Prodded to Drown

Chapter 12

The next morning, there was a switching of roles at the breakfast table. As in, Finnick became the one doing all the staring, and I was the one avoiding his eye contact at all costs.

Mind you, this was not a very easy feat. My lack of sleep was taking a toll on me more than usual and sometimes I'd forget myself, and I would glance around the table. His eyes were like magnets, and whenever mine would even glimpse past he would somehow force me to stop and meet his eyes for a split second, but that was enough to have my mind racing frantically and my face pinch up in annoyance at myself. It was with all my strength that I'd drag my gaze away again. Other times, I would think I was safe and I'd risk a peek at him (only to see if he was still staring, of course), and in an instant he would sense my stare and look around, a smile just forming on his lips before I had time to quickly avert my eyes again, blushing furiously.

I was eating a grapefruit, and it left my mouth all sore and tingly. I had been biting my bottom lip in my sleep and now I had a small cut there, and what's more the skin on the inside of my lips was peeling a little. I had never ever been so aware of my mouth.

This was all very distracting.

"What a day we have ahead of us today!" Esmé was saying cheerfully. She fluttered her long eyelashes at anyone who dared to make eye contact with her at the risk of being dragged into a conversation. "You've all had your fun for the last few days with your tribute-ing and your mentor-ing, and now — it's my time to shine!"

Finnick, Lance and I all exchanged a look. Then I remembered I was trying not to look at Finnick so I just exchanged a look with Lance instead.

"Finnick, dear, who would you like to take first?"

I could feel his eyes boring into me as he paused before replying, "I haven't a preference."

"Oh, goodie!" she nattered on. "Why don't … Hm, let me see — what a tough decision—"

"It really makes no difference," Finnick assured her.

"I've got it! I'll take Annie for the morning, and you can have Lance. Then we'll switch over after lunch — how's that, pumpkin?"

I could picture Finnick's scowl even though I, of course, did not look up from my chocolate waffles. "Perfection," he said in a strained voice.

"Fine by me," agreed Lance agreeably, and I just made a weird noise in my throat which was taken by everyone to mean, "I also accept that decision most favourably."

Breakfast was finished rather hurriedly and then Esmé was up and pulling my chair out from under me, chiding, "No dawdling! Come along now — We've got such a lot to do!"

I was sitting on my bed, glumly watching her flit about in front of me and chattering on about things I couldn't understand nor wanted to, until I heard her saying, "Such a big job I have today! So to make sure we work as efficiently as possible, I have asked a very special someone to join us in our etiquette lesson! Can you gue—?"

"Is it Holden?" I asked.

She pursed her lips and blinked slowly at me. "I do wish you wouldn't interrupt me, sweetie."

Can you possibly guess who emerged from the closet a minute later? I bet you can't. I too pretended to be completely overwhelmed with surprise.

When Esmé said she wanted to work efficiently, she must have meant with as much screeching and giggling and generally unproductive behaviour as possible. The morning was a complete waste, but I wasn't complaining since the alternative was sitting in close quarters with Finnick and trying to convince him to help me keep Lance alive and attempting not to hyperventilate or give in to temptation or pay any heed at all to whatever desire I had, or he had, or we both had in relation to kissing and other types of affectionate behaviour.

Yes, the gruesome twosome were plenty good enough for me.

I already knew how to walk in high heels, because like a normal child I used to play dress-up a lot. I still played it sometimes, come to think of it. Grammy Moon was quite glamorous when she was a young cailín. And Esmé taught me how to flutter my eyelashes prettily (which was exceedingly difficult and hurt my eyeballs after too long), and Holden had me reciting my Lance story again and again and training me to pause and sigh and cry and smile in all the right places. And, of course, the all time favourite: the fake tear dab. I was actually very good at making myself cry on cue, but I had no idea there were so many different types of smiles and sniffles and sobs and laughs. Apparently my concentration was truly terrible and Esmé was constantly clicking her fingers in front of my face each and every time I got distracted. And no matter how hard they tried, they couldn't get me to wipe the dreaming, glazed look from my face. I tried to tell them that it was just my face and there was nothing anyone could do about it, but they still had me talking to myself in front of a mirror for an hour trying to show me all of my imperfections in stunning detail.

