The rope glides through his fingers. It’s basically an extension of his arm by now. He can’t even remember the last Games where he didn’t have a rope in his pocket at all times.
Before he won them. That was the last time.
The rope used to be covered in snags and loose strands, but those have all been smoothed out by his hands over the past five years. Five years. That’s a long time to be playing with the same piece of rope.
It serves a purpose, though. It keeps him balanced. It keeps him distracted. It keeps him in the moment. Most importantly, it keeps him alive. There have been a few times where the rope stopped working, and, well….
Finnick Odair can’t afford to let himself think about those times.
For a long time, he believed nothing would ever change. He’d be used, and sold, and given away like a prize, for his entire life. Or, at the very least, until he wasn’t attractive enough anymore. Knowing the Capitol, though, they’ll prolong that moment for as long as possible. He still belongs to them. He belongs to President Snow.
His first time was bought in an auction when he was 16. Not a public one, of course. A secret one, done in backrooms and off any record. Snow determined the most important, or richest, person at the time, and told Finnick that he would have the pleasure of sleeping with them.
Her. Vera. His first client.
He went through every motion in a state of absolute discomfort. After awhile, he stopped thinking about it. He left his body. He let biology take over and run its course. After, she gave him a gold chain. He took it and thanked her, then went back home to 4, to cry into Mags’ outstretched arms.
Cashmere once told him it gets easier. It starts to become muscle memory. It’s easier to check out and let the clients do what they want and then go on like it never happened. The opposite was true for Finnick, though. Each client dragged him just a little further down a deep, dark hole. At first he tried to pull himself back out. That got harder every time, though. Eventually, he just made himself a home at the bottom of this hole.
Only on the inside, though. On the outside, he was not this broken creature with the same name as the handsome young victor. No, on the outside, he was and is Finnick Odair. The Finnick Odair. Proud, cocky, cunning, manipulative, smart, clever. That’s what the people want from him. So that’s what the people get.
No matter how many interviews he did, though, no matter how many people he let touch him and kiss him and ride him, he still lived at the bottom of that hole.
He was there when he met her. The sweet girl with dark hair who didn’t even want to punch him. When she did, and it actually hurt, and she cried, his first thought was, Maybe there is something good in this world. His second was, Please never let this girl end up in the Arena.
He left that day thinking about her. Her concerned face and rushed apology helped him get to sleep at night. Later that week, he saw her at the market. Ever since then, he made an effort to see her whenever he was in town.
That, of course, was one of the dumbest things Finnick has ever done. He didn’t need more people to put in danger. He didn’t need more people to care about, or worry about. More friends just means more clients. More people to protect. He couldn’t help it, though. She didn’t care that he was Finnick Odair. She still doesn’t. It was such a genuine, kind thing. One he hadn’t felt since he won his Games. So he let her in, and got to know her.
For her safety, though, he never called her by her name. It was always Cresta. It’s always been Cresta. If he were to call her by her first name, then he would truly let her in. Then she’d really be in danger. He couldn’t let that happen.
He almost used her name when she saved his life. When he jumped from that cliff, hoping a rock would crack his head open and make it look like an accident, but she was there. Of course she was there. He blacked out almost as soon as he hit the water. None of the rocks had done what he asked, and she saved him. He’s positive that she doesn’t know she actually wrecked his plan to get out of this horrible life of nightmares.
He remembers gratitude, though. He remembers coming to on the beach, coughing up water, and seeing her face, and feeling grateful. He never thanked her for that, even.
As he walked home, he thought to himself, Please, please, let her never be in the Arena.
That thought fizzled out though, because of her. Because she couldn’t let a 12-year-old face the Arena. He almost broke on stage when he saw her running up, nearly tripping on her dress. He almost ran up to push her back into the crowd, but it was too late. She was onstage, and the 12-year-old was gone.
He thought about visiting her, right before the train ride, but then Mags went, and he knew that would be good enough. He’d have time to see her. He’d have time to say the things he never said.
