Crystal Masquerade

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"Gwennie, your date is here to pick you up."

Gwennie started, becoming aware that she'd been standing in front of the full-length mirror in the hallway for the past five minutes, just staring at her reflection without really seeing anything. She turned and met her mother's frankly curious eyes as she came up the stairs.

"What a handsome young man," her mother murmured behind her hand. "Polite, too. He's speaking with your father right now."

"Thanks, Ma. I'll be right down."

She picked up the paper gift bag at her feet, then checked her reflection one last time. The girl in the mirror looked dainty and fairy-like in a skater dress with a floaty chiffon skirt that ended at mid-thigh, and a bardot neckline that bared her shoulders. A chiffon overlay with swirls of iridescent beads helped distract from her general lack of curves up-top, while her petite frame made the dress seem more virginal than revealing. The dress was light lemon yellow, a color that had caught Gwennie's attention because it reminded her of both her favorite fruit and the day she and Keno first met. She'd arranged her hair into a tousled chignon, with stray tendrils framing her face. A pair of strappy white sandals and thin gold strands at her ears completed the ensemble.

I look pretty, she thought with abstracted surprise. Really, her appearance would've been perfect if it weren't for the muted dread that dulled her eyes and made her smiles seem forced. Thank goodness for her sister's crash course in makeup application last night, which enabled Gwennie to put some color in her otherwise pale face.

If I look okay, I might be able to survive this party without embarrassing myself.

She adjusted the strap of her purse, her lemon keychain swinging at its side, and proceeded downstairs, followed by her mother. She found Jayden seated on the couch in the living room, chatting with her dad about some game that aired on TV last night. Seeing her, Jayden rose to his feet and smiled. "You look nice, Gwennie."

"Thank you. So do you," she replied.

He presented her with a wrist corsage consisting of a yellow rose on a spray of baby's breath tied with yellow ribbon, which he slipped around her left wrist while her parents looked on approvingly. Then she produced a boutonniere she'd made by looping some yellow ribbon into a rose, sewing green felt leaves to it, gluing a rhinestone "dewdrop" on one of the petals, and mounting these on a pin. "I'm sorry about this," she muttered as she pinned the boutonniere onto the left breast of his white shirt.

He tugged his shirt away so he could admire the boutonniere. "Why? It looks great. It looks professionally made, actually."

"Thank you," she said again.

They talked a little more, with Jayden explaining that they would take a Grab car to the venue, then his mother would come to pick them up later at 9 p.m. Finally, Gwennie informed her parents that the Grab car they hired was waiting outside. They bid her parents goodbye, with her mother reminding her to greet Keno happy birthday for them and to invite him to dinner very soon.

Jayden escorted her to the car and held the door open for her. Once they were ensconced in the back seat, he shot her a wry grin. "You know, that dress looks great and all, but I'm still annoyed with you for picking a color that was so hard to match."

"Yet somehow you managed it," she retorted, looking pointedly at his navy slacks, white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, and the light yellow necktie knotted with casual looseness at his throat, with the handmade boutonniere adding to his cool, quirky charm. Really, he looked as if he'd come straight from shooting a music video. With some amusement, she wondered how Sam would react when she saw him, imagining her best friend's eyes popping out of their sockets and her jaw scraping the floor. Gwennie might have felt pretty earlier, but now that she was beside him, she felt herself rather overshadowed by her own date.

Not that she cared. There was only one boy on her mind, only one whose reaction mattered.

"That's because I'm a god of style," Jayden quipped. When she didn't respond, he sighed. "Okay, what's wrong? You look like you're going to a wake, not a birthday party."

Gwennie twisted her hands together on her lap, almost crushing her corsage. "Keno read my message last night, but he didn't reply. So I called him up. He didn't answer at first so I kept trying, and when he finally did..."

She remembered that incident in stark detail. The clamminess of her hand as it gripped her phone, the number of rings it took before he answered, the endless stretch of silence before he actually spoke, and the distant coolness of his voice when he said, "Gwennie. Sorry, but I'm kind of busy right now."

