"Guess it's my turn to read," said Ryan picking up the book.
R-I-I-I-P! I grit my teeth as Venia, a woman with aqua hair and gold tattoos above her eyebrows, yanks a strip of fabric from my leg, tearing out the hair beneath it.
"Ouch," all the men shouted out in sympathy. Rose and Sophie simply nodded.
"See not that easy to be a woman is it," said Sophie.
"Sorry!" she pipes in her silly Capitol accent. "You're just so hairy!"
"Isn't everyone, isn't it natural to be hairy?" asked Ryan.
"Apparently not in the Capitol it isn't," answered Finn.
Why do these people speak in such a high pitch? Why do their jaws barely open when they talk? Why do the ends of the sentence go up as if they're asking a question? Odd vowels, clipped words, and always a hiss on the letter s… no wonder it's impossible not to mimic them.
"What's wrong with the Capitol accent?" said Ryan mimicking the Capitol accent almost perfectly. Everyone laughed.
"The accent is getting better Ryan," commented Finn.
"He's had enough practice, he always mimics their accent every time he goes there, much to their annoyance," said Matthew.
"It's their own fault, they shouldn't sound so stupid," said Ryan.
Venia makes what's supposed to be a sympathetic face. "Good news, though. This is the last one. Ready?" I get a grip on the edges of the table I'm seated on and nod. The final swathe of my leg hair is uprooted in a painful jerk.
I've been in the Remake Centre for more than three hours and I still haven't met my stylist. Apparently he has no interest in seeing me until Venia and the other members of my prep team have addressed some obvious problems.
"Wait a second they spent three hours getting her ready to just see her stylist?" said Sophie shocked.
"For Aunt Katniss doesn't seem long enough," said Ryan but regretted the moment he saw the look on Rose's face.
This has included scrubbing down my body with a gritty foam that has removed not only dirt but at least three layers of skin, turning my nails into uniform shape, and primarily, ridding my body of hair. My legs, arms, torso, underarms and parts of my eyebrows have been stripped of the stuff, leaving me like a plucked bird, ready for roasting. I don't like it. My skin feels sore and tingly and intensely vulnerable. But I have kept my side of the bargain with Haymitch, and no objection has crossed my lips.
"Well beauty hurts," said Sophie.
"Please, the Capitol look is hardly beautiful," sneered Rose.
"You're doing very well," says some guy named Flavius. He gives his orange corkscrew locks a shake and applies a fresh coat of purple lipstick to his mouth.
"I thought Mum said that Flavius was a man?" said Matthew.
"It's the Capitol, a man wearing makeup is hardly shocking," replied Finn.
"If there's one thing we can't stand, it's a whiner. Grease her down!"
Venia and Octavia, a plump woman whose entire body has been dyed a pale shade of pea green, rub me down with a lotion that first stings but then soothes my raw skin. Then they pull me from the table, removing the thin robe I've been allowed to wear off and on. I stand there, completely naked, as the three circle me, wielding tweezers to remove any last bits of hair. I know I should be embarrassed, but they're so unlike people that I'm no more self-conscious than if a trio of oddly coloured birds were pecking around my feet.
The three step back and admire their work. "Excellent! You almost look like a human being now!" says Flavius, and they all laugh.
"That's rich coming from people who dress like cartoon characters everyday of their lives," sneered Rose.
"I'm sure they say that to all the people from the districts, how the District's dress is probably alien to them," said Finn trying to soothe Rose's anger.
"Doesn't mean that they're not human," huffed Rose.
I force my lips into a smile to show how grateful I am. "Thank you," I say sweetly. "We don't have much cause to look nice in District Twelve."
"Even if Mum did live in the Capitol, she'd probably dress the exact same way," said Matthew.
"Dad has to practically force her into a dress when they go to a party," added Rose.
This wins them over completely. "Of course you don't, you poor darling!" says Octavia, clasping her hands together in distress for me.
"But don't worry," says Venia. "By the time Cinna is through with you, you're going to be absolutely gorgeous!"
"So she's going to look like she belongs in the circus," said Rose bitterly.
"We promise! You know, now that we've got rid of all the hair and filth, you're not horrible at all!" says Flavius encouragingly. "Let's call Cinna!"
They dart out of the room. It's hard to hate my prep team. They're such total idiots.