I began to just blatantly ignore them until they were forced to move on. My posture couldn't be improved and I was polite when I wasn't blurting things out off the top of my head, so we managed to finish up early and go for lunch. To our surprise, Finnick and Lance were also done with their session, and everyone was feeling rather pleased with themselves.

Except, of course, for the lingering sense of dread hanging over me at the thoughts of the afternoon, which caught up with me all too quickly.

You, like me, might think that Finnick should have been embarrassed or even mortified by my rejection last night. But you, like me, would be wrong about that. Because apparently, Finnick Odair's spirit could not be broken that easily. If possible, his spirit had been doubled and tripled in strength and embellished with even more charming smiles and flashing eyes and just … general … good looks and … and, ach, I could hardly stand it …

He was wearing a triumphant grin as Holden and Esmé got to their feet and were followed out the door by Lance.

"Please don't leave me," I whispered, gripping his arm as he ambled past.

Lance took a shrewd glance at Finnick and then looked back at me curiously. "Sorry, babe," he said, then grinned and jogged out of the door.

"What did you say to him?" I accused Finnick.

"Uh, lots of stuff," he said, knitting his brow. "You'll just have to wait 'til his interview to find out."

Finnick knew quite well that that was not what I meant. He knew it so well that I didn't even bother pointing it out. Now that everyone was gone, I felt quite at liberty to glare at him as much as I wanted. And that I did.

"Well …" he started slowly. "I'm going to have some coffee before we get started. Would you like some?"

"No, thank you. I'm not allowed to have caffeine." He just looked at me so I added, "It makes me hyperactive."

"No kidding," he replied. There was a pause while he smiled pleasantly down at me. I took a measured step back from him to avoid the intense eye contact he had going on but it didn't work because then I could just see more of him. Him and his stupid good looks. His stupid annoying sleazy good looks which I was clearly not attracted to. Not in any way whatsoever. "Shall we move this to the sitting room?"

He was grinning at me as if this was a real funny joke, so I just rolled my eyes and went into the other room. I sat down on the comfy couch, folding my arms and legs and waiting. After preparing his coffee, Finnick dragged an armchair around to face me directly. He held his mug in both his hands and blew at the brown liquid, eyeing me over the top of it. I stared stubbornly back at him. Usually people could talk and drink at the same time, or successively, at least, but the silence just wore on until ten minutes later when Finnick finally slurped down the last of his drink and set his mug down on the nearest end table. He hadn't even rushed.

He returned his gaze to mine with a small sigh.

"Why are you staring at me?" he asked.

"Why are you staring at me?" I replied.

"I asked you first."

"Don't be childish."

"Takes one to know one."

He was grinning and I had to try so hard not to mirror it. With a very twisted frown and a sigh, I looked away.

There was a pause and then a huff of impatience. "Look, Annie, I'm sorry I asked to kiss you, I just misread the signs, okay? Now can you just give me a break already and try forget about it? I'm mortified enough as it is, and we should be focussing on your interview."

It was painful. I shut my eyes and threw my head back, rubbing my face. I decided abruptly that there was no way we could talk about the interviews until I got this off my chest. And if Lance had already convinced Finnick to save me instead of him, I really needed to double my efforts.

Turns out I'm no good at keeping secrets, after all.

I sighed again, more tiredly this time. For a moment I just surveyed him before answering. "I was staring because … you're just beautiful, you know?" His eyebrows raised slightly and I said, "Well, of course you know, that was a stupid thing to say. But my point is …" I stared at him for a bit longer while I tried to figure out what my point was. "My point is: I'm going to die soon. And yet all I can think about is how bloody beautiful you are. So why should I deny myself the pleasure of staring at something beautiful when it sits so audaciously in front of me?"

I thought he had finally cracked, because he looked down … only to look back up again quickly with that amused glint in his eyes and a sideways smile. "Well, that's a bit of a coincidence," he said, "because that's exactly the same reason I had for staring at you."

My head shot up, mouth open in shock, and I made a noise somewhere in between a "What?" and an "Eh?" so it sounded a bit like, "Wheh?"

