kawuli (kawuli) wrote,
kawuli
kawuli

How to be a family : Remedial lessons for kids from Six

Rokia's two little sisters need a home after the war. So they come to live with Brutus's parents.

Credit for the brilliant idea goes to lorata, blame for execution is all mine. Half sad and half happy and 100% ridiculous and I don't even care. In two parts because apparently 12000 words is too big for one entry.


Rokia’s still not exactly sure how it happened, what negotiations happened behind which doors to let two refugee kids from Six come live with the parents of a Two Victor, but there she is, standing on the platform waiting for her sisters to get off the train.

They climb down together, Allie’s arm protective around Kadi’s shoulders. They stop when they see Rokia, standing on the platform next to Lyme. Kadi runs to her and wraps her arms around Rokia’s waist. She’s taller, Rokia thinks. Allie, too, has grown, all long limbed awkwardness. When Rokia kissed her goodbye at the reaping for the 75th she was ten years old, a child for all she acted grown up and serious. She’s twelve now and still a child but old enough to resent being called one. She’s holding herself apart, angry and scowling and hiding how frightened she is from everyone but Rokia. Rokia disentangles herself from Kadi and hugs Allie, who relents a little to hug her back. The tension stays in her back and shoulders, and she smiles a little but her eyes are hard.

It’s Brutus who’s going with them, not Lyme, and Rokia knows Brutus a little bit and she knows he’s not as scary as he looks but he’s still intimidating and he’s still inviting her sisters to stay with his parents and the whole thing is just too weird for words. So the train ride down would be unbearably awkward except that Kadi seems oblivious to all of it, holding tight to Rokia’s hand and telling her about the train, about everything she saw from the window and the crew who let her into the control room and the food and everything else, while Allie looks out the window, silent, and Brutus watches them, face unreadable. It’s a long hour down to the quarry town where Brutus grew up, where his parents still live, and the town thins out and the sky opens up and it tugs at old, buried memories, rough, small houses crowded around potholed streets, dust and mismatched shingles and peeling paint, cool even though they’re edging into summer.

The train pulls into the station, calls last stop and Brutus shifts, gets to his feet, looks at Rokia. She forces herself to meet his gaze, to stand up, trying not to wish the train ride would go on just a little longer so she didn’t have to face this yet. Turns to Kadi and reaches to take her hand. Brutus glances among the three of them.

“Come on,” he says, looking at Allie, who’s still wearing that stubborn defiance Rokia recognizes from her own face, still covering up the fear. Brutus smiles at her, softer than Rokia’s seen. “Don’t worry,” he says, “they won’t bite.”

Allie rolls her eyes but her shoulders relax a little and she follows him out, Rokia and Kadi coming along behind.

Allie walks next to Brutus as they make their way through the streets, and Rokia, holding Kadi’s hand, sees him pointing out who knows what landmarks. The quarry town’s nestled close up into the mountains, and it’s dusty and poor but there’s no bomb craters or bullet holes in the walls, no sign the war ever got this far and that’s a relief. Finally Brutus knocks on the door of one of the houses, warm light in the windows. He doesn’t wait for an answer before pushing the door open, but there’s a woman standing in the doorway before they have a chance to step inside.

She’s smiling, fond, broad and tall like Brutus himself and Rokia can see the resemblance not just in her features but in the way she holds herself, like she can take anything the world sees fit to throw at her and pitch it all right back.

“Hi Ma,” Brutus says, giving her a hug and stepping aside. “The girls are here.”

Allie tucks her hair back and steps forward. “Alima Diarra” she says, polite, before Brutus can introduce her. “Pleased to meet you.” She puts out a hand to shake and Heidi takes it, a smile playing around her eyes.

“Well hello, Miss Alima. I’m Heidi.”

Rokia moves forward, carefully, since Kadi’s pressed up close against her. “I’m Rokia,” she says, trying to make it sound relaxed, “and this is Kadi. Kadidia,” she adds, since Allie gave her full name, and she realizes she’s not sure if they even use the old nicknames anymore. Kadi’s looking up at Heidi, brown eyes wide. Allie slants a glare towards her and she straightens up. “Pleased to meet you,” she says, so quiet it’s almost a whisper, and puts out her hand too.

Heidi crouches down so she’s at Kadi’s level. “That’s a pretty name, Kadidia,” she says, taking Kadi’s hand in both of hers. “I’m glad you’re here.”

Kadi looks from Heidi to Rokia, cautious, and smiles a little. “Thank you,” she says.

Heidi stands up, puts a hand on Rokia’s shoulder. “You too,” she says, smiling. “Come in, I’ll show you around.”

