A/N to follow
"He's going to fall off." Peeta ignores the tall, dark, brooding man next to him, and continues to check the knight's dented armor.
"He's drunk." The man continues to bait him.
"He's always drunk, Gale!" Peeta snaps, causing the dark-haired man to smirk.
"I am right here, you know!" the knight barks before mounting his horse. Peeta sighs deeply and looks up to address him.
"Haymitch, this will be easy. Sir Barnaby is at least a decade older than you, and is said to have a bad right shoulder. Hit him there and it's a sure thing." The older man nods.
"Just try to stay on the horse all three lances, Haymitch," Gale adds. "That should give us enough points advance." Haymitch grunts under his helmet.
"Where's Delly?" Peeta asks while looking around.
"There." Gale points to the blonde woman with a large grin on her face, jogging his way.
"She's here!" she squeals towards Peeta when she is still about ten feet away.
"Who?" Haymitch asks.
"Peeta's future wife, of course." Delly gushes joyfully as she points to the box in the stands reserved for royals and people of note.
"Hush, Delly." Peeta says in a frantic whisper. He quickly leans over and pushes her hand down. Haymitch snorts above him.
"I don't think you're aiming high enough with that one, boy. How about you try and court the queen instead," Haymitch guffaws, followed soon after by Gale. Delly glares at the two men before taking one of Peeta's hands in hers; she smiles sweetly at him.
"Don't listen to these idiots, Peeta. I believe in you."
"Thank you, Delly," he grumbles with stinging cheeks, already regretting mentioning the girl with the braid at all.
When the rest of his companions lose interest in his embarrassment, and return to their tasks at hand, he chances a glance up towards the crowd. His eyes find her right away. She sits in a deep red, velvet covered chair, wearing a green dress with gold threading up her bodice. Her pretty mouth is twisted into a scowl, as usual, and her lady-in-waiting, who sits to her left, wears her usual smirk.
Suddenly she turns quickly in his direction, her long, dark braid (which also has gold thread weaving between the strands) whipping around to fall over her shoulder. Her eyes catch his for the briefest of moments before his turn down to the pile of horse shit a few inches away from his tattered brown boots. He can't breathe, and the idea of her catching him staring causes the air to become imprisoned in his chest. He stands there, intently watching the flies that buzz near him, until he feels someone tap him on the shoulder. He looks up to meet Gale's dark eyes. He gestures his head towards the lists. When Peeta glances over, he sees Finnick walk out to stand in front of the crowd.
Peeta can see the cocky grin pull on the copper-haired, bronzed man, the one that makes the women at tournament blush and become faint. It was the same look that caused Gale and Delly to be weary of Finnick when they met him in that District 8 tavern almost a year ago. Peeta, however, had felt a kinship to the man right away, and when Finnick had explained his mission in life: to go out and make something of himself so he could dare to ask for the Duke of District 4's daughter's hand in marriage. Once Peeta heard his story, the hopeless romantic in him was a goner and he had convinced Haymitch to take the man on as his herald.
Finnick proved himself to be the perfect herald: charismatic, good looking, and a poet. There were many times Peeta would watch as Finnick recited one of his sonnets to daughters of royals. But Peeta knew Finnick's honey-tipped words were not about any of them, but the girl, Annie, whom he had to leave behind if he had any hopes of ever being able to keep her.
"My lords, my ladies," Finnick begins, a somber smile on his face. "I was once asked to define the word bravery," he pauses, placing a contemplative finger to his lips. "I thought on this for some time. I myself write all the time of bold knights fighting to save the damsel in distress, but is that the true meaning of bravery?" He winks at a group of girls in the crowd, causing them to erupt with giggles. "I spent a good many years wandering the earth contemplating this question that weighed heavily on my soul, until I met a man, a man that stood as tall as a tree, with eyes as dark at the sea at night, his handsome face marred by the scars of battles that would make strong men quake in their boots." Finnick feigns a shiver. "That man… that knight... stands here today, his past sacrifices allowing us the peaceful days we live today. So…" he rubs his hands together furiously, a wicked smile playing on his face, "without any further ado, let me present to you the bravest man I know… Sir Haymitch Abernathy!"
