Some Victors can't sleep without a knife under their pillows. Carlos can't sleep without a full bottle of water at his side.
He takes long baths, and always leaves the tub for someone else to drain. It's three months before he can make himself flush toilets on a regular basis. After one string of particularly bad nightmares, he sneaks downstairs and starts filling spare glasses with tap water; Mamá finds him there in the morning, fast asleep on the hard tile floor, surrounded by every cup, bowl, pot, pan, and miscellaneous vessel in the kitchen.
Sometimes he wishes his parents would run out of patience and order him to pull himself together. Mostly he's glad they don't try.
He has to figure out from scratch how to relate to his siblings. Lena, who's close to his age, almost gets it; she cuts her prized waist-length hair into a bob as soon as he asks, without question, which means he doesn't have to tell her about the vivid waking visions he's had of grabbing it, of her blood all over his hands. Mikey seems normal at home but is acting out at school, getting into fights, and when he gets home he runs to his big brother for defense — and what is Carlos supposed to do, tell him that violence is never the answer?
Little Azalea is just scared of him. She wasn't even supposed to watch the Games, but she managed to catch a few scenes and has heard horror stories from her classmates, and it's enough. Papi and Lena insist she'll grow out of it. Carlos doesn't want to think about her growing at all, not when every year brings her closer to being Games-eligible.
Almost the only thing that makes him feel secure is holing up in "the lab" (a room in the house next door to theirs, in the otherwise-empty Victors' Village) with chemistry textbooks and a stack of common household products. He looks up formulas; he runs tests. He needs to know which explosives and which poisons a scared kid in the Arena has the best shot at making. Even if he can't afford the ingredients for next year's Fives, he'll at least be able to warn them what the Careers are most likely to try, and what they need to look out for.
On that winter's Victory Tour, Carlos' Capitol escort, Leann Hart, gives him something "to help you set aside your anxieties and give a factual, objective presentation to the people of each district. What are you talking about, it's perfectly legal, and I don't know why you're insinuating otherwise."
Carlos floats through the next twelve days in a drugged haze, which is pretty much the only way he was going to survive them, so kudos to Leann on that count. He reads the canned speeches Leann gives him, and walks away with vague memories of saying that such-and-such a district must be the most fascinating place in the country.
The photos he sees later look passable. You can ignore the glazed eyes and focus on the bleached-white grin, on the hair growing out in silky curls around his face.
Leann tapers him off the sedatives for the tour finale in the Capitol. His stylist, the man in the tan jacket, dresses him for the party in plain black clothes under a long white coat. It goes with his nickname — The Scientist — as if he's famous for doing eccentric-but-harmless research around town, not for using science to blow a fellow teenager to pieces.
Half the Capitol citizens at the party are wearing water bottles in adjustable slings, each one more stylized and ridiculous than the last. They're excited to show him, to let him know that he's started a trend, isn't he proud? Carlos smiles, and nods, and mentally catalogs every object within reach that's light enough for him to lift but heavy enough to do some damage. It's calming. Like meditation.
He does the same thing later, inside President Winchell's mansion. She probably has enough experience to guess that he's doing it. Doesn't stop her from inviting him, alone, into her office.
"I'd like to congratulate you in person," she says. "All our Victors bring credit to their districts, of course, but you were especially clever."
Carlos nods. There's a carved bust of one of Panem's founders on the windowsill behind her, to the left; a sturdy-looking paperweight on her desk; half a dozen heavy bookends on the shelves to either side. He tightens his grip on the strap of his water bottle to keep from reaching for one.
"You are also — I'm sure you've heard this many a time — especially handsome. Put that together, and plenty of our country's most distinguished citizens would love the chance to meet you."
"I'd be happy to," lies Carlos.
"Of course you will," says President Winchell. "When you get the news that someone has requested the pleasure of your company, you will be charming, and cooperative, and happy to do whatever they ask."
There's an edge to her tone that Carlos doesn't understand.
And then he does.
But he's never even kissed anyone, let alone —
"I don't know how," he says, because it's the only objection he thinks has any chance of moving her. "I'll be terrible. Incompetent. They'll only be disappointed."