“This is you girls’ room,” Heidi says, opening a door and stepping back. Allie walks in first and Kadi follows, letting go of Rokia’s hand for the first time since coming in.

“This was my room, when I was a kid.” Brutus says, quiet. Rokia looks up at him, surprised. He’s smiling, watching the girls looking out the window, climbing onto the bed. He glances down at her, then over at Heidi. Rokia looks away. The girls finish their tour of the room and come back, expectantly. Heidi’s smiling too, but it’s a little sad at the same time. “Good to get some use out of it,” she says.

They get back to the living room just as the door’s opening again. Brutus grins and walks over to the door in three long strides. His dad come in, sets down his lunch pail and turns. He and Brutus look at each other for a long moment and Brutus hugs him close.

They separate, turn back to the room and Marc’s smile broadens. “Well, who do we have here?” he asks.

Brutus introduces them each in turn. “Alima and Kadidia, and Rokia.”

Marc comes up to them, shakes Rokia’s hand, then Allie’s, then drops down to say hello to Kadi, who’s back to pressing close against Rokia’s side. “Hi Katydid,” he says, smiling.

Allie glares at him for a second before schooling her face back to something polite. “It’s Kadidia. Or, people call her Kadi sometimes.”

Marc looks up at her. “Sure, but you know what a Katydid is?”

Allie shakes her head.

“It’s a bug. Sings real loud in the summer.” He looks back at Kadi. “Do you sing, Katydid?” Kadi smiles a little, shakes her head. “That’s a shame,” he says, but the smile stays put, “We’ll have to teach you some songs. Can’t have a Katydid that doesn’t sing.”

Kadi giggles a little, then glances up at Rokia, eyes big and questioning. Rokia smiles back, runs a hand over Kadi’s hair.

They sit at the table together, big bowls of soup and hearty rolls fresh from the oven. After dinner Brutus hugs his parents and both of the girls, claps Rokia on the shoulder. “Thank you,” she says, quiet.

Brutus’ mouth quirks up at the corner. “You’re welcome,” he says, and heads out to catch the last train back up to the Village.

Heidi offers to take the girls upstairs to bed. Allie looks like she wants to protest, but when she notices Kadi’s yawns and sleepy eyes she relents. Rokia trails after them, just in case, but she’s not needed here—Heidi helps Kadi find her pajamas while Allie sifts through her duffel for her own. When they hug her goodnight she holds them close as long as she can—Kadi eventually squirms away and Allie goes stiff and Rokia releases them reluctantly. They’re here, really here, and she can barely make herself believe it.

Afterwards Heidi follows her downstairs where they make up the couch for Rokia.

Heidi watches her. “They missed you,” she says.

Rokia’s glad for the sheets in her hands so she doesn’t have to look up. “I missed them,” she says, “I’m just—I’m glad they’re okay.” She smooths the sheet down, glances over at Heidi. “Thank you for taking them,” she says, “I don’t have a place of my own, and—with work and all, it’s not—“ she stops. There’s no point making excuses.

“Oh, we’re glad to have them,” Heidi says, “Really, it’s no trouble.”

Rokia smiles a little at that. “You don’t know that yet.”

Heidi looks over at her. “I know it’s nothing we can’t handle,” she says.

Rokia would protest, but this is Brutus’s mom, and she can’t imagine there’s much she couldn’t handle.

“Well, it’s—just, thanks, I guess.” She used to be better at this, talking to people, but she’s out of practice in the long months since she’s been back to the Capitol.

Heidi seems to understand though, just smiles again and says, “There, I hope that’ll be okay.”

Rokia nods. “I’ve had a whole lot worse,” she says, absently.

Heidi’s smile flickers a little before she answers. “Well, anyway you let me know if you need anything.”

“No, this is fine. Thanks.”

The house is quiet once everyone’s in bed, but Rokia can’t sleep. There’s bugs singing outside and the house makes the occasional creaking sound as the wind shifts, and every once in a while a car goes past or a train whistle wails in the distance. It’s not unpleasant, exactly, lying awake here, but eventually Rokia gets restless. She grabs her pillow and a blanket, pulls her datapad from her bag, and walks carefully up the stairs, mindful of the creaking wood. The door to the girls’ room is closed, but it opens almost silently and she slips in.

