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Scylla and Charybdis

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The sun edges over the horizon, tips the shadows of the docks onto the water, and I'm there to greet it. I stare at the thin clouds until they're tipped with gold, until they swell with sunlight and shine so brightly that I see spots. The ocean laps at my feet, tugs at my ankles, invites me in.

"Not today," I tell it, drawing back. It murmurs as I leave, like it'll miss my company. Like it wants me to stay. Like it wants me.

Everyone wants me today, though, and there's only so much of myself I can spread around.

I used to welcome the dawn. Dawn is when the fish stir and start to hunt, and dawn is when we hunt them. Dawn is when we set our nets and sit in our boats, mugs of something warm in hand, waiting for the tug that lets us know when we've snared something.

I haven't had to fish in almost five years. I haven't had to work at all, really. And I spend more time in the Capitol these days. People sleep late there.

I'll be going back soon. I don't expect to get much sleep, though.

I jog back to where the surf breaks against the sand, sit at the edge of the water with my knees tucked to my chest and my arms crossed over them. The sky is reddening now, streaks of crimson spreading under the gold, bleeding from the land into the ocean. Gulls circle above me, swoop down to snatch their morning meals and call out to the sun and sky in thanks. I feel like I should say something, too, but when the camera isn't trained on me nothing I say sounds right. So I listen, and I wait. I should plunge into the ocean, but Drusus, my stylist, will have a fit if he has to wash the salt out of my hair, and will threaten to tip it with metal like his eyebrows so it stays in place. Don't you know what that does to the other chemicals I put in there? he'll chide me. I'd demonstrate, but I actually like the way I smell today. And you should set a good example for your tributes. They have to trust that I'm going to make them beautiful, not calcified.

He's right about one thing. Everyone will be watching me. I feel sorry for the tributes.

I toss a pebble into the circle of gulls. The arc of their flight widens, but otherwise they don't pay me any mind. It's nice.

No one would pay me mind out here. I could walk along the shore until it stops being District 4 and starts being District 3, in the north, and until I got into the hearts of the cities, no one would care. I could let the tide drag me out even further. I could go home, and I wouldn't have to mentor another kid, dress him up and send him to die, and I wouldn't have to look at my parents who don't know what I've become, and there wouldn't be any cameras.

I could. I won't. I know myself better than that.

As much as I hate mentoring, I'm their best chance for survival in the Arena.

I kneel down, hold my hair out of my face so Drusus won't have to sheathe it in metal, and put my lips to the water. I'll return, I promise it silently. I'll return, and I'll bring one of them home.

My chances are slightly greater than one in twelve. I've faced worse odds.

***

Reaping has become a much bigger event since I won. Boats of all sizes line the docks, and people pour out of them in their Reaping Day best, suits scrubbed with a sponge to get rid of the salt stains and dresses whose ruffles are wilting with age. Some of the wealthier members of our district have turned out in clothes even the Capitol would deem acceptable, but I shouldn't disparage them too much, as I'm one of them. Although I'm not wearing much clothing, come to think of it.

They draw the girl first, like always. Her name is Annie Cresta. She was a few years behind me in school, but I stopped going after I won the Games, so my memories of her are blurred at best. She's grown up well. Her hair is long enough that Drusus can’t do anything with it without changing her, and her eyes remind me of how mine used to look, back when they held the sea.

The boy is next. Varin Conch. Mags slumps in her chair, her face salt-white as her hair, and I reach out to take Mags's wrist. Her pulse is slow, but it's steady enough. Varin is Mags’s grandson--her only grandson, and they aren’t that close but he’s still come to dinner on the Victor’s Wharf and sat at the same table as my cousins.

Varin walks up to the podium with his head high but as soon as he has to turn around for the cameras he stops, and says, “Can’t be helped. I’m sorry.” Mags shivers, and I feel rather than see the cameras honing in on us, abandoning the tributes for the other scene unfolding before them. I stare into the twisting glass lens as it zooms in and I smile as I've done so often before. The cameras know me. The cameras love me.

"I think District Four is going to welcome home another winner this year," I say, and if my smile has more teeth than usual I can't see it reflected back. "May the odds be ever in our favor."

***

"I'm mentoring him," Mags says. I don’t argue. Instead, I watch the recap of the reaping ceremonies. The tributes from the districts below 9 are barely worth remarking on, though the girl from 8 walks to the platform with a kind of steely determination I can't ignore. 5 and 7 might have real fighters this year, as well, and 1 and 2 have their usual sets of volunteers, boys with necks as thick as my thigh and girls whose footsteps make no sound.

District 4's volunteering system isn't as regimented as the ones in those districts; a good number of us have had training, though nothing so brutal as what potential tributes in District 2 are rumored to go through if the whispers from my fellow victors have any truth to them. If someone who doesn't look like he has a chance is drawn, someone better-trained volunteers, unless everyone thinks they'd be better off with you gone. That's happened once or twice, not since my victory, but before it. Since I won, more kids have seemed interested in trying. Six of the last eight tributes District 4 has sent have been volunteers. I wonder if the excitement has finally worn off, if enough kids have seen their friends drowned and burned alive and hacked to pieces to rethink the appeal. I wonder if anyone wanted to see Varin and Annie gone. I wonder if anyone wanted to see me gone. Well, if they did, they must be feeling pretty stupid now. I'm everywhere.

The announcer beams as the tribute's faces flash across the screen. "This year's group certainly looks exciting! And we have word that a number of districts have sent their most celebrated victors to mentor this year's tributes—let's take a look at that lineup."

I turn off the television and head into the compartment where Annie's staying.

Annie is sitting with her back to the window and her face in her arms. I don't think she's crying. "Hi, Annie," I say. "I'm Finnick."

"I know who you are," she says without looking up.

"I guess you do. I'm your mentor this year. I'd usually be working with the boy tribute, but we're doing things differently this time. Can't get too predictable, can we?" I smile, but if she responds I can't see it. There's a stock speech after this, about my responsibilities as her mentor and what she needs to share with me if she's going to be successful in the Arena and what strategies we should consider to get sponsors' attention, but her hands creep over her ears and I sit next to her instead. "What kind of training do you have?" I ask.

"I hate the train."

"Training," I repeat, a little louder, and tap the back of her hand.

She uncovers her ears, straightens. "Sorry," she says. "I wasn't listening."

"I thought so." I look at her more closely. Dark circles ring her eyes, but the skin around them isn't puffy, just pale and drawn tight. She wasn't crying earlier, then. She hasn't changed out of her Reaping outfit, a neat blue skirt and a white blouse big enough to fit two of her inside. She's slender but not small, and lines of muscle show in her arms and legs.

"What kind of training do you have?" I ask her again.

"Some," she says, and I nod. "Knives and spears, like you. I can tie knots, but not as well as you, but I'm better with a needle."

"That's good. You never know what you'll need to sew up in the Arena."

"Are the stitches still there from when you sewed up your side?"

"No," I say, and correct myself. "Not really. I can feel the scar under my skin, but it doesn't show. There's something the stylists call Beauty Base Zero: no makeup, no polish, no product, just the cleanest slate they can make." I've had it done enough times that I know the procedures by heart. "Getting rid of scars takes more than a skin polish, but it's the same idea—restoring you to how you should look, if nothing got in the way of you looking your best."

Annie recoils, her back pressed to the wall.

"It's not that bad," I say, and try to smile, but I don't see it reflected back so it falters. "It doesn't hurt, at least. That's what Drusus and your prep team will do when we reach the Capitol, and they'll build your opening ceremonies look from there. He's good at what he does."

If anything, that makes her retreat more, draw in her shoulders and close herself off, her eyes fixed on something I can't see. The motion in them stills for just a minute.

I don't know whether I should scoot closer to her or not, but I do. "He has this thing for mermaids, but I'm putting my foot down this year. I'm finally older than all of the tributes, he might listen."

She pulls her chin up, at least, even if she's looking at my knees. I think I see her start to smile. "I should just go naked."

I shake my head. "Trust me, after five years of me, they've seen enough of District Four to last them a lifetime."

She laughs. Good.

"It's my job to make you look good out there. Mine and Drusus's," I say. "And it's my job to make sure you look good to other people, too, so I can get you what you need in the Arena."

Her laughter stops, and I wonder when I got so bad at talking to people without cameras around. (Talking to people in the Capitol doesn't count. They’ve spent their entire lives being audiences.)

I change tactics. "The fish in the Capitol's all right—it's what we catch back home, but not as fresh—but the desserts are incredible. There's this one they always serve, most of what looks like the cake part is spun sugar, and the layers are separated by different kinds of cream. Some sweet, some tart, just to set it off. There are marzipan panes on top—have you ever had marzipan?"

She shakes her head.

"Marzipan's my favorite. They make it out of almonds. They grind them up and hold them together with sugar, and they shape that into anything but almonds. I got to eat part of a marzipan castle one year, with a marzipan river and a marzipan drawbridge and little marzipan guards around the gate. I ate most of the guards. They had halberds made of chocolate."

That gets her to laugh again.

"I can ask them to bring up some for you, if you'd like to try it."

"They'd make it if you asked?"

"Maybe not on the train, but once we get to the Capitol. They'll make it even if you don't ask."

"What, they just know? Because it's you?"

"Not only that." I settle back, and she finally looks at me through the curtain of hair that's fallen over her face. I should tell Drusus to do something with that, more naiad than mermaid. "They make everything in the Capitol, everything they might want, and throw away what they don't need."

"Like us." She looks down again, crosses her ankles. "Well, not like you."

Smiling hurts now, so I stop. "That's why we have to convince them that you're something they want."

"And then what?" she asks.

I'm the one who looks away, stands and faces the window. I can't tell what district we're in; we're traveling fast enough that the sky and land blur together into one muddy streak. "Then you take what you can."

She falls silent. So do I. I wonder what Mags and Varin are getting up to, whether she'll tell me what she's planning. Whether she's managed to scope out the other tributes. Whether she's instructing Varin to ally with Annie or stab her in the back and run. Killing a tribute for your home district doesn't win you any favors back home, though it's more forgivable if it happens in the last stages of the Games, but I doubt Mags cares. I can't count on anything from her these Games, that's clear enough, and I'd rather walk through a forest of tracker jacker nests than ask for her support.

"Do you know Varin?" I ask her.

"Not well," she says. "Just through training. He’s better than I am.” She twirls a strand of hair around her finger until it chokes off the flow of blood.

I'm awful at this. I don't know why Mags is letting me do this on my own. I do, but I wish I’d let one of the other victors mentor this year.

I pull my knife out of its belt sheath. A chunk of wood is missing from the handle, the guard is cracked and the blade is stained from fish blood. It's not Capitol material, nothing worthy of an Arena, but I've had it since I turned eight. "You said you knew how to use a knife," I say, and set it down on the seat next to her. "Why don't you show me what you can do?"

She picks it up, tests its weight, shifts her grip all the way down to the point and throws sideways without getting up. It's the most open posture I've seen on her yet. The blade doesn't lodge in the wall, but the point dents it enough that the Capitol attendants will be upset about it later.

"Good technique," I say. "But you don't want to throw your knife away in the Arena."

"I don't think of it as throwing," she says, stoops to retrieve the knife. "I think of it more like reaching."

"I think of it as a good way for someone else to steal your weapon."

"Not if he's dead."

I have this argument with the victors from District 2 every year; I'm not going to have it with one of my tributes. "How are you with it in close quarters?"

"Not as good," she says.

I nod, thinking. "You're familiar with spears, you said, and those give you range. And those you can throw. You'll want a weapon with reach, you don’t have the right kind of muscle mass for close combat." Not with the size of the tributes from District 1 this year.

While I'm talking, Annie balances the point of the knife on the tip of her finger and slowly eases it off the handle, keeping it aloft. I stop talking. She sustains that for around half a minute, then winces and pulls her finger into her mouth. The knife clatters to the ground.

"Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," she says, picks up the knife herself and sucks on her finger again. The knife hangs to the right of her mouth like a tusk. "It's not much blood."

"It doesn't look good if I let my tribute get injured before the Games even start," I say.

She hands me the knife, bites her finger as though she's wringing the blood out of it.

"Why do you hate the train?" I ask her.

"It's dry. It's closed. And everything shakes. Not rocks," she clarifies, "shakes. And the walls don't breathe."

"It won't last long," I say. "And the second time is easier."

"If there is a second time."

I slip the knife back into its sheath.

***

Our district representative is new this year, a woman named Julia Page. I think she used to represent District 7 and got promoted, which makes sense given the hot streak District 7's been on lately in the Games. Johanna Mason was a piece of work last year. Julia wears colored glasses too big for her face that magnify her eyes to about twice their natural size, and she clicks her tongue when she looks Annie over, presses her palms together and taps her fingers in a way that reminds me of an insect.

"No mermaids this year," I tell her.

"That," she says, her Capitol accent unusually crisp, "is her stylist's decision."

"Yes, and Drusus wants her to make the right kind of splash."

Not even a smile. I decide she's a lost cause. "Besides, I promised her she wouldn't be a mermaid," I say, and step behind Annie, draw some of her hair in front of her face. "We want her to look like a credible threat in the Arena, right? I'm thinking sirens. Sea-ghosts."

Fortunately, Drusus takes one look at Annie's complexion and redesigns her makeup palette as I watch, switches out the jewel tones for wild greys and greens. "You're lucky," he says as Annie's prep team ushers her off. "I designed a dress for Agrippina Hawksley's ball last season—she never wore it, but it's just the right thing for what you have in mind, and I should have enough time to alter it as necessary."

"You're a marvel, Drusus," I say. "What about Varin?"

Drusus waves his hand. "Oh, he can be a sea ghost, too. Have you seen the state of his hair?"

I leave Drusus to his work and find Julia Page deep in conversation with Mags. More accurately, I find Julia talking at length about the changes to the costumes for the opening ceremonies and Mags managing a vague smile as she rattles on. I lean against the door, give Julia a little wave, and at least she picks up on that.

"I'll see you both at the ceremonies," she finishes.

Mags keeps staring straight ahead like she hasn't noticed Julia left, keeps wearing the same vague smile.

"I'm sorry," I say. "I should have asked you about the costume change."

She nods once, goes back to staring at the wall.

"I thought it would be better than mermaids." I can't crack much of a smile. "I think Drusus can strike the right balance between frightening and offputting. He's good. Look at all he's managed to do with me over the years."

I didn't mean to say that last part. I shouldn't have. Mags folds her gnarled hands in her lap and pays me no mind at all.

"Mags, I—" I stop, and instead of trying to talk I sit down at her feet, the way I did when I was a child. She ruffles my hair, and Drusus isn't around to yell at her about mussing my curls. "I'm sorry," I say again, don't dare say more than that because every inch of this building is bugged, but I hope the way I take her hand and squeeze it says the rest.

"We're training them separately?" I ask.

"We'll see," Mags says.

I nod. My stomach churns. "Do you think they have a chance?"

Mags looks at me then. A memory surfaces: my father and I on the deck of our boat on a starless night, far out from the coast, staring into the black waves below us with only a lantern for light. The sea swallowed that up quickly, and we clung to the rail, not sure which way the boat would pitch under us next. That's what Mags's eyes remind me of.

"Only one of them can win," she says.

I am struck, then, by what's expected of us as mentors. How saving one means letting the other die.

"How do you do it?" I ask her. My voice shakes. "You've been doing it for so long—year after year—"

"When it was my time in the Arena," she tells me, closes her eyes, "I learned to choose and chose to survive. I've never stopped making that choice."

I nod, barely. I can't bring myself to do much else; the rest of my body drags, pulled towards the ground. "Mags, I know I have no right to ask this year. It's not fair to. But—"

I stop. I can't force the words make sure Annie's all right if I can't be there out of my throat. Whatever decency's left in me blocks them, I guess. I could ask, or a part of me could, the part of me that flings false lovers aside for the cameras with little more than a smile and a be a dear, won't you? But I refuse to do that to Mags. I'll find time to juggle what Snow expects of me and Annie needs, somehow.

Her hand covers mine again. "I'll look after her as best I can, Finnick."

"I don't deserve you," I say. "I don't deserve you at all."

"You never deserved any of it," she murmurs, brushes a stray curl from my forehead.

***

When Annie and Varin's chariot pulls into view, I almost kiss Drusus.

He's sharpened and drawn out the shadows on their faces, braided strands of their hair with seaweed, dressed them in long flowing robes that start out white and gradate to grey-green, with artful slits in the overrobe to let even darker colors leak through. Some kind of fine netting's stitched over the whole thing, and it catches the light when it moves like drops of water. But the best part is their nails: long, black, extended, ready to tear anything that comes too near.

The crowd falls silent as they draw nearer, then explodes in applause. I don't soak it in for long. I know this is only the beginning. Still, it's a hell of a beginning.

***

"Training isn't just about picking up skills," I tell Annie. "You can only learn so much in a week. Training is about figuring out who else is in the room, assessing their strengths and weaknesses, looking for allies in the Arena. And threats."

Annie's face is almost as pale as it was when she had the makeup on during the opening ceremonies, but she nods, her lips thin. At least she doesn't shrink from me when I try to discuss the Games themselves anymore, but they're impossible to avoid in the Capitol.

"District Four traditionally allies with One and Two for the early stages of the Games. I can talk to their mentors for you, if you want." I don't know the female mentor from 2 well, but I've at least spoken to Cashmere and Gloss and Brutus in years past, and they don't seem to hate me. I won't even need to sweet-talk them into it if I present it as a survival strategy, though I doubt sweet-talking would have much effect on them. They aren't the sorts of people I usually play for. None of the victors are, really. They know what I am.

"Shouldn't I meet them first?"

"Up to you," I say. "Keep it open as a possibility, though, all right?"

Annie nods again. Her head stays down.

"Hey. What's wrong?"

"It's a lot to take in," she says, doesn't raise her head.

"It's all right. I know it's a lot, but you can do it." I chuck her under the chin, tilt it back so I can meet her eyes. "Chin up."

She smiles. That's something.

"For now, think about how much you want to show off in training."

She frowns. "I thought the Gamemakers didn't evaluate you until the end."

"They don't," I say, "but the other tributes will be, and you might not want them to know everything you can do." The tributes from 1 and 2 like showing off in training, heading to the stations they're most proficient in and flashing their weapons for anyone watching, and we're not above doing that in 4, either. "If they notice you, you can become a target."

"But if they don't notice you at all, they take you out."

"It's a balancing act," I say. 'You have to decide what you show them."

"What did you show them?" she asks.

"Enough to make sure they didn't underestimate me. I was young, about three years younger than most of them, but I made sure they knew I could swim, I could take care of myself, and I could kill if I had to. You have a lot of that going for you. You're not as young as I was, but you don't look the way they expect a tribute to." Especially not a Career. "Let them know you're a contender."

She bites her lip. "But not a threat."

"Exactly."

***

I've been a victor for four years now, long enough to get to know most of the others by reputation if nothing else—especially the victors from districts with smaller pools to draw from, since they can't rotate mentors as frequently as 1 and 2 and 4 can.

Cecelia's the fist to sweep me into a hug. "Look at you," she says, "You've grown since last year. At least two inches, I'd say."

"Around that." I hug her back. "And you've gotten at least two years younger."

"Cheeky thing," she says, gives my shoulder a swat.

Chaff punches me in the arm next. "Finnick! You're old enough not to be a tribute anymore."

"Does this mean I can go out drinking with you and Haymitch?" I ask.

He laughs, a hearty booming sound. "If you can keep up, kid."

We circulate and mingle, catch up on what's happened in the almost-year since we've last seen each other. Cecelia is pregnant again, Beetee's hard at work on a project the rest of us only half-understand, Meadow helped birth a calf last week. Small talk, mostly, but it's best that way, as Beetee silently indicates the most likely places for the Capitol to plant bugs.

Haymitch sits slumped in the corner, already a third of the way through a bottle of white liquor. "I don't see how you can keep that down," I say. "It burns your throat." Burn's a mild enough way to describe it; it lights your stomach on fire.

"You get used to it," he says.

"How are your tributes this year?"

Haymitch grunts, takes another swig from the bottle. I don't press the question. "Where's Mags?" he asks, once he's finished.

"Training. Her grandson was reaped this year."

He sets his bottle down.

"I think she wants to make sure he has a fighting chance."

"Or she wants to spend as much time with him as possible." He gazes, bleary-eyed, at Cecelia. Seeder's rubbing Cecelia's belly. "Can't say I blame her."

"He could win."

"Do you want him to?"

I think of Mags's face at the Reaping, seasick, as though the Justice Building were pitching under her feet. I think of the tangle of hair in front of Annie's eyes, their sea-green intensity.

"I don't know."

***

"How is she in training?" Hadrian Schiller asks. We go back, Hadrian and I. President Snow introduced us when I was sixteen.

I smile, just the way he likes. I've spent years perfecting it, the right curve to my mouth, the upward glance through lidded eyes, the angle of my neck. "You know that's classified information, Hadrian."

"Oh, I wouldn't dream of asking for specifics," he says. "I know training is closed to us. But we get so curious, you know." His hand crawls closer to my thigh. "We want to know if our money is being well-spent."

It seems to have been for the past three years, I think, but hold my tongue. "Annie holds a lot in reserve," I say, drop my voice to the kind of purr that's worked on him in the past. "You'd be surprised at her depths."

"Would I now." Hadrian's voice is as low as mine; his fingers creep higher. I know better than to close my eyes. "I'd rather not be surprised at all. I like knowing what to expect from my investments."

"The whole point of an investment is that you get more than what you pay for." I sprawl back on the couch, my head draped over the armrest, my arm dangling from the cushions. I look like I'm supposed to. "You got a good return on me, didn't you?"

His fingers tighten. "I've already put in a lot for you tonight."

"That was for Snow," I say. "This is for me."

I wonder how many more times I'm going to have to say that.

Chapter Text

Drusus is too well-mannered to hammer on Annie's door—it's gauche in the Capitol—but he drums his fingers on his arm and taps his feet and arches his silver-tipped eyebrow in a way that telegraphs how unimpressed he is. His words, not mine. "I expected her an hour ago," he says, a muscle in his jaw twitching. "I would like to get in a preliminary fitting before her interview, especially if you two have other alterations you've neglected to inform me about."

"Nothing at the moment." I pat him on the back. "I'll see how she's doing."

Annie is curled up on her side, her knees drawn to her chest. She doesn’t stir when I enter the room.

"Hey," I say.

Still nothing. I sit next to her on the bed, near enough to see her face. Spots of color flare high on her cheeks, but other than that she's pale and drawn, her mouth thin.

"How did it go with the Gamemakers?"

She hunches her shoulders, still silent.

I try for a smile. I'm not entirely sure my face remembers what the real one feels like, but I try. "It can't have been that bad."

Annie shifts closer to me, rests her head in my lap. At least I'm not naked, I think, but she doesn't seem like she's going for any particular part of me. "I didn't embarrass myself."

"What did you do?" I ask her. Her hair tumbles over the side of her neck, sweeps across her face, and I brush some of it away. Her eyes remind me of mine—clearer, still moving, the sea at noon instead of evening.

"I rigged a chain of traps," she says.

I whistle.

"And I tripped them from the other side of the room." Her smile starts to emerge, just a little. "I remembered from your Games. You tripped that girl’s traps and killed her. So it would have worked. So I spent as much time at that station as I could."

"They don't see that often, you know," I say. "Most people throw around swords. You planned."

"That's because I'm not any good at throwing around swords." She pauses. "And you're not supposed to throw around swords."

I laugh, rumple her hair. "At least I taught you something."

"You taught me plenty. I just hope it's enough."

I hope so too, I think, but I'm fairly sure that's on the list of the worst things to say to a tribute, if there is a list. If there isn't, I should make one. "Mind if I share something else?"

"Not at all."

I nod, more to myself than to her. "It's not about how well you fight," I say. "It's about how well you survive. That's the disadvantage the other Careers have. They can throw around swords, but they can't tell a poisonous fish from an edible one."

"I hope there are fish."

"If there are, you're set for food."

"I just want to see the water again."

"I know," I tell her, and stroke her hair, rake my fingers through it and let it slip out. It has curls but no snarls, that must be Drusus's work. I used to do this with my cousin Lucy when she cried. She doesn't cry as much now, and Annie isn't crying either. She covers my hand with hers, brushes her fingers between mine like I'm doing with her hair and twines them together where she can see.

“Mags wants Varin to win.”

I don’t know what to say to that.

“I don’t blame her. I think I do too. She shouldn’t have to see...” Annie trails off, shakes her head. “So all that’s left is the interview,” she says, more to my hand than to me.

I let her change the subject. And we need to talk about this anyway. “We still need a strategy for that. I can talk you through it, if you want.”

She nods, rubbing her ear against my thigh.

“Well,” I start, “I can tell you right now you don’t have to worry about Caesar Flickerman.” Not when it comes to the interviews, at least. “He may look scary, but he’s good at his job, and it’s his job to make you give the Capitol your best face. We just have to make that easy for him, come up with a way to help you leave a good impression on the Capitol.”

She seems more intent on what our thumbs are doing than what I’m saying.

“Annie?”

“Yes,” she says. “Sorry. A good impression.”

So she’s listening. I guess that’s all I can ask for. “You made a splash at the opening ceremonies, they won’t forget that. And I know Drusus isn’t letting go of the sea ghost angle. You’ll have your hair down, and jewels dangling from it, and he said you could go barefoot under your dress except for some rings, things like that.”

“But I don’t want to scare all my sponsors off,” she says, and then asks, “Do I have sponsors?”

“Of course you do. I’m doing everything I can for you, Annie.” I smile. I have to smile. I wonder what she thinks of me, if she doesn’t know the truth. “And you won’t scare them off, not if we find a way to make you show through on camera. I believe that you have a chance out there. They have to see it too.”

I lean over enough to see her face. She’s still staring at our hands, and our thumbs are sliding together, but she’s smiling. It’s not the lost kind of smile either, not distracted, not absent. I don’t know how else to describe it, but I trust it, I know she’s still following me.

“But I can’t let them know I hate them for this,” she says. “So I can’t just be me.”

I shake my head. “It’s not about being you. It’s about being the you they want to see.”

“The me that they’ll sponsor. The me that they’ll care about.”

“Yes.”

“What if I made my answers have two meanings?” She lifts her head off my thigh, shifts her jaw a bit like she’s tasted something awful.

“That could work.” I press my thumb to hers, thinking. “I was thinking it might be a good idea to play on the impression you made at the opening ceremonies.” I’ve heard the words sea ghosts floating around more than a few parties this week, and most people bring it up without me needing to steer the conversation in that direction. “The idea of still waters running deep.”

“Mysterious,” she says. “Frightening. Creeping up on you.”

“Think you can pull it off?” I ask her.

“I think I’d better.”

I uncoil our hands, wipe my palm on my knee. “Well, let’s test that. Sit up, you can’t do the interview curled up on your chair. I’ll throw a few practice questions at you. I’ve seen enough interviews with Flickerman, I can guess what he’s likely to ask.”

She sits up, shifts to the edge of the bed and crosses her legs at the ankle. It takes a couple of breaths, but she looks up at me and nods, doesn’t otherwise say she’s ready.

I smile at her, the wide genial expression Flickerman uses for the cameras. She laughs instantly; she’s spent most of her life watching the Games, too. “He opens with this,” I say. “The first question’s a warmup, something to get a sketch of your personality--he’ll ask you what’s impressed you most about the Capitol, or how you felt during the Opening Ceremonies, or whether or not you’re tired from training. He usually throws in a compliment, too, something about what an impression you made in your chariot or how your skin’s practically glowing from all that exercise.” I’ve almost memorized all the variations on it. “With you--” I think for a moment, then lean forward, prop my elbow on my thigh and purse my lips just slightly. “Well, Miss Annie Cresta! You’ve been haunting my dreams since the Opening Ceremonies.”

She thinks about her answer a moment, and then says, with the slightest upward turn at the corners of her lips, “I hope it isn’t just you.” Her voice is pitched lower than normal. I wonder why.

I turn to the imaginary audience, raise my eyebrows. “Well, ladies and gentlemen?” Annie looks like she actually expects a response, even though no one’s here, and over my shoulder, I say, “They’ll applaud, maybe whistle. And then he’ll turn back to you--” I do, “--and say ‘How do you find any time to train, if you’ve been busy visiting the dreams of every member of my audience?’”

This answer comes to her quicker. “I’m afraid that’s a secret.” The last word’s hard to hear; her voice drops off, and it evokes a secret well enough, but I don’t know how well it’ll carry on-camera.

“‘What can you tell us, Annie? I know we’re not allowed to hear about your training’--the audience will groan--‘but you must’ve gotten up to something since you arrived in the Capitol.’” I decide not to supply the audience’s reaction to that one, but I do remind her, “Sit up straighter. You’re going for strength, not ease. And see if you can draw me in with your voice--you’re losing energy at the end of your sentences.”

She adjusts her posture, settles her shoulders back farther. “I’m just doing my best to learn all I can before I head out. Not just about the Games, but about the people out there watching me.” This time her voice surges too much at the end, but it’s better to overcorrect, I think.

“Better. And what have you found out?” I lean forward. No, that’s not the way Flickerman does it, that’s the way I do it. I adjust my posture, rest my chin on my wrist again, my thumb brushing the line of my throat. There, that looks like him.

“I think I understand a little better why we have the Hunger Games at all,” she says, looking down. “Growing up in District Four, I had to wonder what kind of world it really was in the rest of Panem. I can see that clearer now that I’ve been here.”

My hand drops, and I slip back into my normal voice, ditch the Capitol accent. It always feels strange in my mouth, anyway, too clipped and hissing. “Don’t say that,” I warn her.

“Then he shouldn’t ask me about what I’ve found out.”

“He might. You’ll have to come up with a safer answer.”

“All right.” She takes a deep breath and starts again. “I’ve found out that people like you can still be haunted by people like me.”

One of the knots in my chest loosens. “Better,” I tell her, give her my own smile before I shift back into Flickerman’s mannerisms. I know he’d drop that line of questioning after that response. Where would he go next? Somewhere safe. “What’s your favorite thing about the Capitol?”

“The view from the roof of the Training Center.”

“There’s a roof?”

“There is. And you can see so much of the Capitol from it, the way the city radiates out from the center in spokes like the rings on a turtle’s shell.” She didn’t have to think about that answer at all.

“You’ve got a way with words, Annie,” I tell her, half in Flickerman’s voice and half in my own.

“I don’t,” she says. “That’s just what I see.”

“Don’t be so modest, Annie,” I tell her, abandon my own voice and resist the urge to wash my hands. Wearing Caesar Flickerman’s skin coats me in the kind of slime that clings, no matter what I do. “What else are you good at?”

That, she takes time with. “Not too long,” I say. “You have three minutes with him, and that’s it. And you want to look like you know what you’re doing. You’re not trying to be Johanna Mason.”

“What’s she like?” Annie asks.

“She’s a piece of work,” I say, because really, there’s no other way to say it politely. “What are you good at?”

She still breathes deeply, still doesn’t want to answer that.

“Annie, if you don’t bring up your good points, nobody else will. You have to give them a reason to want you.”

“You didn’t.”

I don’t need to say anything. I gesture to my body instead.

Her posture’s unwound and she’s leaning on the bed again, rubbing her ankles together and hiding her face in her hair, looking away. “All right,” she says, quietly, and if it’s not in interview attitude, at least she’s answering. “I’m good at seeing what other people don’t, and using what other people can’t.”

“Good answer. Try to look at him when you give it. Or the audience,” I add. “Like you’re looking straight through them.”

She nods.

There’s one more angle Caesar will play. I hesitate. I know how self-absorbed it’ll sound if I mention it, and how unprepared she’ll be if I don’t. “He’s probably going to ask you something about me,” I say, the words fouling up my throat.

“What about you?” She looks genuinely confused. “Haven’t they asked enough?”

If only she knew. I take that back almost as soon as I think it. “You know, something horrible. Something like, ‘So what’s it like to get private training from Finnick Odair?’” I drop my voice at least half an octave, waggle my eyebrows.

She gapes, and then mouths, oh. And then her lips curl up into a smile I haven’t seen on her before. “He’s very attentive,” she says. “I think I’ve warmed up to him a lot since we started training. He makes it very easy.”

She’s going to ruin my reputation. Well, actually, she’s going to give it exactly what it deserves. “Easy how?” I can’t resist asking.

“He makes me think I have a chance. And when Finnick Odair thinks something, you have to believe him.”

She had to be sincere, didn’t she. But I can’t find it in me to tell her to stop and start over.

Her cheeks flare up just slightly. “And we’re very comfortable together. Most of the time, he doesn’t even wear clothes.”

This isn’t exactly a revelation--between the company I keep and the broadcasts, I think everyone in Panem has seen me naked, or close enough to count--but the way she says it makes me look down and realize I haven’t bothered to put anything on other than my underwear. It’s not like Drusus minds, I think, jumping to my own defense.

“Is that too much?” she asks.

“No,” I tell her, trying to keep a straight face, “that’s just enough.”

She laughs and covers her cheeks. I can see the blush spreading. “Actually it’s a bit much for me.”

I choke on--well, I’m not sure what I choke on, but I choke. “Well, he can be hard to handle,” I say when I can breathe again. No, I haven’t seen this side of Annie Cresta before. I wonder what the cameras will think.

They won’t be able to see behind the hands covering her face, though. It’s different than what I first saw of her, even if the shape is the same. She laughs, and pulls her hands down just enough to look over her fingertips at me.

I think I love her eyes.

“It gets harder when people are watching,” she says. I think she might be grinning.

I can’t continue this. I’m going to continue this. “That’s why you have to take your time.”

“Well, no matter how slow he goes with me, I always see results.” Her face is pinker than a cooked shrimp.

The setup’s too good. “Sometimes more than once a session?” I ask, look at her through lowered eyelids.

Her hands have slipped down to the hollow of her neck, and she’s looking me clear in the eyes like she hasn’t ever seen me before. “He’s definitely built up my stamina.”

“Well, you know what they say about swimmers.” I haven’t had to work this hard to keep from laughing in ages. “They can go the distance.”

I think she just might be having the same hardship. “And he can hold his breath for a long time when he goes down.”

That’s it. I can’t take it. I collapse laughing on the bed next to her, my sides ready to burst from how hard they’re shaking. “Annie Cresta,” I manage to gasp in the middle of it, “you have officially out-innuendoed me.”

She’s sprawled out next to me, laughing so hard the bed really is shaking. “I couldn’t possibly,” she says. I think. “There’s no way to make it official.”

I’d make a joke about keeping score, but there’s no way I can top what she just pulled with that kind of crack. We stay stretched out on the bed, trying to return our breathing to normal. She rolls beneath my elbow, into my side, and my arm bends before I realize it. I pause, and my hand dangles in the air, my fingers not quite brushing her back.

She’s more tentative about taking my hand than she was earlier.

I nudge my thumb against hers. “You feel ready now?”

