And we've been burned by all our fears
Just from growin' up around here
Our father's factories marked our cards
While Eden burned against the stars
And Sally said, Sally said
"I can't take no more regret"
It cut us deep into our souls
Came and climbed into our bed
(Gaslight Anthem, Meet me by the river's edge)
This takes place about 10 years postwar, making Kadi 20, Alima 22, and Rokia 32. Kadi's studying at the Polytechnic school Beetee helped set up in District Two, and living with Rokia (and Sara when she's not on the trains).
I really have no excuse for this, or for the fact that it ended up being 24k words long. Brains, amirite?
It’s a long ride back to the Village, but today Rokia’s glad she’s on her bike rather than the train. On a bike nobody can see her face.
It was a shock to hear, sitting around Heidi’s table and watching Alima’s face flush, shy and pleased, when she told them.
“I’m pregnant,” she said, eyes on the mug of tea her hands were wrapped around. She glanced up, at Rokia and then at Heidi, and Heidi smiled and took Alima’s hand while Rokia was still trying to process the words.
“The doctor says I’m about 8 weeks,” Alima continued, looking at Heidi, “and that everything’s fine.”
Rokia managed to unfreeze then, took a deep breath and reached for Alima’s other hand. Alima looked happy, so Rokia smiled, squeezed her hand. “That’s amazing,” she said.
“Congratulations,” Heidi added, and stood up to wrap Alima in a hug before Rokia could figure out what to say next.
Rokia sipped at her tea while the two of them talked about doctor visits and what to do for morning sickness and what to eat and a thousand things Rokia never knew about how to prepare for a baby.
When Alima left, Heidi looked over at Rokia, standing on the other side of the door. “You okay, babygirl?” she asked.
Rokia shrugged. “Can’t believe she’s having a baby, seems like she just was a baby.”
Hedid laughed, ruffled her hair, and went to take the mugs to the kitchen.
Rokia left, after that, because…because she didn’t fit. Because she doesn’t have anything to say about pregnancy, really, her mom’s solution for morning sickness had been morphling and staying in bed till noon. She’d found out Mom was pregnant with Allie when she’d complained that the food she was saving for supper had disappeared and Mom snapped that she needed it for the baby. She hadn’t found out about Kadi till Mom started to show, hadn’t wanted to believe it until it was undeniable. Hadn’t done anything to prepare for either of them beyond working as many hours as she could, keeping money hidden at the shop, hoping whatever happened she’d be able to figure something out.
So she’s glad nobody can see her riding up the highway, remembering the sick sense of dread that had come with knowing what it’d mean when Kadi was born, the tentative hope before Allie that maybe with a baby Mom would… be nicer, take care of things. Find them a better place to live. Grandma always said Rokia’s what brought Mom back to them the first time, so maybe a new baby would—Rokia wasn’t dumb enough to think they’d move back north, but something.
With Allie, Mom probably did try. Didn’t change much, but she’d at least lie on the couch with the baby, nurse Allie when she cried, stayed home more often for all the good that did. By the time Kadi came, well. Mom had been disappearing more and more often anyway, was meaner and less lucid when she was home, and when Kadi was born early and small and fussy, Mom couldn’t handle it. Handed the baby to Rokia when she came home one evening, and disappeared for a week. And if Rokia had to choose between going through the Arena again or repeating those first few weeks with Kadi, she wouldn’t blink before picking the Arena. She couldn’t put Kadi down or the baby would howl. She cried at bright lights, or movement, or noise, or because she was hungry, or because she’d just eaten, or—Rokia doesn’t even know. And then Allie would cry because nobody was paying attention to her, or because she was hungry, or because she wanted to sleep and Kadi was keeping her awake. And formula was expensive, so Rokia had to get her hours in at work, even if she spent the whole time with Kadi wrapped tight against her back, cloth pulled up over her head so the shop lights wouldn’t hurt her eyes.
In the end she couldn’t manage on her own. Sara’d organized something, with Matt’s little sister and Seydou’s wife and some others Rokia doesn’t remember, so she could work uninterrupted for a bit, curl up on the couch in the office and sleep for a few hours.
Riding up the highway, years and districts between now and then, she thinks Sara probably paid the others, at least something, at least some of them. Wonders what shit she got for that at home, when her parents were expecting that money and it didn’t come.
She almost misses the turnoff for the Victors Village, too caught up in thought, has to brake hard and turn sharp, leaning and trying not to skid. That pulls her attention back, while she climbs the switchbacks up into the hills.
She pulls into the garage and notices Kadi’s scooter is there. Of course, it’s late enough she’ll be back from school.
And sure enough, when Rokia pushes open the door she hears music from the radio and smells something cooking. Kadi’s in the kitchen, stirring at something and holding a sheaf of papers in her other hand.
Kadi’s scowling in concentration, doesn’t notice Rokia, so Rokia takes a minute to look at her and wonder how on earth this woman, her brilliant mind and her brilliant grin and the mischevious streak Beetee pretends to complain about, how all of that could possibly have come from the infant Rokia could hold in one twelve-year-old arm.
And then Kadi looks up and sees her, and laughs. “Don’t worry, I promise I’m still watching the food.”
“This time,” Rokia says, pointedly, but Kadi’s smile is contagious. “I had to toss that pan on the scrap pile, you know.”
Kadi looks sheepish. “I thought it’d only take a minute to change the scooter battery!” she says, “And then I got distracted.”
Rokia shakes her head, walks over to look at what’s in the pot. “It happens,” she says. “I think if I really was mad about it Lyme would start laughing all the way over at her house without knowing why.”
“See and I brought my homework in here this time,” Kadi says. “Problem solved.”
Rokia takes the spoon, stirs the peanut sauce and then tastes it. “I think this is done, girlen, did you make rice?”
Kadi points to the opposite counter. “Beetee says this is much more efficient. He loaned me one to try.”
“Do you really need a special gadget just to make rice?” Rokia sighs, walking over. “It’s not like it’s that hard to do in a regular pan.”
“Yeah, but that one you can actually forget about and it won’t burn,” Kadi says.
