A/N: Thank you so much for your reviews. Especially, the one with a whole lot of advice. I took it all to heart and tried to heal all the sore wounds from chapter one in this chapter. -Taryn(:


Chapter Three

After hours of tossing and turning, I decide it's not worth my time to feign sleep. I climb out of bed and take a shower. I've never had one before and I would call it more of an attempt at a shower. There are too many buttons and settings for me even to figure out what I want.

I decide it's time to change, too. I find a long sleeved black shirt and a pair of jeans. They're made of denim, a fabric I've never owned before, but my father used to work in a factory for denim. I can't help passing my palms over my thighs every time I get nervous. Which happens more than it should as I make my way down the train toward the compartment we had dinner in just this past night. I can't help but notice how odd it is to have my toes threading through silky pieces of carpet.

The smell of cinnamon draws me toward a table filled with endless amounts of food. Without even asking one of the Capitol attendants standing to the side I grab a handful of everything. Eggs, strange squishy flat looking pieces of bread, flavored rolls.. everything that makes my mouth water.

I only pause in devouring such foods as Cecelia slips into the compartment. She smiles at the sight of me up so early. "Save some for the rest of us," she says, grabbing herself only a cup of dark liquid and sitting at my side.

I nod merely because I'm compelled to listen to her. She is my mentor, though I have a feeling it's more for my respect of her than anything else. I realize I admire her in a whole bunch of aspects. The fact that she has kids sways me to trust her. Her refusal to become just another one of the broken, substance-addicted Victors from everywhere else. To be brave enough to have kids knowing they are at a higher risk to be reaped because they are merely her children.

Cecelia tells me that I'll be submitted to a prep team and a stylist once we reach the Capitol. He'll make me pretty, she assures me. But I don't feel like being pretty will make me feel better about anything. I wonder what he'll put me in. It has to be an outfit that reflects District 8, and I know in the past most of us were put in ridiculous, brightly colored suits of randomly sewn together textiles; a mixture of fleece, paisley, denim, silk, etcetera. I ponder over this the entire time it takes for Erik, Woof, and Nissa to arrive.

Since I'm already done I take to absently watching Erik as he scarves down his breakfast. Nissa orders me some more of that strawberry drink, that she calls strawberry milk. Just as I'm taking a sip I see Erik's hand shoot out to grab his drink and my heart twists at the sight of a green, woven bracelet tied around his wrist. Just like the two other ones Bracken had given to Felecia and Jak.

At the sight of it, I'm thinking about my children. I wonder what they are doing now. Who made breakfast? Did Aven sneak out last night? Will Bud stay with her and them today, because he knows I want him to.. need him to? Would they dare turn to Ethel for help or are they trying to make good use of what I stole for them? It'll only last a week. What then? What will they do after they run out of supplies? I don't even want to imagine Aven trying to steal. It makes me angry. At myself, for not having thought about this beforehand. There should have been a plan. An agreement, or arrangement that would come into call if the Hunger Games ever did interfere with our lives.

One meager deal with Cayleb could mean Jak's well being, or Aven's safety. All the words I said to Aven and Bud at our visitation come back to me. I told them to take care of them, take the blows no matter how much it hurts them or me to tell them so, and I also told Aven not to steal. If she were caught and lost, then Bud, then what? Nothing.

I know my anger is pointless. Even if there was a predisposed plan to go along with the possibility one of the three eligible children got reaped and it was okay with them to know I wouldn't step forward and save them, I would have volunteered anyway. If Aven walked toward that stage knowing I couldn't do anything for her, knowing she agreed to such a thing, it wouldn't have helped in the least, or prevented me stepping forward. The plan would only have felt wrong and corrupt to me. I would have felt sick at the thought that I potentially sent one of my kids off to the Hunger Games, thinking I loved the others more than them, or that I favored my life over theirs.

The fact that Erik wears that bracelet only labels him Felecia and Jak's equal. Any thoughts that come forward to cover the fact that it's my life against his, against twenty two others, too, or motivation that tells me that I have to return for Jak and Mel and Aven... all those thoughts are shoved out, because if this were Felecia, and I had to kill her to get back to my other four, wouldn't that just be the same thing as letting Aven go as to stay with my other four in the first place?

Once everyone is finished, Cecelia shares a glance with Nissa and the latter nods. Woof is unincluded in the glance, but Cecelia does place a hand on his shoulder as she begins to address Erik and I. "As you know it's our job as mentors to keep you two alive as long as we can. But it's not as easy as it sounds. These are the Hunger Games, and I'm going to give you my best piece of advice I give every year. Don't go in the arena confused or undecided. While your in the Games if there's something you need to question or mull over, let it go. There aren't extra seconds to think over your morals or skills when a Career is running at you full speed. Distractions are lethal. Thoughts are pointless, and useless against knifes," Cecelia makes sure to hold both our stares, with hard and stern eyes, before letting a brief smile touch her face. "So if there's anything on your mind, or some skill you are thinking about, now's the time to speak up."

