Prodded to Drown

Chapter 20

"My love, you have my heart for all eternity. And if — if I die in that arena, my last thought will be of your lips."

Annie Cresta went to sea;Silver buckles on my knee.I'll be back to marry thee!How many days 'til I get back?

Negative one, to be exact. But my love was nowhere to be found.

I sat cross-legged on the sand outside the back of the little gift shop, weaving a friendship bracelet. I held the threads between my knees and worked them over and around and over and around and over and around each other quickly. Sultry gold for Lance's eyes, electric blue for Laertes'.

Another had to be made for GaGa Moon, but how was I supposed to choose colours or sequins or googley-eyed shells to represent his tiny smirk, his hoarse chuckle at my stupid jokes, his head tilt when he was telling me I had finally lost my marbles?

I had lost my marbles a million times, according to him. To be perfectly honest, I couldn't even remember having any to begin with.

I had gotten off the train to find my Grammy waiting alone at the threshold of our new abode in the Victor's Village. GaGa had gone for a swim one day while I was away, and found a beautiful mermaid to kiss him. He was with my parents now, swimming around down there beneath the waves where the water was clear and the huts were made out of sand. He'd be happier there than in any mansion that had materialised from my trauma. He had always liked the water.

I finished the bracelet after a long, laborious struggle against my recuperating motor skills, tying a knot in the end and tugging it hard. Lance died immediately, without seeing, without knowing, as quickly as glimpsing a shiny, scaled mermaid fin and pop! transforming into a beautiful silver sea bass.

Except he didn't. He just died.

Laertes, on the other hand, did not have the good fortune of a sudden and painless death. When the remaining Careers revealed to him that the time had come to dispose of us, they never in their wildest dreams expected him to refuse. Since Eve had already been torn apart by mutt piranhas after she found and followed a false trail left by the elusive Rose from District 12, it was only Saul and Juliet left for Laertes to disagree with. Still, two against one was not an easy battle. Laertes managed to throw off Saul, his head smashing against a rock and knocking his lights out forever, but Juliet had done so much damage with her knife already that Laertes was as good as dead himself. She left him like that and made her way back to Lance and me to finish the job. Injured, and convinced that Laertes hadn't enough fight in him left to follow, she had moved quite slowly in the hopes of sneaking up on us.

But it wasn't fight that kept him going. No, it was love.

Laertes — in some freakish miracle — had found the strength to stay alive in those last few minutes of his life. It was for Lance, it was my best friend he was coming to rescue, but he was just that crucial second too late. Juliet knew that I would be the lesser threat. She was saving me for dessert.

We both watched in horror as the head rolled. Then in one last act Laertes cast his spear into Juliet's back. Betrayed his District, avenged his love, and told me to run. Not because there was anyone left who might give chase, but because he didn't want me to stay there with so many bodies when I was already screaming so much.

Moments later, he was just another cadaver himself. Four Careers had died in the space of a few minutes, and then I was alone in a cave.

There was only one other tribute left. Rose's death was the one I imagined for myself over and over and over in my delusions and nightmares. The arena was flooded as a Gamemaker ploy to push her towards my hideout. She was the able candidate, and they wanted a swift ending. The sweethearts had kindly remembered me telling Caesar that I was aquaphobic, and chose to let me die in the most traumatic and meaningful way possible. But something didn't go according to their plan: Rose couldn't swim.

Simply, unimpressively, and slowly — she drowned.

You see, I had survived drowning once before when I was nine years old. I had the practice.

And so I came out a very unworthy victor. Not that any of us really deserved to die at all, or deserved to win for that matter, but as I heard over and over from my fellows in the Clinic, from Holden, and most people in the Capitol: it had been a pretty lame ending to this year's Games.

You just can't satisfy everyone, I guess.

I was preparing a speech for my Victory Tour, something to say in District One, despite it being months away. It was nothing to do with me, really; I couldn't thank Laertes' family for his sacrifice. They didn't want to hear why I was alive instead of their son. I just wanted to give them some explanation as to why he had thwarted the Careers' plan. Some confirmation to the family that he died protecting someone he loved. Even if it wasn't much comfort, even though they both died regardless of his efforts. I just wanted them to know he wasn't insane.

