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Chapter 4

Recently, Finnick doesn't know what to do with himself.

At first, he thought it was a matter of curiosity that he began spending so much time with Annie. Beyond looking out for her because of Mags, he tried to tell himself that he was only interested in whether she was really sane or not. For all that time, he told himself that he didn't care if she dropped dead the next day or not.

But here he is now, in his room, doodling on paper and feeling lost because he chased her away yesterday. Or more accurately, he fled first.

While he was telling her about the food that he hated in the casino, Annie put her hand on his knee while they sat around the pool. Perhaps it had been the rip in the pants at the knees that made her think of mending them—her job is to mend things after all.

"There's a tear." Annie had noted softly. She talks in front of him these days. Quietly, in a perpetual whisper. It's mostly his doing that he frightened her into speaking in nothing surer and louder than a whisper.

Each time Annie forgot about what he'd warned and raised her voice in laughter at some joke he told, he made a gesture that suggested that he would hit her. He would have explained the dangers, but the problem was that he didn't know how to explain those coherently. Whatever the case, Annie had flinched and cowered each time, but she learnt fast, and ever since, they've had conversations in whispers.

But her slightly damp, cool hand that had stroked the dolphin's back so gently seemed to be a small white lily against the torn cloth. With that touch, her whisper had sounded like a swell of waves in his ears, and something had twisted in him

He doesn't know what he felt—even now. But it had made him flush, and he flinched. He'd pushed her hand with his rougher, more calloused one off. "Don't touch me!"

She hadn't looked hurt, only bewildered. She hadn't gotten a word in before he'd left.

Even now, he feels guilty. He has never lost his temper at anyone in the casino. Why then, at a mad girl?

But that he even feels guilt makes Finnick is ashamed of how he reliant he may have grown on Annie. If she was someone that he started looking out for unconsciously as a matter of obligation, now he wants to protect and keep her safe. He has watched her progress over these two weeks, seen her talk in broken and gradually more complex sentences, and he's watched her smile at him when he asks her to.

He tries to cover up for any mistakes that she makes, and it puts him on an edge each time he watches her across the hall serving drinks in the evening. He is worried every time a guest gets too near her.

Beyond that, he is becoming too attached to this Avox. He is too fond of her now.

Annie's presence and the undeniable progress over a short two weeks has started to make him feel horribly vulnerable. He must be careful not to let anyone discover that Finnick and Annie are perfectly capable of having conversations—no matter how strange or one-sided those often get when she's in one of her less stable moods. He mustn't go to her too often, he tells himself. The Avoxes can't keep secrets that put themselves out in the open.

And yet, he goes to her when he can—looks forward to it, even. He's the one who wants to talk to her.

He thinks about her as he doodles with wavy lines that don't connect to anything. He has a few hours of free time before the casino opens for the evening, but he avoids the urge to go to the enclosures. But if he does, he knows that he'll be at peace; he'll laugh genuinely and enjoy being here in this casino for at least those moments.

Last week, he asked her whether she liked flowers.

Perhaps she misheard him. Perhaps she wasn't so sure what he was asking about. But Annie said, calmly, almost as if she understood him, "Yes."She didn't stop there. She looked at him with that sweet-natured, leveled gaze. "I like Finnick very much."

Even now, Finnick doesn't know whether she really does understand what he was asking about. Nonetheless, he had spent the rest of that day grinning like an idiot, not caring so much even when the casino owner gave him a message from Snow and told him to stay in his quarters until the guest arrived for the weekend.

As soon as the guest left, he went back to the enclosures to find Annie.

Maybe that's what real insanity is, Finnick thinks now. It's not about being lost or confused like Annie. It's not even about being sick in the mind. That would only be scratching the surface.

He laughs as he thinks about what Annie first asked him when they first met. Neither of them really understand the Games, even if they somehow survived it. For both of them, insanity isn't an illness. It's about being so aware and so incredibly certain of some things that the others fade into nothingness—that one sees from an angle where nearly everything is obscured and where one does not know where reality starts and ends.

And even though Finnick tries to deny it, he still hears her song in his head. He knows the words like those really exist. He knots those in his mind—each syllable is replicated in the length of rope and cause slight abrasions on his fingers and hands. That song will drive him to madness sooner or later.

He draws another wavy line that blots dark and soberly into the white. Thanks to yesterday, even his rope couldn't keep him busy beyond fifteen minutes. This doodling exercise too, doesn't stop Finnick from thinking of her.

To have her speak and ask child-like questions that he can't answer fills him with joy. Granted, her sentences are unsophisticated, but she can speak in proper sentences and she's more than capable of connecting her words with situations. Ever since that strange day by the pool when she'd nearly drowned and screamed in shock, something about her has changed. It's in her face—those eyes are far more focused and determined, and she doesn't make mistakes so much these days. She seems to deliberate things now, and she seems to have grown up somewhat in a short span of time.

Sometimes, Finnick even forgets that she's mad.

Of course, Annie isn't actually learning per se. He's only helping her unlock things, and he can't give her more than what she has already remembers. She has begun to talk of waves and fishes and of boats. She can remember District Four still, and she will want to return at some point. She can, even if he can't quite. She talks of cliffs and her father, who will be wondering where she's been. She speaks of tidal pools and a tiny house that was always too far from the main lighthouse for anyone to notice it. She probably will return—eventually.

In his room, he draws gloomily, blotting and staining his fingers in the process.

He doesn't want anyone to know that she can speak—not even the Avoxes, who have already heard her scream. If the others discover that Annie can speak, that could be dangerous for her. Otherwise, the owners would send her back to District Four.

Finnick knows that someone like Annie would languish in the Victors' village. That part of District Four is a gated community— further away from the seas than the houses and boats that dot and line the shores and coastal cliffs. Is she to live in an empty, gilded house, where her father's ghost can't even haunt because it is out at sea? And what will become of her, since her father isn't around to look after her anymore? Is Mags expected to, simply because Mags belongs in District Four's Victors' village with the others? And what will the former Victors think of Annie Cresta and how will they treat her, she who is nothing remotely like the Careers the way the others are?

And so he forbids her to speak in front of the others each time he must leave—a reminder that he repeats anxiously even as she nods to show that she understands. But there is more than that to his motivations, and not all of it is so altruistic. There is jealousy involved. What else would explain the way that he stores every word she utters greedily in his memory and smiles himself to sleep so very often these days?