He watched her struggle in the training room. Watched her panic her way through the tribute parade. He watched as she got one of the highest scores out of the entire group, and he was impressed. Apparently some part of training did settle into her. Even if she doesn’t want to hurt people, her body absorbed every action.
That was the first time he thought that she could win this.
Until her interview, when she said… when she said what she said.
He went to Cashmere, that night, of all people. Victors who are sold get the Games off to be mentors, but Cashmere decided not to.
“What does it matter?” she’d told him when he asked why she didn’t take the time off. “I get time off to watch children kill each other, just to go back to the beds of the Capitol’s finest a week later? Who cares? The Games pass faster this way. So, if people want me, they can have me.”
She’d seen a client that night, and it was a client Finnick knew well.
Vera is in the inner circle. The political elite of Panem. Finnick was always her favorite, but she also has a preference for Cashmere.
Cashmere told him everything Vera had hissed while her head was trapped between her legs. Snow didn’t like Cresta’s little message. And whatever Snow doesn’t like, doesn’t live long, especially in the Arena.
He shouldn’t have warned her. He shouldn’t have gone back. He shouldn’t have said anything. But, as he rode the elevator from the first floor to the fourth, he thought to himself, She needs to live. She needs to know.
She kissed him that night. And he kissed her back. She tasted like home. Like salt and sea air. Just for a moment, he lost himself on that balcony. He forgot who he was and where they were. Then he remembered. He is Finnick Odair. He belongs to the Capitol. No one else. He pushed her away and ran off. Just another thing to add to the list….
He watched as she narrowly survived the bloodbath. He watched her delayed start, her shock at seeing the boy from 3 take an arrow meant for her. He watched her freeze against the Cornucopia, and he watched the girl from 7 stab her in the arm. A few inches over, the spear would’ve hit her chest. Just a few inches and she would’ve been dead on the ground that first day.
Finnick did what he does best then. He charmed and schmoozed his way through the sponsors. Her late start became a hesitation. Time to think of a plan. Time to take in her surroundings. It can be very stressful when you first enter the arena, trust him. She’ll warm up soon and become the Victor you can all cheer for.
He got her medicine that day. Lots of it. He watched as Hera slathered the cream on and tended to the wound. He watched and tied his rope and did nothing while she lay there, dying.
He watched her heal. He watched her wake up. He watched her walk on. He watched her stare at dead bodies. He watched her climb a dam, even with a hurt arm. He watched Sebastian cling to her like a puppy, and thought, She could live through this.
Now he watches her horrified face as she lets go of a knife and it sticks, perfectly, into another tribute’s neck. The tribute, the girl from 9, hits the ground, coughing out torrents of blood, and then the cannon goes off.
Cresta’s first kill.
“Don’t fall apart,” he murmurs. “Please keep it together.”
To his relief, she shudders, but her face remains blank.
“Sebastian,” she says. Her voice is darker than normal. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he says, standing up from the rock he was sitting on. “Are you--?”
“I’m fine,” she snaps, and that’s the end of the discussion.
Hera runs up, with the girl from 1. Holiday.
“What happened?” Hera asks. “We heard the cannon, I thought—“
“We’re fine,” she says. “Which District was this?”
“Nine,” Hera answers her.
“They must have tried to do a sneak attack,” she says. She walks up to the girl and pulls her knife out. One last spurt of blood squirts across Cresta’s boot. “Distract us from the front while the other attacked from behind. We should keep moving.”
The other three only gape at her.
“You heard her,” Holiday slowly agrees. “Let’s go.”
He watches her meet up with the others at the Cornucopia. He watches them replenish some supplies and discuss what they all saw. He watches them decide on a watch schedule, light a fire, and settle in for the night. He hears the anthem, and watches as Tributes’ faces flash in the sky above her.
The girl from 6, who the girl from 2 cut down in one stroke from her sword. Both Tributes from 9. The boy from 10, who the boy from 2 beheaded. Both from 12.
“It’s been two days, and half of them are dead,” Mena chimes somewhere next to him. He shakes his head and picks up his fallen rope. Mags is holding his hand. He doesn’t even know how long they’ve been like that.
