Chapter 18: Back to Front
He doesn't make a sound as he steps into the garden room. Despite the beautiful bloom of the roses, the smell in the enclosed area is repulsive. It seems stronger now than the last time he had visited this particular room over three years ago, during Annie's Victory Tour banquet. Everyone Finnick knew then looked the same, but he knows not everyone is the same. He doesn't come into the garden room with as much confidence as he did last time, either.
Finnick is anxious. It's early evening and dark enough outside not to raise suspicion to his presence in the Capitol at this time of year, when there are no Hunger Games, the one time each year in which all victors are welcome to visit the Capitol. Or in some cases, are strongly "requested" to return. He's familiar with the process, though, seeing that he's had to do it for the past three years – blending in by clothing himself according to Capitol fashion and a wig, provided to him on the train rides there. Apparently crimson is the favorable color trend this season. He hates crimson.
Finnick clears his throat, making it known to the President of his presence there. The president has his back to Finnick and is attending to one of his many rose bushes, the ones that have an unnatural blue tint to them. He finds it odd that the president hasn't even turned around yet, leaving his back unguarded, vulnerable. It's not that he really noticed before, but for some reason Finnick notices now. He wonders if it's because he has become more wary of his surroundings as of late, now that Annie's living with him and his brother. Trying to keep Annie safe and letting her know that she is safe has been his top priority since her father died.
He tries to push out thoughts of Annie, but he knows it's a vain effort. They are together and because of that, it's become almost impossible for him to stop thinking about her. Now that they are separated by distance, he's having a hard time concentrating, unaware of the glassy eyes that have turned to face him until they are already staring on him for more than a breath.
"…how very sorry I am of her father's passing, will you?" says Snow. Focus, thinks Finnick.
"Yes, Mr. President, of course," answers Finnick, hoping he has said the correct thing.
"Tell me, Mr. Odair, how is she coping?" asks Snow. Finnick's heart pounds hard a few times in his chest.
"She was devastated, as you can imagine," says Finnick, trying to avoid the sarcastic tone his mind is so wanting to convey, and thinking about the loss of his own parents. "Losing one's family can change a person completely, you know."
President Snow stares at Finnick, his face giving no hint of what his thoughts are, except for his eyes, which seem to darken in front of him. Finnick knows that Snow understands his meaning completely, that he is no fool. There's a reason why Snow is president and has been for decades now. It certainly isn't all because of his amiable personality, of which some people are aware of is just for general public. Snow is the master at deception and manipulation. He has perfected it over the course of his time as president.
"Undeniably," says Snow. "However, having you around has certainly helped, I'm sure of it."
If Finnick could, he kick himself in the backside. Obviously, President Snow knows about him and Annie, and has been watching their relationship develop this whole time. It really shouldn't be a surprise to Finnick, though, but somehow he feels more vulnerable than ever, because he's given Snow another weakness in him. Another way to hurt him.
When Finnick and Annie kissed on that day that started their official romantic involvement with each other, he only feared for her. He knew that this relationship could hurt her even more in the long run because of what he does for President Snow, and though she accepted it, he knew she would be hurting inside probably even more than he is right now. She's been through so much pain already. That's all he has thought about since that day, and is still thinking about at that moment.
Because of that, because Finnick's been so focused on Annie and her pain, he has neglected to take into account that Snow might wonder how this relationship could affect Finnick's willingness to do the tasks he assigns him. Finnick now realizes that it already has affected him. His plans to leave as soon as he could later this evening only prove it, but there's no way Snow could know that. Snow can only anticipate it, which apparently he would've been right to do so. Finnick clenches his jaw, trying to keep his composure.
"Yes, sir," he admits as calmly as he can. "She's a good friend and I try to help her."
President Snow's laugh is hollow, detached. It's short, but the sound of it echoes in Finnick's head and the small hairs on the back of his neck stand straight out.
