Rokia returns to District Six and tries to find a home to return to. Phillips tries to be the mentor he knows she deserves. But sometimes the things that haven't changed are the hardest.
Typical Rokia's-Mom warnings: child abuse/neglect, drug use.
Some of this was posted already, but now it's cleaned up. Also on AO3
Rokia looks around at the people in the square, a handpicked crowd that’ll look good on the videos and who cheer in a near approximation of enthusiasm. If nothing else they’ll appreciate the food. Rokia reads the speech the escort hands her, shakes hands with the Mayor, and then her family is brought onto the stage to greet her. Her breath catches in her chest as her sisters race toward her and she drops to her knees to catch them in her arms and bury her nose in Kadi’s hair. It’s wonderful and comfortable for half a second until she breathes in and instead of Kadi’s usual soap-and-smog smell it’s some kind of flowery shampoo and stiff hair pulled and tucked into tight braids that Kadi never would have agreed to if she’d been given a choice. Allie’s shaking and trying to blink back the tears that are threatening to spill out of her eyes and Rokia puts a hand on her face and brushes at the moisture on her cheeks with her thumb. She raises her head and looks past the girls to where her Mom’s standing, eyes glassy, clinging to the hand of her latest boyfriend, and Rokia can’t remember his name because he only started coming around a couple weeks before the Reaping. But they need a happy family for the videos so here he is. Rokia walks over to give awkward hugs to her mom and what’s-his-name. The twist in her gut when she pulls away and grabs her sisters’ hands is familiar in the same way the smog in the air is familiar and the rundown streets just out of the camera’s view are familiar. The mayor welcomes Rokia home with empty phrases about bringing pride to a district whose last stubborn pride is tied to steel, not to the glitter of this Capitol charade. When the it's finally over the crowd heads out into the grimy rundown city and the cameras start packing up.
Phillips is standing just off to one side, waiting for her, and Linsea rushes up to kiss Rokia's cheek and coo over her one last time. Then she's bustling off toward the train and Phillips steps forward and hands Rokia a key. "Your house is ready for you," he says, "I got someone to move your things over."
Rokia blinks, confused. "My house?" she echoes, and Phillips winces.
"In the Village," he says, "I'm sorry, I didn't think to--"
Rokia shakes her head, cuts him off. "It's fine," she says, looks down at Kadi, who's stayed pressed against her side the whole time, one hand holding onto Rokia's dress and looking at everyone with wide eyes. "You wanna go see our new house?" Kadi smiles shyly, nods up at her. Allie's on the other side of Kadi, arms crossed, lip between her teeth. "Allie?" Rokia asks, and Allie doesn't smile but she does nod, mouth opening just a little.
That's it then. It's better for the girls, a house with a door only she has the key to, so Rokia lets go of the thread she's been clinging to since she woke up in the Capitol, that said "soon you'll be home." Home she wanted so bad she could taste it, smog from the factories and hot metal from the El tracks outside and acrid smoke from whoever was cooking morphling downstairs. It was the mattress on the floor in the room she shared with her sisters, the scarred wooden planks with gaps that showed glimpses of the floor below, the door she braced shut when they went to sleep. It was their stolen electricity and cold water and the sound of the El running through the night. The Victor’s village is all the way on the other side of town and Rokia’s seen it, surrounded with barbed-wire like a fortress, neat wooden houses tucked together behind the Peacekeeper barracks. It's not home, but it's better than home, so Rokia keeps her thoughts to herself and smiles for Phillips. "Let's go see," she says, and Phillips frowns for a second but then he nods and leads the way.
There's a car and driver waiting, and Phillips hesitates, counting the six people and the four seats, but Rokia knows how to handle this one. "Kadi," she says, crouching down and holding her sister's hand, "Can you sit on Phillips' lap in front just for a bit?" Kadi looks at Rokia, then up at Phillips, who hides his surprise in time to smile, and he crouches down too, offers Kadi his hand.
"Hi there," he says, a little awkward. "I'm Phillips."
"Kadi," she says, quiet. "I saw you on TV," she continues, taking Phillips' hand. "Aunt Magda says you were helping Rokia."
"That's right," Phillips says, quiet.
Kadi looks at him, then back at Rokia, then takes her hand out of Rokia's and gives it to Phillips. He takes it carefully, climbs into the front seat and lets Kadi clamber in on top of him.
"Let's go," Rokia says, opening the backseat, and Allie climbs onto her lap while Mom and her boyfriend go around, squeeze in on the other side.
Mom's pressed up against her, leans her head back against the seat. "It's so good to have you back, baby," she says, smiling up at the ceiling. "We sure missed you."
