The way our boat faces, the sun comes up in the porthole at the same time as it breaks over the horizon. The light creeps over Annie’s hair, flushing it gold at the tips. She sighs a little and curls up closer to me--not awake, but she grew up in District 4 just like I did, and even though neither of us have to wake up at dawn to work anymore, something in our blood still tugs at us when the sun rises, urges us towards the sea. I lie back, my fingers twined in Annie’s hair, and breathe with the swell of the sea.
Another moment, and Annie stirs, shifts her shoulders and tilts a little closer to my chest. “Morning,” she murmurs, like she has to blink the word awake.
“Morning.” I kiss her temple, soft and slow.
“Some.” They’re getting fuzzier every minute I’m awake, though, blurring around the edges. “I was on Dad’s trawler, casting off the side. No nets, no tridents, not even any lines. Just me and the fishing pole Mother used to use. It wasn’t much of a dream.”
Annie hums and smiles, nestles closer. “Catch anything?”
I grab her sides and haul her in closer, grinning. She laughs, and wriggles, but not away, and buries her face in my shoulder. I gather up more of her hair. We went swimming yesterday, before sunset, and traces of salt linger on her skin and tangle in her hair from that. The more time I spend with her, the more I notice little things like that about her. How she bites her lip to keep from laughing in public. How she always sleeps on her side, one arm tucked under her pillow. How she reaches out for me, drapes herself over my side of the cots when I’m not there. How her blush starts at the sides of her nose and then spreads to her cheeks and down, when I whisper in her ear.
“Is that where you wanted to be?” she asks. “Before?”
“Yeah.” I stretch out, let the sway of the boat take me back to that dream. “I don’t know if I thought about it that much. Inheriting Dad’s boat, taking it out before the dawn to fish--it felt right.” I shrug, or try to. It’s difficult with the way Annie’s nestled against my shoulder. “Why wouldn’t it?”
“It would,” she whispers. “Could we still have met?”
I sit with that one for a while, tease out different scenarios in my head. “You brought your catches a little further south sometimes, didn’t you?”
She hums agreement. “We had to. Especially after the big hauls.”
“Then we’d run into each other after one of those. We’d be moored on the same dock, and we’d both be helping to unload, and I’d see you.” As long as I’m constructing this scenario, I’d like to think I’d be quicker to see her this time around. Maybe I’d have been better at reading that kind of thing if I’d stayed a fisherman.
I feel her cheeks heating, nestled against my shoulder. “I think I’d scare you a little.”
“You would,” I agree. “That’s why I’d keep my distance at first. But your mother says that if I don’t stop looking even after you scare me, I’m allowed to keep looking, right?”
“Right,” she says. “And I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t scare you.”
“Would you have noticed me, at first?”
She laughs. “I’d have to notice you. And you’re you.” A blush creeps across her nose. “You’re hard not to see.”
"I’d wonder about you, especially if I didn’t see you again the next day. I’d wonder if I’d made you up. And that would scare me.”
“Then I’d have scared you,” she whispers, trapping my fingers near her cheek. “Would you keep looking?”
“I’d ask around on the docks first. Talk to Aunt Coral’s brothers, describe your boat, your catch, the way you stood, the way your hair shone in the sunlight.”
“They’d laugh at you.”
“They do that anyway.” And she’s laughing too, just a little, her breath ticking the tip of my nose. “If they didn’t know, I’d go to the markets, the warehouses, the canneries--anyone who knew anything about shellfish. I’d make a nuisance of myself, probably.”
She nods, nestles her cheek into my palm and traps it against the sheets. “But they’d know my mom, if you asked enough. They’d help you find me.”
I can’t help but wonder what they’d expect in return, and chide myself for it. I’d skim off a part of the ten percent we’re allowed to keep and give it to them, I suppose. It’s a fair enough trade. Straightforward. “And the next time you came into port, they’d let me know, and I’d run down the pier so I could catch you before you cast off.”
“Catch,” she repeats. “I might not let you catch me. Our boat’s pretty fast. And you’re not scared.”
“I’m scared,” I say. “But I’m, well, I’m enough other things that it balances out.”
“Scared but not scared off,” she says, like she’s testing it out.
I nod. “If that didn’t work, I’d try to pass a message to you.” I remember doing something like that when I was a kid: collecting bottles from behind the pub with my friends, sealing letters inside them, and tossing them into the sea. Most of them washed back up on the shore, but some caught the current, and we always hoped we’d see another bottle bobbing along our way a few months after.
“I could let you know where I am,” she murmurs. “Little things. Since you’re not scared. I think my mom would tease me about it, but you scare me, too.”
“What kinds of little things?”
“My name,” she says. “What we catch. When I can come to the market. But not what I think of you. Not yet.”
“It would be something. I’d take it.” I’d have to, at that point. “When would we meet?”
“The last market before winter. There’s winter, for me. Not as much for you.”
“Not as much,” I agree.
“But I’d be thinking about you. And I’d want to see you before it got cold. I wouldn’t tell you that, though.”
“What would you tell me?”
