Last Night on Earth
When Finnick reaches Annie, he grips her arms, tightly. The motion seems automatic, like he planned it out on his way backstage. His fingers look like they’re pressing hard, but they’re gentle. Firm, but not too firm. Still, the look in his eyes is enough to make her breath catch in her throat and her heart hammer against her ribs.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he hisses.
“You’ve made that pretty obvious, Cresta,” he says through gritted teeth, struggling to be quiet. “You are very clearly not thinking.”
She pulls her arms away from him.
“They were treating you like a piece of chum for the sharks!” she exclaims, keeping her voice as low as possible. “Like something they can just use and—“
“And that’s none of your concern,” he finishes for her. He leans in closer. She has to repress the shudder that threatens to shoot down her spine. “They’re going to treat me that way. That’s just what they do. It’s not worth you getting involved, and definitely not worth you saying things like that in front of the whole country.”
“They were cheering,” she retorts. “They loved me.”
He shakes his head.
“That’s because every Capitol citizen in that audience is a vapid moron who can’t read between the lines.”
“Then what’s the big deal?”
He grabs her shoulders. His eyes find hers and hold them.
“Snow isn’t, Cresta,” he warns.
Her heart sinks. She didn’t consider that. President Snow would be on the look out for things, no matter how small, that would threaten the intricate web he’s weaved around the whole country. She knows the Gamemakers won’t be happy, that they’ll make her death quick and forgettable. But if Finnick’s right and she made Snow angry, then she won’t even be that lucky. Her death will be painful, it will be hard and disturbing, and it will take forever. She crosses her arms and sets her face to hide her fear.
“What do I do now?” she asks.
He purses his lips.
“Not here,” he breathes.
Just then, applause roars from the audience. It follows Sebastian offstage. He’s flushed with adrenaline and attention, but he deflates a little when he sees Annie. Shortly after he joins her and Finnick, Mags hobbles backstage, followed by Stella and Irving. Both stylists are praising each other’s genius. Mags looks worried.
“Where’s Mena?” Finnick asks.
Mags points towards the crowd.
“Staying,” she chokes out.
“Good,” Finnick says. “She’ll be able to tell us if anyone else screws up so badly.”
He shoots a look at Annie, whose cheeks burn. Fear and guilt settle into her stomach. The six of them move quickly to the elevator. They ride up to their floor in silence, aside from the stylists talking at them in turn. Finnick leans against the back wall with his fingertips pressed to his temples. Mags rests her hand on Annie’s arm, but otherwise does nothing. Sebastian, no doubt sensing the tension, just stares ahead at the door.
The very second they reach their floor, and the elevator closes behind them, Finnick points to the sitting area. Sebastian and Annie both sit on the edge of the couch. Annie starts biting off her fake nails. Mags and Finnick stand in front of the screen with Stella and Irving. Finnick looks at Annie like he’s searching for something, anything, to say to her, but shakes his head and turns to Sebastian.
“How did your interview go?” he asks. Sebastian’s face falls.
“You didn’t see it?”
“No, I had bigger problems to deal with,” he snaps. “You can thank Cresta for that one. How did it go?”
“It went well,” he says flatly.
Mags waves her hand in the air a few times. She points at Sebastian.
“Good,” she tells Finnick.
“Yeah? He didn’t do anything stupid like, oh, I don’t know, try to start a revolution?”
Annie’s cheeks burn again.
“Stop it,” she snaps before she can stop herself. “I’m sorry, okay? I was upset that my volunteering was reduced to wanting to be close to you. And I was upset that everyone found that believable because that’s all they think you’re good for. There’s no use punishing me for it. I’ll be getting enough of that tomorrow.”
Before the tears that prickle at her eyes can overflow, she stands and walks as quickly as she can in her heels back to her room, where she immediately strips down and throws herself into the shower. She scrubs off what feels like a layer of her skin, dries off with a towel, and gets into pajamas for what could easily be the last time ever.
