AN: Things I've done since last we spoke:

Gone to a special showing of THG that involves comedians talking over the movie (like Mystery Science Theater 3000). Hands-down, the best part was the mouth breathing they did whenever characters had their mouths hanging open. Peeta evidently does it a lot. By the scene where K&P are running for the Cornucopia and the mutts are coming out, his mouth breathing was out of control and Katniss was trying to shut him up. Go ahead and imagine it.

Go on.

...Now wasn't that hilarious?

Read V. Arrow's The Panem Companion: From Mellark Bakery to Mockingjays. Unless I am extremely, extremely mistaken, the author is the fanfic-fabulous aimmyarrowshigh - If you haven't read her fics, stop what you are doing Right! Now! and go read her stuff. Then come back here and catch up. Where was I? Oh - and the guide is thought-provoking, to say the least. It reads like a dissertation, and still I couldn't put it down.

Sent hugs to my faithful beta, PPerfect.

Procrastinated on posting this chapter.

Got contact. (Not contacts. My right eye is the troublemaker.)

Finally decided to post the chapter.

Oh, and I suppose I did some writing in there. Honestly I worked more on figuring out the background for the next chapter than actually writing this one. What's done is done; let's get on with this! I officially disclaim any ownership of The Hunger Games characters and associated material, which are the property of Suzanne Collins and her licensed affiliates and so on and so forth.


Last time, on Smoke Rising...

[Sae]'s been gone for ten or fifteen minutes before I catch sight of my Health and Wellness catalogs on the table by the phone. I didn't even notice her flipping through them, but it looks like a couple of pages have been dog-eared, and the cover is folded back to leave one section open. Curious, I take a closer look at what Sae thought I should see.

"Great," I mutter.

Family Planning.


Smoke Rising Chapter 17: "Open"

"I was afraid of the dark
But now it's all that I want"
- "Daylight," Maroon 5

Yet. Such a hopeful word.

"You open yet?" calls Persi, stepping through the staff entrance of my bakery with a chair under each arm.

"How can I be open when you've got every seat in the building in your hands?" I ask from the door to the chiller.
"I can put 'em down, but you might want to tell me where."

"Anywhere out front is fine."

"Roger."

When I join Persi, he's already made himself at home in one of the chairs. Beads of sweat drip off the hand he reaches out for the mug of cold water I've brought him.

"It's a lake of fire out there," he says between gulps. "I cannot wait for this summer to end. Has to be the hottest summer ever."

I suspect that August in Persi's old district made this seem like mild spring weather, and I very clearly remember a cold snap only last month, but I say nothing.

"Speaking of ending," he continues, "are you ready to leave the construction business and put your apron back on?"

"I can't believe it. After all this time." I look appreciatively at what we've built.

"Friday."

I nod. "Opening day." With only six days to go, there's still so much to do. We still have to move all of my furniture from Persi's stockroom; I have a repairperson coming to fix a burner in my brand-new oven; I need to do some paint touch-ups and then clean construction dust off of just about everything; and I still haven't received any of my paper products for packaging, or any of my glassware, for that matter. That's not even mentioning all the food items. But, in the worst-case scenario, I can bake in the brick oven, serve drinks in mugs, and let folks take their orders to-go in, I don't know, their bare hands.

"What does Katniss think of the place?" asks Persi.

"She actually hasn't seen it," I admit. "I wanted everything to be perfect before I expect her to love it."

"She'll love it," he says, glancing over his shoulder toward the display case and, behind it, the raised seating area he calls "the catwalk." "And I don't know that it will ever be perfect, once the public starts coming in here, spilling things and scuffing up your floors. What are you waiting for, opening day?"

I sigh. "Pretty much."

With a chortle, Persi shakes his head. "And I'm the lucky son-of-a-gun who gets the preview of the famous bakery."

I shuffle my foot against the black tile, which will need a good polishing before Friday. Before it gets spilled on and scuffed up. "Maybe I should go ahead and show her."

"Damn right," says Persi. "If I had held out on showing Vera till I opened the shop, she would've marched up herself in a blaze of fury."


On Monday evening, I'm still unpacking cups and napkins when I hear Katniss at the front door.

"Can I come in?" she asks with a hand covering her eyes. "Are you ready for me?"

"As ready as I'll ever be," I reply, coming around the counter. "Go ahead and take a look."

Her hand drops and, as I approach her, she takes in the room. I watch as she notices the gleaming black floor, the mahogany furniture, the deep yellow walls, and the flickering, lantern-style fixtures, which I have dimmed for evening lighting. I notice the exact moment when she recognizes the half-staircase and she follows it to the catwalk.

"May I?" She looks at me for the first time since she walked in.

"Of course." I gesture her to the stairs. "What's mine is yours." I didn't mean to say that, exactly, but Katniss doesn't seem to notice.

Upstairs, Katniss sits down at a table where she can look down into the kitchen. "What's beneath us?" she asks, scanning the stoves and brick oven and rolling shelves.