The crowd erupts into raucous cheers, but Peeta thinks it's mostly for Finnick, since Haymitch hasn't been his best this tournament, or really, for a long time now. The famed knight of the District Wars was now a shell of his former self, and the empty stomachs of Peeta and his comrades were proof of that.
"Remember, right shoulder," Peeta reminds the older man, while checking the plate armor on his legs.
"Right shoulder," Haymitch repeats back.
"And remember, we are all starving," Gale adds as he hands Haymitch his lance. Peeta glowers at him, but Gale ignores it.
"Don't worry," Haymitch barks through his helmet. "You boys will eat tonight." The flag is dropped, and with a kick of his heels and yell, Haymitch's brown horse bounds towards the competition.
Peeta can tell from his vantage point that Haymitch is already unsteady on his horse. He runs closer and sees Haymitch fumbling with his lance.
"He's going to drop it," Gale mocks from behind him. Peeta clenches his jaw.
"Shut your damn mouth, Gale," he snarls while keeping his eye on Haymitch. "Get it in the cradle," he mumbles under his breath. "Come on, Haymitch, get it in the cradle." The men are just within striking distance, and Sir Barnaby's lance is ready.
"Get it in the goddamn cradle!" Peeta screams across the lists, but he knows he is too late. The opposing knight's lance hits Haymitch square in the chest with such force that it sends Haymitch flipping backwards off of his horse and into the mud below.
"Fuck!" Peeta howls, and kicks his foot into the muck around his feet in frustration. He seethes as he looks around the arena, his eyes meeting the girl with the braid, but he is so angry he doesn't even care that she witnessed his little tantrum. Not only has Haymitch lost any chance of them making money at this tournament, but since he was thrown to the ground, Sir Barnaby wins the horse.
Peeta takes a deep, cleansing breath before sprinting towards the fallen knight.
"Haymitch!" he calls out. When he is at his side, Gale appears right next to him, and together they roll the armored knight onto his back and remove his helmet. The look of remorse on Haymitch's face breaks Peeta's heart.
"I'm sorry," Haymitch begins mumbling over and over again. "I...I couldn't get a hold of my lance." Peeta offers him a small sympathetic smile.
"Next time," Peeta replies, his earlier anger washing away. He owes this man so much.
Peeta and Gale manage to lift Haymitch out of the sticky mud and get him steady on his feet. Peeta can see Sir Barnaby approach.
"That was a good hit, Barnaby," Haymitch speaks to the knight, but Sir Barnaby shakes his head.
"No, Sir Abernathy, the hit was shit, but so is your deflection," he tells him, causing Haymitch to snort mirthlessly. "Listen, Abernathy, I may be one of the few knights old enough to remember what you did for this land. This peace we live in is because of you, but, old friend, I think those days of glory are behind you. You've lost your fight. Don't tear down your name for the sake of this sport." Haymitch sags his shoulders and bows his head at the knight's words. Sir Barnaby turns to Peeta.
"You can keep your horse," he informs Peeta. "I don't need it." And with that he rides away, leaving Peeta and Gale to help the broken knight off the lists.
Haymitch manages to get back to their camp with a little help from Peeta and Gale. Peeta hasn't seen Finnick since he announced Haymitch, and Delly has been keeping her distance behind them.
The defeated knight slinks into his tent without another word to his companions. Gale sighs loudly before taking the horse, walking towards his tent, leaving Peeta alone. An uneasy feeling settles over him, as if he is watching everything he has come to know begin to change.
When he turns to walk away, he catches sight of Delly, slumped to the ground, her arms wrapped tightly around her legs and her head buried in her knees.
