Mermaid Out of Water
Everything between the train and the training center is a giant blur of people and buildings that Annie can’t seem to differentiate. She stays very close to Mags as their small group navigates through the mob of reporters, peacekeepers, cameras, and even screaming citizens who want to greet the tributes as they arrive. Mena leads the way, smiling brightly, blowing kisses, grabbing the hands of her friends. As Mags follows their escort, she reaches back for Annie’s hand. She takes it gratefully. She’d never make it out of this crowd alive. Although, at least that would spare her from the arena.
A small path clears through the mob, allowing the small group from District 4 to pass. It’s still tight, though, and people are still shouting all around them. Hands seem to randomly appear just to pet Annie’s arms, or her hair, or her face. She smiles in the general direction of each one even though she’s inwardly cringing at each point of contact.
Suddenly there’s a hand on the small of her back. She turns, knowing it has to be one of the guys. For some reason, she deflates a little when she sees Sebastian. She can’t help but look to Finnick, a few paces back, who’s waving to no one in particular and ignoring the people touching, not just his arms, but his entire body. She averts her gaze back to Sebastian. He leans into her.
“Sorry, I just don’t want to get lost,” he says with a laugh. She smiles in return. A Capitol woman steps forward and kisses Finnick full on the mouth, bringing up a fresh batch of shouts and cheers from the people around them. Annie turns around and keeps her eyes on Mags until they’re safely inside the training center.
Mena, who’s easy to spot in her bright blue outfit, stands out under the bright lights of the gargantuan crystallized lobby. She’s patiently holding an elevator open. The rest of them rush into it, hoping to put as much distance between them and the people outside as possible. Mena pushes the number “4,” and the large glass box begins moving up. Annie watches as the ground slips farther and farther away. It’s unnerving, so she moves to the back wall and leans against it. She tries looking in a different direction, one that won’t remind her that she’s basically floating in midair, but she can see out of every wall, and everything just reminds her that she’s moving, seemingly unsuspended, through the air. Finally, she lets her eyes settle on Finnick, who’s leaning next to her with his eyes closed.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
He nods. She’s never seen him so upset, though.
“I hate it when they do that,” he mutters. It doesn’t take a lot to guess what he means. The kiss. The complete violation of his personal space. She touches his arm and he jerks it back, opening his eyes. “Sorry,” he says.
The elevator stops, and the doors open with a ding. As they all pile out of it, Finnick shakes his head a few times. Annie’s mouth drops open when she looks around the room they’ve all walked into.
The entire far wall is a perfectly transparent window, overlooking the glittering Capitol. There’s a long table made of some sort of red wood with seven matching chairs. In front of that is a lounge with an overstuffed couch and four armchairs, all surrounding a television screen mounted on the wall opposite the giant window. The entire room is bigger than Annie’s whole apartment back home. Sebastian lets out a low whistle.
“You said it,” Annie says.
There are hallways leading off either side of the room, which must lead to their sleeping quarters. Before she and Sebastian can even begin to wander, though, Finnick is calling them to sit down in the lounge area. There’s an eerie finality to the whole suite. Like she’s never going to leave it.
She sits on the couch and curls her legs under herself. Sebastian sits, back straight and perfectly balanced, on the opposite side. Finnick, Mags, and Mena all stand before them.
“Alright, tributes,” Finnick begins. “Before we go to sleep tonight, I’d like to at least get started on strategies for you both. Especially since you’ll be around other tributes starting tomorrow. Is it okay if this is a group discussion, or would either of you rather be coached alone?”
Annie and Sebastian look at each other, both seriously considering that option. Then she shakes her head and he says, “No, sir.” It takes a lot of effort for her to not laugh at the idea of Finnick being a “sir.”
“This settles things, then,” Finnick says. “Sebastian, what are your strengths? Any weapons? Hand-to-hand?”
“I know hand-to-hand, as well as various weapons including axes, knives, and tridents.” Finnick nods.
“And you’ve already shown your enthusiasm. I think you’ll be alright, as long as you get a high score during training. You’re charismatic, you’re energetic. People will definitely like you.” He turns to Annie. “You, on the other hand. Smiling and waving will only get you so far. Try talking to reporters. You’re also going to need one hell of a high score. I know you can throw a punch,” he says, jokingly rubbing his jaw. “Any weapons?”
