Against The Tides

Chapter 9: The Beach

She doesn't seem as fragile and sweet as people said she was in the arena, thinks Finnick. Her eyes have a darkness in them that reminds Finnick of the community kids whose parents are both dead. Those are the types that apparently have had to defend themselves against bullies both young and old. That's what Johanna Mason looks like to Finnick. And he is right in thinking so. He's never spoken to her, but he remembered that during her interview. She really is from the community home, he thinks to himself.

Finnick didn't see much of the games, but what is known is that Johanna Mason is from District 7, and she feigned being a shy, scared, weakling of a girl in the Games. It took a while for the other tributes to realize that she really wasn't as weak as they thought she was. In fact, each group that surrounded her ended up bloodied and dead or dying by the time she was done chopping away at them with her ax and knife. She used their ignorance as a weapon, and it worked splendidly for her.

Now, it's Johanna's Victory Tour and she's just arrived to the town square. Finnick stands with Turlach and the other victors, including Annie and Mags, as she reads through the standard script that undoubtedly was written up by her escort. Even with all the stylish clothes, beautiful make-up, and done up hair as the style teams always excel at, he can tell that Johanna is either bored or masking something. He gives her the benefit of the doubt and chooses the latter. What kind of secrets is she hiding?

When she finishes her statement, everyone applauds politely. The crowds starts dispersing, going back to their usual business or preparing for the dinner festivities that they are supposed to have during the Victory Tour visit. For some reason, he waits to see what Johanna's next action is, whether she'll slink back in indignity into the justice building, or if she'll walk away with her chin up in pride, not fearing anyone or anything. To him, it may determine what kind of person she is.

"She hates them," whispers Annie, but Finnick is concentrating on Johanna's actions that he misses it.

"What?" asks Finnick, and he turns to look at Annie. Annie's eyes are elsewhere, but he doesn't bother to look and find out what she's focusing on.

"Johanna Mason, victor of the 71st Hunger Games," Annie says in a sort of mimic of Claudius Templesmith's way of announcing, but much softer. "She hates them and they don't like her."

Finnick looks around to see if any of the peacekeepers are within listening range, but hardly any of them are paying attention. It seems that Annie may be right, because most of the peacekeeper eyes are on Johanna as well, also waiting to see what her next move will be. That's what Annie is looking at, Finnick concludes. She's looking at the peacekeepers and their reaction, or looking at one peacekeeper in particular. Finnick finally shifts his gaze in the same direction as Annie's, and he locks eyes with head peacekeeper Garcen. What is he staring at? thinks Finnick.

Johanna finally steps away from the microphone, but slowly. Garcen turns his head back to the District 7 victor and his face hardens as he concentrates on Johanna. Finnick looks back to her as well. Even Johanna's escort seems to be keeping an eye out for Johanna, but not as if she's guarding her. It's more like Johanna's escort is afraid of her, because every move that Johanna makes seems to cause her escort to step back just a little more, distancing the space between herself and Johanna.

Johanna's eyes finally connect with Finnick's, basically because he, Annie, and a few other victors are the only ones still looking at her, unmoving. Even from this distance of 20 yards away, he can see a slight upward curl of her lips. Not a jovial smile, but more like a smile that hints at mischief. Better yet, defiance. Finnick nods back at Johanna, just before Johanna's unceremoniously ushered back into the building.

They, too, are told to leave. Peacekeepers are obviously not too comfortable with a group of victors hanging around together, especially in the town square, even if it includes a troubled girl and an old lady. Finnick just eyes the peacekeepers coolly, giving them a look of warning, which is not graciously received. He looks for Garcen one last time, but Garcen is not within sight anymore.

"Just get going," says one of them mildly.

Annie steps aside to avoid having any contact with the peacekeepers that are nearby and she walks hurriedly between Finnick and her father, who has just joined them, walking back to the victor's village. For Finnick, these few months after the 71st Hunger Games have actually been the best so far in developing a consistent friendship with Annie Cresta. It's still not as well as it could be, but Annie has finally regarded him as someone that she can talk to and open up with about many things, including the violent images that rattle in her mind.

