Chapter 20: Finding Strength
It was strange to her. The fear of coming back to the Capitol. It hit her weeks before and didn't let go until she stepped off the train at the Capitol station – the nightmares, the nausea, the unawareness of what was real and what wasn't. She thought it would only get worse at that point. She thought she wouldn't be able to keep herself from falling into a fit of hysterics, and crumpling up and dying, to be separated forever by the man she loved, and who loved her. But it didn't happen that way. It baffled her as much as it baffled Mags and Finnick, at least it did from the look on their faces at the time. Finnick tried to suppress his smile, but all his "fans" were there to greet him as he stepped off the train, so it was easy for him to show his admiration of her with a genuine smile that many thought he was giving to them.
It's not that Annie didn't have her moments, though. She, Mags, and Finnick have been there for some days now and she's screamed herself awake every night, sometimes several times in a night, and the Games haven't even started yet. She hasn't had any daymares yet, but she's sure they will happen once the Games start, unless she can avoid watching them somehow, but considering there's a television screen in every room, that makes it a little hard.
She's amazed those visions haven't started already, especially when they show highlights from previous games. But lately, the Hunger Games' commentators have been talking about the odds of each tribute instead, now that the tributes are in training. Still, she is surprised at herself for being able to maintain some kind of rational thinking. Or at least, that's how she feels.
Who knows? She wonders. Maybe I think I'm being rational when I'm actually not. Maybe I'm not really here sitting in front of the TV with Mags next to me. Maybe that girl's dress actually did burn her and she's dying on the stage floor while Caesar is smiling away. Maybe I didn't just throw something at the TV. Maybe, maybe, maybe…
"Odds are not in our favor," she mumbles.
Mags pulls her along to her room. The evening is getting late and there's nothing more to be seen on the television anyway that hasn't already been aired earlier. Annie does feel tired, but somehow she knows she will not be able to get much sleep. She hasn't seen Finnick since he left the first morning after their arrival. She knows she won't be seeing him much, but it still doesn't mean she can't feel the hurt of missing him, and knowing he's with other people. Other women. The pain in her chest pierces deeper with each thought until her mind slowly ebbs away into slumber.
In the early morning hours, after another night of despairing visions of already-dead people and deformed animals attack her and Mags and Turlach and Finnick, she feels the warmth of a hand touch her gently on the arm, then fingers stroke up and down, caressing her. It feels so nice. Her eyes are still closed and she allows herself to feel the sensation of the touch. So warm.
But her nightmare is still lingering in her restless mind and is confusing her. It's Finnick, but for some reason she doesn't open her eyes. Her fear begins to overwhelm her. It just feels all too familiar…
It happened before, what seemed like ages ago, but it was only just last year, during the last Hunger Games. She was being woken up from yet another restless sleep and she was missing Finnick terribly. She thought she felt his fingers trace up and down her arm, but something about it felt different. She opened her eyes, but it was still dark out so she couldn't see his face, let alone determine anything else. His breathing sounded familiar, but there was something very different about it. The figure's breathing was heavier, raspier.
"Finnick?" she said questioningly, but even as the words came out of her mouth, she knew it wasn't him. He didn't respond but she felt this touch before, and as her senses came back to her, she knew then why she had felt it before and why the figure had not said anything. It wasn't Finnick there, touching her, caressing her, breathing in her scent. Nor was it her father. It was him…
Annie freezes all movement, thinking back to that night when she was attacked. The only move she is able to make is squeezing her eyes shut even tighter than before, wishing, hoping that it's not him. That it's not Garcen. She can't think, she can't breathe. She tenses up into one hard ball of skin, gooseflesh covering every part of her, with every small hair all over standing straight up. Her mouth finally moves, a whimper at first, but as words come out, they can barely be heard until she repeats them over and over again. It's not real. It's not real. It's not real. Please go away. Stop. Please. Stop.
She cannot even determine whether she said those words aloud or in her mind. The touch does stop, but he's still there, next to her bed, waiting. It's only when the sound of her heartbeat stops thrumming in her ears does she hear his voice. Finnick's voice. It sounds distant, and pained. He's whispering to her. Shushing her. Trying to calm her.
"Annie," he says. "Open your eyes. Please look at me. I'm here."
She doesn't open her eyes right away, though, allowing herself to let her body relax first, to loosen the tension from the inside out. She doesn't realize her hands are over her ears until she moves them and when she does, the breathing she hears isn't raspy, but shaky.
Strands of her hair are being gently moved aside to reveal her face, and she jerks back just a bit.
