kawuli (kawuli) wrote,
kawuli
kawuli

There's space for a paper airplane race in the eye of a hurricane

Phillips hasn't ever had a Victor. Turns out it's true: The Arena is the easy part.



Phillips sees Rokia come into the village from his kitchen window, her sisters holding tight to her hands. He goes over to the house most days, bring takeout food or groceries or occasionally his own cooking. Every time she says thank you, studying him, watching, evaluating. He asks her how she’s doing, if she needs anything, and she just shrugs and says she’s figuring it out, she’s fine, she’ll let him know. Once she asks him where to buy bread, once whether he knows an apothecary who could look at her sister’s cold. He takes them there, wonders the whole time how he’s supposed to bring any of it up. “I see you coming home at 5AM most nights, where have you been?” That’ll get him nowhere, he knows that much. The apothecary gives them a decongestant and says Kadi’ll be fine in a couple days, and they walk back.

She’s got her arm curled around Kadi’s shoulders, protective, and Phillips knows the feeling but he feels helpless to do anything about it. When they get to the house Rokia unlocks the door and steps inside, turns to him.

“Thanks, Phillips,” she says, and her voice is a dismissal for all he wants an invitation. “I’m going to put Kadi to bed.”

“You should get some rest yourself,” he says, and her mouth twists.

“Sure,” she says, “see you later, Phillips.”

Phillips knows about sleepless nights, about nightmares that don’t go away. He knows, in an abstract sort of way, that there’s drugs for that sort of thing, but he won’t let her turn into another drug-addict Six, waste the bright spark that’s still there under everything. She’ll get through it just like he did, struggling through to someplace calmer.

Brutus calls, out of the blue, a couple weeks after they get back to Six. “How’s your girl?” he asks. Never one for small talk.

Phillips pauses for a minute before replying. “She’s…okay, I think. I’m not sure she likes me all that much.”

“She’ll come around,” Brutus says, “You just gotta show her you’ve got her back.”

Phillips sighs. “Yeah. I didn’t think—it’s harder than I thought.”

Brutus chuckles a little, just a huff of breath down the phone line. “It ain’t easy, that’s for sure.”

Phillips smiles. It’s the closest he’s ever gotten to a confession that there are some things Brutus finds difficult.

He’s not sure what he can do until late one night he wakes up and doesn’t know why. Then he sees the porch light on next door, hears voices. He almost doesn’t recognize Rokia’s, it’s harsh and clipped and furious, and in sharp contrast to the slow, slurred voices replying. He’s downstairs in a heartbeat.

“You are not bringing that shit into my house,” Rokia’s saying, and she’s standing in the doorway, fists clenched. Her mother’s leaning on the man she’s with, who has his arm around her, his fingers tucked into her skirt.

“Come on, baby,” Rokia’s mom whines, “we won’t make no noise, he’ll be gone before the girls wake up, it’s fine.”

Phillips is across the grass before she finishes talking, and Rokia catches his eye as he mounts the stairs. “What’s going on here?” he asks, walking over to stand next to Rokia.

Rokia’s mom giggles. “Oh, Mr. Phillips, it’s just a family thing, Rokia don’t wanna let me come in.”

Rokia’s jaw is clenched and her shoulders are taut and she lets a breath hiss between her teeth. “Mom, you know I told you I didn’t want you bringing people home, I am not letting you in with him.”

Phillips steps forward and glares at the two so-called adults, who back away from whatever they see in his eyes. “Get out, both of you,” he says.

The guy looks like he’s about to say something, then thinks better of it. He tightens his arm around Rokia’s mom and turns her toward the stairs. “Come on, Mata, we’ll find someplace else.”

Phillips doesn’t move, just watches Rokia watch them until they leave the village, passing through the useless gates out into the city, and only then does she seem to uncoil a bit, leaning into the doorframe and closing her eyes. She takes a deep breath and looks at Phillips.

“Thanks,” she says, not quite meeting his eyes. “Sorry for waking you up, she’s…” Rokia trails off, shrugs.

She’s still so tense Phillips doesn’t think he should touch her, so he runs a hand through his hair instead. “Don’t apologize for her,” he says. “Just glad I could help.”

Rokia bites her lips. “Yeah.” She glances up at him, then back down. “I should…” she waves a hand toward the house. “Should check on the girls.”

Phillips just nods. “Goodnight, Rokia,” he says, and that gets him a small smile.

“Goodnight Phillips.”

It happens again, a few nights later, and again a week after that. Finally Phillips calls Brutus, feeling like an idiot, because Two doesn’t have this kind of problem but he’s got nobody else he can ask.

