Wheat country, west of the river, long past even the summer sunset. It's been raining, they're behind in cutting, supposed to head north last week, the schedule's all blown to hell because somehow they still can't control the clouds.
It's tricky land out here, rocky outcrops hiding beneath the tall grass field margins--soon they'll be up and out onto the real plains, but just Zea's luck she's assigned this strip, on the western edge of the Flint Hills, wild grass stretching east till the land smooths back out near the City. She has to drive the edge slow and careful, it's not like up north where she can set a course and relax a bit until she gets to the end of her section. No, here the land heaves and she's got to pay attention or else--there it is, she's off-course, the header about to knock into something and if she dents it there'll be hell to pay.
She climbs down from her perch high up at the controls and her boots kick up dust when she hits the ground. The moon lights up the ground where the headlights don't reach, and past the boulder that's about to jam her header is a low rise, a rocky outcrop where someone once figured if they couldn't plow it they might as well put a building up.
She looks around. Nobody here, not tonight, fields are small and the yields don't amount to much in the rocky ground so no point hauling a truck out. She's got to finish by morning so they can move out but she can spare just a minute. The grass whispers against her legs as she climbs the hill, flashlight revealing the white stones underfoot.
Up close it's an ugly building, rusted metal peeling away from the structure, leaving gaps wide enough she can slip in. The place is empty and echoing, not even equipment left, all hauled away for scrap. One corner's been walled off, thin plywood peeling apart, a padlock on the door. She kicks at it and the wood gives way. Inside it's someone's dusty office, table still covered in ancient, yellowing paper. She picks up a sheet, plays the light over it. "Consolidation notice," stamped across the top the Capitol seal. "Report for re-assignment."
She fans the sheets across the table, notices and bills and who knows what, and below it all is a crackling paperback book, the cover torn off. She picks it up, curious, eases the pages open. "The Western States nervous under the beginning change. Texas and Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas, New Mexico, Arizona, California." Her fingers brush the strange names. She looks around, slips the book into the pocket of her coveralls, pulls the door closed behind her, and walks back out into the moonlight.
Zea's the last one into the depot, just as the sky's going gray, and Dale gives her a sharp look as she empties the hopper into the elevator bin. "You're late," he calls up. "Come on and load up."
The header first, settled gently into the bed of the trailer, and Dale helps her disconnect it. Careful, then, easing the wheels up the tracks to settle behind the header. Dale loves his truck, longer than a train car and just as wide, but she doesn't much like having her machine perched so precariously behind them. It's silly, maybe, but she spends more time with the combine than with anyone else, not surprising she's a little attached. The other trucks are loaded up already, and as soon as she climbs into the cab, Dale fires up the engine and they're headed out.
She crawls into the bunk in back and stretches out. The whine of the tires on the asphalt and the grumbling of the engine would usually put her right to sleep, but she pulls the battered book out of her pocket and opens it.
"To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth."
It's been a while since Zea was at school, never was much for it anyway, sitting inside when there was a whole slew of fields just out from the depot and no one to care most days if she snuck out to hide between high rows of corn, staring at the sky. But as she drags her tired eyes along the page it's nothing like anything they read at school, it's wide open like the plains outside, and even if it doesn't make sense she can taste dust on her tongue and only half of it's real.
She tucks the book under the pillow after a while, watches the wheat waving out the window till it puts her to sleep.
Zea wakes up when the truck shudders quiet that afternoon. No tricky outcrops here, this is the true Great Plains, stretching straight to the horizon, the sky wide overhead, and Zea breathes easy as she climbs up into the cab and sets out. It's the best part of her job, something the City folk don't understand, the grain heads bending in the wind, stretching out to the wide horizon through the glass of the cab. She's on top of the world here, in control the way nobody ever gets to be really. But for as long as she's out here with the wind and the sun and the controls under her hands it might as well be her world.
Her console chimes when she reaches her marker and she lowers the header and starts cutting. Plenty of time to think, out here, nobody to talk to and it's hot and dusty and so long as the gauges look okay and she keeps the line straight her mind is free to wander back in time--who knows how long--to a man named Tom Joad, hitching a ride on a truck, coming home from prison. Her dad drove truck, in Link and then down in Enid, hauling supplies from the rail yards out to the depots, and she tries to imagine him bringing someone along. He wouldn't even bring her, much as she begged to get out of the dusty outpost and away from the gaggle of bratty Giesel kids.
Her radio snaps to life a little after sunset, Ester calling them in for a hot dinner for once, and Zea finishes her swath and turns gratefully for the field camp.
They've got proper food tonight, hot dogs brought along from the last depot and roasted over the campfire, Dale and Ester taking charge of cooking before the trucks make their overnight run back to the elevator. Emmer is sitting on the other side of the fire, legs stretched out, leaning on her hands, and Zea smiles and saunters over. "This seat taken?" She asks, smirking, and Emmer smiles up, warm and drowsy, and shifts over. She smells like sweat and chaff and grease, and Zea drops a kiss on her hair as she sits down. Dale shakes his head and passes her a hot dog, and she relaxes, looking up at the stars.
"Good to be out of the hills," Emmer says, rolling out her neck. "Don't know why we bother, 's no good for the machines, all them rocks."
Zea laughs. "Keeps you awake," she says, yawning. "Out here you could fall asleep and not wake up till you hit the river."
"Well, somethin' was keepin you up," Emmer says, raising an eyebrow, "you were awful late gettin' back."
Zea shrugs. It's probably illegal, sneaking into old run-down buildings, picking up books she's got a feeling aren't on the approved list. Anyway it's weird, so she doesn't say anything, just smiles, tries to brush the straw and dust out of her hair. "We got any water?" she asks, and across the fire Milo laughs.
"That tank's s'posed to last us till the next depot, don't go wasting it trying to impress your girl," he says, and Emmer's whipped a stone at him before he's finished the sentence.
"See if I fix your augur next time you eat stones, Milo," she says, but she's smiling a little, and Zea laughs while Milo squawks.
Zea laughs and climbs to her feet, walking over to the tank and stripping down to get off the worst of the day's dust. Emmer follows as she's wrapping a threadbare towel around herself, and pretty soon they're sprawled together in the tent.
Zea's just finished her lunch when she sees the clouds collect on the horizon. The fields out here are huge, heads heavy with grain, so Dale's set up the truck for grain hauling already and he's driving alongside damn near every other pass. There's a stream of grain running into the truck bed as her hopper fills. "Looks like rain's coming," she says into the radio, and Ester calls back, annoyed.
"Not here yet," she says, "we're gonna get as much as we can before the rain spoils it."
Zea can just see Ester and Emmer out over her right shoulder, Milo and Bran over her left, all of them, she's sure, watching the western horizon just like she is. There's lighting in those clouds, and Zea watches the rain streaming toward the ground, maybe twenty miles out now. She just hopes there's no hail, hopes there isn't enough wind to knock the wheat down. They're going to have trouble making quotas as-is, without trying to pick half-rotted grain off the ground.
The sun's glinting orange off the angry clouds when Ester calls them in. "Better get under cover," she says, resigned. "Storm's coming fast."
They finish the pass and head for camp, and Zea's unloading fast as she can while they drive so Dale can get the trailer covered in time. Emmer pulls in behind her, unloading into Ester's truck just as fast, and Zea grins as the wind picks up, blowing into the open shed. They dash out to get the trucks covered while the rest of the crew comes in, and they're just finishing when the rain hits, beating out a staccato rhythm on the metal shed roofs, the covered trucks, the tents and tarps of the camp.
Zea and Emmer are both laughing when they dive into their tent, grinning into the storm, and Zea can't bring herself to worry about the wheat just now because Emmer grins at her, shakes her hair back, and they crash onto one of the bedrolls while the thunder rolls over them and the lightening splits the sky.
Zea extracts herself while Emmer's still sleeping, digs through her bag till she finds the book, wrapped up in her spare overalls. It's a strange thing, this book, a story so out of context she can't make sense of half of it, but when the Joad family packs up and leaves, takes to the road, she feels a strange pull. Zea's not spent more than a season in place since she was past Reaping age and took on with the crews.And here the book talks about tractor men, coming onto land that hadn't known tractors, making people leave who'd never known any place else. Talks about it like it's a catastrophe.
Emmer stirs, looks over. "What're you reading?" she asks, sleepy-eyed. Zea looks away, and Emmer's look gets sharper. "What is it, Zea?"
"It's not authorized. Found it the other night, some old shed out in the Flint Hills." Zea smiles, a little shy. "It's interesting."
"Knew you were trouble," Emmer says, shaking her head, but she's smiling too. "So what's it about?"
"Not quite sure," Zea says, "it's real old. Did you know families used to own land? Used to farm little bits all on their own."
Emmer raises an eyebrow. "How'd they get all the equipment? Tractor and tools and combine for just a little piece don't make sense."
"Says here they farmed with horses."
Now Emmer's looking at her like she's said the combine could fly, and it's about as crazy.
"Must've been real little pieces then," Emmer says, skeptical. "Must've been an awful lot of people out here. How'd they manage?"
Zea shrugs. "Book says they didn't, in the end, seems like Capitol folks or something came in and took the land and put tractors to work it."
Emmer nods. "Makes sense, more efficient that way."
"Yeah, but then the folks living there had to leave."
"Yeah, they'd have to go someplace else." Emmer waves toward the door, the landscape outside. "Can't imagine living out here all year round."
"It'd be like living at the Depots," Zea says, "Not so bad."
Emmer smiles. "Wouldn't know. I grew up in the City."
"That's why you're a fancy-pants mechanic and I'm just a driver," Zea says, and Emmer laughs, and they move on to other things.
The weather stays clear after that, so the next time they get a day off is the day of the Reaping. Zea measures the seasons in places, and Reaping day is here, barring strange weather, just south of Platte. There's two crews in for the day, mandatory television means they've gotta be somewhere to check in. No field camps on a Reaping Day. Ester grumbles about the wasted day, the early nights for the recaps all month but the quotas stay the same, so it just means later truck runs and earlier mornings cutting, everything out of whack and if the crew doesn't make good time it's on her.
Zea calls Emmer over to check her sieves, last time the elevator told Dale her grain wasn't too clean and she's worried there's a break somewhere. Emmer slides in underneath, pokes around for a while, slides back out. "Should be set," she says. "One of the plates was a little loose, but nothing broken."
Zea relaxes, pats the tire. "See, she's a good girl," she says, and Emmer snorts.
"She's the size of a house, Zea, you gonna start giving her pet names now?" Zea laughs with her, but she lets her fingers trail over the wheel housing as they head to the common room.
