Annie slowly becomes aware that the barrier between her and Finnick is gone. Instead of leaning against an unyielding but invisible surface, her shoulder touches warm flesh; strong hands, sticky with drying blood, engulf hers. Finnick squeezes her hand too tightly, squeezing almost to the point of pain, but the contact is so very welcome for all that.
"Annie," he murmurs, her name barely audible even as close together as they are. "Annie, don't leave me." The jungle is as heavy as death and as silent, save for Finnick's whisper. "Please don't leave me. I need you." She opens her eyes, focusing on her husband's face. The jabberjays are gone, flown away, taking with them their cruel mutt voices.
"Oh, my love…" She lifts their joined hands to her lips, reaches for his free hand, as bloody as the one she already holds. "Your poor hands…" That barrier had been invisible, but she knows just how solid it was, no Gamemaker illusion or sleight of hand. He must have tried to tear it down, to break through it somehow. She kisses his knuckles, the taste of copper and salt lingering.
Shaking his head, Finnick smiles. "It doesn't matter."
"Oh, Finnick, that isn't true."
Pulling his right hand from hers, he starts to stroke her face with the backs of his fingers, but when he sees the blood, he lowers his hand and pulls her in closer, kissing her forehead instead. "You're alive, Annie. We're alive. And we're together." He buries his face in her hair. "I thought I'd lost you." His voice is so thick with remembered fear she barely understands the words. "I can't lose you."
He kisses her then, and everything else fades away. The other victor-tributes, the jungle, the ever-present cameras and microphones – they all cease to exist when his mouth meets hers, replacing the metallic tang of blood with the salty taste of tears.
The sun pounds down on the beach beyond the shade of the jungle. The water is still, its surface like glass, reflecting and intensifying the heat of the sun. There's not a hint of breeze to cool the thick air.
Finnick sits with his back against a tree at the jungle's edge, looking out toward the water, absently twisting the ring of string encircling Annie's finger, the moss bandaging his hands rough against her skin. Her back is against Finnick's chest, his arms and legs around her in a protective shell, his chin resting lightly on her head. He listens as the others make their plans, occasionally interjecting a comment or question; Annie listens only to the rhythmic thump-thump of his heart, the soft susurrus of his breath as Beetee drones on and on about electricity and conductors. She feels safe for the first time in what seems like forever, no matter that it isn't real. Succumbing to the heat, to physical and emotional exhaustion, her eyes drift closed. Secure in Finnick's arms, Annie sleeps.
The afternoon sun is bright and warm on Annie's face, the sparkling water nearly blinding with reflected light. The sand is warm, too, where she sits on the beach, her legs folded in front of her. She watches Finnick, standing thigh-deep in the water hunting fish for their supper. Beyond him, Peeta and Katniss swim, or rather Katniss teaches Peeta to swim, if the splashing and flailing and occasional panicked shouts are any indication of his current level of knowledge. Finnick glances over at them before returning to his fishing. Annie can almost forget they're in the arena, that one or all of them could die at any moment if the Gamemakers throw another set of mutts at them or the Career pack finds them.
Feet slip in the sand behind her and she tenses, but a moment later Cecelia lowers herself to the beach alongside her and she relaxes again. The two women watch as Finnick stabs with his trident at a fish beneath the water's glittering surface.
"Mmm... Roast fish for dinner sounds much more appetizing than tree rats," Cecelia says. "And it'll go well with the rolls."
Annie glances over at her. "Roast fish?" Her group hadn't risked a fire the night before; she doesn't see a need to risk one now. "Rolls?"
Cecelia nods, still watching Finnick. "From District Three. We used the force field to cook our meat last night."
"But we're nowhere near the arena's edge," Annie points out. "It would take at least an hour to walk there, wouldn't it?"
Katniss dives when Peeta splashes water into her face; seconds later, she pulls him under. Finnick spears another fish and flips the business end of his trident up out of the water, the hapless creature flopping wildly. Pulling the fish from the trident's tines, he slips it into a sack made of woven grass tied at his waist. Annie scoops up a handful of sand, idly lets it run through her fingers to add to a small cone in front of her crossed shins.
