My Lady's Waltz
Party guests were spilling out of the venue and onto the garden path, with some finding their way into the Japanese garden. Gwennie rushed about from group to group searching for Keno but saw no sign of him anywhere. Finally, she reached the edge of the pond, still scanning the crowd in vain. Maybe he'd already gone inside. Maybe he'd retreated back up the staircase. Would she even be allowed to venture in there to talk to him? Probably not, especially if Alyssa had anything to say about it.
Dejected, she turned around and stared straight down into the pond, trying to think. A vague white and orange shape appeared, then sank back down into the murky water.
If you've got any luck to share, please, I need it right now. Her purse swung forward from her shoulder and her lemon keychain hit her hand, reminding her that she didn't need to beg for luck from the koi fish, because she had her own luck right there.
She gripped the lemon keychain and thought about Keno. He'd worked so hard, not just tonight but for the entire week and likely long before that. He must've been at his limit already… Now where would I go if I were Keno and I was at my limit?
Her gaze fell upon the wooden bridge illuminated by strings of lanterns leading to the gazebo. The next thing she knew, she was padding over the bridge and into the gazebo. When her eyes had adjusted to the dim lighting, she spotted the form sitting on the floor, leaning his head back against a wooden post with one leg stretched out and one bent, his arm on his knee and his glasses dangling from his hand, his dark clothing rendering him nearly invisible among the shadows.
He turned his head toward her, his face impassive.
"Are you okay?" she asked tentatively.
"That depends," he answered.
"I—I saw you and your dad. You seemed to be arguing about something."
"Yeah? Get used to it. The planet will get knocked out of orbit if he can't argue about something. It's the only thing he does—when he's actually around, that is," he said, bitterness dripping from his voice. When she said nothing, he exhaled harshly. "He was trying to get me to ask the daughter of some official he was buttering up to dance. Nothing against her, but I've had enough of doing their bidding for one night."
Gwennie bit her lip, trying not to feel daunted by the waves of hostility radiating from him. At the same time, she was having to fight off the urge to drop down beside him and hug him until his anger and hurt melted away. As she sank to the floor of the gazebo, sitting with her legs tucked underneath her, he slid his glasses back on and fixed her a belligerent look. "What're you doing here, anyway? It's bad form to leave your date alone at a party."
"Jayden said he can wait a few minutes."
He snorted. "All that and he's generous, too."
"Look, Gwennie, just go," he cut in flatly. "I'm rotten company right now. I'm tired and pissed off and I haven't—" A growl, coming from the direction of his stomach, interrupted him, and even in the dark she could sense his mortification, which only fueled his ill temper. "Thanks for coming to our dog-and-pony show. Don't forget to pick up your party favor on your way out," he said mockingly, turning aside.
Instead of doing as he said, she opened her purse and took out a small, roundish object wrapped in paper napkins. "Here," she said, holding the object out to him. When he turned to look at it, she explained: "It's a French lemon tart from the dessert station. I noticed that neither you nor Alyssa had a chance to even go near the buffet, so I thought you might be hungry. It got a bit squished in my purse, but it's still good."
He hesitated for so long that Gwennie was afraid he was just going to ignore her. When his stomach growled again, he slowly took the tart, unwrapped it and wolfed it down.
And while his mouth was busy with the pastry, she took her chance. "I know what you're trying to do. You're trying to get rid of me again, but I already told you it won't work," she said with quiet resolution. "I won't leave until I make you acknowledge what I tried to tell you in my message. And what I'm trying to tell you is...is I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Keno. I'm sorry that I lied to you. I'm sorry that I used you to get to Jayden in the beginning. I'm sorry that Sam and I pretended not to know you at your own birthday party. I'm sorry that we—no, I made you feel as I was somehow ashamed of you. And most of all...most of all..."
"Gwennie, look—" he tried to interject.
She shook her head. "No, please, let me say everything I need to say before you shut me down. Most of all, I'm sorry I made you think even for a second that I liked Jayden. I worked so hard to pretend to like him so my friends would accept me, but that's over now." Her voice caught as the emotional avalanche she'd been holding back since overhearing Alyssa's friends in the restroom threatened to bury her under. "I'm not doing that anymore. I don't care what the others say. I'm done lying and hiding and letting others speak for me, and I'm done pretending that I like anyone else but you."
