Chapter 16: Going Back and Moving Forward
When Annie was 13, the head administrator of community home allowed her and some other 13-year-olds to go on a trip to the beach. That was one of the few times she was truly happy during her stay at the home, because it was away from the home. And it was a rare treat to not only get away from that wretched place, but also to spend time in such luxurious scenery. Or that's what Annie thought of it at the time, before she had seen what a beautiful beach the Victor's Village had. Still, it was so fun. She and the other kids were having so much fun together, they forgot for that moment that they didn't usually play well together. They didn't play at all, really.
There just wasn't a lot of time for that at the home. There were classes, chores, work, more chores, homework, clean-up, shower, thirty minutes each for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and sleep. Saturdays were used for "volunteer" work, where they helped out anywhere help was needed. The kids didn't necessarily volunteer. They were pretty much picked from a lineup by people who came by the community home looking for extra hands to help them. It could've been anything from helping at a merchant store to cleaning up around the town after a wild storm or a devastating hurricane. Sometimes, if a kid was decent looking enough, someone would pick them to help with a party of some mildly wealthy town merchant. Annie had been chosen a few times to help during weddings. She was so mesmerized by the beauty of the bride's dress, which usually was white, if the family could afford it. But she didn't care if it was white or black or every color of the rainbow. Every dress she had seen was beautiful and it made the bride all the more beautiful, especially if she was smiling. Then there were the decorations, which she sometimes helped put up, and the traditions during the ceremony – she learned about some of the more common ones, like the netting during the vows, the traditional wedding song, and the kiss between the bride and groom with salt water that sealed the union. She wasn't supposed to be watching, she was supposed to be working during the ceremony, but she would always try to sneak off just to see those traditions, especially the kiss.
Every Sunday was Pool Day. But really, it was the community home's form of training to prepare the kids for the Games. Technically, they weren't allowed to train, so it wasn't labeled as such in the community home records. It was labeled as "recreational time." Those in charge of Pool Day, the administrators of the community home as well as some of the peacekeepers, used the day to work the kids to the limit, starting with basic warm up drills like pushups, jumping jacks and sit ups, but most of the day was spent swimming. They didn't want to draw attention to the kids by putting muscle on them, so it was always swimming. Sometimes they would have the kids race each other and if the peacekeepers were especially malicious that day, they'd even have the kids have one more race after eating lunch. The peacekeepers would just laugh or bet on which one of the kids would cramp up first, practically drowning as they tried to get to the edge of the pool.
It happened one time during Annie's stay there. One of the boys, a 16-year-old, was sent to the medical building when he couldn't get his head above water during one of those after-lunch races. It took the peacekeepers a while to realize the boy was under longer than he should've been before one of the other kids recovered well enough to go back and pull him up. He ended up being okay, but he escaped the medical building and was never seen from again. Annie didn't know the boy personally, and wondered about him in the weeks that followed. When she was still there, she imagined being the boy who escaped, living safely and happily away from the walls of the community home and away from the hands of those that were supposedly there to take care of them. She had wished that for him.
Pool Day was an especially fearful time for Annie, not because of the exercise or the swimming, but because of the people that Pool Day brought in. The peacekeepers. One in particular had made her time in the community home one of the worst times of her life, apart from being in the Games themselves. Not even the death of her mother was this emotionally painful for her.
