The monitors come up on the Cornucopia, and it's nothing like her arena, so that’s one thing to be thankful for. This one is a mountain meadow surrounded by rocky crags. Looks swampy, so there'll be water, no problem. Mira, her girl, is standing on the platform looking terrified and as the sound comes on Rokia hears the kid’s breath, fast and rough, in her own ears. Claudius Templesmith starts the countdown and Rokia forgets to breathe. Her heartbeat speeds up as she tenses. One year ago she was standing on those platforms. This year she's sitting in the control room, not tensed to run, but as the countdown continues she sees her own arena behind her eyelids every time she blinks. Her heart races as the countdown continues and she's clutching the arms of her chair, trying to anchor her racing thoughts into the present. The buzzer goes off, loud through her headset, and she jumps. Mira stands frozen on the platform for several long seconds, then runs, away from the carnage around the Cornucopia. Rokia struggles to breathe, slipping between today and last year, the Arena and the control room; the sounds of her tribute’s shuddering, terrified breaths, the clash and thud of weapons, screams in her ears. Terrence, on her left, swears softly as his boy goes down, vitals redlining on the monitors. Mira is struggling through the swampy meadow and for a minute Rokia wonders if the girl will manage to escape—until the Seven male, a massive, 18-year-old lumberjack, flings a hatchet into her back. Mira doesn’t scream, but the sound she makes as the air rushes from her lungs, wet and sobbing, is something Rokia knows she will hear in her nightmares. The whole thing, from countdown to cannon, has taken only a few minutes.
She pulls off her headset, blinks, looks around the room. Her hands are cramping from gripping the arms of her chair; her heart is pounding hard and fast. She’s far from the only one out so early. Lyme is still sitting at her station, leaning back in her chair, face carefully blank and hands on her knees. Terence looks at Rokia, raises one shoulder in a sort of half-shrug. His posture is wound tighter than she’s seen before.
“Guess that’s it for this year,” he says, words nonchalant but voice taut. Rokia swallows, nods, not sure what to say, not trusting her voice. Terence’s hand reaches out for a second, as if to touch her shoulder, but he pulls back before she has to flinch away.
“Shit.” He rubs his hands over his face. When he pulls them away they’re shaking. “I’m going up. See you later.” He walks out of the room without looking back.
After Terence leaves Rokia starts shaking. As the adrenaline drains she's hit by a wave of nausea she can't control. Stumbling out to the bathroom she heaves until she's empty, drained and shivering and bone-tired. She hauls herself up off the tiles and out to the couches in the lounge, where she curls up, knees clutched to her chest, images of this year’s arena playing on the screens and last year’s pressing behind her eyes. As she catches her breath she notices Lyme is sitting across the room. Lyme looks exhausted herself, resigned and sad and angry for the second it takes her to notice Rokia is watching.
Lyme's expression flattens into the opaque mask she puts on for the cameras before she raises an eyebrow and asks, "How're you doing?"
Rokia laughs a little at that, hollow sounding even to her. "Please tell me it gets easier," she says. "I don't know how you all manage."
Lyme runs a hand through her hair. "I wouldn't say it's easier," she says, carefully, "but it's your first year out, and you'll get better at handling it."
Rokia shudders, tucks her head to her knees. "I sure hope so."
Lyme looks at her, thoughtful. She moves to the same couch as Rokia, sitting at the other end. “You’re getting flashbacks?” she asks, a little carefully.
Rokia squeezes her eyes closed for just a second, shudders as the memories flood through her. “Yeah,” she whispers. “When I heard the countdown again it was…it was like I was back there, getting ready to run. Fuck, I was terrified.” She’s not talking about today.
Lyme reaches out, puts a hand over Rokia’s ankle. Rokia flinches at first, heart skipping, but then relaxes. Lyme’s touch anchors her to here even as her mind tries to slip back into the past. She blinks back the tears that are stinging the backs of her eyes. She’s not going to break down and cry in front of Lyme, she is not.