She shakes her head. “No, not really. I mean, I’m okay with a spear.”
Finnick scoffs and folds his arms. Like the idea of a spear is insulting to him.
“Spears have no finesse. I can’t let you represent District Four, or me, with a spear. How about a trident?” he asks, and his mouth widens into a smile.
“A trident?” She laughs. “They have less finesse than a spear. Plus, the three prongs thing kind of feels like over-compensation.”
The smile slides right off his face.
“I use a trident,” he tells her.
“I know,” she replies. All the color drains from his face. Mags smiles at Annie while Mena lets out a single loud laugh. Finnick looks sideways at both of them. Mags pats his arm reassuringly.
“At least I don’t have to teach you how to be funny,” he almost snaps. “Spear it is, then. If I were you, I’d pick up knife throwing or something like that, too. It can get really useful in a tight spot.”
A memory jumps to her mind. Finnick, in the arena, cornered, trident on the ground several yards away. There’s a gash on his face, one on his arm. The other tribute, a boy, goes in for the killshot, but Finnick already has a knife buried in his ribs. The boy coughs blood on Finnick’s face before the cannon sounds. Annie shakes her head to rebury that image.
“Yeah, knife throwing, got it,” she mutters.
“Around other tributes….” he begins, then pauses to look at her. She instantly sits up straighter, unfolds her legs, like he would somehow forget everything he knows about her if she just looked more presentable. “Act like your allies.”
“And who are my allies?” she asks. He runs a hand through his hair with frustration at himself and shifts to address Sebastian as well.
“Right. I want you both to team up with One and Two,” he says. “They’ll also be well-prepared for the arena. They’ll be incredibly useful.” He makes a face, then adds, “For awhile.”
He speaks very carefully, avoiding certain phrases, like “prior training.” Although everyone knows that 1, 2, and 4 are trained their whole lives before going into the arena, it’s technically against the rules, and so not very good to discuss, especially within the Capitol.
“One and Two,” Sebastian repeats. “Got it.”
“That still doesn’t tell me how to act,” Annie says, at this point more than a little determined to inconvenience him, even slightly.
Finnick takes a small step in her direction.
“Like this is your birthright, Cresta,” he tells her. “Your entire life has lead up to being in that arena. You’re confident, to the point of being cocky. You’re a ruthless killing machine. But you’re no leader. You need to present yourself as a liability, not an obstacle for them to get rid of. You are strong, you are eager, you’re a little naïve. You got all that?”
Basically, be like most of the tributes from 1, 2, and 4 in the past few years. She nods.
“Good,” Finnick says. He picks up a remote from the table and points it to the screen. In a matter of moments, he pulls up the recap of the reapings. “Pay attention,” he tells them. Predictably, 1 and 2 are huge, strong, and very attractive. The girl from 3 looks like she could be some trouble. Other than them, the only ones of note are the boy from 5 and the girl from 10. Those are the ones Finnick points out to them at least. Then it’s over. Finnick turns off the screen and turns back to them.
“Now both of you go to sleep,” he orders. “You have a long day tomorrow. Especially you, Cresta.”
He’s down the hall to his room before she can say anything. But he’s right. Tomorrow is the opening ceremonies. She’s going to spend most of the day in prep, being put into some ridiculous costume. It definitely won’t be any fun. Not that any part of this is exactly what Annie would constitute as “fun.”
Mena smiles brightly at them before she slips back into the elevator to go to her own private room. Annie briefly wonders why escorts get their own quarters, but then Mags steps forward. She squeezes Sebastian’s shoulder, kisses Annie’s forehead, then goes down the hall opposite Finnick’s, and into her own room.
“He’s a piece of work, isn’t he?” Sebastian asks, hooking his thumb in the direction Finnick left.
Annie shrugs. “He’s just trying to keep us alive.”
Why is she defending him? This is the guy who was her friend this morning, but now seems to be bent on humiliating her in front of their whole team. She doesn’t owe him a single thing, let alone a defense. Although…
Maybe it’s because Annie knows him, but she can see the moments when Finnick has to put his mask on. Maybe he’s had his mask on the whole time, though. Maybe she, after a year or so of seeing each other and swimming together almost every day, had never even seen the real Finnick Odair. Then she remembers the elevator, the way he slumped against the wall after facing the aggression of the crowd. That was the first time she’s ever seen him in any sort of pain. Could that be the real Finnick? She hopes not. That Finnick was so despondent, so… almost hopeless.
