In the Hunger Games there is no place for sacrifice.

Katniss Everdeen's screams fall on deaf ears. Well, they don't, because we and the rest of District 12 and maybe all of Panem hear her, and I know those screams will stay with me. The echoes pummel in her desperation as they reverberate through the square and settle beneath my skin. But for all they affect the Peacekeepers who haul Katniss bodily away, thrashing and clawing, the helmets could be soundproofed.

She's begging now, which is worse. Her old stoicism has evaporated. "I volunteer!" she sobs. "I volunteer as tribute!"

It's never worked before and it's not about to work now. That kind of selflessness undermines everything the Games represent and they won't allow it.

The screams are muted now and I spare a look over my shoulder to see she's been carried away. I'm relieved, for her sake. She should be spared the sight of Primrose walking with grim little-girl steps between the Peacekeepers. Passing me on her way to the platform, I see her shirt's become untucked in the back. It makes her seem so much younger.

Effie, too, would appear to be oblivious were it not for the brief twitch of her hands as she adjusts her pink wig. It's hard to imagine anything getting under her skin, you'd have to find it beneath the paint and costumery. She beckons Primrose up onto the stage, wheeling bright-tipped fingers, and firmly squares her shoulders to the assembly.

"What a bright young star," she beams. "I know she'll shine in the Capitol. Let's give her a hand!" She claps her hands pitter-patter. I can hear her nails click together. Nobody joins in the applause. Primrose stares vacantly at the line of families, where her mother must be standing with all the others who are secretly exhaling their relief at keeping their own daughters for another year.

"Now for the boy tribute!" Her wig is still askew from Haymitch's attempt at an inebriated embrace and she keeps trying to adjust it with minute little touches. If my heart weren't in my throat it would be almost funny.

She claws a piece of paper from the second glass bowl and unfurls it. Pause. "Peeta Mellark!"

That's me. She said my name.

Around me, the boys recoil slightly like I'm contagious. I breathe. The Peacekeepers always give you a second or two to step forward voluntarily and I manage to wrench my feet from the ground before I give them an excuse to grab me by the arm. They flank me as we move up the center aisle and I don't know how they can march like that and match my stride.

Primrose meets my eyes as I ascend the steps, Effie's animated motions drawing me forward. For a moment she's as unreadable as her sister. The shock has not fully set in yet. Effie spins me around to face the kids we've acquitted for one more year.

The rows of eighteen-year old girls and boys are teary-eyed at being spared one last time. Welcome to the rest of your lives, kids.

Mayor Undersee reads the Treaty of Treason in as droning a voice as he can manage. Sometimes I think he does it on purpose to subvert its message, turning it into the boring lectures we all tune out in class. Whatever effect the speech is supposed to have is lost on me, at least.

I'm aware of how big I am next to Primrose. Her head barely clears my shoulder, and I'm not the tallest boy in my year. My arms are three times again the size of her skinny limbs. Going by their expressions, the adults in the back who are far gone enough in their miseries to place bets on the Games are weighing this already.

Finishing, the mayor turns and gestures for the two of us to shake hands. I take Primrose's hand and hold it as firmly as I dare without crushing it. Her hand is colder than mine, and so small. We look each other in the eyes. I try to smile at her.

The aggressive Panem anthem blares from speakers. Up here on the stage, the brassy march is more abrasive than ever.

A swaying Haymitch totters dangerously close to the edge of the podium. I think I hear Primrose whisper a warning to him before he sashays right off the stage and sprawls before the front lines of kids.

Behold, our mentor. As pupils we may not wield swords with accuracy but we'll be able to drink the other tributes under the table.

The anthem ends. We're paraded into the Justice Building with fanfare on Effie's part and listlessness on the mayor's. Peacekeepers separate us and we're led into different rooms and left there. It's grand. My mother's excessively proud of her velvet hat, the only velvet anybody in our family owns. She wears it on special occasions. Here, velvet drapes the windows and covers the furniture. It's plush, and rich, and I think of the faded cotton-shift couch in my family's living room, and I prefer that infinitely—pink flowers and all.

There's such a thing as putting too much icing on a cake.