"Now, Carlos. The whole country has seen how resourceful you can be," replies the president without missing a beat. "Especially when protecting your younger brother. He's still Games-eligible for several more years, isn't that right? And I understand you have two sisters, too? I'm sure you'll figure out a way to manage."
Back in the lab, Carlos mixes up half a dozen odorless or sweet-tasting poisons and stares at them for a long time.
He can't go by himself. After everything else he's done, he can't leave his siblings to be made an example of.
Which is why he's made more than enough for four doses. They'll be home from school in less than an hour. Lena trusts him, Mikey adores him, and Azalea's warmed up to him enough that the other two could convince her to sit with him for a while.
I made something, just for you. Let's have a toast, okay? To family. On the count of three....
...and then whichever two children from Five get reaped in six months will be mentorless. Winchell won't have any shortage of other ways to punish the district, either. It could be two twelve-year-olds up there, this time with no siblings to volunteer for them.
Carlos can hardly protect every child in Five with mass suicide.
He takes the solutions (hah) back to their house, carefully labeled with chemical compounds and lowest effective doses, and asks his father to drive them over to the hospital. Papi doesn't ask why he made them.
For the next few nights he only sleeps with the help of some extra sedatives Leann slipped him.
He's mostly sober for the Reaping, enough to be awake and alert but not so much that he's fighting panic attacks. The tributes deserve him at his best. He brings two extra water bottles, and hands one each to the boy and the girl as they step onto the train.
Maureen is fourteen and sharp; she asks questions about what the Gamemakers like to see in training, about what Carlos thinks is a good opening strategy for someone like her who thinks fast but isn't much of a runner. She also listens when Carlos lays out how to mix a few chemicals he thinks he might get away with sending her, and can repeat the procedure back to him when he quizzes her on it the next day.
Jésus is a year older than Carlos, and while he's not as out-of-touch with reality as Simone Rigadeau was, he's not great at following the things Carlos tries to tell him, either. Or maybe Carlos just sucks at explaining them. It's only his first year; he doesn't have much basis for comparison.
He tries to encourage the kids to team up. The boy's pretty tall and has long legs; he can grab stuff from the Cornucopia, and she can figure out how best to use it.
She gets a six in training. He gets a seven. Carlos holds out hope. Tributes have won with less.
Maureen gets a hatchet thrown at her during the bloodbath, and Jésus takes an arrow to the back while running away. They're both dead inside of ten minutes.
In his cubicle at Mentor Central, with the wonderful cushy seating (designed to be sat on almost nonstop for days on end if necessary), Carlos stares blankly at the two screens. Like if he waits long enough, they'll switch back on.
He doesn't cry. Crying is a waste of water.
It isn't Leann, or even his stylist. It's Josie. A mentor from District Seven, and one of the oldest Victors still living. "Why are you here?" hisses Carlos.
"To bring you tea, son. Decaf. And a roast beef sandwich. You could probably use some protein." She holds up the items in question, then comes over and takes the empty seat next to him, like they're old friends who have casual lunches together all the time. "We thought you'd do best with me. Of course, if you're secretly the type to work out your anger through physical violence after all, John Peters — you know, from the farming district? — would be happy to do a bit of therapeutic sparring."
Carlos' brain is a jumble of food, water, take it and don't, she's another district, it's not safe. Especially since..."No, really — why would you want to — Vithya, she was —"
"My tribute," says Josie calmly, and, oh no, Carlos had realized they were both from Seven but this is even worse. "And this year Steve's girl shot your boy, and maybe next week, or next year, one of mine will kill Steve's. None of us are any better than you, son, and we don't pretend to be."
She holds out the food again.
This time, Carlos takes it.
Josie's still with him when an Avox comes to deliver a message. His tributes' bodies aren't even cool yet, and someone has requested the pleasure of his company.
Worse yet, it's the commentator who had such a frightening obsession with him the year before.
(Should've had his hair cut before he left home.)
He reads the name to Josie, who shakes her head but doesn't look too worried. "Of course it would be him. Don't you worry too much, Carlos. Cecil may come across as a little...sinister...on air, but he's much nicer in person than he sounds."
