I sat down on the bed in my temporary room on the train. My goodbyes had been said. I was leaving the ones I loved behind. It was all over. So at that moment, I finally turned my mind to the last person I cared about: the one I had kept out of my head up until now, the one who deserved my full attention, and the one who wasn't being left behind at all.
There's so much I could say, but the truth of the matter was that both of us couldn't win this thing. And I couldn't kill Lance — ach, I don't think I could kill anyone.
But … could he?
Could Lance win?
"Right, let's see our brand new tributes!" called Finnick, as Lance and I shuffled into the dining cart. He clapped his hands together. "How hungry are we?"
I was already distracted eyeing up a giant chicken dripping in gravy on the table. My mouth was beginning to water. "I'm a teeny tiny bit peckish," I said.
"Well, you're gonna be more than a teeny bit peckish once you're in the arena, and that's why your mentoring begins now."
Lance and I stared at Finnick, our mentor, in disbelief. "Did you seriously just turn our dinner into a pun for the Hunger Games?" asked Lance.
"Yeah, I think I did," said Finnick, rubbing his hair and frowning. "Let's forget I did that. But dinner doesn't start until I've checked the two of you out. Now stand over there."
Lance and I shot each other wary glances before standing side by side at the other end of the room, our eyes flicking back to the food every once in a while.
Finnick began circling us like a predator, poking and prodding our muscles (or — in my case — the thin, stringy meat surrounding my bones) and muttering things like, "Chins up!" and "Shoulders straight!" Eventually he stopped in front of me, crossed his arms and scanned me up and down. "What's with the scrawny arms?" He lifted one of my arms in the air and then let it fall, flopping back to my side like a dead fish. "Your grandparents run the gift shop on the beach, right? Don't you ever swim? Fish? Get any sort of exercise?"
I swallowed and looked at my feet. "I can swim a bit, but I suffer from aquaphobia."
I looked up into Finnick's eyes and he let his mouth hang open as he stared at me. "Seriously?"
"Drowning is scary," I said knowingly.
I was lucky, really. My grandfather had fished until he was an old, old man. People don't retire here, you just stop working when you can't physically get up for another day of labour. So when he came out of the fishing business, he and my grandmother set up a little shop below their house on the seafront. They sold cheap trinkets: seashells with googly eyes and little dolphins and fishes and stars moulded from clay or carved out of driftwood. After my parents disappeared, I lived with them. So I collected the shells, the dead crabs, the molluscs and barnacles from the sand and the rocks. Having this very special job meant I didn't have to go anywhere too near to the water, so I was just as happy as a member of the Amphiprioninae family!
In other words, happy as a clown fish.
"Please tell me you're joking," Finnick was saying. I didn't speak or move, finding it difficult to hold his fierce glare. He grit his teeth, looking like he was biting back a lot of stuff he wanted to say, and rubbed his temples instead. "So, what can you do? Spear a fish? Use a net? … Knots?"
"I'm pretty good at collecting shells and stringing them into bracelets." At the same time, me and Lance both extended our arms, modelling the jewellery.
He narrowed his eyes at our wrists for a moment, then said, "Uh … That's not exactly helpful. Any hidden abilities or weapon skills? Anything at all?"
I genuinely thought for a minute. "Nope," I said. Finnick continued to glare. "I expect I'll be pretty adept at dying, though."
He paused, and for a moment his lips twisted into the smallest of smiles. Then he shook his head hastily. "Oh, so you're funny. That's just fantastic. That'll really stand to you in the arena."
"Gotta keep the spirits up," I said, nodding fervently.
Lance gave me a look, and I realised that Finnick was being sarcastic. I looked down, embarrassed. I knew Finnick was dirty and creepy, but I never expected him to be so mean.
"Let's leave you for a minute, Annie," Finnick sighed. "Esmé, why don't you get yourself a drink? And, you know what, you might as well get me one while you're at it. You," he said, pointing accusingly at Lance, "please tell me you can do something. Anything." He shut his eyes and extended his arms, beckoning while waiting for a response.
"Um, I …" stammered Lance, shooting me a quick, worried look. "I'm not bad with a spear. I can use some traps, nets and stuff. I know a fair few knots from being out on the boats."
"You fish a lot?" asked Finnick, opening one eye and visibly becoming a little calmer.
Finnick was quiet for a moment. Then he took a step towards Lance, straightening his shoulders and looking down on him as if comparing their bodies. "Not a bad build, either. You're strong?"
