Lance and I shuffled our way into an elevator, and I had just reached its safety when I tripped and fell into the wall of the shaft. I spun around, and found myself staring into the bright blue eyes of that good-looking guy from District 1. He was wearing a stiff, bulky costume with a platinum metal chest-piece and large shoulders that appeared to be inlaid with thousands of pure crystals, scattering the light into rainbows in every direction. It hurt my eyes a little.
"Sorry," he said, flashing a charming smile and revealing a set of pearly white teeth. "Think I stepped on your flipper there."
It took me a moment to realise I was gaping at him. Then I shook myself and straightened up. "I believe it's more of a homocercal caudal fin than a flipper, actually," I said. "A flipper would be more—"
Lance elbowed me and I took that as my cue to shut up. I noticed the boy steal a glance at Lance, his eyes scanning his ripped arms and abs as Lance raised his chin slightly and set his eyes straight ahead. The boy looked back at me. He gave a sudden laugh and then looked at his district partner who snorted and stepped into the elevator behind him, forcing Lance and me to squash up against the wall. The girl had poker straight reddish-blonde hair and a similar costume to the boy, only with crystal breastplates as well. They were designed with one not-so-subtle purpose: to instantly draw the eyes to the tightly corseted cleavage looming out from beneath them. I averted my eyes quickly, feeling suddenly aware of my own nudity and folding my arms across my own childish chest. They didn't speak to us again and then got out on the first floor of the Training Centre, leaving us quite alone.
"They seem nice," I said quietly.
"They were laughing at us," Lance told me. He frowned. "No offence, but I just can't wait for you to put a sweater on. The way everyone keeps looking at you is giving me the creeps."
"What? Finnick practically said I couldn't look sexy if I tried!" I looked down at myself, feeling so silly all of a sudden. The girl from 1 had looked stunning, gorgeous, and so grown up … So why did I look like a child playing dress up?
"Finnick? He wouldn't know purity if I tied it to a fish and slapped him around the face with it!"
"I think he would notice the fish first, to be fair," I said dully. Then I pouted. "And I dunno why ye think I'm so pure and innocent. I can be grown-up too, you know."
Lance gave me a stern look. "You don't wanna be like these people, Annie. They're already trying to corrupt you. I bet you didn't even notice Mister Crystals staring at your … at you just now."
I pulled a face.
"Of course you didn't …" he sighed, as the elevator doors slid open and our home for the next few days was revealed to us. Only we didn't notice that, because the blood-curdling screams that reached our ears as soon as the doors opened made it sound as if there were numerous people being brutally torn apart limb from limb inside.
Lance and I rushed out of the elevator to help whoever was being tortured, only to see the bobbing blonde quiff of Holden dashing forwards towards a screaming Esmé, the two of them totally unintelligible with hysteria as they crashed into an embrace.
"Holden!" Esmé shrieked gleefully.
"It's been too long!"
"Far, far too long!"
Finnick was slouching against the wall, pressing his hands over his ears and looking positively murderous. I caught his eye and he just shook his head. But Holden and Esmé were still too ecstatic to register anything around them. They looked insane beside each other. Holden was a fairly short man and in her heels Esmé was at a perfect level with him. And his tall, brilliant white hair contrasted so starkly with her sleek purpley-black do; her ghostly pale skin with his, flushed with colour. They looked so comically opposite. And what's more, Esmé was so classy and dignified and Holden so completely mental and childish. They both seemed to lend each other bits of their personalities when they came together.
I suddenly felt bad for how I had been treating Esmé. Sure, she was a blithering little idiot, but so was Holden and I hadn't been upset by his insensitivity to my death at all. He was so stupid it was hard to be offended by anything he came out with. I made a mental note to return to how I felt about Esmé in the very very beginning: finding her rather funny, in a novel kind of way.
In that way, all I could do was laugh when Holden pulled out of their hug and began fussily fixing Esmé's long, sequinned eyelashes.
Finnick sauntered over, slung his arm around my shoulder, and whispered into my ear, "It's gonna be a long night, darling."
And indeed it was.
