No perfect moment lasts forever.
Even if some feel like they might.
As Bex and I came around the bend, we saw Jenn sitting on the hood of the car, messing with her phone. When she noticed us, I raised Bex’s hand high, like we were victors in some prize fight, which only made Bex laugh even harder. Jenn stood up, right there on the hood, and gave us a theatrical round of applause, and when Avery and Mark stumbled out of the car, they took one look at us and started whooping and hollering too.
We had done it. We had won. And the noise of us rejoicing was so loud that a dog in someone’s backyard started barking, and all the lights came on in the house we were parked near, so we made a hasty escape before a second person called the cops.
But the perfection of the moment still continued onwards. In a spur-of-the-moment decision -- and since we were all still way too keyed-up -- we drove to a diner to have a celebratory meal.
In both the backseat of the car and the booth at the diner, I kept wound up being squished between Bex and Jenn, but, like, I guess it made sense because I was basically the smallest and I didn’t want to get in between Mark and Avery. And really, I didn’t mind. It was… kind of nice? I felt like I really had friends. Friends who could still be super annoying, of course: Jenn obviously gave me a hard time about wearing the skirt, saying how cute I looked and such. She just had this smirk on her face, and that got Avery and Mark to chime in too with compliments, and even if they were only teasing, it genuinely felt nice to believe for a moment that I was cute and not trapped in my normal miserable appearance.
And then I had to tell the whole story about what had happened inside, catching everyone up. I kept trying to get Bex to help tell her side too, but she would just look at me with this soft smile and say that I was doing a good job, and then I’d blush and someone would have to remind me all over again what I had been talking about. And then I accidentally let slip the whole thing about using the name ‘Gwen’ and I thought everyone would be weird about it, but they were all... chill? Avery and Jenn didn’t even seem surprised in the least. Though Jenn kept making excuses to say stuff like, ‘Hey, Gwen, can I have some of your fries?’ and just smiling innocently at me as I stammered out a yes and I’m 90% sure it was just an excuse to steal my food, but that didn’t mean that it didn’t work.
Everyone particularly liked hearing the part where I told Bex’s dad to go fuck himself. They were so delighted that they made me tell it a few times, and I obliged, filling it in each time with increasing embellishment. Eventually the manager came over and told us it was a family restaurant and we really had to be quiet or leave, but in the process he called me ‘the young lady with the foul mouth’ and I started giggling right there in his face, and he thought I was mocking him. So long story short, all five of us are banned from Francine’s until further notice.
But that was all part of the perfect moment, too.
I think I only realized that the moment was over when we were halfway through the drive home. That’s when the adrenaline and silly energy started to wind down for everyone... when I looked around and realized that the caper was over, and we all had to continue on, somehow. I was in the middle of the back seat again, so close that I couldn’t help but constantly be brushing up against both Bex and Jenn, and as if the moment was a beautiful soap bubble that had suddenly popped, all my anxiety came back with a vengeance.
To my left, Bex was looking out the window, staring into the distance as street lights passed by. It didn’t take some kind of master therapist to guess what she was thinking about. She didn’t look anywhere near the lifelessness that she had shown at home, but resignation and sadness had started to creep back into her body language. I could tell.
I earnestly hoped she didn’t regret the decision she had made tonight. But even if she didn’t, I knew she still had to come to terms with what very well might be the complete loss of her relationship with her father. I wanted to give her another hug, but… removed from the intensity of the situation at her house, I felt newly aware of my own awkwardness. Any kind of physical touch seemed like it’d be unwelcome, crossing a boundary and making her feel worse. I wasn’t sure how to actually talk with her with everyone else in the car.
And then on the other side, Jenn was also looking melancholic, leaning her head against the window. Her eyes drifted back to Bex and me, but when she saw me looking, she coughed, and turned to look more directly out the window. In the process, whether accidental or purposeful, she pulled away slightly to create more space between us.
I didn’t know how to feel about that, either. I mean, my brain wanted to go to ‘ah, she just hates you,’ but this was Jenn. It was a weird comfort, but I knew that she would tell me if she hated me. She just seemed like she had something of her own on her mind. And now I realized that she had done so much for me, and yet what kind of friend had I been in return? When had I been there for her when she needed someone? Ugh. Once again, if it wasn’t for the people here too, I’d also ask her if she was okay, if there was anything I could do to help.
