“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this.” Crystal wandered aimlessly through the dusty overstuffed costume shop. She had no idea how Flint had found the place. It was tucked in an alley a few miles from the Academy in an area of town that Crystal never went to.
“Come on, it’ll be fun.” Flint’s voice floated to Crystal, even though she had lost sight of her almost as soon they had entered the shop.
“Fun must mean something different on Earth.”
The costumes on the rack in front of her parted and Flint’s face appeared in the opening. “You already promised Justin you would go so we both know it’s too late to back out now. So just try to find something you like.” Flint turned, letting the clothing she had pushed aside fall back into place.
Crystal made her way to the glass display case full of masks at the back of the store. She had to start somewhere. Journey’s crew had spent the last week participating in Legacy Week at the Academy. It was a chance for students in their fifth and sixth year to start making connections with important members of the military. Crystal had spent the week giving guest lectures and mentoring engineering students. She was happy to participate, but the whole thing had left her exhausted. She had been looking forward to retreating to the relative solitude of the ship when Justin had cornered. He had just heard about the Appreciation Ball the Academy students put on as a way to thank those participating in Legacy Week. He looked so excited there was no way she could say no. She only wished the students had picked something other than spirit animal masquerade as the theme.
The last time she had attended the event was as a fifth-year student. Ryan had been on the Ball committee and had convinced them to go with the theme Underwater Moonlight. She had been missing Homestead Colony a lot and he had chosen the theme to remind her of her childhood home. She could still picture the elegance of the ballroom and the love she felt in Ryan’s arms. If only she had known that it was the beginning of the end for them. Ryan’s father had kept pulling her away to introduce her to high ranking officers. At the time, it had just seemed like an inconvenient annoyance, it was what Legacy Week was supposed to be about after all, but looking back on it she was sure that was when Ryan’s jealousy had started to grow. A jealousy that would end up pushing him towards the Purification Movement and away from her. She chose not to attend the ball in her sixth year.
“I found the perfect dress for you.” Flint emerged from the racks of clothing with two dresses draped over her arm and a wicked smile on her face.
Crystal prayed the neon pink one wasn’t for her. To her immense relief Flint held up a long black gown with a fitted bodice that flowed freely from the waist down. It took Crystal a second to realize that long black feathers covered the dress with a few teal green ones woven into the skirt. A small smile crossed Crystal’s lip. Flint was right, it was perfect.
“Do you even know what animal it is?” Crystal asked with a small laugh.
“No, but it’s elegant and understated, like you.”
“We call it a Nigari.” Crystal took the dress from Flint’s hand.
“It loosely translates to night raptor. It’s probably one of the most strategic hunters on Neophia. They tend to live in small groups along the coast and are fiercely protective over their clans.” Crystal turned back to the glass case and began to study it more carefully. She saw a speck of teal peeking out from beneath a pile of masks. She opened the top of the case and pulled out the mask. Like the dress is was covered in black feather and had two long teal feathers wrapping around the head from the corner of each eye opening.
“I’m afraid to ask what your spirit animal is.” Crystal turned back to Flint and eyed the pink and purple sequenced dress in her hand.
Flint turned to the open case and pulled out a purple cat mask and held it up to her face. “The Cheshire cat,” she said with a hiss. “You know from Alice in Wonderful. My mom would read it to me as a kid, at least on the nights that she was there when I went to bed.”
“It suits you. If we are actually going to go to this party we better get going though. It starts in an hour.”
The ballroom was one of Crystal’s favorite rooms at the Academy. Its floor to ceiling windows allowed for amazing views of the ocean and the LAWON docks in the distance. The party was already well underway by the time Crystal and Flint got there. They had told the guys that they would meet them there. Crystal scanned the room for Justin, but it was hard to pick him out among the sea of elaborate masks. The whole thing made her slightly uneasy. She didn’t like the idea of not knowing who was standing next it her.
“It’s about time you guys showed up. I was beginning to think Crystal made a run for it,” Grady said from behind a bight orange fox mask.
