Dulce et decorum est

...

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

...

Ultimately, when her name is called, she isn't surprised. Nor, for some reason, is she upset.

She blends into a crowd, and there's a lot of frowning, and a few people saying, "Who?" before she makes her way quietly up to the stage.

She's the strange girl that doesn't talk much, and when she does, it's never anything that anyone wants to hear. She's short for her age, but she can wield an axe like nobody's business.

The boy is Arvid Fink, and his reaping, at least, garners some disappointment from the crowd. She wonders how many of them are only upset because they want to fuck him.

Their escort, Barnabus Crox, has short blue hair that's gelled into permanents spikes. He's charming enough, for someone from the Capitol, but he shows his complete and utter ignorance when he mistakes her disgust for fear.

Because being comforted with a hug on national television is a great way for people not to see her as a weakling.

A strange thing happens then, because they all start treating her with kid gloves. Her parents are more warm, more kind than they have been in years, and even Blight, the notoriously grumpy Mentor for District Seven, manages a gruff noise of sympathy.

Johanna suddenly realizes that she's been handed her greatest weapon on a silver platter. They can't fear her, but they can still dismiss her.

'So,' Blight says, once they're on the train. 'Any special talents I should know about?'

Of all the people to get reaped from Seven, Arvid is probably their best chance at winning. He's tall, and broad-shouldered, and attractive enough that sponsors will be tripping over themselves to make sure he has everything he needs in the arena.

Johanna doesn't want the Capitol's sponsors, and she sure as hell doesn't want to give them the satisfaction of knowing she tried. Instead, she keeps her head down during training, and when it comes to evaluation, she fudges her axe throws on purpose. If the Gamemakers notice, they don't say anything. She climbs the rock wall on the far side, and orchestrates a somewhat spectacular fall.

As far as they know, she's just a girl who's out of her depth, trying every last avenue to stay alive. They're not wrong, but they're not right, either. They just don't know which avenue she's taking.

She pulls a five, which is more than she'd expected, but probably better in the long run. A three would be too obvious, because she's seventeen, and she's from the Lumber district. If she'd tried, she could have gotten an eight or a nine at least, and Blight knows it.

'Keep it up,' he says, gruffly. 'Don't let them figure it out until it's too late.' Her lips quirk into a smile; it's the first smile she's given him their entire training session. Blight isn't much of a talker, and Johanna isn't much of a listener.

Arvid is oblivious, too concerned with his own plight. He's pleasant enough, but he doesn't have a killer streak in him, and that's why he's going to die quickly. Fortunately, he's trusting enough to think the same of her, and doesn't think anything of it when she declines an alliance.

She'll do better on her own.

'It's the worst of us who win,' Blight tells her, and that, more than anything, let's Johanna know she has a fighting chance.

That feeling is cemented when the platform rises into the arena, and it's nothing but trees. Enormous, endless trees. They're taller, even, than the buildings in the Capitol, and one wrong move will send anyone plummeting to their deaths. Johanna can see ladders and platforms, and ropes, but they're scarce enough that she knows she'll be able to get up and out of their reach without too much trouble.

The only problem is, the only rope connected to the platform goes straight down to the Cornucopia. There is literally nowhere else to go except straight into the bloodbath. She could, of course, just climb down the platform, but that would ruin her façade, and in any case, she has no way of knowing how the mines are set up.

She has forty seconds left to plan her next move.

Thirty-nine.

Thirty-eight.

Thirty-seven.

The corded belt around her waist is of a strange design, but it's a strange design that she's seen many times before. A few of the others have figured it out, pulling the belts free, and winding either end around their palms.

Johanna waits.

Her arms are strong, from years of wood-chopping, but the outfits chosen by the Gamemakers are loose enough to hide it. If she had a knife, she could cut the rope, and swing down there, but she doesn't, so it's a moot point. Instead, she waits until they're all too busy killing each other to zipline down there.

