"Get this, everyone," Isabel announced to the group before she sat on an empty stool. "Alysse got a perfect score in all of our exams this morning."

"Isabel," Alysse complained as she took her seat beside her, her face turning red.

Laila dropped her book on the table, her face registering shock. "But, they were hard!" she gasped. "I barely managed to get an A minus in Math and Science!"

"Too bad, Laila," Maggie said in a teasing tone while she handed Isabel and Alysse the frappuccinos she ordered for them. They were in a coffee shop located inside campus, except for Anna who had volleyball practice. "I guess you're not the smartest one in the group anymore."

"I guess she's what you can call beauty and brains," Holly put in before she sipped on her latte.

"That is not true," Alysse muttered.

Maggie's eyebrows lifted. "You don't think you're beautiful and brainy?"

"Well, I guess I am smart but I'm not as pretty as you guys."

Holly began choking on her drink and Laila jerked her head back in surprise.

"Why am I not surprise?" Maggie sighed before she frowned at Isabel.

"Don't look at me," Isabel said, lifting her shoulders in a shrug. "She really doesn't think she's all that."

"But, I'm not," Alysse mumbled, biting her straw. "I'm not like you guys, tall, beautiful and mature. I kind of feel like a troll next to you."

"But, you are pretty. I even tried eating those icky tomatoes because I was jealous of your cheeks, right, Laila?"

"Yeah. The guys even drool for you."

Alysse shook her head. "Now, that I won't ever, ever believe."

"Why?" Laila asked in a bewildered tone.

"Because that's definitely not true."

"Why not?" Isabel blurted out. "They were all over you on your first day, remember?"

Alysse sighed. She didn't know why they were pushing this topic. She wasn't keen on reliving her first days in the school but since they were insistent and they were her friends now, she supposed she had to open up to them more.

"Yeah, but the next day, they acted like I contracted a disease or something over the night," she admitted self-consciously. "They've been avoiding me since then."

"But, isn't that because of the protection?"

Alysse blinked at Holly. "The what?"

"The protection," Isabel cut in. "You have the protection, remember?"

Now, Alysse looked confused. "What's the protection?"

Laila, Holly and Isabel gaped at her before they swung their gazes to Maggie. Maggie grimaced.

"Why are you looking at me?" she asked.

"Did you know about this?" Laila demanded, slamming her hand on top of the table.

Maggie's eyes widened. Her best friend was rarely ruffled by anything because she was always levelheaded. She began to stammer in response, "I–I don't! You know Charlie seldom tells me anything about the team especially their secrets and I never bothered to ask."

"But-but how could she be protected if she didn't even know?" Laila spluttered.

"So, that's why there was no assembly," Isabel thought out loud.

"But, why the secrecy?" Holly inserted.

Alysse's head went back and forth as she listened to them discuss her. Her forehead scrunched as she thought what this protection they mentioned was about and why she was involved. She tried to get a word in but they were all so absorbed. When she couldn't stand it anymore, she waved her hand in between them to get their attention back.

"What are you talking about?" The girls whipped their heads towards her in unison and she plowed on, "What's this protection stuff?"

"I'll explain," Maggie offered to the others before she gave Alysse a speculative look. "Do you know about the basketball team?"

Caden's face came into her mind but she shook her head. She wasn't going to tell them he was her best friend when they were younger. It was clear he didn't want their past relationship revealed. He might confront her and get mad at her again if she did.

Her stomach twisted into knots just by thinking about the possibility. Caden was cruel when he wanted to be.

Maggie seemed to know she was lying by the narrowing of her eyes. She pursed her lips and held her gaze, hoping she would just let it go.

She did, much to her relief.

"The basketball team and its members are on the top of the social hierarchy of our school," Maggie began. "They're like, the gods of campus. Almost all the guys who enter the school aspire for a membership in the basketball club hoping they could enter the royal team."

"Wow," Alysse breathed. Caden must be so fortunate he got in the team.

"Now, because they were basically gods, they were free to give a certain person the protection. The administration allows this because they'd do anything to keep the team happy so they could gain even more championships." Maggie rolled her eyes and Alysse cracked a smile at her. "Anyway, the protection is literally what it meant. The person protected cannot be ill-treated or insulted. And, if it was a girl, all the guys were specially warned to back off or else they'd get the mighty hammer of justice."

"And, it's usually a family member or girlfriend who they were allowed to protect," Laila interjected.