Luckily, Annie's father, even though he has a hard time dealing with her fits of emotional breakdowns, as well as his own handicap, has been able to help out in some simple everyday tasks, such as cooking.

It happened a month ago. Annie's dad had gone into town to get some shellfish in the market when Annie decided to fry some catfish. Annie knew Finnick was coming over because he came over almost daily, but he made it a point to let her know this time he was coming over so they could eat lunch together.

The only times he doesn't come by are the few days after a return from one of his Capitol visits, which isn't too often, but even one visit is enough to remind her of Finnick's involvement with the President. She would never ask him, but knows there is more to his visits to the Capitol than he would ever want to admit. She has a feeling that not very many people know of his visits there. He never announces it or tells her he is leaving. He just leaves discreetly, in the early hours of the evening, and he returns the very next day. But every time he comes back, it's always a struggle for both of them to see the other.

She doesn't know why, but sometimes, that part of her chest where her heart is, aches just thinking about it. As if there is something going on between them when there isn't. She only knew him as a mentor, and now, a friend. But still, she can't help the longing she feels the days after his returns.

So, in that one afternoon, her mind raced to find something else to think about, because thinking of him on one of his Capitol visits wasn't something that she cared to explore further. In her desperation, her thoughts wandered involuntarily into the numerous images that have often kept her company at night. Those thoughts, combined with the sizzling sound of the fish on the frying pan transfixed her to a memory that she had kept in the back of her mind shot forth in front of her eyes. It was of a boy. Of what age or from what district, she couldn't say. But he had triggered some kind of trap. She doesn't remember if she was with him or if this was part of another Games that she had seen on television, but it didn't matter, because in her mind, she was always in there, as if she were a tribute. She couldn't replay the whole scene, but flashbacks of acid seeping through the boy's skin and the agonizing cries he made before the acid ate away at his neck and throat causing a combination of sizzling and gurgling sounds were emblazoned in her head. Annie closed her eyes, but that only caused the images to become more vivid.

What she didn't realize at the time she was having this flashback, was that she was holding onto the spatula that had been sitting in hot oil. What was happening in her mind triggered her impulse to fight back, only she was fighting what wasn't really there. She was fighting visions. Had Finnick arrived any later, the damage to her hands and arms would've probably been much worse. Finnick had immediately carried her off to Mags' house. The medical building was on the other side of the town square which is more than a couple of miles away and he didn't trust himself to go that far carrying her.

Finnick had wiped away most of the oil from her face and arms, but he was worried that Annie may have done more damage to herself than he could decipher. Mags had immediately pulled Annie's hands and arms under the cold running water and got some cold, wet rags to wipe away the spots of oil from Annie's face. She told Finnick to keep the cold water running until Mags was satisfied. Eventually, the blisters that developed went away, but that couldn't be said for the images that caused them.

It was then decided that Annie wasn't to cook anymore without someone else being there with her. So, Annie's father took up the task. Although the idea of not being able to do certain things on her own anymore was frustrating, Annie knew it was for her own safety. But the real positive outlook of it was that Annie's father had found something useful to do again. As minor a chore as it was, he felt like a father once more. He felt needed again. It had been a long time since he had felt that way, even before Annie was in the Games.

As they make their way back to the village, Annie all of a sudden gives a short, haughty laugh, as if she had just heard or seen something funny, although no one was really doing or saying anything humorous. This happens every once in a while, and most everyone has gotten used to her unexpected bursts, but only few know why she does it. Somehow her actions are a bit more delayed than everyone else's.

"What is it, Annie?" asks Finnick, trying to act genuinely curious.

"Johanna smiled at you," says Annie. It happened 30 minutes ago, when they were still at the square, when he was waiting to see what Johanna would do after her speech. Sometimes Annie laughs at something that happened 10 minutes earlier. Sometimes she laughs at something that happened over a day ago. There's no telling where her mind is sometimes, but Finnick tries to keep Annie in the present time.

