It took a few days, but, soon enough, I realize that it was really a test.
I am now starting to piece everything together: Kayla and Gabrielle seem to jump at every sudden movement, as though they're waiting for someone to lurch for them from the shadows.
Daphne, on the other hand, seems smug, as though she has been through a secret adventure with a secret admirer. I watch thoughtfully when she looks slyly at Cassius through the corner of her eye, or when she is always pulling him off to the side to discuss a private matter with him. The burning feeling in my chest only lasts a few moments when I see her reach up and run her fingers through his hair as she talks with him most of the time.
I am walking down one of the many hallways when I spot Cassius coming toward me. I take a deep breath, annoyed at how betrayed I feel by him, though I don't know how justified the betrayal really is, and march forward.
"The Blonde Princess," he says with a mock bow when I reach him.
I roll my eyes at this, but give no further retort. "Cassius," I say measuredly.
He smiles and my blood warms, making me not want to be mad at him for anything; which is probably how he gets away with things. "And how are you on this fine day?"
A take a moment to form a plan on a whim in my head. "Worried," I finally say, trying my best to show unease.
His brow furrows and for a moment I think he is genuinely concerned. "Worried? About what?"
"What happened the other day in the forest," I say, biting my lip worriedly. "I think I should tell the other girls to watch out, just incase it happens again."
I watch his face closely for any signs of knowing, but he remains expressionless. "I'll tell them myself, if you're so worried," he says.
"But I want to tell them," I reply. "Please? I'm just so scared," I add quickly so as not to give anything away.
He studies me for a long moment. Then, "You need acting lessons," he finally says.
I instantly break from my charade, annoyed. "And you need to hide your Tests better. I can't believe—"
But I am pressed against the wall an instant later, Cassius' hand covering my mouth. He looks over both of his shoulders before turning back to me. "How did you find out?" He asks roughly. "Who told you?"
So I was right. I wait for Cassius to lift his hand from my mouth patiently. He truly seems unnerved. "No one told me," I say, confused by how harshly he is acting, "I figured it out myself."
He takes a deep breath as he studies me. I am still sandwiched between the wall and Cassius, but I am more unnerved at my positive reaction to the proximity if anything. I crave it a little too much. His stomach is hard over mine, pressing against me each time he breathes in.
"So I was right?" I ask, wanting to break the silence. "It was a test?"
After a few more moments of silence, he shakes his head. "Not the whole thing. You spurred the fight with Bart on all by yourself. That was a bit impromptu." He smiles ruefully and it is then that I notice the light bruise blooming along his jaw line. I wince and reach out to touch it slowly. The skin on his face is soft, the stubble growing along his jaw scratches at my fingertips.
"In my defense, I didn't ask either of you to start wailing on each other."
Cassius closes his eyes and shakes his head. "What am I going to do with you, Blondie?" he asks ruefully.
I pull my hand back and furrow my brow. "What's that supposed to mean?" I ask.
He opens his eyes and looks at me sadly. "I don't know," he says honestly, taking a step away from me.
The rest of the day, when I am not thinking of the gold of Cassius' eyes or my family back home, I am thinking of Alice and Mary. What was that little girl doing in such a rough environment? And what did she have to do with Alice? She knew her, obviously, by the way that she spoke of her. I want to ask Alice myself, but she seems so distant today, more distant than I've ever seen her. As she meticulously braids my hair, I bite my lip, warring whether or not I should say something to her. "Alice," I finally say.
Her gaze meets mine in the mirror. She is so small she has to stand on a stool to reach the top of my head as I sit on a chair in front of the vanity in my room. "Yes?" she responds, focusing her attention back to my hair.
I battle with myself in my head once again, finally deciding to save the question for later. "Do the girls get in trouble if they know about a test?" I ask.
She considers for a moment before saying, "Yes. They get disqualified."
My stomach sinks. That explains why Cassius was so furious that I had figured it out. But then that would mean that he cares whether or not I fail... I furrow my brow.
"Cassius tries to pretend that he has no feelings for anything or anyone, but you get to him. I can tell," she says, as if reading my mind. I stare at her, but she doesn't return my gaze. Instead, she focuses on my hair and sighs. "You are so adamant about going home, back to your family, but have you thought about what would happen to Neverland if you do?"
For once, I am speechless.
Once I am dressed in a peach frock and my hair has been styled into a messy braid, I wander the House until I find the Girl's Lounge. Kayla and Gabrielle are here, talking quietly. I walk in and sit down across from them, folding my legs underneath me on the large sofa. It is the first time I've seen Gabrielle interacting with anyone, including myself, since we've all come here.
Kayla's hair is naturally curly tonight and she is in a tight blue dress that brings out the shine in her eyes. Gabrielle's hair is long and straight down her back and she has been put into a white dress that makes her pale skin even more pale. She looks like a moon goddess.
As soon as I situate myself into a chair across from them, they both turn and stare at me.
I watch them for a while before I finally lean forward and say, "What are you two talking about?"
Their attention is back on me now, and, though there was nothing but curiosity in my tone, they seem honestly surprised at the question, almost offended.
"If you guys don't want to tell me, that's cool--"
Gabrielle huffs a sigh before I can say more and stretches her slender arms. "Look, it's obvious that Cassius has taken an interest in you. So just do us a favor and leave us alone to be cast out of the Manor in peace."
The silence stretches as I mull this over. "That's not true at all," I say, "he really hasn't. Honestly, he's just as crazy about you, or Kayla, or-"
And at that moment, the queen-bee herself walks in. Her dark hair is pinned on top of her head and she wears a purple gown that hugs her curves in all the right places. She is smiling brightly and her eyes have almost taken on a dream-like state. "Oh," she sighs, plopping herself down onto the chair next to mine, "isn't he just lovely?"
"Cassius?" I ask, knowing that Gabrielle and Kayla aren't really up for speaking civilly at the moment.
She smiles again and nods. "He's so gentle with me, like I'm his princess."
I furrow my brow. Was she talking about the same Cassius that leaves it to me to get myself out of creepy men's grasp and pulls me after him into near-death experiences?
"And such a good kisser," she adds, her smile widening.
My heart drops into my stomach and I try to keep a casual expression on my face. Inside I am screaming, though I refuse to dwell on why.
"Well, he is," she is indignant at our silence. "You guys have to at least give him that." She looks at each of us in turn.
"I wouldn't know," I finally say, trying to keep the sour taste out of my mouth.
She ignores me and looks at the two girls sitting on the couch across from us. "Well?" she pries.
They both grudgingly agree with Daphne after a few beats and I feel... distant. I feel like I am in the same drugged state that I woke to this world in. I stand, not wanting to be in this room any longer. "Well," I say, leveling my gaze on Gabrielle and Kayla, "at least now we know that I'm not as favored as you thought. See you all at dinner." With that, I leave the room.