As awful and selfish as it is, Finnick wants to keep every hint of Annie's growing recovery to himself—he doesn't want her to go back to District Four. If she must bring him into madness with her, it doesn't seem as bad as being here all alone. She has become the only one that he wants to talk to. Whether it's because the Avoxes can only give silence or whether it's because Annie is too disconnected to hide her thoughts and motivations from him, he has come to rely on her.

His thoughts are of madness. He knows that. That's why he mustn't go to her. She encourages this insanity without even having to utter a single word.

Frustrated, Finnick leaves the ruined paper and collapses onto the ridiculously large four-poster. He isn't sure that she knows what the meaning of friendship is, or that she understands that he has come to think of them as friends. But if she did, would she despise him for wanting to keep her here? Would a real friend do what he has been trying to?

The worst thing is that Annie trusts him in that mute, dumb animal's way.

He doesn't even know if she smiles around him because she really wants to. His tricks with the patrons don't work on her—she doesn't understand when he flirts and plays around. Hell, she doesn't even understand half the jokes that he makes.

But she smiles around him—she smiles at everything he says. And that makes him feel worse because those smiles make him want to keep her here so that he has something to look forward to each time he returns to the casino.

He rolls around on the bed aimlessly, thinking about Annie and smushing his face into the clean sheets. But as he does, he feels something hard prodding in his cheek and pulls out the poetry book that he left under his pillow.

Annie reads the poems these days, ever since he started teaching her to read syllables and join those to the sounds of her words. She was rather illiterate to begin with, unlike Finnick, who'd been schooled for the early years. Even after being plucked out of school when the other siblings had arrived, he'd practiced reading and writing with sticks and sand and from picking up old cartons washed upon the shore. That painful process of fumbling with syllables and trying to match them to the sounds of the words is one that Annie is going through now, but she's eager to learn and Finnick is an able teacher.

As he sits up and looks at the book, Finnick decides that he will find Annie. It wasn't fair that he lost his temper with her—she didn't do anything to deserve his anger. He thumbs through until he finds the right page. He will go to her and read the poem that she seems to like—the poem that she always flips to and wants him to read.

Marrysong. He likes it, perhaps as much as Annie. The imagery reminds him of District Four, all wild and free, and perhaps Annie likes it for that reason too—perhaps he will be able to understand why when she acquires the words to tell him why. Even if he doesn't really believe in all that nonsense about eternal love, Finnick understands the speaker's curiosity about the girl that he mentions, and Finnick personally likes the idea that people can form bonds through their desire to understand each other.

He looks at the words, thinking about how Annie listens intently each time he reads everything out. She seems to feel the same uplifting emotion that he does when he finishes the penultimate words— she must sense that a free verse becomes a couplet at the end and the resolution in rhyme. There is always that little release of air when he finishes Marrysong.

He will go to the enclosure and seek her out, Finnick decides now. He will try to make up for it by reading a poem that she always flips to—he finds the leaf that he usually presses between those particular pages. Not that he needs it. She always seems to know which page it is and flips to it all the time, which makes him wonder if she understands things than she lets on.

Perhaps, Finnick thinks for a moment, she will understand if he expresses his longing for her to stay here. Perhaps Annie will agree to stay; not knowing that any sane person would have left at the first chance to.

And then Finnick realizes what his thoughts are, and he is stricken with another wave of guilt for quite some time.

"Well, hello there."

She looks up from the nets that she is mending. As Annie has learnt to do from the other Avoxes, she gets to her feet, because it is a way of acknowledging those who run this place. Of course, she gets up a little clumsily because there are all those nets in her lap, and she nearly forgets that she is holding the needle but manages to remember it in time.

Right after she puts the needle into the wrist-cushion, she curtseys as she was taught by one of the Avoxes. One of them has brought Mr. Mantique here—her eyes are lowered and don't meet Annie's.

"Annie Cresta, isn't it?" Mr. Mantique inquires. "I haven't seen you in a long time. Not since I had to deal with business in the Capitol centre." He chuckles and she looks at him wonderingly. Do they know each other? For sure, she knows that he owns this place like Mr. Luokei, even if he is usually never around.

Annie can't quite understand why Mr. Mantique is here. He usually isn't around in the casino—and even if he is, he has never come to the enclosures. But when Annie dares to look up at the owner, she sees that Mr. Mantique is showing his teeth. Those are very white. But those are pointed—not like Finnick, who has big, white chunky teeth that he shows each time he laughs.

"So this is the girl who swam through the flood." Mr. Mantique says. He looks carelessly at the Avox who must have led him here. "You can leave."

As the Avox creeps past them, Annie takes a step back involuntarily.

"Annie Cresta," Mr. Mantique says, cutting into her thoughts. "Do you know who I am?"

She keeps silent. Finnick warns her each time that they meet that she must keep silent with others. She doesn't know why, but she can sense why. She looks at Mr. Mantique, with his fancy clothes and powdered face. She can't say anything in front of him. Finnick made it clear that she was to hide her voice away.

But isn't Mr. Mantique alright to talk with? Finnick himself, Annie thinks, likes Mr. Mantique. He laughs, juggles and jokes and tells stories to Mr. Mantique all the time, who laughs in return and pats Finnick's back indulgently. Finnick doesn't laugh as much when he's with her, although she tries her best to read and smiles when he asks her to.

Mr. Mantique takes a step closer, looking at her very carefully. She lowers her eyes, afraid to look into his face. Annie has seen him before, but not this close. He might hit her. Perhaps she hasn't been mending the nets fast enough. One of the otters swam through it and left a huge hole and Annie has been doing all she can. But maybe it isn't enough. Mr. Luokei could be angry and have told Mr. Mantique. Mr. Mantique has never hit her before. But Mr. Mantique isn't around enough for him to have seen Annie make mistakes.

He shows his teeth again. "I'm Gantore Mantique. I'm one of the owners." He shows more of his teeth. "I'm not sure you understand that, but take it from me that I'm the one who decided to employ you." He laughs and stands there, tall and very thing, dressed in that coal-grey suit with golden cufflinks and his goatee dark and curling around his finger. "Well, in a sense anyway. You were thrust upon this casino, but it's not a bad investment, as I'm coming to understand."

