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Treading Water


They don't tell you when you go into the arena that the lucky ones are those who die.

Drama / Romance
Age Rating:

Chapter 1 - Pockets Full of Stones

Nearly dead center of the smoky, noisy tavern, Finnick Odair sits at the table with his father and uncles. It had been a frustrating day at sea and they’d gotten back into port late. Nothing was biting and it’s been that way for weeks. What little was brought in by the Odairs and by the others crowding the tavern has already been packed in ice and shipped out to the Capitol. Finnick overhears a good deal of grumbling about that as he nurses his beer.

Still, despite the slow season, the long, hard days at sea with little to show for their efforts, Finnick is more than happy to be home. Things make sense here. He can drop the mask and be himself, at least to some extent. He sits back and lets the conversations, both the one between his father and uncles and the larger one repeated across the public room, swirl around him along with the smoke and the scents of fish and sausage and beer. Home.

“This is the worst I’ve seen it in more than twenty years,” Thomas Odair observes and more voices than just those of Finnick’s uncles chime in with their agreement. The mood in the tavern is restless when a group of Peacekeepers armed with machine guns – That’s new, Finnick thinks – stops in the open doorway and surveys the crowd. Voices drop to whispers and the wave of sound ebbs across the tavern, but talk doesn’t completely cease even as a woman wearing a uniform that proclaims her the Head Peacekeeper breaks away from the rest and approaches the bar. The tavern’s owner, grizzled old Danny, an ex-fisherman retired by the sea when a shark took his leg, meets her at the corner of the bar and they hold a terse conversation before she returns to her group. Watching her walk away, Danny spits on the floor as though spitting a bad taste from his mouth.

Resuming their conversation at the table, Finnick asks, “When did they start carrying machine guns? Don’t our Peacekeepers generally carry pistols, if anything?”

Rick, Thomas’ younger brother, nods and swallows his beer, setting his glass on the table hard enough to set the amber liquid within sloshing. Finnick watches the play of light refracting through the glass. “Fucking Peacekeepers,” Rick growls. Finnick looks up at his uncle, raises an eyebrow. For as long as Finnick can remember, Peacekeepers have patrolled the town; in recent weeks, they prowl the docks in pairs and threesomes, never alone, as though worried someone might attack.

“Reminds me of the way it was before the last Quarter Quell,” Thomas tells Finnick, “just before you were born.”

Finnick spins his half-full glass between his hands and wonders how close District 4 might be to open rebellion. Judging by the snippets of talk overheard this evening alone, it may be getting close. Mention of the Quarter Quell is an unpleasant reminder that Finnick will have to return to the Capitol soon and that this year he’ll probably be required to mentor. He makes a mental note to ask Haymitch when he sees him if things in 12 are anywhere near as tense as they are here and if, as his dad says, it’s like it was twenty-five years ago. He’s not sure if it will help or hurt them in the long run, but the Capitol is certainly taking a more active interest in the day-to-day activities of the districts.

A flicker of light catches his attention and he looks up at the television that hangs over the bar. The sound is muted, but the picture shows Katniss Everdeen, victor of the last Games, all dolled up in a wedding dress, then switches to Caesar Flickerman in his studio, seated beside a man Finnick assumes must be Everdeen’s stylist. Next to the dark man in his simple black clothing, Flickerman looks like a ghost with his too-white makeup and white-sequined suit, so different from the one he wears year after year for the Hunger Games. Finnick shudders. He is not a fan of Caesar Flickerman.

The Katniss Everdeen Wedding Dress Special continues on its merry way, but without Finnick paying any more attention to it, other than when particularly jarring transitions between clips pull his gaze back toward the bar. A peal of laughter rings out on the other side of the room as a game of darts nears its end. A woman pounds her fist on the bar, shouts, “What right do they have—?” before she’s quickly hushed and hustled away from the bar to a table near the back door. A server maneuvers through the various obstacles in his path, bearing a tray filled with fish chowder to the table beside the Odairs’; Finnick’s stomach rumbles and he quiets it with a swallow of beer as his uncle Corin, his mother’s brother, signals for another pitcher.

Another abrupt lighting change from the television draws Finnick’s gaze in time to see the Seal of Panem fill the screen, replacing Flickerman’s ghostly face. “Danny!” he calls, and when the man behind the bar turns in Finnick’s general direction, he continues, “Turn the volume up!” as a woman sets a full pitcher on the table. The television screen shows President Snow standing on a stage outside the presidential mansion, wearing a dark suit, his ever-present white rose bud in the lapel. He waves a greeting with both hands to the roaring crowd surrounding him. Unlike the streets of District 4, there are only a handful of Peacekeepers apparent, and only a few of those overtly bear any kind of weapon, none of which is a machine gun. Finnick finishes his beer and reaches for the pitcher, refills his glass. He offers to refill Corin’s, but the older man declines.

