The last year Carlos' youngest sister is eligible for the Games, she isn't chosen.
Carlos would love to breathe a sigh of relief. But the girl whose name is drawn instead of Azalea's is a twelve-year-old, and whether it's a reminder for him or just a coincidence, it isn't going to make this year any less miserable.
He pastes on his calmest, most respectable expression as the tributes emerge from saying goodbye to their families. The calm is helped by the moderate dose of sedatives he's always riding at this time of year. The way his hair is turning grey at the temples, even though he's only twenty-six, also helps give people the idea he's a serious authority figure who knows what he's doing.
The boy, a seventeen-year-old named Paolo, accepts his by-now-traditional water bottle. The girl eyes it with suspicion. "Can I take this in the Arena?"
"No," says Carlos as Leann ushers them all onto the train. "It's just something to hang on to for the moment. A token of how I'm going to do everything I can to get you through this."
The girl takes it, and slings it over her shoulder without breaking eye contact. Her eyes are dark. Very dark. Deep in understanding, wise beyond their time. "You gonna teach me how to kill, Scientist?"
"If you like," says Carlos, surprised. He's never had anyone under fourteen ask that. They're always desperate for the secret of how to not die.
"Good," says Tamika Flynn. "'Cause I already know how to stay alive."
The first crop of cameras are waiting on the platform when their train arrives in the Capitol.
Technically the press are here to get a first view of the tributes, but that's just an excuse. What they really want is some juicy shots of their favorite celebrity romance. As the car slows to a complete stop, Carlos straightens his collar, tousles his hair, and puts his game face on.
The cameras get some charming footage of Carlos looking hopefully around the crowd, guiding each tribute with a hand on the shoulder to keep them in the shot. A joyful shout from the walkway above catches his attention — "Carlos~!" — and then Cecil is flying down the stairs onto the platform, throwing himself into Carlos' arms, where they kiss like they haven't seen each other since the last Games.
Carlos' assorted fans and groupies (as well as a few who are probably Cecil's) cheer. Some of the reporters themselves applaud, not even pretending to be objective.
It's been sold as a fairy-tale love story, and the locals eat it up: scruffy District boy makes good, wins the heart of beautiful Capitol socialite, gets a surprise proposal a few years later, and they live happily ever after. Carlos thinks even President Winchell might believe it by this point.
In fact, the only surprise for Carlos was when Marcus Vansten finally outbid Cecil.
The evening itself is still a fog in Carlos' head (at least Marcus was kind enough to provide the drugs himself). He just remembers the comedown, feeling sick and sore and filthy, wishing his triggers were around anything other than water so he could convince himself to take a long shower. By then he knew that Cecil had once kept a similar monopoly on a previous Victor, before getting bored with Earl the year before Carlos volunteered, and was convinced Cecil had moved on from him too.
The very next night Cecil brought him home, practically threw him into an already-full bathtub the size of a small pool, and said, I know you must be furious with me right now, but I have an idea.
So Carlos doesn't begrudge Cecil these public kisses, even though he knows Cecil gets a thrill out of them. Being pulled out of the underground Victor sex trade has saved him from so much worse. The marriage also gives Carlos a remarkable amount of leeway to travel back and forth from the Capitol to Five throughout the year, which has proved...useful.
And then there's the advantage of publicity. Carlos steps back from the kiss, hands briefly cupping Cecil's face, and says, "Cecil, I'd like you to meet this year's tributes from District Five."
Cecil shakes Paolo's hand, and Tamika's, fussing delightedly over both of them. The cameras eat this up too. It's prime exposure, bonus screen time even before the opening ceremonies, and between whatever image pointers Carlos can give the kids on the train and Cecil's natural talent for making tributes look good, it never hurts.
Granted, it hasn't helped any of his kids enough to win so far, but he isn't (yet) broken enough to stop trying.
In the Mentors' Box overlooking the soon-to-begin opening ceremonies, Carlos greets his comrades.
