The Last Emperors.
Chapter Sixteen: A masked mess.
By Jolie Adam
Laurent waited for the excitement to dissolve and for the dampness in his palms to evaporate. He pondered briefly about heading back out to the tent where Larry was but decided against it. The night was young and the party just began so it was only a matter of time until they faced each other. He looked back once to see if Larry was coming but his twin wasn’t in the immediate vicinity. The lobby of the Shori mansion was decorated in black and pink colors with an elephant standing right in the middle wearing the party’s theme colors on its disproportionate head. A photographer was positioning two guests in front of the wild animal before moving away to capture the interesting shot. He smiled to himself, mostly because he’d never seen an actual elephant before and he quickly wondered about the likeliness of this giant monstrosity freaking out after about the thousandth flashing light and lashing out at some unsuspecting guest. He shook his head and played it off by removing his cap and shaking out his braids. Sharing the same hairstyle as Larry made him reminisce about their childhood and all the matching outfits they had to endure for the sake of their mother’s sheer joy. He was about to cross the bridge that led to the indoor banquet hall where the party was being held when a guard stopped him and pointed to a sign in glitter pink against a black headboard. “No unveiled faces past this bridge.” Past the wide bridge, he could see the familiar way the two floor levels decussated and the many people scattered around reveling in the expensive tastes and delightful accents exposed throughout the home. While many new faces struggled to keep their jaws from dropping in awe, he found the surd extravagance completely normal. In fact, he was surprised there weren’t acrobats hanging down from the ceiling in a synchronised set blowing glitter on bypassing company.
The guard moved to shield someone else from entering. The sign was very obvious in size and visibility however most people were so eager to enter the house and probably just distracted by the sight of the elephant they’d just witnessed in the lobby. Laurent removed his fluorescent pink mask with caution out of his front pocket. He’d settled on the color much to the disapproval of Larry who chose a classic, neat black one in a Zorro-like style. Placing it carefully as if it was a full piece mask, he moved his hat to the inside of his belt and made his way across the bridge.
One of the girls handing out the goodie bags in the tent was a total cutie. Japanese with plump lips and long jet black hair, she tickled Larry’s sense of international curiosity. She was flirting with him, showing him the many utilities of the black diamond encrusted Swiss watch in his personalized gift bag. With slanted eyes emphasized by the dramatic thick cat eye, she still looked fairly young so although he was flirting back, he was keeping it as innocent as he could muster. Ever since that unexpected outcome after what was supposed to be a fun, gratifying, quick tryst with Tatiana, Larry stayed mindful and slightly paranoid of everything he did pertaining to women. There was so much riding on her confidentiality. His entire career was at risk because of one silly mistake he’d made. And to make it worse, she’d gone ahead to blurted it out to someone. How else would Tokyogirl know? Or perhaps she’d meant something else? Maybe she was referring to Dawn? But how would she know that either? It wasn’t like his saint of a brother had divulged The Last Emperors’ big secret to anyone else but him. And he’d been so preoccupied over the last few weeks to digest the information let alone actually spread it. It was all a mystery and quite frankly, Tokyo was getting a little too small and creepy for him. He was ready to head back to the liberal nation he was accustomed to. He heard the crowd molesting TLE’s privacy with a slew of questions which is when he turned around and first saw them. Of the few times he’d seen them before, this time he really saw them. Perhaps because he knew what he knew. Who they were. He had that power, to run out there and strip them in front of the tabloids without having to touch or speak to them. But Laurent was right. He’d never do that. If not only for the sake of respecting their craft then for the sake of Dawn. For the consideration and care he held for her despite it being unreciprocated. He could’ve left and made his way in but he chose to wait. If Dawn was going to see him and walk past him without a word, he wanted to witness it firsthand. And he didn’t have to wait much longer.
After a few coy answers and establishing a sense of camaraderie and decorum with the many bloggers and journalists grilling them and dashing out questions after questions, The Last Emperors bowed in unison as a known Japanese sign of respect and civility before stepping into the tent. Besides, a well-known socialite had just arrived and was willing to give the tabloids a lot more conversation than they could afford to. Although Julia spotted Larry first, Lorra actually froze when she saw him, thinking momentarily that he was Laurent. Julia didn’t need to worry about Dawn. She was the eldest of the group, the motherly one, the practical one, the mature one. Bumping into an ex was always inconvenient but it didn’t have to be theatrical. Without saying anything, Dawn approached him and they gave each other quick hugs. Nothing peculiar or unusual, had the two groups not been feuding. Julia and Lorra exchanged rapid masked glances before grabbing their gift bags and heading in.
