Somewhere along the line, Iko, Scarlet, and Cinder had disappeared, leaving Cress alone in the corner, awkwardly pressed against the wall and trying not to draw attention to herself.
She had inched her way to the snack table, and was now filling herself a cup of punch, carefully balancing the ladle so that it wouldn't spill over.
Eyes narrowed in concentration- because apparently, she could hack into the government no problem, but stars forbid she actually do anything that required a shred of grace or poise- she filled her cup, before raising it to her lips and taking a sip.
It was far too sweet, and she wrinkled her nose in distaste, just as a voice said, "I wouldn't drink that if I were you."
Whirling around, Cress nearly dropped her punch- it was Carswell who had spoken. Smiling at her, he reached and took the plastic cup out of his hand before setting it down on the table. His hand brushed against hers at the motion, and Cress felt her cheeks burn as red as the punch.
"Oh, uh, hi," she stammered.
He just laughed. "Having fun?"
"Not really," Cress admitted, biting her lip and grimacing slightly at the sickly sweet taste of the pink gloss Iko had applied there.
Carswell's lips flipped into a frown. "Why not?" he asked, sounding genuinely concerned.
"It's hot. And it's loud and..." I can't dance. She trailed off, averting her gaze.
Carswell shook his head. "Well, we can't have that. Do you want to step outside for a breath of fresh air?"
"What?" Cress frowned. "Oh, no, I'll be fine..."
"Nonsense," Carswell proclaimed, and even amidst Cress's protests, he grabbed her hand and gently tugged her towards the door.
The coolness of the night air was comforting, Cress had to admit as they stepped out of the gym.
It was quieter, too, though her ears still rang. They were out by Luna Academy's swim team pool, the water still and clear as it reflected the moonlight. It may have just been a rectangular lap pool, but Cress thought it looked beautiful.
"Better?" Carswell asked, releasing her hand.
"Yeah," Cress said quietly. "Thanks."
They stood in silence for a while, Cress not sure what to say. She wanted to tell him that she was fine, to go back inside and have fun, but for some reason, she couldn't bring herself to say it.
So she didn't.
Carswell wasn't even mad. He was usually the life of the party, but right now, even as he stole a glance towards the gym...
He didn't mind being where he was- outside with Cress by the pool. It was surprisingly nice. Though the nicest part was probably how good she looked in that dress- an elegant blue piece that made her legs look longer, somehow.
He reached over to adjust the flower crown on her head, seeing as it had slipped a little sideways.
"Anyway," he said, "I'm guessing school dances aren't your forte?"
"Not at all," she replied, offering the smallest of smiles.
Carswell smiled back, opening his mouth to speak once more. But he was cut off by a shrill shriek following the sound of the door banging open.
"Carswell Thorne, you complete and utter jerk!"
He whirled around and saw a girl- if she wasn't so angry he would have noticed how pretty she was- storming towards him.
Oh, stars. It was Blakely, one of the girls he'd promised to go with. And if Blakely knew, then aces and spades- that meant Destiny and Athena and maybe even Elia might know too.
"You told me," Blakely continued, "that you weren't going. That you had to help your sick grandmother. That I would be the first person you asked if you became available."
Carswell forced himself not to look at Cress as he put his hands up in surrender. "Sorry, Blakely." He quickly tried to fabricate a lie. "I was going to find you, and I just got lost..."
"With her?" Blakely asked, arching a brow as she pointed to Cress.
Only then did Carswell glance over at her. Her sky blue eyes were widened in confusion and shock- and perhaps even a little betrayal.
"Listen, Blakely," Carswell tried again.
She cut him off. "Oh, no. I am done listening to you. You did the same thing last year with our group project- don't think I forgot." She lowered her voice to mimic his. "'Oh, sure, Blakely, I'd love to work with you.' Until you blew me off for Kate Fallow, of all people. So I am done listening. I am done talking to you." She had stepped closer to him with each word, and now they were face to face.
Unfortunately, it didn't look like he was getting a kiss. He braced himself for her voice- stars, she was loud- or a slap in the face.
She shoved him, hard.
Catching him by surprise, Carswell did not have time to regain his balance. Not before he stumbled back, his foot catching a slippery spot near the edge of the pool, before, arms flailing, he tumbled into the water.
