The Gamemakers sit in a large room carved high into the wall, similar to the one on the training floor that they occupied for the past three days. They don’t notice Annie as she walks across the room. Some of them are sitting around small tables, eating and drinking what must be wine, considering how much they’re all laughing. The rest are on their feet, talking loudly to each other, and picking at the large buffet table set at the back of their little enclave. Annie wipes her hands down her pants, but she feels a little better overall. It would’ve been so much more stressful if she walked in to see them sitting silently in even rows, like she was expecting.
By the time she reaches the center of the room, half of them have seen her and they’re all shushing the other half and pointing to her.
“Annie Cresta, District Four,” she calls out.
“We know,” a woman calls back from the middle of the group. “You have ten minutes to present your skill.”
Annie walks calmly over to the weapons. She put shockingly little thought into this moment. She realizes now that this was a mistake. Her heart is pounding. Spots appear in her vision. Why didn’t Finnick talk more about this? He seems to be locked in his own little world. He hasn’t been doing a lot of mentoring at all.
Not that Annie or Sebastian needed a lot from him during training itself. They’ve both gone through training. That’s why the knives are coming so easily to her. She spent combat training days on autopilot until they were done, but she did all of it. Proper grips, throwing techniques, making a fist, all of that and more is stored inside her muscles. As much as she hates to admit it, she’s good at combat stuff. She’s said it once; she’ll say it again. She’s absolutely able to do everything the other Careers can, she just isn’t willing.
No, they didn’t need a mentor to tell them how to navigate training. In fact, he did give them good advice, from the get go. Ally with the other Careers. Learn a weapon. It would’ve been nice, though, to get advice about this moment, other than a half-hearted reminder to get a 9. The Gamemakers are all looking down at her, like they need her to get a move on. All she’s done so far is look at all the weapons. How many of her ten minutes has she wasted doing this?
She shakes her head and grabs a target to drag it to the middle of the room. It’s huge and awkward, but not very heavy. She balances it so it faces the Gamemakers. They need to see exactly what she can do. If she can even pull it off. She pulls her bottom lip into her teeth and winces when they find the cut. Shaking out her hands, she drags another target so it sits next to the first one.
When she grabs the knives, her hands begin to shake. She was given absolutely zero guidance on how to do this. She doesn’t know what the Gamemakers want to see. She doesn’t know what to do. If she came from another district, this wouldn’t be a problem. She could get a low score, no one would look at her twice, and she would die in the arena mostly unnoticed. But she’s from 4. She’s a Career. She has to at least play her part until she dies.
She stands far back from her target station and sets all but one knife on the ground at her feet. The grip is smooth and comfortable in her hand. She passes it to her left and breathes out through pursed lips.
Why didn’t Finnick tell her what to do? It can’t be because he forgot or anything like that. He must believe, deep down, that she’s fully capable of doing this with no problem. The other night he said she’s the only important person he’s had to mentor. He wouldn’t send her in unprepared.
But, still, he didn’t give her any advice. He left it up to her to figure out. And she’s more than a little mad about that. She breathes in and passes the knife back to her right hand.
So what do the Gamemakers want, deep down? She thinks about the tributes in their costumes, the extravagance of the food and the rooms, the bizarre mutts and natural disasters in the arena that she’s seen throughout the years.
It’s a show. Everything about it is for entertainment. All they want is a good show.
She swallows. Her hands are no longer shaking. The Gamemakers are silent behind her, which she takes to mean that they’re watching. She positions the knife to throw it. She inhales, zeroes in on the exact center of the target, exhales, and throws.
The knife whirs through the air and hits exactly where she wanted it to. She smirks as she grabs another knife from the pile on the ground. Without moving her feet, she repeats the process. This knife hits the center of the other target.
No noise behind her. She hopes that’s a good thing. She looks beyond the targets to the door that leads to the training room. In her mind, she runs through it and onto the elevators. But she hasn’t even done the impressive part yet. Plus her feet feel like they’re suddenly full of cement, so moving is impossible.
She picks up the next knife, passes it between her hands a few times, then moves it into throwing position.
