I am so sorry that this took so long! Hopefully, you all had a lovely Christmas and a Happy New Year and can forgive me for the long wait! :)
"Oh and the crowds loved you!" Effie squeals near my ear "This is superb! District Twelve has never got this much attention! You literally outshined all the other tributes!" she titters excitedly.
The District Two tributes only a few meters away from us stop and turn to stare. They're both dressed in elaborate suites of golden armour, showing of their toned arms and muscled bodies. I imagine any other year they would've made a great impression.
Except like Effie said, we literally outshined them.
"C'mon, let's take this upstairs," Haymitch says giving as a firm push away from them.
As we're getting guided towards an open elevator, I twist my head round to take one more glance at them. Both sets of cold eyes bore back.
"Don't start making enemies, just yet," Haymitch growls in my ear and I turn back.
We step inside the tiny glass room and the doors resolutely shut behind us.
"I'll be honest; I hadn't been expecting a reaction like this!" Effie continues breathlessly "Absolutely fantastic!" she pauses "Well I suppose you could have smiled a bit more," she adds slightly deflated "At all actually."
"Nonsense Effie," Cinna says calmly "They made a great impression by acting unfazed. Everyone's used to smiling tributes, Gale and Katniss were far more enthralling," he finishes smoothly.
"Of course you're right!" Effie beams happily again.
She punches the round button with the glowing number twelve on it and the elevator begins to shoot upwards. It's incomparably smoother and faster than the dingy, rickety elevators that work in the mines, and deports us on the twelfth floor in less than a second. The doors ping open and my eyes bulge out. The apartment before us is probably worth more than the whole Seam.
"Oh I love the colour scheme the designers have opted for this year!" Effie breathes "Simply lovely!"
She prances up ahead as the rest of us step out.
"You should probably change out of those costumes," Portia says kindly "They are more so designed for style rather than comfort."
The flames have finally flickered and died out on our suits. I hadn't noticed before, probably from nerves or anticipation, but the costume is extremely restricting and uncomfortable.
"Where are our rooms?" Gale asks.
"Down that corridor," Haymitch points "Dinner's on the table, in there," he points again towards a doorway, through which I can already smell the rich, mouth watering aroma of food.
When Gale and I come into the dining room, dressed in clothes the huge programmed wardrobes shot out, everyone else is seated and waiting. As soon as we join them, waiters in white tunics begin pulling out platters of food and filling our glasses with drinks. The atmosphere at the table is light and positive as Effie is still buzzing about our performance, Cinna and Portia are constantly being praised on their wonderful designs and Haymitch appears more sober and civil than I've ever seen.
A silent waitress reaches out to refill my glass and I grab her hand in protest "No, it's fine, I'm full," I begin to say whilst looking up at her "Hey! I know you!"
From some deep and distant memory, I recognize her! Her dark red hair and pale heart shaped face swim before my eyes as I try to remember from where.
"Don't be silly, Katniss!" Effie snorts "She's an Avox."
"What's an Avox?" Gale says blankly.
"They're a traitor or criminal of some sort. The Capitol cuts of their tongues and employs them as servants," Haymitch fills in.
I squint at the girl as she hurries to clear my plate "I'm sure I've seen you before. Gale is she from-" I stop as I see his face.
He's sitting motionless in his chair, shocked and gaping, so different to just moments ago.
"Gale, what's wrong?" I ask sharply, glancing from them both.
The girl meets my gaze for a second before hurrying away, but its enough.
Everything slows down. I remember those eyes. Once, they were scared, desperate and pleading, boring into mine.
I drop my head and stare down at my lap, I can't face her. I can hardly believe it! How can this be happening, here and now? I'd think I made a mistake but Gale's expression makes me sure.
"What is it?" Cinna asks worriedly.
"Um, it's nothing," I stammer lifting my head "I just- I thought I knew her," I fade off weakly.
Gale clears his throat, snapping out of his state "She just looked like someone from school."
I'm not sure if they all buy it but we leave it at that. The previously light atmosphere disappears though, and is replaced with a much more awkward and forced one. Finally Portia brings up talk of strategies and everyone joins in.
"Didn't you say we'd talk angles tonight?" I ask Haymitch, grabbing the opportunity.
Before he can reply, Effie jumps in bossily "Well, we do have a tight schedule, and I didn't have this planned. But seeing as we are," she looks down at the tiny bejewelled watch on her wrist "twelve and half minutes ahead, how about you use this time and then we'll all watch the parade recaps as planned?"
So Cinna and Portia follow Effie out the room, leaving Gale and I with Haymitch and a handful of Avoxes, she's defiantly not among them, who are clearing the table.
Haymitch coughs and then slurps down half his wine glass before starting "You can be the strongest, the fastest, and most skilled tribute in the arena, and you'll still need a sponsor at one time or another."
"You're in charge of that, aren't you?" Gale says.
"I'm in charge of securing the sponsors. The rest is up to you."
"What exactly is the rest?" I ask warily.
"Well, you get people to like you."
"Then, I don't think we did a very good job tonight," Gale says honestly.
"No, you did fine," Haymitch says with a wave of his hand "Here you don't always get liked for being nice and polite. You get liked for being brutal or cunning or witty."
