The Hunger Games is all about balance. Two tributes per district; one boy, one girl. Equal chances of survival; on the surface. That tiny spark of hope.
But the Capitol doesn't ever strive to stretch it out. On average, the Games last two weeks; because if the children are not yet weak enough, desperate enough, to make rash mistakes after a fortnight passes, then the Gamemakers haven't been doing their job right. Of course, it could go the other way; Games that are too short can leave the Capitol audience feeling cheated, and, more importantly, the pain is quicker. A lingering, drawn-out pain hurts far more than a quick tear. It is harder to forget.
The shortest Games by far were the 57th.
Dean Winchester, the male tribute from District 9, was not remarkable. (With hindsight, Caesar Flickerman would gush how he just knew, oh he knew there was something unique about that boy the moment he set eyes on him; but it's tripe, and everyone knows it. No one knew.) Dean was of average height, not overly well-built, but extremely attractive- in a delicate way, that had Capitol high society sighing in regret that he wouldn't ever make it into their arms or their beds. The Careers from 1, 2 and 4 dismissed him; a honey-haired boy from an agricultural District, who was good with snares and shelters but barely touched a weapon in the Training Centre. The judges scored him a 5. He was quiet and cold, certainly, but not like someone who was biding their time; like someone who already knew that resistance was futile, and the end had come.
All in all, he was a pretty, trifling thing; to be cooed over, in his shimmering gold-flecked scarecrow outfit, but ultimately to be tossed on the scrap-heap with the other broken toys.
How very wrong they all were.
Seven tributes died in the initial bloodbath. Hollow-eyed children with gaping neck-wounds and spears through their spines. Dean had bolted the moment the Games began, disappearing into gaps between dusty rock. The arena was a flat plain, with scrub bush and emaciated trees, which gave way to heaps of sharp rock; the caves of which lead to a claustrophobic series of tunnels below. Thin streams of water trickled deep in the deepest darkness, the only visible source. It was clear that some of the tributes were intended to get lost in the labyrinth on their desperate hunt for water, and starve.
Dean's first kill was the girl from 6. She'd managed to escape the Cornucopia with a knife, and had ventured into the caves to search for a place to hide and sleep. Dean came out of nowhere, though evidently he'd been tracking her for some time. The District audiences weren't particularly interested, though it caused a frisson of renewed attention in the Capitol. It seemed obvious the boy from 9 was hoping to form an alliance to search for water. Right up until the moment he pounced, snapping her neck with his bare hands.
The career pack was the next to go. That year it consisted of both tributes from 1 and 2, the girl from 4 (the boy having been surprisingly taken out in the bloodbath), plus the girl from 7, and the boy from 10.
With steady hands, Dean snapped off thin, young branches from a bony tree. Sweat poured down his back; it was obviously sweltering. In the cool of a cave, he used the knife he'd gained to whittle the branches into thin, sharp spears. The knife was almost blunt by the time he was done.
The careers had stayed on the grassy plain with the Cornucopia, feasting on the supplies, oblivious to the claws which dropped down to retrieve the bodies of the fallen. As night settled in the boy from 2 took first watch, and so he was the first to find a stake through his heart. Dean's arm moved in a graceful arc, lithe muscles silently rippling as he threw with deadly accuracy.
His aim was absolute.
But he'd only made six spears. The girl from 7 scrambled to her feet, wild-eyed, having been woken by the scream of the boy from 1. She had an axe in her hand, and clearly knew how to use it. She was frightened but alert. Evidently, Dean knew how to size up an opponent. He crept away; a silent predator in the weak moonlight.
The boy from 7 fell down between rocks, snapping the bone in his left leg. He passed out from the pain and didn't wake up again.
The girl from 11 found a shallow pool of water in a deep cave and decided to go for a swim. Dean held her head down until she stopped thrashing.
The boy from 5 pushed the boy from 6 over a cliff. His body made a sickening crunch when it landed on the compact earth below. Dean stole a shuriken from his twisted, crumpled corpse, and embedded it in the back of the girl from 7. Then he stole her axe.