One hour is what we get for our farewells. A couple of minutes suffices for my family. My brothers shuffle in, followed by my mom and dad. I love my brothers but whatever Katniss and Primrose have together is some ingredient that's lacking in my family recipe. Dad is the warmest, going so far as to embrace me and whisper some words of encouragement. He does try his best. I smile at him so he'll feel a little better. He still has two good strong boys.

My eyes are stinging. Soon enough I'm crying outright. The show of emotion embarasses Glennan and Pace and their goodbyes are mostly made looking anywhere but at me. Perhaps Pace feels he ought to have made some kind of commotion like Katniss did for Prim but it would have accomplished about as much. Mom puts her hand on my arm. A few moments later and we've run out of things to say. I'm oddly desperate for them to leave.

When I'm alone I'm struck by the sensation. I've rarely been alone. The bakery barely has elbow room and our home upstairs has less. Tonight will be the first time I've slept in a room to myself. For the next few days, at least, I will be experiencing things I never have before. Not to mention the obvious experience of death. Is it so bad that I'm actually looking forward to seeing the Capitol?

I don't expect many other visitors. I'm surprised when some school friends come by; it's something not typically done for the other boys culled in recent years. Usually the poor kid's pulled out by his roots and his friends do their best to forget him. Years later he's barely acknowledged as ever having existed. Maybe the girls are better about that.

I stop trying to hold it together. I'm not going to pretend like I'm some stoic hero. I cry some more.

Madge visits. I have the feeling she goes to see each tribute, every year. We haven't spoken much before, just exchanged pleasantries, but our short conversation here is nice. Even comforting. Frustration underscores her words. She tells me to take care of Primrose. It's the first time anybody's mentioned the twelve-year-old girl that is in the Games too.

Soon I'm alone again, studying the pattern on the wallpaper. It clashes with the velvet drapes. Suddenly mundane details are occupying my mind, crowding everything else out. At least, that's the only explanation I have for my abrupt fascination with interior decorating.

I'm doing well. Under control. My eyes burn and the skin beneath them is red and blotchy, I'm sure.

I don't hear the door until it clicks shut. Instead of another friend to mutter brief but touching condolences, I turn to see Katniss Everdeen.

Never before have I been sorry to see her, but I'm sure sorry now. Once, when I was too small for this to be held against me—before the reality of the Games sank in—I entertained a fantasy where my name was called for the reaping. In that daydream, Katniss tearfully came to bid me farewell and confessed a secret crush on me she'd harbored as long as I had. At the time, 'crush' was like the penultimate term of affection for six-year-olds. Of course, I emerged from that fantasy the Victor and Katniss was waiting for me when I got home.

Also of course, that daydream did not include competing against Katniss's little sister for survival.

This does not appear to be a reenactment of my childhood fancy. Katniss does not look about ready to confess her undying crush for me. She looks ready to short Primrose's competition by one.

"Um," I spread my hands, a placating gesture which has worked very well for me before. That's as far as I get.

With unbelievable speed she darts forward and has my collar in an iron grip. I'm not positive she wasn't aiming for my throat.

I know she's a hunter but until now I haven't really appreciated the deadliness that goes right along with that. Oh she's fast. She has been crying. Her eyes are red-rimmed and hateful. She holds me there a second, eyes burning, and I don't know what to say. What can I possibly tell her?

Words never fail me for long and I'm about to open my mouth, possibly just to put my foot in it, when she beats me to it.

"Don't you come back," she breathes. "Don't you dare. If you come back alive, I will kill you."

I believe her.

"I mean it."

"I know you do."

"If you—"

"I said I get it," I snap. Already this is upsetting me more than anything else has. So much for a tearful confession from her. "I'm not the one you need to threaten. I'm just the only you you can." Already I can picture the Career tributes' gleeful reactions upon seeing one of their competitors was a bitty twelve-year-old girl from the coal district. "'Come back in a box or don't come back at all.' Gotcha."

Katniss releases my collar, studying my face. If she detects any falsehood I've got no doubt she'll clock me. I can't help but feel bitter. Like she thinks I asked for this. Like she thinks I even had a snowball's chance in hell at winning anyway. Does she think I'm crying for joy?

