kawuli (kawuli) wrote,
kawuli
kawuli

Turned my back, felt the knife sink deep (3/3 Aftermath)

The Arena is only the beginning.




Phillips stares at the screen, his mind completely blank, while the hovercraft pulls Rokia out of the Arena. He sees Dexter, in the corner of his eye, sit back heavy against his chair, but he can't pull his eyes away from the screen until the hovercraft's flown away and it goes blank. Then and only then does he sit back, scrub his hands over his face, and realize it's covered with tears, that he's crying, and that he has no idea what to do now.


The control room's empty and quiet, and he walks out, stunned, and finds Brutus, sitting gingerly on one of the too-small couches outside. Brutus grins at him, and Phillips smiles back, too wrung out to be embarrassed, but Brutus doesn't seem to mind.


"Come on," he says, clapping Phillips on the shoulder. "Let's go see your girl."


They get to medical just as the hovercraft is arriving, and Phillips' heart almost stops when he sees the doctors wheeling Rokia in on a stretcher, IV in her arm. She's battered and bruised and only half-conscious and he's looking for a door in to see her when Brutus shakes him.


"Hey," Brutus says, "it's okay, they're giving her fluids, she's dehydrated, the sedatives are standard. She's gonna be fine, okay, just give them some time."


Phillips tries taking deep breaths, thinks back to his own Games, to waking up stunned and panicking at the needle in his arm. They watch in silence as the doctors wash off weeks of Arena grime, catalog scrapes and bruises and the cut on her shoulder that's angry infected red. Finally a doctor shuts the blinds and Phillips looks away, turns to lean against the wall.


"What in the twelve districts do I do now?" he says, more or less to himself.


Brutus' mouth twists into a crooked smile. "Now the hard part starts," he says. Then his face goes serious. "Walk with me."


Phillips hesitates, looking back at the window.


"They won't let you see her for a while yet," Brutus says, "and this won't wait."


Phillips' eyebrows go up at that, but he follows Brutus out of the medical wing, to a noisy Capitol park where Brutus stops next to an ornamental fountain.


"You have to figure out her angle," Brutus says. "Starting right now."


Phillips just stares at him, uncomprehending. Brutus' jaw clenches and he continues. "Right now she's set up to be the cunning, clever outlier who took out the Careers. She's got four kills, and the last three of them are every one of the Career boys who survived the split."


Brutus' face doesn't give anything away, even though one of those kids was from his district, and Phillips wonders, but he doesn't say anything.


"You have to change that," Brutus says, intense. "You make sure she comes off as just a smart kid who got lucky and is grateful to the Capitol for her chance. Otherwise they'll figure they need to take her down a couple notches."


Now Phillips gets it. Thinks of the two sisters Rokia told him about, the people on the interview tapes, the kids who came to see her at the Justice Building. Thinks about Haymitch and Johanna and all the others who didn't fall in line, takes a breath, and nods. "Yeah," he says, and his voice comes out rough. "You're right."


"Go back to medical," Brutus says. "The President's going to call you soon, he'll expect you to be there."


By the time Phillips gets back, the last gasp of adrenaline and bad coffee has disappeared, and despite his best efforts he falls asleep on the couch. He's not sure how long he's been asleep when an Avox shakes him awake and leads him to the waiting room outside the President's office. He grinds the heels of his hands into his eyes, tries to shake himself awake and alert, and waits to be called in.


Finally the door swings open and he walks into a room he hasn't seen in twenty some years.


"Mister Phillips," the President says, "Congratulations."


"Thank you sir," Phillips says. "It's an honor."


"She's clever, your girl," the President continues.


"Sir?" Phillips forces his tired brain to remember what Brutus told him.


"She played a very interesting Game," the President says, and there's no clue in Snow's voice whether that's a compliment or a threat.


"She just did what she had to do to come home," Phillips says, figuring it's the safest thing.


"Hmm. And now that she has, is she going to continue to be... Interesting?"