This is her last night alive. Tomorrow, in a few hours, really, she’ll be thrown in the arena. Then she’ll be sent home in a wooden box and buried. Maybe they’ll let her be buried at sea. It’ll be like she’s swimming forever, or at least until the crabs and other scavengers pick her body clean of skin and muscles and organs. She shudders.
A small knock on her door pulls her out of that train of thought, catching her between annoyance and relief.
“Go away,” she yells.
The door slides open. It’s Sebastian. He’s still in his interview outfit.
“Hey,” he says.
“Oh.” She was expecting Finnick. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Just thought I’d tell you that Mena’s back, and they’re all about to leave for the night.”
Leave? No, they can’t leave.
“What?” Annie asks, suddenly on her feet. “What will we do tomorrow without them?”
“Our stylists accompany us to the arena,” he says. “The mentors all head for the trading floor tonight to get an early start in the morning.”
“How do you know all that?”
“Mena just prattled off the schedule to us. She wants to say goodbye, though, come on.”
Reluctantly, Annie stands up and follows Sebastian back to the main room. Mena, Stella, Irving, Finnick, and Mags are standing around talking. They all straighten up when they see their tributes.
“Oh, Annie,” Mena calls out, throwing her arms wide. She wraps them around Annie, who tentatively pats her back. After a long moment, she pulls away, but grabs Annie’s shoulders. “My star. Best of luck.”
Her eyes are glassy. Annie wonders if she does this every year. Gets herself worked up and pretends to cry so the tributes feel a little better. Like maybe they’ll fight harder if they know their escort is waiting for them on the other side. Out of the corner of her eye, Annie sees Finnick shaking hands with Sebastian and speaking to him in a low voice.
Mena finally lets her go and is replaced by Mags. When Annie feels her arms circle her waist, she can’t help but relax a little. She returns the hug, bending over, just a bit, to rest her head on Mags’ shoulders. All the tension in her back melts away from her. If she could freeze this moment, and just stay here, hugging Mags, instead of going into the arena, she would. But then the old woman lets her go and looks at her with the same sadness she feels. Annie didn’t even realize she was crying until Mags reaches up and wipes one of her eyes. She smiles at Annie.
“Strong,” she says, resting her hand on Annie’s left shoulder.
She nods, Mags kisses her cheek, then she moves on to Sebastian. Annie’s heart pounds in her throat and ears when Finnick steps forward.
“Cresta,” he says tentatively.
“Finnick,” she says, mimicking his tone.
“What happened to our last name basis?”
“It wasn’t working for me,” she says weakly. “Besides, it’s not like it really matters right now.”
He furrows his brow.
“What do you mean?” he asks.
“We’re never going to see each other again,” she states. “So who cares what I call you?”
He closes the space between them and pulls her into his arms. She has to remind herself to breathe as her arms wrap around him. When she inhales deeply through her nose, she smells sugar and wet sand on his suit. She squeezes her eyes closed and commits that scent to memory. As long as she lives, she hopes she never forgets what Finnick Odair smells like. He kisses the top of her head before ducking down to whisper in her ear.
“Balcony. Two hours.”
Then he steps away. Irving dots kisses on both her cheeks, Stella gives her a huge hug and purrs out words Annie doesn’t hear. Finnick, Mena, and Mags all wave and say a few last goodbyes. When they all step on the elevator, Annie hears Mena sob. The doors close behind them, and she’s alone with Sebastian.
Unsure of what else to do, she sits back on the couch. He sits next to her. They’re both beyond nervous. Annie can see his hands shaking. They sit in awkward silence for a few moments before Sebastian turns to her.
“Before you say anything,” she begins, picking at the hem of her shirt, “please don’t mention tomorrow, or the arena or… anything like that.”
He raises both of his hands.
“Wasn’t planning on it,” he says. “I just wanted to say how… I don’t know. How brave you are for saying all that in your interview.”