After a couple of glasses of wine, Esmé and Holden were splitting their sides with shrieks of laughter, telling anyone who was still listening about all the many shenanigans they got up to since they were kids growing up together, which really couldn't be compared to any story I could tell about my friendship with Lance. How Holden had bought Esmé a pair of unique diamond earrings for her birthday, only to find she had bought the exact pair as a gift to herself just the day before! Tragic! How they got trashed and woke up in a canoe in the middle of a foaming fountain after the finale of the Hunger Games three years ago! Hilarious! And other embarrassing stories they'd tell about each other — like how a heavily sedated Esmé bit her orthodontist's finger when she was getting her teeth straightened — or how Holden walked in on his ex-girlfriend and triple-ex-boyfriend AND his neighbour's landscape gardener in a hot tub — or how they both had a crush on the same teacher when they were at school …
And it just went on.
I mostly just tried to keep my mouth closed as I stared at them in complete awe, and also tried not to choke down too much glitter as I ate. Finnick sat down beside Sheaney, who was the most normal-looking person I had met in the Capitol so far. She wore a simple black jacket with a flowing skirt that reached her toes and a ruffled pink blouse. She had glasses, as well as pink contact lenses. Sheaney was quiet and only gave the occasional smile at the Holden-Esmé extravaganza. Finnick himself held his knife and fork so tightly in his hands that his whole body shook, and I worried more than once that he'd break the plate as he bludgeoned his steak like he was worried the cooks hadn't properly killed it before serving it to him.
Holden was halfway through another tale when I noticed that the atmosphere at the table had shifted. Everything was suddenly quiet and the laughter had stopped. Then I realised that it was because he was telling my story, the one I had told him about the first day I met Lance. My heart wrenched a little as he spoke it word for word as I had, even remembering the bit where I wasn't wearing ribbons in my hair the second day Lance came into the shop.
When he was finished there was silence at the table. Eventually Lance looked at me and said, "Your memory is unnervingly precise."
"As is Holden's," I said, looking across the table at my stylist. I just saw him point from me to Lance and back and mouthing the words 'So cute!' before I averted my eyes. I stared at my hands twisting in my lap. Lance's face was bright red.
I glanced up to see Finnick contemplating me. My eyes widened of their own accord. I watched as his lips curled up slightly on one side, then he planted his hands delicately on the very edge of the table and said, "That was actually the most adorable thing I've ever heard in my actual life."
"That is actually exactly what I said!" shouted Holden.
"Are you actually kidding?" screamed Finnick.
"I'm actually not!" responded Holden.
"Actually—!" Finnick blurted out, before his eyes flicked back to mine and we both instantly erupted into laughter. At first Holden joined in but then his voice faded uncertainly and the others watched us worriedly. Finnick clutched his napkin over his mouth to stifle himself, but then we looked at each other and it happened all over again. It was a few minutes later when, eyes streaming, Finnick finally said, "Why don't we just—" he stifled a chortle "—go watch the parade?"
I was still hiccoughing when we sat down in a low-lighted sitting room on the most comfiest sofas I have ever felt in my actual life. Lance sat close beside me, shuffling me into the corner. Finnick took the armchair nearest us, but I tried not to look at him for fear of appearing more like a giggling schoolgirl than I already was.
We watched the replay of the parade (with much excited screaming from Holden and Esmé) and I was glad when I could hardly recognise myself under all the glitter and sequins. I knew that technically wasn't good for sponsors, but I didn't really care. I was just glad the half-nude girl on the screen with the golden skin didn't remind me too much of myself.
"The crowd loves you!" said Holden.
"Really?" I asked, because with all the cheering it was hard to tell who was screaming for who.
"Were you two holding hands?" asked Sheaney, straightening her black framed glasses at the television.
As if in reply, the Lance and me on the screen held up our hands in the air, our fingers linked, and waved at the crowd with our free hands. He was sporting a winning smile. I was smiling, too, but still looked a little confused.
Esmé and Holden both squealed at how cute we were, but they quickly turned into wails of sympathy for our dilemma. (I use the word sympathy loosely because they were still from the Capitol and couldn't have cared that much about our imminent deaths.)
"I don't remember telling you to do that," said Finnick carefully.
"I don't remember you telling us to do much at all," said Lance, not looking away from the screen. "You just stalked off with a handful of sugar cubes."
Finnick stuck his tongue out at Lance while his eyes were on the television. I found myself grinning, and Finnick caught me. He winked quickly, before turning back to the screen. I inhaled and held my breath. I wasn't sure why, but something about him seemed different here.
Finally, the carriages pulled into the Training Centre and there was a quick commentary from the presenter before the show ended.
"That was fabulous!" cried Holden, clapping his hands.