“More than I did before,” she says. “A lot more.”

I get up from the bed, let her hand slip from mine. My fingers tingle where she held them. “Is it all right if I send Drusus in? He wanted to do a preliminary fitting of your interview dress.”

***

Caesar Flickerman asks, “So what kind of training regimen has Finnick Odair put you on?”

He’s not quite as predictable as I thought, though he does drop his voice.

But Annie smiles just as brightly and calmly as she did back in her room, and everything that Drusus has draped her with glistens in the light of the cameras. “It’s not very strict, but specialized. I feel like he knows me inside and out. And he makes sure to train me and Varin separately, so we both get his full attention.”

The crowd falls all over themselves trying to out-whistle each other. I should have an easy time with the sponsors tonight.

***

The light is still on in her room when I get back from the post-interview parties. That’s good, at least, because now I can tell her that she’s got more than a few sponsors lined up, and I didn’t even have to work too hard at it, between the eight she scored from the Gamemakers and the impression she left tonight. So I knock, lightly, but the door swings open just from that.

She’s curled up on her bed again, but it’s not like she’s hiding, now, more like she’s trying to keep warm. Her interview dress, clear layers of blue and green and gold, spills out over the covers and to the floor. She could drown in that much cloth. I think that was the idea. But her bare feet, covered in toe-rings and anklets, rustle the cloth uneasily, and her arms look like all the green-beaded gold is weighing them down. Her hair seems to be floating, spread out on the cloth and the covers, and she’s staring at the ceiling. There should be sunlight. I look at her and know there should be sunlight.

“You should be getting some rest,” I say from the door. “Well, maybe you’ll rest easier when I tell you you’ve lined up sponsors.”

She doesn’t seem to hear me.

“Annie?”

And then, she does, startles from the shoulders down, enough that the beads and gold ring out and chatter. “Finnick,” she says. “Sorry.”

“You don’t need to apologize.” I still hover in the doorway. “Just wanted to make sure you got some sleep tonight.”

“I meant to. I just lost track of time.” She braces her hands on the bed and sits up, lets her gaze fall from the ceiling to the floor. “I want to sleep, but my heart is racing and everything smells like blood.”

I nod, clutch the lintel, and when I breathe in I can smell it too, the heavy tang of copper in the air. “You still have a few hours,” I say.

She wraps her arms around herself, but I can see her shivering. Her fingers catch on one of the beaded bracelets and rub, back and forth. “I know.”

I’m not having much effect hovering in the doorway. I cross to her bed and sit down on the edge, tug the bracelet out of her grasp. “I can get you something to knock you out,” I say, “but I don’t know if that would help.”

She shakes her head, no. Her hair shifts around on her shoulders, but I don’t get to see it for long before she’s turned to lean against the crook of my neck. I find her hand and squeeze it, and we sit like that for a while, resting but not asleep. I press my thumb to her wrist; her pulse seems slower now, steadier.

“Did I make a good impression?”

“You did,” I tell her. “You did just fine.”

She holds my hand a little tighter. Hers is cold. “Do you still think I have a chance?”

The coldness spreads from her hand to mine, travels up my arm. “I do.”

“Then I guess I have to think so too,” she says. “I meant what I said.”

“About what?”

When Finnick Odair thinks something, you have to believe him.” I can feel her closing her eyes, the lashes drifting down my arm. “Or else you feel like you’re letting him down.”

“You’re not letting me down,” I say. The warmth keeps slipping from her hand, so I pull her closer, lace her fingers more closely with mine and hope that passes on some of the heat. “You’re not letting anyone down.”

She exhales, softly, and that might be a laugh, but if it is it’s the kind that means you wish things were funny. “I don’t know. What about Mags and Varin? And what did my family see, when I was up there? Why do they have to watch me?”

I’m not Beetee. I can’t scan a room and figure out the most likely locations for bugs, but I know they’re in here. “It would be worse if they didn’t know.” I change the subject. “Who’s in your family?”

“My mom and dad,” she says, “and my sister Emily. My uncle John lives with them now too, he’s my mom’s brother. That’s our boat.”

“Sounds like a good boat.” I lean back a little, remembering. “Ours is smaller, it’s just my mother and my dad and me.” I should say ours was smaller, since the boat I bought with my victor’s winnings is big enough for my entire family, aunts and uncles and cousins included, but it’s not the same kind of boat. “Sometimes we’d take my younger cousins along, get them out of my aunts’ and uncles’ hair.”

“We did it backward, I guess,” she says. “Uncle John lost my cousins with his boat. So we took him in. Everyone’ll be taken care of even if I’m not there. I won’t worry. And Emily’s going to get training too, she’s almost old enough to start. She’s bigger than I was at her age. Stronger, too. Mom says she’s scarier than I am, too, except I’m quiet.”

“She might have changed her mind about you being scary after the opening ceremonies.”

“I think she’d be proud of that.” Annie might be smiling, now, but her hand is still tight on mine, except for her thumb, tracing patterns like before. “She used to say, if you ever see someone looking at you like he’s hungry, scare him. And then if he comes back, he isn’t just hungry.”

I smile, though I don’t know if she can see it in the dark. “I wonder if your mother would say that about me.”

“I think so. But you never look hungry.”

I try to think of a response to that one. None of my old standards work, and I’m left with my mouth hanging open like a fish’s. I reject I can buy better food now. “I don’t?” I ask instead. It was the first thing that popped into my head, I might as well.

“No,” she whispers. “You don’t look like you want anything. Well, except when you want me to listen to you.”

“I want you to do your best out there,” I tell her before my throat closes. “Will you?”

She lifts our hands up, presses our knuckles to her forehead. “I have to. You think I can.”

“You don’t have a District token, do you?” I ask her.

She shakes her head, no.

I fish in my pocket for the length of rope I carry in it. Maybe it is good that I’m wearing pants right now. “I have something for you,” I say, and disentangle our hands, wrap the string around her thumb and tie it with a surgeon’s knot, two twists and a double overhand. She lifts her head off my shoulder, and stares down at our hands, breath caught in her throat. “There. It’s not long enough to be a weapon, so the Gamemakers can’t take it from you.”

I rub my thumbnail against the line until it frays, and leave her with just the ring of rope. Her breath comes back to her, slow and warm on my cheek, and then she leans against my shoulder again, murmuring, “Thank you.”

I look down. “I didn’t want you to go in there with nothing.”

She takes my hand again, nudges our thumbs together like she needs to make sure the rope will hold. For a while she doesn’t say anything at all, neither of us do. Her eyes drift shut. I can’t help keeping mine open.

“I should try to sleep,” she says. “Could you stay with me until I do?”

“I will,” I tell her. “I’ll be right here.”

***

Just because I’m late doesn’t mean I need to rush to the victors’ lounge, but I do. Between throwing myself into the shower so fast I forget to hit any of the lotion buttons and barely grabbing a roll left over from Julia and Mags’s breakfast, I’ve shaved a little off the time, but I still feel awful about it. I try to tell myself that it’s fair I overslept, because if I hadn’t stayed up to make sure Annie got some sleep she’d have less of a chance, but then, for me not to be there when the Games start--

“What’d I miss?” I ask once I’m through the door.

“Cornucopia’s still got some action,” Chaff says. “My girl’s making out pretty good. Cane bit it, though.”

“Sorry to hear it.” I yank a chair out of its place by a card table and pull it closer to the viewing screens. The Arena, far as I can tell, is the dry basin of a dammed river, but densely wooded on either side of the ravine, much more so than it was the year I won. Just looking at the water trapped behind the Cornucopia I know it’s salt. At least Annie has that. I have to ask, “Is she--”

“She’s fine, they’re both fine,” Mags says from her chair next to Seeder. Her voice sounds so thin and taut you could snap it with a quick pull. “They’re with the pack.” When she waves a hand, one of the cameras pans to them, all six tributes from 1, 2, and 4 still alive. They’re chasing down a girl who’s managed to slash her sword through two of their backpacks but hasn’t quite laid a scratch on them. Annie is keeping to the back of the group, holding a spear like it’s her lifeline.

“Ha, look at her go, Beetee! Got a live wire this year too, looks like,” Chaff cheers.

Beetee nods, and if that girl with the sword is his from District 3, I have to agree. She has the Careers jumping, and Varin’s right in there with the fray, fighting back to back with the boy from District 1. I go to Mags’s chair and hold her shoulder, and her hand comes up to cover mine.

The camera cuts back to the Cornucopia, where some tributes still struggle, doing their best to step over the bodies littering the ground. I tried to get a good look at the tributes this year, familiarize myself with their faces, but it’s nearly impossible to identify who’s who in the carnage. Blood soaks the earth under them, turns it into mud, and dulls the color of their uniforms. Annie’s safe, I remind myself, but I keep looking at the screen, trying to put names to the faces the camera pans over. I come up empty.

“Well, that’s it for me,” Johanna Mason says as someone knifes one of the tributes in the back; he falls over, twitching. “You done too, Haymitch?”

“Thirty-five minutes ago,” he drawls from the couch he’s taken over on the far side of the room, away from the screens. “Congrats, sweetheart, you’ve sent your kids to die. You’re officially a mentor now.”

She shrugs. “They always go after the tributes from the District that won last year,” she says. “Rotten luck for them.”

I remember. It happened the year after I won, too. It still makes my stomach churn.

“Makes your brother a little more special, doesn’t it, Cashmere?” the male victor from District 5 says, punching her in the shoulder. I really should learn his name too, he’s been here long enough.

She wrinkles her nose as though someone is holding rotten fish under it. “Gloss was lucky,” she says. “The tributes from Two ate spoiled meat, and spent too much time vomiting to catch up with him.”

Funny, the little things that mean the difference between life and death in the Arena. If the girl from District 7 had taken out the bridge instead of shooting at me, for example. If Pacifica had recognized her own traps. If I hadn’t gotten that medicine for the wound in my side.

The cameras have panned back to the Careers, who are busy sorting through the supplies they picked up and figuring out a way to defend them. I don’t know where that girl from District 3 has gone. Annie hangs back, rolls the shaft of her spear between her hands. At this resolution, I see her knuckles whiten. “Come on,” I mutter. She built that trap for the Gamemakers, she can do it again in the Arena--and if she does, she’ll know how to disable it when she needs to take what she can and run.

I hold my breath. Annie lifts one hand off the spear and reaches past one of the other girls, speaks her piece. “How much rope do we have?”

“More than we need,” the boy from District 1 says, rolling his eyes.

She shakes her head. “And do we have wire or thin twine? I can rig something up to secure the food.”

Someone scoffs. It turns out to be the girl from District 2, the one Annie nudged aside before. “You really are Finnick’s girl, aren’t you.”

“He taught me a few things,” is all Annie says.

Johanna snorts. “I’ll bet.”

I hadn’t realized I was still holding my breath until I end up exhaling instead of snarling at Johanna. “I do try to train my tributes, you know,” I say, hold my smile as even as I can. “It’s considered good form.”

“I bet she likes the form you’re in.”

“She’s seventeen,” I say.

“So am I,” she snaps back, “and I just think you’re a whore.”

The room falls deathly silent. Even Cashmere and the victor from 5 stop bickering. I stand, slowly, keep my eyes fixed on the screen.

“Even whores have standards,” I say in my best imitation of a Capitol accent. “She’s not nearly rich enough.”

Only Haymitch laughs at that, bitter and blasting and heavy. Not even Chaff joins him.

“The rest of the day won’t be very exciting.” I fake a yawn. “Call me if something happens.”

I mean to breeze out of the room, but I end up slamming the door behind me. I lean against it, to make sure it’s closed, to make sure I can stand.

“And what the hell was that about? Prissy little fish-boy.”

“You shut up, Johanna.” I can tell Haymitch is stomping towards the door, so I stop leaning against it. It’s not hard to hear him through it. “You think it’s just you? Didn’t your mother ever teach you the difference between a whore and a slut?”

“My mother’s dead,” she says.

“Then let me learn you one, sweetheart. Your mother was probably a slut. That boy actually is a whore.”

Wonderful. Is there anyone in the Capitol who doesn’t know?

It gets so quiet in there that I can hear the broadcast of the Games, even out in the hallway. Everything cuts out until Haymitch laughs again, and then I know he’s coming to the door. I get out of the way, far enough down the hall that maybe it’ll look like I actually did try to leave and didn’t just storm out like a bratty child.

Haymitch slams the door open, but pushes it closed without any especial anger. Some of the white liquor sloshes out of his bottle and splashes on the hallway floor. He cackles deep in his throat like a gull and stares at me. “Still here, kid?”

“Seems like it,” I say, wish this suit had pockets so I could jam my hands into them.

“She didn’t know.” He takes a swig from his bottle. “Not that it matters.”

She was the only one, I think, but there’s no point in saying it. I shrug, roll my shoulders back, stare off at a point somewhere to the left of Haymitch’s head. “It’s true enough,” I say. “Hard to take much offense at the truth.”

“That’s the spirit.” He shoves away from the wall, staggers forward until he’s at my side. “Come on. Your girl said she likes the view from the roof? Let’s make sure you get a look.”

***

It does look like a turtle.

An electric turtle. An electric turtle with halogen graffiti and clusters of candy-colored people threading the streets and the Games up and running on all four sides of the biggest screen in the President’s Square. The girl from District 6 is bleeding drops the size of my body, over there, but from here it just looks life-sized. I wish there was another direction to face.

Haymitch doesn’t seem to care. He’s propped up on one of the garden benches, right in the thick of the rooftop wind, his feet crossed on the safety railing and the bottle resting between his knees. It’s about half-full. Half-empty.

“I can see why she likes it,” I say quietly. The fabric of my suit is thin, and as usual I’m not wearing a shirt with it, so the wind slips through it, chills my skin.

“Can’t bring myself to hate it,” Haymitch says, and waves me over.

I cross to his side, train one eye on the screen. They’re replaying the death of the girl from District 6, slowing down the moment where the club catches her on the side of her head. If they’re replaying that, I remind myself, it means nothing else exciting is happening. Exciting by the Capitol’s standards, at any rate.

“Your girl’s gonna die,” Haymitch says like it’s nothing.

I stop dead in my tracks. I should say something. I can’t. My jaw refuses to work.

His is working, though, enough to take another long drink. The wind’s so loud I can’t hear the gasp when he lets the bottle down, even if I can see it, shaking through every hair on his chin. “You’d better accept it quick.”

I’ve recovered enough to say, “No.” I catch a flicker onscreen out of the corner of my eye, but when I whip my head around, I don’t see Annie, I see the boy from District 1 sharpening his knife. “No. She has a shot at this.”

“She might’ve before you got your hands on her. Now all they see when they look at her is you.” He groans, cracks his shoulders. “Come on. If I’ve seen you calling in favors, believe me, so have the others. If they’re not complete hash they’ve told their kids to watch out. You think these tributes haven’t grown up knowing that if they see a Finnick Odair in the Arena, they better take him out quick?”

“She’s nothing like me. She doesn’t even look like me.”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m just telling you what they see. You should’ve stuck with the boy, at least then half of those morons could pretend.”

The back of my neck flushes. “I couldn’t do that to Mags. And you’re wrong.”

“What, that you could’ve pretended?” He laughs. This time it blasts through the wind, strong enough to push it back. “Or that they’re gonna take her apart at the first sign of trouble?”

“I told her to run as soon as she thought she was in danger--”

“Then she should’ve run at the starting gun, ‘cause they’re gonna milk her for as much as they can and then cut her to ribbons when she isn’t looking.”

I close my eyes, block the screen out, but the sounds travel through the force field--the boom of Claudius Templesmith’s voice, the crack of something wooden. “How do you know?” I snap. “Your tributes died minutes into the Cornucopia, what do you know about keeping them alive in the arena?”

“I know not to get their hopes up if they haven’t got a goddamn chance.” He growls, and when I open my eyes to slits he’s got the bottle ready, pouring more liquor down his throat. “Trussing her up, parading her around like she’s this week’s arm candy--you’re just as bad as Snow.”

My fish smashes into his jaw. Did he chip his teeth on the bottle? I hope he did. He’s cursing, wiping it on his sleeve, and I see blood and hear acid but don’t see any scraps of bone. My hand stings, and I check it to make sure nothing’s wrong. I’ve skinned my knuckle, but for the price of a skinned knuckle I’d punch Haymitch again. And again.

He spits against the railing. It drips and splatters on the roof. “Good form,” he says, like this is all a joke.

My blood pounds in my ears. “More than I can say for you,” I say, and seize him by the front of his shirt. “Never compare me to that man again. I’m trying to keep her alive--or do you want me to leave her to die, the way you do with yours every year?”

His eyes loll up towards the sky, reflect back the glow from the city and the screens. “--Let me go if you don’t want me to hurl on you.”

I drop him. If his head hits the roof it won’t cause any noticeable damage. I decide I’ve had enough fresh air for one day, and the air is about to become considerably less fresh if the retching sounds are any indication. By the time I make it to the elevator, I can just barely hear him.

“Finnick.”

I stop.

“No one from District Four’s lasted three days since you won.” His voice is hoarse, low, just barely on the edge of the wind. “I’m not saying they’re no good. Maybe some of them could’ve had a chance any other year. And that’s eight kids, whose only crime is not being as good as you. Nine and ten are in the Arena right now.”

My fist hovers above the call button. I should slam it down. I don’t.

“Neither of them’s a survivor,” Haymitch says. “Least of all that girl.”

“You’re wrong,” I say, and step into the elevator before he can counter that.

***

At the end of the first day, there are a dozen dead. The boy from 3, the girl from 5, the girl from 6, and both from 7, which I’m sure Johanna must be overjoyed about. The girl from 8 I noticed from her Reaping Day is still out there, and she’s teamed up with the boy from 9, who she probably doesn’t know killed the boy from her District back at the Cornucopia. Olivia can’t stop talking about that, says if they make it much farther it could be terribly dramatic. And 10, 11, and 12 are wiped clear from the board. Haymitch and Chaff are probably boozing it up somewhere, and even after what Haymitch said on the roof yesterday I’d rather be there than here.

“And I did so love Spindle’s dress at the interviews! You know me, Finnick dear, I’m an absolute wreck when it comes to layered fabrics, as long as they’re tastefully done, and her stylist played that up so elegantly for her. That train! You must have loved the train.”

I hate the train echoes in my head, and I bite my lip so I won’t smile in the wrong way. “It was all right,” I say, sighing, “but it barely held its shape at all at the end.” I lift my head from her lap, and her fingers play across my throat. “If you like layered fabrics, you must have noticed Annie’s dress.”

“Oh, I did, to be sure, but Spindle just outshone her!” She laughs, high and thin and much more suited to someone twenty years younger, and the sound scrapes against my ears. “Though your stylist is to be commended. It takes a daring man to play up a wreck of a child like that. So horrific! I can only think of how horrible it would have been if he tried to make her beautiful.”

I look at Olivia’s face, stretched out at the corners and filled under her eyes in a way that makes me think of the mantle of a squid, and try to keep my pout from becoming a grimace. “Oh, don’t be like that, Liv,” I say. “You know I have my hands full mentoring this year.” Now is the time to touch her, to run my hands up her calves, and I do, press my lips to the crook of her knee so I don’t have to look at her face.

She laughs again. “There’s definitely room for more in your hands.”

In the corner of my eye, the light from the television flickers. I can hear footsteps if I focus, leaves rustling and wind whistling and trees creaking and beneath it all, a low distant rumbling. “Mm,” I say, noncommittally. “I suppose I wouldn’t have to spend so much time focusing on them if I knew I could call on funds when I needed them.”

“So that’s what this is about, young man,” she says lewdly, raking her nails along my scalp. “Then again, with those hands of yours you could wring blood from a stone.”

Sometimes I feel like I have to.

“What about my mouth?” I whisper, and there are some times I still can’t believe the things I say.

The television flares to life, and Templesmith is practically shouting, but that rumbling has swollen to an outright quake. The camera cuts to all of the surviving tributes in turn, and I realize that quake, that’s at the Arena. We’ve had earthquakes in District 4, some underwater where it’s even worse and causes waves that can capsize every boat at the docks. Varin fills the screen, jumping up from where he’d been keeping watch, to wake and warn the others, and almost as soon as I see him do that the camera cuts to the girl from District 3, leaping out of the branches with her sword arcing down.

I probably make the connection at the same time as the rest of Panem. Which is to say, about half a second before the blade slices through Varin’s neck.

Annie.

Varin screams, but Annie’s scream drowns his out. His head falls at her feet; his blood splashes across her face, drips from her spear, mats her hair. Varin’s scream has stopped, but Annie’s hasn’t, and it’s the kind that rings, the kind that even the sharks can hear. She hurls her spear--not at the girl, and not at the trap either--and takes off for the dam, chest heaving as she runs.

A passing camera catches her eyes. They’re not her eyes anymore.

I stand up and start hunting for my pants. Annie. I glance at the screen again; the cameras are still tracking Annie’s flight, following her through the trees. And it’s not an illusion or a trick when the brambles and branches start grasping at her ankles, like the smell of the blood has woken them up. I know those. I know their underwater cousins. The forest is alive. Alive, and hungry.

I wonder if she scares it. She’s scaring me.

The branches twine around her arms, rend her sleeves and rake across her skin, and a pronged branch that looks uncomfortably like Mags’s hand reaches out with its talons, straight for her eyes.

Olivia squeals, delighted. “Oh, is that one yours?”

“Annie, run!” I scream at the television, but I don’t even know where the Arena is this year, don’t know how far my voice would have to travel before it could reach her. All I can do is send parachutes. Parachutes. Can I send her anything now? Would a knife cut through those branches, or is their bark too tough? I’m her mentor, I should know these things, I should know what she needs to survive--

Olivia’s phone rings, and she laughs before slinking over to take it up. “Yes? Oh of course, he’s right here. How ever did you know? Oh, of course, you know everything. Finnick, darling, it’s your representative!”

I snatch the phone out of her hand without thanking her. “Julia?”

“Finnick, it’s Mags,” Julia says. Her voice quavers, like the phone itself is blinking out. “We believe she’s had a stroke. A fall, certainly. I think you know when.”

I nod, make some kind of small sound so Julia knows I’ve heard but my throat constricts too much for anything more. No. No, it wasn’t supposed to go like this, I had a plan, a strategy. Varin is dead and Mags might be dying and Annie is--I don’t know what Annie is and that frightens me more than anything--and I’m standing around in my underwear in the apartment of a woman whose face reminds me of a squid’s mantle. I’m worse than useless here.

“Where is she now?” I manage to ask.

“We have a medical team with her, they’re doing everything they can. She’s been moved her to the ward in the Training Center. If you could go back to her room and get a few things--”

I cut her off. “I’ll be right there.”

“Good. I apologize for cutting your evening short.”

“You’re forgiven,” I mutter. I finish putting my pants on, throw my jacket over my shoulder, and tell Olivia, “I have to go.”

“Oh, but we just got started--”

“You know me,” I say. I have no idea what my smile looks like. “I never stay for long.”

Chapter Text

“Is she out of the woods, Cecelia?”

“Yes, she made it to the water.” Cecelia sighs, like she’s almost as relieved as I am, or at least almost as tired. This close to the Training Center, the reception in the car phone isn’t garbled at all. “She’s in the river now, behind the dam. I don’t think she’ll be going near the shore any time soon.”

“She’s a good swimmer,” I say, but for praise it falls awfully flat. “She can survive up there--”

My voice cracks, and I check the front seat of the car, make sure the glass pane between my driver and me is closed and soundproofed.

“Cecelia, I screwed up,” I tell her.

“You’re still learning, Finnick,” she says.

“And the longer it takes me to learn, the more kids die because I didn’t know how to keep them safe.”

“Well then that’s a lesson you can check off for this year.” I wish I knew whether she was smiling when she said it. Either way, my throat stings. “All right, she’s wounded, but I don’t think she even notices. She’ll be fine until morning. Go check on Mags.”

“I’ll get her medicine,” I say. “And I will.”

I bolt up the steps to the Training Center and don’t bother with the elevator, just sprint down the stairs until I reach the hospital ward. I shove the double-doors open and scan the room for Mags’s bed. The ward isn’t that big, she must be close by.

Tall plastic dividers frame a section in the corner, and doctors hover around it like vultures. Seeder is standing at the foot of the cubicle, just out of reach of the bed. She sees me about the same time I see her, and waves me over.

“Thank you,” I tell her, can’t keep the ragged edge out of my voice. “How is she?”

“Still out,” Seeder says. “Stabilizing, from what I can hear. She’ll pull through.”

I nod. I can’t bring myself to do much more than that.

“Julia’s called Mags’s son already.” Seeder puts an arm around my waist. “I told her it might not be the most sensitive thing to do, but Julia said he’d got a right to know, even today.”

“It makes me never want to have children,” I say. “Knowing I could watch them die...”

“A lot of us say that.” But she doesn’t press it, just keeps me close.

I don’t know how long we stand there. I don’t know what the doctors are saying, doing. By the time Mags comes to and opens her eyes around the clear plastic mask over her mouth, it hurts to breathe. She looks at Seeder first, and then at me.

I shove one of the doctors out of the way, sink to my knees, and rest my head in her lap the way I used to. She’d comb out my curls with her fingers, sing sea-chanties to me under her breath in her cracked, warbling voice. Her hands hang limp at her sides now, and the only sound coming from her is the harsh rasp of her breath.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m so sorry.”

I can see her hand trying to lift, but it doesn’t make it to my hair.

“You don’t have to,” I tell her, draw a deep breath to steady myself. “You can rest. I’m here.”

Seeder comes up behind me and takes Mags’s hand. “And I think she’s telling you to get yourself upstairs, now that she knows.”

“I can’t leave her, Seeder.”

“You aren’t. I’m here. And if you stay here, no one will be there for Annie.”

Cold settles at the bottom of my stomach. I can’t look at Mags anymore. I drop my head, study the pattern of squares on the floor. I need something to do with my hands.

***

“Come on,” I keep whispering at the screens. “Annie, if you don’t come to the surface, I won’t know what kind of wounds you have. Annie, please.”

Beetee, next to me, is hard at work with a set of tiny screwdrivers, taking apart a little black music-chip player. He has his glasses off, but a magnifying glass mounted on one eye like a jeweler, and his free eye is squinting. Lucky him, he probably can’t see the televisions at all like that. “Have you tried looking through the replays?”

“I did. It happened too fast, and it was too dark to see.” I watched them twice last night. The Capitol is fascinated with this development. I think it would make me sick if I didn’t already feel hollow. “It’s probably just cuts, but I still want to be sure.”

“If they’re cuts and she hasn’t bled out, she’s tougher than I thought,” Beetee says.

I keep my eyes hard on the screens. Any minute now. Please, Annie, come up for air. “Same goes for yours.”

“Oh, Telluria?” Beetee doesn’t laugh, but he does sound proud and hopeful. “She’s one of the best we’ve ever had. Her father designs sims.”

Her father designs sims. That girl with the sword has probably been running hand-to-hand combat scenarios all her life.

“I screwed up,” I say again. It hurts my throat.

“Yes, you and everyone else,” Beetee says. “That’s usually how we manage to pull through in Three.”

“Well, good on you.” Annie’s face is turned up to the sky, and her hair is fanning out around her face, still tangled with leaves and the tail ends of cobwebs. Her arms spread, and she floats on her back. I can see the gashes in her clothes, her left pant leg hanging on by a thread and the angry red welts on her thighs and upper arms. Scrapes and cuts. The salt water’s done them a favor, but it’s probably not enough. There are three cuts just like those running from her forehead up into her hair. I remember that hand, reaching out of the trees.

“All right,” I breathe. “Something to clean it, and treatment for the cuts.” No bandages, she’ll just get them wet. Besides, they’re expensive. But a water filter, she’ll need that too, and I know I need to save money for food in case she can’t hunt.

I call up the parachutiers. “Hello, Finnick!” someone chirps over the phone. “Do you need to know your budget?”

“Tell me after,” I say. “Do you have Annie’s position?”

“Yes we do!”

“I’d like you to get together one case. Hydrogen peroxide and a bacit antibiotic for her skin, and a sealant. No bandages. Wait, not bandages, but some thin cloth, a tight mesh.”

“What color?”

“I don’t care, it’s for water filtration.”

“Ooh, smart! That’s actually about a quarter of the price of a real water filter. Good on you, Finnick.” They send a little picture of what they’ve assembled to the corner of the television screen nearest me. “That look about right?”

“Yes--wait. Some plastic sheeting, four feet square, and a jar. That should do it.”

“You’re sure you don’t want to splurge on one little something that’ll go straight to the cuts?”

“No. I want it to be something she knows. Something familiar. Just the basics.”

“Then it’s all on a push of the button.” One on the console by my right hand flares up. “Just so you know, your budget--”

“Later,” I say, “and thank you,” and I hang up.

She opens her eyes, so green against the murk of the dammed river. I whisper I’m sorry, and push the button.

The cameras watch the little silver parachute fall, wafting down onto the water. It lands just over her right shoulder. If the river wasn’t drifting that way, Annie might have completely missed it, but this way, she floats into it, and it startles her. Treading water, she wraps an arm around it and holds it close, burying her face in the glistening cloth. She kicks her way not to shore but to the structure of the dam, and braces her feet in a crack down the reservoir wall’s center so she can climb out. It’s a good thirty feet down to the riverbed from there. She sits on the top, and opens the parcel, then starts taking off her clothes to see to the wounds.

“Good,” I can’t help saying, even if everyone in the victors’ lounge can hear me. “She’s got it.” She’ll have to keep out of the water for a while after this, but none of the other tributes have made it up here, they’re too busy thinning each others’ ranks in the riverbed. By the time some of them brave it through the forest, she’ll have found a place to hide.

Annie splashes the peroxide over her cuts and shudders. It must sting, with all the salt that’s worked its way into her cuts.

“You send her medicine and she gets naked,” Cashmere says. “She must really want to win.”

“I hope so,” I say. I don’t move my eyes from the screen.

But Cashmere doesn’t take that as sincerely as I expected. “Ladies and Gentlemen of Panem, Love ‘em and Leave ‘em Finnick Odair finally wants a two-night stand.”

I got into this with Johanna. I don’t feel like rehashing it. “She’s my tribute.”

The cameras stay trained on Annie. She’s just about finished with the peroxide, one capful at a time, everywhere but the cuts on her face so far. For some reason the cameras zoom in on the wounds bubbling up and she grimaces but doesn’t cry out yet, not like before. That’s good.

Cashmere sighs. “And wouldn’t it be just the right scandal for the rest of your image.”

“What, responsibility?” Come to think of it, responsibility would damage my reputation beyond repair. Maybe I should try it more often.

She shrugs. “Well, it could’ve been worse if it had been the other way around. She takes off her clothes, then you send her medicine. That would’ve gotten the message right across.”

Annie screws the cap of the peroxide on with trembling fingers, and rinses her hands in the water. She doesn’t stop wringing them, twists them again and again until I worry the salt will scour her skin off. The string I gave her is still knotted around her thumb.

“There’s no message, Cashmere. I didn’t sleep with her.” There, I’ve addressed her main concern. Hopefully that’ll shut her up.

She falls silent, and I lean forward, my chin propped on my hands. Annie finally pries her hands out of the water and remembers the antibiotic. She squeezes some out onto her fingers, presses them into the gash on her left thigh. The cameras barely pick up the sound, but she definitely mouths my name.

Everyone in Panem sees that.

I’d say I screwed up again, but Cashmere would take that the wrong way. “Oh, please,” she says, and it looks like she’s taking it there anyway. “The last time a tribute moaned my name like that, Gloss hacked her hand off while it was still up her--”

“Well, you two always have been close,” I say flatly.

Gloss’s hand curls on my shoulder. His nails are filed into squares. That means they’re too close. “Say that again?” he asks.

I flash my teeth. “I said, you two have always been close.”

He shoves my face into the television screen. Stars explode behind my eyes, and my nose smarts--I don’t think it’s broken, but it’s swelling enough that I need to open my mouth to breathe. Good thing, too, because the next thing he does is pull back my chair and throw me to the floor with it. Doesn’t knock the wind out of me, but it’s close. I know I’m lying flat, but the rest of my body doesn’t, since the floor seems to shudder and tip under me.

“Never expected to hear that from you,” Gloss snarls, towering over me.

I struggle to my elbows so I can get a vague sideways look at the screen. “Then tell your sister to knock it off,” I say. “She leaves my reputation alone, I don’t say anything about yours.”

Cashmere and Gloss look at each other. If the line between their eyes was a wire I could walk across it. Without a word, he backs off, even offers me an arm, if not an apology. I’ll take the arm, my vision is still turning black at the corners.

I stand there long enough to make sure Annie’s finished applying the medicine. She does, and the cameras cut away. The girl from District 3, Telluria, is chasing down Spindle and the boy from District 9. That’ll keep the Capitol occupied for a few hours. “I need air,” I say, and manage not to slam the door behind me this time.

Haymitch is already on the roof, sprawled over the bench, his bottle dangling from his fist. “Tell me you haven’t started a new one already,” I say.

“I did. Chaff was just up here.” The butt of the bottle nestles in the dirt. “More if you want it.”

I push his feet off the bench and sit down, let my shoulders slump forward, let my head loll in my hands. The light of the Capitol pulses overhead somewhere, but it’s nice not to look at it for a while. “I think I do.”

It takes some effort, but he hoists the bottle up and slams it into my thigh, leaving a mudstain that Drusus is going to lecture me about later. I snatch it and drink. If I swallow fast enough I don’t have to taste it, but it still scalds my throat going down. Once I’ve stopped spluttering, I say, “I don’t know how you drink this stuff.”

“Years of training,” he says. “Daily regimen. The kind of stuff that makes Peacekeepers cry and write home to mommy.”

“Ha,” I say, and take another swallow, open my throat. I can’t emphasize enough how awful this tastes; it’s like the liquor’s rotting in my mouth.

Haymitch laughs too. “You think I’m kidding. I’m not. Couldn’t even keep it down at first.”

“You learn, I guess.” I set the bottle down, or mean to, but I can’t let go of the neck, and when I realize that my fingers draw even tighter. “You were right.”

He exhales, sharply. “What was that?”

“You were right,” I repeat.

“Just wanted to make sure you said it. Sucks, doesn’t it?”

My throat’s too scalded by the white liquor for me to make much of an effort at talking, so I nod. If he gloats, though, I swear I’ll punch him again.

He doesn’t gloat. He props his elbows on his knees and hangs his head. “Guess that’s your lesson for the year. Johanna learns they’re gonna die, you learn that you can’t save ‘em.”

I don’t know what to say to that, so I drink again. The third time must be the charm, because I don’t mind the burn as much. How quickly does this kick in?

“Gets easier,” he says, and I can’t tell if that’s about the drink or the reason we’re drinking. “You learn to pick them, or pick between them, or pickaxe them in the head before they even go in just to save yourself the trouble. Year in, year out. Least you’ll get a break. You can have time to go home, meet the kids before you reap them. Have them, if you want. You probably won’t. At least you’ll have an excuse, I wonder if Snow’s killed off all your chances of that. Kids.”