"I find it easy to hate them, especially after what they said about Mum," said Rose.
"They really are a bunch of idiots," agreed Matthew.
"They're from the Capitol, their all idiots there," said Ryan.
And yet, in an odd way, I know they're sincerely trying to help me.
I look at the cold white walls and floor and resist the impulse to retrieve my robes. But this Cinna, my stylist, will surely make me remove it at once. Instead my hands go to my hairdo, the one area of my body my prep team had been told to leave alone. My fingers stroke the silky braids my mother so carefully arranged. My mother. I left my blue dress and shoes on the floor of my train car, never thinking about retrieving them, of trying to hold on to a piece of her, of home. Now I wish I had.
"I thought that was an important dress to her Mum," said Sophie.
"I don't think her Mum will care about the dress, as long as her daughter is alive," said Sophie.
The door opens and a young man who must be Cinna enters. I'm taken aback by how normal her looks.
"Is she sure he's from the Capitol, normal isn't exactly the Capitol way?" asks Ryan.
Most of the stylists they interview on television are so dyed, stencilled and surgically altered they're grotesque.
"That's not just the stylist that is everyone that's on the television from the Capitol," said Sophie.
But Cinna's close-cropped hair appears to be natural shade of brown. He's in a simple black shirt and trousers. The only concession to self-alteration seems to be metallic gold eye liner that has been applied with a light hand. It brings out the flecks of gold in his green eyes.
"He doesn't sound so bad, plus gold eyeliner actually looks pretty cool," Ryan said that got some strange looks from his friends. "What it does?"
"Yeah it does, if you're a woman," said Matthew.
And, despite my disgust with the Capitol and their hideous fashions, I can't help thinking how attractive he looks.
"See chick's dig it," Ryan pointed out.
"Fine, for your birthday I'll buy you some gold eyeliner," Finn relented.
"That works out well it will go well with that gold dress that I've already brought you," Sophie said to everyone's amusement except Ryan who put his middle finger up to her.
"Hello Katniss. I'm Cinna, your stylist," he says in a quiet voice somewhat lacking the Capitol's affectations.
"Hello," I venture cautiously.
"Just give me a moment, all right?" he asks. He walks around my naked body, not touching me, but taking in every centimetre of it with his eyes. I resist the urge to cross my arms over my chest. "Who did your hair?"
"What is about the Capitol that they think that they can look at people like they're animals in the zoo," said Rose annoyed.
"My mother," I say.
"It's beautiful. Classic, really. And in almost perfect balance with your profile. She has very clever fingers," he says.
"In almost perfect balance with your profile, what does that even mean?" asks Matthew.
"That's probably why you're not a stylist, they need to know that kind of thing," said Finn.
"Ok wise guy, what does it mean?" says Ryan.
"No idea," answered Finn.
I had expected someone flamboyant, someone older trying desperately to look young, someone who views me as a piece of meat to be prepared for a platter.
"Please no one looks old in the Capitol, they have too many surgeries to stop the effects of age," said Rose.
Cinna has met none of my expectations.
"You're new, aren't you? I don't think I've seen you before," I say. Most of the stylists are familiar, constants in the ever-changing pool of tributes. Some have been around my whole life.
"I couldn't do that job, meet people and develop a relationship with them and know in about a week there is a good chance that they could be dead," said Sophie.
"It's the Capitol we're talking about, they have no souls, they don't care, they thrive on it," said Ryan.
"Yes this is my first year in the games," says Cinna.
"Great Mum gets stuck with the Newbie," mutters Rose.
"That could be a good thing, means that they have fresh ideas," Finn said.
"So they gave you District 12," I say. Newcomers generally end up with us, the least desirable district.
"District 12, is desirable the Capitol have no idea what they're talking about," Matthew complained.
"You've had a total of two winners in the last seventy four years, I would say in that sense District 12 is probably very undesirable. I wonder how many winners District 4 has had?" said Finn,
"I asked for District twelve," he says without further explanation.
"That's good it probably means that he's got a great idea for her," said Sophie.
"Why don't you put on your robe and we'll have a chat."