“You know, I get it,” Sebastian suddenly says, making her jump. They’d been silent for so long she almost forgot he was in the room.
“Get what?” she asks.
“You don’t want to be here.”
“Because you’re scared.”
She hesitates before she answers. “Yes.”
“I’m scared, too,” he says.
“You?” she asks, disbelieving.
He nods. “I’m really proud to be here. My parents are proud that I’m here. But I don’t want to die.”
“I don’t think anyone really wants to die, you know?”
They both nod and fall silent at her statement. There are a few minutes of comfortable silence before Sebastian stands to go to sleep. Once his door clicks shut, she goes to her own room. She even manages to get a few hours of fitful sleep before Mena is, again, shaking her awake.
“I don’t like this tradition,” Annie says, rubbing her eyes. The side of her head is throbbing, and she realizes she forgot to take the starfish barrette out before she went to bed.
“Too bad,” Mena sings. “You have a big day ahead of you! After breakfast, you’ll be in prep for the opening ceremonies all day. So get up! I’m not leaving until you’re out of bed!”
Annie groans and unearths herself from the soft down blankets and stands up to face her escort. Mena is wearing an elaborate gold wig today, along with a silver dress and gold shoes. Her lipstick is bright red. Absolutely everything is glittering.
“You look like fireworks,” Annie tells her.
“That’s what I was going for!” she trills. “Let’s go get breakfast.”
Annie doesn’t even bother to change clothes, but she does take her hair down. It sticks out awkwardly in places from being in the same style for so long. It doesn’t really matter, though. Anything she does this morning will just be redone by her stylist later.
When she and Mena walk into the main room, though, she sees that none of the others share her attitude. Mags and Finnick are already dressed for tonight. Sebastian is wearing a suit, which seems like a bit much for breakfast.
“Good morning, Annie,” he says politely. She tries to smile in reply. Mags pats the seat next to her, which Annie happily takes. Finnick gives her a curt nod, which irritates her. But not for long, because just then a flurry of people bring in a multitude of large silver trays.
Annie’s stomach grumbles eagerly. She hadn’t even realized the depth of her hunger. The food is barely even on the table before she starts serving herself a little of everything. Fluffy yellow stuff that Mena calls eggs. Potatoes seasoned with bright orange spices and covered in white cheese. Toasted green District 4 bread smeared with butter. Little links of spiced meat that she learns are sausages. Annie eats until she’s stuffed, then drinks down two glasses of orange juice.
After breakfast, the stylists arrive. They look like they could be brother and sister. Impossibly pale and slender with green hair and lips, the woman is wearing a simple black dress, the man a black suit. They each have a large garment bag thrown over their shoulders. The woman has a prep team trailing behind her, so she must be Annie’s. They both dot kisses on each of Finnick’s cheeks, then Mags’, then Mena’s, and then turn to the tributes. The woman takes Annie’s hands.
“I’m Stella,” she purrs in her thick Capitol accent.
“Irving,” says the man in a similar tone.
“We’re here to make you both look like gods,” Stella says. Annie finds this a touch overdramatic but doesn’t say anything. She shoots a look at Finnick, who nods. She turns back and smiles widely.
“Come, come,” Irving says, leading Sebastian back to his room. He and Annie exchange nervous glances, and then Stella starts pulling her by the wrists to her bedroom. The prep team follows, the makeup bags in their hands rattling while they shake with excitement. Annie’s thankful that her group arrived last night. Any of the tributes arriving today would have to go immediately into a random prep room for the day. She’s at least on semi-familiar ground.
Once inside, Stella sits on the bed while the prep team shoves Annie into the bathroom. They introduce themselves while they strip her down to nothing.
“I’m Straya,” says a tall wiry woman with white hair and cat whiskers.
“Caplan.” A short curvy woman with striking maroon tattoos all over her turquoise skin.
