The worst thing about the Games from this side is watching the Capitol watch the spectacle. After they film her solemn, disappointed reaction to the deaths of her first tributes--just enough sadness without being maudlin, they whisk her into prep and out into the wild streets.
The tears threaten at first, before the noise and the lights and the strange touches overwhlem her and she locks away everything that makes her her and lets them wash the rest of it away. "So tragic," a woman says, wide-eyed, glass in hand. "I had to close my eyes!" The woman's date puts an arm around her shoulders and rolls his eyes, takes her glass away with the other hand as they move away.
Rokia's here for Victor Affairs, for the time being, official guest at the very exclusive official opening night celebration, so there's no one taking her arm or pulling her into the secluded corners for a taste of what's to come. She drifts towards one of the tables and tries to identify some kind of recognizable food that won't make her stomach turn, when she notices someone looking over her shoulder.
And maybe not all of her is locked away, because she spins faster than she probably should and looks up into Finnick Odair's face, up close and personal for the first time since the Tour. His smile is bright enough to be blinding, but he tensed, just for a second, when her hands came up. She smiles, and if it's hardly going to match his, well, he's had more practice.
"Here," he says, reaching past her and coming up with something a color of pink that cannot possibly be natural. He hands one to her, pops another into his mouth. She tries it, dubious, swallows fast when it turns out to be nothing but spun sugar. Something must show on her face because he laughs, tries again.
"Here, less sweet," and this time it's nutty and chewy and she still can't identify it but it's not half bad. He grins, this time for real, when he sees she likes it. "Lovely party," he says, and the sarcasm is buried under so many layers of sugar she wonders if she's imagining it, but she's pretty sure she's not.
"And I thought yesterday's was good." Her own sarcasm is much closer to the surface, but while there are plenty of eyes on them nobody's paying particularly close attention, so whatever. Finnick's smile doesn't waver.
"Well, this one's much more exclusive," he says, "only the Capitol's finest." He spends a few minutes pointing out Ministers and Arena designers and various Capitol celebrities as though Rokia will actually remember their names.
"Turning out to be quite the Games," he says, once he's exhausted the topic of the guest list. Rokia glances away and takes a breath.
"I haven't watched," she says, and Finnick's eyes widen just a fraction before he continues.
"Well, you're missing out. A desert and a cornucopia of maces," he says, laconic, while Rokia watches the way his hair curls behind his ears so she doesn't have to either meet his eyes or think about Safiatou with her head smashed in and her blood soaking the sand. "And the One girl and the Two girl are putting on quite the show."
There's something in his voice that makes her finally look him in the eye. "Blood and sex," he says, sharper, his smile faded. "That's going to be the theme, this Games." Rokia's head spins, she doesn't know what that means but she doesn't much like the sound of it. He turns the smile back on like he's flipping a switch, though, and puts an arm around her shoulder, spinning her and pulling her towards him in one quick motion. It happens too fast for her to flinch, and then she's looking at an unfamiliar face, pale and heavyset and framed by lank blond hair, ugly for the Capitol.
"Plutarch Heavensbee," Finnick says, "Have you met Rokia?"
Heavensbee holds out a hand and she shakes it.
"Quite the Arena you've designed, Plutarch," Finnick goes on, "Back to basics this year, huh?"
"Not entirely," Plutarch looks vaguely affronted, "I think the limited weaponry and the hostile environment will provide an interesting dynamic." He glances at Rokia. "Welcome back to the Capitol, Miss Diarra," he says, "I'm sure Finnick can show you the ropes." Finnick chuckles, low in his throat, and Plutarch smirks, shakes his head and moves on.
Finnick glances over Rokia's head and steps away from her. "I think I'm about to be told off for monopolizing your time," he says, with a smile that belies the almost-apology, "See you around." He gives her a last dazzling smile and steps past her to intercept a woman in a blood-red dress with nails to match, and Rokia just catches the tone of an almost-argument before she lets herself be swept into the crowd.
The next morning Linsea shows up at breakfast with schedule updates for Rokia, a few interview requests for Phillips, and a note from Wiress. Rokia rips that open before Linsea's even finished talking and grins when she sees what's inside.
"Yes," Linsea says, "Wiress requested you specifically, says she wants your help with some project she's been assigned while she's here, and we'll have to juggle it with the publicity schedule but apparently this is a priority."
It's all Rokia can do to sit through breakfast and not race down to the Three floor right away, it's like someone flipped a switch and her brain's started working again, finally breaking out of the fog she's been trapped in. But she sits, finishes her oatmeal, drinks another cup of coffee, and half-listens to Linsea's scheduling nightmares and party planning and who knows what.
