A/N: Sorry this update took freaking forever to post. (Real life, why do you suck so hard.) Here's the conclusion to the story! Thanks for reading along, and I hope you've had fun.
By the time I reach my apartment, my head's clearer than it's been for days. The air of the Capitol at night carries its own kind of haze, though, expensive perfume and too-vibrant flowers and cloying smoke, and purging that out of my system takes more than Capitol drugs. Once I'm inside, I slump against the door, take a moment to breathe, to rest. No more social calls, no more obligations, no more outings, not for tonight.
"Good," Haymitch says from my kitchen floor. "I was starting to think I'd have to sleep in your bed."
I drop my bag harder than I need to. "What the hell is everyone doing in my apartment?" I ask the ceiling, which doesn't answer.
"Making coffee," Haymitch says.
"No, really. I can't figure this thing out." He stands up, bends over the countertop and peers at the buttons. "Does it have a tequila option?"
"My apartment is not a full-service bar," I tell him.
"You say that now," Haymitch points out. "Wait until you see the modifications Beetee made." He raises his voice on Beetee.
Something in the walls clicks and turns.
"I thought he told you he swept the place."
I smack my forehead. "Say his name, problems go away."
He leans against the counter, grinning. "And you've got a problem with people taking away your privacy."
"So he debugged my apartment. And didn't think to warn me about it beforehand." I pick my bag back up, empty its contents on the couch and start sorting through them because otherwise I'm going to pick Haymitch up by the front of his shirt and throttle him. "You know, I'm tired of being left out of the loop on these things."
"He didn't debug it. Ask him, if you can do it without getting a tail. What he did was make it so you could have a half hour, here and there, if you need it. And now that no one's listening I'm fine telling you that the only reason you're out of the loop is we know you don't want to get Annie killed. I think that's a fair point."
I drop the jacket I've been folding, let it crumple to the ground and twitch like I've been slapped with cold water. The chill fades, but the shivers don't. "Has something happened to Annie? Is she all right?" I did everything Snow asked me to, everything, they couldn't possibly-
"If this is going to keep being all about her, Finnick, I'm going to walk out that door and you can keep the feedback loop as a souvenir," Haymitch growls. "Stupid kid. You think I need privacy to tell you if your girl's gone under? Get some damn perspective."
"She's not my girl," I say; it's almost a mantra at this point, a talisman against some force I have to hold myself back from naming. I sigh. "Fine. This isn't about her. What is it about, and why did you bring her up?"
"Because I know what you're doing to keep her alive, and I was hoping that you could do more."
"More for what?"
He takes a swig from his bottle, down almost to the dregs. "For us."
For the first time in days, my hands still, fall to my sides. Us. I roll the word around, give it the space it needs, deserves. "I'd ask if you meant the rest of the victors, but I don't think you do."
"Good, you're starting to think." He leans back on the counter, smiling. I wonder if he's capable of doing that evenly, or if one of the corners of his mouth is always higher than the other. "I'm glad you sobered up, we're running out of time."
"Pot, kettle," I say, deadpan.
"Black as coal," he agrees. "But I've been taking care of this drunk for longer than you've been alive."
"This," I say, and hope to hell that whoever else is included in this has other intermediaries for when Haymitch is too busy spending his time passed out to-what is it that he does? He's been a mentor as long as I've been alive; he knows even more people than I do. Us could mean almost anyone. "You planning on telling me what this is?"
"Soon as you plan on telling me what you wouldn't do to drown Snow in his own blood."
What I wouldn't do? I can feel a nothing starting up in my throat, but I remember my family, and Mags, and Annie, and it withers into silence.
"That's why you're a hard one to tell," Haymitch says, takes another drink. "The rest of us, we've got nothing to lose. But you, you've got people to save. Makes you want it more; makes you easier to take down. Hell, you know this better than I do, what am I doing preaching to you?"
"I don't know," I say. "But I want in."
Haymitch throws back his head and laughs, raises his bottle to toast. "So you figured us out, huh?"
