Even from where he’s sitting, Finnick can hear the crack from the 3 section to his left. Beetee’s glasses sit, ruined, in his hands. Wiress already has a hand on his shoulder. She came out from the rooms hours ago, but he refused to leave. He only stares straight ahead at the screen, watching as the hovercraft finally comes and takes Hera’s body for processing. He throws his glasses right at the screen. They bounce off and shatter on the floor. Wiress tries to talk to him, but he won’t listen. He stands stiffly and walks past Finnick, right to the aisle between 6 and 7.
“Poor man,” Mena whispers behind him.
“He knew her,” Finnick tells her. “He knew her before the Games. Helped raise her, he said.”
She only shakes her head. Mags taps on his arm and points to their right. Sebastian is still covered in blood from the boy from 5, and the mentors look horrified. They look up and see Finnick and Mags staring at them. They stare back. None of them know what else to do. They never do.
“Forget about them,” Mena whispers. “We have other things to focus on.”
“Like what?” Finnick asks.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Claudius Templesmith’s voice echoes around the room, like it is on the Trading Floor, like it must be in the Arena. “We now have our Top Eight!”
“Like that!” Mena trills, now back to normal. “You two have to prepare for your interviews! Or, um, Finnick does, at least. Two Tributes in the Top Eight is a big deal! The public will want to hear all about both of them!”
“I forgot about the interviews.”
Cresta’s red, puffy face fills the screen in front of him. Sebastian is talking to her in low, fast tones. He’s trying to be comforting, but he’s never had to be. He doesn’t know what to do or how to help. Hera would’ve known, or she would’ve had some idea. Sebastian is lost, though.
He never pictured this. He never imagined having to console people, no matter how many times he’d imagined winning the Games or just going to them. Finnick feels a twinge of sympathy for him. This kid had no idea what he was getting into. None of these kids had any idea what they were getting into. They have some idea, growing up, of the horror and pain and, yes, glory that awaits if they make it to the end, but it’s not the same. It’s not the same at all….
Mena prattles on for awhile about interviews and outfits. Finnick tunes her out, and Mags holds his hand and hums. It’s an old song. She used to sing it to him when he was little. He doesn’t remember the words anymore. He doubts she does, either. The tune is enough for them, though. He closes his eyes and folds himself awkwardly to lay his head on her shoulder. Just like when he was little, before he ever won the Games.
They pass a lot of the night this way. Parent interviews pop on and off a section of their screen. Sebastian’s parents gush about their young man. They’re so proud, and they love him so much, and they’re rooting for him. The same thing all the Career parents say every year.
“He looks just like his dad,” Finnick points out. Mags nods.
And he does. He and his dad have the same stocky build, the same tousled blond hair. He has his mother’s smile, though, and her eyes.
“He’s lucky to have parents who love him so much,” he murmurs.
“What am I?” Mags asks, and he kisses her cheek.
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
Cresta’s parents are next. Finnick’s stomach lurches. Her mom gives the usual Career speech.
“We just love her so much. She’s such a sweet girl, really, and we couldn’t be more proud of her,” she says, flashing a wide, white smile at the camera.
“Typical,” Finnick mutters. He looks at her father, then, who looks nothing like he should. His shoulders are slumped, there are circles under his eyes. His wife nudges him, and he clears his throat.
“We’re very proud of our daughter,” he says. “We want nothing more than to see her home safe.”
He’s pleading with the camera, like the parent of a Tribute from an outlying District. He’s not even pretending. He’s worried about Cresta. He doesn’t want to lose his daughter. Finnick’s stomach lurches again.
He gets a few hours of fitful sleep. He dreams about Cresta. He dreams he’s in the Arena with her, and he’s trying to save her, but she dies. She dies a hundred times, a hundred different ways. She gets stabbed, she starves, she drowns. An arrow flies right through her head. Every time, he tries to help her, but he gets there a second too late, and he wakes up crying.
“Rise and shine!” Mena sings, handing him a thermos of coffee like there’s nothing wrong. “The crew will be here soon, so you should eat something and get presentable.”
“The crew,” he mumbles. He’d completely forgotten about the interview. He sprints back to the room that’s his for the duration of the Games. As he pulls on a pair of shiny pants and a billowing shirt with a deep V-neck, he realizes this is the first time he’s actually been in this room. It’s nothing special by Capitol standards. There’s a huge soft bed, and lots of weird gadgets along the walls to control screens and clocks and alarms. He rubs some makeup over his face to hide his lack of sleep. The better he looks, the happier the audience will be. An unhappy audience means a dead Mags. He closes his eyes and recalls her humming the song last night.
He will not let her die. He rubs some gel through his hair and jogs back out to the main room.
He barely has time to eat a poppyseed muffin before the doors at the main aisle burst open, and people holding cameras come shuffling through, followed closely by none other than Caesar Flickerman.
“Well, this is it, folks!” he calls out with his usual enthusiasm. No one reacts to him. “The Top Eight! I need the mentors from Districts One, Two, Four, Six, Eight, and Ten to follow me now! If your partner is asleep or out on the Trading floor, go get them! Quickly now! We don’t have a ton of time! One of those kids could die any second now!”
He laughs at his own joke, but gets no other reaction. He covers by smoothing down his suit and turning to the nearest person carrying equipment.
Mags starts to stand up, but Finnick puts a hand over hers.
“You really shouldn’t. I don’t know what’s wrong, but you should rest.”
She shakes her head.
