Chapter 12: Bending the Boundaries
"Halfway there," says Finnick.
Annie looks back. The stretch of sand from where she stands to where her house is doesn't seem so far for her now. She turns again to look forward, the low waves moving steadily back and forth on the shore. Finnick puts his hand out to her. She takes it without hesitation. As they move forward, she counts ten steps, and he stops.
"Okay?" he asks.
Her heart beats slightly faster. It's her turn now as she takes one big step forward, then another. Her heart beats stronger. Annie takes in a deep breath, stopping. She closes her eyes and a vision of a wave crashing towards her slowly plays out in her head, but she opens her eyes to push the vision away. Her hand squeezes his tightly, and he holds onto her. He doesn't say anything or do anything. He just waits. Seconds pass, and she releases her tight grip on his hand, but still holds it. She turns to look at him, and she smiles faintly.
"Okay," she says. He returns her smile.
They sit there on the sand each day, moving ever closer to the water. He takes his time with her, waiting patiently for her to say when to stop or when to move forward. The progress can be slow at times, depending on the tides or on how well she slept the night before, and even a couple of times depending on how soon he can recover after a trip to the Capitol.
For Annie, the past few weeks leading up to this moment were spent thrashing and screaming around in despairing dreams, most of which she would not be able to recall once her eyes flung open. It became routine.
There were days she would have to beg her father to have Finnick stay over. After a week of nonstop nightmares, sometimes two or three in one night, her father finally relented and asked Finnick to help him watch over Annie. He would have to sleep in the empty bedroom across the hall, but at least he would be there. It helped, him being there, in their house. He was more alert to her cries at night, swift to react and wake her, to comfort her back to sleep. That was the only way she could sleep through the night this whole month.
He would kneel at her bed, hold her hand, and whisper things about the beautiful creatures he saw in the ocean. Sometimes he would move strands of her hair out of her face. Sometimes he would stroke her cheek softly as he spoke. It was always about the sea creatures, how they looked, how they shimmered underneath the sun's rays that broke through the watery surface, how they easily glided their way around; but really, it was more the way he spoke than it was about the words that came out.
It didn't hurt that sometimes he was so close to her, when he spoke his breath would warm the skin on her face or her neck or her ear. So close. But not too close. No matter how badly she needed him to stay by her in the night, he was never too close, and she never tried to pull him closer. It seemed that they had an unspoken rule about the boundaries of their relationship, for reasons they wouldn't delve into.
As the time loomed closer to when Finnick would have to leave for the Capitol and the next Hunger Games, both her days and nights were fraught with more distress, more pain, more daymares, more nightmares. Finnick was by her most of the time.
Now it's their final morning together on the beach before the reaping. Finnick lies out on his side, staring out at the waves. Annie hasn't felt comfortable enough to do the same, but she sits with both legs to one side, her body angled towards Finnick and her left arm placed for support.
"You're so patient with me. Why is that?" she asks.
Finnick shrugs. "What's the rush? It's not like I've had much of anything else to do."
"You're not bored with me yet?"
He chuckles. "I don't find you boring, Annie."
Finnick looks at her, but she's still staring out towards the water. He sits up, moving closer to her, and gently touches her arm. Annie feels a shiver move through her body, but tries hiding the sensation from him. She turns to him and is locked into his deep stare.
"Hey," he whispers, "you are not boring, Annie. You are so unique-"
"No. No!" he says forcefully. Her reaction is slight, but he sees it. That's not what he wants. He doesn't want anything he says to scare her. "Sorry, I didn't mean to snap," he says softly. Annie moves her arm away from his touch.
She takes her normal position, folding her legs to her chest and wrapping her arms around her knees, and looks down at her feet.
Finnick doesn't want to leave it like this. He knows that doing so now would make things worse once he gets on the train. He sits up and takes a breath as if he's about to say something, but doesn't. He has to think about his next words yet again.