Nearly everyone turns toward the television and the tavern grows quiet as Flickerman’s voice tells them of the upcoming announcement from President Snow regarding the 75th Hunger Games. Several of those old enough to remember one or both of the previous Quarter Quells wonder if this will be the “reading of the card” and there is talk of what came before, of voting on specific children to be sent into the arena and how horrible that was for the 25th Games, of the doubling of the number of tributes for the 50th, and speculation of what this next Quell might bring. Finnick feels quite a few sets of eyes watching him.

The televised image of Snow, that blood-red smile, the sibilants of his voice as he tells a brief history of the Hunger Games and in particular of the Quarter Quells, unknowingly repeating the conversation in the tavern just moments before…. Finnick can’t hide from the suddenly overwhelming scent of blood and roses. The sense memory is so strong that it doesn’t matter that there’s nothing in the room that smells like anything other than smoke and food and alcohol, the occasional whiff of the sea, carried in through the tavern doors, open in spite of the chill of the early spring evening. Finnick feels Snow’s faux friendly hands on his shoulders, shudders at the remembered touch. His fingers tighten on his glass as he tells himself it isn’t real, that Snow is hundreds of miles away, that family and friends surround him and Snow can’t touch him.

“And now we honor our third Quarter Quell,” Snow announces and steps back, gesturing toward a boy in white, too young to be reaped even if he wasn’t a citizen of the Capitol and thus exempt. The boy brings out a box of cards and Snow brushes away dust before opening it. The dust is a nice touch, Finnick thinks cynically as Snow makes a show of drawing a yellowed envelope with a large “75” written on it. He opens the envelope and reads the card for the 75th Hunger Games, the third Quarter Quell, with great ceremony.

“On the seventy-fifth anniversary, as a reminder to the rebels that even the strongest among them cannot overcome the power of the Capitol, the male and female tributes will be reaped from their existing pool of victors.”

No one moves. It seems as though no one breathes as they take in the announcement, consider what it means. The tavern is silent save for the hum of the television until the sudden, violent sound of shattering glass breaks that silence. In tandem with the crowds surrounding the President on the television screen, the crowd filling the tavern breaks out into protest and speculation, discussion and argument over what it all means. Danny turns off the televison as people begin to shout about the victors, their victors, sent back to the arena, start to ask when the Capitol will stop taking from the districts?

Finnick doesn’t notice the broken shards of his beer glass, the blood that mingles with the beer dripping from the edge of the table to the floor, doesn’t notice the pain in his hand. His eyes are still on the TV, but he doesn’t see it, doesn’t hear the voices surrounding him. He is back in the arena with voracious, blood-sucking vines suffocating him, and threaded through it all is the scent of roses.

His father and uncles pull shards of glass from Finnick’s right hand and try to stem the flow of blood. Corin starts to wrap Finnick’s hand in a napkin, a temporary bandage until they can find something better, but Finnick suddenly shoves away from the table with enough force that his chair clatters to the floor.

He glances at Thomas and says one word – “Annie” – before shoving his way through the crowd to the door, not waiting to see if the others follow.

It’s getting dark outside and Finnick still isn’t home. Annie fixes herself a sandwich, knowing that if they’re running this late getting the catch settled and the boat squared away, he’ll probably eat with his father and uncles. It wouldn’t be the first time, nor is it likely to be the last.

They’ve been out since daybreak and she’s lonely, though it’s nothing like the times when he’s away in the Capitol. When he goes to the Capitol, he’s different when he comes back, more distant, colder. Sometimes he pulls out of it in a few hours, gradually catching up to his body in his return to her. Other times, when things were particularly bad in the Capitol, it takes a day or two before he is Finnick again. The real Finnick, not the shell the Capitol sees.

She switches on a floor lamp in a corner of the living room and draws the curtains, shutting out the darkness outside as well as the lights of their handful of neighbors. There are a dozen houses on Victors’ Island; Annie and Finnick live in one at the end of the little cove. People occupy six other houses along the sheltered beach, but for the most part, the victors living on the little island keep to themselves.

Turning on the television, Annie settles in on the couch to wait for Finnick. She stretches out a bit, rests her head on the arm as the opening credits for the Katniss Everdeen Wedding Dress Special scroll across the screen. A sparkling Caesar Flickerman bounds into his studio and takes his seat. There is an empty seat beside him as he promises the citizens of the Capitol a fantastic show and then introduces the stylist behind the final six designs as well as the amazing and memorable clothing Katniss wore during the 74th Hunger Games.

