Because train crews are entirely predictable, Sara gets no end of teasing when Rokia’s Victory Tour starts.
“You didn’t put in to transfer?” Rick asks, leering. “Be romantic, riding around Panem with your girl like that.”
Sara rolls her eyes. Her girl, that implies a lot more’s happened between the two of them than a few hurried late-night encounters where Rokia’s skittish like a stray cat and Sara tries to find a way to get her to relax for at least a few minutes. “I got a couple more years before I can even apply for inner district cargo, much less passenger trains,” she says, trying to joke. It comes out a little tight, and Rick gives her a funny look but he mostly drops it.
It’s even stranger watching Rokia paraded around in fancy clothes than it was to watch her in the Arena. Sara’s well aware of how fucked up that is—that Rokia half-starved and filthy and fighting is less unfamiliar than Rokia dressed up and giving speeches says a thing or two about her fucked up childhood. But it’s still true. She looks like a completely different person, up on those stages.
And then the Tour gets to the Capitol and it’s even stranger. They watch the interview riding through Eleven, and it’s by-now-typical nonsense fluff and better acting than Sara thought Rokia capable of. And for the next three days any time someone turns on the TV it’s gossip channels showing clips of parties, Rokia with a parade of Capitol celebrities, smiling and flirting, drinking and dancing like she’s having the time of her life.
It turns Sara’s stomach. They have a night off in Twelve because of track repairs, and Twelve might be shit but at least nobody cares enough to stop a few of them from going into town and finding a bar.
The Tour’s on TV there, too, of course, a breathless reporter at yet another Capitol party talking to Rokia, who’s made up to look exotic and stunning and way older than she actually is. The volume’s off but Sara’s got a feeling there wouldn’t be anything to what they’re saying regardless.
Myriam knocks into Sara’s shoulder, smirks when Sara looks at her. “No point pining,” she says, signals the bartender for refills.
Someone puts on music, a little later, and the knot of miners sitting out of the way starts pulling the crew out to dance. Sara doesn’t know the steps, and she’s a little clumsy by now, but the dark-haired, dark-eyed miner she’s dancing with is a good lead, and he doesn’t let her stumble. Not too badly, anyway.
She catches the looks he’s giving her, when he thinks she’s looking away, and oh, what the hell. When the next song ends she steps up and kisses him. It only takes a second of shocked stillness before he’s kissing her back.
Sara grabs a bottle and a pack of cigarettes and heads for a booth in the corner. Myriam gives her fake-scandalized looks, but Sara doesn’t give a fuck. She settles herself on the guy’s lap, smirks, and kisses him, her hands sliding along his waistband, while his work their way under her shirt. They finish the bottle, between the two of them, and Sara sits back, lights a cigarette and wishes it wasn’t freezing ass cold outside. He gives her a thoughtful, scheming look, nods toward the door. “C’mon,” he says, waits for her to slide out and takes her hand.
It is fucking freezing, but he rushes her over toward the empty train station, around the back until he shoves at a door and they tumble into a storeroom, laughing. Miner boy kisses her, pushing backwards slowly until her heels catch a pile of grain sacks. She lets him push her over, pulls him down, and forgets entirely about the cold for a while.
Myriam finds her later, while Sara’s leaning against the station wall smoking a cigarette out of the wind, drunk on shitty Twelve booze and a much more satisfying Twelve boy whose name she never bothered to learn. Myriam’s a little less drunk and a lot more amused. She steals one of Sara’s cigarettes and leans against the wall next to her.
“You been having fun,” Myriam says, smirking.
Sara smiles, but it’s sliding towards something sharp-edged and a little mean. “May as well,” she says, raises an eyebrow. “You told me to quit pining.”
“I didn’t mean run off with the first guy you saw!” Myriam says, and it would sound a lot more indignant if she wasn’t giggling. She takes a drag on her cigarette, then looks at Sara and starts giggling all over again, the smoke coming out in bursts as she laughs.
Sara shrugs. “Well hell, guys are fun,” she says. “And uncomplicated,” she adds.