She shuts the door behind her and leans against it, watching her sisters sleep. For all that they’re taller, they still sleep tangled together, Allie’s arm over Kadi’s shoulders. They’ve slept like that since Kadi was old enough to sleep through the night, Allie protecting her even in her sleep. Rokia sinks down to lean against the door and pulls up her latest schematics. She works for a while, glancing up every now and then to watch her sisters’ sleep. Finally she puts the datapad away and curls up with her back against the door. It’s familiar, she remembers, from when? When Allie was four or five, the last time she’d let Mom decide where they lived. It had been a nice place, newer and cleaner than most of their arrangements, except that the guy on the lease was selling out of it, cooking up who knows what in the kitchen, strangers in and out at all hours. They’d stayed for six months until Rokia had organized something else and Rokia slept nights in front of the door just in case.

She wakes in the grey dawn, fragments of dreams falling away before she catches her breath. The girls have shifted but they’re still sleeping, so Rokia gathers up her things and slips out.

There’s a light on in the kitchen, where Heidi’s putting a kettle on. Rokia hesitates, then walks in. Heidi turns as she comes through the doorway.

“Good morning,” she says.

“Good morning,” Rokia replies, “you’re up early.”

Heidi chuckles a little. “30-some years of being at work by 6, it’s habit now.” She looks over at Rokia. “Did you sleep okay?”

“I’m fine,” Rokia says, trying not to yawn.

“Sure you are,” Heidi says, easily, “You want some tea? Or coffee? Brutus brought some, he said you like it.”

“Coffee would be great,” Rokia says, “it’s nice of Brutus to think of it.”

Heidi sighs, “He’s like that,” she says, “and we don’t usually get it down here so he knew he ought to bring some.”

Rokia’s startled by how spoiled she’s gotten, demanding things people might not have, but she makes a note to thank Brutus for thinking of it. She didn’t realize he knew she needed at least one good strong cup of coffee before managing most human interaction.

“Can I help with something?” Rokia asks.

“Nah, just perch somewhere, I’m making oatmeal.”

Heidi hands her a mug and Rokia cups it in her hands, letting the heat warm her chilly fingers. Heidi’s stirring the oatmeal when Marc comes in. He smiles and winks at Rokia, then walks up behind Heidi and puts his arms around her. She leans back and rests her head against his shoulder, then turns to kiss him. It’s relaxed, easy, and it knocks Rokia back to see the love in both their faces. She smiles, a little embarrassed, and sips at her coffee to hide her face.

Allie comes in as they’re finishing their breakfast and stops suddenly when she sees them at the table. Her eyes go wide and she stammers out an apology.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know what time it was—I can go get Kadi—“

Rokia bites her tongue to hide her anger. This, whatever this is, Allie never learned from her. Heidi glances at Rokia, curious, then smiles at Allie and gets to her feet.

“Don’t worry Miss Alima, we thought we’d let you sleep,” she says, voice easy as she walks into the kitchen to fetch a bowl. “You like oatmeal?”

Allie’s breath catches for a second, she swallows and says “Yes, ma’am.” Pauses again, “Can I help?”

Heidi laughs, “You girls are sure sweet, but I think I can manage oatmeal. Just sit. You want tea? Coffee?”

“Tea, please,” Allie sits gingerly across from Marc, next to the spot Heidi’s vacated. She glances over at Rokia, looks around the room uneasily.

“Good morning, Alima,” Marc says, leaning back and smiling at her. “How’d you sleep.”

“Fine, thank you,” Allie says, and Marc laughs.

“Well, good,” he says, “I hope it was okay, sharing the bed—we can get new ones made.”

Allie shrugs. “It’s okay. We’re used to sharing.”

Allie’s finishing her breakfast when a shriek from the bedroom startles all of them. Rokia’s on her feet moving before she has time to think, walking in to see Kadi sitting on the edge of the bed, tears running down her cheeks.

Rokia sits next to her and Kadi crawls into her lap, holding tight around Rokia’s neck and sobbing. Rokia rubs her back, rocks a little until she quiets.

“Everyone was gone,” Kadi gets out, her voice small and shaky “I didn’t know where we were and you left and I was all by myself.”

Rokia’s heart breaks all over again and she hugs her sister tight. “I’m here, it’s okay, you’re safe,” she says, trying to keep her voice steady. “You’re safe here.”

She looks up. Allie’s standing in the doorway watching, fists clenched at her sides, Heidi and Marc a little ways behind.

“C’mere, Allie,” she says, lifting one hand from Kadi’s back to offer to Allie.

Allie shakes her head. “I’m fine,” she says. “I shouldn’t have left her on her own, she hates that.”

Kadi lifts her head from Rokia’s shoulder and looks over at Allie. “Please?” she asks.

Allie’s shoulders slump, and she walks over and sits down next to them. She takes Kadi’s hand, rubs her fingers over her palm. “I’m sorry, Kadi,” she says. “I’m not gonna leave you.” She glances up at Rokia. “Not ever.”