Erik looks apprehensive all of sudden, about this mentor. He glances around, as if searching for words or an instruction on what to do. Things aren't just fancy trains anymore, things are starting to hint at the coming trouble, and even I feel a bit halted.

Erik shakes his head first. "I don't know anything," says Erik. "Not that will help me."

"Are you prepared to fight?"

Erik's eyebrows push together. "I don't think I can.. I mean, Bracken and I used to wrestle for fun, but I'm not big–"

"You're big enough to tackle a girl. There was that Seam girl from District Twelve, she's fourteen, but she's small enough for you to take down. Boys will know instinctively how to throw you off of them. Surprise them and the girls are your best bet. And for a weapon.. sling-shot will do you fine. No need for strength. Though aim will be needed, at least it's at a sizable distance. Can you run fast?"

I can tell Erik is winded by her talk. He's not had the time, or perhaps mental capacity to consider any of this. That's why even though I'm feeling a bit taken aback by the all business and seriousness of this conversation, I feel a surge of gratitude toward Cecelia, too. We have mentors for this reason, though most of them are usually too unstable to fulfill these needs. In retrospect you know they've been through the Games before. They know what's needed, what they have to prepare us for.

I'm still undecided how exactly to go about the Games, but she's ordering me to figure my motives out before I'm forced to decide at knife point. A decision that will potentially be regretted. I need to know what I'm capable of, my limits, long before I've crossed the invisible line and it's too late to go back.

Erik tells Cecelia he can run just fine and she encourages him to take a few laps during training. To me she says that I'll need to be defensive and stealthy, rather than act as an aggressor, considering my lack of muscle and girth. I debate it over while staring at my plate. "What if.." my voice fails me.

"What if?" she prompts.

"What is your advice on alliances?" I ask, finding boldness in my worry. What do you think I should do when I see Erik, starving or hurting? What about that girl from Twelve, smaller than Erik? Or any other tribute, big and small, that asks me for help and I'm unable to turn from them?

Woof stirs at my inquisition. He lifts his squinted eyes to my face and murmurs something to Cecelia that I don't quite understand or catch. She nods. "Both of us advise you against them, any of them. Don't trust Careers. Don't sleep next to anyone who you aren't absolutely prepared to give your life to. And don't.. just don't, make friends. It'll only be worse for both of you."

"However," Nissa cuts in for the first time. Her eyes are focused on buttering the piece toast in her hands, but you can hear the clipped tone of her voice. "The choice to make an alliance is completely up to you. Mentors give suggestions, not orders." She's smiling when she meets my gaze, and I see she has implanted jewels in her teeth. I wonder how much she makes a year. "If you were considering one, know that there are also benefits to banding together. I heard last year the statistics for having an alliance was a twenty percent increase to survival!"

Cecelia narrows her eyes at Nissa. "That's a statistic that counts for Careers, not for tributes from District Eight." Before there is a chance of argument, she turns to me, composed and says, "Do what you think you can bare to do. That's my suggestion." Then the conversation is over.

Since they are still eating and there's only so much time left before we reach the Capitol, I go wandering around the train. Anything to escape that heavy silence that had followed my question, really. I end up in the compartment of the train where we watched the reapings last night. The re-runs are still playing, but this time around after the reapings they pull up screens that list a bunch of facts about the individual tributes from each district. These lists are designated for the people who take bets or give their sponsorship. To me most of the facts seem pointless knowledge. When someone is deciding to sponsor or gamble money for a tribute they don't need to know how many family members a tribute has, or where they used to work, or what grades they had in school. Things that only seem to make them more human. Living breathing people who are the kids of someone, loved by a partner, befriended by neighbors.

With Cecelia's suggestions in mind and the sudden seriousness of the Games, I make more of an effort to absorb what I'm seeing. I can't hide from reality until the last moment. I can't decide to ignore the other tribute's existences until I'm taking it away from them. I have to face it now. I need to now my limitations, and what I'm capable of.

The tributes from District 1, 2, and 4 are the typical Careers. Most of them graduated from special academies that have trained them for the Hunger Games. The male tribute from District 1 has graduated the top of his class. He excelled in science and math, but I'm more curious about what sort of weapons he uses. I don't get to see, of course. That would be giving away something that could be an advantage. His name however, is Copper, and his slicked back hair makes me think of Bud. Not because they resemble each other in any way, but Bud usually comes home covered in grease from a day in factory maintenance and has a horrible knack of petting back his hair; the result something similar to Cooper's style.

