Chapter Sixteen

Where Annie receives horrible news.

Annie could not sleep. Since they planned to travel down the Districts back to the Capitol – in other words, the poorest to the richest – Annie had to brace herself for some of the most miserable faces she ever expected to see. To her District Four eyes, the Capitol may have been grotesque and garish, but the rest of Panem was hungry and hollow. In the dark, in bed beside a snoring Finnick, her lips formed unspoken words of thanks. Even though things in her life were sinking faster than the old stories of the Titanic – an old fable that warned new boaters what catastrophes could happen on the water, though not a single sailor believed it anymore – Annie was thankful that it had been good up until that last reaping.

District Eleven was painful to look at. From the train's window, it was a sea of green trees and sunny and bright, happy almost – if Annie didn't know any better. When they pulled into the train station, however, a worn-down old sort of building that probably wasn't a train station to begin with; Annie could see the district's blithe layer peeled back. Men, women, and children were perched in the branches of trees with tattered sacks slung over them to collect the fruit from the trees. It was too bright for Annie, even with her eyes adjusted to the constant reflection of sunlight on the water. Nearly all of Eleven's residents were dark skinned, and not from the sun like in District Four. While it may have been Annie's kind heart speaking up, she didn't see a single ugly face among them.

As she stepped from the train with a clutch on Finnick's hand and wearing another fabulous gown designed by Rea, her mouth stretched into a smile. The elegant song of mockingjays trilled, fluttered through the breeze. Not even the mellifluous music of the Capitol could compete.

The visit extended beyond what Annie considered healthy for her. Annie was sickened by it all, the hungry children and the overworked men and the women who couldn't wipe the sadness from their expression. A weeping mother, a sort of angel among them, gifted her with a bouquet of flowers. Annie could only assume that it was the twins' mother. To lose two loved ones – Annie replaced the word children for she did not have any, nor did she ever want any – it was unthinkable. A spark was lit within her. A bit more hatred directed at the cruel Capitol.

She was too busy disgusted with the Capitol to notice any more atrocity in District Eleven, aside from a tiny, dark skinned girl that couldn't have been more than seven who approached her as she was hurried to the train station. Her dark hair and bright eyes were instantly linked back to Calypso, as close a connection to the Games Annie hoped this adorable girl would ever have. She wished to take her into her arms and cradle her, promise her that nothing bad was ever going to happen to her, not ever again. Annie reminded herself that the girl was not Calypso. She had not lost her only family to the Games. She was good and safe, here in Eleven where she belonged.

"Rue!" a worried father called from the crowd. The girl drew back from the train, for she had inched too close. She turned and ran into her father's arms as he called her name again. "Rue!" His hard expression melted into relief as he held her close.

Annie began to cry, for no reason this time.

The visit to the next district, Ten, was over before the afternoon had faded away. Nine was nearly across the country, or so Annie was told by Gossamer, and it would be an overnight trip. She spent dinner wondering about District Eleven, even though she had no connection to it. Well, no connection other than Rue who looked too much like Calypso. Annie needed to tell the girl that when they returned, the girl might like to hear that someone was worrying about her.

"It's okay, Annie," whispered Finnick coolly as he pried her hands away from her ears. Annie hadn't even noticed that she was panicked, with her hands pressed over her ears and her eyes squinted shut. She stared at him with wide-eyed confusion. "It's okay. You're here, you're fine."
She simply nodded and drew in a deep breath through her teeth. Annie shook off the terror and began to pick at her plate, trying to ignore the awful stares of concern that she was receiving from around the table.

"I have to introduce you to Cecelia while we are in Nine," chirped Gossamer. "You will just find her fantastic, I promise, Annie. She's another victor like you and mentored Cael."

It didn't sound interesting to Annie in the least; she struggled to mask her disinterest. "Why haven't I met any of the other tribute's mentors then?" she asked when her expression shattered and her eyebrows knitted together.