"So how are we going to be likeable?"
"You're going to be smart in the arena. You'll be determined and strong, stopping at nothing to get home."
I nod and look over at Gale "Sounds right?" I ask.
"And," Haymitch cuts across "You'll be in love."
Silence stretches over the room as I scrutinize Haymitch to see if he's joking.
"What?" Gale and I finally answer.
"You heard me."
He's being serious! I look over at Gale; needing to be reassured I'm not the only one thinking this is insane.
"What?" Gale repeats looking confused.
Haymitch sighs, irritated "Do you need me to spell it out? It's never been done before; sponsors will be literally lining up for you!"
I open my mouth and dumbly close it again; speechless.
"Look, the Capital already saw you together. You held hands at the reaping and the station and you made it clear you were a team at the parade," he says "And I can sell the star crossed lovers from District Twelve."
"Star crossed lovers?" I repeat dumfounded.
"You've got to remember, they just want a good show," he says with a shrug.
Haymitch wants us to pretend we're in love. He wants me to pretend to be in love with Gale!
"Why do- I mean how- I mean we-" I stop trying when I realize I have no idea what I'm even trying to say.
"This would help you," Haymitch says ignoring me "and you know it."
We all sit silently, mulling over what's been said. I can't help but think back on all the Hunger Games I've been old enough to remember. Unless you're a Career, an alliance with your District partner is rare. But it's still seen. Never has there been love, though. I mean, Careers sometimes flirt with each other to win over sponsors and to play it up for the cameras, but it's not love. It's not star crossed lovers. It's not what we could be.
"Catnip, we said anything," Gale says in an undertone so Haymitch can't hear, leaning towards me "anything to make sure it's one of us."
I nod "It would get us sponsors. And if we can get our hands on a bow, some knives, rope and wire…"
We need a bow. Two preferably. It's our best weapon and the easiest way to get food. The knives would come in handy for close combat and are generally always needed in the arena. The wire and rope could be made into snares for game and maybe even traps.
"Can we do it?" Gale asks, sounding edgy.
"I think so," I respond slowly looking away from him "I mean back home, people sort of assumed that we were," I say awkwardly.
"So, we could," he prompts, still whispering.
"We could," I answer looking straight ahead. It's our best chance. So why is so hard to accept?
Maybe, because he's your best friend! Maybe, because sometimes (even though you always denied it!) you seemed so similar, you wondered if it would have been possible, for real. Or maybe, just because you've both been reaped, whatever could have happened years into the future, never will. Of course it's hard to accept! But it is you're best chance.
I take a deep breathe "I'm okay with it."
I clear my throat "We'll do it," I say addressing Haymitch, who at least had the decency not to listen in on us.
"Good-," he starts but is interrupted by Effie bowling into the room.
"The recaps are on!"
Haymitch sighs, swallows the rest of his glass, and stands up to follow Effie.
At the end of the recaps everyone's back to praising Cinna and Portia. They sure deserve it. The cameras stay on us much longer than they did on any other chariot.
I try and view us like somebody from the Capitol would. It's not very hard. As a stranger, even I'd guess there was something between Gale and I. We're so much more connected than the other tributes.
"Tomorrow mornings you're first training session. Meet me for breakfast and I'll tell you exactly how I want you to play it," Haymitch says briskly after switching off the TV "Now get some sleep while the grown-ups talk."
Dismissed we walk to our rooms together. The door to my room slides open and the redheaded Avox comes out. Her arms are laden with the parade costume I dropped on the floor when I changed. She looks up to find us.
"We're so sorry," I blurt out desperately as she looks back down "We should have-"
"Katniss, you'll get us all into trouble," Gale whispers urgently in my ear and I see the Avox girl nod slightly.
"Sorry about the mess in there," I lie lamely, pointing to my open room which is spotless.
The girl hurries forward past us.
We could get in trouble. If anyone found out we saw the girl captured, then they'd defiantly ask what we were doing in the middle of a strictly illegal wood with a bow. I don't want to make it any worse for her either. I don't think you're actually meant to speak to Avoxes unless it's an order. All I want is for to understand how ashamed I am for standing by and letting her get caught, and the other boy get killed.
I wonder if it's at all possible that some of the people in the Capitol feel any remorse when they see twenty-three children die each year. I suppose they don't because something would have changed.
Gale leans down and whispers quietly "We'll find some place to talk."
I nod but I know it won't be today, it's late and we have no idea where.
"So, goodnight" Gale says straightening up.
"Yeah, night," I say noticing he hasn't made a move to his door yet.
We both keep lingering. Should we be sleeping in the same room? I mean we will be star crossed lovers in a couple of days. And to be honest waking up from a nightmare alone, doesn't sound very appealing.
Jeez, get a grip Katniss! You've spent one night with him, what about the other sixteen years? You seemed to have been just fine with them!
"See you tomorrow," I say quickly, stepping into my room before I can think about it anymore.
In the dim light of the room, I strip off my clothes and change into one of the many sets of silk pyjamas that the wardrobe offers, and climb into the enormous bed. I wrap the sheets tightly around me and curl my knees close to my chest.
I grit my teeth and profusely try to ignore how gapingly cold and empty the bed feels.