Holiday twirls gracefully, arches her arm behind her, and throws. The knife sticks in a target with a satisfying hollow thud. Sebastian claps a couple of times.
“Good job,” he says.
“I didn’t hit the center,” she complains. “Let me try again.”
Before they can say anything, she twirls and throws again. The second knife sticks in the exact center of the target, inches away from the first one. Annie swallows. She has to remind herself not to think about one of those knives in Finnick’s hand, buried in another boy’s ribs. She has to remind herself not to think about Finnick in general.
This morning was horrible. Annie woke up shaking after watching Finnick die in her nightmares all night. She emerged from her room, tired and on edge, before Mena was even on the floor. With nothing to do but wait, she sat at the table and hugged her legs into her chest until Sebastian came out, rubbing his eyes.
“Can’t sleep?” she asked. He shook his head.
“Is it still okay if I train with you and the girl from Three today?” he asked.
She nodded. He sat down and they didn’t talk again until the food showed up.
“Annie?” She shakes her head, coming back to reality. Holiday is holding out a handful of knives to her. “You alive in there?”
“Yeah, sorry,” she replies, taking the knives and standing in position to throw. “I didn’t sleep much last night.”
“I don’t think I’ve slept more than three hours since we got here,” she says as she picks at one of her gold nails.
“How are you even standing right now?” Annie asks. She breathes in, locks eyes on the target, exhales, and throws. The knife hits the exact center of the target and sticks there.
“Damn,” Holiday says. She sounds half mad, half impressed. “And I don’t know. Coffee, mostly, and adrenaline. Those things keep me awake pretty well.”
“You’ll be screwed in the arena, though,” Annie says, matter-of-factly.
“Yeah, because I won’t have any adrenaline in there.” Holiday rolls her eyes. Annie throws again, her second knife hitting the center of a different target.
“Nice one, Annie,” Sebastian says, grinning. She shoots back a small smile.
“He’s right,” Holiday says, but she sounds bored, as usual. “When we watched you in the reaping recaps, I thought you’d be nothing special, barely even worthy of killing, which is weird from Four. Guess I was wrong.”
Annie throws her third knife, unsure of how to respond to that. It hits the center target, in the dummy’s chest. Don’t picture that knife in Finnick’s hand, she tells herself. Don’t picture Finnick.
He was pretty hurt that morning when she wouldn’t even talk to him. Just after the food arrived, he shuffled in. She thought she helped him last night, but whatever put him in that sour mood just wouldn’t go away. He barely even paused to consider seating options before sitting next to her. She ate her food without tasting it and barely even looked at him. She can’t, despite his half-hearted jokes and slouched, defeated shoulders. Not until she can control herself, which has to be soon. She can’t suffer any distractions in the arena, and having feelings for her mentor would definitely fall under the category of a pretty big distraction. She spent breakfast sneaking glances at him without saying a word. He radiated with pain. When it was time to leave, she walked on the elevator with Sebastian feeling like she was still dreaming.
Annie collects her knives from the targets and passes them into Sebastian’s hands. She can only watch as Holiday says a few words to him and he throws all three knives. They all miss the targets, but only barely. He shrugs.
“Knives were never my strong suit,” he says with a nervous laugh.
Holiday pokes Annie in the ribs and mutters, “Clearly,” before moving to another station.
That morning, she and Hera decided to spend some extra time with the weapon they were most comfortable with. After they tried their hands at swords and axes, Annie decided to stick with knives. Hera chose archery. Sebastian, who learned swords yesterday, joined them for axes, and then followed Annie. They reached the station at the same time as Holiday. She wasn’t so thrilled to be around one of the other Careers when they had direct access to sharp weapons, but Sebastian looked very eager to spend time with Holiday.
She should warn him about that. He shouldn’t get too close to any of the tributes, not in that way, because it’ll only end badly. Of course, she could say nothing. If he’s distracted, that’s one less person to worry about in the arena.
No, she can’t think that way. Especially not about Sebastian. If she doesn’t go home, he has to. District 4 victory. It has to happen either way.
“I think it’s almost lunch time,” he says, breaking her train of thought. “Should we go on to a different station or loiter here?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “Is Hera still at archery?”
They both look over. She’s shooting an arrow with a full quiver next to her.
“Guess so,” he replies. “You know, she’s pretty good. And you said she’s smart.”
“I think she could go through the edible plants station in her sleep.”