"Yeah, Mom," Rokia says, looks over Allie's shoulder and out the window as the streets flash by, faster than she's used to. She rolls down the window and lets the air blow hard against her face, clearing out the smell of smoke, cigarettes and whatever else, that clings to Mom's clothes, even these that must've come from the Capitol, new and shiny and clean.
Mom leans her head on the boyfriend's shoulder and Rokia wasn't going to ask with Phillips here but she's tired, and fuck it. "What's his name, Mom?"
Mom giggles. "Jason," she says. "You remember him, don't you?"
Jason smiles over at her, ingratiating, and Rokia's skin crawls. "Yeah," she says, "guess I do."
"It'll be good to get to know each other," Jason drawls, voice all City and factory and smarmy as hell, and Rokia's jaw clenches.
"Sure," she grits out, old familiar frustration crawling up her throat.
They get to the Village, past the gate, and Phillips breaks his silence to point out Poppy's house, a few straggling flowers out front, Terence's place, empty and disused-looking now, a light on in the kitchen. His own house is blank but clean, and on the other side is, she guesses, hers. Lights on in all the windows, fresh sky-blue paint outside. Sure enough, the car rolls to a stop, and Rokia opens the door for Allie before following her out.
They walk up onto the wide porch and stand in front of the door for a moment before Rokia remembers, digs the key out of her pocket and opens the door. The girls are still sticking close to her, follow her in, and then they see the metal box in the middle of the floor and run to it, pushing up the lid and pulling out the homemade toys Rokia'd built for them out of shop scraps. Mom and Jason come in, look around, touching the backs of the soft, comfortable looking couch and chair, wandering through toward the table in the next room.
Phillips steps up next to her. "You can change it around if you want later," he says, voice a little rough. "Thought it'd be better you didn't have to worry about this stuff right away."
Rokia looks over at him, nods absently, then takes a deep breath and pulls herself together. "Thanks," she says, and hopefully it doesn't come out too strange. The girls are occupied with their toys, so she follows Mom through into the kitchen, which is painted in warm yellow, full with new appliances and sparkling clean countertops and cupboards. She opens one, experimentally. Dishes, also new, all matching, plates and bowls and glasses. Mom and Jason are standing at the sink talking in low voices and looking out over the yard, and they turn, guilty looks on their faces, when the cupboard door swings closed with a bang. Phillips' face is hard when Rokia turns to go back out, and he watches them a little longer before following her back through the living room to the stairs.
The stairs turn, open onto a hallway, and Rokia stops. "First on the left's yours," Phillips says, and Rokia skips the door to her right, turns the knob and steps into a room that's way too big for just her. There's a bed on one side, a chair and low table by the window, another door on the far end, and she walks toward it and stops when she sees what's next to it.
"You brought my stuff?" she asks, kneeling down and touching the padlock.
"Course I did," Phillips says, and she turns to face him. He looks somewhere between pleased and embarrassed, half-smiling. And then he sees her fingering the padlock and reaches into his pocket. "Here," he says, holding out his hand. "These are yours."
It's the stuff she'd had in her pockets at the Reaping. A few crumpled bills, her keys, and her knife. She gets up and takes them from him, slides everything into her pocket but the keys, unlocks the padlock and lifts the lid. It's all still there, her clothes, a handful of tools, bits and pieces of things that might come in handy, and when she leans over to check whether there's still a roll of bills shoved into the toe of her shoe it smells like machine oil from the shop and dust and smoke and she feels her shoulders relax.
"Thank you," she says, awkward, getting up.
Phillips looks away. "It's no problem," he says, walks over to the door and pulls it open. "Bathroom in here," he says, and Rokia takes the redirect, looks in.
"Nice," she says, and it is, but now she's curious whether he's made arrangements for her girls. "The other rooms?" she asks, and Phillips motions her out to the hallway. The door nearest the stairs is another bathroom, she's suprised to see, and then a bedroom with a double bed for Mom, and in the back is one with bunk beds against the back wall, windows on two sides, and a wooden box in the corner Rokia doesn't recognize.
"I hope you don't mind," Phillips says, with that embarrassed look again. "You mentioned they liked trains."
Rokia's eyebrows lift and she opens the box. It's full of wooden pieces of track, straight and curved and bridges and crossings, and in a tray on one side is an engine, passenger and freight cars, and Rokia grins. "Amazing," she says, picking up the engine. "They'll love this."
And as though it was timed, Allie calls up the stairs, a little worried. "Rokia?"
"Yeah," Rokia goes to the doorway and calls back. "I'm up here, come see your room."