I see Varin’s head land at Annie’s feet, see the roots of those trees crawl forward to soak in the blood, see Mags struggle to form words with the side of her mouth that still works. It’s too soon to take another drink. At this rate, I’ll polish off the bottle before Haymitch has any, though I doubt he cares, it’s not like he spends his money on anything else. I drink anyway, and it makes slumping into the bench easier, makes the lights overhead hurt less to stare at.

“And after a while,” Haymitch goes on, “you wise up and stop wanting them to win. What’s winning? Life? My life? Your life? I don’t envy you your life. I send twice as many kids to die as you’re ever gonna and I don’t envy Finnick Odair his life.”

“And if I give up on them,” I say, set the bottle beside me for now, “then what do I do?”

“You sleep a little more at night.” He takes the bottle back, takes a swig that puts mine to shame. “Or maybe you don’t. But you know the kids aren’t alive, and if they aren’t alive, at least they aren’t you.”

I shake my head. It does absolutely nothing to clear it. The lights smear as they hit the force field, I notice, blur just enough around the edges to make it look like I’m seeing the city through plastic. “When Finnick Odair thinks something, you have to believe him, or else you feel like you’re letting him down. She said that.” I can remember it all. The words are branded into the back of my mind. “And I said--”

I can’t say it.

“And I let her down.”

Haymitch takes a breath so deep that it could drown him, and shoves the bottle back into my lap. I accept and drink until my throat can’t take it anymore.

“Whoa, whoa there, kid. Save some for the fishes.” He tries to wrest it back, and it splashes my face and my chest, but there’s still about a quarter left in the bottle. The alcohol stings the corners of my eyes, and the parts of my nose still raw from where it hit the screen, but I don’t try to wipe it off. “You did all you thought you could.”

“It worked for me,” I say. That came out wrong. “Not--she wasn’t being me, I didn’t tell her to, but catching the audience off-guard, sticking with the Careers, that works. Not just for me, I mean. It’s worked before.”

“And why’d you think it would work for her?”

I shut my eyes, rub my forehead like I’m trying to squeeze that thought out. “I don’t know. I thought--I thought I could make them see her.”

“See her and what? Love her?”

“Believe in her. Think she had a shot.”

Haymitch laughs, as bitter as I’ve ever heard. “That’s not how you win. That’s not how anyone but you wins.”

“Where you come from,” I shoot back, make a grab for the bottle. He lets me take it.

“And what’d you see? What did you want them,” he sweeps his arm out at the Capitol, the cameras, the haloed lights, “to see in her?”

“Still waters,” I say. “Running deep.”

This time, Haymitch’s laughter isn’t bitter. It’s barking and awful and rings in my ears, drowns out the cars and the music in the streets. I think he’d knock the bench over if it wasn’t bolted to the roof. I’m also pretty sure he uproots a plant, but it’s hard to tell, the light’s swimming up here. Or I’m swimming in it.

“That. That is Capitol bullshit,” he says, just before he falls off the bench. “--ow.”

I don’t bother to help him up. “It’s not. It’s what I saw. Maybe not in those words, but I saw it.”

“You sound like a stylist. You’ve been here too long, kid. It’s gotten under your skin. Must’ve shoved it up your veins with the tracker.” The laughter still sharpens his voice but the words are slurring closer and closer together. “Then again. Maybe you do know what they want. After all, you are it.”

I can’t draw my knees up to my chest, so I slouch forward to rest my elbows against them, my hands gripping my hair. That’s sharp, sharp enough to be clear. My name is Finnick Odair, I think. I am nineteen years old. I am the victor of the sixty-fifth Hunger Games. “I am the highest-paid whore in Panem.”

--I said that. I didn’t mean to. It just slipped.

Haymitch hauls himself back up to the bench. He doesn’t say anything, but he breathes, short and sharp, the way that means go on. So I do.

"I guess that's an accomplishment,” I say, and my smile would be awful if my mouth wasn’t so slack. “Would be if I saw any of the money, anyway. How much did I add to the state budget last year? Must've at least supplied some of the president's personal allowances. Maybe I funded his garden. He should give me a plaque. Here lies Finnick Odair." I pause. "Here grows Finnick Odair."

“I hate those roses.” Haymitch says. “Hate them, and hate him.”

“You and me and all the rest of us.” Are there cameras up here? Or bugs? I squint, but it’s hard to make them out in the dark and half the things I catch out of the corner of my eye might not be what I think they are, anyway. Even if they are watching, even if the feed’s piped directly to Snow’s office, so what? He knows everything else, he must know that. “I hate them all,” I say. It sounds flat, but why shouldn’t it? It’s true. “And I’m one of them.”

He grabs me by the shoulder, just like Gloss, but instead of shoving me off he pulls me down into the crook of his arm, holds me there, tapping his fingers on my head. I can’t tell if it’s affectionate or just because I’d fall over otherwise.

“I’m theirs,” I say. The words don’t feel like mine, quite; my lips must be moving, but I can’t feel them. “Not mine. I look for mine, what’s mine, I mean, and--” I pound my chest, wait to see if the sound echoes. “I can’t find it.” And then I cough, shudder enough to throw Haymitch’s arm off for a minute. He puts it back quick, though, keeps my face turned away and his hand on my head.

“That’s ‘cause there isn’t anything.” He sighs. I can feel him sigh, feel myself sinking. “They take what’s ours. That’s how it works.”

Mags flashes in my mind, sunken and small in her hospital bed, staring at nothing at all. She said she’d look after Annie if I couldn’t. I should have promised that for Varin. And now I’m all Mags has, and all Annie has. “I don’t want to lose her, Haymitch.”

“Thought you said she wasn’t yours.” He knocks my head to the side. It’s on his chest now. He smells awful. I don’t mind enough to move. “Thought you said you couldn’t find anything that was yours.”

“She’s not mine.” I’d shake my head, but it’s too thick for that to work. Even my tongue’s swelling in my mouth, making it hard to talk around. “I just don’t want to lose her.”

He doesn’t say anything to that, and neither do I, not for a good long while. Claudius Templesmith’s voice blares out of every speaker in range, and the screens light up just the same as the sky over the Arena. I think Spindle and the boy from 9 are dead, the only two faces tonight, but they’re twisting into grey nightmares, reshaping themselves where the stars should be.

“I can’t stay,” I say, try to lift my head, but it sinks back into Haymitch’s chest. “I have somewhere to be. A date.”

Haymitch snickers. “A date.”

“A date,” I say again, and if there’s nothing in my voice at all that’s probably for the best.

He hoists me up, walks me away from the bench. There’s a rail, so I grip it, but then the city streets are swirling behind my eyes and I can’t stop staring. “Wait, wait,” Haymitch says, “if you’re gonna hurl, don’t pitch it over the side of the building. It’ll just come back and hit you in the face.”

“Not yet,” I say, blink down at the city. “I’ll take a purgative. Take painkillers. Won’t feel anything.”

“You’ll feel it in the morning.” He pulls me back, tries to steady me again. I remember I drank most of the bottle. I wonder where the bottle is. He can’t have finished it. “Take care of yourself, if you’re gonna take care of that girl.”

“That’s why I should go,” I say. Make myself presentable. Drusus--well, Drusus will kill me, but after that he’ll fix me up. It’s the Capitol, they have drugs to take this away, they can take anything away if you let them. “I should--”

I’m still holding on to the rail.

Haymitch pries me off it, one finger at a time. “Come on.” He gives me a shove towards the elevator. I stumble towards it and he hauls me up by the collar of my jacket, half-drags me to the door, even pushes the button for me. “Thank you,” I say, and turn around so I can actually do that, close my eyes and lean in--

He holds up a hand right in front of my mouth, and looks at me like I’ve gone mad. “With breath like that?” he says. “Thanks is fine.”

I nod. Did I screw that up, too?

The elevator arrives, and I back in. He stands there watching me until the doors close.

***

I don’t remember much of last night. Probably for the best.

What I know is that I have been watching the screens since I got here at eleven and they haven’t shown Annie once.

That means she’s not dead. It also means I have no idea where she is. And apparently the spat the Careers are having is worth an entire hour and a half of airtime, even if no one’s threatened to kill anyone else yet.

I still don’t know where she is when Haymitch stumbles in at one in the afternoon. “Get off my couch,” he says.

“Get here earlier,” I say, rub the sore spot above my eyebrow where a headache’s building.

“I don’t think you understand me.” Looks like he’s found a new bottle since last night. Half of one, at any rate. It should make up for what I drank on the roof. “This couch and I go way back. Longer than you’ve been alive. This couch has seen war. It has seen slaughter. It has seen parts of me that even the great Finnick Odair has not touched. I have burned scents into this couch that your stylist and your dinky little prep team couldn’t scrub out of you with a cheese-grater. You don’t want to sit on my couch.”

“I’m rescuing it from a life of depravity.” Onscreen, the girl from 1--I think her name is Tourmaline--unsheathes her knife and brandishes it at Feldspar, the boy from 2. The other two Careers fall back, and the camera zooms in on what the Capitol hopes is an impending duel. They’re not going to show Annie until this is over.

Haymitch holds the bottle over my head, tilting it. “Then I’m rescuing it from you.”

I can’t swat the bottle out of his hands fast enough to avoid getting white liquor poured on my hair. “I’m turning you in to Drusus,” I say, stand up and wring it out as best I can over the couch cushions.

Haymitch plunks himself right down, grinning widely. He plants his boot right on the liquor stain, smears around whatever’s on his heel. “And what’ll he do to me? Turn me into a mermaid?”

“He’ll turn you into a sea lion. Then he won’t have to shave your whiskers.”

“Go right ahead and tell him.” Haymitch stretches out, and looks me in the eye. “It’s fine.”

He changes his tone, then. It’s fine. I haven’t apologized for last night. He means I don’t have to.

He leans over the arm of the couch and asks, “Any update on the crazy one?”

Johanna lifts her head from one of the couches long enough to say, “No, the ones with the rock names are still trying to kill each other. I wish they’d hurry up. I have money on Beetee’s.”

Beetee turns away from the screen at the sound of his name. By the look of it, he’s been here all night. “What?”

“I have money riding on your girl, Volts.”

I mouth Volts? to Haymitch, who shrugs.

“Oh.” Beetee pushes his glasses up his nose and smiles. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

Wait--Beetee’s been here all night. I ask, “Have they shown Annie at all?”

Johanna rolls her eyes, but Beetee says, “Yes. She’s camped out in a cave near the reservoir. The entrance is camouflaged, so I don’t think the cameras can see her.”

She has some privacy, at least, especially with the rest of the remaining tributes sticking to the basin. I run my fingers through my hair, squeeze out more of the alcohol. “Did she have anything with her? Food, water, other supplies?”

“She had the medicine you sent her, dug a solar still behind the cave, and she turned the parachute into a waterskin. Made a closure out of reeds.”

“Thanks,” I say. She can hold out longer without food than she can without water, and if she has enough presence of mind to transform the parachute like that, she might be able to fish. I can’t believe I forgot to send her a waterskin. The expense is worth it.

“Finnick,” Seeder says from the door to the lounge. “Mags is up, and she’s asking for you.”

I’m needed more there than here right now.

***

One side of Mags’s mouth perks up when she sees me. The other droops at the corner and doesn’t move.

“Hey,” I say, give her left hand a squeeze. Her fingers twitch around mine, trying to grasp them, but can’t quite close. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in bed this late in the day.”

I think she says, “Never liked it.”

“Me neither,” I admit. “I tried sleeping in after I didn’t have to work, but it felt wrong.” I hold her hand between mine, rub her fingers to get the blood flowing in them.

Her head tilts forward, but it takes effort for her to raise it. “Day’s day. The sun’s the sun.”

I nod. The monitors at the foot of her bed beep and whirr, flash bright numbers I can’t figure out and send liquids trickling down the tubes attached to her veins.

“Take Varin’s sponsors,” she says.

I blink, don’t even realize I’m shaking my head until I say, “Mags, I can’t.”

“As many as you can,” she says, looking me hard in one eye. “Some of them are more for Four than they were for him.”

She may be bedridden, but her glare’s still strong enough to bore a hole through me. I see why my father and uncles hid from her so often when they were younger--and when they were older, come to think of it.

“Are you sure?” I ask her again.

Her speech may be garbled, but her meaning isn’t. “We bring one of them home.”

I press her hand to my cheek, and her fingers twitch again, stroking it. She looks me in the eyes, and hers are still as dark and unrelenting as a storm. “I’ll take them,” I say, and can barely add, “Thank you.”

She leans back into the pillows, and closes her eyes. The monitors at the foot of her bed keep whirring and chirping, and her breathing settles into the ease of sleep. Chaff and Seeder’s eyes are on me now, and Seeder is smiling.

“I thought she might do that,” she says. “It’s not unheard of, you know.”

I nod. “I know. I just didn’t expect.” Considering.

Chaff laughs. “That’s Mags for you, though.”

“It is,” I agree. “I really should have known, come to think of it. Did she ever tell you about her Games?”

“Saw the reel, but I never asked her, no.”

“She was a volunteer,” I say, and brush a wisp of hair away from her eyelids. “They called another girl that year at first, a twelve-year-old. Fiona MacCormick. My grandmother.”

Chaff whistles and shakes his head. “They know each other well?”

“The MacCormicks practically raised Mags after her parents drowned in a storm.” I smile, remember how Mags used to sit my cousins and me in front of a fire and tell us stories about Grandmother: how her knees were always skinned, how she had a habit of wandering too far down the shore, how she wore out her shoes faster than anyone Mags knew. “She started a tradition after that, though. In Four, when someone’s too young or weak to make it in the Arena, a volunteer replaces them.”

Seeder shuts her eyes solemnly. “Which is why some of you show up trained.”

“More and more of us over the years. Fiona gave Mags her token, but Mags never told us what it was.” I peer at her and wonder if she’d tell me now, now that I’ve braved the Arena, but I haven’t asked her since before my Games. “She never stopped reminding my father and his brothers about what she’d done, though. I saved Fiona MacCormick’s life, she used to say, and you little bastards killed her.

Chaff and Seeder aren’t the only ones to laugh at that. A couple of passing doctors apparently overheard.

“They were terrified of her,” I say. “We all were. She used to threaten to take a switch to them. I think she would’ve switched my uncle Jonas after he got my aunt Ruth pregnant--well, she wasn’t Aunt Ruth yet--but my mother stopped her.”

Chaff slaps his thigh and hoots with laughter, holding the stump of his left arm against his head. “She would’ve. I’d lay money on that.”

“You’d win.” Mags’s eyes stay shut, but I swear there’s a smile playing at the corner of her mouth, the one she can still use.

Seeder takes my hand, and pats my knuckles. “Come on. She’s good as told you to start making your calls. You’ve got a tribute to bring home.”

***

“Thank you for not withdrawing your sponsorship,” I say, shift the phone to my other ear and tuck it under my shoulder. I keep one eye on the Games. I always do, these days, and luckily it’s easy enough to do that in the Capitol. The cameras are tracking Telluria along the outskirts of the woods. The cameras like Telluria. She’s a mess, covered in grime and gore, but her weapons are always shining. The Career pack has fallen apart, and now both District 2 tributes are dead, and Sid and Tourmaline from District 1 have split up and are stalking through the riverbed. Brutus has been glaring daggers at Cashmere and Gloss all day. Cashmere runs the flat of her knife along the edge of the table and stares back at Brutus coolly. I step away from both of them and keep talking to the sponsor. “Of course, of course, I completely understand, you’ve already been more than generous and, well, things have changed since your first payment.” I laugh a little, as lightly as I can while I’m still watching the Games unfold. “But we still have a shot at bringing home a victor from District Four.”

“I’m always glad to help,” he says. “Though honestly, I wish you’d approached me sooner.”

I swallow, grip the phone hard enough that I hear it creak. “It’s been a busy Games,” I say, and for some reason I’m remembering Annie on the bed, curled on her side, talking about how to lace everything she said with double meanings.

“Yes, things are coming to a head now. And I understand it must be hard for you to go on without Mags. Do give her my best. But please, make some time for me after, if you’re going to be taking over for her in the future.”

“Of course,” I say, shoot another glance at the screen. “We know how to appreciate our sponsors in District Four.”

I hate how easy it is to say the right thing to these people.

“Wonderful,” he says, “then let my pledge stand. I look forward to discussing this in person.”

I drop my voice. “I’m sure that can be arranged.”

Johanna kicks the seat of my pants.

I manage not to drop the phone. “Until then,” I say, hang up, and glare at her. “What was that for?”

She’s sprawled on one of the couches, legs over the side, arms behind her head. “For being obvious.”

“Obvious closes deals faster.” I toss the phone on the couch, resume staring at the screen. Telluria’s crouched behind one of the rock clusters at the foot of the dam, cleaning one of the gashes the trees left on her arm. How close is she to Annie’s cave?

Johanna stretches, arches her back off the cushions. “Yeah, well it makes me sick. Conduct your personal business elsewhere.”

“I’m securing sponsors,” I tell her, bend over the back of the couch and snatch the phone up and drop it into her lap. “You should try it sometime. It helps your tributes.”

“Not when they die at the Cornucopia.”

“Well,” I say, “you have to be competent enough to get them past that point.”

She sneers at me and takes hold of the phone. She clubbed one of the tributes to death last year with a rabbit skull, I remember. “They have to be worth it first. I mean, who knows? I could waste all that effort getting sponsors for a kid who goes down there and turns out to be a basket case.”

I yank the phone out of her hand. She overbalances and stumbles over the arm of the couch, glares up at me. “There are worse things to be.”

“Yeah,” she agrees, pulling herself back up. “Like the kind of person who won’t just put her out of her misery.”

“She’s not a horse with a broken leg.”

“No, she’s a girl with a broken mind, and if I were down there she’d be a girl with a broken neck.”

I throw the phone to the ground and punch her, smack in the middle of her hateful mouth.

For a second it’s quiet enough in the lounge that I can hear Telluria cleaning her wounds.

Then Johanna spits blood, shrieks, and tackles me to the ground.

She’s smaller than I am, but strong, and her elbow catches me in the stomach and knocks the wind out of me, so I’m already staggering back when she hooks her leg behind my knee and sends me sprawling. Two can play that game; I grab her knee and give her leg a solid yank, and she falls to the ground beside me. She claws my face--oh, Drusus will kill her for that--and I don’t think I’m bleeding but my cheek stings. I’ll make her do more than sting, I decide, and slam my knee into her hip.

“Quick, before someone stops them!” Haymitch slurs, just as Johanna grabs onto the legs of a chair and tries to bring it down on me. “I’m laying a hundred on Finnick. Any takers?”

I roll to the side, in time to avoid the blow. The leg chips on the floor, and splinters of it fly into the couch. Gloss takes Haymitch up on the bet, “You’re on, a hundred on Johanna,” but maybe I can crush that too if I get to my feet before she does. I grab Johanna by her hair, and she snarls and shudders, and I realize she wanted this all along. Well, then. I twist my fingers and use my strength to flip her over, pin her thighs with my knees and wrap my other hand around her throat.

Someone’s trying to pry me off her. Brutus, I think, grabbing me by the hair and saying, “If I don’t get to do it out here, you don’t get to do it out here,” and he probably didn’t mean to give Johanna time to claw at my face again but once she does that, Cashmere holds her back too. Everyone’s shouting. I don’t know what everyone’s shouting. And everything seems to be shaking, rumbling, pounding into my ears.

I clutch the side of my face, cover the marks Johanna left. “You,” I say, and my voice almost shakes too much to get the words out, “are just like them.”

Her chest heaves, and she struggles in Cashmere’s grip, kicking her feet off the floor. She probably means to say something, I can see the words forming in the blood at the corners of her mouth.

“You should be watching,” Beetee says, so quiet I have to listen.

I whip my head around.

All of the television screens are filled with dark rushing water.

I tear myself away from Brutus and dash towards the screen, struggle to make out anything in the middle of it all. “What happened?”

“Earthquake. The dam broke. Listen.”

I’m not the only one shoving towards the monitors, searching through the chaos. The flood has taken down the concrete and wood of the dam, swollen through the riverbed, swallowed up the roots of the trees. I can see the branches struggling, grasping for the sky like they’re hungry, they’re drowning too. Gloss is hollering, “Tourmaline! Tourmaline,” and pounds his fist against the screen just as she lets go of the ravine’s edge and the current carries her away.

Annie. Annie’s cave was right by the water, and at this height it must have washed in. I shove Gloss aside, he’s seen what he has to. The cameras cut wildly, latching on to anything they can, a glimpse of an arm here, a weapon turned to driftwood, a girl trapped by the straps of her backpack as debris hammers into her and beats her bloody. I can barely hear the cannons firing over the rush of the waves. How much water was there in that river?

“They didn’t plan this,” Cashmere is growling, “they can’t have planned this. It’s too late in the game. It was still exciting. They don’t do this unless it’s not exciting. They can’t.”

“They fucked up,” Johanna says, and even her voice shakes. “They really fucked up.”

The camera cuts to the top of the ravine, behind the ruins of the dam, but I see nothing. I can’t even tell where Annie’s cave was. I search the screen, submerge myself in the images until I can almost feel the water surging around me, swallowing me.

Gregory, the mentor from District 5, pushes back his chair and turns away from the screen. Another cannon fires. His tribute. “What the hell happened?”

“The structural integrity of the dam was compromised by the first earthquake, and then the second one two nights ago displaced the--”

“Shut up, Beetee!” Gloss turns on him, shoves him out of his chair. “I bet your girl’s been running sims for this too, huh?”

“No, that isn’t what her family works on.”

“Well, good for her! Maybe then she’ll actually have to fight her way through.”

“How does it feel having to worry about a Career, Gloss?”

The flood roars again through the screen, and it’s all too much noise. “Shut up, both of you,” I snap.

“Could be worse,” Haymitch spits. “Could be a volcano.”

“You too.” I listen for cannonfire under--or over--the flood, but I can’t pick anything out. Four left. Annie’s one of them. But where is she? The camera shuttles between Telluria, Sid, and the boy from District 6--there are cameras all over the Arena, why are none of them on Annie? Why don’t the Gamemakers want me to see her?

Telluria’s lost her sword. She’s holding on to the exposed roots of a tree, flat against the edge of the ravine. Dirt crumbles into mud and slathers her arms but she holds on, keeps her head aloft. I can see the diagonal line of her body as the current drives it forward, like it’s trying to tear her in half at the waist. The camera zooms in, pans down her back to the water.

It isn’t the tide that drags her down.

A hand shoots out of the water, claws at her ankle. Telluria starts, frees one hand to try to beat her attacker off, but the waves surge around her and she scrambles, her fingernails scrabbling on the bark. It’s not enough. The waves rise higher, and Annie surfaces with them, drags Telluria’s head under and holds it there. It’s hard to see Telluria thrash with the way the water churns around them both. I grip the edges of the screen, try to find her even if I can see her right there.

Sea ghost, I told Drusus. Annie’s hands are white as foam, and the hair tangled around them almost looks like seaweed. Everything about Annie is strangling Telluria, holding her down. The camera catches her face, the white of her teeth and eyes, the black hollows under them, the pale hunger in her skin, and even Drusus’s best makeup couldn’t bring this out.

A cannon fires, and Beetee shuts his eyes, adjusts his glasses, and says nothing.

Chapter Text

It’s not the nicest cafe I’ve eaten at, but it’s a quiet one. Quiet if you don’t count the televisions, at least, stationed in every corner, all of them tuned to the Games. They show a barrage of clips: the last earthquake, the cracks spreading through the dam, the water bursting through and emptying into the ravine, burying everything beneath it. They pan to the Arena briefly, and it reminds me of some of the cliffsides back home. A few scrubby trees here and there, chunks of rocks jutting up from the sea, and nothing else. Even the forest has choked on salt water. The commentators run simulations of the earthquake, bring up three-dimensional blueprints of the dam, replay the drowning of each of the dead tributes in slow motion. A waste, most of them seem to agree.

I’ve ordered coffee, the strongest they have, but no matter how tightly I clutch the mug my fingers won’t thaw. And no matter how much sugar I add, I can’t seem to drink it.

Johanna drinks hers black. “This is ridiculous.”

“Which part?”

“The part where it’s any more of a waste than usual,” she says.

I glance at the waiters, but none of them seem to be listening; they’re as fixed on the screens as the rest of the Capitol, and no doubt whatever they’re whispering has something to do with the Games. A few of them try to sneak looks at me and Johanna, which is the problem with trying to find any privacy at all in this city, really. Still, I think if I stayed in the victor’s lounge another day, I’d have stolen one of Johanna’s axes and smashed every screen.

“They don’t like senseless death,” I say dryly, sniff the coffee. My stomach rises in protest, and I set the mug down again.

Johanna laughs and shakes her head. “Exactly.”

They’re broadcasting Telluria’s death again, interspersed with a montage of clips from her finest moments in the Arena. I snort.

“I didn’t know,” Johanna says. Quieter. More to her coffee than to me.

I shrug. “It’s hardly a secret. Nobody usually talks about it, that’s all.”

“No, I mean--I should have known.”

“It’s your first year as a victor,” I say, not unkindly. “You have a lot to learn about the Capitol.”

“I’ve got some firsthand knowledge,” she says, and takes a long drag of her coffee. The steam beads on her cheeks. “So I should have known.”

Now isn’t the time to ask, so I don’t. I turn my cup in my hands, watch the liquid slosh inside.

“And I...well. Yeah.” She sets her mug down. “Can’t imagine it’s much fun when we do talk about it, so I won’t.”

I’ll accept the apology that’s meant to be. (I think it’s an apology, at least.) “Nothing’s going to be fun in the Capitol for the next few days.”

“Yeah, well, my time in the remake room after you had your way with me wasn’t exactly a walk in the forest.”

I smile. “Why, Johanna, you make it sound indecent.”

“Just giving them something to talk about. After all, the Games are kind of boring.” She raises her voice pointedly and rolls her eyes at the screens, at the waiters listening in. “They’ll want to end them quickly after a disappointment like this.”

I close my eyes. It’s down to Annie and the boy from District 6. Axel, I think his name is. I don’t know why I bothered to learn it now. If Annie kills him, I won’t need to remember. If he kills Annie, I won’t be able to forget. “Nobody wants to wait long,” I say. I think of the funds I’ve drawn from Annie’s and Varin’s sponsors, safe in the account I set up for her, but there’s no use tapping into it when no one seems to know or care where she is. When was the last time she ate? I never caught her fishing on-camera, or scavenging for food above the dam, and I’ve only managed to send her bread twice, when she’s been still and lucid. One of the loaves soaked through when it landed. A waste.

“You don’t want to wait either,” Johanna says.

Nobody includes me.” I check the screen again. Another simulation of the dam. Is there nothing else to show? I grind the mug into the table. “I just want to bring her home.”

Johanna stares at me, biting her lip and cocking her head to the side like she doesn’t know whether to roll her eyes or smile. “Looks like you might get a chance.”

I could say I told you, but it wouldn’t do anything. Instead, I nod.

“That what you wanted?”

“Yes,” I say.

That? That creature in the water? And what Snow’s gonna do to her for winning a ruined Games? You want that?”

I abandon the coffee and rest my elbows on the table, clutch my head. I can’t think about that now. Johanna doesn’t understand how much I can’t think about that now. And now that she’s mentioned it, of course, I can’t stop thinking about it, can’t stop the awful stream of images running through my mind, Snow’s voice and his blood-red mouth and his roses sucking the ocean dry and him touching her, telling her what she has to do to make up for all the people she disappointed--

“Not to mention what the rest of the country’s gonna do to her if she makes it out. Her or Axel, it doesn’t matter. You remember who won that year everyone froze to death? I don’t. He was from my District and I don’t. No one wants a victor by chance.”

“It’s better if no one wants you,” I say. “Easier. She won’t have to go back to the Capitol. They’ll let her stay in District Four. They’ll want her to.” Please, I think, not that anyone can hear. “But she can’t go back if she--”

My throat locks before I can say it.

“I don’t care,” I say, look at the table because I can’t look at Johanna now. “I don’t care what I have to do, I’ll do it. I just want to bring her home.”

Her mug scrapes across the table as she picks it up again. “You’re a piece of work, Finnick Odair.”

I look up.

Looks like she didn’t choose to smile. She’s shaking her head at me, all but calling me pathetic. I don’t care.

A waiter clears his throat. “Mister Odair? You have a phone call.” He uncaps a silver tray. The phone is sitting on a bed of lace. I don’t have time to scoff at it before I pick it up.

“Hello?”

“She’s sighted him,” a Gamemaker says. I don’t know which, but I do know how they’d find me. “It’s down to Annie and Axel. We expect a standoff within the next two hours.”

“I’m on the hovercraft,” I say.

“That isn’t usually sanctioned--”

“I’m on the hovercraft,” I repeat, and the tone of my voice brooks no argument.

I can hear the Gamemaker smile, and another laugh. “It leaves from the roof of the training center.”

“Good. I’ll be there.”

***

Annie claws her way up the pile of shattered concrete and snapped trees, rung by rung. The debris has gathered at a bend in the swollen river. The water level’s receded a few yards in the last half a day, so Axel is lying exactly where he washed up, thrown over a split log like he’s so much driftwood. It’s taken Annie about half an hour to get herself to his side. He’s barely conscious. She’s barely alive. I can see how much effort it takes her to breathe, how her ribs are ready to burst from her skin.

She grabs the nearest rock, about the size of her doubled fists, and bashes Axel’s head in. His cannon fires but she doesn’t stop.

When the ladder from the hovercraft freezes her in place, she’s still screaming.

***

I barrel past the security officers guarding the glass wall between me and Annie. They grab the back of my jacket and try to haul me back, but I throw them off. “I need to see her,” I explain, and because they refuse to listen I have to repeat it, louder.

“We don’t know what she’ll do to you,” a doctor says.

“She’s starving, dehydrated, and half my size,” I snap. “I’ll be fine. I don’t care. I need to see her.”

“I know you must feel responsible, but--”

“You’re right. I do. Let me through.” I manage not to add or I’ll slam you into the glass and steal your passkey. Barely.

He doesn’t look like he will. But he sees what I see, that she’s shivering in a corner of the hold, curled up and unresponsive as the ladder finally lets her go. “I’m not responsible for you,” the doctor says. “See if you can calm her down.”

It’s not polite to elbow my way past him, but I do anyway. “Annie,” I say.

She’s covering her ears. Axel’s blood drips down her arms, clings to her hair with the salt and the brine, weighs it down and pulls it out strand by fragile strand. I kneel beside her, put my hands over hers, even if they’re shutting me out. “Annie. Annie, I’m here. I’ve been here. And you’re here too.”

One last tremor runs through her, and she stops shaking. Her breath rattles, like it has to force its way out of her throat. She falls on her side, wraps her arms around my knees, and I catch myself on my hand before she pulls me over. She’s sobbing but not crying. There’s nothing left in her to cry with.

“The Games are over,” I tell her, keep my voice soft. “You’re going to go home soon.”

She shakes her head violently, holds tighter. Her teeth grind, her breath hissing through them.

“You won,” I say. “You never have to go back again. That’s the rule. You never have to go back.”

“It left with me,” she whispers, barely a sound at all.

“We’re flying away from it now,” I say, but I know what she means.

Her hands are shaking now, so I find one, hold her, intertwine our fingers. She isn’t wearing the token anymore. I trace our thumbs together anyway, remind her that it was there.

“When did it fall off?” I ask her.

“I don’t know.” Her breath is even shallower now, her chest barely moving at all against my knees. “Finnick, I don’t know, I’m sorry, I don’t know--”

“It’s all right,” I tell her, stroke her shoulders until they stop shaking. “I lost my token, too, when I fell into the river. But it didn’t mean the person who gave it to me wasn’t watching.”

She calms down, or at least she quiets down. No more words, no more ragged breaths. The doctors start advancing in and I wave them off, jerk my head to the side to say get out.

“You can sleep now,” I tell her. “I’ll keep watching you then, too. I’ll be right here.” She doesn’t smile, but she does relax, and her grip on my hand loosens but doesn’t fall away. I keep holding hers, though, stroke her thumb, twine our fingers together, remind her I’m here.

The doctors seem to swarm in as soon as she falls away. But they ignore me, so I find a chair and watch them work.

***

The flood from the Arena returns and Annie’s swept up in it again. I can see her this time, sometimes, when she manages to keep her head above the water, manages to get a few gasps of air before the waves suck her under again. And then I’m beneath them, racing against the current and the whirlpools, shouldering through the chaos and debris. Annie’s only a few feet away. Her hair fans out, twines around her arms, knots that don’t release. She’s reaching for me. She’s fighting the current for me. I kick harder to close the gap between us--

--and vines shoot up from the riverbed and drag her down.

“Finnick?” A hand on my shoulder shakes me awake, and I’m out of my chair in a flash, shaking off that hand and gripping whoever dared by the shoulder and flinging him into the floor before I realize it’s Drusus.

“Sorry,” I say, and help him up.

He takes a couple of deep breaths and stares at me like he’s the one who’s sorry. Then, panting, he gets back to his knees. “Never shake a sleeping victor,” he mutters. “They keep telling us that. Anyway. She’s at a functional weight now.”

“Good.” Part of me wants to sag back into my chair, but I can’t sit. I look down at Annie. Apparently my throwing Drusus to the floor didn’t wake her up. She’s less fitful than she was yesterday and the day before, her head relaxed into the pillow and her skin flushed warm and smooth. Her breathing is even, but faster than Mags’s was when I last saw her. Annie talks in her sleep. Pleas. Entreaties. My name. Varin’s. A few names I don’t know. And she covers her ears when she’s awake enough to move her arms. But now, she’s asleep, palms open on the bed, blankets still and tucked neatly around her.

“They’ve scheduled her postgame interview for tomorrow night,” Drusus says.

“They couldn’t push it back?” Then again, it might be best to get this whole thing over with. I bet the Capitol agrees. These haven’t been their most popular Games.

“I think they want to wash their hands of this as quickly as possible. It might not even be mandatory viewing.”

“That might be best for her.”

“But we’ve still got to get her onstage. Is she going to be docile when she wakes up?”

“Docile,” I repeat, and try to get the taste of the word out of my mouth. “She’s not a cow, Drusus.”

He holds up his hands by way of apology. “I don’t think Flickerman wants any bull.”

There are things I could say to that, but I don’t. It’s not about me. “We’ll figure something out. Flickerman will go easy on her, you’ll make her look her best, I’ll--I’ll talk to her when she wakes up. See what she can manage.” She’s not in the Arena anymore. Maybe she’ll recognize that, maybe she won’t need to hide. Maybe.

“She won’t want to see her own Games,” Drusus says.

“Nobody does,” I say. “They might at first, but after...”

Drusus shakes his head. “I can make her look like anything you want me to. But I think you’re the one who has to make her carry herself like a human being.”