There's a hard-forged respect between all of them, even if most of them aren't exactly friends. The Victors from One and Two tend to coalesce into their own little groups, and then of course you've got people like Larry Leroy, from one of the outlying districts, who's been drinking since he woke up. Carlos both resents and envies the mentors who give up before the Games begin.
John Peters (you know, from the farm district) mentored last year's Victor, and now he's going around helping Dana get to know the rest of them. Dana's Arena was a flat and scrubby wasteland with a mountain in the distance, almost as dry as Carlos's. She's carrying a permanent water bottle of her own these days, plus a couple of power bars, and thanks him for the inspiration.
She's eighteen now, and beautiful. Carlos tries to focus on the whispered conversations he needs to have while the cameras are all pointed at the chariots, tries not to think about the bidding wars that are going to break out over her.
Everything quiets down when the parade begins. The tributes from One are, as usual, bejeweled and stunning; Josephine's girl is in a gown with thousands of tiny silver points. (Carlos doesn't comment that it looks like it's made of staples. Josephine is about as old as Josie, but still more than capable of taking his head off.) On the Two chariot, Nazr's boy is in a form-hugging uniform that emphasizes his bulging muscles.
When the tributes from Three burst onto the scene, Carlos understands why Steve Carlsberg has seemed like more of a jerk than usual today. Steve's boy is twelve, like Tamika, but instead of being stocky and determined he's frail, shy, and has (though his stylists have tried to draw attention away from it) only one working hand. He won't last five minutes.
Over the loudspeakers, Cecil gives them all gushing introductions, regardless of district, age, or physical state. When the Fives ride in, he adds that they're lucky to be mentored by "perfect Carlos." Steve shoots Carlos a dirty look; Carlos ignores it. If Steve was the one Cecil favored, he would take the extra praise for his own tributes in a heartbeat, and they both know it.
On it goes. Josie's girl has been decked out in a costume with elaborate feathered wings. Earl Harlan got a couple of eighteen-year-olds this year. The kids from the farm district are dressed in bright orange and carrying sickles. The kids from the outlying districts look small and hungry.
Carlos doesn't bother to remember any of their names. None of the mentors do. It's going to be hard enough trying to get all of them killed as-is.
The Arena is indoors this year. Some kind of massive, long-abandoned building that extends well underground, at least seven floors of labyrinthine rooms full of the wreckage of a long-gone society. Taste must go in circles, because the architecture looks like a well-weathered version of the popular styles in Panem today.
"Of course, all this will be forcefielded off, so our tributes will never see it," narrates Cecil over a pan shot of the building's exterior, "but isn't it just lovely? Imagine what it would look like if all that marble were restored! The columns, the sculptures...I'm being handed a note that says those big ones there are a kind of extinct animal called lions. Gosh! I wonder what Khoshekh would think if he could meet one of those?"
Carlos' kids are together, for the moment. Paolo snagged a backpack with a fair amount of food from the Cornucopia. Good, because there are no natural food sources around.
He's sharing with Tamika, which may or may not be a wise decision. Tamika didn't manage to retrieve any food of her own, and in an Arena like this, sharing resources with an ally may be shooting yourself in the foot.
On the other hand, Tamika has an axe, and she looks like she knows how to use it.
Three days in. There's a gala in the complex's second-floor ballroom, where Mentors who may have to run for the elevators at any moment can mingle with potential sponsors. Carlos puts on his nicest pair of furry pants and his fancy-dress imitation lab coat, and flirts for all he's worth.
"The Games are always my favorite time of year," purrs one man, leaning uncomfortably into Carlos' personal space. His teeth are filed into dazzling fangs, a trend that started with Hiram McDaniels, a handsome and charismatic victor from Two who (Carlos is certain) was mostly just trying to discourage people from renting him out with blowjobs in mind. "All these feisty, spirited kids turning up to show their District pride! It's so inspirational, don't you think?"
