As the date approaches, Rokia can feel the tension in the Village ratchet up. Last year she was in the Capitol for Reaping Day, and while Paylor had declared it a day of rememberance Rokia had just laughed, as though the Reaping was something she wanted to remember, and spent the entire 24 hours of it holed up in the shop so she wouldn't have to think about the fact that a year ago she'd left everything and everyone behind.
Here, nobody's said much, nobody's planning anything, but everybody knows what day it is. Lyme is quieter than usual, more tense even if she's trying to hide it. Rokia can't sit still. Not that that's all that unusual but apparently it's enough for Lyme to come into the shop late one night and tell her to come home.
"So you want to tell me what's up?" Lyme asks, when they get to the house.
"Reaping day," Rokia says, then hesitates before adding, "would've been Allie's first year in."
Lyme lets a breath hiss through her teeth. "Oh."
Rokia smiles, lopsided. Nobody in Two knows what it's like, waiting, holding your breath and hoping it won't be one of yours called this year.
Except that's not true, not after the 75th. The Victors get it now, the helplessness that twists in your gut as you wait. Lyme looks over at her. "You gonna go down there?" she asks.
Rokia bites her lip. "I'm not sure," she says, "I don't know if they'll want me."
Lyme gives her a flat look. "Go," she says. "They'll want you."
So Rokia calls Heidi, takes the train down to the quarry town that's already starting to feel like a second home. Marc meets her on his way home from work, dusty and tired but smiling. "Glad you're here," he says, face going serious, "it'll be good for the girls to be with you tomorrow."
Rokia smiles, surprised, but as they walk through the quiet streets some of the tension bleeds out of her shoulders and she takes deep breaths. Even the summer heat feels clean, dry and breezy, not like the muggy heat in Six that always felt like it was trying to smother her.
The girls are outside when they arrive. Allie's weeding their small patch of flowers while Kadi helps out between distractions. Kadi sees them first, runs to meet them and flings her arms around Rokia's waist, leaving dirty handprints on her shirt. Allie gets up more slowly, shy the way she always is. "Hi, Rokia," she mumbles, head down and eyes glancing up just for a second.
"Hi Alima," Rokia says, hearing her own voice go softer, the way it always does out here. Allie brushes her hands on her jeans before giving Rokia a quick hug.
"I think Heidi's inside," she says, looking towards the house. Marc heads for the door, and Kadi follows, but Rokia waits.
"Can you show me what you planted?" Rokia asks, unsure. But Allie's face lights up a little as she turns and kneels back down in the dirt.
Rokia doesn't recognize the flower names, but she watches Allie's fingers brush the leaves, ghost over the petals as she talks. Gentle, careful hands the color of the rich earth, and for a second Rokia pictures them bloodstained, broken, reaching, and she takes a deep breath and holds it until her vision clears.
Allie looks up at her, curious. "Are you okay?" she asks, and Rokia schools her face back to calm and tries to smile.
"Yeah, Alima, I'm fine," she says, and Allie looks down, disappointed. "What is it?" Rokia asks.
Allie shrugs, quick. "You can tell me stuff," she says, digging a butter knife into the dirt to lever up a dandelion.
Rokia freezes. Takes one breath, then another, watching Allie's hands as she works, her shoulders hunched. She sits next to her sister, digs her fingers into the loose soil, and steps off the platform. "I've been thinking about the Games," she says, and Allie's head snaps around to look at her. "Because of tomorrow."
Allie looks down, hands stilled. When she looks back up her eyes are wide. "Please don't leave," she says, all in a breath, like it escaped without her permission.
Rokia has to remind herself to breathe. "Oh, Allie," she says, "oh, babygirl, I'm not going anywhere."
"I always hated it when you left. Even, you know, when we knew you were coming back. You left and Phillips left and Aunt Magda only wanted us because then she could tell people how important she was, getting calls from the Capitol and stuff."
"I hated leaving you," Rokia says, trying to keep the worst of the bitterness out of her voice. "Every time."
Allie looks over, smiles a little. "Here," she says, passing over another dull knife. "You gotta get the whole root or they come back." Rokia looks down at her hands and realizes she's torn the leaves off one of the dandelions.
They work for a while before Allie speaks up, eyes still on her hands as she works. "Were you scared?" she asks, quiet. "When you were in the Games?"
Rokia smiles at her, then looks back down. "Yeah, Allie, I was terrified."
Allie nods. "I didn't think you were scared of anything," she says. "You never seem scared."