“How’s your girl?” Brutus asks, right off.

“Alright, I think,” Phillips says. “But her mother is a real piece of work.”

“How’s that?”

“Ah, you know Six, she’s out sticking needles in her arms and trying to bring so-called dates back to the house in the middle of the night.” Silence for a second. He shouldn’t have called, this was a stupid idea.

“You know,” Brutus says finally, “the family doesn’t have to live in the Village. Kid gets to decide that. If your girl doesn’t want her Mom there she just has to say so.”

“Doesn’t she need a guardian till she’s of age?”

“Victors play by different rules.”

Phillips hums. It’s an idea. “I’ll ask her.”

Brutus pauses again. “If you think it’s the right thing to do you should convince her. You’re her mentor, you help her make those kinda decisions.”

“If she’ll let me.” Phillips is skeptical. Sure, it works for well-trained Two victors who rely on their mentors for everything after the Games, but even though he doesn’t know much about her he knows his kid is hard-headed.

“Convince her,” Brutus repeats. “She’ll come around.”

“Worth a shot,” Phillips agrees finally. “Thanks.”

“No problem.”

Phillips glares at the phone for a second, considering. Brutus isn’t wrong. And it is worth a try. He waits until he sees her come in that afternoon and heads over.

Rokia lets him in, locks the door behind them, and walks into the kitchen, where the two little girls are sitting at the table. The littlest one is kicking her feet on the rungs of the chair and repeating a story from school, while her sister watches. Rokia goes back to the counter. “You want anything?” she asks, “They wanted peanut butter, so that’s what I’m making.” She sounds morerelaxed, and Phillips smiles a little.

“I’m fine, thanks,” he says, as she brings the girls their snacks. “Wanted to talk to you if you have a minute.”

Rokia studies him, nods. “I’m just going in the other room with Phillips, okay? Allie, if you need anything you come get me.” The older girl nods, big brown eyes serious.

They walk into the living room, which looks almost untouched but for an armchair in the corner of the room, where a blanket and a notebook indicate some kind of occupancy. Rokia sits there, and Phillips perches on the edge of the couch. “It’s about your Mom,” he says, reluctantly, and Rokia’s face goes blank. “You know she doesn’t have to live here with you.”

Rokia looks at him, surprised. “She’s my mom, where else would she live?”

Phillips shrugs. “Doesn’t have to be your problem.”

Rokia’s eyebrows furrow. “She’s family, I can’t…” she stops. “I’m not like that.”

Phillips wants to drop it, but Brutus’s advice is still running around his head. “Rokia, she needs help.”

Rokia looks at him again. “What do you mean?”

“There’s a treatment center I helped set up, she could go there.” Phillips hasn’t ever tried to influence intake decisions, it’s not his right, but he’s making an exception for this one, and anyone who has a problem with that can get lost.

Rokia’s watching him, eyes narrowed. “Why are you doing this?” she asks.

Now it’s Phillips’ turn to be surprised. “What do you mean?”

“Being nice. Bringing us food, coming out when my Mom shows up at ridiculous hours, now this—what is this about?”

Phillips doesn’t know what to say, he’s silent for a moment, watching her, and she stares him down until he finally says “Because that’s what mentors do. I look out for you because it’s my job.” He stops. It’s not the whole truth but it’s enough for now. “Because I waited 23 years for this and I care about you” is probably too much emotion for one day. Rokia’s already looking away, sitting on her hands and looking like she’d rather be anywhere else.

“Look,” she says, finally. “I’ll think about it, what you said about Mom.”

Phillips nods. It’s realistically the best he could hope for. “You need anything?” He always asks. “Should I pick up dinner?”

Rokia shakes her head. “I’m making spaghetti.” She pauses. “Do you want some? I could bring you something or—I mean, if you don’t mind the kids you could eat here?”

Phillips wants to grin and hug her and laugh, but he just smiles. “I’ll come by later.”

Rokia nods. “Okay,” she says, getting to her feet. Phillips follows her to the door. “I’ll see you later then.”

“See you later,” Phillips says, and walks out. He gets all the way to his house before he laughs with relief.

He goes over a little later, stands at the door waiting and trying not to feel awkward. Rokia smiles when she opens the door, just a little but it’s real. “Come on in,” she says, and Phillips stops just inside the door to watch the two little girls, lying on the living room floor with coloring books and crayons.