He takes another step towards her. "Not that you will, of course. Maybe," He pauses, "Maybe I will need to explain things to you slowly."

She looks at him, not really understanding.

Has he come to see the animals? There are people who come to the enclosures in the evenings at times. Some do come to see the animals but sometimes they throw things at her. They dance and foam at their mouths and smash their glasses and they seem to ignore mostly everything until something catches their eye.

Once, three casino visitors came and injured a dolphin once, and Annie tried to go into the enclosure to stop them. But two of them held her back and no matter how she struggled, and the other kept hitting the dolphin with a pole. But Finnick came and he hauled them aside. He called them drunkards even as he sat with Annie for a whole night, tending to the battered dolphin. Drunkards. But Annie knows what that is. Her father foamed at the mouth a few times in the past too. She recognizes what that sickness is.

Now, she wonders how her father is. Who will mend the nets for his boat when she's here mending the enclosure nets? Who will comb his hair when he slumps over the table and grips the air violently? She looks at Mr. Mantique and hesitates. Maybe he'll let her visit her father. Should she ask?

"The problem is that you still can't speak." Mr. Mantique sighs. "It'll be harder that way, eh, Annie?"

She looks around, unsure. Finnick will be popping up at anytime, Annie thinks, smiling and laughing heartily and plucking things out of the air and juggling as Mr. Mantique laughs too. They are very good friends. Even better than Finnick with Annie and the other Avoxes. Finnick doesn't laugh as much with Annie and the Avoxes. He smiles, but he doesn't joke as much.

She looks at Mr. Mantique curiously. Why does Finnick like him so much? Perhaps, he is as kind as Finnick. If Annie asks, will Mr. Mantique let her go back to see her father?

Mr. Mantique is still curling his goatee. "Well, I think we better get to know each other better, Annie." He smiles. "Why don't we go to my office now? I hear from the head bartender that you're one of the Avoxes who make sure the cobwebs don't gather while I'm elsewhere in the Capitol. I'll send for biscuits and tea, so come along now."

She looks at his smile, wondering whether to return it.

He takes her hand firmly. The seal-pup fur is wonderfully soft, and she looks at those white-greyish and dappled gloves with amazement. He laughs once, and it is a soft, steady sound that rings in the air.

"I'm sure that we will be friends." He says merrily.

The Avoxes in the casino know more than they have been letting on.

The same one who brought him to the pool when Annie was drowning is now intercepting Finnick, preventing him from going to the enclosures. Just like the last time, this Avox is pale with fright. He seems to be gasping—wanting to say something, pale in his face.

This time, Finnick doesn't ask.

"Take me there." He tells the Avox grimly.

He expects to be brought to the pool again—or even the Avox quarters where something must have happened. He thinks he is prepared for the worst even as he runs with the Avox. But when they halt before Gantore Mantique's seldomly-used office, Finnick knows that he certainly did not expect this.

The Avox signs for him to be quiet, eyes very troubled.

And Finnick dismisses the Avox quickly, not wanting him to get into trouble. The Avox bows low and leaves, looking so beside himself with worry that Finnick cannot help but feel sorry for him. And Finnick senses, through the Avox's anxiousness, that something has gone wrong.

And when Finnick peers in through the door's crack , he understands why.

Her hair unbraided and flowing and her skin paler and more luminous than ever against the plum backgrounds of Gantore Mantique's office, Annie sits silently. Her cap has been removed and her hair has tumbled to her back. From where he is, Finnick can't quite see everything, but what he can see of her eyes is that those are the same, trusting ones that she often looks upon him with.

Her waist is so slim that hands less wide than Finnick's can almost span it. Had he held her for himself, he would have measured that circumference with his palms. Easily.

He can hear the caress of a voice and her name on another's lips.

"Annie." A pause, and Finnick strains to see but can't quite at his angle. "You're fifteen now, aren't you? You're going to be sixteen soon. What would you like for a birthday present?"

A gleam of teeth. Would Finnick have smiled at having her look at him so trustingly? And then a small, choked laugh.

It shakes Finnick from his daze.

When Finnick finally manages to leave Mantique's office, he makes sure to laugh and smile at the owner and be as nonchalant as he came. Almost as if he'd been wanting to visit Mantique upon learning that Mantique had arrived, and that he'd wanted to catch up over some tea. That he never knew that Mantique had someone in his office right before Finnick had knocked on the door.

He goes to find her back at the dolphin enclosure.

Finnick is panting by the time he gets there—he walked as normally as he could but sprinted once he passed a corridor. He ran from Mantique's office with his fears growing more and more real by the minute.

But now, Annie greets him joyfully before he can say anything. And before Finnick can even begin to express his fears, let alone think of what to do to show that he is sorry for how brusque he was yesterday, Annie is pulling him to sit by the pool's side, smiling trustingly at him. The way she smiled at Gantore Mantique.

It makes his blood go cold.

But she whispers, "Hello, Finnick," and he forgets everything.

As they sit, he looks at her hopeful expression and swallows, not knowing how to warn her. How can he warn her about Gantore Mantique when she probably doesn't even understand the risk that she's in? And what right, Finnick thinks painfully, does he have to warn her of Gantore Mantique when his own motivations aren't solely to protect Annie but to keep her here at the casino for Finnick's sake?

And so Finnick holds up the poetry book that he had been holding even in Gantore Mantique's office. "I thought we could do some reading."

"I know." She says joyfully, her voice very hushed as they sit by the pool, blocked by the tent. "I wanted to ask you to come here when I saw you, but you were busy with Mr. Mantique."

He'd interrupted by knocking on the door, and he'd waited until Annie had been sent out before he'd moved into Mantique's office. She'd looked at him as she'd moved out of the office, hair still disheveled as if someone had hastily unbraided her knot and ran his fingers to him, but her eyes unsuspecting. Before she had a chance to smile at him, he'd stormed into the office.

In there, he'd joked and laughed and talked about everything in the world.

"I was busy. But I wanted to see you, Annie." He says simply, as if to explain everything. Why he came to find her, why he said nothing to her as he went into Mantique's office, and why he's come back to the enclosures now.

Now, Annie looks at him curiously, and he smiles. Then he says, "Smile for me," and she does. He watches her smile spread over that lovely face. Her eyes have always been wide and searching but now she blinks a little in the faint light, lashes casting shadowed strands on the white cheeks.