"Delly?" he calls to her as he approaches. Her head tilts up at her name, and he can see the red streaks from fat tears on her hollow cheeks. Peeta drops quickly to his kneels next to her and pulls her into his arms. It is then that she begins to sob loudly,
Peeta just lets his best friend cry, holding her tightly the entire time, when her sobs abate to sniffles and hiccups he speaks again.
"What's wrong?" he asks gently, smoothing her frizzy blond hair with his hand. At first she shakes her head and doesn't speak, but Peeta catches her chin with his finger, and as soon as her eyes meet his, he knows he's won. She sighs in defeat and bows her head.
"I'm just so hungry, Peeta. I'm sorry, I know we all are, and poor Haymitch, he must feel terrible, but I...I don't know how much more of this I can handle!" Then she bursts into tears again.
"I know," Peeta murmurs into her hair, his stomach burning, "I know," he repeats.
"Remember how excited we were when we left home?" she says a few moments later. "A couple of cockeyed, optimistic kids with a handful of gold, setting off to take on the world."
"Only to nearly freeze and starve to death less than a month later," Peeta adds with deep chuckle.
"And then Haymitch found us, the two skinny street urchins that we were, and…" Delly lets out a small sob. "Oh, Peeta," she turns her face, so she is facing him. "I love Haymitch so much. Without him, we would have been dead, or forced to go home with our tails between our legs. You would have been sent off to the church, and I would have been married off to some old landowner who smelled like rotting cheese, and we would have never seen each other again. I am so terribly grateful to him, but...but I..." she sniffles and wipes the tears off her cheeks with the heel of her hand. "I don't think I can take much more of this."
Peeta feels his stomach sink, because he feels the same way, but he's not ready to admit that to Delly; luckily, he doesn't have to.
"Why all the long faces?" Peeta and Delly look up and find Finnick standing over them, haloed by the setting sun behind him, a large grin tugging at his mouth.
He doesn't wait for them to answer, and instead pulls out a small cloth bag from the inside of his coat, and drops it into his other hand. The glorious sound of coins clanging together makes Peeta's eyes go wide.
"Dry your eyes," Finnick commands, reaching his hand down to clasp Delly's and then pulls her to her feet. "Put on your best." He jingles the change. "Tonight we feast," he smiles broadly.
"Where did you get that?" Peeta questions as he stands, and he thinks he catches a slight change in Finnick's face before he shakes his head.
"A starving man does not ask where his next meal comes from, but instead is grateful that it exists at all." He pats Peeta on the back. "Now come on you two. It's time to eat."
Peeta watches Finnick hook his arm through Delly's, and the two practically skip off towards Gale and Haymitch's tents. Finnick leans into Haymitch's tent, and a moment later the knight emerges, a gruff look on his face. Peeta can't make out what Finnick is saying, but he clearly sees Haymitch shake his head, and Finnick's shoulders sag before he presses a coin into the knight's hand.
That night, Peeta, Delly, Finnick and Gale spend the night filling their bellies, and try to forget that they will be empty again soon if things don't change, but they don't talk about any of that, and instead walk back to their camp with hands on their distended stomachs,and relaxed smiles on their faces. Peeta stops briefly at Haymitch's tent, a plate full of food in his hand. When he lifts the tattered flap, he can hear the older man snoring, so he places it inside for Haymitch to eat in the morning.
The next morning Peeta is shaken awake. When his eyes open, he startles at the sight of Gale's face just inches from his, an unusually large smile pulling at his mouth.
"What the… Gale….damn it….what?" Peeta snaps, his voice hoarse.
"Crane's out!" Gale sputters loudly, but Peeta is still confused and attempts to rub the sleep from his eyes.
"What?" Peeta inquires, eliciting a groan from Gale.
"Sir Crane… he had to withdraw...Injury"
"He was just ahead of us in points," Peeta adds, as he starts to catch on, his eyes widening, and Gale begins to nod furiously.
"We could still place," the dark-haired man beams, and Peeta cracks a smile as well.