She looks over at him.
“Well, maybe brave isn’t the right word,” he says with a shaky laugh. “I wouldn’t call it stupid, either, though.”
Somehow, she knows exactly what he’s trying to say.
“Thanks,” she murmurs. “Although, from the way Finnick’s going on, I’m pretty sure I’ve been marked for a horrible death. If you want to break off our alliance now, I completely understand.”
He shakes his head.
“We’re all marked for a horrible death, Annie,” he says. “I’m sticking with you.”
“Until the top six,” she reminds him.
“Until the top six,” he repeats. After a moment, he adds, “Annie?”
“Are you really not going to kill anyone?”
She sweeps a loose strand of her wet hair off her face.
“I’m going to try,” she replies. “That might hurt my chances with sponsors. Which is when you’ll sweep in and take them all.”
“No, you’ll still get them,” he assures her. “Finnick obviously picked you over me. He’ll fight to make sure you have tons of supplies.”
She shakes her head.
“For the last time, we’re not together.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he says. His voice is much smaller than Annie has heard it so far. “The Capitol loves you. If anyone from District Four is coming home, it’s you.”
That’s not true, but there’s no use arguing. He’s bitter enough. She doesn’t need to add to it, not now.
“I’m sorry,” she says after a long silence.
“It’s not your fault,” he says, standing up. “I’m going to wash all this off and try to get some sleep. You should, too. Sleep, I mean.”
“I’ll try,” she says.
He nods a few times.
“See you tomorrow,” he offers.
“Yeah,” she replies. “Tomorrow.”
He slips into his room. When she hears the door slide shut, she moves, quickly and quietly, down his hall and out onto the balcony. Finnick won’t be there for a long time, but the outside air can only do her good. She settles into one of the chairs along the wall and curls all her limbs into herself. Her teeth chatter in the chilled air that’s settled all around her. She wills herself to ignore it. Who knows what sort of weather she’ll be facing tomorrow. This could be nothing. Still, she wishes she’d dried her hair first.
She bites the edges of her nails, wondering if there’s a way to remove the fake ones. These can’t be helpful in the arena. She stretches her hands out to admire her prep team’s handiwork. Maybe they can be her weapon. She tries to laugh at the idea of running around 23 people who are all armed with deadly weapons and hunting her with nothing but her fingernails.
But that just reminds her that she’ll be in the arena tomorrow, and 23 other people will be after her. Well, 22. She can count out Sebastian. Even if they didn’t get along, no one wants to be the person who goes home with the blood of their district partner on their hands. He’d be shunned, or worse. She pulls her hands back into her chest and sits there, shivering, for a long time until the door next to her slides open.
Her heart stops when Finnick steps onto the balcony. He looks somehow older than he did just two hours ago. His sleeves are rolled up to his elbows, and his top buttons are undone. Annie bites her lip to stop herself from imagining what would happen if she walked over and undid the rest of them.
He nods in greeting and crouches right in front of her.
“You’re shivering,” he states.
He shakes his head.
“You’re not,” he says. “You’re freezing.”
“I said I’m fine, Finnick,” she says, a little too forcefully. “What do you want?”
“To warn you,” he says under his breath.
“Snow,” he says. “The arena. He definitely has it out for you after the stunt you pulled.”
“How can you possibly know that?” she asks.
A shadow crosses his eyes. He swallows.
“I have my sources,” he mutters.
“What should I do?” She feels like she’s been asking him that all night.
“Play it safe. Play it smart.”
She looks into his eyes, which she immediately regrets. Even in the dim light, they’re impossibly blue. Or maybe green, or both. They’re like the ocean on a bright day. She looks away quickly before he can make her homesick.
“I’m scared,” she breathes. “I don’t want to be here.”
He moves into the chair next to hers and leans in close to her. She has to spend a moment catching her breath.
“No one does, Cresta,” he tells her. “I can’t think of a single person, tribute or mentor, who actually wants to be here.”
