kawuli (kawuli) wrote,
kawuli
kawuli

Turned my back, felt the knife sink deep (1/3: Pre-Games)

The 71st Games. Rokia knows a lot about staying alive, Phillips knows better than to get his hopes up, and the odds are never in their favor.

Also on AO3 (!!) because why not: http://archiveofourown.org/works/4944568


Reaping Day in District Six. The one morning out of the year when there are no train whistles, no shrieking of brakes or rattling of the cars on the tracks, when District Six, like the rest of the country, stands still.

Phillips takes a deep breath and walks out of his house, turns to make sure the door is locked firmly behind him. His neighbors are coming along, too, little comfort that it is, blinking slowly in the hazy sunlight. Terence gives Phillips a curt nod, and Poppy smiles, silly-sweet, as they make their way down to the square together. A pretty pathetic showing, two morphling addicts and him, and it's been that way for 23 years now with no sign it'll ever change. Terence is coming along this year, Victor Affairs' orders. Of the two he's more likely to stay coherent for a camera, and he has a caustic sense of humor the Capitol likes well enough. But he doesn't know how to keep it away from the kids, so if Phillips has anything to say about it, Terence will stay the hell out of the way. He usually does.

They sit on the stage, waiting as the Peacekeepers drag in the last stragglers, kids who already have track marks on their arms, kids who laugh loud and harsh when they see the pinprick of blood on the page. Finally there's some signal and it starts, the Mayor welcoming everyone, the same video about history and honor and patriotism, and the escort steps up to pull names from the bowl. "Ladies first!" Linsea simpers. Her silver fingernails find one of the slips in the bowl and draw it out. The square holds its breath. "Rokia Diarra," the escort calls, and Phillips follows the camera, looking around until he sees her, a scrawny kid standing shocked-still for a second until she takes a deep breath, clenches her hands to fists and steps forward. She's not dressed for the Reaping, this kid, she's dressed like a mechanic in jeans and a t-shirt and scuffed, sturdy work boots. She's silent and stoic as she climbs up to stand on the stage, stares out past the crowd, hands opening and closing at her sides. Up close he can see the lines of muscle in her arms, her shoulders tense.

The escort has moved on already to the boys. "Jerome Thomas," she calls, and when the cameras find him he's stumbling forward from an elbow to the ribs, the boys standing around him frozen with wide eyes and open mouths. He's taller than the girl, all arms and legs he hasn't grown into yet, and he's walking toward the stage with wide eyes darting around as though looking for the trick. They shake hands, the crowd cheers, and the whole production moves into the Justice Building.

Phillips stands in the corridor waiting. First to arrive are two kids, boy and girl who look not much past Reaping age, breathless and furious and asking for Rokia. Phillips points them to the door and the girl turns to pin him with a glare as they go in. When they come out, somber but dry eyed, she comes up to stand in front of him, staring him down like it's his fault her friend got Reaped. "You bring her back," she says, fists clenched.

"Sara," the boy says, and she spins to face him, "come on, let's go find Sal." The girl hesitates, then sighs and follows him out.

The boy's parents come next, saying nothing, and when they leave the mother is crying and the father looks up just once from comforting her to glance over at Phillips, who nods. Then there's a few of the boys from the square, nervous and confused, who ignore him, and then nobody.

When the hour is up they go to the train, in a car for the occasion. They sit silently, but Rokia is watching him, dark brown eyes narrowed, assessing. She hasn't been crying, unlike the boy next to her whose face is tear streaked and miserable.

When they step onto the train, both tributes stop short. The boy's eyes go wide, amazed, and he goes to sit at the table. Phillips follows, turns back to see the girl, still watching with narrowed eyes. "Come on," he says, trying to keep his voice gentle. "You've got to eat." She straightens her shoulders and sits.

Linsea joins them with a pinched smile, but Terence sees Phillips' glare and heads for his room. "Well, isn't this lovely," Linsea says, filling her plate.

Rokia looks away while Jerome mumbles, "Yes, ma'am," and Linsea lapses into silence.

He shows the kids their rooms, after a while, heads for his own once the girl's shut the door pointedly behind her. Turns on the TV to watch the Reapings from the other districts. Nothing out of the ordinary, volunteers in One and Two, the girl in Four is 17 and nobody volunteers for her, but the boy they call is a scrawny 13-year-old and a taller, stronger kid steps forward. Phillips sighs--no way they give it to Four this year, not after Annie Cresta. Then it's the usual mixed bag, a strong-looking boy from Seven, a girl from Eight with a wicked grin, two scrawny miners' kids from Twelve, where Haymitch glares at the camera before stumbling into the Justice Building.

