Hi everyone, I'm back! Well, sort of. I know a lot of you will be hoping that this is the sequel, and I'm afraid it's not yet... but I'm hoping you'll all enjoy this too! It's a bonus chapter (a flippin' massive bonus chapter!) from Ethan's pov, showing his final day in the arena. Am I milking this story for all its worth? Yes, I am. Do I care? Not particularly... it's my baby :)
Anyway, I've written this partly because I wanted to, partly to say a huge thank you to everyone who's favourited/alerted/reviewed this story, and partly to make up for slow movement on Suffering on the Sidelines and the sequel. (By the way...Suffering on the Sidelines is my next priority! I'm hoping to have a new chapter up within a week or two. I've also started my Haymitch/Maysilee fic, and the next chapter is very nearly ready!)
A few notes: The chapter picks up from the cannon after Jasmine's death and Ella is Ethan's little sister. Also, I've changed the river scene in chapter twenty one of this fic ever so slightly and added in a small scene before that. Not huge changes, just things that have evolved as I wrote this.
So yeah, thank you so much, please drop us a review and let me know what you think, and most of all... enjoy x
PS For sequel information, see a/n at the end of this chapter.
CHAPTER THIRTY SIX - TEN SECONDS
They say a person can survive for ten seconds after being decapitated...
Here are Ethan Marborough's.
I wake to the sound of a cannon firing somewhere in the distance, the ground vibrating slightly underneath my ear.
For one horrible moment, I think it's Annie, and Ash has killed her and I never should have let them share a watch together... but then I sit up and I see her, still alive, sitting a little way away, propped up against a tree.
There's a small figure slumped across her lap.
Beside me, Reuben hangs his head, his eyes squeezing tightly shut, like he's praying, or just struggling not to cry. I can't tell which.
I meet Annie's gaze and although she's shadowed by the dying fire, I can read her expression like I can read the clouds back home in 4. Guilty. She feels guilty. I go to tell her that it's not her fault, that Jasmine was so badly hurt she hadn't really got a chance, that we did all we could - dammit Annie sacrificed some of her own sponsor gift to help her - but then Annie's eyes flicker downwards towards the forest floor and I see there's a small white plastic bottle half concealed in the grass beside her knee. I recognise the label. I have some in my own rucksack.
There's a silence as everyone in the camp notices the morphine, puts two and two together, and realises that Annie Cresta has made her first kill.
No. Not her first kill. I have no doubt that Jasmine agreed to take those tablets. She was already fading like a light when we set up camp.
"She's not hurting anymore," I say softly and Annie nods, pulling her bottom lip under her teeth. I can see she's close to tears. My own throat closes up and I can't say anything else, because if I do, my voice might crack.
Beside me, Reuben's head lifts and he untangles himself from his sleeping bag, pulling himself slowly to his feet. His expression is pained.
"I'll take her," he says. He crouches down and gently takes Jasmine's slumped form into his arms, before moving up and away towards the bushes, holding her as if she is just asleep and might wake up if he jostles her too much.
He disappears into the bushes, and I know he's taking her far enough away to be collected and returned to her family. There's a few minute's pause - even Ash and Seela maintain a respectful silence - but then Ash stretches, sighing contentedly, and a grin settles on his face. I glare at him – insensitive git – but he barely notices.
"Man," he says. "I'm tired. Is my watch over yet?"
I shoot a glance towards Annie whose head is down. I wonder if she's crying.
"Yeah," I say. "Me and Seela will take over."
Seela looks unimpressed.
"Yeah, you," I wriggle out of my sleeping bag and begin lacing up my boots. "You haven't been on watch yet at all."
"It's only been one night," she says. "And I couldn't watch with Ash, could I?"
She has a point. We've all already agreed that no tributes from the same district will stay up on watch together. My suggestion, of course. I don't trust Ash and Seela as far as I can throw them. In fact, not even that.
That does mean though, that I can't be on watch with Annie, and there are things we need to discuss. Not to mention that she's the best company here.
I concede with a sigh.
"Fine. But you're on watch with me now, okay?"
Seela rolls her eyes, but makes a move towards getting up.
"Sure thing, district 4," she drawls. I glance at her irritably, but she just grins, looking for all the world like a goddamn snake.
Ash begins to prepare for bed, but Annie doesn't move.
"Annie?" I ask tentatively. "You okay?" She doesn't answer, still doesn't stir either. "Annie?" I probe again.
Her head lifts.
"Me and Seela are taking over on watch. You want to get some sleep?"
"Oh," she says, glancing between us all. I see her eyes are pink, like she has shed a few tears and then suppressed them. "Right. Okay. Thanks." She stands and starts sorting herself out for bed, but her mind is obviously elsewhere and she's moving almost like she's sleep walking. As she settles into her sleeping bag, I take her place by the tree, resting my harpoon across my legs. Seela drags her bed roll into position opposite me, spreading it out across the grass and stretching out across it. She reclines leisurely on her side, propping her head up with her hand, her elbow on the ground.
The shadows of the fire cast the sharp lines of her face into high relief and despite the sleep messed hair and slightly tired looking eyes, she looks even darker and fiercer than she does in daylight.
…Which takes some doing.
I eye her warily and she smiles.
"Do I make you uncomfortable, Ethan?"
I don't like it when she calls me by my first name. It's too... friendly. And Seela doesn't do friendly.
"No," I say, resting my head back against the tree and shutting my eyes. I don't care to see the smirk I know is on her face.
I hear her laugh softly.
I ignore that and she doesn't speak again either. Reuben returns after a few more minutes looking solemn and gets back into his sleeping bag without another word. Ash is already snoring. Loudly.
I watch Annie shifting in her sleeping bag for a while. I know she's not asleep. Every so often she takes a shuddering breath, like she might be crying.
Seela can hear her too and I can tell by the look on her face that she thinks Annie is weak. But she's not. She's just a different kind of strong to people like me and Seela and Ash, and maybe even Reuben.
Annie was the only one who made sure everyone was out of that acid rain. She was the only one who cared enough to notice Jasmine was lagging behind. She was the only one brave enough to go back into that rain and save her.
And maybe, because of that, Annie Cresta is the strongest of us all.
"You asleep, Marborough?"
My eyes fly open.
I might have been. Nearly.
Opposite me, Seela crosses her arms, leaning back against the tree and the look on her face suggests she's not convinced.
"Good," is all she says though. "I'm bored."
"Bored?" I echo. Any moment in the arena that's quiet enough to be classed as 'boring' is a blessing as far as I'm concerned.
"Yeah," Seela replies airily, flicking at something on her knee."Bored."
"How can you be bored?" I ask disbelievingly. "Jasmine just died."
Her head lifts and she raises her eyebrows, unimpressed.
I stare at her. I can't even answer that. Did she not see how much Jasmine was hurting? How awful and prolonged her death was? My gaze snaps over to the shape in the sleeping bag I know is Annie on the other side of the fire. The sniffles stopped about an hour ago and I assume she's asleep now. Better that she is. Especially if Seela is going to minimise Jasmine's death like that.
I turn back to Seela, fixing her with a glare. She snorts with amusement.
