I noticed the girl first. Or rather, I noticed her dress, which was made of a pale yellow fabric, with a peasant-style top that bared the shoulders, and a lace-edged skirt ending at mid-thigh, revealing the jeans she wore. She was standing at the counter in the line beside ours, waiting for the cashier to punch in her order, and since she was a little ahead of us in line, all I could see of her face was the side of her jaw framed by her long hair. And her hand tightly gripping the edge of the counter for some reason.
Behind me, Christian bent his head to mine and murmured, "What're you looking at?"
"That girl. Her dress is so pretty, isn't it?" I nodded toward the girl, warmly conscious of his hands around my waist holding me close to him as we stood in line.
"I guess so. Do you like dresses like that?" He slanted down a smile at me. "I'd like to see you in a dress again. I haven't seen you wear one since the night we got married. And no, your nightgown doesn't count. That's a whole different category altogether."
My eyes grew big, and I glanced around us, blushing profusely. "Shhh, Christian, pipe down. If anyone heard you…" When he lifted his eyebrows and shrugged, indicating his total lack of concern over how people might interpret his words, I had to laugh. "I like dresses just fine. It's the dresses that don't like me, since I always look like a fancy sack of potatoes in them. Aaah! Don't tickle!"
I gasped and curled up sideways when he poked a finger into my side. "Quit talking like that," he said, frowning sternly at me.
"Sorry," I replied automatically, then again when I realized he was defending me from my own self-critical habit, which was turning out to be harder to get rid of than I initially thought.
"You just haven't found the right dress yet. Besides, you definitely don't need a dress to look pretty, Joy," he added in a low voice.
"Oh. Um, you know, you don't have to keep saying—aaah! I'm sorry! I mean thank you!"
Laughing, I covered his hands with mine to keep him from digging his fingers into my sides again, and glanced down at myself. Earlier that morning, after I realized that there wasn't anything in my wardrobe presentable enough for a date with my boyfriend, I'd rushed over in a panic to Maisha and Honey and the other girls who hadn't gone home for the weekend. A noisy war meeting commenced right there in the corridor of the girls' wing, followed by a door-to-door search through each girl's wardrobe until we finally found the perfect outfit: jeans, sandals to show off my painted toenails, and a black tank top with streaks of white, blue and silver across the front, courtesy of Ate Leilani again. She ended up giving the tank top to me, claiming it hung too loosely on her anyway and that there was no way her pitiful chest could do justice to the tank top's low, scoop-neck collar. Following Nikki's advice about varying my accessories a bit, I borrowed a pair of ribbon-shaped silver earrings from Honey, while my wedding-promise ring gleamed underneath the blue kerchief artfully knotted around my throat to conceal Christian's handiwork from the night before.
When I looked into the mirror, I found myself staring at my reflection in wonder. It was still a strange experience for me, looking at myself and thinking that I looked okay, or even more than okay, while my friends made the ridiculous assertion that my prince would start drooling the instant he saw me. I touched the second discolored blotch on my throat underneath the kerchief, and found that I could actually believe them.
A small sigh escaped me now, and I covered it up by adjusting the strap of my purse—another loaner, this time from Maisha. While I was grateful for my friends' generosity and support, this whole situation was bringing to light just how embarrassingly few of my possessions could be described as cute or fashionable or in any way flattering on me. It didn't help that except for my school uniform, much of what I owned were hand-me-downs from some relative or worse, from one of the brown ladies from Nanay's office, who weren't exactly mavens of teen fashion, no matter how many The Compleat Young Lady books they foisted on me.
I've got to save up and go shopping, I thought, glancing longingly at the girl in the yellow dress again. Maybe Nanay and Ate Grace won't mind if I use some of the money I get from working at Lola Delia's…?
The hands at my waist gave a gentle squeeze. "Earth to Joy. It's our turn."
At Christian's amused admonition, I swiveled my head front and center and stepped forward to the waiting cashier. I finished placing my order then turned to ask him what he was having, and found him staring at the girl in the yellow dress in the line beside ours, a puzzled frown on his face. The girl, on the other hand, appeared to be growing increasingly uncomfortable under his scrutiny. She hunched her shoulders and lowered her head so that her hair hung like a curtain hiding her face. When the cashier finally handed her the bucket of fried chicken that she'd ordered, she practically snatched it out of her hands and ran off, quickly getting lost among the crowd of people in the food court.
He faced forward, giving me and the cashier an apologetic smile. "Sorry. A two-piece chicken meal for me please. Yeah, with everything. And make that a double serving of rice. And a brownie—no, two brownies."
"Why were you looking at that girl?" I asked curiously as we placed the trays containing our fried chicken meals and drinks on an empty table and sat down.
"It's nothing. Just thought for a minute that she looked familiar but—nah."
He shrugged it off and dived into his food. As we ate, I noticed movement from the corner of my eye. A group of preteen girls were sitting at the table beside ours, and they had all turned to stare at Christian and whisper excitedly among themselves. I glanced over at the table on the other side of us, where a trio of ladies who appeared to be in their mid-twenties were also looking Christian over appreciatively. One of them caught me watching her, and to my surprise she flashed me a wide smile and a thumbs-up sign before one of her friends swatted her hand down and told her to behave.
Flushing, I focused on my boyfriend again, who was too busy wolfing down his fried chicken meal to notice the attention he was getting. No surprise he was drawing admiring glances, with his hair neatly combed for once, and his shoulders molded by his long-sleeved, navy blue T-shirt, with the sleeves pushed up to his elbow drawing attention to his hands and forearms. While Christian was undeniably hot in his school uniform, seeing him in jeans and casual shirts was a special treat. It made him seem more relaxed and easygoing, as if he was ready to drop everything and horse around at a moment's notice, yet at the same time he seemed more…unattainable somehow. Maybe it was because of his fashion sense, which ran toward the classic and comfortable yet well-fitting and unmistakably expensive. Whatever it was, he always seemed to stand out among the crowd, more so a place like the food court we were in.
My gaze fell upon the flash of gray and silver at his collar, and I went lightheaded from a rush of happiness. The identical rings we wore marked us as a couple, if the way we behaved around each other didn't already scream out that fact, and for a moment I recalled how a year or even a few months ago, I couldn't have imagined I'd see the day when I could be with him like this. Just hang out with friends with him, go on dates with him, explore new places with him, and do all sorts of things with him. But now he was sitting right in front of me, with his legs brushing mine underneath the table, solid and real and here, here, here.
He paused and looked straight at me. "What? What're you thinking of?"
"You've got this weird look on your face."
"No, I don't. I-I'm just eating here, okay?" I turned back to my own meal, my face warm.
The sound of his cutlery clinking against his plate made me look up at him again. Planting both hands on the table, he rose and began leaning toward me, lips curved in a teasing smile, and I found myself drowning in his heated gaze. "Either spit it out, Joy, or prepare to be kissed," he said, moving inexorably closer.
"What?" I stared at him as my heart slammed against my ribcage. Putting my hands on his shoulders to stop his approach, I glanced sideways toward the table where the preteen girls sat, their eyes nearly falling out of their sockets above the hands covering their mouths. "Okay, okay, I'll tell you! Just sit down already," I squeaked.