"Mostly mechanical stuff. Wherever we needed load-bearing supports or awkward spaces like under the stairs, that's where we put our air conditioner and water heater and other things that aren't pretty. There's an access point across from the back door, but it's like a basement in there."

She cranes her neck toward the back. "I really like that I can see down into the kitchen." She flicks her head to the other side, but we can't see into the service counter area from this table, so she stands up. "Show me the rest."

We walk through the public areas, then the service area, then the kitchen. I even show her the restrooms. Her eyes are wide the entire time.

When we have looked at everything – some things more than once – she says, "This is wonderful, Peeta." I flatter myself thinking that she's not just trying to make me feel good. "The district is really lucky to have you." That's a bit much, but I smile anyway.

"Thanks," I say. "We're lucky to have you, too."

Katniss makes a face and turns away. "Well," she says, "are you almost done here? Let's go home."

Katniss's phone starts ringing while we're pulling off our shoes in her entryway. She has her shoes off in plenty of time to answer, but she doesn't, of course. That's something I've noticed since I started staying the night with Katniss – she doesn't answer any phone calls she's not expecting. In fact, I'm pleasantly surprised to learn that she does indeed talk to other people, like her mother and Johanna and Delly. They all have their weekly time slots in which they call and Katniss picks up. If Katniss misses the call for some reason, she expects only Johanna (Tuesday night) to call back, because Johanna is stubborn like that; the others wait until the next week's window of opportunity. I guess Katniss must call Dr. Aurelius herself for appointments, because I've never seen her answer any other calls. Sometimes, like tonight, the phone rings and rings, and Katniss acts like it's not even there. It makes me wonder if Hawthorne had tried calling before the whole phone debacle, which I can thank for my seemingly permanent invitation to sleep over.

To be completely honest, sometimes I do imagine myself thanking him. Spending my nights here is my best development all year.

Reasons Why I Love Sleeping at Katniss's:

I spent my whole life sleeping with two brothers within arm's reach. It feels unnaturally quiet and lonely in my room, in my house, completely alone.

Speaking of which, Katniss smells considerably better than my brothers ever did.

I'm happy when I shut my eyes at night and happy when I open them in the morning.

When Katniss dies in my dreams, I wake to find her whole and healthy, and without obsessing over her safety, I find that I can almost always fall back asleep.

I don't worry about her during the day like I used to, either. I can see for myself that she's taking care of herself, talking to people, and functioning better than I expected. Functioning better than I am, even.

I think Buttercup can sense that I always wanted a pet. (Either that, or he's just thrilled to have someone in the house who isn't Katniss.)

Her towels are softer than mine and her soap has moisturizers in it.

She actually has empty hangers in her closet. (Had. My shirts had to hang somewhere.)

But, by far, my favorite thing about sleeping at Katniss's is bedtime.

She asks me every night to stay. At this point, I would stay whether she asked me to or not, but every night, she asks. After that, I go to get ready – washing my face and brushing my teeth and so forth – but she just gets into bed with hardly any process at all. By the time I'm ready, she's changed and under the covers with the lights off.

She likes to talk while we fall asleep.

"Tell me a story," she demands most nights, her voice already slurred with oncoming sleep and muffled by her pillow. "Tell me a story till I fall asleep." Then she takes my arm and pulls it around her, holding my hand near her heart, running her fingers over mine again and again until her breathing grows deeper. I never take my hand back until then.

Sometimes she remembers something precious, like a moment with her father or a conversation she had with Madge back in school, and she tells me about it with as much attention to detail as she can muster with her eyelids already so heavy.

Sometimes she asks about me.

"Peeta," she whispers tonight after I've told her a short story, one with a sweet ending but not long enough to see her to slumber, "can I ask you something?"

"Have I ever answered that question, 'No?'" I answer with a chuckle.

"It's personal."

"Go ahead."

"Have you ever..." She breathes. "Have you been with a girl?"

I didn't see that one coming. Suddenly, I feel like I am lying too close to her. I mean, I always lie this close to her, but should I really? It's awfully intimate. Doesn't she realize how hot it is in here? To think: a minute ago, I was so comfortable I was falling asleep. Now, I'm wide awake. It's a long minute before I realize I haven't answered her yet.

"Yes."

Without hesitation, Katniss asks, "Was it Celie?"

"No," I say again. "I told you we changed our minds, remember?"

"I remember," she says, "but I thought maybe you were lying."

I clear my throat and wince at the loud noise in the darkness. "It was the truth."

"Okay..." I hear the soft, wet sound of her licking her lips. "Who was it, then?"

I hesitate, not just because of how awkward this conversation has become, but because the memory brings me so little pleasure.

"Are you sure you want to talk about this, Katniss?"

"We don't have to. I'm just trying to get to know you."

"I think you know me pretty well," I chuckle. The laughter makes my body shake, bumping against Katniss's back in a way that seems very personal, given the current conversation.

