Chapter Nine
Only one thing of interest happens during our three week break from school. A trio of Peacekeepers from the Capitol arrives, not to talk to Peeta and Katniss but to talk to everyone who was interviewed. They want to know if our site producer, Cressida, talked about going anywhere. She has, they say, disappeared, along with her cameramen, and they fear foul play.

I am at Ed's store when they arrive, and I'm sure he remembers as well as I do that she asked where the tracks lead once they go north of Twelve. He scratches his head and says, "Didn't she say something about the old Capitol, Delly?"

I blink. "Um..."

"Yeah," he goes on. "She said she thought the waters might be down enough for the monuments and things to show. She was talking about doing some diving to film them. Remember, Delly? Her one cameraman said he was a good swimmer."

I have no idea why Ed is spinning this lie, but I assume he's got a good reason, so I say, "Oh, right. She wanted to see the..." I make a dome with my hands, like I've heard the old Capitol had.

"Right, the dome." He gives the Peacekeepers a winning smile and says, "Everyone thinks we're practically at the coast here. It's about three hundred miles outside the fence before you hit water, I think, and that's not counting taking a boat to the old Capitol. She probably took a bad turn and ended up in the wrong ruins."

"Or maybe she's getting great shots of that pointy monument that used to be there," I add. "The top might even be above water by now."

"Hmph," the head Peacekeeper says. "Not likely. Way I hear it, it got bombed to rubble before the water came."

"Guess she'll find out," Ed tells him.

"Or get killed trying." The Peacekeeper makes a disgusted face and mutters something about "chasing around after damned artists," then shakes Ed's hand and leaves, his colleagues in tow.

"Good memory," I say.

"The dome was a nice touch," he tells me.

"What if she really is in trouble?"

"You think she'll be in less trouble if they find her?"

There's no arguing with this. We see the Peacekeepers making a random check of the fence. They apparently see something that amuses them, because they are laughing and making crude gestures while they wait for the train. When it finally comes, they are gone, and the Capitol with them, at least until the next time they decide to drop in.

Life settles back into its normal routine. School starts again. It's different with Peeta, Edder, and Katniss not in attendance, but it's not alien. School is school. I imagine that if Panem collapsed into the ocean and we had to learn how to breathe underwater like fish, within a week, Mr. Durigan would be threatening detention if we swam out the windows and Mrs. Hudock would invent air bubbles just so we could recite our literature assignments out loud. There would be very wet assemblies, and octopus wrestling would draw big crowds.

I start going to Peeta's after school to share whatever we're learning. He seems glad of this, and wants to know even about classes he didn't like. He even does the homework assignments with me. He's a bear for gossip, too, though I'm sure he doesn't think of it that way. But the goings out and breakings up of our various classmates interest him, and he wants to know who's singing at assemblies and who's doing sports. I tell him he should just come back to school, but he admits that it's flatly forbidden. "I'd be a distraction, anyway," he says. "And I never know when the cameras are going to show up. Besides, I'll have to go away in a few months for the Victory Tour anyway."

"You sound bored," I say.

"You have no idea."

I close my literature textbook. We've moved beyond the Great Gathering and into the works of early Panem, when everyone was apparently buzzing like a happy little bee, building a new world on the ruins of the old one. Mrs. Hudock calls it the Era of Optimism. "Why don't you go see your friends?" I ask him. "They're still out in the square at night. Cyprian Murphy's always hoping you'll drop by."

"To do what? I can't exactly play pick-up games with them, which is pretty much all we did. And if we wrestled, I could kill someone pretty easily with this thing." He taps his leg, then shudders. "I wish I didn't know what I could kill people with."

"Peeta..."

"It's the first thing I think about if I'm in a room somewhere. If someone attacks, what do I see that I could hit back with? It's like it's not even my head sometimes. Like they took a piece of my brain out and put in a fake piece instead."

"Do you want to talk about it?"

He considers it, then shakes his head. "No. I want to talk about..." He opens the book and scans the short story I'm reading for class. "I want to talk about why Junjing Hui decided to become Jennie Hudson when she built the glass tower. Doesn't seem like an improvement."

So we talk about a fictional architect and her fictional building, then go to the end of chapter questions about why so many people changed their names after the Great Gathering. Peeta says that the Malarkeys became the Mellarks because when they got to Panem (or what would become Panem), they found out that "malarkey" meant nonsense or crazy stories here.

"Probably because of some relative of yours and Ed's," I tell him.

He smiles. "Thanks for coming, Delly. You don't have to if you don't want to, but I really appreciate it."

