There should be connecting bits and background and more Phillips and better editing, but I don't feel like doing any of that right now so in the interest of not having so much stuff sitting forever in my drafts folder I'm posting this as is. Rokia's mom is in this so warning for drug use and child neglect.
Rokia sleeps in her sisters’ room, curled up in the corner where when she wakes up she can see them sleeping, hear their soft breaths and know she’s here, with them, and they’re all okay. 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 dropped off yesterday. The coffee is the same harsh district blend she remembered, made hot enough to scald her mouth and strong enough it hit 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.” Allie answers.
“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 she’s got nothing better to do so she walks, mind wandering as she makes her way back. Mom’s 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.
“Baby,” she says, “I'm so happy to see you. We missed you so much.”
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, and yeah, going to buy food without having to worry if she’s got enough to cover everything is great. 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 Sarah 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, genuinely glad to see her, 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 slit Rokia’s throat while she slept. A girl Rokia didn’t know she’d killed until she watched the recap because there was a cannon an hour later but Rokia was halfway across the Arena by then 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, soft and sweet, 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.
She drops the girls off at school later and turns to head back, 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 what girl Matt’s been 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 can remember, 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 as they walk home, Rokia thinks maybe everything doesn’t have to change.