"…and therefore, our best approach at the moment must be to show face. To show her face, to be exact." The little man had been droning on for at least ten minutes, outlining some sort of commercial strategy.
Seneca Crane acknowledged him with a curt nod. "Thank you, Moteh."
Mags nudged him under the table, and Finnick looked up from the piece of thread he had been thoughtlessly wrapping around his hand. He noticed, with irritation, that he had only absorbed about half of what had just been said.
"It must be so, then" Crane continued. "The benefits outweigh the risks. The victor's ceremony will take place on Madradena Memorial Day."
He opened his mouth to object, but Mags cut in. "That's impossible. She isn't well enough for it. She won't make it through a lengthy ceremony."
Crane raised his eyebrows and turned to an older, silver-haired woman in a plain grey uniform. Finnick had seen her around the medical team, but she hadn't actually spoken to him yet. "What is your opinion on this, Dr.?"
"Physically, she is strong enough. But her mind won't be in it."
"What does that mean?" Lewonder Brigsby, propaganda minister, asked impatiently. "Make yourself clear."
The doctor sat up a little straighter, tugging at her uniform jacket. She clearly wasn't accustomed to speaking at an oval table conference in front of five officials, not counting Mags and Finnick. "She is showing an acute stress reaction, not uncommon in victors as we know, but it is certainly very pronounced. Her central nervous system-"
"Yes, yes, we know of it" Brigsby gave a dismissive wave. "The point is: when will she have recovered?"
"It is too early to give a prognosis on this. We should give her time."
"We don't have time" Crane stated matter-of-factly. "What is the worst that could happen?"
The worst that could happen… Finnick couldn't imagine it. How long did it take to recover? Was it even possible to put a time on this? It had been five years now for him. He was 19, an adult now, really. Annie was 16. How old would she be before she would have recovered? How old would he be? It's going to happen any day now, he thought bitterly. Any day now, because that was what they expected of them, didn't they, for a victor to just wake up one morning and be the same again as before. Beings of lesser intelligence, of lesser sophistication, of lesser worth such as himself, such as Annie, such as Reg and Mags and all the others, could surely be fixed easily.
But how long had it been, really, before he'd been able to at least function on a basic level? He couldn't remember. The months after the Games were clouded by some sort of damp fog in his mind. He could remember fragments, pieces of receptions, colourful gowns, cheering and tears at his victory. The touch of hands on his full hair. Waking up every night with a start, drenched in sweat. The cruel punishments for disobedience, his father- He stopped his train of thought right there and forced himself to listen to the head doctor. The doctor of heads.
"The noise, the lights, the number of people will startle her. At present, she will not understand nor be able to process what is going on. I can't predict her reaction. Anything from panic to complete mutism and catatonia, even aggression, is possible."
"That might not be such a terrible thing" the little man piped in, swaying his head as if trying to balance it on his narrow shoulders. "Remember the victor's ceremony of the 64th Hunger Games? People never showed more interest in a victor."
"Oh yes, very spectacular" Finnick agreed, trying to control any note of anger or sarcasm in his voice. Whatever they planned to do, he had to remove them from this idea that displaying the "poor little mad girl" would have grand entertainment value. "But it also sparked an outcry, didn't it, in District 7."
Seven heads at the table turned to him, some puzzled, others irritated. He clearly wasn't supposed to know this. He had spoken too quickly, a foolish sidestep he didn't usually make. Mags jumped to his aid. "There was talk of it in most of the districts; I heard it myself at the next Games, some unrest and bursts of sympathy for the boy. It is a risky business."
"Well, that isn't for you to consider" the stern woman with the ridiculous name -was it Commander Starlight? Starlet? Starface?- reprimanded her. "Let us concern ourselves with that."
The doctor cleared her throat. "My concern isn't so much for the situation at the ceremony. But if we provoke a breakdown now, the girl might never recover. We might be doing long-term damage, irreversible damage which could be prevented if we just waited a little longer."
"What sort of damage?" Crane asked. He showed no extraordinary interest, but signaled to the young man in the corner to note down the following points anyway. Apparently, he wasn't recording their entire discussion.
"I think it likely that she would dissociate even more -find it harder to stay in the present situation- or develop physical symptoms. She might withdraw completely. Not to mention anxiety, depression, disturbances in memory and thinking… She is in a state where everything is potentially threatening. We are dealing with a traumatised young woman under constant stress, what she needs now is to feel safe and to regain some control-" She stopped herself short, but it was too late. Everyone in the room had noticed her use of the one word she was never to use in reference to victors, in reference to any people who were meant to be under the government's control. To speak of a girl who was nothing more than a sacrificial object as a being with feelings and power, an agent in her own life, was an absurd notion here.
No one acknowledged the doctor's break with this unspoken taboo, but the temperature in the room seemed to drop all of a sudden. The artificial light was reflected off the shiny, cream-coloured surface of the elegant table, off the bald head of Moteh, off the jewellery of Lewonder Brigsby. Crane's face remained as impassive as ever, and yet his tone had an icy note to it when he rebuffed her: "I think you are forgetting who your patient is here. Your ideas seem to be -forgive me- rather old-fashioned."
"Of course." She didn't look overly unnerved by the Game Master's disagreement, but the slight flush in her cheeks betrayed her. "I only intended to give my professional medical opinion. I speak as a doctor only, not as a strategist. I think as doctors, we perhaps sometimes have a tendency to want to keep our patients sheltered and locked away."
"Well" Mags interrupted, once again trying to smooth over the situation. "I, for one, am getting worried about our tour this year. I don't see how we will get through it with a girl who isn't…uh...mentally all there, and whose reactions, if I understood you correctly, are unpredictable? I can't take responsibility for that. I can mentor them, but I can't fix them. That'll have to be the doctor's job."
