Chapter 8: Pretend

My ears are ringing with the sound of applause but my eyes are firmly glued to the door; the door that Peeta slipped out of just seconds earlier.

At first, I feel compelled to chase after him but the message doesn't reach my feet. It's a good thing that I don't act on my instincts, though; I can't even begin to imagine the controversy I would create by bolting for the exit after that very public display by Gale and me.

Still, I can't get Peeta's face out of my head, the look that he gave me when our eyes met again after my kiss with Gale.

I had expected to see anger. After running out on him again tonight, I would've understood anger. But the look he gave me was something else, something I can't put my finger on, and it's eating me up inside.

Suddenly, I find myself drowning in a sea of bodies. The supporters who rose to their feet after Gale's speech have proceeded to surround the two of us, eager to congratulate and praise the man of the hour. A few of them address me – mostly the trophy wives who are gushing about how sweet Gale is, how lucky I am, how great we are together. I try and acknowledge them, and thank them for their kind words and their support, but I'm too distracted, too consumed by my racing thoughts, my brain replaying Peeta's exit over and over in my head.

The night has been a huge success for Gale, reflected in the mega-watt smile beaming from his face as he enthusiastically juggles the bombardment of well-wishers looking to shake his hand or pose for a photo opportunity. In this chaos, I realize that I could more than likely slip away unnoticed. My eyes dart back and forth between Gale, the mass of bodies surrounding us, and the door, and before I can change my mind I'm pushing my way out of the mob toward the exit.

When I finally reach the perimeter of the crowd I feel a firm grip on my arm, halting my movements. I whip around, slightly panicked, and find Prim, a look of confusion plastered on her face. "Where are you going?" she demands.

I take a second to compose myself before I sputter out an answer. "I can't deal with all these people right now, Prim. I just… I need some fresh air."

"Okay…" Prim replies, cautiously. "Are you okay? Do you want me to come with you?"

"No!" I respond, a little too hastily. I pause and take a deep breath, trying to recover. "Just stay here and help Gale. You're so much better at talking to people than I am. Please, Prim. I'll be fine, I promise. I just need a second to catch my breath."

Prim raises an eyebrow questioningly, but finally nods her head and lets go of my arm before turning back toward the crowd. I again spot the door and make my way toward it, fighting the urge to run. I don't want to draw any more unnecessary attention to my escape.

I make my way through the entry hall and finally make it outside, quickly scanning my surroundings for any sign of Peeta. The mansion grounds are practically deserted with everybody preoccupied with the main event happening inside.

Eventually, I see his figure in the distance, walking down the mansion's long driveway toward the gates that lead to the street. I step out of my heels, knowing that they'll hinder my ability to catch up to him, grab them off the ground and start running toward him barefoot.

"Peeta!" I yell, as I chase after him, reversing the roles that we held earlier in the night in the hallways of the mansion.

He turns, sees me running, and stops, giving me the opportunity to catch up to him. I don't slow my pace until I eventually meet him halfway down the driveway.

We're standing face to face, our eyes locked on one another again. He stares at me expectantly, as if waiting for me to say something.

I start to open my mouth, but no words come out; only the sounds of my labored breathing. In the time between watching Peeta walk out of the ballroom and chasing him here, I hadn't even considered what I was going to say if I was able to catch up to him. All I knew was that I couldn't just watch him walk away and leave things the way that they were.

We continue our stare-down for a few more moments before Peeta finally gives in and breaks the connection, his hands still lodged in his pockets, his eyes trailing off into the distance.

"So, Gale seems like a nice guy," he starts, refusing to make eye contact with me. "He'll make a great politician. Really knows how to play to a crowd."

Peeta chuckles softly, but it's hollow and empty. I know that it's just his desperate attempt at making small talk, trying to fill the silence that has settled between us while avoiding the real issue at hand. Yet I still can't bring myself to utter a word. My continued silence seems to unnerve him and he brings his hand up and runs it nervously through his hair.