“When we met?” She lowers her eyes. “That I saw you staring, that I got your messages. That I don’t know what you want.”
“I’d say I don’t either, not really.” I lace my fingers with hers, and our thumbs circle one another; the motion’s never the same, but whatever rhythm we fall into always feels right. “But I’d like to find out more about you. Then I could figure out the rest.”
“And I’d be all right with that,” she says, keeping our hands pressed close. “So we’d talk.”
“Until the sun started to set.”
“And I’d have to leave.”
“And I’d let you go.” I grin. “Then I’d think it over and decide I couldn’t wait for you all winter, so I’d steal my dad’s boat and follow you.”
“You’d steal his boat?” she laughs.
I add the story of the time when I did just that and nearly steered it into a jetty to the list of stories I still have to tell her. Maybe I should add that one to the list of stories I need to keep her from finding out about, actually. “I wouldn’t have one of my own yet, so I’d have to.”
“And you’d try to catch me?”
“I’d sail as fast as I could and pull up alongside your boat and holler that I’d forgotten to ask you something important.”
“Uncle John would laugh in your face.”
Laughing in my face seems to be a recurring theme here, doesn’t it. “I’d ask you if you’d like to join me for dinner sometime.”
She covers her mouth and laughs, eyes wide, but just from them I know how brightly she’s smiling under her fingers.
“I can hear what your mother would say. Either he’s crazy or he’s a keeper.”
Annie nods, but doesn’t take her eyes off mine.
“So you’d have dinner with me after that? Eventually?”
“Yes,” she says. Her blush creeps past her fingertips now, all the way up to her eyelashes, like she’s lighting up from the inside.
“I’d keep the cousins and aunts and uncles off you as long as I could. Mother and Dad would adore you, though.” I settle closer to her, my lips almost grazing her neck. “We’d spend hours together on the boat, on the beach. Maybe under the pier sometimes.”
“That’s where you meet down here?” she asks, a tremor creeping into her voice. “We...up north, there’s a cave. I think it’s the same.”
“Probably. There used to be a few closed-off crawl spaces under it--for storage, they told us, but nobody’s used them for that in years.” I don’t know if it’s the same now. I’d have to ask Roarke.
Her fingers creep down from her face to mine, trace my hair, just barely touching at all. “I’d like that. I’d want that.”
“So would I.” I close my eyes, and her hands are like the thinnest edge of the waves washing up on the shore, beckoning me in. “I’d start finding odd jobs to work. I’d hate it, because it would mean time away from you, but I’d put it towards a boat of my own. One we could work on together.”
“Just us. And when I could afford the boat, I’d go to Mother and ask her for her ring.”
Annie doesn’t breathe. Her heartbeat seems to stall, especially with the way mine is pounding, like it’s trying to break out of my chest.
Then she wrenches away from me and covers her ears, curls up with her knees to her chest.
“Can’t,” she says, so small, so thin. “Can’t think.” She’s trembling, holding her head like that could keep everything still, and it doesn’t. I cover her hands with mine but it doesn’t quiet her, doesn’t stop her from shaking.
The ring. I never should have mentioned the ring..
“I’m sorry,” I say.
She shakes her head, too quick, her fingers scratching at her scalp and neck. “Can’t have,” she murmurs, over and over. “Don’t show me things I can’t touch.”
Slowly, I pry her hands from her skin, keep her nails from digging any deeper. My heart’s slowed, at least, petered out to a few hollow thuds. “I didn’t mean to,” I tell her. “I just--I wondered what it could have been like.”
Stupid habit to get into, I know.
“I do too,” she says. Her hands are tense in mine, cords about to snap. “I go there. I forget where you are.”
“I’m here,” I say, and mean it as much as I can.
“Here,” she murmurs, “here, here here,” and if her voice starts to steady her hands might too, soon.
“I love you,” I whisper, so no one can overhear it. So nothing can take it away.
Her knuckles push through mine, hold me tight. “I believe you,” she says, just as quiet, just as ours.
It’s not often that I walk in on Uncle Niall and Aunt Hannah fighting in the kitchen, though I’ve heard about it from my cousins a couple of times. And once, I saw the results, and he bought her a new rolling pin after she broke it on the countertop.
Now, I can see why.
“I don’t need his charity, Hannah—”
Aunt Hannah cuts him off, spots of color flaring in her cheeks. “Timothy and Patrick need to eat! And both of them need new shoes and Timothy’s worn through most of his shirts, so if you’re determined not to go on the trawler, you can swallow that damned Odair pride of yours and ask!”
I hang back in the doorway, just out of sight. Trawler? Why does Aunt Hannah want Uncle Niall to work on a trawler? The workers never get to keep a percentage of their catches, and I’ve heard stories about the captains, about how they keep the hands there for days when they haven’t met their quota. Roarke likes to talk about one ship that came up short and stayed at sea for ten days to make up the numbers, even though they only brought provisions for one. He says the men and women stumbled off it bright-eyed and hollow-cheeked; some had claw marks and gashes from fights over the solar stills, and some tried to drink the saltwater and withered away, drying out from the inside.
