Chapter 6: The Victory Banquet
The victory banquet at the president's mansion is just how Finnick had described it. Live music from musicians floating about. Grand decorations occupying the walls. A ceiling that looks like the night sky. The most garish looking people the Capitol has to offer. And food. Tables upon tables full of every kind of dish imaginable, and some she would never have been able to imagine because she had never heard of it before. One very large table has chefs on one side of it cutting pieces of lamb, roast, chicken, turkey, and any other sort of livestock. The aroma overwhelms almost everyone there. There are people milling about waiting for their turn to get at one of the chefs for their cut of meat.
Annie's not at all interested in eating, though. She gets enough to eat at home, so this doesn't give her cause to delve into what everyone else consider the best banquet every year. She's distracted by her own thoughts not about the food, really, but about where it came from. The beef and lamb and chicken from District 10. The vegetables and fruits from District 11. The bread from District 9. The seafood from District 4. No doubt these food items were picked solely for being the best from each district. The well nurtured cattle and chicken, the juiciest and sweetest fruits, the purest grains, the freshest fish. The Capitol takes the best from every district. Only the best. And what do the districts get, she thinks to herself. Only, it's not hard for her to guess, because she knows. She saw it on everyone's faces in each district. Yes, the Capitol takes the best of everything and the districts, well, they get the pain, the sorrow, the hunger, the despair.
Finnick is standing next to her, watching her, waiting for her to move, to react. But she stands there just observing. "You're expected to eat," he says. Annie turns her head to face him. Her eyes lock on his and she just notices something in them. The circles under his eyes and the frown that has stayed on his lips during the times on the train have caused creases on his face now, so stark in contrast from the appearance of the Capitol people walking around them. Certainly, her screams in the middle of the night have something to do with this. His face is not only of concern, but she suspects he's physically tired from having to wake up constantly to check on her.
"I might throw up," she says.
Finnick doesn't tell her about how it's perfectly normal to throw up during these lavish banquets where food abounds. He has a feeling that if he does, she actually will throw up, so he just hopes she doesn't find out about the special glasses of liquid that are placed on a table near the bathroom area. He figures it's best just to get her a drink himself.
"Why don't I get you some water first, then we'll go from there," Finnick says. Annie nods in assent.
Just as he leaves, Annie is confronted with several people who congratulate her over and over again on her victory in the Hunger Games. She keeps up her smile, but only half-heartedly, though no one seems to notice the lack of authenticity in her face. On and on they go about her, just to meet her, the victor of the 70th Hunger Games. After about 5 minutes, the nervousness in her voice is becoming more and more of a frantic stutter, and her hands start trembling. Just when she feels her smile faltering, Finnick comes back with a glass of water and a plate of caviar and crackers.
"Excuse us," Finnick says to those around them in an all too charming smile, interrupting whatever conversation was taking place. He gives Annie the plate to hold and leads her gently by the elbow. The people make way for them, smiling back, even winking at some of the ladies as he passes them. "You okay?" he says through his grin so only she can hear him. She is familiar with it.
"Yes. I just didn't realize all these people would want to talk to me. I don't even understand them half the time. They talk so fast, and they look so weird up close. Why would they want to wear purple lipstick? Or have green hair? Or orange skin?" Annie whispers back. As they move away from the largest of crowds, Finnick laughs a bit and Annie looks at him questioningly. "What?"
"Nothing," Finnick starts, "you just remind me of how differently people interpret what beauty is."
Annie crinkles her forehead in confusion, or thought, as Finnick smiles at her. "Do they really think they need all that to look beautiful?" As they continue walking, he leads her to one of several ponds surrounding the monstrous banquet room. She stares into the pond, watching as the fish swim by.
"I suppose so. Why else would they want to look like that, do you think?"
Annie stares down at the fish. Being from District 4, she's familiar with all kinds of fish. But the ones in this pond are different. As she glances at them, the colors they display are anything but natural. Stripes of neon colors ripple through their scales. Fuschia, blue, even purple just like Caesar Flickerman's hair color today at the interview. Annie puts down the plate of caviar and crackers as she's completely lost her appetite. The idea that even the fish are made to be just as much of a spectacle as the people that care for them here bothers her.
"Maybe they're hiding," says Annie.
Finnick thinks about her answer for a few seconds. He can't really talk with Annie in more detail about what she just said, since they're more than likely being filmed, listened to or watched. Finnick can only surmise that she doesn't mean hiding any actual flaws on their face or body, but hiding something more internal. He never thought of the Capitol people as being this way, and he didn't think that maybe there are really some people in the Capitol that actually have some sort of regret for what they do to those in the districts, and the more and more he thinks about Annie's statement, the more he realizes that Annie means exactly that. That these people are hiding behind their made up faces, tattoos and colored skins to hide their shame. Maybe it's not intentional, but he comes to the conclusion that Annie actually sees more to these people than he's ever seen in them. But she doesn't know what he knows.