"With all of us pulling together, you'll both have the most sponsors in the entire arena!" said Esmé, bouncing up and down with Holden as they hugged each other. "Right, Finnick?"
"Sure," he replied, yawning.
Suddenly, Holden screamed. "I almost forgot!" He turned to Esmé beside him and gestured theatrically. "On the Victory Tour that we are sure to be going on—" he shot Lance and me a cheeky wink "—I absolutely have to see an actual real-life mermaid in District Four! I'm thinking moi et toi et la plage et le soleil et des vêtements très chic-"
"Why, Holden," said Esmé, looking around at the rest of us with an awkward little laugh. "You can't possibly believe that mermaids really exist, can you?"
Whatever concession Holden's likeability had given Esmé quickly dissipated all over again. We all just stared at her, until Holden finally shook himself and said, "Esmé, you're so silly sometimes! Annie saw them with her own eyes. They saved her life!"
"And my parent's lives," I added.
"Just wait, my lovely, I'm going to find a mermaid if it's the last thing I do!" he proclaimed. "And you'll be right there with me! Then you'll see, Esmé. Then. You. Will. Actually. See."
Esmé did not look impressed. She stood up irritably and clapped her hands. "Now, children, you're excused for the night! Off to bed, we've such a big, big day tomorrow!"
Lance and I obediently got up and said goodnight to the adults. As we left the room I could hear Holden saying, "Mermaids are totally in this season, darling. It's, like, the new cat-look."
"No way! Nothing will ever be the new cat-look!" gasped Finnick, with mock-enthusiasm.
We were barely out the door into the hall when Lance grumbled, "I'm not even a child!"
"I kind of want them to get married," I mused.
"Who?" he asked confusedly. "Finnick and Holden?"
"No, Finnick and Esmé! Wait, no — I mean Esmé and Holden!"
"What — aren't they twins?"
"No!" I said. I thought for a moment. "No, they have different surnames."
Lance crinkled his brow. "Ach, gross! Imagine we were like that, Annie." He shook his head. "I am pretty sure he's gay, though."
"No, didn't you hear the story about his last girlfriend with the cactus underwear?" I thought for another moment. "Capitol folk are pretty weird, eh?"
Lance nodded, and then took my hand. "You know, maybe Esmé was right. If we hadn't been reaped we never would have had the opportunity to meet all these wonderfully charming and captivating Capitol folk."
I looked him seriously in the eyes. "Yes, Lance, I agree. I'm so glad I get to share this experience with you."
We grimaced at each other. It wasn't quite as funny as we thought it was going to be.
Then I said, "But, you know, I always thought that Finnick was more Capitol than Four, but he doesn't really get along with them either. He's actually just more like us."
Lance pursed his lips. "Finnick's nothing like us, Annie. And I can't believe he's got you under his spell already."
"What?" I demanded. "Finnick's no sorcerer!"
"I didn't mean that literally. But this is just what he was saying before, Annie. You are innocent. You don't even notice stuff like that guy checking you out in the elevator, or Finnick hitting on you—"
"Finnick wasn't hitting on me!" I hissed.
"He was, but that's OK. He probably flirts with everyone. I'm just scared of how far he'd take it." He sighed and rubbed his forehead wearily.
I swallowed. "What do you mean?"
Lance looked at the ground for a moment, frowning deeply, before turning his golden eyes to meet mine, full of concern. "He's had his eye on you since he took you to see your parents. I think he sees how pure you are. And he might feel like … corrupting you."
The sides of my lips turned down in disgust. "He's our mentor!" I sighed.
"Just … don't get too close. You just never know, okay? He's a total slimeball."
"He's vile," I agreed. Though at this moment in time, I didn't really know if that was my honest opinion. But it had been at some point, so I wasn't technically lying.
"Try to get some sleep tonight," he suggested, turning to his bedroom door.
"I'll try," I promised.
Two things my best friend asked of me: try to get some sleep, and be careful of Finnick Odair.
In the first case, I didn't obey. I attempted to drown myself in the shower for about an hour and a half to get the last of the glitter off, and then sat on my bed for a while. I knew I wouldn't sleep. And my room was big but empty and had me on edge, so I ended up feeling trapped and suffocated and wandering back into the sitting room late that night and curling up on the comfy couch.
And as for Lance's second bequest, well what happened next really wasn't my fault. It's not like I went looking for Finnick.
