The next morning I found myself inexplicably spending much of my time staring at Finnick. Watching his face. Waiting for the secret smile. Dying to see the childish glint in his sea-green eyes, the dimples, the cheeks stretched too wide and the white teeth.
It didn't come. It was a secret smile, after all.
Occasionally I would realise what I was doing and widened my eyes and stared at my breakfast instead. But it wasn't long before I'd be back watching him obsessively. At some point I noticed that I was most likely losing my mind. My actual mind.
Maybe the smile only came out at night. Or when there weren't so many Capitol people around. Or when he was wearing nothing but underwear. You never know.
I somewhat came to my senses when Lance emerged from his room, stretching and rumpling his unbrushed sandy hair. He was wearing the same training clothes as I was: a tight grey polo t-shirt and matching tracksuit bottoms with thin green stripes down the legs and across the shoulders.
He sat down at the table with me, Finnick and Esmé. The table was silent for a while. It was Esmé who broke it.
"Annie, dear," she began uncertainly, "is there something you want to ask Finnick?"
My eyes widened in horror, and Finnick glanced up curiously to catch me staring at him before I had time to avert my eyes. For a second I was frozen in his gaze, and I felt my face turn scarlet as I stammered out, "Um — I—"
"Oh, yeah. Shouldn't you be telling us what to do in training today?" piped up Lance. I almost sighed in relief. It occurred to me how often Lance did speak up for me, and hoped Finnick wouldn't comment on it like he had done before.
Finnick's eyes left mine as he cocked an eyebrow at Lance. "Oh, so now you want my help?"
Lance's face hardened, but it quickly fell into a sheepish expression. Neither of us could deny that we had no idea how to act once we got into training.
Luckily, Finnick was smiling. "Right," he said. "So first things first: we need you two to benefit as much as possible from the training time. Lance, you should be fairly well-prepared for this, so I'll start with Annie." He looked at me seriously, pointing his spoon. "Your major task is to find a weapon. Now, when you first get down there I don't want you to go straight for the weapons and start swinging them about — that's the time when everyone's watching everyone. And I don't just mean the Gamemakers — who'll be overlooking the whole session — I'm talking about the Careers from One and Two. Since we're from Four they'll have their eyes on you two for allies. Or else competition.
"So, Annie, since you don't have much going for you just yet, we don't want you to draw attention to yourself. Go to some other stations first. Light a fire. Practise camouflage. Learn a few edible plants or something. Then, right before lunch have a wander over to a weapon that takes your fancy. Talk to the trainers but don't try anything just yet. And under no circumstances should you attempt anything if you feel the Careers are watching you. After lunch everyone will be nice and focussed on their own thing. That's your time to get into action. Try out archery. If you really don't feel confident with throwing then stay away from the knives and spears, but I'd like you to attempt as much as you can."
How did Finnick know I wasn't confident with throwing? It was a moment before I remembered the moment on the beach when I had chucked the shell so weakly into the water, and then told him I'd stay away from throwing things in training. I couldn't help feeling a little awed at how he remembered that little thing. Then it hit me: he'd been sorting out strategies for us from the very moment our names came out of those glass bowls. I had to admire him a little for that. He was really trying.
And even though it had only been a joke at the time, now my palms were starting to sweat at the idea of having to wield a weapon in training in front of all the other tributes. What if I couldn't use anything? What if I was completely worthless at protecting Lance's life in the arena? What if the Careers picked up on my weakness and took me for an easy target?
I took a deep breath and said, "Aye. Okay."
Finnick pressed his lips together bracingly. He turned to Lance. "Okay, what I want you to do is take advantage of the time at the start when everyone's sussing each other out. Go to the spears and try out the ones they have — they might be slightly different to what you're used to. But don't spend too long on what you're good at. Try out the other weapons too. You should do well with that stuff and you'll make a good first impression. After lunch, try your hand at some survival skills. That's all I've got for now."
