PART III "THE VICTOR"
I clap my hands over my mouth, but the sound has already escaped. The sky goes black and I hear a chorus of frogs begin to sing. Stupid! I tell myself. What a stupid thing to do! I wait, frozen, for the woods to come alive with assailants. Then I remember there's almost no one left.
Peeta, who's been wounded, is now my ally. Whatever doubts I've had about him dissipate because if either of us took the other's life now we'd be pariahs when we returned to District 12. In fact, I know if I was watching I'd loathe any tribute who didn't immediately ally with their district partner. Besides, it just makes sense to protect each other. And in my case - being one of the star-crossed lovers from District 12 - it's an absolute requirement if I want any more help from sympathetic sponsors.
The star-crossed lovers. Peeta must have been playing that angle all along. Why else would the Gamemakers have made this unprecedented change in the rules? For two tributes to have a shot at winning, our "romance" must be so popular with the audience that condemning it would jeopardize the success of the Games. No thanks to me. All I've done is managed not to kill Peeta. But whatever he's done in the arena, he must have the audience convinced it was to keep me alive. Shaking his head to keep me from running to the Cornucopia. Fighting Cato to let me escape. Even hooking up with the Careers must have been a move to protect me. Peeta, it turns out, has never been a danger to me.
The thought makes me smile. I drop my hands and hold my face up to the moonlight so the cameras can be sure to catch it.
So, who is there left to be afraid of? Foxface? The boy tribute from her district is dead. She's operating alone, at night. And her strategy has been to evade, not attack. I don't really think that, even if she heard my voice, she'd do anything but hope someone else would kill me.
Then there's Thresh. All right, he's a distinct threat. But I haven't seen him, not once, since the Games began. I think about how Foxface grew alarmed when she heard a sound at the site of the explosion. But she didn't turn to the Woods, she turned to whatever lies across from it. To that area of the arena that drops off into I don't know what. I feel almost certain that the person she ran from was Thresh and that is his domain. He'd never have heard me from there and, even if he did, I'm up too high for someone his size to reach.
So that leaves Cato and the girl from District 2, who are now surely celebrating the new rule. They're the only ones left who benefit from it besides Peeta and myself. Do I run from them now, on the chance they heard me call Peeta's name? No, I think. Let them come. Let them come with their night-vision glasses and their heavy, branch-breaking bodies.
Right into the range of my arrows. But I know they won't. If they didn't come in daylight to my fire, they won't risk what could be another trap at night. When they come, it will be on their own terms, not because I've let them know my whereabouts.
Stay put and get some sleep, Katniss, I instruct myself, although I wish I could start tracking Peeta now. Tomorrow, you'll find him.
I do sleep, but in the morning I'm extra-cautious, thinking that while the Careers might hesitate to attack me in a tree, they're completely capable of setting an ambush for me. I make sure to fully prepare myself for the day - eating a big breakfast, securing my pack, readying my weapons - before I descend. But all seems peaceful and undisturbed on the ground.
Today I'll have to be scrupulously careful. The Careers will know I'm trying to locate Peeta. They may well want to wait until I do before they move in. If he's as badly wounded as Cato thinks, I'd be in the position of having to defend us both without any assistance. But if he's that incapacitated, how has he managed to stay alive? And how on earth will I find him?
I try to think of anything Peeta ever said that might give me an indication as to where he's hiding out, but nothing rings a bell. So I go back to the last moment I saw him sparkling in the sunlight, yelling at me to run. Then Cato appeared, his sword drawn. And after I was gone, he wounded Peeta. But how did Peeta get away? Maybe he'd held out better against the tracker jacker poison than Cato.
Maybe that was the variable that allowed him to escape. But he'd been stung, too. So how far could he have gotten, stabbed and filled with venom? And how has he stayed alive all these days since? If the wound and the stingers haven't killed him, surely thirst would have taken him by now.
And that's when I get my first clue to his whereabouts. He couldn't have survived without water. I know that from my first few days here. He must be hidden somewhere near a source. There's the lake, but I find that an unlikely option since it's so close to the Careers' base camp. A few spring-fed pools. But you'd really be a sitting duck at one of those. And the stream. The one that leads from the camp Rue and I made all the way down near the lake and beyond. If he stuck to the stream, he could change his location and always be near water. He could walk in the current and erase any tracks. He might even be able to get a fish or two.
Well, it's a place to start, anyway.
To confuse my enemies' minds, I start a fire with plenty of green wood. Even if they think it's a ruse, I hope they'll decide I'm hidden somewhere near it. While in reality, I'll be tracking Peeta.