Pulling on my robe, I follow him through a door into a sitting room. Two red couches face each other over a low table. Three walls are black; the fourth one is entirely glass, providing a window to the city. I can see by the light that it must be around noon, although the sunny sky has turned overcast. Cinna invites me to sit down on one of the couches and takes his place across from me. He presses a button on the side of the table. The top splits and from below rises a second table top that holds our lunch.
"That's so cool, say what you want about the Capitol but they have some great gadgets," said Finn.
"You think anything that has food in is cool," Rose pointed out.
Chicken and chunks of oranges cooked in a creamy source laid on a bed of pearly white grain, tiny green peas and onions, rolls shaped like flowers, and for desert, a pudding the colour of honey.
"Oh man would Aunt Katniss stop talking about food I'm really hungry now. Is it time for lunch yet?" asked Finn.
"We'll stop and have some food after this chapter," answered Matthew. Finn groaned but nodded anyway.
I try and imagine this meal myself back home. Chicken is too expensive, but I could make do with a wild turkey. I'd need to shoot a second turkey for an orange. Goat's milk would have to substitute for cream. We can grow peas in the garden. I'd have wild onions from the woods. I don't recognise the grain; our own tesserae ration cooks down to an unattractive brown mush. Fancy rolls would mean another trade with the baker, perhaps for two or three squirrels. As for the pudding, I can't even guess what's in it.
"Doesn't seem worth it to me," says Sophie.
"I think that's what she's trying to say it would be way too much work for one meal and it wouldn't be the same as it is in the Capitol anyway," says Finn.
"But when she wins she could buy all this stuff anyway," pointed out Rose.
"I don't think she's planning that much ahead," said Finn.
Days of hunting and gathering for this one meal and even then it would be a poor substitute for the Capitol version.
What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at a press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by?
"It doesn't seem fair that part of the country has it so easy and the other part has to really work hard for it," said Sophie.
"I don't think the Capitol cares about equality as long as they get what they want," said Matthew.
What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment?
"I think she just answered her own question there, that is all they do with their lives in the Capitol," says Ryan.
"Must be a really boring life, if that's all they do," says Finn.
I look up and find Cinna's eyes trained on mine. "How despicable we must seem to you," he says.
"Yes you are and you must be ashamed of yourself," shouted Rose.
"That's not fair on Cinna Rose, it sounds like he really cares," Sophie said defending Cinna.
"Oh yes because it really seems like he's really rebelling against them doesn't it," said Ryan.
Has he seen this in my face or somehow read my thoughts? He's right, though. The whole rotten lot of them is despicable.
"Oh come on Aunt Katniss say that to him as well, he deserves it," Ryan pleaded.
"Well I agree the Capitol deserves that and a hell of a lot worse but I think it's unfair to just blame Cinna," said Finn.
"No matter," says Cinna. "So, Katniss, about your costume for the opening ceremonies. My partner Portia is the Stylist for your fellow tribute, Peeta. And our current thought is to dress you in complementary costumes," says Cinna. "As you know, it's customary to reflect the flavour of the district."
"So that means for District 12 it would be something to do with coals not much you can do with that," said Matthew.
"Well with this show going on for 74 years I think all ideas would have been done before," said Finn.
For the opening ceremonies, you're supposed to wear something that suggests your district's principal industry. District 11, agriculture. District 4, fishing. District 3 factories. This means that coming from District 12, Peeta and I will be in some kind of coal miner's get-up.
"Well that sounds sexy," said Ryan laughing.
Since the baggy miner's jumpsuits are not particularly becoming, our tributes usually end up in skimpy outfits and hats with headlamps. One year, our tributes were stark naked and covered in black powder to represent coal dust.
"Now that sounds better," said Ryan.
"Or course you do, pervert," said Rose rolling her eyes.
It's always dreadful and does nothing to win favour with the crowd. I prepare myself for the worst.
"I thought the crowd would like to see someone naked with coal dust all over them, well depends what they look like, if it's some beautiful girl, who doesn't want to see that," Ryan said holding out his hand for a high five from either Matthew or Finn but both of them refuse.
"You're a pig Ryan," Sophie was the only one who commented.
"So, I'll be in a coal miner's outfit?" I ask, hoping it won't be indecent.
"Not exactly. You see, Portia and think that coal miner's things very overdone. No one will remember you in that. And we both see it as our job to make the District Twelve tributes unforgettable," says Cinna.