Since the Careers are killing everything the moves almost indiscriminately, she catches a knife in the shoulder on her way to the ladder on the far side of the Cornucopia. It hampers her climbing ability somewhat, but when she finds a first aid kit (complete with painkillers) in the backpack of a dead Tribute a day later, it improves somewhat.

Arvid dies in the bloodbath.

She keeps to the treetops; since the ladders and the ropes only go up so far and most of the other tributes have no measurable climbing skills, she knows she'll be safe for a little while. It won't turn any heads in the Capitol, because they always expect the Tributes from Seven and Eleven to be good at climbing trees.

That lasts two days before a group of mutts chases her down to the platforms, and she knows that there's somebody waiting for her.

The Gamemakers, apparently, have decided that it's time for her to die.

There are seven Tributes left, and the one waiting is the boy from Nine.

He's just killed someone, and there's a sword lying next to a broken, emaciated body. Johanna trips backwards in her attempt to get out of there. She lands heavily, jarring the wound in her shoulder.

The tears in her eyes are fake.

'Please don't kill me,' she whimpers, crawling backwards. The tone isn't entirely faked, but once more, it's out of disgust, rather than fear. She hates herself for getting into this situation. The boy wants to savor it, so he lets her. He's not paying attention to the body behind her. He raises his axe, and Johanna's eyes lock onto it, though not for the reasons that he might expect.

Her hand closes around the grip of the fallen sword. She wonders how many viewers are clutching their betting slips excitedly, waiting to see how many agonizing minutes it will take for her to die.

The boy from Nine doesn't even hear the whooshing sound before she cuts him down at the shins. The sword's not nearly sharp enough to cut through the bone, but there's a lot of blood nonetheless. He drops to the ground, and she shoves the blade through his chest for good measure. It's four, five, six seconds before the cannon fires, and in that time, she's stolen his axe, and scampered back up tree.

Perhaps they think it's a fluke, or perhaps they just want to draw out whatever bloodthirsty monster is hiding inside of her, because her refuge doesn't last long; the next day, she sees the smoke starting to curl, and she knows what the Gamemakers have planned next.

The forest goes up in smoke, and the anger that boils inside her isn't the result of the supplies that she lost (meager though they were). The anger comes because one of the first things that the children of District Seven learn, is that a forest fire means death, and a forest fire deliberately set is beyond reprehensible.

But then, given everything else the Capitol has done so far, it seems like childsplay. No puns intended.

She has her axe.

It's all she needs to finish this.

There's one tree left – it's the tallest, and the widest, and it's filled with deathtraps. Falling branches, and poisonous barbs, and tracker-jackers (they bring that one out every year, because apparently the Capitol audiences never tire of it).

From her perch high above everything else, she sees the Careers split up to search for the rest of them. A cannon fires (maybe two – she loses track sometimes), and there are screams in the distance. Just before dawn, Johanna sees the girl creeping up the ladder, and decides it's time to come down from the treetops.

When she lands heavily on the platform, the girl from One gives a grin that's almost lecherous. She hasn't even seen the axe. It drops slightly, when Johanna grins back. Her grin, she knows, isn't lecherous at all. It's downright psychotic. Before the girl can do anything, Johanna's has swung the axe straight at her neck. It's bloody, and it's instantaneous, and for a brief moment, it feels absolutely amazing.

Then, the feeling subsides a little, because there are still two more Careers somewhere out there, as well as...someone from Ten, maybe? Yes. The girl from Ten. She was tall, and strong, and with any luck, the rest of the Careers think that she's the one that's been killing them off. Not the poor little girl from District Seven that couldn't even make it through her interview without crying.

She almost wishes she could see the look on their faces when they find out, but they never will, because the only person who's coming out of this alive is Johanna fucking Mason.

At most, the last thing they'll see will be her face.

The girl from Ten is killed by the Careers, and Johanna is almost disappointed. By now, they know who's been killing them off, and they're discussing a way to track her down. Or maybe – just maybe – they'll kill each other, and leave her the only one standing.

They don't.