"I'm all right," said Lance, not backing away but narrowing his eyes as he looked into Finnick's face. Lance was certainly smaller and less muscular than our mentor, and even just seeing them standing there together was bizarre. Lance was my friend, he was like me. And Finnick was just so … different. It hit me that there was only a year between them in age, and yet Finnick seemed so like a grown-up or something.
"This is no time for modesty," said Finnick as he stepped away and had a glass handed to him by Esmé.
"Annie's fast," Lance blurted out. "She's the best runner in our year at school."
Finnick glared at Lance for a moment with a certain look I didn't quite understand until he said, "Can't Annie speak for herself?"
Lance blinked. "I was just saying."
"Yeah, sorry Finnick, I forgot about that," I put in.
Finnick examined the bottom of his glass and then his eyes flicked up to meet mine. "Well, if I've heard all you've got to offer, then I'll start assessing each of your potential strategies."
"We'll be allies, we already know that," said Lance. When Finnick did nothing but look blankly at him, Lance stepped forwards and glared at him. "I'm not sure if you noticed at the reaping or if you were too busy checking yourself out on the screens, but this girl is my best friend and I am not abandoning her in that arena to fend for herself."
"Yeah, me neither, Finnick," I chirruped. "We can be allies, right?"
Finnick had gotten to his feet, and for a moment he and Lance stared each other down. "I realise that you too are worried for each other, but my job is to keep someone alive. So you'll do what I think is best."
"I'm not doing anything you say if it involves going it alone in there," said Lance. Esmé and I looked at each other with wide eyes of surprise.
"If you wanna live, you will. I'm the only one here who's lived through the Games before, Lancey."
"And you had absolutely no problem murdering to live, did you?"
"Hey," said Finnick loudly, making me start. "I survived. I'm the mentor, and if you kids wanna have any chance at all of surviving too, you have to show me some respect. I'm on your side here." He looked from Lance to me, his eyebrows knitting. "Just work with me. You don't have to like me."
My cheeks went pink, realising what he meant. Sure, I disliked Finnick, and saying that to his face may have been a mistake, but I sure wasn't trying to be difficult on purpose. What was Lance thinking? The rather more hate-worthy aspects of Finnick's personality had nothing to do with the Games, unless it was him sleeping with the richest folk to get us sponsors or something, which was how I guessed he operated anyway.
"Good," said Lance. "That's really too much to ask for."
My eyes widened at Lance, and back at Finnick who was clenching his fists around the table.
"Lance," I whispered, and he shot me a stern look. I opened my mouth, but then my stomach spoke for me in a vociferous growl.
They both looked at me. I looked down and rubbed my belly. "Ach … Finnick, can we eat now?"
He smile a tight-lipped smile, and we all sat down at the table like a little happy family. Mama, Papa, brother and sister. Half of whom were preparing to die.
Needless to say, dinner was a little bit awkward. And when I say a little bit awkward I mean incredibly awkward. Even I could tell it was awkward. That just shows how incredibly awkward it was.
Only Esmé really tried to talk, the rest of us sat in silence. I was completely fine with that, because the food was flipping fantastic.
"So, Annie, darling," said Esmé over dessert, flicking her odd feathery eyelashes at me. "How do you manage in District 4, being afraid of the water and everything?"
"I'm more afraid of the drowning, to be honest."
"And why's that?" she prodded. "Because your parents died in the water?"
Everybody went still. Lance froze with his fork halfway to his mouth and his eyes flicked between me and Esmé. Finnick slowly bit a chunk of chocolate cake and then placed his fork carefully back on his place.
I gave a laugh. "My parents aren't dead. My parents are fish."
Esmé raised her hand to her mouth and smirked behind it. "Oh, right, of course. How silly of me!" Then she rolled her eyes and looked over at Finnick, whose expression had turned very sour. He didn't look at her but met my eyes briefly across the table.
I looked down at my hands, my brow furrowing.
"So then why are you afraid of the water, if you think the — aha — the mermaids are always there to save you if anything bad happens?" she was asking.
I could feel my face growing warm, and I just couldn't seem to think of a suitable answer. Just when I was feeling completely idiotic, Lance said, "Because mermaids can only save your life once. Everybody knows that."
Our eyes met and I exhaled in relief. Duh, that made perfect sense. "Plus, I'm old enough now that I might get turned into a bass if I see a mermaid," I added. Actually, that didn't sound so bad in my current circumstance.