He used the axe to behead the boy from 12. The girl from 10 took advantage of Dean's momentary distraction to try and stab him from behind with a short sword. But Dean had keen senses, and even better reflexes; he let go of the axe still stuck in the earth and the fallen tribute's body, rolled forwards, and jumped up into a fighting stance. He proceeded to dance out of the way of her sweeping thrusts. She was clumsy with the heavy weapon, and Dean was easily able to evade her. He kicked a shower of red-beige dirt into her eyes and as 10 screamed and stumbled, he lunged forwards, kicking her in the chest whilst twisting the blade out of her hands. She fell back into the dirt, winded, while he gripped the sword handle with both hands. Her body arched up obscenely when he sliced clean through her chest. Blood sprayed out of her mouth as he gave a vicious twist.
Dean slit the throat of the boy from 5. The boy shuddered and convulsed whilst Dean stood above him, eyes devoid of all emotion. He'd been the clear favourite to win after he took down the Careers, already being haled as one of the strongest competitors they'd ever had. So the audiences watched in confusion as the vicious boy from 9 bent down and gently closed the wide eyes of the boy from 5, as the dead boy's floppy brown hair was ruffled by the weak breeze.
The girl from 3 was stabbed in the gut by the boy from 8. 8 had been distracted by Dean and 10's fight, but instead of joining in, he'd scrambled away. 3 dragged herself into a cave, pulling off her t-shirt and pressing it to the deep wound. Later, Dean considered the knife he'd used to kill the boy from 5, before quietly kneeling in the dirt and clamping his empty hand over the girls' nose and mouth. She woke, and gave a weak struggle, but soon succumbed.
And then there were two.
The fight between 8 and Dean dissolved into hand to hand combat. 8 had managed to knock the knife out of Dean's hand; but Dean utilised the kind of fighting moves that had never been seen in the arena before, or since. A flurry of complex kicks and punches, vital organs damaged by cruel blows, soft flesh pounded into the dirt; Dean swept 8's feet out from under him and repeatedly slammed his head into the ground until his skull cracked open, blood and brain matter sliding out onto the dusty earth.
The 57th Annual Hunger Games were over. They had lasted four days.
"He slaughtered them," Katniss whispers as the footage finally winds to a close. There was a stifling, horrified silence.
Haymitch took a deep drink of the white liquor, draining his glass. "The phrase they kept using afterwards was 'annihilated'. He became known as the Hunter. He stalked them down."
"How old is he now?" Peeta asks abruptly.
Haymitch shrugs. "He was 17 when he won the Games."
"So he's in his 30s now? Is he still..." Katniss trails off, unable to find the word.
Haymitch nods. "Oh yeah, sweetheart. He's still." He reaches for the liquor bottle, not bothering with his tumbler and drinking directly from it. "Hasn't mentored for a few years now. Wouldn't exactly be surprising if his name was in the selection more than once. Not a big fan of the Capitol and their plans for him."
"But how did he learn to fight like that? They don't have a training centre in 9, like they do in 1 and 2."
"Flickerman asked. All he said was his father taught him how to fight. Had to get back to take care of his brother."
Katniss pales at the comparison, but quickly shakes it off. "And now?"
Haymitch sighs, finally giving them his full attention. He knows what she's asking. If Dean Winchester is Reaped for the 75th Games, will he have anyone to fight for?
"Got married to his sweetheart two days after returning to 9. They're still blissful, much to the disappointment of many in the Capitol. But Flickerman loves a happy ending." The subtle dig at Katniss being unable to convince Snow and the rebels of love being her motive, and not defiance of the Capitol, stings. But again she ignores it.
"How come their children weren't Reaped?" she asks.
"Not really an option when you're married to another man." Haymitch chuckles.
Later, when the Reaping in District 9 is shown on screen, their sighs of relief are audible. It's one less obstacle to face.
Dean Winchester is no longer a harmless looking child; his features may be delicate, lashes long and eyes bright, but there is a quiet danger there. It's incongruous with the gentle arms he folds around a dark-haired man who rushes to his side, and the quick, tender kiss Dean bestows the other man's forehead... before sweeping him off the stage and away from the prying eyes of the Capitol.