“Perfection takes time,” Desi said. “Oh, you can’t be serious.”
Crystal turned and saw Justin and Tyler walking towards them. Tyler was dressed in a purple suit with a pink cat mask covering most of his face. It was almost identical to Flint’s. If Crystal was honest with herself, she thought Tyler pulled it off better. To Crystal’s surprise Flint didn’t turn to Tyler, instead she focused in on Justin. Crystal looked him over but couldn’t see anything in the slim cut gray suit and fur covered mask Justin wore to cause Flint’s exclamation.
“You came dressed as a wolf?” Desi said.
“What’s wrong with that?” Justin said. “You know I worked with the wolves at the nature sanctuary back home.”
“Yes but,” Desi looked from Justin to Crystal and back again. “Oh, you’re hopeless.” She threw up her hands, grabbed Tyler by his overlarge pink tie, and lead him away.
It took a second for Crystal register Flint’s meaning. Crystal had a vague memory of someone telling her that her last name was actually an animal on Earth but she was a child at the time and didn’t have any interest in looking into it further. She looked Justin over again and gave him a sly smile. Whatever he was dressed as there was no denying that he looked good in it.
“How about a dance?” Justin stepped forward and gently took her hand.
“Of course.” Crystal lead him to the middle of the dance floor. A moment later she was wrapped up in his arms swaying to the mixed ensemble playing in the corner. She had to hand it to the students, they had really gone all out this year.
“Have I told you how amazing you look tonight,” Justin whispered in her ear.
“No, you haven’t.”
“Well you do.”
“You don’t look so bad yourself.” Crystal pulled away from him slightly so she could see his face. In that moment, she was the happiest she had been in a long time. Everything just felt right when she was with Justin. Like she was exactly where she was meant to be.
“About what Desi said. You know that I didn’t dress like this because of your name. It honestly never even occurred to me. I hope it doesn’t bother you.”
Crystal gave him a soft kiss in response. “Of course not. I honestly thought she was upset that Tyler showed up matching her.” Crystal glanced over Justin’s shoulder and saw Flint and Tyler dancing on the edge of the dance floor. They looked slightly uncomfortable and that they were made for each other all at the same time.
“Mind if I break in for a moment.” Grady slide up between them.
Crystal flashed Justin an apologetic smile before turning to Grady. She owed him at least one dance, it was a tradition every time they went out together. Instead of taking her hand, Grady held up two glasses of punch. “What’s this?” she asked.
Crystal took the glass and took a cautious sip. She wasn’t prepared for burning sensation that filled her throat. “What did you do?” she asked nearly choking on her words.
“I added a little something extra.” Grady patted his breast pocket.
“You spiked the punch. Jim there are students here.”
“Not all of it, just our glasses.” He gave Crystal a wink. “Now you two love birds have a good time.”
Crystal rolled her eyes, and drained her glass before handing it back to Grady. Justin did the same. Grady tilted his head in a bow and spun away, but not before whispering in Crystal’s ear, “he suits you.” Crystal watched him disappear into the crowd.
Before Justin had a chance to take her hand again, a high-pitched beeping sounds filled the room. Crystal pulled her communicator out of the small purse she had on her wrist. It was an emergency alert. Crystal read it quickly Space shuttle destined for Earth bombed. Multiple casualties. More to follow. She looked around the room trying to spot the rest of her team. The music had stopped and all around the ball room people were gathering in small groups, communicators in hand.
Flint, Tyler, and Grady were by her side in second. They were all looking at her for some kind of direction. “We should head back to Journey. I have a car.”
“You didn’t come here on you bike?” Grady said.
“In this dress, are you kidding.”
“It wasn’t for a lack of trying,” Flint interjected.
“Let’s just go.” Crystal took Justin’s hand as they made their way to the door.
Oh, and in case you are wondering, this story falls between Book 2, Family Binds, and Book 3, Thicker Than Blood, in The Journey Missions timeline.
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