A/N: Apologies for the long delay in posting this. I just started a new job and its disrupted things a little! Hope you all enjoy!
Lost and Found
What am I doing? I have no idea. I'm hobbling along beside a river, barely able to keep myself upright, trying to find Peeta, but for what purpose. To ally with him as I have Rue? Why am I getting myself into this mess. Only one person comes out of the Hunger Games and the longer we keep each other alive the more likely it is that I might have to… My brain veers away from the unsavoury thought. I need to keep my mind on the present. If I leave Peeta, knowing he is badly injured, then I might as well just have killed him with my own hands. I can't do it.
If Rue has such worries about her alliance she doesn't show it. The girl is skipping out ahead of me, only her constantly darting eyes show that she is aware of the potential danger in our surroundings. She is whistling a song I have never heard before, occasionally breaking into snatches of lyrics. Between verses she will glance back at me, partly to ensure I haven't collapsed into the river, but partly to reassure herself that I haven't vanished into the woods and abandoned her. The concern touches me in a way I didn't think anything in the arena could.
"What's that there?" Her keen eyes spot something and suddenly she is scrambling down the bank, waving a finger at the rocks.
I look, but see nothing. Nothing except yard upon yard of bare, unyielding stone.
"What is it?"
Rue's eyes are better than mine so although I can't see a thing I believe her and begin attempting the treacherous descent across the sloping bank. Thankfully the river is narrower hear, leaving much exposed rock and earth for me to limp across, but with the slippery ground and my precarious crutch I have to take it slowly.
"What can you see?" I call.
I stop dead. The voice is faint, pathetic, and definitely does not belong to Rue. Harder now, my eyes bore into the ground where Rue had been pointing. Nothing. I wait. She skips closer in staccato hops, bird like, wary now.
"Katniss, is that you?" It is softer now, but I am sure.
"Peeta! Peeta, hold on. I'm coming!" I am suddenly gripped with more energy than I've possessed in days and although I still lean on the crutch I seem to fly across the stones. I clatter up to Rue out of breath and aware that my ribs ache, but I ignore them. "Where are you?" I take another wobbling step.
"Careful, you'll skewer me with that thing." There is a sudden flash of blue as eyes open in the dirt. I falter, just in time, and stumble back a pace. The eyes are watching me and I feel a surge of relief so powerful that I drop to my knees beside Rue ignoring the scream of pain from my ankle at such rough treatment. Peeta is alive!
"Do that again," I demand.
There is a grating noise which might be a chuckle and he is swallowed up by the ground again. The camouflage is perfect. Just perfect. I don't have time to sit around being amazed however.
"Rue, help me get him up." I slip a hand under one of his arms, but it is the little girl who does most of the dragging. I just don't have the strength yet. Turning him we try to prop him carefully against a rock as muffled cries of pain slip from his clenched lips. Without being asked my small friend runs down to the river and returns with a flask of water which I use to wash the mud from Peeta's face. Beneath it he is pale, far too pale and I have a horrible suspicion that the greyish tinge to his skin is not just caused by the dirt.
"You look terrible," I tell him.
From somewhere he finds the energy to smile; it is a sarcastic, little quirk of his lips, but it's there. "You don't look too wonderful yourself."
The smile is wider this time.
I force him to drink a little water as much to make him stop smiling as for any other reason and notice that all the while he is drinking his eyes never leave my face.
"Are you hurt?" I ask. "Rue said she saw Cato go after you, and there was so much blood on the trail…"
"Yes," the nod seems to tire him. "Clove got me here," he gestures weakly to his ribs and then I… well," he seems awkward and clears his dry throat, "anyway when you disappeared I had no choice but to run. Cato caught up with me. He managed to get me in the leg before I escaped." There is a long pause and I can feel his eyes burning into my cheek as I look away. "I thought you were dead."
I have nothing to say to that so I don't bother, instead I turn and address Rue. "We need to clean him up, do you think you can help me get him into the stream?"
We try, but it is a long, loud and painful process. By the time we get Peeta anywhere near the edge of the water his face is green and we are both panting with exertion and pain. Rue stands chewing her lip anxiously.
"Hang on a minute," she says suddenly before dashing off into the trees. I want to call out to her, but we've made so much noise as it is that I worry we'll attract the Careers. You never know who might be listening. I needn't have bothered though because a moment later she reappears again, hands full of thick green moss. "We can use it like a sponge. It might make things easier."