But instead, I sat in the middle between the two of them, doubts coming back home to roost inside me about… well, just about everything. This wasn’t uniquely terrible or anything. It was just… familiar. A sign that the magic had escaped somewhere along the way, and we were back in our more normal reality, where I was just a confused, frustrated person who wanted to be someone else, rather than the heroine who I got to be for one beautiful moment.
So I sat in silence, trying to come to terms with that until we arrived back at home. Back to real life.
And I knew: real life is always messy.
When we got back to our place, Avery dropped Jenn, Bex, and me off, and then headed out again to drive Mark home. There was no telling how long that would take, but I sort of appreciated having a bit of space -- it suddenly felt overwhelming enough to be around both Jenn and Bex without two other people to keep in mind.
But maybe even that was too much. As soon as we walked in the door, all of my anxious energy needed an outlet. I immediately offered to give Bex a tour, only to get distracted approximately every thirty seconds with some new worry.
This is the living room. Oh no, where would we find her a toothbrush? And clothes too? Here’s a kitchen. Did you want to put your backpack down? Oh, that should probably be in the living room. Should we contact the school in the hopes someone there could help? Or would that be where her dad would be looking for her? Here’s the living room again. We have a TV. You can watch TV on it. Um.
As I continued to spiral, Bex’s face adopted an increasingly glazed-over expression. Jenn watched us for a minute, and I guess recognized what was happening. Because eventually she intervened, telling me very firmly to go find a toothbrush while Bex had a minute to sit down.
I don’t know if that was really the most necessary task, or if she just needed to give me some direction to work off my nervousness, but it did weirdly help to be able to focus on one thing. After a bit of thought I remembered that extra toothbrush they always gave me when I went to the dentist, and even though I kind of had to scour my room to find it, it also gave me the opportunity to pick up some of my junk so it wasn’t quite so cluttered.
And sure, maybe that took twenty minutes or so, but when I came downstairs, things were a lot more quiet and calm. I found the two of them in the living room, having tea and sharing a murmured conversation that stopped as soon as they noticed me.
The two of them just looked at me. I nervously shifted in place, and then remembered my task. I held up the toothbrush in triumph, and Bex smiled in this soft, fond way that made my heart melt just a tiny bit. Totally worth it.
Jenn’s smile was a bit less bright. I really hoped that she wasn’t suddenly unhappy about the thought of sharing our space with someone new, even for a probably-temporary time.
“Everything okay?” I said, trying to keep my tone light, but looking at Jenn in particular.
“Yup,” she said. “Just great. I think maybe I should head to bed, though.” She smirked. “Don’t keep each other too late, girls.”
But something was weird. Her voice had a kind of familiar clipped tone. It was the same way she sounded when we were watching some TV show together, and making fun of it, but something I’d said actually bothered her, even if she didn’t want to admit it. She was good at trying to hide her feelings when she felt a little hurt. But I always knew, of course. That was usually my signal to reel it in, to take a different angle and try to cheer her up. I just didn’t know what she would be feeling now that—
And then she was gone, before I could dig any deeper. She slipped off to her room, leaving me alone with Bex.
My brain abruptly had to switch tracks, shifting over to an entirely different and equally confusing conundrum.
“Gwen,” Bex said, standing and nervously fiddling with the mug of tea in her hands. “I was thinking, maybe we should talk? About some stuff?”
“Of course,” I said, my heart racing. “No problem at all.”
I led Bex to my room, out of some kind of feeling that this should be a private conversation. And it wasn’t like anyone else was around, but if Avery showed back up, or if Jenn wanted to use the living room, or— Well, it just made sense to go to a more private location.
But at first, she didn’t say anything. Even with me having cleaned up a bit, I still winced as she looked around, taking in my still somewhat messy room with the anime posters and dirty clothes in a pile near the closet.
But she seemed to be smiling as she idly wandered over and flipped through the books and dvds sitting on my small desk. And then she turned and glanced at my bed -- which, thankfully, I’d also had the time to make -- and then at me again.