Lance nodded. There was something reassuring about Finnick's tone. He seemed to know what he was talking about. He seemed to care.
We finished breakfast and got up to leave. Esmé and Finnick both wished us luck.
"Oh, I almost forgot," said Finnick, when we had almost reached the door. He turned in his chair and looked sternly at us. "Be friendly. You could still have allies in there yet."
"Are we trying to make allies?" asked Lance uncertainly.
"You're trying to keep your options open," Finnick replied. He grinned a little, but not a lot. "Have fun down there."
We stepped out into the hall and Lance pushed the button for the elevator. It was only then that I noticed his fists were clenched, and I looked at his face to see him biting his teeth together.
"Ach, what's the problem now?"
The lights flashed around the top of the elevator, indicating it was already below us and descending. Lance glanced around at the dining room door and then leaned closer to me, lowering his voice. "Now? You didn't happen to notice he has us at opposite stations for the entire day?" He met my eyes meaningfully and hissed, "He's trying to split us up!"
I rolled my eyes. "His plan makes sense and you know it." The lights were flashing up again and the glass elevator rose to our level and then kept going.
Lance cursed and jammed his finger into the button again. "What about having other allies? Why's he so keen for us to team up with tributes when he doesn't even want the two of us to have an alliance?"
"He never said we can't be allies. But …" I groaned when it looked like the elevator was going all the way to the top floor.
I blinked a few times and turned to Lance. "The Careers might want you as ally, but there's no chance they'll take me. I don't know how much Finnick's plan can fool 'em. Just look at my arms."
Lance pouted his lips. "They either get both of us or neither one. I don't especially want to team with anyone but you."
"Like he said, though. It can't hurt to have the option." We watched the lights reach the top and then begin to fall again. Before they reached us, I said, "And it mightn't be such a bad thing, being separated at training. Because then when we get in the arena, we'll both have different skills to put together. You know?"
Finally the elevator doors slid open, revealing the two tributes from District 12. I recognised the blonde girl as the one who had cried at the reaping. I was about to smile at her but faltered when I remembered that Finnick said she had been faking it to look weak. But then that meant she was clever. Clever but sly. She probably wouldn't want to be allies with us because apparently we were supposed to be Careers. I let myself smile at her in the end, being too confused to bother trying to decipher it. Maybe my smile would confuse her as much.
Lance and I stepped into the elevator with them, and the door silently slid shut.
"I suppose," said Lance, and it took me a moment to remember what we had been talking about. Then he shot me a sideways glance. "Quick question: why are you defending him?"
I thought for a moment. "Because you're blinded by your paranoia."
Lance gasped as if I had just physically hurt him and then laughed. I briefly considered telling him about my run-in with Finnick last night, but something stopped me.
Maybe it was the secret smile, wishing to remain a secret. Or maybe I just wanted to have a secret of my own.
There was a short talk before training started (rules, guidelines, that sort of thing), as the twenty-four of us stood in a wide circle. Some of the tributes stared at their feet or cast worried eyes around at their opponents, others stood confidently and glared around at the meat. The boy from 2 looked even more massive in reality, with arms like tree-trunks folded across his beefy chest. I tried to imagine being allies with someone like that and it was next to impossible. I suddenly realised that one of these kids was probably going to be my killer. I say probably because it was either that or something natural in the arena bringing about my end. Starvation. Exposure. Muttations. Drowning.
Hard to decide which sounds like the worst way to go.
I looked away from the bristly brown hair of the tank from 2 and found a pair of blue eyes already looking in my direction. That good-looking boy from 1. I glanced at Lance beside me and back at the other boy. Maybe he was looking at Lance, wondering if he'd make a good ally. I kept looking around at the others, trying to memorise them now. I was just starting to wish I had names to match the faces when Lance elbowed me, telling me the intro was over and it was time to start training.
We bid each other luck and then he put his hands in his pockets and strolled over to the weights. I stood in the middle of the floor for a moment, feeling totally lost, before I caught a glance of the knotting station which was completely deserted but for a bored looking demonstrator. I headed straight there.