Annie was never particularly scared of peacekeepers, but that all changed when she saw the worst of them enter the doors of the pool area of the home. That was the first time she met Head Peacekeeper Garcen. She had been in the community home for about a year when he started talking to her on the sidelines. He seemed friendly enough at first even though his breath smelled sour from alcohol, but she never really felt comfortable being around him. She didn't know why she felt so nervous, but in the weeks that followed, his topic of conversation with her quickly turned from friendliness to lewdness, talking about improper things and asking about her intimate experiences with boys, which she had never had before. Things became decidedly worse after that as his lewdness combined with physical contact, little touches at first, maybe on the shoulder, on the neck, safe places. Unfortunately, it didn't stay that way for long as his touches became more bothersome and on parts of her that she knew wasn't right. She wanted to scream, to run away from him, from them, from the home. But she didn't know where she could go and if she were to get caught, she would surely receive the worst whipping of her life. She was only 12 and scared and so unaware of what surrounded District 4, she couldn't possibly know where to go anyway. No one would take her in, and her father would surely get in trouble if she went to him. What could he do anyway? She thought. At that age, she knew that she couldn't speak to anyone about it. If she told anyone, she had a feeling that she would be the one in trouble, the one to get hurt. Garcen was a peacekeeper, he was the head peacekeeper and there was no safe way out for her. So, instead of running or screaming, in times where she suddenly found herself alone with him, she froze. She became a mute, too afraid to speak or do anything and too ashamed to say anything to anyone. The head administrator must have known about it and just turned his head and looked the other way, or else Annie wouldn't have been alone with him when he came to visit the community home. She was alone on this and she knew there was nothing she could do to stop Garcen from taking advantage of the situation Annie was in.
Garcen had found a way to get to Annie and she was forced to be with him, and she couldn't physically stop him since he was much bigger than her. The first time they were alone, she cried. She felt so helpless and ashamed and unbelievably scared that she thought she would die because her heart was beating so painfully hard and fast in her chest. Annie couldn't help but cry. She continued to cry on the nights after her encounters with Garcen, but she would always try to keep herself from showing any emotion when she was with him. She learned early on that crying only made Garcen smirk as if they were playing a power game and he had won. She fought against tears after the first few times, vowing not to give Garcen the advantage of seeing her as a weakling, but she always struggled with it, fighting against her own emotions. It was especially difficult to contain her emotions when he was heavily drunk, because he would sometimes hit her across the face just to see the fear in her eyes, to see if he could make her cry again. Sometimes he was successful.
The only reason Garcen stopped was because she was reaped and became a victor. That was, until the night her father died…
Annie's mind wanders back to that day she was on the beach with the other community kids. It was such a beautiful time. So fun. She looks out at the water again. She's not afraid of the water, she never was. She still fears the voices and the screams that echo in her head when a particularly large wave crashes along the shore, but that doesn't come very often anymore. One of the kids asks her what she's doing. She smiles at him, but she can't make out the face. The voice sounds familiar, but she still can't place it, and she just smiles. Her feet move across the wet sand and a small wave creeps up along her ankles. She feels the coolness of the water and it feels good on her warm skin.
Annie decides to take another step into in, feeling the cool waves cover her knees, her thighs, her waist. She can't help but take another step forward into the coolness of it. This is so much better than the pool at the home. She's 13 again, taking in the beauty of the water. But something tugs at her mind and she hesitates for a moment, trying to figure out what it is. Another wave invites her and she moves forward again. She feels her hair swaying in the waves of the ocean. She hears nothing but the lull of the ocean and it's so tranquil. She wants to stay in this calmness forever. The ground is no longer under her and she feels herself floating and it's so relaxing.
Wait, she thinks. The tugging in her mind is harder this time. She squeezes her eyes harder, trying to squeeze it away from her mind, but the tugging only brings an image closer to her. Annie, a voice calls to her. His gentle smile and his sea-green eyes come to her mind. She remembers a kiss. A kiss to comfort her. His kiss. What are you doing?
Slowly, the sounds of her surroundings come back to her. The haze clears and she realizes where she is. She knows how to swim but is panicking now, not knowing exactly how she got there and how long she's been out there in the water. She begins to tread instinctively and wonders if she really heard his voice. She turns and sees that she has gone quite a distance from the shore. A figure swims toward her and she realizes that it really is Finnick. Finnick grabs her arm and pulls her towards him, trying to swim and guide her at the same time.
When they finally get to where the sand is, they both get on their feet and start walking until they're away from the waves. Finnick collapses onto his knees on the sand, and Annie falls next to him.
"Annie-," he says, trying to catch his breath.
"I'm sorry, Finnick! I didn't-," interrupts Annie. She's scared of what he'll say; she's scared of his anger, although she's never really heard him yell in anger before.