"Damn." His face fell as he settled back into his seat, then he chuckled when I gave him a look. "So what's on your mind?"
"Oh my gosh, I nearly had a heart attack. Oh no, I think the shock's made me forget what I was going to say." I pressed a hand on my chest, drawing out the suspense just to get back at him for the trick he pulled, then giggled when he narrowed his eyes at me threateningly.
So I told him what I'd been thinking of—that after everything that had happened, I was still so full of wonder and gratitude at the simple fact that he was here with me. "To be honest, being with you feels like a dream," I confessed. "It's always been like that for me. When I'm with you, I feel like I'm inside this beautiful dream where I'm safe and strong, and I can do anything and be anything I want because you're right here beside me. It's one of the things I love about you, Christian: You make me dream."
To my amazement, he blushed, and his unguarded expression pierced right through my heart. "That's weird. For me, it's the opposite," he said, smiling back. "When I'm with you, I feel like I've woken up. When you're not around, I'm just kind of sleep-walking through life. I'm just rolling with whatever comes and doing everything I can to show everyone I'm a functioning human being when the truth is, all I'm doing is killing time until I can be with you. When I thought I was never going to see you again, I—" He paused, his face darkening with remembered emotion, before forging on. "I couldn't see the point of trying. Like, there's no point to anything if you're not there. When we're together, everything's clearer, brighter…more real, you know? Everything makes sense when it didn't before. And I just know everything's going to be okay as long as I get to be with you," he finished, his eyes solemn as they met mine.
Oh my gosh. I bit my lip and cast my gaze down at the table before I melted a hole right through the metal seat. That dizzying rush of happiness was back, but underneath it was a deep sense of rightness, a serene inner knowing. I'd felt this inner knowing before as an eight-year-old transformed by the knowledge of my first love. Maybe he needs me too, just as much as I need him, I thought. Maybe I'm as magical for him as he is for me.
"By the way, you're wrong about one thing," he said after another mouthful. When I blinked at him in confusion, he jabbed his fork in the air and declared: "This isn't a date."
"Nope. If this were a date, I wouldn't be taking you out to the food court of some skeezy-looking mall." He spared our surroundings a disparaging glance, looking only mildly sheepish when I mock-scolded him for his elitism. "Seriously, though, this isn't how I'd plan a date with you," he went on.
"You and your promises," I pretended to scoff as I reached over to brush a stray bit of rice from the corner of his mouth with my fingertips. " Fine, but I'm warning you, I've got really high expectations of the guys I date. I've been spoiled rotten by my first boyfriend, you see. "
He caught my hand, kissed it, and smirked. "Spoiled rotten, huh? Guess you'll just have to see for yourself what I can do. Go out with me, Joy. I believe you've got three or four other coupons specifically for that. But just to be clear, we are not on a date," he said emphatically. "Right now, we're on a mission, so I'm going to need you to focus on our objective: find Danny and get him to come back to school so he can testify for you."
I groaned at the reminder of the real reason we were here at the food court of an old, admittedly somewhat rundown mall. The mall marked the midway point between our school and the town where Daniel Manalo lived, as Kuya Evan explained to me at breakfast today. It was also a transportation hub, with several jeepney and bus lines passing through it, and Kuya Evan and Kuya Jack, who knew the area well, worked together to draw on a sheet of paper the best route for us to take to get to Danny's house. When Christian had wondered why we couldn't just have Mang Chito drive us all the way there, I explained that I wanted to show Danny that we weren't all that different from him, and somehow, being driven directly to his house by Christian's personal chauffer-cum-manservant in that huge black SUV that looked like something a shady politician or a gang lord would drive was not the best way to let people know we were just ordinary kids like him.
So we compromised and had Mang Chito drive us to this mall where we would meet up with him later, then take a jeepney the rest of the way. Mang Chito had been doubtful at first, and only relented in the face of Christian's breezy but firm insistence that the two of us could handle commuting to some unknown part of the city, although he did insist on remaining on standby in case anything happened so he could come pick us up.
Later, as we stood at the mall entrance watching the SUV rumble away, a bright smile still pinned to my boyfriend's face, I took him by the hand and drew him away from the stream of people entering the mall, then faced him with my hands on my hips. "Christian, be honest: You've never taken public transportation before, have you?" I demanded, struggling to hide my laughter.
He gave me a disdainful look that was a hundred percent pure Nikki. "What're you talking about? Of course, I have. You can't live in New York City without—"
I shook my head. "Not in New York. Here. You've never taken a bus or a jeepney or a tricycle before, have you?"
"Yeah, I have," he blustered, and I gave him credit for sticking to his guns even when the battle was clearly lost.
"Before I left for New York. We, er, were rushing this project for school and we had to have it book-bound, so a couple of us took a jeepney to the nearest book-binder."
"You mean from school?"
"Yeah." I stared at him until an embarrassed look stole over his face, because we both knew the nearest book-binding shop was a mere three-minute ride—or a five-minute walk—away from school. "We might've just run all the way there," he muttered, looking down at his feet like a chastened little boy.
The urge to tease him vanished, replaced instead by that familiar warm, fluttery feeling. Christian, who faced everything with a fearlessness that bordered on arrogance, had finally reached the limits of his comfort zone. Yet despite his unease in this unfamiliar situation, he still agreed without complaint to let me do things my way. Touched by his trust, I stepped closer and gave him a hug, murmuring "thank you."
"Anytime, Turtle," he replied, hugging me back. "So long as one of us knows what she's doing."
"If you mean me, I actually don't," I admitted with a sigh. "I'm mostly making things up as I go, and I get the feeling that looking for Danny's house is going to be the easy part. I mean, what if I can't convince him to come back? He's my only chance to prove my innocence, but what if I fail? What if he—?"
"Hey now, don't start down that road." He stopped my own litany of worries by touching his finger to my lips, then clasping me by the shoulders. "Listen, Joy, I just watched you kick both Ollie's and Gladys' asses in chess so badly nobody wanted to touch the board while you were there. You didn't just prove Jenneth's point, you made enough for him to buy the death-by-chocolate special at Bunny Vanilla. So just think about this whole thing with Danny as a chess match, and I'm pretty sure you'll figure out your next moves easily."
I giggled at the memory of my best friend, whom we'd left gleefully counting the money he'd made from his betting pool after our section's reselection games had been concluded. "I think Lyn made him a lot more money when she won against Jasmine. He doctored the odds in Jasmine's favor, after all, which—I don't know, does that count as cheating? But anyway, you're right. It does help to think about this as a chess match. Thanks for the advice."
"Man, Jenneth came out the clear winner in these games, huh? Not you or Teo or Lyn," Christian chortled as we entered the mall and headed to the food court for a late lunch. "Let's hope for his sake the others never figure out that the house always wins."
The House always wins. I recalled his words now as I took out the map my older House brothers made and studied it again. Christian had meant it as a joke about a totally unrelated thing, but I decided to take it as divine reassurance. The Lord knew I needed all the help I could get.