Not that I believed anyone would take me seriously on that issue, since I was being painted as a crazy girl ever since the stunt at my interview. That was OK, though. It just meant I could say whatever I wanted now. And, with a bit of luck, the right people might just believe the nonsense.

Lance and Laertes had spent their last weeks on earth discovering the love of their lives, and that sure was something to be thankful for.

I looked up into the sun, shielding my eyes with my hand and sighing. The waves rolled up the beach, breaking, foaming, melting into the sand, then rolling back out again. I was getting more and more accustomed to the sound of the water. It no longer sent me into a state of panic. It didn't remind me of drowning; in fact, it reminded me of home.

I squinted out at the water, seeing a boat with two strange figures suddenly appearing out of nowhere. It was a little currach, and more that a little battered.

I thought briefly of my parents. Hadn't we just had a storm?

As the boat passed closer, one of the people turned around and stood looking in my direction for a moment. Then, he waved.

I was on my feet. It couldn't be. Could it? Could GaGa Moon have found my parents, and asked them to come home to me? I had lost so much already — almost my whole family, and my best friend. The woman was rowing, directing the boat to the sand. Tears sprung up in my eyes and I ran to the shore, splashing into the water and gasping as the cold sprayed up my bare legs. I got in waist high, waving frantically as the boat approached bit by bit.

Closer now, I saw that the man had wide whizzing eyes and a jutting chin, and wore white bandages on both his arms. The woman was holding a pink hairbrush between her knees as she rowed.

"Billy?" I asked, incredulous. "Fliss?"

"Ah-Annie!"

I gaped at the pair as the boat passed smoothly through the water beside me. Billy was leaning against the side of the boat, laughing giddily at the sight of me. I smiled uneasily back, my eyebrows screwed up in confusion.

This didn't make any sense.

They both looked so pleased to see me and I swallowed thickly, trying not show the disappointment I felt in my gut. Of course it wasn't my parents. My parents were sea bass.

I followed the boat as Fliss rowed it and it scraped up onto the sand. Billy jumped out and we both dragged it up out of the water. He turned and beamed brilliantly at me.

"Is this real?" I asked.

Billy laughed but didn't reply. I look closely at the boat, the small wooden thing, and over at the rocks where my parent's boat had been found in pieces. I shook myself, and returned to the present.

"What are you even doing here?" I asked.

Billy began chatting excitedly, rubbing his hands together. "Well, after you l-left, the D-D-Doc was furious. B-but Mr MacCruiskeen t-told her off, s-stormed away and — and — and signed the p-paper freeing himself. Once we all realised it — it was th-that easy, a lot of us just upped and left." He beamed at me, triumphant. "It's all thanks to you, Annie!"

I gazed at him in shock. How was this possible? I could barely imagine escaping from Doctor Jeckyll, despite having done it myself. "But, what are you doing here? Where on earth did you get this boat?"

"You t-told me to visit you," he replied simply, giving a shrug. "We're doing a r-r-round-the-world romantic t-trip."

I looked at the two of them, completely taken aback. "Well, that's just amazing, you guys. Do you wanna stay for dinner? Or a few nights? Or as long as you like, really, I have a huge house now and no clue what to do with it."

Billy suddenly hopped back into the boat. "N-No thanks, Annie, we'd b-better head off again. Maybe we'll be back this way. Will you p-push us off?"

I blinked, even more confused, but leaned against the wood and launched it back into the shallows. Then they began rowing off, as quickly as they had arrived. I walked out a bit, waving as the foam swarmed my knees.

I watched them go, looking down at the water in confusion. This wasn't right. Was it? Did this make any sense, or was I just not giving these guys enough credit? It must have been a long trip from the Capitol. I wracked my brains. Did the Capitol even connect to the sea?

"Oh, and Annie!" Billy shouted, leaning over the side of the boat. "We met your parents, and your GaGa Moon! We even …"

"What?" I called back, wading out a bit further. Soon, I was sweeping water aside in a breaststroke. "Billy, I can't hear you!"

I saw him cup his hands around his mouth, and in a perfect, clear voice, yelled, "We even saw lancelets!"

I stopped, my eyes wide as I watched the boat get smaller and my heartbeat began resounding throughout my body, from my chest to my fingertips, and filling my ears —

Suddenly, the waves crested and lifted me off my feet. I gasped and flapped my arms desperately trying to stay above water, throwing my head back and gulping air. I expected my head to submerge and felt my mind already beginning to swim. But it didn't. The wave dropped me down again and my toes glimpsed off the soggy sand. Relieved, I turned around and doggy paddled back.

