she is drowning
she is screaming
"NO!" Hands covering her ears, Annie falls to her knees, not feeling the scrape of the searing pavement on her skin. "Oh, Mags, no!"
she is sinking, fighting for air
Warm. She is warm.
Warm arms hold her, warm breath musses her hair, warm lips touch her forehead, brush against her ear…
She stirs. The warm breath stops and the warm arms tighten around her.
"Finnick?" she asks. Her voice sounds rusty, feels rough.
Something warm and wet drips onto her cheek, trails down her skin to her lip, and she tastes salt.
Everything is a blur. However hard she tries, Annie can't quite focus long enough or well enough to make things slow down. Nothing is real. Nothing save Finnick. He doesn't let go of her hand, nor would she let him if he tried. Like a lifeline, he is the only thing anchoring her to the here and now.
The train pulls into the station in the Capitol and the sights and sounds, the colors and the smells all just add to the chaos in Annie's mind. Peacekeepers lead them to a waiting car, gleaming black, that takes them to the Remake Center past hundreds of people screaming their names. Reporters, photographers, citizens…
All Annie wants to do is hide.
When they tear her hand from Finnick's to take her into remake, she fights them, crying and struggling like some feral creature, like a mutt of herself, until Finnick stops her with a word.
"Annie." Just her name, but she stops fighting to look for him in the chaos. Her eyes lock on his and he doesn't look away. "It's only for a little while." His voice is calm, something she can cling to.
She blinks several times, lids fluttering like butterfly wings until finally she squeezes her eyes shut. My name is Anwyn Cresta. My friends call me Annie. I am 22 years old. I am the victor of the 70th Hunger Games. I love Finnick Odair and he loves me. I am stronger than this. I can do this. The stream of thought flows through her and over her in scant seconds.
Opening her eyes once more, she nods. "Okay," she tells him, her voice startlingly strong. "I'm okay." She blinks again and words come unbidden from her lips: "I love you." Finnick stares at her. Martin Perch and Angel Banyan, their mentors for the Games, stare at her. Everyone close enough to hear her words stares at her and suddenly Annie wants to sink through the floor as the darkness threatens to swamp her again. She has done something unforgiveable. No one is supposed to know about us. But then Finnick smiles that beautiful smile reserved just for her and it's as though a shaft of sunlight spears through murky water, turning it to gold.
"I love you more," he tells her, loud enough for everyone to hear, not trying to hide anything, and she can breathe again.
They strip her naked, poke at her and prod at her, remove every bit of body hair, paint her and dress her, chattering all the while about how pretty she is, how soft her hair. It's just like before and it's hard for her to know where the past ends and the present begins. When they think she can't hear them, they whisper behind their hands about her and Finnick. Does he really love her? Are they really together, do you think? But there's something wrong with her! She's not good enough for him!
She can't help but think that they might be right.
Silk ribbons of green and gray and dark gold pull her hair away from her face to cascade over her bare shoulders and back. The third time she tried to hide behind the long, curling strands, they threatened to tie her hands together with matching ribbons. A net of sparkling, shimmering gold drapes just so over her body, knotted to cover her pubis, and there are green and gray ribbons woven through it to more or less – mostly less – cover her breasts. Finnick's costume covers even less skin than hers.
He takes her hand and they walk together into the elevator where Martin and Angel wait; as the doors close, Finnick pulls her into his arms and buries his face in her hair. At first she thinks that it's to calm her nerves, or maybe his, but then he shifts and whispers in her ear, so low that only she can possibly hear it.
"We don't have much time, so just listen. I'll explain later, but I need you to plant the idea of alliance with Katniss Everdeen of Twelve. Haymitch thinks she might consider it, if it comes from you. She won't have anything to do with me."
Annie pulls back a little, just enough to look into Finnick's eyes. "Alliance? With Twelve?" She doesn't understand, but Finnick nods and before she can ask another question the elevator stops and the doors open and a wave of scent and sound rolls over them, perfume and horse, dirt and sweat, a hundred voices all talking at once. He squeezes her hand and he doesn't let go when they step out into the cavernous room beneath the Remake Center.