“We should ask her to join us. The group, I mean.”
“The Careers?” He shrugs. Annie snorts. “I don’t really think she’d be up for that.”
“Why not? Getting in with us is anyone’s best shot at living.”
“She’s just not a big fan of their whole….” She waves her hands around, searching for the right word. “Attitude.”
“Neither are you,” Sebastian retorts. He has a point.
“Well, fine, ask her,” Annie snaps. “But don’t complain to me when she says no.”
He opens his mouth to say something else, but the head trainer calls out that it’s time for lunch. Sebastian runs immediately to Hera, undoubtedly to ask her to eat with them. Romana and Titus spent a lot of time at the ax station throughout the morning, and they both unceremoniously drop their weapons and head into the makeshift cafeteria. Romana spots Annie on her way.
“You coming, mermaid girl?” she calls across the room.
As Annie walks to join her, her limbs full of lead, she feels someone jog up behind her. No, two people. Sebastian catches up and walks in stride with her, grinning and mouthing, “I told you so.” Annie turns her head and sees Hera on her other side.
“What happened to not wanting to be mistaken for a Career?” she mutters.
“That got beat down by my instinct to stay alive,” Hera whispers back.
Annie almost laughs, but really all Hera did was remind her that both of them could be dead in three days. She swallows down the lump that jumps in her throat at that thought. Three days. That’s all she has left.
They move quickly through the food line, but Annie doesn’t get much. The closer she gets to the arena, the less she actually wants to eat, even though all this extra food is, most likely, helping her in the long run. They sit at the same table as yesterday. Romana and Titus are already there, and halfway through their first plates.
“Who’s this?” Romana asks, mouth filled with chicken and apricot cream sauce.
“Hera,” Annie answers as she pokes at her own chicken. It doesn’t seem so appetizing now that Romana’s spitting it across the table. “She’s from Three. She’s good with a bow.”
Romana licks her fingers and nods. Titus doesn’t even look up. They’ve both learned all they need to know. Annie looks between them and sees Leeri, the boy from 3, sitting alone.
There’s a clatter next to her, and she jumps. Ivory drops his silverware next to his plate and sits next to her, laughing.
“I have an animal for a district partner,” Holiday announces, settling into her chair like it’s a throne. “Don’t you know anything about how to act around people?”
“Who cares?” he exclaims. “Hey, guys. You’re about to watch me kill people. Sorry I’m such a slob, though.”
Holiday rolls her eyes and looks around the table for support. Her eyebrows furrow when she sees Hera.
“You’re from Three, aren’t you?” she asks.
“Yes. Hera.” She holds out her hand. Holiday doesn’t take it. Hera keeps it out though.
“Weapons?” Even when she’s asking questions, Holiday sounds bored. Annie can tell her interrogation is going to be a little more thorough than Romana’s.
“I’m good with a bow. I know how to hunt. My mentor is Beetee Latier. Happy?”
Holiday purses her lips and looks her up and down.
“For now,” she says, and shakes Hera’s hand.
A little knot bundles in Annie’s stomach. This was a bad idea. She never should’ve let Sebastian ask Hera to join them. She doesn’t look at anyone for the rest of lunch. Romana regales everyone with a fun fact she picked up from one of the trainers: How much force it takes to decapitate a person.
As soon as lunch is over, Annie makes a beeline for the camouflage station with Sebastian and Hera right on her heels.
“They’re not very pleasant, are they?” Hera asks, keeping her voice low.
“Still want to be in the group?” Annie replies.
“I still want to live, don’t I?” Her tone is light, but her eyes look heavy.
Annie doesn’t pay much attention for the rest of the day. She moves from camouflage to rock climbing to spears with Hera and Sebastian. Every time one of the trainers mentions real world applications of tying harnesses or throwing so the spear will pierce skin, Annie retreats a little more into herself.
She doesn’t belong here. Sebastian throws a spear, and it sticks in the dummy’s torso. He and Hera high five over it, but Annie thinks she’s going to be sick. This isn’t like combat training back home. They’re actually getting ready to kill people. With each passing moment the arena gets closer and closer to her, and no matter what, she can’t escape it.
This morning’s concern of hiding her feelings for Finnick seems distant and childish now. She looks around the room. A mismatched group from several different districts is shooting arrows. Romana is back at the ax station. She swiftly beheads a dummy. Annie’s one of the oldest people in the room. They’re all children. They should be in school, and flirting with each other, and playing games. Her biggest problem should be that she doesn’t want Finnick to find out she likes him. Instead she’s watching, eyes wide, as Romana decapitates another dummy.