Annie doesn't know what he's seen and what he's heard from the people of the Capitol. And as much as he wants to believe in what Annie has said, he knows he doesn't. He's heard of or seen too many despicable acts from them to make him think otherwise. But maybe, just maybe, he concludes, they can't all be as horrible as the ones he's met in the past. They can't all be as oblivious to the fact that the games are not just entertainment. They can't all be that heartless or stupid. No, they can't. The ones he's had to meet in previous years since his victory, they've all been connections, friends, collaborators of President Snow. He really hasn't met anyone outside of that circle. They have to have something that President Snow wants for them to obtain Finnick, so Finnick only knows the contemptible people, the ones that want only to use him for their pleasure. Is it possible that Annie may be onto something?, thinks Finnick.
But before he can give anymore thought on the matter, he's approached by someone. According to the attire that person is wearing, Finnick already knows what it's about before the person even utters a word.
"Mr. Odair, your presence is requested by the President," the assistant says.
Finnick looks back at Annie, and she has a nervous yet curious look on her face, as if she knows something's going to happen and she won't be able to do anything about it.
"Annie, I'll try to be back shortly. I think it might be best if you find Tessa and stay close to her until I come back," Finnick says calmly. Unfortunately, they haven't been there long enough to excuse themselves just yet from the party, so Finnick's plan is to see if he can postpone whatever "assignment" the President wants him to complete. He knows it's a complete absurdity to even think of a way out of President Snow's task, but he's willing to try.
Annie's not sure what to make of it, but Finnick did not look happy when that man interrupted them. As a matter of fact, Annie notices the saddened expression in his eyes and the slow up and down motion of the lump in his throat, as if it is hard for him to swallow. She knows that President Snow is not above meeting victors, but doesn't know why Finnick would react to having to see him. Is it because Snow asked only to see him? What would Snow want with Finnick? Annie looks down at the fish again. The colors rippling again through one of them with scales of yellow, then orange, then red, then green, then back to yellow again. Nothing is as it seems here, she thinks. It's all false. In that moment, a sudden chill courses through her body, but not from cold. She doesn't know why, but she has a feeling that Finnick will not be return as soon as she would like.
When Annie looks back up, Finnick is already gone. She closes her eyes, and suddenly remembers the words he spoke to her after she stormed off the stage after the games six months ago. "Think of something good," he said. She starts with the sand on the beach, and brings back to mind the images of the soft sand moving between her toes. She can almost feel it now. And even though her hair is pulled back away from her face, her imagination brings them sweeping across her face gently. She hears Finnick's voice again, reassuring her they will be home again soon, and a smile spreads across her face. She keeps his words repeating in her head as she meets back up with Tessa.
It takes several minutes to walk to where President Snow is. Finnick is very familiar with where the man is leading him. His shoes fall softly onto the plush carpet and the tapestries on the wall mute much of the sound that escape from the party, but they are quite a ways from the banquet room so it wouldn't matter, because no one would be able to hear anything this far away. Still, Finnick knows that the President is very careful and discreet when it comes to matters such as this.
Before they even reach the entryway, Finnick can smell it already. It's an odd smell of medicine, blood, and roses, and even though he's familiar with it, the scent makes him wish for all the world the smell of Haymitch's musty alcoholic breath. Of course, no one ever says anything about it. President Snow probably doesn't even notice it anymore, either. But by the way the President speaks out some of his words, he won't be able to forget about it.
President Snow is standing over one of the rose bushes in the garden. Finnick walks in, and stops just past the entryway. He doesn't say anything, but only waits for Snow to make the first move.
"How are this year's festivities?" Snow asks.
"Fine," Finnick answers curtly. Finnick is past being overly courteous with President Snow, especially tonight. But Snow isn't offended by this particular behavior from Finnick. He knows that he will not be getting any special treatment or wonderful accolades he so often receives from those in the Capitol. Not after all that he's done to Finnick and his family. But Finnick does keep himself composed around Snow and Snow does the same as he always does. For President Snow, as long as Finnick Odair continues to play his role, he will allow Finnick the freedom to speak however he wants to in front of him when no one else is around – up to a certain extent.
"The food is scintillating, I take it?" says the president. Finnick hears the drawl of the 's' in his question, almost like a hissing sound.
"I assume so. Mr. President, what do you want to speak to me about?" asks Finnick rather impatiently.
"My my. Impatient to get back to the party, are you?" asks Snow, not looking at Finnick but down at the roses. One particular red rose captures his attention and he feathers over the petals with his fingers.