Carlos wonders if whatever cosmetic treatment left Kevin's eyes totally black also impaired his ability to see violent deaths as a bad thing. "We're all very proud of our tributes."
"And it's been just fascinating, the way they have to change things for an indoor arena," adds Kevin with a too-wide grin. "The little robots they send instead of dropping sponsor gifts by parachute are so clever! I know they must be run by computer, but the way they scamper along...." He walks his fingers up Carlos' arm, five of them at a skittering gait. "...it seems like they ought to have tiny little brains in them."
"Well, I don't build the things, I just send them," says Carlos, trying for a lighthearted tone. As with all things electronic, the robots are produced by District Three. "Speaking of which...I would love to be able to send another round of drinking water to my kids. I'm sure you noticed Paolo's solid training score, and —"
Kevin's hand is resting on Carlos' arm now, not too tight, but with fingernails so sharp that one too-fast movement is going to shred Carlos' nice coat. "Oh, I'm putting all my money this year into that charming Vanessa from District One!"
Vanessa killed one of the Twelves this morning with what looked for all the world like a primitive stapler. "Charming," echoes Carlos, and smiles, and tastes Vithya's blood, and forces his smile wider.
A mentor does not get stuck in flashbacks while their tributes are still counting on them. That's the last thing a mentor —
"Kevin!" exclaims Cecil, shouldering Kevin away with minimal damage to Carlos' clothing. He looks like he wants to throttle the man, not that Kevin seems to notice. "Do excuse my rudeness, but I absolutely must have this dance with my husband."
So saying, he waltzes Carlos out across the floor.
"Thanks," says Carlos under his breath. He even means it. On his sliding scale of morality, by Capitol standards, Cecil is worth being grateful for.
"That man is a vicious wretch," hisses Cecil. "He —"
"Carlos, I need to talk to you."
It's the one person guaranteed to make Cecil's mood even worse. "Go away, Steve."
"It's all right, Cecil." Carlos pulls out of his partner's grip, then belatedly thinks to give Cecil a kiss on the cheek. "I'll try not to be long."
He takes Steve's hand, mind racing. It's an emergency, it must be, because there's no way they can talk here — in the same room as half of the most pampered people in the Capitol, for heaven's sake! — and the only reason Steve would even risk pulling him aside right now is if something has gone catastrophically wrong, so what —
"There's something you missed in the Arena," says Steve.
Oh. Of course, it's just a Games thing. Carlos looks automatically to one of the screens at the side of the gala room, which is showing the regular public broadcast; it's following the Career pack right now, and they look way less ratings-grabbing than a death would be. "My kids —?"
"Both alive," confirms Steve. Which is more than he can say for his own; his girl got knifed during the bloodbath. "And they appear to be making an alliance with my...boy."
(The hesitation doesn't turn out to be anything ominous. Steve just doesn't want the kid outed to all of Panem. As he tells Carlos, in spite of the body type and official records that led the one-handed child to be reaped with the boys, her name is Megan.)
Two days later, one of Carlos' screens goes dark.
He switches the audio on his headphones to the public broadcast. Sure enough, Cecil's voiceover greets him: "To the parents and family of Paolo, our hearts go out to you in this time of fear and uncertainty. As in all other times of fear and uncertainty. Which is all of them, really."
Carlos takes a deep breath through his nose, lets it out through his mouth. He can still see Paolo's body on the other screen, the one showing a Tamika-centric long shot of the narrow, shadowy aisle between shelves. The bodies of the muttations that attacked them are strewn all around, too, one still gurgling its last breath.
Tamika swings her axe one more time, a clean stroke through its throat.
She looks up and says something, and Carlos hurriedly switches back to the audio of his still-active screen. "It's all the mutts," reports Megan Wallaby from a high shelf, which she clambered up to when the mutts appeared. She's fast, which surprised Carlos until he thought about it: of course you can climb easily with one working hand and one forearm if that's the way you learned to do it. "There's somebody behind you, though."