“Hugo.” The only man. He has light blue skin and red, orange, and yellow streaked hair. He’s transformed his head into a giant fireball. Annie stares at him in mild bewilderment for a moment. At least it manages to distract her from the fact that she’s completely naked in front of three strangers. They circle her body, taking in every flaw, every hair, every broken nail that she’s chewed off. She crosses her arms over her chest, but Caplan uncrosses them. They need to see everything. It occurs to her on their third rotation that she hasn’t even introduced herself.
“I’m Annie,” she offers, awkwardly, breaking the silence.
“Oh, honey, we know,” Straya says.
“District Four victory this year, right?” Hugo says excitedly.
“You’re going to be a hit, everyone will want to sponsor you,” Caplan chimes in. “Well, it also doesn’t hurt that Finnick Odair is your mentor. I think I’d volunteer, too, if it meant spending a week training with him.”
“Same. Here,” Straya says, enunciating each syllable while nodding enthusiastically. Annie feels her stomach turn over.
Hugo punches a series of buttons in on the shower. A jet of steaming, fragrant water shoots out of the spout on the wall. They shove her into it and start scrubbing her down and washing her hair. It actually hurts, like they’re scraping off a layer of her skin in order to get her clean. Then the water stops and they pull her into a machine that completely dries her in a matter of moments. A chair is pulled out of nowhere, and Annie is pushed into it. Now the “real” process, as they call it, can start. They begin by waxing her legs, which makes her cry out with pain.
“You’ll get used to it,” Caplan tells her, almost, but not quite, apologetically.
She runs a hand across her stinging, now smooth thigh.
“I’m like a child again,” she says, half horrified, half impressed.
“Isn’t it great?” Straya exclaims.
Next they make her stand to do her stomach, her arms, under her arms, and the little invisible hairs on her face, which sting the most. By the end of it, she’s positive that a layer of skin is gone. But then they rub her down with some sort of salve, and it immediately soothes the pain. Hugo holds out a silk robe, which she gratefully puts on before sitting back in the chair.
Caplan stands over her, holding her face, plucking strands from her eyebrows. Simultaneously, Straya applies fake nails and paints them the same pearly aqua color that Hugo puts on her toenails. When Caplan finishes, she brushes out Annie’s hair and curls it with a machine. Then she brushes it out again. Straya and Hugo flash dry her nails, and then do her makeup.
When they’re all finished, Annie doesn’t recognize herself in the mirror. The girl reflected at her has soft, glowing skin. Her face is perfectly contoured. Her eyes are an intense sea green because of the shades of blue blended over her eyelids. Her lips aren’t chapped; they’re full and glossy. Her hair almost floats around her face and shoulders. Straya sighs as they admire their handy work.
“See? Now you look human,” she says with another sigh.
Before she can say anything, the robe is pulled off her and she’s ushered out into her bedroom. A small table has been set up with snacks, which Annie walks to and begins picking over. There are only small things, like apples and crackers and cheese, but it’s better than nothing. It’s not much, but it’s better than most, Annie reminds herself. Stella stands up and walks a full circle around her. Annie can feel the stylist’s eyes on every naked inch of her body. She awkwardly swallows the mouthful of apple and cheese she’d been chewing and leaves the snack table alone.
“Perfect,” Stella says when she’s finished her rounds. Straya, Caplan, and Hugo all audibly relax. “You may leave.”
“Good luck, Annie!” Caplan calls, and then they leave her alone with Stella.
“I spent almost all year designing a giant octopus dress,” she says. Annie’s eyes go wide as she imagines herself with tentacles. “But then I saw you at the reaping, and I knew. I couldn’t just make you an ordinary, run-of-the-mill sea creature.” She holds up the garment bag. “I had to make you a mermaid.”
Stella nods and unzips the bag in her hands. Although Annie hates the idea of becoming a half-fish mutant for the whole country, she gasps. The tail looks like it’s made of actual fish scales that change color as Stella turns it in her hands. The top, though, seems to just be two actual seashells. How are they going to stay on? With magic? She has a sudden vision of the shells falling off halfway through the opening ceremonies and she swallows, hard, to hide her doubt. Stella smiles at her.
“It’s beautiful,” she says, completely honestly in spite of her nerves. Stella’s smile gets wider, and she pulls the tail from the hanger.
It’s skin tight, and takes both of them twenty minutes to pull on over Annie’s hips. It stops just below her knees before fanning out behind her.