"Sorry," whispers Finnick, his voice not so distant anymore, but the sound of his pain is still in it.
It's because of this that she finally opens her eyes. At first, all she sees is a watery blur, so she tries to blink it away, only realizing then that the blur are from the tears that forced its way out of her eyes. She hastily wipes them away with the palms of her hands, and when her eyes clear, the face looking back at her mirrors the pain she heard in his voice.
She barely gets his name out before she jumps at him and tightens her arms around his neck, not wanting to ever let go. Luckily, Finnick is strong enough to take the squeeze of her seemingly delicate arms. There is no gap between them, but he pulls her to him just the same, holding onto her as if she were to fall into an abyss he can't get her out of. For all she imagines, she could be on the edge of a dark abyss.
Annie chides herself inwardly for letting her fear overcome her, for letting her semi-insane mind control her instinct, and pushing Finnick away when all she wants is to be close to him.
She moves one of her hands up to the back of his neck and runs her fingers through his hair, which is slightly damp, indicating to her that he had just come from a shower. She feels his body shiver at her touch as he's holding her and it makes her feel good to know that she has this affect on him. For some reason, it gives her courage that she didn't think she'd ever be able to achieve in a relationship like this. Of course, she never thought she'd be able to have a relationship like this – one based off of friendship, intimacy, trust, and love. It had only been a cruel dream before, but now it is something real. The circumstances aren't ideal for them, but part of her is somehow able to appreciate that fact. That in such a hardened and emotionally displaced world, they have been able to find something that goes beyond anything that the Capitol could offer, even their so-called freedom. It is all she needs to keep going. And she has it, with Finnick.
Annie buries her face in the crook of his neck and breathes him in. Oddly enough, he smells of the beach after a thunderstorm, mixed with a fragrance that is completely and uniquely Finnick. She tells herself to remember that scent, to remind her what to look for when he comes to check on her to make sure she's sleeping well enough. She always waits for him to come by before she really falls asleep, because that's what helps her find rest.
Annie silently and softly presses her lips against the pulse on his neck. "I'm sorry." She feels his sigh before she hears it as the tension in his shoulders release. She moves her head back a little more and presses her lips against the curve of his jaw. "I never want to push you away."
"I know," he says breathily.
She stops and pulls back more to look at him, look into his eyes. The black pupils shrink back slightly to smaller dots amidst the sea of green that surround them. "Still, I shouldn't have let my fear take control."
"You have every right to be scared, and it will take time to overcome it."
"I hurt you."
He frowns slightly at her shaking his head, causing her to look away. But he pulls at her chin, forcing her to look back at him. "Hey, if I'm not allowed to blame myself, then I can't let you do the same thing," says Finnick, changing his frown to a little smirk. "Right?"
She returns his smirk with her own. "Right."
He moves in to kiss her, but breaks it before she can really embrace him. However, he gets up from the floor and sits on the edge of the bed. She adjusts herself so she can sit next to him, and takes a deep breath before resting her head against his shoulder. She feels his hand stroke the back of her head and move down her back. She missed this.
There were days when she and Finnick didn't do much but be near each other. Sometimes they would lie next to each other on the sofa, or on the beach, or on the boat, and not say anything for quite a while. It wasn't even about kissing all the time, although they did it often enough. But they were content enough to just be in each other's presence.
She spent days looking forward to and remembering his caresses on her skin, especially her face. He would stroke her cheek with the back of his hand so softly that it made it easy to forget how strong he is, until he pulled her in close to him, and felt those same warm hands massage her shoulders, her neck, and her back, working their way firmly up and down her spine, rubbing away any stress she had felt that day. It drove her to a different kind of crazy when that happened and she couldn't help but kiss him deeply. Sometimes they would laugh afterwards, allowing that tension to release before they held each other again and talked about insignificant things.
Other days were spent talking about everything else - well, almost everything else. They had learned so much of each other in the past year from living in the same house. They became partners in much of the chores around the house, making cleaning a more entertaining and interactive experience. After Annie's first trip on the boat with Finnick, she would always go with him. Finnick never considered going out there otherwise. She helped him with steering the boat and he helped her with knots and spearing with his trident, which she found a little uncomfortable. And whatever he caught, they would clean and cook together. It helped keep her mind busy, focused on the task at hand, and so she didn't have much time to linger and recall the past.
