Author's Note: The following story was written for the Fairy Tale Challenge sponsored by Everlarkrecs and Porchwood. It's a modern AU story, very VERY loosely based on the fairy tale "The Princess and the Pea". I could never live up to the amazing talent of Porchwood and others, so I took my own approach. It's not the traditional "fairytale" story, but more a modern spin on a classic.
He watched the girl every afternoon for three days. She would arrive in the late afternoon and stay until the sun blazed a beautiful orange and red, dying beneath the horizon into the sea. Armed with just a small bag of dried fruits and pretzels, the girl passed the hours sitting across from his family's booth facing the ocean, dangling her legs off the side of the boardwalk and humming to herself quietly. The sound soothed and enchanted him in a way he couldn't explain.
Peeta had turned 12 that summer, and girls were still just strange creatures that floated in and out of his life on a daily basis. He wasn't interested in them so much as he was fascinated by them. Their bodies were rapidly changing into softer lines and curves that he wanted to sketch and study.
Somehow, there was something different about this girl. She was clearly around his age, but seemed thinner and smaller-framed than the other girls in his class. Not that she was delicate by any means – she carried herself solidly, with a posture exuding independence and strength. But despite her body language, there was a sadness in her eyes that drew him in, haunting him. Something inside ached to know more about her.
On the fourth day, Peeta was working the booth with his father when she arrived. His mother had gone back home for the day, pushing through the crowds grumbling about "damn tourists" and "street rats" as she left. She spent much of her summers complaining of the same things, ignoring the fact that these tourists kept their family clothed and fed year-round. His father clearly felt differently, sneaking lollipops to children in dripping bathing suits while their parents ordered fried dough and snow cones. He was a good natured man whose family had worked this boardwalk for nearly 40 years, and he loved getting to know the people that returned to patronize them season after season.
"Peet?" His father's voice pulled him from his trance. He realized he had been staring at her for a while, quite openly. Sheepishly, he turned around to see his father chuckling, wiping his hands on a rag. "Why don't you take a break?"
He looked between his father and the girl once more. "Are you sure? We might get busy again, and I should really be helping you..."
"Go. You've been staring at that girl for three days now. It should be a beautiful sunset tonight, and she looks like she could use some company to watch it."
Smiling, Peeta removed his apron and started to head out of the booth. Before leaving, he grabbed a cooling fried dough and sprinkled it with powdered sugar and cinnamon. He tucked a few napkins underneath it and headed across the boardwalk.
He wasn't sure how to approach her, so he just plopped down and dangled his legs beside her. She didn't even flinch at his presence; she just continued humming quietly and staring out at the waves.
Peeta cleared his throat, hoping to get her attention, but got no response. After a minute he reached out and lightly touched her arm. She jerked away, shaken from her thoughts, and turned to him with a scowl.
"What do you want? I'm allowed to sit here, you know. It's a free country."
He tried to hold back his smile at her outburst. She was clearly attempting to look fierce, but she was just so cute, it was hard to be intimidated. Her deep olive skin was tinged pink from the sun on the apples of her cheeks. The braid that trailed down the side of her head had bits of sand and seaweed speckled through it.
"What?" Her frown was transitioning from one of anger to one of confusion. "What do you want from me?"
Peeta shook his head frantically. "I'm not sending you away. I've just… I work over there with my family and… I've been watching you sit here alone the past few days. I wanted to know if you wanted some company."
The girl scoffed at him and turned back to the ocean. "Sure. Whatever."
They sat in silence for a moment, watching the sun sink lower in the sky, when he heard her stomach rumble. "Oh! I almost forgot!" He offered the napkins to her as she looked at him, cheeks turning pinker with embarrassment. "I brought you some fried dough. I made it myself."
"I couldn't…" she began, looking down at the treat in his hand. "I don't have any money."
"It's a favor, really. We made too much this afternoon, and it'll just go to waste if you don't take it. Honest." Well, he was being mostly honest. It's unlikely the dough would have gone to waste when his older brothers arrived later this evening. But still, they could certainly spare the extra piece.
She licked her chapped lips and looked him cautiously in the eye for the first time. "Well, I wouldn't want it to go to waste… I suppose, I could split it with you?"
Peeta grinned widely, and tore the bread in two. He passed the larger half to her and watched as she took a large bite. "Mmmmm…what's this called again?"
"Fried dough," he replied while chewing his own big bite. "It's like a sweet bread. Haven't you ever had it before?"
The girl shook her head, devouring another piece of the bread before speaking again. "No. I've never been here before, and there's nothing like this where I come from."
Peeta listened quietly as the girl explained that she lived a few hours away, in a town along the state border. Her father had passed away that past winter, leaving her mother distraught and she and her sister somewhat running wild. To give her mother a break, her aunt and uncle had offered to take the girls to the seashore for a few days this summer. After spending each morning appeasing her sister by digging in the sand and playing in the water, the girl stole away for a few hours to be by herself with her thoughts.