It's just like every year, really. Someone's brought a barrel of home brew, stuck in the kitchen with the food, the Peacekeeper who checked them in pretending not to notice just so long as his mug stays full. The room goes quiet when the kids are called, as everyone spares a thought for their families before going back to enjoying the day off. Been a long time since 9 won, before Zea was born, and nobody much cares out here, no point in faking it. So they drink their illegal beer and the hog someone in the depot raised off kitchen scraps and likely as not some pilfered grain, and they toast to another year, another wheat harvest, and if another pair of children will be cut down too, at least it's none of theirs.
They move northwest the next day, right along the border with Ten. It's new territory for Zea, last few years none of their fields have been this far west. She watches it out of the corner of her eye as she drives, barbed wire to the height of her cab, and beyond it a few scrubby, wind blown trees, weedy grasses sprouting underneath. She can see the Ten fence on the other side of the no-man's land, maybe a quarter-section's length away. Thinks she might see a herd of cattle, out near the horizon, but it's hard to tell. Zea's always liked new places, grew up imagining following the crews through the district until she finally got to do it for real, and she feels that same familiar pull tugging her attention West.
She hasn't been able to read much, tired out after long days, but the Joads are driving West toward California, limping along in a truck that'd never be allowed on the roads here. Her dad kept his truck in perfect working order, was proud of never failing an inspection. But there's no inspections in the world of this book, no travel authorizations, no one stopping anyone who wants to getting on the road and moving out of district. She can't get a picture in her head: West to California, where there are peaches, from Oklahoma, where there's corn and cotton. It sounds like 9 to 11, but the directions are all wrong. Maybe it was different, before. Maybe 11 isn't the only place you could grow peaches, maybe the districts were different then.
It keeps her mind spinning all through the day, until as the sun's going down she cuts one last swath toward the depot. Near the border there's more Peacekeepers, and they're more serious, so it'll be standard rations, no back-room moonshine or anything like that, but she saw a couple gardens so maybe they can buy or trade for something fresh.
Emmer's had the same idea, and she's already talking to the wife of the depot manager, a sharp-eyed sunburned woman with dirt-stained knees, when Zea pulls into the shed. She's glad to get out of the hot, close cab, shake the dust and chaff out of her hair, and it still makes her smile when Emmer's face brightens as she comes out to say hello.
"You want cucumbers?" she asks, "they're a little pricy," and the seller frowns at that, but Emmer takes no notice.
Something crisp will taste good, and Zea's body takes the opportunity to remind her that it's hungry and thirsty and it's been a while since her peanut butter sandwich at noon. "Let's splurge," she says, digging into her pocket for coins.
They peel the cucumbers and eat them as a treat after they inhale the packaged rations. Zea was right, they are worth it, cool and crisp and much more refreshing than the lukewarm water in her canteen. The television turns on as they're finishing, the anthem, blaring over the loudspeakers and calling everyone from where they're scattered around the yard in the long summer shadows to the screen against the wall of the shed.
The Games proper started today, and while technically even the Parade is mandatory television, critical personnel can get exemptions, and Ester apparently managed to get one for her crew. They recap the Parade and the interviews in a ten-minute burst, and Zea isn't the only one surprised when the tributes from Twelve steal the show with flaming costumes and a love story that looks like as much of a surprise to the girl as it is to them.
Milo laughs, leans back on his hands in the grass. "Them Careers must be shittin' bricks," he says, his mouth twisting. "Good for Twelve." Dale elbows him in the side and Ester glares at him from the other side of Dale until Milo shrugs and looks back at the screen.
Zea leans against Emmer, shoulders pressed together, and when the music shifts and the countdown starts, she squeezes her eyes closed. Emmer shifts to lace her fingers with Zea's and squeezes, and Zea looks over at her, then sighs and looks at the screen. This is always the worst part, it's fast and bloody and hard to even tell who's who. She doesn't see who kills the girl from Nine, but the boy runs for a backpack and the girl from Two flings a knife, quick and sure, into his back. He coughs, weakly, blood streaming from his mouth, and then it's over. Zea feels Emmer sigh against her and she looks up at the sky, the light fading and the stars coming out. They have to sit here, they have to face the screen, they're supposed to watch, but this part always turns her stomach. Too much death, too fast, and however she tries to turn it Zea can't see how there's any sense to be made of the waste.
The recap isn't long after the bloodbath, Caesar and Claudius talking about the novelty of the Twelve boy with the Career Pack, and the ingenious trap the Three boy is setting up with the mines from the platforms. The One girl is making out with the Two boy when they switch to the live view, and Milo groans again, mutters something that gets him a smack upside the head from Dale. The big guy from Eleven is out in a field of wheat, holed up near a stream bank. Most of the rest are hiding out in the trees, a cute little girl from Eleven and the girl from Twelve actually up in them.
And when nothing else seems to be happening on the live feed, the seal spins again, the pictures flash onto the screen, the anthem plays, and they're released.
Zea gets up quick, stretches aching muscles, rolls her neck, reaches a hand down to Emmer. Everyone's quiet, even Milo, as they head for the tents.
They're getting up towards spring wheat country when they come into the depot to find the manager and his wife already parked in front of the screen in the gathering dusk.
They settle with their dinner as the recap comes on, and Zea can't figure out what's so exciting. Yesterday was the boy from One and that little girl from Eleven--and the manager was cagey about that, said there was some stuff after they didn't show--and the day before was the explosion at the Cornucopia, darkly satisfying out here where they can dare to act pleased when the fancy city kids get beat for once. That Twelve girl's good--Katniss, they interviewed a bunch of her folks yesterday. Showed the mine where her dad worked before he died, and Zea was glad to be able to look away toward the comforting line of the horizon, can't imagine spending her days locked in like that.
No deaths today though, just the seal spinning as the anthem plays. They show a few bits from the interviews again, introduce the tributes that've made it this far. They finish with the boy from Twelve, Peeta, who's hidden in the rocks by the stream, taking his time bleeding to death. And then the screen splits to show the boy and girl from Two, the boy and girl from Twelve, a note flashing "Live Footage" in the corner--and Claudius Templesmith's voice rings out over the Arena, declaring the rule change that will allow two winners from the same district. The tributes from Two stop breathing to stare at each other, wide-eyed and shocked like Zea's never seen from the well-trained kids they usually send from the Career districts. It only lasts a second before Cato's got Clove in his arms and they're laughing. The boy from Twelve doesn't seem to notice, maybe he's too far gone to care. But the girl, who hasn't seemed to remember her partner since he saved her from the Careers and got a knife in the leg for his trouble, shouts out his name, claps her hands over her mouth, and then, finally, smiles up at the cameras in the sky.
The next day's recap is a bizarre combination of gross medical drama and awkward romance, and they're all rolling their eyes by the time the live shots show the girl sitting watch over her boyfriend. Milo groans. "Why's she bothering?" he says, "She's good, but she ain't so good she can drag him with her." Pretty much everyone agrees, to the point when the next night they announce the Feast and she drugs him to go it's met with groans instead of the cheers they show in the Capitol. Apparently the love story is everyone's new obsession there, a style like the mermaid dresses women wore after Finnick Odair tore through his games with the trident they sent him.
It's only confirmed when the lovebirds get to hide out in a cave and tell stories while Cato and Thresh circle each other in a thunderstorm until Cato doesn't just kill the boy from Eleven, he damn near tears him apart. By the time the red-haired girl from Five goes down eating nightlock, the Capitol's gone crazy for two kids from Twelve of all places and it's starting to look like a foregone conclusion.
They time the final fight like usual, so it falls in the usual recap time and everyone's watching the mutts leap out at the kids clinging to the Cornucopia. It's sick and disturbing and they wait and watch while the two from Twelve huddle atop the Cornucopia and Cato whimpers below. Emmer puts an arm around Zea's shoulders, and Zea realizes she's shaking. Milo's the one who turns it off, finally. "I've seen enough," he says. Ester bites her lip and then nods. "We gotta get these trucks to the elevator and back," she says, "but if it ain't over by then we're gonna have to get you up."
It's lucky they're at a field camp, because it means Zea can duck into the tent with Emmer without worrying about hiding the look on her face. Emmer tries to kiss her but Zea pulls away. Seems gross, somehow, while that kid's getting torn apart. "C'mon, honey" Emmer says, "Nothing we can do about it." Zea looks at her, and Emmer gives her a rueful smile. "You're too sensitive, Zea," she says, petting Zea's hair. "Try and sleep, okay?"
Zea does, eventually, fitfully, waking up when Ester calls them out and trying to shake away shards of dreams. The sun's coming up, and Ester looks serious, tired and heavy. "You must've got back hours ago," Zea says.
Ester winces. "Y'all didn't need to see it, trust me."
They make their way out to the screens again, and Dale's passing around coffee. He's got bread rolls brought up fresh from the depot, but no one's in the mood to eat. Zea sips at the hot, bitter coffee, pacing to clear the cobwebs out of her head. The Two boy's got the girl's arrow in his throat, or what Zea guesses is his throat, and she looks away before she chokes.
When the announcement comes--only one victor after all--they groan. Made-up drama to keep people happy is all well and good, but the stricken looks on the kids' faces makes it hard to imagine anyone's enjoying this. Zea stands stock-still, and Emmer comes up from behind and leans into her, Emmer's chin resting on Zea's shoulder.
The boy talks a lot of romantic nonsense, but the camera's on Katniss, and there's gears turning in that girl's head for sure. They all hold their breaths when she pulls out the nightlock, when they put it into their mouths--and the sky opens at the last possible second, trumpets and Claudius Templesmith damn near pleading for them to stop.
The whole crew stares at each other when the hovercraft comes, pulls the kids out, and nobody dares to say it, not even out here, but Zea has to choke back a bark of wild laughter because this is supposed to be the Arena of the Districts' ultimate humiliation and two stupid kids from the ass-end of Panem just made the Capitol change the rules.
It's five long minutes of stunned silence before Ester snaps them out of it. "Come on," she says, voice tense. "Wheat's not gonna cut itself."
With the games over they're back on schedule, moving north into the spring wheat country and keeping an eye on the clouds. Everyone's a little quieter for a while, wondering what it is they just saw, what it means, what happens next.
Nothing, probably, just an odd little moment, best forgotten, but it sits in the back of Zea's head as she reads, one eye on the controls and the other on the book, when Dale isn't around to yell at her to pay attention.