“Walk around a little,” Stella tells her. Even though there’s absolutely zero wiggle room between the tail and her skin, she finds it surprisingly easy to move in. The fabric is also light and doesn’t squeeze or pinch her. When she turns back to Stella, it’s with some admiration. She stands perfectly still while Stella attaches the shells to her chest with small invisible straps and adjusts them so that Annie has actual, full breasts.
“I don’t even look like myself,” Annie says. She looks like a weird, alternate universe version of herself where she’s about 25 and lives underwater.
Stella laughs and drapes a long string of pearls around her neck.
“That’s the point, dear,” she says. She then picks up the starfish barrette from the bedside table. “Do you mind if I use this?” Annie shakes her head and Stella clips it into her hair.
It may not be a good idea, but Annie decides that she likes this woman as she brushes some sort of shimmer onto her visible skin. Depending on the light, she glows pale pink in some places and shines light green in others. Only in direct light, though. When she stands away from the spotlight before her mirror, her skin is smooth and pale, like a pearl.
Stella helps her into her shoes, which are low heels that attach to her feet with straps that look like strings of tiny bubbles. They stay snug and tight, though. It hits her that a lot more goes into fashion than she had ever dreamed of. Of course, all she normally wears is her swimsuit under a plain dress.
Stella slides jewel-crusted gold bangles up both of Annie’s arms, and then she’s done. She looks in the mirror again. It’s almost impossible that the girl in the mirror is her. But then, there’s her eyes, and the tiny birthmark on her neck, which is now mostly obscured by the pearly sheen. She twirls and the fan of her skirt flies out behind her in various shades of purple, green, and blue.
Still, it’s unnerving. She doesn’t feel like herself at all. There’s a strange thing going on inside her, like she’s two people; the girl in the mirror, and herself, and they’re both trying to take control. She looks glorious in this outfit. But it’s not who she is. She reminds herself that it’s only for a night. She can pretend to be this girl for one measly little night.
“You ready?” Stella asks.
“As I’ll ever be,” Annie says.
Stella holds her by the elbow and helps her walk down the hall until she gets the hang of the heels. When they step into the main room, Annie winces to see all five pairs of eyes flip immediately to her. There’s complete silence until Mena lets out a squeal of delight.
“Annie, you look stunning!” she half-screams. “You’re an absolute genius, Stella!”
Sebastian’s mouth is actually open. He’s wearing a large gold net that’s been folded around him several times and then thrown over his shoulder. The little holes are filled with various jewels and pearls. His skin looks a little tanner, though that could just be a trick of the light. Sandals with strings that tie up to his knees cover his feet. He looks nice, too. Annie tries to tell him, but the words get stuck in her throat.
Irving asks Annie to twirl, and she does, which makes Mena shriek again. Mags looks like she’s about to cry.
“Beautiful,” she says. Annie almost screams. It’s the first word she’s ever heard Mags say. She looks to Finnick, who knows the old woman, hoping he’ll have some sort of explanation.
Finnick, however, apparently didn’t even hear Mags. He’s staring at Annie with the same expression she had in the mirror. He’s confused and perplexed, but on the whole mesmerized. Then he meets her gaze, and she knows. He sees right through her. He knows she doesn’t belong here, in this costume, in the Games at all. He looks away quickly.
“Alright, now, everyone in the elevator!” Mena sings. “Let’s show Panem how gorgeous you both are!” Sebastian makes a face at the word “gorgeous.”
When they all pile in the elevator, Annie somehow ends up next to Finnick.
“You look pretty ridiculous, Cresta,” he whispers to her.
“I still look better than you, though,” she whispers back. He lets out a quick laugh.
“Tell me, were you born funny, or is that what you learned instead of combat training?”
She shrugs. “Guess I didn’t have a very good sparring instructor.”
They look at each other and smile. Annie feels warmth begin to pool in her stomach. Like they’re back in 4, swimming together. Then the elevator dings and the doors open to the staging area for the opening ceremonies, and Finnick’s mask is back on.
The staging area is vast and intimidating. This is the first time she’s seen the other tributes in person. As unimpressive as they were onscreen, she still finds it overwhelming. Pretty soon all of them except one will be dead. She shudders at that thought and allows Mags to lead her over to the District 4 carriage. Mena waves a quick goodbye and heads out to the audience.