I work my throat, close my eyes. “Give her something she’ll feel safe in. Forget the sea ghost thing, it doesn’t matter anymore. She doesn’t have to win them over, she just has to make it through the interview.”

Drusus nods, and looks her over. “But she should still look like what she is.”

***

Drowned. Not a sea ghost, not someone who’s come up from the water; someone who’s gone under.

The dress itself is simple, thin and angular layers of green. No jewels, no trim, only the light fabric, falling in corners past her knees. Her feet and arms are bare, except for thin beaded bracelets, some of the same from the interview gown. Instead of gold, there are flowers tangled haphazardly in her hair, romarin and yellow poppies and one gold and white blossom that Drusus calls a narcissus, bowed over one ear.

I can smell them when she clings to me.

“You won’t be up there for long,” I say. She doesn’t let go of my arms. I hold hers, too, stroke the inside of her forearm with my thumb. Maybe I shouldn’t. I can’t do this for her onstage, after all, she’s going to have to brave the interview on her own. But she grips me like she’s trying to make sure I’m real, trying to make sure I’m here, and I can’t push her away. “A few hours, and most of that will be the highlight reel of the games, and you don’t have to say anything during that part.”

“I don’t want to hear them.” She doesn’t hesitate to say it. “You said it was over.”

“It is. Mostly.” My stomach ties itself in knots. “Listen, Annie, nobody wants to see their Games. Just remember that what you see on camera isn’t always the truth, all right?”

“Like you aren’t you.”

“Yes,” I say.

“Like you aren’t you now.”

I do step back from her then, but she follows. “Annie, I’m trying to help you.”

Her arms hang at her sides, but she still in my space, close enough to touch. She doesn’t. She raises her eyes, and real anger lurks behind the sadness, like the waves withdrawing from a shipwreck.

“I know you don’t want to do this,” I say quietly. “Believe me. I know. If it helps, look at me while you’re up there. Don’t worry about the rest of them. Just look at me. Try to talk to me. Can you do that?”

She hangs her head. “If I can find you,” she says, and turns away, holding herself for warmth.

“I’ll be in the front row,” I say.

She shakes her head, no, and a stagehand comes to take her to the hydraulic underneath the stage. I watch her leave, her green dress disappearing on the horizon.

Drusus sighs. “That wasn’t the best idea.”

“What, letting her go?”

“No. Telling her to watch you.”

“I wanted to give her something familiar,” I say, check my hair in one of the mirrors, pull one of the strands in front of my forehead.

“The world already thinks she wants you.”

“Her and half the Capitol.”

“And they’ll think you’re encouraging her.”

The room chills enough that I wish I had a shirt on. “I’m not,” I say. “Drusus, you know I’m not, she doesn’t even want me like that.”

“I’m just telling you what I see, and what they see. What they see is my life, you know. I have to know what they’re thinking. And I do.”

How much more am I going to screw this up? I cover my eyes, push my palms into my temples, rake my fingers along my scalp. Drusus protests about how I’m undoing all the work he did on my hair, but I only half-listen. “What do I do now?” I ask.

“Stop mussing your hair, for one. And as for her? Hope it’s not too late.”

She’s already in the waiting area under the stage. I can’t run to her and tell her not to look at me, to look at anything but me. “I have to pretend I don’t care,” I say, and wish I could claw my own throat out. “I have to let them think she’s just a girl with a crush. They’ll understand that.”

“And let’s hope it still helps her.

“For now? No. In the long run? Probably.” I sigh, find the nearest chair and sink into it. “It’s a good thing she doesn’t actually want me.”

Drusus nods, and takes my elbow, pulls me out of that chair. No rest for the wicked. “Come on, let’s get to our places.”

***

She curls up in the corner of Caesar Flickerman’s couch, barely larger than the decorative cushions, knees drawn to her chest.

“Oh, Annie,” Caesar says, reaching out a hand to her, and I want to rip it clean off. “It must have been awful for you in there. Where’s that witty girl from two weeks ago?”

“She’s in the Arena,” Annie says. The microphone picks that up, clear and crisp. I count the minutes until this ends.

Her remark gets a few laughs, out there in the crowd. To Caesar’s credit, he doesn’t laugh, only smiles and puts his hand on her shoulder. “But you’re out here. You made it through. Well, I remember what you said, that you’re good at using what other people can’t! And that’s what kept you afloat. Are you surprised?”

Annie looks out into the audience and finds me right where I said I’d be, in front. The cameras train on my face. I don’t have time to freeze. The smile I give her is the wrong kind of encouraging. Indulgent, curling up at the corners, like she’s the most precious little thing.

“No,” she whispers. It’s not an answer to Caesar’s question. Her breath comes short and she retreats, wraps around herself and hides her face in her skirts.

The cameras catch me from all angles, pin me in place, freeze me. There’s nothing I can do.

“No?” Caesar asks, and now he laughs, cuing the audience to do the same. “I guess we’ll all be haunted by you a while longer.”

Someone behind me chuckles, too shrill to be soft. “You’d think every mother would have warned her children by now,” that person whispers, loudly enough for the cameras to pick up. “Never give your heart to Finnick Odair.”

Someone else clucks. “Poor dear.”

I pretend I haven’t heard. That the entire nation hasn’t.

“But you’ve got ghosts of your own,” Caesar says, taking the laughter down. “At least you avenged your District partner. I have to admit, my heart was in my throat when I saw your hand clawing out of the river. Can you tell me a little about that, Annie?”

Her face is muffled against her knees, but the microphones pick up her voice. “It was too loud.”

I could almost feel sorry for Caesar, he’s trying. Almost.

“Too loud?”

“Everything was sound. Everything was the river. I was too. That’s all.”

Caesar laughs and ruffles her shoulder. “You were the river! Well, I guess that means you got much more screen time than I thought you did.”

The audience is startled into laughing with him, but only for so long.

Annie lifts her head and finds me again. Her makeup is smudged, shimmering under her eyes.

I look away from her and towards the first camera I see, lower my eyes and shake my head oh so slightly and smile like I’m holding a laugh in. I don’t check to see how it plays onscreen. I can guess, and if I were in Annie’s shoes I’d leap off the stage and pluck my own eyes out. I almost hope she does.

Her hands come up to her face. For an instant, I think she will.

She covers her ears, and Caesar can’t coax another word out of her for the rest of the interview.

***

At the feast afterwards, Snow comes up to me and says, “You handled that well.”

It takes every ounce of self-control I have not to smash my glass into the nearest table and carve into his face with the shards.

***

The cameras aren’t waiting for us when the train pulls into the station, only her family. I wonder if this means they’ll cancel the Victory Tour, but this is what the Games are really about, isn’t it? To show us all we’ve lost.

I have to carry her off the train. She hasn’t spoken a word to me since we boarded, spent the entire train ride curled up and facing away from the window. When the train stopped and I came to fetch her, she was awake but unresponsive, and I had to loop her arms around my shoulders to move her off before the train returned to the Capitol. Her eyes are closed now, but I think she’s awake. Her chest rises and falls erratically, hitches against mine.

She told me about her family before she went into the Arena. They’re all at the station to meet her, her mother and father, her uncle, her sister. The man that rushes forward to help me carry her is probably her father, tall, with long thick arms. Her mother isn’t far behind. Annie doesn’t take after her physically; her mother’s strong all through and almost as tall as her husband. “Annie. Annie, dear, you’re home.”

Annie buries her face in my shoulder.

“Hi,” I say. “I’m Finnick.”

“We know who you are,” her father says. “And we can’t thank you enough.”

They’re the first people who have. “I promised her I’d bring her home,” I say, my mouth dry. “She told me about you.”

Her sister watches me solemnly, eyes wide. She looks horrified.

“You’re Emily, right?” I give Annie the gentlest shake I can. “Annie, Emily’s here. Emily and your uncle John and your mother and father.”

When Annie turns away from my shoulder, her father’s face is the first thing she sees. He has tears in his eyes, and she uncurls an arm from around my neck to reach for them. He catches her hand, and then her mother’s hands clasp over both of them. “Annie,” her father says, “I’m so proud of you.” Annie shivers.

“Can you stand on your own?” I ask her quietly.

She shakes her head, turns her face into my chest again. Not now.

“Should I hand you over to your father?”

Her breath catches in her throat, and she’s close enough that I feel it too. She pulls her hand out of their tangle and throws it over me. I feel like she’s trying to make herself smaller in my arms.

“I’m sorry,” I tell her parents. “I think she wants me to carry her a little while longer. If that’s all right.”

Her mother nods, and once he’s seen that, her father backs off as well. “We’re in your debt,” she says. “I can understand if she needs you now more than us.”

I’m home. I’m close to the sea again--I can smell the salt in the air, taste it if I breathe in deeply enough. I shouldn’t feel like I’m sinking. “Have you finished moving?” I ask.

Her mother shakes her head, no. “The Victor’s Wharf is farther south than we’re used to,” she explains. “I wanted to wait for her, to make sure she’d be okay.”

“I’ll help get her set up. I have lots of cousins, they’ll lend a hand, too. And my family’s right next door, if you need anything else...” I trail off. It hurts to look at the sky after so long in the Capitol. Nothing stands between me and the sun here, and its heat weighs heavy on my face, the back of my neck, my arms, makes all the water in me rise to the surface. Annie’s curls hang limp with sweat. I should get her something to drink soon.

“Same goes for you,” her uncle says, taking a couple of steps nearer. “If there’s anything we can do for you, after this, we will.”

I’m about to thank him, when I hear Emily hiss.

“Something wrong?” I ask.

She narrows her eyes at me. They’re lighter than her sister’s, and she has heavy eyebrows like her mother. “No, thank you. I don’t want to come down here at all,” she says.

Her father and her uncle reprimand her. “Emily!”

“I don’t.” She pulls herself behind her uncle’s legs, barely looking out at us. “That’s not Annie. She’ll kill us in our sleep.”

“I haven’t killed anyone in their sleep,” I say. The sweat on my arms chills. “She won’t, either.”

“No, you tied them up instead. Like they were just fish.”

I see Pacifica’s traps spring into action, tangling around her ankles and chest as rocks swing down from the cliffsides. I remember throwing my net over her, how she tore open her hands on the bones and vines, struggling to get free. My father caught a dolphin once. Pacifica screamed the same. I’d close my eyes, but that won’t make it go away. The images won’t stop racing, faster and faster until my vision blurs, and I know better than to wonder from what.

“Emily Cresta!” Annie’s mother pulls away and storms down the stairs, cowing Emily into shadow. “You watch that mouth, or you won’t be talking out of it for a week.”

“I want Annie back!”

Annie cringes and clings to my neck. Her ear is pressed to the collar of my jacket and she’s trying to cover the other, drown everything out.

“You’re here,” I tell her, nudge her hand away with my cheek. “You can smell the sea, can’t you? Listen. There’s a boat docking, it’s blowing its horn, and there are gulls circling over us. Listen.”

Her hand is shaking when it touches my cheek. “It’s too far,” she whispers. It’s the first thing she’s said to me since before the interview. “Can we be closer?”

“We can.” I clear my throat, motion Annie’s father and uncle closer with a tilt of my head. “She wants to see the ocean,” I say.

“I’ll come with you,” her uncle says, and her father nods and turns to deal with Emily, still screaming about wanting her sister back.

We walk towards the shore, Emily’s shouts at our backs; they’ve faded by the time we reach the pier. There’s a stretch of beach between that and the nearest jetty, and I kneel on the shore where the sand darkens, let Annie’s heels touch down. Her uncle is hanging back, watching us, but the tide’s so loud that I still feel like Annie and I are alone.

I tell Annie to breathe.

She lifts her head from my collar enough to sniff at the air, then gulps and shudders, breathing harder than I’ve seen her do in days. “It’s all right,” I say, “here,” and dip her fingers into the water. It laps at them, licks them clean. She grasps at the sand, holds it as tight as she’d been holding me. I let her out of my lap and the skirt Drusus gave her soaks through when a wave rolls in, covers us both to the waist and withdraws.

I don’t know how long we sit there, letting the tide drag us out, inch by inch. But by the time the rest of her family has gathered behind us, and her sister is walking through the waves to touch Annie’s hair and say she’s sorry, the sun’s reached the water’s edge on the horizon.

Chapter Text

I shut the door behind me as quietly as possible, but not quietly enough. “Finnick!” twelve voices chorus when the lock clicks into place--more like ten than twelve, Patrick and Timothy haven’t quite figured out how to say my name yet. They join the stampede down the stairs, though, and my cousins scamper towards me, nearly sweep me off my feet. Jamie and Maeve cling to my legs, Connor and Lindsay tug my arms, and Katie, who’s really too old for this, jumps on my back.

“Oof!” I say, but right myself before I fall on my cousins, and ruffle Connor’s curls. “Hey, squid.”

“Don’t call me that!” he says, scrunches up his face and tries to squirm out from under my hand. Katie’s laughter shrieks in my ear.

“I saw you lots on the television,” Laura says, hanging back from the tangle. “I liked the blue suit. Not the black one.”

“Aunt Hannah says you’ll freeze in the Capitol if you don’t put on a shirt,” Aidan adds helpfully.

Right, I haven’t run the gauntlet of aunts yet. I steel myself for that.

Someone tugs on my hair. “It’s too long,” Helen says. She must be the only one tall enough to reach.

“It’s in style in the Capitol.” I neglect to mention I’m the one who set the style.

“It’s longer than mine in front,” she complains. “Aunt Ruth says it’ll get tangled in the grates.”

“I’ll let her trim it,” I say, and smile. What Drusus doesn’t know won’t hurt him. By the time I get back to the Capitol it’ll have grown out.

Helen gives my hair one more tug, then kisses me on the cheek and steps back. She’s the oldest after me, and little Timothy and Patrick call her an aunt sometimes. Crescent might, too, once she learns how to talk. “Is Crescent asleep?” I ask.

“No, Aunt Coral has her, she woke up a few minutes ago.”

“Yeah, she was crying and crying!” Jamie sounds altogether too cheerful about that. “She never stops. I think it keeps the squids away.”

“I’m not a squid!” Connor yells.

Lucy pokes him in the ribs and shouts, “Squid!” I feel bad for the poor kid, it must be hell growing up with two older sisters. His eyes do bulge like a squid’s, though, especially when he’s about to cry. Then Katie gets in on the poking too, and Patrick and Timothy even though they probably don’t understand what’s going on, and Roarke shouts at them to knock it off and stop but it only gets louder. And then Aidan and Maeve are tugging on my arms and my jacket and asking “Finnick, what did you bring me from the Capitol?”

The door to the kitchen flies open, and my aunts are silhouetted in a burst of light. “He walks through the door and you pounce on him like a pack of wild animals!” Aunt Ruth may be the smallest of them, but she glowers the best, and Aidan and Maeve take shelter behind me. “I thought Finnick had cousins, not beasts.”

“I do,” I say. “It’s all right, I’m glad to see them, too.”

“And he said he’d let you cut his hair!” Lindsay says. I see she hasn’t stopped echoing Helen.

“Ma, they’re still calling me a squid!”

“One at a time,” Aunt Hannah says, strides out from the back and brandishes her rolling pin. “Give us all some air. Sorry, Finnick, been a long day for them.”

“They didn’t show you arriving at the station this year,” Aunt Coral says, bouncing baby Crescent a little in her arms to shush her. “And then someone told the little ones that the Capitol had snatched you up for good,” she adds, glares sidelong at Aunt Shannon, who purses her lips like she’s swallowed a lemon.

“I took a while getting back, that’s all.” I shrug, manage to dislodge Katie. “There wasn’t much to show this year.”

All my aunts cluck at once. I don’t know how they do that.

“Probably for the best, after what that poor girl’s been through,” Coral says.

“Is that the crazy one, Ma?” Jamie asks, before Laura and Maeve swat him and whisper Jamie! We’re not supposed to call her that.

I kneel so I’m at Jamie’s level. “She’s not crazy,” I say. “She needs some time to get back on her feet.”

“Is she going to be moving in next door?” Roarke asks.

“Her and her family. She has a little sister about Lindsay’s age.”

“Great,” Roarke says, wrinkles his nose. “More girls. Just what we need.”

“Oh,” I say, “they’re not so bad,” and give him the kind of wink that makes Helen scoff and Katie and Lucy shriek with laughter.

“Roarke’s got a girlfriend!” Katie squeals, and Lucy joins in too. “Roarke’s got a girlfriend!”

“Shut up, I haven’t even met her!”

I bite my fist to keep from laughing too much. I don’t get to spend much time with kids in the Capitol, unless you count the tributes, which I don’t. Come to think of it, I don’t see kids in the Capitol much at all; I know people have them, enough of them mention children offhandedly, but their kids are always off at school or with a nanny or getting shuttled to some activity or childcare center or sport. I do remember standing in Bianca Greendown’s kitchen trying to figure out how her coffeemaker worked when her son got home early from violin practice, spent ten seconds staring at me in shock, and yelled “Mommy, why is Finnick Odair making coffee in our kitchen?” at the top of his lungs. I wish I’d gotten to have more of a conversation with him. He seemed like a funny kid.

(Bianca writes television programs and commercials, so I wasn’t surprised when I saw an actor playing me on television a few months later, fighting with a newer model of that same brand of coffeemaker. “Mommy, why is Finnick Odair making coffee in our kitchen?” “It’s the Avox’s day off, dear!” The studio audience howled their heads off.)

“You’ll have plenty of time to later,” I say, and Roarke claps his hands over his ears.

I grip Maeve’s hand tighter than I meant to, because she yelps.

“Don’t all go over there at once, though, all right? Give Annie and her family time to settle in.” She should almost be finished moving, unless she and her family decided to bring everything over themselves and not rope in any help. I can’t imagine doing that, but what do I know about her family, other than the little she told me and what I saw at the station?

“That poor girl’s had enough people gawping at her.” Aunt Coral shifts Crescent to her hip to slap Roarke’s shoulder. “That goes for all of you lot, do you hear? I won’t have you scaring her overboard.”

“Yes, Aunt Coral,” most of them say, though Laura and Aidan and Jamie substitute “Mommy” for that last part, and Katie and Lucy are a beat behind everyone else. “But we can still see her, right?” Katie asks.

“When she’s ready,” Aunt Coral says. Thank you, I mouth to her over my cousins’ heads. She winks.

“All right, you.” Aunt Shannon claps her hands at everyone. “Now let Finnick get through the door and sit down.”

“But he hasn’t told us what he brought for us yet!” Jamie says.

“He won’t bring you anything at all if you don’t scoot,” Aunt Ruth says. “And some of you still have a few nets to mend.”

“Ma!” Connor’s eyes open wide, start to darken and tear up, and the way he puckers his lips bears an uncanny resemblance to a squid’s beak.

“Don’t you Ma me,” she says. “Now scoot.”

Grumbling, and shooting me the most forlorn looks I’ve seen since Johanna’s time in the Arena, my cousins trudge back up the stairs.

Aunt Coral sweeps me into a hug. “We are glad to see you, Finnick dear.” Crescent coos her agreement in my ear.

“Can I hold her?” I ask.

“After she’s calmed down a little more.”

“And after you’ve taken a load off,” Aunt Shannon adds. They usher me into the kitchen, which has full picture windows and a table that face the ocean, and Aunt Hannah shoves a plate of something warm at me, dusts the flour from her sleeves, and commands me to eat.

“You been to see your mother yet?” Aunt Ruth asks before I’ve so much as torn open the bread.

“I wanted to drop things off here first,” I say. The best thing about Aunt Hannah’s bread is that it never needs butter or oil, and the salt’s always enough on its own. “Is she out on the boat?”

“Since yesterday,” Aunt Shannon says. “I can’t say I blame her. I watched that interview and I didn’t want to see any more either.”

I set Aunt Hannah’s bread down, nudge my plate to the side. I’d spit out the piece in my mouth--the salt’s gone sour--but my aunts would never forgive me for wasting food like that, no matter how much of it we have now. “I’m not proud of that,” I say.

Aunt Hannah clucks at me, shakes her head. “Pulling her through, you mean? Finnick, you brought the girl home! I’d be proud as anything.”

“It’s complicated.” I sigh. “You remember how it was for me. This isn’t the end. There’s her Victory Tour, at the very least.”

“Well, the salt air should do the poor dear some good,” Aunt Coral says. “Maybe things will have blown over by then.”

“I hope so,” I say, but you can hope for anything. That doesn’t mean it’ll happen.

My aunts watch me until I finish everything on my plate. That hasn’t changed.

***

“So it all happened at once.” My mother shuts her eyes, takes a sip of her tea. “Varin, Annie, and Mags, all in one stroke.”

I set my cup down. The tea’s lost most of its heat. “Literally.”

“I only heard about Mags when Pike came by to tell me and your father.” She grimaces. “You’d think the Capitol would care about the oldest living victor.”

“She spent most of the rest of the Games recovering from her stroke,” I say. “She couldn’t be as visible as they wanted her to be, so they dropped her.”

“It’s hateful. They’ll show young people slaughtering each other, but they can’t show dignity in old age.”

I’m glad, suddenly, for the mile of ocean separating us from the shore. “They don’t like old age in the Capitol.”

“They don’t. Not old age, and not sickness...” She trails off and drinks, her knuckles edged in white.

I know what she’s going to say, but it’s worth asking, the way I do every year. “I could get you to one of the doctors.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me that I’d let their kind fix,” she says, and smiles at me. “I may not be whole, but I’m certainly not broken.”

“No. You’re not.” I reach across the table, lace her fingers with mine. Her legs have withered but her hands are strong as ever, steady and firm and warm, able to braid rope and haul in nets. No, this isn’t what it looks like when they break you.

She pats the back of my hand. “So. Tell me about this Annie Cresta. Is she settled in next door yet?”

“She’s mostly finished moving.” I pull my hand away and pick up my cup again but don’t drink, just roll it between my palms, trace the rim. “Settled--I don’t know.”

“They interviewed her family before the flood. They seem like strong people, good neighbors. You tell them that if there’s anything we can do to make it easier for them, we will.”

I nod. It’s a calm night. The tea in my cup tilts side to side with the motion of the boat, fractions of an inch either way, but the surface of the tea is still smooth enough to see my reflection in. I could close my eyes and drift if I wanted, let the waves rock me to sleep the way they used to when I was little. My father used to throw his coat over me when I dozed off on the boat, bundle me up and carry me belowdecks to my mother, and I’d wake up to her humming one of Mags’s songs. I don’t think I can fit under my father’s coat anymore. Is he sleeping on the deck right now? Maybe I’ll end up carrying him to bed.

“She should get a boat,” I say, turn the teacup around again. “Her own, I mean. She has more than enough for two: one for her family, one for her.”

“Is she well enough to sail out alone?”

“I think she’d get better if she did.” She shouldn’t sail alone now, I doubt she can handle a boat on her own if she’s anything like she was the last time I saw her, but being in the sea would help. Lying on deck, the sun beaming down, the waves supporting her from beneath.

“But I’d worry about her not coming back, the way I used to worry about you.” My mother smiles, tilts her head as if to say she doesn’t worry any more. “So. Is she as lovely as she looked on television?”

I shake my head. “It’s not like that.”

“That’s not what I’m asking, dear. I just think she’s striking.”

I lean back in my chair, thinking, and the sway of the boat drags me back further. Striking? Haunting, I’d have said if anyone asked. Never mind Drusus’s handiwork, the smudged makeup and yards of floating fabric, I can’t forget the way she looked in the Arena, the tangle of her hair, the sharp shadows under her eyes, the bones in her fingers protruding as she dragged Telluria down. Striking, though. I consider that. I think of her eyes again, how looking into them is like looking into the ocean.

“There was a moment before the flood,” my mother says, “when she was floating in the reservoir, before you sent her the medicine. She was injured, and it was awful, but in the river, clothing and all--it was beautiful. She smiled, like she forgot where she was and what she was there to do.” She sighs. “If it weren’t for the Games, and the cuts on her face, I would have thought she was just a girl in a river.”

“She is beautiful,” I say slowly, setting my cup down. “I didn’t think about it then, but she is.”

My mother finishes her tea and sets the cup down. “Well, it’s a good thing you weren’t thinking about it. You brought her home, Finnick. You helped keep that girl alive. And I don’t need any more reasons to love you, and to be thankful every day that you survived the Games and came back home to us, but if I ever needed another reason this girl would be it.”

I can’t tell my mother why I put my face in my hands and start shaking, but I don’t have to. She’s my mother. She holds me until I ride it out.

***

The District is barely in sight. We’re still out past the first buoy and the sun is high, shining almost straight down on the water so that the surface is nearly white. I dip my hand in the spray and laugh as it slaps my palm. It feels like the water’s shooting straight out from my fingers, that I’m directing it, making it rise and fall and scatter.

It’s a crime to stay dry on a day like this.

“Dad,” I say, “I’m going in.”

He laughs. “Can’t blame you. Should I drop anchor?”

I crane my head; the shoreline’s a vague shape in the distance, but I can’t make out any specific markers. “You should. I’m not sure how far out we are.”

He nods, cuts the motor and brings us around, and everything slows.

The sun blazes down on my back, and I strip off my shoes, shorts, underwear. I get a running start off the prow, the heat from the deck stinging the soles of my feet, and dive in. My body arcs, and I’m suspended in the air for a shining moment, hanging between sea and sky. Then the water rushes up below me and welcomes me in, eases all the stings away. I spread my arms and legs as wide as I can and spiral down, down, down until my ears feel ready to burst. I know better than to surface quickly after a dive like that, but when my head breaks through the waves I fling it back, scatter droplets of water everywhere, breathe in the salt and seaweed around me.

I swim laps around the boat as fast as I can--no particular stroke, I can’t stick to one. I butterfly-kick, whip my arms forward in a breaststroke, flip on my back and reach my arms as far overhead as I can. I turn somersaults in the water, see how tightly I can coil myself and how high I can spring up when I release. Bracing my feet on the side of the boat, I push off and shoot straight back. I can’t laugh, I don’t want to get water in my lungs, but I don’t need to. The ocean is laughing with me, bearing me aloft and showing me off to the sun. He’s home, it says. I found him.

I paddle more quietly to the side of the boat. My dad’s back is turned, so I hoist myself up on the rail and spray him with a mouthful of salt water, then dive back under the waves before he can retaliate. He laughs and shouts at me, but I can’t hear the words this far under. I swim under the boat, twist under the rudder, and surface on the other side, feet away from a new boat.

Annie is staring down at me from the stern. Her hair doesn’t know which way to tangle and her chest doesn’t know which way to fall, and she wets her lips, covers her mouth. Her eyes are wide and shadowed, like she’s never seen me at all before.

“Hi,” I say, tread water and give her a little wave.

I think she says “Hi” too, but it’s small and choked in her throat and muffled by the hand on her lips.

I run my fingers through my hair, squeeze some of the excess water out, not that it makes much of a difference in the ocean. “New boat?”

She nods quickly. “Margaret.”

“She’s beautiful,” I say, swim to the side and give her a pat, the kind I’ve seen some people give to passing dolphins. She feels like a sturdy boat, smooth and solid and warmed from the sun, and well, I’m inclined to like her because of her name, anyway.

Annie ‘s hand falls from her cheek and she reaches over the edge towards me, but she’s too far up for our fingers to touch. “Mom and Emily picked her, but I named her.”

I nod, and almost reach for the rail to start climbing over the side before I realize I left my underwear on the other boat. I can stay in the water a while longer, that’s no hardship. “Want to come in?” I ask her. “The water’s great.”

Color fills her cheeks and she lifts her hand to cover them again. She stares at me over her fingers. Everything about her shines. “Yes?”

I laugh. “Is that a yes?”

She laughs and runs a hand through her hair, pushing it off her face. “Yes. I. Just--give me a second.” She ducks behind the rail of the boat and I realize she must be taking off her clothes. A moment later, she puts her hands on the rails and pulls herself back up, looks around for me. “Finnick?”

“Right here,” I say, propel myself out of the water, grab her wrist, and pull her in.

She shrieks, but the water cuts her off, so she sputters in my face instead, sprays me with salt. I hold her up until she finds her balance and then let go, swim away enough to splash her. She’s still short of breath but ducks under the waves, darts closer to me like she’s going to try and pull me under but she stops short just out of arm’s reach and comes up for air, red in the cheeks. I laugh and kick away, flip over on my back and check to see if she’s following me. She isn’t, she’s treading water and watching me, and I float back to her side. “Want to go a little farther out?”

I can hear her heart racing, even over the sounds of the ocean. Should I help her back onto the boat? She remembered how to swim in the Arena--and what if that’s what she’s seeing now, what if she sees a dome over her head instead of an open sky, hears screams cut short instead of the boat’s motor? I might as well ask Drusus to give me a full-body tattoo reading I SCREWED UP at this rate. That shouldn’t be funny. Annie isn’t laughing.

“Is this all right?” I ask. “You said you wanted to see the ocean again last time, and I thought--”

She doesn’t answer, only reaches out her hand towards me, touches her fingers to my ear. I smile and turn my head towards her, stroke the back of her hand. She’s keeping afloat, at least; her knees knock against mine as she treads water. She’s not shrinking against the hull. I swim backwards as slowly as I can, draw her away from the lee of the boats and out to the open water. “It’s the ocean,” I say. “You remember the ocean.”

Her fingers tighten in my hair. “No, it’s you.”

“What about me?”

“You’re here.”

I blink the water out of my eyes. “Is there somewhere else I should be?”

“No, no. You should be here.” She swims closer, but looks down between us and turns away, pulling us both a little farther out. “You weren’t. I didn’t know where you were.”

Rather than tease out where she thought I was, I say, “But I’m here now, right?”

Her hand slips down my cheek, her thumb presses against my lips. She doesn’t answer, sinks down in the water until it’s covering the red flush across her nose. Forget the comments about me being here or not here, I’m having a hard enough time figuring out what that meant. I touch my lips, try to recapture how she did it, but I can’t get it right. “Annie?”

She takes one look at my mouth and dives under, slips clean away from me and out of sight.

I can’t see through the waves to find out where she went, so I swim away, hover a little closer to the boats. She’ll need to surface for air soon, and then I’ll see where she went, she can’t swim that far away on one breath. I think. “Annie?” I call again, but only the waves answer. “Annie?”

She surfaces not too far from where we were, her hands coming up before her hair. She pushes it out of her eyes and she’s still blushing, but calmer, enough to float on her back just like in the river. She looks for me, lying back on the waves, and I kick my way over to her side. “Are you all right?”

“No,” she says. “But I want to be here.”

I nod, offer her my hand. She takes it, and our thumbs nudge together, slippery from the water. I take her other hand and draw her out so she’s stretched out on her stomach in front of me and kick for her so she doesn’t have to do much of the work, the way I used to teach people how to swim. It’s not that she needs to learn, she keeps up and follows me out without missing a beat, but she’s never looked me in the eyes this way before, never held on to my face the way she held on to my hands at the Capitol or my neck at the station.

I don’t know what she’s seeing. I want to.

“Finnick!” someone yells from the boats--from Annie’s boat.

I steer us in that direction. “Hello?”

“Just making sure it’s you out there!” Annie’s mother waves from the back of her boat. “Afternoon.”

“Afternoon,” I say. “And it’s us. Hey, Dad, I guess you know the Crestas now?”

He waves too, first at me and then at Annie’s mother. “Was hoping to make your acquaintance on land, but this’ll do fine.”

“I think so too. Glad to hear it.”

“Give me a minute, let me bring my wife out to meet you.”

“Parents,” I mutter to Annie, and she laughs. Her hands tighten on mine, and she ducks under, starts swimming us both back towards the boats.

***

Mags insists on walking off the train. Nobody in District 4 dares to disagree, even now. I wait on the platform, offer her my arm when she hobbles out. Her left foot drags across the wood; she tries her best to steer it around obstacles but ends up smacking it into a pole. I tighten my grip on her arm, steer her better. She’s getting used to it, I tell myself. She’s a little unsteady on her feet, that’s all. I smile at Mags, and she tries to return it. “Did they give you a rejuvenation treatment, too?” I ask her, and almost poke her in the ribs the way I used to before I remember that’s not the best idea right now. “Because you don’t look a day over twenty-five to me.”

She looks at me like I’ve grown fins and an extra set of teeth.

“Sorry,” I mutter, scuff my toes against the platform’s edge. “I--never mind. Welcome home, Mags.”

She smiles, shakes her head slowly, and holds my arm tighter as we near the platform stairs. Pike greets us with a single jerk of his head, the muscle in his jaw twitching, sweat staining the stiff collar of his shirt. His wife squeezes his hand, stares straight ahead as though she’s seeing through Mags, as if she’s still waiting for the train.

Mags reaches out to them with her free arm, and Pike stares soundlessly at it for long seconds before he shakes her hand. “It’s good that you came home,” he says. “You always hated the Capitol.”

She hadn’t been shaking his hand firmly, but her hand goes limp, and she withdraws it, looks her son in the eyes.

“Thank you,” Pike’s wife says quietly, “for doing all you could with Varin.”

It’s high tide, but I wish the sea would rise a little higher and swallow them up, sweep them away.

Mags has been a mentor since the 13th Hunger Games. This year’s were the 70th. I’m not the only victor she’s brought home in that time, but we’re still few and far between, and to think about how every other year she’d come back home and see the tributes’ families turn away when they passed her makes my skin crawl. I remember how it felt last year. Mags has felt that fifty times.

At least her son is trying to look at her.

***

“Do you have any idea how hard it is to reach you? I’ve been calling for the past three days. Where have you been, on a boat?”

“More or less,” I say, shift the phone to my other ear and grin, even if it’s wasted because Drusus can’t see. “You should see my hair.”

“No, I shouldn’t, because I’m certain if I did I’d be out of the job.” He waits a moment, and then asks, “Please tell me you haven’t gone ahead and cut it.”

I haven’t.” I cover my mouth to muffle my snorts. It doesn’t work very well.

He sighs. “Let it grow out so I have something to work with when you come back in two months. Remember, there’s that gala, Gaius Frey is holding it this year, and then I have you for a spread in The Victarion--”

I twist the phone’s coil around my finger, pick at the knot I’ve formed in it. “The Victory Tour’s in four months, not two.”

“Yes, but as I said. Gaius’s sponsorship gala. And your spread in The Victarion. The issue’s supposed to go out before the tour, we’ll need you and possibly Annie, depending on whether that article gets cleared after all.”

What article? I almost ask, and then decide it isn’t important because there won’t be any article, because like hell I’m taking Annie to the Capitol to get dolled up until she disappears, shrinks and shrivels under the studio lights and cameras. “I’m not mentoring this year,” I say, flatly enough that I don’t open the issue up for debate. “And The Victarion can pull one of the photos of me already floating around, if they have to.”

“You’re not mentoring this year?”

“No. Brine agreed to.” Brine’s not flashy but he’s solid, paunchy around the middle and thinning at the top, with the broadest shoulders and firmest grip in District 4. He’ll do fine with whoever he’s assigned. “You should invite him to the gala.”