Durum started her doing this, the year she apprenticed with him before she got her own machine. He'd pulled off one of his socks, taped it over the radio mic, and she'd sit in the corner of the cab and read aloud whatever book he'd managed to scrounge, abandoned in depots or traded with one of his buddies. It wasn't till a couple years later that she figured out how to read to herself--how to keep enough attention on the controls to keep the swath straight without losing her place in the book.
With Durum as crew chief it didn't matter if she got caught, he'd just laugh and tell her to hide it better. Ester's stricter--she caught Zea at it once last year with some ridiculous romance book because Zea couldn't hide her laughter and Ester can tell when she tries to muffle the radio. Zea'd gotten a thorough chewing out and her pay docked for the week, and if she hadn't managed to snag a factory job over the winter it'd have been bad.
So she doesn't do it often, left off searching for the scarce reading material that's usually just not worth it. But the daylight's getting shorter and the workdays are getting longer and the season's dragging on the way it always does around now, and Zea never has time to read other than this.
Ester's worried about their quota, they've had bad luck with the weather, bad luck with the section assignments, and they're behind schedule and underweight. They're all worried, really, it's a good crew and none of them wants to get split up for underperforming. Emmer's running herself ragged keeping up with the mechanical glitches that build up over a season's cutting without a proper break. For all that everyone tries to pitch in, it's Emmer who's out every night with a flashlight, checking wiring and hydraulics and oil levels and who knows what-all else. Last year Ester let her start late, make up some of the late nights, but this year everyone knows they don't have that slack to give.
They finish their last section late one afternoon when the wind's blowing hot over the bare expanse. Milo and Zea sit in the shade of one of the machines, Emmer's head in Zea's lap as she naps. They're waiting to hear if they made weight and trying to keep their minds off the truckers at the elevator.
"You got plans for your days off?" Zea asks, quiet, and Milo's eyes focus in from their middle-distance stare as he shrugs.
"Visit some friends, I guess," he says. "Ask around about winter work. You?"
Zea bites her lip, runs her hand trough Emmer's hair again. "Staying in the barracks," she says. "Don't know nobody who's got a place in the City." She hasn't talked to Emmer about it. This thing they've got going isn't really meet-the-parents territory, and Zea's just a depot kid combine driver while Emmer's got education and a mechanic's spot that guarantees her work all year round. Last winter she stayed with her family, but last winter she was just the new crew mechanic to Zea. It's not the week of equipment swap she's worried about, but come November they'll be stuck in the City till spring planting. And the winters are always a little miserable, staying in cramped and drafty barracks, hustling for work and burning through their summer savings because everything costs in town. But Zea's gotten used to having Emmer curled in beside her when she sleeps, in the tents or the bunks in the depots. A couple years ago she'd have laughed at the suggestion that she could be lonely anywhere, especially crammed in with 20 different crews in winter housing, but hell if that's not what she's worrying about now.
And she must be tired, to have thoughts like that sliding sluggish through her mind, but Milo's back to staring at the horizon so Zea just tips her head back against the warm rubber of the tire, lets her eyes drift closed.
The truckers come back a couple hours later. The noise of the engines wakes Zea up, and Emmer stirs, blinking up and smiling sleepily. They're all three of them on their feet, antsy and waiting when Ester pulls in and hops down. And while the grin on Ester's face tells them all they need to know, Dale confirms it half a minute later. "Made it by a hundred kilos," he says. "Just squeaked by." He slings an arm around Ester's shoulders, and they wait for Bran to hop down before walking over to meet the rest of them. There's hugs and backslapping and laughter all around and it's not guaranteed but at least they've got a good chance that next year they'll stay together.
Bran runs back to the truck, returns with a bagful of fresh food and a jugful of what can only be depot-brewed liquor, and pretty soon there's a fire going, roasting ears of sweet corn in the ashes and pork chops over the coals, passing the jug around. Even Ester's relaxed, leaned up against Dale, his arm tight around her waist. The stars come out and the fire dies down and pretty soon they're all heading for tents, laughing through their goodnights and sliding into sleep.
The next morning they pack up, sorting through their gear to make sure everything's in order and nothing unlicensed is hanging around in the corners. They can't check every crew coming into the city, but they stop enough to make everyone a little nervous. Zea turns her book over a few times in her hands before sliding it into the bottom of her sleeping bag.
Emmer looks over at her, one eyebrow raised and lips pursed. "You're taking that in?"
Zea nods. "I'm not done with it yet."
Emmer shakes her head, sighs, looks back to rolling up her own bag. "You better hope we don't get searched," she says, tight. "You oughta toss it."
The idea makes Zea flinch. "I'm not getting rid of it," she says. "It's important."
"It's ancient history, Zea, why do you care?"
And that's the question, isn't it. Zea's never been a troublemaker, she does her job and follows the rules--most of the time, at least--and she's never really thought about it, but something's changing, like the first taste of rain on the wind, the first hint of blue-grey on the horizon before the storm. In the Games a couple of kids changed the Capitol's rules, and in her book a preacher just got taken to jail talking about how people're getting pushed past their limits, and for the first time Zea actually wants to go to the City, just to see if anyone else feels like this.
By the time she gets back to the part where Emmer asked her a question, her girl's rolling her eyes and turning back to packing. "I'm not gonna cover for you," she says. "If you get caught I just hope they don't blame the rest of us."
Zea swallows hard. She hadn't thought of that. But they're coming in on time and on quota and none of them have any demerits this season so it's luck of the draw, nothing more, and it's stupid to count on anything but Zea thinks it'll be okay. "If I get caught I'll tell them none of you knew," she says, and Emmer relaxes, just a little, and nods.
It's a long drive south to the City, and since her book's hidden away, Zea curls up in back and dozes, waking up when they slow to pass a checkpoint, when the truck hits a pothole and Dale curses. The corn's still high, green and tasseled and stretching out in long bands between the low stretches of soybeans, riotous fallow where radish and clover are blooming among the weedy grasses they can't ever seem to get rid of completely, new green where wheat's been cut and the clover started. There's more corn and less wheat the further east they get, until they reach the river and turn south toward the City.
They roll through the checkpoint, and Zea lets out a long breath, slides down in her seat. Dale glances over, raises an eyebrow. "You got something hidden back there you wanna share?" It's the reason they have the checkpoints in the first place, after all, the Peacekeepers don't care if people brew hootch out in the depots, but they sure as shit don't want it coming into the City. "Nah," she says, "just ready to get there, get out of the truck."
Dale laughs. "Enjoy it, Ester says they're cutting peoples' leave short, only be here a couple days probably."
Zea blinks. "Why?"
Dale shrugs. "Who knows. Hell, might not even be true, but that's what she heard."
Zea keeps her mouth shut, but her mind keeps niggling at it. She's probably just seeing what she wants to see: she wants to see things change so she's jumping to conclusions. But anyway she's looking forward to some good old barracks gossip to see if maybe someone else knows more.
They pull into the stockyard right on time, sit in the holding room while the foremen check over the machines. No major damage, they should be fine, but Emmer's nervous anyway, it's still only her second year and she wants to do well. So Zea pulls out a deck of cards and calls Dale and Bran. "Euchre rematch," she says. "We're gonna destroy you this time."
Bran laughs. "You can try."
It's a good way to pass the time, and Zea watches Emmer relax a bit, start joking with Dale about how to keep Milo out of trouble in the City this week.
"Not gonna work," Bran declares. "'Less you tie him to his bunk he's gonna get out drinking with those cargo loader buddies of his and then there's no hope."
"I heard that," Milo calls from across the room. "Nothing wrong with having a little fun once in a while."
"Sure," Emmer calls back, "Once in a while, not every damn night."
"Emmer, were you born with a stick up your butt? You sound like my mother."
"Oh fuck you, Milo, just don't come running to me when you're out of money in February." It's teasing, sure, but there's sharp stones just under the soil. It's been months, they all need a break from each other, and Emmer and Milo more than most.
Zea and Emmer scrape out a win this time, and Dale shakes his head. "Damn," he says, clicking his teeth. "Broke our streak."
It's about then that Ester comes back with the foreman, and he's hard to read, but Ester isn't, and they must be fine.
"All equipment present and accounted for," the guy says. "You will report back here at 6 AM sharp, in four days."
Zea sucks in a sharp breath, and she's not the only one. They usually get a week, and it's just long enough to relax a little. Four days, when they haven't had a day off in weeks. There must be a reason, but Zea knows better than to ask.
They walk out together, quiet. Fatigue hits Zea all at once, and it seems like the rest of them feel the same way, walking slow and silent. At the corner they stop. Ester's the first to speak up.
"Thanks guys," she says, a little awkward. "Good season. See you in a few days." Dale waves and follows her, heading for the apartment Ester uses her crew boss bonus to rent time in. Emmer shifts, bites her lip, looks at Zea.
"My folks'll be expecting me," she says, quiet. "I'd ask you but...they...they don't know you, it's just a couple days..." She shrugs as she trails off. Milo, bless him, is talking to Bran, a few steps away, tactful for once in his life.
"It's okay," Zea says, shrugs. "Didn't expect an invitation." Emmer nods, steps forward hesitantly and gives Zea a chaste kiss. She makes up for it a little by sliding her fingers down the line of Zea's jaw as she pulls away and smiling, shy and sweet.
"I'll see you in a few days," Emmer says. She walks away without looking back, picking up the pace as she crosses the street.
Zea turns to Milo and Bran. "Come on," she says, "let's see if we can find some bunks."
They fall into step. "Prob'ly won't be a problem," Bran says. "If everyone's on short leave, it's gonna be pretty empty."
Milo snorts. "Nice change," he says. "Last winter we were packed in like grain in an elevator. I mean sure, it's nice for keepin' warm, but a guy likes to pick who he shares a bed with."
Zea rolls her eyes. "Guys who can't pay shouldn't complain."
That gets her a glare, but only a halfhearted one, since Zea and the rest of the crew covered for him so he wouldn't get kicked out a few weeks before they left for spring planting. It was a miserable winter, cold and damp so planting was late and everyone was running low on cash and patience. They're all hoping this year will be better.
When they arrive at the barracks, the common room is nearly empty--a few tables of folks playing cards, a TV on in a corner. In the office, a woman looks them up and down, mouth pinching tight at their dusty overalls, battered duffels, and Zea reaches up, suddenly self-conscious, to tuck a stray hair behind her ear. "How long you here for?" the woman asks, looking down at her ledger.
"Four days," Bran answers.
The woman nods. "Bunks 7, 10, and 13," she says, handing over their passes. "Room A. Laundry and bathrooms out back, try and keep them clean, and that'll be 40 each."
Zea's eyebrows go up. "How's that?" Milo asks, sharp.
The woman gives them a thin smile. "Maintenance and heating costs have increased."