Rokia cocks her head to the side, looking at the thing. “Now that’s an argument Beetee didn’t think to make,” she says. “He just talks about how it’s more efficient and supposedly tastes better.”
Kadi’s tasting the sauce. “I can’t get it like Mai’s,” she says. Ever since spending last summer with Matt and Mai in Six she’s been trying to copy Mai’s recipes. To varying degrees of success.
Rokia takes the spoon, tastes it again and shrugs. “It tastes fine to me,” she says.
Kadi sighs. “It’s just that Mai doesn’t measure anything, she just told me a dash of this, a handful of the other, it’s very imprecise and difficult to replicate.”
“You could take Eibhlin’s lab scale with you next time you visit, ask Mai to weigh everything before she puts it in.”
“See, I know you’re making fun of me, but it’s not a bad idea,” Kadi counters.
Rokia starts taking down plates. “Come on,” she says, “let’s eat.”
After dinner Kadi has homework, so Rokia goes down to the basement shop. It’s extravagant to have full sets of tools here as well as down at the hangar, but Rokia loves it. She checks her messages first, on her datapad in the corner. For once there’s nothing urgent, just the usual maintenance requests. Which means she can work on her own projects, so she sorts through blueprints until she finds what she’s looking for, and starts digging through bins for the right hardware.
Kadi comes down a couple hours later, looking irritated.
“What’s up, Kadi?” Rokia asks, setting down her tools.
“Oh, nothing,” Kadi says, sighing, “I don’t like differential equations, but Beetee says that just because most differential equations aren’t analytically solvable doesn’t mean all of them aren’t, and I can’t do everything numerically just because I’m a better coder than I am a mathematician.”
It’s still startling when Kadi comes out with things Rokia doesn’t really understand. “I can’t help you there, kiddo,” she says. “Beetee gave up on me and math a long time ago.”
“I don’t mind when it’s useful,” Kadi says, scowling. “Anyway, I’m done with it and I wanna do something that actually makes sense so I quit feeling stupid.”
Rokia bristles. “You’re not stupid,” she snaps. “Is Beetee making you feel bad? I’ll—“
“Rokia,” Kadi snaps. “I don’t want my big sister yelling at my teachers. That’s just weird.”
“Sorry,” Rokia says, looking away and taking a deep breath. She looks around. “Okay, well I’m working on a model loading arm, you’re good with linkages and hydraulics, right?”
Kadi brightens, pushes over to the worktable. “It’s so cute!” she says. “Oh man it’s tiny!”
“Well, I don’t want to make the 500 pound one until I’ve got the mechanisms right,” Rokia says, relaxing as Kadi manipulates the half-assembled arm.
Kadi looks fromt the blueprints to the model, her lower lip caught between her teeth as she concentrates. “I think you’d get better torque if you moved this—“ she starts. “Lemme get my datapad.”
She clatters up the stairs, comes back down. “Okay, send me the file.”
It’s not till Kadi starts yawning that Rokia checks the time. “Oh, shit, Kadi, it’s after two, when do you have class tomorrow?”
Kadi sets down her datapad, the wireframe still spinning slowly in the air above it. “Oh, right. Not till 10, but I should go to bed, huh?”
“Yeah,” Rokia says, “This’ll be here tomorrow.”
They shut everything down, and Rokia follows Kadi up the stairs. “Goodnight,” Kadi calls, as she ducks into her room. “Love you!”
“You too,” Rokia says, “Goodnight.”
She takes a long shower, hot water loosening knotted muscles from riding and working. She’s never going to stop being grateful for unlimited hot water. Cold showers for herself were bad enough, but babies were worse and as soon as the girls got old enough to really fight back they flat out refused. Which meant finding an old metal drum in a vacant lot, cutting and patching it with scrap from Sal’s, and heating water on the stove, when they had a stove that worked. Which meant if she was busy they’d get wiped down with a wet washcloth and whine about it, or go to school dirty.
Rokia shakes her head, turns off the water, and pulls on sweatpants and a T-shirt, climbs into bed. Sara’s not back till next week. It’s fine, of course it is, just…Rokia wishes she’d thought to try calling while it was still reasonable hours. Now she tries not to think about the bed as too empty.
She wakes up in a panic, out of a dream she hasn’t had in years, the one where she’s lost the girls, where they’re tiny and she sets them down, walks away and forgets about them, and it’s beautiful and quiet and clear until she remembers, races back, and they’re gone. She races through the streets of Six looking for them, but they’re nowhere to be found, and then she wakes up, heart pounding and sick with fear and guilt.
And then realizes it was a dream. She’s sitting bolt upright in her bed in Two, Allie is grown up and married and Kadi is in the next room, and Rokia gets up, wrapping the blanket around her shoulders and tiptoeing down the hall. She tries to give Kadi her privacy, her room is hers and nobody should go in unless she wants them to—but she has to check. She pushes the door open just a crack, so she can see, and Kadi’s there, curled on her side with her back to the door, her chest rising and falling as she breathes.
Rokia watches until her heartbeat finally slows down from spinning panic back towards something more normal, and then she closes the door, steps away, and turns to lean against the wall.
She should probably talk to Lyme. Waking up from panic nightmares is the kind of thing you call your mentor about.
But this isn’t about… this is about Six, and family, and Lyme hates babies, and it’s embarrasing and stupid that something that makes Allie so happy is sending Rokia spiraling into bad memories and bad dreams. Her sister is happy about the baby, Heidi will help her with anything she can, as will Allie’s husband, they’ve got money and good steady jobs that’ll give Allie paid time off because Panem now supports parents. There’s no reason for… any of this. She’s just going to go back to bed and…
She gets as far as her room. The clock reads 5:45, just getting light outside. Fine. Rokia drops the blanket on her bed, pulls on running clothes and heads outside. It’s cold, this early, but that’s okay. The air smells like pine and cedar and rotting leaves under the shade, and she picks a steep trail on purpose so she has to work so hard she can’t think. Makes it all the way up to the ridge before she has to stop, lean against a tree to catch her breath and stretch her aching calves. The sun’s coming up, bathing everything in golden light, and she looks out down the foothills and out towards the plains stretching towards Ten. Beautiful, and her home. By some amazing trick of luck, her home.
