His Best Friend
It pains me to see him like this, my best friend, my only remaining friend, turned into a dull shadow of himself. It’s my eighteenth birthday today, and I’m spending it with him, just I have spent all other birthdays that I could remember. Only this time we’re not laughing together on my front porch, or behind the counter at his father’s bakery. I’m in District 13 and Peeta...well there are times when I don’t even know where Peeta is.
I’m excused from my shift at Textiles this afternoon, not because President Coin is feeling particularly generous, but probably because she believes that I could be of greater use to the cause if I were to sit next to Peeta Mellark in the kitchen and get him through the hour without harming himself or others. I watch him silently as he determinedly as he mixes the batter as if his whole life depended on it, his brow furrowed in concentration, and his eyes darkened by the effort he is putting in it.
My birthday cake.
It kills me to think that, in actual fact, any hope he may have for a sane life does indeed depend on the progress he is finally making simply by going through the motions. His effort is heartbreaking, and I stop myself from helping him as he murmurs the steps and ingredients that he has known and replicated since childhood. His hands tremble ever so slightly as they hover mid-air while he second guesses something in his memory and there are times where he hesitates in his movements. The skin under my friend’s eyes is tainted with purple and his face, so dear and familiar to me, is gaunt and pale. If it weren’t for the fact that I have known him all my life, I would say that I am starting to forget what a smile from him actually looks like.
That isn’t possible though. Peeta Mellark’s smile has found its way too often in my dreams to be able to disappear from my memory any time in my lifetime.
But he is torn, broken and in so much pain. And he’s still baking a cake, just for me.
He catches me staring at him from where I sit next to the counter in the kitchen, bare, stark and cold as everything else in the underground prison that is District 13. The Peeta of my childhood and early adolescence would have raised an eyebrow quizzically and grinned, not too surprised at catching me staring at him. His expression would also hold that apologetic look he always gets when he realises that he still remains the unwilling but still so grateful and sweet about it object of my affection. The Peeta that was returned to us following the Capitol administrations looks at me in suspicion and a spark of fear. My heart breaks.
“You’re doing well,” I whisper stopping myself from reaching for his hand. These past few weeks have taught me that it is still too early for unexpected and intrusive invasions of his personal space.
He frowns at me, and looks away sadly. “No I’m not, Dells,” he whispers.
“Yes, you are,” I insist. “Look at you, look at what you’re doing now!”
“I’m baking a cake,” he snaps at me angrily, “and it’s going to taste awful, just warning you.”
He’s making it for me, and just for that it’s going to be the best cake in the world.
“It’s going to taste great,” I reply, and something just hits me. “You remembered everything, even that extra spoonful of vanilla that no one but me knows you put there,” I exclaim with a wide smile.
Peeta looks at me with narrowed eyes, trying to see if I’m messing around with him. But I’m not ... I really am not. All I want is for him to return to me.
“You should fight it, Peeta, fight what they did to you,” I prod on gently.
“What do you think I’m doing?” he mutters. “What do you think I’ve been doing ever since I’ve been here?”
“You sit in your room, you avoid everyone except me, and you go back to your cell,” I reply, shifting my head to try and catch his eye. “You go through the motions and survive. This is not a life worth surviving Capitol torture for. You know more than anyone else what, who¸ you fought for,” I remind him softly.
Katniss left 13 a couple of weeks ago, pretending to fight, shoot promos or just to run away from Peeta. I’m not sure which, and I can’t pretend that I care much. All through my life I couldn’t help but resent this elusive Katniss, this Seam loner who was always far more present in my life and Peeta’s than I would have ever wanted. It never stopped me from being civil to her in the rare times we interacted, friendly even, but lately, ever since the scene in the dining hall where I managed to calm Peeta down, there has been a shift in our relationship. To my surprise, Katniss Everdeen started resenting me. I’m not sure how to handle this turn of events. No girl has ever had cause to resent me, not even the girls who invariably crushed on Peeta as soon as he started filling our his brothers’ worn T-shirts when he hit his growth spurt. I was always his best friend Delly, plain, friendly, harmless Delly who posed no threat to anyone. Except now, apparently, to Katniss Everdeen.
If only she knew.