"It's August, what the--" Milo starts.
"Milo," Bran cuts him off, sharp. "Just pay." For a minute Milo looks like he's going to argue, and the woman watches him, mouth a thin line and eyes sharp.
They pull out the bills and hand them over, and Zea starts recalculating her winter budget. Milo mutters as they head to the bunk room, and that at least is just like normal, narrow beds with thin lumpy mattresses, footlocker at the end of each for their gear. There's only a handful of people in the room and it echoes with their footsteps as they head to a line of bunks. Zea and Bran start pulling out their things, sorting out what to take to the laundry. Milo's still fuming about the price though, and he dumps his entire duffel into the locker, slams on a padlock and storms out. Bran sighs.
Zea takes a load to the laundry, parts with more of her hard earned cash for it, takes her allotted 7-minute shower with water hot enough to strip away the field dust, then wanders back to her bunk. She nods to the others, nobody she knows, Bran's headed off someplace. She could go into town, could go see if she can get into one of the card games in the common room, but she's feeling shy, off-balance. Her bunk's against the wall, so she hangs her blanket from the bunk above in the universal signal for "don't bug me" and pulls out her book.
After a while she has to stop. It's too strange. What's left of the Joad family is in a government camp. Zea's throat went dry when they pulled in, expecting Peacekeepers and work quotas and something like the Community Home her mother occasionally threatened her with when she wouldn't do her chores. But Zea doesn't see the government anywhere. Instead it's just people, making and enforcing their own rules, helping each other out, and it's so startling that Zea puts the book back under her pillow and stares up at the scarred wood of the bunk above her.
She's still there when she hears Milo's voice. "I know you're not fucking in there, Zea, and it's too early to be sleeping, so come out." He's still half-pissed, but the other half's amused, so she sticks her head out.
"What's up, Milo?" She asks, half annoyed and half grateful to be pulled away from her own thoughts.
"You can't mope in there forever, come get a beer and some food."
Zea raises an eyebrow. She's crewed with Milo since she started out, but they've never exactly been friends. He's certainly never invited her out for drinks and dinner, and hopefully this isn't some ludicrous attempt at flirting.
"Oh for fucks sake," Milo says, "I'm not hitting on you, just thought you might want to see our old boss."
"Durum's here?" Now Zea climbs out of bed.
"Yeah, can't very well drive with cataracts like his. He's got some shitty factory job."
Zea winces. Durum had always hated the city more than most, tried to pull winter trucking jobs or get down south to where they could keep some alfalfa growing all winter and needed cutters. But Milo's right, only place a guy who's seeing through fog can find a job and that's here. "Yeah," she says, "I'm coming." She burrows into her locker for city shoes, ready for a break from boots, and combs her fingers through her hair. Milo whistles, grins at her when she glares, and she wavers but leaves the elastic band around her wrist instead of twisting her hair up the way she always does.
Milo leads the way, sure of himself here as he is everywhere else, and pretty soon they're out of the drivers district and into the City proper. Zea keeps her eyes out, she's gotten roughed up in these neighborhoods before, but tonight nobody seems to notice them, or at least, not notice that they're out of place. Finally Milo ducks into a doorway that looks just like the others and heads down a rickety flight of stairs into a dimly lit room. One of the doors has Durum's name next to the buzzer. And it's Durum who answers when Milo pushes the button, older and thinner and more bent over than Zea remembers, but his face lights up when Milo says "Hi, boss." Milo wraps the old man in a surprisingly gentle hug, then Durum squints his milky eyes toward Zea.
"Hi Durum," she says, embarrassed, because it's been three years since he left and she hasn't tracked him down and Milo, of all people, did.
"Zea?" He asks, moving closer.
"Yeah, boss, it's me," she answers, and she gets a smile too, slow and warm, and Durum hugs her, slaps her on the back.
"Well, come in," he says, turning to the door. Inside it's warm and close in the August heat, a fan doing its best to recirculate the air. It's not empty either. A couple middle-aged guys, a woman who looks even older than Durum, all sitting around the table with sweating bottles of beer. Durum pulls open an icebox and grabs two more, hands them to Milo and Zea, and they sit.
"These guys used to work for me," Durum says to the crew inside, "back when I could still be in charge of shit." That gets a chuckle. "Zea and Milo, meet Virgil and Bley, and this here's my wife Lucerne." Milo looks just as startled as Zea is. "What?" Durum asks, grinning. "Old folks like company, too." Lucerne laughs at that, smiles up at them.
"So what's new out in the District?" Lucerne asks. Her eyes are blue and piercing, and Zea can't help but contrast them with Durum's fading grey ones.
Zea shrugs, but Milo speaks up. "Tougher quotas," he says. "Barely made ours, and not for lack of trying. We only get 4 days for turnaround, then we're headed out to start planting."
Lucerne raises an eyebrow. "Four days?" she asks, "them barracks must be about empty, corn crews are all still out, so it's what, a couple wheat crews and some freelancers?"
"Pretty much," Milo says, taking a pull of his beer. "Guess they don't want us gossiping."
Durum laughs, one sharp sound that's almost a bark. "They're nervous after what happened in Eleven. Figure the best way to keep anything from happening here is to work us all to death and keep everyone out as much as they can."
"What happened in Eleven?" Zea asks, and all the eyes in the room turn towards her.
Durum glares at Milo. "You didn't tell her?" he asks.
"In the blighted barracks?" Milo fires back. "Course I didn't."
Durum turns towards Zea, and she feels very young suddenly as he takes a breath and tells her. "There were riots in Eleven, Zea. After their little girl got killed in the Games. Set fire to a ginning plant, so don't expect to get any new clothes this year."
Zea swallows. "I've never heard of anything like that," she says, and Durum smiles.
"I have," he says. "Happened a lot, early years. Re-consolidation, moving crews, all started then, and people didn't like it."
"What was it before?" Zea asks, leaning forward, tense.
"Well, it's been Capitol land since way back," Durum says, "but used to be, a Depot ran the sections around it, crews stayed put mostly. Could keep chickens, even a cow or two..." He stops.
"But that meant people were too independent," Lucerne continues. "In the Dark Days, people in the Depots just stopped sending anything, Capitol had to send armored trucks to get the harvest in the end."
Zea sees moonlight, a deserted building, a consolidation notice, and her fingers go to the book hidden in the pocket of her overalls. Lucerne gives her a sharp look. "What've you got there, girl?" she asks, and now Durum turns to look too, forehead wrinkling as he strains to see.
Zea shoots Milo a look but there's no help there, no advice either way, so she pulls out the book, sets it on the table, yellowed pages in the cardboard cover she made for it out of a ration box. "What is it, Zea?" Durum asks, pulling it towards him, fingers ruffling the pages.
"I don't really know," she says. "It's real old though. About a family that gets kicked off their land."
Milo raises an eyebrow at her, and the two guys across the table look skeptical. But Lucerne takes it from Durum and flips it open, at random. "Three hundred thousand, hungry and miserable; if they ever know themselves, the land will be theirs and all the gas, all the rifles in the world won’t stop them." She stops, flips through a few more pages, then looks up at Zea. "I think you've found a legend," she says. "I saw a copy of this once, when I was a little kid." She gives the table a crooked smile. "And yes, it actually was the Dark Days. People were saying we could take back the land." She sets the book down, sighs. "Turns out you need a few rifles on the side of the three hundred thousand though." She keeps flipping though the pages, looking for something, and then draws in a sharp breath. "There it is."
She passes the book to Zea, points to a sentence underlined at the end of a chapter. Zea reads. "In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage."
"The Grapes of Wrath," Lucerne says. "That's what it's called. Older than Panem, that book."
Milo is still staring at Zea. "Where the fuck did you get this?" he asks, looking stunned.
Zea hesitates. "Remember that night out in the Flint Hills when I got in late?" she asks, and Milo frowns, thinking, before he nods. "Found an old shed, bunch of papers, this caught my eye."
Durum laughs. "Told you I taught her well, Milo," he says. "Our Zea's a curious scheister, she was bound to find some trouble eventually."
Zea opens her mouth to protest--she hasn't done anything, not really, but she thinks better of it.
Virgil picks up the book. "Can we make copies?" he asks, excited.
Zea's hackles rise at the idea of letting the thing out of her sight. "I'm not finished with it yet," she says, short, and Durum's eyes drift towards her again, a smile playing around his mouth.
"We won't take it from you till you're done, kid," he says. "But I'd like to borrow it at the winter break. Lucerne's got good handwriting."
Virgil's flipping through the pages. "We'll make a shortened version. Easier to pass around." He looks up at Zea, eyes wide with excitement. "This is just what we need."
Zea fell in an irrigation ditch one spring and this feels like that, fast-moving water suddenly sweeping her feet out from under her, and she's not sure where the ground is. "What do you mean?" she asks, and Lucerne gives her what's probably meant to be a comforting look, but it just pisses Zea off, being treated like a kid. She glares back, and Lucerne smiles ruefully and runs a hand through her short hair.
"Eleven's just the beginning," she says. "The Games, the riots, the high quotas, curfews some places, long hours...there's a moment, right now, when something might change. We just want to be ready if it does."
Zea looks around the room. They're all watching her, and Milo's almost glaring, arms crossed over his chest. She thinks about the Games, the girl with the berries and the boy dying slowly, torn to pieces, the end of last winter when they started kicking people out of the barracks to try to sleep outside in the freezing sleet because they couldn't pay for a bed. Thinks about Durum, exiled to a factory job and a tiny apartment underground because the Capitol won't fix his eyes. She looks at him, not sure how much he sees but she wants him to know she means this. "Okay," she says, "count me in."
It seems like no time before they're heading back to the stockyard, bleary and grumbling in the dim grey morning. Zea's stomach is still roiling from a last-night-in-town party she let Milo drag her to, too little sleep and too much bootleg liquor. Milo looks even more miserable than she does, but Bran, who was smart and left early, is far too excited about getting back on the road.
Emmer's already there when they arrive, and Zea's cheeks flush with a kind of embarrassment she thought she'd outgrown, seeing Emmer's sleek new City haircut, smooth wool sweater in the early-morning chill. Zea stuffs her hands into the pockets of her cheap cotton sweatshirt and gives Emmer a rueful half-smile.
Emmer clears the air by giving Zea her wide brilliant grin, which turns teasing when she comes closer. "Milo's a bad influence," she says, but she slips an arm through the crook of Zea's elbow, curling clever fingers into the small of Zea's back and kissing her quick.
"Didn't have you to keep me in line," Zea shoots back, once Emmer steps away.
