Part 1: Chapter 1
Disclaimer: I do not own or claim ownership to any content related to or included in the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. I write this story purely for my own enjoyment and the enjoyment of others, with no intent for making money.
Life Through Sea Green Eyes
Part One: Fish Out of Water
I may have been born a creature of the land, but my heart belongs to the sea. In that first, shocking instant, when my head breaks the surface of the cool water and my entire body is suddenly submersed in this weightless world, I feel like I could live here, among the fish and eels and coral, and just leave my real life behind. And for a few minutes I can, but then my lungs betray me and force me back to that place of harsh sunlight, and back-breaking labour, and the Hunger Games.
My father tells my sister Natare and I every night, as we lay down on the scrubbed wooden deck of our little fishing ship staring at the stars, that we're lucky to have been born in District 4. Our district is in charge of everything to do with the sea, which basically means we're all fishermen. "You think knotting lines and hauling nets is hard work?" father says. "Imagine mining for coal hundreds of feet underground, or dragging a plow across a twenty mile-long field in the mid-day heat. What we have, my children, is paradise, or as near as someone from the districts can get."
And for the most part, he's right. School is technically compulsory, but attendance is only enforced when kids, like Natare and I, are on land. When we're out on father's fishing boat – which is most of the time – he is our teacher, the sea our classroom. Natare and I dangle our feet off the edges of the dinghy, making elaborately knotted rope nets with our dextrous fingers, while father steers us to our destination. When we reach the fishing grounds it is hard work – casting the nets and baiting the lures – but once all the prep is done, we can swim and play until the sun sinks into the water and the moon becomes our lantern in the sky.
But today my little family and I aren't on our fishing boat, trawling the waters for tonight's dinner and, ultimately, a decent-sized haul to sell at the market, so we can keep our boat in good repair and continue our relatively carefree lifestyle. We're ashore, in the small, thatched-roof cottage my mother so painstakingly decorated before she died of a plague that cut a swath through our section of the district two years ago.
Natare is standing in front of the vanity – a simple wooden table attached to a large, relatively flat shell that has been polished until you can see yourself in its shiny surface. Father is helping her twine her long bronze hair into dozens of braids, which is our traditional way of doing a girl's hair for formal events. This is something that mother used to help Natare with, and we can all feel her absence more keenly on a day like today.
"Brush your hair," father snaps at me. "The Capitol is watching us on Reaping Day. We have an image to maintain, especially you."
Especially me. Because Natare is only nine years old, whereas I'm fourteen. And that means that when Pompey Birch, the official District 4 spokesman for the yearly Hunger Games, sticks his hand in that big plastic ball and pulls out a slip of paper, my name could be on it. Natare is safe a few years more, but I'm at the mercy of fate.
"Girls like the tousled look," I say, running my fingers through my thick hair. Girls like a lot of things about me: my hair, my face, my body, my eyes. Oh, definitely the eyes. Whenever I actually go to class, I'm surrounded by flocks of girls whispering about my "dreamy" sea-green eyes, as if I can't hear them when they're working themselves into a near frenzy.
"You aren't trying to impress the girls," father reminds me. "If you're chosen, it's the Capitol you'll have to impress."
I come up behind Natare, whose eyes are squinted close as she manipulates her hair, and stare at my reflection in the polished shell mirror. Somehow, I don't think the people in Capitol will mind my untidy bronze locks. Father forgets – or perhaps he doesn't notice – that it isn't only the girls who are entranced by my looks. Ever since I can remember, women of all ages have been drawn to me like sharks to blood. I don't encourage them, they just can't seem to help themselves. And the state of my hair has never mattered one bit to them.
"Finnick doesn't need to brush his hair to impress those snobs in Capitol," Natare opines, gazing up at me with sea-green eyes that are identical to mine. "If his stunning good looks don't have them falling over themselves, his charming wit is sure to do the trick."
"Ha ha," I say, nudging my little sister with my hip. She sticks her tongue out at me, and then resumes her braiding. Not that Natare is wrong – people have a convenient tendency to eat up my words as if they're the most brilliant thing that they have ever heard. I like to think that it's because I'm a scintillating conversationalist, but Natare is always quick to point out that people are just too busy being awestruck by my physical appearance to really take in a word that I say. And I would be lying if I said I didn't take advantage of it now and again, but on the whole my family keeps me grounded.