She turns around and heads back.
Kadi comes down a little after nine, sleepy and blinking in the light. “Please tell me there’s coffee,” she says, passing Rokia on her way to the kitchen. Rokia sets down her datapad and gets up.
“Sure thing,” she says, “And there’s pancakes in the oven to stay warm.”
Kadi pours coffee, opens the oven door to look. “Excellent,” she says, sipping at her coffee and looking around for a hot pad.
Rokia beats her to it. “Sit, I’ll bring you some,” Rokia says, pulls out the food and puts some on a plate for Kadi, some for herself. She drops Kadi’s plate in front of her and goes to get herself a fresh cup of coffee.
“Why are you so awake?” Kadi grumbles. “You should not be this productive this early.”
Rokia laughs. “I made pancakes and coffee, I’m not doing differential equations.”
Kadi groans. “Don’t even joke about that,” she says.
Coffee and food help, though, and by the time Kadi’s cleaned her plate she looks less like the sun is a personal affront. She heads upstairs while Rokia picks up the dishes, rushes back down and out to the garage with a hasty “Bye!” and she’s gone.
Rokia shakes her head, collects her own things, and heads down to the hangar.
She gets home late, and when she walks in the door Kadi jumps up from her spot on the couch. “You didn’t tell me!” she says, excited more than accusing. Rokia looks at her, confused. “Alima called earlier and told me about the baby, why didn’t you say something?”
Oh. Right, shit, she should’ve maybe mentioned that. Although… “I wanted Allie to get to tell you herself,” she says, bends down to pull off her shoes. “More fun that way.”
Kadi’s beaming. “They’re gonna have such cute kids,” she says. “Do you think it’ll be a boy or a girl?”
The excitement is almost contagious; Rokia finds herself smiling as she walks through toward the kitchen. “No way to know,” Rokia says absently, trying to think what food she could make for supper.
“You didn’t eat yet?” Kadi asks, “I figured you’d get something at the station, sorry, I was hungry so I heated up leftovers.” She sounds nervous.
Rokia blinks and takes a deep breath. Closes the cupboard and turns to smile at Kadi. “It’s okay, Kadi,” she says, “I just got busy and forgot.”
Kadi looks pacified, goes to the fridge. “There’s still rice and sauce left,” she says. “Mai’s recipe is for the whole family, I forgot to make it smaller for just us.”
She hands Rokia the container. “Thanks,” Rokia says, “and hey, leftovers are good anyway. Less work that way.”
That washes away the rest of the nervousness, and Kadi perches on the edge of the counter while Rokia warms up her food. “How was class?” Rokia asks, partly because she’s curious but partly because she just wants Kadi to fill up the quiet.
Kadi sighs. “It was fine, mostly, we had electronics labs and control systems and those were fun.”
“But I still hate math class.” Kadi sighs.
“Do you have to take it?” Rokia asks. “Seems kinda unnecessary.”
“I wanna be good, though,” Kadi says. “I shouldn’t just quit because it’s hard. Besides, if Mason gets to be top of the class I’ll have to smack him upside the head four times a day for being a smug jerk.”
Rokia can’t help smiling. “You could ask Beetee for help,” she suggests. Silence, and Rokia can almost hear the scowl. “Or Eibhlin.”
“I mean, probably,” Rokia says. “I know fuckall about that kinda math but she’d be the one to ask.”
“She’s not gonna make fun of me for thinking it’s hard?”
Rokia pulls the pot off the stove, sets it on a hot pad on the counter. “Nah,” Rokia says. “Anyway you helped us figure out the guidance for those rockets last month, it’s a fair trade.”
Kadi chews on her lip, while Rokia eats. “Do you mind walking over with me?” she asks. “Eibhlin’s a little intimidating.”
Rokia smiles at that. “Sure,” she says. “But Eib’s not so bad, really.”
Kadi looks slightly skeptical. Rokia takes a few more bites, sets the spoon down. “You wanna go over now?” she asks.
Kadi glances at the clock. “Nine thirty’s not too late?”
Rokia shakes her head. “Nah, c’mon, it’ll be fine.”
Kadi’s trying not to fidget while they walk over, tugs a little at her jacket sleeves, adjusts her grip on the textbook she’s brought. Rokia knocks, and they wait.
Eibhlin opens the door, which is good. Rokia gets the feeling Kadi doesn’t want Beetee to know she’s struggling.
“Hi Eibhlin,” Rokia says, “You got a minute?”
Eibhlin looks at her watch. “I actually have 17 minutes until the silver halides are ready to deposit.”
“What?” Rokia asks.
“We’re attempting to replicate early photographic methods.”
“Why?” Kadi bursts out.
Eibhlin looks at her. “Well clearly, chemical reactions to light are interesting in and of themselves, but I am also curious whether they could be adapted for other photochemical applications. They’re very similar to photovoltaics for power generation really, it’s fascinating—“
“Eibhlin,” Rokia cuts in, before the lecture picks up enough steam to overpower them. “Kadi wants your help with her math class.”
Eibhlin pauses. Looks between the two of them, seems to notice they’re still standing outside. “Come in,” she says, shaking her head. “What type of math is it?”
Kadi waits till she’s pulled off her shoes and stood back up to answer. “Differential equations,” she says, looking shifty. She hands Eibhlin the book. “I’m fine with numerical methods, but… the professor is from Three and he and Beetee insist we have to learn all these analytical tricks.”
Eibhlin’s flipped open the book to Kadi’s bookmark. She turns, silently, and walks into the living room to perch on the edge of a chair, never looking up from the book in her hands. Kadi looks at Rokia, who shrugs and follows Eibhlin. They sit on the couch and wait. Eibhlin looks up eventually and nods. “I’m glad to see the polytechnic is beginning to aim for more rigorous mathematics education,” she says. “This is rather advanced.”
Rokia glances at Kadi, who looks relieved. “Everybody at school just wants to know it well enough to not fail,” she says. “I want to actually understand, and I don’t.”
Eibhlin actually looks…approving. Almost impressed. “Well, I suppose tonight it will be too late once I’ve finished with the silver compounds, but we can start tomorrow, if you’d like.”