Her own voice, sounding small and thready. "I know. I'm sorry to bother you. It's just that...well, um, you've read my message, and I—I was wondering what you think—"

"Does it really matter what I think?" Keno cut in tersely, and everything inside her seemed to turn into ice. "Look, now's really not a good time, okay? We'll talk tomorrow."

She nodded jerkily, realized he couldn't see her, and said, "Okay. Tomorrow then."

"One question, though."

"Yes?"

"Did you go on a date with Jayden this afternoon?"

She blinked. "Well, we were together, yes, but it wasn't a date. He wanted to ask—"

"Forget it. That was out of line," he interrupted again, sounding even more remote than before. "It doesn't matter anyway. Listen, I gotta go. Bye."

"Wait, Keno—"

She remembered the caved-in feeling when she realized he'd hung up on her. And most of all, she remembered the strains of a violin playing in the background all throughout their truncated conversation, beautiful yet strangely ominous at the same time.

Jayden groaned. "Jesus. By the sound of that, he's totally gotten the wrong idea. Why, though? I thought you explained everything to him in that message."

"I did! I told him everything I told you!" To her dismay, tears stung her eyes, forcing her to look away and blink repeatedly so as not to ruin the makeup she'd worked so hard on. After Keno had gone home that afternoon, it had taken her well over two hours to compose her message to him. She'd sorted through all the lies she'd told him and everyone else, and had come face to face with all her shameful acts of deception since embarking on this mission to be more confident. The message she'd finally sent him had been one of the hardest and most painstakingly worded things she'd ever written.

Hello, Keno. Thank you for telling me about what happened last year. That couldn't have been easy but you did it, and now I want to be just as courageous as you and be completely honest myself. So here's what I wanted to tell you earlier: On Saturday, I'll be coming to your party with Jayden as my "official" date. But that doesn't mean I like him romantically, because I really don't. I want to explain what's really going on. It started a couple of months ago during a sleepover at Nadia's house. No, actually, it started even before that...

She laid everything out in that message, telling him about how she had somehow found herself a part of Alyssa's circle of friends, and how badly she wanted Alyssa and her friends to like her and accept her as one of them. She recounted her wish to be more like Alyssa, and Alyssa's idea to "train" her and the others to be confident and assertive was by giving each girl a mission to confess to their crushes and ask them out. She explained the rules of the mission to him. She confessed to her lies and half-truths—that in the beginning she and Sam had been hanging around St. Anthony so Gwennie could ask Jayden out, that she'd gone to St. Helene that day not just to return Keno's shirt but to introduce herself to Jayden. That she'd been messaging Jayden every night, although she'd stopped doing that ever since their first date. A date, incidentally, that had been the result of Sam setting them up without Gwennie's knowing.

And the hardest part: that up to that point—and except for Jayden, who'd more or less pried the truth out of her—Gwennie had not told anyone, not even Sam, about her feelings for Keno. That Alyssa herself had declared that Keno was off-limits—was not even to be spoken of, let alone spoken to—and that Gwennie had simply gone along with whatever Alyssa had said because it was easier that way. Keno was well-aware of the extent of his sister's cold treatment of him and even talked about it casually but it hurt him nonetheless, his sister's seeming rejection of him piling on their parents' neglect, the unfavorable comparison between him and his twin sister, and his shame at his own failures and shortcomings. Gwennie had seen the pain clouding his eyes. She'd heard it in his voice, even through his laughter.

Yet, she also knew that this was somehow Alyssa's twisted attempt to protect him from potential heartbreak like the one he went through with Christine. There were gaps in the story, of course, and Gwennie knew there had to be more to the incident than that. Nevertheless, her decision up until then to hide her friendship with Keno would likely seem to him a betrayal of sorts, as if there was something shameful about their relationship when nothing, absolutely nothing, could be farther from the truth.

That was why she had no intention of doing as Sam told her to do, which was to ask Keno to pretend not to know her during the party, to go through the charade of being introduced to him for the first time as though they hadn't spoken to each other and become friends and even kissed. It was not a decision she made lightly, and even now, her entire body was stiff and cold with fear at the thought of defying Queen Alyssa and earning the ire of all five members of the royal court, and worse, of letting her best friend down. But she couldn't lie to Keno anymore. The thought deceiving the boy she'd fallen in love with turned her stomach and filled her with self-loathing. She couldn't live with herself if she knew that she'd added to his pain.

