Geeky asked for this. Blame her.
FYI, the events in this story are written in tandem with the events in And So We Run Redux Part II. My theory about Annie is that she suffers from bouts of post-traumatic stress when triggered by things like the reaping. That doesn't make her crazy, slobbering or demented. And all the information we have on her is based on conjectures by Peeta and then revoiced by Katniss, both of whom have never met her, and have only seen her once in the clip from the reaping. So, not exactly reliable. And who wouldn't be hysterical if her only loved ones were going into the arena. ;)
p.s. I requested that Annie's name be added to the character list. Sheesh.
Update: Annie C. has been added to the character list! 6/7/10 :D
Chapter One : Enterlude
We've seen it all, bonfires of trust, flashfloods of pain.
It doesn't really matter, don't you worry, it'll all work out. – TheKillers, Exitlude
Year 75, Capitol Reckoning
On a sleety March evening Mags snoozes in my armchair in the comfort of my living room. I might as well call the chair hers, since she's the one sitting in it as often as not. Annie sometimes calls it Mags's throne; if anyone deserves a throne, it's our mentor and the closest person to family that we have. The two of us are relegated to the leather sofa to watch the mandatory program the Capitol cooked up. Who'd have believed the Capitol would turn some girl's wedding into propaganda.
And yet, here we are, watching the experts interpret the latest polls, in which every citizen of the Capitol had a chance to vote for his/her/its favorite gown.
Well, for Annie it is, to be honest. Though I don't see why. Mags and I are in agreement on this point. It's an ideal time for a nap. If only the old woman wasn't snoring so loudly. The air scuds down Mags's nasal passages in a fit of snorts that always makes Annie jump. At least she smiles now when Mags startles her, and laughs at herself, instead of the alternative.
"Turn the volume up so we can hear over Mags," Annie whispers.
"The sound system doesn't have that kind of capacity," I reply without bothering to lower my voice. Annie elbows me for being rude. I rub my bruised ribs and mutter, "Ow. You mean thing."
"Upstarts," Mags mutters. Her eyes are still closed like she's fast asleep.
Annie and I both jump. How does she do that?
"Sorry, Mags," Annie says contritely.
"I swear you looked asleep." I wink at Annie. "I'll make sure you are next time."
The old woman grumbles something under her breath, a suggestion of physiological impossibilities and maybe an insult directed toward my mother. Mags might as well direct the insult toward herself; she's the closest thing I've had to a mother in a long time.
"What did she say?" Annie asks me. Her brows knit together when she doesn't understand the things that come out of Mags's mouth, not because she can't decipher our friend's garbled speech, but because Mags is no lamb and Annie's a little less tarnished than the rest of us. I prefer to keep it that way.
Pasting a grin over my face, "Uh…I think it's the stroke talking," is all I decide to tell her. I reach for the remote and juice up the sound a few bars. Mags just grunts and pulls the afghan up around her chin. "Ah, that Caesar. What a funny guy," I mumble at the TV before Annie asks any more questions about Mags's vocabulary. "Please get Katniss to her wedding in style lest you affront our sensibilities." I lay the sarcasm on thick. Though not entirely satisfying, it's all the defiance I can muster at the moment.
Annie rolls her eyes at me. "You should talk. Finnick Odair who can't rise above anything that isn't trivial, such as your clothing. At least according to my sources in the Capitol."
"Hmm? Annie, I can't help it if I'm iconic." I sniff with false indignation. Then my eyebrows knit together. "You have sources?"
She points to an end table in the corner of the room. It's piled high with embossed letters; packages great and small; and strange, hybrid flowers wilting in their untouched delivery boxes. Some of the envelopes are a work of art. Nude art, usually. Unreliable self-portraits if I know the ladies in the Capitol – which I do, but not to the extent that everyone seems to think. I'm too afraid to see what their letters and gifts contain. I don't bother with any of these tributes except once a week when the waste management truck comes by.
"Your ladies have betrayed you." Her voice takes on a teasing lilt.
"Annie, have you been reading my mail?" I gasp.
"Of course," she says. "Somebody has to reply to those poor girls."
My eyes pop open. "What!"
