Summary: Peeta Mellark has always craved adventure. Always wanted to go and see the world. And when finally the chance comes into his dull village in the form of a group of wanderers, he does not hesitate to snap at it.
Note: I've chosen the language I use in this story deliberately, because it is set in the past (though completely in an alternate universe; that means there are absolutely no historical references), so uncommon syntaxes and formulations are possible.
Word count (Chapter 1): 4,838
Disclaimer: I don't own the Hunger Games
Chapter 1: Departure
The last stroke of his brush swept across the paper and it was done; done at last. Before his very eyes he saw the work of many weeks and dreams; they were grey and white against the setting sun, the snow on the crest wondrously reflecting the orange sky, gleaming, almost as if set aflame. The woods were thick and green above endless meadows, meadows only hinted at down at the feet of the mountains. There'd be a lake, he imagined, and swans as ducks splashing cheerfully about in water. And reeds around in a circle, like a wreath. Perhaps some merry people on a warm day, dancing and splashing with the birds, and in the night a wanderer seeking water and peace on the rank, maybe a place to sleep, bedded in tall grass.
Oh, how he craved to be that wanderer.
Life in his village was nice, admittedly. Peaceful. A life in which no one ever did something unexpected; folk here didn't have any adventures. Everyone would go about their own business (though mind you, there were gossips as in every other town, and some even worse) and no one would ever get involved with the strangers passing through every once in a while. No one, it seemed, but Peeta Mellark.
Instead of avoiding them like a plague and looking at them the same way, as most people did, he was interested in them. Very much so. In the evenings, when they would make a stop at the local inn and drink a traveler's beer, Peeta would sit with them and listen to the stories they had to tell till the sky grew dark with glowing eyes, while all the others would glimpse at them with contempt and behind hands whisper their ill-disposed thoughts to each other.
He couldn't say he cared much about what they thought. The people that lived here didn't matter to him. For as peaceful and simple as their life was, it was also boring. Rising to the same cockcrow every day and falling asleep with the same stars above his head was not what he wanted for all the times to come. Instead, every time the wanderers would leave his village he'd wish to go with them; to see the mountains and forests they'd speak of, and the meadows and lakes, and sleep beneath a new sky every day; rise every morning without knowing what was going to happen.
What had kept him from doing so was solely his picture; a picture that had long been unfinished, one he had taken with him to the inn in every night when there was someone who had seen real mountains and woods, someone who could tell him of them and describe them, and guide his brushstrokes with his words. Yet that was over now; finally over. The next time a traveler would set foot in this village he wouldn't leave without Peeta again.
The picture would serve as a goodbye for his father. His dear father, who knew of his wish, the only person who knew, and who would keep it cherished and cared for, because that was how he treated his son. That was the reason Peeta had needed to finish it.
He couldn't leave without giving his father a gift for him to remember.
His mother, on the contrary, would not miss him at all; she would be glad if she knew what he was planning, for she'd never wanted him anyway. Concerning his brothers, well, if they wanted to the picture would be for them as well, but to them he had never been particularly close, though maybe he would miss their pranks and sarcasm in the long run. Of course he would also miss his father's kindness and care.
But not enough stir him from his resolve.
It was on the 24th April that the next strangers were seen in the village. A whisper was buzzing through the town, like a swarm of bees, and as soon as Peeta caught the words "queer folk" while walking past an excitedly chatting pair of friends (he'd been on the way to the inn anyway, for he'd just finished a hard day's work in his parents' bakery) he all but dashed off to fetch his rucksack (which was securely stuffed away beneath his bed).
It proved to be quite difficult to pull it out, for he'd placed it where his mother wouldn't see it on her occasional visit to his and his brothers' room, and he was almost afraid that despite this preparation she'd discovered his stash, even if that should have had him wondering why she hadn't yet shouted at him. But when finally his hand grasped the leathern strap, supple and buff as it was, he could breath freely again. Then, dragging it out, his fingers felt something of a different texture. Something he had almost forgotten about, for it had been stored away about a month ago, and dust was now gracing the tops of the mountains along with the snow.
It was, of course, his picture.
He paused for a moment to take it in. Almost having forgotten how beautiful it was his eyes were glued to the mountains like honey to fingers, and at last he could appreciate what he had created one last time. His father would know where he was. And, or so Peeta imagined, he would happy for him.