He only grinned wider. "Except I was being more romantic about it, of course. Because you are specifically the beautiful thing I want to be looking at. And I'm not the one about to die. I'll be sure to see plenty more beautiful things in my life."

"Are you bragging about that?" I asked in annoyance.

"No," he said plainly, "I'm just saying that I'm not exactly sure why it bothers me so much to think about not having the pleasure of seeing you any more."

"Well, that's not true. You can catch me on screen. You can buy the DVD. You can—"

"You're not hearing me."

"Yes, I am. You have a staring problem. It's very rude, actually."

"Annie, you're not listening to me."

"Yes, I am!" I took a deep breath, and finally just let my mouth run with my mind. "You didn't misread the signs, Finnick! You think I'm beautiful, I think you're beautiful, but we can't do anything about it because in twenty-four hours, I could be dead!"

"Oh," he said. He looked down at his hands while I caught my breath, and while my blush caught up to me. He glanced up. "So … you did want to kiss me?"

I pouted, placing my elbows on my knees and sitting my chin in my palms. "I do."

I looked up and our eyes locked. Nothing more needed to be said.

Finnick, Finnick, went to sea;Silver buckles on his knee.He'll be back to marry me!How many days 'til he gets back?

One — two — three — ffff-

Finnick Odair is bright and fair,Combing down his ging — uh, not-at-all ginger hair!He's my love forever more!How many days 'til he gets back?

Finnick had his lips pursed in a half-smile, half-frown. "That's seriously depressing when you think about it."

"Sorry," I said, and switched to a new song.

Down in the valley where the green grass grows,Sat little Annie, sweet as a rose.She sang, she sang, she sang so sweet.Along came a boy and kissed her on the cheek.

How many kisses did he give her?

I had barely formed the 'wuh' sound of the beginning of the word 'one', when Finnick attacked me. He threw me back on the couch and held my face in his hands, kissing my cheeks, my forehead, my eyes, my nose, singing, "One — two — three — ffff-!" between each of his kisses. He was so strong, it was a moment before he even heard the protests I was yelling loudly into his ear. I managed to pull my head around and his last kiss caught me on the corner of my mouth, and I trembled before finally shouting, "Stop it, Finnick!"

He stopped, but didn't move even an inch away. He just screwed up his eyebrows in bewilderment as his eyes ran all over my face. "What's wrong? I — I thought that was an invitation!"

"Ach — I don't know any more! But I can't kiss you, Finnick. I can't do it."

He paused, grinning cheekily. "Meaning I can kiss you?"

"No, we can't kiss each other. Okay?"

"Mixed messages, Annie!" But he still backed away from me, to my utmost relief. "You're driving me bloody crazy, you know. Maybe you can see into the fourth dimension but I can't read your mind. So will you just tell me what's going on in there?"

I blinked, trying to breathe and compose myself enough to voice what was running through my head right now. The way I could see it, I was going to die and I had two options about how to spend the remainder of my life. One: I could waste no time and spend every moment kissing Finnick and hugging Finnick and doing whatever more with Finnick and having a grand old time. Or two: I could actually put my time to good use, by means of utilising it to learning how to stay alive as long as I could in the arena, and in doing so keeping Lance alive as long as I could.

"Because I'm confused and it's complicated and I'm going to die and I need your help to protect my best friend," I said quickly. He looked at me and I looked sadly back. "This is all just a distraction from the fact that I still have no idea what to say to Caesar Flickerman. I'm going into the arena tomorrow, Finnick. "

He pursed his lips slightly. "And I'll have to watch every second of it," he said. I shivered, and we looked at each other with sickly expressions for a minute or two. Then he sucked in a great big breath and said, "Yeah, I see what you mean. That's pretty complicated. No kissing."

He stood up, turned his back on me and folded his arms. "I know it's hard because you find me so irresistible, but you're just gonna have some self-control. No matter how much you want it, no matter how much you beg or threaten me, I'm not letting you kiss me. These lips are off limits, you hear? Okay, good. Now that's that."

He sat back down in his chair, crossed his ankle over his knee and contemplated me.

