When I came into our classroom, Jenneth was already in sitting in his chair with his head buried in a textbook, refusing to even glance my way. I settled into my seat, feeling dispirited and twice as guilty as before. Somehow, in less than twenty-four hours, I had managed to hurt both Nathan and my best friend. An achievement like that ought to qualify me for the Suckiest Friend of the Week Award.
Christian arrived practically at the heels of our teacher, who watched him over the rims of his glasses as he dashed into the room and threw himself into his chair. "So glad you could make it, Mr. Garcia," he said dryly.
"Me, too, Sir," Christian replied feelingly, flapping the front of his shirt and mopping the sweat from his brow with his necktie in a theatrical manner, making the class laugh. Our teacher snorted in response and began the lecture without further ado.
I peered over my shoulder at him, noting the brownish-gray smudges on his sleeve. Where on earth could he have gotten those? My questioning gaze automatically shifted to Jenneth, who was also regarding Christian with a perplexed expression. But the moment our eyes met, Jenneth gave an indifferent shrug and turned away, assuming a look of pointed attentiveness as he listened to the lecture.
I glanced back at Christian again just in time to see Sara, who was sitting beside him, brush the dark smudges off his sleeve then pluck what appeared to be a leaf from his hair. He smiled at her in thanks and took the leaf from her fingers, causing her to blush and smile coyly back, her fingers fiddling with her own hair. I faced front again as annoyance replaced befuddlement. Honestly, did he have to charm every bearer of two X chromosomes who crossed his path? This was exactly the kind of behavior that kept his rabid fangirls straining at the leash. I knew he knew the effect he had on members of the opposite sex—I'd seen him use it to his advantage often enough in the past—but really, he could very well dial it back a notch when he was around girls who were…well, girls who were…
Girls who weren't me, for a start.
My face turned hot. Oh good grief, I was acting like an idiot. Christian had always been charming and outgoing, ever since he was a child. He couldn't help it, any more than he could help attracting dirt and grime and mysterious stains to himself. It was one of the many things I loved about him—his confidence and utter fearlessness in showing the world exactly who he was that drew people to him, his ability to make other people feel important and special, no matter who they were. Truth be told, if he hadn't taken that first step years ago and pulled my sister and me into his domain, I probably wouldn't have had the courage to even go near him, let alone attempt to make friends with him. I wouldn't have been able to get over the thousand and one ways he was so different from me and all that I'd known.
It was Christian who'd drawn me into his life since the beginning. In some essential way, it made me his, although I would never admit it to anyone. But sometimes I wished…I wished he could be mine, too. That I could declare to the world that he belonged with me and only me, without any fear of being disparaged or denied or told how misguided and delusional and just plain wrong I was to even consider it.
The truth was, although I was his, I couldn't make an equal claim upon him. Not without me bringing down all manner of trouble and ridicule upon our heads. I knew he couldn't see it from his exalted position at the top of St. Helene society, but for a fat, ugly outcast from a wild and wooly shanty-town, who'd spent a lifetime having those differences drilled into my head… Ate Kath and Jenneth were right. The girls of the Protect the Prince Club were right. Our differences mattered. They formed a chasm between us, and I couldn't imagine how it could ever be crossed.
A sad, wistful sense of longing swept over me, and out of habit, my hand drifted up to touch my ring underneath my blouse for comfort. Then I shook my head to clear out those maudlin thoughts, and decided to follow Jenneth's example and concentrate on the lecture.
Then an odd sensation made me glance over my shoulder again, and I found Christian looking straight at me. His chocolate eyes grew warm as he gave me a small but unutterably sweet smile—an "I'm happy you're here" smile. My heart fluttered, and I smiled back, then faced front again before our teacher caught us.
The smile lingered on my face, though, as I took a Post-it and scribbled down "It's enough" on the top sheet, then stuck this onto my notebook page, making a mental note to make another copy to stick to my wardrobe mirror. It seemed I needed a reminder not to get ahead of myself. After all, it hadn't been that long ago when I'd given up on ever seeing Christian again. Now here he was in the flesh, separated from me by mere feet instead of countless miles of ocean. That he was here was enough; that he wanted to be with me was more than enough. To wish for more than this would be me being appallingly spoiled and ungrateful before God. I risked another peek at him as he was jotting something down in his binder, noting the strong lines of his hands and the way the light glinted from the silver ring at his throat. He glanced up and met my gaze, then he gave me another playful smile and a wink.
Again, I faced forward, cheeks heating for a wholly different reason. Yes, this was enough for me.
When class ended, I hurriedly packed my things away, but Jenneth was already gone by the time I stood up. I trudged out of the room, and instead found Christian waiting beside the door. He blinked at the sight of me. "Hey, where's your sidekick?"
