The wind is so calm tonight that the sounds of the party still flood up to the roof of the Training Center. Not the laughter, and not the drinking, but the music and the rush of water and the popping of corks. I jam my hands into my pockets and try to absorb myself in the garden instead, fix on the scent of the azaleas or the flecks of color in the gravel or the springiness of the grass when I tread on that, but other sounds snap me out of it. Annie's breath hitching, for one.
I turn, and she's curled up in a far corner, under the rails, with her knees to her chest. The dress Drusus put her in hangs wet and dark from her ankles to up to knees, probably from the water in the streets, just like there was for my sixteenth birthday. She's wringing out the hem in her hands, twisting and twisting like it could never get any drier, and I don't know if she's even noticed me here.
"I always seem to walk in on you like this," I say.
She says nothing.
"The party won't break up until dawn, but by now most of them are probably too drunk to notice us gone."
Water drips onto the roof, rolls off the top of her foot. Her thumbs knead the cloth. She's still not listening.
"Does it still look like a turtle?" I ask her, draw closer.
Nothing. Nothing but stains and twisting and unfocused eyes.
I sigh, drag my hands down my face and let that pull the rest of me down until I'm sitting on the ground, not next to her but with her. "Annie, I'm sorry."
"It doesn't," she murmurs.
"Doesn't look like a turtle anymore."
I nod, somehow, my throat dry. "What does it look like?"
Her shoulders jerk forward, away from the rail, but don't shake. "Itself."
I stare down at the Capitol with her, at its shifting lights and flashing screens and glittering spires. "I used to think it was like the sea," I say. "When I was younger. Everything always moved, shifted, but I learned to spot patterns in it if I looked hard enough. Like a tide, almost."
"I can't look," she says, shaking her head. "I can't look and I can't listen but I see it and I hear it and I want it to stop."
"I know," I say. My voice cracks.
"And everything smells like him."
I drag my knees to my chest, fold my arms over them, wish I couldn't remember the lines of blood between his teeth, the way his lips brighten the longer he talks. "We'll leave tomorrow," I say. "One more celebration. At home, this time. The mayor said we didn't have any boats big enough to host everyone, but he built a floating dock, and he said there'd be boats moored on the side." I close my eyes, call that to mind instead, soft fog lights bobbing in the waves. "We can take one out, if you want."
She untangles her hands from her skirt, and one of them, the one nearest me, comes up to clamp over her ear.
Nothing. Nothing's working. I don't know why Snow bothered to speak to me. If he saw what happened on the train, he'd know I don't have her. I don't even know where she is right now.
"I miss you," I say.
When I look up, tears are gathering at the corners of her eyes, but she doesn't blink them out or let them fall.
"I miss home." I sigh. "The mountains are beautiful, but they have nothing on the sea."
"Nothing does," she says. Breathing makes her shiver, but she still only stares ahead. "Were you really born at sea?"
"Almost," I say, lean back on my elbows. "My mother's water broke on the boat. Dad panicked and rushed her to shore, but he'd drifted further out than he realized, and by the time he docked, Mother was in labor and he couldn't reach home fast enough." Dad used to tell the story every year on my birthday, and eventually my older cousins and I recited it along with him. "He ran into the village and knocked on every door he could find, shouted that his wife was about to give birth and could they please lend us their kitchen, even their bathroom-lucky that most of the houses there had running water-but most people were still out on the boats and the dockworkers really weren't any help. He reached the last house on the dockside street and knocked until his knuckles bled, and the woman who answered asked how long his wife had been in labor. 'Three hours,' he told her. She rushed them both inside and ran down the street to get the midwife. So I was born on the docks, right near the edge of the water."
Annie laughs. It's soft and halting but it's real, and I haven't heard that since she was singing with Wiress, already more than a week ago.
"I guess the sea wanted me early on." I tip my head back, and even the memory of freezing water lapping at my toes seems warm, somehow, compared to the frigid air up here. "So it's a kind of parent. How about you?" I ask her.
"What, how was I born?"