"So, your interview. You're gonna talk about Lance. Lance …" He trailed off thoughtfully.

I frowned. "You got over that real quick."

He cocked his head to one side, smiling slightly. "Yeah, I'm just gonna have to keep talking or else I'll start realising how badly I want to kiss you, and how I want you even baddlier because you're so bloody amazing at playing hard to get. And how it kills me to realise that you simply are hard to get. So, excuse me while I babble like an eejit for the next few hours."

And so he did.

And a few hours later I was stepping out of the elevator with Holden, who was wearing a ruffled shirt and tight black pants with strappy leather boots, and had two electric blue stripes across each of his cheeks making him look like some sort of insane pop-star tribesman. We joined the others in the hallway, Esmé wearing a long, flowing blue dress and a very showy sash across her shoulder which read 'ESCORT', and which I believed I had never seen any other escort wear, making it (like most of Esmé's fashion choices) completely unnecessary.

Lance was wearing a bright blue suit made of a shimmery material, with matching tie and a white shirt that was slightly creased and tinted so that it looked like waves. But of course, it was my dress that they had gone all out for.

I was wearing a long bluish-green gown that was tied up my back with ribbons, sucking in everything and forcing out a beautiful hourglass shape despite the fact that my body clearly wasn't happy to do that at all. I mean, I wasn't fat but my waist simply wasn't that narrow. My ribs got in the way, you see, but the dress didn't care. My arms and shoulders were bare and golden, hair tumbling over my left shoulder in loose curls and half tied together in a plait with more ribbons. On my wrist was the pearl bracelet my Grammy had given me, and the green ribbon from the reaping I had tied through it. My nails had been painted with glitter and I had more of the stuff all over my face and chest. From my waist the dress sprung out in thick layers of blue fabric that sparkled just like sunlight on water. The front of the dress only came down as far as my knees but the back trailed out behind me in a foamy, bubbling white train, making me feel like I was being engulfed by a crashing wave, which I think was the whole point.

Esmé disappeared to talk to some of the other escorts about important escort business, and Holden did not look happy to be left by the wayside. Then Finnick appeared, wearing a classic black suit with a dark green shirt made of the same shimmery sort of material as Lance's, the top few buttons of which were undone.

He looked at us and gave us a bored sort of, "Hey," and then he looked at me again and did a double take. "Wow," he said breathlessly. "I mean, Annie … You … Wow."

"This dress does not like my lungs and is doing everything it can to shut them up once and for all," I said, having lost my breath for a different reason entirely.

"I hate that they do this to you," he replied. His expression softened into a small smile. "But you still look pretty sweet."

"Excuse me," Lance said edgily. Finnick looked over as he put his hands on his hips. "What about me?"

"Very dashing," laughed Finnick. He brought his attention back to me. "How do you feel?"

I rubbed my ribcage which felt like it was being crushed into a fine powder. "Like I'm drowning." I looked down at myself, and winced as I tried to inhale and almost popped the seams of the dress. "Seriously," I gasped, "I can't breathe in this stupid thing."

Finnick had instantly turned around and grabbed Holden by the scruff and dragged him over to us. "Can't you do something about this?"

Holden rubbed his chin and tapped his boots and scanned me up and down with a very professional look. "Nope. No way. No can do. Not a chance. Nada, darling. You just have to suck it up." And then, without even trying to lower his voice, he went up on his tiptoes to say into Finnick's ear, "It's for the breasts, you know. She's got about as much sex appeal as a chipmunk if we loosen it. You understand, don't cha?"

Finnick and Lance both glared blatantly at my stylist. Apparently they didn't understand, or else they did understand but were taking the words as personal insults. I couldn't have cared less, I just wanted out of that dress.

Holden looked between all of us and began to laugh a stupid tittering laugh. "Hey, I'm just working with what I'm given," he said, poking Finnick's chest. Between the two strong, well-built teenagers, the little man was suddenly looking very skinny and shrimpy. And yet he still continued to provoke them. "I'm doing all I can to get the audience's attention. Why, you're the one who won't even let them be in love! That's the one thing that would guarantee a bucket of sponsors and we're not even taking advantage of it!"