Cecelia sighs. "I suppose you're right. Roasted fish would taste better, but it's probably not worth the trek back through the jungle."
With a shrug, Annie says, "Raw fish isn't so bad." She knows nothing about what 3's rolls might taste like, but some kelp would be good with the fish regardless. She doesn't recall seeing any seaweed in the water when she helped Peeta from his platform, but that doesn't mean it isn't there. Not that she really wants to swim out to look for it. Shuddering, she tries to push the memories of her last arena back under as she picks up another handful of sand. Finnick starts sloshing toward shore.
"That's a pretty ring." Cecelia nods toward Annie's hand. "District token? I saw Finnick wearing one, too."
Without conscious thought, Annie closes her hand into a fist around a handful of semi-damp sand. Unsure what he might have told them, equally unsure what she should tell Cecelia now, tell all of Panem, really, and whether it might hurt or help them, she forces her fingers to relax. The sand falls in a sheet, turning her sand cone into a lopsided mass. Staring at it, Annie suddenly sees the caldera of her first arena, before the walls broke and flooded everything. She feels herself starting to slip into the dark waters of that flood; a moment later she jumps, gasping when cold water splashes over her from above.
"Wearing one what?" Finnick's voice forces those waters back as he flops down on Annie's other side, facing both women but a little apart from them. His trident lies within easy reach. The sack moves in his hand as though it were itself a living thing as he draws a knife from the belt of woven vines at his waist.
"I was asking Annie if the rings you wear are some kind of district tokens."
Pulling a fish from the sack, Finnick quickly and efficiently kills it and guts it, blood staining the sand. He flashes a grin at Annie, forcing her to tear her gaze away from the red and focus instead on the white of his teeth.
"They're wedding rings," he tells Cecelia as he pulls a mass of bones from the fish. "Annie and I have been married for… What?" He catches her eye, grinning. "Thirty-six hours?" Inexplicably, Annie feels herself blush.
"You made them." Cecelia glances from Finnick to Annie and back again. Her eyes hold sympathy, not celebration.
Finnick nods once, acknowledgement of that sympathy, his hands going still. "There wasn't time for more." His gaze meets Annie's then, full of all the things he wants to say – we can do this, we can survive this arena, we can be free, and once we are there will be time – but can't. He meets her gaze, his grin fading.
Tepid water fills Annie's mouth, splashes across her face to drip down her neck into her suit. The same temperature as her skin, it feels like silk sliding along her cheek. Cupping her hands beneath the flow, she splashes more of it over her head to rinse away some of the sweat and the salt from the lake before picking up the grass bowl to fill.
She's nearly finished filling the second bowl when Katniss calls, "Are you about done?"
"Almost there," she replies, the flow slowing to a trickle. Setting the bowl beside the first one, she carefully pulls the metal spile from the tree and secures it to her belt. The spile is ingenious; drinking water from a bowl or even from her cupped hand is so much easier than trying to suck it from the tree's bark. It tastes better, too, less gritty, or so she keeps telling herself.
"Did you hear that?" Katniss' voice is mere inches away; Annie didn't hear her approach. She holds her bow at the ready, an arrow nocked but the bowstring at ease. Tension thrums through the younger woman's body as she stares intently deeper into the jungle. Holding her breath, slowly pulling the knife at her waist free, Annie takes one step, two, away from Katniss and the water bowls. A twig snaps. Katniss lifts her bow, pulls the arrow back, aimed toward that sound, but without a decent target, she doesn't loose the arrow.
Sweat trickles from Annie's scalp down her back, but she ignores the tickle. Flexing her fingers, she tightens her grip on the knife, wishing she had the rest of her throwing knives, but she lost them when Chaff dragged her and the others away from the ghosts. A flash a few feet to the right of where Katniss aims draws Annie's gaze, metal reflecting the afternoon sun. She taps Katniss on the shoulder and gestures with her knife, silently mouthing, I'll take that one. Gray eyes narrowed, Katniss nods, laughter drifting up from the beach just out of sight beyond the trees.