Kadi shifts, finally, pulling her hand away from Allie’s and wiping her face. She slides down to her feet and Rokia smiles and brushes her hair back. Kadi turns, then, finally sees Heidi and Marc. She flinches back toward Rokia.

“I’m sorry,” she says, “I—I just got scared.”

“It’s okay, babygirl,” Heidi says, “Do you want to come have some oatmeal now?”

Kadi’s face lights up. “We haven’t had real oatmeal since—“ She breaks off, glances back at Rokia, “Since Rokia left.”

“Well,” Marc says, “Then it’s about time.” He holds out his hand, and Kadi takes it. Heidi follows them.

Allie looks at Rokia, then, eyes blazing. “You don’t get to do that anymore,” she says.

“Do what?” Rokia asks.

“Hold her, tell her everything’s going to be okay, that she’s—you left us, you didn’t tell us anything, you abandoned us to go save the world or some shit, you don’t get to act like everything’s fine.”

“Allie, I—“

“And don’t call me that anymore, I’m not a kid.”

“I’m sorry, Alima, I had to—“

“You had to what? That’s bullshit, we’re family. She needed you and you just disappeared. We didn’t even know you were alive until you started showing up on the stupid television.” Allie’s yelling now, and Rokia feels every word like a punch to the gut.

“I couldn’t call you, they’d find you! I didn’t—“ Rokia takes a deep breath. She’s shaking, but she has to keep her voice steady. “I didn’t know where you were, I was trying to find you for months, I—“

“OK, whatever.” Allie says, and she’s not yelling anymore but this is worse. “You’re so important but you couldn’t take care of your own family. That’s great.”

“I—I don’t know what to tell you, Ali—Alima, I’m so sorry, I love you, I never wanted to—“

Allie’s glaring at her. “Shut up! God, you are so full of shit, I hate you.”

Rokia fell off the scaffolding in the shop once and landed flat on her back. For an agonizing second she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t get her lungs to work, and that’s what this feels like. She’s frozen in place and it’s long seconds before she’s able to say anything at all.

“Alima,” she says, and her voice cracks despite her best efforts, “I am so sorry.”

“Yeah well, that’s great. Why don’t you go back to whatever important shit you were doing for the last two years and leave me alone.”

And with that Allie walks out of the room and slams the door.

Rokia’s frozen in place, staring at the door. She doesn’t know how long it’s been when Heidi comes in and sits next to her.

Rokia turns, presses her fingertips into her eyes, and forces her face into a smile. “I’m sorry,” she says, “Allie’s just—she’s upset. She’s not usually like that.” Rokia bites her lip. Who is she to say, though, what Allie’s like now, a lot can change in two years.

“Oh, Rokia, you don’t have to apologize,” Heidi says, her voice soft and understanding and Rokia’s eyes are drawn to her face, where there’s no condemnation, no anger, just sadness and something fond. “She’ll come around.” Heidi hesitates, then puts a hand to Rokia’s shoulder, squeezing a little. “I came in because I was worried about you, though, babygirl.”

Rokia’s breath catches and she takes deep, careful breaths and pushes the memories back. She looks up, sidelong, at Heidi, not trusting herself not to give too much away. “I’m okay,” she says. “She’s got a right to be pissed.”

“Maybe so,” Heidi says, neutral, “but she didn’t need to put it on you like that. We know you done the best you could.”

That pulls something like a laugh out of Rokia. “Yeah,” she says, “sure.” She swallows, curls her hands tight, digging her fingernails hard into her palms. The pinpricks of pain, a few lungfuls of air, and she can look up at Heidi. “It’s fine,” she says, a little more convincing this time. “Let’s go.”

Heidi looks at her, considering, then gets up. “Marc took the girls out, thought he’d show them around a bit. I was thinking I’d make bread if you want to help. Brutus brought some things down with him.”

Rokia’s never made bread, but she follows Heidi into the kitchen anyway. “Sure,” she says, “why not?”

It’s relaxing, actually, mixing and kneading the dough, pulling out rolls and filling baking sheets. It’s hot in the kitchen, but Rokia doesn’t mind and Heidi doesn’t seem to, and they don’t talk much but it’s comfortable.

Marc and the girls come back for supper and Kadi’s grinning hugely and chattering about the mountains and the quarries and the gardens, and Allie’s smiles at her, fond, and only goes quiet when she looks at Rokia. They linger over dinner, Marc telling stories to make Kadi laugh, and even Allie smiles a bit. It’s strangely comfortable, just sitting around the table and talking. Kadi tells a few stories about Six, the time she and Allie and their cousins made a fort out of shop scraps, the time Rokia built them a pedal-car they could all ride in together and they got lost on the way from the shop to the Victors’ Village. They’re bittersweet stories now to Rokia, and Allie’s smiles are a little sad, too, but they’re from home and Rokia’s glad Kadi can still laugh about them.