"Annie," says Finnick, waiting for a response. Nothing comes. He says her name again. "Annie."

"Hmm?" grunts Annie. Finnick gently tugs on Annie's elbow and they both stop in the middle of the path. He pulls her around to face him. It takes a while for her eyes to stop shifting around, but when they finally do, her eyes focus on him. "Finnick," she says with a gentle smile.

"Hey there," he says with a smile in return.

"Sorry. It happened again?" Annie asks, looking remorseful.

"That's okay, you're getting better," he says and they continue walking. He pulls her closer to him when they start walking again, his arm around her, but unease creeps in and he wonders if maybe he should let go now. She doesn't say anything but she's quiet, and that makes him nervous, so after a few more seconds he lets go.

"Finnick?" says Annie in a curious tone. Just having her say his name immediately releases the tension in Finnick's shoulders.

"Yes," he responds.

"I want to try the beach tomorrow," says Annie.

The beach. Despite having the beach as their backyards for the most part, Annie hasn't actually stepped into the ocean water since her victory, let alone the sand. That was one thing that she was terrified of doing. It was already bad enough that she was, and still is, experiencing nightmares on a consistent basis, so she didn't want to make it worse by setting off another possible set of new nightmares by willing herself closer to the waves than she had to be.

But she was already so close. What is another 50 yards going to do anyway, right? She thought. Finnick had also been trying to get her to go without success.

One time, during a warm Saturday, he joked about doing something he was scared to do if she would start taking walks out there. She didn't know why it was important to him for her to do it.

"You're not scared of anything," said Annie blankly.

"Sure, I am," said Finnick.

"What are you scared of?" she asked.

He honestly couldn't think of anything that he was scared of, but he picked a common phobia just to prove her wrong, even if it was in jest. "Roaches," he replied.

"No, you're not. You caught a handful and ate them in your Games. It was disgusting," Annie said as she laughed.

There were two things that came to mind to Finnick that day. The first was that Annie laughed. It wasn't one of her chuckles or huffs that she did in delayed reaction. It was a genuine full-hearted laugh that he had never heard from her before. It was a laugh from a girl who sounded unaffected and undamaged by tragedy and pain and constant nightmares, and it was amazing. The other was that she actually remembered such a minute part of his Games. He had only done it once just to prove that he could to the other Careers. He did remember it was disgusting, too. He laughed with her then, and couldn't help but put out a huge smile on his face.

"Okay, maybe I'm not scared of roaches, but I don't particularly like them," Finnick said.

After the laughter died down, Annie got up out of her chair, took their dishes from the table and put it in the sink.

"So, what do you think?" asked Finnick. He still wanted to see if she was willing to go into the water.

"What do I think of what?" questioned Annie.

"Going for a walk on the beach," said Finnick matter-of-factly. Annie turned to look at him, a look of dread on her face. She shook her head almost vehemently.

"No, no. Finnick, I can't…not yet," she said.

"Alright, no problem. It was just a thought," he assured her as he grabbed her hand. His thumb circled the top of her hand to soothe her, and it helped. She squeezed back.

Now Finnick is trying to remember when exactly that happened. About a month or two ago, he can't be certain. But she is willing to try it. For real, this time. He didn't have to offer any ultimatum either, she just wants to do it. Don't get your hopes up, Finnick tells himself. Annie might change her mind in the morning. Or she might not even remember.

The next day, at a little past 10am, Finnick is at her door, nervously not knowing what to expect and if she really does want to try the beach today. She opens it and a kind smile greets him. His thoughts go to the time she closed the door in his face, not even giving him a chance to see her, and he has to stifle a laugh.

It's a warm spring day, so she's dressed appropriately in shorts and a loose knit top. Finnick is dressed in a plain shirt and swim shorts that cut just above the knees.