"Yeah, because we don't want to!" said Lance.

"Oh, who cares about what you want?" groaned Holden, rolling his eyes. "It's all for the drama — the action — the romance! Don't you want to give the audience what we want?"

The three of us were glaring at him now. The way he said 'we' was the worst part.

"We're more concerned with keeping someone alive," Finnick growled dangerously.

"Same difference," sneered Holden. "Somebody lives every year, but we don't always get a good story like this." None of us said anything. "You district people just don't understand, do you? Sometimes we want a bit more oomph than just blood, although I can't deny—"

We never got to hear what Holden couldn't deny, because at that moment Finnick turned away slightly as if to walk off in anger, and then spun back around and punched Holden straight in the face. I gave a small shriek as Holden flailed his arms dramatically and fell to the floor. Finnick just looked at his hand, and then at me and Lance.

"Shite," he said. "I'd better leg it — good luck!" And then he touched my arm gently and grinned at us before sprinting away.

"Lance," I said, watching Finnick disappear into the crowds of tributes and stylists and mentors and escorts, "what would you say if I told you I was in love with Finnick Odair?"

"Right now," he said, looking down at the various people surrounding Holden as he held his bloodied nose with the frilly sleeve of his now ruined white shirt, "I'd be right there with you."

I smiled to myself.

Esmé was back, and sobbing Holden's name as he was carried off by two members of my prep team. Their two tributes who were due on stage at any moment were completely forgotten. The last thing we heard from the silly stylist was, "Finnick Odair punched me in the face. That was so awesome. Did it look awesome? It felt … awesome."

"What a despicable little man," said Lance, and I agreed with him. Then he turned to my back. "Here, let's see that dress of yours."

I sighed in relief as he untied the ribbons and loosened them out again. I didn't need sex appeal, and I rather liked chipmunks anyway.

We were being told to line up, and Juliet walked passed us, her bright red hair tied up in a fan around her head and laced with pure white flowers.

"Looks like District Four is getting all the action," she drawled, smirking pointedly at Lance.

I only thought of my almost-kisses with Finnick and began to laugh out loud. She shot me a withering look and swooped gracefully over to Laertes.

"Aye, we've plenty action to go around," replied Lance, taking my hand and following them.

Just before we paraded out onto the stage, Lance turned to me with a serious look and whispered, "We could still do it, you know. Pretend we're in love. Holden may be cruel and insensitive, but he's not wrong about the sponsors."

"But pretending we're in love — wouldn't we have to kiss and stuff?"

"So what? I've kissed you before."

"Yeah, when we were fourteen," I said, rolling my eyes.

"We'll both know it doesn't necessarily mean anything," he said, catching a stray piece of hair and tucking it behind my ear. His hand rested on my shoulder, and his eyes never left mine.

I pressed my lips together. "Do you really want to spend what could be the last days of your life being untrue to yourself?"

His eyes lingered on my face for a moment, and then he looked at his feet. "Okay, we won't do it."

"Lance—" I started.

He just took my hand again and squeezed it. "We won't do it."

It was with aching hearts that we stepped out onto the stage, into blinding lights and a buzzing atmosphere. I tried to remember all the smiles that Esmé and Holden had taught me, I really did, but it was as if my smiling muscles had stopped working and all I could do was gaze sadly at Lance as he let go of my hand so that we could sit down in our seats.

I could barely use any weapon. I couldn't be sexy or charming or appealing in any way. I couldn't even bring myself to pretend I was in love with him in order to get us as many sponsors as possible. And since we had come to the Capitol I had spent most of my time finding distractions and constantly having to remind myself that looking out for Lance was what I should have been concentrating my efforts on. But how in the world was I planning to do that, when my efforts were so completely useless?

I looked out into the crowd and managed to find Finnick, sitting in a corner which was conveniently lit with bright lights. I knew that was so the cameras could locate him easily, just to show his face on the screens to please, well, everyone. He had already been watching me, and he gave a slight, sad smile.

Finnick wasn't useless. Finnick was keeping us alive. And Lance had to stay alive if he was trying to protect me. So if we both stayed alive as long as we could, then all I had to do … was die.