"You know, you could come into town and visit me. Or your parents. Or you could come to the square. You don't have to play the games. I never do. I've been sitting out with Leevy Cooley and doing homework while Sam plays."

He shakes his head. "I don't think so."

"Peeta, they're your friends."

"That's what I thought. But not a single one of them, other than you, has managed to walk up the road to say hello."

"Well, you haven't been walking down the road, either."

Peeta narrows his eyes, then reaches under the table where we're sitting. A minute later, he slaps his left shoe down beside the books. The upper is in shreds, and ripping away from the sole. There is a large hole where his toe belongs. "I don't walk very far, Delly," he says, his voice carefully controlled. "This is the best I have left. And this? Is from walking around my house and my garden, and over to Haymitch's next door."

"They're all like that?" I ask.

"Yeah. Well, I have one pair of shiny dress shoes that Portia sent me - they have some kind of special padding in them - but I'm not going to walk around in them. I'd look like an idiot."

I take the shoe from the table and find a pile of ones like it in a closet off the kitchen. He has apparently been throwing them at the wall, which is covered with scuff marks. His victors' crown is hanging from a peg. From the looks of it, he's been using it as a target.

I put all the shoes in my backpack, come out, and say, "I'll take them to the shop. I can fix them."

"They'll just wear through again."

"Yeah, and the world will keep on turning anyway." I give him a hug, even though he's annoying me, and kiss his cheek. "I'll get them up here to see you."

"Not if they don't want to come."

I shake my head and leave.

When I get back to the store, Prim is there trying on a pair of pink kitten heels. Katniss more or less ignores her clothes unless her mother forces her to shop, but Prim has been enjoying herself, and I'm glad. She twirls in the new shoes, and I clap, setting down my bag. It gapes open.

"Are those Peeta's?" she asks, shocked.

"Yeah. Guess the foot's a little hard on them."

"Is that why he's sulking over there? I thought it was something Katniss did."

"Did she say that?"

Prim shakes her head, then mumbles, "She dreams. Sometimes she says, 'I'm sorry, Peeta' and things like that. Don't tell anyone I said that."

I consider the idea that this is about Katniss, but I don't think it is. I think Peeta has lost his leg, and for all the Capitol's bragging about how well he adjusted and how good the new leg is, I think it's hitting him. And if Katniss did something at the same time, then he probably thinks it's because she can't stand to look at him or something idiotic like that.

But I don't say that.

Instead, I go down to the cellar and fix Peeta's shoes as well as I can.

I go over to Ed's when I'm finished. Jonadab and Sarey are there as well (I can actually tell that she's pregnant now), and we're trying to turn old man Fisher's belongings into something that looks like an eighteen-year-old's house. I want to get the pipe tobacco smell out, but Ed declares that he's getting used to it and may take up the habit himself. I find him a pipe and an ancient envelope of tobacco. He takes two puffs, runs to the bathroom to throw up, then announces that, instead of taking up the habit, he'll use the pipes to make an artistic tribute to Mr. Fisher.

The question of why I'm carrying a sack full of left shoes comes up, and both Ed and Jonadab look like they've hit the end of their patience.

"Personally," Jonadab says, "I think it's time to stop coddling him and remind him what big brothers are for."

"He's been through a lot," Sarey reminds him.

"And he's putting himself through more. Wasn't he going to help Dad at the bakery?"

Ed shrugs. "Dad says he doesn't need any help."

"But Peeta needs to help him anyway." Jonadab examines a smoking chest, with a drawer full of odds and ends and a cabinet with a can of tobacco and a rack of six pipes. "Dad thinks Peeta doesn't want to see him." He takes out the pipes and tosses one of them to Ed. "See what you can turn them into."

After Jonadab and Sarey leave, Ed and I cuddle on the smelly sofa for a while, until I decide it's probably time to go home.

He hands me my bag, taking the opportunity to grab one more long kiss, then says, "We'll do something about him."

Nothing happens the next day, though Peeta seems glad to get whole shoes back, and walks me to the green in the Victors' Village. We might have stayed out there, but Katniss and her mother are out, admiring the autumn foliage. She straightens up a little and starts to smile at him, but he turns away. She looks at her feet and heads off in the other direction. He goes back to his house. I look at Mrs. Everdeen and give her an exaggerated shrug. She puts her hands in the air, then goes after Katniss.

I go to the hardware store to help Ed get his inventory in order. He's realized that selling non-perishable items means that he can't count as much on repeat business as his parents do, and he's working himself into a terror about it. I've helped my father with the books at the shoe store, so I sit down with him and explain, as well as I can, how it will work. He says he'll have to be careful. "Dad says that Haymitch isn't allowed to help out very much. He's surprised they let Peeta even buy the place. So I definitely can't count on any help getting bailed out if I go under. Not that I'd ask, but… you know."

