Annie wakes up before the sun rises. The air is different today. The shadows are different today. Everything is different today. Her supplies are down, way down, but they’ll be enough. She has some bread, an apple, a piece of hard cheese. Her canteen is full. She has a book of matches, a gift from a sponsor, and a long spool of wire meant for traps. She eats all the food, quickly, drinks down half her water, and shimmies down the tree she slept in.
Today, she knows, is the day she dies.
Blow the dam, mermaid girl.
She is. She will.
She lands on the ground, almost silently, and stares straight at the dam. It looks taller today than it did before. Of course, it could be. The Gamemakers like doing things to mess with Tributes. Even just that little bit is enough to throw her off.
There’s been no cannons in two days, not since she killed Ivory. They’ll be getting restless. They want their entertainment. They want their favorite show. Annie’s toiling and digging might have bought them a little time. She can almost hear Caesar Flickerman’s voice narrating her actions to the audience.
“Look at the mermaid girl now!” he must be saying. “She’s a long way from water, and it looks like she’s all dried up!”
Well, Caesar. The mermaid girl doesn’t like being a mermaid girl. The mermaid girl is taking the Arena into her own hands. The mermaid girl is going to die as Annie Cresta.
She decided that yesterday, when her search for some sort of fuse took her into the woods. She’s tied herself in knots over the decision, but she’s going to stick to it. She is going to die. She is going to flood the Arena. It’s going to kill all the remaining Tributes. She’s doing it on her terms.
This year, no one is going home. May the odds be ever in your favor.
She knows why Finnick sent her matches, but nothing to light. He wants her to live. He wants to help her, but not too much. If she sets the mines off now, she’ll get her way. Everyone will die. Panem won’t have its newest Victor.
It could be more than that. He could want her to live because he wants her to live. That idea would’ve made her stomach jump and her face flush just a few days ago. Everything is different now. She wishes Finnick didn’t care. She wishes he’d let her die in peace. Knowing that he’s still fighting for her makes it harder for her to plan her own death.
She doesn’t really need a fuse. She could take a knife, hit one of the mines, and boom. It would go off. The rest would go off. She’d be dead in a heartbeat, and the rest soon after. But, if she’s not the last one alive, how can she ensure that there’s no Victor? No, she needs a fuse. Something that will delay the mines going off until she can get a safe distance away. She’ll climb a tree, or the tallest thing she can find, and once she hears three cannons, she’ll drown herself. That’s the plan. That’s how it’ll happen. But, first, she needs a fuse.
She shoulders her pack, considerably lighter without the food, and walks into the woods. There has to be something in here. There has to be something.
The sun above her moves quickly through the sky as she walks. Within an hour, it’s sunset. This is it, she thinks. They’re ending this tonight. They’re ending it as soon as they can. The Capitol must be restless. The Gamemakers must be bored. The country wants their Victor, and they’ll get it soon.
Or so they think.
A loud bell rings out across the Arena, and then Annie is screaming. She’s on the ground, her hands jammed over her ears. The noise is back. The head-splitting noise. The one that echoes through her whole body, and vibrates through her bones. It enters her ears like a knife. She’s positive her ears are bleeding. Then it stops. Her body aches, but it’s not hurt at all. She jumps to her feet and pulls out one of her knives. That noise only happens before something bad happens. Some weird twist or creature.
That noise means death, and she can’t die just yet.
There’s a crack, somewhere ahead of her. Something is moving towards her, and fast, almost like it knows she’s there. It probably does. It was probably sent just for her.
She doesn’t want to see what it is. She turns and runs without another glance. She hurdles through the trees. Loose twigs on low-hanging branches catch her face or her arm as she runs, but she ignores all of it. She can still hear whatever is chasing her, crashing along behind her. It’s growling at her, or maybe it’s hissing. She can’t really tell over her own heartbeat pounding in her ears. She imagines she can feel its hot breath on her neck. That thought alone is enough to keep her running.
She stumbles out of the treeline, into the clearing in the middle of the Arena. The moon shines down on the Cornucopia. She doesn’t stop running until she hits something, hard, and it knocks her to the ground.