Another Career who peeks my direct interest is the girl from District 2; Starlet. A smiley blonde who screams dangerous and reckless; where her district partner is sophisticated and gathered. She has two little sister, and that makes me wonder if she kisses them at night when they crawl into bed, if she holds their hands when they cross streets..

The twitchy girl from District 3 is named Emver. I'm captivated by her reaping, because she cries throughout the whole thing and I have an unspeakable urge to hug her. I didn't notice before, because all I could do was stare at her feet, as she stumbled and jerked her way to the stage. Now I'm forced to read the list. She worked for a company that made useful gadgets. She was a student who excelled in informational technology. District 3's male is eighteen, so are the two tributes from District 4. The girl of 4 volunteered, whereas the boy was pulled. They shook hands a little too long, smiling at each other, and she touched his shoulder briefly before they were escorted to the Justice Building. Friends or more?

I can't continue to watch after that. I'll face the humanity of the other fourteen tributes another day. Or tonight at the opening ceremony. Just not now. I flee toward my sleeping compartment, accidentally staggering into Woof who exits the dining just at the same moment. He pushes me into the wall on instinct and before I can think I fling out a hand, grasp his wrist and twist it away from my shoulder. Only when I see the pain on his face do I rip my hand away from the senile man.

"I'm so sorry," I say, reaching for his shoulder, to comfort, to apologize. I don't know what overcame me. All I could think was that he was touching me. He pushed me into a wall. Marcus said never to let them touch you, trap you. But Woof isn't a Peacekeeper. "I didn't mean–"

Woof moves away from my touch, his ghosted blue eyes glued onto my face. He isn't shocked, nor visibly upset, just mystified. He rubs at the wrist I'd snatched and I wordlessly look from the appendage to his face. I try to think of someway to mend this mistake. "Accident," he says to me and moves along the passage, disappearing into a compartment some ways down.

I watch him go for a few moments, before I turn my head and see within the dinning compartment Erik, Cecelia, and Nissa are staring at me. Erik looks away almost immediately, and Nissa turns her head to order one of the Capitol attendants to finish cleaning up their breakfasts.

I flee even faster to my room than beforehand.

Once inside my compartment I sit on the edge of the bed, decide I can't stay still, and begin to pace. I don't know how long I do. All I know is I'm dizzy by the time I reach out a blind hand, twist my fingers into the blankets and sink to the floor, curling up at the base of the bed.

I search painstakingly through my mind for a reason as to why I did that. Why had I reacted toward him (a vague-minded, wheezing old man, no less) in a violent way, on instinct, on a mere reflex, when it has always been my true instinct to shelter before harm? Am I capable to do more destruction than I previously thought? Could I not even understand my limitations?

Is this what Cecelia meant when she told us to enter the arena without doubt?

I never find out the answers to any of my questions. It's only a handful of minutes before a quiet knock on my door summons me to face the coming day. We're in the Capitol, and I haven't even realized it. I'm steps away from being submitted into the arms of my prep team. I've heard people at school wonder about these sorts of things; how they manage to make the tributes from 8 transform into strangers only within the span of a few hours, what they do to make it that way.

After following Nissa to the compartment everyone else is already standing around in, I distract my troubled thoughts by staring out the window and taking in the sight of the Capitol. Somehow it's more beautiful in person than on television. Bright and idealistic, hues of any and every color. Impossibly it makes me miss home. District 8, gray and lifeless, where the only grass you can find is patchy and yellow, and the only tree I've ever seen was sickly and far beyond reach, ten to twenty feet beyond the electric gate that circles the district.

Nissa is telling Erik tales of how magnificent it is on the inside. How wonderful it is that we get to live in luxury for the coming week before the Games begin. Even Cecelia slips in a good word about the food and the decor.

When the train comes to a stop we're swept away immediately into the Remake Center. I lose my mentors and Erik quickly, with the heavy hands of one of my prep team members on my shoulders, guiding me away. The elevator ride is dizzying. "Keera, right?" the woman says to me in the most cringe-worthy affected accent I really do cringe.

"Yes, I'm Keera. And you are.." I take my first good look at her. Since she'd simply stepped forward and pulled me away from everyone else, the same as Erik's prep team member, I never got a good look at her face. Now, I'm stunted by the sight of her. Yes, I knew people in the Capitol were peculiar and had defected fashion senses, but..

"My name is Coral," the woman tells me, her scarlet lips scarcely parting. With a careless hand she throws the waves of striking red over her shoulder. A river of blood hanging from her head, sprouting from her high forehead where the skin is an only slightly less painful red-hue; more pink.