"Good morning," says Finnick with genuine cheerfulness. Annie isn't quite as enthusiastic, but greets him with as much genuine joy as she could muster. She notices the blanket he has curled under one of his arms and the pack on his back. Finnick can tell she's nervous, so he tries to distract her. "Have you eaten already?"

"Yes," says Annie. "Have you?"

"Yes," says Finnick, and before the silence between them gets any louder, he continues. "So, you ready to go?" Annie shrugs and nods tentatively, and even though he feels like asking her if she really does want to do this, at the same time he doesn't want to give her any chance to change her mind. So, he allows Annie to pass him at the doorway and step ahead, and he follows her around the side of her house.

The sand literally starts 10 feet away from the picket fence surrounding all the houses. Each house has a patio area in the back, and there are a couple of the other victors out in their patios taking in the fresh air and sun. When Annie and Finnick step out, all eyes focus on them. The looks on their faces tell Finnick that this is probably the first time they've seen Annie on this side of the house, as he can see them talk amongst themselves, some are smiling, some are skeptical. All are curious.

Finnick is already 10 feet in the sand when he realizes that Annie is no longer walking next to him. He turns around and finds her standing at the fence gate, her feet barely touching the sand. Her head is down when he goes back see what's wrong.

"Annie?" he says tentatively. There's a stillness about her and he looks down at the sand. She's wiggling her toes, causing the sand to move in between them.

"Feels weird," she says quietly, barely audible above the sound of the tides.

Finnick tries to think of the time when he and his family first went on the beach. It's not exactly something that the people in District 4 normally do. Even though this district is the fishing district, the sand doesn't surround every part of land here. The victor's village has the advantage there. Most of the other areas are surrounded by ports and rocks, and the little sand that surrounds other parts is not as pristine as the ones here. Still, people would go to the beach if they had the time or the money to do so. Even some merchant families don't have the luxury of time. But many others are working the canneries or the fishing boats from dawn until dusk.

Finnick can't remember feeling unsure of the sand, or the way that it moved under his feet. So, he closes his eyes and just moves his toes, allowing himself to feel the shifting of the tiny pebbles underneath his bare feet. As he continues to do so, he has to agree with Annie that it does have an odd sensation. He lets his toes dig deeper and he can feel the sand turning colder the farther down his feet go, burying his feet in the layer still cool from the night.

He opens his eyes to find Annie already further in. She's about 10 yards ahead when she stops again. When Finnick catches up, her eyes are mournful, and suddenly he's worried that she's in one of her daymares.

"Annie?" says Finnick, lightly touching her back.

She begins stepping backwards, saying "No, too far. I can't."

But Finnick won't let her go all the way back. He stops her, pulling her hand with his free one. "Wait, we don't have to go any farther, okay? But… let's just stay here," says Finnick.

Annie concentrates on his words and it takes a few seconds to register, but when she does, she's still unsure. Unsure of herself. Unsure of Finnick. Unsure of how she'll react if she hears the water getting louder or coming any closer.

"Over there," says Annie, pointing just a few more feet back. Finnick nods, knowing that it's probably the best he can achieve right now on the first try at the beach, and it's more than he thought possible anyway.

Finnick unfolds the blanket and they sit on it and bask in the warmth of the sun for a while before Finnick realizes there's a cool breeze going by. He looks at Annie to see if she's shaking at all. She isn't, but he wants to say something.

"Are you cold?" asks Finnick. Annie shakes her head in dissent.

"Just trying not to think," says Annie.

"Okay, is there anything you want to talk about?" asks Finnick.

"Where's Turlach?" asks Annie. Annie has met Turlach of course, but has never really spoken with him. She only knows him as Finnick's older brother. She knows nothing of what he's like.

"At work, at the cannery," says Finnick. Annie squints at his response.

"He works?" asks Annie.