Right in front of his very eyes he saw what he was about to behold in reality on paper, and it strengthened his resolve once again.
He had no difficulty slipping over the backpack and placing the picture on his wooden nightstand after. Though ere he stepped out of the door eventually, glance back he did. His eyes ran over his bed, his old bed with the unsteady rack and the hard as stone mattress, the (in contrast) soft pillow and the thin blanket, and then went on to those of his brothers; he gazed at the drawer, wooden and worn by three boys and their parents before, and at the floorboards which had used to jar beneath even the lightest step when he was young, afore they - he and his brothers - had repaired them together. He stopped shortly when his eyes found the window; a window which had always been the connection to the world outside for him, an escape from the dull town though one could only see the meadows of the farmers from there.
Yet eventually they landed upon the drawer with the picture again, and something seemed to click inside his head. So with a merry laugh, as if it was just for a few minutes that he was leaving, he turned and went out of the door (which led from his room directly to the road).
The sun on the sky was already setting. He liked it; the sunset would always bestow a wondrous glow upon the village. In the evening it looked almost illuminated, and he'd been told that snow, which was clean and white (which he also knew merely from tales, for it did not snow where he lived), reflected the marvelous color (the kind of orange he described as muted, though he knew that it was much more than only orange, and that one word was by far not enough to describe the beauty of the sunset) even stronger. The mountains, they said, gleamed then. He could barely imagine it, but it amazed him.
It was the reason his picture bore this image. An image created solely by his head and descriptions. And he could hardly wait to see it in reality, though he knew that then he might be disappointed by his work then; that didn't matter now.
He held the bronze (and much too expensive) handle of the inn's wooden door tightly clutched for a moment, breathing heavily, in and out. This is it, he told himself. The last time you'll ever set foot in this tavern. And then he pushed it open, and the familiar sight of the rundown tables with filled mugs on top and chairs that came across as loose but were quite steady once you dared to seat yourself, the barmaid Delly Cartwright with her ample bosom oozing out of her too small dress, the messy blonde bun on her head and the kind smile on her face (Peeta had always liked her; they were about the same age and she was one of the few people who were nice to everyone, even to him and the travellers) and the beer barrels next to the bar gave him more a feeling of home than his house ever had, for they were home to many stories and happy evenings.
"Peeta, dear!", greeted him Delly affectionately. "What a pleasant surprise! I haven't seen you in a while!"
She dropped the mug she'd been wiping with an old cloth and rushed over to embrace her friend. Her smile was as bright as it always was when she beamed at him, and he knew he would soon miss it, her, her silly chatter when he'd come here after work.
"I'm glad to see you as well, Delly," he said. "But I'm afraid that isn't the reason I've come today."
Nervous all of sudden he straightened his rucksack by pulling on the strap across his shoulder and glanced around the room, searching for strange faces, or conspicuous cloaks with hoods drawn to hide those, as some preferred to wear (though Peeta had never quite understood why).
The barmaid shook her head, snorting. "Of course it isn't. So you've heard of our visitors already?"
"Yes, I have." Once more his eyes scanned the tables and chairs; the inn was well-visited this evening, and everywhere he could hear voices he recognized and see the matching faces, some friendly some wary when they noticed him (although no one's gaze did stay too long on him), yet he could not find the travelers. And, had Delly not already confirmed their thereness, he would have worried that the rumor of their arrival could be only that; a rumor. "Would you be so kind to tell me where they are?"
A warm smile graced her features. She understood him, he knew she did. Sometimes, when it was late and none but the travelers and Peeta left at the inn, she would sit with them and listen to their tales as well. Delly had told him once that they fascinated her, but that the thought of going on an adventure herself seemed frightening nonetheless. And he'd agreed, for it was. Indeed it was. But what appeared as too frightening to her was not enough to stop him. Too strong was the urge to see things he'd never beheld, and maybe paint them as well then; free from this dull town and his strict mother.
"In the dimmed corner over there." She pointed at the farthest edge of the room, where only a candle lit a small table, for the big light in the center did not reach it. And indeed, now that Delly had alerted him, he could see four figures seated closely around it. "A very nice man told me they didn't want to draw too much attention. I was just going to fetch some mugs and bring them their ale. If you wait a second we can go over to them together."
