e crowd assembled before me and said, “Would you guys mind singing ‘Happy Birthday’ again? But this time, sing it to my friend, Messalina. She never had a birthday party, and it seems a bit overdue.”
Even though I’d been waiting for it for years, even though I’d imagined it down to every last detail, as it turns out, my thirteenth birthday party wasn’t at all like I’d thought.
Not just because I never imagined myself dead at thirteen.
Not just because I chose to tack on an additional six months by making myself thirteen and a half.
Not just because it technically wasn’t a birthday party since it didn’t take place on the day of my birth (I didn’t know what day it was).
But mostly because for someone who’d spent most of my death feeling lonely and friendless, when I took in the crowd at my party, I realized I’d been anything but.
Okay, maybe I didn’t know most of them all that well. Maybe a good amount of them were just people I worked with, people I once helped find their way to the Here & Now. But still, I’d spent so much time feeling alone that I was blinded to the fact that there was actually a whole team of people cheering me on.
Unlike Theocoles, I’d tuned out their roar of approval for my own (mostly negative) thoughts. But no more—those days were over.
“Riley, this is amazing!” Messalina lifted her napkin, dabbed at a blob of frosting that had found its way to her chin. “Are birthdays always like this? If so, I can’t wait to have another!”
“They’re not always like this,” I told her, jabbing my fork deep into a ball of sugary goodness. “But they should be.” I took another bite and smiled, my teeth frosted with a thick coat of purple.
And that’s when I saw him.
That’s when I saw him gazing at me from across the room in much the same way he’d gazed at me the very first time at Messalina’s never-ending party.
Along with a healthy dose of unmistakable interest.
Though unlike the last time, his usual surplus of confidence was lacking—along with his height, muscles, and overall level of maturity. (But he had ditched the fancy toga for jeans and a sweater, and that definitely worked in his favor.)
“He’s real?” I turned to Messalina, my head swirling with conflicting feelings of surprise and disbelief.
“He is indeed.” Messalina smiled and leaned toward me, about to brush a crumb from my cheek, then thinking better of it, thinking I might think that she was trying to enchant me again, she settled for motioning toward it instead.
“So he wasn’t just some soulless being you whipped into existence in order to keep me occupied?”
“Not even close. He truly was smitten the first moment he saw you. I had nothing to do with it.”
“Was he—was he really a senator’s son in his former life? Is that why he hung around for so long?” I bit down on my lip, wondering when he’d get the courage to cross the room and approach me.
Messalina shrugged. “Why don’t you ask him yourself?”
I hesitated, not sure I could go through with it. It was a large room that seemed even larger when I remembered how different I must’ve looked from the girl he’d first fallen for—a girl who’d recently transformed from Aurelia Major back to Aurelia Minor.
“Why not try?” she nudged. “You’ll never know until you try it, right?”
I sighed, figuring someone had to make the first move, so it may as well be me. Besides, the party provided the perfect excuse. I was just being a good hostess. Making sure he was having fun. That’s all that it was. It didn’t mean anything more.
I’d just screwed up my courage, just started to leave, when Messalina grabbed hold of my hand and pushed something hard and cool into the center of my palm. Then closing my fingers around it, she said, “I’ll never forget the sacrifice you made on my behalf. You could’ve easily awakened Theocoles yourself, but instead, you gave the moment to me. I hope you’ll decide to keep this small token of my appreciation, and maybe even wear it on occasion, if you like. It’s a replica of the one that I wear.” She lifted her hand, wiggled her finger so that her ring caught the light. “Think of it as a symbol of our friendship. We may not be sisters, but I hope we’ll be friends.”
I slipped the ring onto my finger and held it up beside hers, deciding to keep it, to wear it every day. I liked the way that it looked, sure, but more importantly I liked the idea of having a friend so close we were almost related.
“And Theocoles?” My eyes met hers.
“I’m headed there now.” She smiled. “That is if you can make the veil for me, please?”