Possibly realizing this, she takes a step back.

"I mean, what am I going to do, bake the Careers?" I mutter.

She's visibly startled. Why? Am I not even granted the right to be sarcastic about my death? Out of spite—more against the whole damned mess than her specifically—I add, "What do you think the chances are that the Cornucopia's going to offer a rolling pin?"

Silence. After years of planning what I would say to her once the opportunity finally arose, this is kind of going in the opposite direction. Let me start over. Hello Katniss, my name is Peeta Mellark and I've been in love with you for like, ever.

Just like that, I'm deflated. "I'll do what I can." It's all I can promise. Suddenly I just want her to go. Pining after her when she didn't recognize my existence was better than this. This is what the Capitol does. They yank what little hopes you have, the few dreams you allow yourself, and they make them fight to the death in front of a live studio audience. Plus the rest of the nation.

Imagine if Katniss was the Everdeen whose name had been pulled. Imagine if it was her in Primrose's place. What wouldn't Katniss do to get back home to her mom and sister? Why don't my brothers, my parents, deserve the same effort from me?

Because they don't. Katniss has seen my mom. She knows what sort of people the Mellarks are. We're not the worst. We're also not Everdeens. She has more right to Primrose than my family does to me.

Tears blur my vision again and I don't care that she sees.

Her expression is unfathomable. A Peacekeeper chooses that moment to open the door. My hour's up. I can hear faint snatches of conversation in the hallway beyond. A distant tattoo of heels suggests Effie Trinket is not far away.

The man in the white uniform comes forward and takes her arm. She shakes off his hand and turns toward the door. Just before she disappears from my life she turns and says, "Thank you for the bread. Back then."

I stare at her. She's sincere. I swallow. There's a lump in my throat. "You're welcome."

It's not the way she wanted to say it, I can tell. It's not the way I wanted her to say it, and I hadn't wanted her to say it at all.

And that's it. She's whisked away. Again I'm alone, and I sit down and cry, because I'm going to die. In a few days my life will end and everything I've tried to make of it will come to a whole lot of nothing.

Cameras flock to us as we're led onto the train. I don't make any effort to hide that I've been crying. Why should I? I'm not going to celebrate like one of the Careers. Let the Capitol see just how excited the rest of us get for this nightmare.

Primrose has been tearful, too, and the watery smile she gives me is radiant enough to break a heart. We're shooed onto the train, a luxury machine unlike any of the coal lines that threads the districts. Immediately we're taken aback by the finery but there's no time to gawk; flitting assistants prod and herd us to our respective compartments.

After so long of sharing my room with my brothers, it almost seems wrong to have a beautiful place like this to myself. Tributes, though, are owed all this and more. Maybe this all started when some highbody from the Capitol heard a poor districter say, "I'd kill for a hot meal," and took them at their word.

In fact the first thing I do is take a hot shower, the first time I haven't had to wait until our boiler heated up the water. It's tempting to stay and wallow in the steam. I don't.

They've laid out clothing for me in the dressers. Even though it's a charcoal color, the red piping and quality of the fabric instantly sets it apart from the dusty colors of District 12. I'm hesitant to toss away my old clothes. My trousers are nicer than anything a kid from the Seam would own but they've been patched up several times over the years. The shirt is almost new, only a year old. Then I shrug. No point in holding on.

Food weighs down the tables in the dining car, there's so much of it. I have never seen so much food before, not even in the bakery cases. Kids press their noses to the glass of my family's bakery to gape at the enormous cakes we display there, unaware they're just so much icing on cardboard. We can't afford to waste good grain on a cake nobody's going to eat.

They. They can't afford that. I sit down at about the same time that Primrose comes in and we begin attacking the food with gusto.

When Haymitch Abernathy stumbles into the cabin and sees me, he takes an immediate swallow from his flask. When he sees Prim, he downs the flask entirely. I remember he mentored the last twelve-year-old that was reaped. She died early at least, in the Cornucopia, and didn't have to endure the frozen hell that awaited the tributes later on.

He leaves the car. Primrose looks worried, like she's done something to upset him. I'm going to have a talk with Haymitch. Then I hear him retch in the hallway. I'm going to have a talk with Haymitch later.