We caught sight of Jenneth striding ahead of us at the same time, and Christian's eyebrow winged upward in a wordless question. "He's not speaking to me right now," I explained gloomily as we headed out to the gym for our next class, which happened to be PE.
"Did you two have a fight?"
"Sort of. He found out about Nathan and me, and he's…not happy with what I'd done." Among other things, I added silently. Then I went on to tell him that Nathan and Jenneth were roommates, and that Jenneth had been the most supportive of Nathan's courtship of me, even encouraging Nathan to ask me to tutor him instead of doing it himself.
"Yet another reason for him to hate my guts, huh?" Christian cast a jaded eye at the back of Jenneth's head, making me wince. But before I could spout some mollifying nonsense, like my best friend coming around after they got to know each other better, he added resignedly: "I don't blame him, though. I'd probably feel the same way if I were in his situation. But look, you two are like peas in pod. You'll work this out soon enough."
"I hope so," I said with a sigh. "For now, though, I just want a chance to tell him about the House meeting later."
But I didn't get that chance, since as usual, our PE class separated us girls from the boys. By the time I'd freshened up and changed into a plain, white T-shirt, Jenneth was gone, likely already halfway back to the House or to his Science Club meeting. Oh well. He was going to find out about the House meeting at eight anyway, and I could try talking to him afterward.
Just to make things worse, a bunch of girls had collected at the edge of the field beside the bleachers, forming a giggling, cooing ring around a tall figure still dressed in his white, blue-collared PE shirt, who was wiping himself down with a small, white towel. I recognized the girls as Nikki, Tara and the rest of their witches' coven as I headed closer, mingling with the other girls in our section who were making their way back to the high school building and the boys who were crawling around on the ground in various stages of exhaustion. Soon, I could hear Nikki's voice rise above the din as she chattered at Christian about how after soccer training later they were meeting up with Tony and the rest of the team so they could troop over to some posh hotel where a mutual friend had booked the entire indoor pool for a party meant to make her feel better about breaking up with her boyfriend, and that this friend had been absolutely dying to meet Christian…
I lowered my head and walked even faster, trying to get away from this unpleasant reminder of the other half of Christian's life. I didn't want to hear his response, and I really didn't need any more mental images of some rich, gorgeous girl in a slinky dress flirting with Christian beside a pool. But it wasn't long before I heard a voice calling my name.
"Joy, wait up!"
Rolling my eyes skyward, I stopped in the middle of the street and turned to let Tara catch up with me, remaining in seemingly deferential silence as my only concession to the rules of St. Helene society. When she was close enough she bent double, gasping as though out of breath, then straightened and swept her hair over her shoulder. "Wow, you sure walk fast. Must be those legs of yours," she said with a laugh. "Anyway, thanks for giving Christian the message about Mr. Alonzo. We're taking him to the faculty room now to make sure he doesn't wriggle out of this again."
"Um, you're welcome," I replied cautiously.
She smiled and grabbed my hand. "You really are his friend, aren't you? I knew you'd understand, and of course you'd want nothing but the best for him. And you should know, your opinion matters so much to him—"
"Wait, understand what? What're you talking about?"
"Oh." She blinked a few times, then pressed both her hands to her face in a mortified expression. "Oops, I've said too much again, haven't I? I'm so sorry. Oh, this is awkward." Her eyes darted off to the side as if seeking an avenue for escape, then her shoulders sagged. "I just thought he might've said something to you already, since you two are so close. But if he hasn't—oh well, forget it. It's probably no big deal," she added cheerily. "Nothing's been decided yet anyway. Everything's all up in the air."
"Decided? What's there to decide?" I asked, hanging onto my patience with both hands.
But she only shook her head. "It's not my place to say. Just wait for him to tell you, as I'm sure he will soon. Anyway, I've got some news for you." She leaned closer and whispered conspiratorially: "I've put the word out to all those girls who've been after Christian that you're off-limits. So you don't have to worry about getting ambushed in the restroom or locked in a storage room ever again." She stepped back and beamed at me, grabbing my hand again and squeezing tightly. "Isn't that great?"
Something tickled the back of my mind as I stared at her. "Yes, it is. Thank you." What on earth are you up to?
Just then, movement at the edge of my vision caught my attention. On the other side of the street, the girls were moving en masse toward the high school building, herding Christian along with them. Nikki, though, whirled around and marched over toward us, an irritated frown pulling her brows together. "Tara, what're you doing? Stop wasting time already," she griped, not even deigning to glance my way.
"Yeah, I'm coming," Tara tossed over her shoulder. "You know, we're going to a party at the Shang later," she said to me. "Would you like to come? We'll celebrate Friday together and all that."