She spots them an hour later, both of them have their backs to her. She doesn't have the strength to take them on at once, so she sizes them up, and makes her choice. The one on the left takes an axe to the back of the skull, leaving Johanna Mason with one more person left to kill.

'You,' the boy says, clearly disbelieving, and yeah, maybe she feels a little bit of pride. It doesn't last long; she's weaponless, injured, and she's lost her one advantage.

No.

She's lost one of her advantages.

She still has the second one.

Rage.

Rage at being brought here, against her will. Rage at the people who would see her dead. Rage at the fact that the odds would have seen her slaughtered on day one.

The boy grins, and she knows he thinks he has her beaten. But Johanna Mason has nothing left to lose.

Before he can do anything, she dives, tackling him around the middle. It sends him off balance, but it also puts her in a position of weakness – in hand to hand combat, there's no question as to who will win. But this boy who has hardly ever wanted for anything doesn't know fear the same way she does.

He thinks he's won, and that's why he's going to lose.

Knees on his chest, her knife pierces his shoulder, and he cries out in pain. He pulls it out, and flings it aside, and Johanna has no hope of getting it if she wants to keep him pinned. Instead, she takes out her last weapon. Forget ziplining, this is the purpose for which this had surely been designed.

It's not impulsive. It's cold, and it's calculated, and now she knows beyond any doubt Blight had said is true.

It's the worst of us who win the Games.

He gurgles for breath, his face turning a reddish purple. She pulls the belt tighter.

She thinks about going home, about seeing her family again. Even just being in the Capitol makes her feel utterly filthy. She wants to leave, and never come back.

Of course, that won't happen.

The Victors always – always – come back to the Capitol. Their home is the Victors' Village, but their place is the Capitol. Every year, she sees it – Cashmere and Gloss, and Finnick Odair, all at the fanciest parties, the important events. They perpetuate the delusion that the Districts are content with the lot they've been given.

If she could, she'd run away, and live in the trees, and they'd never catch her. She wonders if that's the coward's way out, but decides that she doesn't care. She knows she isn't brave, or humble, or selfless.

His body goes limp, and from the wet patch on his trousers, she knows he's dead. She's seen it happen more than once, when someone doesn't get out of the way of a chainsaw in time, or they don't see the branch before it falls. The smell is awful, but it's intermingled with every single other awful smell that's built up over the last week and a half.

They must, at one point say the accustomed, "Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you..." drivel, but Johanna isn't paying attention. She's dripping with blood, and frowns when she realizes there's an ugly wound in the side of her stomach.

When had that gotten there?

They stitch her up, and they wash her down, and dress her in an elegant green dress that makes her look at least a couple of inches taller.

Caesar Flickerman makes a show of being terrified as he greets her on stage, and the crowd laughs and cheers.

On-screen, she kills the boy from Nine, grinning all the while, and it cuts immediately to Caesar Flickerman, saying, astounded, 'I don't think any of us saw that coming,' while the crowd goes wild in the background. They cut quickly between shots of her whimpering, and shots of her decapitating (decapitating?!) the girl from Two. She's so disconnected, she can't even remember having done it. Half a dozen hacks. It takes more to cut down a tree, though in Seven, the trees are much bigger than a human neck, and the axes are much weaker than the fancy ones they'd put in the arena.

For some inane reason, they love her. They love that she'd deceived them, that almost everything had been an act. She looks down on them with their perfectly coiffed hair, and their painted skin, and it suddenly makes sense. If there's one thing the Capitol audience knows, it's how to pretend to be something you're not.

Three hours goes quickly, and at the end of it, Johanna's feeling a little sick, and a lot angry. She's not sure how they think she's supposed to stomach it. The populace might be as dumb as rocks, might think that's she's proud to be up here, but the President, the Gamemakers, they have to know that the little girl from Seven that murdered half a dozen people doesn't really want to be reminded of it. It's a pity she doesn't still have the axe in her hand.

Thenshe'd give them a real show.

