A lot of people thought that Delly Cartwright had to be fake. No one was that happy all of the time. No one could look on the positive side of everything and really be honest. Not in District Twelve.
But those people didn't know Delly.
So when Peeta Mellark peeled himself off of the sticky mat, laughing good naturedly as his brother reveled in both his victory and the applause (varying in enthusiasm) from their classmates, she smiled cheerfully at both of them, her lip catching on the edge of her one crooked tooth. She watched as Peeta scanned the crowds for Katniss Everdeen. It didn't escape her that as soon as his gaze found the Seam girl, she dropped her head to look intently at the ground, ignoring whatever Gale Hawthorne was saying completely.
Delly filed this bit of information away for later consideration.
The taller boy appeared fairly disgusted, and looked like he was ranting about something. That wasn't really a surprise, since he and Rye were sort of rivals for the title of "handsomest guy in school." For good reason, really, but if she were forced to rank attractive boys, which was honestly pretty difficult, Delly preferred Thom Alberts. He had a certain awkward kind of charm.
Even though she didn't really know Gale, Delly made it a habit of keeping tabs on just about everyone in school. He never looked happy to be in general assemblies. He rarely looked that happy to be anywhere, which might have been part of his appeal. Tall, dark, and broody. Mysterious. Exciting. Those things, though, didn't seem as real to Delly as the time she had seen him sneak behind her family's store, pick up his little sister, and spin her around as the little girl squealed with delight. He had laughed then, a big booming sound that echoed down the alley.
When he had come into the store a few minutes later, she "miscalculated" and gave him too much change.
Waiting for Peeta outside of the large classroom the wrestling team changed in, Delly chatted with all of the other boys as they emerged, their hair coated in sweat. The smell was pretty strong, but they all looked too good for her to care much.
"Well, that's that," Peeta chuckled as he limped towards her, the last to leave. "I can't believe I managed to screw up my knee last night."
Delly gaped at him. "There are two entire classes of boys older than you, and you beat all of them except Rye, and he knows all of your tricks! Do you even know how fantastic that is, Peeta? I didn't even realize you did it with a hurt leg! Second place is amazing on a good day! Like this, it's incredible!"
Her family left her alone. She never sought out solitude, let alone requested it, so when she quietly asked if they'd mind giving her some space when the Games began, her parents and brother went to watch in the town square. Before he left on the final night, her father gently wrapped a ratty old blanket around her trembling shoulders and kissed her on the forehead. Her mother sat a steaming cup of tea in front of her, complete with a peanut butter cookie that Mr. Mellark had made in an endless frenzy of baking over the past few weeks.
And that night Delly watched. She watched Katniss and Peeta struggle to stay alive. She nearly shook to pieces as he struggled to climb the cornucopia to safety. And for an entire hour, she watched the tribute from Two fight off the most terrifying creatures she could possibly imagine. Eventually, her parents came home, but they said nothing, just kissed her cheeks and then sadly trudged the stairs to their rooms.
She stayed up all night, watching Peeta steadily dying. She listened to the horrible screams and gnawing sounds as the other boy, the one whose only life, all he had ever known, had been to go into the Games, was slowly torn to pieces. She wouldn't close her ears. She had to remember. Someone had to remember that this was more than just a game. That these were people who mattered, every single one of them.
At dawn, for a few shining moments, everything was horribly wonderful. The poor, cruel boy, Cato, was dead. The rules had changed and there was no one left. Her best friend was coming home.
And then, with a yank of his wrist, blood was spurting out of Peeta's leg and down his pants in a dark waterfall.
"No, please, don't" Delly whispered in horror. Her hands trembled as she reached out and scratched at the screen helplessly.
"Second place is no good."