as Rue, but the resemblance stops there. He’s one of the giants, probably six and a half feet tall and built like an ox, but I noticed he rejected the invitations from the Career Tributes to join their crowd. Instead he’s been very solitary, speaking to no one, showing little interest in training. Even so, he scored a ten and it’s not hard to imagine he impressed the Gamemakers. He ignores Caesar’s attempts at banter and answers with a yes or no or just remains silent. If only I was his size, I could get away with sullen and hostile and it would be just fine! I bet half the sponsors are at least considering him. If I had any money, I’d bet on him myself. And then they’re calling Katniss Everdeen, and I feel myself, as if in a dream, standing and making my way center stage. I shake Caesar’s outstretched hand, and he has the good grace not to immediately wipe his off on his suit.
“So, Katniss, the Capitol must be quite a change from District Twelve. What’s impressed you most since you arrived here?” asks Caesar.
What? What did he say? It’s as if the words make no sense. My mouth has gone as dry as sawdust. I desperately find Cinna in the crowd and lock eyes with him. I imagine the words coming from his lips. “What’s impressed you most since you arrived here?” I rack my brain for something that made me happy here. Be honest, I think. Be honest.
“The lamb stew,” I get out.
Caesar laughs, and vaguely I realize some of the audience has joined in.
“The one with the dried plums?” asks Caesar. I nod. “Oh, I eat it by the bucketful.” He turns sideways to the audience in horror, hand on his stomach. “It doesn’t show, does it?” They shout reassurances to him and applaud. This is what I mean about Caesar. He tries to help you out.
“Now, Katniss,” he says confidentially, “When you came out in the opening ceremonies, my heart actually stopped. What did you think of that costume?”
Cinna raises one eyebrow at me. Be honest. “You mean after I got over my fear of being burned alive?” I ask. Big laugh. A real one from the audience.
“Yes. Start then,” says Caesar.
Cinna, my friend, I should tell him anyway. “I thought Cinna was brilliant and it was the most gorgeous costume I’d ever seen and I couldn’t believe I was wearing it. I can’t believe I’m wearing this, either.” I lift up my skirt to spread it out. “I mean, look at it!”
As the audience oohs and ahs, I see Cinna make the tiniest circular motion with his finger. But I know what he’s saying. Twirl for me.
I spin in a circle once and the reaction is immediate.
“Oh, do that again!” says Caesar, and so I lift up my arms and spin around and around letting the skirt fly out, letting the dress engulf me in flames. The audience breaks into cheers. When I stop, I clutch Caesar’s arm.
“Don’t stop!” he says.
“I have to, I’m dizzy!” I’m also giggling, which I think I’ve done maybe never in my lifetime. But the nerves and the spinning have gotten to me.
Caesar wraps a protective arm around me. “Don’t worry, I’ve got you. Can’t have you following in your mentor’s footsteps.”
Everyone’s hooting as the cameras find Haymitch, who is by now famous for his head dive at the reaping, and he waves them away good-naturedly and points back to me.
“It’s all right,” Caesar reassures the crowd. “She’s safe with me. So, how about that training score. E-le-ven. Give us a hint what happened in there.”
I glance at the Gamemakers on the balcony and bite my lip.
“Um… all I can say, is I think it was a first.”
The cameras are right on the Gamemakers, who are chuckling and nodding. “You’re killing us,” says Caesar as if in actual pain. “Details. Details.”
I address the balcony. “I’m not supposed to talk about it, right?”
The Gamemaker who fell in the punch bowl shouts out,
“Thank you,” I say. “Sorry. My lips are sealed.”
“Let’s go back then, to the moment they called your sister’s name at the reaping,” says Caesar. His mood is quieter now.
“And you volunteered. Can you tell us about her?”
No. No, not all of you. But maybe Cinna. I don’t think I’m imagining the sadness on his face. “Her name’s Prim. She’s just twelve. And I love her more than anything.”
You could hear a pin drop in the City Circle now.
“What did she say to you? After the reaping?” Caesar asks. Be honest. Be honest. I swallow hard. “She asked me to try really hard to win.” The audience is frozen, hanging on my every word.
“And what did you say?” prompts Caesar gently. But instead of warmth, I feel an icy rigidity take over my body. My muscles tense as they do before a kill. When I speak, my voice seems to have dropped an octave. “I swore I would.”
“I bet you did,” says Caesar, giving me a squeeze. The buzzer goes off. “Sorry we’re out of time. Best of luck, Katniss Everdeen, tribute from District Twelve.”
The applause continues long after I’m seated. I look to Cinna for reassurance. He gives me a subtle thumbs-up. I’m still in a daze for the first part of Peeta’s interview. He has the audience from the get-go, though; I can hear them laughing, shouting out. He plays up the baker’s son thing, comparing the tributes to the breads from their districts. Then has a funny anecdote about the perils of the Capitol showers.
“Tell me, do I still smell like roses?” he asks Caesar, and then there’s a whole run where they take turns sniffing each other that brings down the house. I’m coming back into focus when Caesar asks him if he has a girlfriend back home. Peeta hesitates, then gives an unconvincing shake of his head.
“Handsome lad like you. There must be some special girl. Come on, what’s her name?” says Caesar.
Peeta sighs. “Well, there is this one girl. I’ve had a crush on her ever since I can remember. But I’m pretty sure she didn’t know I was alive until the reaping.”
Sounds of sympathy from the crowd. Unrequited love they can relate to.
“She have another fellow?” asks Caesar.
“I don’t know, but a lot of boys like her,” says Peeta.
“So, here’s what you do. You win, you go home. She can’t turn you down then, eh?” says Caesar encouragingly.