"You're so moral," she tells me with a smirk. She says moral like it's something to be ashamed of - something to laugh at. Maybe it is in district 2.
"In district 4," I reply, thinking of Annie, comparing her morals – the morals that sent her back into that rain – with Seela whose morals didn't jar with giving a little girl a slow death. "That's a good thing."
"But you're not in 4 now, are you?" she shoots back.
"No," I admit, before adding boldly. "But when I go home, I don't want anyone to think badly of me."
A slow sharkish grin spreads across Seela's face.
"And you're going home, are you?" her voice is teasing, but there's an edge. She's challenging me.
I regard her steadily back.
"I plan to." There's a twinge in my chest as a little voice inside lets me know for the millionth time that if I go home, Annie doesn't. And neither does Reuben. Or Elenna. Or any of the other innocent kids the Capitol dumped in this arena. Belle, Mia, Jasmine, Preese, the boy from 12 whose name I didn't know but whose chest I sent a harpoon through anyway, all the kids that have died already... none of them will ever go home.
It'll just be me.
And my family. I've got to remember that. Ella. I need to think of Ella. Her little happy face, her curly blonde hair and ready smile. I'll see her again, I know.
Pushing all thoughts of Annie and her grandmother and Reuben and the brothers he told me about during training, I tilt my chin up, keeping my gaze level with Seela's.
Now she's one tribute I won't regret getting rid of. For Mia and Belle if nothing else.
"I'm going back to 4," I continue firmly. "I'm going home."
Seela's smile widens, one dark eyebrow arching almost coyly. Goddammit, she's mental.
"You'll have to survive the alliance first," she sneers. I harden my gaze in response.
"So will you."
"I have Ash," she replies. "And you..." - here her tone dips derisively - "You have Annie."
It's clear what she thinks of my district partner.
"You underestimate her," I argue. "She's tough."
"Not as tough as me, or Ash, or Reuben, or even you."
"Well," I say. "Not physically."
"She's the weakest left," Seela says. "She'll be next to go." She grins at me, her teeth flashing white in the dim light. "Unless you get in the way, of course."
There's something in her voice... something odd... and then it hits me.
It's like when Ella used to sit in the corner and beam and beam and say these really weird things, and then it'd turn out she'd got a surprise for me, and she was so excited and so proud of herself she couldn't keep the secret.
Seela has a surprise for me, but I'll bet anything it's not a good one.
I watch her thoughtfully and although she's regarding me back as innocent as a little child, she's obviously made her plans - plans to get rid of me and Annie. We're their greatest competition at the moment, because apart from them, we're the only tributes in this arena working as a team. I expect we're the only tributes in this arena that would risk injury, even death, to help each other, even if we both really want to get home.
Annie and I have as much chance of making it to the final two as Ash and Seela and they know it.
Not that I'd want it to be down to me and Annie, of course, but that's beside the point. The point being that the 2s have obviously made a plan to kill me and Annie and I'll bet it's set to take place soon.
I get the urge to just leg it now because I want to fight Ash and Seela on my terms and preferably not in a battle to escape the alliance. I would much prefer to slip away unseen and take them by surprise in a few days, a little further into the Games.
But I don't run. I stay seated against the tree, looking as oblivious as I can. No doubt Seela doesn't want me to know she has a plan.
"Annie is tough," I repeat. "And she's brave. Braver than you." Seela sniggers. "Plus," I add smugly. "Both of us have long range weapons. You don't."
She stops sniggering. Anxiety flashes briefly across her face, but it's so quickly replaced by her trademark arrogance that I wonder whether I imagined it.
"I don't see your point," she replies.
"Watch your back, Seela," I say bluntly. "I may be moral, but I'm not opposed to killing. You of all people know that."
We stare at each other, like a pair of animals sizing each other up, conscious of every breath the other takes. I remember our last stand off, back at the beginning of the Games, when it was me who backed down.
Not this time though. Seela suddenly relaxes, leaning back against the tree.
"I wouldn't mind it if it were you and I in the final two, Ethan," she says. "It would be..." she pauses, as if searching for the right word, but then her lips twist upwards into a cold smile that doesn't reach her eyes. "...Explosive."
Unsurprisingly, our conversation doesn't continue after that, except for the odd you still awake? when one of us looks like they might be about to drop off. The fire burns out, leaving glowing embers and blackened wood behind, but that's okay, because the sun is starting to come up, spilling light across the forest.
I rake a hand through my hair, grimacing as my fingers get caught in the tangles. I could do with a hot shower right about now, but I'm guessing grubby hair is going to be the least of my worries today. What with the Careers dropping like flies and the Gamemakers seemingly sending everything they've got in our direction, I wouldn't be surprised if something big happens today. And I'm not trusting Ash and Seela either. I've already realised they've got a plan but I have no idea what exactly they're going to do and when they're going to do it either.
I make a mental note to keep a close eye on the pair of them and to never ever let Annie leave my sight.
…Until we split up that is, but I'm not thinking about that right now.
Seela suddenly stretches opposite me, yawning widely.
"I need to pee," she announces, climbing to her feet. I wrinkle my nose.
"Thanks for that."
She tosses her hair, but doesn't reply, instead fitting her sabres into her belt and disappearing off into the bushes.
Across the clearing, Ash suddenly stirs, grunting in a very ungainly fashion before slumping back down again and restarting his snores. I snort in disgust, my eyes drifting across to where Annie is still fast asleep a little way from Reuben and Ash.
She's curled up in a ball, her back to me, her dark hair splayed out across the forest floor. My chest constricts in a way that's growing increasingly familiar.
This is so unfair. Why did this happen to me? Why was it my name pulled out of that damn ball? I think of my mother saying goodbye with tears in her eyes, of Ella clinging to legs crying don't go don't go don't go over and over, of my father slapping me on the back, trying to look like he wasn't about to break into pieces…
I think of Annie. The way she'd rolled her eyes at me before the chariot ride when Austin appeared with those harpoons. The way she'd smiled at her first bullseye with that spear. The way she'd laughed in her interview, shining like the sun beneath the stage lights.
Why did my district partner have to be Annie Cresta? She's too likeable, too kind, too infectiously bright. I remember watching her teaching Belle, that slip of a thing from 11, the one Seela murdered, how to knot up a simple net back in training. How the pair of them had been bent over a coil of rope, eyebrows furrowed in concentration. And then Annie had said something, and Belle had giggled like a little girl. She was a little girl, though wasn't she?
And Annie is barely more than that. Just as I sometimes feel I'm barely more than a kid myself.
How am I going to kill her? How can I even watch someone else kill her?
I remember my conversation with Finnick the night before the Games. He told me that when the time comes – if it ends up down to me or Annie - I'll do what I have to do. That I'll kill Annie Cresta, because I want to go home, because if I don't, then I'll never see Ella or my mom, or my dad or the sea and district 4 ever again.
But I'd seen his expression when he said that. He doesn't want Annie to die.
I think he'd rather I did.
I swallow. Hard.