Hera hands the spear to her. Instead of taking it, she mumbles something she can’t even hear and runs across the training floor to the small hallway where the bathrooms are.
She turns on one of the faucets and splashes some water on her face. If she closes her eyes and really concentrates, she’s standing on the white sand of the beach back home, near the cliff that people like to dive off of. The clear waves crash against the dark rock and spray her face. She can almost taste the salt and feel the wind.
“What are you doing?”
She snaps her eyes open and whips around. She’s still in the Capitol, in a bathroom in the training center. The sound of rushing water is coming from the sink; the taste of salt from her lip that she bit through. Hera is standing in the doorway. Her eyebrows are knit together and her lips are pursed. She crosses the room, takes a paper towel from the container on the wall, runs it under the water, and presses it into Annie’s hands.
“You should clean that,” she says. Her voice is soft but firm. “Can you tell how deep it is?”
Annie dabs at her lip. When she pulls the paper away, there’s a bright red spot. She makes a face and puts it back. She can feel where it fits into the cut.
“Not too deep,” she says. “I think it’s manageable.”
“You should probably still visit the medic station,” Hera tells her. “They can bandage it or something.”
Annie pulls the paper towel away again. It’s now a soggy mess. There’s a lot more of her blood on it. She winces.
“Yeah, I’ll do that,” she says, but neither of them move. Hera soaks another paper towel and then turns off the sink.
“It’s so weird that you can just do that here,” Hera remarks.
Annie pulls the paper towel away to speak.
“Keep the water running. In Three, water can get scarce. You don’t want to waste a single drop.” She looks at Annie. “I guess you wouldn’t have that problem.”
“We can still have shortages,” Annie says. “They’re not as frequent, but we have them. Four has access to water, sure, but there’s not much we can do with salt water.”
Hera nods. Annie replaces her compress. Neither of them speaks for a long time.
“Are you okay?” Hera finally asks. “What happened out there?”
Annie lets out a shaky laugh.
“I’m not really sure,” she lies. “I just suddenly couldn’t breathe.”
From the way Hera looks at her, Annie is positive she knows that isn’t true.
“Keep pressure on that lip,” Hera says. “And you really should get it looked at.” She hands Annie the second paper towel and walks out of the bathroom. Annie switches the compresses and then follows her.
No one even looks at her twice when she walks back on the training floor. Even Sebastian and Hera have moved over to the trident station. As Sebastian twirls one of the weapons in his hands, Annie has to force her thoughts away from Finnick again. She walks right over to the medic station. The man sitting behind it stands up when she approaches him.
“What happened to you?” he asks. He’s pretty young, and normal-looking by the Capitol’s standards. His skin is naturally dark, but his hair is pale blue. The contrast is almost soothing. He pulls her hand with the paper towel away from her face.
“I bit my lip,” she says, her voice flat.
“I can see that,” he says with a laugh. “It doesn’t look too bad though.”
He reaches back and finds a vial of medicine.
“What’s that?” Annie asks.
“It’ll take away the pain and stop any infections.” She only nods and he applies it with delicate precision. “This won’t need stitches, and the bleeding has mostly stopped. Do you want me to try and bandage it or do you think you’ll be careful enough?”
The medicine is already working. She probes at the cut with her tongue. She can’t even taste blood anymore.
“I should be fine,” she answers.
“Just be careful when you eat, and don’t kiss anyone for a couple days,” he says with a wink.
Annie chokes on the air in her mouth.
“What?” Does he know? How can he possibly know?
“Relax,” he says. “I was joking.”
“Thanks for the medicine,” she says, suddenly uncomfortable, then runs over to join Sebastian and Hera.
“Did you freak out again?” Sebastian asks when she reaches them.
“Yes,” she says. He nods and drops the subject.
They throw tridents for awhile, then the head trainer announces that it’s time to leave. She reminds them that tomorrow after lunch they’ll be getting their individual scores. Annie’s heart jumps inside her chest.
She and Sebastian share an elevator up with Hera. None of them say much of anything. At this point, there’s nothing much to say. When Hera gets off on the third floor, Sebastian pulls Annie into a hug.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I would tell you everything’s going to be okay, but we both know that isn’t true.”