I reached over and snatched Lance's hand back up, grinning widely around at the crowd. I hardly listened to the first few tributes' interviews. Juliet, apparently, had lost her boyfriend to the Games last year and was following him into the arena to either avenge him or join him in death. Although I had no idea if this was true or not, her story actually gave me chills. Laertes, too, had some vague reason behind his participation in the Games, but his voice was almost hypnotic and all I got out of it was that he had some serious daddy issues. Eve was some sort of cruel temptress, and seemed intent on bringing everyone down with her. And Saul was firm in his belief that it was his duty to personally persecute and punish the children of the districts (those from 2 were always sucking up to the Capitol).

The two from 3 (whose names were constantly slipping my mind) finished up, and then it was my turn.

I walked as daintily as I could towards Caesar, the interviewer whose hair and lips were a bright sunny yellow this year. I decided to really play up the cutesy, innocent girl thing, because apparently I was a natural.

"It's the little mermaid! And oh, isn't she just the sweetest," Caesar simpered cocking his head to the side and tapping his thighs. "Hello, Annie! How are you feeling tonight?" he asked, shaking my hand.

How was I feeling? Hm, good question.

"Well … I can't exactly breathe very well right now," I replied honestly.

Laughter. Unsure laughter, but still. "Oh, come now. There's no need to be nervous," Caesar said. "We're all—"

"Oh, it's not that I'm nervous," I said matter-of-factly. "It's just this dress. I feel like I'm drowning."

I knew the cameras cut off to Holden now, and I located him at the front of the crowd, in a fresh shirt and with his nose powdered so you could hardly tell he had just been punched. I waved cheerfully at him and he stood up and took multiple extravagant bows and curtsies.

"It's especially horrific, you know, because I'm afraid of the water," I continued on to Caesar, making my eyes very wide.

The crowd was absolutely gushing. He placed one hand on his cheek and said, "My, my — from District 4 and afraid of the water? You poor little dear!"

Of course, this was my time to tell a very brief account of what happened to my ma and da, and by the time I got to say that the only thing that kept me from infinite sadness was my loving grandparents and, most importantly, my best friend in the whole wide world, the crowd had turned to mush in the palm of my hand.

I refused to do the fake tear dab. I absolutely refused. But just thinking about it my eyes were beginning to water, so it wasn't really fake at all. I just managed to get out a quick, dramatic, "Best friend … and fellow tribute!" before I almost completely choked up.

"Yes, how truly awful," said Caesar with a sympathetic shake of his head. "I think we all remember your reaping. Care to tell us what was going through your head?"

I stopped, horrified, and blurted out, "I didn't really want to see Finnick Odair in his underwear — it's just a song!"

There was a brief silence, and then everyone was bursting out laughing. I looked over at Finnick. He winked at me.

Someone was shouting for me to sing the song, and I looked at Caesar. "I was actually talking about your feelings on being reaped along with your best friend … Oh, but why not?"

And I sang:

"Finnick, Finnick, went to sea;Silver buckles on his knee.He'll be back to marry me!How many days 'til he gets back?"

I stopped quickly, realising I had sung the wrong verse. So I started again:

"Finnick Odair is bright and fair,Combing down his ginger hair!He's my love forever more!How many days 'til he gets back?"

Oh no! I did it again! Hurriedly, I continued as smoothly as I could as my heart skipped and quivered.

"Finnick Odair is bright and fair,Combing down his ginger hair!He'll be mine to love and care;Finnick Odair in his underwear!"

I grinned at Finnick as I sang it, and he held his hand up to his face and waved the cameras away as if he was embarrassed.

"Why so shy, Finnick?" Caesar shouted out to him. And then bellowed to the audience, "We all know Finnick Odair! Am I right?"

They were going wild. I smiled to myself. People loved Finnick. Finnick wanted to keep us alive. Therefore, people would be rooting for us. So maybe I couldn't pretend to be in love with Lance, but I could still win sponsors for the two of us.

"Now, in all seriousness, Annie," Caesar began solemnly, "what about the reaping? How did you feel when your name was called?"