“Whether I invite him or not, I’m not the one that invited you. I’m just here to make sure when you show up, you’re at your best. Don’t negotiate your schedule with me, Finnick. I’m not the one who makes it.”

“I know,” I say, and have to ease up on the phone cord, because it’s cutting off the circulation to my finger. “So is my presence required or requested?”

“At the gala? Requested. In The Victarion, required.”

“Then I’ll skip the gala and give them a phone interview for The Victarion.” I sit down, stretch my feet out, crack my toes. My mother and aunts would yell at me to get my feet off the table if they were here, but they aren’t, so I revel in it for a while, lean back in my chair and close my eyes, the knots in my shoulders uncoiling for the first time in a week.

“Or The Victarion could come out to you, I suppose. Especially if they do need Annie for the shoot. If you’re not mentoring I’m sure she isn’t but, like it or not, she won. She’s got obligations before and after the Tour.”

My shoulders reknot, sharp and shudden, twist in ways they haven’t before and make my spine stiffen. The legs of my chair slam back onto the floor, and I jerk forward, snatch at the table’s edge and try to find my balance again. “Not after,” I say, speak slowly enough to convince myself, to ease whatever’s clawing at my chest. “There are enough female victors from Four, she won’t have to mentor.”

“But she’s supposed to attend the Games themselves, of course, and the President’s made it clear that he wants her in the Capitol if her reputation can be salvaged.”

“Drusus, she still won’t talk to anyone but me or her parents. She covers her ears and goes away and I still don’t always know what spooks her. She laughs at things I can’t hear, looks at things I can’t see. She won’t sleep unless one of us is sitting by her bed, and even then she wakes up sobbing--”

Echoes of my voice ring from the corners of the room. Damn. I rest my forehead in my free hand, drag it down my face, let my shoulders slump and hope I haven’t woken up Crescent or troubled any of my cousins. “Forget her reputation. I’m worried about her.”

Drusus doesn’t say anything for a long while, but I still hear him breathing. “You know,” he finally says, “you could bring her here. There might be something in the Capitol that can--”

I cut him off. “There isn’t.”

He sighs. “Fine. There isn’t. But you can’t stop the Tour. And she has to be ready for it.”

“I’ll do what I can, Dru.” I know better than to promise anything more than that.

“I know. And so will I.” And just when I think this has resolved, he goes on, “But you’re not off the hook. I can pass your cancellation on to Gaius’s people, but either you’re coming here or The Victarion’s coming to you. And I don’t know what the President is going to say if you don’t come to the Capitol at all between now and the Tour.”

I drum my fingers against the table: no rhythm, no pattern, just sound working its way out of me. “He can say I’m trying to cut down on unnecessary transportation costs in my District. Most victors don’t come to the Capitol at all between the Games and the Tour.”

“Most victors aren’t Finnick Odair.”

Good for them, I almost say, but can’t decide how it should sound. “Let them pine after me for a while. It never killed anyone.”

“Fair enough,” he says. “So I should tell The Victarion to come to you?”

I sigh. “If you must. And that’s all I’m doing before the Tour.”

“If you must,” he repeats. “I have to say, I’ll miss you.”

“Don’t worry, Dru. You’ll get sick of me before long on that train.”

***

A couple of weeks ago, my aunts figured out that if they left all the mending with Annie in the morning, they’d have time for everything else they had to do in a day. Aunt Ruth can’t get enough of it, praises Annie’s tiny and sturdy stitches, waves them in my cousins’ faces. Sometimes, if they aren’t at school and Annie is having a calmer day, they’ll sit and sew together, Annie and Helen and Lucy and Aidan, and they’ll ask Annie to look them over and help tie the tiny knots.

Today, they’re at school, and some of the mending is mine; I caught my pantsleg on an open grate in the town square and ripped it clean across the seam, and then it frayed on both sides when I tried to take them off. “X marks the spot,” Annie said when she first saw it. By now, it looks more like an L.

“This is why I don’t usually bother with them,” I say.

“Pants?”

“Pants.” I stretch my arms overhead, hiss as my back pops and releases. At the rate it’s been acting up lately, I’m going to walk hunched over like Uncle Jonas before I’m half his age. “They’re more trouble than they’re worth, most of the time.”

She laughs, and lifts them up to get a closer look at the stitches, or maybe to cover her face. “They hide things.”

I laugh, too. “What, is there something I need to hide?”

“No,” she says. “That’s why they’re more trouble than they’re worth.”

I throw one of Uncle Niall’s shirts at her, and she bats it out of the way, still smiling. I like it when I know what she’s smiling at. She tucks a lock of hair behind her ears, picks up her needle and traces the stitches she’s already made, chews her tongue. I lean in, bat at one of the knots in the thread. “Who taught you how to do this?” I ask.

“Sew?”

“Yes.”

“Uncle John and Aunt Aisling,” she says. “He knows better which stitches go where, but she knew how to do them.”

I nod and watch her work for a while, gathering the fabric under her fingers and almost flicking the needle through, one small stitch at a time. The thread twists back, knots in on itself, and she smooths the stitches down, braces the new seam on her finger and squints to see that nothing shows through.

“I’m better with rope than thread,” I say, thumb at the hem of the pants she’s mending. “I always pulled too hard on it, and it snapped.” Or I’d jab the needle into my thumb, but she doesn’t need to know everything.

She laughs, pauses to bite her lip and tie a knot. “It’s not pulling, it’s stretching,” she says. “Like knives aren’t throwing, they’re reaching.”

I groan. “Now that’s a stretch.”

She shakes her head and draws the thread tight, looks me in the eyes and shows me. “A stretch. You wouldn’t pull your spine if you just wanted to make it a little longer.”

“I’m tall enough already,” I say, but follow the motion of her hands. “Show me?”

She offers me the needle, and the pants, then comes around behind me to take my hand. “Hold the fabric together, line the needle up against it pointing the way you want it to go.” I let the needle slip into the groove made by the seam, let her hands reposition mine. “Then move the fabric, not the needle. Hold the needle steady. It’s more like...” She trails off. Her hands shiver over mine, like something’s crawled up her fingers.

“Annie?”

“--like the tide,” she says. “Sorry. The tide pulls you out. The fabric pulls the needle.”

“The fabric pulls the needle,” I repeat, and lift the fabric up and then down just slightly, how she’s showing me. The stitch is much smaller than the ones I usually make.

“Now stretch it through,” she says. “Not the whole way, just until the needle’s through. Good. And bring it back, loop it through the thread, and then out. One half-hitch.”

I have to coax the thread into the shape I want, not force it there, I’m finding. Annie looks over my handiwork and makes a sound somewhere between a cluck and a hum. I can’t tell whether or not it’s approval, but it’s something, and whatever it is I’ll take it. I should get her to teach me to do other things, I think. Find shells, cook salmon, make traps out of fishing twine, see what she sees. It gives her something to focus on, calls her back better than anything else I’ve tried. This is the most she’s said to me in a row in weeks, and it’s nice not to have to pry answers out of her.

I make a second stitch like the first, repeat her instructions in my head, but her hands don’t guide mine, only rest on the backs of my knuckles like ghosts. “Doesn’t look too bad,” I say, hold the stitches up to the light. “Not as good as yours, though. You should make this your talent.”

“Talent?”

Did I ever explain talents to her? I don’t think so. I’ve had enough on my plate. “It’s something victors are supposed to have,” I explain. “You don’t have to work or go to school, so you figure out something else to do with your time. That’s your talent. Some people cook, some people pick up an instrument--I know Chaff carves and Beetee designs...something, I’ve never asked for the specifics.” I doubt I’d understand them if I did. “Sewing could be yours.”

She takes the pants and the needle back, nodding. “What’s yours?”

“Ropework, officially,” I say. “Weaving baskets and mats, rigging things up, braiding jewelry sometimes.” They’ve never asked me much about it on-camera, though, not for years.

“Then I could sew. They’ll ask?”

“They’ll ask. Enough of them know what sewing is that they might know what questions to ask you.” I smile, pat her arm.

She nods again, sits back down in her chair and goes back to mending. The L’s almost closed on one side, turning into an I. “I’m not sewing anything interesting.”

“My pants aren’t interesting?”

“They’re more trouble than they’re worth,” she laughs. “You said so.”

“I did.” I lace my fingers behind my head, rest against the wall, look up at the ceiling. “A lot of things are.”

She reaches the end of the thread and ties it off, the strand of hair she tucked away earlier slipping in front of her ear, and I can’t do it. She’s focused, she’s smiling, she’s laughed today, laughed at all my stupid jokes about my pants. I brought up her talent, that’s enough for one day, I can work my way up to the Victory Tour tomorrow. I can let her have this, at least, even if it’s only a quiet afternoon mending clothes.

“Finnick?”

I look down, and she’s turned away from threading her needle, hands limp in her lap.

“Finnick, where’d you go?”

“I’m here,” I say.

She stammers a little. “I know. But you weren’t.”

“I was thinking, that’s all.” I try to smile. “I guess I drifted.”

“You’re still there,” she says, and bows her head, threads the needle and knots the end of the thread.

Now I’ve upset her. Damn. “Annie, it’s all right, it really is--”

“You come here and you hide. What’s the point?”

“I’m not--” I sigh, run my hands through my hair, resist the urge to rip it out by the roots. (Drusus would give me the tongue-lashing of my life. I’d almost look forward to it.) “I’m trying not to, Annie. I’m trying to help.”

She’s not even listening any more, lost in the rhythm of her stitches.

“Annie, please. Look at me.”

Her hands still.

I’m going to regret this. “Do you want to know what I was thinking about?” I ask, and hope she says no.

She doesn’t say yes either, but she looks up, finds my eyes.

I can’t hide from hers. Here or not, she pins me where I am, fixes me in place and locks up everything: my feet, my chest, my throat. “The Victory Tour’s almost here,” I say, and instantly wish I could snatch those words out of the air.

“Oh,” she says, and looks back down at her sewing.

“You know what that is,” I say. She’s seen it televised her whole life. So have I.

She sews. Her stitches might be getting even tinier.

I go on, almost taste my foot in my mouth as I do. “You’ll get to see some of the other Districts. Not much of them, we only have about a night in each, but some. And some of them are beautiful--we’re going to Twelve first, and the town’s not much to look at but the woods beyond are so thick and dark...”

I trail off.

I should be thankful that she knots off the thread and holds the needle out of the way before she curls up, knees to her chest, and buries her face in her arms.

My stomach sinks to my knees but I cross to her side anyway, hold her shoulders, bring my face level with where hers would be if she was looking at me. “Annie?”

She shakes her head, covers her ears. The needle dangles by its thread, swings and bats against her leg.

“Annie,” I say, scoop up the needle before it sticks in her skin. “Annie, I need you here for this.”

“You said it was over,” she whispers.

I didn’t think it was possible for my stomach to plummet any lower, but it does. “The Arena is,” I say. “But--”

“--the Games aren’t.” She tangles her hands in her hair, screws her eyes shut. I weave my fingers between hers, try to loosen them, but she yanks her head away, drags her hair in front of her face and hides behind it.

“The Tour won’t last forever,” I say.

“That’s what you said about the Games.”

She was better, damn it, better just a moment ago. She was here, she was responsive, she was listening to me and joking with me and teaching me how to sew a seam, and I’ve dropped her into the Games again. Great. I slouch away from her, holding my head in my hands because I can’t keep it level anymore. “Annie. Please.” What am I asking her? Please what? Please listen to me? Please follow me? Please believe me once more, just once, once until I ask you to do it again?

“Please,” she echoes. She shakes her head, and it becomes a shiver that wracks her, all the way down the curve of her spine. “I don’t have a choice.”

***

I could sail out alone. If I came back before dawn, maybe no one would even notice. But it’s the kind of night where the clouds overhead make me think there won’t be dawn at all, and what few stars make it through cast haze instead of light. So I sit on the wharf, with the all the houses behind me, and the ocean swallowing up whatever glow even reaches the shore. I dangle my toes in the water; the cold shoots straight through my skin and chills me to the bone, but I grit my teeth and ease more of my feet in, inch by fraction of an inch, let the shock numb everything else. My teeth chatter hard enough that I’m afraid I’ll chip them, but I don’t.

Even the sea’s trying to push me out today.

The shivers build, wrack my body enough that I need to cling to the edge of the wharf so I won’t kick too hard and launch myself into the water. I keep my feet in, though, dig my nails into the wood until splinters threaten under them, push down and down again and wait for that to push everything else down, freeze the chorus of I screwed up, I screwed up in my head.

I know Annie’s walking down the gangway towards me. I don’t let go of the edge, but she lies down beside me, slips her head under my arm to rest against my thigh. “I shouldn’t have said that,” she murmurs.

The waves slap against my ankle, higher than I’ve reached before, and my foot jerks high enough out of the water that I almost crash my knee into Annie’s skull. Shivering, I scoot away from the edge, get my toes clear of the ocean. “I shouldn’t have sprung that on you,” I say.

She shakes her head, almost as quickly as I shivered. “You didn’t. I knew I have to go. I just didn’t want to.”

“I know.” Her hair slips in front of her face and I draw it back, gather it behind her ear. “I saw how happy you were earlier, and--” I shake my head. “I didn’t mean to take that away so soon.”

When she turns her face away again, that same strand I tucked back slips forward, over her cheek. “You never mean it.”

I sigh, tug her hair harder than I meant to and decide to let go of it if I’m going to be this careless around her. “I guess my track record’s pretty bad, isn’t it.”

“Yes.” She nods, and her chin digs into my thigh. “I just wish I knew what you did mean.”

“By what?”

“By what you do. Sometimes you’re not the one who does it.”

I blink, try to lean back to get more than a glimpse of her face under those tangles, but I can’t read her at all in this light. “I’m not the one who does it?” I repeat.

“You do things you don’t want to do. You do things you aren’t.”

It’s hard to deny that first charge, at least, even if I wanted to. Do I want to? I look out over the sea, search for some kind of shine off the waves to let me know where they are, what they look like, but the water’s darker than I’ve seen it in months, black and deep. “Sometimes you have to do that, Annie.”

“I know.” She buries her face against my thigh. “But you always do. I can see it.”

This isn’t the time for this conversation. I prop my hand under her chin, tilt it up. “I know you’ve heard this before, Annie, and I know it’s a lousy answer, but there are more important things than whether or not you want to, sometimes.”

Her eyes had been soft, apologetic. Now they harden. “I know,” she says. “That doesn’t make it less sad.”

“No,” I agree. “Guess it doesn’t.”

“So I’m sorry,” she says. “I don’t want to go. I want--” Her throat shakes when she breathes. “--I want things that don’t matter. But you do. And I know I’m being difficult. I know I am. Difficult. And I’m sorry.”

“You’re not being difficult,” I say, “you’re having difficulties.” There is a difference, but not much of one in the way I say it.

She turns away, her cheek nestling into my palm, and I wish I could fling myself into Mags’s arms and say tell me what to do, tell me what to say, I’m only two years older than she is, why is it my responsibility. But I can’t drag Mags on the Victory Tour, and I can’t drag her out on a dock in the middle of the night, and Annie needs me. I swallow, run over what I know of her itinerary in my head. If she has to do this (and she does), I can warn her about what’s coming. At least she’ll know.

“It’s only a few weeks,” I say, “and the last stop is home. I can talk to the mayor about that one, if you want. We can have the party on a boat.” She brightens, but closes her eyes to keep it in. “A big one,” I continue, “with little boats docked on the side. We could steal one once the party starts to die down.”

“Just us?”

“Just us,” I say, stroke her temple. I still don’t know what to think about how she looks at me, how her face opens and searches and how her eyes draw me in. I think of diving, of how close the ocean presses around me the deeper I go, how long I could stay here without having to breathe. I wish I didn’t have to, wish I’d never have to come up for air again, wish I couldn’t find a bottom to the depths of her eyes.

Somewhere in the distance, a boat’s horn sounds softly.

“But it won’t be just us for the rest of the Tour. You know that, right?” I say, and pray she does.

“I know,” she whispers. “I know you won’t be there at all.”

My hand falls into my lap, and I stare at the sea again, wait for the night to break.

Chapter Text

District 12 holds a simple party in the town square. Annie stares out at the woods and the meadow, and thanks the mayor and the tributes’ families the way we practiced on the train. At the party, she drinks a deep mouthful of whatever Haymitch is having and curls up coughing, then falls asleep in a corner of the mayor’s house. I carry her back to the train and think we might get through this.

On the way to District 11, she compares the fields to the sea when the sun’s almost up, and I see what she means. Chaff scares her at first, but she spends the rest of dinner holding his wrist where his hand used to be until he tells her where it’s gone. He tells her, and I whisper thank you to him, and now I know I’ll be going drinking with Chaff and Haymitch the next chance I get, and if I can I’ll stay sober enough to hear all of their stories.

She doesn’t sleep very well before we get to District 10. The train’s too hot, she says, and I agree, but she’s fitful through the night even though I stay with her. In the morning, we watch the cows in the fields, out the windows of the train. She hates the meat at the mayor’s house, and the spices, and the melting desserts. She doesn’t sleep at all between 10 and 9.

At least in 9, there’s the river. The mayor takes us out on his boat, but the boat is moored, and the water is brown and choked with snow, and no fish swim up to the sides. Annie spends most of the party reaching a hand over the edge and smoothing it over the brittle ice.

She sleeps before 8, I make sure she does, but I think she only manages because she’s exhausted. We bundle up the blankets between us because the wind is roaring and cold through the walls of the train. Drusus doesn’t design her a dress for 8; Cecelia and her children present her with one, like they did for Johanna Mason last year, and Annie is so thankful that she cries. They don’t seem to have been expecting that. She dances with me in it, says she likes the way it sounds.

We’re delayed by a blizzard on the way to District 7. I tell her not to worry about the snow but Annie’s not afraid of it. She starts to talk about how far out she’s sailed, how her mother and father have been to the white cliffs farther north than 3, and I want to hear everything but she should stop, other people might be listening. Instead, I talk about Johanna and the other people I know from 7, what they’re like, how they live, how to deal with meeting them when we finally arrive.

Johanna wears a dress with a fur mantle at the feast, and whatever animal it is, it still has a head. Annie doesn’t eat. Sadly, I can’t punch Johanna in the face. Yet.

District 6 is awful, and we all know it’s going to be awful. Annie and I practice what she’s supposed to say to Axel’s family over and over, but when the time comes she goes off script and collapses in a heap at the edge of the podium, burrows into her dress and covers her ears. When the mayor tries to comfort her, she shoves him hard enough that he knocks over the lectern. After, when Drusus tries to help her change for the ball, she scratches his face.

By the time we get to 5, you can’t see any of the marks, but Drusus has the prep team file down her nails to stumps. He and I have a fight that night, once Annie and I are back from the party, which isn’t a complete disaster. It’s the calm before the storm, Drusus says. District 3 hates Annie. District 3 has good reasons to hate Annie. No matter what he and I do, they’ll still see Annie dragging Telluria into the flood, destroying District 3’s first real contender in years, shattering their chances to let Wiress off the mentoring hook. Telluria was like me, Drusus says. Their chance. Their savior. Their god from the sea.

Annie sleeps that night. I don’t.

***

District 3 grows out of the forest that surrounds it, one electrical pole at a time. They start to replace the trees, and birds gather on the wires, pulling them taut and triangular. Annie stares at them, says she always wondered how District 3 lit up so brightly she could see it from the ocean, as much as a mile away. Soon, the poles are metal instead of wood, and twice as tall as our houses, and they merge into a barbed wire fence that bells out around the city.

By now, she’s seen the Capitol, of course, and Districts 8 and 6, and she says 3 is like both and neither. I can see what she means; 3 has the Capitol’s public television screens, but only some of them play Capitol programming. The others play streams of names and numbers in red and white that I never remember to ask Beetee about. But the buildings are like 6’s in shape, homes piled on top of homes, and 8’s in scale, packed tightly side by side. If it weren’t for the jagged hills, I’d think nothing could ever have grown here.

The train station is indoors, under a dome of glass with thick metal beams like a cage. It pulls in on a raised platform so that the cameras, all a story down, look up at us like sharks. I reach for Annie’s hand, then remind myself not to. Annie looks up, away from the cameras, at the undersides of the birds on the glass roof. “Backwards,” she says. “Everything is backwards.”

“More like upside-down,” I say. “You remember what we worked on last night?”

I hope the cameras didn’t pick that up.

She nods, hastily, and hangs her head.

“Good. That’s all you have to say.”

The mayor, the District 3 victors, and the tributes’ families are waiting at the bend on the stairs. The cameras swoop around and take us in as we walk down to meet them. Annie takes a breath that rattles, and pulls the jacket of her dress tighter over her waist. She says, quietly, like we practiced, “I would have been honored to fight Telluria and Kyle on their own terms.”

The mayor shakes Annie’s hands, and passes her off to do the same to both of Kyle’s parents, and then Telluria’s father. She’s holding up, but I can see her shoulders quaking, can hear the heels of her shoes stammering on the floor. Come on, Annie, I will her silently. Just keep standing.

“I don’t blame you,” Telluria’s father says.

“Yes, you do,” Annie whispers. “But I blame me too.” She cries, but her makeup doesn’t run, Drusus saw to that.

The cameras whirr and flash, and I stand solemnly to the mayor’s left and wait for them to turn off. They don’t, of course. Even after the mayor finishes his remarks, after he formally invites Annie to dinner at the town hall that evening and promises that the entire city will shine for her tonight, after the screens flare white and gold to match the fireworks going off overhead, after night creeps in and the square starts to empty, the cameras keep recording.

They’re waiting for her to fall. They click like insects, scuttle closer to her now that there’s less in their way. The segmented metal covering their lenses parts, withdraws, and the pinpricks of light within swell. I can’t weave a net tight enough to keep them from slipping through.

She does fall, but it’s late enough that the cameras can’t ignore how much she stood up to. On our way back to the train, her toe catches on the rail and she sinks to the floor and cries. But Wiress and Beetee are with us, and Wiress makes it to her before I do, maybe even before she starts falling, and sits with her on the concrete, sings a song about a little brown bug. It makes Annie laugh, but she doesn’t stop crying until we get her inside.

“When does the dinner start?” I ask Beetee, and squeeze Wiress’s hand in thanks.

“Five-thirty,” he says. “On time.”

I nod. “Annie?”

“Little brown bug sings quite off-key,” she hums, and tries to wipe the tears off her cheek. “That’s how it goes?”

Wiress grins.

“I think so,” I say, “here,” and blot her tears away with my handkerchief. “See? You learn something new in every District.”

She nods. “Wiress, will you stay with me while I get dressed?”

“Yes.” She takes Annie’s hand and starts off in the right direction for the train’s remake room, even if she probably hasn’t been on a train like this in years.

Beetee watches them go, smiling, and pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “The two of them should stick together at dinner,” he says. “I can tell the staff to seat them next to each other.”

“Thanks,” I say. Annie should have someone she can talk to.

“You on one side, the girls in the middle, I’ll be on the other.”

“Thanks. Again. For everything.” I knot my fingers in my hair, tug on it to cut through the heaviness gathering in my eyelids.

Beetee shakes his head. “I’m only doing what I can. I should warn you, I have to stay close to you both so no one tries anything stupid.”

“They’re not happy, are they.” It isn’t a question.

“To the point where I’ll ask you to make sure Annie doesn’t eat anything put directly in front of her.”

I flinch, can’t help but look down the corridor where Wiress led Annie and strain to see, to hear anything--calm down, I remind myself, it’s Wiress. Is that what the people in District 7 wanted to do to me on my Tour?

No. Annie isn’t me. I have to start remembering that.

“I can’t apologize,” I say. “But I can guess what she meant to them.”

He nods. “They wouldn’t kill her, but they do want her to embarrass herself. Security’s going to be tight all night, but I thought you should know. I can give you the full layout if you think that would help.”

“I don’t know how much it would, but I’d like to see it.” Then I can spend the rest of the night fretting about hidden passages and blind spots and escape routes, most of which I have no idea how to cover, but it’s better to know than not know. Most of the time.

So he sits down with me in a compartment on the train, draws a quick layout of the town hall and its surrounding buildings, points out where the cameras will and won’t be covering, where the Peacekeepers will stand.

“I’ve been keeping up on the Tour,” Beetee says.

My stomach’s getting even better at tying knots than my hands are. “How does it look?”

“Hard to say. Sometimes it looks like she’s trying to ask everyone to forgive her for winning. Other times, she’s barely there at all. It’s not like Wiress. She won, but no one was sorry, least of all her. I can’t tell if you’re trying to make it easier for everyone to accept that Annie won, or if you’re trying to get this over with so no one ever thinks about her again.”

"Both?" I shrug, roll out some of the tension in my shoulders and sigh. "I want to keep her safe."

"She's a victor, Finnick," Beetee says.

"I know. That's why it's hard."

He nods. He understands. If I miss anything about the Capitol it's this, the room full of people who aren't all my friends but who know me better than any friend could, know what it is to sleep with one eye open, to scout a room for traps, to feel cameras blinking in the corners like wasps and sharks. "Has Snow said anything about her yet?"

Cold crawls under my skin. "No." That's what I'm afraid of, I don't have to say. "I can't imagine why he'd want her in the Capitol, though." I could, actually, but I refuse to. Not now. "These last Games weren't exactly a success."

"She won't have to mentor?"

I shake my head. "There are at least eight victors still alive in Four, not counting her. Neal may be deaf, but he’s got a couple more years. And Mags is off the hook too. She won't have to go back to the Games, or to the Capitol."

"You will," Beetee says, fiddles with the earpiece of his glasses.

"I know." My smile hangs crookedly. "But she doesn't have to play on my terms."

I can hear her and Wiress laughing, all the way down the corridor. The walls ring with it, and then Wiress starts singing again, a song about trombones and guitars and carnivals. If Annie is singing too, I can’t hear it, but her laughter and her clapping make it down the hall to us. Beetee smiles, takes off his glasses and cleans the lenses.

“I’d say you should bring her here sometimes, but...” Beetee trails off, and once his glasses are back on he glances out the window. “Well.”

“I know what you mean,” I say. “Thanks for the offer.”

***

I don’t know whether to tell Annie about the cameras and the security or not, so in the end I don’t.

It doesn’t matter. She can feel them watching the same way any victor can.

***

The train is dark, but the city is bright and the station is made of glass, so I don’t have to look for the lights. When I find Annie’s compartment, the door is open, and so is the window, and the beads on her dress rattle as she shivers.

She’s curled up on her bed again. I remember this, from the night before the Games began. But that dress covered everything and spilled out over the edges, and this dress keeps close to her but doesn’t keep her warm at all. I can see her hipbones contouring the fabric and beads, more jagged than they should be. But her bare feet are the same, though this time it’s because she left her shoes at the mayor’s house, under the dinner table, and the soles of her feet are filthy from running through the streets.

I think I might apologize, but I don’t know what for.

And she doesn’t seem to hear me.

“I managed to convince the reporters that they didn’t need a final clip of you,” I say. “You’re off the hook until we reach Two.”

“Never off the hook,” she says. Her mouth is right against the pillow, but the words come through clear. “It goes through your lips. Even if they throw you back.”

“You can rest, at least.” I lean against the doorjamb, fidget with the lapel of my jacket. Drusus seems to think that District 3 always requires us to have something on our clothes to catch the lights. At least my sequins are getting subtler.

She shakes her head. Her dress rattles and scrapes against the blankets, and her shoulders hitch, like the bones are trying to crash into each other. Her hair is so wild I can’t tell whether she’s covering her ears or not.

“Can’t sleep?” I ask her, and perch on the edge of her bed, stare at my shoes because looking at her makes everything too tight. I see why she hates trains. I’m starting to hate them, too. I’d shove this one off the rails if I could, or I’d spin it around and push it towards District 4. Towards home. But the track’s winding towards the Capitol, and if she’s this lost here I don’t know what she’ll find there.

“Can’t.” She gathers herself up even tighter, shies away from where I’m sitting. I found her like this in a dark corner of the mayor’s house before she ran off, couldn’t get through to her then either.

“I could get something to help you with that. If you wanted.”

She shakes her head no, vehemently, and it turns into a shiver.

Someday I’ll learn to keep my mouth shut around Annie. I sink deeper into the bed, fight the urge to curl up on it next to her. “I know how hard this has been for you. How hard this is,” I add. “I know how much you want to go home.”

“You do too,” she whispers.

Are cameras tucked away somewhere in this room? Probably. “I do,” I say.

“You do things you aren’t.” I’m close enough to see now that she is covering her ears, and if she still had fingernails they’d be digging into her skull. “I hate it.”

I settle my hands over hers, ease them enough away from her ears that she hears me say, “I hate it, too.”

She pushes her hands into my palms, intertwines our fingers. I can feel her strength but everything about her shakes, and she pulls herself closer to me, turns her face away from the bed and looks up through the dark. She holds my hand against her cheek. Everything’s so cold.

“I’m sorry I can’t do more,” I whisper.

Her skin may be freezing but her breath is warm on my wrist. “I believe you.”

“I wish--” I close my eyes, trap her fingers between mine, try to draw some of the chill away. “I wish I could do more.”

She presses her lips to the heel of my palm, but I think it might just be because she doesn’t know what to say. Then she turns her face into the cup of my hand and kisses it, eyes closed, warm, lingering.

My breath stutters, stalls. “Annie,” I finally manage, mean it to be a warning but I can barely speak, barely move, barely see.

Her eyes are open when she draws me down and kisses me. Her lashes flutter against my cheek when she closes them. And then kissing her hits me all at once, like coming up for air. Should I stop? I should. I need to. But her hand twists in my hair, her lips press against mine and part softly, invite me in. Her skin still chills me wherever it touches mine but her mouth is so warm and her lips catch on mine and I can’t break away--

No. No. I have to. I grip her by the hair and wrench myself away, hold her back. “No,” I say, once I have enough breath to, once my chest has started to steady. “Annie, no.”

She’s still leaning in, cards a hand through her hair to latch on to mine, and her mouth forms my name but no sound comes out. My fingertips brush her cheek, slip down to her jaw, and I can’t tell which of us is shaking harder. Her eyes are wider than I’ve ever seen them, searching through the darkness for me. Has she been looking for me all this time? Is that where she goes when she leaves? To find me?

I screwed up. I screwed up and I’m going to get her killed and I’ve spent half a year doing everything I could to keep her alive and it’s not fair.

“I can’t,” I say, and turn my head away, but not fast enough that I don’t see her crying.

Her dress tangles around her ankles as she scrambles off the bed, turns tail, and runs. I only manage to get my feet on the floor when I hear a door slam shut. The door to my room, most likely.

I fall back onto her bed, bury my face in the sheets and try not to breathe any of her in.

***

“Someone’s in the wrong bed,” Drusus says, and that’s what wakes me up.

I stick Annie’s pillow over my ears and try to burrow deeper under the covers, but Drusus yanks them off.

“Long story,” I mumble.

“I hope it involves you wanting to do her share of the prep before we get to Two.” He sighs. “Where is she?”

“My room.”

“Finnick--”

“Oh for the love of--nothing happened!” I fling the pillow off and chuck it at Drusus, who still makes the best indignant noises out of anyone I’ve met in the Capitol.

“Come on, you’re naked in her bed. What did you expect me to think?”

Sore and tired as I am, I have to admit he has a point. I roll up and crack my shoulders, groaning. It feels like someone fused all the bones in my back together during the middle of the night. No wonder she hasn’t been sleeping well. “I wasn’t thinking about what you’d think.”

In addition to making the best indignant noises I’ve ever heard, Drusus’s face makes some of the best revelation expressions I’ve ever seen. “Something did happen,” he says, once that particular fact washes down his face. “And as soon as I’ve woken Annie up and sent her off to prep you’re going to tell me what.”

I rake my fingers through my hair--it’s mussed enough that Drusus can hardly scoff at whatever I do to it between now and prep--and sigh.

“Go get coffee,” he commands as he leaves. “You’re insufferable.”

He goes into the hall and knocks on my door, no matter how gauche it is. “Annie? Annie, are you in there?”

“No,” she says, loud enough that it carries over the engines.

“Then I suppose it’s all right for me to come in,” Drusus says, and does just that.

I stumble down the hallway before she can see me, wonder if I should’ve taken the pillow along so I’d have something to hide behind. The coffee’s stronger than usual this morning, and I must half-fill the cup with sugar before I can choke any of it down. We’re going through the mountains, so the train practically stirs the coffee for me. I’ve almost polished it off when Drusus clears his throat expectantly behind me. “You can’t hide anything behind that coffee cup,” he says.

“Wasn’t trying to.” I set it down. “She’s up?”

“In prep. So pliant she might as well be sleeping.” He sits down across from me, picks a bunch of grapes out of the fruit bowl for himself. “So.”

“We didn’t sleep together.”

“That’s evident from context. She’d be glowing if you had.”

“She kissed me.” I pluck a grape but don’t eat it, roll it around in my palm instead. “I told her it was a bad idea.”

“Good, because it was a bad idea.” He eats slowly, chews thoughtfully. “You turned her down and she ran off.”

“Into my room. And I know it was a bad idea.”

“So what are you going to do about it?”

I wish I could slide down my chair and keep sliding until the floor swallowed me up, but my back’s too stiff to bend like that. “I’m trying to figure that out.”

“Let me highlight your options,” he says, and puts down the grape he’d been about to eat. “You’re about the only person who can keep her together, you know. Can you still do that if you push her away?”

I hang my head in my hands. “I don’t know.” I have the feeling I’m going to be saying that a lot.

“Fine. Something you do know. You can’t stay with her.”

“No.” I list off the reasons. “I can’t be there all the time. I have the Games. I have--everything I do in the Capitol. It’s dangerous.”

“For both of you,” Drusus agrees.

“I promised her I’d keep her safe.” I’ve botched that horribly so far, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get it right, somehow. Eventually. I’ll find something that works, I just have to keep working at it.

“And she’d be safer with you out of her life.” Drusus says it so simply, like it’s choice between one jacket or the other. “Or in the Capitol, where they can take care of her.”

My fists come down on the table hard enough to make it jump. “No,” I say, the muscles in my arms quivering. “No. She’d die there, Drusus, or she’d as good as.”

He shuts his eyes, taps his fingers on the edge of the table. “Fine. But it’s still true. If you think you’re making her a liability, you have to get out of this now.”

“I am. But I don’t know what she’d do without me, either.” I am going to ask Drusus to tattoo I SCREWED UP on my forehead. It might start a trend. Double meanings. Annie would like that, that part was her. This isn’t doing me any good. The walls of the train inch closer around me, stretch higher, curve into a dome over my head. I want to fling the windows open, but looking at the grey-brown blur of District 2 makes my stomach curdle and I put my head between my knees before I retch.

Drusus asks, “Do you care?”

“Of course I care,” I say, drag my head back up once I’ve gotten enough air.