Lyme doesn’t say anything, just sits there, watching. Rokia doesn’t trust herself to talk just yet, isn’t sure she wants to, and definitely doesn’t know what she’d say. But just sitting here, she’s starting to relax a little, pushing the Arena back down and locking it away so it’s no longer pressed behind her eyes but sits heavy in her empty stomach. They’re still sitting there when an Avox comes in with a note on the fancy, rose-scented stationary the President uses. Rokia’s breath catches again, but the Avox gives the note to Lyme.
“OK,” she says, “I’m supposed to go see the President.” Lyme’s face and voice are neutral, but her hand on Rokia’s ankle tightened when she read the note.
Rokia barely remembers the days after her Games, an overwhelming riot of color and sound and food and people that dragged on and on when all she wanted to do in the world was to go home and hug her sisters and lose herself in the hum of the machinery at the shop and have her hands on her tools instead of knives and broken rebar, drilling clean and precise into steel instead of ripping at muscle and bone. But she remembers seeing the President, the images in her mind stark like buildings emerging from the smog, his voice congratulating her on the victory for her district. “I’m sure you’ll make the most of the opportunities that will present themselves to you,” he’d said, and she’d said, “Yes sir” and wondered what he meant, until the Victory Tour ended and she found out.
Lyme narrows her eyes at Rokia, grips a little harder and says “Hey, where’d you go?” Rokia shakes herself back again. “Nowhere.” Lyme gives her that thoughtful look again, then goes to meet the President.
She leaves that afternoon. Rokia’s sitting in the lounge, sketching in a corner while the other victors whose tributes are out watch bad movies and get drunk. Lyme comes in, sits next to her and says she’s going home for a while, and Rokia tries not to let her disappointment show.
It’s strange: Rokia is in the Capitol because of the Hunger Games, supposedly, and yet the Games were a brief, violent interlude in days that blur together. Most of her nights are filled with appointments and prep and occasionally now what Linsea calls “lessons,” usually with women from One who don’t bother to hide their disappointment at her appearance or manners as they drill her on things she never knew anyone could want to do. During the day, apart from a handful of interviews and media events she’s on her own. Rokia tries to keep herself busy, at the gym or in the lounge, where most of the mentors whose tributes are out hang around drinking and watching bad TV. The Six floor has turned into the refuge for the Victors who want something stronger, the common room filling up with an assortment of people and vials and powders and strange-smelling smoke. Rokia scowls when she sees Terence helping Cashmere get a needle into her arm one early morning as she’s heading to the gym, sees the One siblings slumped together, eyes glazed and limbs tangled when she gets back. So she stays away as much as she can, the mess and madness bringing up old memories she’d rather forget. She keeps to herself, mostly. None of the Victors her age go out of their way to be nice. Finnick says hello, flirtatious and teasing and Rokia plays along but they never crack that brittle surface. Johanna gives her a wide berth, and Rokia can see the anger flashing in her eyes so she doesn’t push it. Before them it’s Cashmere and Gloss, who are busier than just about anyone and keep to themselves anyway; then Enobaria, who doesn’t come around even if she does show up on TV at the Games parties, teeth flashing in dangerous smiles.
So Rokia feels only a little guilty for her relief when Wiress comes back into the lounge on what Rokia thinks is the 6th day of the Games, after the last Three tribute goes out. Wiress looks exhausted, and while she smiles a little in greeting as she comes in she doesn’t really engage anyone. She sits near Rokia with her computer in her lap and pulls up a wireframe model. It twists in the air as Wiress’s fingers fly and Rokia watches, captivated. Wiress is in her own world, but eventually she glances over at Rokia and smiles.
“Sensor placement,” she says, as though that explained anything, “for an ethanol plant in Nine.”
“Yes, well, they are having trouble with the boilers heating evenly so they aren’t very efficient. I am redesigning the thermal control.”
“OK” Rokia isn’t sure how she is supposed to be contributing to this conversation.