They clatter up the stairs, and Rokia follows them through the door so she gets to see the look on Phillips' face when they see it. She grins. "Can you say thank you to Mister Phillips?" she prompts, and they chorus it back. And then they're climbing on the bottom bunk together, until Kadi squirms away and climbs the ladder, careful, her face serious in concentration.
"Look how tall I am!" she says, standing up. And at that Rokia can't do anything but laugh.
Phillips leans against the wall, Rokia sits on the floor, and they watch the girls take everything out of the train box, start putting sections together, crawling around on the floor. And then Rokia realizes they're still in their fancy dresses, and the floor's clean but they shouldn't be messing up their nice clothes like that. And it'll be lunchtime soon, and she's home, even if it's not the old place, and that means back to real life. No meals coming out of the wall in District Six.
So she scrubs her hands down her face and stands up. Phillips looks over, concerned. "It's fine," she says, trying to take stock. "Is there a grocery store around here somplace?" she asks, and Phillips gives her an indecipherable look.
"Yeah," he says, reluctant, "But I had them put some stuff in the kitchen for you. You shouldn't need to go for a few days." He hesitates. "And if you do need something, I can get it. You dont have to worry about that stuff right now."
Rokia hadn't exactly realized she was worried, until she doesn't have to be. "Can you show me?" she asks, glancing toward the girls. "They'll be busy for a while here," she says. The clothes can wait.
Phillips nods, pushes himself upright. "Sure thing," he says, leads the way out.
Mom and Jason are sprawled on the couch, watching the TV Rokia hadn't even noticed on her first walkthrough. They barely glance up as Phillips and Rokia walk through to the kitchen, and Phillips' face is tight again as he opens the cupboards, the fridge, shows her a stunning amount of food, spaghetti and rice and bread and a fridgeful of pre-made meals. It's overwhelming and a relief in near-equal parts.
"Thank you," she says, again, awkward and inadequate.
Phillips' mouth twists up into almost a smile. "That's what mentors are for," he says, and Rokia looks down. "Doesn't stop after the Arena," he continues, and when she looks back up he's actually smiling at her, soft and real and Rokia doesn't think anyone's looked at her like that since grandma, like she's some kind of gift from the universe.
She looks away, toward the stairs up to where the girls still need to change clothes. When she looks back toward Phillips he's stoic again. "I should get those girls out of their nice clothes," Rokia says, "Maybe wash some of the crap out of their hair."
Phillips looks at her, assessing. Then nods. "Okay," he says. "You know how to use the phone?" he asks, gesturing toward where it's hanging on the wall.
Rokia nods. "Yeah, my uncle's got one at the shop," she says.
Phillips pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket. "This is my number, call if you need anything," he says.
Rokia nods. "I will," she says, automatic, but she thinks she actually might.
She follows him out, turns the bolt behind him. Takes a deep breath, leans against the wall for the length of two more breaths, then heads upstairs to change clothes and check on the girls.
Somewhere between helping the girls get settled, taking inventory of what's here, meals and everything else, the day disappears. Rokia moves from one task to the next, just watching as the hours slide past.
Finally Mom and Jason slip out, twitchy and irritable, and the girls are tucked into the bottom bunk, curled together. Rokia sat on the floor, leaning against the wall, watching until they fell asleep. Now she’s restless, anxiety burning through her exhaustion and sending her pacing through the hosue, watching the streetlights out the windows and listening to the hum of the city working through the night. She tries lying in bed but it’s strange and soft and the room's too big, it’s too quiet and everything is wrong. Some familiar pieces are there—the sounds of train whistles far off and melancholy, the smell and the sounds of the factories and the El, but they’re crammed in with the new house and new clothes and she’s not sure how to fit it all together.
Finally, she slips out into the muggy city night, walking through the empty streets until she gets to the rougher parts of town, where the factories run all night and the junkies don’t keep regular hours. And it’s dangerous and she shouldn’t be out here, but that’s an old thought: that’s from before she learned she really could kill someone with a stolen knife and electrical wire. The nervous energy that’s been running through her all day slows down, focused now that she has real threats to assess--the guys slumped in the doorway would probably be dangerous if they weren’t half-conscious, the man walking towards her is just trying to get home from his job. She’s always done this but now there’s something writhing under her skin saying “just let them try” and her hand curls around her knife but her shoulders relax. When she reaches the familiar doorway and hits the door just where they’d always brace it, it’s less of a relief than it once was to walk into the building and shut away the street. The place is empty now, silent and dusty and the lights don’t work when Rokia flicks the switch so someone must’ve disconnected the jumper cables from the main lines again. She fumbles in the light of the streetlights through the window to find the candles in the kitchen cupboard, and then she’s making her way to the back. It’s dirtier than usual—not surprising really, she’s been gone a full month and who else would clean up? The emptiness itself is more surprising, although Mom’s friends might have cleared out once the Capitol and the Peacekeepers started paying attention. The back room is almost empty, the boxes that'd held her things and the girls' are gone, the blankets packed up, just the stained mattresses on the floor. Still, it's familiar, and Rokia sits on her mattress and dozes, just a little, familiar sounds and smells keeping her firmly grounded in here and now.