When I reached the shore, I scrambled to my feet and trotted damply back up the beach, dripping wet diamond drops onto hot white sand and turning it brown. I looked around, scanning the horizon, but the boat had already disappeared.

I pushed my wet hair back, breathing out through my mouth. My mind whirred, and suddenly I realised I had lost Lance's bracelet, somehow let go of it into the ocean. But it didn't matter, if I had heard Billy right. Had he really seen Lance? I couldn't imagine how he knew what lancelets were, and you'd have to really stick your head in the water to get a good look at the little chordates sticking halfway out of the sand. If he meant Lance, my best friend, who was very much deceased … then I was worried.

Why would Lance be with Gaga and my parents?

But if Lance was in the ocean, maybe he would find his bracelet and know it was from me.

I frowned. There was no way Billy could have known what my parents looked like as sea bass, likewise he had never met GaGa or Lance, even as humans. And wouldn't he get turned into a sea bass himself if he was swimming around mermaid territory?

As much as I wished it to be true, I had reason to believe that Billy had never escaped the Clinic with his new lover Fliss, stole a wooden boat and set off on a romantic trip. I had reason to believe that my imagination was just running away from me again.

I closed my eyes, counted my breaths, and ran my fingertips over the smooth pearls around my wrist. I inhaled the fresh sea air and wiggled my toes on the sand.

I didn't want to live in a dream anymore.

My name is Annie Cresta. My home is District 4. My parents died in a sailing accident. My best friend died in the Hunger Games. Gaga Moon died in his sleep.

I swallowed thickly, blinking back tears. When we met again, it would not be with our eyes.

"I'll be seeing ye in the dust," I said quietly to the ocean.

The gulls replied with a heck of a squawking, and I decided that that was good enough. For who even knew? Maybe it was them.

I looked around and saw another someone approaching on the beach. Was this one real, or an imagining? He was wearing a crumpled viridian suit that matched his eyes, and his copper hair was unusually dishevelled and unwashed.

He stopped when he saw me, and for a moment we stared at each other.

I had not seen Finnick since my swooning at the Clinic. He had been absent for my entire stay in the Capitol; no tension defuser for my interview preparations with Holden and Esmé, no comic relief at the dinner table, and no cuddles during sleepless nights or cheeky smiles to keep me hopeful that he cared for me at all. As I found out afterwards, this was because they hadn't told him that they had broken me out. Esmé had contacted him to meet us at the train, and I begged them to wait for him, but as the paparazzi rushed the station and cameras began flashing, I knew we had to leave. A whole twenty-four hours passed, and Finnick was still nowhere to be found.

How many days 'til he gets back?

Now he was in front of me: handsome and unkempt and looking at me with pain in his eyes. And late.

"Annie," he said.

"What took you so long?" I asked. I couldn't hide my disappointment. Had this all been a joke, an amusement of his? Had he never expected me to survive the Games, got caught up in this twisted love story, and was now backtracking like a fish in view of a net?

"I was stuck in the Capitol. Annie, I'm so sorry."

I swallowed, looking down. How could I even believe him?

"I missed your train by five minutes. Annie — I'm so sorry I wasn't there. I had no idea they would try to go ahead with the interview. I — I didn't even know they got you out!"

"I know," I said sadly. "Esmé told me afterwards that they had kept it secret from you."

Finnick's voice was swimming. It sounded like he was stifling tears. "I should have been there to look after you."

I kept my head down, unable to look at him because his voice was making me hurt. And I felt hurt already, and I couldn't stand it any more. "No. You shouldn't have."

I heard him stutter and glanced up unintentionally, which was a bad idea because Finnick's face was cracking into panic. "Annie — please —"

My eyes stung. "Finnick, did you get a chance to see the interview?"

His mouth twisted in repulsion. "Yeah … Ach, it was horrifying, Annie, I'm so —"

"Don't be sorry," I said calmly. I looked up at him, pressing my lips together in a reinforced little smile. His eyebrows were drawn up in concern. "Finnick … I was having a panic attack on that stage. The recap triggered an episode, and I thought the whole amphitheatre was flooding. I thought I was drowning again." I stopped, gazing out over the water and then looking down at the damp patch of sand I was standing in. I paused. "Finnick, can you confirm for me that my clothes are wet right now?"