Winter was sitting at one of the tables fringing the dance floor with Jacin, sipping her punch even though the sickly sweet taste of it was making her head rush.
"Can we dance?" she asked him hopefully.
Jacin arched a skeptic brow. He didn't even have to say anything for Winter to know the answer.
"Please," she said, batting her eyelashes. It worked with most people.
Jacin was not most people. "I don't dance."
Winter huffed out a small sigh. She wanted to go and find Iko and Scarlet—maybe they would dance with her— but she couldn't just leave Jacin.
Springing to her feet suddenly, she grabbed Jacin's hand in her own without thinking of the implications that might have. "Come on," she said, tugging him gently towards the dance floor.
Stiffly, he stood up and walked with her, though she could tell he wasn't pleased.
Winter twirled into the crowd, lavender skirt swirling around her legs. She spun across the floor, letting the music carry her away. Jacin's hand was stiff in hers, and she was suddenly acutely aware of that.
They were holding hands.
Though she didn't want to, Winter let go.
Cress had forgotten she didn't know how to swim.
That would have been nice to remember before she'd practically leapt into the pool after Carswell. Cold water engulfed her, and her arms flailed as the now-sodden fabric of her dress threatened to drag her down.
Why had she even done this? What hadn't she thought about it before?
She knew why, deep down. Seeing that look on Carswell's face, a look of utter shock and disbelief, had been jarring. Cress had hardly ever seen him wear an expression other than his confident, charismatic smirk. But the look on his face when that girl—Blakely—had pushed him had been one of pure terror.
Splashing wildly, Cress struggled to stay afloat. Carswell had no problems, quickly regaining his composure and pushing himself out of the pool in smooth, easy strokes. It only further reminded Cress what a dumb idea this had been in the first place.
She tried to paddle to the edge, but her foot, still clad in those awful heels, snagged in the lane line.
Carswell took off his jacket, trying in vain to wring some of the water out. It was only then that he remembered to look for her.
"Cress!" he called, the panicked look returning once more. He put down his jacket, racing to the edge of the pool once more.
"I'm fine," Cress panted as she used the lane line to tug herself to the wall. She had kicked off her caught shoe, though her foot now felt raw. Once she reached the edge, she attempted to pull herself out of the water.
"Here," said Carswell gently, grabbing her arm and pulling her onto the ledge beside the pool.
"Thanks," she said, wringing the water out of her dress as she stared forlornly at the wayward lane line, her shoe still caught in the middle.
"Anyway," Carswell sat down beside her, placing his head in his hands before he took a deep breath and looked up. "I guess I owe you an explanation."
"Blakely's an old friend," he started, though even that didn't feel right. Blakely was just one of the many girls who had a crush on him.
"A f-friend?" Cress asked. She was shivering.
"It's complicated," Carswell replied, putting an arm around her without thinking. He was still soaking too, though, so it probably wouldn't do much to help.
"D-did you t-tell her you w-would go to the b-ball with her?" Cress asked. There was a hint of accusatory tone in her words.
"Maybe," Carswell said with a sigh.
Her blue eyes narrowed slightly.
"Fine. Yes. I told her, and I told Destiny, and I told Elia, and I told Athena," he rambled off the names of the girls. "And I told them all that I wasn't going to go, but they'd be the first I'd ask if I did."
He honestly didn't even know why he had ended up coming in the first place. It had been a disaster waiting to happen.
Cress's reply was not what he expected. "If you had all those offers, why did you come and find me?'
"I—" for once, Carswell had no words. "I don't know. I just wanted to spend time with you."
She averted her gaze, looking away. "Oh," she said in a small voice. "Well, I'm sorry."
He laughed at the irony of it. "You're sorry?"
She just nodded.
"Cress. You of all people should not be sorry. I did this to myself," he said. "I should be the one apologizing to you." he dragged a hand through his hair, shaking his head. "Anyway, I'm going to head inside. You want to come?"
"I think I'm just going to stay out here for a bit."
Carswell frowned, but didn't push. He'd already messed up enough things tonight. "Okay," he said, standing up. "See you later, then."
Cress nodded, offering him a small smile.
And with that, Carswell headed back into the gym.
He couldn't help but look back, to see her smile one more time.