Finally Rokia helps Heidi clean up in the kitchen while Allie and Kadi get ready for bed, Marc keeping an ear out for trouble. Heidi keeps shooting her concerned glances and Rokia pretends she doesn’t see. It’s awkward the way it wasn’t earlier, the silence weighing heavy and close, but Rokia doesn’t know what to say.

Allie comes to the kitchen as they’re finishing up, Kadi close behind her. Heidi goes over and hugs them each in turn, saying goodnight and stroking their hair. Kadi hugs Rokia then, and Rokia’s throat is tight but she bends to kiss Kadi’s head and say “I love you.”

Kadi looks up, smiling softly. “I love you too,” she says, hugs Rokia close again, then steps back. “Goodnight.”

Rokia turns to Allie, then stops when Allie steps back. “Goodnight, Rokia,” Allie says, arms crossed over her chest.

“Goodnight,” Rokia echoes. “Sleep well.” Allie turns and Kadi follows her out.

Rokia sighs, turns back to wiping down the counters.

“She’ll get past it,” Heidi says. “It’ll be okay.”

Rokia just nods, not trusting her voice.

They finish up in the kitchen and Rokia turns to Heidi. “I think I should go, tomorrow,” she says. “Allie doesn’t want me around, and Kadi doesn’t need me, and I’m just making things worse.”

Heidi looks her in the eye, long enough to be disconcerting, before Rokia looks away. “Well,” she says, “I’m not so sure what’s best, for them or for you.” She stops, considering. “Maybe you’re right. But you know you’re always welcome here.” Rokia looks back up at her, searching, but she’s being honest.

“Thanks,” she says, looking away, “and—“ she looks back, “Really, thanks for all of this.” She forces herself to keep looking Heidi in the eye as she says it, and there’s still no condemnation, nothing to suggest a debt owed, Heidi’s just smiling at her like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

It’s not until everyone’s asleep that Rokia curls up into a tight ball on the couch and lets herself cry, tears falling silently onto the sheets, shoulders shaking. Allie’s right, is the thing, it cuts her to the bone because it’s true: she left them alone and went off to fight and sure, it means Allie won’t have to stand in the Reaping square in a few weeks, Rokia won’t ever have to sit on the stage with her heart in her throat wondering if she’s been good enough to delay the President’s punishment one more year. One less nightmare to keep her awake, but at what cost? If she had to abandon her family, if she had to get people killed for it, was it worth the price? Who did she think she was to decide for them?

The tears subside and Rokia uncoils, but there’s no chance she’ll sleep anytime soon. She’s not sure she should risk sneaking into the girls’ room again but she can’t help herself—it’s been so long since she’s been able to get that reassurance, to see them and hear their sleep-soft breathing and know, really know that they’re okay. So she sits, keeping watch even though there’s no threat, watching the curtains flutter in the window and digging into the most esoteric design problems she can pull up to keep from replaying Allie’s voice hissing in her head.

She hears Heidi get up, the door creaking just slightly, and slips out just as the siren wails, off in the distance like a train whistle. The girls shift, Kadi shifting closer to Allie, but they don’t wake up, and Rokia watches them for a second before going downstairs.

Heidi doesn’t ask how she slept, just looks her up and down and smiles ruefully. “You look like you could use a cup of coffee,” she says, and puts the kettle on. “Go sit,” she says, back to Rokia, “I got this.”

Rokia would protest, but she’s tired, and it’s nice having someone take care of her like this. Mothering her, she thinks, with a twist of a smile. Heidi looks nothing like her grandmother but something in her eyes, her smile, is similar enough to make Rokia’s breath catch sometimes, and when she brings over a steaming cup with a sad smile Rokia has to duck her head to keep from doing something silly like crying over coffee.

Marc comes down then, and they eat together, not rushed, quite, but not drawn-out and lazy like yesterday.

He’s heading out the door before the girls wake up, kissing Heidi thoroughly and clapping Rokia on the shoulder. He steps back before she has a chance to feel trapped and says, “I hear you might be leaving today?”

Rokia nods. “I think it’s best that way.”

Marc tilts his head, as if he’s not so sure. “Alright, then. You can come down any time you want, you hear?” Rokia likes this about them; the way they say things right out like that, nothing to read between the lines, hidden behind their eyes. Marc’s smile is contagious, and she returns it.

“Thanks. I’ll be back, just—I think they ought to get settled.”