Wiress frowns for a minute, then launches into a description of thermocouple placement and distributed heating elements and diffusion and dispersion and most of it might as well be a foreign language like Rokia’s heard Mags use when she thinks nobody’s watching, but between the one-in-three words she understands and the diagrams Wiress is pointing to she more or less gets it.
“Am I boring you? Beetee is better at reading people. Sometimes I confuse them, apparently.”
“No, it’s interesting. I just don’t have the Three-talk down so I don’t follow all of it.”
Now Wiress smiles, just a little. “Yes, sometimes the jargon is a barrier. Beetee is better at translating.”
“Where is Beetee? I haven’t seen him around much.”
Wiress’s smile fades and she sighs. “He’s off at some appointment. They keep him busy when he’s in the Capitol for the Games.”
Rokia tries to imagine Beetee out on appointments for about five seconds before her brain shuts down. All she manages to say is “Really?” and she’s not sure what her face is doing but Wiress smirks, a smile that is only a little bit about amusement and is so much darker than her usual expression that Rokia flinches.
“Not that kind of appointment.” Wiress says. “Consulting for companies here in the Capitol. Everyone wants Beetee to help with their silly gadgets.”
Oh. Rokia breathes deep again. That makes more sense. “What about you, you don’t have jobs while you’re here?”
“No, I am not very good at customer relations. I might have a couple of consultations but mostly they leave me alone.”
That afternoon Wiress takes her to an electronics store the size of a hangar and buys her a computer that costs more money than Rokia can really comprehend. When they get back to the Training Centre, Wiress takes Rokia up to the Three floor and they sit at the long table, now strewn with papers, blueprints and diagrams as well as Wiress’s computer, which is busy processing something that Wiress says is a simulation of airflow around a new hovercraft design, a wireframe model hovering in the air as multicolored ribbons flutter around it, shapes shifting as they’re calculated. Wiress sets the new computer down on the tabletop and motions Rokia over.
Rokia touches the glass and smooth metal and bites her lip. For all the playing around she did with Wiress before the Games started, it’s different when it’s hers, something she can take home and learn to use for herself. Wiress has loaded the thing up with software, as well as manuals and textbooks and tutorials and they are engrossed in the whole thing when Rokia’s phone rings. She’s not used to carrying it and the noise startles her. The display tells her everything she needs to know before she even answers. It’s 7:00, and Linsea is looking for her. She’s late for prep.
“I have to go,” she tells Wiress. Her face twists. “I have an appointment.”
Wiress studies her face for a minute. “See you tomorrow?”
Rokia nods. “That would be great.”
It’s nice to have something approaching real work to keep her busy. Now Rokia usually spends her spare time on the Three floor and she and Wiress work, sitting next to each other, mostly silent in a companionable way. Wiress finds a soldering iron somewhere and shows her how to make a timing circuit, a tiny LED blinking at the end—and if this is probably something Threes learn in infancy, it’s new to Rokia and learning to use the soldering iron is fun even if her prep team howls over the burn marks on her fingers. Beetee stops by occasionally, smiles at the two of them, brings them food when they forget to get up and eat something, explains the finer points of electronics design if he has the time. Rokia starts sleeping on the couch there sometimes, instead of her room where the noise and smells mean her nightmares take on the grey, grimy texture of Six and the warmth and softness of the Capitol bed become comforting instead of jarring. If Wiress finds her erratic bedtimes strange she doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t say anything when Rokia wakes up gasping or screaming or searching for a weapon, either, just keeps working if she’s in the room, waiting until Rokia’s breathing slows before offering her something to drink, asking if Rokia’s familiar with TiG welders, whether the older trains develop vibration problems going around curves, what kinds of wear they see on the turbines in the hovercraft fuel pumps. The contrast is always so jarring it wrenches her mind hard out of her nightmares and sets her back on track. As long as she can keep her mind and her hands occupied she’s fine, the memories and strange aches and pains and her stupid schedule are just annoyances that are better off ignored. If she goes up on the roof in the dark hours before dawn, disassembling the furniture or rewiring the lights or rebuilding the wind chimes, if she plays music through her headphones as the hours pass and she forces herself through another round of the drills Lyme taught her when she’s too tired to think straight but not tired enough to fall asleep, well, that’s just how it is.
