A/N: This chapter is one that merits an M.
After Julia left, Annek had been deterred by the voice in the back of his head, whispering that it was a very, very stupid idea to blow off the Q n A.
So he returned to home to put on presentable clothing; dark-wash jeans and a crisp white button down, June's cowrie shell necklace, tobacco-brown leather flipflops, and some "product", as Meghan called it, scraped haphazardly through his hair. Casual was good for the more intimate feel of one of these sessions. He grabbed his bag, shoved a pair of swim shorts in it along with his wallet, and headed out again, this time for the Depot. As he walked, though, his steps slowed, and the dread in the pit of his stomach grew heavier and heavier. By the time he reached the back of the building, a foul mood had settled around him, and he could feel, like some sort of premonition, that it would be a complete and utter shitshow. He hadn't been home; his family was disappeared. All they'd have to go on was him going to parties and bars and being carried out, and being found in bathrooms and hall closets with blushing groupies. Worst of all, there was the ghost of Doe haunting the town and the people in it. No one but Julia would even consider spending time with him, and when he passed, there weren't any joyous throngs to see him. There were hard faces, looking for answers, and he wasn't about to give them any.
He looked around for Meghan. She was turned away from him, cowing some Peacekeeper into submission through sheer force of will. Her conversation drifted his way, drips and strings of words.
Keep them to the script. Trying to rehabilitate his reputation with Four.
He took his opportunity, and fled.
Annek met up with Julia near her family's farm. They lived near the inland outskirts of town, and were one of the five families that grew sea kelp in vast fields stretching over Wards Seven, Eight, and Twelve. Julia was never too keen on farming, and preferred the hubbub of the market. Since kelp was recession-proof, her family had always been comfortable.
She was waiting near two ATVs, normally used by fieldworkers, which she'd commandeered earlier that day. One had a large basket strapped to the back, presumably full of lunch. The other had sleds, for reasons as yet unknown. Annek looked at the squat vehicles with no small measure of distrust. He didn't actually know how to drive.
"Ready?" Julia positively glowed with health and excitement. She had changed from earlier, he noticed- in place of jeans and flipflops, she wore shorts and camel-colored hiking boots. She had never cared for hats, but had tied her curls up and out of her face in a bouncy ponytail.
Annek was still feeling a little unsteady, and he was sure he looked more than a little peaked. He was liberal with the sunscreen, seeing as this was his favorite kind of day: just warm enough to be uncomfortable, but with a hearty sea breeze and a clear blue sky. Perfect.
Julia chose the ATV with the picnic basket, and after a quick lesson for Annek, they were off, tearing through grassy, fallow fields and towards the sand dunes a few miles away. It was her favorite place, secluded and quiet.
They reached a sparsely wooded grove that flanked the dunes. A wide, shallow creek meandered its way to the shoreline, and they spread out the blanket near it. Julia produced lunch; thick, sweet buns stuffed with barbecued pork, honeycrisp apples, tiny clementines, and custard-filled soft cakes.
Annek's face lit up. "How did you know I like these?" The small, flat, slightly sticky buns were his favorite, and far and away the stars of the spread.
"I didn't. I like them myself, and figured you'd have to put up with it if you didn't," she smirked.
"Oh, well, lucky me," he laughed.
They toasted their desserts, shared stories of the past year. Julia told of the storm that had knocked out power for a week, and Annek told her about the eccentricities of the Capitol, from fashion to mannerisms. He mocked Glinter's hair-flip and would-be coquette's smile, and Caesar Flickerman's overbearing double-handed handshake and too-loud laugh.
The conversation drifted to Annek's visit back home, and how he'd adjusted.
"Can I ask you something?" His voice was quiet, breaking a comfortable silence.
"Yeah, sure," she replied, around a mouthful of apple.
He cast about for the right words. "Literally every other person turned me down, and I can't really blame them. Why did you take me up on my offer?"
"It's not every day I get to have dinner with a Victor," she joked, neatly dodging the question.
"I'm serious." Annek was having none of it.
Julia took a sip from her water bottle, buying time.