Marc’s face goes serious and he nods. “Okay. Well you just let us know.”

“I will.”

He touches his fist to his chest then, old-fashioned and Two and looking just exactly like Brutus for a second. “Mountains and earth, Rokia.”

Rokia repeats it, a little clumsy, “Mountains and earth,” and Marc turns to go.

Heidi’s leaning in the kitchen doorway, arms crossed and smiling fondly at them when Rokia turns back.

The girls are down a little later, disappointed to miss Marc. Heidi laughs. “He’ll be back this evening,” she says, “Meanwhile we’re going to get you girls enrolled in school, see what-all you’ll need.”

Allie scowls. “We have to go to school?”

Heidi doesn’t laugh, but there’s amusement wrinkling the corners of her eyes, her mouth. “Sorry, kiddo, it’s important.”

Allie sighs. “Fine, I guess.”

“And Rokia’s going back to town,” Heidi says. Now it’s Kadi’s turn to look upset.

“You’re leaving?” she says, eyes big.

“Just for a little while,” Rokia says, “I’ll be back, I promise.”

Kadi looks unsure.

“Oh, come on, Kadi, she’s not going far,” Allie says, impatient.

“I know,” Kadi says, “But we just got here.”

“I know, Kadi,” Rokia says, “but you’ll be fine here with Allie—Alima—and Heidi and Marc.”

“I guess,” Kadi says, “but you’re coming back?”

“Yeah,” Rokia says, “I am, Kadi, I swear.”

Kadi sighs. “Okay,” like she’s granting permission, and Rokia takes it that way.

She collects her things and they leave together. At the station Heidi gives Rokia a quick hug and tells her to come back soon, Allie hugs her stiffly and just says “goodbye” and Kadi clings tight until Rokia has to extract herself so she doesn’t miss the train.

Rokia sits next to the window and watches as the train pulls away. She thinks about the last time a train took her away from her sisters and the sick feeling in her stomach rises until she’s stumbling to the bathroom to leave her breakfast swirling in the toilet. She’s lightheaded and shaking when she curls back into her seat, sipping water and trying to keep the mountains of Two in her head, the clatter of the intra-district trains not the smooth flight of the maglev tribute trains to the Capitol, not the roar of hovercraft turbines. Quarry towns, she tells herself, Two. The war’s over, and she can call her sisters any time, go back whenever she wants to.

She calls Lyme once she gets closer to town and the signal’s good. “I’m on my way in,” she says, “don’t worry about picking me up, I can walk from the station.”

Lyme doesn’t ask questions, just says she’ll be at the house.

It’s a long walk up the hill to the Village, and Rokia’s breathing hard by the time she gets through the gates. It’s good, though, to feel the burn in her calves, the rasp in her lungs, so she keeps her pace quick until she gets to Lyme’s house.

She’s not sure what her face looks like, but Lyme opens the door and takes her bag and says “You look like you need to either sleep or spar.”

They’ve been sparring more, lately, it settles the itch that curls under Rokia’s skin sometimes better than mindless running or endless jobs in the shop, and Rokia’s exhausted but she’s not sleepy so she says, “Let’s spar.”

Her reflexes aren’t the best and it seems pointless to try to block. She deserves every one of the bruises she’s going to get, deserves to let Lyme beat her into a broken mess, deserves to hurt, to be punished for not being there when her family needed her, and Lyme gets one or two solid hits that feel good, feel right, before she’s standing straight and stepping back, eyes narrowed and hands dropping to her sides.

“Rokia, what the hell is going on?” she asks.

Rokia moves out of her defensive crouch. “Sorry, I’m just slow.”

Lyme doesn’t move. “Bullshit. This isn’t about punishment, kid. If you won’t hit back we’re done.”

Rokia shrugs. “I deserve it,” she says. “I fucked up.”

Lyme blows a huge breath through her nose and looks at the sky before she answers. “We’ve all fucked up,” she says, voice tight. “Plenty, believe me.”

Rokia doesn’t move. “I got people killed.”

Lyme looks her in the eye. “So did I.”

“My sister hates me.” Rokia’s voice cracks and she hates herself for it.

“I don’t believe that.” Lyme says.

“Believe it. She told me she does.” Rokia crosses her arms across her chest.

Lyme runs her hand through her hair. “Come on, we’re going inside.”

Rokia throws herself onto the couch, curling up in the corner and scowling at nothing.

Lyme goes to the kitchen, comes back with an apple, a little wrinkled, probably from last fall. Tosses it to Rokia, who manages to uncross her arms quick enough to keep it from hitting her in the face.

“Did you eat breakfast?” she says.

