Disclaimer:I own nothing.
When I started writing this second chapter, I never imagined it being this long.
A Step in the Right Direction
Finnick stared down into the lake, admiring the play of sunlight on the surface of its placid waters. With the Capitol and everyone else always vying for his attention, free time was a rarity and he had every intention of taking advantage. His fishing pole lay on the dock beside him, its line dangling as aimlessly as his feet in the cool waters below. Probably not the best way to catch fish, but for the moment, he couldn't care less.
Locking his elbows, he leaned back against the dock, enjoying the warmth of the wood as it seeped into his palms. The sun's rays beat against his back, sending a trickle of sweat down the length of his spine. Damn. He'd forgotten the sunblock. Hopefully he wouldn't freckle. He'd had enough of Agrippina's lectures on how his body was a national treasure, and thus needed to be preserved for the enjoyment of others. He turned his head, trying to see his back but gave up in a fit of apathy. As far as he was concerned, the entire nation could kiss his freckled-
Something brushed against his foot, derailing his train of thought. He leaned forward to catch the culprit, only to find a couple of fish darting about his ankles. Strange. He'd practically been born with a fishing net in his hands, but for the life of him he couldn't identify this species. They were both blue, but the pattern of their scales looked akin to the oven mitts Mags kept in her kitchen. Ugly little beasts. They seemed to know he was watching them, because they suddenly stopped swimming and then...Finnick rubbed his eyes. Did those fish just wink at him?
They resumed their figure eights around his ankles, and then one swam up to his big toe and nipped it. The other followed suit, but instead went after his pinky toe. As a visitor to the Capitol for the last three years, Finnick knew surreal. This was something else altogether. He stifled a chuckle as his knee jerked upwards. "Hey, that tickles," he said, smiling down at the paisley fish. Expecting another wink, he nearly gasped when they bared their teeth at him and growled. "What the-" He snatched his feet up from the water just as the dock disappeared and he plummeted into the lake.
Only he wasn't at the lake, he was on his couch. And it wasn't fish at his feet, but a blanket. Just over the sound of the blood roaring in his ears, he could hear someone else's breathing, quick and harsh. Trying not to panic, he assessed the situation. Perhaps this was just an extension of his nightmare. After all, hadn't he stumbled into this room, stripped himself of the clothes that rubbed painfully against his sunburned skin, fallen flat on his face, and watched the lights play against the wall until his eyelids drooped? Or maybe mild heat stroke made him hallucinate. Both were very plausible ideas, but both were summarily rejected the instant he felt the blanket crawl further up his calves.
Someone was here. Someone was in his house, standing over him, spying on him as he slept. He forced himself to remain perfectly still even though he wanted nothing more than to throw the intruder straight through the wall. He instantly rejected that plan. Too risky. The inkling that this was some deranged stalker might be wrong. What if the Capitol had discovered his dealings with the rebellion, and he opened his eyes only to find himself staring down the barrel of a gun? Or what if it were Mags. She did, after all, have a key. He couldn't throw Mags into the wall. Tough as she was, she probably wouldn't survive the crash, and he wouldn't survive without Mags.
He breathed in as deeply as he could without tipping off the intruder that he was awake. Instead of the comforting scents of Mags's lotion, vanilla and lavender, he smelled cinnamon.
Definitely not Mags.
The world seemed to close in on him. His throat tightened unbearably. He needed to swallow, but was that something a sleeping person did? As he debated, the blanket moved once more, this time covering his knees.
Whoever this was, they were clearly an amateur. Otherwise, they would have tied him up first. There were other options besides a Capitol enforcer or Mags. For instance, a pimply preteen with too much time on her hands. It wouldn't be the first time something like that had happened, he remembered, suppressing a shudder.
Alright, he had a crazy stalker. But now what? Scare the girl straight? Give her a stern lecture before calling the Peacekeepers to assist her home? Maybe both.
The blanket moved once again, this time covering his hips. With his course of action decided, Finnick found the slowness of the intruder annoying. Putting a blanket on someone wasn't exactly electrical engineering. And why were they covering him? Usually people wanted to see more of him, not less.
For Finnick time marched on as slowly as an old man with arthritic knees and no cane, climbing a steep mountain side. Lie still, breathe evenly, keep his eyes closed, he commanded himself. Finally, the soft folds of the blanket fell across his chest. His muscles coiled, ready to pounce on the cretin and teach her a lesson she'd never forget, but just before he sprung from the sofa, he felt cool fingers on his sunburned skin. The intruder paused in her movements, then slowly, almost so softly he couldn't be sure she was still touching him, her fingers skimmed across his collarbone. The hair on his arms stood on end, and he pressed his back into the sofa cushions, trying to suppress a shiver. He heard a sigh, and then the touch was gone.
What the hell?
Confused and slightly disturbed by his body's reaction, Finnick forgot to move. Only the sound of retreating footsteps recalled his earlier plan to mind, and he shot up from the couch, reaching for the girl's wrist. Fueled by adrenaline, he turned her with unnecessary force, and she yelped in what he hoped was surprise and not pain. Thankfully, he'd taken a step back at the last second; otherwise, her body would have slammed into his.
"Hey, just what do you think-"
Two of the greenest eyes he'd ever seen stared back at him, shiny, wide and unblinking. And they did not belong to a pimply preteen. It would seem he'd overlooked a fourth option. That, or he was still dreaming.
A burst of light from the television suddenly lit up the room, startling him from his shock. He used the extra light to assess his threat. She was tall. Even with bare feet, she came up to his throat. In spite of that, he'd hardly call her intimidating. Her jacket hung off her thin frame, long enough to cover her shorts, but not long enough to hide a pair of pale legs with knobby knees on the verge of knocking together.