She shakes her head. "Nothing special. My mom is a selkie, though."
"A selkie? Really?" Mags has told me stories about them, seals that shed their skin to walk on land as men and women, tall and impossibly beautiful, with long thick hair and eyes like the storm-swollen sea. If you find their sealskins and lock them away, the stories go, the selkies are bound to you forever. Annie's mother is tall and strong, yes, but too broad-shouldered and thick-jawed to be called beautiful. I wouldn't have pinned her as a selkie.
Annie smiles, or at least gives me the beginning of one. "Yes and no. Really a selkie the way you're really born at sea." Her hands drift back down to her skirts, but she doesn't wring them, just knots them, stares down. "Everyone was jealous and scared of mom because she always brought in a big haul, even if no one else could find just one shrimp. And she sailed alone too, she didn't have parents anymore, and Uncle John was already married. No one knew where she'd go, but she'd never go hungry.
"Then one year there was a week where it did nothing but rain, and even after the storm broke, no one could catch anything. My dad got scared. And then he saw the lantern of my mom's boat, drifting north. Far north. But he followed her."
"To where?" I ask.
"A reef," Annie whispers. She stretches her hand out, level with her knees. "A reef high enough to tie her boat to. That's where my mom used to find food when no one else could."
She looks over her shoulder, seeks out my eyes. "When dad tells the story, he says he was far enough out that he could have left without her seeing him, that he could have tried using the reef too. But he sailed up to her instead and moored his boat right next to hers. He says she looked at him like she was going to break his back and leave him for the sharks, but he just looked right back. And he told her 'I'm sorry for finding out your secret, but I don't think I can keep it.' And she smiled at him and said, 'Then we'd better team up'."
"And that's how he took her skin?" I ask, though it almost seems like she gave it to him. Well, Annie's mother's hardly a traditional selkie in most other respects, I don't see why she wouldn't defy convention in this one, too.
"Yes. That's how he took her skin. Not the reef, the reef was just where she went to dance. The skin is that she wasn't that scary after all." She turns away. I think she might be blushing. "They didn't take long to have me."
I cough. Am I blushing, too? It's been a while since I've done that, but the warmth in my cheeks feels right, close to what I remember. "What does that make you, if your mother's a selkie?"
Annie holds up her hand, spreads her fingers and stares at them, between them. "Not fins," she says, "not flippers. No webs at all. I think I'm just me."
"Just you isn't such a bad thing to be," I say.
Her fingers stutter, half-curl, but she doesn't let her hand down. "You could be just you."
Fireworks explode above us, shower red-and-gold sparks onto the dome-the force field flares when they brush against it, and for a moment the sky is almost white. I close my eyes. It hurts to look. "Not here," I say.
"I know," she says, her hands in her lap again, thumbing at her skirt. "But I'll find you."
What hurts the most is that I can't admit that this isn't me. I don't even know where I am.
"Come on," I say instead, and get to my feet, but don't offer her a hand up. "We're going home in the morning."
Some of Aunt Coral's brothers were in charge of designing the floating dock. They're almost as much of a draw for the cameras as Annie is, though not quite as much as I am. They crowd around the cameras and start singing some of the filthiest limericks I've ever heard in dockside bars, and by that point the camera crews are drunk enough to try to join in. Half of this raft must consist of barrels of alcohol, at the rate it's flowing. Roarke tries to sneak a glass of something that makes my eyes water, but Aunt Shannon slaps it out of his hand. The cameras love my cousins, too, and Katie and Lucy keep elbowing each other out of the way for a chance to talk to the reporters.
I spin Maeve around and pretend to throw her in the ocean-she shrieks and pounds on my back, which makes Jamie start shrieking, too. You'd think they were twins, the way they stick together, even if they're a year or so apart. "Down you go," I say, and roar, "Who's next?" Connor runs and hides behind one of the empty barrels, and Timothy and Patrick reach their arms up as high as they can go and chant, "Me! Me!"