Most of all, she couldn't lie to herself anymore. She'd been a shrinking coward all this time, hiding behind the tall tales and delusions she let everyone else weave around her, and she'd had enough. This time...this time, she was going to do the right thing. Even if it hurts, she vowed, echoing Jayden's words.

Now, if only she could stop feeling so scared and alone, everything would be great.

"Look, I'm sorry," Jayden said regretfully. "I know you're trying your best. We'll just have to show him that you told him the truth and that he's got nothing to worry about."

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I have to talk to him tonight. If I explain things to him face to face, I might have a better chance of convincing him."

"With you looking like that? Trust me, you'll have him eating out of your hand in no time," he replied with a small grin. "So don't cry, okay? You've got to look your best tonight."

At the burbling in her purse, she reached in for her phone and read the message. Then she looked up at him. "You had better be at your best, too, because Sam and Kevin have just arrived at the venue. They're waiting for us in the lobby."

This time, it was Jayden's turn to freeze momentarily then look away, his eyes darkening with emotion. "Yeah," he said hoarsely.

They fell silent, each lost in their thoughts as they watched the scenery whiz by. But as the venue came within sight, with the words The Magnolia Garden mounted in silver and black lettering on a vine-covered wall, Jayden turned to Gwennie again with some urgency. "By the way, there's another reason you have to be at your best. I told my oldest sister about your situation with your friends, and you know what she said?"

"What?"

"She said, 'Run. Ditch those girls before things get worse.'"

"It's a little late for that," Gwennie moaned as the car turned into the curving driveway, and stopped in front of the elegant Victorian-style building that served as The Magnolia Garden's main office and front lobby.

"I said as much, so Ate Micah said something else," he told her as he helped her out of the car and they walked up the steps toward the carved double doors. "If you can't run, then stand and fight. The situation's going to get worse, but it will get better. So chin up, Gwennie. You're not facing this alone," he said reassuringly.

She smiled wanly but before she could say anything, she heard someone calling their names. Gwennie felt Jayden stiffen beside her as though he'd been hit by lightning. Turning, they found Sam walking toward them from one of the numerous couches in the hotel-like lobby, and Gwennie felt her own jaw drop at the sight of her best friend.

"Sam, you look amazing!" she burst out, rushing to meet Sam and grabbing both her hands. Gone was the tomboy who moved, dressed and behaved like one of her brothers, except with longer hair. Instead, the girl in front of Gwennie was graceful and feminine in a navy blue dress, its lace halter top displaying her creamy skin to perfection. Her hair was freed from its usual ponytail, cascading in waves over her shoulders and shimmering underneath the light of the ornate chandeliers.

"Thanks, Gwennie. You look great yourself," Sam replied in a more lukewarm tone, extricating her hands from Gwennie's. Her reserve hurt and puzzled Gwennie, until Sam added with careful casualness: "So is that the dress he picked out for you?"

Gwennie followed the direction of her gaze to Jayden who was hanging back a few feet away, staring at Sam with a stunned, dazed look on his face. Realizing the situation, Gwennie spun around, waving her hands in the air. "Oh no, actually, I was the one who picked out this dress. He didn't even like the color—"

"Hey, Gwennie. You here alone? Come sit with us, I'm sure Sam would like that."

Kevin, whom Gwennie had failed to notice at first, appeared at Sam's side. He slid a proprietary arm around Sam's waist and grinned down at Gwennie, while Sam gave an almost imperceptible wince. With some trepidation, Gwennie glanced back over her shoulder. Sure enough Jayden had lost his dreamy expression and was instead stalking over to Gwennie's side to stand almost toe-to-toe with Kevin.

"Thanks for your concern for my date, but I'm pretty sure there'll be a seating arrangement at the party," he said to Kevin in a deceptively pleasant voice. Then he looked straight at the girl standing stiffly beside him. "Hello, Sam. Please tell me you're not going to ignore me all night. That's going to make things awkward for Gwennie," he drawled, and Gwennie had to stop herself from slapping her palm to her forehead while Kevin blinked several times as he sized up the taller, well-built Jayden.

