The shout echoes around the clearing. One by one, every person looks at Annie except for Romana, who has her eyes trained on Hera. Her sword draws a thin line of blood from the other girl’s throat, but she doesn’t do anything worse.
“Was this your plan all along?” Romana hisses. “Get into the group and then kill us off one by one?”
Hera tries to shake her head, but stops when she feels the blade against her neck.
“No, I never dreamed of that,” she says, keeping her voice calm and even. “I swear. I didn’t know that would happen. I’m so sorry.”
Romana starts to press her sword down even more, and Annie instinctively reaches for a knife.
“ROMANA,” she shouts. This time she looks up, and her eyes immediately snap to Annie’s hand resting on the knife belt.
“What?” Romana says. Her voice is full of poison and loathing and pain.
“She saved my life,” Annie says in the same clear voice that rang across the group moments before. “She could’ve let me die, but she saved me. Why would she kill--?”
“DON’T,” Romana snaps, but gears seem to be clicking in her mind. She pulls the sword away and throws it down a few feet away, though she stays on top of Hera. “Don’t think you’re off the hook. You’re responsible for this. I know you are. But killing you would get me killed right now, and I’m not letting that happen.”
She stands up and spits on Hera before retrieving her sword.
“Maybe we should go back to the Cornucopia,” Holiday suggests. Her voice is shaking. “We’ve been here for way too long. And you guys saw what you came to see. We should go back where we have the advantage.”
Annie offers a hand to Hera and she gladly takes it, using her other hand to press on her bloody neck as she stands up. When Annie looks back at the group, she sees that they’re all looking at her.
“What’s wrong?” she asks.
“What should we do?” Ivory replies.
Hera takes a jar of salve out of her pack and rubs some across her neck. Sebastian braces himself and slowly stands up against his tree. Romana is haphazardly throwing things into her pack. Holiday is pretending to be interested in her canteen, but Annie can see her cheeks burning red in the dim light.
“Holiday’s right,” she says. “We should go back to the Cornucopia. It’s a better vantage point.”
They finish packing silently. It takes a long time to walk back because of Sebastian’s leg. He moves slowly, propped between Hera and Ivory. Annie takes the lead with Holiday. Romana stomps along around them, sometimes in front and sometimes behind, but never moving with the group.
“I would hate to lose my District Partner like that so soon,” Holiday whispers.
“What a weird, sad accident,” Annie says, only vaguely involved in the conversation. Holiday’s lip twitches. Annie can’t tell if it’s a quiver or a smirk. Neither of them says anything for the rest of the walk.
After several long hours, they stumble into the clearing. The Cornucopia sits just ahead of them, almost glittering in the moonlight. The anthem starts, but they ignore it. Only one face flashes in the sky, and none of them want to look at it.
Annie can’t help but wonder how the other Tributes are reacting to this. One of the strongest Careers is dead. There might even be some small celebration in another part of the Arena. Three days in, and there are 11 people still alive. More than half the people who went in are dead. In just three short days.
Romana throws her pack down in the mouth of the Cornucopia.
“I’m staying here. I’m not sleeping tonight. Not with her around.” She points her sword at Hera. “We could easily end this now. If we kill her—“
“No,” Annie says. Romana purses her lips.
“Alright, mermaid girl. I hope you’re a light sleeper.”
She drives her sword into the ground and sits next to it. Holiday and Ivory join her. The three of them sit in a tight knot, whispering to each other. Annie and Hera help Sebastian settle on the ground, far away from the mouth of the Cornucopia.
“Well, I’m not sleeping tonight,” Hera announces.
“I’m not, either,” Annie says. “I don’t think I can….”
“Well, if you two are staying up…” Sebastian begins, but Hera gives him a look.
“You are sleeping. You are getting some more of this salve, and then you are sleeping. That’s the most important thing for you right now.”
Sebastian looks to Annie for support, but she shakes her head. He’s still pale. That walk can’t have helped, either, but they had to get out of that place. She couldn’t stand to be near Titus anymore. Not when he was like that….
Hera helps Sebastian with his bandages and medicine while Annie makes a small fire. He’s asleep within minutes. His body just gives out on him, after a severe injury and a day of walking.
“He should get better pretty fast,” Hera says, holding her hands up to the flame. “That medicine is seriously amazing. I mean, you’re almost completely healed, in two days, after severe muscle damage. That’s basically a miracle.”
