My eyes flash open the following morning and suddenly it all makes sense. The words of Claudius Templesmith that permeated the dark sky last night come back to me, and I realize in an instant what he meant.
Two can win.
Katniss and I can go home.
Both of us.
It’s such a painfully beautiful thought, the two of us being home. Beautiful in its perfection. Painful in its improbability. Even if Katniss were able to locate me, there’s no way I could get better. The medicine I need is expensive enough, and this far into the games I’m not sure President Snow himself could afford it.
But it’s still such a grand thought, Katniss and I surviving and going back to twelve together, that I let myself consider it. I imagine all sorts of scenarios; Katniss and I having a picnic, Katniss and I watching the rain together, me making Katniss dinner. We’d be neighbors, after all. Katniss, Haymitch and I. What a grand little neighborhood we’d have in the victor’s village.
I must fall asleep at some point while daydreaming, because suddenly my eyes are flashing open to the sharp sound of a stick cracking under something- or someone’s- foot. I let my eyes fall shut again and hold very still, wishing that my heart would slow down. I swear, everyone in the arena can hear it with how loudly it’s beating…
I hear the footsteps coming closer, and fight the instinct to open my eyes.
The instinct wins.
I peer at the figure that stands on a mound of gravel a few yards away, holding a bow at the ready and scanning the area. Her braid is messy and some loose hair clings to her face with sweat, but she’s beautiful just the same.
My voice is dry when I speak, but at least I can make sound at all. “You here to finish me off, sweetheart?”
Katniss turns sharply to look in my direction, her eyes sweeping the banks and vegetation. She frowns, her eyebrows knitting together and her mouth set in a straight line. “Peeta?” she murmurs. “Where are you?” She comes closer, studying the surrounding area as if waiting for me to materialize. “Peeta?” She repeats when she’s only a few feet from my hidden body.
“Well, don’t step on me,” I croak, closing my eyes again. I mean to sound teasing, but the words come out weak and dry.
Katniss stumbles backward in surprise, and after a moment I open my eyes to divulge my hiding spot. Katniss takes in a sharp inhale, her eyes widening in shock. I laugh for the first time in days, feeling truly happy. If I die now, I’ll be content. Because I got to see Katniss again.
“Close your eyes again,” She commands, so I do as she says. She crouches beside me a moment later. “I guess all of those hours of decorating cakes paid off.”
I smile weakly. “Yes, frosting. The final defense of the dying.”
Katniss’ grin falls away. “You’re not going to die.”
I swallow, and my heart leaps at the effort it takes. “Says who?”
“Says me,” Katniss says firmly. “We’re on the same team now, you know.”
“So I heard,” I say softly. “Nice of you to find what’s left of me.”
Katniss pulls out her water bottle and lowers it to my lips to help me drink. I gulp down the liquid slowly, but don’t take much. I don’t feel very thirsty right now.
“Did Cato cut you?” She asks me, capping the bottle.
“Left leg,” I confirm. “Up high.”
“Let’s get you in the stream,” Katniss suggests. “Wash you off so I can see what kind of wounds you’ve got.”
I suddenly have a thought. “Lean down a minute first,” I tell her. “Need to tell you something.”
She leans forward and puts her ear by my lips, so I whisper, “Remember, we’re madly in love, so it’s okay to kiss me any time you feel like it.”
Katniss pulls away quickly and lets out a loud laugh. “Thanks, I’ll keep it in mind.” She turns to the stream thoughtfully, then back to me. “Let’s get you in the water. I’ll help, okay?”
I try and nod, but it sends a sharp wave of nausea through my body. I take in a deep breath but force a smile, not wanting to worry Katniss. “Let’s do it.”
She puts her hand under the back of my head to guide my movement, but I find that I can’t move on my own at all without the pain that comes with it.
“Let’s try something else,” Katniss says, keeping her tone pleasant. “I’ll try and move you, okay?” She holds one of my arms and puts the other around my torso, and starts trying to drag me to the water. An icy pain rushes up my spine and I clench my teeth together hard, but it’s no use. I can’t help crying out a few times, and each time the frown on Katniss’ face grows deeper. I try so hard to ignore it, to make it easy for her, but it hurts so much. I lay about two feet from the water’s edge, free of the plants that had begun to grow over my body but still unable to get into the river. I grind my teeth together as Katniss attempts to move me again, but the pain has grown severe and tears begin to leak from my eyes.
“Look, Peeta, I’m going to roll you into the stream,” Katniss says, a nervous edge in her voice. “It’s shallow here, okay?”
I swallow hard. “Excellent.”
Katniss kneels down on the other side of me and puts her hands on my shoulder. “On three,” she says. “One, two, three!” I grind my teeth together and she pushes me onto my side, but when my leg touches the ground I let out an agonized yelp. She gets me rolled over once before she stops, and painful relief courses through me. Now I lay at the very edge of the water, less than an arm’s reach away.
“Okay, change of plans,” Katniss says. “I’m not going to put you all the way in.”
I let out a shaky breath. “No more rolling?”
“That’s all done,” she assures me. “Let’s get you cleaned up. Keep an eye on the woods for me, okay?” She turns around and digs out her two water bottles and a water skin from her bag, and I focus my attention on the woods. I register the cool sensation of water soaking my body as Katniss dumps it over me, but I don’t look away from the forest. I have this one job, and I aim to do it well.
