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Pleeeeeeease?”

 

And that was really all it took for Katniss to agree to a date auction. A sorority date auction.

 

She wouldn’t have done it for anyone but Prim. When her little sister turned those bright blue eyes on her and clasped her hands under her chin and made the pouty mouth, Katniss knew she was done for. It had worked like a charm since Prim first perfected the technique at age five; twelve-year-old Katniss hadn’t stood a chance. Now, though it had become more of a joke between them, it nevertheless still worked. Katniss knew it, and, what was worse, Prim knew it.

 

To her credit, Prim had wielded her power sparingly over the intervening fifteen years. Katniss couldn’t help feeling that this particular use of it was unusually cruel, though. Yes, it was a service sorority, and Katniss liked those girls – they did trash pick-up in the local state park she directed. Yes, Prim had worked her ass off to find other men and women who might want to participate. Yes, the auction was for the local soup kitchen.

 

But that didn’t change the fact that it was a sorority date auction.

 

Sorority. Date auction.

 

“Prim, I’m twenty-seven years old!” she had protested.

 

“We have volunteers of all ages,” Prim insisted. “That’s why it’s fun! Even some singles from the nursing home will be there. It’s really cute and sweet. I just need one more straight woman, Katniss.” And then she brought out the big guns. She brought out the “Pleeeeeeease?

 

Katniss sighed and lowered her forehead dramatically to the kitchen table. “Fine,” she mumbled. “But if some nasty pervert buys me, I swear to God I’ll kill you.”

 

Prim might not have heard the threat because she had flung her arms around her older sister and was jumping up and down. “Thank you so much! You’re the last volunteer I need.”

 

“Yeah, it’s the last thing I need, too,” Katniss grumbled.

 

* * *

 

That was how Katniss Everdeen found herself on stage in the university’s huge auditorium. She had dug up a simple but sexy black dress from the back of her closet, and a number “12” had been pinned to her waist. One of the sorority sisters had done her makeup (“Trust me, you’ll need this under those stage lights!”), and it felt like her face was covered with pancake batter. Her usual no-nonsense braid had been twisted up into an elegant bun by Prim, who pulled her into one more hug before pushing her out on stage.

 

Johanna Mason, a senior, was talking her up in the background, but she barely heard a word. Was it just her imagination, or was no one bidding? An older man from the nursing home, grinning broadly in his wheelchair, had fetched $100.

 

“Five dollars!” came a voice from the back of the room.

 

“Ten!” answered another.

 

“Gentlemen, I know you can do better,” Johanna scolded. “Katniss graduated from this very university summa cum laude! Beauty and brains right here before you! And she’s an outdoor woman! Where else are you gonna find that combo, hmmm? Can I get twenty dollars?”

 

“Twenty!” It was the first voice, the one in back.

 

As she perspired under the bright lights, feeling like a reject, Katniss decided that Prim’s begging would never work again. Never. Not even if—

 

“And she’s a virgin!” Johanna proclaimed.

 

“Forty!”

 

“Forty-five!”

 

Katniss wasn’t sure what happened first. She knew that she ran off stage, and she knew that a new voice called out “One thousand!” Everything else kind of closed in and disappeared until there was nothing but a tunnel that led straight to the ladies’ room. Middle stall. Dinner 2.0.

 

“Katniss, God, I’m sorry,” said Johanna’s voice behind her. “That was a shitty thing to do. It just… came out. I’m so sorry.”

 

Katniss lifted her head and reached up to flush the toilet. Johanna followed her to the sink, still rambling apologies. She liked Johanna, a loud and brash girl – the very opposite of herself, really – and she had always laughed and enjoyed listening to Johanna’s colorful descriptions of her sexual exploits. She had thought nothing of mentioning to her sister’s friend that she was a virgin. It was nothing to be ashamed of, after all, was it? Sometimes it could take a while to meet the right person. Only in rare moments like this one did she ever second-guess herself.

 

“…word vomit – sorry, shouldn’t have said vomit – but all the losers in this town are so pathetic and intimidated by you, and the low bidding was getting under my skin, and, you know, the adrenaline and…”

 

As cool water from the sink slid down her face, Katniss tore off a paper towel and met Johanna’s eyes in the mirror. “It’s okay,” she interrupted, patting her face dry. And, good Christ, that stage makeup was serious, wasn’t it? “I mean, it’s not okay. I mean, I accept your apology. So it’s okay.”

 

“I really am sorry. I know how much you stepped out of your comfort zone to help us with this, and I feel just awful. Prim will probably never speak to me again.”