"Oh please. You've never been ignored a day in your life," Sam muttered, reluctantly meeting Jayden's eyes.

"Um, Jayden, I'd like to introduce you to Kevin. He's in the same year as us," Gwennie said in a rush to cover up the tension crackling between her best friend and her date. "Kevin, this is Jayden. He's a year ahead of us at St. Anthony."

Kevin grinned again. "Hey there. I'm Sam's boyfriend. Nice to meet you."

Jayden's lips twisted in a parody of a smile as he shook his hand. "Likewise, I'm sure."

"St. Anthony, huh? How the heck did you and Gwennie even meet?" Kevin asked.

"It's none of your beeswax how they met, Kevin. Let's just go, okay? People are coming," Sam cut in, tugging at her boyfriend's hand around her waist.

Kevin frowned at her. "What? I was just asking—"

Several other well-dressed guests came into the lobby, checked the discreet signboard at one side indicating the specific venues of each event, then headed through another set of double doors that led to the garden. Curious, Gwennie went over to the signboard and found a line announcing: "Alvarez Twins, Flor de Luna."

"It's the field at the back. It's the biggest party venue in this complex," Kevin said beside her. When she looked at him in surprise, he pulled out the party invitation with the stylized silhouettes of a violin and a piano printed in black on the ivory cover. "I studied the map of this place on their website," he informed her.

She stared at him, then glanced back at the couple they'd left behind. Jayden and Sam were standing close together, their gazes fixed upon each other as they talked in low voices. Sam's face was becoming more and more animated, with a mixture of annoyance, anger and—because Gwennie knew her best friend well—longing and suppressed happiness sparking in her eyes. Jayden on the other hand seemed to have forgotten where he was and why he was there, and when he smiled down at her, his eyes went soft and warm for one unguarded moment while Sam blushed.

"Hey, do those two know each other?" Kevin asked.

Gwennie gulped. "Um, y-yes, a little bit. Jayden's grandma is a customer at Sam's family hardware store. They're probably talking about bathroom tiles and window sidings right now." Before Kevin could question her further, she clapped her hands together and chirped: "Well! We'd better get going! We don't want to be late!"

She hurried over to the couple but was overtaken by Kevin, who went over to his girlfriend, took her by the elbow, and began steering her toward the garden-side double doors, rattling about how he knew where exactly the venue was since he'd studied the map and everything. Jayden watched them leave with narrowed eyes until Gwennie tugged at his sleeve.

"Jayden," she hissed underneath her breath as several other guests bearing the same black and white invitations glided past, a few throwing them mildly curious looks.

He exhaled and unclenched his jaw. "Right. The perfect date. I didn't forget." He offered his arm to her, and together they followed Sam and Kevin and the rest of the well-dressed throng through the garden-side doors.

The Magnolia Garden was a lush combination of botanical garden and resort. They walked down a stone path that meandered through manicured shrubbery and flower beds of every color imaginable. Trees grew in rows and thickets beyond, casting a lovely shade over the path and forming the walls of the labyrinthine complex. Victorian lamp posts stood at strategic positions while glass lanterns were strung from the branches—lanterns, Gwennie was sure, that would make the entire place look absolutely magical when they were lit. The path split at times, with one direction leading to the big convention hall, another to the smaller convention hall, and still another to the restaurant, the swimming pool area, the spa, the smaller garden that served as another party venue and so on, according to the signs posted at every crossroad.

"This place is beautiful," Gwennie breathed, slowing every now and then to examine some flowers or a tree or watch birds flutter overhead.

"Too artificial for my taste," Jayden grumbled.

She took one look at his sour expression and sighed. "I know it's hard, but please keep it together. We've got to be at our best, remember?"

"I know," he replied, grimacing. "It's just that every time I see her with him—" He glanced down at her face, and his shoulders sagged. "Right. I asked for this, didn't I? Don't worry, I'll behave—"

"Oh! What's that over there?"