Phillips searches for the right answer, but he doesn't know what that might be. So he finally settles on one that at least can't be wrong. "She will do whatever you ask of her," he says.


The President smiles. "Yes," he says. "I'm sure she will." He looks down at the papers on his desk. "You may go, Mister Phillips."


"Thank you, sir," Phillips says, and manages to make it out of the office, where he leans against the wall and closes his eyes.



--



Rokia's ears wake up first, to a steady beeping that speeds up when she realizes she's not sure where she is, tucked in tight so her legs feel pinned. There's the shift of a chair moving across the floor and footsteps, and her eyes fly open to find Phillips standing by her bed with his eyebrows furrowed.


Her brain spins and stutters for a minute, like an engine with a fouled spark plug, finally sputtering to life, slow and stupid still but moving at least. White sheets, white walls, an IV in her arm and a tube up her nose, and she hasn't been in a hospital since Kadi was born but she recognizes it.


IV in her arm. That's probably why she's so slow and stupid, and she works one hand out from under the covers to reach for it.


"Hey," Phillips says, his voice rusty and rough. "Leave it, it's okay."


Rokia blinks up at him, wets her dry lips to say something, and leaves it. Drops her hand back down, looks around.


"You're in the Capitol," Phillips says, hesitant. "In Medical. They're waiting for you to be stable before they have the closing ceremonies."


Rokia nods, just slightly. She should say something. "Okay," she tries, and her voice sounds strange in her own ears, scrapes rough in her throat, so she doesn't say anything else.


Phillips smiles. "Welcome back, kid," he says, and Rokia can't think what to say to that, and her eyes want to slide closed, so she lets them.


When she wakes up again, there's a nurse checking something, and Phillips is asleep, his head leaned back against the wall and his mouth open. The nurse follows her gaze and shakes her head. "He's been here this whole time," she says, quiet. Rokia's eyes prickle at that, and she goes back to sleep.


Finally she wakes up for real, a different nurse is standing over her bed looking at the bags hanging from the IV stand. Phillips is standing with his arms crossed, glaring. The nurse looks down at her and nods. "Hi, Rokia," Phillips says, soft, and she looks at him. "She's going to take out the IV and the feeding tube."


Rokia nods. The nurse leans over and starts disconnecting tubes and wires, and Rokia chokes and gags as the tube comes out of her throat but it's over soon enough. The nurse gives her something to drink, impossibly sweet, and Rokia sips through a straw until her stomach feels tight. She hands it to the nurse, who takes it and slips out of the room. Rokia looks up at Phillips, searches for the words. "What happens now?"


He almost flinches, and Rokia files that away to think about later, when her brain works. "They're going to prep you, dress you," he says in a flat voice. "You'll have the recap with Caesar tonight, and an interview."


Rokia shifts, sitting up away from the raised back of the bed. Her head isn't pounding and swimming anymore, but her limbs feel heavy and slow. She swings her legs over the side of the bed and stands up, one hand brushing against the side of the bed. Her heart pounds in her chest still, but stays steady, none of the stuttering rush of the last days in the Arena. She walks over to the wall and back, and it tires her out, but she'll manage.


She sits back down on the bed and looks at Phillips again. He's watching her, serious. "You'll have to talk to him," he says.


Rokia opens her mouth, closes it, wants to laugh but doesn't. "Oh," she says, and her throat is sore from the tube and her voice sounds too loud and too rough, but Phillips is right. "I guess I should practice then."


One corner of Phillips' mouth twitches up into a tiny, exhausted half-smile. "Good idea," he says. He goes stone-faced again, looks around, but nobody's there. "You have to be careful what you say," he says, in a quiet voice. "You're a smart kid, got real lucky, okay?"


She's neither smart nor lucky, that's a joke except that she's here and she should be dead, so maybe it's not. But Phillips is looking her straight in the eye like there's something more, and Rokia shakes her head, quick, to clear it, and thinks.


"You're grateful," Phillips continues, still watching her intently. "To the Capitol, the sponsors, the President."