For one brief, shining moment, Nikki and I had something in common—a feeling of shocked disbelief. "Are you nuts?" she screeched loudly enough to draw the attention of the athletes who were heading down to the sports complex to start training. "Why are you asking her? Just leave her alone, and let's go already."
"Okay, lighten up, Nik." Tara sent Nikki a frown, before turning back to me. "Well? Come on, it'll be fun! There'll be dancing, swimming, and dozens and dozens of über-hot guys—"
"I can't. Really, I can't," I replied in a strangled voice, trying to edge away from her.
"Oh, if you're worried about changing outfits, that's what we're doing between now and later. We'll go to Power Plant mall and I can help you pick out something—maybe something from Shoujo Shine would look good on you. Then we can get your hair done—"
I shook my head. "No. I mean, it's not that. Um, I've got something I need to do this afternoon. B-but thank you for inviting me," I added, swimming in a sense of unreality.
Tara's face fell. "Oh. Okay. I guess it was too much of me to invite you to a party so suddenly. Oh, I know what," she said, brightening, then leaned over again to whisper in my ear: "How about we meet up next week after school and have coffee somewhere? It'll be just the two of us, so we can talk about Christian and all the hot guys in school—but mostly Christian," she added with a mischievous smile.
"Um—" I shot Nikki a frantic glance, but she looked just as helpless in her befuddlement and frustration. "We'll see," I said weakly, taking refuge in the noncommittal response.
Tara smiled again. "Great! So I'll see you next week! Thanks, Joy. I can already tell we're going to be such super friends." She gave my hand, which she hadn't let go off all this time, one last squeeze before hurrying off with Nikki at her side.
I walked slowly back to the high school then leaned against the wall of the front hall, feeling shaky with exhaustion and nearly dizzy with bewilderment. What in the world just happened? Honestly, dealing with Tara left me feeling so drained and confused, it seemed easier to just go along with whatever she wanted than spend all that energy trying to keep my guard up around her all the time—
Which is exactly what she wants. The thought slid across my mind, cold and sobering. Keeping me unbalanced and easily pushed around was exactly what she intended. Think, Joy. She threw a lot of balls in the air, so figure out which ones you need to focus on.
After a while, I pushed myself off the wall and crossed over to the bulletin board, placing a hand on the exact spot where the Black-Sharpie posters used to appear. It really was strange that our mysterious artist had chosen to simply bow out of the scene, considering that her work had practically taken on a life of its own. Or maybe that was precisely the reason she'd stopped. Her job here was done, after all.
Or maybe I'd gotten it all wrong. Maybe it was something different altogether. One thing for sure, out of all the actors in this little whodunit I'd somehow fallen into, our artist's motivations were the hardest to puzzle out.
And a little while later still, when it became clear that Nathan wasn't coming, I sighed again and continued on alone to Father Ramilo's. My kids were waiting for me, after all.
I finished our tutoring session just in time to see the glorious sunset gracing Sampaguita Street. As I walked down the incline toward the House, the sight of the red-gold and indigo sky only seemed to heighten the melancholy that had been chasing me all day. Everything was turning into a mess. The Protect the Prince Club girls might listen to Tara and stop targeting me, but now they were targeting my friends, which was much, much worse. I'd been impulsive in my anger earlier, but now it was dawning on me that I was going to have to face everyone at the House later with, to be brutally honest, nothing but a bunch of theories and guesswork stemming from flashes of intuition. On top of all that, Nathan hated me, and now Jenneth was mad at me, too. And Christian was probably getting ready to party the night away with some girl who belonged, just like he did, in a glittering, high-class world that I would never understand, much less fit into.
And worse than that, Christian was…Christian was…
As I reached the corner of the street leading to the House, my steps slowed to a stop and I stared down unseeing at my blue sweat pants. A moment later, as the streetlamps came on, I straightened my shoulders resolutely, felt my pocket to check if its contents were still there, then ran the rest of the way down to the soccer field, my bag bouncing on my back.
The soccer team was still practicing underneath the floodlights positioned around the field, while several kids sat around the bleachers, just hanging out and occasionally jeering good-naturedly at the soccer players. At the gym, the martial arts rooms were still blazing. I hesitated, wondering if I should head on over to the Self-Defense Club room and risk getting shooed away again, or just wait for him here by the track and risk missing him altogether.
Then I noticed a small cluster of people standing together on one side of the soccer field. As I drifted toward them, I saw that one of them was Coach Gomez, head coach of the soccer team, while the others were the assistant coaches and the team captains of the junior and senior teams. They were deep in a discussion with a tall figure who turned out to be Christian, now dressed in black jeans and a charcoal, V-necked shirt, with the silver ring at his throat serving as the perfect final touch. My heart dropped at the sight of him. He'd obviously already finished training and gotten showered and all, and he looked so good that I could only assume he was intending to head straight to the party next.