Rokia smiles. “First time I’ve been able to buy them stuff like that,” she says, glancing over at Phillips. “Guess it’s not all bad.” She turns to go into the kitchen, and he follows. She pulls out a stack of plates and hands them to him. “Can you put these on?”

It’s oddly comforting, domestic and relaxed and somehow normal in a way Phillips can’t remember, putting food on the table and calling the kids to come eat and it’d all be fine except Rokia is sixteen and has dark circles under her eyes that betray restless nights and she shouldn’t be taking care of everyone else. But when she’s serving spaghetti to her sisters and telling Kadi not to talk with her mouth full she’s as close to relaxed as Phillips has ever seen her, so he figures he’s got nothing to complain about.

Kadi looks over at him. “Mister Phillips?” she asks, “Are you the one who made our new house?”

Phillips smiles. “No, I just picked what to put inside.”

“It’s the best house,” she says, “it’s really big! And just for us!”

Rokia’s mouth twitches up in a half-smile but she keeps quiet. Phillips can’t help his grin. “It is,” he says.

“You really picked out our toys and everything? How did you know what to get?”

Phillips smiles for her, but the memory cuts deep. “Your sister told me about you,” he says, glancing at Rokia. She’s looking down at her plate so he can’t read her face. In the strange, cold, luxurious rooms in the training center she’d sat with her arms crossed and told him about her sisters when he asked about home, tense and furious and closed off until the last night. Then she’d turned back from the door to her room and pinned him with the first honest look she’d given him, fierce and desperate, and asked him, please, to look out for them afterwards, if she didn’t make it back.

He hadn’t gotten it then, had started to understand when they interviewed her family at the final eight, finally figured it out when, as soon as the cameras were off, both girls clung tight to their sister and ignored their mother. When Rokia’s closed-off distant look cracked into a soft smile and she knelt to hold them close.

But that’s not a story for a four-year-old, so Phillips tells her, “She told me you liked to play with trains.”

“Yeah and me and Allie have a train Rokia made us.” Kadi looks over at Allie, who’s watching everything, rapt and silent. “We send Allie’s cat on trips to visit Grandma.”

Allie looks at her sister, then at Phillips, hesitant, before asking, “How’d you get all our stuff moved over here? We didn’t even go home to pack up.”

Just one more thing in the post-Games whirlwind, sitting with someone from Victor Affairs and going over preparations, deliveries of furniture and kitchen supplies and linens and they’d asked if there was anything to bring from the old house. Asked as though they’d assumed the answer would be no, because who would want their old stuff when the Capitol could give them everything, shiny and new? Phillips told them to bring it all, glaring at the man in the sparkly silver suit, and sure enough, there had been boxes sitting there, faded blankets and the battered clothes Rokia’s wearing now, and a smaller box of homemade toys that the little girls had run to right away.

“We got some people to help,” Phillips keeps it simple. “They went to your Mom’s and got everything.” Allie nods, goes back to focusing on her food.

“We saw you on TV,” Kadi says. “Aunt Magda says you helped Rokia win.”

Rokia glances over, sharp suddenly. “Aunt Magda let you watch TV?”

Allie looks up then, worried, but Kadi just continues. “Not very much. She said it was a grownups show and good girls don’t watch.”

“We saw you talk to Caesar Flickerman,” Allie says, nervous like she thinks she’ll get in trouble. “But only part of it.”

Phillips sees Rokia relax a little at that, and he’s glad. Sure, there are probably plenty of 6-year-olds who watch the Games, but no kid needs to see her sister kill another child.

“Your Aunt Magda’s right,” Phillips said, “I helped Rokia come home, and I helped get your house ready.” And just to change the subject, he goes on. “Did I forget anything?”

Kadi tilts her head to one side, thinking, but Allie bites her lip and looks down. “It’s all real nice, Mister Phillips,” Allie says, soft. “Thank you.”

“You wanna see our new trains?” Kadi asks, “You can play if you want.”

Rokia glances over at Phillips. “You don’t have to,” she says, “I know you’re busy.”

Phillips looks around the table at these kids, thinks about his house, dark across the yard, papers stacked on his desk the only thing waiting for him, and he shakes his head. “I got time,” he says, a little rough.

“Can we go Rokia?” Kadi asks, “Can I show Mister Phillips? Please?”

Rokia smiles, and she looks tired and anxious but still, somehow, happy, and she nods. “Sure, girlen, go ahead.”

Kadi comes around the table to take Phillips’s hand, and he lets her lead him up the stairs.

