"You've got to throw the final test, Dean." Dean Winchester's father hammered the mantra in his head from a young age. "You're not going to be a Career. When they try to teach you how to kill, I want you to play dumb. Do you understand me?" He was just a tall, overpowering presence in those memories. An idea, repeating over and over. "Play dumb."
The Winchesters were from District Two, home of stone masonry and, lesser known, weapons making. It was a Career district, which meant that at the age of ten they were taught to hold a gun, throw a spear, and overpower an opponent in hand-to-hand combat. The best were singled out and given special training. Those kids were the Careers. Glory and flames burning out and bloodshed. "You're not going to be a Career. Throw the test."
"Yes, sir," Dean replied every time, too young to say anything else. When his birthday rolled around and he was taken away for a week for training and evaluation, he did just what his father said.
At the end of the week Dean and the dozen or so other kids who had turned ten in the first quarter of the year were lined up outside the large room of a refitted warehouse. They were called in one by one until only Dean and one other boy were left. When Dean was called in, his hands were clammy and shaking. As he walked into the room he hid the tremors by clutching the frayed hem of his shirt. Some older people watched him impassively as they pushed him through the physical routine that he had learned.
"Play dumb," his father had said. Dean pulled in his abilities and personality until he resembled a younger girl at school he always poked fun at for being a baby. Jo Harvelle was the endless subject to his torment. He secretly admired her because she wouldn't back down, but would never admit it.
When he was asked to do push ups he did three before shaking dramatically and collapsing on the floor. One of the observers tutted as he rolled over onto his back. At the end they stamped bold words on Dean's file that said "NOT ELIGIBLE."
His father was waiting for Dean when they let him leave. John didn't even ask what happened. "Good job, son," he said. They went back home and never spoke of it again.
A few weeks after the test Sam found the gun their dad had stolen from one of the factories. He was only six. Sam knew what the gun meant, even then. In his mind it meant pain, death in the streets, no Mom. Dean knew possession was punishable by a swift and silent execution. Rather than telling Sam off like he had when Dean had asked about it, John placed the rifle in Sam's arms. It was stupid-looking and sad, that horrible thing in his tiny arms. Dean hated the sight.
"The Peacekeepers killed your mom, Sammy," John said. "They came into our house and they killed her just because she disagreed with the Games and protested. I keep this so that won't happen to you or your brother." He then took the rifle away and put it in Dean's hands. "It's your job to make sure nothing happens to Sam, you hear me?"
"Yes, sir," Dean said as always, but John hadn't had to tell him. Dean knew his brother was his responsibility from the long days and nights they were left alone. He was the one who made the food for Sam every night, who made sure he did his homework, who made sure he got in bed in time, who made sure no one would break into their house at night. It was his job not to question where John went for those days on end.
Later that night they went to practice shooting in a secluded area. Sam cried when John told him to fire. Dean hit the bullseye every time.
It was hard being from District Eleven. It was even harder on Jimmy Novak because he was from a large family. Even at a young age it was all hard work and not enough food to go around. As long as he had known it was just him, his father, and all of his siblings. They were always a hair's breadth away from starvation but they always made do.
They never talked much about his mother. His older sister took care of him in her absence. Jimmy carried his weight of the work load in the fields and when he got home Anna would tend to the ruptured blisters on his small soft hands and cheer him up. He got along well enough with his brothers but only because he tolerated them with what Anna called the patience of a saint.
One day when Jimmy was young one of his older brothers never came back from the fields. No one mentioned it during a tense and quiet dinner but afterward Jimmy asked Anna. "Where's Gabe?"
Her face fell and she wouldn't meet his eyes. "He's gone away to find work."
"But Anna, we have plenty of work to do here. Don't lie to me."
Anna took him by the shoulders and looked into his eyes now, dark hazel looking into wide blue. "Gabriel is gone now. You can't worry about him. He's forcing us to do more work and as far as I'm concerned good riddance." Jimmy was confused but nodded. Anna took him by the arm and led him to the room they shared with two of the others. They were alone. He changed his clothes in silence and handed them to her one by one. She folded the worn scraps of fabric neatly and put them over the back of a chair. "I'm going to have to get you some new trousers soon. Your ankles are starting to show."
Jimmy slipped under the thin blanket on his straw mattress and curled up, facing her. "Will you say prayers with me?" He whispered. Prayers weren't Capitol approved. Prayers were the kinds of things that got people in the kind of trouble that made them disappear. He knew he shouldn't ask her but she never denied him.
"Alright. We have to be quick about it." Anna got down on her knees beside the bed and folded Jimmy's hands in a steeple inside of hers.
She was like an angel to him then. The light from the door behind her made her hair into a fiery halo that framed her peaceful face. She noticed him watching and stuck out her tongue, ruining the moment somewhat. "Close your eyes and get us started then."
