Last part! Thank you to everyone who has read and reviewed. I hope you enjoy the ending of this multi-parter!
It Takes a (Victor's) Village, pt4
Ron Stafford was notorious around District Four as an aficionado of hate. "It's my defining emotion," he would tell anyone, and proceed to enumerate the many things which had incurred his disgust – instant coffee, small talk, rainy weather, sunny weather, overcooked fish, the smell of seagulls, the Hunger Games – often ending his impressive list with, "and your ugly mug, which really should get out of my face before my fist makes it even uglier."
It was solid fact that Ron Stafford had the capacity to hate just about anything. And Finnick Odair was no exception.
"You awake, Finnick?" He rapped twice on the closed door.
Finnick's voice came back angry and muffled. "Awake, clothesless, and pouncing on the first thing that walks through that door."
"Go ahead and try it. I'll have you for lunch, and 'Cilda will have your leftovers for dinner." He debated walking away and returning to the haven of his kitchen, but recalled the plight of his delicate collectibles neatly stowed away in Annie's mansion, and cracked open the door.
Finnick certainly hadn't been lying about his first two threats. "Why are you stone naked, Odair?" Was the boy allergic to decency?
"I have sensitive skin, everyone knows that! Do you really want me breaking out in hives at a time like this?" Finnick's blonde head dove under a pillow. "Why are you even here, Ron? I don't like you. You don't like me. Can't you just send Mags in?"
"Nope. She went on to Librae's place to have a little chat with your honey."
Finnick surfaced from under the pillow with a frown. "Why does Annie keep going to that psycho for advice? Did you know she owns like ten thousand dolls?"
"The less I know about Librae, the better I sleep at night." The bed gave a perilous creak as Ron sat down. Big, brown eyes peered at a slightly rumpled version of Panem's most fabulous sex icon in decades, closely examining every inch of the flawless, golden-hued skin.
Yep. There was no mistaking it. Definitely hate him. He hated the sun-kissed hair, the delicate cheekbones. He hated the floral perfumes infused into every pore, the cloying stench of decadence. He hated the way Finnick came back reeking of the Capitol, looking every inch like Ron did in his prime, down to the glittering, facile smile. "Tell me, Finnick. How long before you leave for the Capitol?"
"Go away, Stafford."
Finnick paused. "One week."
He hated Finnick with the same scorching passion with which he had hated himself, all those years ago.
Ron scratched his head, a burgeoning smirk on his face. "You know, shave off a few decades, and I wasn't so different from yourself."
"Forgive me if I find that hard to believe." Finnick ran a twitching eye down Ron's bald head and distinct paunch. "And slightly offensive."
"I don't mean that I ever had your chiseled looks or raw sex appeal. But I had other qualities, a kind of down home charm, if you will. And the Capitol ate it up like my famous almond jello and fresh fruit salad."
"Nobody likes your almond jello, Ron."
Ron grit his teeth. He lived his life like a man perpetually on the brink of death, eating what he wanted, drinking what he wanted, and if anyone got in his face with something he didn't like, he reacted how he wanted, invariably with a punch to the kidney's. It didn't keep Ron the most popular victor of District Four, but it was a system that worked.
But as he curled his fist for an organ-crushing strike, it occurred to him that there were times which called for restraint, and given Finnick's current romantic troubles (and Finnick's current stark naked, spread eagle position) he was willing to make allowances.
Ron averted his eyes. "The point is this," he said with a sigh. "I've been where you've been. I know how hard it is to piece together a life from whatever scraps the Capitol leaves you. But you know what? In time, after enough years, you'll grow soft and wrinkled, shrivel up like a sun-dried prune. You'll lose every ounce of those good looks, and the Capitol's interest to boot. Patience and perseverance, that's what it takes to become a true Victor. I mean, just look at me and 'Cilda."
"Are you serious? Are you trying to set you and Muscilda up as some kind of example for me and Annie?"
"We've been together longer than you've been alive."
"You also try to kill each other every other year!"
"But we never do." He grinned. "And you wanna know why? Because we won't let them –" he hiked a thumb over his shoulder, to the ever-hovering shadow of the Capitol – "get between us. Look, I get it. You want a new boat. You want something new, something shiny, something to take the attention off of how old and tired and used up you're feeling. But both of us know this really isn't about a boat, so just remember what I told you: patience and perseverance."
"Patience, huh?" Finnick sat up and scrubbed at his face. To Ron, he looked young, unblemished and precise, with an unnatural construction, as if he'd been assembled in a factory.
But his eyes gave him away. "I don't know if I can make it through another month, let alone years." For a moment Ron felt the hatred ebb. A new sensation took hold, a quiet, disconcerting empathy. Ron gulped down emotion as Finnick spoke again:
"What am I supposed to do till I get as ugly and fat as you?" he sobbed.