Annie grabs her injured arm and looks across the clearing. The others have made a fire. Holiday chats easily with Ivory, but Romana is staring directly into the flames like no one else is even there.
“I feel bad for her,” Annie murmurs.
“Romana. It can’t be easy to lose your District Partner like that.”
“I didn’t see Leeri die,” Hera blurts. “I don’t know what happened. I didn’t help him.”
“You couldn’t have.”
“I could. I could have.” Her eyes are hard and dark. For a moment, Annie thinks she’s about to cry, but she shakes her head and pulls a small wedge of cheese from her pack.
Annie remembers, vividly, seeing Leeri die. A lot of the bloodbath is lost in a fog of pain and blood, but she remembers that. The arrow going through his chest. Lark’s steely, surprised eyes at missing her target. The way the young boy collapsed to the ground like a doll.
“I saw it,” she murmurs. “I saw it happen. You couldn’t have stopped it.”
Hera almost drops her cheese.
“What happened?” she asks. “How did he… how did it happen?”
“Lark. The girl from Eight. With an arrow. She was aiming for me, Hera, and she….”
“She what?” Silence. “She what, Annie?”
“She missed.” Her voice cracks and she clears her throat. “She was aiming for me and hit him. I’m so sorry.”
“So you’re telling me that if you had moved from your platform right away instead of taking a vacation, I might still have a District Partner?”
Annie almost winces at her words, but they’re true.
“I’m sorry,” she says again.
They sit in silence for a long time. Hera eats her cheese and a small piece of bread. Annie watches Sebastian sleep, and then the fire crackle, and then the sky.
“I know,” Hera finally says. “It’s not your fault. I’m sorry, I’m just—“
They sit quietly for a little longer. Across the clearing, Holiday and Ivory have both fallen asleep. Romana is sharpening her sword.
“I didn’t kill him,” Hera says matter-of-factly. “With him dead, I’m dead. I couldn’t afford to do anything but help him.”
“I know,” Annie replies. “His stitches popped. It was an accident.”
Hera’s eyes are still dark, but there’s a faint glimmer in them now.
“Stitches don’t just magically pop. Either he was moving around or one of them is lying.”
She looks back at the mouth of the Cornucopia.
“Which one?” she asks.
“Does it matter?”
“A little, yeah,” Annie says. “I’d like to know who’s about to murder me.”
“Look at where we are,” Hera snaps. “We are in the Hunger Games, mermaid girl. Everyone is trying to murder us. Hell, I could be planning to kill you right now and you wouldn’t even know until it happened.”
“You saved me,” Annie mumbles.
“I save people. It’s what I do.” She almost smirks, but it looks more like a grimace. Her voice gets softer, though. “Sorry to burst your bubble. I’m saving you because it saves me. You’re the only one fighting for your life. Well, and him.”
She points at Sebastian, still deeply asleep. Tears sting Annie’s eyes, but she blinks them away. She holds her hands in front of the fire. The Arena is getting colder, though she hadn’t noticed it before.
“I’m sorry,” Hera says. “I’m on edge.”
“No, you’re right,” Annie tells her. “We can watch each other’s backs and make alliances, but in the end, only one person is getting out of here alive.”
They trail, again, into silence, staring into the fire. After a moment, Hera pulls out the salve and rubs some more along the cut on her neck.
“How do you know all this stuff?” Annie asks. “You didn’t learn all this from the First Aid station during training, did you?”
“Oh, no. Both my parents are Healers. I was on track to be one, too. All signed up for school and everything.” She turns a little more towards Annie. “My parents didn’t train me, exactly, but they made sure I knew enough to be helpful in an emergency. Plus they always brought their work home, and I would look through their notes and their books.”
“That’s cool,” Annie says. “My dad taught me how to sail, a little, and my mom….”
She trails off and rubs at her eye. She actually doesn’t know what her mom taught her. To come home a Victor? To always dress well for important occasions? She tried to teach her, once, the dangers of walking around a city without any shoes on, but that didn’t stick at all. She sniffs and rubs her eye again. If she can’t answer that question, she can at least humanize herself a little.
“I want to go home,” she says, quiet enough that it should be personal, but loud enough so the cameras can pick up her voice.
“Oh, not me,” Hera says. “I’d like to stay here, I think. The random splashes of blood just scream ‘home’ to me.”