The girl stands near a coal black horse, lightly stroking its cheek. "You're Katniss Everdeen," Annie says as she draws near and the girl turns wary gray eyes on her. Katniss' eyes widen at Annie's attire and Annie feels the heat rise, her face and neck becoming too warm, but the girl in the coal black bodysuit says nothing. "I'm Annie Cresta," Annie offers, stopping a step or two away. "From District Four."
"That's quite the costume," Katniss observes and Annie lets out an indelicate snort of laughter.
"I wouldn't go so far as that."
Katniss frowns and cocks her head to one side, still idly stroking the horse's jaw. "So far as what?"
Annie grins. "So far as to call it a costume." The girl's face softens into something approaching a smile and the tension in her body relaxes, just a little. Annie's nervousness fades as she and Katniss begin to talk.
The air along the parade route smells of fried foods and exhaust fumes and of horse, although the last isn't nearly as strong as it was near the stables. The chariot speeds along the Capitol streets and Annie feels every bump and ripple in the road; she grips the chariot's wave-shaped crystal railing to steady herself. Finnick presses against her, his arms around her. He rests his chin on her head and her hair flows in the wind of their passage to tangle with his – the Capitol has always preferred Finnick's hair long. When she catches sight of them shimmering in their golden nets on one of the enormous screens that line their path – a pair of mythical creatures, fey and otherworldly – the intimacy in the way the bronze and chestnut strands of their hair entwine and tangle takes her breath away.
Annie studies the knife in her hand, tests the heft of it and runs the pad of her thumb along the edge, knowing that if she applies the slightest bit of pressure, she'll bleed.
A man, blond and handsome, dressed in the same training uniform she wears, says something to her, but although she knows he's there, she doesn't hear whatever it is he has to say. Still holding the knife, watching the play of light on the flat of the blade, she walks away from him, but he follows her. He steps into her path and without thought her body takes over and sends him to the gymnasium floor. Annie finds herself kneeling on his chest with the knife at his throat. Shocked blue eyes meet hers as his body goes lax in surrender.
Behind her, Finnick laughs. "You can let him up now, Annie. I'm sure he'll behave. Won't you, Gloss?"
They move as one, skin glides on skin, heated where they touch, cool where they don't. His breath ghosts over her throat, her chin, her lips as he moves inside her until his mouth closes on hers and their tongues slide over each other in a wet, sloppy kiss. He thrusts deep and she arches up against him, moaning and humming into his mouth as she begins to lose control until there is nothing left in her world but the feel and sound and taste of him.
She lets go, gives herself over to him and he follows her as she spirals up higher and higher and higher.
At the center of the room and the center of attention, Annie dances to a melody only she can hear. Her movements are fluid, graceful, deadly. Never still, always moving, Annie flows like water between her indistinct opponents and the knives she holds in each hand slice through the bright shadows; they dissipate in a shower of golden light. They're not real, she tells herself, over and over, as each new shadow slips into place to pick up the attack where the last one she destroyed left off.
Her dance grows faster and faster until she's spinning and whirling, silken strands slipping free of the cord that binds her hair in a rope down her back. The renegade strands stick to her skin as sweat trickles and tickles down her neck and her back and between her breasts, drips stinging into her eyes. The gymnasium fills with pixilated sparks and sparkles of gold until finally a voice calls out, "Enough."
Annie stops as her last shadowy enemies shatter and fall soundlessly to the floor, disappearing. She looks up toward the voice. They all watch her to see what she'll do, but only one of them looks at her as though she might be human. She opens her fingers and allows the knives to fall to the floor with a clatter, nods to that one man, the head Gamemaker, and then she turns and walks toward the door. It's a struggle to keep her back and shoulders straight, her head high, but she manages.
Curled into Finnick's side, Annie doesn't want to look at the television as Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith announce the training scores. She doesn't want to watch, so she doesn't, instead pushing her face against Finnick's shoulder; he smells of clean clothes and soap and Finnick and breathing in his scent is soothing. His arm tightens around her and his fingers find hers, twining them together, hers and his, before lifting her hand to kiss her knuckles. She peeks up at him then, and he smiles at her.
District 1… District 2… District 3… Annie doesn't want to hear the scores any more than she wants to see the people who earned them. People who will try to kill her. People she might have to kill. She burrows in again and Finnick makes a calming sound.