I realised that even though I didn't have as wide a knowledge of useful knots as Lance did from being out on the fishing boats, I still knew a fair few handy ones from a life of stringing necklaces and bracelets. The trainer was only delighted to help as well. I found that the knot for a noose was almost exactly the same as the one I use for the ends of bracelets, to slide them tighter and looser. Feeling confident, I followed my instincts to the station that taught snares. I guessed it would be helpful if I could find food in the arena. Even if I couldn't use a weapon, I could feed us while Lance took care of the defence. Until one of us had to die.
"Uh … Are you alright?"
I looked up at the trainer, and realised I had frozen stiff and was beginning to hyperventilate. I screwed my eyes shut and forced myself to breathe, then opened them again and nodded. She looked at me a bit oddly but I just turned away and tried to get back to my snare while my face grew hot. I couldn't remember where I was with the trap so I just started again, praying that it was almost lunchtime so that I could see Lance again. I had totally taken for granted how sane he had been keeping me until now. I wondered if I told Finnick this would he let us stick together for the rest of the training sessions.
Distracted again, I was on my third attempt at the same snare before I realised there was no way I could gather enough concentration to get this done. I left the station and cast around wildly for something to try that wouldn't require too much thought. I didn't want my time here to be a waste but at the same time I wanted to get out as soon as possible. I ended up sitting at the fire-making station before I looked around and panicking when I realised it was almost lunchtime. I immediately dropped what I was doing and strolled over to weapon training as casually as I could.
I saw Lance with the boy from 7 by the throwing axes. I watched as the boy hit dummy after dummy in the chest with the axes. Lance had a go and he wasn't bad at all, he always hit the target, at least. I refrained from joining him and went over to the knife station instead.
The trainer gave me a run-through of the knives, how to hold them, throw them, stabbing techniques and stuff. I stayed with Finnick's plan and didn't actually try anything, but touched all the knives and weighed them in my hands. I was just thinking of moving on when something whizzed past my ear and a knife hit a dummy right in between its eyes. I spun around to see the girl from District 1 with the beautiful red hair, smiling at her own hit.
She saw me staring and her smile grew wider as she approached. "Hey, you're District Four, right?" I nodded, feeling my heartbeat quicken. "It's Annie, isn't it?" I nodded again, thrown off by the fact that she already knew my name. Had her mentor made her memorise the other Careers before coming in today?
She raised her eyebrows slightly. "I'm Juliet from One," she said, turning her eyes back to the knives and raking them with a hungry look.
I finally found my voice. "Aye, it's nice to meet you," I said (even though it wasn't really, it's just a thing people say to make people like them). I held out my hand but she just looked at it and laughed like she had last night in the elevator and I dropped it, wondering what the joke was.
This was probably the biggest challenge so far: talking to a girl I didn't know at all and trying to be cool. I was, like, the least cool person in the world. I can talk to Lance normally enough. I can talk to Finnick because he's pretty easy to talk to. I can talk to Esmé and Holden because they hardly seem like real people. But these other tributes were my peers. I'm not so good with peers.
I should probably have let Finnick know about that. It was looking like Lance would be the one getting allies for us, if we needed them.
"Okay, I'm just going to come out with it," proclaimed the girl, Juliet as I should start calling her. She grinned embarrassedly and leaned down to me, meeting my eyes with her pretty blue ones. And then she whispered, "What's Finnick Odair like in real-life?" I just blinked at her while she giggled and said, "He's so dreamy! How lucky are you?"
"I don't know," I answered.
"So, seriously, what's he like?"
I thought for a moment, wondering how I was supposed to answer a question like that. And mostly for his and Lance's benefits, I said, "Flirty. I mean, that's basically the only way he knows how to act. Oh, and he really likes sweet things."
