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A Matter of Time before All Your Alliances

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The moment Carlos arrives home, he knows something is wrong.

It's supposed to be safe here. The former Victors' Villages are all well-guarded these days, intended to be neighborhoods where high-profile revolutionaries sleep can at night without fear of the pro-Capitol terrorists still lurking throughout Panem. It's especially well-guarded here in the deserts of Three, where the survivors of the very last Hunger Games chose to settle. Carlos lives across the street from his own brilliant Tamika Flynn; his next-door neighbors are Erika and family, as well as Erika's mentor Josie (who finally admitted that age was catching up with her, and allowed herself to move into the same house as the Erikas and let them handle the chores).

The security checkpoint was still running normally when Carlos came in, so he should have nothing to worry about. On the other hand, his instincts are screaming danger, danger, and he trusts them too much to ignore them.

He sneaks up to the house and peers through some windows.

Sure enough, there's a group of people gathered on the other side of the living room curtains. That's not supposed to happen. One of the conditions on Cecil is that he's not allowed to have visitors without Carlos there.

Cecil was never a direct perpetrator of any of the Capitol's worst crimes, and when he threw in his lot with the revolutionaries, his position allowed him to give them invaluable support at a critical moment. Still, he was one of the Games' most public faces, and no one was sure how far to trust his sudden change of heart. By the time the trials started there were plenty of District citizens calling for him to get a public execution, and for it to be theatrical and painful, with someone making ironic chirpy commentary at every step.

Carlos testified and pressured and campaigned his sentence down from prison to house arrest, under Carlos's supervision, which is where they stand now. Cecil chafes under the restrictions sometimes, both figuratively and literally (the tracking bracelet on his ankle isn't always comfortable), but he would never deliberately flaunt them. Mercurial, inscrutable Cecil is consistent in at least one thing: he does whatever he can to keep Carlos safe.

Which means whoever these people are, they aren't here for a friendly visit. And if their only grudge is anti-Capitol, that explains how they made it past the checkpoints.

Slipping around to the back door, Carlos gives himself a quick once-over. His hair is recently cut; none of his clothing is too loose. It's been a long time since he wore the lab coat inspired by his Capitol nickname. The only thing vulnerable to being grabbed is the water bottle hanging on a strap over his shoulder, so he takes a deep breath, shrugs it off, and puts it down next to the step.

(Life in a desert town doesn't trigger flashbacks to his Arena nearly as often as he had expected. Being surrounded by buildings and streets and all the signs of safe human habitation seems to make the difference.)

It doesn't occur to him to go knock on one of his fellow Victors' doors for backup. They've been his allies for years, but they've also spent most of that time scattered across the Districts and unable to help in a situation like this, so Carlos the Scientist is self-reliant. He slips in alone, quiet as a moth, and helps himself to a carving knife as he passes through the kitchen.

His silence is unnecessary. The intruders are making plenty of noise: grunts of exertion, the thumps of kicks or punches against flesh. Worse is the fact that Cecil is not making any sounds.

Carlos finds an angle where he can size up the situation in the hall mirror. Three of them. All young men — boys, really, no older than twenty — in the black pseudo-uniforms of the local Sheriff's police, meant to mark them as the opposite of the old white-armored Peacekeepers. One is holding a limp Cecil — another punches him in the stomach, clearly not for the first time — the third is watching, not even standing guard, just waiting his turn.

Stupid kids. And the worst of it is, there hasn't been enough time since the war to give anybody who wasn't Capitol-loyal credible police training, so this really is Panem's best and brightest. Stupid, untrained, vengeance-happy kids.

The one silver lining in all this is that Carlos won't have to fight them. They're armed teenagers but they're not locked in a kill-or-be-killed struggle, and they're probably more scared of him than he is of them. Instead he puts down the knife, sweeps out into the living room, and barks, "What do you think you're doing?"

All three boys jump. "Victor Carlos!" they stammer, scrambling to stand at attention. "Sir!"

"That's right." Carlos hates being called victor, would much prefer survivor, but right now he needs the aura of power and authority over these kids more than he needs their sensitivity or understanding. "Give him to me and explain yourselves."

"H-he was obstructing police duty, Victor Carlos," says the one who had been holding Cecil, releasing him into Carlos's arms. Cecil is breathing but unconscious, with a split lip, a bruised cheek, and blood in his mouth.

"What police duty?" demands Carlos, lowering Cecil gently to the ground and turning him on his side so he won't choke. They can worry about cleaning the blood out of the carpet later. "He couldn't have been resisting arrest. He's already under arrest."

"Sheriff's orders — non-essential personal items of political prisoners to be seized — they're being auctioned off, sir. To support the police, sir."