Rokia can't help but chuckle at that. "I'm scared a lot, Alima," she says, remembering to get the name right this time.
"It would have been scary, wondering if they were going to pick me," Allie says, digging at another dandelion.
Rokia exhales hard. "I have nightmares about it," she admits. Allie looks at her, searching.
"Yeah. They call your name and there's nothing I can do about it."
"I would have won, just like you." Allie says it proud and determined and strong, and Rokia freezes, because those nightmares are even worse than the ones where her sisters die in the Arena.
It takes a minute before she can breathe, much less respond. "It's never going to happen now," she says, and it's still a miracle even if it's a miracle people died for.
Allie nods. "And that's why you went off to fight and stuff?"
"Part of the reason, yeah," Rokia says.
Silence again, then finally when Rokia thinks the conversation might be over, Allie takes a deep breath and asks, "Was it worth it?"
Rokia bites her lip against the laughter that rises, entirely inappropriate, in her chest. Was it worth it? She wonders, late at night when she's trying to sleep, when she jerks awake dreaming about Sal and the guys from the shop, Mom's face in the square, Phillips trying to walk across the damn hospital room, face lined with pain. But Allie is watching, sneaking glances at Rokia's face as she waits for an answer, and if nothing else she will never, ever stand on a platform while the clock counts down, and when the nightmares come they're about the past, not the future. So for today at least, "Yeah, Allie," Rokia says. "It was."
Allie nods, serious. Then she looks up at the house and smiles. "Heidi's watching," she says, "we should go inside."
They get to their feet, and Rokia can't help herself, she reaches for Allie and pulls her close. For once Allie relaxes into the touch, and Rokia holds her tight. When they separate, Rokia looks at Allie, really looks, at long limbs and strong hands and deep dark eyes and Allie--no, Alima, even if the Games are over, she's Reaping age now, and anyway she really isn't a little kid anymore. Rokia smiles, and Alima flushes a little. "Yeah," Rokia says, "let's go say hi."
Rokia will never get tired of sitting at the scarred wooden table in this room, eating whatever Heidi has pulled together, watching her sisters' smiles come every time easier. Never more than today, and if she's quieter than usual nobody seems to notice. When they finish eating and move to the living room, Kadi crawls onto her lap and leans her head on Rokia's shoulder. Rokia's arms come around her and they settle, content, as Alima pesters Marc until he pulls out his fiddle. Rokia's never seen music made right in front of her, and she's amazed that the simple movement of the bow over the strings can make the instrument come alive. Kadi relaxes against her, but Alima's sitting straight, watching intent as Marc's fingers fly. It's late when finally Marc plays a soft, slow song and Alima sighs happily, leaning back against the couch cushions. He loosens his bow, wipes down the instrument, puts it carefully away, and sends the girls to bed.
"How're you doing," Heidi asks, as they're getting Rokia's bed made up on the couch.
Rokia shrugs. "Alright, actually," she says, "it's just, I dreaded tomorrow for so long, it's hard to believe it's really all over."
Heidi nods. "It really is," she says. She's quiet a long time. "For me it was 49," she says finally, "and then 75, of course." Rokia bites her lip, hesitates, and then asks.
"Alima asked me if it was worth it," she pauses, takes a deep breath. "Do you think it was?"
Heidi is quiet a long time. Rokia wonders if she maybe shouldn't have asked. Then Heidi sighs. "Wasn't sure a long time." She hesitates then, glances at Rokia and then back at the sheets in her hands. "But they saved my Brutus. And then I saw the hearings." Rokia flinches before she can stop herself, but Heidi's not looking at her, eyes on something faraway. "After all that, I'm sure." She shakes her head, looks Rokia in the eye. "I'm glad you're here, Rokia."
Rokia just nods, trying to fight the tears threatening to spill over. "Oh, babygirl, c'mere," Heidi says, turning to sit on the couch. Rokia gasps half a sob and collapses next to her, burying her face in Heidi's shoulder. For all that it cost and no matter if in the grand scheme of things any of it balances out, she's here and she's safe. Heidi knows her secrets same as the rest of the country and she's still sitting here letting Rokia get tears all over her shirt and Alima isn't standing for the Reaping tomorrow and maybe the grand balance doesn't matter so much as this for right now. When she finally runs out of tears Heidi kisses her head, gentle, and tucks her in like a child, and for the first time in a long time Rokia spends the night before Reaping Day fast asleep.