Myriam cocks her head to one side, granting the point. “When you put it that way,” she says. Then puts on what Sara thinks of as her big-sister face. “You were being careful, weren’t you?”
“Of course,” Sara says, rolling her eyes. “There’s a reason they stock condoms in the crew showers.”
Myriam nods, serious, then grins again. “Well done then,” she says. “C’mon, it’s freezing.”
The next morning Sara has a splitting headache and barely manages to keep down her breakfast, but at least she isn’t incessantly debating whether it’s better to watch or avoid all the TV bullshit: between the screeching Capitol voices and the ridiculous outfits she’d probably throw up, so fuck all that.
They only have a quick layover in Six, they’ll be back next week for leave so today it’s load up and go, out straight to Ten because Nine’s slow in winter. So they’re in Ten when Rokia goes back to Six, and Sara grudgingly watches, because everyone else is.
Something about the familiar background makes the differences starker. Rokia’s dressed and made up and perfect and gorgeous but Sara recognizes the set of her shoulders, the look in her eyes, the way she moves as exhaustion, papered over but still there if you know what to look for. Which shoots a spike of anger through the mixed-up swirl of whatever the fuck else she’s feeling. Isn’t someone supposed to be looking out for Rokia? Isn’t that what mentors are supposedly for? So why is Phillips standing there looking quietly furious and not doing anything? Why does everything about this suddenly scream wrong?
The feeling doesn’t go away, through Rokia’s careful speech and some bullshit from the Mayor and from Phillips, until finally someone lets Allie and Kadi run across the stage and Rokia drops to her knees and buries her face in Kadi’s curls. The camera cuts away then, to idiot Capitol commentators, and Sara shudders and walks back to her bunk.
Whatever it is, it’s over now, the Tour’s done and Rokia’s home and they’re done with her—except they aren’t, are they? She’ll have to go back and mentor, that’s what the Victors do at the Games, and the photogenic ones are splashed across the gossip channels constantly. Panem loves Victor stories. Are they really going to let Rokia disappear back to Six, back to the shop where Matt says she’s been coming most days, back to her house and her sisters and life without scraping for their next meal? The pieced-together “after” that’s starting to look better than before—except that something’s not right.
When they get back to Six, Sara takes her first night off to head over to Rokia’s old place. Best shot for finding her, ever since the damn Games, quietly freaking the fuck out on rooftops so she doesn’t bring it home to her girls. Sara doesn’t know what to do about that, but for now at least it gives her a place to go.
And sure enough, there she is. Pulled into a tight ball, knees to her chest. Yellow light from the streetlights splashed across her cheekbones, shadowing her eyes. She looks over at Sara, wary, shifts her weight toward her feet as though she’s thinking about running, but she doesn’t move—yet.
Something’s wrong. Rokia’s more skittish now than she was after the fucking Games, and that doesn’t make any damn sense. “Welcome back,” Sara says, careful. “How was the Tour?” She goes to sit next to Rokia, leaving a little space between them so Rokia doesn’t feel trapped.
Rokia pulls in tighter, rests her chin on her knees. “It sucked,” she says, voice dull and flat. “I hated it.”
Sara thinks about the parties, the interviews, Rokia smiling and cheerful and bright, and the frustration gets the better of her. "You looked like you were having a great time, all those Capitol parties,” she says, half-sarcastic and half just confused. "There were pictures of you kissing like six different people."
And that probably isn’t fair, Sara’s got no right to care who Rokia kisses, they’re not—it’s not like that, not anymore. But still, she’s shocked when Rokia’s shoulders start to shake and she sobs.
“Rokia—“ Sara starts, shifts to rub Rokia’s back, but before she gets close Rokia jerks away as if she’d been burned, crosses the roof and leans against the low wall on the other side. Sara gets to her feet, but that’s as far as she gets, because what the fuck just happened?
She’s still trying to figure out what to do when Rokia turns around and glares at her. “Fuck, Rokia,” Sara says, bewildered. “What in the twelve districts is going on?”