Milo snorts and rolls his eyes, but he's too tired, apparently, to come up with anything better. Ester and Dale come in then, and then it's hellos all around while Ester goes to see the foreman.
They've loaded four planters onto the trailers, and it's not a surprise but Milo and Zea still groan. Four planters means two people doing double duty, means Milo or Zea will have to drive now, and Bran will have to plant when they get out wherever they're headed. Efficiency measure, put in place a couple years ago when the quotas went up and the fallows shrank, and everyone still hates it. It's even more rushed than cutting, two trucks keeping four planters full of seed and fertilizer and whatever they're spraying this year. But the experts in Three claim the machines can do it and the bosses in the City like it and the Capitol likes it so here they are.
Zea looks over at Milo, and really neither of them is fit to drive six hours to the Enid depot but Zea at least got some sleep, she doesn't even know when Milo got in. So she sighs hugely and says "Okay, I'll drive."
Emmer gives her a sympathetic look and Milo grins in relief so Zea punches him in the arm as she passes. "You owe me one," she says, reconsiders. "Actually, it's a six-hour drive. You owe me a lot more than one."
Ester sighs. "Thanks Zea," she says. "Emmer, why don't you ride with her, keep her awake."
Milo snorts. "Not sure that's safer, Ester," he says, and Emmer's face goes dark for a minute before she laughs it off.
"Come on," Dale says, exasperated. "Let's go."
It's a little awkward at first, just the two of them without any buffer from the rest of the crew, but by the time Zea's followed Dale out of town, she's relaxed a little. Zea hasn't driven truck since last year planting, but she remembers well enough, and once they're on the straight empty roads to the Depots she can flip on the cruise control and relax as the truck follows the metal strip embedded under the asphalt. Dale claims you can't trust those things, keeps it on manual most of the time, but Zea figures whatever brain's built into the thing's probably better than her hungover self anyway and lets it go.
"So," she says, turning to Emmer, "how's your folks in town?"
Emmer smiles back. "They're good." She looks out the window, back to Zea. "My Mom wants to know how long I plan on vagabonding around with the crews before trying for a job in the shops."
Zea winces. "It's only been a couple years you're working with us," she says. "What's her rush?"
Emmer runs a hand through her hair, pushing it back from her face, and it's a good thing the truck's on automatic because Zea's full attention is definitely not on the road. "She wants to brag to her friends, and she wants grandkids."
That hits Zea's brain with a thud. "Grandkids?" she asks, trying to keep her voice normal.
"Yeah." Emmer glances over, her mouth twisted up, then looks back out the window.
Zea watches the back of Dale's truck for a while, traces the long line of the horizon out beyond. "You want kids?" she asks, glancing sideways at Emmer.
Emmer shrugs, still looking out the window. "Not yet," she says. They lapse into silence for a while, as Zea checks the levels on her console, backs off a bit from Dale as they go through the hills.
"I told them about you," Emmer says, glancing over at Zea. "Said you'd probably stop by some this winter."
"Yeah?" Zea tries not to let her suspicion leak into her voice.
"Yeah," Emmer says. "It's fine, they'll be nice."
Zea bites her tongue on the sarcastic responses that crawl up her throat and try to choke her. They'll be nice, right until her back is turned and they can wonder what a drifter driver is doing with their daughter, keep counting the days till Emmer quits this job and quits Zea and moves back to town to settle.
"What?" Emmer asks, and her voice has an edge to it now.
Zea leans her head back against the headrest, stares up at the ceiling. "Nothing," she says, and then, "really," when Emmer sighs. "It's just, well... Seems like a low bar."
Emmer chuckles a little at that. "Yeah, well, that's my folks." Zea looks over, and Emmer's lopsided smile looks like an apology. "Works better if you don't expect much."
Zea nods. She's not quite sure where her parents are by now, they'd have shifted depots this year and she didn't get a letter while they were in town. Last year they'd cut wheat out of Inman and she'd spent a night eating her Mom's familiar cooking, vegetables from the garden scraped out back of the house, bread from wheat tailings and the fake meat Dad's brother makes out of soy and trades in town. But that made five years in one spot, and so they'll be somewhere new now, and Zea didn't get around to looking them up at the Justice Building when they were in the City.
Not that it'd make a difference. Either they go through her folks' depot or they don't, and "because I miss my Mom" isn't a clear and pressing reason for a travel pass.
Emmer's watching her, a frown pulling her eyebrows together. "Sorry," she says. "I didn't mean to make you upset."
Zea tries for a smile. "It's okay," she says, and when Emmer's frown deepens, she adds, "I'm just tired."
Emmer threads her fingers into Zea's. "Okay," she says, and this time the silence is comfortable.
They start planting the same afternoon, and the work doesn't let up for a week. Bran and Milo and Zea share the extra shifts, all three of them planting with Emmer while Dale and Ester make supply runs, trading off who gets a couple extra hours sleep on the way to the next spot. Emmer's overloaded after the first week, every stone anywhere in the county seems to end up denting someone's disk, seeders jam, anhydrous injectors get clogged. So whatever machine's worst off stays behind for Emmer to fix by headlights in the shortening days, while the rest of them head to the next day's spot. Zea and Milo start fixing minor stuff themselves, helping Bran with the unfamiliar equipment, and Zea doesn't have time to think about either what happened at Durum's or what's up with Emmer. Just counts herself lucky to steal the occasional kiss when Emmer drags herself awake after another late night, fingers tangling over morning rations and coffee.
She's riding with Milo when they drive through the Flint Hills, not stopping this time, but it's a full moon and the limestone outcrops shine in the moonlight and remind Zea of the last time they were here. Her book's turned bleak, one misfortune after another grinding the family into tough husks of people who can't do much more than scramble to get by, sinking farther and farther into the dust like the time Zea almost drowned in a grain bin, the wheat pouring over her faster and faster the more she struggled.
She pulls it out to slog through another heartbreak and Milo gives her a sharp look, glances toward the radio. She rolls her eyes at him and sits back, pulling her feet up to rest on the seat, boots abandoned in the footwell. He shakes his head, but there's nothing he can say with the radio in the car uncovered, and even if Ester is still back with Emmer and out of range, Dale will give them shit on her behalf if they try to muffle it. So Zea reads about picking cotton, and it sounds like a miserable damn job, and Nine might be tough in winters but at least it's mechanized. Not like Eleven, and maybe the Capitol's got machines for the cotton harvest now too but she's heard they still use kids to pick fruit, so maybe cotton's the same way.
She's drifting off by the time Milo pulls into the camp spot, opens the door to the smell of rain and the wind that means there's a storm coming. Zea grins into the wind, if it rains hard enough they can't plant tomorrow and Snow knows they could use a break. Puts the tent up quick, slides into her sleeping bag against the fall chill, and falls asleep.
The thunder cracks close and loud and the lightning lights up the whole sky, and Zea jerks awake, disoriented. Emmer got in sometime while Zea was asleep, is curled on her side still asleep even now. Zea peeks out, sees the rain sheeting down outside, checks that no water's getting in, and curls herself around Emmer. And the explosions of thunder and lightning didn't wake her up, but as soon as Zea slides a hand around her, Emmer shifts onto her back, smiles sleepily up at Zea. "Hey," Emmer says, voice sleep-rough. The thunder crashes again and she rolls back onto her side, pulling Zea with her. "Mmm," she says, still not quite awake. "Sounds like we get to sleep in."
It's still raining, the last reluctant clouds straggling off toward the east, when Ester's voice wakes them all up.
"We're off for the morning," she calls, and she can't even pretend to sound disappointed. "I'll see how it looks at noon."
They drift back to sleep, still tangled up, and Zea wakes up every couple hours but she can't dredge up the energy to do much more than nuzzle her nose into Emmer's hair. Emmer turns toward her, shifts up so they can kiss, sloppy and lazy and half-asleep, and Zea holds her close and tries to keep the moment stored in her memory like the seashells that left impressions in the limestone hills, a touchstone to hold during the cold dark winter.
It's still too muddy at noon to risk the tractors getting stuck, but Zea and Emmer get up anyway, head out to scrounge up something to eat. Ester and Dale are already there, and Bran and Milo come out while Zea is still getting her coffee. They sit at the weathered old table and watch the clouds fade out into the distance, quiet the way a crew only gets when they've worn out early curiosity and mid-season teasing and all the jokes are old already. When they've eaten they drift away, Bran heading over to check the planter, Milo to walk the field edges, Ester to pull her logbooks from her truck. Zea leaves Emmer and Dale at the table talking about something to do with City housing that she doesn't understand and ducks into the tent to read.
When she turns to the last page her breath catches. That can't be all of it. Can't be that this family gets torn apart and left tossed into a flood like so much trash, the baby that was supposed to be born in a house in California born dead into a world without hope, the milk intended for him given to an old man who'll probably starve to death anyway, just like they probably all will. It grates at her and she's sad and frustrated and angry because what's the fucking point, and she ducks out of the tent and out toward the fields before Emmer can catch her eye to ask her what's wrong.
And she's not paying attention to where she's going, so she almost runs into Milo.
"Woah there, girl," he says, stopping short. Zea's head snaps up to look at him and she has to bite back a snarl that isn't for him, she isn't sure who it's for, everything and nothing and an author long since dead. Takes a breath and jerks her head to say "follow me."
They head out into the field a ways, and Zea drops to a crouch, digging her fingers into the mat of stubble and dead weeds, pretending she cares whether the soil's dry enough to plant. "What's wrong, Zea?" Milo asks in a low voice.
Zea looks up at him, reminds herself they can't bug a field the tractors will drive through tomorrow, and grits out the words. "The book is stupid. They're all going to die and there's no fucking point."
Milo's mouth quirks up at one corner. "You gotta die of something," he says, in the fake-flippant voice she's heard from one too many guys in the barracks, late winter, before they head out to work double shifts in dark railyards for next to no pay, climb up into rickety elevator catwalks to sleep when they can't pay for the barracks.
"We grow plenty of food, nobody should starve in Panem." Zea knows that's naive, knows she deserves the look Milo gives her that makes her feel about twelve years old.
But then Milo sighs and his face shifts, anger and something else leaking out past his habitual vague amusement at the state of the world. "They shouldn't," he says, and he's not humoring her. "And no kids should be scared of the Reaping, and you shouldn't have to hide in the middle of a damn wheat field to say that kinda shit in whispers." They're shoulder to shoulder, looking out away from the camp, and Milo turns to face her before he goes on, his sharp, narrowed eyes demanding her full attention. "It shouldn't be like this, it doesn't have to be like this, and those folks in Eleven, they know that. That's why there were riots, Zea, when that little girl died in the Games. Not like twelve-year-olds don't die every year. This time there were riots, this time the Victors said a big 'fuck you' to the Capitol, this year we're getting pushed harder and farther and maybe this year we finally get fed up enough to call the whole thing off."