Kadi nods. “That’d be great!”
“Excellent,” Eibhlin says. She glances at the spine of the book, wanders toward the bookshelf, scanning carefully. “Ah, here it is.” She pulls a book down. “An earlier edition, of course, but math hasn’t advanced that fast.”
She holds Kadi’s book out towards her, and Kadi gets up to take it. Rokia follows her, and they head towards the door. “See you tomorrow,” Kadi says. “And thanks.”
Eibhlin nods. “You’re welcome,” she says, opening the door for them. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Kadi.”
Rokia waits till they get a little ways up the road before she says “See? That wasn’t so bad.”
Kadi tries to glare, but she’s not very convincing. “Yeah, yeah,” she says, “Come on, I don’t want to be up till all hours again, I have solid mechanics at nine tomorrow.”
Rokia says goodnight and watches Kadi head up the stairs. She hesitates, goes into the kitchen, puts away the rest of the leftovers, washes up, looks around. She shouldn’t get started on something now. If Lyme was here, she’d give Rokia a sleeping pill and send her to bed.
But if Kadi has to be at school for a nine o’clock class she’ll leave here by 8:30 and want to eat breakfast at 8, and if Rokia takes the drugs now she’ll be fuzzy and groggy still by then, and that won’t work. She’s tired. Maybe she’ll just sleep. Maybe— she hesitates again, heads down to the basement, bypasses the shop for the workout room. It’s not much compared to basically everyone else’s, but there’s a punching bag and a few weights and a pullup bar, a free space in the middle. Mostly for times like this, when she’s squirrely and restless but doesn’t want to leave the house. She runs through some basic bodyweight exercises, goes back upstairs before climbing stairs starts to feel like climbing a mountain. Takes a long, hot shower and goes to bed.
She’s not sure what woke her up this time, but she’s awake before six again, staring up at the ceiling unable to go back to sleep. And pretty soon she’s antsy and restless again so she heads out to run. She’s back, drinking coffee and stretching on the living room floor, when Kadi grumbles her way down the stairs and into the kitchen.
“There’s oatmeal on the stove,” Rokia calls, pushes herself up and follows. Kadi’s spooning some into a bowl, adds sugar and raisins and fills a mug with coffee. Rokia pours the rest into a bowl for herself, tops up her own coffee mug and sits with Kadi.
Her sister’s adorable in the mornings, sleepy and slow, but Rokia’d never say that. Doesn’t say much in the mornings as a rule, lets Kadi drink her coffee and eat her breakfast and wake up slowly. Her hair’s getting long, unruly curls falling into her face until she pulls them back, leans on one hand and looks at Rokia. “You are impossible,” she says, finishing the last of her oatmeal. “Nobody should be up that early of their own free will.”
Rokia laughs. “It’s not on purpose,” she says. “I just wake up.”
Kadi looks confused. “I guess,” she grants, reluctantly. She looks up at the clock, sighs, and takes her coffee with her up the stairs.
Rokia follows her up, takes a fast shower and pulls on work clothes. Kadi comes down just after she does, and they head out together.
The call comes in around six, and Rokia almost ignores it because they’re trying to finish up a complicated wing repair before the others leave for the night. But it’s Kadi, so she steps away. “What’s up, babygirl?” she asks, trying not to worry.
“Hi Rokia,” Kadi sounds fine, which helps. “Just letting you know Eibhlin and I got to talking about rocket guidance and so I still have some some homework to finish and I’m staying here for supper.”
Rokia smiles. It still startles her when Kadi calls about that kind of thing, but Heidi and Marc taught the girls to be considerate. “That’s fine, kiddo, I’m finishing some things down here anyway. See you later?”
“Yep! I shouldn’t be super late.”
They say their goodbyes and Rokia goes back to the job. They all want to finish, but as usual everything takes longer than it should. So by the time Rokia’s checking everything over and stepping away, it’s already eight. Blake wipes his forehead with his sleeve and leaves grimy traces across his face. “Remind me of this next time I agree to stay ‘just till we finish this,’” he says, half-joking.
Rokia smiles ruefully. “Come in late tomorrow if you want,” she says. “I owe you guys.”
They all look grateful, nods and shrugs all around as they head out. Rokia wants to make sure the welds are cooling properly, so she pulls out her datapad and catches up on maintenance logs for another hour. When everything looks good she heads home.
She’s just finishing the leftovers she hadn’t finished last night when Kadi comes in. “In here!” she calls, dropping the pan into the sink and running water. Kadi laughs when she gets in and sees Rokia.
“You look like you had a long day,” she says.
Rokia looks down. She’s got grease and machine oil pretty well spattered everywhere, so it’s a good bet it’s on her face, too. “Guess so,” she says, shrugging. “How’d it go with Eibhlin?”
Kadi grins. “She’s really fun! I was complaining about how I didn’t need all this math and she pulled out some book on aerodynamics and we got to talking about the rocket guidance and why we can’t stabilize it and then Beetee said it was time for supper and we realized we hadn’t actually done the stuff we were supposed to do.”
Rokia smiles. “That sounds like fun,” she says, going to dry her hands on a dishtowel and thinking better of it. She shakes water off as best she can and leans against the counter.
“Yeah, and she’s good at explaining stuff, even if she does usually have to try a couple times before it stops sailing over my head.”
Rokia laughs. “She’s gotten better at that,” she says.
“And Beetee says if I get an A in differential equations he’ll help us build a proper guided missile so we can send stuff to Phillips by rocket-mail.” Kadi grins. “He says you and Eihblin never got farther than down the district.”
“Hey,” Rokia says, amused and a little indignant. “He never helped us, and he told us we’d get in trouble if it went any further.”
Kadi looks shifty. “I may have figured out how to register Poly with Air Defense as a scientific institution conducting tests,” she says, “And skip most of the approvals. I think Beetee only agreed to help so he can make sure we don’t accidentally bomb District 10.”
“But only if you get an A.”
“Yeah, well, and he said if I get lower than a C he’d delete the registraton and make sure their security was up to par so I couldn’t go back in and switch it.”
