My heart was drumming loudly in my ears as I sat on the very edge of the comfortable couch later that night, waiting. How I was to go about asking Finnick such a massive, imposing question about his personal life, I had no bloody clue.
Hey Finnick! Oh, by the way, this lifestyle choice of yours … how is that not your choice?
I was waiting for about an hour when I started to think he wasn't coming. Maybe he didn't get my message, or misunderstood it. That look could have meant anything, like "I had better NOT see you tonight" or "Don't come anywhere near me EVER AGAIN" or simply "Goodnight, see you in the morning!" or "I'm sneaking out of the Centre tonight to rob a bank and I want you to be my accomplice so you had better be waiting in the alley with a gun and please bring your own balaclava."
… Or anything at all, I guess.
I sighed loudly. I was so stupid. He wasn't coming. He had no desire to see me. I sighed again, a little quieter, and looked to the door.
As it turns out, he did have a desire to see me. Because there he was, standing in the doorway with his hands deep in the pockets of his checkered pyjama bottoms. And — oh my gosh, he was actually wearing pyjamas. Well, just the bottoms, along with a plain white t-shirt. But still. Was I mad, or could that have been for my benefit?
I surveyed him tentatively and then met his eyes. I saw his chest rise as he inhaled deeply, then he crossed his arms and leaned against the door-frame.
"Are you gonna come in?" I asked, after a considerable amount of time of us just staring at each other.
He looked away and kicked at the ground. "I didn't know if you wanted me to."
"Well, yeah. Didn't you get my message?"
"What message?" he asked.
"Eh, what message?" I repeated.
He narrowed his eyes. "What?"
"Never mind," I said quickly, biting my lip and looking away embarrassedly.
I heard (rather than saw) him cross the room and take the seat on the far end of the sofa.
We were silent for a long time. Then he said, "So an eight in training. Not bad at all." I glowered at him a little. He raised his eyebrows at me. "So what angle do you wanna play up in your interview?"
"Can we not talk about this?" I asked.
He gave a small sniff but shrugged and looked away.
I watched the way the dim lights caught his naturally sun-tinted hair, where certain wisps glowed orange like short, thin pieces of copper wire. And he said he wasn't ginger.
"How is it not your choice?" I asked. He stared forward for a moment and turned his head slowly to meet my eyes. "You said, 'What do you think choice has got to do with it?' What did you —"
"Can we not talk about this?" he asked.
I shrugged. "So … shall we just sit here in silence?"
"No, we could talk about anything else," he said matter-of-factly. "Anything other than the Games, and my sex-life, which you do seem to have a rather worrying obsession with … So, what about your sex-life? How's Lance these days?"
"Fine, I think." I shook myself. "You saw him earlier today! And Lance is completely irrelevant to my sex-life, thank you very much."
He sighed. "That's what you think."
"That's what I know," I muttered.
There was another short silence and then I blurted out, "Finnick, what did you mean—"
"I didn't mean anything," he said sternly, staring me in the eye. "If that's what you're looking for here then you should just forget about it."
"I can't," I mumbled.
"Well …" He wrinkled his brow and gave me an odd look. "Why not?"
I took a deep breath. "Because. There's something I see in you, Finnick, and it contradicts everything I thought I knew about you before. And I want very much for it to be true."
"You're building yourself up for disappointment," he said.
"Are you sure?"
He just pressed his mouth tightly shut and shook his head.
I turned and knelt up on the couch so that I could face him fully, even though he was turned away from me. "I thought you loved secrets."
He grinned a bit, looking at me. "Hearing them, not telling them." He tapped his nose a little mischievously.
"Trying to keep all these secrets, you'll burst!" I exclaimed.
"No!" he said. "Stop it, I'm not telling you." His voice broke a little when he added, "I can't."
"Finnick, you gotta tell someone sometime. And who better than me? I'm here, and I want to listen, and I promise I can keep a secret. I'll take it to my grave. I mean, it shouldn't be too difficult, given the circumstances."
He had suddenly stopped all his glaring and complaining and was now staring at me with wide, fearful eyes. "I … I don't think you'd believe me."