If only she knew what a broken boy, man, she left behind. That with each dose of morphling, his anger fades and is replaced by something far worse. If only she knew that my presence during his treatment is mostly to be able to comfort him at the end of each session, when he just clings to me and cries while wishing that it was her instead of me.
My indirect reference to Katniss startles Peeta, and he stiffens and turns around to glare at me, breathing heavily, his blue eyes cloudy. “Shut up, Delly,” he warns. The guard standing next to the door makes a move towards him, but I raise my hand to keep him away. I’m not afraid of Peeta, how could I be? He would never hurt me. Unlike Katniss, I haven’t been deemed essential enough to his life to turn me, in his memories, into a blood crazed mutt intent on killing him. A lucky miscalculation from the Capitol, which I intend to use to my full advantage.
His next morphling treatment is due tomorrow, and maybe the effect of the last session is fading so I try to remind him of what the doctors in 13 have been stressing into him these past weeks. “They lied to you about her, Peet. She’s not a mutt, she’s not the monster that they’re making you believe she is…” my voice trails off as I see his shoulder slump and his eyes fill in with that sadness, that terrible despair that leaves me breathless.
“I know that,” he whispers, and I can’t help sigh in relief, “that treatment with the morphling, is helping… a lot.” He takes a deep breath and blinks rapidly at me, his honest eyes bright with unshed tears. “I’m not angry or afraid of her any longer, or at least not as much as I used to be,” he finally admits, “I just feel stupid…and gullible, for having believed that she could possibly have feelings for me.”
“Whatever she did, she did it to protect you. Never to hurt you,” I remind him. “She could have won the Games, but she wanted it to be with you. She nearly got herself killed to get you the medicine…hers might not yet be the love you want from her, but it seems rather strong and loyal and beautiful to me!”
Peeta lets out a noise that seems to be a cross between a sob and a snort before making my sad, grey world brighter with a tiny smile. “Barley told me something similar once,” he says, “before the Victory Tour, when things were very rough.”
I think of Barley. Of Naan. His family. My parents. Our friends, our teachers, our neighbours. Our loss. For a moment I can’t breathe.
Later…I’ll cry later.
My compartment, shared with my younger brother who must be Panem’s heaviest sleeper, will afford all the privacy and opportunity for me to weep. In the meantime, Peeta and I have a cake to bake.
Later that evening, Peeta sits nervously beside me as I share my cake in the dining room, and does not really respond to the compliments on his work except for tiny, nervous nods. He is still not comfortable with a crowd, and before long he is accompanied back to his room, the cuffs around his wrists still a reminder of how far away he still walks from me.
I slump down in my chair and look at the slice of cake in my plate. I suddenly don’t really feel like it anymore.
A chair scrapes across the table and Gale Hawthorne sits down, regaling me with a nod. It takes all my effort not to roll my eyes at him.
The last thing I want to do is to share a table with Gale, but I’m still too polite to just move away, especially since he seems to actually want to have a conversation with me.
“How’s Mellark?” he asks.
“Which one? The hijacked one or one of those you left behind to die in District 12?” I snap. I wince when I see the guilt in his face. That was incredibly uncalled for and I immediately feel like crap. I had meant to provoke anger, and not sadness. There is enough of that around anyway. “Sorry,” I whisper. “That was unfair, and untrue, and I’m having a bad day,” I add.
He plays around with his food for a moment, before looking up again. “Peeta,” he says slowly. “How is Peeta?”
“He has good and bad moments,” I reply with a shrug. “I push him too hard sometimes, but I’m not sorry for it. He needs to break through the damage they caused him. He deserves better than this,” I explain, as I gesture helplessly.
Gale nods but says nothing. I don’t think he can bring himself to agree with me on that point. He is stubborn enough to still refuse to see what I see about Peeta but, on the other hand, I am similarly stubborn enough to refuse to see what is so special about Katniss. Gale and I are more similar that one would initially believe.
“I am you, you know,” I tell him cryptically, and I almost grin at his surprised reaction. “I am to Peeta what you are to Katniss,” I explain. “I’m the Gale of the Merchant Partnership. You’re the Delly of the Seam Duo. Without the shiny hair,” I finish with a smirk.
Gale bites back a retort, and ponders on this point for a moment before grabbing a fork and dipping into my slice of cake. What the hell?! “It’s not fun is it?” he replies with a small smile.
