I choose a place towards the front of the crowd, already knowing my fate. Coin stands on the balcony above the stage where my grandfather once stood, looking down on her newest puppets. I know that the cards inside that bowl are blank, that the Effie woman has memorised a predetermined list.
"Isaura Finch!" She calls. "Landon Cartier" is next. "Fleur Delaurentis" follows, then "Byron Kendall". By the time "Melodie Snow" is called they finally catch on, and I see the girl's face twist unpleasantly. Katniss watches me as I take my place in the tribute's line.
My grandfather and I were never close and I never forgave him for the things he did, but I still felt that tug as her arrow pierced his chest. I didn't think I would mind losing him after everything he put us through but in truth it just felt wrong. As awful as he was, he was family.
The crowd deteriorates quickly until almost a tenth of us become tributes. The capitol citizens aren't big on kids, most spend too much of their time at social events to care for children. Most women don't want to ruin their tiny bodies so most will be the children of older residents. The reaping will seriously damage the gene pool, not that Coin cares; soon she will replace us with others from thirteen.
After the final names are called Peeta and Katniss leave the stage, and I can feel both their eyes on me. I try to look unemotional, even blank, although the others around me weep openly. I feel exposed with all the cameras aimed at us, like an ant under a magnifying glass.
After Coin gives a speech to the districts we are taken to the remake centre. I'm told that I'm representing twelve just as I expected. Peacekeepers escort us down the long corridors, pushing one into each room. Eventually only I remain, he leads me to the final room. "Stay there until your team gets here." He says, slamming the door as he backs out again.
The room is not so bad, but the faint smell of bleach and the cold white walls and floor remind me of the medical centre. I stand leaning against the metal table in the centre of the room just so I can no longer see it, until eventually three people whom I recognise appear at the door.
"I can't believe they let us work with you!" The one with the green skin screeches, taking me by surprise. "We're the only prep team who have done this before, but we all wanted to work with you. We were Katniss's team." She says.
"I'm Flavius" says the man with the orange hair, putting his hand on my shoulder. I'm not used to being touched by strangers, up until a few hours ago I had rarely talked to anybody but my carers in years.
"Hello Melodie, my name is Venia and this is my friend Octavia. We're here to prepare you for your stylist."
"Not that there will be too much to do" says Octavia. "You should have seen Katniss when she got here, she was filthy!"
"Well, this should not be too bad for you all this year, just a little touch-up. There's nothing too drastic to do, just lie down and relax." Flavius says.
The next hour or so is draining, there seems to be more work to be done than they expected. I may live in the capitol, but I have never understood why I would need to make so much effort just to stay locked in my little tower like the characters in the books my mother used to read me.
After being scrubbed, waxed and trimmed in every way possible, Venia and Octavia finally leave me with Flavius. I'm given a flimsy bath robe and placed in a chair to have my hair washed and styled. Even after the pile of hair around the chair seems to be enough for another person, much of it still hangs in thick, dark blonde curls around my face.
"I have an idea. Let's just leave it alone and dye it instead." He says, and I nod my head in agreement. I don't care too much as long as he finishes soon; my stomach has begun to growl loudly. I'm not used to waiting for food, but I guess it's about time to learn. I close my eyes and allow him to do whatever he wishes, exhausted already.
"Finally!" He shouts after a while, making me jump violently. He turns me around so that I can see myself in the mirror, and I'm pleased to see that I still look like myself. My hair is palest blonde, and dotted with tiny flecks of glitter. "You're ready for Cillian now." He says.
I'm lead through a door to a small, comfortable looking room. Flavius leaves me finally, so I stand waiting for my stylist not quite sure what to do. Luckily the man appears after only a few minutes, smiling softly so that I feel at ease almost instantly.
"Hello I'm Cillian. I'll be your stylist this year." He says. He is dressed simply, with none of the signs of living in the capitol. He reminds me of somebody I know, but it takes me a moment to get it.
"You look just like Cinna." I say, but once the words leave my mouth I begin to wonder if they should have stayed in my head. Luckily, though, he speaks softly and does not seem offended.
"I thought you might be familiar with my brother, he did such a good job with your mentor." He says. "Not many of us are left now, and although this is my first time it is also my last so I intend to do my best." He says.
"Please, sit down. You must be hungry by now." He says. We sit on the plush sofa and he pushes the button for our food to arrive. We eat without talking, and I appreciate the silence as for the first time today I can think clearly.
"So, as you may have guessed things will be a little different this year. Tributes usually meet their mentors and fellow tribute on the train, but you were already here. We're going to do the parade first; you will meet Elias and your mentors there. Now, let me show you the plans. We're not doing district themes this year, as you're all from the capitol. Anything goes." he says. I don't know if I should be afraid or relieved, but if he is anything like Cinna I know I should trust him.
The carriages await us at the bottom on the remake centre; I'm one of the first to arrive. I spot Katniss and Peeta instantly, but hesitate for a few moments. I had rooted for them during both games, but the girl killed my grandfather and the boy was tortured by his people. The more I stand the more apprehension builds up, so I put on a brave face and walk slowly in their direction.