"And that brings us to District Four and our first surprise of these Games," Flickerman declares.
"More surprising than learning Odair and Cresta are a couple?" Templesmith asks and Annie scrunches her eyes shut.
Annie hums to block out the sound of one of the men on the television shuffling papers and Finnick gives her hand a squeeze. "Hush, love," he whispers. "We'll be okay." Annie looks up at him, straightens and sits up just in time to see the transparent image of her own face, glowing slightly in shades of gold, just like the shadows she fought earlier that day.
"District Four's Annie Cresta is something of a cipher. No one has any idea what she might be capable of…"
"I'll bet Finnick knows," Templesmith says with an exaggerated leer and Annie cringes. Finnick makes a sharp movement and a plastic cup bounces off the screen with a splash, leaving brightly colored trails running down the flat surface. Phineas LaSalle jumps to his feet with a wordless protest.
"Settle down, Phineas," Finnick says as he relaxes back into her. "It was just water." Martin laughs; Angel turns up the volume.
"But our esteemed Gamemakers saw fit to give the lovely Miss Cresta a nine." Flickerman looks up from his paper and continues, "She just might be a force to be reckoned with in this Quarter Quell."
Snip, snip, snip. Annie has done this a hundred times, it seems. The Capitol loves Finnick's hair and so he must keep it long when he's theirs. But now he's hers, at least for a little while. Snip, snip, snip. The hair falls away in a bronze puddle on the floor and she brushes the remains from his neck and shoulders, his back. His prep teams will clean up the edges.
Leaning over his right shoulder, she nips at his ear as she reaches around to hand him the scissors.
"Your turn," she whispers.
Finnick paces between the bed and the dresser. He stops when he hears the door open behind him and turns to face her, his hands dropping to his sides. He looks nervous and there's a subtle tension in the way he holds himself, very straight and very still.
Her hand still on the doorknob, Annie stops, too. "You look so serious," she says. "Is something wrong?" No, Annie. We're only waiting for our prep teams to arrive so they can dress us up for our last interview before we go to our deaths in the morning. What could possibly be wrong? She tells herself to shut up.
Taking two steps toward her, Finnick closes half the distance between them as he stuffs his hands into the pockets of his jeans. He starts to say something, stops, starts again, but nothing comes out and Annie closes the rest of the distance, slipping her arms around his waist. He doesn't take his hands out of his pockets, but he does press her arms closer and rest his cheek on the top of her head. It's something he does all the time, but it feels different on short hair.
"I love you, Finnick Odair," she tells him and he relaxes against her.
"You're everything to me, Anwyn Cresta," he whispers into her hair and the tickle of it is different, too. For a long moment they stay that way, just holding each other, drawing strength from each other. But then he takes a deep breath and pulls his hands from his pockets. Taking half a step back, he lifts his hands, tilts her head up to look at him and then cups her face between his palms. His gaze is intense when he says, "Marry me, Annie."
A million years ago, Annie had waited backstage, barefoot and wearing a filmy seafoam-colored dress, for Caesar Flickerman to call her forth for her interview. She'd been nervous and, unable to remain truly still, she'd rocked from her toes to her heels, to and fro until she'd walked out onto the stage.
Little has changed since then, and yet so much. Tonight she can't rock as easily because of the high-heeled shoes she wears. The dress is similar in color, but darker in shade and heavier in fabric; fitting her torso like a glove, the sea-colored faux seal skin shimmers under the bright lights when she moves. It matches Finnick's kilt.
Standing beside her, holding her hand, Finnick strokes the soft skin of her wrist with his thumb; she doubts he's even aware he's doing it. Tribute-victors wait both before and after them in a line, just as they had five years ago. "Except for the victor part," she says aloud before she can stop herself and Finnick glances at her, raising his eyebrows in question. The light caress of his thumb doesn't stop. "Sorry. I didn't mean to say that out loud."
Just then the curtains part and Flickerman beckons them all to come forward across the stage and take their places, denoted by their district numbers on the floor. That's a little bit different from her first Games, too.
Still holding tightly to each other's hands, Annie and Finnick step into the spotlights.