"I know."

I find other ways to calm him down for a little while, but decide to leave a little before eleven. I have school the next day. The plan is originally to go straight out to Peeta's after classes, but I decide to stop at home, and it turns out to be a good thing. When I get to the square, I hear a great deal of whooping. I set my bag down. A gang of Sixteens (well, technically, we're Seventeens now, though most of us are still actually still sixteen) is gathered around something that's been lifted into the air.

Someone.

Peeta's brothers have taken one of the curtains from his living room and turned it into a stretcher with a couple of the curtain rods. They're carrying Peeta above their heads while he calls them every name in the book and makes ineffectual punches at them. They cheerfully walk him around the bakery. The crowd follows. I go after them.

"What do you think?" Ed says. "Should he go in with the pigs?"

"Edder! Jonadab!" Mrs. Mellark yells from an upper window and starts running down. "You let your brother go!"

Mr. Mellark comes to the back door and leans on the frame, watching curiously. Then I notice why.

Peeta is laughing. His swings at his brothers are playful, and they're both grinning crazily.

Mrs. Mellark runs out into the yard and grabs Jonadab's arm. "What is the matter with you?"

"He's late for chores," Ed says.

"Peeta doesn't need to do chores anymore."

"He's rich, not dead," Jonadab says.

Mrs. Mellark looks at Mr. Mellark. "Are you going to do something about this?"

He shrugs. "I guess I should probably tell them not to throw him in the pigpen. It's not sanitary if he's going to come in and work."

Peeta laughs, and his brothers put him down. He takes a few lurching steps (the mud is obviously not easy on the prosthetic), then grins at his father and says, "Sorry I'm late. What are we working on?"

"Cheese buns, if you and your brothers can stop goofing around for a few minutes."

Peeta smiles and goes into the bakery.

Jonadab and Ed take a bow, and we all applaud.

I spend a pleasant hour on my front porch with Leevy, working on our first lab report. We both agree that it's going to be a hard class, and we'll be spending a lot of time on it. She insists that at least half the time be spent at her place. "We don't have much, but I can handle having a guest," she says. "And my brother can have one, too, so Sam can come along."

Peeta's friends who weren't there for the initial kidnapping keep running up to me to see if it's true that he's back in the bakery, and when I tell them that it is, they run over to say hello. Finally, Peeta comes out onto the bakery porch, and is mobbed by everyone he ever met in District Twelve. I can hear them jabbering at him, and keep an eye out to make sure they don't push him too far, but Peeta's always been a social creature and, if anything, he seems to be getting stronger. Cyprian Murphy, who is fourteen and has deeply admired Peeta for years, says, "You should come up to the pub! Second you set foot in the door, I'll get everyone there, and we'll have a party."

"I don't know, Cyp..."

"Seriously, drinks on the house. Or probably on me, actually. And they'll have to be cheap drinks. And legal."

Peeta laughs. "I can buy drinks for everyone these days."

"You can bring Katniss!"

Peeta's smile doesn't waver, but I know his mood lately well enough to know he's putting on an act. "She's not much for crowds. That many people, she'd probably start shooting just to get out."

This gets a laugh, and the boys start asking him what she's "really" like, and if she's a good kisser. I'm about to go over and interrupt - Peeta can't keep this act up forever - when Mr. Mellark comes to his rescue. "I know you boys weren't raised in a barn! You don't ask questions like that about a lady. Not to mention that Peeta's still on the clock here."

Peeta gives a helpless shrug, pulls himself to his feet, and hobbles inside. I see him mouth "thanks" to his father as he goes through the door.

He doesn't come back the next day, so I grab my textbooks and head out to the Victors' Village. Peeta is staring glumly at a cake, his decorating tube sitting off to the side. "I can't think of anything to put on it," he says.

"Do you have an order?"

He shakes his head. "Effie Trinket called. Apparently, I really can't have a job. She said that if I wanted to say Dad came up here and we baked together for fun, I could, but I shouldn't look like I'm actually working at the counter. Disturbs the whole life of leisure thing."

"What are you supposed to do with your time?"

"My talent. Leisure things. I've been painting a lot."

"Can I see?"

He shakes his head. "No. I don't think so. It's..." He shrugs. "Just no, okay?"

"Sure." I stir some white frosting aimlessly. "What on earth is Haymitch's talent?"

"Annoying Effie, I think." He pushes aside the frosting and cuts the bare cake. "Cake always tastes better than frosting. Have some."

I take a piece. It's good. "You'll just have to come into town for fun then."