I hovered in a patch of shadow several feet away, not daring to get any closer for fear of being spotted. But even from that distance, a few words floated toward me—like "practice match" and "St. Anthony" and "temp player." There were some nodding of heads, some gestures made toward a clipboard full of papers and some made to indicate the players on the field, and finally a clap on Christian's shoulder from Coach Gomez.
When it was over, Christian turned halfway in my direction, a thoughtful expression on his face. But before I could call out his name, another girl's voice beat me to it.
"Christian! Over here!"
On the nearest set of bleachers where a group of well-dressed girls sat, Tara stood up and waved him over. She was all dolled up in a short, red, strapless dress, with her hair curled so that they tumbled in dramatic waves down her shoulders. She looked even more gorgeous than usual, I noticed with another flash of annoyance. Then the thought occurred that all the girls at that party were going to look like Tara or even better, and my annoyance curdled in my stomach and turned into even more misery.
Christian didn't even glance in my direction as he headed over to where Tara and the others were. "Hey, you all look great," he remarked.
"All of us? Not just someone in particular?" Tara teased as I crept toward them in the shadows, feeling like the worst kind of stalker ever.
"Well, when you're all dressed up like that, you make it so hard for me to choose who's the prettiest," he replied, making the girls titter and preen.
Tara tossed her hair back and laughed. "Smooth answer, as usual. So are you coming with us to the Shang or not?"
Christian gave a long sigh as he adjusted his backpack on his shoulder. "Actually, I'm pretty beat. I've had a long day, and I need to get an early start tomorrow, so—"
"Oh no, don't say that. Look, I'm coming down."
"Hey, wait a minute, don't—"
Before anyone could stop her, she tottered on her strappy, high-heeled sandals to the edge of the mid-level bleachers, which happened to lack guard railings, and jumped. Cursing, Christian lunged forward, dropping his backpack to catch her before she could land in an ungainly heap on the ground. She laughed and threw her arms around his neck as he hoisted her upright on her wobbly feet. "You idiot, you want to break your ankles or something?" he growled as he set her away from him and bent to retrieve his backpack.
She laughed again. "But you caught me, just like you always did back when we were kids."
"That's because you kept jumping off of every high place you could find every time I was around, even when I already told you to knock it off."
"Why should I, when you'll keep catching me anyway?" she retorted, sticking her tongue out at him. "Look, if you've had a long day, then why not relax at the party with us? And who knows? I might show you something interesting—"
They both looked in my direction, and only then did I realize that I'd spoken out loud. I took a couple of steps out of the shadows I'd been lurking in, one hand gripping the strap of my bag, the other thrust in my pocket. I knew I looked wilted and frumpy in my plain white tee and PE sweats, and even looking my best I still couldn't compete with Tara's sultry gorgeousness, especially in that red dress. Nevertheless, I took a few more steps forward into the light, watching her pretty face twist with displeasure and irritation before she caught herself and schooled her features into one of happy surprise.
"Joy!" she cried, turning fully to face me, although I noticed that she couldn't quite keep up the fancy footwork, strappy sandals with stiletto heels being generally un-ideal footwear on turf. "I knew you'd change your mind. See, Christian? Even Joy wants in on the party."
We both ignored her, as this time I focused on Christian's face, which had lit up the moment he saw me. "Joy," he breathed as immediately left Tara's side and came to me. "What're you doing here? Wait—did something happen again?" he asked worriedly, and I shook my head in reply.
"Joy, we still have time if you want to get changed," Tara called out, a slightly desperate edge in her voice now as she tottered around on the grass. "You can't exactly show up there in your PE uniform. That'd be a disaster. Look, why don't you come with me—"
Looking around Christian, I gave Tara a cool smile. "Thanks, but I'm not the partying kind of girl. That's the first thing you should know about me if we're going to be 'super' friends." Then without waiting to see her reaction, I turned back to Christian. "I'm sorry if I interrupted you," I said in a low voice. "And I know you're tired and all, but there's something I want to give you."
He smiled. "Okay, what is it?"
I pulled my hand out of my pocket, revealing the Post-it coupon pad he'd given me. Very carefully, I took out one of the coupons, then slipped the pad back into my pocket. Solemnly, I held the coupon out to him. "I'm claiming this right now."
He took it and read: Go for a walk with me. Then he looked back at me, his smile growing into a blinding grin, and without looking in Tara's direction, he called over his shoulder: "Tell Megan sorry I can't make it to her party. I've got something more important to do."