He stared down at their only point of contact. Her wrist was so tiny, his fingers overlapped each other as they encircled the delicate bones. He thought he'd only imagined the soothing quality of her touch, but his skin, still overheated from all the sun exposure he'd received during his fishing trip, gratefully absorbed the chilly pallor of hers. No wonder she shook so much. Between getting caught breaking and entering and having ice water in her veins, it was a miracle the girl could even stand.
His eyes returned to her face, even more curious about his mysterious house guest. In the flashing lights of the television, her already pale complexion looked ghostly. Well, what he could see of it. A crown of thick, black waves tumbled wildly down her front, almost to her stomach. The unruly locks seemed to swallow her face, hiding nearly everything but those luminous eyes.
All hair and eyes and pale skin. And beautiful.
Finnick blinked, finally placing his house guest. She was barely recognizable from the writhing, sobbing mess Mags had mentored into winning last year's Hunger Games, but he was positive it was her.
"You're Annie Cresta."
His words broke whatever spell had kept her silent and still for those past few seconds. A sob rattled in her throat, trapped. She yanked her arm back towards her, but not hard enough. "Let me go," she begged, stepping back from him. Determined to break free, she threw all her weight behind her, but he didn't let go. If he obeyed her, she'd fall to the floor.
"Hey, it's alright," he said, careful to keep his voice low, the way he talked to the birds that nested on the ground of his backyard every spring. He raised his other hand to her captured one, stroking it gently. "I'm sorry I scared you." As he spoke the words, a wry grin twisted his lips. She's the one who'd broken into his house, and yet he was apologizing. "If it makes you feel any better," he added ruefully, "you scared me too."
Annie shook her head wildly, sending her hair flying in all directions. "I'm so stupid." The venom in her voice surprised him, and he watched as she continued to fall apart. Annie jammed the heel of her free hand against her eye, violently trying to stifle the tears glistening there. And to think he had found this situation amusing just a second ago. Her sorrow struck deep at his heart, and he unconsciously raised his hand to his chest.
Unsure of what to do, he stood there feeling stupid too. Mags might have kept her lips sealed about their new Victor, rebuffing all his curious inquiries, but everyone in Panem knew that Annie Cresta had been broken, and everyone in District Four knew of her slow recovery. What if he'd caused her to have another break down? Set her progress back? Idiot! Mags was going to kill him.
"Annie, I'm sorry. Please stop crying," he pleaded.
That only made her cry harder. Desperate, he abandoned his polite detachment and did what he thought Mags would do. Unfortunately, he'd never comforted anyone in this way. Feeling like a complete oaf, he gathered her into his arms and tried not to cringe at the way her body went rigid the instant he pulled her to him. "Shh," he said, clumsily stroking her hair as he continued his attempts to calm her. "You're not stupid."
That's right, because if anyone was stupid in this situation, it was him. What had he been thinking pulling her to him? What was he to her? Nothing but a stranger. He should have run and got Mags the instant he saw her. He should have-
The fabric of her jacket rustled, and her bony arms snaked around his neck. The friction her jacket and closeness created wreaked havoc on his fevered skin, but he didn't complain. The heady sensation of satisfaction, knowing that he was the one helping her, somehow made it worth it.
Annie's face found the crook of his neck. Hot tears splashed against his skin, trickling down his chest. She said nothing, for which he was grateful. It hurt enough just to feel her mouth open against his throat as she released her silent sobs. How could such a fragile thing carry so much suffering inside her? His hands moved from her hair down to the small of her back, pulling her closer, as if he could absorb some of what she was experiencing. Maybe then she wouldn't hurt so badly. Maybe then, he wouldn't either.
Her ragged breathing eventually slowed to a series of sighs. The tension seemed to drain from her, and she leaned against him, her body limp and pliable. "Everything's going to be alright," he murmured into her hair.
And it would have been too, except she shifted against him, causing her mouth to brush against his collarbone. He had no doubt it had been accidentally done, but that didn't stop his stomach from feeling like he'd just taken a running leap off a cliff. Or like she'd touched him when he lay prone on the couch. She moved again, bringing more of her body in contact with his. He silently cursed his overactive imagination, now on hyperdrive. Just because her body was pressed against his did not give him license to picture it in something more formfitting than her current outfit. He didn't question the accuracy of his imaginings. He figured it a fair extrapolation given their current configuration of limbs. But it was made without his permission, and certainly without hers. This is what came from holding girls while dressed in nothing but boxers.
Taking her hands in his, Finnick carefully unhooked her arms and took a step back. Tears still clung to her lashes even as she blinked up at him. Her pupils dilated, filling with new fear. Had she already forgotten how he'd held her and helped her? Or had she mistaken his arms and kind murmurings for those of someone else, only just realizing it was he who had held her? He didn't like that idea at all.
"Are you alright?" he asked, cautiously.
She nodded her head, taking step away from him. Her gaze darted about the room before settling on the floor. Not like she had very many options, he supposed, since he was standing in front of her in his underwear, and she didn't seem the type to stare. Only she had, he remembered with something that felt like triumph.
"Are you sure? I can get Mags."
"No!" she said, alarmed. "I'm fine. Please just...give me a second."
He counted to one. "Why are you here?"
"Mags said...you were supposed to be fishing," she answered, flustered. "Otherwise I never would have..."
Her eyes snapped to his face, then fell down to his chest, then back to the floor. "I came to get some sugar, but I didn't know where the kitchen was. She said the second door on the left, but she didn't say which hallway." As she spoke, her voice grew higher, almost hysterical, and yet he didn't think she was having a psychotic breakdown.