As the show progresses, Annie begins to feel sorry for Katniss Everdeen. The show is mostly about the dresses, which are as gorgeous as promised, but that’s the problem: The show should be about Katniss and what the dresses mean to her, what she thinks about them, which one she might prefer to wear to her own wedding. Instead, it’s about which dress is more popular with the citizens of the Capitol, and don’t forget that voting on the designs is open until the end of the week. Katniss is nothing more than an afterthought, a living mannequin for the Capitol to dress up. Annie wonders if Katniss has realized that yet.

When the closing credits begin to roll, Annie is half asleep, but Flickerman’s voice promising an announcement regarding this year’s Hunger Games jars her awake. She sits up as the Seal of Panem appears and the Hunger Games anthem begins to play. Her blood roars in her ears as she reaches for the remote to turn it off, but she can’t find it right away and so can’t cut off the sounds of the Games, the music that permeates her nightmares.

President Coriolanus Snow climbs the steps of a stage in front of the presidential mansion and Annie drops back to the couch, her search for the remote ended as she curls into herself. She blinks and he pulls an envelope from a box, licking his blood red lips as he opens it and begins to read. She covers her ears with her hands to shut out the sound, but it doesn’t work. It never works.

“On the seventy-fifth anniversary, as a reminder to the rebels that even the strongest among them cannot overcome the power of the Capitol, the male and female tributes will be reaped from their existing pool of victors.”

Snow’s words echo in Annie’s head, growing louder with each repetition. …existing pool of victors. …existing pool of victors. …existing pool of victors. A scream tears at her throat, but the only sound that escapes is a pathetic whimper. “Can’t go back,” she whispers, but there’s no one to hear. Finnick isn’t there.

Curling into a ball at the end of the couch farthest from the television, Annie sinks beneath deep, dark water, bone-chillingly cold. She gasps for air, but can’t take enough in to push the darkness away from the edges of her vision. The smell of salt water and rotting seaweed, coppery blood and cloying roses is everywhere, burrowing into her skin like tiny muttations; the pinpricks of their teeth and claws tear at her arms as she drowns, shivering in the murky water. A tiny part of her is aware that she’s in her living room, curled up on the couch, that she was watching television and waiting for Finnick to return home from a day of fishing with his family when President Snow made his announcement, but that part isn’t strong enough to fight the pull of the arena.

In the background, a recap show of all the most memorable scenes from seventy-four years of Hunger Games plays, including the explosive flooding of the arena when the dam broke during the 70th Hunger Games – Annie’s Games. A rapid-fire musical montage begins with a loud pounding of drums; it translates to the booms of cannon in Annie’s reality, the sound vibrating through her whole body, threatening to tear her apart. I’m dead, she thinks, I must be dead, those cannons are firing for me. But still she feels the sting of the muttations’ needle teeth and razor sharp claws tearing at her arms.

A new cannon fires, the sound much closer. Annie tries to burrow into the couch, to hide from the muttations shredding her arms, but hands grab her wrists and drag her from her hiding place into a pair of strong arms.

“Annie, no! Baby, stop! Don’t do this.” Finnick’s voice, but he can’t be here. He’s in the Capitol with the other victors, the ones who survived their Games. Not like her, dead in the arena. The stinging in her arms lessens, but the smell of blood is stronger than ever, overwhelming even the cloying stench of the roses, the dark green rot of the seaweed. Annie drifts between the arena and the real world. Finnick holds her in his arms, but she’s not safe. Never safe.

When Finnick lifts her from the couch, Annie opens her eyes at the sensation of floating, but she sees nothing but murky water. He carries her upstairs to their bedroom, lays her gently on their bed. After a time, she becomes aware that someone else is in the room when a woman sits down beside Annie on the bed, holds a glass to her lips, orders her to drink with such quiet authority that Annie does so without hesitation. It takes a moment for the woman’s face, her calm voice to register: Finnick’s mother.

Jenna lowers the glass once Annie empties it and sets it on the bedside table. “She’ll sleep now, Finnick. We’ll see how she is when she wakes.” Jenna stands and walks over to Finnick where he fills the doorway. “Now let me see to your hands, son.”

“Mom…” He takes a step, backing away from his mother, away from Annie, who reaches one hand out to him. His eyes focus on that hand.

“Finnick, they’ll scar,” Jenna protests.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says as he steps past Jenna, drops to his knees beside Annie and takes her outstretched hand in both of his. His own hands are sticky and wet and the coppery smell is stronger. “I don’t get to keep my scars,” he whispers, so low that Annie thinks maybe she’s the only one who can hear him. “I’m right here, Annie. Please just stay with me.”

Kneeling beside her son, Jenna gently pulls one of his bloody hands from Annie’s, leaving Annie to hold the other as her eyes drift closed.

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