He looked down at me, and reached out and patted my shoulder gently. "Yeah, you're soaked."

Reality was heavy, or maybe that was just my sodden clothes. But whether or not Billy had been there, and whether or not I was still seeing phantoms, and whether or not my parents and GaGa were fish or simply dead, there was one truth here that was worth basing reality on.

"I just swam!" I laughed. Finnick looked at me in confusion, but I just kept laughing, loud and spirited and relieved, doubling over with a laugh that came from a place deep inside my self that I hadn't known in a very long time. Eventually, I wiped the tears from my eyes and explained my sudden mirth. "Finnick, I just saw a boat with Billy and Fliss in it and I talked to them, and when they left he told me they had seen my parents, GaGa, and lancelets. And then I was like — are they talking about Lance, or the type of fish? Because Lance is dead. And now I'm pretty sure my ma and da and GaGa are dead, too, that they have been all along. But that's OK. I mean, it's not great but at least it's not phantasmagoria. That means hallucination. And, really, it makes a lot more sense this way. So when I was up on that stage, do you know what wrenched me out of phantasmagoria and made me stand up again?"

I reached out and took Finnick's hand, where the green ribbon had frayed and faded since I had put it there.

"I saw this. You are always with me, Finnick. Even if you can't always be … with me," I finished dumbly.

He smiled sadly at me, and I stepped forwards and threw my arms around his neck. He held me tight, and I inhaled deeply as I pressed my face against his tough chest. He kissed my cheek and my head, running his hands through my hair. My eyes watered, but not from tears.

He smelled. I kind of expected that, from the grubby look of him. But it was an unexpected stink of stale cologne. A repulsive, sickly sweet smell that was unlike him, so different to the salty scent of his tanned skin I had become accustomed to on the comfy couch in our training centre apartment.

I looked down at his creased clothes and up at his greasy hair, and noticed that his neck was sporting many small red marks and bruises. Then I realised what had held him up at the Capitol. It was business. He was a busy man, after all.

I swallowed, my heart thumping in my chest and my stomach filling with dread.

He pulled away from me and looked at my face. I didn't have time to mask my queasy frown.

But it didn't upset him. He just shook his head and shrugged heavily. "I'm a disgrace to myself, Annie. I want all of this to be easy for you, but I'm never going to be able to be anything but a disappointment. I'll never be able to give you a normal relationship."

He rubbed his brow like he had a real bad headache, and the frown was etched so deeply into his face that I thought I'd never see the goofy Finnick grin again.

"Normal?" I laughed hesitantly. "Who do you think you're talking to here?"

He looked at me, and there was nothing. Not even the curl of a lip or a chuckle masked by a cough. "I'm serious."

I pursed my lips, looking down shyly. "So, by normal you mean, like, out in the open? And …" I found my tummy invaded by twisting and wriggling worms. "Exclusive?"

"Yeah," he said, his voice shrinking. "I was thinking about this the whole train ride here and I know for sure that we'd have to keep any sort of relationship between us a secret on your Victory Tour, and then every year at the Games."

"What about right now?" I asked, reaching up and touching his face. This couldn't be the last time I would get to touch his face. I wouldn't allow it.

He searched my eyes, swallowing nervously. "Well, this is OK. As long as the Capitol can't see us." I looked up into his eyes and bit my lip. His chest rose and fell rapidly, and he averted his gaze in shame. "But there's the exclusivity part you mentioned. I can't expect you to … to be OK with sharing me with … you know." He shuddered. "I don't want you to have to sacrifice so much for me. You'd be giving up the chance to find someone who can give you the things I can't. Someone who can take care of you."

I sighed. Sad Finnick had completely dissolved my anger as soon as I saw the genuine misery this was putting him through. It wasn't his fault: none of it was. It wasn't my place to be mad at him. After all, my worst experiences were over. But as I stood looking up at this man in his dirty suit and defiled skin, I remembered that Finnick lived knew horrors everyday.

And I needed to see the secret smile.