Phillips turns off the TV and pulls out the latest polling data--his latest, anyway, the standard stuff that any mentor can ask for. He's got it practically memorized by now. Last years' games were considered boring--a standard wooded Arena whose only twist was a flood that no one will admit was an accident but clearly couldn't have been planned. No final battle, no drama, a Victor who came out half-drowned and in shock and hasn't been seen since her disastrous Victory Tour.

The odds will never be in District Six's favor, but unusual Arenas tend to lessen the Careers' built-in advantage, and the less nature around the better for the urban middle districts. If the new Head Gamemaker wants to make a splash his first year out, he'd do worse than to use an artificial environment. They still play more clips of the 69th than the 70th, and if Eibhlin is still far more popular than Annie--well, no point thinking that far ahead.

They come into the Capitol sometime around midnight, through the tunnel and out into the brilliant expanse of light. The kids come out of their rooms as the train slows, look out at the crowd gathered at the station as they pull in. Phillips ushers them through to their rooms in the Training Center to get a few hours sleep, Linsea leaves them at the door with a wave and another pinched smile, and Terence nods and disappears. Good.

--

When Phillips comes out of his room in the morning, Rokia's standing in front of the windows, watching the streetlights go out as the sun comes up. She turns around as soon as his door opens, watches him come into the room, flashes a tight smile in greeting. A couple of Avoxes are laying out breakfast, and Rokia watches warily as they come and go. When they finish she edges toward the table, looks wide-eyed at everything that's set out for them. She's still wearing her clothes from yesterday, out of place against the luxurious room.

Phillips sits, motions for her to take a seat. She does, watches him fill his plate, then follows suit, taking the same things he did: scrambled eggs, toast, hash browns, and she eats, quick, glancing up at him from time to time as though she feels his eyes on her.

The silence hangs heavy in the air until Phillips clears his throat. "You'll have the whole day with the prep teams today," he says, for lack of anything else to talk about. "Then this evening the parade, and tomorrow you start training."

She nods, and Phillips wonders if she's going to say anything, but then she swallows and looks up at him. "Tell me about training," she says, and her eyes dart back down to her plate pretty quickly, but she's paying attention nonetheless.

Phillips thinks for a second. "Well, there's not a lot of time," he starts, "so your best bet is to focus on a few things rather than trying to learn everything." She glances up and nods again. "Do you know anything about fighting?" Plenty of Six kids are used to fistfights long before the Arena, and while it's never yet made a difference, it's always good to know.

Rokia glances away for a second. "Yeah," she says, "my Uncle taught me a few things." She sticks a hand in her pocket, pulls it out reluctantly and flips open a switchblade, turning it against her wrist, ready to use. She flips in back closed, easy familiar motion, and smiles, sharp, an unfunny grin that the cameras will love.

Phillips nods. "Good. Knives are easier to get than fancier weapons. Might want to look at traps and snares, that'd help you get close enough."

Rokia takes a deep, careful breath, and Phillips mentally smacks himself. Of course the kid's not really thinking about killing people, not yet.

But then she nods and meets his eyes for a long second. "I'm a mechanic," she says, "since I was a kid. I bet I could make traps."

She's watching him, almost challenging. "Good," he says. "Check that out tomorrow." She nods and goes back to her plate, looking thoughtful.

The boy comes out a little later, bleary-eyed from sleep, and slumps in his chair while filling up his plate with little tastes from everything he can reach. He eats hungrily, looks up at Phillips when he finishes. "What're we supposed to do?" he asks, trying to sound tough. "We got a schedule?"

Phillips nods, explains again. The kid doesn't ask questions, just looks around, trying to hide the wide-eyed amazement on his face. Rokia raises an eyebrow at him, sips at her coffee. Pretty soon Linsea comes in like a whirlwind, perfume and fancy clothes and high pitched Capitol whine. "Come on, big day, let's get started."

--

He meets the kids down near the chariots, their stylists flitting around like deranged birds, adjusting what looks like someone's lunatic idea of railroaders uniforms. They're wearing nothing but striped overalls like out of an old-timey movie, stripped down to show as much skin as they can get away with. The boy's trying to listen to whatever nonsense the stylist is telling him, and gives Phillips an embarrassed smile. Rokia is scowling and tugging her skirt down until her stylist slaps her hand away. She looks up at Phillips and with her eyes sparking, furious, her hair teased out into a corona and dyed flame-colored and wild, she actually looks like someone who'll put up a fight.