"What are we doing?" he asks rhetorically, distraught. He brings his gaze up to me, searching my face for an answer that won't seem to come. His eyes drop down to my left hand, finally resting on the large diamond still affixed to my ring finger. "Are you going to marry him?"

I bring up my left hand and look lamely at the ring; the ring we both conveniently ignored earlier in the night. After wearing it for so long I had grown accustomed to the weight of it on my hand, but in this moment it feels exceptionally heavy.

As I continue to stare at the diamond, I'm suddenly reminded of what it represents. I remember everybody waiting for me inside: all of my family and friends, and Gale. People I care about and want to protect. I remember the happiness beaming from all of their faces at the end of Gale's speech. I think of the pictures on the wall of our apartment, the years I've spent with Gale, the smile on his face when I agreed to marry him. The memories swirl through my head, clouding my thoughts while the weight of my obligations and expectations hits me all at once, echoed in how heavy the ring suddenly feels.

"I…," I begin, weakly "I made him a promise."

Peeta looks down at the driveway and snickers, absentmindedly kicking a bit of gravel with his shoe. "That promise sure meant a lot to you about 20 minutes ago."

I'm stunned by his bluntness and I watch as he shakes his head, turns his back to me and starts walking further down the driveway. The fog inside my head starts to clear and anger swells up in my body as I watch him walk away, the words finally finding their way out of my mouth.

"No!" I shout, stalking closely behind him. "You don't just get to walk away!"

"Why?" he replies bitterly over his shoulder. "You're the one who's so good at it."

Now I'm livid. I throw my heels down and run past him, turning around to face him and promptly blocking his path. "You do not get to act all hurt and wounded after watching my kiss my fiancé!" I scold, pointing my finger into his chest. "You're the one who decided to show up here. You knew that I would be here and that Gale would be here. What the hell did you expect?"

This time, it's Peeta who seems at a loss for words, seemingly shocked silent by my sudden outburst.

"I was trying to be a supportive fiancée!" I continue rambling. "I was trying to do the right thing and recommit to my relationship. But then you had to show up here and back me into a corner!"

"I gave you an out!" he finally counters. "I gave you an out and you didn't take it."

Now we're both back to staring at each other at a stalemate. Because in this moment, we realize we're both at fault, both responsible for the mess we now find ourselves in.

Both of our hands are dirty.

"Well, I wanted to forget it!" I spit, all the frustration of the past month finally boiling up into this one moment. "Before you showed up tonight, I wanted to forget that anything ever happened between us!"

However, I omit the fact that I was completely and utterly failing on that front. How the short time I had spent with Peeta had constantly been on my mind, no matter how desperately I tried to erase it from my memory.

"Well maybe I didn't want to forget!" he shouts, both of us stunned by the words, and volume at which he said them.

"I told you why I came here," Peeta reminds me, his voice quickly quieting to harsh whisper. "Ever since you flew out of the doors of my bakery, I've been practically driving myself crazy trying to understand what went on between us. What is going on between us. I came here because I wanted to shut the door on it once and for all. You think I walked out because you were kissing him?" He shakes his head. "I walked out because I couldn't stand seeing you pretend anymore."

"Pretend?!" I snap back, suddenly feeling defensive. "What do you know about Gale? About our relationship? What do you know about me? I mean, what do we have, Peeta? A drunken night at your apartment? A month of small talk about pastries? A couple of fucks on a kitchen counter and against a bookshelf?"

"No!" he interrupts. "You do not get to belittle what has been going on between us. It's more than that and you know it!"

I can barely acknowledge what he says before the words continue to spill from my mouth. "Gale and I have been together for years! I've known you for what? A few months? Who do you think you are to talk to me about my life?"

Peeta takes a deep breath, his body relaxing from his tense, argumentative stance. "You're right, " he admits. "It is your life. And yes, I haven't known you that long, and maybe I don't know everything about you. But I'd like to believe that there are some things about you that I do know."