"Finnick, I don't know why, but everyone has always thought of me as a useless child that needs looking after. Grammy Moon, Lance, Doctor Jeckyll … and now you." I grabbed my hair and raised the stringy wet strands up into the air. "But look at me! I can take care of myself! I just swam in the flipping ocean for the first time in nine years without even batting an eyelid!" He gazed at me, wondrously, his beautiful green eyes glistening. I smiled. "Look, I can deal with you not being around all the time and sleeping with other people against your will, if you can put up with me occasionally rambling about weird stuff and hallucinating and swooning from too much kissing. You don't need to take care of me. Just come home when you can and I'll be here for you. If I can be someone you come home to at the end of these days — whether you want to cry or talk or sit in silence or pull out your hair — if I'm the person you can do that with, then I'll be happier than I ever thought possible since I thought I was dead."

I stared up at him solidly, knowing in my heart that this was true. And he looked down at me, his lips tightly shut as waves welled in his seaweed eyes. Then, his mouth broke out into a wide, toothy, too big for his face grin, and he laughed wetly as the eyelashes finally gave way to the flood. I wiped his tears away and got on tiptoes to kiss his lips, accepting the knowledge that they would never be mine and mine alone. But they would never kiss anyone else with this tenderness, this vulnerability, this love. He collapsed into my arms, sobbing, and I saw again his lover's marks. I caressed them as part of him, a part of the person I loved.

"Besides," I said. "It seems to me like you're the one who needs looking after."

This was proven true immediately. Finnick wept for a long time, and I just shushed him gently and told him he was fine and safe, before sitting down with him on the sand and letting him lay his head in my lap. I stroked his hair and soothed him, wondering how he had ever kept all this to himself. The likes would make a madman.

Finnick needed me, and I promised myself at that moment that I would be there for him no matter what. As for me, I got to be the one he came home to. And that was enough.

Eventually, he raised himself up and wiped his face, shuddering and gasping for breath. His face was blotchy, his eyes puffed and pink. I smiled widely at him. He was a really ugly crier.

He inhaled deeply while taking my hand tightly in his own, meeting my eyes vehemently. "Annie, my body might not be mine to give away, but if you can really accept me with all of these strings attached … I promise you that my entire heart is yours."

My chest welled with happiness, and suddenly I was crying, too. Happy tears of course. Only the happiest were allowed. "I want the strings, Finnick. I want all of you."

He closed his eyes, taking my face in his hands and bringing his forehead to mine. His hands were strong and familiar, and I drank in their warmth. I looked up at his long golden eyelashes and his goofy crooked smile. I couldn't take my eyes off him.

"I'm in love with you," I whispered.

He sighed, his face suddenly peaceful. "I never thought anyone could accept me with all of this."

"How could they not?" I asked incredulously. "Because, you know, Finnick Odair is bright and fair."

He laughed and rolled his eyes. "Aye, yeah, combing down his ginger hair."

"I was gonna say golden, but if you're finally admitting it's ginger then that's probably better. Time to stop living in fantasy land, Finnick."

He laughed loudly, throwing his head back, and drew me into a playful and passionate kiss. Suddenly, he reached under me and lifted me right up off the ground, throwing me over his shoulder like a rag doll. I screamed, and he began running — or staggering a little — towards the water.

"So, you're swimming again?" he laughed, kicking off his shoes as the sand got wet. I punched his back repeatedly, screaming for him to let me down.

He obliged, looking nervous as I found my footing and sent him a glowering look. "Finnick, that is wildly inappropriate!" His eyes widened and he opened his mouth to apologise, but I cut over him. "Now we're even — Race you!" And I dashed for the sea, jumping and splashing into the water, laughing madly as he cursed me from way behind. I ripped my dress over my head and dove headfirst into the sharp cold depths. When I emerged, Finnick was strolling casually into the water, smirking as he peeled his shirt off and revealed a sculpted chest I could remember falling asleep on.

"Finnick Odair," I said contently. "A stór mo chroí." He approached me, wading through the waist-high water with an evil grin like a monster of the deep. Sea monsters probably didn't have grins as handsome as his, though. Or abs, for that matter.

He came up to me and slipped his arms around my waist, pulling me close. I grinned up at him, placing my hands gingerly on his wet, shimmering chest. His eyes danced with the cheekiest, goofiest, loveliest of secret smiles, as he leaned down to stroke my cheek gently and press his forehead against mine.

He was bright and fair. He had golden hair. He was mine to love and care.

Then Finnick Odair took off his underwear.

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