Except the games drag on, and her schedule is full of people who take her out to fancy restaurants, to bars, to clubs where the Games play, projected on the walls, take her home to strange beds, to rooms where she discovers why the Victor Affairs consultants insisted on lessons. And it doesn’t get easier, it gets harder, nightmares piled on top of nightmares when she tries to sleep, panic building as the afternoon crawls along to her inevitable appointments with her prep team. She sneaks onto the roof just to get away from everyone, huddles into a corner, and if she’d been this useless in the Arena she’d be dead right now, but she can’t seem to make herself snap out of it.
“Rokia?” She flinches at the sound, looks around, not sure how someone managed to sneak up on her.
“It’s Lyme. What’s going on?” Rokia’s confused, her head muddled. What’s Lyme doing here?
“Rokia, look at me.” Rokia forces herself to look up at Lyme, cringing as she meets Lyme’s eyes.
“OK, take a deep breath.” There’s a note of command in Lyme’s voice that means Rokia does what she asks before she can even think about it.
“Again. OK, keep breathing, good girl.” Rokia feels her body shift as her chest rises and falls, blinks a few times to try to clear her head. When she finally feels a little more human she uncurls, leans her head back against the wall. Looks back at Lyme, embarrassed and relieved all at once.
“Do you want to talk?” Lyme asks.
What’s there to say? “No, it’s okay.” Rokia realizes it’s getting dark. “Shit, what time is it?”
Lyme checks. “It’s quarter to seven.”
“OK” Fuck. It’s time, already, and she’s going to get yelled at again for being late, for the circles under her eyes, for being so uptight when they poke at her and can’t she just relax and let them do their jobs? “OK, I should go. I’m supposed to be in prep at seven.”
Lyme looks like she swallowed something bitter, her lips pinched and eyes sparking. Rokia tries to smile, knowing it comes out a little twisted.
“See you in the morning?” she says, getting to her feet and turning to leave. She smiles back at Lyme, trying to make it a little closer to real this time, because she’d really like to see Lyme at the gym tomorrow, needs all the solid anchor points she can find in the shifting mess of Games-time.
“Sure thing, kid.” Lyme smiles back, strained but genuine, and Rokia lets herself hope it’s real.
Rokia’s relieved the next morning when she stumbles into the gym, late, since she had to stop by Remake on her way home. The bruises are still showing, whatever salve they slathered on her takes a few hours to really fade everything. The fire in her shoulders and wrists has mostly died out but she’s stiff and sore still, and it takes a while before she’s loose enough to spar with Lyme. Even still Lyme notices she’s not moving all that well and stops earlier than Rokia wants to. Even with aching muscles the crack of wood meeting wood, the precise motions of what’s nearly a dance settle her better than anything else she’s tried.
When Lyme offers a massage Rokia almost refuses, the idea of anyone’s hands on her nearly unbearable. But her shoulders are so tight it hurts to move, so finally she agrees, lying down on the mats. And as soon as Lyme’s hands start finding the knots she’s glad she agreed because the tension leaking out is glorious. When Lyme finally finishes she’s half-asleep.
“Thank you” Rokia says, curling onto her side, “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.”
Trained tributes, trained mentors, lucky them, Rokia thinks to herself. “Nobody told me anything. And I’m pretty sure if anyone trained Terence he’s forgotten it all. Must be nice, being Two.” She’s too relaxed to be really bitter about it, but yeah, it must be nice.
“You think you can sleep now?” Lyme asks.
Rokia stretches. “Yeah, I think so.” She’s practically asleep on her feet as she follows Lyme to the elevator.