"I doubt you would have wanted to meet Haymitch," growled Finnick and then added, "from Twelve."

"I don't even know who mentored Eleven this year," muttered Gossamer, fading out as if into thought. She looked to Mags, puzzled. "Astrid, I believe?"

Annie remained in her chair until dinner was cleared from the table and everyone else had returned to their quarters. Finnick poked his head in after a few minutes of leaving her alone; she supposed he had to take another call from the Capitol about something. "Are you feeling alright?" he asked. "Not sick, I hope."

She shook her head. "Just empty."

"I know, Annie, I know." Finnick perched himself on the arm of her chair and looked down on her, green eyes glimmering. Something wasn't right, something had him terribly worried; Annie could read it as well as any book, for instead of words the story was printed in the lines of his face and the certain way his lips curled as he spoke to her. She wouldn't even bother to sicken herself trying to figure out what his distress was, that was too draining.

He extended his hand to her, which she gladly clung to, and led her back to the bedroom. Annie's quarters had been left untouched since boarding the train; she had slept with Finnick since leaving home. That was something she was going to be careful that her mother didn't find out about, nor would her brothers, for they all had too much on their plates anyway. Annie stripped from her fine clothes and into a nightie, one of her own this time. It amazed her with each simple graze of her fingers over fabric the drastic difference between Capitol fabric and District Four fabric. She crawled under the sheets and curled into a ball at the edge of the mattress, leaving enough space between herself and Finnick to fit another person. The lamp on the nightstand was left on for several minutes while he gathered something from under his pillow; ropes, Annie supposed, because Finnick liked to tie knots to relieve his stress. She felt her heartbeat leap into her throat and quicken, fluttering nervously. The initial, girly crush on him that she had felt when they first met had not worn off in the least bit.

She started slipping. Annie plunged headfirst into her nightmares, even with her eyes wide open. The arena built itself up around her, the Cornucopia mere meters from her face, and the river flowing behind it. There was a bloody patch in the grass down the way, the place she was certain Rayne had been beheaded. Half of Annie's face was pressed into the ground and the other was struggling to peer through the grass. Soon, ghostly figures of other tributes began to spar around her, reenacting the bloodbath – complete with the screams and injuries and deaths. She could not block any of it out, even if she closed her eyes, Annie didn't return to the warm bed on the Capitol train. The arena was no illusion; it didn't dissolve into her memory. It was unsettling to see Rayne again, fighting alongside the Careers – the dead Careers - as if nothing was wrong, the hope of returning home a victor still alive in his heart. Annie called for him, even though the ache in her heart knew it wasn't going to do him any good.

"Annie!" he screamed back, much to her surprise.

"Rayne!" exclaimed Annie again, just out of shock. She felt a disturbing sensation of happiness and utter fear swell within her chest. In a blink, the scene was gone. Finnick was inches from her face, the desperation she had sensed in his eyes amplified. She shrank into her pillows, embarrassed.

"Just remind yourself that it's not real anymore," he murmured, inching away from her. Finnick was quivering. He reminded her of herself, so scared and terrified all the time. So all of the sudden, too, only reinforcing the idea that he knew something that Annie didn't. Indeed, that had to be true, but Finnick knew many things that she didn't and that hadn't bothered her before now. Now, it was an itching sensation that she couldn't exactly ignore.

She nodded, even though Annie was mentally protesting. It had been real and it always would be, Finnick knew and understood that just as well as she did. He had to know that there was no way of moving forward, he had to. Annie shifted under the comforter, turning towards him. His hands rested in his lap, fingers twisted up in knotted ropes. She could name some of them; others looked like just a mess of rope. Annie stared at him for a long moment, with only the sound of train humming along the rails beneath them passing between the pair. Finnick was trying to tell her something, just with the gleam in his eyes, and she was unpracticed as to deducing such things.

"Everything's okay, right?" The words felt wrong coming from her. Nothing was okay, Annie knew that, but she couldn't help but go searching for some confirmation that it couldn't get worse.