I'm surprised to find that I know my fellow tribute that waits with them; he was in my defence class when we were younger. He looks so different now of course, but those pure green eyes still pierce out against his dark skin as he looks up and notices me so I know it could never be anyone else.
I remember hating those classes at first, everyone there was the child of my grandfather's employees so stayed well away from me as if I was an angry viper. Elias, on the other hand, was the only child to come and talk to me without being forced by a parent. Although the gestures were small, I appreciated them so much that I remember them all clearly.
Three months in I broke his nose with a clumsy kick and I was sure he would hate me, but after treatment he came and told me that he knew it was an accident and I shouldn't feel bad. Things that seem so insignificant now made me feel so much better. I just hope that somebody else kills him because if it comes down to the two of us, I know I could never hurt him.
"Mel!" calls Elias when I get close enough, beckoning me closer. I'm relieved to see his outfit is similar to mine but not identical, I hated the twin act that my mentors were made to do. Peeta greets me first which calms me, his handshake is firm and steady. "Nervous?" he asks.
"Only a lot" I say, letting out a short, awkward laugh.
"Keep your head up, stand tall and proud. Most of the crowd are from the districts, and all they want is a show. Cillian and Ana have designed these costumes to make you two stand out. There's no point in trying to blend in, you're already the main target just like Peeta and I last year." says Katniss.
"Just try to stay calm and you'll be fine. Go with whatever feels natural. Each district has been given an allowance to spend on sponsorship to make it as much like all the other years as possible. We want you to do well; although some of these people are angry enough to enjoy this most are just normal people being forced to participate. You two go out there and show them why you're worth supporting." He says.
I feel a little better, I had never thought that perhaps not everyone is the districts was purely out for my blood. Some will be, but the comfort comes from the small percentages that are not.
The opening ceremony is about to begin, so Katniss helps me into the rest of my costume. Over the pure white gown she fastens a thin mesh covered in tiny stars, glowing subtly but bright enough to draw the eye. The materials are so light that they dance in the slightest breeze, floating around my legs as if there was no gravity. She places the crystal headdress over my hair and smiles, but her eyes stay sad. "I'm sorry." She says, but I don't have time to question the gesture because the carriages are about to move.
"Ready?" says Elias.
The opening music begins, blasted around the capitol as the doors slide open.
"As ready as I'll ever be." I say, as the carriages begin their journey to the city circle. I notice the other pairs represent various capitol images; some dyed strange colours or wearing large wigs. They don't look too dissimilar to other capitol residents at a ball.
Most of the crowd seems to be made up of people from the districts, for most it must be their first time in the capitol. The capitol residents don't line the streets this time, we are there children and they can finally understand that this is sad. This is not a celebration; we are being shown off like the dishes on a table before the banquet is served.
I catch glimpses of Elias and I in the screens as we pass, and know that we're different to everyone else. His suit is tasteful and plain, just the hemlines have a gentle glow. The pure lily pinned to his jacket matches me, and I'm so happy that I am not dressed like the others whose colours seem so harsh against the half-light. By the time we get to the end of our journey it is dark and our glistening still seems to have everyone looking at us.
When we get to the city circle I realise that Elias' hand is in mine, that he is the only reason I felt so brave. He smiles at me and I feel just like that day so many years ago, the last time he saved me from being alone. I'm glad that at least one person I like will be around for the next few days, but I try to remind myself that we can't both survive. Katniss and Peeta may have been lucky, but there's no way Coin will allow it this time.
Coin gives the official welcome on the balcony, her hair still in an unbroken sheet of grey although the wind is getting stronger. We, like Katniss and Peeta, seem to grow harder to look away from as it gets darker. I blank out her voice booming over our city and concentrate on the gentle waving of the Panem flag behind her. It seems so peaceful out here, but I'm more than aware that this is our calm before the storm.
When it is over the doors shut behind us back at the remake centre and I climb down from the carriage to greet my mentors once again.
"You looked amazing, both of you. This is exactly what Cillian and I were going for – gentle and pure." Says a woman I assume to be Elias' stylist Ana.
"That isn't going to do them any favours in the arena." Says a voice from behind Katniss, and I recognise him immediately as her mentor in both games, Haymitch.
"Ignore him, you'll be fine. We want them to see you as yourself, not as your grandfather." says Peeta, giving me a reassuring smile.
Haymitch mutters something which sounds like it may have been offensive, before giving us one last look and disappearing back into the crowd of tributes and mentors. Finally, we are allowed to leave and travel to the center which will become our home for the next few weeks.
The tribute tower is nothing new to me; it is basically a larger version of the place in which I have lived for the last five years. We take the elevator up to the top floor and Katniss tells us to go rest.
The first thing I do is programme the interactive wall to a view of the city because it's so similar to the view from my bedroom window that it provides a little comfort. I look in the drawers and find a bottle of makeup remover and some cotton buds. As much as I like my costume, I'm ready to be me again.