“One and Two seem right at home here.”
“It’s a show,” he says. “They want to go home just as much as anyone else. More than anyone else, maybe.”
“So, I guess you can’t really be mad about my interview,” she says, leaning a little closer to him. “Since everyone’s just desperate to get home, and since I wasn’t thinking straight.”
“No, I’m still mad about that,” he says, but calmly. “Everyone wants to go home, but they’re not calling for last minute rule changes. I’m going to have to do a lot of recon for that slip up.”
“Will it ruin my chances with sponsors?”
She’s been caught between life and death for the past day. Right now, she’s leaning towards life. Looking at Finnick makes her want to fight, and claw, and struggle through so she can go home. His eyes shift to her. Her desire for a homecoming grows stronger.
“No,” he says. “You could’ve stood on stage screaming about tearing down the entire Capitol with your bare hands, and as long as you twirled while you did it, you’d still be getting sponsors.”
He picks at one of his nails. His fingers are long. She pictures them trailing up her spine, but, all too quickly, they’re wrapped around the handle of a knife which is buried in another boy’s ribs. She gasps. He looks up at her.
“Finnick?” She has to broach her next question carefully. There’s no use avoiding it, though. It may not be avoidable. “How did…. What’s it like… to kill a person?”
She can’t meet his eyes, but she knows he’s surprised.
He doesn’t say anything for a long time, but then almost spits out, “It’s awful.”
She allows herself to look at him. His eyes are clouded over with some dark, unwanted memory. That look is her fault. She reaches for his hands. For a moment, she hesitates. Nothing she does tonight will even matter tomorrow. Holding her breath, she slides her fingers in between his. He looks at their hands, then up at her. Though he smiles at her, his eyes are just as dark as they were a moment ago. He shifts his fingers, just for a moment, so they fit between hers, before pulling his hands away entirely.
Heat creeps into her cheeks. She tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear and lays her own hands in her lap. If she hadn’t volunteered, she’d be at home right now, curled up in her own bed, where the air smells like the ocean mixed with the flowery perfume her mother buys illegally. Or she’d be sitting in the living room with her father, tying knots or listening to him tell stories about his day. She stares out over the balcony, wishing there was some way for her to go back in time and stay home.
But if she weren’t here, that 12-year-old girl would be. Annie shakes her head and turns back to Finnick, who’s looking at her strangely.
“What?” she asks.
“You remember saving my life,” he breathes.
That’s the last thing she expected him to say.
“Of course,” she says, gently. “Didn’t you watch my interview? I’ve been waiting for my medal.”
“Thank you,” he says. There’s no hint of a joke in him.
“You’re welcome,” she replies.
He nods a few times and stands up slowly, crossing to lean out over the railing. She follows him, swinging her legs back over the arm of her chair, and then tiptoeing her way across the spacious concrete landing to stand near him.
Below them, Capitol citizens are screaming and running to each other and celebrating. They watch silently as two tiny, dark figures collide into each other, laughing. The people don’t pull apart for a long time. If they were on one of the top floors, they’d be able to see the fireworks at the President’s mansion.
“Finnick?” she asks suddenly.
He looks at her. She shakes her head. She doesn’t have a follow up question. He almost smiles and reaches forward to curl a strand of her hair around his finger.
“I can’t believe how smooth Stella got your hair tonight,” he says.
“I know,” she replies. Her voice is hollow. “It was weird.”
“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you with brushed hair before this week.” His fingers brush her neck. She has to remind herself to exhale.
“Well, I’ll keep that in mind in case I make it back,” she says, trying to joke. “Brush my hair more often. Got it.”
“No, don’t,” he says, suddenly meeting her eyes. “I like your messy hair.”
