The Price of Sugar

I still have my trident. By the time the hovercraft came I'd been holding it for almost a week, and no Capitol lackey was brave enough to pry it from my hands. Even after I returned to District Four I refused to part with it. Because it was my salvation in the arena, the icon of my victory, the gift that brought me home.

Now I keep it to remind myself of a hard earned lesson. Nothing is free, love least of all.

Mama spoons sweet potato hash over hot yellow rice. First on Dad's plate, then everyone else's. She takes the little that's left for herself. Later today I'll be feasting on the best the Capitol has to offer, but I think their chefs could still learn a thing or two from my mother. I tell her so, and she swats my arm.

"You're full of it, Finnick," Mama says, smiling.

"Is there brown sugar in this?" I ask.

"There is. Thanks to you." She gives me a fond kiss on the temple, and if I could still blush I might. I wish she wouldn't say things like that. My winnings bought the sugar, and it's hard to forget what bought my winnings.

Of course, they had money before I won the Games. Children aren't cheap, and families are paid well for giving them up.

"How do our volunteers look?" Rordan asks.

A hush falls across the table. Mute mother anger to my right, uncomfortable quiet everywhere else. Except my older brother, smug and expectant.

"You know I can't talk about that," I say.

"Right. Sorry. It's such a big secret and all."

Pearl puts her pale hand on my brother's arm, same as Mama does when Dad says too much. That must be every wife's gentle way of telling her husband to shut the hell up.

My sister's youngest son starts crying. Short, hiccupping sobs that somehow make the sullen silence in the room ring louder. Nessa bounces the baby and gives him her finger to suck on. Thick tears slip down his fat cheeks, clear and diamond bright. My littlest nephew is maybe a year old but for the life of me I can't remember whether they call him Manny or Mally.

"We'll have more of the Games than we want soon enough," Dad says. "Let's keep it away from the breakfast table."

"Sorry," Rordan says again, and this time he actually sounds it.

Talk turns to quotas and whether Angler's, the only bar in town, is gonna close. Peacekeepers have been raiding, and Old Tam's business has all but died. This is news to me; I rarely leave Victor's Village these days.

"It's a damn shame," Rordan says. "'Scuse my language and all, but Tam's a good man. I hate to see him lose his place."

"Why are the Peacekeepers raiding?" I ask.

My brother gives me a level look. "Because that's what they do. Get in our business when they're not wrecking it."

"Rordan," Dad says, warning. Dark eyes flash in my direction, and I understand. He doesn't want to talk freely in front of me.

"I'm not bugged," I say. "Though the house probably is." Let Snow's eavesdroppers choke on that.

Pearl laughs, but it's forced, too high and too bright to be real. "You're so funny," she says. Underneath the table her foot nudges mine. Not unlike the quieting touch she just gave my brother. Except this is harder and less loving and out of sight.

Just to fuck with Rordan, I give Pearl the kind of slow smile that invariably flusters women. In this, if not most ways, my sister-in-law is unexceptional. Pink colors her cheeks, and for a moment all I can think is how different things might be right now if Dad hadn't handed me over to Mags for a sack of denarii. Seven children wouldn't have died for this breakfast, and Pearl might be my wife instead of Rordan's.

"I should get moving," I say.

"Already?" Mama asks. "But you've barely touched your food."

"Let the boy go," Dad says, and I wonder how old I'll have to get before he stops calling me that.

Outside, salt spray stings the air, and I can smell the ocean even if I can't see it. My parents' new house sits further inland than the home I grew up in, closer to town than not. I run to the water. Sand pulls at my feet, and the feeling takes me back to summers on the beach. Building castles with Rordan and watching the high tide swallow them whole. Patching the roof with Dad, though that one leaking spot never did get fixed. Selling trinkets to Capitol tourists too stupid to know their worth.

Waves roll in, green rushing to white seafoam. I strip down to nothing but undershorts and wade through the shallows. Gritty sea bottom bites into my bare feet. I shouldn't get my hair wet so close to showtime, but no one will care besides Licinia. My clients might even like it. When the water rises to my chest I turn away from the sun, lean back and let the ocean buoy me. Cloudless blue above me, around me. Featherlight, I'm floating on the one thing I used to think nobody could own. Now I know better. You can own anything for the right price.

Paper for sons. Blood for sugar. Snow must be living well off the exchange rate in District Four.

Varinia Bain, Four's Capitol escort, finds me hiding from the cameras in the Justice Building kitchen.

"What are you doing down here? We have to be on stage in ten minutes," she says.

I point to the crackling television in the corner. "They're calling the boy from Three now." He looks a bit like Beetee. Ashen, bespectacled, awkward. I can only hope for my tribute's sake that Graft Simmons isn't half as clever as his mentor.

"I haven't had time to catch the reapings," Varinia says, part reproach and part jealousy. "Tell me about the other Careers."

"The usual from Two. Built like bulls, both of them." I add three sugar cubes to my coffee and watch white dissolve into black. It does little to fend off the bitterness. "District One is something else. The girl looks sly."