With that, we set off together toward Sampaguita Street. When we'd gone some distance from the soccer field, I stopped and covered my face with both hands, suddenly overcome by the sheer audacity I'd just displayed. Talk about breaking all the social rules… "Oh my gosh, I can't believe I just did that!" I wailed.
His laughter rang out, surprising me into dropping my hands. "Are you kidding me? You were amazing. All cool and elegant and dignified as hell," he declared. "And thanks for coming to my rescue. You have impeccable timing, my lady."
I grinned back. "Yes, well, let me know if you need any more help dealing with all the girls who're literally throwing themselves at you."
"Oh man, you saw that, huh?" he half-laughed, half-groaned. "That's just Tara. She's always had this crazy streak in her, even back in grade school."
You have no idea, I thought, wondering how she was going to make me pay for this metaphorical slap to the face, especially now that I'd managed to blow her cover, in a way. Well, whatever, I sniffed. I can handle you.
All thoughts of Tara's retaliation fled my mind when Christian smiled and held his hand out to me. I hesitated for just a moment, then placed my hand in his, renewed awareness jolting through me at how much larger his hand was now, how warm and slightly rough his skin was, the callouses on his palm and fingers bespeaking his hours of training. He drew me closer and meshed his fingers through mine, then took my bag with his other hand and slung it on his shoulder together with his backpack. "So, where do you want to go?" he asked as we resumed walking.
I flushed. "I don't really know. I hadn't actually thought this far. Again."
"That's fine. Since you've got curfew…I know what."
His grin flashed as he tugged me up back up the incline of Sampaguita Street, past the high school building, past Father Ramilo's house and the chapel, all the way to the top, where we paused for a bit. "Are—are we going back down?" I asked, panting from exertion; in his enthusiasm, he'd assumed a pace that was faster than I was used to. He, of course, wasn't even breathing hard, for all his claims of being tired.
He grinned again. "Not yet. There's something I want to show you."
We walked onward, past the darkened elementary school complex until we reached the preschool complex. The preschool was one of the smaller buildings on campus, its brightly painted walls appearing as odd variations of orange in the light of the streetlamps. Its grounds were surrounded by a chain-link fence meant to keep its usual denizens in rather than keep intruders out, since St. Helene was pretty much a fortress against the outside world anyway. After glancing around to check for security guards, he pulled me to a portion of the fence where there was a slight gap in the hedge bordering the area. Probably not coincidentally, it was also a portion that wasn't quite as well-lit by the streetlamps.
"Now we go up and over," he informed me.
"Shh! Keep it down. The guards usually stay inside the building, but let's not risk it. Hopefully, they haven't installed CCTV cameras around this place yet."
"Cameras! Christian, where exactly are we going?"
"You'll see. Just follow my lead."
With that, he adjusted our bags on his shoulder, then clambered up and over the fence, hopping lightly down on the other side. He gestured at me to do the same, and after throwing my hands up in surrender, I climbed up after him. He caught me as I jumped down, his arms wrapping securely around my waist and pulling me against his front for just a moment. All at once, I understood why Tara kept launching herself in the air to try and get Christian to catch her. Just that short hug from behind felt like heaven to me.
He led me away from the fence, taking my hand again when the path he was following took us through a shadowy area. Then light flooded back, and when my eyes adjusted, I found us standing in a grassy field bordered by trees, dominated by a huge, elaborate playset designed to look like circus tents. There was a sandbox in one corner of the field, a kiddie-sized swimming pool in another corner, and a set of monkey bars right across the playset. The preschool playground was illuminated by a single bright light from the nearby building, casting the playset in a stark, almost eerie white glow.
Christian turned to me and smiled. "Here's something in St. Helene that I bet you haven't seen yet."
I pressed my hand to my mouth to stifle my delighted laugh, before running off to explore the adorable playset, checking out the tiny steps, twisty slides and chain ladders. I was too big for the playset, though, so I soon abandoned it to play for a little while in the sandbox, then peer into the empty swimming pool. Christian conducted his own explorations as well, and it was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud when he nearly got stuck trying to fit through one of the plastic tubes in the playset. I pulled him out, then sat on the ground with both hands crammed against my mouth, my stomach aching with suppressed laughter, while he straightened his shirt, which had gotten rucked up to his chest while he was crawling backward out of the tube, and fought to hold back his own laughter.
When I finally gained control of myself, I found him kneeling across me, watching me with that sweet smile on his lips. He got to his feet, then offered a hand to me to pull me up. For a moment, we just stood close together and as the atmosphere shifted from childlike fun to something else, I blushed and dropped my gaze, unable to bear the warmth in his eyes.
"Thanks for bringing me here," I murmured. "I needed this."
"You're welcome," he replied huskily, sending my heart into overdrive.