"I … I didn't really feel anything," I said thoughtfully. I chewed my lip. "It didn't really dawn on me until …"

I looked over at Lance in his chair, who was immersed in examining his own hands. Then I realised I hadn't finished my sentence and knew Esmé and Holden would surely kill me after specifically telling me not to do that. I spun back around to Caesar but he was already saying, "Until Lance was reaped, too?"

Thinking this was probably okay, I nodded sadly.

"And then … what was that like for you?" he prompted gently.

"It was …" I was going to say it was indescribable but that was no use at all so I said, "I can hardly describe it. It's like … I knew that I'd either be coming back without him or not coming back at all. It was like part of me died right there. It was like my heart had been shattered and then locked back up inside my chest. It was like a piece of my soul was lost forever with that tiny scrap of paper."

But of course, it was really much worse than that. They say indescribable for a reason, you know.

The interview ended shortly after that, but I had nothing left to say anyway. The story of how we met was cute but completely irrelevant. I hadn't talked about Lance as much as I had planned to, but there was still his interview for that. All I could do was sit and watch as he got up and strolled up to Caesar with his hands in his pockets, smiling a strained smile at the cameras.

First, Caesar just linked his fingers together and blew out a long whistle.

"I know," said Lance, looking forlornly around at the crowd.

"I won't bother asking how you're feeling, said Caesar softly. "I think we're all a little torn up after that."

"Very poetic, isn't she?" Lance observed, and the crowd gave a general hum of consent. It took me a moment to realise he meant me.

"I'll say," agreed Caesar. "This feels just like one long interview, doesn't it? But we've heard her side. So tell us, Lance. At the reaping, what was going through your head?"

"Annie's name got called," he said quietly. He didn't even need to try, the audience were already waiting on his every word. "I watched her walk up there with that dreamy look on her face, you know the one … And I just knew. I knew I couldn't let her come here all on her own."

Heads were turning, everywhere there were hushed murmurs of confusion.

"And — and then your name got called?" Caesar continued.

Lance just shrugged. "I would have volunteered anyway."

"You would have?"

"Yeah, of course. How else could I make sure she came out of this alive?" He looked around, raising his voice now, smiling charmingly around as he joked, "I mean, you're a great guy Finnick, but there's only so much you can do for her on the outside!"

So Lance knew it too, to keep reminding the crowd that we were Finnick's people and that they wanted to like us as much as they liked him. Caesar was saying, "And you'll be on the inside—?"

"Doing everything I can, yeah," he said.

Caesar gave another low whistle. "Well, Lance, I've got to say something that I think everyone here is wondering about." Lance looked around, raising his eyebrows expectantly. But I was pretty sure he knew what was coming. "Isn't there only a certain length you'd go for a friendship? I mean to say, are you sure that Annie doesn't mean something more to you than that?"

Lance ran a hand through his hair, messing it up so he looked more like the five year old with a juice stain on his shirt that I once knew. He looked over and met my eyes, and I wondered for a moment if he was going to run with this love thing after all.

"Caesar, Annie is the sort of person that brightens the world just by her presence in it," he said. "She can bring a smile to your face without even trying, and she's hilarious without knowing it. I always mistake her for an optimist just because she manages to see the light in the darkest things. She is everything that is pure and wonderful in the world. And a world where she doesn't exist is not a world I'd like to be a part of."

Lance was a complete bullshitter, if you'll please excuse the rather rude turn of phrase. How could I be a bright and sunny person if I went back to District 4 with a dead best friend, parents who I'd never see again, and the terrors of the arena screwing up my mind?

"It actually reminds me of something our escort, Esmé, said to us the first evening on the train," Lance was continuing. The cameras found Esmé, who was looking completely taken aback that she was being appreciated. "She told us how we were lucky, in a way, to have each other to go through this with. Not everyone gets to have their best friend with them to make this experience slightly more enjoyable. And we've met some really great people here." His eyes lingered over the District 1 tributes, and I found myself smiling, too. Lance looked back at Caesar and said quietly, "I'm really glad I got to share this with her."

"… You're sure?" asked Caesar. "You're sure you're not just in love with her?"

