It was certain. I don't know how it happened, but I was hopelessly crushing on my mentor. But what kind of crush was this? Maybe it was just that I respected him, you know? Maybe it was just a likeness of two minds. He carried a decent conversation. I mean, was I attracted to him? Well, yes, I was. I — Oops. Well, you know, maybe attraction doesn't really mean anything. I mean, what was I going to do about it? Did I want to kiss him? It was just his smile that did it, really. His lips were part of it, I suppose. So … maybe the thoughts of his body close to mine sent goosebumps over my skin and the prospect of feeling his mouth made me feel like I was sinking in my own boiling bodily desires, but … what was wrong with that? I mean, did I have feelings for him? Of course I had feelings but it wasn't like I was in love with him or anything! That's crazy! But did I have loving feelings for him? Well … yes! But —
Right, this wasn't working at all.
So, any questions? Yes, you there in the front row.
Hi, yeah, I was just wondering … You admit now that you do, in fact, have a crush on Finnick?
Aye, yes, that would appear to be so.
Okay, so what I was wondering … I mean, I was just kind of trying to remember why you even disliked him in the first place.
Yes, exactly, very good. I've been hearing this question a lot recently, and now it's time for the answer. Now, let me just think.
Finnick Odair. Where to begin? Well, really, I can only start from the first time I ever became aware of his existence, which was at the District 4 reaping five years ago. Mind you, this tale is entirely subjective, because I can only tell it the way I saw it. (And I wasn't paying that much attention, to tell you the truth.) But this is how it seemed from my point of view.
I hadn't recognised him from school. He was two grades above me, he didn't seem to be in the popular crowd so from what I could gather he was just another kid. Reaped. Sent off to the Capitol. It was only at the opening ceremony that Finnick Odair became anything but regular. Fourteen years old, with beautiful bronze hair and flawlessly tanned skin, tall toned body and a face that looked like it had been painstakingly chiselled from solid gold to the image of pure beauty. Even then he was a wonder to behold, and with lights and makeup and wearing nothing but a single shell, he was beautiful. Magnificent. Extraordinary. The cameras loved him, as did one of the reporters covering the parade. (She was literally drooling over her mic.)
As if he wasn't already ingrained in everyone's memory after that, he got a ten in training and proved to be a natural charmer in his interview. Everything about him was enticing: the smile, the wit, the looks, the voice, the confidence, the eyes … Ah … And what was I talking about?
Oh, yes … He was the favourite for every sponsor before he stepped a toe into the arena. And that was all he needed. He probably would have stood a fair chance anyway, but the gift of the trident was the icing on the cake. It was over within a couple of days. With his strength and his beauty, he was like a god. Poseidon, or Neptune maybe. Except I'm pretty sure those dudes had beards.
There was a rumour that Mr President himself sent the trident, but it's hard to know what to believe.
In his victory interview he didn't show remorse. He had the same arrogance he had going in. And here we go, finally, a reason to dislike him. He murdered people without batting an eyelid. I could hardly hold that against him — it was the Hunger Games, after all. But still. It was scary.
What kind of person can live with that?
Aye, he was a tortured soul, alright. That became very clear very soon. And yes, I am being sarcastic.
Finnick Odair, age fourteen: victor. Um, well, mostly still fanciable. As soon as he won he was celebritised way out of proportion for an ordinary victor. But, haven't I already mentioned? Finnick would never be an ordinary anything. He was constantly on the television after that, seen in propaganda and at parties being squeezed and fondled and doted on by a constant swarm of his fans.
And then, it was as if it happened overnight. BAM, sixteen hits and he's no longer treated like a beloved pet. Unless you treat your pets like …
In fact, it was not the way he was treated by his admirers that was the problem any more. It was the way he treated them. Wooing them. Bedding them. Taking whatever they could give. And when that failed to be enough, moving on to the next victim as quickly as he had with his kills in the Games. I guess love was just a game to him.
And, inadvertently, Annie Cresta had become another player.
It's hard to imagine how a natural, pure beauty like Finnick could desire any of those Capitol people; their faces painted inches thick, their ridiculous fashions and empty brains. I suppose, it was because they were just as despicable as he. Or because they were rich, and willing. Or maybe the attention and glory had gone to his head.