Tamika whirls around, axe brandished as both a shield and a warning. "Who's there?"
Carlos actually jumps in his chair when Earl's boy steps forward through the gloom. It's like the kid appeared out of thin air. "Franklin Wilson," he says, his own hands raised in a gesture of peace. There's a slingshot in one of them. "I, uh, helped take out a couple of those when they were behind you. Dunno if you noticed."
"M?" asks Tamika, not taking her eyes off of Earl's boy.
"Some of them went down and I didn't see what hit them," says Megan. "It would make a lot of sense if it was small, fast-moving rocks."
"I've got stuff to make fire," adds Franklin.
(They won't have any shortage of fuel. If there's one thing this Arena is rich in, it's old, dry paper.)
Not two minutes later, the most recent Victor from Earl's district, Barton Donovan, is standing at the door of Carlos' cubicle. "Earl wants to know if you want to go halfsies on a unit of uncooked chicken."
Carlos doesn't take his eyes off the window with the suddenly-jumping value of his cache of sponsor funds. "As long as Earl's boy actually knows how to cook."
The scuttling silver robot carries the sponsor-gifted food across the dusty floor, around corners and down halls and through a couple of crumbling holes in the walls, to deposit it about five feet from where Tamika and her group are hiding out.
Tamika's axe comes down, smashing the machine in half.
Megan gives her a thumbs-up.
The next day. Carlos is in the middle of a catnap on the break room couch when Angel, a dark-skinned, dark-haired Victor from Josie's district, throws water on his face. It's the one sure way to wake him up that won't give him flashbacks to his Arena.
He sits up fast, nearly strangling himself with his water bottle strap, blinking hard. "What is it?"
"Congratulations," says Angel. "Our girl just teamed up with yours. I'm switching off with Josie in five minutes; she'll want to talk to you."
A couple of caffeine pills and a strong glass of orange juice later, Carlos is watching Tamika negotiate with Erika, who doesn't have a real weapon but has gotten pretty handy with an antique light fixture. This is getting dangerous. There are only eleven tributes left; it's too late in the Games to be making an alliance of four.
"District One, male; District Eight, female. Good night, Panem. Good night."
And now they're down to nine.
Carlos pulls off his headphones and drags himself out of his chair. There's another party starting in ten minutes, a more limited one. Very hip. Very exclusive. Time to go smile and be handsome and look totally convincing when he tells people that Tamika Flynn is not going to be killed when this alliance breaks, in fact she has a real shot at winning this thing, and they should get out their credit cards now.
Eight. Two Careers (Josephine's girl and Nazr's boy), the two kids from the farm district (you know, with John Peters), and Tamika's alliance.
Carlos' picture-in-picture of the live broadcast flips to a 3-D graphic of the most horrifying mutt he's ever seen. He flips over the audio to hear, "...brand-new design! Well, viewers, I am certainly shocked and terrified. According to my notes, the Gamemakers are calling these ones librarians, which is not a term I recognize, but which they seem to think is extremely clever. How will our fragile multi-District alliances react? Let's watch!"
Here's how they react. In one group, Careers fight as hard as they can, but Josephine's girl doesn't make it. In the other, Tamika wields her axe with tiny righteous fury, the others backing her up with slingshot hits to the monsters' eyes, flaming torches, and the sharp edges of whatever-the-hell Megan Wallaby is building...and everybody lives.
Josie is making a guest appearance in the perpetually-free second chair in Carlos' cubicle as Tamika hacks off one of the librarians' ragged, clawed hands and uses a strip of fabric to hang it around her neck. "Quite a strategy they have going there."
Carlos grimaces. "It certainly is."
"By the way, Carlos...."
"You smell like lavender chewing gum, you know that?"
Carlos stares at her for a few long seconds. She can't possibly be using the right code. He was expecting it to be years before someone gave him that code.
"Well, don't be offended, it was just an observation," huffs Josie. "Anyway, where was I...? Oh yes. I was saying, it's quite an inspiring strategy these kids have going."