They look at each other, and, even though it’s the last thing either of them feels like doing, they laugh. Annie forgot she even could laugh. She doesn’t remember the last time she did. They trail off into faint smiles and add more sticks to the fire.
A star twinkles red in the sky. Annie stares at it curiously for a moment. A bright red spot in the middle of all that black. When it starts getting closer, she realizes it’s a parachute. It floats down and lands at Hera’s feet.
“I think it’s for both of us,” she says, pulling the lid open. There are two little packages in the canister. Hera hands the one marked with a “4” to Annie and pulls her own into her lap.
Salt and seaweed waft up to her before she can even pull the wrapping off, and she knows what it is. She remembers helping her dad make it when she was growing up. She remembers getting covered in flour and her mom rolling her eyes at them. She remembers getting in the bath while it baked and eating it hot out of the oven.
She pulls the paper open and sees a loaf of bread, just like home. It’s different from the one Sebastian shared with her just this morning. It’s rounder, and the crust is, well, crustier. She rips it in half and inhales the smell. It’s hot and fresh.
For the second time that night, Annie has to blink away tears. She looks up at Hera. Her eyes are soft now, like they’ve melted. There’s a small cloth bag filled with the little biscuit-like breads from 3, and a weird circular shape that Hera runs her fingers over.
“What is it?” Annie asks.
“A wire bracelet.”
“Oh, that’s… nice.”
Hera shakes her head and looks up at Annie.
“I grew up with Beetee Latier. He’s really close with my parents. I called him Uncle Beetee until I was twelve. Sometimes, if my parents had to work late or anything like that, they’d ask Beetee to check in on me. He’d come over after school, and help me with my homework, but he didn’t really know how to connect with me. So, one day, he brought a bunch of wire over, and we spent the whole afternoon making bracelets like these.” She slips her hand through it, having to push her knuckles through, and it sits snugly around her wrist. “What did you get?”
“Some bread,” Annie answers, shrugging.
They don’t say anything else for a long time. They’re both lost in their gifts, trying not to cry over precious memories. How long do I have left to think about these things? Annie wonders. How many memories do I have left?
Sebastian turns over, still asleep. She hopes his leg is better. She pulls off a piece of the bread and pops it in her mouth. It’s the perfect amount of chewy and crusty. It’s not much, but it’ll keep her from starving for a little while. As she eats, the sky turns from black to a dark inky blue. Hera has her bracelet in her hands again. She turns it over and over, like it’s a puzzle she can’t figure out.
“So my plan,” Hera murmurs randomly. She moves so she can say it right into Annie’s ear, out of reach of all the microphones in the Arena. “Yesterday was a slip up, one that will probably cost me my life in the next few days.”
“What are you--?”
“Stop. Listen. We dig up the mines from around the platforms.”
“Won’t they go off?” Annie whispers.
“No. They’re deactivated. So all we have to do is dig them up, maybe four or five of them, plant them in the foundation of the dam, and then detonate.”
Annie pulls away to really look at Hera. There’s a ferocity to her features that she’d never noticed before.
“How do we do that?” she asks.
“With this.” Hera holds up the bracelet. “I knew he wouldn’t send it to me if it wasn’t useful.”
“How are wires going to set off a bunch of mines?”
“I’ll make a remote.”
“You can do that?”
“It’s not hard. Beetee taught me how when I was about eight.”
Annie bites the inside of her lips and looks at the girl from 3.
“Are you sure this will work?”
“One hundred percent.” Hera pronounces each syllable like they can change everything.
Which, Annie thinks, I suppose they can.
One part of the sky goes purple.
“It’s almost sunrise,” Annie says at normal volume.
And then an ax flies by her head, missing by mere inches. Annie jumps to her feet, grasping for her knife, as Hera pulls her bowstring back into firing position. Annie hadn’t even seen her ready her arrow. She hadn’t even seen Romana creep across the clearing.
“Drop your other weapons, Romana, and come closer slowly,” Hera calls.
“I don’t think I will,” the other girl yells back. “I think I’ll keep my weapons where they are and come over to you anyway.”
Hera fires her arrow. It zooms dangerously close to Romana’s neck, but it misses. The bow already has another arrow in place.
“The next one won’t be so safe,” she yells, but Romana’s response is another ax. This one grazes Hera’s side. She hits the ground, clutching her ribs, blood seeping between her fingers. Romana holds up her sword and starts forward.