He was beginning to think (and hope) that some, if not most, of her skittish behavior had nothing to do with a mental condition, but with being near his shirtless self. Was it insensitive to feel pleased that she found him disconcerting? He didn't know. On the one hand, she'd been watching him sleep in his underwear, so the attraction wasn't merely one-sided. On the other hand, he'd frightened her to tears, then offered her the comfort of an old lady. What was the rule of thumb for hitting on a girl so soon after making her cry? Wait one minute? Five?
His thumb rubbed the underside of her wrist, felt her pulse throb through the paper-thin skin. "You came here for...sugar?" His voice lowered on the last word, even as his eyebrows arched.
This time when she tried to pull away, he let go.
Annie wrapped her arms around her waist, making herself appear even smaller. "We're baking cookies," she offered quietly.
"What kind? Wait. Don't tell me. Cinnamon Sugar."
She peered up at him, regarding him with frank curiosity. "How did you know?"
"Simple. You're asking for sugar, and," he lifted her wrist to his nose and breathed in, "you smell like cinnamon. It was an educated guess."
"Oh," Annie mouthed more than said. Lowering her hand, she hid both behind her.
"Plus, Mags knows they're my favorite," he added with a wink.
Usually that move earned him a giggle, but she gave him nothing. At a loss, Finnick absently scratched his lower stomach. Her gaze flickered to the movement. Interesting. This time, he deliberately moved his fingers upward, wrapping them around the scruff of his neck. Now that her attention was back around the area of his face, he suggested, "We should probably get you that sugar, yeah?"
She blinked, focusing on his mouth. "Um."
Poor thing. He really should help her out. "The kitchen is actually down the other hallway. Only, would you mind?"
He moved his finger in a slow circle, gave her an even slower smile. "I should probably put some clothes on, so if you could turn around, I'd be much obliged."
Annie did more than turn around; she walked right out of the room without another word. Finnick almost laughed, but it occurred to him that if she walked out of his tv room, she might just walk out of the house too. Scrambling for his pants, he hastily pulled them on, gritting his teeth at the way they rubbed against his unfortunate, abused skin. Working on the zip of his fly, he nearly tripped into the hallway. Annie was nowhere to be seen. Rushing into the entryway, he found a pair of sandals about two sizes too small and much too feminine to be his, though he did appreciate their color and shape. Good, still here. But where? Hmmm. If he were a beautiful, scared young woman embarrassed by her attraction to the courteous and handsome man whose house she'd just been caught breaking into, where would he run off to?
As he suspected, the kitchen had a new occupant. Annie stood off in the corner, trying to be inconspicuous. Not the easiest thing to do against the white walls of the room while wearing a bright green jacket and possessing a pair of seemingly endless legs. But even though she didn't blend in with the kitchen decor, he thought she made a much nicer addition than the new plates he'd purchased a couple weeks back.
"So, you and Mags, do you always bake desserts when you're together?" he said, casually leaning against his kitchen counter.
"Pretty much. I don't really know how, and my parents-" she stopped, drawing her lower lip in between her teeth. "Yes, Mags is teaching me how to bake."
Walking over to the cabinet that contained his baking ingredients, he opened it and snuck a peek at her through the crack between the cabinet and the door. Such a frail, ethereal thing. No wonder Mags used their time together to teach her to bake; she needed to fatten up.
"You could always have that kind of thing delivered to your place," he suggested, hoping to draw more information from her.
"I'm sure if I mentioned your name there, you could get their store discount. The girls at the bakery are always really helpful whenever I go in."
"I'm sure they are."
Was that sarcasm? Or better yet, jealousy?
Finnick pretended to root around the cabinet, looking for the sugar though the container was right in front of his face. Lifting his arms, he started to shuffle the contents of his impeccable cabinet about, but stopped in alarm. Turning his arms over, he examined them in increasing horror. The forgiving lighting of his tv room had lulled him into a false sense of security. In there, his skin had looked perfect. Here, under the harsh lamps of his kitchen, he might as well be wearing red body paint. His skin glared with as much subtlety as a lighthouse in fog.
Couldn't worry about that now.
"So, how are you liking your new place?"
Her nose wrinkled in distaste, which she wasn't aware he saw from behind the cabinet door. "Well enough."
"And have you met any of your neighbors?" Finnick asked, holding his breath. He hoped not. Well, one of them was decent enough, he guessed. An older woman in her forties who saw no problem with romancing men half her age. Fortunately, Annie wasn't a man. However, she was the exact gender that attracted her other neighbor, a guy only a couple of years older than him. Not that good looking and probably the same height as any. Not that Finnick really worried about Annie forming an attraction to a bastard like Caspian Bligh.
"I've met them once or twice," she answered. Finnick waited, giving her a chance to elaborate. Maybe share which neighbor she spoke with, how often they'd talked, the subject of their conversations, her general impression of the slimy guy next door who Finnick knew for a fact had welcomed the "romancing" of Annie's other neighbor on multiple occasions. But she didn't utter another word.
"And are they nice?" he prompted.
He watched her worry her lower lip again, now eagerly anticipating her answer given the beating she inflicted on her mouth.
"They don't seem mean."
Apparently Mags provided Annie with instruction on topics other than baking. The girl's lips were sealed tighter than a clam's shell. And that was no mean feat, he knew. Most women fell at his feet, willingly volunteering information he never asked for and babbling endlessly in the face of his bored disinterest. Yet here he was, practically begging her to reveal even the tiniest bit of information while she stonewalled him. Finnick grabbed the sugar, squeezing the container till his knuckles turned a lighter shade of red. He'd just have to try harder.