"Well, since I'm the victor's mentor, I was under the assumption that you would give me this year to focus on my duties as such," says Finnick, with an air of caution. He realizes that he probably should not have stated his previous comments with such shortness. Finnick actually meant to request some "time off" from whatever assignment the President wants of him, but as he walked through the long hallway towards the Garden Room, it gave him time to remember how much President Snow had already taken from him.
"Is that so?" asks the president, who now turns his eyes from the red rose to Finnick's face. Finnick just looks at him, his eyes slowly shifting from irritation to submission. "Maybe you just don't realize how… significant… you are to the people of Panem," says Snow, pausing, his face showing no emotion one way or the other.
Or to you, thinks Finnick.
Finnick straightens up and, with unwavering attention, says "It's the Victory Tour. Surely, you weren't planning on having me… occupy my time with someone else tonight, of all nights."
"Oh, possibly not," says President Snow blankly. "It is possible I have requested your presence here for something else," he pauses again. Finnick's brows furrow, trying to think of what Snow could possibly mean. Here for something else, he wonders in his head. Finnick tries to think if he's taken a misstep somewhere since the last Games, but he can't think of anything. He's been occupying himself fairly quietly at his home in District 4 with time with Turlach and Mags and only just recently with Annie. He tries to think if maybe he said or did anything that could've caused alarm to the president. He knows only too harshly that there are few places to hide from prying Capitol eyes within the districts. But his visits to the districts have been harmless. Yes, he chatted a little with Haymitch, but neither said anything regarding the president, or at least nothing blatant. He only just briefly greeted Beetee in District 5, and Seeder and Chaff in 11, and a handful of other victors in other districts, but didn't even have a meaningful conversation with any of them as he spent most of his time watching over Annie. So what, then, is this about, Finnick ponders. "I see you're confused. Let me ask you this, then. How is our newest victor these days?"
Snow must know that Annie has been only just getting to control her emotional state of being, so Finnick answers cautiously, "She's getting better. Better than she had been right after."
"Excellent. Excellent. It would be a delight, I think, if she could be well enough by the next games to be of great… assistance to me, as you have been, wouldn't you think, Mr. Odair?"
Finnick's hands clench and his eyes widen with dread as it dawns on him on what the president is not so subtly hinting at. He knows there are others like him, forced into Snow's despicable "trade." Finnick shivers at the thought that Snow would actually want to take Annie into this crazy secret life that he has been forced into by Snow. The life that only a few people know to not be real, but an act that he had concocted to separate his true self from this false one that the Capitol people know and welcome, and that many lust over. Finnick has been with so many women he can't even begin to count, nor does he care to, and none that he ever truly cared about. All because of the man standing in front of him now, the man with the overbearingly sweet-smelling red rose in his hand.
And now, thinking that Annie could be subjected to the same fate as him. No, he can't do that to her, Finnick says to himself. Finnick doesn't want this to happen, but with his thoughts going crazy over the idea, he can't form a clear thought as to how he could possibly be able to prevent it. He tries to think of what he can say or do to change Snow's mind about forcing Annie into this. He knows he can't outright tell Annie, either, or it could destroy her to the point of suicide, and he knows it had been done before.
Memories of another girl victor a couple of years after he had won the games come into his mind. She was a 16 year old from District 10. Snow had immediately requested she entertain a man whom Finnick guessed at being around 50 years of age. The girl refused and within a week's time, the girl's mother was accused of stealing meat from their own livestock and was shot and killed by the head peacekeeper there. The girl still had her father, but after the mother's death, he turned against his daughter, blaming her for her mother's death. It didn't take too long after that for the girl to realize she had lost both parents. Right after the girl returned to District 10 after her Victory Tour, after she succumbed to the demands of President Snow and surrendered herself to the man in the Capitol, she was found the following morning by her father in the bedroom of her house, both arms slit open with long, thick gashes and blood everywhere and a large sharp knife lay in her open palm. The tears that she had cried the evening before were left dried streaks on her face. This wasn't in the news on television, of course. Finnick had heard about it from the girl's mentor.
In the few seconds following President Snow's question, Finnick imagines Annie in that same situation as the girl from District 10. A surge of both terror and anger wash over his face. "Please, sir, you can't," Finnick says, his voice cracking just slightly.
"Excuse me?" asks President Snow, acting as if he's surprised at Finnick's state, when that is exactly the reaction he intended.
Finnick sighs defeatedly. "Please, Mr. President. Annie would never be well enough for this type of lifestyle. It could destroy her. It could kill her."
"Kill her?" Snow repeats, with mock surprise. "Well, we can't allow that to happen to the newest member of the Victors Group, can we? What, then, do you propose in lieu of Annie's place? Hmm?" Snow asks. Finnick can tell that Snow is enjoying this turn of events, reveling in his dominance of the conversation. Finnick can only offer one thing in the hopes that it will keep Annie safe from this snake's trap, but it may not be enough because Snow already has it.