“It’s nothing,” Rokia snaps, almost before Sara finishes. She shoves the heels of her hands against her eyes, hops up to sit on the wall, and does the worst imitation of nonchalance Sara’s ever seen. “I’m fine.”
It’s not so much the lie as the fact that Rokia wants Sara to believe it that rankles. “Bullshit,” she says, crosses her arms across her chest because suddenly she feels cold. “What in the hell did they do to you?”
“Nothing!” It comes out desperate, almost pleading. “They dressed me up and sent me to parties, like you said.”
Sara doesn’t know how to react. What to do. “Why are you lying to me?” she asks. Rokia lies, sure, to Sal or to her mom or to landlords or Peacekeepers, but not to Sara. Until now.
“I’m not lying,” Rokia says, and if it wasn’t so awful it’d be funny just how unbelievable that is.
Sara takes a deep breath, then another one, then takes a step closer so maybe she won’t feel quite so much like she’s yelling across a chasm. "Rokia, I don’t—I’m not mad at you, okay, I just—it was so strange, you looked so different out there I didn't know what to think."
Rokia huddles in on herself, silent and miserable, and Sara just wants to hold her close and make her feel better, but she doesn’t know what the fuck is going on, much less what to do about it.
"You shouldn't be here," Rokia says, in a low voice. "You shouldn't let them see you around me."
Sara’s stunned. Her mind goes blank and she grits out, “Rokia, no.” She sucks in a breath, against the tension that seems to make the air itself a weight. "I don't know what the fuck's going on but I'm not going anywhere."
Rokia doesn’t look at her. “Then I am,” she says, voice hoarse, and she’s over the wall and scrambling down the downspout before Sara has time to process the words.
Leaving Sara standing in the middle of the empty roof, by herself, too shocked even to cry.
She doesn’t want to go back to the barracks, not now. So she climbs down, lights a cigarette, looks around, starts walking. She’s not really paying attention to where she’s going, and that’s stupid, too stupid for around here, certainly, but she can’t bring herself to care. Finds herself at Sal’s shop, walks along the El track toward Matt’s place, over toward the Peacekeepers barracks and the rise up to the Victors Village, back toward the Justice Building and the main square, until the sky starts to lighten towards morning.
Then she has an idea. She walks toward the railroader barracks, turns toward the passenger crew’s area. Nicer, quieter, lower chance of people still being up drinking, better chance they’re up early for whatever reason.
She finds the crew lounge, and she’s technically not supposed to be here but it’s early, she’s not causing trouble, and nobody seems to care. She’s pacing the room when she sees Joe, the crew chief from the Victor train, come into the room and head for the coffee machine.
She follows him over, fills her cup while he’s adding sugar to his. “Joe?” she asks, and he looks at her, puzzled.
“Yeah,” he says, guarded. “And you are?”
“I’m Sara, I’m on cargo, but—“ she takes a breath. “I’m a friend of Rokia’s.”
His expression shifts from quizzical interest to blank, giving nothing away. “Yeah?”
“Something’s wrong,” Sara says, keeping her voice low. “I need to know what it is.”
Joe looks at her for a long moment, studying her. Then he sets down his coffee and nods. “Come on,” he says, and heads for the door.
He walks away from the tracks, out past the barracks and into the city a little ways, stops under the El tracks and turns to face her. “You sure you want to know?” he asks.
“Yes,” Sara says quickly. Too quickly, apparently. He waits, watching her. She takes a deep breath, clenches her hands to fists. “Yes, I’m sure. She’s been my best friend since I was twelve, I need to know what’s going on.”
He nods, takes a breath. “It happens to a lot of the Victors,” he says, still hedging. “Pretty girls worse than most.”
Sara’s impatient, wishes he’d get to the point, but interrupting seems like a bad idea so she grits her teeth until her jaw twinges.
Joe sighs. “Folks in the Capitol pay for them,” he says, flat. “For sex.”
Well, that’s getting to the point. It takes the length of several breaths for Sara to register what the words even mean. “No,” she whispers, shaking her head. “Oh, shit, no.”
Joe reaches out, steadies her with a broad hand on her shoulder. She feels dizzy and sick and has to focus on breathing or she thinks she might stop. “Happens to a lot of ‘em,” Joe repeats.