We dress in silence. Natare retreats to the other room of our two-room cottage, and emerges in a simple turquoise frock that compliments her eyes. Father and I are dressed almost identically, because I'm wearing his old clothes. I'm remarkably tall for my age, and the lean muscles I've built up on the fishing boat almost manage to fill out the white shirt and dark green pants.
As he has every year since I hit the age that I would be eligible to be a tribute in the Hunger Games, father puts his hands on my shoulders and looks me straight in the eyes. "Finnick," he says, deathly serious. "This year might be your year."
"I know," I reply. This little ritual of ours is more to calm down father than me, because he worries more about me than I do. Natare once commented that I act like a leaf in a stream, aware of my surroundings but content to float wherever the water takes me. She isn't wrong, but I would have to be either stupid or crazy not to fear the Hunger Games at least a little bit.
"And what do you do if you're chosen?" father presses.
"I do whatever I have to," I say. "Nothing is more important than coming home."
"How do you do that?"
"I use what I know. Ropes, knots, tridents, spears – whatever I have, whatever I can make."
"And the children, the other tributes," father says, and I can see the naked fear in his eyes now. "What are they?"
"They're sharks," I say.
"What do we do with sharks?"
"We kill them."
Father releases me, apparently satisfied with my response. I'm not particularly vicious, as father well knows, and so he tries to mentally prepare me for the possibility that I might be forced into a gladiatorial death match with twenty-three other children. Because I've never had another person's life in my hands before, I have no way to gauge how effective his methods are.
We make our way to the main square, a huge cobblestone expanse set against the backdrop of the massive Justice Hall. Because District 4 is built along the coastline, the docks are full with the ships of fishermen who have brought their families by sea to attend the Reaping Day ceremony. Our village is only half an hour's walk from the main square, so we leave our boat tethered at the local pier and go on foot.
I am immediately ushered away from my father, and Natare joins him when she is confirmed to be under the Reaping age. They disappear into the throng of people quickly filling up the square, but not before I spot Natare waving at me. I wave back, but one of the white-clad Peacekeepers grabs my shoulder and I don't see if Natare notices me.
"Finnick Odair," I say, glancing down at the clipboard the armoured man carries. His pen floats down the list, and then checks off my name under the section labelled "Fourteen".
"Follow the signs," the Peacekeeper grunts, already on to the next kid in line – a trembling twelve-year old with tears streaming down her face. I hang back, and when the girl is waved on by the Peacekeeper, I beckon to her. She hesitates, glances at the cordoned off area with the "Twelve" sign, then shuffles over to me.
"What's your name?" I ask her.
I'm thankful for my good looks right now, because something about a handsome face makes people trust you. The little girl's tears slow, and then disappear, as she gapes up at me. Then she grins toothily and says, "Mara Kell."
"Pleased to meet you, Mara Kell," I say, offering her my hand. She grasps it in both of hers and gives it a big shake. "Don't worry," I tell her. "The Reaping isn't as scary as it seems." It is, of course, but she doesn't need to know that.
"But what if I get picked?" Mara asks, biting her bottom lip. I notice then that her hair is nearly the same bronze as mine, and I think that she could be my sister.
"Don't be silly," I smile. "Your name is one slip in thousands. What are the odds?"
"Is that why you aren't scared? Because you know you aren't going to get picked?"
"Maybe I am scared, but I'm just better at hiding it," I suggest, and her eyes go wide. I press my finger against my lips. "Sometimes, if we hide our feelings from other people, then we trick ourselves into believing it too."
A Peacekeeper spots us and marches over, looking annoyed. I quickly bend down and give Mara a hug. "Good luck," I whisper. "Put on a brave face and nothing can hurt you." Mara nods gravely, and then flits off toward her section just before the Peacekeeper gets to me.
"Name?" he barks.
"I'm going," I say, unable to keep the sharp edge out of my voice. I dance around the scowling man and hurry over to my designated area before he can write me up. In other districts, I've heard that Peacekeepers keep discipline by threatening flogging and capital punishment, but here it's much simpler. You mess up, you get written up. If your name shows up too many times on the record, your family loses their fishing license. And since there isn't much to do in District 4 besides fish, poverty and starvation quickly follow.