"The part about drowning Snow in his own blood was a clue."
"Get in line."
I stop fiddling with my bag and simply sit, my hands on my knees, facing him. "I'm serious. And you're right. I do have people to save. But I can't save them like this." He can still call Helen and Roarke and Lucy and Katie up for the Games. He can still cut Aunt Coral's wages at the docks, and force Uncle Niall and Uncle Jonas to give up their boats and work on one of the fishing trawlers they're trying to shove everyone in 4 onto. He can decide that my mother has to get treatment, or that Mags has to come to the Capitol and stay.
He can still hurt Annie. He has hurt Annie. I can't take that away no matter how nicely I play.
"You have no idea how glad I am that someone who still has people to save figured that out," Haymitch says, shutting his eyes.
"I'm still figuring it out." I shake my head; it's still not as clear as I'd like it to be.
"You've got time. And you don't have to while it away alone."
"You know," I say, "I don't think I want to."
"Then don't." Haymitch offers me the bottle, drums his fingers on its clear neck. "Do whatever the hell you want about your people, and here? Here, you can call your whiling days over."
I lean back. My back protests, but it fades into a vague sort of grumbling. "What do you want me to do?"
"Just keep doing what you're doing," he says, with a smile sour enough to curdle cream. "Hate to put it this way, but you're as close to an inside man as we've got right now."
"You pick up a lot of things in my line of work," I say carefully. "So to speak."
"People talk to their whores," Haymitch agrees.
"It's like talking to the bartender. Different kind of tipping, though."
He laughs through his nose. The walls chirr, and he glances at them, takes the bottle back since I haven't made a move to drink. "Tell you what. Sleep on it. Come to the victor's lounge tomorrow. Sit on my couch."
"Sit on your couch?" I repeat, raise my eyebrows.
"Don't get me wrong, I'll kick you off like I always do." He smiles. "But I'll know you want to be there."
Drusus, his timing as impeccable as ever, walks in on me as I'm flushing the last of what I bought last weekend down the toilet.
"It won't turn the water any prettier colors," he says.
"And it won't put anything in the Capitol's water supply that they can't handle." I pause. "I think."
He raises an eyebrow, and all the silver tips catch the bathroom light, one after the other. "You're up to something."
I put on my best innocent expression, which hasn't really worked since I was fifteen or so, but I might as well try. "Just cleaning up before I head home for the season."
He doesn't believe it for a second, but he does lean over my shoulder to watch the pills dissolve. "You're due back in three months."
Could be worse. "Then I'll be back. But I need the break."
When I look up, Drusus is smiling in the bathroom mirror. "You and me both. I'm trying to take on more event planning these days, and you're a full-time commitment."
"Good for you," I say, and mean it. "I guess you've gotten enough practice managing my schedule."
"Let's hope. And besides, you're almost old enough to take care of yourself."
I laugh. "Weird, isn't it?"
"Yeah, gods don't usually do that." He ruffles my shoulder and leaves me alone.
I doubt gods spend half an hour flushing drug stockpiles down their toilets. Come to think of it, I'm not precisely sure what gods do. Not much, from what I've heard. Sit on top of the clouds and spy on mortals below and throw lightning bolts when things get dull. I'd go crazy with boredom in a day if I tried it. Better to be me.
The platform is more crowded this year than last, even though we haven't brought a victor home. Brine's and Beatriz's families cluster around the tracks, welcoming them home, and my cousins bound towards me before I fully open the door. They almost knock me back into the train compartment, but Aunt Ruth shouts at them to let me out. I peer over their heads and see my aunts and uncles shaking their heads, my dad wheeling my mother onto the platform, Mags setting her cane aside and walking forward.
Where's Annie? I scan the crowd again, but I can't pick her out. She's not great with crowds, I know, but neither is my mother and she's here, and I wanted her to be here, I hoped she'd want to see me as soon as I came home. I wanted, want, to see her better than when I left her.