"So, which are you?" Holly said, leaning towards her.

"Um… Are you also under their protection, Maggie?" she asked, deliberately trying to throw off the topic from her.

"Yes, because I'm Charlie's girlfriend. I became protected when he made the team during junior high and I still am when the drafts for the senior high basketball team went on last summer and he still made it in."

"Even without the protection, who would mess with you and Charlie?" Laila clucked her tongue. "They'd be idiots to do so."

"Don't be fooled by Charlie's carefree demeanor," Isabel informed Alysse. "Charlie turns into Hulk when he gets extremely pissed."

Alysse frowned. She couldn't imagine Charlie mad because he was always smiling and laughing around Caden and Maggie.

And, the protection. All this time she was under the protection and she didn't even know it. Her brows knitted together as her grip on her cup tightened.

It couldn't be Caden, right?

She remembered all the time Caden fended off the guys from her, and how he was always protective of her.

But, didn't he say he didn't care for her enough? She bit her lip. Why couldn't he do one thing without doing another? He should stop being confusing, should stop showing he cared even when he said he didn't because it made a flicker of hope dance inside her, a hope for their relationship to be what it was before, a hope for Caden to like her again.

"So, back to Alysse." Holly clapped her hands once and Alysse began to fidget. "Which of the team members is protecting you?"

"I-I don't know. I don't know anyone in the team. " Alysse slid her gaze to the side. "And, frankly, I don't care. I don't need something as silly as the protection."

Holly gasped. "You just called the protection silly. And, how could you not know?"

"Be quiet, Holly," Maggie snapped. "If she said she doesn't know, then she doesn't. Maybe this is some kind of new tradition for the basketball team. Let it go, alright?"

Silence. Holly pouted and crossed her arms with a huff, clearly not wanting to let it go. Maggie waited a beat before she stopped staring daggers at her. She glanced at Alysse and the latter threw her a grateful look.

Then, Laila started another conversation, this time about Maggie and Charlie's fight. Maggie growled and Holly and Laila laughed. Apparently, Maggie still hadn't forgiven her boyfriend since yesterday's fight.

Alysse did her best to put on a smile and laugh with them. But, her thoughts kept straying to Caden and this so-called protection and it troubled her. Greatly troubled her.

Caden splashed cold water on his face. Practice was particularly strenuous today with the coming basketball tournament. He wiped his face with a towel and breathed a deep sigh. He leaned against the cement sink and glanced at the sky with a frown. He didn't realize it was getting late.

He was turning to go back to the gym when he caught something familiar at the corner of his eyes and his steps faltered when he recognized the petite girl.

Alysse was talking to one of the senior high basketball coaches. He narrowed his eyes as he grew uneasy. Why would she be talking to their coach? And, why did his coach act as if he knew her?

He started walking towards them. His gut clenched with a sense of discomfort as he caught the last of Alysse's sentence.

"—have to make a decision today?"

"No, but we hope you could make up your mind sooner, Miss Winters."

Apprehension flashed on her face and Caden immediately went into protective mode before he could even think about it.

"Coach Masterson," Caden called out.

Alysse glanced behind the coach and her mouth dropped open when she saw him. Caden saw a flitting look of guilt cross her face before her eyes dropped. She began to fidget with the sleeves of her sweater, trying to look everywhere but him.

"Mr. Grayson," he heard the coach say and he moved his eyes to him. "Is your practice over?"

"Yes, sir."

"Alright. I'll head back to the gym." The coach sent a cursory glance Alysse's way before he began to move. "I'll see you around, Ms. Winters."

"Yes, sir," she answered, her gaze downcast.

Caden returned his gaze to the girl in front of him and eyed her with suspicion. What the hell was that all about? Before he could ask, Alysse raised her eyes and his mind went blank.

He was glad he already perfected his stony demeanor especially when it came to her when all he wanted was to double over from the inner turmoil that was wreaking havoc inside the organ in his chest. She was close for him to touch but he wouldn't allow it, wouldn't allow to breathe the same air as she did even.

He could see the surprise and anxiety lurking in her eyes. She must have thought he already went away, which was what he usually did, but his feet didn't seem to want to obey orders. He needed to leave before he did something stupid, like begging her forgiveness.

She was the one who ruined their friendship. He bristled inside. She's the one who needs to beg for his!

He saw her lips part and his body locked up. But, before he could hear what Alysse had to say, Ren appeared.