"Mr. Odair, call it what you will, but I do hope you understand, as much as she needs your comfort, you are still obligated to your own duties here," says Snow. Finnick swallows hard. Yes, Snow has been keeping an eye out for his most precious commodity, and Finnick has been negligent to take that into account. "Her father's death was quite unfortunate, and not something I had… fully anticipated. Still, believe me when I say that it would serve you best, as well as her, not to forget our agreement."
He knows who attacked her, Finnick says to himself. But will he say? Finnick won't ask him, though. That would be opening up another opportunity for Snow to take advantage of. He's pretty sure that's why Snow is mentioning it at all. Another chance to use Finnick. Even if he did ask Snow, and Snow confirmed his suspicions, what would he do with that information? Finnick knows exactly what he would do. He would take his trident and stab that man in the gut, twisting it until the screams of pain from the attacker were heard no more. That's what he would do. In Finnick's mind, someone like that deserved a death worse than those received by any tribute, and he's seen some horrifying deaths in the Games before.
"I understand, Mr. President. I wasn't planning on neglecting my duties," says Finnick with an air of certainty.
"I should hope not. Believe me when I say that even though I allowed you to take on extra assignments in place of your friend, it could have been… worse."
Finnick takes a moment before answering, noting the hissing sound at the end of that last word. A shiver runs down his spine, a feeling he hopes to forget once he's out the doors. Whatever Snow meant by his statement doesn't matter. He just has to agree with him.
"I believe you," says Finnick.
Snow looks at him, observing his movements, his facial expression to see if he can detect any sign of misgiving on Finnick's part. Finnick is finally able to steel himself during the observation, because he, too, has been able to master the art of deception. Snow takes a step forward and hands him a blue rose.
"Sapphire Welsh wishes to speak to you. Make sure you give her your full attention. She is quite… important to me," says Snow. Finnick is not sure, but the way Snow says Sapphire's name sounds as if he had bit into something rather unpleasant.
"Of course," says Finnick and steps back to leave. A repeat client. That's a first.
"Mr. Odair, one more thing," says the president, his back again turned to Finnick and now attending to a white rose bush. "You are welcome to take the late morning train at 11am." Finnick's heart drops, knowing that Snow is ordering him not to leave any earlier.
"Is that what he said?" asks the blue-skinned woman. He nods, his back leaning against the headboard of the king-size bed. She scoffs. "One thing you should know, my dear boy, is that the president is very attached to you. I mean, not you personally, but you all." Sapphire is talking about all of them that "work" for Snow, a handful of the most attractive victors.
"He knows that looks are very important to the people of Panem, and he feels threatened by that. You could be a threat to his presidency if people were more swayed by you than by him, you see. He definitely knows what he's doing," Sapphire explains.
Finnick had not really taken into account that his looks, his handsome features that every woman drools over, could be influential in a way that could unseat Snow. Keep those that people like under his control, and the people will continue to follow him. It isn't entirely improbable, he supposed. But it never occurred to him that that had anything to do with it. It also doesn't help that it is coming from a Capitol socialite, a veritable schemer herself.
Sapphire Welsh is drunk, but not too drunk to be incoherent. She really does want to speak to him, to divulge in secrets that she knows about that she can't really tell to anyone else, but only until after he had given her the physical attention she wanted first.
She encourages him to drink with her, handing him a glass halfway filled with an orange concoction. He doesn't like alcohol, but he downs the drink in one gulp to humor her. He's relieved when she doesn't offer him another.
Sapphire rambles on about some of the well known dignitaries of Panem, although he doesn't really know many of them, but is able to keep a log of their names to memory. She then starts talking about the president's latest deceptions. Finnick always listens intently when one of his assignments divulges more details about Snow's devious acts. Sapphire seems to know more than she should for a mere socialite.
At the end of Sapphire's declaration, and after having downed two more glasses of alcohol, she revealed her cousin had been poisoned, a familiar term for Finnick when it comes to Snow's way of dealing with individuals he needs to be rid of. It had been reported, though, that Sapphire's cousin had gotten suddenly sick and had succumbed to his illness. For some reason, Sapphire didn't believe that and discovered Snow's involvement, but she declined to give Finnick anymore details about what exactly it was that she found out. Needless to say, it didn't matter. He believed her. There was no reason for her to lie to him.
