All the train crews have Tour Day off, and as many as can be arranged have it in Six. So it ends up being a hell of a party, since a lot of crews don’t see each other except now and at the Reaping. Problem is, the Tour bothers Sara a lot more, now that she knows more about what it means to be a Victor.
She wonders, sometimes, how she’d feel if Rokia hadn’t been Reaped in 71, if her association with the Games had stayed distant, if she could keep pretending the Games weren’t really real. Or if Rokia hadn’t won, and Sara had never found out that being a Victor was more a life sentence than a reward. Because the Games weren’t the worst of it—sure, that started things, left Rokia skittish and tense, but worse was after, when they took her and turned her into a beautiful…thing, to be bought and sold. Told her she was nothing but what she could do for them, shaped her into the Victor they wanted, instead of the girl Sara knew.
Sara heard stories last night, in the crew barracks, about what happened in Eleven. Not that the crews were in the square, but gunshots carry, and every one of the cargo loaders there is on their side, so the news got out. The Girl on Fire has been pretty well quenched since then, apparently, but everyone’s anxious to see if something might happen here. Joe’s with the Victors’ Train, so Sara can’t ask him if anything’s planned on the Six side. He’d be the one to get the order, if there was one, highest ranked railroader in their tight circle of would-be revolutionaries. But he’s out of commission for the duration of the Tour, that train’s the most watched piece of equipment anywhere in Panem right now, she’s sure. Sara’s just a fourth-year cargo engineer on the outlier runs, and even Keita their crew boss isn’t important enough to get much information, so Sara resigns herself to a lot of not knowing.
They head for the square mid-afternoon, the train’s coming all the way down from Seven and there’s not much to show off beyond the hovercraft hangars near the station, so the Tour doesn’t spend much time in Six. Better that way.
Something seems different this time, though, and Sara can’t place what it is until they get close to the arrival time and she realizes nobody’s on the stage but the Mayor. Usually Rokia’d be sitting up there with the other Victors from Six, and they’d shake hands with the new Victor and have a fancy dinner and there’d be all kinds of nonsense that meant Rokia’d probably end up freaked out and hiding somewhere by the end of the night.
But today there’s nothing, not even chairs. And Sara’s still puzzling about it when the train pulls up—to a hovercraft hangar, not the Justice Building—because this is the Transportation District, after all, why go to the center of town when you could show off the most glamorous part of their official industry? The two Victors step out onto the platform with their mentor and the 12 escort, who’s fluttering like a damn butterfly. Both Victors since Rokia have been Careers, and they’ve been composed, professional, with picture-perfect smiles and waves and flawlessly memorized speeches, and before that Sara never paid much attention. These kids are not Careers, not professional, and they’re trying for composed, but while the boy looks around, wary but interested, the girl has the turned-in look Rokia gets when she’s just back from the Capitol.
Katniss reads her speech off index cards, hunched in as though she’s trying to hide, and Sara’s only half listening when Katniss pauses, looks up. And then the Peacekeepers standing in front of the stage wade into the crowd, push through hauling a couple of scruffy kids with furious glares. Sara glances over long enough to be sure that they’re nobody she knows, then looks back toward the stage. It’s callous, maybe, but she doesn’t want to attract attention over a stupid teenage stunt when there’s real work to do.
Katniss pauses, looks over at her mentor, keeps reading. The screens don’t move, focused on her and on Peeta, ignoring the commotion below. And by the time the broadcast goes out to the rest of Panem, it’ll be a glitch in the recording, a skip put down to faulty equipment, even the hesitation erased from the official record.
When they finish the stilted, careful speech, they go right back onto the train, leave the district as quickly as they came, and people file out toward the bars or the late shift or their homes, mostly talking about other things.
Sara sighs. They’d all been so hopeful, when this firecracker of a girl stared down the Gamemakers and won, and when they went off-script in Eleven, it’s like something hung on a knife-edge. Too bad any hope of change has slid away off the hunched shoulders of a girl who’s been beaten down by whatever they’ve threatened her with. Her sister, Sara thinks, Katniss volunteered for her sister, if she steps out of line they’ve got an automatic lever to use, and Sara’s fleetingly grateful that at least Rokia’s sisters are still too young to be Reaped.
Sara follows some of her crewmates back to one of the bars near the home-leave barracks, a rundown, noisy place that’s crowded today with off-duty railroaders.
“Poor kids,” Mady says, shaking her head. Sara thinks she’s talking about the Victors, nods.
Keita rolls his eyes. “It was stupid,” he says, and oh, they’re talking about the kids who got themselves arrested. “What good’s pissing off the Peacekeepers supposed to do?”
“I know, but still,” Mady persists. “Don’t tell me you weren’t ever young and stupid.”
“Not that stupid. My mama would’ve made whatever the Peacekeepers did look like fun and games if I’d pulled that kinda stunt.” Keita shakes his head, smiling ruefully.