"Annie-," he says again.
"I didn't know. I wasn't trying…I wasn't-," she tries to continue, but Finnick just pulls her close to him, wrapping his arms around her, burying his face in her hair. She's so surprised that she doesn't reciprocate immediately, but finally melts into him as she feels his breath on her neck.
Finnick isn't sure what to say, but he couldn't stand hearing Annie blame herself for what happened when he considers it his fault. He was the only one with her at the time, and lately her actions haven't been all that stable since her father's death. She's taken the habit of wandering around the house and the village without telling anyone and whenever one of them finds her, she's always in a haze. Finnick can usually bring her back with just a whisper of her name and a touch of his hand, or sometimes a kiss, but not on her lips. He had not kissed her on the lips since that morning after he returned from the Capitol.
It has been weeks since that day. He wanted to help Annie get through her emotional trauma without confusing it with any romantic notions, especially since he has been trying so hard to keep himself at a distance from that type of relationship. He knows that he hasn't always been successful lately when it comes to Annie, but he still tries. He can't afford to play with her emotions like that and he certainly can't afford to put her in more danger than she already puts herself in.
He wants to say he's sorry, but he has a suspicion that will not make Annie feel better.
"Annie, you went for a swim," he says through her hair before pulling back to look at her in the eyes. "Without me." She looks at him curiously at first, and then realizes that he's actually trying to diffuse the seriousness of what just happened and make her smile. She laughs in surprise.
He paces in his room, listening for anything out of the ordinary. Annie is still in the shower. This is part of his routine. One could almost say he's beyond being overprotective of her, but after this morning, it only confirms that he's not overreacting.
Normally he's awake before she is, but there are times when she's up before the sun is out. And mostly it's because of a nightmare, which he wakes up to easily if she's screaming in terror or crying in despair from it. This time was different, because this time she left the house. Annie had woken up and gone quietly outside, still in the clothes she had fallen asleep in, walked out onto the beach and into the water without being fully conscious of what she was doing and decided to just go for a swim. Obviously, she didn't decide it.
He knows it wasn't her intent, and he just can't blame her for it. Her nightmares have gotten worse and her daymares, or whatever they are, have become more frequent. He knows he should've been more alert.
The water stops and he listens intently for any sounds of distress. But all he hears is the shuffling of feet and what he can distinguish as the opening of a drawer and closet.
After one more minute, he exhales in relief and goes downstairs silently to prepare something to eat. It is late morning and he's been ignoring the rumblings of his stomach since he woke up. He's sure Annie needs to eat as well. He pulls out the frying pan to cook some eggs quickly and has them ready and plated, along with some bread.
It doesn't take long for Annie to get dressed and she comes slowly down the stairs, her hair still wet from the shower, but combed neatly away from her face. Annie's dressed in a knee length powder blue dress with thick straps. It's the first time since Finnick has returned from the Capitol that she's worn a dress before, but he's just realizing that now only because it's the first time he can actually see the faint trace of bruises on her upper arms.
A heat rises in his chest and face and he clenches his jaw. Annie notices this, but mistakes his anger for something else, and she looks down at the wooden floor, flush with shame.
"I'm sorry," she says timidly. Finnick just stares, confused.
"What?" he asks.
She eyes the plate of food on the table and her stomach urges her to eat, but she doesn't respond to it. She doesn't even want to move. She's scared to move.
"I know you're mad. At me. But I-," she says before Finnick moves close to her and, with just a touch to her chin, stops her from continuing . He lifts her face up to him. She hesitates for a moment before slowly drawing her eyes to look upon his. When she does, the darkness is gone from them, revealing only dazzling green hues. His face softens before her into genuine compassion.
"I'm not mad at you, Annie. I'm mad at myself for not being here when you needed help. I'm mad that you feel like you have to deal with this by yourself. I'm mad at what happened to you," says Finnick. He gently grazes his fingers across her upper arms, tracing over the hint of the bruises that she had kept hidden. "I'm mad at the one who did this to you."