Phillips walks over, nods at them. "Good," he says, and gets the full force of Rokia's glare. He puts a hand on the boy's shoulder and squeezes a little, trying not to wince at the bones just under the skin. "Jerome, stand tall," Phillips says, quiet but firm, and the boy shifts, straightens his shoulders. "Rokia," he goes on, putting a little more edge into his voice and keeping his hands to himself, "Stay angry." She looks surprised at that, a flash of amusement on her face, and nods. "Good luck," he says, and steps away.

He goes to sit next to Terence, who looks miserable, pale and shaky. Phillips nods in greeting, and Terence shifts to give him space. "Figured I'd stay out of the way," he mumbles. "You lemme know if you need something."

"Thanks," Phillips says, and he should probably try to be more gracious about it, but Terence long ago wore out his share of Phillips' limited patience.

Johanna Mason drops into her seat with a huff a few minutes later. "Hey there, Phillips," she says, with a smile that's all teeth. "Anything worth giving a shit about this year?"

Phillips shrugs one shoulder. "The girl, maybe," he says. "We'll see. How about yours?"

Johanna rolls her eyes. "We got nothing this year. Boy's from the lumber camps, but he's 14 and he's no Finnick Odair." Finnick glances up at his name and Johanna winks, saucy and overdone. Finnick grins back, sharp and Capitol, and Johanna turns back to Phillips. "And the girl's a merchant kid." Phillips nods, and Johanna goes on. "I'm guessing I'll be done twenty minutes in." She waves down one of the Avoxes floating through the crowd, orders a drink. "You want one, old man?"

Phillips rolls his eyes. "You know I don't," he says, and she laughs.

"Just checking," she says, and before he has a chance to respond, the music blares out and the chariots pull forward.

Phillips doesn't really understand the point of the damn thing, not like you can learn much from watching a bunch of kids ride around in stupid costumes. But it's tradition, and it's the Capitol, so he's given up on any of it making any damn sense. When the Six chariot flashes on the screen Johanna elbows him. "See what you mean about the girl," she says, smirking. "She looks like she could stab someone and enjoy it right about now." Phillips isn't sure what to say to that, so he doesn't say anything, just nods again. He hopes Johanna isn't the only one to think so.

He meets the kids after, back under the training center, and the boy is wide-eyed and amazed as he glances around at the other kids, the horses, back out toward the crowd. Rokia's got her arms crossed over her chest and just looks annoyed now instead of furious. They follow him when he leads them toward the elevator, where Linsea takes a minute to coo over how well they did before heading home.

"That was amazing," the boy says, soft and overawed, when they're alone in the elevator.

"Capitol's something else all right," Phillips says, while Rokia rolls her eyes toward the ceiling. "Good job tonight," he tells them, as the elevator deposits them on their floor, and this time both of them give him shy half-smiles before slipping off to their rooms.

Rokia's awake before him again the next day, sitting on the floor with her back to the wall, knees drawn up and watching the Capitol outside with a frown drawing lines between her eyebrows. She turns as he comes in, scrambles to her feet.

"Couldn't sleep?" Phillips asks. "You ought to rest as much as you can."

Rokia shrugs, one corner of her mouth curling up. "Lot on my mind," she says, and follows him to the table again. There's a long silence before she speaks up. "Is there a telephone anywhere I could use?"

Phillips frowns. "Tributes aren't supposed to. It's best not to worry about what folks back home think."

Rokia shakes her head. "It's not that, I..." She pauses, looks at him. "I just wanted to make sure my sisters are okay," she says, gives him a rueful half smile, and goes back to eating.

Phillips sighs. "I could call the Mayor's office, have them send someone--" he stops when she looks up, sharp.

"No, don't do that. It's no good having Peacekeepers come around, I'm sure they'll be fine."

Phillips decides to let it go. "Got it, no Peacekeepers," he says, and she relaxes a little.

Most of the kids, even in Six, have some family come visit in the Justice Building. He hasn't thought about it, but the only people who came to see Rokia were those two kids and they didn't look like siblings. He tries to keep his sigh internal, but from the glance she shoots him, he hasn't really succeeded. She's got a wry smile that belongs on someone a lot older, and the look she gives him goes with it. She gets up when her plate's clean, walks back over to look out the window, and Phillips doesn't have anything to say so he lets the silence settle as the sunlight fills up the room.