"We're going to the Capitol, Annie," he reminded her. Finnick looked away from her face to his lap. "Nothing is okay." Finnick didn't mean to worry her, she saw that in his expression as he was quick to try and take his statement back.

She accepted this blindly. If Annie troubled herself with paranoid thinking any longer, she wouldn't sleep a wink that night. Maybe, if she were lucky at all, she could dream of home. It would surely leave her with a haunting, hollow feeling but it was better than watching the slaughter of the Hunger Games. Positive memories were being leeched from her mind slowly, but the most dearly loved remained – Vance teaching her to read from the book of fairy tales but the fire, trailing at her brothers' heels through the cobblestone market square in search for a birthday present for their mother, curling up between her mother and father as a small child when the nightmares of the Games were just too much for her, and her mother finishing up a new dress for her prettier than anything she had seen in a boutique window. Those were the things she would miss the most, the littlest things, her normal, treasured daily life she had kissed goodbye on both cheeks when she had been reaped.

Finnick swooped around, pressing his lips against hers. Annie's eyes widened in shock, utterly surprised. It took a good moment to assess the situation; they had kissed before, but never for so long on lips, it was at most a peck or simply planted on her forehead. She was even more startled when his lips began to move, so practiced and certain against her. She had never been so overwhelmed by something so simple before, she didn't know what to do. Finnick gripped her head with both hands, pressing the heels of his palms over her ears, knotting his fingers in her hair. Annie made the slightest attempt to kiss him back, but otherwise stayed still. She paid too much attention to the way his nose brushed her cheek and the way his soft lips felt against hers, so careful.

"Annie," murmured Finnick gently against her lips. She could feel the purr of his voice against her mouth. "Annie." Her name was said again and again. Finally, his lips curled into a smile and their foreheads rested together. Finnick broke away, leaving Annie to gasp for air. "Annie!"

"What?" she asked, breathlessly. "What?"

He kissed her again, even more powerfully this time. When Finnick broke away, he looked apologetic. "I'm sorry," he whispered throatily with swollen lips. "I needed that out of my system."

Annie stared at him for the longest time – or what seemed like it. She didn't comprehend. She didn't understand. Amidst her confusion, Annie could hear her mother chastising her somewhere in the far corners of her mind. "Annie, he is too old for you! Annie, you are much too young! Annie, what are you thinking? Annie! Annie!" Frustrated, Annie leaned forward and kissed him. She broke away understanding what he meant by needing it out of his system.

Guilt flushed throughout Finnick's face. "I would say that you need practice," he said with a smirk playing at his lips. "But, no, you don't. Annie…"

She looked to him with wide, questioning eyes. She didn't understand, not in the least.

The rest of the night was awful, she forced herself to sleep through the nightmares because the terror was nothing compared to the guilt she would feel if she woke Finnick up, and the morning was the same. It took nearly two hours to prep Annie for District Nine, even though her dress was nothing extraordinary. And it wasn't until they were already standing on the stage, facing the small crowd of people that populated District Nine that Finnick told her she had to speak with Cael's family like she had with Hollis' fiancé because they had been allies. Nothing could have been worse for her to here. She didn't want to face the loved ones of the little boy she couldn't help and let slip away so easily. The boy who she still thought was much too young to see such horrors. It didn't matter how good her words were, thought, for they served her no good. The district loathed her simply from being from Four, just as Cael said.

She ended her halfhearted speech with a sincere statement that brought tears not only to her eyes, but much of the crowd. "Cael wanted me to say, made me promise I would say, that he was happy to be my ally. And I was happy to be his. I am very sorry that I couldn't have done anything more to help him. He was a great friend." Annie broke into a helpless sob, but didn't drop the microphone from her lips. She felt heavy as the tears washed down her cheeks. Finally, she mustered, "thank you."