"Naked it is then," said Ryan who seemed oddly happy about that.
"You seem oddly happy about that fact?" said Rose disgusted.
"Eww that's our Mum and Dad you're talking about Ryan," shouted Matthew.
"I wasn't thinking about that, it's just they want to make an impression and what's more impressionable than being naked," said Ryan.
"Do you even listen to yourself when you talk?" asked Finn.
I'll be naked for sure, I think.
"So rather than focus on the coal mining itself, we're going to focus on the coal," says Cinna.
"There's not much you can do about coal though other than covering them with coal dust," said Finn.
Naked and covered in black dust, I think.
"See I'm not the only one obsessed about being naked," Ryan said trying to defend himself.
"And what do we do with coal? We burn it," says Cinna. "You're not afraid of fire, are you Katniss?" He sees my expression and grins.
"Awesome," exclaimed Finn.
"Way to make an impression," said Matthew.
"Wait a second they're going to set them on fire," said Sophie horrified at the thought.
"Is that even legal, won't that, oh I don't know, kill them," said Rose equally as horrified as Sophie.
"I doubt it, they've probably found a way to make sure that it's safe and they probably won't feel it," explained Finn.
A few hours later, I am dressed in what will either be the most sensational or the deadliest costume in the opening ceremony.
"They won't let it be deadly," said Finn.
"It's the Capitol we're talking about here, the deadlier the better," said Ryan.
"Doubt they will want to kill them off before the actual games even begin," pointed out Finn.
I'm in a simple black unitard that covers me from ankle to neck. Shiny leather boots lace up to my knees. But it's the fluttering cape made of streams of orange, yellow and red and the matching headpiece that define this costume. Cinna plans to set them on fire just before our chariot rolls into the streets.
"It's not real flame, of course, just a little synthetic fire Portia and I came up with, you'll be perfectly safe," he says.
"It's not real fire; does that make you feel better?" Finn asked Rose.
"A little, I feel better when the chapter is over and Mum and Dad are Ok," said Rose.
"But you know they're going to be fine," pointed out Ryan but Rose ignored him.
But I'm not convinced I won't be perfectly barbecued by the time we reach the city's centre.
My face is relatively clear of makeup, just a bit of highlighting here and there.
"That's still the most makeup Mum has ever worn in her life," said Rose.
My hair has been brushed out and then braided down my back in my usual way. "I want the audience to recognise you when you're in the arena," says Cinna dreamily. "Katniss, the girl who was on fire."
"That's actually a cool nickname," said Matthew.
"Well it's certainly better than Catnip," added Finn.
"Or Rosie," mumbled Rose shooting a look at Finn.
It crosses my mind that Cinna's calm and normal demeanour masks a complete madman.
"Just like Ryan," said Sophie as everyone laughed.
"No not just like Ryan, Ryan doesn't try and mask his madness," argued Finn.
"If Cinna was mad, he's in good company among the Capitol their all made there," said Ryan ignoring Finn and Sophie's comments.
Despite this morning's revelation about Peeta's character, I'm actually relieved when he shows up dressed in an identical costume. He should know about fire, being a baker's son and all.
"I highly doubt he's worn it before though," says Matthew.
His stylist, Portia, and her team accompany him, and everyone is absolutely giddy with excitement over what a splash we'll make. Except Cinna. He just seems a bit weary as he accepts congratulations.
"I thought he said it was safe, why is he nervous all of a sudden," Rose demanded.
"Things still could go wrong," Ryan said and regretted it the moment a look of pure fear crossed Rose's face. "Rose you know they're going to be Ok, stop worrying."
We're whisked down to the bottom level of the Remake Centre, which is essentially a gigantic stable. The opening ceremonies are about to start. Pairs of tributes are being loaded into chariots pulled by teams of four horses. Ours are coal black. The animals are so well trained, no one even needs to guide their reins.
"Still a bit unsafe though isn't it, what if something spooked the horses, that could be really dangerous," cried Sophie.
"I don't think the Capitol does risk assessments especially for people from the Districts," said Ryan.
Cinna and Portia direct us into the chariot and carefully arrange our body positions, the drape of our capes, before moving off to consult with each other.
"What do you think?" I whisper to Peeta.