The others, I find quickly, are no less malformed. Coral is the friendliest, she natters goodheartedly about nothing, whereas Lynx, a critical-eyed man with spotted clothes and a shaved head similarly patterned, makes comments about the state they receive me in.

As soon as I'm out of the elevator Lynx forces me into a chair and observes me harshly. He makes many comments about the state of my nails, chipped and dirt-lined. He dislikes my hair. Makes a rude statement about my face; something about off-balanced and high cheekbones and wide eyes. Coral shakes her head and talks over him, telling me what they'll do to fix it. I do not like them very much already, but the first one to make any sort of move toward me is the third prep team member, Alsea, a plump woman with teased and curled blonde-green hair, and a buttery smile.

"Oh, look at you!" says Alsea. "I can't remember the last time we had someone so promising. Darling, you're going to be so pleased when we're finished. Everyone will be wanting to sponsor you." Not really. I smile despite the fact that her attempt to make this experience less uncomfortable is feeble at its best. Not to mention the general disinterest in District 8 that everyone in the Capitol seems to show.

"Thank you," I tell her, but Lynx steps forward to grasp me by the chin, to examine me. Immediately I avert my face from him. The movement reminds me too much of what Ethel does almost every time she squints down at me. I feel the skin of cheek tingling, waiting for the impending slap.

"You don't resist, we don't have a problem," says Lynx. I nod. And immediately they get to work on cleaning me up. I try to resist almost right off the bat, attempting to pull away, move back, using argumentative words if not pleading eyes. They ignore my worries and arguments, soon dropping their pleasant words. Even Alsea starts to get annoyed when they begin ripping off all my body hair and I continue to try to come up with reasons why they should leave it well alone. They have Lynx hold me down after I begin to flinch away from their wax applying.

Soon later, they begin to chatter above my protests as if I'm not even really there. Lynx's manicured nails are digging into the skin on my biceps, while his lips move at a frantic, gossipy rate. I glare at the woman, Coral, as she sits in front of me tearing strips off of my legs, that take the hair away with them.

For hours their hands fly from one piece of me to the next. Changing it to fit what they like. Tweaking here and there, where it's just not good enough. It fazes me the way I stare straight at Alsea's face for nearly half an hour going, with rare blinks and she does not acknowledge my gaze once. As if I am no more than a doll. They never pause to ask me what I like, what I want. Instead, they talk to each other about the tributes this year, who will die in the Bloodbath, who they would bet on if they were allowed.

When I hear Erik's name my eyes snap to Lynx's face. "It's a pity about the boy. He won't last five minutes off the plate. I was hoping to boast about some exciting kills from our tributes this year, but I reckon I do wonder how he'll die–"

"And what if he doesn't," I say, surprising even myself. "What if he wins."

They all look at me in various amusements. Lynx even laughs a bit, and Coral slaps him girlishly on the arm. "Oh, leave her alone. We can't expect her to understand how things work," says Alsea. And they go back to cleaning me up without even considering my statement.

I hate them. I hate them more than I want to, and less than I should.

After they finish waxing and plucking my body, cleaning my nails and face, and whatever else they deem necessary, they ask me to remove my clothing. I do so, though reluctantly. Marcus taught me what modesty was. To respect myself in every way I can. Told me never to let a boy hurt me. But these people are immune to nakedness. By the time I have a perfumed bath, am toweled down, lent a silk robe, I've forgotten what bareness means.

Coral lead me back to the torture chair, as the two other say something about getting Marvin, my stylist, and she leaves behind them as soon as I'm seated. For several minutes I'm left to stare at myself in the vanity mirror. A man, who I presume as Marvin, enters the room and wordlessly waves me over to a door that leads to a room with a simple sitting array and a table between. Windows line the far end wall.. is the far end wall, and below I can see the Capitol sprawling in all directions.

I sit on the couch across from my stylist and he pushes a button on the table. Food arrives. I realize I'm famished and dig in. I jump when Marvin says something, my hand extended toward a dish of plums. I look at him a moment, and nod, then continue eating.

Marvin looks affronted. "I asked you a question."

"Oh." I assumed he'd made a comment. It seemed that with my prep team I'd only been given orders or talked to in a way that required no response.. or merely frowned upon a response. "I didn't hear it, I'm sorry." I sit up and try to act polite. It's an awkward attempt. Since all I want to do is feel wounded by the prep team's behavior.

"How do you normally do you hair?" he asks in a clipped tone.

I observe him for a moment; his balding green hair, his startling purple shaded clothes. "I don't," I tell him simply.