Catching sight of sunlight sparkling upon water through a gap in the shrubbery, Gwennie let go of his arm and veered off into the gap. It opened into a Japanese garden, complete with a pond surrounded by large rocks, neatly trimmed shrubs and small trees with tiny yellow flowers. A wooden bridge led from one side of the pond to an oriental-style gazebo built over the pond. A woman in a white wedding gown stood on the bridge in the arms of a man in a tuxedo as a photographer took photos of them, with an assistant nearby holding a reflector.

Gwennie approached the edge of the pond, her eyes fixed upon the couple. Before she knew it, she had slipped into a little daydream, imagining her and Keno standing there on that bridge in each other's arms. The daydream led straight into the memory of their kiss, and as always, her heart gave a skip and her face instantly went warm.

Then the memory faded, replaced with the memory of Keno's unwelcoming manner last night, and once again, Gwennie felt herself sinking into a cold, gray fog of fear. Really, I'm the one who needs to keep it together, she thought. Who's to say he'll even be willing to listen to me?

"Gwennie."

She glanced over her shoulder to find Jayden walking toward her. His own gaze was upon the wedding couple, and Gwennie had the feeling he was indulging in the same rose-tinted reverie as she was. Then he shook his head and focused on her. "We'd better go. What're you doing here anyway?"

"Koi fish."

"What?" he asked, nonplussed.

"I wanted to see the koi fish." She hopped atop one of the rocks edging the pond and peered down at the white, orange and black shapes darting languidly underneath the water. "Koi fish are lucky, you know. And I think we're both going to need that luck tonight," she added softly.

He sighed. "I'll say. Look, get down from there before you slip and fall in, okay?" He took her by the arm and helped her off the rock. "I think that's the venue over—"

"Excuse me."

The two of them turned around, and found Sam watching them a few feet away, her face impassive. Her gaze lowered to Jayden's hand around Gwennie's arm, and her eyes clouded over. "If you can manage to tear yourself away from her for a moment, I'd like to talk to Gwennie please," she said in a clipped tone.

Jayden frowned as he released Gwennie. "If I can what?"

Sam blinked as she realized what she'd said. "I said I'd like to talk to Gwennie a bit," she said a little more loudly. She pointed at the path she'd come from, which led to a different gap in the borders of the Japanese garden. Visible through this gap was the ornate iron fence bordering another private garden inside the complex, covered with vines with clusters of white flowers. A crowd gathered around a long table in front of this wall—the registration table for the Alvarez Twins' event. "There's the venue right there," Sam explained. "Kevin's signing for us in the guest book. Why don't you go ahead and join him, Jayden? We'll be right behind you."

Jayden regarded Sam speculatively, then inclined his head in a bow. "Fine," he replied before smiling down at Gwennie. "I'll wait for you at the registration table, okay?"

Gwennie nodded. She didn't miss the way Sam had averted her gaze from his smile, nor did she miss the faint, knowing smirk he sent Sam as he walked past her. When he was out of earshot, Sam took his place at Gwennie's side and the two girls started toward the registration table at a slower pace.

"Jayden gave that to you, didn't he?" Sam said, her gaze flicking down to the yellow rose corsage on Gwennie's left wrist.

"Yes," Gwennie replied. It hadn't escaped her notice that Sam wore no corsage herself, although to be fair to Kevin, he probably didn't have time to order one for her.

Sam's lips stretched into a bright smile. "Good! He's being really sweet to you. That's promising. And you even made him that little rose pin. I recognize your work."

"Yes," Gwennie said again. "He told me before that he was giving me a corsage but I'd forgotten all about it. I only remembered last night so I didn't have time to order a boutonniere. So I just made him one. He said he didn't mind."

"Well, he shouldn't. It's cute. And it looks good on him," Sam replied wistfully. Then she gave her head a shake. "Anyway, forget about that. This is about you-know-who. You told him, right? Is he going to do it?" she demanded.

"Is who going to do what?" Gwennie hedged as her stomach began to twist into knots.

Sam rolled her eyes. "You know. The twin. You told him to pretend we've never met before, right? I need to make sure before we come face-to-face with him and Alyssa."