When he pulls his hand away to look back out over the railing, he’s gentle. Just tonight, Annie has seen Finnick go through innumerable characters. The Capitol playboy. The down-to-earth, tactical, super serious mentor. The incredibly frustrated mentor. The flirtatious young man backstage. And, now, her friend, Finnick, from back home, who swam with her, and who she saved from drowning.
She can’t decide which one is the real Finnick. She doesn’t even think he can figure that out.
But, then, as she watches him watching the people on the street, she realizes something. He really is all of those things, but he’s something else, too. Beneath all of his personas, there’s a unifying strand of sadness and pain. He’s like a broken vase. Something scattered across the ground, in so many pieces that’s it’s unbelievable they make something whole.
It’s a shame, really, that she won’t be able to glue all the pieces together. She’s sure that he’d be one beautiful vase.
“Finnick?” she whispers again.
He turns to her, even though he already knows she doesn’t have anything to say. They look at each other for a moment. A breeze kicks up, forcing Annie to shiver. He reaches out to her on reflex.
“Are you cold?” he asks.
Concern is etched into his face. His entire body seems to be on edge. Again, she imagines undoing all the buttons on his shirt.
“Freezing,” she breathes, even though she’s fine now.
He wraps his arms around her. Before he can rest his chin on her head and look back over the railing, she stops him by placing her hands on his chest. He looks down at her; eyebrows furrowed, eyes shining, lips slightly pouting.
By this time tomorrow, she’ll most likely be dead.
“What’s wrong?” he murmurs.
Her hands, though pressed against him, are shaking. She bites her lip and winces. She was hoping that injury would be gone by now.
“Would it be okay if….”
She slides her arms around his neck. His eyes go wide, pupils dilating, and dart down to her lips, just once.
She stretches her neck out, but he’s much taller than she is. Her whole body is on fire. She stands up on her tiptoes. His arms tighten around her. This is a horrible idea. She shouldn’t be doing this. But then his fingers curl against the small of her back, and his face is so close to hers….
By this time tomorrow, she’ll most likely be dead.
“Is it okay if….”
For some reason, she can’t finish the question. She can’t say the words out loud. Her nose and mouth are full of the scent of sugar and wet sand. She doesn’t need to finish her sentence.
Her hands run up into his hair, and she closes the space between their lips.
At first, he freezes. He does nothing while she presses her lips to his, slowly and gently, and then pulls away. They stand there, wrapped around each other in stunned silence for a moment. This is a horrible idea. But she can’t bring herself to move. Not until he moves back into her and reconnects their lips.
This isn’t a dream. This isn’t in her head. Finnick’s hands are sliding up her back, and he’s kissing her, and he tastes like three sugars in his morning coffee and something she can’t recognize and home. She feels his fingers combing through her tangled hair, and she only holds onto him tighter.
Much too quickly, he breaks the kiss and pushes her away, covering his mouth with his hands. She crosses her arms to hide how much that really stings.
“Oops,” she says. Her voice is too weak to say much else. She can easily either float or fall right now, or maybe both. Finnick looks up at her.
“That doesn’t even begin to cover it,” he says through his fingers. Suddenly, he’s at the railing, searching the buildings that they can see. Most of the windows are dark. People are either in bed or celebrating the start of the Games.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers, not knowing what else to say. He doesn’t hear her.
He turns back to her, but doesn’t meet her eyes.
“I don’t think anyone saw us.” All-business mentor Finnick is back. “What the hell was that, Cresta?”
Annie feels her heart rip apart and snap her ribs. Her arms go numb. It’s difficult to breathe.
“I don’t know,” she stammers. There’s a lump in her throat she can’t swallow. “I just figured, it’s my last night on earth and all.”
She tries to smile. He takes a step closer to her and points right at her.
“That’s not funny,” he says, like the idea that she could die only entered his head just this moment.
“I’m sorry,” she repeats.
He crosses his arms, mimicking her pose, while he stares at her. He reaches out to grab her shoulder, but stops halfway and pulls his arm back.
“Good luck in the arena,” he says, finally.