“That’s a bit of an understatement,” she whispers back. He laughs.
“You’re just walking on eggshells here, aren’t you?”
She looks at him.
“Oh, that’s an expression I picked up from Holiday. It means—“
But she doesn’t find out what it means. He lets her go just as the elevator stops on their floor. The doors aren’t even all the way open when Mena grabs Annie’s hands and pulls her into the room.
“Annie, the Capitol loves you!” she squeals. “About ten prominent sponsors have approached me today asking for you. Of course, I’m not allowed to sign them up, but they’re out there!”
Annie looks around the room. Mags is smiling encouragingly. Sebastian looks like he just had the wind knocked out of him. Finnick is sitting at the table, slumped over with his head in his arms. Her hands start to shake. Whatever he did today, it was definitely bad. Maybe even worse than yesterday. It takes every ounce of effort for her to focus back on Mena. She curls up the corners of her lips in what she hopes will pass for a smile.
“Thank you, Mena,” she says. “Really.”
Then Mena squeezes her in a tight hug, and Annie sees Sebastian run quietly down the hall to his room. She makes eye contact with Mags, who nods and whispers something in Finnick’s ear.
“Hey, Mena,” he calls without moving at all. “Come remind me about the schedule for tomorrow.”
As Mena teeters on her giant shoes (bright pink today, like her wig) over to Finnick and Mags, Annie slips down the guys’ hall and knocks on Sebastian’s door. He answers it and lets her in without a word. He sits down on his bed and looks at the floor. The room is dead silent. She can almost make out what Mena is saying, all the way down the hall.
“So what does walking on eggshells means?” she finally asks, grasping for straws.
“It’s like when you’re really nervous but trying not to show it. I think.”
“You’re right. That’s me. That’s me exactly.”
Sebastian lets himself laugh a little.
“Shouldn’t you be out there being adored?” he asks.
“You know I hate that,” she replies.
“Yeah, but at least there are people who will pay for you to live,” he snaps.
“Don’t be weird,” she says. “You’ll get sponsors. You’re going to get a high score, and you’re going to nail your interview. In a couple days, no one will even remember me. It’ll be all about you.”
“No, you don’t get it,” he says.
“You!” He pauses, gauging her reaction. She shakes her head, so he continues. “You didn’t even look human the other night, you looked like a living jewel or something. And you’re funny and charming, so you’ll definitely do well in your interview. If you didn’t have your freak-outs, if you were a real Career, no one else would even stand a chance.”
She knows he’s right, but the comment still stings. This must show on her face, because he softens.
“Annie, I’m sorry,” he says.
“No, you’re right,” she replies. She leaves before he can say anything else, and sprints down the hall to her own room. She’s vaguely aware of Finnick’s head snapping up when she runs past, but then she’s safely in her bed, buried under the covers, where Finnick and Sebastian and throwing spears can’t reach her.
Much too quickly, she’s called to dinner. She sits between Mags and Mena tonight. Finnick’s shoulders sag when he walks in, and he sits on the exact opposite side of the table, like he did on the train. No one talks except for Mena. Annie takes about two bites, then pushes her food around until everyone else is done. The cut on her lips throbs painfully. She goes back to her room before anyone can say a word to her.
Somehow she manages to sleep that night, but her dreams are, again, filled with Finnick dying, over and over, while all she can do is watch. She wakes up crying, her forehead and neck covered in cold sweat, when the sky outside is only just beginning to get light. There’s no point in trying to get back to sleep. She jumps in the shower, gets dressed, and walks out to the living room.
Finnick is already sitting at the table. Her heart begins to pound in her ears. He hasn’t seen her yet. She can slip back in her room and wait until Mena calls her out. But then, as if by cue, his eyes find hers. She swallows and walks over to join him, making sure to keep a chair between them.
“Did I do something to you?” Finnick blurts after a few minutes of uncomfortable silence.
She freezes. Her heart begins to hammer in her chest, so much it actually hurts. What can she say to him? It’ll be easier if she lies to him now, tells him she’s angry, but there’s a certain amount of pain under his frustration, and she can’t bring herself to do it.
“No,” she says. She doesn’t look at him. She can’t.
“Are you mad at me for some reason?”
“You can tell the truth, Cresta,” he says. “Whatever it is I did, I’m sorry.”
She looks up at him and tries to smile. His eyes are ringed with dark circles. She wraps her arms around her knees to avoid grabbing his hands, which are splayed on the table between them.
