The sun’s going down when Lyme heads up to the roof for some air. A shadow catches her eye and it’s Rokia, huddled in a corner. She’s leaned against the wall, knees drawn up and head down, huddled into a too-big sweatshirt with the hood up. When Lyme moves closer she sees Rokia’s eyes are wide, her breath coming short and fast. Rokia notices her and flinches, pulling her knees in tighter, body vibrating with tension. She sits perfectly still and Lyme realizes this is the first time she’s seen Rokia not working or running or at least fidgeting.
“Rokia? It’s Lyme, what’s going on?”
Rokia just blinks, eyes darting around the roof. Lyme swears softly. Her kids’ panic usually pushes out, she knows how to block their blows and pin them until they calm down, but this is panic pushed inward, shoved down, swallowed to the point of choking. Lyme doesn’t dare touch her. Her breath’s still coming harsh and fast, she hasn’t responded.
“Rokia, look at me,” Lyme says, her mentor-voice coming out, though she’s trying to keep it soft. She crouches down a few feet away, trying to make herself smaller. Rokia’s eyes finally fix on hers. “OK, take a deep breath” Her chest rises, falls, her shoulders coming down from her ears just a fraction. “Again. OK, keep breathing, good girl.” It seems to help; Rokia’s body opens up just a fraction and her eyes clear with each deep breath until they focus, still panicky but no longer the wild eyes of a spooked cat. She raises her head, leans it back against the wall. Closes her eyes for a second. When she opens them she’s back.
“Do you want to talk?”
Rokia shakes her head, sharp and fast. Breathes. “No, it’s okay. Shit, what time is it?”
Lyme checks. “It’s quarter to seven.” And it’s not even close to okay.
“OK” Rokia takes another deep, steadying breath. “OK, I should go. I’m supposed to be in prep at seven.”
Pure, white-hot rage floods through Lyme’s veins at the thought of this girl, wrenching herself out of a panic attack just to go get prepped for another round of trauma. She tries to keep her posture neutral but Rokia must see a flicker of something because her face twists into a bitter half-smile that looks much too old for her.
“See you in the morning?” is all she says, getting to her feet. She smiles back at Lyme, light and friendly and absolutely fake, but the look in her eyes is so full of need it punches Lyme in the gut.
“Sure thing, kid.” It takes all of Lyme’s training to keep her voice light, not to spook Rokia with her own anger while the kid’s pulling herself together.
Lyme’s drinking in the lounge when Rokia comes down, dressed for her evening out. She steps out of the elevator, stops for a minute, then puts her shoulders back, chin up, face blank as she walks out to meet the man she’s with for the evening. Lyme recognizes him. He’s sponsored her tributes before, and Lyme remembers she usually calls him after especially bloody, grinding fights that leave the survivor gasping. She turns back to the bar, downs the rest of her drink, turns to Nero and asks if he wants a quick round of sparring before he heads out to whatever networking event he has planned.
The next morning Lyme’s already in the gym when Rokia stumbles in. She’s got a solid collection of bruises and takes a longer time than usual warming up. After a half hour on the treadmill she comes over to Lyme and they do sword forms together. She’s not ready for true sparring yet, but she’s getting close, her motions more confident, more precise. Today she’s clearly in pain though, flinching when she swings her shoulder too far. Lyme calls it early and they go over to the mats.
“I could work on your shoulders, if you want, maybe massage out some of those kinks?” Lyme asks, watching Rokia wincing. The girl looks at her sharply, lip caught in her teeth.
Finally Rokia nods. “OK.”
Rokia’s clearly nervous as she lies down, and while Lyme would usually ask her to take her shirt off she decides to let it go for now. The girl’s tight shoulders relax a little under her fingers and her breathing loosens, deepens, as Lyme kneads the knots out of her back. When she’s finished Rokia heaves a ragged sigh and curls onto her side.
“Thank you” Rokia says, her voice soft and sleepy. “That felt amazing. How’d you learn to do that?”
Lyme smiles. “Mentor training. In Two we do all kinds of training before we get to mentor.”
Rokia’s mouth twitches in a sad half-smile. “Nobody told me anything. And I’m pretty sure if anyone trained Terence he’s forgotten it all. Must be nice, being Two.”
Lyme has lost count of how many times she’s been heart-stoppingly grateful for her district, for the training she got, for her mentor and her kids and their guaranteed safety from the worst the Capitol has to offer. She’s never really felt guilty for it—this is the way things are, and she didn’t get to chose where she was born—but it’s still hard to think about how different Rokia’s life would be if she had all the privileges Lyme has gotten.