But finally they're finished, and Rokia collects her notebook and her datapad and heads down to the Three floor.
Beetee lets her in with a tight smile, and the go over to the table, where Wiress is sting with the other two Three Victors. The oldest smiles and reaches across the table to take her hand. "I don't know if you remember me from the Tour," she says, "I'm Lumina." Rokia nods. A lot of the Tour is a blur, fractured memories that float up without rhyme or reason, but Three was good.
The younger girl--older than Rokia, but she looks young, styled like she's heading out--looks up from her hands, wide-eyed and serious. "Eibhlin," she says, looking back down.
Rokia smiles back and before she can wonder where Eibhlin is off to, dressed like that, the Three escort calls for her and she slips out. Rokia doesn't ask. It seems safer that way.
They have a table set up in the common room, one side half covered in stacks of paper, and that's where Wiress heads. Rokia follows, leaving Beetee and Lumina talking quietly at the breakfast table. Wiress picks up one large binder and passes it over.
"Wow, actual paper?" It comes out a little forced through the tension in the room, but Wiress shoots her a ghost of a smile anyway.
"Heavy lift cargo craft need a steering and guidance overhaul. All hydraulic steering, thought you might appreciate it." It's clipped and tight and direct, none of the jokes Rokia's used to, and the Three tributes went out in the bloodbath yesterday too, so maybe that's why the air feels so heavy everywhere.
Rokia sits down and opens the book, while Wiress settles in next to her. She pulls out her notebook before long, re-drawing diagrams and turning things over in her head and trying to remember the last time they had something this big in the shop.
"They're sturdy, these ones," she says after a while, and Wiress's head snaps up to look at her, sharp. "We almost never see them, and they're easy to fix." Wiress nods, absently, looking at the datapad in her hands.
"Hmmmm." She looks up and blinks a couple times. "Yes, that's…interesting." She looks back at her datapad, eyebrows furrowing. "The pilots say the steering is balky."
Rokia shrugs. "Maybe they're just not used to it, it'd feel different than the little ones that're all fly by wire." She wonders for a minute whether she'll get to fly again, remembering the feel of the hovercraft shifting under her hands.
Wiress nods. "Probably…"
They lapse into silence again, until Beetee comes over and stands next to Wiress' chair. "Lunchtime," he announces, and Wiress looks up and lets out a long breath. Rokia runs a hand through her hair and gets up, follows them to the dining room, then wonders if maybe she should go upstairs, get out of their way. But there's a place set for her and Beetee smiles and says he called up to tell Phillips so she sits. The food is good, light and simple, and Lumina comes and sits with them and sips her soup and asks Rokia what they're working on. They move easily around each other, comfortable and quiet and like no place Rokia's ever been. If Wiress isn't talking much nobody presses, and they don't act like they're avoiding the awkward questions, just that it's not actually important what she did last night when there's more interesting things to talk about.
Phillips calls down a little later to say that Linsea is looking for her, and Rokia sighs and collects her things. "Thanks, Wiress," she says, and Wiress looks up with a flash that's almost her usual grin.
"See you tomorrow?" she asks, and Rokia nods.
"Count on it."
It's like stepping back into a storm, walking out of the elevator on the Six floor, Phillips standing in the common room radiating worry, Linsea smiling and fluttering, the prep team descends on her and whisks her off and she falls back into it all like she'd never left. It's interviews again this afternoon. Phillips comes along, sits in the car next to her and she wishes she knew what to say to make him stop looking at her like that, to make things okay, but she doesn't and he's looking out for her and she owes him her very life so she can't very well tell him to stop even if she knew what it was he was doing that makes her want to run away.
The interviewer today is a woman with feathers twisted into her hair, spreading behind her like a peacock's tail, and Rokia watches them bob and sway as the woman nods or shakes her head. "So what was it like?" she asks, wide-eyed. "It must have been so exciting, getting to mentor for the first time."
They practiced this, they knew it was coming, but it still sends a spike of fury through Rokia's skull, setting off the headache that always seems to settle behind her eyes. "It's a little overwhelming," she says, rueful. "There's so much to learn." The woman nods, sympathetic.
"Well, better luck next year, right?" The woman's grin is almost as bright as Caesar's. "You've been attending quite a few of the Games events," she goes on, and photos flash up on the screen behind them. Rokia swallows hard, breathes, and tries to let it all wash past without touching her. "It must be amazing getting to mingle with so many of Panem's brightest stars!" There's a picture of her last night, Finnick's arm around her shoulders, talking to Plutarch Heavensbee.