Out of the corner of my eye, the cameras flash, but now that I'm trying to race around the edges of the raft and balance Timothy and Patrick on my back, I can't pay much attention to them. I have to beat Roarke to the other side. I come in about a length ahead of him, and Timothy and Patrick cheer.
"Not fair," Roarke says, "your legs are longer than mine."
"And I had a twin handicap." He's almost tall enough for me to headbutt him without stooping, so I do.
Back in the center of the raft, people are still singing, and someone's come over with a fiddle. Mags claps from her perch on a barrel, strong and in time. They've moved on from lewd limericks to the kinds of songs that everyone knows and get dirtier the more you hear them, the kind where you can tell where the chorus starts because twenty more people join in. Uncle Brian has one of the biggest voices I've ever heard, and he's right in the center, but Aunt Coral is dancing with someone else, close to the edges, whirling and skipping and crashing into people who never hear her say she's sorry. I wish I could see whose hands she's holding, but everyone's moving too fast.
It's a verse, now, and I carry Timothy and Patrick closer. "Come on, want to sing with everyone?" They cheer and clap, and Aunt Hannah takes Patrick off my hands so I can lift Timothy up to see everyone before the next chorus starts. And I barely get a word of the song in before someone bumps into my back.
"Sorry!" That's Aunt Coral. So I turn around and tell her it's okay, and Annie's hair whips over my face, a wave of loose dark curls.
I stop singing and set Timothy down. Annie and Aunt Coral are skipping around each other, changing hands, flipping out their skirts. Coral's singing but Annie's just laughing, loose-limbed and glistening and as free as she was in the ocean. Aunt Coral lifts her arm and Annie spins closer, catches herself against Coral's chest and winds right back out. Someone else grabs Annie's outstretched hand, and my heart jumps before I see that it's my dad, who lifts Annie up and spins her around the way he used to do to me, the way I just did to Maeve.
It must be being home that makes her so beautiful. I haven't seen enough of her anywhere else.
The fiddlers finish with a flourish, and Dad sets Annie back on her feet. Her cheeks are bright and her eyes are brighter, holding the light from the lanterns stationed around the raft. Dad kisses Annie on the forehead and spins her in my direction, and I barely have time to protest before she bumps into me.
She's still short of breath, looks up at my eyes and then down at our feet. "Sorry."
"It's all right," I tell her. The band strikes up another set, and the dancers around us whirl back into life; even some of the camera crews are getting swept up in it, spinning around in their big insect suits. I drop my voice. "I think I promised you something about a boat."
She covers up her smile, but it reaches her eyes, and I can still see it when she nods.
"Come on," I say. "Let's get out of here before they realize we're gone."
I don't take her by the hand, but I still guide us through the crowd to the edge of the dock where the boats are moored. It's darkest in the corner, where stacked barrels hide the lights. I don't know whose boat this is, but it doesn't matter if we're not taking it out, just ducking out of sight. It's small, smaller than the ones I've bought for my family and a little smaller than the boat we owned before that, but only the two of us have to fit into the cabin, and it's snug enough in there to block out some of the sound from outside.
Her hair gets caught on one of the door-hinges, and she slips on the top step, catches herself on the wall. "Hold still," I say, and work it loose as carefully as I can. She thanks me, and holds on to that lock of hair, winding her fingers through it the rest of the way down.
"These are the kinds of parties I've missed," I say. "I mean, I could do with a few less cameras, but the music's great."
"It is." She glances out the window, back toward the lights. "I'm sorry you're missing it."
I shake my head. "I'm not. We'll have other parties, and if I do any more cousin-racing I'll fall down."
She laughs, thumbs at the ends of her hair. "They're wonderful."
"They are," I agree, lean against the wall of the cabin and sink into the cushions. They smell like salt, like fish, like home. "All thirteen of them, and my aunts and uncles, and my mother and dad-and Mags, too, she might as well be my grandmother." I swallow. "I'm lucky to have them all. I know that."
The cushions rustle next to me as she sits down. "Finnick?"
"I worry about them," I say. "That's all."
"Because you have to leave them?"