Oh. Rokia nods, slowly. Thinks maybe she understands. "I'm just so glad to be here," she says, head down and eyes up, the look she used on the lady at the store when they couldn't afford formula for Kadi. Hunches her shoulders in and makes herself small. "I learned so much in training?" She lets her voice edge upwards, her eyes dart sideways, "And I'm just so lucky to be here." She gives Phillips her best shy smile, and his eyebrows are practically at his hairline. She relaxes, lets herself grin, realizes it's the first time since--well, in a long time, and Phillips looks impressed.


"Yeah," he says, as the prep team comes in, "You'll do fine."



--



Sometimes the mentors come on with their tributes, and Phillips is secretly hoping they ask him, because he doesn't want to let Rokia out of arm's reach just yet. But he's not interesting enough for the Capitol to want to see him, and so he stands in the darkened wings of the stage, trying not to scowl or clench his fists or look angry because they always might cut a camera towards him just to see how he's taking being mentor to a living Victor. Rokia is leaning on the wall a few feet away--when he got too close she shied away, so he leaves her be. Caesar calls her name, and she looks at him, quirks one side of her mouth up in a half-smile, and walks out. They've put her in knee-high boots, flat after she almost sprained her ankle trying to walk in heels, a short black dress with copper wire highlights just to remind everyone why she's here. She looks like she belongs to the Capitol now, and Phillips hates it, grinds his teeth until he manages to force his tongue between them. She blinks in the lights, lets Caesar shake her hand, kiss her cheek, lead her to her chair. Her back is to him, and in the bright light he can see the muscles in her shoulders and back, wire-taut even as the screens show him her face with that out-of-place shy smile.


She plays it perfectly. Starts out quiet, hesitant, lets Caesar draw her out, and finally admits how happy she is to be going home to her family. Her face goes blank when they play the recap, shorter than some he's seen, and he sees what Brutus means about her being dangerous. She sprints from the Cornucopia, scales walls, finds water. Steals from the Careers. Becomes a killer when cornered, like a feral cat. Each cannon from the screen makes her flinch, and she hides it pretty well from her face, but her body draws in and her hands clench into tight fists under the flared hem of her skirt. When she slits the Two boy's throat it looks careful, methodical, and they cut away when she stands up, skip the part where her face drained bone-white and she gagged, stumbling away. The Four boy collapses, bleeding out, while Rokia cleans her knife and grins sharp at the sky. The One boy steps into her trap and is dead in seconds, and they show the blank relief on Rokia's face before the screens go black and then fade back in on her and Caesar.


Caesar grins hugely. "Well!" he says. "Wasn't that thrilling!" Rokia eyes flash before she looks down, hides it as embarrassment. "You have to tell me about those traps at the end."


Phillips watches Rokia's shoulders rise and fall in a deep breath, and when she talks her voice is steady. "I learned in training," she says. "My mentor told me to focus on the snares and traps, and it really paid off." Phillips sees his own face in the corner of the screen, schools it into pleased-yet-detached, or something he hopes will pass for that, but they flash away quickly, keeping the focus on his girl. "I'm just so lucky to be here," she says, head down, looking up through the long eyelashes they glued on earlier, and Caesar smiles his broadcast grin but Phillips thinks he can see appreciation for good acting for an outlier who by rights should be flinching and terrified the way they usually are.



"We're so glad you are!" Caesar says, and the crowd roars.



Phillips has always thought the post-Games party was obscene, Capitol excess at its worst, and today it seems like torture. Linsea appears as the interview ends, hustles them into a car and to the venue as soon as the crown is placed on Rokia's head. Rokia is silent, blank, barely reacting to Linsea's questions or his own, showing no particular sign she understands what's going on, but once they walk in she straightens her shoulders, shakes her head, and smiles, and while she edges toward the walls when she can, she's gracious and polite, lets Linsea introduce her to sponsors and dignitaries, shakes their hands. It's not until near dawn he realizes she's leaning against the wall, and her face has gone ashen under the makeup.