Knife still in hand, she jumps immediately back to her feet. She looks behind her, expecting the thing chasing her to jump out and kill her, but it’s gone. A long, scaly tail disappears back into the woods, where she thinks she came from.
Behind her, there’s the creak of a bow.
“Drop the knife,” a voice demands. “Turn to look at me.”
Her knife makes a small thud when it hits the dirt. She turns, slowly, and sees Lark standing before her. She hasn’t seen the girl from 8 up close before now. She has a soft face. Her eyes are piercing and hard, but scared. Her bow arm is shaking. Her arrow is pointed right at Annie’s face.
“If you miss, again, from here, that would be pretty embarrassing,” she says.
Lark pulls her arm back a little further. Annie feels her back straighten on its own. She can’t die yet. Not yet. She has to die last.
“I’m not going to miss.”
“Let’s hope you’re right. You killed my friend. If you miss, I have no qualms about killing you.”
“I’ve been watching you,” she says. “Or, I was. During training, and in the beginning. Whenever I could. I saw you on the platform. You don’t want to kill anyone. You’ve gotten by this far on pure luck.”
Annie doesn’t reply. She stares into Lark’s eyes, daring her to let go of the string. The handle of her last knife pokes into her spine. Her hands are out at her sides, but she could reach it. Hit the ground, kick her legs out. If she can get Lark on her back, she can still do this.
Lark doesn’t get the chance to shoot.
The cannon goes off. It sounds around the entire Arena. Lark jumps and loses her aim. Annie kicks right at her knee. As she falls, she fires, way off to the side. Annie kicks the bow out of her hand and pulls her last knife off her belt. The next thing she knows, the hilt is buried in Lark’s side, between two of her ribs. She punches Annie square in the jaw and tries to roll over. Annie catches her first, shoves her back, and jabs the knife straight through her throat.
Lark coughs, and Annie feels something wet and hot hit her face. Blood. The cannon goes off, ringing across the entire Arena like it did before. Her knife is still in the girl’s throat. She’s seen this before, or something like it, more than once. She killed Ivory like this, but it’s not just him. It’s more than that.
For the first time in days, she remembers Finnick’s Games, and the kill that haunted her throughout training. His trident knocked aside, the boy coming towards him, ready to kill him. The knife in his hand, then in the boy’s ribs, then blood sprayed across his face. A young boy’s dying breath. The last trace of him. Then a cannon. It’s all the same. She’s the same. These Games are the same as his.
Annie yanks her knife out and clambors to her feet. When she glances back at Lark’s body, she sees the boy Finnick killed. She closes her eyes and tries to wipe the blood from her face, but it only smears, in streaks, over her skin and jacket sleeve. Now, she knows, she looks wild. She looks like a Tribute, or even a Career.
When she opens her eyes, the boy is gone, and it’s just Lark on the ground. But it’s still all the same. A hovercraft floats overhead, lowers a long metal claw for Lark’s body, then disappears. Just like it did for the boy Finnick killed. Just like it did for every Tribute before Lark. Just like it will do for every Tribute after her.
She’s almost done now, though. Just one more person, and then she can die.
She turns to head back to the dam, to figure out some way to make the mines go off without killing herself, but she stops short when she hears the screams. From the other side of the clearing, she can see a flash of silver and a stream of blonde hair.
All rational thought leaves her head, and, as she starts to run, fear and adrenaline and fire all pump through her. She wants to live. She wants to go home. She wants to kill Holiday and see Finnick. Her hands hit flesh and hard bone, and then she’s careening to the ground, on top of Holiday. She can barely see anything. Something hits her in the head, in the jaw, in the ribs, but she keeps fighting. Somewhere in the struggle, she rights her arm and stabs it down, blade first. Something catches her elbow before she can hit anything.
“Hey, just calm down a second,” Holiday says. “Let’s talk about this.”
“You killed Sebastian. You were planning to kill all of us from the beginning.”
“Well, not all of you. I thought more of the Careers would be dead by the top seven, that’s for sure.”
She could kill her now and go home.