I shake my head, but shrug. “It must have been harder for you I imagine,” I answer. “Peeta has been pretty consistent and honest about his feelings for Katniss and for me since we were old enough to talk about it. I just held on to the hope that he might change his mind. I did try very hard…even stole a kiss or two. But it was easy to realise that his mind was always on your side of town.”
Gale says nothing for a moment. “During the Games, both Games, I was ready to give up you know,” he confesses. “But now …” his voice falters as he stares at my plate, his expression unreadable. “Cake’s good,” he mutters finally.
I lean towards him and stare at him seriously. “I don’t think there is much of a challenge, Hawthorne, and if you actually paid attention during the Quell you’d know it” I tell him, “but winning like this, while Peeta is in the state he’s in doesn’t count. If she turns away from him now, it does no credit to either of you.”
I stand up to leave the table, and I bump into a towering dark figure that seems to have been hurriedly walking to our table. I look up and groan.
Thom Bloody Styles.
Thom Styles is an old friend of Gale’s, dark and grey-eyed like most of the survivors of the bombing and now a soldier in training in District 13. Together with Gale he led us all away from our burning district into the woods, so technically I should be somewhat…grateful to him. But Thom Styles was also my tormentor during most of elementary and middle school, the same sneering bastard who once heard me laugh with Peeta during lunch break and immediately started the rumour that my real name was … Delirious. Walking around school for the following five years was torture.
Hey Delirious! I’m having a bad day – why don’t you do that manic laugh of yours?
Delly-Delirious, make me laugh! The Seam needs some cheering up you know!!
It is not something I can and want to easily forget. I have my grandma’s laugh, it’s all I remember of her and I’m proud of how loud and free it sounds. Thom Bloody Styles can go to hell and roll himself in shit for all I care. In fact, I wish had any reasons left to laugh, because then I’d just climb on a chair and guffaw straight into his ugly Seam face. But I don’t have reasons, not even a single one, so I just glare at him, steeling myself for some smartass remark, because it’s Thom Bloody Styles, and he is an asshole, even during a war and in an underground city.
“Happy Birthday Delly,” he tells me.
“I heard it was your birthday, and that the Baker’s son baked you a cake,” he replies, shifting nervously. “I came here to wish you a good day,” he finishes rather lamely.
I wait for the taunting to begin because he is of course going to tease me about the cake, and how I shouldn’t eat it all by myself. Besides my laugh, my weight was always a matter of interest for Thom Bloody Styles.
Hey Delirious – is it true that you ate all the food supplies for this month? Because it certainly looks like it!
I was always chubby growing up, even though I ate the exact same amount of food as my stick-thin brother Nate, and sometimes even skipped food at school, because I was made to feel ashamed for eating when I actually don’t look emaciated and starving like the rest of the district. The Seamers especially, were almost cruel in their glares, so often I just passed on my lunch to Nate, or to Emmeline Peters, whose father was often too ill to manage their flower shop. Thom never saw those things though, and on the nights when I used to cry because my stomach ached from hunger but my thighs still rubbed together, my Papa used to hold me tight and comfort me.
“You’re just like your Mama, my little round Delly,” he used to tell me. “And that’s what made me fall in love with her. Who would ever want to hug and love a bag of bones?”
Papa. Mama. I feel my eyes fill with tears, and I blink them away impatiently. Thom Styles looks at me with an expression that might be mistaken for concern had it belonged to anyone who was not him.
“Are you ok?” he asks.
I mutter something unintelligible, which should have but certainly didn’t sound like Go To Hell damnit!!, and run away to my compartment. Lights will be off soon, and I just ache with the want to cry.
I’m eighteen today. And I don’t think I want to reach nineteen.
My gruelling shift at Textiles is almost over, and my mood is foul. Peeta hasn’t done as well as I would have liked today, and I cannot do anything about it. Because I’m stuck in bloody Textiles.
It hadn’t taken the District 13 officials much time to decide where to place me. The minute I submitted a form that said that I came from a family of cobblers and tailors, it was assumed that my contribution to the war effort would be to put together District 13 overalls and uniforms. I didn’t mind the soldier’s uniforms much, but I hated the grey overalls, with their useless drabness and uniformity.