His hand comes up to tenderly grip my chin, tilting my head up so he can look me in the eyes. I'm still angry, my body tense and guarded. Part of me wants to swat his hand away, but the way he's looking at me, I can't bring myself to do it.

"First and foremost," he continues, his gaze suddenly gentle and soft, his other hand moving to brush a stray piece of hair from my face, "you are a passionate, fiery, fierce woman. It's easy to see if you know where to look. And it's not just when you're so consumed by desire that we can barely keep our hands off of each other. I hear it in the way you laugh, or in that sound you make whenever you take that first bite of a freshly baked cheese bun. I've seen it in the way you look at your little sister, that protective way you watch over her; the way you defend and care for the people important to you. In fact, I can see it right now in your eyes, that fire."

He pauses and searches my face before bringing his hands back down, a look of frustration now invading his features. "But what I saw tonight? That girl hanging on the arm of some politician, begrudgingly rubbing elbows with all of these stuck up, privileged socialites? That girl forced to stage kisses all for the approval of a crowd? That wasn't real! That wasn't that fiery woman that I know you are!"

"Do you know how much easier it would be to walk away if I knew that all of this would make you happy?" he says, gesturing back toward the mansion. "But I'm too involved now. I can't just leave you alone until I'm convinced that this is the life you really want."

"It's more complicated than that!" I retort. I avoid his gaze, knowing that if I look him in the eyes it'll only serve to make me even more confused. "I love Gale! He's my best friend. His family is practically my family! We were meant to be together. I… I want to marry him!" I insist, with as much enthusiasm as my body can muster.

And as the words tumble out of my mouth, I don't know who I'm trying harder to convince, Peeta or myself.

I shake my head as if the motion will somehow make it easier to organize all the thoughts racing inside my head. "It doesn't matter what I want. I can't just walk away from all of that! Do you realize how many people I would hurt if I just walked away?"

"I'm not asking whether it would be easy, I'm not asking what your family wants, and I'm not asking you to leave him for me," Peeta replies, his voice dripping with frustration. "I'm asking you what you want!"

His words hang in the thick, tension-filled air but my brain ceases to function, so exhausted by all of the emotions of the night.

Peeta must sense my internal struggle and steps forward, cupping my face in his hands and imploring me to look at him. "Katniss," he pleads. "Don't let them or their expectations turn you into somebody you're not."

I peek up at him through my lashes, finally allowing myself to look into those dangerous blue eyes; eyes filled with genuine concern. He wants an answer, but I have nothing for him. I have no idea what I want, and I can't decide whether it's because I truly don't know, or because I'm too afraid to admit it to myself.

"It's not up to you to save me," I finally whisper, stubbornly.

Peeta sighs, removing his hands from my face and shoving them back into his pockets.

"You're right," he says as he turns his back to me. Before he walks away, he looks over his shoulder and our eyes lock one last time. "Only you can do that."

A/N: Hey everyone, so sorry about the long gap between updates.

Thanks to my beta, katnissinme for her help with this chapter! Also, thank you to those who have sent me or left me encouraging messages during my long hiatus. I really, really appreciated it!

A quick note about this chapter: The exchange between Peeta and Katniss was very much inspired by two movie scenes: the "fight" scene at the end of "The Notebook" and the gymnasium scene in "Titanic". Some of you might notice that I borrowed some of the dialogue from those scenes so I wanted to give proper credit where credit is due.

As for when the next update will come, I'm afraid I can't give a strict time frame for when that will happen, thanks to my busy semester.

In the meantime, check out my Tumblr (drmellark dot tumblr dot com) for updates on my fic status. I have a little section on my side bar where I put the status of the next chapters of my fics. I also try and participate in "Six Sentence Sunday" where fic authors share six sentences from one or more their writing projects every Sunday, so keep an eye out for that! Again, thanks for sticking around during the longer-than-anticipated hiatus! And, as always, thanks for reading, following, favorite-ing and reviewing!