Finnick smiles because that used to be a question he got from other people when Finnick first moved to the Victor's Village. None of his family had to work because he provided for everyone, but Turlach refused to stop working. "I'm not going to sit around here with nothing to do but swim around like a fool," he said to Finnick once before. Despite the advantage of living in the lap of so-called luxury, Finnick knew that Turlach would never depend on his little brother, not because he was proud, but because Turlach would always carry a weight of guilt on himself. No matter how much work that Turlach would take, it still wouldn't be enough to release that guilt he felt, and Finnick knew it.

"Yeah, he would rather work. He likes to keep himself busy at the cannery. He gets bored easily, I think," he says.

"You do, too," says Annie.

Finnick thinks about it for a few seconds. "Yeah, I guess so."

"Are you bored now? Sitting here with me, doing nothing but watching and waiting to see what I'll do?" asks Annie flatly.

"No, not at all. We can sit here all day if you want. I don't mind," he replies immediately. And she can see in his eyes and how he is smiling at her at that moment that he's being completely truthful. Also, something about what he just said or the way that he said it makes her blush.

"Okay," says Annie, smiling, turning her head slightly away from him so he doesn't see her face.

He notices her head turn, but doesn't say anything. He doesn't know why, but he's so comfortable spending time with Annie, it doesn't seem like a chore or boring act. He wonders if it's the fact that Annie is so unusual, so different. But it's not that she's "unusual," because she wasn't really like this before the Games. It was the Games that caused her to become "unusual." No, she's not unusual. She's just… injured, he thinks. Damaged.

He again tries to think back, this time to when he was this comfortable with anyone outside of his family. There's Mags, he thinks to himself. Little ol' Mags, unfortunately not feeling well enough to go out today. Mags is probably damaged, too, but has learned to control it all these years. "Tragedies are more bearable with time," that's what she said once.

Finnick continues to search his memories, but they're all focused on his family, which can be hard to deal with if he reminisces far too long about them. So, he concludes that he's far better with damaged people, knowing that he's damaged himself, but he doesn't want to think about that. When Finnick looks at Annie, he can see that the wind has ruffled her hair and she's trying frantically to get it out of her face. Finnick laughs.

"What's so funny?" asks Annie, even though she can already guess what he's laughing about considering that the gust of wind has proven her efforts of gathering her hair together futile.

"Sorry. Do you want some help?" asks Finnick.

"If you have something for my hair," replies Annie. Finnick thinks for a second and feels in his pockets to see if what he knows he has is still in there. When he pulls it out, it's just long enough to tie into a bow around her hair. Finnick helps pull her hair back in a ponytail and starts tying the short rope he cut from a net into a bow. When he's done, he unconsciously combs her hair lightly with his fingers, feeling the silkiness of her hair as he did months ago at the Capitol. Still soft, he thinks.

He can't tell what she's thinking, but he does notice that her body relaxes. Sometimes his actions cause her to freeze, as if she's scared of what he'll do to her next, as if she's anticipating pain. But she doesn't react this way now.

"There, hair is all good," he says as he sits back down and turns to look at her. Instinctively, he grazes her cheek lightly with the back of his forefinger and smiles, "I could see your face now."

The movement is so sudden that it takes her by surprise, but Annie recovers quickly. "Now if only I could cover your face, you're so grotesque," she says jokingly, trying to play off the slight redness in her cheeks in a laugh.

Finnick laughs with her. "I know! Who could ever love a face like this, so disgusting," he says playfully as he gives her a overly exaggerated sensual look. It's hard for her to pretend that she isn't amused by his attempt at humor, and she can only keep up a straight face for exactly two seconds before she breaks out in a burst of laughter. And that's all that Finnick needs to let him know that there is still a part of Annie that hasn't been tainted by the Games.

She tries to shove Finnick's face away in mock disgust, and he catches her hand, holding it in his. Annie finds it interesting, the feel of his hand around hers, the comfort that simple gesture brings to her. She notices the coarseness of his fingers, although it's not as rough as she thought it might be as far as fishermen are concerned. Then unconsciously, she takes his hand in both of hers, observing it even closer. The lines of his palm, the ridges of his fingertips, the shape of his nails. Short, but even and clean. She turns it over and feels the wrinkles of his knuckles and the softness of the top of his hand.