I should hope so. Those are not the sort of women I want Annie in contact with – a bunch of harpies who would enjoy tearing into someone as vulnerable as she is.
"They really like you," she continues. "And they all think that you're in love with them."
It's getting uncomfortable on this couch. I try not to let that show when I say, "All part of the persona, love," with verve.
Annie smoothes out imaginary wrinkles from her skirt, not looking at me. "I wonder sometimes."
I cup her cheeks, holding her so I can see her face better. Annie's hazel eyes are changeable as the sea. They always reflecting her mood; sometimes mellow flecks of amber, or green, the color of turbulent water, winning out over the other.
"Well, don't wonder," I murmur with all the sincerity I can muster, and pray that she doesn't ask me again why I must behave the way I do in the Capitol when I know it hurts her. I can't tell her the truth. Yet. "Not about me."
Annie doesn't ask. She tucks her head beneath my chin, curling her feet up beneath her. She makes herself as small as possible although we have the whole couch to ourselves. My feet are planted on the floor leaving plenty of lap room that she won't take advantage of when Mags is in the vicinity – conscious or otherwise (especially since we can't always tell which it is). But I snake an arm around her shoulders and play with the long chestnut hair tumbling over her shoulders. She melts into my side, like she always does.
After Caesar introduces Cinna and smothers him in accolades, they cut away to footage of District 12, a little of its history, and then we're parked in Katniss Everdeen's living room. It's always unnerving to see a new victor. At first, you get used to them matted in dirt and gore, a manic or desperate luster in their eyes. Hollow cheeks. Half-naked, as often as not. You always expect to see them this way after staring at them on the large screens in the Games Headquarters for days on end. And then all of a sudden, they're buffed, waxed, painted, modified, washed and pressed into perfect little Capitol puppets. The only scars the Capitol can't or won't buff away are the internal ones.
And sometimes the new victors are shell-shocked. Sometimes they're belligerent. But the first tell-tale sign of a true victor is the hardness in the eyes that settles in no matter how they come out. The funny thing about the Everdeen girl is that she had the look of a victor before she ever became one. Maybe that's what unnerves me the most about her.
Her fellow victor, Peeta Mellark, unnerves me even more. There are true victors and then there are incidental victors. You can always tell who is who. Unfortunately, things don't turn out any happier for the tributes who win by chance.
I only know of two incidental victors still alive today. Peeta and the girl sitting next to me. Peeta lived because his fellow tribute saved his life. Annie escaped because of a broken dam, saved by chance, because she could out-swim the others. Not because she could mow down her opponents. Not like me or Mags or Katniss. And the eerie factor comes from the way the boy from Twelve reminds me of Annie before her Games. She was a sweet kid, no more unstable than anyone else. Annie's still the sweetest girl that ever lived. But for most people, they have to be asleep to have nightmares. Not Annie.
But from the looks of it, Peeta is still a bright ray of sunshine. How is he so unspoiled by everything that happened to him when Annie snapped? Is he any better than her, any less fragile? I don't know if I believe in their love story, but there's something about that kid, some quality, that makes him stand out.
"Maybe you'll be invited to the wedding," Annie muses while some expert comments on quaint district marriage customs. "If it's in the Capitol, I wouldn't be surprised if the officials invited their favorite victors."
Wonderful. I want to see what love looks like when it's…what did the headlines call it? Triumphant. I haven't had a good laugh in ten years.
"Maybe Snow will let me officiate?" I quip, pushing down my bitter thoughts. To be honest, I have a lot to thank Peeta and Katniss for. Like the fact that the spotlight I've been under for ten years is now directed on them. I can step back and breathe, take stock of things. Take care of Annie. Be with Annie.
She shakes her head. "I doubt it."
"Why not?" I ask, trying to keep the trivial conversation going.
Annie doesn't disappoint. She replies deadpan, "Because you'd distract everyone from the bride."
I grin, loving how little she takes my celebrity seriously. "So that's why we aren't inviting anyone but Mags to our ceremony?" If you can call it a ceremony, when really it'll be more like an elaborate handshake in our secret cave.
"Exactly." Annie sniffs. "She's the only person I know who's tired of looking at you."
"Aha." I tweak her nose. "I notice you didn't include yourself."
