After a fairly fragmented and tormented night's sleep, I woke up screaming and ran into the dining car where Lance, Esmé and Finnick were already gathered. The three of them dropped what they were doing and stared at me like I had just broken out of a mental institution. For a moment I forgot what had freaked me out so much. But then Finnick opened his mouth and I instantly began screaming again.
"LANCE, GET AWAY FROM HIM!"
Whatever had been coming out of Finnick's mouth was replaced by a, "What the—?"
He sounded confused but I knew it was all a ruse. It had to be. And I had to protect Lance from him: that sneaky, sleazy, despicable Finnick Odair!
I grabbed Lance up and dragged him away from the breakfast table.
"What are you even doing with him?" I yelled, shaking Lance and pulling him across the room. "HE'S TRYING TO KILL US!"
"Oh, no. What have I done this time?" yawned Finnick as he began buttering a scone. I was panting from my fear and adrenaline but then I took a moment to actually look at him, sitting there looking a little tired but mostly just calm and not very murderous at all. This seemed so weird, because just a moment ago he had been chasing us down a strip of sand, and Lance had been screaming at me to stay safe and now they were having a nice chummy breakfast together …
I looked at Lance, who had sleepy gunk in the corners of his golden brown eyes. He'd had a bloody gash across his throat the last time I had seen him, which only felt like moments ago.
I clutched at his arm. "He's trying to get us — Lance, what's going on?"
"It's okay, Annie, you must have been dreaming," he replied, rubbing his eyes wearily.
"No, I wasn't," I argued, but I felt unsure now. The memory of Finnick chasing us on the beach was slowly becoming foggier in my head. Was it just in my head?
I watched Finnick warily, trying to remember if the last words I had said to him were pleas for my life in a sandy Hunger Games arena. He finished chewing his scone and then spoke up. "Okay, where exactly were we when I was trying to kill you?"
"In the arena," I said. "On the beach. You chased us with a trident."
"You're not in the arena yet," he said rationally. "I was with you on the beach yesterday but now we're on the train. We're actually in the Capitol now, we arrived during the night. And I won't even be there in the arena with you. Still think you weren't dreaming?"
He raised his eyebrows at me and I paused and then shook my head a little sheepishly. "Sorry," I said to him.
"Not a problem," he said, flashing a smile.
I looked down and realised I was in my pyjamas and bare feet. My face grew hot. "Sorry!" I repeated, glancing at Lance and Esmé with a nervous laugh. As I rushed to the door I was hit with a need to say something, so I turned around and added, "That was impressively well-handled, Finnick."
"You're not the only one with bad dreams," he told the apple in his hand.
He missed the slight smile I gave, so I just said, "Thanks," and then fled the room.
I sat down on my bed and did a couple of breathing exercises, and then attempted to laugh it off as I got changed. This happened pretty often (Lance knew all about it from numerous occasions I stopped speaking to him over something that happened in a dream) but for some reason it was so much more embarrassing this time. Was it just the fact that I made a fool of myself in front of two people I hardly knew? But, sure, one of them was Esmé. I didn't really care what she thought. That just left Finnick.
But I didn't even like Finnick.
And there was something weird about how easily he had calmed me down when even Lance couldn't. How was he so understanding? Come to think of it, I had been getting on reasonably well with Finnick so far. He hadn't got annoyed with me for being eccentric, or for being too honest, or for any of the odd things I tend to do. It hit me that I didn't really even dislike him all that much anymore.
I shook myself. Why was I thinking about Finnick Odair? That was funny.
I got dressed and left the front of my hair in the plait, thinking of Grammy Moon when I touched it. Pearls were grand and all, but I liked something a little quirkier. I took out the green ribbon and tied it around the pearl bracelet so that I could sneak it into the Training Centre, and maybe the Games. I took a moment to be impressed at my own intelligence there, then went back out and faced the others.
"Good news, I've finished your evaluations!"
Lance and I stopped eating and looked expectantly at Finnick, who was absorbed in the task of spooning sugar into his tea.
"… And?" pushed Lance.
Finnick dropped his cup and pointed at Lance. "Too impatient. Kinda gets on my nerves. Needs to respect his authorities." Lance's face had contorted defensively and he was about to lash back when Finnick waved his hand in my direction and continued loudly, "And this one … well, I dunno. Odd. But mostly …" He looked thoughtful for a moment. "Harmless."
Finnick smiled at me, as if he was very pleased with himself.