Inhale. Zero in. Exhale. Throw.
She barely feels the knife leave her hands, and then it’s stuck in the first target, no more than an inch to the right of the first knife. She sighs, audibly, with relief. She picks up the last knife and does it again with the second target. It sticks with a satisfying thud, like when Holiday was throwing yesterday, right next to the other knife.
She did it.
Relief and white noise flood her brain and pound in her ears. Her limbs, which were metal and concrete a moment ago, are now full of jelly and air. It takes a lot of will power not to collapse to the ground where she stands. She spins on the spot to face the Gamemakers. She’s dangerously close to either melting or floating away. She crosses her arms to keep herself in place.
“Thank you,” says the same woman who greeted her. “You may go now.”
Annie wants to sprint across the room, but she doesn’t. She bows her head and thanks the Gamemakers. Then she turns on her heel and strides, chest out and chin up, into the training room. Once the door snaps shut behind her, she breaks into a run, all the way to the elevators. She slams her hand against the button, the doors ding open, and she throws herself inside and presses the number 4.
She takes a deep breath and slumps against the back wall, yanking her hair down so it shakes out over her shoulders. It’s done. She made it through training. The entire afternoon is hers. There’s no agenda, no schedule, no weird fittings. Interview prep will be saved until tomorrow. For a few hours, she can do anything she wants. She and Finnick can….
Her heart sinks. She can’t spend time with Finnick. The more she sees him, the harder it’ll be for her in the arena. The more he sees her, the harder it’ll be for him when she dies. Even as she thinks it, she closes her eyes and imagines his arm around her shoulder. His face buried in her hair. His lips pressed against her neck.
Then she sees a bunch of things that never happened. His lips move from her neck to brush across her jaw. A shiver goes down her spine as his hands travel from the small of her back and tangle in her hair. Just as his lips find hers, the elevator dings and the door slides open.
Today, Sebastian is the first person to greet her. He grins widely and offers her his hand. She shakes it and returns the smile. They’re both in considerably better moods since their fight yesterday, but not enough for things to be glossed over completely.
“Well, we did it,” he says with a nervous laugh. “We made it through training.”
“Yes, the hard part is clearly over,” Annie replies, holding back an eye roll.
She glances over to the table, where Finnick, Mags, Mena, Stella, and Irving are gathered. They’re all speaking in low voices. Finnick looks up and catches her eye. She immediately looks back to Sebastian.
“What are they doing?” she asks.
“Talking about the details of tomorrow, I think,” he replies. “They were like that when I got back. I have no idea how long they’ve been there.”
She nods slowly. Even if she can’t hear him, she can tell Finnick is speaking deliberately. There’s a passion about him that she hasn’t seen so far. She imagines, again, his hands in her hair, his lips pressed against hers. He points at Stella and arches his eyebrows. He presses his palm into the table and purses his lips. She imagines her hands sliding down his chest and up under his shirt.
“So what did you do for the Gamemakers?” Sebastian asks. She coughs a few times and shakes her head. These fantasies are dangerous.
“Threw knives,” she tells him, shrugging. “You?”
He makes a face.
“I did a few things. Spear, sword, ax. I hope it’s okay that I did more than one.” She’s about to laugh, but he looks really concerned.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” she assures him. “If anything it’s more impressive, right?”
He nods, but still seems unconvinced.
“Annie,” Mena calls. “Sebastian. Come join us.”
She smiles widely and beckons them over. Sebastian sits next to her, leaving Annie to the only unoccupied chair next to Finnick. Across the table, Stella smiles and blows her a kiss. Annie only smiles in return. Finnick stands up.
“Okay,” he says, addressing Sebastian. “First things first. Which weapon did you settle on?”
“I picked three,” Sebastian answers. “I threw spears, then I sliced some dummies apart with a sword and an ax.”
“They might like your versatility,” he says. “They might not. I think that was a good choice overall, though.”
“Thank you,” Sebastian says, more than a little relieved.
Finnick looks sideways to Annie.
“I threw knives,” she states.
He raises his eyebrows.
“That’s actually pretty impressive, Cresta,” he says. “I wasn’t expecting you to do a weapon.”