"Would you like something to drink?" Or better yet, "To eat? I brought some salmon back with me. It wouldn't take long to prepare."
"I should probably go."
"So soon?" he asked.
"Soon? I've been here for almost thir-" she stopped, but the damage had been done. Not that he needed more verification, but this was just further proof that she'd been in his house much longer than necessary to find some sugar. And maybe all that time had been spent standing watch over him. "Mags is probably worried about me," she mumbled quietly.
"Understandably so," Finnick said, walking towards her. "If I were Mags, I'd be worried about you too. You really should be more careful about entering people's houses and waking them up. Lucky for you I'm a nice guy." He made sure to give her his most devastating grin, but with her head down, she missed it. A perfectly beautiful smile, all gone to waste. Well, not all. The blush on her cheeks told him his efforts weren't completely ignored. Or unwanted.
"Don't be. In fact, I can't think of a better way to be woken up. Can you?"
She glanced up, somewhat skeptically, until she noticed how near he was. "I, uh, don't know."
He took a step closer, but she held out her hands, keeping him at arms' length. She swallowed. "Can I have the sugar now?"
Under most circumstances, it was such a perfect opening for a salacious comment. But in the relative safety of his kitchen, Finnick didn't have to act the slut, and if he were perfectly honest, he didn't want to. Not with her. There were so few things left in his life that weren't tainted, and maybe if he were lucky and played his cards right, she could be one of them.
Forking the sugar over, he made sure their fingers brushed. Maybe it was the sunburn messing with his head, but he felt chills again. Her arms wrapped around the container, holding it tightly to her chest. Her very own life preserver.
"Thank you," she said, her voice not much louder than a whisper.
"My pleasure. And if you ever need anymore, feel free to break in again."
That earned him another blush. The color brought his attention once again to her cheeks, and for the first time he noticed the white powdery substance on her right cheek and temple. "Hey, you've got something..."
"What is it?" she said, self-consciously swiping at her face, but missing the mark.
"Nothing. It's just-" Without thinking, he licked his thumb and raised it to her face. Her eyes screwed shut, and she went completely still. Careful not to hurt her, he rubbed the pad of his finger across the smudge of flour, getting rid of every last trace. The baking dust disappeared in an instant, but he found other things that needed attending. Like the wisp of hair that curled around her ear. Or the eyelash that had come to rest on her cheek. And was that cinnamon on her mouth?
If he bent his head down just a couple inches, he could find it. Take her lower lip in between his own and kiss it for all the times he'd seen her worriedly dig her teeth into the mistreated and slightly swollen flesh. Haul her into his arms and make her think about something else besides the sadness that seemed to be eating her alive. Better yet, get her to stop thinking altogether, unless they were thoughts about him.
And then...well, Mags would most likely kill him. But what a way to go.
His head dropped down, and his lips were nearly touching hers when she flinched and made a noise that sounded awfully like a whimper. And not the good kind. Finnick blinked, and took a deep breath, thinking clearly for possibly the first time since he'd laid eyes on Annie Cresta. The girl trembled, and when he raised his hand to his head, gripping the bronze strands, he noticed he was too. What had gotten into him?
With supreme effort, Finnick dragged himself away from Annie.
"There. All better," he said, his usually smooth voice scratchy to his own ears.
"I should-" Annie stopped, cleared her throat. "Mags is waiting for me."
This was for the best, he told himself, but he couldn't shake up his disappointment. He'd only just met her, yet try as he might, he couldn't come up with a legitimate excuse to keep her with him.
There was, however, one thing he could do. It would have to be enough. For now. "I'll walk you to her door." He offered her his arm, but she studiously ignored it.
"That's alright. I know the way."
"Well, let me at least accompany you to my door. Wouldn't want you to get lost again, now would we?"
As expected, she said nothing. But at least she didn't walk right out of the kitchen. Progress.
Finnick gestured toward the entry way with a sweep of his upturned hand. "After you, my lady."
He couldn't decipher her mumbled answer, and she shuffled out with her face hidden behind her curtain of hair, which he noted was actually dark brown, and not black like he'd earlier thought.
It was a short trip to the front door. While he waited for her to slip on her sandals, his eyes cast about the room, falling upon a stack of fanmail—mostly green and pink, covered with stickers and worse yet, glitter. The sparkly dust always clung to his skin, even though the only contact he had with the vile missives was when he transported them from the table to the trash. Something else shiny caught his eye. Lying next to the stack of notes from all his potential stalkers, Mags's spare key to his home glinted up at him.
He opened his mouth to call Annie's attention to the key, but thought better of it. Hoping Annie wouldn't see it, he opened the door, squinting against the bright lights from outside. The door provided a perfect frame for her, and he jealously watched a less than gentle breeze play with her hair. Unable to help himself, he laid a hand on her back as he ushered her outside.
"Don't be a stranger," he said.
She nodded, then walked as quickly as possible down his drive and through the gate. After she disappeared behind a tall hedge that separated his house from Mags's, he finally went inside, shutting the door behind him.
With a sigh, he leaned against the wall. His mood brightened the second he saw the key, and he began to formulate a plan to see her again. And soon. After all, she and Mags were making his favorite cookies, and he'd provided the sugar. How could Mags object to a friendly visit from her neighbor to return her forgotten key? Really, he would be doing them a favor.
Darting upstairs to his room, he quickly rinsed off in the shower, then slathered himself with aloe vera. Standing in front of the floor length mirror, he examined himself with a grimace. "Only a temporary setback," he said encouragingly to his reflection. Besides, even glaring red and slimy, he was still more attractive than anyone she'd ever met. Rooting around his closet, he tried to find colors that made him look less like a strawberry.