Rokia smiles. "It's incredible really," she gets out. "I never would have imagined." It's a nothing phrase, but the woman laughs anyway.
"Of course, how could you!" She puts a hand on Rokia's knee. "Aren't you just the sweetest," she says, and finishes, finally, reminding everyone about the schedule of public viewings, the sponsoring numbers, where to find tribute odds. When the camera shuts off, she stands, shakes Rokia's hand and says, "It's just wonderful to finally meet you in person." Rokia doesn't let her smile waver, even when the woman kisses her cheeks, says "I do so hope to see you soon," and turns away.
They get back to the room just in time for the anthem, the Tributes' faces lighting up the artificial Areana sky. Phillips gives her a sharp look but she just looks right back. He can't hide her from it, not completely, and anyway if she doesn't know what's happening she's bound to get into trouble. Not many deaths, today, and the recap spends a few loving minutes on yesterday's whirlwind around the Cornucopia just to remind everyone, apparently. It's quick cuts and flashes and she almost doesn't recognize the kids from Six until the camera pans back on the field of bodies and there, there's the flash of red-orange Six uniforms, blood-splashed but otherwise perfect, clean and new. Before she has a chance to breathe the camera cuts again, and there, the One and Two girls tangled around each other, hands sliding under their grimy uniforms, stained already with blood, and it's rough and wild and now Rokia has to look away, gets up to walk over to the window where the lights are coming on in the streets, a riot of color that refuses to sort itself into anything that makes sense. She hears Phillips shift behind her, getting ready to follow, and she spins back around, takes a breath, and goes back. The rest of it is ordinary, tracking the handful of outliers who managed to escape, the one the Pack hunted down last night, flirtatious glances and stolen kisses between the two girls, banter and rolled eyes from the others. "Blood and sex," Rokia says, dully, when the Capitol seal spins on the screen again. Phillips' head snaps to look at her. "That's what Finnick said," she shrugs. "Last night. I didn't know what he meant." Phillips' eyebrows furrow, he's probably thinking about angles and positioning and it's pointless but if he wants to, let him think they can control something about this.
"I have to be in prep," she says, and he just nods as she heads out.
The party is loud, and wild, and they're flashing clips of the games on the walls, and Rokia's there with a girl who is probably a few years older than she is but acts a lot younger, and they've only just arrived when she slips something under her tongue. "You want?" she asks, head dipped so she can look up at Rokia through ridiculously long lashes. "It'll be fun." Rokia shakes her head, trying for shy, kid from the Districts who's not used to this sort of thing. It's not much of a stretch. The girl giggles and puts her arms over Rokia's shoulders, smiles, and kisses her hard, teeth digging into Rokia's lip till she tastes blood.
The room is huge and packed with people, kids mostly, gyrating to the music with their hands in the air, screaming when the screens show a kill or a kiss. It lasts until the sky is fading grey, and by the time Rokia staggers back into the Training Center it's full daylight. She can't catch her breath, even the steam from the shower won't clear her lungs, even the harshest hottest spray she can stand doesn't leave her feeling clean. She turns off the shower and drags a towel around her, shivering, wet, cold, and she sinks to the smooth tile and stays there until she hears the knock on the door.
"Rokia?" Phillips, sounding scared.
"Yeah," she says, and it's ragged and certainly not reassuring, but it's what she's got.
"Are you--do you need anything?"
"I'm fine, Phillips," she says, hauling herself to her feet.
She pulls on the bathrobe they leave hanging on the door and steps out. Phillips looks as haggard as she feels, and she wants to reassure him but really she needs him out so she can lie down before she falls down. He looks her over, checking for she's not sure what, but he nods. "Get some sleep," he says, resigned.
"Okay," she says, and waits until he's gone before ripping the blankets off the bed and curling up in the smallest corner she can find.
She sleeps restlessly, waking with fragments of dreams evaporating before she can pin them down. Finally she gives up and walks out into the common room, blinking in the sunlight that streams in the windows. Phillips looks up from the papers he's strewn across the table, surprised and concerned and all of the usual caution keeping him sitting way too still. "G'morning" she mumbles, heading into the kitchen to find coffee. He's still sitting there when she comes back, steaming mug warming her hands, and she sits across from him and sips at it.
"Can I get you some breakfast?" It's only sort of a question.