I know it's not his fault, it must do things to you - getting to know kids from your home, watching them die every year, knowing that you were their only chance of survival and that you let them down... and Finnick isn't much older than us. Annie is a pretty girl. A nice girl. You can't do anything but like her. You can't do anything but care about her, because she cares about you and about everyone else. And Finnick, well, even I could see he and Annie clicked. He enjoyed teasing her, he enjoyed being around her.
I don't blame him for falling for her just a little bit.
I might have done the same. In a different time, a different place.
I shake my head. Gah. I must be going insane.
And then before I have time for any more disturbing thoughts, a rustling in the bushes catches my attention. My harpoon is in my hand and aimed by the time Seela bursts through the bushes. I drop my harpoon with a sigh, slumping back against the tree as she skids to a halt at the edge of the clearing. A grin stretches across her face and there's an excited, dangerous glint in her eye.
"I've found a trail," she says.
Five minutes later and I'm stuffing my sleeping bag into my rucksack. Well, trying to anyway. Reuben gives me a hand and I shoot him a grateful grin.
"Wake her up, Marborough," Ash suddenly appears above me, his arms folded, his expression sour. He's talking about Annie, of course. She's still fast asleep, curled up in her sleeping bag at the edge of camp. I'd been reluctant to wake her. I'm not sure how much sleep she got last night.
"Just give her a couple more minutes," I say. "We're not ready to move yet anyway."
"I am," Ash retorts. I roll my eyes. Jerk.
"I'm not," Reuben mutters, lacing up his boots. "I need a few minutes anyhow." His fingers fumble slightly. "Rough night."
"Pathetic," Ash sneers down at him.
My head snaps up and I'm suddenly absolutely sick of him.
"For god's sake, Ash, just shut the hell up."
Predictably, Ash is immediately as angry... no, angrier than I am. His fists clench.
"Don't talk to me like that!"
I stand, slinging my backpack over my shoulder, and fix him with an exasperated look.
"I'll stop if you stop. Jasmine was a good kid, Ash and you should show her and Preese a bit of respect."
Ash lets out a growl, and instead of replying, stalks over to where Annie is still cocooned in her blankets.
"Oi, Cresta." He boots her in the side. "Time to get moving."
"Hey," I snap. Dammit. Why is he such an idiot?
Annie stirs, rolling onto her back and squinting up at Ash.
"What?" she mumbles sleepily, wiping a hand across her face.
"Time to get moving," he repeats, speaking slowly and deliberately like she's stupid. Annie moans faintly and shuts her eyes once more. He kicks her again. Hard. "Get up!"
"Leave it, Ash," I say tiredly. Ash turns to scowl at me and behind him, Annie starts to sit up, rubbing her eyes.
"We want to get moving," he says.
"Yeah and we will," I reply, going over towards the pair of them. "Just cut her some slack, okay?"
Annie's shoulders slump a little and I push past Ash to crouch beside her.
"Annie," I ask. "Are you alright?"
She nods, taking her bottom lip between her teeth.
"Yeah," she says, her voice rasping painfully. Her eyes are a little red and squinty and I guess she might have cried herself to sleep last night. She coughs and looks down, apparently not wanting to meet my gaze. I read it immediately in her expression and body language that she's embarrassed. She doesn't want to appear weak and although I know she's not, crying over another tribute's death isn't something that gets you sponsors. That's the only reason I've put everything I have into maintaining perfect composure.
I wonder if I'll manage it when Annie dies.
I push the thought away with a shake of my head. Not something I'm going to think about yet. It makes my stomach feel funny.
From behind me, Ash lets out a growl.
"Get up," he says impatiently, glaring at Annie. "Seela's found a trail."
"How are you feeling?"
Annie glances at me sideways, her lips pursing.
"You sure?" I ask, ducking under a branch. She smiles, but it's not a proper smile.
"Yeah. I guess so."
We're walking side by side through the forest, a little way behind Seela, who is powering ahead, her nose to the ground. Not literally, of course, but she's in tracking mode, following a careless tribute who has left behind a few footprints and a couple of broken twigs.
Annie hasn't said a word since we moved off from camp earlier this morning. I've kept away, given her some space, but I'm worried about her.
Dammit. I'm worried about her. I am going insane.
"I killed her," Annie says suddenly. I glance at her but she's got her hand across her face. "Oh." Her hand moves to her mouth and tears spring up in her eyes. "I killed her. I killed her."
"Oh Annie..." I say softly. "Annie. Don't."
"I killed her," she whispers again.
"And I killed Mia," I say and inside, my heart clenches. "And the boy from 12. It's just what happens here."
She's silent for a second and as we reach a particularly dense patch of forest, I fall a little behind her. I can't see her face, but her shoulders are hunched, her hand still across her mouth.
"Annie?" I ask anxiously, pulling level with her again. She shakes her head.
"No. No." She dabs at her eyes with the cuff of her jacket. "I'm fine." Her voice catches and she coughs awkwardly. "I'm fine."
"You sure?" I turn my head to eye her worriedly. "Because you know it's not your fault, Jasmine agreed to take those pills. It was her choi..." Annie's eyes suddenly widen.
"Ethan!" She interrupts, her hand lifting in warning.
I turn my head just in time to walk nose first into a low hanging branch.
"Oof!" I stagger backwards, my hand lifting to rub my poor nose. "Oh damn!"
Annie giggles, trying to hide it behind her hand. And although my nose hurts like hell, I suddenly don't mind because I made her smile. And her smile looks a lot better than her tears.
I grin back at her.
"I'm sorry," she says."I shouldn't have laughed. You okay?"
"Yeah," I say with a laugh. "I'm fine."
"You sure?" Her voice wobbles like she's trying not to laugh again. There are still tears in her eyes, but she's laughing.
"Yeah," I say again. "I'm fine."
I stick close to Annie as we carry on through the forest, following the most round about trail I've ever seen, but I don't try and talk to her again. I don't want to hassle her.
She trudges along a little way ahead of me, the top of her head barely visible over that huge, now slightly frayed and scorched rucksack, and I follow, bringing up the rear of the Career pack. I contemplate talking with her about leaving the alliance, but Seela and Ash are only a little way ahead and I can't risk it.
I duck beneath a low lying branch. I'll tell her later. Meanwhile, I'm just going to concentrate on not smacking myself in the face again. My nose is still sore from last time.
I'm just straightening and readjusting the straps of my backpack when a loud low rumble begins… somewhere deep beneath the surface of the earth.
I stop where I am, Annie halting just in front of me. The ground groans beneath us and suddenly begins to judder. Annie staggers, thrown off balance, but I grab her arm and yank her upright, keeping myself on my feet by automatically shifting my weight to counteract the roll of the ground. It's like being on a boat, I tell myself. Like being on the ocean.
I focus on keeping my balance, and that keeps me from panicking... because well, the ground is moving, and the ground is not meant to move.
Annie throws me a grateful glance, but before I can say anything, an ear-splitting crack echoes across the arena. I flinch, my hands lifting briefly to my ears. It sounds like thunder, only a hundred times louder. The echo undulates like a wave, surging through the trees and rolling round and round the cliff faces, until it eventually fades away The ground gives one last grudging creak, and then the world stops shifting around us.
The whole forest falls silent.
"What," Seela asks, turning round towards us. "Was that?"