Fifteen minutes after Annie had left his house, Finnick stood on Mags front porch, hair wet and slicked back. The dark green shirt and brown clam diggers he'd scrounged up from the bottom of his dresser hung loosely off his body. Not his most flattering outfit, but right now it was all his skin could stand.
He located the doorbell and pushed. A series of faint chimes rang out, muffled by the thick wood of the door. No answer. Huh? Peering through a long window to the side of her door, he didn't see either Mags or Annie, but Annie's sandals were on the floor. They must not have heard him.
He rang the bell three times in quick succession and darted out of sight of the window the instant he saw Mags hobble into view. Which was pointless, considering the picture she greeted him with—arms crossed, chin stuck out, giving him the her eyes full of stink-when she swung the door open. It would seem she'd been expecting him.
Finnick took a step forward. "Good afternoon—"
"Why not?" he said, careful to keep any hint of defiance out of his question.
Didn't matter. Mags still exploded.
"Why not? You have the cheek to ask…" her voice trailed off, and she mumbled some obscenities under her breath. "I sent Annie on a simple errand to get some sugar and she disappeared for over thirty minutes! And when she finally got back, she'd obviously been crying! And I know you—" Mags poked him on his chest—"you are responsible for this! What did you"—poke—"do?"
"Ow! Nothing!" He said, blocking his chest from her vicious, pointy fingers. "I woke up and there she was, looking over me as I slept."
Mags rolled her eyes. "Don't look so smug."
Finnick lifted his fingers to his face to see whatever smug felt like. Surprisingly, normal. "Sorry," he lied.
"No you're not! Now what else happened? She won't speak a word of it to me."
Ha! Apparently Mags's silent treatment lessons didn't just work on handsome red-heads but on gristled old ladies as well.
"Well, I may have grabbed her." Mags eyes narrowed, and he added in a rush, "But only because I didn't know it was her."
Mags cursed again. "That's all? There's nothing else you need to share with me?"
Finnick shrugged. "Not really. I just came here to return my key."
"Is that so? Your visit has absolutely nothing to do with the pretty little thing you discovered despite my best efforts to keep her away from you?"
Finnick raised a hand and placed it delicately on his bruised and burnt chest. "Of course not!" he swore.
"Then give me the key, and we'll call it a day."
Mags held out her hand. The gentle thuds of her foot tapping on the cement betrayed her impatience, but Finnick stared at the deep grooves in her worn palm, making no attempt to move. He rather liked the feeling of the key in his hand, thank you very much.
"You little scamp! I knew it!" she shrieked. "You like Annie!"
"Shh!" Finnick hissed. Darting around the old blabbermouth, he shut the door behind her. "What if she hears you?" he whispered, scandalized. Just to be sure, he took a cursory scan of their surroundings. Thankfully they were alone and his fascination with the new victor would remain his secret.
"As if that would make her like you any less."
"That's beside the p—wait, she likes me?" Gah! He should have kissed her! Of all the horrible luck. He hadn't thought it possible, but he really was too honorable for his own good. Well, he'd make up for that. Provided he could meet the demands of the guardian of the door.
"No, she doesn't like you. But it's only a matter of time," Mags said regretfully, which made no sense to him. This was good news!
"So help me, Finnick Odair," Mags lectured on, "if you don't wipe that smirk off your face, I'll do it for you."
"I can't help it. That's how my face normally is."
"Aw, come on, Mags. I've already met her, and she's obviously still in one piece. Plus she said you're making my favorite cookies. Why would you make my favorite cookies if you didn't expect me to have some?"
"Please, Mags." Finnick widened his eyes and stuck out his lower lip. "Please."
"That face doesn't work with me. I'm not one of your Capitol hussies to be won over with a simper and a smirk."
Was that Mags's problem? That she thought he was actually into the Capitol rabble? That's one thing he could easily set straight. "There's nothing going on with me and those…girls. You know that and you know why I have to act this way."
She nodded her head grudgingly. "But I don't understand your sudden interest in Annie."
"Can't a guy be curious?"
"Annie isn't some sideshow spectacle I keep around for your entertainment," Mags said sharply.
"I know that!"
Mags raised her eyebrows. "Then what is it you want from her? And think long and hard before you answer that, young man."
Images of him kissing Annie flashed across his mind's eye without warning. Also without warning, the vision of Mags busting up each and every one of their assignations and chasing after him with his trident. Like he was some kind of bad guy.
"Why are you picking on me so much?" Finnick griped. "Don't you trust me?"
"It's not a matter of trust."
"Then what is it?"
Mags gave him an exasperated smile. "You don't already know? Oh, sweetie, if girls were fish, you would be the worm."
He opened his mouth to object, but she held up her hand. "I'm not calling you a worm, I'm just saying that women love you, but you never return their interest. That's all well and good when they are brainless and heartless, but Annie isn't like them." Mags rubbed her face tiredly. "She leads a very lonely life, and I worry that your attentions will mean more to her than they do to you."
He understood Mags's concern, but she hadn't been there when he'd comforted Annie, so she couldn't know what it had meant to him. Annie was not the only one who battled loneliness.
"I don't want that for her. She's special," Mags concluded.
"I know," he quietly admitted.
A few seconds slipped by before she spoke again. "Finnick," she sighed. "I know you don't always mean to, but you can be a bit…overwhelming. Especially to a nice girl like Annie. So unless you're prepared to follow through with all your pretty words and smiles, you should leave her alone."
Finnick didn't even try to hide his offense. He'd been nothing but a consummate gentleman, and it hurt that he even had to defend himself. "Mags, I...I don't want to hurt her. I can help her."