Well, she thinks, maybe if you’d actually advised me, you wouldn’t be so surprised. She shrugs.
“You know me, Finnick,” she says. “I always aim to please.”
He purses his lips.
“Did you hit a bullseye?” he asks.
“Two of them. And I also hit just off the center of each bullseye.”
“When did you get that good?”
“You’re kidding, right?” Sebastian calls. “She’s so good with knives it’s scary. It even freaked out Holiday.”
Annie has some trouble picturing Holiday, who’s constantly bored by her surroundings, freaking out.
“Good to hear,” Finnick responds half-heartedly. “Tomorrow you’ll both be in prep all day. For the sake of time and ease, we’re splitting you up, so Cresta will work with Mena while Mags and I go through interview strategies with Sebastian, then you’ll switch, then you’ll both be with your stylists until show time. Sound good?”
“Yes,” Sebastian says while Annie just nods.
“Good. There’s not a lot we can do before we see your scores, so you have the rest of the afternoon off,” he says.
Annie sighs with relief. She’s looking forward to taking a nap, or maybe sitting out on the balcony and trying to enjoy the fresh air.
Finnick looks at the clock on the wall and walks around the table toward the elevator.
“I’ll see you all for dinner,” he says with his back to the group. “Don’t go too far and don’t do anything too stupid. Remember that fighting before the arena is against the rules.”
“Where are you going?” Annie blurts despite herself.
He freezes and turns back to look at her. His eyebrows are furrowed.
“I don’t have the afternoon off,” he says, grimly. There’s no hint of a joke in his face or voice. Stella and Irving both stand and join him at the elevator with talk of finishing the interview outfits. Then all three of them are gone, and Annie is left, again, wondering how Finnick spends his days.
She knows the rumors, of course. She’d have to be deaf and blind and live in the middle of nowhere to avoid them. Since she met him, she stopped believing them, though. He doesn’t have the attitude of a carefree playboy out looking for his latest fling. If he’s trying to find a hook up right now, he doesn’t seem happy about it. It must be something else. Or maybe she’s just hoping it is. Maybe that’s why she always ignores the rumors in the first place.
She stands up, leaving the other three at the table, and walks down the guys’ hall to the balcony. Denial is getting her nowhere. It’s time for her to face reality and deal with it. She heaves the door open and slides it closed with a small bang. The air outside is too thin and too thick at the same time. A huge wind kicks up, forcing her to wrap her arms around herself. She leans back against the railing and groans.
“I, Annie Cresta, have feelings for Finnick Odair,” she breathes, grinning like an idiot. It’s the best she can do. The words sound funny to her. Awkward, but comfortable.
All of a sudden, the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. She straightens up and looks around. She’s completely alone. Between the wind and the chatter of Capitol citizens drifting up from the street below, there’s no chance anyone could have heard her. But still, the feeling is there. Like she’s being watched. She shudders and crosses to sit in one of the chairs just as the door slides open.
“Hey,” Sebastian says, stepping outside. “It’s kind of cold out here.”
“Do you mind if I sit with you?”
“Not at all,” she tells him, patting the chair next to her. He sits on the very edge of it and twists his hands together in his lap.
“Where did Finnick go?” he asks. “Do you know?”
“I don’t,” she replies. “Something about mentoring, I’m sure.”
“Then why doesn’t Mags ever go with him?”
He has a point. Annie chews at the edge of her thumbnail.
“I guess because she doesn’t talk,” she says after a long moment.
He nods and they fall silent. Sebastian cracks his knuckles, one at a time. Annie winces with each pop. His palms looked calloused. Of course, hers would be, too, if she had three specialty weapons.
“Wait a second.” She speaks slowly as the thought comes to her. “Finnick asked you which weapon you settled on. Did he talk to you about them before?”
“Yeah, of course,” Sebastian says. “We talked yesterday about which weapons I’m best at and the judging session and everything. Why? Didn’t he talk to you about that stuff?”
The sun is too bright. The air sticks in her lungs. Her hands begin to shake. She balls them into fists on her knees.