"Annie," he says cautiously. "You are not crazy, ok? I know 'crazy.' I've met 'crazy.'" Annie flickers a glance in his direction before she looks down at her feet again. Finnick gently runs his fingers through the ends of her hair, and moves his face closer to her, enough to where his breath warms her neck. "And you are not like them. At all. Because if you're crazy, then that means I'm crazy, too. And I'm not crazy. We're not crazy. They are. The ones who don't know right from wrong. The ones who find enjoyment in other people's torment," he pauses and pulls his head back, searching her face for a reaction. She clenches her jaw, but nothing else that he can see. "We can't let them continue to torment us. Please tell me you understand, Annie. Tell me that you won't think of yourself like that. You're so much better than that," he says.
She slowly nods. "Not crazy," she says softly.
"Not crazy," he repeats.
He looks at her, pushing a lock of hair away from her face so he can see her eyes, waiting for her to return his gaze. When she finally does, she half-smiles at him, and that's enough to nudge her shoulder, to get her to smile more. He moves to sit closer to her, pulling his arm around her as she leans her head on his shoulder. Finnick used to think it would be too awkward or uncomfortable showing this kind of attention to Annie. And it was at first, especially when it didn't involve having to calm her from some nightmare or breakdown.
But now, it just seems right. To him, it feels true. He's not putting up some fake persona for those silly Capitol women. He just goes through the motions there, putting up a wall to hide behind so the Capitol won't hurt him more than they already have. Here, he doesn't have to do that. He can let down that wall. So he does, and more so with Annie than anyone else these days, including his own brother. He wonders why, but comes to the conclusion that it's because of how she makes him feel during these times they spend with each other.
His hand moves to her head, cradling it on his shoulder. He lays his cheek down on it and takes in both the subtle sweet fragrance and soft silkiness of her hair. He can't think of anything else smelling so good or feeling so soft, and he has to smile at himself being able to experience this sensation.
He knows he can't let this sensation get to him. He knows he has to keep himself in control of his own emotions, but he also knows that being with Annie has been a welcoming comfort. He's so sure of who he is when he's with her and he relishes in the time they spend together. He knows he's pushing those boundaries he put on himself each time he's around her, but can't let it break. He has Snow to remind him of that, too. Every time he gets a call, or with every Hunger Games event, when he has to go to the Capitol, that's his reminder that he can't get too close to Annie. It could destroy them both.
They only have another hour.
"I don't have to go?" asks Annie after several minutes of peace.
After last year's Games, no one would be requesting her presence at the Capitol. Situations like this are usually not spoken of in polite circles at the Capitol. Only other victors would dare mention anything about it, because they understand.
"Nope. You get to stay here, and not worry about any of that," says Finnick.
"And what do you get to do?" asks Annie. Finnick is quiet for a while, and only when she lifts her head up to look at him does he give an answer.
"I get to wish I was here… in District 4," says Finnick. Annie knows that's as far as he'll go to talking about what he'll be doing at the Capitol, even though it wasn't a real answer. But she understands it's best that way.
Considering the previous times it's taken for Finnick to get himself together again after coming back from one of his solo trips, she has a distinct feeling that it will be some time before he feels comfortable with her again after his return from this upcoming one, and likewise with her. Two weeks, no, twice that, maybe more, she thinks. This will be the last time she spends a day at the beach for a while, then. The last time she gets just the right amount of push, or maybe pull, she needs to take the few extra steps each day that brings her closer to the water. She wonders if maybe, knowing that, if she should just find the strength while Finnick is still here with her, to push herself all the way to that shoreline.
She's already standing before she consciously agrees to it.
"Annie?" asks Finnick curiously.
"Halfway there," she says now. Only halfway more to go, she says to herself. Finnick is standing beside her now, wondering if he should do something to stop her, or wait and see. He chooses the latter.
Annie takes a tentative step forward. Nothing. Another step. Still nothing. The only thoughts in her head now are the steps that she's counting as she moves forward. Slowly, she moves one foot in front of the other. She takes notice of the sand between her toes, the smell of the ocean air.