"We got to get him to the lists then." Peeta jumps out of bed, and with nothing but his linen breeches covering him, he dashes past Gale and out his tent towards Haymitch's.
He eagerly pushes his way through the tent's flap, and immediately wishes he hadn't, as the stench that greets him there recoils him, nearly pushing him back outside. Haymitch is slumped on the ground, leaned against the frame of his cot. His head is bowed and a long trail of vomit stains the front of his shirt. Peeta can see several empty liquor bottles lying at his feet. If it weren't for the knight's wet sounding snores, Peeta would have thought him dead.
Peeta pinches his nose shut before moving any closer, but with his mouth opened to breath, he can practically taste the sourness in the air.
"Haymitch!" he yells when he is by the man's side. "Haymitch!" He uses his free hand to shake the knight's shoulder, which startles the man awake. Briefly, Haymitch's slate-colored eyes meet his, before the older man snorts and shuts his eyes once again.
"Damn it, Haymitch, get up! You need to be in the lists soon." Peeta pleads.
"What's the point, boy? I can't make up the points even if I killed the next man," he tells him, his eyes remaining closed.
"Crane withdrew." This seems to catch the knight's attention; he finally gazes at Peeta, but all that Peeta can see there is sadness and frustration and fear.
"I...I can't," Haymitch begins; his voice is shaky. "I can't do this, not anymore," he takes a deep, shuddering breath. "Barnaby was right. I'm used up. I can't think straight anymore, and the idea of tipping a lance terrifies me." Peeta can see a sheen of tears begin to build in the man's eyes, and he can feel a pain in his own heart at the sight of it.
"Haymitch," Peeta begins to speak, but the man throws up his hand to stop him.
"I can't do it, Peeta. Not anymore. I have only been doing it these past two years for you kids, but as you saw yesterday, that isn't even enough anymore," his voice cracks. "You kids need to start making a new plan...one that doesn't involve me." His foot lashes out and he kicks the glass in frustration. "I'm so sorry," he mumbles, throwing his head into his hands.
Peeta sits at his side, stunned, and unsure of what to do next. He is not at all certain what to say to comfort the man who he has grown to care about like a father after all these years, and he cannot seem to find the words to get the knight on his feet and into his armor.
Peeta turns his head, his eyes meeting the metal of the knight's plate mail. He stares at it intently for a solid minute, then feels a flutter in his chest. He looks to Haymitch. Peeta is just a few inches shorter than him, although their builds are different. Haymitch is more long and lean, whereas Peeta is much more broad, but those aren't the types of things that can be seen under a layer of armor.
Peeta gets up and slowly makes his way over to the suit, cautiously reaching out to touch it, as if at any second it will lash out and bite him. At first contact, the smooth metal cools his fingertips, and he pushes his hand flat against it.
"What are you doing?" he hears Haymitch mumble behind him.
What am I doing?
When Peeta left home all those years ago, it was not to find fame and fortune, to win battles, or to earn a 'sir' in front of his name. He simply wanted to live, but what they have all been doing lately cannot be considered living, they were merely staying alive. Without another moment of hesitation, Peeta begins to peel the pieces of the suit off the wall.
"I asked what you were doing, boy?" Haymitch inquires again, and Peeta sighs, then turns to meet the man's eyes full on.
"I'm getting dressed, are you going to help me?"
"No...no way! They would catch you and then they would throw you in the stocks or hang you. Nothing pisses off a knight more than someone trying to impersonate them."
"So that's why you won't help me, because it offends your sensibilities?" Peeta asks.
"Damn it, Peeta!" Haymitch's jaw clenches and his eyes widen in rage. "Didn't you just hear me tell you they will kill you if they find out?!"
"Well, they won't find out," Peeta tells him confidently before examining the straps of the armor once again.
"Why are you doing this?"
"Because you can't, because we are starving, because it's the right thing to do." Haymitch snorts at Peeta's answer, and folds his arms.