"Your hands are so soft," says Annie. It's almost an accusation, because being in the fishing district, as in probably every other district, really, a man's hands can be torn and calloused from the days of hard manual labor. Being a victor since he was 14, Finnick's never had to work as hard as other fisherman. He doesn't have a quota to reach. In fact, he's really not supposed to be fishing, but it's overlooked by the peacekeepers, even Garcen. Some might think he never works at all, but he's still fit and he still goes out almost every morning on his boat, so that has to count for something. He's certainly not lazy and does a fair share of work when he's on his boat, including his own netting as well as fishing. Finnick isn't insulted, because he knows Annie isn't saying it to be mean, but he can't help feeling a little discomfited about it.

"Is that weird?" he asks.

"I don't know. Not weird. Just… different," she says.

"I see. So you've held many men's hands before, have you?" he asks.

"No," says Annie flatly. Finnick begins to fear that he may have said the wrong thing again, but she doesn't look angrily at him. She just looks out towards the water, observing the swell barely coming up above the sandbar. She swallows hard and says one word. "Lev."

Finnick's mind immediately latches onto the image of the boy associated with that name. Lev, Annie's fellow tribute, who died at the hands of the District 2 tribute. She lost it when Lev died. It could've happened at anytime during the Games and he could've missed it, because half the time he was talking and keeping all the women distracted with his flirtatiousness. Was she in love with him? Did she have something with him? Finnick wonders if that was a possibility. If it was, they didn't show it. He can't help it. He has to ask.

"You held Lev's hand?" asks Finnick. Annie just nods.

"Only once, the first night. His hands were rough and sweaty," says Annie, then her brows furrow with concentration. "That's all I remember of him anymore, but I still see him in my dreams. I can't see his face, but it's him. I can see his hands, but not his face… not his face…"

Finnick squeezes her hand in his, which is a relief for Annie, because it forces her attention back to what is happening now and back to him. "Sorry," says Annie as she looks on at their enclosed hands, as if realizing for the first time that she's holding onto him, and she finally lets go. When she does, she notices that her fingers feel slightly stiff and wonders how long exactly she's been holding onto Finnick's hand.

Finnick and Annie spend a while just sitting there. Nothing is said, but it's not awkward. Both are comfortable enough in each other's company without having to say one word. They just listen to the constant push and pull of the waves that are still a good 40 yards away. "Finnick?" says Annie.

"Hm?"

"How am I doing?" asks Annie.

Finnick looks at her, trying to make out the meaning of the question through her eyes. Annie pulls her knees in, wraps her arms around them and rests the side of her face on it. She looks at him sullenly, waiting for him to answer. Much like he does with people as a way of encouragement or comfort, he gently places his hand on her back, moving it in small circles.

"Annie, I think you're doing just fine," says Finnick honestly and with as much reassurance as he can give.

Annie smiles and closes her eyes, taking in the warmth and comfort of his hand on her back.

When they finally leave the beach, no one else is out in their yards anymore. Finnick asks Annie if she wants to go visit Mags with him, since he was planning on seeing her sometime this day. She agrees, and an hour later, after they both shower, they meet up again and together they go into Mags' house.

When Finnick knocks, there's no answer. He opens the door just slightly to call out Mags' name, but still nothing. It's not unusual for Finnick to come into Mags' house to say hi, but it's more often the other way around since Mags isn't one to dwell all alone waiting for people to visit her. But with Mags ill, he knows they should be okay to help themselves inside. So, when Finnick and Annie finally make their way into the house, they see Mags sitting in the living room.

"Hey Mags," says Finnick. When she doesn't answer back, he cautiously makes his way closer to her. That's when he notices the cup lying sideways next to her slightly open hand, as if it had escaped her grasp, the contents of the mug spilled on the sofa, and small droplets falling in an even pace onto the floor.

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