He walks over to her. "Hey," he says, soft, and her eyes focus in on him from a long way away. "Let's go."


She just nods, and he offers his arm like a fancy Capitol gentleman, raising an eyebrow to hopefully signal it's a joke. She doesn't react to that either, but she rests her arm on his, and lets him take quite a bit of her weight as they head out. Linsea squawks about them leaving, but shuts up with the force of Phillips' glare, bustles off inside to make apologies.


Rokia nearly collapses into the car, curls against the door with her knees drawn up under her and looks out at the dimming streetlights. They pull into the private garage under the building, and as Rokia starts unfolding, trying to stand on unsteady legs, Phillips' cold fury gets the best of him. When even hitching her up in his arms gets no reaction he starts worrying. But when they get to her room, she shifts. "I'm okay," she whispers, and he sets her down in front of the door. "Goodnight, Phillips," she says, slips in, and closes the door.



--



Rokia can't quite count how many days they spend in the Capitol. She sleeps, mostly, when she's not at parties or interviews or being prepped, and as soon as she gets to one of those she slides into the not-really-her persona that Phillips says is good and stops thinking. So she can't count how many days it's been since she woke up when Phillips knocks on her door and tells her they're going home.


She doesn't understand at first, jolted out of sleep with a suddenness that leaves her searching for a weapon. So she stares at Phillips for a long minute while she rearranges her head to include the concept of home as something more than an almost-forgotten feeling just out of reach.


"Good," she says, running her fingers through her hair. Phillips steps into the room, which makes her tense up, but he just pulls something out of his pocket and sets it on the table by the bed. She crawls across the expanse of fancy sheets, and picks up her old knife. Flips it open, runs her finger along the side of the blade.


"Thought you'd want that back," Phillips says, and he's retreated to the doorway again, just watching as she closes her hand around the worn-smooth handle.


"Thank you," she says, and he just nods, and leaves.


Of course even for going home they can't let her dress herself, she walks out to the prep room in her sleep clothes, her knife closed but still in hand. She manages to slide it into the absurdly padded bra they put on, lets them rub creams into her skin and weave her hair into a different elaborate style, closes her eyes and drifts. Not quite asleep, alert enough to move if she needs to but not quite awake enough to really think, since halfway through the Arena it's been a comfortable place to settle into, waiting just under her skin. She pulls herself up and out when they tell her they're finished, blow kisses, press her hands, congratulate her and tell her how much they're looking forward to working with her in the future.


Phillips and Linsea are waiting for her, and Linsea takes Rokia's face in her hands the way she always does, kisses Rokia's forehead, steps back and beams. "You look amazing. I will send instructions on hair and skincare just as soon as I can." One more kiss, and she fairly floats away. Phillips offers his arm, and it's become a thing they do, since that first night, the cameras think it's lovely and old-fashioned and district-quaint, so Phillips keeps doing it.


This time at least Rokia doesn't need the support to stand, so she just rests her fingers on Phillips' arm, follows him into the elevator, through the crowd, and onto the train.


It's an odd feeling when the door slides closed and the train jerks, just slightly, and accelerates. Rokia retreats to a seat in the main car, curling into the chair and looking out the window. But before long she hears footsteps, and one, then two, then five, then the whole train crew is standing at the end of the car. Phillips looks over at her and smiles, nods at the crew boss.


"I'm Joe," the man says, stepping forward, and Rokia is many things but she's not rude, so she climbs to her feet, steps up and extends her hand. Joe shakes hers, careful, his hand engulfing hers, warm and rough. "Just wanna tell you we're real proud you made it."


Rokia has heard several thousand congratulations, seems like, but this one punches her in the chest, and she has to look away. "Thanks," she says, and she coughs to clear the thickness out of her voice.


Joe steps back, and the rest of the crew shakes her hand, one at a time, most of them silent. Then Joe gives her a nod, motions with his hand, and the crew goes back to work.



Tags: d6, hunger games
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