And the male tribute reminds me of myself. Older, though, than I was when I volunteered. Age aside, I see the worst of myself in One's boy. Pretty on the surface and empty enough beneath to shape into whatever the Capitol wants. It's not difficult to guess what angle Cashmere and Gloss are going to go with him. Beautiful, desired, beloved.

Better if he never makes it past the Cornucopia.

"I guess I'll see for myself soon. But now, we need to go!" Varinia says, her sibilant accent growing stronger with impatience. "The Capitol is waiting for its favorite victor."

I want to correct her. To say I wait on the Capitol, not the other way around. Instead, I unbutton my shirt and rumple my hair. Smile, wider and brighter, until I no longer feel like myself. There. Camera ready.

I follow Varinia outside. The summer sun burns more white than gold, over bright in an empty blue sky. Hot, even for a reaping. Children are corralled in the square, sweaty and resentful, packed as close as livestock. The Eighteens stand nearest the stage, old fear and new hope showing plain on their young faces.

I take my place beside Mags. Front and center, still smiling. The children don't smile back.

Mayor Omalley opens his mouth and President Snow's words crawl out. Treason and tributes and games.

There's a boy in the front row—tall, dark-haired, and lean, but as strong as the oxen-in-armor District Two cranks out every year, reliable and deadly as winter. Nethan Segara: tribute trained since age ten, good with knives, better with a spear, and this year's volunteer. He isn't my concern though; Mags always mentors the boys.

Varinia's lacquered nails tap tap tap through the mayor's speech, fingers just itching to pluck a name from that cage of paper slips. When she finally gets her hand in the reaping ball, she calls, "Susely Laguna!"

Before Susely can step forward, Annie Cresta volunteers. She walks out from the group of Eighteens, tall for her age but slender, dark-haired and brown-skinned. Pretty enough, in a common sort of way. (I've seen her before, of course. All of the District Four victors visit the training camp from time to time, to check out the tributes we'll soon be responsible for.) She strides forward, straight-backed and steady. Professionally calm, the way she's been trained to appear at this moment.

On to the boys, then. I'm still watching Annie, only half-listening to the drawing (Palo Lopaz, sixteen, short and skinny and on the verge of tears). I'm thankful for Nethan's confidence and strength, Career through and through. He'll probably be dead within the month, but at least Palo will get to live a full life—as full as life gets in the districts, anyway.

Peacekeepers escort Nethan to the stage, but it's not necessary. He rushes to reach us.

"Two volunteers!" says Varinia, as if this is a surprise. "The Capitol applauds your bravery. Now, do tell all of Panem who District Four's new tribute is," she prompts.

Nethan says his name into the microphone, but the boy isn't looking at Varinia or me, the Capitol cameras or the people of Four.

His eyes are for Annie alone.

From their dark skin and accents, I can tell that our tributes are from the south-district, the only place in Four where nearly everyone depends on tesserae to get by. Most of the kids who have been reaped since my victory were southerners from large, hungry families. Scrawny boys and girls who looked half their age, almost as underfed as Twelve's cadaverous tributes.

Annie swirls a blueberry scone in the crème brulee. Varinia, showing rare tact, has the grace to save etiquette lessons for later. But then Nethan double dips a roll in the table's gravy boat and she says, "Pardon me, I have paperwork to see to…" Then she flutters to her room as quickly as her heels will allow.

"Gravy?" Nethan asks me, cool as you please. That's when I know they're provoking us on purpose, but I don't bite. I thank the boy and accept the dish.

Enough fun at my expense. We have other games to discuss.

"So how old were you when your parents sold you?" I ask Annie.

She swallows, brown cheeks flushed pink, then says, "Nine."

That's typical. The younger a tribute trainee is recruited, the better. "Big family?" I ask.

Annie's mouth is full of cookies now, so Nethan answers for her. "Very. Six sisters and another on the way soon."

"You know each other well?" I say it like a question, even though it's not.

"Yeah." Annie smiles at Nethan, if weakly, and I realize that she's actually quite lovely. Too unpolished for Capitol standards, but she has the sort of face you'll never forget. That will linger behind closed eyelids when you sleep.

Not that I need any more tributes haunting my nights. I see them writhing beneath my net like so many fish. Seven speared on my trident, blood welling around all that fine Capitol steel. Killed by love, I think, every time I meet one of my sponsors. Two more, shipped back home in plain pine boxes: victims of my failed mentorship if not my hand, and just as dead for all the difference that makes. Eighteen-year-olds (Esta Berringer and Piera Desanto), unlucky and unwanted. Children with too many siblings and too little to feed them, sold to save their little brothers and sisters, like Annie.

"Then you're friends?" I ask Nethan.

Maybe he senses my disapproval, but it doesn't cow him. "So what?" he asks, stubborn, defiant.

"Friendship doesn't fare well in the Hunger Games," I say. "You might both be fighting for District Four, but at the end of the day you're each other's competition."

"Better to have a friend by your side than to go in alone," Nethan says.

You're always alone in the arena, you idiot.

"He's not my competition," Annie says, still looking at her plate. Half full with Capitol delicacies, but she's no longer eating. "I'll protect him, and he'll protect me. I wouldn't expect you to understand."