But then she falters, her lips parting in silent surprise. Her eyes dart up and land on something above and behind us, and her expression rearranges itself into something resembling horror.
Annie and I turn at the same time, and my breath catches in my throat.
"The dam," I hear Annie whisper from behind me.
And the dam it damn well is. The huge dam mounted in the cliffs on the far end of the arena – the one that's undoubtedly holding back a whole lot of water – has cracked. It's cracked. I wonder how much more water is pouring into the arena, and where it all might be going.
We all stand and stare at the fractured dam in silence. Obviously this is the Gamemakers' doing. Is it because there haven't been many deaths? Are the Capitol crowds baying for blood?
Is it a warning?
"Oi Cresta," Ash breaks the silence with his apparent new-found favourite phrase. "Get up a tree and see what happened."
I turn to glare at him even as Annie is untangling herself from that massive backpack.
"We know what happened," I say pointedly. "The dam cracked."
"It's fine," Annie says, squinting up at the nearest tree, seemingly sizing it up with the intention of climbing it. "We should probably take a look anyway."
I don't speak again while Annie climbs the tree, swinging herself up with agility I'm sure is surprising a few of the viewers. She settles herself in the topmost branches, her hand wrapped around the trunk as she leans out of the tree for a better view.
"Annie!" Reuben hails her. "What do you see?" She cranes her neck, stretching up on her tip toes and the branch sways dangerously…
"Uh," She catches her balance and I breathe a little sigh of relief. "Hang on."
And then she scrambles back down the tree like a little monkey, landing with a thud beside us.
"It's pretty much cracked the whole way through," she says a smidge breathlessly. "And as far as I can tell, the rivers are a lot fuller and faster."
"So the dam's letting in more water?" Reuben clarifies. She nods, confirming my suspicions. Ash folds his arms.
"Why did they crack it?" he asks irritably. "Couldn't they just adjust the flow or something?"
There's a pause and I then I speak, my voice hardening and setting like stone.
"It's much more dramatic this way," I say.
Annie catches my gaze and silent understanding passes between us. We both recognise the significance of the broken dam. The Games aren't exciting enough and the Gamemakers are giving us one last chance. They don't want me and Annie to slip away from the alliance in the dead of the night, they want blood and guts and gore... and preferably some drama along the way.
I've tried to give them something. I've gotten close to Annie (unfortunately, actually befriending her along the way) and given them friendship. I've hinted at a little something between her and Finnick and given them romance, even if a lot of it was exaggerated on mine and Finnick's part.
But obviously, it's not enough.
I suddenly panic that me and Annie won't be able to get away, that the Gamemakers will engineer a huge battle we might not make it out of alive.
Our only hope is to catch someone today, catch and murder another tribute in some suitably horrific fashion. My stomach churns because I'm fed up of blood. But I'm not ready to die yet and I'd rather it was someone else's blood spilled than mine or Annie's, or maybe even Reuben's.
"Let's keep moving," Annie says suddenly, her voice icily calm. "Those tributes aren't going to hunt themselves."
I nod solemnly in response.
Took the words right out of my mouth, Cresta.
Earlier I'd wondered how much more water is now pouring through the dam and into the arena... and now I've got my answer.
We're standing in front of the river at the exact same point we crossed yesterday and we're all a bit stumped to be honest. Because the rocks we used to cross yesterday are practically underwater. The river has risen right up to the bank and the water is gushing across the lower rocks, so fast and fierce I know it'd knock us off my feet if we tried to wade through. Even the higher rocks, the ones above the waterline, are soaked and I can tell they'll be difficult to cross. Treacherous, in fact.
"Do you think we should try further down?" Seela asks nervously.
No one replies for a minute and I eye the rocks, calculating the best route.
"No," I decide eventually. "We can get across, it'll just be more difficult. I'll lead. Everyone follow my route exactly."
And so we start across the river, single file. I go first, and then Ash, followed by Annie and Seela, with Reuben bringing up the rear. The rocks are slippery, but I try to take the driest route possible, heading upwards across the uneven formations, keeping a firm grip where I can.
I get the feeling that if I lose my footing and fall, no one will fish me out.
Now there's an idea. I briefly contemplate pitching Ash into the river and a little smirk traces my lips at the thought.
"Everyone managing okay?" I call without looking. Ash grunts his well being. "Annie?" I ask.
"Yeah..." she calls back assuringly. But then there's a panicked cry from Seela and Annie's words dissolve into a startled shriek. I whirl round, nearly stumbling but catching hold of a rock just in time, to see Annie and Seela lose their balance and fall. Reuben grabs the back of Seela's collar, swaying slightly with the jolt of her weight, but then grabbing hold of a jagged rock and heaving her back to safety.
But no one catches Annie.
At the same moment Reuben catches Seela, Annie rolls down the jagged side of the rock face. Her scream dies as she plunges head-first into the raging water.
And then she disappears.
No... No, no, no!
I am vaguely aware of Reuben shouting and a Seela screech as he deposits her roughly onto a rock shelf, but then I take off, racing across the rocks towards the bank, searching the water desperately for any sign of Annie.
But I can't see her. I can't see her!
She surfaces, just for a moment, her arms thrashing wildly as she struggles to keep above the water, but then she's back under, disappearing again beneath the froth.
"Annie!" I bellow.
Even in my panic, a stray thought passes through my mind...
If she dies now, I won't have to kill her later.
But with that thought comes a wave of nausea and I know that if I let her die, if I don't get her out of that damn river, then I'll never ever forgive myself.
My eyes rove the water, the panic in my chest so intense it's actually getting hard to breathe. Where is she? Was there a cannon? God, she's gone. She's gone.
"I can't see her," Reuben appears behind me. He rakes both hands through his hair, his whole face crumpling. "God, not another one. Not yet."
My heart sinks.
I'm sorry Finnick. I'm sorry Mags.
...I'm sorry Annie.
"There!" Reuben suddenly thrusts out his hand, pointing across the river. "She's over there!"
I see her - clinging on to a shelf of rock a little way down the river – and then I'm off again, sprinting down the bank towards her. The water is swirling around her, slamming her up against the sharp rocks. Her head dips beneath the surface again – no! – but then she's back up again, groping for a handhold. I can tell she's struggling, though. She can't seem to pull herself out and I can see her slipping.
"Annie!" I yell as I reach the line of rocks stretching out across the river.
Her head jerks up but she nearly loses her handhold, flailing for a second but then catching her grip. Throwing my rucksack to the ground, I begin to manoeuvre quickly across the rocks, stumbling slightly in my haste. I lose sight of her as I get closer and I just pray that she'll still be where I last saw her when I get there.
I throw myself to my knees, practically launching myself over the edge as I lean down to seize hold of her wrist. She looks up at me, her eyes wide with panic, and a strange sort of waterlogged cry escapes her lips as another wave almost takes her back under.
I heave her upwards and I feel her kick, trying to help me. Good job too. Annie may not weigh much, but she's absolutely sodden and the rucksack on her back isn't helping matters. I throw my arms around her waist as soon as I can and haul her bodily up and onto the rocks, dropping her down beside me. She collapses face down, her head buried in her arms, and for a second I worry that I've killed her.