"Me. I'll do more. I'll do whatever you want. Be whoever you want me to be. I'll come to the Capitol as many times as you need me," Finnick says, trying not to sound too desperate. The corners of President Snow's mouth only curl up just a bit, but it's enough.
"But you've already done so much for me, Mr. Odair. Do you really think you can continue with more assignments? Are you able to handle the workload?" teases Snow cruelly.
Finnick plays along, of course, because he needs to in order to protect Annie. He doesn't know why he should stick out his neck so much for her, but he only knows that he cannot allow Annie to go through this kind of mental anguish when she's already so fragile. No, not fragile, he thinks. Annie has some kind of unknown strength in her that he's not sure where it comes from, but 'fragile' is not quite the word for Annie. All he knows is that he still wants to help her. This is one way of doing that.
"I am. And I can be more useful to you than she can. You know that," he says with poise and utmost earnestness.
President Snow is now close enough to Finnick where Finnick can see the pure darkness in his eyes. Snow hands Finnick the long-stemmed red rose.
"Your offer… is accepted. I would like for you to enjoy this evening, therefore I only have one assignment for you tonight. There's a red-haired woman - dressed in red. She has accented it with a white feather boa around her neck as well as a white feathered hat. See to it that she is taken care of this evening," President Snow says rather business-like.
Finnick takes the rose in his hand. His hope of not being assigned tonight is no longer something he wishes to argue against. As he leaves the Garden Room, President Snow utters one more statement to Finnick. "It would do you well, Mr. Odair, to act more courteous when speaking to me, even if we are the only ones in the room. Don't you think?"
Finnick swallows hard before answering, keeping his temper in check as he utters the next few words. "My apologies, Mr. President." He turns back towards to door and leaves.
As he walks back towards the banquet room, he goes over the conversation in his head. The way he acted upon entering. There was no hiding the fact that Finnick hated Snow, and Snow knew it. None of the others that service Snow in this way are particularly fond of the President, either. But he knows he was acting a little too smug for Snow, yet he didn't stop. Only when Snow mentioned Annie had he realized the mess he caused for himself.
Finnick even theorizes the possibility that it was Snow's full intention to have him service this woman in red. But his attitude and repudiation towards Snow before a request had even been made had prevented it from making it easy on either of them. Finnick berates himself for being so pompous.
He wonders if he should look for Annie first to try to explain his reason for having to leave again for a longer amount of time, but thinks the better of it. He would rather try to find this woman and get his assignment over with as soon as possible. Only "as soon as possible" will not come fast enough for him, he assumes.
He reaches into himself and finds the inner mask he will hide behind for the duration of this party, and maybe until he can get back to his home district. When the confident and suave Finnick steps into the crowd, multiple lustful eyes are on him. He winks at one pretty girl in a yellow and black bumblebee-like outfit with her bumblebee-like hair shaped into antennae, and gently strokes another woman's wings that drape the back of her dress as he smiles at her. When he sees the redhead in red and draped in a white feather boa and white-feathered hat, her eyes are already on him, and he makes his way towards her.
The redhead gazes at his lips, his smile. Only when the red rosebud comes into her eyeline does she tear her eyes away from him. "You match," he says to her. She blushes as she takes the rose by the stem. "Thank you," she says rather hazily as she smells the rose. "It smells wonderful," she quips. Finnick scoffs at the statement in his mind, but feigns a chuckle at her comment.
Finnick the bends his head close to her, enough to where his nose just grazes the hair on the side of her neck, and sniffs. The perfume the redhead has on is unappealing at best, but he doesn't recoil. "Just like you," he drawls out in her ear. With that, he knows he's got her hooked. But he doesn't ever need to say much to these women. After all, the women that he sees in the Capitol are assigned to him by President Snow as a tradeoff. Finnick sleeps with them and they in return give something Snow wants. He doesn't know what Snow wants from this woman, who seems to be in her mid-40's and acting quite giddy for her age, but he doesn't care.
Sometimes they will tell him things in secret, but he has yet to make those secrets public. He has already told several trustworthy victors, but not even his brother or anyone in District 4 know what he knows about President Snow and many other Capitol delegates. He can't afford to have them know in case something happens. In case that information could be used against him or Turlach or Mags. He doesn't press the women for these secrets either, but it's amazing how much information they are willing to disclose after a couple of hours with Finnick.
He gently strokes her arm. "Want to get out of here?" The redhead only smiles, making that his cue to lead her out of the party. The amount of time that Finnick and Annie's eyes lock on each other as he passes through the crowd with the redhead in tow is less than a second. It's enough. Enough time for Annie to see what Finnick's eyes reveal, even behind his smirk, that no one else seems to notice. Shame. She is right. He isn't going to be back shortly. In fact, she doesn't plan to see him the rest of the evening.