"Hey, Alysse. What are you doing here?" he called out with a grin as he casually sauntered towards them.

It took everything in Caden not to beat the smug grin on his face off.

"Just passing by," she replied in a tiny voice.

Caden, to his disbelief, got elbowed out the way by Ren. Alysse, he saw, gaped at Ren in shock. Caden muttered a soft expletive. If Ren had a death wish, Caden was sure to accommodate him, he thought, anger flowing in his veins. After all the threats for him to back off from Alysse, he had the nerve to shove him so he could stand closer to her.

"So, there's this party tonight." Ren leaned in towards her which made the blood roar in Caden's ears. "You should come."

"Um… I can't." Alysse took a step back and shot Caden an uneasy glance. "My parents' friends are coming over tonight for dinner."

"That's too bad. Maybe later tonight when it's – ow, ow, ow!"

Caden reached over and pulled Ren back by his ear, gritting his teeth together in an effort not to yell. Alysse was already looking petrified and he didn't want to terrify her any further. To stop himself from beating Ren senseless, he let go of Ren, grabbed Alysse's hand and hauled her behind him as he went to leave Ren and his stupid jokes behind.

He didn't realize he was going on a fast pace until Alysse spoke.

"C-Caden, slow down," she said between gasps for air. "My legs are shorter than yours,"

He stopped abruptly, causing Alysse to bump into his back. His hand on hers trembled before he let her go. He instantly missed her touch.

"Caden, did you put the protection on me?" she asked behind him.

Caden didn't turn and didn't say anything.


"I didn't do it for you." He shut his eyes tight, knowing his next words would hurt her. "Someone had to protect the guys from you."

"What?" she whispered, her voice broken.

"They don't know what you're capable of. They don't need to get lured by that face because underneath, you're just a liar. Don't you dare take advantage of my protection. And, don't humiliate me."

The gnawing sensation in his heart worsened as a sob filled the air between them. He felt like a tool, like the biggest asshole in the world but what was done was done. He couldn't let himself be hurt by her again. He barely survived the first time.

Then, he left without glancing back because if he saw the destruction he left, saw her beautiful face shattered, he might fall apart in front of her.

Caden sighed as he leaned back on the wall, drink in hand. He was attending the party hosted by one of the basketball club members, having been nagged by Charlie. His thoughts went back to Alysse and his mood soured. His hand still tingled from holding hers and he clenched it against his jeans.

He did care for her still. Fiercely so. The honest admission soured his mood all the more and he drowned the contents of his red cup in a few swallows. He didn't plan drinking himself into oblivion tonight but everytime Alysse popped inside his mind, he just wanted to forget.

She must be having fun with his parents and sister tonight, he thought with a scowl. She must be having the time of her life while he was here, miserable as hell.

"You're doing it again," Charlie announced, nudging Caden's arm to get his attention.

"Doing what?"

"Scowling all the girls out of the room."

Caden rolled his eyes to the ceiling. "It's good to know I've still got the ability."


"Well, what?"

Charlie shook his head. "Are you going to frown all night?"


"I'm still pissed at you, asshole," Charlie slurred at him. "It's your fault Maggie isn't speaking to me."

Caden shrugged. He didn't give the slightest damn they were fighting.

"If you didn't tell her that crap about me complimenting one of Ren's girls, she would have come here tonight," Charlie continued to grumble.

Caden didn't bother to reply. He continued to scan his surroundings, not paying attention anymore to the mutters of his friend.

"Hey, guys."

Caden's mood plummeted lower.

"Yo, Ren," Charlie greeted with a hiccup.

"Where's Maggie?"

"Not here," Charlie scowled at Caden's direction.

Ren laughed. "So, that's why you're trying to get drunk like Caden here?"

"I never get drunk," Caden remarked.

"Sure," Ren drawled. "Too bad Alysse has this dinner party. I was so close to persuading her to come."

Charlie perked up at the mention of Alysse. "She's a nice girl," he began with a lopsided smile on his face. "But, Maggie said she was too naïve for her own good. Said she needs to smarten up to live in the real world."

"If Caden hadn't claimed her, I would have gone for her," Ren declared with a glint in his eyes. "Too bad she's under his protection."

"Keep talking like I'm not here and I'll kick both of your faces in," Caden grimly muttered.

Charlie laughed, loud enough to draw curious stares. "Like you would."

"And, tell your girlfriend you flirted all night."