"I'm not surprised. I mean, I always imagined that you had. Especially since you laughed at me before the Quarter Quell for being so 'pure.'"

I try not to laugh again. "I did say that, didn't I?" Another memory to file away in the un-shiny category. "I didn't mean to suggest that I had much experience, though."

She strokes my fingers. "That's okay. So are you going to tell me who it was? Was it someone I knew?"

"No, I don't think so." The heat creeps up over my neck again. Once I get into this, Katniss is going to know how little I thought through my decisions in those days. "It was a girl named Mellia. She was -"

The words stick in my mouth. Souls, how do I explain it?

Katniss shakes my hand impatiently to get my attention. "Well? She was what? Your first love?"
"Hardly," I reply drily. "She was Celie's best friend."

"Howcome you didn't tell me before, when we walked through town, like you did with Celie?"

"Mellia was never my girlfriend," I say, embarrassment taking me that last step from probably-sweaty to unquestionably-sweaty and I clear my throat again.

"Oh." Katniss pauses for a moment. "She was after Celie?"

"Yes."

"And you didn't love her?"

"No. It was sort of a ... one-time thing."

Another pause, longer this time. "I don't know how I feel about that. I guess it would be strange to hear that you had been in love with her, but it's pretty strange to know that you weren't and you did it anyway."

Thanks, I think.

"Is that even very... Was it... I mean, did you...?"

"Is it any good without love, you mean?" I prompt.

"Yeah."

"I didn't have a terrible time," I say honestly, "but I didn't enjoy it very much, either. It would have been better with – with someone I cared about."

It was Katniss I had thought about after, when I was showering off the scent of Mellia, so proud of myself for having become a man. Would Katniss Everdeen be able to tell? I wondered. When I was towelling myself dry, so nervous my mother – or worse, Celie – would find out. Had I made a mistake? When I was trying to fall asleep, my brothers oblivious in their own beds. What would it feel like to lie in Katniss's bed?

It hadn't been a fantasy encounter, but it didn't keep me from trying again. First, it was Ana, who had pulled me behind the school one afternoon to tell me she had heard great things about me. Then Ileana, whose mother would have had a stroke to hear the things that came out of that sweet girl's mouth. The last was an older girl, whose name I didn't even know but who had been at a party at Lyle's and whose breath had smelled like licorice and alcohol and whose dark hair, from behind, had looked like that of a certain girl I'd had a crush on since forever.

I kept trying new girls, girls who were interested in me, girls whom my mother might not have hated on sight, but the same questions always came afterward, as I showered and went to bed. What would it feel like...?

Her breathing is easy, now. If she hasn't fallen asleep yet, she will soon. I flip my hand around in hers so I can hold it properly. Little by little, my nerves and embarrassment settle down, and I listen to her soothing, even breaths.

"Katniss," I whisper, not sure if she's still awake. "There were others, too..."

"How many?" She sounds sleepy again.

"Just a few..."

"Hmm," she mumbles, "sum them up for me. I'm falling asleep."

I give her hand a squeeze. "None of them were you."

She doesn't give any indication that she's heard me. Maybe she nodded off. I wouldn't mind if she did; she doesn't really need to know that I think of her that way. She might not let me sleep in her bed anymore if she knew.

Her whisper surprises me.

"I'm happy you're here," she says.

I give her a squeeze around the shoulder. "I am, too."

Her chest moves in and out, gentle and quiet.

"We never did, did we?" It's a question that has plagued me for months and months. Although her line of questioning (and, honestly, all of our interactions since our return to the district) seems to imply we did not, this may be my only chance to ask.

"No," she sighs. "Not yet." Her fingers relax their grip around my hand, and her muscles spasm and relax as she falls asleep.


Yet.

My life becomes so much more complicated with that tiny, hopeful word.

No, no, it seems to say, you haven't been together yet... but you will.

Only three letters, but full of possibility. That hint of promise burrows into my brain and starts changing things.

When Katniss climbs out of bed with bare legs, my eyes stick to her thighs while the Yet whispers, Those will feel nice, once you get to touch them.

And when she pulls my arm around her, pulling me close for a bedtime story, the Yet torments me until I pull my hips back so our bodies are A-line.

And when I wake up, the first thing I do is drown the Yet in a cold shower.

It starts making me doubt things, question things. Like: how can Katniss sleep with my arm around her and kiss me in all her morning-breathed glory and not feel frustrated that that's as far as our intimacy goes? Doesn't she want more? Am I no more than a security blanket to her?

But then I find myself in bed with one arm around her and my hips pulled back to a modest distance, smelling soap on her skin, and the hopeful Yet sounds innocent. Patience is all you need. Patience, Peeta... Give it time.

Time is all I have anyway. Time, and an arm around Katniss as she falls asleep again while I lie wide awake behind her, replaying for the trillionth time what she said.

"Not yet." "Not yet." ...Yet.

"Wait
Until you're ready...
In our beds we're screaming
I... I... I... I just want more and more."
- "Blood In Your Mouth," Colour Revolt