--

Phillips sits at his kitchen table, head bent over a pile of polling data. It’s habit, every year after the games, to ask for the polls, the TV ratings, the Capitol’s favorite Games moments and each district’s viewing statistics, but this year it truly matters for the first time. The Capitol finds her exotic, an unexpected win from a district whose Victors are old and uninteresting, a girl who won with clever tricks and evasiveness and who seemed fearless, all the way through. It’s enough to give Phillips a headache—these people who think just because she kept herself together and didn’t scream or cry or go catatonic everything was fine. The outer districts like her well enough, any non-Career Victor is popular out there. But the industrial districts—5 and 6 and 8, some parts of 3— they love her. Loved her from her Reaping, standing on stage with grease under her nails, the interviews, her understated competence in the Arena itself. And it’s that, more than anything, that keeps Phillips up at night. Popularity is dangerous. Popularity in the districts Snow is most wary of could be fatal. It will have to be neutered, somehow, and there’s no way Phillips can think of to avoid that meaning pain for Rokia. He will have to play his cards carefully—and that’d be easier if he actually had any. This isn’t his game. He’s never had to craft an image past the Arena, his own Games had their moments but the Capitol was happy to let him fade into obscurity.

So he calls Brutus.

“How’s your girl?”

“She’s doing alright. Had me over for dinner—yeah, I know, it’s backwards, but nobody eats my cooking when they’ve got options.”

Brutus chuckles, a low rumble in his throat.

Phillips takes a deep breath. “You mind talking about image? I don’t know how to spin hers.”

Brutus blows out a long breath. “Yeah, you’ve got a tricky one there.” Phillips closes his eyes. Of course Brutus will have seen the same information he has. It’s a fine line they’re all trying to tread, as the Games get more and more spectacular and the Victors skew wilder. “She comes off clever. You have to use that right or it’ll be a problem.”

“Yeah.” Phillips figured as much, but his stomach still drops hearing it confirmed.

“And then there’s her sponsors.”

That’s a new one. “What about them?”

“Well, I know you’re smart enough not to promise them anything,” and Phillips’ mouth goes dry, “but they’ll want some kind of return on investment.”

Phillips swallows. “Oh. I didn’t think about—oh.”

“Yeah, oh.” Brutus’s voice goes sarcastic for a minute. “You didn’t think they were giving you money out of the goodness of their hearts.”

Phillips snorts. “No, I just—well, I wasn’t thinking about after.”

“Well, it’s after, so you better start thinking.”

“Yeah.”

Brutus sighs. “Look, we all serve the Capitol.” Phillips winces a little, but keeps his opinion to himself. “If they think she’s smart, use that. She’s supposed to be some kind of mechanic, see if she can’t do something useful.”

Phillips sits back in his chair, considering. “Sounds a little like a Three strategy.”

“Well, they’re supposed to be the smart ones.” Phillips can’t tell if Brutus is being sincere or sarcastic.

“It’s a good idea,” he says, turning it over in his head. “Rokia will like it, I think.”

“Even better.”

“Thanks,” Phillips says, because it’s a weight off his shoulders just to talk to someone.

“No trouble,” Brutus says. “You take care.”

--

Phillips is looking at the same damn polling data the next morning when there’s a knock on the door. Rokia’s standing there when he opens it, twisting the hem of her t-shirt in her fingers. Phillips motions her into the house, curses internally at the bleakness of it, the nearly-bare living room, the clear sense that it’s a place to sleep and work more than a place to live. At least he has a couch. Rokia sits on one end of it, curls her knees to her chest and looks at him.

“What you said about my mom…” she pauses, and Phillips nods, swallows past the lump in his throat. “Did you mean it?”

“Yeah, Rokia, I did,” Phillips doesn’t want to push too hard so he leaves it at that.

“I think…” Rokia’s hesitant, won’t look at him. “I think it’s a good idea. I don’t like her bringing that stuff around the girls.”

Phillips lets his breath out, slow. “Okay,” he says. “Is she at home now?”

Rokia shakes her head. “I don’t know what to tell her,” she says, almost too quiet for Phillips to hear.

“I can tell her if you want.”

Rokia nods. “I don’t—” she pulls herself into a ball, shrinking so she’s occupying the smallest possible space, and she’s staring at the floor. “I don’t know if I can. I don’t want her around the girls, not like this, it’s worse now than before even but…” She trails off.

Phillips thinks he gets it. “She’s still your mom.”

“Yeah.” Rokia looks miserable, sad and small and impossibly young, and Phillips aches for her.

“Hey, Rokia, kid—you’re doing good, y’know that?” His voice is rough but he can’t help it, and Rokia looks up with wide, surprised eyes, and gives him a small, shy smile before looking away again. “I’ll talk to your Mom.”