These could so very well be his last seconds with her that without much thought he agreed. He would not tell her about his intention to leave, that was clear to him as they were chatting about this and that going on in town while she was filling beer into three mugs (which astounded him, for there were four and usually no wanderer would refuse a drink). Perhaps she'd already put one and one together - usually, after all, he didn't appear with a backpack filled to the brim with clothes and a bottle, a purse with all the money he possessed (which wasn't particularily much) - anyway.
She put the jars onto a dirty tray, claiming after she'd wash it and fussing over her stumbling a few minutes recently, which had caused ale to spill and get the former polished tray filthy. "I don't know why I am so clumsy today!", said she, upset, afore glancing at a man on a table nearby, which Peeta recognized as Berry Adams, the miller's son who was about to inherit his father's business, for the old man had grown old and it was rumored that his days were drawing to a close. He wasn't surprised to find Berry gazing back, but Delly's cheeks flushed and an uncharacteristically shy smile spread across her lips.
Had it been any other day he would probably have said, "Well, I do," and earned himself a glare (as much as it could be called a glare when on Delly's face). But that day he merely grinned and inwardly gave them his blessing; the kind barmaid deserved to be happy and have children, as she would make a wonderful mother.
And then they arrived at the table and all thoughts about his friend were forgotten at once. For there, on the wooden chairs of the inn with empty mugs (and one plate) in front of them, sat the most wondrous group of travelers he had ever seen.
One of them had a dark hood drawn over his face, and Peeta could only see straggly hair and a bushy beard peeking out, both colored a dark brown. The body was slumped in the seat, and had his hand not been tipping a strange rhythm onto the wood the boy would have suspected him to be asleep. "Finally," he grumbled when Delly set the new jar onto the table and took the old mug. His hand grasped for it and clutched the handle as tightly as a starving man would a loaf of bread, raised it to his mouth and gulped the content without paying attention to the drops falling out and sticking to his beard. It was half empty when he let it go, and he did not even clean his mouth with his hand, as most men did.
Next to him sat, upright and scowling, a considerably thinner figure. A single dark braid was slung over the person's shoulder like his rucksack's straps over his, and though the features were sharp and the gray eyes was burning a fire so strong as he'd never beheld in anyone's, this one was definitely a woman, if she could be called that, for with her slender body she could hardly be more than a girl.
Now he had seen women traveling with men before, but only one per group, and very often they'd been the wife of one of them and looked vastly older.
Yet with this group, across from the other, there was a second woman. Her hair was short and wild, resembling her brown eyes. Usually eyes of that color held calmness, at least some, but hers did not at all. Instead they were darting around, as if searching for something, but she could not find it. In exasperation she ripped the beer from the table and took first one sip, then a second, less careful this time, before she followed the man at the other side suit, though she managed not to lose a single drop.
"Thank you," said, with a smile, the man on her side. His features were handsome, and his green eyes sparkling with charm, which caused Delly's cheeks to darken, though not as much as they had under Berry's gaze. Both his hands were on the table, and unlike the other three he seemed to be quite cheerful, though the way his body was settled back betrayed his weariness. "Would you care to introduce your friend to us, my fair lady?"
"You are very welcome," replied Delly, visibly trying to compose herself. "And this is Peeta Mellark, a friend of mine and all travelers. He shall make good company for the evening."
All sets of viewable eyes flicked at him, and even the man with the covered face seemed to turn slightly. Peeta was not at all unused to the attention of a table of strangers, but the stormy gaze of the younger woman made him uncomfortable, for it seemed hard and unwelcoming, while the older one seemed merely indifferent. Only the man was still smiling, and shifted his chair to make place for another one that stood nearby and was quickly dragged there by him. "Well then," he said, "let him join our little company, for I am afraid my companions are too tired to talk much and I value a good conversation before sleep."
Peeta let himself carefully fall onto the seat and greeted them as he always did, merrily and politely. The girl with the braid nodded merely ere turning to stare at the empty plate in front of her, the woman grinned, yet it seemed a grimace to him, and the plump, worn man did not react at all.
"You must forgive them their quietness. We have been walking since dawn, and they are sleepy."