Rokia sighs. “I didn’t know you were learning how to hack databases.”
“Well…” Kadi giggles. “Mason wanted to impress me.”
And of all the dubiously legal things, that’s the one that’s making her blush and look embarrassed. Rokia files that as relevant data, and shakes her head. “Well, I guess you’d better study then,” she settles for.
Kadi’s smile is brilliant. “Well, now Eibhlin and I both have more motivation,” she says. “So I’m sure I can do it.”
Rokia pushes away from the counter. “Well, is there anything in that guidance stuff a mere mechanic could understand?” she asks.
Kadi glares at her. “Well, I don’t know, but I’m sure you could understand most of it.” She reaches for her bag and pulls out her datapad. “Quit perching and hovering like some kinda bird and sit.”
Kadi’s confidence aside, a lot of it is over Rokia’s head. It’s no wonder they couldn’t ever get the things to work properly before. But Kadi’s scribbling on scrap paper and waving her hands in the air and talking a mile a minute, so Rokia tries to follow the basic thread and enjoys her sister’s excitement instead of worrying about the details.
Eventually, though, it gets to be a little overwhelming. Rokia checks the time. “Hey kiddo, it’s getting late,” she says, when she can get a word in edgewise. “Can’t do math if you don’t sleep, right?”
Kadi sighs. “Okay, I guess,” she says. She starts clearing the papers off the table, stacks them to one side, and stands up. She’s smiling and excited and brilliant, and Rokia can’t help hugging her. Kadi hooks her chin over Rokia’s shoulder and holds on tight. “I like being able to talk about stuff with you,” she says, as Rokia starts to pull back. “Ma and Dad and Allie didn’t get it.”
“Yeah,” Rokia says, “It’s nice to have people who understand.”
Kadi nods, and they head up the stairs together.
Another almost-forgotten dream: District Thirteen, sirens and short clipped orders and silent chaos, following the technicians through the tunnels—and a baby’s cry, Kadi crying off somewhere, racing through the corridors trying to find her, and suddenly she’s above ground, and Kadi’s sitting in a field, missiles falling through the sky like hailstones and she’s too slow, the bombs fall and explode into—rose petals, and Snow’s voice, warm and friendly, “Didn’t I tell you what would happen if you didn’t cooperate?”
Rokia wakes up sobbing and gagging on the smell of roses. And there’s a voice, small and scared. “Rokia, are you okay?”
Kadi’s standing in the doorway, wide-eyed. Rokia stares at her stupidly, sucking in deep breaths until her head stops spinning quite so fast. “C’mere baby,” she says, her voice scraped raw and harsh. Kadi doesn’t hesitate, crosses the room and climbs into bed beside Rokia.
Kadi’s the taller of the two of them, now, but she curls up small, her head against Rokia’s chest as Rokia lays back down and looks up at the ceiling. “Your heart’s beating really fast,” Kadi mumbles, half-asleep again already. “It must’ve been a really scary dream.”
“Yeah,” Rokia says, trying to take deep breaths. “I thought I’d lost you.”
Kadi curls closer, flings an arm around Rokia’s waist and holds tight. “I’m not letting you,” Kadi says. “I’m staying right here.”
Rokia rubs Kadi’s back until her sister’s breathing evens out and the tension in her shoulders goes slack. Fuck. Now she’s scaring her sister, isn’t that fantastic. And she can’t go anywhere, Kadi will wake up, or if she sleeps through that she’ll wake up later, alone in the bed, and be scared all over again.
Rokia has nightamares about losing her girls. Kadi has nightmares about being left alone. And whose fault is that, Rokia thinks bitterly, swallowing hard. She did leave them, close enough to alone, and she still couldn’t take care of them when they came, had to send them away again and she knows it was the best thing for them and for her, she does, but it doesn’t do much to lessen the sense of failure. They were her responsibility, and she failed.
Finally she can’t stay still. She shifts a little, and Kadi whines. “It’s okay baby, I’m just going downstairs,” Rokia says. “I promise.”
Kadi shifts, reluctantly, so Rokia can slip out. “Sleep, girlen,” she says, kissing Kadi’s head. “I won’t leave the house.”
She doesn’t, just goes down to the basement, wraps her hands and attacks the punching bag. She leaves the door to the stairs open, so the noise will filter up and let Kadi know she’s down here. She works until her arms ache and her knuckles bruise even under the cloth, stops when the alarm she set goes off to remind her to make sure Kadi’s awake in time for class.
Kadi’s own alarm starts going off as Rokia climbs the stairs, and by the time she’s turned it off and gone into her own room Kadi’s rolled over, looking around in confusion. Rokia’s sweaty and gross but she goes and sits on the edge of the bed anyway. Kadi wraps both arms around her waist and puts her head in Rokia’s lap.
“Hey, kiddo,” Rokia says, working her fingers into Kadi’s hair and detangling a bit. “Time to get up.”
“I wanna stay here with you,” Kadi mumbles. “Right here.”
Rokia chuckles. “Okay, but if you get up there’ll be coffee, and I’ll put chocolate chips in your oatmeal. And peanut butter.”
“Hmmm,” Kadi says. “That is a rather convincing argument.” She squeezes once, hard, then lets go and rolls up to sit.
Rokia stands up. “I’ll go make coffee and breakfast, meet you downstairs.”
Kadi nods, rubs at her eyes, while Rokia heads down.
Kadi hugs her again when she comes into the kitchen, even before heading for the coffee pot. “I’m sorry for scaring you, Kadi,” Rokia says, breaking her own ‘wait until after coffee to talk about things’ rule.
Kadi takes a sip of coffee, comes over to peek over Rokia’s shoulder into the oatmeal. “It’s okay,” she says, “Anyway it’s not like you did it on purpose.”
Rokia snorts. “No, definitely not.”
“Okay then,” Kadi says, and holds out her bowl.
“Oatmeal, peanut butter, and chocolate chips,” Rokia says, as she puts them in. “As promised.”
Kadi gives her a small smile and goes to sit.
Rokia sits, too. Kadi looks at her oatmeal and frowns. “You don’t have chocolate chips,” she says, accusing. “You gotta have chocolate chips.”