"Oh, yes," agreed Esmé, suddenly taking on a slow, emotive voice. "You're a very big girl now, aren't you sweetie?"
I stared at her. "I don't like the way you're talking to me. Are you slow or something?"
Again, everyone froze. Finnick suddenly began choking on his wine and had to duck his head under the table to control himself. I looked at Lance beside me, who pressed his lips together, clearly trying not to laugh.
I looked at Esmé and found myself with the same problem. A sickly smile was still painted on her face but it was false and forced and it seemed like it was physically hurting her. It felt like we were all getting off on the wrong foot today. When Finnick emerged from his napkin, she swept the pained expression from her face and shook her head as if throwing off what I had said, because then she simply changed the conversation. "You two are soooooo cute!" she said, waving her creepy clawed fingers between me and Lance. "Did you know?"
Lance and I exchanged a sneer.
And then I said, "I bet we'll look even more adorable when one of us is trying to kill the other."
Finnick snorted on his wine again and Lance actually laughed out loud.
"Now, Annie, that's hardly something to joke about!" wailed Esmé, holding her hand over her heart. "It's very insensitive — think about how Lance might feel about you saying something like that!"
"I feel like we could appreciate someone lightening the mood, actually," Lance laughed.
"Look, you two," said Esmé firmly, and I noticed it was the second 'Look, you two' lecture we had gotten today. She straightened her back in her chair and reached across the table to us. "I know you must be very upset about getting reaped along with your best friend — but can't you see the positive side of the situation? Just think: you have the chance to share this experience with someone you know and love. It's so more than any of the other children could wish for! And the Capitol is such a fabulous place, you're both going to love it! And you get to have buckets of fun together — at the parade, training, the interviews! It'll be just like a big fancy holiday!"
There was silence for a moment, and then Lance said, "Do you always murder people on your holidays, Esmé?"
"Just on the biggest, fanciest holidays, eh?" I added.
Esmé absolutely glared at me, then retracted her hands and pursed her lips. "Now, that's quite enough negative energy at this table, thank you very much."
I found myself on my feet, knocking my knife to the floor with a clatter by accident. My napkin fell, too. "You are such an ignorant little idiot, Esmé!"
Again with the frozen silences. This time Esmé blinked furiously at me and everyone else just sort of stared with their mouths hanging agape.
I gave a short laugh. "I'm sorry if I seem like a bundle of negative energy to you, but I'm trying to replace my sadness and horror with humour at the moment. And since everyone else seems to be okay with having a laugh, I believe it is you who is bringing all the negative energy to the table. But, if you'd prefer, I'll just excuse myself and go succumb to my negative emotions instead. But the fact that I get to cry myself to sleep at the thoughts of my fast-approaching death, or that of my best friend in the entire world — or both — on goose feather pillows with a cashmere comforter actually makes me feel a lot better. Thanks a million, Esmé."
And then I turned around and strode out of the room.
At the door I heard Finnick say, "I can't tell if she knows she's funny or not."
Lance replied, "Oh, she knows."
I stopped in my tracks and turned back to them. "If you're going to talk about me when I'm gone, I request that only nice things are said. Okay, thanks." And then I spun around and made my dramatic exit.
I was almost at my bedroom when I heard the footsteps behind me. Presuming it was Lance, I turned around.
It wasn't Lance.
Finnick was wearing a small, slightly crooked smile as he reached me and leaned against the door-frame of my room, folding his arms across his chest and practically demanding my attention. I was worried I'd be in trouble for blowing up at Esmé, but then I wondered why he'd be grinning so much if he was here to tell me off.
He just kept smiling at me, and his eyes ran up and down my body like they had done during his assessment and I suddenly felt very uncomfortable and shifted on my feet.
He uncrossed his arms, still grinning. "So, that was the sanest thing I've heard anyone say all day."
He stood very close, making me super uncomfortable. I took a step back, walking into the wall. "Well, yeah, you know," I said quickly. "You might as well be kind and say bad things to people's faces, and then only say good things about them behind their backs."
Finnick touched his hair, flicking a short piece from his forehead. His eyes narrowed slightly. "Oh, well, yeah. That too. But I was actually talking about what you said to Esmé."
"Oh, right," I said stupidly. "Well, I was just being honest."
"Well, if I'm being honest, I can't stand that woman." He was whispering, but rather loudly, rendering it pointless except as an opportunity to lean forward and meet my eyes closely. "I've been dying for someone to back me up for ages."