We left the mall shortly later. Despite his worries, the jeepney and subsequent tricycle ride turned out to be uneventful, although it must have been fairly uncomfortable for him to be the object of so many open and covert stares as we sat inside the crowded jeepney. He kept our fingers laced together tightly throughout our entire trip, and I wondered with amusement which one of us it was meant to reassure. Both of us, I suspected.
We turned a corner and were soon rumbling down Daniel Manalo's street in a subdivision that consisted of small business establishments, restaurants and sari-sari stores mixed in with single houses and townhouses laid out along the grid-like streets. It was a starkly middle-class community, nothing fancy or posh, but with a kind of genteel, dignified air. Several people were standing around outside a house chatting. They stared at us as we exited the tricycle, and I was suddenly glad we'd decided to commute here, thus saving Danny from even more curious questions from his neighbors.
The address Kuya Evan gave us led to a red gate in front of a two-story house. I rang the doorbell, and after a while a young woman in a T-shirt and shorts peeked out from between the slats.
"Good afternoon. Is this Daniel Manalo's house?" I asked. "We're classmates of his from St. Helene Academy. Um, may we talk to him?"
The woman opened her mouth to reply, caught sight of Christian, and gaped instead. I sighed inwardly. I was going to have to get used to reactions like this if I was going to spend any amount of time with my boyfriend out in public.
"Shayna, who is that at the gate? Shayna?"
The woman's face disappeared at the strident query. "Classmates of Danny. They want to talk to him."
"Ha? He ain't here. Tell them to go away."
"B-but Ma'am, they might be Danny's friends…"
The woman's voice petered off, and through the slats, I saw an old woman in a house dress marching toward the gate, holding a palm-stick broom in her hand as if it were a weapon. Her wizened frame was as stiff as a military general's, her lined face seemingly permanently carved in a scowl of disapproval, and I gulped and wondered irrationally if we were about to get the palm-stick-broom-to-the-head treatment.
The old lady pushed the other woman aside and thrust her face into the space between the slats, and I found myself retreating a step from both her glower and the penetrating smell of tiger balm rolling off of her. "Who are you?" she demanded. I repeated my introduction and request to speak to Danny, but the old woman was unmoved. "He ain't here," she said curtly. "He's almost never here, and when he is, he's holed up in that room of his. You'd better leave." Then she paused and squinted at us suspiciously. "Both of you are that boy's classmates, you say?"
"Um, well, we're not technically his classmates," I explained, trying not to let the unfriendly vibes rattle me. "We're a year ahead of him but we are from the same school, and we were, um, we wanted to—"
"I'm his teammate in the Self-Defense Club, Ma'am," Christian cut in smoothly, aiming his most charming smile at the old lady, who seemed to be of the rare breed of female that was completely impervious to it. "We've been wondering about Danny since he hasn't been coming to class or attending training, so we came to check on him and see if he's okay."
"So Danny has friends after all," the woman murmured from somewhere to the side.
The old lady threw her a glare, followed by the palm-stick broom, judging by the sharp rustling noise. "Go sweep the backyard," she snapped, before turning back to us again. "My worthless grandson's made trouble for you, I see. Well, he ain't around right now and I don't know if he's coming home, so there's really nothing for you here."
"Can't we wait for him to come home or something? Please, it's really important that we talk to him," I said desperately, feeling my last chance at proving my innocence slipping away.
Christian's hand landed on my shoulder. "Let's go, Joy. Like she said, he's not around. We're sorry to bother you, Ma'am," he said to the old lady, nodding politely at her.
"What're you doing? We can't leave yet," I hissed as he steered me back along the street in the direction we'd come from, feeling the old lady's gimlet stare boring into our backs as if making sure that the enemies at the gate had been firmly driven off.
"Just roll with it," he hissed back. "We're not going far, just to the corner of the street."
I gave him a perplexed look, then shrugged and decided to go along with his weirdness. "Did you hear what she said? She doesn't know if he's coming home?" I said, pouncing on the part of our exchange with the old lady that had bothered me the most. "She didn't seem all that upset about the possibility of her grandson never coming home again, did she?"
"Something tells me Danny and his grandma don't get along," Christian commented dryly as he took my hand in his. "Then again, it's a little hard to imagine her getting along with anyone. She'd probably bar the gate against the Pope if he ever showed up at her place, and maybe even give him a whack or two with that broom."
I giggled at the mental image. "No kidding. I wonder if she ever—" I stopped when I noticed a flash of yellow from the corner of my eye. "Hey, isn't that the girl from—"
His hand squeezed mine, but his pace didn't slow. "Yeah, I saw. Just keep walking."
Intrigued now, I fell silent as I walked beside him, dissuaded by the warning look on his face from glancing back over my shoulder. We turned at the street corner and walked a few more steps. Then Christian stopped, winked at me, and doubled back to the corner, pressing his back to the wall that bordered the townhouse on the corner and seeming to count underneath his breath. I watched him for a moment, then tried to peek around the corner, but he pulled me back, muttering, "Not yet."
He finished his countdown, then together we peered carefully around the corner. The girl in the yellow dress and jeans whom we'd seen at the food court earlier had left the sari-sari store where I'd spotted her a minute ago. She was walking down the street, her back to us, her long hair catching on the straps of a green backpack that looked ready to burst.
I've seen that backpack before. That thought was all I had time for before Christian grabbed my hand again and set off after the girl at a brisk jog, forcing me to break into a run beside him. The girl didn't hear us coming, and only noticed our approach when she had brought out her key and was unlocking the red gate from which we'd come. She whipped around to face us, eyes wide with panic, and through the heart-pounding haze of exertion, I could see her face turn a peculiar shade of greenish white.
She glanced around wildly, her body language screaming cornered animal, but Christian was already upon her. He slowed to a cautious approach, barely winded from our dash down the street, while I staggered behind him and bent over, wheezing like an asthmatic cat. The kerchief around my throat had come loose, and I tugged it off and used it to mop the sweat from my face, making a mental note to pick up the pace during my early morning jogs because I clearly had a long way to go before I could keep up with him.
His next words sent a ripple of shock through me: "Danny. I thought it was you."
"Uh, no, I—" the girl stuttered in a voice that was a bit too low in register for a girl, and I straightened and took a good look at her. Underneath the long hair and artfully applied makeup was a thin, angular face with a prominent chin and just a hint of a shadows on the corners of her upper lips. The "girl's" eyelids were droopy, the eyes bloodshot, ringed with bluish circles that the makeup couldn't quite conceal and, at the moment, huge with disbelief and denial. Her thin frame hunched in on itself in a defensive gesture, as if it was striving to make itself as small a target as possible.
Then I looked at her face again, mentally erased the hair, the dress and the makeup, replaced them with our school uniform, kept the backpack…and my heart raced for a different reason. We'd found Daniel Manalo at last, the boy whom Tony had bullied into delivering me to him, and who'd disappeared from St. Helene shortly after that.
Daniel looked as if he was about to bolt, so Christian raised his hands in the universal sign to indicate that he was harmless. "Hey, it's good to see you," he said, giving him a disarming grin. "We've been missing you at the SDC. Even Guro Marcial's been wondering where you went. Are you okay?"