He tries to tell himself that even if Gantore Mantique had begged, she wouldn't have smiled for him.

Then Annie tugs his sleeve eagerly, reaching into the flap of the tent and drawing out something.

She looks at him with a child's expression—that expression of slight apprehension but anticipation at the same time. "This is for you."

"Annie," He says in surprise. "You have something for me?"

He thinks of what would have transpired, had he not distracted Mantique. He shudders at Annie's helplessness and her trust in people. But he cannot afford to show fear here—he focuses on her gift.

It's been wrapped in white paper but it must be food. Out of the tent, there is an obvious, crusty fragrance to it that he can't recognize at first. But his stomach knows enough to growl painfully, and he laughs weakly, patting his belly.

She looks at his middle with an inquisitive expression so much like Shelley's—before Shelley was taken away, of course.

"It's food, isn't it? Will you show me?" He asks teasingly, trying to shake off the memories. "Or do you want to wait until I've finished reading? Will it be fairer that way?"

"You mean, like a trade?" She says shyly.

"Like a trade." Finnick agrees, although he feels fear for a moment that Annie has learnt of what Finnick is doing here in this casino.

Annie hesitates for a moment, then shakes her head. "I'll show you now."


"Because this isn't a trade." She says slowly, thinking about it with a tiny wrinkle appearing between her eyes. "This is a present."

And when she unwraps the package to present a creamy-looking, slightly green loaf, he thinks that it is no wonder that awful longing sprang up in him.

"Did you bake this?" He gapes. Now that Finnick sees the source of the scent that he should have recognized as soon as he detected it, he is filled with memories and hunger. Hadn't Shelley been the one to present the bread to her siblings? Hadn't their father's last few pennies that he'd left them given them at least one good meal that they'd sat down to savour as a family?

And Finnick looks at Annie in wonder. "Did you bake this?"

Her confused nod tells him as much. "You don't like this?"

"No!" His efforts to speak in a low voice are in vain because of his emotion. "I always wanted it when I was back there— I didn't know—,"

"The oven got fixed." Annie says. "I found the ingredients." And then she looks away a little, becoming a little lost. "I remember how to bake this. Somehow."

"I'm glad that you do." He says. And he pulls a hunk off the loaf. Swiftly, almost as if he is afraid that she'll take it away, Finnick puts it into his mouth and chews.

The bread is fresh and lovely, and the slight saltiness spreads over his tongue tantalizingly. It is just as good as the time when they had to share that one loaf amongst the four of them—Tristan had been quiet for hours after he'd finished his portion. Joash and Shelley had bawled for hours when they'd had nothing left but the few measly fishes that Finnick had been left with, but the bread had satisfied them for at least those few minutes.

He looks at Annie, who is watching him. He swallows to find his voice. "It's wonderful."

"Good." She says simply, and then smiles of her own accord. "I'm glad."

It's a common food in District Four, and basically everyone knows how to bake it if they have the ingredients. Perhaps it is Finnick's hunger that makes the bread taste so wonderful, but it may just be his memories of a bread that he hasn't tasted in a long while or the surprise of having mad little Annie know how to make it still.

He can't stop himself from tearing another hunk of it. "Incredible." He shakes his head in disbelief—almost as if he's gone hungry for a very long time. And just when he thought he had tired of tasting!

"Do you really like this?" Annie says, a bit of a question in her eyes.

"I do!" He says eagerly and a bit thickly. He is ravenous for this, he realizes. He was peckish before, but now his hunger seems to grow with every bite.

She smiles a little. "Father likes this too."

"I'll bet he did." Finnick says. He tries to smile to reassure her, even if it requires a bit more force than he expected. Nobody has told her yet, and he prays that he won't have to be the one to do that. He takes another hunk and pops it into his mouth. He chews, swallowing greedily. "You bake very well, Annie. This bread is very, very good— better than what I've tasted back there, anyway. Who taught you?"

Annie tilts her head, watching him. "I can't remember now." She bites her lips a little. "A kelp-gatherer. We used to go to the tidal pools together." She blinks, trying to recollect the distant memories that have become blurred after her mental lapse. "I was no good at fishing, and she was to weak to go out to the sea. That's why we were always gathering kelp instead."

"I see." He says softly, regretting having mentioned District Four at all.

"Finnick?" Annie says, obviously keen to keep on the topic. "You gathered kelp too, didn't you?"

"Everyone in District Four does at some point," Finnick says easily. It fetches quite a bit of money if one can gather enough. Fishing is sometimes unpredictable, and kelp-gathering, while tedious, is guaranteed income in some ways. Kelp can feed horses and the protein from certain kinds of kelp go into the luxury hair products that the Capitol uses.

"Did you go fishing?" She whispers eagerly.

"Yeah—everybody did at some point, although I guess I went a little earlier. And seaweed gathering too." He looks at her. "I suppose you were too young to go out on the boats then and your father didn't let you." He smiles a little. "But there wasn't anybody to stop me from going when I was ten."

And suddenly, he finds himself saying, "I had a family back there."

Finnick isn't sure why he says that, or why he is speaking in a tense that suggests he doesn't have a family anymore. For that matter, he isn't sure why he's even telling Annie all this when it's bound to make her ask the questions that he can't or doesn't want to answer.

But she looks at him for a few seconds, almost as if she can see the very things that he remembers about District Four in his mind. Her voice is sad. "Where is Finnick's father?"

"Oh, my parents passed on very quickly." He runs a hand roughly through his hair, looking at the bread with a studied kind of interest. "That's why I could go out to sea so early." He doesn't say that's why he had to go out to sea so early. "I was mostly referring to the siblings when I talked about the family I had." He focuses back on Annie, who's sitting very still and watching him with those large eyes. She looks pale now—she does understand what it means to pass on.

Quickly, Finnick moves to other topics. "You don't have siblings, Annie, but that's not a bad thing either." He laughs, although it is a bit weak. "They cry and quarrel all the time—if you were the eldest sibling, you'd be in charge." He fights the awful loneliness that wells up in him suddenly. "It's not nice to be a parent, even if it might be alright being a child." And he reaches to her head and pats it fondly.

Her eyes flicker shyly to his, and somehow, he forgets to chew. She gestures a little to his lips and he tilts his head, not understand her.

"Lips." Annie says quietly. "Lips. You were too hungry."