Rokia shrugs. "Guess so." Phillips nods once, gets up, comes back with a plateful of eggs and toast. Rokia eats methodically, not really hungry but she's not Capitol enough to let good food go to waste just because her stomach's apparently not awake yet. She finally swallows the last bite and pushes the plate away. "Has Linsea come by?" she asks. She's sure there's something she's supposed to do today, but she can't keep track of it all.
Phillips nods. "I told her to let you sleep. They have you scheduled for after the recaps tonight."
"And after that?"
Phillips sighs. "After that Linsea said something about a private party."
Rokia nods. "Okay." She's antsy again, for no particular reason, gets up.
"Where are you going?" Phillips asks, sharp.
She turns on him and he shakes his head. "Just curious," he says, and she shoves down the irritation.
Where is she going? Can't stay here, head too scrambled to work, can't sit still. "Gym, I guess," she says, shrugs. "I'll be back."
Phillips looks like he wants to say something, thinks better of it, and she yanks on running shoes and heads out.
It's empty and blessedly silent in the gym. It doesn't take long to find the place where her breath rasps in her ears and her lungs burn and her the rhythm of her feet pounds through her and everything else shuts off. It's just keep moving, one foot in front of the other, until it takes every last bit of concentration she has just to stay upright, and finally it's stop or fall, so she staggers off. She's breathless and sick to her stomach and barely gets to a trash can before her breakfast comes back up.
She's sitting against the wall, breathing hard when Lyme comes in.
She sighs, gets ready to apologize, explain that she's fine really, it's nothing, she just ran too hard too soon after eating. But Lyme doesn't ask, just hands her a bottle of something strange-colored and sits down nearby. Rokia sips at it, it's sweet and kind of gross but soothes her throat. "Sorry," she says, on principle. "I'll get out of your way."
Lyme raises an eyebrow, looks around. "Kid, what makes you think you're in my way?"
It's a fair point. Rokia shrugs.
They sit there in not-exactly comfortable silence until Rokia's heart stops trying to beat out of her chest.
"So," Lyme says, casual like it's perfectly normal to be sitting on the floor in the training center gym, like she talks to crazy outlier girls all the time, "You done, or you wanna hit something."
That makes Rokia laugh, and it's a little hysterical but Lyme just leans back and waits till she's done. "Hit something," she says finally, because she's not ready to go upstairs and be a person again just yet. Lyme scrambles up, holds out a hand and hauls Rokia to her feet.
Lyme pulls the long staves out of one of the cabinets, and Rokia watches and thinks how strange it is to be standing here facing a woman twice her size with odd not-exactly-weapons and learning how to play-fight for fun. Of course, in the list of things that are strange about her current life this hardly even ranks. And it is fun, learning the precise, choreographed motions, feeling the shock up her arms when wood connects with wood. It takes enough concentration that she can't worry about anything else, and she throws herself into it as Lyme speeds up the pace. Finally Rokia stumbles, breathing hard, and Lyme steps back. She's grinning, and Rokia finds herself smiling back. "Good," Lyme says, and claps a hand on Rokia's shoulder. She's absurdly pleased at the compliment, and somewhere in the exhaustion of straining muscles her brain's settled down a bit. Her body seems to belong to her, at least, and when Lyme pulls her hand away, Rokia pokes at a bruise forming on her arm just to notice the ache.
She's supposed to be providing commentary tonight for the recaps, sitting in the studio with Ceasar and Claudius to talk about strategy as if she hadn't always just made it up as she went along, as though she has something useful to say about an Arena that's nothing like her own. The two of them know the Games better than almost anyone, in any case, so there's really not much she can add. The studio's stylists flutter around her when she gets there, fixing invisible flaws in her hair and makeup and telling her where to sit and where to look.
It's mostly shots of the Career Pack on the hunt, a few outliers searching hopelessly for food and water. "We've come to the end of the third day," Caesar says, "and we will begin to see deaths from dehydration for those tributes who have not managed to find water."
Her arena was cold and rainy and she'd managed to find pools of metallic-tasting water in broken drainpipes, but never quite enough to stop the gritty dry feeling in her throat. This arena is hotter and dryer, and the little girl from Five, hiding in the underbrush, isn't moving much anymore. Caesar thinks she won't last much longer. There's a stream, little more than a trickle, running down a cliff face, and the Sevens have made camp there, sharing a meager meal from a silver parachute. "Looking like this may be a quick Games," Claudius says, and turns to Rokia. "Your Games were near the long-term average, I believe."