"But he knows that you know," Finnick says, wanting confirmation.
"He does," drawls Sapphire. "Why else do you think you're here with me, dear? You're the payoff."
"Aren't you afraid he would kill you, too, though?" he asks, trying to ignore the her nonchalant way of regarding him as a token of sorts.
Sapphire laughs lazily. She crawls over to him on the bed seductively and traces the outline of his lips with her fingers, which Finnick halfheartedly smirks about while inwardly cringing at her touch. "I would be, if I had nothing on him, my beautiful boy." She looks at his eyes through her drunken ones, taking a moment to stare into them, but frowns and moves her fingers away. She sighs.
"You were better at this before," says Sapphire, a tone of disappointment in her statement. With that, she lies down on the bed and rolls on her side, her back to him, still holding her empty glass.
"Be careful, Finnick," she continues, "We all have our parts to play, and if you don't play it right, then you could get hurt."
It only takes a couple more minutes before Finnick hears her snoring. It's well past 5am and he's tired, but he refuses to sleep. With so many thoughts going on in his head, it's impossible for him to sleep anyway. It didn't help that Sapphire noticed his reluctance, or really, his disinterest, in responding to her last alluring moves. He didn't even try to pretend that he wanted her at all.
Finnick goes through the new information he has just collected from Sapphire. He wonders if President Snow was responsible for Annie's father's death as well. But he remembers what Snow had said to him: "Her father's death was quite unfortunate, and not something I had… fully anticipated." Maybe Snow didn't plan it, but he doesn't care to do anything about it. After all, why should he care? There has to be a purpose, and Annie's father's death provided no advantage to Snow, thought Finnick. Or maybe it was her death they were trying to achieve, to prevent Finnick from becoming attached to someone. Snow probably would've been perfectly fine with Annie being dead.
Suddenly, he feels like he could explode from the heat rushing in his head and he starts pacing the room, trying to figure out what to do in the meantime when all he wants to do now is to get home, get back to District 4 and have Annie in his arms again. He wants to make sure she is safe. He had left her with Turlach and Mags. But he will never feel she's safe enough with just them there. He thinks about leaving now, just getting on a train and going home. The problem is that Snow had specifically hinted at him leaving at 11am, no earlier. He doesn't understand the reasoning for it.
The problem is, Snow doesn't have to give Finnick a reason. He just has to prove he still has control over him. And that if Finnick were to ever decide to defy the president, something may happen that could destroy Finnick. If Finnick tries to leave now, it could be disastrous for him, or Annie, or anyone in District 4.
What if it's another test? Finnick thinks, to see if he would still do as he's told, no matter what. If it is a test, he will need to stay put to convince Snow that Finnick is still complying.
He painstakingly makes the decision to stay, to not give any reason for Snow to doubt his ability to do his job, regardless of his relationship with Annie. But he does make a vow to himself that if anything were to happen to Annie during his time apart from her, he will hold President Snow directly responsible and take revenge on him however he can.
At 9am, he takes a shower, spending as long as possible under the water, washing and cleansing away every inch of himself of Sapphire's scent and anything else that would reek of the smell of the Capitol, including President Snow. When 10am finally hits, he packs up what items he has into his bag and heads toward the door. He takes a look around the room one last time to make sure he hasn't left anything of his in there and notices Sapphire's sleeping form on the bed, her hand still wrapped around the glass. She has barely moved since she fell asleep. He takes the glass out of her hand and puts it on the small bar counter before he quietly slips out the door, making his way toward the train station.