“It’s not pride when they take away a right. Why now? I’ll tell you why now, and that’s another reason I’m not taking that kid’s money.”
Me. He means me. Cold creeps into my stomach. What happened?
“Then what will you do?” Aunt Hannah slams a pot down on top of the stove, and I’m surprised it doesn’t shatter. “Tell me, Niall, because I’m out of ideas.”
Uncle Niall grabs the stovetop to steady the iron, then pulls his hands back as if it’s still too hot to touch. “I don’t know yet. Get on with Jonas, maybe. Or talk to Coral, see if there’s something on the docks. But I’m damned if I’ll let them take my boat and tell me when I can and can’t sail.”
Now’s the time to knock on the lintel, so I do. Aunt Hannah and Uncle Niall spring away from the stove and stare at me, then each other.
“Sorry,” I say. “I should’ve come in sooner.”
“Nah, then you’d’ve gotten the worst of it,” Uncle Niall says, trying to fill his face up with a smile, which turns out more like a grimace. “Guess you caught your share.”
“I did.” I step in to the kitchen. “Why did the Peacekeepers take your boat?”
”Their excuse? Underreporting.”
“Underreporting? More like overfishing, from what Aunt Coral’s been saying.” But that’s the Capitol for you; they want what they want when they want it, and when they have it they’re already hungry for the next round.
“You try telling them,” Uncle Niall sighs, leans against the countertop. “You’re there enough.”
“I will. Or I’ll talk to the Peacekeepers about your boat, at least.” It’s the least I can do, if he won’t take any of my earnings. “And I’m sure Mother wouldn’t mind looking after Timothy and Patrick for a while.” Sometimes she misses it, I think. She can watch after me as best she can, but some things I won’t let her see. Besides, I’m twenty-three. If I were anyone else in District Four I’d be married and well on my way to having either a boat or a kid.
But I’m not.
It’s useful now, though.
“Don’t you go meddling with the Peacekeepers, Finnick,” Aunt Hannah says, turning away to straighten the handle of the saucepan on the stove. “The last thing any of us want is their lot paying any more attention to your stupid proud family.”
Uncle Niall barks out a sour laugh. “They’re your stupid proud family now, Hannah Shore.”
“Not if you call me that again they’re not.”
“I’m not exactly good at not drawing attention,” I say dryly. “But I’ll try to be discreet.”
“You? Discreet?” Uncle Niall cracks me a real smile for the first time I’ve seen during this conversation. “That won’t end well.”
I smile too. “You’d be surprised.”
The Peacekeepers station their headquarters along the quayside. It doesn’t look Capitol, it’s a squat stone building with chinks for windows and a door almost too heavy to push open. Fortunately, I’m in good enough shape to, and I smile enough at the officer stationed at the front desk that she buzzes me through to the Head Peacekeeper.
“Finnick, what a surprise,” Domitiana deadpans from behind her desk. She gestures to one of the bare wooden chairs she favors. “Have a seat, air what you need to air.”
I sit, and decide to hold my smiles in reserve for now. “Your troops confiscated my Uncle Niall’s boat recently, I think.”
“Yes,” she says. “I believe he was underreporting his catches.”
“My uncle’s an honest man. If you look over the records of his catches—”
“The ones maintained by his sister-in-law, yes?”
“My Aunt Coral takes her job as seriously as my Uncle Niall does,” I say, and swallow my first retort. It won’t do me or Uncle Niall any good. “She’s a fair foreman.”
“I’m sure she is, since neither your father nor any of your other relatives have come under scrutiny.”
“He’s probably had a rough couple of weeks,” I say. “Give him time.” Give the fish time to spawn again, I think, but keep that part to myself. “I can pay the difference until he does.”
Domitiana raises an eyebrow, then shakes her head, smiling to herself. “How crooked do I look to you, Finnick? If I condone your uncle’s underreporting just because I’m on your take, that makes you and me just as guilty, doesn’t it?”
“I’m not trying to put you on my take,” I say, “I’m just trying to make sure he’s all caught up.” I resist the impulse to run my hands through my hair, barely, and settle for clenching them at my sides. None of this would raise an eyebrow, or whatever they’re using for eyebrows this season, in the Capitol. Hell, I think it’s not only encouraged but legal. Just my luck that I get a Head Peacekeeper who’s probably from District 2.
“The fact remains that you’re the richest man in town, Finnick, and I can’t afford to be pushed around. I can’t afford to show favoritism, certainly not to a victor, and especially not to you, one of the Capitol’s best beloved. It’s not a matter of catching your uncle up, it’s a matter of asserting that no one is above the Capitol’s authority.”
My hands tighten, and I try to keep my mouth from tightening too. “Believe me, I’ve never thought that.”
“Then where did you get the idea to barge in here and attempt to change my mind?” Domitiana shakes her head, and indicates with a tired little wave that I should stand. “Honestly, I should be keeping closer tabs on your family, now that I know you think you can get away with this.”
Punching Domitiana square in the jaw will do even more damage than I’ve already done, no matter how much I want to do it. “My family doesn’t know I’m here. I just wanted to look out for them.”
