so generous if you hadn’t captivated me from the start,” she says. “But it’s dreadfully loud at this party. Would you meet me for dinner tomorrow?”

-

Drusus is making me up like it’s a televised interview.

“It feels wrong,” I say. “It’s too much. There won’t be cameras there.”

“Capitol fashion,” he says, but as defenses go, it feels thin. So does the clothing; a suit without a shirt, tailored close enough to not be there at all. Especially after yesterday’s warmth and water, it feels like it’s letting everything in.

-

Miss Concolor looks magnificent at dinner. We talk about any number of things, about what life was like for me before and since the Games, about her business. She’s a genetic designer, a very powerful one. She apologizes for the muttation in the water, says she devised its secretions. I tell her that she couldn’t have known they would include it in the game design, and besides, she helped send me the trident, didn’t she? “If anything, I should apologize for destroying something you worked so hard on.”

“Oh, I can always make another one of those,” she says. “But something like you, well. I don’t think I could ever.”

I laugh. I warm. She talks about her favorite moments in my Games, how this past year’s Games didn’t hold a candle to them. How terrified she was when I first encountered the vines. How moved she was when I pulled the arrow out. How she couldn’t turn away during my fight with Grant (she doesn’t know his name was Grant, just calls him that big boy) and was calling in sponsorship as soon as I came out of it alive. She told me that it was Mags’ idea, the trident; that when she phoned in Mags asked her, will you put it toward a weapon? We can get him out alive. We’re almost there.

I can’t help asking, “How much did it take?”

“Oh, more than I know, and I wasn’t the last to give,” she says, and then tells me how much she pledged.

It’s more money than my family used to make in a year.

She says we’re just about done here. She says to come back to her apartment with her.

I thank her, but I feel like I’m a step behind.

-

Her apartment looks like her, black and gold, shining edges. It feels like too much for one person, even larger than my family’s new boat on the victor’s Wharf. It doesn’t feel any smaller even when an Avox comes in with glasses of wine for us. It’s spiced wine like last night’s. Miss Concolor must have seen me drinking it.

She toasts to the opportunity to have me. We drink.

She says it’s my turn to toast, and I toast to her, and all the other people who kept me alive through the Games. We drink.

She toasts to President Snow, for introducing us at long last. We drink. I ask if that means I should toast again.

“No,” she says. “It means you should take off your clothes.”

-

My name is Finnick Odair. I am sixteen years old. I am the victor of the sixty-fifth Hunger Games.

My name is Finnick Odair. I am sixteen years old. I am the victor of the sixty-fifth Hunger Games.

My name is Finnick Odair. I am sixteen years old. I am the victor of the sixty-fifth Hunger Games and the cameras love me. There aren’t any cameras here, but they still love me. I can feel them on me the same as I can feel Miss Concolor on me, holding my arms to the bed. There aren’t any scars. She doesn’t see them, so they’re not there. She kisses where they were. I know she’s wearing lipstick but it doesn’t leave marks. She says she won’t mark me at all, she couldn’t bear it. Nothing she does will leave a stain. She wouldn’t dream of it. She promises.

She laughs when she sees that the hair at my groin is shaved into the points of a trident. I shiver, even though her mouth is warm.

My name is Finnick Odair. I am sixteen years old. The cameras love me.

-

President Snow has the good sense to be alone when I punch him in the jaw. He takes it like someone who’s been punched in the jaw before, like someone who doesn’t care about bruises or broken teeth, like someone with a prep team and a stylist and a manufactured smile.

He spits blood onto the nearest table. “Are you done?”

No. No, I’m not. But when I try to tell him so my fists shake and the words tangle up and I don’t even know what some of them are supposed to be.

“You sold me,” I finally manage. “You sold me to her.”

“Don’t put it that way,” President Snow says. “She’d already paid for you. She wanted you. Everyone wants you, Finnick. And they’ve all paid for you a thousand times over, because you’re still alive. You owe them your life. This is the least you can give them.”

“You sold me.”