"Is it because you've seen all that?" Keno threw back derisively, jabbing his hand to indicate the glitzy lights and fancy people at the party. "Turns out there might be a few perks to being around a loser, as long as he's an Alvarez. Perks this dog-and-pony show displayed to a rather vulgar degree, wouldn't you say?"
Gwennie flinched at the cruelty in his accusation. "No," she said as tears slid down her face. "It's because I love you."
Keno jerked at that, his hand falling to his side. "You can say that to a guy you've known for less than a month?"
"I can't explain it either," she answered, struggling to keep her voice steady even as the tears she'd held in check all day continued to flow. "But Keno, I've known that Alyssa was an Alvarez for a while now. I wanted to be friends with her not because of the 'perks', but because she's confident and brave and accomplished… she's everything I wish I could be. And then I met you. You're the only person I've ever been completely myself with, and I want to be with you because… because you just being who you are makes me feel that I can be exactly who I am. That I can be strong and unafraid because you're there for me. It's the first time I've ever felt that way. It was never about 'perks'," she said, adding with an angry sniffle, "you dense idiot."
That seemed to give him pause, but he quickly rallied. "I get it. This is about you feeling sorry for me," he said, his tone stubbornly peevish. Misinterpreting her silence as an indication that he was right, he pushed his glasses up and sneered. "You said so yourself. You just really like making people happy, and who better to make a project out of than St. Anthony's Fantastic Fu—hey! What the—? Flowers?"
"Be quiet, Alvarez," Gwennie growled, shaking with fury.
"D-did you just throw your corsage at me?"
"I said be quiet." He fell silent, shocked at the change in her, while she counted backwards from ten to keep from strangling him with the strap of her purse. "You're smart, kind, and well-liked. You're surrounded by friends and teammates who are loyal to you, and girls who'd instantly fall in love with you if you gave them half a chance. You're a brilliant musician who'd just earned a standing ovation from a hundred and fifty people. And even if you deny it or run away from the fact, you're still one of the best soccer players in the whole of St. Anthony. Now tell me, Keno Rafael Alvarez," she gritted out, "why on earth would I ever feel sorry for you?"
He stared at her in open-mouthed astonishment. With a trembling hand, she retrieved the rose corsage from where it had fallen between them after she'd flung it at his face with a force and accuracy that had surprised even her. As her anger ebbed, the cold weight of despair settled in her stomach. "It won't work, you know," she repeated hollowly. "You're pushing me away, and I don't blame you at all. But I'm not leaving. I don't know what else to do except stay by your side and tell you I love you and I'm sorry I hurt you, over and over again, until my words finally reach you." Tears flooded her eyes again until she could barely see anything as she added brokenly: "And when you've heard me, really heard me, then you can look me in the eye and tell me you hate me. Then you can tell me to leave and I'll go."
"Hate you?" he whispered hoarsely. "You think I hate you?"
The slight weight of the corsage in her hand disappeared. Wiping her tears away, she looked up and found that he'd drawn his other knee up and braced his other arm upon it, hunching over in a way that made him seem heartbreakingly vulnerable as he studied the corsage in his hand. "When I came down those steps and saw you, I thought you were the most beautiful girl in this entire place," he said with a fleeting smile. "Then I saw you with him, and I just...I couldn't…" With a sigh, he leaned his forehead against the backs of his hands, then turned his head to gaze sidelong at Gwennie. "When I read your message, I knew you were telling me the truth. Just like when I asked you before if you liked Jayden and you said no. That afternoon we spent at your place, you tried to tell me about you and Jayden, and in my head I understand why you did it but..."
"But you can't make yourself believe it," she finished, and his silence was confirmation enough. She squeezed her hands together and asked the question that scared her the most: "Is it because you're thinking of somebody else?"