The sun burns off the morning haze almost immediately and I can tell the day will be hotter than usual. The waters cool and pleasant on my bare feet as I head downstream. I'm tempted to call out Peeta's name as I go but decide against it. I will have to find him with my eyes and one good ear or he will have to find me. But he'll know I'll be looking, right? He won't have so low of an opinion of me as to think I'd ignore the new rule and keep to myself. Would he? He's very hard to predict, which might be interesting under different circumstances, but at the moment only provides an extra obstacle.
It doesn't take long to reach the spot where I peeled off to go the Careers' camp. There's been no sign of Peeta, but this doesn't surprise me. I've been up and down this stretch three times since the tracker jacker incident. If he were nearby, surely I'd have had some suspicion of it. The stream begins to curve to the left into a part of the woods that's new to me. Muddy banks covered in tangled water plants lead to large rocks that increase in size until I begin to feel somewhat trapped. It would be no small matter to escape the stream now. Fighting off Cato or Thresh as I climbed over this rocky terrain. In fact, I've just about decided I'm on the wrong track entirely, that a wounded boy would be unable to navigate getting to and from this water source, when I see the bloody streak going down the curve of a boulder. It's long dried now, but the smeary lines running side to side suggest someone - who perhaps was not fully in control of his mental faculties - tried to wipe it away.
Hugging the rocks, I move slowly in the direction of the blood, searching for him. I find a few more bloodstains, one with a few threads of fabric glued to it, but no sign of life. I break down and say his name in a hushed voice. "Peeta! Peeta!" Then a mockingjay lands on a scruffy tree and begins to mimic my tones so I stop. I give up and climb back down to the stream thinking, He must have moved on. Somewhere farther down.
My foot has just broken the surface of the water when I hear a voice.
"You here to finish me off, sweetheart?"
I whip around. It's come from the left, so I can't pick it up very well. And the voice was hoarse and weak. Still, it must have been Peeta. Who else in the arena would call me sweetheart? My eyes peruse the bank, but there's nothing. Just mud, the plants, the base of the rocks.
"Peeta?" I whisper. "Where are you?" There's no answer. Could I just have imagined it? No, I'm certain it was real and very close at hand, too. "Peeta?" I creep along the bank.
"Well, don't step on me."
I jump back. His voice was right under my feet. Still there's nothing. Then his eyes open, unmistakably blue in the brown mud and green leaves. I gasp and am rewarded with a hint of white teeth as he laughs.
It's the final word in camouflage. Forget chucking weights around. Peeta should have gone into his private session with the Gamemakers and painted himself into a tree. Or a boulder. Or a muddy bank full of weeds.
"Close your eyes again," I order. He does, and his mouth, too, and completely disappears. Most of what I judge to be his body is actually under a layer of mud and plants. His face and arms are so artfully disguised as to be invisible. I kneel beside him. "I guess all those hours decorating cakes paid off."
Peeta smiles. "Yes, frosting. The final defense of the dying."
"You're not going to die," I tell him firmly. "Says who?" His voice is so ragged. "Says me. We're on the same team now, you know," I tell him.
His eyes open. "So, I heard. Nice of you to find what's left of me."
I pull out my water bottle and give him a drink. "Did Cato cut you?" I ask.
"Left leg. Up high," he answers.
"Let's get you in the stream, wash you off so I can see what kind of wounds you've got," I say.
"Lean down a minute first," he says. "Need to tell you something." I lean over and put my good ear to his lips, which tickle as he whispers. "Remember, we're madly in love, so it's all right to kiss me anytime you feel like it."
I jerk my head back but end up laughing. "Thanks, I'll keep it in mind." At least, he's still able to joke around. But when I start to help him to the stream, all the levity disappears. It's only two feet away, how hard can it be? Very hard when I realize he's unable to move an inch on his own. He's so weak that the best he can do is not to resist. I try to drag him, but despite the fact that I know he's doing all he can to keep quiet, sharp cries of pain escape him. The mud and plants seem to have imprisoned him and I finally have to give a gigantic tug to break him from their clutches. He's still two feet from the water, lying there, teeth gritted, tears cutting trails in the dirt on his face.
"Look, Peeta, I'm going to roll you into the stream. It's very shallow here, okay?" I say.
"Excellent," he says.
I crouch down beside him. No matter what happens, I tell myself, don't stop until he's in the water. "On three," I say. "One, two, three!" I can only manage one full roll before I have to stop because of the horrible sound he's making. Now he's on the edge of the stream. Maybe this is better anyway.
"Okay, change of plans. I'm not going to put you all the way in," I tell him. Besides, if I get him in, who knows if I'd ever be able to get him out?
"No more rolling?" he asks.
"That's all done. Let's get you cleaned up. Keep an eye on the woods for me, okay?" I say. It's hard to know where to start. He so caked with mud and matted leaves, I can't even see his clothes. If he's wearing clothes. The thought makes me hesitate a moment, but then I plunge in. Naked bodies are no big deal in the arena, right?