“I don’t want to intrude but I just want to know. You gonna be okay?” Julia asked casually.
“Yeah. If Julia can handle it, so can I, right?” She’d meant for the question to seem rhetorical but it came out determined, seeking reassurance.
“Well, I don’t know anything other than what you’ve told me which isn’t a lot but Lo….I think it was more serious between you two. I mean those two overgrown chumps,” she said motioning to Larry and Dawn, “They were just hooking up, eating together, hooking up, gossiping, hooking up. Did I mention hooking up?” Lo chuckled and rolled her eyes behind the mask, “I think you really felt something for this kid. Like some serious feelings. Maybe because of who he is or maybe just because he’s the first guy you liked in forever. I know we joke and punk you for liking him but he’s a nice guy. You already told him who you are. The truth was the hardest part. But maybe you should just tell him how you really feel.”
If her face wasn’t concealed by the group’s signature mask, Julia would’ve seen just how horrified she looked getting advice from her. It wasn’t untrue but she was getting advice from Julia. Who would’ve thought it?
“We’ll see if he even acknowledges me.”
“Obviously he still likes you. You didn’t really do anything that bad and you don’t stop liking someone that quickly unless they seriously messed up. I think if he was really mad, everyone here would already know who we are.”
Lorra nodded. They’d just gone through hoops of fire worth of questions about their identity. Assuming Les Twins were already here, their secret could’ve been a filed artifact by the time of their arrival.
“Alright. I need to get my shit together if you’re the one giving me advice. Sensible advice at that.”
“You don’t know nothing about this size-2-Oprah!”
They laughed together, taking in the sizable elephant staring at them, inviting them to come closer. The photographer waved them over noticing their physical interest and sensing a phenomenal shot of the masked duo serving as a contrasting ornament.
The party started an hour and a half ago and it was going full throttle when Laurent made it to the banquet hall. Frosted pink lights and dark, gothic chandeliers gave the large venue an air of girlish romance and obscure maturity. It resembled an infinite den of lust, murky with the dim lighting and the small but present sense of neon femininity. The two colours, despite not seeming like a good combination, were ideal together, longing to change the other, brighten the somberness of the black and attenuate the incandescence of the pink. Fancy masks from different yet original concepts graced the fine features of the many guests, floating freely from one part of the room to another. The grand entrance had already been made since there was confetti and glitter residue on the floor. Everyone seemed elegant despite having only parts of their face visible, exuding a silent candor that came with wealth and being indulged in an experience like this one. Being in the Shori house alone felt like a museum expedition so this party was the icing on top of the icing. Laurent swirled to the music, a moody song taking over to offer a pause to those who’d been dancing to the last five tunes. He’d heard them all and was tempted to join the crowd but took time to absorb the surroundings. So of course, in his natural rebellious streak, he chose to dance to the one song that wasn’t particularly upbeat. Selena Gomez’ sultry voice seduced through the audio system in a remix of her single “Come and get it”. Someone tapped Laurent on his shoulder firmly and he whipped around like a drag queen interrupted during her solo falsetto. Tatiana stood before him, in a fabulous black and pink Betsey Johnson dress that elongated her legs and accentuated her olive skin tone. And her face, she’d done something to it. She looked like herself but in a way, she didn’t. He wasn’t sure what to do so he pulled her in for a hug.
“Happy birthday,” he said, inhaling the still fresh scent of hairspray in the thick spirals of hair. “You look beautiful!” She really did. Not that he needed this over the top party to notice or admit that. To him, she was even more beautiful when she was acting her age, being herself and not trying to rush into young adulthood. She didn’t need all this makeup and extra hair wonderment and a dress half her size to make her beautiful. Even though she was filthy rich, spoiled beyond common sense and downright bratty sometimes, Tatiana was just a little girl, innocent and naïve. He wanted to make her smile, nurture and protect her because he had younger siblings and he was used to looking after their wellbeing.
“Thanks.” She smiled at him, looking at his mask and how it embellished his features by adding a small sense of mystery. He noticed her looking at him and said,
“I wore this pink mask just for you. My brother thinks I’m so stupid because it’s not for guys but I was like, I don’t care. I’m going to rock the pink mask for Tatiana. It’s my baby sister’s birthday.” She had started giggling until he called her his baby sister. That wasn’t the role she wanted to fill in his life. His baby, yes. His sister, no. What was it going to take to make him see her as a grown woman? A woman who wanted him. A woman worth wanting in return. Samuel Flinch had beat her face to perfection with his incredible makeup design skills and she still couldn’t get him to take notice. In an attempt to shift the focus from her undeniable desire for him to feigning indifference, she asked about Larry.