“That’s pretty typical,” he mumbles. “They like to get the obvious deaths over with in the first few days.”
“Finnick, you made it sound like these Games have been decided.” He looks at Mena. He knows she knows. He knows she’s smarter than she acts. She has to be. Even as he looks at her, he sees a smirk cross her lips. A shadow passes her face.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Mena,” he says, matching her expression. “These Games just started.”
Sometimes he gets Mena. She’s smart and knows exactly how horrible all this is. He sometimes wonders why she got into this business. Maybe it was family pressure. Maybe she was like him: An excited kid ready to be in the Games, but not knowing a thing about what it really means.
Sometimes he despises Mena, because she knows, but she doesn’t do anything. She allows everything to happen. She knows how awful it is to send children into the Arena, she knows about the Victors being sold, and she does nothing. She just plays her part. As long as she gets her nice clothes and her wigs, it doesn’t seem to matter to her.
She chats on for awhile before deciding to turn in. She clicks down the long aisle to the front entrance. Sometimes he forgets that Mena lives here, in the Capitol, and can go home every night. He almost envies that.
When half the Careers are safely asleep, Cresta included, he lets himself relax a little. She’s survived two days. She’s recovering from a horrible injury, yes, but she’s also killed a person. He can work with that.
Now that it’s night in the Arena, a lot of the mentors start to let their hair down. Normally, Finnick would go join them, or at least some of them, but tonight he wants to sit by himself. Mags pats his arm and goes off to bed. Some of the mentors look lost. The ones from 7 and 9, whose Tributes are both dead now. They have to stay, though, until the Games are over.
Haymitch, the lone Victor from 12, likes to loudly celebrate the deaths of his Tributes with two bottles of white alcohol.
“One for each Tribute!” he exclaims, bowing to Cashmere and Gloss while stumbling around the room. A few mentors laugh half-heartedly. They all know what it’s like, though.
Haymitch finds Finnick in the crowd and stumbles over to him, offering one of his bottles when he plants himself into the seat next to him.
“No, thanks,” Finnick says, waving a hand.
“You sure? You look like you could use a drink.”
“Really, I’m fine. Thank you.”
Haymitch takes another swig and points at Finnick.
“You have an interesting one this year,” he says. “And it doesn’t really help that you’re in love with her.”
“Save it for Snow, pretty boy,” he slurs. “I’ve never seen a mentor so dedicated to getting a Tribute out alive. Forget your job, you’re fighting for her like your life depends on it.”
“Really, I don’t—“
“Oh yeah?” Haymitch challenges. “Alright. Then why have you been tying knots for the past two days?”
“It’s a habit I picked up during my Games,” Finnick answers, shrugging. “It keeps my nerves away, especially at night. Helps me be not afraid.”
“In five years, I’ve never seen you with a piece of rope. You’re usually around this room making friends and using that Capitol charm that they love so much. Now you’re huddled in your section tying knots? You’re not dying, Odair.”
“I know,” Finnick whispers. And then it hits him. He looks up at the screen and watches her sleeping uneasily, with her hand clenched around a knife. He doesn’t want this to be way he last sees her. He wants her to be alive. That seems impossible at the moment. “She is, though.”
Haymitch lets out a low whistle and offers the bottle back to Finnick. He declines again, and the Lone Victor shrugs before taking another long sip.
“There’s a long list of stupid things you could’ve done with your life,” he says. “Falling in love with a Tribute is probably at the top of that list.”
“Really, Haymitch, I don’t—“
“I know,” he says, pushing himself to his feet. “Keep telling yourself that.”
He begins to shuffle away, but something makes Finnick stop him. A flash. A memory. Cresta’s Capitol-soft lips on his. Her gentle touches. Running his hands through her tangled brown hair.
“Haymitch?” He turns back. “Say I did… have some sort of feelings for my Tribute. What do I do from there?”
“Only thing you can,” he answers. He takes another swig and walks away.