They avoided such topics as their time in the Games, his assignments or her abuses, which, aside from that one night, Finnick did not even know much more of. It was something she never spoke to anyone about and only contemplated about telling him after her father was killed. Only her fear of what would happen to him prevented her from telling him, knowing that he may very well act on the knowledge and be rid of Garcen, which would lead to Finnick being executed or tortured or both. She certainly didn't want that, and it was more than enough incentive for her to never tell a soul about who abused her, even though it was the same person who killed her father. As much as she loved her father, killing Garcen and thus having Finnick executed wouldn't bring her father back.
Now, it seems that memories of her abuse and of that night are bound to keep reminding both of them of how much it still affects her and will probably always affect her, no matter how distracted she can get. And it's something that will always haunt Finnick as well. She wonders if it will matter then if he at least knows about that part of her past, without having to mention exactly who's to blame. The memories won't go away, she knows that much. But maybe with his help, with his understanding, he can help her overcome them better.
"You know I trust you more than anyone," says Annie.
"Yes, I know."
"I want to tell you more. I'm just not sure-"
"Annie," he says as he squeezes her closer to him. "I'll wait as long as you need me to wait. I know… you've been hurt." The muscles in his jaw tighten after he says the last word and he squeezes his eyes shut for a brief second before taking another deep breath. "When you're ready to tell me, I will do what I can to help you."
She knows he means it, just as he meant it many times before, but the doubt in her doesn't dissipate.
"What if you can't help me? What if one of these days, I'll just go completely mad and I can't tell you from the enemy?"
"Look at me," says Finnick sternly and he slightly nudges her head away from his shoulder.
She moves her head up, but she's hesitant to look at his eyes now, and stares at the center of his chin instead.
"Look at me, love," he says again, softer this time. Annie shifts her eyes slowly up to his and again focuses on the black pupils of his eyes, glancing at one pupil, then the other, trying not to see the emotion surrounding them. It works for a split second, but he turns his head at an angle and observes her. "Annie."
Suddenly, his sea green eyes penetrate through her, and, as if she has taken a step back, she notices his whole face - the defined jaw, the structured cheekbones, the straight line of his nose, the bronze-colored hair that sometimes highlight different tones when they're in the sunlight, the distinct outline of his pleasantly soft lips, which fit perfectly over her own. How handsome he is. It's not that she didn't know him to be handsome before, but what she knows about him makes him more beautiful to her than anyone could ever appreciate.
"Annie, you are a strong person. You will get through this. I know you will."
Annie looks at him carefully, trying to find any kind of misgiving in what he just said, but she doesn't find any.
"How do you know?" asks Annie.
"You are stronger than you realize. You're stronger than me in many ways, I think. Maybe you can't see it, but I can. You said you can trust me, so trust me on this."
"I still need you."
"And I need you. That doesn't make what I said any less true," says Finnick, stroking her cheek with the back of his hand. She leans into it and closes her eyes. "Do you believe me?"
She does believe him. Annie takes a deep breath in, then out, in relief of her knowledge of this. Then corners of her mouth move up in a rare playful-like grin. "I don't know. I think you need to convince me more."
Finnick stops his hand in mid stroke and she opens her eyes, only to see him put out his arm in front of her in an unfamiliar fashion, bent at the elbow with hand opened sideways.
"Okay, want to arm wrestle me, then?" says Finnick unflinching at first, but then bursts out a big grin when Annie looks at him quizzically. Suddenly, she pushes Finnick until he's lying on her bed and they both laugh. She missed his playfulness, too.
She lies down beside him, and rests her head on his chest. Then a thought occurs to her and she sits up straight, staring at him with a worrisome look on her face.
"What?" asks Finnick.
"Are you supposed to be here?"
A darkness flits across his face for a moment, and he looks up at the ceiling.
"It's okay," he pauses. "It starts in a few hours."
The Games. Annie only just realizes that she definitely had been watching the interview the night before. "Oh." A lump forms in her throat and she swallows. Finnick pulls her back to him and she lies back down on his chest, his arm folding around her shoulders.
She shivers at the thought of having to endure the Games without him by her side again, let alone here at the Capitol. Where she's safer. She wonders if Finnick isn't going a little crazy himself, to think that she is strong.
She has a feeling she will find out just how strong she is soon enough.
It's strange to Finnick how certain events, no matter how similar they are to previous events, can cause such a dramatic effect. This is the 74th year of the Hunger Games, and yet, every year seems to yield different reactions each time. But there are always twenty-three deaths, not counting the Quarter Quell that Haymitch became victor, in which there were forty-seven deaths. Still, that one didn't have cause any riots in the districts, which when he thinks about it, wonders why not. Then he remembers the peacekeepers.