But as the candle burns down she pulls herself to her feet. She should get home before the girls wake up and look for her. Her feet hurt, from stupid Capitol shoes and walking all the way over here when they haven't let her walk more than from one room to the next since she got out of the Arena. So she walks down to the El station, drops her coins in the meter, and steps onto the late-night train. There's only a couple people in the car, and none of them give her more than a disinterested glance as she steps on, sits, and by the time they reach the end of the line, she's alone. It's a short walk from here, past the barracks and through the fence, the chain looped around the gate has a padlock but the chain's been cut, looped loosely back around.
When she gets to the house she goes to the box in her room and pulls out the scratchy wool blanket, grabs a pillow, and slips quietly into her sisters’ room. They haven’t moved, limbs tangled half out of the sheets, faces soft with sleep. Rokia locks the door behind her, curls up in the corner, and sleeps.
She wakes up with a start when Allie gets out of bed, sitting up against the wall poised to run before she knows what’s happening. Allie looks at her, drowsy and confused and frightened and Rokia forces herself to relax, to take deep breaths and smile at Allie, who’s standing in the middle of the room watching her warily.
“Good morning, Allie,” she says, and Allie relaxes just a little.
“G’morning” she mumbles, looking down at the floor. She glances up at Rokia, just catching her eye before looking back at her bare feet. “We gotta get up for school.”
Right. Rokia realizes she has absolutely no idea what day of the week it is. She nods, “Sure thing. I’ll make breakfast.”
She gets to her feet while Allie turns to wake Kadi, and heads down to make breakfast, sliding into an old routine that feels strange and wrong. The porridge is oatmeal instead of gritty tesserae mush, with sugar and real milk, the luxuries Phillips brought. The coffee is the same harsh district blend she remembers, made hot enough to scald her mouth and strong enough it hits her stomach like a punch. The girls come in, sleepy-eyed, as she’s finishing up.
"Aunt Magda made us porridge." Kadi says as they sit down, "but it wasn't like yours."
"It was the same.” Allie says, glaring at her. “Mom tried making pancakes one time but they burned."
"Aunt Magda made you breakfast?" Rokia asks.
“She brought us over to her house when she got back from her trip. Before that it was just Mom and sometimes she forgot to make breakfast so we had to go to school without.”
“Where did you go after school?”
“We just came home. Mom usually remembered about supper.” Allie shrugs, looking at Rokia again, quick glances before looking away again.
“But it was nicer at Aunt Magda's,” Kadi says, “She said the Capitol people wanted her to take care of us because you were special and that meant all of us were too.”
Rokia doesn’t know what to say to that, so she passes them bowls of oatmeal and their eyes get wide as they eat.
Kadi beams. “This is even better than you used to make!”
Rokia grins back at her and eats her own oatmeal. “Come on,” she says as they finish. “We have to catch the train, we don't want to be late.”
The train leaves them only a few blocks from the school, the same one Rokia went to until Kadi was born. She leaves them at the door, ducking her head to avoid the stares of her former classmates, the girls her age leaning against the chain link fence, short skirts and lazy smirks and cigarettes on one side, carefully combed hair and neat bookbags on the other, a few former friends and more indifferent classmates who probably never thought about her until she appeared on their screens.
As she's walking away someone calls after her. She turns. The principal is standing there, and Rokia has to force down the old anxiety that has more to do with embarrassment than real fear.
She tries to smile. “Yes?”
“Welcome back, Rokia. We're all very proud of you.”
“Thank you. It's good to be back.” Rokia wonders if he remembers her, an unremarkable kid who disappeared years ago, one in a stream of teenagers working or taking care of siblings or disappearing into the same addictions that trap their parents. He’s acting like it, but everybody’s acting weird these days, so who knows.
It’s a long way back to the Village, but Rokia’s got nothing better to do so she walks, mind wandering as she makes her way back. Mom and Jason are sitting in the kitchen when she walks into the house, drinking coffee and staring out the window. Rokia half wants to sneak up the stairs and hide in her room. But Mom turns when she hears the door close, smiling at Rokia lazy and sweet and stoned.