In my first week of work I tried to include personalised additions– a little flower embroidered to the tiny overall of an infant, an extra seam to accentuate the hips of a shapely girl who had her eye on Lance Matthews, other tweaks to introduce the individuality of the wearer, but I was discovered immediately, summoned before a Council and ordered to work extra hours to eliminate all traces of my “rebellious and non-conforming actions”. So what with the extra hours of work and the time spent with Peeta for his treatment I usually end up alone at my station long after my fellow workers would have gone. Therefore the last thing I expect as the door slides shut behind me is to find a silent figure leaning against the wall and lying in wait for me.
“Holy sh-… motherfu-!” I gasp. Mama taught me to use self control when it comes to cursing. It didn’t always work.
It’s Styles again, and he’s looking at me sheepishly, holding a flowerpot in his hand.
“Sorry to have startled you,” he begins, squirming at my glare, “I j-just arrived, I am not stalking you or anything,” he stammers.
“Oh of course not. What do you want?” I ask rather ungraciously as I start walking towards the elevator. I try to hasten my steps, but with his ridiculously long legs, he outpaces me easily.
“I brought you this flower, as a birthday present, for you,” he explains.
I stop abruptly and stare at him in silence. I’m not sure if I’m just surprised, confused or suspicious. It’s probably a mix of everything.
“I know your birthday was yesterday, but I got to know too late and Nancy from the conservatory would not let me take it,” he adds earnestly.
Well no shit. Thom has the social skills of a … childhood bully.
“And how did you persuade her today?” I ask in clipped tones.
His face softens into a small smile, a small crooked grin just underneath his long nose that does not look quite as ugly as it should. I wince internally. What?
“I told her it was for you. She loved the flower you sewed on her baby’s overalls, and said she was so sorry that she had to give it back,” he replies, his tone friendly. “Go on, take it, it’s my gift.”
Hey Delly-Delirious! Leave some food for the rest of us!
“What do I do with this?” I growl. “Do you want me to eat it or something? Because that’s what Delly-Delirious does right? She laughs and eats and gets taunted by bastards like you!”
Thom flinches and to my surprise, he looks ashamed… and hurt.
“No Delly … no no, of course not…no,” he replies rather helplessly. “That was when we were kids, years ago, I had forgotten…”
“Well I haven’t Thom, I haven’t forgotten, not one word of it,” I reply, and I wrap my arms around me, trying to still their trembling. I really, really, don’t need this right now. “How you made fun of my weight, how you called me Delirious –“
“I really thought that Delirious was your name,” he interrupts, “honestly Delly, I swear, that’s what I thought your name was! I was an idiot back then,” he adds as I raise my eyebrows in disbelief.
“You’re still an idiot Thom, if you thought you could come here and give me a stupid flower … what the hell is it anyway?” I retort, as my eyes grudgingly fall on the flowerpot. It was beautiful actually.
He catches me eyeing it and lets out a breath he seems to have been holding.” It’s a Delphinium,” he explains, “I chose it just for you, not to bring up the past. I had forgotten about that, because I’m an ass, and I’m sorry!” He runs his fingers through his hair in frustration. I remain silent, honestly confused. “A Delphinium, after your name,” he insists, “I know it’s not Delirious anymore.”
Oh I see. “Delly stands for Adelaide, Thom, and not for Delphinium,” I reply with a sigh. Every cell of my body wants me to be snide and mean, but something in his face makes me refrain from doing so. He seems really … crushed.
“Oh. Oh shit.”
“I’m an idiot aren’t I?” he says angrily. “An idiot, a bully and an ass,” he adds kicking the wall in frustration. I really don’t know what to make of him. I don’t even know what to make of this situation.
I take the pot from him gently and summon the elevator. As we wait for it in awkward silence to reach our level, I take a moment to really look at his gift. It’s a deep, brilliant blue, and would stand out beautifully when compared to the drabness of my room. No one has ever given me a flower before. Not even Peeta.
I think I’ll keep it.
“It’s the thought that counts,” I reply, “thank you…Thomas?”
“Yeah, that’s right, and … you’re welcome.”
The name Thomas really does not suit him, and I’m about to tell him so, but then he smiles at me gently. The smile is still crooked. It’s still somewhat sweet. And so I say nothing.
“Will you keep it?” he asks shyly.
“Yes. Yes, I think I will,” I reply after a pause. “But why Thom? Why now?”