“That’s very pious of you,” she says. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t change my opinion, nor the fact of your uncle’s underreporting.”
I think we’ve hit the point where she’ll shrug off my smiles. Of all the times for someone to be immune to my charms, I think dryly. “Any possibility I could buy back the boat, at least?”
“For your uncle’s personal use, yes, you could. But his license will remain revoked, and if he is caught poaching in Capitol waters he will be reprimanded.”
“Understood.” I offer my hand. She doesn’t take it. I jam it back into my pocket.
“Be sensible, Finnick,” she says, motioning me out the door. “Just because you won the Games doesn’t mean we’re here to be played with.”
She has no idea how true that is.
“I don’t know how well you get this, Finnick, but getting Niall to change his mind is like trying to turn a hurricane around.”
“What, you have to go for the eye?” I ask.
Uncle Jonas laughs. It gets him in trouble sometimes, that he can crack jokes, and laugh at them, even when the situation is serious. Now’s no different. “If you can cut through the bluster, sure.”
“And you’ve been doing it for longer than I’ve been alive,” I say. “He doesn’t have to take my money, just convince him to work for you or Aunt Coral for a while. Let Mother help look after the twins so Aunt Hannah won’t feel bad about leaving them alone if she needs to work, too.”
“It’s more than that to him,” Uncle Jonas says, “more than work. It’s what it means for the District. He’s not the only one, you know. They’ve struck four other boats this week, for the same reason.”
“Underreporting.” I sigh, lace my fingers together and brace them behind my head. “It’s overfishing, isn’t it.” Which the trawlers will make worse because they harvest so much at once and don’t know how much to release, which keeps the numbers from rebounding the way they should, which makes the shortages come up even shorter, which makes the Capitol assume we’re withholding more than our share.
Haymitch says, sometimes, that he’s surprised it’s taken this long for the system to show its cracks, since it’s resting on a foundation that even a coal miner’s son can spot the holes in. Probably because you’re closer to the ground, I told him.
“And it’s not just fish they’re overfishing,” Uncle Jonas says. “You know, when the four of us got our first boat together, it was in an overfishing year? The woman who sold it to us even said, the last thing we need’s another boat out there gumming up the works, and the next-to-last thing we need’s a boat with four goddamn Odairs on it.” Uncle Jonas does voices, and I know exactly what this woman sounded like, now, and it’s always funny to hear it coming out of his throat. “But we had our plans, and we did it anyway, and we’d been saving up since Pa died so like hell we were going to let a recuperating year stand in the way of us making real money. Not to mention, Niall was still reaping age for another two years, and we’d had a scare the year before when they drew me and the Career volunteered a little too late. Now or never, you know.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Of course you didn’t, no one talks. And it’s the year Brine won, anyway, so there’s no cause. But off we went, on a fresh boat, in a rough year, and we came back with less than nothing. We didn’t make the price of our boat back. We didn’t pull in our quota, some days, even with four of us out. It plain doesn’t matter if the fish aren’t biting. And the second year was almost as hard as the first. And what’s worse is, once we got going, your dad met his first wife, and we thought that was the end of our boat, right then and there.”
Dad doesn’t talk about his first wife much. There’s a photograph I’ve seen of her, faded and creased and curling at the edges; she’s sitting in front of a window, and one of the creases runs right over her face, so I can’t see what she’s looking at. She miscarried, Dad told me. She died with the baby. Mother reached up and took his hand and pressed it to her cheek, and I decided to let them be for a while.
Uncle Jonas goes on, “It would have been if she’d stayed with us. You should’ve heard the fights your dad and Brian had about that. Funny, since in the end, Brian’s the one who doesn’t sail anymore. But if she hadn’t died, and the third year hadn’t made us our quota and then some, we wouldn’t’ve been able to start saving again.”
“Kind of a mixed blessing,” I say.
“Kind of how the sea works,” Uncle Jonas says, and I don’t know what to call what else is in his smile. “Which is better, if she takes before she gives, or takes after?”
I think of Annie, and my stomach chills. “I don’t know.”
“No one does. So she’s in a taking phase right now, and so’s the Capitol. We can’t change what she’s doing, can’t help if her timing falls flat.”
“I guess not.” I lean back, thread my fingers through my hair. “But we have to do something.”
Uncle Jonas smiles and shakes his head. “I’ll talk to Niall. Don’t worry yourself about it, Finnick.”
I grin. “But worrying’s the part I’m good at.”
Annie’s mouth is on mine, hot and insistent. “Greedy,” I manage to murmur between kisses, and she nods, grinning. She slides her hands up my ribs, pushes my shirt up and off. I start kissing the side of her neck instead, trace the sweep of her collarbones below, and she whimpers and clings to me, rolls her hips against mine, and the slow rock of the deck makes it stronger, keeps us together--
“And the siren, she screamed for me and me alone,
Singing ‘harder, harder than your human bones,’
For a saucy witch she was, but I took her in a fight,
And the seas ran whiter than the stars that night!”