“G'mornin' baby,” she says.
Rokia forces herself to relax, pours herself a cup of coffee just to have something to do with her hands.
“It’s all so nice,” Mom says, looking around. “I'm just so glad you got all this. Your grandpa” —her mouth twists, voice hard for a moment— “he should see us now.”
Rokia turns away to fiddle with the kettle.
“Yeah, Mom. It's great.”
“Honey, you should be happy, you won, you don't gotta take shit from nobody no more.”
Rokia winces, at the words and at the accent, the roughness that breaks through when Mom's not with it enough to notice. Mom says she should be happy, everyone keeps saying how they’re proud of her, as though killing other kids and managing not to get killed herself was something honorable. Sure, she’s never going to have to work again, she's never going to have to worry if there's enough to pay for groceries. She's got a big house with doors that lock. It is nice. Maybe she should be happy. Everyone else seems to be. She just can’t seem to summon the ability to care.
Every night Rokia wakes up with the Arena crawling under her skin and she walks over to their old place. It’s beyond stupid, walking through the streets alone, at night, and Uncle Sal would kill her himself if he knew she was risking letting some junkie do it.
It’s just that she can’t stay still inside, needs to move, needs to be able to breathe and even the smog in the streets is better than inside. So she slips into her clothes and out into the night that’s just starting to lose its oppressive summer humidity.
She’s sitting on the roof one night, not quite awake but not fully asleep, when she hears a clang and a muffled curse and Sara scrambles over the edge of the roof.
She’s been home for days and she hasn’t been by the shop or said hello to anybody or even thanked Magda for watching the girls because the idea of talking to them is so phenomenally awkward her brain shuts down before she even thinks about doing it. She drops the girls at school from a block away and walks home before anyone in their old neighborhood notices she’s there.
She hasn’t even tried to talk to Sara and here she fucking is, climbing up on the roof at fuck-all hours of the night as though nothing at all has changed except Rokia’s been turned inside-out and shaken and she’s still trying to figure out if there’s even enough pieces to put back together.
Her mouth has gone dry and her heart’s racing and she doesn’t know what to say, and when Sara looks over and sees her they’re both too shocked to say a damn thing.
Sara’s the first to recover, always a step ahead, and she tilts her head and smiles.
“Hey, Rokia,” she says, and her voice is rough even though she’s trying to keep it light, “fancy seeing you here.”
Rokia looks up. Sara’s smiling at her, soft and sweet, and Rokia breathes a little easier just seeing it. Sara comes and sits next to her, looking over in the glow from the streetlights.
“Hey,” Rokia says, and she knows her voice is rough and she can’t think what to say.
Sara puts a hand to Rokia’s face, rubbing her thumb over Rokia’s cheekbone.
“You’re really here,” she says, and Rokia smiles even though the touch is keeping her from moving her head and setting off alarm bells somewhere in her stupid brain.
“Yeah, Sara, I’m really here.”
“Are you okay?” Sara drops her hand to her lap and it’s all Rokia can do not to sigh with relief.
Rokia laughs at that. “I’m sitting on a roof in the middle of the night a couple miles from where I’m supposed to be sleeping because I’m too crazy to stay indoors, but you know, sure, why not?”
They sit in silence for a while.
“Did you watch?” Rokia asks, finally, not sure what answer she’d prefer.
Sara looks at her. “Yeah, pretty much constantly. We had it on all the time in the crew rooms.”
“And you still want to sit here with me?”
“Rokia—of course I do.”
“It isn’t ‘of course’ and you know it.” Rokia’s not sure why she’s fighting. She wants to kiss Sara and tell her how much she missed her but the thing is it isn’t really true. She missed her at first, Sara and her sisters and home, but in the Arena she couldn’t afford to think about anything but where her water or food or weapons were coming from, who might be sneaking up on her while she tried to sleep, and everything else dimmed down to flashes of memory, if that. She’s still raw and aching and she’s sitting out here in the middle of the night because she can’t sleep and she is beyond being able to pretend everything is fine.
She has blood on her hands, and it’s not that she feels guilty for it, not really, when what other choice did she have? But she’s killed kids younger than Sara and she’s got a switchblade sitting open next to her because a girl younger than Sara nearly stabbed Rokia while she sipped water out of a drainpipe. A girl Rokia didn’t know for certain she’d killed until she watched the recap because by the time the cannon fired Rokia was halfway across the Arena with the girl’s knife shoved through her belt.