Was the man contractually obligated to ruin everything? Ron cracked a knuckle. "I could speed up the process for you, if you'd like. I'm sure you'd get a lot less attention if you're nose wasn't so straight. Or even there at all." But he relented at Finnick's pathetic display. "What you need to do," he said with an awkward pat on Finnick's shoulder, "is cherish every second you get to spend with Annie, while the time is still yours."
"How? I go back in one week. We barely have any time left."
Ron sighed. "Let me and 'Cilda help out. You know how good I am in the kitchen. I'll fix all your meals for the week, drop them off at your place, and you can use the extra time to spend with Annie before they haul you back to the Capitol to implant a few more fake dimples."
Finnick frowned. "My dimples are real."
Ron ruffled his hair. "Sure they are, son. Sure they are." He cleared his throat. "Now, wrap a sheet around yourself and go find your lady."
Three pairs of eyes peered out from Mags' bay window.
"How long has Annie been sitting on the pier?"
"Just a few minutes."
A fourth pair joined them. "And Finnick should be joining her any minute," Ron said. He clapped an arm around his wife's shoulder. "And there he is."
Muscilda looked up into her husband's face. "So you fixed it?"
"They're walking towards each other, aren't they?"
Indeed they were. Finnick and Annie edged together like timid mice, closer and closer until they stood in the middle of the pier, an arm's breadth apart.
"Their mouths are moving," Librae said. "What are they saying?"
"What, you don't read lips?" Ron asked.
"Not human ones."
"Quiet, both of you!" Mags' said. "Look what's happening!"
The pair broke out into soundless laughter. Then they flung towards each other, falling into each other's outstretched arms as Librae, Mags, Muscilda, and Ron exchanged self-satisfied smirks.
Muscilda popped a bottle. "I was saving the good stuff for this year's bloodbath, but what the hell!" She passed around flutes of bubbling pink liquid.
Mags raised her glass. "A toast! To our dear friends!"
"And free storage space!"
"And undisturbed romantic escapades!"
"And an empty, soundproof basement!"
"And a place for me to lay my head at night!"
Mags quirked an eyebrow at Ron. "What's wrong with the mansion you share with Muscilda?"
"I don't always trust her sleeping beside me."
"What?" Muscilda shrugged, downed her flute, and threw her glass onto the tile floor where it smashed into a sea of murderous looking shards. "I've got an evil temper and a hair trigger."
Ron hugged her about the shoulders with a grin. "And I wouldn't have her any other way."
Seagulls whirled above, white-capped waves crashing below. Finnick and Annie left no spaces between them as they swung their feet over the water, Finnick's toes precisely manicured, and Annie's left pinky toe as absent as ever.
Finnick felt it added to her overall charm.
"Are they still watching us?" she asked.
"Oh, they're watching us. Maybe they're worried it's only a temporary fix." Finnick grinned. "Get ready. I'm going in for the slow-mo smooch."
Second by second their faces slowly reached towards each other. The backdrop of a setting sun cast brilliant oranges and reds around the dark frame of their silhouette. A wave exploded against the pier just as their lips met, a cascade of sparkling droplets raining over their heated kiss.
Annie combed her hands through his hair. "Mmmm." She licked her lips as they parted. "Well. That should put their fears to rest."
"There's a few more where that came from, if it doesn't." He tugged lightly on her pleat. "By the way, your hair looks fantastic like that. You should get it braided more often."
"Thanks. Mags did it when she was trying to console me." She gave a laughing snort, then rubbed her hands together with a look of devilish glee. "So. What'd you get Ron to do for us poor, woe-begotten lovers?"
"He and 'Cilda are cooking for us all week."
"I bet I could get grocery shopping thrown into the bargain if I subjected Ron to another dose of my patented sob-face."
"Who can resist a crying and naked Finnick Odair? I know I can't."
"And what about you? Did you pry anything good out of Mags?"
"Oh yeah. She promised to do our gardening and house cleaning. And Librae, ever the sweetheart, gave me three porcelain dolls out of her own collection."
Finnick cocked his head. "Incinerator?"
"I don't know. They've kind of grown on me."
Finnick held her close. Annie's hair tickled his bare chest as he breathed her in. He knew from experience that the feel of her steady weight, the scent of salt and seaweed clinging to her hair, would create a memory vivid and lasting enough to see him through his next hellish stint at the Capitol. "Those people will do anything to keep us together," he murmured.
"I know. I can't figure out why…"
"Whatever their reason, we should 'fight' more often."
Annie smiled. "We really should."