Leaves shudder and Katniss releases her arrow toward the spot, pulls another and nocks it in one smooth motion. Before she completes that motion, Annie charges toward where she saw the flash, shouting to draw the others. She thinks they face only two enemies, but she can't forget what Finnick told her the morning the Games began: If only one person leaves the arena alive, it has to be Katniss Everdeen.
She hits something solid and they both go down. Annie's hand strikes an exposed root in exactly the wrong spot and her knife falls from suddenly nerveless fingers. Cashmere heaves upward, throwing Annie off and rolling away, reaching for the knife herself, but Annie scrambles toward it, her good hand falling on it half a second before Cashmere's. She pulls it up and away, slicing Cashmere's wrist in passing.
There's shouting from the beach, but Annie ignores it, focusing instead on Katniss. Her bow lies on the ground. A man, head and shoulders taller than Katniss, has her in a vice grip, one of her own arrows held against her throat, the skin dimpling where the point of it touches. Annie feels Cashmere coming at her from the side, hears someone else crashing through the trees from the beach. She whirls, sweeping a leg at Cashmere; her kick doesn't connect, but it does throw the Career off balance. She stumbles backward. Following through on the motion of her roundhouse kick, acting on instinct, Annie releases the knife.
As Johanna and Finnick arrive, Peeta not far behind, the man falls away from Katniss, Annie's knife in his left eye. A cannon shot reverberates through the arena. As both Katniss and Annie fall to their knees, Annie hears the sound of Cashmere retreating through the jungle, Johanna a step behind.
Blood trickling in a thin, jagged trail over the hill of his cheek. Dead blue eye staring, wide in surprise, shock, disbelief. Body falling backward in an awkward crumple to the ground.
Annie can't stop seeing it replaying in a loop in her mind, accompanied by a soundtrack of screams - hers, Finnick's, Katniss', the latter two borne on jabberjay wings. She huddles in on herself, eyes tightly shut, hands pressed hard over her ears, but nothing stops the awful sights and sounds. She doesn't feel the water lapping at her feet or the breeze that picks up as the sun kisses the horizon.
Her hands can't block the screams in her mind, instead serving only to muffle the voices of her allies, so she doesn't hear it when Finnick joins her, but she knows it's him when he gently strokes her hair and neck before he sits beside her. Annie opens her eyes to see his long legs stretched out into the water; she lowers her hands from her ears when he bumps her shoulder with his before leaning back on his arms. Relaxing just enough to look over her shoulder at him, she sees the worry in his eyes and in the lines of his face.
Annie shifts closer to Finnick, fits herself to his side and lays her head on his shoulder. Saying nothing, Finnick rests his head on hers. They sit that way in silence as the brilliant pink of the sunset fades to maroon and mauve and the pinpoints of stars begin to dot the darkening sky above. Even the screaming in her head subsides with him there, and the looped images fade away.
"I don't even know his name."
Finnick kisses her hair and shifts, folding his legs in front of himself as he pulls her into his arms. "Hush, love," he murmurs into her hair. "You had no choice." She hums a noncommittal sound, not convinced but unable to think of anything else she could have done. Waiting until one of the others could kill the man would have been just as bad, and it might have resulted in Katniss' death, making it infinitely worse.
"Ewing." Weaving the fingers of his right hand with her left, Finnick raises her hand to his lips. "He was a judgmental ass, but the man could sing."
They sit there in silence after that, watching the sun disappear below the horizon. Just a faint tinge of pink remains when Johanna calls them to supper.
Cecelia gets her roast fish after all. While Annie sat at the water's edge, replaying Ewing's death over and over in her mind, Beetee and Katniss started a fire. The group consensus was that, because there are so many of them - nine victor-tributes - there's no point in trying to hide. Even if the others band together to take them out, they still have the advantage of numbers.