Daniel stared blankly at him, as if Christian had suddenly spoken in Swahili. Then his gaze flicked toward me and recognition flashed in his eyes, followed by fear and dread.
Just then, the gate flew open, revealing his furious grandmother. Her brows snapped together at the sight of her grandson, and before any of us could react, her hand shot out and found the soft skin above his armpit, where it was exposed by the dress' sleeves. She pinched him hard, pulling his skin and twisting it so that Daniel yelped and curled in on himself.
"You went out again looking like that?!" she shouted as she emerged from the gate, snatching the wig off of Danny's head and shaking it in his face. "You abominable, unnatural boy, how many times are you going to shame our family?! I'll tell your father, don't think I won't! You ain't getting a cent out of him this time. And what terrible thing have you done now to make these people look for you?!" She swept an arm out to indicate Christian and me and we flinched away, trying to stay out of range of her pincers. "Even when you ain't going to school, you still cause nothing but trouble. When are you ever going to shape up, you stupid child?"
"I didn't do anything," Danny protested weakly, but his grandmother had become aware by then of the stares from the neighbors on the street. She herded all three of us through the gate, and I winced when I felt her gnarled fingers dig into my back.
"Get in, get in. You can't be making a scene outside. What will the neighbors think?" she castigated as she slammed the gate shut behind us, conveniently ignoring her own role in the aforementioned scene. "You, boy, take them to that nasty cave of yours and let them deal with you the way you deserve. And as for you two—" she glared at us, her jaw jutting out belligerently, "—if it's recompense you want, you'll have to wait until his father comes home, because you ain't getting a thing from me."
"Listen, Ma'am, we're not—" Christian began heatedly, but I grabbed his arm and shook my head to warn him to control his temper. Not that Daniel's termagant of a grandmother noticed, since she was already storming off into the house, pitching the wig into a corner where it lay like a particularly hairy dead rat.
The other woman approached from the direction of the backyard and was now looking at Danny with a sympathetic expression. "Go on, go take your friends to your room. I'll bring you some snacks," she said, then glanced up at the sky. "Better hurry. It looks like rain."
Danny barely acknowledged her, or us. His head hung low, one hand absently rubbing the red welt above his armpit, seemingly in deep thought. Finally, he glanced sideways at us, his eyes dull and expressionless, which we took to mean that we should follow him. He led us to the back of the house, revealing a small but neat backyard garden. Beside the backdoor that led into the kitchen was another, smaller door, which was firmly secured with a double lock. He stopped in front of it, but instead unlocking the door, he just stood there with his head down, the small bunch of keys dangling from his hand.
A rumble of thunder confirmed Shayna's prediction of rain. "Danny? Are you okay?" I asked when it passed.
His shoulders twitched, but instead of unlocking the door, he shrugged his backpack off and let it drop it to the ground. Without turning around, he said: "Just hit me already."
I wondered if I'd heard right. "Um, what?"
"Just hit me. Beat me up or whatever. Nobody in this house is going to stop you. Just get it over with, so you can go away and leave me alone."
Christian and I exchanged worried looks. "Look, that's not what we're here for," he said.
"I know what you're here for…Garbage Girl." His keys jingled as Danny turned around and glared at me. "You're here because I lied to you and brought you to Tony Yuchengco, and now that you've told the prince on me, he wants payback." He aimed his baleful stare at Christian next. "Yeah, I've heard about you, too. They say you almost killed someone in your old school. You're like a one-man street gang or something. That's why everybody's so nice to you. They're all too afraid to risk it. So don't either of you start pretending you're my friend or something," he added with a sneer. "There's only one reason you'd even bother to find out about me. I'm stupid, but I'm not that stupid."
Beside me, Christian went still. I took a deep breath, trying to summon the patience I needed to convince this kid to help me, but instead what came out was: "That's not fair and you know it! Stop listening to those stupid rumors. You were in the same club as him, so you should—"
I heard the note of warning in Christian's voice just before he stepped forward and shoved Danny against the door. The size difference between the two boys was stark, but even though his face had gone chalk-white and his body unconsciously flattened itself against the door as if attempting to pass right through it, Danny still continued to glare hopeless defiance at him.
Christian gave him a sneer of his own. "You haven't been around lately so I'm going to bring you up to speed. Because of what you did, Tony dragged Joy off to a hotel and took photos to blackmail her. Now those photos are all over school, and her reputation's totally ruined. Not only that, if the teachers find out, she'll lose her scholarship and be forced to drop out. Her life at school is hell, and you helped make it that way."
His voice turned into a growl, and he slammed his open palm against the door, causing Danny to flinch and drop his gaze. "Christian, wait, don't—" I began, reaching out to grab his arm, but a gasp from the side drew our attention to where Shayna stood just outside the other door leading to the kitchen, clutching a tray with three glasses of orange juice and a plate of cookies to her chest.
"Ah," she squeaked, her eyes huge and alarmed as her gaze flitted back and forth between the two boys. "I-is everything—are they…harassing you, Danny? Should I—should I call—"
"No!" Danny shouted, giving Shayna a frantically pleading look. "Leave it. Just leave it alone. I'm fine, okay?"
"B-but if they're harassing you—"
"They're not harassing me," he said through gritted teeth. "I did something and now I have to—look, just go back inside before Lola finds you here and yells at you again. Just go, okay?" he cried, and my anger over the nasty things he'd said about Christian dissolved when I heard the catch in his voice, as if he was a couple of breaths away from breaking down in tears.
Shayna continued to hover uncertainly, torn between wanting to protect Danny and her fear of the old termagant. I went over to take the tray from her, giving her my most reassuring smile. "Thank you for the snack. Oh, these butter cookies look so cute. Everything's okay now, Ma'am. We'll be finished talking real soon."
The termagant herself came to our rescue when her bellow rang through the house, and Shayna quickly disappeared. As I walked back to the boys with the tray in my hands, Christian leaned away and raked Danny with a contemptuous look. "Looks like you've given this some thought after all. You seem to be big on the idea of payback. So tell me, how are you planning to make up to Joy for what you did? It was your lie that led her right into Tony's hands. How are you going to pay her back for what she's going through because of you?"
With dramatic timing, thunder rumbled again, and a moment later, the rain began to pour. Danny looked at me, the emptiness in his eyes giving way to a pained uncertainty, before staring down at the ground again. "What're you gonna do about it?" he muttered. "Tell my grandma and dad? My dad's not even here, and Lola thinks I'm shit anyway, so it won't make any difference. You gonna make a fool out of me at school? Threaten to get me expelled? I'm dropping out of St. Helene anyway, so why should I care about any of that? Other than beating me up, there's nothing you can do to me now."
He smirked at us, and it would've worked too if I hadn't heard that little catch in his voice again. But at the moment, I couldn't focus on anything except his dismaying revelation. "You're dropping out? But why? Why such a drastic choice?"
Danny shrugged. "I just want to disappear. It's not like anyone would care if I did."
"If you're going to say you care, bite me," he snapped, glowering at me. "You're here for something, I don't know what, but can we not pretend that you two actually give a shit about a stupid freak like me? Can we, huh?"