"Um, so what did you and Coach Gomez talk about? I saw you talking with him and the others, although I couldn't hear what you were saying," I said quickly, stepping away from him before my senses were completely overwhelmed, heading over to perch on one of the rungs of the monkey bars.
His gaze turned knowing, as though he was well aware of what I was doing, but he chose to answer my question anyway. "I'm joining the soccer team as a temp player, but I could be made a regular depending on my performance and—well, other things. Right now though, I'm starting out as striker on the junior team, since they're going to hold a practice match against St. Anthony in a week's time, and St. Anthony's got a pretty tough team." He frowned into the distance as he braced both hands against the top of the monkey bars, forcing me to twist around to keep him in view. "Coach Gomez has been getting pressure from the alumni to improve the team's standing. We're not really as big a deal as we like to pretend we are. We're ranked only a little above average in the regionals. No surprise there, with the team more interested in partying than in getting into proper shape for the match," he muttered disgustedly. Then he continued: "Anyway, that's why he's been after me for a while now. He seems to think having me on the team'll boost our rankings somehow."
"Well, of course, duh. Everyone knows you're an awesome player," I said stoutly, which made him smile. "But wait, does that mean you're quitting the Self-Defense Club?"
"I'm not quitting the SDC," he replied with a shake of his head. "I'm learning a lot from Guro Marcial and the others, and like I said, I need the mental discipline of martial arts."
"But—but then you'll be part of two sports clubs. I know it's allowed, and I know students from other sections who're part of two sports teams, but—"
"I know. Students from the A-sections don't join any clubs other than the academic ones, let alone two sports teams. Our academic load won't allow it," he said heavily.
I turned away, my gut churning as the suspicion that had taken root inside my mind began to grow. "That's what you talked to Mr. Alonzo about, wasn't it?" I asked in a small voice. "Are you planning on transferring to 2B-Del Pilar after all?"
"You know about that, huh?"
I nodded mutely. I'd figured it out in the middle of that second confusing conversation with Tara, when I finally realized who Mr. Alonzo was—2B-Del Pilar's homeroom adviser. Even though it was an outcome I'd attempted to bring about in the beginning, the thought of Christian transferring out of 2A-Rizal now only made me feel cold and hollow and almost frantic with fear. It was a completely irrational response, and I knew it—he was only transferring to another section, not another country, for goodness' sake—but I couldn't seem to help it. I didn't know how to face each day anymore without him smiling at me from across the room, or walking with him from class to class, or just knowing he was somewhere close by, within my reach, within my sight.
The truth was, if he transferred to 2B-Del Pilar, it would be like losing him all over again—not to another country, but to his glittery friends and his glittery fangirls and his glittery world that I had no place in—and I had no idea how I was going to survive that a second time around.
But then, soccer and martial arts were his life's passions. If this was what he truly wanted, then why on earth would I hold him back? I have no claim on him, I reminded myself, my chest aching.
"Hey, stop that." He walked around until he was in front of me, grasping the metal bars on either side of me. "Nothing's decided yet. Right now, it's just one option for me."
His words nearly echoed Tara's, but she'd made it sound as if the odds were already stacked in 2B-Del Pilar's favor. "What's keeping you from making up your mind?" I had to ask.
He gave me a tiny smile. "Let's just say I'm waiting for a few things to fall into place."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Sorry, can't tell you. It's a secret," he sang out, chuckling when I scowled at him.
I stared down at my lap. I have no claim on him. "I hope that, whatever you decide, that you'll be happy. Whatever you decide, I'll back you up a hundred percent. I promise."
He tilted my face upward with a finger underneath my chin. "If I do transfer, will you miss me, Joy?" he asked, his expression utterly serious.
I frowned in mock-anger to hide the sudden stinging of my eyes. "What do you think, dummy?" I choked out, before slipping my hand underneath my collar and drawing out my wedding-promise ring so that it hung in full view right above my heart.
At the sight of my ring, his eyes widened then turned fierce. His hand left my chin but only to cup my jaw as he leaned down and covered my mouth with his. A little mew of surprise escaped me, then my eyes drifted shut as my entire being narrowed down to our sparking point of contact. His lips felt both strange and so heartbreakingly familiar that more tears stung my eyes—warm and smooth and soft as they moved slowly but relentlessly over mine in the sweetest dance. My hands traveled up his chest then twined around his neck of their own volition, while his arms wrapped around my waist, holding me steady. He ran his tongue along my bottom lip, and my mouth opened to welcome the taste of him, the feel of him, until the world spun like crazy and I forgot about everything—where we were, what time it was, and the many excellent reasons we shouldn't be doing what it was we were doing. For a moment, there was nothing else for me except Christian.
All there was for me had always been Christian.