Carlos' stylist puts him in the faux lab coat again for this outing. The announcers for the Games work in the same complex that the mentors do, so Carlos gets to wait for Cecil in the lobby, with a couple of Peacekeepers standing casually around in case he tries anything.
At last Cecil steps out of the elevator, wearing a silk tunic and furry pants. No wonder he's a Capitol fashion icon.
"Carlos~!" he exclaims, practically skipping across the marble floor. "I am so very sorry about your tributes. Let me do my best to take your mind off them."
He links his arm through Carlos', and ushers him out to a waiting cab.
Carlos has seen Cecil up close before, even though they were both covered in stage makeup and he was too panic-dazzled (the first time) or numb (the second) to make much of an impression. This year Cecil looks much the same: artificially white hair, eerily white eyes to match, skin a few shades lighter than Carlos' and practically unlined. He must have some kind of anti-aging treatment going on. He can't be as young as he looks unless he started commentating when he was...well, an age that in the Districts would have made him Games-eligible.
"We're going to make a very short stop at Marcus Vansten's party," explains Cecil, after giving the driver an address. "He has one every year, and I absolutely must put in an appearance, just out of respect for the remarkable amount of money he has. If at any point you decide you're not comfortable, we can go home even earlier than planned. Just say the word."
Assuming Cecil isn't planning to rape him at the party, Carlos thinks he'll be okay with staying there all night.
...and then he lets his temper get the better of him, when the fourth or fifth Capitol person (this one wearing a trendy shoulder strap that doesn't even have a bottle attached) coos over how sad they are for his loss, in exactly the same tone they would use if he'd been coaching the kids at football.
He's practically snarling at the vapid green-haired woman when Cecil announces that it's time for them to leave. It reminds Carlos of why he's here, and he lets Cecil lead him out, trying not to lunge at the nearest person who wolf-whistles at their exit.
"It's all right, you haven't lost any face," Cecil assures Carlos in the back of the cab. "Your status as a Victor has cemented your reputation for life. They might even be impressed that you're so...free-spirited."
"Of course they will be." Carlos is trying to hold back, but he's a scared, angry seventeen-year-old with more than a slight death wish: all reactants waiting for a chance to catalyze, and the knowledge that his siblings' lives depend on him will only inhibit the reaction so far. "Makes the whole thing easier, right? You get to say what a shame it is, all those kids getting brutally murdered every year, but hey, at least it's just those bloodthirsty little monsters from the Districts, not people with manners."
"The Hunger Games are a commemoration of the successful quelling of the Uprising that nearly tore apart our fair country," says Cecil, like he's reciting it out of a history book. "It has nothing to do with how polite you are as a person. And I've certainly never thought of you as a bloodthirsty monster."
Carlos lets out a dry, disbelieving laugh. "Sure you haven't."
"I haven't! Where would I get an idea like that?"
He sounds genuinely confused. Carlos can't think why. Sure, there's a lot that didn't make it into the public broadcasts, as he's learned from talking around the subject with people back home, but — "You were commentating when I stabbed...when I asked for ammonia. Are you telling me you missed what happened next?"
In the car seat beside him, Cecil shrugs. "I'm sure your feed was still on in the control room, but I was a little busy at the time."
"Busy? What could you possibly have been busy with?"
"Ordering ammonia. Dear Carlos, please tell me: what is it you expected me to see?"
Carlos doesn't even know how to process that casual revelation, so he puts it aside. "Use a little scientific deduction, Cecil! I had plans for the iodine, so I was trying to save it up. And why waste it on purifying the water when I had a safe source of fluids right in front of me?"
"Oh," says Cecil softly. "That must have been...difficult."
Yes. Being in the Hunger Games is difficult. No wonder Cecil is the nation's favorite commentator, with stunning observations like that. "Thank you for noticing," hisses Carlos.
Cecil squeezes his shoulder. Which doesn't help at all, because it only drives home the point that Carlos might owe his life to Cecil's obsessive lust over him, and now, one year later, the obsession is as strong as ever and coming to collect.
