// Seventy-Six //
He’s looking at me, and he may be the stylist, the architect behind the fire in me but he’s got it, he holds it: angry sunlight drawn around the broad ovals of his eyes just as there were sparks in me—different, still sharp—before I stepped foot on that chariot, before I set myself alight.
The gold that rims his lashes catches in my throat, dances where my pulse hits hard at the neck; I can’t look away.
But neither can he.
// Seventy-Five //
The countdown is white noise, and he steps toward me, offers me the jacket and lets me twirl one more time, arms out as he fits it to me, slips my hands through the sleeves, and I spin.
// Seventy-Four //
// Seventy-Three //
Dizzy, dizzy, dizzy, until he—
// Seventy-Two //
Stops me, his hand on my chest, open palm above where he can feel the beat of my heart at its source, can follow my shallow breaths by just watching how his knuckles jump against my breast. The exhale, the slow and steady stream of his breath should be cool, should calm something when it glances off my cheek, but it doesn’t. His fingers, as they brush the line of my jaw, the skin of my neck: that should feel strange, threatening, maybe.
But it can’t.
// Sixty-Eight //
He leans in, and his breath is there, all berries and cinnamon and stagnant fear, and his eyes are wide, black for how big the pupils get, sparkling, shining, wet.
“Fuck it.” It’s not a curse when he breathes it; it’s a promise. A privilege.
It’s a man falling apart for a moment, to meet the Girl Who Burned, whose ashes are too far down, who’s alone in the world and she needs.
He closes the rest of the space that lies between.
I let him.
// Sixty-Two //
His mouth is hot, soft, and it makes sense now, the way he captured the fire and made it his own; it was always his to command, spelled out in his bones. He mouths at the place where my blood fights, flutters in my throat, delicate and hungry, like he can drink me in that way, and it’s intoxicating, more than any brew the Capitol can imagine; it makes my knees weak, and I almost allow it, I almost let myself reveal that space where control eludes me, because it’s him, it’s him, and I wonder if it’s he or I who pushes toward the platform, the open panels of the tube that will bear me upward, that will seal my fate: I wonder if he felt me falter and did me yet another mercy, or if I pushed, if I steered and we steadied against the glass at my urging, under my own power, feet catching on the journey, mouths greedy; my lips infatuated with the rough tease of stubble at his cheek.
// Fifty-Six //
I spare a thought for rules, for regulations as he pushes up my undershirt, slips the jacket he’d just put in place back down to hang, limp off my elbows—I knew he couldn’t chose, couldn’t bet, he’d said, and yet.
His arm is around me, bracing at the small of my back as he lowers himself, slowly kissing, touching, licking down the center of me, splitting me into two equal halves, and I shiver uncontrollably as his fingers slip, caress at the waist of my trousers, just inside the line of my undergarments.
There are rules, and yet.
My mind is lost as he kisses my stomach. Was this against the rules? Probably, perfectly. Beautifully. This shattered rules, my own rules, their rules, all rules—this was sneaking out to hunt and selling game to Peacekeepers and staying up all night and planning our escape and so much more that it makes me lightheaded to consider all the things I don’t know, can’t know, never wanted to before and yet need to, need to now in case I don’t get the chance, in case I die in that arena and there’s nothing after, and my family fails and my friends starve and there’s nothing and I won’t know it, I won’t know it because I’ll be gone.
This is against the rules.
I’ve never cared for the rules.
// Thirty-Nine //
He’s on his knees, and my hand is on his head, stroking the short strands of his hair, cupping the shape of his skull like I’ll remember it, like I can’t forget—like it’ll save me in the end. It feels, strangely, as if he understands.
I gasp when he speaks.
“This is me,” he whispers just below the line of my bra, his tongue hot on the flesh with every word. “This is me betting on you, my firestorm.”
He looks up at me, meets my eyes as he mouths my nipples through the fabric stretched across: he’s a man who believes in the impossible, and I’m trembling, and I want to close my eyes but I can’t, I have to hold his simmering gaze, the embers buried deep that he’s letting dance for me—just for me, it feels like; only me—
// Twenty-Seven //
He stands, and I want, and he smoothes my shirt, straightens my jacket and does up all the zips, the buckles, one by one, kissing each part of me that he moves to conceal before it’s gone from him. It feels special, somehow. Sacred.
“I’ll see you when it’s done,” he tells me, and he means it. It sends my heart racing harder, more painfully than even when his hands had burned my skin, when his lips had touched me.
// Nineteen //
The glass encases me, the platform starts to rise, and I can see the marks, sweat and friction and the oils on skin—his fingerprints marked on the surface, the outline of my braid—and there’s something more than just despair that catches in my throat as he disappears, as he touches his fingertips to his lips, his eyes soft yet narrowed: all heart and will pushed forth in his gaze before he extends his hand to me, open—an offering, not a tribute, his mouth opened just a little, pursed in a kiss, a sigh, a prayer.
That’s the last of him I see.
// Ten //
And it’s strange.
// Nine //
Because Gale, well, he’ll be missing me. And maybe more than that, in the end. He’s not one for delusions, but sometimes we can’t help ourselves. Sometimes it’s too hard, and we do what we have to do to get by.
// Eight //
Gale will believe I can win, to get by.
// Seven //
And my mother, she needs me to win; she is fragile, selfish, heartbroken—she won’t survive dwelling on the alternative.
// Six //
And my sister, she’s young enough to hope, and blind enough to still think that some things, sometimes, are indestructible.
// Five //
And I am strong, I am smart. I could win. I know that.
// Four //
But hope is dangerous. Hope can get out of hand. I know that, too.
// Three //
And yet here is a man, a soul so bright that my eyes are still stinging, still streaming as I swipe at them, need them to focus and to stop before I’m seen, before anyone knows or suspects because hang the rules, there are no rules out here, but there’s still hate, and hope—dangerous, wild hope, enough to kill us all on this plane, this game board.
// Two //
Here is a man who doesn’t have to like me, who doesn’t have to want me, doesn’t have to believe, and yet, I believe in him more than I’ve believed in anyone else; I believe in his words and his gaze and his touch, I believe in what he tastes like and the stroke of his palm, and I believe that he believes that he will see me, find me, (maybe) hold me when it’s finished, when it’s done.
He believes in me, in that.
// One //
Even if I don’t quite believe, myself.