Rokia shakes her head, but she gets up and grabs the bag. Shakes a few out. “That’s better,” Kadi says. Rokia laughs a little, and that gets Kadi to smile too, and everything finally feels a little more like normal.
Kadi deposits her bowl in the sink and heads upstairs, Rokia washes up, waits until Kadi clatters back down the stairs and almost bowls Rokia over in another enthusiastic hug.
Rokia waits till she leaves, shakes her head and heads up to get ready.
Kadi comes by the shop after school, which isn’t surprising really, especially given the morning. She’s been working in a lab at school instead of the shop this year, and Rokia misses having her around most afternoons.
She’s still got old coveralls in the back, though, and a bright green bandana to pull her hair back, and she’s still the best at fixing faulty electronics. When the guys leave at six Kadi scowls at the clock. “I’m not done,” she says. “Can we finish this before we go?”
Rokia laughs. “Of course, kiddo, whatever you wanna do is fine.”
Kadi grins down from her perch on the scaffolding and ducks back into the access panel.
Rokia’s re-tapping a stripped hole on the lathe when she feels Kadi come up behind her. Kadi waits, watching, while Rokia finishes, then sighs. “You’re so good at stuff like that,” she says, “My shop teacher says I rush too much, I think I’ve broken 3 taps this year.”
Rokia pulls the piece out and blows the last chips clear. “Well, I’ve had a lot of practice,” she says. Leaves it at that.
“I finished the wiring,” Kadi says, “and I’m hungry.”
“Okay,” Rokia says, “Let’s head home.”
When they get to the house, there are lights on inside, and when they walk in it smells like food. And Rokia is somehow not very surprised to see Lyme sitting in her chair in the living room reading something.
Lyme looks up as they come in. “Hi girls,” she says, “I made dinner.”
Kadi makes a beeline for the kitchen, and Lyme gives Rokia a very flat look. Doesn’t say anything though, just heads for the kitchen and starts pulling down plates. Kadi’s getting things out of the oven, roasted meat and vegetables, all in one pot that sets Rokia’s mouth watering, a loaf of bread wrapped in a dishtowel to warm.
Rokia glares at Lyme. This is cheating, coming over here with fancy food to remind Rokia she hasn’t been eating enough. Never mind how the hell she knows, when Rokia hadn’t even really noticed until her stomach notices the smell and informs her that breakfast was a very long time ago. “This smells amazing,” Kadi says, sitting down.
“It’s Friday night,” Lyme says, and Rokia tries not to show that she’d forgotten about days of the week again. “And you’ve been working hard.” There’s nothing in her tone that says it’s anything other than that simple, but she glances at Rokia again and oh yeah, she’s in trouble.
But not at the dinner table, and, Rokia very much hopes, not in front of Kadi. “How’s school, Kadi?” Lyme asks, “Beetee giving you trouble?”
Lyme laughs at the rocket mail deal, otherwise listens to Kadi with the bemused expression she tends to get from most people.
And then, as they’re picking up dishes, the house phone rings and Kadi runs to pick it up. “Hi Uncle Brutus,” she says, and Rokia glances at Lyme. Who’s not saying anything, not even with facial expression. “Yeah, sure!” she says, “I’ll be right over!”
And there is seriously no way that’s coincidence, and is Lyme sending smoke signals to say they’re done with dinner or what?
“Uncle Brutus says he needs a fourth person to play Euchre with Misha and Devon, I’m gonna go over there,” Kadi says, ducking her head into the kitchen.
“Be careful,” Lyme says. “Misha cheats.”
Kadi grins. “I know, but I’ve figured out some of her tricks. And this time I’m demanding short sleeves.”
Lyme smiles. “Good luck.”
“See you later, Kadi,” Rokia calls.
And then the door shuts, and Lyme looks at her. “You got something you wanna tell me?”
Rokia pushes past her and out into the living room, folds herself into a corner of the couch. “Who told you I did?” she asks, annoyed. “This time,” she adds, and rolls her eyes.
Lyme shrugs. “Not important,” she says, sits in her chair, the big armchair Rokia can only sit comfortably in sideways.
Rokia glares at the floor for a bit. It’s stupid, she’s fine, she’s not a fresh out baby Victor to go running for her mentor when she has a bad day. Or night. Or several. Whatever. It’s stupid.
“You rather spar?” Lyme asks, shifting her weight forward.
She’s not supposed to need this either, not with Lyme a foot taller and twice her weight so it’s not anything like…not like anything other than what it is, Lyme smacking Rokia’s brain into place. But it sure as shit beats talking, so fine. She stands up and walks toward the back door without saying anything, and Lyme follows.
Rokia stops once they’re out onto the level part of the yard, spins to face Lyme and doesn’t even get all the way turned around before she’s on the ground, not even quite sure how she got there. She scrambles up, growling, and kicks at Lyme’s knees, cheap shot and mean, but Lyme doesn’t care. Ends up on her back again, and again, and again, and then she hits the ground hard, air shocked out of her lungs, and almost as soon as she can breathe again, she’s laughing. Back up, and Lyme raises an eyebrow at the half-hysterical giggles but doesn’t say anything, just keeps going, lets Rokia get a few hits in before knocking her on her ass, and Rokia stops laughing because she has to, because she’s exhausted, because her head’s swimming and her arms and legs are heavy and sore and her head’s pounding and her breath comes in ragged rasping breaths and finally she’s on her hands and knees, head hanging, gasping for breath. When she tries to stand up her legs give out, and before she can fall Lyme grabs her, hauls Rokia up like a baby and carries her inside.
Rokia would fight that, but that would take energy she doesn’t have. Lyme deposits her on the couch and goes into the kitchen, comes out with a disturbingly colored electrolyte thing and waits till Rokia pushes herself upright to hand her the glass.
It helps a little. She’s not dizzy, by the time she finishes, her eyes manage to focus properly on the first try, and she can look up at Lyme and scowl.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Lyme says, rolling her eyes and taking the glass. She comes back with it, full of water this time, and Rokia drinks that even faster, then has to take deep breaths against the nausea.
