For a moment, time is suspended and I stand with all the other 16 year olds in a kind of endless bubble, begging my brain to register and process all my thoughts so that I have time to compose my face before I have to walk onto the stage. I will not look weak. I will not look scared. I am the most violent and well-trained girl in District Two. I was made for this.
And then the bubble ends, and I have just enough time to tighten my facial muscles and relax my mouth so that I don’t look completely pathetic. I refuse to meet Cato’s eyes. I saw him falter in that split second when he knew what was happening and I didn’t, but I’m sure he’s composed himself. He’s trained his whole life for this. He’s not going to let me stand in his way. He needs to look completely ruthless for the sponsors, who are no doubt falling over themselves to sponsor him as we speak. Who wouldn’t? Just wait until they’ve seen him throw a spear, or wield a sword. Wait til they see him dressed in a suit, with his broad shoulders and blue eyes. The Capitol will just die over him.
But what about me? Who will sponsor a small dark-haired girl who wasn’t even a volunteer? Maybe once they’ve seen me throw knives. I can hit one of the tiny geckos that sometimes inhabit our garden from ten feet away, easy. I’m most definitely not out of the running. And if the sponsors don’t see that now, just wait until I get into the arena. I’ll make sure the other tributes see it, for sure.
And then the Capitol woman in her ridiculous outfit and her voice that makes me want to pick up the glass reaping bowl and smash it over her head instructs us to shake hands. I turn to face him, and his blonde hair stuck up no matter how many times he combs it and his bright blue eyes feel like a punch in the stomach. I reach out my hand and he takes it, gripping it tightly. I don’t know what he means by this. Does he mean that it’s on, that our years of friendship, that everything we’ve shared is nothing now, that it’s me against him? Is it supposed to be a reassuring squeeze? I’m not sure. I still trust him, though.
We shake hands for way longer than is normal. And although I hate myself for it, though I spend my whole life trying not to be that kind of girl, I cannot help but think back to the one time we held hands, even tighter than this, for hours on end. I hate this weakness. I wish I was stronger. There was a girl a few years back, Johanna, who won the games by pretending to be weak and vulnerable, but then turned out to be a ruthless killer. Hypothetically, I could do that too. I’m small, pretty skinny, I don’t look particularly threatening. If I just kept quiet during my interview, I could do it. But the thought of looking weak, even for a moment, even as part of a deception that could save my life, makes me feel physically sick. I guess that option’s out.
And noone will believe I’m weak, will they, if I’m with Cato? That is, if I still will be with Cato. There’s an unwritten law in District Two that our tributes are allies, at least to begin with. And though I hate myself for it, that thought comforts me instantly.
I know him. I know the way he moves, the smell of this hair, the sound of his breathing when he’s asleep. I know every muscle of his body, I’ve felt them used against me in combat practice. I can just imagine the feeling of his arm, the tight muscles under his warm skin, as he throws it into the air and swaggers forward. The typical District 2 volunteer.
I watch him carefully through my squinted eyes as he makes his way onto the stage. Trying to detect any kind of chink in his armour, but I know I won’t see one. I know him better than anyone else in the entire world, and still I can’t tell what he’s thinking half the time. If I wasn’t so certain that he wouldn’t dare try and hurt me, I wouldn’t trust him as much as I do. But I do, of course. I trust him more than anyone, which is strange, because he’s the second most cold-blooded and violent person I know. But the first is me, you see. So we understand each other.
I wonder if he’ll win. As I watch him standing there, well over six foot and every inch of him taut and well muscled, as I recall the feeling of the muscles moving against my skin as we fought, I can’t imagine anyone being able to beat him in combat. He’s ruthless. Formidable. Unbeatable.
I watch as that stupid Capitol bitch dips her hand into the reaping bowl of girls names. There are usually far less female volunteers than male, and I doubt there’ll be any this year, with Cato to contend with. Unlike some of the other Districts, we don’t faff around and pretend that we’re friends, or companions. We are allies in the arena, until all of the weak ones are gone, and as many as the stronger ones as possible. Then it’s every man for themselves.
She picks up a slip delicately with her ridiculous fingernails. Opens it, shouts a name. I see Cato’s reaction before it fully registers with me. His expression falters, and for some inexplicable reason I feel a stab of victory. And then I hear the name she called, at least 20 seconds after everyone else.