If only he hadn't been The Scientist, clever enough to synthesize explosives in the first place. If only he'd been too squeamish to kill, or if he'd had the guts to drink the poisoned water. If he'd died in the Arena, his family wouldn't have to be targets, and Cecil wouldn't be taking him home like some kind of perverse trophy....
But it's too late for regrets now. He's alive, and he has a brother and sisters who are counting on him to keep them alive. Two kids died this morning because Carlos couldn't figure out how to save them, which means he has to do whatever it takes to keep the same thing from happening to his family. And if that means sitting quietly through all the ways Cecil wants to touch him...so be it.
Cecil has a luxury apartment, not the top floor but close to it, in an elegant downtown skyscraper. He's kind enough (or at least, observant enough) to show Carlos to the kitchen first, where Carlos can top off his water bottle at the sink.
"This will be your room, just so you know," he continues, leading Carlos to a surprisingly small guest room. It doesn't even have a double bed. Is Carlos getting put away once Cecil's through with him? Or maybe what Cecil wants to do to him won't happen on a bed at all. "But you're not sleepy yet, I'm sure! Let's go to the TV room. There's not much on live while the Games are playing, but I have some wonderful holos taped. Oh, wait, are you still hungry...?"
"I'd like to use your bathroom," blurts Carlos. "Where's that?"
"Oh, of course! Silly me, skipping right over it. It's just down the hall."
Carlos strides off in the direction he's pointing, as fast as possible without looking like he's running away. He needs some time alone to breathe. And hey, maybe he can stall so long that Cecil gets tired, or gets a rush call back to the broadcast center to cover some ~exciting~ new deadly development in the Games. Maybe....
He takes one look at the inside of the bathroom, slams the door, and bolts in the other direction.
The lab coat flies out behind him as he skids into the kitchen, where he starts frantically rummaging through drawers. Knives, knives, where does Cecil keep the knives? He's got enough dishes to cook with, he has to have something in here that's good for disemboweling —
Carlos spins on his heel, fist closed around the handle of a steak knife. He doesn't thrust it forward pre-emptively; that's a waste of energy and a quick way to lose it. (Glow taught him that.) Instead his arm is at his side, knees slightly bent, poised to throw his whole body into the stab just as soon as his target is actually in reach.
Cecil, on the other side of the kitchen, holds up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "What's wrong, Carlos? It's all right. You can tell me."
Or Carlos could stab him, right here and now, and run.
But where would he go? The Capitol is a big place. He'll never make it out without being spotted. And even if he calls his family from Cecil's house phone and tells them to head for the woods, he'll have no way of knowing whether they make it....
And he doesn't want to stab Cecil, he doesn't want to be behind another death for anyone, so he keeps holding the knife ready but tells Cecil the truth: "There's a mutt in your bathroom."
To his utter confusion, Cecil laughs. "I'm so sorry! Of course you were scared. I completely forgot to warn you. Excuse me a moment."
He turns his back on Carlos' knife and sashays out.
A minute later he returns...with a Capitol-engineered muttation carried in his arms like a mid-sized dog. It looks like it might have been based on a cat, but it has obsidian-dark spines, four violet eyes that reflect so much light they almost glow, and a wide mouth with far too many teeth.
Cecil skritches the mutt's head, carefully avoiding the spines. "Carlos, I'd like you to meet Khoshekh! He was made for the Games a few years back, and they ended up not using him. They were just going to throw the poor thing away, can you imagine?"
Yes. Carlos can imagine that very easily. What he can't imagine is someone willingly taking that thing home.
"I admit, I wasn't much of a cat person at the time, but now? I wouldn't trade him for the world," continues Cecil. "Say hello to Carlos, Khoshekh!"
The mutt opens his mouth and lets out a creaking, gnashing howl. Cecil giggles and pets him some more, whispering praises into his ragged ears.
When Carlos still hasn't relaxed, or put down his weapon, Cecil looks him over and frowns. "Would you like to hang on to that? They won't let you take it back into the Games complex, but you're welcome to keep it for tonight, if it would help."
This whole thing is making less sense by the second. "Why would you let me do that?" asks Carlos, half demand and half plea. "What if I tried to stab you?"