“I don’t think it’s going to work out. Winning… won’t help in my case,” says Peeta.
“Why ever not?” says Caesar, mystified.
Peeta blushes beet red and stammers out. “Because… because… she came here with me.”
For a moment, the cameras hold on Peeta’s downcast eyes as what he says sinks in. Then I can see my face, mouth half open in a mix of surprise and protest, magnified on every screen as I realize, Me! He means me! I press my lips together and stare at the floor, hoping this will conceal the emotions starting to boil up inside of me.
“Oh, that is a piece of bad luck,” says Caesar, and there’s a real edge of pain in his voice. The crowd is murmuring in agreement, a few have even given agonized cries.
“It’s not good,” agrees Peeta.
“Well, I don’t think any of us can blame you. It’d be hard not to fall for that young lady,” says Caesar. “She didn’t know?”
Peeta shakes his head. “Not until now.”
I allow my eyes to flicker up to the screen long enough to see that the blush on my cheeks is unmistakable.
“Wouldn’t you love to pull her back out here and get a response?” Caesar asks the audience. The crowd screams assent.
“Sadly, rules are rules, and Katniss Everdeen’s time has been spent. Well, best of luck to you, Peeta Mellark, and I think I speak for all of Panem when I say our hearts go with yours.”
The roar of the crowd is deafening. Peeta has absolutely wiped the rest of us off the map with his declaration of love for me. When the audience finally settles down, he chokes out a quiet “Thank you” and returns to his seat. We stand for the anthem. I have to raise my head out of the required respect and cannot avoid seeing that every screen is now dominated by a shot of Peeta and me, separated by a few feet that in the viewers’ heads can never be breached. Poor tragic us. But I know better.
After the anthem, the tributes file back into the Training Center lobby and onto the elevators. I make sure to veer into a car that does not contain Peeta. The crowd slows our entourages of stylists and mentors and chaperones, so we have only each other for company. No one speaks. My elevator stops to deposit four tributes before I am alone and then find the doors opening on the twelfth floor. Peeta has only just stepped from his car when I slam my palms into his chest. He loses his balance and crashes into an ugly urn filled with fake flowers. The urn tips and shatters into hundreds of tiny pieces. Peeta lands in the shards, and blood immediately flows from his hands.
“What was that for?” he says, aghast.
“You had no right! No right to go saying those things about me!” I shout at him.
Now the elevators open and the whole crew is there, Effie, Haymitch, Cinna, and Portia.
“What’s going on?” says Effie, a note of hysteria in her voice. “Did you fall?”
“After she shoved me,” says Peeta as Effie and Cinna help him up.
Haymitch turns on me. “Shoved him?”
“This was your idea, wasn’t it? Turning me into some kind of fool in front of the entire country?” I answer.
“It was my idea,” says Peeta, wincing as he pulls spikes of pottery from his palms. “Haymitch just helped me with it.”
“Yes, Haymitch is very helpful. To you!” I say.
“You are a fool,” Haymitch says in disgust. “Do you think he hurt you? That boy just gave you something you could never achieve on your own.”
“He made me look weak!” I say.
“He made you look desirable! And let’s face it, you can use all the help you can get in that department. You were about as romantic as dirt until he said he wanted you. Now they all do. You’re all they’re talking about. The star-crossed lovers from District Twelve!” says Haymitch.
“But we’re not star-crossed lovers!” I say.
Haymitch grabs my shoulders and pins me against the wall.
“Who cares? It’s all a big show. It’s all how you’re perceived. The most I could say about you after your interview was that you were nice enough, although that in itself was a small miracle. Now I can say you’re a heartbreaker. Oh, oh, oh, how the boys back home fall longingly at your feet. Which do you think will get you more sponsors?”
The smell of wine on his breath makes me sick. I shove his hands off my shoulders and step away, trying to clear my head.
Cinna comes over and puts his arm around me. “He’s right, Katniss.”
I don’t know what to think. “I should have been told, so I didn’t look so stupid.”
“No, your reaction was perfect. If you’d known, it wouldn’t have read as real,” says Portia.
“She’s just worried about her boyfriend,” says Peeta gruffly, tossing away a bloody piece of the urn.
My cheeks burn again at the thought of Gale. “I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“Whatever,” says Peeta. “But I bet he’s smart enough to know a bluff when he sees it. Besides you didn’t say you loved me. So what does it matter?”
The words are sinking in. My anger fading. I’m torn now between thinking I’ve been used and thinking I’ve been given an edge. Haymitch is right. I survived my interview, but what was I really? A silly girl spinning in a sparkling, dress. Giggling. The only moment of any substance I hail was when I talked about Prim. Compare that with Thresh, his silent, deadly power, and I’m forgettable. Silly and sparkly and forgettable. No, not entirely forgettable, I have my eleven in training. But now Peeta has made me an object of love. Not just his. To hear him tell it I have many admirers. And if the audience really thinks we’re in love… I remember how strongly they responded to his confession. Star-crossed lovers. Haymitch is right, they eat that stuff up in the Capitol. Suddenly I’m worried that I didn’t react properly.
“After he said he loved me, did you think I could be in love with him, too?” I ask.
“I did,” says Portia. “The way you avoided looking at the cameras, the blush.”
They others chime in, agreeing.
“You’re golden, sweetheart. You’re going to have sponsors lined up around the block,” says Haymitch.
I’m embarrassed about my reaction. I force myself to acknowledge Peeta. “I’m sorry I shoved you.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he shrugs. “Although it’s technically illegal.”
“Are your hands okay?” I ask. “They’ll be all right,” he says. In the silence that follows, delicious smells of our dinner waft in from the dining room. “Come