“Look,” he says, so I do, shift down from his braided eyebrows to his eyes. “As your stylist, your servant, and so help me Finnick I think I can call myself your friend, you have to decide what you’re going to do about her. And for that, you have to decide what she means to you. Not what you’ll let her mean to you. What she actually is. Because the girl I woke up this morning would have torn her mouth off with her nails if I let her keep them, just because you didn’t want to kiss it.”

I’m glad, suddenly, for the solid weight of the chair under me. At least I know what that is. When I try to think about the rest, when I try to untangle Annie in my head--the depths of her eyes, the sound of her laugh, the warmth and weight of her hands--I don’t know where I stand. If I can stand, even. The images flood me, surge and drag even more memories forward in their wake: Annie collapsing with laughter on the bed, Annie surfacing next to me in the ocean, Annie bending over a difficult tear and stitching it shut. How can I decide what all that means? She’s Annie. All of that is Annie.

“Which is more important,” Drusus asks, “that she lives, or that she loves you?”

I say, “I’m afraid to ask her that.”

***

Snow takes the back of Annie’s hand and kisses it.

I wish she’d rip his mouth clean off his chin. I’d do it myself if I could.

“I understand how difficult it must have been for you,” he says when he lets her go, smiling all across his jaw. “But you’ve faced this tour with the same grace and perseverance you showed in your games, Annie. Perhaps I should have expected that of you, but then, if I had, I would not be so pleasantly surprised.”

My smile strains at the corners, and I clench my jaw as hard as I can to lock it into place. I know exactly what he’s saying. I wonder who else does. More people than I’d like, and I suspect that’s the point. Can I get away with punching him again? No. Not in front of thousands, not on live television. But oh, what I wouldn’t trade away for that chance. My hands tighten at my sides, and I have to work to force them flat.

Annie hangs her head, and whispers, “Thank you, Mister President,” from behind the curtain of her hair.

“Don’t thank me,” he demurs, and reaches toward her face to tuck that hair behind her ear, so the cameras can see everything. “Thank your prep team, and your District representative, and Finnick most of all.”

“Oh, Mister President,” I say. “I’m just doing my job.”

“Aren’t we all,” he says, turning his grin in my direction. The crowd loves it.

***

“You know, Finnick, this room isn’t bugged at all,” Snow says, drawing the curtain shut with a quick jerk of the cord. “It’s a privilege I’ll admit to being somewhat fond of. I like my privacy, even if it’s only an illusion.”

Like mine, I think, fold my hands in my lap so they won’t fidget.

He turns toward me over his shoulder. I wonder if he thinks his smile is inviting. “The more powerful you become, the more public you become, the less you can partake of your own luxuries. Did you know, I used to be a fair hand at gardening? A regular green thumb. But now I don’t grow my own roses. Do you know why?”

“No,” I say, hope he doesn’t notice how my fingers tighten. Of course he notices. I don’t know who I’m trying to fool. Myself, maybe.

“A gardener’s secrets are just that,” he says, “secrets. This room may not be bugged, but the exterior of my house certainly is. My gardening is, was, very personal to me. I stopped sharing it with the country, so that I’d have something of my own.”

I study the floor. It’s easier than staring at his mouth, watching the beads of blood gather at the corners of his lips.

“But it has been years since I picked up a spade, and I may have forgotten how,” he says. His tongue darts out to stop the red from leaking past his teeth. “What on earth was I trying to accomplish? If I’d kept at it, I might have to endure a few stares, a few impertinent questions, but I’d probably have the best-looking garden in the Capitol.”

“I’m sure you would,” I say as neutrally as possible, though I’ve never been all that good at neutral. Sultry’s what I do best these days, and the thought of doing that here makes me want to scream loud enough for the bugs in the hall to pick up.

“And all because I wanted something to call my own.” He tsks. “The lesson here is threefold, Finnick. What’s the most obvious one to you?”

I resist the urge to say Give me a moment, it’s been five years since I’ve had to go to school. Instead, I say, “Nothing is out of the public eye.”

“Very good.” He comes away from the window and circles his desk, leaning a hand on the mat, the tiered outbox, the coffeecup of pens that reads BEST GRANDFATHER in brightly-colored letters. “You’ve been learning a lot of lessons this year, since the Games. Haymitch Abernathy isn’t the first person I’d think of as a positive influence, but he’s certainly been around as an example.”

Guess that’s your lesson for the year. Johanna learns they’re gonna die, you learn that you can’t save ‘em. I nearly smack my forehead, but my hands are knotted too tightly for my arm to jerk free. The roof is bugged. Of course the roof is bugged, why wouldn’t the roof be bugged?

“Last year, you learned what it is to mentor and lose. This year, to mentor and win. I don’t lie, Finnick, and when I said that I was pleasantly surprised by Annie Cresta’s behavior on the tour, it was as true as when I told you that you would be suited to life in the Capitol.”

There’s too much I want to say to that, and under no circumstances should I say over my dead body to Snow, so I keep my mouth shut, my hands locked, my feet flat on the floor.

He picks a pen out of the coffeecup, rolls it through his fingers, and looks at it instead of me. “And the more I watch you handling that girl, the more I prove that true. It’s validating, Finnick. You’ve come into your own. I think you have a gift for bringing out what’s in the hearts of your charges.”

He’s expecting a thank you. I say, “I’m just doing my job.”

“Then what is this I hear about you bowing out of next year’s Games?”

“District Four has other victors,” I say. “Seems like we should spread the duty around.”

“Don’t tell me you’ve tired of it so soon.” The pen clatters back into the cup, and he takes out a letter-opener instead, smooths his fingers on the blade. “I only thought, since you’d have to be in the Capitol anyway, and you did such a wonderful job juggling the Games with your other obligations, that you’d prove even better-suited with a less...difficult situation.”

I bite my cheek hard enough that blood begins to well. It reminds me of him, and I want to spit, smear it over his beautiful hardwood floor. “Frankly, whoever’s reaped this year from Four will be lucky to make it past the Cornucopia, no matter how good they are.”

“And do you blame yourself, or Annie?”

“I don’t,” I say. “It’s just the way it is.”

He smiles. The letter-opener makes less sound than the pen, sliding back home. “Finnick. Let’s go back to my anecdote about gardening. Can you think of any other lessons you might learn from that story?”

Yes. “If you try to keep something to yourself, you’ll lose it.”

“What do you come to the Capitol for, Finnick? What are your obligations here?”

I feel him jerking my strings, trotting me towards the answers he wants, and I’m tired of pretending I can’t see his hand above me. “To fuck whoever you tell me to. Sir.”

He laughs, startled. It’s the first time I’ve surprised him since I punched him in the jaw three years ago, I’d bet. “You put it bluntly, but yes, in a sense. You’re here to make them love you. To make some of them remember why they loved you enough to make sure you won.”

I unwind my hands, finally, relace my fingers behind my head. “What, has my asking price dropped?”

“Not the price, but the frequency, considering the extent to which you have been shirking your commitments.

So we are dealing with each other honestly now. Good. If I have to sit through one more anecdote about his gardening habits and pore over it for hidden meanings, I’ll shove that letter opener into my eye. “I thought the money I draw from sponsors went to the same place as the money you get for me.”

“It does,” he says. “And if that was all I was concerned about I wouldn’t have resorted to siphoning it off during these past Games.”

So that’s why the parachutiers kept trying to update me on my budget. I grind my teeth hard enough that I almost expect chips of enamel to come off.

“And I believe you offered Olivia Bowen a refund for walking out on her.”

“Not explicitly.”

“Well, she called me expecting one.”

“Seems reasonable enough.”

“It’s not your money to refund.”

“It’s my services.”

“Then if you’re so intent on dispensing with our arrangement, I can turn to other avenues,” he says, and stands straight, comes closer to me, enough that I smell the flower on his lapel, the blood underneath. “Everyone will be so disappointed.”

“How ever will they get by,” I say flatly.

“How ever will you, alone in District Four?” He shrugs. “How old is little Crescent now? Can she walk yet? Swim?”

My blood turns to ice. I can’t move. The Capitol’s always cold this time of year, but something leeches the warmth from my hands, my stomach, my chest, and creeps higher to steal the rest. “Not yet,” I whisper.

Satisfied, Snow turns away, back to the window. “I look forward to watching her grow up. I can only hope it happens on camera.”

I nod, mutely, wish my hands would thaw enough so I could clap them over my ears like Annie, block out the sounds of Crescent cooing, Maeve and Jamie giggling, Connor shrieking, Lucy and Katie whispering together. Aunt Hannah singing as she slaps bread dough down on the table. Uncle Jonas pitching his voice like Mags’s, and Uncle Brian’s deep roar of laughter. Even the clucking sound Aunt Shannon makes in the back of her throat.

“And the third lesson about my gardening, Finnick? That even if the roses aren’t mine, if I didn’t plant them and water them and prune them myself, there’s still a fresh flower in my lapel whenever I need it.” He turns, holds me with his stare like a snake, and points to his chest. “We have so little that belongs to us, people like you and I. We give ourselves to the world, and the world loves us for it, and we may be its slaves; but in the end, the choice is ours. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I say, close my eyes because I can’t bear to look at anything right now.

“Good.” And he waits at the window, for me to keep speaking.

“Thank you. Sir,” I add.

“What was that?”

The full title, he means. I swallow, push everything down, say, “Thank you, Mister President.”

“Now look me in the eye and make me believe it.”

All I have to do is raise my eyes, sweeten my voice, smile. All I have to do. I want to rip off every inch of my skin, strip myself to the bone, and even then I won’t be clean. “Thank you, Mister President.”

He smiles back. “Now if you can make me believe you’re thankful after all I’ve done for you, I’m sure you can make up to all the lovers you’ve slighted these past few months. You’re dismissed. Please send Annie in.”

Chapter Text

The wind is so calm tonight that the sounds of the party still flood up to the roof of the Training Center. Not the laughter, and not the drinking, but the music and the rush of water and the popping of corks. I jam my hands into my pockets and try to absorb myself in the garden instead, fix on the scent of the azaleas or the flecks of color in the gravel or the springiness of the grass when I tread on that, but other sounds snap me out of it. Annie’s breath hitching, for one.

I turn, and she’s curled up in a far corner, under the rails, with her knees to her chest. The dress Drusus put her in hangs wet and dark from her ankles to up to knees, probably from the water in the streets, just like there was for my sixteenth birthday. She’s wringing out the hem in her hands, twisting and twisting like it could never get any drier, and I don’t know if she’s even noticed me here.

“I always seem to walk in on you like this,” I say.

She says nothing.

“The party won’t break up until dawn, but by now most of them are probably too drunk to notice us gone.”

Water drips onto the roof, rolls off the top of her foot. Her thumbs knead the cloth. She’s still not listening.

“Does it still look like a turtle?” I ask her, draw closer.

Nothing. Nothing but stains and twisting and unfocused eyes.

I sigh, drag my hands down my face and let that pull the rest of me down until I’m sitting on the ground, not next to her but with her. “Annie, I’m sorry.”

“It doesn’t,” she murmurs.

“Doesn’t what?”

“Doesn’t look like a turtle anymore.”

I nod, somehow, my throat dry. “What does it look like?”

Her shoulders jerk forward, away from the rail, but don’t shake. “Itself.”

I stare down at the Capitol with her, at its shifting lights and flashing screens and glittering spires. “I used to think it was like the sea,” I say. “When I was younger. Everything always moved, shifted, but I learned to spot patterns in it if I looked hard enough. Like a tide, almost.”

“I can’t look,” she says, shaking her head. “I can’t look and I can’t listen but I see it and I hear it and I want it to stop.”

“I know,” I say. My voice cracks.

“And everything smells like him.”

I drag my knees to my chest, fold my arms over them, wish I couldn’t remember the lines of blood between his teeth, the way his lips brighten the longer he talks. “We’ll leave tomorrow,” I say. “One more celebration. At home, this time. The mayor said we didn’t have any boats big enough to host everyone, but he built a floating dock, and he said there’d be boats moored on the side.” I close my eyes, call that to mind instead, soft fog lights bobbing in the waves. “We can take one out, if you want.”

She untangles her hands from her skirt, and one of them, the one nearest me, comes up to clamp over her ear.

Nothing. Nothing’s working. I don’t know why Snow bothered to speak to me. If he saw what happened on the train, he’d know I don’t have her. I don’t even know where she is right now.

“I miss you,” I say.

When I look up, tears are gathering at the corners of her eyes, but she doesn’t blink them out or let them fall.

“I miss home.” I sigh. “The mountains are beautiful, but they have nothing on the sea.”

“Nothing does,” she says. Breathing makes her shiver, but she still only stares ahead. “Were you really born at sea?”

“Almost,” I say, lean back on my elbows. “My mother’s water broke on the boat. Dad panicked and rushed her to shore, but he’d drifted further out than he realized, and by the time he docked, Mother was in labor and he couldn’t reach home fast enough.” Dad used to tell the story every year on my birthday, and eventually my older cousins and I recited it along with him. “He ran into the village and knocked on every door he could find, shouted that his wife was about to give birth and could they please lend us their kitchen, even their bathroom--lucky that most of the houses there had running water--but most people were still out on the boats and the dockworkers really weren’t any help. He reached the last house on the dockside street and knocked until his knuckles bled, and the woman who answered asked how long his wife had been in labor. ‘Three hours,’ he told her. She rushed them both inside and ran down the street to get the midwife. So I was born on the docks, right near the edge of the water.”

Annie laughs. It’s soft and halting but it’s real, and I haven’t heard that since she was singing with Wiress, already more than a week ago.

“I guess the sea wanted me early on.” I tip my head back, and even the memory of freezing water lapping at my toes seems warm, somehow, compared to the frigid air up here. “So it’s a kind of parent. How about you?” I ask her.

“What, how was I born?”

I nod.

She shakes her head. “Nothing special. My mom is a selkie, though.”

“A selkie? Really?” Mags has told me stories about them, seals that shed their skin to walk on land as men and women, tall and impossibly beautiful, with long thick hair and eyes like the storm-swollen sea. If you find their sealskins and lock them away, the stories go, the selkies are bound to you forever. Annie’s mother is tall and strong, yes, but too broad-shouldered and thick-jawed to be called beautiful. I wouldn’t have pinned her as a selkie.

Annie smiles, or at least gives me the beginning of one. “Yes and no. Really a selkie the way you’re really born at sea.” Her hands drift back down to her skirts, but she doesn’t wring them, just knots them, stares down. “Everyone was jealous and scared of mom because she always brought in a big haul, even if no one else could find just one shrimp. And she sailed alone too, she didn’t have parents anymore, and Uncle John was already married. No one knew where she’d go, but she’d never go hungry.

“Then one year there was a week where it did nothing but rain, and even after the storm broke, no one could catch anything. My dad got scared. And then he saw the lantern of my mom’s boat, drifting north. Far north. But he followed her.”

“To where?” I ask.

“A reef,” Annie whispers. She stretches her hand out, level with her knees. “A reef high enough to tie her boat to. That’s where my mom used to find food when no one else could.”

I whistle.

She looks over her shoulder, seeks out my eyes. “When dad tells the story, he says he was far enough out that he could have left without her seeing him, that he could have tried using the reef too. But he sailed up to her instead and moored his boat right next to hers. He says she looked at him like she was going to break his back and leave him for the sharks, but he just looked right back. And he told her ‘I’m sorry for finding out your secret, but I don’t think I can keep it.’ And she smiled at him and said, ‘Then we’d better team up’.”

“And that’s how he took her skin?” I ask, though it almost seems like she gave it to him. Well, Annie’s mother’s hardly a traditional selkie in most other respects, I don’t see why she wouldn’t defy convention in this one, too.

“Yes. That’s how he took her skin. Not the reef, the reef was just where she went to dance. The skin is that she wasn’t that scary after all.” She turns away. I think she might be blushing. “They didn’t take long to have me.”

I cough. Am I blushing, too? It’s been a while since I’ve done that, but the warmth in my cheeks feels right, close to what I remember. “What does that make you, if your mother’s a selkie?”

Annie holds up her hand, spreads her fingers and stares at them, between them. “Not fins,” she says, “not flippers. No webs at all. I think I’m just me.”

“Just you isn’t such a bad thing to be,” I say.

Her fingers stutter, half-curl, but she doesn’t let her hand down. “You could be just you.”

Fireworks explode above us, shower red-and-gold sparks onto the dome--the force field flares when they brush against it, and for a moment the sky is almost white. I close my eyes. It hurts to look. “Not here,” I say.

“I know,” she says, her hands in her lap again, thumbing at her skirt. “But I’ll find you.”

What hurts the most is that I can’t admit that this isn’t me. I don’t even know where I am.

“Come on,” I say instead, and get to my feet, but don’t offer her a hand up. “We’re going home in the morning.”

***

Some of Aunt Coral’s brothers were in charge of designing the floating dock. They’re almost as much of a draw for the cameras as Annie is, though not quite as much as I am. They crowd around the cameras and start singing some of the filthiest limericks I’ve ever heard in dockside bars, and by that point the camera crews are drunk enough to try to join in. Half of this raft must consist of barrels of alcohol, at the rate it’s flowing. Roarke tries to sneak a glass of something that makes my eyes water, but Aunt Shannon slaps it out of his hand. The cameras love my cousins, too, and Katie and Lucy keep elbowing each other out of the way for a chance to talk to the reporters.

I spin Maeve around and pretend to throw her in the ocean--she shrieks and pounds on my back, which makes Jamie start shrieking, too. You’d think they were twins, the way they stick together, even if they’re a year or so apart. “Down you go,” I say, and roar, “Who’s next?” Connor runs and hides behind one of the empty barrels, and Timothy and Patrick reach their arms up as high as they can go and chant, “Me! Me!”

Out of the corner of my eye, the cameras flash, but now that I’m trying to race around the edges of the raft and balance Timothy and Patrick on my back, I can’t pay much attention to them. I have to beat Roarke to the other side. I come in about a length ahead of him, and Timothy and Patrick cheer.

“Not fair,” Roarke says, “your legs are longer than mine.”

“And I had a twin handicap.” He’s almost tall enough for me to headbutt him without stooping, so I do.

Back in the center of the raft, people are still singing, and someone’s come over with a fiddle. Mags claps from her perch on a barrel, strong and in time. They’ve moved on from lewd limericks to the kinds of songs that everyone knows and get dirtier the more you hear them, the kind where you can tell where the chorus starts because twenty more people join in. Uncle Brian has one of the biggest voices I’ve ever heard, and he’s right in the center, but Aunt Coral is dancing with someone else, close to the edges, whirling and skipping and crashing into people who never hear her say she’s sorry. I wish I could see whose hands she’s holding, but everyone’s moving too fast.

It’s a verse, now, and I carry Timothy and Patrick closer. “Come on, want to sing with everyone?” They cheer and clap, and Aunt Hannah takes Patrick off my hands so I can lift Timothy up to see everyone before the next chorus starts. And I barely get a word of the song in before someone bumps into my back.

“Sorry!” That’s Aunt Coral. So I turn around and tell her it’s okay, and Annie’s hair whips over my face, a wave of loose dark curls.

I stop singing and set Timothy down. Annie and Aunt Coral are skipping around each other, changing hands, flipping out their skirts. Coral’s singing but Annie’s just laughing, loose-limbed and glistening and as free as she was in the ocean. Aunt Coral lifts her arm and Annie spins closer, catches herself against Coral’s chest and winds right back out. Someone else grabs Annie’s outstretched hand, and my heart jumps before I see that it’s my dad, who lifts Annie up and spins her around the way he used to do to me, the way I just did to Maeve.

It must be being home that makes her so beautiful. I haven’t seen enough of her anywhere else.

The fiddlers finish with a flourish, and Dad sets Annie back on her feet. Her cheeks are bright and her eyes are brighter, holding the light from the lanterns stationed around the raft. Dad kisses Annie on the forehead and spins her in my direction, and I barely have time to protest before she bumps into me.

She’s still short of breath, looks up at my eyes and then down at our feet. “Sorry.”

“It’s all right,” I tell her. The band strikes up another set, and the dancers around us whirl back into life; even some of the camera crews are getting swept up in it, spinning around in their big insect suits. I drop my voice. “I think I promised you something about a boat.”

She covers up her smile, but it reaches her eyes, and I can still see it when she nods.

“Come on,” I say. “Let’s get out of here before they realize we’re gone.”

I don’t take her by the hand, but I still guide us through the crowd to the edge of the dock where the boats are moored. It’s darkest in the corner, where stacked barrels hide the lights. I don’t know whose boat this is, but it doesn’t matter if we’re not taking it out, just ducking out of sight. It’s small, smaller than the ones I’ve bought for my family and a little smaller than the boat we owned before that, but only the two of us have to fit into the cabin, and it’s snug enough in there to block out some of the sound from outside.

Her hair gets caught on one of the door-hinges, and she slips on the top step, catches herself on the wall. “Hold still,” I say, and work it loose as carefully as I can. She thanks me, and holds on to that lock of hair, winding her fingers through it the rest of the way down.

“These are the kinds of parties I’ve missed,” I say. “I mean, I could do with a few less cameras, but the music’s great.”

“It is.” She glances out the window, back toward the lights. “I’m sorry you’re missing it.”

I shake my head. “I’m not. We’ll have other parties, and if I do any more cousin-racing I’ll fall down.”

She laughs, thumbs at the ends of her hair. “They’re wonderful.”

“They are,” I agree, lean against the wall of the cabin and sink into the cushions. They smell like salt, like fish, like home. “All thirteen of them, and my aunts and uncles, and my mother and dad--and Mags, too, she might as well be my grandmother.” I swallow. “I’m lucky to have them all. I know that.”

The cushions rustle next to me as she sits down. “Finnick?”

“I worry about them,” I say. “That’s all.”

“Because you have to leave them?”

I curl up closer to the cushion, hope whoever owns this boat doesn’t mind. Some of the batting spills out of a tear by my head, and I pluck at it, pull strands loose and wind them around my fingers. I can’t get the loops right, though, and the threads snap apart. I wish my hands would stop shaking. I’m home now, I remind myself. I’m home, and these are my people, and tomorrow the cameras will scuttle back to the Capitol and leave me alone for a few more months. I think. I hope. Unless I’m summoned back early.

“That’s part of it,” I say, when I can bring myself to.

She watches my hands, watches the knots, and I think she twists her hair the same way. “Then why do you leave?”

I don’t answer her, fiddle with the edge of the cushion instead. She has a right to know. I know she has a right to know, she’s as much a victor as I am. “What did Snow say to you?”

She shivers, leans against her folded arms. “A lot,” she says.

I nod, wait. Beneath us, the sea shivers, rising and falling like it’s breathing itself to sleep.

“He said he was...” She shakes her head, hides behind her hair, sinks into the cushions. “Proud. Of us. Of you. Because now you know what it is to be a mentor. And he said he hoped you’d help me with anything else I have to do as a victor.”

He wouldn’t. He would. He insinuated as much on the Tour, and I’m replaying our conversation in my head, rummaging through it for anything he might have said about Annie, any hints he dropped, any clues. I know the obvious message, I saw what happened on the train, he made sure I would, but was there anything about her? Her, not just her in relation to me? I should have been listening for that.

“But I said I thought I was done, that you promised me everything would be over once we got home. And he smiled, Finnick I hate it when he smiles, everything stretches and there are streaks across his teeth, they go from black to blue to red to gold and they’re all the same thing, the smell is out the corner of your eye except it’s not your eye it’s your nose, it makes you into a shark and there’s blood in the water--”

“Annie, what did he say?”

“--he said he didn’t know I could make people love me.”

I slam my fist into the cushion hard enough that the wood cracks underneath. My fist throbs and I stand faster than I meant to and knock the top of my head against the ceiling and now that’s throbbing, too.

“Finnick?” Annie scrambles forward on her knees to catch me.

I’m going to kill him. I swear I’m going to find a way to kill him.

“Finnick, stop!”

I wouldn’t even need the trident, just my hands. I could grab him by the throat and crush it, squeeze, wring the breath out of him--I flex my fingers and spikes of pain shoot out from my knuckles and lance up my arm and I double over, clench my teeth because I know I can’t scream. I think I fractured something. Shit.

Annie’s hands close around my thigh and she pulls me down, sits me down hard on the cushions, wraps herself around my shoulders before I can protest. My good hand drapes over her back and I decide not to move because I can’t put any weight on the other one. The salt in the air stings my knuckles, makes the swelling worse. “Ow,” I say, which is about all I can manage.

She leans over, kisses my knuckle. It burns, and I can’t help hissing. “We should get that looked at,” she murmurs.

“Later.” When I’ve thought up a good cover story.

She shakes her head, no, and her hair sweeps against my legs.

“Annie, I spent half a day with an arrow wound in my side once, I’m all right.”

“Not if you’re hurting yourself.”

The boat hitches under us again, although I can’t say how much of it’s the sea and how much of it’s the wave of nausea starting to hit. I curl in on myself, slow down my breathing. “I won’t let him hurt you,” I say. “I won’t. I’ve screwed up everything else but I won’t screw up this.”

Her breath beads warm on my shoulder. I don’t know if she’s crying.

I shudder somewhere deep inside, and it ripples through my throat, makes me gag. Rise above it, I think. Float on top, don’t worry about what’s going on underneath. “When Snow wants something out of you, he threatens the people you care about most to get it,” I say. My voice has a funny hollow ring to it, like I’m hearing myself speak from a few feet away. “He can’t touch you, but he doesn’t have to. He--has everyone you love, and if you step out of line, he--”

I can’t finish.

I don’t think I have to.

Her face draws away from my shoulder, but she doesn’t let go of me, only twists so that our feet are on the floor. She stands us both up, keeps a hand between my shoulder blades to make sure I don’t hit my head on the ceiling, and leads me to the stairs. “I’ll stay,” she says.

“Stay?”

“I’ll stay.” She wipes her cheek, but her makeup isn’t running, so I don’t know if it’s my sweat or her tears. “I’ll stay here and fall asleep. No one else will miss me. Go fix your hand.”

“It’s not right to leave you here,” I say.

She closes her eyes, hangs her head. “But you have to.”

“I want to stay.”

Without looking at me, she touches the tips of her fingers to my right hand. Stars collide in my head, and I cringe away.

She stops me, puts her hand on my cheek, her thumb against my lips. I remember that moment in the ocean, Annie staring past her fingertips, me trying to taste what she saw. Her breath stutters and her eyes widen, and I lean closer but all she says is “Go.”

***

We christen the yacht with a bottle of champagne I brought home from the Capitol when I was fourteen and was forbidden to open for another two years. By the time I remembered it was there, I’d moved on to the harder stuff. Annie smashes the bottle over the prow and smiles, pats it affectionately. “We still need to name her,” she says.

“I was thinking Branwen, after my grandmother.” I grab the guardrail and swing myself onto the deck. It’s a bad habit, but it’s not one I’m going to break anytime soon. “Mags says Branwen’s an old name, carried here from somewhere across the sea. So it seemed right.”

Annie nods, holds on to the guardrail from the docks but doesn’t step over yet. “I like that. So we can take her back home.”

“Maybe.” I stretch out, soak in as much of the sun as I can. The chill’s starting to fade from the air, and warmer winds are blowing over the sea now. The waves nudge the shoreline, like the water’s inviting the land to play with it. A good day for a maiden voyage, I decide. “Want to see how she sails? She’s yours as much as mine.”

The way Annie’s face lights up, her answer could only be yes. Her smile is bright but not blinding, letting out all the light inside her. “Yes,” she says, and sidles over the guardrail, stands right next to me.

I slip the painter loose from the post it’s tied to, and we cast off. The Branwen sits high in the water, glides west over the waves. It seems like I barely have to trim her sails at all; the wind takes care of everything without my prompting. Annie nestles close to my side, stares out over the ocean, far away from home.

“How long can we stay out today?” she asks.

“As long as we want,” I tell her, and step away from the helm, let the Branwen take us where she will.

***

The second time we take the Branwen out, we go fishing. We can’t rig up a net but we cast off lines and mount them on the deck, and sit and wait with our feet dangling into the water. “It’s cold,” Annie says at first, startled enough that she almost laughs, but she wriggles her toes experimentally and lowers them in little by little until her heel bumps into mine. I nudge her back, and we have a kicking war under the water. It scares away most of the fish, but there’s not much to catch in the afternoon, anyway.

The time after that, we stay out overnight. Annie falls asleep on the deck staring up at the stars, and I carry her below, tuck her in to her cot. She gets fitful in her sleep, so I push my cot alongside hers and hold her hand until the nightmare passes. When I wake up, she’s wrapped herself around my arm. I lay there, let the waves rock us back and forth until she wakes up too. We’re quick getting back to District 4, but not quick enough to miss the harried looks my aunts give us. Mags shushes them all and takes me aside, just asks me and takes my answer for the truth. You do hurt her, though, and I’ll take a switch to you, she says, though, see if I don’t.

Once, the sail tears, wide enough to make a difference. Instead of taking it down and using the motor, I prop Annie up on my shoulders while she mends it. I don’t know how she can keep her hands so steady, but she makes quick work of it, even re-threads the needle without coming back down. “I’ll patch it when we go back,” she says, “but this should hold for now.” I let her down onto the deck. She fits against me, aligned with my chest and my arms. But then the wind picks up, and the sail rotated while she was mending it so I have to scramble to get it back in hand.

My dad gives me his Nine Men’s Morris set--so Annie and I will have something to while away the hours on the boat, he says, and I pretend not to notice how he clears his throat. Annie beats me two times for every three. She spots potential mills and openings at least two moves before I do, and sometimes she sweeps the board of my men before I have a chance to deploy them all. We play in the cabin at first, and when the weather warms, we stretch out on deck facing each other across the board, play catch with the pieces we haven’t used until one of us feels like making a move.

We do fight, once or twice, about when to go home, about where the wind is coming from, about whether it’s safe to swim. Little things. And sometimes Annie goes away, curls up in a corner of her house with her hands over her ears, waiting for me to come and get her. But our time alone always makes it better, makes her better. And that makes two of us.

I never bring the Capitol onto our boat. Just myself. Just us.

***

“You’ve been braiding her hair for fifteen minutes, it’s my turn,” Lindsay says, attempts to yank Maeve’s hands away from Annie’s hair. Maeve and Jamie have created more snarls than braids, but Annie doesn’t seem bothered by it anymore. The first time my cousins swarmed Annie she almost broke down in tears and ran off. But now they’ve gotten used to approaching her by twos and threes instead of all at once, and just about the one thing they all agree on is that Annie’s hair is the best thing in the world to practice their knots in. She sits through it with more patience than I’d have, and when I try to pry the cousins away from her now, she stops me. “It’s all right,” she says, “Emily never plays with my hair anymore. I miss it.”

“I think your hair is the prettiest,” Jamie pipes up. “Even prettier than Aunt Ruth’s.”

“Shh, she’s in the other room,” Lindsay says, elbows him in the side. “My turn?”

“You’ll have to ask Annie,” I say, though I do start to tug Jamie and Maeve loose. The right side of her head is a nest of braids, Jamie’s thin but sloppy ones, and Maeve’s only managed two thick braids on the left, undoing and redoing them until she got them right. I tangle my fingers in one, unravel it. The waves in Annie’s hair stand out even more, shine brighter.

“You can braid braids,” Annie tells Lindsay, tilting her head toward me and smiling. “Take three of Jamie’s at a time, braid them together.”

Lindsay nods, bites her lip and furrows her brow as she sets to work. “You too, Finnick! You never have a turn.”

“Finnick’s the best at knots,” Maeve says, squeezes my hand. “He could make them really pretty.”

“I don’t know if Annie’s hair is the best place to practice,” I say, squeeze Maeve’s hand back. “It’s not the right kind of material.”

“But there were knots in it before! During the Games, when she had the jewels in them,” Maeve says. “Ma made us point out which were which! I got almost the most. I could see all the thief knots!”

I drop Maeve’s hand, keep my smile up. “These aren’t the Games,” I say, as much to Annie as to Maeve. “And those aren’t thief knots.”

“They were granny knots,” Annie says, looking down, her cheeks warm and flushed. “Most of them.”

“Come on.” I shove Maeve and Jamie directly towards the door, into the domain of the aunts. “Get out of her hair. Literally.”

Sighing like I’m marching them off to the gallows, Maeve and Jamie drag themselves to the kitchen, shooting me the most dispirited looks I’ve seen outside of a litter of abandoned puppies as they go. As Maeve shoulders the door open, I catch the end of Aunt Shannon saying, and they spend every waking day together on that boat.

Annie and I look at each other as the door swings shut. Lindsay backs away from the braid she’s weaving, gives us both quick smiles, and scoots to the steps, no doubt to tell Katie and Lucy what the aunts were just saying. I’m going to have to hear them singing somebody’s in trou-ble under their breaths all dinner.

I love my cousins. Really, I do. But there’s a reason I’m pretty sure the correct term for a group of cousins is an annoyance. “Sorry about that,” I say.

Annie winds her fingers through the braids, rakes them through the waves. “They talk,” she says. “It’s the same as what they say to me.”

“What who says?”

“Your aunts.” She smiles. Her face is still pink where her hair doesn’t hide it. “We all talk, sometimes, when I do the mending.”

I’m almost afraid to ask, “What do you talk about?” but I do anyway, take a seat next to her. Katie and Lucy are shrieking with laughter upstairs, Aidan and Laura are arguing about something else, and some of my aunts’ murmurs slip through the door, too, though nothing distinct enough for me to make out.

Annie struggles with a snarl, piecing it apart with both hands. “They want to spend more time with me. And they say I’m good for you and they like that we spend time together.” The knot comes undone, but she keeps smoothing out the strands, hiding her face. “There are things they don’t say that I still hear, though.”

The pit of my stomach drops. I know what she means. I sink forward in my chair, my elbows planted on my thighs. “They’re aunts. They live to meddle, and I’m the oldest, so I get the worst of it.”

She shakes her head. “It’s not so bad.”

“Tell me if they’re getting on your nerves, all right?” They’re getting on mine right now. I grind my teeth together. All right, fine, they mean well, but they’re wrong and they’ve created this echo chamber where the tiniest whispers get magnified into shouts, and I can’t raise my voice above the din to clear things up.

“I will.” She smiles. “But they’re not.”

I scuff my heel on the floor.

“I know we can’t. And I know you don’t want to. So it’s okay until you find someone you do. Want to, I mean.” Her smile fades to a thin pale line, hidden by her hair.

I hope the bugs in the living room haven’t been turned on today. Bad enough that the aunts are probably hearing all of this. “It’s not that--it’s complicated, Annie.”

“Annie! Annie I want my turn to braid too!”

“Me too!”

Katie and Lucy barrel down the stairs with Lindsay at their heels, swinging around the banister to catch up. “And we have ribbons too,” Katie says, “so we can all match.”

Sorry, I mouth to Annie, but she isn’t looking. Lucy and Lindsay already have her by the hands and are pulling her toward the stairs, and Annie laughs, startled, and only then turns over her shoulder to catch my eye.