I rested my elbow on the back of the couch. "Me? I believed my Grammy sneaked onto the train here. I believed Lance was a real merman, for a moment at the parade. I believed in the tooth fairy 'til last year. I really don't think you need to worry about that."
Finnick gave a short laugh and then, quite suddenly, it was all spilling out of him. He told me everything. He told me about how they had thrown him a party for his sixteenth birthday, and it was there that the President had approached him and told him he would be recruited into a very special area of work. He would be in the business of entertainment, and it would be the easiest and most enjoyable job in the world. Oh, and if he didn't comply, his family would be in serious trouble. Finnick's poor family; himself being the oldest of six and the next only eleven years old at the time, and with his father's illness … They were completely helpless. And what else could he do? He couldn't refuse.
His career started that very night, at his own party, where he was bought for the very special entertainment of a guest. And so he spent the next three years: bought and sold, travelling in and out of the Capitol for parties or private nights with desperate and rich people, going from bed to bed and lover to lover. Only who would call those people lovers? These people who paid for his dignity, his innocence, his body.
"I hate it," he choked, clenching his fists up in his hair.
My face was set in a frown, not knowing what to do. I wanted to hug him, comfort him, stroke his hair and tell him that it was all okay. That it was all going to be grand. But my skin was crawling and I knew his was too. His was always.
One time, when I was fourteen and he was fifteen, Lance had had this big dilemma over this girl in school who asked him to ask her out on a date. He had taken her out and then it came to his attention that she was a horrible nasty person and that he never wanted to see her again. And he wouldn't stop complaining about her to me, but whenever I tried to offer some advice on what to do about it he would refuse all my suggestions and get all angry even though I was only trying to help. Confused, I went to talk to GaGa Moon and he told me an important secret about boys that girls weren't allowed to know. GaGa Moon said that sometimes a boy just wants someone to listen to him moaning about his situation, but didn't need them to give him the answer to his troubles.
I never forgot this, mostly because I thought it would be important later in life if I ever decided that I could do with finding a husband. But now I found that it applied perfectly to the situation in which I found myself with Finnick. Otherwise, I would have been very worried trying to come up with some solution, which was damn near impossible in this case. So, all I did was let him talk and talk and talk. It had begun so quickly that I couldn't have thought of anything to do but listen even if I had tried, and occasionally pat his shoulder a little awkwardly.
His story had come in short staccato bursts rather than all at once. Whatever raw emotion had etched his face and shuddered through his lean figure at first had drained from him quickly, and now he just spoke in clipped tones, his face oddly blank. I began to think that I might have actually been the first person he ever told this to, I mean who else could he tell? Not his family, who were too young, and would be so worried and scared that they might try to convince him that he didn't need to do this. Not his friends who were too embarrassed and ashamed to see him after all these terrible things had happened to him.
"I can't stand it," he said. "I feel dirty — all the bloody time. And — it hurts — it's disgusting. And the worst thing is, I have to pretend I enjoy it. I have to pretend that this is just me. And I'm becoming so good at acting — you know — that maybe it is me." His face dropped into his hands and he sobbed tearlessly. "I'm sick."
"You're not," I told him quietly. "The real you is in here." I placed the tip of my finger over his chest. He looked down, and his eyes seemed to linger on the spot where I had touched him even after I retracted my hand. "They can never take that away from you."
"Well, they sure as hell can try."
This was Finnick: a boy forced to grow up too quickly. The Capitol really liked to add insult to injury, by the most extreme means imaginable. First they force you to tear your own soul apart with murder, and then they steal away from you the privacy of your own body. What was left, when all that was taken? And yet Finnick had been strong enough to cling onto his old self, and it was that part of him I had grown to respect and admire and … and what?
"I'm disgusting," he said grimly.
"No, you're not," I said. Somehow, at some point, we had moved closer together, so it was quite easy for me to reach up and touch his hair, which was surprisingly soft. I gently took his hand because he was tugging furiously at his roots and I was scared he'd start ripping out his own hair and that would have been a shame. "You're not," I repeated softly.
"Yes, I am," he insisted, gripping my hand tightly and forcefully holding my gaze. "You dislike me, don't you?"