“Why?” Holiday mimics. She tightens her grip on Annie’s arm. “You can drop your sunshine and happiness act, mermaid girl; we’re the only two left. You know exactly why. I want to go home. Do I really have to spell that out? You were right, you know: The best way to survive is in a group.”
“What do you mean?” Holiday’s other arm is pinned under Annie’s knee. One quick motion, and she could have her free hand around her throat.
“I thought you were one of the smart ones.” She rolls her eyes and tries to squirm through her legs. Annie presses herself down harder. Holiday winces and stops moving. “Look, it’s nothing personal. Does that help you out at all? I was going to let you all die naturally until the top seven, but, well….”
“You had to invite Hera into the group.”
Annie’s heart skips a beat.
“You can’t have killed Hera. You were sick, you—“
“No, I didn’t kill Hera. I’m seriously disappointed in you right now, Annie. You were supposed to be the one to beat.”
She grabs Holiday by the throat.
“Get to the point,” she snaps.
“I killed Titus.” Holiday smiles. Annie lets go of her throat. “I can’t believe none of you figured that out. I knew Hera would get the blame, even though he was good as dead anyway. If Romana killed her, that would be one less person for me to kill.”
“All this?” Annie yells. “All this just to win?”
“Give me a break,” Holiday yells back, shoving her body up and making Annie lose her grip. “Are you kidding me? Look at where we are. I don’t know what’s been going through your head this entire time, but this is the Hunger Games. You’ve killed people, too, mermaid girl. Don’t act like you’re so precious and innocent. No matter who wins now, we’re both killers. If you walk out of here and live for another fifty years, you’ll still die a killer, same as me.”
Annie lets go of her throat and sits back on her heels, still straddling Holiday’s chest.
“You’re right,” she says softly.
“See? So, go ahead. Kill me. Kill me and go home.”
She drops her hand from Annie’s elbow and lays back. For a split second, she’s sure that she’s going to kill Holiday. But she stops herself.
“No,” she murmurs. “No, I don’t deserve to go home.” She stands, slowly, knife still poised over Holiday. “Nobody does.”
She slams her foot into Holiday’s ribs, then takes off in the other direction, towards the dam. She hears shouts behind her, and then more running. This is good. Holiday will chase her to the dam. Maybe she’ll also die in the blast.
The ground moves beneath her feet, throwing her to the ground, just inside the treeline. There’s a loud crack. The noise comes back, stronger than ever. This is it, she thinks. It pounds into her skull like a drum. Her head is going to explode.
Then it stops. There’s another loud crack, the sound of rock crumbling, water rushing fast. They’ve blown the dam for her. She turns around. Holiday’s eyes are wide with fear.
Annie starts to run then, back in the other direction. She passes Holiday, who’s frozen in place. For half a moment, she considers stopping, trying to get her to move, but she keeps going. She reaches the Cornucopia and scrambles up it, clutching the edge as tightly as possible.
The water brushes over the trees. It presses down towards the clearing on all sides. Annie’s never seen a tidal wave before. It barrels into the clearing. The sight of it triggers something in Holiday. She starts to run, but it’s too late. The water sweeps her up, and then she’s gone.
Annie braces herself on the Cornucopia, but it’s not enough. The water hits her, and strips her off the structure like paint. Her limbs flail out. She’s plunged down into cold blackness, but she kicks herself up to the top.
Over the sound of rushing water, a cannon goes off.
Is that for her? Is she dead? It didn’t hurt as much as she thought it would.
A garbled voice speaks, coming from the trees as she’s rushed past them.
“Ladies and gentlemen…”
A bright light opens up above her.
I did it. No one wins.
“…Victor of the 70th…”
A dark shape appears in the light.
This isn’t right, this isn’t right.
No, not me. I’m dead. We’re all dead. There’s no winner this year.
She grabs onto a nearby tree. The water is still rushing around her, beating around her head, trying to drag her back in.
I should let go. I should let it drag me.
A metal clamp tightens around her.
That’s the hovercraft, pulling my body out. I am dead.
It starts to raise her up. She licks her lips. They taste weirdly sweet. Like Finnick, when she kissed him.