“Hey, stop,” Annie says, faintly, unsure of what to do. Holiday and Ivory are jogging across the clearing, weapons in hand. Sebastian stirs and sits up, eyes immediately wide at the sight of Hera bleeding on the ground.
Romana settles herself over Hera, pressing her to the ground with her legs, and stabs her sword down into the dirt right next to her head. Hera stares up with fury and fear equally mixed in her eyes.
The sky is purple now, plum to lavender, running in streaks from horizon to horizon.
“Say it,” Romana spits.
Ivory and Holiday run up next to Annie and stop.
“What are you doing?”
“Shut up,” she snaps, looking over her shoulder for a split second before turning her attention back to Hera. “Say. It.”
“You know, you bitch. Don’t play dumb. I know you’re the smartest one out of all of us.”
Hera gasps and presses harder against her side.
“Really, I don’t know.”
Romana presses her face inches from Hera’s. She twists her sword in the dirt. Annie pulls a knife off her belt, ready to throw it at any second.
“You. Killed. Titus. Say it.”
“I didn’t,” Hera groans. “His stitches popped. I didn’t do it.”
“So you saved mermaid girl and her stitches didn’t pop, but Titus’ did?”
Annie feels a tap on her leg. Sebastian has crawled over to her. He holds up a jar of the miracle medicine they’ve been using. She knows exactly what he means. She nods at him to have it ready. Hera’s going to need it.
“I don’t know what happened,” Hera says. “They shouldn’t have. Really. And I didn’t use stitches on Annie. Hers was a spear wound. Straight up and down. I just used a lot of medicine and bandages.”
“So why use stitches for Titus?”
“It was available. His bone was sticking out of his leg, that would’ve taken longer to heal. Romana, please.” Hera pulls her blood-soaked hand away from her side and lets out a ragged breath.
“Please, what? Kill you? Okay.” She pulls her sword out of the ground, but quickly drops it. She rolls off Hera, holding her now bleeding hand against her chest. She looks wildly around the group until her eyes land on Annie, arm still outstretched from the knife she threw. “What the hell!”
“That’s enough,” Annie says, and this time she’s found her voice. She knows what to do. “We have to stop this. Look at where we are.”
“Exactly,” Romana spits. “Look at where we are. We’re in the Arena. One person comes out alive. This isn’t magical joy time, mermaid girl, this is kill or be killed.”
“And, in case you forgot, there’s a whole other group wanting to do exactly that to us. We can’t waste all this time killing each other. Don’t make their job easier.”
Romana points at Hera.
“No, she didn’t. She tried to save him, but he couldn’t be saved. Like you said, only one person comes out alive. Try not to get so upset over one death.” Annie’s hands are shaking. Romana looks like she just swallowed a huge mouthful of seawater.
“So why do you care if I kill her now?”
“She’s the only one of us with medical training, idiot,” Holiday snaps. “If you kill her, we’ll all be dead in a day.”
“Get up and start acting like you’re from Two,” Annie says. Romana stands up slowly and rips off part of her shirt to wrap her hand. “Sebastian, give me that.”
She snatches the medicine out of his hands and stomps over to Hera. As Annie rubs the salve over her ribs, Hera starts to laugh.
“What?” Annie murmurs.
“I’d say you’re becoming a real leader. Finnick must be proud.”
Her stomach jumps. Her heart pounds in her throat. She could die any minute, but she can’t stop feeling whatever she feels for Finnick.
“He must be,” she replies sarcastically.
“Why save me?” Hera asks, groaning as she props herself up on her elbows. “Why not just let me bleed out? One less person to deal with later.”
“Because,” Annie snaps. Holiday brings her a roll of bandages when she sits up and looks around. She wraps all around Hera’s torso, moving slowly. The far end of the arena is pink now. When she’s done, she stands up.
“We’re making some changes in this group,” she calls out, looking at each person individually. “No more separating, no more trying to kill each other. Yes, only one person wins, but we need to work together if it’s going to be one of us. There’s a group out there that’s dedicated to bringing us down, right? So let’s bring them down.”
At that exact moment, the sun peeks above the treeline, washing the entire arena in gold light. Annie looks at the rays of yellow and orange bleeding through the pink and purple sky, and she’s reminded that this is a TV show. Everything they do and say is entertaining the entire country.
She still doesn’t know if she wants to live or not, but she knows that she’d hate to go like this. She’d hate for her death to be televised for the Capitol to watch and rewatch and cry over, or cheer over. She doesn’t want to die as someone’s entertainment.