But then she starts coughing up water and relief floods my body, so intense I can almost taste it. I pull myself to my knees beside her.
"Annie." I shake her shoulder. "Annie, talk to me!"
She makes a kind of uhghh noise, but stays where she is, struggling to catch her breath. She seems okay, but I can't wait any longer and I grab hold of her, flipping her over and pulling her into a sitting position. I hold her shoulders – I have the sneaking suspicion if I don't she might sag like a ragdoll – and make her look at me.
"Annie. Annie, are you alright?"
Her lips – now stained a faint blue – move, but no words come out. She's shaking and her skin is far too pale, and I realise she's frozen. I untangle her from her backpack – damn thing – before unzipping her from her jacket and pulling her out of her soaked fleece. I wrap my own jacket around her shoulders and rub my palms up and down her arms.
She's still looking a little dazed and there are scrapes and scratches across her face.
"C-c-cold," she stutters.
"I know, honey." I say, throwing her backpack over my shoulder and taking her into my arms. Dammit, she's like an ice block. "Let's get you back on dry land, eh?"
I stand, lifting her with me and she slumps into my chest. She's shivering uncontrollably and I see her work her throat a few times, apparently having trouble finding her voice again.
"Wh-what happened?" she asks, her teeth chattering, as I start back across the rocks, taking extra care now I've got her to worry about too.
My jaw tightens as for the first time I actually think about how Annie ended up in the river.
"Seela slipped and took you with her."
"D-did she f-fall too?" Annie asks with difficulty. I wish.
"No," I say shortly. "Reuben caught her."
She slumps again.
There is a pause and I put all of my concentration into getting back to the bank without dropping her or falling in the water myself. I feel her let out a shaky sigh.
"I lost my spear," she says and she sounds so mournful, I can't help but smile.
"It's okay," I say, shifting her weight slightly to manoeuvre over a rock. "I'll get you another one from the cornucopia."
She smiles back at me, but it's a bit wobbly and her lips are still a horrible shade of blue.
"Th-thanks," she says. "You know... f-for..." dhe trails off awkwardly, her gaze lifting tentatively to mine. I don't reply – what can I say? – and she suddenly looks troubled.. "You-you didn't have to come and get me."
"I did," I say simply, ending our conversation. I don't want her gratitude. I don't want her to feel indebted. Not when in a few days time, we're going to be enemies.
I realise that in saving her, I've made everything a hundred times harder. I can't kill her it seems, and apparently, I can't allow anything – or anyone – else to kill her either.
Which leaves me with a bit of a problem, really, doesn't it?
I shake my head as if trying to dislodge the thought. I won't think about it. I don't have to decide anything yet. I can just pretend that when the time comes, I'll do what I have to do. I'll kill Ash and Seela and Reuben and… and Annie.
By the time I reach the bank, the others are already waiting for us, Reuben anxiously bobbing up and down on the spot. Seela, meanwhile, looks slightly subdued. That's been her nearest miss so far in the arena. Her gaze settles on Annie in my arms and a strange expression hardens her face. I can't work out what it is. Contempt? Disgust? Jealousy? I think she knows that if it was her who'd fallen in and not Annie, no one would have gone out of their way to rescue her.
I place Annie gently on the ground and almost immediately, Reuben has a blanket around her.
"You alright?" he asks. Annie nods, her corners of her mouth tugging upwards in a very unconvincing smile. "I'm sorry," Reuben chews on his lip. "I tried to catch you."
"No," Annie replies, shaking her head. "N-no. It's fine."
"You were underwater such a long time..." he says wonderingly. I crouch beside my half drowned district partner, rubbing a comforting hand up her back.
"I guess being able to hold your breath for an eternity has come in handy, after all," I say in an attempt at joviality. Annie manages a weak smile.
"Yeah, I g-guess so."
Ash appears next to us, dumping Annie's rucksack unceremoniously in her lap.
"Let's get moving," he says.
My head jerks up angrily.
"What the hell, Ash?"
"We should keep moving," he shoots back, returning my glare. I am absolutely incredulous.
"Annie just nearly drowned."
"Yeah," Ash says unmoved. "Seems like she's been slowing us down a lot recently."
Annie's face drops and then I can't see her because I'm on my feet, hot fury searing through my chest.
"What the hell are you talking about, Ash?" I snarl. "Annie was managing find on those rocks until she - " I jab a vicious finger in Seela's direction - "threw her off."
"It wasn't deliberate," Seela snaps.
I roll my eyes.
"Uh yeah. Right."
"It wasn't!" She sends a scornful look Annie's way. "It's not my fault she fell."
"She was careless," Ash says contemptuously. "You should have just let her drown."
His dismissal, his utter disregard for life, it's so utterly enraging, I very nearly go for him. My hands clench, itching to send my harpoon straight through his chest.
"Don't you d..." I take a step towards him.
"It's fine," Annie interrupts anxiously. "It's fine. Seela knocked me in by accident and it doesn't matter now anyway, because I'm fine." Her hand creeps up to tug on my trousers, just above my knee and I force myself to look down at her, to see how vulnerable she is at the moment, half frozen and battered, to remember that if I go for Ash, Annie will be forced to fight Seela... "I'm fine," she repeats. "Ethan, really."
I can hear it in her voice – please, please not now, not yet – and force myself to breathe. I stand there, rigid as a statue, taking deep calming breaths, trying to think of something other than Ash and his arrogance and Seela and her sharp tongue and even sharper blades.
The ocean. I can think about that. I throw myself into the tide, allowing my anger to ebb from my tensed muscles. But damn, it's difficult.
"Fine," I say eventually and through gritted teeth. "We'll move on." Forcing myself to look away from Ash's gloating smirk, I crouch back down beside Annie, making a conscious effort to unclench my teeth and soften my tone. "Are you okay to walk?"
She nods determinedly, and I look to Reuben to help me get her back on her feet. Ash and Seela stride on, heading eastwards along the edge of the river, and after a little encouragement from Annie, Reuben carries on too.
"You sure you're okay?" I check with her, and she nods firmly.
"Yes, yes, I'm fine."
Despite this though, she wobbles as she takes a step forward, steadying herself with a hand on my arm.
I catch myself because I almost – almost – take her hand instead.
We move on, following the others, not saying much, although I ask her how she's feeling on regular occasions. She begins to look a little brighter, although I can tell her struggle in the water has left her drained, and she tries to get me to take back my jacket. I refuse, of course. Once or twice, I nearly broach the topic of escaping the alliance, because Ash is getting far too impatient with her for my liking. But I almost don't want to, even though I know time is running out.
Because the moment the Career Pack splits up, me and Annie will go our separate ways and then it's every man for himself.
I wonder what it'll be like. Tackling the arena alone. Jumping at the sound of every cannon. Scouring the sky every night for her face. And what about when the inevitable happens? When Annie's cannon does fire and when her face does show in the night sky above the arena? What happens then?
...And what if somehow, against all odds, we both survive and it's down to us to fight it out at the end? Could I send a harpoon through her heart, or wrap my hands around her throat? Could I watch her blood pool to the ground knowing I was the one who spilled it? Could I watch the light fade from her eyes, feel her skin grown cold?