"I see," he says, smiling now. He lifts a hand to his face and leans into it, propped up against the arm of the coach. "Coral seems to think you are the bun type. Lynx says it'll only conflict with that stubborn chin of yours. I seem to be leaning toward Alsea's advice. How do you feel about twists?"

I don't know much about hair. "I just want what is easiest. I want my family to recognize me."

"Then we will keep it simple. I'm willing to leave it down if you are willing to allow us to give you earrings."

"Earrings? As in, cut into my ears?"

"Simple enough, really. One little pinch. You see, I have planned a theme for this year. Your outfit requires these beautifully intricate pieces I designed. Just for you. Won't you wear them?"

I stare at him, unsure if I should tell him how I feel or not. When I am quiet for too long he smiles crookedly, leans across the table and offers me a long, skinny hand to shake. "Forgive me. I have not introduced myself. I am the marvolous Marvin Menthlus." His grin widens. "You remind me of one of my many daughters, Keera. You look very lost."

"I'm in the Capitol, with you, right here," I say. I'm unnerved for an odd reason that he should call me by my first name like an old friend. I don't know him. Or his daughters. I take the hand between us with hesitation. "It's nice of you to do all of this for me," I manage.

Marvin's lips turn down. "I'm not here to harm you. I'm here to help you get sponsors," he says.

"For the Games that I'm forced into, to die," I point out solemnly.

His eyes become hard. "You are a volunteer, have you forgotten? No one forced you into anything. Do not act ungrateful. I had hoped that my prep team did not exaggerate when they told me we received a whiner this year, but I was wrong to hope better of the savage children from the districts."

I'm no longer hungry and I tell him so after a few minutes of silence, as I stare out the window, teeth grinding together. Trying not to be angry, or hurt, or rightly insulted. Maybe he has a point. I did volunteer for this. I might be a victim, but I am a victim that willingly put the noose around my neck. I want to start acting like it, like I really want it this way, because if I didn't want it this way, that means to imply I wanted it the other way, with Aven in my place. No. I don't. I want it this way as much as I wanted it to be me that steals rather than any of the other orphans. Every time one of the children whimpered hungrily or Jak suckled nosily on my finger as a baby, only skin and bones.. I had to take those things from all those other people. Had to.

Not one protest crosses my lips as Marvin does my hair and polishes off the other's work. He ends up making the deal I never agreed to; leaving my hair down and piercing my ears as compromise. I resist the slight pinch of pain, before he applies a salve that instantly relieves it. "There, that wasn't so bad," Mavin sighs as he spins the chair around so we are face to face. He's smiling again, crookedly, one side of his face crinkling upward more than the other.

"No," I say.

"No, it wasn't. And you look breathtaking." I turn to investigate this claim, but he shakes his head. "Not yet. I want the dress on so we have a full effect." I don't disobey, but as he moves around my back, finding the mentioned dress, I reach a curious hand toward my ear. I feel oddly uneven, weighed down. The earrings are extravagant. They are the most expensive thing I've ever worn. Pure silver, encrusted with shining, pale gems. From an earring, my hand strays to my hair, silky feeling for the first time in my whole life. The only thing Marvin did to my hair was pull a few strands back at the temples, holding the hair in place with a clip at the back of my skull. My fingers dance across the item; a butterfly.

"What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of District Eight?" asks Marvin.

"Textiles," I answer immediately.

"Yes. Textiles are there main trade. They make clothing and every other fabric we can imagine. But I'm not talking about business wise. Appearance. We're all about appearances, stylists. So tell me. What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you picture District Eight the way it is?"

It takes me a moment, to understand what he's asking me. "I think of pollution. The smog. Gray."

"Gray and silver, they're basically the same, no?" says Marvin. I turn my head to find him critically examining a dress held out in front of him. My eyes are drawn in by the item that is both strange and beguiling to me. The dress is more strange than lovely. It's not something I had the ability to make, though that doesn't say much, when usually I deal with blankets or baskets or ropes more oft than dresses. While I wanted to turn away and act uninterested, I feel too curious.

"What fabric is that? I've never used that before." My mind skitters over every weave I've made, every new fabric the factory owner handed to my floor, or that Bracken told me about.

"No. You haven't. It's rather rare. Do you like it?"

I'm memorized by the way it ripples. At first the dress appears to be some kind of metal, like a mirror, reflecting off of its cool silver texture a rainbow of deformed images. But as Marvin shifts, he moves it, and the fabric shimmers, shines, and twists to the movement.