He pats his lips, but she shakes her head, and then moves a little closer to him, brushing the side of his mouth very carefully. There were crumbs, but he doesn't feel her cleaning his mouth as much as he feels her eyes concentrating on it. When she takes her hand away, he feels almost lost.

"Are you angry?" She says pitifully. "I hurt you yesterday." She looks to his knees.

"No," He whispers. "You didn't."

She brightens up. "I was afraid—,"

"You could never hurt me, Annie." He assures her. She looks hesitant still, and to comfort her, he takes her hand awkwardly in his, patting it once. "Thank you for the bread."

"Welcome." Annie says happily. "Finnick liked it."

He stares at her. Did she know how close she was to danger? The owner had shooed Annie off and pretended to continue doing the accounts, not even drinking what he'd ordered her to bring in. Finnick had then sat around as if he'd been wanting to see Mantique in the first place, joking and talking rubbish with Mantique.

Mantique hadn't noticed how Finnick's hands had been clenched.

If it's the last thing he does here, Finnick decides, he'll keep her safe from Mantique.

"Annie," He says slowly. "Can you bake seaweed bread if I want it in the future?"

She smiles, as though she is obliging a little boy, and he takes it as a positive answer. Almost relieved, he begins to chew again. He resumes eating, even as she watches him curiously.

He eats with an appetite that surprises him.

At some point, Finnick can't ignore Annie for what she has become.

Even if he wants to think of her as a child in the same way that he thought of Shelley, people are looking at her differently. Amongst the Avoxes, she is beautiful if one can spot her against the woodwork. Most don't actually recognize Annie Cresta from the Games for various reasons— she probably looks different from what they can remember and there wasn't much attention on the Games in her year or the Victor. It was one of those all-time low ratings.

By the time Annie's name had been drawn in the reaping, Finnick had been jaded and sophisticated, with a great deal of experience with the Capitol. He'd been nothing of a child; well-versed with lies and half-truths and how to please and how to wound with just his words without even having to reach for a knife or trident.

Of course he could blame it on Snow and the Capitol. He does that everyday, in his heart, in his cowardice, in his usual lies that he never had a choice. That's his way of keeping sane, even though he did have a choice. He exercised it once—it cost Shelley her life. He could exercise it again—why not sacrifice Tristan and Joash, who don't think of him as their eldest brother anymore?

But the truth is that Finnick had been good at knifing and gutting and all sorts of thievery even before the Games—what was there to really corrupt?

Annie though, has always been untainted. Even if he is only idealizing the fact that she's far too mad to be anything but innocent, it makes it easier for him to ignore how she is blooming and becoming noticeable to others.

The casino visitors do notice her. Later, Finnick will tell himself that it was the only reason why he began noticing and wanting her at all.

On this evening, he overhears some visitors.

"She isn't really an Avox, is she?"

"No idea. Last I recall, she's a Victor. Some years ago." They scratch their heads, trying to recall which year it was. She's not one of the famous ones—even Haymitch is more recognizable than her.

"Don't know why I didn't notice how pretty she is. Look at those eyes. And those lips." There is a leer that Finnick can see that he is suddenly enraged about. "Too bad. They must have taken out her tongue."

"She's a bit—," There's a pause. "A bit abnormal, yes? Is it infectious?"

"If it is, it's a pity." There is a sigh. "That girl would be good—,"

Finnick wants to hear more, but he can't. He wonders what they are talking about exactly. He is still seething. He looks around the place, excusing himself from the game table where a few pairs of hands grab at him and try to make him sit back down.

Annie's at the drinks counter, her back turned to Finnick. She is mixing things without another Avox watching out for her the way that happened in the early days.

But Finnick assures himself that the casino guests who want extra entertainment aside from cards and roulette are mostly here for Finnick. He tells himself that it will prevent them from looking at Annie for long. Besides, he chants to himself, most don't want to go near Avoxes, who are probably the worst kissers—they don't know that Annie, who's technically an Avox, still has her tongue.

But of late, it is even more difficult to ignore the changes in Annie and the pulsating emotions when he sees her. Even now, she is the sort of creature that has the capacity to love and care, even if she has locked herself somewhere; she actually cried when another Avox burnt himself doing something or the other one day. Finnick, who offered to fetch the burn-salves, had felt almost jealous.

It doesn't stop there. He wishes that it would.

It happens on another evening quite soon after he hears the visitors discussing Annie again.

He finds himself distracted while entertaining guests and joking and laughing about. Even when it is all over and the earliest hours of morning have passed, Finnick doesn't retire to his quarters for some sleep. Instead, he goes to the dolphin enclosure.

To be fair to himself, he isn't expecting her or the dolphins to be there. The dolphins have been transferred to another pool since this one will be renovated in a few weeks for more grandeur. For now, it's supposed to be entirely empty. That includes Annie, who would have probably moved to wherever the dolphins would have moved.

But she's there.

In the faint light of the rising sun, she lies by the edge of the pool in her pajamas, absorbing the last bit of warmth from the concrete tiles. She is deep in sleep, and she is muttering away as usual, without any sound leaving her lips. Why did she move out of her tent and sit here until she fell asleep?

He doesn't know, but when he looks at her, it's almost as if she wants to be washed away. He wishes that she could be—both of them, actually.

When he goes to sit by her at the pool, envying her, Finnick knows that it isn't the first time that he's felt more pathetic than she is.

Annie sleeps away, some of her hair wet from dipping into the pool, and her skin very, very white. It hasn't seen much sunlight and it looks almost like paper. It is beautiful in a way that Finnick doesn't expect, since everybody raves about his golden skin and uses bronzers in hope of looking like him.

He looks at her fingers and has to smile despite feeling slightly upset that there are the usual plasters there. She is still a bit clumsy. He wonders if it hurts her anew each time on those fingers that are so used to injuries.

And suddenly, for no good reason at all, he feels like touching her cheeks. He wonders if she'll mind, but decides that if he does it quietly enough, she won't wake. He's learnt enough about her to know that she's a deep sleeper for most part.

Gently, he touches her cheekbone with a fingertip, and he bends forward, smiling even though he doesn't realize it. Annie sleeps on, the faintest roses under her cheeks and her lips slightly parted as she breathes easily.

What he does next stuns him into waking up, getting away and then running back down to throw himself into the casino activities. All this, although she continues to sleep.

