Muted chatter flooded the air of the regal, extravagant room. Expensive materials fluttered around crowded bodies, which mingled throughout the house. The smell of high-end food wafted through from the kitchen a few French doors away. I did my best to float amongst the crowd, the deep violet silk of my cocktail dress billowing around my legs and grazing the floor. My smile was plastered on and set to extra-dazzling, and it only widened when my eyes fell upon Brent standing by the door with his parents. I pushed a loose piece of chocolate hair back towards the elaborate twist I had spent an hour perfecting, and my pumps clicked against the hardwood as I made my way towards them.

“You came,” I squealed, pulling him into my scrawny arms, trying to make sure he was real. A friendly face was exactly what I needed in this world of satin and gold. I needed someone real.

He slowly wrapped his own arms around my torso, his lips flicking into a grin as he watched me. After I was positive he wasn't going anywhere I pulled away, offering my hand politely to his parents. They beamed at me, greeting me like their own child.

“Oh, Rylan, dear, you look stunning,” Cassandra gushed, her golden locks falling into warm brown eyes lined with thick lashes.

“You’ve grown up so much,” Joel remarked, straightening his crimson tie before running a hand through his cropped caramel hair. I could feel my cheeks turning the same color of said tie and shifted my weight between my feet; I felt a nostalgic moment coming. “I mean, I remember when you were just a little girl, running around the office—“

“Joel, let’s not embarrass the poor girl. How about we find the hosts,” Cassandra said, winking at me before dragging him through the maze of people. I sent her a last thankful look as they waved goodbye for now.

With a sigh of relief, I leaned against the banister of the winding staircase, my eyes trained on Brent. Adults passed us without so much as a second glance, which was completely fine by me anyway. Brent leaned next to me, his cyan eyes never leaving my face.

“You have nothing to be nervous about,” he said calmly before looking up at the high ceilings.

I could feel my lips parting, and I cocked her head at him; anyone else at the party would have seen me as calm or happy. The smile hadn't left my glossed lips yet, and there was no way he could tell anything was wrong... Right?

“I’m fine,” I protested, settling my hands on my hips as I tried to read his expression.

A cocktail ring on my middle finger caught in the chandelier light, casting off rainbows across the dimly lit room. Brent watched the lights dance across the ceiling and I twisted it nervously, covering it with my hand until the rainbow spots disappeared.

“No, you want everyone to think you are. But I can tell you’re anxious, because your hands are trembling,” he said matter-of-factly.

I wrinkled my nose and stuck my tongue out at him. So maybe, just maybe, he knew me better than I gave him credit for. He chuckled, shaking his head slightly before I looked away. I started to people watch, not quite ready to face him when I spoke again.

“Okay, you win, I'm a wreck. Haven’t you heard?”

“Heard what?”

I opened my mouth to answer the question, but I was cut off by the gush of hot air spewing from another mouth. As a matter of fact, it was the she-devil herself. She hadn't even given me the chance to say her name three times, or whatever the hell the folk-lore was.

“Rylan Marie! There you are! Mom and Dad have been looking everywhere for you!”

We immediately turned our heads to face the tall, raven-haired girl who emitted the shriek. Her black dress encased every curve perfectly, the hemline almost too high, making her thin legs appear miles long; the four-inch heels of her black booties didn’t hurt either. One tapped against the floor as her arms crossed over her chest, heart lips pursed, turquoise eyes ringed in black as they glared oh-so lovingly at me. My very own darling older sister, in the flesh.

“Well, I’ve been here the whole time. Greeting the guests, like they told me to,” I responded slowly.

In my head I was trying to count to ten and not get into a full blown fight with Aven in the middle of some important, fancy business party. Brent looked at his gleaming charcoal dress shoes instead of the intense stare down before him. If I could have done the same, I would have. Then, as if she could read my thoughts, Aven's eyes flickered over to Brent and a devious smile graced her lips.

“Whatever. Oh, hey Brentley, I didn’t see you there.”

Oh, like hell she didn't.

He reluctantly met with the icy eyes, trying not to cringe at the way her voice had transformed to sugar-sweet in moments. He was one of the only people well aware of her viciousness towards me and everyone else in the damn world. In fact, he disliked her almost as much as I did, which is saying something.

“Nice to see you again, Aven,” he mumbled awkwardly, shrugging at me helplessly. I tried to hold back my annoyance and chewed on the inside of my cheek.

“I cannot believe you’re still hanging around my baby sister. I mean, I wouldn’t if I were you,” Aven said pointedly, before giggling lightly and turning on her stiletto. “Great seeing you.”

Yeah, great is the word I would use. Just fan-freaking-tastic seeing her, too.

We watched her figure retreating, hips swinging, long black plait swaying down her back. I could feel Brent's eyes on me, his eyebrows knitting together in concern. I let all the air burst suddenly from my lungs, squeezing my shimmering eyelids shut for a moment in an attempt to regain some sort of peace. After I felt composed enough, I pushed myself into a straight standing position, another smile plastered across my lips by the time my eyelids fluttered open. Now wasn't the time or place for a meltdown.

“I have to go find my parents. You gonna wait here?” I could hear the slight strain against my otherwise cheerful voice. Brent watched me with wide, worried eyes.

“You know, you don’t have to take that from her,” he replied, completely ignoring my question. I sighed, but the smile still never left my lips as I turned away from him and faced the crowd I was about to enter.

“Well, what am I going to do about it? She’s been doing it all of my life, why stop her fun now?” Sarcasm dripped from every syllable as I pursed my lips and took in a shaky breath. It was harsh, but complete reality.