"Mostly about food," answered Finn dreamily.
"I don't think she was talking to you Finn," said Matthew.
"I was saying what Uncle Peeta was probably thinking," Finn retorted.
"I highly doubt that's what Dad was thinking," Rose said.
"About the fire?"
"I'll rip off your cape if you'll rip off mine," he says through gritted teeth.
"Deal," I say. Maybe, if we can get them off soon enough, we'll avoid the worst burns.
"Wasn't she listening when Cinna said it wasn't real fire," said Ryan exasperated.
"Even so, they must be nervous," said Sophie.
They'll throw us into the arena no matter what condition we're in.
"Even if a girl was pregnant?" said Rose shocked.
"I don't think a girl would be pregnant they are too young," says Sophie.
"Oh yeah because no girl under the age of eighteen ever gets pregnant," said Ryan sarcastically rolling his eyes.
"I know we promised Haymitch we'd do exactly what they said, but I don't think he considered this angle."
"He probably already knows but knows that they'll be safe," said Matthew.
"Where is Haymitch anyway?
"Bar is probably a safe bet to check," said Ryan.
Isn't he supposed to protect us from this sort of thing?" says Peeta.
"Probably not good to have Haymitch who is 80% alcohol, anywhere near any kind of flame fake or otherwise," commented Rose.
"With all that alcohol in him it's probably not advisable to have him around an open flame," I say.
Everyone turned towards Rose in shock, at how much like her answer was to her Mum's. "It's sometimes scary to see how much you and Mum are a like," commented Matthew.
And suddenly we're both laughing. I guess we're both so nervous about the games and, more pressingly, petrified of being turned into human torches, we're not acting sensibly.
"They sound like they're acting their age. How is that a bad thing?" asked Ryan.
"Looking at their childhood they probably didn't have much of a chance to be just kids. For Mum acting silly was a form of weakness and that to her is a very bad thing," said Matthew.
The opening music begins. It's easy to hear, blasted around the Capitol. Massive doors slide open, revealing the crowd lined streets. The ride lasts about twenty minutes and ends up at the City Circle, where they will welcome us, play the anthem, and escort us into the training centre, which will be our home/prison until the games begin.
The Tributes from district 1 ride out in a chariot pulled by snow-white horses. They look so beautiful; spray painted silver, in tasteful tunics glittering with jewels. District 1 makes luxury items for the Capitol. You can hear the roar of the crowd. They are always favourites.
"Please, why is District 1 the favourite, it's not like the place is that nice to look at, it's nowhere near as nice as District 4," complained Finn.
"Besides people from District 1 are always so full of themselves," said Sophie.
"Oh yeah because District 2 are never full of themselves," said Ryan rolling his eyes.
District 2 gets into position to follow them. In no time at all, we are approaching the door and I can see that between the overcast sky and evening hour the light is turning grey. The tributes from District 11 are just rolling out when Cinna appears with a lighted torch. "Here we go then," he says, and before we can react he sets our capes on fire. I gasp, waiting for the heat, but there is only a faint tickling sensation.
"Thank god it worked," said Rose breathing out a sigh of relief.
"We knew it would," Finn reminded her.
Cinna climbs up before us and ignites our headdresses. He lets out a sigh of relief. "It works."
"Why is he so relieved it works I thought he said that it was safe?" shouted Rose in frustration.
Then he gently tucks a hand under my chin. "Remember, heads high. Smiles. They're going to love you!"
Cinna jumps of the chariots and has one last idea. He shouts something up at us, but the music drowns him out. He shouts again and gestures.
"What's he saying?" I ask Peeta. For the first time, I look at him and realise that ablaze with the fake flames, he is dazzling.
"Please, Dad is always dazzling he doesn't need fake flames to make that happen," says Rose.
And I must be to.
"I think he said for us to hold hands," says Peeta.
"How much do you want to bet that Cinna never said that and Uncle Peeta just wants an excuse to hold Aunt Katniss' hand?" asks Ryan.
"No I think it was Cinna's idea, Uncle Peeta is not that sneaky," says Finn.
"If it was either Dad's or Cinna's idea, still doesn't change the fact that Mum's going to hate that, she doesn't like showing public displays of affection even now their married," says Matthew.