"How's Annie been?" I ask my mother once I pry enough of my cousins loose.
Mother gasps, and then smiles, shaking her head. "Not even a hello, Finnick."
Oh. Right. I lean down and hug her. "Hello, Mother. Is Annie all right?"
She laughs, and my dad laughs too, craning over the back of the chair to look at her.
"I've been worried," I say, scuff my heel against the wood. "It's not like I get much news from the district when I'm in the Capitol, and-well."
Mags grabs me by the arm, and points to the docks.
I breathe in deep for the first time in weeks, let the salt air fill my lungs until I could burst. "Mags, you are the second most beautiful woman in the world right now."
She grins, as bright as ever. "Second most?"
I laugh and chuck her under the chin. "There's someone I have to see," I say by way of explanation. It's as much of one as I can give now. My head's swimming, currents flowing faster than I can follow, and I need to sift through it all and I can't here. I kiss Mags on the cheek, murmur, "Thank you." She squeezes my arm, gives me a little shove, and lets me go.
She always knows when to do that.
I break for the docks, leave the crowd at the station behind. Our boat is moored where it should be, and the Victor's Wharf is far, but I can't stop running, can barely even hear my feet on the pavement, then on the planks. People shout out to me as I pass, wave me over, but I don't even have time to smile in their direction-I'll greet them later, give them their due, but right now I'm running too fast to keep track of anything other than where I have to go. The world blurs, and the wind in my ears erodes all other noise. This is what swimming feels like, the currents caressing me, the air in my lungs keeping me afloat, my feet so light that I don't feel anything under them at all. I jump clean over the guardrail of the boat almost before I get there and swing in to the cabin, her name on the tip of my tongue-
And she's curled up asleep on the cots, her arm draped across to mine, her hair spilling over the pillows and glinting red in the sun. I stop, panting, and try to regain my balance, my breath. The sleeves of her shirt are rolled up to her elbows, and her shorts are loose over her hips, twisted with the bedsheets trapped between her knees. Her face is turned up into the light and I know there's nothing weighing her down at all either, no beads or gold or jewels. She's not sleeping, she's floating.
I should wake her up. I should keep watching. I want to do both. I compromise, kneel on my cot and stretch out next to her, my head pillowed on my hand, my legs angled to fit the bend of her knees. She breathes with the sway of the boat, and my fingers spread out inches from her hair, reaching towards her, reaching for her. "Hey," I say.
Her eyes open, blink and flutter, and she sinks deeper into the pillow, smiling. "Hi."
"I missed you." My throat draws tight. Everything does.
"You're here," she says, curling closer. "You don't have to now."
"I want to be here," I say. Twining her fingers with mine should be easy, we've done it a thousand times before even if the motion of our thumbs is always different, but this time my hand takes so long to fold over hers, and the heat between our palms makes mine sweat. "Wherever I go, I can't leave you behind. Or maybe it's that a part of me stays here."
Her thumb slides on mine, her fingers grip mine tight. "The part of you I found."
"The best part of me."
"It's you," she whispers. Her cheeks are flushed. I wonder if she's as warm as I am. I brush her cheek to find out, and she flushes brighter.
"I'm still figuring out who that is," I say.
"I've seen him. It's you in the water. It's you, here. It's-" She holds tight to my hand, but her other comes between us to touch my lips. Her hands aren't soft: they're callused and dented, spiderweb cracks on her fingertips and bitten cuticles and broken nails, and they're real, so wonderfully real, so wonderfully hers.
"You see me," I say, and my lips press just enough into her fingers.
She nods, shivers.
"You've always seen me."
"No," she murmurs, "not always, but I can now."
My breath comes shorter, barely passes through my throat. "How could I take so long to see you?"
We're close now, so close strands of her hair are pinned under my shoulder. "You weren't looking?" she asks, like she can't believe it, like she needs to know.
"I'm looking now."
She breathes against my lips.