“He’s in the lobby, probably flirting with the elephant,” He smiled that gorgeous, effortless Laurent smile, proud of his little jab at Larry, “You know how my brother is. Flirts with everybody.” Tatiana’s heart sank as he continued blabbing, “I don’t think he should see you like this.” He raised both eyebrows for emphasis.
“Like what?” She frowned. What else would he say to discourage her tonight?
“Like THIS. You were already beautiful but tonight you are gorgeous. He’s going to faint when he sees you but I promise I will keep him away from you. I won’t let him try anything funny.” He grinned at her, all good intentioned and nice. Just like that, with a compliment and a smile, he’d given her the only thing she wanted tonight beside a kiss. Acknowledgment. Samuel’s work hadn’t been in vain after all. He grabbed her and gave her a twirl. And then another one. Until she cracked a smile and held it.
“Can we talk?” Larry asked determinedly.
“This isn’t really the time or the place to talk.”
“I know but maybe if you picked up my calls, I wouldn’t have to come after you at a party.”
“This is not just a party. We’re both here because of work so I’m just trying to stay professional.”
Larry relented mostly because he didn’t feel he was at fault for anything and he didn’t want to be falsely fustigated. “What is your problem? I know the truth and I don’t care and if you don’t want to talk to me, obviously something else if bothering you.”
She sighed, looking around to see if anyone was paying attention but luckily, they were all devoted to the big elephant in the room. Literally.
“I’m sorry I haven’t gotten back to you. You didn’t do anything wrong. But this isn’t going anywhere. We had fun and now I’m over it. And you need to get over it too.”
Larry was so taken back that he failed to stop her from walking away. He just stood there astounded for a few seconds, in disbelief of the conversation they’d just had. The last time he’d gotten rejected was in high school when his math teacher didn’t respond to his advances. She had been just like Dawn, brief, off-putting and blunt, putting him back in his deserved place as a pupil. Luckily, he’d rebounded quickly with the English teacher, and the art teacher. Lest we forget his history tutor who was quite the libertine. The thing about rejection is that regardless of whether it’s been 10 minutes or 10 years, every time you recall the memory, it stings. He swallowed and followed her over the bridge, shuffling his mask on, mumbling to himself that the bitch didn’t even need a mask to get in.
Summer in Tokyo was hot and dry yet the evening breeze was crisp and fresh. Lau and Shao walked side by side, taking in the vernal air and the vivacious energy lingering from the party. They were in the outdoor garden, a long way from the main house and banquet hall. Coming here twice a week for the past two months led Laurent to get acquainted with the premises. He still didn’t know the house as well as he would’ve liked but in order to be completely familiar with a mansion of this size, you’d need to live there for at least half a year. Being so close to Shao freaked him out but remembering who it was beneath the mask and under the hoodie, his hand itched to hold hers.
“I’d ask you to take off your mask but I know you can’t,” he started, thoughtfully. “I’m sorry I freaked out and haven’t talked to you but you really caught me off guard. To this day, I still can’t picture you as…you. Even though I know the truth. I still can’t believe it. Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“I tried to. The night we first met, I wanted to but you were rambling on about this asshole you just battled and who’d won unfairly. For once, I just wanted to be a girl first and a dancer second.”
“So all this time, I was looking for someone who was right next to me.” He paused, knowing what needed to be said next. “I’m so sorry I pushed you that night. I was just so angry and my ego was bruised. You’re a really good dancer and that scares me a little. But I knew you first and I like you a lot so this is just something else in addition to everything else you have to offer. I do feel threatened and I feel weird because when I see you dance, I don’t see guy or girl or alien. I just see something amazing.”
She smiled sadly under her mask, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Here he was again, talking about Shao and saying nothing about Lorra.
“What happens if we keep seeing each other?” His question drained all of the balance she had and startled her.
“I don’t know.”
He looked into the distant darkness of the surrounding plants.
“I really just want to kiss you right now. Does that make me gay?” he joked.
She smiled and internally let out a huge sigh of relief, “Well, you’re already wearing a pink mask. You might as well embrace your gay side.” She began to lift her mask off when he stopped her to do it himself. Lorra was really grateful for the lack of lighting in the garden since she never wore makeup under the mask. He moved it upwards, placing it on her forehead to allow him enough space to lower and grant himself the kiss he’d been yearning for the last two weeks. She whimpered when he kissed her because now that the truth was off her back, it felt real and visceral, as if he was reaching down and kissing the entire surface of her beating heart.