And now it had been three years, and the stories only kept getting worse.
So, now that we've all heard the story, let's take a moment to assess Finnick Odair. It was difficult to remember this side of him when you keep seeing the man who walked me to the beach to say goodbye to my ma and da; and who covered for me with Esmé and mocked Holden; who had the goofy smile and seaweed green eyes, and made me hot chocolate and found my awkwardness lovely … That Finnick was perfect, I don't blame myself for crushing on him. Neither do I blame myself for forgetting that this was the same Finnick who prostituted himself in the Capitol for the worst kinds of people. How could these halves belong to the same person? I guess, because they weren't really halves at all. Maybe that part of him — the fanciable Finnick — was only a tiny fraction of the real him. It was a mask he wore to hide his true self, which was spoiled and corrupted and distasteful. He was like something growing mould, an apple with fungus and only a tiny sliver still sweet. But not for long. It was as if as time went on he became more and more beautiful on the outside, while his insides became uglier and more revolting with rot and sin.
By the time I made it to dinner, I actually felt sick to my actual stomach at the thoughts of crushing on a person like that.
"I had the most splendid idea for a strategy for you two!" trilled Esmé over dinner. I noticed now that she seemed to co-ordinate her outfits with whatever occasion was taking place. She was clearly in cahoots with Holden to make this possible. Like at the reaping, when she had worn real fish in her high heels because she was visiting the fishing district. And at the opening ceremony her eyelashes seemed to be made of glitter to match our sparkling costumes. And now she was wearing a smart grey suit with green linings that appeared to purposefully match our training uniforms.
I heard her set her knife and fork down neatly and pick up her wine glass, but I didn't look up. I hadn't looked up for the whole meal. Esmé swished the red liquid around in her glass. "You two can pretend to be allies and that way, when we send you gifts from your sponsors, you'll be able to share them! It saves a lot of hassle, really. Being separated would only be wasteful."
I clutched one hand into the edge of the tablecloth. "Twenty-three lives. That's wasteful."
Nobody said anything but Esmé tutted quietly. I realised that the only reason she wasn't scolding me for speaking like that was because she thought I was mentally disturbed, because presumably that was what Finnick had been telling her since my outburst on the train. I felt a pang of guilt in the pit of my stomach at the thought of that kind, friendly side of Finnick that I had so easily accepted for the real thing. Then I felt sick for how he had tricked me into believing it was legitimate kindness. Then I realised that I was thinking about Finnick again, and pushed it from my mind.
"And we won't be pretending to be allies, because we will be allies," said Lance. "Right?"
For the first time since I sat down at the table, I glanced up and saw a pair of green eyes already watching mine. But they flicked away quickly, leaving me with a heart beating annoying fast, a torn mind and a queasy stomach. I found it was a lot harder to dislike Finnick in practice than it was in my head. And that was stupid and irritating, because I had every reason to dislike him but I still could only think of how very different he seemed to me in our own private conversations. His secret sweet side was so contradictory to everything he appeared to be.
But I was getting distracted again and was missing the conversation.
Finnick had not responded to Lance's question, so the latter now dropped his knife and fork onto his plate with a clatter. "Okay, I'm tired of this. Can we just be straight with each other?"
Finnick looked up and wrinkled his brow in confusion, but nodded anyway.
Lance took a deep breath. "Are we going to be teaming up with the Careers?"
"Well, you tell me!" replied Finnick surprisedly. "It depends entirely on the type of Careers we've got this year. I mean, of course they might increase your chances of surviving in the beginning, but it's not always easy to tell when you stop being of benefit to them and they turn on you. They won't hesitate to kill you."
There was a short pause, and then Lance said, "You call that a straight answer?"
"I can't always give you an easy answer," said Finnick coolly. "That's not how this works. We're supposed to be a team — we solve these problems together."
"Since when have you wanted to be a team?" Lance burst out. He inhaled and breathed for a moment before continuing more calmly. "You've just been giving us orders since we got on the train. You don't listen to what we want to do."
"You've never tried to tell me what it is you actually want. You just sit there and nod and take my advice, and go off with no intention of following it. And the two of you talk to each other and make plans of your own but keep it all from me!" Finnick shook his head, looking more hurt than angry, which I found to be rather odd. "Well, I'm tired of it. From now on, we make plans together. So why don't you tell me what it is you want?"