Zea's frozen in place, the things Milo's saying and the biting precise way he says them shake her down to her boots, stuck in the prairie mud. "That's what it's gonna take, Zea," he says, watching her. "Else they'll just keep pushing until we break. Just a few more hours, higher quotas, higher prices for the bunks, till none of us can make a living, and then maybe those geniuses in Three invent a combine that drives itself and we'll just be dead weight. Or just plain dead. It's gotta change."
"But what can we even do?" Zea asks, mesmerized, terrified, exhilarated.
Milo deflates a little at that. "Don't know just yet. But I'm not the only one thinking it here, and I'd place bets it's not just in Nine and Eleven. Maybe the Tour, those kids..." he trails off, shrugs. "But I'm not done thinking yet," he says, fierce again.
Zea's about to answer when Ester's voice rings out across the field. "You guys looking for buried treasure out there?"
They stand up, and Milo turns, his usual smirk back in place. "Nah," he hollers back. "Trying to see if we can make it any muddier, maybe get another day off."
Ester shakes her head, and Milo shrugs and leads the way back to camp.
"Not reading tonight?" Emmer asks, when they crawl into bed for the night.
Zea sighs, looking up at the nylon above them. "Finished it," she says.
"Good ending?" The question's perfunctory, polite interest at best.
"No. They end up pretty well screwed," Zea says. "Winter, no work, they run outa money and get flooded out and that's the end."
"Why'd anyone bother writing a book like that?" Emmer sounds annoyed. "That's just depressing."
"Real though," Zea says, and what's funny is a couple hours ago she'd been complaining to Milo about slogging through hundreds of pages to end up in mud and despair but now somehow she feels like she has to defend it. "Not like people didn't freeze to death last year 'cause they couldn't afford beds." She'd been shocked, her first winter in the City, to see a man curled in a doorway, frost on his eyelashes, lips blue, looking asleep. She'd been with Dale, walking to find breakfast someplace 'cause Durum was always getting someone or other to keep an eye on her, and he'd sighed and kept walking and when Zea'd asked if they should do something he told her it was too late.
Emmer glares up at the ceiling now. "Yeah, but nobody writes books about that."
"Maybe they should," Zea says, before she can stop herself.
Emmer rolls away, onto her side. "Zea, you can't fix the whole world," she says, tired, frustrated, and Zea backs down.
"Sorry," she says, leaning over to stroke Emmer's hair.
"'S okay," Emmer sighs, and Zea curls around her to sleep.
They pack up to head for the City on a cold fall morning, the kind where the tents are lined with frost when they wake up and the air is sharp. The scattering of trees around the depot are ringed with pools of golden leaves and the air is brilliant blue and Zea wishes she could winter over out here where there's space and sky.
Emmer doesn't see her drop the book into the bottom of her sleeping bag, so she's saved having that argument again, and Milo's driving back so she climbs up into Dale's truck and stretches out. The wheat makes swaths of bright green where it's coming up, breaking up the shades of brown that otherwise dominate the landscape.
"You got winter plans?" Zea asks finally, breaking a long, comfortable silence.
"I'm on the winter truckers list," Dale says, "I got pretty good seniority and no demerits, so I'll probably get called up."
"That's good," Zea says, "Gets you out of the city."
Dale laughs. "Sure does," he says. "How 'bout you, you got anything lined up?"
Zea sighs. "Not yet," she says, running a hand through her hair. "I worked cargo loading last year, hoping they'll take me back, but they haven't got a lot of seasonal jobs down there so who knows."
Dale nods, solemn. "I'll let you know if I hear anything," he says, and they lapse back into silence.
They turn in their equipment, split up just like after cutting, but this time instead of knowing they'll be back together in just a few days, nobody quite knows what'll happen come spring. They met all their quotas, no major equipment trouble or delays, so they'll probably stick together for next year, but who knows? Maybe Ester will get promoted to a higher-ranked crew, maybe Bran will finally get a crew head job, maybe the foremen will just decide to mix things up. They keep things light, trade hugs and "see you arounds" and Dale says again he'll keep his eyes out for winter work.
Emmer and Zea stay behind after everyone else has left.
"Your folks don't have a phone, do they?" Zea asks.
"No," Emmer says, hesitant. "But there's a phone in the barracks, right?"
"Yeah, ask for me and someone'll find me probably, or take a message."
"Okay," Emmer pauses, smiles ruefully. "I'm gonna miss you," she says. "Won't feel right having a bed to myself."
Zea returns the smile. "You could always stay in the barracks," she says, trying to keep it a joke.
Emmer wrinkles her nose. "Don't know if I'll miss you that much," she says, and that's a joke too but it's got sharp edges to it anyway. "I'll check with my folks," she hurries on, so Zea doesn't have to figure out how to respond, "We'll have you over sometime."
"That'd be good," Zea says, and they both step forward, into an embrace shielded by their jackets, and Zea smells the dust and soap and engine oil of Emmer's hair before bending down to meet her lips.
Emmer pulls away first. "See you, Zea," she says, squeezing Zea's fingers and then releasing them.
"Bye Emmer," Zea says, and watches Emmer for almost a block before she turns toward the barracks.
The barracks are quite a change from the empty, echoing place that felt too big just a few weeks ago. Most of the beds are filled now, all the chairs in the common room occupied, card games and bottles being passed and so many conversations Zea couldn't keep track if she tried. It's too much, too loud, so as soon as she's locked her things into the box at the end of her bed she heads out into the city streets. The barracks are on the edge of town, and as Zea walks toward the far-off river the buildings shift, from warehouses and bunkrooms to blocky apartment buildings. Zea's not heading anywhere in particular, but she winds up near the train tracks, in among the refineries and the mills where the smells and sounds bombard her but the streets'll stay empty till the shift change.
And as long as she's here she may as well go down to the station, see if they need any cargo loaders for the season.
The loading docks are all fenced off with razor wire, and there's no train in, but a few forklifts are speeding around, shifting crated equipment and pallets of packaged tesserae rations from one place to the next. Zea keeps an eye out, but she doesn't recognize anyone from last year, not from this far away anyway. There's Peacekeepers stationed every few yards in pairs, one inside the fence, one outside, back to back. They don't give any sign that they've noticed her, blank visors staring straight ahead.
There's more Peacekeepers than Zea remembers, but she can't be sure. There's definitely more at the station, a pair at each door, plus the patrols circling the area. She ducks inside, feeling somehow underdressed under all those stares, and heads to the basement to find the cargo foreman.
It's the same guy she talked to last year, and when she knocks on the doorframe he looks up, thinks for a second, then says "Zea, right?"
"Yes, sir," she says, trying and failing to come up with his name. "I was hoping you might need folks for the winter."
His eyebrows draw together and he turns in his chair to pull a file from a drawer. "Come sit," he says, motioning.
He flips through that file, digs out another, nods. "You worked out pretty well last year," he says, looking through the file. "We had to let a couple people go, too much chit-chat with those gearhead Sixes on the train crews." He looks up at her, sharp. "You remember the rules. No fraternization."
"Yes sir," Zea says again, and somewhere in the back of her mind something sparks but she looks back at him, steady. "I understand."
"It'd only be a few hours a day," he says. "But we could use you on a forklift for the train at midnight."
It's better than nothing, and she can always try for something else if it ends up not enough hours. "Thank you, sir," Zea says. "When can I start?"
The man slides a sheet across the desk. "Soon as you clear the background check." Zea looks down at it, surprised. There hadn't been anything like this last year.
"New rules for anyone working loading and unloading," the foreman says, catching her surprise. "There gonna be a problem?"
"No, I don't think so," Zea says, picking up the pen he slides toward her and printing carefully, name, previous work, contact information. Finally she slides it across the table and the man pulls it toward him, opens his drawer to pull out a long, narrow box. He opens it, carefully pulls out a finger-stick analyzer. Zea holds out her hand. "Been a while since I had to do this," she says, remembered anxiety sending a ghost of a shiver down her spine. "Hope they're not extending Reaping age another decade."
The man doesn't smile, just stabs her finger, looks at the device in his hand until it flashes and beeps, then nods and stamps her form. "Come tomorrow at 11," he says. "It should be processed by then."
"Thank you, sir," Zea says again, and heads out, past the Peacekeepers, the factories, the apartments to the barracks.
The next night Zea waits as long as she can stand to get dinner at one of the cafeterias nearby. All year long she's been up at dawn, loading up and moving out to the fields as soon as the dew's burned off. And now, if last year's a good indication, she'll be getting home around 3 or 4. So she lingers over the food, gets a cup of strong coffee, watches as people come in, fill up plates, cluster around the tables. Until the clatter of a tray brings her attention back, and Milo sits down next to her.
"Hey there," he says, looking her over.
"Hey Milo," Zea says. "Haven't seen you around much."
Milo shrugs, looks back at his food. "Been out looking for work," he says. "It's tough this year, factories aren't hiring as many."
Zea raises an eyebrow and Milo shrugs. "Heard they're worried about troublemakers," he says, giving her a careful look. "How 'bout you, you find something?"
"Yeah," Zea says. "Loading cargo. If my background check clears I start tonight at 11."
Milo looks at her, and Zea can pretty much see the gears spinning in his head. "Background check?" he asks.
"Yep, stuck my finger like I was at the Reaping."
"Huh," Milo says, turns back to his food. He doesn't say anything else till he's finished. "We should go see the boss sometime," he says, as he's getting up with his tray.
"Sure thing," Zea says, smiles at the thought, even though she's pretty sure Milo's talking serious business and not just nostalgia.
"See you around," Milo says, and heads out.
Zea gets to the station fifteen minutes early, and it turns out that's a good thing. The night manager's in the basement office when she goes in. "Yes?" he asks, looking through her.
"Zea Seibel," she says, "The foreman told me to come today, said my paperwork should be processed?"
The name seems to ring a bell, and the manager shuffles through a pile of papers. "Yes, everything seems to be in order," he says, and he holds out a key card that looks like the one she had last year, until she turns it, sees her name and face printed large across the front. "Give me your hand," the manager says, and Zea gets her blood checked for the second time in as many days. When the device beeps, he nods, picks up the phone, motions her to sit. "Yes, I need an escort for a new hire," he says into the phone, then "Yes," and "Yes, sir," and hangs up.