When they get to the Two floor Lyme smiles and says “See you later?”
Rokia nods, eyes half-shut. “Sure. G’night”
She falls into bed, into the deepest sleep she’s had in days, but she still wakes up screaming, jerking upright and searching for a weapon before she’s aware of her surroundings. The Capitol. Her bed. Nobody else around. Her heart’s racing and her breath comes harsh in her ears and there’s only one way to get past her body’s need to do something and that’s to run. So she pulls on her running shoes and heads for the gym, straight for the treadmill where she pounds out imaginary miles until her vision blurs and her breath is rough and gasping. When she literally can’t keep going she slows, goes over to the mats and sits with her head hanging as she catches her breath.
“Rokia,” Lyme says, voice soft.
She looks over at Lyme. “Fuck,” she says, dropping her head back to her hands. She’d seen Lyme come in, it just hadn’t really registered somehow. “Just…don’t worry about it, it’s fine, I had a nightmare is all and I needed to burn off some leftover adrenaline.”
Lyme 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.”
Sure. Because that’ll do a lot of good. “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 asks. And what the fuck kind of question is that, even. Who cares if she has nightmares at home, where she isn’t bothering anyone important.
“Yeah, okay, but at least at home I can keep busy. Here nobody needs me for anything.” It’s true. All her shit here is make-work, bothering Wiress for distractions or Lyme when she can’t deal with her own self.
“So who needs you at home?” Lyme asks, like it hasn’t been on the news since the stupid Victory Tour, her supposedly happy family trotted around for the cameras whenever they can get her Mom to play along. But it’s nice to think about the girls, their real lives something the Capitol hasn’t yet gotten its hands on.
“I have two little sisters. I’ve basically always taken care of them.” Not that that’s part of the official story. “My mom’s not…well, she’s…” She’s not sure what to say, settles on the truth for convenience if nothing else. “She’s high more often than not, so it’s better if someone else watches the kids.”
Lyme’s face twitches. “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 smiles again, thinking about the herd of kids tearing up the street behind the shop when Magda’s away on a job, Uncle Sal sticking his head out occasionally to tell them to stay away from the trash chutes, to make sure they haven't run off if they're too quiet, sending them out to buy cigarettes or machine oil or coolant.
“You miss them,” Lyme says, pulling her out of the daydream.
“Yeah.” Rokia smiles, then remembers. “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…” There’s too many possibilities to mention even if mentioning any of them is a terrible idea.
“Look,” Lyme says, “I know you probably have someplace to be tonight,” Rokia nods. Hopefully it's not as bad as last night, “But when you get back, if you want, I can give you something to help you sleep and stop some of the nightmares.”
Something to stop the nightmares sounds like heaven, but “just a little for the pain” is how her Mom started, the second time.
So she says “No, 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, curious. But Two victors with their hovering mentors can get away with things she's not sure she could. “No, I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“OK” Lyme says, looking uncertain. “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.”
Rokia’s frankly shocked. All Lyme knows about her is how fucking neurotic she is and her night job. How does that lead someone to offer to hang out at stupid hours of the morning? “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.”
Rokia tries to keep the eagerness out of her voice. “OK, well, if you’re sure.”
“Alright, I’m going to go shower.”
Rokia jumps when Lyme comes up to her by the elevator, in the dark, quiet lobby. Her head’s spinning, she’s tired and maybe a little drunk and her brain is still running on autopilot when she smirks and asks “Were you waiting for me?”
Lyme gives her a strange look and says “Rokia, Come on, I told you you should call when you got back anyway.”
Rokia blinks, digs her fingernails hard into her arm until the sharp pain chases some of the fog out of her brain. “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.”