From the Mentors stand in the audience, Blight gives her a look, as if to say, "Not here." He alone can read her anger. It's the kind of thing that the Capitol is blind to. The kind of thing that only another Victor can see, because they've lived it.

The crowd gushes, and Caesar gushes, and all she really wants to do is rip out his so obviously fake hair and beat him to death with it.

'Tell me, Johanna, what was really driving you to get back here. Family, friends? Maybe a young lover?'

'Well, Caesar,' she says, and her smile is dripping with venom. 'More than anything else, I knew I had to get back here so I could make fun of your hair.'

The crowd roars with laughter, and Caesar makes a show of looking humbled, but he too knows how to play this game. 'So fiesty,' he says, excitedly. 'My, my. Such a difference from the crying little girl we saw in the first interview, right folks?' There are more cheers, and a few of the audience members blow kisses to her.

They think she's alluring, confident, charming. All of those things a Victor should be. They don't know how broken she is.

She's not broken because she had won the Games. She'd won the Games because she's broken. The arena had been the perfect place for that strange, quiet little girl to show everyone what's really hiding inside of her. A darkness, a violence that not even the Hunger Games can satiate.

When President Snow comes out on stage, she grips the armrest of her chair. If she doesn't she knows she'll choke him to death, too.

The crown is ornate, and made of wood. She wonders how much time they had to craft it when they realized that the Victor was going to be from District Seven. Maybe they've just had it sitting in storage for fifteen years.

When she returns home, they fear her.

More than fear – they are disgusted by her.

They don't say it to her face, but she sees it in their eyes.

The months between her crowning and the Victory Tour are almost agonizing, and she hates herself for wanting to go back to the Capitol.

She hates herself for it, but once she gets there, she enjoys herself, in a macabre kind of way. She's mocking these people to their faces, and they're convinced it's just another example of her razor wit, that she doesn't spend every waking hour thinking about how she'll murder them when the time comes.

Some of the other Victors are here, at President Snow's mansion – she spies Cashmere and Gloss, surrounded by a crowd of wanton admirers. Finnick Odair is by the drinks table, and he's staring at her.

By the end of the introductions, she's talked to at least five previous Victors. For some of them, it's a genuine congratulations. For others, the look in their eyes is one of pity. She can't let herself think about what that might mean. Had they too, felt the alienation from their family, their friends? Had they too, been shunned by their Districts for the atrocities they were forced to commit?

It's not until the party's well under way that Finnick cuts in on her dance with a young Capitol man, and offers her his hand. The Careers are never the nicest of the Tributes, but Four are leagues above One and Two, so she accepts his company, begrudgingly.

'How much was he willing to pay?' Finnick asks. 'I would have thought they'd at least wait until after the Victory Tour.'

Johanna frowns. 'What are you talking about?'

Finnick's expression drops. 'Blight didn't tell you, did he?' he asks, and he sounds truly sorry for her. She hates it. Hates him. 'The Capitol loves their Victors.' The words are clipped, dripping with an unspoken story, and suddenly, she understands. The look of pity in their eyes.

This is what it means to be a Victor.

To pander to the Capitol's whims. To be their toy, their plaything.

As much as she enjoys mocking them, she won't stoop to that level.

As Finnick had predicted, at the end of the party, Snow invites her to his chambers. Already, her skin is itching, and she feels like she needs to take a long, hot shower to wash away all the filth. But he's not there to use her. At least, not in that way.

Snow tells her that it's important she remains on good terms with the Capitol, that he's arranged for some meetings "interested parties."

He stares at her, almost disbelieving, when she says, 'No.'

'I'm afraid I don't understand your reluctance, Miss Mason.'

'Understand this: I won't let you whore me out, just so you remain in favor.' she says, and maybe it's a mistake, but she knows that she had to say it. Had to let him know that he's not in control of her.

'I hope you'll realize how much of a mistake you've made,' he says, evenly. He's not disappointed, or even angry, and he doesn't press the matter, so for half a moment, she makes the mistake of thinking that she's gotten away scott free.