“Yes, mom.”

“Did you sleep?”

Rokia looks away. “Maybe?”

“Rokia,” Lyme’s voice is a warning.

“I couldn’t sleep last night.” Rokia shrugs. She’s acting like a moody teenager, it’s ridiculous and she knows it, but she can’t bring herself to stop.

Lyme looks at her. “Okay,” she says, “Come on, let’s get some lunch.”

Rokia disappears into the garage as soon as her sandwich is finished, turning on the stereo and firing up the welder and blessedly losing herself in straightforward repairs that require little more than physical effort.

Brutus stops by in the evening, allegedly for repairs to his truck. Rokia kills the music and tries to pull herself together—a job made more difficult by the fact that she’s got machine oil down half her shirt.

Brutus doesn’t seem to mind, he just quirks an eyebrow and hands her his keys. She slides under the car to check the brake cylinders, so she doesn’t have to see him while she tries to figure out what to say.

“I think it’s going to work out,” she finally settles on, might as well get straight to the point. “Your folks are really good with the girls.”

Brutus pauses before he answers, and Rokia’s got the brake cylinder open so she can see where the drum’s rubbing so she doesn’t have to worry she’s said the wrong thing.

“I figured,” he says, “but that’s good.” Another pause. “You know they’ll have you out as often as you want to.”

“Yeah,” Rokia says, pulling the drum out and sliding out from under the truck. “They said.”

Brutus is half smiling as she climbs to her feet. “This is an easy fix, it’s just warped,” she continues, “I’ll have it done by the morning if you want to stop by.”

He nods. “Sure thing. Thanks.”

“No problem.” Rokia smiles and he heads into the house. She rubs her hands hard down her jeans to stop them shaking, because it’s stupid to be scared of Brutus, he’s not going to get mad and change his mind about letting her sisters stay. Still. She’s going to make damn sure she’s got his car running perfectly tomorrow morning. It’s just the right thing.

When Lyme drags her in for dinner she’s halfway done.

“You should get some sleep,” Lyme says, once she’s eaten.

Rokia glances at the clock, shrugs. “I want to finish Brutus’s car. It’s not going to take that much longer.”

Lyme looks up at the ceiling and sighs. They have this fight at least twice a week and it’s boring as hell but Lyme won’t quit and she refuses to get mad, she just keeps pushing as though it matters what Rokia does with her time.

“Okay, but I’m not sleeping until you do.” Lyme says, finally, and Rokia groans, because seriously, they’re doing this again?

It’s almost midnight when Lyme walks into the shop and parks herself in a chair. She doesn’t say anything, just sits there watching so that when Rokia finishes all the things she can find to fix on Brutus’s truck, she can’t go hunt for something new to keep her busy.

Rokia looks over. “Fine, we can go to bed now,” she says, and Lyme stands up and smiles.

“Good,” she says, “You want to take your meds?” It’s almost always a choice, Lyme knows Rokia hates the sleeping pills, hates feeling groggy and fuzzy and strange, hates the very idea of needing them. So Rokia knows that when Lyme puts her foot down, insists that Rokia needs them, it’s really a last resort. She thinks about it this time, but honestly her eyes are drooping already and she’s tired enough she’ll probably sleep fine on her own.

She does, at least for a few hours, long enough that it’s light for once when she wakes up. She slips down into the shop before she can wonder what the girls are doing, whether Kadi had nightmares again, whether Allie will hate it here, whether they miss her, turns on the lathe and starts turning out pump housings

Lyme comes in late that morning. “Come on, Rokia,” she says, “I made breakfast.”

Rokia flips the switch, lets the lathe spin down. Turns out Lyme’s made more than breakfast, there’s sandwiches on the table and a bag of peanuts and raisins and a whole pile of stuff sitting on the couch.

“What’s all this?” Rokia asks, looking around.

“We’re going camping,” Lyme says, grinning at her.

“What?” Rokia looks around. “Why?”

Lyme looks at her, exasperated. “Because people suck, so we’re going to go where there aren’t any for a while.”

“And do what?” Rokia asks, because really, they live close enough to the wilderness already, they’re going to go sleep in it?

Lyme just laughs. “You’ll see,” she says, and hands over a plate of scrambled eggs.

They go out along a path Rokia doesn’t know, but it’s clear enough other people must use it regularly. Lyme moves quick enough that Rokia’s breath starts coming hard and her heartrate kicks up but not so fast she can’t keep up. They don’t talk, just follow the trail until it comes out at a meadow, at the base of a long sweep of rock, stretching straight up toward the sky.

“We’re here,” Lyme says, barely breathing hard, and Rokia glares and decides she should probably run more.