Finally, he pulled back but didn't go far, our faces just inches apart as he fought to steady his breathing. I opened my eyes and was stunned to find that his lashes were wet. "What's wrong? Was it that bad?"
He laughed at the panic in my voice and opened his eyes. "Not even close. It's just that kissing you…"
"What? Kissing me what?"
"Kissing you feels like coming home," he finished in a hoarse whisper.
My heart melted. Smiling, I tugged his head lower until our foreheads touched, and whispered back: "Welcome home."
"God, Joy," he groaned before closing the distance and kissing me again, more deeply and thoroughly this time, pulling me off my perch altogether and holding me so close it was hard to breathe. We drew apart after a while, then he glanced down at his watch and winced. "I hate to spoil the mood, but I've got to ask you something: How are you at running?"
We scrambled up and over the chain-link fence and fled from the preschool complex like a couple of burglars about to be caught in the act. We ran all the way down the slope of Sampaguita Street, laughing like loons, and when we finally reached the steps of the House, he handed me my bag then pulled me in again to kiss me quickly on the mouth. "Good night, my lady," he murmured, before turning around and jogging away, and I could've sworn he actually skipped once or twice.
I made it inside with a minute to spare, and Ate Lita raised an eyebrow at me as I hastily wrote down my name in the dorm logbook. "Cutting it pretty close, huh, Joy?"
"Sorry," I said, wincing. I headed straight to the cafeteria, deciding to just get changed before the meeting was called. I found Maisha and Honey gaping at me from one of the tables, and noted with a pang of sadness that neither Jenneth nor Nathan was around. "Hi. Sorry I'm late," I said as I tossed my bag into my chair then went off to get dinner.
When I came back, the two of them were still staring at me with eyes as round as the plates in front of them. "What? What's the matter?"
Honey's mouth opened and closed. "Joy, you look—"
"Different," Maisha put in. "All blushing and glowy and pretty and—"
"—well-kissed," Honey finished, causing me to nearly spray my mouthful of rice all over Maisha. "Unsa ba? I'm right, aren't I? Someone's been kissing you and doing a really good job of it, from the looks of it." She grinned widely and leaned closer, her eyes bright and eager. "Is it who I think it is? Oooh, tell me, tell me, is our handsome prince as good a kisser as those lips say he is?"
"Shh! Keep it down, you guys," I hissed, glancing around furtively in case someone overheard.
"Oh my my my. What has our innocent, little Joy been up to?" Maisha purred, her eyebrows waggling in a manner that promised hours of extreme discomfort. "Hurry up and finish eating, young lady. You've got some 'splaining to do."
"We've got a House meeting in less than an hour."
"After the meeting then. That's what lights-out is for, anyway—for deep interrogation techniques. Muwahahahaha!" she cackled, drawing looks from everyone in the cafeteria, while I buried my burning face in my hands.
A short while later, I sat between Maisha and Honey in the rec room as Ate Kath and Kuya Simon addressed the assembled crowd of House kids, giving them a run-down of the bullying that's been happening to me so far and what had happened earlier that day with the Biology 1 lab. Across the room, I saw Nathan slip in and join a couple of juniors, and something tight inside me relaxed. I hadn't realized how worried I was about him, and at least now I knew he was still healthy and whole and relatively safe somehow. Our eyes met, and he nodded at me in acknowledgment, and I gave him a small smile in return.
"Joy? It's your turn," Ate Kath announced.
Maisha squeezed my hand encouragingly. As I stood up, I caught sight of Jenneth standing a few feet behind me. He pursed his lips and gave me a thumbs-up sign. "Jenneth," I cried, my voice quivering with relief. "Listen, I'm so sorry—"
"Later, later," Jenneth cut in, making shooing motions with his hands. "And for the record, I'm sorry, too. I can't believe I threw such an unsightly tantrum." I laughed at that, and he grinned. "Now get up front, General Joyous, and tell us what our plan of attack is."
I grinned back, then walked out in front. For a moment, icy fear swamped over me, threatening to render me paralyzed in front of this crowd of faces watching me expectantly. Then I touched my wedding-promise ring underneath my shirt, and reminded myself that these were House kids. My friends. Really, my large, extended family.
"Go, Joy! What's your plan?" somebody called out.
"Yeah, it's our turn now. Let's stick it to those wenches!"
"Calm down, the sticking part will come later," I announced, then drew a deep breath. "First, I'm going to tell you what I know, and what I think I know. And afterward, I'm going to tell you what I think we should do. Whether you agree with me or not will be up to you."
"We understand. Go on," Kuya Simon said.
I nodded. "First step: Know our enemy. I've pretty much confirmed that Tara Madrigal of 2B-Del Pilar is one of the leaders of the Protect the Prince Club, which means it's not farfetched to assume that Nikki Garcia is another."