Annie was relieved when most of the visit passed without her catching even a glimpse of Cael's family. She was clutching Finnick's arm as he led her onto the train and had fooled herself into thinking that maybe she wouldn't have to see them when they caught her. A mother with dark circles under her eyes and a sister that looked too much like him for her own good who carried a loaf of bread. Annie remembered what Cael had said to her, they had to make everything to the Capitol's standards here, whereas District Four just shipped the seafood out without much thought. It must have been too expensive for their family to eat and the facts that the girl placed it in her hands made her want to give it back.

"Thank you, Annie Cresta," said Cael's mother. "I could really tell that he trusted you." His sister nodded in agreement, reinforcement.

"It was mutual," she assured quietly. Annie's voice was wearing out.

"He wouldn't want anyone to dwell on him like this," his mother continued, "certainly not you. He is happy in a much better place now." It sounded although she was still trying to convince herself of that.

"I know," said Annie sadly. She handed the bread back to the little girl. She immediately looked confused. "You keep it. I've got enough, trust me."

She bid them a sorrowful farewell as she boarded the train. Annie refused to go any further than the dining car, for her legs were beginning to give out from under her. She sank into one of the chairs, slumped over the table, and began to cry again. She hated crying, hated that empty feeling it left her with that ate out everything sane from her heart, but she couldn't contain herself for any longer.

Finnick looked to her sadly, searching for the words to say. Instead of opening his mouth, he just rested his hands over her shoulder blades. His touch soothed her, kept her from jerking about in her mindless state. She gasped for air and he knew things were coming to an end.

"You're quite different from every other victor, you know that, Annie? The Capitol doesn't expect someone with a heart to win; they don't expect to hear kind words about the tributes from the winner." His thumb trailed gently along her spine. "You are better than the rest of us, Annie, and it amazes me that you don't see it."

District Eight wasn't anything special. District Seven was irritating – Finnick met with an old friend there, another victor, who kept him in conversation for hours and Annie couldn't handle listening to the woman's violent stories that Finnick seemed so amused with. District Six. District Five. They skipped District Four, because that was where they started. District Three was overwhelming; Annie had seen so much technology that she couldn't fathom it was stressful. District Two was frightening; the families of the Careers scoffed at her and made rude remarks throughout her visit. District One was even worse. The déjà vu that came tacked onto arriving in the Capitol train station was terrifying, she felt as if she were walking to the Arena again. Annie threw a fit in her quarters and couldn't be coaxed out by anyone other than Finnick, who eventually carried her from the train. That made for quite the spectacle to the many reporters waiting to see them, the happy couple.

"This is just going to be so much fun!" chirped Gossamer excitedly as she introduced them to upgraded living quarters for their stay. "You get to meet all of the victors and the Gamemakers and everyone who is anyone in the Capitol! You get lovely food, think of what you had in training only better! You get fancier dresses and…" Annie closed out her ears, unable to process anything more. Gossamer simply spoke too fast for her. She was like a bird that always had a song to sing, no matter how good or bad.

Finnick was ready before she was and came into visit while her prep team scurried about around her. Annie cracked a smile. She had only seen him in slacks and, if they were anywhere outside of Four, a plain shirt. He had worn some distorted fashion for the mentor interviews, which he also had canceled, which was expected and Annie had been braced for. But Finnick had never been seen in a tuxedo. The best word she had for it was dashing, he looked dashing in his sleek black suit.

"What do you think?" he asked, playfully spinning for her. Annie's smile shattered into an uncomfortable squeal when Charmant ripped out a strip of hair on her leg. As the pain dulled on her shin, she smiled again. He was almost obnoxiously handsome.

"It's nice," she promised. Her prep team looked to her and then each other in confusion, unable to understand what she had said. Annie had grown accustomed to that expression, not many people now could comprehend her babbling.