I blinked, suddenly remembering him using the same word to describe me in my costume. Finnick liked sugar cubes and lots of sweetener in his tea, but I had to remind myself that the kind of people he was interested in were far from sweet. It couldn't have meant anything. I was just becoming as suspicious as Lance.
The girl just raised her eyebrows further. "Oh wow, really?" I nodded, and she giggled. "I wish my mentor was like that," she said with a laugh. I laughed nervously along with her even though I couldn't fathom why anyone would want their mentor to flirt with them. I'd rather them helping me to stay alive and stuff, but I guess some people's priorities are messed up.
Juliet finally chose another knife, a brutal-looking cleaver, and turned swiftly to chuck it at the dummy. I watched the head slice clean off and go rolling across the gym. I swallowed and glanced back at Juliet. She looked around and called out to someone, and I turned around to see her district partner from 1 looking a little perturbed as he put down a sword and walked over to us.
"Laertes, this is Annie," she said, touching his arm and nodding at me.
He met my eyes and smiled. "Oh, fish-girl."
"Mermaid," I corrected.
Laertes grinned widely, flicking his blonde hair out of his eyes. "Yeah, that's the one. I liked your costume," he said, as Juliet giggled and hit him playfully.
"So, I was thinking of getting together with Saul and Eve and all of us having some lunch," she said excitedly, hanging out of Laertes's arm.
"That's a good idea," he said in a bored manner. He looked at me and smiled again. For some reason it only reminded me of Finnick and his secret grin. "Why don't you get your district partner over and we'll all go?"
"Okay," I said, and looked around to find Lance. Of course, he had already been keeping an eye on me and made his way over as soon as he saw the worried glance I shot him.
"Lance, this is Laertes and Juliet," I said as casually as I could. All the while, my eyes were screaming for him to help me with this social interaction.
"Lance," said Juliet, purring his name as she looked him up and down with a seductive smile. "Hi."
"Hey," he replied quickly, then looked from her to Laertes. You could almost feel the tension in the air as their eyes met for a moment and then they blatantly assessed each other, sizing each other up as fighters. I tried to look at Lance objectively to try figure out what Laertes was thinking. He wasn't especially tall but he was stocky and well-built and he had a strong look about him. Laertes on the other hand was taller and slighter, but he had his good looks on his side, too. But I suppose Lance wasn't bad either. Juliet certainly seemed happy in between the two of them. Something must have gone right anyway, because at that moment Laertes flashed a grin and said, "Hey, man. You coming for lunch with us?"
Lance smirked a little, then raised his eyebrows at me.
"Sure," I said.
Saul and Eve, I learned, were the Careers from District 2. They seemed to be already acquainted with Laertes and Juliet but were pretty wary of me and Lance and didn't get very involved much in the conversations at lunch. I noticed Juliet was asking Lance an inordinate amount of questions about himself, either to suss him out as a team member or simply because she might have fancied him. I could tell he was enjoying the attention as well. But soon Juliet made the mistake of bringing up fishing. Lance was just saying something about spears when suddenly Laertes was joining in the conversation to offer his opinion, and Lance was responding enthusiastically, and then before I knew what had happened the two boys were having an animated discussion about javelins and spearing and were completely oblivious to everything else around them. Juliet pretended to be part of it at first but then seemed to realise that she had lost their attention.
"Boys," she said to me and Eve, rolling her eyes and laughing.
"They are indeed young males of the human kind," I agreed.
Lance and Laertes were still getting on like a house on fire when the topics changed from how hard they grip their shafts to the costumes at the parade, and the simple fact that he was talking about clothes made me realise that Lance was probably in need of a male friend. So I decided to leave him to it.
After lunch I did as Finnick instructed and went straight back over to the weapons. He had been exactly right: even while we were eating Juliet and Eve had been discussing what stations they were planning to go to afterwards, and everyone was good and caught up in their own things when I picked up a bow for the first time. I took all the help the trainer could give, and then shakily took my first shot at a target.