And the fact that she’s thinking about that when her possibly-girlfriend and definitely best friend is sitting next to her in a place they’ve sat together hundreds of times means Sara should probably go back to the trains without bothering with the mess that’s become of Rokia’s head.
Sara’s looking at her, her face unreadable in the dark. She pulls out a cigarette, lights it and takes a deep draw before handing it to Rokia. Their fingers brush, but that’s okay, and the smoke burns in her lungs and she watches it as she blows it up towards the gray sky.
They get through the whole thing without another word and by the end Rokia’s not tracking Sara’s hands, not tensing with the expectation of contact. Sara lights another off the first and looks at Rokia as though she’s expecting a protest.
“Hey, if you’re not pissed at me for killing people I can hardly get mad about you smoking too much,” Rokia says. It comes out tight and rough and wrong but Sara smiles back at her as though everything was normal.
They sit there for a long time. Rokia flicks her knife open, closed, open, closed and Sara watches her until she closes it and sticks it in her pocket.
It’s starting to get light. Rokia can see the worry on Sara’s face more clearly now and she wants to wipe it away, wants to kiss her and go downstairs and relearn each other, wants to scramble off the roof and run all the way--where? Home, wherever that is. She’s been sitting still so long she’s stiff and uncomfortable and she stands up and paces the length of the roof, back and forth in the dim light, until Sara gets up and meets her.
“Rokia…” Sara says, “What do you want me to do?”
Rokia stops. To hell with it, she thinks, and presses close to Sara, burying her nose in the hollow of Sara’s neck, demanding that her brain feel Sara’s arms coming around her as comfort, not threat.
It doesn’t work for long and she finds herself shaking free, but she stops, tips her head up and Sara puts light hands on Rokia’s shoulders and kisses her before stepping back.
“You look like hell, you know,” she says, her voice teasing but her eyes worried.
Rokia shrugs. She knows. It doesn’t matter.
“Can I walk you home?”
“You don’t have to be somewhere?” It’s half-joking, because it’s 5AM and where would she have to be?
Sara just looks at her. “Come on, you, let’s go.”
They walk back through near-deserted streets, quiet as it ever is in a district full of factories, streetlights winking out as the sun comes up. When they get to Rokia’s house Sara’s eyes go wide.
“Nice place,” she says.
Rokia shrugs. “Yeah, I guess. Come over sometime when the girls are up, I’ll give you the tour.”
They stand there, on the front porch, awkward like they haven’t been in years, and finally Rokia leans forward, kisses Sara light and quick. “It’s okay,” she says as she steps back, “Go.”
Sara bites her lip, worried. “I’ll come back.”
Rokia smiles. “You better.”
“I always will.” Sara’s serious suddenly, and that’s not fair, and Rokia squeezes her hand when she doesn’t trust herself to respond.
Rokia drops the girls off at school later and turns, feet moving automatically, ready to walk home, when she hears someone come up behind her and spins, hands clenched into fists, ready to attack.
“Woah, girl, I’m not gonna hurt you.” It’s Matt, from Uncle Sal’s shop. “Salif sent me to see if you might be here, he’s got a job he needs help with”
Rokia hesitates. She’s tired and antsy and part of her just wants to go home rather than brave the awkward stares she’ll get walking back into the shop, but she owes Sal, and she doesn’t actually have anything to do at home, so why not?
“OK” she says, and Matt grins. “Let’s see what he’s got himself into this time.”
“It’s a PK craft,” he says as they walk toward the shop. “Something finicky in the levitation system, it’s not firing at full power.”
“Great, probably an electrical problem and he wants me to crawl through the thing looking for faulty connections.”
“Yeah, prob’ly, you know none of us can fit up in there. He said if you wouldn’t come he’d have to wait till his kid got out of school and send him up through.”
“Does Jack even know how to find bad connections?”
“Doubt it, he’s just a kid”
“I could, when I was his age.”
“Yeah, but you’re…” He trails off.
Rokia smirks. “I’m what, Matt?”
“Smarter’n him, that’s for sure.”
“Prob’ly got something to do with bein’ in the shop since I was big enough to hold a screwdriver”
“Yeah, prob’ly so. Anyway he’ll be glad to see you, we’ve been short handed since you left.”
“Why doesn’t he hire somebody?”
“Oh, you know Sal, he doesn’t trust people he doesn’t know. Keeps sayin’ he’ll get around to it but…” Matt shrugs.