Annie and Finnick join the others, walking hand in hand, as a parachute falls bearing a small basket filled with salt and pepper and dipping sauces to enhance their meal.
Laughing in delight, Cecelia remarks to Beetee, "I wonder if we'll get some more of your rolls to go with the fish?"
As if on cue, another parachute descends. It lands near Wiress and she hurries to remove the cover. Staring at the contents of the basket with a look of shock on her expressive face, she goes utterly still.
"Wiress?" Beetee asks. "Is something wrong?"
She blinks rapidly. "Wrong. Wrong. What could be wrong?"
Katniss crouches beside Wiress and cautiously takes the basket. Frowning, she lifts a loaf of sliced bread, shaped vaguely like a fish. It has a subtle green cast, even through the golden brown of the crust, and Annie smiles for the first time in what seems like forever. When she looks up at Finnick, expecting to see the same pleased recognition, his expression isn't much different from Wiress' or from Johanna's from where she stands beside Cecelia.
"I don't see anything wrong with it," Katniss says. "It's just bread from Four, Wiress." Glancing over her shoulder at Annie and Finnick, she holds out the loaf in her hand. "It should go well with the fish."
There are only two faces in the sky that night: Linna, who died from the wounds she received during the monkey mutt attack that afternoon, and Ewing, the man from District 10 Annie killed with a knife in his eye. When the hologram fades from the sky, Annie walks a little way away from the others, but not so far off that it might become too dangerous for her. Once she has that bit of privacy, if anything in a televised arena can be considered private, she leans her forehead against the trunk of a tree and lets the tears come.
Finnick stands ankle deep in the water, his trident in hand, watching toward the Cornucopia on its island. The moon is high overhead, shedding silvery light over everything. Annie can't help but watch him and wish they were anywhere but here.
Giving herself a shake, she continues her circuit around their sleeping camp. There's nothing apparently wrong, but still she feels uneasy. She shivers in spite of the heat, a chill running down her spine. Gran always used to say it was someone walking on her grave, a thing Annie thought was particularly creepy, since neither of them was dead.
Just as that creepy feeling reaches a crescendo, a flash of lightning rips apart the night sky, striking a tree in the jungle past the Cornucopia. Ignoring the aftermath burned into her retinas, Annie glances one last time at her sleeping allies before joining her husband at the water's edge.
"The Careers are in the Cornucopia," he says by way of greeting, and she takes a closer look at the golden horn glinting in the moonlight as another flash of lightning splits the cloudless sky. When her vision returns to normal, she sees the pale halo of Cashmere's hair just before she disappears inside the metal structure.
Laughing, Annie says, "Maybe we'll get lucky and the next strike will be on the island."
Finnick grins down at her. "I don't think so. The lightning seems to be confined to just that one part of the jungle. It won't jump."
Shifting the trident to his other hand, he pulls Annie closer until she fits against his side. Putting his arm around her shoulder, he kisses her forehead; she leans into him, slipping her arm around his waist. They stand that way, just watching the light show - and their enemies - for several minutes, until Annie breaks the silence.
"So are you going to tell me what was wrong with the bread?"
The more she thought about it, especially once she and Finnick started their watch and the others began to drift to sleep, the less Wiress' shock at finding two loaves of pre-sliced bread made sense. Cecelia had mentioned rolls from District 3, Wiress and Beetee's district, and while that might have explained simple disappointment at finding bread from District 4, it said nothing about either the older woman's shock or Finnick's equally odd reaction. Two loaves of bread, twenty-four slices total, and the only ones happy with it had been Annie, Peeta, and Chaff.
Finnick doesn't answer immediately, instead swinging her around and into his arms. He still faces the Cornucopia and the Careers when he whispers softly into her ear, "It means a change in plans. Twenty-four rolls from Three. Twenty-four slices of bread from Four. It means we have to stay alive twenty-four hours more than we thought." His voice is so soft she almost misses it when he says, "If we can."