“What do you mean you’re not attending?” Priya asked furiously. “You can’t not attend! Eric Rivers is holding it! You can’t ignore Rivers’ invitation.”
“I’m not ignoring it,” he pointed out with a glare he usually reserved for his students, proving just how annoyed he was at the current subject of their conversation. “I’m just not going.”
The glare didn’t work on Priya, not that he had actually expected it to. Instead, she just stared at him, trying to figure out his reasoning without actually asking. Unfortunately for her, Thomas had years of hiding his thoughts and could effortlessly pull off an indifferent expression. “Thomas,” she began slowly. “Are you going through some sort of mid-life crisis?”
Priya crossed her arms. “How else do you explain this?”
Thomas closed his eyes, bringing up a hand to rub his throbbing temples. “I hate masquerades,” he muttered darkly. Hate might actually be too weak of a word; he absolutely loathed them.
She arched an eyebrow. “That’s your reason? I know you’ve attended masquerades before. Didn’t you go to one a couple years ago?” She narrowed her eyes. “Did something happened?”
He tensed. Closing his eyes, Thomas could still picture the sky blue dress that had haunted his dreams even months after that faithful night. “No,” he finally answered. “Nothing happened.” And it was the truth. Thankfully, she had stopped him before he had actually kissed her, he didn’t think he could handle having her in class for the next three years knowing that they had shared a kiss. That didn’t, however, change the—dare he say it?—sexual tension between them afterwards.
“Anyway,” Priya continued. “You have to attend; it’s Eric Rivers. Besides, the dean thinks that it’s a good idea for us to go. He wants us to put in a good word about the university.”
“Of course he does,” Thomas grumbled under his breath. Their dean had an unfortunate habit of having his staff do his dirty work.
“So, you’ll be coming, right?” “Yes, yes,” he said impatiently, waving her off with a hand. “I will.” She lingered, shooting a look that almost broke his heart but Thomas knew that if he gave in now, they would only be happy for a couple months. They wouldn’t last, they were just too different from one another and both were too stubborn in their ways to even attempt to understand the other.
Priya was confident in herself in ways that there was never a need for her to change herself or the people around her. And that’s where their problem was. Thomas would never want Priya to change, but sometimes, he needed someone that could sit with him through his insecurities—despite what his students may think, he did have them. Priya was a proud, confident woman; she didn’t understand weaknesses and Thomas had many of them.
Despite a few similar traits, Jane was no Priya. He had seen how she interacted with the people around her; molding herself in different ways to appease different personalities. Still staying true to herself no matter the situation, she could push people past their limits or hold them back when she thought they went too far. And in his case, she had the ability to bring out the best and worst in him without even trying.
Thomas closed his eyes and shook himself from his thoughts. “I’m heading home,” he said, nodding at Priya.
She sighed in a sad sort of way. “All right, but remember, it’s tomorrow night! At six.” She pursed her lips. “And I know it’s a masquerade but do try and mingle, will you?”
“I make no promises.”
She scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Save me a dance?” There was a hopeful tilt in her tone.
Thomas eyed her. “You know I don’t like dancing at those events.”
“Of course,” she said. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
He nodded again and left, making his way out the lounge doors and through the crowd of students. They gave his a wide breadth as if noticing his bad mood, which they probably did since his scowl seemed to be permanently etched onto his skin.
When he finally reached his condo half an hour later, he went straight into his walk-in closet, wanting to pick out and set aside his outfit for tomorrow so he could relax for the rest of the day. His suit was easy; since it was Eric Rivers’ he would need to wear his best and his white Kiton suit was it. Moving on from his vast collection of suits, he walked across to the other side of the room and pulled out a drawer containing all his masks.
He pulled out the top one and slowly peeled away the cloth that was wrapped around it. Taking a deep breath, he ran his fingers across the smooth surface of the navy-blue mask. Refusing to lose himself to his memories, Thomas placed the mask back down. He swallowed hard; besides, it wasn’t like it would match his outfit, anyway.