The next day, as she's on her way back to Seven, her old house goes up in flames, and she has to pretend like she doesn't know who is responsible. Her family had refused to live in the Victors' Village – had thought it an insult to the lives they'd tried to build, with what they had worked for. There are any number of ways he could have killed her family; a gas leak, an axe murderer, food poisoning. Fire is simpler, but she also recognizes the message that it sends: "Think about how easily the rest of the District could follow."

She stays in her house for four days, refusing to come out, refusing to eat, refusing to even let herself think. It's not because she's numbed by sadness. It's because somewhere along the line, she had made herself stop caring about them.

Any illusion that Finnick Odair might have been a willing participant in his own romantic trysts is dispelled when he comes to her door on the fifth day. She knows, now, that he had played along, to save Annie, to save Mags, to save the ones that he loves.

How he had managed to get a train to Seven at this time of the year, she'll never know. Finnick guards his secrets closely.

He stays until the pain feels a little less painful. They Capitol might have gone crazy if they knew (in a good way, because apparently, romance sells), but somehow they never do find out. This phenomenon of Victors from such vastly different Districts being friends is something that they don't like to draw attention to.

It's only natural that Victors would be drawn to one another, after the Games alienated them from everyone else.

'We can't live like this,' she tells him, angrily. It's been a week, and he's stayed with her, and he doesn't make it seem like a chore. Beneath the grandeur, and the rippling muscles, he's a genuinely good person, and she still hates him. There's a darkness in his eyes, and she suddenly remembers that he hadn't won the 65th Hunger Games by being a good person.

No.

He's just as fucked up as she is, he just does a better job of hiding it.

'Soon enough, we won't have to.' She's not sure what he means by that, and he doesn't elaborate when she asks. But she knows...she knows she has to cooperate with Snow, if she wants to stop him from burning down the whole District.

'The Capitol sees us as heroes, but I think we all know...We're cowards,' she tells him, and he doesn't reply. 'Somewhere along the line, we decided that our lives were more important than anyone else's in that arena.'

As always, there are exceptions to the rule. Some Victors have never killed, never could kill. Those that camouflage themselves, who wait in the treetops until everyone else is dead. Annie – Johanna's almost entirely certain that Annie had never killed anyone; even though her Games were just the year before Johanna's, she can barely remember them. Mags won't tell anyone about her Games, and the tapes from that far back have long since been destroyed.

The next time Snow tells Johanna that her company is requested in the Capitol, she acquiesces, and thinks that at the very least she might be able to drink the memory away.

There are a lot of rich people in the Capitol that enjoy the company of Victors.

That enjoy the company of young, attractive, Victors.

Annie seems to get a pass, because they all think she's crazy (after everything they've been through, Johanna thinks she's probably the sanest of them all.

Some sponsors like their Victors in pairs. Johanna has been far more intimate with both Cashmere and Gloss than she would like, and when someone requests her and Finnick, she has to keep her eyes closed the entire time, because he's too much like a brother to her for it to feel in any way right.

Right up until the Reaping, she refuses to speak to Blight, refuses to even see him. Then, Blight doesn't always have a lot to say.

The tributes this year are nothing special. They're good-looking enough, but all Johanna thinks about is how the Capitol will use them if they win.

Either way, she knows they have no chance at all. After last year, people will be watching Seven like a hawk. Watching to see if they have anything more hidden up their sleeves. They don't, but they end up dead in the bloodbath anyway, because Careers do not like taking chances.

Blight takes her to what's apparently an unofficial Victor's bar. The Mentors from Nine and Twelve are already there; Haymitch Abernathy has already flagged down the bartender for his second round.

'Enjoying your first year as Mentor, kid?' he asks, and he's laughing. It's not an amused kind of laughter; it's the laughter of someone who has spent the last twenty years shepherding children to their deaths. Johanna shrugs, and finds a seat that's well away from Blight. She's not even eighteen yet, but they don't even hesitate to serve her alcohol.