Matt talks the whole way back to the shop, about the jobs they’ve been taking and the problems they’ve had and the girl Matt’s seeing. He doesn’t ask her about the Games or the Capitol or the Village or anything, doesn’t mention it when she checks the alleys and doorways, doesn’t tell her to relax when she curls her hands into fists, doesn’t seem to expect her to say much. She’s barely talked to anyone since she got back, so it’s almost overwhelming and she’s glad he’s making it easier for her. It helps that he’s been working for uncle Sal as long as she has, that he’s known her since she was 8 years old and getting underfoot trying to learn everything at once.
When they walk into the shop Sal is on the phone to someone, leaning against his desk and speaking in his careful, neutral voice to what can only be someone from the Peacekeeper office.
“Yes, sir, we will make it top priority.” He looks over and smiles, looking relieved, when he sees Rokia walking in with Matt. “Yes, I’ve got my best people on it,” he continues, winking at her. “Should be done by the end of the day.”
When he hangs up he comes over and claps her on the shoulder. “Damn, but I’m glad to see you. Someone needs to tell the Threes who design these things that grown men work on ‘em and if we can’t get into where the problems are we can’t fix ‘em.”
Rokia smiles. Some things haven’t changed, apparently, and one of them is uncle Sal’s griping about hovercraft design. She goes to the back room, grabs a multimeter, and shrugs into her coveralls, still hanging where she left them.
It’s a tight fit and an annoying, fiddly job, testing each connection and looking for snagged wires, and it takes hours until she finds the join that’s loose.
“Sal!” she calls down, “Found it! Get me the soldering iron and some shrinkwrap.”
She slides out of the belly of the craft, and really, there isn’t any way Sal could get into the access panels comfortably—they’re almost too small for her. Matt hands up the tools and in a few minutes she’s finished.
She clambers into the cockpit and fires up the craft, listening as the levitation ring comes online and the craft goes weightless on its supports. Sal’s giving her a thumbs-up, watching as everything comes online, so she shuts it down and climbs out.
“Looks good, girl. Thanks for helping out.” He’s shifting his weight from one leg to the other, arms crossed over his chest. “Look, I…” he rubs one hand over his short-cropped hair and then drops it to his side. “I know you don’t need the cash anymore but we could sure use you if you ever want to come by.”
Just like that it’s awkward again. Rokia fidgets with the zipper on her coveralls, glances around at the familiar, well-ordered mess and noise of the shop in full swing, drops her hand to her side.
“I dunno, Uncle Sal,” she says finally. “I’ll see what I can do.” Then she smirks, looks up at him. “I knew the place’d fall apart without me.”
He laughs, a quick huff of breath, and smiles back. “Hey now. It’s not so bad as all that.”
“Sure it’s not.” She glances at the clock. “I got a couple hours before I have to meet the girls, got anything else needs doing?”
In the end she has to rush to get back to the school in time, leaving Matt to finish a transmission overhaul on the truck and wiping her hands ineffectually as she strips out of her coveralls.
The girls come up to her as they leave school. Allie lets her take her hand and smiles a little, while Kadi snuggles in on the other side. It’s comfortable and almost familiar and even if they're going somewhere different, at least this part is the same.
The next day she drops the girls off and goes straight to the shop, because it's better than going home. Sal grins when she comes in and Matt calls out a hello from where he's settled in to troubleshoot some steering problem. It's comfortable and familiar, and even better, she's not rushing to pick up the girls and get back to work. She can just call goodbye to Sal and the rest and walk out.
She gets there just as classes are getting out, a stream of kids moving past her, and nobody looks twice at another teenager in jeans and a grease-smeared T-shirt. Her girls come out holding hands and Kadi lets go when she sees Rokia, runs up to her.
"Look!" Kadi says, holding out a crayon drawing. "It's my family!"
Rokia takes it, tries not to laugh at the horde of people crowding the page.
"Who's all here?" she asks instead.
"Well, at first it was just you and me and Allie," Kadi says, pointing. "And then Fatim said you couldn't have a family where everyone was kids, so I put in Mom, and Aunt Magda and Uncle Salif and Jack, and Mom's friends, and then she said it was just supposed to be people who lived with us, but I said they all used to live with us except Aunt Magda and Uncle Salif and Jack but we go over there when Rokia's working, except now we live in Rokia's house and it's just us and Mom and Jason and I'm not sure if the others are coming because there's not bedrooms but there's lots of space they'd just have to bring their own mattresses."
Allie scowls at her sister. "Kadi, that's not how it works."
Kadi sticks her tongue out. "Says you," she says, and now Rokia can't help laughing.
"Kadi, Mom's friends aren't going to come live with us," she says. "It's just us."
"And Jason," Kadi says. "What's special about him?"
