that was before either of them faced the arena. sitting out on the beach, knotting ropes together, cording sailors' knots to make bracelets out of shells and seaglass. she gives him one before he leaves at the age of fourteen. he wears it, even when he spears through a boy of sixteen with the trident, feeling flesh give way to muscle and bone and blood that sprays over a net that he's wound together himself.
she doesn't need to know he used her knots to do that. he tries to be as gentle as he can with annie cresta - and it has nothing to do with how she responds and how she reacts. some say she's gone crazy since her own games, but he doesn't believe that. she's just as damaged as the rest of them; just as damaged as any of the victors he's seen. some wear it on their sleeves, like annie does. others, like himself, keep it hidden until they can't anymore. there's a fear and a rage that burns inside of him that can't be slaked; an anger that he swears feels like fire in his veins.
he's terrified of that coming to the surface, and only annie manages to make that rage disappear completely. she reminds him of home and the beaches in district four. she reminds him of coming home, reminds him he doesn't have to always be in the Capitol, doesn't always have to sell his soul for secrets. she's short and scrawny for a girl her age, and he brushes her hair over her shoulder when he sits with her, he's gentle because he doesn't have to feel rage for what the world has done.
he never remembers the exact moment he fell in love with annie.
'she crept up on me,' he tells someone who asks. she does that. she smiles at him with those lips and her hair swims around her face and her skin is pale against his arm, and she's playing with shells and starfish and making bracelets and reminds him of who he was before the games. he's not a monster with her; not a killing machine, and maybe that's why he loves her so much.
she won her games by hiding. she won her games by surviving, rather than killing in cold blood. he loves her for that, loves mags for encouraging her, loves them both for being survivors and allowing him to survive. he holds her hands and leans in and brushes his lips against her temple. ]
I'm coming back again.
[ because it's happening again ten years later, and god he's never been more infuriated in his life. but he's still gentle. ] I promise, I'll come back.