She glances at him again. “Thank you,” she says, and starts uncurling, getting ready to leave.

“I could come over, if you want?” Phillips doesn’t want her leaving, sitting by herself in her house, but he doesn’t want to force things. Rokia pauses for a minute, considering.

“Okay,” she says, finally, nodding. “If you’re there when she gets home we can get it over with.”

Phillips grabs his piles of paper, puts something innocuous on top in case she asks, and follows her back.

He sits on the unused couch while Rokia folds herself sideways into the chair in the corner, moving between some kind of catalog and scribbling in a notebook, glancing around the room. The silence starts off comfortable and becomes oppressive, and Phillips has read the same sheet of expert opinions four times while stealing glances at her. Rokia’s restless, shifting, chewing the end of her pen, twisting her fingers into her hair. Finally she catches him watching and glances down. “What’re you working on?” he asks, and his voice seems loud in the silence.

Rokia shrugs. “My uncle wants some new welding equipment, better scaffolding. I told him I’d spec it out for him. I usually go down there while the girls are in school but…” she shrugs.

It’s an opening, the most she’s given him since her short acerbic answers when he was trying to prepare her for her interview. “You like it?”

She shifts a little so she’s facing him. “Yeah,” she says, “I been working there since I was little.”

She pauses, a corner of her mouth curling up. “My uncle always bitches about the hovercraft designs, not robust enough or too hard to fix out here. We used to talk about what we’d tell the Threes who designed them.”

Phillips smiles, feeling a little like he’s trapped a feral cat he wants to bring in. “Not compliments, I’m guessing.”

That gets another small smile. “No, not so much of that,” she says. “Just the other day it was ‘don’t they know grown goddamn men work on these things?’ because the access for the electrical system’s so tight.”

She looks back at the papers in her lap and Phillips takes his cue. “Sounds like good times,” he says, looking back at his own work, and the silence stretching back out doesn’t seem quite so tense anymore.

It’s a little after noon when Phillips hears a key turning in the door. Rokia tenses almost imperceptibly, stays put. Her Mom comes in—alone, thankfully—and stops when she sees Phillips on the couch. He stands up, and he’s watching Rokia’s mom but Rokia’s eyes are burning holes in his back the whole way.

“Ms. Diarra?” he says, and the woman laughs at him.

“Well, ain’t you fancy,” she says, moving toward him. “Call me Mata.”

“We need to talk,” he says, ignoring that, and she raises her eyebrows but comes around to sit on the couch.

“So talk,” she says, crossing her arms over her chest.

Phillips takes a deep breath. He’s a grown man, he shouldn’t feel like he’s about to step off the platforms with no assurance the mines won’t go off underneath him. “Since your daughter’s win the Capitol has taken an increased interest in your whole family,” he says, in his Games-interviews voice. “I’ve had a request that you enter a drug abuse treatment facility.” It’s not a lie, exactly, he’s bad at outright lies, it’s the truth twisted so the sponsors will buy it and that he’s familiar with.

Mata’s eyebrows furrow and she glares at him. “That’s nobody’s business,” she says. “Least of all some Capitol freaks.”

Phillips glances at Rokia, whose face is blank, eyes narrowed as she watches. “That’s as may be,” he says, keeping his tone calm, “but there’ll be trouble if you don’t go.”

Mata scrubs her hands over her face but doesn’t say anything.

“You don’t want to make trouble for your girls, do you?” Phillips asks. Rokia’s jaw twitches and he sends a silent apology. It’ll be worth it if it works.

Mata leans her head back against the couch. “Shit,” she says. “This is fucking bullshit. Nobody gives a damn about your doped-up junkie neighbors, why’re they getting on my case?”

Phillips shrugs. “Nobody’s interested in a couple old Victors,” he says. “They like seeing your family on TV.”

“Rokia?” Mata glares at her daughter, who sits up, shifting so she can glare right back. “You just gonna let them do this?”

Rokia looks her mom right in the eye. “Yeah, Mom,” she says, and her voice is quiet but steady, and her mom looks away.

“I’m going to call someone to come pick you up,” Phillips says, getting to his feet, and Mata shifts her glare to him and sighs.

“Fine. You know what—just, fine. I’m gettin’ my stuff.” She storms up the stairs. Phillips looks at Rokia. Once her mom’s gone she lets out a breath, looks up at him. He hesitates, then walks over to rest his hand on her shoulder. She leans into the touch, just a little, so he stays there for a minute while she closes her eyes and breathes, long, shaky exhales until she calms down. Finally looks up at him and he smiles a little.