He straightened, his gaze turning guarded. "You mean Christine? I know you know about her. I figured it was Lys who told you," he said, and when she sputtered a question, he explained: "I found the doodle you made that afternoon we went to your house. It fell out of your skirt pocket when you pulled your keys out. You're a pretty good artist, by the way," he added with a smile. "Talk about being multi-talented."
"Oh. Um, thank you," she muttered, feeling confused and at a loss. "Will—will you tell me about her?"
He averted his gaze and pushed his glasses up. "All you need to know about Christine is that whatever we had between us is dead and gone. Truth to tell, it's been a while since I've thought about her. And ever since I met you, there's only been one girl I've been obsessing about. In fact, I've been thinking so much about this one girl that I've been dreaming about her, to the point that it's getting ridiculous." He slid her an achingly uncertain look that sent hope flashing through her. "I—I guess I just couldn't believe you'd actually want to be with me when there's someone like Jayden around. Seeing him standing beside you… it just about killed me. All I could think of was how much I wanted to trade places with him. I want to be the one beside you, Gwennie. I want to be the one you turn to whenever you're sad or in trouble, the one who makes you smile. If I had a birthday wish, it would be that, except I was too afraid to make a wish because I didn't think it would come true, least of all tonight."
She blinked, sending a couple more tears down her face, as her heart began to race.
"But you made my wish come true anyway," he said, his voice soft with wonder.
She choked back a sob. "Keno, I lo—"
That was as far as she got before he surged forward and she found herself enfolded in his arms with her face pressed against the silky warmth of his shirt, the silver embroidery on his shoulder rough against her cheek. The move forced her awkwardly to her knees, but he solved that by hooking an arm underneath her legs and lifting her so he could cradle her in his lap, holding her cocooned against his chest. His heart was pounding so hard she felt it in her body, calling out an invitation for her own heart to dance. He smelled of cologne and Keno, and he was warm and firm all around her, hugging her so tightly she was having trouble drawing a full breath. It was all so wonderful and magical and incredible that her control broke and she started crying in earnest, burying her face against his shoulder and twining her arms around his neck.
Her soft sobs made a shudder go through him, and he tightened his arms around her. "Gwennie, don't cry anymore. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I know I hurt you, but don't ever think for a moment that I could ever hate you. Feel free to throw stuff at my face every time I act like a jerkass again, just please don't cry."
She giggled, which ended in a hiccup, then pulled back and looked down into his face. "Really? Are you sure you won't end up regretting you said that?"
"Well, it helps that you're cute when you're angry," he admitted, pushing his glasses up and flashing her the first real grin she'd seen on his face since their recital. He unwound his other arm from around her and wiped the tears from her cheeks with his thumbs.
"Cute? I'll have to add 'learn how to throw heavy stuff' to my mission goals then," she retorted with mock-severity, sticking her tongue out at him. He didn't laugh though. Instead, his expression was serious and intent as he slid his warm hands along the sides of her face and drew her closer, his gaze lowering to her mouth. "K-Keno?"
"Sorry, I can't hold back anymore..." he muttered before he leaned up and kissed her. The kiss turned out to be nothing like their first. His lips swept over hers like an electrical storm and she surrendered with a blissful sigh, wrapping her arms around his shoulders as he filled her senses to the brim. When they drew apart, they stared at each other for a moment while their breathing settled, then he gave her a warm grin. "Milady, I believe you owe me a dance. A waltz, to be exact."
"A waltz?" Cocking her head to listen to the band pound out Fallout Boy's "Thnks fr th Mmrs", she pointed out, "That doesn't sound like a waltz to me."
"Then we'll make our own waltz." He released her so she could stand up, then got to his feet as well before bowing from the waist and offering his hand out to her. "Please, Lady Guinevere. Be my last dance tonight."
Gwennie's breath stuttered. The last dance. The one traditionally reserved for someone's significant other. She stared down at his hand, suddenly feeling shy and a tiny bit silly, what with the band's singer screaming about not-so-great memories in the background. "I don't know how to waltz," she mumbled.
"It's okay. Just follow my lead." When she continued to hesitate, a hint of desperation entered his smile. "Please," he said again, his husky voice melting her insides.
