Mags smiles, and the wrinkles across her cheeks and forehead meet. It looks like her whole face is frowning, except her mouth. "Your turn," she says. "For all the good it will do."
"What do you mean?"
She laughs. "They're stubborn and they think they know everything. Like most children."
"They're only a year younger than me," I say.
"You're still a kid too, Finnick," Mags says.
"Thanks, mentor. Very helpful."
Mags is too used to my irreverence to be bothered by it. She waves me off and goes to her room, probably for a nap. Now all I have to do is give our tributes life-saving advice.
"Your strategy needs to be adaptable, because the arena could be anything from a desert to a jungle," I tell them. "Focus on the elements you know. You're in the Career pack, but what are you going to do to stay in it? Or leave, when the time is right?"
"That's easy," says Nethan. "We make ourselves useful enough to keep, and when the field thins out we remove the biggest threat."
"Then get out," Annie adds. "Quick."
There are so many holes in that plan that I'm not sure where to start. What are they teaching cadets at the training camp these days? I shake my head. "First of all, there's no 'we' in the arena. Stick too close together and the Gamemakers will make you pay for it. And you'll probably look suspicious to the Ones and Twos."
Annie fiddles with a knife, not looking at me, and Nethan stares at the wall over my shoulder. I need them to listen more closely. I need them to care about what I have to say. "Everyone's loyal to their district partner—"
"Not everyone," Nethan says, but what he means is, Not you.
No, not me, and now I see her: Minnow, whose darting, quicksilver movements recalled her namesake. Trapped in the tangle of my net. The trident took her in the stomach, tines sinking through soft girl flesh, and I twisted until her blood flowed like wine at a Capitol dinner. Except the Capitol's cups never go dry and Minnow did. But first she thrashed and cried, fingers scrambling over the three wounds where red life leaked out, trying to hold it in. All I could think was how like a fish she looked, this girl called Minnow, flopping around on the end of my trident. And I laughed. Laughed until I made myself sick, vomiting up the remains of warm bread, fresh fruit, salted meat. Sponsor gifts all, of course.
No matter that she was older, taller, stronger than me. That Minnow had prepared for seven years, while I'd only been trained for two. District Four has had little love for me since the day I killed one of their daughters, one of my own, and laughed while she bled.
"True. Not everyone." I give Nethan my best Capitol smile and say, "Still, most players will put their district partner before the other tributes, but that sort of loyalty only goes so far in the arena. And if you show a front that's too united the pack might fear betrayal."
This was some of the first advice Mags gave me. As with most things concerning the Games, she was right.
"And if that happens, District One will stab you in the back."
"One?" Annie asks. "Not Two?"
"Two is brutal," I say. "In a straightforward fight they're the last tributes you want to face, but the people of One spend their lives learning to meet the Capitol's every whim. Nobody more so than the Careers. They know politicsthe way you know the water. So don't give them any reason to suspect you're friends."
We talk strategy for a full hour, and then I dismiss Nethan. Once we're alone, I say to Annie, "You know you're not both going to make it out of the arena."
"Of course I know that," she says. "I'm not stupid, and I understand how the Games work."
"Look, I want the two of you to support each other in there. You'll be stronger if you have one another's backs," I say, "but I'm your mentor, not Nethan's, and it's my job to get you out of these Games alive. So I've got to tell you now that you need to distance yourself from him a little. Because if you go into the arena like this, you're going to be devastated when he dies."
"I'm not wasting our last days together by distancing myself," Annie says. "Besides, you and I both know that Nethan's the one who's going to survive. Not me."
"Why do you say that?" I ask.
She fidgets with the hem of her shirt and whispers, "He's stronger. Always has been."
"I think you're underestimating yourself. You survived nine years at the training camp, and you were chosen above every other female cadet in your year to fight in these Games. That's something." When I put my hand on her shoulder, she jumps a little under my touch. The contact was meant to be comforting, but Annie blushes, and I realize I've only flustered her.