Mentorship is the biggest of those, after the Arena, knowing that Nero had her back, always, one hundred percent. And that trust had come hard for Lyme, and only Nero’s persistence had worn her down to the point where she could accept it. She looks at Rokia now, as relaxed as Lyme’s ever seen her, and thinks of her exhausted and fighting for composure and walling herself off from everyone, pulling in tight against a world that has never given her a reason to trust anyone, and Lyme wonders if she could crack that shell enough that Rokia could have one person to lean on.
Well, first things first anyway.
“You think you can sleep now?” Lyme asks, since Rokia’s eyes are half-closed already.
Rokia stretches, smiling a little. “Yeah, I think so.” She gets to her feet and they head for the elevators.
When they get to the Two floor Lyme smiles at Rokia, who’s still looking relaxed and sleepy, and says “See you later?”
It’s morning, but who cares.
Lyme sees Rokia come through the lounge after lunch, running shoes on, face stormy, body drawn tight, heading down to the gym. She looks at the clock and scowls. Kid’s slept maybe four hours, and Lyme’s wishing now she’d offered her some sedatives. She’d seemed fine this morning, but clearly something rattled her. Lyme hesitates a minute, then follows her down. She’s on the treadmill, running in a full-on sprint, breath harsh. Lyme moves into her field of vision and sits, back against the wall, on the mats. Rokia slows down before long. She’s got a hand pressed to her side and her eyes are wild, the way they were on the roof last night. Lyme’s not sure she’s even registering where she is, but she moves over toward the mats as if following a script and sits against the wall, knees up and head hanging while her breathing slows.
“Rokia,” Lyme says, keeping her voice soft. Rokia looks up, her eyes clearing as she takes a deep breath.
“Fuck,” she says, dropping her head to her hands. “Just…don’t worry about it, it’s fine, I had a nightmare is all and I needed to burn off some leftover adrenaline.”
And this is where, if Rokia was one of her kids, Lyme would knock her down, pin her and snarl at her that she’s perfect. But that won’t work for this kid. And Lyme let her walk away last time she was panicking because there wasn’t any other option, but there’s no way she’s doing that again. So she scoots over near Rokia, sitting cross-legged a couple feet away.
“Look, kid, you’re not fine. You’re exhausted and panicking and that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you, but you don’t have to pretend to be okay all the time.”
Rokia glares at her, and good, at least that means she’s listening. “It’s not like there’s anything anyone can do about it,” she says. “So I’m fucked up, whatever. I’ll manage till the Games are over and then I can go back home and it’ll be fine.”
“You don’t have nightmares at home?” Lyme knows it’s a little mean to push but she’s not stupid, and trauma doesn’t disappear just because the scenery changes.
And she knows she’s right, because Rokia’s eyes flash for a moment, fury and terror mixed. “Yeah, okay, but at least at home I can keep busy. Here nobody needs me for anything.”
Lyme thinks about how busy Rokia stays here, how she’s always in motion: in the gym, bent over some project with Wiress, sketching or building or tweaking things, and thinks about Brutus with his desk full of paperwork, always one more thing to get done. Yeah, she understands that part.
“So who needs you at home?” Lyme asks, keeping her voice light.
Rokia smiles, small but genuine. “I have two little sisters. I’ve basically always taken care of them.” Her smile fades. “My mom’s not…well, she’s…” She shrugs, huffs a sigh. “She’s high more often than not, so it’s better if someone else watches the kids.”
Lyme tries not to wince. “So who’s watching them while you’re here?”
“My aunt Magda’s keeping them at her place. She’s alright, but she’s pretty busy. Ends up my cousins all keep track of each other.”
Rokia’s starting to relax a little. Even if home isn’t sunshine and rainbows, it’s familiar, and it’s better than being here.
“You miss them,” Lyme says.
“Yeah.” Rokia smiles, soft and shy. Then her eyes shutter and she says “I keep having nightmares where they’re in the Arena. Or after the Arena. They’re still just little, but if I do something wrong…” Rokia might not be a Career but she knows how to stop talking before she says something openly treasonous. Lyme feels chills down her spine. It’s the worst kind of leverage, two little sisters, years and years of fear and doubt and hoping and terror every year. No wonder the kid’s falling apart, and no wonder she’s trying so hard to hold herself together.
“Look,” Lyme says, “I know you probably have someplace to be tonight,” Rokia nods, resigned, “But when you get back, if you want, I can give you something to help you sleep and stop some of the nightmares.”
Rokia looks at Lyme, bites her lip. “No,” she finally says, “I can’t start taking drugs, I just can’t.”
Lyme’s face twists. “I’m not offering morphling. We give sleeping pills to all our Victors when they’re fresh out.”