"Good, because if you hurt her I will kill you, do you understand?"
Typically, he did not respond to death threats with giddiness, but Finnick felt unusually jaunty. "Does that mean what I think it means?"
Mags threw her hands up in resignation. "I suppose it does."
"You won't regret this!" Mags barely weighed a thing, making it easy to pick her up and spin her around, but her scrawny arms still packed a mean punch. "I already do!" she squawked. "Put me down!"
Choosing obedience over further suffering, Finnick set her down and gave her a kiss on the cheek. He reached for the knob, ready to throw the door open and make nice with Annie, but Mags's gnarled hand stayed him. "One last thing, Casanova."
"What?" he snapped, causing Mags's lips to pucker like an angry fish. "I mean, anything."
Mags faded blue eyes roved over him, coolly assessing him. He felt fourteen all over again, standing on a platform as his stylist circled him like a shark. She pointed out his every flaw and feature, all in the name of making him more pleasing to the masses who would sponsor him during his Games. Then, it had been a matter of life and death, and yet, he worried more about Mags's pronouncement. Standing up straight as he could, he weathered her scrutiny, hoping she would not find him wanting. Her chapped lips parted, and he braced himself for her judgment.
"Why do you look like a lobster?"
"Mags!" His fingers darted upward, unconsciously touching his hideous skin and homely clothes.
With a laugh, she pushed him out of the way and left him standing there, mouth agape and ego bleeding. By the time he regained his confidence and caught up with her, she had just entered the kitchen.
"Sorry about that, Annie," Mags said. "Pesky stray dog."
"That's alright." Annie lifted her arm, pushing her hair out of her face . "I was just—" she looked up from her batter stirring and stopped mid-stroke. People always complimented him on his eyes, but hers, Finnick thought, were equally beautiful. As brilliant a green as his own and framed with long, thick lashes. And much more expressive than his were ever allowed to be. They also had the added advantage of being in her face, where he could stare into them for hours if he so chose, provided she stopped looking away every time he came near.
Since she'd left his house, Annie had traded her jacket for an apron. It would have fit Mags's small frame perfectly, but as Annie stood half a foot taller, it ended mid-thigh. She'd somehow managed to get flour on her cheek again. His fingers flexed at his side, itching to wipe it away.
"Good afternoon, Annie." Finnick saddled up to the kitchen counter, leaning back against the ledge. The mixing bowl must not have been an ordinary mixing bowl, Finnick thought. Surely it contained all the secrets of the universe. How else to explain why it fascinated her more than he did.
Perhaps realizing Finnick was on to her discovery, Annie grabbed the spoon and fumbled it. Wiping her hands on her apron, she tried again.
Finnick snuck a quick glance at Mags. "See," she mouthed, raising her eyebrows pointedly.
"Annie, he won't bite. I promise," Mags assured her.
"Unless you ask me too," Finnick said, almost reflexively.
Dead silence greeted him, and his ears began to burn. OK. New strategy needed.
Finnick cleared his throat, trying again. "Do you need any help?"
"I can do it myself," Annie said defensively, attacking the already well-stirred dough with verve.
Finnick blinked. It was like being snapped at by a puppy. She'd been so sweet in his house. What had happened to her on the short walk that separated his house from here? Or maybe the problem was with this house. It would explain its owner's persistent crankiness.
"Do something," Mags mouthed again.
"Uh, I'm sorry?" He looked to Mags for more guidance, and she moved her hand in a circling motion, as if to say, 'Come on, stupid.' "I didn't mean it that way. It's just…Mags never lets me do anything in her kitchen," he admitted.
"That's because I want my kitchen to remain standing."
Annie's lips twitched, but she didn't give in to the urge to smile.
"Don't listen to her," Finnick said. "I'm a perfectly adequate cook." Determined to prove his baking chops, Finnick located another apron in a nearby drawer and tugged it on. Also made for Mags, the apron fit him even worse than Annie's fit hers. The strings wouldn't even reach around his waist.
This time, Annie couldn't hide her smile.
"I think you should rethink your color combinations, Finnick," Mags said.
That was odd. Mags only gave a hoot about fashion one time a year, and only because she relished pointing out the idiocy of the Capitol outfits that arrayed the tributes during their opening ceremonies. And that wasn't until next week.
"Why should I rethink it?" He knew for a fact that he looked good in any color.
"It clashes with the red you're wearing."
Both he and Annie looked over at Mags. "But I'm not wearing…" he trailed off in confusion until he saw the devious sparkle in Mags's eyes.
The sunburn! Finnick shot his mentor an injured look. Leave it to Mags to kick a boy when he's trying to impress a girl. Heartless crone!
A small giggle distracted him from his embarrassment, but it disappeared the instant Annie realized she'd captured his attention.
"Go ahead, Annie, laugh your heart out," Mags said, fingering the frills around his neck and shoulders. "He looks ridiculous."
Annie shook her head, though her shoulders were heaving. "No, he looks very… distinguished."
"That's it, I'm taking this off." Finnick managed to shimmy out of the apron and fling it onto the kitchen table. "You are cruel."
"Who?" Mags asked.
"Both of you!"
Annie stared up, her face pale again. "I'm sorry—"
Finnick held up his hand dramatically. "And just for that, I am taking some of your cookie dough."
Before anyone could object, he stuck his finger in the mix, then stuck it in his mouth. And for good measure, he winked at Annie as he sucked his finger. Didn't feel a smidge of remorse either. Let that be her lesson.
"You're just going to let him do that?" Mags railed.
Annie made no answer, unless her blinking lashes were communicating something in code. While he could not be certain, Finnick thought if he squinted really hard he could make out the words 'hot' and 'Finnick.'