“They can’t— they can’t say no?” It’s a stupid question, probably, but she’s fighting to get a grip and she has to ask. Rokia wouldn’t do…that…if she had a choice.
Joe shakes his head. “It comes from the President,” he says. “Word is if you try to say no he’ll kill your family.”
Allie and Kadi. Rokia would do anything to keep them safe. Has done. Of course she’d agree to do what they want if someone threatened her girls.
How dare they. How dare they use Rokia’s family against her, how dare they ask her to do this, how do they expect anyone to put up with— “And nobody’s allowed to say anything, so folks in the Districts won’t get mad,” she grits out, through clenched teeth. Of course.
Joe nods. “It’s an open secret, some parts of the Capitol. Rich folks, with connections, they know. They say that’s why girls keep winning lately, they get good sponsors because…” he waves a hand.
“That’s fucking sick,” Sara snarls. All of the sick horror is twisting into anger, and her body vibrates with it. “I fucking hate them, all of them, fucking—“
“Sara,” Joe snaps. “Shut up.”
Right. Because they can turn Victors into—that, but she can’t call them fucking names. “What the fuck is wrong with this country,” she hisses, quiet now.
Joe smiles a little. “More than you know,” he says.
“And I’m supposed to—what, just sit here and accept it? Let them turn my best friend into a whore?” The word twists sourly in her mouth, but she has to say it. Out loud, at least once.
Joe takes a deep breath, watches Sara. She tries to pull herself together. “Not necessarily,” he says, quiet and guarded. Sara stares. “We can’t do anything yet,” Joe continues, slow and deliberate. “But we’re getting ready.”
Holy shit. “You mean that,” Sara says.
Joe half-smiles at that. “Yeah.”
“Well fuck, tell me what I can do, and if it’s setting fire to the entire fucking shithole Capitol all the better,” Sara says, almost laughing. She’s a little hysterical, she’s been up all night and had more weird confusing horrible feelings in the last six hours than she would want to have in a year, and all of this is impossible—the bad and the good.
Joe chuckles. “We’ll have to see about that,” he says. “Who’s your crew boss?”
“Keita,” Sara says. “On the aggie lines.”
He looks relieved. “He’s one of ours,” Joe says. “Not sure what you all can do just yet, but we’ll let you know.”
Sara’s eyes widen. “You’re really serious.”
“We really are,” Joe says.
“You mentioned that,” Joe shoots back, but he’s smiling. “Come on, I need to get back before I’m late.”
Sara turns to follow him. She’s not entirely sure her feet are touching the ground. Joe looks at her before heading toward the passenger line. “See you around,” he says, innocuous enough, and then winks.
Sara heads for the barracks, stops behind the building and leans against the wall, trying to get her bearings. She pulls out a cigarette for something to do, watches the smoke rise into the cold morning air. There’s too much to take in, her head’s gone blank from the overload. She drags on the cigarette until the ember crackles, smoke searing her throat, blows out.
When she finishes, she’s no less overwhelmed, no less stunned, horrified, excited, scared, sad, who even fucking knows what. But she goes in anyway, finds her bunk, and stares at the ceiling. The other girls in the room start waking up, moving around, and Sara feigns sleep until they’re gone. Then, just when she’s thinking she might as well get up, a wave of exhaustion hits her like a physical thing, and she gives up trying to make sense of any of it and falls asleep.
Rokia’s not at the old building the next night, or the next, and Sara has to leave in the morning. She’s not going without telling Rokia though, even if she can’t say anything in person. So she digs in her coat pockets for a pen, a scrap of paper, and then pauses. What can she even say?
“Shit,” she mutters, takes a deep breath and writes.
I talked to Joe. Still not going anywhere.
They ship out as the sun’s coming up, and Sara stands at the back of the train, watching District Six disappear in what could almost be flames, the sun reflecting off steel and glass and concrete, burning through the haze.
Someday, she thinks, watching it. Someday it’s all going to burn, and she’s gonna be holding a match when it does.