Maybe it should irritate me that my tribute has a crush on me, but for some reason it doesn't.
My second date of the day falls between meetings with District Four's past sponsors. So throughout my lunch with Felix Bembridge (a green-haired young man from old money), I go over my next conversation in my head. Planning how to best butter up Iulia Pavlovich and get her to part with her denarii for the third year in a row. This is a little tedious, but still more pleasant than listening to Felix, who drones on about his volunteer work with the Capitol Zoological Society.
"There are actually people who want to have the Games mutts put down after the victor is crowned," Felix says, shaking his head. "Have you ever heard of anything so inhumane?"
It takes all of my discipline not to roll my eyes. Instead, I smile brightly and say, "It's a good thing those animals have you around to help protect them."
After lunch, Felix takes me back to his apartment—a loft in the City Circle that probably costs more money to rent per month than I've seen in my life. It's sleek and white and meticulously clean, the furniture square and stiff, and it reminds me of a very luxurious hospital. Except there are more windows than walls, and Felix doesn't seem to believe in blinds.
"Would you like a drink?" he asks. "I have bourbon, white wine, rum…"
I make myself comfortable on the couch and say, "Wine." Something to take the edge off feels like a necessity today, but I don't dare drink anything harder. I need to keep my wits about me for my sponsor meeting after this.
I don't get a chance to drink my wine because no sooner than Felix sits beside me, his lips are on mine and his hands are all over my body, greedy and groping. The familiar sense of fear settles like lead in my stomach, even as I lean into his touch. When he sticks his tongue in my mouth, I force myself to stop dreading what's going to happen next, to focus on what I'm going to say to Iulia in a few hours. It's no good, though, because when he tells me to suck him off, all I can think about are those curtainless windows. Anyone could walk by, could see, could take a photo.
"Don't you want to go somewhere more private?" I ask.
"You district boys really are so modest. It's adorable," Felix says, laughing.
"I'm glad you find me amusing." I mean to sound flirtatious, but my temper gets the best of me and the words come out harder than intended.
Felix's smile extinguishes. "The president's clerk promised you'd show me a good time. That you'd do whatever I want."
I have to salvage this somehow. An unhappy patron means an unhappy Snow, and that isn't an option.
"I'm sorry for being rude. Let me make it up to you." I touch his cheek, drag my fingers down his jaw, his neck, and undo the top button of his shirt.
Felix remains stony-faced, unmoved by my charms, but now there's a flicker of desire in his pale eyes. "Get on your knees," he orders. "I'm not going to tell you again."
Some industrious photographer got a picture of me blowing Felix, and by six o'clock it's all over the rag mags and the gossip channels. At least my face and his groin are purposely pixelated beyond recognition. (Even the Capitol is above blasting uncensored pornography across primetime television.) Still, I can tell from Nethan's unforgiving stare and Annie's refusal to meet my eyes that they both saw it.
I wonder if it made the news back home in District Four. If my father got to see his youngest son kneeling before a Capitol man and felt justified in selling me to Mags seven years ago.
I go to my room as soon as I can, ready for this damn day to be over, but Varinia wakes me in the middle of the night. I turn on the lamp, scowling and pissed off because this is the first real sleep I've gotten in over forty-eight hours and she just interrupted it.
I look at the clock and see that the red digital numbers read 3:13 a.m. "What the hell do you want?" I ask.
"You need to have a talk with your tribute," she says, voice huffy. "I passed her room and heard… noises. So I opened the door and found Nethan in her bed."
"What?" I get up and put on some clothes. "Were they fucking?"
Varinia rolls her eyes. "No, Finnick, they were holding hands and singing Kumbaya."
Sometimes this woman makes me wish I had my trident on me. "I'll speak to her," I say.
I find Annie sitting on her rumpled bed, knees pulled up to her chest, wearing pajamas that have been buttoned up wrong. When I step inside her room she ducks her head, blushing furiously.