"Mostly harmless?" I repeated blankly.
"I though you were assessing our chances in the arena. Not our personalities," said Lance.
Finnick rolled his eyes. "Patience, Lancey-Pants, I was getting to that part."
Again he didn't say anything for a moment, and I could tell from Lance's face that he was trying his very best not to erupt.
Finnick wrinkled his brow and studied us. "Neither of you are exactly Careers …"
"Why should we be?"
"Well, the other districts tend to see 4 as a Career district—"
"But we're not!" said Lance. "We don't—"
"Train, I know," sighed Finnick. "We just happen to learn skills in fishing that come in handy in the arena. Now can I please get back to my assessment?"
Lance and I nodded.
He turned his head in Lance's direction but didn't actually look at him. "You're as good as I could hope for." Then he looked at me. "And you … Oh, shit, I just don't know. Odd but mostly harmless."
"Well, that was helpful," I said. "I feel really confident now. Thanks, Finnick."
Finnick pursed his lips and glared at me. "I thought you told me you didn't get sarcasm, Annie. This changes everything. Since you have a habit of keeping important details from me, we'll let your assessment be ongoing until we see how you get on in training. Does that make you feel better?"
I scowled a little, but nodded. I knew inside that training wasn't going to change anything. I was exactly what he thought: harmless. And the 'mostly' part was an understatement. I was completely harmless.
"Anyway," he went on, "you're heading into the prep teams now, and they're gonna primp and tear and do really awful things to your bodies 'til you come out pink and tender and hairless and kind of emotionally scarred. And that's when you get handed over to the lovely stylists."
"I can hardly wait," muttered Lance.
Esmé tutted a little but Finnick only grinned. "You can get away with that negativity stuff here with me, because believe it or not I was saying the exact same thing myself five years ago. But for the prep teams and stylists I want you to be the most charming kids on Earth. That might be difficult for some of you," he said, glaring pointedly at Lance, "but at least shut up and let them do anything they want to you."
"Fine, no whinging," I said. How hard could it be, really?
"Good!" said Finnick, beaming widely. "As for the stylists … Okay, they aren't the worst in the world. But these are the same people who had yours truly dressed with only a single shell covering his dignity at the age of fourteen." He held back a shudder and rubbed his temples. "I can't even imagine what fun they'll have with you two."
"What does that mean?" I asked.
He stood up, contemplated me for a moment, then said, "I'll let you figure that out for yourself. Now, I've got some people to meet, so … yeah." He bit back another grimace and then stood up abruptly, his chair screeching against the floor. He looked down at us with his face set. "Well, good luck, I guess."
Then he shoved his hands in his pockets and strolled out of the room.
"Who d'you suppose he's meeting?" Lance asked as we got off the train and were bombarded by cameras on the platform. Esmé led our way, ushering us past film crews and reporters.
"Dunno, but I bet he'll be turning a profit from the visit," I replied. "What d'you suppose he meant, that the stylists will have fun with the pair of us?"
Lance turned and met my eyes. "Well, if all he got was a shell at the age of fourteen … and what's the age of consent in the Capitol?"
Lance grimaced. "Ach, just don't be surprised if we're naked up there."
I groaned. "I'll gouge your eyes out if you gouge out mine."
"Hell-oooo! Annie! My dearest, darlingest, loveliest little lamb!" my stylist screeched. The man had clear peachy skin and white blonde hair shaved on either side and slicked up into a quiff on the top of his head. He had four loopy piercings in one eyebrow and a huge hole in his earlobe that I could have stuck my finger through if I tried, but I thought that might seem rude. He wore a tight white shirt buttoned all the way up to his throat and tucked into tartan pants that stopped halfway down his calves, revealing his socks under brown ankle boots with pointed toes. "My name's Holden Rye. My job: to make you look fabulous! Not that you don't already look fabulous — but, well, you don't. Actually."
I actually started to laugh, and he shrieked along with me, congratulating me on a wonderful sense of humour. He linked his arm through mine and dragged me into a room where they served us lunch.
Holden crossed one ankle over his knee, and laced his fingers together. I noticed his lips were as pale as the rest of his skin, as he scanned me for a moment.
"Darling," he said suddenly. "Absolutely precious." I had just bit into a bunch of frozen grapes and now twisted my head in confusion. He uncrossed his legs and aligned the points of his shoes, placing his hands delicately on his knees. "Your dress at the reaping. Très adorable. And can I just say," he leaned forwards and widened his eyes, "when you started crying? And Lance told us you were best friends? TEARS! Tears in my actual eyes!" He wiped a non-existent one from his face and then gave a quick sigh and grabbed a piece of melon from our lunch tray.