“It’ll be okay,” he says, and she nods, looking away.

“She’s never going to forgive me,” Rokia says, and it’s barely a whisper and Phillips knows it’s not for him but he can’t leave it like that.

“You’re not the one who should be asking forgiveness,” Phillips says, trying to keep the anger and bitterness out of his voice. Rokia tenses and pulls away from him and he sighs, finds the phone in the kitchen, and tells Lassine to send a car to the Victors’ Village.

Rokia’s mom comes down the stairs with a battered railroad duffel and looks over at Rokia. “Your grandpa’d be proud of you,” she says, and Rokia flinches and looks away. Mata smiles, and Phillips has to push back a shudder because that, right there, is the hard, nasty smile he saw on Rokia’s face after she knifed the Four boy, near the end when he started almost daring to wonder if she’d come out.

It’s been 23 years since Phillips killed anybody and he’s not about to break that streak, but his hands clench into fists at his sides. He doesn’t want to leave Rokia alone but he wants this woman away from his girl more than anything else right now so he swallows the rage that’s choking him and forces out the words. “Come to my house,” he says, “We can get started on the paperwork.”

Phillips is still searching for the right form when the car honks outside and he jumps. Mata is leaning in the doorway glaring at him and her mouth twists into a smirk when he turns to look at her.

“Oh well, they’ll give it to you when you get there,” he says, and she walks out to the car without a word. As soon as they’re gone he walks over to Rokia’s.

Rokia comes to let him in, brushing away tears with the back of her hand, impatient. She walks away from him before he can say anything, goes into the kitchen and runs water into the kettle, puts it on the stove, searches through cupboards, generally finds excuses to keep her back to him until finally, she takes a deep, rough breath and turns around.

“She—” Rokia pauses, “they’ll…” she takes another breath, shakes her head. “They’ll help her?”

Phillips nods. “They’ll do what they can,” he says. He doesn’t know what else to say, knows the statistics aren’t promising and nothing about the woman makes her seem like the type to be an exception. But Rokia’s as shaken as he’s seen her since they got back to Six, and he wants to be comforting.

“Hey,” he says, soft. “It’s the right thing to do.”

“Maybe.”

She doesn’t kick him out so he stays, makes sandwiches, doesn’t comment when she spreads papers over the kitchen table and eats her sandwich with one hand. He takes his own pile back to the living room—he’ll have to talk to her one of these days about image and her Talent and the Victory Tour but it’s damn sure not going to be today.

A couple hours later she stacks everything together and heads for the door. “I have to pick up my sisters,” she says. She hesitates. “You can stay if you want. They like you.”

Phillips can’t not smile at that, he just hopes his grin is less goofy-looking than it feels. From the smile playing at the corners of Rokia’s mouth he’s probably wrong. “Do you want me to come with you?”

She shakes her head before he finishes the sentence. “No, it’s better if I just go.”

“I’ll wait here then,” he says, and she gives him a small smile before closing the door behind her. “See you in a bit.”

Phillips lets his head fall back against the sofa and takes a deep breath. He’s in her house, alone, and he’s not going to pretend that’s a small thing. She’s skittish still, of course she is, but he dares to think maybe, maybe it will keep getting better.

She’s back in less than hour, and the two little girls run in as soon as she opens the door. “Mister Phillips?” Kadi says, “Rokia said you came over! Do you want to play with trains some more?”

Phillips smiles. “Sure,” he says, “but why don’t you bring them down here and we can play together?” Kadi’s heading for the stairs as soon as he finishes.

Rokia smiles. “You got them enough track to fill the whole room, I think.”

Phillips grins back. “That sounds like a challenge.”

Allie’s sitting on the arm of the couch pulling off her shoes and socks. “We could make the whole district and go visit places,” she says. She looks over at Phillips. “Our grandma lives up North so we have pretend trips sometimes.”

Rokia looks at Phillips. “She works on the train so we see her every few months if she can get an afternoon.”

There’s a crash from upstairs and Rokia jumps, followed by “Rokiaaaaa! The box fell!”

Rokia rolls her eyes. “Coming, Kadi, that’s way too heavy for you!” She heads up the stairs and Phillips is face to face with Allie. Kadi’s easier: she’s outgoing and seems determined to befriend him. Allie watches. He’s not sure what to say to get her to open up, so he smiles, a little hesitant, and she bites her lip and looks back at him. “Rokia says Mom’s gone to see some doctors and she’s gonna stay there a while.”