Finnick stayed by her side through the rest of her tedious preparations, aside from when she was being dressed, and then escorted her to the ballroom where the celebration was being held. Violent shivers shook her body and panic set in as Claudius Templesmith announced her entrance. It was as if she were being welcomed into the Arena again. The skirt of her red ball gown brushed the polished floors as they descended the staircase onto the ballroom floor, her eyes scanned the crowd. Feathers, glitter, and intricate beading were popular among the avant-garde costumes the Capitol residents wore. And to think this was their expected, subtle attire, Annie was shocked and disgusted.

"Just don't talk about what you see here now," murmured Finnick in her ear casually. "Yes, it's all wrong and yes, it's disturbing, but we don't want them to know that. They are all like children and take offense to things much too easily."

Annie nodded and promised herself that she would bite her tongue if anything came up in conversation. She had been prepped by Gossamer and Mags that she must be friendly, keep a smile on her face, her chin up, and the sort throughout the night. She knew she was going to have to talk to people and pretends to enjoy herself when really there was nothing she wanted more to be home in District Four.

"Annie Cresta!" remarked a man from across the ballroom. Annie didn't see who it was until he stood before her and Finnick. It was so strange to be approached, she expected everyone to be uppity and look down on her for being from the districts. But this man was different; he was clearly a Capitol citizen who was more than happy to be speaking with her. Annie tried to get a good look at his face, but she was distracted by the dark stubble on his chin that wrapped around his face and was groomed into an unnatural curly design. "And Finnick Odair! Two of my favorite Games, wouldn't you know."

"Good to see you again, Seneca," greeted Finnick coolly. He spoke again with that seductive purr he had used constantly before the Games. Annie supposed that was how people in the Capitol knew him. "Annie, this is–"

"Seneca Crane," the man finished, extending a hand to her. She shook it weakly. "Head Gamemaker. It's a pleasure to meet you."

"And you as well," said Annie, a smidge too formally.

"It has been quite some time since anyone has shown such spectacular swimming skills in the Arena," Seneca praised. "It was certainly a show here in the Capitol." Annie sensed a lie behind his kind words; she knew it wasn't very entertaining to their sick minds.

"Thank you?" she said unsurely.

"It's a shame we won't be able to see that again!" he smiled. There was a gleam in his pale eye that she caught and was unsettled by. Annie shrank back against Finnick.

"Quite," agreed Annie.

Seneca Crane, Head Gamemaker, waved to someone distantly behind the pair and casually bid goodbye to go and talk with them. Finnick opened his mouth to say something to them, when more congratulations boomed about them. This time, a crowd of people swarmed about. Annie noticed their tired eyes and natural hair colors and knew they must be from the districts, and therefore, victors. The ferocious woman from District Seven, an obviously pregnant woman, and a raggedy man.

"Annie, this is Johanna, Cecelia, and Haymitch." Finnick growled the final name. Annie could tell they were at odds with each other.

Cecelia, a kind-looking woman with dark hair and a bulging stomach, smiled and shook Annie's hand. She wasn't that much older than Finnick, by only a handful of years at most. "I mentored your ally," she said, "Cael. I know it says everywhere that his mother mentored him, but I promised to look after him instead. Either way, you did the best with that."

Annie's heart saddened. She had forgotten Cael was the child of a victor; the Arena was an unavoidable fate for him. The thought of his heartbroken mother mentoring him made her sick. How was this the way the Capitol got their kicks? It was unthinkable. "I tried," she muttered.

"Let's not get all sappy," sputtered Haymitch. The man's breath reeked of strong liquor, even from an arm's length away. He clutched an empty bottle in his hand as well. "My tribute was her ally, too, and what does that matter now? Aside from the fact that he broke a bottle over my head and had me sober up for him?"

Hollis. This man, this hopeless drunk of a man, mentored Hollis. Suddenly, she felt pity for her passed friend. Not the sort of pity she mostly felt, for not being able to save them or just for being dead at the hands of twisted Gamemakers like Seneca, but a friendly and almost happy pity. Like, I'm sorry that you had to put up with this horrible man but at the same time it's comical so we can smile and laugh about it. Annie smiled as a warm, bubbly sensation filled her. If Hollis tried to make this stubborn fool sober up, he was set on returning to Britte.