“No, he didn’t,” she says through gritted teeth. “He didn’t tell me anything.”
“That’s weird, since you guys are…. Well, you know,” he says, raising his eyebrows.
Annie’s brain has clouded over with anger, but his words still somehow reach her.
“Aren’t you guys together?” he teases. All of her annoyance with Finnick is replaced by panic and fear. Does Sebastian know? How can he know? Did he somehow hear her?
“No,” Annie yells. Her voice is much higher than usual. She clears her throat. “Where would you get that idea? We’re friends. That’s all.”
“Annie, relax,” he says through a laugh. “I’m kidding. I know you’re not together, that would be… Well, awful, frankly.”
Her stomach deflates a little. Heat rushes to her cheeks.
“What do you want, Sebastian?” she asks before he can notice her reaction.
“Well, I….” He looks away from her and laces his fingers together. “I wanted to apologize and clear the air between us. I’m sorry for yesterday. I shouldn’t have said those things to you.”
She pulls her knees up to her chest and wraps her arms around her legs.
“You were right, though,” she says softly. “I’m not a real Career. Throwing knives at targets is one thing. But do you remember Finnick’s Games? When that boy was about to kill him and he stabbed him in the ribs?“
“Yeah, that was pretty memorable.”
“Well, that keeps looping in my head every time I throw. I just watch that boy cough blood all over Finnick and then die.” She bites her bottom lip and winces. She has to start remembering that she has a cut there.
“That’s gruesome,” Sebastian says. “Do you know why it’s that scene that plays over and over?”
Scene. Like it was something in a story that never happened.
“No idea,” she replies.
“Well, either way, I’m sorry for what I said,” he tells her.
“It’s okay,” she says. “Really.”
He nods a few times but doesn’t say anything. Annie goes back to chewing her nails. An excited shriek comes from below. Clouds pass over the sun, robbing the balcony of the small bit of warmth it had. They both shiver but otherwise don’t move.
Why is Sebastian apologizing? She looks over at him. He stands, crosses to the railing, and looks out over the street. Small fights, insulting comments, all those things will fall away in the arena, she’s sure of it. In the face of certain death, who could care about such trivial things?
“Do you know when dinner is?” Annie asks instead of saying anything about his apology. He turns back to her and shrugs.
“A couple hours,” he answers. “Why?”
“No reason. What should we do?”
He strides back to the chairs and sits with his elbows balanced on his knees.
“We could come up with a strategy?” he suggests. “Or at least some sort of deal. And we should decide when to split up.”
Ice water floods her limbs.
“Well, yeah,” he says. “If we both make it to a certain point, it would be better if we split up. What if it ends up being just the two of us?”
The water freezes solid.
“That could happen anyway,” she says, her voice constricted.
“There’s a chance,” he admits. “But that chance is smaller if we’re not together.”
She purses her lips. This conversation got too grim, too real, too fast. So much for her relaxing afternoon off.
“Top six,” she says. “We split up when there’s six left. But this deal is useless, because I won’t make it that far.”
“You will,” he says. “I’ll make sure of it. Just like you’ll make sure I live up to that point. Right?”
Her eyes comb over his brown eyes, his pinched eyebrows, the slight curve of his lips. He still looks like a child in some ways, but he’s beginning to grow into himself.
“Of course,” she says. “What are district partners for?”
They both try to smile.
“That makes things a little easier,” he says. “So I guess I’ll do the fighting.”
“Yeah, that would probably be for the best.”
“And you can hunt,” he adds. “If hunting is possible, I mean.”
She turns to face him and throws her legs over the arm of the chair.
“Why wouldn’t it be?” she asks.
“Who knows what’s in the arena? It might be so harsh that animals can’t live there.”
She shakes her head and scoffs.
“That’s stupid,” she says. “Sorry. But of course animals will be able to live there. I mean, we have to, right?”
“Not really,” Sebastian says. “If you think about it.”
As usual, he has a good point.
They spend the remaining time until dinner talking about the arena. What they think it’ll be, what sort of food will be available. Annie points out that there wasn’t a fishing station in training, which means there probably won’t be a large source of fresh water. A few times, a large gust of wind blows across the balcony, filling their ears, and tangling Annie’s hair in front of her eyes. They don’t go inside, though. They might be facing worse conditions in a couple days.
