He remembered the wild cheers that echoed in the streets as he stepped off the train. It felt strange to be home, to smell the salty breeze. He longed to dive off the jetty, plunge into the cool waves, lose the memories of those weeks in the arena in the swirl of bubbles that would engulf him.
But that would have to wait.
He raised his hands at the crowds, making them go crazy. His eyes sought out his mother, who was looking at him with so much love in her eyes it almost made him cry. Mags stood by his side, a head shorter than he was, and he escorted her down just as two girls he knew to be a couple of years below him in school approached them. One of them, the blonde, gave Mags a bouquet, and the other, a girl with her long dark hair in a dainty bun, was holding a wreath. He bent his head down so she could put it around his neck.
“Thank you,” he said, with a smile that made her blush.
The day was filled with festivities, of people coming up to him and making him sign his name on their shirts, their belts, their hats, whatever that was handy at that point of time. Girls from school, older and younger, flocked around him and cooed over him. Little boys ran around carrying toy tridents, reenacting scenes from the Games that made him wince – inwardly, of course; showing any signs of weaknesses was dangerous. The cameras stopped rolling when darkness fell, but during the day his daily life was documented, and he was made out to be the most popular kid in school (which, admittedly, was the truth). After a month he could get back to his life without every move of his being documented, but he should have known:
He would never be free of the Capitol.
The arena was bad enough, but the real nightmare began when he turned sixteen. He had been a mentor alongside Mags for two years already, but on the Sixty-seventh Hunger Games President Snow drew him aside, singled him out for a talk. He had been wary, but could never have guessed what was expected of him.
It was so very clever of Snow to hang his mother’s life in the balance, a lure into a trap where he was expected to visit opulent bedchambers with their silken sheets and offer the “pleasure of his company”. He felt repulsed by himself, filthy beyond belief, and when he returned from the Capitol he scrubbed himself till his skin was rubbed raw.
He went to school as usual, but nothing was quite the same. They were too innocent, too free of anything, to truly understand. He still talked with them, played with them, but some lunches he left school to go to the beach on his own, to listen to the waves crash on the shore.
It was on one of these occasions when he fled to the beach when he saw a girl in the school uniform, picking things up on the beach, flinging them out to sea. As she approached, he recognised her as the girl who had presented him with the wreath on his return to District 4 from the Games. She looked at him shyly, and he patted the sand next to him. She made her way over, sitting about a metre away. A companionable silence enveloped them for a while, before he broke it.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Annie,” she said quietly, then added, “I know who you are.”
“What are you doing out of school at lunchtime, Annie?”
“You tell me first,” she said unexpectedly, surprising him with her boldness. He laughed.
“All right. I’m here because I’m trying to run away from some things.”
“I’m here to collect some shells.”
“You’ve been throwing them out,” he said, puzzled.
“Only those that curve around,” she explained. She scooped up the sand between them and let the grains trickle down between her fingers, leaving behind a small conical shell. “You tell these your sad things, and they’ll hold it for you. Then you throw them out to sea so they won’t bother you anymore. My father told me that.”
She held it out to him, and when he extended his hand, and she pressed it into his palm. She felt about in a pouch slung around her shoulders, and pulled out a couple of huge conical shells. “I save them for bad times,” she said, laying them at his side, “but you can have them. I think you need them more than I do.”
And then she left, leaving behind a trail of footprints on the wet sand and a very speechless Finnick.
From that day on, they became friends. He learnt that she had lost her father when she was ten to a fishing accident, and throwing out seashells had been something the two of them used to do before he was gone. Finnick became her new partner on the sand, and she in turn listened to him talk, her presence giving him oceans of comfort that words couldn’t. During the dance held at his graduation, he broke hearts aplenty when he asked her to be his purely platonic – or so he tried to tell himself – date. They laughed and danced silly jigs, ignoring the stares of the people around them, and Finnick felt truly happy since his Reaping.
Then came the Seventieth Hunger Games.
On the morning of the Reaping they had gone out to the sea for their morning walk. It had become something of a habit, strolling along and picking up seashells and deciding which ones ought to be kept for the worst of days, which could be used for now.
They parted ways for breakfast at their own homes, and then gathered at the district square for the selection of the names. He had been sitting onstage alongside Mags, and watched stone-faced as the male tribute was picked. Barry Harvings. He had been just one year below Finnick at school, and it was his last year in the Reaping. There was a half-sigh in the crowd. It was true that the tributes from District 4 were known as Careers; all of them had plenty of food growing up and were always one of the better built ones in the arena. But it wasn’t a huge honour to participate in the Games here as it was in Districts 1 and 2. It was Barry’s last year in the Reaping bowl, and Finnick felt a pang of sorrow, watching him take his place at the stage, staring resolutely at the skies ahead. He had been a good kid, always watching out for the younger ones at school –
“Annie Cresta,” the escort said in his stupid Capitol accent, and Finnick stared at him in confusion, his thoughts derailed. Why was he saying Annie’s name? And then he saw Annie, her hair in the delicate bun he first saw her in, but she wasn’t holding a wreath as she walked towards him. Her hands were interlaced together tightly, and as she walked past him she shot him a fleeting, haunted look.