"Our mentor is mental," I whisper to Primrose. She giggles.

We eat for a few minutes. Effie Trinket has joined us and she's praising our table manners in a way that insults them. So Primrose and I sit with abnormally good posture and handle our forks properly, but we still manage to shovel down a lot of food regardless. Poor kid has never had enough to eat. I've always had almost enough to eat and all of that 'enough' was stale and uninviting. The only food we ever had fresh was the game Katniss or Gale Hawthorne traded at the bakery for bread that was always fresher than Dad insisted to Mom it was.

Effie goes on about all of the wonders we'll see in the Capitol. Despite—well, everything, I'm insanely curious.

When she finally leaves, murmuring something about checking the status of some new trend she'd been hoping to start, Primrose and I are alone. I see that she's wearing a pin that glints in the sun streaming through the train window. I'd hardly noticed when the train had begun to move.

"Is that a mockingjay?" I ask, motioning to it.

Her head snaps down automatically to look at it. "Yes," she says shyly. "Madge Undersee gave it to me. Did she come to see you too?"

I wonder if she knows about Madge's aunt. I don't think it's common knowledge in the Seam. "She did."

"Did she give you a pin too?"

"No. She must think you're more stylish."

This gets a little grin from Primrose. "More than a boy."

"You don't think I can pull off pigtails?" I pose my head in profile. She giggles again.

Later on we watch the recap of the day's reapings. Haymitch joins us, falling heavily down into a thick chair. Effie is disapproving. The recap proceeds numerically, beginning with District 1 and ending with ours. Like always, the kid reaped from District 2 struts from a crowd of disappointed faces and takes their place on the stage like they're a Victor already. If volunteers were allowed, District 2 would be battling over who got the glory. The camera briefly lingers on a big blonde boy who is severely disappointed that he isn't called. The boy everybody's envying is just as big.

I shake my head.

Most of the kids called are older and often look like they'd taken out extra slips in exchange for tesserae. Ironically, neither Primrose nor I had done so, although I suspect that Katniss and many of the Seam kids had. When they get to District 11 the lucky boy is a big, strong-looking guy who takes the stage without any show of emotion, but holds his head high. They call out "Rue Garlander" for the girl and we see a tiny, birdlike girl led up to the podium. She can't be more than twelve. Primrose makes a sad noise. They're the only two twelve-year-olds reaped this year, although they culled a thirteen-year-old boy from District 3 that appears about ten.

I study the faces, particularly the Careers, the same way I imagine they'll shortly be studying mine.

District 12 comes on. Our grimy little community looks littler and grimier on camera. No matter how good kids in town have it, next to districts like 2 we might as well all be pathetic.

Primrose buries her face as the camera shows Effie calling her name and won't watch herself on screen being marched up to the stage. Then she peeks through her fingers at Katniss, who is screaming and fighting for all she's worth to prevent what she can't. It's like reliving it. I'm back there, and Effie hasn't called my name yet.

Effie calls my name.

The camera shows a fair-haired boy of middling height and stocky build who walks up to the stage more steadily than I'm sure I felt. Now I vaguely hear the commentators, who I've been tuning out this far, make some speculation. "He seems like a strong one," says one woman with enormous false lashes and flashing tattoos. "Looks like he might give District 12 a good show this year!"

They'd said no such thing about Primrose. I can only imagine what Katniss is thinking now.

Primrose is looking at me with such an odd expression. "What?" I ask, off guard.

"Maybe you could," she says. Her voice isn't much louder than a whisper. "Win, I mean."

I'm completely taken aback. Haymitch regards her before he takes a long dragging drink from his flask.

Win? No, I'm not going to win. And her saying so only implies what she thinks of her own chances. I force a smile. "I'll give them a good show, at any rate."

"That you will!" pipes Effie, too brightly. Haymitch lurches up and away, saying something about a nap.

Two days later

Sounds of hushed snickers break through my thoughts. I snap to attention and turn around. Primrose and Rue are huddled together. They glance over their shoulders at me and break out into fresh giggles. Possibly because I dropped a sandbag on my foot just now. I throw up my hands in mock exasperation, which pleases them, but really I'm enjoying this.

