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.