Annie and I spring apart, and my skull collides with the bulkhead. I rub the back of my head, wincing, and glance out the porthole. My dad and his brothers have made their way down to the docks, and I don’t have to smell them to know they’re drunker than I ever get, and that’s saying something. They’re clustering on the barrels near my dad’s boat instead of mine and Annie’s but it’s still too close. They cheer at the end of the chorus and Uncle Brian takes the verse, his booming low voice always enough to rattle the nails and screws on the dock,
“Oh, she came up from the water, sporting scales between her thighs,
And I bet that that was deeper than the ocean of her eyes--”
Annie laughs. “I like their song.”
It’s a perfectly fine song for certain occasions that don’t include singing on the docks when I’m trying to get a moment of privacy with Annie. Hell, they’re worse than my cousins. “Hold on,” I say, grit my teeth and scramble through the hatch. I march to the rail, lean over it, and holler, “Keep it down!”
“Hi there, Finnick!” Uncle Brian waves, stopping in the middle of the verse to call me over. “Fine night for drinking, wouldn’t you say?”
“Sure is. That’s why there’s a pub. Go back there.”
“Pub’s crowded, night’s young,” Uncle Niall says. He raises his bottle, and the rest of them do likewise, then start up another chorus.
I groan and chuck a cushion at them. “Dad, tell them that this is a private dock! My private dock.”
Dad just shakes his head and laughs. “Private dock,” Uncle Jonas repeats, snickering, which sets all of them snickering. “You coming into port, Finnick?”
And here I’d thought they’d run out of innuendos to make about me and Annie years ago. I guess alcohol’s given them a second wind. I resist the urge to slam my forehead into the rail. It’s not easy. I can’t believe my dad is down there. “Knock it off.”
“Hey, Annie!” Uncle Brian yells, “You in there?”
After a moment, Annie answers them, “No!”
The uncles manage to stop laughing long enough for Uncle Brian to ask, “Finnick in there?”
Annie yells back, “Not yet!”
“It’s true,” she says.
Uncle Jonas yells, “You’d better not keep her waiting, Finnick!”
“That’s what Ruth said,” Uncle Niall adds, and if I wasn’t this pissed off at them I’d laugh about as much as they are.
“Go away so I don’t have to,” I say.
I feel breath on my back; Annie’s crept up to the deck, wearing the blankets and hiding behind me, kissing my shoulderblade. “We can wait them out,” she says softly. “They need together time too.”
“Different kind of together time,” I say, quietly enough that it won’t carry.
“Mhm,” she agrees. “But we can have all night.”
“All night, Finnick?” Uncle Jonas calls over, waving his bottle in the air.
Dad groans. “Lay off, I didn’t want to hear that about my son.”
“Then go away so you won't!” I yell back.
They laugh, point their bottles at the deck and clink them together -- isn’t it bad luck to toast with an empty bottle? Those bottles sound empty to me -- but after that, Dad says, “Come on, before I find anything else out I don’t want to know.” He ushers them off, and they start singing again, but it’s faded by the time I get Annie belowdecks again.
She nestles into my arms. “I liked their song,” she says again.
I laugh. “You mentioned. Ask Mags to teach it to you?”
“Later,” she says. “Not tonight.”
“No,” I agree, and draw her closer. “Now, where were we?”
The pub’s more crowded than usual tonight, and since it’s the end of the work week, that’s saying something. Smoke hangs thick in the air, and the laughter hasn’t stopped swelling. The hundred people in here sound like twice as many, talking too much and too fast for me to uncover more than a few drink requests or old stories everyone in the district knows. A few of the bulbs overhead need replacing, but at least there’s electricity tonight at all, and the candles on the wall hang in white wax stumps, frozen on their way to the floor like stalactites.
I order a pint and settle back, listening to what I can. Granted, sometimes it’s nice not to listen to anything at all in here, to close my eyes and drink and let the sounds wash over me. If I don’t have to work when I’m at home, then I shouldn’t work, right?
In theory, anyway. In practice, I get bored.
So I watch. The barbacks aren’t the only ones heading out the back door tonight. Since I sat down, I’ve counted four, all of them dock workers. My Aunt Coral’s oldest brother Manuel looked surprised to see me, didn’t stop to say hello, just ordered himself a tankard and headed out the back.
Five, seven, ten, fourteen. It looks like I’m the only one monitoring the traffic through the back door, other than the barbacks, who are very studiously not looking at it. Wait. I squint through the smoke. It’s not quite right to say that everyone’s carefully avoiding the back door, but enough people are, staring off to the side or at a point right above it instead like there’s a force field over it.
I drain my glass, wait a few minutes, and make my way through the crowd as inconspicuously as I can. I’ve never done inconspicuous well, though.
“Hey, Finnick,” one of the bartenders says, “the bathroom’s that way. Unless there’s something I can get you?”
Case in point.
I shake my head. “Aunt Coral told me to give Manuel something if I saw him. A scolding, I think.”
The bartender laughs. “I’ll get him for you, you just wait here,” she says, and ducks through the door herself.
I hope this works.