Memories of Finnick's words from what seems like decades ago repeat in her head. "The soft sand and smell of the sea and the breeze gently blowing on your face, through your hair. The sun on the horizon as it sets. Picture it in your head. Have you got it?"
"I got it," whispers Annie. She closes her eyes, taking in the sensation of the beach around her, keeping the bad memories of pain and death from invading her mind. Finnick doesn't say anything nor does he hold onto her, but she senses him there, walking with her, alongside her. That's all she needs to go on as step after step she goes.
The sound of the water is very close to her now.
The texture of the sand changes with each step.
Then she feels it, at first just the dampness of the sand.
Then the water laps at her feet.
Annie opens her eyes, and stares downward. The water is cool. She exhales, not realizing that she had held it for the last few moments. Then inhales. As each tide rolls in, she feels a renewing. A renewing of her body, her mind, her soul. She feels a renewing of strength that she thought was long gone, taken away from her during the Games. The water has given back to her what she feared it had taken away.
She finally acknowledges the person standing next to her, who has been there the whole time. Finnick gives out a huff, half surprise, half elation. The realization that she was able to walk the rest of the way to the water basically on her own gives her a sense of pride that she cannot contain and jumps up to wrap her arms around Finnick's neck. He catches her with ease and then laugh in elation in each other's embrace.
"That was amazing!" exclaims Finnick as they release each other. He cups her face in his hands. "I knew you could do it."
Annie can only smile back, because she didn't know if she could. "With your help."
"Not this part. That was all you. You didn't need me," says Finnick.
Annie smiles again at him, speechless. She could argue with him about that, but she doesn't want to stop feeling the joy that she has at the moment.
It's sudden, but it happens unexpectedly. For both of them. His hands are still cupping her face when he presses his lips against her forehead. It was supposed to be a show of pride from one friend to another, but somehow, they know it's not. They know it's more than that, and as he pulls his head back, he looks straight at her, heat rising in his face. He's flush with embarrassment, yet he doesn't want to move, afraid that she'll do something, or say something, or not say anything at all, to express her disapproval. If he could knee himself in the gut, he would.
The moment seems like forever, his heart is pounding rather loudly in his chest, and he wonders if she can feel it through the tips of his fingers, which are still cupping her face. He sees a flicker in her eyes and for a brief moment is frozen with fear that she will run away from him, from his still cupped hands. The flicker is gone and is replaced with a different kind of light in her eyes. The corners of her mouth curl slightly upward, and he quickly realizes that she is smiling at him. She is returning his gratitude.
They hug again, this time slowly, more attentively, taking in each other's warmth.
They spend the rest of the final hour sloshing their feet in the water, kicking a little bit of it at each other playfully. Annie looks down constantly at her feet, seeing the water and sand around them. Not once does a moment of terror enter her thoughts. Not once does she think about the tragedy of the tidal wave from her Games. For once, the past doesn't invade her mind. All she can think about is the moment of joy she's feeling being there on the beach with Finnick. Finnick Odair, whom she once thought of as a conceited fool, has come from being her mentor to her best friend. Her mind has never been clearer.
Before long, it's time for them to go. The joy of the moment is short lived, but unforgettable.
The reaping for the 73rd Hunger Games will start soon, and Finnick will be on his way back to the Capitol. Annie will stay in District 4 with Mags and her dad and even Turlach to keep her company.
"Keep an eye out for them, will you?" asks Finnick, after returning from the beach to pack. Turlach looks at him with a smile that's somewhat reminiscent of Finnick's.
"You know I will," assures Turlach.
"What? You don't want to pester me about staying anymore?"
Turlach pauses for a while before answering. "I don't think there's anything I could say that would stop you from going. Is there?"
Finnick tightens his lips. He doesn't know why Turlach has finally relented, but he doesn't ask for a reason. "No, there isn't."