"Well I won't help you kill yourself."
"Fine," Peeta concedes before walking over to the flap of the tent and sticking his head out. "Delly!" he yells as loud as he can. "Delly!" he hollers again, and smiles when he sees the blonde emerge from her own tent, spot him, and head in his direction. When she walks into the tent, and finds Haymitch covered in his own vomit and Peeta attempting to step into the suit of armour, her smile falters.
"What's going on?" she asks cautiously.
"Peeta's lost his mind, that's what's going on," Haymitch replies. When she looks to Peeta for answers, he smiles calmly at her.
"I'm going to ride for Haymitch."
"What?!" she gasps in disbelief.
"He'll get killed if he gets caught," Haymitch adds.
"Peeta?" Delly looks to him, her eyes wide with concern. Peeta reaches over and grabs both of her hands in his.
"I'll be fine. I promise. No one will ever know it's me," Peeta soothes
"Yeah, and if they don't find you out, you'll be killed when your competitor drives a lance into your chest," Haymitch barks. Peeta turns to the older man, an incredulous look on his face.
"I have tipped against you many times, old man." Peeta states defiantly.
"In practice, Peeta," Delly says meekly at his side. He looks into his oldest friend's eyes, and he can see the worry there.
"And I held back!" Haymitch adds, causing Peeta to snort.
"If neither of you are going to help me, I know Gale will. He would love to see me knocked off a horse." Delly gasps at his words and he smiles at her. "I'm joking, Delly. I swear to you, I'll be ok. You don't have to help me, but you cannot expect me to continue to watch you waste away. If I try and fail, then we will think of something else, but I can't...I just can't," he implores her, and after taking a large breath, her shoulders sag in defeat, and she gives him a small nod.
Silently she helps Peeta into the suit of armor, and once Haymitch has pulled himself off the ground and cleaned himself up a bit, he comes over and helps adjust the plate around his Peeta's legs. When he is completely armored, he turns around to face his friends, finding that the extra weight on him feels foreign.
"How do I look?" he asks. Haymitch snorts, but Delly just smiles.
"It fits you well," she praises.
"Well hand me that helmet and let's go," Peeta commands. Delly obeys, passing him the metal helmet, and watching as Peeta slips it over his disheveled blond hair. Once it's on he looks out through the small slit. "Haymitch, you stay here until I get back. If anyone sees you, I'll be found out for sure." Haymitch nods in understanding.
"Be careful, boy," Haymitch says. Peeta nods in return before following Delly out of the tent.
The sensation of walking encased in armor is new to Peeta. The padding that he wears under the suit is already causing him to sweat, and he can tell by the way Gale is staring at him with his eyebrow cocked that his movements are unnatural and clumsy.
"You feeling alright, old man?" Gale addresses who he thinks to be Haymitch, and Delly snorts loudly. "What am I missing?" Gale looks to both of them confused. Peeta glances around cautiously before slowly lifting the helmet off his head.
"Oh God," Gale groans. "What the hell are you doing?" he narrows his eyes at Peeta, but doesn't wait for him to answer. "Where is Haymitch?" he questions Delly.
"He couldn't make it," Peeta answers for her. Gale studies him carefully for a moment, and Peeta waits for him to make a snide comment, but instead he Gale just sets his jaw, nods, and turns to Delly.
"Well, let's get the knight on his horse and get him to the lists, shall we?" he gestures his head towards the brown steed. Delly follows Gale, and Peeta ambles behind her, the sound of the metal he wears rattles in his ear.
When they get to the horse, Peeta instinctually grabs the reins and tries to hoist himself up, but he's too heavy and the beast whines at the attempt. Gale snorts out loud.
With Delly and Gale's help, Peeta manages to pull himself onto the horse. Once on, a giddy nervousness erupts in his stomach, and he starts gulping in the small amount of air trapped in the helmet.
"Are you ok?" Delly asks softly from below him. He nods furiously at her, and she smiles warmly; they remain quiet as they walk to the lists.