"You know what, Joy? I think he's right. Let's just give him the payback he wants," Christian interjected, punching his fist into his other hand and grinning with unholy anticipation. Danny cringed in fear, caught himself, then braced himself for the blow.
"No. No, we can't beat him up. This isn't how—wait, um, can I put this thing down somewhere? It's a bit heavy." I lifted the tray meaningfully, then glanced up at the sky. "And while we're at it, could we please get out of the rain?"
Caught off guard by my request, Danny eyed the tray with a befuddled expression, then gazed out at the water coming down from the sky, and sighed in defeat. "Oh, all right," he said ungraciously before grabbing his backpack, unlocking the door and switching the light on.
Christian and I entered a room that left us both blinking from the visual overload. The place was smaller than my dorm room, and every inch was full of stuff. A shelf on one side of the room was a riot of color, with compartments crammed full of folded fabrics, spools of thread, ribbons and lace, rolls of paper and spiral notebooks, and even smaller drawers stacked together full of who knew what. On another side was a desk similarly covered in clutter, including cans containing oddly-shaped rulers, scissors and pens. A tape measure and scraps of cloth were scraped away from the middle of the desk, which was occupied by an open sketchbook and several coloring pens. Beside the desk was an old, black Singer treadle sewing machine with a cheap, plastic chair in front of it, nearly buried in lengths of fabric. With most of the sewing paraphernalia occupying the room, all the rest of Danny's stuff had been exiled to the bed, including his clothes, school books, and stacks of fashion magazines on the floor beside it. On the wall beside the bed was a corkboard bulletin board, and every inch of this too was covered with sketches interspersed with clippings of models in beautiful outfits.
"Whoa, look at all this," Christian said as he scanned the room. My own gaze was drawn to the dressmaker's mannequin that stood in one corner. The mannequin was wearing a short, one-shoulder dress that looked as if it had been sewn together from three different colored fabrics. Behind it, two more dresses hung from clothes hangers on hooks—one a red shift dress with an asymmetric flounced hem made of frothy white fabric, and the other a plum-colored sleeveless sheath dress with a band of ivory lace netting bisecting the middle.
At Danny's instructions, I set the tray down on the desk after he'd hastily slammed the sketchbook shut and shoved it into the desk drawer. "You made all these?" I asked in astonishment. "Even the dress you're wearing now?"
Danny stood stiffly in the middle of the room, a flush on his otherwise pale face as he watched us prowl around his private sanctuary. In reply to my question, he nodded. "This is amazing. You're amazing, Danny," I marveled, examining the dresses more closely. "Oh, I love this red one. It's elegant and quirky, like a strawberry smoothie with whipped cream."
Danny blinked and pressed his lips tightly together, as if to keep himself from saying anything. "Okay, this is genuinely impressive," Christian declared as he came to stand beside me, a smile of wonder on his face. "So are all your creations girls' dresses?"
Danny's eyes flashed. "You got a problem with that?"
"Not unless you do," Christian retorted, raising an eyebrow.
Danny opened his mouth to reply, closed it again, then shrugged and looked away. "I like girls' dresses. I like making them. I like wearing them. And I like knowing anyone who wears them looks good in them," he muttered, his flush deepening.
Christian shook his head. "Seriously, dude, your scary grandma's got it all wrong. Then again, she wouldn't know a fashion designer's studio if she tripped and fell face-first into it, huh?"
An odd huffing noise escaped Danny's lips, and he turned aside and coughed into his fist. I perked up at the sound and glanced at Christian to see if he noticed it too, and caught the small smile on his face as he studied the dress on the mannequin.
I moved over to the bulletin board, my gaze roving over Danny's sketches and his magazine clippings. Among the array of foreign fashion models were several ads featuring one familiar-looking model: an ethereally beautiful young girl with long, reddish-brown hair perched on top of a concrete fence in front of a school. She wore an outfit that looked like a school uniform that had sexy touches like a really short skirt and a blouse that showed off her middle.
"Oh, it's the Shoujo Shine Girl," I exclaimed, proud to find someone I recognized. The Shoujo Shine Girl, the image model of a famous Japanese fashion line for teens, was something of a pop icon who'd exploded onto the scene from seemingly out of nowhere. "She's so pretty. And to think she's younger than us," I said with a sigh. "I wonder who she really is."
"Nobody knows. She's a total mystery, and that's part of what makes her so popular," Danny said as he came over to me, his face soft as he gazed at the clippings of the Shoujo Shine Girl. "Her proportions are perfect, and I love the way she does those sexy moves so naturally, even though she's so beautiful and pure it's unreal. In fact, the last dress I made is for her…wait."
He unzipped his backpack, pulled out several packages that he'd likely purchased at the mall, then carefully unearthed a folded bit of clothing. He shook it out, revealing a pink gingham dress with bell sleeves and a button-down front that didn't cut straight down, but curved to the side so that the gap between the edges of the cloth opened above the thigh to reveal a healthy flash of leg, as Danny demonstrated by holding the dress up against himself.
"I've been studying Orion Kenichi's style, see—he's the founder of Shoujo Shine—and how he blends different and even opposing elements into his designs," he chattered, apparently forgetting that he was addressing his would-be tormenters. "It makes his outfits exciting to look at, like you're expecting the unexpected. And the Shoujo Shine Girl brings out the best of his designs because she's kind of the expected-unexpected herself."
I observed him in fascination, wondering if he was even aware of how confident and articulate he sounded when he was talking about his passion. Both he and his grandmother claimed that he was stupid, and knowing how E-section kids were treated, he probably saw no reason to change his mind. But as I listened to him expound on his theory that every girl was a bundle of contrasting qualities, and a good designer had to know how bring out each quality as Orion Kenichi did, I realized he wasn't stupid at all. The fact that he seemed so out of step with the rest of us might actually be a sign of his strength, not his weakness.
"You know, I've got a second cousin who's a model himself," Christian mused as he came to stand beside me. "Kuya Von's a theater kid, and kind of the black sheep of his clan. Last I heard, he'd joined the same modeling agency that's handling the Shoujo Shine Girl."
Danny and I both turned to him. "Your second cousin knows the Shoujo Shine Girl?" Danny demanded.
"Your second cousin's a model?" I said with interest, both surprised and unsurprised to learn that Christian's genetic lineage produced actual models as well as people who only looked like models. "Will I get to meet him someday?"
Christian gave us a look. To Danny, he said: "Don't get your hopes up. We're not really close to that branch of the Garcia clan, so I probably won't be able to wrangle a meeting between you and the Shoujo Shine Girl through Kuya Von. And as for you—" He gave me a ferocious scowl. "After that reaction? No. You're never going to meet him, ever. Not if I can help it."
He'd played it up as a joke, but I saw the glint of possessiveness in his eyes. I took his hand and gave it a squeeze, trying to tell him that he had absolutely nothing to be insecure about, and he smiled back wryly in reply.