I missed by a couple feet, but before I could feel awful enough for tears to begin pricking my eyes, I took a few deep breaths and got another arrow. The trainer told me to lift my elbow a little and to align the shaft of the arrow with my line of sight. I narrowed my eyes as far as they could go and released the string, shutting my eyes tight as soon as I did. I opened one carefully, and saw I had hit the target, not even too far from the bulls-eye. The trainer said it was a really good shot so I had another few goes until I was fairly comfortable with the weapon. I liked hitting the targets, but when the trainer moved me on to the dummies and told me which spots to aim for, I began to feel a little sick. Was I really willing to pierce a real human's body with this?
I left the archery station pretty hastily after that.
The day was coming to an end and my anxieties were just beginning to build again. I just wandered randomly from station to station, then stopped when I saw a sort of jungle gym near the weight training. I saw the monkey bars and immediately found myself walking towards it. The bars looked about fifteen feet from the ground and I had to climb up a frame on the side to reach them before I could cross. I did it fairly easily (because I was agile despite my stringy arms). I did it a couple more times then found myself swinging up to sit on top of the bars, looking out over the gym. I could hear Lance from here, laughing really loudly, before I saw him over making shelters. He was still with Laertes. I swung my legs as I sat on the pole, wondering what his game was. Was he trying to reel Laertes in or were they really genuinely getting along well? And who knew what Laertes was up to? But I couldn't help feeling like he was a decent enough guy.
I really liked it up here, it made me feel like I wasn't part of it. Just looking on from above.
After a while I got up and tried walking along the top of the monkey bars, which was fairly easy. Then, feeling nearly weightless, I tried to run across them. I guessed I was good at this from the amount of running around I did on slippery, dangerous rocks by the sea, when falling into the water was not an option. And somehow, dropping to the ground and hurting myself was a lot more appealing to me than falling into a tide-pool or into the sea and drowning. It's probably irrational, but it's just how I felt.
I had started the cross over the top of the bars again when I noticed the girl climbing onto the other end, already swinging across the bars. I was going to run right over her hands. But I couldn't stop or I'd lose my balance and fall. I didn't know if the girl had noticed me above her, but as her hands approached my feet I was forced to leap over two bars so as not to step on her. I almost fell but managed to slip through the bars and catch hold of them on my way down, swinging my way back to the end and jumping to the ground with a sigh of relief.
I turned around and realised it was the girl from 12 again. She made it to the opposite end of the bars and then jogged up to me.
"Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry," she said. "Are you okay?"
"Yes," I replied. "I'm grand."
"You're really good at that," she said, pointing to the bars.
I turned and walked away. It took me a moment to realise that she was following me. I turned to look at her but she was squinting around the gym, and I saw her eyes stop when she saw Lance.
"Not sticking with your 'best friend', I see?" She even made air quotes with her fingers.
I furrowed my brow. "We've got different skills to work on," I told her.
"Oh, I'm sure you do," she replied. I made a face because I was confused and then she look at me with shrewd blue eyes. "Not a bad plan, but you really could have stepped it up a notch. Said you were boyfriend and girlfriend or something. They lap that shit up here."
"But we're not boyfriend and girlfriend," I said, more confused than ever.
"I'm Rose," she said.
"Annie," I replied, and offered my hand which she shook tightly.
She seemed to just ignore what I said before, and continued on uninterrupted. "I would have tried something like that since my initial plan fell through, but I can hardly pretend Axl and I are madly in love." She rolled her eyes over at her district partner, the minute twelve year old with curly black hair. I guessed this was Axl, but I still didn't quite know what she was talking about.
So I just said, "You cried at the reaping."
She met my eyes and scowled. "Too bad someone got there before me. Great minds think alike, right?"
I shrugged. Then it hit me that, again, Finnick was right, and they weren't real tears that had fallen from this girl's eyes. And she was still thinking up ways of getting sympathy sponsors. And she thought I was doing the same.
"Lance and I are best friends. I've known him since I was five."