The shower is overcomplicated compared to mine at home; so many buttons do the same thing. The entire building is designed to show the grandeur of the capitol to district kids, but we know all of their tricks. When the last fleck of glitter has left my body I step out and place my hand on the panel to dry my hair. Even after killing all that time nobody has called for dinner, so I take a simple dress from the drawer then go back to the sitting room. Katniss sits alone on the sofa, her head resting in her palms.
"Hey." I say quietly.
"Hey" She replies. I sit next to her for a little while until suddenly she stands up and smiles.
"I've got something to show you" She says, and I follow her up a flight of stairs onto the roof. There's a small dome-shaped room with a door to the outside. We step outside into the cool night air and I gasp. The city lights look so beautiful, even better than from my room at home.
"This is where I came the first night, up here with Peeta" she says. We stand at the railings on the edge of the roof and look down on the empty streets.
"It's so much nicer from up here than down there, I suppose that's why my mother chose my home. See that stone tower just behind the mansion?" I ask her. "That was my home until today. My grandfather seemed to like the out of sight out of mind approach after my mother was killed."
"I guess I never imagined that you would be like this. I suppose I brought you up here to say I'm sorry. I know it doesn't help, but Coin wanted us to choose while I was still angry. She has us trapped, we simply have to do what she says for the next few weeks and then maybe she'll leave us alone." she says.
"I understand, Katniss. She would have done this whether you agreed or not, she's just like my grandfather. I'm sorry for what he did to you and your friends, but I want you to know that he hurt us too. It's his fault that my mother is dead, and it's his fault that I'm a tribute now. Please Katniss, don't blame yourself." I say.
She finally smiles, then breaks from her trance and turns away from the balcony. "Come on, you still need to meet Effie and Haymitch. It's almost time for dinner. Try not to get too offended, he's rude to everybody."
When Katniss and I get to the dining room everyone is already there. The woman stands to greet me, but Haymitch doesn't even acknowledge us. We load our plates up at last; it seems that Effie had made them wait for us before starting. I sit opposite Elias and take note of who is here. I count seven, somebody is missing. "Isn't Peeta joining us?" I ask, but Katniss and Haymitch just glance briefly at each other and then back down at their plates leaving me without an answer.
The stylists discuss the parade with Effie and she tells them about all of the people who mentioned that they couldn't look away from us. She seems a little strange, her wig sits at an awkward angle and she keeps stopping mid sentence every now and again or losing track of what she was saying. I wonder if she was always like this, or what could have been done to her to make her seem so unhinged.
We're offered glasses of golden liquid by an Avox; I take one and sip it slowly. The bubbles tickle my tongue and after a while my head becomes foggy. We're served all kinds of dishes, but I notice Katniss eats nothing but lamb stew. Eventually Elias stands to leave and I follow him, hoping that for the first time today I could talk to him alone. He's a little ahead of me so I follow him into the sitting room.
"You know Mel, you used to just call me Eli." He says.
"Okay then Eli, mind if I join you?" I ask.
He pats the cushion next to him and gestures for me to sit. He tucks his legs up under him and I mirror him. I can't believe how comfortable he still is with me even after all this time.
"I never thought for a moment that the next time we met would be like this. You and I, thrown together again." He says.
"Do you really think either of us has a chance?" I ask him quietly.
"I think we've got a better chance than some of the others. After all, we have the best mentors. Coin thinks she is punishing you by giving you to Katniss, but she's doing us a favour. Barely any real mentors survived, some of the tributes have mentors who were never even in the games. Don't give up before you've even started." He says, resting his hand on my knee.
"I've missed you all these years. Where have you been hiding?" I ask
"I've been right here, Mel. I tried plenty of times to come see you whenever I could escape the minder, but every time I pressed the intercom a woman on the other end told me you were out. After a while I assumed that you didn't want to see me and came less often. I was there last night, but there was no answer at all." He says.
"Eli, I barely left that tower for five years. My grandfather didn't want anyone near me after my mother was killed, and here I am again in the same situation. I'm sorry that I kept you waiting." I say.
I notice Katniss in the doorway and wonder how long she has been listening. "I always imagined capitol children as kind of... free." She says.
"They don't have much time for us until we're eighteen, old enough to take to their parties and show off like prizes." I tell her.
"Come on girls, that's enough doom and gloom. At least one of us will be dead in a few weeks; I think we need a little cheering up." says Elias.
Although we have just finished eating and none of us are hungry we order cake and watch the recap of the opening ceremony. Most of the costumes seem like they were thrown together clumsily, I've heard that not many stylists survived the rebellion. We stand out from the crowd, Elias and I glowing softly in the darkness. The fear that I felt doesn't show on my face, Elias's hand must have stopped my shaking well enough that it was not picked up by the cameras.
This year, however, we are not the only ones to stand linked together. Most of the capitol children will already know each other, most are friends. I suppose I'm lucky that I only know Eli closely; although I recognise many of the others I have no attachments to them. The others are not so lucky; those who were not privately tutored like Elias and I will have gone to school together.
Once the recap is over I go back to my room and crawl underneath the soft sheets and don't even bother to remove my clothes. Training starts tomorrow, and if I'm this exhausted after my first day I know that the next will be even harder. I drift off easily, almost as soon as my head hits the pillow.