That night, Finnick thinks of her and it horrifies him to know that she can no longer be a child to him.

She plagues his mind even until morning comes, and even in his frustration and self-loathing, he can remember the faintest sweetness of her lips when he willingly brushed his own against hers and she responded to him even while deep in her dreams.

After some weeks of deliberation at length with himself, Finnick goes back to ignoring her.

He tells himself that he has to keep sane. Just because she's mad and she's helpless doesn't meant that he can start getting influenced by her. She's a silly child, Finnick tells himself. She seems to have recovered somewhat and knows her way around the casino these days, but that isn't because she understands. It's just repetition and training or something. Like training an animal.

He stops going to find her at the dolphin pool. She doesn't come to find him either, and she never seems to notice him when he lounges about in the casino. Despite himself, he feels slightly irritated but ignores her even more fiercely. Even if he doesn't have any modeling assignments, Finnick doesn't come back from the outskirts until it's evening. That's if he doesn't have a visiting patron. When he does, he handles it with his usual devil-may-care attitude, since it's easier to get things over and done with. When he doesn't, he disappears to his quarters as soon as he can, and leaves in the morning as soon as he can.

He does this for weeks at an end, until he realizes that he hasn't taken out that poetry book for nearly two months now. He has locked up the book that they once poured over, and he doesn't want to see it now. So he congratulates himself on his successfully staying sane.

Over the next whole month, he celebrates his twentieth birthday and entices patrons to give him incredible gifts and secrets. The Avoxes have a tough time arranging those and cleaning his quarters every two days for this month, but he doesn't really care as long as Annie isn't allowed into his quarters.

It isn't difficult to ignore her if Finnick tries hard. At least, he tells himself that. She seems to disappear as well—she is still good at hiding. She blends into the woodwork if he makes it a point to glaze his eyes over. The way she fit into his arms and responded to his kiss is something that he can forget. He tells himself that.

But on this evening, even Finnick's current patron has taken her eyes off him to look at the Avox that has knocked quietly and been admitted to Finnick's quarters to serve them drinks.

"Finnick, look—,"

Lying on his stomach with the sheets pulled over him, Finnick would rather sleep on. He is exhausted after hours of ploughing. But his patron is prodding him and forcing him to sit up.

"What?" He says wearily, moving a little. He remembers that Leitha Vermeer wanted drinks. In his bleary exhaustion, he'd told her that she could order some by making a call with that silly shell-shaped phone at the side of the bed. She must have done that. "Are the drinks here now?"

As he gets up slowly and turns around, he sees who has come into his quarters.

His eyes catch onto Annie's. She is looking steadily at Leitha Vermeer and not at him, but he skirts his gaze away, stunned as if someone has thrown him a punch. He tells himself that she doesn't understand. He tells himself that she doesn't know what kisses mean and what he is doing even now—that she won't think too badly of him.

But the Avox that has somehow come into the room makes him feel like he's the intruder.

She kneels there, at the foot of the large, four-poster bed, apparently allowed in by Finnick's patron. Finnick's quarters, as usual, are set in dim, sensuous tones with waves as murals and that sort of thing. The in-built system is still playing sultry, wordless tunes—tunes that he is bored to death of by now, but unable to change. It seems strange that Annie is in here.

Suddenly annoyed that his patron has let her in, Finnick turns to Vermeer. Is there no other Avox at this hour, he seethes? "Why's she here?"

"I was too lazy to get up and fetch the drinks from outside the door," She explains briefly. "I figured out that you can open the doors with this button." She gestures to the shell-device that functions to control temperature and other things within the quarters.

"Good for you." Finnick says, trying to keep the sourness out of his voice. He is supposed to be merry and happy like a goat, not sullen as a dead fish would be.

Vermeer is still staring at the Avox that has been allowed in. "Well, go ahead and pour."

As Annie sets out the drinks that his patron ordered with shaking hands, Vermeer continues to stare at the Avox who's been allowed in. Later, Finnick will try to tell himself that his patron's fascination with Annie was the only reason why he even looked at Annie at all. But for now, he looks at her, and it frightens him that he is looking at her with his patron's eyes.

Why has he never noticed her like this before? She isn't very tall, but she has outgrown the uniform. It won't cover the swelling of her curves for long, and because she is kneeling, he can see that the skirt is a little too short for her. He can see a hint of her thighs as she shifts a little on her knees, and as her fingers skim over the bottles, uncapping the glass, his own patron draws in a sigh. Annie's hair is glossy and thick as it falls over her shoulders, and he recalls what the casino guests said about her—what Vermeer must have also noticed about her youth and desirability.

"What a pretty thing she is," Vermeer murmurs appreciatively. Her eyes on Annie, she begins to stroke at Finnick's thighs beneath the sheet. He tries to hide his disgust, but he can't turn away for so many reasons. This patron and her exhibitionist tendencies are demeaning—that greediness on her face is horrifying. But her hand is soft and skilled against him, and helplessly, he looks at Annie, who doesn't seem to feel embarrassed or even aware of what she has walked into.

As Annie continues kneeling, pouring various things into glasses, he sees her lips trembling. Those are full and sweet, and Finnick is suddenly aware that if he were to part those, he would still find a soft, pink tongue behind. That is a secret that very few know of, but that secret feels like something that is solely his in this moment.

His patron is stroking him harder and Finnick fights back a cry.

Does Annie smell the perfumes in this room? Does she know what this woman is and what she is doing to Finnick while watching Annie? Does Annie understand what she might have been trapped in if she hadn't lost her mind? How much of her is sane even now?

And then Finnick shakes his head to snap himself out of it, pulling away his patron's damp hand with as much control as he can muster. He would have shoved it away, but that would have offended her. He flops back down onto the bed, not really caring and not wanting to see Vermeer look hungrily at Annie and lick her fingers and palm. The whole scene plays in his mind though, and it sickens Finnick utterly.

His words aren't directed to anyone in particular. "Get out."

He isn't sure who he is addressing—Annie, his patron, or both of them. Annie however, must be nervous at the dull tone he uses. Even though she has been quite good for the past weeks with barely any scrape that he's heard of, she suddenly drops something on the floor.

Even with the carpet, the tinkle of glass is heard.

The patron gasps but Annie is mute of course, and Finnick ignores them both. He was half-expecting it; he was willing her to mess up.

"Ask her to go." He tells Vermeer, glad that Annie will be sent out quickly now.