"If I'm going to see anyone, I have to. Turns out there are rules about big bunches of people out on our green. How stupid is that? We have the best park in town here, and five people who can use it."

But he doesn't come into town the next day, or the one after it. I have my first major fight with Ed when I tell him that he needs to go out there. He keeps his promise not to ask again if I'm really in love with Peeta, but he sure implies it, and I scream that I wish Peeta was the Mellark I was in love with, since he at least cares what's happening to other people. I storm out, and an hour later, Ed shows up on my front porch, having realized that I actually said I was in love with him, which I hadn't noticed, either. I decide this is possibly enough reason not to dump him on the spot, though I warn him to never imagine such a stupid thing again and tell him that if he's looking for someone who doesn't care about his brother, he can look elsewhere, no matter what I might or might not feel about him.

Peeta does come to see me on his own finally a few days later, hitching a ride into town on the back of the groundskeeper's cart. It's because of the shoes.

He takes his left shoe off, sits down on a fitting stool and says, "This is stupid. I can't just sit up there in my house because I'm afraid of ripping my shoes." He holds out his prosthetic foot. It's the first time I've seen it. He's been carefully covering it up.

It's not monstrous, though it's obviously fake. It's flesh-colored shaped like a normal foot, and the wiring allows it to work more or less like a normal foot, but it's much more rigid, and the joints aren't covered with anything. It will wear through any soft material very quickly.

I take it and measure it, then shake my head. "I don't know. You might want to go up half a size to give it a little room."

"If it's too loose, it'll twist and I'll fall."

I think about this. "You said the shoes your stylist, um - "

"Portia."

"Portia, the shoes she gave you. You said they had padding. We could special order some sneakers and things with padding. It would be pricey, but so would replacing your shoes all the time."

"Pricey's not a problem anymore," he says.

"Meantime, go up half a size and put on two or three socks to cushion it." I examine it. "That ought to do it, really. You'll go through a bunch of socks while we're waiting for the new shoes."

Peeta's quiet for a long time, then says, "Thanks for not crying over it when you saw it. My father cried over it. I think he didn't want me to see it, but he couldn't hide it. He just stopped talking and went into the other room and closed the door. So, you know. Thanks for just helping figure it out."

"I thought you were going to lose your head. If it's just your leg, it's a relief as far as I'm concerned."

"You're not the one falling over doorjambs."

"You're here to fall over them."

"You're not going to let me feel sorry for myself, are you?"

I shake my head and call up our supply catalog. For a little while, we look at different kinds of padding. We finally identify the sort that Portia used, and order enough to line several pairs of shoes. I'll do the work myself.

"Thanks, Delly," he says, then shamefacedly adds, "I kind of miss my leg."

"It was a good leg." I ruffle his hair. "You want to grab some dinner at Murphy's? You know Cyp will get half the town up there for you."

It works. He smiles, and I can see Peeta in there - my friend Peeta, not the angst-ridden creation of the Games' narrative. "I don't know," he says. "Hanging out at Murphy's with you? People might think I'm hitting on my brother's girl."

"You know about that?"

"Was I not supposed to? He asked if I wanted to go on a double date."

I laugh. I missed that entirely the last time we went to Murphy's. I guess Ed thought about keeping it secret sometime after he told. "Well, you know," I say. "We figured you'd want some time to settle before we sprung that on you."

"Well, I considered the possibility that we'd had a vampire invasion," he says, pointing at my neck.

I blush and put my hands over my face. "You noticed that?"

"That, and that Ed's acting like a human being. Nice work, Delly."

"Your brother loves you."

"Yeah. I know. Turns out they all do. Even Mom, I think. At least as much as she can. Who knew?"

"You did, you dope." I hold out my hand. "Come on. Let's go to Murphy's. Ed should be closing up. We'll grab him on the way."

He winces. "It's a dirt road up there, Delly. Not very steady." He points to the leg.

"Between Ed and me, we'll keep you standing up."

"Promise?"

"Cross my heart."

We leave the shoe store together, Peeta wearing a new pair of sneakers with the left foot padded and packed with whatever I could find. He sways a little on the steps. I steady him. Ed's going through a long closing routine which he will undoubtedly streamline as he gets used to running the place. He tells us to go ahead without him; he'll join us later if he can. Peeta and I go on through the square, where the huge screen has finally been dismantled for the year. He manages the cobblestones slowly, but it's all right. It's a nice warm day, and we aren't in a hurry. The road to Murphy's goes up a steep incline, and it's basically a dirt track. Peeta pales when he sees it, but I don't let him back off. I hold him steady, and slowly, we make our way up the hill.

The End