"Um, thank you," I said uncertainly.
"Now!" he exclaimed. "Tell me about yourself!"
"Um … huh?"
"Tell me, like, your life story," he explained, but I was still completely at a loss. What was my life story? It had to be pretty boring. What would someone like this even want to hear? I thought of Esmé, because he was sort of reminding me of her a bit, and I thought of the way she seemed to find the whole best friends being reaped together thing very exciting. I decided to try appealing to the Capitol need for romance and tragedy and drama.
So I told him the story of how I first met Lance, because that could apply to all three if I managed to tell it right.
I was five years old and it was a beautiful summer's day. I was wearing a cream-coloured dress with blue trimmings and brown sandals that always filled with sand when I walked on the beach. And my hair was in pigtails with matching blue ribbons. I was sitting on an upturned box in Grammy and GaGa's shop with a bucket of tiny shells because I was threading them into bracelets along with beads and teeny tiny plastic sea creatures.
A little boy walked into the shop holding his mother's hand. I was concentrating on my job so I didn't look up at them. But I did notice that he had messy blonde hair that stuck out around his ears and huge golden brown eyes and cute chubby cheeks. He had spilled juice on his white linen shirt.
I heard the boy leave his mother and come right up to me.
"Whatcha doin'?" the boy asked.
"Makin' a bracelet," I said, holding it up so that he could see. (Don't worry, I made sure to pinch the ends so that it didn't all unravel.)
"Can you make me one?" the boy asked.
"Aye," I said. "But it'll cost ya fifty cents."
"Okay," he said, and then ran off to his mother.
After a minute or two I finished the bracelet and completely forgot about the boy, so I went outside and started picking daisies for a daisy chain to wear to the reaping that day.
I looked up when the bell at the door of the shop tinkled. I saw the boy again as he went walking off down the street, holding his mother's hand. He turned around and stared at me as he walked away and I stared back at him.
The next day I was back sitting on the box in the shop, but I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and my hair wasn't done all pretty. I was preoccupied making another bracelet when the boy entered the shop on his own this time and came right up to me.
He didn't say anything so I looked up, and saw that he was holding out a bunch of daisies. I looked at the daisies and then at his face which was bright red, and then the boy said,
"Do you wanna be my girlfriend?"
I didn't say anything for a moment, because I didn't know what to say. Then I said, "I don't know."
"Okay," said the boy. "We can just be friends until you make up your mind. My name is Lancelet Coquille. What's yours?"
"Annie Cresta," I said.
"Okay, Annie Cresta. I don't have fifty cents so can you make me a bracelet out of these instead?"
I took the daisies from him and made him a bracelet (and a necklace too because he had picked so many) and then Lance said,
"If I collect shells for you will you make me a bracelet out of those, too?"
And that's how I ended up leaving the shop and scouring the beach for shells with Lance for the very first time. And at the end of the day, I took out the bracelet I had made the day before and tied it around his wrist. And he gave me a kiss on the cheek in return and then immediately turned red and ran all the way home.
And that's the story of how Lance and I first met.
(Though I left out the part where I was calling him Lancelot for weeks before he corrected me. So I just shortened it to Lance from then on.)
Holden was holding his hand over his lips the way Esmé did when she was snickering. But he wasn't snickering, he was just staring at me with very round eyes and a look of pure shock on his face.
"No my gosh," he said. "That was actually the most adorable thing I've ever heard in my actual life."
I couldn't help grinning a little. I hadn't thought about that for years. And then Holden began wailing about how tragic and romantic and tragic it was now that destiny had brought us best friends together to our deaths. "I mean, at least one of your deaths. Probably both, but definitely at least one."
I remembered what Finnick said about being polite to the stylists, so I held my tongue. Then I realised he had actually used the word charming, so I said, "I'm totally devastated."
That's when I realised I had no idea how to be charming. But Holden didn't seem to care, he just screeched and said, "And didn't he ever ask you out again?"
The question surprised me, because it never occurred to me before. "No," I said. "I think he got to know me and realised I'm not really girlfriend material. Especially not when I was five years old."
"Nonsense," said Holden sternly. Then he gasped so suddenly that I almost jumped right out of my chair. "No my gosh, this is so exciting! Young lovers — in the arena — I almost wish that at least one of you doesn't have to die!"