I've got two water bottles and Rue's water skin. I prop them against rocks in the stream so that two are always filling while I pour the third over Peeta's body. It takes a while, but I finally get rid of enough mud to find his clothes. I gently unzip his jacket, unbutton his shirt and ease them off him. His undershirt is so plastered into his wounds I have to cut it away with my knife and drench him again to work it loose. He's badly bruised with a long burn across his chest and four tracker jacker stings, if you count the one under his ear. But I feel a bit better. This much I can fix. I decide to take care of his upper body first, to alleviate some pain, before I tackle whatever damage Cato did to his leg.
Since treating his wounds seems pointless when he's lying in what's become a mud puddle, I manage to prop him up against a boulder. He sits there, uncomplaining, while I wash away all the traces of dirt from his hair and skin. His flesh is very pale in the sunlight and he no longer looks strong and stocky. I have to dig the stingers out of his tracker jacker lumps, which causes him to wince, but the minute I apply the leaves he sighs in relief. While he dries in the sun, I wash his filthy shirt and jacket and spread them over boulders. Then I apply the burn cream to his chest. This is when I notice how hot his skin is becoming. The layer of mud and the bottles of water have disguised the fact that he's burning with fever. I dig through the first-aid kit I got from the boy from District 1 and find pills that reduce your temperature. My mother actually breaks down and buys these on occasion when her home remedies fail.
"Swallow these," I tell him, and he obediently takes the medicine. "You must be hungry."
"Not really. It's funny, I haven't been hungry for days," says Peeta. In fact, when I offer him groosling, he wrinkles his nose at it and turns away. That's when I know how sick he is.
"Peeta, we need to get some food in you," I insist.
"It'll just come right back up," he says. The best I can do is to get him to eat a few bits of dried apple. "Thanks. I'm much better, really. Can I sleep now, Katniss?" he asks.
"Soon," I promise. "I need to look at your leg first." Trying to be as gentle as I can, I remove his boots, his socks, and then very slowly inch his pants off of him. I can see the tear Cato's sword made in the fabric over his thigh, but it in no way prepares me for what lies underneath. The deep inflamed gash oozing both blood and pus. The swelling of the leg. And worst of all, the smell of festering flesh.
I want to run away. Disappear into the woods like I did that day they brought the burn victim to our house. Go and hunt while my mother and Prim attend to what I have neither the skill nor the courage to face. But there's no one here but me. I try to capture the calm demeanor my mother assumes when handling particularly bad cases.
"Pretty awful, huh?" says Peeta. He's watching me closely.
"So-so." I shrug like it's no big deal. "You should see some of the people they bring my mother from the mines." I refrain from saying how I usually clear out of the house whenever she's treating anything worse than a cold. Come to think of it, I don't even much like to be around coughing. "First thing is to clean it well."
I've left on Peeta's undershorts because they're not in bad shape and I don't want to pull them over the swollen thigh and, all right, maybe the idea of him being naked makes me uncomfortable. That's another thing about my mother and Prim. Nakedness has no effect on them, gives them no cause for embarrassment. Ironically, at this point in the Games, my little sister would be of far more use to Peeta than I am. I scoot my square of plastic under him so I can wash down the rest of him. With each bottle I pour over him, the worse the wound looks. The rest of his lower body has fared pretty well, just one tracker jacker sting and a few small burns that I treat quickly. But the gash on his leg. what on earth can I do for that?
"Why don't we give it some air and then. " I trail off.
"And then you'll patch it up?" says Peeta. He looks almost sorry for me, as if he knows how lost I am.
"That's right," I say. "In the meantime, you eat these." I put a few dried pear halves in his hand and go back in the stream to wash the rest of his clothes. When they're flattened out and drying, I examine the contents of the first-aid kit. It's pretty basic stuff. Bandages, fever pills, medicine to calm stomachs. Nothing of the caliber I'll need to treat Peeta.
"We're going to have to experiment some," I admit. I know the tracker jacker leaves draw out infection, so I start with those. Within minutes of pressing the handful of chewed-up green stuff into the wound, pus begins running down the side of his leg. I tell myself this is a good thing and bite the inside of my cheek hard because my breakfast is threatening to make a reappearance.
"Katniss?" Peeta says. I meet his eyes, knowing my face must be some shade of green. He mouths the words. "How about that kiss?"
I burst out laughing because the whole thing is so revolting I can't stand it.
"Something wrong?" he asks a little too innocently.
"I. I'm no good at this. I'm not my mother. I've no idea what I'm doing and I hate pus," I say. "Euh!" I allow myself to let out a groan as I rinse away the first round of leaves and apply the second. "Euuuh!"
"How do you hunt?" he asks.
"Trust me. Killing things is much easier than this," I say. "Although for all I know, I am killing you."
"Can you speed it up a little?" he asks.
"No. Shut up and eat your pears," I say.
