(Includes fluffy bits, and nothing terrible happens.)
She wakes up in the hospital, disoriented, eyes searching the room for an enemy, a weapon, water, a place to hide, but there’s nothing but the bed and the IV stand and a chair in the corner. Before she can figure it out the door opens. She tries to scramble back on the bed but the tubes running into her arms tangle and she falls back down.
It’s Terence. She stares at him for a long minute, wondering how he got here, while her mind seems to shake free and she remembers the final cannon, the trumpets, the hovercraft. It’s done. She’s out.
Terence comes toward the bed, slowly, a look of something like wonder on his face. Poppy is behind him, pale and shaky as always but her eyes are wide, lips stretched into a smile. They stand next to her and she looks up at them, not trusting herself to talk.
Poppy reaches for Terence’s hand, clings to it as she reaches her other hand to touch Rokia’s arm, as though ensuring she’s really there. “You made it,” Poppy says, breathless, tears in her eyes. “You’re back.”
Tears fill Rokia’s eyes and spill out, soaking her pillow. “Yeah,” she says, voice barely above a whisper. “I’m back.”
Poppy laughs, a little hysterical through her tears, and Terence looks at her, a little irritated, a little indulgent. When he looks back at Rokia he says, “It’s good to see you again,” gruff and understated, but his voice is thick.
Rokia drifts off again, and when she wakes up this time Terence is sitting in a chair on the other side of the room, dozing with his head back against the wall. Her head’s a little clearer, her whole body aches, and she wants to sleep for a week. She’s starting to drift back off when a doctor opens the door and Terence jerks awake. The doctor comes over to her and smiles, chattering on about something Rokia can’t bring herself to process as he looks over her chart. Apparently he thinks she’s doing okay, because when he leaves she’s disconnected from her IV and taken to prep.
Linsea comes in accompanied by a woman who introduces herself as a consultant from the Victor Affairs office and a prep team Rokia doesn’t recognize. There are too many people in the room, it’s too bright, blank walls with no place to hide and only one door, too many smells and sounds to track. She can’t catch her breath, and the consultant-woman looks at her and sighs.
“Linsea, get her a anxiolytic, please, we don’t need this right now.”
The escort scurries off and comes back with a glass of water and a pill, and Rokia looks at it warily but the consultant is glaring at her, arms crossed, so she swallows it down. It helps, whatever it is, after a few minutes her heart’s no longer beating out of her chest, but her brain feels muzzy and slow as the prep team struggles with putting extensions into her hair and polishing her skin. They give her a robe to wear and scurry off, leaving her with Linsea and the consultant. The two women grill her over and over, what questions Cesar will ask and how she should answer, the sheer force of repetition overcoming the muzziness in her head and the flashes of fear breaking through. She can’t keep her hands still, twisting them into the robe since she can’t grab onto anything solid and they yell at her if she touches her hair or face. Finally they seem, if not content, at least appeased, like they trust her not to say anything too embarrassing in front of the cameras. The prep team comes back in, dresses her in silk the color of oiled steel, fabric that slides against her skin like a well-machined slip joint. She barely recognizes the person in the mirror as her, makeup making her eyes look huge, tiny braided hair extensions falling past her shoulders, tickling the skin on her back.
She sees Terence and Poppy before she goes on stage, briefly, both of them looking nervous even through a haze of morphling. She recognizes the drooping eyelids and the slow, shallow breathing, the way they lean against each other and the wall in a struggle to stay upright. Poppy is smiling a little, her head on Terence’s shoulder. He’s a little sharper, and he narrows his eyes as he looks at her, taking in her clothes, her makeup and hair and posture. He looks angry as well as nervous, but he just nods at her and asks if she’s ready.
Rokia bites her lip and nods. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”
Terence smiles a little at that, but it twists, comes out almost a scowl. He tries to smooth it out, but Rokia’s been searching faces for danger signs for too many years not to notice that something is off. She’s unsure of herself, too, is the problem, her mind is a mess of drugs and fear and confusion, and she’s always been able to think on her feet but right now she just hopes she doesn’t have to.
She walks onto the stage when they call her, and there are cheers from the stands, bright lights in her face, a confusing riot of noise and color and people pressing up to the stage and she tries her best to stand straight, shoulders back, the way they told her, to keep putting one foot in front of the next as her eyes adjust to the light and she makes her way to the chair across from Cesar. He gets up and shakes her hand, has her sit.
The questions are just like what they practiced, so Rokia repeats her memorized lines, trying to smile, trying not to fidget or pick at her dress, the seams on the seat cushions, trying to remember where she is and what she’s doing. “This is just as important as anything that happened in the Arena,” the consultant had said, and Rokia couldn’t see how anyone could actually believe that but it was clear this woman did so she tries very hard to do it right. When the recap comes on she is shocked by how small she looks on the platform next to the tall, strong Four male on the next platform. It’s hard to feel like it’s herself up there on the screen, running from the Cornucopia and finding hiding spaces and makeshift weapons and stealing a water canteen and a knife from the first boy she kills. Finally the trumpets blare and onscreen she stands, gasping, over the body of the One boy, tangled in her trap, his blood staining her hands and soaking into the floor. Rokia looks down from the screen, uncurls her hands where she’s balled them into tight fists and fights not to gasp at the thin, bloody crescents where her nails (fake, like everything here, is anything real in this city?) have dug into her palms. She bites her lip and does not think about the blood on her palms, under her nails, and Cesar doesn’t comment when he shakes her hand again and his comes back stained. He just smiles and congratulates her again and lets her walk offstage. Terence is waiting with Linsea and he puts a hand on her shoulder. She’s too exhausted and keyed up to pull away and the touch helps keep her grounded. Linsea starts chattering, but Terence snaps at her to shut up. Rokia is too exhausted to pay attention anyway as Terence leads her to the elevator, to her room, throws her a t-shirt out of one of the drawers.