The joke worked, though, because Danny made that weird huffing noise again. "Jeez. I can't believe you two haven't—" He stopped and turned pale again when he recalled the situation he was in, his defenses slamming back into place. He moved to the center of the room, one arm crossing his middle protectively. "Getting beaten up here inside this room is kind of…but it doesn't matter now," he said with a shrug, the hopeless look creeping back over his face. "I'm moving away soon anyway, so who cares what my last memories here are?"
Christian grimaced. "You know, it's getting kind of creepy how you're so fixated on getting beaten up. Especially while you're wearing that dress."
Two scarlet spots appeared on Danny's cheeks as he glared at Christian. "You didn't come here to pretend to give a shit about me or my freaky hobbies either, so what are you here for?"
"Christian." I squeezed my boyfriend's hand again before he could say anything. He looked at me, and again I noticed the corners of his mouth lifting in a tiny smile. "I'll take it from here," I said.
His smile widened fractionally. Then he moved away to lean back against the desk, helping himself to the juice and butter cookies while Danny regarded him with some bewilderment.
I turned to him. "Okay, Danny, straight talk. I do need something from you."
"I knew it." He looked away, but not before I noticed the mix of relief and disappointment in his eyes.
"Things are exactly how Christian said they are," I ploughed on. "I'm in a serious pickle right now thanks to Tony Yuchengco, and I need someone to testify that I didn't willingly go with him to that hotel. Maybe then I'd be able to keep my scholarship and stay in school."
He stared at me for a while, then plopped down on his bed. Not waiting for an invitation, I turned the chair around and sat down in it as well. "That's what you need me for, huh?" he snorted. "Sorry, but I won't do it. I'm never going back to that school, not for anything. I've already signed the transfer papers. I'm done with St. Helene."
Christian and I exchanged glances, but instead of an explosion of outrage on my behalf, he simply nodded as he munched on a cookie. I took a deep breath, hoping my boyfriend's equanimity and supply of cookies held out a bit longer. "You're wrong. That's not what I need from you." When Danny gave me a puzzled look, I leaned forward and asked: "What happened to you in school? What's gotten so bad that you have to drop out completely?"
"Don't act like you actually care," he bit out again.
I shook my head, praying I could find the right words to reach him. Be honest. He's going to sense any lie you say. "I didn't, before I met you," I told him candidly. "Before today, I just thought of you as a solution to my own problems. I didn't know who you were. I didn't even know your name. Christian remembered you from the SDC, but he didn't know much about you either. Before today—I'm sorry, but you weren't much of a person to us. Before today."
"Before today," Danny echoed skeptically.
I smiled and lifted my hands to indicate his room. "I don't need to be lifelong buddies with you to care about this. You've got an awesome talent, Danny, you've got so much passion and skill—and you've kept it hidden all this time? If people knew—"
"People do know. That's why I'm leaving," he cut in bluntly. At my look of shock, he hunched over his knees, looking small and vulnerable. "Even in my section, they hate me. They call me a creep and a pervert because I look at the girls and draw them. Then they got hold of my backpack and found a dress I'd been working on…Tony happened to see it, and that's how he knew…" His voice broke, and he swiped a hand over his eyes. "Nobody talks to me. Nobody wants to be seen with me. And after they found the dress, the guys in my class took me to the back of the gym and kicked me around for being a pervert. I thought I could join the SDC and learn how to not get beaten up and maybe—maybe make some friends, too, you know? But nobody saw me there either. They only saw the prince. So I thought, what's the use? I'm just a stupid, creepy pervert in a dress that nobody wants around and that's never gonna change, so I might as well just go away."
Tears stung my eyes as well, and acting on impulse, I left the chair and knelt in front of Danny, who recoiled at my sudden proximity. "What, are you gonna say you know how I feel?" he snarled, the impact of his hostility tempered somewhat by the redness in his eyes. "You gonna say you totally understand but things aren't as bad as they seem and I'm being an even bigger loser by quitting?" I answered no, but he was too caught up in his rant to hear it. "Well, you can shove it, okay? What do you know? You're in the A-section. You're the girl the prince likes. And you've always got friends around you. How would you know what it's like to have people hate you so much you might as well not exist?"
"Danny!" I hollered, and he flinched but at least he calmed down a bit. "I don't know how you feel, okay? I don't understand what you've been through. I'm sorry, but I can't. I'm not you." I wiped my own tears away, then added with quiet ferocity: "But you yourself called me Garbage Girl, so I can say I know what it's like to be hated and bullied and ignored by everyone. Just like you."
I saw the moment the realization hit him—the flicker of emotion in his eyes was unmistakable. Then he transferred his gaze to Christian, who had stopped shoving cookies into his mouth and was watching us with his arms crossed over his chest, his expression sober. "W-well, what about him then? He's the freaking prince of St. Helene. What does he know about the things we go through in that shitty school?" Danny said to me.
The freaking prince of St. Helene could speak for himself. "Hey, I know you've heard the rumors about me, but have you ever wondered how true they are? Ever wonder how true any of the stories you hear about the rest of us are, good or bad? Because if we could be so totally wrong about you, then maybe, just maybe, you could be wrong about us, too," Christian pointed out, causing Danny to gape at him as if he'd never seen him before. Well, not this serious, insightful side of Christian anyway, I thought with a smile, remembering how he'd said more or less the same thing to me the night we fought after Tony had taken me.
But Christian wasn't done yet. "See, I happen to think all of us are hiding behind masks. I'll tell you this, though. Those popular kids at school? They're the ones with the most to hide. But now you've seen a little of what's underneath my mask, so how about we call it quits between us?" He gave Danny a crooked grin, which in light of his earlier display of aggression, felt like a blast of sunshine after a storm. "By the way, if you try reaching out to the others in the SDC, I'm pretty sure they'll be glad to be your friend. And I'll teach you a few moves if you want. We'll make those assholes think twice before trying to kick you around again."
For a moment, Danny looked torn and confused. Sensing an opening, I decided to press my advantage, using the insight into Danny that Christian had managed to uncover a while back. "I know Tony forced you to bring me to him, and I know you feel bad about that. You feel so bad you've been trying to get Christian to literally beat you up over it, but that's not how I want you to make up for lying to me and getting me into trouble."
Danny scowled again. "I already told you, I'm not going—"
"I want you to make me a dress," I blurted, then held my breath.
For a moment, there was silence in the room, which was broken by Danny's flat "huh?"
Nervously, I glanced back at Christian but to my relief he remained silent, although his face had creased into a perplexed frown. "Y-yes, a dress. That's how you can make up for what you did," I announced, turning back to Danny, my mind scrambling to piece together the idea that had struck me a while ago. "I've always wanted a dress, but all the dresses being sold are made for thin girls with pale skin, not—" I glanced down at myself. "Not, you know, Garbage Girls like me," I finished with a self-conscious laugh.
Again, the note of warning in my boyfriend's voice. Whoops. It looked like I was in for another round of punishment-tickles. Danny, though, looked shamefaced. "Look, I'm sorry I said—" he began, but I shook my head.