"You don't need to lecture me," she says. "I know it was stupid."
"Damn right it was stupid," I say, more heatedly than I mean to. "What made you think it was a good idea to fuck your boyfriend four days before you have to fight him to the death?"
Annie glances up, cheeks still pink with embarrassment, and maybe anger. "Why are you even here? This isn't any of your business."
"You're my tribute. That makes it my business," I say.
"And you're my mentor," she snaps, "but you spend half your time screwing Capitol socialites instead of preparing me for the Games."
I look down and take a deep breath, maybe as ashamed as I've ever felt in my life. Annie isn't the first tribute to hate me for neglecting her, but she's the first to say as much.
"Besides, we didn't, you know, do that," she says. "Varinia caught us before—before he could…"
She sounds more relieved than anything, and a horrible thought begins to take shape in my mind. I step closer and ask quietly, "You did want him in your bed, didn't you, Annie?"
She doesn't answer for a long moment, and in a heartbeat the only thing I can think about is strangling Nethan until he's blue in the face. I know what it's like to have hateful hands on your body, and if that boy tried to hurt Annie like that I'll kill him before his Games get started.
Something of this must show on my face, because Annie shakes her head and says, "You've got the wrong idea! Nethan didn't force himself on me. I told him it was okay, because he wanted to so badly, but…"
My fury recedes as understanding takes its place. "But you didn't."
"He's everything to me, Finnick. My best friend in the whole world, the only family I've really got anymore, but I—I don't love him the same way he loves me." Tears brighten her green eyes, and she bites her bottom lip. "I'm horrible for not telling him the truth, aren't I?"
"No," I say gently. "Not at all. There's no point in hurting him."
Not when it won't matter in a few days' time.
The other Careers' training scores are fairly standard. Vita and Crispin, from District Two, each pull a typical ten, while Ruby from One is given a nine. The real news is Jasper, her district partner, who earns the first eleven that the Games have seen in five years (since my own). I wish I could say his score is inflated, but it's not. He's golden-haired and classically good-looking, almost as beautiful as I am—sponsor bait for certain. There's a dangerous edge to his white smile, and I can see in his blue eyes that he has what it takes to survive.
Tilla and Graft from District Three get a four and five, respectively, and then it's time for us. Nethan ties with District Two, earning a ten, and Annie manages a nine. Solid scores, great scores even, but the only thing the Games coverage focuses on is Jasper's eleven.
Maybe this should be irritating, but I only feel bad for the boy. If he wins, he'll end up just like me. At least he'll have company at home; District One has fewer victors than Two, but by far the most whores.
The rest of the scores are disappointing at best, and I can't help but wince when I see that Rolly, Haymitch's male tribute, only scraped a two.
"This is good," Mags says, and a small smile tugs at the corner of her mouth.
"How is this good? We got shown up by some District One slut," Varinia says, sniffing.
Mags gives our escort the sort of sharp look that reminds everyone in the room that she's still a victor. "It's good because nobody outside of the Career districts scored above a five. If the Gamemakers did their jobs right, it looks like there are no wildcards this year."
Promising tributes from exterior districts are uncommon but not unheard of, and most Games feature at least one or two. Without any serious outliers to contend with, things will be somewhat simpler for Annie and Nethan.
"Mags is right, but this also means you'll have to watch the other volunteers more closely," I say. "Without any challengers from outside the pack your alliance is likely to break down fast."
"Okay," Annie says. "We can do that."
Mags nods. "Keep an eye on District One in particular. The Twos are strong but they seem slow-witted."
"They're not," Annie says. She glances at Mags apologetically, like she's afraid to correct her. "Well, Vita isn't. I've talked to her quite a bit, and she might be a brute, but she's not stupid."
"Crispin's an idiot, though," Nethan says. "I can't believe his trainers picked him to volunteer."
"I can. That boy weighs two-fifty if he's an ounce," I say. "Don't underestimate him just because he isn't bright. Not every victor is intelligent."