As we did the day before, we split up into stations. I'm doing my best to hit them all, though it's tempting just to hang out at the camoflauge booth. Primrose and Rue dart over to a man who shows them how to rig a snare that catches someone by the foot and sends them into the air. Before long, Rue is showing them both the best way to tie yourself to a tree so you don't fall.

Haymitch's opinion is that Prim ought to concentrate on stations that focus on self-preservation and defense. I agree; a couple days of training won't do her much good against kids twice her size with five times her knowledge of weapons. She and Rue spent a lot of time with the healer's station yesterday; Prim has a knack for it. Probably passed down from her mother.

Now that Haymitch and I have a plan of action, he's been remarkably helpful. Sometimes I think he's even sober.

"Did they reap you just to babysit?" scoffs a voice from behind my shoulder.

I turn around to see Glimmer standing with her hip out and head cocked, looking disdainful. She's one of the Careers. Her extraordinary beauty is marred, somehow, by the brutality she paints her face with like makeup.

"They call me the Pacifier," I say lightly. Glimmer rolls her eyes. Spying the station where an assortment of wicked-looking knives are displayed like so many serrated teeth, I head in that direction. Honestly, I'd like to spend my time with the healer too, but I'm too far behind the Careers in weapons training. I'm okay with knives. There's even one that looks like the old thing I used to cut stale bread with.

Glimmer follows me. Having her behind me sends my back to prickling. The Careers don't even make any pretense of surreptitiously watching the other tributes train; they stare at you outright and that's what Glimmer does as I pick up a knife and study it. It's not like when the town girls come to the bakery to see the Mellark boys work and make a lot of puns that I only recently began to understand.

Don't show off, but get their interest. Words of wisdom from Haymitch. I take a stance and lodge a blade pretty well into the chest of a target not far away. It's actually kind of a better shot than I can usually make. Whoops. Glimmer coolly picks up her own blade and sends it thudding pretty close to mine.

"Nice shot, but I think I got the heart," I tell her seriously. "That's what all the girls tell me, anyway."

She snorts a laugh and fails to inject it with her typical derision. Enough of knives, I think. It's not so much the rounds of stations I'm making as the selective rounds of Careers. Already I've lifted weights with Scalon, the brute from District 2; learned some hand-to-hand alongside the girl from 4, and exchanged verbal barbs with Clove. Each time I'm careful to mask my level of expertise—or inexpertise, as the case may be—in whatever they see me do. It's not a lot I have to mask. Actually the only station where I'm exactly as proficient as I pretend to be is the camoflauge booth.

Lunchtime. Unlike breakfast and dinner, lunch is a meal we eat with the other tributes. Tables are scattered around and kids group around them or don't. Primrose and Rue immediately pick a table together and begin chattering. Other kids eyeball each other from their tables. It's like a scene from school.

I know I should probably sit with the Careers but I would only lose my appetite around them. Smalltalk with them is a little gorier than the gossipy stuff I'm used to at the bakery. I find myself sharing a table with Thresh, the boy from District 11. Neither of us talks, which suits us fine. I'm surprised to see Haymitch and the 11 mentors chatting amiably during the rare times everyone's together. The familiarity transfuses to us and a little of the tension we feel around the other tributes fades.

Occasionally, during training, I see Thresh glancing over Rue's way. Especially whenever a Career is close by. Both he and I are in the same position but his vigilance is more discreet. I guess he can only watch over her from afar.

"Why do you talk to them?" he asks. I think it's the first time I've heard him talk. His voice is a low rumble. Next to him adult men sound like they're going through puberty.

"Who?" I'm almost ridiculously concerned with keeping my voice to a manly low too.

"The Careers."

"Oh, them." I think. "The sparkling conversation. Why don't you?"

They try to ham him, I know. I've seen it. He has none of it.

Thresh exhales sharply through his nose. "I don't think much of them."

Another thing we have in common. "Well, I'm not having lunch with them. I might lose it."

The corners of his mouth twitch slightly, but he recovers quickly from his bout of hilarity and looks serious. "Teaming up with them is not a wise strategy," he says.