I turn, feeling her gaze on the back of my head, as we trudge along and our eyes lock.
I smile at her, but there's something in her expression – something sad – that makes me wonder whether she's having similar thoughts to me.
But then she returns the smile and it's so genuine, so real that my throat closes.
I turn away, trying to hide that inside, my heart is breaking.
Could I kill Annie Cresta?
No. No, I couldn't. And that's a fact.
After a little while, I notice Annie beginning to flag and call up for a break. Ash rolls his eyes but assents and we all flop down in the long grass on the river bank.
I seat myself next to Annie, and Reuben plonks himself on my other side.
"Damn," he says with a heavy sigh."I'm tired."
Annie pulls a silly face at him.
He guffaws, pulling a face at back at her, before lobbing a handful of grass in her direction. Of course it falls pitifully short, and she giggles, her hand lifting to hide her mouth in the way she sometimes does when she laughs. I feel my lips twitch upwards. It's nice to hear her laugh again.
She leans back on her hands, smiling teasingly across me at Reuben.
"That all ya got, woodcutter?" she taunts.
"Watch your mouth, 4," Reuben warns good-naturedly. "Or I might start calling you fish girl."
She snickers again.
"No, that's Ethan." Her eyes slide towards me, her smirk growing wider."His dad's the fisherman."
"What?" Reuben grins at me. "Ethan's a fish girl?"
Annie's answering giggle is infectious and I chuckle too.
"Leave me out of this," I say, holding my hands up in mock defence.
"Your dad's a fisherman?" Seela asks turning her head towards me. She's lying flat on her back opposite me and beside Ash, her legs propped up on a tree. I think she's severing heads from daisies. I'll bet she did that to the other kids' daisy chains back in 2.
"Yes," I answer guardedly, expecting her to make some snarky comment.
"Does that mean you'd be a fisherman too?"
I pretend not to notice her use of the conditional.
"What about you?" Her eyes swivel towards Reuben. "What would you be?"
"My dad's carpenter, and so are all my brothers. I guess I'll end up the same."
"And you?" Seela's attention shifts to Annie, who eyes her warily back.
"What about me?"
Seela's lips quirk up into a cruel smirk and I sense the conversation take a dangerous turn for the worse.
"If you were going to grow up," she says sweetly. "What would you be?"
I feel Annie's leg – where her knee is touching mine – tense right up.
"That's enough," I snap before she has to reply. "Seela, give it a rest."
Seela rolls her eyes, but returns to decapitating daisies. The damage is already done though. The moment of lighthearted teasing is over and our minds are all very firmly back on the realisation that only one of us will grow up.
There's a taut silence and beside me, Annie's shoulders droop slightly.
"What does your dad do, Annie?" Reuben suddenly asks brightly in an obvious attempt to lighten the atmosphere. I wince, because Finnick told me what happened to Annie's parents.
Annie's head lifts and her eyes are sad.
"My dad died when I was little," she says softly. "And my mom. I live with my grandmother."
Now it's Reuben's turn to wince.
"God, sorry... I didn't mean..."
"It's fine," she says. "It was a long time ago, and I love my grandmother very much."
Her simple declaration is somehow the most painful thing anyone has said in this arena. It actually feels like a knife in my gut.
We all sit in a subdued, reflective silence. It's easy to forget here in the arena that the other tributes have people they love, people they want to go home to... even Ash and Seela.
I thread my fingers through the grass, pulling it up a little more viciously than necessary.
I hate this.
"We need to move on," Ash says suddenly, pulling himself to his feet. I glare at him.
"We've only just sat down!" I protest.
"We need to move on," Ash repeats stubbornly, nudging Seela with his foot. I notice he doesn't dare kick her with the same force he laid into Annie earlier. Seela stretches like a cat and begins to slowly gather herself together. Reuben, meanwhile, lets out a groan.
"We've got plenty of time to rest," he grumbles.
"You've had long enough," Ash retorts, slinging his rucksack over his shoulder. Beside me, Annie wipes a weary hand across her face.
"Ash..." she begins quietly.
"Move it!" he barks at her and she nods meekly, standing up and picking up her backpack. I stand too, irritated at his insensitivity, but deciding not to argue.
I help Annie into her backpack.
"S'alright," I say in a low voice into her ear. "We'll get him back."
She shoots me a little smile, but doesn't reply, instead starting slowly after Ash and Seela, who are both already striding off along the riverbank, Ash clomping angrily through the undergrowth.
Reuben glares after him.
I let out a sigh.
"I couldn't agree more, mate."
We've been hiking for about twenty minutes when Reuben falls back slightly to walk alongside me. Annie pulls ahead, apparently determined to prove she's well enough to continue without any help from either of us.
Reuben doesn't speak for a while, just treks along beside me, one axe thrown over his shoulder, the other smaller one fixed to his belt. I don't initiate conversation either, although I sneak a glance in his direction more than once, puzzled as to his intentions.
His profile is unreadable.
"You alright, Reuben?" I ask eventually. For a moment, he doesn't reply, doesn't look like he might even bother, but then he just stops still. I stop too, regarding him questioningly. "Uh, Rube?"
He looks me square in the eye.
"I just want you to know," he says. "That when this alliance ends, I'm on your side."
It takes me a second to process his words, and when I do, I realise I'm not feeling as relieved as I should be. He wants to fight, he wants to help me protect Annie, but this conversation… it's making it all too real.
I wipe a weary hand across my face.
"You don't have to..." I begin.
"No," he cuts me off. "I won't run. And I won't let Ash or Seela hurt Annie either."
I eye him uncertainly.
"Do you want an alliance afterwards?" I ask, before realising I sound more than a little reluctant. He grins at me.
"No," he says. "I know you don't want me."
"It's not that," I protest, feeling bad.
"Yeah," he interrupts, and his smile becomes rueful. "I know."
"I'm sorry," I say and he shakes his head.
"I don't want to have to fight you, Ethan," he says, rubbing his chest, grimacing as if there's a pain there. "And I know you don't want to fight me."
I nod, and we both start walking again.
"I think," I say reflectively after a moment's silence. "That if things were different, we could have been friends."
I see him grin again.
"I'd have been honoured," he says.
We continue trekking on through the forest, noticing that Annie is getting further and further away and we're getting left behind. We speed up a little, keeping a careful distance between us but not wanting to fall too far behind and make her and the 2s suspicious. We discuss possible plans of escape and/or attack and eventually, we settle on a plan that will give us the advantage and keep Annie out of the fray. It's an unspoken agreement between us that she'll be protected.
"Are you..." Reuben says hesitantly. "Are you planning on sticking with Annie, you know, after?"
"No," I reply, trying not to look pained. "No, we're splitting up. Our mentors told us we should."
"Do we tell her about all of this?"
"Yes," I say eventually. "I'll tell her. She needs to know."
We reiterate our plan, fine tuning it until we both know exactly where we'll be and exactly what we'll both be doing. I am reasonably confident that we'll succeed. Reuben and I are just as competent fighters as Ash and Seela, and having Annie – I remind myself to arm her with a few knives this afternoon – will give us the upper hand.