"Obviously," Nethan says, smirking at me. "Some are just pretty."
I've been insulted and degraded by people far more intimidating than this boy, and I don't even bother to honor his slight with a response.
I don't have to anyway, because Annie punches him in the shoulder and says, "Stop it. You're acting childish."
"How can you defend him?" Nethan asks. "He's barely been around to help you get ready for the Games, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out what he's been doing instead—"
Mags points a finger at him. "Don't talk about things you don't understand."
"I understand well enough," Nethan says, glaring at me. "You've been too busy on your knees to take care of Annie. If she doesn't make it through these Games, it's your fucking fault."
Mags dismisses the tributes, and they both go their rooms. Once their doors slam shut, she sits next to me and says gently, "If she dies, it's Snow's responsibility. His and the Gamemakers' and whoever takes her life. But not yours, Finnick."
"Yeah, sure," I whisper, even though I know she's wrong.
Vibius has dressed Annie in flowing blue silk. Her hair is loose again, but wilder tonight. She's tall for a girl just this side of eighteen—taller than One and Two's female volunteers, even. Makeup highlights the long lines of her face, the straightness of her eyebrows and fullness of her mouth. Vibius left behind beautiful siren and turned her into something else entirely. An unknown element in the middle of familiar sights.
Caesar Flickerman smooths his ghastly hair, violently purple this year. He asks the general questions. How are you liking the Capitol? What's your plan for the arena? Anyone special in your life? At that one, I'm afraid she'll say something about Nethan, but Annie smiles, bites her lip, and glances in my direction. "No one at home, but maybe someone here," she says, and I don't know whether to be proud or angry that she's using me to draw sponsors.
She weaves her way around the rest of Caesar's questions, giving half answers more than whole. Coy and teasing when my name crops up. Whispers follow Annie back to her seat. The Capitol will remember her because they'll want to know more.
Now it's Nethan's turn, and Caesar asks what he thinks of the other tributes.
"We have a saying back home that I think sums it up: shooting fish in a barrel."
That's an idiom common enough for all of Panem to know, but considering our district's industry it's both clever and arrogant in exactly the way the Capitol loves. More of that and Mags will have sponsors eating from the palm of her hand.
Caesar leans forward when the laughing dies down. Intimate and conspiratorial, and I know what's coming next. "Annie certainly seems to be taking advantage of Finnick Odair's… mentorship. Have you?"
Cat calls come from the crowd, but Nethan handles it with grace. "Not really. I don't think he likes me very much."
"Why ever not?" Caesar asks. "A charming boy like you!" He invites the audience to respond, and he's met with an enthusiastic chorus of assent.
"Well, he is getting a little old now," Nethan explains soberly.
This has the Capitol howling. My extreme youth for a victor has been something of a national joke for the last five years. Cashmere loves to remind me that this is the first Games I'm actually too old to be Reaped for.
"I think he senses his star fading," Nethan continues, his mock seriousness replaced by sincerity. "It's time for someone to take his place."
"And you think that someone could be you?" Caesar asks.
He smiles, sharp as one of Annie's knives. "Drop a spear in the arena for me, and I'll make you forget you ever heard the name Finnick Odair."
They love it. They love him.
Nethan drinks in the Capitol's ever fickle adoration, full of pride and impending triumph, and I don't have the heart to tell him that of all the ways to win these Games, victory by love costs the most.
Afterward, Varinia toasts Nethan's brilliance and Annie presses a darting kiss to his cheek. Lip gloss leaves a wet fossil of her mouth on his skin, glistening just over his left dimple. For some reason I can't take my eyes off of that innocent mark, and I know that this moment—Nethan laughing and full of life, Annie's love tenderly tattooed so close to his mouth—will mingle with nets and blood and Capitol caresses, the pains I only see when I close my eyes. Something unfamiliar twists inside me, then releases: jealousy flexing, before I tell myself to let it go.