After awhile, the door slides open. Mena pops her head outside.
“It’s freezing out here!” she exclaims. “If either of you is sick when you go into the arena, I will never live it down.”
“Neither will we,” Annie says grimly.
Mena points at her menacingly.
“Mind your attitude,” she warns. “And come in, both of you. Dinner is on the table.”
This meal is the strangest one yet. Stella and Irving join them so they can watch the scores together after they eat. Both of them chatter with Mena about the outfits for tomorrow and things they’ve glimpsed from the other stylists. Mags doesn’t say anything, but hums to herself while she eats. Annie doesn’t recognize the tune. Finnick hunches over in his chair and pokes at his food without eating it or acknowledging anyone. His expression is cold and hard. Sebastian and Annie both eat with their usual fervor. The excitement of the morning restored their appetites, as did the cold balcony.
When they all finish, Mags turns on the screen while everyone but Finnick goes to the sitting area. Annie’s halfway to the couch when she notices him at the table. She approaches him and just barely lays her fingers on his arm. He jumps, but his expression softens when he sees her. His hand moves towards hers, but stops and settles on the table.
“Hey, Cresta,” he breathes. His voice is hoarse. His eyes are red.
“We’re watching the scores now, Finnick,” she whispers. “You should probably be there for that.”
“Oh,” he says, like he only just remembered he’s a mentor. “Right, of course.”
He stands and they walk to the sitting area. Annie sits next to Sebastian on the couch. Finnick stands off to the side of the screen.
The scores are pretty predictable. Ivory gets a 9. Holiday gets an 8. Titus and Romana both get 10s. The boy from 3, Leeri, gets a 6, which isn’t bad for a 13-year-old. Annie grimaces when they show his picture. He’s so small….
Hera gets a 9. Sebastian gets a 9. Finnick shoots him a smile. Stella claps her hands, Mena cheers, and Irving reaches over to grab his shoulder. Annie twists her hands in her lap and says nothing.
Then her picture is on screen, with the number 10. Hands and lips touch her arms and face from all around her, but she barely even notices. Her eyes find Finnick’s. He smiles and nods.
No one else gets above an 8. The boys from 5 and 6 both get 8s, as do the girls from 8 and 10, but no one else even comes close. It all ends with the anthem, and then Finnick turns off the screen and they all stand up to go to bed. There’s a lot of cheek kissing and hand shaking with Mena and the stylists by the elevator, and then Annie runs to her room to be alone before anyone can say anything else to her.
A 10. She tied with Titus and Romana for the highest scores. She strips off her training uniform and throws it on the ground by her mirror before pulling on some plain leggings and a soft shirt to sleep in.
There’s a knock at her door, gentle but urgent. She crosses back to answer it. The door flies open, revealing Finnick leaning in her doorway.
“Good job, Cresta,” he says. “I guess you are good at throwing knives.”
Anger flares up in her stomach out of nowhere.
“Not that you’d know,” she hisses. He crosses his arms.
“What does that mean?”
“You coached Sebastian but not me.” She’s fighting to keep her voice low.
He purses his lips and looks at her.
“Can I come in?” he asks.
Her cheeks burn hot, but she nods. He steps in and the door slides shut behind him. While her room isn’t messy, she suddenly wishes she had straightened up her pile of clothes or made the bed. He doesn’t even seem to notice the tiny imperfections as he crosses to her bed and sits on it. She stands in front of him with her arms tightly crossed, even though she wants to sit next to him.
Suddenly, in her mind, she struts over to him. He pulls at the hem of her shirt and begins dragging it up, his lips pressing against her skin as it’s revealed. She throws back her head and runs her fingers through his hair. Just as she settles her knees on either side of his hips, she snaps back to reality. Finnick is looking at her expectantly. He just said something.
“What?” she asks. Her voice is a little too breathy.
“Honestly, how did you get a ten?” he asks, jokingly. “You can’t even listen to me for five seconds.”
“Maybe that’s why,” she retorts.