"We're leaving tomorrow morning to head home. My sister's had fun here, but I can't wait to leave." Peeta followed her eyes where they were trained on the sun, just kissing the ocean as it began its descent. "It's time to get back to real life."
He couldn't help but be a little hurt when he heard her talk like that. He had grown up here, and while things changed a bit with every season, the town constantly swelling and shrinking with new visitors, he loved it fiercely. "What do you mean? This is real life."
He watched her as she shrugged her shoulders and hugged her knees to her chest. "I don't know… Everything's just so nice here. My sister spends the days playing, having fun… It's all a temporary distraction. But I know what's waiting for us back home. Work. School. My mom and all her.. issues. THAT stuff's all real. This place, it's just make-believe… Like some kind of fairy tale or something."
Peeta turned back to the horizon, reflecting on her words. He couldn't begin to understand the pain she was in, and he didn't want to offer empty promises of happily ever after right now. But he knew she'd be leaving soon; the sun would finish setting and she'd have to head back to her family. These were her last few minutes in a "fairy tale" place and she deserved to enjoy them.
He folded his legs underneath his body and turned to face her. "Well if this is all a fairy tale, what does that make me? Am I the big bad wolf or something?"
"No." She laughed, looking him over, stopping at his shaggy blond hair and blue eyes before shaking her head and smiling. "You're practically oozing 'Prince Charming'. Next thing you know, you're gonna tell me you live in a castle or something."
"No, no castle," Peeta laughed. "Just a regular house a few blocks away." He looked around sneakily and leaned in closer to her, whispering, "I don't want this to get around, but I don't even have a white horse."
They laughed together, when Peeta noticed that the sun had already set below the horizon. He sat up straighter and turned back to see her watching him. "Oh, I'm so sorry. I made you miss your last sunset."
She tore her eyes from his and looked back out to the ocean one last time with a wistful smile. "That's okay. Sometimes distractions aren't such a bad thing."
Peeta hated to think of her leaving the next day full of sadness. "I have to make it up to you," he insisted, trying to think of something he could do to lift her spirits one last time. "I know!" He reached into his pocket and pulled a small round object out. "Here, I want you to have this pearl, so you can always remember your trip to our fairy tale land by the sea."
She looked down at the white ball in his hand and laughed out loud. "That's not a pearl you fool, it's a marble!"
He winked at her and leaned in with his voice low again. "This is make-believe, remember? And if I say it's a magic pearl, it's a magic pearl. You just have to believe."
She shook her head slowly as she got to her feet and put her hand out for the marble. "Sure. It's a magic pearl. If you say so."
Instead of putting it in her hand, he grabbed a hold and used it to pull himself up beside her. Once he was standing, he placed the marble in her hand and closed her fingers over it. "There. Now that wasn't so hard, was it?"
"Thank you," she said quietly, looking down at her feet. He was glad to see a small smile forming on her face.
As he pondered how to say goodbye, she shocked him by leaning up and kissing him gently on the cheek. His hand flew up to his flushing face as he watched her run off down the boardwalk.
Walking back to the booth, he couldn't keep the grin on his face from widening. His father shook his head and chuckled as he approached, clearly having witnessed their goodbye. "Well, looks like someone made a friend this afternoon. What's her name?"
The grin disappeared when Peeta suddenly realized he had never asked her, and he had never given her his name, either. "I don't know… I forgot to ask," he said sadly.
His father ruffled his hair and put an arm around the crestfallen boy. "Don't worry, Peet. If it's meant to be, your paths will cross again someday. Now come on, let's start closing up shop."
As his father left to get the cleaning supplies, Peeta turned back toward the boardwalk and the darkening sky over the ocean. Maybe his dad was right. If it was meant to be, they'd see each other again somehow. He decided he needed to follow his own advice and just believe.
"Katniss! Will you get down here?!" Her sister Prim's voice carried up the stairs like a screeching bird. "Quit moping or you're gonna be late."
Katniss looked at herself one more time in the full length mirror. Moping. She wasn't moping. She was… protesting. Standing up for herself was more like it. There's no reason she had to keep putting up with these ridiculous blind dates. Now if she could just convince her friends and family that there was nothing wrong with being alone…
Straightening out her shirt, she opened the door and headed downstairs to her screeching sibling. "WHAT? Sheesh, Prim, I'm not late. He's not even supposed to be here until 7."
Prim walked over to her and readjusted the shirt she had just fixed. "I just wanted to talk to you before he got here. Try to get you to give this guy a chance before you write him off."
Katniss rolled her eyes at her sister. "I can't write him off yet. I don't even know him. All I know is he's some friend of Delly's that recently moved to town and spends all day making cupcakes. Likes to draw or some shit. I'm sure he's fascinating."