Annie recognizes the girl from 3 at the carriage in front of her. She’s tall, not particularly well-muscled, but definitely graceful. Her costume is ridiculous, a long black dress covered in gold lightning bolts and an actual giant lightbulb that glows on her head, but she is undeniably attractive. Probably smart, too, the tributes from 3 usually are. Annie makes a mental note to try to get her as an ally, no matter what Finnick says.
Stella walks right up to Annie and does a few last minute adjustments. Smooth out the little fold in the tail. Make sure her hair curls in the right direction. Only the little things. Then she kisses Annie on each cheek and stands back. Finnick takes her hand and helps her up into the carriage.
“You know, Mags is right,” he says. She’s barely even paying attention as she tries to stand up straight. He’s still holding her hand.
“About what?” she asks.
“You look beautiful, Cresta,” he says, so softly she almost doesn’t hear him. She snaps her head down to look at him, expecting to see a smirk or hear his punchline. He’s smiling, but softly. His features suggest honesty, even humbleness. The warmth starts spreading from Annie’s stomach again. Her face suddenly feels hot.
Then the anthem starts playing, the carriage starts moving, and Finnick drops her hand as he steps back to the sidelines. She wants to look back at him, but forces herself to face forward as the horses pull her into the brightly lit stadium.
The crowd at the reaping yesterday was laughably small compared to the one that fills the space around her now. District 4 is a small dinner party with a few friends. This is like trying to house all of Panem in her tiny apartment back home. There’s a collective gasp when the light hits her skin, and then everyone goes insane. Stella did an amazing job. If there’s anything the Capitol citizens like, it’s colors. Well, and jewels. And shiny things that catch their eyes. And, right now, Annie is all of those things to them. She smiles widely and blows some kisses into the crowd.
“What did Finnick want?” Sebastian asks from somewhere next to her. She forgot about him for a moment. He’s also smiling widely and waving to the crowd.
“Just to remind me to be loveable and to do something more than wave,” she lies, blowing a few more kisses.
“I don’t see why he had to remind you,” Sebastian says. “In that outfit? You’re a hit, Annie. Just look at the crowd. You could probably stop everything you’re doing right now and just stand here and they’d still love you.”
This is probably true. As the carriages all stop and President Snow gives his speech about the Hunger Games, she becomes aware of the colors dancing off her skin, the eyes in the crowd that never even leave her.
Suddenly, the lights are too hot. The costume is too tight, too revealing. The whole stadium is distorted into waves. She can feel every bit of makeup on her skin. She wants to scratch it all off, but knows she can’t. She forces a deep breath into her lungs, but it doesn’t want to stick. She grabs Sebastian’s hand when the speech ends and the carriages start back to the staging area.
“Are you okay?” he whispers.
“No,” she whispers back. But what’s wrong? She was fine a moment ago. A crease forms between his eyebrows, but he’s still putting on his show for the crowd.
“Smile. Wave,” he whispers.
She still can’t breathe properly, but she forces her lips into her umpteenth fake smile. Her hand is somehow in the air, moving back and forth to the appreciative Capitol citizens, though her other one won’t let go of Sebastian. She can almost feel Finnick shaking his head from here. So much for her vicious killer image.
She’s still shaking when the carriages make their loop back to the staging area, so Sebastian helps her climb down. Finnick and Mags are already there. His hands are on her arms, but gently, and he isn’t even yelling. He’s frantic, though, but in a concerned way. Mags stands next to Annie and throws her arms around her shoulders.
“Are you okay?” Finnick asks. “You looked like you were about to pass out right on the carriage.”
“I’m fine,” Annie tells him. He looks at her pointedly, like he knows she’s lying. “Okay, I’m not. I don’t know what happened.”
He moves to her unoccupied side, slides his arm around her shoulders, and pulls her into him. She doesn’t know why, but her breathing suddenly regulates. Mags stays close, but drops her arms to her own sides. The three of them move as a sort of unit. She barely even has to walk on her own because Finnick steers her back to the elevators, where Mena, Sebastian, and the stylists join them.
On the way back to their floor, Mena prattles about how amazing they both looked. Apparently the Capitol citizens didn’t really notice when Annie stopped breathing, which both disturbs and comforts her. Finnick just holds her while she observes her shaking hands.