Her soft accusation stings in a way that Nethan's bluster couldn't touch. She looks at me with sea green eyes, the same color as mine, but distant. That faraway gaze asks who I love enough to risk my life for. There are people Snow holds over my head, family and friends I debase myself to keep alive, but that's not quite the same. Whoring can't kill you, though there are times I think it might.

Who would you die for, Finnick Odair? The answer is sad and selfish and pleasing to the Capitol, just like the rest of me.

But I'm a mentor now, and my life isn't under threat. Annie's is, so I better focus on saving her.

Mags comes in without knocking and takes a seat beside Nethan. She doesn't ask our tributes whether they want to be trained together or separately. Mags never needs to ask questions like that because she always knows the answers.

"Stand up, both of you," she says. "Lunch is over. Let's get a look at what we have to work with."

Nethan looks irritated, Annie wary, but they leave their chairs just the same.

It takes about thirty seconds of inspection to assure us that they're as fit as Career tributes should be. Though a year younger than me, Nethan can look me in the eye, and when I grasp his bicep he jumps a little but doesn't protest. Good muscle tone for an eighteen-year-old boy as lanky as he is.

Mags asks, straightforward, "Do you like to fight?"

"Yes," he says, and there's heat behind that one word. "My dad's sister was reaped for the Fiftieth Games. He trained me even before I was sent to the camp."

I don't have to ask whether his aunt is a victor or a corpse. Only Haymitch came out of the slaughter that was the second Quarter Quell. And if memory serves, he killed both of District Four's female tributes over the course of his Games.

"Tell me about your weapon skills," Mags says.

"I can handle any kind of spear," he says proudly. "Not as good with a throwing knife as Annie is, but my aim's still excellent, and my hand-to-hand combat is good even if my opponent is bigger than me."

This tallies with the reports I've read from his trainers. Mags nods, and we turn to Annie.

"Are you as good with a knife as he says, or is your boyfriend talking you up?" I ask.

She looks uncomfortable, either with my assumption about Nethan or my challenge to her skills. "I never miss when I throw. Never. And I'm good with a lance. Not as strong as Nethan, though, so I don't have his range." Annie breathes deep, fidgets with the blue sea glass pendant around her neck. "But I—I don't like to kill things." Her hands flit to her ears, covering them.

If you won't defend yourself in the arena, you're dead already. But there's a world of difference between hating to kill and refusing to do it. Still, I wonder why the trainers selected Annie if she doesn't take to violence.

Gently, I tug her hands from over her ears. Then I cradle Annie's face between my palms, tilt it toward the chandelier light to get a better look.

You can see the south in Annie in a way that doesn't show as prominently in Nethan. She's darker than him, with fuller lips and brown curls that fall, thick and flowing, to the small of her back. I can already imagine what the stylists will do with hair like that. Smooth it down, bring out the shine, but they won't cut it or tame it. The rest of her appears almost fragile, she needs something to look wild when she faces the judgement of Capitol cameras.

"You're very pretty," I say, and for once the flattery coming out of my mouth is based in truth.

"What does that matter?" Nethan asks.

"Appearance means everything to the Capitol," says Mags, in a tone that brooks no argument.

"If it didn't, I wouldn't be standing here," I say.

"Does that bother you?" Annie asks.

"What do you mean?"

My hands are still cupping her face, and when she speaks, I can feel her words before I hear them. "You didn't survive because you were the smartest or the strongest or the best trained," she says—then adds, "Not that you weren't all of those things. You were, I remember. But you won because you're so…" Here she hesitates, and warmth blooms under my fingers as her cheeks flush. "Beautiful. Because you were most loved."

"Why would that bother me?" I ask. "Everyone wants to be loved."

"Yes, but not by people you don't love back."

No one speaks this honestly to me, not anymore, and I've been spouting lies for so long that I have trouble responding to the truth.

"What makes you think I don't? My sponsors saved my life." Bugs crawl all over this train, hiding behind lights, under floorboards, and the last thing I need is Snow breathing down my neck for talking treason with the tributes. I have to diffuse this conversation before it hits dangerous territory. And frankly, just because I want to see Annie blush again, I pitch my voice lower, adopting the suggestive tone that makes my patrons spill their secrets. "Wouldn't you love someone who brought you home?"

She laughs at my innuendo. As if falling for Capitol pet Finnick Odair is the silliest thing she's ever heard. And I suppose for a girl like her, it is. "Get me out of the arena and we'll see," she teases, smiling brightly. Now I have to amend my previous assessment of her looks. Not pretty, beautiful.

There, that's her angle. Sponsors would rain gifts on Annie if they saw her like this. Uninhibited, shyness dispelled, new and lovely as spring. But then I recall that the only thing the Capitol values about purity is its corruption. And I know, better than anyone, what President Snow does with beautiful things.

Author's Notes: So this is the beginning of my Odesta multi-chap that's been sitting on my Google drive for… longer than I care to admit. ;) This story is a sequel to Fishers of Men, but it's not necessary to have read FoM to understand Beautiful Things.

This fic will contain scenes of rape, and Finnick dealing with the psychological repercussions of his sexual abuse will be present throughout the whole story.

Many thanks to trovia for her beta work on this chapter!