Lyme sits down next to her, and Rokia leans her head against Lyme’s shoulder. Lyme puts an arm around her and Rokia snuggles close. She’s perilously close to sleep. “Allie’s having a baby,” she mumbles, drowsy. “Why would anyone have a baby on purpose?” She shudders, curls tighter against Lyme. “How come she gets to choose?”
Lyme doesn’t say anything, but her arm tightens around Rokia. Who’s crying now, apparently.
“Shhh, babygirl, you’re safe, it’s okay,” Lyme says, rubbing Rokia’s back in slow, gentle circles. Rokia’s with it enough to realize that doesn’t have anything to do with her questions, but not enough to care, just closes her eyes and waits for the tears to stop. She doesn’t remember falling asleep.
She wakes up when the door opens and Kadi comes in. Tries to sit up but Lyme hushes her, lays her down on the couch and stands up to meet Kadi by the door. They talk in quiet voices, and then Rokia hears Kadi’s footsteps heading upstairs. Lyme comes back and Rokia shifts so her head is in Lyme’s lap again. “What’d you tell her?” she mumbles.
“That I’m going to stay overnight, and maybe she wants to go visit Marc and Heidi for the weekend.”
“Don’t kick her out,” Rokia says, but she can’t put any weight behind it. “She can stay if she wants.”
“Sure she can, kiddo,” Lyme says, “but she wants to go see Alima, too.”
“Don’t tell Allie,” Rokia says, and there’s more to that sentence but she’s too tired to come up with it.
“Of course not,” Lyme says, and Rokia feels her shift. “Come on kiddo, there’s a perfectly good bed upstairs, no reason to sleep on the couch.”
Rokia whines, but she sits up, lets Lyme pull her up to stand. She’s not going to make Lyme carry her to bed, but she does lean against her all the way up the stairs and into her bedroom. She crawls in far enough to leave space for Lyme.
Lyme hesitates, then sighs and climbs in.
If Rokia dreams, it’s fragments and snatches, and every time Lyme brings her out of them carefully, fingers in Rokia’s hair, a hand on her back, and Rokia goes back to sleep.
Finally she wakes up because Kadi’s moving around. Lyme’s awake, lying on her back, and she looks over at Rokia with a rueful smile. “Been a while,” she says.
Rokia shoves the heels of her hands into her eyes and lets out a long breath. “I’m fine, it’s just—“
“Rokia.” Lyme’s voice is flat, and she doesn’t need to say anything else.
Rokia sighs, sits up. “Wait till Kadi’s off,” she says. “I should go get her some breakfast and make sure she knows everything’s okay.”
Lyme sighs, nods, and they get up. Lyme waits in the living room while Rokia heads for the kitchen.
“Hey there, kiddo,” Rokia says, and Kadi looks up quick, startled.
“Rokia!” she says, coming over for a hug—and then she hesitates. “Are you— what’s wrong?”
Rokia steps up and hugs her, first, then sighs as she steps back. “It’s complicated,” she says. “But I’ll be alright.”
Kadi goes to the stove and dumps more oatmeal and water into the pot. “Lyme wants oatmeal, right?”
“Yes, Lyme would love some oatmeal,” Lyme calls. “Thanks.”
Kadi giggles and goes back to stirring. “I’ll be back tomorrow night,” she says, a little hesitant, “if that’s okay? I have class Monday morning and it’s annoying to take the train all the way up that early.”
“That’s fine, Kadi,” Rokia says. “Whatever works best for you, really.”
Kadi looks up at her, serious for once, and then nods. “Tomorrow night then. I’ll leave there after dinner.”
Rokia sighs. “Could you— not tell Alima I was upset?” she asks, hesitant. “I don’t want her to feel bad.”
Kadi looks back down at the pot. “Yeah,” she says. “I won’t say anything.” She stirs for a bit, then looks up again. “It’s ‘cause of me, isn’t it. You don’t like babies because I was so hard to take care of?”
Rokia’s breath catches. “No, baby, it’s not your fault,” she says. She hears Lyme get up, come in. “It was hard, yeah, but that’s because I was a kid, and Mom wasn’t around.”
Kadi looks at her, glances up at Lyme, chews on her lip for a bit, then nods and goes back to stirring. Lyme puts a hand on Rokia’s shoulder, turns her toward the table. “I think that’s ready, Kadi,” Lyme says.
They bring bowls of oatmeal and cups of cofee and Kadi brings all the things you could conceivably put in oatmeal, from chocolate chips and peanut butter to brown sugar and honey and dried fruit. Rokia has to smile while they load up their bowls.
“I’m sorry,” Kadi blurts out after a bit. Rokia looks up, startled. “I guess—I didn’t really think about it, you were just…there.”
“Until I wasn’t,” Rokia says, leaden.
“Well, but that’s different. You made sure we had someplace to go.”
“Of course I did, you’re my sisters.”
“Yeah, but not ‘of course,’ because Mom didn’t.”
Rokia freezes. “Yeah, see?” Kadi continues, shrugging and looking down. “She just assumed you’d take care of us, or else she didn’t give a shit.”
“Okay,” Lyme says, breaking what’s stretched into an uncomfortable silence. “Kadi, I think we’d better wait till you get back to keep going down this particular road.”
Kadi nods, finishes her oatmeal quietly. “I won’t tell Allie,” she says, when she finishes.
Rokia forces herself to take a deep breath. “Thanks,” she says. “And Kadi?” she pauses. “I love you. None of this is your fault.” Kadi looks away. Rokia reaches out, brushes her cheek. “I promise, babygirl,” she says, and Kadi looks at her for a long moment and then takes her own deep, shaky breath and nods.
She pushes her chair back, stands up. “Say hi to everybody for me,” Rokia says. That gets the ghost of a smile.
“I will,” she says. Pauses at the sink. “I love you, too, Rokia,” she says, serious. Looks like she wants to say something else but thinks better of it, and heads out.
Rokia’s frozen in place. Lyme shifts her chair so she can wrap an arm around Rokia’s shoulders, taps the bowl of oatmeal with the other hand. “Eat,” she says. “Step one.”