"No, I don't," I resolved. "I said I was assessing you, and now I'm done. And I've concluded that I think you're completely lovely, Finnick. You're a lovely person in a terrible situation. I mean, in the space of about ten minutes you managed to obliterate every reason I had for ever disliking you." He scrutinised my face. "It's true," I said, smiling timidly at him. "Even before, I liked you so much that I had to mentally remind myself why I shouldn't like you. But, now, I've got nothing. Well, you do confuse me a little. And you've made me curious as heck about your secrets and stuff. But that's nothing. You confuse me, but I like you."
"You …?" he started faintly, and I felt myself begin to blush at my words. Hopefully he wouldn't think too much about exactly the sort of 'liking' I was talking about.
"I mean, I know it doesn't count for much," I added quickly, "but I definitely don't dislike you at all."
He sighed a little and looked up to meet my eyes closely. "That counts for plenty, Annie." He swallowed. "For some reason your opinion means a lot to me." I was just trying to figure out what that meant when he just said, "Hang on — I confuse you? You're the mental one who never makes any sense!"
"I told you before I'm not mental," I said.
"I don't really think you are, but you sure don't act like a seventeen year old."
"Well, you don't act much like a nineteen year old."
"This is very true. We have a lot in common, eh?" he whispered, smirking at me. I grinned, but his frown quickly reappeared. "But … I see you and Lance and on the one hand I'm jealous, you know? Because you guys seem so much younger and it makes me feel so old. I just wanna be a kid sometimes. And you're so sweet and pure and it just reminds me that I'm tainted. My innocence was just ripped — right from me …" He clenched his teeth, looking pale and sick. "But on the other hand, I think of what would happen to you if you won." His eyes flicked up to meet mine. "Would you still want for Lance to win?"
I hadn't thought of that. If he won, would the exact same thing happen to Lance? I shuddered. Either way, it was happening to Finnick right now. "Well, would you rather be dead?" I asked. He cocked his head to one side and I quickly said, "Okay, don't answer that. But … you're a lot better looking than Lance, you know."
He rolled his eyes. "The curse of beauty, right?"
I looked down and realised that we were still holding hands. Finnick had big hands, the backs were sort of dry but his fingers and palms were smooth and calloused from a life of fishing. And they were warm, really warm. I found that I had no desire to let go.
I chewed my lip. He seemed to notice my distraction because he looked down at our hands as well, and carefully met my gaze. I tucked a chunk of hair behind my ear with my free hand and said, "Well, maybe. But you're also caring, and bright, and funny, and completely charming, and …" And how could I say flawless in every way without seeming insane?
His green eyes flicked between both of mine, and this close I could see the way they centres were flecked with yellow and the way they grew darker, deeper green closer to the rims. I could almost see the waves of the ocean churning inside them. I swallowed slightly, and stole a glance at his lips before the flush of heat really broke across my cheeks.
He gave a small laugh and moved a bit away (thank goodness). "Okay, that's really nice but you can stop trying to make me feel better now."
"I wasn't trying," I said resentfully. "I was just being honest."
"Well, that … doesn't help either," he said, giving a smaller version of the goofy grin. I shot him a questioning look and he just ran a hand through his hair and gestured towards me with the same sheepish smile. "Because that just means you're a genuinely sweet person. And …"
He looked at me and pressed his lips together. "I … Nothing. Doesn't matter."
We both let go of each other's hands rather hastily, and I sat around and tried to control the hyperventilation that was threatening to take over my lungs.
Because it was just starting to diffuse into my brain. All this stuff about Finnick … It all just meant that the part of Finnick I had a crush on was the real Finnick! It was the other part that was the mask! And it was true what I had said: I had no reason at all to dislike him any more. And that meant that I didn't have to force myself not to like him, or feel bad about liking him. I didn't need to. I liked him. I liked him a lot.
But … I was still going to be dead soon.
My eyes widened suddenly and I felt the weight of my heart grow rapidly. None of it mattered, after all. Not to me. Because, so what if I could like him now? What could I do about it?
And, anyway, Finnick had his own problems without worrying about losing me now. It was better if I meant nothing to him.
"So, what I said about sleeping with Lance … I was just being dumb. You don't want to do it with anyone, Annie. Ever. It's despicable."
