Natasha Romanoff wins her hunger games by killing everything in her sight.
She is lethal – all sharp edges and deadly smiles, red hair tucked under her jacket, and a loaded gun permanently in her hand. She is the wind, knocking the life out of any tribute she sees. She does what she is told to do – has been told to do since she was picked off the streets in Two - kill, kill and kill.
Twenty-three cannons fire. She is responsible for eighteen of them.
Five weeks of the Arena has reduced her into little more than flesh and bone, skin wrapped around sinewy muscle and her once enviable shade of hair is two shades lighter - dark copper instead of deep crimson. Her cheeks are hollow from malnutrition and her eyes are bloodshot from the countless nights spent awake, waiting for the sound of footsteps behind her back.
(Her body is her deadliest weapon, and it has been bruised and beaten beyond recognition.)
They take her apart and put her back together again. Burnt skin becomes a perfect white colour after a dab of capitol cream. Hollow cheeks are carefully covered up with layers and layers of makeup. Chapped lips turn rosy red after a special kind of lipstick. Padded dresses carefully cover up her body, giving her the right curve, the right shape, the right formula for the Capitol good-girl.
Natasha looks at the shapely figure in the mirror and feels nothing but hate. But in the Capitol, beauty comes from the outside, not the inside. She has always had that advantage.
Caesar Flickerman is waiting for her when she steps onto the stage, giving off a pearl-white grin when the audience roars and screams in delight. “Give it up for Natasha Romanoff!” He declares, and the audience goes crazy, yelling out for her to blow a kiss, darling, for me for me for me which she grants with a practiced, seductive smile.
“It’s lovely to see you all again,” she coos, her voice as sweet as spun sugar. The crowd grows even wilder, swells up and bursts in excitement for their newest victor. Caesar asks her the typical questions like how are you? How do you feel? What did you think of the other careers? To which Natasha replies I’m good, thank you for asking, and I was disappointed when the other careers did not put up much of a fight, making the crowd chuckle in delight.
“You are quite the beauty,” Caesar says, “do you have a sweetheart to go home to?”
“No,” Natasha replies, “I-” she stops, thinks of dark hair and darker eyes, of stolen kisses after midnight. The crowd leans forward in anticipation, but Natasha plasters a smile onto her face and shakes her head.
“Of course not,” she says firmly, resolutely, “I have no sweetheart to go home to.” I left him here to die, she thinks, I left him here to die in this wasteland and didn’t cry when his final heartbeat came from a canon in the sky.
She meets Clint Barton in the capitol during her victory tour.
“Well,” he starts, glancing at her out of the corner of his eyes, “isn’t this the lovely girl that killed eighteen tributes?” He grabs a tall glass of a sugary capitol concoction and passes it to her.
Natasha takes a sip of the drink and smirks at him, all sweet smiles and fluttering eyelashes. “That's me," she purrs, sidling up to him and laying a crimson fingernail on his chest, "I should’ve killed them all.” She’d been told that the Capitol loved this kind of talk.
Clint Barton, it seems, is insusceptible to her charms.
"Darling," he laughs, "then you would be dead." He presses a light kiss to her cheek and is gone, slipping through the crowds of people like a silent, invisible, ghost.
Natasha watches him go and remembers how he won his games - he shot two arrows through the last four career tributes, pierced them all in the heart - the arrows had gone through two of them, bounced off the invisible fence and into the chests of the last two tributes.
He’d won, of course, when the four canons fired, but the capitol had called that dirty play, flooded the arena with poisonous water and parked the hovercraft slightly further away from him, claiming that they couldn’t see him from where he was hiding in the trees and that his tracker had malfunctioned. It was a dangerous gamble - everyone knew that trackers couldn’t malfunction and that the Capitol could pick out even a flea in the arena.
When Barton made it to the highest tree and stood on top of the tallest branch, they had no choice but to pick him up.
Natasha knows that victory is short-lived, wherever you go.
She gets the letter two months after her victory tour. Congratulations, Natasha. She ignores it at first - carelessly tosses it to the side of her desk, but the letters continue to come at an increasing pace: one month, three days, two days, until they come twice a day.
I've heard of a man, one begins conversationally, He seems to be quite the gentleman. He brought you up, didn't he?
Should I enclose a picture? The next asks, and Natasha bites her fingernails so hard she draws blood, throwing the letter into the fire and letting the flames lick the words away.
Careful, Natasha, another one says, I will take all you hold dear.
They can't hurt me, Natasha thinks, but she thinks of the training center in Two, knives that sliced through the air like ribbons and a voice telling her that she can do better and knows that they can do more than hurt her.
The last letter comes with a picture of him, taken from a security camera somewhere in Two. The image is blurry, and the person in the frame is a dot at best, but she knows it is him - and there is nothing she can do, so she replies the next day - I will be at the Capitol shortly - but it is too late.
Ivan lies dead by a ditch, supposedly killed by a gang of robbers - according to a letter delivered to her on the train to the Capitol. It is too late.
She tears the Capitol seal off the envelope and keeps the letter.
The Capitol is immortal; eternal, destined to prosper through generations of games, decades of tributes being lined up for the chopping board. Every year, the districts will suffer, and the Capitol will not. The districts give, and the Capitol receives.
The Capitol is immortal - but it’s people are not. They are, behind the facade of artificial opulence, still human, still connected in flesh and blood with the other districts, still vulnerable to death. All humans will die. There is no exception.
(Natasha tries to remember that in the dark, dark bedroom of one of the capitol elite. I can kill them like I killed the tributes in the arena, she tells herself, this is just a bigger arena with heavily sponsored tributes, and I will play my game.
She tells herself: I will survive, as I survived the games.)