Final Eight means a special round of interviews. The kids' family members. Their mentors.
A brilliant smile for the camera, a few stirring words about Tamika, and then Carlos makes a joke about his watch being broken, which makes sense, because time doesn't seem to work right during the Games. During one event it flies by, and during another it slows to a crawl.
And during this interview? Well, his watch is stopped completely right now, so it's like....
"There is no time. No more time."
He grins, and everything about his cover is perfect, and — in front of their TV sets back in Five — his family understands instantly.
The Gamemakers are getting impatient, manipulating the Arena in earnest to push all the groups together: new packs of mutts, new traps and dangers. Cecil is signing off his broadcasts later and later, not able to miss any of the municipally-enforced action.
It's the venomous butterfly-mutts that finally land a hit.
Carlos drops everything and goes straight to Steve's cubicle, where one screen is dark and the other shows tiny Megan, already sweating and shuddering from the poison. He doesn't beat around the bush. "Can you afford the antidote?"
"God, no. They just jacked up the price," says Steve hopelessly. "And even if they hadn't...."
"Tell me what you have," says Carlos. "I'll put up —"
"Save your money, Five," cuts in a new voice. It's Larry Leroy, from one of the outlying districts, doing a decent impression of mostly-sober. "Me and Eleven can cover this one."
Dana is visiting Earl's cubicle when Carlos checks in on him. "If we could just drop some kind of token," she's saying, almost pleading.
"I'm trying to tell you, it's not — Carlos!" exclaims Earl. "See, Dana, this is who you should be talking to. Tamika's his girl."
"Your boy's the one who got an eleven in training —"
"And that's made Frankie a great asset to Tamika, but she's the one running this show."
On screen, Tamika runs into the frame, carrying a case with two syringes. She hands it to Franklin, who snaps a quick salute before crouching to administer the treatment. Dana watches, nods reluctantly, and gets up to speak in a low voice to Carlos. "We want to get Stacy and Leland to be your girl's allies."
Two tributes from one district can be valuable to each other, but might not be good for the balance of Tamika's group. "How far can my girl trust them?"
"I don't know! Anyone can get paranoid and snap in the Arena, whether they're with a district partner or not. You know that."
(Last year Carlos' girl did a panicky too-early kill of the boy she'd allied with from Dana's district, so yes, he knows.)
"All we want to do is drop matching tokens," continues Dana. "One for our kids, one for yours. It's anyone's guess whether they'll even find each other, but if they do...."
If they find each other, she wants them to know they're all in this together.
Just like Carlos, and the others up here in Mentor Central, and the rest scattered across Panem, are in this together. Whatever this is becoming. Whether they're ready for it or not.
"Talk to Steve and Josie," says Carlos. "You need their approval. But you have mine."
The exchange of Capitol nicknames complete, Josie says, "Your boy could be in this too."
"My boy's a good kid," says Nazr. "A good kid at the Games. We win 'em. Our kids play good Games. We want to be...good Games tributes."
"There are people who will think it's the wrong thing for him to do," allows Josie. "There are people who will call him two-faced. But ask yourself, Nazr. Is that the worst thing for Michael Sandero to be?"
Carlos throws himself past Peacekeepers too startled to react right away, bursts into the directors' studio, and shouts Cecil's name. The white-uniformed guards are steps behind him, seize him, drag him back.
"Exciting news, listeners! Perfect Carlos, the mentor for our brilliant, bold Tamika, is here in the studio with us. Let's see if we can get an interview!" says Cecil into his mic, signaling furiously at the Peacekeepers to let Carlos go. They loosen their grip just enough; Carlos wrests himself out of it, swoops past the other technical people, and meets a baffled Cecil in the doorway of the recording booth. "Carlos, what —"
Carlos doesn't let him finish the question, just crushes him into a passionate kiss, in this dark room with the feeds from every camera in the Arena rotating on screens in the background.