“I’m surprised,” Priya said with an amused tilt of her head. “You’re actually here.”
“I said I would come, didn’t I?” Thomas asked. He looked around distastefully; despite himself, he had to admit that Eric had outdone himself this time. Not only had he rented the most expensive building in the city, but he had it so elaborately decorated, it looked like something straight out of the movies. “You look nice,” he complimented.
She smiled. “I always do.” He hid his own smile behind a glass of scotch. Typical, confident Priya. “But thank you.”
He nodded. “You should go mingle.”
“You’re not going to join me?”
Thomas scoffed. “I haven’t nearly had enough alcohol for that. Later,” he promised. “Go mingle, Priya.” She stared at him for a moment longer before sighing and walking away. Once she disappeared in the crowd of people, he turned back to face the bar counter, nursing his scotch closer to him. “I really hate masquerades,” he muttered to himself. He lingered for a few moments longer before finishing his drink with a backward toss of his head.
“Oops,” someone said, having bumped into his arm after he had taken no more than three steps away from his stool.
Reaching out, he wrapped a hand around the young woman’s elbow to steady her. “Are you alright?” he asked, watching her tense up, stumbling in her heels, held up only by his hand.
“Yes,” she replied, steadying herself. She looked up and flashed him a grateful smile. His mouth went dry. “Thank you.”
Of course, he thought. Of all the people he could bump into, of course it was her. Despite the feathered white and black mask covering the top half of her face, he could tell it was her so easily that it was as if she wasn’t wearing one at all. And of all the places, the dances, the gatherings that he could have been reunited with her, of course a masquerade was it.
“Um,” she said, uncertainly, wiggling her arm.
He dropped it like hot lead. “I apologize.”
She shook her head. “No, I should apologize; I bumped into you, after all.”
Thomas felt his stomach twist uncomfortably in disappointment. She was being polite; not just polite but kind and open. She didn’t recognize him. In all honesty, it had been a couple of years since they parted, he didn’t think she would actually recognize him but it still hurt. A small part of him hoped...
“Would you like to dance?” she asked, tilting her head towards the dance floor.
“We should dance.”
“Oh no, I don’t dance with just anyone.”
His lips quirked. “Sorry,” he said before he could stop himself. “But I don’t dance with just anyone.”
Her eyebrows shot upwards and he wondered if she remembered their conversation from before. How could she not recognize him? It’s not like he was her professor for four years of her life or anything. Smiling in a slightly flirtatious manner, she inched closer to him, showing that she hadn’t lost her less than modest confidence over the years. “But I can be an exception, can’t I?”
“But is it possible that I’m an exception?”
Thomas hesitated for a brief second. “Yes, all right,” he finally said, holding out his hand.
She smiled again and placed her her small hand into his larger one, allowing him to lead her onto the dance floor. He rested his free hand on the dip of her waist, sighing softly at the familiarity of it all. “Oh, I never introduced myself,” she realized. “I’m—”
“Jane,” he interrupted, her name rolling off his tongue like velvet. “I know.”
Her lips pursed. “You recognize me?” she asked.
“U-uh,” he began, unsure what he was supposed to say without sounding like a creepy stalker. And in all honesty, he really was more like one than he cared to admit. Especially around her. Only around her. He wondered if he could pull off the whole, “analyzing the nuances of physicality and behavior”. It was true, he was good at analyzing people but it was different with her.
“It’s the mask, isn’t it?” she asked, pouting. “I should have gotten a bigger one. One that covers my cheekbones. Everyone always tells me that I have very distinguishable cheekbones; I just didn’t think they were serious. I should have listened.”
He looked down. “Yes,” he decided to agree. “Your... cheekbones.” Funny how he never really noticed them before. If one were to ask him, her best and most distinguishable feature would be her eyes. Warm, confident, and accepting but if angered—which they usually were around him—they blazed with an uncontrollable fire he could not help but be drawn to.
“You never told me your name,” she pointed out.