Before she can say another word, he bolts across the balcony and through the sliding door. She can only stare after him for a moment, holding herself. She licks her lips. They still taste like him.
She just kissed Finnick Odair. That’s real. He kissed her back. That’s also real. Slowly, she moves her feet, one at a time, across the balcony, through the sliding door, down the hall, and into her room. She sits on the edge of the bed, then lies down.
Somehow, she drifts to sleep. In her dream, Finnick is tied to a target, unconscious, while President Snow stands off to the side, yelling at her to throw. She looks down to see a knife in her hand. Finnick’s heart is directly over the bullseye. She looks to Snow and raises the knife to throw it. He’s making her do this. But she doesn’t want to. At the last minute, she throws her knife at President Snow instead. His body slams against the ground, and she rushes to the target, but before she can reach Finnick, she opens her eyes to Stella shaking her shoulders.
“Time to go,” she says, sadly.
Annie sits up straight and looks around the room. Finnick is okay. President Snow is still alive. Today is the day of the Hunger Games.
She’s about to go in the arena.
Suddenly, she’s wide-awake. She swings her feet off the bed, stands up, and follows Stella out of the room. The breakfast set for them is simple. Just eggs, sausage, and toast. It’s perfect, though. Annie eats a little of everything, even though she’s not hungry. She and Sebastian exchange nods when he and Irving come out of his room, but no one says a word while they eat.
Much too soon, it’s time to go. They ride the elevator down to the lobby, then walk outside and onto a large hovercraft that takes them to the staging area for the arena.
Somewhere out there, Finnick is on the trading floor, signing on sponsors and getting harassed by half the Capitol. But she can’t think about him now. She kissed him. That was her goodbye. She’s definitely going to die, but she wants to live for as long as possible before that happens. If she allows herself to be distracted, then that moment will come very soon.
She squeezes her eyes shut and locks all her thoughts about Finnick into a deep corner of her mind, where they won’t bother her.
Stella steers her off the hovercraft and down several winding halls until they reach a private room that’s small by the Capitol’s standards. It’s still bigger than her room back home.
Annie doesn’t say anything while Stella dresses her in the uniform that all the tributes will be wearing. Long black pants. Sturdy, comfortable leather hiking boots. A plain green t-shirt. A black jacket with a hood. Stella feels the sleeve of the jacket before handing Annie a hair tie so she can pull her own hair back.
“That’s a special thermal material,” she says. “It might be cold up there. And those boots have rubber soles, which means there’s probably some rough terrain.”
Annie nods, fitting the tie around a very hasty ponytail.
“Thank you,” she says. Her voice is very nearly gone. Stella smoothes a hand down her cheek, then reaches into her bag.
“I nearly forgot,” she purrs. “Your district token.”
She pulls out the starfish barrette and clips it into Annie’s hair, just behind her ear. It wasn’t even a week ago when her mother gave it to her.
“Thank you,” Annie repeats. “Again.”
Stella grabs her shaking hands.
“Don’t you worry,” she says firmly. “I’ll see you soon.”
The intercom in the corner announces that there’s only a minute until launch time. Annie walks, stiffly, over to the launch pad and stands in the center of it. Stella holds her hands until a glass tube descends around her. She presses her hands against the barrier, feeling a lot like she’s on display.
“See you soon,” she says, half-heartedly.
Stella smiles and blows her a kiss before the pad under Annie’s feet starts moving up. She presses her hands even harder against the glass, but it’s no use.
When she reaches the top, the ceiling opens up for her, and the pad slides into its proper place in the arena. She blinks the white-hot sunlight from her eyes. All she can see is the circle of tributes around her. She can’t tell who is who. The cornucopia is directly in front of her, maybe 50 feet. The ground is dry. All she knows is it’s not sand. She swallows and tries to look brave and eager.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Cladius Templesmith’s voice rings out across the arena. “Let the 70th Hunger Games begin!”