I whisper her name, stutter over it. She cranes her head to the side, her hair spilling over my hand. My skin tingles where she touches me, I realize, like she's calling parts of me to life, like they're awakening from a long sleep and shaking off all the pins and needles. "Annie?" I ask again.
"I'm here," she whispers.
"I'm here," it feels true, I say it and I believe it, "and I want-I want this."
"Then have it, have it, please-"
I nudge her thumb out of the way and cover her lips with mine.
She breathes me in as soon as we kiss, draws my mouth to hers, and I don't have time to take more of her in before we pull apart and she finds my eyes, stares into them. Everything hangs suspended between us, everything, and then she surges against me, kisses me and tangles her fingers in my hair and pulls herself up from the bed to press our bodies together like our lips. I can't stop touching her, weaving her fingers with mine and breaking apart to reform again, tracing the contours of her neck, her shoulders, her spine. I know somewhere in the back of my head that I'm not touching her anywhere I haven't already, but I don't believe it, can't, because if I had I'd never have left her side, never have stopped exploring all she's giving me. She can't stop touching either, I can feel her hands on my neck, my back, my chest, but her lips never leave mine.
I pull her down on top of me and she gasps into my mouth, shivers in my hands but everything is warm, everything I touch and taste. "Here," she says, kissing the spike of my jaw, "here," and I bring my lips to her collar, the dip of her neck, and lower, lower until she writhes against my hips. I rise to meet her, trace the line of her jaw with my thumb and the hollow between her breasts with my tongue, don't know if I'm holding her or myself steady. It can't be me, I decide, I'm rocking too much, buckling under the weight and warmth of her, shifting to take more of her in my mouth, my hands. I want her there. I want her everywhere. I want her. I tell her.
She asks me how.
I can't speak. I show her instead, slide her shirt over her head and grip her hips and kiss a line from her throat to her breast. She struggles to pull my jacket off my shoulders and bows her head, but the sleeves gather at my elbows and she holds them there, holds on tight, to keep herself where I can reach. I draw wet circles over her breast with my tongue, take enough between my teeth to make her squirm and cant her hips over mine. Sea-salt and sweat mingle on her skin, and I suck until I can separate out the tastes. The way she whispers my name, here, like this, isn't the way she said it in the river. It's harsher, needier, stronger. Please. Finnick, please.
"Have you ever done this before?" I ask.
"No?" It comes out as a question, but the way she can't stop moving, I don't know if it could sound certain. "I know how it works, but-no."
"Tell me if anything hurts," I say, and roll her to her back, thank our foresight in pushing the cots together. She props herself up on her elbows to draw me down and kiss me but I pull back, get her shorts unbuttoned and tug them down her legs. "Promise?"
"Yes," she says, "yes," and I'm not sure whether she's saying yes to the promise or yes to something else, but either way I'll take it. I'll take everything she's laid bare, trail my mouth and hands over every part of her I can see and touch and taste. I learn the curve of her hip, the arch of her back, the soft lines of her thighs. I kiss and suck and stroke until she thrashes under me, sobs things I half-understand, but I don't need words to know what she means. And she is clinging to my hair, scrabbling to hold on to any part of me she needs, but I'm already so close, kissing inside her, that when she comes I can't pull away. I wouldn't. I drink her down until her hips start to stir again, until the cot starts to creak.
"You," she says, ragged and parched, "Finnick, I want to take care of you. Your turn. Please." She holds on to my shoulders and tries to turn us over, kisses my mouth and down my chest until her lips reach the waist of my pants and I nearly spring a foot off the bed.
"Annie," I say when my mind unfogs enough, "you don't have to-"
"I want to try," she says, "I want you to feel this good."
I can't say no. I don't want to. She kisses me there through my clothes and fumbles with the buttons, settles between my legs and draws me out and rubs her cheek against my groin. It takes restraint I don't really have right now not to grip her by the hair and hold her there, but I manage to summon it from somewhere, mostly, settle for curling my fingers against her scalp and letting her kiss, as enthusiastically as she kissed my mouth. Her tongue is so warm and quick, I can't follow it, can't keep her where I want her and can't help moving to meet her, lifting my hips off the cot and trying not to hurt her. She looks up at me, chews her bottom lip, and stretches out her jaw to take me down.