I get closer to the door, lean against it and listen in through the crack. I can’t make out much, not before the bartender interrupts them, but the words pay cut make it through loud and clear.
Pay cut? Looks like the docks are getting hit by the shortage, too. And they don’t seem too happy about it, if the meeting’s any indication. The talk dies down when the bartender mentions my name, and I step away from the door once it’s clear someone’s about to open it. Of course it’s Manuel, and the way he’s standing makes it clear he doesn’t want me to see who else is there.
“What are you doing here, Finnick?”
“Just wanted to talk,” I say, and shoot a significant look at the door.
He laughs. He’s a good liar, Aunt Coral says that all the time, and if I didn’t know what to look for I wouldn’t know he was putting on a show. “If it’s about Niall’s boat, believe me, I’ve already tried to throw my weight around.”
“Thanks. But it’s not.” I lean in, drop my voice. “It’s about something a little bigger.”
He looks me up and down, like he’s telling me I can’t lift that cargo all on my own. “I don’t know if this is about what you think it is, kid.”
“I have a few ideas.” I pick up a mostly-full glass, hold it at an angle to mask my lips, in case anyone’s trying to read them. Never hurts to be careful when you’re being seditious. “And I stopped being a kid years ago.”
He laughs. “Ideas.”
I smile. “Ideas. Names. Secrets.”
“And if you’re keeping their secrets so well, what’s to say you’ll keep ours?”
I don’t shatter the glass in my hand. It takes effort. “What makes you so sure I have been keeping them?”
“I don’t see those secrets on the evening news,” Manuel says. “You know what I see on the evening news? You all trussed up like one of them.”
My fingers twitch again, and I drain the glass before I do something stupid. I’ve heard worse, I remind myself, but it stings when it comes from home, from a man who’s known me since before I could swim. “You see what they want you to on the evening news,” I say. “If you want to see what they don’t want you to, we should head somewhere more private.”
He laughs again, but this one doesn’t feel like it’s at me. “Wait here, kid,” he says, pointed on the kid, and heads out back. He returns with a couple of others, men and women whose names I don’t know but all of whom I’ve seen at the docks, one evening or another. “You think you have somewhere more private? Take us there. We’ll hear you out.”
Fortunately, I own a private dock. Well. Private unless my uncles decide to celebrate there again. But I’ve searched for bugs with a few toys Beetee was kind enough to loan me and haven’t found any out here, only in the house. I’m not sure why; I suspect it might be too wet for the bugs to work properly out here.
“All right,” Manuel says. “Talk.”
Haymitch would be so proud of me. Either that or he’d berate me for jumping at the first rustle in the grass like a kid taking out his daddy’s bow for the first time, but we’ll have to see how this plays out, won’t we? “First,” I say, “nothing I say makes it past this dock. Nothing. I’ll do the same for all of you, of course.”
“Goes without saying but I’m glad you said it.”
“They’ve been cracking down here, I know,” I say. I almost add and I don’t think it’s just here, but I need to talk to Beetee and Cecelia and Chaff before I promise more than I can deliver. “They’re starting to run out of what they can squeeze from us, and the only ones who know are the ones the citizens of the Capitol are most likely to turn on if they can’t keep them supplied with what they expect to get.”
“Tell us something we don’t know,” one of Manuel’s friend says.
“You first. What do you want from them? I can tell you how likely you are to get it.”
Manuel holds out a hand to stop one of the others from speaking up first. “Fine. Say we want the pay cuts revoked. What can you say about that?”
I snort. “Not a chance, unless the numbers go up again.”
“I thought as much. Same goes for the trawlers and the tankers, I’ll bet. Tell me something I don’t know.”
I remember a conversation I had with a patron of mine a few months ago--Aldus Hawksley, fresh from an inspection of Two. A sea change, he called it, and expected me to find it hilarious. Well, I’m laughing a little more now. “There’s been some upheaval in the Peacekeepers. A lot of the old guard’s retiring, new blood’s replacing them. Young. Ambitious. Their predecessors were too soft, lots of them think.” My lip curls. “They want to make names for themselves by bringing the Districts back to standards of order not seen since the restoration of Panem’s glory.”
I don’t have to spell out what that means. They all look disgusted by it.
Manuel glances at a couple of his friends in turn, then looks back to me. “All right, you’ve given us something new. Now what was it you said about ideas?”
Now it’s time. I really am getting better at this. “If they’re cracking down here, what’s to say they aren’t cracking down in other Districts?”
“You know what’s going on in other districts?” one of Manuel’s friends asks.
“No,” I say. “But I can.” And I won’t promise more than that, not until I figure out what they want. Their pay restored, obviously. But is that the end of it? If the fish magically start swimming into our nets again in triple the numbers they did before, if we’re restored to the Capitol’s good graces, will that quell all of this? It might. I don’t know yet. I don’t want to give them so much rope that they can whip up a nice noose for me.
“All right.” Manuel stands a little closer to me than before. “When’s your next trip out there?”
“Not until the Games.”
“Fine. You come back from the Games with a better perspective on what’s going on, I’ll give you an introduction to everyone else. Got it?”