They run through the usual drills and then they actually spar, and while she’s nowhere near Lyme’s level it’s exhilarating and exhausting and demands all of her attention, keeping her focus tightly anchored to the present. When Lyme lowers her staff and stops fighting, Rokia stumbles, her exhaustion catching up to her all at once. She shakes her hair out of her eyes and grins, exhilarated, still breathing hard. Lyme looks at her and drops a hand to her shoulder, solid and comforting, and Rokia feels good just for a minute. Then Lyme pulls her in for a quick hug and it’s suddenly too much, overwhelming, and Rokia pulls away and crouches down, unable to keep from sobbing. It’s all she can do to control herself, a little later, an even so she’s apologizing through tears. “Fuck”, she says, “I’m such a fucking mess, just…” she can’t even finish, shaking her head. What kind of idiot cries because it feels so good to get a hug from someone who isn’t going to fuck her later?
But instead of leaving, Lyme sits near her and reaches out towards her. Rokia hesitates, but she can’t refuse, scooting across the ground until Lyme can reach across her shoulders and pull her close. She’s crying again, still, ugly sobs that shake her shoulders, smearing Lyme’s shirt with tears and snot. It takes a long time to calm down, but finally she sits up straight, Lyme’s arm a comforting weight across her shoulders, and her hair hangs so she doesn’t have to see Lyme’s face.
“I’m sorry,” she says, “Shit, you must think I’m such a baby.”
Lyme shifts against her, then says, voice soft, no anger in it. “Rokia, you’re what, seventeen?” Rokia nods. It’s embarrassing, seventeen years old and sobbing like an infant. But Lyme continues. “You shouldn’t have to worry about acting like a kid. Besides, I’ve seen worse, I promise you.”
Rokia looks at her—she’s not lying—and smiles a little.
“C’mon, lets get you to bed.” Lyme says. She drops her arm as they stand and it’s stupid but Rokia misses the contact. She shifts closer to Lyme, who looks at her and puts a hand on her back, the warmth comforting.
It’s blessedly quiet on the Six floor. When they get to Rokia’s room Rokia pauses. She doesn’t want the bed. And anyway it’s a little late to worry about Lyme thinking she’s crazy. “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.
It’s a relief when the victor is finally crowned, nights of parties that even to Rokia’s by now jaded eyes are extravagant. Wiress and Beetee find her as they’re heading for their train, handing her a stack of books and a data drive.
“What’s all this?” She asks.
“Study material” Wiress says, “We thought you might be interested in learning some of the Three-talk.”
Rokia grins. “Excellent. So I can beat you at your own game.”
Beetee laughs. “Well, I don’t know that you’ll beat Wiress, but I bet you can beat some of the guys on the hovercraft design teams.”
Rokia raises an eyebrow. “I’ll consider that a challenge.”
“Good.” Beetee says, and Wiress smiles and adds, “We’ll keep in touch.”
Something warm settles in Rokia’s chest, overlaying the anxiety and the exhaustion with something like satisfaction. “That’d be great.” she says, and means it.
Lyme leaves the same day.
“C’mere, kiddo,” she says, at the end of one last round of sparring before Lyme’s train and Rokia’s final appointment.
Rokia steps into a hug that leaves her breathless, her back cracking into alignment. Rokia buries her face in Lyme’s shoulder one last time, breathing deep and letting herself relax the way she can’t seem to do on her own. Finally Lyme releases her and steps back to arm’s length, hands on Rokia’s shoulders.
“Thank you,” Rokia whispers, holding back more stupid tears.
Lyme smiles at her, squeezes her shoulder. “No problem.” She pulls a piece of paper from her pocket. “Here’s my number. Call anytime.”
Rokia takes it, looks up. “Really?”
“Yeah.” Lyme rubs a hand over her head. “You’re a good kid.” Rokia looks down, smiles. Lyme grins back, then tosses her both wooden staffs. “Practice, would you? You ought to be faster next time I see you.”
Rokia grins. “Will do. Maybe I’ll beat up Terence a couple times just for practice.”
Lyme snorts. “Not much of a challenge.”
Rokia shrugs. “Take what I can get.”
And with that, Lyme smiles and turns to leave.