Marvin carefully places it over my head when I come to his beckon. The fabric is smooth and silky against my skin, and thin, falling to just above my knees. I glance back up at the mirror and watch myself move with intrigue. I'm more interested in the fluid nature of the dress than myself. Like water, falling down a stream, but gray and metallic. An outfit that makes my every move look graceful. I am a stranger, an alien, a shiny mutation with ash blonde hair and tinkling earrings and bright, green eyes. "I look strange. Jak.. he'd never know me," I say, touching my cheek.

"Is this Jak a special boy from home?" asks Marvin.

"Yes, very special," I breathe. "He's my baby."

Marvin doesn't understand that I'm being literal and I'm not just giving him a romanticized endearment. "Well I'm sure he'll be stunned by you tonight. Representing his district. I went with silver because recently I visited District Eight for the first time in the twenty years I've been their stylist. Can you believe it took me that long? And you can be sure I was taken aback by the amount of warehouses. All silver and scarred." He touches the dress near my thigh and makes the fabric dance. "I had to make this. Your district partner will be in a suit, similar to this, but since me and Dianna never can agree, she's decided to paint him silver, for added effect."

"Thank you," I say, turning to him. "For not painting me."

Marvin grin is shameless. "I would have," he tells me, honestly, "if I thought it was pretty. But that would be over-clutter."

I nod, appreciating the lack of lies. If anything I look older, and much less like the short, skinny girl with knotted hair who originally walked in here. Two hands run down the length of the dress, running over my hips, and I watch a strange girl in the reflection mirror my movements.

I could have a chance at sponsors looking like this. The girl in the mirror could use a few sponsors. Dying of starvation is a slow, painstaking process, where a few groans will probably escape my mouth, just waiting to meet the fragile ears Arthur possesses. Maybe I could make it a few days into the Games, if I had sponsors watching out for me. Do I want to last a few days? Stand around and watch people fall around me? Run when I see the enemy? Hide? More importantly, could I?

Marvin touches my cheek when I am staring so intently in my own face anyone should be concerned.

"You will be radiant," he assures me.

I smile as best I can in return.

Afterward, he tells me it is just about time for the ceremony. We take the elevator down to a floor already bustling with other tributes, mentors, and stylists. It's not loud or lively, instead, it is suppressed and subdue, as everyone stands strictly next to their own carriages. Marvin easily points out the eighth carriage and I rush toward the sight of Nissa, Eric, and Cecelia.

"Where's Woof?" I ask. I can still feel the guilt claw at my stomach at the thought of this morning.

"Sleeping. I left him to his peace," says Cecelia. She overlooks me and praises Marvin for his work when he comes to my side. I throw her a distracted smile for her compliment, but my eyes are distracted by Eric, standing stiffly behind her.

I have an urge to reach out my hands and swipe my thumbs across his cheeks. To clean away all the shimmering body spray that coats his face, from jowls to hairline. Underneath, I can barely detect the blush, as Erik stares at his toes. Arthur, I decide. He reminds me of Arthur the most, and I can't help thinking that is the worst one. The most easily hurt or frightened. Who cried at the mere change of my tone when he almost let slip Cayleb's existence in my life to Bracken. If I thought my prep team encounter was unpleasant, call me a selfish being for not considering Erik's.

For the few minutes it takes for the opening ceremony to begin, I stand next to the group, off to the side, trying to act distracted. My hands are unable to stay at my sides as I my fingers itch to trace over the earrings swaying from my ear lobes and multiple times Nissa tells me to stop fidgeting with them.

Cecelia tells Erik and I to smile and wave and be pleasant. She pats Erik on the shoulder, then turns to me and pulls a lock of hair behind my ear with a swift hand. "Smile, Keera," she says, more earnestly, before urging us onto the carriage.

Erik has trouble climbing up in his fancy little suit. My hand is instinctive when it reaches up and presses lightly into his lower back, aiding him ahead of me. He turns around to watch me climb in after him and I smile at him, the first true smile of the day.

Erik turns away, either embarrassed or frightened. I'm afraid to know.

As we wait for our turn to be pulled out to the City Center, my eyes trace the massive silhouette of the male tribute from District 7. He's got a ridiculous crown of greenery on his head, only adding to his height, not to mention the amount of bare skin his leafy entourage manages to show. Tan skin, tight and heavy coiled muscles clinging to his limbs. I shudder from staring too long, and turn my eyes away, before I allow my imagination to run wild. Unfortunately I avert my gaze to his district partner; a much, much smaller girl, who from what I can see has an extreme head of poofed brown curls, scarcely tamed by a stylists attempt of gel and ties and bands. Almost as if sensing my stare, the girl turns her head, and catches my eyes with wild brown ones. By her face I can see she's my senior by many years, maybe even eighteen. Her sneer is brief, but there, before she turns away again.

Out the corner of my eye Erik is shaking. "Do you know her?" he whispers to me.