He begins to feel lightheaded when he gets catches sight of the crowd. The stands seem fuller today. He can hear Finnick begin to speak, announcing him...or Haymitch rather, but he can't concentrate on the words, and he starts to forget why he decided to do this in the first place. Then he glances up at the crowd, his eyes seeking out the girl with the braid and when he finds her, he suddenly can't breathe at all. She is looking back at him, and the realization that she will be watching him as he jousts—watching as he most likely fails—is suddenly too much for him.
"Calm down," he chastises himself. "She thinks you're Haymitch." His anxiety ebbs slightly, but he is jittery. The horse under him starts to rock as well. "Oh God," he whispers, when he realizes he may actually fall off before he even comes to blows with his competitor.
"Peeta," he hears Gale say his name in a low voice. Peeta turns and meets the storm-cloud gray of Gale's eyes. . "Just stay on the horse, we can work with that, but aim low if you can."
"Thank you, Gale." Gale nods to Peeta and hands him up his lance. Adrenaline has begun to course through his veins. The lance feels light, his armour not as constraining. He begins to take deep, cleansing breaths; his eyes narrow in on his competitor in the distance in front of him.
"I can do this," he tells himself. "I can do this for Delly and Gale and Finnick and Haymitch. I can win us gold and we can eat, and then we can come up with a new plan. I can do this."
Finnick's introduction ends and the crowd cheers. Peeta takes one last glance at the beauty with the braid, who is still watching him with piqued interest. He sighs wistfully, then focuses on the man with the flag a few yards ahead of him.
He watches the flag fall and everything seems to slow down. He kicks the sides of his horse, and he feels himself being pulled towards the enemy ahead of him. He sinks his teeth into his lower lip as he pulls his lance up, cradling it under his arm and pointing it at the torso of his target. At the end of his next exhale, the tip of his lance strikes the other knight with such force that it reverberates up Peeta's arm and into his shoulder, causing it to sting, and making him gasp.
His breath lodges in his throat, as his horse continues to run. His fingers are still wrapped tightly around his splintered lance, and his eyes are screwed shut. Then he begins to hear the echos of cheering, muffled by his helmet. The horse rounds, facing him towards the arena in time for him to see his unconscious competitor hanging off his horse, his boots tangled in his stirrup.
Peeta, with eyes wide, snaps his head towards the scoreboard and can see the knight's squire placing a white flag of withdrawal in front of his knight's crest.
"Holy shit," Peeta mutters to himself. "I won?" He's not sure if he's shaking harder now than he did before walking into the arena. Flashes of white burst throughout his vision.
Peeta finds he is so enamoured by the roar of the crowd that he doesn't notice Delly, Gale, and Finnick have run to his side.
"Gorgeous hit, Sir Abernathy," Finnick greets him with a wink, letting Peeta know that the others must have filled him in. Peeta nods his metal-encased head, but he doesn't think he can find any words that would be appropriate for this moment. There's no way to define the way he feels, the anxiety, the happiness, the thrill, the pride. So his mouth stays silent, even though his thoughts continue to spin around his head.
As his horse pulls him off the field, he looks towards the stand; the people are still cheering for him, and a few are on their feet. One of whom is the girl with the braid. Instead of her normal scowl, she wears a large grin, a smile which Peeta can't help but mirror. He raises his hand and waves in her direction, causing the crowd to cheer even louder
As his eyes remain trained on the olive-skinned beauty as while she claps for him, he can't find the willpower to suppress the idea that maybe this could work, maybe he's found a way for them to survive long term…
Maybe he's found his calling.
Thank you so much to everyone who has followed, favorited and reviewed this story! Thank you so much for giving it a chance and I hope that you will continue to enjoy it!
I would never have been able to get this chapter out if it weren't for my selfless and wonderful beta and friend Court81981, who is always giving her precious time to us writers, and never asking for anything in return! Thank you so much, lovely!
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