"Mmph...!" Cecil melts against him, openmouthed and weak in the knees. "Oh, Carlos."
"I need half an hour with my husband," says Carlos, loudly enough that everyone in the room can hear. "In private. Is that all right with everyone?"
"Y-yes! Of course," breathes Cecil, overriding anyone else's objections. "Intern Ariel, take the booth. Intern Rob, page the Gamemakers and ask them not to do anything too difficult to commentate for the next thirty minutes."
To all appearances, Cecil and Carlos can barely keep their hands off each other in the elevator. Or in the halls. Carlos is nuzzling Cecil's neck as they stumble past a couple of Peacekeepers, and Cecil is tugging Carlos' shirt out of his waistband when the door to the Five suite slams shut behind them.
No observers here except the usual bugs in the rooms, and they only get audio. Smoothing his shirt back into place, Carlos makes a beeline for the bathroom and twists on the shower, a protective cascade of white noise.
Water patters against the tile walls.
Fresh clean drinking water...streaming right past him, not even used for anything, just running down the drain...and what if it cuts off, any second could be it, any gallon could be the last, leaving just him and the bright desert heat and the pounding headaches and the dizzy understanding that his blood pressure is starting to fall —
"Carlos. Listen to me, Carlos." Cecil's voice, calm and sure, brings him back. "You are not in the Arena. That was the past. Let my words wash over you. You are safe now."
Outside his circle of trusted fellow Victors, Cecil is the only person who can do that with any consistency. "Thanks."
"Dear Carlos, if I hadn't already guessed that this was serious, I certainly know now." Cecil takes a moment to straighten his collar, blushing. "You have something to tell me, I take it?"
"I do." Carlos takes deep breaths. "Cecil...all these years, ever since my Games, you've protected me as much as you can. And we both know I needed it. Because I'm...beautiful. Right?"
"How many other beautiful Victors have there been since you started commentating?"
Cecil's mouth twists. "A lot more than I can afford."
Carlos puts his hand on Cecil's shoulder. "How would you like to do something to protect all of them?"
Now Cecil just looks confused. "That would certainly be nice...but as I said, it's awfully expensive. Unless you mean I'd be doing something to change the whole system? But Carlos, you must understand, it's very well-entrenched. I may be well-known enough to have some amount of influence over the feelings of Panem, but I hardly think...."
"Of course you couldn't destroy the system alone," says Carlos. "It would take some kind of broader movement. Something involving a large group of people, carefully planned, over a long period of time. A movement with agents who can keep in touch between all the Districts, quickly and efficiently, without suspicion...and, ideally, a movement with sympathetic connections as far up into the Capitol hierarchy as possible."
He searches Cecil's eyes for the moment when it clicks. Cecil's appearance never changes; he doesn't seem to age, and he still has those fashionable pearly-white eyes. But after all these years, Carlos has figured out how to read him pretty well.
At last Cecil says, "What do you need me to do?"
Carlos could just about kiss him for real. (Maybe later. When this is over. Assuming they both survive.) "Keep the broadcast going," he orders. "Sooner or later they're going to try to shut it down. Don't let them. I'll make sure the power stays on — I'm a Five, making sure places have power is what Fives do — and you keep talking. Keep making sure Panem can hear the truth about what's happening in that Arena. No matter what happens, you keep Tamika Flynn on the air."
There are seven tributes left in the Hunger Games, and none of them are trying to kill each other.
They work together. The Gamemakers' best traps barely scratch them.
Megan Wallaby is building something. Not even Steve knows what it is yet, but the way these kids are surviving, it's only a matter of time before they find out.
Tamika Flynn finds her way to the outside of the building. She's holding a book nobody recognizes: a book she picked out of the wreckage that fills these long-forgotten walls, and has been periodically looking through ever since.
And Cecil makes sure everyone in Panem knows it — whether they're part of the rebellion or not — when she slingshots her first Capitol helicopter out of the sky.