"Next time, slap his hand with the spoon," Mags advised. "Or the back of his head."
"Unlike you, Annie actually likes me. We're friends." To prove his point, Finnick leaned over and wiped the smudge of flour from Annie's cheek. "Besides, she's too nice to do that, aren't you?"
The girl in question blushed, but instead of looking away as he expected, she pushed the bowl towards him. "You can help me separate the dough."
Victory! He made sure Mags saw his look of triumph before setting straight to work. As they waited for the cookies to bake, Mags distracted them with stories, all with a common theme—Finnick embarrassing himself. And while he never thought he'd enjoy looking foolish in front of Annie, her laughter made it tolerable. So much so that he found himself doing stupid things on purpose—like accidentally spraying himself in the face while they cleaned the dishes—just to hear it again. It didn't hurt that he looked stunning when glistening wet. And shirtless, because he couldn't wear a drenched shirt, now could he? He'd catch a cold, and with him mentoring at the Hunger Games next week, that couldn't be allowed.
Grasping the hem of his shirt, he lifted the clingy cotton up. It got stuck around his head, but rather than being greeted by more laughter, the room went silent, punctuated by the occasional cough. Even robbed of his sight, Finnick could figure out what had happened. Annie had stopped laughing, while Mags tried to inexpertly cover up her snorts of merriment with hacking. "Show off," she said under her breath, but he could hear her amusement. Being so brazen herself, she always admired gumption in others.
With a flex of his muscles, he could rip the shirt off. If he wanted to. "A little help," Finnick said, trying to sound feeble and weak to engage their pity.
"I am too short to reach," Mags said in monotone. "Oh, Annie, you are tall. Maybe you can help Finnick remove his clothes?" Mags coughed again.
"But I—I'm not sure…" Annie stammered.
"She has a point, Finnick," Mags thoughtfully countered. "How is she supposed to get that shirt off from around that big head of yours?"
"Just grab the collar and pull. I'll do the rest," Finnick growled, his voice muffled through the sodden fabric.
He waited, shirt over his head and skin chilled from the remnants of water, listening to Mags continue to choke on her glee. In other words, he was absolutely vulnerable.
Just when he'd given up hope, he felt Annie's fingers at the base of his throat, stretching the material around his neck. In less than a second, he was free of the confining shirt.
Now, on to more important matters. Such as his rescuer. He grinned down at the unsuspecting girl, not knowing his hair was arrayed like a starfish's arms, stuck out in all directions. "Thank you."
"It was nothing," she answered to his feet, twisting the shirt in her hands. She returned his smile with a timid one of her own, but he didn't get to enjoy it for long. Something hit his head, covering his face and hiding Annie's from him.
"Put that on," Mags commanded.
Removing the thing from his face, Finnick discovered that 'that' was nothing more than the apron he'd earlier tossed on top of the kitchen table. He held it out in front of him, eyeing its paisley pattern and shabby ruffles distastefully. "But my sunburn," he protested.
"It didn't stop you from wearing it earlier," Mags helpfully reminded him.
Finnick set about putting the ruffle-y frock on with as much enthusiasm as someone who had been tasked with cleaning up the deck after someone had been seasick.
A loud beep signaled the cookies were ready. Taking the mismatched oven mitts Mags handed to him, Finnick opened the stove. The warm air blasted his cheeks, and he quickly grabbed the tray and set it on the counter.
"Don't close it," Annie said, laying his wet shirt on the open door a few moments later.
"Smart thinking, dear," Mags encouraged. "That way he won't have to stay shirtless for long."
"Thanks," he mumbled, glaring at Mags. Grabbing a cookie to comfort himself, he dropped it with a hiss. And maybe a curse word or two.
"Careful. They're still hot." Annie reached for him, then dropped her hands when she realized what she was doing. "I'll get some milk," she said. Finnick sat down in one of the kitchen chairs. His eyes followed her about as she retrieved the glasses from the cupboard and the drink from the fridge. She moved about quickly, her actions jerky and unsettled, as if she knew he watched her. For her part, Mags remained quiet, occasionally sipping her milk as she observed Finnick.
Making sure the cookies had sufficiently cooled, Annie gave one to Mags, then Finnick. Discretely touching his tongue to it, he ensured the cookie would not scald his mouth, then shoved it past his lips. The butter morsel crumbled with little help from his teeth. Its succulent goodness, accompanied by the sweet and spice of the sugar and cinnamon, burst across his tongue, its moist goodness penetrating all the way down to the depths of his stomach.
"These are delicious," he said, half moaning. "Thanks, Annie."
"Mags did most of the work," she replied, playing with the condensation around the lip of her glass.
"She's lying," Mags retorted.
Finnick reached across the table for another cookie. "I know,"
Before he'd finished swallowing it, a chair scraped loudly across the kitchen tile, and Mags stood up. "Well, it's time for me to go to bed."
That was abrupt. "It's not even five o'clock," he protested.
She shrugged. "Then I'm going to take a nap." She turned and looked pointedly at Finnick, "Don't do anything stupid while I'm gone."
"Why are you only saying that to me?"
"You're a smart boy. I'm sure you'll figure it out." And with that, she hobbled out the room.
As predicted, Annie stood up the instant Mags left. "I should be going too."
"Are you sure? These may be my favorite cookies, but I can't possibly eat all these by myself."
"I'm not hungry."
He tried not to feel too disappointed. After all, he'd had some success with her. Best not push things too far too soon. Resigning himself to a tactical retreat, Finnick stood up as well. "At least take some with you." She nodded, and he wrapped some up for her in a napkin, then put some more in another napkin and repeated the action. "Do you have something to store these in at home?"