“Shower, put that on, and try to sleep,” he says, “There’ll be more tomorrow.”
It’s true, the next day there’s another meeting with Linsea and another interview and another party and Terence and Poppy finally drag her back, exhausted, to the Six floor where she sleeps restlessly, haunted by nightmares and jerking awake at the smallest sounds: cars passing on the street below, voices in the hallway, a door closing. She’s introduced to sponsors and stylists and other victors and she smiles and shakes their hands and checks every room for hiding places and escape routes and Linsea keeps telling her to stand up straight and introducing her to one more person whose name she won’t remember and whose soft hands seem childlike and strange. Poppy stops coming after the first day, staying back in the room at the Training Center and welcoming them home most nights with glassy eyes and a crooked smile. Terence plays chaperone better, and while his eyelids droop and his face is slack, he manages to sit somewhere with a drink and keep half an eye on her. And he’s usually the one who, at the point where she’s nearly crying with exhaustion, takes her arm and makes their excuses and drags her back to her room. When she can spare the energy to think, she thinks of home with a desperate longing that surprises her. She wants to hug her sisters and curl up in their bed, stroking their hair till they fall asleep. She wants to wake up and pull on her work clothes and spend a day fixing things, tools in her hands instead of weapons, useful work instead of standing in impossible outfits trying to make conversations with people who’ve never had dirt under their painted fingernails.
Finally one morning they tell her it’s her last day, that there’s just one final meeting before they take the train home. Her heart leaps, then sinks when they tell her she’s meeting with the President, that he wants to give her his private congratulations before she goes. Poppy’s still in bed but Terence is there, and the look on his face is sharper than she’s ever seen, fear and anger and something else pinching his eyes and tightening his jaw. The prep team dresses her one more time, and she heads out alone to meet the Peacekeepers who will escort her.
She stands in Snow’s office, watching him across the huge mahogany desk where he sits, his eyes darting up and down, assessing her before meeting her eyes in a look that freezes her to the spot.
“Congratulations,” he says, “It’s been quite some time since we’ve had a Victor from Six.”
“Yes, sir” It seems the safest answer.
“People are curious about you,” he says, no trace of emotion in his voice, “you were quite creative in the Arena, made interesting use of unconventional weapons.”
There’s just the slightest hint of ice in his tone now, and nothing changes in his face but Rokia senses danger nonetheless.
“Yes sir,” she says, but she’s going to have to say something more than that sooner or later, so she continues, “I did what I had to do to survive.”
There is a pause, while Rokia swears Snow must be able to hear her heart, it’s pounding so loudly in her own ears.
“Well. You seem to be a very industrious girl. I’m sure you’ll make the most of the opportunities that will present themselves to you.”
“Don’t let me detain you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Rokia takes a deep breath, turns, and walks out of the room. The Peacekeepers escort her to the car where she curls up tightly on the backseat and shakes until they reach the Games complex.
Finally, finally, she gets on the train to go home. Poppy and Terence disappear into their rooms and she sits curled up on a bench, watching the mountains fly past her window until the sun sets and she’s watching stars and shadows and terrifyingly wide open spaces. She dozes eventually, only to snap awake when the train stops on the freight siding just outside of town. It’s still full dark and she thought she was going to get to go home but what if they’ve changed their minds? Nobody is awake, even the Avoxes are in their quarters, but she has to know what’s happening, so she heads toward the front of the train. When she gets to the locked door to the crew compartment she hesitates—she’s not supposed to talk to the crew, but they’re Six, and there’ll have to be someone awake. She can hear voices, see the light on, so she takes a breath and knocks.
The door’s wrenched open by a bulky crewman whose eyes widen when he recognizes her. She can see past him into the crew quarters, a bottle on the table, a card game in progress. The crewman grins at her, and she’s disheveled and disoriented and she can’t remember the last time she slept a full night but somehow just seeing something familiar—the crewman looks like he could be one of the guys from the shop, honest muscles and callused hands—makes her smile.
“What’s the little Victor doin’ wandering around in the middle of the night?” He’s teasing, but there’s no malice in his voice. His flattened Six vowels sound like home and Rokia starts to relax.
“I was wondering why we stopped when we’re almost there.” Most of the fear is gone—if something was really wrong these guys wouldn’t be playing card games—but she’s still curious.
He snorts. “We gotta wait till morning to come in. They wanna take pictures of your official arrival so they tell us to stop just this side of town.”
His obvious annoyance at the spectacle is a welcome change from the Capitol. Rokia actually rolls her eyes, and he laughs. “Go on back to bed, it’ll be three or four hours yet before we get moving.”
Rokia nods. “Thanks for the heads up.” She smiles a little, raises her voice enough that the guys around the table can hear her, “and thanks for the ride.”
The guy at the door claps a hand on her shoulder and shakes her, just a little. “Kid, you did good. Welcome home.”