She looks down at her arm, where his hand is, and realizes that the bruise, even though it's barely noticeable to a stranger's eyes, is not undetected by Finnick. She crosses her arms to cover up both sides with her hands, gently pushing his hand away from the bruise, embarrassed. He sighs, but instead of walking away, instead of making her feel guilty, he brings himself closer to her, enveloping her in his arms. He notices the scent of her shampoo as he lays his cheek on her head.
Annie gives into the comfort of his embrace. She remembers how she grew to hate it when people would embrace her. Her time in the community home did that to her. Any sort of affection she received she came to loathe. The twisted act of embracing, of kissing, of just touching from hands that weren't compassionate or gentle of loving. It became all distorted and she loathed it.
But with Finnick, it seems she found that his touches, his embraces, his kisses, were something of what she thinks it's supposed to be. No, she knew that's what it's supposed to be – acts of compassion and gentle affection. And she desired it more each day. She found peace in it. She missed that when he was gone for those six weeks. Sure, her father hugged her and cared for her as a loving father should, but she longed for Finnick in a different way.
"I missed you," says Annie, her face leaning against his chest. She doesn't know what he'll say next, but she knows she can't be alone in this admission. Two seconds go by.
"I missed you, too, Annie. I missed you a lot," says Finnick finally.
His reciprocation gives her hope.
"Do you like me?" she asks. Another two seconds go by. She feels his chest inhale deeply, then exhale.
She knows this final question may not end how she hopes it will, but she wants him to know how she feels.
"Do you like me enough to kiss me?" asks Annie, less confident than her previous questions.
Finnick hesitates even longer this time. He has been avoiding that desire because of what it could mean if things between him and Annie became more serious, more intimate. He doesn't care as much about what it could mean for him as he does about what it could mean for her. It's too revolting to even think that he could even have a relationship with Annie, and then have to deal with those women at the Capitol. He's already a little upset at himself for already admitting that he likes her.
"I know what you do," says Annie. This stops Finnick. She pulls back to look at him, confusion and a little bit of guilt shows on his face. "I know you don't want to do it, but you do anyway. I saw it on your face when you left with that woman at the banquet. I saw it before you left on the train. You hate it. I know you do." Annie waits to let her words sink in. "I don't care. I still like you. I know you care about me. I know how you make me feel when I'm with you, and it's more than I ever thought I could feel about someone." She pauses and takes a breath. "I know I'm not always thinking straight. And I do stupid things all the time, and I don't say the right things, and I'm messed up. But you… you always bring me back. Even when you're not here, just thinking about you, remembering you and the way you look at me, the way you hold me…" Annie reaches out to cup the side of his face. "You bring me back."
Finnick feels the ache in his heart as he lets the words find their way inside him and he's so taken with her and how clear and thoughtful she is at that very moment. Annie knows it's not his fault. Annie knows he hates what he does at the Capitol. Yet she's able to see him for who he really is and she still wants to be with him. All the precautions he's taken to keep their relationship as a friendship is breaking down and he sees now that he can't keep pushing her to a safe distance from him when he's constantly pulling her to him. He won't be able to hold himself to it.
"This is crazy," says Finnick. He puts his head down to touch hers.
"Okay, then I am crazy," says Annie.
"No, I am," he says. He brings his lips close to hers, slightly touching, hesitating as he looks her in the eyes, and he sees her sea-green eyes looking back at him, clear as day. Then he gently presses his lips to hers. For the first time, they let themselves feel it, let it linger for more than two seconds. And it's not out of sadness or pain that he's kissing her. It's not to keep her calm or comfort her from her despair. No. He's kissing her because he likes her, and she likes him.
Finnick pulls back to look at the flush on her face, the beauty in her smile. He's aware of her warm hands gently holding onto his sides, and he cups her face with both his hands, grazing her cheeks with his thumbs. He looks straight into her eyes and sees no regret, no fear, just acceptance. He wonders briefly how it is that she is constantly able to see through him and touch his heart like no other. As the corners of her mouth curve upward, he smiles back as he goes in for another, longer kiss.