"I can only assume that it would hurt. And make quite a mess. Why? Does it seem like something you would be likely to do?"
"Maybe! If you...if you try to make me...you bought me for the night! It wasn't for no reason, was it? You have...plans. Things you want. Right?"
"Oh, of course."
"Tell me. Say them out loud."
Cecil sighs and kneels, slowly, to set Khoshekh down. The cat-mutant scampers past Carlos to get to its food dish, which holds what looks like ordinary kibble. "You must realize, Carlos, that you are an exceptionally handsome young man."
"I've heard." To be fair, Carlos has mostly heard it from Cecil.
"You were the subject of some very intense bidding. Marcus Vansten himself was in the running for a while, did you guess that? He could have outbid the rest of us put together, if he'd really wanted to. Which just goes to show how generous the rich really are."
Carlos isn't touching that one with a ten-foot pole.
"But of course, no matter how much money Marcus Vansten has, he never would have been able to appreciate your perfection properly. None of them would."
"And you will," guesses Carlos bitterly.
"Of course!" exclaims Cecil. "By making sure you eat well, and giving you a nice warm bed that doesn't look anything like your room at the Games complex, and by not letting you have anything to do with the Games at all for the rest of the night."
There's something conspicuously missing in this equation. "So what do you get out of all this? What do I have to do in return?"
"Perfect, wonderful Carlos, your presence is the only reward I need." Cecil beams at him. "Of course, if you feel indebted...."
Here it comes.
"...I suppose you could help me make dinner. Or help clean up afterward."
If they keep dancing around this any longer, Carlos is going to give himself an anxiety attack. "What about sex?"
Cecil blinks. "That would also be wonderful. But are you sure you're up for it? Not that I'm judging! I realize that everyone has their own ways of coping...."
"I wasn't offering!" exclaims Carlos. He's finally starting to realize that maybe this isn't a trick. Maybe Cecil is just creepy, not malevolent, and his reasons for buying Carlos for the night are genuinely innocent. Is this what Josie was trying to tell him earlier? "Cecil, is this...have you done this with new Victors before? Buy us out, at least at the start, to give us a night off?"
"Oh, gosh, no. I'm not that rich," says Cecil. "And while I'm sure most of you are delightful people, I certainly can't fall in love with every single one. Now, I'm getting the sense that you're not really all that hungry right now, but I barely ate anything at that party and I am famished, so if you wouldn't mind me using the kitchen...? You can keep the knife and stand at a distance, and I'll do my best not to make any sudden moves."
Cecil doesn't know the meaning of the word famished. Cecil has never had the slightest inkling of what it's like to be staggering on the edge of death from malnutrition.
But Cecil is probably the only reason Carlos isn't getting raped right now, so Carlos counts his blessings and eats the chicken salad Cecil presents to him without complaint. As an experiment, he even puts down the knife while eating, where it would be easy for the other man to reach across the table and take it.
Cecil barely looks at it. He's too busy feeding Khoshekh scraps...and explaining to Carlos how sweatervests are going to be all the rage next season, and which colors and patterns will be ideal to bring out the highlights in Carlos' perfect eyes.
Even in a room with no physical triggers to remind him of the Games, Carlos sleeps badly. He's sitting up, knife in hand, the second he hears the door creak open.
There's a too-light tread on the carpets, and a soft animal whuff near the floor.
It's just Khoshekh. Carlos puts the knife down, and manages not to panic as the spiny cat-muttation hops up onto the foot of the bed. Large paws pad along the mattress, until Khoshekh decides he's found a spot he likes and curls up in a round, furry heap just below the pillow.
There's room on the mattress for both of them if Carlos lies on his side and curls around Khoshekh's body, so he does. As another experiment, he tries petting the creature's sleek black-and-violet coat. "Cecil didn't send you here so he could live vicariously through you, did he, buddy?" he murmurs, only half kidding.
Khoshekh rubs his face against the heel of Carlos' hand and purrs like a bass drum.
"Good cat," whispers Carlos.
He buries his own face in Khoshekh's soft fur, and, for the first time all year, lets the tears start coming.