 

“If Katniss accepts your apology, so do I,” came Prim’s voice from the doorway. Katniss allowed herself to relax a little as her little sister’s arms slipped around her waist from behind. “Are you okay?”

 

“Yeah. I’m good at rising above public humiliation.” She saw her reflection giving a wry smile to Prim and Johanna.

 

“Do you… um… Do you want to know who won the bidding for you?” Prim asked carefully.

 

“Might as well.”

 

Prim stepped back and clasped her hands under her chin. Oh no, this couldn’t be good. That delighted smile just couldn’t mean anything good. “Peeta!” she said, her voice little more than a squeak. “Mellark,” she added, as if Katniss and Johanna were idiots.

 

Peeta Mellark, who had been the richest boy in town when he and Katniss went to school together. Who had become the richest man in town when his father died and left the family business to him.  Who had once shared his lunch with Katniss at recess, handing her a dandelion to accompany her half of the PB&J. Who had asked her to prom and seemed enormously let down when she refused (she was poor; what had he been thinking?). Who had seemed determined to avoid her all through college… who had seemed determined not to avoid any other member of the female sex.

 

When Katniss didn’t react, Prim frowned. “Weren’t you friends with him or something?”

 

“No. How much did he bid?”

 

“Oh, a pittance, really,” Prim replied, grinning. “A thousand dollars.”

 

“So the rich playboy decides to jump in and buy the virgin. Charming.” Katniss straightened her spine and tugged at her dress. “Do I look presentable?”

 

“You look as hot as you did when you first stepped onstage,” said Johanna. She really didn’t have to be overly nice. Her apology had already been accepted.

 

“Five dollars’ worth of hotness? Good enough. Might as well get this over with. How do I meet up with Peeta to arrange all this?”

 

“He’s waiting backstage with the other winners,” Prim said, sounding as if the wind had been knocked out of her sails. Had she expected Katniss to be over the moon about “Peeta… Mellark”?

 

“Katniss,” said Johanna, laying a hand on her arm.

 

“No more apologies, Jo. Really, let’s forget about it.”

 

“No, it’s not that. Just… Peeta is actually a really nice guy. He helps with our projects all the time, and he’s never said no when we asked him for anything.”

 

Katniss smirked. “I’ve gotten the impression that he never tells women no.” She softened a little at the looks on both girls’ faces. “Look, I’m sure he’s nice and all about helping charities. But a nice guy doesn’t make a big show about bidding an obnoxious amount for a woman right after everyone learns that she would be his… his conquest. Paying the highest price for my virginity like this is some gross medieval…” She trailed off, unable to hit on the right word.

 

“C’mon, Katniss,” Prim sighed, holding open the bathroom door.

 

Sure enough, there was a crowd backstage. The winners and their dates were chatting, flirting, and laughing. Most seemed to know each other. A couple of guys were already making out in one corner. Peeta was looking around, and when his eyes landed on Katniss, he immediately started making his way to her. She noticed that Prim and Johanna had conveniently slipped away. She breathed in deeply, steeling herself.

 

“Katniss,” he smiled. “Wow, I know this is so weird, but I saw you up there, and—”

 

“So where and when do you want to do this?” she asked briskly.

 

“Um…” He blinked. “If you want to come over, I’d love to cook for you. It wouldn’t be peanut butter and jelly” – was he actually blushing? – “but it would be edible.”

 

“Don’t you think somewhere public would be better?”

 

His mouth moved, but no sound came out. Good. The more uncomfortable he felt, the more even she felt.

 

“Right,” he said finally. “You’re right. I didn’t even think. Do you have a favorite restaurant?”

 

She shrugged. “I don’t really care too much. Wherever you want to go is fine. You’re the one who paid for all this.”

 

The joy had been gradually draining out of his face with everything she’d said so far, and she didn’t feel sorry for it. Yes, he had been a sweet boy in school. It didn’t change the fact that he was an entitled jerk now.

 

“Okay,” he nodded. Then he smiled. “Let’s go now. The student union is still open. Lots of nutritious fast food options.”

 

“Wait, what, now?”

 

“Sure. Might as well, right? We’re already dressed up, we’re here, the night is young.”

 

Katniss realized she was grinning from ear to ear. She hated herself for it. He was used to this, wasn’t he? He was rich and handsome – he was so handsome, but cute-handsome, sweet-handsome, like the boy next door, like – shit – he was used to charming the panties off women.

 

“I’m not a cheap date,” she said, raising her chin with something she hoped would come off as pride.

 

“Anything but,” he replied. “Have you forgotten how overpriced the union is?”