She met his eyes. "Honestly, if I had known what you did in the Games, I wouldn't have. We, em... all of us here... we actually have a pact not to spend time with you because of Doe. But after you explained, well.. I understand. You were just trying to survive, and I can't say I'd do anything differently. You have to carry that with you the rest of your life; you don't need my help in feeling crap about it."
He was thoughtful, staring at the space between them. "Thanks." It was almost to himself, but Julia felt the weight of his words.
"Besides, I wanted to see just how soft you'd gotten in the Capitol. You're already picking up their esses," she ribbed, trying to lighten the mood.
It was true. Somehow the elongated 's' sound had begun slipping into his speech. He didn't really know how to feel about it.
He didn't know how to feel about a lot of things. Neither of them brought up last night, though it was just under the surface, each feeling the others' eyes on them. Annek didn't think holding her in bed and the subsequent kiss had actually happened, though he wished they had; it felt so real. He remembered most of the night, when he shifted to lay his head in her lap and felt her slender fingers running through his hair, but the morphling had washed out almost everything else, like overexposure or lens flare on a photo.
"So, wanna see what the sleds are for?" She stood up and dusted herself off, changing the subject and her train of thought, and Annek followed suit.
"I think I know now, actually." He remembered sledding on sand dunes with June years and years ago.
The dunes were hulking, miniature mountains covered in dense patches of beach grass and stunted trees, with slaloms of bare sand. They formed a bowl of earth, huddling against a small and intimate beach with the whole wide ocean spreading out in front of them. It was easy to believe that nothing lay beyond the dunes; the quiet air and general calm felt like they were the first two people on earth at all.
They shared Annek's ATV up a particularly tall one. He was hyper- aware of her arms wrapped around his waist, her warm body hugging his, her soft chest pressed into his back, her chin on his shoulder as she told him where to go, how she squeezed him tighter as they ascended and the wheels kicked up sand... He was very glad she was sitting behind him, and not the other way around. They reached the top, and he took a moment to compose himself before he followed her to the edge, sipping from a water bottle. Julia untied the sleds and handed one to Annek. She refreshed him on how to steer, using his body weight to guide the light, bright plastic.
"Last one down has to come back up for the ATV!" Julia shouted and pushed off.
Annek followed. They were neck and neck at exhilarating speed, weaving around patches of grass, catching air from divots and mounds of sand. It was intoxicating, but over all too soon. Annek won by a slim margin, and they slowed to a stop some distance away from the foot of the sand hill. Annek lay back, breathless and exhilarated, grinning from ear to ear. He'd forgotten how much of a rush it was, and let out an exultant whoop.
Julia hung her head in mock shame and laughed.
"March, Miss March," he gloated, pointing up.
He watched her as she started up the hill, struggling in the piled sand and steep grade, and he drank in the moment. He almost felt like he was floating, lighter than air. He hadn't felt this good without booze or morphling since... well, he didn't really remember. He realized he didn't want to waste the hour it would take her to get back up the hill twiddling his thumbs all by himself. He strapped his sled to his back by threading his arms through the rope along the sides, and jogged to catch up with her. She looked pleased to see him, and eyed the sled.
"I'm nothing if not a gracious winner," he said with exaggerated formality, giving her a bow. She smiled, and turned her attention to the climb. Their small talk was soon replaced by panting as they climbed, moving from one patch of grass to the next. Annek was childishly pleased by the fact that she took longer and more frequent breaks than he did. The thought came unbidden that Glinter would never have made it at all. Julia looked at home here, confident and radiant even as she navigated the ankle-deep sand.
They made it to the top in forty-five minutes, panting and drenched in sweat. She walked over to the ATV and swung her leg over, but Annek set up the sled and beckoned her to join him.
"Who's going to come back up this time?"
"I have a plan, dear, trust me. Come on." He held out a hand and quirked an eyebrow.
She sized him up, then settled in in front of him. Her bouncy ponytail tickled his nose, and he tried not to sniff it but it smelled amazing. They pushed off and flew back down the hard-won climb. They had almost made it down when Annek hit a grassy patch in just the wrong way.
They fell off with a shriek from Julia and went tumbling and sliding down, landing in a tangled heap of limbs against a grassy patch, the sled bouncing away harmlessly. Annek landed on top of her, but held most of his weight propped on his arms. She landed on her side, turning over quickly to meet his gaze, hand braced on his forearm.