"So it's settled," I say grimly once we've been over our plan three times."We move tonight."
Reuben nods tightly and I see his fingers clench around the handle of his axe.
I move on ahead of Reuben after that, fairly certain that Ash is the paranoid type. We don't want him suspecting that we're plotting anything and flipping when we're not ready for his attack. I quickly catch up with Annie, who is looking more and more drained by the minute.
"You feeling alright?" I ask concernedly.
"Yeah," she gives me a weary smile. "Just a bit tired."
"Let me know if you need a break," I say, hoping that's all it is.
We move on along the river bank, Seela leading the way. She powers through the forest like a tracker jacker, never once faltering as she hunts down her prey.
I make a mental note to take extra care in hiding my tracks once the alliance is over.
The sun reaches the highest point in the sky and still, there's no sign of any other tributes. I can tell Ash and Seela are getting agitated and a little frustrated, and I'm fairly certain everyone back in the Capitol will be getting fidgety too.
Still, they've all heard me and Reuben make our plans. I'll bet they're hoping for some explosions tonight. Maybe that'll buy us a little time today, if they think it'll all kick off later.
I remind myself that I need to let Annie in on the plan. But we're walking as a closer group now – Ash is barely five or six metres ahead of me – and talking to her privately isn't an option at the moment. Still, I've got all afternoon. I'll find some way to let her know.
A few more hours pass and the sun dips slightly. The ground begins to slope up higher above the water, and the river becomes almost like a little valley, carving a gorge through the forest. Reuben suddenly seems to develop a bladder problem and we have to pause several times while he goes off behind a tree somewhere. I notice every time we stop, Annie looks more and more reluctant to start moving again. She's turned a little pale actually and her skin is looking a little damp, almost clammy.
I hope she hasn't caught a chill from her dunking in the river.
We've only been walking for about fifteen minutes after our last stop when Reuben suddenly coughs, catching our attention.
"Hey guys," he calls from behind us. "Can we stop a sec?"
We all turn to see him drop his rucksack to the ground, looking a little sheepish. Seela groans loudly.
"What's up now?"
Reuben's face splits into a broad, slightly abashed grin.
"Uh well, nature's calling..."
"Ugh." Annie and Seela roll their eyes at exactly the same time. I stifle a smirk, because it's bizarre seeing such similar expressions on the faces of such different girls.
"Like you don't ever have to pee."
Annie laughs, pointing towards the trees.
He winks at her before loping off, his axe over his shoulder, disappearing into the forest.
"Could do with a rest anyway," I say, because I know Annie does too and she won't dare ask for one. I plop myself down on one of the rocks lining the embankment and glance over the edge - we're quite high up now – before turning back to see Ash sending a sneer in my direction.
Poor fool probably thinks needing to sit down makes you weak.
Annie leaves her backpack on the ground and heaves herself onto the rock beside me. She lets out a long exhausted sigh, swinging her legs wearily.
"You feeling okay?" I ask worriedly, probably for the millionth time today.
"Yeah, yeah," Annie yawns, but tries to hide it behind her hand. "Just tired." Like the last time she told me that, I worry that there's something wrong with her – she did fall in a freezing river after all – but I don't push it. Instead, I dig in my backpack for the small pack of candy I know is in there.
"Here," I say, slipping one into her hand. "Have a sweet."
She smiles her thanks and pops it into her mouth. But her smile abruptly fades as she tastes it. I immediately remember they taste exactly like the mint crystals they sell in the sweet shop back in the harbour and grimace sympathetically. "Yeah, I know. I should have warned you."
"S'fine," she mumbles. I open my mouth to apologise, but then Ash lets out a sudden shout.
"Tribute!" he bellows loudly, snatching his knife from his belt. My head whips round and I see his target on the rocks across the river - a thin quick moving shape with dark blonde hair. And then the tribute's head turns too and I see her face.
Elenna's face constricts in panic, but then she's off, scrabbling frantically up the rocks. I know what she's hoping. She's hoping she'll make it to the treeline before Ash manages to get his knife in her. But he's already taken aim, his arm pulled back, his muscles tensed...
I barely have time to think, let alone react, because it's then that Annie launches herself from the rock, flying across the few paces between us and Ash and throwing herself at him, catching his arm just as he hurls his missile. His arm smashes backwards and hits her hard in the face, sending her flying. She lands heavily on her back a few metres away. At the same time, Ash's knife veers off into the river, missing Elenna by a long way. She reaches the top of the embankment and with one last fearful glance in our direction, disappears into the trees.
And then all is silent as we process what just happened... what Annie just did... what the consequences might be.
My heart starts thudding so hard I can feel it in my throat. This is it. Ash is going to flip.
Annie sits up, her features rearranging into an expression of utter panic as Ash turns slowly, menacingly. I freeze up, knowing I need to help her, knowing that if I don't Ash is going to kill her, but somehow completely unable to move.
"I'm sorry," Annie babbles, wiping a hand across her bleeding nose. "I wasn't thinking, Ash... I- I'm sorry."
"Damn straight you're sorry," he replies evenly. His hand slips down and rests on the hilt of sword and I know Annie is in deep deep trouble.
Ash takes another step towards her and suddenly, suddenly, I can move. I push myself off the rock and dart in between them, my hands lifted in an imploring gesture. Keep the peace, my little inner voice chants, keep the damn peace.
"Hey, hey," I say. "Calm down, Ash."
"I am calm," Ash's jaw is clenched and his eyes flicker towards Annie over my shoulder. "And she is going to die."
"She didn't do anything, Ash," I say in a low voice. I'm trying to keep calm, knowing that if I get too confrontational and aggressive, it'll only fuel Ash on, it'll only rile him further, but it's difficult. Every muscle in my body is pulled taut, strained to a breaking point. I have to protect Annie, I have to. I don't know why, I can't explain it, but I can't let Ash kill her. He'll hurt her.
"She took my kill," Ash replies, and his voice is shaking with anger.
"She didn't," I say. "Elenna is still alive, you can still kill her."
Ash's gaze snaps back to mine, his eyebrows shooting upwards.
"Elenna, is it?" he asks. "What, were you three in some kind of secret alliance? Have you been plotting against us the whole time?"
Wrong plotters, Ash.
"Don't be paranoid, Ash," I say irritatedly. "Just because we know her name doesn't mean we're in an alliance with her."
"She saved my life, Ash," Annie's voice pipes up nervously from behind me. "I owed her."
I flinch, because I know that was the wrong thing to say. Ash turns his furious glare on her.
"How sweet," he jeers, and then his whole face distorts in rage, angry colour flooding his face, his voice twisting viciously "You're a fool, Cresta. A coward. Refusing to kill anyone, crying like a baby whenever someone dies, lying your way into sponsorships. You're not tough, you're pathetic and weak, Cresta. You're not a Career and you never will be. You don't belong here."
"Then I'll leave," Annie's voice cracks. "I'll leave the alliance."
My heart jumps anxiously.
No, no, no! This is all wrong. This can't happen yet. I'm not ready, I had a plan. And Reuben's not here... Damn! Reuben's not here!