By the time he gets to the train station, it's 10:30am and a conductor directs him to one of the cars of the train. Of course he is expected. He knows it's Snow's doing, because once he enters and looks into the elegantly decorated car, he can see a bouquet of the blue roses wrapped neatly and formally with a small envelope attached with Annie's name on it. Inside of the envelope is a card:
My sincerest sympathies on your loss. – President C. Snow
Finnick can barely control his anger as he throws the bouquet across the room, hitting the chandelier and making it swing, as well as knocking over some glasses in its path to the wall on the other side. He has no intention of handing those roses to her. Even without the "sincere" message from Snow, she would hate it. It might even set off a new mass of nightmares for his damaged girlfriend. Blue roses don't grow naturally, and Annie isn't one for anything that the Capitol has to offer. No, he would give her nothing from the Capitol.
Finnick practically runs from the station to the village in record time. His heart is racing and not just from the sprint. A part of him is incredibly impatient to be with Annie again, but another part of him is utterly terrified of what state he is going to find her in. The last time they were apart, she had lost her father, was physically abused, and emotionally wrecked yet again. He was barely able to keep himself from pulling his own hair out during the train ride back thinking about it. He had also taken another shower during the train ride just to be sure he had no trace of those roses on him, and changed into his own clothes, willingly leaving his disguise in the car.
When he opens the door to his house, Mags is the first person he sees. She's sitting at the kitchen table, drinking hot liquid from a mug, seemingly waiting for him. She automatically points back outside in the direction of where the beach is while mumbling the word itself. He takes Mags' nonchalant attitude as a good sign and he exhales like he hadn't let out a breath since he left for the Capitol. Finnick smiles at her in a show of thanks, dropping his stuff near the entrance of the house and makes his way to the beach.
He hears crash of the waves before he sees it. The tides are slightly larger than usual today, and he's suddenly nervous that Annie is somewhere curled up in a fetal position in the sand, but when he scans the beach, she's standing there facing the water. Her hair is being blown sideways, but she doesn't bother doing anything about it. He doesn't even realize his brother is standing not ten feet away from her, keeping her company, keeping her safe in his absence, and he is briefly envious of the fact that Turlach got to spend time with her while he was forced to spend time with a drunken, blue-skinned middle-aged Capitol woman. He knows it's stupid to feel any kind of jealousy towards his brother, especially when it comes to Annie, but now he cannot help himself to envy anyone that is able to be in her presence when he can't. Still, it's better that Turlach is with her there than her being by herself, or worse yet, being with someone he doesn't trust.
Turlach notices first, and slowly walks toward Annie, and says something to her. Annie turns around to face Finnick. From where he stands, her expression seems guarded. As he continues to walk towards her, he passes by Turlach with a nod of thanks to him that he promptly forgets about as soon as Turlach leaves to give his brother some privacy with Annie. When he finally stands within a breath in front of her, the expression on her face changes, her eyes lighten with the hues of the sunset. She smiles and he touches her cheek, gently grazing it with his knuckles. She leans into his touch more, her hair still being blown sideways, and he moves away the strands that cross her face.
"Hi," he says.
Her fingers go up to his face, feeling the curve of his cheekbone, the point of his chin, the texture of his eyebrows down to the tip of his nose, before finally brushing over his lips. He feels his whole body electrify with every stroke of her fingers.
"Finnick," she smiles as she says his name. Then she wraps her arms around his waist tightly, her face pressed solidly against his chest. He cradles her head in one hand while his other warms her back.
After holding each other for what felt like only a mere second to him but was surely much longer than that, Finnick releases her to have them sit on the sand and watch the last remaining minutes of sunlight change the sky to different hues of red, orange, pink, and yellow. As she sits in front of him, with his legs on either side of her, he wraps his arms around her and gently presses the side of his head against hers, his chin on her shoulder. She fits her back comfortably into the curve of his chest, as if she were always meant to fit there.
They've been together for a few months now, but it still amazes Finnick how much she accepts him, as if he had never done any wrong, when in all honestly, he's done plenty wrong. Anyone who knew the truth would probably argue that he was forced into situations that he really had no control over or for the sake of keeping the people that he cared about alive, but still, he feels even more guilty and ashamed about it now that he's with Annie, and he knows he may never be able to shake those feelings away.