The handsome man took a sip of his beer. "Haymitch is our leader," he then said, nodding to the eldest with the hood, which he had now drawn back to reveal a grumpy face; cocked eyebrows and narrow eyes beneath. Again he was holding his mug of beer, but this time he wasn't drinking but muttering darkly to himself. "He's been a wanderer for as long as any of us can remember. Has seen everything there is to see in this world, if you ask me. But he's very quiet, or muttering as he is now, and always sullen. When he talks he only talks about our destination, and the course we have to take. So there's not a lot to say about him.
"It's the same with our Katniss." His hand waved in the direction of the girl next to their leader; the one with the long dark braid and the sharp features. In her hands was no ale; so she was the traveler that he had been so astounded by, for she did not drink. "Well, she doesn't mutter, and she doesn't know the way either. Rarely opens her mouth at all. When she does, she speaks of her family. Nothing else ever passes her lips.
"And Johanna. . ." he pointed at the woman, the one with the short, unruly hair, who was presently downing what remained of her ale. "She's not always easy. Very moody. But at least she usually talks to me, and that's worth a lot."
This description earned him a glare from Johanna, and a shove that, had he not paid close attention at the moment, Peeta would not have been able to witness. For the woman moved fast, just like her eyes; like a lightening, there and - when one would try to insure himself that he hadn't merely been hallucinating - gone again.
"My own name is Finnick." Seemingly undisturbed, perhaps slightly amused, he stated. "I always try to establish contact with the people from the towns we pass through. It's not as simple; seldom do we find a barmaid as kind as Miss Cartwright, or men like you, willing to speak with us. In this country at last. I've gone through different countries, some worse some better. So what's different about you; why do you so gladly join our little circle this fine evening?"
"Because I always do," Peeta replied. "The world beyond my little village fascinates me, and travelers have stories to tell that not even the most creative mind could weave."
Finnick laughed, but the boy could see the pride glinting in his eyes, and experience he beheld there as well. "That may be true indeed, though not many know that. Yet if you think so, I wonder, why have you never gone and seen the world?"
"I have always wished I could, but I couldn't."
At once he craved a mug of beer for himself, for the man was rising his eyebrow at him in a most questioning way, and suddenly he felt another pair of eyes on him as well. Grey eyes. And a glare was within them, a glare he could not escape.
The girl's voice was deep (deeper than Delly's) and clear, and when she spoke quiet. But what drew his attention was the tone; as though she was challenging him, daring him to repeat his statement. Almost threatening. And still there was something, like a rope wound around his body, drawing him to her intense stare.
"Couldn't," Peeta accepted. "I can now, however."
At once it was gone, and Katniss's face was replaced by Finnick's astounded one. "So is that the reason why you have come tonight?"
"It is," sighed he. "I am deeply sorry; I did not want to pounce on you like a beast. But yes, the purpose of this talk was to ask you to take me with you to unknown lands and adventures of my own."
What he had last expected to happen did transpire in the next second. Haymitch, who'd grown quiet and stopped his mumbling, burst out laughing. They were drunken laughers, and hiccups accompanied every shake of his body; before long tears began streaming down his face like raindrops, and the hand on the table was quivering uncontrollably.
"Adventures!", he gasped. "Unknown lands!"
Faster than Peeta would have thought him capable of the man reached across the table and set his hand upon the boys shoulder heavily; it was wet and sticky, but those were the last things he could care about right then.
"Lad, you think you live in fairy tales?"
Another fit of laughter gripped him, and had him punching his fist onto the wooden table till Peeta was afraid he would break it. And when finally he did calm down, they noticed just how quiet it had grown around them. All eyes were on the old drunk man.
"What?", shouted he. "Don't you have something else to goggle at?"
Peeta hadn't expected any of them to stop (they wouldn't usually), yet something must have been in the old man's eyes that frightened them, for almost immediately they took up their chatter again (though, no doubt, about the strangers, and about the Backer's son sitting with them). All hopes he could have had about a quiet departure were gone.
"No, boy." Haymitch's strict, yet somehow somewhat sober voice brought him back to the hand, which was still clutching his shoulder. "These adventures you speak of are serious. There is not always a happy ending. Sure, those who come back because of one have great stories to tell. But ask yourself, why are there never tales without a happy ending!"
The man's eyes, gray as stone, found the boy's innocently blue ones. And his stare was too focused for a speech one would only hold drunk.