There's no screen in here, so she doesn't have to watch the rest of the Tributes die.

Small favors.

It's like this the next year, and the year after.

The third year, it's different.

Both the District 7 tributes are dead before the dust settles.

Blight gives her a slight, almost apathetic nod, as if to say, "Well that's it," and Johanna leaves the room. The Capitol aren't so crass that they send the mentors of the fallen tributes home the second the cannon fires, but that's about the one almost kind thing that she can say about the Capitol. Some days, she would prefer it if they did, but the one year she had tried, they kicked her off the train.

Instead, she finds the bar where they all wait, and commiserate. The one time of the year when they can spend some time together without the cameras watching, because today, the cameras are spending their time on the mentors and escorts of those who are actually still alive.

'Tough year,' Finnick says, when he too arrives. He doesn't drink much, but he's decent enough company anyway. He's not wrong. Usually, his Tributes last until the top eight, which is as much a result of his diplomacy as it is the tributes' skills. It doesn't hurt that ninety percent of the sponsors still want to sleep with him.

'Blame Twelve,' Johanna says, darkly. 'God, it just makes me want to vomit.'

Finnick is a little more forgiving, a little less disgusted, but then, he's so madly in love with Annie that it would be hypocritical of him to say anything otherwise.

She doesn't buy their love story, any more than she buys the thought of the Capitol as benevolent guardians.

Annie's not here. She's never here, because Mags and Finnick both make it so that she doesn't need to be. It must be nice to have a variety of Mentors to choose from.

There's a long pause, and he considers her with a look that's almost inquisitive. 'How often do you tell them to go straight to the Cornucopia, just so they'll die quickly?'

Johanna doesn't answer, which, she knows, is still an answer. It's different for him; his tributes usually have a chance. That's not to say that they fare much better in the aftermath of things. They might not face as much alienation from their Districts, but their lives are still a commodity to be bought and sold at will.

'Two victors.' Johanna snorts, when Claudius Templesmith makes his announcement. 'There's no way that rule will last.' The Gamemakers are not to be trusted. The Capitol is not to be trusted.

As the day wears on, more Mentors arrive, joining in on the commiserations. Haymitch is conspicuously absent, given that he's usually one of the first here. He's probably passed out from the shock of having a couple of Tributes last more than ten minutes for once. Johanna is kind of rooting for the girl from Five, in lieu of any other palatable option. Finnick still has his money on Two, which is usually a pretty safe bet. The death of the Eleven boy is followed almost instantaneously by Chaff's arrival, and he wastes no time in downing a glass of whiskey.

'It's going to be Twelve,' Finnick says, almost incredulously, and really, it's something they should have known from the start. Two will take down the obnoxiously whiny, lovestruck boy, and the Girl who Johanna really couldn't give a crap about on Fire will take her bloody revenge. There'll be trumpets, and champagne, and diamonds for sexual favors.

Only that's not how it ends.

Only the girl from Twelve is maybe slightly less insufferable than Johanna had given her credit for (but not by much). The look in her eyes isn't one of love, it's one of survival. It's like a mirror into the past, and Johanna almost wishes she could reach out, and tell her that she should eat the berries, and die with some small amount of dignity.

The Games end, and there are two Victors.

'We should leave,' says Finnick, suddenly, and there's an uncharacteristically dark look on his face. He knows how this will play. They've seen it before. They've lived it before.

To defy the Capitol is to make your life forfeit.

Some of the other Victors have realized it too. Their eyebrows raise, they straighten guiltily, as though there are cameras watching from every corner (which there are).

'It's starting, isn't it?' she says, when they finally reached a place where they can't be overheard.

'It started over seventy-five years ago,' Finnick answers, and that's the kind of talk that would normally get them shot, but they're beyond that now. If some ignorant kid from Twelve can accidentally mock the Capitol on live television, then things are about to get very, very messy.

They make their way back to the station casually, as though they hadn't been busy committing treason. Johanna knows that it's not entirely accurate to say that the Games are over for another year.

The Games have only just begun.