It was a little scary. They were both talking very politely but the words they spoke were hard and cold.
Lance leaned his elbows on the table and met eyes with Finnick. "I want to be able to protect her as best as I can in there. And I want you to be doing the same out here."
"You're willing to die for her?" asked Finnick. Lance nodded solemnly. "And you want my help?" Another nod. Finnick sighed. "That's all I needed to hear, Lancey-boy."
"I thought you knew already," said Lance quietly.
"I had only guessed," explained Finnick. "And guessing's no good when lives are at stake."
"So you'll do it?" asked Lance.
"Well, obviously I'm gonna try my best—"
"Hang on a second!" I exclaimed suddenly. "Don't I get a say in this? What if I want to die for him?"
"Not now, Annie," they said in unison. I huffed indignantly but that was about as far as I could argue with them. Esmé gave me a sympathetic look and rolled her eyes as if to say, boys.
"So since we're being open and everything," began Lance, casting Finnick a shrewd look, "what about me and her? Do you think we should be allies?"
"You say 'her' like I'm not sitting right here," I muttered, but everyone ignored me.
Finnick groaned a little and rubbed his temples. "I … don't want it. But I'm guessing we'll have to reach a compromise."
"But, why not?" asked Lance, clenching his fists as his voice grew more aggressive.
"Because," retorted Finnick, "have you ever stopped to think about how you might feel if you're doing everything you can to save her life in that arena, and then she dies anyway? How would you feel if she got murdered right in front of you and you were completely helpless to save her?"
"She's my best friend!" shouted Lance. "If she dies, it'll kill me no matter how it happens!"
I found myself unable to look at anyone now. My heart was pounding in my chest, thinking about the picture Finnick had described. Winning would be unbearable if it meant Lance's death. Losing meant my own death. And here we were, fighting over who got the pleasure of the latter. Everything about it made me sick.
"Besides," continued Finnick roughly, "if you're trying to keep her alive and she's trying to keep you alive and you're both eager to take a bullet for each other then that's exactly what's going to happen, and you'll both get yourselves killed."
"What do you care, anyway?" Lance muttered. "You only want one of us to win because it makes you look good." With that he stood up from the table and threw his napkin into his pudding bowl. "I'm not hungry."
Esmé gave a dainty sigh as the door slammed shut behind him. "Just as I thought things were getting along so nicely!"
I glared at her. How had anything been going nicely lately? How was anything about this situation nice?
"Seriously, since when am I the bad guy?" asked Finnick, looking genuinely confused. He met my eyes across the table. "Do you think I'm trying to help you for my own gratification?"
"I think …" I began slowly, and then stopped because I didn't know what I thought. I broke the eye contact with Finnick and looked sadly at Lance's chair. "I think it's doubtful you'll have any victors this year, Finnick." Then I stood up and excused myself.
I threw myself into bed and for the first time since the reaping, I cried. I cried for myself and for Lance. I tried to imagine going back home on my own, but I couldn't. That was a place that I had decided I wouldn't be seeing again. Even Grammy and GaGa now seemed to be a distant memory. And I genuinely wasn't afraid of dying, that wasn't the problem. It was never going to be easy but at least I had all this time to come to terms with it. District 4 would have nothing for me without Lance, and without my grandparents who were probably running short on time themselves. No, my District 4 was dead. And death would be my new dwelling.
Sure, that's where everyone I loved would be one day, anyway.
But Lance had a different story. For a moment at dinner I had wondered if he would be better off dead, because of the pain my death would cause him. But it wasn't the same for him: he had a whole family back home, parents who loved him, little sisters who needed their big brother. It was Lance who needed to return to District 4, not me. But he couldn't see that.
Finnick's words came back to me, and he was right about one thing. If Lance and I were constantly trying to protect each other in the arena, we were making ourselves all the easier to kill. But Finnick was wrong about something else. He said that staying with me and trying to keep me alive would just end up hurting Lance even more if I got killed regardless. But when I thought about separating from Lance in the arena, being alone, and then one night seeing his face projected up on the sky, I knew I would never forgive myself for not being there with him, whether I was helpless to save him or not.