"Never mind that. I just want a dress. Something casual but pretty that'll fit me and not make me look like a giftwrapped sausage. Something like that one." Smiling brightly, I pointed at his yellow dress. "We saw you in line at the food court at the mall earlier, and I thought your dress is really cute. Could you make me one like it? I'll pay for it, of course," I added, doing some quick mental calculations. Two weekends, I decided. I'll work two full weekends at Lola Delia's for this. Three, if I need to. "You accept commissions, right? Well, even if you don't, you'll have to accept this one, because like Christian said, you owe me," I added, giving him a sweet but pointed smile.
Finally, Danny recovered enough of his composure to give me a suspicious look. "So you…don't want me to speak up for you against Tony?"
"No. I mean, I want you to, since that would really be a huge help to me," I hastily clarified. "But it's okay if you don't. I understand the way you feel about the school." I thought about the case against Tara's cronies being dismissed and the other girls going unpunished thanks to big-time Madrigal money, then about all the other incidents of bullying that had happened to me and my friends and other kids like Danny and Miguel Santillan—incidents that had been buried or written off or ignored. "Believe me, I get it," I added darkly.
"So all you want…is a dress?" His voice cracked at the end, and he sent Christian a look that clearly asked, Is she right in the head?
"Well, not just a dress," I hedged, not daring to find out my boyfriend's response to that. "I want to make a bet with you. I bet that in the time it takes you to make me a dress, I can give you a good reason to stay in St. Helene, one that'll outweigh the reasons for dropping out."
"What?" When Danny managed to reel his mouth shut again, he stated in flat disbelief: "You've got to be kidding me. You'd lose that bet. Don't you get it? I've already dropped out. It's a done deal."
"No, it isn't." We both turned to Christian, and he shrugged. "You said you've signed the transfer papers. You didn't say anything about filing them. And even if you have, it takes the admin two weeks to process a transfer application. Trust me, I know." When Danny's jaw hit the floor yet again, Christian flashed him an incandescently innocent grin. "Until then, you're still considered a student, so you can come and go around the campus. You can even watch the games during the sportsfest next week if you want," he threw in casually.
Then he noticed me staring at him in surprise, and gave me a lopsided, knowing smile. Relief, gratitude and sweet warmth rushed through me when his unspoken message sank in: He not only figured out what I was trying to do, he was going to help me do it. And with all that had happened, it was still an incredible feeling, knowing that Christian had my back.
Emboldened by the feeling, I got to my feet and smiled down at Danny, who was beginning to look dazed. "Two weeks is enough time for you to make me a dress. It's also enough time for you to win that bet. If you think you can, that is. You're already dead-set on dropping out anyway, so what've you got to lose? In fact, making me a dress is going to be tougher for you than winning that bet." I looked down at myself again and murmured: "Impossible, even. You've probably never made anything for a girl who isn't built like the Shoujo Shine Girl."
"But what are we even betting?" Danny asked even as he got up and went to his desk for a tape measure, a notepad and a pencil, a new, telltale gleam of challenge as his eyes.
"If I win, and at the end of two weeks I manage to change your mind about dropping out, then I—I get to keep the dress for free. An original Daniel Manalo. Beat that!" I said cheerfully, unable really to think of anything else. "And if you win, then I…I, um…"
"We help you move out of here to your new place," Christian put in.
Danny gawped at him. "I'm moving in with my aunt and sister. They live in my mom's home province. Like, way up in the north," he said incredulously.
Christian didn't bat an eyelash. "So we bring you there, along with all your stuff. Free moving service, the works."
"You've got to be kidding me," Danny muttered again as I eyed him—or more specifically, his tape measure—warily. "I don't get you two. Why are you doing this? What do you get out of this?"
"A new friend, for one." I smiled at him again, still keeping a vigilant eye on that approaching tape measure. "Whether you like it or not, you're our friend now. And I aim to show you how much more fun life in school is when you've got friends behind you. It's what helped me throughout that whole Garbage Girl thing after all." I gave him a quick rundown of All Rise, and when he balked at the idea of becoming friends with the "loser" House kids, I gently reminded him that if anybody could relate to what he was going through, it was kids who'd had similar experiences. "You know, you were right to join the SDC. Between them and us, you'll find people who'll help you, and you can help others in the same situation as you. In fact, you've already started. You've got Christian and me now. Um, what're you doing?"
Danny paused when he noticed I was backing away from his tape measure. "I'm going to take your measurements," he said, looking puzzled. "I need to, so I can make your dress."
"Oh my gosh, no." Appalled, I imagined every fatty roll and lump of lard on my body jiggling mockingly, then slipping and sliding around to evade the tape measure's capture. I shot Christian a panicked look as a hot wave of embarrassment swept through me. Oh please no, not in front of him. "Um, sh-shouldn't you start with a design first or something?"
Danny blinked. "I guess so, but I'll have to take your measurements some time anyway."
"Send me a text then and I'll meet you—ah, I'll meet you at the Citimall or something." Preferably in some hidden stairwell or distant corner with lousy acoustics, I added silently.
"Not without me you won't," Christian cut in, fixing me a level stare. "I'm not letting some guy know my girlfriend's body measurements while I don't."
I scrunched my face up at him. "Wha—are you serious?"
My inconveniently possessive and over-protective boyfriend raised his eyebrows. "Take a guess," he answered in a voice completely devoid of the opposite of serious.
Our stalemate was broken when Danny laughed his odd, huffing laugh again and tossed his instruments of torture back onto his desk. "Yeah, uh, I think I'll start with the design after all. Please don't mess up my room even more. And, um…I still don't get it but…thanks for coming to see me…Ate Joy, Kuya Christian," he said shyly. We smiled back warmly, pleasantly surprised to hear the respectful titles for big sister and big brother coming from him.
Then he added with a worryingly earnest air: "And I promise not to tell anyone about your secret."
Christian and I exchanged baffled looks. "What secret?" I asked.
"That you two are married."
There was a beat of silence, then Christian twisted aside and attempted to muffle his laughter behind his fist. Tossing him a disgusted look, I explained to Danny: "Thanks, but we're not married. Did you overhear us at the line earlier? Well, this big doofus was just kidding around."
"But you guys are…" Danny trailed off, turned beet-red, and pointed at my neck—specifically, at the blotches on my throat, which I'd forgotten to cover up again with the kerchief.
My own face went up in flames. "That's not what—we're not married—mmph!"
I stared unblinkingly up at Christian as he pulled away after spinning me around and covering my lips in a searing kiss. He turned to Danny, grinned like a cat, and said: "Yet."
It was twilight by the time we left Danny's house and walked down the street, heading toward a McDonalds' near Danny's street where Mang Chito, who had finally succumbed to anxiety and called us, had said he was going to pick us up, cutting short the young master's first foray into public commuting. The rain had stopped by then, leaving everything sparkling and shiny underneath the streetlights. We left Danny stuck in the middle of another ear-ringing, insult-strewn tirade from his grandmother, who took exception to the fact that he was still wearing the dress and had somehow failed to get himself beaten to a pulp as she'd expected he would when she'd seen Christian, because it was unthinkable that anyone coming to visit him would actually be his friend.
As I listened to the termagant's voice fading away in the distance, I came to a decision. "We've got to get him out of there," I announced.