"I agree" Finnick jumped in, quick to pick up the line of argument. "Imagine her losing it in front of the sponsors. They'll be unsettled by this. It will affect their willingness to invest in the next contestants."
"There is something to this" Moteh agreed, once again bobbing his head oddly. "We shouldn't alienate them. And the cost of keeping this girl under constant watch-"
"You are all getting ahead of yourselves" Brigsby interjected. "The tour isn't until next spring. There is plenty of time until then. But the victor's ceremony has to take place now, as it always has done. We've had unstable victors before. I don't see the issue here."
"She won't have to do much at the ceremony" Star-something-or-other added. "Just smile and accept the crown. You can put her under sedation, can't you, Doctor?"
"I…can" the silver-haired woman answered hesitantly. "But I am not sure that this will make her easier to work with."
"That's right" Crane agreed, looking over at Mags and him. "And it will be up to her team to use that to their advantage. I can't wait to see which spin they will put on it."
Finnick dug his nails into his thighs under the table to stay calm. This was perverse - no more perverse than usual, but he couldn't bear to hear them talking about Annie this way. It didn't seem right. She had more than done her bit. She had surprised them all by pulling through, and now they were going to do their best to destroy her in any way that they could, because playing along and simply surviving hadn't been enough for them. It was bread and games for the elite in their search for constant entertainment. In the absence of war, or for the absence of war. Bread and games, parties and overloads of everything, and pets thrown to the wolves, starved or dressed up as dolls from one minute to the next, petted and picked up or abused as they pleased. There was no consistency from one minute to the next, and maybe that was part of the problem in "recovering" from what never ended. No consistency. He made a mental note of it. This seemed important.
"I think you should reconsider moving the ceremony" he tried again, despite knowing that the more he pursued this line of argumentation, the more they would want to do just the opposite. "Give us time to make a spectacle of it, rather than do it half-heartedly now. Increase the mystery by delaying it. Leave it till spring." He knew it was hopeless. He knew they had decided.
"No" Crane simply said, already getting up from his chair. "That will be all. The ceremony is to take place on Madradena Day as planned."
"Mr Odair" he interrupted sharply. "The ceremony will take place, whether you like it or not, so you had better prepare for it now. The girl , what's-her-name, will have plenty of time to go to her home district and recover there this winter. It has been decided."
She is standing with her back to him, her hands resting on the railing. "It's been decided, hasn't it?"
A cool breeze hits his face as he steps outside, bringing temporary relief to his aching head. "What?"
"Everything. How all this will end."
He hesitates, considering his answer for a moment. Maybe the notion that everything is pre-determined gives her comfort. Maybe it makes the upcoming days less frightening for her. On second thought, no, it's a terrible idea. It gives them even more control. "There's still the Games. I know they all…bet on the winners and such, but to be honest, you never really can tell in advance." The urge to say something encouraging and entirely trivial is there. A 'hey, don't give up yet' or 'you can do it', 'just believe', but somehow, the lie won't cross his lips, although he is so accustomed to lying.
She doesn't respond. It's as if she is far away in the arena already, and although he knows it will make it harder, he also knows what a terrible feeling it is to be alone during what could well be the last night of your life. So he steps forward, moving beside her. In front of them, the lights of the city sparkle, the noise from below strangely muted, searchlights scanning the night sky. "It's not over yet. Everything's possible." Not too much of a lie.
"It is?" Her voice sounds so casual, and he turns his head to find her smiling, actually smiling. "No, nothing in this is a coincidence."
"That's what they want you to think." He finds he is getting irritated with her again despite himself. She never listens to anything he says, exposing any polite exchange as superficial. She's exhausting to mentor. Worst of all, he hasn't managed to coax up any fighting spirit in her. She might as well just lie down and die right away, and part of him is terrified that that's just what she'll do. "If you think that way, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Her smile fades, but she is still looking straight ahead, not even looking at him. "Finnick, we couldn't even jump off this balcony if we wanted to. They won't even give us that option."
"That's because you'd flatten their wigs" he blurts out, and he is glad to see her laugh at it, if briefly. He can't take the heaviness now, this talk of jumping off balconies and the utter pointlessness of their pre-determined existence.
They pause, standing in comfortable silence while watching the vehicles float by below. They move so fast it's almost a steady stream of light. He glances over at Annie again and somehow, she looks taller to him tonight, more herself without the silly make-up Lilac has been putting on her, no flowers pinned to her, dressed in a simple white robe, her hair flowing freely about her. He thinks that he wants to remember her this way, and immediately punishes himself for the pre-emptive thought.
"Come to say goodbye, haven't you?" she asks quietly, and it scares him how accurate this statement is, how close to his own thoughts, closer than he had realised when he'd gone out to find her to tell her to get some sleep like a good mentor.
"Come to tell you good luck" he lies, and this lie comes easily.
"That would take a lot of luck."
"You just have to run. Seriously, Annie, just run, especially tomorrow. Don't think of anything else. Get away from that platform as fast as you can. You're fast, faster than the others perhaps. Just don't look back, don't start a fight" -as if she would- "just run."
She nods, wrapping her arms around her upper body.
"Getting cold? It's no good weakening yourself now. You should go inside and-"
"-get some sleep, I know. I'll be right in. Just give me another moment, okay? Just a moment."
He hesitates. "Okay. But don't spend all night out here, okay?"
He doesn't wait, he doesn't watch her. This is enough. He has done everything he can for her. "Good night."
As he moves back towards the door, she turns to him. "I wouldn't have jumped, you know. Not really."