“I don’t understand it, Ry. Why do you always let her do that?” Brent’s voice was soft as his head tilted to the side. I knew he meant well, but I really didn't want to have this conversation right now.

“Who’s going to stop her? She never takes anything I say seriously, and Mom and Dad think I’m overreacting. She never says anything around them, so I just look like I’m making false accusations.” I sighed, running a hand over my face. “I have to go see what they wanted.”

I gracefully made my way to the sun room and found my parents at the bar with some friends. Brent trailed behind me, and the only reason I knew was because I heard him mumbling apologies to people he cut off or bumped into. He was obviously not quite ready to give up on the conversation. It made no difference though, because I was finished with it and already pretending it never happened, just like with everything else. I slowed my walk as I approached them, a bigger, brilliant smile gracing my face.

“Rylan, there you are,” Mom said warmly, wrapping an arm around my shoulders. I leaned into her and allowed her to kiss the top of my head. I took in the smell of her flowery perfume mixed with the subtle smell of wine. Like always, it managed to comfort me a bit, and made my smile a little less fake.

Standing side by side, it was impossible to deny that I was her spitting image, where as Aven had gotten our father's eyes and hair. Mom and I had the same chocolate hair, same eerie, silver eyes, same scrawny frame, and more. I looked over at my mom's other side, where my father stood proudly, talking animatedly to some of the guests. Aven leaned against the window a few feet away.

“We were just telling them how you got the solo for honors choir,” Dad added, his clear blue eyes sparkling enthusiastically. His thin lips formed a lopsided beam, the flawless white of his teeth setting off the golden tone of his skin. Mom and Dad had always made a handsome couple, to say the least.

“It’s really not that big of a deal,” I brushed off. The blood was rushing to my cheeks, undoubtedly turning them the carnation color of my mother’s dress.

“Of course it is, sweetie. The choir is selective as is, but this just shows our baby girl is the best of the best,” Mom countered, pride filling her warm, velvet voice.

“I mean, not even Aven got into it,” Dad teased, and inside my head I screamed in horror.

As the words escaped into the air, tension filled it. Aven’s eyes narrowed dangerously at me and I gulped against my will. Luckily, no one but Brent, Aven, and I noticed, though, as the conversation went on around us. Aven slammed back the bubbling liquid in her long-stemmed glass, setting it on the counter for a refill before a wicked smile turned her lips. I could feel my hands shaking, this time not from the crowd, but from my own fear for the repercussions of our father's words.

“Well, I didn’t have the luxury of time to practice singing like Ry. I mean, I was student body president, cheer captain, and valedictorian,” Aven said sharply, raising her eyebrows at me. “What are you again, Ry?”

“None of those,” I whispered and forced my lips to stay curved in a grin. All I wanted to do was curl into a ball right there, or at least dig myself into a hole under a rock somewhere and cry. Aven's shot had hit the intended target full force. Then again, her shots always did.

“That’s what I thought.” The adults continued to laugh, their alcohol-blurred brains missing the too-snappy tones and glances. In a way, I had expected nothing less.

“I’m sorry, Aven, but last time I checked, you were 19, not 21,” Brent blurted out suddenly, his airy voice clouded by a dangerous undercurrent as he motioned with his head to the glittering glass she held haphazardly. My eyes widened as I hit him lightly, but he ignored me. Instead, his eyes stayed trained on Aven's, which were furious.

Aven glared as he pulled me away. His hand was looped around my thin wrist, and he flawlessly wove us through the labyrinth of people. He led us upstairs, and neither of us said a word until we stepped foot into my bedroom.

“Rylan, are you okay?” he asked, closing the oak door of my bedroom gently behind him.

I walked over to my bed and sat on the edge, my hands grasping at the olive comforter tightly. Brent made his way beside me. Neither of us looked at each other; I was too embarrassed and he was focused on the imprints my heels had left in the beige carpeting. When we came in, we hadn't bothered to turn on the ceiling light, but the midnight blue walls were illuminated by fairy lights I had strung across them during freshmen year, and I watched them instead. They always reminded me of fireflies, or stars.

“Don’t worry about it,” I murmured, sniffling a bit.

My index finger swiped under my eyes desperately, trying not to allow my mascara to run. I had worked too damn hard on my makeup and appearance tonight to let Aven ruin that for me as well. Both of us were silent for awhile, looking at everything but each other. The silence wasn't overbearing or awkward though; with us, it never was. It gave my mind a chance to wander off into every comment or resentful thing Aven had said or did to me. The list was endless, really, and made the pit in my stomach bigger.

“How do you do it, Ry?” Brent whispered, his voice reaching out and snapping me out of the dark part of my mind.

“Do what?” I asked, my voice puzzled.

I looked at him from the corner of my eye, cocking an eyebrow. He ran a hand through his sandy curls, causing them to stick into random directions. Usually, I would've had some sort of joke or comment, but I was too drained for even that.

“How do you manage to smile and look happy, even when you’re being attacked like that?”

His eyes gazed intently at me, pure curiosity seeping through every letter he spoke. I turned my head slightly so I was looking directly into him and facing all of his questions. I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. The answer was something people couldn't understand until they have been put through the situation themselves.

“I have to. I have no other choice.”

“What do you mean?”

A twitch tugged at one corner of my lips, and I gave him a sad smile. There was no explaining it more than that, and I couldn't even attempt it now. Instead, I pushed myself off of the bed and left him there, confused and watching after me, his unanswered question hanging in the air.
♠ ♠ ♠
Updates should come semi-quick for a little, since I still have the outlines basically for all the chapters I had posted. Comments are always appreciated and welcome (:

xxxo, Sara