“Finnick, be sensible.” He wipes the blood from his jaw. “And let me remind you who I am and what I can do to your family before you hit me again.”

The reminder takes.

President Snow seems to suck on his lip a bit, works his tongue around on the inside. I hate his mouth. “Think. I know you’re smart enough. You won because the people loved you. If you don’t return that love, if you don’t pay them back, then you don’t deserve it, not from me and not from them.”

“And you’ll what, kill me?”

“No. No one wants that. I’m as concerned with what the people of Panem want as you are.” There’s blood at the corner of his mouth again. His tongue flickers out to catch it. “This won’t be the last time I introduce you to someone who wants only the pleasure of your company, Finnick. And you will do exactly what you did last night, and be the gracious, charming, beautiful creature that won the Games when he was only a boy. You will love these people, because they love you. And if you decide to stop loving them, and deprive them of someone they love, then I will deprive you of someone you love.”

Even I don’t believe it when I say, “You wouldn’t.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” he asks. “The wounds I’d inflict on your family wouldn’t leave a scratch on you.”

-

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Mags looks up at me like she doesn’t know either. It is the first time I’ve seen her old face without that dazed, mad smile on it.

I feel like I can’t even stand, like my legs aren’t mine and won’t hold me up. When I kneel, she pulls her chair over, strokes my hair, puts my head in her lap.

“I didn’t tell you because if you knew, you would not have lived.” She breathes. The smile must be back. I can tell it hurts her, feel how much effort it takes to make it go away. “They loved that you didn’t know. They loved that you couldn’t see. If you saw, you would have tried to use it, and they would have known, and you would not be beautiful anymore.”

If my body isn’t mine, why is it crying?

Her hand is shaking. “And if you had known what they wanted of you, would you still have wanted to survive?”

I don’t answer. I don’t know.

“I did it to keep you alive,” she says, like she’s holding on to everything she can. “Everything I do is to keep you alive.”

I wish she didn’t love me.

-

The vines hold me under. I don’t resist, but that doesn’t mean I let them. The sea is red. I don’t know whose blood it is, but the mouths on the vines want it. They flag in the water, they suck on my skin, they push past my mouth and look for more there.

I tell them they can have it. When telling doesn’t work, I show them. They can start at my mouth and my eyes and my scars, at all the parts of me that open.

-

“So you’re back in the Capitol again,” Caesar Flickerman asks me, except it isn’t a question, and there aren’t any cameras. Not here. He’s a different person without the cameras. No twinkling suit, no garish hair, not even his signature white makeup. Without it, his skin is almost as pale.

“Another year, another Hunger Games,” I say.

“Are you planning to be a mentor any time soon?” He pours wine. One of the glasses is meant for me. I wish he wouldn’t bother. It’s all staged, all pacing, all angled for an audience.

I go along with it. “Soon. I’m still younger than one of the tributes this year by a couple of months.”

“Next year,” he says.

“Next year.”

“You’ll be amazing at it, I should think. The way you drew in sponsors for yourself, you should have no trouble raking them in for others.” He holds out the glass he wants me to take, stares at my hand.

I make sure our fingers touch when I take it.

Even without the makeup, Caesar Flickerman’s smile is no different here than it is on the television. He’s the one to pull away, to turn and walk to the massive picture windows of his apartment and draw the curtains closed.

I take a drink. “You can’t sponsor anyone, though, can you, Caesar?”

He laughs, and turns his smile back on me. “No, I can’t. But it doesn’t matter. I know what questions to ask to make them shine, don’t I?”

I know exactly what it means.

Knowing hurts.

He drains his glass, like he expects me to drain mine, and comes back to my side. I’m taller than him, now. I wasn’t then.

“So,” he starts, with his hands on my hipbones and his lips just under mine, “tell me about this year’s tributes from District 4. Which one of them would you lay your bets on?”

-

My name is Finnick Odair. I am seventeen years old. I am the victor of the sixty-fifth Hunger Games. I belong to everyone and no one. I was born at sea.

The cameras love me. Everyone loves me.

Everyone.

I hate them all.