I try to assimilate myself among the other fourteen year olds without attracting any notice, but I realize that it's a fool's hope. Those same good looks that let me get away with pretty much anything also mean that I'm always at the center of attention. My school friends instantly surround me, chattering about how nervous they are, how much they hope one of the Careers – kids specifically trained to compete in the Games – will volunteer this year so they don't have to go to their deaths. I smile, and joke, and touch hands, and make vague but reassuring remarks, but I'm just going through the motions. Not that they notice.
Then the big brass gong – a massive thing engraved with two dolphins circling each other endlessly – is sounded, and the crowd falls silent. This means that the video crews are firing up their cameras, and that the ceremony is about to start. Sure enough, Pompey Birch saunters onto the stage a few seconds later, purple hair gleaming in the sunlight. He's new this year. Our last director ate bad shellfish at a party in Capitol only a few weeks back, and they had to rush to find a replacement in time.
"Welcome to the 65th Annual Hunger Games!" Pompey bellowed, apparently having decided to forgo a microphone. "May the odds be ever in your favour!"
Some cheers from the audience, maybe a third of the people gathered. District 4 may not seem like much, but we are actually one of the better off districts, and we have our fair share of people who think the Hunger Games are exciting sport, not the annual slaughter of twenty-three innocent children. That also explains why a Career pops up every couple of years – some delusional parent dreaming of fame and glory for their kid, regardless of the cost.
But there don't seem to be any Careers this year. They usually make their way to the side of the stage before the ceremony even begins so they can leap dramatically up on stage to volunteer. I can't spot any eager teenagers lurking in the wings.
"The Hunger Games are one of Panem's most sacred traditions," Pompey declares, and begins to wax poetic about the history of our nation. How the districts revolted, the razing of District 13, the institution of the Games to remind us every year that we live at the mercy of the Capitol. I tune it out. I've heard it a hundred times before. But I don't tune out the next part.
"Before we select the tributes, let's give a warm welcome to this year's mentors!" Pompey shouts, making come-hither motions with his arms. Two people climb up on stage, one helping the other. I see why a second later – one of the mentors is Mags, a lady in her seventies who's been a permanent fixture at the games since I can remember. Usually it's supposed to be a guy and a girl mentoring, but I see that the other mentor is a woman as well – Andromache, a sour-faced brunette in her thirties.
"What happened to Mikael?" I whisper to one of my friends. Mikael is our only living male victor – for some reason, District 4 boys just don't do very well in the arena, Career or not. Which bodes incredibly well for me.
My friend shakes his head, but a blonde girl pipes up, "I heard that he contracted some nasty disease in Capitol last year, and he's being kept there for observation."
"I heard he was assassinated!" another kid contributes.
So Mikael's disappeared off the face of the earth. I don't really care, to be honest, but it does mean that if I get chosen I'll be paired with a female mentor. Not that this is a bad thing necessarily, but I like to know my options. I eye Mags and Andromache – Andromache is staring haughtily off into space, while Mags is hunched over beside her, knotting and unknotting a short length of thin rope. Neither is particularly inspirational to me, and apparently not to Pompey either, because he grimaces and then quickly moves on to the main event.
"And now, time to select the tributes!" Pompey walks over to the right side of the stage, where a big plastic ball holds thousands of paper slips. He plunges a hand inside and draws out a slip. "From the girls, this year's honour goes to Miss Calliope Rhodes!"
A prissy-looking blonde from the eighteen year old section gives a loud wail, and is instantly enveloped by a group of sobbing girls who must have been her friends. The Peacekeepers extract her with some difficulty and shove her up onto the stage, where she shakes from head to toe while fat tears trace down her cheeks. Not so prissy anymore, I think, but I find it hard to feel bad for her. Better a girl at least grown to womanhood than a helpless kid like Nara. At least Calliope will stand a fighting chance, size-wise.
Pompey is calling for our attention again. He's walked over to the plastic ball at the other end of the stage, and pulls out a slip. I hold my breath and pray.
"Finnick Odair," Pompey shouts in his unnaturally cheery voice.