"He got violent," adds the teenage officer who had been standing to the side waiting. "We had no choice."

"Let's say I believe you." Carlos isn't sure that he does. Cecil can be frightening in plenty of ways, but physical combat has never been his thing. "He's not capable of being violent now, and clearly hasn't been in any shape to resist for a while. Subduing a person does not require beating them unconscious. What the hell were you thinking?"

Two of the officers shuffle nervously and say nothing, unable to even look at Carlos. But the third, the one who had been hitting Cecil when Carlos slipped in, stands up straight and says in a raspy voice, "Was thinking he deserved it, sir."

Carlos tenses. This complicates things. "What's your name, officer?"

"Craton, sir. Josh Craton."

It pings a connection in the back of Carlos's head, one that he's too busy to focus on just yet. "Right. Well, Josh, consider your career with the police over."

"Don't care." The boy's voice gets stronger even as his hands are shaking. "Worth getting fired for. I don't regret it. I'd do it again! He's a monster, and it's not my problem you like riding his dick too much to admit it!"

There's an icy silence, broken only by one of the other kids whispering, "Opinions expressed by Josh Craton do not reflect the official position of the Sheriff's police or any other individual officers."

"They damn well better not," snaps Carlos. "Let me tell you boys a fun fact about the Capitol citizens who made a habit of fucking Victors. By some strange coincidence, not a single one of them survived the war."

Before he can say more, Cecil's body jerks in his arms, then starts coughing.

"Cecil? Cecil, it's me. I got you." Carlos holds Cecil as carefully as possible, though he has no idea how bad the bruising is under Cecil's shirt, or how much worse it might get over the next couple of hours. "Can you hear me?"

"C-Carlos?"

"That's right. The police are still here, but they're not going to hurt you any more."

Cecil coughs a couple more times. "H-how's Khoshekh?"

"Don't know. I haven't seen him." Carlos turns to the officers. "Where's the cat?"

The boys trade confused looks. "Didn't see a cat," says one. "Did you?"

"Nope. Maybe the mutt got him?"

"We're talking about the mutt!" exclaims Carlos, realizing with horror that he can imagine Cecil getting violent — fighting tooth and nail, without hesitation, even when his opponents are young and strong and outnumber him — for exactly one reason. "Where is he? What did you do to him?"

"It attacked!" squeaks one of the officers. "Left it in the front hall. It wasn't moving, so it's probably still there!"

Cecil hiccups on unshed tears; Carlos lowers him the rest of the way to the carpet. "I'll go check on him. Stay on your side and try not to move, understand?" Once it's clear that Cecil can hold himself up, Carlos stands and beckons the officers to follow. He isn't about to let any of them, especially Josh, out of his sight. "All of you are coming with me."

They trail after him into the hall, where Carlos's heart drops to his stomach.

Khoshekh is a heap of dark fur matted with blue-violet blood, in a puddle at the end of an ugly smear of blood and other fluids. Some of the spines on his back are broken, one of his legs is hanging wrong, and the side of his face...Carlos is not any kind of expert in animals or nature, but he can tell at a glance that Khoshekh isn't coming out of this with all four eyes intact.

He swallows, fighting the way his intestines churn against the sight and the smell, and makes himself get closer. "Khoshekh? Can you hear me, buddy?"

The hiss like a hundred angry rattlesnakes is one of the sweetest sounds he's ever heard.

"He's alive!" yells Carlos to Cecil, then starts handing out instructions to the officers. This has gone far beyond what he can handle alone. To the one who had been holding Cecil: "You — go straight out to the back door and to the first house you see. Tell them there's a medical emergency at Carlos's place, and we need their help." To the one who had been standing and waiting: "There's a bathroom right upstairs. Get me towels out of the linen cupboard, hydrogen peroxide out of the medicine cabinet. Then go into the kitchen and boil some water." And to Josh: "You stay right where you are."

In spite of everything that's happened, they snap to obey. Carlos gets as close to Khoshekh as he dares, talking softly about how he's such a good cat, yes, such a brave guy, and it's okay now, they're going to make it all better.

When Khoshekh lets out a weak version of the metallic creak he uses for a purr, Carlos knows he's been recognized, and can start toweling away as much of the mess as possible. Without looking up, he says, "How were you related to Misty?"

He's remembered the connection now. Misty Craton, District Three female in the Games that Carlos no longer thinks of by their Capitol number, but simply as as "the fourth-to-last."

"Sister," says Josh bitterly. "When she — when the fog — he made it a pun."

"It wasn't Cecil who put her in there." It's something Carlos will repeat as often as necessary. Future generations need to remember who the real enemy was. "But that was remarkably awful of him, yes."

He doesn't elaborate, or equivocate. He just keeps scrubbing, until Josh says, "Then why...? But you...I mean...what the hell, man?"