I feel Katniss’ trembling fingers as she unzips my jacket, then slowly unbuttons my shirt. I try to help as she pulls them off of me, but it takes an extreme amount of effort. My undershirt seems to be stuck to my body with hardened mud, and Katniss has to cut it away with her knife.
“You’ve got some burns here,” Katniss observes, tracing a finger up my chest gently. I shiver, feeling hot and cold at the same time. “And some stings, too. I can treat them, but we can’t have you laying here in the mud.”
It takes several minutes of effort, pain and tears, but somehow Katniss gets me propped up against a dry boulder a foot or so away. I sit still as she washes the dirt from my hair and skin, and pulls the tracker jacker stingers from the lumps where they’re buried. I flinch a bit as she tears them from the sensitive flesh, but compared to the pain in my leg they’re a breeze. I sigh with relief when Katniss applies some leaves to the wounds, taking away the pain entirely. I’m just not sure what she’s going to do about my leg.
I watch as she washes my clothes and spreads them over some boulders to dry, her face an image of complete concentration. When she returns she applies some cream to my burn, before digging through her medical kit for something. She pulls out two pills and holds them out to me. “Swallow these.” I do as she says, and she adds, “You must be hungry.”
“Not really,” I admit. “It’s funny, I haven’t been hungry in days.”
Katniss frowns and reaches into her bag again. She holds out some groosling, and I recoil in distaste. My stomach somersaults just at the thought of eating it.
“Peeta, we need to get some food in you,” Katniss pleads.
I swallow again, my dry throat screaming. “It’ll just come right back up.” By the imploring look she gives me, though, I eat a bit of dry apple she offers me. “Thanks. I’m much better now, really,” I insist. My eyelids seem to grow heavy all at once. “Can I sleep now, Katniss?”
“Soon,” Katniss says gently. “I need to get a look at your leg first.”
I’m cooperative, of course, letting her pry my boots and socks and, very slowly, my pants from my body. I can tell by the way her eyes flash and her nose wrinkles that she can see the severity of the wound.
“Pretty awful, huh?” I ask, searching her face.
Katniss swallows. “So-so.” She shrugs, but it’s quite obviously an act to make me feel better. For some reason it touches my heart. “You should see some of the people they bring my mother from the mines,” she continues. “First thing to do is clean it well.”
She pulls out a piece of plastic and slides it carefully under me, before running some water over my leg. I clench my teeth and pretend it doesn’t hurt, but it does. Extremely.
“Why don’t we give it some air, and…” Katniss’ expression is hesitant, and I feel a wave of pity for her. She has to endure the pressure of keeping me alive.
What a burden I must be to her.
“And then you’ll patch it up?” I suggest.
“That’s right,” Katniss says, looking almost relieved. “In the meantime, you eat these.” She hands me some dried pears and walks away to wash my other clothes. When she returns a few minutes later, she says, “We’re going to have to experiment some.”
I squeeze my eyes shut as she begins the series of ‘experiments.’ She presses something into my wound, and I can feel a wet a substance begin to run from it. I don’t know if it’s blood or something else, but I push the thought out of mind. I’m trusting Katniss on this.
I watch her face, and realize that she looks as sick as I feel. “Katniss?” I ask quietly. She turns and meets my eyes, and I mouth, “What about that kiss?”
Katniss goes into a fit of laughter, and I ask sweetly, “What’s wrong?”
“I… I’m no good at this,” Katniss says. “I’m not my mother. I’ve no idea what I’m doing and I hate pus!” She lets out a small groan, followed by a louder one after she rinses my wound again.
“How do you hunt?” I marvel.
“Trust me. Killing things is much easier than this. Although for all I know, I am killing you,” she admits.
“Can you speed it up a little?”
Katniss’ eyebrows furrow. “No. Shut up and eat your pears.”
I nibble at the food as Katniss continues doing who knows what to my leg, and I must admit, it feels almost better. When I finish eating, I ask, “What next, Dr. Everdeen?”
“Maybe I’ll put some of the burn ointment on it,” she says thoughtfully. “I think it helps with infection anyway. And wrap it up?” She pulls out a small backpack and holds it out to me. “Here, cover yourself with this and I’ll wash your shorts.”
“Oh, I don’t care if you see me,” I say with a slight shrug.
“You’re just like the rest of my family,” Katniss says, her tone sharp. “I care, all right?” She turns around, her face bright red and her eyes narrow. I can’t help grinning, and pull off my shorts carefully without letting the fabric touch my cut. I toss them into the water, in front of Katniss, and say, “You know, you’re kind of squeamish for such a lethal person. I wish I’d let you give Haymitch a shower after all.”
“What’s he sent you so far?” Katniss asks, busy washing my shorts.
“Not a thing,” I reply, and then the thought crosses my mind. “Why, did you get something?”
Katniss is quiet for a moment. Then, “Burn medicine. Oh, and some bread.”
I sigh. “I always knew you were his favorite.”
Katniss snorts. “Please, he can’t stand being in the same room as me.”
“Because you’re just alike,” I say quietly.
While Katniss dries the clothes, I doze off. I fall asleep to one perfect thought: Maybe, just maybe, Katniss and I really will get to go home.