Finnick squeezed her hand. "Annie is very grateful that you tried your best to help your tributes, she feels very close to them."

"Well, we all know how close she feels to you," sneered Johanna. Annie cringed at her voice. "We all saw those pictures, Finnick Odair. What the hell were you thinking?"

It had been a lengthy stretch of time since Annie had thought about that awkward photo shoot or the magazine in which the pictures appeared. Her cheeks brightened red, embarrassed.

"Mags and Gossamer were thinking that it was going to earn her some sponsors," he said, snarling the correct names.

Johanna didn't appear very pleased with that response.

The night passed in a whir of colors and strange hairstyles. Annie found herself in the bathroom scrapping feathers from her tongue several times because they were flying about the ballroom and she kept accidently sucking some in, while meanwhile Capitol women were throwing up their deserts so they could gorge themselves more. The final guest she had to be introduced to was by far the most frightening; President Snow waited for her at the very front of the ballroom.

"Annie Cresta," he smiled as he said her name, his puffy lips curled into a disturbing smile. His breath smelled of blood and he wore a smelly rose as white as his thinning hair. "Our newest victor. I do hope that you are enjoying yourself here."

"I am, sir." It was the loudest and most formal she had been all evening, her tone was drenched with respected and fear alike. It didn't occur to Annie that he could do anything more to her, to go beyond the Games and harm her in another way, all she thought was that he was the snake truly responsible for killing not only Cael and Hollis and Rayne, her friends, but the Careers and other tributes who had been nothing but innocent kids before the Reapings.

"I would like to congratulate you on the Games well played, my dear," said President Snow. "It is always a good show when the victor hasn't killed a single tribute, always interesting." He sneered those last words, Annie was now certain that the Capitol wasn't pleased with her. "In fact, I don't believe that it's happened since the Fortieth Games."

Annie just smiled and nodded, unsure of how she was expected to respond to that. She looked to Finnick, but he simply stood as a stone statue beside her, staring blankly at the president, more terrified than she had ever seen him. He was as white as a ghost. She gripped his hand tighter. He knew something that she didn't.

"Again, congratulations," said President Snow, eyeing Finnick. "I hope to be seeing you again in the Capitol sometime soon." He strode away with a final smile to the pair of them.

"What was that?" hissed Annie under her breath, as soon as President Snow was gone.

"I'm so sorry, Annie," said Finnick. He held her head over his heart for the rest of the night, swaying to the music to fool the onlookers. He couldn't dance while he cried.

Annie threw herself through the front door to Finnick's house, dead-tired and happy to be back in District Four. "Mom!" she called. Her voice echoed off of the bare walls. Annie wandered through the house before repeating, "Mom! Vance!" The first floor was empty, the second was bare. The entire house was vacant. Panic flooded her. It wasn't a day that they had to work. They should be in the house. "They just went to look for me at the station," Annie convinced herself, "they just went to look for me at the station."

Finnick and Mags followed in behind her. Their reactions terrified her. Mags dropped her suitcase to the floor and Finnick bolted upstairs. Clothes spilled out from Mags' suitcase, including Vance's t-shirts that he packed when they thought he could tag along, as well as Calypso's jumpers. Annie looked to the old woman, confused, and followed her as she hobbled into the kitchen. The beds were unmade and the dishes were in the sink, her family had been here recently, the house was lived in, and yet she panicked. Annie nearly broke down listening to Finnick scream for his father upstairs.

Annie didn't understand what had happened until she saw the white rose on the kitchen table, the white rose that was identical to the one pinned to President Snow that night in the Capitol ballroom.

I know I promised an update on Friday, but I didn't have wifi and I'm sorry!

Anyway, I really hoped that you lovely readers enjoyed this chapter. It made me very sad to write... Thank you to everyone who favorited/reviewed/followed. I appreciate every one of you. Please, let me know what you thought, constructive criticism is always welcome!