“Seemed awful short,” Rick says, thoughtful. “Don’t they usually stick around for some Victors thing?”
Keita looks over at Sara, who shrugs. “I think so?”
Sara heads back to the barracks after a while, uncomfortable, out of sorts. She wishes she could just call Rokia, but it’s a bad idea. When Rokia first told her they couldn’t be seen together, Sara thought she was exaggerating, paranoid, overcautious. The more she’s learned since then, the more she realizes how lucky she is that Rokia’d kept it that way from the very beginning. So she’ll check their usual spots late tonight, but she can’t go to the Victors’ Village, won’t call on a phone line that’s surely tapped, won’t tell anyone outside of her own crew that she keeps in touch with a girl she used to work with back when. It’s the right thing to do, but it grates.
So she sits in her bunk with a flashlight and a book, silly adventure stories for kids but better than the romances marketed to women her age. At midnight, when the graveyard shift’s well settled in at the factories, she makes her way to this month’s meeting spot, hoping Rokia decides to come.
And there she is, in the narrow gap between the auto factory and the 24-hour corner store, leaning against the brick factory wall and toying with a cigarette. Her face is shadowed until she drags on the cigarette. Then the ember casts an orange glow that limns her nose and cheekbones, shows her lips curling upwards in a smile of recognition.
When Sara walks up to stand next to her, leaning against the opposite wall, Rokia straightens up to hand over the pack and matches, and Sara smiles and lights one for herself. Watches the smoke drift up to join the smog over the city, from factory smokestacks and sooty diesel trains and cars rolling off the line. Looks back at Rokia, who’s leaned back so the gap’s widened between them.
“I checked for bugs,” she says, just barely meeting Sara’s eyes before looking away towards the street. “It’s clean.”
Sara nods. “You weren’t at the Tour,” she says.
Rokia takes a deep breath, her chest rising with it under her coat. “They told us to stay away,” she says. “Those kids are in a lot of fucking trouble.”
Sara winces. “Looked like they’d gotten smacked down pretty good after 11.”
Rokia raises an eyebrow. “What happened in Eleven?”
“You didn’t hear?”
Rokia shakes her head. “I know it’s mandatory television, but I been holed up at Uncle Sal’s shop all week, not like he’s gonna make me sit in front of the screen.” She smiles, just quick.
“They didn’t show all of it on the broadcasts,” Sara says. “But those kids tried to give some of their Victor money to the families of the Eleven tributes.”
Rokia huffs what might be a laugh. Shakes her head.
“Yeah,” Sara says. “And Katniss, she said some stuff about Rue, I guess, and someone did that 3-finger salute from their Reaping and the PKs shot him.”
Now Rokia stands up straight. “Damn,” she says. “They really are scared.”
Sara nods. “Something’s coming,” she says—there’s nothing official, nothing certain, but there’s a current running through everything that wasn’t there before, sparking out in things like this.
“Yeah,” Rokia says, hesitant, considering. “They always say they’re waiting for a spark.”
Sara chuckles. “Well, they do call her the Girl on Fire.”
Rokia rolls her eyes.
They’re quiet for a bit. Sara grinds out the butt of her cigarette under her heel, looks back up at Rokia. “Anything new with you?” she asks, cautious.
Rokia shrugs, quick lift of her shoulders, puts her hands in her pockets. “Not really,” she says, looks out toward the road again. “I have to go to the Capitol in a couple days for the end of Tour stuff.”
Sara’s jaw tightens at that, and she’s glad Rokia’s not watching her while she wrestles down her fury. “That sucks,” she says, and it sounds weak even to her. Rokia’s still watching the road, one corner of her mouth twitching up.
She looks back at Sara and shrugs. “What about you, you still on the outlier routes?”
“Yeah,” Sara says, casts around for anything much to say, but it’s all either the same boring work stuff or stupid railroader gossip, and Rokia’s not going to care about either one. “We’re looking for contacts,” she settles on, and even if Rokia’s sure there aren’t any bugs Sara’s going to watch what she says. “Joe says we need someone in Nine.”
Rokia looks interested. “Why Nine?”
“Fertilizer, apparently. Ammonium nitrate.”
“Huh,” she says, and they both shut up, because that road’s too dangerous to follow any further.
Rokia starts getting antsy pretty quick after that. “I should get back,” she says, looking down. “I left the girls on their own.”
Sara nods. “Okay,” she says, her mouth suddenly dry. “Take care of yourself, yeah?”
Rokia smiles, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. “Sure,” she says. “You too.”
Her hands are still in her pockets as she turns and walks away.
Sara waits there for a few more minutes, listening to the roar of the factory machinery, watching as a shuffling junkie passes on the road and goes into the store, comes back out muttering obscenities. Finally she sighs, pushes off the wall, and goes back to the barracks. She’s tired, and it’s late, but it’s a long time before she can sleep.