You know me, he wanted to yell at her. How could you not recognize me? Instead, he cleared his throat and said, “I’m... John.”
“John,” she repeated, smiling.
He almost laughed; she really didn’t recognize him.
Forcing a smile, he said, “Do keep up.” He whisked her away, leading her through the steps of the waltz, sweeping across the dance floor, maneuvering them between dancing couples. Like a repeat of the previous masquerade, it wasn’t long before they—she, specifically—caught the attention of everyone else in the room.
Jane laughed. “You’re kind of a show off, aren’t you?” she asked.
Only for you.
“I’m not the one attracting everyone’s attention,” he told her, nodding in the direction of their audience.
Behind her mask, her eyelashes fluttered but her gaze did not leave his. She hummed contently underneath her breath and pressed closer to him as they moved with the music. “I’m not interested in anyone else right now,” she breathed. “Just you.” Thomas wondered if she would feel the same way if she knew who he was. Did she have the same doubts when their positions had been reversed?
He spun her out, her long dress flaring out around her. Still holding onto his hand, Jane twirled back into him, fitting herself perfectly in his embrace. “You have my complete attention,” he breathed into her ear. She shivered at the sensation of his breath brushing across the sensitive skin of her ear.
“Oh, good,” she said, spinning herself back into position out in front of him. Confidently, she trained her fingers down the firm plane of his back, going lower and lower just like when—
“Do you mind?” Thomas scowled.
“Hm?” she purred, teasingly.
“Your hand,” he pointed out, as if she didn’t know. It was currently reacquainting itself with his behind. Was she always this forward or was he just special?
She laughed, sounding happy and free, a sound he hasn’t heard in person in a long, long time. “Come on,” she said, pulling him away from the dance floor much to the disappointment of lingering onlookers. “I can feel their stares and it’s honestly making me uncomfortable.”
“You’re a celebrity,” he pointed out but followed her anyway. “I would think you’re used to it by now.”
“Well, yes,” she admitted. “But that doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable.” They stepped outside onto a balcony, the sounds of music and laughter fading away as the door closed behind them. “Besides, why would you go to Eric Rivers’ masquerade just to watch people dance? Kind of creepy, if you ask me.”
He chuckled, amused. “You’re rather blunt, aren’t you?”
“You don’t mince words, do you?”
She shook her head. “Better to be honest and straight to the point than beat around the bush.” She reached up and took off her mask, shaking her hair loose as she rubbed away a thin, almost unnoticeable mark on her cheek left by her mask. “Dance with me?” she asked, tossing her mask to the side and holding out a free hand. She didn’t seem to care that he had kept his on.
Thomas’ eyebrows rose. “There’s no music.” He had forgotten how beautiful she was; television screens and CG had nothing on her.
“Pft,” she puffed, amused. “As if we need music.” Jane grinned then, looking familiarly cocky. When was the last time he had seen this side of her? Not since his class room, that was for sure. “If you’re really so corny, I’ll be happy to hum for you.”
“I don’t need you to hum,” he answered gruffly, reaching out to take her hand. He can dance just fine without music, thank you very much.
Thomas pulled her into him, molding their bodies together and they danced to the rhythm of his heart beat, swaying, moving, gliding like the blood roaring within his ears. The cool air of the night was doing little to inhibit the rising heat of his skin and he wondered if she knew the effect she was having on him. She leaned into him, resting her head into the crook of his neck, the tip of her nose brushing up against bare skin. For a moment, it was like the world didn’t exist and he wanted the night to go on forever and ever.
“You know,” she said, cutting through the silence in a soft whisper. “I feel like we have this... connection.”
“I can sense something about you, a connection...”
“Me too,” he admitted. Connection, indeed; only with her, though.
She tilted her head back and leaned up, pressing a kiss against the line of his jaw and Thomas let out a shuddering sigh.
His stomach twisted itself into an almost-painful position and for a second, Thomas thought he was actually going to be physically ill. The guilt was killing him; he needed to stop her. He needed to tell her. Was this how she felt when she had stopped him from kissing her?