I curl up closer to the cushion, hope whoever owns this boat doesn't mind. Some of the batting spills out of a tear by my head, and I pluck at it, pull strands loose and wind them around my fingers. I can't get the loops right, though, and the threads snap apart. I wish my hands would stop shaking. I'm home now, I remind myself. I'm home, and these are my people, and tomorrow the cameras will scuttle back to the Capitol and leave me alone for a few more months. I think. I hope. Unless I'm summoned back early.
"That's part of it," I say, when I can bring myself to.
She watches my hands, watches the knots, and I think she twists her hair the same way. "Then why do you leave?"
I don't answer her, fiddle with the edge of the cushion instead. She has a right to know. I know she has a right to know, she's as much a victor as I am. "What did Snow say to you?"
She shivers, leans against her folded arms. "A lot," she says.
I nod, wait. Beneath us, the sea shivers, rising and falling like it's breathing itself to sleep.
"He said he was..." She shakes her head, hides behind her hair, sinks into the cushions. "Proud. Of us. Of you. Because now you know what it is to be a mentor. And he said he hoped you'd help me with anything else I have to do as a victor."
He wouldn't. He would. He insinuated as much on the Tour, and I'm replaying our conversation in my head, rummaging through it for anything he might have said about Annie, any hints he dropped, any clues. I know the obvious message, I saw what happened on the train, he made sure I would, but was there anything about her? Her, not just her in relation to me? I should have been listening for that.
"But I said I thought I was done, that you promised me everything would be over once we got home. And he smiled, Finnick I hate it when he smiles, everything stretches and there are streaks across his teeth, they go from black to blue to red to gold and they're all the same thing, the smell is out the corner of your eye except it's not your eye it's your nose, it makes you into a shark and there's blood in the water-"
"Annie, what did he say?"
"-he said he didn't know I could make people love me."
I slam my fist into the cushion hard enough that the wood cracks underneath. My fist throbs and I stand faster than I meant to and knock the top of my head against the ceiling and now that's throbbing, too.
"Finnick?" Annie scrambles forward on her knees to catch me.
I'm going to kill him. I swear I'm going to find a way to kill him.
I wouldn't even need the trident, just my hands. I could grab him by the throat and crush it, squeeze, wring the breath out of him-I flex my fingers and spikes of pain shoot out from my knuckles and lance up my arm and I double over, clench my teeth because I know I can't scream. I think I fractured something. Shit.
Annie's hands close around my thigh and she pulls me down, sits me down hard on the cushions, wraps herself around my shoulders before I can protest. My good hand drapes over her back and I decide not to move because I can't put any weight on the other one. The salt in the air stings my knuckles, makes the swelling worse. "Ow," I say, which is about all I can manage.
She leans over, kisses my knuckle. It burns, and I can't help hissing. "We should get that looked at," she murmurs.
"Later." When I've thought up a good cover story.
She shakes her head, no, and her hair sweeps against my legs.
"Annie, I spent half a day with an arrow wound in my side once, I'm all right."
"Not if you're hurting yourself."
The boat hitches under us again, although I can't say how much of it's the sea and how much of it's the wave of nausea starting to hit. I curl in on myself, slow down my breathing. "I won't let him hurt you," I say. "I won't. I've screwed up everything else but I won't screw up this."
Her breath beads warm on my shoulder. I don't know if she's crying.
I shudder somewhere deep inside, and it ripples through my throat, makes me gag. Rise above it, I think. Float on top, don't worry about what's going on underneath. "When Snow wants something out of you, he threatens the people you care about most to get it," I say. My voice has a funny hollow ring to it, like I'm hearing myself speak from a few feet away. "He can't touch you, but he doesn't have to. He-has everyone you love, and if you step out of line, he-"
I can't finish.
I don't think I have to.
Her face draws away from my shoulder, but she doesn't let go of me, only twists so that our feet are on the floor. She stands us both up, keeps a hand between my shoulder blades to make sure I don't hit my head on the ceiling, and leads me to the stairs. "I'll stay," she says.