“Got it,” I say. “And if I can suggest something?”
“A lot of people here--a lot of us--” I emphasize that last word deliberately “--are struggling. Spread the word around, if you can. Tell people to start pooling the percentages of their hauls that they’re allowed to keep. They don’t have to share with everyone who’s going hungry, but if they can split it up between their neighbors, just the people who live on either side to them...it might mean fewer kids going to school with eyes bigger than their stomachs.”
“I’ll spread the word,” Manuel says. “Now you get on home, kid.”
I groan. “And here I thought I’d escaped curfews.”
When the phone rings around this time of year, it’s never a good sign. I throw my pillow over my ears for the first two rings, which don’t wake Annie up, but the phone keeps chirping at me after that, and I decide to get this damn thing over with as quickly as possible. “Hello?” I say, snatching the phone out of its cradle, trying to sound marginally more awake than I am.
“Good morning, Finnick.”
“I didn’t think anyone was awake in the Capitol at this hour,” I say, because it’s better than oh fuck. Snow. Well, I’m awake now, unless this is all a bad dream. I hope it’s a bad dream. The mussels last night did taste a little off. I glance at Annie, but she’s still asleep, her eyelids fluttering, her hair fanned out over the pillow.
“Well, what with preparation for the Games, you can imagine some of us are actually at work.”
“No doubt.” I grit my teeth, wish he’d get this over with.
“You’re mentoring this year, of course.”
I blink. “I wasn’t aware that I was.”
“It’s long overdue.”
“With all due respect,” meaning none, but he can read between the lines, “it’s been even longer since some of our other victors have mentored.” I hope Annie’s still asleep and not feigning it. I lean in closer, my forehead almost brushing hers, but she doesn’t twitch, doesn’t stir. Real, then, real and deep and peaceful. It’s rare enough that she gets that. I won’t disturb her.
“And not long enough, in public opinion.”
All right, some of them are doddering idiots, but I still don’t want to concede the point to Snow. “Any particular reason why I have to?” I ask, as evenly as possible. It’s hard to be even at this hour, when this is what I’ve woken up to.
“I’m certainly not the only one who’s missed your way with the tributes,” he says, “and who’s expected to see you onscreen during the Games, not just in the tabloids where you seem to think you belong.”
Way with the--I’m not going to throw my phone across the room. I’m not going to throw my phone across the room. I’m not awake enough to work up that kind of anger, anyway. I think. And it would wake Annie up, and I already said I wouldn’t do that. The receiver rattles in my hand. “I thought the tributes usually took up most of the screentime,” I say, “but all right. Fine. I’ll mentor. Anything else?”
I hate mentoring. It bears repeating.
“Do tell me how Annie Cresta is, Finnick. It’s not as if we’ve seen much of her since her victory.”
Now I could throw the phone across the room. I settle for squeezing the receiver as tight as I can, imagining it’s Snow’s neck under my fingers and not smooth plastic. “She’s managing.” She’s sleeping next to me right now, in fact. Which you know. I wonder what he’d do if I actually said that to him. Telling him isn’t worth getting to see the look on his face, though.
“Good for her, and you.”
I say nothing. It’s safer.
“Enjoy the Reaping ceremony, Finnick. I’ll see you in person in three days. Your stylist will tell you when.”
“Thank you, Mister President,” I say, to get it over with, and set the receiver down before he can edge anything else in. I close my eyes, breathe--the amount of space I have in my chest now almost dizzies me. That was brief, at least. Like hell I’m going to be able to go back to sleep now, but it could have been worse.
Annie nestles against my shoulder and murmurs, half-asleep. I kiss the crown of her head, draw her closer to me. “Foghorn,” she says. “Too high to be a foghorn.”
I kiss her again, because she’s beautiful and because she presses herself against me and sighs when I do and because I want to. “Telephone.”
She shudders. “Snow?”
I nod, my cheek sliding against her scalp. “Seems like I’m mentoring this year.”
“Why this year?” she asks, more level than I’d expect.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe too many people have been asking why I haven’t. Maybe he thinks Four’ll put on a better show if I’m there.” Aside from Annie, 4’s been doing poorly in the Games since I won, even falling out from the other Careers. Our girl last year came in fourth, but she struck out on her own early on, and that’s the best we’ve done except for winning since my time.
Annie finds my hand and intertwines our fingers, slides her thumb against mine, over and over, considering. “Maybe they just want to remember you. Or forget me.”
I don’t know what to say to that, other than, “Maybe.”
She doesn’t say anything to that either, just shifts so that her head is pillowed closer to my chest. Her eyes shut, but blink open, and she stares at our hands, or through them, to somewhere I can’t see.
“Can’t go back to sleep,” she says. “Tell me a story?”
“What kind of story?”
“A funny story.”
“Funny, huh?” I settle back into my pillow, mentally sift through the funny stories and search for one she hasn’t heard yet. “I don’t think I’ve told you about Uncle Jonas and the sea turtles, have I?”
She shakes her head, no, and kisses my chest lightly.