"See, you always do this," Prim scolded as she continued to straighten out wrinkles that weren't even there. "What Delly said he was an art major in college, and had a minor in culinary arts. And he just opened his own bakery, Katniss, it's not like he's home baking Betty Crocker cakes or anything."
"Ugh. Whatever." Katniss pushed her sister's hand away as she started picking at invisible pieces of lint. "Enough with the primping, Prim! I look fine. Besides, I'm sure it's going to be a disaster like all the others, anyway. So what's the point?" She stomped across the room and threw herself on the couch with a huff.
Prim's face softened, and she moved to sit down next to her. "Katniss, you've got to give this a chance. Meeting people… it's just like buying new clothes. You've got to try a few things on before you find the right fit."
"Easy for you to say. You got engaged to the first pair of pants you tried on."
Prim twisted the diamond ring on her finger with a small smile on her face. "Everyone's different, Katniss. Just because Rory and I are freaks doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you. I hate to think you're giving up on finding someone already. You're only 25 years old!"
Giving up? It felt Katniss had given up a long time ago. Through high school and college, she dated on and off but never felt that spark with anyone. The truth was she hadn't clicked with anyone since she was twelve years old. She knew she'd never stop comparing every guy she met to the boy who opened her heart up that summer. He made her smile and laugh for the first time since she lost her dad; showed her there was hope for happiness again, no matter how sad she had been feeling. No one she'd met had measured up since.
"And give me that damn marble! You're not bringing it with you this time." Prim grabbed the object she had been subconsciously smoothing between her fingers. "Seriously, all you do is hold this thing like a life preserver and scowl at every date that walks through that door. Not tonight."
"Prim, come on, give it back," Katniss growled, reaching for the marble.
Prim's arm yanked the marble just out of reach. "No. You're never going to find your Prince Charming if you keep living in the past. You have to move on."
The doorbell rang as Katniss tried to reach behind her sister to pry her fist open. "I'm not kidding, Prim. I need that."
"NO. Now go be a nice hostess and answer the door for your guest."
Katniss stood up and yanked her shirt back down again to smooth it. "I hate you."
"Love you, too big sister!" Prim sang back mockingly.
Katniss stormed to the front door and wrenched it open. She scowled at the blond man on her doorstep who was staring at her in surprise, finger poised to ring the doorbell again. "Um, sorry, I wasn't sure if anyone heard it the first time…"
"Yeah, yeah, we heard it. I was just a little preoccupied. Come in," she said as she opened the door fully to let him pass. He stepped just inside and waited for her to close the door behind him. He reached his hand out to shake hers in greeting. "Sorry, I didn't properly introduce myself there, I'm Peeta, a friend of –"
"-Delly's. Yeah, I know," she cut him off. "I'm Katniss. Nice to meet you." She looked down at his outstretched hand for a minute before deciding to take him up on the handshake. His hand was warm and the shake was firm, not wimpy like so many of the guys she had dated before, afraid they'd break her or something. She appreciated the solidness of his touch, and couldn't help but notice his palm was a bit sweaty. He was the first to break away, and he gently wiped his palms on his dark jeans.
"I, uh, I made reservations at the restaurant up the street, Sae's? I hope that's okay. Delly said you really liked to eat there." His blue eyes shifted around nervously before landing back on her own again. She realized he was new in town and probably didn't know many people. If nothing else, she could cut him a break just for that reason.
"Oh, yeah, I love Sae's. Good choice."
He breathed a sigh of relief. "Great. Well, the reservations aren't until 7:30… Do you want to chat for a bit first? Get to know each other a little bit?"
And, here it was. Talking. The death knell for every date she'd ever been on. Small talk, chit chat, whatever you want to call it; torture was more like it. Katniss despised talking with strangers. But this was a date, and it was expected, so there was no avoiding it.
"Sure. Let's head in here…" As they moved into the living room, she realized Prim had suddenly made herself scarce, probably to ease the burden of Katniss making introductions. The small room was sparsely furnished, with just the couch and a coffee table, but luckily the couch was big enough to leave ample space between them. She sat as far to one side as possible and waved for him to join her. "Have a seat."
Peeta sat down on the opposite end of the couch. His face wrinkled with confusion and he got up slightly and sat back down a few inches closer. His back shifted as he seemed to try to get comfortable, making Katniss frown with annoyance. What the hell was his problem?
Finally he seemed to settle down and looked at her, watching him quietly. "Sorry about that, I just felt something… So, um... how do you know Delly?"
"From college. We had some classes together the first couple of years. I didn't know many people there, and she's just so damn…"
"Friendly?" he piped in.
"Yeah. I was going to say pushy, but friendly's probably the nice word for it." For a moment she worried she was being hard on their mutual friend, but he laughed out loud, relieving her of her guilt. "Anyway, she started talking to me after class one day and from then on, I couldn't get rid of her. She kind of grew on me."