"I'm sorry," says Finnick. Annie tilts her face a bit to look at him through the corner of her eye, acknowledging his words.
"For whatever might've happened to you while I was away. For any nightmares you might've had last night. Any tears you might've shed."
Annie doesn't say anything for a few long minutes, then as the final edge of the sun is just about to disappear into the horizon, Annie turns her body halfway around to face him. She stares straight into his eyes and he can't quite make out what she's thinking.
"If I told you that I cried last night because of you, would you be upset?" asks Annie. He feels his heart beat painfully in his chest.
Annie nods, and Finnick feels queasiness in his stomach as well. Again, the idea that they could be together feels like a sick joke to him, and he wonders how on earth he let it happen.
"Don't," says Annie, her eyes glisten in the remaining orange-colored light of the sky.
"You don't understand, do you?" asks Annie. Finnick tries to figure out what she means, but all he can think about is the idea that these assignments are going to destroy her heart and it's going to be completely his fault this time.
"I hurt you," says Finnick, feeling the pain of his own words. Annie shakes her head.
"Finnick, no," says Annie. She scowls for a brief second before she pushes herself up and walks away, her back to him. She moves closer to the water. Finnick is so confused he doesn't even have time to analyze what she means before he gets up to follow her, disregarding the nausea in his stomach or the pain in his heart.
Annie tries to walk faster and closer to the water, but each step she takes feel heavier and slower than the last, so much so that she stops altogether. She clamps her hands over her ears while looking straight into the blue horizon. Finnick's hands move slowly and carefully around her arms as stands in front of her and tries to calm her. He can see her lips move, but she can barely be heard above the sounds of the waves crashing, so he moves his head closer to her until her lips are skimming his edge of his ear.
"Stop it," she says. He tries pull away from her so he can look at her face to comprehend her meaning, but her hands are now on him, too, gripping his arms hard to keep him where he is. She whispers again, but this time, he's able to hear every word that she utters. "Stop blaming yourself. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. I love you, and it hurts, but it will hurt me more if you keep thinking it's your fault when it's not."
Finnick is lost in a moment where time stands still. He hears the words echo in his mind. He feels her warm breath tickle against the whorl of his ear. He sees the waves of the water suspended in motion. He doesn't dare breathe. The words haunt him, punch him, stab him, pull him, kiss him, hug him. He's such a mixed bag of emotions and it's all there in that one point. A lifetime later, he finally feels her small, delicate fingers release their grip on him and he's staring into her eyes. There are no tears there, but there is pain, there is pleading, and yes, there is love. And he knows that it's real and it's here and it's all for him.
"You love me?" he asks. The look on Annie's face is a mix of annoyance and elation, for which neither can Finnick see.
"Didn't you hear anything else I said?"
"It's not my fault…and you love me," says Finnick, now stating it as more of a fact than a question. She takes a brief second to blush before looking up at him again.
"I. Love. You. Finnick Odair." She says it carefully and concisely, with a gentle smile and eyes that glow in the still fading sunlight. No tide strong enough can erase the sound of those words in his head now. He closes his eyes, allowing it to soak in, letting it flow through every part of his body as if it were giving him a jolt of energy he didn't realize he needed. But he did need it. And he wants more of it.
"I don't know if I could ever say it as wonderfully as you've said it to me," admits Finnick.
"And you love me." says Annie. Finnick suddenly realizes that he hasn't really responded back properly. He would beat himself over the head with a paddle if he had one. Then he questions whether it would even sound sincere. Or that it won't be sincere. He has said those words plenty times to women before, but nowhere near anything feeling remotely genuine, and always with a bitter aftertaste in his mouth. But this is Annie Cresta. A girl from District 4. A victor. A victim. He knows her. He does love her. So, he nods his head and cups her face in his hands.
"I do love you, Annie Cresta." For the first time, the words flow easily out of his mouth with a refreshing sweetness to her name, the kind of sweetness found on the freshest and tastiest honeydew. He's surprised at how pleasant it sounds even for him, that he wants to say it again.
"I love you."