When they get to the floor, they watch the opening ceremonies. Nothing too eventful happens, though. Stella and Irving comment on everyone else’s horrible costumes. Annie’s freak out isn’t even incredibly obvious. Then the recap ends, and the stylists leave with Mena. Mags decides to go to bed early. She says goodnight to both Finnick and Annie with a kiss on the cheek before hugging Sebastian tightly around the middle. Finnick decides to stay in the living room for awhile, but Sebastian and Annie both need showers.
“Goodnight, Annie,” he says, pulling her into one of his rib-cracking hugs.
Once she’s down the hall and in her room, she locks the door and unceremoniously peels every last bit of her costume off. It’s now in a crumpled mess on the floor, but she doesn’t care. She jumps in the shower and scrubs until every last bit of makeup is washed down the drain. Only her nail polish stays on. Once she’s clean, she opts to towel dry instead of using the drying machine. She pulls on some simple leggings and a plain blue shirt and climbs into bed with wet hair.
After a few minutes of tossing and turning, she realizes she can’t get to sleep. Every time she closes her eyes, she sees the crowd, the lights, her own inhuman skin. Finally, she sits up. There’s zero chance of her sleeping just yet. She’s too wound up. Maybe Finnick is still in the living room. He calmed her down before.
Annie slides out of bed and down the hall. Luckily, she was right. The first thing she sees is Finnick, sitting on the couch, tying a long, thin rope into a delicate knot.
“Finnick?” she asks. He jumps and immediately drops the rope.
“Hey, Cresta,” he says without turning around.
She walks around the couch and settles down next to him.
“Is this okay?” she asks.
“Oh, yeah,” he says, turning to her. “Of course.”
They don’t speak for a few minutes, even though there’s something clearly wrong with both of them.
“What’s with the rope?” When she speaks, it’s barely above a whisper. There’s no judgment in her voice, only curiosity.
“Nervous habit,” he says. Then, after a moment, “Can’t sleep?”
“I can’t either.” He looks at her. “Are you okay? I mean, from earlier.”
“No,” she admits, even though she does feel a lot better. “I hate it here. I saw all those people looking at me, and I felt like an alien, and I haven’t even felt like myself since the morning before the reaping, and everyone’s just buttering me up to die. Including you.”
He goes back to tying his knot at her last two words.
“You don’t belong here, Cresta,” he says, pulling the rope straight and starting another knot.
“You could even say I’m a fish out of water,” she offers. “Or, I guess, a mermaid out of water, if you want to get technical.”
“Is this really the time for jokes?” he asks, looking at her.
“No,” she says without smiling. “But it’s the only thing getting me through this.” She thinks about earlier, when he refused to let go of her until they were back on the floor and he was convinced she had calmed down. “That and you,” she admits.
His cheeks burn red and he goes back to his knot.
“I’ve been a jerk to you,” he says after a few minutes. “I thought it would toughen you up or something. I didn’t even bother to ask what you need from me. I’ve been a pretty bad mentor.”
“Terrible,” she agrees. “You should be fired.”
He laughs and drops his knot on the ground, lays his hands over his crossed legs, and looks into Annie’s eyes.
“What do you need from me?” he asks.
She shrugs. “I don’t know. Support? Advice on how to stay alive without killing anyone?”
“Cresta,” he says, his face grave. “I don’t know how possible that is. You don’t know how it is in the arena. I thought I could get through it without killing a lot of people. But then everyone seemed to think I was a threat. And Mags was back home, and she’s pretty dependent on me. So I did what I had to.”
“I just don’t want to kill anyone, Finnick.”
Another long silence. Annie can tell he wants to pick up his rope and keep tying knots, but he doesn’t. Instead he picks at the hem of his pants.
“I’m not sure I can help with that,” he says after a long time. “I’m not a very good person, Cresta.”
It occurs to her that she’s been wrong about Finnick the entire time. In this moment, Annie can see right down to his core. She can see the sad, funny, delicate, nervous, gentle person he is. He tries to hide all of that by being cocky and self-involved, but everything he really is shines through. She leans forward and, lightly, kisses his cheek.
“Yes, you are,” she tells him.
She’s down the hall and in her room before he can do anything more than brush his fingers across the spot where her lips were.