"I almost wish that, too," I said, refraining from rolling my eyes.
Afterwards he wanted to hear more about my life so I told him the story of my parents, trying my best to tell it well the way Finnick had done. But I was really awful at telling stories. Lance was always telling me that, because I'd focus too much on minor details and completely miss the point at the end. But Holden was completely enthralled by my stories. Afterwards, he rubbed his chin in silence for a long time and then said, "Whoa, whoa, whoa — hang on just a gosh darn minute there. There are actual real-life mermaids in District 4?"
"Well, yeah," I said. "They're everywhere you find salt water. Didn't you know that?"
"NO!" he exclaimed, holding his hands to his face. Apparently, this was devastating news. "I absolutely need to pay a visit to the beach next time I'm in District 4!"
"Hopefully that'll be pretty soon," I said sweetly. "On Lance's Victory Tour after he wins the Games. Or mine," I added as an afterthought, remembering not to reveal my secret plan for saving Lance instead of myself.
This practically killed Holden. I decided not to burst his bubble by telling him he could never see the merpeople in District 4. Unless he wanted to be turned into a sea bass, that is.
He was still super excited when I had to return to the hands of the Remake Centre to get my hair done. "You are simply going to adore your costume!" he squealed, before rushing off in a frenzy to get the last few bits and bobs ready.
My prep team were back, with careful instructions from Holden for my hair and makeup. And a few hours later I was looking at myself in a full length mirror, and seeing someone who looked nothing like me at all.
The only resemblance I could see was my hair. It was almost like I had worn it at the reaping, except instead of my natural waves there were perfect loose curls falling all the way down my back, the brown locks interspersed with colourful threads and ribbons in a rainbow of shades, with shells and beads and all sorts of glittering jewels strung around the ends. My bangs were braided back in the fish-bone plait and clipped in place with a little golden tiara. I had started getting confused when they began adding what looked like chunks of seaweed into my hair, but when the costume came along it all made sense. The girl in the mirror — or should I say, the young lady — had two pieces of hair hanging over each shoulder which reached passed her chest and were the only thing protecting her bare breasts from the elements. From my ribs the sparkling sequins began scattering the golden glowing skin of my stomach, and at my belly button they began to thicken and fuse together with the skirt which was layered and glittering with them in gold and orange and hundreds of shades of shimmering greens and blues, making them look just like the scales of some crazy and wonderful fish. The fully sequinned skirt widened unnaturally at my hips and then curved all the way to my ankles where it tucked in and then fanned out over my feet in a thickly pleated shiny material, trailing off behind me in a long train.
Just like a tail-fin.
"I'm a mermaid," I whispered.
"Don't you just love it!" yelled Holden, skirting around and fixing my hair into each strand's most perfect position. "Can you even believe it? What a coincidence about your parents, too, just when mermaids totally stole the catwalk this season! Oh, if they could see you now, Annie …"
As he went on about his panic at making last-minute alterations to the gown due to my less-than-womanly figure, I stared at my face which had more gold, green and blue sequins surrounding my eyes and glitter caking my lips.
I felt a bit like I was going to served for dinner.
I needed help just to get to the elevator because the skirt was so tight around my ankles that I could hardly walk. Holden was bobbing on the balls of his boots as we descended to the bottom level of the Remake Centre. Just when I was beginning to worry that I hadn't seen Lance for a while, Holden said, "Lance is going to love your outfit."
If he loved it as much as I did, that really wasn't saying much.
Holden stuck around just long enough to see Lance's jaw drop to the floor before he went screaming with excitement and prancing away with Lance's stylist, Sheaney, who seemed a lot more classy and subdued.
Once the stylists were out of earshot, Lance swore loudly and raked my body with his eyes. "Annie … what the hell did they do to you?"
"What did they do to you?" I retorted, staring at a shirtless Lance with shimmering golden skin and a merperson skirt identical to mine, his messy blonde hair in neat loose curls and strung out with bits of seaweed and netting. "I can't believe you never told me!"
Lance rubbed his arm. "Told you what?"
I gestured to him. "Uh, I dunno, that you're a bloody merman!"
He smiled and shook his head. "Annie, I'm not. I'm wearing a stupid costume and so are you, eh? You can see the freaking zip."
I hit myself in the head, accidentally dislodging a few sequins. "Right. I knew that, I knew that." I leaned my face closer to his bare chest and squinted. "Did they actually put makeup on your abs?"