No, it's not a winning strategy, I almost tell him. Instead I pick at my food and say, "Maybe. I'm not you. You don't need them."

Whether this flatters him or not I can't tell. I'm a little surprised he brought it up. Is he trying to warn me? He's obviously not interested in alliances, possibly because he'd feel dishonored having to break it in the end. Nothing he's done so far has been engineered to impress anybody. I admire him for that. All this nonsensical positioning must seem so stupid to him.

We finish eating in silence. Primrose and Rue don't. I'm a little amazed at their capacity to shut out the horror of this by crowding so close together nothing else gets through. By the stricken look on one of the District 11 mentor's faces, I can tell this doesn't happen often and it's heartrending when it does. No wonder Haymitch is a sodden mess so much of the time.

He approaches me the next evening, before the interviews. The previous day, we performed in front of the judges for our training scores. I scraped an 8, lucky considering how much more attention they were paying to their drinking song than me. Prim only got a 4.

Haymitch and I have spoken about how I should approach the conversation with Flickerman but he's spent more time with Prim, going over how she ought to act. Haymitch tries, really, but it's Cinna that she responds to best, with his gentle manner and quiet smile.

"Just pretend like you're talking to me," he says, smoothing over a detail in her costume. "I'll be there. Whatever he asks, you answer like we're having a conversation together."

Primrose nods. Cinna and the stylists hover over her protectively, which anybody who knows Prim tends to do. Her costume is pretty and doesn't overwhelm her. She's blessedly devoid of makeup. Sometimes stylists from other districts slather even twelve-year-olds in heavy, mature makeup and the result is always galling. Prim's light hair is woven into braids that are roped around her head, and she's wearing a black dress with some colorful sparkling that puts you in mind of a small flame ready to flare.

"Cinna's little cinder," he tells her affectionately, and she smiles and kisses him on the nose. A wave of desperation floods my stomach but I keep a smooth face as Portia fusses over some details in my own outfit. It's these stylists' first time dressing tributes, and I'm tempted to warn them against getting attached to their charges. It will only make the next time harder.

Some of the elements in my costume are similar to Prim's, keeping up the united appearance Cinna and Haymitch have been striving for, but the effects are different. On Prim they appear bright, and fresh, and real. Me, they make into something commanding and impressive and even deadly. I don't know what nuances of touch he used but the guy is good at his job.

During the opening ceremony, where the tributes are paraded in chariots before the screaming crowd, Cinna got us up in outfits that burst into an artificial flame that was so realistic both Prim and I weren't sure how we'd make it to the front without all our hair burning off. The effect, we've been told, was phenomenal. So was the effect of my small gesture, of placing my hand on Prim's shoulder. The Capitol has no idea that Prim had been shaking so badly during the chariot ride I'd been afraid she would fall off, and had put out my hand to steady her.

Haymitch and I stand quietly before we're due to make our appearance before the audience. "Step lightly," he says. I know what he means. But I'm not worried about this. Swords and cudgels and killing, that's all foreign to me. Words, I know what to do with those.

We step onto the elevator and see all of the tributes being arranged in order of District. It's almost instinctual to want to cover up Prim's eyes at the sight of Glimmer in a gown leaving zero room for the imagination. Glimmer catches my eye and winks, and I flush despite myself. Prim shakes her head, like a disapproving little sister might.

Lights, camera, action.

We step out onto the stage to enthusiastic applause. It's hard to see the crowd through the bright lights, but the roar is thunderous. By the looks of it, many of the audience have already picked out their favorites. I hear Glimmer's name called, and Scalon pumps his fist to cheers, and once or twice I even hear my name shouted out.

The effect is weird. Sometimes I think they treat the tributes this way to trick them into compliance, to get them so swept up in the costumes and glamor and adulation that they forget what's really happening. A distraction. It is all a distraction. Aware as I am of the noxious effect it has, it's still hard not to really feel like you're special, and to remember you're just some kid with lousy luck from a poor district with lousy luck to spare.