"I'll stay." She wipes her cheek, but her makeup isn't running, so I don't know if it's my sweat or her tears. "I'll stay here and fall asleep. No one else will miss me. Go fix your hand."
"It's not right to leave you here," I say.
She closes her eyes, hangs her head. "But you have to."
"I want to stay."
Without looking at me, she touches the tips of her fingers to my right hand. Stars collide in my head, and I cringe away.
She stops me, puts her hand on my cheek, her thumb against my lips. I remember that moment in the ocean, Annie staring past her fingertips, me trying to taste what she saw. Her breath stutters and her eyes widen, and I lean closer but all she says is "Go."
We christen the yacht with a bottle of champagne I brought home from the Capitol when I was fourteen and was forbidden to open for another two years. By the time I remembered it was there, I'd moved on to the harder stuff. Annie smashes the bottle over the prow and smiles, pats it affectionately. "We still need to name her," she says.
"I was thinking Branwen, after my grandmother." I grab the guardrail and swing myself onto the deck. It's a bad habit, but it's not one I'm going to break anytime soon. "Mags says Branwen's an old name, carried here from somewhere across the sea. So it seemed right."
Annie nods, holds on to the guardrail from the docks but doesn't step over yet. "I like that. So we can take her back home."
"Maybe." I stretch out, soak in as much of the sun as I can. The chill's starting to fade from the air, and warmer winds are blowing over the sea now. The waves nudge the shoreline, like the water's inviting the land to play with it. A good day for a maiden voyage, I decide. "Want to see how she sails? She's yours as much as mine."
The way Annie's face lights up, her answer could only be yes. Her smile is bright but not blinding, letting out all the light inside her. "Yes," she says, and sidles over the guardrail, stands right next to me.
I slip the painter loose from the post it's tied to, and we cast off. The Branwen sits high in the water, glides west over the waves. It seems like I barely have to trim her sails at all; the wind takes care of everything without my prompting. Annie nestles close to my side, stares out over the ocean, far away from home.
"How long can we stay out today?" she asks.
"As long as we want," I tell her, and step away from the helm, let the Branwen take us where she will.
The second time we take the Branwen out, we go fishing. We can't rig up a net but we cast off lines and mount them on the deck, and sit and wait with our feet dangling into the water. "It's cold," Annie says at first, startled enough that she almost laughs, but she wriggles her toes experimentally and lowers them in little by little until her heel bumps into mine. I nudge her back, and we have a kicking war under the water. It scares away most of the fish, but there's not much to catch in the afternoon, anyway.
The time after that, we stay out overnight. Annie falls asleep on the deck staring up at the stars, and I carry her below, tuck her in to her cot. She gets fitful in her sleep, so I push my cot alongside hers and hold her hand until the nightmare passes. When I wake up, she's wrapped herself around my arm. I lay there, let the waves rock us back and forth until she wakes up too. We're quick getting back to District 4, but not quick enough to miss the harried looks my aunts give us. Mags shushes them all and takes me aside, just asks me and takes my answer for the truth. You do hurt her, though, and I'll take a switch to you, she says, though, see if I don't.
Once, the sail tears, wide enough to make a difference. Instead of taking it down and using the motor, I prop Annie up on my shoulders while she mends it. I don't know how she can keep her hands so steady, but she makes quick work of it, even re-threads the needle without coming back down. "I'll patch it when we go back," she says, "but this should hold for now." I let her down onto the deck. She fits against me, aligned with my chest and my arms. But then the wind picks up, and the sail rotated while she was mending it so I have to scramble to get it back in hand.
My dad gives me his Nine Men's Morris set-so Annie and I will have something to while away the hours on the boat, he says, and I pretend not to notice how he clears his throat. Annie beats me two times for every three. She spots potential mills and openings at least two moves before I do, and sometimes she sweeps the board of my men before I have a chance to deploy them all. We play in the cabin at first, and when the weather warms, we stretch out on deck facing each other across the board, play catch with the pieces we haven't used until one of us feels like making a move.