Standing uncomfortably in front of Caesar Flickerman and what feels like thousands in the audience, Annie tries not to fidget. Her muscles all but quiver with the need to move, it doesn't matter how. Hands clasped in front of her, the fingers of her right hand twist the delicate ring of knotted string on her left ring finger, around and around and around. Stop it, Annie. That counts as fidgeting, too. She tries to concentrate on Flickerman, watching his lips form words that become a question; she's so intent on not fidgeting and on the slight purple cast to his lips that what he says doesn't sink in right away. When it does, her heart seems to stop beating.
"That's an unusual ring you have there, Annie. Is that your district token?" He looks at her expectantly, what's meant to be an encouraging smile on his face, but his teeth are too white, too perfect, and his lavender hair looks plastic. Nothing about the man is reassuring.
Resisting the urge to cover her ears, she can't quite stop playing with the ring – It's my wedding ring, Caesar. Finnick and I married each other before dressing up like dolls for you all to play with – and a laugh escapes her lips before she can stop it. Finnick stands a good ten feet behind her and she can't look at him – everything about him is reassuring – but she catches a glimpse of him in a monitor over Flickerman's shoulder. He looks relaxed, even a little bored, unless she looks at his eyes.
Sucking in enough air to make herself a little light-headed, Annie says, "Yes, it's my district token." She and Finnick aren't exactly hiding their relationship anymore, but he'd still said, just before joining the other victor-tributes backstage, that it might not play as well to the sponsors to let everyone know about the vows they'd made only moments before.
"And how about that training score?" Flickerman asks, turning a little toward the audience and raising his arms, encouraging their input; they oblige him by loud applause, by whistles and by shouting her name. "Can you give us a hint of what you showed our esteemed Gamemakers, Annie?"
On safer territory, Annie smiles. With another glance at the screen, at her now at ease husband – husband! – she takes a step closer to the talk show host and stage whispers, "I'm afraid that's a secret, Mr. Flickerman."
The voice of the crowd is deafening. Annie stands with the other victors on the stage listening to the screams and cries Peeta Mellark's words sparked. Poor Katniss. Pregnant and going into the arena... Can there be anything worse than that? she thinks as she slips her hand into Finnick's. His fingers interweave with hers and he lifts her hand to his lips, brushes his mouth over her knuckles before letting their joined hands drop once more.
On her other side, the man from District 3 touches her hand and Annie instinctively recoils. Frowning slightly, she looks over at him; looking back at her, he nods and reaches for her hand again. Out of the corner of her eye, Annie glimpses an image of the victors on one of the monitors that shows all of them standing together in a nearly unbroken line. The only ones not holding hands are herself and Beetee from 3.
Heart hammering in her chest, Annie takes Beetee's hand.
She falls, but a hand catches her arm, pulling her up short. The crowd and the darkness press in, suffocating her even as strong fingers dig into her forearm; she can almost feel the bones shift.
"Easy. I've got you." Not Finnick. Her husband is somewhere ahead of her in the dark.
The lights had cut out abruptly and the crowd had begun to scream. Finnick and Beetee both were torn from her grasp; she'd had little choice but to follow the ghostly form of a Peacekeeper, shouting for them all to move, move, move.
"Watch your head," the man tells her, his grip still firm – though no longer crushing – on her arm.
Annie ducks her head as he pushes her into the limousine and then follows her in. Cecelia from District 8 is already there, in the seat across from Annie. Beside her sits Seeder from District 11. Annie looks over at Brutus, sitting beside her now as the car begins to move. She stares at him, wondering why he helped her, why he was so nice to her while he was doing it.
After a moment, Brutus shrugs. Answering her unasked question, he says, "I'd rather your boyfriend try to kill me because of the Games than because I stood by while something happened to you before they even started." Annie stares at Brutus for a moment longer before she begins to laugh.
She listens to the steady beat of Finnick's heart. He's no more asleep than she is, but neither of them says anything. There's too much to say and not enough time in which to say it. In only a few hours now, they'll be back in the arena. One or both of them might die, in spite of the plans Finnick whispered to her on the roof the night before. She lies there in her husband's arms, wishing for a miracle, and gradually drifts to sleep.