Rokia does. Finishes mechanically, stands up and collects bowls and cups on autopilot, drops them in the sink and runs water, washes things while Lyme dries. She feels hollow, full of echoing caverns reflecting old memories and Kadi’s words and Allie’s shy pleased smile the other day, and none of it makes sense.
Lyme pulls her over to the couch afterwards. “Rest day,” she says. “You’re exhausted, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
The hint of sarcasm is deserved, Rokia knows, because she hadn’t really noticed until…sometime last night, probably. She notices now. “This used to suck less,” she grumbles, because it feels like every single muscle in her body is complaining at once.
Lyme smiles. “It’s called getting older,” she says. “Turns out you pay back all the stupid shit you thought you got away with, plus interest.”
Rokia winces. “Well damn,” she says, stretching her neck. “But I didn’t even do anything lately, nothing that weird.”
Lyme raises one eyebrow. “Seriously?” she says. “For one thing you were putting in 12-hour workdays, for another I know you were out on the trails more than usual, plus whatever you were getting up to in here, and that’s without reminding you that you’ve been walking around with your shoulders up to your ears since you got back on Tuesday.”
Rokia glowers. “Yeah, and that’s still not that weird, so what the hell?”
Lyme shakes her head. “C’mere,” she says, shifts so that she’s leaning against the arm of the couch and Rokia can lie back against her. Rokia feels Lyme’s knuckles digging into the knots of muscle around her shoulderblades and groans.
“So,” Lyme says, once Rokia’s relaxed more. “You wanna talk to me or you wanna call down to the counselors’ office.”
Rokia sighs. “I hate this,” she says. “Just for the record, there should be a limit to how long this shit can bother you.”
“I know,” Lyme says. “Too bad it doesn’t matter how you think it should work.”
Rokia sighs again, tilts her head up to see Lyme’s face, upside down. Lyme rolls her eyes and flicks Rokia’s forhead once.
Rokia shifts, sits up, looks up at the ceiling. “Allie’s having a baby on purpose,” she says. “It’s not the same as me. And I love my sisters, I wouldn’t want them to not have been born.”
The silence stretches out. “But?” Lyme asks.
“Babies are so much work,” Rokia says. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that exhausted, and yes I mean including the Arena and the war and everything, I didn’t know how to keep all three of us fed much less anything else, and I wanted Mom to come back and I knew she wasn’t going to and I just didn’t know what to do.”
Lyme sighs. “Of course you didn’t,” she says, “That’d be hard for anyone, much less a little kid.”
“Sara helped,” Rokia says. “And Sal, and Magda even, and Matt, and a bunch of other people. I couldn’t do it by myself.” She pauses. “Well, and once I won it was easier, that part. There was Phillips, and my house, and the stipend and everything.”
“Yeah,” Lyme says, neutral, after another pause.
Rokia sighs. “I just wish I’d had a choice,” she says, finally. “Nobody asked me. I didn’t get to plan for any of it, not that I’d have known what to do, it just happened, and it felt like… like I was on a treadmill going too fast and I couldn’t stop for a second or we’d all fall.”
Rokia shifts to snuggle close against Lyme. “Not that I knew what a treadmill was,” she says. “And I love my sisters, but I didn’t—“
“You weren’t ready,” Lyme says quietly. “Rokia, you were a kid. How old were you when Kadi was born?”
“Twelve,” Rokia says. “I remember I’d just got my first tesserae when I found out Mom was pregnant again.”
“So, the same age Alima was when they came here,” Lyme says. “You think she was ready to have kids then?”
“Well, she was taking care of Kadi—“
“You know full well that’s different.”
Rokia grants the point. She thinks about it, remembers Allie as a prickly stubborn kid who probably would have insisted she could handle a baby, but… no, there’s no way.
“Of course you didn’t want that,” Lyme says. “Doesn’t mean you don’t care about your sisters.”
Rokia doesn’t think she actually wants to argue that, so she leans her head back instead, takes deep breaths and tries to relax her shoulders and all the stupid things she knows she should do. “Are you gonna make me talk about this all weekend?” she asks.
Lyme laughs, short and sharp. “Oh fuck no,” she says. “I don’t hate either of us enough for that.”
Rokia grins at her. Then stretches her arms over her head. “Can we hike up to the lake?” she asks. “I haven’t been in a while.”
“Sure,” Lyme says. “I’ll find us some food to take along.”
Rokia groans. “Of course you will,” she says, getting up. Lyme doesn’t say anything, just walks into the kitchen.
The stupidest thing is she can watch herself doing all the shit she does, grumbling about food, grumbling about wanting to hike farther, keep moving, how much work she should be doing. Can trace back the week, now that she’s paying attention, the late nights and early mornings and skipped meals and long runs. Can recognize that it’s all stupid and pointless and counterproductive.
And it doesn’t matter. She’s still doing all of it, she’s still coiled up tense and ready to run, still surly and childish to Lyme all day, until by the time Lyme’s standing in front of her with a glass of water and a sleeping pill she’s ready to smack herself upside the head hard enough to make the stupid pill unnecessary.
And yet, here she is, arms crossed, scowling like she’s 22 again and just got here. Only the justification is different. “I shouldn’t need that,” she snaps out. “It’s stupid.”
“Okay,” Lyme says. “But you’re still going to take the damn pill and get a full night’s sleep, because I don’t even want to know what you’ve been doing the last few nights.”
“I’ve been sleeping,” Rokia protests. “Every night!”
“Okay,” Lyme repeats. “You’re still taking it.”
“It’s really not that bad,” she tries. “It’s been way worse before.”
“Uh huh,” Lyme says. “I’m well aware of that.”
“I don’t want to.” Rokia’s last line of defense.
“See, I don’t think that’s true,” Lyme says. “You just don’t want to let yourself.”
“What’s the fucking difference.”
“Rokia, just take the damn pill and go to bed,” Lyme says, not angry, just exasperated.
Rokia sighs, holds out her hands. Takes the pill, drinks the water, hands the glass back to Lyme and walks up the stairs.
Lyme comes up and stands in the doorway while Rokia climbs into bed, curls up facing the wall, and that’s the last thing she notices before she’s out.