We do fight, once or twice, about when to go home, about where the wind is coming from, about whether it's safe to swim. Little things. And sometimes Annie goes away, curls up in a corner of her house with her hands over her ears, waiting for me to come and get her. But our time alone always makes it better, makes her better. And that makes two of us.
I never bring the Capitol onto our boat. Just myself. Just us.
"You've been braiding her hair for fifteen minutes, it's my turn," Lindsay says, attempts to yank Maeve's hands away from Annie's hair. Maeve and Jamie have created more snarls than braids, but Annie doesn't seem bothered by it anymore. The first time my cousins swarmed Annie she almost broke down in tears and ran off. But now they've gotten used to approaching her by twos and threes instead of all at once, and just about the one thing they all agree on is that Annie's hair is the best thing in the world to practice their knots in. She sits through it with more patience than I'd have, and when I try to pry the cousins away from her now, she stops me. "It's all right," she says, "Emily never plays with my hair anymore. I miss it."
"I think your hair is the prettiest," Jamie pipes up. "Even prettier than Aunt Ruth's."
"Shh, she's in the other room," Lindsay says, elbows him in the side. "My turn?"
"You'll have to ask Annie," I say, though I do start to tug Jamie and Maeve loose. The right side of her head is a nest of braids, Jamie's thin but sloppy ones, and Maeve's only managed two thick braids on the left, undoing and redoing them until she got them right. I tangle my fingers in one, unravel it. The waves in Annie's hair stand out even more, shine brighter.
"You can braid braids," Annie tells Lindsay, tilting her head toward me and smiling. "Take three of Jamie's at a time, braid them together."
Lindsay nods, bites her lip and furrows her brow as she sets to work. "You too, Finnick! You never have a turn."
"Finnick's the best at knots," Maeve says, squeezes my hand. "He could make them really pretty."
"I don't know if Annie's hair is the best place to practice," I say, squeeze Maeve's hand back. "It's not the right kind of material."
"But there were knots in it before! During the Games, when she had the jewels in them," Maeve says. "Ma made us point out which were which! I got almost the most. I could see all the thief knots!"
I drop Maeve's hand, keep my smile up. "These aren't the Games," I say, as much to Annie as to Maeve. "And those aren't thief knots."
"They were granny knots," Annie says, looking down, her cheeks warm and flushed. "Most of them."
"Come on." I shove Maeve and Jamie directly towards the door, into the domain of the aunts. "Get out of her hair. Literally."
Sighing like I'm marching them off to the gallows, Maeve and Jamie drag themselves to the kitchen, shooting me the most dispirited looks I've seen outside of a litter of abandoned puppies as they go. As Maeve shoulders the door open, I catch the end of Aunt Shannon saying, and they spend every waking day together on that boat.
Annie and I look at each other as the door swings shut. Lindsay backs away from the braid she's weaving, gives us both quick smiles, and scoots to the steps, no doubt to tell Katie and Lucy what the aunts were just saying. I'm going to have to hear them singing somebody's in trou-ble under their breaths all dinner.
I love my cousins. Really, I do. But there's a reason I'm pretty sure the correct term for a group of cousins is an annoyance. "Sorry about that," I say.
Annie winds her fingers through the braids, rakes them through the waves. "They talk," she says. "It's the same as what they say to me."
"What who says?"
"Your aunts." She smiles. Her face is still pink where her hair doesn't hide it. "We all talk, sometimes, when I do the mending."
I'm almost afraid to ask, "What do you talk about?" but I do anyway, take a seat next to her. Katie and Lucy are shrieking with laughter upstairs, Aidan and Laura are arguing about something else, and some of my aunts' murmurs slip through the door, too, though nothing distinct enough for me to make out.
Annie struggles with a snarl, piecing it apart with both hands. "They want to spend more time with me. And they say I'm good for you and they like that we spend time together." The knot comes undone, but she keeps smoothing out the strands, hiding her face. "There are things they don't say that I still hear, though."
The pit of my stomach drops. I know what she means. I sink forward in my chair, my elbows planted on my thighs. "They're aunts. They live to meddle, and I'm the oldest, so I get the worst of it."