“Need me to rescue you?” I ask.

Katie squeals. “Yes! We’ll tie her up and you can come save her!”

From the kitchen, Aunt Hannah shouts, “Finnick!” and I could almost kiss her for it.

“Duty calls,” I say, and rush to the kitchen before those images have time to sink in. I shouldn’t think about that, I remind myself. She’s Annie, not some floozy from the Capitol, not some tribute to snare in my net. But it would be different with Annie, wouldn’t it? She’d look like something to catch, something to unravel, with her hair getting caught in the ropes--

“Finnick, close the door, this isn’t a barn and you weren’t raised in one,” Aunt Shannon says.

I do, and it takes until the handle clicks for me to realize that I’ve shut myself in the kitchen with all four aunts, all of whom are raising both of their eyebrows with me.

If a group of cousins is an annoyance, a group of aunts is a barrage. I grin, sort of, and brace myself.

“It seems like we haven’t seen much of you these days,” Aunt Coral says, slings her arm around my waist and scoots me closer to the cluster by the table. They used to do this when I was younger; back then, it meant I was about to get my hide tanned. I’m fairly sure I’m too old for that now, at least from aunts.

I shrug. “I’ve been keeping myself busy.”

“Mm,” they chorus in unison. That scares me more than the clucking.

“It’s only that you’ve been spending so much time away from home,” Aunt Hannah goes on, “and we’re so glad it’s not just you gallivanting off to the Capitol.”

There are words other than gallivanting I’d use to describe what I do in the Capitol, but they’re not words I’d use around my aunts. Twenty or no, I’m pretty sure I’d get my mouth washed out with soap. “I haven’t gone that far.”

Aunt Ruth laughs. “I should hope not. But I do think you should be open to the possibility of settling down.”

Are we close enough to the shore for the tide to drag me out to sea, preferably forever? No. Damn. I slouch against the table. “I’m not that old, Aunt Ruth.”

“But you seem to have found someone you’re comfortable with,” she says.

“And she’s such a sweet thing, the poor dear,” Aunt Coral adds.

“And you’ve already made a joint investment in that boat,” Aunt Shannon says, gesturing out the window toward the harbor. “Shame to get her a boat and not get her a ring.

They went there. I didn’t think they’d actually go there. I sink lower, or maybe I’m just shrinking under the combined weight of four well-intentioned but stern glares.

“Well, we don’t want her to wind up like Ruth,” Aunt Hannah says, grinning.

“I’m right here, you know know,” Aunt Ruth sighs.

“She won’t end up like Ruth,” I finally manage to get in. “We’re just friends.” I say the last part louder than I meant to, but if that’s what I have to do to get heard around here, I’ll do it. I don’t know how Annie manages all this.

“That’s a shame,” Aunt Hannah says. “But still, it’s not at all healthy, what you do in the Capitol. Reaping’s coming up soon, at least you can enjoy yourself at home until then.”

I know better than to think if only she knew. “I’m trying,” I tell her honestly.

Aunt Shannon shakes her head. “When are you going to do right by that girl?”

“I’m trying to do that, too.”

Chapter Text

It’s the day before Reaping, and I am doing everything I can to pretend it isn’t. It’s impossible. Annie and I have been out on the boat all last night and most of today, and Lucy turned twelve four nights ago so dinner isn’t the liveliest affair. I’ve forbidden Lucy from training but it’s not always a matter of training, not where victors are concerned. Aunt Hannah bakes enough bread that even Roarke turns down more servings, and Uncle Jonas hauls out a platter of perfectly-seasoned crabmeat, but I can’t manage more than a few bites of anything. Katie and Lucy steal from my plate, and Aunt Shannon purses her lips either at that or at the way I’m putting food to waste--or both. “Let them,” Mags says, “they’re growing girls.” I translate for my aunts, and Aunt Shannon’s cheek twitches but she’s heard too many stories from my dad and uncles to contradict Mags, even now.

Annie sits at my side, and she doesn’t eat much either, but then, she didn’t put much on her plate. She pushes a strip of bread around her plate to sop up the juice from the crabmeat, but never lifts it to her mouth, and soon enough the dregs of the bread start crumbling back onto the dish, too heavy to stay together.

I volunteer to do the washing-up. It keeps my hands busy. Annie starts to get up too, but Aunt Hannah doesn’t spare even her from cleaning her plate before she leaves the table, and sits down next to her, tries to coax her into one, two more bites. I turn the water up higher and drown them out, thrust my hands into the sink and scrub until my knuckles turn red. It’s relaxing, not to hear anything, no concrete words, no distinct conversations, just the presence of my family, festive even on a night like this.

It’s getting louder, though.

“I want to answer it!”

“No, me!”

“No, it’s my turn!”

“Hold it, all of you!”

I look out the door in time to see my cousins scuffle, shouldering each other aside in an attempt to reach the phone first. Aidan sticks his elbow in Katie’s face and snatches the phone first, then Maeve wrestles it out of his hand and Jamie screams, “No, it’s mine!” and they bat it back and forth until Lindsay snatches it out of the middle.

“Odair residence,” Lindsay says, looking far too proud of herself for sounding grown up.

I can barely hear through the receiver, “You must be Lindsay. Is Finnick at home?”

Suddenly, the soap suds on my hands are as cold as ice. I slam the taps shut and lose the sponge somewhere in the dishwater. When I try to pull it out, I slice my palm on one of the knives, and my hand shakes too much for me to wrap it or towel it dry. Pull yourself together, I think, wipe my palm on my jeans again and again until the blood stops welling.

“Give me the phone,” I say, and to the adults, “I think the kids should turn in early. Long day tomorrow.”

Mother nods first, and though she can’t rise from her chair, she manages to usher everyone out. Annie lingers, a shadow in the doorway reaching out to me, and then Mother takes her by the arm. Annie hangs her head, and wheels Mother out into the hall. Mags looks at me before she leaves, mouths hang in there, her eyes fathomless, and touches her fingers to her lips for luck.

I put the phone to my ear, and breathe.

“Good evening, Finnick.”

“What is it?” I ask, keep my voice low and glance out the picture windows. Helen and Roarke are parading the cousins down to the beach, but the adults hang back, and the shadows from the setting sun hide their faces. Go, I think. Go to the beach. Play with the kids. Don’t look at the house. Don’t worry about me.

Snow sighs, and the sound chills my ear almost as much as his scent. “Let’s not beat around the bush, Finnick. No more gardening metaphors, no more lessons. I’m sure you’ll appreciate my dealing with you in honest confidence.”

Like hell I’m going to thank him. “Fine. What have I done?”

“I don’t know. What have you done? You spend so much time out on your boat, we hardly have the opportunity to talk to each other.”

The cut on my palm must have reopened, because the phone is slick in my grasp, threatens to slide through my fingers. I hold my breath for a few moments so I won’t smell the blood, and say, “I sail. That’s all.”

“Not alone, certainly. Even I know that’s unsafe.”

He knows. The certainty of it settles into my stomach, a cold weight that won’t stop sinking. “Annie and I go out together, when we get the time.”

“As I suspected. And not much else occupies your time, certainly. You’re not in the Capitol, you don’t have the same sort of obligations in District Four, unless there’s something I’m unaware of...?”

“There’s nothing,” I whisper, and swallow, force my throat back open. I turn around, cover the telephone stand with my body so only my back’s visible through the windows. I wish I’d bought curtains for them. I wish the sky wasn’t starting to darken; the lights overhead make this room glow to anyone looking in from the outside, a spotlight trained on me. “There’s nothing,” I say again. “We don’t have school, don’t have to work, so we spend time together.”

“I’m glad you’ve maintained your interest in Annie,” he says, and he sounds so genuinely happy that I know I’d want to punch out his teeth if he were here or I was there. “Perhaps she should come to the Capitol with you. I’m sure she would love to meet some of your associates.”

I hold onto the phone out of reflex. I can’t think of any other explanation for it. I can’t think of anything else at all. I’m numb to everything but his words and the images they conjure: Annie in the Capitol again, shrinking against the tide of light and sound, hands clawing at her--

I can’t. I can’t.

“So I insist, Finnick. Please, bring Annie to the Capitol with you. There’s plenty of space on the train.”

“Annie hates trains,” I say from somewhere outside myself, a part of me far enough away to remember our first journey on that train, her head resting against the window and her hair splayed across the glass, her legs curled up to her chest.

“That’s a pity. But it’s only a short ride. And she could make it only once, if she intends to stay.”

Almost all the air rushes out of me, and I’m left with only enough to whisper, “No.”

“No, what? No, she doesn’t want to stay in the Capitol?”

“No,” I say, not much louder, and the shudders in my throat ripple across my shoulders, down my arms and spine--I search for something to hold on to, anything, but there’s only the wall to lean against, and when I do that I’m afraid it’ll cave under me and send me tumbling. “She can’t stay in the Capitol. She can’t go. Please.”

“Not at all? But that’s a shame, Finnick. I’ve already got people looking forward to seeing what you’ve done with her.”

And back in Three I only thought I was going to get her killed. How could I have been so--I press my teeth together tight, tighter still, and say please again. “Let her stay here. Please. I--”

When I look up, expecting a response, all I see is Annie in the doorway.

“You’ll what?” Snow asks, all smiles, even where I can’t see.

“I can’t take her there,” I say, and know Annie can hear every word of it no matter how softly I speak. “She can’t go.”

“But what about all those people looking forward to meeting her, Finnick? You’ll have to explain it to them.”

“I will. I promise. I’ll--” My hand knots into a fist at my side, and I speak to the floor so Annie won’t see this, won’t see how Snow’s ripped my mask off and shown me for what I am. “I’ll make it up to them.”

It’s the kind of bargain a whore knows how to make.

“I expected as much of you, Finnick. You’re always so generous, so accommodating.”

I nod. My throat is still too tight to speak, but I have to answer him. “Thank you, Mister President.”

“Well, if Finnick Odair says something like that, I have to believe him,” Snow says, far too cheerfully. “You’re welcome. I’ll see you tomorrow. May the odds be ever in your favor.”

He hangs up, and the phone slides from my hand, clatters to the floor. The dial tone beeps at me disapprovingly, but it’s like I hear it through the water; the sound’s twisted, displaced. I slump against the wall and let it take my weight, give up trying to talk or stand or keep my eyes open.

Annie’s feet are quiet but not silent. They make no sound when they touch down but they peel away from the tile floor and it’s like the tap of flesh on flesh, empty fingers drumming on a thigh. “Finnick?”

I think I say, “Hey.”

“Finnick, no.” She shakes her head, or at least I think she does, I can’t bring myself to look but her hair nudges against my elbow. “Don’t go.”

“Have to,” I say. “On the train to the Capitol tomorrow, after the reaping.”

“No,” she says again. “You’re leaving now and I don’t want you to go. Don’t go. You’re not here.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. I don’t know what else to offer.

Her hand touches my hip, then draws away; before I can look, she’s sitting down next to me, leaning the side of her head right against my pocket. “Stay,” she says. It’s so soft it barely makes it up to my ear. “Stay and tell me why you left.”

“Snow called.”

She shivers, holds on to my ankle. “You won. You won, he can’t make you go back.”

“He can,” I say, and if I say it like that, like I’m describing the height of the waves or the time the sun sets or anything else that is, things that don’t change no matter who’s observing them and don’t give a damn how you feel about it, I can speak. “He can do whatever he wants.”

“And what does he want?”

“He wants me to go back,” I say. Flat. Distant. Like the parts of the shore exposed when the tide is lowest. “He wanted you to come with me.”

“Then I’ll go,” she says like it’s the simplest thing in the world. “If you go, I--”

No,” I say, collapse and grab her by the shoulders, cut her off and break through before she gets the idea stuck in her head. Everything I tried to hold back surges again, crests high over my head, and I brace myself for when it’ll all crash down. Not long now. “No, Annie. You can’t. You can’t ever.”

Her eyes flash wide, her breath catches. “You can’t tell me no. It hurts you, you don’t want to go either, so I’ll go too. Or I’ll go instead.”

I grip her so hard my fingers ache. “Annie, listen. You don’t know what it’s like, you don’t know what they do--what they’d do to--”

The wave breaks. I can’t finish.

Her lips close, and I lose myself in her eyes. They stare, at me, through me. She says my name, asks where I’ve gone.

“I can’t let you go there.” I want to close my eyes, curl up until I block out the rest of the world like she does, sink deeper and deeper until it’s all so far over my head that it doesn’t matter. I don’t. “I can’t let them make you like me,” I say. My voice breaks; something else might, too, deeper inside. I’m not brave enough to check.

She leans back, draws me down to the kitchen floor. I kneel, and then stagger against her, leaning my head on her thigh. She did this to me in the Training Center. I did this to Mags, so many times before that, and Annie tangles her hand in my hair the same way Mags used to, coaxing everything out of me.

“He--sells me,” I say. “President Snow, I mean. My body. Me, and some of the other victors.” The ones everyone wants, the ones everyone remembers.

Annie’s hand stills against my scalp. I’m surprised she’s still touching me at all.

“It started when I turned sixteen.” It doesn’t matter how hard I squeeze my eyes shut, how tightly I curl in; I see all of it, can’t block anything out. “I don’t know when I get to stop. And they’ll hurt Mother and Dad and--everyone--if I try.”

Her fingers curl into a fist in my hair, and then pull away, leaving me slipping through like sand. “You don’t want Snow to make me like you,” she breathes, and I don’t think she breathes in after.

“I don’t,” I say.

“But--” She trembles, all through her, and lifts her hands up to cover her ears, “--but you made me like you. And I am. And I can’t leave. I haven’t left. I’m still there. I’m already there.”

Her tears reach my cheeks before my own do.

“I’m sorry,” I say. I hate that phrase. I wish I could rip it out of the language. It’s never enough, and it’s all I have.

“It’s fine,” she says and it doesn’t sound fine at all, not the way she’s crying, not the way her arm scrapes against my scalp and she doubles over into her lap, head in her hands. “It’s all right. I won. I ran off and the forest tore me apart and I think I’m still there, so it’s okay. There’s water soon. It’s mine but it’s water. And then I won’t have to worry anymore and neither will you.”

I listen. I have no right to do anything else.

“It would have been horrible if I lost. Then I’d have to go around and say I’m sorry to everyone. You don’t like that either. So I’ll stay. It’s safer for you. And then next year you can try again, okay?” Her hands claw through her hair. “I’m sorry I didn’t want to lose.”

“I lost,” I say, so quietly that the dial tone almost subsumes it. “I lost you.”

She doesn’t say anything to that. Her palms smack over her ears and her shoulders quake, and if she’s still crying it’s only tears, no sobs, no gasps.

We lie on the floor until my dad comes to carry her home. He doesn’t ask, and I’m in his debt for that. I don’t know if I have any words left.

***

I wear a suit without a shirt to the Reaping, like I do every year. Mags walks up to the Justice Building with only a cane to aid her, and Old Neal to watch behind her and make sure she doesn’t fall. It’s a somber year, despite the favor we’ve received from the Capitol all through the year thanks to Annie’s victory.

Julia Page isn’t unnecessarily excited, and goes about drawing the tributes’ names with shining glasses and a smooth, natural smile. I think I hate that more than I’d hate a grin, at this stage. The girl comes first, Tricia Crabbe, and she’s only thirteen, so there’s actually a murmur when Julia calls for volunteers. One of the larger girls at the front row of seventeens raises her hand and steps up. Paula Marisco. She gets a round of applause, a gesture of the cameras sweeping up to her father and mother in the crowd. Then Julia draws a boy, Roy Scala, and he shoulders out of the eighteens with hateful determination.

I’d say we have a couple of winners, but there’s no way in hell either of them is escaping the bloodbath at the Cornucopia this year.

Besides, nobody wins.

“No,” I hear Annie whisper from a few seats away. “No, no, no...

Her voice swells, and the cameras click and turn in unison, swarm to her side.

“Don’t go,” she rails. “And don’t come back. If you go, don’t come back!”

I can’t move. I can barely even look.

But Mags is there, and Annie’s on the right side of her for her to lance out an arm and hold Annie in her chair, and even if Annie struggles to get free Mags’s arms have tanned my uncles’ hides, she’s strong enough to keep Annie down. “You can’t!” Annie keeps shouting. The cameras love her. “They want you to, they want you to go there and come up for air and there isn’t any air, just blood. They breathe blood. Your blood.”

The color drains from my face. I press my lips together, press my hands to my knees, hold myself rigid and refuse to turn my head. The cameras are extending feelers in my direction, snaking out boom mics and wires. If I move, they’ll see me. Stop moving, I think to Annie as hard as I can. Don’t let them see you.

“It’s dry,” Annie whispers. “That’s why they need us.” Then Mags pulls Annie’s face into her lap and rakes her fingers through Annie’s hair and shushes her, says things I can’t hear or understand until Annie calms down.

How does Mags do it? How does she keep finding more to give?

The ceremony ends, and Julia insists, “May the odds be ever in your favor,” as the tributes are escorted into the Justice Building. The other victors rise and leave the stage, but Mags has Annie, and sings to her whether the cameras ignore it or not.

I can’t stop watching her, even after I follow the tributes inside. If I do, I’m terrified I’ll never find her again.

***

“How do you still do this?”

Mags looks up at me, strains off the back of the chair she’s just taken in the Justice Building. She smiles, but only half of her mouth complies. I kneel so I can hear her.

“You deserve it, and so does she,” she says. “We must take care of one another. You do it your way. I’ll stay here and do what you can’t.”

“I don’t deserve it,” I say. The corners of my eyes sting. “I don’t--Mags, I can’t even be sorry about her being alive, even when I know--”

Mags raises her hand to shush me. “We have all been through this,” she says. “We have all been through hell. Sometimes, there is worse to come. But if we are not here together, we have won nothing. We live for nothing without each other. We survive for nothing without each other.”

It reminds me of the last verse of the marriage song. I rest my head in her lap, wish I could close my eyes, but I can’t. “I don’t want to lose them,” I whisper, and don’t need to add the rest. She knows. Even now, even with half her face slack and one of her hands gnarled uselessly at her side, she’s so strong.

“Then don’t,” she says. “But don’t lose yourself either.”

***

The prep teams and mentors and tributes rush off the train as soon as it pulls in, which leaves me and a few others to deal with the cameras scuttling around, looking for the first scoop on this year’s contestants. I tell them a story about the time when Lucy and Katie convinced Connor that he’d laid an egg, wait for them to stop laughing, fake a yawn, and barricade myself in my apartment as soon as I can. The opening ceremonies unfold on television, as bright and loud as ever, and Drusus has given up on sea ghosts to turn Paula and Roy into jellyfish, with glowing clear film over their skin. It’s not as impressive as he probably wants it to be. I mix myself a drink, then another one, and by the time Drusus shows up I’m sprawled over the arm of the couch, trying to trace the shapes I see in the cushions, but they slip away as soon as I start to outline them.

He reads me my schedule in the morning, or, well, the early afternoon, once the tributes are off training and it’s my turn in prep. It’s tight, of course. I’m working for two. I wonder if Drusus knows. He doesn’t say anything about it if he does, just packs me off to ‘dinner-and-subsequent-activities’ with Francia Mayhew and says he’ll wait up if I don’t call and tell him otherwise.

She’s new, a slip of a young woman with pale blond hair and lavender skin. Nothing like anything back home, and that’s the only time I’ll let myself think about home for the rest of the evening. If I forget about home, I can rest my fingers on her thigh during dinner, trail them higher and higher until she fists the tablecloth and looks down, flushing dark violet. Nobody around us says anything, even if they notice. Typical, really. I finish my wine and whisper to her not to let the table shake. I get her off between the cheese course and dessert. At least out loud, everyone chalks up her sudden departure from the table to her wanting to make room for more. I don’t laugh. She returns and gives me the rest of the night off, her cheeks still glowing.

Maybe I should do this more often. Stop letting them pretend they don’t want what they do, and give them what they’ve been begging for.

I make a few stops before I go back home, pick up some things I probably shouldn’t be buying for myself, not with the cameras still flitting around. I even open one of the packages on the way home, offer some to the driver because it’s polite and he’s probably never had it before. He doesn’t accept. His loss.

Dru doesn’t either. That actually surprises me. But he’s working, he’s got tributes to kill, and I don’t. I have the night off.

The tributes keep training, the clock keeps ticking, I take my coffee with more sugar than yesterday, and I keep working.

***

I stop into the victor’s lounge while the tributes are training. It’s not like I have anything better to do. It’s just about the same crowd from last year, minus Cecelia, who still hadn’t had her baby when I saw her on Annie’s Victory Tour, so that’s a pretty good reason not to be here. I let the door hit my ass on the way in. “Morning,” I say; it’s close enough to what passes for morning in the Capitol, anyway. I think. It’s still light outside, is that close enough? I tangle my fingers in my hair, thinking. Should’ve brought a rope, my hands keep clenching, searching for something to fix around.

A few of them turn around from the consoles and the televisions. I stare at the televisions. I wonder if they love me like they used to. I should touch them. I try to. I think Chaff waves hello, and Brutus shrugs, but there’s this flash of gold and Cashmere looks over her shoulder and sneers. “District Six is that way, Finnick.”

“This is better than morphling,” I say. Granted, I haven’t had morphling since they fixed me up after my Games, but morphling slows everything around you, makes the world bleed into liquid at the edges. This makes my pulse thrum but keeps the world from racing by--I’m gliding instead of melting, like all the sights and sounds around me are encased in glass and I can walk over them, doodle things on the surface with my breath and fingertips. And none of it can touch me back.

“Don’t bring it in if you don’t plan on sharing,” someone says. I think it’s Greg.

I laugh. Why shouldn’t I? It can be funny, it can be whatever I want it to be. “I can bring some over. Phone for it, anyway. We have a phone in here, right? Of course we do. Come on, it’s new, let’s try it, we’ll start a trend. Victors are trendsetters, you all know that.”

“I’m in,” Greg says, and a couple of others laugh, but then one of the patterns does touch me back, a sharp cold shock down on my hipbone, and melts into Seeder.

“A little early for that, don’t you think?” she asks.

“It’s not really morning,” I admit. My smile slants at the corner.

“Not really night either.” She guides me to sit down somewhere that smells awful. The smell tangles around me in vines. I remember the vines. They really wanted me. I think they want me now too, so I rub against them, trace them back.

“Get the fuck off my couch,” Haymitch says.

“Don’t see your name on it,” I say, and frown, press my nose into the cushions so I can make sure his name isn’t written on it.

“Invisible ink,” he says. “Musk. Booze. Things much worse. Unwritten poetry, unsung songs, and thousands of unborn children.”

Johanna mimes vomiting. I laugh. There are sparkles dribbling out of her mouth, the color Drusus sometimes uses. “Doesn’t matter,” I say, lean forward to let him in on the secret. “It can’t touch me.”

“But I can,” Haymitch snarls. I’m pretty sure that’s his boot on the seat of my pants, and then those would be his hands at the scruff of my jacket, and it gets really tight at the underarms before he throws me to the floor. The room jiggles before everything settles down again. I think Seeder’s yelling at him about that. Throwing me, I mean, it’s not his fault the room won’t stay still. It makes me think of snowglobes, all that white swirling under glass. Trapped.

“You threw me,” I say, and my laugh dies in my chest before I let it out. Am I coming down already? No. No. I don’t want to go back.

“Yeah, and I’ll throw you out if you sit on my couch again.”

“Cut him a break, Haymitch,” Chaff says. That must be him helping me up.

“He shouldn’t be here anyway.” That’s Cashmere. “He’s not mentoring this year.”

“It’s the victor’s lounge,” I point out. “Not the mentor’s lounge.” It’s a good point, if I do say so myself.

“That’s because they assume any victors in the Capitol are here for the tributes,” Johanna says.

I fold my arms behind my head, my grin wide enough to spread off my face. “Like you, Josie?”

She snarls. “Call me that again and you’ll need more than drugs to take the pain away.”

I match it. “So you’re stepping up to the plate this year, Josie?”

She punches me in the teeth. My mouth shatters. I laugh through the shards. “So this is going to become a yearly tradition, huh, Josie?” I manage, gasping before she tackles me back to the floor. More shattering, in the back of my head this time, and the fragments catch the light behind my eyes. My head is stinging, swelling. I guess she must have broken through.

“Get him out of here,” Haymitch says, I think. “Get her off him and get him out of here.” Chaff takes half of me and Gloss takes the other, but they’re going in the same direction so I don’t fall apart.

It’s dimmer in the hall. Chaff pats me on the back, asks if I need help getting home, and I tell him I’m not going. Gloss hugs me, but I think it’s just to whisper in my ear.

“Don’t do this,” Gloss says. “It only makes it worse.”

I don’t want to think about worse. I close my eyes. When I open them again, the hallway’s empty, and the lights sink lower and lower until they leave burnt-black smears on whatever’s left of the glass.

“I’m not here,” I say, and wrap my arms around myself. It worked for Annie. Sort of.

***

Julian smacks me on the back once more. I’m pretty sure it’s a signal to get off him. “Whew,” he whistles, “now that was entirely worth it.”

That doesn’t require much more of a response than a little smile, so that’s all I do. I slip away and grab my pants off the back of the chair and fling them over my shoulder.

“You’re not staying,” he teases, stretching out on the bed, gone sweaty and boneless and smug. “What I paid and nothing more, is that how you roll?”

“More or less.” I pat his cheek, and my hand comes away slick. I don’t smear it on my pants. “Makes you wish you’d bought the deluxe package, huh?”

“In this economy?” He laughs. “I’m lucky to get it as advertised. Good luck to you, Finnick.”

“And to you,” I say, and more or less mean it. He even gives me money for the cab ride home. Could have been worse, I decide, and stretch out in the backseat.

Drusus is half-asleep when I get home, still making alterations on Roy’s interview suit. He breaks away from sewing long enough to give me a once-over, hand me a drink, and put me to bed with it. No words. That’s Drusus in the zone, though, so I don’t mind. Between that and the drink, and the crash I’ve been trying to stave off, and sheer physical exertion, I have no trouble getting to sleep at all.

Besides, Annie’s there when I sleep. Annie, and the ocean, and the sand under my feet. We’re dancing, my arm around her waist and her hands on my shoulders, tugging me closer. It’s bright out, and warm, just before high tide. I slip on an oyster shell the same way I did when I was small, and it tears into me, but the ocean washes me clean and Annie’s there with it, drawing me out and down and close. Her hair trails against my chest, wet all through, and her eyes pull me under and under again. She arches back, crests on top of me with the waves--

--and feet away from my ear, a drill grinds.

I sit bolt upright in bed and spring out of it, spin around to face the source of the sound and wonder why I don’t sleep with a knife. I’m casting around for anything that might work as a weapon and come up with the glass by my bedside before I see that it’s Beetee with the drill, and he’s staring at me unperturbed, the morning light glinting off his glasses.

I set the glass down. I feel bad for thinking of it as a bludgeon.

“Afternoon,” Beetee says.

“Hi,” I say, blinking. “You’re in my apartment.”

“I’m sweeping it.” He revs the drill once more, securing a metal plate behind my end table.

“Sweeping it.”

“Yes.” He drills in another screw, then straightens up and looks around the room, the drillbit bobbing as he counts. “I have a few more to take care of. Why don’t you go get some coffee and have a shower.”

I open my mouth. Close it. Open it again. “Beetee, what the hell is going on?”

“Like I said, I’m sweeping your apartment.” His glasses have slipped down his nose, and he looks at me over the rims. “Just in case there’s anything you don’t want hanging around.”

I know he means more than he’s saying, but I’m still not over the part where he broke into my apartment and started drilling. So I stare some more.

“Unless you want to watch,” Beetee goes on.

Did Drusus slip something into my drink last night? I sniff the glass, can’t pick anything up but a lingering whiff of alcohol, not that that means much. “I’m good. I think.”

Maybe this is Dru’s way of telling me stop doing drugs when you don’t know who designed them.

“Suit yourself.” Beetee goes to another corner, pulls over a stepladder and starts knocking gently on the wall. “If you ever have a problem, just say my name. That’s how this works.”

“Uh-huh,” I say. “I’m going to shower.”

“Good. See you when you get out.” Then the drill cranks to life and I leave.

I step into the shower, fill the stall with steam, and think of the softness of Annie’s hands.

***

Gnaeus has kept me up all night. I’ve gotten a few breaks to tend the rope burns, to drink, to take a pill, but nothing else. So when he stops paying a bizarre amount of attention to my left elbow and says the Games are starting, I almost welcome it because it means I can sleep.

I should wait until Paula and Roy die at the Cornucopia. But I can sleep after that.

Gnaeus has his bets on the girl from 2, whose name is Merry but whose disposition is anything but, and he’s cheering her on as she barrels to the Cornucopia over the twitching bodies of the two who made it there seconds before her. I study her with professional interest. She’s tall and broad-shouldered, clearly knows her way around a sword and a spear, and if the broken back of the tribute she’s standing on is any indication, is fine enough without either. If she guards her supplies well, she has a decent shot at winning.

The cameras cut to the bodies on the rocks, pan over their faces, and I recognize the one she’s standing on: Roy. I can only hope she puts him out of his misery before someone else has to. From across the circle, Paula sees him fall and screams something--it might be his name, but the cameras are soaking up and magnifying each sound and it’s hard to pick out one voice amidst all that. She rushes forward, hesitates just a second too long to elbow a small boy out of her way, and I know she’s dead.

I’m right. I tend to be about these things, I’ve noticed. Call it observation, call it practice, call it instinct. The javelin pierces her throat, and skewers the other boy for good measure. They crash to the ground, locked together. The boy from 1 threw it, I see now from the way he’s sizing up his kills, but he doesn’t retrieve his weapon. Why should he? He’s a Career, he’ll get more.

Let the commentators dissect how the traditional alliances seem to be breaking down this year. They’ll have fun with it.

“Look at them go,” Gnaeus cheers. “They’re a regular bunch of live wires.”

“My district’s out,” I say, turn away from the screen. I will Paula and Roy’s faces to leave my mind, retreat to the shadows with the faces of every other kid who’s died since I started watching these things, but they stay cemented there, their eyes wider in death than they were in life. Could I have done better for them than Brine and Beatriz? No, and I cut that thought off there. She’s home. She’s home, and this isn’t home, and I swore I wouldn’t bring her here, and I need to stop breaking my promises like this.

“Shame,” Gnaeus says, and keeps watching.

***

Drusus almost cries with joy when I ask him to get me dressed for a nightclub. He needs something to be excited about. His tributes just died. It really isn’t funny. I should stop laughing, even if it’s only inside my head. But Drusus is ecstatic to wrangle me into even tighter pants than I usually wear to work, and work tendrils of things that shine into my hair, and he and the prep team (who are a little more vocally disappointed about the poor tributes) spend hours working abstract designs onto my back and chest, black and gold and glittering.

I don’t tell them I’m meeting Johanna Mason at the club.

Augustus’s Daughter is packed to the gills when I get there. There’s barely any room to dance, even dancing the way they do here, slicked up and practically inside each other. There’s a list, and I’m on it of course, and the cameras seem surprised and thrilled to see me. I talk up Drusus’s efforts and the tragedy that was District 4’s poor showing this year and insist I’m just here to put that in the past where it belongs and have myself a good time. The cameras eat it up. Back home, they probably choke on it.

“Someone looks like a harlot,” Johanna hisses behind me.

“Someone sounds as charming as ever.” I smile tightly. The music inside the club pulses, swells, and it should be loud enough to drown her out if she insists on whispering things in my ear for the rest of the evening. Her and everyone else.

“Well the way I sound and the way you look, it’s a perfect match,” she says. Never mind the way she looks; her hair has streaks of blood red in it that seem to suck the light and smoke out of the air, and she’s wearing about as much fur as you could find on an otter pelt, covering only what she needs to. Her nails glint whenever someone comes by carrying glasses, catch the light just the same. “Dance with me.”

“Oh, Johanna.” I step in closer, cup her shoulderblades and trail my fingers down her back in time with the music. “Does this mean you do like spending time with me?”

“Let’s find out,” she says sweetly, up on her toes and teetering heels to put her mouth just under mine. “How many songs can we get through without me breaking your face?”

I laugh and press her back down before she breaks her ankle. “Let’s see, huh?”

She grinds her hips on mine, her fur on my leather, and one song blurs into another. Apparently we do get along as long as we’re not talking to each other. She’s lithe and small but forceful and eggs me on, grabs me by the neck and holds me where she wants me. I don’t stay, I never stay for long. I pin her arms over her head, twine our fingers together and pulse in time to the music and she snarls, her eyes dark and glittering. Cameras flash. We drink the light down.

The music speeds up, the bass throbbing up through the floorboards and speakers, racing at breakneck BPM. Johanna and I clash, break apart to pull other partners in and writhe against them until we leave them panting and glassy-eyed, but we find each other again and lock together, her legs straddling my thigh, my hands sliding down her hips. When we’re out of breath, I take her aside, buy something out of someone’s pocket. This time, it’s enough to share, and the music around us surges high enough to drown in.

“Look at you,” she whispers, riding my hip so her mouth can reach my ear. “You’re a regular Capitol citizen now.”

“And what does that make you?” I ask, grab her by that ridiculous fur thing and haul her off but the texture tickles my hand too much and my fingers won’t close so I seize her shoulders instead. Her skin is slick, slick and melting. I should’ve asked the guy what the hell those things did. Oh well. Hindsight. Too late now. The music booms in agreement: too late. Too late.

“Same as ever.” She jabs her fingernails into my back. I think Drusus’s design is bleeding. “Fucking your kind over.”

“Really?” I laugh in her ear. It sounds wrong, low and drawn-out. “‘Cause I don’t see anyone getting fucked.”

She looks like she likes the sound of that, out of my mouth. She licks her teeth, rakes her nails down my spine to the waist of my pants. “Look in a mirror, asshole. You’ve got snow spilling out of every orifice.”

The beat skips and shudders, spins higher and faster without stopping, and I grab Johanna by her red-streaked hair and haul her into the hallway. I think I do, anyway. We hit a wall, at least, and when her back collides with it she shuts up, groans instead, deep and feral and trembling all over.

“Like I said.” She grins, lopsided and framed in red and black. “You’re fucked.”

“And you’re desperate.”

“That’s what happens, when you’ve got no one left you care about.” Her eyes shine. For a second, they aren’t hers.

I tear her off the wall and throw her past the nearest door I see. Glass shatters on the way, purgatives splatter on our ankles. Someone green shrieks and runs by but I barely see it, shoving Johanna onto the sink’s ledge and the mirror behind it. I don’t look in. I just look at her. “You leave her out of this,” I snarl, more breath than voice.