"You scan your card to enter the cargo area," he says, to Zea now. "You scan to start your machine, you scan when you leave. There is a tracker embedded in it so we will know if you are in an unauthorized area. We had to deal with a few troublemakers this summer, and we do not want any more. Is that understood?"
"Yes sir," Zea says, intimidated. Before long she hears boots on the stairs and a Peacekeeper appears in the doorway. He's not wearing a helmet, but he's no more readable than the blank masks she's used to.
"Zea Seibel?" he asks, and she nods. "Come with me."
That's the last thing he says as they go up the stairs, around the back, to the gate. Zea holds her card up to a reader--that much is the same as last year, but the gate doesn't open.
"Hold still," the Peacekeeper says, "look at the camera."
Zea looks around until she sees it, straight above the gate. There's a red light flashing, and it goes solid, then finally beeps, and the gate opens. The Peacekeeper leads her to where a group is assembling around the forklift. "Wiens?" the Peacekeeper says, and the crew boss turns toward them. He doesn't react, so Zea tries to keep her own face neutral when she recognizes Virgil. "New driver for your crew. She's in the system."
Virgil nods. "Thank you, sir," he says, and the Peacekeeper turns and heads out.
Virgil catches her eye for just a second, a hint of a smile before he hands out assignments, and Zea gets the girl standing next to her to demonstrate how to unlock the forklift.
It's not till a couple days later that Milo comes by her bunk, jerks his head toward the door, and she follows him out, stopping only to slide her battered book into a pocket. He doesn't say a word until they're well away, and then it's casual, conversational.
"Thought you might want some real home cooking," he says, smirking. "Working girl and all."
Zea rolls her eyes. She should be grateful to have a job at all, but the schedule, the noisy barracks that wake her long before she's slept enough to be rested, the long bleak days with nothing to do but play cards with whoever else is around--she'll manage, but it's rough.
"You find something?" she asks, and now it's Milo's turn to look away.
"Apparently I got too many bad conduct citations," he says. "If I'd'a known they were gonna get this strict about winter hiring, I might've kept my mouth shut more often."
Zea snorts. "Sure you would've. And I'd'a grown wings so I could fly back here instead of driving."
Milo laughs, a quick, surprised sound. "Well, maybe not," he allows, and they keep walking.
Durum lets them in with the same bear hugs as last time, gives Zea's hand an extra squeeze before leading them to the table. Lucerne comes out of the kitchen with a huge platter of verenike, and Zea's mouth starts watering. She hasn't had those since she left home.
Lucerne smiles, sits. Just then there's another knock, a key in the door, and Virgil comes in. Lucerne gets up, sets another place while Virgil pulls off his boots.
Zea waits till they're done eating, but she can't put off the curiosity forever. "Did you get me put on your cargo crew?" she blurts out, and Durum laughs.
Virgil cracks a smile, nods. "Foreman's a friend of mine. Heard you'd worked at the yards last winter--" he glances at Durum, who's still grinning like a bandit. "So I told him I wanted you for my crew if you came by."
Lucerne gives her a serious look. "We want to make contacts with the train crews. Night trains are a little easier."
Zea nods. It'd been too neat, walking straight into a place on Virgil's crew. "Anything in particular I'm supposed to do?" she asks.
Lucerne shakes her head. "Not yet," she says. "We're feeling some folks out, we'll have to see."
Zea nods, pulls the book out of her pocket. "I finished it. The ending's fucking terrible," she says, vehement, "but it's got good parts."
Durum's laughing at her, again. Lucerne smiles, but Virgil's just looking at the thing, intent. "It's history," he says, "before the Capitol, before everything. It matters."
Zea sighs. "Yeah," she says, "and…it fits. You push and you push, you scrape and you work and if you're lucky you make it through the year." She's thought about this, empty mornings when she's too tired to get up but it's too loud to sleep. "They got all the leverage, we gotta shift the balance."
Milo smirks. "You been hanging out too much with that mechanic of yours," he says. But no one says she's wrong.
Lucerne picks up the battered thing. "I'll copy it out," she says. "Durum can't, Zea's in the barracks, Milo can't stop by too much or people'll start wondering, Virgil's gotta stay clean. It's me."
"Read it out loud," Durum says, first time he's broken his silence since they started talking about all this. "We'll put it on a chip, those are faster to copy."
Lucerne covers his hand with hers. "And then you'll get the whole thing, too," she says, fond. "Sure, makes sense."
After that they go back to small talk--but everything seems to fit into something larger, from the extra security Virgil's complaining about, the fact that Milo can't get work, the whole district a little more on edge.
On their walk back, Milo stops a few blocks from the barracks. "Zea," he says, putting a hand on her shoulder, turning her to face him. "You wanna back out, you do it now, okay?"
"I'm not backing out," Zea snaps, and Milo's chest rises and falls in a deep breath.
"You're a good kid," he says, and Zea bristles at that but keeps her mouth shut. "This is gonna be trouble."
"I know that," Zea says, impatient. "I'm not stupid, Milo."
"I know you're not." Milo's hand is gripping just too hard to be comfortable. "You might be too smart to get yourself into this, hell if I know."
"Milo, I get it. I'm in. All the way."
He looks at her hard for another minute, then nods, drops his hand, and they go into the barracks.
The next day, Zea's playing Euchre with Bran against a pair of guys from one of the corn crews when the manager calls her name.
When she goes up to the desk, he hands her the phone and Zea has just enough time to get worried.
"Hello?" she asks,
"Hey Zea," and even if Emmer's voice sounds strange over the phone, she doesn't sound upset so it's not an emergency.
"Hi Emmer," Zea replies, and she smiles even though Emmer isn't there to see it. "How's things?"
Emmer chuckles, low in her throat. "Things are good," she says, "how 'bout you?"
"Not bad, got work at the trainyards. Night shift, part time, but at least it's something."
"Oh, nice," Emmer says, pauses. "So, I uh, I was wondering if you wanted to come over for dinner? Tomorrow?"
Zea bites her lip, takes one slow breath. "Yeah," she says, excited and nervous and happy all at once, "That'd be good."
"I'm about to head home," Emmer says, "so maybe around this time tomorrow?" She sounds half-nervous herself and Zea wants to laugh at the both of them, acting like teenagers setting up a first date.
"Sure, Emmer, that'll be fine," Zea says, not quite sure which one of them she's reassuring.
When she heads back to the table, she tries to compose herself, but apparently she's not too successful. "Looks like somebody's got a date," Bran sing-songs, and the corn guys laugh, and Zea just glares at all of them and picks up her cards, glad to have something else to look at.
The next afternoon Zea pulls on a skirt, a nice sweater, and lets her hair fall around her shoulders instead of pulling it back. She shrugs into her coat and hurries outside before Milo or Bran can give her shit for dressing up, hurries through the streets toward the nice, residential part of town, then slows down because she left herself too much time and now she's early.
The neighborhood's full of shoebox houses, identical boxes on scraps of grass, and Zea might have grown up in the depots but she knows that City folks put a lot of store in having a house with a yard.
When she gets to Emmer's house she pauses on the street, takes a few deep breaths. The house is small, but neat, no peeling paint or disrepair, and even though the garden beds are winter-brown, Zea would bet money they're for flowers, not vegetables.
And she doesn't want someone to look out the window and see her standing around staring like an idiot so she walks up the steps to the door and knocks.
Emmer answers, her hair still wet from the shower, and her smile when she recognizes Zea is warm and genuine. Zea steps into a hug, her chin fitting just right as always into the curve of Emmer's shoulder, then pulls away just enough for a kiss.
Emmer pulls away quickly, and Zea's startled at first, but then she looks up and Emmer's parents are standing just a little further inside, watching. Zea flushes, sure her cheeks are bright red, and tucks her hair behind her ears.
"Mom, Dad," Emmer says. "This is Zea. Zea, my mom and dad--Lobelia and Arthur."
Zea steps forward, shakes Arthur's hand, then Lobelia's. "Pleased to meet you," she says, and Emmer's mom gives her a small, tight smile.
Her dad nods, serious, and replies. "It's good to meet you, Zea, may I take your coat?"
Zea shrugs out of it and she sees Emmer grin once she's unwrapped enough it's obvious she's dressed up for the occasion. While Arthur goes to hang her coat in the closet, Emmer steps up to take Zea's hand, bump their shoulders together and head for the couch. Her mom makes excuses and heads for the kitchen.
"So," Arthur says, sitting down across from them. "Emmer tells us you drive combines."
"I do," Zea says, biting down on the part that wants to add a "sir" to the end of it. Emmer said her dad was a foreman, and Zea can tell. "And I'm working at the trainyards over the winter," she adds, because it's not prestigious or anything but at least she's not just sitting around.
He nods. "I hear they had some problems down there, I hope everything's settled down by now."
"I've only been working a few days," Zea hedges, "But it seems calm."
Lobelia comes to fetch them after a few more minutes, and Zea sits next to Emmer and keeps her hands on her lap until Emmer's right hand slides over to catch hold of Zea's left. Emmer squeezes slightly, catches Zea's eye and smiles, and at least that helps Zea relax a little bit.
"It's all very good," Zea says, once she's tasted the meat, potatoes, green beans. Nine standards all of them, but the meat is fresh and potatoes were expensive last Zea checked, bulky things, shipped down from north Nine. It's showing off without seeming like it, and Zea's seen this game played enough to know how it goes without having a clue why people bother.
"Thank you," Lobelia says, with the same tight smile as before. "There was a shipment of meat on sale this week, I thought we could have something special."
Emmer's face twists like she's trying not to laugh, and Zea looks away before it gets contagious. She hunts for something to ask, can't think of anything.
Luckily Emmer saves her. "Mom used to work in the Peacekeepers canteen, that's why she's such a good cook."
"That must've been interesting," Zea says, and it sounds trite but she does actually mean it.
Lobelia smiles for real for a second. "It was," she says. "The young ones were always homesick for mountains, they said they couldn't get used to how flat it is here. Of course they aren't supposed to fraternize much, but they liked my baking, and sometimes I'd give them something extra to share around, and we'd get to talking."
She looks embarrassed, but Emmer picks up. "There's two guys from Six in the overwinter shop," she says, "they've both been here a long time though, they say it's nicer here."
Arthur's mouth narrows. "Just don't you pick up any nasty habits," he says, and Emmer sighs.
"Dad, they don't give inter-district work permits to just anyone," she says, exasperated, and Arthur grudgingly cedes the point.
When they're done eating, Emmer declares that she's walking Zea back to the barracks. It'd actually be quicker to walk to work from here, but it's early still and Zea doesn't really want to wait around.