Rokia smiles as the cameraman signals that they're watching her. "They seemed awfully long while I was in there," she says, "But I'll take your word for it." Claudius and Caesar laugh.
"I'm sure," Caesar says, "Now, you were very sneaky last year, quite the underdog, very exciting, and we are all curious what you think of the contenders so far? See anyone you think could make a splash later?"
Rokia searches for anything to tell them, as though she's actually paid any attention to who's doing what in the Arena. "I guess the pair from Seven look interesting," she says, because at least they've managed to team up, find water, do something beyond just hiding. Caesar runs with it, of course he does, because even if she's not a tribute surviving her mandated three minutes anymore he's still good at filling in the gaps.
When they finish Caesar gives her another blinding smile. "You did well," he says, patting her on the back. "We'll have to bring you back, everyone loves to hear what the Victors have to say about the Arenas, such a unique perspective!"
Rokia's pretty sure he's completely full of shit, but he is a professional. She is too, she reminds herself, smiles back and shakes his hand. "Thanks," she says, "It was my pleasure."
She's whisked away to a party after that, so different from the night before it makes her head spin. This is wood paneling and expensive drinks and fancy food and she's dressed in a gown that falls all the way to the floor so she has to work to keep from tripping on the hem. Serious-looking men in dark suits discuss odds and sponsoring strategies between unintelligable conversations about business and investments and who knows what. Her only job seems to be standing around looking pretty, and she barely bothers pretending to understand what's happening until her client takes her home.
The good thing is she gets home early enough that even after an hour in the gym practicing the forms Lyme taught her she's still falling asleep in actual night, and she wakes up feeling a little less like her brain's been taken apart and reassembled wrong.
Phillips isn't hovering as much either, lets her blink slowly over her coffee for a while before shoving food at her. She dawdles over the oatmeal, pulling the thick binder of hovercraft schematics next to her bowl and flipping through it as she eats. He still sneaks glances when he thinks she's not looking but at least he's not watching with that full-on concern the whole time. She smiles at him when she's finished, stretches her legs under the table and reminds herself to uncurl so she doesn't look so small. "I'm going to go see if Wiress wants to talk steering mechanisms," she says, and hopes she's kept the need for something normal, understandable, solvable, out of her voice. He nods, and he looks pleased even if he's still coiled and tense.
"Sounds good," he says. He doesn't mention whatever else is on her schedule for the day and she doesn't really want to worry about it so she lets it go.
"See you later, Phillips," she says, collects her things and heads downstairs.
Wiress is there, the only one in the apartment for now, and they work for a while, tracing torques and stress points in the hydraulics. It's fine at first, but after a few hours of work Rokia starts losing her way. Finally she sets the datapad on the table and shoves back her chair. "I'm sorry," she says, pressing the heels of her hands into her eyes. "I can't fucking think." She pulls her knees up to her chest and hides her hands in the sleeves of her sweatshirt, worn thin and grey and borrowed years ago from uncle Sal.
Wiress sits back too, looks up at the ceiling and breathes deep. "Understandable," she says. Her jaw tenses as she swallows. Then she gets up, walks into the kitchen. She comes out with cookies and milk, and Rokia smiles despite herself. "Maintenance procedures," Wiress says. "Blood sugar should be maintained within an acceptable range for proper brain function." Rokia uncoils to take a cookie. They're good, chewy and nutty and not too sweet and they settle into Rokia's stomach like they might stay down okay.
"Thanks," Rokia says, looking back at the datapad, warily.
"Leave it for now," Wiress says. "You know you're supposed to sleep sometimes, too." She's looking at Rokia like she's diagnosing problems with a mechanical system, eyes sharp.
Rokia shrugs. "I sleep."
Wiress looks at her for a long minute. "Okay" she says finally, looking away. "Food and sleep are important, if sometimes more complicated than they would appear to be." She takes another cookie. "Don't want you wearing out, Rokia."
Wiress isn't even looking at her, which is good because suddenly there's a lump in Rokia's throat and it's hard to swallow. She blinks fast and takes a deep breath to steady herself. "Yeah," she says, and her voice sounds rough in her own ears. "Thanks."
They finish the food, and Rokia looks back at her datapad, then shakes her head. "I guess I should try to sleep some," she says, reluctantly. But her eyes feel heavy and dry, and more than that she actually feels like she might be able to fall asleep even if it is the middle of the afternoon.
Wiress nods, a smile playing around the corners of her mouth. "Good," she says. "Sleep well, Rokia," and she walks Rokia to the door.