“You can call me Annie,” she tells him. Her voice comes out much quieter than she intended. “I think we’ve reached that point.”
He returns her half-smile.
“No, Cresta, I can’t.”
She always thought it was a joke he had. Some little way of showing her how casual their relationship is. The way he’s looking at her now suggests something deeper, though. Before she can ask, the elevator dings, and Mena walks onto the floor, surrounded by people pushing carts loaded with trays. They unload the food on the table and leave while Mena sings the schedule for the day.
“Oh, good, Annie, you’re already up,” she trills, mostly to herself. “I was beginning to worry about how you’d fare in the arena without me to shake you awake every morning. Now after breakfast, you have training of course, then you show the game makers your individual talent, then you have the afternoon off, unless of course Finnick has more training for you. Then tonight we find out your score and begin to figure out how you should act in your interview based around that. Did you catch all that?”
“Oh, of course,” Annie assures her.
“Obviously you did,” Mena sighs. “You’re my star.”
She smoothes a hand down Annie’s hair and walks down the guys’ hall to wake up Sebastian. Annie turns back to Finnick to ask him what he meant, but Mags walks in the room at the same time. She smiles and sits between them before starting to eat.
Breakfast, like dinner last night, is low key. No one says much of anything. Even Mena, finally sensing the overall mood in the room, stays quiet. Annie takes a bite of her eggs. She moves her hand too quickly, though, and hits her fork against the cut on her lip and winces. Mags notices.
“Hurt?” she asks.
“Oh, no, it’s nothing,” Annie says, but Finnick’s head whipped around when Mags spoke.
“You’re hurt?” He’s concerned. Annie tries not to feel too happy about it. “What happened?”
“Nothing,” Annie says firmly. “I bit my lip yesterday during training. It’s fine.”
He looks unconvinced, but still turns back to his food.
When it’s time to go, Mena rushes Sebastian and Annie to the elevator.
“You both need at least a nine,” Finnick calls before the doors cut him off.
They don’t talk on the ride down to the training floor. They both mumble a greeting to Hera, who’s wide-eyed and energetic, somehow.
“So, are we starting with preferred weapons?” she asks. “And I wanted to hit the rock wall again, then end with edible plants, just so it’s fresh in my head.”
“Sounds good,” Annie says half-heartedly. Finnick’s words are still stuck in her mind. How is she going to manage a 9?
Hera skips over to the archery station. Sebastian drags his feet to the axes, leaving Annie to walk, trance-like, to the knives. She throws for awhile, with stiff, automatic movements. She only misses one target. Surely that will be good enough for a 9.
She almost falls on the rock wall. The closer she gets to the top, the smaller the holds get, and her foot slips on one. For a moment, she dangles, helplessly, thinking she’s about to hold a record. The first tribute to die before the Games even start. Hera is climbing next to her, though, and takes her hand to help steady her. Annie smiles and reaches the top then climbs back down without anymore near-death experiences.
The edible plants station is much easier the second time around. She and Hera zip through their charts. She has to help Sebastian a bit. Hopefully he’ll just stay with her the whole time, since she’s got the hang of it. If she makes it that far. She swallows nervously and looks at him. They haven’t said much to each other since their little fight yesterday, except for things about training. Once she dies, her sponsors will probably start supporting him. He won’t need to know this stuff. He’ll have enough food. Finnick will see to it no matter what.
Thankfully, the head trainer calls out that it’s lunchtime before her brain can go on a Finnick tangent.
Annie doesn’t eat today. Everyone else does. Romana even gets seconds. They all laugh and joke and hit each other, Hera included. Sebastian joins in, but half-heartedly. Annie just sits there.
Once lunch is done, they begin calling them, one at a time, right from the cafeteria, to present their talent. Ivory is called first, being the male from 1, and their table explodes with cheers and shouts of encouragement. As each person is called, these cheers get quieter and quieter. No one comes back after they’re done.
“Sebastian Dehlia, District Four,” the announcer calls out. Annie can’t even see the speakers.
“Good luck,” she says when he stands up.
He claps a hand on her shoulder and walks out of the room.
When, “Annie Cresta, District Four,” is called, there’s no one left to wish her luck. She stands and walks into the judging room with her head held high. She has to get a 9, that’s all, just a 9. Behind her, the rest of the tributes are dead silent.