I laugh. “You’d remember if I had. I was around six, and I was coming home from a lesson at school about the animals who live in the sea, and I couldn’t shut up about the sea turtles. I followed Mother and Dad and my uncles and the aunts I had back then around, told them all about how sea turtles laid their young and what kind of water they liked and their migrational patterns. Finally, Uncle Jonas said, ‘But did they teach you about the special sea turtles?’
“My eyes must’ve gotten as big as eggs. ‘Special sea turtles?’ I asked.
“‘Yeah, there’s these special sea turtles,’ he said, ‘magical sea turtles.’ And I eat it all up, I’m six and I think everything my uncles say is true, you know?”
She laughs, just a little. “Everything?”
“Nearly everything. Anyway, Uncle Jonas said, ‘They only lay their eggs at full moon. If you go under the central pier then, you’ll find a special sea turtle egg, and you have to keep it warm under your pillow for three days so it’ll hatch.’ I tried to explain why you had to leave sea turtle eggs buried in the sand, but Uncle Jonas said, ‘Those are normal sea turtles, Finnick, these are special sea turtles. And special sea turtles have to hatch under your pillow so they can see what you dream about. And when you carry them to the sea later that night, you whisper a wish to them, just one. And then they swim back to the rest of the magical sea turtles and all the magical sea turtles get together and work their magic powers and make your wish come true.’”
It’s almost like I’m six again for a moment, remembering how much that bowled me over, how many wishes I already wanted to make. “So I waited until the night of the full moon and crept out of the house and tiptoed across the beach, to the central pier. And there was an egg there. A big one, half-buried in the sand. It wasn’t like the drawings of the sea turtle eggs my teacher made, but Uncle Jonas said this was a special sea turtle egg, so I thought of course it looks different. I found out later it was actually a cormorant egg. I still don’t know how Uncle Jonas got one.
“I ran home and stuck the egg under my pillow, and I think Uncle Jonas was thinking I’d end up crushing it in the middle of the night and I’d wake up with egg all over my hair and that’d be the end of it. But I didn’t want anything to happen to that egg. I wadded my blanket up around that egg, perched my pillow on top, and slept with the edge of my head just touching the pillow’s corner.” I demonstrate, scrunching under the covers, and Annie laughs. “I guarded that egg with my life,” I say, drag myself up next to her again. “I stuck a chair handle under the door, jimmied the window shut, everything I could do to keep a thief from sneaking in and stealing my sea turtle. Three days later, my room smelled like a rotten egg and it was starting to drift into the rest of the house, but Mother couldn’t tell where was coming from. And I was getting worried, because I thought it should’ve hatched by now, and I thought the smell might mean it was getting sick. So I went to Uncle Jonas again, and he said, ‘Well, Finnick, maybe your dreams were so strong that it forgot it was a sea turtle and it thinks it’s a little boy. So here’s what you have to do, you have to carry that egg back to the shore and dip it in the water to remind it what it really is.’” I shake my head. “Uncle Jonas never can let go of a good joke, even if he doesn’t know where it’s going.
“I snuck out of the house again, just before the dawn broke, and carried that stinking egg to the shore. The smell, Annie, I can’t even begin to tell you about it. I had to wad up bits of paper and stick them in my nose so I wouldn’t breathe it in too deep. But I told myself it was worth it to help my sea turtle friend, and that once he hatched, everything would be all right.
“Well, the seagulls were starting to wake up around that time, and they smelled what I was carrying, and when I was about to dip my friend into the ocean, they dive-bombed me. A whole flock of them. I screamed and ran, and they chased me down the length of the beach, pecking at my ears--” I was terrified out of my mind at the time, but looking back on it now, it is pretty funny. Annie thinks so, too; she clamps her hand over her mouth, trying to hold her laughter in.
“Meanwhile, Mother was tearing the house apart looking for me, and Uncle Jonas finally told her about the prank. Aunt Ruth was livid--she grabbed him by the beard and asked what he meant to do after that egg still didn’t hatch and he said he didn’t know, he thought this would have ended by now, he was making it up as he went along. She and my dad frog-marched Uncle Jonas to the beach--Mother stayed behind, she’d just gotten sick--and saw me, still carrying the egg, running from those seagulls as fast as my little legs could carry me. They were screaming, I was screaming, Aunt Ruth was screaming, Uncle Jonas and Dad were trying not to laugh.” I must have looked like the most ridiculous thing, I think, and have to bite my fist for a few moments. “But they helped chase off the seagulls, and Aunt Ruth made Uncle Jonas explain and apologize. And then she cracked the egg over his head.”
Annie clings to me, laughing so hard that everything about her shakes. “I can see it,” she manages to say, “almost smell it too.”
“It was pretty bad,” I say, and curl around her, laughing into her shoulder.
She nods and agrees, and holds me tight. “I’ll keep it here.”
“Good,” I say once I’ve calmed down enough to.
“It’s a here story,” she says, all seriousness but still smiling. “It’ll still be here when you come back, I promise.”
I kiss the nape of her neck. “I believe you.”
She hums and leans closer. “Can it be just us until you leave?”
“Yeah,” I say, and kiss her again. “It can.”