And the most surreal thing is realizing that every single person in the nation is watching you. Right. Now. Live. My parents see me. My brothers see me. Katniss sees me, although I'm sure she only has eyes for her sister. All the kids from school are watching me right this second. Maybe they're thinking: I knew him, and in a couple days I'll have never known him. I remember being in their places the past sixteen years, thinking how weak the tribute from District 12 looked, how unimpressive. Usually they're still half-starved. Is that how they see me now?

We take our places. Everything is laid out according to prominence, and the stylists take the coveted first row. Cinna and Portia give us optimistic smiles, but I don't need it. The people of District 12 are watching me now, and there's not a person from District 12 I can't talk to.

Caesar Flickerman emerges with funny theatrics. His hair is an electric blue, which oddly suits him. Like how Cinna's quiet nature lends dignity to the few touches of Capitol fashion that you can see, Caesar has a presence that overwhelms his crazy appearance until it seems like the hair, the teeth, the skin, are only accessories to his personality.

After some enthusiastic greetings Caesar gets down to business. One by one, we rise and take our places on a chair beside him. Glimmer's first, which I suppose she's used to. Her interview just confirms the seductive impression her dress makes, and when the three minutes are up she sashays back to her place with no embarrassment and Marvel's staring so bad somebody's got to poke him to get him moving. Prim stifles a smile.

Well, I can already think of Glimmer's strategy and I won't be surprised if she uses it during the Games.

2, 3, 4. Scalon makes an attractively harsh impression. The kid from 3 is clearly nervous, but Caesar guides him through the interview like a pro. Capitol phony or not, I decide to like him, because the interest he takes in each kid seems genuine and he really tries to make them appealing to sponsors no matter how badly they stack up against tributes like Clove or Scalon.

Everybody's got an approach: bloodthirsty, sly, fearless. Little Rue floats up to Caesar and I think of her mother, looking at her baby dressed up the way she'd always seen her, like a princess. I realize I hate when little kids get hurt. I guess that's kind of a given; who likes hurting kids? But the vehemence of this realization hits me like a sledgehammer and for a minute I can't separate her and Prim.

Rue's interview is sweet, and Caesar presents her wonderfully. She received a 7 for her score, impressive for a little thing, and they dwell on this a moment before Rue says, "I'm very hard to catch. And if they can't catch me, they can't kill me. So don't count me out."

It is not something a twelve-year-old should ever have to say. The sheer absurdity of this almost overwhelms me. The audience coos at her, but they play at real emotion like a baby might at a game.

Thresh's turn is next, and while he speaks brusquely cutting his answers to 'yes' and 'no,' his effect is so arresting and I can almost hear the money exchanging hands. As in all other things, he doesn't play to the crowd and they seem to love him for it. That's interesting, that they love a little rebellion.

Prim's up. Her name is called. Just before she gets to her feet, she looks at me. For encouragement, I guess. I lean down and say quietly, "Talk to Katniss."

She brightens. She adores Cinna but there's nobody in the world dearer to her than her sister, and Cinna's heart is too good and sets too easy a standard; if Primrose can melt a heart like Katniss's, then nobody can resist her.

Prim gets up and goes over to Caesar. I see the other tributes are looking at me strangely. They don't matter.

"What did he tell you?" Caesar asks her teasingly, after they sit.

"A secret," she replies promptly, and I don't even hide my laugh. That is exactly what she would say if Katniss demanded to know what I'd said.

"Oh?" Caesar gives a playful smile. "Are you good at keeping secrets?"

"No," Prim says honestly. The audience chuckles. She does brilliantly in the interview. If the training scores took likability into account, Prim's would be off the charts, because this is exactly what she's best at. By the end of the three minutes, I can't tell the crowd doesn't want her to leave. In one hundred and eighty seconds, she's become a little sister to all of them.

She walks back and Rue gives her a bright smile, which I hope the camera doesn't miss.

Then my name is called and I stand. As I walk away, Rue and Prim call in unison: "Do good, Peeta!"

I almost trip, I'm so shocked. Nothing like that's ever happened during the interviews.

Astonishment is registering in Caesar's eyes, but he's been doing this for forty years and nothing fazes him. "You seem to have a small club of admirers," he comments to me as we sit.

"They're my littlest fans," I say.