I'm surprised that he's spoken, since he's never tried to before, but I'm pleased, too. "No," I say. "I can't remember her name at all."

"She looks like she hates you."

"She hates all of us. We're standing in her way from going home," I say, numbly, before I realize that is not something Erik should hear. I cover my mistake. "But really, she's just scared. Like you and me. We're all scared. She's just hoping that I'll be so scared of her I won't see her own fear."

"You really think so?" asks Erik, blue eyes suddenly intense in mine. They flicker to the District 7 chariot as it lurches into motion, lingering on the male tribute. "And him? Is he scared, too?"

"Everyone. Even him."

"But he's so big," says Erik.

"Yes. He's big and your small and I'm blonde and that girl has brown eyes. That doesn't mean they're not scared or that they aren't just like us. Children.." my voice trails off, as my mind makes a million connects at once. Brown eyes like Aven or Felecia. Short like Jak. Tall like Bud. Starlet from District 2, smiley like Bracken. I force myself to shake my head as our chariot begins to move and we're nearing the exit. "Just because they don't look like you, or act the same way, doesn't mean they aren't capable of feeling what we do."

Erik's voice is quiet. "Could they miss their family, like I do?"

"Yes," I say. My eyes close briefly. "Just like it."

"And do they–" Whatever it was that Erik wanted to know, I never get to hear, because the instant we are outside, in the street, his quiet voice is swallowed by the monstrosity of the Capitol. There are people everywhere, and noise, and lights. I try not to squint, and remember to smile at the last moment.

As we near the president's mansion, I realize throughout the whole loop of the City Center I've had a hand up near my ear, fidgeting and twisting the earrings around my fingers. I force the arm to my side as we pause to hear the President's welcoming words. I would be lying if I didn't say I was tense throughout the whole ceremony; my ears pained by the loud noise, my eyes straying to the screen whenever Eric or I were briefly shown, wondering what my kids were thinking, what Cayleb saw, how Bracken would feel when he saw Erik and I standing next to each other, only a few days away from slaughter.

I'm sighing at the sight of the Training Center. We're nearly upon it when Erik mutters something I don't catch above the roaring crowd. I bend closer. "What?"

"Do you think Bracken is watching us now?" he asks me, his eyes flickering everywhere but to me.

It is a stupid question, really. Of course Bracken is watching this. Everyone has to watch. He knows that, because he's been forced to watch the Hunger Games his entire life. But I can see the sadness in his eyes from where I stand.

"Yes," I whisper back to him. "He's still watching over you."

Erik eyes fly to me, confused by the wording, but I have no answer. I've spotted a Peacekeeper, all dressed in white, standing at the doors of the Training Center and as we are pulled passed him, even though he looks nothing like Cayleb, I'm thinking of my Peacekeeper from home. Missing him so certainly and suddenly, I jump from the chariot the moment it stops. I don't bother greeting Cecelia or Marvin or Nissa, who await me there. Nissa shouts after my back that we're on the eighth floor. Now that she's given me an escape route I maneuver toward the elevators, set on fleeing this loud, echoed room full of people I don't want to look at.

I'm eager to find a sink and wash my face in it. I press the elevator button, then glance at my feet and press it about twenty more times. As I'm waiting I reach for the earrings and pull them from my ears, tossing them to the ground without thinking. They would be enough to feed my whole family for months, and Marvin put them in my ears as though they were nothing more than an accessory. They should be more.

When the doors open I step inside and flinch when another figure slips in beside me, not two moments later. Behind them another person follows, and then another. Three people I hadn't noticed heading my way. I think instantly of the coming arena. If that happened then I would be dead already. Fortunately this is only an elevator.

The three people turn up to be both tributes from District 1, and their mentor, Gloss. The female tribute was the one to slip in first, whisking in front of me, hand reaching for the display of buttons. Her name flits into my mind: Flutter. She is thin-lipped and has brunt auburn hair that is twisted onto the top of her head. Her outfit of glittering diamonds, knotted into a strategically placed net of metal chain, scarcely covers all her pink bits, screaming flawlessness in every form. She sees me looking at her with one glance over her shoulder. "Children," she mutters and Gloss laughs uproariously.

"What floor?" asks Flutter.

I realize the question is directed at me one moment too late.

"Keera's from Eight," says Copper without batting an eye.

The ride is short, since they are only on the first floor, being from District 1, but throughout the whole ride my eyes are peeking at Copper, trying to figure him out. He is taller than he appeared on camera, towering at least a head over me. My stomach lurches to my feet when they exit and he is the last one to leave. I know he knows I've been staring at him, when he turns around, still walking away and winks at me. "Pretty dress," he mouths before the doors close and I'm left flushed and unsettled.