I tug harder on her hair, hold her back. The walls of her mouth close on me, hot and soft and tight, and I want to stay but I want this more. "I don't want to finish yet," I tell her, hoarser than I meant to. My blood pounds through my hips, urging me forward, but if I held off for a year I can hold off for a few minutes more. She leans forward and keeps trying, tightening my grip on her hair, but I slide back along the cot and tell her, "Annie. Please. I want to do this together."
Her chest pushes against my thigh when she breathes. "Yes. All right. How?"
"Climb up on your knees," I tell her, and position her over my hips when she does. I still my hands for a moment and look at her, blushing from her cheeks all the way to her breasts, shining with sweat, her eyes depthless and wild and always on mine, taking me in. I hold her apart and watch how it changes her, how a shudder ripples through her from my fingers to her knees, how she closes them over my hips to drive me deeper.
"Have you touched yourself before?" I ask her.
"Yes," she breathes. "There. And deeper, some."
I push in further, twist my fingers and find the spot that makes her grind against my hand, stroke her outside with my thumb and inside with the rest and trap her there. Her eyes glass over but they don't leave mine, don't stop watching me, waiting for me. She's warm and wet and shuddering everywhere but here especially; here she's burning hot enough to sear me, dripping on my fingers and making me strain for more as hard as she is.
"Finnick," she says, "Finnick-"
"Hold on," I say, wonder if I can, and keep my fingers in enough so I can guide myself inside.
There's nothing else. Nothing but her, her knees framing my hips, her hips sharp against my skin, her warmth and tightness closing around even the parts of me she isn't touching. I feel her everywhere. Every breath I take makes me swell against her, every beat of my heart makes me pulse inside her. I can't move, not now, not for a while. It's all I can do to take her in, to stay. Sunlight streaks through the sweat on her arms as she holds on to mine, holds herself close, holds us together. Her hips pull forward and her eyes flash wide, the scant breath on her lips rustling her hair, and she does it again, rocks forward atop me and around me. I cling to her with everything I have, and she surges, cries out, tightens everywhere. There's more, I know there's more, I'm striving for the surface, the waves are overhead, they've found me, I'm home, I'm here, and the moment before I come up for air I'm certain that I can breathe water.
She collapses against me moments after. Her hair sticks to my chest, her skin to my skin. I don't know how long we lie there, mouths parted, lips chapped. The boat sways beneath us, the cot shifts with the deck, my chest rises and falls and each time, she nestles closer.
"Can't breathe," she says, but when I touch her cheek and look at her, she's smiling.
"Here. With me." We fall into sync, and I kiss her as we breathe out, knot my fingers in her hair.
"You breathe, I breathe," she whispers, laughing, holding me close. "You stay, I stay."
"Always," I say, and kiss her again.
The sun sets over the ocean, sets the surface aglow all the way to the west-facing windows of out boat. It casts the white sheets orange, the dark walls gold, our skin silver where the sweat refracts the light. Her breath beads on my shoulder, and she kisses me there, like she doesn't know what else to say. Neither do I.
Her hair is tangled, but I can never get enough of piecing through it, letting the snarls part on my knuckles. I know we'll have to wake up soon, have to step out onto the docks, go ashore, see our families, choose what secrets to keep. They know, they've known longer than either of us.
But we know now, and that's enough.
My name is Finnick Odair. I am twenty years old. I am the victor of the sixty-fifth Hunger Games. I was born at sea.
Annie Cresta loves me.
A/N, again: We'd like to thank lindensphinx and lassarina on LJ for their edits, their opinions, and their patience. We're continuing Finnick and Annie's story in a fic that's likely going to end up even longer than this one. It's terrifying, a little, but also kind of awesome.