She smiles, batting my hand away. "Unfortunately, that would be a lie. I love looking at you."
"I love looking at me, too," I say, slipping into my Capitol persona for a moment. My voice drops an octave. "But I'd rather look at you."
Annie's eyes widen, but I don't give her a chance to look over her shoulder to see if Mags is awake before my lips press into hers. After a moment of hesitation, she gives herself up to me. My arms draw her in like nets, determined not to let her go till she's settled on my lap. I'm filled with her, how sweet she tastes, the way her silken hair falls over my arms, and the sound of her short gasping breaths as the kiss deepens.
Annie pushes me back, swallowing air, long before I'm ready to let her go. Her chest rises and falls in rapid succession against my own. I won't push her any farther than she's ready. Very soon I'll have all of her forever. I just need patience…
Annie slides off my lap, adjusting her skirt and trying to focus dazed eyes on the television. She threads her fingers with mine, leaning back into our familiar position on the couch. I lower my head until my nose finds the spot just above her ear. Her scent fills my senses. She sighs.
Cinna and Caesar wrap up their chitchat and photographs of Katniss Everdeen lounging around in bridal getup are punctuated by gasps and screams from the live audience standing outside the Training Center.
"Pretty dresses," Annie muses as the images pan by on the screen.
They are pretty, I guess. Katniss's stylist has talent, that's certain. Annie would look pretty in them. "Do you want a real wedding dress?" I'd never considered it before, not with the way things have worked out. Maybe Cinna would cut me a deal? I could ask Haymitch…
"For an elopement? Nobody would get to see it," she murmurs.
I shrug. "So? If you want a dress, you can have anything…"
Annie shakes her head. "I was just saying. Katniss looks very nice in them."
Katniss looks like she swallowed lemons. Beneath her over-kill smile and chirpy narrating, I can see her skin crawl. "A sixteen-year-old girl should not be thinking about wedding dresses," I reply, wrinkling my nose in disapproval.
Annie laughs. I love the sound of it – the sound of her happy. "Most sixteen-year-old girls do anyway, Finn, especially when you're around." She plays with my ring finger. "I did."
Katniss doesn't strike me as a typical sixteen-year-old girl hoping to drag Peeta down the aisle behind her, so much as a shark with a toothache trying to put up with all the fish swimming around her.
But I end up saying. "Yeah, but not because most of them are about to head down the aisle themselves." I ignore Annie's confession because I already know what her feelings were. Are.
"Well, no," she concedes. "But that doesn't mean they can't dream."
I snort as something dawns on me. Mags echoes the sound in her sleep. "Annie, you're totally suckered by those two kids from Twelve. Confess."
Annie blushes. "I think it's romantic."
"If it's even true." I roll my eyes.
"What do you mean if it's true?" Annie pulls her hand away but I snatch it back. "Finnick, they saved each other," she says, like that explains how it's not an act. Then she frowns, her voice hollow. "They were able to leave the Games together."
We're entering dangerous territory here. But we know better now, how to navigate around the flashflood of pain and memory.
I steer the subject away from the Games. "I think I'll write them a love poem as a wedding present. Something like this." I clear my throat.
"There once was a man from four,
Who everyone thought a…"
"Oh dear," she groans, covering her face with her hands.
I blink. "What?" I say, since this topic has the desired effect. Sort of. "I thought you loved my poetry."
"I love everything about you…" She purses her lips as her sentence trails off.
My eyebrows arch. "But?"
"You might come on a bit strongly sometimes," she confesses.
"Fine," I huff. "They don't need anything from me anyway."
She laughs. "You're just sore because a couple of teenagers are getting married so soon when you had to wait years. It's your turn to confess."
What? I am certainly not jealous of a couple of teenagers just because they get to play house. I've had important things to do in the Capitol and Annie's fragile mental state to think of. I've got my reasons; otherwise I could have scooped Annie up years ago. But would she have been ready? No.
Still, it hits a nerve.
"They haven't set a date, so there's still a chance we can muscle in there first," I joke, trying to hide that it does bother me somewhat. "I wonder what they're waiting for?" I add with a thread of sarcasm.