“Here?” Rokia asks, looking around. “What’s here?”

Lyme jerks her chin toward the rock face. “Climbing.”

Rokia looks over at the rock face. “That?” she asks. It looks impossible, even if Sara used to tell her she was some kind of monkey-mutt when she was climbing the scaffolding at the shop. At least she’s not afraid of heights.

Lyme laughs, and it’s loose and easy and she’s grinning at Rokia with the lines of tension around her eyes smoothed out. “Yup,” she says, digging into her backpack. “It’ll be fun.”

She’s pulling out equipment, ropes and harnesses and stuff Rokia doesn’t recognize, and Rokia laughs a little. “What, the crazy Careers actually use safety equipment? I thought you fought bears with your teeth and jumped off mountains without parachutes.”

Lyme throws a harness at her head. “Sure we do,” she says, “but you’re not a crazy Career and I don’t want to get you killed just when we’re getting along so well.”

Rokia catches it and starts pulling it on while Lyme does the same, tosses a coil of rope over her shoulder and scrambles up a crack in the wall. There’s rings drilled into the wall partway up and Lyme runs the rope through and rappels down.

Once Rokia’s roped in she moves over to the wall, running her hands up to find holds. Lyme made it look easy but it’s not, she’s fitting her fingers into cracks and her toes onto ledges and balancing her weight against the rock face. It’s a physical challenge and an intellectual problem and it occupies her completely and by the end of the afternoon her arms are shaking and she’s exhausted and she leans against Lyme while they roast hot dogs over a campfire.

Lyme smiles and pulls her close and when they finish eating she pulls out their sleeping bags.

“Really?” Rokia says, “It’s gotta be like nine o’clock.”

Lyme shrugs. “Did you have plans?”

Rokia opens her mouth to complain, just on principle, but then she yawns, undercutting any point she was planning on making, and Lyme laughs at her. “Finally wore you out, huh?”

Rokia tries to glare, but she’s smiling in spite of herself so she just crawls into her sleeping bag.

Lyme kicks dirt on the fire and beds down behind her, not quite near enough to touch but close enough that Rokia can tell she’s there, and Rokia rolls over to face her.

Lyme’s lying on her back, looking up at the stars, and when Rokia looks up they take her breath away. Even when it’s not cloudy in Six there’s too much light to see more than the brightest stars. There’s still light here, a glow in the direction of town, but the stars shine out bright anyway. It stirs up strains of memory, old and long buried, sitting outside while someone pointed out the constellations. Grandma, it must have been, back when she only had to worry about doing her chores and staying out of the way. She looks up, looking for patterns, but whatever she learned is long since forgotten.

She looks over at Lyme and sighs, content and sleepy and safe between the cliffs and the one person who she knows really would fight anyone who tried to hurt her, and she looks back up at the familiar-unfamiliar stars and whispers “Thank you.”

She can’t see Lyme’s face in the dark but Rokia can tell she’s smiling when she says “Anytime, kiddo.”

Rokia wakes once in the night, gasping quietly out of a dream that fades into fragments as soon as she wakes, and it takes long moments for her to remember where she is and what’s happening, but she rolls over and Lyme’s watching her.

“You’re okay, Rokia,” she says, just a whisper of sound in the quiet night. “You’re safe.”

Rokia shifts over and fits her spine against Lyme’s side, Lyme’s hand coming up to run through her hair. She can feel Lyme’s chest rising and falling with each breath and the tension uncoils as her own breathing slows to match it.

She wakes again in the early morning, no shards of dreams just the light in her eyes, but Lyme is still sleeping, breathing slow and deep, and Rokia shifts down farther into her sleeping bag and drifts off.

Eventually though, the sunlight and the heat make it impossible to stay asleep and this time when she rolls over Lyme is watching her.

“Good morning, sunshine,” Lyme says, and it’s stupid to still be tired after sleeping for however many hours but Rokia doesn’t want to move.

She stretches, yawns, rolls her sore shoulders, and looks blearily at Lyme, who’s grinning. “Mmmm” Rokia says, “I slept so well.”

Lyme laughs at that. “Good,” she says, “come on, let’s make breakfast.”

Rokia’s starving, she realizes, her stomach finally waking up along with the rest of her, and she inhales scrambled eggs and toast while Lyme just keeps giving her amused looks.

They climb again until lunchtime, and as they pack up Rokia glances back at the cliffs enough times that Lyme tousles her hair and laughs and tells her they’ll come back sometime soon. It’s stupid to say goodbye to a bunch of rocks but Rokia thinks about it before turning to follow Lyme back down to the Village.

Continued here
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