She is right and in no time we have most of the muck washed away from Peeta's skin, but this only reveals how ashen he really is, the deep shadows beneath his eyes and the blue tinge to his lips. As he sits there in the sunlight he begins to shiver even though he burns to the touch.
"We should take a look at that," I gesture to his ribs. The fabric of his jacket has been slashed and blood has crusted along with the mud. Gently he allows me to ease off his clothes and Rue dabs carefully at a long, curving cut that has been sliced into his side.
"I don't think it's too deep," she announces quietly, "but there's dirt in it." She rocks back on her heels and eyes him warily, her gaze flicking from Peeta's face to mine, she seems almost afraid of him.
I try to smile reassuringly, dreading the thought of having to play doctor. I've never been good at it. "I'll do it. Just help me sit next to him properly, will you? My ankle's killing me."
She helps me settle and with gritted teeth I set to work, Rue running back and forth to renew my water supply. Once when she has skipped down to the edge of the river Peeta whispers quietly to me so that the cameras won't hear.
"Why did you come and find me?"
I keep working, giving myself time to think up an answer. Gently dabbing the dirt from the wound so that it doesn't become infected, some of the skin already looks red and inflamed. Fingers reach out and take mine, twining with them and stopping them from doing their work. They're practically on fire, but despite everything they still feel strong. Any sort of answer sticks in my throat.
"I… I don't know." I look up at him. He's still waiting for a more satisfactory answer. "I couldn't leave you out here to -"
"To die? Katniss that's the point of the Games." He sounds almost annoyed. Pleased, but annoyed.
"Shut up," I tell him. Can't I come up with anything else?
"I see you picked up a shadow again." He ignores me.
"She helped me escape from…" I am just about to say you, but I can't quite make myself do it. "From the Careers," I finish. "And then she saved me after I fell down the hill. Patched me up again."
"I thought you were dead, when I saw you fall… I thought that was it." He looks at me seriously again, eyes full of a pain which has nothing to do with his ribs or his leg. In that moment he seems so lost and hurt that, quite unbidden, my lips feel the need to plant a quick, gentle kiss against his burning brow.
"Don't be daft," my mouth quirks upwards awkwardly as I pull away. "It'd take more than a stupid hill to get one over on me."
From the left I hear a giggle and glance up. Rue is watching us from several feet away. A flask of water in her hand and a pleased, knowing expression on her face. I immediately feel myself blush beet red. Why did she have to see?
"You two are so cute," she giggles again before handing me the flask.
It suddenly dawns on me that not only did she see, but everyone saw. Sometimes, in the quiet moment's it is so easy to forget that the whole of Panem can see our every move, hear our every word, witness our every kiss. The whole of Panem, and Gale. What on earth is he going to think? Suddenly an innocent, impulsive gesture becomes laden with meaning I hadn't intended. Have I just gone and hurt my best friend? Will he realise there was nothing to it, or think that it means more? Should I even care? I am aware that Peeta and Rue are staring at me, that I haven't taken the flask from Rue yet.
I cough to cover the silence and make a grab for it. "Right, well… let's get started on this leg then shall we?
I almost wish I hadn't suggested it. I'm squeamish at the best of times when it comes to injuries, right now I think I might throw up or faint, something embarrassing anyway. Several water flasks and some leaves supplied by Rue later the thing is clean and oozing puss and revealed to be an unhealthy scarlet. It will take more time to treat than I am prepared to risk out in the open and with the state we are both in getting anywhere will take time. After some struggling the three of us manage to get to our feet, just. Thankfully, by some miracle of luck or fate, the spot wasn't that far from the cave Rue and I had made our home. We must have been walking in an enormous loop all day.
"Here we are," I attempt to gently lay him down, but really end up dropping him rather unceremoniously. I can almost feel all of Panem wince as I do so.
"Ooooph," the air seems to explode from Peeta and I worry he won't manage to breathe in again. He does though, somehow.
"Don't worry," he says in response to my agonised look. "I'm fine, or I will be in a minute."
I obviously don't look convinced because he gives me a wide, toothy grin to prove it. It just makes him look more gaunt and skeletal than ever. But I can't help it; I always seem to be worrying about Peeta Mellark in some way or other.