She narrowed her eyes at me. "Oh yeah, I bet you've got the story learned off by heart for the interviews."
"I hadn't actually thought of that," I said honestly. "Thanks for the idea."
And then I turned on my heel and walked away from her.
Finally, it was the end of the day and I met up with Lance and Juliet and Laertes and we all got into an elevator together. On the first floor, they said goodbye and Laertes slapped Lance good-naturedly on the shoulder. "Later, dude."
Lance hit him back and grinned. "Yeah, you need to show me that wrist movement you were talking about."
Laertes agreed and smiled his white-toothed smile as the doors slid close. Lance was still smiling, looking pretty proud of himself. I turned and watched him, and he glanced at me and tried to hide it. "What?"
"Nothing," I said.
I waited a moment, and then he cracked. His words came spilling out of his mouth in a torrent. "Okay, you know I don't like Careers and I'm not saying I want to be allies with him but he's just a cool guy, all right?"
"All right," I said calmly.
Over dinner Lance told Finnick about our encounter with the Career tributes, spending quite an amount of time talking about Laertes, and I felt like somehow things had eased off between the two of them. Maybe bonding with Laertes had Lance in a good mood or maybe they were just starting to hate each other a little less, but either way I felt rather pleased. And I didn't even know why I cared so much amount Lance and Finnick getting along. Somewhere inside of me, I wanted Lance to approve of him. Because I wanted to be friends with Finnick, I couldn't deny it. Not very practical, I know, since I was going to be dead soon and making friends with my mentor should not have been on my 'things to-do before I die' list. But there was something strange about him that I couldn't quite describe, and I wanted very badly to understand it. Why was he able to make me feel so comfortable when I hardly knew him? Why did he pretend to like the Capitol when he apparently hated it? Why did he have a secret smile?
Something wasn't quite fitting with Finnick Odair. And suddenly I was fully intent on finding out whether or not I was right to think he was a nice person beneath it all.
"What about you, Annie?" he asked, and I blinked and met his eyes, hoping he hadn't noticed me staring at him. He furrowed his brow a little. "… Bad day, huh?"
I told him about my shooting, which seemed to genuinely please him, but I didn't mention how sick it made me feel to think about killing someone like that. Then, since we were talking about what we had found out by talking to the Careers, I mentioned the girl from 12 and how she seemed to think we were faking our friendship.
When I told them about the part where she said we should have pretended to be in a relationship, Lance looked uncomfortable and glanced at Finnick. "Would that get us a lot of sponsors?" he asked in a strained voice. "If we pretended to be in love?"
Finnick spent a little too long chewing thoughtfully on his profiteroles. "Honestly? It probably would."
I exchanged a pained expression with Lance.
"But if you're not comfortable with it …" trailed Finnick. He glanced at me briefly and then Lance. "I mean, it's your choice."
"What do you think?" Lance asked me flatly.
I paused and then shook my head. "We'd have to follow through once we got into the arena," I said, my voice wavering a bit. "I don't think we could pull it off."
"Well, that's okay," said Finnick, as Lance gave a loud sigh of relief. "You'll find I can be pretty convincing when it comes to recruiting sponsors, anyway. We'll figure something out."
I had another attempt at drowning myself in the shower later, ignoring all the crazy foams and soaps and just standing under lukewarm water until I realised it couldn't wash away all the things I was feeling. Confused over my strange, sudden interest in Finnick. Guilty because I knew Lance didn't like him, but also annoyed that Lance was so unreasonable about our mentor-friend. Lonely as I felt all day at training. Scared like heck to get into the arena and nauseous at the thoughts of murdering someone or someone murdering me or someone murdering Lance. And dread for tomorrow's training when it would start all over again.
I found myself back on the comfy sitting room sofa, curled up on my side and singing quietly to myself in the hopes of reaching sleep.
"Annie Cresta went to sea;Silver buckles on my knee.I'll be back to marry thee!How many days 'til I come back?
One — two — three — fff-"