"Yeah," Christian replied, his face stony as he stared straight ahead.
"We've got to think of something."
"Showing him that he's got friends in school and an amazing talent won't be any help if his grandma just keeps shoving poison down his throat."
"But what are we going to do?" I wailed as my mind began to process everything that had gone on with Danny. "What can we actually do? Force him to move to the House? But he needs a studio to work in. We don't have room for that. And even if he changes his mind about leaving St. Helene, what if his dad doesn't let him? What if this plan backfires and he only gets bullied again? What if—"
Christian's shoulders shook as he chuckled, and he pulled me up against him and wrapped his arm around me in an affectionate half-hug. "Slow down. Let's take this one step at a time. Besides, you've got to widen your perspective," he added, grinning down at me when I looked confused. "Did you forget? This isn't just up to you, me and Danny. This is up to All Rise. You've got resources you don't know about yet, so don't give up so easily."
I smiled back weakly as his words eased a little of the anxiety curdling my stomach. "A-actually, I'm wondering how disappointed you are in me. I know you told me to focus on our objective and to think about this whole thing as a chess match. But I couldn't. I completely dropped the ball back there, and now I've lost my witness. My one chance to prove my innocence. You backed me up with Danny, and I'm really glad you did, but now…I'm sorry."
He stopped in his tracks, then pulled me to a bus stop at the side of the street and turned me around to face him. "You're sorry because you saw someone in trouble and you wanted to help? You're sorry because you put someone else's welfare above your own? Are you hearing yourself?" he demanded, both hands gripping my shoulders.
I giggled. "Well, okay, when you put it that way, it doesn't sound so bad."
"No, it doesn't," he agreed, his smile warming me from the inside out. "I'm glad you didn't think of that talk with Danny as a chess match. It was wrong of me to tell you that in the first place. But I'm not wrong about one thing: You'll be an awesome president of All Rise, Joy. I honestly can't think of a better person for the job than you."
Once again, tears stung my eyes, and when he leaned down toward me, I slid my arms around him and met him in a brief but intense kiss, uncaring if any passersby saw us. "I love you, Christian," I whispered as we drew back.
"I love you, too, Turtle."
"By the way, I want to ask you something," I said a short while later, giving him a sidelong look as we sat side by side at a window table at McDonalds, dining on cheeseburgers and fries as we waited for Mang Chito to arrive.
Christian stuck a fry in his mouth and said, "Shoot."
"That time you turned all scary on Danny…was that to force me to play good cop to your bad cop?"
Something flickered in his chocolate eyes, a kind of cool sharpness sliding underneath the warmth. "One of us had to, and sorry Joy, but you couldn't play bad cop if you tried," he replied with a teasing grin, stroking my cheek with the backs of his fingers. "Anyway, how could you tell? I thought I was pretty convincing."
"You were, until you did this." I demonstrated the fist-punching-an-open-hand gesture that he did earlier. "That was so straight out of a gangster TV show that it gave you away."
He laughed ruefully. "Okay, I guess I overdid it."
"Hmm." Turning aside, I regarded him through our reflection on the window, thinking about how, for at least a duration of the exchange, both Danny and I had played the game according to Christian's rules. I had an inkling of why he did it. I'd been about to pick a fight with Danny myself after he'd echoed those stupid rumors about him, and probably would've ended up alienating him even further if Christian hadn't stepped in and focused Danny's anger on himself. He picked up on Danny's motives before I did, and even though my sudden change of plans had thrown him, he figured out my own intentions quickly enough to support me.
Honestly. For years, Christian had been proclaiming that I was smarter than him, but sometimes…sometimes I wondered.
"Oh yeah, about tomorrow…"
I became aware that he was gazing right back at me through our reflection in the window, his smile knowing. "Hmm? What about tomorrow?" I said, blushing at being caught staring.
"You're watching the game, right?"
"Of course, I am. It's your first game. I wouldn't miss it," I declared, then sighed. "And I promise to stick close to my friends and stay where you can keep an eye on me. I won't do anything as idiotic as go running off to Tony again."
"Good." His face went hard, and the cold sharpness returned—a glint of steel in his eyes that not even the dim reflection in the window could hide. He turned toward me fully, and this time, the dangerous smile on his face was the real deal. "Because you've had your chance to try and get Danny on our side. Tomorrow, we're doing things my way."
Gah! I'm so sorry! This took too damn long, which is partly why I let the update ramble on to over 11,000 words. I honestly think I should've broken this into two parts, but I couldn't figure out where to break it. Well, anyway, I hope you guys took breaks while reading it. Honestly, it helps a bit more to think of this update not as a chapter in a novel, but as a 45-minute episode in a long-running drama series prone to too many hiatuses. (Hiati?)
The good news is, though: I've also updated the AU-fantasy-fanfic-of-an-original-fic version of Joy's and Christian's story, His Promise to Keep. You might want to check it out. Spoiler: Let's just say that Saya and Dominic are starting to get closer.
Anyway. THANK YOU SO MUCH for reading! If you're a long-time reader, A THOUSAND TIMES THANK YOU for still continuing to read this monster of a story. And if you've also left a review, you have my tearful and eternal gratitude. THANK YOU!
Oh, also a note: If any of you have read my OTHER monster of an unfinished story, On the Way to Ever After, you might spot some cameo appearances in this update. And if you happen to be chocme, yes, Von and Christian are actually distantly related. And some day, Ivy might just get to meet her fan Danny. ^_^
Some personal thanks:
To Joychristian - I'm so sorry for the wait. I hope it was worth the wait. Also, I like your name. ^_^
To the anonymous Guest - About Christian going full throttle, well, that part's coming in the next few updates. Spoiler alert.
To MissKukyMonster - I think I may have already thanked you in a PM, but just in case I haven't, thank you for your sweet and generous review. It means so much to me whenever a reader connects with the characters and the lessons they're learning. Thank you for the gift of letting me know.
To heal me forever - Hello, as always, and THANK YOU SO MUCH for sticking to this story, no matter what. (At least, I hope so.) And thank you for the absolute thrill you gave me when you said you'd be willing to buy a copy of this book despite being a broke college student-man, we've all been there, just hang in there and invest in a thousand packs of instant ramen, okay? Jenneth's story is actually the last arc before the high school stage of Joy's and Christian's relationship ends, so...I really hope I make it there, and I hope you stick around for that ride when it comes.
To ramlaomar - Sorry. I may have made things a bit steamier than usual. And yeah, I felt Joy's embarrassment when Christian saw her notes, which is weird, because I wrote the scene...oh well. Thank you so much, as always, for reading! I love your reviews, and you, you keep doing your thing too, okay?
To chocme - Er, this is actually the reason I haven't replied to you yet on Wattpad. I'm so sorry. Will reply ASAP. Once I got going, I just couldn't stop, not even to reply to messages, except the most critical ones at work and sometimes not even that, so I'm paying for that now... Anyway, I know it's repetitive, but thank you, sis, for still reading, and still believing in me. Moira Inori out. ^_^
And to everyone still reading and still reviewing, thank you so much for being my inspiration and drive.