"Besides the fact that they're sixteen or seventeen?" Annie replies in kind. "You can ask them when you head back for the Games." She tries to pass it off as a jest, but it falls flat. "I suppose they'll mentor for Twelve now instead of Haymitch."
That'll be the day. The sour old drunk doesn't like the job any more than most, but he's not about to bow out this late in the game. Our game.
But I remind her, "This is my last time mentoring, too. After this round it's Abel's turn. I'm retiring. We can finally forget about the Capitol and get on with our own wedding."
What the victors from Twelve may never know is that they've handed me opportunities with their success. One, Katniss has provided a face to our rebellion, giving us the boost of support we've needed for years. Two, in the shadows of their success the playboy from District Four finally lost a piece of his clout. Since Peeta and Katniss took over the limelight almost a year ago, the ladies don't care as much about the playboy. Which means I can marry Annie – and act like it – without spoiling the ruse I've kept up since I turned sixteen.
"I can't wait." She sighs. "I won't have to think about all those women slavering over you."
I grimace as her thoughts keep pace with mine. Of course, Annie doesn't know the truth – or at least not all of it. She knows the part about those women not meaning anything to me. Knows that what goes on behind closed doors in the Capitol doesn't amount to a pebble's worth of gossip. There's more romantic mojo between Haymitch Abernathy and I than with any of those cougars.
What Annie doesn't know, however, is how useful those silly, shallow, and oh-so-talkative women have been. Of course, they don't know how useful they've been either. A few drinks, a little flirtatious dialogue, a smirk, and their secrets are mine. And their husbands', fathers', brothers', lawyers', pool boys' secrets along with 'em. The pool boys don't have a lot of useful information for the rebellion, but it makes for some entertaining stories to tell between slaughters when we're stuck in the Games Headquarters.
"Annie, you don't have to worry about them. Ever," I remind her. "I love you."
"I don't worry," she quietly denies.
I shift my position on the couch so I can see her better, and so that she can see me. "But?"
She ducks her head and a sheet of hair covers her face. "I still don't like it."
I tuck the strands behind her ear. "Annie, I don't enjoy it myself, but the masses must be entertained," I say grimly.
"I know," she says. "Though I still don't know why."
My nostrils flare, despite how I try to keep the pain of not telling her the truth from showing on my face. I take a deep breath so I can answer evenly. "Someday it will all come together." I hug her to my chest, letting some warmth filter back into my voice. She clutches my shirt. "Chin up, Annie. It's almost over."
The program comes to a close, but the mandatory viewing isn't over. The anthem plays and President Snow appears on the stage with some kid dragging his feet behind him.
"Ugh. Isn't it early to announce the Quarter Quell?" Annie asks. Her eyes take on a stormy aspect.
"I wonder what joy they have in store this time," I mutter as the Snow waxes eloquent on the Dark Days. "This calls for beer."
Annie smiles a little. "You sound like your friend Haymitch."
"Oh yeah?" I tweak a strand of her hair. She's got so much she doesn't even feel the tug. "How would you know?"
"Because you tell me everything about him and Chaff and your other cronies." Her lips curl, like she can't tell if she's amused or horrified by their boorish behavior.
I shrug. "Well, maybe they're on to something. You want one?" I ask to be polite.
She shakes her head. As usual. What she doesn't know is that I tell her about Haymitch to keep her from becoming like Haymitch. Alcohol's one coping mechanism she doesn't need. I push myself off the couch and head for the kitchen, promising to be right back.
Our dinner plates and utensils are still scattered over the kitchen counter, since the meal was a hasty affair before the mandatory viewing. Ignoring the mess, I grab a bottle from the fridge and my eyes light upon the forgotten dessert. Annie's favorite.
"Hey, Annie," I call over the drone of the TV. "How about some cheesecake?" Now there's a coping mechanism I approve of. Carbs. "Annie?"
For an answer, I hear a sharp cry and the sound of shattering glass. What the hell? I race around the corner, wondering if Mags fell out of her chair and landed on the coffee table or something.
The beer falls from my hand.
In the living room, Mags tries righting herself in the armchair, looking confused but unhurt. The TV screen is smashed in, however. Annie sits in a heap on the floor shaking. Her eyes are trained on the broken screen, but they're as empty and unseeing as a doll's.