I tried to take another step back, but I was already stuck against the wall. I was about to ask why Finnick always acted so friendly with Esmé if he couldn't stand her — that was a little misleading — but my neck was growing hot as I looked up at Finnick's smile at such proximity. I felt myself shrinking under his shadow. I had seen him like this on interviews and things: he always stood very near and smiled like that and was all touchy-feely, and I just wasn't used to people being all up close and — you know — tall and good looking and stuff.
"Finnick — I'm sorry — but you're kind of invading my bubble right now!"
Finnick drew back, hands raised guiltily. "Your bubble?"
I took a few short breaths and said, "Yeah, I've got a personal bubble … just about four feet radius, you know how it is. It's fine, really, it's just …"
"No, I'm sorry." He stepped back a bit. "How's this?"
"That'd be grand," I sighed. I could no longer see the individual yellow spots in his green irises.
"Okay," he said, one of his eyebrows raising as he smiled curiously at me.
I suddenly had no recollection of what we had been talking about. "Um, Finnick, I'm sorry for disrespecting you as a mentor. I don't know what's up with Lance but I still want you help if you're willing to give it."
"Oh … No, don't worry about it," he sighed, rubbing his brow. "They tell you mentoring gets easier each year but … I guess I'm still adjusting." He frowned a little. "And, um, I'm sorry if I was a little hard on you. Half the kids in there won't know how to use a weapon either. That's what training is for. So, you never know — maybe you'll be a natural at shooting or blowing darts or something."
I met his eyes, wondering when I should tell him that I wasn't planning on winning the Games. Or if I should tell him at all. But then it hit me that I might still need to use a weapon if I wanted to help Lance get out of there alive. So I simply said, "You never know."
We stood for a moment, and I looked down bashfully. "Do you think I should I go apologise to Esmé?"
"Uh, well she is your escort …" he started unenthusiastically, putting his hands in his pockets and leaning his shoulder against the wall. He gave a great sigh. "If she's too pissed off to do her job she might get fired, and though I'd be extremely upset with that happening, it's you who actually needs her here." He chewed his lip for a moment, then his eyes flicked to meet mine. He smiled a little. "You know what, I'll talk to her for you."
"Just tell her I have a mental instability or something," I said. He looked at me. I shrugged. "I don't, but I think it'd be kinda fun to pretend."
Finnick laughed a little. "Yeah, maybe acting could be your skill."
"Yeah, yeah. I've got prions in my brain, you see," I told him.
"You … What are prions?"
"Oh, they're these evil mutants that infect your cells and kill you," I said, gnashing my teeth. Finnick stared at me. I wet my lips. "I don't really. I'm just thinking of what to tell Esmé so she thinks I'm crazy."
Finnick let out a relieved breath and then laughed loudly. "Oh! Well, I doubt she'll have any trouble believing it."
I smiled a little. "I am sane, though, I'm just not doing a very good job convincing you. You know the way basking sharks feed, right?"
Finnick looked quizzical for a moment. "What? They're filter feeders, aren't they?"
"Yeah," I said, baring my teeth at him and moving my head in circular motions. "They've got those big gobs open all the time as they swim around, and so teeny fish and plankton and stuff that's small enough gets filtered in."
He nodded. "Yeah, I get that. But what does that have to do with anything?"
I paused, looking up while racking my brain to remember. "Oh! Yeah. Lance says I've got no filter. That's not to say that I'm spewing up plankton all the time. He just means that everything in my head just comes out. Like my thoughts and stuff."
"Oh," said Finnick, laughing. He reached out and tapped my forehead. "Well, that means that a lot is going in as well, huh?"
I recoiled, and he whipped his hand back. "Sorry. I forgot the bubble."
But then he just went and penetrated it again by leaning towards me and scanning my face with his eyes. I realised that I was holding my breath. His smile quivered with amusement as he whispered, "You do realise that you have to come back in and watch the reaping, though, right?"
I groaned loudly. "Do I have to?"
"Do you want to win this thing?" he asked. When I didn't answer he just threw his arm around my shoulder, all bubbles bursting, and said, "'Yes, Finnick! Yes I do!'" as he dragged me in the direction of the dining room.
He suddenly let me go, and turned back around to face me.
He smiled sadly. "I don't know if I even said … I'm really sorry this happened to you." His face momentarily broke into a good-natured smile. Then it dropped into another frown. "This is gonna be an awful trip for everyone. Like, mostly for you guys. But, yeah."