"Because I was always safe in his home, even when I wasn't safe anywhere else," says Carlos. "Because I have a brother too, and other family, and it was very easy to control me by threatening them...except when Cecil made it less easy. Because he was the one who got me through a bout of throat spiders."

(That rare but deadly infection, whose final throes just happen to look not-at-all-suspiciously like self-inflicted knife wounds to the jugular vein. A night in Remake took care of the scars, but his voice has never sounded the same since.)

"Because everyone who survives has had days when they regret it — if your sister had lived, she would have had them too — and you would have been glad for anyone who made those days come around less, no matter what else they had done. Because Tamika Flynn's legacy means not having to live in a world where it's only a matter of time before all your alliances break down."

 

***

 

Evening falls. Carlos has the phone conversation with the vet's office downstairs, so he can get any bad news on his own and figure out how to break it to Cecil gently. The front hall has been thoroughly scrubbed, Erika and company left them with a bunch of extra medical supplies, and Josie made a couple of big bowls of applesauce and pudding so Cecil could manage dinner even with half his face all swollen up.

Cecil is safely in bed when Carlos goes up to see him, a blanket over his body and an ice pack against his cheek. The doctor said he didn't have any serious internal injuries and just needed bed rest. Carlos suspects she would have erred on the side of "...in a hospital bed where we can keep an eye on you" for almost anyone else, but didn't push it.

"The vet says Khoshekh should live," he tells Cecil, sitting on the free side of the mattress. Both of their rooms have king-size beds, although neither of them is bringing a whole lot of people home to share. "It took them a while to figure out his anatomy, and the genetic engineer who came up with his design in the first place is still listed as missing...but they believe he's stable."

It earns him a crooked smile, so Carlos decides to save the details of the surgeries and amputations for later. Khoshekh will recover, is the important thing. Even if the rehabilitation will take a while.

"Some police officers who are not about to lose their jobs or be suspended came by and confiscated your clock radio," he says instead, putting a hand on Cecil's forehead and absently smoothing back Cecil's hair. "And those decorative bloodstones, and most of your clothes. I, um, saved your favorite tunic by telling them it was mine. We can probably buy a lot of the rest back at the auction, too."

"They can keep it," says Cecil flatly. He's a bit muffled, but much firmer than he should be, given the amount of painkillers currently cycling through his system. "They can take all my things — whatever they want. But not Khoshekh. Not my boy."

Carlos nods. "They're not going to take your boy."

Cecil's eyelids fall shut. "I thought...."

"Hm?"

"The door. I know, no visitors, but I opened the door. They were police, so I — I thought — it would be okay."

Everything he's been through, and he's still so naïve about some things. Fighting a revolution didn't teach him how to deal with a peacetime law enforcement system where the deck isn't stacked in his favor. They're all unprepared for peace, really: these kids who can't grasp when the time for vigilante justice is over, Carlos who's back to carrying water.

"I guess...no justice system is perfect," adds Cecil shakily. "They become —"

"They get better when you work to fix them," finishes Carlos. "We'll keep working on this one."

"Mmhmm." Cecil meets his eyes again. "You'll go see Khoshekh, right? At the hospital? He'll be lonely."

"Of course. And once you're okay to walk, we'll call the Three justice department and get you a travel exemption so you can make a couple visits too."

Cecil wrinkles his nose. "They might not approve it. The director is such a jerk."

Mercurial, inscrutable Cecil is consistent in at least two things: he will never, ever like Steve Carlsberg.

"He'll let this one through," says Carlos. "And if he doesn't do it fast enough, I will call up Tamika, and she will call Megan, and Megan will call Steve, and Steve will fold like a cheap card table. What good are inter-District alliances if you can't call in a favor once in a while?"

He rests his hand against the curve of the non-swollen side of Cecil's face. Cecil relaxes, leaning into the touch as Carlos's thumb brushes his temple. "I don't know...if I've mentioned this before? But I'm really...really lucky you're here for me."

Since he mentions this at least once every other week, more often if they have visitors, Carlos doesn't bother coming up with a response. He just swings his sock feet up onto the bed and scoots down so he can be lying beside Cecil, lacing their fingers together.

He's not having sex with Cecil, or even anything you could call a romance, no matter what half of Panem (still) believes. But the Games weld people together in strange and unlikely ways — all the Survivors in a tight-knit circle from his generation have things they only discuss with each other, because nobody else could understand — and as long as it makes them both happy, Carlos will spend some nights in Cecil's bed if he damn well feels like it.

"Right here," he echoes. Not everything is as it should be, because Khoshekh isn't curled up at their feet, but their cat will be back where he belongs soon enough. "And I'm not going anywhere."