He grabs my right hand in his left, and we look for to Cinna for confirmation. He nods and gives thumbs up, and that's the last thing I see before we enter the city.
"I believe you owe me some money, it clearly was Cinna's idea to hold hands," says Finn to Ryan who immediately denies it.
"You never took that bet so it doesn't count besides that's hardly proof," argues Ryan.
The crowd's initial alarm at our appearance quickly changes to cheers and shouts of "District 12!"
"I hardly doubt anyone was alarmed and afraid for their safety," scoffed Sophie scoffed.
"They probably wouldn't want them to die on the parade. What a boring way to die, no glamour, no murder, no suspense, be rather anticlimactic in the eyes of the Capitol," says Finn.
"Well we couldn't have that now can we," said Rose rolling her eyes.
Every head is turned our way, pulling the focus from the three chariots ahead of us.
"Yeah the other districts can eat their dust, this is Mum and Dad's place to shine," shouted Matthew who was sounding very competitive, which was surprising because it was usually Rose who was the most competitive out of the two.
At first, I'm frozen, but then I catch sight of us on a large television screen and I'm floored by how breath-taking we look. In the deepening twilight the firelight illuminates our faces. We seem to be leaving a trail of fire off the flowing capes. Cinna was right about the minimal make-up, we both look more attractive but utterly recognisable.
"I'm starting to think that Cinna's a genius, this entrance will certainly be memorable," says Matthew.
Remember, heads high. Smiles. They're going to love you! I hear Cinna's voice in my head. I lift my chin a bit higher, put on my most winning smile, and wave with my free hand. I'm glad now I have Peeta to clutch for balance; he is so steady, solid as a rock. As I gain confidence, I actually blow a few kisses to the crowd.
"If we didn't already have proof that the Capitol was evil this would be proof alone that they are evil. She's there five minutes and they've brainwashed her to become a completely different person," says Ryan. Everyone laughed at that.
"True it is very unlike Aunt Katniss to ever do something like this but it will make her likeable and it is Aunt Katniss so she needs all the help she can get in that department," says Finn.
"Mum's likeable," argues Matthew.
"When you first meet her?" asks Finn.
"Well no but when you get to know her," answers Matthew.
"Oh yeah because she has a few months to make these people like her," says Ryan.
The people of the Capitol are going nuts, showering us with flowers, shouting our names, our first names, which they have bothered to find out on the programme.
"They sound like celebrities," says Sophie.
"They are to the Capitol, remember it's a reality TV show to them," says Finn.
The pounding music, the cheers, the admiration work their way into my blood, and I can't suppress my excitement. Cinna has given me an advantage. No one will forget me. Not my look, not my name. Katniss. The girl who was on fire.
For the first time. I feel a flicker of hope rising up in me. Surely there must be one sponsor willing to take me on!
"Safe to say after that entrance, Haymitch will have to beat sponsors of with a stick," said Matthew.
"I highly doubt this is all she has to do to gain sponsors though, it's not just a popularity contest remember it's about her skills as well," Finn pointed out.
"Aunt Katniss should be happy about that, she doesn't always have a winning personality," Ryan said which got a nasty stare from Matthew and Rose. "Let me finish, but no one can doubt her skills with a bow and arrow." This seemed to satisfy Matthew and Rose.
"Nice save," said Sophie.
And with a little extra help, some food, the right weapon, why should I count myself out of the games?
"You definitely shouldn't count yourself out of the games, others should know that you're the one to beat," said Rose.
"I don't think that would be a good thing, that would also make her everyone's number one target," commented Finn.
Someone throws me a red rose. I catch it, give it a delicate sniff, and blow a kiss back in the general direction of the giver. A hundred hands reach up to catch my kiss, as if it were a real and tangible thing.
"Now that's just sad and lonely," said Ryan.
"That's how people react around celebrities," Sophie reminded him.
"Katniss! Katniss!" I can hear my name being called from all sides. Everyone wants my kisses.
It's not until we enter the City Circle that I realize I must have completely stopped the circulation in Peeta's hand. That's how tightly I've been holding it. I look at our linked fingers as I loosen my grasp, but he regains his grip on me. "No don't let go of me," he says.
"That's so sweet, he really likes holding his hand," swooned Sophie.
"Or he might fall off if he doesn't have something to hold on to," suggested Ryan.