"Don't you like going to the Capitol?"
"Me? Ach, no, I bloody hate it." I found myself smiling a little curiously at Finnick, speaking in such a Four manner. I usually associated him so much with the Capitol that I forgot he was from home. He blinked at me for a moment, seemingly distracted. "Actually, I probably shouldn't have said that."
I smiled. "I do that to people. Basking shark effect."
Finnick laughed and grinned at me, elbowing me gently. "Well then I should stay away from you. These guts are way too juicy to spill."
I swallowed nervously, not really enjoying the image of spilling guts. He noticed my reaction and his face broke into horror. He hit himself in the head. "What is my problem today?"
I laughed a little nervously. "It's okay, Finnick. I don't think I'd be able to handle the secrets of someone like you, anyway."
He stared at me for a moment, blinked, and then walked back into the sitting room.
I sat beside Lance on a sofa upholstered in a bright green and orange floral pattern. I knew I should have been paying attention to the reaping but it was hard. It was Finnick who pointed out the pair from District 2, both huge and beefy and looking fairly confident; a stocky boy from 7 whose muscles appeared to be bursting out of his shirt; and the girl from 12 who snivelled and kept wiping her eyes after her name was called.
"She's faking it," said Finnick.
"How do you know?" asked Lance.
He turned in his armchair to look at us. "Compare that girl to Annie here when she started crying onstage." When we were silent for a moment Finnick gave a loud sigh. "It was when your name was called that she started to cry, Lancey, not her own. And this girl from 12, at her age she's old enough to know what crying will do to her image. She's pretending to be weak."
I could feel Lance's eyes on me but I didn't meet them. The boy from 12 was then called, and he looked like he couldn't have been more than ten years old. You could see him trembling. These were the ones I found myself noticing. The boy with glasses from 5 who tripped on his way up to the stage. The girl from 8 who had to be torn from a weeping gaggle of her friends by the Peacekeepers. Both from 9 who looked like they had never been fed in their lives. And the boy from District 1, who was tall and had soft blonde hair swept over one eye and a rather dazzling smile. I wondered if he'd play the Finnick Odair card and use his looks to get the best and most exuberant sponsors. When I offered this query to Finnick he just laughed and said, "Don't get carried away now. He's not that handsome." Which made me want to both hate Finnick's arrogance and laugh at it at the same time. Which made me rather confused.
Later that night there was a soft knock on my door, and I opened it to see Lance standing there in a deep blue robe, his sandy hair sticking up in different directions.
"Hey," he said.
We looked at each other for a moment, and then we practically flung ourselves into each other's arms. Lance was one of the few people I would let into my bubble.
"Hardly got to talk to you all day," he said, his voice muffled as he spoke into my hair. He drew back from the hug and took my arms to look properly into my face. "How's it going?"
"Not bad," I said. "Considering. You?"
"Not bad … considering."
I let go of him, because I had to restrict the bubble when there was eye contact. He glanced nervously at the door and I went and quietly shut it.
We sat down on the bed, and I played with the corner of the quilt. For a while we spoke only in sighs and exchanges of worried expressions.
Eventually he put his hands over his face and fell back onto the bed. "Ach, what the hell are we gonna do?"
"We're gonna wait 'til Finnick finishes his assessment and decides which one of us has got the better chance of winning," I said reasonably. "And whichever one he picks, the other will do whatever she — or he — can to keep him — or her — alive."
Lance instantly sat up again, eyes popping out of his head. "No way. Absolutely not. Annie — maybe he thinks you're good craic and all, but you know he'll pick me. You have to know that."
"I do," I said calmly. "And I know I'm a bit useless, Lance, but I'm gonna do whatever I can to help you in that arena. Even if that means not teaming up with you—"
"What are you talking about? We're not leaving each other!"
"But what if I'm just slowing you down in there? If Finnick doesn't think we should stick together—"
Lance shook his head and raised his arms questioningly. "I don't care what Finnick thinks. Are you seriously gonna listen to him if he says we can't be allies?"
I sighed. "He's our mentor, Lance! And he's won this thing before. He's our best shot. Your best shot."
Lance pressed his lips together. "No, Annie, he can be your best shot. Because I'll be protecting you with my life in there."
I covered my face with my hands. "Lance, don't."
I felt the bed move and heard him stand up. "I'm not discussing this," he said.
The next thing I knew was the door slamming.