I regret the words as soon as they come out of my mouth, and yet somehow as hundreds of shocked faces turn to stare at me, I don't try to reverse my decision; don't shake my head or wave my arms dismissively or assure them that it was just a joke. Instead I say it again, loud and clear to ensure that nobody can doubt my intentions:
"I volunteer as tribute!"
They're shocked, they're all shocked. Even the Career tributes normally don't volunteer until they're around sixteen, so that they have more time to train and to grow physically stronger. A tribute volunteering in place of someone older than them is incredibly uncommon, and me, a twelve-year-old who's only just old enough to be eligible in the first place? It's unheard of.
As I expect -- or at least as I should expect -- a fight breaks out within seconds. A teal-haired man wearing an elegant cape takes a blow to the face and falls as a bruise forms. Seeing anyone fall from a single punch makes it easy to think they're weak, but just as quickly I remember that he's a victor, and his attacker is not. Sure enough, it quickly turns from one hit into a full-on wrestle.
I don't know who I'm rooting for in that fight.
On one side is the man who, morally speaking, is the one in the right; the one who was attacked unprovoked, for something that wasn't his fault. His teal hair makes him easy to recognise; he's Wallace, one of the few victors our district has had.
On the other side is the person who I know better. On that side is Norman, my father, the man I just hurt most in the world with my stupid decision. I know attacking Wallace is wrong and achieves nothing, but I can't blame him. He's attacking Wallace, he's blaming Wallace, because it's easier than blaming me.
Staring at me with terrified eyes is the girl who I just roughly pushed to the ground, the girl who I just so foolishly volunteered in place of. She's my friend Lisia, Wallace's niece. How did she get chosen anyway?! Being fourteen, the entrees add up enough that she would have had three, but being the niece of a victor, there was never any risk of her needing to take tesserae. She was less likely than me, despite me being two years younger, since I ended up getting my name entered three times more than necessary in exchange for a year's worth of grain for my parents and I.
I know I shouldn't have done it, but I also know that if our district is going to have a victor, it's not going to be her. It's easy to look at her family history and say it's likely, but she doesn't stand a chance. She only has one Pokémon, an Altaria nicknamed Ali that's never had a battle in its life. She can't even bare to watch as I battle; even if she could teach it to battle in training and catch more in the arena, she's be doomed from the start.
We're allowed to bring six Pokémon with us into the Capitol and one into the arena. While we get to choose which ones join us on the train trip, it's up to our mentors to decide which ones end up battling with us in the Games. Usually out of the ones that don't join us in the arena, one ends up in the Cornucopia at the start. Most won't dare to risk trying to get it at the start of the Games, because all the Poké Balls look identical and choosing the wrong one lands you with a Pokémon that won't obey you in a life-or-death situation. People sometimes go back, but it's rare.
The other four are normally cared for by our mentors in case of the Gamemakers deciding to release more Pokémon. There are also wild Pokémon in the arena, but as Poké Balls are rare gifts for sponsors to give, very few catch them. I can't be sure which of my Pokémon my mentors would choose to be with me in the arena, but probably the one that was gifted to me by Professor Birch, my Blaziken. It would certainly be better at keeping me alive than Ali, especially if the arena is cold.
Besides, Lisia's had a perfect life. She was born during the Games that Wallace won, and ever since she was old enough to talk she's been living the life of luxury that comes with being related to a victor. But unlike her uncle, she's never had to experience the horrors of the Games or mentor doomed children. She's never even had to watch him participate in the Games like her family. She's also never had to lift anything heavy in her life, or do any sort of physical labour, so she has no muscles. Just another reason why I would be more likely to win than her.
I want to tell her all this, because surely letting a twelve-year-old die in her place will cause her to be hated by our district, especially considering her status as Wallace's niece, but my voice refuses to work. I presume hers isn't working properly either; considering how soft-hearted she is, that's the only way she could stand by as I risk my life for her.
I take a deep breath and climb the stairs.
They ask my name, I give it, and they make a few comments about my decision to volunteer, joking banter that fails to acknowledge that I'm probably going to die and Lisia definitely would have. Steven Stone and Wallace, the only victors our district has had, congratulate me, and then the male tribute is chosen.
My heart sinks when I see him. He's a skinny green-haired boy that I recognise as Wally. He's even younger than me; only last week I celebrated his twelfth birthday with him by helping him sign up for tesserae and I half believe he somehow lied about his birthday so he could get food for his family sooner. He's sick, he's always been sick, but nobody's been able to efficiently treat whatever ails him because his family is lucky if they can afford to eat every day, let alone get him adequate medical care.
If he could win, he could cure his mystery illness and ensure nobody in his family ever goes hungry again.
But he couldn't win.
I silently pray for a volunteer, because a boy so young and sickly is in no shape to participate. I scan the crowd for someone noble enough, but there's no point. Almost everyone I know well is either too old or too young. There's one boy who I know wants to volunteer, I can sense it. His name is Brendan and he's my best friend and neighbor, as well as Professor Birch's son. He's also Wally's friend, and he knows just as well as I do that the green-haired boy has no chance.
But on his twelfth birthday, we made a pact, even though I was too young to be eligible for the Games in the first place at the time. If one of us is chosen, the other has to work to support both our families. I'll mostly be fine thanks to Norman's job, but there are still days when the only way we can afford to eat is if I make money by battling in the shady corners of town when the Peacekeepers will turn a blind eye. Brendan's situation is the same, and I battle to make money for him when I need to. If I die, which is likely, he has to stay alive to protect my parents and his.
We never really thought this would happen, and certainly not so soon.
As Wally walks upstairs on shaking legs, I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders. If I'm lucky I can protect Wally from a painful death, ensure that I'm there to end things quickly if I need to. But there's no way he can win, not even with my help.
If our district is going to produce another winner, it's going to have to be me.