When I reach the eighth floor I realize I really do need Nissa and all those other people I've left behind. If they were there, District 1 wouldn't have fit into the elevator with me. I wouldn't have been left alone to face the Careers. The nerve fraying boy from District 1 who seems so composed and intelligence I feel like a little girl underneath the sharp, precision-filled gaze of his black eyes. Or how much less of a woman I felt when I was doused in Flutter's presence and the butt end of her snarks.

A Capitol attendant finds me standing lost outside the elevator and points me to my room. I thank them profusely before entering and locking the door behind me. I strip, find the shower and wash away the mask. For a moment, I examine myself in front of the mirror, critically, before I feel an urge to wrap my arms around myself. I dress into night clothes, tie my hair with a rubber band and find the bed.

Nissa comes to summon me to watch the re-playings of the opening ceremony. When no amount of pounding on my door would rouse me, Cecelia arrives, her voice somehow softer, yet more stern than Nissa's. I sit up at her continuous request to join them in the television room. Feel an urge to come when she asks me if anything is wrong and that she's a mentor because she's supposed to help tributes. I'm across the room when she asks if it's about something that happened.

"No," I say, loud enough to hear through the door, when she asks if it's because of my rough time with my prep team. "It wasn't them. They were excellent. I looked great thanks to them and Marvin."

"Then what's the matter?" asks Cecelia, rattling the doorknob.

"Just.. trying to do what you said," I say. "Just trying to figure everything out before it's too late."

"Need help?"

I laugh. A high and unnatural sound. "How?"

"Well I'm full of handy advice. Is this.. about that alliance question you had this morning? Are you still wanting one?"

I pull the door open, so that I can see her face, wondering if it would be disappointed. It isn't. Cecelia is composed and meeting my gaze. "What would you tell me if I told you I couldn't kill anyone?"

"I would tell you that I admire you. I've met a lot of kids who swore that same thing, and who, when the time came, killed just the same. But I've also met a rare amount of kids who said they could kill and ended up incapable, or never got a chance to test that promise. Are you telling me you can't kill anyone, Keera?"

"Should I know?"

Now it is Cecelia who laughs, softly, shortly. "No," she says. "No one knows."

It terrifies me not to know. Not to know what I'm capable of. "I don't think I can. I think about my children and I see them in everyone. Even you. I see Felecia in you, in Nissa. Bud in Copper. Arthur in that girl from Seven. Sometimes I think I'm just obsessing, or I'm missing them too much.. but.. other times, I know I'm not really seeing them. I'm just seeing the person beyond the face. I'm trying to find the kid in them, because.. well I don't even know why. I don't want to kill anyone. Not Erik. Never Erik. And I've been thinking about it, if I would kill the Careers. That girl from One, who made me feel so awful about myself in only one word and look... I can't.. I would be her alliance member, if she asked."

"Really?"

"Yes, and I know it's stupid. She would kill me in a heartbeat. So would all the other Careers. But I would. Even if I have to sit up all night to make sure no one slits my throat, or maybe I'd do it just to watch their backs for them, I'm not sure which. Both? All I know is I would." And I just don't know why.

Cecelia seems bemused by my sudden list of confessions, or maybe it is the mention of 'my' children. I feel sheepish for spilling it all to her, but she had offered to help. And it feels unbelievably nice to say it out-loud. I try to think of someone in my normal life that I could spill such thoughts to, all my worries and frets, but no one immediately comes up. I don't like telling Aven, in fear of putting strain on her. I don't tell Bracken, because we hardly ever interacted as friends until recently. Bud and the other children wouldn't understand much. The only person I conjure up is Cayleb. An image of him as he scolds me on the walks home from my most recent job. Since he knows I won't listen, he only halfheartedly tells me that he wishes I'd stop stealing and that he would really like if I did, and I recall how I would reply to him by telling him about all the little things the children do that make me do it. Jak crying and whimpering, sucking hungrily at my hair at night. Felecia losing weight or licking her plate after eating. Bud's disappointed sigh. Aven's sharp jawline. He knows I see these things, that I despair over my children, and adore them more than my own life.

What would he say to me if I told him I was willing to take an alliance with anyone who asked for my protect and loyalty? Shudder, probably, at my idiocy, my naïve instinct, my fatal lack of self-preservation.

Cecelia doesn't do that. She merely pats me on the arm and invites me to dinner for the hundredth time. Her smile says that she's out of advice, that she doesn't want to tell me what I'm thinking is impossible.

Who knows? Maybe I'll die with a hand extend toward my killer in appeal. In my mind that's better than being the one who cut another person down.