Rokia can't find an answer for that, at least not one that's suitable for a 4-year-old. "He just is," she says, and some of her frustration must slip out because Kadi looks down at the ground, pulls her hand out of Rokia's. Allie bites her lip, digs into her pocket and comes up with the broken end of a blue crayon.
"Here," she says, reaching behind Rokia to hand it to Kadi. "I found it for you."
Kadi takes it reluctantly, rolls the stub of wax between her fingers, and takes Allie's hand with a small smile.
By the time they get home, Kadi's gotten over it, telling Rokia about the book her teacher read them and the girl she built block houses with. When they walk in, she takes her family portrait and heads for the couch. "Mama," she says, "look!"
Rokia follows her, stops short when she sees Mom and Jason lying tangled together on the couch, empty syringes and tinfoil and lighter spread out over the table.
"Mama?" Kadi says, and Mom blinks her eyes open, slowly.
"Hey baby," she says, closes her eyes.
"Mama look!" Kadi says, insistent, but Mom doesn't open her eyes before she replies.
"Later, baby, I'm sleepy."
Kadi's face falls and Rokia realizes she's clenching her jaw so hard it hurts. She forces herself to take a deep breath, goes over to Kadi. "Come on, Kadi, we'll show Mom another time. You wanna play with your trains?"
Kadi looks at Rokia, back at Mom, her lower lip stuck out and confusion in her eyes. Then finally she nods and heads for the stairs. Allie runs to catch up with her, takes her hand and they go up together.
Rokia's hands clench to fists and she goes into the kitchen, gets a sack, sweeps everything off the table into it and dumps it in the kitchen garbage.
Then she presses the heels of her hands into her eyes and takes deep breaths until the urge to scream subsides a bit. It's not like this is new. Hell, at least it's just the two of them, not a whole roomful of people from who-knows-where, at least Rokia's the only one with the key to the place so even if Mom wanted to bring all the friends in Kadi's picture she couldn't. She smiles a little despite everything, at Kadi's confident declaration--"We live in Rokia's house now."
And then she remembers her grandfather, fists clenched and toe-to-toe with Mom, telling her it's his house and so she'll follow his rules--and the last thing Rokia wants to do is to be like him, but shit, it is her house.
And it's not like "Keep that shit away from the girls" is an unreasonable rule.
And Kadi might be confused about who her family really is, but Rokia's not.
She takes one more deep breath and walks into the living room. Stands just out of arms reach and says, "Hey. Wake up."
Mom looks up at her, tries to go back to sleep, and Rokia doesn't want to scare the girls by yelling but she will if she has to. "Now, Mom," she says, and Mom must catch something in her voice because she elbows Jason and struggles to sit up.
"What, baby," she whines, while Jason scrubs his hands over his face.
"You are not bringing this shit into my house," Rokia says, and it's like her grandpa is smirking over her shoulder, she can hear his sharp laughter from all the way up North. "You wanna shoot up, you find someplace else to do it."
Mom's glaring now, so she gets it. "And you," Rokia says, looking at Jason. "I don't even fucking know you. And you're not family, so you can get out."
"Rokia, baby," Mom says, trying for placating. "Don't be like that, c'mon."
It's almost funny. It is funny, actually, Mom looking up at her with that ingratiating smile that might work on other people, might get her a days's work now and then or a couple bucks for her next hit. Rokia lets herself smile, knows it's not nice at all when Mom's face goes dark and furious.
"Fine," Mom says, hauling herself to her feet. "You know what, fuck you, you ungrateful bitch," she hisses. "Let's go," she says to Jason, who's looking bewildered, mostly, and he follows her out the door.
It's only then that Rokia sees Allie, peeking around from the bottom of the stairs. Rokia forces herself to unclench her fists, her jaw, to inhale, exhale, and find a real smile for Allie before walking toward her.
Allie's eyes are huge and scared when Rokia crouches down and reaches for her hands. Allie meets her, and Rokia takes both of her sister's hands and rubs her thumbs over the backs. Allie looks down at their hands, up at Rokia's face. "Is Mom coming back?" she asks, worried.
"Yeah, Allie," Rokia says, "She'll be back. But I'm not letting her bring friends over anymore."
Allie nods, considering. "I don't like Mom's friends," she says, glancing up at Rokia, looking for any sign of disapproval, but Rokia just pulls her in for a hug.
"I don't either," Rokia says, pulling back. "And Kadi's right, we live in my house now, so I don't have to let them come over."
Allie smiles a little. Nods, looking at the door. "Kadi wants you to come play trains with us," she says. Rokia takes Allie's hand, lets her sister lead her up the stairs.