"Yes," she said, tucking the cookies in her jacket's pockets.
"Right." Finnick rocked back on his heels, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his apron. "So…can I walk you home?"
"That's alright. I don't live too far away."
"Wouldn't want you to get attacked by a wild bear."
"There hasn't been a bear sighting in years."
True. Natural predators tended to give the Victor's Village and surrounding town a wide berth. But when Finnick had said wild bear, he had meant her randy neighbor, Caspian.
"I insist. Those bears can be really tricky."
She put on her jacket, offering no further argument.
He started following her out of the kitchen, then remembered. "Just, uh, let me put my shirt on."
Finally ready, he led her towards Mags's porch. The walk down the drive was uneventful, and he opened the gate for her. Surrounded on both sides by the gates and manicured lawns of their fellow victors, they continued their stroll along the empty street. The silence was killing him, but he couldn't think of anything to say and Annie's selective muteness had kicked in again. Picking up a stick, he trailed it over the tops of the white picket fences, gratifying in the 'thunk,' 'thunk,' 'thunk' of the wood smacking against the slats.
"Thank you for walking me home."
Shocked that she'd spoken first, he couldn't come up with anything better than "you're welcome."
Shifting the stick from hand to hand, he ventured to say, "I had a really nice time with you and Mags today."
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Me too."
"I know you've been here a year, and I've hardly spoken with you. I wish," he cleared his throat, "I'm sorry I didn't get to know you sooner."
"It's ok. I'm sure you've been very busy."
Finnick laughed without much mirth. "When the Capitol calls, how can I say no?"
"I wouldn't know."
That's right. Though the Games' ratings strategists were trying to appeal to a more youthful and attractive demographic, she hadn't received an invite to mentor this year. Probably never would even though Annie was one of the loveliest tributes to win the Games in the last twenty years. The Capitol didn't prize the kind of beauty that would cover someone with a blanket if they were cold, or feel badly if they burnt their finger on a cookie. No, unless that beauty was accompanied with blood, betrayal, and viciousness, the Capitol wanted nothing to do with it. That's why it loved victors like Gloss or Cashmere. Like him.
Finnick Odair, the Capitol's favorite. He flung the stick away from him with all of his might.
"Count yourself lucky. It's not as glamorous as it seems," he said, more glumly than he'd intended.
She stopped walking, and he had to double back a few steps when he noticed. Her hand shielded her eyes from the sun that shone behind him. "Really?" she asked, surprised.
"Really. The Capitol tries to project glamour and glitz, but most of its citizens are filthy. For instance," he shuddered, remembering some of the worst gossip he'd heard. Perversions he never would have thought possible or known existed if not for the drunken whispers slithered in his ears at the Capitol parties where his attendance had been mandatory. He hadn't even committed the crimes, but just knowing such evil existed made him feel dirty. He refused to share that with Annie. His mind cast about for something more innocuous. "First you have to promise not to tell," he said, stalling for time.
"Of course," she said eagerly, her eyes alight at being taken into his confidence.
He nodded approvingly at her. In a low voice he said, "Well, my stylist told me that another stylist told her that one of the official's wives owns ten dogs, and they let them run wild in the house, and don't even pick up after them after they, er, relieve themselves. As you can imagine, no one wants to attend the parties at their house."
Her nose wrinkled adorably. "I knew that."
"Oh you did, did you?" he said, eyebrows raised.
She giggled. "Well, not that exactly, just that the people there are nasty. But I thought," she pulled her jacket tighter around her, "I thought you liked them."
"Can I let you in on another secret?" Not waiting for her answer, he leaned in close enough to smell the cinnamon that still clung to her, cleansing his mind from the stench of the Capitol's debaucheries. Lowering his mouth to her ear, he revealed, "I'd much rather spend my time here with Mags." He took a deep breath, the cinnamon heavy enough he could almost taste it on his tongue, "…and with you."
He moved back, looked around as Annie regained her bearings. "Hey, we're almost at your place."
As they approached, he noticed the relative shabbiness of her house. Of course most people in District Four would consider the home palatial, but his issue was with the lawn. The overgrown grass and untrimmed trees and shrubberies were in dire need of attention. Before he left for the Capitol, he'd arrange for the village boy who tidied his yard to take care of hers as well.
They climbed the creaky steps of her porch, stopping at the door. Finnick noticed she didn't immediately reach for her key. Buoyed by that little encouragement, he claimed her hand. For once, her fingers were warm in his. "It was nice meeting you again, Annie Cresta."
"You too," she smiled, almost rolling her eyes as she added, "Finnick Odair."
At this point he should have let her hand go, but instead he covered it with his other one. "Listen, I have to go out of town for," he hesitated, thinking it best not to mention the Games, "…a little while. But when I get back, would you like to, uh, make some cookies again?"
Annie chewed on her lower lip. "Maybe."
"We could do it at Mags's house, and I'll bring the sugar."
Her fingers squirmed inside of his hands, and he could see the anxiety in her eyes. Time to break out the big guns. "Please. I'll even wear Mags's apron again."
That earned another giggle. "Alright," she conceded.
"I'm looking forward to it." He took a step towards her, and when she didn't shrink back, he pulled her into a hug. The action seemed much more natural than the other time he'd done this with her. She must have thought the same, because she returned the gesture, wrapping her arms around his neck. "Goodnight, Annie," he murmured into her hair. Remembering Mags's admonition not to do anything stupid, he released her, handed over the cookies then walked away.
Finnick had just stepped back into the street when he heard Annie call from her porch, "Goodnight."
Whistling, Finnick made his way home.