Phillips tries to keep his face and his voice calm. “That’s right,” he says. He’s not sure what else to say. “They’re gonna try and help her.”

Allie just looks at him with big, curious eyes. “Our mom’s sick?” she asks, and Phillips wishes Rokia would come back because he doesn’t like doing this behind her back, but it’s not like he can dodge the question. This kid isn’t going to buy it.

“Yeah, Allie, she is.” Allie nods, considering, serious.

“That’s what Rokia says,” and good, because Phillips doesn’t want to contradict whatever Rokia’s said to these little girls. “I guess that’s why Mom forgets stuff.”

Phillips just looks at her. “What kind of stuff?” he asks.

“When Rokia went away she kept forgetting to take us to school. I had to do it until we went and stayed with Aunt Magda.” Allie is still watching for his reaction and Phillips isn’t sure what to do so he tries not to give her one, just nods. “Aunt Magda says our Mom is a piece of work and shouldn’t be allowed to have kids.” At that Phillips can barely hide a wince. He might completely agree, but there’s some things you don’t say in front of children. He’s saved from having to respond when Kadi clatters down the stairs, Rokia following behind with a box full of wooden train tracks.

“Okay, girls,” Rokia says, smiling, and Allie looks at Phillips, searching for a second, before she scoots down to the floor to start assembling track.

--

Phillips gives it a couple weeks before he brings up the topic of Talents. He brings takeout to the house and sits afterwards next to Rokia on the couch, watching the little girls enact elaborate travel scenarios with various stuffed animals. The track does, in fact, take up most of the living room: the Capitol’s in one corner by the door, home in the middle of the room, and “Grandma’s house” over towards the stairs. Every once in a while Kadi’s rabbit will stop to rearrange tracks. Allie’s cat is more likely to go to the Capitol to be in movies or have tea with Caesar Flickerman, who is currently being played by a large green bear. Phillips and Rokia are occasionally consulted but mostly they keep half an eye on their work and half an ear on the girls.

Eventually Rokia stands up. “Okay girls, bedtime,” she says, and the kids groan but get up.

Kadi climbs up onto the couch to hug Phillips. “Goodnight, Uncle Phillips,” she says, wrapping her arms around his neck. Phillips forgets to breathe for a minute. He looks up at Rokia, who’s smiling in a bemused sort of way, then back down at Kadi. He runs a hand over her hair.

“Goodnight, Kadi,” he says, a little rough.

Allie doesn’t climb on top of him but she comes by all the same. “Goodnight, Allie,” Phillips says, and she smiles shyly and glances over at Rokia before replying.

“Goodnight Uncle Phillips,” she says, just above a whisper, then goes to take Rokia’s hand as they go up the stairs.

Rokia comes down a little later, smiling. Phillips raises an eybrow. “Uncle Phillips?” he asks.

“Wasn’t me,” she says, “That was all Kadi. Guess she figured with you over here all the time it was silly to keep calling you Mister Phillips like you’re her teacher or something.”

Phillips is absurdly pleased at that, that this bouncing little kid has decided to make him part of her family. “It’s…nice,” he says, then coughs a little and changes the subject. “Look, I wanted to talk to you about your Talent.”

Rokia presses her lips together and goes to sit on the armchair. “Right,” she says, “I’m supposed to take up flower arranging or basketweaving or something so they can show me off in the Capitol.”

“Yeah,” Phillips says, slowly. “It’s usually something silly like that, but it doesn’t have to be.”

She’s watching him carefully, sizing him up. “You’ve got something in mind.”

“Well, I have an idea,” he says. “You really like working in the shop with your Uncle, right? It’s not just because it’s a job?”

She smiles, “No, I like it a lot. It’s nice, you know? Figuring out how things are put together and how to make them work better.”

“Yeah,” Phillips says. “But the thing is, Victors are supposed to have hobbies, not jobs. If it just looks like you’re a mechanic, they won’t like it.”

Rokia bites her lip. “Oh.” She looks down, disappointed.

“But,” Phillips says quickly, “If we connect it to your Talent then you’ll have an excuse to be down there, no matter what it is you’re actually doing.”

“Okay,” Rokia says slowly, thinking. “but how is ‘fixing hovercraft’ a Talent?”

“Well, just like that it’s not,” Phillips continues, hoping he’s read things right, “but hovercraft design could be. Beetee and Wiress invent stuff, you could do this.”

Rokia’s eyes get wide. “Really? I could do that?”