Annie's checked out and I brace myself for what's to come.
First things first. Cuts bleed out from a few inches above her ankle down to her toes. I snatch her up, avoiding the glass fragments, and run to the bathroom where I stow the emergency kit.
"What happened?" I ask Mags when she hobbles in behind us.
Mags shrugs, saying she was asleep until she heard Annie shriek.
"Annie, what is it?" I ask, despite how useless talking is when she's like this.
I set her down in the clean tub, not sure if she's able to hold herself up in a chair…or the toilet seat. The blood pools around the drain lip until I remember to elevate the leg. Then I check the damage. The glass, fortunately, didn't cut deep enough to hit the major artery in her leg. Her foot is swelling, though. Broken, maybe?
"I need to call a doctor," I tell Mags, who's already handing me towels to wrap around Annie's wounds. I snatch an icepack from the first aid kit under the sink and snap it in half to start the chemical reaction that makes it cold. "Watch her."
Mags nods and eases herself down with her cane to sit on the side of the tub. She takes the icepack and presses it against the towel on Annie's foot.
I all but slide into the kitchen where the phone hangs on the wall. I get the doctor on and give him a clipped briefing. He tries asking me something, but I bark, "Don't ask questions; just get here."
I hang up on him and rest my forehead against the wall, pausing to take a deep breath. Sure, I could have asked the doc what Annie might have seen that would make her kick the TV in with her bare foot – how she got the power to do that I'll never know – but he's the last person I want to stall with questions. I call Abel instead. The phone rings for a minute before he picks up.
"What did I just miss?" I ask, not bothering with preliminaries.
"Finnick?" he croaks, sounding shaken. "Snow announced the Quell match…they're reaping us. Victors."
The air freezes in my chest. How is that possible? Becoming a victor has always ensured that we'd never go in again. And most of us are over 18. The Capitol has never reaped adults. But if that's what Annie saw, then no wonder she's triggered. I squeeze my eyes shut as a chilling horror spreads through my veins. I'm not afraid for myself – but for Annie, if they draw her name. It turns my gut, the instinct that I'm supposed to protect her and my ability to do so might be ripped from my hands.
"So that's it, then? Two of us are going back in?" I say into the phone.
"That's the idea," Abel replies, his voice grim.
I hang up the phone and stare at it, half-expecting it to ring again. Too many implications gutter through my mind, not just about Annie…there are other things, plans, people...this Quell throws everything up in the air. I reach for the phone only to pause midair. No. Calling anyone would be foolish right now; the Capitol might even expect it. I can't jeopardize my contacts and I need to stay focused on the here and now. On Annie.
When I get back to the bathroom, the blank look is gone from Annie's eyes, but her mouth is covered beneath both her hands. Silent sobs shake her body and it gets worse when she sees me. Mags strokes her hair and murmurs to her, but it won't do any good.
This is how it always begins. The immobilizing shock and eventually the hysterics.
Mags fixes me with her watery eyes. "Well?"
"Doctor's on his way." I slump against the door and exhale. Mags's eyebrows lift in expectation. "They're reaping victors for the Quell."
She stares at me until it sinks in, then she looks at Annie with sad eyes. District Four boasts three surviving female victors. The odds in their favor are not…impossible. But the thought reverberates painfully through my chest because I've known Marina, the other victor, for as long as I've known Mags. Even if we aren't as close, am I supposed to hope for their lives over hers? I kneel on the tiles by the tub, checking the compress around Annie's ankle. Questions and favors I can't ask hijack my brain. The alternatives make my stomach turn; I'm afraid I'll be sick if I don't control it.
I feel pressure on my shoulder. When I look up Mags gives me a solemn nod.
I shake my head, I can't ask you to do that. The thought makes my stomach roll.
She snorts, as if to remind me of who she is. Mags, the victor. Like me, she didn't win by accident. And in her bleary eyes surrounded by wrinkles, she's reminding me that I'm the whelp here – and that I'm not the only one who loves Annie. I'm not the only one who needs her to pull me away from that part of myself that's a cold-blooded killer. We need Annie to keep us human.
Mags isn't asking for permission, and between us, Annie's not going back.
Thanks to Ceylon205 for beta-ing!