I was sitting on the couch with my feet curled up under me and my head laying on the armrest, when I heard the trudging footsteps, and instantly sat up straight and alert. A figure ambled past the door, but in the dark it was just a shadow. But then the footsteps stopped for a moment and doubled back. Finnick's head popped up around the side of the door, his soft bronze hair ruffled back from his face.
"Oh, it's you." I couldn't pick up whether his tone was pleased or disdainful or simply surprised.
"It's me," I agreed. Then I gave a cry of surprise as the rest of him appeared in the doorway; dressed only in boxer shorts, barefoot, his tanned and muscular body smouldering in the low lights of the room.
Finnick Odair in his underwear.
One of my eyes twitched slightly, and then I looked away. He leaned against the wall, and popped a sweet into his mouth. Where did the sweet come from? I couldn't imagine that he had pockets. "Sorry for my lack of attire. I didn't know anyone would be out here."
"No need to apologise."
"Yeah, sorry if I distracted you. I'm afraid I may have stolen the spotlight from that blank space of wall you were just staring at."
I looked up, cocking my head to one side. "Why would you distract me?"
"Because." He motioned to himself. I stared, not seeing it. He frowned, saying, "Uh, I've got no clothes on."
I shrugged. "Clothes have their purpose. If you're not cold, don't wear 'em."
He laughed loudly. "Well, I might as well take my underwear off, if that's how you feel."
"You can if you like," I told him, and went back to staring at the wall.
He was silent for a moment. I almost had time to think. Then he gave a small chuckle followed by a sigh. "You know, Annie, I have no idea if you're flirting or just intensely pragmatic."
I sighed, looking down at my hands with a blush. "I don't really know how to flirt."
"So … you're the real deal, huh?" he said, and I turned to see him smiling at me. "It's really refreshing, you know. Flirting is, like, all I know how to do anymore. And you're just completely immune to it. It's bloody fantastic."
I shrugged, looking away and chewing on my lip. This seemed like dangerous territory, so I didn't want to involve myself in whatever it was he was doing. Not that I could have kept up.
"So … may I join you?"
I pressed my hands between my knees. "If you wanna."
Finnick sat down and placed a cushion in his lap.
"That doesn't help," I muttered.
He looked at me with a tiny smile. "Wasn't for your benefit. But I thought this was what you were dying to see, anyway. Finnick Odair in his underwear." He threw one arm over the back of the sofa, and turned to me with a large smile.
I remembered the reaping and groaned. "I assure you, I have no desire to see this," I said, waving a hand in his general direction and turning my head to stare at something, anything else but him.
"I'm finding that pretty hard to believe." I could still see him smirking at me out of the corner of my eye, but I didn't look around.
"So … this is flirting, is it?" I said, my cheeks feeling warm.
He gave a long sigh. "Aye, sorry. You know, this behaviour keeps me alive in the Capitol, but it makes things pretty uncomfortable back home. Everyone just thinks I'm a creep. Including you and Lance." After a while I heard him shift his position. "Eh, I'm sorry about whatever I said at the opening ceremony. I'm really not trying to sound so pervy."
"It's okay, Finnick," I said quietly. "Only Lance took it like that. Apparently I'm too innocent to notice, anyway, but I know I'm not the kind of girl you'd really be flirting with. Like you said, I couldn't look sexy if I tried."
"Annie, I didn't mean—"
"It's grand, Finnick. To be honest, I'd prefer having the Capitol pulling my cheeks and patting my head than trying to sleep with me."
Finnick blenched. "Well. Good point." I glanced over at him, and he was looking down, biting his lip.
I suddenly thought of Finnick, fourteen years old in our shoes, and I couldn't. To me he had always been this man: older than me, more mature, and adulterous beyond my imagination. "Whereas I bet they couldn't make you look cute if they tried," I added.
He met my gaze, his lip turned up in a stiff half-smile. But there was no amusement in his eyes. He knew it wasn't a compliment. "I guess we're opposites, then." He paused. "Now I see why you hate me. I mean, I already suspected. But now I really see it."
I pursed my lips. "This isn't why I hate you. Actually, I never said hate. I said dislike. That's way less severe." He looked at me doubtfully, and I inhaled and looked down shyly at my hands. "I mean, it wasn't really fair of me to say I disliked you anyway. I don't really know you. You're just that guy I watched in the Games and who teased Esmé at the reapings and who was always on TV at Capitol parties."
He rolled his eyes. "Right, so … murderer, victor, Capitol lapdog, man-whore … Personally, I don't know what you're talking about. What's not to love?"