The elevator door slides open and he invites me to move in before him. I frown slightly at this unexpected gesture of chivalry and hold the pot tight to me. As we slowly make our way up, he bites his bottom lip nervously. “I might be going to fight soon,” he confesses. “My training is almost done, and I might be deployed in a few weeks. I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a while, and I thought that giving you a birthday gift would have broken the ice between us. I never thought, never imagined that my teasing when we were kids would have made you so angry!”
I bristle at his words. “That wasn’t teasing,” I fume.
He raises his hand in a conciliatory gesture. “You’re right, I know, but Delly, that was years ago! We grew up, we lost our loved ones and we’re fighting a war,” he pleads. “The last time we even spoke I was actually your height,” he adds cautiously, “please let’s put it behind us.”
I’m a diminutive 5’2” and the thought of tall and gangly Thom Styles being my height makes me smile before I can stop myself.
“Ok, I’ll try,” I whisper.
He beams at me and opens his eyes wide with happiness and I do roll my eyes. Idiot.
As soon as we reach our floor, he walks with me in the direction of my compartment, even though I could have sworn that he was housed at the opposite end of the floor. “Just for the record, I always thought that you were pretty,” he finally tells me when we reach my door.
“You always thought I was pretty fat,” I reply with a huff.
“No, pretty,” he replies, reaching out for my hand in both of his. They’re warm, so very warm. “But Seam boys couldn’t think that Merchant girls were pretty, and so I behaved like an ass. Please let me make it up to you,” he finishes.
I am not sure what I’m doing. This is overwhelming, unexpected and completely alien to me. My only experience of love has so far been that of standing behind Peeta as he pined for Katniss. Love has always meant self-sacrifice, disappointment, and feelings of inadequacy. Now Thom says that finds me pretty, that he always found me pretty, and I don’t know what to do about it. I’m not meant to be considered pretty.
I remove my hand from his and fiddle uncomfortably with the buttons of my overalls. I don’t know what I’m doing and what is happening but some things need to be made clear.
“Thom, this is the thinnest I’ve ever been in my life, and I’m still bigger than most girls,” I begin and he looks at me with a puzzled frown.
“Well, I’m always, always hungry here and if the war ends, and we go back home, I plan on eating everything that happens to be on my plate, and that means I’ll get fatter again. Like at school.”
He reaches for my hand again ... and kisses it. I just gape at him. What is this guy?
“If the war ends, and we go home, I would like to be the one to bring food to your plate, Adelaide,” he replies with a soft smile, “second helpings and all, if you allow it.”
I’m not sure if I allow it, but I don’t take my hand from his either.
The next day, I allow him to hug me.
When Peeta is sent off to the Capitol and I cry and mourn the loss of my friend, because I know that he will die for Katniss Everdeen, I allow him to kiss me, and I kiss him back, because in my despair, my heart still beats a little too fast when I see him.
On the night before his deployment, I allow him to take me to his bed. He holds me tight afterwards, and when he whispers in my chest that he loves me, and that he’ll wait for me to love him back, and that I’m so soft I know that my tears are not due to the soreness of having a man inside for the first time.
He reminds me of my Papa, and I think I love him too.
The people I love survive the war. My brother Nate never made it to the actual fighting, and returns with me to District 12 to take over our family trade. Peeta also returns eventually and slowly, little by little, he regains his strength, his sanity and wins over his lifelong love.
We remain an important part of each other’s life, and our relationship develops into a mutual bond made of love and respect which finally stands on equal ground. His eyes shine for Katniss, and mine shine for the stupid lad who teased me relentlessly during our childhood.
I don’t love Katniss, but she survives as well. But I grow to like her when I see just how desperately and truly she loves Peeta. I witness their first awkward steps together, their linked hands, their shared hopes. I am present for their wedding, but I’m also present throughout their marriage, just as Peeta is for mine.
I marry Thom of course, how could I not? He keeps his word, and spends every day of our life together making up for his past behaviour with his never-wavering strength and loyalty towards me and our children. He teaches them how to show love and respect and how to make those around them feel strong, secure and appreciated. I teach them to love and laugh at themselves, to speak their mind, to never stop asking questions, and to forgive.
And one day, Thom calls me “his Delirious” and I laugh, with my loud crazy guffaw that makes him grab me and kiss me in way makes me forget about my second helpings. And that’s when I decide that maybe … it is not such a bad name after all.