After three applications and what seems like a bucket of pus, the wound does look better. Now that the swelling has gone down, I can see how deep Cato's sword cut. Right down to the bone.
"What next, Dr. Everdeen?" he asks.
"Maybe I'll put some of the burn ointment on it. I think it helps with infection anyway. And wrap it up?" I say. I do and the whole thing seems a lot more manageable, covered in clean white cotton. Although, against the sterile bandage, the hem of his undershorts looks filthy and teeming with contagion. I pull out Rue's backpack. "Here, cover yourself with this and I'll wash your shorts."
"Oh, I don't care if you see me," says Peeta.
"You're just like the rest of my family," I say. "I care, all right?" I turn my back and look at the stream until the undershorts splash into the current. He must be feeling a bit better if he can throw.
"You know, you're kind of squeamish for such a lethal person," says Peeta as I beat the shorts clean between two rocks. "I wish I'd let you give Haymitch a shower after all."
I wrinkle my nose at the memory. "What's he sent you so far?"
"Not a thing," says Peeta. Then there's a pause as it hits him. "Why, did you get something?"
"Burn medicine," I say almost sheepishly. "Oh, and some bread."
"I always knew you were his favorite," says Peeta.
"Please, he can't stand being in the same room with me," I say.
"Because you're just alike," mutters Peeta. I ignore it though because this really isn't the time for me to be insulting Haymitch, which is my first impulse.
I let Peeta doze off while his clothes dry out, but by late afternoon, I don't dare wait any longer. I gently shake his shoulder. "Peeta, we've got to go now."
"Go?" He seems confused. "Go where?"
"Away from here. Downstream maybe. Somewhere we can hide you until you're stronger," I say. I help him dress, leaving his feet bare so we can walk in the water, and pull him upright. His face drains of color the moment he puts weight on his leg. "Come on. You can do this."
But he can't. Not for long anyway. We make it about fifty yards downstream, with him propped up by my shoulder, and I can tell he's going to black out. I sit him on the bank, push his head between his knees, and pat his back awkwardly as I survey the area. Of course, I'd love to get him up in a tree, but that's not going to happen. It could be worse though. Some of the rocks form small cavelike structures. I set my sights on one about twenty yards above the stream. When Peeta's able to stand, I half-guide, half-carry him up to the cave. Really, I'd like to look around for a better place, but this one will have to do because my ally is shot. Paper white, panting, and, even though it's only just cooling off, he's shivering.
I cover the floor of the cave with a layer of pine needles, unroll my sleeping bag, and tuck him into it. I get a couple of pills and some water into him when he's not noticing, but he refuses to eat even the fruit. Then he just lies there, his eyes trained on my face as I build a sort of blind out of vines to conceal the mouth of the cave. The result is unsatisfactory. An animal might not question it, but a human would see hands had manufactured it quickly enough. I tear it down in frustration.
"Katniss," he says. I go over to him and brush the hair back from his eyes. "Thanks for finding me."
"You would have found me if you could," I say. His forehead's burning up. Like the medicine's having no effect at all. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I'm scared he's going to die.
"Yes. Look, if I don't make it back - " he begins.
"Don't talk like that. I didn't drain all that pus for nothing," I say.
"I know. But just in case I don't - " he tries to continue.
"No, Peeta, I don't even want to discuss it," I say, placing my fingers on his lips to quiet him.
"But I - " he insists.
Impulsively, I lean forward and kiss him, stopping his words. This is probably overdue anyway since he's right, we are supposed to be madly in love. It's the first time I've ever kissed a boy, which should make some sort of impression I guess, but all I can register is how unnaturally hot his lips are from the fever. I break away and pull the edge of the sleeping bag up around him. "You're not going to die. I forbid it. All right?"
"All right," he whispers.
I step out in the cool evening air just as the parachute floats down from the sky. My fingers quickly undo the tie, hoping for some real medicine to treat Peeta's leg. Instead I find a pot of hot broth.
Haymitch couldn't be sending me a clearer message. One kiss equals one pot of broth. I can almost hear his snarl. "You're supposed to be in love, sweetheart. The boy's dying. Give me something I can work with!"
And he's right. If I want to keep Peeta alive, I've got to give the audience something more to care about. Star-crossed lovers desperate to get home together. Two hearts beating as one. Romance.
Never having been in love, this is going to be a real trick. I think of my parents. The way my father never failed to bring her gifts from the woods. The way my mother's face would light up at the sound of his boots at the door. The way she almost stopped living when he died.
"Peeta!" I say, trying for the special tone that my mother used only with my father. He's dozed off again, but I kiss him awake, which seems to startle him. Then he smiles as if he'd be happy to lie there gazing at me forever. He's great at this stuff.
I hold up the pot. "Peeta, look what Haymitch has sent you."
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