“You brought her in,” she snaps back, chest heaving against mine. The shoulder of her top has fallen down. Her skirt’s up around her hips. She’s hot there and hateful everywhere else, tearing into my back and shoulders. Blood tangles with the designs Drusus painted on, and I feel the shapes change, slick and twisting on my skin. “And you’re pathetic. You can’t have her, so you drive her nuts and have her fuck herself over for you--”

I slam her into the mirror, widen the cracks in it, and if I didn’t have to keep my hands under her thighs I’d wrap them around her throat instead, choke off that horrible smug smile and make her swallow every last hateful whisper. “Shut up,” I hiss, my teeth grazing her neck. “Shut up, you little slut.”

She moans, high and thin, almost squeaking. “Good,” she pants. “You know the difference between a slut and a whore.”

The mirror fractures. Her legs wrap around my hips, her underwear is soaked and heavy, all too easy to shove aside. She bites my shoulder, flays my back, and either it doesn’t hurt as much as it should or I just don’t care, since I don’t stop her no matter what she calls me. Whore. Traitor. Killer. I save Murderer for her, I know there’s a difference there too. Her nails drill into my scalp and past it to my skull so the words have someplace to go. I get myself undone, hold her legs apart. I feel like she’s stripping everything away there too, boiling away my skin. She laughs like I’m fucking it out of her, asks if I wish I could do this to all the people who do it to me. I ask her how she knows I don’t.

“Because you keep doing it,” she says, reeling, her heels ramming my back, making me push in harder. “You do whatever the hell they want. I bet you’d let them ruin you if they wanted you to stop, just so you could make someone happy.”

It’s too late to stop. I ignore the gashes in my chest and back, push past them, push her and sink my teeth into her shoulder and claw at her thighs until her voice breaks, until what she’s calling me gets jumbled and tangled and splintered and it doesn’t mean anything.

I come down from the sex but not the high. Johanna slumps against the mirror, dangles a hand into the sink, and looks extremely pleased with herself for someone who’s probably going to limp out of here tonight.

“You,” I say, wipe my mouth with the back of my hand, “are just like them.”

She coughs, then laughs, and untangles her limbs from around my back. My blood and makeup are all over her arms, her fingertips, under her nails. “I thought that would make it easier for you.”

I do my pants back up and shoulder the door open, slam it behind me--

--and recoil at the wall of cameras clicking in my face.

Chapter Text

At least when I get home, Drusus only rips me apart with words. He shoves me into the shower, comes in behind me with all of his clothes on, and I have no idea what he does to the cuts on my back but they sting in an entirely different way by the time we get out. He reams me out over the pounding water, “You self-destructive little idiot,” he says, and “You hate remake, why do you do this to yourself?” and “Next time, hire a professional, or I’ll hire one for you, you stupid kid.”

I’m glad he loves me.

I pass out when he’s applying medicine to my back. Then Caesar Flickerman, of all people, comes to visit me, and says he’s got just the thing, the same treatment he’s used for years. His face melts off and there’s another one under it, and he laughs and makes a joke about someplace beyond Beauty Base Zero, like it’s all a television commercial. He touches my skin and it scalds red, then smooths away, white like his makeup, a blank canvas, and everywhere, everywhere he’s ever touched me. Even my tongue is white when I scream.

I blink awake with a freestanding IV next to the bed and my scars all knit away. I don’t want them gone, I try to say, but my mouth is too dry to form anything more than a croak, so I rake furrows into my arms instead, claw at all that healthy shiny remade skin until it looks like it should. I’m aching all over and I don’t care, I want it off, I want it gone, I want to peel myself out of my skin and throw it away and burn it and then maybe I will be clean, cleaner than the machines here could ever make me. Blood flecks my nails and I tear harder, scour myself down until there’s nothing left.

Drusus comes in and screams at me again. I don’t hear him. But when he and the prep team hold down my arms and threaten to restrain me if I make it any worse, I listen.

“I can call you out tonight,” he says, when I’ve calmed down, but he’s still holding me by the wrists, a gentle reminder. “It’s the Games, people sometimes understand.”

Snow won’t. I shake my head, though it’s more of a twitch than anything. “I can’t.”

“Probably not,” Drusus sighs. “And it won’t be the first time you’ve gone to work with a supplement. Just don’t be an idiot.

“Story of my life.” I stare at the ceiling. It’s easier than looking at my arms.

“If you come back here with a scratch on you that Calpurnia Houston didn’t put there, I will treat it with the foulest peroxide I know. And stay the hell out of the tabloids.”

I’d salute him, but even the thought of moving makes my arms sting.

A few hours later, I’m out the door, in a netted undershirt that distracts me and everyone else from looking at the fading lines on my back and arms. The cab drops me off at Calpurnia’s apartment building, where she lives on the second-highest floor. I take one look at the furnishings and I know she’s not one of the ones Snow is using me to run into debt. Calpurnia herself has an eerie ageless face and sculpted body, and long hair that’s blue-black at the roots and blue at the ends.

We have drinks but not dinner, pleasantries but no conversation. She takes control immediately, tells me what to call her when I’m allowed to speak, makes me strip, makes me get myself hard. After what Johanna called me yesterday, the things Calpurnia says barely sting at all, but I don’t mind faking offense. I wear myself out for her, and then she uses me until I can’t move my hands anymore.

“Better than I expected,” she says afterward, stretching out on her side of the bed. “When the President said you’d be coming instead of dear little Annie, I was a bit skeptical. But it was worth it in the end, don’t you think so?”

She would have been Annie’s first. I can’t see for a moment, can’t hear, can’t speak for all the blackness welling inside me, strangling the air and warmth out of me and wringing me bone-dry. I should have known it wasn’t a bluff. Knowing it wasn’t makes it worse. I think I say I do, thank you to Calpurnia, but all I hear is Annie’s voice, Annie’s laugh, Annie humming to herself as she mends, Annie whistling on our boat, Annie whispering to me in the dark. No. I’m keeping her away from people like this, I can’t bring her in here now, that’s the worst thing I could do to her.

But the sounds don’t stop, and I fall asleep dreaming of her face.

I wake up to the roar of the waves, and the short sharp bursts of Annie knocking on my window. I slide out of bed and let her in, steady her against me as she climbs over the ledge. There’s sweat on her forehead, sharpened with salt from the ocean still threaded through her hair. I lean in to breathe that in, and after that it’s natural to press my lips to her forehead, kiss the roots of her hair, the arch of her brow. She laughs, and I pull back to ask her why, but she touches her thumb to my lips. I touch it back with my tongue. She shivers, whispers my name, and I draw her close again, bear her down to the bed and kiss her until I have to come up for air. Finnick, Finnick, she says, the same way she said it on the dam with her fingers against her thigh, and I rest mine there now, call her name. She says she’s here. I keep her here, cling to her and hold her down and have her because I want to, because she wants me, because our voices tangle together and break a thousand times in the dark. I touch every inch of her I can reach, stroke her open for me, and she takes me in so deep I never want to come out again.

“Well, isn’t this interesting,” Calpurnia says, and my eyes snap open on hers, not Annie’s.

That was the dream. This is real. I’m in Calpurnia Houston’s bed and she’s stroking my thigh, tapping her fingertips right at the joint of my leg. She’s so cold.

When we finish, I can’t go back to sleep. I lace my fingers behind my head and she pulls a pack of cigarettes off the nightstand, lights up. She offers one to me, but I decline. “I don’t usually do that,” she says.

“Smoke?”

That,” she corrects, lifting her knee and rubbing it against my groin. “Looks like I’m making a lot of exceptions for you, Finnick Odair.”

“I’m honored.”

She smiles, tilts herself on to her side to let a curl of smoke out. “So what, does it cost extra?”

“That? No. You’re billed for time, not for services rendered.” I assume as much, at least. I haven’t exactly gotten to look at the financial records, if they exist.

“Still,” she says. “I’ve been known to tip for good service. Is there anything you need?”

I blow away the smoke drifting over my mouth. “Not really. I’m not hurting for money.” It’s the most honest thing I’ve said to her all night, and if I were somewhere else I could laugh at it. There is nothing I need here, nothing these people can give me.

But they need me. Or they think they do, at least. I twirl my hair between my fingers, considering that.

“I’d hate to send you away with nothing,” she says, pouting her lower lip around the cigarette.

“Then don’t,” I say, roll over to face her. “Give me something only you can.”

She laughs, leans closer. “Like what?”

“Something that’s yours. Something you haven’t shared with anyone else.” Something more useful than another string of pearls or sapphire bracelet. What is the real currency around here? “A secret.”

She hums, high in her throat. “A secret,” she repeats. “And what would you do with it?”

“Keep it, of course. Isn’t that what you do with any kind of payment?”

“You have me there,” she says, and climbs on top of me, puts herself on display as she stubs out the cigarette. “All right. It really is the least I can do.”

I don’t ask her what the most she can do is.

“The new Head Gamemaker is the one who really designed that dam last year,” she says, nipping at my ear. “Furroughs took the fall for it, but it was Crane all along.”

...well. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that. A thousand other questions flood in, but I restrain myself, rest my hands on her hipbones. “How do you know that?”

“He’s my brother-in-law,” she says. “Crane. He married my sister when he couldn’t have me. So the sentimental fool comes barging in the day they executed Furroughs, and, well. People talk.”

Being a Gamemaker isn’t the honor I thought it was, then, or at least not an unqualified one. I smile wider at that than I should, flash my teeth. “What did he say?”

“That this was our chance to run away. I told him that I happen to like my tongue.”

It has its uses, I’ll admit now. “Where would he have run?”

“I thought you asked for one secret.”

“Then I’d better get back to work,” I say, and stretch my shoulders, roll off my back. “Because I charge for services rendered.”

***

“You’re not the only one, you know.”

Floor 7 of the Training Center looks about the same as floor 4, except for the view. It smells different, if I try to break past the makeups and cleansers and fabric glue, but the layout is exactly the same. Johanna’s sitting on the windowsill, and I took the couch once she let me in. “The only one who what?”

“Who Snow’s got by the balls,” she says.

“I know that.” We victors don’t hold a whole lot of secrets from each other. Hard to, when our stories are so similar.

“Yeah,” she says. “Sure you do. But I bet you don’t know whose balls he’s got in jars.”

“The ones he’s neutered, you mean?” I ask. “Haymitch, apparently,” though I’m not sure neutered is the right word for him. Drunk, disconsolate, distant, but not neutered.

She winces from the jaw down like she’s got a bad taste in her mouth. “I don’t want to think about that. But it might by why. I’m just saying he--Snow--he makes that decision more often than you think, you know?”

“I can guess,” I say, and let that one sit.

“Can you?”

I reach for the sugar and dump about a third of the pot into my coffee. You’d think they’d serve better stuff at the training center, but apparently the other victors got to it first. Johanna’s eyes don’t leave mine. “Despite your best efforts, you’re not unappealing,” I say. “I mentored the year you won. People talked about you. You gave the Capitol something they hadn’t seen for a while, something they didn’t expect. They don’t always take surprises well, but sometimes they like being kept on their toes.” The coffee’s still too bitter when I sip it. Damn. “And you’re good-looking even by their standards. You were sixteen when you won, too. Old enough.”

The sneer on her face tapers off into a thin, dark-edged line. “And then what?” she snaps, tilting her head, narrowing her eyes. “What happened after that, Finnick?”

“You didn’t.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the victor of the sixty-fifth Hunger Games.” She claps her hands twice, sliding enough on her palms that I hear her nails scrape. “How long did it take you to figure that out?”

“Not that long, once I sobered up enough to think about it,” I say. “You didn’t know last year, obviously, so I’m guessing Snow approached you sometime between then and now. Unless he didn’t at all, and if not, I admit I don’t know why.” If he was willing to use--

I stop myself before I finish that thought.

“No, he did. But, Snow, wait a year? Ha.” She leans against the windowpane, cracks her shoulder. “He as good as told me at the end of my Victory Tour. I called his bluff.” She crosses her arms, under her breasts. “No point in calling his bluff when he’s not bluffing, you know?”

My cup rattles in my hand, so I set it down. “You thought you were the only one who’d have to do it, when he asked you?”

“What else was I supposed to think? I see all of you clowns with your stupid happy families and ugly old Haymitch at the bottom of a bottle. It didn’t add up.”

“So he didn’t tell you about Haymitch.”

“Haymitch told me about Haymitch.”

I nod. There’s a photograph one of Snow’s men keeps on file of Haymitch when he was younger, a few months before his Games. He’s smiling--reluctantly, like someone off-camera’s coaxing him into it--but he has his arm around his younger brother, and a young woman who must’ve been his girlfriend holds his other arm, her cheek pressed to his shoulder. (When I asked, Haymitch wouldn’t talk about her.) Snow’s man showed me the photo when I was eighteen. Old enough to read between the lines. That kept me quiet for a few months.

“Is that what happened to you?” I ask, so softly I can barely hear myself over the low drone of the machinery in the walls.

She nods, but her head doesn’t come up from it. “I didn’t have that much. I liked it better that way, even before--” She wrings her shirt in her hands. “It was just me and my dad. And my dog. He killed my fucking dog, it sounds so stupid, who does that--”

I look away so I don’t see her start to cry. She’d never forgive me for that.

“His name was Patch,” she says, sniffs angrily. When I look at her, she’s wiping her wrist over her nose like she’s backhanding herself. “My dog, I mean. Dad got him for me when I was ten. He had the biggest paws.” She holds her fists up to demonstrate. “He used to trip over them when he was a puppy. Dummy. I called him Patch ‘cause he had gray fur all over, except for black splotches on his back and over his eye.”

I wait.

“After--” She swallows. “After I told Snow to go fuck himself--”

“Did you really?”

Her grin, when it breaks out, seems to startle her into laughing. “Yeah. I did. Hoped I’d give him a heart attack. We should be so lucky, huh?”

“We should,” I agree.

“Anyway.” She curls up to the glass again. “Two weeks later, I get back home from a trip up north, and they tell me there was a hunting accident.” Her mouth twists at the corner. “And when they bring me to him, his head’s been blown clean off, I can see--I can’t even see his face, there’s nothing there, I could’ve tried to say they were faking it but I knew.”

“Your dog.” I’d shake my head, but I know now as well as she did back then. “It didn’t even occur to me to think about pets.”

“Let me guess, you got a little kitty cat for your love boat with Annie.” She grimaces.

I chuck the sugar spoon at her; she dodges, and it smacks the window, bounces off and rolls under the table. “It’s not a love boat, and we don’t have a cat.” One more thing for Snow to take away from her if I screw up.

But then I picture how she’d light up, how she’d cradle a kitten close and tickle its belly and flop with it on the deck in the sun. The way she’d laugh. How beautiful her laugh is when it rings out over the water, how the waves catch the sound and reflect it back up until it feels like the sea’s rolling with her laughter. And I can’t let that get taken away from her, either.

“Maybe we should get one, though,” I say, duck under the table to get the spoon so I can stir my coffee. “They’re great at keeping vermin off boats.”

Johanna rolls her eyes. “You’re disgusting. But sure, go ahead. Like you need any more strings for Snow to jerk you with. What’s another?”

If the roof is bugged, then the fourth floor probably has even more bugs, so I don’t dare tell her about all the wheels starting to turn in the back of my head, the ideas starting to flow. “He hasn’t needed to jerk them, that’s the thing,” I say. “I dance the way he wants me to because I know he can make me if I don’t. But he’s still holding the strings, no matter how well I perform.”

“So you’ll just keep dancing like they’re not there at all,” she finishes.

“That’s what I’ve been doing.” There’s the spoon. I crawl out from under the table and wipe it on my pants, swirl it through my coffee, watch the patterns it carves in the cream. “Doesn’t make me free, though, does it?”

“Nope,” she says, uncurls and pushes off the windowsill to stretch. “Like there’s still a tracker in your arm.”

I run my thumbnail over the spot, wonder how deep I’d have to cut to rip it out. It’d hurt. But I’ve survived worse.

***

By the time I reach my apartment, my head’s clearer than it’s been for days. The air of the Capitol at night carries its own kind of haze, though, expensive perfume and too-vibrant flowers and cloying smoke, and purging that out of my system takes more than Capitol drugs. Once I’m inside, I slump against the door, take a moment to breathe, to rest. No more social calls, no more obligations, no more outings, not for tonight.

“Good,” Haymitch says from my kitchen floor. “I was starting to think I’d have to sleep in your bed.”

I drop my bag harder than I need to. “What the hell is everyone doing in my apartment?” I ask the ceiling, which doesn’t answer.

“Making coffee,” Haymitch says.

“Ha.”

“No, really. I can’t figure this thing out.” He stands up, bends over the countertop and peers at the buttons. “Does it have a tequila option?”

“My apartment is not a full-service bar,” I tell him.

“You say that now,” Haymitch points out. “Wait until you see the modifications Beetee made.” He raises his voice on Beetee.

Something in the walls clicks and turns.

“What the--”

“I thought he told you he swept the place.”

I smack my forehead. “Say his name, problems go away.”

He leans against the counter, grinning. “And you’ve got a problem with people taking away your privacy.”

“So he debugged my apartment. And didn’t think to warn me about it beforehand.” I pick my bag back up, empty its contents on the couch and start sorting through them because otherwise I’m going to pick Haymitch up by the front of his shirt and throttle him. “You know, I’m tired of being left out of the loop on these things.”

“He didn’t debug it. Ask him, if you can do it without getting a tail. What he did was make it so you could have a half hour, here and there, if you need it. And now that no one’s listening I’m fine telling you that the only reason you’re out of the loop is we know you don’t want to get Annie killed. I think that’s a fair point.”

I drop the jacket I’ve been folding, let it crumple to the ground and twitch like I’ve been slapped with cold water. The chill fades, but the shivers don’t. “Has something happened to Annie? Is she all right?” I did everything Snow asked me to, everything, they couldn’t possibly--

“If this is going to keep being all about her, Finnick, I’m going to walk out that door and you can keep the feedback loop as a souvenir,” Haymitch growls. “Stupid kid. You think I need privacy to tell you if your girl’s gone under? Get some damn perspective.”

“She’s not my girl,” I say; it’s almost a mantra at this point, a talisman against some force I have to hold myself back from naming. I sigh. “Fine. This isn’t about her. What is it about, and why did you bring her up?”

“Because I know what you’re doing to keep her alive, and I was hoping that you could do more.”

“More for what?”

He takes a swig from his bottle, down almost to the dregs. “For us.”

For the first time in days, my hands still, fall to my sides. Us. I roll the word around, give it the space it needs, deserves. “I’d ask if you meant the rest of the victors, but I don’t think you do.”

“Good, you’re starting to think.” He leans back on the counter, smiling. I wonder if he’s capable of doing that evenly, or if one of the corners of his mouth is always higher than the other. “I’m glad you sobered up, we’re running out of time.”

“Pot, kettle,” I say, deadpan.

“Black as coal,” he agrees. “But I’ve been taking care of this drunk for longer than you’ve been alive.”

“This,” I say, and hope to hell that whoever else is included in this has other intermediaries for when Haymitch is too busy spending his time passed out to--what is it that he does? He’s been a mentor as long as I’ve been alive; he knows even more people than I do. Us could mean almost anyone. “You planning on telling me what this is?”

“Soon as you plan on telling me what you wouldn’t do to drown Snow in his own blood.”

What I wouldn’t do? I can feel a nothing starting up in my throat, but I remember my family, and Mags, and Annie, and it withers into silence.

“That’s why you’re a hard one to tell,” Haymitch says, takes another drink. “The rest of us, we’ve got nothing to lose. But you, you’ve got people to save. Makes you want it more; makes you easier to take down. Hell, you know this better than I do, what am I doing preaching to you?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “But I want in.”

Haymitch throws back his head and laughs, raises his bottle to toast. “So you figured us out, huh?”

“The part about drowning Snow in his own blood was a clue.”

“Get in line.”

I stop fiddling with my bag and simply sit, my hands on my knees, facing him. “I’m serious. And you’re right. I do have people to save. But I can’t save them like this.” He can still call Helen and Roarke and Lucy and Katie up for the Games. He can still cut Aunt Coral’s wages at the docks, and force Uncle Niall and Uncle Jonas to give up their boats and work on one of the fishing trawlers they’re trying to shove everyone in 4 onto. He can decide that my mother has to get treatment, or that Mags has to come to the Capitol and stay.

He can still hurt Annie. He has hurt Annie. I can’t take that away no matter how nicely I play.

“You have no idea how glad I am that someone who still has people to save figured that out,” Haymitch says, shutting his eyes.

“I’m still figuring it out.” I shake my head; it’s still not as clear as I’d like it to be.

“You’ve got time. And you don’t have to while it away alone.”

“You know,” I say, “I don’t think I want to.”

“Then don’t.” Haymitch offers me the bottle, drums his fingers on its clear neck. “Do whatever the hell you want about your people, and here? Here, you can call your whiling days over.”

I lean back. My back protests, but it fades into a vague sort of grumbling. “What do you want me to do?”

“Just keep doing what you’re doing,” he says, with a smile sour enough to curdle cream. “Hate to put it this way, but you’re as close to an inside man as we’ve got right now.”

“You pick up a lot of things in my line of work,” I say carefully. “So to speak.”

“People talk to their whores,” Haymitch agrees.

“It’s like talking to the bartender. Different kind of tipping, though.”

He laughs through his nose. The walls chirr, and he glances at them, takes the bottle back since I haven’t made a move to drink. “Tell you what. Sleep on it. Come to the victor’s lounge tomorrow. Sit on my couch.”

“Sit on your couch?” I repeat, raise my eyebrows.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’ll kick you off like I always do.” He smiles. “But I’ll know you want to be there.”

***

Drusus, his timing as impeccable as ever, walks in on me as I’m flushing the last of what I bought last weekend down the toilet.

“It won’t turn the water any prettier colors,” he says.

“And it won’t put anything in the Capitol’s water supply that they can’t handle.” I pause. “I think.”

He raises an eyebrow, and all the silver tips catch the bathroom light, one after the other. “You’re up to something.”

I put on my best innocent expression, which hasn’t really worked since I was fifteen or so, but I might as well try. “Just cleaning up before I head home for the season.”

He doesn’t believe it for a second, but he does lean over my shoulder to watch the pills dissolve. “You’re due back in three months.”

Could be worse. “Then I’ll be back. But I need the break.”

When I look up, Drusus is smiling in the bathroom mirror. “You and me both. I’m trying to take on more event planning these days, and you’re a full-time commitment.”

“Good for you,” I say, and mean it. “I guess you’ve gotten enough practice managing my schedule.”

“Let’s hope. And besides, you’re almost old enough to take care of yourself.”

I laugh. “Weird, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, gods don’t usually do that.” He ruffles my shoulder and leaves me alone.

I doubt gods spend half an hour flushing drug stockpiles down their toilets. Come to think of it, I’m not precisely sure what gods do. Not much, from what I’ve heard. Sit on top of the clouds and spy on mortals below and throw lightning bolts when things get dull. I’d go crazy with boredom in a day if I tried it. Better to be me.

***

The platform is more crowded this year than last, even though we haven’t brought a victor home. Brine’s and Beatriz’s families cluster around the tracks, welcoming them home, and my cousins bound towards me before I fully open the door. They almost knock me back into the train compartment, but Aunt Ruth shouts at them to let me out. I peer over their heads and see my aunts and uncles shaking their heads, my dad wheeling my mother onto the platform, Mags setting her cane aside and walking forward.

Where’s Annie? I scan the crowd again, but I can’t pick her out. She’s not great with crowds, I know, but neither is my mother and she’s here, and I wanted her to be here, I hoped she’d want to see me as soon as I came home. I wanted, want, to see her better than when I left her.

“How’s Annie been?” I ask my mother once I pry enough of my cousins loose.

Mother gasps, and then smiles, shaking her head. “Not even a hello, Finnick.”

Oh. Right. I lean down and hug her. “Hello, Mother. Is Annie all right?”

She laughs, and my dad laughs too, craning over the back of the chair to look at her.

“I’ve been worried,” I say, scuff my heel against the wood. “It’s not like I get much news from the district when I’m in the Capitol, and--well.”

Mags grabs me by the arm, and points to the docks.

I breathe in deep for the first time in weeks, let the salt air fill my lungs until I could burst. “Mags, you are the second most beautiful woman in the world right now.”

She grins, as bright as ever. “Second most?”

I laugh and chuck her under the chin. “There’s someone I have to see,” I say by way of explanation. It’s as much of one as I can give now. My head’s swimming, currents flowing faster than I can follow, and I need to sift through it all and I can’t here. I kiss Mags on the cheek, murmur, “Thank you.” She squeezes my arm, gives me a little shove, and lets me go.

She always knows when to do that.

I break for the docks, leave the crowd at the station behind. Our boat is moored where it should be, and the Victor’s Wharf is far, but I can’t stop running, can barely even hear my feet on the pavement, then on the planks. People shout out to me as I pass, wave me over, but I don’t even have time to smile in their direction--I’ll greet them later, give them their due, but right now I’m running too fast to keep track of anything other than where I have to go. The world blurs, and the wind in my ears erodes all other noise. This is what swimming feels like, the currents caressing me, the air in my lungs keeping me afloat, my feet so light that I don’t feel anything under them at all. I jump clean over the guardrail of the boat almost before I get there and swing in to the cabin, her name on the tip of my tongue--

And she’s curled up asleep on the cots, her arm draped across to mine, her hair spilling over the pillows and glinting red in the sun. I stop, panting, and try to regain my balance, my breath. The sleeves of her shirt are rolled up to her elbows, and her shorts are loose over her hips, twisted with the bedsheets trapped between her knees. Her face is turned up into the light and I know there’s nothing weighing her down at all either, no beads or gold or jewels. She’s not sleeping, she’s floating.

I should wake her up. I should keep watching. I want to do both. I compromise, kneel on my cot and stretch out next to her, my head pillowed on my hand, my legs angled to fit the bend of her knees. She breathes with the sway of the boat, and my fingers spread out inches from her hair, reaching towards her, reaching for her. “Hey,” I say.

Her eyes open, blink and flutter, and she sinks deeper into the pillow, smiling. “Hi.”

“I missed you.” My throat draws tight. Everything does.

“You’re here,” she says, curling closer. “You don’t have to now.”

“I want to be here,” I say. Twining her fingers with mine should be easy, we’ve done it a thousand times before even if the motion of our thumbs is always different, but this time my hand takes so long to fold over hers, and the heat between our palms makes mine sweat. “Wherever I go, I can’t leave you behind. Or maybe it’s that a part of me stays here.”

Her thumb slides on mine, her fingers grip mine tight. “The part of you I found.”

“The best part of me.”

“It’s you,” she whispers. Her cheeks are flushed. I wonder if she’s as warm as I am. I brush her cheek to find out, and she flushes brighter.

“I’m still figuring out who that is,” I say.

“I’ve seen him. It’s you in the water. It’s you, here. It’s--” She holds tight to my hand, but her other comes between us to touch my lips. Her hands aren’t soft: they’re callused and dented, spiderweb cracks on her fingertips and bitten cuticles and broken nails, and they’re real, so wonderfully real, so wonderfully hers.

“You see me,” I say, and my lips press just enough into her fingers.

She nods, shivers.

“You’ve always seen me.”

“No,” she murmurs, “not always, but I can now.”

My breath comes shorter, barely passes through my throat. “How could I take so long to see you?”

We’re close now, so close strands of her hair are pinned under my shoulder. “You weren’t looking?” she asks, like she can’t believe it, like she needs to know.

“I’m looking now.”

She breathes against my lips.

I whisper her name, stutter over it. She cranes her head to the side, her hair spilling over my hand. My skin tingles where she touches me, I realize, like she’s calling parts of me to life, like they’re awakening from a long sleep and shaking off all the pins and needles. “Annie?” I ask again.

“I’m here,” she whispers.

“I’m here,” it feels true, I say it and I believe it, “and I want--I want this.”

“Then have it, have it, please--”

I nudge her thumb out of the way and cover her lips with mine.

She breathes me in as soon as we kiss, draws my mouth to hers, and I don’t have time to take more of her in before we pull apart and she finds my eyes, stares into them. Everything hangs suspended between us, everything, and then she surges against me, kisses me and tangles her fingers in my hair and pulls herself up from the bed to press our bodies together like our lips. I can’t stop touching her, weaving her fingers with mine and breaking apart to reform again, tracing the contours of her neck, her shoulders, her spine. I know somewhere in the back of my head that I’m not touching her anywhere I haven’t already, but I don’t believe it, can’t, because if I had I’d never have left her side, never have stopped exploring all she’s giving me. She can’t stop touching either, I can feel her hands on my neck, my back, my chest, but her lips never leave mine.

I pull her down on top of me and she gasps into my mouth, shivers in my hands but everything is warm, everything I touch and taste. “Here,” she says, kissing the spike of my jaw, “here,” and I bring my lips to her collar, the dip of her neck, and lower, lower until she writhes against my hips. I rise to meet her, trace the line of her jaw with my thumb and the hollow between her breasts with my tongue, don’t know if I’m holding her or myself steady. It can’t be me, I decide, I’m rocking too much, buckling under the weight and warmth of her, shifting to take more of her in my mouth, my hands. I want her there. I want her everywhere. I want her. I tell her.

She asks me how.

I can’t speak. I show her instead, slide her shirt over her head and grip her hips and kiss a line from her throat to her breast. She struggles to pull my jacket off my shoulders and bows her head, but the sleeves gather at my elbows and she holds them there, holds on tight, to keep herself where I can reach. I draw wet circles over her breast with my tongue, take enough between my teeth to make her squirm and cant her hips over mine. Sea-salt and sweat mingle on her skin, and I suck until I can separate out the tastes. The way she whispers my name, here, like this, isn’t the way she said it in the river. It’s harsher, needier, stronger. Please. Finnick, please.

“Have you ever done this before?” I ask.

“No?” It comes out as a question, but the way she can’t stop moving, I don’t know if it could sound certain. “I know how it works, but--no.”

“Tell me if anything hurts,” I say, and roll her to her back, thank our foresight in pushing the cots together. She props herself up on her elbows to draw me down and kiss me but I pull back, get her shorts unbuttoned and tug them down her legs. “Promise?”

“Yes,” she says, “yes,” and I’m not sure whether she’s saying yes to the promise or yes to something else, but either way I’ll take it. I’ll take everything she’s laid bare, trail my mouth and hands over every part of her I can see and touch and taste. I learn the curve of her hip, the arch of her back, the soft lines of her thighs. I kiss and suck and stroke until she thrashes under me, sobs things I half-understand, but I don’t need words to know what she means. And she is clinging to my hair, scrabbling to hold on to any part of me she needs, but I’m already so close, kissing inside her, that when she comes I can’t pull away. I wouldn’t. I drink her down until her hips start to stir again, until the cot starts to creak.

“You,” she says, ragged and parched, “Finnick, I want to take care of you. Your turn. Please.” She holds on to my shoulders and tries to turn us over, kisses my mouth and down my chest until her lips reach the waist of my pants and I nearly spring a foot off the bed.

“Annie,” I say when my mind unfogs enough, “you don’t have to--”

“I want to try,” she says, “I want you to feel this good.”

I can’t say no. I don’t want to. She kisses me there through my clothes and fumbles with the buttons, settles between my legs and draws me out and rubs her cheek against my groin. It takes restraint I don’t really have right now not to grip her by the hair and hold her there, but I manage to summon it from somewhere, mostly, settle for curling my fingers against her scalp and letting her kiss, as enthusiastically as she kissed my mouth. Her tongue is so warm and quick, I can’t follow it, can’t keep her where I want her and can’t help moving to meet her, lifting my hips off the cot and trying not to hurt her. She looks up at me, chews her bottom lip, and stretches out her jaw to take me down.

I tug harder on her hair, hold her back. The walls of her mouth close on me, hot and soft and tight, and I want to stay but I want this more. “I don’t want to finish yet,” I tell her, hoarser than I meant to. My blood pounds through my hips, urging me forward, but if I held off for a year I can hold off for a few minutes more. She leans forward and keeps trying, tightening my grip on her hair, but I slide back along the cot and tell her, “Annie. Please. I want to do this together.”

Her chest pushes against my thigh when she breathes. “Yes. All right. How?”

“Climb up on your knees,” I tell her, and position her over my hips when she does. I still my hands for a moment and look at her, blushing from her cheeks all the way to her breasts, shining with sweat, her eyes depthless and wild and always on mine, taking me in. I hold her apart and watch how it changes her, how a shudder ripples through her from my fingers to her knees, how she closes them over my hips to drive me deeper.

“Have you touched yourself before?” I ask her.

“Yes,” she breathes. “There. And deeper, some.”

I push in further, twist my fingers and find the spot that makes her grind against my hand, stroke her outside with my thumb and inside with the rest and trap her there. Her eyes glass over but they don’t leave mine, don’t stop watching me, waiting for me. She’s warm and wet and shuddering everywhere but here especially; here she’s burning hot enough to sear me, dripping on my fingers and making me strain for more as hard as she is.

“Finnick,” she says, “Finnick--”

“Hold on,” I say, wonder if I can, and keep my fingers in enough so I can guide myself inside.

There’s nothing else. Nothing but her, her knees framing my hips, her hips sharp against my skin, her warmth and tightness closing around even the parts of me she isn’t touching. I feel her everywhere. Every breath I take makes me swell against her, every beat of my heart makes me pulse inside her. I can’t move, not now, not for a while. It’s all I can do to take her in, to stay. Sunlight streaks through the sweat on her arms as she holds on to mine, holds herself close, holds us together. Her hips pull forward and her eyes flash wide, the scant breath on her lips rustling her hair, and she does it again, rocks forward atop me and around me. I cling to her with everything I have, and she surges, cries out, tightens everywhere. There’s more, I know there’s more, I’m striving for the surface, the waves are overhead, they’ve found me, I’m home, I’m here, and the moment before I come up for air I’m certain that I can breathe water.

She collapses against me moments after. Her hair sticks to my chest, her skin to my skin. I don’t know how long we lie there, mouths parted, lips chapped. The boat sways beneath us, the cot shifts with the deck, my chest rises and falls and each time, she nestles closer.

“Can’t breathe,” she says, but when I touch her cheek and look at her, she’s smiling.

“Here. With me.” We fall into sync, and I kiss her as we breathe out, knot my fingers in her hair.

“You breathe, I breathe,” she whispers, laughing, holding me close. “You stay, I stay.”

“Always,” I say, and kiss her again.

***

The sun sets over the ocean, sets the surface aglow all the way to the west-facing windows of out boat. It casts the white sheets orange, the dark walls gold, our skin silver where the sweat refracts the light. Her breath beads on my shoulder, and she kisses me there, like she doesn’t know what else to say. Neither do I.

Her hair is tangled, but I can never get enough of piecing through it, letting the snarls part on my knuckles. I know we’ll have to wake up soon, have to step out onto the docks, go ashore, see our families, choose what secrets to keep. They know, they’ve known longer than either of us.

But we know now, and that’s enough.

My name is Finnick Odair. I am twenty years old. I am the victor of the sixty-fifth Hunger Games. I was born at sea.

Annie Cresta loves me.