Jerome comes out just a few minutes before Phillips would've had to get him, and when the time approaches, Phillips beckons Rokia to come join them. "Training's sometimes overwhelming," he says. "Don't worry too much about the other tributes, but keep your eyes open. Pick a couple stations and really practice, don't get distracted trying everything." Rokia's watching him, intent, and Jerome's face goes pale, eyes fearful and huge. "You'll be fine," Phillips says, "I'll see you this evening."

They walk into the elevator together, and Phillips finally lets himself sigh and sit down heavily on the couch.

--

The days of training are nothing unusual, and Phillips checks the sponsors den but nobody's interested in Six until his kids show him they're worth it. The kids come back from training quiet and withdrawn and wake up stiff and tired and ready for more. It's just like usual.

Until the scores come up from the private sessions. Jerome scores four, typical for urban tributes with no special skills. Rokia scores an eight.

Linsea trills with excitement. "That's just marvelous!" she coos, coming over to take Rokia's cheeks in her hands. "However did you do it?"

Rokia pulls away, pulls her knees up onto the couch. "I dunno," she says, looking down. "I just did what Phillips said, focus on traps and stuff."

Phillips gives her a smile he hopes is encouraging, nods. "Good job," he says, and her eyes flick up to meet his. "You'll have to be careful, though, a score like that'll make you a target."

Rokia nods. "Yeah," she says, "I'm good at staying out of the way." She smiles a little, as though it's funny to her for some reason, sits back against the couch as the rest of the scores flash.

That night he goes down to the bar after the kids are in bed. He usually avoids it, finds it distasteful at the very least, but tonight he wants to know what the gossip is about a Six girl with a high score. So he orders a ginger ale and sits back, sipping it and watching. Cecilia comes up to him after a bit, smiling softly. She had a baby on her hip last year, but this year she's alone.

"Your girl looks good," she says. "You thought about alliances at all?"

Phillips is taken aback. "Hadn't," he says, considering. "Your boy had what, a six?"

Cecilia nods. "He's a tough kid. Our two will stay together, probably. Think they'd like having your girl."

Phillips turns his glass between his palms, watches the liquid shift. "I don't think she's going in for alliances," he says. "But I'll think about it."

Cecilia's eyes narrow, calculating. "Talk to me first, would you? If you decide on yes."

"Sure," Phillips says.

Nobody else approaches him, but he gets a handful of very interested looks pointed in his direction. He's about to give up and go to bed when he feels a hand come down on his shoulder.

"Phillips," Brutus says, sliding onto the stool next to him.

"Brutus," Phillips returns. "You in this year?"

"Nah," Brutus says, waving at the bartender to bring him a beer. "My girl. Emory."

Phillips nods. Brutus gets his beer, takes a long pull, looks over at Phillips. "Your girl's got everyone interested," he says, "Scored eight?"

Phillips shrugs, suddenly defensive. "It's just training," he says, looks over at Brutus, who's leaning his forearms on the counter, dragging a thumbnail over the label on his bottle. "Doesn't mean much once they're in."

Brutus nods. "Good start, though," he says, and Phillips sighs.

"Yeah," he says. Tries not to let himself think about the fact that Brutus' tributes have never scored lower than 9, not to be jealous for something neither of them can help.

They sit in silence till Brutus finishes his beer. "Well," Brutus says, standing. "Gotta go."

Phillips nods. "See you around," he says, and watches Brutus head out before finishing his own drink and heading back upstairs.

--

Any undue optimism he'd had is squashed when Rokia comes for interview prep, looking annoyed. Linsea, ushering her into his office, looks just as frustrated, and the two of them are quite pointedly not talking to each other.

Rokia sits down in the chair Jerome has just vacated and crosses her arms over her chest, waiting for him to say something. It's almost an intimidating look, surprising coming from a scrawny 16-year-old, demanding he be worth her time.

"Okay," he says, collecting himself. "Caesar is going to ask you about yourself, what you think of the Capitol, maybe what your plan is for the Arena.

"Am I supposed to have a plan?"

Phillips stops. This isn't supposed to be about strategy, but why not? They have all day. "Not a plan exactly," he says, "but a strategy, sure." She nods, and he goes on. "First thing: when the counter hits zero, you get out of there, I don't care what you think it looks like, it's a bloodbath, for real, and your best bet is to get as far away as you can as soon as possible."