Rokia’s eyebrows raise, but in the end she shakes her head. “No, I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“OK” Lyme says, fighting the impulse to demand that as mentor she knows best. She’s not Rokia’s mentor, not really, they don’t have that same level of trust yet. “But look, why don’t you call me when you get back anyway. You don’t have to sit around by yourself waiting for the stupid gym to open.”
Now Rokia really looks surprised. “It’s going to be late. I don’t want to wake you up.”
“Don’t worry about it. Seriously. We can go up on the roof and spar with the training staffs or something.”
“OK, well, if you’re sure.”
“Alright, I’m going to go shower.”
Just to make sure, Lyme’s up and waiting when Rokia comes in. She doesn’t seem to see anyone and she leans against the wall near the elevators for a minute, hands in her hair, breathing hard, eyes closed. Lyme lets her collect herself, and when she moves to hit the elevator button Lyme gets up from the couch in the corner and walks over. Rokia startles at the movement, then relaxes slightly when she recognizes Lyme.
“Were you waiting for me?” Her voice is low, a little dangerous, a little seductive. Her eyes look different too, distant and blank and unfocused, and Lyme realizes her head’s still wherever she was earlier tonight.
“Rokia,” Lyme says, “Come on, I told you you should call when you got back anyway.”
Rokia’s eyes narrow. Her posture shifts, and she digs her fingernails into the skin of her arm. The pain seems to pull her into the present a little. “Yeah, okay, right.” She takes a few deep breaths, pulling herself together. “Let me take a shower and meet you on the roof.”
Lyme nods. “OK. Meet you up there.”
When Rokia gets up to the roof she’s jittery, tense, but she’s actually herself in a way she wasn’t downstairs. Lyme lets Rokia pace the roof for a while, then pulls out two of the staffs from the gym. The now-familiar forms seem to help Rokia calm down.
Finally Lyme stops and says, “You want to try some real sparring?” Rokia grins, sharp and fierce, and Lyme wants to pump her fist in the air because that was real, not an act or an attempt at deflection, but she just says, “OK, let’s go.” Rokia’s half a foot shorter, probably 70 pounds lighter, and knows almost nothing about sword fighting so it’s not like it’s really a contest, but she’s quick, strong for her size, a fast learner, and Lyme’s impressed. When Rokia’s finally worn herself out it’s starting to get light. Lyme lowers the practice staff. Rokia follows, breathing hard, but her eyes are clear and she’s smiling. Lyme reaches out and puts a hand on Rokia’s shoulder, firm but not gripping, watching the whole time to see Rokia doesn’t flinch. When she just smiles wider Lyme pulls her to her side in a quick half-hug. Which is when Rokia breaks down and sobs. Lyme’s eyes go wide despite herself as Rokia pulls away and crouches down, hunched into herself on the ground. Lyme curses herself for moving too fast. She sits down next to Rokia and doesn’t say anything.
“I’m sorry,” Rokia says a little later, through her tears, “Fuck, I’m such a fucking mess, just…” she shakes her head.
Lyme’s heart wrenches--she’s the one who should be apologizing. But Rokia’s looking at her like a lost puppy so Lyme reaches an arm out toward her, inviting but not demanding. Rokia hesitates for a moment, then scoots in until Lyme reaches a hand across her shoulders and pulls her close. Rokia buries her head in Lyme’s shoulder and sobs, while Lyme runs a hand through her hair. The girl finally quiets, the hitching sobs in her breath smoothing out as she calms down, and Lyme keeps her arm loose around the girl’s shoulders as she straightens up to sit. She stays pressed close against Lyme but her head hangs, her hair hiding her face.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbles, “Shit, you must think I’m such a baby.”
Lyme wants to touch her chin, turn her face so she can make eye contact, but she stops herself. So she just says, “Rokia, you’re what, seventeen?” Rokia nods, eyes still down, “You shouldn’t have to worry about acting like a kid. Besides, I’ve seen worse, I promise you.”
Rokia looks up and smiles a little a little at that.
“C’mon, let’s get you to bed,” Lyme says. When they’re both standing, Rokia hesitantly moves closer and Lyme puts a hand on her back, guiding but not confining. “I’ll take you back to your room.”
When they get to Rokia’s room Lyme heads for the bed. Rokia pauses, biting her lip. “I like to sleep on the couch” she says, “The bed’s too big and soft and smells like…” she stops, shrugs.
When she’s settled, Lyme perches on the arm of the couch, runs her hand through Rokia’s hair. “You need anything?” she asks. Rokia shakes her head.
“Goodnight, kiddo.” Lyme says.
“G’night,” Rokia’s voice is soft and sleepy, and Lyme waits until her breathing smooths out before heading downstairs.