I already felt so distant from Lance. Since we'd arrived at the Capitol it was like I had already lost him. He was constantly angry and suspicious of Finnick, or spending his time with Careers, or just being a drama queen in general. We used to have so much fun together. But now so many things had changed. How could he possibly believe that Finnick would enjoy seeing us die in the arena, or would help us just to get a bit of publicity for himself? That didn't make any sense. Whatever Finnick was, he wasn't that kind of cruel.
I planned to go to Lance's room to try and talk some sense into him, but just then there was a light knock at the door. I sat up quickly, wiping my eyes, and a moment later there was another soft rapping of knuckles against the wood.
I gave a quiet groan and threw myself back onto the bed. It wasn't Lance's voice — it was Finnick's. And right now I was far too bothered and confused to see Finnick.
"Annie, I'd really like to talk to you." I didn't answer him, hoping that he'd think I wasn't there and would just go away. But then I realised that this was stupid — where else would I be?
I heard him clear his throat importantly. "As your mentor, I highly recommend that you speak to me. At least let me explain. And as your friend … I just really, really wanna talk to you." He paused for a moment. "Annie? Please open the door. I …"
He sighed a little frustratedly. "I've decided that I don't accept your termination of our friendship. It was the most short-lived friendship I've ever had, I think, and I'm not at all satisfied. So there it is, I reject your rejection. Could you please open the door? Or do you feel I haven't embarrassed myself enough just yet?" He waited for me to answer, which I didn't. "Okay, I see. You know I'm not going to leave, though. A good friend wouldn't—"
"What do you want, eh?" I asked gruffly, swinging the door open. He had been leaning against it and hadn't expected it to open so suddenly, so he fell through.
He staggered and regained his balance, running his hand through his hair and grinning sheepishly. "Oh, now I'm in your room." He gave a chuckle but stopped short when he saw me glaring at him. "Sorry. Okay, I'm here to win you back. How might I do that?"
"Win me back?" I asked, and he smiled at me and nodded. "What are you talking about?"
Finnick touched his hair nervously. "I'm not sure. You and Lance are confusing the bloody hell out of me. And I don't know what I did wrong, but I want to apologise. Actually, I want you tell me what I did wrong and then I'll apologise, or explain myself, or both."
"You didn't do anything wrong," I said. "It's got nothing to do with you. I just don't want to be friends with you any more."
"That has got everything to do with me," he sighed. "And you wanted to be friends with me last night," he pointed out. "So what changed? What did you and Lance fight about in the elevator?"
"Nothing," I said, rather unconvincingly. "This isn't about Lance, it's about you."
Finnick threw his arms up. "You just said it's got nothing to do with me! Do you even realise the mixed messages you're sending?"
"I'm sorry, all right! Why do you even care so much?"
"Because! I don't know!" he said quickly. Then he frowned, and turned his head away. He met my eyes rather reluctantly and repeated, "I don't know. You were the first person who wanted to be my friend in a long time, Annie."
This confused me a lot. Sad, desperate Finnick wasn't real. He was pulling at my heartstrings, creeping his way to compassion, but it was all lies. I had to remember: these were Finnick's wiles, and he used them to get his wicked way. It was not real: he was not lonely, he was not innocent, he was not friendly. He was slutty, dirty, sleazy. I hated him.
"What about all your buddies here, then?" I asked coldly. "Don't the people you screw want to be your friends?"
I was shocked enough at such an affront coming out of my mouth, but Finnick's reaction to this was not what I expected. I mean, I don't exactly know what I expected but it was still surprising. He froze, his mouth hanging open slightly. Then he shut his eyes tight, and balled up his fists and clenched his teeth together. When he opened his eyes, they glared at me with such ferocity that I had to take a step back. Finnick also stepped back, as if recoiling from a physical hit. "You — You have no idea," he spluttered furiously. "Don't talk about things you don't understand."
I was out of control. "You think I don't understand? You think I don't know what you do? Come on, Finnick, I'm not that innocent."
He wet his lips quickly. "No. You haven't got a clue. You don't know what it's like …" He blinked quickly, unable to look at me. He shook his head. "I mean, how could you? You're probably still a virgin."
I raised an eyebrow. "So what if I am? I've never been in love."
