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.”
Getting the broth into Peeta takes an hour of coaxing, begging, threatening, and yes, kissing, but finally, sip by sip, he empties the pot. I let him drift off to sleep then and attend to my own needs, wolfing down a supper of groosling and roots while I watch the daily report in the sky. No new casualties. Still, Peeta and I have given the audience a fairly interesting day. Hopefully, the Gamemakers will allow us a peaceful night. I automatically look around for a good tree to nest in before I realize that’s over. At least for a while. I can’t very well leave Peeta unguarded on the ground. I left the scene of his last hiding place on the bank of the stream untouched—how could I conceal it?—and we’re a scant fifty yards downstream. I put on my glasses, place my weapons in readiness, and settle down to keep watch.
The temperature drops rapidly and soon I’m chilled to the bone. Eventually, I give in and slide into the sleeping bag with Peeta. It’s toasty warm and I snuggle down gratefully until I realize it’s more than warm, it’s overly hot because the bag is reflecting back his fever. I check his forehead and find it burning and dry. I don’t know what to do. Leave him in the bag and hope the excessive heat breaks the fever? Take him out and hope the night air cools him off? I end up just dampening a strip of bandage and placing it on his forehead. It seems weak, but I’m afraid to do anything too drastic.
I spend the night half-sitting, half-lying next to Peeta, refreshing the bandage, and trying not to dwell on the fact that by teaming up with him, I’ve made myself far more vulnerable than when I was alone. Tethered to the ground, on guard, with a very sick person to take care of. But I knew he was injured. And still I came after him. I’m just going to have to trust that whatever instinct sent me to find him was a good one. When the sky turns rosy, I notice the sheen of sweat on Peeta’s lip and discover the fever has broken. He’s not back to normal, but it’s come down a few degrees. Last night, when I was gathering vines, I came upon a bush of Rue’s berries. I strip off the fruit and mash it up in the broth pot with cold water. Peeta’s struggling to get up when I reach the cave. “I woke up and you were gone,” he says. “I was worried about you.”
I have to laugh as I ease him back down. “You were worried about me? Have you taken a look at yourself lately?”
“I thought Cato and Clove might have found you. They like to hunt at night,” he says, still serious.
“Clove? Which one is that?” I ask.
“The girl from District Two. She’s still alive, right?” he says.
“Yes, there’s just them and us and Thresh and Foxface,” I say. “That’s what I nicknamed the girl from Five. How do you feel?”
“Better than yesterday. This is an enormous improvement over the mud,” he says. “Clean clothes and medicine and a sleeping bag… and you.”
Oh, right, the whole romance thing. I reach out to touch his cheek and he catches my hand and presses it against his lips. I remember my father doing this very thing to my mother and I wonder where Peeta picked it up. Surely not from his father and the witch.
“No more kisses for you until you’ve eaten,” I say. We get him propped up against the wall and he obediently swallows the spoonfuls of the berry mush I feed him. He refuses the groosling again, though.
“You didn’t sleep,” Peeta says.
“I’m all right,” I say. But the truth is, I’m exhausted.
“Sleep now. I’ll keep watch. I’ll wake you if anything happens,” he says. I hesitate. “Katniss, you can’t stay up forever.”
He’s got a point there. I’ll have to sleep eventually. And probably better to do it now when he seems relatively alert and we have daylight on our side. “All right,” I say. “But just for a few hours. Then you wake me.”
It’s too warm for the sleeping bag now. I smooth it out on the cave floor and lie down, one hand on my loaded bow in case I have to shoot at a moment’s notice. Peeta sits beside me, leaning against the wall, his bad leg stretched out before him, his eyes trained on the world outside. “Go to sleep,” he says softly. His hand brushes the loose strands of my hair off my forehead. Unlike the staged kisses and caresses so far, this gesture seems natural and comforting. I don’t want him to stop and he doesn’t. He’s