The rest of the morning moves quickly, and in relative silence. Due to Hera and Sebastian’s injuries, Annie suggests they stay where they are for the day. No one argues with her. They all move the camp back to the mouth of the Cornucopia. Ivory and Holiday spend the morning helping Hera and Sebastian. Romana sorts food and weapons and avoids everyone else.
Annie stalks around the camp. She checks the food, the weapons, the people. She keeps one hand on her hip, ready to throw a knife if necessary. She grabs Romana to check the trees around the Cornucopia with her. There’s nothing in them. No signs of a camp, not even signs of a person.
Instead of being comforted by this, it puts Annie on edge. There should be signs of people. Just three days ago, everyone, every single person in this Arena, was running through these trees to safety or to find others. There should be footprints. There should be scraps of fabric from torn jackets or signs of fights, or even blood splashed up tree trunks or across the dirt. But there’s nothing, and this means someone is nearby, someone is close, someone is making the scene look peaceful and normal again.
Someone is watching them.
The sun is directly above them when Annie and Romana finally head back to the group. Hera is sleeping, but Sebastian is sitting up and talking to Ivory. Holiday sits against the wall of the Cornucopia, just barely inside it, eating something slowly. They all look up when they hear footsteps, Holiday raising the sword in her hand, but when they see it’s Annie and Romana they go back to what they were doing. Romana sits by the pile of weapons and pulls a simple knife out of it.
“I’m bored,” she says, twirling the weapon between her fingers.
“I wish you wouldn’t say that,” Holiday says from her spot on the wall.
Holiday doesn’t need to answer though. The noise is back, the one from yesterday. The air itself is screaming, whistling like a kettle, and it drills into them. It’s worse this time, though. Annie slaps her hands over her ears, but the sound comes in through her skin to vibrate through her bones. She can’t even hear her own screams, but her aching throat tells her that she definitely is.
Then it’s done.
“We need to go,” Hera yells.
They all stay down this time, though, for a full five seconds. When nothing comes darting across to kill them, they stand up, shakily, one by one. Sebastian and Hera lean against each other. Annie wheels around, looking out towards the trees, searching for something, anything. The dam is just visible above the top of the forest.
“What’s happening?” Ivory asks. “Was that a false alarm?”
“They wouldn’t do that,” Hera answers.
“Wouldn’t they?” Holiday’s words reverberate through Annie’s head for a moment before something catches the corner of her eye.
The boy from 11 is careening out of the trees, limbs flying out from his tall frame, propelling him away from something. He’s shouting things and waving his arms. Annie takes a small step forward. She doesn’t see what he’s running from. It could be some sort of fog, maybe, or a gas. Something they can’t see.
And then the ground starts moving behind him.
“WHAT IS THAT?” someone yells behind her, and then something yanks her arm back toward the Cornucopia.
“We have to get on top of there,” Holiday says to her, moving quickly towards the structure. “We have to move fast and we have to move now.”
“What’s wrong with the ground?” Annie asks.
“That’s not the ground.”
“Then what is it?”
“Snakes,” Holiday says, like the word means something. “That’s a huge group of snakes.”
The rest of the group rushes over to the Cornucopia wall.
“Injured people first,” Annie hears herself saying.
They all push Sebastian up until he can climb up the rest of the wall.
The boy from 11 is getting closer to them, the group of things moving impossibly fast behind him, throwing dirt and dust up into the air as they go.
Hera’s next. She’s up in a flash, with help from Holiday and Sebastian, despite her injury. She sits down hard on the Cornucopia, clutching her side, but turns back, ready to help the next person.
The boy from 11 is almost to them. The ground is moving faster, somehow.
“You get Ivory,” Annie says to Holiday, and then turns to boost Romana up the wall. Romana gets up to the top first. Ivory clambers quickly right behind her.
“Who first?” Holiday asks, looking back at Annie.
The boy from 11 is only a few yards away from the Cornucopia. A few pieces of the ground jump out and sink fangs into his legs. He hits the dirt beneath him, screaming, and the cannon goes off just before the ground swarms him.
“No time,” Annie says, and they both jump as high up the wall as they can. The others reach hands down, and begin to pull the two girls up, but they move too slowly.
Annie feels something sharp stab into her calf. Her blood begins to boil, and then freeze, and then she’s propelled up, over the Cornucopia, over the trees, up and up and up, until she leaves the Arena behind.