She smiled back and slipped her hand into his. As he gave her a run-down of the basics—how to count the beat, the footwork involved—he drew her closer, placing her left hand on his upper arm and settling his right hand high on her shoulder blade. He clasped their other hands together, grinned down at her, then began to move.
She stumbled almost immediately. "I'm sorry!" she gasped, her face burning.
"Don't worry about it," he told her, laughing. "I did the exact same thing when I was learning the steps. Just move your feet in the opposite direction as mine according to the beat. Now count with me. One-two-three, one-two-three."
They moved slowly at first, tracing a counterclockwise pattern around the gazebo, then faster and faster as the inappropriate rock song filled the air. Gwennie laughed in exhilaration as she clung to Keno, who grinned down at her and called her a "natural" at waltzing—a blatant lie if there ever was one but she was simply too happy to call him out on it. He steered them out of the gazebo and onto the bridge, where the song eventually ended and the band moved into a new one. Oblivious to the fact that they were in plain sight of several party guests still lingering at the Japanese garden, they stopped and let go of each other, then he bowed to her again while she sank into a curtsey before they both dissolved into laughter.
As their laughter faded away, she smiled up at him, her heart in her eyes. "Happy birthday, Keno."
"Thanks for making it one," he replied, moving closer to her again as if unable to bear any distance between them for long. He brushed the backs of his fingers against her cheek, his gaze tender and a little dazed.
"I love you," she blurted, unable to help herself.
In reply, he lifted her chin and kissed her deeply. She could hear people gasping and cheering somewhere in the distance, but she forgot all about that when he wrapped his arms around her waist and she went up on her tiptoes to press closer to him.
Pulling apart, they turned to find Jayden standing at the other end of the bridge, watching them with an amused, albeit faintly wistful smile. "I know, I know. I've got lousy timing," he said, raising his hands. "But dude, I've got to take her home now before her dad calls the police." Addressing Gwennie this time: "Sorry about this, but my mom's outside waiting for us in the car."
She nodded then turned to Keno and said with an air of formality: "It was a great party. I had a fun time." Keno's eyebrows rose inches above his glasses frames while Jayden turned aside and coughed something that sounded suspiciously like "liar". "O-okay, I admit there were parts that weren't so fun," she conceded, reddening with embarrassment. "But I did discover a new side to you, Keno. A new, amazing side, so it was all worth it."
"Talk about that, how come you never told anyone at school that you can play the piano like that? It was always just your sister hogging the spotlight," Jayden put in.
Keno pushed his glasses up and shrugged. "I don't know. It just never came up, I guess."
"Yeah, well, it's going to come up a lot more often from now on. Consider yourself warned, Beethoven."
"Yup. It's what the JV team's calling you now," Jayden said, chuckling, while Keno rolled his eyes.
"Thanks for coming, you two," Keno said with a smile. "And Jayden, thanks for taking care of Gwennie tonight," he added quietly.
"No problem." Jayden nodded back, accepting Keno's tacit apology for all the misunderstandings.
"I'll message you, okay?" Keno said to Gwennie.
"Okay," Gwennie said, smiling back.
"And I'll see you after school on Monday? We resume training again so..."
"Okay. I'll come to your school then. Good night, Keno."
"Good night, Gwen—"
As one, Keno and Gwennie turned to Jayden again, who smiled at them with distinctly less amusement this time. "If you'd let go of her hand, we can be on our way to where my mom is waiting," he said through his teeth.
"Sorry." Keno released Gwennie's hand and they both blushed.
"A-anyway, good night," Gwennie said in a rush before Jayden could get any more annoyed. Soon, the two of them were making their way along the meandering, lantern-strewn garden paths back to the main building and lobby, both of them holding the party favors they'd received—a hydroflask for Jayden and a bottle of perfume for Gwennie, both objects wrapped in black netting and tied with white and gold ribbons.
Jayden sent her a sideways glance. "Well, you look happy. Glad to see it all worked out for you guys."