"Love? Oh please," he scoffed. He looked more angry than I thought was really necessary. And where had this come from? What were we fighting about? It seemed so irrelevant, but then I realised: this was why I couldn't like Finnick. And some part of me must have been hoping that when I accused him of all these things, he'd have some big explanation and tell me that he wasn't awful at all. And then I wouldn't feel bad about having a crush on him. But he couldn't tell me those things, because they weren't true. All he said was, "Well, if you want to get it over with before the Games you could always knock in for Lance. I'm sure he wouldn't say no."
"You're delusional if you think Lance would sleep with me," I said. "Or I with him. That's a disgusting thing to say. Who even thinks like that?"
"Everyone!" he exclaimed. "Who wants to die a virgin?"
Finnick rolled his eyes and laughed humourlessly. "You're kidding me."
"No!" I insisted. "I really would. Sex without love is a meaningless experience."
"But as far as meaningless experiences go, it's pretty damn good," he finished wryly.
"You must be so pleased with your life," I said in disgust.
"Yes, I am pleased, Annie. I really, really love it."
He averted his eyes after saying this, and I wrinkled my brow. The expression on his face was reflecting my own disgust. And had that been sarcasm? I wasn't sure. But neither of those things would have made any sense. Would they?
I didn't say anything for a moment, and Finnick just gave a heavy sigh. "Well, I'd still consider doing it with Lance if I were you," he said, his voice and face blank. "Better than losing it with a stranger in a spare room at a party in the President's mansion at the tender age of sixteen."
"What?" I asked quickly. Because I was older than sixteen, and that meant Finnick wasn't talking about me any more.
"Never mind," he muttered. "I've said too much anyway." He looked up quickly to meet my eyes, and I felt my fists clench of their own accord.
"If you think that I'd end up like you if I became a victor, then you're wrong," I said, my voice contorted with barely concealed emotion. "I'd never choose to love like that."
Again, Finnick's response was unexpected. He laughed. "Choose?" he said loudly. "Oh, you always make me laugh, Annie. What do you think choice has got to do with it?"
"I — what?" I asked again, my voice failing to sound demanding and just coming out as lost and confused as I felt. I didn't know what he meant — how could it not be his choice?
"Never mind, said too much," he repeated, and before I could say anything more he had turned on his heel and was gone. A moment later, the door of his bedroom slammed shut and I was still standing there, frozen in shock.
When I finally came to my senses I rushed over to his door and pressed my face again it, closing my eyes. I wanted to knock and knock and knock and knock until he opened it, and demand he tell me what he was talking about. But I was scared. I was terrified of his answer. And anyway, I wasn't supposed to care. One really shouldn't give up on a friend so easily, but no matter what he said, Finnick still couldn't be my friend.
Eventually I remembered that he had said his walls were soundproof, so even if I worked up the courage to confront him he mightn't be able to hear my knocks at all. It was still a while before I moved. I just ran my fingers over the lines in the wood of the door and imagined him on the opposite side doing the same. Maybe he was right there. Or maybe he was somewhere else in the room. Or on the bed. My heart beat fast. What kinds of things went on in Finnick's bed?
It was better not to think about it. But how could I think of anything else?
Wherever he was, there was a large chunk of wood separating us and no way for me to cross it.
After I don't know how long I trudged back to my room and crawled wearily into my own bed. Needless to say, I didn't sleep all that well. I half-expected Finnick to come knocking on my door again, but he didn't. I wouldn't say I was disappointed exactly, because I knew I shouldn't have been thinking about it. But it was the only thing remaining in my head, in my entire consciousness, in my little universe.
He was right, though. This was not something I understood. All he had said was a mystery to me, and I had so many questions that might never get answered. Where was he now: in his own bed, or someone else's? And what was it like to lie beside Finnick Odair?
I soon felt tears in my eyes, feeling sick and anxious and … what else? Stirred? My heart felt like it was rotting. Was his disease spreading? Was this corruption contagious?
I should have listened to Lance. I should have tried to sleep. I should have stayed away from Finnick.
Did I really believe that?
As the night wore on sleeplessly, I realised that out of all the hundreds of questions I had, there was only one that really mattered.
If Finnick didn't choose the way he loved, who was choosing for him?