"You still don't get it, do you?" Ash growls. "To win, I have to kill you. I'm not going to let you run away because then I'll just have to hunt you down. It's over, Cresta, it ends now."
"You won't touch her," I snarl, unable to hide the anger now.
"You're a fool, Marborough," Ash hisses. "But you're useful. I have no issue with letting you stay." He draws his sword and it glints in the afternoon sunlight. "Now get out of my way so I can kill her."
Annie squeaks in terror behind me, but I don't budge. She's unarmed. She's not strong enough to fight Ash.
And I won't let her die.
I tighten my stance, my harpoon gripped so tightly in my hand I'm sure my knuckles are white.
"No," I say through gritted teeth. Ash lets out an angry growl.
"Well, then I'll have to make you!"
And then he swings his sword towards my head, but I'm quicker than he is and I block the blow with my harpoon, the momentum sending me back a step.
My foot skids in the gravel, but I hold my ground. Ash's eyes narrow to slits, harpoon and sword crossed in between us.
"You really want to do this?" His voice is deadly.
"You go for Annie," I reply, equally as dangerously. "You go for me."
There's a beat, but then we're fighting and I know this will be the fight of my life.
He slashes his sword towards my head and I duck under his arm, sending an elbow into his ribs as I pass him. But he's been training all his life and it barely even fazes him. He whirls round and I expect him to go for my head again... but the sword dips down and although I leap backwards, the blade rips across my hip and down my thigh.
The flesh cleaves like butter and hot blood gushes down my leg. Ash's eyes flash with triumph as my stance wobbles and pain like I've never felt before tears through my thigh, but then I steady myself, the thought that if Ash kills me Annie will most likely be next sending adrenaline rushing through my veins. I intercept Ash's intended fatal blow, our weapons clashing loudly, and throw all my strength into shoving him backwards.
A piercing screech of rage echoes around the gorge and out of the corner of my eye, I see a pair of thrashing figures on the ground. It takes me half a second to register that it's Seela and Annie and they're battling it out like wild animals, rolling over and over, clawing and hissing and screaming. I see Annie send her knee into Seela's stomach, but then, with a cry of fury, Seela's grabs hold of Annie's hair and flips them both over.
"She's gonna kill her," Ash tells me, a spiteful twisted grin making its way across his face. "Annie Cresta is going to die."
I answer him with a wordless snarl and he laughs. I glance over at Annie again, knowing I've got to help her, Seela's a flipping maniac... but I don't have time to do anything, because Ash is going for me again. I thwart his attack, but I can feel myself weakening with blood loss.
"Slut!" I hear Seela shriek and my head snaps to the side to see her on top of Annie, slamming her head repeatedly into the ground. "Stupid district 4 slut!"
I know I don't have much time and I have to kill or at least incapacitate Ash now, or else it's going to be too late for Annie...
Ash's sword comes straight for me again and I divert his strike, arcing my arm and sheering his weapon off to the side, leaving his head vulnerable. And so, knowing time is most definitely running out and every second I spend fighting Ash is another second Seela has to hurt Annie, I summon all my strength and slam the flat shaft of my harpoon into his forehead. I hear the crack as metal meets skull and then he's falling, his eyes rolling back, a grunt of pain slipping from his lips. He hits the ground and he doesn't move.
He's not dead, but right now I've got bigger things to worry about.
I whirl round to see Seela on top of Annie, her back to me, a jagged rock raised high above her head ready to deliver the fatal blow. I barely think, barely even take the time to aim, I just send my harpoon flying straight towards Seela's stomach.
For Mia. For Belle. For Annie.
I hit my target.
The harpoon embeds itself in her torso with a sickening squelch and she freezes, her whole body seizing up. There's a pause – an eternal pause – but then she slumps forwards, her body falling limp and landing flat on top of Annie. With a panicked gasping cry, Annie rolls out from underneath her would-be killer's body and slumps to the ground beside her.
A cannon fires and I know Seela's dead. I know I've killed her. But I don't have time for sympathy or regret or even satisfaction because I also know Ash isn't dead and that me and Annie have to get out of here. Now.
I take a stumbling step towards her, but my injured leg buckles slightly and I sway, so I stay where I am, focusing on catching my balance and keeping it.
"Annie!" I yell. She looks up, looking slightly dazed, like she might be about to throw up. "Annie!" I holler desperately when she doesn't move. "Come on!"
She drags herself to her knees, but then doubles over, her hand clutching her stomach like she might be about to vomit.
"Annie!" I yell again. "We have to go now!"
And then she struggles to her feet, stepping over Seela's body and staggering towards me. I can't tell if she's injured or just in shock. My own injury is sending waves of pain through my body and I start to feel a little faint.
"Annie, now!" I can feel the panic rising, because I don't know if I'm going to be able to run, if I'm going to be able to get myself and Annie out of here.
Annie's gaze lifts to mine and then her whole face drops.
"Ethan!" She screams, her voice high pitched with horror, her hand lifting to point at something – someone – behind me.
I turn, but all I see is a pair of raging blue eyes and a glint of silver and then the sword slashes into my throat and then it's just wetness and blood and pain and pure undiluted terror.
And then everything sort of seizes up and my vision blurs and I'm falling, I can feel it. The whole world bleeds white and I know I'm dying.
I know I'm going to die and there's nothing I can do.
Oh god. Mom. Dad. Ella. Finnick. Mags...
A scream, loud and long and piercing, slices through my consciousness and I recognise it immediately.
Win, I think. You have to win. But I know she won't, I know Ash will kill her. Hatred and anger and pain and terror and sadness, deep deep sadness, cripples me and I suddenly can't breathe.
I fight it, fighting for air, but there's something hot and thick in my throat and I can't breathe, I can't breathe. I hear a horrific, unearthly gurgle and then I realise it's me and I'm dying.
I see the blue of the ocean, the sparkle of the sun, the brightness of Ella's smile. I taste salt and then rust and I don't know if it's a memory or whether I'm drowning in blood. Maybe both.
It hurts. It hurts more than I can explain.
And then I see her, I see Annie, but it's not real, I know it's not, because she's laughing and she's so beautiful and I'm glad this is my last memory because she's my friend and I love her.
I love her?
But then something heavy presses down on the back of my eyes and I can feel myself fading.
I fight it, but I know it's too late. The darkness catches me like a current and then I'm being sucked down, down, down and I can't do anything about it.
I know this is it. My last few seconds.
Don't forget me.
So... did Ethan love Annie? Romantically? Platonically? What do you think? I think he might have, just a little. Like maybe she loved him... just a little. Not much of Finnick here was there? Sorry, you'll just have to go back to the last chapter and get your fill there!
I really hope you've enjoyed this though. I did, although it was quite sad to write. Leave a review and let me know what you thought!
I am planning on finishing Suffering on the Sidelines by spring next year (2014 - fingers crossed!) and then I'll be able to start the sequel. The sequel will be called something like 'Taken by the Tide', and it'll be alternating points of view - both Annie and Finnick. It'll also be NOT following canon. That's it, guys, NOT CANON! But well, you'll have to wait and see how it all pans out.
So, thanks again for reading, please review and I hope you'll stick around for the rest of Suffering on the Sidelines and eventually the sequel! x