"She wouldn't have me anyway," Lance laughed, shaking his head. And then he told the story of how we first met, but changing the protagonist to be the boy with the messy blonde hair instead of the girl with eyes the size of saucers (his description, not mine), and turning bright red when he talked about how he had asked me to be his girlfriend.

"I still have the bracelet she made me," he said, showing his wrist and a very tattered string of real shells and fake plastic ones, which for the first time I realised was Lance's token for the Games. "Sadly, the daisy chain didn't survive."

There were a few sympathetic chuckles.

"And you didn't even ask her out again?" Caesar asked incredulously. These Capitol people were so alike with their stupid romances, because that was exactly what Holden had asked me.

"Well …" Lance started slowly, looking down and fiddling with his bracelet as his face turned maroon again. "I did kiss her, once."

"Ooooh, do tell!" said Caesar.

Lance met my eyes across the stage and grinned, and I had to stop myself from laughing out loud.

"Well, it was New Year's a couple years ago, and we were at this party that Annie has every year in her house. And I had just been through this awful ordeal with a girl from school, and it made me wonder if maybe, I dunno, if maybe me and Annie shouldn't try it out … And we were just sitting outside on the sand when the countdown got to zero. So …" He shrugged. "I kissed her."

I dearly hoped that the audience would take my shaking shoulders to mean I was overwhelmed with sadness at the tear-jerking memories, and not that I was trying not to burst out laughing.


"And then I said … Annie, there's something I have to tell you."

Lance was smiling slightly and his eyes were wet. Anyone that didn't know Lance would probably think he was upset but putting on a brave face, but I knew very well that he was trying not to grin as much as I was and the strain of not laughing was tearing him up.

"And then what happened?" pushed Caesar.

"And then …" Lance finally looked away from me and said to Caesar, "And then her granddad came out and chased me 'round the bloody beach."

This got a big laugh and I let myself grin and then cover my mouth with my hand to laugh.

"And what was it that you needed to tell her? That you were in love with her?" Caesar was asking hurriedly, but just as Lance opened his mouth to reply, the bell rang and Lance's time was up. I actually laughed out loud now at how perfectly he had timed it, as Lance got up and shook Caesar's hand, shrugging and waving at the audience as they shouted and screamed and begged for the answer to The Ultimate Question.

And that was it. The romance between me and Lance was completely up in the air — and we would probably pay for it in the arena, but right now I couldn't have cared less.

Just to make things a bit more confusing for them, I ran up and hugged him just before he got to his chair. And he kissed my cheek for good measure.

Although I did not approve of Lance saying he would volunteer, I still had to admit that this had all been a lot better with him here. Without him, I would have fallen apart long ago. This feeling wouldn't last, of course, because in the arena I'd hardly be thankful he was there with me. But in my own selfish ways I kind of would be, if not thankful, then at least appreciative that at least we had each other. For a short time, anyway.

The rest of the interviews seemed to go by in a blur, with names and stories and personalities whirling past in a haze. It hit me again how ridiculously and idiotically Lance had portrayed me, because all I could imagine was the twenty-three families that would be left in despair, not to mention friends and whole districts, and that was definitely not an optimistic thought.

The only bright side of this I could think of was that my death would affect as few people as possible. Lance, maybe, but only if he won. My Grammy and GaGa, although they were so old and wise that they knew death was nothing to be scared of. After that … Finnick? I didn't even know how serious he was. So he had a crush, big deal. He'd get over it.

No, the casualties of this little grenade would be fewer than for any other of the twenty-three children that stood around me here on this night. That was about as much of a positive spin as I could make of this.

So as I sat and tried to do them the honour of listening to their desperate attempts to win some attention, all I really did was say a little grace for each name, some I had never bothered to learn, as I heard them.

Joulie. Columb. Georgina. Tarquin. Acacia. Jack. Hesper. Gamp. Polly. Edmund. Bessie. Cowser. Cam. Rubi. Rose. Axl. Juliet. Laertes. Saul. Eve. And of course, the two from 3 that I hadn't even the decency to listen to before.

I'm very sorry for all your troubles, and may your deaths not be too horrendous.

Oh, and Lance too! I almost forgot … But hopefully not.

And I'm very sorry about that, too.

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