She shakes her head. "It's not so bad."
"Tell me if they're getting on your nerves, all right?" They're getting on mine right now. I grind my teeth together. All right, fine, they mean well, but they're wrong and they've created this echo chamber where the tiniest whispers get magnified into shouts, and I can't raise my voice above the din to clear things up.
"I will." She smiles. "But they're not."
I scuff my heel on the floor.
"I know we can't. And I know you don't want to. So it's okay until you find someone you do. Want to, I mean." Her smile fades to a thin pale line, hidden by her hair.
I hope the bugs in the living room haven't been turned on today. Bad enough that the aunts are probably hearing all of this. "It's not that-it's complicated, Annie."
"Annie! Annie I want my turn to braid too!"
Katie and Lucy barrel down the stairs with Lindsay at their heels, swinging around the banister to catch up. "And we have ribbons too," Katie says, "so we can all match."
Sorry, I mouth to Annie, but she isn't looking. Lucy and Lindsay already have her by the hands and are pulling her toward the stairs, and Annie laughs, startled, and only then turns over her shoulder to catch my eye.
"Need me to rescue you?" I ask.
Katie squeals. "Yes! We'll tie her up and you can come save her!"
From the kitchen, Aunt Hannah shouts, "Finnick!" and I could almost kiss her for it.
"Duty calls," I say, and rush to the kitchen before those images have time to sink in. I shouldn't think about that, I remind myself. She's Annie, not some floozy from the Capitol, not some tribute to snare in my net. But it would be different with Annie, wouldn't it? She'd look like something to catch, something to unravel, with her hair getting caught in the ropes-
"Finnick, close the door, this isn't a barn and you weren't raised in one," Aunt Shannon says.
I do, and it takes until the handle clicks for me to realize that I've shut myself in the kitchen with all four aunts, all of whom are raising both of their eyebrows with me.
If a group of cousins is an annoyance, a group of aunts is a barrage. I grin, sort of, and brace myself.
"It seems like we haven't seen much of you these days," Aunt Coral says, slings her arm around my waist and scoots me closer to the cluster by the table. They used to do this when I was younger; back then, it meant I was about to get my hide tanned. I'm fairly sure I'm too old for that now, at least from aunts.
I shrug. "I've been keeping myself busy."
"Mm," they chorus in unison. That scares me more than the clucking.
"It's only that you've been spending so much time away from home," Aunt Hannah goes on, "and we're so glad it's not just you gallivanting off to the Capitol."
There are words other than gallivanting I'd use to describe what I do in the Capitol, but they're not words I'd use around my aunts. Twenty or no, I'm pretty sure I'd get my mouth washed out with soap. "I haven't gone that far."
Aunt Ruth laughs. "I should hope not. But I do think you should be open to the possibility of settling down."
Are we close enough to the shore for the tide to drag me out to sea, preferably forever? No. Damn. I slouch against the table. "I'm not that old, Aunt Ruth."
"But you seem to have found someone you're comfortable with," she says.
"And she's such a sweet thing, the poor dear," Aunt Coral adds.
"And you've already made a joint investment in that boat," Aunt Shannon says, gesturing out the window toward the harbor. "Shame to get her a boat and not get her a ring."
They went there. I didn't think they'd actually go there. I sink lower, or maybe I'm just shrinking under the combined weight of four well-intentioned but stern glares.
"Well, we don't want her to wind up like Ruth," Aunt Hannah says, grinning.
"I'm right here, you know know," Aunt Ruth sighs.
"She won't end up like Ruth," I finally manage to get in. "We're just friends." I say the last part louder than I meant to, but if that's what I have to do to get heard around here, I'll do it. I don't know how Annie manages all this.
"That's a shame," Aunt Hannah says. "But still, it's not at all healthy, what you do in the Capitol. Reaping's coming up soon, at least you can enjoy yourself at home until then."
I know better than to think if only she knew. "I'm trying," I tell her honestly.
Aunt Shannon shakes her head. "When are you going to do right by that girl?"
"I'm trying to do that, too."