"Cheap shot, man. Cheap shot," Charlie growled. "I'm still holding you responsible for yesterday."

"I heard about that fight in the cafeteria," Ren said thoughtfully. "It's kind of your fault, Charlie."


"You know how sensitive he is about her." Ren shot Caden a wry grin. "My ear still stings from this afternoon, Caden."

"Be glad it was just your ear."

"In my opinion, I think you just need to get laid. I can introduce you to one of my girls, if you like."

"No, thanks," Caden answered, his voice turning hard. "Drop this subject, Ren. I don't find this funny."

"Since when did you have any sense of humor?" Ren said in a cheerful tone of voice. Catching sight of something, he whistled low. "See you guys later."

As soon as Ren left their side for the sexy brunette he obviously spotted, Charlie turned to Caden. "I'm getting more beer."

Caden started to nod but stopped when his head began to spin. "Who's the DD tonight?"

"Dylan, probably. Why?"

Caden began walking out of the room. "Make sure he takes you home. I'm going out for a walk."

"A walk? You're ditching me, aren't you?" he heard Charlie yell behind him.

Caden pretended not to hear him as he struggled to walk upright out of the front door. A couple locking lips together was blocking his way and he snarled at them to move. When they recognized who he was, they immediately scrambled away without a glance and Caden continued out.

His mind was swimming, thoughts of Alysse emerging in his head, of her smile, her laugh. He cursed aloud. No matter how hard he tried to erase her in his head, she was always going to be stuck inside there forever. He ran a hand through his hair as he staggered on the sidewalk. He had to see her, had to know if she was as miserable without him as he was without her.

He glanced blearily at his wristwatch. It was already half past 1 in the morning. If he was still rational, he would have turned back and gone home. There was no way he would see Alysse at this time. She was probably asleep hours ago. But, he was too drunk to think reasonably.

He was in her neighborhood at last. He knew where she lived. His sister kept pointing it out when he was forced to take her to university in his car and they passed her street. They only lived 10 blocks away from each other but he walked to and from school because he was closer and the exercise was good for him.

The sound of a ball bouncing cleared his thoughts. Muddled and a bit disoriented, he walked to the fence surrounding their house in unsteady legs and peered through.

Then, he saw Alysse.

She was shooting a basketball through the hoop nailed at the top of their garage door. Her face was set in concentration, her lips pursed together. Her feet never left the ground as she raised her arms to take a shot. Her shooting form was perfect, her execution flawless as the ball soared into the air and straight through the ring.

His indrawn breath filled the air. She must have heard him because she whipped her head towards his direction. He moved deeper into the shadows, certain she couldn't see him. Under the moonlight and the lone lamp in her street, her face was pale and lifeless. His jaw clenched at the sight.

She turned and he watched her shoot the ball in her cardigan over her pajamas, her hair flowing behind her back, untamed and unruly.

He listened to the woosh of the basketball everytime it went clear through, never touching the rim of the hoop.

He silently cheered for her everytime she shot and didn't miss, her accuracy sharp and unfailing just like when they were kids.

And, he reveled on the fact she was just as miserable as him.

He didn't know how many minutes passed by. The cold breeze helped clear his head, shaking him out of his drunken stupor. He lifted the hood of his jacket over his head, willing himself to move so he could get the hell out of here but he was firmly rooted on the spot.


His eyes darted to Jered as he came out of the front door with a worried expression on his face. He returned his gaze back to Alysse, belatedly becoming concerned when he realized how cold it was and how thin her cardigan seemed to be.

Alysse didn't hear her brother. She aimed and shot once more. His chest tightened as he felt the urge to throw his jacket over her small body before she gets a cold. He became irritated with her.

Why couldn't she take care of herself better? Why couldn't she be bothered about her health? This was why he always had to look out for her. If they were still friends, he would have been the first to shout some sense into her.

But, they weren't friends anymore.

"My, God, Alysse. It's freezing out here." Jered jogged to Alysse, whose eyes widened when she spotted him. "Why aren't you in bed?"

"I couldn't sleep," Caden heard her say in her soft voice which sounded music to his ears.

"Then, you should have watched TV, instead." Jered pulled her to towards the house. "What if you catch a cold? What if you hurt yourself?"

The door closed behind them. Caden finally moved and left, away from her house, away from her, and away from everything he ever wanted in life but realized he couldn't have anymore.


Sorry for the late upload. Got sick and got swamped with work.

Thanks for the reviews!