"But I'm thirsty," Vermeer pouts. She looks sexily at Finnick, still licking her fingers. "Do you have a better alternative?"

Finnick bites back his sudden flash of anger, realizing that Annie will stay in this room for even longer now. "Just tell her to finish up and go, and then we can get on with it."

From what he hears, Annie manages to stir something and there is the clink of glasses as she sets things down. A few minutes later, he hears something scrapping the carpet—maybe she carries a dustpan with her. She should, if she's this clumsy normally. And then she stands up—he can hear her shoes scuff the carpet.

He hears his patron murmur something and knows that Annie has come to her side of the bed and passed a drink to her.

"Some for you?" His patron says. "It's not bad."

"No." Finnick says flatly. And then he senses that Annie is bowing and then fleeing.

He can hear the door close again.

His patron has slid out of bed, taking a drink and sipping from it when she has come back to him. Her voice is husky from their activity, and she strokes his shoulders like he is a pet cat. The frond-like hangings cast seaweed shadows onto his back, for she is tracing wavy patterns down his flesh.

She pats his back. "Lie on your back, Finnick. I don't want the rear view."

He obeys numbly and stares at the ceiling of his four-poster. As Vermeer holds her drink and sips with one hand, her other brushes against him once more. She seems to derive her pleasure mostly from his, but that doesn't make Finnick triumphant but disgusted that he can feel lust with someone like this patron. She is a skilled lover, as much as he hates to admit it, and she makes frissons of sensation break under his skin.

She does so even now and once again. "She's a pretty little thing."

"She's mad." His voice is flat.

"Wait—," She stops her ministrations and looks suspiciously at her glass. "This casino has a mad Avox running around and serving drinks?"

Finnick tries not to roll his eyes. "The rest must be busy. That's why they got her to serve."

She panics. "Did she poison this?"

"She wouldn't have laced it with anything. She's normal, for most part." He pauses, wondering if he's under or oversold. He doesn't know—he's not a shrink. "But you saw it—she messes up all the time. And don't let anyone in when we're not done."

"Well now," his patron laughs, "Here I was, thinking that you'd never be embarrassed even if you were caught butt-naked." She reaches for him again. "In fact, I daresay you came quickly because you were excited that someone was watching. Embarrassment can be rather stimulating, no?"

A sharp remark comes to mind, but Finnick decides to play along, trying to drive the thoughts of Annie and her sudden appearance from his mind.

"Embarrassed?" He flings aside the sheets, revealing himself entirely and unabashedly to his patron. His voice is humid with confidence, and he gets into a position where he's sprawled out with one knee in the air, like the god that they say he is. The only thing that's missing is the bunch of grapes to be fed to him. "That isn't a word in my vocabulary."

As he expects, her breath catches and she admires him, slipping down to lie and to look at him.

"You weren't impressed by her?" Vermeer asks, sipping still. "I thought she was darling. What a lovely creature." She shrugs. "Even if she's a bit crazy."

"I thought I was the object of your affections?" Finnick says, looking pointedly at her. For some reason, he now wants to pander to her, even though she's given him all her secrets already. But she's been the only patron in two weeks, and she doesn't have that many alterations. Besides, she's quite amusing at times—she's an actress in pro-Capitol films and she speaks out as one of Snow's personal celebrity supporters. Also, she's good with accents. She can make him laugh honestly at times, even if she's plain depraved at most times.

"Jealous, are we?" She laughs delightedly. She kneels over him, pushes him to lie down and then impulsively pours the rest of the alcoholic drink on him in a bold, vertical line—from his lips to his thighs. A bit like a dog marking territory, he thinks snidely, except that the drink evaporates on his skin, leaving it cool.

He somehow thinks of the girl mixing it, a poor, mad girl who mumbles silently and doesn't know what she's doing. A girl who swam to her survival, a girl who belongs near the seas but now spends her days in a filthy place, looking at creatures that are just as trapped at her. A girl who is locked in her own mind, but knows enough to mix cocktails and to skirt her eyes away from his. Was it his imagination, or had she looked at him before skirting her eyes away?

His flesh is tingling and he bites back a groan. "Quick—,"

"Oh, do you want to go at it again?" She chuckles.

For some reason unknown to himself, Finnick turns to her, smiling and turning his charm on at full-blast. His words though, ring with irony. "Even if I didn't want to, I'd have to."

It is this night that he actually welcomes her fucking him even if he doesn't admit it to himself. He takes on his patron without a single thought of complaint, going on until the patron begs him to stop, satisfied and worn out even before Finnick is.

About a week later, Annie makes a mistake that gets Rok Luokei so angry that he demands that she pack and leave. He doesn't care that she's a former Victor, since she isn't a face of the casino unlike Finnick. He doesn't care that the animals are only comfortable with her when they are injured or ill. He doesn't care that she works for only food and shelter—he says that she doesn't deserve it.

Someone apparently mixed the wrong pipes leading from the enclosures with the ones from the drinkable water tanks. The unclean water got mixed into drinks and got served to about twenty people. Those who'd consumed the drinks had vomited for a whole night, and of course, it had to be Annie.

Annie stares blankly, even as the casino owner screams at her, frightened, pale, and stupefied with shock.

And it is Finnick, poltergeist of the place, mascot without being the master, who steps in front of her. Who would know that Leitha Vermeer's off-hand comment could be Annie's ticket to leaving this goddamned place?

"She has to go." He tells Rok, before the owner can inflict any violence on her. "She irritates me too."

And Rok, who has far more tolerance for Finnick than Annie, seems to become mollified at Finnick's own stand. What the owner doesn't know is that Finnick had snuck to the pools and switched the pipes' numbering. The customers had taken some salty water with whatever the dolphins had been contributing to it, and had mixed it into the tonic and gin. So it was that Annie and the other Avoxes had served it without anyone knowing.

It is for her own good, Finnick thinks. He tries to console himself as he passes by the Avoxes' quarters and see them helping her to pack. One is hugging Annie, and Annie is making crooning noises to comfort her.

It is good that she leaves, Finnick tells himself. It is right. Very soon, the owners will know that she can speak. What next? Finnick doesn't know, but his instincts tell him that she's better off away from the casino because she doesn't fit in with the Avoxes anymore. Not now—not when she's so clearheaded for so much of the time. The only other things left in the casino are filthy things.