"How did you confirm that?"
"Tara told me herself," I answered with a grin. "Honestly, the more she talks, the more she gives herself away." I told them about Tara telling me she'd done me the favor of getting Christian's fangirls to stop bullying me. "None of the girls who locked me in that storage room were from 2B-Del Pilar, but somehow she knew about it. It was kind of a giveaway," I continued. "But the trouble with Tara is, she's also a free agent working for herself. She's using those fangirls to further her own agenda, and one part of that is to get Christian to transfer to 2B-Del Pilar."
"You're kidding. He's transferring?" Jenneth blurted out, then flushed with embarrassment when everyone looked over at him. "What? Take a picture, it'll last longer," he said in an exaggeratedly snooty manner, making everyone laugh.
I continued to tell them what I'd figured out over the past weeks—that the Protect the Prince Club consisted of loose groups of select girls from each section, with each faction led by a point-girl who reported to either Tara or Nikki or whoever; that these girls had been spurred on by the Black-Sharpie posters; and that if their stated goal was to protect Christian's single status until a worthy match could be found—enter Tara, I presumed—then their secondary goal would have to be to get rid of me altogether, since according to common perception, I was the only one who stood in their way. Which meant making me leave St. Helene, using any means possible, including bullying my friends and turning them against me. Which meant things were going to get worse before they got better.
When somebody inevitably brought up the idea of telling Christian and simply getting him to stop his fangirls, I shook my head and warned that if he did transfer to 2B-Del Pilar—and he was seriously considering doing so—it would bring him directly under the influence of the leaders of the fangirls. Fortunately, most of them seemed to buy my faulty logic, not really knowing Christian all that well. The only one who seemed to disagree was Nathan, who did know Christian well, but I silenced him with a pleading look. I was going to keep Christian out of this mess for as long as I could, even if I had to lie to do it.
When I was finished, the room was quiet until somebody asked: "So what can we do? Do we just lie down and take it?"
"We're going up against the most popular kids in school. I mean, we're just House kids, you know."
"Yeah. We're different," I heard Aldrin say bitterly.
"Yes, we're different," I stated quietly. "Yes, we're outcasts. But says who, really? Don't you see? That's exactly what they want us to believe, because it makes it easier for them to think that what they're doing to us is right. But we don't have to buy into it."
"Joy, wait, what exactly are you getting at?" Ate Kath asked worriedly.
I merely smiled. "I'm saying that the way we fight back is to make our own rules and stop letting them tell us who we are. We're House kids, which makes each one of us different. But different also makes us stronger than they know. Now listen up, this is what I propose we should do."
This second half of the previous update brought to you by...Pink-Eye! Nothing like Pink-Eye to force you stay home for nearly a week and write!
Seriously, though, I managed to finish this half because I came down with a combination of a particularly stubborn cold and freaking pink-eye, so...yeah.
Ahem. Anyway, once again, thank you so much to all of you who're still reading this story, and most especially who left reviews. Thank you, and I hope you continue to enjoy the story.
And now, some personal thanks:
To Fawn - Joy is mostly a guile hero, but take heart, she'll also kick some physical butt in the future. Oh dear, I really, really hope I'm doing this right. Anway, thank you so much for still reading and for your encouragement. I really appreciate it. ^_^
To Maywillow - HAPPY, HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Hope your next year will be full of sparkly things and utter fabulousness!
To Tailor Maid - You something weird? I started out writing fantasy, too, and I swore I couldn't do anything set in real-life. Funny how that turned out. Anyway, go on, rush already. Write, write, write! Get that book inside you out into this world and into our hands. Your readers and I are rooting for you! Blessings to you, and thanks again so much!
To Shruti Udgirkar - Wow, I wish you good luck and lots and lots of alert, wide-awake moments in dealing with the load you have to deal with. And after the third month, I wish you fun and glitter and fantastic food at all those parties, especially on that party celebrating your triumph on graduation day. (wink, wink) Again, thank you so much for saying what you said to me and for inspiring me, although I have to tell you, your comments about my editors made me laugh. Wish I could tell them, huh? Once again, thank you for still reading and for leaving such kind reviews!
And finally, to chocme - Waaaaaah! I still have bloody pink-eye! Hahahaha! Sis, all I can do right now is blubber random things at you like Sebastian Stan and Wattpad and god, you're right, staying at home instead of going to work is paradise and thank you for rereading the story from the beginning oh my god you actually did that and just generally thank you thank you thank you for the support. Hugs to you!
Again, to everyone, thank you so, so much, and I hope you continue to enjoy the story. Up next: Joy confronts a dragon, who gives her some tips, then she goes on to wage war against the evil legions of fangirls. Or something like that. Also, Christian gives her a lot more kisses.