Panem has a certain amount of peacekeepers on reserve for each district on a regular basis, but usually, they have a higher amount of peacekeepers on standby during the Games, for just the sort of thing that is now happening in District 11.
This is the first riot Finnick has known about during his time as victor. So, instead of just the two children dying, unless one of them is a victor, dozens of people end up dying in the aftermath. Of course, in the Capitol, the blame can easily be faulted to the district. The Capitol citizens, or those who actually care to watch about it instead of the Games themselves, are led to understand and believe that the district should be punished for causing such dissention.
Finnick looks around the game headquarters and heads toward the one that may know something about what's going on.
"Haymitch," he greets the slightly buzzed District 12 mentor.
"Finnick, fancy meeting you here."
"Likewise, considering by this time, you're usually at your favorite hangout," banters Finnick. Finnick knows that something about the two tributes from District 12 have finally gotten Haymitch's attention, enough to where he's actually trying to help them stay alive.
"Yeah, well, what can I say. I guess I just needed a little fire under me to get going… or something," replies Haymitch. It's a critical moment in the Games now that his female tribute, Katniss, is on the search for her fellow tribute, Peeta.
Normally, Finnick wouldn't even know the names of these tributes, since they're from District 12 and they hardly survive past the Cornucopia to remember them, but for some reason, Katniss is rather well known around the Capitol now. Finnick knows it's not really by her own doing, but it doesn't matter. The citizens remember her, and that's all that matters in the Games. Peeta's confession at the interview definitely helped.
It also reminded Finnick how much he missed Annie, which is why he ended up excusing himself early from his assignment later that night after the interviews, claiming to feel unwell. It was late anyway, and the woman he was with probably wouldn't remember if she had a really fun night with him or anyone else for that matter, as drunk as she was. He had escorted her back to her apartment and left her passed out on her bed, then went back to the hotel, took a shower, and quietly went to check on Annie in her and Mags' hotel room. It was so late, but he had to make sure she was okay. They spent the morning comforting each other, anticipating the time of the start of the Games. That was almost a week ago. He hadn't gone back to seen her since.
"Tough call with the little girl, huh?" asks Finnick, talking about the girl whose death had apparently caused a riot somewhere in District 11.
Haymitch looks over at the District 11 station, and sees Chaff there looking a bit more frenzied than usual. Chaff is obviously under watch now by security, which probably means they're all under watch.
"Not my concern," says Haymitch, who then points to the screen showing Katniss. "She's my concern."
Finnick looks around, making sure none of the security are close enough for them to hear him. "I'm just wondering if we should keep our eyes out for any…'issues.'"
Haymitch flashes his eyes in Finnick's direction, but only just. Finnick knows it might not be a good idea to bring it up in such a carefully guarded area. But Haymitch again concentrates on what's happening on the screen in front of him.
"Not that I can gather," says Haymitch a little too hastily. Finnick understands that's probably the end of the conversation about the riots. He won't be able to get any more information from him.
"Yeah, I guess it's better to try and help those than can be helped," says Finnick, noticing the District 12 tribute girl's surprisingly skillful way in the environment she's in. "She definitely has incredible survival skills, and her use of the bow and arrow..."
Haymitch mumbles something about the training center having improved their techniques with the tributes, but Finnick knows better. Just as he learned how to use a trident in District 4, Katniss has somehow learned how to hunt with a bow and arrow in District 12.
"Yeah, right. As if she actually learned how to shoot right on target those bag of apples from a few days in the training center," scoffs a familiar female voice. "Just like I learned how to swing my ax so precisely at my fellow tributes." Johanna laughs. "Your girl is a total piece of work."
Finnick is not sure whether that's supposed to be a compliment or insult, but from the way Johanna says it, it's probably more of the latter.
"At least it's gotten her this far," counters Finnick.
"Sure, and now she's going to go look for that loverboy of hers," Johanna scoffs again. "I don't know how you did it, Haymitch, but there's hope for you yet, unless she gets them both killed."
"Shut up, or I'll cut both your tongues out," says Haymitch. Johanna laughs even more, then stops abruptly when someone stands just outside their circle and taps Finnick on the shoulder. Finnick turns around to face an avox holding a note for him.
Finnick looks at both Johanna and Haymitch, who both stare down at the note in his hand. "Excuse me."
He walks out of the headquarters and opens the note, expecting to see who his next assignment is. However, when he reads it, it's as if a boulder has slammed square into his gut. It's not an assignment. It's a question, and the question couldn't be plainer to him than the beating of his now racing heart:
How strong do you think she is?