The firelight flickers off his blue eyes. "Please, I might fall out of this thing."
"See!" said Ryan.
"That's obviously just an excuse," argued Sophie.
"Ok," I say. So I keep holding on, but I can't help feeling strange about the way Cinna has linked us together. It's not really fair to present us as a team and then lock us into the arena to kill each other.
"Are you kidding, the Capitol will eat that up, two really close friends who will have no choice but to kill each other. The thing screams drama just what the Capitol wants," says Finn.
"Please don't say it like that," pleaded Rose.
The twelve chariots fill the loop of the City Circle. On the buildings that surround the circle, every window is packed with the most prestigious citizens of the Capitol. Our horses pull our chariot right up to President Snow's mansion, and we come to a halt.
"So that's the name of the evil president," grumbled Ryan.
"I think this is the first time I will ever say that I hate snow," said Matthew.
The president, a small, thin man, gives the official welcome from a balcony above us.
"He even looks evil," said Ryan.
"Wasn't much of a description, how can you tell he looks evil?" asked Finn. Ryan just shrugged in answer.
"Here's your chance Katniss, shoot the bastard down, do everyone a favour," shouted Sophie with a lot of callous in her voice. Everyone looked at her in shock. "What like you weren't all thinking it?"
"I certainly was but you beat me to it," remarked Ryan.
"We also expect that kind of comment from Ryan but not from you," said Finn.
It is traditional to cut away to the faces of the tributes during the speech. But I can see on the screen that we are getting way more than our share of airtime.
"That doesn't really seem fair to the other tributes," commented Sophie.
"Who cares about the other Tributes? It's obvious everyone wants to see Mum and Dad," said Matthew.
The darker it becomes, the more difficult it is to take your eyes off our flickering. When the national anthem plays, they do make an effort to do a quick cut around to each pair of tributes, but the camera holds on the District 12 chariot as it parades around the circle one final time and disappears into the training centre.
"It certainly sounds like this may be the first time in ages or maybe ever that District 12 has made such a splash in the opening ceremonies," says Finn.
The doors have only just shut behind us when we're engulfed by the prep teams, who are nearly unintelligible as they babble our praise. As I glance around, I notice a lot of the other tributes are shooting us dirty looks, which confirms what I've suspected; we've literally outshone them.
"Ha ha, in your faces," gloated Matthew.
"These books are we really bringing out the worse in you and Rose," commented Finn.
"Yeah he and Rose have practically changed personalities," added Ryan.
Then Cinna and Portia are there, helping us down from the chariot, carefully removing our flaming capes and headdresses. Portia extinguishes them with some kind of spray from a canister.
I realise I'm still glued to Peeta and force my stiff fingers to open. We both massage our hands.
"Thanks for keeping hold of me. I was getting a little shaky there," says Peeta.
"It didn't show," I tell him. "I'm sure no one noticed."
"I'm sure they didn't notice anything but you. You should wear flames more often," he says. "They suit you."
"Smooth," said Ryan.
"He certainly knows how to charm the ladies," added Finn.
"Dad always told me he was awkward around women and didn't know how to flirt. He's such a liar," said Matthew laughing.
"You boys could really take some lessons of Peeta," said Sophie.
"Please I don't need any help with the ladies," said Finn.
"Yeah right!" scoffed Rose.
And then he gives me a smile that seems so genuinely sweet with just the right touch of shyness that unexpected warmth rushes through me.
"Dad has the best smile. When Mum is angry at him all he has to do is smile at her and she forgets why she was so angry in the first place," says Rose.
A warning bell goes off in my head. Don't be so stupid. Peeta is planning how to kill you, I remind myself. He is luring you in to make you easy prey. The more likeable he is, the more deadly he is.
"I don't think that's what Dad is thinking, he just wants Mum to be at ease and comfortable around him, he's like that with everyone," says Matthew.
"I do wonder if Uncle Peeta has a strategy to win or not?" wondered Finn.
"I think that's Dad's strategy be himself, doesn't want to change even in the worse of circumstances," says Rose.
But two can play at that game. I stand on tiptoe and kiss his cheek. Right on his bruise.
"That's the end of the chapter," said Matthew putting the book down.
"And that means time for lunch," said Finn eagerly jumping to his feet.