At least, Mags will be waiting for her back in District Four, Finnick consoles himself. Also, the annual reaping is going to take place, and Mags will prevent Annie from seeing anything that will interrupt Annie's progress in re-learning how to speak.

But Finnick doesn't tell Mags why he is so eager to see Annie get out of the casino. He doesn't tell Mags anything more than Annie's major blooper—he doesn't tell Mags that he was the culprit. Mags would not approve.

Nor does he say in the letter that he thinks it is good that Annie is leaving. No, Finnick decides. He can't tell anyone that Mantique kissed her hands and then her lips and that she sat there woodenly, staring with those lost eyes at Mantique. It would be as good as admitting that he'd lived vicariously as Mantique for that few moments before he'd gathered up every last sane fiber in him to interrupt.

What Finnick has managed though, is good enough. Finnick can't do more than get Annie out of here. Talking about it is unthinkable. It is almost for his sake rather than Annie's that he wants her brought away from this casino.

She is so naïve and so child-like, so innocent that she wouldn't know any better. She is scheduled to leave in three days, but three days is enough for mischief to happen. He wants to keep an eye for her; what would Mags say if she was harmed under Finnick's nose? But there's a patron arriving tomorrow, and the devil has a thousand ways of whistling past the best-laid plans.

As far as Finnick can see, Gantore Mantique, the other owner, seems to be appearing more frequently in these evenings. Annie isn't safe until she leaves, and she isn't safe with that man around.

And Finnick wonders how to deal with it, since his patron has booked him for the third evening—the evening before Annie is sent off.

He tries to pays one Avox to rush to Finnick's room should anything happen. It's a silly plan, of course. But the Avox presses the money back into Finnick's hand and swears silently anyway.

Some things, Finnick realizes, can't be bought.

And on the morning that Finnick decides that he has succeeded in keeping Annie safe for Mags, he decides to go for a morning swim. This is the first time that he's done so in a long while, and it's fortunate that his patron left late in the night for him to enjoy his morning alone.

But when he gets to the dolphin enclosure, he hears a song.

He stands there, listening as he did, two years ago, listening to Annie sing. She sings, and the dolphins are quiet for once. They are all listening.

"Should you go," She sings, "I'll go too."

There is no more gibberish. He half-misses it. The words are unreal to him, those words about the sea and a lost love and whatever that she's singing about. Someone gave her those words—someone puts those words there for her. Mags perhaps, those years ago.

But now, he thinks painfully, Annie will be free to speak her words and to find new ones.

He is numb, standing there and listening.

He would rather hear her gibberish. The gibberish makes more sense in his mind.

And when she stops and looks around at where he is standing behind a pillar, something breaks in him. He steps out, waits for her to come to him delightedly, and this time, he hugs her tightly, wanting her so badly that it is all he can do not to hurt her. He isn't protecting her from Mantique as much as himself, Finnick realizes. No matter how he lies and plots, he's really the one that Annie should avoid. He ruins things—he is sure of that.

"I thought you were angry with me." Annie murmurs.

"Not anymore." He lies. He never was.

"Will you come visit me?" She says quietly.

He asks, "Do you want me to?"

"Yes." Annie says without hesitation. "I'll bake for you again."

"Then I will." He lies again. He plans to send her away to a place that he will never return to.

He never gets to swim that morning, and he never gets to see her off because he lets go of her first and says that he must return to his quarters. In his quarters, he takes a shower, disgusted at how his will was swayed and how easily he feels like weeping when he thinks of Annie.

When she leaves on a hovercraft to District Four, he is stuck back at the casino, his hands on somebody that he actually doesn't have to fuck for once but feels like doing. Throughout it, his mind is on something entirely different. He is memorizing the song with its gibberish.

It may drive him to insanity, but he will welcome it. Better a song than a warm, trusting Annie that doesn't know any better than to look at him with kindness.

The days go on and he sometimes gets word from Mags or visits from other Mentors. He hears that Annie, although she is still a little mad, can speak now.

She sings, of course. Beautifully. Mags says that she lapses into nonsense at times, and that she bites her hands when she's scared, but overall, she's safe and she has recovered so well that she seems almost normal.

Finnick finds himself very, very pleased. First, he congratulates the dolphins for having such healthy bowels, and he insists on helping out with chores with the Avoxes who looked out for Annie—even when they get on their knees and beg him not to.

Next, he congratulates himself for having stopped the insanity before it took control of him. He is filled with wild, mad joy. It is as if a part of him has been redeemed; transfigured into a part of the child that has managed to escape back to District Four. There is Mags there, even if she has nobody from her family left. Mags is as good as a whole family. He has done Annie a favour.

Finnick doesn't even mind so much when there is a sudden influx of patrons on a certain month. He does his services cheerfully, takes the secrets, makes the marks on the closet with a vicious glee, and unlocks the poetry book to read those poems when he has a spare moment. He can recite Marrysong backwards in his mind.

He recites a whole slew of poems to one patron one day, as practice for the future. Future what? He doesn't know. But he sees a future where he might possibly go away from this place and not have to return. His patron is very impressed and pays him handsomely.

Marrysong however, is one poem that he doesn't recite. He can't bring himself to.

And over this month, Finnick prepares to make a visit back to District Four. This year, he won't be called back to mentor, nor will Mags, and he can make time. He has plans despite the promise he made to himself to leave Annie in a place where she is safe—he ignores the ongoing Games, collects his things, and unlocks that book that has become precious to him.

He makes plans and buys a ticket.

He tells himself on the train that the excitement pounding in his veins comes from going back to see District Four—it isn't anything more than that. Or it's the food and the slightly alcoholic chocolate-dipped berries he had for dessert, he tells himself.

He tells himself that he's visiting to see his old house. Perhaps, he'll live in Victor's village if he feels like it. If, and only if he has time, Finnick tells himself, he will visit Mags. And if for some reason, he has any more time left, he might go to see Annie perhaps.

And this time, Finnick is sure that Annie will not affect him the way she was beginning to. The lapse of time, he thinks, will have cooled off anything that he felt. No protectiveness, no jealousy, no fear—nothing of that sort anymore. She will be nothing more than a Shelley replacement, he tells himself, and Mags will not know of Finnick's momentary loss of control.

And for that period of time, Finnick is so sure that he has recovered from his madness too.