Jimmy obliged, only peeking a bit through his lashes. "Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread..." He trailed off, cracking his eyes open a bit more.
"... And forgive us our trespasses..." Anna prompted.
"... As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen." He hesitated, but started a prayer of his own. "Heavenly Father, bless Gabe and keep him in Your love. Grant him a good rest tonight, and send Your angels to protect him. Wherever he is. Amen." Anna looked sad in the dim light.
Jimmy jammed his eyes shut as Anna put her fingers up to his forehead. She made the sign of a cross on him. "May the Lord bless you and give you peace," she said softly. She hugged him and planted a kiss where she had just made the symbol. "Get some sleep, you little gnat."
When she was gone, Jimmy felt a painful, confused hole in the absence of his brother. He knew he was gone for good, Anna had said so. Good riddance, she had said. Jimmy didn't think it was good riddance.
A month later Gabriel crept into the house at night. Jimmy heard him talking to Anna in the hall outside their bedroom. He was trying to convince her to leave, their voices as heated as a whisper would allow. Jimmy crept to the door and pushed it open a bit to see.
"You wouldn't believe it, Anna! I don't have to do any work at all," Gabriel exclaimed quietly. He looked worse for the wear, like he had been sleeping outside, but he looked more well-fed than anyone Jimmy had ever seen.
Anna put her hands on her hips. "Yeah, you're doing what? Hiding out in the woods, running from the Peacekeepers and stealing our food? That really sounds like the life, Gabe."
"No, no, it's not like that at all. Come on, I didn't have to come back all this way for you."
"What about Jimmy? I have to look out for him." Jimmy's heart was falling at the sound of the doubtful tone in her voice.
"Why are you so caught up about the kid? He doesn't even have the same mom as us."
It was an instantaneous blow to the most sensitive part of his young heart. Jimmy heard a small cry pass through his lips before he sealed away the pain. He didn't want to wake up the others.
"I'll go get my stuff," Anna said after a long pause. "Don't leave without me." Jimmy hurried back to his bed and pulled the covers up over his head to hide the silent tears.
Anna slipped into the dark room and made shuffling noises as she packed her few possessions into a bag. Jimmy could feel her hair tickle his face as she leaned over and kissed his temple. "I'm sorry, Jimmy. I'm going to leave. I just can't take it here anymore. I'll come back for you when the time is right."
Jimmy had never noticed that she had been unhappy, and for the first time he realized that maybe she was just as good at hiding things as he was. He pretended to be asleep as she stood up. He wasn't going to say goodbye.
"Goodbye," Anna said and closed the door behind her. The door closed with the soft promise of "I'll come back", but Jimmy rolled over and covered his ears. District Eleven was no place for promises.
When Sam was almost ten John gave him the talk about Careers and throwing the exam. Dean was in the next room but he got the gist of things when Sam stormed out and slammed the broken screen door behind the house. He watched Sam crawl into the shed out back.
"Dean, fix that door," John said. He was calm but something in his tone was threatening and made Dean jump to his feet. It took until almost dark for Dean to reattach the broken mesh and fix the door back on its hinges but as soon as he was done he dropped the hammer on the ground and went after Sam.
Despite the fact that Two was a wealthier district, many parts of the region had fallen into disrepair and poverty. There was an invisible line around the center of the District that marked the well-off from the struggling masses. Dean's family was far out of that line. Their house was ancient, pieced together from the old rotting frame and whatever John had used to cover the holes. The shed was in worse shape.
"Sam!" Dean ducked through the hole in the side, blocking the scattered last sunlight that was trickling in.
Sam looked up at him. He was still small, a kid, but he was furious. His brows were pulled together until they were almost touching. He scooted over in the dirt automatically to make room for Dean. "Why does Dad want me to throw the exam? Why not get the training? I want to be ready if I get into the Games." The words came pouring out quickly. He had probably been stewing over them for the past couple of hours.
"He doesn't want you to be a Career." Dean sat down on an overturned, rusty wheelbarrow.
Sam drew his knees tighter to his chest. "He raised us like Careers, Dean! What else can we do now?" Confusion, despair, and anger were all there on his round face. That rush of emotions always had been there, just under the surface. "We would be great at it."
"He's not raising us to be Careers. He's just making sure we can take care of ourselves. You know what's out there."
"I don't see a difference between a Career and a Hunter, Dean." Sam rested his chin on his knees. "One kills people and the other kills stuff that looks like people."
Dean didn't really have anything to say to that so they sat there together and watched as the world around them was lit orange, then blue, then black. Dean eventually distracted him with a story about an older kid from school and they laughed together until their father called them in.
"Maybe we'll get lucky and we'll never have to be in the Games," Dean said as they walked back to the house in the hazy light from the back door. "What are the odds, one in a thousand?"
Sam laughed uncomfortably. "We're not lucky. We're Winchesters."