"You okay?" he asked.
"Never better," she breathed.
Neither actually wanted to move, until Annek reluctantly shifted to release her and Julia pulled him down into a feverish kiss. So that really did happen.
He dropped to his elbows and cradled her head in his hands as she wrapped her legs around him and kicked off her boots and socks. In record time, she found the spot on his throat that made him shiver and pause with his head against her shoulder.
He was drunk on her body, sliding rough hands down her solid, silky curves. The vast majority of girls in the Capitol were weak, thin and a little bony, but Julia was toned and strong, her wide, sinuous hips beckoning. He felt her lifting off his shirt, and he raised his arms to help her, returning the favor by dragging her shorts off.
He kissed her stomach, tasting the salt on her skin, and found the spot in the crease of those hips that made her giggle and squirm and gasp and fist her hands in his hair when he nuzzled it. He moved a little lower, pulling the soft, slippery fabric aside, until she bucked and her back arched and she shuddered in the most delicious way.
His hands and his mouth made their way back up her lithe stomach, pushing her orange tank out of the way and a ripple of pleasure moved through him as she raked her short nails down his chest and hooked her fingers in the waistband of his shorts, pulling him closer, drinking him in, pulling herself up to meet him, catching his lips with her own. He sat up then lay back in the hot sand as she straddled him, lifting her bunched shirt and the swim top underneath away in one smooth motion. Her eyes were dark with desire and the knowing little smile she wore –-she was good, she knew it, and he would too by the end of things- sent his blood coursing even faster as she ran those fingers everywhere and he reached a hand up to touch her.
She mimicked him, kissing her way up the taut planes of his abs, tickling him with the curls that she had released from her ponytail, adjusting herself so she knelt between his thighs. He very nearly crashed over the edge as she laid him bare and swept him into her hand with her cool fingers, never taking her lips off his throat. He was aching fiercely now, and lay back with a soft groan of pleasure as she captured him, digging his heels in the sand. It was so different when he didn't have to pretend he wanted whomever he was with, a massive, electrifying head rush he hadn't experienced for a long while now.
He twined his fingers in her disheveled curls and was at peace with the world and everything in it until she pulled his wrists down to his side and pinioned him. She closed her eyes and lingered, teasing, keeping a firm grip on his wrists as he tried in vain to pull free. Old panic came to the surface and he tried to stay present, stay with her, but she heard a strangled little "Stop" and felt him go suddenly, rigidly still beneath her. She looked up to find his jaw clenched and eyes squeezed shut.
"Annek?" She hadn't expected that reaction at all. She sat back, and he opened his eyes.
"I uh, I'm not really a sub." His voice was gravelly and low, thick with shame.
"Oh..." Julia didn't quite understand, but didn't want to force the issue.
He sat up and rubbed his face with both hands, but couldn't look her in the eye.
They tried again, with tentative kisses and halting, self-conscious fingers, but it was too late; the moment that had swept them away was gone.
"Sorry," he whispered.
He sheepishly pulled up his swimming shorts as she found her own without a word and slipped her top back on, dusting sand from her skin.
He didn't sit up, but caught her hand and pulled her down beside him. She seemed relieved and curled into his side, resting her head on his shoulder and intertwining their fingers.
His free hand drifted up to stroke her hair and they were quiet for a long while, watching the sky, and enjoying the sensation of wind on cooling skin. He very nearly fell asleep.
"So..." Julia was the first to break the silence.
"Hungry?" he asked impishly, and she took mock offense, slapping him on the chest.
"Are... are you okay?" It was gentle, not wanting to offend.
"Of course." He was earnest. "I had a... bad experience a while back and I'm still not quite over it. It
didn't have anything to do with you, though," he said hastily.
"Mm," she murmured. "We should get back. It's getting late." She snuck a kiss on his cheek as she stood up and he laughed.
The sun was getting lower, early evening, sending bright shafts of golden light across the water. They walked hand in hand back to the clearing, and Julia grabbed Annek's apple as he started the other ATV. She snuggled in behind him, letting her hands wander where they would.