They walk in silence for a while. Emmer reaches for Zea's hand after a few blocks, and a little later she says, "They're nice people, really."
Zea laughs. "It's okay," she says. "I'm not their kind of person, so they didn't know what to say. I get it."
"Okay," Emmer says, a little sad. "I just…it's just how they are."
Zea stops, tugs Emmer around for a hug and a kiss. "I get it," she says. "It's okay."
Emmer steps close, reaches to plant a line of kisses along Zea's jaw. "It's really too bad it's so cold…" she says, "and that the barracks have no privacy whatsoever."
Zea laughs. "Come back anyway," she says. "We'll hang a blanket over the bed and pretend it's our tent."
Emmer pulls away, turns to keep walking. "Mmmmm" she says, non-committal, and when they reach the barracks entrance she gives Zea a long, lingering kiss but then she pulls away. "I should get back," she says, with a smile that just for a second looks like her mom's. "Bye Zea."
"Bye Emmer," Zea says, shoving her hands into her coat pockets, and the silence hangs awkward for a moment before Emmer turns to go.
It's cold and windy the day the Victory Tour comes to District Nine. Zea stands with Emmer, which means Milo's nowhere near, and it's probably better that way. There's whispers about what happened after the "technical difficulties" in District 11 a few days ago, and while nothing out of the ordinary happened in Ten, Zea's still hoping for some spark from the girl who managed to game the Gamemakers. If she was standing with Milo she'd be tempted to whisper something, to make faces or roll her eyes or do something that in a normal year would be just obnoxious but this year could be fatal. Emmer's slipped away from her winter shop friends to stand with Zea in a mixed-up crowd from the drivers' barracks, back behind the City folks so they won't show up on the cameras. The screens are broadcasting the kids toward the front, dressed up and grinning and bouncing up and down because there's no school today and they get to run around. There's a ring of well-dressed probably-parents behind them, and then nothing but the best-dressed people District Nine has to offer.
The Justice Building is hung with a giant wreath, supposed to represent the harvest bounty that's been in the elevators for weeks now. Woven wheat, around stalks of corn that're somehow still green, decorated with greenery from who knows where and bright sunflowers that are either fake or trucked in. And this is where if Milo were here Zea'd ask him where he thought it all came from, but Emmer would just give her a shocked look so she keeps quiet.
The train pulls in with a last whistle and a steam release that's gotta be as fake as those sunflowers, because the cargo trains don't do that so why would the fancy Capitol train? But it means that the Victors step out into steam that clears quickly in the wind so they look like they're coming out of a cloud. They wave and step up to the microphone and Zea holds her breath--because even the bit before the cameras went blank in Eleven had been special somehow, and maybe, maybe--but no, of course not. The boy smiles in all the right places, pauses, solemn, when he mentions "the brave tributes from District Nine," ends with a call to peace and cooperation among the districts that would have been something if it hadn't ended with "in service to our Capitol."
And the girl, well. Her eyes on the screens are unfocused, staring out towards the horizon that's hidden by the buildings, and she's so obviously saying what someone else told her to say that Zea just stops listening until the applause starts. And it's a little better than perfunctory, because people do like the kids--well, maybe Zea's projecting, but how can anyone not love a pair of kids from District Twelve who managed to do what they did?
After that they're whisked away for staged tours of an ethanol refinery and a tesserae plant, some fancy dinner with the Victors from Nine, and the crowd trickles away.
"They seem like sweet kids," Emmer says, once they're out of the square.
Zea laughs. "Pretty sure 'sweet' isn't really the word for someone who wins the Hunger Games," she says, and Emmer looks away.
"I just meant--" she sighs. "Never mind."
"Well, they're young and in love," Emmer says, one corner of her mouth quirking upwards. "I think that's sweet."
Zea had forgotten about the love story. She wasn't paying attention really, and she doesn't care at all, but she needs to be smarter now, she knows full well what the stakes are. So she lets out a long breath and then smiles. "Yeah," she says, "I guess it is."
The next night she goes to Durum's on her own for the first time. It's stupid to be mad that two 16-year-olds didn't change the world on a publicity tour, but she wanted something and she didn't get it and so here she is, knocking on Durum's door in the middle of the afternoon.
It's Lucerne who opens it, smiling up at Zea with those bright blue eyes, and some of Zea's frustration evaporates just seeing her.
"Come in," she says, smiling. "I'm just doing some baking, if you'd like to help out."
Zea raises an eyebrow. Durum's usually the one who bakes, claims you don't have to see well to knead bread and he may as well be useful for something. But Lucerne just smiles wider and moves aside to let Zea in.
Once she's taken off her coat Zea follows Lucerne into the kitchen and stops. All around her on the counter are circles of flat salt dough. Each one stamped in the middle with the mockingjay symbol from the Katniss girl's pin.
"Lucerne," Zea says, shocked, "What--" she doesn't even know what to say to this, visible, blatant treason surrounding her on all sides.
"A token," Lucerne says. "There has to be something we can pass around, even to the other districts. You can hide these, you can make your own, if someone finds you, you can eat it."
The part of Zea's brain that still works thinks it's not a bad plan. It's all but drowned out by the rest, which is still reeling, stunned at the implications.
"You said other districts," she finds, eventually. "You can't ship these."
"Ah," Lucerne says, "We better wait till Virgil gets here. I think he wants you to help with that."
Zea can't very well stand struck dumb in the middle of the kitchen all day, so she helps, rolling out dough, cutting circles and stamping them, and by the time the door opens she's almost forgotten that the mockingjay is any different from the hearts or stars or other shapes you might stamp into your salt crackers to make them interesting.
So it's funny to see Milo and Virgil stand open-mouthed in the doorway, even though she'd done the same thing a couple hours ago. The last batch is coming out of the oven now, and there's neat stacks wrapped in paper lining the counter.
"What in the good earth are you doing?" Milo breathes, strangely quiet.
Virgil's eyes spark and he grins. "It's perfect."
"What's perfect?" Durum asks, coming up to stand behind them.
Lucerne passes him a cracker, and his fingers trace the depression in the hardtack while his eyes squint to see. "A mockingjay?" he asks, and Lucerne laughs.
"Oh, my dear, you missed the whole thing," she says between giggles, and Zea and Milo and Virgil trade looks and grin. "That Katniss, she wears a mockingjay pin. Good a symbol as any, I've seen it painted on walls here and there, never for more than a day."
Durum chuckles. "Well then," he says. "Here's to the mockingjay."
They sit, after that, eat soup and bread and when they're finished Virgil looks at Zea. "I need your help with something," he says, and Zea raises an eyebrow but nods, so he goes on. "There's a girl on that night train I've been wanting to talk to. I think she might be willing to help."
"Why do you want me to do it?" Zea asks, and Virgil and Milo trade a complicated look before Virgil turns back to her.
"Well, for one because we figure she'll be less suspicious of you than of me," he says, hesitates, then continues. "And also, to be perfectly honest, because if someone's gonna get fired for fraternizing with the train crew it's better you than me."
Zea bristles at that, automatically, but then she thinks about it. "You got some other guys on that crew you trust," she says, and it's a guess but the look on Virgil's face tells her she's right. "You want to keep organizing them."
He nods, and Milo grins the way he does when he wins at poker. "Told you she'd get it," he says, because Milo never could keep his mouth shut, and Virgil takes a second to glare at him before looking back at Zea.
"You'll do it?" he asks.
Zea pauses for a second, stifling her impulse to immediately agree, because this is serious. "You think this girl's...what, like us? Why?"
Virgil pauses. "A hunch, mostly. She used to talk to one of the guys who got fired this summer."
"You know if I give her one of these and she goes to the Peacekeepers with it they won't just fire me." She's honestly not sure what they would do, but she's sure it would be bad.
"I know," Virgil says, meeting her eyes. "I don't think she'd do that."
It's a hell of a gamble to take on "I don't think." But there isn't really another way.
"Okay," she says, looking around the table. "I'll do it."
Virgil leaves a little before she does, so they aren't walking in together, and as usual he gives her no more than an incurious nod as she goes to find her forklift. When the train pulls in, right on time as usual, Zea keeps an eye on the crew and before long she sees the girl Virgil described. She's opening boxcars, moving down the platform in a confident long-legged stride, long black hair haphazardly braided back. When she gets to the end of the train she turns, catches Zea watching her, grins and winks back before heading back toward the front, calling to someone up in the engine. Zea looks away, flushing a little, and well, that's as good an excuse as any if she were to get found out--there's rules against fraternization but everyone knows it happens. There's a reason the train crews have a reputation for causing trouble, and pretty girls like that are part of it.
Zea just watches, trying to be more discreet, and she's starting to think getting the girl away from the rest of her crew is going to be impossible, until not long before Zea's shift ends, when the girl hops down off the platform and disappears among the crates. Zea pretends she's got something to do in the area, stops the forklift a couple rows over and peers around.
The girl's leaning against a pallet of wheat flour, looking up at the stars and smoking a cigarette, the smoke curling up into the clear sky. Relaxed, her face settles into a quiet half-smile and she takes long breaths, her chest rising and falling with them.
Zea ducks away before she gets caught out again, but she thinks she's found her opening. Half an hour later, the train pulls out, Zea checks out and walks back to the barracks, her boots feeling just a little lighter than usual.
She watches again the next night, and the next, and the girl catches her once more, just gives her that same mischevious grin that Zea shouldn't find as attractive as she does. By the third night she's watching cameras instead, trying to think where she might be out of their line of sight long enough for a quick exchange.
The fifth night she's out of delaying tactics. She slips between pallets while the girl's smoking her nightly cigarette, and the girl jumps back, startled, before she recognizes Zea and smiles. "Hey there," she says, dropping her cigarette and grinding it out against the asphalt, and there's amusement in her voice.
Zea doesn't know what to say, so she just slides her hand into her pocket and pulls out the mockingjay cracker. She holds out her hand with the token facing up. The girl's eyes go wide for a second, then sharp, calculating. She takes Zea's hand and uses it to pull her close, trap her in an embrace that brings the girl's mouth near Zea's ear while she takes the cracker and slides it into her pocket.
"We're with you," she says, breath hot against Zea's skin. "Whole crew."
She shifts, kisses Zea hard, and then it's Zea's turn to lean in, to whisper with her nose in the girl's hair. "Crew boss, and me, not sure who else."
They kiss again, and it's a show for anyone watching and yet it sends shivers down Zea's spine. The girl steps away first, smiling crooked, her eyes laughing. "I'm Sara," she says, light and flirtatious.
"See you around, Zea," Sara says, then turns away, vaults back up onto the platform and heads for the train.