“And there was only one bed,” she murmured.
I blinked. “Huh?”
“Um,” she said, turning kind of pink. “Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”
“Oh, shit, yeah, you’re right. Um. But there’s the couch! You could— wait, no I can just sleep there for now, and you can take my bed. I mean, if you were okay with that. I could go wash the sheets now maybe, and—”
“Gwen,” she said. “It was a joke. I’m sorry. I’m just a bit nervous.”
“Oh.” I frowned. “Wait, why are you nervous?”
She looked at me for a long moment, chewing on her bottom lip. “Well, we— We need to talk. Right?”
“Right,” I said. “Let’s… um. Talk.”
And then we both stared at each other awkwardly.
Finally, Bex broke the silence with a sigh. “Okay, so, first: I’m just confused. Did you know it was me the whole time? Why didn’t you say anything?”
“No! I didn’t know. I would never—” I stopped, realizing how defensive that was.
I sounded like I was full of shit. Because I was. If not in specifics, in spirit at least. If I was going to do this, I wanted to tell her the whole truth, from the very beginning. If we were going to rebuild a relationship, it needed to be on solid ground. No more lies or deceptions.
“I guess it’s kind of hard to believe, but it was pure coincidence that it was your computer that I hacked.” I sounded kind of resigned now. I knew she wouldn’t want to hear this, but I had to say it. “It could have been anyone. At least anyone on campus, with an old enough laptop that I’d be able to install a trojan horse on. Through that, I spied on you a bit before we spoke the first time, and that’s when I saw you reading Twinkle Witch Academy fanfic. That’s why I posed as Nocturnia… because I watched the show too, and knew enough about it to figure that would get your attention.”
“Yeah,” she said. “That certainly worked.”
“My plan was just to mess with you. Which is cruel and sadistic, I know. I didn’t mean it to be particularly harmful, but I don’t know that I cared that much. Or at least I didn’t really think about the person on the other side of the screen.”
Bex’s eyes drifted down towards the floor. She wouldn’t look at me. I didn’t blame her.
“But then, when I asked you what your heart’s desire was… Well, I didn’t expect that answer. I didn’t really know how to deal with it. I couldn’t admit it at the time, but…” I took a deep breath. “That’s what I’ve always wanted too.”
She looked up at me, her eyes sharp. “And so that’s why you decided to help me?”
“Yeah.” I shifted uneasily in place. “I figured I would just play along and see where things went. I don’t really know what I expected… the plan never made much sense. But the further we got, the more I really started to care for you and want you to succeed.”
“Me as in Bex? Or Cerise?”
I shook my head. “I just knew you as Cerise. When I met you as Bex at anime club, and then later at the game night thing, I had no idea you were the same person. I just thought you were…” I trailed off, trying to find the words. I just thought you were hot as hell? Yeah, I couldn’t say that. Um. “I just knew that I had to get to know you better.”
Her expression was unreadable. “What about Jenn?”
“How was she involved?”
I shook my head. “She wasn’t.” And then I paused. “Well, not with you. She… she helped me work through my own issues and feelings with some stuff.” I smiled softly. “Sometimes through being direct and kind of mean, albeit in a helpful way, and sometimes through being far, far more patient than I really deserved. When I actually admitted everything to her, she called me a dumbass, but then immediately had my back to try and fix it. To fix...”
And here was the hardest part. The words caught in my throat, and I had to take a deep breath and try again.
“To fix how I fucked everything up. You probably figured this out, but I tried to contact you one day, and said a bunch of stuff. But the person on the other end wasn’t you. It was your father. I don’t know how…”
“He borrowed the laptop,” Bex said.
“Right, yeah. But I should have known better. I— It wasn’t until I realized what had happened, and I was freaking out about having outed Cerise that I started trying to figure out who Cerise actually was. Jenn helped talk me through it, and we went to find Mark to get him to help. But he was all worried about his friend, Bex, and eventually we put together the pieces, and… Well, you know the rest.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I do.”
“So. That’s it. I screwed it up, and yeah, I basically ruined your life. It doesn’t really matter if it was accidental or not. And of course, everything about the relationship from the beginning was based on a lie, and I get why you have no reason to want to trust me or be around me, but—”
I guess I was waving my arms around kind of wildly in my panic, as Bex interrupted me by reaching out and taking my hands in both of her own, forcing me to be still. I stared down, still shivering.