 

She ground her teeth together to stifle her laugh. She felt her lips quirk but counted it as a victory even so. “Fine. Give me a few minutes to get this gunk off my face?”

 

“Sure. I’ll have the car pulled up outside.” As she turned to go, he took her hand. “Katniss,” he said, and his voice was too earnest, too much what she remembered. “You really look amazing tonight.”

 

She slid her hand out of his and walked away without replying.

 

* * *

 

Trading heels for simple flats, washing off thick makeup, and removing endless bobby pins could work wonders on even the foulest mood, or so she told herself as Peeta sat down and set a plastic cafeteria tray of fries, tacos, and eggrolls between them.

 

“Aren’t you gonna eat?” she asked between awkward sideways bites of a crunchy taco.

 

Peeta blinked as if he had been in a daze. “Sorry, I just… you look exactly the same. The braid and everything.” He dipped a fry in ketchup and stirred it absently, still looking at her. “I’ve always thought you’re the prettiest girl I ever knew.”

 

“What did you tell all the other girls you fucked?” She wiped her mouth daintily with a paper napkin.

 

His face was comical, but his stuttering was even more so. “Uh… um… what?”

 

“Look,” she said, sighing. “I know you shelled out a lot of money for this, but the whole idea of it is offensive, and I’m not someone who can just pretend that everything’s all right.”

 

“If you thought the auction was offensive, why did you volunteer for it?” he frowned.

 

“Not the auction. What you did.”

 

“Katniss, I’m really confused right now. Do you want me to take you home? Or if your sister is still at the auditorium, I could take you back there. The money was for their fundraiser. Spending time with you was an unexpected bonus. I won’t… um… you know, I won’t withdraw my donation if you’re uncomfortable and don’t want to do this.”

 

How he could make those clear blue eyes look any more innocent, she didn’t know. “I’m not a virgin whore who sells her first night for the highest price,” she said, her voice low and dangerous.

 

Peeta leaned forward. “What?

 

“You heard me.”

 

A long, terrible silence stretched between them. Finally, Peeta spoke, and his voice was soft and careful. “I think I understand your version of what happened tonight. Can I tell you my version? If you don’t believe me, I’ll drive you back wherever you want to go, and I won’t bother you again. Deal?”

 

She replied with only a nod.

 

“Katniss, I… I’ll just have to give you the long version. I’ve had a crush on you ever since our first elementary class together. You knew that, right?” He must have seen the look on her face because he continued, “You didn’t know that. Okay. Well… I did. I do. I was in awe of you, really. You’re so… you’re gorgeous. And smart and strong… I barely had the balls to speak to you in the hallway. Asking you to prom just about killed me.” He chuckled without humor. “The rejection hurt. And then college, Christ, my father died, I suddenly had to step up and take over the bakery, and you had that boyfriend who seemed to just fit you, you know, and I kind of had to grow up in a hurry, and… shit. I’m rambling.”

 

“What boyfriend?” she asked quietly.

 

“Well, Gale Hawthorne.”

 

“Not my boyfriend.”

 

“Oh.” His eyes were intent on hers. “I guess I assumed. I mean, everyone did.”

 

“I couldn’t afford to go to prom,” she said. She could almost watch his brain shift gears from Gale to what else she was telling him.

 

“Why didn’t you…” She saw his throat bob as he swallowed and cleared his throat, saw his eyes get a little shiny. “I’m sorry, Katniss. I should’ve known that instead of being an insecure, self-centered…” He shook his head. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Don’t be sorry,” she heard herself saying. “If you had asked or hinted about it, I would’ve gotten embarrassed and lied to you, probably. Teenagers are stupid.” He rewarded her with a sad smile. “And the auction?” she prompted.

 

“Tonight, the auction, right,” he exhaled, running a hand through his hair. “I saw you up there and couldn’t believe it. But I couldn’t bring myself to actually bid on you. But then all these jerks I knew were bidding, what, ten dollars on you? And then the announcer said…” Again he blushed, and Katniss found it strangely charming. “She said what she said, and they were still insulting you with those low bids, and I couldn’t bear the thought of one of them winning you that way. Even if a decent guy had been bidding, really, I couldn’t have borne it. Maybe less so.”

 

She bit into a lukewarm eggroll, chewed, swallowed. “Were you really with all those girls in college, or was that all a misunderstanding, too?”

 

“In college. After college… yeah,” he said. There was no arrogance and no shame, either. She appreciated him for that.

 

“My favorite restaurant is Tony’s. On third,” she said. “Tomorrow night?”

 

When he smiled at her – no, beamed at her – she smiled back. “I love Tony’s,” he said.

TBC