I blinked at him, my eyebrows jumping up into my bangs. That was sarcasm, right? But even just the fact that he would associate the word 'murder' with the Games … Well, that was forbidden! The killing was all considered good showmanship, it was hardly deemed as murder in the Capitol. What was he thinking? And with everything else, why was Finnick Odair so aware of everything despicable about himself? And if he knew he was despicable, why was he still despicable? He didn't make sense to me.
"But what about now?" he asked with a small smile. "Now that you know me?"
I looked back at him. He was sitting sideways, facing me fully with his elbow leaning against the back of the couch and his chin in his palm. I met his eyes, and there was something in them that I couldn't quite grasp. They were deepest, darkest green like seaweed, and reminded me of home.
Finnick was more Four than Capitol, that much was clear to me now. And I rather liked him.
I chewed on my lip. For some reason that was too embarrassing to say aloud, so I just said, "You're still under assessment."
Finnick laughed loudly at this. I let myself grin a little, then bit down on my bottom lip again. It was still tingly from all the glittery lipstick it had worn earlier.
"And how long will this assessment take?" he asked with interest.
"'Til after training," I replied.
"I'm looking forward to it already."
We sat in silence for a short time.
"Well, you can't deny that Lance hates me. That Lance-loser."
"Oi," I said quickly, "kids in school used to call him that. It's not funny."
"Oh." He looked down. "Ach, now I feel terrible. When did I become a bully?"
"Since you won the Games?" I offered.
He pursed his lips. "Yep. That sounds about right." He shrugged. "Being a mentor is hard. I mean, not as hard as being a Tribute. But it's not a swim in the shallows. "
I looked away, blowing air out of my cheeks. "You're kind of like him, you know." I watched his face but it didn't change. "Lance. I think you both kinda just wanna fit in."
He shot me a quick glare before averting his eyes again.
"Is that why you don't like him? Because he reminds you of you, and you don't like yourself?"
"Hey!" he said sharply, then seemed to remember that he had actually told me this himself. He didn't answer me but huffed a little and folded his arms across his chest.
I contemplated his bicep for a moment. "I think that's why I can have a fairly easy conversation with you. Because you remind me of him. This should be a lot harder for me."
"I'm finding it pretty difficult," he mumbled.
"Then why are you here?" I asked. I wasn't mad or teasing him. I just really wasn't sure.
He looked at me and wrinkled his brow. "I have no idea. You were sitting here on your own. I thought you looked lonely."
I thought about this for a moment. Then I asked, "Is that another way of saying that you were feeling lonely, Finnick?"
This was clearly a mistake. He scoffed a little and gave me a derisive look. "What kind of question is that, huh?"
"One that can't be answered with another question," I said quietly.
He rolled his eyes and gave a sneer. "This is the Capitol. And I'm Finnick Odair. I've got the entire world at my fingertips. How could I possibly be lonely?"
I paused. "You realise … that was another question?"
He glared at me. "Yeah, well you ask difficult questions!"
"Sorry," I said quickly. "Too much?"
He stared at the floor for a long time, and I was positively bursting to ask him why he was sitting here with me if he really had the entire world at his fingertips. But I knew I was irritating him so I didn't. Instead I just pondered the question, and wondered if the same thing had occurred to Finnick.
I watched him for a while. After a long time he shook himself. "What am I actually doing here?" He shot to his feet.
I looked up at him, craning my neck. "I don't know. Actually."
"Actually …" he repeated, and then he grinned in a way I had never seen before. It was a sideways, almost goofy grin and I realised that this was a very rare and special thing. It made him look younger: suddenly just a teenager, just like me. Not trying to be an adult, not trying to be cool or sexy or Capitol. And it completely transformed the slightly intimidating man standing in front of me in his underwear into just a boy, giggling at some stupid joke.
I realised that this was just him.
This was the real Finnick Odair.
And I took it back: he could be cute. He could be very cute indeed.
And then he met my eyes, showing white teeth and dimples and green eyes flashing with amusement. "I'm gonna try get some sleep. As your mentor I strongly suggest you do the same."
It was only then that I remembered the second thing Lance had asked of me. Be careful of Finnick. But to me, Finnick seemed completely friendly. Nice. Charming. Harmless. So I figured, Lance was just being protective. I didn't need to worry about Finnick Odair. In his underwear, or otherwise.
So at that moment I smiled widely back at him, and replied, "I think I actually will."