“Gwen,” Bex said. “Hey.”
I took a shuddering breath.
She looked back at me, and she was… smiling?
“I forgive you.”
“What? But I— I mean…”
Bex shrugged. “Look, you’re right. You treated me kind of shitty at first, and you really shouldn’t toy with other people for fun. You don’t do that anymore, right?”
My shoulders slumped. “No. I think I’ve learned my lesson.”
“Good,” she said with satisfaction. “But you also supported me and helped me. And okay, you outed me to my dad, and that really really sucked.” She paused. “I think I could still be pissed at you for that, but… just like I have the right to be upset, I also have the right to forgive you.”
I stared at her. “Really?”
“Just like that?”
She smirked. “Would it make you feel better if I made you buy me some ice cream or something?”
“Maybe,” I said. “And then we’d have ice cream.”
A sort of uncertain grin broke out on my face. “So we’re okay?”
“We’re okay. More than okay.”
I let out a sigh of relief, and she giggled a bit. God, it was really cute. She was really cute. Oh my god. And now she was looking at me in this weird way, her eyes half-lidded and an unfamiliar smile on her face.
“Oh, thank god,” I babbled, blushing a bit. ”You said we should talk and I just knew it had to be so that you could tell me that you never wanted to see me again and to just fuck off forever. I was all psyched up for this difficult conversation, and—”
“Oh,” she said. “That wasn’t the hard part.”
I blinked. “It wasn’t?”
“Maybe for you, I guess. Not so much for me.” She bit her lip in this way that made my heart skip a beat.
“I-I don’t think I understand.”
She pursed her lips. “Um. I mean, I guess on the ride home I thought through a lot of what had to have happened. I didn’t really know the specifics until now, but I think everything you said basically lines up with what I expected from what I know of you.”
“In a good way,” she hastily added. “I mean, I figured that this had to be more of a well-intentioned disaster than complicated evil plan.”
“Oh…” Yeah. She had me there.
“I’m messing this up, aren’t I?”
I shrugged. “Honestly, I’m still kind of lost.”
She hesitated, pained indecision apparent on her face. And then she swallowed, putting on a resolute expression as she nodded to herself in this absolutely adorable way.
She was still holding my hands in her own. I abruptly remembered this when she squeezed them gently. I looked down at them, and then up at her again. She was smiling gently, in this way that just scrambled my brain a bit.
“I, um…” She hesitated again, her cheeks suspiciously pink.
But at this point I was in full-on meltdown myself. I didn’t— She couldn’t be trying to say what I thought, could she? There was no way. What?
“Gwen, do you remember when we talked at game night?"
“Y-yeah,” I said.
“You, um, asked me out?” she said, sounding bashful.
“Yeah,” I said. I couldn’t meet her eyes. “You said no.” Shit. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought that up again. I think? Fuck.
“I said no because I was already falling for someone else, and I didn’t want to lead you on.”
Shit. I was reading too much into this.
She was just trying to let me down gently. Again. And I, the consummate creep, was using it as an excuse to get my hopes up and get all creepy about my uninvited feelings about her again.
She didn’t seem to notice my increasing panic. “I had a crush on a person I was talking to online,” Bex said. “She told me her name was Nocturnia.”
“Right,” I said, a bit morosely.
Yeah, that figured.
A long moment passed.
And my head snapped up to stare at her. “Wait, I’m Nocturnia!”
She giggled, sending another thrill through my chest. “Yeah. You are.”
I stared at her, trying to double-check the mental math, because the thing it was adding up to couldn’t possibly be real.
My face had to be absolutely red right now. I felt like I was overheating.
She grinned, watching me come to terms with what she was saying. “Okay, so you told me to be selfish, right? I still have trouble committing to that, but I’m going to ask for something selfish one more time.” Her smile faded for a brief second. “And then I’m going to be unselfish again, because that’s who I am, too, and I think that’s still important.”
“Selfish part first,” she said firmly. “Gwen, would you please stop freaking out and kiss me already.”