“Is there a chance I can see you after this?” she asked in a low whisper, her lips brushing against his jaw with every word. “Professor.”
Taking in a unsteady breath, Thomas pushed her and held her away from him at arm’s length. “You... you knew it was me,” he accused. “This entire time, you knew it was me.”
Jane huffed in annoyance, reaching out and pulling his mask off none too gently. “Of course I did!” she snapped. “I was your student for four years! When you weren’t lecturing, you were telling me off, I can recognize your voice anywhere.” And then, under her breath: “Dumbass.”
His eyebrow twitched and he felt the familiar tightening of his lips as he pressed them together into a thin, firm line. What was it about this woman that could make him angry so easily? Not to mention, she was doing a wonderful job of making him feel like a five-year-old with his hand caught in the cookie jar. Exhaling slowly, Thomas forced himself to remain as calm as possible; the last thing he wanted was the press to catch their typical infamous banter at Eric Rivers’ masquerade ball. “Why did you pretend not to know?”
She shrugged. “Why did you call yourself John?”
“Besides,” she said, in a tone he was all too familiar with. It meant she was going to say something that was probably going to piss him off. “You spent the entire evening replaying that night. Even if I didn’t know it was you, you wanted me to.”
Ah, he thought.
“Oh please! Some part of you knew it was me!”
“You wanted it to be me!”
As much as he hated to admit it, she was not wrong. Not now. Not even back then.
“Yes,” he answered, pulling her back up against him.
She blinked, then smiled. “Yes? To what? To my earlier question?” she asked hopefully.
“To everything.” He had wanted her to know it was him behind the mask and was disappointed when he thought she didn’t. And back during their first masquerade, he also had wanted it to be her. It was and will always be her.
Jane laughed happily, looking even more gradient than he thought possible. She was practically glowing and unable to hold himself back, Thomas leaned down and captured her lips with his own. He would never admit it but—fireworks.
Thomas cringed; feeling very much like a teenager caught trying to sneak his girlfriend into the house. “Priya,” he greeted unnecessarily. What was he supposed to say? Yes, I’m leaving and don’t try and call me, I’ll probably be out of commission for the rest of the night. Maybe week.
“I saw you dancing earlier,” she blurted out. “Well, I’m pretty sure everyone saw you dancing but...” she cleared her throat, looking uncomfortable in a way that Thomas didn’t think was possible. Not for Priya, never Priya; not strong, assertive Priya. “But you looked... you looked... happy.” She shook her head in disbelief but pressed on. “Very happy, in fact. I haven’t seen you like that since... well...”
You, he thought. Oh, Priya...
“Well, ever, actually,” she finished, shocking him. He remembered being his happiest around her; even if they didn’t—and would never—work out, he liked being around her. “You were always so passionate about your work and when we were together, I thought... I thought I could bring that passion out but...” she sighed and looked away for a second. “Who is she, anyway?”
It was clear to him that Priya did not get a good look at Jane’s face. He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Um. Well, that is... er...”
“I see,” she nodded understandingly. This was a gathering for celebrities and everyone had their secrets. “Where is she?” she asked instead, looking around.
Honestly, he might just prefer answering her previous question instead. “Waiting by the car,” he answered in a low voice, not wanting to attract unwanted attention. “I came back to pick some things up.” Namely their masks. And his tie. Thank goodness it stopped there.
“Of course,” Priya said, in a faint voice. “Good-bye, Thomas.” He swallowed; this was it. “Good-bye, Priya,” he said, giving her single, final nod.
With that, he walked out the building, leaving it and everything inside it behind. Thomas inhaled deeply and saw her, chattering away at the driver and ignoring his subtle hint of “please get into the damn car, miss.” He smiled and as if feeling his approach, Jane turned and caught his gaze with her own. Face lighting up so brightly that it made him dizzy with happiness, she flashed him a smile that reminded him of the morning sun. She spun around, hiking up her dress and slipping into the car, giving him no choice but to follow her.
And followed her, he did.