He smiled, waiting for her to continue. Oh. She was probably supposed to ask him a question now. "How do you know Delly?"
Peeta shifted again on the couch before tucking a throw pillow behind him. "Oh, our parents are old friends. We used to see each other a couple of times a year, mostly in the summers. As we got older, we stayed in touch through letters and then Facebook and stuff. I have two older brothers, so she was kind of like the little sister I never had." He removed the pillow and leaned back further into the couch.
"She was the one that actually recommend I consider this town when I was ready to open my own bakery. After doing some market research and visiting the area, I had to agree. All the old brownstones and cobble sidewalks… I just fell in love with this town, and couldn't imagine moving anywhere else."
She couldn't understand how he made their town sound so enchanted, when all she saw was small and run-down and old. She didn't want to burst his bubble, though, so she figured she should just let it go. "So how's the bakery doing, anyway?"
He lit up as he told her about his first few months in business. He had a passion for his work that she couldn't deny. When he finished, he asked her about her work, which she spoke less enthusiastically about, but he seemed interested nonetheless.
Surprisingly, the conversation carried on easily between the two of them, and Katniss found herself without any of her normal stumbling blocks or awkward pauses. She enjoyed talking to him; instead of forced, it just felt comfortable. Like they were old friends, catching up.
As the reservation time inched closer, she watched him shift his body yet again, clearly uncomfortable. She couldn't watch him suffer anymore. "Are you okay? Did you want to get up or something?"
His cheeks flushed a bright pink. "No! I'm sorry, I just… I hate to be rude, but it feels like there's a boulder under this cushion or something." Katniss raised an eyebrow in doubt. What was this guy's problem? The couch was only two years old. She had sat in that very spot before he arrived and there was nothing wrong with the cushion then. "I know, you probably think I sound like a spoiled jerk. I'm so sorry…"
Humoring him, she shook her head quickly to dismiss his painfully accurate mind-reading skills. "No, no. Not at all… We should check it out. Why don't you get up – maybe I dropped something under there."
He stood up and lifted the cushion a bit. She looked underneath and saw nothing. There was clearly not a boulder in sight. "I don't see anything…"
"Oh, wait," he said as he reached farther back to a part she couldn't see. "Looks like someone dropped this." She looked to his open palm to find the small white marble sitting there.
"Prim," she muttered under her breath as she took it from him.
He sat back down with a sigh. "Ah. Much better. I guess I'm more dainty than I thought," he admitted with a sheepish grin. "So whose is it? A little brother or something?"
Katniss sat down on the edge of the couch beside him, rolling the stone between her fingers. "Uh, no. It's mine." She kept staring at her hands, too embarrassed to make eye contact. "It's sort of… sentimental."
He seemed to sense her discomfort and moved forward to be closer to her. "Hey, I totally understand. I actually used to collect marbles myself. There's something almost magical about them."
"Magical," she repeated with a small laugh. "Actually, this one is supposed to be magic. In fact, it's not a marble at all. It's a pearl." She laughed and looked up, the smile leaving her face at the sight of his eyes open wide with shock. "Hey, I'm just kidding. God, are you okay? You look like you've seen a ghost."
Peeta swallowed thickly and shook his head slightly as if to clear it. "I just… I can't believe…" He scrutinized her face and hair, almost as if he was seeing her for the very first time. "After all this time… It's really you."
She laughed uncomfortably and edged away slightly from him. "Um… excuse me? It's really who?"
"I'm sorry," he explained, seeming to come out of his trance. "You - you're the girl from the beach…" He pointed to the object in her fingers. "I think that's my pearl."
Her mouth hung open in understanding as she stared at him, the years melting away instantly to that day on the boardwalk. "You mean… you're the boy with the bread?"
He nodded and smiled, their eyes locked on each other. "At least, I was. No one's called me a boy in a long time." He laughed nervously, giving her a crooked grin. "All these years, I've thought about you and wondered how you were doing. I never thought I'd find you again." His voice faded to a near whisper.
She nodded slightly, still amazed that he was sitting here with her again. "I know exactly what you mean."
After a few minutes, he cleared his throat. "Uh, I think it's almost time for our reservations." He stood up and reached his hand out to her. "Shall we?"
She placed her hand in his and stood up beside him. Not wanting to let go, she swung their hands slightly between them. "Yeah. Let's go."
They walked slowly to the door when he stopped and turned to face her again. "Wait. I just have one request…" She quirked an eyebrow at him, waiting for his explanation. "This time, I get to kiss you at the end of the date. And - you have to promise not to run away afterwards."
She laughed as she opened the door and stepped outside. After all the horrible dates she'd been through, there was no chance she'd be running away this time. "You got it, Prince Charming."