“Annie,” she says, pointing to the screen.
“I know. I’ll….” He looks up at the Arena. It’s morning now. The Careers moved their camp during the night. Cresta is sitting against a tree, staring at nothing, while Sebastian tries to pull her up. He remembers his dreams and represses a shudder. “I’ll talk for both of us Mags. Let me worry about her, like you worried about me.”
He pulls her hand into both of his. She smiles sadly and puts her other hand on his cheek. He kisses her forehead and stands up to join Caesar.
When all the willing mentors are gathered, the crew members take them all to a room at the very back of the viewing area, right behind the section for District 7. They assemble their staging area quickly. A simple backdrop, three long poles covered with lights, two chairs. A crew member comes around to fix each mentor with a little hidden microphone.
“Tough day for Beetee,” someone says next to him. He looks over and sees Cashmere, leaning back against the wall.
“He helped raise her,” Finnick says.
“I heard. I wasn’t being mean. I really mean that.”
“Hey,” she lowers her voice and leans closer to him. “Are you doing okay? Annie’s still alive, you know.”
“Will you drop that?” he snaps. “You of all people—“
“Joking.” She throws her hands up. “Sorry. You’re right, though. I should know better. Be careful on air.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re going to have to talk about her for a few minutes without…” She purses her lips and searches for a word. “Reacting.”
“I’m a pretty good actor, Cashmere. In case you forgot.”
“Oh. Right. I must have.”
She pats him on the back and skips onto the little set to sit with her brother. The only time Finnick has ever seen people interview together is when Cashmere and Gloss do it. He watches them joke and laugh and brag about their Tributes (“she was knocked out while helping other people, and we couldn’t be more proud of her,” “he’s standing by his District Partner, and we are just so glad we get to keep fighting with him”) and, for the first time, really appreciates what Gloss went through. He won his own Games, and then immediately had to get his sister through them.
When they’re done, they leave. Cashmere gives him a quick nod before slinking out the door. He doesn’t even listen to Brutus and Enobaria talk about Romana. He’s sure it’s a lot of the same stuff, though. She makes District 2 proud! Things like that. It’s the same every year. It is for all of them, just with a few minor things changed to humanize that particular Tribute.
Soon enough, they’re done, and Finnick is being ushered by a crew member into his position across from Caesar. He sits silently for a moment while people fiddle with electronics and lights.
Someone signals to Caesar that they’re ready, and he pulls himself into character.
“Now, citizens of Panem, I’m sitting here with the man, the myth, the legend, Finnick Odair himself!”
Finnick smiles and gives a small wave to the camera. He can practically hear the screams and swoons from here.
“It’s good to be here, Caesar. And good to see you, as always,” he adds. The people like it when he’s polite.
“Ah! So sweet!” Caesar jokes. “Now, Finnick, you’ve got an interesting duo this year. Let’s talk about Sebastian Dehlia first, why don’t we?”
“Sebastian is tenacious. He’s strong. He’s a fighter, Caesar.” He thinks for a moment and adds, off script, “He reminds me of myself in a lot of ways.
“Well, that’s quite the compliment!” Caesar says. “How about that broken leg scare, huh?”
“Honestly, I’ve never been so afraid in my life,” Finnick says with a smile.
“Oh, what a kidder!” He laughs his obnoxious, too-loud-to-be-real laugh. Finnick just smiles wider. That’s part of his mask, too. He makes jokes, but he’s too good to laugh at them.
“In all seriousness, that was a scary moment for us,” he says. “I knew they’d handle it, though. I knew my Tributes would be able to get through something like that. It’ll take more than a broken bone to stop District Four this year.”
“Oh, I love that. I’m going to use that, if that’s okay.”
“What’s mine is yours, Caesar, you know that.”
He laughs again and reaches forward to place a hand on Finnick’s knee. He remembers one of his clients sliding her hand up his leg like that. He represses another shudder and his stomach turns over, but he doesn’t show anything.
“Now that you’ve brought up both Tributes, let’s talk about Annie Cresta. She’s a feisty one, isn’t she?”
“She’s….” He stops. The script doesn’t feel right now. The script could never capture what she’s really like. “She’s… something alright.”
“She’s more than something!” Caesar exclaims. “She’s the Capitol favorite, the current front-runner, and she’s just so much fun to watch! Come on, Finnick. You two knew each other before this year, right? Can’t you give us some little insight into her?”
He thinks about her dad, not bothering to cover his dark eyes, letting the whole country see how worried he is about his daughter. Finnick envies that.
“She hates sugar,” he says with a small smile. “She’s the best swimmer I’ve ever known.”
“Anything else you’d like to add about either of them before we say goodbye?”
He remembers the way she kissed him on the balcony the night before she went in the Arena. How soft she was, how gentle. No one had ever treated him that well, not when they were kissing him.
“If anyone deserves to come home, it’s her,” he says.
Silence greets that remark. The whir of the cameras and the electricity and the lights fill the room. Every single person is staring at him. Some of them are shocked, some sad, some scared.
“Alright, well,” Caesar says. “That’s all the time we have, Finnick. Best of luck to both of your Tributes!”
The cameras shut off. Finnick gets out of his chair and walks right out of the room before the mentors from 6 even step forward to take his place. He walks past his section, where Mena is sitting alone, picking at her nails. Mags must have gone back to bed. He walks straight to the District 1 section and sits down next to Cashmere.
“Finnick?” she asks. “What’s wrong?”
“I think I just got her killed.”