Phillips nods. “I think so. If you come up with some improvements to current models by the Tour we can draw up the designs or make mockups. It should be allowed.” It’s also the kind of talent that will be supremely uninteresting to Capitol socialites, an added bonus Phillips doesn’t mention.

“What was yours?” Rokia asks.

Phillips winces. “Painting,” he says, “I’m not very good at it though.” Rokia’s face twists as she tries to hide a smile. “Go ahead, laugh,” Phillips says, waving a hand vaguely. “It was a little ridiculous.”

Rokia shakes her head. “I’m just trying to picture you explaining how very inspiring you found the…I don’t know, plumes of factory exhaust or something.”

Phillips groans. “Yeah, right,” he says, “they were polite, but nobody picked me for the next art prodigy.” He looks back at her, serious again. “But what do you think, about yours?”

She grins. “It’s great,” she says, “It’s perfect, I can get started right away.”

Phillips checks his watch. “Maybe in the morning?” he says, and she laughs.

“Don’t worry,” she says, “I’m not going to run to the shop and start using power tools in the middle of the night.”

He glances at her, a little sharp, and raises an eyebrow. “So what do you do when you go out in the middle of the night?”

She glances down. “You weren’t supposed to see that,” she says.

“Mostly I see you when you come home,” he says, “I get up early.”

She’s watching him, wary again, like she’s trying to decide whether she trusts him enough to say what’s on her mind. Phillips sits quiet, waits until she sighs and looks away. “I mostly just walk around,” she says, “or I go sit on the roof at our old place. I get nightmares sometimes, can’t sit still afterwards.” She glances back at him, challenge flashing in her eyes, as though she thinks he’ll yell at her, punish her somehow for sneaking out, for admitting to nightmares or whatever else.

“It’s normal to have nightmares after the Games,” Phillips says, keeping his tone mild. “I still get them now and again.” He doesn’t tell her it’s more often now, doesn’t tell her he no longer dreams about his Games but about hers, sees her fall, sees two decades of the bloody deaths of Six tributes play out on her body, that sometimes he wakes up in a sweat terrified of what might be coming, sits at his window in the dark watching her house until he sees her coming in or going out, that he’s almost glad of her erratic habits because it means he can see her, whole and real, and know that whatever his dreams tell him and whatever is coming for them both he has her here now.

She’s silent, watching him, and Phillips wonders, always, what she sees. But she just nods. “Anyway,” she says, shifting uncomfortably. “I’ll see what I can come up with, for the hovercraft thing.”

So that moment’s over, Phillips thinks to himself, and says his goodbyes.

Back at the house he calls Brutus. “I think she’s going to work on hovercraft designs,” he says.

Brutus pauses for a second to think. “Yeah,” he says finally, “Could work.”

“She’s actually excited about it,” Phillips says.

“That’s good,” Brutus says, a little guarded still, and Phillips wonders if he’s read this wrong, if it’s actually a bad idea.

“I know it won’t be exciting for sponsors,” Phillips says, slowly, “But I don’t think we really want something too exciting.”

“No,” Brutus agrees, “it’s good. It keeps her connected to the district, that’ll play well. Threes won’t like it much,” he says, and Phillips frowns. He hadn’t thought too much about what the other districts would think, just that if Rokia is to use her talents in service of the Capitol, this is the best way.

Brutus takes the silence for the confusion it is and continues. “If she’s no good, they’ll be annoyed she’s playing at real work, and if she is good it makes their people look bad because they just got showed up by some kid from Six.”

“Oh,” Phillips says, and good, that’s intelligent strategy, way to go. “You think we should change it?”

“No,” Brutus says, “Pissing off the Threes a bit ain’t so bad. Six is too complacent about the Games, this’ll be a good way to get them more interested. You’ll have to play it right though,” he says, and Phillips pinches the bridge of his nose because there’s too much going on here, and he’s flying blind. “Keep her humble. Just a clever kid who sees a way to help her country. The Capitol will spin it to make her seem like more than that, but it can’t come from you.”

“Right.” Phillips says, and sighs. “Smart, but not too smart, humble, just trying to help. I’ll get my marketing team on that right away.” It comes out sharper than he wanted it to, but Brutus doesn’t react. “Thanks,” Phillips adds, tired and resigned.

“Not a problem,” Brutus replies, “Take care.”

Phillips hangs up the phone and looks out across the grass. The lights are on next door and he can see Rokia through the window, bent over her work. He looks down at the papers in front of him, careful strategy for the Games that never end, and he shoves down the fear as he wonders what’s waiting for them when they step back onto the platforms.
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