Here goes, Gwennie thought. "No, I didn't tell him," she said, proud that her voice quavered only a little.

"Gwennie!" Sam burst out angrily, stopping dead in her tracks. When a couple of other people at the registration table looked over at her, she lowered her voice again. "Gwennie, I swear—you know how important this is. You know how we need to make sure it's safe to approach Alyssa with him hanging around. You chickened out again, didn't you? Honest to God, do I have to do everything myself?" she huffed in disgust, throwing her hands in the air.

An unfamiliar emotion cut through the fog of dread inside Gwennie like a white-hot flame, and she looked Sam straight in the eye. "He isn't just 'hanging around,' Sam. This isn't just Alyssa's special day, it's his day, too. And by the way, he has a name. It's Keno, and he's my f-friend. I can't lie and say that he's not, and I can't force him to lie just to make things easier for us. No, it's not that 'I can't'. I won't," she stated with conviction.

Sam drew back, eyeing Gwennie as if she'd suddenly sprouted a pair of antenna and a few jointed legs. "Are you out of your mind? Alyssa warned us to stay away from her brother if we wanted to stay friends with her. I can't believe you're going to be all weird and stupid about this now. Are you trying to get us kicked out of this party? We haven't even made it inside the venue yet!"

"I'm not, but I don't want to lie anymore," Gwennie insisted. "I'm tired of lying. I'm tired of trying and trying and never getting anywhere. I'm just...just tired of it all."

"So you're siding with him," her best friend said in a small, hurt voice that stabbed through Gwennie's heart. "You know how much this means to me, and you couldn't even do this one thing for me? You have no idea what I gave up for you..." She trailed off and backed away a step, tears shimmering in her eyes.

"What's going on here?"

At Jayden's query, both girls turned to watch his approach. He noticed Sam looking teary-eyed and his face softened with concern. "Sam? Hey, are you okay?" he asked, instinctively reaching for her.

Sam took another step back and drew herself upright. "I'm okay. Just leave me alone, Jayden. Your date needs you more than I do," she said coldly.

Jayden dropped his hand, hurt scrawling over his face before he schooled his features into an expressionless mask. Then Kevin came trotting over, hollering Sam's name and waving two rolled-up pieces of parchment tied with black and gold ribbons in the air. "Hey, Sam! I've got our programs. Let's get in there already. They're serving food and I'm starving," he called out just as a pastel pink blur raced past him.

"Sammity-Sam!" Jo Ann cried, throwing her arms around Sam, with her date Mike loping after her. "Look! I'm part of the ceremonial waltz! My name's right here in the program!" Pulling back, she unrolled her own parchment program and pointed it out to Sam. "See? Okay, so Nadia's in there, too, but I'm going to be Keno's last partner in the waltz since it turns out he doesn't have a girlfriend to dance with. I'm going to get real up close and personal with Alyssa's hot twin brother, can you believe it?" she squealed.

Gwennie felt more bits of her heart chip away and fall off, along with the memory of Keno bending over her hand and smiling up at her. Will you do me the honor of dancing with me then, Miss Gwennie? No, Lady Guinevere?

Really, she was being irrational and she knew it. It wasn't as if he'd asked her for that special dance. Still… I guess he decided not to tell anyone about us either, she thought, the idea of Jo Ann or any other girl dancing with Keno lodging like a needle in her chest.

There was another flurry of movement accompanied by familiar-sounding voices as Meg, Nadia and Felice appeared, their dates joining Mike and Kevin. Jayden and Gwennie stood apart until Jo Ann's gaze landed upon Jayden. Her eyes went wide, and the next minute, all four girls were flocking around him, pushing Gwennie aside.

"Hel-lo," Jo Ann purred, smiling coyly up at him. "And who might you—oh, Gwennie. You're so quiet, I almost didn't notice you," she said with a tinkling laugh.

"Gwen, so you were here all along. You should've spoken up at the GC last night. We could've all met up and come here together," Meg admonished, but Gwennie knew very well that there had been no such conversation in the girls' group chat last night. At least not in the group chat that she was ostensibly a part of.