"Coming with us could prove to be deadly serious. Do not come if you do not want to tread that path! You have the choice!"
Peeta shook his body, causing the hand to finally leave him. Those were the words of a drunk man. The only perils he knew of were hunger, thirst and animals, and those he could defeat. Thus, smiling kindly at him, the boy replied, "I am aware of the dangers of a journey, but I am willing to take the risk!"
Haymitch grinned mockingly, taking up his mug once again and emptying it. When it collided with the table, as loud as if he'd thrown a rock onto the wood, he spoke again.
"You are aware of nothing yet, boy! And reckless as well; have not even asked where we're going!"
The man shot him a scrutinizing look. Johanna's brown eyes flashed at him as well, and for the first time, he sensed some interest in them.
"Well, where are you going?"
"To fear," he grinned. "And peril."
Peeta's eyes widened, though he felt they should have shown no reaction. A laugh, higher and clearer than he would have believed from just her appearance, rang from the woman. Smirking like a cat about to catch a mouse she said, "Let him come. What's the harm? If he wants to so badly!"
"No! I do not trust him!" Gray eyes were narrowed to slits, and the fire that blazed there was threatening him. "He could be a spy."
With that Katniss leaned against the back of her chair, arms crossed in front of her chest, and stared urgently at their leader.
"I am no spy!", protested Peeta after a moment of silence, in which he'd been trying to grasp what kind of false accusation had been cast upon him. "A spy for who, after all? I have never left my village!"
"No, he is no spy," Finnick agreed calmly, but left his question unanswered. "I do not prohibit him from coming with us. It is his choice, after all. If he wants to he can return, or stay wherever he wishes."
Hope rose in the boy. If Haymitch now did not disagree he could come. His dream would, at last, come true. He would be free.
Yet the man did not make his decision at once. He sat thinking and muttering in the dim light. Eyes unreadable, as if he'd pulled his hood to cover them again. Anxiety spread through the boy like fire through a thick forest till his whole body was tingling with the tension, and he held his breath.
At last Haymitch nodded.
And all strain left Peeta at once, like his breath, and was replaced by joy.
"He is no danger to us. If his own stupidity kills him, he shall die for a good cause." With that, and without waiting for a response (disregarding Katniss's exasperated sigh), he rose, pushed aside the chair and sauntered over to Delly. After he had spoken to her shortly and given her a small purse he disappeared up the stairs to the bedrooms and was not seen again till morning.
The girl stood as well, glaring at her group ere storming after the elder man, ignoring the barmaid's kind, "Good night, Miss!". Peeta found himself still staring at the spot where she'd vanished minutes after, wondering what would upset her so much, but when he asked Finnick, he merely shrugged and said, "She'll calm herself in a while."
A few beers (on Finnick's and especially Johanna's part) later the three followed their companions (as Peeta could now call them). He had hugged Delly one last time and told her he'd stay the night, offered her money which she had refused to take before bidding her goodnight and in silence farewell. Thoughts were running through his head (most happy and excited, despite Haymitch's words), and didn't let him sleep till the sky was black, and not a single star visible from his window.
When he woke in the morning to the rising of the sun and the shaking of his body he had to blink a few times ere he did recognize Johanna's face. She pulled him out of the soft bed (so much softer than his at home had ever been), thrust his rucksack into his hands and urged him to hurry, before she disappeared like a whirlwind through the door.
It took him merely a few minutes to wash and wake his tired body and follow her, but when at last he arrived outside all four were already waiting; Johanna and Finnick were quietly talking to each other while Katniss's face was bearing a scowl, and Haymitch muttering to himself again.
Slowly waking, fast walking, they passed the houses of his village, so familiar and peaceful, for most were still asleep, Peeta tried not to glance at them, though a few times he did catch himself staring at a flowerbox beneath a window, drying linen in the wind or simply their walls, secure and reliable.
At last they left the street and came to the path through the meadows, and only then did he realize that he was indeed leaving all these things behind. Forever. Before him lay only meadows and far away, on the horizon, he saw the trees of a forest, all beneath a blue sky with few clouds. Beautiful, yet foreign.
But one way or the other, those were his home now.
I hope you enjoyed this chapter. Please tell me if I should continue; constructive criticism is very welcome!