Annie. She was the female tribute from District 4. And no one was tripping over themselves to volunteer, so it meant that Annie, sweet and gentle Annie, would be taking part in the fight to the death.
There was a strange ringing in his ears as he stood up and walked offstage at the end of the Reaping, and he turned back every so often to catch a glimpse of his friend. A burly pair of Peacekeepers stood on either side of her, making her frame look smaller and more fragile than it already was.
When she finally boarded the train to the Capitol alongside Barry, he was waiting for her. She ran to him at first sight and he enveloped her in his arms, feeling her shivering against his chest. He knew that she was remembering everything he had told her about his time in the arena, and he cursed himself for unburdening his horrific memories on her. “It’s going to be all right,” he murmured to her, even as he thought of the cannon blast that might echo to signal her death; even as he imagined Annie, pale and limp, lying in a pool of blood. He realised only then how much it would hurt if she were to die. More than when his own father died. And possibly even more than if his mother were to die.
And then something cleared the fog that had been in his head since her name had been announced.
He could not, would not let her die. Snow had taken so much from him already, but the one thing he could never take away from Finnick Odair would be Annie Cresta.
The opening night saw the District 4 stylists dressing Annie up as a mermaid and Barry as a sailor. Annie took the breath of the Capitol people and Finnick away, her dark hair adorned with sparkling sea shells and her faux tail looking unimaginably real. The mermaid from District 4 made quite a splash, as Caesar Flickerman liked to say, causing the audience to hoot at his pun. The two District 4 tributes, under the guidance of Finnick and Mags, scored identical points of 8 during the private sessions with the Gamemakers through the knots and traps.
As usual, a list had been given to Finnick, with names of the people who had bidded the highest for his company at night. One of them this time was an old gentleman, who never had a taste for women, and it was with him that Finnick saw his chance. He spent the first few nights in the Capitol accompanying rich women, helping Barry and Annie secure sponsors in them. Finnick was glad that Barry had stayed true to his principles in school – he had teamed up with Annie, and the two of them had fled the Cornucopia as soon as they had gotten hold of a bag each. Barry took care of Annie, helped her climb up the rocky wall to reach the dam, where they got their first drink of water and speared some fish to eating. But then Barry got killed; beheaded by the Career tributes from District 1 who had cornered them. Annie fled, and the cameras in the tall fields she was hiding in showed her to be mumbling to herself, humming at times, her mind teetering at the edge of a cliff drop to insanity.
Many nights after his Capitol clients were satisfied, he would stand at their balconies, watching the live feed from the Games playing on the huge outdoor screens on buildings. Often he would see Annie curled up and hidden somewhere, her glassy-eyed stare so far removed from those welcoming sea-green eyes she used to look at him with, and he would sob silently, his heart twisted in anguish. He kept seeing her give him the conical shells on the beach those years ago, the girl who had protected him from his own demons, the girl whom he was now unable to protect.
The days passed with Annie hiding it out in the fields, and there was a rumour that the Capitol viewers were bored of her, that they were done feeling sorry for the girl whose upstairs had gone a little funny since her district partner had died. Finnick was getting desperate, but neither he nor Mags had any idea what to do. They had been meeting potential sponsors, but none of them were very much interested in keeping her alive.
And then the night came for Finnick to keep the old man company. Finnick learnt of the man’s connections – he was very good friends with the Head Gamemaker, and his father had been the secretary of the previous president of Panem. He also learnt of the old man’s liking to see tributes die of natural causes, like being struck by lightning or burned to bones in a fire. “Better be killed by nature than by a fellow man,” the man had chuckled. But it wasn’t nature, it was the Capitol Gamemakers that killed them, and only prudence made Finnick bite his tongue before his retort could slip out.
It was in his bed that Finnick formed the idea. If he couldn’t convince them to keep Annie alive, the only way out was the convince them to go along with an idea that ensured no one but Annie could survive. So when morning came, Finnick suggested an earthquake, placed near the dam so as to break it and flood the arena, causing the tributes to die of natural causes, just as his beloved would prefer. The old man liked the idea, and, as Finnick had hoped, passed the message on to the Head Gamemaker.
The earthquake was scheduled on the seventh day of the Games, when the number of tributes in the arena had been whittled down to eight. Annie, and seven others who were standing in the way of her survival.
Three of them died during the earthquake, killed by fallen trees or rocks. The rest were caught in the deadly flood that burst from the cracks of the dam. Two died immediately, but the other two and Annie hung on. Fatigue, however, resulted in the drowning of the two, and Annie was crowned the winner.
As she stumbled out of the hovercraft, wet and shivering, Finnick ran to her and embraced her. “You’re safe now,” he murmured, but when he looked up and caught the sharp eyes of Snow watching them, he knew that she wasn’t. And that she would never be, not until Snow died, not until the Games were abolished. And he knew that he would give everything he could towards the cause, to make sure that the world Annie lived in would be free from fear.
But at that moment, as he felt her in his arms, as real as could be, the nightmare that had begun since the Reaping started to dissipate. They were both winners, her and him. When they went back home, they could walk by the beach, speaking their troubles into those shells, flinging them far away from the shore into the sea, where they would sink to the seabed and never bother them again. There would be one whole year before they would have to face the Games again, both of them now mentors.
And, for now, that would have to be enough.