"Just a bit of highlighting," he sneered in a high-pitched Capitol accent, swatting me away. His eyes ran over my body with a deep scowl. "You look like …" He couldn't continue so just began to swear some more. (I won't repeat the words here.)
"Well, I think I look flippin' sexy," I said, striking a ridiculous pose. I grinned, and he groaned. "Get it? The flipper—"
"Aye, I get it," he laughed. His eyes still didn't leave my outfit and he shook his head. "This is even worse than I expected."
"You expected us to be naked! How could this possibly be worse?"
"Have you even seen yourself, Annie?" he replied venomously. "It's like they just stripped you of your dignity and then left behind a little fraction of it with a note saying, 'Oh, by the way, we didn't quite need all of this, so you can keep this teeny sliver as a cruel reminder of exactly how much innocence we stole from you'."
I raised my eyebrows at him. "Honestly, I think you're just scared of boobies, Lance." He tilted his head, rolling his eyes. "And since when is my innocence proportional to the amount of clothing I'm wearing, anyway? I wear a swimsuit on the beach and you don't talk about my dignity."
"Well, now they're parading us around like meat," he said, gesturing around. "Attractive animals that they want to watch killing other attractive animals."
"Survival of the sexiest," I joked.
"Can't I just murder them all?" he muttered.
"Save it for the arena," I said glumly. He glanced at me in surprise for a moment, but if he had intended to respond it was cut off with a long, low whistle that reached us from across the stables.
"Whoa! Annie! Think you're showing enough skin there?" called Finnick.
"Ach, Finnick," I said through gritted teeth. "Finnick, Finnick, Finnick."
He tossed a sugar cube into his mouth and his eyes flashed as he took in my outfit and the expression on my face. I could feel myself blushing as his eyes ran over my exposed body with a slight grin. He opened his mouth to speak but Lance cut across him.
"It shouldn't be anything new to you, play-toy. I mean, how many innocent young people have been victims of your love since we arrived at the Capitol?"
I blinked in shock at Lance's sudden rather blatant accusation of our mentor's promiscuity. When I looked at Finnick I just about caught a glimpse of a grimace before he regained his cool with a tight smirk. His face blazed as he glared hatefully at Lance. "Lancey, Lancey, Lance. You should realise that the victims of my love are far from innocent. And most of them aren't even young. Most definitely none are as young or innocent as our own little mermaid here. What age are you, anyway, Annie?"
"She's seventeen," Lance growled.
Finnick's smile grew tighter. "And again, for some reason seems incapable of speaking for herself. But you'll have to excuse me for passing comment on a young, innocent girl showing her skin. I can't help but feel a little unsatisfied."
Lance launched forward but I grabbed him. "You creep," he spat at Finnick.
Finnick just rolled his eyes. "Calm down, calm down. I think that came out wrong, okay? I'm not happy that they're whoring you guys off like this, but before you lose your shit completely just take a good look at your friend Annie there. They did their best to make her look like a lingerie model and yet somehow she still just looks freaking adorable."
Lance turned to me and looked me up and down again. I was really ready for everyone to stop looking at my body, adorable or not, like I wasn't still inside of it.
Then Finnick just gave a short exhalation of breath and briefly caught my eye. My cheeks felt rather hot under all of the sequins.
"It's nice to know some things can't be corrupted," he said gruffly. He paused, looking down. "You look very sweet, Annie."
He then threw another sugar cube into his mouth and walked off with his hands deep in his pockets and an even deeper scowl on his face.
I stared after him, feeling both offended and complimented at the same time. And then I realised that a tiny smile was forcing its way across my lips.
Finnick Odair said I looked sweet.
Lance shook his head. "I just don't trust that sleazebag. He's as bad as the lot of them. I wish I could just—"
But whatever Lance wished he could do was drowned out by the opening anthem blaring through the city as the huge doors opened onto the crowded, blindingly colourful city streets. Suddenly hands were grabbing me around the waist and lifting me onto the carriage (which was rather difficult because of the stupid skirt) and I could just see Holden jumping around like a madman and screaming, "THIS IS GONNA BE AWESOME! Oh, and good luck, you two! We love you — and they love you — SO LOVE THEM BACK!"
I looked at Lance and he met my eyes, parting his lips nervously and raising his eyebrows. I looked around at my feet and, feeling very unstable, grabbed his hand for support. He squeezed mine back, and then the carriage lurched and we were off.