She bites her lip, thinking. "What about supplies?" She asks.

"I'll get you something, or you can steal or scavenge. Just about anything's less dangerous than those first few minutes. Then you hide out, and you wait and see."

"Okay," she says, dubious, and Phillips sighs and moves on.

"Okay, so tell me about your home in Six."

Her face closes off so fast it's like she dropped a door. "Why?" she asks, and it's as suspicious as the first time he saw her, as if just by asking he's erased every conversation they've ever had.

"Because Caesar will," Phillips says.

She raises her eyes to the ceiling. "I live with my mom, I have two little sisters, I work for my uncle, who's a hovercraft mechanic." Looks back at him.

"What about school?" Phillips asks.

"Don't go," she snaps. "Ain't got time."

"What does your mom do?"

"None of your business."

It goes on like that, every question gets a hostile, clipped answer, except the ones about her work, where she gets animated describing how she once rebuilt the whole wing architecture on a cargo craft because...he's honestly not quite sure.

In the end he gives up, tells her she'll be fine, and resolves to try slipping a note to Caesar to stay away from the family questions.

When he sees them dressed for the interviews he wants to ask the stylists what the hell they're thinking. Rokia's dressed in a tight black sheath dress, her skin dusted with something to make it glow golden brown under the lights, and they've done something ridiculous with her hair, wound it through with gold wire. She looks like she's going to a Capitol party, and she looks miserable and furious.

And stunning, to be honest, especially with her eyes flashing with anger. So he doesn't say anything beyond telling both kids to stand straight and remember what they talked about.

He sits through the early interviews without hearing much, until Rokia picks her way carefully onto the stage in her high heels.

"Rokia," Caesar says, "welcome to the Capitol,"

"Thanks," she says, short, and it doesn't get much better from there. They do ask about her family, and her work, and she's by turns taciturn and incomprehensible. And then Caesar asks about her training score.

"Well," she says, and she smiles, shark-like, and where is this coming from? "I think those are secret, but I'll just say that in Six we learn to fight the hard way."

It's the last thing she gets in before time's up, and at least she goes off on a good note, before Jerome takes his turn.

He's just another sullen kid, acting tough to cover the fear. He loves the food in the Capitol and the lights and the fancy clothes, and he's the man of the house in Six, since his dad died in a factory accident. Caesar coaxes out a story about his little brother that's kind of cute but that's as good as it gets.

They're both overshadowed right away by the boy from Seven, telling stories that are probably half fiction about his skill with an ax and how he'll kill anyone who gets in his way. Phillips looks over at Johanna, who's grinning that sharp smile she has, and when the applause starts, he elbows her in the ribs. "I thought you said your tributes weren't much good this year," he asks, and her smile widens.

"Well, turns out I might've been wrong," she says back. "You worried?"

Phillips can't help smiling at that one. "Your boy's not my biggest worry," he says, and turns back to the stage while she laughs.

--

He's sitting out on the couch when Rokia comes out. It's late, and she needs her sleep, but here she is. She's back in her district clothes, one hand in the pocket of her jeans.

She walks around to stand in front of him, pulls out her hand, and opens it to reveal a switchblade, handle smooth and settled in her palm. "I guess they won't let me take this in as a token," she says, and Phillips almost laughs.

"No," he says, "weapons aren't allowed as tokens."

Rokia nods. "Then can you hold onto it for me? It's from my uncle, you should give it back to him if I don't come back."

Her voice is steady and she doesn't hesitate before she says it. Phillips nods, and takes the thing out of her hand. "You have something else for a token?" He asks. She shakes her head, and he clambers to his feet. "Wait here," he says, and goes into his room.

She's still standing there when he gets back, and he drops something into her palm. She turns it over and over, rubbing her fingers against the smooth surface, tracing the lines of color.

"What is it?" she asks, still turning the thing over in her hand.

"They call it Six Gold," he says, and her eyebrows go up. "It's really just from where the paint builds up, in the car factories."

She smiles at that, looks up at him. "Thanks," she says, and for the first time it sounds genuine.

"Every tribute should take something from Six in with them," Phillips says, shrugging.

She turns back towards her room, then hesitates, looks back at him. "I got two little sisters," she says. "Alima and Kadidia Diarra. If I don't come back...it would mean a lot if you'd look in on them." She's watching him, serious.

"I will," he says, "I promise."

"Thank you," she says, and before he can answer she's back in her room.



(It's actually done, I'll post the next part next week)
Tags: d6
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