My blush was sure to show, even in the dark. "I dunno … I mean, I think it would be different if you found someone you loved." I swallowed, and stole a glance at him. "You've never …?"
He met my eyes readily, his face strained. "No … I guess I'm a virgin, too, in that sense."
He smiled a little, and I did too. Then I looked down.
"You really believe in love, eh?" he asked quietly.
I nodded. "I like to think my ma and da love each other. And I know my grandparents do, even after so long. You can see it in their eyes. That's why old people are so wise, you know. Because even though there's pain in life, we all keep living because we hope to find love someday, and in the end that's what makes up for everything. Because of all the wars, and hate, and injustice in the world … as long as there's still love, we keep on fighting." Finnick was watching me closely and I lowered my eyes bashfully and rested my cheek against my palm. "And, I think you'll find it someday, Finnick. And then sex will be a completely new experience if it's with someone you can trust." I paused, feeling so sad all of a sudden. "Maybe someone from home."
He didn't say anything, so I looked up and met his eyes. We were still sitting a little too close, but my bubble had been violated way back at the beginning of the conversation so it wasn't really bothering me. And he just contemplated me for a moment. I wrinkled my brow, but all he did was smile his secret smile like he never had before, and he wet his lips slightly with his tongue before his face went suddenly serious. Eyes flashing, he met my gaze again. "Annie … Would it be really inappropriate if I were to kiss you right now?"
There are usually two different reactions that I (and most people, as far as I know) have in response to something completely shocking and unexpected. Sometimes I jump out of my seat with a startled yell, and probably knock something over. And other times I just go completely still and can't speak, and my eyes widen and I forget to breathe just a little bit.
Thankfully, it was the second reaction that I had at this particular moment in time.
When he said it, I went completely still and couldn't speak, and my eyes widened and I forgot to breathe just a little bit. And while this happened there were about a thousand questions running around my head and screaming at me for my attention. Where had this come from? What was he thinking? Did he really want to kiss me? Did I want to kiss him? Was he joking? Why would he joke about something like that? Had I brushed my teeth after dinner? And did I want to kiss him? Why would Finnick want to kiss me? Was he joking? Was he insane? Was he teasing me? Was this crush … mutual? Why on Earth would he want to kiss me? And once again, did I want to kiss him?
Admittedly, I did like him a lot. If possible, the admission of his secret life had only reinforced his good side, not only because it made me see who he really was but because it showed how deeply he cared for those he loved, the helpless people he was protecting, and how tragic his circumstance was. And how, even though he looked as strong and beautiful as a god, he was only human, after all.
So what was stopping me? Shouldn't I just go for it? I was going to be dead soon, anyway. And I appeared to have the opportunity to spend the last few days of my life in a wild and unexpected love affair with Finnick Odair.
But despite all these thoughts and how completely perfect Finnick was in every way, when my mind finally cleared I found that all I could think was:
This is my mentor. And I'm going into the Hunger Games. And I am going to die. And all I can do is try my best to help Lance win.
Unfortunately, kissing Finnick was not going to make any of those things any easier.
I swallowed nervously as Finnick searched my eyes, his chest rising and falling noticeably. His lips were slightly parted and looking at them was making my heart swell and my cheeks turn hot. How many lips had touched his; kissed, sucked and bitten them? Like he said: they were tainted. With this in mind, I bowed my head, feeling my eyes prick with tears. "Maybe someone who's not about to die, eh?"
That's when he went still, and stared at me for a long moment. I gazed back, still torn between what I wanted and what was sensible. Neither of us moved, and for a second I thought he was going to kiss me anyway, and that made me nervous and full of dread and tingly all over with anticipation at the same time. We couldn't both be sensible, could we?
But then he just dropped his eyes.
We broke apart and he gave a short laugh. Then he was suddenly on his feet and striding quickly to the door.
I realised too late that I didn't want him to go. I wanted him here with me until I was torn into the arena. I wanted to know him, love him, touch him, be corrupted by him. I didn't care if it rotted my soul and sullied my purity and I didn't care if he stole my innocence. He needed it more than I did.
But he was gone.
I slumped back on the couch, feeling even more confused than before, and wishing for the first time that I didn't actually have to die.