This is how it starts:
A reaping ceremony like any other, rows upon rows of scared teenagers (most of them, though, have too much pride to show it), sunburnt and claustrophobic, waiting to find out which of them will be sent off to die, or perhaps to win.
(The difference is mostly linguistic; victor is two letters away from victim.)
And, as every year, standing a way behind the 18 year old boys, with shells in her hair and dead starfish gathered in the skirts of her dress:
Annie Cresta doesn’t react, tracing patterns in the sand with the toe of her boot.
She can hear the shocked whispers in the crowd, a victor’s kid? is that allowed? and they should call it again, Cresta just ain’t right, everyone knows that, and oh, Annie. That poor, mad girl.
Annie ignores them; she’s used to it. She watches her illusory jellyfish swim through the clouds, free of the games and the reapings in a way that even a comparatively privileged district kid like her isn’t.
Florian Kelly tugs at her sleeve to get Annie’s attention; not always the easiest task in the world.
“Ann. Ann, you’ve gotta get up there. No-one’s gonna volunteer for you.”
(Its funny, when you stop to think of it. Not one person in Four had a bad thing to say about the strange girl who had been a boy, who makes jewellry from seaglass and shells, who talks to the gulls and starfish, but rarely to the people she shares her district with; yet none of them would have been willing to die for her. She can’t help but be grateful for that; Annie will come out of this year’s games with blood on her hands one way or the other, but at least facing the arena allows her the dignity of choice.)
(That isn’t what she was waiting for, though, at any rate.)
“They said Ayden Cresta. That’s what they said. I heard. You must have heard it too, not like those other voices that speak to me that you can’t know. My name isn’t Ayden. It’s Annie. Annie Cresta. They haven’t reaped me, they just think they did.”
“You still have to go up on stage, Ann.” He doesn’t sound happy about it.
She tilts her head to the side and smiles at him, though Florian isn’t entirely sure what’s funny about this situation, before she disappears into the sea of bodies, faded stars scattering the ground as she goes; a saltwater-scented galaxy falling back to Earth.
(And that, sometimes, is how Florian thinks of Annie Cresta, that she is an ocean and a solar system, lonely and lovely and something too remote for him to touch, because Florian Kelly is the poor fisherman’s son who is in love with the mad victor’s daughter and has been since their first reaping. In less than a month, he will see her almost drown on television. He will wonder why he didn’t volunteer in her place. But this is not a story about Florian Kelly.)
Here is a fact: Annie Cresta does not want to be a victor.
(And the Capitol, for their part, do not want her to be; not the mad girl, talking nonsense to herself with her willowy figure half drowning in torn, dirty lace. Not some unstable, gender-confused little freak. She is not their victor. The contempt is mutual.)
The last person from Four to win the games, the only one whose victory Annie is old enough to remember, had been Finnick Odair, a boy too young for the way they presented him; old enough to make people want him but not to understand why.
She sees him around victor’s village sometimes still, and he is beautiful and lost, with ghosts in his eyes and a smile that looks painted on for how out of place it is on his too-perfect face, and privately Annie wonders if there's anything left of the fourteen year old boy with the nervous smiles and the messy hair and the trident, because no human being should be this empty.
(Those sea-green eyes hold more horrors than just the games, she’s sure of it, from watching the way even the other victors treat him like he’ll break if they get too close, and Annie, once, had almost asked. But there are some things you just can’t do, not to people like him, not in Four. Besides, she doesn’t really want to know, what happened to Finnick Odair.)
Annie does not want to win the Hunger Games because she does not want to be like Finnick, used and ruined by the Capitol. She also does not have a choice.
But nobody in District Four says that; you play your part and you look good doing it, and you never, ever forget to smile; you keep the Capitol happy and they keep you comparatively prosperous. Everyone in the district understands that.
It’s something Annie Cresta has been told since she was five years old, and so she walks to the stage, smirking slightly with a confidence she doesn't particularly feel (what she feels is pre-emptive grief for the other tributes; it’s the same for everyone who's stood in her place, she’s sure, but none are allowed to say).
(There are too many secrets in Four, and Annie knows most of them. The sea breeze whispers them to her.)
Silently, she promises her district another year of glory. Secretly, she wonders at what cost.
(And she will survive the arena; there’s no real question of that. Annie is a career tribute, and a career trained by her victor mother, at that. She’ll be older than most of the other tributes at 18; she’s strong and smart and pretty and good with knives. She is not who the Capitol wants, but she is who they will more than likely get. The odds will be ever in Annie Cresta’s favour, as much as that statement holds true for anyone in Panem.)
There’s a trembling fifteen year old waiting for her; Luka something, her memory supplies. She shoots them a reassuring smile and doesn’t get one in return, but Annie tries not to hold that against her fellow tribute. Beside the stage, Lorelai Cresta is openly in tears; she had thought she was beyond losing people to the games after all this time. Finnick Odair tries to comfort her; sends Annie an apologetic half-smile as he does so.
They’re all terrified, in the end.
Annie doesn’t have time to try and make friendly conversation with her soon-to-be district partner, anyway, even if Luka had been more willing to, not before Caldesia Feferi is telling her district to “have a happy Hunger Games!”. She has bright blue hair that reaches past her waist and unnaturally wide eyes, and she sounds almost bored; detached in a way only Capitol citizens can allow themselves to be. Annie wonders how long she’s been an escort, and if she likes her job, but quickly tries to push the thoughts from her mind; she’s a tribute now, and cannot afford to worry about such things.
This is what they will forget, later: There was never any such person as Ayden Cresta, and the games were not what broke her.
And the way the Capitol chooses to immortalize Annie is not what her district will remember.