Caesar laughs richly with the crowd. "And who's your biggest?" he asks.

I grin. "Me. I'd say the pigs I feed, but I outweigh them all."

Another laugh, bigger this time. I'm getting comfortable again. "So you keep pigs?" Flickerman asks.

"No, I keep bread. I try to keep the pigs too, but my neighbor always wants them back."

I'm referring to the Farlays, whose animals I've been looking after ever since Jon Farlay hurt his back. The crowd doesn't know this, but they're laughing uproariously. I'm grinning, and it's real. I can't help it. I like making people laugh.

For a moment we talk about the bakery and I start in on comparing each tribute against their districts' breads. This, too, is unprecedented, because tributes never refer to each other in the interviews, you see, and certainly not by name. "You see Glimmer over there," and I point at her.

"How can I not?" says Caesar, and we're both guffawing.

"Well, the bread from her district are usually hard rolls. So anytime you talk about District 1, you can say they have tight buns." Now the crowd's rolling in the aisles, holding their sides. It's been a while since a tribute's played to them like this. The reapings are based on chance, and you can never take the chance that someone will have a sense of humor.

Glimmer preens under the extra attention. I make a few other examples. Then I mention the Capitol showers, and how you have to be careful what you end up smelling like when you select the fragrance.

"The first day I picked vanilla in the morning, and cinnamon at night. I started to smell like one of the bakery cakes, and when I wasn't paying attention I almost started chewing on my fingers!" I say. The house can't catch their breath for howling, and I'm smiling like an idiot. I take stock of the time and am surprised to find I've only used up about two minutes. One to go.

Caesar's wiping his eyes. "You're a delight, Peeta. Is there some lucky girlfriend you've got back home?"

This is exactly the direction I'd hoped he'd go in. I pause, and it's not entirely for effect. I shake my head no.

Caesar is not convinced. "Liar. Handsome, funny lad like you. There must be some special girl. Come on, what's her name?"

I sigh. Remember that the entire damn country is watching what I say. That adds a realistic touch to my hesitation. "Well—there's this one girl. I've had a crush-" that word, that six-year-old's pinnacle of affection, but I couldn't bring myself to say "love," not here where it means so little- "on her ever since I can remember. But I'm pretty sure she didn't know I was alive until the reaping."

Unrequited love is universal, I suppose. Everyone makes noises at that. Sighs, 'aww's, wistful sounds. Caesar asks me if she's got a guy already, and I honestly respond that I don't know, but that she's somebody who makes a lasting impression and I'm sure the boys are crazy about her.

"So here's what you do. You win, you go home. She can't turn you down then, eh?" says Caesar. I want to snort, because it's my six-year-old daydream all over again. I'm not six years old anymore and I don't think Katniss would ever go out with somebody because they wowed her.

All that I shove out of my mind. Katniss is watching me right now. "I don't think it will work out," I say slowly. "Winning...won't help in my case."

Baffled, Caesar sits back. He's so good I can't even tell whether he's faking his bewilderment. "Why on earth not?"

My face is red, I can feel it. I had wanted to go for a mournful expression but that's not happening. "Because...her sister is here with me."

Silence. The audience, who I'd had in stitches seconds ago, is quiet as they absorb this. Once they do, small sounds of sympathy emerge from some place I can't discern through the bright glare of the lights. It's accompanied by a rising noise. I want to believe that it's real, that their empathy derives from the part of them that's still human, untouched by paint and surgery and isolation.

I can hardly imagine what Katniss is thinking. She's probably watching this with her mother and the Hawthornes, and I can picture her grey eyes wide with surprise. Prim is sitting behind me and I know her mouth must be hanging open.

"That is a predicament," Caesar says quietly. This time I'm sure the emotion in his voice is genuine.

I want to tell him that it's not really a predicament. That I already know what I'm going to do. But it's too early.

Still, I mostly wish I could speak to Katniss right now. Tell her, privately, that I'm going to turn this impossibility into a choice. That I'm going to die, and that's my decision.

…...

the next morning

60... 59... 58... 57...

...

n: first try at the Hunger Games. If you have any thoughts I'd love to hear them.