"Yes. Although for a while I was so sure it wouldn't," she confessed with a sigh, casting back to the entire exchange with Keno and shivering from the memory of his kisses. Something seemed to niggle at the back of her mind but it was eclipsed by the bright, effervescent happiness that was nearly bursting out of her skin at the moment.
"Nah, there was no chance of that. I've seen the way he looks at you. You're pizzas to each other's puppies," he said, snickering a little at his own joke while she pretended to frown at him. "I also can't help but notice that you've lost the corsage I gave you."
"Oh!" She blinked down at her bare left wrist. "You're right, I'm sorry. Keno took it but he didn't give it back."
Jayden smirked. "Figures. That was a subtle way to warn me off. No one's allowed to give flowers to his girlfriend but him."
She blushed furiously as bubbles of joy burst inside her. Girlfriend? This means I'm his girlfriend now, aren't I? Then something occurred to her and she turned to him with concern. "By the way, where's Sam? I didn't see her when we left."
Jayden's face clouded over and he turned to look straight ahead. "She and Kevin left early, around a few minutes after you went to look for Keno. Not even Alyssa and her friends pressing her and her boyfriend to dance could convince her to stay." The pain shadowing his eyes revealed the words he didn't say: She couldn't stand being in the same place I was a minute longer.
Gwennie's heart ached for him. "Don't worry, okay? I'll talk to her as soon as I can and clear things up so she'll know that you cheating on me is just silly. I've known Sam since we were little and it's pretty obvious to me that she likes you too, so if that's one thing that's holding her back—"
She blinked at the hardness in his voice and the implacable set of his jaw. "B-but I'll have to tell her about Keno and me anyway so..."
"Then tell her for your sake, but don't do it for mine," Jayden informed her tightly. "If she can't find it in herself to believe in me enough to trust that I'm telling her the truth, then there's no point to anything, is there? The sooner I face up to the fact that this has been a hopeless mistake from the start, the better for all of us."
"Gwennie, let it go. Please." He stopped to hold the front doors of the lobby open for her, then gave her a sad smile as they headed out to Jayden's family car in the parking lot. "Just focus on your own happiness with Keno, okay? Sam and me...well, that clearly isn't meant to happen. Anyway, she's got you, her pre-approved boyfriend and her membership card to Alyssa's exclusive little club, so she'll be okay. And in case you're thinking I'm going to be moping around all the time, you should know that this is nothing I can't bounce back from." He gave her a cocky grin as he held the rear car door open for her.
Gwennie frowned again but had no more time to try to convince him or call him out on the whopper he'd just said as she greeted his mother and he took his place in the passenger seat. When they arrived at her house, he got out and walked her to their gate.
Before she could enter, he grabbed her wrist and when she turned to him, she found him looking gravely at her. "By the way, Alyssa was looking for Keno while you were gone, and she managed to spot me before it occurred to me to get the hell out of sight. She's already suspicious of you, and you can bet word about you and her brother kissing on the bridge is going to reach her soon. Are you following me?"
Gwennie swallowed. "I—I know. I'm thinking it's safe to say that I've been officially booted out of Alyssa's circle of friends."
"Just be careful, okay? And remember: you're tougher than you think." He smiled and ruffled her hair. "Also, I'm keeping this boutonniere. It's pretty dang cute."
She smiled back and waved goodbye. Getting to her room, she flopped down across her bed and pulled her pillow into her arms and squeezed tight, reliving the moments she shared with Keno. Catching sight of her purse on the bed, she pulled it over and gave the lemon keychain a little kiss. "Thank you for the luck tonight," she whispered.
Just before she fell asleep, she sent a euphoric message to Sam: I'm sorry I missed you guys. I hope you got home okay. Also, I really, really need to talk to you soon because I've got so much to tell you. She followed this with a bunch of beaming emojis and hearts.
She woke up late the next morning and spent the day doing her homework and baking, trying to recreate the French lemon tart from Sweet Inclinations. She came up with what she thought were two decent versions before she gave up for the day and packed them away in the refrigerator. She couldn't wait to see Keno the next day and watch his reaction when he tried out the tarts, and since he'd praised her artistic skills as well, she went ahead and drew a tiny caricature of him on a piece of board paper as well, which she planned to use to decorate the plastic box for the tarts with.