Turlach doesn't need to give him a reason. What Turlach does know is that despite the fact that Annie is staying, Finnick isn't. He realized then that Finnick's reason for going is far greater than Annie. It has always been. When he figured that out, he knew that Finnick was involved in something that maybe Finnick himself couldn't get out of. So, whatever the reason is, Turlach needs to accept it.
Turlach also knows that he'll be relied upon to keep watch over those Finnick cares for the most. And he will do what he can for all of them. For Mags and Annie. And himself.
The names have been drawn and Finnick is ready to go with the rest of the victors.
Annie stands in front of him. The distance between them seems so much farther to her than it really is. An ocean away, really. So different from their time on the beach only earlier that day.
"Annie," says Finnick. He says her name again, pushing back some of her hair from her face. The sadness in her eyes mimics the sadness he feels inside. He needs to hide it away. He can't let it get to him. He'll be on the train and he'll need to find a way to push it from his mind. Push her from his mind. But not yet. He pulls her chin up so she can look him in the eyes. So she can focus.
"Don't forget," says Annie. "The soft sand and the smell of the sea. Remember that."
A couple of weeks ago, both Annie's father and Mags and even Turlach started wondering if it was such a good idea for Annie to constantly rely on Finnick's companionship. Finnick didn't argue with them about their concerns, but he didn't stop paying Annie daily visits either.
Still, Finnick would go out each morning on his boat, to keep his promise to himself to be there for her as a beacon of hope of sorts. He had to admit, he liked being part of her hope.
But now, as he's embracing her, he wonders if he should've heeded those worry-warts and their concerns about having spent so much time with Annie. Tomorrow, he won't be on the boat to greet her across the beach in the morning. He won't be able to sleep across the hall from her, waiting for her trauma-plagued body to scream out in terror. He won't be there to hold her hand in the middle of the night and whisper comforting words to her. He won't be able to feel her. The image of her smiling face in his hands flashes through his mind and he quickly pushes it away.
Finnick nods at Annie, but he doesn't say anything. He won't. He's afraid of what will come out. How it will sound. Instead, Finnick pulls her to him for one more embrace. He wants to feel her hair in his hands, on his cheek. He breathes in the scent of her hair as well. The smell of a subtly sweet fragrance combined with something that's entirely Annie. This is what he'll take with him on the train, to comfort him. It's all he can take with him of her.
Annie consumes herself in the warmth emanating from his body. It won't be enough, no matter how long they stand there. For with such affection from her best friend, the emptiness will come soon after. And this time, it will be weeks before she will be able to feel his touch again. She dreads the days to come, but she cannot stop it. In that final moment, the seconds before they release each other, she imagines herself pulling strength from Finnick, and letting it seep within her. Shape her. Empower her.
Then they separate.
She smiles at him, a comforting gesture. He smiles back, but only partly. She can see it in his eyes, the darkness brewing. Already, he's preparing himself for the Capitol, building a wall within himself to shield his true self from those that he doesn't want to see it. She understands him and knows that's what he needs to do, but she can feel a slight sting in her heart anyway.
"Finnick," she says. His eyes flicker towards her. She doesn't remember what her next words were supposed to be, or whether she even had anything else to say. She wants to say more, do more, but can't fathom a reason as to what or why. Suddenly, her thoughts become foggy and she reaches up to touch Finnick's cheek fleetingly. For a split second, Finnick flinches at her touch as if she had just sent a shock through him, but he composes himself immediately, trying not to let anyone, including Annie, notice.
Mags steps up next to Annie, holding her cane in one hand, and gives Finnick a brief smile as well before she pulls Annie back with her other hand to start their trek back to the Victor's Village. Finnick gives one final nod to her, and Annie slowly turns around to head back, not looking back even once. She's sure she doesn't want to see the look in his eyes as he gets on the train, whatever it is. "Come back soon," she whispers. Mags squeezes Annie's arm a bit.
Finnick gets on the train, his mind trying hard to concentrate at the task that lay ahead of him. It's harder than ever for him to do so, and he doesn't question why that is, because he knows. He just can't admit it to himself. Not now. Not ever.