“You know, those jokes won’t help you in the arena.”
The Finnick in her mind trails small kisses across her collarbone and up her neck. She clears her throat and shrugs.
“You don’t know that,” she says, keeping her tone as light as possible. “I think they could. I’ll just provide the entertainment by being funny until I’m horribly killed by a child….”
They look at each other without saying anything. Just a few days ago, she was crying in his arms because of the arena. That’s embarrassing. She pushes that thought from her mind. It’s replaced with an image of Finnick breathing her name against her jaw while his fingers delicately hook over the waistband of her leggings.
She winces when she accidentally bites her lip. He notices.
“What’s wrong?” he asks, walking over to her. “Are you still hurt?”
“Oh, barely,” she says, laughing. He can’t touch her right now. She needs to get him out of the room. “Why did you want to come in?”
He narrows his eyes at her.
“I don’t think you’re incapable,” he says. “I want you to know that. I didn’t ask you about your weapons like I did with Sebastian because I know you. I trust you. I’m giving you a hard time because I… I think you perform better when you’re nervous. Like when you punched me, you were nervous as hell.”
“I hit you in the face. I missed my target by about a foot.”
“It was a good punch, though,” he says, rubbing his jaw. “My point is, I knew you’d do fine in training. And now I can tell sponsors you got that ten all on your own. You’re naturally gifted. I have nothing to do with it.”
There’s something he’s not telling her. His tone is off; his smirk is hiding something he can’t say out loud. She lets it slide, though. If he’s not telling her something, it’s probably for a good reason.
“Thank you,” she says.
He places a hand on her shoulder. Her entire torso goes up in flames.
“Get some sleep, Cresta,” he tells her. “You have a long day tomorrow.”
He removes his hand and steps around her to leave. The second she hears the door slide shut, she collapses to the ground on her hands and knees.
“Get a grip,” she whispers to herself. “Get a grip, get a grip.”
He’s her mentor. But, even bigger than that, she’s going into the arena the day after tomorrow. She can’t afford to let these feelings consume her. She can’t deny them, but she has to maintain control. She takes a few deep breaths and climbs into bed. Maybe she’ll feel better if she sleeps on it.
She turns off the lights with the control panel on her nightstand and shuts her eyes. Images of Finnick running his hands all over her are intercut with her usual nightmares of him being killed. The blanket over her is suddenly suffocating. She kicks it off and tries to breathe.
If she were home, she’d run to the beach and go for a swim to clear her mind. A pang of homesickness hits her stomach. She swings her legs off the bed and stands up. There’s no ocean here, but she can still go outside. She presses the button to open the door and steps into the hall.
“You know what’ll happen if she wins, Mags.”
Annie stops mid-step when she hears Finnick’s panicked voice coming from the living room. Her face is hot. He’s talking about her. She flattens herself against the wall to listen.
Mags says something so low that Annie can’t hear it.
“Of course they’d make her do it. You saw how the audience reacted to her. Sponsors are approaching me on the street, and even my clients….”
His voice breaks. She can hear her heartbeat. It’s throbbing in her ears. Surely Finnick and Mags can hear it. She shouldn’t be hearing this conversation….
Mags speaks again. Annie still can’t hear her, but her murmuring is comforting.
“I don’t want her to die, Mags, she’s too….”
Too? Too what? Annie presses herself into the wall to fight her impulse to run out and do something, anything, to make the quiver in his voice stop.
“I don’t want her to live like this, Mags. I don’t want her to be like me.”
Her stomach jumps and her heart pounds harder than ever. She slips, as quietly as possible, back into her room. She sits on the edge of her bed and looks out the huge window across from her. Lights glare at her from the few buildings she can see. There’s a person, maybe multiple people, behind each one. Every single one of them could be betting on her life while she’s sitting there with her knees huddled to her chest, forcing deep breaths into her lungs. They’ll all ooh and ahh during her interview tomorrow. Maybe some of them will even mourn her when she dies.
Unless she lives. Then they could do something much worse. But what do they do that makes Finnick so nervous about the idea of her winning?
What are they doing to Finnick now?