If she spent the day thinking about Keno, she could lay the blame right at his feet since he also spent the day sending her messages updating her on his day out with the boys, which they'd spent at a zombie paintball escape room. Soon, she had a collection of funny selfies of Keno and his friends acting like a bunch of idiots, but her favorite selfie was the one he sent that night when he was finally at home. He'd taken it while he was lying in bed, with his hair and his shirt rumpled and his grin as bright as the sun. Right beside his head was a brown cloth teddy bear wearing tiny versions of St. Anthony's green and white jersey and soccer shorts, with the number 11 painted at the back and front—Keno's number in the JV team. A small soccer-ball hand exercise ball lay on the bear's belly, while a tiny plastic tumbler of lemonade, taken from a keychain Gwennie had found, was sewn to the bear's right paw.
Check out my new little brother and me, he'd typed underneath the picture.
She sent him a laughing emoji, followed by: Actually, he's supposed to be you.
My Mini-Me then. Thanks, Gwennie. I love it. Did you make him yourself?
Everything but the soccer ball and lemonade.
He sent a sticker of a dragon doing a celebratory dance in a shower of confetti. YES! Did you know how jealous I was that you made Jayden his own boutonniere? Now I've got my own Gwennie-made teddy. Way better than a pin.
Another laughing emoji. Competitive much?
Over you? Yeah. Winking emoji.
The blushing emoji she sent him was nothing compared to how warm her face was.
You want to know something corny and stupid but also true? I've got a little bowl here on my desk where I've been keeping the things you made me. They're not much, but I'm hoping to grow my collection. Hint, hint.
He sent her a photo of his study desk in his room. Amidst the semi-organized stacks of binder papers, notebooks, textbooks and pens was a small wooden bowl containing coils of yellow ribbon and tiny, cardboard lemons—the same ones she used to decorate the pastry boxes she'd given him.
But Raffy here is staying on my bed since he can't possibly fit in that bowl, Keno went on.
Yup. You did say he was my alter-ego. Grinning emoji.
I see. Raffy it is. She sent a laughing emoji along with her reply, but she wasn't laughing. Instead, her mind was working feverishly. Keno kept a bowl of her ribbons and lemons on his desk, right where anyone passing by his room could see it. Anyone...for instance, his twin sister.
Alyssa had known about her and Keno since the beginning.
Her stomach dropped as all her memories of all the pointed warnings and frigid looks she received from the Queen of NVN started to make sense, although it was a poor consolation to know that her instincts had been right all along. Then her phone beeped again with Keno's latest message: Hey, Gwennie? I'm kind of beat so I'm turning in early, if you don't mind. I'll see you tomorrow, okay?
Okay. Good night, Keno. I love you.
Good night, my lady. A sticker of a dragon blowing her a kiss.
She sank down onto her bed, trying to prepare herself mentally for what she was sure now was going to be an ordeal tomorrow. At the very least, she could expect to be persona non grata among the royal court of NVN, although the thought of not having to endure those excruciating lunches at the cafeteria wasn't all that hard to bear. As she turned off the light and lay down, her phone beeped again, casting a beam of harsh light from her bedside table.
She checked her phone, expecting it to be Keno again. Instead, it was Sam.
You're right. We've got A LOT to talk about.
No emojis or stickers accompanied the terse message, and Gwennie's stomach lurched again. More than her exile from the royal court, this was what she was dreading having to do tomorrow: finish her reckoning with Sam. Then again, if she did it right, then maybe...just maybe...she could buy Jayden a second chance with her.
Bad news came in threes. This was something Gwennie should have recalled much sooner, because as she was drifting off to sleep, the tiny, niggling doubt that had been gnawing at the back of her mind crawled out into the fading light of her consciousness. She would forget about it in the morning, but it still managed to leave its slimy tracks across her brain.
She'd told Keno she loved him, but he hadn't said he loved her back.
Big, big thank you to Polished Gem and Otakuami. And to Polished Gem, I hope this was worth the wait. Please stay safe and stay reading. ^_^