"Well, Gwen? Aren't you going to introduce us to your date?" Felice prodded, aiming a predatory smile at Jayden.

Gwennie did so, with the other girls too busy fawning over Jayden to notice her lack of enthusiasm. Neither did they notice Sam turn her back on them and focus ferociously on whatever Kevin was saying. Jayden handled the feminine attention with the easy courtesy that Gwennie remembered from her first acquaintance with him, which she now recognized as the defensive shield it was.

Then Jo Ann's gaze fell upon the yellow rose pinned on Jayden's shirt. "Oh, that's so adorbs. You and Gwennie have matching flowers," she trilled, running her finger up and down Jayden's chest beside the boutonniere.

Jayden gave a practiced smile and touched the boutonniere, subtly brushing her hand aside in the process. "Gwennie made this. She's really good at crafting, but I'm sure you already know this since you're friends and all."

"Oh." Jo Ann's eyebrows lifted, and she pulled her hand back as though she'd been informed that the boutonniere was radioactive.

"No wonder it looks like that," Nadia sniffed. "Anyway, let's go. The birthday celebrants will be making their grand entrance during cocktails, and we don't want to miss that."

The giggling pack of girls and their dates wandered off, leaving Jayden and Gwennie behind. Jayden dropped his fake smile with undisguised relief. "Jesus. Are your so-called friends always this exhausting to deal with?" he complained.

"Always," Gwennie replied tonelessly.

He looked down at her and frowned. "You're as pale as a ghost. What the hell happened between you and Sam anyway?"

"I told her I didn't ask Keno to pretend that we weren't friends, and that I'm not going to lie anymore. She basically said I was being selfish and ungrateful and—and maybe she's right, you know?" Her throat tightened with unshed tears, and she quickly lowered her head. "I—I don't think I can do this," she whispered.

Sighing, he placed his hand upon the back of her head and pulled her in to let her lean her forehead against him. "You can. You're tougher than you know," he stated quietly, and she drew in a steadying breath and nodded.

Then more voices filled the air. "Look, it's Jayden. Yo, Jayden, what's up? Didn't know you A-Squad ladies got an invite, too," a boy called out.

"Dumbass. Can't you see he's with a date?" another boy said, while another one not-quite-muttered, "Who's that with him, anyway? She looks kind of familiar."

Gwennie squeezed her eyes shut, recognizing the voices of Keno's friends from the junior varsity soccer team. Things just keep getting better and better, she thought as she straightened and tried to look as if she hadn't just been caught in an almost-embrace with Jayden by Keno's friends. Turned out the entire St. Anthony JV team including their coach and assistant coach were present, and all now stood gaping as Jayden and Gwennie walked toward the venue's entrance with as much composure as they could. Jayden exchanged pleasantries with their coach and assistant coach and traded jokes with the other members of the JV team as they went past. Gwennie pinned a blandly agreeable smile on her face that she would end up wearing well into the night, and tried to ignore the way the three boys who were Keno's closest friends stared at her with a mixture of puzzlement, confusion and betrayal.

"Wait, it's Gwennie, right? Aren't you Keno's gir—" one of them began, then stopped when the boy beside him drove an elbow into his side.

"Dude, shut up," the second boy hissed at his friend, then gave Gwennie a toothy grin. "Hey. Nice party, huh?"

Gwennie only had time to nod as Jayden grasped her by the elbow and steered her adroitly through the crowd and into the entrance, only to slow to a stop when they found themselves in a glittering world of black, gold and white, filled with exquisitely dressed, brightly smiling people. Despite the gray fog inside her, Gwennie felt her breath catch and her spirits lift with excitement and...maybe...even a little bit of hope.

At least until she noticed Jayden's expression. "Into the belly of the beast we go," he muttered, sending her a humorless smile.

She swallowed and nodded, laying her clammy hand upon his arm, and together, they walked into the resplendent fantasyland where cold reality awaited.

.

.

.


Cultural Notes (Sorry, these are a bit late):

Grab Car - is the equivalent of Uber here in the Philippines.

Ate (pronounced ah-te) - A title/honorific meaning "big sister", a bit like oneesan in Japanese except it comes before the name.